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There is at least one not-very-good reason for considering Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise together: the announcement of the winner of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award takes place tonight, and I wanted to publish some thoughts on all six novels before that happened. There are also, however, several better reasons. This is counter-intuitive on one level, because at first blush the volumes could not be more different: Naam’s technothriller is a debut novel dealing with the near future, and is a self-professed forward-thinking piece of work, all transhumanism and singularities; The Disestablishment of Paradise, meanwhile, is an almost wilfully old-fashioned planetary romance, whose further-future setting has very little interest in the ways in which technology or culture have changed in the last fifty years, much less how they might do so over the next few centuries.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Naam and Mann have more in common than the scant three letters which can be used to spell both their names. In large part, their similarities revolve around lazy assumptions: about gender, about human psychology, and about the workings of narrative. Nexus begins with what I assume is meant to be a humorous scene in which Kade, the novel’s hero, uses one of the software hacks he and his plucky group of hippy scientists are plugging into the consciousness-linking nano-drug Nexus to seduce and then have semi-consensual sex with a young woman, before it goes wildly wrong and “his still-clothed crotch was banging into her face on every pelvic thrust”. Oh, how we laughed. Mann, meanwhile, is more well-meaning but just as flat-footed: “it is women’s logic, as old as time,” his novel sighs at one of its many essentialist junctures, during which even its high-flying, high-achieving female protagonists are wont to opine, “What fools we women are sometimes!”

nexus-naamThat is, the Clarke judges appear to have rewarded two writers who have entirely ignored all the many tools and techniques science fiction offers for exploding and questioning our most limited and limiting behaviours, and who prefer instead to chase down their favoured hobby horses. Nexus in particular reads primarily like an amateur lecture, with the insistent earnestness and dulling monomania that implies. Naam is a debut novelist (although Nexus‘s sequel has, horrifyingly, now been published), and writes in his acknowledgements that “this work transformed from a lark to an actual attempt to write a novel”. It bears all the hallmarks of this uncertain progress: structurally unsound, its prolonged prologue features an inevitably attractive female spy infiltrating Kade’s group of bioscientists before forcing him and his friends to accept a bargain with the US agency responsible for frustrating the transhuman potential of technologies such as Nexus. In Kade’s (and Naam’s) vision of the world, Nexus will connect people to each other; in one of Naam’s few attempts to texturise his novel with countervailing views, however, its villain sees it as a tool for totalitarian oppression of the masses. All this drags on, the middle third of the novel drained entirely of tension as clunky action set-piece follows deadeningly similar clunky action set-piece:

Wats countered her superior speed by giving ground, step by step. Sam stayed in close he did, neutralizing his advantage in reach. They moved in a blur of strikes, dodges, and blows, almost too fast for any onlooker to follow.

She could see him coming up now, see the adrenaline hitting him, making him a more dangerous foe. Behind her she felt flashes of courage and anger. Partygoers thinking of joining the fray. Before long, they would mob her.

End this now, then. A gambit. A sacrifice. She let him create a foot of space to get his comfort, parried three more blows, threw feints at groin and eyes and plexus, then came in wide and sloppy, hole in her guard at mid-section.

Wats saw the opening and threw a brutal fist at it, low and under her nearly unbreakable ribs. She accepted the fist, twisting to mute it, felt the pain blossom inside her as he connected. As she twisted, she brought one hand down like a vice on his wrist, yanked him off balance as she planted a leg behind his knees and slammed her other hand into his shoulder to bring him down.

Wats saw it coming, but it was too late.

