I head to Prague tomorrow, on a trip I’m starting to think of as a pilgrimage – a chance to pay homage to the silvery Czech spores that seeded my science fiction fate . . . I’m recalling here my best friend in Canada in grade eight, a Czechoslovakian girl called Nora, with whom I collaborated on a ‘space opera’ epic that expressed our pubescent emotions and burgeoning awareness of the politics of power, but also, I now suspect, her Czech literary heritage.
I knew Nora in the late seventies, and I assume her parents had fled Soviet rule, though I can’t recall if I was ever told the story of their emigration. Nora would have been an infant during the Prague Spring of 1968, and it’s entirely possible her parents took part in the creative and non-violent resistance that characterised that brief period of hope. Did her mother go out with a pram and paint over a roadsign to confuse Warsaw Pact tanks? Did her father stand in the street waving a banner reading ‘An elephant cannot swallow a hedgehog’? I don’t know, but I do remember how fascinating and sophisticated they were. Nora’s vivacious mother wore lipstick, earrings and dresses every day, her father was burly and bald and exuded energy and ambition; twice a year they forced Nora to don an evening dress and attend the opera, and while my family’s fridge magnet was an ad for the local real estate agent, theirs asserted: ‘When sex is good, it’s great, but even when it’s bad, it’s good!’. If I tell you that my British mother, when I was sixteen, would leave on my pillow a sealed letter containing instructions on how to find the condoms and sex ed book she’d hidden in her sewing basket, you’ll understand why I became incredibly shy in Nora’s kitchen.
As well as embodying unspeakable glamour, Nora’s parents also clearly harboured melancholy at the loss of their homeland, and a driving desire for their daughter to be fully Czech and a successful Canadian. Dinners at their house were an education for me – there I first learned how to say grace in a foreign language: Dobrou chuť, a phrase I recently discovered hiding still in my head. Nora probably enjoyed my parents’ relative lack of interest in our intellectual development; at least, she and I were most often to be found at my house, cloistered in a fortress of sheets we draped over the basement ping-pong table. There, to lamplight, in between endless rounds of canasta, we created the frankly sadistic world of Zandonia. The Zandonians were tall, ruthless humanoid beings with ant-like heads, dedicated to colonising their entire solar system. Commanding hitech military spaceware, planet by planet they enslaved all their gentle, playful and zesty neighbours, forcing them to milk and mine their own natural resources for export to the overlords’ home. Nora and I had zero interest in plot and character, but exhaustively catalogued a history of this brutal empire, illustrating the various conquered inhabitants in male and female, and ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings. I remember Tunnelus and Trainus, a small planet that (possibly defying all known laws of astrophysics) passed through a hole in its larger neighbour; and the standard tattered loincloths the slaves were forced to wear. Our collaboration filled pages: looking back, we both seemed in the grip of an awful, gleeful vision of life as relentless oppression.
In my case the impetus was probably psychological. I had been bullied throughout my childhood, and perhaps this was a chance to be on the winning side; or perhaps I was rebelling against my parents’ pacifist Quaker values. But certainly Nora would have understood state violence and now, reading Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, I wonder if her contribution to our imaginative effort was also influenced by Czech SF, works like Čapek’s classic play in which humanoid drones labour for the benefit of their creators, until design changes provoke them to revolt. More on Čapek in a later post; for now I’ll just mention that unlike him, we did not remotely entertain the notion of uprisings against tyranny, let alone the ultimate triumph of love. There was an Earth in our solar system, but its human inhabitants were subjugated as efficiently as the tiny Trainusians.
We bound our Zandonian history in an orange folder, long-lost, and were separated when our families both moved. I visited Nora again only much later, during our university years, when she was studying to be a vet and I was a poetry scribbling philosophy student. We didn’t have much in common anymore, and when she proudly showed me photos of an elephant dissection, the crimson and blue intestines sprawling over the clinic floor like giant alien worms, I suddenly felt I would not be able to follow my former best friend into adult life. But when I consider Astra and Rook Song, IMBOD, the Gaians, and the fierce young Lil, maybe I have, after all.
Thanks to an invite from Cyril Simsa, author of the SFF short story collection Lost Cartographies (Invocations Press), I’ll be reading from The Gaia Chronicles at the Library of the Anglo-American University on April 9th. Thanks also to fellow Waterloo Press poet John McKeown, and his Prague mate troubadour Lucien Zell, with whom I’ll be reading poetry at Secret Cords on the 13th.