Books, science fiction

“Talk About A Lost Cause”: Tricia Sullivan’s “Occupy Me”

Proceeding more or less at random along the 2017 Athur C Clarke Award shortlist, Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me follows Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad with in most ways something of a jolt. In particular, it feels like a going-backwards: Whitehead’s book feels so on the bubble of the zeitgeist that its very existence seems improbable; Sullivan’s, from its title onwards, reads as just slightly behind the curve. Squatting in Wall Street or outside St Paul’s feels so very 2011 – and events have moved with such ferocious speed in the last half-decade that, especially for a work of science fiction, that historical moment already feels weirdly distant.

At the same time, the style and voice of Occupy Me feels familiar to anyone who read British science fiction in the first decade of the twenty-first century. I was taken to task on Twitter by m’learned friend Niall Harrison for suggesting in my last post that this year’s Clarke had occassioned more than the usual level of controversy. I’m happy to yield to him on the basis that measuring controversy is as a science controversial; but he agreed with me that this year’s spat was unusual at least in its ratio of heat to light. One such aspect of all this has been an argument about what the Clarke should reward; Occupy Me certainly resembles, in a faded kind of way, some of the Clarke’s greatest hits and unluckiest runners-up.

The novel focuses on Pearl, an “angel” working with the Resistance, a sort of dispersed network of do-gooders who somehow carefully select individuals on whom to bestow acts of small but transformative kindness. Pearl has wings, and a body that can extend physically and in more than three dimensions. She has no memory of her origins, and the Resistance is quickly ushered from centre-stage even as it becomes clear that it is connected in some way to an oil tycoon’s apparent murder at the hands of his personal physician, a native of a nation his company destroyed in its search for fuel to burn; the doctor, we know, is being in turn controlled by a presence able to lurk and then direct his consciousness.

In its politics – “you can’t even imagine a world where the powerful don’t determine everyone’s fate by thuggery and domination” [p. 236] – Occupy Me recalls Charles Stross, and most obviously, in its thriller structure and rapid pace, his Rule 34 [2011], which was nominated for the Clarke Award. In its albeit limited exploration of a near-future England, it recalls Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love (2003), which was nominated for and won the Clarke Award; and in its consideration of physicality and gender it has some echoes of the work of Justina Robson, who has been twice nominated – once in 2000 and again in 2002. Primarily and most prominently, however, Sullivan – herself a former winner of the award, in 1999 for Dreaming in Smoke – recalls M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy, the second volume of which won the Clarke in 2007. You may be detecting a theme.

Occupy Me is, like Harrison’s series, a quantum novel. It begins with instructions for the use of a “waveform launcher”, and the reader struggles to understand what one of these is throughout the course of the narrative. It manifests itself in the form of a briefcase, is in reality a sort of amputated organ of Pearl’s, and powers the extended chase sequence which forms the spine of Sullivan’s plot. Ultimately, we learn that it was built by a race of scavengers, who are fleeing a catastrophe that destroyed their civilisation (this is at one point awkwardly referred to as a “cosmic credit crunch”), and who, in a surely deliberate nod, physically resemble the Shrander from Harrison’s first Kefahuchi novel, Light (2002) – or, indeed, the garuda of China Miéville’s Clarke-winning Perdido Street Station (2000). Here they are on the nature of their McGuffin:

-It contains waveforms we have scanned up and down the length and breadth of time. Snapshots of things that were coming to an end. Back before the Event isolated us, we recorded them.

What kind of things?

-Many kinds. Of course species. But also languages are gone. Cultures are gone. Skills, habits, ways of knowing. Ecosystems are gone. [p. 215]

In other words, the creatures are trying to save those kinds of thing which capitalism – at least as embodied by that apparently murdered oil tycoon, who has in fact been stuffed and stowed into the briefcase – currently destroys on our own planet. But, we come to see, the scavengers’ solution is partial, since it is no less commodifying than the capitalist urge: “When you take the waveform of a person […] you also take their attachments [… T]here is a severance that can never be repaired” [p. 217]. As Pearl finds herself collapsing between various quantum states, and learning about the Immanence, a pre-civilisational intelligence that has left its traces throughout reality and across time, she comes to understand, like the serial-killer scientist Michael Kearney in Light before her, that the schlock genre novel she is a part of is in fact rather grander and rarer than it seems.

I was reminded as I read Occupy Me of a 2007 essay in the critical journal Foundation. Writen by that sage of the Gothic, Professor David Punter, it argued that Light held out the possibility of “a key to all mysteries”: “we at last see, writ large, a modern, or perhaps postmodern, trope: one might see the Kefahuchi Tract precisely as the end, or beginning, of all master-narratives” [Foundation, 36:99, p. 86]. In Sullivan’s novels, the Immanence performs a similar function: it’s möbius-strip embrace, punching through time and space as it does, lies at both the beginning and end of not just the novel’s story, but it’s entire univere’s. Primordial soup and dinosaurs feature, and so do space stations, and the collapse of stars. Occupy Me aims at a totality.

The novel comes to us, however, at the raggedy finish of the tail-end of the “British boom” bell curve – and reads like it. Partly, this is a question of freshness, of the difficulty of being novel when too many ideas compete for too little space: few of Sullivan’s ideas have not been dealt with more fully elsewhere. Partly, it’s a question of control – the novel feels regularly as if it is about to shake loose of its moorings, and while in some hands and in some contexts this can be exciting in Sullivan’s and in this novel it is only unnerving. Though the book begins with a document insert – that instruction pamphlet – this technique evaporates even more rapidly than the Resistance; and, though its thriller structure provides a clear through-line, the novel’s pacing is bumpy as it proceeds from a bravely pyrotechnic opening through an extended chase and on into a more ontological final third. There are odd disjunctions of tone, too, as Sullivan’s thinly sketched near future UK comes to lack the ballast necessary to hold its own against the asteroid belts and prehistoric swamps of Pearl’s quantum-hopping: at one point, the angel’s ally, the likeable and redoubtable Scottish veterinarian Alison,  bathetically saves the day by growling, as if suddenly pastiching a 1970s conspiracy romp, “if I don’t return safely in forty-eight hours all of this will be released to the press” [p. 224]. In a novel which also features a chapter entitled “Dino battle BOOM”, this chimes oddly.

There’s a lot in this novel – about commodification, and how one may do good in an itemised world, and what is and is not worth saving, anyway – but I’m not sure Sullivan is successful in finding the right frame, the right vehicle, for all this. Occupy Me is an awkward novel, and I couldn’t shake the sense that part of this gawkiness is a bashfulness in the face of the anxiety of influence. If the question at the heart of this year’s Clarke kerfuffles is “what sort of books should the award be recognising?”, then Occupy Me is trying to be precisely that kind of book – or at least exemplifies the sort of book that once reliably appeared in its shortlists. That, despite its lineage, its worthiness and its wisdom, it feels a little hackneyed and cannot quite cohere suggests why there is an argument that the Clarke, like SF itself, has moved on.

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