Mr Tiller and I will marry, and I will become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England.

The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley

I cannot sleep.

Today I overheard Mrs Barbery in the street gossiping with the other mothers. She said, ‘He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury.’ I walked past and pretended not to have heard. He limps a little, but it does not constrain his activities. Sometimes I wonder what is under his shirt and waistcoat. I imagine something other than flesh to be found there: fine swan feathers, or a clean white space. No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

Shirley Fearn is sixteen years old. She’s intelligent, idealistic and relatively well-educated. Her father is one of the better-off farmers in her small village of Westerbridge – an unimportant place where the years and generations unfold each much like the last and which nobody important ever comes from or goes to.

The Victorian era is decidedly dead and Shirley thinks she’s arrived on stage just in time for the world to transform. Her generation is different to those that came before and will be important in ways older generations can barely imagine. Naturally it doesn’t occur to her that teenagers always think that:

This is a different age, a new era, and my feelings are all the finer and brighter for my luck in having the time to explore them. The upward path of humanity, out of the terrible trenches, will come from the cultivation of the mind. And women will have an important role in this, as teachers, as mentors, to the exceptional men who will grow from the smallest boys, with our guidance.

Shirley dreams of more than is offered her, but her dreams are limited by her experience. She is a product of her time and upbringing and her idea of independence is helping to teach great men instead of giving birth to them. The idea of great women is yet to occur to her.

Of course the reader understands perfectly well what Mrs Barbery meant and that Shirley’s dreams of marrying Mr Tiller can’t become real. Mr Tiller doesn’t seem particularly keen himself, insisting on treating Shirley as if she were yet but a child. It’s all quite vexing.

Shirley knows her parents oppose her ambitions to become a teacher. They, like most the village, expect her to marry a young farmer or perhaps the blacksmith’s boy Daniel Redmore. Daniel stirs none of the noble feelings in Shirley that Mr Tiller does, though he definitely does stir feelings of some unfamiliar sort. Still, what bright future could there be with him? The Redmores and the Fearns both date back centuries in the village. Marrying him would be accepting the position she was born to.

Bright as she is Shirley understands nothing. That will change.

So far Arrival probably doesn’t sound like one of the more critically acclaimed SF novels of recent years. However, that’s exactly what it is and the first stirrings of that become apparent when Shirley decides to spy on Mr Tiller in his cottage. What she sees is not the awful wound the reader expects but instead what she interprets as some kind of peculiar rock protruding from his abdomen.

Mr Tiller bears a message. One that descended upon him as he lay dying on barbed wire bayonetted by a German soldier who picked up Mr Tiller’s own dropped rifle to kill him with. The rock saved his life and more than that gave him a purpose.

Shirley dreams of shaping the future by shaping the men who will make it. Mr Tiller aims to shape it more directly, guided by the rock. He wants Shirley to help him. He wants Shirley to abandon her vision of the future to support his.

Mr Tiller is far from alone in wanting Shirley to abandon her ambitions. The science fiction elements of the plot here mirror the prosaic. Shirley realises that her parents oppose her teaching not because they want her to inherit their farm as she always supposed but because they want her to attract the right kind of husband to take it over. Her education is intended to make her more appealing to an intelligent modern man, not to make her an intelligent modern woman.

Shirley starts to become aware of herself as a perceived object. Now she’s sixteen the men of the village, even the older ones, treat her differently. She dreamed of being special, of having some unique gift to give the world, but what she’s finding instead is that what she’s most appreciated for is her value as a commodity:

It is as if, I think as I walk slowly home, a light has been switched on inside of me. It is a light that only men can see, and it attracts them, draws them close. It makes them think that I will be receptive to their glances and comments. I’m not ridiculous enough to think that their interest is all about my beauty or other talents. It is simply that I am now, in their eyes, the right age for such treatment.

The irony of Shirley’s political awakening lies in its youthful selfishness. Daniel Radcliffe takes her to her teaching interview and speaks to her of how he wishes they could run away together not as man and wife but just as two people living together as best they can. She barely recognises that like her he has dreams of something other than what he’s been offered (after all, she’s the one that’s special and he’s the one that’s ordinary). She looks down on her own mother’s lack of education and ambition, little reflecting on how much more limited her mother’s opportunities were or what kind of inner life she might have.

Arrival becomes a novel of choices and consequences, which makes it in part the story of every teenager even if in this case there’s an incomprehensible rock bearing messages and commands. When Shirley is appointed Mayday Queen she learns how powerful and enjoyable it can be to fit in and be popular. But when she rebels against her parents or speaks sharply to adults whom she’s supposed to respect she learns that too carries power and enjoyment.

Arrival is well written and Shirley is both likable and credible. There’s some lovely paralleling of the deep past in the form of the Mayday celebrations (which the local priest condemns on account of their pagan roots) and the deep future which Mr Tiller is trying to mould and make certain. The characters are vivid and Shirley’s journey persuasive.

The only criticism I really have is that I found the concluding pages a bit on the nose in terms of Shirley becoming a rather empowered modern woman with a mind to social justice. For me it became neat where I’d have preferred a little more compromise and ambiguity. Still, that’s a small price to pay for a novel which so (apparently) effortlessly subverts our ideas of what science fiction is and what a science fiction protagonist should look like.

I’ll end by mentioning that for those who do normally read SF there’s quite a lot of subtext here in terms of criticism of the limits of the genre – the kinds of futures it imagines and who gets to populate them. Unfortunately that’s difficult to discuss without spoilers and honestly it could easily go completely unnoticed without harming the book at all. It’s subtle enough that for those who don’t read SF it might as well not be there.

