Posts Tagged ‘arthur c clarke award’
I hadn’t read Martin Lewis’s review of Angelmaker prior to tackling Nick Harkaway’s second, and Kitschie-winning, Clarke-nominated, defiantly unhinged novel. Imagine the frisson of shared experience, then, when I realised that Martin, too, could think of only one word as he made his way through the five hundred-plus pages of Angelmaker‘s freewheeling, devil-may-care, serpentine, flashbacked, baggy, shaggy, propulsive, preposterous, hyperactive tome: puppy.
Angelmaker bounds around, making an awful lot of endearing mess (and some of the significantly frustrating kind, as well); it can be cute and life-affirming, make you laugh and crinkle your nose. It fills its space with energy. But it is also, like a puppy, ungainly and uncertain, entertaining but rather without purpose. Unlike a puppy, it may also think it has things to say about history – its most memorable creation, an old lady and ex-spy with a history more storied and interesting than the novel she finds herself in, bemoans the elite’s grip on the progress, or lack thereof of what we inexactly describe as ‘civilisation’. The novel also hand-waves itself themes of civil liberties – a principal supporting character is an urbane lawyer fighting a Kafkaesque state – and Big Data – its McGuffin is an ‘Apprehension Engine’ which threatens, in imparting all knowledge to all people, to do away with free will and agency. But Martin has already written the review of all this that I would have liked to write in his stead:
Compared to a serious novel about the uncanny power of mathematics and the battle for history such as Dead Water by Simon Ings or even a hidden London novel about the weirdness between the cracks such as Kraken by China Miéville (both 2010), Angelmaker seems cartoonish. It isn’t steampunk—it isn’t even clockpunk—but it has some of the unfortunate exaggeration and exuberance that characterizes that benighted subgenre. Everything is larger than life; the showdown takes place in a castle in London with a moat full of piranhas.
Angelmaker is a fascinating failure, a novel that seduces with detail and incident, but whose profusion of novelty is employed like so much hot air: blow, blow, blow and surely the thing will take off. But it doesn’t, and sections drag. There are memorable scenes – the protagonist, Joe Spork, the reluctant son of a famed East End gangster, is tortured by an order of corrupted ‘Ruskinite’ monks, whilst that formidable old dear Edie Bannister does battle with the supervillain Shem Shem Tsien in the ravaged world of Second World War Europe. But Angelmaker doesn’t add up its parts to form a final sum so much as it seems to subtract them from whatever unity it might have had. In part, this is Harkaway’s intent: the novel characterises the proper creed of those Ruskinites as to be “against standardisation” [pg. 132]. But this is only a valid choice if something is done with the noise that ensues. What is the virtue of Harkaway’s chosen method? It’s hard, as the plot sinks beneath its own backstory, and its generic elements are thrown together in heatless collision, to say.
The supervillain and the superspy, the gangster and the glamorous assistant all jostle for position here, sometimes literally rubbing up against each other in a post-modern collapse of generic convention: one moment Angelmaker is a spy thriller, the next a Golden Age mystery, the next a Silver Age super-hero romance. Its science fiction is magical, its magic literary-critical. For every page in the company of the preternaturally self-possessed, cross-dressing killing machine Edie Bannister, we’ll have another with the simperingly competent love interest, Polly Cradle; for every witty rewriting of a given convention, we’ll have a fanboyish transplantation of another. The Kitschies Red Tentacle is given to a progressive novel, and Angelmaker can be that; its gadflyish lack of discipline, however, can make it just the opposite on the turn of a dime.
“Love causes people to do stupid things,” Edie sighs at one point. “That does not, she realises now, make them the wrong things.” [pg. 331] Angelmaker posits that to be imperfect is to have vitality, and there’s some superficial sense in that argument. Harkaway explicitly rejects the regularity and reliability of the clockwork from which Joe makes his living. At the same time, however, the novel practices a shrewd kind of self-awareness which it imagines might allow it forgiveness for the worst excesses of such a commitment to the shapeless: “I get lost among the quanta,” apologies one character, as their monologue goes off-track (no one in Angelmaker is focused in their recollections). “Leave ‘em out,” responds his friend, and Harkaway winks big at us, inviting us to join his gang [pg. 188]. He suggests in this privileging of the frivolous and irrelevant to be against the concept of the ‘necessary’ – “a magic word to excuse a multitude of sins, and all it really means is ‘easier this way than the other’” [pg. 51] – and yet, in as bizarre a twist as any in the novel, the resolution to the attenuated plot is absurdly pat and rapid. Harkaway extends his refusal of expectation to the very structure of the novel as a form, packing into the final twentieth of his book all the incident that may have made another writer’s name, and yet still feeling the pressure to give us something as hackneyed as a proper resolution.
All of which might make Harkaway a bold and interesting writer – but, in the case of Angelmaker at least, not necessarily a successful novelist. I began this run of Clarke reviews with a reference back to last July, when I reviewed Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion for Strange Horizons. MacLeod’s is a novel I’ve characterised as having both humanity and unity of innovative vision. In this sense, it is superior to Angelmaker and also to each of its other competitors on this year’s shortlist. Short of an impasse through which Dark Eden may yet slip, I think it should be Intrusion‘s year.
The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.
The words of Alexander Herzen were one of the ways in which I characterised last year’s Clarke Award shortlist: a selection of books aware of our contemporary malaise, but unsure what to put in its place, or indeed how to do so. Likewise, I’ve wondered if one of this year’s shortlisted works, 2312, isn’t also indicative of this collective slouching towards Bethlehem, this perpetual deferral of the next coming. In the midst of Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, however, I found myself asking whether, surely, some revelation might not be at hand.
Dark Eden is the story of just over 500 humans marooned on an alien planet following the disastrous first flight of an interstellar craft from Earth. It begins with all of them living in the same small area, ear-marked generations before by the couple left behind when a trio of their ill-fated party made an effort to return home for help. A quasi-religion has developed around these figures and this plot of land, a certainty that one day Earth will come for their descendants – and, unless the children of Earth are in the designated place at the right time, they will never ascend to the promised Terran paradise. The difficulties, of course, abound: all descended from the original human pairing, Tom and Angela, the inhabitants of the planet, split into small clans or work-groups but all expressing fealty to the unitary Family, are developing congenital disability and impaired intellectual function; food and forage is in short supply given that the land has now been farmed intensively for three generations and more; and the ‘newhairs’, the adolescent heirs to a richly-depicted, but thoroughly diminished, culture and language, are beginning to understand that there might be more to life than the endless recapitulation of the same old fairy stories. (“He wasn’t trying anything new, and he never had done,” sneers one about an elder [pg. 55].)
Beckett does a wonderful job of capturing this barren society whilst endowing the individuals who inhabit it with real charisma and charm. Told from a number of points of view, but most especially from the perspective of leading teen John Redlantern, the novel is explicitly YA in tone and often tenor, though leavened with regular incest and murder; the language Beckett thus gives himself – defined by age range but also by a culture in which Family is not just a group but also a place and a way of thinking – is part of his achievement in this regard: a creative, believable, consistent and yet flexible patois capable of expressing both what the novel’s characters perceive, but also what they fail to notice. Through this gap, of course, slips new culture – and yet Family exists to police standards and enforce stasis. “You should say years,” scolds one of the elders early on. “You should say fifteen years, not twenty wombtimes.” [pg. 27] Later, this thought is reiterated: “You should count properly in years as befits all true children of the planet Earth.” [pg. 36] Innovation, an accommodation to new circumstances, is not welcome in Family; this resistance to change powers the conflict which emerges.
