Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category
I hadn’t read Martin Lewis’s review of Angelmaker prior to tackling Nick Harkaway’s second, and Kitschie-winning, Clarke-nominated, defiantly unhinged novel. Imagine the frisson of shared experience, then, when I realised that Martin, too, could think of only one word as he made his way through the five hundred-plus pages of Angelmaker‘s freewheeling, devil-may-care, serpentine, flashbacked, baggy, shaggy, propulsive, preposterous, hyperactive tome: puppy.
Angelmaker bounds around, making an awful lot of endearing mess (and some of the significantly frustrating kind, as well); it can be cute and life-affirming, make you laugh and crinkle your nose. It fills its space with energy. But it is also, like a puppy, ungainly and uncertain, entertaining but rather without purpose. Unlike a puppy, it may also think it has things to say about history – its most memorable creation, an old lady and ex-spy with a history more storied and interesting than the novel she finds herself in, bemoans the elite’s grip on the progress, or lack thereof of what we inexactly describe as ‘civilisation’. The novel also hand-waves itself themes of civil liberties – a principal supporting character is an urbane lawyer fighting a Kafkaesque state – and Big Data – its McGuffin is an ‘Apprehension Engine’ which threatens, in imparting all knowledge to all people, to do away with free will and agency. But Martin has already written the review of all this that I would have liked to write in his stead:
Compared to a serious novel about the uncanny power of mathematics and the battle for history such as Dead Water by Simon Ings or even a hidden London novel about the weirdness between the cracks such as Kraken by China Miéville (both 2010), Angelmaker seems cartoonish. It isn’t steampunk—it isn’t even clockpunk—but it has some of the unfortunate exaggeration and exuberance that characterizes that benighted subgenre. Everything is larger than life; the showdown takes place in a castle in London with a moat full of piranhas.
Angelmaker is a fascinating failure, a novel that seduces with detail and incident, but whose profusion of novelty is employed like so much hot air: blow, blow, blow and surely the thing will take off. But it doesn’t, and sections drag. There are memorable scenes – the protagonist, Joe Spork, the reluctant son of a famed East End gangster, is tortured by an order of corrupted ‘Ruskinite’ monks, whilst that formidable old dear Edie Bannister does battle with the supervillain Shem Shem Tsien in the ravaged world of Second World War Europe. But Angelmaker doesn’t add up its parts to form a final sum so much as it seems to subtract them from whatever unity it might have had. In part, this is Harkaway’s intent: the novel characterises the proper creed of those Ruskinites as to be “against standardisation” [pg. 132]. But this is only a valid choice if something is done with the noise that ensues. What is the virtue of Harkaway’s chosen method? It’s hard, as the plot sinks beneath its own backstory, and its generic elements are thrown together in heatless collision, to say.
The supervillain and the superspy, the gangster and the glamorous assistant all jostle for position here, sometimes literally rubbing up against each other in a post-modern collapse of generic convention: one moment Angelmaker is a spy thriller, the next a Golden Age mystery, the next a Silver Age super-hero romance. Its science fiction is magical, its magic literary-critical. For every page in the company of the preternaturally self-possessed, cross-dressing killing machine Edie Bannister, we’ll have another with the simperingly competent love interest, Polly Cradle; for every witty rewriting of a given convention, we’ll have a fanboyish transplantation of another. The Kitschies Red Tentacle is given to a progressive novel, and Angelmaker can be that; its gadflyish lack of discipline, however, can make it just the opposite on the turn of a dime.
“Love causes people to do stupid things,” Edie sighs at one point. “That does not, she realises now, make them the wrong things.” [pg. 331] Angelmaker posits that to be imperfect is to have vitality, and there’s some superficial sense in that argument. Harkaway explicitly rejects the regularity and reliability of the clockwork from which Joe makes his living. At the same time, however, the novel practices a shrewd kind of self-awareness which it imagines might allow it forgiveness for the worst excesses of such a commitment to the shapeless: “I get lost among the quanta,” apologies one character, as their monologue goes off-track (no one in Angelmaker is focused in their recollections). “Leave ‘em out,” responds his friend, and Harkaway winks big at us, inviting us to join his gang [pg. 188]. He suggests in this privileging of the frivolous and irrelevant to be against the concept of the ‘necessary’ – “a magic word to excuse a multitude of sins, and all it really means is ‘easier this way than the other’” [pg. 51] – and yet, in as bizarre a twist as any in the novel, the resolution to the attenuated plot is absurdly pat and rapid. Harkaway extends his refusal of expectation to the very structure of the novel as a form, packing into the final twentieth of his book all the incident that may have made another writer’s name, and yet still feeling the pressure to give us something as hackneyed as a proper resolution.
All of which might make Harkaway a bold and interesting writer – but, in the case of Angelmaker at least, not necessarily a successful novelist. I began this run of Clarke reviews with a reference back to last July, when I reviewed Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion for Strange Horizons. MacLeod’s is a novel I’ve characterised as having both humanity and unity of innovative vision. In this sense, it is superior to Angelmaker and also to each of its other competitors on this year’s shortlist. Short of an impasse through which Dark Eden may yet slip, I think it should be Intrusion‘s year.
The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.
The words of Alexander Herzen were one of the ways in which I characterised last year’s Clarke Award shortlist: a selection of books aware of our contemporary malaise, but unsure what to put in its place, or indeed how to do so. Likewise, I’ve wondered if one of this year’s shortlisted works, 2312, isn’t also indicative of this collective slouching towards Bethlehem, this perpetual deferral of the next coming. In the midst of Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, however, I found myself asking whether, surely, some revelation might not be at hand.
Dark Eden is the story of just over 500 humans marooned on an alien planet following the disastrous first flight of an interstellar craft from Earth. It begins with all of them living in the same small area, ear-marked generations before by the couple left behind when a trio of their ill-fated party made an effort to return home for help. A quasi-religion has developed around these figures and this plot of land, a certainty that one day Earth will come for their descendants – and, unless the children of Earth are in the designated place at the right time, they will never ascend to the promised Terran paradise. The difficulties, of course, abound: all descended from the original human pairing, Tom and Angela, the inhabitants of the planet, split into small clans or work-groups but all expressing fealty to the unitary Family, are developing congenital disability and impaired intellectual function; food and forage is in short supply given that the land has now been farmed intensively for three generations and more; and the ‘newhairs’, the adolescent heirs to a richly-depicted, but thoroughly diminished, culture and language, are beginning to understand that there might be more to life than the endless recapitulation of the same old fairy stories. (“He wasn’t trying anything new, and he never had done,” sneers one about an elder [pg. 55].)
