“Paying Attention To The Right Words”: Yoon Ha Lee’s “Ninefox Gambit”

In his recent book on the First World War battle of Passchendaele, the military historian (and – full disclosure – personal friend) Nick Lloyd goes to some lengths to disprove the long-standing contention that the senior British staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell once said, on viewing the field at Passchendaele, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” To what extent those who order war understand or perceive its consequences is also the theme of Ninefox Gambit, a book of a rather different hue but one which has found itself shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in the centenerary year of that slice of Belgian bedlam.

Ninefox Gambit is the story of Captain Kel Cheris, an infantry officer of the grunt class serving a fascistic interstellar empire known as the hexarchate. We first meet her in the midst of a fierce battle on the frontiers of the regime, where her unit is in battle against a force of “heretics” – the catch-all term used by the hexarchate to describe those of its members who deviate from its brutally enforced orthodoxy, the calendar (belief in which seems not just to empower the regime but also its weaponry and technologies). Paradoxically, Cheris prevails in this battle only because she opts to employ a formation not endorsed or imagined by the hexarchate and its strict codebook of tactics and strategies.

This, plus her deep understanding of and affinity for mathematics, makes her an ideal tool in the plots of a key figure in the government, and Cheris soon finds herself implanted with the memories and personality of Shuos Jedao, a long-dead member of the regime’s caste of strategists. Jedao was once responsible for genocide so gross even the hexarchate condemned both it and its perpetrator. Together, he and Cheris are tasked with the recovery of the Fortress of Shattered Needles, a central node in the hexarchate’s interstellar network that has fallen to a set of heretics which, we come to learn, proceed from an exiled caste of ethicists and philosophers intent on an unheard-of form of governance known as “democracy”.

None of this is imparted as cleanly or as straightforwardly as I endeavour to achieve above. Ninefox Gambit, and its author Yoon Ha Lee, is instead intent on full-immersion worldbuilding. Its opening chapters are especially challenging, and throughout its length the novel tends toward the gnomic. Most obviously, it never explains how the calendar works, or how the simple act of dissenting from it – of heresy – might cause “calendrical rot” and the unraveling not just of the hexarchate’s power but the efficacy of its science as well as its societal control. One assumes that Lee is gesturing in part at the power of the concept of time: in just the way that moving from sundial to clock enabled the industrial revolution but also encouraged the kinds of mindset that perpetuate and embody its continuing conceptual dominance, the hexarchate’s calendar imposes upon its inhabitants a certain shared reality (“Time happens to everyone,” observes Jedao). It might also be suggested that aspects of virtual and augmented reality have become so embedded in the far future that the corruption of calendrical mathematics also corrupts the very source code of that consensus.

However this functions in detail, the obsession with orthodoxy is the background against which the novel’s themes play – since the hexarchate denies individuality in order to enforce its enabling intellectual system. War, too, denies individuality: armies must move as single units, battalions must march forwards even as its constituent members fall to grapeshot; the military-SF form Lee adopts therefore inhabits, too, the mindset of the hexarchate – and his scenes of war brutally emphasise this vicious utilitarianism. For example, Cheris, and all other Kel, are indoctrinated with “formation instinct”, a will to stand as part of the combat unit so strong that nothing – not imminent death or horrific pain – can break it. In one scene, Cheris recalls her academy years, during which she and her fellow trainees were injected with an intense phobia for insects – and then covered with bugs whilst being ordered to stand firm:

They tasted her skin and prodded the crevices of her taut hands. At one point her face was heavy with clinging servitors and their cold weight. She tried not to blink when silver antennae waved right in front of her eyes. She was gripped by the fancy that it was going to insert an antenna into her pupil and force it open, wider, wider, crawl in through her optic nerve and take up residence in the crenellations of her brain, lay eggs in the secret nodes of nerve and fatty tissue.

The formation required that they hold fast. Cheris held fast. She thought at first that the strange frozen calm was the phobia, but realized it was the formation. She was taking succor from her massed comrades, just as they did from her. Even when a spiderform paused at the corner of her mouth, even when she was shaking with the effort of not swatting it aside, she would have done anything to avoid breaking formation.

