“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.

“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.


“What Is It, A Tosser?” David Szalay’s “All That Man Is”

This year’s Booker Prize shortlist is easily one of the freshest in years. I’m not entirely sure if I agree with Robert McCrum that it is also one of the best, but it certainly deserves commendation for looking beyond the usual names and even the usual modes for the best literature of the year. Where I might agree with McCrum, however, is in his ruling that David Szalay’s All That Man Is should not, in all honesty, be termed a novel.

Szalay has written novels in the past, and the nine sections of his latest book have all the energy and wit of the most observant purveyors of the craft; if he also occasionally mistakes brand-names for granular detail (one of the recurring motifs is that characters smoke Park Lane cigarettes), then you might allow it as a sort of comment on the flattened, samey world he sets out to depict. For, despite the volume’s title, All That Man Is cannot be characterised as expansive. The masculinity it maps is a narrower, rather more embattled, beast.

In truth, this collection of nine short stories – which maps awkwardly despite its number onto Shakespeare’s seven ages of man – would be more appropriately titled All That Straight, White, Repressed European Man Is. One assumes that this title was too unwieldy for its publisher, which also insists on continually referring to the book as a novel – presumably to get the Booker nod it has fortunately managed to parlay out of a punch-drunk panel. The opening story features a seventeen-year-old protagonist, the closing one a septuagenarian; in between we see desultory sexual encounters, unwanted pregnancies, child-rearing and senescence. We see prostitution and bargain basement holidays, Inter Railing and academia. The book, published prior to the UK’s June 24th referendum on membership of the European Union, reads like a mimetic version of Dave Hutchison’s recent trilogy of science fiction novels: avowedly, if acidicly, European, it does not shield us from the vapid vulgarity of much (post-)modern life.

The overall tone is captured well by the close of the third story, which focuses on a Central European bodyguard who travels to London with a friend and his sex-worker girlfriend. He, like most of the characters here, falls into a passive, unrequited love, but learns from its unattainability something about his own essential lack of ambition – and immediately projects this onto another woman:

And then there was the girl at the chicken place. She was always there, serving the customers, but he hadn’t really noticed her until tonight. The little smile she gave him when she took his order, it occurred to him, as he sat down to wait for his food, was not the first. Part of the lace edge of her bras showed in the V-shaped neckline of her T-shirt, where’s a little gold cross lay on the skin. He watched her dealing with the next customer, her earnest manner, her hand tightly gripping the pen with which she wrote the orders down. He wondered what she thought about things. Though she was not smiling now, she had a nice face. [p. 150]

And that it’s – end, quite literally, of story. The women of these stories never get much beyond the girl in the chicken place. The reader wonders if Szalay wants us to condemn his characters for this lack of curiosity (“[she] pathetically overestimated his own emotional engagement” we read of another character (p. 158), whose investment is won only when this latest woman – a girl, an undergraduate to the male’s lecturer – takes a younger boyfriend); but these stories go by with so little sense of judgement, of any ironic detachment, that they begin to read as shrugs. “This is how men are,” Szalay seems to say. “So it goes.”

Given his self-selected narrow sample, this seems like an odd project to undertake, much less for which to claim some sort of wider unity or significance. Still, early on, Szalay’s pseudish teenager Simon posits a structure for the cycle of short stories he opens: “an image of human life as bubbles rising through water. The bubbles rise in streams and clouds, touching and mingling and yet each remaining individually defined … until at the surface they cease to exist as individual entities” [p. 18]. That Simon is fairly obviously not quite as clever as he thinks he is, one wonders if this will be contradicted as the volume goes on. But it isn’t, and again we’re left with what we’re presented. It closes with the senescent man, his daughter Cordelia leaving behind (really), and the “Via Maggiore … fading away in their dusk” [p. 437]. That is, the bubbles evaporate. For all his self-evident priggishness, our first male predicts the last.

That the book’s claim for novel status – its building of a vision of manhood from nine separate stories – is also the most eloquent embodiment of its tonal failure to interrogate that central theme might do for a work less well written. But All That Man Is can be mesmerising at the level of the sentence, and is often very funny (“they do not succeed in finding it, the Kafka exhibition” [p. 41]). I can recommend it if Philip Roth: The Cappucino Years sounds like the sort of book you’d like, and you should dip into one or two of its stories even if it doesn’t. But is it a novel? Not really.

That leaves, for my money, The Sellout and Hot Milk contending for the prize. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is too evanescent, Eileen too contrived. His Bloody Project might be the dark-horse, but I think its final third’s pedestrian turn may scupper its chances. All told, The Sellout should win; but the Booker has been known to surprise before. We’ll find out tonight.

