“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.

“Memories were narratives”: Ramez Naam and Philip Mann

There is at least one not-very-good reason for considering Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise together: the announcement of the winner of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award takes place tonight, and I wanted to publish some thoughts on all six novels before that happened. There are also, however, several better reasons. This is counter-intuitive on one level, because at first blush the volumes could not be more different: Naam’s technothriller is a debut novel dealing with the near future, and is a self-professed forward-thinking piece of work, all transhumanism and singularities; The Disestablishment of Paradise, meanwhile, is an almost wilfully old-fashioned planetary romance, whose further-future setting has very little interest in the ways in which technology or culture have changed in the last fifty years, much less how they might do so over the next few centuries.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Naam and Mann have more in common than the scant three letters which can be used to spell both their names. In large part, their similarities revolve around lazy assumptions: about gender, about human psychology, and about the workings of narrative. Nexus begins with what I assume is meant to be a humorous scene in which Kade, the novel’s hero, uses one of the software hacks he and his plucky group of hippy scientists are plugging into the consciousness-linking nano-drug Nexus to seduce and then have semi-consensual sex with a young woman, before it goes wildly wrong and “his still-clothed crotch was banging into her face on every pelvic thrust”. Oh, how we laughed. Mann, meanwhile, is more well-meaning but just as flat-footed: “it is women’s logic, as old as time,” his novel sighs at one of its many essentialist junctures, during which even its high-flying, high-achieving female protagonists are wont to opine, “What fools we women are sometimes!”

nexus-naamThat is, the Clarke judges appear to have rewarded two writers who have entirely ignored all the many tools and techniques science fiction offers for exploding and questioning our most limited and limiting behaviours, and who prefer instead to chase down their favoured hobby horses. Nexus in particular reads primarily like an amateur lecture, with the insistent earnestness and dulling monomania that implies. Naam is a debut novelist (although Nexus‘s sequel has, horrifyingly, now been published), and writes in his acknowledgements that “this work transformed from a lark to an actual attempt to write a novel”. It bears all the hallmarks of this uncertain progress: structurally unsound, its prolonged prologue features an inevitably attractive female spy infiltrating Kade’s group of bioscientists before forcing him and his friends to accept a bargain with the US agency responsible for frustrating the transhuman potential of technologies such as Nexus. In Kade’s (and Naam’s) vision of the world, Nexus will connect people to each other; in one of Naam’s few attempts to texturise his novel with countervailing views, however, its villain sees it as a tool for totalitarian oppression of the masses. All this drags on, the middle third of the novel drained entirely of tension as clunky action set-piece follows deadeningly similar clunky action set-piece:

Wats countered her superior speed by giving ground, step by step. Sam stayed in close he did, neutralizing his advantage in reach. They moved in a blur of strikes, dodges, and blows, almost too fast for any onlooker to follow.

She could see him coming up now, see the adrenaline hitting him, making him a more dangerous foe. Behind her she felt flashes of courage and anger. Partygoers thinking of joining the fray. Before long, they would mob her.

End this now, then. A gambit. A sacrifice. She let him create a foot of space to get his comfort, parried three more blows, threw feints at groin and eyes and plexus, then came in wide and sloppy, hole in her guard at mid-section.

Wats saw the opening and threw a brutal fist at it, low and under her nearly unbreakable ribs. She accepted the fist, twisting to mute it, felt the pain blossom inside her as he connected. As she twisted, she brought one hand down like a vice on his wrist, yanked him off balance as she planted a leg behind his knees and slammed her other hand into his shoulder to bring him down.

Wats saw it coming, but it was too late.