Three cadets broke. Damningly, the servitors didn’t pursue them. They only harassed people who belonged.

This sort of passage makes pretty clear (if he hadn’t also said so in interviews) that Lee does not believe the hexarchate is redeemable on any level, nor that he needs to take time to convince us of this; indeed, the novel takes for granted that we share its instinctive distaste for the regime. One of the first things we read in the novel is Cheris dismissing her academy instructor’s suggestion that there is a comfort to be drawn from corpses; not much later in the novel, one of its most senior figures reflects that, “Someday someone might come up with a better government, one in which brainwashing and the remembrances’ ritual torture weren’t an unremarkable fact of life. Until then, he did what he could.” This is not the novel having its cake and eating it: the hexarchate is more horrific for it having space in its iron grip for widespread understanding of its failings. It isn’t simply convenient for Lee that his protagonists can be sympathetic in their awareness of the hexarchate’s evil; it is a crucial part of its oppressive make-up that despite widespread grievance it remains the only choice.

What emerges in the course of the novel is a sense that in this context empathy is radical. Lee is a Korean-American, and in Korean myth the nine-tailed fox, as I understand it, carries with it a bead which, if eaten by a human, grants special knowledge. Not coincidentally, Cheris gains access to all of Jedao’s memories by eating something, too – and in coming to understand the disgraced general completely she makes a conceptual breakthrough of her own. In other words, by getting to know someone other than herself on an individual level – by achieving total empathy – Cheris begins to break the grip of the hexarchate on her understandings of the world. In being fused with Cheris, so too does Jedao – whose previous quest to destroy the hexarchate from within through brutal slaughter is shown too fully to inhabit his enemy’s own paradigms. “A Lanterner’s life had worth the way a heptarchate soldier’s life had worth,” realises Cheris/Jedao. “A life was a life. It was a simple equation, but she hadn’t been a mathematician then, and Kel Command had failed to understand the notation.”

All of which makes the manner in which Ninefox Gambit has been received by some doubly baffling. I mentioned in my review of After Atlas a thread on the Shadow Clarke website in which Lee’s novel was used to foreground some tricky assumptions that critics of the Shadow Clarke have suggested are being made by its jury. Likewise, in the comment thread attached to Jonathan McCalmont’s review of Ninefox Gambit, Niall Harrison engages in an ultimately frustrating debate about what a critic should or should not – can and cannot – know about any given novel’s background and context. In truth, it seems to me, Niall is simply trying to tell Jonathan that his review is insufficiently alive to the novel’s particularities, and how they are separate from the characteristics that McCalmont has decided beforehand “good” science fiction should demonstrate. In using the novel’s  mil-SF trappings as a means of condemning their perceptions of the Clarke’s “commerciality”, several of the jury have failed to take Ninefox Gambit on its own terms and perceive the trickier novel – the craftier kumiho – that it truly is. Lee is reaching beyond the staid debates of Anglo-American SF. He is using mil-SF against itself. Thankfully, one of the Shadow Clarke’s number, Nick Hubble, waxes more positively and capaciously

The constraints on Cheris are both the repressive pattern of the hexarchate and the narrative patterns of generic space opera/ milsf but hope lies in there being a reality outside these restrictive formulae.

[…] The global balance of power is not in the process of shifting but has already shifted from the West to China and Asia more generally (Brexit and Trump are consequences of this shift). Rather than generic forms of fiction becoming obsolete, they are going to grow in significance, as suggested by the success of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. The challenge is to change the pattern of these generic models to generate new and non-repressive meanings by which people can live by in the fullness of the universe.

This seems to me to get closer to what is special about Ninefox Gambit – and why it is a worthy Clarke nominee. If the novel does not achieve what Hubble describes so well as Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, that is not so surprising given the latter’s quality. If at times Ninefox Gambit inevitably exhibits the utilitarian prose of mil-SF, or its programmatic structures, it breaks through these with abandon in its final fifth; if it’s characters begin as unempathetic ciphers it is because they are meant to be; and if its worldbuilding posits the hexarchate calendar almost as magic then we might reflect on how an Anglo-Saxon would perceive a smartphone. What appear to be bugs in this novel are very much features … and given hexarchate training techniques I use the word “bug” advisedly.

