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I mentioned, in my first pair of reviews drawing from this year’s Booker shortlist, the sad omission by the judges of M John Harrison’s superb Empty Space. This was a novel, it seemed to me, with all the poignancy and pregnancy the Booker seeks to reward, replete with the subtle craft and canny artistry it likes to encourage. In the comments to a recent post on the blog of science fiction author Adam Roberts, himself a previous recipient of the shoulda-woulda-coulda SF Booker badge, the estimable Matt Cheney agrees:

By your criteria here, it would be hard to make a case for even, say, Harrison’s Empty Space to make it to the list — and I think it certainly deserved to be there. But it’s complex, difficult, allusive, elusive. Certainly not primitivist, unless “primitivist” is stripped of much meaning.

The comment is part of a discussion about the criteria Cheney mentions, a set of propositions Roberts establishes in an attempt to argue not just for the importance of Young Adult fiction but for its primacy in contemporary literary culture. There’s a lot in Roberts’s post to like – I’m particularly intrigued by his idea that education and school represents a dominant strand of post-modern experience – but his position on YA seems unusually wobbly. This has led Nina Allan, who shares my admiration for Roberts’s criticism, to wonder if he isn’t, gadflyishly, playing Devil’s advocate; Allan also pre-empts most of my quibbles with the original post, but I wonder if encoded within it – and implicit in Allan’s response – is a more compelling ‘great definer’ of our age. But more of that anon.

a-tale-forthe-time-beingFor the moment, it’s worth sticking with YA, not least because Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being reads a good deal like fiction aimed at teens for a good part of its length. Half of its pagecount is handed over to Nao, a Japanese adolescent whose diary is found by Ruth, an American writer living on a sparsely inhabited island in Desolation Sound. In reading Nao’s journal, Ruth comes to feel impossibly close to the teen’s stories first of dotcom bubble prosperity in Silicon Valley, then poverty back home in Japan when her depressive father loses his job and takes to placing ill-fated bets as a means of maintaining the family income. Nao’s narrative truly revolves, however, around Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who is also Nao’s improbably wise grandmother.

Into this tale therefore enters the concept of Oneness: Jiko’s philosophy is filtered through Nao’s naivety (“everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap” [pg. 6]), resulting in a good deal of restatements of the gnomically obvious. “Being a Buddhist,” Nao tells us of Jiko, “she really understands impermanence and that everything changes and nothing lasts forever.” [pg. 27]   This Cliff Notes approach to Jiko’s beliefs infuses Nao’s half of the novel, in which we are treated to related wit and wisdom ranging across a number of contemporary hot topics: “Everybody in California has ADD, and they all take meds for it, and they’re constantly changing their prescriptions and tweaking their dosages” [pg. 161]; “September 11 is like a sharp knife slicing through time” [pg. 265]; “all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting” [pg. 26].

There’s a reductiveness to a lot of this which characterises the worst kind of YA, the type rolled out by lofty adults to help young people understand what it means to be proper people. (Not for the first time, m’learned friend Martin Lewis nails this problem with concision and vim.) Nao’s passages start off promisingly – the first chapter in particular reads freshly and cheekily, and made me genuinely excited for the novel – but it never really deepens or complicates itself. We might assume, then, that Ozeki simply suffers from the same malady which afflicts many such writers when slumming it by writing from a teen perspective: she simply doesn’t capture the sophistication of the voice. The difficulty is that this is true, too, of Ruth’s passages, albeit in a different way. They very often take the form of dialogues between her and another character – most often another improbably wise interlocutor, her husband Oliver.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“She says she’s writing it for you. So do you feel special?”

“That’s ridiculous,” Ruth said.

“Speaking about garbage,” Oliver said, “I’ve been thinking about the Great Garbage Patches recently …”

“The what?”

“The Great Eastern and Great Western Garbage Patches? Enormous masses of garbage and debris floating in the oceans? You must have heard about them … “

“Yes,” she said. “No. I mean, sort of.” It didn’t matter, since he clearly wanted to tell her about them. [pg. 35]

This format is fitting for the book Ozeki has written – which is essentially a disputation, a didact’s philosophy primer – but it grinds wearyingly on over the space of a 400+ page volume that insists upon presenting as a novel. Of course, the diary-reading and letter-writing at the heart of this story – emails and blogs feature, too, but only as spruced-up accoutrements to what is a fairly traditional epistolary structure – are all a metaphor for the act of creation undertaken in collaboration by a reader and a writer. Ruth and Nao are in a mystical way the same person, forming (in the oneness of the – geddit? – now) their story together. This is gratingly obvious early on, and the digressions and multiplying frame narratives Ozeki employs to complicate this schematic endeavour don’t sufficiently distract from a core predictability. By the 400th page – when, of course, Oliver reveals all (“the superposed quantum system persists, only, when it is observed, it branches” [pg. 397]), it comes as both relief and let-down. Perhaps this is true primarily for readers of novels like M John Harrison’s; perhaps there are those for whom the Ozeki will come as a revelation; but one wonders why a novel in the footsteps of Jostein Gaarder trumps a more complex novel with the same quantum-philosophical base.

We-Need-New-NamesWhich might return us to Roberts’s thoughts: “No SF? No YA? No Crime? Insular, backward looking shortlist.” Except that Roberts does not consider SF’s science to be as vital as YA’s, well, youth. Indeed, in his trio of defining contemporary characteristics, Roberts places technology on the lowest rung. Above it but below youth, in the role of our age’s Ronnie Barker, he sites globalisation. With self-conscious finesse, then, I direct your attention to NoViolet Bulawayo’s tilt at the Booker, We Need New Names.

Darling is another young girl in unfortunate circumstances: in her case, she and her single mother (who operates, at the edge of Darling’s understanding, as an occasional sex worker) live in a Zimbabwean shanty town known drolly as Paradise. She and her friends spend their days causing trouble and playing Find Bin Laden (all these international children are so interested in the War on Terror, one finds), stealing intermittently into the better parts of town to grab fruit from trees and gaze, wide-eyed, at the privilege they cannot quite imagine, “the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on” [pg. 2]. Globalisation, then, touches their lives in a myriad ways: the well-heeled visitor from London who will “throw food away” as if it’s nothing [pg. 7], the charity workers who arrive at the village without the language, who dole out rations and are mocked by the children; the teachers who have “left to teach over in South Africa and Botswana and Namibia and them, where there’s better money” [pg. 31]; and, finally, the family members who have already escaped to America, to work as cleaners and orderlies in luxury quite alien to Darling’s contemporaries.

Indeed, Bulawayo spends a lot of time in the first half of her novel on the degradations which contrast so vividly with these glimpses of the West: the woman with AIDS who hangs herself, and whose corpse is found, dangling, by the young tearaways; the girl who is pregnant with her grandfather’s child, having been repeatedly raped; the sinister village preacher, the satisfyingly monikered Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, who accuses women of witchcraft and demonic possession in order to abuse them. “There is just no sense in being afraid when you live so near the graves,” Darling says [pg. 132], and there is certainly an air of resignation to Bulawayo’s work. When Darling flies to America to join a relative there, her life – and the prose style itself – changes utterly. We Need New Names proceeds from Bulawayo’s Caine-winning short story ‘Hitting Budapest‘, which is here the first chapter, but the book takes a huge swerve at its centrepoint, shifting from a demotic, almost innocent style, to a breathless, almost bitter one: “If I were at home I know I would not be standing around because something called snow was preventing me going outside to live life.” [pg. 153]

This doesn’t lead very far, however: Darling watches pornography with her new group in America and grows into awkward adolescence; she dismisses the pain of a friend who is physically assaulted by her boyfriend (“I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis” [pg. 218]); and she returns to her village to be scolded and rejected by her former friends. All this, as in A Tale for the Time Being, is much as you’d expect, a sort of grand thematic tour. On the other hand, it is also written with more clarity and playfulness than Ozeki’s novel, and though it is in its own way just as insistent, it is much less didactic – because much more sprightly. Still, I find it hard not to agree, insofar as it is possible or reasonable for me to do so, with Helon Habila in the Guardian: “To perform Africa [...] is to inundate one’s writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense.” Bulawayo has one of Darling’s childhood friends counter this accusation – “You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on?” [pg. 285] – but in her clear and understandable desire to document the deprivations of a country often invisible to inhabitants of the one to which Darling emigrates, she does somewhat load her novel with precisely the negative resignation one assumes she wishes to eschew.

