Monday, February 03, 2014

Beatty, Heron Fleet (2013)

Paul Beatty, Heron Fleet. Matador Press, 2013. Pp. 251. ISBN 978-1-78088-443-1. ₤8.99 print/£3.99 ebook.

Reviewed by Nino Cipri

In speculative fiction, the post-apocalyptic novel is probably a direct descendent of the utopian novel. The latter focus on societies that are somehow free from the influence of the outside world, while the former exist in the tabula rasa of a ruined world. In a globalized world, a planetary cataclysm is easier to imagine than an undiscovered island culture without radio, wifi, an intrusive anthropologist, or a White Savior, a la Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves and all its derivatives. Post-apocalyptic stories inherited the same problems that infested utopian allegories and still plague dystopian novels: their moral certitude, and their lack of ambiguity for example. It’s always easy to see where the author’s prejudices and presumptions lie.

In Heron Fleet, we meet two different societies that have grown in the wake of a mini ice age that’s come about because of climate change. It’s unclear when this is supposed to take place, how far in the future after the end of civilization. Several generations, at least, have been born and come of age. The title of the book is the name of a self-sufficient agrarian community that has a rather interesting set-up: all children are birthed without knowing their parents (and vice versa), and adult members of the community are only allowed to be homosexual/homoromantic partnerships.

The other society is not so much an organized group, but groups of roving gangs that live in the crumbling remains of cities, subject to cannibalism, illiteracy, violence, starvation, and heterosexuality. They speak in a weird dialect that reads like a blend of vaguely Caribbean pidgin and northern English slang. (The agrarian community, on the other hand, speaks as if they were scripted by the writers of a BBC costume drama.) They survive only by scavenging, and are well on their way to extinction. “Very few gangs I had met grew anything or developed new relationships,” one of the narrators comments. “One or two were near enough to farming communities to trade raw materials… It was possible they might survive in the future by a sort of symbiotic relationship but most went round and round the same vicious circle out of habit.”

This dismissiveness of the possibility of urban survival troubles me. It doesn’t scan that after several generations, there would be no better way of gathering food than scavenging decades-old canned rations or cannibalism. Moreover, there’s the age-old implication that cities are places of sin and inherent violence, where literally nothing can grow. The only possibility for an existence beyond daily survival is out in the country, where people speak in complete sentences and presumably don’t eat each other.

Rather than exploring this dichotomy, however, the author abandons the vicious city-dwellers entirely after the first third of the book, focusing on Heron Fleet. Despite its happily homosexual exterior, there are stirrings of conflict. The main character, Francesca, is mated to the impetuous Anya. Anya falls in love with a man of the community, Jonathan, and they consummate their relationship. Francesca finds out the same night that an Outlander, Tobias—who previously narrated the chapters taking place in the city—wrecks his ship in the waters just outside Heron Fleet.

It turns out that Tobias was formerly a member of Heron Fleet, and was exiled for the exact same reason that Anya and Jonathan are now persecuted: falling in love and impregnating a member of the opposite sex. (The woman he loved, Lucia, died.) He works as their advocate, and as a mentor to Francesca, who is torn by Anya’s betrayal. During Anya and Jonathan’s banishment trial, Tobias passionately argues for the rights of the individual over the community, dropping some bombshells about democracy and inalienable human rights as well. He also reveals the secret behind Heron Fleet’s compulsory homosexual pairing and group child-rearing.

In yet another narrative thread, the author weaves in the journal of one of the original founders of Heron Fleet. This reads like a rather typical apocalyptic story: starvation, capture and forced imprisonment by the army, eventual escape, and the tragic death of the founder’s entire family, spread out over about six months before settling in Heron Fleet. In her journal, she writes:
We will breed as we will breed our sheep, making the best of all the variety through insemination. We will not risk having the attachments through natural affection so we will only live and love those of the same sex. This is our bargain. This is our pact and we will write it down. This we swear and sign to, for as long as it necessary, for the good of all.
So the reason behind Heron Fleet’s compulsory homosexuality? Is that being in a hetero nuclear family brings nothing but heartbreak. Also, queer love is not “natural affection”. It doesn’t engender attachment. And presumably, there were no queers before the cataclysm. Also, bisexuality isn’t a thing, either in the past or in Heron Fleet. Ditto polyamory.

Tobias, Anya, and Jonathan eventually leave Heron Fleet to start a new community, where heterosexuality can presumably be practiced with impunity, and children can be raised by a romantically-linked couple, rather than in a creche. Francesca elects to stay in Heron Fleet. An epilogue from her elder years shows her alone, if well-respected, with no mention of subsequent lovers or partners.

Despite the fact that homosexuality is a strongly-enforced cultural norm in Heron Fleet, it loses out to the unquestioned drive towards the heterosexual and heteronormative family. This is one of the problems with this kind of prejudice reversal, which keeps rearing its ugly head with well-meaning folks of the privileged majority. Beatty appropriates the queer struggle for recognition and acceptance in society without even superficially advocating for it. Worse, he places queer love, affection, and sex as a shallow replacement for heterosexuality and “attachments through natural affection”, a bargain and a necessity to function.

Heron Fleet is Paul Beatty’s first novel, the product of a Masters in Creative Writing degree through Manchester University. Beatty’s background is not in writing, but in medical research, and according to interviews, Heron Fleet grew out of his interest in green politics, self-sufficient communities, and climate change. In his descriptions of Heron Fleet’s grounds and Tobias’s boat, as well as in supplementary materials such as newspaper articles and scientific research papers, Beatty’s comfort with technical description is obvious. Heron Fleet suffers from the afflictions of most new writers: stilted dialogue, uneven flow, confusing tangents, a tendency to fall back on tropes and stereotypes. However, its scope and breadth are impressive, and Beatty occasionally turns out beautiful prose.

But there are too many objectionable parts in the book for me to give it a pass. Aside from its overt heteronormativity, appropriation of queer struggles, dismissal of urban survival, it appears that yet again, no people of color have survived the apocalypse, unless it’s in the violence-soaked remainders of the cities. I’ve loved apocalyptic and dystopian stories since childhood, but I’m feeling more and more wary of them. It’s a saturated market for those of us that like a side-order of disaster with our novels, and I’d recommend looking for better fare than Heron Fleet.

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