“A Sudden Appreciation”: Emma Newman’s “After Atlas”

The ghost at the feast of my consideration so far of 2017’s Clarke Award shortlist has been the Shadow Clarke. I’ve referred to it directly or obliquely a few times in my reviews of the Tidhar, the Sullivan, and the Whitehead; but I’ve not engaged properly with its proceedings. One reason for this is that, despite its jury being made up entirely of people I respect and in some cases work with regularly, I have always been a bit iffy about it as a concept. Awards are subjective things by their nature; setting up a parallel track, a formalised shadow group which will consider the same books and offer their own opinions, is replete with the potential for unhelpful gang warfare. Once begun, this sort of stuff ends in the literary trenches. Awards are subjective; whatever the frustrations with the Clarke in recent years – and there have been frustrations, and those frustrations have fed into into the Shadow Clarke’s existence – I’m not inclined in that context to agitate too actively for a fixed vision of what the Clarke should be.

That said, Emma Newman’s After Atlas is an excellent example of how and why the Shadow Clarke, hosted by the Anglia Ruskin Center for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and chaired by the inestimable Nina Allan, might have a role. It is a police procedural set in a future in which states have given way to corporations as governing entities; indenture has replaced wage labour as the primary economic relationship between those corporations and the individuals who staff them; and everyone is connected via implants, with data exceedingly open even as liberty is exceedingly circumscribed. In other words, the world is a dystopia; the kink here is that no one really realises it – the way the world is has become, of course, just the way the world is.

The worldbuilding required to sketch this future is rather well done. Newman has a lot of information to impart, and yet never seems to infodump egregiously. Much of this is achieved so elegantly via extensive (ab)use of the the first person narration, which enables Newman to reflect at length, but also with an eye for the direct impacts of her world’s governing structures upon an individual we come to know well: “Even though I hated having to ask permission to be trapped in my contract for longer – as if it were some sort of privilege to have to apply for the money to make my life bearable and then pay for it with my own freedom – at least I could. […] I worked so damn hard to be owned by the right kind of corporate entity” [pp. 272-3]. This vision of the contract as a mortgage – borrow a little money to buy some real steak, rather than the 3D-printed version eaten by almost everyone in After Atlas, at the cost of extra years as property of your employer – feels more real, more granular, for being experienced first-hand.

That said, Newman comes to over-rely on her narrator, Ministry of Justice detective Carlos Moreno, and the dialogue he exchanges with the range of witnesses, friends, and antagonists whom he encounters. In part, of course, After Atlas shares this with most police procedurals, and with much genre fare; there is an argument that the Clarke should indeed be rewarding competently representative novels such as this. It is not coincidence, however, that, among the Shadow Clarke Jury, the books on this year’s shortlist that were least popular were also the most generic, nor that the set of characteristics which these novels share have been coralled by the Shadow Clarke under an umbrella marked “commercial”: there is also a view, and it is the view as far as I can see that powers the Shadow Clarke, that the Clarke exists to reward not the most representative but the most exceptional, and that in recent years it has been doing the opposite. In a roundtable discussion about the shortlist, one panel member, Paul Kincaid, expressed this preference most strongly: “If an award reflects the field as it stands, then the field is standing still. I believe that science fiction has to continually change in order to survive, and awards should therefore reflect such change.”

The question of what is innovation, and what sort of change we should seek or reward, is rarely addressed fully by the Shadow Clarke. In the comments to that roundtable discussion, Martin Lewis makes some good points, chief among them that “the use of ‘commercial’ [as a label] is really unhelpful and leads in some unfortunate directions”. Those unfortunate directions involve in part an important consideration of the role race plays both in how works of science fiction are received, how they are published in the first place, and how and what we should reward in them. Martin goes on to show how Ninefox Gambit, by the Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee, is “dismissed as commercial even as Lee is dismissed as a slave to vested interests”. Lewis’s punchline? “‘Vajra [the jury’s only POC] felt strongly that the problem was more complex’ – funny that.”