Bulawayo ends We Need New Names on an ugly image of a dog crushed by traffic on a Zimbabwean road; her final sentence, however, emphasises the “delicious, delicious smell of Lobells bread” which wafts across the scene, as if – aha – to leaven the darkness, to emphasise that all in Africa is not dead dogs in the road. In her second novel, one hopes she succeeds in better achieving that balance. One worries, however, that Philip Hensher is right: that the inclusion from 2014 of American novels in the Booker race will hollow out the prize, render ever more predictable its shortlist; already, in three of these six shortlisted novels (the two reviewed here and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), America acts as a prism through which more particular struggles are viewed. Hensher, I think, over-eggs his pudding, but concern about a flattening-out is valid: in his own Booker post, after all, Roberts notes that the youth culture he sees as permeating and defining our particular moment was “invented to relieve young people of their pocket money in the 1950s”; in her response to the post, Nina Allan points out that YA is written not for young adults but for “the young adult market“. The characteristic of our age – as Darling, imprisoned in her shanty town and pining for “the TV, the large radio, the beautiful things we don’t know” – is not the youth Nao and Darling share, but the commodification which places intolerable pressures on the lives of all around them, the packaging and repackaging of stuff. Selling to markets is the sine qua non of our technological, globalised, youth-obsessed culture, one in which leisure time expands and is filled not by more time for reflection but by more product – not by what Roberts calls ‘clever clever’ art, but by accessible mass media.

The Booker, one hopes, won’t reward books which play to those pressures.

In the spirit of equal opportunities, and having poked Christopher Priest’s review of Jack Glass last week, I suppose I should start this post by picking a fight with a review by Adam Roberts. It isn’t easy to find fault with his recent blog post about Sam Thompson’s debut, Booker longlisted novel, Communion Town (it is more accurately a sequence of ten linked short stories), and much of what you’ll read here is eminently sensible; but it’s also a shade more positive than I might be about to make my own review. “Will Thompson win the Booker Prize?” Roberts asks. “Maybe, though not with this novel.” The good Professor resolves that Thompson has promise, but that Communion Town is an immature expression of it. I might correct this view immediately by suggesting that Communion Town seems to me to have rather a looser grip on itself (oo-er) that that position might suggest, except for Nina Allan at Strange Horizons:

these finely wrought stylistic essays are much more than literary jokes. Far from having a laugh at genre’s expense, the stories in Communion Town are more like love letters, declarations of allegiance in which Thompson demonstrates that he is a writer of genuine quality. He brings situations and characters to life with wit and panache, yet the underlying melancholy and uncertainty in these tales mean that they are also replete with a genuine emotion. Thompson’s “ear” for nuance and style is, quite frankly, extraordinary. His considerable linguistic dexterity allows him to pay homage to the styles of past masters even as he critiques them.

My own experience of the book was of its essential thinness, however. How to reconcile these two readings? I’m not sure it’s possible, but allow me at least to illustrate the counter-argument. Communion Town is replete with characters, voices and genres – each of the ten stories features a different combination – and yet it feels weirdly static. It is simultaneously chock-full of the variety Allan praises, and entirely without it. In large part, I think, this is a function of the unearned quality which so much of Thompson’s writing seems to own. Sometimes, this is the result of a resort to cheap effect: the second story, a faintly adolescent romance with added (poorly evoked) songwriting, begins: “The first time we met, she was climbing into a rickshaw” [pg. 29]; barely a few lines later, we learn that it is the narrator’s rickshaw into which the woman in question is climbing, the indefinite article employed not in line with an internal logic of narration, but in order to catch us short when our narrator turns out to be a poor person. At other points, it’s a matter of giving into the temptation of over-simplistic pastiche: in ‘The Significant Case of Lazarus Glass’, Thompson has his Holmesian protagonist say, “It is in any case a nice knot, this business with Lazarus, not without certain points of interest.” [pg. 195]   Quoting is not the same as evoking.

There is also an extent to which the, to use Roberts’s nomenclature, Pratchett-Harrison-Gaiman-Miéville line followed by Thompson  is neither as vividly nor as carefully drawn here as it is in the work of his forebears. The city in which the metro station of Communion Town can be found is not just London – it is also Paris and Istanbul, Rio and Atlantis. It is a hodgepodge, an at times wilfully allegorical place: “You might spend a lifetime in the city and never glimpse one, if you’re lucky,” we learn of the monsters that inhabit the city, “but few of us escape the occassional reminder of their presence.” [pg. 8]   I might have had issues with China Miéville’s concretising of this metaphor-for-homelessness in The City & The City, but it at least had the virtue of courage. For all the glimpses we receive of the geography of Thompson’s city – the student quarter here, the playground of the rich and famous there – there remains something of the ingénue about it: teasing, and ultimately rather vapid. Thompson foregrounds this habitual withholding in his story ‘Outside The Days’ (“Something had been waiting for him in the derelict house. He didn’t want to describe it.” [pg. 236]), but, tellingly, that story ultimately comes across as a lyrical description of water-treading.

Barring the clangs of generic bum notes, in fact, Thompson’s prose is his principle ally. In ‘The City Room’, a story featuring a small boy who builds a model of the urban space in his bedroom, he tidily captures the mindset of its protagaonist in a scene set in a toyshop: “He wanted a goody but he did not know which were which: they looked at one and his grandmother said it must be a goody because the baddy would not have such a sad expression on his face. He agreed. One figure was a girl, the only girl allowed in Captain Maximum’s team. He did not look at her in case his grandmother noticed.” [pg. 88]   Or here, closing the elegiac ‘A Way To Leave’: “As the rooms darkened, early evening light came up in the windows and faded from blue to grey, offering a last view of the heath and the rooftops. She took the pocket street atlas from the drawer of the hall table, then changed her mind and put it back. She buttoned her coat, and, after consideration, left a lamp on in the hall.” [pg. 278]

This is elegant, pregnant stuff. But it is also insistent: the goody and baddy palaver, the heavy symbolism of putting a map back in a drawer. In ‘Good Slaughter’, a man who makes his living butchering animals takes up precisely the criminal pastime you might expect. ‘Gallathea’, meanwhile, has what Roberts rightly calls “a slightly clumsily ventriloquized Chandler tone”. It’s all a bit pat, a tiny bit safe. Despite this, few of the stories stand up outside of the supporting novelistic architecture, which is itself rather slim. There is, in other words, a sense of a simultaneous absence and profusion of consideration: on the level of the sentence, too intent on emphasising the purpose, if not the plot, of the story; and on the level of the world, far too little focus on real material weight.

