By Jonathan McCalmont
The Arrival of Missives — Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)
Sometimes… just sometimes, there’s more to life than getting laid. Set in an isolated village in the aftermath of the Great War, Aliya Whiteley’s short novel The Arrival of Missives considers the dangers of allowing possible futures to shape decisions made today.
Written in a tight first-person perspective with neither sub-plots nor inserts to break psychological continuity Whiteley’s novel begins by introducing us to a precocious young woman on the verge of adulthood. Born to an ambitious land-owner and educated to a standard then uncommon in farmers’ daughters, Shirley Fearne is a young woman with firm opinions and a confidence that allows her to express them quite openly. In the novel’s opening section, she often holds forth on subjects such as the importance of education, the backward opinions of fellow villagers, and the important role that women will play in helping to rebuild the country after the horrors of war.
Initially, Shirley’s precociousness is quite endearing as her somewhat mannered speech-patterns are littered with the kinds of utopian flights of fancy that cannot help but appeal to readers of science fiction. The only problem is that, the more Shirley speaks, the more obvious it becomes that her ideas are limited by the system she inhabits and the privileges it grants her:
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.
There’s a lovely bit quite early in the novel when she allows her mind to drift to the voyages of Marco Polo but rather than identifying with one of the first Europeans to explore China, she chooses to identify with one of his teachers:
The day passes in the company of Marco Polo. What an adventurer. How wonderful it must have been to be Polo’s teacher: to encourage his ingenuity, his desire to see all, learn all, and hear about it on his return.
At first glance, this reads a like an exploration of the way that sexism works on the imaginations of young women and encourages them to expect less from life than they might otherwise reasonably expect. However, Shirley’s lack of enlightenment is also evident from the scorn she has for her “uneducated” mother and the self-satisfaction she displays upon reaching the conclusion that even working class children can be educated:
Those from farming stock can possess as fine a brain as an Oxford scholar, if he is shown the way to use it. My handwriting falters in the excitement of elucidating such ideals.
The combination of a tight first-person perspective and the somewhat mannered nature of the prose encourages us to view Shirley as an intelligent and observant protagonist in the grand tradition of Jane Eyre and countless other 19th century literary heroines and yet the character’s lack of self-awareness and tendency to speak in clichés remind us that we are engaged with the thoughts of a profoundly limited mind.
The limitations on Shirley’s imagination become particularly obvious when she begins discussing her crush on the local schoolmaster Mr. Tiller. A veteran of the trenches, Tiller returned to civilian life broken and disfigured but the villagers’ whispers that he might no longer ‘be a man’ only serve to deepen Shirley’s feelings and strengthen her commitment to a childish fantasy in which she marries her handsome teacher and goes away to college in order to become a teacher in her own right. As with the question of Shirley’s intelligence, Whiteley does a fantastic job of luring us into Shirley’s fantasies only to suddenly undermine them with a brutal image or trenchant turn-of-phrase:
Convinced that that her love for Tiller is requited, Shirley heads off to reveal her feelings only to wind up catching sight of the school master with his clothes off and his inhuman hardness evident:
It is a pattern revealed, which decorates the entire of his chest and stomach, and lower; I cannot comprehend so many lines and angles, made in his flesh. Except in the centre of the pattern, where there is no flesh at all. There is rock.
The approach to Tiller’s house is written with all the eroticism that a young Edwardian woman’s mind can muster and the idea that Tiller has a glistening rock jutting out of his abdomen is an image that is both sexual, science-fictional, and wonderfully ambiguous given everything we know about the narrator’s limited horizons.
This ambiguity is partly resolved by having Tiller announce that the rock is something that keeps him alive and compels him to work on behalf of the future. I say “partly resolved” as while the rock is unambiguously science-fictional in the context of the story, it serves as something of a thematic link between Shirley’s experiences coming of age and the question of how individual autonomy can be constrained by the weight of potential futures.
Whiteley explores the relationship between these themes in the novel’s second act as Shirley is forced to juggle concrete needs such as sexual gratification and social status with the more abstract and nebulous demands forced upon her by her asexual infatuation with Tiller and their associated plot to save the human race.
