A Pregnant Widow: The Arthur C Clarke Award 2012

Previously: Embassytown [2], Rule 34, The End Specialist, Hull Zero Three, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, The Waters Rising

I seem to be in what is for me an unusual position within the sf reviewing diaspora: playing the role of apologist. I began my series of Clarke reviews by referring to Christopher Priest’s savaging of the shortlist and those who crafted it. Since then, he has written a gloss upon that post, reminding us that the fury of its original tone was a rhetorical device. No doubt this is true – and it was a ruthlessly effective one – but it has coloured even the moderate voices in the ensuing debate about the six books vying for the Award. David Hebblethwaite wants at least two wooden spoons to hand out amongst the nominees, but his round-up of the shortlist suggests he’d prefer something like five-and-a-half; Maureen Kincaid Speller, meanwhile, writes:

What strikes me immediately about the Clarke shortlist is how conservative its view of science fiction seems to be, and how unadventurous it is. It is almost as though it hankers after the dear dead days of proper science fiction, with spaceships, aliens, alarming science, women in jeopardy, men coming up with all the solutions.

It is impossible to argue that the Clarke’s shortlist is strong. It may well have been immeasurably strengthened not, in the way of many years, by the switching of one stinker for something smarter, but by a wholesale reconsideration of its choices: even the better books on the list preen more attractively because of the company they are keeping. Many seem to single out Magary’s The End Specialist as the real offender of the bunch, and it is certainly depressingly heteronormative; but it is clear to me that it is The Waters Rising which deserves most opprobrium: Magary’s is ultimately a deeply simple-minded novel, but it is not quite so vehemently shapeless. Something has gone very wrong when a shortlist features a book quite so poorly conceived, much less executed, as Tepper’s.

Simultaneously, and on the other hand, The End Specialist seems to me to offer a way in to what the shortlist has got right. It is not a great novel – it is barely a good throwaway thriller – but it is contemporary. I say this expecting a dozen rebuttals, and Maureen’s will be in the vanguard: this year’s shortlist, Magary most certainly included, is backward-looking, populated by tired clichés and tropes, and bereft of invention or dynamism. It is a gaggle of books which feature generation starships and cops and robbers, immortality and post-apocalyptic medievalism. Even the entry from China Miéville, so often cited as the standard-bearer for the next generation of sf writers, looks back to a kind of New Wave-ish aesthetic, all interplanetary hi-jinx and alien lifeforms.

I would argue, however, that the shortlist is a little more sophisticated than all that. That what these books represent is a stumbling in the dark, a pause at a moment in time when not just the genre but our world isn’t sure what will happen next. Allow me to reprise a technique from one of my Clarke pieces – on Embassytown – in which I argued for this reading most strongly. In a wonderful essay on Europe’s current malaise in a recent issue of the LRB, Neal Ascherson quotes Alexander Herzen:

The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

In The Testament of Jessie Lamb, MDS asks profound questions of a society which struggles to change (or rather, change ethically) to accomodate its implications; in The End Specialist, the material effects of immortality pose insoluble problems; in Hull Zero Three, the very act of carrying forward one’s society and culture into the future is brought into troubling question. The Waters Rising, punchdrunk on revulsion for our present world, cannot see a way forward for its dead-end empires that is not unconscionably – impossibly – radical. What these books do, and in way or another each renders itself fatally flawed as the demands of their task stretch existing logic to breaking point, is to find familiar tools, in the absence of any visible new ones, to bring to bear on their respective moments of crisis: that is, a chisel is insufficient to the task, but at least it can chip away, begin to find a shape.

This is a shortlist of conflict rather than resolution – which might explain its rather misshapen appearance. Does The Islanders, a work of art which Priest is right to be peeved has missed its moment in the sun, really speak to this sort of moment? I think not. Perhaps, of the frequently cited also-rans, only By Light Alone does. In terms of this shortlist, it is certainly Rule 34 and Embassytown which come closest to seeing a viable Beyond through the fog of systemic failure. Outside of their qualities as novels – and, again, each has downsides (Rule 34 can seem superficial and manic; Embassytown over-conceptualised and abstract) – there is a perhaps unfair reason to overlook the latter: Miéville has won too many Clarkes already. This may be part of what attracts me to Rule 34 as a winner – that and my surprise at even being able to finish it, given my previous experience with Stross’s unstructured ideas-dump prose. I think, too, though, that, if the shortlist can be said to have a story, it is Rule 34 that tells it best. It is the story of our times, a story which as yet has no end and perhaps only the sketchiest of middles.

This might not make for the best shortlist, and in some cases it certainly does not make for the best novels; but nor is is true that this is the wilfully perverse shortlist it might first appear to be. A vintage year? No. A vital one? Despite it all, maybe so.

“A knowledge of each other; a community”: Heidegger and “Embassytown”

"Mmm, gnarly quiddity."

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ve Been Like Countless Things”: China Miéville’s “Embassytown”

I find myself writing the second review in a week in which I wish to ignore the author. This isn’t especially because I subscribe to Barthesian canards, though in discussing a novel like China Miéville’s Embassytown recourse to a semiotician might not be so very bad an idea. It’s simply that so many other reviews of this and of the novel I wrote about on Wednesday, Great House, will refer to the controversies surrounding their respective writers that, wearily, their identity becomes almost the least interesting thing about their book. (The great absence at the centre of my piece on Great House, of course, was that Nicole Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer – Patrick Ness has summarised my feelings on this ‘issue’ so that I don’t have to.)