This is not to say, however, that Dark Eden understands all received wisdom to be without utility. In the matriarchal Family, secret knowledge is passed down to select females: “Watch out for men who want to turn everything into a story that’s all about them.” When one such woman, the newhair Caroline Brooklyn, observe’s John’s frustration with the ways of Family, she thinks, “John Redlantern was trouble in just that way. He might think he was worried about us not having enough food, or about Exit Falls getting blocked up, or whatever, but that wasn’t really what his shouting [...] was all about. What it was really about was him being the hero of the story, and no one else.” [pg. 139] In this way, Dark Eden brings into question both the YA conceit of the single teen who might change everything, but also the Great Men theory of history, so common in fiction, which holds that (male) individuals have the power to change the fate of us all. Most potently, it asks questions of the Whiggish assumption that change – that progress – is necessary and positive. In a science fiction novel set on a planet of demonstrably mean resources, and in a period during which many writers in the genre are attempting to express alternative ways of being, this is a little bold.
Rahul Kanakia and others, however, have wondered if much of this ambivalence isn’t window-dressing. I’m not so sure. Tina Spiketree – one of John’s closest followers, and, in her communalism and compassion, the closest thing the novel has to an alternative model of heroism – observes, “that’s what gave [John] the power he had. He thought he could bring things into being just be believing in them, and he was so sure of it that it sometimes turned out to be true.” [pg. 200] To some extent, Dark Eden undoubtedly whips up a gateuax and scoffs it whole, allowing John to transform completely his society and yet hemming and hawing about the likely consequences of that success (“it had been the women in Eden that ran things and decided how things would be, but now a time was coming when it would be the men” [pg. 158]); on the other hand, Tina’s observation suggests the complicity of the society around John. When another dominant male takes control of the main group from which John’s followers split, one of its members wonders, “how did he get all that power? Why did we let him take it?” [pg. 345]
In this way, Beckett has written not so much a hand-wringing deconstruction of the YA hero (although he has), as a parable about cultures which accept change is necessary, and from which then emerge a figure-head both to enact that change and to take on its sins. John is acutely aware of the judgement of posterity: when another of his disciplines, the gamma male Jeff, rescues a party John has brought into danger, he frets that, “when we all came down into Tall Tree Valley, it wasn’t me that was leading everyone, it was Jeff [...] and that was how they story would be told in future.” [pg. 297] In part, this is the egotism of the ubermensch, but it is also a recognition that the actions of one man are and become a cultural product. Just as there are men in Dark Eden who offer alternative models to John’s dominance, the women of Beckett’s story are too strong to be mere victims. (Tina in particular, who retorts, when John announces the polyamorous policies of Family will not hold in his new society, that “there were so many different things wrong with that single statement that it was hard to know where to start!” pog. 196].) These figures help craft John’s new world, even as they agree to storify him as its originator.
Dark Eden doesn’t end so much end as peter out – it seems clear that Beckett plans a sequel – and it doesn’t have a plot so much as it does a trajectory. In its not entirely committed treatment of theme, it’s possible to read from its timidity a sort of sympathy for Chairman Mao. It might also remind one overmuch of the themes and execution of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, books so recent as to ask questions of Dark Eden‘s necessity. Likewise it is ultimately a fairly conventional bildungsroman in which the main male character is easily the best developed. For all its conventionality in these regards, however, Dark Eden still feels like a novel which is not just asking a question many other writers are posing, but one which is serious about investigating one kind of answer. For this, I rather think it deserves its place on the shortlist – and a position as its dark horse.
I’m used to picking silent fights with Eric Brown. In his science fiction round-up for the Guardian of March 8th, Brown declared Adrian Barnes’s debut novel, Nod, now shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, “outstanding”. If his were the only positive judgement to which I find myself opposed, I wouldn’t be surprised. But here’s the always-sensible David Hebblethwaite on the same work: “a novel that feels endlessly uncomfortable in its own skin”, he says; according to perennial white-hat Jared Shurin at Pornokitsch, “Nod is a corker”; in an exchange on Twitter, meanwhile, Farah Mendlesohn (with whom I admittedly share more regular disagreements) praised the book’s “relentlessness”.
Undoubtedly, all of this praise has come couched in the caveats routine for criticism of a debut novel: “relentlessness” is a word which cuts both ways, of which I’m sure Farah is aware; Jared points out that Nod can be meandering and pretentious; and David highlights the novel’s treatment of gender as problematic. Now then. What might it be that leads them to place the balance in the positive where I tip it in the opposite direction? Nod felt naive to me, a book rather in love with its own cleverness without the technique or panache to follow through on it. Certainly it is admirably fearless – a novel so unremittingly committed to ugliness has to be – and in this sense it has a real unity of theme, character and diction. But, and perhaps my tolerance for this is not what it should be, Nod is also monomaniacal and solipsistic.
This, admittedly, may be part of the point. Nod begins where many stories end – with a sleep. The twist is that, as the protagonist, a misanthropic writer named Paul, and his partner, an unsympathetic woman named Tanya, lay down their heads to slumber one night, only he can drop off. They soon discover that it is Paul, not Tanya, who is unusual: almost everyone on Earth can now no longer sleep. The reason for this acute insomnia is never explained, and the novel rather cocks a snook at books which might pretend to rigour in this regard, spending a few pages waving its hands vigorously and to deliberately slight effect. Insomia, it turns out, is entirely the wrong model for what develops: even insomniacs doze, despite their experience otherwise; in Nod – simultaneously the name of a book about lost words Paul is writing, the location to which all sleeping children are transported, the land of Cain, and the streets of Barnes’s Vancouver once sleeplessness takes hold – no rest is possible. The absence of sleep is total.
Six days without sleep ends in psychosis; more than thirty, according to Barnes, is impossible – the body cannot subsist for long without rest. This, as David has noted in his review, gives Barnes’s particular apocalypse an explicitly temporary aspect. It also lends it a plausibly nasty one: when everyone is mad for lack of sleep, even the usual tropes of Armageddon - the attempt to save civilisation, small groups banding together for mutual protection, a wistfulness for what once was – are absent. Instead, a crank Paul and Tanya routinely dismissed at their local diner becomes a demagogic leader in the new, mad, society, and even the strongest bonds of love and society are quickly broken.
This is where, for me, Nod falls down. Its first person narrator, Paul, has never been burdened with what we might call the tenderer feelings. He considers himself much too clever to have bought into our comfortable consensus: “At times everyone wonders how deeply buried contempt is beneath the surface of their friends’ and lovers’ smiles,” he opines early on. “Most of us suspect – accurately, I believe – that it lies in a shallow grave, gasping for breath beneath a damp mulch of manners and restraint.” [pg. 31] The clogged, gagging voice is typical of Paul’s style, but so, too, is the nihilism. His narrative is depicted as a diary of events, written as they proceed, and so we can see that he is not transformed by the degradations of Nod – he begins fully converted to the concept that society is a sham. When the novel attempts to interest us in its destruction, then, it fails.