The point of all this, other than to pre-empt my review of Ninefox Gambit, is to demonstrate that to dismiss After Atlas as “commercial” is to make a set of assumptions. Paul Kincaid, in his Shadow Clarke review of Newman’s novel, attempts to redefine the division between “literary” and “commercial” as one between “mode” and “genre”; but in his concluding paragraph he reverts, almost inevitably, to the nomenclature of the marketplace which looms over the first of those bifurcations: “This is, in other words, what used to be known as an entertaining midlist title.” There’s more than the whiff of the sniffy about this, and it’s not entirely earned: as Nina Allan says in her characteristically nuanced piece on the novel, “I can see an argument for shortlisting After Atlas as an example of the flexibility of contemporary science fiction in its use of different genre materials to create new kinds of stories and that’s an argument I like.” She argues, however, that the particular composition of the 2017 shortlist, however, works against Newman’s inclusion, which for Allan requires “the pruning of other dead wood from the shortlist (the Chambers definitely, the Sullivan possibly) and its replacement with works better suited to challenging the Newman in its genre assumptions.”

I’m wary of the idea that the shortlist should make a single statement – if in isolation there is an argument for a book’s inclusion, and in the jury’s deliberations that argument is carried, I think a text-by-text approach is defensible. Does this book have something interesting to say? The answer is yes, in spite and also because of its “commercial” trappings. That in other words After Atlas‘s generic markers are features and not bugs doesn’t entirely unhook it from criticism, however. In its first few pages, Moreno turns up his collar against the wind twice in quick success; it is the sort of book that uses swearing to gesture at edginess (in the first half of page 39 alone, “fuck” represents 3% of the total wordcount – nothing wrong with that, but as an effect it is a blunt object); at another time, Moreno asks his AI assistant whether a particular character is “male or female”, but slips immediately and seamlessly into a third set of pronouns when he learns ze is gender neutral (in which open-minded case why make the initial assumption at all?). These are nits, but there are plenty to pick: in a world where everyone is fitted with an implant, is a failure rate of “one in five hundred thousand” really “very rare”? And why would a seasoned detective reach for a hoary and mixed “tip of the iceberg” metaphor when the case gets really interesting? This is not, it must be said, a novel of cutting-edge wit.

It is not, however, a disaster on the scale of Sherri S Tepper’s The Waters Rising (shortlisted for the Clarke in 2012), or any less by-the-numbers in its chosen form than China MiĂ©ville’s least interesting novel, Iron Council (which won the award in 2008). It has, beneath its hard-boiled carapace, interesting things to say about the dread attraction of data: “He never admitted that have a neural chip made thousands of everyday things easier. How many times did he say that the modern world was forcing peopel to lose the art of connection? The art of connection? Bollocks.” [p. 63]  It captures, too, the dehumanising aspects of corporatisation which some SFF wholly misses: “My contract has always prevented full-time cohabitation, as they call it. A tidy corporate phrase encompassing love, security, friendship and the chance to discover something special enough to make an asset rage against his contract.” [p. 27]  The world of After Atlas is genuinely interesting; that in some ways it emerges more fleshed-out, and more consistent, than its lead characters is not necessarily a mark of “commercial” flim-flam.

I find it hard, ultimately, to demur from Allan’s argument that the compromises of the procedural form “ultimately prevent a novel like After Atlas from becoming a true classic, from providing anything more substantial than that ‘need to know’ buzz that keeps you turning pages”; but as I turned those pages I may, in a funny kind of way, have thought more widely, if on balance less deeply, than I did when reading Christopher Priest’s The Gradual earlier this year – and that is a novel which no doubt many of those on the Shadow Clarke Jury may have preferred to see on the shortlist in After Atlas‘s place. Awards are subjective. Taken on its own terms, and as, in the interests of balance, the Shadow Clarke’s own Megan AM has suggested, Newman’s novel speaks to our current moment, packages its themes in a digestible style, and reads freshly in its familiarity. Should it win the Clarke? No. In particular, its position in a series of novels comes to dominate its final section with unsatisfactory results. But it might also deserve a little better than becoming the proxy in a genre war.

