“It Felt Like A Memory File”: Becky Chambers’s “A Closed and Common Orbit”

aclosedandcommonorbitThe winner of the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award will be announced this evening, only a day after the publication of a longlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. This coincidence offers some salutary lessons: of the thirteen books on that longlist, one was also shortlisted for the Clarke (the Whitehead), several more will be seen as the usual suspects (Barry, Smith, Smith), and others have been the recipients of critical monsterings (most memorably the Auster). That is, at the very pinnacle of a literary culture sits a list of books that is open to in some cases even shared sniping and squabbling, and debates about what an award – what literature – is for.

The Clarke is not so special nor so different; it is certainly in many ways not so very much weaker. This year’s debate has to some extent revolved around the Shadow Clarke jury, and in a post on their blog Helen Marshall has more or less confirmed what we all knew about its founding  assumptions and purpose: “Fandom is changing,” she argues. “Having spent much of the twentieth century on the edges of literary culture, what was once marginal is now thoroughly mainstream.” In other words, the Clarke has begun to reward works which reflect that shift, and the Shadow Clarke was established to push back a little. This might seem serious, but I refer you again, dear reader, to that big kahuna of literary awards: just a few years ago, a huge Booker furore exploded upon Chris Mullin suggesting that a book being a good read might be a reason to give it a prize. Consequently, the Folio Award was established as a sort of snobbier Booker. These sorts of internecine skirmishes are not exclusive to science fiction, and they are not fatal for the Clarke.

In their roundtable discussion of Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit, the Sharkes came closest to foregrounding the despair they feel over the direction perhaps not just of the Clarke but the genre it celebrates. “The only thing I can equate it with is binge-watching something unchallenging like Gilmore Girls,” says Victoria Hoyle at one point, “which is something I also do from time to time. It’s no work at all; it keeps my brain monkeys busy and it’s distant from the tension and challenge of the real world.” Jonathan McCalmont suggests that in the course of the book, and in the tradition of a certain stripe of SF, instead of “tediously delivering watered-down physics lectures, the characters deliver diversity 101 talking points!” If you listen carefully, you hear the dread words “accessibility” on the air. Vajra Chandrasekera delivers the coup de grace: “I do very much think that books like ACACO get included in award shortlists because the current state of the discourse is such that (a) not only is there is no distinction being made between “I like this” and “this is good”, much less “this is popular” and “this is important”, but (b) there is a widespread perception that making those distinctions is elitist or exclusionary.” I fear it may have ever been thus.

There has been throughout the Shadow Clarkes’ deliberations a sense of frustration that science fiction may have changed its guard, swapped its gatekeepers. One of its members, Paul Kincaid, was once the award administrator and even chair of the judges; a certain sort of Brit SF fan has long felt an ownership of the Clarke. Under its current administrator, Tom Hunter, the award has moved away from the ground it once occupied – and arguably toward a more marketised vision of the genre. As I’ve suggested in my pieces on the shortlist so far, however, I think this shift can be over-emphasised. Ninefox Gambit may seem to be mil-SF and may have a spaceship on the cover; but I think it’s doing rather more interesting things with the genre than Occupy Me, a novel by something of a Clarke shortlist stalwart.

All that said, if the Sharkes have a single effective weapon aimed at this softest tissue of the current Clarke, it is A Closed and Common Orbit. This is a novel which eschews high style (“Run!” Her muscles said it, too: Run. Run! So she did”). It is a novel which is over-declarative (“A whole generation of kids grew up with this, and I shit you not, about ten standards later, you start seeing a big shift in Diaspora politics”). It is a novel with a programmatic structure – alternating chapters from alternating points of view, delivered from clear and controlled points in narrative-time – and in which every science fictional conceit is well-worn and familiar (robot bodies, interstellar travel, clones and smugglers and humanoid aliens). It’s a sequel (to a novel shortlisted for the Clarke last year). It’s part of a series. It’s comfortable.

But as Mike Vago at The AV Club points out, for all these trappings the novel is actually a quite coherent character study. Linda Wilson and Maggie Clark at Strange Horizons – no slouch, either of these – read and enjoyed first Chambers’ debut and now this second book. “Life as we think we know it can change at any time,” argues Clark – and in this there is a rationale for the book’s often gentle worldbuilding … because its characters are as children. Of course, this opens the novel up to Maureen Speller’s criticism in that Sharke roundtable that A Closed and Common Orbit – purportedly the story of a clone on the run from the slave labour in which she grew up, and an AI implanted into a “kit” body desperately trying to cling to an identity prejudice would remove from her – is, in its understated and over-demonstrative style, more like the Famous Five than Blade Runner: all jolly hockey sticks and cosy danger. There’s some truth to this; but there’s also something missing from the analysis.

Progressives tend to rest on their laurels. Once “woke”, individuals tend to assume the eternal nature of their verities. Science fiction of the Shadow Clarke stripe is progressive by inclination and effect – and it can be frustrating to refight old battles, indeed to wrap up the lessons of the New Wave in the accessible format of the Golden Age. We did that, right? Have we lived and fought in vain? But only yesterday, the President of the United States tweeted that transgender people are no longer welcome in “his” military. Sometimes SF should, must and will go over old ground. A Closed and Common Orbit is a big-selling novel that uses the trappings of SF, and its new-found mainstream audience, to clumsily and occasionally cloth-earedly tell an important story of an AI swapping their body and choosing an identity anew:

If you had asked me what my purpose was, I would have responded [that I was there to protect people]. It would have been the truth, and it would’ve satisfied me. But the moment I was put into this body, that was no longer the case. […] After you helped me be able to edit my own code, scrubbing that file clean was one of the first things I did. But I didn’t delete the file itself. I couldn’t delete it, because I wanted to figure out what should be written there instead. And that’s the trick of it, see. That’s the logical fallacy that was passed on to me. If I’m nothing more than a tool, then I must have a purpose. Tools have purposes, right? But I’m more than that. […] I know I’m a person, even if the GC doesn’t think so.

Sometimes, alas, we all need to retake Diversity 101. The Clarke is not an award for the most well-meaning SF novel of the year; but it is no great sin that in these days it may see part of its remit in this way.

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