“Perfectly Without Meaning”: Joshua Ferris’s “To Rise Again At A Decent Hour”

To-Rise-again-at-a-Decent-HourIn the comments of his perspicacious review of Howard Jacobson’s J, Adam Roberts quoth:

The ‘J-under-erasure’ is quite a powerful little rebus. But it’s also a little too slippery. I’ve seen people flinch when I describe my wife as ‘a Jew’, in a way that doesn’t happen when I describe her as ‘Jewish’ (what’s that Jonathan Miler joke? ‘I’m not a Jew; I’m Jewish. Not the whole hog’). It’s not exactly ‘the n-word’, but there is a valence to ‘the j-word’ that makes it tricky for use in polite society. Jacobson is saying: that’s an index of disgust rather than sensitivity — or he’s saying what the sensitivity is sensitive to is revulsion. I wonder about that.

I have thoughts on this whole discussion after listening to Jacobson extemporise about the novel in the flesh yesterday at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. In particular, he expressed a kind of relief that the moderator, David Baddiel, launched straight into the Jewish question: this has not, apparently, been the frame Jacobson has been using to discuss the novel elsewhere (for example, see his conversation with Stephen Smith on Newsnight). Baddiel rightly pointed out that in a real way this brings into the criticism of the novel its central conceit of denial and absence. The novel is about Jews – why the squeamishness?

This isn’t a review of J, however. It’s a review of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour:

“A Jew is sitting at a bar when a Jew-hater and a Jew-lover walk in,” he said at last. “They have a seat on either side of the Jew. The Jew-hater tells the Jew that he’s been arguing with the philo-Semite about which of the two of them the Jew prefers. The Jew-hater believes the Jew prefers him over the philo-Semite. The philo-Semite can’t believe that. How can the Jew prefer somebody who hates the Jews with a murderous passion over somebody who throws his arms open for every Jew he meets? ‘So what do you say,’ says the Jew-hater. ‘Can you settle this for us?’ And the Jew turns to the philo-Semite, jerks his thumb back at the Jew-hater, and says, ‘I prefer him. At least I know he’s telling the truth.'” [pg. 69]

The teller of that parable is Uncle Stu, a relative of Connie Plotz, the woman with whom Ferris’s protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, has fallen in love. Paul, a self-involved, under-fulfilled misogynist (“to be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life” [pg. 50]), has pored over the Talmud and developed a taste for kosher meat. He wants to become a Jew, to be a Jew, he even agonises over whether to use the word Jew. There is something false about this passion, of course. As he later realises, “I never really saw any of the Plotzes as people. I only ever really saw them as a family of Jews.” [pg. 150]

If this suggests an old-fashioned linear novel in which the main character Learns Something About Himself, you’d be right. If the thematic repetition between this novel and also suggests either a carefully curated shortlist or a narrowness of vision, we might lean one way or the other on the basis of Ferris’s book, which begins with O’Rourke thinking “golf could be everything” [pg. 5] and ends with him living in a kibbutz helping children. Despite Ferris’s reputation as an irreverent comic novelist, there is something earnest about this book which, curiously, makes it feel more straight-lacedly serious than a dystopian novel about a post-Holocaust Britain. There are lots of lovely moments in the book, for example in sections that deal better with the digital than most contemporary fiction, or which capture the modern workplace in the spot-on fashion for which Ferris first became famous; but all these individual elements do not really build beyond a flip picaresque into something coherent or cohesive.

Why? Paul O’Rourke is a dentist on Park Avenue in New York City, and his life is more or less empty. He chases women, not entirely successfully, and takes up a dizzying array of hobbies which he very quickly drops again. The only thing about which he is truly passionate, except for the Red Sox whose games he rather obsessively records on VHS and watches whilst eating the same meal of chicken and rice, is his work. Tellingly, he describes dentistry as the process of fighting decay: “A dentists is only half the doctor he claims to be. That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.” [pg. 4]  O’Rourke, then, is constantly patching up – painting over – death, for which he has no answer or understanding.