“It Covers Up Everything”: Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”

That Hot Milk is the favourite to take this year’s Booker Prize is, I think, a simple function of Deborah Levy’s being the only one of this year’s sextet to have been previously shortlisted. I was not a fan of her Swimming Home, but the good news is that Hot Milk is a considerable improvement. Levy’s backstory, however, surely still plays into her Booker-fame – she spent a long time away from the world of writing and novels before she published Swimming Home, and nothing pulls a panel’s heartstrings like the returning hero.

This must be true, because Hot Milk retains many of the faults that Swimming Home boasted – and the shortlisting of that earlier novel baffled me. There is the focus on the privileged, and yet the aching focus on their terrific troubles: Hot Milk‘s protagonist, Sofia, is a PhD student working in a coffee shop whose mother and father are the sort of global citizens whom Theresa May despises, and who finds nothing odd about comparing the fate of bankrupt Greece with her own personal travails: “As a result of [my father’s] first default, my mother has a mortgage on her life” [p. 138].

In that quotation, too, is the sort of gnomic bathos in which Levy unwittingly majors (“My laptop is my veil of shame” [p. 66]). The novel has a sort of unwieldy governing metaphor encoded in its title: Sofia leaves the flat whites behind early on to shepherd Rose, her probable hypochondriac of a mother, to a clinic in Spain which promises to succeed where every medic has previously failed, and return feeling to Rose’s legs; but milk stays with her. Across the landscape of late capitalism she sojourns, with milk as her guide: “‘We have travelled a long distance from the cow with a bucket of raw milk under its udder. We are a long way from home,'” her boss tells her at one point [p. 32]. Long-life milk – a “stable commodity” – comes to stand in some improbable, vaguely queasy, way for the curious attenuation that characterises the Europe she moves through.
There’s no denying that the longer Hot Milk goes on the more clunky it becomes (fifteen pages from the end: “I waded into the sea up to my belly button, which is the oldest human scar, and discovered I was crying” [p. 203]). But it’s also true that in its set-up – a weirded Europe which seems more or less to have experienced its apocalypse without anyone noticing – Hot Milk finds a lot to recommend itself. In some ways, it feels like the best post-crash European novel yet, its young people unable top find work, its older people unable to give up on all the fripperies that got us here in the first place. “‘Greece is a smaller country than Spain, but it can’t pay its bills,'” says a lifeguard studying for a master’s degree in philosophy. “But the phrase about the dream being over implied that something had started and had now ended. It was up to the dreamer to say it was over, no one else could say it on their behalf” [p. 5].

As statements of the post-2008 European experience go, that takes some beating. Likewise, everyone in the novel feels distanced from their own selves, from the society around them: despite her surname of Papastergiadis, and her father’s ancestry, Sofia cannot speak a word of Greek; laptops are designed in America and made in China, bottled water sourced in Milan and shopped to Singapore to be exported to Spain; Sofia is desperate to “get away from the kinship structures that are supposed a to hold me together” [p. 63]. The events of the novel – is Rose’s doctor a quack, are the lovers Sofia takes in the Spanish heat in some way sinister or strange, can she rebuild her relationship with her estranged father? – all pass by at one remove, described as coolly as Sofia seems to move through them (“I am anti the major plots” [p. 143]). A lot has ended here, but nothing has finished.

This way in which Hot Milk captures our particular moment makes it a great deal more engaged and engaging than Swimming Home, and may even justify not just its shortlisting but its status as favourite. About an American doctor selling a superficially more straightforward remedy for Rose’s illness, her Spanish doctor says: “I can sell you his medication for the disorder he invented. […] We must not always be a slave to the pharmaceuticals” [p. 179]. What we are told ails us may not; our remedies may not be cures; but what are the alternatives, and do we trust who provides them? Sofia says her mother “relies on human kindness and painkillers” [p. 13]; perhaps we all do. A novel that asks these questions, even if not always elegantly, is an important one.

But does Hot Milk have quite the consistency of voice of Eileen? Does it convince like His Bloody Project? Is it as complete in its statement as The Sellout? You may guess I think not in each case, but in its defence Hot Milk is a very different, more elusive and poetic, novel than any of those others. If it’s a teensy bit self-regarding, perhaps that’s the price we pay for the views its unforgiving gaze provides. I sort of don’t like Hot Milk, but I can’t dismiss it. The bookmakers might be right.      