If you can find it in yourself to forgive me for quoting at such length, you’re a better person than I. Nevertheless, the above passage captures both the micro and macro problems with Naam’s writing: he cannot structure a scene, finds it impossible to imbue one with tension in an organic or earned way (hence all the fragment sentences and forced repetitions); whilst this weakness translates to his novel as a whole, on a sentence-by-sentence level, too, the reader finds Naam dull and obstinate, unsubtle and regularly incompetent (who has a brutal fist that one might twist to mute?). This is the prose of an accidental novelist, a writer uninterested in the craft of fiction. Indeed, Naam’s day job is as a futurist and emerging technologist, and quite explicitly Nexus is a vehicle for his vision of the posthuman future. If the novel’s ideas were interesting and elegant, then, perhaps we might forgive their leaden expression. In fact, Naam’s at-times Pollyannaish certainties and optimisms (“all that we have accomplished, and all that we will accomplish, is the result of groups of humans cooperating”) are most often communicated in lifeless dialogue which presumably aims at qualities Socratean but instead hits network TV personal dilemma:

“I’m not more important than the hundred people out there,” Kade said sharply.

“Your work is.”

Ilya cut in. “Wats, we can’t let the ends justify the means.”

The novel’s transhuman Bond villain has no more complex a vision of reality than Kade’s half-soaked sidekicks, apparently culled as it is from some of the poorer-written issues of X-Men: “The humans are the enemies of the future. They hate us. They hate our beauty and our potential. Either they hunt us down and kill and enslave us, or we rise above them and take our rightful place in this world.” The intelligence community’s response to this threat is depicted in a stilted round-table: “CIA Director Alan Keyes threw up a hand in exasperation. Senator Engels chuckled in amusement. Maximillian Barnes just learned back and watched it all, impassive.” If I tell you, dear reader, that one of the novel’s few close-to-moving moments comes when one of the faceless, paper-thin attendees of that meeting realises his daughters will live on fatherless after these men politely request he commit suicide following a failure to contain some troublesome Buddhist monks who give Kade shelter, you might get a sense of how deeply cloth-eared this unfortunate novel can be.

Science fiction surely exists not to predict the future but to trouble our present. It is in part the ghosts both at the feast and in the machine, the queering literature which serves not to advocate but to equivocate, to look history in the eye and say it ain’t necessarily so. Nexus is a soap-box of a novel, a bar-room bore which pretends to profundity. It has been warmly welcomed in some quarters (here, for instance, are the thoughts of the tech journalist Simon Bisson); perhaps, after all, I am missing something. Perhaps, it is true, the fiction of a lecturer at Singularity University is worth reading for its futurological analysis. The novel’s premise, however, is pure Hollywood hokum, and it is in these clichés – reverted to on almost every page and in every scene-short chapter – that Naam’s science fiction swaps speculative vision for commercialised swagger, betraying the potential of his chosen genre and professed technological passions in favour of a dead black sidekick and overly telegraphed UST. The Clarke jury may be right in thinking this sort of thing a definitive work of contemporary science fiction; but if they are then the genre is in trouble.

the-disestablishment-of-paradiseThe sexual tension in The Disestablishment of Paradise is, at least, resolved. It begins early on with a canny refiguring of the creation story suggested by the name of the planet in its title: “The popular story,” we read of the first exploratory vessel to arrive there, “is that it was Captain Estelle who picked and nibbled the first Paradise plum.” I’ve referred already to the way in which Mann inherits the tendencies of his sourcework, in which women cannot escape the presumed vices of Eve, and certainly not the expectations of the men who promulgate them: “You take that ridiculous headband off and make yourself pretty,” the lead scientist of an entire planet is told by a man we’re cued to find charming. “Put a bit of make-up on like that lovely Captain Abracadabra [this is not Captain Abuhradin's name]. She knows how to dress for a party. She makes a man feel good just looking at her, eh boys?”

This character – Pietr Z – is not immediately dismissed by the astonishingly well-qualified hero of the novel, Dr Hera Melhuish; instead, his advice is followed to the letter with an ‘aw, you guys’ shrug. Pietr Z, incidentally, is apparently from Generic Eastern Europe, and despite being one of Earth’s leading scientists himself he speaks in comically broken English until a scene in which Mann requires him to be sympathetic and inspiring of confidence, when his syntax suddenly improves. Other characters, meanwhile, call each other ‘chum’ and repeatedly josh that their friends should ‘bugger off'; they wear half-moon glasses and write in  each others’ notebooks; they form committees and fill out forms in triplicate. This is Mann’s first adult novel in two decades, and it shows.

