“Paying Attention To The Right Words”: Yoon Ha Lee’s “Ninefox Gambit”

In his recent book on the First World War battle of Passchendaele, the military historian (and – full disclosure – personal friend) Nick Lloyd goes to some lengths to disprove the long-standing contention that the senior British staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell once said, on viewing the field at Passchendaele, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” To what extent those who order war understand or perceive its consequences is also the theme of Ninefox Gambit, a book of a rather different hue but one which has found itself shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in the centenerary year of that slice of Belgian bedlam.

Ninefox Gambit is the story of Captain Kel Cheris, an infantry officer of the grunt class serving a fascistic interstellar empire known as the hexarchate. We first meet her in the midst of a fierce battle on the frontiers of the regime, where her unit is in battle against a force of “heretics” – the catch-all term used by the hexarchate to describe those of its members who deviate from its brutally enforced orthodoxy, the calendar (belief in which seems not just to empower the regime but also its weaponry and technologies). Paradoxically, Cheris prevails in this battle only because she opts to employ a formation not endorsed or imagined by the hexarchate and its strict codebook of tactics and strategies.

This, plus her deep understanding of and affinity for mathematics, makes her an ideal tool in the plots of a key figure in the government, and Cheris soon finds herself implanted with the memories and personality of Shuos Jedao, a long-dead member of the regime’s caste of strategists. Jedao was once responsible for genocide so gross even the hexarchate condemned both it and its perpetrator. Together, he and Cheris are tasked with the recovery of the Fortress of Shattered Needles, a central node in the hexarchate’s interstellar network that has fallen to a set of heretics which, we come to learn, proceed from an exiled caste of ethicists and philosophers intent on an unheard-of form of governance known as “democracy”.

None of this is imparted as cleanly or as straightforwardly as I endeavour to achieve above. Ninefox Gambit, and its author Yoon Ha Lee, is instead intent on full-immersion worldbuilding. Its opening chapters are especially challenging, and throughout its length the novel tends toward the gnomic. Most obviously, it never explains how the calendar works, or how the simple act of dissenting from it – of heresy – might cause “calendrical rot” and the unraveling not just of the hexarchate’s power but the efficacy of its science as well as its societal control. One assumes that Lee is gesturing in part at the power of the concept of time: in just the way that moving from sundial to clock enabled the industrial revolution but also encouraged the kinds of mindset that perpetuate and embody its continuing conceptual dominance, the hexarchate’s calendar imposes upon its inhabitants a certain shared reality (“Time happens to everyone,” observes Jedao). It might also be suggested that aspects of virtual and augmented reality have become so embedded in the far future that the corruption of calendrical mathematics also corrupts the very source code of that consensus.

However this functions in detail, the obsession with orthodoxy is the background against which the novel’s themes play – since the hexarchate denies individuality in order to enforce its enabling intellectual system. War, too, denies individuality: armies must move as single units, battalions must march forwards even as its constituent members fall to grapeshot; the military-SF form Lee adopts therefore inhabits, too, the mindset of the hexarchate – and his scenes of war brutally emphasise this vicious utilitarianism. For example, Cheris, and all other Kel, are indoctrinated with “formation instinct”, a will to stand as part of the combat unit so strong that nothing – not imminent death or horrific pain – can break it. In one scene, Cheris recalls her academy years, during which she and her fellow trainees were injected with an intense phobia for insects – and then covered with bugs whilst being ordered to stand firm:

They tasted her skin and prodded the crevices of her taut hands. At one point her face was heavy with clinging servitors and their cold weight. She tried not to blink when silver antennae waved right in front of her eyes. She was gripped by the fancy that it was going to insert an antenna into her pupil and force it open, wider, wider, crawl in through her optic nerve and take up residence in the crenellations of her brain, lay eggs in the secret nodes of nerve and fatty tissue.

The formation required that they hold fast. Cheris held fast. She thought at first that the strange frozen calm was the phobia, but realized it was the formation. She was taking succor from her massed comrades, just as they did from her. Even when a spiderform paused at the corner of her mouth, even when she was shaking with the effort of not swatting it aside, she would have done anything to avoid breaking formation.

Three cadets broke. Damningly, the servitors didn’t pursue them. They only harassed people who belonged.

This sort of passage makes pretty clear (if he hadn’t also said so in interviews) that Lee does not believe the hexarchate is redeemable on any level, nor that he needs to take time to convince us of this; indeed, the novel takes for granted that we share its instinctive distaste for the regime. One of the first things we read in the novel is Cheris dismissing her academy instructor’s suggestion that there is a comfort to be drawn from corpses; not much later in the novel, one of its most senior figures reflects that, “Someday someone might come up with a better government, one in which brainwashing and the remembrances’ ritual torture weren’t an unremarkable fact of life. Until then, he did what he could.” This is not the novel having its cake and eating it: the hexarchate is more horrific for it having space in its iron grip for widespread understanding of its failings. It isn’t simply convenient for Lee that his protagonists can be sympathetic in their awareness of the hexarchate’s evil; it is a crucial part of its oppressive make-up that despite widespread grievance it remains the only choice.

