Joining Forces: Steven Barnes's Lion's Blood and Heather Alexander's Insh'Allah

Reviewed by J. G. Stinson

A Parallax View: Lion's Blood

Those who read and comment on science fiction have disagreed on whether alternate history is its own genre or a subgenre of SF. Some argue that without a science-fictional element such as time travel, an alternate history is a fantasy. But others claim it as SF because it asks and answers what could be called SF's prime question: What if? What would happen if these historical elements were changed? How different would it be from "actual" history, and what could it tell us about ourselves today?

For definitional purposes, I take the latter stance. To paraphrase an oft-quoted maxim, SF is whatever I point my finger at. I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.

Lions Blood cover

Steven Barnes' Lion's Blood is alternate history, and a novel that uses a major perspective shift to illuminate a prime failing of humanity, which is its tendency to make other humans into slaves. But Barnes doesn't go directly for the U.S. Civil War period, as did Harry Turtledove (in Guns of the South). Instead, he goes all the way back to the days of Socrates, tweaks some pivotal events, and follows through on them. What results is a world in the mid-to-late 1800s that is chiefly presided over by nations which are Islamic, not Christian. Christianity is a minor sect, Islam and Judaism co-exist peacefully for the most part (having signed a pact), and the slaves are European -- in this case, Celtic peoples. Vikings are slave traders, as well as settlers in the New World, what we call the North American continent.

Aidan is a pre-adolescent boy in a Celtic fishing village somewhere in western Europe when Viking raiders come to his village, murder his father, and kidnap his sister Nessa, his mother, and himself. They are taken south by ship to an unknown port. When their captors try to separate them because Deirdre can write and her children cannot, Deirdre pleads to be allowed to keep her children with her. The trio endures a long, torturous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World.

But there's no North America here, no English or French or Spanish colonies. The Abyssinian Empire has endured and prospered, as has the Egyptian rule by the pharaohs, and both are major colonizers of this new continent. Followers of an Islamic holy man called Bilal have settled a portion of this new land and called it Bilalistan. It is here that Aidan's family eventually lands. Nessa is sold off to another slave owner while Aidan and Deirdre are bought by the Wakil Abu Ali, a provincial government manager working for the governor in one of Bilalistan's four provinces. Aztecs are in power and in close proximity to the Wakil's province, and are a constant source of tension for him and his people.

The Wakil has two sons and a daughter. Younger son Kai needs a companion and body servant, the Wakil decides, so he selects Aidan for the position. Through adolescence to manhood, Aidan and Kai become less like slave and master, eventually earning each other's respect as men. But Aidan never stops searching for his missing sister or freedom. Kai is forced by events outside his control to view his life and family in a different light, and to choose a path that is morally acceptable to him.

Barnes' choice of the Celts as one of the enslaved peoples of this alternate Europe (along with Franks and Gauls) is certainly an inspired one, because the Celts -- more commonly known to us as the Irish -- have so many historical points in common with the African slaves from our own history.

Both peoples were once conquered and governed by more technologically sophisticated cultures. The Celts were ruled for a time by the Romans, and then by the English. African cultures were subjugated by European colonizers and sent as slaves to New World plantations. But neither the Celts nor the various African cultures ever surrendered entirely. The Celts maintained their cultural identity through wave after wave of oppression, and the Africans who were captured and sold as slaves to European and American masters brought their cultures and spiritual beliefs with them in secret. Oral-history traditions are common in African and Celtic cultures; among a captured people, oral history is often the only way a to pass teachings on to new generations. The keeping of written records does not correlate to the sophistication of a culture. Memories, unlike books, are not easily found and destroyed. Nonetheless, one way masters kept slave races under control was to restrict or prohibit literacy, and both Africans and Celts knew this well from experience.

The Afterword contains an alternate (to our world) timeline. The novel's Web site includes an expanded version of this timeline, with the births of Christ and Mohammad and some interesting additions. Socrates flees Athens in 400 BC (perhaps with some assistance). Alexander the Great loses a leg in 390 BC and becomes a Pharaoh of Egypt in 378 BC. Saul of Tarsis dies in 30 AD from being "kicked in head by donkey." Ethiopia conquers Europe and Charles Martel chooses Islam over Christianity at the Battle of Tours in 750 AD. Thus Barnes establishes the primacy of Islam over Christianity and of African cultures over European ones, and paves the way for Islamic Africans to settle the "New World" and become slave-keepers. Barnes also provides the date by two calendars -- Islamic and Gregorian -- at the opening of each chapter. In addition to exposing the alternative calendric system, the technique subtly implies a sort of double vision of the past in the viewpoints of Kai and Aidan.