For Paul, contemporary society is “television’s caffeinated universe” [pg. 13], all false sentiment and instant gratification. Barely three days into the crisis, he is already capable of thus describing his long-term partner, desperate for the sex she thinks might send her to sleep: “a beige fleck of shit in the crinkles of her asshole, a rawness to the lips of her vagina” [pg. 32]. When, late in the novel, he cuts “her throat with an orange box cutter I found in a cupboard then [...] marked her as mine” [pg. 158], we’re not shocked, sickened or saddened, simply surprised it took so long. (In case you were wondering, Tanya – who a few pages earlier takes the “flaccid penis” of her domesday cult’s leader into her mouth whilst Paul looks away in disgust, is the site of the gender “problems” David identifies.)
For Paul, society is much like language: beneath its agreed surface of approved vocabulary and shared grammar is a stinking cesspit of forgotten and disused words and terms. He uses some of these as his chapter headings, and though one might wonder why “Abraham’s bosom” (“the repose of the happy in death”) or “Waking a Witch” (“an iron bridle or hoop was bound across her face with four prongs thrust into her mouth [...] in such a way as the ‘witch’ was unable to lie down”) are all that interesting or powerful, they add a superficial grit to proceedings, a bit like pebbledash. Still, the theory that forgotten words parallel forgotten people – “Nod was always out there, always peeking around a corner and watching us. In poverty, In the misfiring DNA of cancer cells” [pg. 107] – is under-developed and in execution rather weak. “There’s more power in words than people think,” Paul intones near the end of his narrative. “How does the Bible begin? In the beginning was the Word.” [pg. 198] This veers towards the banal rather than the revelatory.
There is an unspoken critical rule that you don’t lay in too heavily on debuts, and undoubtedly there are fumbles here of that sort: Paul literally counting the dead as they fall in a battle he describes as chaotic (“1000, 999, 998, 997 …” [pg. 188]), or the questionable, however poetic, assertion that “when the old get exhausted, you can begin to see through the surface of their translucent skin, right down to the liquid workings below” [pg. 183]. If we draw a veil over these, however, then the heart of this novel still beats in irregular rhythm. The children who can still sleep, more numerous than their increasingly persecuted adult counterparts, drift through the novel as the future of human civilisation, but, perhaps because Barnes is most interested in the passing nature of his apocalypse, they are thinly drawn (“probably just some sort of next step in evolution,” Paul reasons helpfully [pg. 193]). Caught in this confused moment, the intellectual element of the book is too often reduced to sophomoric debates between apparently under-informed pub sceptics: “I always wondered about Jesus, you know,” says one such interlocutor. “Know what I think? [...] Maybe there were no miracles. Maybe Jesus was a faker.” Paul responds with what counts as a rhetorical flourish in a sleep-addled world and an under-cooked novel: “Why a faker? Maybe there’s another explanation. What if he never pretended to be the Son of God?” [pg. 147] Socratic dialogue Nod ain’t.
All that being said, Nod is, when compared to the predictability of The Dog Stars, a satisfyingly disruptive novel, and too few of these are given the – ahaha – nod. The Clarke seems to have rewarded Barnes both for his vim and voice: where I have referred to the narration in this review, I’ve written of Paul, because Barnes has crafted so convincing a style that it would be unfair to pretend the novel isn’t wholly conveyed in fully-realised character. Even its wearisome lack of jokes is part of this emotional unity – “Humour had been the first casuality in Nod”, after all [pg. 171]. Not only that, but there is a method to the madness of its baggy and unresolved structure: in the first few pages Paul reads a news story that “just stopped dead, as news stories do, when the action tank ran dry” [pg. 5]. Nod, too, ends in this way, a frontline report from an incomplete and incoherent ragnarok. As complete as Paul is, however, and as smartly captured its partiality, Barnes’s novel feels too excited by its slight transgressions to put real thought in how to lend them any real power or heft. Nod is filled to bursting point with sound and fury, but, if I were to bring my own balance to this asymmetrical novel, I might argue that its words are far from signifying all that Paul thinks they do.
I’ve already reviewed two of the six shortlisted contenders for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. Of those, Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion seems to me more perfectly formed than Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, if perhaps as a function of a decidedly narrower imaginative palette. That latter book has a lot to recommend it – breadth of vision, unabashed ambition, memorable images – but may be defeated by the impossibility of its self-appointed task: as Vandana Singh has written, the novel trips over its own assumptions as it pushes its frame of reference ever outwards; Intrusion may be slighter, but it also plays more consistently to its own considerable strengths.
Caught almost dead-centre in this dog fight is Peter Heller’s appropriately titled The Dog Stars. The story of Colorado man Hig, it is set in the near future, following an apparently multi-causal apocalypse: there are references to both disease and climate change, and there also seems to be an ongoing confrontation with ‘Arabs’ in the background of this world. Nina Allan’s review of the book at Strange Horizons is very much in line with my own opinion of it, and when she writes of Heller’s “thoughtless inconsistency”, this seems just right. There is little in the worldbuilding of The Dog Stars that stands up to any sustained scrutiny. Indeed, at times the set-up at the heart of the novel – Hig lives with his dog and his light aircraft in a disused country airport, protected in part by his own native cunning and in part by the survivalist expertise of his gun-toting neighbour, Bangley – rather resembles the mise en scene of Sam Taylor’s rickety The Island at the End of the World. In both novels, and in Taylor’s explicitly, the backstory feels something like an excuse.
This lends The Dog Stars the air of the ‘cosy catastrophe‘ which MacLeod’s novel does so much to complicate. Hig’s lifestyle is best characterised by Bangley: “we keep it simple, we survive,” he insists [pg. 21], and yet there is none of the associated enervation present in the superficially similar – and also Clarke-nominated – Far North. In that novel, an apparently multi-causal apocalypse has led to the collapse of civilisation, and those who survive it gather around them the still-functioning relics of the old world, in an attempt to persevere in the long shadow of complexity. Far North painted a vivid and haunting picture of a survival so constituted, but The Dog Stars, which at one point name-checks John Wyndham, resembles far more closely the famed retreat, in The Death of Grass, to the convenient farm in the Lake District. Hig hunts with abandon, even though at first we’re led to believe there has a been a Road-like hollowing out of the planet’s biodiversity; towards the end of the novel, when all is, in the words of the dust jacket’s blurb, “life-affirming”, “The buffalo are moving down to their old range.” [pg. 286] Give me a home indeed.
It should perhaps not come as a surprise that in this brave new world there is little room for women. There are two in Hig’s narrative: Melissa, blissfully remembered in sepia-toned flashbacks to the world before the fall (and smothered at her own request with a hospital pillow when the plague strikes her); and Cima, the daughter of another doughty survivalist (there aren’t many character times to go around in The Dog Stars), who exists primarily to be caring – she was once a doctor – and sexed – she has a “sweet ass” (although, when she asks Hig for oral sex, he complies only because “duty calls” [pg. 263]). This is a narrow story – indeed, one of its most interesting aspects is the manner in which much of the apocalypse has happened and continues to happen off-screen (the novel ends with planes other than Hig’s, and ones of unknown origin, patrolling the skies once more). But a function of Hig’s partial perspective is this failure of imaginative empathy.
On the other hand, Hig’s voice is the novel’s great strength. Heller masters a sparse, economical prose which speaks both to the protagonist’s character and his context. If the consistency of the style contributes both to the novel’s narrowness and to the reader’s suspicion that the otherwise inconsistent world has been conjured merely as a means of bringing into life Hig’s particular kind of male fantasy, it is nevertheless true that its clipped, pragmatic, insistent qualities lend a great deal of force to what is otherwise a schematic tale: man has dog, man loses dog, man goes on journey, man returns the better for it. What’s curious about the spareness of Hig’s voice is that, before the fall, he was a published – albeit obscure – poet. The collapse of society, however, seems to have led Hig, even in describing loss and grief, to a kind of apostasy: “Getting all poetic on its ass, when what it is is I miss you. I really fucking miss you.” [pg. 112] Hig’s voice makes The Dog Stars eminently readable, but also forces it to retreat from any real engagement with depth. Hig passes through his apocalypse, makes do and mends.
