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Chasing the Stars is presented as a reworking of Othello; the back cover of my copy alludes to its roots in "one of the world's greatest stories," and every review that I've seen refers to this aspect of the text. As a result, Othello may loom larger in the book's reception than is necessarily borne out by the story itself.

One of the several dangers of reworking a classic text is that the original may easily become a sort of key to the newer work: character X in the original is the equivalent of character Y here; this crucial plot point is that one but with added spaceships. The book we're reading comes pre-solved, as it were; we know where we're going and how we're going to get there. At the most basic level the Othello figure in Chasing the Stars is Olivia (Vee), the brilliant young captain of a spaceship who opens the book by coming to the rescue of a small colony under alien attack. The Desdemona figure is Nathan, son of the leader of these colonists. Iago is Vee's brother, Cassio is Nathan's friend. The handkerchief (which I so loved and gave thee) is here a treasured pendant, given to Vee by her father.

Luckily, it's all a little more fluid than this neat mapping of plot elements might suggest. Handkerchief/pendant subplot aside, what Chasing the Stars really takes from Othello is a series of emotional beats, deployed in various (and variously effective) ways.

Olivia and Aidan are siblings, the sole survivors on a ship whose entire crew was wiped out by a virus some years ago. On their way (finally) back to Earth, and looking forward to being home and having company other than the two of them again, they receive a distress signal from a nearby planet. A colony of humans is being attacked by the Mazon, a race of hostile aliens, and Vee and Aidan perform some death-defying feats to rescue those they can. Unfortunately, this means that they are now saddled with a crowd of refugees who resent them (for failing to rescue the entire community), outnumber them, and have no desire to travel to Earth—for good reason, as it turns out. Olivia is instantly drawn to Nathan, and he to her, but their conflicting agendas and experiences make it difficult for them to understand or trust one another.

The refugees, we learn, are "Drones," members of a sort of slave class who have escaped from the mines on Callisto. Earth, and the Authority that rules it, are far more menacing when seen through the eyes of Nathan. For Vee, who has grown up in relative privilege, the Authority may be flawed and corrupt, but "meant Earth, and home and life as it once was and as I longed for it to be again. To me, the Authority meant safety." The exploitation of drones may be unpleasant, but Vee has been raised in the belief that drones are, in her words, "just subintellectual labourers doing all the menial, manual work that's too filthy or hazardous for normal people to do." In effect, she has learnt to see them as not fully human.

There's a lot going on in Chasing the Stars. Vee and Nathan grow closer, marry, and are ripped apart by jealousy and insecurity, all in the space of what seems like about a week. There's conflict between the refugees and Vee's brother Aidan. Vee has agreed to take her new crew through Mazon territory to a safe planet, so that occasionally all interpersonal relationships aboard ship have to be put on hold because aliens are attacking. It all seems a bit too much when the book also adds a classic, closed-circle murder plot—someone on the ship is killing people off one by one. In a plot that has to do so much there isn't space for such luxuries as slowly building up characters and relationships in the way you might expect of an Othello remix, yet there's something compelling about this abundance of stuff.

In fact, it's in the novel’s relationship to its own world, and its own narrative, that I find Chasing the Stars both unsatisfactory and intriguing. The text is at some pains to impress upon us that this is the future; that the cultural touchstones that we recognise are from the distant past. There are obvious and practical reasons for references to Earth culture made in far future narratives being ones that the audience recognises (as opposed to alluding to, say, the possible blockbusters of the early 2300s)—and certainly works of which we already think with some degree of nostalgia can enhance the affect of past-ness, however implausible they may seem in-world. (I'll admit here to enjoying nuTrek's use of the Beastie Boys, but only a little bit, and only in these parentheses where no one will see.) And so Vee's fascination with twentieth-century cinema isn't in and of itself unusual for the genre, and for slightly different reasons nor is Nathan's use of reasonably contemporary slang. Where the book differs from any one of hundreds of narratives set in the future is in its constant drawing of attention to these things. Words like "awesome" are "old, nearly obsolete," Nathan tells us, even as he uses them; Olivia's habit of making references to films nobody but her has seen, meanwhile, is shown over and over to baffle those around her.

It would be easy to dismiss this as merely clunky worldbuilding—and I suspect that that is at least part of it, if not the whole. Exposition in the novel is often provided in unlikely bursts of information—see the moment, quoted above, when Vee responds to the revelation that Nathan is a drone by treating him to an as-you-know-Bob summary of class politics among the terrans. (The characters are frequently as explicit about what is going on in their own heads—the narrative is divided between Olivia and Nathan, and the reader is frequently taken step by step through their individual reactions to the same events, with no room left for inference.) I don't fully understand what the book is attempting to achieve with this insistence on explaining itself, or if this is (unlikely, given Blackman's stature as a children's writer) just a case of underestimating the audience.