But Niall Harrison has covered this aspect of Mann’s novel in as complete and right-headed a way as anyone might wish, and so I don’t wish to repeat him here: go read his review, in which he correctly concludes that “the novel’s categories are too solid to tell us much about the real choices we have to make”. In many ways, this recalls Sherri S Tepper’s The Water’s Rising, another retreat into reiterative fantasy in the face of a contemporary world for which the author no longer particularly cared. This sort of Atlas-shrug is particularly dangerous for science fiction, and yet is broadly visible in the exhaustion influentially identified by Paul Kincaid: works like The Disestablishment of Paradise read like a form of literature no longer well-equipped to deal with today’s challenges. Like Naam’s action movie memes, Mann’s 1960s verities are part of a decayed and decaying toolkit which science fiction writers continue to fit, forlornly, to a world now beyond them.

Mann’s chosen target is nature, the environment to which we have done so much violence to such potentially catastrophic effect. On Paradise, Gaia theory is given explicit and rather un-nuanced reality (coyly, James Lovelock is never named by Mann): the planet’s consciousness has been made vivid and angry by human incursions, its strange intelligence and unknowable biologies twisted out of shape by a reaction against the likes of Hera and her hunter-gatherer manly male, Mack. “There was a time when it basked quietly, this world which you call Paradise, content with miles of ocean and the tug of the moons and the winds and the tides. [...] Everything now has been stained by [...] hatred and anger.” Mann describes Paradise in loving-but-limited thumbnails: its flora and fauna are boiled down to three main components, the Tattersall Weed, the Dendron and the Reaper; Hera and Mack’s march across its surface is dangerous but also weirdly dream-like, as if they are walking not across a planet but in the realm of Faery (“awe is a dangerous emotion, it makes you very passive”); and our knowledge of it is always partial (“maybe the Dendron can adjust its life cycle,” Hera muses, “I don’t know”).

All this is a tad frustrating, compounded further by Paradise’s apparent selection of Mack rather than Hera as its ultimate spokesperson and Favourite Human. Mack is everything Hera is not: masculine and practical, physically strong and intellectually straightforward. At one point, we are told he is “surely descended” from “ancient Celtic warriors who ran naked into battle”. This is a rejection of the qualities associated with the feminine over the course of a novel which at first takes pains to try to convince us its women are individuals capable of leading their worlds and passing the Bechdel test. That sits oddly; worse still, Mann seems not to know what to do once Paradise-through-Mac has explained itself to Hera: in a single chapter, after hundreds of pages of rather stately progress, she sprints to a shuttle and flies away.

I’m not sure, however, that some of this isn’t part of the point. Perhaps Mann is only connected with Naam in my own head, since I read him after Nexus and any novel will look good in the awkward shadow of so ham-fisted an effort; but I rather think he is more aware of his tropes than Naam. In the novel’s preface, we are addressed by a (fictional) writer of children’s fiction who has been tasked by Hera with writing her biography. The Disestablishment of Paradise – despite a few footnotes and some attempts to quote from reports or oral transcripts – never resembles anything like a biography (it is too poetic and discursive for that), but it does resemble children’s fiction. Mann wrote this manuscript years ago and failed to find a publisher for it, but it is emphatically not a failed YA novel finally finding a home: it is a different beast, an adult novel which tropes as fairy story. It turns out to be a silly narrative choice, but it appears to have been an active one nonetheless.

