Books, science fiction

“A Proof of Sincerity”: Sherri S Tepper’s “The Waters Rising”

"I have never felt so well planned for," grouched Abasio.

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.

Books, science fiction

“I Don’t Know What To Think”: Jane Rogers’s “The Testament of Jessie Lamb”

Anti-science SF?

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 choosethisThe 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.



Books, science fiction

“A knowledge of each other; a community”: Heidegger and “Embassytown”

"Mmm, gnarly quiddity."

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.

Books, science fiction

“Illusion is everything, after all”: Greg Bear’s “Hull Zero Three”

Through the looking glass, darkly.

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.

Books, science fiction

“Nobility Sounds Wonderful As A Concept”: Drew Magary’s “The End Specialist”

"Climate Change. Boy, I don't know."

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.