“Dune Song” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (2020 Ignyte Awards)

With the Ignyte Awards handed out this month, I’ve decided to take a closer look at some of the stories on the shortlist. There are a few I’ve already written about as part of my Hugo coverage at WWAC, but others are new to me. I’ll start with “Dune Song” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

In a post-apocalyptic world carpeted with sand dunes, the inhabitants of a remote settlement are warned by their Elders never to leave. The outside world is dangerous, say the Elders; those who venture into the dunes will be killed by whistling gods.

But a girl named Nata yearns to see the wider world. She wants to visit civilisation, something she has glimpsed in one of the books from before the world was desertified – books that are ordinarily reserved for the Chief, Elders and other members of an elite. Most of all, she hopes to find her mother, who said that the whistling gods did not exist – and who disobeyed the Elders, leaving the settlement, never to be seen again. Partnering with the Chief’s young son, Tasé, she decides to head out into the dunes.

The setting of a post-apocalyptic society in which superstition has taken over from scientific knowledge is one of the hardy perennials of science fiction. It is capable of giving readers the best of both worlds: they can enjoy first the frisson of the supernatural, and then the satisfaction of seeing this demon-haunted world cleared away by the light of science – often with an authoritarian elite being undermined in the process. A story using this premise is unlikely to win marks for originality, but there is always room for a well-executed variation on a favourite theme.

Much of the story’s success will depend on how convincingly-developed its imaginary culture is, and in “Dune Song” we find that an entire belief system has been born from the settlement’s arid surroundings. The people are told by their elite that the sand is divine retribution: first it came to punish those of the old world, and it continues to punish people of the new – every time a person leaves the settlement, they are told, the sands grow nearer. The belief in whistling gods derives from an aural effect caused by the whirlwinds blowing through the sand, which the people hear as “a morose, flutelike song, the only sound to plant tears in their chest that does not come from a living being. A shrill, underlined by wind rushing through a tube.”

Setting out the basic beliefs of an imagined culture is simple; capturing how they manifest in daily life is where the beauty lies. “Dune Song” introduces us to a society built upon the concept of Isiuwa, a word sometimes used as the name of the settlement (“Isiuwa isn’t really in a desert”; “No one in Isiuwa has tools like these ay longer”) sometimes as a collective name for the inhabitants (“Isiuwa held their breath and waited”) and still other times in reference to the dominant culture, not necessary including Nata or her rule-breaking mother (“Nata reminded her that Isiuwa was trying to save them, that was why they had rules”). In some cases Isiuwa is a personification; other times it is described in more animalistic terms:

Isiuwa moves like a buzz, like sandflies in formation. The market is a manifestation of this, laid out in wide corridors of bamboo and cloth, a neat crisscross of pathways. Bodies scuttle along, dressed in cloth wrapped to battle every iteration of dust-laden wind. No one pays Nata any heed—no one ever does—as she drags a bag too big for her frame, folds of cloak falling over her arm multiple times so that she has to stop every now and then to wrap them again. Her hair is wild with fraying edges, and her eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, but Isiuwa does not notice.

The story’s portrayal of a collectivist society is intriguing, but also disturbing. Isiuwa comes to embody blinkered obedience to authority and justification of the unjustifiable, as when we learn that Tasé’s mother was left in the sand as a sacrifice: “Isiuwa says the Chief was right to let Isiuwa offer her to the gods beneath the dunes, to the breath of their wrath.”

It is entirely appropriate that the rebellious Nata is treated as a separate entity to Isiuwa. The story is not about Nata’s journey outside the settlement, but rather her struggles with everything represented by Isiuwa as she tries to leave in the first place. The story closes on a fundamentally ambiguous note – which, in a moment of final irony, is portrayed as a spiritual experience for the secular-minded Nata.

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