science fiction

ancillary justiceHere’s how my review of Ann Leckie’s rapturously-received – and Clarke-shortlisted – debut novel originally began:

I don’t get it. Ancillary Justice is by no means a bad book: it is competent, even rigorous, and despite some extensive longeurs it is also in places pacey and handily plot-driven. It has a certain singularity of voice, and something to say with it. It manages to tackle some big issues – gender, artificial intelligence, gestalt consciousness – with a real lightness of touch, an unshowy seriousness. It is solid. But I don’t get it.

The buzz for Anne Leckie’s debut novel has been, in tonal quality, closer to a thrumming bass note from a Marshall stack. From advance notice to considered think pieces, reviewers have fallen over themselves to get excited about this big oil’ slice of space opera, as if its mix of interplanetary romance and high-concept mil-SF really is something to write home about. To take the temperature of large parts of SF fandom on the topic of this novel has been to send the mercury soaring. It has been, in fact, rather like the hoop-la a couple of years ago around the US publication of Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, a book with which, since it has now been published in the UK, Ancillary Justice has quirkily enough found itself competing on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.

Nevertheless, I’m not ooh-ing. My aahs are muted at best. I do not think Leckie has written a book as good as the punchily patchy God’s War, much less one about to reinvent the genre’s ratty old wheel. I don’t get it.

And, then, dear reader, I paused. I ruminated. I checked the jerking of my knee. I’m as up for offering entertainment in the form of wilful gadflyery as (more than) anyone, but my tastes are so often peripheral not just to ‘core’ fandom but a certain literary subset of it that for once – just for once, mind – I wanted to understand. So I fired up Google, and I found Nina Allan at Arc.

Oh, frabjous day.

Leckie [...] embraces the [science fiction] mission statement fully. Ancillary Justice gives us teeming galaxies, evil empires, a version of warp drive, and all without a hint of irony as the commonly accepted imagery of the particular version of SF that ranges itself against the mainstream as “a literature of ideas”.

When examined up close, however, the ideas contained in Ancillary Justice seem disappointingly simple: empires are evil, class systems are oppressive, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ancillary Justice is an SF novel of the old school: tireless in its recapitulation of genre norms and more or less impenetrable to outsiders.

The novel I happened to read immediately after Ancillary Justice was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Both novels are debuts, both are the first instalment in a trilogy. Both deal with far future empires, both have war as a central leitmotif, both have important things to say about society, faith and gender. At a surface level at least it would appear that these two books have much in common, but in fact, I would argue, they are different beasts entirely.

Allan has written her review so that I don’t have to, nailing all the ways in which Ancillary Justice underwhelms: in its characterisation, in its prose, in the execution of its core conceits. She even makes that same comparison with God’s War, pointing out what a properly adventurous debut novel really looks like (the comparison is made all the more damning for Leckie when one considers that Hurley’s effort is itself far from flawless). Here is a novel which routinely inserts its worldbuilding just after a character makes a reference to it: “I’m having trouble imaging you doing anything improper,” one says to another, before Leckie informs us that, “The word was weighted in Radchaai, part of a triad of justice, propriety and benefit.” This simultaneously offers a pretence of depth and the nagging feeling that we are less inhabiting a world and more taking a tour around it. Likewise, dialogue again and again services the plot – characters speak in the same voice, primarily to tell us how to interpret events and where they may next be headed (“It started at Garsedd,” another character explains to yet another. “She was appalled by what she’d done, but she couldn’t decided how to react.” “Oh,” the other doesn’t – but may as well – say. “OK.”)

One one level, perhaps all this is deliberate: Ancillary Justice is set in a quasi-fascistic empire in which to be civilised is to conform totally, and around which we are directed by Breq, a first person narrator who was once merely a tiny component in a gestalt intelligence. Breq is Pinocchio – a Spock or Data figure who was once an outpost of a spaceship’s AI and who may well now, it is strongly implied, be capable of a kind of personhood, about to transmute into a real girl or, since genders are often satisfyingly uncertain in this book, boy. It is in this addition of just a dash of zest to a hoary, tired old conceit that Leckie’s project is most evident: she is not reinventing science fiction so much as holding up a mirror to the genre’s best possible side. Allan suggests that Leckie hasn’t written her novel with anything like a commercial motivation, and in many ways that’s true of what is ultimately a rather awkward debut; but I’d also ask what novel better rushes to the aid of a core genre more embattled than usual, defending itself from all sorts of accusations of gender bias, from the assaults of new fangled literary modes and speculative writers not entirely interested in the genre itself; by new means of production and new forms and fora of criticism. Why, how much that core genre needs a novel from its own patch which doesn’t use the male pronoun. Cue predictably rapturous joy. “We can do this,” cry the SF massive. “We are not yet defeated.”

None of which is necessarily bad, but some of which goes a little way to understanding why Ancillary Justice has been hyped beyond its capacity to fulfil expectations. If it is not quite pedestrian, it is a gently jogging novel with some nice ideas but a ponderous style. The excitement around a book like this reminded me of the work of Algris Budrys, some of which I recently reviewed for Vector but which has also been considered in much the same vein by Paul Kincaid, for Foundation and, briefly, on his own blog: in the 1970s and 1980s, as Kincaid writes, Budrys read science fiction through “a series of columns that turn again and again to John W. Campbell, Lester Del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein and a host of writers of the same era”. In much the same way, Ancillary Justice does not feel like a new work of science fiction, but rather as a zeitgeisty iteration of the same old same old. (Lila Garrot at Strange Horizons, in a review full of praise for the book: “The novel’s core questions, such as the meaning of personhood in a world containing artificial intelligences and the meaning of individual identity in a world containing multi-bodied minds, are not new to speculative fiction, but they are combined in ways which shed new light on them, and Leckie never allows anything to resolve into a simple answer.”)

