Courttia Newland has had a busy few months. As one of the screenwriters on “Lover’s Rock” and “Red, White and Blue,” two of director Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Small Axe series of films released late last year, Newland has contributed to one of the most powerful representations of Black life in Britain in recent years. Small Axe, and in particular the “Lover’s Rock” episode, captured the highs and lows experienced by the Caribbean diaspora from the 1960s onwards—from the joys of the blues party to the pain of racist policing—in vivid and captivating terms.
At first glance, Newland’s new novel, A River Called Time, could not be further displaced from the quotidian details of life in the Black British community. A River Called Time imagines a world where there was no migration from the Caribbean to Britain, no colonies for the SS Empire Windrush to set sail from, and, most profoundly, no ship taking enslaved Africans across the Atlantic in the first place. In other words, all the conditions that underpin the world represented in Small Axe are removed in Newland’s novel.
The premise of A River Called Time is a world without colonialism and slavery. In Newland’s imagination, contact between Europeans and Africans in the early modern period took the form of a convivial meeting of equals. The fruit of this cultural exchange is a twenty-first-century London that is almost unrecognizable. It is now known as Dinium, its dominant mode of religious and cultural life is a form of African cosmology, and Christianity is practised by a minority (and even its followers are influenced by African sources).
To imagine how the world might have developed in the absence of colonialism and slavery might seem like a bold, even scandalous, proposition. The challenges of this premise are acknowledged by Newland in an extensive afterword, where he discusses the difficulties of creating a fully decolonised history. In the process of editing, he realised ‘just how much colonial thought I put on the page without noticing’, carefully combing through the manuscript to remove references to geopolitical entities, such as Zambia and Nigeria, that emerged after European colonisation (p. 449). At times, Newland hit certain hard limits. For instance, many of the names used to refer to the continent of Africa by its indigenous peoples have been lost to history, so Newland had to improvise, eventually settling on the name Bulan (which he adapts from a Carthaginian term).
Nevertheless, alternate history offers a promising means of overcoming these challenges. We may have limited knowledge about pre-colonial societies, but we can still tentatively reconstruct how they might have developed in the absence of colonialism. Indeed, Newland is not alone in parochializing Europe through alternate history. One thinks of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), which posits that the European population is wiped out by the Black Death in the Middle Ages, or, even more pertinently, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses (2001) and Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots (2008), two novels that construct new paths of development where Europeans are enslaved and colonised by Africans.
Like Blackman and Evaristo, Newland resists the urge to turn his alternate world into a utopia. While violence, inequality, and suffering are not racialised in A River Called Time, they are abundantly present. Markriss Denny, the protagonist of the novel, is born in an impoverished area on the outskirts of Dinium and dreams of one day entering the Ark, a huge enclosed area constructed in the nineteenth century and protected on all sides by a poisonous wasteland, known as the Blin by the working-class residents of the city. Thanks to his academic achievements, Markriss eventually gains access to the Ark, where he finds a microcosm of social relations in the wider world: there are rich quarters and poor quarters, with protests from the residents of the latter brutally repressed by the Ark’s police force. However, Markriss is gifted with a very special talent, experiencing a series of transcendental visions that allow him, with the help of a guide, to take sojourns into different versions of himself existing on alternative timelines. At one moment, he is a journalist for the Ark’s leading newspaper, writing stories that demonise the poor of the city, then an accomplice of a shadowy resistance group called the Outsiders, before finally leaping into our own timeline, emerging in a twenty-first-century London with the familiar landmarks of the Tate Modern, Windrush Square, and the Victoria Line.
As this description suggests, A River Called Time is very different from the kind of satirical inversions found in Noughts & Crosses and Blonde Roots, where colonialism and slavery happen but in the opposite direction (i.e., Europeans are enslaved and colonised by Africans). These latter texts are designed to heighten our consciousness of white supremacy and racial violence. For instance, in Blackman’s novel, the moment when a white child is given a brown plaster reminds us of the normative status of whiteness. Newland’s alternate history, by contrast, does not allow for these kinds of comparisons. We cannot straightforwardly elide the rich quarters with the coloniser and the poor quarters with the colonised, since both of these groups are multicultural formations that have developed through centuries of uncoerced interaction.
A River Called Time engages in a more subtle, but no less powerful, critique of the racism of our own world. Newland grounds the novel in his research into pre-colonial African religion and culture, making it clear that the social relations he imagines are predicated on the traces (often in the forms of myths and legends) left by these societies before their destruction. Yet, it is also clear that the world of the Ark cannot be reduced to life in these pre-colonial worlds. What A River CalledTime elaborates, rather, is how these societies might have developed if they had had the opportunity to do so.