“Keep Sewing”: Treme’s First Season

It would be a bold viewer who too closely related Treme, the television show about New Orleans after the levees broke, with Wynton Marsalis, the stubbornly conservative musician and historian of jazz. Certainly David Simon, who with Eric Overmeyer is creator and executive producer of Treme, is no reactionary traditionalist: on The Wire and Generation Kill alike, he laid into the destructive shibboleths of contemporary American discourse. But in Ken Burns’s 2001 documentary Jazz, itself criticised for its prescriptive, classicist approach to the music, Marsalis said: “Jazz music objectifies America. It’s an art form that can give us a painless way of understanding ourselves. The real power of jazz and the innovation of jazz, is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art.” If Treme had a voice, this is what it would say.

The first season begins just five months after Hurricane Katrina leapt with disarming ease over the insufficient defences provided to New Orleans. One of the show’s first scenes features the Tulane English lecturer, Creighton Bernette, labelling the flooding “a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions and decades in the making.” Treme doesn’t really interrogate Creighton’s assumptions – it takes as fact (as indeed it is) that New Orleans is suffering as a result of long-term federal neglect and local corruption, and if it doesn’t (yet) delve deep into the politics of all this as The Wire might have done, this is only because, having decided where to place it, the show is uninterested in blame. It is focused on what comes next – if anything can. Ultimately, Creighton comes to fear that the old New Orleans is lost for good – that it cannot rebuild itself except as facsimile. Other characters are less fatalistic.

Take Wendell Pierce’s affable degenerate, Antoine Batiste. A trombonist once considered the next big thing, and now routinely short-changing taxi drivers as he shuttles from venue to venue in an attempt to make ends meet, Antoine is too focused on the next paycheck to think conceptually. We first meet him at a funeral parade, where he exhorts his fellow musicians to “play for the fucking money”; there is a cool pragmatism to his work which is allied with a very deep and heartfelt love for and commitment to New Orleans and its music. Indeed, when an old friend of his dies, Batiste passes down a trombone to the man’s grandson – it’s what the people of New Orleans do, he explains to the wealthy Japanese jazz enthusiast who has funded Batiste’s largesse. This isn’t just a moribund tradition, a museum piece kept in place for the benefit of afficionados and tourists; it is certainly that, but it is also the beating heart and the central nervous system of a city on life support.

This makes the band, the collective, the raggle-taggle coming-together of musicians too stupid or stubborn to leave for Austin, into the show’s governing metaphor. In their work, in the negotiations and accomodations of Marsalis’s characterisation of jazz, we see a sort of parallel rebuilding. As the first season progresses, stores reopen and streets are cleaned; but this work takes place in the background, and foregrounded always is the formation, the management, the performances of bands. In writing about Treme, Jonathan McCalmont has wondered if the show’s approach to the world of New Orleans isn’t a little shallow. He cites, for instance, the moment when the out-of-work DJ and middle class slacker, David McAlary, runs into a pothole and is shook down first for a lift and then by the man he’d paid to look after his vehicle; the only consequence of this absence both of the state and a sense of community responsibility, he opines, is that Davis writes a song. A song! That’s it! But Treme is about how we might create cultural product from suffering; thus is the New Orleans tradition – and thus must it be rebuilt.

Jonathan reads Davis unkindly. On many levels, this is fair – he can only afford to live a creative life, unlike for instance his sometime girlfriend, and struggling chef, Janette Desautel, because he hails from a rich family, whilst his constant quest for stimulation, and his habitual emphasis on the purity of New Orleans culture, can appear self-defeating and sterile in equal measure. But as much as he is a curator, the sort of passionate enthusiast who can risk ossifying a tradition in an image of what it should be rather than what it is, he is also one of the city’s greatest advocates, its most eloquent evangelist. New Orleans needs Davis as it needs a show like Treme, and it is a sign of the openness of the culture he exhorts that it accepts a man like him, rather than a token of its closed qualities that he spouts so much false rule-making and elitist pride.