“Multiple and Conflicting Answers”: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

A recurring theme in my reviews of this year’s Booker shortlist is originality – or, more accurately if informally, “samey-ness”. Both Eileen and His Bloody Project felt familiar in one way or another, even where they made claims for being otherwise; so far in my readings only The Sellout had a voice and a purpose all its own. This state of affairs is not altered by Madeleine Thien’s nevertheless tenderly written family saga, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

In part, Thien is unfortunate to publish her novel of musicians in a totalitarian regime in the same year that Julian Barnes published The Noise of Time. Perhaps this novel has been overlooked for the Booker because it retreads ground previously covered by his prize-winning The Sense of an Ending; but The Noise of Time still feels slimmer, swifter and more sly than Thien’s shortlisted effort. Her novel is far more expansive – The Noise of Time never leaves the consciousness of Dmitry Shostakovich, whereas Do Not Say We Have Nothing features an ever-expanding cast of characters spread out over more or less one hundred years. But Thien, too, is interested in how artists – how people – can be true and authentic in a society like Mao’s China, and she quotes not just Shostakovich but Prokofiev, too.

At the centre of Thien’s novel are three musicians who each take a different route through China’s mid-century catastrophes, barely surviving the Great Leap Forward and destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. There is Sparrow, a composer who adopts a sort of soft pragmatism, giving up on music and stepping as far out of sight as her can. There is the violinist Zhuli, Sparrow’s cousin and a woman who reacts to the arbitrary and yet irresistible forces of Maoist revolution with confusion and consternation. And there is the pianist Kai, with whose Vancouver-based daughter the novel begins – and whose accommodations with the regime are more muscular than Sparrow’s, and who therefore spends much of the novel, though he is dead by its opening, atoning for sins of denouncement.

I’m not sure the novel ever drills down to an understanding of music as profound as Barnes; its shapes and effects, its power and its impotence, remain vague and disputable. This is perhaps on purpose – “How could I commit myself to something so powerless?” asks one character [pp. 300-1] – but it gives the novel’s central conflicts a weightless feel. The trio’s love of Western music feels loaded, too – we are invited to sympathise with these characters because they think like us, the Western readers of this Canadian novel. That, too, feels like a shortcut next to the Russianess of Barnes’s Shostakovich. “Could music record a time that otherwise left no trace?” we are asked rhetorically at one point [p. 196]; probably not this music, no. No one ever seems to connect with it beyond what it is meant to signify.

That said, in some ways the novel’s music is only another iteration of its presiding theme – time and our efforts to recover that which is past. The novel begins with ten-year-old Marie, the daughter of Kai, when she and her widowed mother are joined in Vancouver by Ai-Ming, a young woman fleeing mainland China after playing a role in (of course) the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming inspires Marie to reconnect with a Chinese past that until then had represented only her lost father; together they explore the ‘Book of Records’, a set of documents compiled by the extended family of Sparrow and Zhuli, which tells the story of how these individuals made their way through China’s turbulent twentieth century. Ai-Ming eventually leaves for the USA, assuming amnesty will come there before Canada, but she leaves behind Marie’s rekindled – and unquenchable – thirst to understand the full picture at which Book of Records can only hint.

In English, consciousness and unconsciousness are part of a vertical plane, so that we wake up and we fall asleep and we sink into a coma. Chinese uses the horizontal line, so that to wake is to cross a border towards consciousness and to faint is to go back. Meanwhile, time itself is vertical so that last year is the year above and next year is the year below. […] This means that future generations are not the generations ahead but the ones behind. [pp. 198-9]

The novel is at its best when it seeks to represent Chinese writing and thinking in this way (in the text, this passage is broken up with various characters and ideograms). It’s why its representation of music is so disappointing, and also why the reader is left wanting more, not, despite the book’s girth, less, of this other culture. Marie’s quest for understanding feels incomplete because it is so often in this way a trip only into time, rather than into other heads. This despite the proliferating detail, the endless addition of characters and incidents, which seek to demonstrate that “the past […] was never dead but only reverberated” [p. 14]. Indeed, complexity is the novel’s primary project – it pitches polyphony against the brute insistence of Maoist orthodoxy (“I know that the Party is right […] but even the simplest truths don’t seem like truths at all” [p. 248]) – but I couldn’t escape the sense that a lot happened without very much being translated.

This generic quality explains the novel’s more general “samey-ness”, too. It is beautifully written, and often  philosophically sophisticated, dismissing by example Kai’s fatalistic adoption of the idea of a “zero point […] on which all others are dependent, to which they are all related, and by which they are all determined” [p. 297]. But it also resembles all those other family sagas set over decades: those The Glass Rooms or The Memory of Loves, those The Lowlands or The Garden of Evening (er) Mistses which do much the same thing in much the same way. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a masterfully controlled novel and I am being unfair to it; but, for me at least, it added up to less than the sum of its multiple moving parts.