If you can find it in yourself to forgive me for quoting at such length, you’re a better person than I. Nevertheless, the above passage captures both the micro and macro problems with Naam’s writing: he cannot structure a scene, finds it impossible to imbue one with tension in an organic or earned way (hence all the fragment sentences and forced repetitions); whilst this weakness translates to his novel as a whole, on a sentence-by-sentence level, too, the reader finds Naam dull and obstinate, unsubtle and regularly incompetent (who has a brutal fist that one might twist to mute?). This is the prose of an accidental novelist, a writer uninterested in the craft of fiction. Indeed, Naam’s day job is as a futurist and emerging technologist, and quite explicitly Nexus is a vehicle for his vision of the posthuman future. If the novel’s ideas were interesting and elegant, then, perhaps we might forgive their leaden expression. In fact, Naam’s at-times Pollyannaish certainties and optimisms (“all that we have accomplished, and all that we will accomplish, is the result of groups of humans cooperating”) are most often communicated in lifeless dialogue which presumably aims at qualities Socratean but instead hits network TV personal dilemma:

“I’m not more important than the hundred people out there,” Kade said sharply.

“Your work is.”

Ilya cut in. “Wats, we can’t let the ends justify the means.”

The novel’s transhuman Bond villain has no more complex a vision of reality than Kade’s half-soaked sidekicks, apparently culled as it is from some of the poorer-written issues of X-Men: “The humans are the enemies of the future. They hate us. They hate our beauty and our potential. Either they hunt us down and kill and enslave us, or we rise above them and take our rightful place in this world.” The intelligence community’s response to this threat is depicted in a stilted round-table: “CIA Director Alan Keyes threw up a hand in exasperation. Senator Engels chuckled in amusement. Maximillian Barnes just learned back and watched it all, impassive.” If I tell you, dear reader, that one of the novel’s few close-to-moving moments comes when one of the faceless, paper-thin attendees of that meeting realises his daughters will live on fatherless after these men politely request he commit suicide following a failure to contain some troublesome Buddhist monks who give Kade shelter, you might get a sense of how deeply cloth-eared this unfortunate novel can be.

Science fiction surely exists not to predict the future but to trouble our present. It is in part the ghosts both at the feast and in the machine, the queering literature which serves not to advocate but to equivocate, to look history in the eye and say it ain’t necessarily so. Nexus is a soap-box of a novel, a bar-room bore which pretends to profundity. It has been warmly welcomed in some quarters (here, for instance, are the thoughts of the tech journalist Simon Bisson); perhaps, after all, I am missing something. Perhaps, it is true, the fiction of a lecturer at Singularity University is worth reading for its futurological analysis. The novel’s premise, however, is pure Hollywood hokum, and it is in these clichés – reverted to on almost every page and in every scene-short chapter – that Naam’s science fiction swaps speculative vision for commercialised swagger, betraying the potential of his chosen genre and professed technological passions in favour of a dead black sidekick and overly telegraphed UST. The Clarke jury may be right in thinking this sort of thing a definitive work of contemporary science fiction; but if they are then the genre is in trouble.

the-disestablishment-of-paradiseThe sexual tension in The Disestablishment of Paradise is, at least, resolved. It begins early on with a canny refiguring of the creation story suggested by the name of the planet in its title: “The popular story,” we read of the first exploratory vessel to arrive there, “is that it was Captain Estelle who picked and nibbled the first Paradise plum.” I’ve referred already to the way in which Mann inherits the tendencies of his sourcework, in which women cannot escape the presumed vices of Eve, and certainly not the expectations of the men who promulgate them: “You take that ridiculous headband off and make yourself pretty,” the lead scientist of an entire planet is told by a man we’re cued to find charming. “Put a bit of make-up on like that lovely Captain Abracadabra [this is not Captain Abuhradin’s name]. She knows how to dress for a party. She makes a man feel good just looking at her, eh boys?”

This character – Pietr Z – is not immediately dismissed by the astonishingly well-qualified hero of the novel, Dr Hera Melhuish; instead, his advice is followed to the letter with an ‘aw, you guys’ shrug. Pietr Z, incidentally, is apparently from Generic Eastern Europe, and despite being one of Earth’s leading scientists himself he speaks in comically broken English until a scene in which Mann requires him to be sympathetic and inspiring of confidence, when his syntax suddenly improves. Other characters, meanwhile, call each other ‘chum’ and repeatedly josh that their friends should ‘bugger off’; they wear half-moon glasses and write in  each others’ notebooks; they form committees and fill out forms in triplicate. This is Mann’s first adult novel in two decades, and it shows.