Indeed, the final scene of the novel features Bangley and Cima’s father – best of friends, of course – playing chess with each other in the idyllic proto-village to which Hig has returned, “in some apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell” [pg. 309]. Perhaps Heller imagines he can thus head his critics off at the pass, but simply being aware of your weaknesses does not help rectify them. Neither as ambitious as 2312, nor as robust or ambivalent as Intrusion, The Dog Stars emerges as rather empty: deceptively well-written, smooth and superficially satisfying, but ultimately lacking somewhat in courage, conviction – and complexity.
I seem to be in what is for me an unusual position within the sf reviewing diaspora: playing the role of apologist. I began my series of Clarke reviews by referring to Christopher Priest’s savaging of the shortlist and those who crafted it. Since then, he has written a gloss upon that post, reminding us that the fury of its original tone was a rhetorical device. No doubt this is true – and it was a ruthlessly effective one – but it has coloured even the moderate voices in the ensuing debate about the six books vying for the Award. David Hebblethwaite wants at least two wooden spoons to hand out amongst the nominees, but his round-up of the shortlist suggests he’d prefer something like five-and-a-half; Maureen Kincaid Speller, meanwhile, writes:
What strikes me immediately about the Clarke shortlist is how conservative its view of science fiction seems to be, and how unadventurous it is. It is almost as though it hankers after the dear dead days of proper science fiction, with spaceships, aliens, alarming science, women in jeopardy, men coming up with all the solutions.
It is impossible to argue that the Clarke’s shortlist is strong. It may well have been immeasurably strengthened not, in the way of many years, by the switching of one stinker for something smarter, but by a wholesale reconsideration of its choices: even the better books on the list preen more attractively because of the company they are keeping. Many seem to single out Magary’s The End Specialist as the real offender of the bunch, and it is certainly depressingly heteronormative; but it is clear to me that it is The Waters Rising which deserves most opprobrium: Magary’s is ultimately a deeply simple-minded novel, but it is not quite so vehemently shapeless. Something has gone very wrong when a shortlist features a book quite so poorly conceived, much less executed, as Tepper’s.
Simultaneously, and on the other hand, The End Specialist seems to me to offer a way in to what the shortlist has got right. It is not a great novel – it is barely a good throwaway thriller – but it is contemporary. I say this expecting a dozen rebuttals, and Maureen’s will be in the vanguard: this year’s shortlist, Magary most certainly included, is backward-looking, populated by tired clichés and tropes, and bereft of invention or dynamism. It is a gaggle of books which feature generation starships and cops and robbers, immortality and post-apocalyptic medievalism. Even the entry from China Miéville, so often cited as the standard-bearer for the next generation of sf writers, looks back to a kind of New Wave-ish aesthetic, all interplanetary hi-jinx and alien lifeforms.
I would argue, however, that the shortlist is a little more sophisticated than all that. That what these books represent is a stumbling in the dark, a pause at a moment in time when not just the genre but our world isn’t sure what will happen next. Allow me to reprise a technique from one of my Clarke pieces – on Embassytown – in which I argued for this reading most strongly. In a wonderful essay on Europe’s current malaise in a recent issue of the LRB, Neal Ascherson quotes Alexander Herzen:
The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.
In The Testament of Jessie Lamb, MDS asks profound questions of a society which struggles to change (or rather, change ethically) to accomodate its implications; in The End Specialist, the material effects of immortality pose insoluble problems; in Hull Zero Three, the very act of carrying forward one’s society and culture into the future is brought into troubling question. The Waters Rising, punchdrunk on revulsion for our present world, cannot see a way forward for its dead-end empires that is not unconscionably – impossibly – radical. What these books do, and in way or another each renders itself fatally flawed as the demands of their task stretch existing logic to breaking point, is to find familiar tools, in the absence of any visible new ones, to bring to bear on their respective moments of crisis: that is, a chisel is insufficient to the task, but at least it can chip away, begin to find a shape.
This is a shortlist of conflict rather than resolution – which might explain its rather misshapen appearance. Does The Islanders, a work of art which Priest is right to be peeved has missed its moment in the sun, really speak to this sort of moment? I think not. Perhaps, of the frequently cited also-rans, only By Light Alone does. In terms of this shortlist, it is certainly Rule 34 and Embassytown which come closest to seeing a viable Beyond through the fog of systemic failure. Outside of their qualities as novels – and, again, each has downsides (Rule 34 can seem superficial and manic; Embassytown over-conceptualised and abstract) – there is a perhaps unfair reason to overlook the latter: Miéville has won too many Clarkes already. This may be part of what attracts me to Rule 34 as a winner – that and my surprise at even being able to finish it, given my previous experience with Stross’s unstructured ideas-dump prose. I think, too, though, that, if the shortlist can be said to have a story, it is Rule 34 that tells it best. It is the story of our times, a story which as yet has no end and perhaps only the sketchiest of middles.
This might not make for the best shortlist, and in some cases it certainly does not make for the best novels; but nor is is true that this is the wilfully perverse shortlist it might first appear to be. A vintage year? No. A vital one? Despite it all, maybe so.
What is a reviewer to do with Sherri S Tepper’s The Waters Rising? It is part of the function of shortlists like the Clarke’s to shine a light on books which have been overlooked by reviewers and readers, but in the case of this novel it is hard not to assume that it has been passed over for want of anything nice to say. When Maureen Kincaid Speller (whose review of the novel is sensible and inhumanly alert to Tepper’s endlessly shapeless plot) tweeted, “Have finished reading
#watersrising. Er …”, it occurred to me that in a way that was all that needed to be said about a novel which loses itself well before its hundredth page. The hashtag Maureen uses began as a joint reading project – within a few hundred pages it had fallen silent, the assembled tweeters presumably struck dumb by a book which defies reasoned analysis.
First and foremost, Tepper’s style is so discursive as to erase entirely all possible intimations of whatever structure she might have intended. In large part, the novel is the story of Abasio and Xulai, lovers who are in Adam Roberts’s polite terminology “problematic”. (Roberts is more admiring – although still dismissive – of the book than many, and this must be related to his long-term admiration for Tepper – to call The Waters Rising “pleasantly immersive” is like describing the experience of being drowned as ‘getting a bit wet’.) The pair of lovers are problematic because, you understand, Xulai appears to be a child when we first meet her – a ‘soul-carrier’ for the wife of the Duke of Wold. When the princess inevitably dies, Abasio must join the fellowship which is tasked with returning her
Ring soul to the place of its making, Mordor Tingawan. It is on this quest that endless subplots are opened and tediously explored, and on which we learn that Xulai is really twenty years old, so it’s fine for Abasio to have the hots for her – it just means he is unusually perceptive.