In ‘Three Translations’, a story featuring something like a gap year student which turns out – surprise! – to be about foreignness, the narrator’s visiting friend opines that “she hated this city that made her seem so stupid” [pg. 180]. One wonders if this isn’t what Thompson wants us all to feel, and whether we are meant to conclude that the problem with the visitor is that she finds this experience discomfiting: embrace, we are exhorted, the bewildering unknowability of the city. This isn’t quite what Thompson gives us in practice, however: coyness isn’t the same as mystery. In ‘The Rose Tree’, the narrative revolves around what is imparted when a man on an evening walk meets a strange creature: “It told him a secret. A story about itself, that was what it told him. Later, the details escaped him completely.” [pg. 249]   This is less learning from unknowability, more revelling in it.

Ultimately, the reader experiences Communion Town as a kind of semiotic limbo. Thompson is good at atmosphere, and provoking this feeling may well have been his intent: if so, he is indeed a talented writer as Roberts suggests. But one wonders what kind of a talent this is, and whether Thompson will need (and here perhaps I arrive at last on the same page as Nina Allan) to develop its effect  if he is to make good on its promise.

The reader will indulge me if I begin this post with the confession that, over the last few years, I had begun to think of Adam Roberts as the Jean-Luc Picard to Christopher Priest’s Captain Kirk: not only has the older man oddly more hair than the younger; in missing out on prizes, in seeing genre less as a mode of literature and more as a kit to retool, and increasingly in the kind of cold affect his novels have demonstrated, Roberts seemed to be evolving into a kind of reiteration of the Chris Priest story. (We await the movie of Swiftly with baited breath.) Imagine my discombobulation, then, when Priest wrote in a review of Roberts’s latest novel, Jack Glass, that Royal Holloway’s Professor of 19th Century Literature “is in general rather odd”.

This is a bit rich in a review which compares the novel’s Iago, who acts as tutor to a scion of one of the few families in an intermediate future who administer the Sol system on behalf of the shadowy Ullanovs, with the comedy mechanoid from Red Dwarf, Kryten. Jack Glass, like all of Roberts’s novels, may be intensely ironised – but Iago resembles in far greater detail Dune‘s Thufir Hawat, the similarly subservient and selfless tutor of Paul Atreides, the likewise obliviously privileged scion etc. etc. This sort of recursiveness is par for the course with Roberts, and when Iago’s true identity is revealed – Jack Glass, the notorious criminal of the title, “the father of lawlessness” [pg. 171], is naturally also a master of disguise – he comes also to resemble Alan Moore’s V, another impossibly mythic agent of revolution and instability, who also takes a blinkered and uncertain young girl under his caped wing etc. etc.

Jack Glass is in this way and many others intensely aware of itself as fiction – not so very different from Priest’s modus operandi, most recently of course in The Islanders – and the reader of this review should rest assured that any spoilers in this review are echoed early on in the novel’s own prologue: “One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. [...] In each case the murderer is the same individual – of course, Jack Glass himself.” [pp. 1-2]  In his afterword, Roberts confides that his project was to fuse the Golden Age mystery story with the Golden Age sf saga (finding a screwdriver in the toolkit and seeing how it works as a hammer), and yet his task is made doubly hard by his own decision to rob the reader of the principle pleasure of detective fiction: the anonymity of the criminal. Where a crime novel concerns itself with the who, however, SF might be said to be more interested by the how.

“There are problems that are trivial, and problems that are profoud,” insists Eva Argent, the “MOHsister” of Iago’s charge, Diana, in the second of Jack Glass‘s three parts [pg. 117]. The duelling genres at the centre of the novel, and the world Roberts dresses as the stage for his mysteries, allow Jack Glass to ask at some length how we come to identify which problems are which. Eva and Diana, genetically engineered using Modulated Ova Haptoid technology, are at the top of a viciously stratified society, in which billions of impoverished humans live in barely-habitable bubbles of plastic floating in rough orbit around the sun; the ‘sumpolloi’, as they are known, are subject to the Lex Ullanova, the law codes imposed upon the solar system by the clan which emerged victorious from a period of sustained war. Earth is now the playground of the Ullanovs and the five families who serve them; beneath them are the Gongsi, corporate monopolies which fulfil a variety of functions. There is no state – in the first (and in many ways best) part of the novel, we see prisoners transported by a Gongsi to a barren asteroid, abandoned with the bare essentials of survival, and left with the solitary hope that at the end of eleven years the Gongsi ship will return to collect them and sell the now-habitable asteroid for a profit.

In this future, then, there is a pathological emphasis on the importance of policing and rewarding order and hierarchy: even the convicts understand that “if we keep a lid on our tempers, and keep good order, then we can last the time. [...] But if we give way to anarchy we’ll all be dead in a week. Die like beasts, or survive as men? Is that really a choice?” [pg. 80]  The future of Jack Glass is struggling to contain and provision the teeming billions – the sumpolloi live a life of subsistence, and the Lex Ullanova is so all-powerful, so over-powering, that “it even regulates the bounds of illegality” (the Lex assumes 30% of economic activity is illegal, and so taxes lawful producers at 143% of their gross, rather than 100%) [pg. 283] . We see much of Roberts’s last novel of inequality, By Light Alone, in all this – and where that book ended with a revolution, this one is focused on how the elite might maintain order in such straitened circumstances. The answer, of course, is exploitation: Iago characterises the philosophy of this future as “seeing those trillions as a resource, and not as a congregation of humanity.” [pg. 197]

The ethical questions which revolve around this set-up are signified in the generic conventions of crime and science fiction, and personified in Diana and Eva: the former has been bred to understand and analyse human behaviour (her favourite reading is, of course, the country house mystery, and she prizes “the moral knowledge that life is lived individually” [pg. 239]), the latter to analyse data and phenemonology (not yet in her 20s, she has six PhDs and is working on a seventh, on Champagne Supernovae). When a servant is murdered in their Terran mansion – a surprising aberration since all the staff are drugged to assure supine loyalty – Eva dismisses Diana’s enthusiasm for cracking the case: “Even if you limited yourself to the population of the island (though, since the whole Argent group had only just landed, and had not yet interacted with any island natives, the murderer was massively unlikely to be found outside the group – but for the sake of argument), we were talking about 19 out of 102,530, which was the 99.998+th percentile. Eva had never reached such levels of near-certainty in any of her PhDs!” [pg. 124]   That is, it doesn’t matter who murdered the servant, because the solution is so statistically insignificant – simply convict all the suspects and you’re still ahead by the numbers.

This is very much the logic behind the system Jack Glass rails against: “It’s a system where raw materials are costly, and energy is costly, and the only thing that isn’t costly is human life.” [pp. 61-62]  The Gongsi are simply concerned with “extracting the maximum productivity” out of the prisoners [pg. 28]; the Lex is concerned only with preventing insurrection, rather than improving the lives of the sumpolloi; and, as John Clute has observed in his review of the novel, even Jack Glass is a husbandman, for whom “killing is enclosure” [pg. 248] – he, too, treats human life as subordinate to his own rebel’s goals. With an eye to contemporary predicaments, Roberts makes explicit this complicity: “Of course it is not comfortable to think that human beings, who breathe and feel and hope as we do, are a resource we exploit,” Iago admits in an exchange with Diana. “It is a very terrible thing. But the alternative is: to live a hermit life.” [pg. 242]

This is the same ambivalence which forms part of the appeal of crime fiction – Diana rejects the idea that she has a morbid fascination with death, but Iago challenges her to name a single mystery she enjoyed which did not involve one. In the Jack’s world, everyone is exploiting someone else – and the conceptual breakthrough which might transform the system that makes this inevitable is held at bay not just by the Ullanovs but by Glass himself. The whole solar system is abuzz with rumours of the discovery of a Faster Than Light drive, but the consequences of such a technology put their apparent benefits in the balance. It would have been easy to make Jack Glass a dystopian warning, set in an obviously evil future without cross-current or complication. In the event, it is something more important – and Glass’s supposed guilt, for the murders we both do and don’t see, becomes a more difficult thing, less open to Holmesian deduction or moralising.