Beckett does a wonderful job of capturing this barren society whilst endowing the individuals who inhabit it with real charisma and charm. Told from a number of points of view, but most especially from the perspective of leading teen John Redlantern, the novel is explicitly YA in tone and often tenor, though leavened with regular incest and murder; the language Beckett thus gives himself – defined by age range but also by a culture in which Family is not just a group but also a place and a way of thinking – is part of his achievement in this regard: a creative, believable, consistent and yet flexible patois capable of expressing both what the novel’s characters perceive, but also what they fail to notice. Through this gap, of course, slips new culture – and yet Family exists to police standards and enforce stasis. “You should say years,” scolds one of the elders early on. “You should say fifteen years, not twenty wombtimes.” [pg. 27] Later, this thought is reiterated: “You should count properly in years as befits all true children of the planet Earth.” [pg. 36] Innovation, an accommodation to new circumstances, is not welcome in Family; this resistance to change powers the conflict which emerges.
This is not to say, however, that Dark Eden understands all received wisdom to be without utility. In the matriarchal Family, secret knowledge is passed down to select females: “Watch out for men who want to turn everything into a story that’s all about them.” When one such woman, the newhair Caroline Brooklyn, observe’s John’s frustration with the ways of Family, she thinks, “John Redlantern was trouble in just that way. He might think he was worried about us not having enough food, or about Exit Falls getting blocked up, or whatever, but that wasn’t really what his shouting [...] was all about. What it was really about was him being the hero of the story, and no one else.” [pg. 139] In this way, Dark Eden brings into question both the YA conceit of the single teen who might change everything, but also the Great Men theory of history, so common in fiction, which holds that (male) individuals have the power to change the fate of us all. Most potently, it asks questions of the Whiggish assumption that change – that progress – is necessary and positive. In a science fiction novel set on a planet of demonstrably mean resources, and in a period during which many writers in the genre are attempting to express alternative ways of being, this is a little bold.
Rahul Kanakia and others, however, have wondered if much of this ambivalence isn’t window-dressing. I’m not so sure. Tina Spiketree – one of John’s closest followers, and, in her communalism and compassion, the closest thing the novel has to an alternative model of heroism – observes, “that’s what gave [John] the power he had. He thought he could bring things into being just be believing in them, and he was so sure of it that it sometimes turned out to be true.” [pg. 200] To some extent, Dark Eden undoubtedly whips up a gateuax and scoffs it whole, allowing John to transform completely his society and yet hemming and hawing about the likely consequences of that success (“it had been the women in Eden that ran things and decided how things would be, but now a time was coming when it would be the men” [pg. 158]); on the other hand, Tina’s observation suggests the complicity of the society around John. When another dominant male takes control of the main group from which John’s followers split, one of its members wonders, “how did he get all that power? Why did we let him take it?” [pg. 345]
In this way, Beckett has written not so much a hand-wringing deconstruction of the YA hero (although he has), as a parable about cultures which accept change is necessary, and from which then emerge a figure-head both to enact that change and to take on its sins. John is acutely aware of the judgement of posterity: when another of his disciplines, the gamma male Jeff, rescues a party John has brought into danger, he frets that, “when we all came down into Tall Tree Valley, it wasn’t me that was leading everyone, it was Jeff [...] and that was how they story would be told in future.” [pg. 297] In part, this is the egotism of the ubermensch, but it is also a recognition that the actions of one man are and become a cultural product. Just as there are men in Dark Eden who offer alternative models to John’s dominance, the women of Beckett’s story are too strong to be mere victims. (Tina in particular, who retorts, when John announces the polyamorous policies of Family will not hold in his new society, that “there were so many different things wrong with that single statement that it was hard to know where to start!” pog. 196].) These figures help craft John’s new world, even as they agree to storify him as its originator.
Dark Eden doesn’t end so much end as peter out – it seems clear that Beckett plans a sequel – and it doesn’t have a plot so much as it does a trajectory. In its not entirely committed treatment of theme, it’s possible to read from its timidity a sort of sympathy for Chairman Mao. It might also remind one overmuch of the themes and execution of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, books so recent as to ask questions of Dark Eden‘s necessity. Likewise it is ultimately a fairly conventional bildungsroman in which the main male character is easily the best developed. For all its conventionality in these regards, however, Dark Eden still feels like a novel which is not just asking a question many other writers are posing, but one which is serious about investigating one kind of answer. For this, I rather think it deserves its place on the shortlist – and a position as its dark horse.
Through what is surely some sort of editorial error, my piece on Sheri S Tepper’s The Waters Rising has been included in Justin Landon and Jared Shurin’s excellent new venture, Speculative Fiction 2012. Jared and Justin had the extremely good idea of collecting some of the best online writing about SF&F in 2012 into a single volume, and what a contents list they’ve produced: Maureen Kincaid Speller, Abigail Nussbaum, Aishwarya Subramanian, Kameron Hurley, Liz Bourke and Elizabeth Bear are all present and correct, and it’s an honour to be in such esteemed company.
Published today, this is a really exciting project – it’s about time something like it came along – and it’s set to become an annual event. Next year, Ana Grilo and Thea James will be editing, and they’re already accepting suggestions for pieces to include in Speculative Fiction 2013. Let them know via this form – and buy the 2012 volume here. It’s full of good stuff. And a review of The Waters Rising.
I’m used to picking silent fights with Eric Brown. In his science fiction round-up for the Guardian of March 8th, Brown declared Adrian Barnes’s debut novel, Nod, now shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, “outstanding”. If his were the only positive judgement to which I find myself opposed, I wouldn’t be surprised. But here’s the always-sensible David Hebblethwaite on the same work: “a novel that feels endlessly uncomfortable in its own skin”, he says; according to perennial white-hat Jared Shurin at Pornokitsch, “Nod is a corker”; in an exchange on Twitter, meanwhile, Farah Mendlesohn (with whom I admittedly share more regular disagreements) praised the book’s “relentlessness”.
Undoubtedly, all of this praise has come couched in the caveats routine for criticism of a debut novel: “relentlessness” is a word which cuts both ways, of which I’m sure Farah is aware; Jared points out that Nod can be meandering and pretentious; and David highlights the novel’s treatment of gender as problematic. Now then. What might it be that leads them to place the balance in the positive where I tip it in the opposite direction? Nod felt naive to me, a book rather in love with its own cleverness without the technique or panache to follow through on it. Certainly it is admirably fearless – a novel so unremittingly committed to ugliness has to be – and in this sense it has a real unity of theme, character and diction. But, and perhaps my tolerance for this is not what it should be, Nod is also monomaniacal and solipsistic.