So, in her own post about the season, Abigail is on stronger ground when she argues that Treme risks looking most of all like a product of the New Orleans Tourist Board. Certainly the show is premised on the idea that New Orleans represents something unique and priceless in American culture, and it therefore goes out of its way to prove this to us. But given that the city does indeed possess precisely those qualities, it seems unfair to attack the show for foregrounding, for example, the nobility of Albert Lambreaux’s Mardi Gras Indians, or the joyous excellence of the music of Kermit Ruffin: after all, the writers also emphasise the return of the city’s corrosive drug culture through the story of the only averagely talented street singer, Sonny (the break-down of his musical and romantic relationship with the fiddle player Annie is an instance in which the band acts as a metaphor for destruction rather than construction); furthermore, the quality of New Orleans housing is throughout the show on shame-faced display. The show doesn’t pretend that New Orleans is perfect (though when students in search of the ‘real’ New Orleans are sent by Davis to the scuzziest jazz dive in the city the scene is admittedly played for laughs). Rather, Treme is posited as an argument against the notion that New Orleans is rotten to the core.

There is more to write about this show – I haven’t addressed, for instance, Khandi Alexander’s breath-taking fierceness in the role of LaDonna Batiste-Williams, Antoine’s ex-wife, whose brother was lost in the storm (the whole season is worth the sight in its final episode of LaDonna dancing the second line); nor have I looked at its odd storytelling structure, in which there is barely any plot to speak of and many characters never even meet (which many cannot abide). But at the show’s core is this question of culture, of heritage and creation. When his daughter professes enthusiasm for the Endymion Mardi Gras parade, Creighton huffs that it is, “Like everything else in America – cheap, mass-produced and made in China.” Despite this, his wife scolds him for “waxing nostalgic for the knights of Momus”. This enthusiasm exists “because you’re not from here,” she says. “When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” The meaning, the relevance, and the continued existence of cultural product are Treme‘s key considerations – and in New Orleans, Simon has one of the last non-homogenised localised American traditions with which to negotiate his agendas. Here’s to season two.

SF: 2010

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

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

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

Some Stone Spring

My review of Stephen Baxter’s latest novel, Stone Spring, appeared at Strange Horizons on Wednesday. The lead time on this one has been rather long, and, between completing the piece and seeing it published, Jonathan McCalmont had his say on the book at The Zone. I’d earmarked it as something to come back to when my own review saw the light of day, as a sort of companion piece on this blog – and then, huzzah, Jonathan gave me an even better excuse to do so by actually commenting on it:

I was also really impressed by the way in which the characters in Stone Spring were effectively crushed beneath the weight of their positions in society. Shadow in particular is a fascinating character as he is a sensitive and introspective young man who is transformed into an imperialistic despot simply because chance results in his taking up the position of Root. There’s something very Classical in that, you could read Stone Spring almost as a tragedy.

I half agree, half disagree, with this assessment – as I do with Mr McC’s piece at The Zone. Here’s why: whilst the outside-in theory of characterisation he very usefully applies to Stone Spring is revealing and intriguing, I’m not sure it’s quite what Baxter is doing – or, rather, that it is all that is going on. I think Jonathan and I agree that Stone Spring is basically a novel about human societies, how they are formed and the ways in which they develop. It’s also a novel about how society acts upon the individual – and yet, I think, it allows more space for individual motivation, for irrational responses rather than determinist reflexes.

In my review, I describe my experience of the novel essentially as soap opera: that it wobbles at the edges, but its central characters and family dyanmics remain compelling enough to see the whole ambitious concept to safe harbour. Jonathan, too, ultimately agrees that the novel is “told on a very human scale”, but where I emphasise the continuity Baxter establishes between his Mesolithic peoples and ourselves, Jonathan points to a great chasm of self which exists between us. I like this approach, and think it leads us towards the ways in which Baxter’s prehistoric cultures are successfully alien. Yet characters in Stone Spring also talk about fundamental human nature, display strong personal (not social) attachment to family, and often follow selfish, rather than corporate, aims. Shade can be seen as the hoary good boy wronged as much as any study in social action and individual reaction. There’s a middle ground between our emphases, I think, where the true novel lies. It’s a fine work of fiction which can support both sides of the argument, though.

Reviewing Politics?

If it's rubbish, should we say so?
Is it because I is right-wing?

