Books, science fiction

“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.

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“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of things?

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.

 

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“Memories were narratives”: Ramez Naam and Philip Mann

There is at least one not-very-good reason for considering Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise together: the announcement of the winner of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award takes place tonight, and I wanted to publish some thoughts on all six novels before that happened. There are also, however, several better reasons. This is counter-intuitive on one level, because at first blush the volumes could not be more different: Naam’s technothriller is a debut novel dealing with the near future, and is a self-professed forward-thinking piece of work, all transhumanism and singularities; The Disestablishment of Paradise, meanwhile, is an almost wilfully old-fashioned planetary romance, whose further-future setting has very little interest in the ways in which technology or culture have changed in the last fifty years, much less how they might do so over the next few centuries.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Naam and Mann have more in common than the scant three letters which can be used to spell both their names. In large part, their similarities revolve around lazy assumptions: about gender, about human psychology, and about the workings of narrative. Nexus begins with what I assume is meant to be a humorous scene in which Kade, the novel’s hero, uses one of the software hacks he and his plucky group of hippy scientists are plugging into the consciousness-linking nano-drug Nexus to seduce and then have semi-consensual sex with a young woman, before it goes wildly wrong and “his still-clothed crotch was banging into her face on every pelvic thrust”. Oh, how we laughed. Mann, meanwhile, is more well-meaning but just as flat-footed: “it is women’s logic, as old as time,” his novel sighs at one of its many essentialist junctures, during which even its high-flying, high-achieving female protagonists are wont to opine, “What fools we women are sometimes!”

nexus-naamThat is, the Clarke judges appear to have rewarded two writers who have entirely ignored all the many tools and techniques science fiction offers for exploding and questioning our most limited and limiting behaviours, and who prefer instead to chase down their favoured hobby horses. Nexus in particular reads primarily like an amateur lecture, with the insistent earnestness and dulling monomania that implies. Naam is a debut novelist (although Nexus‘s sequel has, horrifyingly, now been published), and writes in his acknowledgements that “this work transformed from a lark to an actual attempt to write a novel”. It bears all the hallmarks of this uncertain progress: structurally unsound, its prolonged prologue features an inevitably attractive female spy infiltrating Kade’s group of bioscientists before forcing him and his friends to accept a bargain with the US agency responsible for frustrating the transhuman potential of technologies such as Nexus. In Kade’s (and Naam’s) vision of the world, Nexus will connect people to each other; in one of Naam’s few attempts to texturise his novel with countervailing views, however, its villain sees it as a tool for totalitarian oppression of the masses. All this drags on, the middle third of the novel drained entirely of tension as clunky action set-piece follows deadeningly similar clunky action set-piece:

Wats countered her superior speed by giving ground, step by step. Sam stayed in close he did, neutralizing his advantage in reach. They moved in a blur of strikes, dodges, and blows, almost too fast for any onlooker to follow.

She could see him coming up now, see the adrenaline hitting him, making him a more dangerous foe. Behind her she felt flashes of courage and anger. Partygoers thinking of joining the fray. Before long, they would mob her.

End this now, then. A gambit. A sacrifice. She let him create a foot of space to get his comfort, parried three more blows, threw feints at groin and eyes and plexus, then came in wide and sloppy, hole in her guard at mid-section.

Wats saw the opening and threw a brutal fist at it, low and under her nearly unbreakable ribs. She accepted the fist, twisting to mute it, felt the pain blossom inside her as he connected. As she twisted, she brought one hand down like a vice on his wrist, yanked him off balance as she planted a leg behind his knees and slammed her other hand into his shoulder to bring him down.

Wats saw it coming, but it was too late.

If you can find it in yourself to forgive me for quoting at such length, you’re a better person than I. Nevertheless, the above passage captures both the micro and macro problems with Naam’s writing: he cannot structure a scene, finds it impossible to imbue one with tension in an organic or earned way (hence all the fragment sentences and forced repetitions); whilst this weakness translates to his novel as a whole, on a sentence-by-sentence level, too, the reader finds Naam dull and obstinate, unsubtle and regularly incompetent (who has a brutal fist that one might twist to mute?). This is the prose of an accidental novelist, a writer uninterested in the craft of fiction. Indeed, Naam’s day job is as a futurist and emerging technologist, and quite explicitly Nexus is a vehicle for his vision of the posthuman future. If the novel’s ideas were interesting and elegant, then, perhaps we might forgive their leaden expression. In fact, Naam’s at-times Pollyannaish certainties and optimisms (“all that we have accomplished, and all that we will accomplish, is the result of groups of humans cooperating”) are most often communicated in lifeless dialogue which presumably aims at qualities Socratean but instead hits network TV personal dilemma:

“I’m not more important than the hundred people out there,” Kade said sharply.