This, admittedly, may be part of the point. Nod begins where many stories end – with a sleep. The twist is that, as the protagonist, a misanthropic writer named Paul, and his partner, an unsympathetic woman named Tanya, lay down their heads to slumber one night, only he can drop off. They soon discover that it is Paul, not Tanya, who is unusual: almost everyone on Earth can now no longer sleep. The reason for this acute insomnia is never explained, and the novel rather cocks a snook at books which might pretend to rigour in this regard, spending a few pages waving its hands vigorously and to deliberately slight effect. Insomia, it turns out, is entirely the wrong model for what develops: even insomniacs doze, despite their experience otherwise; in Nod – simultaneously the name of a book about lost words Paul is writing, the location to which all sleeping children are transported, the land of Cain, and the streets of Barnes’s Vancouver once sleeplessness takes hold – no rest is possible. The absence of sleep is total.
Six days without sleep ends in psychosis; more than thirty, according to Barnes, is impossible – the body cannot subsist for long without rest. This, as David has noted in his review, gives Barnes’s particular apocalypse an explicitly temporary aspect. It also lends it a plausibly nasty one: when everyone is mad for lack of sleep, even the usual tropes of Armageddon - the attempt to save civilisation, small groups banding together for mutual protection, a wistfulness for what once was – are absent. Instead, a crank Paul and Tanya routinely dismissed at their local diner becomes a demagogic leader in the new, mad, society, and even the strongest bonds of love and society are quickly broken.
This is where, for me, Nod falls down. Its first person narrator, Paul, has never been burdened with what we might call the tenderer feelings. He considers himself much too clever to have bought into our comfortable consensus: “At times everyone wonders how deeply buried contempt is beneath the surface of their friends’ and lovers’ smiles,” he opines early on. “Most of us suspect – accurately, I believe – that it lies in a shallow grave, gasping for breath beneath a damp mulch of manners and restraint.” [pg. 31] The clogged, gagging voice is typical of Paul’s style, but so, too, is the nihilism. His narrative is depicted as a diary of events, written as they proceed, and so we can see that he is not transformed by the degradations of Nod – he begins fully converted to the concept that society is a sham. When the novel attempts to interest us in its destruction, then, it fails.
For Paul, contemporary society is “television’s caffeinated universe” [pg. 13], all false sentiment and instant gratification. Barely three days into the crisis, he is already capable of thus describing his long-term partner, desperate for the sex she thinks might send her to sleep: “a beige fleck of shit in the crinkles of her asshole, a rawness to the lips of her vagina” [pg. 32]. When, late in the novel, he cuts “her throat with an orange box cutter I found in a cupboard then [...] marked her as mine” [pg. 158], we’re not shocked, sickened or saddened, simply surprised it took so long. (In case you were wondering, Tanya – who a few pages earlier takes the “flaccid penis” of her domesday cult’s leader into her mouth whilst Paul looks away in disgust, is the site of the gender “problems” David identifies.)
For Paul, society is much like language: beneath its agreed surface of approved vocabulary and shared grammar is a stinking cesspit of forgotten and disused words and terms. He uses some of these as his chapter headings, and though one might wonder why “Abraham’s bosom” (“the repose of the happy in death”) or “Waking a Witch” (“an iron bridle or hoop was bound across her face with four prongs thrust into her mouth [...] in such a way as the ‘witch’ was unable to lie down”) are all that interesting or powerful, they add a superficial grit to proceedings, a bit like pebbledash. Still, the theory that forgotten words parallel forgotten people – “Nod was always out there, always peeking around a corner and watching us. In poverty, In the misfiring DNA of cancer cells” [pg. 107] – is under-developed and in execution rather weak. “There’s more power in words than people think,” Paul intones near the end of his narrative. “How does the Bible begin? In the beginning was the Word.” [pg. 198] This veers towards the banal rather than the revelatory.
There is an unspoken critical rule that you don’t lay in too heavily on debuts, and undoubtedly there are fumbles here of that sort: Paul literally counting the dead as they fall in a battle he describes as chaotic (“1000, 999, 998, 997 …” [pg. 188]), or the questionable, however poetic, assertion that “when the old get exhausted, you can begin to see through the surface of their translucent skin, right down to the liquid workings below” [pg. 183]. If we draw a veil over these, however, then the heart of this novel still beats in irregular rhythm. The children who can still sleep, more numerous than their increasingly persecuted adult counterparts, drift through the novel as the future of human civilisation, but, perhaps because Barnes is most interested in the passing nature of his apocalypse, they are thinly drawn (“probably just some sort of next step in evolution,” Paul reasons helpfully [pg. 193]). Caught in this confused moment, the intellectual element of the book is too often reduced to sophomoric debates between apparently under-informed pub sceptics: “I always wondered about Jesus, you know,” says one such interlocutor. “Know what I think? [...] Maybe there were no miracles. Maybe Jesus was a faker.” Paul responds with what counts as a rhetorical flourish in a sleep-addled world and an under-cooked novel: “Why a faker? Maybe there’s another explanation. What if he never pretended to be the Son of God?” [pg. 147] Socratic dialogue Nod ain’t.
All that being said, Nod is, when compared to the predictability of The Dog Stars, a satisfyingly disruptive novel, and too few of these are given the – ahaha – nod. The Clarke seems to have rewarded Barnes both for his vim and voice: where I have referred to the narration in this review, I’ve written of Paul, because Barnes has crafted so convincing a style that it would be unfair to pretend the novel isn’t wholly conveyed in fully-realised character. Even its wearisome lack of jokes is part of this emotional unity – “Humour had been the first casuality in Nod”, after all [pg. 171]. Not only that, but there is a method to the madness of its baggy and unresolved structure: in the first few pages Paul reads a news story that “just stopped dead, as news stories do, when the action tank ran dry” [pg. 5]. Nod, too, ends in this way, a frontline report from an incomplete and incoherent ragnarok. As complete as Paul is, however, and as smartly captured its partiality, Barnes’s novel feels too excited by its slight transgressions to put real thought in how to lend them any real power or heft. Nod is filled to bursting point with sound and fury, but, if I were to bring my own balance to this asymmetrical novel, I might argue that its words are far from signifying all that Paul thinks they do.
I’ve already reviewed two of the six shortlisted contenders for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. Of those, Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion seems to me more perfectly formed than Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, if perhaps as a function of a decidedly narrower imaginative palette. That latter book has a lot to recommend it – breadth of vision, unabashed ambition, memorable images – but may be defeated by the impossibility of its self-appointed task: as Vandana Singh has written, the novel trips over its own assumptions as it pushes its frame of reference ever outwards; Intrusion may be slighter, but it also plays more consistently to its own considerable strengths.