If The Waters Rising has a theme, it is this: secret knowledge. Tepper’s world is not the slowly flooding realm of core fantasy it at first appears to be – indeed, so necessary is it to read the novel as sf that I disagree even with David Hebblethwaite’s view that, so thin is the book’s science, it should be read otherwise. Rather, its technological past – our own climate change-threatened present – is literally submerged beneath the waters of time. Information scarcity comes to characterise the whole novel: Abasio can see past the immediately apparent to the supposed truth beneath; his wise-cracking talking horse possesses a wit which can cast new light on human problems; and even Xulai’s tutor, Precious Wind, has frankly compendious knowledge of the past, which she reveals in one great gout when it is necessary for Tepper to have her do so (that Precious Wind is even in a position to have this kind of knowledge is also kept secret for a large chunk of the novel). ”People don’t always tell everything, you know,” one characters informs us – the interminable dialogue in The Waters Rising is never between characters, but amongst them for our benefit. “Mostly they don’t.” [pg. 31] The Waters Rising paints this truism gauchely large: we are never drip-fed clues, but left to blunder ignorantly through huge reams of text before an absurdly bald expository lecture enlightens us.
The very narrative voice is part of this bland project: though ostensibly in the third person limited mode, in practice the prose reminded me of a tone-deaf George Eliot, since it offers constant judgement on its own story in an ironic, although bathetic, sort of way. The following is typical of the approach (where ‘typical’ means ‘deliberately selected for its unusual brevity’): “‘I have just learned…,’ said Alicia, going on to quote what she had, in fact, just learned.” [pg. 227] As the novel continues, however, the judgements of this distanced, incompetent narrator – who seems to know everything and yet share nothing – turn from irony to cruelty. Alicia is one of the novel’s villains – responsible, for instance, for the death of the princess – and there is no mercy for her, even when we learn she is in a real way not at all responsible for her actions. (“Magic,” sneers one character named
Boromir Bear in both a moment of significance for the novel and an instance of characters suddenly attaining language the cod-medieval setting pretends to deny them: “From what I know, more likely genetics.” [pg. 57])
Alicia is in fact the plaything of the Old Dark Man, a survival from the Before Time when humans were nasty and made nasty gadgets, creating in his case a killing-machine with a murderous hatred of any being he is programmed to target – that is, anyone at all different to those who programmed him. This selfishness, this will to power, is the position against which the novel primarily sets itself. “Land is merely land,” another villain cackles; “trees are trees; rivers are rivers, all of them ours to do with as we will!” [pg. 108] Yet ultimately, and in perhaps the most unhinged of all its many expository lectures, the solution to the rising waters and the otherwise inevitable extinction of humanity is offered, at the end of the fellowship’s journey, by the Sea King, a kraken with a curiously similar logic: “There must be no odds at all! Xulai must be sure each fertile sea egg is given to a person like herself. Otherwise, we will have wars beneath the sea, hatred, species-ism, territoriality – who knows what horrors we would have.” [pg. 412] The future is safe, because in the future everyone will be like you.
Here we come to the crux of this bizarre novel. The Sea King’s solution, simply, is to use incredibly unlikely genetic science – not for the first time, Clarke’s Third Law has a lot to answer for – to create new generations of humans who are also, well, fish. The way this jonbar-point evolution is achieved is for someone to eat a ‘sea egg’ – they will then, if mating with another consumer, produce spliced offspring equipped to survive in the pending aquatic future. Xulai, like the “chess piece” Alicia [pg. 362], has no real choice in becoming the brood mother for this absurd new race – “You can give them [the eggs] to others and let your own grandchildren drown,” the Sea King suggests helpfully when she first appears reluctant to take him up on his offer [pg. 413] – but nor is the option presented as troubling in the slightest. “Let us drink to the next generation,” Abasio huzzahs near the end of the novel [pg. 494], and presumably the reader is meant also to raise her cup.
The novel’s uninterrogated focus on determinist destiny – early on, the canny talking horse sings, “Hey-oh, the wagon pulls the horse / Or else the horse the wagon / And no one really knows what force / By which the which is draggin’” [pg. 2] – is of a piece with its understandable horror (and terror) at the present world (“Truly, they did marvels then, but none of these marvels profited the human race,” sighs Precious Wind [pg. 382]). But Tepper’s response is to retreat into the insane vision of the Sea King – to retreat, that is, into fantasy. The Waters Rising‘s genre is so tricky to identify because it presents as science fiction but is in fact an attempt to escape from, rather than honestly deal with, the flood. At one point, Xulai daydreams: “How wonderful to be someone other than oneself! Someone who couldn’t be hurt, or killed, or lost in some terrible spasm of obliteration that she knew existed, that she had always known existed though she could not remember being told.” [pg. 47] The Waters Rising is Xulai’s impossible hope in novel form.
All of which leaves me to wonder if there isn’t a cleverer book under the frankly pathological accretions of The Waters Rising. This could be a knowing novel about the dangers of both science and fantasy, a wry exploration of how knowledge can be simultaneously withheld and misused. There are hints this is what Tepper was attempting – when we first meet Abasio, in the opening pages of the novel, he smirks, “In order to allay suspicion, I am about to sing something pastoral and suggestive of bucolic innocence.” [pg. 2] Likewise, when the fellowship passes through the villages of the Becomers, people convinced by Alicia that to win the favour of the Duke they must act in certain artificial ways, Xulai observes of one that, “One could play pretend with total convicton, but one could not pretend play in the same way. His every movement spoke of mockery.” [pg. 120] It is tempting to see intent in this, but such are the failings of the book that this is a reading that cannot take us very far.
In his review this week of Philip Palmer’s Artemis, Martin Lewis writes of feeling forced to read a text as satire. I recognise this feeling from both my own reading of Artemis and from The Waters Rising itself:
“Falyrion, Duke of Kamfels, had a wife, Naila; a daughter, Genieve; and a son, Falredi. Naila died. Not long thereafter, Falyrion married Mirami, who bore him a daughter, Alicia, and a son, Hulix. Then Falyrion died and Falredi succeeded to the ducal throne of Makfels. Then Falredi died. Mirami’s son Hulix succeeded him as duke.” [pg. 184]
This can easily be read as a satire of the fetish for detail found in epic fantasy of the Tolkein mode. So, too, can the parallels I have oh-so-archly referred to above. The novel’s tedious coda, in which the fellowship return to
the Shire Norland to resolve unfinished business with Saruman the Old Dark Man, can be read similarly. As with Artemis, however, the incoherence of the final text precludes this kind of reading. By the close of the novel’s first third, when Tepper’s questing band of adventurers reaches an abbey in which not everyone is as they seem (“Wilderbrook abbey was deceptive at first appearance,” she shouts at us [pg. 154]), it has simply lost control: its plotlines proliferate, its backstory metastasises, and the characters struggle – and fail – to retain anything like individual identities. The Waters Rising is neither clever comment nor ripping yarn; it is, alas, a dim-witted slog suitable primarily for readers who revel not in story but in detail and ill-considered concepts (we know they’re out there – publishing figures tell us). One wonders which of those it was who won through on the Clarke’s judging panel.