But Niall Harrison has covered this aspect of Mann’s novel in as complete and right-headed a way as anyone might wish, and so I don’t wish to repeat him here: go read his review, in which he correctly concludes that “the novel’s categories are too solid to tell us much about the real choices we have to make”. In many ways, this recalls Sherri S Tepper’s The Water’s Rising, another retreat into reiterative fantasy in the face of a contemporary world for which the author no longer particularly cared. This sort of Atlas-shrug is particularly dangerous for science fiction, and yet is broadly visible in the exhaustion influentially identified by Paul Kincaid: works like The Disestablishment of Paradise read like a form of literature no longer well-equipped to deal with today’s challenges. Like Naam’s action movie memes, Mann’s 1960s verities are part of a decayed and decaying toolkit which science fiction writers continue to fit, forlornly, to a world now beyond them.

Mann’s chosen target is nature, the environment to which we have done so much violence to such potentially catastrophic effect. On Paradise, Gaia theory is given explicit and rather un-nuanced reality (coyly, James Lovelock is never named by Mann): the planet’s consciousness has been made vivid and angry by human incursions, its strange intelligence and unknowable biologies twisted out of shape by a reaction against the likes of Hera and her hunter-gatherer manly male, Mack. “There was a time when it basked quietly, this world which you call Paradise, content with miles of ocean and the tug of the moons and the winds and the tides. […] Everything now has been stained by […] hatred and anger.” Mann describes Paradise in loving-but-limited thumbnails: its flora and fauna are boiled down to three main components, the Tattersall Weed, the Dendron and the Reaper; Hera and Mack’s march across its surface is dangerous but also weirdly dream-like, as if they are walking not across a planet but in the realm of Faery (“awe is a dangerous emotion, it makes you very passive”); and our knowledge of it is always partial (“maybe the Dendron can adjust its life cycle,” Hera muses, “I don’t know”).

All this is a tad frustrating, compounded further by Paradise’s apparent selection of Mack rather than Hera as its ultimate spokesperson and Favourite Human. Mack is everything Hera is not: masculine and practical, physically strong and intellectually straightforward. At one point, we are told he is “surely descended” from “ancient Celtic warriors who ran naked into battle”. This is a rejection of the qualities associated with the feminine over the course of a novel which at first takes pains to try to convince us its women are individuals capable of leading their worlds and passing the Bechdel test. That sits oddly; worse still, Mann seems not to know what to do once Paradise-through-Mac has explained itself to Hera: in a single chapter, after hundreds of pages of rather stately progress, she sprints to a shuttle and flies away.

I’m not sure, however, that some of this isn’t part of the point. Perhaps Mann is only connected with Naam in my own head, since I read him after Nexus and any novel will look good in the awkward shadow of so ham-fisted an effort; but I rather think he is more aware of his tropes than Naam. In the novel’s preface, we are addressed by a (fictional) writer of children’s fiction who has been tasked by Hera with writing her biography. The Disestablishment of Paradise – despite a few footnotes and some attempts to quote from reports or oral transcripts – never resembles anything like a biography (it is too poetic and discursive for that), but it does resemble children’s fiction. Mann wrote this manuscript years ago and failed to find a publisher for it, but it is emphatically not a failed YA novel finally finding a home: it is a different beast, an adult novel which tropes as fairy story. It turns out to be a silly narrative choice, but it appears to have been an active one nonetheless.