“Your work is.”

Ilya cut in. “Wats, we can’t let the ends justify the means.”

The novel’s transhuman Bond villain has no more complex a vision of reality than Kade’s half-soaked sidekicks, apparently culled as it is from some of the poorer-written issues of X-Men: “The humans are the enemies of the future. They hate us. They hate our beauty and our potential. Either they hunt us down and kill and enslave us, or we rise above them and take our rightful place in this world.” The intelligence community’s response to this threat is depicted in a stilted round-table: “CIA Director Alan Keyes threw up a hand in exasperation. Senator Engels chuckled in amusement. Maximillian Barnes just learned back and watched it all, impassive.” If I tell you, dear reader, that one of the novel’s few close-to-moving moments comes when one of the faceless, paper-thin attendees of that meeting realises his daughters will live on fatherless after these men politely request he commit suicide following a failure to contain some troublesome Buddhist monks who give Kade shelter, you might get a sense of how deeply cloth-eared this unfortunate novel can be.

Science fiction surely exists not to predict the future but to trouble our present. It is in part the ghosts both at the feast and in the machine, the queering literature which serves not to advocate but to equivocate, to look history in the eye and say it ain’t necessarily so. Nexus is a soap-box of a novel, a bar-room bore which pretends to profundity. It has been warmly welcomed in some quarters (here, for instance, are the thoughts of the tech journalist Simon Bisson); perhaps, after all, I am missing something. Perhaps, it is true, the fiction of a lecturer at Singularity University is worth reading for its futurological analysis. The novel’s premise, however, is pure Hollywood hokum, and it is in these clichés – reverted to on almost every page and in every scene-short chapter – that Naam’s science fiction swaps speculative vision for commercialised swagger, betraying the potential of his chosen genre and professed technological passions in favour of a dead black sidekick and overly telegraphed UST. The Clarke jury may be right in thinking this sort of thing a definitive work of contemporary science fiction; but if they are then the genre is in trouble.

the-disestablishment-of-paradiseThe sexual tension in The Disestablishment of Paradise is, at least, resolved. It begins early on with a canny refiguring of the creation story suggested by the name of the planet in its title: “The popular story,” we read of the first exploratory vessel to arrive there, “is that it was Captain Estelle who picked and nibbled the first Paradise plum.” I’ve referred already to the way in which Mann inherits the tendencies of his sourcework, in which women cannot escape the presumed vices of Eve, and certainly not the expectations of the men who promulgate them: “You take that ridiculous headband off and make yourself pretty,” the lead scientist of an entire planet is told by a man we’re cued to find charming. “Put a bit of make-up on like that lovely Captain Abracadabra [this is not Captain Abuhradin’s name]. She knows how to dress for a party. She makes a man feel good just looking at her, eh boys?”

This character – Pietr Z – is not immediately dismissed by the astonishingly well-qualified hero of the novel, Dr Hera Melhuish; instead, his advice is followed to the letter with an ‘aw, you guys’ shrug. Pietr Z, incidentally, is apparently from Generic Eastern Europe, and despite being one of Earth’s leading scientists himself he speaks in comically broken English until a scene in which Mann requires him to be sympathetic and inspiring of confidence, when his syntax suddenly improves. Other characters, meanwhile, call each other ‘chum’ and repeatedly josh that their friends should ‘bugger off’; they wear half-moon glasses and write in  each others’ notebooks; they form committees and fill out forms in triplicate. This is Mann’s first adult novel in two decades, and it shows.

But Niall Harrison has covered this aspect of Mann’s novel in as complete and right-headed a way as anyone might wish, and so I don’t wish to repeat him here: go read his review, in which he correctly concludes that “the novel’s categories are too solid to tell us much about the real choices we have to make”. In many ways, this recalls Sherri S Tepper’s The Water’s Rising, another retreat into reiterative fantasy in the face of a contemporary world for which the author no longer particularly cared. This sort of Atlas-shrug is particularly dangerous for science fiction, and yet is broadly visible in the exhaustion influentially identified by Paul Kincaid: works like The Disestablishment of Paradise read like a form of literature no longer well-equipped to deal with today’s challenges. Like Naam’s action movie memes, Mann’s 1960s verities are part of a decayed and decaying toolkit which science fiction writers continue to fit, forlornly, to a world now beyond them.

