Review By Alfie Bown
Douglas Lain, After the Saucers Landed (New York: Night Shade Books, 2015), pp. 246.
Many years ago, when I was a passionate and impressionable undergraduate student, my inspirational Professor, whom (like many of my cohort that year) I had resolved to replicate and in whatever way I could, rejected my attempt to engage him in a discussion about Sci-Fi by lobbying a criticism at the whole genre, taking it down in one fell swoop by declaring that Sci-Fi was always nostalgic. I took this to be a good point (which I still think it was, to some extent). The idea no doubt came from Frederic Jameson, though I was unaware of that at the time.
As young and somewhat foolish critical theorists, we didn’t like nostalgia, and so the whole genre of Sci-Fi went into the dustbin with Hegel, contemporary poetry and everything else we thought we understood and had seen through with our clever Derridean eyes. Had we carried on long enough with this process of elimination, it would have been interesting to see what was left at the end of a vigorous interrogation of everything using deconstruction, and we could have worked on what remains (le remains.) Perhaps only Derrida would have been left, and literary studies would finally be solved. This anecdote, I hope, has captured some of the humorous spirit of Lain’s latest novel, which successfully walks a near-impossible tightrope between mocking everything that critical theory is about and exploring some of its most interesting concepts.
I must confess that a strange aversion to Sci-Fi needlessly remained in me for many years. As a lecturer in English and American Studies, I have never taught Sci-Fi. As a reader, I have never bought a Sci-Fi book for pleasure. When I recently became a writer for Zero Books I googled Lain, who is their publisher, and seeing that he was a novelist, I ordered a copy of his latest book, probably imagining it would help me know who I was dealing with when I talked to my publisher. My point is that I was not expecting to be a particularly big fan of this novel.
And yet, after merely fifty pages I had decided that this was not only the most fun I had had in some years, but that this was a novel that must be included on my ‘Capitalism and American Literature’ module next year. It throws open questions of nostalgia from page one, and in a wonderful and humorous fictional exploration of what I take to be Slavoj Zizek’s Lacanian side, mocks and questions everything I thought I knew about Sci-Fi. Lain’s aliens, the ‘Pleidens,’ turn out to be a bitter disappointment to the Ufologists who spent decades building up to their arrival and these men immediately start longing for the days before their arrival, whilst at the same time ‘nostalgia runs through the entire Pleiden aesthetic.’
The book, as a sort of post-modernist, post-capitalist experiment, moves between the plot and plotless, striking a difficult balance between sense and nonsense that almost reminds the reader of Paul Auster, which is the biggest praise any contemporary author can hope to receive. The novel will have its enemies. One reviewer has already written:
At one point the narrator goes to warn the government about the aliens’ insidious plan, and the FBI agent on duty starts lecturing him about Descartes. This was the point at which I literally put down the book and groaned ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’
On the one hand I could not disagree more with this conviction and on the other hand, it leads me towards what I think is the most important thing I want to say about the book. There is a humourous rejection of pretension and especially academic pretention, and the reader does not need to be inside the academy to get this humour (indeed the writer is not a product of the academy). When Descartes appears in the novel’s dialogue, Lain seems to indeed be kidding us. And yet, this is a philosophical and theoretical novel, an exploration of a certain strand of political and philosophical ideas, and it takes them seriously while also taking them apart.
On the whole, the novel, and its humour in particular, creates a very unsettling atmosphere, which may be its greatest achievement. The reader feels variously compelled to laugh, consider a philosophical issue and become immersed in the plot. But each of these impulses seems to override the other, leaving the author in an anxious suspended state of enjoyment which certainly seems to me worth experiencing. It certainly deserves its recent nomination for the PKD Prize.
Alfie Bown is the co-editor of HKRB and Everyday Analysis and an assistant professor in Hong Kong.