Caught almost dead-centre in this dog fight is Peter Heller’s appropriately titled The Dog Stars. The story of Colorado man Hig, it is set in the near future, following an apparently multi-causal apocalypse: there are references to both disease and climate change, and there also seems to be an ongoing confrontation with ‘Arabs’ in the background of this world. Nina Allan’s review of the book at Strange Horizons is very much in line with my own opinion of it, and when she writes of Heller’s “thoughtless inconsistency”, this seems just right. There is little in the worldbuilding of The Dog Stars that stands up to any sustained scrutiny. Indeed, at times the set-up at the heart of the novel – Hig lives with his dog and his light aircraft in a disused country airport, protected in part by his own native cunning and in part by the survivalist expertise of his gun-toting neighbour, Bangley – rather resembles the mise en scene of Sam Taylor’s rickety The Island at the End of the World. In both novels, and in Taylor’s explicitly, the backstory feels something like an excuse.
This lends The Dog Stars the air of the ‘cosy catastrophe‘ which MacLeod’s novel does so much to complicate. Hig’s lifestyle is best characterised by Bangley: “we keep it simple, we survive,” he insists [pg. 21], and yet there is none of the associated enervation present in the superficially similar – and also Clarke-nominated – Far North. In that novel, an apparently multi-causal apocalypse has led to the collapse of civilisation, and those who survive it gather around them the still-functioning relics of the old world, in an attempt to persevere in the long shadow of complexity. Far North painted a vivid and haunting picture of a survival so constituted, but The Dog Stars, which at one point name-checks John Wyndham, resembles far more closely the famed retreat, in The Death of Grass, to the convenient farm in the Lake District. Hig hunts with abandon, even though at first we’re led to believe there has a been a Road-like hollowing out of the planet’s biodiversity; towards the end of the novel, when all is, in the words of the dust jacket’s blurb, “life-affirming”, “The buffalo are moving down to their old range.” [pg. 286] Give me a home indeed.
It should perhaps not come as a surprise that in this brave new world there is little room for women. There are two in Hig’s narrative: Melissa, blissfully remembered in sepia-toned flashbacks to the world before the fall (and smothered at her own request with a hospital pillow when the plague strikes her); and Cima, the daughter of another doughty survivalist (there aren’t many character times to go around in The Dog Stars), who exists primarily to be caring – she was once a doctor – and sexed – she has a “sweet ass” (although, when she asks Hig for oral sex, he complies only because “duty calls” [pg. 263]). This is a narrow story – indeed, one of its most interesting aspects is the manner in which much of the apocalypse has happened and continues to happen off-screen (the novel ends with planes other than Hig’s, and ones of unknown origin, patrolling the skies once more). But a function of Hig’s partial perspective is this failure of imaginative empathy.
On the other hand, Hig’s voice is the novel’s great strength. Heller masters a sparse, economical prose which speaks both to the protagonist’s character and his context. If the consistency of the style contributes both to the novel’s narrowness and to the reader’s suspicion that the otherwise inconsistent world has been conjured merely as a means of bringing into life Hig’s particular kind of male fantasy, it is nevertheless true that its clipped, pragmatic, insistent qualities lend a great deal of force to what is otherwise a schematic tale: man has dog, man loses dog, man goes on journey, man returns the better for it. What’s curious about the spareness of Hig’s voice is that, before the fall, he was a published – albeit obscure – poet. The collapse of society, however, seems to have led Hig, even in describing loss and grief, to a kind of apostasy: “Getting all poetic on its ass, when what it is is I miss you. I really fucking miss you.” [pg. 112] Hig’s voice makes The Dog Stars eminently readable, but also forces it to retreat from any real engagement with depth. Hig passes through his apocalypse, makes do and mends.
Indeed, the final scene of the novel features Bangley and Cima’s father – best of friends, of course – playing chess with each other in the idyllic proto-village to which Hig has returned, “in some apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell” [pg. 309]. Perhaps Heller imagines he can thus head his critics off at the pass, but simply being aware of your weaknesses does not help rectify them. Neither as ambitious as 2312, nor as robust or ambivalent as Intrusion, The Dog Stars emerges as rather empty: deceptively well-written, smooth and superficially satisfying, but ultimately lacking somewhat in courage, conviction – and complexity.
In a recent interview with the New Statesman, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France’s Front de Gauche, argued that, “There is only one ecosystem compatible with human life. In that, we are all equals.” This intersection of radical politics, environmental concern and human community is the centre of gravity around which Kim Stanley Robinson’s memorable new novel, 2312, revolves.
I use that word ‘memorable’ advisedly. It’s not quite true that 2312,which is set in the year of the title in a solar system fully inhabited but not entirely formalised, is remarkable, or excellent, or fabulous. In many ways, it’s not a novel at all – or, if it is, it’s a disastrous one. There are many sentences, for instance, which make explicit the obvious: “Her combination of Chinese ancestry and Indian name,” we read of one character we meet on Venus, “resembled that of some others he had met; he had been given to understand it marked Venusians who wanted some separation from the old country, with the name being a way of saying they were more Venusian than Chinese.” [pg. 280] Robinson seems unable to believe we may work this out for ourselves, and it’s perhaps this insistence upon reiteration which leads to the novel’s curiously circular plot – time and again, we return to Earth and learn the same things about its surviving late capitalism, or its irreversibly altered climate; the two protagonists, the former designer of asteroid habitants named Swan, and the emissary from Saturn’s moons named Wahram, revolve endlessly around a question first asked in the novel’s opening pages, and, in an at times divertingly transgendered romance, around each other.