What emerges in the course of the novel is a sense that in this context empathy is radical. Lee is a Korean-American, and in Korean myth the nine-tailed fox, as I understand it, carries with it a bead which, if eaten by a human, grants special knowledge. Not coincidentally, Cheris gains access to all of Jedao’s memories by eating something, too – and in coming to understand the disgraced general completely she makes a conceptual breakthrough of her own. In other words, by getting to know someone other than herself on an individual level – by achieving total empathy – Cheris begins to break the grip of the hexarchate on her understandings of the world. In being fused with Cheris, so too does Jedao – whose previous quest to destroy the hexarchate from within through brutal slaughter is shown too fully to inhabit his enemy’s own paradigms. “A Lanterner’s life had worth the way a heptarchate soldier’s life had worth,” realises Cheris/Jedao. “A life was a life. It was a simple equation, but she hadn’t been a mathematician then, and Kel Command had failed to understand the notation.”

All of which makes the manner in which Ninefox Gambit has been received by some doubly baffling. I mentioned in my review of After Atlas a thread on the Shadow Clarke website in which Lee’s novel was used to foreground some tricky assumptions that critics of the Shadow Clarke have suggested are being made by its jury. Likewise, in the comment thread attached to Jonathan McCalmont’s review of Ninefox Gambit, Niall Harrison engages in an ultimately frustrating debate about what a critic should or should not – can and cannot – know about any given novel’s background and context. In truth, it seems to me, Niall is simply trying to tell Jonathan that his review is insufficiently alive to the novel’s particularities, and how they are separate from the characteristics that McCalmont has decided beforehand “good” science fiction should demonstrate. In using the novel’s  mil-SF trappings as a means of condemning their perceptions of the Clarke’s “commerciality”, several of the jury have failed to take Ninefox Gambit on its own terms and perceive the trickier novel – the craftier kumiho – that it truly is. Lee is reaching beyond the staid debates of Anglo-American SF. He is using mil-SF against itself. Thankfully, one of the Shadow Clarke’s number, Nick Hubble, waxes more positively and capaciously

The constraints on Cheris are both the repressive pattern of the hexarchate and the narrative patterns of generic space opera/ milsf but hope lies in there being a reality outside these restrictive formulae.

[…] The global balance of power is not in the process of shifting but has already shifted from the West to China and Asia more generally (Brexit and Trump are consequences of this shift). Rather than generic forms of fiction becoming obsolete, they are going to grow in significance, as suggested by the success of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. The challenge is to change the pattern of these generic models to generate new and non-repressive meanings by which people can live by in the fullness of the universe.

This seems to me to get closer to what is special about Ninefox Gambit – and why it is a worthy Clarke nominee. If the novel does not achieve what Hubble describes so well as Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, that is not so surprising given the latter’s quality. If at times Ninefox Gambit inevitably exhibits the utilitarian prose of mil-SF, or its programmatic structures, it breaks through these with abandon in its final fifth; if it’s characters begin as unempathetic ciphers it is because they are meant to be; and if its worldbuilding posits the hexarchate calendar almost as magic then we might reflect on how an Anglo-Saxon would perceive a smartphone. What appear to be bugs in this novel are very much features … and given hexarchate training techniques I use the word “bug” advisedly.

“A Sudden Appreciation”: Emma Newman’s “After Atlas”

The ghost at the feast of my consideration so far of 2017’s Clarke Award shortlist has been the Shadow Clarke. I’ve referred to it directly or obliquely a few times in my reviews of the Tidhar, the Sullivan, and the Whitehead; but I’ve not engaged properly with its proceedings. One reason for this is that, despite its jury being made up entirely of people I respect and in some cases work with regularly, I have always been a bit iffy about it as a concept. Awards are subjective things by their nature; setting up a parallel track, a formalised shadow group which will consider the same books and offer their own opinions, is replete with the potential for unhelpful gang warfare. Once begun, this sort of stuff ends in the literary trenches. Awards are subjective; whatever the frustrations with the Clarke in recent years – and there have been frustrations, and those frustrations have fed into into the Shadow Clarke’s existence – I’m not inclined in that context to agitate too actively for a fixed vision of what the Clarke should be.

That said, Emma Newman’s After Atlas is an excellent example of how and why the Shadow Clarke, hosted by the Anglia Ruskin Center for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and chaired by the inestimable Nina Allan, might have a role. It is a police procedural set in a future in which states have given way to corporations as governing entities; indenture has replaced wage labour as the primary economic relationship between those corporations and the individuals who staff them; and everyone is connected via implants, with data exceedingly open even as liberty is exceedingly circumscribed. In other words, the world is a dystopia; the kink here is that no one really realises it – the way the world is has become, of course, just the way the world is.

The worldbuilding required to sketch this future is rather well done. Newman has a lot of information to impart, and yet never seems to infodump egregiously. Much of this is achieved so elegantly via extensive (ab)use of the the first person narration, which enables Newman to reflect at length, but also with an eye for the direct impacts of her world’s governing structures upon an individual we come to know well: “Even though I hated having to ask permission to be trapped in my contract for longer – as if it were some sort of privilege to have to apply for the money to make my life bearable and then pay for it with my own freedom – at least I could. […] I worked so damn hard to be owned by the right kind of corporate entity” [pp. 272-3]. This vision of the contract as a mortgage – borrow a little money to buy some real steak, rather than the 3D-printed version eaten by almost everyone in After Atlas, at the cost of extra years as property of your employer – feels more real, more granular, for being experienced first-hand.