There are several other points of connection, too many to discuss in detail here. Readers interested in this topic should consult some of the books Barnes lists in his Afterword to Lion's Blood.

It would have been too easy to choose the Zulus or another strongly led, populous African culture as the masters in this alternate world. Barnes wisely chooses not a particular culture, but a religious group -- the people of Islam -- as the masters. This is a neat mirror of how history played out in our own world, since the majority of the countries that colonized Africa had rulers who were nominally Christians. The followers of Mohammad and Christ both come from a wide range of nations and cultures.

The relationship between Kai and Aidan is the central source of the novel's story, and Barnes adds a few subplots to fill out what is already a densely imagined life for the two boys. Kai's brother Ali is the Wakil's heir, and bears the majority of the responsibility for maintaining and extending the Wakil's power in New Djibouti province. The Wakil wants to arrange a marriage between Ali and an Abyssinian noblewoman named Lamiya, who's been selected by the Empress of Abyssinia herself to be Ali's wife. The relationship between Ali, Lamiya, and Kai adds a romantic element that gives the story a richer texture.

Many historical elements from our own world remain the same in Lion's Blood. They provide a wealth of familiar touchstones that increase the story's verisimilitude, making Bilalistan a place we're sure we must have seen somewhere. Credit this to Barnes' skill in weaving vivid but brief detail into the flow of the story, without halting the action to describe minutiae.

Spiritual beliefs often get short shrift in SF, but that's certainly not the case here. The novel would've been far weaker, if not an outright failure, had it ignored the interaction of spirituality with politics and technology. Barnes not only breathes life into Islamic society and Celtic proto-Christianity, he adds another element to the mix: the branch of Islam known as Sufism.

Sufis believe that nothing separates God from his Creation; that humans are blinded to the divine solely by their attachment to their material form. The religion teaches its adherents to purify their hearts, so that the Divine may manifest therein. As one scholar says, "Only then may man ascend from the level of his animal nature to the level of the true human being."1

Christian teachings also reflect this in their basis on a single creator who cares for humanity and the requirement to rise above one's "animal nature." Hindus and Buddhists share the belief in seeking a pure heart as a path to the divine, but the former has many gods, and the latter no specific deity.

The exploration of self as part of the search for the divine is common to both Christian and Islamic adherents. Barnes introduces Sufi beliefs as a way for Kai, as a follower of Islam, to give a new interpretation to what his ancestors did and said, and search for an acceptable moral compass by which he can guide his life. Barnes uses the Enneagram (the Sign of the Presence of God, or wajh Allah2), the visible symbol of the Sufi search, as an ever-present reminder to the reader that important spiritual matters are part of the story. He also employs the Enneagram as a martial-arts meditation and training device (he is himself a martial-arts practitioner) to layer more meaning into its presence.

A key element in the novel is a mystical reference to the "lion's blood" which is said to run in the Wakil's family. The power of this ichor brings on what some writers have called "battle fever," in which the blood seems to sing in the veins as the warrior fights. The Vikings called such warriors berserkers, which connotes chaotic behavior. Barnes clearly prefers a more controlled approach, shaped and governed by years of practice, and blends it into both the well-drawn combat scenes and discussions of spirituality in the novel.

Another subplot involves Shaka Zulu, who's often been portrayed in books and movies as a brilliant tactician and field general with a megalomaniac's sense of self-worth. Barnes doesn't stint any of Shaka's "real-world" reputation in his novel, and his Shaka is every bit as arrogant, bloodthirsty and single-minded as any other megalomaniac in history.

A few details were jarring, such as references to "spanking palms together." Verisimilitude is vital in this novel, but not to the point where it throws off the rhythm of reading. It's uncertain whether this was a literal translation of the words in Arabic that refer to the behavior of "applause," or something else entirely. A reference to Kai's "sainted mother" is made from that character's viewpoint. I've heard of Islamic martyrs, but are there Islamic saints? This is never explained. I stopped reading to take note of these oddities, but they didn't detract from the overall story.

Lion's Blood is very much a coming-of-age story, involving characters on both sides of a social divide. Aidan never completely gives up his struggle to be free again, but he's not the pure-hearted hero of medieval Europe's chivalric tales. Kai is of the masters, but his deep emotions and spiritual life force him to examine, and later question, the fairness of what his ancestors have done to Aidan's people and others. They are equally important as "heroes" because both undergo major changes which cause ripple effects in the lives of other characters.

With masterful pacing and a very realistic setting, Barnes peoples his alternate world with vibrant characters in an engrossing and often though-provoking story of how different elements in life can bind us in varied and sometimes conflicting ways. Honor, duty, love, and social station create bonds for us all, and how we fight against or accept those bonds can determine our future.

