Yet another excellent original novella from PS Publishing, Tendeleo's Story is an intriguing sidebar by Ian McDonald to his Chaga series (reviewed elsewhere in infinity plus). Not a sequel but rather a commentary on events already narrated, it witnesses those events from a compelling and necessary new angle, lending McDonald's core texts a liberating additional dimension. Chaga and its successors are elaborate parables of human evolution, and Tendeleo's Story is a measure of McDonald's own creative evolution, now at a very exciting juncture indeed.
As I've remarked elsewhere: reading Chaga (1995) and Kirinya (1998), there is an exhilarating sense of just how far SF itself has evolved. The devices of the genre are comprehensively present: alien invasion; Big Dumb Objects; nanotechnology; heroic Westerners exploring darkest Space (and Darkest Africa); an immense resurgence in the space shuttle programme, involving multiple launches of craft named after American SF authors. But all of these work in contradiction of their customary ideological function, failing or baffling the capitalist West, even as they emancipate the peoples of the tropics from their thralldom to the bloc of "developed nations". Third World communities adapt with difficulty to the transforming alien infestation known as the Chaga, but in time thrive in its embrace, achieving technological, social, and personal metamorphoses beyond their formerly humble dreams. The conventions of a thoroughly Western literature offer sudden hope to the poor and exploited of the Earth, a rare event in the history of SF.
But for all the revisionist fervour of their telling, Chaga and Kirinya remain constrained: like so many previous European tales of Africa, they have White protagonists, White narrators, White interpreters of events, ignoring the salient need for a strong indigenous viewpoint. Tourists and missionaries and outside advisors and foreigners gone native are all very well, but what about the people most directly and intimately affected by the Chaga? Tendeleo's Story boldly compensates for this lack. It is what its title indicates: the autobiographical narrative of a young Kenyan woman, whose village is one of countless many "threatened" by the advance of the luminous landscape of the Chaga. Her happy childhood is contrasted with the chaos during and after evacuation; the sinister anarchy of Nairobi amounts to a comprehensive indictment of the sick old ways of the corrupt post-independence African nation states; Tendeleo's escape to the West is all along an involuntary evasion of the magical promise of the Chaga. Utopia beckons within the quarantined zone, and in the end Tendeleo's Story provides the series' clearest sense yet of what living in and with the Chaga would mean, the clearest sense yet of how the actual Africa must transform if it is to survive at all.
With creditable authenticity, McDonald reproduces the sort of child's odyssey through enchanted Africa that indigenous writers like Ben Okri have so memorably set down before him. Just as much to his credit, he proceeds further, inverting the narrative hierarchy that Chaga and Kirinya upheld despite themselves. Where African voices in those novels were occasional, subordinate, perhaps even tokenistic, the part of supporting narrator in Tendeleo's Story falls to a Westerner, a (black) Englishman who loves and assists Tendeleo, and who ultimately exchanges his world for hers. Their relationship is the medium McDonald employs finally to bring African interests to the foreground in his series, and the effect is refreshing, indeed--why not?--liberating. In a real sense, Tendeleo's Story is thus a tale of conceptual breakthrough; but the breakthrough is quite unlike SF's myriad conventional ones, being a breakthrough by the author and his readers into a cognitive space Tendeleo the narrator has inhabited long since.
Tendeleo's Story is one well worth reading, well worth heeding. It gazes boldly into the heart of darkness, and finds there a great and galvanising hope. No mean achievement.
(Order from PS Publishing, 98 High Ash Drive, Leeds LS17 8RE, England, or visit www.editorial-services.co.uk/pspublishing)
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© Nick Gevers 23 September 2000