That said, Newman comes to over-rely on her narrator, Ministry of Justice detective Carlos Moreno, and the dialogue he exchanges with the range of witnesses, friends, and antagonists whom he encounters. In part, of course, After Atlas shares this with most police procedurals, and with much genre fare; there is an argument that the Clarke should indeed be rewarding competently representative novels such as this. It is not coincidence, however, that, among the Shadow Clarke Jury, the books on this year’s shortlist that were least popular were also the most generic, nor that the set of characteristics which these novels share have been coralled by the Shadow Clarke under an umbrella marked “commercial”: there is also a view, and it is the view as far as I can see that powers the Shadow Clarke, that the Clarke exists to reward not the most representative but the most exceptional, and that in recent years it has been doing the opposite. In a roundtable discussion about the shortlist, one panel member, Paul Kincaid, expressed this preference most strongly: “If an award reflects the field as it stands, then the field is standing still. I believe that science fiction has to continually change in order to survive, and awards should therefore reflect such change.”

The question of what is innovation, and what sort of change we should seek or reward, is rarely addressed fully by the Shadow Clarke. In the comments to that roundtable discussion, Martin Lewis makes some good points, chief among them that “the use of ‘commercial’ [as a label] is really unhelpful and leads in some unfortunate directions”. Those unfortunate directions involve in part an important consideration of the role race plays both in how works of science fiction are received, how they are published in the first place, and how and what we should reward in them. Martin goes on to show how Ninefox Gambit, by the Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee, is “dismissed as commercial even as Lee is dismissed as a slave to vested interests”. Lewis’s punchline? “‘Vajra [the jury’s only POC] felt strongly that the problem was more complex’ – funny that.”

The point of all this, other than to pre-empt my review of Ninefox Gambit, is to demonstrate that to dismiss After Atlas as “commercial” is to make a set of assumptions. Paul Kincaid, in his Shadow Clarke review of Newman’s novel, attempts to redefine the division between “literary” and “commercial” as one between “mode” and “genre”; but in his concluding paragraph he reverts, almost inevitably, to the nomenclature of the marketplace which looms over the first of those bifurcations: “This is, in other words, what used to be known as an entertaining midlist title.” There’s more than the whiff of the sniffy about this, and it’s not entirely earned: as Nina Allan says in her characteristically nuanced piece on the novel, “I can see an argument for shortlisting After Atlas as an example of the flexibility of contemporary science fiction in its use of different genre materials to create new kinds of stories and that’s an argument I like.” She argues, however, that the particular composition of the 2017 shortlist, however, works against Newman’s inclusion, which for Allan requires “the pruning of other dead wood from the shortlist (the Chambers definitely, the Sullivan possibly) and its replacement with works better suited to challenging the Newman in its genre assumptions.”

I’m wary of the idea that the shortlist should make a single statement – if in isolation there is an argument for a book’s inclusion, and in the jury’s deliberations that argument is carried, I think a text-by-text approach is defensible. Does this book have something interesting to say? The answer is yes, in spite and also because of its “commercial” trappings. That in other words After Atlas‘s generic markers are features and not bugs doesn’t entirely unhook it from criticism, however. In its first few pages, Moreno turns up his collar against the wind twice in quick success; it is the sort of book that uses swearing to gesture at edginess (in the first half of page 39 alone, “fuck” represents 3% of the total wordcount – nothing wrong with that, but as an effect it is a blunt object); at another time, Moreno asks his AI assistant whether a particular character is “male or female”, but slips immediately and seamlessly into a third set of pronouns when he learns ze is gender neutral (in which open-minded case why make the initial assumption at all?). These are nits, but there are plenty to pick: in a world where everyone is fitted with an implant, is a failure rate of “one in five hundred thousand” really “very rare”? And why would a seasoned detective reach for a hoary and mixed “tip of the iceberg” metaphor when the case gets really interesting? This is not, it must be said, a novel of cutting-edge wit.

It is not, however, a disaster on the scale of Sherri S Tepper’s The Waters Rising (shortlisted for the Clarke in 2012), or any less by-the-numbers in its chosen form than China Miéville’s least interesting novel, Iron Council (which won the award in 2008). It has, beneath its hard-boiled carapace, interesting things to say about the dread attraction of data: “He never admitted that have a neural chip made thousands of everyday things easier. How many times did he say that the modern world was forcing peopel to lose the art of connection? The art of connection? Bollocks.” [p. 63]  It captures, too, the dehumanising aspects of corporatisation which some SFF wholly misses: “My contract has always prevented full-time cohabitation, as they call it. A tidy corporate phrase encompassing love, security, friendship and the chance to discover something special enough to make an asset rage against his contract.” [p. 27]  The world of After Atlas is genuinely interesting; that in some ways it emerges more fleshed-out, and more consistent, than its lead characters is not necessarily a mark of “commercial” flim-flam.

I find it hard, ultimately, to demur from Allan’s argument that the compromises of the procedural form “ultimately prevent a novel like After Atlas from becoming a true classic, from providing anything more substantial than that ‘need to know’ buzz that keeps you turning pages”; but as I turned those pages I may, in a funny kind of way, have thought more widely, if on balance less deeply, than I did when reading Christopher Priest’s The Gradual earlier this year – and that is a novel which no doubt many of those on the Shadow Clarke Jury may have preferred to see on the shortlist in After Atlas‘s place. Awards are subjective. Taken on its own terms, and as, in the interests of balance, the Shadow Clarke’s own Megan AM has suggested, Newman’s novel speaks to our current moment, packages its themes in a digestible style, and reads freshly in its familiarity. Should it win the Clarke? No. In particular, its position in a series of novels comes to dominate its final section with unsatisfactory results. But it might also deserve a little better than becoming the proxy in a genre war.

“It Felt Like An Alien World”: Lavie Tidhar’s “Central Station”

Let us cease this charade: Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station must win the Arthur C Clarke Award of 2017.