Mann’s chosen target is nature, the environment to which we have done so much violence to such potentially catastrophic effect. On Paradise, Gaia theory is given explicit and rather un-nuanced reality (coyly, James Lovelock is never named by Mann): the planet’s consciousness has been made vivid and angry by human incursions, its strange intelligence and unknowable biologies twisted out of shape by a reaction against the likes of Hera and her hunter-gatherer manly male, Mack. “There was a time when it basked quietly, this world which you call Paradise, content with miles of ocean and the tug of the moons and the winds and the tides. […] Everything now has been stained by […] hatred and anger.” Mann describes Paradise in loving-but-limited thumbnails: its flora and fauna are boiled down to three main components, the Tattersall Weed, the Dendron and the Reaper; Hera and Mack’s march across its surface is dangerous but also weirdly dream-like, as if they are walking not across a planet but in the realm of Faery (“awe is a dangerous emotion, it makes you very passive”); and our knowledge of it is always partial (“maybe the Dendron can adjust its life cycle,” Hera muses, “I don’t know”).

All this is a tad frustrating, compounded further by Paradise’s apparent selection of Mack rather than Hera as its ultimate spokesperson and Favourite Human. Mack is everything Hera is not: masculine and practical, physically strong and intellectually straightforward. At one point, we are told he is “surely descended” from “ancient Celtic warriors who ran naked into battle”. This is a rejection of the qualities associated with the feminine over the course of a novel which at first takes pains to try to convince us its women are individuals capable of leading their worlds and passing the Bechdel test. That sits oddly; worse still, Mann seems not to know what to do once Paradise-through-Mac has explained itself to Hera: in a single chapter, after hundreds of pages of rather stately progress, she sprints to a shuttle and flies away.

I’m not sure, however, that some of this isn’t part of the point. Perhaps Mann is only connected with Naam in my own head, since I read him after Nexus and any novel will look good in the awkward shadow of so ham-fisted an effort; but I rather think he is more aware of his tropes than Naam. In the novel’s preface, we are addressed by a (fictional) writer of children’s fiction who has been tasked by Hera with writing her biography. The Disestablishment of Paradise – despite a few footnotes and some attempts to quote from reports or oral transcripts – never resembles anything like a biography (it is too poetic and discursive for that), but it does resemble children’s fiction. Mann wrote this manuscript years ago and failed to find a publisher for it, but it is emphatically not a failed YA novel finally finding a home: it is a different beast, an adult novel which tropes as fairy story. It turns out to be a silly narrative choice, but it appears to have been an active one nonetheless.

“All the colours have been taken from a child’s palette,” we read of Paradise at one point, and throughout the novel openness and inhibition are lionised: “in their naive approach to love, they touch the heart of Paradise” Mann writes of Hera and Mack; Hera’s “educated mind”, meanwhile, “still hid too easily in abstractions, not developed enough to be earthy” – thus the selection of Mack. It is unhelpful that Mack is also associated with masculinity quite so pungently, but it is his child-like quality, I think, with which Mann is most interested. Most obviously, Hera asks her biographer a rhetorical question: “To be irrational sometimes is not to be mad. Is it?” Where Nexus is adolescent by accident, it seems to me that The Disestablishment of Paradise adopts a deliberately jejune perspective: the prince and its princess, the kindly dragon, the fantastical garden are all present and correct; science is perceived just as easily to be magical (Hera is “pilloried for being a ‘mystical scientist'”); there is a sense in which Mann perceives nature as requiring a lack of sophistication in its partners. This is useless to contemporary humanity in the ways Niall suggests, but that may not be accidental or unthinking in the way he argues. The Disestablishment of Paradise feels like a carefully considered novel, even where it is also creaky and cracked.

I have been trumped in more ways than one by Adam Roberts’s two-part consideration of the Clarke shortlist. My thoughts and his seem to leave Mann resembling The Dog Stars more than Tepper, perhaps: not without some sense of its own absurdities, but let down by essentialism and execution. Nexus, meanwhile, is much further along that continuum of sfnal retreat – so far along it, in fact, that it is a novel in full rout. Neither of these troubled novels, of course, should be the winner.