An argument of this sophistication, on the other hand, is a difficult thing to weave into a generic labradoodle of a novel, and at times Roberts falls back on dialogue more than he has done in some of his other novels. The writing is never less than engaging, however, and Jack Glass is a page-turner in a way that, for instance, New Model Army (perhaps still his best work) wasn’t: Niall Alexander is right to argue that this narrative momentum is, for a mystery novel in which there is a no mystery (save for the identity of the narrator), a significant achievement. In addition, there are also some lovely images – Diana’s party arriving on Earth, unused to gravity “like newly-born calves” [pg. 104] – and some fine asides at the expense of both genres – “since [the evidence] suggests the murderer is a person of great physical strength, the murderer will actually be a very weak individual,” eureekas Diana [pg. 109]. There are, admittedly, rather too many expository conversations – “My understanding, Miss,” Iago opines before telling the reader something important; “So. Would it make sense … ” responds Diana in an attempt at showing her working [pg. 147] – but this can be seen as a means merely of apeing the hokey characteristics of ‘real’ detective fiction. In the final furlong of the novel, this wry generic aptness might go too far – there are a few unsatisfied groans to be had in the resolution of character arcs and motivations – but it may nevertheless be a failure central to Roberts’s project.

China Miéville has infamously pledged to write a novel in every genre. He has since half-disowned his promise, but Roberts has taken up the baton and is going one better – it is increasingly his aim, it would seem, to write a single novel which encompasses every genre. If this is an odd goal, and if Chris Priest is ‘coming around’ to the idea that oddness may be a factor in Roberts’s favour, some of us saw the light rather earlier. Indeed, the serious purpose of Jack Glass’s puckishness is not so much odd as adventurous – not so much peculiar as potent. Roberts himself may or may not, without a tantrum as entertaining as Priest’s, have given up hope of being named a recipient of the Clarke Award; but there must surely still be a judge out there who will make it so.

"I have never felt so well planned for," grouched Abasio.

What is a reviewer to do with Sherri S Tepper’s The Waters Rising? It is part of the function of shortlists like the Clarke’s to shine a light on books which have been overlooked by reviewers and readers, but in the case of this novel it is hard not to assume that it has been passed over for want of anything nice to say. When Maureen Kincaid Speller (whose review of the novel is sensible and inhumanly alert to Tepper’s endlessly shapeless plot) tweeted, “Have finished reading #watersrising. Er …”, it occurred to me that in a way that was all that needed to be said about a novel which loses itself well before its hundredth page. The hashtag Maureen uses began as a joint reading project – within a few hundred pages it had fallen silent, the assembled tweeters presumably struck dumb by a book which defies reasoned analysis.

First and foremost, Tepper’s style is so discursive as to erase entirely all possible intimations of whatever structure she might have intended. In large part, the novel is the story of Abasio and Xulai, lovers who are in Adam Roberts’s polite terminology “problematic”. (Roberts is more admiring – although still dismissive – of the book than many, and this must be related to his long-term admiration for Tepper – to call The Waters Rising “pleasantly immersive” is like describing the experience of being drowned as ‘getting a bit wet’.) The pair of lovers are problematic because, you understand, Xulai appears to be a child when we first meet her – a ‘soul-carrier’ for the wife of the Duke of Wold. When the princess inevitably dies, Abasio must join the fellowship which is tasked with returning her Ring soul to the place of its making, Mordor Tingawan. It is on this quest that endless subplots are opened and tediously explored, and on which we learn that Xulai is really twenty years old, so it’s fine for Abasio to have the hots for her – it just means he is unusually perceptive.

If The Waters Rising has a theme, it is this: secret knowledge. Tepper’s world is not the slowly flooding realm of core fantasy it at first appears to be – indeed, so necessary is it to read the novel as sf that I disagree even with David Hebblethwaite’s view that, so thin is the book’s science, it should be read otherwise. Rather, its technological past – our own climate change-threatened present – is literally submerged beneath the waters of time. Information scarcity comes to characterise the whole novel: Abasio can see past the immediately apparent to the supposed truth beneath; his wise-cracking talking horse possesses a wit which can cast new light on human problems; and even Xulai’s tutor, Precious Wind, has frankly compendious knowledge of the past, which she reveals in one great gout when it is necessary for Tepper to have her do so (that Precious Wind is even in a position to have this kind of knowledge is also kept secret for a large chunk of the novel).  “People don’t always tell everything, you know,” one characters informs us – the interminable dialogue in The Waters Rising is never between characters, but amongst them for our benefit. “Mostly they don’t.” [pg. 31]   The Waters Rising paints this truism gauchely large: we are never drip-fed clues, but left to blunder ignorantly through huge reams of text before an absurdly bald expository lecture enlightens us.

The very narrative voice is part of this bland project: though ostensibly in the third person limited mode, in practice the prose reminded me of a tone-deaf George Eliot, since it offers constant judgement on its own story in an ironic, although bathetic, sort of way. The following is typical of the approach (where ‘typical’ means ‘deliberately selected for its unusual brevity’): “‘I have just learned…,’ said Alicia, going on to quote what she had, in fact, just learned.” [pg. 227]  As the novel continues, however, the judgements of this distanced, incompetent narrator – who seems to know everything and yet share nothing – turn from irony to cruelty. Alicia is one of the novel’s villains – responsible, for instance, for the death of the princess – and there is no mercy for her, even when we learn she is in a real way not at all responsible for her actions. (“Magic,” sneers one character named Boromir Bear in both a moment of significance for the novel and an instance of characters suddenly attaining language the cod-medieval setting pretends to deny them: “From what I know, more likely genetics.” [pg. 57])

Alicia is in fact the plaything of the Old Dark Man, a survival from the Before Time when humans were nasty and made nasty gadgets, creating in his case a killing-machine with a murderous hatred of any being he is programmed to target – that is, anyone at all different to those who programmed him. This selfishness, this will to power, is the position against which the novel primarily sets itself. “Land is merely land,” another villain cackles; “trees are trees; rivers are rivers, all of them ours to do with as we will!” [pg. 108]  Yet ultimately, and in perhaps the most unhinged of all its many expository lectures, the solution to the rising waters and the otherwise inevitable extinction of humanity is offered, at the end of the fellowship’s journey, by the Sea King, a kraken with a curiously similar logic: “There must be no odds at all! Xulai must be sure each fertile sea egg is given to a person like herself. Otherwise, we will have wars beneath the sea, hatred, species-ism, territoriality – who knows what horrors we would have.” [pg. 412]  The future is safe, because in the future everyone will be like you.

Here we come to the crux of this bizarre novel. The Sea King’s solution, simply, is to use incredibly unlikely genetic science – not for the first time, Clarke’s Third Law has a lot to answer for – to create new generations of humans who are also, well, fish. The way this jonbar-point evolution is achieved is for someone to eat a ‘sea egg’ – they will then, if mating with another consumer, produce spliced offspring equipped to survive in the pending aquatic future. Xulai, like the “chess piece” Alicia [pg. 362],  has no real choice in becoming the brood mother for this absurd new race – “You can give them [the eggs] to others and let your own grandchildren drown,” the Sea King suggests helpfully when she first appears reluctant to take him up on his offer [pg. 413] –   but nor is the option presented as troubling in the slightest. “Let us drink to the next generation,” Abasio huzzahs near the end of the novel [pg. 494], and presumably the reader is meant also to raise her cup.