In part, this attenuated plot is forced into its flattened shape by the necessary bloat of pages – 2312 is primarily a portrait of a potential future, a form conspicuous by its absence in much modern science fiction, and it finds its finest moments in the gaps between plot tokens. There are descriptions of the environments engineered within hollowed-out asteroids, or dissections of the mechanics of a city which endlessly traverses the surface of Mercury, forever out-running its too-hot sun; there are glimpses of a new kind of politics based on mutualism and shared interest, and of how our planet might first be affected, and then react to, the runaway climate change which now seems our fate. In this 2312 might be Robinson’s most exciting, most relevant, most visionary book. Here he is on the fate of Earth, our own “planet of sadness”:
[...] the new sea level could not be substantially altered. And it was much the same with many of their other problems. The many delicate physical, biological, and legal situations were so tightly knitted together that none of the cosmic engineering they were doing elsewhere in the solar system could be fitted to the needs of the place. [...] Human time here was simply wrenched; the centre had not held; things fell apart and recombined to create feelings that did not cohere inside one. Ideas of order became hopelessly bogged down in ancient stories, webs of law, faces on the street.” [pp. 304-6]
In other words, the Earth of 2312 is our own: in dire need of a new means of doing things, but powerless to devise them. It is a planet too entwined in its own past, in the centuries of accretion which have calcified its structures, to rise again. This vision would make 2312 a bleak novel were it not for the wider solar system: as in Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass, also published this year, humans have escaped old earth for the stars; unlike the sumpolloi of that novel, Robinson’s non-Terran humans have broken free of the old systems. “No generally agreed-upon system of governance in space was ever established,” we learn in one of the many ‘extracts’ from fictional textbooks which pepper this narrative (the author acknowledges John Dos Passos’s influence in his notes, making the novel oddly old-fashioned in form for one so interested in futurology); this means that, on Mars and elsewhere, non-aligned worlds give rise to political movements and thought which expresses an ideal almost inexpressible even in our own sluggish culture. “There’s no solution but justice for everyone,” Swan realises. “It’s the only thing that will make us safe.” [pg. 356]
It’s not just Adam Roberts whose work this optimism sets 2312 against. M John Harrison, too, has in this year’s Empty Space more or less thrown up his dextrous hands when it comes to imagining a possible medium-term future for humankind. As I wrote in my review of the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award, much current science fiction seems to be slouching towards Bethlehem – aware that something must soon be born, but not sure what or how. The xenophobia of some of the stories in Rocket Science, a recent fiction collection expressly devised to face up to the realities of current human expansion into the solar system, also emphasises how stuck we are in our own mud. It is exhilarating to read a piece of science fiction which dares not just to engage with our moment – as Harrison and Roberts both do to considerably more polished, affecting and successful literary effect – but also to imagine the space beyond. 2312 offers a thoroughly convincing world, a quite astounding breadth of science fictional vision; from its considerations of terraforming to its understanding of how human genders might shift and change, it is a heterodox and wise work. Robinson deserves unceasing praise for this valuable feat of imagination.
Alas, 2312 is, novelistically, a fairly naive piece of writing. Where in Galileo’s Dream Robinson seemed to approach fusing sensawunda with something approaching ‘traditional’ characterisation, in 2312 he seems entirely to abandon structure and psychology. Plots repeatedly loop back on themselves, spooling like tape run free of the spindle – “Interesting,” muses a police inspector, “I’ll have to think about that”, before taking hundreds of pages to do just that [pg. 228]. Swan, who has grown up in the solar system, has to ask why their might be a minimum detection limit for micro-asteroid sensors – “Usually to keep warnings from going off all the time,” replies her interlocutor, for the benefit not of the person Swan might really be, we suspect, but for 21st-century readers rather slower on the uptake [pg. 220]. Digressions – a trip, for instance, to a chamber music recital – feel slack, whilst adding little to our understanding of the characters. Wahram, for example, loves music, but he never comes clearer into focus as a result, remaining like all the other characters a blank-ish chess piece positioned on a beautiful board. “We live an hour and it is always the same,” he intones at one point [pg. 162], but one would hope this wasn’t meant as an epigram for what becomes a disappointingly recursive novel.
The mystery of the novel – that Swan’s grandmother had set in motion, and for a time before her death led, a secretive movement aiming to reshape the solar system – is established in the opening pages, and takes a clear shape rather quickly. Nevertheless, Robinson spools it ever outwards, into a diffuse conspiracy of the quantum computers many 24th-century humans keep on their person, and towards a repopulation of Earth with species it has long since lost in a series of ecological catastrophes. Increasingly, events are narrated explicitly from a point further on in the timeline than 2312, and cast as a kind of prelude to a new golden age – humans “were stunted by life [... on] their own harsh planet” we are told, implying that the expansive future offers something fuller [pg. 413] – and this optimism becomes the only means of dragging the story, as distinct from the setting, forwards. The reader wants less to know what happens to the characters than what happens to us.
Perhaps this is the point. A theme of 2312 is that the essential nature of humans will stay forever the same: “People hunger for time both ways. Certain things we want to come faster: the terraforming of a new world we have come to love, the arrival of universal justice in human affairs, a good project. Other things we want to go slower: our own lives, the lives of those we love.” [pg. 535] If 2312 aims to teach us perspective, it does so; if it also aims to encourage our patience, it tries more than it succeeds. It is full of bravura imagination, particularly in its first half; as a novel, however, it circles and shimmies over-much, a picture rather less pretty than its frame (or, depending on your emphasis, vice versa). It’s a book worth reading – but, for writers looking to more seamlessly fictionalise their futurology, perhaps an encouragement more than an exemplar.
Strange Horizons has my review of Anthony Huso’s Black Bottle. It is not kind:
All this leaves the story mired in accident, and it becomes difficult to draw out salience from the glutted page. The withered attempts to enliven what are at times indecipherable proceedings, to jump on a bandwagon which has itself long since become part of the generic landscape, fail to do for Huso’s story what Sena does for Caliph Howl—revive it. The early matching of Pandragor with the USA—it suffered a Civil War in ’61 and perceives itself to be “the freest country north or south of the Tehesh Plateau” (p. 38)—come to very little, perhaps because by its very nature the novel itself isn’t capable of very much. Either way, however, Black Bottles‘s focus turns rapidly inwards—to sexing-up magic or telling Westerosian tales of aristocratic derring-do. We have seen this done before and better, and reading Huso is to be left wondering what the point was.
I once had a reputation for being a shark of a reviewer – though Nina Allan recently, and generously, placed me in the same tent as Paul Kincaid, John Clute, Matthew Cheney and Messrs McCalmont, Harrison and Lewis, so I’m not sure whether this is still the case – and it’s possible, what with reviews like this one, that some might imagine I enjoy writing hatchet jobs. Certainly there’s a satisfaction to turning a decent argument, but ultimately there’s very little joy in reading a book you don’t like and then having to ‘fess up about it. Black Bottle has a lovely cover and some decent blurb – I cracked the spine expecting, and wanting, to like it. That wasn’t to be.
Richard Cooper blogged recently on “the tricky but interesting position of trying to bring the language of criticism – heartfelt, individualistic, provocative, unashamed – into the world of fandom”. There’s a professionalism – and a respect – about finishing a book you don’t enjoy and then being honest enough to say why. Cooper deals at length with the resistance in Doctor Who fandom to this kind of approach to discussing a writer’s work, but what he says is true for much of SF&F fandom – in fact Paul Kincaid, he not just of Allan’s admiration but of the exhaustion meme I mention in the Huso review, tweeted that, “I’ve been on the receiving end of this [hostility to criticism] way too often”. Kincaid is a grand old man of SF&F reviewing – if his criticism is considered too harsh, my negativity must at times seem positively malicious.
In fact, it isn’t. Some of my favourite works of fiction are SF&F – but the genre disappoints more than it enlightens, and a comparison with work from outside of the ghetto walls – I agree with Martin Lewis that “I get a sensawunda from literary fiction more frequently than SF” – does not help books like Huso’s. All of this is by way of thinking the obvious out loud, though since my policy on negative reviews has never been to sin the sin of the soft-pedal it’s worth writing it down. Most importantly, you should contribute to Strange Horizons’s fund drive – because the magazine consistently supports honest, robust and useful criticism of precisely the kind many SF&F sites avoid like the plague.
