There is at least one not-very-good reason for considering Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise together: the announcement of the winner of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award takes place tonight, and I wanted to publish some thoughts on all six novels before that happened. There are also, however, several better reasons. This is counter-intuitive on one level, because at first blush the volumes could not be more different: Naam’s technothriller is a debut novel dealing with the near future, and is a self-professed forward-thinking piece of work, all transhumanism and singularities; The Disestablishment of Paradise, meanwhile, is an almost wilfully old-fashioned planetary romance, whose further-future setting has very little interest in the ways in which technology or culture have changed in the last fifty years, much less how they might do so over the next few centuries.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that Naam and Mann have more in common than the scant three letters which can be used to spell both their names. In large part, their similarities revolve around lazy assumptions: about gender, about human psychology, and about the workings of narrative. Nexus begins with what I assume is meant to be a humorous scene in which Kade, the novel’s hero, uses one of the software hacks he and his plucky group of hippy scientists are plugging into the consciousness-linking nano-drug Nexus to seduce and then have semi-consensual sex with a young woman, before it goes wildly wrong and “his still-clothed crotch was banging into her face on every pelvic thrust”. Oh, how we laughed. Mann, meanwhile, is more well-meaning but just as flat-footed: “it is women’s logic, as old as time,” his novel sighs at one of its many essentialist junctures, during which even its high-flying, high-achieving female protagonists are wont to opine, “What fools we women are sometimes!”
That is, the Clarke judges appear to have rewarded two writers who have entirely ignored all the many tools and techniques science fiction offers for exploding and questioning our most limited and limiting behaviours, and who prefer instead to chase down their favoured hobby horses. Nexus in particular reads primarily like an amateur lecture, with the insistent earnestness and dulling monomania that implies. Naam is a debut novelist (although Nexus‘s sequel has, horrifyingly, now been published), and writes in his acknowledgements that “this work transformed from a lark to an actual attempt to write a novel”. It bears all the hallmarks of this uncertain progress: structurally unsound, its prolonged prologue features an inevitably attractive female spy infiltrating Kade’s group of bioscientists before forcing him and his friends to accept a bargain with the US agency responsible for frustrating the transhuman potential of technologies such as Nexus. In Kade’s (and Naam’s) vision of the world, Nexus will connect people to each other; in one of Naam’s few attempts to texturise his novel with countervailing views, however, its villain sees it as a tool for totalitarian oppression of the masses. All this drags on, the middle third of the novel drained entirely of tension as clunky action set-piece follows deadeningly similar clunky action set-piece:
Wats countered her superior speed by giving ground, step by step. Sam stayed in close he did, neutralizing his advantage in reach. They moved in a blur of strikes, dodges, and blows, almost too fast for any onlooker to follow.
She could see him coming up now, see the adrenaline hitting him, making him a more dangerous foe. Behind her she felt flashes of courage and anger. Partygoers thinking of joining the fray. Before long, they would mob her.
End this now, then. A gambit. A sacrifice. She let him create a foot of space to get his comfort, parried three more blows, threw feints at groin and eyes and plexus, then came in wide and sloppy, hole in her guard at mid-section.
Wats saw the opening and threw a brutal fist at it, low and under her nearly unbreakable ribs. She accepted the fist, twisting to mute it, felt the pain blossom inside her as he connected. As she twisted, she brought one hand down like a vice on his wrist, yanked him off balance as she planted a leg behind his knees and slammed her other hand into his shoulder to bring him down.
Wats saw it coming, but it was too late.
If you can find it in yourself to forgive me for quoting at such length, you’re a better person than I. Nevertheless, the above passage captures both the micro and macro problems with Naam’s writing: he cannot structure a scene, finds it impossible to imbue one with tension in an organic or earned way (hence all the fragment sentences and forced repetitions); whilst this weakness translates to his novel as a whole, on a sentence-by-sentence level, too, the reader finds Naam dull and obstinate, unsubtle and regularly incompetent (who has a brutal fist that one might twist to mute?). This is the prose of an accidental novelist, a writer uninterested in the craft of fiction. Indeed, Naam’s day job is as a futurist and emerging technologist, and quite explicitly Nexus is a vehicle for his vision of the posthuman future. If the novel’s ideas were interesting and elegant, then, perhaps we might forgive their leaden expression. In fact, Naam’s at-times Pollyannaish certainties and optimisms (“all that we have accomplished, and all that we will accomplish, is the result of groups of humans cooperating”) are most often communicated in lifeless dialogue which presumably aims at qualities Socratean but instead hits network TV personal dilemma:
“I’m not more important than the hundred people out there,” Kade said sharply.