The novel’s uninterrogated focus on determinist destiny – early on, the canny talking horse sings, “Hey-oh, the wagon pulls the horse / Or else the horse the wagon / And no one really knows what force / By which the which is draggin’” [pg. 2] – is of a piece with its understandable horror (and terror) at the present world (“Truly, they did marvels then, but none of these marvels profited the human race,” sighs Precious Wind [pg. 382]). But Tepper’s response is to retreat into the insane vision of the Sea King – to retreat, that is, into fantasy. The Waters Rising‘s genre is so tricky to identify because it presents as science fiction but is in fact an attempt to escape from, rather than honestly deal with, the flood. At one point, Xulai daydreams: “How wonderful to be someone other than oneself! Someone who couldn’t be hurt, or killed, or lost in some terrible spasm of obliteration that she knew existed, that she had always known existed though she could not remember being told.” [pg. 47]  The Waters Rising is Xulai’s impossible hope in novel form.

All of which leaves me to wonder if there isn’t a cleverer book under the frankly pathological accretions of The Waters Rising. This could be a knowing novel about the dangers of both science and fantasy, a wry exploration of how knowledge can be simultaneously withheld and misused. There are hints this is what Tepper was attempting – when we first meet Abasio, in the opening pages of the novel, he smirks, “In order to allay suspicion, I am about to sing something pastoral and suggestive of bucolic innocence.” [pg. 2]  Likewise, when the fellowship passes through the villages of the Becomers, people convinced by Alicia that to win the favour of the Duke they must act in certain artificial ways, Xulai observes of one that, “One could play pretend with total convicton, but one could not pretend play in the same way. His every movement spoke of mockery.” [pg. 120]  It is tempting to see intent in this, but such are the failings of the book that this is a reading that cannot take us very far.

In his review this week of Philip Palmer’s Artemis, Martin Lewis writes of feeling forced to read a text as satire. I recognise this feeling from both my own reading of Artemis and from The Waters Rising itself:

“Falyrion, Duke of Kamfels, had a wife, Naila; a daughter, Genieve; and a son, Falredi. Naila died. Not long thereafter, Falyrion married Mirami, who bore him a daughter, Alicia, and a son, Hulix. Then Falyrion died and Falredi succeeded to the ducal throne of Makfels. Then Falredi died. Mirami’s son Hulix succeeded him as duke.” [pg. 184]

This can easily be read as a satire of the fetish for detail found in epic fantasy of the Tolkein mode. So, too, can the parallels I have oh-so-archly referred to above. The novel’s tedious coda, in which the fellowship return to the Shire Norland to resolve unfinished business with Saruman the Old Dark Man, can be read similarly. As with Artemis, however, the incoherence of the final text precludes this kind of reading. By the close of the novel’s first third, when Tepper’s questing band of adventurers reaches an abbey in which not everyone is as they seem (“Wilderbrook abbey was deceptive at first appearance,” she shouts at us [pg. 154]), it has simply lost control: its plotlines proliferate, its backstory metastasises, and the characters struggle – and fail – to retain anything like individual identities. The Waters Rising is neither clever comment nor ripping yarn; it is, alas, a dim-witted slog suitable primarily for readers who revel not in story but in detail and ill-considered concepts (we know they’re out there – publishing figures tell us). One wonders which of those it was who won through on the Clarke’s judging panel.

Anti-science SF?

It is a curious sign of the achievement of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb that its reception has been so mixed. The story of a very near future plagued by an air-borne virus similar to HIV but which is fatal only to pregnant women, it focuses on the titular teenage narrator who is attracted to the Sleeping Beauties: young women (they must be young) who are put into a coma in order to take to term artificially-inseminated babies whilst their own brains liquefy. When these women have delivered the child, their machines are turned off. Niall Harrison is excellent on the troubling effect of this story, and most particularly of Jessie’s voice:

There is a nearly unbearable tension in play here: we want Jessie to choose, we do not want to deny her the right to choose, but we don’t want her to choosethisThe Testament of Jessie Lamb is a test for us, filtered through what is, despite its plainness, one of the most challenging young adult voices I’ve encountered for some time. Nor, for the most part, does Rogers descend to caricature of the people surrounding her. The staff interviewing Jessie about enrolling in the trial, for instance, are painstakingly conscientious, “very grave, with a flat unemphatic way of talking” (p. 141), determined to ensure she is not being pressured into her choice. (Some of the feminists of FLAME are less convincing, admittedly.) So while at times it’s easy to be convinced by Jessie’s urgency, by her sense that something must be done now, and to see her as heroic, at other times that same urgency, Jessie’s inability to imagine a life or a purpose for herself in a world without MDS, seems to become messianic fanaticism, to the point where we can look at the novel’s frame and understand, without condoning, why Jessie’s parents (her mother is in on it) have taken the step of locking her up. When, near the end of the testament, Jessie’s father takes her to see some Sleeping Beauties in the flesh he is astounded that she can see peacefulness, because all he can see are zombies. In the end, I see zombies too; but for a moment, I was able to see both.

Niall identifies precisely the awful dilemma posed by Jessie and her narration: in a future in which no child can be born, since women die of Maternal Death Syndrome  in much fewer than nine months, hope is at a premium; and yet the hope obtained by Jessie, that by offering herself up as a sacrifice – her name, like much else in this novel, is not precisely allegorically subtle – can help bring into the world one of the vaccinated babies who will be immune to MDS, is a pyrrhic, fundamentalist’s victory. Indeed, Rogers walks a dangerous line in the light of the ‘pro-natalist’ noise in the USA, and whilst she is deft enough to avoid any endorsement of an anti-abortion agenda (as Niall points out, the reader is in fact forced to examine what pro-choice means), I’m not convinced her novel is quite supple enough to carry the whole weight of her conceit.

Much of this will come down – as Adam Roberts writes in his review of the Clarke Award shortlist, in the context of which Rogers must be seen as a potential winner – to how well the reader gets on with Jessie’s adolescent voice. Nic Clarke is convincing on the subject of its positive aspects, but it is hard for me not to reflect that, if Rogers has so successfully ventriloquised a teenager, she has also carried over the teen’s essential solipsism. As (and the names they keep a-dropping) David Hebblethwaite notes in the comments to Nic’s post, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a narrow sort of science fiction novel; in part, of course, this is because it hails from the literary ghetto, where things other than Niall’s “top-down dystopias” hold sway; but it is also, ultimately, because Jessie is a narrow kind of narrator. “I thought stuff on the news and the papers was for grownups,” she tells us early on. “It was part of their stupid miserable complicated world, it didn’t touch me.” [pg. 5]

The book is in large part a kind of bildungsroman in which Jessie learns you cannot disconnect from that complicated world. Within the short scope of the book, however, Jessie cannot gain the extra maturity necessary to deal with that epiphany: that is, she is old enough to know she must engage, but too young to engage well. The very passages which are so spot-on in terms of the adolescent perspective – “I keep coming back to that,” Jessie grumbles, “that tackiness of Mum and Dad’s lives, which is like treading in chewing gum. They say they believe things, then they don’t act upon them” [pg. 32] – are just the passages which lead Jessie’s adult readers to roll their eyes. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is an exercise in evoking sympathy not just for an unsympathetic perspective, but, from our own perspective, an unjustifiable one.

