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Apologies to Ishi
a feature by David Pringle

Jean Hegland's debut novel Into the Forest (Arrow, £5.99), about two sisters living alone in a Northern California woodland after a general disaster has robbed them of all the things of civilization, is beautifully written, moving, and the kind of author pic tale one has to call "wise" -­ a small masterpiece, in fact. First released by an American small press in 1996, it was reissued by a major New York publisher in late 1997, and now reaches Britain as a B-format paperback original. It's not described as science fiction, but the publishers compare it to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and quote Publishers Weekly to the effect that it is "a truly admirable addition to a genre defined by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker" -­ which is all familiar coded language for what readers of this magazine might understand as "literary sf." But it has not been reviewed, so far, in Locus or in any other genre periodical that I have seen.

Aside from its intrinsic virtues as a very readable text by a beguiling new voice, I find it doubly interesting: as yet another instance of a serious sf work presented as "mainstream," and as a clear example of a particular sub-genre which has long fascinated me, namely "California sf." The comparisons to Atwood, Orwell and Hoban are all somewhat wide of the mark, for what in effect this is (whether the author realizes it or not) is a feminine rewrite of George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), with echoes of Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985). Jean Hegland makes no specific reference to Stewart or Le Guin, and it may well be that she has never read them (Stewart in particular is sadly lacking in honour in his home country these days), but she acknowledges as one of her sources a book called The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories, and Songs. What happens in her finely detailed and deeply felt narrative is that the two teenage sisters, bereft of parents, schooling and all the gadgetry of modern civilization (there are explicit "farewells" to electricity, telephones, automobiles, refrigerators, computers), re-adopt the foraging lifestyle of the California Indians of old: they take to the forest and learn to accept its bounty, recreating a way of survival in that land which, after all, sufficed for 10,000 years before the coming of Europeans. In short, it is another "apology to Ishi" novel, as much of the best California sf tends to be.

Ishi, for those who may not be familiar with his true-life tale, was the stone-age California Indian who walked out of the northern hills one day in 1911, having lived alone for several years following the deaths of all other members of his tribe. His people had had no contact, other than the violent sort, with white American culture, and by the time he reached "civilization" there was no one left who spoke his language. A few years earlier he probably would have been killed, or would have died, rapidly and unmourned, from the white man's diseases; but luckily, by 1911, there were a few people who were capable of understanding him and providing him with a home and protection against the world. They were Professor A. L. Kroeber and his associates in the recently-founded anthropology department at the University of California, San Francisco. For about five years, before an unfamiliar disease did claim him, Ishi became a sort of living exhibit at the university and taught his protectors much about his extinct tribe's way of life. The story is told in the book Ishi in Two Worlds (1960) by Theodora Kroeber -­ herself only a child in Ishi's time, but later to marry Alfred Kroeber and become the mother of Ursula Le Guin. The narrative (although not specifically Mrs Kroeber's book) also formed the basis of a movie, The Last of His Tribe (1991), which starred the Native American actor Graham Greene (best known from Dances with Wolves) as Ishi and John Voight as Kroeber.

Ishi's story seems inherently science-fictional, almost a tale of time-travel, involving alien conquest and a stranger in a strange land. He came, quite literally, from the stone age, his people never having adopted agriculture or the working of metals, and he found himself living in a 20th-century metropolis of telegraphs and trolleybuses and more people than he could ever have imagined existed on the face of the Earth. No one spoke his language (apart from a few book-learned words that the anthropologists were able to acquire), and no one knew the songs and tales and myths of his people -­ all were utterly gone. Those people had survived deep in the woods, virtually unknown and unchanged, on the margins of Californian society through all the years of Spanish and Mexican rule, and through a further 60 years in which their home had been incorporated into something called the United States of America, Land of the Free. When they did come into contact with white settlers they were hunted down and killed -­ to the point where they had been assumed to be extinct for decades. But Ishi survived to tell his story; and it is a profoundly moving story, perhaps the greatest of all American stories.