Of all the books on the shortlist, it seems to me as it seems to Roberts that James Smythe’s The Machine is the one that avoids the apparent pitfalls of contemporary science fiction most successfully: it is structured more smoothly than its nearest competitor, Kameron Hurley’s still-incendiary God’s War; it is more accessible and less idiosyncratic than the shortlist’s most complex piece of art, Priest’s The Adjacent; it is, despite its calmness, considerably more subversive than Ann Leckie’s much-praised Ancillary Justice; and, most crucially, it addresses our current moment without resort to the retro or the pastiche. The Machine is the leading novel on an admittedly lukewarm shortlist; but it should take the prize regardless – and inspire other authors, and other perennially embattled juries, to Do Better.

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“Holes That Let The Darkness Out”: James Smythe’s “The Machine”

the-machineJames Smythe’s Clake Award-shortlisted The Machine is like a wedding: it sports both something borrowed and something new. As refreshing as its focus on characterisation, mood and style can be when stood next to something as generically lumpen as Ancillary Justice, it also has as its McGuffin a device we’ve seen many times before: a contraption which can erase a person’s memories, reach into their subconscious and reshape it around a new story. Indeed, The Machine goes further in its weird resemblance to stories we’ve read before, asking questions not very dissimilar to those posited in the 2004 Michael Gondry film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: who are we without our memories, and how do we know we won’t make even worse mistakes without them?

Smythe’s answers are much grimmer than those offered by Gondry and his co-writer, the not usually sunnier-than-the-next-man Charlie Kaufman, and it is in the dour determinism of his novel that we can find the best argument for reading it. The Machine is in many ways a taut and tantalising horror story: the machine itself, fittingly resembling in its faceless opacity Arthur C Clarke’s own monoliths, is a classically implacable monster, squatting in the spare room of the novel’s lonely female protagonist, Beth, a schoolteacher based on the Isle of Wight. The gizmo’s mechanics are not understood either by her or the reader (and in this sense the novel isn’t science fiction at all, since the Machine essentially operates by magic); there is a constant nagging implication that it has its own purpose, its own agenda, and that it will pursue that goal remorselessly.

Beth has illegally purchased her Machine, since it and all other devices like it have been banned by the authorities following a series of disasters resulting from their use. Beth’s own husband, Vic, is one of them: now practically comatose in a specialist facility established for victims of the Machines, he was a soldier returning from the front with memories that tortured him. Like others, Vic opted for them to be removed – and, like others, emerged from the treatments a vegetable: “they’re more like the dead. There’s nothing inside them.” Beth blames herself: she rushed the treatments, she believes, in a desperate bid to get her husband back. The engine of the plot, then, is this guilt, this tragic weakness of the narrator (again, we think of horror).

Beth intends to undo the effects of the Machine on her husband by undertaking the Machine therapy in reverse. In one of the novel’s wittiest turns, she learns how to do so by logging onto internet forums resembling the ones we might search today if we wished to root our phones (this might immediately suggest to any reader unfortunate enough to have followed the wrong online instructions that matters will not go well). The first third of the novel, then, involves Beth’s preparations: the delivery men turning up, being given the excuse that the huge boxes of equipment contain a home gymnasium; their removing Beth’s window to get the parts into her flat (the first of many hints that Beth hasn’t entirely thought this process through); Beth whiling away the end of the school year until she can begin her project in earnest.

That so large a chunk of the novel is spent on build-up gives a sense of the languid pace at which Smythe tells his story. This gives him plenty of space for gentle, unobtrusive worldbuilding. Beth’s near-future is one in which global warming has made summers intolerably stuffy, and economic malaise has turned the young against the older, schools sharing the metal detectors and security guards of the American heartlands that “people the world over [once] laughed at as something that they would never need themselves”. There’s something woozy and dream-like about Beth’s world, since she drifts through it distracted and others stagger through it sweating; but it is also punctured by shocking acts of violence, of the estate’s feral kids threatening the local takeaway restaurant, or Beth herself, or being attacked in turn. Something simmers in Beth’s world, but Smythe’s story is not about the boiling point.