“All the colours have been taken from a child’s palette,” we read of Paradise at one point, and throughout the novel openness and inhibition are lionised: “in their naive approach to love, they touch the heart of Paradise” Mann writes of Hera and Mack; Hera’s “educated mind”, meanwhile, “still hid too easily in abstractions, not developed enough to be earthy” – thus the selection of Mack. It is unhelpful that Mack is also associated with masculinity quite so pungently, but it is his child-like quality, I think, with which Mann is most interested. Most obviously, Hera asks her biographer a rhetorical question: “To be irrational sometimes is not to be mad. Is it?” Where Nexus is adolescent by accident, it seems to me that The Disestablishment of Paradise adopts a deliberately jejune perspective: the prince and its princess, the kindly dragon, the fantastical garden are all present and correct; science is perceived just as easily to be magical (Hera is “pilloried for being a ‘mystical scientist'”); there is a sense in which Mann perceives nature as requiring a lack of sophistication in its partners. This is useless to contemporary humanity in the ways Niall suggests, but that may not be accidental or unthinking in the way he argues. The Disestablishment of Paradise feels like a carefully considered novel, even where it is also creaky and cracked.

I have been trumped in more ways than one by Adam Roberts’s two-part consideration of the Clarke shortlist. My thoughts and his seem to leave Mann resembling The Dog Stars more than Tepper, perhaps: not without some sense of its own absurdities, but let down by essentialism and execution. Nexus, meanwhile, is much further along that continuum of sfnal retreat – so far along it, in fact, that it is a novel in full rout. Neither of these troubled novels, of course, should be the winner.

Of all the books on the shortlist, it seems to me as it seems to Roberts that James Smythe’s The Machine is the one that avoids the apparent pitfalls of contemporary science fiction most successfully: it is structured more smoothly than its nearest competitor, Kameron Hurley’s still-incendiary God’s War; it is more accessible and less idiosyncratic than the shortlist’s most complex piece of art, Priest’s The Adjacent; it is, despite its calmness, considerably more subversive than Ann Leckie’s much-praised Ancillary Justice; and, most crucially, it addresses our current moment without resort to the retro or the pastiche. The Machine is the leading novel on an admittedly lukewarm shortlist; but it should take the prize regardless – and inspire other authors, and other perennially embattled juries, to Do Better.

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

Anti-science SF?

It is a curious sign of the achievement of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb that its reception has been so mixed. The story of a very near future plagued by an air-borne virus similar to HIV but which is fatal only to pregnant women, it focuses on the titular teenage narrator who is attracted to the Sleeping Beauties: young women (they must be young) who are put into a coma in order to take to term artificially-inseminated babies whilst their own brains liquefy. When these women have delivered the child, their machines are turned off. Niall Harrison is excellent on the troubling effect of this story, and most particularly of Jessie’s voice:

There is a nearly unbearable tension in play here: we want Jessie to choose, we do not want to deny her the right to choose, but we don’t want her to choosethisThe Testament of Jessie Lamb is a test for us, filtered through what is, despite its plainness, one of the most challenging young adult voices I’ve encountered for some time. Nor, for the most part, does Rogers descend to caricature of the people surrounding her. The staff interviewing Jessie about enrolling in the trial, for instance, are painstakingly conscientious, “very grave, with a flat unemphatic way of talking” (p. 141), determined to ensure she is not being pressured into her choice. (Some of the feminists of FLAME are less convincing, admittedly.) So while at times it’s easy to be convinced by Jessie’s urgency, by her sense that something must be done now, and to see her as heroic, at other times that same urgency, Jessie’s inability to imagine a life or a purpose for herself in a world without MDS, seems to become messianic fanaticism, to the point where we can look at the novel’s frame and understand, without condoning, why Jessie’s parents (her mother is in on it) have taken the step of locking her up. When, near the end of the testament, Jessie’s father takes her to see some Sleeping Beauties in the flesh he is astounded that she can see peacefulness, because all he can see are zombies. In the end, I see zombies too; but for a moment, I was able to see both.