Into this environment intrudes a digital stalker. A website for O’Rourke’s practice appears without his knowledge, then a Facebook page and then a Twitter account. All of these begin to broadcast gnomic shibboleths which have the air of scripture, but which do not appear to be sourced from any known holy book. Finally, O’Rourke begins to receive emails, to which he begins to reply in a demand for explanation: “You’re the full measure of a man,” the elusive correspondent writes, “thoroughly contemporary, at odds with the American dream of upward mobility and its empty material success, and in search of real meaning for you life.” [p. 143]   One is meant, I think, to doubt much of this assessment, but meaning nevertheless sits rather awkwardly at the centre of Ferris’s novel.

After all, the meaning O’Rourke ultimately finds is fictive. The emails and tweets and Facebook statuses, it turns out, are designed to lead O’Rourke to the Ulms, long-thought-lost descendents of the Amalekites (“the ancient enemy of the Jews,” says Uncle Stu, “an eternally irreconcilable enemy”) to whose number O’Rourke purportedly belongs. The Ulms are, of course, fictional – and yet they lead Paul away from all the many meanings in the novel which do exist, all the very real issues upon which Ferris touches, towards a curious accommodation with the occult. In the LRB, Thomas Jones has written grumpily about this: “I’d like to be able to say that all this is a sly commentary on the invisibility of the Palestinian experience in mainstream American culture, but I suspect that it’s merely a symptom of it. The Palestinians get three passing mentions in the novel. […] The Bedouin – a real-life oppressed minority – are silent, shadowy, remote, picturesque; a blank screen for O’Rourke to project his psychodrama onto; far less real to him, and to Ferris’s novel, than the fantasy Ulms.”

This is a real problem. Even in a novel as supplely written at Ferris’s, it’s hard for the narrative to dodge and weave enough to get away from the ways in which it squarely avoids the very questions it sets out to ask. “Aren’t you capable of finding anything beautiful in the world?” O’Rourke asks his redoubtable hygienist, and one of the convoluted and mutually-misunderstanding conversations which have presumably led in large part to this novel’s reputation for being funny ensues; but what is the book’s own answer to its protagonist’s query? From the reclusive millionaire and fellow Ulm whom Paul falls in with – with satirical shades of Ayn Rand – to the wily old bookseller who finds the Ulmish scriptures – a bit of Michael Chabon – everything about this novel (as well as being unremittingly male in perspective) leads Paul and the reader further down a rabbit hole with no apparent escape on the other side. Is this the point? Maybe. Is it satisfying? No.

Ultimately, the book offers a limp escape hatch: “It is about people, not God.” [pg. 300]  This, too, is a phrase placed in the mouth – that site of much of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour‘s action – of Uncle Stu, and yet the gravity of the novel, its momentum, is always amongst the Ulms. This is not a novel without praise – the New York Times loved it, and in a wilfully impish piece in the Guardian today Robert McCrum says it should, but won’t, win the Booker. It feels to me, however, under-baked: perhaps that’s why even it’s much-lauded jokes fell flat for me, because a belly-laugh begins in the build-up. This is a smoothly written, but bumpily-executed, book, less wise than wise-cracking. It baffles me that this, rather than Siri Hustvedt’s expansive and eloquent The Blazing World, was chosen as one of US fiction’s first representatives on a Man Booker shortlist.

“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.

“How Can Such Things Even Be Happening?” Bulawayo, Ozeki, and the Booker

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.

“It’s Important To Pay Attention to the Details”: Sam Thompson’s “Communion Town”

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.

“Death Is The Currency of Power”: Adam Roberts’s “Jack Glass”

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.

“A Proof of Sincerity”: Sherri S Tepper’s “The Waters Rising”

"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.

“I Don’t Know What To Think”: Jane Rogers’s “The Testament of Jessie Lamb”

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.