Instead, he moves on. First to the treatment: Beth plans to remove Vic from the centre, since “inside the Machine […] are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be.” This is a painful process, physically gruelling and psychologically taxing; Smythe does not spare his reader the details, maintaining the careful spacing of incident in order fully to dwell on Beth’s own state of mind and on the costs of the Machine’s reverse therapy (“hasn’t she already decided that she’s going to live with him and his temper and – if they start again – the dreams?”). Of course, the Machine remains unknowable – and, Beth comes to think, not entirely to be trusted: “I didn’t put some story about you going back to war in you,” she says to Vic, “That’s from the Machine.” At one point during this painfully drawn-out period, she thinks of Greek statues, wondering how they were crafted: whether artists filled in the “seemingly unimportant parts – the flats of [the subject’s] backs, or the flattened plateau of an inner thigh” – from memory or imagination, and whether that matters to the final likeness. The Machine is compared by its publishers to a modern Frankenstein, I suppose because Beth isn’t sure what it is she’s creating. But in a real way she’s worse than that other Vic, Frankenstein: he at least understood the process of creation, the body parts and the electricity; Beth simply has a Machine with a hard drive.

Perhaps it’s this uncertainty which leads to the novel’s slightly unbalanced final third: suddenly, Things Happen and all must be revealed, if not quite understood. An unfortunate catalyst for this change is one of the novel’s few mis-steps, Beth’s accidental best friend, Laura: another teacher at the school, Laura also turns our to be a caricatured evangelical, who hollers at Beth, as she plays with Vic’s soul, that she is bound for Hell and Damnation. “This is creation, Beth,” she rants (later she will pound on Beth’s door, spitting and snarling at her. “You don’t mess with creation, as it is the purview of our one God, Beth.” Leaving aside the fact that few people actually talk in this way, Laura’s fire-and-brimstone might reflect a theological turn in this otherwise successfully sketched-in future, but also seems by-the-numbers and crude, much like another scene in the novel’s final third, in which Beth takes clippers to her hair before a mirror. The familiarity of Smythe’s core conceit begins to re-emerge, then, as soon as he moves away from lingering on Beth’s perspective, her contorted vision of and relationship to her husband and his trauma. The novel’s final twist, though devastating, feels tacked-on and over-neat; there is a real fumble here in the final furlongs, as if the novel strolls nonchalantly and productively away from its borrowed elements for much of its length, and then, like Jim Carrey barrelling through his memory palace, sprints back towards them in order to find the exit.

Smythe’s spare and thoughtful prose may have here been better suited to a shorter length: at times, The Machine felt like a superb novella stretched, in that final third, a tad too far. It is in that prose, however, that The Machine more than earns its keep. Smythe turns a world as well as a phrase gently and yet powerfully, and this is a stylist’s trick often in short supply in a genre which conversely often lives and dies by the subtlety of its infodumping. If The Machine doesn’t quite spit out a product perfectly fashioned from those initial raw materials, watching it working is a pleasure.

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“Puzzle Out The Results”: Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice”

ancillary justiceHere’s how my review of Ann Leckie’s rapturously-received – and Clarke-shortlisted – debut novel originally began:

I don’t get it. Ancillary Justice is by no means a bad book: it is competent, even rigorous, and despite some extensive longeurs it is also in places pacey and handily plot-driven. It has a certain singularity of voice, and something to say with it. It manages to tackle some big issues – gender, artificial intelligence, gestalt consciousness – with a real lightness of touch, an unshowy seriousness. It is solid. But I don’t get it.

The buzz for Anne Leckie’s debut novel has been, in tonal quality, closer to a thrumming bass note from a Marshall stack. From advance notice to considered think pieces, reviewers have fallen over themselves to get excited about this big oil’ slice of space opera, as if its mix of interplanetary romance and high-concept mil-SF really is something to write home about. To take the temperature of large parts of SF fandom on the topic of this novel has been to send the mercury soaring. It has been, in fact, rather like the hoop-la a couple of years ago around the US publication of Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, a book with which, since it has now been published in the UK, Ancillary Justice has quirkily enough found itself competing on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.

Nevertheless, I’m not ooh-ing. My aahs are muted at best. I do not think Leckie has written a book as good as the punchily patchy God’s War, much less one about to reinvent the genre’s ratty old wheel. I don’t get it.

And, then, dear reader, I paused. I ruminated. I checked the jerking of my knee. I’m as up for offering entertainment in the form of wilful gadflyery as (more than) anyone, but my tastes are so often peripheral not just to ‘core’ fandom but a certain literary subset of it that for once – just for once, mind – I wanted to understand. So I fired up Google, and I found Nina Allan at Arc.

Oh, frabjous day.