I say this without having yet completed the shortlist; but the notion that a work as important or lyrical or entertaining has been published in the last five benighted years of science fiction seems unlikely, much less that by chance two, like iridescent buses, have come along at once. Here is a linked series of short stories, ones published in many cases years apart and miles away, rethreaded with additions and dilations into not so much a whole as a tesselation. This is the anthology as mosaic, the collection as gauzed screen. In the gaps of these careful overlappings, you understand, is the work’s singularity.

Tidhar’s titular spaceport is on the site of modern-day Tel Aviv, and finds itself in the heart of a land both non-nation and joint Jewish-Palestinian cohabitation. Here lies the first of the book’s withholdings: we never learn how this utopian end was reached, except insofar as we come to see it is anything but. That is, what seems to our current divided world an almost impossible resolution is given a treatment as grimy, lived-in and imperfect as any other modern SF setting might turn out to be. This is one of the ways, I think, in which Tidhar avoids many of the traps into which any work with this environment as its setting may have fell. There is no preaching and no tweeness, no corner-rounding or lecturing; Central Station is anti-didactic in every way, and this is what enables its success. Early on, we meet Miriam ‘Mama’ Jones, proprietor of a vaguely disreputable tavern and adoptive mother of Kranki, one of many children in Central Station whom everyone believes are more than human in ways yet unknown:

In North Tel Aviv the Jews lived in their skyrises, and in Jaffa to the South the Arabs had reclaimed their old land by the sea. Here, in between, there were still those people of the land they had called variously Palestine or Israel and whose ancestors had come there as labourers from around the world, from the islands of the Philippines, and from the Sudan, from Nigeria, and from Thailand or China, whose children were born there, and their children’s children, speaking Hebrew and Arabic and Asteroid Pidgin, that near-universal language of space. Mama Jones looked after the boy because there was no one else and the rule across this country was the same in whichever enclave of it you were. We look after our own. [pp. 7-8]

All of Tidhar’s writing in Central Station is as elegant as this. All, too, is as capacious: note that identities in his world are still exclusive, and yet also come to accomodation; note that space, not just earth, is now a place from which people may hail; and note, too, that inequalities and inequities still persist – just differently than we may in this moment now predict.

Only science fiction can build such a world in which ideas may be tested; and, in also creating new identities to inhabit his storied Central Station, Tidhar demonstrates how. Miriam’s brother, Achimwene, is one of the few humans not able to access the “Conversation”, a sort of immanent Internet; he and his fellows – mostly men – feel “broken in some fundamental fashion” [p. 133], and are treated so by others. Boris Chong, Miriam’s erstwhile lover, is bonded with a Martian “Aug”, which has the habit of “feeding him alien thoughts, alien feelings” [p. 45]; he is also a descendent of Weiwei Zhong, an early settler at Central Station who persuaded an Oracle, a human joined in turn with one of the highly evolved AIs known as Others, to grant all his descendants a shared memory, allowing each to relive their times past. Boris once had an affair with a data-vampire known as Carmel, and some of the worst persecution in the book is doled out to her upon her arrival in town, since she is seen – in an echo, perhaps, of witch trials – as a threat to the “normal” community.

There are many other distinct identities: the Robotniks, decommissioned cyborg soldiers; the possibly immortal Ibrahim, a rag-and-bone man and much more, or the god artist Eliezer; and members of the many faiths of Central Station, both familiar to us and less so, some of whom are ministered to by R. Brother Patch-It, a tragic figure and a robotic priest. It’s hard not to reach for superlative comparisons in all this, difficult not to suggest, however helpful or otherwise, that Tidhar matches the invention and wit of Le Guin or Harrison, Wolfe or Tiptree. To return to the motif of layers, Tidhar situates himself in this most august of company in the ways he places invention on top of borrowing, intimation across parallel, until he creates from whole cloth a world which also feels startlingly relevant. Again: you cannot achieve the effects Tidhar here achieves in ways other than the science fictional.

Not being a novel, too, Central Station does not feel the pressure of resolution. The story sequence has an ending, but in truth it is no more final than any of the other many closures that take place throughout the work – and nor is the collection’s final scene very much more than a vignette, similar to many such moments in far earlier stories – Isobel, a ship’s captain in one of the Conversation’s most popular environments, the Guilds of Ashkelon, putting her head to the cold chest of her Robotnik lover, or Ruth Cohen, descendant of the evolutionary scientist who gave rise to the Others, accepting the irreparable fusion that will transform her into the Oracle. The final pages of Central Station don’t really tell us who or what Kranki is, or how and why Israel and Palestine are now names from a distant past. “You couldn’t answer everything,” the robo-priest ruminates at one point. “You could only believe there were answers at all” [p. 112].

This would be mysticism if it wasn’t so plainly proven in the pages of the collection. Partly, it is seen to be so out of  necessity. “You need to have faith,” insists Miriam to the sceptical Boris. “It is hard enough just being alive. You have to have a little faith” [p. 97]. But, equally, faith becomes a by-word for tolerance, for coexistence – and in this sleight of hand Tidhar flips our current moment into a hopeful – because plausible – future. When Matt Cohen, eventually to be venerated as St Cohen of the Others, faces protestors outside his computer lab as he agonises over whether to delete or free the digital entities he and they believe may be capable of sentience, he reflects on his method:

… It’s what Life magazine called him, back in the day. A Frankenstein; when all he wanted was to be left alone with his computers, knowing that he did not know what he was doing, that digital intelligence, those not-yet-born Others, could not be designed, could not be programmed , by those who wrongly used the term artificial intelligence. Matt was an evolutionary scientist, not a programmer. He did not know what form they would take when at last they emerged. Evolution alone would determine that. [p. 207]