“All the colours have been taken from a child’s palette,” we read of Paradise at one point, and throughout the novel openness and inhibition are lionised: “in their naive approach to love, they touch the heart of Paradise” Mann writes of Hera and Mack; Hera’s “educated mind”, meanwhile, “still hid too easily in abstractions, not developed enough to be earthy” – thus the selection of Mack. It is unhelpful that Mack is also associated with masculinity quite so pungently, but it is his child-like quality, I think, with which Mann is most interested. Most obviously, Hera asks her biographer a rhetorical question: “To be irrational sometimes is not to be mad. Is it?” Where Nexus is adolescent by accident, it seems to me that The Disestablishment of Paradise adopts a deliberately jejune perspective: the prince and its princess, the kindly dragon, the fantastical garden are all present and correct; science is perceived just as easily to be magical (Hera is “pilloried for being a ‘mystical scientist'”); there is a sense in which Mann perceives nature as requiring a lack of sophistication in its partners. This is useless to contemporary humanity in the ways Niall suggests, but that may not be accidental or unthinking in the way he argues. The Disestablishment of Paradise feels like a carefully considered novel, even where it is also creaky and cracked.

I have been trumped in more ways than one by Adam Roberts’s two-part consideration of the Clarke shortlist. My thoughts and his seem to leave Mann resembling The Dog Stars more than Tepper, perhaps: not without some sense of its own absurdities, but let down by essentialism and execution. Nexus, meanwhile, is much further along that continuum of sfnal retreat – so far along it, in fact, that it is a novel in full rout. Neither of these troubled novels, of course, should be the winner.

Of all the books on the shortlist, it seems to me as it seems to Roberts that James Smythe’s The Machine is the one that avoids the apparent pitfalls of contemporary science fiction most successfully: it is structured more smoothly than its nearest competitor, Kameron Hurley’s still-incendiary God’s War; it is more accessible and less idiosyncratic than the shortlist’s most complex piece of art, Priest’s The Adjacent; it is, despite its calmness, considerably more subversive than Ann Leckie’s much-praised Ancillary Justice; and, most crucially, it addresses our current moment without resort to the retro or the pastiche. The Machine is the leading novel on an admittedly lukewarm shortlist; but it should take the prize regardless – and inspire other authors, and other perennially embattled juries, to Do Better.

the-machineJames Smythe’s Clake Award-shortlisted The Machine is like a wedding: it sports both something borrowed and something new. As refreshing as its focus on characterisation, mood and style can be when stood next to something as generically lumpen as Ancillary Justice, it also has as its McGuffin a device we’ve seen many times before: a contraption which can erase a person’s memories, reach into their subconscious and reshape it around a new story. Indeed, The Machine goes further in its weird resemblance to stories we’ve read before, asking questions not very dissimilar to those posited in the 2004 Michael Gondry film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: who are we without our memories, and how do we know we won’t make even worse mistakes without them?

Smythe’s answers are much grimmer than those offered by Gondry and his co-writer, the not usually sunnier-than-the-next-man Charlie Kaufman, and it is in the dour determinism of his novel that we can find the best argument for reading it. The Machine is in many ways a taut and tantalising horror story: the machine itself, fittingly resembling in its faceless opacity Arthur C Clarke’s own monoliths, is a classically implacable monster, squatting in the spare room of the novel’s lonely female protagonist, Beth, a schoolteacher based on the Isle of Wight. The gizmo’s mechanics are not understood either by her or the reader (and in this sense the novel isn’t science fiction at all, since the Machine essentially operates by magic); there is a constant nagging implication that it has its own purpose, its own agenda, and that it will pursue that goal remorselessly.

Beth has illegally purchased her Machine, since it and all other devices like it have been banned by the authorities following a series of disasters resulting from their use. Beth’s own husband, Vic, is one of them: now practically comatose in a specialist facility established for victims of the Machines, he was a soldier returning from the front with memories that tortured him. Like others, Vic opted for them to be removed – and, like others, emerged from the treatments a vegetable: “they’re more like the dead. There’s nothing inside them.” Beth blames herself: she rushed the treatments, she believes, in a desperate bid to get her husband back. The engine of the plot, then, is this guilt, this tragic weakness of the narrator (again, we think of horror).

Beth intends to undo the effects of the Machine on her husband by undertaking the Machine therapy in reverse. In one of the novel’s wittiest turns, she learns how to do so by logging onto internet forums resembling the ones we might search today if we wished to root our phones (this might immediately suggest to any reader unfortunate enough to have followed the wrong online instructions that matters will not go well). The first third of the novel, then, involves Beth’s preparations: the delivery men turning up, being given the excuse that the huge boxes of equipment contain a home gymnasium; their removing Beth’s window to get the parts into her flat (the first of many hints that Beth hasn’t entirely thought this process through); Beth whiling away the end of the school year until she can begin her project in earnest.

