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.

“Illusion is everything, after all”: Greg Bear’s “Hull Zero Three”

Through the looking glass, darkly.

I think I’m right in saying that the only time I am cited as an authority about anything in that bastion of accumulated knowledge, Wikipedia, is on the subject of alien space bats. In 2005, you understand, I reviewed a novel by Ken Macleod entitled Learning The World. I had some significant issues with it, not least of all that the reader had to know the author’s world – the context of his book’s composition – before they could get much of anything out of its mirthful reinvention of the first contact scenario. (We might, on the topic of jokes requiring foreknowledge, be reminded of another recent controversy.)

What struck me as I read Greg Bear’s latest novel Hull Zero Three was that it could easily have shared a title with Macleod’s: told from the first person perspective of a character known as Teacher, it is set on a huge space-faring object, Ship, which consists of three 12km spurs attached to a central moon it mines for fuel. Ship, dispatched centuries ago from the Oort cloud a light-year from the Earthling Sun, traverses the eons in search of a new home for its biological cargo. When Teacher first awakes from Dreamtime, a sort of Ship-directed programmatic primer for its bio-chambered crew, he is thoroughly confused – nothing, from Ship’s untended corridors to its feral defense mechanisms, make sense to him. He, like us, must learn his world.

Bear’s earlier work has left me cold. Most noticeably, Eon (1985) was an awful slog of a novel, praised for the fidelity of its science but a thorough-going failure in terms of its art. What Bear has achieved in Hull Zero Three is therefore doubly impressive: as Jonathan Wright has noted at, er, SFX, Bear has pared down his writing, and his exposition, to its very essentials – and in so doing has written something not just readable but at times rather compelling. Ship is, as Teacher learns, a vast, unknowable thing – the novel provides answers for many of the central puzzles it poses, but at the same time leaves room for impressionistic wonder. There is no doubt that Ship operates to rules, but Bear resists writing them all out verbatim. This makes not just for a better novel, but for oddly more impressive speculation.

Bear’s tactic is, however, a timeworn one: he sets up a number of questions early on and then refuses to answer them. There are a little over 300 pages in this novel, and as late as the 266th a character can say, “But maybe – just maybe – we have enough clues that we can finally make good decisions.” One question – revolving around a mysterious silvery phantom which appears to Teacher but to no one else – is literally not answered until the final page, and then only hesitantly. To Bear’s credit, few are the moments when the reader audibly groans at this almost endless tease – he manages tension particularly well throughout the novel, and achieves a level of characterisation amongst the almost unrecognisably augmented and engineered shipmates with whom Teacher casts his lot – the long-limbed engineer, Nell, or the space age bouncer-with-a-conscience, Tsinoy – which manages to intrigue if not quite engage. Within the confines of a hard SF novel, these kinds of treat are relatively rare fruits.

On the other hand, Hull Zero Three cannot quite escape its own structures. A book which is, half-way through, still describing scenes and situations to a bemused and disoriented reader and narrator with impressi0nistic partiality is failing quite to work as a living, breathing novel. At one point, we’re told, “This much is clear. Ship makes people and stuff as it goes along.” [pg. 114]  This is all very well, but in this context a novel structured by problems and solutions will grow preponderantly messy. In the course of the second half of the novel, Bear reins in matters – we learn more about why Teacher doesn’t recognise the malfunctioning Ship, why life-size antibodies are intent are murdering all the organic matter they can find, and what Ship programmes its crews to do in the event that the shadowy clique known as Destination Guidance selects a planet for colonisation which is already populated. But to one extent or another, by this time Hull Zero Three is simply clearing up its own mess. Like most messes, the reader wants to see it cleaned – but that’s not quite the same thing as admiring the artistry of the cleaner.

Much of Bear’s novel rests on the concept of the seedship as toolkit. “Not all suitable planets are going to be exactly like Earth,” Teacher realises. “So colonists come in a variety of styles, suited to particular environments.” [pg. 203]  Hull Zero Three asks what the implications might be for and of beings who have learned their world not through direct experience but purposeful imprinting. This is a novel, in the best tradition of hard SF, about nothing except itself – but in these times of systemic crisis devoid of alternative systems, Bear’s questions and answers strike broader chords. Gary Wolfe has pointed out the novel’s weird similarities to Alice in Wonderland – in one vivid and memorable scene, Teacher encounters a caterpillar-like creature taken and trades Caroll lyrics with her – and Hull Zero Three seems to me mostly to be about how we can any longer, and with moral purpose, create new worlds for ourselves. If all this doesn’t quite hang together as neatly as a Clarke winner perhaps must, the jury have nevertheless rewarded a novel of intellectual, emotional and even literary merit. And you don’t have to be in on the joke to get it.