This story has an intriguing near-future setting that combines technological plausibility with the opportunity to explore some knotty sociological ideas. This is the first in a series. It sets up the situation nicely and I’m definitely interested in reading more of these.
Koriba is the mundumugu, or wise man, for a tribe of Kikuyu Kenyans who live in Kirinyaga, a controlled environment in a satellite orbiting the Earth, that simulates the the plains of Africa. Their world is a kind of prelapsarian paradise where they live the type of hard but satisfying life their ancestors did.
It’s not hard to imagine that there are people that might think that this kind of life is a good idea. The story opens with a vivid portrayal of how the traditions of the Kikuyu people were smothered by the onslaught of colonial capitalism and exploitation. In those circumstances a return to the old ways becomes a reassertion of self-determination and power.
Maintenance watches Kirinyaga discreetly, making minor orbital adjustments when necessary, assuring that our tropical climate remains constant. From time to time they have subtly suggested that we might wish to draw upon their educational facilities, but that have taken our refusal with good grace, and have never shown any desire to interfere in our affairs.
Until I strangled a baby.
All the people of Kirinyaga are there voluntarily. Koriba himself is not a primitive – it emerges that he has a degree from Cambridge and two post-graduate degrees from Yale – and yet he chooses to murder a baby because his ancient traditions tell him that a child born feet-first is a demon. There’s a tendency to see these kinds of acts as the result of a primitive world-view of demons and supernatural powers. This story asks us to consider the consequences of choosing that world in full knowledge of the consequences.
The story of the white man – in this case Maintenance – ‘improving’ the lives of indigenous people is turned on its head here. Koriba isn’t far from the kind of scheming witch doctor character you might find in a traditional colonial narrative. He’s conservative and resists the gifts of the white man because he knows what they inevitably bring with them. In the end, Koriba rounds up a group of young men to take ‘the terrible oath of Mau Mau’, promising a repeat of the violence in Kenya in the 1950s.
This story is a neat take on an old science fiction idea – colonialism and the alien as metaphor for a generalised human ‘other’. Here the metaphor is outed and the Kikuyu people are effectively portrayed as an alien race. They wouldn’t be out of place in one of Jack Vance’s brutal alien societies. The first-person narrative asks us to see things from the brutal alien’s side. In contrast, the rational Westernised view that might be held as paramount in traditional science fiction isn’t evil – the Maintenance representative Barbara Eaton is portrayed as sympathetic and humane. In fact they are given the same air of mystified primitivism as the alien cultures in traditional fare.
In science fiction terms, it’s also a handily closed world. There’s nothing that can really affect much from the outside and i’s just Kirinyaga against the colonial powers of Maintenance. Rightly, we’re never shown much of how the technology works. The business of satellites and controlled is plausible enough and the fact we don’t really see evidence of the mechanics means we accept it all the more easily. This lets us focus on the knotty problem of how these two societies interact.
Themes: colonialism, alien as other, indigenous rights