At first, Whiteley presents Shirley’s pursuit of a more conventional life as both easier and significantly more pleasant. Despite Shirley’s desire to marry Tiller and become a schoolteacher, she finds that both her parents and the local community have decided that she is to marry a clever local boy who might one day take over the management of her father’s farm. As the benefits of conformity become obvious, Tiller and his talk of the future slide into the background of the novel:
I liked the way Daniel’s eyes widened when I met him on the walk to school and told him I would be his girl. I liked the looks I got from the others, young and old, as the news spread around the church that I am to be the May Queen. It is as if I have been made a hundred times prettier, and that is powerful magic. The men stand back as I leave the pew, and I feel them scanning my walk, my small smile. They define me anew. The May Queen for a day. A Queen gives orders and expects to be obeyed.
Like a mule that must be given carrot and stick, the joys of doing what other people expect you to do are only made sweeter by the unpleasantness of stepping out of line and so entering into conflict not only with your parents but also with the community at large.
Despite the limitations in her thinking, Shirley is a proud young woman with the beginnings of an educated mind and her slide into conformity is somewhat slowed by an awareness that the empowerment she feels from assuming her place in existing social structures does have a dark side. For example, compare the passage about men “scanning her walk” and compare it to this passage about suddenly coming to be seen as a sexual being:
It is as if, I think as I walk slowly home, a light has been switched on inside 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 interesting thing about this passage is that it appears about fifteen pages before the scene in which Shirley can be found revelling in her newfound sexiness. The only real difference between the two scenes and the attitudes of the men in them is that when Shirley welcomes the desire of the men around her, she feels empowered. However, when she does not welcome it, the very same glances feel both oppressive and demeaning.
The question of whether Shirley should follow Tiller in becoming a teacher or stay at home and become a successful farmer’s wife is initially complicated by the fact that Shirley clearly enjoys the time she spends doing what is expected of her by the local community. With Tiller and all talk of the future banished from Shirley’s mind, it is easy to start seeing the protagonist as a rather naïve young woman who got a taste of adult sexuality and immediately discarded her childish dreams of a sexless life of the mind. However, Whiteley has little time for simple dualities and so has Tiller resurface along with the revelation that the future depends upon Shirley doing exactly what the local community expects of her.
While most people would view this as a happy coincidence, Shirley’s awareness of conformity’s darker side immediately puts her on the defensive and has her asking awkward questions as it is one thing to make the choice to abandon a childhood dream and quite another to abandon your rebellious childhood dream because someone expects it of you.
Given the careful writing and engaging characterisation on display in the opening acts, the novel’s conclusion feels like something of a mess. Desperate to avoid easy answers and reductive binaries, Whiteley ties her protagonist up in so many psychological and ethical knots that she struggles to get them untied in a manner that is either dramatically or thematically satisfying. The story does hold together on a strictly psychological level but while gesturing to the paradoxes and ambiguities of adult life may get Whiteley off the hook, it does feel like something of a cop-out given the care and attention that went into those early sections.
In fairness, the book’s conclusion does feature some beautiful moments of feminist SF when Shirley begins to notice who is absent from Tiller’s utopian future but comparing the power of those passages to the messiness of the conclusion just served to remind me of the way that Terry Pratchett would often end his novels by having his characters wander around a more-or-less symbolic dreamland that served primarily to distract us from the book’s lack of working conclusion. The importance of narrative tidiness is easy to overstate but that feminist imagery would have been a hundred times more powerful had it been more effectively tied in to the arc of the character’s life.
Botched ending aside, The Arrival of Missives is an engaging, intelligent, and well-written character study that does a thoroughly excellent job of subverting any expectations we might have of either science fiction or 19th Century literature. This is a story in which the under-appreciated female protagonist isn’t nearly half as special as she seems to think and where flamboyant eruptions from the future really are best left ignored.
Jonathan McCalmont is a film critic, fan writer, and columnist for Interzone magazine. One-time Londoner and low-level academic drone, he has now surrendered to the forces of entropy and taken up residence in a wood.