Niall identifies precisely the awful dilemma posed by Jessie and her narration: in a future in which no child can be born, since women die of Maternal Death Syndrome  in much fewer than nine months, hope is at a premium; and yet the hope obtained by Jessie, that by offering herself up as a sacrifice – her name, like much else in this novel, is not precisely allegorically subtle – can help bring into the world one of the vaccinated babies who will be immune to MDS, is a pyrrhic, fundamentalist’s victory. Indeed, Rogers walks a dangerous line in the light of the ‘pro-natalist’ noise in the USA, and whilst she is deft enough to avoid any endorsement of an anti-abortion agenda (as Niall points out, the reader is in fact forced to examine what pro-choice means), I’m not convinced her novel is quite supple enough to carry the whole weight of her conceit.

Much of this will come down – as Adam Roberts writes in his review of the Clarke Award shortlist, in the context of which Rogers must be seen as a potential winner – to how well the reader gets on with Jessie’s adolescent voice. Nic Clarke is convincing on the subject of its positive aspects, but it is hard for me not to reflect that, if Rogers has so successfully ventriloquised a teenager, she has also carried over the teen’s essential solipsism. As (and the names they keep a-dropping) David Hebblethwaite notes in the comments to Nic’s post, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a narrow sort of science fiction novel; in part, of course, this is because it hails from the literary ghetto, where things other than Niall’s “top-down dystopias” hold sway; but it is also, ultimately, because Jessie is a narrow kind of narrator. “I thought stuff on the news and the papers was for grownups,” she tells us early on. “It was part of their stupid miserable complicated world, it didn’t touch me.” [pg. 5]

The book is in large part a kind of bildungsroman in which Jessie learns you cannot disconnect from that complicated world. Within the short scope of the book, however, Jessie cannot gain the extra maturity necessary to deal with that epiphany: that is, she is old enough to know she must engage, but too young to engage well. The very passages which are so spot-on in terms of the adolescent perspective – “I keep coming back to that,” Jessie grumbles, “that tackiness of Mum and Dad’s lives, which is like treading in chewing gum. They say they believe things, then they don’t act upon them” [pg. 32] – are just the passages which lead Jessie’s adult readers to roll their eyes. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is an exercise in evoking sympathy not just for an unsympathetic perspective, but, from our own perspective, an unjustifiable one.

None of this is helped by Rogers’s depiction of the various causes to which Jessie and her contemporaries attempt to attach themselves. In an effort to find a purpose in a world which seems irreparable – indeed, at times I asked myself if Rogers even needed MDS, given the “wars, floods, famines” and climate change which offer extra texture to her teenagers’ disillusion – the young people Rogers chronicles try animal rights activism, green lifestyles and crude feminism. The former become terrorists, and the latter are caricatures which might have been daubed by a FOX News pundit- they picket research labs and hector audiences (“she called MDS the atom bomb of the sex war” [pg. 62]). Most damningly, the leader of the young greens proves to have quite other motivations for forming his group of teen carbon-busters. “What’s hard is being in someone else’s power,” says one character: Rogers’s point is that the teens must choose for themselves, but every response to the world which isn’t the incremental realism of Jessie’s father seems so thoroughly half-baked that the novel comes dangerously close to being a satire of teen foolishness.

Indeed, it is Jessie’s father who represents the real difficulty for adult readers of the novel: in an attempt to control his daughter’s apparently irrational behaviour, he chains her up and locks her in the house. What Rogers presents is a version of Emma Donoghue’s Room in which the father is a sympathetic figure: for Jessie, the apocalypse is primarily and absurdly about how energised she feels (“I began setting my alarm for 5.30 so I could get more done” [pg. 47]), and she is increasingly opposed to “the nastiness of science, the drugs and tubes and machines” [pg. 156]. In the context of a science fiction novel (and this must be how the novel is read given the Clarke context), this anti-scientific position is difficult to accept, particularly as Rogers gives a lot of time to the belief of Jessie’s father that, should her heroine wait a few years, a solution that does not involve her death will be found. That is, when Jessie’s boyfriend, aggrieved that she is considering leaving him behind, angrily wails, “What’s the point in loving anyone?” [pg. 202], the reader cannot help but begin to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb not as an argument for freedom of choice, but an argument against adolescent despair and histrionic self-sacrifice.