Few novels in alternate history have delved as deeply as this one into the lives of Islamic people as major characters, or Islam as a religion and culture. (I cannot comment on Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt because I haven't read it, but I understand it does deal extensively with Islam; see the Strange Horizons review.) The lives of Africans in the slaving years, and what it was like to be stolen from their homes and sold to others who considered them less than human, have been touched on in some SF novels, but not in such an outright manner. Lion's Blood tells a good story, and its job as a novel is accomplished even if it does no more than that. But if it makes even one reader stop and think about those who experienced slavery or oppression, then it's done a service to humanity as well.

Is alternate history a worthwhile method for examining issues of slavery and civil rights with respect to how modern society might comprehend it? In talented hands, yes. Can any free citizen ever truly understand what it was like to be enslaved? Not unless they are somehow transported into the mind and body of a slave. But in Lion's Blood, Barnes made me stop often to consider what the idea of living under someone else's thumb. I found it a chilling experience.

Slavery didn't end with the U.S. Civil War -- it still exists in other places around the world. Whether Barnes had this in mind when he formed the world of Lion's Blood, as well as delving into the history of racism in the American psyche, is for others to discover. But the fact that the novel resonates so powerfully on this topic lends credence to such a speculation. Other writers may be more or less successful at creating this resonance in the minds of their readers, but this is, for me, the benchmark by which I'll judge future works dealing with this topic.

A Musical Companion: Insh'Allah

The resonance didn't stop with the novel. In the mid-1990s, when he was building this world in his head, Barnes met Heather Alexander, a musician well known in filk3 circles and among Celtic and folk aficionados. He writes in the liner notes to Alexander's Sea Fire Productions CD, Insh'Allah, ". . . the most pressing question in my mind [in regard to writing the novel] was one of authenticity. . . . I needed allies." So he asked her if she'd be interested in writing some songs with that world as their setting.

I think he asked the right person, and he got far more than he expected.

Music and science fiction have been longtime companions. Works ranging from classical cantatas to rock concept albums have contained vague or bold references to science-fiction subjects or works. Karlheinz Stockhausen and Philip Glass have set science-fictional ideas to music in operas. The Steve Miller Band, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Rush, Yes, Blue Oyster Cult, Jefferson Airplane, and others used SF-flavored ideas or took themes from SF works for their own. (For a more thorough discussion of this, see the Music entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.) Music has also appeared in and been the subject of literally hundreds of SF stories and novels.

Todd Barton based The Music of the Kesh (1985) on the poems in Ursula Le Guin's novel Always Coming Home (1985), bringing that world to life in a musical setting. This deliberate effort to create music which fits within an imagined world is a rarer marriage of music and SF. Alexander's Insh'Allah is a work which acts as a soundtrack to Barnes' fiction and a further expression of the prose's themes, characters, and scenes. It's due to her skills and experience as a songwriter and musical performer that it works so very well.

When faced with a novel which has musical accompaniment, so to speak, a natural question is, "Which should be done first -- read the book or listen to the music?" In this case, I'd recommend the music first, because then the reader will have the delightful experience of mentally "hearing" the music while reading the book. Barnes and Alexander clearly set out to make a collaboration of their work, and the two media are nicely interwoven as a result.

But the collaboration would have flopped if Alexander hadn't succeeded so brilliantly in combining traditional Celtic and Middle Eastern melodic styles. She also brought in elements from Pagan, Christian, and Moslem ritual in her musical structure and lyric content. I consider myself a pretty eclectic listener, and only a few times have I heard this kind of Celtic / Middle Eastern fusion successfully attempted. Particularly effective examples are Willie and Lobo, whose influences range into flamenco, Latin, and gypsy styles in addition to Celtic and Middle Eastern; and the Jimmy Page / Robert Plant "No Quarter" project, which had a more Moroccan / Indian slant.

It's no secret that Christianity lifted elements from medieval folk beliefs and nature-based spirituality (generically referred to today as Wicca, though this isn't a very accurate description) to make their religion more palatable to potential converts. Pagan festival days were co-opted as holy days, and local musical styles were adapted into early chants and hymns. In Lion's Blood, Christianity plays a comparatively minor role as a religion, and is still infused with the Celtic spiritual beliefs that preceded it. Hollywood and other media have simplified this confluence into banality, sapping it of its original strength. Alexander avoids the Hollywood stereotypes of these influences and goes for their roots, bringing that strength back into the music she creates for Insh'Allah.

