Home truths: domesticity, SF and Astra
This is a guest blog by author Naomi Foyle whose new book Astra is published on Thursday...
Domesticity is a standard social realist trope, especially for women writers, and for its presumed lack of scope still occupies a contested space in literature. As a judge in the 2007 Orange Prize, Muriel Gray exhorted women writers to look beyond the home and intimate relationships and carve their fiction from more deeply historical and imaginative spaces. I don’t disagree: I believe literature should tackle big issues. But quite apart from arguments about the size of one’s canvas, one reason SF compels me is because I recognise how fundamental science and technology are to my everyday life – and I don’t just mean urban trendwear. As much as "the personal is political", the very conditions of domesticity – what we eat and wear, how our houses are built, what social roles we assign to men and women, adults and children – are constructed in part by science and our view of it. In writing Astra I set myself the task of exposing these connections. Knowing that the threat of climate change requires us to radically rethink our domestic infrastructures, how, I asked myself, might adapting to a post-fossil fuel world affect homes, families and child-rearing practices?
I soon realised that I needed to brush up on basic Green issues. Involved in anarchist circles in Toronto in my undergraduate years, I became aware of how brutally Canada’s logging and mining industries threaten First Nations people and their earth-based spirituality. Everywhere, of course, globalisation involves a relentless assault on indigenous people, traditional ways of life, and the eco-systems we all depend on; at times it still feels painful to live in such an inherently violent and unsustainable economic system and like many people, I suspect, I sometimes fantasise about detaching myself from it. But equally I don’t believe that we all could or should live "off the land": for one thing, there simply isn’t enough land for such radical self-sufficiency; for another human beings are en masse doing the opposite – since 2007 more people have lived in cities than in rural communities. Though escaping to the countryside always recharges me, ultimately I feel a political responsibility to be a part of the struggle to improve urban life for everyone. The power of the individual does feel limited, however, and while I have increasingly put time and effort into human rights campaigning, it had become all too easy to let some mythical ‘other people’ sort out my energy and food requirements.
A wake-up call was long overdue, and researching for Astra re-opened my eyes to the on-going arguments over urgent issues including genetic modification, veganism, biotechture, nuclear power and, of course, climate change. I was plunged headlong into dire predictions about the imminent melting of the ice caps, floods, droughts and a global food and refugee crisis, and I learned frightening mountains about GMO and the diabolical practices of companies arguably attempting to control the global food market with poorly tested plants and dangerous pesticides, all the while launching intimidating legal actions against small farmers and independent scientists. But I also encountered inspiring information about kinetic batteries that generate electricity from footfall, zero-emission cars, artificial meat, mechatronic prostheses, advances in medical cameras based on the movement of worms, and – my new dream home – Earthships : off-grid energy self-sufficient homes with greenhouse corridors that can grow tropical fruit in a snowstorm (and with proper siting are also suitable for urban locations). Though my research only reinforces my cynicism about the claims of corporate science, discovering all this largely unsung visionary work has given me a surge of science optimism. If we still, just, have enough time to reverse the current global ecological disaster, I hope that Astra might play a small part in helping people get excited about clean, local alternatives to our current corrupt and polluting energy and food practices.
Writing Astra also drew on nourishing childhood memories of Canada: Sunday afternoon pot-lucks with my parents’ Quaker friends, summer holidays camping in the prairie and mountain national parks. I can never divorce these latter memories, however, from the knowledge that the First Nations guides so generously sharing their cooking, canoeing and fishing skills with us, had been violently dispossessed of the land I now occupied for my leisure activities. So while readers may be forgiven for thinking that Astra ’s politics reflect my activism for a just peace in Israel/Palestine, in fact both have their roots in the early experience of being myself a member of a settler society. At the same time, thanks to the adoption of my Chinese sister, my own family is racially mixed. My sister is not the model for any of the characters in Astra but, again, my own background naturally fed into the book’s vision of extended, multi-racial, non-traditional families, one that reflects the steady increase in gay parents and mixed race children (currently the fastest growing youth population in the USA).
Finally, the home is also the site of love, intimacy and, often, sexuality. In Astra’s Gaian world human behaviour is inextricable from our relationship with the planet, perceived, in a teleological version of James Lovelock’s famous theory, as a living whole and in a sense our ultimate parent. Sexuality is viewed as "Gaia power" – our primary connection with the earth’s complex and transcendent vitality. From infancy, Astra and her peers are taught by parents and teachers to enjoy and respect that elemental force. Here, once more I found my own upbringing inevitably played into the book. While my own parents were impeccably British about "the talk" – about six months after I started having sex my mother presented me with a book on the matter – they had progressive friends who were rather more open with their children. I recall their four-year-old daughter proudly explaining at the dinner table that her vulva was more specialised than her brother’s penis because it had two holes, not one. So if Astra ’s sex ed scenes offend anyone, you can blame a bunch of 1970s Saskatchewan Quakers! (And my admiration for the Dutch school system , which integrates sex education and relationship skills classes from an early age, resulting in one of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion and STIs in Europe.)
Domesticity, then, represents a matrix of concerns, all of which SF is ideally suited to treat. To what extent any novel can or should impel social change is, of course, a live debate, but a genre that routinely explores bioengineering, biotechture, transgenderism, sexism, racism and speciesism is surely asking all the questions about our personal and political lives we collectively need to address at this crucial juncture in our history on the planet. At the same time, like all fiction, SF immerses us in the emotional journeys of individuals striving, in as far as possible, to forge their own destiny in a complex and often hostile world. Astra has now become the first volume of The Gaia Chronicles , a futuristic epic reflecting current global concerns around climate change, gender, human rights, religion, science and political conflict. I thank SFX again for its interest in Astra , and am looking forward to continuing to dramatize both intimate and geopolitical conflicts through her eyes.