Queasily, the protestors, like anti-abortion activists now, believe in Cohen’s creations’ right to life – it is they, not he, who ensure the Others’ survival when they storm his laboratory. But he enables their existence by accepting that things must be allowed to be what they are – or what they will be.  Science fiction is often opposed to this que sera sera approach, since its protagonists tend to have the technological or epistemological power to change things. Central Station allows for these figures, but also repurposes religion – another traditional bête noir of science fiction (a difficult and increasingly problematic blind spot to have when interpreting our current age) – as a sort of next-step for these intelligent designers. When it emerges that Boris had a hand in the creation of whatever set of super-children Kranki represents, Miriam scolds him: “What’s human? […] They’re children, Boris. For all that you birthed them, for all the designer care and the fluids and getting your hands dirty, you never understood that” [p. 189]. In other words, we must accept the agency of others before we can live side-by-side.

It’s worth saying that Central Station also exhibits all the gleeful perversity for which, perhaps because of its gross-out prominence in works like the Hitler-gumshoe fable A Man Lies Dreaming, Tidhar has already created a rather bigger name than he has won for his wisdom. Here we encounter a “Golda Meir automaton [which] journeyed to ancient Mars-That Never-Was, and changed from the course of a planet” [p. 53]; we hear a player who died in-game crow, “That was awesome! […] Flatlined! In a singularity! I won;’t have to buy drinks for months!” [p. 200]; and we learn that Ogko, to whom there is a shrine almost everywhere in the world of Central Station, “cheerfully admitted … [he] was a liar” [p. 72]. Tidhar has given up none of his humour; rather, he has worked it into a wider worldview.

In a meditation on Central Station, the current Shadow Clarke jurist Jonathan McCalmont reflects on the novel’s almost urgent relevance: “To believe that multiculturalism can be overthrown or defeated by even a powerful political movement,” he argues, “is to ignore how subjectivities and identities are even formed.” McCalmont may be waxing uncharacteristically optimistic here. Regardless, what Central Station does beautifully, and does so because it is such a well-written piece of well-conceived science fiction, is to depict precisely how identities form, why they are important – and the ways in which we might imagine them as both inviolable and non-exclusive.

Let us cease this charade.

“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.

“They Stay Broke”: Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”

In a recent piece in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik bemoans that the American Revolution ever happened.

What if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath.

As an alternative history this is interesting, if in need of more world-building. But as an examination of what ails the America we have, it is properly compelling:

Over the years, we have seen how hard it is to detach Americans from even the obviously fallacious parts of that elementary-school saga—the absurd rendering of Reconstruction, with its Northern carpetbaggers and local scalawags descending on a defenseless South, was still taught in the sixties. It was only in recent decades that schools cautiously began to relay the truth of the eighteen-seventies—of gradual and shameful Northern acquiescence in the terrorist imposition of apartheid on a post-slavery population.

Much ink, digital and actual, has been spilled in recent years over the question of why slave narratives have once again found themselves at the forefront of the contemporary popular consciousness. One reason must surely be that a new generation is finding that it must once again discover this past for itself. That some of these narratives – most notably Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave – come from outside America suggests even more strongly that the amnesiac republic is in need of a reminder of the missteps of its past (so, too, of course does the election of one Donald J. Trump, who lionises Andrew “Trail of Tears” Jackson). From the in some ways surprisingly successful remake of Roots to the delirious Django Unchained, America is being asked again to look itself in the eye.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an alternative history of its own – strictly speaking, given its structure and allegorical world-building (about which more shortly) it in fact has several alternative histories. Like those other narratives, it focuses on one particular individual – in Whitehead’s case Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation in a period we assume ultimately unnecessarily to be somewhere around the 1850s – and as in those other narratives the reader’s tender constitution is not spared. Cora sees and experiences rapes and executions, psychological torment and intimate betrayals. Her family is torn asunder, her friends taken away; her existence is unbearable at worst and terrifyingly precarious at best, dictated by the capricious whims of white supremacists who most often deny her very humanity. The first section of this book is terrifically good at painting the totalitarian untenability of the slave’s life: “Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies” [p. 15].

The trauma of slavery is writ large in the book: for example, Cora comes to hate even her own mother, who escaped the plantation when Cora was a child and never returned. “Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery,” intones one character late in the novel. “We can’t. Its scars will never fade” [p. 285]. The novel’s structure enables Whitehead to depict the multi-faceted indelibility of slavery: the underground railroad of the novel’s title is a literal subterranean railway which plunges its passengers into total darkness (and structural ellipses) before depositing them in a wholly new mise en scene. In this way, Whitehead carries Cora northwards  from a plantation of the kind we are familiar with from Roots – red-headed Irish overseers, amputated feet, bitter and brutal masters – to a South Carolina where, counter-historically, slave-owning has been abolished and the whole exponentially growing population of slaves purchased by a fearful state (“with strategic sterilization […] we could free them from bondage without fear that they’d butcher us in our sleep” [p. 122]); from there she proceeds to a North Carolina from which all “negroes” have been deported (“In effect, they abolished slavery … On the contrary, we abolished niggers” [p. 165]), and to a ruined Tennessee blighted by disease and famine (“They sat on what was once Cherokee land […] and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless […] they deserved what they got” [p. 204].