That so large a chunk of the novel is spent on build-up gives a sense of the languid pace at which Smythe tells his story. This gives him plenty of space for gentle, unobtrusive worldbuilding. Beth’s near-future is one in which global warming has made summers intolerably stuffy, and economic malaise has turned the young against the older, schools sharing the metal detectors and security guards of the American heartlands that “people the world over [once] laughed at as something that they would never need themselves”. There’s something woozy and dream-like about Beth’s world, since she drifts through it distracted and others stagger through it sweating; but it is also punctured by shocking acts of violence, of the estate’s feral kids threatening the local takeaway restaurant, or Beth herself, or being attacked in turn. Something simmers in Beth’s world, but Smythe’s story is not about the boiling point.

Instead, he moves on. First to the treatment: Beth plans to remove Vic from the centre, since “inside the Machine [...] are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be.” This is a painful process, physically gruelling and psychologically taxing; Smythe does not spare his reader the details, maintaining the careful spacing of incident in order fully to dwell on Beth’s own state of mind and on the costs of the Machine’s reverse therapy (“hasn’t she already decided that she’s going to live with him and his temper and – if they start again – the dreams?”). Of course, the Machine remains unknowable – and, Beth comes to think, not entirely to be trusted: “I didn’t put some story about you going back to war in you,” she says to Vic, “That’s from the Machine.” At one point during this painfully drawn-out period, she thinks of Greek statues, wondering how they were crafted: whether artists filled in the “seemingly unimportant parts – the flats of [the subject's] backs, or the flattened plateau of an inner thigh” – from memory or imagination, and whether that matters to the final likeness. The Machine is compared by its publishers to a modern Frankenstein, I suppose because Beth isn’t sure what it is she’s creating. But in a real way she’s worse than that other Vic, Frankenstein: he at least understood the process of creation, the body parts and the electricity; Beth simply has a Machine with a hard drive.

Perhaps it’s this uncertainty which leads to the novel’s slightly unbalanced final third: suddenly, Things Happen and all must be revealed, if not quite understood. An unfortunate catalyst for this change is one of the novel’s few mis-steps, Beth’s accidental best friend, Laura: another teacher at the school, Laura also turns our to be a caricatured evangelical, who hollers at Beth, as she plays with Vic’s soul, that she is bound for Hell and Damnation. “This is creation, Beth,” she rants (later she will pound on Beth’s door, spitting and snarling at her. “You don’t mess with creation, as it is the purview of our one God, Beth.” Leaving aside the fact that few people actually talk in this way, Laura’s fire-and-brimstone might reflect a theological turn in this otherwise successfully sketched-in future, but also seems by-the-numbers and crude, much like another scene in the novel’s final third, in which Beth takes clippers to her hair before a mirror. The familiarity of Smythe’s core conceit begins to re-emerge, then, as soon as he moves away from lingering on Beth’s perspective, her contorted vision of and relationship to her husband and his trauma. The novel’s final twist, though devastating, feels tacked-on and over-neat; there is a real fumble here in the final furlongs, as if the novel strolls nonchalantly and productively away from its borrowed elements for much of its length, and then, like Jim Carrey barrelling through his memory palace, sprints back towards them in order to find the exit.

Smythe’s spare and thoughtful prose may have here been better suited to a shorter length: at times, The Machine felt like a superb novella stretched, in that final third, a tad too far. It is in that prose, however, that The Machine more than earns its keep. Smythe turns a world as well as a phrase gently and yet powerfully, and this is a stylist’s trick often in short supply in a genre which conversely often lives and dies by the subtlety of its infodumping. If The Machine doesn’t quite spit out a product perfectly fashioned from those initial raw materials, watching it working is a pleasure.

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.

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.

 

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