Arrival is Whiteley’s second novel and I’ve since bought her first. This has every chance of being on my end of year list.

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10 Comments

Filed under Historical fiction, SF, UK fiction, Whiteley, Aliya

10 responses to “Mr Tiller and I will marry, and I will become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England.

  1. Oooh, how intriguing. This sounds remarkably clever and I’m very tempted (even though I’m not usually one for modern novels).

  2. Thank you for this review! I doubt I’d have heard of this otherwise. I’m really intrigued. Looks like I might have to import it from the UK, though.

  3. It is an interesting one. It’s clever and it uses the period well. It occurs to me it would also make a good YA read for a teenage reader, in which case my criticisms of the ending would probably fall away.

  4. Sendra

    It is intriguing. At face value, it all sounds rather silly. Layered social history smashed into Quatermass or The Sentinel? Search me.
    What is that rock? What are its origins and why is it embedded in Tiller’s gut? But if you think it is a novel of worth, I’m guessing it plays well. I’m going to get it.
    Why did you think the ending was pat? Were the pressures around her too easily dismissed? Did it all happen too quickly? I can tell when a writer is too well-wishing towards her protagonist. That can kill it for me, but it seems that’s a small flaw and that you really admired this piece.
    My husband had a stone imbedded in him. Kidney stone. Sadly, it was all rather prosaic. Lots of tea and slightly gritted sympathy.
    Phillip k. Dick’s short stories have been adapted for TV. They’re done rather well and are much better than Bladerunner 2 which was rather leery and flat. Hope you’re good.

  5. Quatermass is a fairly good shout actually, though Quatermass tends to be SF/horror. Still, Quatermass and the Pit features both social history and SF so the parallels are there.

    I don’t see any particular reason one can’t have historical SF, particularly if one uses the period to somehow enhance the SFnal elements. There’s a Dave Hutchinson short story I rather like where an archaeologist finds evidence in a Roman mosaic of a possible alien crash-landing some 2,000 years past. The implication is that the ever-practical Romans promptly put the survivors in the arena as freak animal exhibits and that was that…

    In this case it’s fairly obvious to the reader that the rock is some form of embedded computer – Shirley simply lacks any framework for it and so sees it as a rock with silvery lines running through it. It’s embedded in his gut so as to make him a vehicle for the messages, the missives it carries, why is a key part of the plot.

    My issue with the ending is that it’s a tiny bit YA. Shirley starts as a young woman whose largest dream is serving as teacher to the great men who will shape the future, rather than having any dream of shaping it herself. As the novel progresses she questions the internalised secondary nature of that dream more and more and increasingly comes to see herself as someone who can directly shape the future. Eventually however she comes to a broader view of social justice which values diversity generally and that I didn’t buy.

    Shirley becoming a proto-feminist is fine, there’s plenty of historical examples after all. She questions too though why the future should say be white rather than multi-ethnic, and that I didn’t believe. She’d directly experienced the injustice of men deciding for her, but that doesn’t mean that you necessarily extrapolate to other disadvantaged groups. In my experience most people don’t and especially people who’ve literally never met any other disadvantaged group. I thought she became a bit too modern at the end, whereas I’d have bought it more if she’d dreamt of a future dominated by white Europeans of both genders.

    I thought Blade Runner 2049 at least an hour too long and I think it tries to make points about objectification of women but fails to pull it off with the unfortunate result that I think it’s rather objectifying of women. Pretty though. Quite like the Dick series, particularly the Timothy Spall episode.

    My last comment on this is that it’s worth remembering that I do like SF – my tolerance therefore for computers appearing out of the air and embedding themselves in soldiers in order to command them to shape the future may be greater than others. But then, as I often say every book deserves at least one gimmee…

  6. Sendra

    Ah. So the Rock is a computer. That makes a bit more sense. In a way. I was thinking more along the lines of Alan Garner.
    I don’t mind sci-fi in a historical setting but if the times and internality of those times are weeded through strongly enough, I find the presence of a robot slightly jarring. It seems to take away a bit. But sci-fi dates more quickly than anything. And the novels coming out now about now will seem unavoidably historical so really, I’m being too harsh. Still, I challenge you to throw in a UFO during the Warsaw uprising and not have it seem a bit . . leftfield. It’s possible to pull something like that off but Time’s Arrow backfired and was probably a misjudgment. Technically nice but . .
    You’re probably right about Blade Runner 2 but if this is a future where virtual love and I Speak Your Weight sex toys are available to all then where is the male nudity? Surely just a snippet or two of penis would have counterbalanced the growing suspicion that the male perspective ruled all.
    Dangerous times. Gender wars reigniting. Bracing for me, but I worry if we’re going to have a virtual reenactment of The Terror.
    I liked the Spall episode, too. It had a good visual atmosphere.

    All the Best, Max,

    Sendra

  7. It’s not a sentence I expected to be writing before seeing the film, but to be honest a bit of male objectification would have gone a long way. The problem was there were a couple of passing references to men being treated similarly but nothing visual, whereas there was plenty of visual objectification of women.

  8. Sendra

    The next time you go to the cinema, as you enter the foyer, say loudly and clearly, ‘I demand more penis!’ Not luridly but as if you were Jacob Rees-Mogg with a bit more energy. If we all do it often enough, the penis will emerge. Don’t say it by the hot-dog counter.

  9. An excellent suggestion. I can see no means by which that approach could backfire.

  10. sendra

    Welcome to the Sisterhood.

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