None of this is helped by Rogers’s depiction of the various causes to which Jessie and her contemporaries attempt to attach themselves. In an effort to find a purpose in a world which seems irreparable – indeed, at times I asked myself if Rogers even needed MDS, given the “wars, floods, famines” and climate change which offer extra texture to her teenagers’ disillusion – the young people Rogers chronicles try animal rights activism, green lifestyles and crude feminism. The former become terrorists, and the latter are caricatures which might have been daubed by a FOX News pundit- they picket research labs and hector audiences (“she called MDS the atom bomb of the sex war” [pg. 62]). Most damningly, the leader of the young greens proves to have quite other motivations for forming his group of teen carbon-busters. “What’s hard is being in someone else’s power,” says one character: Rogers’s point is that the teens must choose for themselves, but every response to the world which isn’t the incremental realism of Jessie’s father seems so thoroughly half-baked that the novel comes dangerously close to being a satire of teen foolishness.

Indeed, it is Jessie’s father who represents the real difficulty for adult readers of the novel: in an attempt to control his daughter’s apparently irrational behaviour, he chains her up and locks her in the house. What Rogers presents is a version of Emma Donoghue’s Room in which the father is a sympathetic figure: for Jessie, the apocalypse is primarily and absurdly about how energised she feels (“I began setting my alarm for 5.30 so I could get more done” [pg. 47]), and she is increasingly opposed to “the nastiness of science, the drugs and tubes and machines” [pg. 156]. In the context of a science fiction novel (and this must be how the novel is read given the Clarke context), this anti-scientific position is difficult to accept, particularly as Rogers gives a lot of time to the belief of Jessie’s father that, should her heroine wait a few years, a solution that does not involve her death will be found. That is, when Jessie’s boyfriend, aggrieved that she is considering leaving him behind, angrily wails, “What’s the point in loving anyone?” [pg. 202], the reader cannot help but begin to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb not as an argument for freedom of choice, but an argument against adolescent despair and histrionic self-sacrifice.

The fundamental tension in Jessie, then – simultaneously her right as an individual not constantly, as she is, to be dismissed as silly and foolish, and yet the patent fact that she is precisely that – is an unresolvable difficulty at the heart of the novel which bears her name. Rogers aims to achieve holistic sympathy, but too often her novel is instead simply uncertain, even confused. There are moments, however, where Rogers convinces us – “The future is an abstract concept, Jess,” her mother sighs, to which the teenager retorts, “No, it’s my child’s and my child’s child” [pg. 206] – and it’s here that her book’s value coheres. The science is not convincing, and there are the usual tics of mainstream SF – “Sounds like a science fiction nightmare,” one character chuckles knowingly [pg. 127] – whilst the certainties of Jessie’s narration (and of Rogers’s design) make for a story a little too inflexible to bend with the stiff winds at its core; but in its insistence that we think outside our own boxes – however uncomfortable this makes us – it is also a kind of call to arms.

“Your reality is my dream,” Jessie writes to her future child, “and I must lose my reality for you to become real.” [pg. 233]  That this destructive change upsets us is not necessarily a reason it mustn’t happen. Rogers’s novel – a little too narrow, a little too insistent – isn’t quite the perfect statement of this position, but ultimately it is a work of literary art, not a position paper, and Jessie’s voice is convincing precisely because it is partial. Over at Practically Marzipan, the novel worked more completely for Aisha than it did for me, but her description of it as “a deeply uncomfortable piece of writing” is spot on. I’m not sure The Testament of Jessie Lamb is quite robust enough to collect the gong – but it successfully troubles the mind for longer than perhaps any of its rivals.

 

 

"Mmm, gnarly quiddity."

The Strange Horizons Clarke Award shortlist review is, as it is every year (hem hem), worthwhile reading. This year, Adam Roberts – who modestly and coquettishly demurs from placing his own novel in his list of this year’s unjust also-rans – has taken the baton. It is impossible for him, too, to narrate this year’s shortlist as anything but a controversial, Sphinx-like offering, begging more than is usual for explication. I was reminded on Twitter this week of the 2005 shortlist, and in that light 2012′s offering is strange beer indeed. If I haven’t quite found a true trainwreck amongst the nominees yet – Roberts is right that The End Specialist is a clumsy, superficial novel, but in the context of the episodic airport thriller it aims to be it passes inoffensively – this is not, alas, the same as saying the shortlist is good.

Amongst the first triad of books he considers, there is only one that Roberts seems genuinely to believe should be on a shortlist of this kind: China Miéville’s Embassytown. Consequently, he spends the largest and most entertaining part of his piece discussing said playful treatise on Language and metaphor. Here’s the money shot: “The problem, if I can put it like this, is that Miéville’s conception of language itself is insufficiently Heideggerian. [...]  The ground of Embassytown‘s linguistic conception of veracity (“Everything in Language is a truth claim,” the novel tells us (p. 60)) is parsed via an unexamined correspondence theory of truth [... and this] very lack of dialectical possibility, except in the authorial get out clause of “madness,” in the Host Language vitiates precisely the ground of the novel as a whole.”

Roberts likes the final revolutionary third of Embassytown – when the Hosts learn how to lie and in their conceptual madness destroy the society they have built around their assumptions – but he finds the novel’s central metaphor fatally undermined by an intellectual stumble: baldly (Roberts knows few of his readers will have so thorough a grounding in linguistic philosophy as he), and contra Miéville, it is not useful to conceive of truth as objective. It is at this point, dear reader, that my recent reading collides, and I risk mixing not metaphors but philosophers. Here’s John Lanchester in a recent LRB, on Marx at 193:

In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist. He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated. Since this is what most of us think we’re doing most of the time it marks a fundamental break between Marx and what we call common sense, a notion that was greatly disliked by Marx, who saw it as the way a particular political and class order turns its construction of reality into an apparently neutral set of ideas which are then taken as givens of the natural order. Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.

I don’t think that the blindspot Roberts identifies in Miéville is entirely divorced from this Marxist rejection of empiricism (of which school the Hosts are the fundamentalist wing). Where Heidegger places value on being in the world, Marx prizes changing it. For Marx, empiricism is suspicious precisely because it makes conceptual breakthrough more difficult. In my own post on Embassytown, I wrote that the novel “links language not just to sentience but to will.” I think, and I would say this, that thinking about Miéville’s purpose in this way goes some way to squaring Roberts’s circle: that Language is, as characters in the novel happily accept, impossible – that it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what truth is, and how we can arrive at it, that it is static and didactic – is part of the point. Remember Iron Council, that other Marxian Miéville novel which shouldn’t have won the Clarke Award? Embassytown‘s like that, but a bit better. It’s about steaming away from common sense.

I’m not really arguing with Professor Roberts – in fact, I agree with practically every word of his review (though maybe not with “tweedledumtweedledee-ish”), and Miéville’s self-imposed difficulty is that he has muddied the waters between language and politics - but it’s worth adding this warp to the weft of his critique.  Indeed, to follow through on my emerging theme for this year’s shortlist, Embassytown is about creating a new kind of community. That can only be done, within the confines of Embassytown’s exploitative capitalist model, by rejecting precisely the anti-Heideggerian conception of truth Roberts identifies. If you’re to change the world, you first have to change the way you think – and if you’re to depict that change, you must depict the way of thinking that holds it back. Embassytown can be seen, for better or worse, to literalise this process in Language. Its shortcomings – and, like Besźel and Ul Qoma before it, Language certainly has them – are, in its defence, part of the point.

Manflu did it for Osama. I speak not of an alternative history in which the mastermind of 9/11 was struck low by fatigue and fever, but of the post I had intended to write about Lavie Tidhar’s BSFA-shortlisted novel: a fug of the last few days has led not just to an inability to write it up, but to a clouding of the glass through which I read the novel. I experienced Osama  as a compulsive whereisit, a gumshoe noir focused not on the perpetrator of crimes (although it is, in its own way), but on the literal location of the detective. The reader cracking Osama‘s spine to read an Inglourious Basterds-type tale of fantasy revenge will be disappointed.