Some of you may remember my review of Neal Asher’s Orbus. I wasn’t kind, and I thought quite deeply about that as I wrote it. Asher’s brand of gung-ho adventure, it seemed to me, had far more potential than its execution allowed, and, as Jonathan McCalmont later suggested in a more recent review of Philip Palmer’s Red Claw, science fiction might deserve more careful writers of entertaining adventure. As an example of how this lack of care, rather than any inherent faults of intent or purpose, might result in poor work, I said that the book’s “politics, if soft-headed, aren’t pernicious.” Again, I thought quite carefully about that phrase – I was very conscious that I didn’t want to be seen as dismissing Asher’s politics because I disagreed with it. Rather, it was the slapdash approach to expressing that politics (and, indeed, the book’s other ideas) with which I had a problem.

On which note, a comment left on the review this Monday by someone identifying themselves as, er, Neal Asher: “Tristan, that very often depends on which axe is being ground, and which axe it is the reviewer’s preference.” Tristan had said that, “I take the position that political content is orthogonal to literary quality. The problem is that writers with a political axe to grind often present simplistic versions of political positions that could be treated with a great deal of nuance.” (Well said.) My perception of Asher’s reply, however, is that he perceives my criticisms to proceed from political, rather than literary, differences. (This isn’t helped by a post which appeared on Asher’s own blog on the same day, bemoaning the pompous orthodoxy of the leftie literati. But no one review is mentioned specifically, and one wouldn’t want to assume.)

For the record, this was emphatically not the case. In defense of the Asher comment, the discussion following the review veered more deeply into politics than I did; by the same token, it was in that very discussion that I first explained my approach to the issue. If Asher had managed to give his characters and story a convincing political grounding of any stripe, I would not have been able to complain. (Indeed, I’ve been known  to – whisper it now – enjoy the writings of right-wing and conservative novelists. I might even say that to start ticking the left and right boxes next to a writer’s name is in itself pointless. I don’t do it.) Instead, Orbus presents politics without nuance, and political manoeuvrings without subtelty. On page 98 of the novel, the Prador’s political and military history is swiftly relayed: “since alliances tended to change very quickly, with betrayal and murder of one’s allies an utterly accepted political tool, […] technical knowledge gradually spread.” In case you were wondering, it doesn’t make any more sense in context.

The cynicism of the libertarian, the deep distrust of government and collective action, pervades Asher’s novels. But in Orbus at least, it is so baldly applied – so dulled of anything but the bluntest satirical edge – that, agree with Asher or no, it cannot convince in and of itself. This may or may not be bad politics; it’s certainly bad writing. In the comments to that review of Red Claw, Asher (if it is truly he) thanks McCalmont for cementing his position as “the SF-literati whipping boy.” But criticisms of his work aren’t personal. And they’re certainly not political.

Twitter and Difficulty


This post is brought to you by an unseemly urge to over-expound.

Anna and I are now both on Twitter. Already, I’ve been involved in genre wrangles. Jonathan McCalmont is currently reading In Great Waters, which you might remember I liked, though not as much as some. Apparently, he’s been reading some classics, too, and remarked that moving from Fitzgerald and Camus back to genre writing was a curious experience: like moving, I guess, from cordon bleu to pub grub. I’ve some sympathy with this feeling – rare has it been that I’ve moved from a out-and-out literary text to a pure work of genre (which In Great Waters is not, despite its clear relationship to SF&F) and not felt the downwards gear change. This, however, is also true of moving from a canonical author to a contemporary novelist yet to prove his mettle – so the contest is somewhat rigged.

In Whitfield’s defense, her own eatery is a gastropub rather than a boozer with a few sarnies on the bar. And here lie the limits of Twitter – Niall Harrison objected to Jonathan’s use of the word ‘simplistic’ to characterise In Great Waters. I’d agree with him that ‘simplistic’ is not the word to use – because, yes, it suggests distorting naivety – but by the same token I think we both agree that In Great Waters doesn’t quite pull itself together. That is a fault, ultimately, of its prose style, which cannot sustain and stretch itself across the novel’s length and breadth. To this extent, then, the spirit of what Jonathan was saying was spot on – he was experiencing less powerful prose.

Twitter, however, is not the place to have a semantic debate – it pretty much demands poor choice of words. How is it possible to have a proper debate about difficulty in prose (and there is now a putative Obfuscatory Writers project abroad) when you are being forced to limit your own words to 140 characters? Whitfield’s writing is not simplistic in the way that – as again we all agreed – much genre writing can be; but it isn’t as rewardingly complex as the writers Jonathan cited. Again, important semantics are unexplorable in a Tweet.