“Your work is.”
Ilya cut in. “Wats, we can’t let the ends justify the means.”
The novel’s transhuman Bond villain has no more complex a vision of reality than Kade’s half-soaked sidekicks, apparently culled as it is from some of the poorer-written issues of X-Men: “The humans are the enemies of the future. They hate us. They hate our beauty and our potential. Either they hunt us down and kill and enslave us, or we rise above them and take our rightful place in this world.” The intelligence community’s response to this threat is depicted in a stilted round-table: “CIA Director Alan Keyes threw up a hand in exasperation. Senator Engels chuckled in amusement. Maximillian Barnes just learned back and watched it all, impassive.” If I tell you, dear reader, that one of the novel’s few close-to-moving moments comes when one of the faceless, paper-thin attendees of that meeting realises his daughters will live on fatherless after these men politely request he commit suicide following a failure to contain some troublesome Buddhist monks who give Kade shelter, you might get a sense of how deeply cloth-eared this unfortunate novel can be.
Science fiction surely exists not to predict the future but to trouble our present. It is in part the ghosts both at the feast and in the machine, the queering literature which serves not to advocate but to equivocate, to look history in the eye and say it ain’t necessarily so. Nexus is a soap-box of a novel, a bar-room bore which pretends to profundity. It has been warmly welcomed in some quarters (here, for instance, are the thoughts of the tech journalist Simon Bisson); perhaps, after all, I am missing something. Perhaps, it is true, the fiction of a lecturer at Singularity University is worth reading for its futurological analysis. The novel’s premise, however, is pure Hollywood hokum, and it is in these clichés – reverted to on almost every page and in every scene-short chapter – that Naam’s science fiction swaps speculative vision for commercialised swagger, betraying the potential of his chosen genre and professed technological passions in favour of a dead black sidekick and overly telegraphed UST. The Clarke jury may be right in thinking this sort of thing a definitive work of contemporary science fiction; but if they are then the genre is in trouble.
The sexual tension in The Disestablishment of Paradise is, at least, resolved. It begins early on with a canny refiguring of the creation story suggested by the name of the planet in its title: “The popular story,” we read of the first exploratory vessel to arrive there, “is that it was Captain Estelle who picked and nibbled the first Paradise plum.” I’ve referred already to the way in which Mann inherits the tendencies of his sourcework, in which women cannot escape the presumed vices of Eve, and certainly not the expectations of the men who promulgate them: “You take that ridiculous headband off and make yourself pretty,” the lead scientist of an entire planet is told by a man we’re cued to find charming. “Put a bit of make-up on like that lovely Captain Abracadabra [this is not Captain Abuhradin's name]. She knows how to dress for a party. She makes a man feel good just looking at her, eh boys?”
This character – Pietr Z – is not immediately dismissed by the astonishingly well-qualified hero of the novel, Dr Hera Melhuish; instead, his advice is followed to the letter with an ‘aw, you guys’ shrug. Pietr Z, incidentally, is apparently from Generic Eastern Europe, and despite being one of Earth’s leading scientists himself he speaks in comically broken English until a scene in which Mann requires him to be sympathetic and inspiring of confidence, when his syntax suddenly improves. Other characters, meanwhile, call each other ‘chum’ and repeatedly josh that their friends should ‘bugger off’; they wear half-moon glasses and write in each others’ notebooks; they form committees and fill out forms in triplicate. This is Mann’s first adult novel in two decades, and it shows.
But Niall Harrison has covered this aspect of Mann’s novel in as complete and right-headed a way as anyone might wish, and so I don’t wish to repeat him here: go read his review, in which he correctly concludes that “the novel’s categories are too solid to tell us much about the real choices we have to make”. In many ways, this recalls Sherri S Tepper’s The Water’s Rising, another retreat into reiterative fantasy in the face of a contemporary world for which the author no longer particularly cared. This sort of Atlas-shrug is particularly dangerous for science fiction, and yet is broadly visible in the exhaustion influentially identified by Paul Kincaid: works like The Disestablishment of Paradise read like a form of literature no longer well-equipped to deal with today’s challenges. Like Naam’s action movie memes, Mann’s 1960s verities are part of a decayed and decaying toolkit which science fiction writers continue to fit, forlornly, to a world now beyond them.