Particularly ingenious in this regard are the technological marvels in Dinium, which combine contemporary advances in virtual reality with forms of astral projection associated with African cosmology. The pods, which have found their way into almost every home, are “a transmutation device used to induce unconscious nambula, said to promote emotional wellbeing through nothing more than the ability to provide pleasant dreams” (p. 116). These devices harness the spiritual capacities of the population, taking the astral body to higher planes. At the same time, at least according to the rebel group the Outsiders, they also repress the spirit, preventing the very highest levels of consciousness from being reached (i.e., the kind of consciousness that Markriss achieves when he succeeds in switching between timelines).
Nalo Hopkinson once suggested that her classic Midnight Robber (2000) is about “how Caribbean culture might metonymize technological progress if it was in our hands: in other words, what stories we’d tell ourselves about our technology—what our paradigms for it might be.” Newland is doing something similar for African cosmologies in A River Called Time, imagining technological developments that are both anticipated in, and understandable through, the religion and cultures of pre-colonial societies. To borrow Aimé Césaire’s famous words, the ambition of the book can be measured in terms of its attempt to do justice to at least some of the “extraordinary possibilities wiped out” through colonisation.
If one of the themes of A River Called Time is that of lost futures, there are also moments when Newland is concerned with making a more polemical intervention. Of particular interest here is the place of class in the novel. Markriss’s tale is one of upward mobility, moving from the poor districts on the edges of Dinium to the privileged world of the Ark’s professional elite, before finally ascending beyond the temporal world altogether through astral projection. The struggles within the enclosed space of the Ark are also pitched between the rich and the poor, Markriss torn between the strictures of the newspaper to denounce the riots of the workers and his own affinity for their struggles.
There is an eerie affinity between the methods used to control the poor population of the Ark and militarised policing in our own world. For instance, at one point, we are told that the “official Complaints Committee had logged over 2,000 custody deaths in the last two decades, with no convictions or even employer dismissals,” a playful reference to the similarly ineffectual Independent Police Complaints Commission in the UK (p. 212). There is, however, a key difference: the repressive capacities of the state do not reproduce a complex of racism and capitalism, as in the London we know, but capitalism alone.
A River Called Time is at its most disquieting in these moments where alternate history brushes against our own. On the one hand, the novel suggests that it is possible to separate race and class, and one can be imagined without the other, but, on the other, it underlines the inappropriateness of this abstraction in actually existing society. It is only in a world where everything is different—which is predicated on mutual exchange rather than colonial domination—that we can begin to think about class without race. In Newland’s complex play of sameness and alterity, the absence of race underlines its pervasiveness.
A similar intricateness is evident in A River Called Time’s thematization of media. One of the novelties of the text is its emphasis on print, rather than social, media. While we are awash with dystopic representations of digital culture, Newland focuses on the residual but real power of so-called legacy media. The propagandistic function of Ark News—with its demonisation of the poor—finds an echo in the media landscape of contemporary Britain. This becomes particularly evident in the section of the book set in our timeline, which follows an iteration of Markriss who, working as a reporter against the backdrop of the December 2019 general election in Britain, traces the toxicity of the political climate to his own industry’s actions.
But print media also provides one of the most hopeful figures in the novel. The revolt of the poor quarters is triggered by the circulation of The Book of the Ark, a spiritual-cum-political guide which brings together “thoughts and teachings based on the elders’ spirit practices” (p. 433). The traditions of African cosmology, reified by the authoritarian leaders of Dinium and technologies such as the sleeping pods, are rejuvenated by The Book of the Ark. Newland keeps the contents of the book vague, instead highlighting the importance of its function in the struggles of the poor quarters. It is here where Newland locates a lack in our timeline, posing the question of “where is our The Book of the Ark?”, a text that intervenes in the struggles of the moment to raise them to a higher level.
And, in a modest, preliminary sort of way, A River Called Time contributes to this task of developing a book of resistance for our world. With its weaving of the unexplored possibilities of pre-colonial African cosmology and timely interventions into the sociopolitical struggles of the moment, Newland has produced a text that piques and provokes, providing a guidebook to worlds both uncomfortably familiar and radically new. In fact, Newland’s novel is not so different from Small Axe. The uncovering of the hidden history of Caribbean migrants in postwar London resonates with the unrealised future imagined in A River Called Time, both texts concerned with retracing the coordinates of the city’s history. If, in the world of Small Axe, London is not as we thought it was, in the world of A River Called Time, it is not as it could have been.