The fundamental tension in Jessie, then – simultaneously her right as an individual not constantly, as she is, to be dismissed as silly and foolish, and yet the patent fact that she is precisely that – is an unresolvable difficulty at the heart of the novel which bears her name. Rogers aims to achieve holistic sympathy, but too often her novel is instead simply uncertain, even confused. There are moments, however, where Rogers convinces us – “The future is an abstract concept, Jess,” her mother sighs, to which the teenager retorts, “No, it’s my child’s and my child’s child” [pg. 206] – and it’s here that her book’s value coheres. The science is not convincing, and there are the usual tics of mainstream SF – “Sounds like a science fiction nightmare,” one character chuckles knowingly [pg. 127] – whilst the certainties of Jessie’s narration (and of Rogers’s design) make for a story a little too inflexible to bend with the stiff winds at its core; but in its insistence that we think outside our own boxes – however uncomfortable this makes us – it is also a kind of call to arms.

“Your reality is my dream,” Jessie writes to her future child, “and I must lose my reality for you to become real.” [pg. 233]  That this destructive change upsets us is not necessarily a reason it mustn’t happen. Rogers’s novel – a little too narrow, a little too insistent – isn’t quite the perfect statement of this position, but ultimately it is a work of literary art, not a position paper, and Jessie’s voice is convincing precisely because it is partial. Over at Practically Marzipan, the novel worked more completely for Aisha than it did for me, but her description of it as “a deeply uncomfortable piece of writing” is spot on. I’m not sure The Testament of Jessie Lamb is quite robust enough to collect the gong – but it successfully troubles the mind for longer than perhaps any of its rivals.

 

 

Politics and Personality in “Game of Thrones”

There’s a curious discussion going on over at Strange Horizons, in the comments section of a two-headed review of HBO’s Game of Thrones. In his half of an assessment of the show’s first season, m’learned friend Niall Harrison opines that “Game of Thrones has managed to raise my political hackles in a way few Euromedievalesque fantasies do”, as a result of its quite brutal and breath-takingly ossified feudal political system. I had some responses to that, but regular enfant terrible S.M. Stirling got there first with not quite the words I might have used: “21st-century political sensibilities are just -utterly meaningless- in a feudal culture like this. The questions are not whether there will be a monarchy, but what type of monarch; not whether there will be lordship, but whether it will be ‘good lordship’ (a technical term in that context) or bad.” Abigail Nussbaum, the organ’s reviews editor, is spot on when she responds that this is absolutely not what is implied by the season’s depiction of persecution, prejudice and primogeniture.

Stirling’s soft-headed comment reveals more about how many in the modern day imagine ‘merrie olde England’ than it does the ways in which Game of Thrones defends itself against Niall’s entirely admirable knee-jerk reactions. I’ve just finished watching the first season – aided by a bout of manflu in the last few days – and it seems to me that the show’s whole trajectory is determined by the gravity of its leads’ charisma. As Eddard Stark, Sean Bean plays Sean Bean – a bluff, down-to-earth northerner who has sympathy with the lower orders and an innate nobility that manifests itself as a refusal to kow-tow to the smug consensus of the chattering class. He is the moral centre of the piece – even his Thomas More-style refusal to give up honour in favour of his life is cast aside for a more contemporary commitment to his nearest and dearest. (Not for the first time whilst watching this season, I was reminded of The Tudors, which had one of its very few successes in Jeremy Northam’s dignified portrayal of a More who stuck to the morality of his own time.)

In this way, Game of Thrones isn’t at all sited, as Stirling seems to argue, in the (and here you’ll excuse the pun) mores of its own invented period: in the at times overly precocious Arya Stark, we are presented with the sort of independent-minded young woman we’ve come to expect in modern period pieces (I entirely agree with Abigail’s negative assessment of Arya’s portrayal); in the storyline of Jon Snow, we have entitlement deconstructed by proximity to poverty; in one of the best scenes in the series, the ‘wildling’ woman Osha gets to skewer the oddness of Westeros’s political system, cannily utilising her supposed ignorance to cast its hypocrisies in high relief. In this, I’m closer to Nic than Niall, and in particular her analysis of the gender politics of the season is well worth a read: Game of Thrones attempts to make a virtue of the degragations many of its women go through in the course of its ten episodes, using them with variable effect to question and undermine the dominant mode.