My review of Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees is up at Strange Horizons today, and here’s a flavour:
In Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep (2010), however, Seo-Young Chu has attempted a theory of representation in science fiction by focusing on “referents which are virtually unknowable and that all but defy language and comprehension” (p. 245). This is something of a get-out-of-jail-free card for the metaphor in science fiction, issued on the basis that what is being allegorized is unrepresentable in any other way; on the other hand, this might be a good description of what is going on in Kij Johnson’s remarkable new collection of short stories, At the Mouth of the River of Bees.
Chu’s governing concern is estrangement: science fiction metaphors, he argues, are uniquely placed to tackle our contemporary impossibilities, the way in which financial derivatives, for instance, are so much less grokkable than pennies. In Johnson’s short stories, the ineffable is likewise repeatedly evoked without ever quite being literally present—that is, the stuff of estrangement is referred to rather than described.
I quote at length to give some context to a response I should probably make to a few reviews of the book published since I finished mine. In particular, Erin Horáková in the LARB is significantly less impressed by the collection than I, for reasons I might ordinarily expect to share. “I didn’t like this collection as well as I feel I should have,” she says. “These stories resist reductive, simplistic themes, but they also seem to resist all forms of pin-downable purpose. It’s difficult to guess what about a particular story made Johnson feel she needed to write it. The stories are well-written at the line and scene level, but you can’t sink your teeth into them, can’t love and hate and discuss them.” To my surprise, however, I find myself arguing that this quality of absence is one of the things to admire about the collection.
At Far Beyond Reality, Stefan Reits writes of Bees that, “Regardless of length, many of these stories employ an economy of wording that, at times, seems to be at odds with their content”, and I think that gets at what I also found in Johnson’s stories: a certain withholding, a distancing of the stories’ fantastica which might at first appear, as in the great empty space at the heart of ’26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’, to render the stories hollow. In fact, I’m with Sessily Watt at Bookslut: “This is Johnson’s fiction: the familiar combined with the inexplicable.” What Johnson does is enact, rather than depict, estrangement.
On the other hand, Horáková is right to worry at the sexual politics of the collection: even as my own review lengthened beyond reasonable limits, I was conscious of referring to this key question only glancingly (the ‘Other’ I focus upon in the review is the rather rarer one of the animal), and I agree with her that the absence of queer voices is striking in a collection essentially about heterodoxy. On the other hand, and as I conclude in the review, “Characters in this wildly inventive, laudably diverse collection—their lives and worlds—don’t stand for something else”; Horáková asks what is new about Johnson’s stories, arguing that “straight couples: how do they work?” is a dull old refrain, and in response I might provisionally suggest that it is refreshing, particularly in a work of genre, to see characters allowed to be themselves, rather than definitive figurations. Johnson may be a patchy writer who needs to expand the types of story and character she tells successfully (laudable diversity in content doesn’t always equate, of course, to laudable consistency), but she is attempting something a little smarter than going through the motions.
The reader will indulge me if I begin this post with the confession that, over the last few years, I had begun to think of Adam Roberts as the Jean-Luc Picard to Christopher Priest’s Captain Kirk: not only has the older man oddly more hair than the younger; in missing out on prizes, in seeing genre less as a mode of literature and more as a kit to retool, and increasingly in the kind of cold affect his novels have demonstrated, Roberts seemed to be evolving into a kind of reiteration of the Chris Priest story. (We await the movie of Swiftly with baited breath.) Imagine my discombobulation, then, when Priest wrote in a review of Roberts’s latest novel, Jack Glass, that Royal Holloway’s Professor of 19th Century Literature “is in general rather odd”.
This is a bit rich in a review which compares the novel’s Iago, who acts as tutor to a scion of one of the few families in an intermediate future who administer the Sol system on behalf of the shadowy Ullanovs, with the comedy mechanoid from Red Dwarf, Kryten. Jack Glass, like all of Roberts’s novels, may be intensely ironised – but Iago resembles in far greater detail Dune‘s Thufir Hawat, the similarly subservient and selfless tutor of Paul Atreides, the likewise obliviously privileged scion etc. etc. This sort of recursiveness is par for the course with Roberts, and when Iago’s true identity is revealed – Jack Glass, the notorious criminal of the title, “the father of lawlessness” [pg. 171], is naturally also a master of disguise – he comes also to resemble Alan Moore’s V, another impossibly mythic agent of revolution and instability, who also takes a blinkered and uncertain young girl under his caped wing etc. etc.
Jack Glass is in this way and many others intensely aware of itself as fiction – not so very different from Priest’s modus operandi, most recently of course in The Islanders – and the reader of this review should rest assured that any spoilers in this review are echoed early on in the novel’s own prologue: “One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. [...] In each case the murderer is the same individual – of course, Jack Glass himself.” [pp. 1-2] In his afterword, Roberts confides that his project was to fuse the Golden Age mystery story with the Golden Age sf saga (finding a screwdriver in the toolkit and seeing how it works as a hammer), and yet his task is made doubly hard by his own decision to rob the reader of the principle pleasure of detective fiction: the anonymity of the criminal. Where a crime novel concerns itself with the who, however, SF might be said to be more interested by the how.
“There are problems that are trivial, and problems that are profoud,” insists Eva Argent, the “MOHsister” of Iago’s charge, Diana, in the second of Jack Glass‘s three parts [pg. 117]. The duelling genres at the centre of the novel, and the world Roberts dresses as the stage for his mysteries, allow Jack Glass to ask at some length how we come to identify which problems are which. Eva and Diana, genetically engineered using Modulated Ova Haptoid technology, are at the top of a viciously stratified society, in which billions of impoverished humans live in barely-habitable bubbles of plastic floating in rough orbit around the sun; the ‘sumpolloi’, as they are known, are subject to the Lex Ullanova, the law codes imposed upon the solar system by the clan which emerged victorious from a period of sustained war. Earth is now the playground of the Ullanovs and the five families who serve them; beneath them are the Gongsi, corporate monopolies which fulfil a variety of functions. There is no state – in the first (and in many ways best) part of the novel, we see prisoners transported by a Gongsi to a barren asteroid, abandoned with the bare essentials of survival, and left with the solitary hope that at the end of eleven years the Gongsi ship will return to collect them and sell the now-habitable asteroid for a profit.