On the recovering side of one of those frustrating winter bugs which knocks the stuffing out of you without providing the externalised symptoms – snot, sweat or squealing – to justify your indolence, I find myself remembering Osama differently. In his friendly review of the novel, Adam Roberts writes of the “impressive degree of emotional traction” Tidhar achieves by juxtaposing the generically hard-boiled story of his pocket universe PI, Joe, with the mimetically crystalline reportage written by the missing pulp novelist he is asked to find. The events these latter fictions describe, however, are recognisable to us as grisly remixes of a hundred newspaper front pages. With this inversion of style and content, Osama dramatises the horror of terrorism – the individual human lives obliterated – better than anything else I can recall reading. John Clute makes Matt Ruff’s similarly-premised The Mirage sound well worth the read even in the wake of Osama, but he doesn’t succeed in convincing me that Ruff’s novel will be as visceral. Tidhar’s effect in Osama is a real achievement.

Roberts also hovers, however – delicately, like the humming-bird of criticism – over what are at times the novel’s stylistic farts. “The point of transit was like the epicentre of two opposing forces,” the voice blunders at one point, for instance, “like the equilibrium found when an equal pull is exerted on a body from all directions, creating the moment of stillness that is freefall.” This sort of clumsiness is relatively common throughout Osama and is, I think, the reason for its transformation in my Beechams-addled memory: the craftiness of its structure keeps the reader turning its pages, encouraging us at all times to think we can crack the mystery of the ‘Fuzzie-Wuzzies’ who drift through these terrorism-free streets; but on reflection Osama can also be rather bumpy ground.

Joe’s world is one in which Al-Qaeda exists only in gaudy pulp novels sold next to pornography and science fiction, and in which the impressionistic jonbar point appears to occur around the time of the Cairo Conference of 1921. Except that this may not be Joe’s world, and from very early on we are asked to question his place in this weirdly retro 21st-century. Others seem to perceive Joe as if through a haze: “And if I didn’t smoke? I might not even see you,” remarks the vendor of several of the works of Mike Longshott, the elusive hack who churns out endless fictions centring on the impossibly evil genius, Osama Bin Laden. Osama is, then, a novel intensely interested not just in the connection between fiction and reality, but in how we perceive it – and how we signify it. Those confrontationally lucid evocations of terrorist attack are dismissed by Joe’s contemporaries as crass filth, to be sold in paper bags.

This world’s dim understanding of the nastier one which lies beyond it, meanwhile, is defined almost entirely in terms of popular culture. “How do cell phones work?” an interrogator demands of a thoroughly nonplussed Joe. “What is an iPod? What is in Area 51?”  In a sense, Tidhar has been overtaken by events: Bin Laden has now been found and killed extra-judicially, no longer the elusive pop culture meme which might have given Osama more punch. Ultimately, after all, this is a novel about the mutability of symbols – about the siteing of meaning within a given, yet in truth moveable, space. We locate our own wispish understandings of Al-Qaeda in what we establish as sober and terrorised tenors, encasing the future we are more commonly experiencing (and which Joe’s world does not) in a ghettoised and patronised genre of paperback fluff. Throughout the novel, Joe is “trying to understand a war no one seemed to understand, not even those who were fighting it hardest”; Osama works entertainingly to interrogate the discourses we use to (fail to) achieve that understanding.

This, however, is where the occasional clumsiness of  its prose can come also to characterise its wider project. In the novel’s final denouement, which takes place in a blissfully unbombed (and apparently unTalibaned) Afghanistan, I’m not sure what Joe’s liminal position on the border of two worlds really tells us about either. Over at SF Signal, John Stevens argues that “this is not a novel that is about satisfactory endings, since it is not about satisfactory beginnings or middles either”, but the circularity of Stevens’s nevertheless very interesting piece suggests to me that nor is Osama a novel with a clear thesis about the absence of clarity. Simply, it is just a tad uneven. Sometimes it gets lost – Tidhar has a weird fetish for describing the movement of people around London as if staring at an A-Z – and sometimes it’s too bald – “was mass murder a crime, or was it a political act? And who decided?” Osama deserves to be read for the imaginative way in which it uses genre to challenge the semiotics of the war on terror, but it doesn’t seem to know what to do with the discourse once it has been deconstructed. It may well be a feature rather than a bug, then, but Osama is in one sense a fuzzy-wuzzy sort of book.

But that may be the manflu talking.

Like so many others, when reading a novel I hold the book in one hand and a pencil in the other. I underline and scribble, and, modest though my marginalia may be, the act of scrawling helps me wend a way through the prose. There are, however, times when a book is so involving, confounding or both that the pencil is cast aside for a second read: no amount of exclamation marks beside the text will help when a text reads at first so elusively.

Christopher Priest’s The Islanders is one such novel. My last book of 2011, it was also one of the strangest. Indeed, it has troubled reviewers, leaving Le Guin frustrated, Adam Whitehead of The Wertzone with self-contradictory fragments, and even the inestimable Adam Roberts mostly searching for comparators. On one level, this is simply a function of Priest’s formal invention: not a narrative, and not a collection of short stories, The Islanders is a kind of travelogue – it features alphabetical entries guiding the readers around the various outcrops of the Dream Archipelago, a location of dubious reality which has cropped up before in Priest’s work. At the same time, however, it features several longer entries which do not pretend to guide or inform, but read more like traditional vignettes told from and by a range of views and voices: characters mentioned in a gazetteer piece recur as the first-person singular of a narrative passage, or artists described and located in the guidebook sections are complicated and humanised in extracts from a piece of journalism or a judicial report.

It is, then, hard to know how to read The Islanders (thus the enforced vacation for my pencil hand). What might it mean, for instance, to follow the REFERENCES clearly indicated in the text, to treat this novel as hypertext rather than start at page one and go forwards? Should we hang our interest on the peaks of narrative which rise above the topographical detail, following the relationship of the reclusive novelist (and author of The Islanders‘ introduction), Chaster Kammeston, and the revered social revolutionary known to the public only as Caurer? Can we read this novel, as we did The Prestige, as a story about public rivalry, doubled identity and the cost of creation, and is the murder of a stage magician part of that tale or to one side of it? Indeed, might this whole ‘novel’ in fact be a form of self-reflective criticism, with a character who writes a novel called The Affirmation, others artists who in some cases literally disappear into their own works, and cartographers attempting to map impossible landscapes? Is the book all of these, or none of them?

In one of the best reviews of the book I have read, Niall Alexander at Strange Horizons emphasises this intense uncertainty, arguing for the multivalence of Priest’s text, the endlessly movable frequency of its concerns. He personally opts for a vision of the book as a disputation on art, but I rather agree with (for it is again, Pimpernel-like, he) Adam Roberts when he urges specifity and uses the word ‘connections’; on the other hand, I think the connections of art are only one aspect of the way in which the novel interrogates the ligaments of its world – after all, Priest lingers over interpersonal connection, too, and indeed his entire text tests and teases how we understand narrative causality.

The novel ends with an elegiac chapter focusing on the relationship between a Yin- and Yang-ish pair of conceptual artists named Yo and Oy. Yo tunnels – at times so vociferously and inspirationally that she inspires one island to sink itself – and in doing so creates connections that would otherwise not exist. Like the time vortex that lies at the heart of the archipelago, Yo’s installations weird distance, toy with transit. They do so not just as art but as physical paths from one place to another – you can walk across the surface, but you might also follow an entrance to an exit.