"The last wild Indian" became a nine-day wonder in San Francisco, and one of the local writers who possibly met him and was influenced by his life-story was Jack London, arguably the father of California sf. In 1911, the year of Ishi's appearance, London wrote his novella "The Scarlet Plague" (ironically, first published in England, in the appropriately-named London Magazine, in June 1912; it has just been reprinted in David Hartwell's big anthology The Science Fiction Century, Tor, 1997; Robinson, UK, 1998, £14.99). In this story London imagines an old man, in a ruined, reforested San Francisco of the 21st century, trying to explain to his uncomprehending "tribal" grandchildren what life was like back in the days of automobiles and airplanes. The youths, more interested in hunting with their bows and arrows, regard him tolerantly as a rambling old eccentric. I have never seen it suggested anywhere, but I suspect that London created his old hero as a kind of "inverted Ishi" -­ a representative of our civilization who is thrust into a hunter- gatherer society where nobody can possibly understand him. Over 30 years later George R. Stewart took this idea and turned it into a full-length novel, Earth Abides. Born in 1895 and educated at the University of California, Stewart certainly would have read Jack London, but whether or not he was consciously emulating London there can be no dispute that he had the real-life tale of Ishi very much in mind: his hero is called Isherwood Williams, or "Ish" for short, and he drives out of those same Northern California mountains to find a world where almost everyone has died as the result of a mysterious new plague. Ish's attempts, over the next 60 years, to rebuild civilization result in a new tribal society, all literacy and high technology forgotten, and eventually he dies, an old man in his 80s babbling of incomprehensible things...

In my view, Stewart's book is the finest work of California sf, and the greatest "apology to Ishi." Apart from anything else, it is an excellent piece of ecological science fiction -­ Stewart knew the land, the animals and the natural phenomena, and wrote about the likely consequences of a large-scale disaster more authoritatively than anyone else has done in fiction. "Ecology," surely an unfamiliar concept to the general public in the 1940s, has become a global buzzword since Stewart wrote about it -­ not only in Earth Abides but in his more mundane California-set disaster novels, Storm (1941) and Fire (1948), and various other books -­ and of course it remains an enduring theme in California sf, from Ray Bradbury's classic The Martian Chronicles (in which California is reimagined as the Red Planet, complete with Ishi-like native inhabitants viewed, as it were, from the corner of the eye) to the two recent trilogies by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990), and Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996) -­ the former very explicitly about California history and possibility, and the latter featuring Mars as a California surrogate once more (a few British examples excepted, most of the definitive "Mars novels" in sf have been written by California-based writers).

And then of course there is Ursula Le Guin -­ famously a resident of Portland, Oregon, but born and raised in California. As the daughter of Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, she must have grown up with the story of Ishi in her very bones, and although I am not aware that she has made any reference to it in her fiction (nor to Stewart's masterpiece in her non-fiction), her major book Always Coming Home may be viewed as another version of the same cyclical, Ishi-inspired story. It is set in Northern California, centuries hence, but instead of recounting the fall of our own civilization and the very beginnings of the new (as do London, and Stewart, and Jean Hegland) it tells of the long-term consequences: it is a utopian account, recollected in tranquillity, of a neo-tribal society based on California Indian ways -­ in short, it is Ishi vindicated.

So Hegland's book appeals in part because it is a pure example of this tradition -­ the major tradition, or cluster of traditions, author pic of its author's home state. She does not mention Ishi, although she evokes two real-life female Ishi substitutes -­ the so-called Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, who lived in solitude for nearly 20 years after her tribe had been deported (and eventually was "rescued" only to find, in the usual cruel irony, that all her people were dead or dispersed -­ she herself died a few days later); and Sally Bell, a California Indian who, at the age of about 90, left an account of the long-ago massacre of her tribe by whites and of how, in particular, she had run off into the woods with her sister's heart in her hands. Hegland weaves these two unbearably sad stories into her narrative, briefly and judiciously, making of her novel an apology to the Lone Woman, an apology to Sally Bell.

Nor does Jean Hegland (who, by the way, is never preachy or "New Agey") make mention of Stewart or Le Guin, or any other work of California sf -­ apart from Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, which features in a list of books her teenage narrator has read -­ but an outstanding contribution to California sf is what her novel most certainly is.

© David Pringle 1998

'Apologies to Ishi' first appeared in Interzone 130.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

  • other stuff - find out more about Interzone, where this piece first appeared
  • nonfiction - David Mathew interviews David Pringle
  • contact - e-mail David Pringle

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