In other words, Whitehead’s novel takes the reader on a tour of the various iterations of American racism. As this becomes clear – as Cora is asked to be a living exhibit in a museum which renders slavery as Gone With The Wind did, or as she comes to realise she is not welcome in a segregated town – the reader might begin to search for real-world analogues. In Indiana, Cora falls in with a community of free blacks and runaways, whose leadership seems divided between a character called Mingo and another called Lander, whose philosophies more or less map with those of Booker T Washington and Frederick Douglass respectively; another character poses as a slave hunter under the name “James Olney”, who in our reality was an academic noted for his work on slave oral histories. In one of the mini-chapters that separate Cora’s various episodes, we are told of an elderly white woman that, “Slavery as a moral issue never interested Ethel. If God had not meant for Africans to be enslaved, they wouldn’t be in chains” [p. 195]. The maddening circularity of this logic fuels each of these picaresque vignettes of which Cora becomes; but there comes a point toward this stop-start novel’s end where the reader begins to wonder if it matters that there is a skyscraper in South Carolina, or that Valentine Farm, an all-black community where Cora finds brief respite, seems in turn to have no real-world analogue. In other words, the novel’s episodes never quite cohere.

Fortunately, Whitehead gives us a lens through which to view all this. I’m writing about The Underground Railroad as part of my project to review all six novels on the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award, a gong doled out to “the best science fiction novel published in the UK during the previous year”. There has been more than the usual controversy surrounding the award this year – and I may come to that in future posts – but at least some of it has been attached to a debate over whether The Underground Railroad is even science fiction. One way you may wish to decide that question is in how you feel about one of Whitehead’s clear influences, one so strong that he has Cora read it in the course of his novel: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Adam Roberts argues in his The History of Science Fiction for Swift’s work to be included in a very long lineage of SF which he drags back to Lucian (Roberts, p. 92); on the basis of this influence, The Underground Railroad should indeed be seen as part of the science fictional tradition. But I have sympathy for Brian Aldiss’s rather hoarier position in Billion-Year Spree (which Roberts dismisses a tad airily by not pointing out that the two are not mutually exclusive) that the intention of Gulliver’s Travels is satirical rather than speculative (Aldiss, p. 81). Bear with me here, for below I quote the section of the novel that most fully explains its central novum, that deeply-dug track:

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Cora saw that Lumbly relished their astonishment. This was not his first performance.

Caesar said, “But how?”

“With their hands, how else?” [p. 67]

This, dear reader, is fantasy, not science fiction. Swift’s satirical motivation is also Whitehead’s, and consequently so is not just his genre but his form: to judge The Underground Railroad as a novel, and to criticise it for its lack of coherence, is to misunderstand its purpose. Gulliver’s Travels, too, is episodic and improbable (and critics therefore argue that it is and is not a novel, just as they debate whether it is or is not SF); the worlds Gulliver describes could not possibly exist together within the same reality, just as those to which Cora travels could not. That kind of coherence is not Swift’s point, and nor is it Whitehead’s. The Underground Railroad is rather a dark picaresque, a satirical epic. Its real-world analogues exist as hooks or hints rather than as keys to be slotted into thematic locks; it is a story of moral purpose more concerned with ethics than aesthetics.

Last year, Paul Beatty – whose own slave narrative, The Sellout, in which a contemporary African-American reinstituted slavery in a suburb of Los Angeles, won the Booker Prize – rejected the idea of being a satirist. “I mean, what is satire?” he asked in the Paris Review. “Do you remember that New Yorker cover that everyone was saying was satire? Barack and Michelle fist-bumping? That’s not satire to me. It was just a commentary. Just poking fun at somebody doesn’t make something satire.” On this basis, The Sellout is certainly not a satire, but The Underground Railroad and Gulliver’s Travels may well be: that is, they both know their target and their own countervailing virtues. The Sellout, on the other hand, is less confident in the concept of virtue, and in so doing becomes what I called an “absurdist parable”, broader and more conflicted and comprehensive – it becomes a novel. The Underground Railroad takes a different track.

In part precisely because it shrugs off these formal chains just as Cora escapes her literal ones, Whitehead’s narrative is compelling and essential. It is written beautifully, unshowily but tremendously skilfully; it is pungent and sometimes cruel, whilst also being extremely accessible and queasily entertaining. Ultimately, it is even hopeful: “The underground railroad is bigger than its operators […] It goes everywhere, to places we know and those we don’t. We got this tunnel right here, running beneath us, and no one knows where it leads. If we keep the railroad running, and none of us can figure it out, maybe you can” [p. 267].  In the context of the Clarke, it may be neither a novel or science fiction (or it may be both); but in the more important context of posterity, it is hard to see The Underground Railroad as anything but a text which generations hence, perhaps embarked on their own quest of education and rediscovery, will return to. Read it.


On the Withdrawal from the European Union Bill Reaching Its Second Reading


I’m putting this edited version of some of my remarks from Twitter tonight here. Because it’s my blog, and I’ll self-plagiarise if I want to.

It was remarkable to watch the Commons tonight: a huge majority believe Brexit will be a disaster, but a huge majority will vote for it. The talking point is that this is respect for democracy. It feels more like a mature democracy being hit with a blunt object.

I do have every sympathy, though, for MPs who hold that ignoring a plebiscite would be an equal or greater disaster than they fear Brexit will be.

Sometimes too much is made of “career” politics. But one of its very real consequences, perhaps, is a corrosion of representative democracy.

Sure, we have formed a political class that is distinct from other classes. But independently wealthy MPs are similar in this regard. When elecions are job interviews, though, we also erode the idea that politicians may disagree with their constituents in good faith.