In this future, then, there is a pathological emphasis on the importance of policing and rewarding order and hierarchy: even the convicts understand that “if we keep a lid on our tempers, and keep good order, then we can last the time. [...] But if we give way to anarchy we’ll all be dead in a week. Die like beasts, or survive as men? Is that really a choice?” [pg. 80] The future of Jack Glass is struggling to contain and provision the teeming billions – the sumpolloi live a life of subsistence, and the Lex Ullanova is so all-powerful, so over-powering, that “it even regulates the bounds of illegality” (the Lex assumes 30% of economic activity is illegal, and so taxes lawful producers at 143% of their gross, rather than 100%) [pg. 283] . We see much of Roberts’s last novel of inequality, By Light Alone, in all this – and where that book ended with a revolution, this one is focused on how the elite might maintain order in such straitened circumstances. The answer, of course, is exploitation: Iago characterises the philosophy of this future as “seeing those trillions as a resource, and not as a congregation of humanity.” [pg. 197]
The ethical questions which revolve around this set-up are signified in the generic conventions of crime and science fiction, and personified in Diana and Eva: the former has been bred to understand and analyse human behaviour (her favourite reading is, of course, the country house mystery, and she prizes “the moral knowledge that life is lived individually” [pg. 239]), the latter to analyse data and phenemonology (not yet in her 20s, she has six PhDs and is working on a seventh, on Champagne Supernovae). When a servant is murdered in their Terran mansion – a surprising aberration since all the staff are drugged to assure supine loyalty – Eva dismisses Diana’s enthusiasm for cracking the case: “Even if you limited yourself to the population of the island (though, since the whole Argent group had only just landed, and had not yet interacted with any island natives, the murderer was massively unlikely to be found outside the group – but for the sake of argument), we were talking about 19 out of 102,530, which was the 99.998+th percentile. Eva had never reached such levels of near-certainty in any of her PhDs!” [pg. 124] That is, it doesn’t matter who murdered the servant, because the solution is so statistically insignificant – simply convict all the suspects and you’re still ahead by the numbers.
This is very much the logic behind the system Jack Glass rails against: “It’s a system where raw materials are costly, and energy is costly, and the only thing that isn’t costly is human life.” [pp. 61-62] The Gongsi are simply concerned with “extracting the maximum productivity” out of the prisoners [pg. 28]; the Lex is concerned only with preventing insurrection, rather than improving the lives of the sumpolloi; and, as John Clute has observed in his review of the novel, even Jack Glass is a husbandman, for whom “killing is enclosure” [pg. 248] – he, too, treats human life as subordinate to his own rebel’s goals. With an eye to contemporary predicaments, Roberts makes explicit this complicity: “Of course it is not comfortable to think that human beings, who breathe and feel and hope as we do, are a resource we exploit,” Iago admits in an exchange with Diana. “It is a very terrible thing. But the alternative is: to live a hermit life.” [pg. 242]
This is the same ambivalence which forms part of the appeal of crime fiction – Diana rejects the idea that she has a morbid fascination with death, but Iago challenges her to name a single mystery she enjoyed which did not involve one. In the Jack’s world, everyone is exploiting someone else – and the conceptual breakthrough which might transform the system that makes this inevitable is held at bay not just by the Ullanovs but by Glass himself. The whole solar system is abuzz with rumours of the discovery of a Faster Than Light drive, but the consequences of such a technology put their apparent benefits in the balance. It would have been easy to make Jack Glass a dystopian warning, set in an obviously evil future without cross-current or complication. In the event, it is something more important – and Glass’s supposed guilt, for the murders we both do and don’t see, becomes a more difficult thing, less open to Holmesian deduction or moralising.
An argument of this sophistication, on the other hand, is a difficult thing to weave into a generic labradoodle of a novel, and at times Roberts falls back on dialogue more than he has done in some of his other novels. The writing is never less than engaging, however, and Jack Glass is a page-turner in a way that, for instance, New Model Army (perhaps still his best work) wasn’t: Niall Alexander is right to argue that this narrative momentum is, for a mystery novel in which there is a no mystery (save for the identity of the narrator), a significant achievement. In addition, there are also some lovely images – Diana’s party arriving on Earth, unused to gravity “like newly-born calves” [pg. 104] – and some fine asides at the expense of both genres – “since [the evidence] suggests the murderer is a person of great physical strength, the murderer will actually be a very weak individual,” eureekas Diana [pg. 109]. There are, admittedly, rather too many expository conversations – “My understanding, Miss,” Iago opines before telling the reader something important; “So. Would it make sense … ” responds Diana in an attempt at showing her working [pg. 147] – but this can be seen as a means merely of apeing the hokey characteristics of ‘real’ detective fiction. In the final furlong of the novel, this wry generic aptness might go too far – there are a few unsatisfied groans to be had in the resolution of character arcs and motivations – but it may nevertheless be a failure central to Roberts’s project.
China Miéville has infamously pledged to write a novel in every genre. He has since half-disowned his promise, but Roberts has taken up the baton and is going one better – it is increasingly his aim, it would seem, to write a single novel which encompasses every genre. If this is an odd goal, and if Chris Priest is ‘coming around’ to the idea that oddness may be a factor in Roberts’s favour, some of us saw the light rather earlier. Indeed, the serious purpose of Jack Glass’s puckishness is not so much odd as adventurous – not so much peculiar as potent. Roberts himself may or may not, without a tantrum as entertaining as Priest’s, have given up hope of being named a recipient of the Clarke Award; but there must surely still be a judge out there who will make it so.
Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! [Hamlet, I. V. 148-163]
The mole, that subterranean mammal, is a metaphor embodied: visible only before and after its tunneling, the very matter of its life – the movement from A to B – is invisible, and untellable. Where Shakespeare used the image in part as a cheap joke – one assumes Hamlet’s ghost appeared on stage via a trapdoor – Marx used the mole as the conveyor of revolution through history. As is often the case, Marx brings us to China Miéville, whose latest novel, Railsea, depicts characters hunting moles as Ahab hunted whales – relentlessly, monomaniacally, significantly.
The giant, mutated moles of Railsea are explicitly freighted – like the weird trains that chase them – with meaning: their hunters are said to be hunting their “philosophy”, a conceptual as well as a corporeal being with which they are forever associated in the popular imagination. This embodying shapes the text in a variety of complex and metatextual ways in a manner which might surprise some parts of the intended audience for this, a YA novel: most obviously, the prominent stylistic innovation of using the ampersand throughout is explained by the symbol’s similarity-on-the-page to the way in which a train changes direction. “What word better could there be,” asks the author rhetorically, directly addressing the reader for neither the first or last time, “to symbolise the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself?” [pg. 143]
That railsea is the novel’s most striking invention. The world of Railsea is arid and oceanless – moles burst from the desert like the sandworms of Arrakis – and connecting the scattered ‘islands’ of humanity in this unforgiving landscape are vast, criss-crossing stretches of rail. Far from unidirectional, the trains which travel on the railsea are constantly shifting the rails’ points as they ride, switching and navigating the railsea dependent upon speed, direction and gauge. There is something gee-whiz about this improbable world – Miéville makes little detailed effort to sketch in its history, beyond implying that the railsea exists on the charred remnants of a planet which was once our own – that will surely capture a YA readership. Yet the manner in which Miéville explores his conceit – self-referentially, and with quite astonishing prosody – underscores first and foremost a respect to that readership, an aliveness to the fact that a cool premise is not enough to capture the oft-patronised YA audience, but also suggests a less market-oriented project to write a novel on a number of levels and for a variety of readers.