Posted April 21, 2012on:
It is a curious sign of the achievement of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb that its reception has been so mixed. The story of a very near future plagued by an air-borne virus similar to HIV but which is fatal only to pregnant women, it focuses on the titular teenage narrator who is attracted to the Sleeping Beauties: young women (they must be young) who are put into a coma in order to take to term artificially-inseminated babies whilst their own brains liquefy. When these women have delivered the child, their machines are turned off. Niall Harrison is excellent on the troubling effect of this story, and most particularly of Jessie’s voice:
There is a nearly unbearable tension in play here: we want Jessie to choose, we do not want to deny her the right to choose, but we don’t want her to choosethis. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a test for us, filtered through what is, despite its plainness, one of the most challenging young adult voices I’ve encountered for some time. Nor, for the most part, does Rogers descend to caricature of the people surrounding her. The staff interviewing Jessie about enrolling in the trial, for instance, are painstakingly conscientious, “very grave, with a flat unemphatic way of talking” (p. 141), determined to ensure she is not being pressured into her choice. (Some of the feminists of FLAME are less convincing, admittedly.) So while at times it’s easy to be convinced by Jessie’s urgency, by her sense that something must be done now, and to see her as heroic, at other times that same urgency, Jessie’s inability to imagine a life or a purpose for herself in a world without MDS, seems to become messianic fanaticism, to the point where we can look at the novel’s frame and understand, without condoning, why Jessie’s parents (her mother is in on it) have taken the step of locking her up. When, near the end of the testament, Jessie’s father takes her to see some Sleeping Beauties in the flesh he is astounded that she can see peacefulness, because all he can see are zombies. In the end, I see zombies too; but for a moment, I was able to see both.
Niall identifies precisely the awful dilemma posed by Jessie and her narration: in a future in which no child can be born, since women die of Maternal Death Syndrome in much fewer than nine months, hope is at a premium; and yet the hope obtained by Jessie, that by offering herself up as a sacrifice – her name, like much else in this novel, is not precisely allegorically subtle – can help bring into the world one of the vaccinated babies who will be immune to MDS, is a pyrrhic, fundamentalist’s victory. Indeed, Rogers walks a dangerous line in the light of the ‘pro-natalist’ noise in the USA, and whilst she is deft enough to avoid any endorsement of an anti-abortion agenda (as Niall points out, the reader is in fact forced to examine what pro-choice means), I’m not convinced her novel is quite supple enough to carry the whole weight of her conceit.
Much of this will come down – as Adam Roberts writes in his review of the Clarke Award shortlist, in the context of which Rogers must be seen as a potential winner – to how well the reader gets on with Jessie’s adolescent voice. Nic Clarke is convincing on the subject of its positive aspects, but it is hard for me not to reflect that, if Rogers has so successfully ventriloquised a teenager, she has also carried over the teen’s essential solipsism. As (and the names they keep a-dropping) David Hebblethwaite notes in the comments to Nic’s post, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a narrow sort of science fiction novel; in part, of course, this is because it hails from the literary ghetto, where things other than Niall’s “top-down dystopias” hold sway; but it is also, ultimately, because Jessie is a narrow kind of narrator. “I thought stuff on the news and the papers was for grownups,” she tells us early on. “It was part of their stupid miserable complicated world, it didn’t touch me.” [pg. 5]
The book is in large part a kind of bildungsroman in which Jessie learns you cannot disconnect from that complicated world. Within the short scope of the book, however, Jessie cannot gain the extra maturity necessary to deal with that epiphany: that is, she is old enough to know she must engage, but too young to engage well. The very passages which are so spot-on in terms of the adolescent perspective – “I keep coming back to that,” Jessie grumbles, “that tackiness of Mum and Dad’s lives, which is like treading in chewing gum. They say they believe things, then they don’t act upon them” [pg. 32] – are just the passages which lead Jessie’s adult readers to roll their eyes. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is an exercise in evoking sympathy not just for an unsympathetic perspective, but, from our own perspective, an unjustifiable one.
None of this is helped by Rogers’s depiction of the various causes to which Jessie and her contemporaries attempt to attach themselves. In an effort to find a purpose in a world which seems irreparable – indeed, at times I asked myself if Rogers even needed MDS, given the “wars, floods, famines” and climate change which offer extra texture to her teenagers’ disillusion – the young people Rogers chronicles try animal rights activism, green lifestyles and crude feminism. The former become terrorists, and the latter are caricatures which might have been daubed by a FOX News pundit- they picket research labs and hector audiences (“she called MDS the atom bomb of the sex war” [pg. 62]). Most damningly, the leader of the young greens proves to have quite other motivations for forming his group of teen carbon-busters. “What’s hard is being in someone else’s power,” says one character: Rogers’s point is that the teens must choose for themselves, but every response to the world which isn’t the incremental realism of Jessie’s father seems so thoroughly half-baked that the novel comes dangerously close to being a satire of teen foolishness.
Indeed, it is Jessie’s father who represents the real difficulty for adult readers of the novel: in an attempt to control his daughter’s apparently irrational behaviour, he chains her up and locks her in the house. What Rogers presents is a version of Emma Donoghue’s Room in which the father is a sympathetic figure: for Jessie, the apocalypse is primarily and absurdly about how energised she feels (“I began setting my alarm for 5.30 so I could get more done” [pg. 47]), and she is increasingly opposed to “the nastiness of science, the drugs and tubes and machines” [pg. 156]. In the context of a science fiction novel (and this must be how the novel is read given the Clarke context), this anti-scientific position is difficult to accept, particularly as Rogers gives a lot of time to the belief of Jessie’s father that, should her heroine wait a few years, a solution that does not involve her death will be found. That is, when Jessie’s boyfriend, aggrieved that she is considering leaving him behind, angrily wails, “What’s the point in loving anyone?” [pg. 202], the reader cannot help but begin to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb not as an argument for freedom of choice, but an argument against adolescent despair and histrionic self-sacrifice.
The fundamental tension in Jessie, then – simultaneously her right as an individual not constantly, as she is, to be dismissed as silly and foolish, and yet the patent fact that she is precisely that – is an unresolvable difficulty at the heart of the novel which bears her name. Rogers aims to achieve holistic sympathy, but too often her novel is instead simply uncertain, even confused. There are moments, however, where Rogers convinces us – “The future is an abstract concept, Jess,” her mother sighs, to which the teenager retorts, “No, it’s my child’s and my child’s child” [pg. 206] – and it’s here that her book’s value coheres. The science is not convincing, and there are the usual tics of mainstream SF – “Sounds like a science fiction nightmare,” one character chuckles knowingly [pg. 127] – whilst the certainties of Jessie’s narration (and of Rogers’s design) make for a story a little too inflexible to bend with the stiff winds at its core; but in its insistence that we think outside our own boxes – however uncomfortable this makes us – it is also a kind of call to arms.
“Your reality is my dream,” Jessie writes to her future child, “and I must lose my reality for you to become real.” [pg. 233] That this destructive change upsets us is not necessarily a reason it mustn’t happen. Rogers’s novel – a little too narrow, a little too insistent – isn’t quite the perfect statement of this position, but ultimately it is a work of literary art, not a position paper, and Jessie’s voice is convincing precisely because it is partial. Over at Practically Marzipan, the novel worked more completely for Aisha than it did for me, but her description of it as “a deeply uncomfortable piece of writing” is spot on. I’m not sure The Testament of Jessie Lamb is quite robust enough to collect the gong – but it successfully troubles the mind for longer than perhaps any of its rivals.
The Strange Horizons Clarke Award shortlist review is, as it is every year (hem hem), worthwhile reading. This year, Adam Roberts – who modestly and coquettishly demurs from placing his own novel in his list of this year’s unjust also-rans – has taken the baton. It is impossible for him, too, to narrate this year’s shortlist as anything but a controversial, Sphinx-like offering, begging more than is usual for explication. I was reminded on Twitter this week of the 2005 shortlist, and in that light 2012′s offering is strange beer indeed. If I haven’t quite found a true trainwreck amongst the nominees yet – Roberts is right that The End Specialist is a clumsy, superficial novel, but in the context of the episodic airport thriller it aims to be it passes inoffensively – this is not, alas, the same as saying the shortlist is good.