I distrust referenda for this reason – they are wedges that place further distance between the two motors of a representative democracy – that is, the people and their representatives. (And I’m conscious, too, that the political culture I speak of may or may not be that of all those currently subject to it – Scots, for instance, or Londoners.)

Once held, referenda they must be understood and acted upon. But there is something unseemly about the current groupthink amongst reluctant MPs. And that groupthink does nothing to defend the already frayed bonds of our political culture. Leave or Remain, this should worry you.

Referenda don’t break political systems. They are symptoms of them. This is why I think it urgent that we reduce barriers to entry in our politics. If you are unrepresented, you should be able to do so yourself. What worries me is that, instead, voters in democracies are turning toward blunt instruments to effect change.

“It’s All About The Legend”: Sherlock’s Final Problem

Sherlock Season 4

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”

“Have you read Gaboriau’s works?” I asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”

Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he said, in an angry voice; “he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.” (A Study in Scarlet)

It is one of the recurring metatextual jokes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories that their protagonist believes he could write them better than their narrator. In ‘The Copper Beeches’, for example, Holmes declares that Watson has “erred perhaps in attempting to put colour and life into each of your statements instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing.” In one of only two stories the Master deigned to write himself, Holmes remarks of this ongoing spat with his Boswell that, “I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidly to facts and figures.”

Admittedly, in that self-penned story, ‘The Blanched Soldier’, the Great Detective admits that he found in the writing of a case that some thought to the entertainment of the reader is necessary. But one wonders how he would feel about Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the latest series of whose twenty-first-century update of Holmes and Watson, Sherlock, has just finishing airing.

I began more or less as a fan of Sherlock, but as early as the first episode of its second season I was becoming ambivalent; by last year’s “special”, I’d fallen out badly with the show. I wrote then that, “There are hopes here for a Sherlock in series four more aware of his faults, but the show’s own instincts seem to remain less self-critical”, and I take only a little bit of pleasure in having been proven prescient. The first of the new trio of episodes, ‘The Six Thatchers’, seemed to be aimed at doing what Doyle did so many years ago in ‘The Empty House’: reboot the series. It did so via some highly rushed resolutions of several previous cliffhangers, which allowed us to reach a montage of old-fashioned case-solving: Sherlock in his rooms at Baker Street, interviewing clients and putting together pieces of puzzles. Then, as again Doyle had done before them, Moffat and Gatiss killed off Watson’s wife.

One of Sherlock‘s biggest problems – in many ways its original sin -has been to miss the attraction of Doyle’s original stories. The series has assumed at almost every point that what matters is Sherlock Holmes – his psychoses, his addictions, his cruelties and his heroisms – but this was never the case. What mattered in those original stories, and what made Sherlock‘s opening episodes different, was the focus on the relationship between Holmes and Watson. It can hardly be said that Sherlock has entirely ignored that dynamic – the legion of online slash fiction writers happily lapping up every nuance of every scene between them is proof enough that there is material here, there is scope. In this sense, ‘The Six Thatchers’ did its best: by killing off Mary Morstan, and looking at how her self-sacrifice for Sherlock Holmes might affect his relationship with her widowed husband, Sherlock was trying to get back to basics.

But the show could not escape its own dread gravity: not only did Mary deserve rather more, in an adaptation which trumpets its updating of Holmes to a twenty-first-century milieu, than to become female fodder for the series’ central boys (even her Victorian forebear didn’t die for Sherlock Holmes); when Moffat and Gatiss had her leave behind a recorded video message not for her husband John but his best friend Sherlock, all that might have been achieved by the opening episode lay in tatters: it was not for Holmes and Watson, together, to find some meaning and win some justice in a Mary-less world; rather, it was for heroic, super-human Sherlock to save John from his own worst excesses. That is, it was – and shall always be – all about Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexy weirdo.

It was fortunate in papering over these cracks, then, that the season’s second episode, ‘The Lying Detective’, was Sherlock‘s strongest instalment certainly since ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ and very possibly since ‘The Great Game’. Toby Jones’s Culverton Smith may well be the show’s best villain, up to and including Andrew Scott’s over-used Moriarty: he is a caricature to be sure, but played with such conviction by Jones, and just close enough to what are improbable but all-too real cases in our own world, that we buy into the fiction. Sherlock hasn’t seemed to care too much about its own plausibility in this way for years, and if – inevitably – the episode closes with yet another Big Twist focused on Sherlock himself, at least ‘The Lying Detective’ had its moments: Sherlock conjuring a narrow kitchen in a London street to demonstrate how he has deduced the origin of a sun-bleached note; John receiving feedback from Sherlock’s adoring public about the quality of his blogs; Culverton Smith himself, perched over Sherlock’s deathbed, explaining to the audience’s mounting horror the cold logic of a serial killer.

If Sherlock never escapes the flashier parts of its DNA – Mrs Hudson screeching around a residential development in an Aston Martin, Euros Holmes appearing from nowhere with a bullet for John’s brain – ‘The Lying Detective’ held them all in an acceptable balance. It gave us hope that the show could do the impossible -break free of its years of accumulated weight and hype, and return to something approaching a show about two detectives and their relationship as they solved crimes. What Sherlock has always assumed is that bigger is better – the larger the canvas, the clearer and more large-writ its characterisation. In fact, the opposite is true: never has Sherlock been more entertaining than in its quieter moments, in those scenes where Freeman is allowed to act repressed, or Sherlock to doubt himself. For every naval treaty, the Victorian Sherlock Holmes had a half-dozen solitary cyclists; Sherlock Holmes does not need to save the world to be interesting.

