Tag Archives: christopher priest

hurleygodswarukOf the six novels shortlisted on Tuesday for the 2014 Arthur C Clarke Award, I’ve already reviewed two. One, God’s War by Kameron Hurley, was published in the US some time ago (and has already also been shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel, in a tacit acknowledgement that the British sf publishing scene really needed some help ‘finding’ female authors to publish). Its shortlisting is a Good Thing: if the trilogy it kicked off perhaps didn’t quite have total follow-through, God’s War was a gutsy, pungent debut novel. I don’t have much more to say about it than I did way back in 2011:

Here is a novel simultaneously feminine and empowered—Nyx doesn’t “bend her knee to God,” let alone anyone else (p. 278)—which unlike many a lesser attempt to achieve the same effect strikes imbalances in an odd kind of equipoise. Will any other novel this year address issues of faith and gender quite so squarely, quite so entertainingly, and with such heft? The promised sequels may even iron out the first installment’s creases, caused almost entirely by the weight of background lain upon the structure and the story. Most pertinently, Hurley indeed creates in her lead character a thoroughly unlikeable, but wholly independent, female Conan. Actually, that’s wrong: Nyxnissa would quite clearly kick Conan’s ass. In her own words, “Women can fight as well as fuck, you know” (p. 64). Coarse and inelegant, but bold and pungent: Nyx’s retort might be this punchy, refreshing, and imperfect novel’s grating, gutsy epigram. Just what the genre ordered.

adjacentThe second of the shortlisted works about which I have droned on is Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, also on the BSFA’s shortlist. This second review has, admittedly, not yet been published – I submitted it to Foundation‘s doughty reviews editor, Andy Sawyer, only a week or so ago. I won’t, however, pre-empt my review here, except to quote a short excerpt which I think helps explain my positive reaction to a curiously self-reflexive novel: “The Adjacent offers as pure a distillation of Priest’s peculiar art as he has yet produced, in which form matches subject and style substance [... it] refracts and reflects our own fragile, challenged present.” (I’ll let you know, dear reader, when the full thing is published – but in the meantime, subscribe to Foundation anyway.)

What strikes me most about my judgements on both books is my equivocation: they are each in their own way very strong pieces of work, and yet they each simultaneously have their characteristic and consistent weaknesses. They are, perhaps, birdies rather than holes in one. Taking my uninformed cue from the discussions which have surrounded the other shortlisted novels, my initial feeling about the shortlist was similar. for instance, Niall Harrison was entirely unimpressed with Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise; and whilst the buzz around Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has been in some quarters ecstatic,  something about its spaceships-in-space setting has left it idling, unread, on my Kindle for weeks already.

Indeed, it’s hard not to receive the Clarke shortlist in the spirit of my recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “one of the challenges faced by contemporary science fiction is that our own present world resembles so much — and yet so little — the world imagined by the genre’s founding writers.” Much ink has been spilled about Paul Kincaid’s theory of generic exhaustion, and one critic or another might take issue with one or another of its elements; but this shortlist, too, has some cyberpunk and some space opera, some science fantasy and some first contact. Meanwhile, it is not just in its chosen subgenres that the shortlist feels a bit dusty. Despite a valiant attempt to argue the shortlist merely replicates the make-up of the works submitted, the demographics of the authors – two women, one person of colour, the Brits all male – feels like a lost opportunity. Science fiction, even when exhausted, is more diverse than this.

In a third way, too, the Clarke – ordinarily the most interesting of the science fiction awards to readers not embedded in the ‘core genre’ – disappoints this year. It can only shortlist those works which are submitted, and it can do little when those mainstream novels which were amongst the most interesting works of speculative fiction in the last year choose to remain outside of sf’s sphere of influence: this year, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is conspicuous in its absence. But why not reignite the ages-old Margaret Attwood debate, given MaddAddam has been generating some of her better reviews for some time; or acknowledge the warm reactions to Wu Ming-Yi’s The Girl With The Compound Eyes? Even Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time-Being, which was not to my taste, has many cheerleaders within the sf community. With so many options open to it, the final shortlist felt like less of an event than it often does.

This may or may not leave the Clarke Award looking, as Ian Sales has suggested, like another symptom of sf’s alleged primary interest in recycling its own history. One ignores Nina Allan at your peril, however, and in her opinion the shortlist is wilfully diverse: “these are far from conventional choices,” she says, “and they’re all quite different from each other, too.” Which, I suppose, is as good a nudge as any to cease writing about four books I haven’t read – and get down to this year’s Clarke reviews.

Here’s to unexpected surprises.

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.

ACCA-nominated juvenalia

It will surely be impossible to discuss this year’s shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award without now referring to Christopher Priest. Not, alas, because his The Islanders made the shortlist – but because it didn’t, and because he’s mad about it. In his defense, he is also mad that  Dead Water, Osama, By Light Alone and Wake Up And Dream didn’t make the final cut, either. I’ve read the first three of these, and whilst I’m far from certain that Dead Water can usefully be classified as SF, the other two novels are muscular and inventive works that I’m disappointed not to see pushed towards a larger audience.

Indeed, on that basis I was initially rather sympathetic towards Priest’s invective – in particular, his characterisation of Charlie Stross as an “internet puppy” agreed in large part with my previous experience of his writing. Accelerando, for instance, seemed to me hyperactive and super-attenuated, which may have been the point but which was also thoroughly dispiriting. If my reading of Embassytown was significantly more positive than Priest’s, I expected very much to agree with his opinion of Stross’s Rule 34.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Stross proved entirely worthy of his place on the shortlist.