Leckie […] embraces the [science fiction] mission statement fully. Ancillary Justice gives us teeming galaxies, evil empires, a version of warp drive, and all without a hint of irony as the commonly accepted imagery of the particular version of SF that ranges itself against the mainstream as “a literature of ideas”.

When examined up close, however, the ideas contained in Ancillary Justice seem disappointingly simple: empires are evil, class systems are oppressive, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ancillary Justice is an SF novel of the old school: tireless in its recapitulation of genre norms and more or less impenetrable to outsiders.

The novel I happened to read immediately after Ancillary Justice was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Both novels are debuts, both are the first instalment in a trilogy. Both deal with far future empires, both have war as a central leitmotif, both have important things to say about society, faith and gender. At a surface level at least it would appear that these two books have much in common, but in fact, I would argue, they are different beasts entirely.

Allan has written her review so that I don’t have to, nailing all the ways in which Ancillary Justice underwhelms: in its characterisation, in its prose, in the execution of its core conceits. She even makes that same comparison with God’s War, pointing out what a properly adventurous debut novel really looks like (the comparison is made all the more damning for Leckie when one considers that Hurley’s effort is itself far from flawless). Here is a novel which routinely inserts its worldbuilding just after a character makes a reference to it: “I’m having trouble imaging you doing anything improper,” one says to another, before Leckie informs us that, “The word was weighted in Radchaai, part of a triad of justice, propriety and benefit.” This simultaneously offers a pretence of depth and the nagging feeling that we are less inhabiting a world and more taking a tour around it. Likewise, dialogue again and again services the plot – characters speak in the same voice, primarily to tell us how to interpret events and where they may next be headed (“It started at Garsedd,” another character explains to yet another. “She was appalled by what she’d done, but she couldn’t decided how to react.” “Oh,” the other doesn’t – but may as well – say. “OK.”)

One one level, perhaps all this is deliberate: Ancillary Justice is set in a quasi-fascistic empire in which to be civilised is to conform totally, and around which we are directed by Breq, a first person narrator who was once merely a tiny component in a gestalt intelligence. Breq is Pinocchio – a Spock or Data figure who was once an outpost of a spaceship’s AI and who may well now, it is strongly implied, be capable of a kind of personhood, about to transmute into a real girl or, since genders are often satisfyingly uncertain in this book, boy. It is in this addition of just a dash of zest to a hoary, tired old conceit that Leckie’s project is most evident: she is not reinventing science fiction so much as holding up a mirror to the genre’s best possible side. Allan suggests that Leckie hasn’t written her novel with anything like a commercial motivation, and in many ways that’s true of what is ultimately a rather awkward debut; but I’d also ask what novel better rushes to the aid of a core genre more embattled than usual, defending itself from all sorts of accusations of gender bias, from the assaults of new fangled literary modes and speculative writers not entirely interested in the genre itself; by new means of production and new forms and fora of criticism. Why, how much that core genre needs a novel from its own patch which doesn’t use the male pronoun. Cue predictably rapturous joy. “We can do this,” cry the SF massive. “We are not yet defeated.”

None of which is necessarily bad, but some of which goes a little way to understanding why Ancillary Justice has been hyped beyond its capacity to fulfil expectations. If it is not quite pedestrian, it is a gently jogging novel with some nice ideas but a ponderous style. The excitement around a book like this reminded me of the work of Algris Budrys, some of which I recently reviewed for Vector but which has also been considered in much the same vein by Paul Kincaid, for Foundation and, briefly, on his own blog: in the 1970s and 1980s, as Kincaid writes, Budrys read science fiction through “a series of columns that turn again and again to John W. Campbell, Lester Del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein and a host of writers of the same era”. In much the same way, Ancillary Justice does not feel like a new work of science fiction, but rather as a zeitgeisty iteration of the same old same old. (Lila Garrot at Strange Horizons, in a review full of praise for the book: “The novel’s core questions, such as the meaning of personhood in a world containing artificial intelligences and the meaning of individual identity in a world containing multi-bodied minds, are not new to speculative fiction, but they are combined in ways which shed new light on them, and Leckie never allows anything to resolve into a simple answer.”)

This leaves the Clarke Award looking more like a commemoration of what science fiction likes than it often prefers to seem: where Ancillary Justice ports SFnal conceits, it doesn’t transform or even bend them out of shape very much. It’s comforting and well-meaning all at the same time. On that level, at least, perhaps I do get it, after all.

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