This is a fitting purpose for a novel which revels in multiplicity. Ostensibly the story of its protagonist, the pleasingly named Sham ap Shoorap, Railsea very rapidly expands to encompass a range of supporting characters and their own, various, stories. This ecumenical spirit drifts through Sham’s narrative, and shapes his experience of it: early on, Sham feels sure that “there was something he fervently wanted to do & to which he was excellent suited” [pg. 17], and yet he is consistently frustated in his attempts to figure out what that may be. Indeed, when Sham’s surrogate parents, whose reunion with their charge takes place suspiciously early on, go so far as to tell him, “You’re a proper grown man now” [pg. 89], and proceed thus to invite him to the pub, we begin to understand that Miéville is rather wryly playing with our expectations of the YA bildungsroman. The echoes of Patrick Ness’s generously subversive Chaos Walking trilogy resonate throughout Railsea – Sham’s parents are both men, whilst the other child protaonists, the mysterious explorers known as the Shroakes, are the offspring of a line marriage, and similarly violence is never shied away from (the novel opens by announcing itself to be “the story of a bloodstained boy” [pg. 1]) – but Miéville goes further than Ness, questioning the very concept that a YA novel must teach its protagonist a lesson. Indeed, it is no less an unreliable source as a pirate who parrots a familiar kind of platitude: “Don’t you think there’s someone out there on the railsea on a salvagetrain, & all the time when they pass moletrains they’re like, ‘They do such more exciting stuff than me.’” [pg. 164] In many other such novels, that would be the moral: here, they’re the poorly expressed weasel words of a thief.
This distrust of the didactic is mirrored in the stories of others: Captain Naphi, the commander of the Medes, the moletrain on which Sham serves as a doctor’s assistant, is in hot pursuit of a great white moldywarpe; Sham imagines the competitive bar-talk of her fellow captains, each of whom also hunts a philosophy, wryly observing the “one-upmanship, one-upcaptainship, of the themes some quarries had come to mean.” [pg. 85] When Naphi tells Sham that, “I’m a moler. You are a doctor’s assistant. Whatever you saw or thought you saw, it has nothing to do with your life & aims, whatever they might be, any more than it does with mine” [pg. 79], he takes a dim view of the concept that a person’s role must limit the knowledge they are allowed to accrue. Even the Shroakes, whom Sham comes to idealise, admit that, though their explorer parents “took them all over”, they “can’t say we know anywhere.” [pg. 169] The closest Sham comes to the de rigeur completion expected of such a character, then, is the refusal not to continue to learn and question: “I’m not a kid any more,” he tells himself at one point. “Shouldn’t take anything for granted.” [pg. 257]
All of this makes Sham one of the best-realised and most well-rounded of Miéville’s characters since Bellis Coldwine, the protagonist of what I consider to be Miéville’s best novel, The Scar. In his recent work, concept has tended to trump character – from the admittedly conflicted, but also necessarily rather shallow, Inspector Borlú of The City & the City, to Embassytown‘s frankly anonyous Avice Cho – and its refreshing to see the two proceed in better tandem. Not only that, but the YA format appears to have freed Miéville to write the kind of prose which first made him famous: combative, rococo stuff full of neologisms and consonants. Indeed, the first half of the novel in particular is amongst the most exciting writing he has committed to paper again since The Scar:
Of all the gapers on the Medes none gaped harder than Sham. Shamus Yes ap Soorap. Big lumpy young man. Thickset, not always unclumsy, his brown hair kept short & out of trouble. Gripping a porthole, penguins forgotten, face like a light-hungry sunflower poking out of the cabin. In the distance the mole was racing through shallow earth, a yard below the surface. Sham watched the buckle in the tundra, his heart clattering like wheels on tracks. [pg. 6]
This attention to the rhythm and the flow – the appositeness – of the words he uses has become Miéville’s trademark, but in Railsea it often reaches a pitch unattained in much of his recent work. It is both more colourful and better targeted than in Kraken or Iron Council, and more disciplined than in his previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, which was replete with rather too much languageplay. Here, the puns – “Give me the inland or give me the open rails, only spare me the littoral-minded” [pg. 29] – and the witty plasticity – “Do please expedite this journey relevance-ward” [pg. 107] – are surprising little gems hidden amongst the layers, rather than the latest addition to an over-encrusted surface. It is true that in the final third of the novel, which shunts more cleanly into plot-driven territory, rolling relentlessly towards the destination long promised by the exploring Shroakes, Miéville rather falls back on dialogue and action, and events conspire more conventionally; but such is the work Railsea has already done that the reader does not feel the urge to disembark.
Indeed, the reader should stick around for the denouement, onto which Miéville tacks a parable about the foolishness of attaching financial value to every possible resource (“such intimations as there are to hunt [...] revolve around money,” insists a pirate, against all Railsea‘s evidence to the contrary [pg. 218]). With such patience, he or she will witness Sham informing his monomaniacal captain that her aims are merely, “what you’ve wanted. The rest of us been wanting other, bloody, things!” [pg. 320] The deliberate foregrounding of the inevitably heterodox significance of any story is the way in which Miéville embodies Sham’s core, but diffuse and open-ended, lesson. “To messy-minded humans,” the narrator intones shortly afterwards, “so glass-clear and precise a drive makes no sense at all. It is considerably less comprehensible than the ravings of those we call insance.” [pg. 329]
If this wilful imposition of an omnipotent voice, this attempt to provide the moral – to underline that variegation is the very stuff of human experience – is somewhat cheating the message of his own novel, Miéville can perhaps be forgiven given Railsea‘s intended readership: leaving them much more adrift in their own expectations could well have been considered a kind of unusual cruelty. Earlier, in fact, the author has gone further: “We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast and awesome hole.” [pg. 295] Distrust all philosophies, Railsea tells us, but hunt them all. This is not a perfect novel, but it is undoubtedly an invigorating one: told with brio and invention, it may remind many of what is not just intelligent or innovative about China Miéville’s fiction, but also what is entertaining and energising. It is something of a joy.