Alas, Sherlock feels he does, and ‘The Lying Detective’ bled out into ‘The Final Problem’, a bizarre instalment of the series that may be its worst, at least since the execrable ‘The Sign of Three’. Sherlock’s long-lost sister, Eurus Holmes, imprisoned for a lifetime in Sherrinford, a high-security prison on a sea-beaten island somewhere, has finally – following a Christmas Day treat of five minutes with Jim Moriarty half a decade ago – broken free. She used her time to get on a bus and text John Watson flirtatiously; pose as the daughter of Culverton Smith and go for chips with Sherlock; and pretend to be John’s new therapist and shoot him at the end of last week’s episode. Then, we learn, she went back to her prison and awaited their arrival.  

Mycroft, of course, is at the centre of the conspiracy to secrete Eurus, and Gatiss gets more lines than perhaps he ever has: endless backstory, numerous retcons, a whole barrel-load of pop-psych justifications for the personality quirk of each Holmes sibling. Sherlock’s childhood best friend was murdered by his sister; that’s why he doesn’t like making friends. Mycroft, almost a decade older than his siblings and smarter than his parents, had to take early charge of the situation; that’s why he’s so distant and Machiavellian. Euros just wanted to play with other children, but wasn’t invited; that’s why she became a criminally insane psychopath. She leads Mycroft, Sherlock and John through a series of Saw-like puzzles that she appears to think offer meaningful moral quandaries – will you shoot a man to save his wife?! – in an attempt to we’re not sure. Annoy her brothers? But it’s all very important, and we know this because people get speeches and Andrew Scott gets a cameo.

All this amping-up is entirely unnecessary, but Sherlock has the weirdest case of impostor syndrome we may ever have seen on television: it is wildly popular, internationally successful, and stars some the UK’s most famous actors. It consequently exhibits a certain smugness, a self-regard – Sherlock is a show that cannot believe its luck, and feels pretty happy with itself. (We know this because Mark Gatiss has taken to responding to critics in verse.) Fair enough. But it cannot believe that luck; that is, it is incapable of settling into its own rhythm, of having the confidence simply to be. Rather, it must ape Hammer Horror at one moment, and Skyfall the next. It is always acting out, always assuming that we’ll turn off if it doesn’t one-up itself yet again within the next five minutes. All this despite the self-evident truth that the single most gripping scene in the whole of ‘The Final Problem’ was a telephone conversation between a man and a woman, in which each told the other they loved them. (Kudos to Louise Brearley, sadly under-used in season four and bravely selling a scene that did her character yet another injustice.) Sherlock can do under-stated if it wants to. It chooses otherwise.

In other words, the series focuses too freely on image, on the cool visual. Its scripts are like string threaded through pearls meant for a necklace: important only as connective tissue.  Eurus is imprisoned in a glass cell – but the glass isn’t there! Moriarty is flying in on a helicopter – to the strains of ‘I Want To Break Free’! Sherlock is unhappy – so he karate-chops a coffin! One of these is seasoning enough to delight a restless audience’s palate. But Sherlock has always packed itself so full of incident that it is the incidentals which have come to dictate the melody. We might return at this juncture to the Master himself: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner,” he insisted to Watson in The Sign of Four. “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”

Gatiss might presume to disagree: “If you don’t want to be challenged,” he says about Sherlock, “don’t watch it. It’s a complex and entertaining programme.” But the truth is that the series has not been half as complex as it thinks. Its plots and structures have sometimes been purposefully Byzantine, yes; but this sort of spectacle is chaff. At its most basic level, Sherlock has been so simple that its foundations have always struggled to bear the weight of its accretions. “He’s a great man,” gushed an anonymous plod to Inspector Lestrade at the close of ‘The Final Problem’. “He’s more than that,” says a disappointed Rupert Graves, gearing up dejectedly for the culmination of the show’s entire arc. “He’s a good one.” In my review of the show’s very first instalment six-and-a-half years ago, I wrote: “a great man becoming a good man may not be the most revolutionary of concepts.” It turns out Gatiss and Moffat disagreed, and have spent the intervening years trying to prove themselves right. That seems to me a fair summary of the path Sherlock has taken, in fact: on gender, on sexuality, on Molly and Mrs Hudson, on Sherlock’s centrality and on plot tokens and cliffhangers … it has sought to prove its writers right.

All that said, at the final furlong I’m attracted – diverted, even won over – by another of the duo’s sophistries: that Sherlock so far has been a sort of prequel for the Sherlock Holmes we know. “He isn’t as smart as Eurus, he isn’t as smart as Mycroft but he is always going to win against them because he is better and stronger,” they say in an interview with the Radio Times. “That is him becoming the Sherlock Holmes of Basil Rathbone and [fellow Holmes actor] Jeremy Brett, the one we’re used to, the wise old man … who is still terrifying and still cold but has a heart that you never doubt.” For a show that has long been obsessed with references to the canon – in ‘The Final Problem’ alone we have a Musgrave ritual, no fewer than three Garridebs, a Carfaxian cofin, a best friend named Trevor just as in ‘The Gloria Scott’, and a chalkboard featuring dancing men – it’s rather fitting that where its creators have ended up, and they admit it is by accident more than design, is in the margins: Sherlock is a gloss, one of many ‘young Holmes’ fictions written by fans over the years in an attempt to understand our actual hero. We can debate how successful Moffat and Gatiss have been in their attempt (‘The Final Problem’ looks likely to be the last Sherlock for some time, and certainly the last in which Cumberbatch and Watson can feasibly play young men); that they failed with fondness is beyond question.