Mann’s chosen target is nature, the environment to which we have done so much violence to such potentially catastrophic effect. On Paradise, Gaia theory is given explicit and rather un-nuanced reality (coyly, James Lovelock is never named by Mann): the planet’s consciousness has been made vivid and angry by human incursions, its strange intelligence and unknowable biologies twisted out of shape by a reaction against the likes of Hera and her hunter-gatherer manly male, Mack. “There was a time when it basked quietly, this world which you call Paradise, content with miles of ocean and the tug of the moons and the winds and the tides. [...] Everything now has been stained by [...] hatred and anger.” Mann describes Paradise in loving-but-limited thumbnails: its flora and fauna are boiled down to three main components, the Tattersall Weed, the Dendron and the Reaper; Hera and Mack’s march across its surface is dangerous but also weirdly dream-like, as if they are walking not across a planet but in the realm of Faery (“awe is a dangerous emotion, it makes you very passive”); and our knowledge of it is always partial (“maybe the Dendron can adjust its life cycle,” Hera muses, “I don’t know”).
All this is a tad frustrating, compounded further by Paradise’s apparent selection of Mack rather than Hera as its ultimate spokesperson and Favourite Human. Mack is everything Hera is not: masculine and practical, physically strong and intellectually straightforward. At one point, we are told he is “surely descended” from “ancient Celtic warriors who ran naked into battle”. This is a rejection of the qualities associated with the feminine over the course of a novel which at first takes pains to try to convince us its women are individuals capable of leading their worlds and passing the Bechdel test. That sits oddly; worse still, Mann seems not to know what to do once Paradise-through-Mac has explained itself to Hera: in a single chapter, after hundreds of pages of rather stately progress, she sprints to a shuttle and flies away.
I’m not sure, however, that some of this isn’t part of the point. Perhaps Mann is only connected with Naam in my own head, since I read him after Nexus and any novel will look good in the awkward shadow of so ham-fisted an effort; but I rather think he is more aware of his tropes than Naam. In the novel’s preface, we are addressed by a (fictional) writer of children’s fiction who has been tasked by Hera with writing her biography. The Disestablishment of Paradise – despite a few footnotes and some attempts to quote from reports or oral transcripts – never resembles anything like a biography (it is too poetic and discursive for that), but it does resemble children’s fiction. Mann wrote this manuscript years ago and failed to find a publisher for it, but it is emphatically not a failed YA novel finally finding a home: it is a different beast, an adult novel which tropes as fairy story. It turns out to be a silly narrative choice, but it appears to have been an active one nonetheless.
“All the colours have been taken from a child’s palette,” we read of Paradise at one point, and throughout the novel openness and inhibition are lionised: “in their naive approach to love, they touch the heart of Paradise” Mann writes of Hera and Mack; Hera’s “educated mind”, meanwhile, “still hid too easily in abstractions, not developed enough to be earthy” – thus the selection of Mack. It is unhelpful that Mack is also associated with masculinity quite so pungently, but it is his child-like quality, I think, with which Mann is most interested. Most obviously, Hera asks her biographer a rhetorical question: “To be irrational sometimes is not to be mad. Is it?” Where Nexus is adolescent by accident, it seems to me that The Disestablishment of Paradise adopts a deliberately jejune perspective: the prince and its princess, the kindly dragon, the fantastical garden are all present and correct; science is perceived just as easily to be magical (Hera is “pilloried for being a ‘mystical scientist’”); there is a sense in which Mann perceives nature as requiring a lack of sophistication in its partners. This is useless to contemporary humanity in the ways Niall suggests, but that may not be accidental or unthinking in the way he argues. The Disestablishment of Paradise feels like a carefully considered novel, even where it is also creaky and cracked.
I have been trumped in more ways than one by Adam Roberts’s two-part consideration of the Clarke shortlist. My thoughts and his seem to leave Mann resembling The Dog Stars more than Tepper, perhaps: not without some sense of its own absurdities, but let down by essentialism and execution. Nexus, meanwhile, is much further along that continuum of sfnal retreat – so far along it, in fact, that it is a novel in full rout. Neither of these troubled novels, of course, should be the winner.
Of all the books on the shortlist, it seems to me as it seems to Roberts that James Smythe’s The Machine is the one that avoids the apparent pitfalls of contemporary science fiction most successfully: it is structured more smoothly than its nearest competitor, Kameron Hurley’s still-incendiary God’s War; it is more accessible and less idiosyncratic than the shortlist’s most complex piece of art, Priest’s The Adjacent; it is, despite its calmness, considerably more subversive than Ann Leckie’s much-praised Ancillary Justice; and, most crucially, it addresses our current moment without resort to the retro or the pastiche. The Machine is the leading novel on an admittedly lukewarm shortlist; but it should take the prize regardless – and inspire other authors, and other perennially embattled juries, to Do Better.