What are the pleasures of difficult writing, though? A plain, unadorned style can be a thing of beauty – Kurt Vonnegut remains one of my very favourite writers, and it is stunningly difficult to emultate his spare, skeletal style. Whitfield’s own writing is comparably full of allusion and play, and, if it is without the on-the-other-hand poetry of a Fitzgerald, is that so bad a thing? Some baroque edifices are ugly; there is a limit to the virtue of ornamentation. But it also seems to me that the fault of Whitfield’s style – its ultimate failure completely to encompass its theme – proceeds from what Jonathan may or may not still call its ‘simplicity’. Moby Dick, for example, is a forbidding novel; but its success lies in that repulsion. Its discursive, Biblical, roiling style provides the echoing space and inward movement required fully to explore depths not entirely divorced from Whitfield’s. The difficulty of the style supports the easing of the theme.

Not all books benefit from an excess of style. Dorothy Parker wrote of Ernest Hemingway (not a writer I care for, but still) that “Hemingway stands as a genius because Hemingway has an unerring sense of selection. He discards details with a magnificnet lavishness; he keeps his words to their short path.” This control – a word used by Niall to describe (some of) Whitfield’s prose – is, like Vonnegut’s, key not only to the merits (as they may be) of Hemingway’s writing, but also the success of its content. It’s missing the point, of course, to think all good writing must be difficult; but there is still a difference between Hemingway’s unadorned prose and the simplistic failures of genre: a clarity, a precision. It may well be harder to achieve this trick, this stripping back, than Melville’s deep soundings. Parker on Hemingway again: “The simple thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it.” Even unadorned prose is difficult.

Jonathan was aiming, perhaps, at the descriptive rather than the evocative function of genre prose versus its literary counterpart’s. In this lies the real issue, not the ‘simplicity’ or ornament of the styles in question: it is not enough to tell; prose, as much as the story it strives to contain, needs also to show.

“Rorschach’s Journal, Act I Scene iv”

What Do You See?
Everyone Sees It Different.

I hate to write this regularly about science fiction, but people keep writing things I have to respond to. Graham Sleight (or Nick Lowe) does the usual special pleading over at the Locus blog. Here the villains are film adaptations which naturally dumb science fiction down: of course, this is because SF is particularly different and Quite Special, thus setting itself in opposition to the simple narrative forms developed by daft old Hollywood. Graham makes the good point that SF should maybe get itself some better characters, but alas I have to take him to task on the perennial assumption that SF has a richer armoury of narrative forms than other modes of literature.

As a spin on this tired old debate, it may even be unfair to accuse film of ‘dumbing down’ rather than playing to its particular strengths. Jonathan McCalmont argues over on Ruthless Culture that the recent film of Jose Saramago’s complex novel, Blindness (I have read the book, but not seen the film) fails because “film is not a medium that deals terribly well with these types of abstract theoretical ideas.” By trying to do so in a way similar to the novel, the film hobbles itself. To paraphrase the film theorist AndrĂ© Bazin, swapping a story from one medium to another will necessarily involving changing its form – or else there seems little point.

To whit, the adaptation du jour, Watchmen. With a source considered (of course by fans) unfilmable, the director Zack Snyder has in fact done a creditable job of taking what Graham might call an SFnal narrative form – the ideas-led non-linear narrative with no standard moral growth for any of its panoply of ‘protagonists’ – and rendering it into a film. Ultimately, though, I agree with Abigail that such slavish devotion to the source makes the adaptation a hollow exercise: at times, what is on screen is precisely, boringly, what was in the panel, and its faithful and graphic reconstruction of comic book violence can only result in the film’s culminating massacre seeming somehow less horrible than it did on the page.

All of which is not to say that Hollywood (as presented by Lowe and Graham or otherwise) is an inspiring repository of revolutionary narrative. But I’m not sure it’s the case that literature adapted is hard done by when film imposes its own conventions – in fact, films are often hard done by when they genuflect at the altar of their source. It’s hard to argue for fidelity to SF’s specialness (or that of any other branch of literature) and simultaneously ignore (or disparage) cinema’s own prerogatives.