Miéville’s mantelpiece strains under the weight of an unprecedented haul of genre awards; Embassytown arrives in a stable already full of some of the finest thoroughbreds the track has seen in the last decade; and, as a longterm fan of his, I could write passably about how this new book resembles The City & The City in form and style more than it does the Bas-Lag trilogy that made his name, despite a return to ‘core genre’ trappings. But the (perhaps enviable) difficulty faced by a book welcomed with such breathless expectation is that it risks being lost in these comparisons and contextualisations. Impossible as it is to separate the novel from these kinds of questions, forgive me for now if I try and decide what sort of a book Embassytown is, rather than what sort of a writer its author might be.

It is, first and foremost, an intellectual pursuit (and, yes, here we might consider, if we were so minded, Miéville’s previous form in using the novel as an engine for an idea): set on a planet at the outer reaches of a future ‘Terran diaspora’, Embassytown is the story of a ghetto-cum-trading-post-cum-consulate, inserted at the edge of a city inhabited by the Ariekei, known as the Hosts by the human interlopers and a species which speaks quite literally with a double tongue. Slyly, this literalness is not matched metaphorically, since the Ariekei are incapable of speaking that which is not – they cannot lie, since for them to speak is to think, and they can no more speak what they do not think than a human can have faith in what they know not to be true.

Two observations about this sleight of hand: first, it is an inversion of the laziest of SF cliches, in which the physical qualities of an alien species are used in some way to signify their moral status in the work’s analogy or social comment; secondly, this encoding in the text of the Hosts’ inability precisely to signify is characteristic of the novel’s extreme subtelty. We might, were we interested here in Miéville’s oeuvre, observe that earlier in his career the criticism most often levelled at his writing was its wildness, its unconstrained insistence upon itself. The Miéville we now read is more controlled, far more ruthless with himself and his language.

This process of self-editing, this consideration of verbiage, may well be what has given rise to a book about language – or, more properly, Language, the capitalised tongue spoken by the Hosts. Language is spoken by two mouths – a Cut and a Turn, to provide their technical descriptors – which humans cannot replicate except by a merciless genetic engineering which bonds test-tube twins as an empathic, double-tongued Ambassador. Ariekei recognise speech only when it is spoken by two voices with a mind behind them – synthesised language is meaningless to them, as is the ‘Anglo-Ubiq’ spoken by the individual humans whom remain unsure that the Hosts recognise them even as sentient. Embassytown thus links language not just to sentience but to will – the Ariekei can only comprehend words like their own which proceed from a directing intelligence. In their inability to lie, however, the Hosts lack what we might think of as the crowning achievement, and the original sin, of such intelligence: invention and imagination.

For instance, Hosts must contrive to place humans in a particular situation if they to be able even to speak of that situation. Thus, the novel’s narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is taken as a child to a room full of Ariekei, where she becomes the girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. She and others – the man who catches fish every week, for example – are entered into Language as similes. “I am like the girl who was hurt and ate what was given her,” a Host might say if just that happened to it. That is, Language does not signify; it refers. Miéville is interested in how language controls thought, and vice versa – about how it holds us back as much as it might enable us to imagine the next place. (Anne at Pornokitsch is particularly good on Embassytown’s moment of revelation.)

Issues of control are especially charged in the complicated colonial relationship Embassytown (the place, not the novel) negotiates: its human inhabitants teach the Hosts how to trade, thus obtaining access to the resources of a planet rich particularly in biotechnology; yet the Ariekei remain, in the superstitious and polite culture of Embassytown, almost god-like in the reverence they are afforded by the humans. When Embassytown’s ruling power, Bremen, dispatches a new kind of Ambassador – one not manufactured on Arieke but compiled on the humans’ distant motherworld – something about how they speak Language ruptures this delicate balance. That Miéville has avoided in the previous pages anything banally analogous to a colonial relationship in our own past enables a series of quite bewildering narrative developments (at times, the reader suspects that this is less a novel and more a masterfully condensed trilogy). He is thus enabled to investigate a whole series of linked questions which would be impossible to juxtapose beyond the confines of a science fiction novel. To be sure, there’s something about Embassytown that gives you the sense you know it, that you’ve read it before – it is avowedly SFnal, to the brink of pulpishness. But Miéville continues to use genre wisely – uses it, as he always has should we care to remember, to refigure and recalibrate ideas and concepts. To posit, that is, new ways of imagining.

Nevertheless, and despite the swift narrative clip Embassytown establishes and maintains throughout, the novel risks becoming unbalanced towards its end, when the linguistics takes a necessary-but-noisy centre-stage. Avice routinely skips through and over time – the first half of the novel is told non-linearly, and its second habitually elides whole episodes – and this permits the novel an awful lot of room to grow almost out of sight, to plant ideas and concepts which feel to the reader to have a life of their own. But these are blotted out as the climax approaches, leaving only the promise of another novel in the series to answer our questions and tilt the uncertainly precarious finale of Embassytown one way or another. In a novel which does so much so elegantly, however, these are brutish complaints: in just 400 generously spaced pages Embassytown gives us interstellar flight (Avice has a brief career as an ‘Immerser’, travelling in the sub-reality shortcuts which connect her universe’s outposts), societal collapse (the passages which deal with the consequences on Ariekei civilisation of the Language spoken by Bremen’s Ambassador are some of the novel’s most memorably horrific), and conceptual transf0rmation (if the Ariekei can develop similes, how might they untether them from their referrents – how might they lie, fabulate, invent?).

Despite – or perhaps because of – this heterodoxy, Embassytown remains very much itself. It is muscular, confident and unusually coherent. It isn’t an homage, or a response, or merely the latest horse to arrive in the paddock. It is Embassytown, by China Miéville, and will require further thought.