Amongst the first triad of books he considers, there is only one that Roberts seems genuinely to believe should be on a shortlist of this kind: China Miéville’s Embassytown. Consequently, he spends the largest and most entertaining part of his piece discussing said playful treatise on Language and metaphor. Here’s the money shot: “The problem, if I can put it like this, is that Miéville’s conception of language itself is insufficiently Heideggerian. [...] The ground of Embassytown‘s linguistic conception of veracity (“Everything in Language is a truth claim,” the novel tells us (p. 60)) is parsed via an unexamined correspondence theory of truth [... and this] very lack of dialectical possibility, except in the authorial get out clause of “madness,” in the Host Language vitiates precisely the ground of the novel as a whole.”
Roberts likes the final revolutionary third of Embassytown – when the Hosts learn how to lie and in their conceptual madness destroy the society they have built around their assumptions – but he finds the novel’s central metaphor fatally undermined by an intellectual stumble: baldly (Roberts knows few of his readers will have so thorough a grounding in linguistic philosophy as he), and contra Miéville, it is not useful to conceive of truth as objective. It is at this point, dear reader, that my recent reading collides, and I risk mixing not metaphors but philosophers. Here’s John Lanchester in a recent LRB, on Marx at 193:
In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist. He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated. Since this is what most of us think we’re doing most of the time it marks a fundamental break between Marx and what we call common sense, a notion that was greatly disliked by Marx, who saw it as the way a particular political and class order turns its construction of reality into an apparently neutral set of ideas which are then taken as givens of the natural order. Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.
I don’t think that the blindspot Roberts identifies in Miéville is entirely divorced from this Marxist rejection of empiricism (of which school the Hosts are the fundamentalist wing). Where Heidegger places value on being in the world, Marx prizes changing it. For Marx, empiricism is suspicious precisely because it makes conceptual breakthrough more difficult. In my own post on Embassytown, I wrote that the novel “links language not just to sentience but to will.” I think, and I would say this, that thinking about Miéville’s purpose in this way goes some way to squaring Roberts’s circle: that Language is, as characters in the novel happily accept, impossible – that it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what truth is, and how we can arrive at it, that it is static and didactic – is part of the point. Remember Iron Council, that other Marxian Miéville novel which shouldn’t have won the Clarke Award? Embassytown‘s like that, but a bit better. It’s about steaming away from common sense.
I’m not really arguing with Professor Roberts – in fact, I agree with practically every word of his review (though maybe not with “tweedledumtweedledee-ish”), and Miéville’s self-imposed difficulty is that he has muddied the waters between language and politics - but it’s worth adding this warp to the weft of his critique. Indeed, to follow through on my emerging theme for this year’s shortlist, Embassytown is about creating a new kind of community. That can only be done, within the confines of Embassytown’s exploitative capitalist model, by rejecting precisely the anti-Heideggerian conception of truth Roberts identifies. If you’re to change the world, you first have to change the way you think – and if you’re to depict that change, you must depict the way of thinking that holds it back. Embassytown can be seen, for better or worse, to literalise this process in Language. Its shortcomings – and, like Besźel and Ul Qoma before it, Language certainly has them – are, in its defence, part of the point.
I think I’m right in saying that the only time I am cited as an authority about anything in that bastion of accumulated knowledge, Wikipedia, is on the subject of alien space bats. In 2005, you understand, I reviewed a novel by Ken Macleod entitled Learning The World. I had some significant issues with it, not least of all that the reader had to know the author’s world – the context of his book’s composition – before they could get much of anything out of its mirthful reinvention of the first contact scenario. (We might, on the topic of jokes requiring foreknowledge, be reminded of another recent controversy.)
What struck me as I read Greg Bear’s latest novel Hull Zero Three was that it could easily have shared a title with Macleod’s: told from the first person perspective of a character known as Teacher, it is set on a huge space-faring object, Ship, which consists of three 12km spurs attached to a central moon it mines for fuel. Ship, dispatched centuries ago from the Oort cloud a light-year from the Earthling Sun, traverses the eons in search of a new home for its biological cargo. When Teacher first awakes from Dreamtime, a sort of Ship-directed programmatic primer for its bio-chambered crew, he is thoroughly confused – nothing, from Ship’s untended corridors to its feral defense mechanisms, make sense to him. He, like us, must learn his world.
Bear’s earlier work has left me cold. Most noticeably, Eon (1985) was an awful slog of a novel, praised for the fidelity of its science but a thorough-going failure in terms of its art. What Bear has achieved in Hull Zero Three is therefore doubly impressive: as Jonathan Wright has noted at, er, SFX, Bear has pared down his writing, and his exposition, to its very essentials – and in so doing has written something not just readable but at times rather compelling. Ship is, as Teacher learns, a vast, unknowable thing – the novel provides answers for many of the central puzzles it poses, but at the same time leaves room for impressionistic wonder. There is no doubt that Ship operates to rules, but Bear resists writing them all out verbatim. This makes not just for a better novel, but for oddly more impressive speculation.
Bear’s tactic is, however, a timeworn one: he sets up a number of questions early on and then refuses to answer them. There are a little over 300 pages in this novel, and as late as the 266th a character can say, “But maybe – just maybe – we have enough clues that we can finally make good decisions.” One question – revolving around a mysterious silvery phantom which appears to Teacher but to no one else – is literally not answered until the final page, and then only hesitantly. To Bear’s credit, few are the moments when the reader audibly groans at this almost endless tease – he manages tension particularly well throughout the novel, and achieves a level of characterisation amongst the almost unrecognisably augmented and engineered shipmates with whom Teacher casts his lot – the long-limbed engineer, Nell, or the space age bouncer-with-a-conscience, Tsinoy – which manages to intrigue if not quite engage. Within the confines of a hard SF novel, these kinds of treat are relatively rare fruits.
On the other hand, Hull Zero Three cannot quite escape its own structures. A book which is, half-way through, still describing scenes and situations to a bemused and disoriented reader and narrator with impressi0nistic partiality is failing quite to work as a living, breathing novel. At one point, we’re told, “This much is clear. Ship makes people and stuff as it goes along.” [pg. 114] This is all very well, but in this context a novel structured by problems and solutions will grow preponderantly messy. In the course of the second half of the novel, Bear reins in matters – we learn more about why Teacher doesn’t recognise the malfunctioning Ship, why life-size antibodies are intent are murdering all the organic matter they can find, and what Ship programmes its crews to do in the event that the shadowy clique known as Destination Guidance selects a planet for colonisation which is already populated. But to one extent or another, by this time Hull Zero Three is simply clearing up its own mess. Like most messes, the reader wants to see it cleaned – but that’s not quite the same thing as admiring the artistry of the cleaner.
Much of Bear’s novel rests on the concept of the seedship as toolkit. “Not all suitable planets are going to be exactly like Earth,” Teacher realises. “So colonists come in a variety of styles, suited to particular environments.” [pg. 203] Hull Zero Three asks what the implications might be for and of beings who have learned their world not through direct experience but purposeful imprinting. This is a novel, in the best tradition of hard SF, about nothing except itself – but in these times of systemic crisis devoid of alternative systems, Bear’s questions and answers strike broader chords. Gary Wolfe has pointed out the novel’s weird similarities to Alice in Wonderland – in one vivid and memorable scene, Teacher encounters a caterpillar-like creature taken and trades Caroll lyrics with her – and Hull Zero Three seems to me mostly to be about how we can any longer, and with moral purpose, create new worlds for ourselves. If all this doesn’t quite hang together as neatly as a Clarke winner perhaps must, the jury have nevertheless rewarded a novel of intellectual, emotional and even literary merit. And you don’t have to be in on the joke to get it.