This leaves the Clarke Award looking more like a commemoration of what science fiction likes than it often prefers to seem: where Ancillary Justice ports SFnal conceits, it doesn’t transform or even bend them out of shape very much. It’s comforting and well-meaning all at the same time. On that level, at least, perhaps I do get it, after all.

hurleygodswarukOf the six novels shortlisted on Tuesday for the 2014 Arthur C Clarke Award, I’ve already reviewed two. One, God’s War by Kameron Hurley, was published in the US some time ago (and has already also been shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel, in a tacit acknowledgement that the British sf publishing scene really needed some help ‘finding’ female authors to publish). Its shortlisting is a Good Thing: if the trilogy it kicked off perhaps didn’t quite have total follow-through, God’s War was a gutsy, pungent debut novel. I don’t have much more to say about it than I did way back in 2011:

Here is a novel simultaneously feminine and empowered—Nyx doesn’t “bend her knee to God,” let alone anyone else (p. 278)—which unlike many a lesser attempt to achieve the same effect strikes imbalances in an odd kind of equipoise. Will any other novel this year address issues of faith and gender quite so squarely, quite so entertainingly, and with such heft? The promised sequels may even iron out the first installment’s creases, caused almost entirely by the weight of background lain upon the structure and the story. Most pertinently, Hurley indeed creates in her lead character a thoroughly unlikeable, but wholly independent, female Conan. Actually, that’s wrong: Nyxnissa would quite clearly kick Conan’s ass. In her own words, “Women can fight as well as fuck, you know” (p. 64). Coarse and inelegant, but bold and pungent: Nyx’s retort might be this punchy, refreshing, and imperfect novel’s grating, gutsy epigram. Just what the genre ordered.

adjacentThe second of the shortlisted works about which I have droned on is Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, also on the BSFA’s shortlist. This second review has, admittedly, not yet been published – I submitted it to Foundation‘s doughty reviews editor, Andy Sawyer, only a week or so ago. I won’t, however, pre-empt my review here, except to quote a short excerpt which I think helps explain my positive reaction to a curiously self-reflexive novel: “The Adjacent offers as pure a distillation of Priest’s peculiar art as he has yet produced, in which form matches subject and style substance [... it] refracts and reflects our own fragile, challenged present.” (I’ll let you know, dear reader, when the full thing is published – but in the meantime, subscribe to Foundation anyway.)

What strikes me most about my judgements on both books is my equivocation: they are each in their own way very strong pieces of work, and yet they each simultaneously have their characteristic and consistent weaknesses. They are, perhaps, birdies rather than holes in one. Taking my uninformed cue from the discussions which have surrounded the other shortlisted novels, my initial feeling about the shortlist was similar. for instance, Niall Harrison was entirely unimpressed with Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise; and whilst the buzz around Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has been in some quarters ecstatic,  something about its spaceships-in-space setting has left it idling, unread, on my Kindle for weeks already.

Indeed, it’s hard not to receive the Clarke shortlist in the spirit of my recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “one of the challenges faced by contemporary science fiction is that our own present world resembles so much — and yet so little — the world imagined by the genre’s founding writers.” Much ink has been spilled about Paul Kincaid’s theory of generic exhaustion, and one critic or another might take issue with one or another of its elements; but this shortlist, too, has some cyberpunk and some space opera, some science fantasy and some first contact. Meanwhile, it is not just in its chosen subgenres that the shortlist feels a bit dusty. Despite a valiant attempt to argue the shortlist merely replicates the make-up of the works submitted, the demographics of the authors – two women, one person of colour, the Brits all male – feels like a lost opportunity. Science fiction, even when exhausted, is more diverse than this.

In a third way, too, the Clarke – ordinarily the most interesting of the science fiction awards to readers not embedded in the ‘core genre’ – disappoints this year. It can only shortlist those works which are submitted, and it can do little when those mainstream novels which were amongst the most interesting works of speculative fiction in the last year choose to remain outside of sf’s sphere of influence: this year, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is conspicuous in its absence. But why not reignite the ages-old Margaret Attwood debate, given MaddAddam has been generating some of her better reviews for some time; or acknowledge the warm reactions to Wu Ming-Yi’s The Girl With The Compound Eyes? Even Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time-Being, which was not to my taste, has many cheerleaders within the sf community. With so many options open to it, the final shortlist felt like less of an event than it often does.

This may or may not leave the Clarke Award looking, as Ian Sales has suggested, like another symptom of sf’s alleged primary interest in recycling its own history. One ignores Nina Allan at your peril, however, and in her opinion the shortlist is wilfully diverse: “these are far from conventional choices,” she says, “and they’re all quite different from each other, too.” Which, I suppose, is as good a nudge as any to cease writing about four books I haven’t read – and get down to this year’s Clarke reviews.

Here’s to unexpected surprises.

angelmaker1 (1)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.

dark-edenThe 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.

cover - speculative-fiction-2012

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.

nodadrianbarnesI’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.


the-dog-stars-by-peter-hellerI’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.



20121227-222730.jpgIn 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.


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