Having recently completed a PhD in which I creatively and critically explore the function of memory in dystopian fiction, I was very much looking forward to reviewing Peter Kalu’s own, unique, contribution to the genre, One Drop.
In war-torn Britain, inseparable Black Radicals, Axel and Dune, are arrested, have SIMs implanted in their heads and are placed in a prison camp for those who defy the white supremacist government, known as the Bloods.
At its heart, this novel is a love story about surviving against all odds. The peculiar horror here is that all prisoners have to suffer as their SIMs brainwash them with the Bloods’ evil philosophy, whilst drones constantly monitor their movements and thoughts. In order to combat this living nightmare, Axel and Dune have to take the brew called ‘maidenhair’ (and in increasingly heavy doses) as well as applying a resin to their hair in order to create a temporary shield against the drones’ memory re-writes. Most strikingly of all, Kalu’s protagonists recount some of their happiest memories from their lives before imprisonment, referred to as ‘storyfying.’ This form of resistance – of subjective memory cast in direct opposition to collective compliance – is a defined trope of the dystopian novel and is explored with masterful nuance by the author. Similarly, Offred retreats into the past, to escape her present, in Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, whilst the rebels recite whole books from memory at the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Of course, memories being wiped entirely from an individual’s mind have featured elsewhere in the genre, as evidenced in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, which later became the hit sci-fi film Total Recall. As Rafaella Baccolini (2003) argues, ‘in order to fabricate a single, true, hegemonic discourse, which citizens unquestionably follow … it may be necessary to erase memory itself.’
The passages where Kalu’s narrator has to observe, up close, his non-binary partner retrieve fewer and fewer of their own memories, make for some of this novel’s most memorable, albeit disturbing, scenes:
‘Nothing at all?’
Maybe they heard my disappointment because they squeezed my hand and said, ‘It’s alright. I don’t need thousands of memories. I only need to hear your voice, Ax. Everything’s in your voice. I hear you and I know I’m alive.’
Overall, this is brilliant and important novel. A fast-moving, well-structured narrative moves swiftly through its scenes to reach a satisfying climax and, in keeping with the genre, Kalu leaves enough questions unanswered for the reader to speculate about what kinds of future may be waiting for those who manage to survive the many terrors of the camp. Perhaps Kalu’s greatest achievement is that he skilfully revisits and reinvents the slave narratives of the late twentieth century by other notable black authors such as Haley, Walker and Morrison, to remind us how easily the past can be resurrected when both political and populist views become, once again, about binary oppositional thinking and the rise of violent extremist ideologies. Both timely reminder and proof of Kalu’s sheer verve and originality as an author of speculative fiction, One Drop is a thought-provoking and inventive exploration of hope coming from the most hopeless of places.
Dr. Paul Taylor-McCartney is an author, researcher and lecture, with interests in dystopian studies, children’s literature and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Writing in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A Literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall. You can find out more about him and his work by visiting https://paultm.org/
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