The musical parallels to slaves' field-working songs (and their descendants, blues and gospel) in our world are also amply reflected in the songs on Insh'Allah. "Laddie Are Ya Working?" contains, as did the songs of America's slaves, "hidden" verses which were sung when the masters weren't within hearing range. "We Are Bound" is dense with layered meanings, lyrically and musically, from the physical and spiritual worlds. "Fresh Hops and Hemp" is a drinking song straight out of an Irish village tavern, but it also has a call-and-response variant, an element characteristic of gospel hymns from the American South. The amount of conscious intent in these songs' structures is only revealed through time and attention. They seem simple at first hearing, but gain texture over repeated listenings, and as they are experienced in the context of the novel.

Drawing on the Celtic lament tradition, Alexander produces "Green Are The Hills" and "Deirdre's Lament." The oral traditions of both Celts and Black slaves of the American South are reflected in "The Mushroom Song" (which provides directions for the astute listener on the dangerous qualities of certain fungi) and "Gruagach!" (a children's song about the Celtic version of the Bogeyman).

The songs here aren't all about the Celtic slaves, though. As used throughout the novel, "insh'Allah" means "as God wills," reflecting the Islamic tradition of doing all things in service to Allah. "Insh'Allah" concerns Kai's spiritual struggle to determine how best to live his life and accept his role in his family and nation. The instrumental pieces "Path to Alexandria / Mushtaq's Jig / Sleepy Camel" and "Wild Seeds" feature seamless blends of Celtic and Middle Eastern melodic lines and instrumentation (fiddle, drums, tambourine, dulcimer, and others). "Battle for Mosque Al'Amu" combines the heartfelt prayers of slaves and masters as they face a common enemy in war. "New Northwest" details Aidan's deepest desire, and "Destiny" twines together his and Kai's hopes and fears for the future.

But the signature piece of this recording, the one that sets the tone and the story line, is "Fire on the Sea." Here Alexander is at her fiery best, launching into the tale of Aidan's capture with energy and commitment. Her approach to her music is full of passion, vulnerability, and strength; and reminds me, in that way only, of Melissa Etheridge.

Most of the music on Insh'Allah is performed by Heather Alexander and Dan Ochipinti, and their skills on a wide range of instruments, both melodic and percussive, are amply displayed on this CD. Andrew Hare provides a rock-solid double bass and sprightly banjo. Mary Benson, Hank Cramer, Dan Maher, and Jon Lindahl support the melody lines with backup vocals of a depth and expertise many musicians would give their right arm to have. These musicians obviously work very smoothly together. Alexander and her co-writer, husband Philip Obermarck, lavish sparkling production values on every track, and the entire CD is a testament to the value of music produced and recorded independently by talented professional artists.

With wit, fire, compassion, and a certain wicked charm, Heather Alexander successfully captures Barnes' alternate world in musical form. Insh'Allah brilliantly evokes the emotions of both the slave and the master of its inspiration, Lion's Blood. Other writers should be so lucky as to find such a gifted collaborator.

 

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J. G. Stinson is a freelance writer and copy editor, living in Florida. Her work has appeared in Speculations and Tangent Online. Her previous publications at Strange Horizons can be found in our archive.

Notes:

  1. From "An Introduction to Sufism" by Seyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha, in Sufism: An Inquiry, a journal of the International Association of Sufism.

    The principles of Sufism are all based upon the rules and teachings of the Koran and the instructions of the Prophet. To a Sufi there is no gulf of separation between all of Being, the Creator, and His creations. . . . If man were free from the limitations of matter, then he would surely witness this immense and eternal unity of Being. But there is a chance for mankind to ascend to such a level of understanding, a pathway that can be followed through purification and meditation to the realization of its achievement. When one's heart is purified, the manifestations of the Divine is reflected in the mirror of the heart. Only then may man ascend from the level of his animal nature to the level of the true human being.

  2. From The Sufi Enneagram Website -- Overview

    [T]he Sufi Enneagram or Sign of the Presence of God (wajh Allah) reflects both the macrocosm (in the conjunctions between the planets Jupiter and Saturn) and the microcosm (in relation to the three-fold aspect of 'self' as Cognition, Affect, and Behavior). The four Platonic virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice relate to the threefold constitution of 'self' when we try to morally heal the self and become balanced.

  3. Filking is the practice of using well-known melodies (or creating new ones) as the music for lyrics which refer either directly or indirectly to works of science fiction and fantasy. The name came from a typo in an article published in a science-fiction fanzine many years ago. Filkers perform most often at science-fiction conventions and filk-only conventions. Some of the most well-known names in filk (including SF writers as well as musicians) are Leslie Fish, Mercedes Lackey (not as active now), Tom Smith, and Heather Alexander.