Priest’s primary – and apparently solitary – objection to Stross is that he is juvenile. That Charlie chose to respond to this criticism by creating a slangy t-shirt has probably enranged Priest yet further, but it is a fitting riposte to what is itself a pretty juvenile brickbat: Rule 34 is written in what might on the surface appear to be a lazy, second-person vernacular, but in no small part this is because it depicts a lazy, second-person vernacular world. Set around 2030, and spending much of its time following the deflationary ripples of 2008, Stross’s future is here one of interconnected surveillance. To avoid being eavesdropped upon, the inhabitants of this future must remove the batteries from their phones and check that the cameras over the bar are far enough away to exclude lip-readers. His ‘cop’ characters – ostensibly Rule 34 is a whodunnit – exist in “a coccoon of augmented reality” [pg. 4], recording a ‘lifelog’, a real-time document of their every professional moment. The ‘robber’ characters are enmeshed in a palimpsest of plots and counter-plots, most of them relating to national debt, which all ultimately lead back to nudge theory and the necessity of electronic oversight for increasingly complex societies: “the project of law,” declares a professor of ‘automated social engineering’ towards the end of the book, “ever since the Code of Hammurabi – the entire idea that we can maintain social order by obtaining voluntary adherence to a code of permissible behaviour, under threat of retribution – is fundamentally misguided.” [pg. 287]

All this plays with the concept of the panopticon singularity, an idea with which Stross has been playing for a decade or more. “Privacy is a peculiarly twentieth-century concept, an artefact of the Western urban middle classes,” he writes [pg. 93]. Whether his book is dealing with a Detective Inspector, a minor hoodlum, or an agent of a shadowy inter-continental conspiracy, the reader is addressed directly: the second-person present tense rarely breaks down into first-person, and though structurally the book creaks occasionally - particularly in the ‘interlude’ passages, it’s clear that Stross cannot quite contain his story within the limits he has attempted to impose – Rule 34 achieves not so much an immersive effect as one of complicity. All the characters become avatars for the reader, and we watch them as if observing the CCTV footage of our other lives. It is a curious technique, simultaneously inclusive and distancing, which becomes more and more fitting a style the further one proceeds into the novel. Indeed, not all of this surveillance is bad – in light of today’s news, for instance, the sensitivity of Stross’s police officers to the fact that they are constantly monitored seems salutary. This is a complex world. There are lapses – Stross’s sneer at decades of public policy directives aimed at pub drinkers (“the real problem drinkers weren’t in the pubs in the first place” [pg. 285]) has arguably been answered within weeks rather than decades by yet another poor piece of public policy - but by and large, and unlike many similar attempts to envision our near future, Stross’s feels eerily credible.

What Stross has done – and it is something he has always attempted, but which he seems finally to have achieved by adopting precisely the sort of Brookmyre-esque rough vernacular to which Priest seems to object  - is to present an extrapolation of our current, intermittently interconnected world, and show how social networks themselves could become connected with aspects of our lives from which they are apparently divorced: law, statehood, morality. That he achieves this within the context of one of the finest fictional responses to the 2008 crash I have yet read is doubly remarkable. His Operation, for instance, sits at the centre of many of the novel’s strands, but is essentially a neo-Thatcherite attempt to revive for a world more interested in corporate oversight the rapacious culture of pre-2008: “In our world of unregulated free-market enterprise there is no “society” to off-load business externalities like insurance onto, no courts to settle disputes equitably, and no presumption of goodwill.” [pg. 36] It is precisely this inability of human morality to meet the demands of complex 21st-century societies – the Operation deliberately employs psychopaths – that seems to Stross to make inevitable the rise of the panopticon.

All this is cut-to-the-bone stuff. In Stross’s future, states allow constituent elements of their post-national make-ups – Scotland in the UK, Issyk-Kulistan in Kyrgyzstan- to secede to one extent or another (Stross presumes devo-max for the Caledonians); but they do so in cases such as the latter’s merely to off-load omnipresent debt via credit default swaps which will become worthless upon the inevitable, and planned, re-absorption of the region back into the wider state. “They can’t do that!” exclaims the perennially confused Anwar, the Muslim hoodlum who becomes in many ways the novel’s most sympathetic character. “Isn’t that what made the banks collapse?” [pg. 192]  Warren Ellis, with whom Stross is often compared, recently tweeted, “If contemporary literary fiction doesn’t read a bit like science fiction then it’s probably not all that contemporary, is it?” This goes much too far, but it is nevertheless in precisely this way that Rule 34 is an important novel for our times.

Indeed, in many ways Rule 34 reads like Zoo City, last year’s winner: a hardboiled, subversive caper of a thriller, all page-turning energy and pop cultural smarts. It isn’t perhaps quite as alive to the wider world as Beukes’s novel – there’s a sense in which Stross knows so clearly what Rule 34 is about that his novel doesn’t tremble when it hits against other concerns, except to deliver one of Stross’s strident opinions (for instance, he’s despairing of “the chill wind [... blowing] through the halls of academia” [pg. 281]) – and it relies rather heavily on a final infodump, in a manner which reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (which was rather derided by critics within the genre for precisely that fault). There are also clumsy sentences and occasionally stilted dialogue. It may be, then, that Rule 34 is not so well-placed as that earlier novel to take the prize; at the same time, I suspect it is a rather strong contender. I am as surprised as Christoper Priest, albeit for different reasons.

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.


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