Posted April 7, 2012on:
Every Clarke Award shortlist has a slot for the outsider, the mainstream science fiction novel, or the slipstreamy not-quite-anything piece. This year, that slot is filled, one would assume at first glance, by Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, a refugee from the Booker longlist which has made a longer run of it in the genre award stakes. I’ve yet to get to that volume, but having read Drew Magary’s The End Specialist, which is conversely sold in the science fiction sections of the bookshops and has been reviewed by a slew of genre bloggers (though apparently no one else), I feel like I’ve found this year’s true naïf.
Published in the USA under the title of The Postmortal, Magary’s debut novel does exactly what it says on its American tin: in 2019, a cure for death becomes widely available, first on the black market and then, following riots demanding its legalisation, through the healthcare system. Following a short prologue set in 2093, which makes clear that the world (and for the world, we must read ‘the USA’) survives the cure in only the loosest sense, we join our narrator, John Farrell, in his journey through the forty-or-so years of his immortality. Like the police in Rule 34, Farrell uses a LifeRecorder to document his life, and this provides us an archive of ‘blog posts’, grouped into sections often separated by a decade or more, through which we can read his future history.
Farrell is a passive kind of protagonist, to whom things happen – he is given access to the cure through a friend and doesn’t really think through his choice to take it, and later he suffers bereavements and career changes largely it seems by accident. Magary’s choice to skip whole swathes of his protagonist’s story leaves so many gaps in not just his history but his characterisation that the only justified conclusion we can draw about Farrell is that he is intensely solipsistic. Perhaps this is the point – the doctor who undertakes the procedure with Farrell remarks that it is vanity that powers every individual to opt for immortality, and later in the novel we are introduced to the Church of Man, which opts to worhsip not a deity but humankind itself. So curious an alignment of self-absorption with passivity, however, conspires to produce a strangely featureless narrator.
In his acknowledgements, Magary cites his agent as the figure responsible for turning a ‘masturbatory idea dump’ into a novel, and in this crude fashioning of his protagonist – and, so cursory are his writerly glances at anyone else, his only real character – there appears to be the remnant of Magary’s rougher, poorer draft. Indeed, the editing appears only to have provided a stronger through-line in the episodic second half of the novel, which piles scene upon scene to no great effect. One of the greatest weaknesses of The End Specialist is that its plot is insufficiently muscular: this is a novel written and structured like an airport thriller, like a Hollywood blockbuster, and yet it lacks the thundering engine of story that kind of work requires. The closest thing Farrell’s disjointed jaunt through the deleterious effects of immortality has to a plot comes in the shape of a woman, a uniquely beautiful blonde he first sees at his cure doctor’s offices; Farrell makes some considerable hullabullaloo about this individual in the first third of the novel, but she disappears for the middle third before returning in its final straight. We learn that her name is Solara Beck and that, far from being the driver of a novel’s hidden events – which, with her connections to several bombings and her uncanny ability to disappear, we may have hoped her to be – she turns out to be a damsel in distress who provides Farrell, within a few pages of rapid conversion from nihilist to knight, his chance at redemption.
This is clumsy, ill-paced stuff, and Magary’s treatment of Beck is of a piece with his treatment of anyone in his novel who isn’t male and American. Women either die or get divorced; other nations, in particular China and Russia, are depicted as dark, barbaric places, governable only through dictatorship and devilry. The End Specialist is a dark book because it posits that the openness and faith in humanity professed by the reasonable American president who legalises the cure in the face of mass protest is ill-suited to a world of depleting resources and human venality. It’s hard not to read the book as an allegory for climate change – which is nevertheless conspicuous in its absence from Magary’s 2059, suffering from over-population but not rising sea levels or intolerable summers. Our earth, too, is having trouble keeping up with the “epidemic of living” [pg. 226], and, in depicting a savage future governed solely by human want, Magary provides a circumlocutory riposte to the shock-jock talkshow hosts of his own world: “See, this [...] is liberal thinking at its absolute worst. [...] Humans are bad. ‘Oh, you can’t live forever! You’ll emit too much carbon! You’ll throw away too much garbage! An owl will die!” [pg. 33] The implications of his riposte, however, are not thought through: if not liberal democracy, and if not unjustifiable brutality, then what?
This is a pity, because otherwise the principal achievement of The End Specialist is the detail with which it extrapolates from its central conceit. The cure itself is surely a nonsense scientifically: “what this involves is me taking a sample of your DNA,” says John’s doctor, “then finding and altering – or, more precisely, deactivating – a specific gene in your DNA, and then reintroducing it to your body” [pg. 6]. Given that little absurdity, however, The End Specialist exhaustively explores a world in which death has been abolished. Indeed, and especially early on, the novel at times takes on rather too Socratic an air, with characters talking to each other about complex ethical issues. Likewise, Magary recalls a less economical John Brunner, pouring in endless quotes from ‘newsfeeds’ and ‘streams’, interviews and videos, which paint in yet further detail. The occassional cartoonish of this detail – the baby-branding Chinese (“what else do you expect from a country that tattoos newborns?” [pg. 320]) and the unconscionable rationalism of the Russians (“dictatorship was not an option, but a necessity” [pg. 277]) – doesn’t help Magary’s case, but at the same time he can nail human nature with some pith: “I’m guessing there will be a point where [the cure is] legal and everyone has it and I feel obligated to get it too,” grumbles Farrell’s sister. “I was like that with cell phones.” [pg. 63]
Unfortunately, Magary’s structure creaks under the weight of all these discursive detours – tellingly, in an interview with the AV Club he seems to persist in understanding the first and second halves of the novels as separate entities. Furthermore, beyond this illusion of detail, and the witticisms and wisecracks which are his strength, his material is undeniably thin. There’s a moment when Farrell is selecting his ‘grail’ – there comes a fashion for all postmortals to own a little cup like Christ’s – when Magary inserts Indiana Jones into his text. Much of The End Specialist feels received in this way, as if Jonathan Swift made all the salient points about immortality in 1726 and Magary’s job is merely to insert smartphones into the milieu. For all his invention – the eponymous job title belongs to government-sanctioned euthanisers, for instance, and their opposite numbers come to be the fanatical ‘Greenies’, internet trolls made flesh who seek to spoil postmortality with violence and torture – there remains in the air between these pages a certain staleness: “cheap suits flooded the hallway and skittered around like vermin, [pg. 370]“, for example, is a clause powered purely by cliché.
In that AV Club interview, Magary confesses that he discovered only once he had completed his novel that Kurt Vonnegut had written a short story about precisely the same concept (one assumes he means ’2 B R o 2B’). It’s this ignorance of its forebears, of course, which leads The End Specialist, despite its accumulated variety of incident and its comedic deftness, ultimately to read thinly and clumsily. I can see why those former qualities were deemed by the Clarke judges as reason enough to honour the book with a spot on the shortlist; I struggle, however, to understand how they trumped the similar qualities of other books which did not exhibit the latter demerits to quite so pronounced a degree.