Where Le Guin’s disappointment finds its justification, however, is in her criticism of the book’s heart. Alas, for a novel so clearly about connection it can at times fail to, well, connect: its characters, from the apparently (but not conclusively) serial-killing painter Dryd Bathurst to the campaigning journalist Dant Willer, can at times feel more like literary tools than real people. And yet. The Dream Archipelago is precisely that, a device of prosody: in The Affirmation, it is the fictional space of the schizophrenic novelist Peter Sinclair; Priest himself has written a sequence of short stories named after the islands the current book proposes to describe. “Reality lies in a different, more evanescent realm,” writes Chaster Kammeston in his introduction to the book-within-the-book (an introduction he would be incapable of writing was the book, which depicts his death, entirely rigorous). The way in which The Islanders leaves the reader feeling distanced and disoriented, then, is part of its effect, one of its many means of interrogating what it is we mean when we say, write or read ‘connection’. This gives it a weirdly unsatisfying sort of completeness.

The Islanders attains its depth from the intricacy of its formal invention – it shouldn’t work, but it does, and it is this quite magnificent structural achievement which off-sets what might traditionally been seen as the weaknesses arrayed against its success. Also at Strange Horizons, both Paul Kincaid and Duncan Lawie write of second reads, and I might add that a fourth, fifth and sixth would also probably reward. This is a measure of Priest’s cold kind of boldness, and ultimately of what is a remarkable novel. It deserves reams of marginalia – next time.

My thoughts on 2010 in Science Fiction are up today at Strange Horizons. So, too, are the reflections of the rest of that organ’s host of thoughtful reviewers. The three works I mention – Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, and Deboarah Biancotti’s A Book of Endings – are all, naturally, well worth your attention. In selecting them, however, I rather consciously mentioned books I feared would otherwise pass without a word. Fortunately, SH’s other reviews manfully stepped into the breach to big up books which very much deserve the more universal praise they have for their part enjoyed.

Readers of this blog will remember how taken I was with The Dervish House, which gets plenty of plaudits in today’s piece: Nic Clarke sagely remarks that the book is “a giddy microcosmic mosaic of life in a near-future Istanbul, and a welcome return to form after the slightly uneven Brasyl.” Likewise, Jonathan McCalmont isn’t far off the mark when he says this of Adam Roberts’s latest: “New Model Army saw Roberts on really top form with some lovingly nuanced characterization, some brilliant descriptive passages (including a flight over Europe and some of the best battle scenes I have ever read) and more ideas than you can shake a Stick 2.0 at.” Nor can I disagree with Farah Mendlesohn that Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is both “fascinating and moving.”

All of which is by way of saying: 2010 wasn’t so bad a year for the genre, all told. Take a look at it.

"Red Plenty", by Francis Spufford

Booker kerfuffles come in two sizes: a given book or genre has been excluded and should not be (we’ll call this strain the Kim Stanley Robinson); or a shortlisted book is a bit edgy, a bit weird, for some (we’ll call this strain the Tom McCarthy). In reading Red Plenty, Francis Spufford’s fabulist account of the Soviet planned economy in the 1960s, I foresaw a perfect storm of kerfuffle: here is a book quite clearly of the sort that does not get shortlisted, but which in this case absolutely should be; and, at one and the same time, here is a book so eccentric and idiosyncratic that all of McCarthy’s self-publicising hype begins to seem not a little hollow.

This is not to say that I don’t like C – or that Yellow Blue Tibia, which KSR thought should have made the shortlist in 2009 (and which is also coincidentally set in Soviet Russia), is left in Red Plenty‘s brutalist shade. But it is to say that the book is, in the words of the author of Yellow Blue Tibia no less, “a masterclass”. It’s a remarkably supple, forensic, inventive, readable book – not novel, not (silly James Meek aside) short story collection, certainly, in spite of its copious and rather entertaining footnotes, not history. It is tonally diverse, intellectually stimulating, and finely balanced: though some of its characters appear in more than one of its chapters, many appear for one night only, and yet each are of themselves and none fail to engage, even whilst Spufford inserts between their appearances contextual introductions which are the very definition of infodumping – and are some of the best, most lyrical, pieces of writing in the whole book.

Indeed, Spufford is at his best when he sets himself the most absurd of challenges. So when he is required to describe the flow of electrons inside a thermionic valve, Spufford turns out crystalline, captivating poetry; when his Deputy Director of the Sector of Chemical and Rubber Goods gives us a tour of the nuts-and-bolts functionality of the planned economy, we read prose witty, wry, and entertaining. Not enough? The tension between a Komsomol agitator and an African-American tour guide at the 1959  US exhibition in Sokolniki Park is expertly turned; the balance between unspoken fears and complex personal relationships in the academic enclave of Akademgorodok in 1963 are deftly, dextrously sketched. There’s nary a page of Red Plenty which fails to achieve an at times quite remarkable alchemy between density and lightness.

An ideal example is Spufford’s chapter set in Sverdlovsk, the central Russian city to the east of the Urals in which the shady charmer Chekuskin operates in the essential greyness of the planned economy. A great deal of Chekuskin’s activities and beliefs must go unspoken, and the assumptions of all those around him remain similarly publicly unquestioned. Yet through this fog we glimpse an episode of clear characterisation, effective comedy and astute economic analysis:

On the far side of a row of fir trees, the lieutenant stopped. He pulled Chekuskin to his feet, then on up, hoisted by the fist under his chin, till his short legs in their nondescript trousers dangled in mid-air and he was looking down into the policeman’s red, bristling face, into bloodshot eyes b linking convulsively as flakes spangled them again and again.

“What do you want?” squeaked Chekuskin.

The lieutentnant hit him; punched him in the gut with his free hand. It hurt amazingly much.

“Piece-of-shit life,” said the lieutenant meditatively, as if taking inventory. “Piece-0f-shit flat. Piece-of-shit job. Piece-of-shit car.”

“Tell me what you want.”

” … piece-of-shit car.”

“I can get you a new car!”

“You can, can you?”

“Yes!”

The lieutenant pulled him close, nose to nose. The two bloodshot eyes swam together, and it took Chekuskin a moment to realise that the cyclopean shuttering he was seeing a centimetre away was, in fact, a wink. [pp. 253-254]

Just lovely, lovely stuff – under-stated yet worked-up, and not afraid, of course, to look the brutalising effect of the planned economy in the cyclopean shutter. This is Red Plenty‘s duty, since it is primarily in many ways an heroic tale – even Nikita Khrushchev appears sympathetically – about scientists, economists and visionaries seeking to enact a belief. The belief – that a planned economy is possible, practicable and potentially world-beating – may be wrong, misguided, or ill-applied; but the intellectual energy poured into the project, the at times rather brave and certainly breakthrough leaps of thought which are made in pursuit of that doomed end are the epic stuff of the book’s narrative thrust. Thus Emil Arslanovich Shaidullin, Spufford’s stand-in for Abel Aganbegyan, on our firsting meeting him: “Politics gave the orders, in the economy of the USSR, and economists were allowed to find reasons why the orders already given were admirable. But that was going to change, he suspected. He believed that the Soviet Union was soon going to need more from its economists, because there was more to life – there was more to running an economy – than giving orders.” [pg. 64] Emil is the closest  thing the book has to a protagonist, but also to a Pollyanna: he seeks to make the USSR a more sensible, more successful place, but he struggles against harsh reality. Red Plenty is a book about devising better alternatives. In choosing the planned economy, of all things, as its focus, Spufford simply exhibits the daring, brio and humour which make this book such a richly memorable experience.

John F Kennedy, Khrushchev’s great opponent in the Cuban Missile Crisis (which here gets its due), said in his first inaugural address of his grand, still unrealised, ambitions: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” Red Plenty is a book about making the start. That it is in part an historical novel simply emphasises the heroism of keeping on keeping on. The campaign for getting it on the Booker shortlist starts now.

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