Though the infodumps are one of the ways in which we learn about this world, for even a casual reader of the genre they're not the only way in. Much about the setting and the interplanetary politics invoked here is already familiar to us from other SF narratives. In a text that presents itself as an adaptation this makes perfect sense—much as the emotional beats of Chasing the Stars draw strength from their interplay with those of Othello, it makes sense to read the book's worldbuilding in the context of its various source texts as well. A setting in which humans have colonies on multiple other planets, spending years on a ship is completely normal, and there's at least one other major empire that hates us, is familiar enough. Many of the reviews immediately leap to Star Trek, but one of the major textual links for me was with Orson Scott Card's Ender's GameEnder's Game is, of course, set in a future in which humans are quite comfortable in space and there's an incomprehensible enemy alien race, and is also a novel in which the main characters are children. (Blackman's characters, meanwhile, may be old enough to run ships and get married, but they're also young enough to have to defend their authority against older interlopers.)

Ender's Game moves into its final third with the no-longer-shocking revelation that Ender, its genius child protagonist, has accidentally committed a genocide upon an alien race, and goes on to deal with the aftermath of this—and Ender's own guilt.[i]  Late in Chasing the Stars we see an echo of this moment when another genius child is found to have accidentally caused the death of three billion Mazon. I don't know whether Blackman is deliberately referring back to Card here, and I'm not sure it matters—what strikes me is the difference in the ways in which the two incidents are treated. Blackman's book is unable to give the incident the space or weight that three billion deaths deserve (what could?), and perhaps this is less than ideal; on the other hand Chasing the Stars neither attempts to exonerate, nor does it dwell on an individual's guilt.

This feels significant because it's of a piece with a larger attitude towards individual characters in Chasing the Stars and how they fit into their world.

Tony Bradman's Guardian review of the book suggests that the book substitutes the racism that Othello must contend with for a class divide. This strikes me as an oversimplification. Yes, Olivia is black and does not seem to face discrimination, whereas Nathan, coded as white, is the victim of prejudice. Yet race is inherent to the forms that structural violence takes within the book. How do you not read this story, in which oppressed people escape slavery and attempt to form free communities of their own at the edges of empire, as a form of marronage?

I don't invoke Bradman here merely to berate him; I think he's right in suggesting that there's a fundamental difference in the ways that oppression works in the book and the play, just not that that difference can be mapped onto race/class. Othello is a far more contained story with a more streamlined world—it makes sense that we see the forces that structure that world mainly through individual character interactions. In Chasing the Stars, it's impossible to escape the knowledge that structural violence is, well, structural. Late in the book the reader discovers that even Vee's movie habit, presented up till this point as an individual quirk, is a marker of class that can be weaponised against Nathan and people like him.

(To go out further on this limb [why not, since we're already here]—most narratives, in choosing protagonists, also make choices about what in a story is prioritised, what is minimised or left out. Even fiction that doesn't fall into Chosen One tropes is still making an implicit choice to shape the world around the protagonist/s to suit a particular arc; an implicit statement about the value of lives and stories that are not this one. [But at this point I may be making the claim that most fiction is morally dubious.])

One of the effects of Chasing the Stars's overabundance of plot is that it does violence to any notion that the world will subordinate itself to what amounts to the novel’s main plot (the Vee/Nathan relationship, if we're reading this as Othello in Space). Things are happening all at once—in the real world you're (probably) never going to have to deal with a failing marriage, intergalactic war, escaping slavery, and solving a murder all at the same time—but nor does the world provide sealed-off spaces for unidirectional character arcs to take place in. Vee and Nathan are in several plots at once—they don't have time to become Othello and Desdemona because (literally) aliens are chasing them. One of my favourite things about Chasing the Stars is precisely the sense that sometimes adults with lives to save (their own, as well of those of people depending on them) will put their personal feelings aside to do the jobs they need to do. (And conversely, that sometimes they will be too hurt by their personal feelings not to fuck things up royally; I'm not arguing for competence porn here.) The book's ending deviates from that of Othello, but not in ways that allow for a happy or even uncomplicatedly hopeful conclusion. There's work to be done, both between Nathan and Vee, and in this universe more broadly, and, knowing that to be the case, any resolution would seem like a bit of a cop-out.

Is it a good book, though? Honestly, not really, but I think I've argued myself out of being able to ask that question. I can't, for example, simultaneously argue against the desirability of well-structured plots and complain that Chasing the Stars doesn't have one. It's a big, sprawly, messy book that does some very good things and some cringeworthy ones. On its own it doesn't work, but, read as part of a larger textual system, it opens up itself, and the texts it can be placed alongside, to new readings. Which is what you want an adaptation to do, surely.

[i] The best-known discussion of this aspect of the book is probably John Kessel's "Creating the Innocent Killer". [return]



Aishwarya Subramanian lives in the North of England and the North of India, writes about children’s books and empire, and can be found at http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/blog.
One comment on “Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman”

[…] have a review of Malorie Blackman’s most recent novel in Strange Horizons this week–most of my thoughts on the book are therefore to be found over […]

 

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