Eddard Stark’s wife Catelyn, for instance, is played both fiercely and humanely by Michelle Fairley, in another of the show’s defining turns. Catelyn is not questioner of the Westeros system – indeed, she is deeply embedded within it and all too often wont to make overbearing use of it – but, at the same time, she exhibits love and mercy, characteristics very often in short supply in what is a violent, relentless world. Catelyn – ruddy, subdued, dark – is placed in stark contrast to Cersei Lannister, the Queen of Westeros and one of its vilest schemers. As Cersei, Lena Headey routinely receives direction which asks her to hide the character’s thoughts and feelings behind an inscrutable half-smile, and it is hard not therefore to assume theside the show might take in a contest between Ladies Lannister and Stark. (Though here I again defer to Abigail, who unlike me has read Martin’s novel and perceives some significant attempts on the part of the series to soften and justify Cersei’s Macchiavellian behaviour.)

There are other key turns which don’t fit so easily into a theory of the show’s moral centre, however. The always reliable Aiden Gillen offers real value as the amoral Master of Coin, Petyr Baelish, and of course Peter Dinklage’s Emmy-winning scene-chewing as the ambiguous Tyrion Lannister is a centrepiece of the season. This suggests a less than Manichean world-view on the part of the show’s writers, in which they neither wish us to accept Westeros as we find it, nor really to presume there is any quick fix or measure of objective good: one might remember King Robert’s complaint that he cannot rule as he wishes since he owes half his kingdom’s worth to the Lannister family’s coffers, and wonder how far removed from this our own system, warped and pervaded by big finance, might really said to be. Furthermore, the show is guilty itself of some unforgiveable slips – its presentation of the Dothraki as uncivilised savages, for instance, or its wasting of Esme Bianco’s steely Ros in scene of sexposition after scene of sexposition.

Which leads us back to Niall: “Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about the portrayal of the Dothraki horselords, as the only darker-skinned characters in the series, is that it’s deeply unfortunate.”  Ultimately, Game of Thrones is in this incarnation a souped-up I, Claudius: an at times stilted and “unfortunate” TV family saga set in a degraded world populated by repellent people, which gains its momentum from its cast. It is at times ponderous, and at others thoughtless. It works to cultivate a moral ambiguity, even relavitism, which might free its viewers from Niall’s political objections (though at times the viewer still cannot work up enthusiasm for any of these squabbling, selfish families). At the same time, it is far easier to gulp down than a lot of HBO fare because, despite its lovingly crafted fantasy worlds, it is somehow less dense, the dialogue always explaining, the action always reiterated. What keeps this lumpy, unwieldy thing rumbling on is that gravity of charisma . The show has visual flair, a sense of humour and a fine cast, and if fairly obviously the first season’s purpose was to spend the show’s initial moral compass spinning, that other centredness will be what keeps the show on course: it eases a forgiveness of all those sins.

Bookclub: “The Carhullan Army”

Sarah Hall was on Radio 4’s Bookclub programme this afternoon, discussing her novel The Carhullan Army. I rather agree with Niall over at Torque Control on the matter of that novel’s quality, although I’m not sure that the readers asking Hall questions were quite so bowled over – at least one just came out and said that they were frustrated by it. Her criticism was one which was made at the time of the book’s publication: The Carhullan Army is a short novel, and refuses to paint in very much of its background detail. It instead focuses, as Hall explains in the programme, on the emotional journey of its nameless point-of-view character, Sister, and on a gritty, earthy sense of place.

At least in part, this unconventional approach to speculative worldbuilding is explained by a slightly surprising admission Hall makes in conversation with James Naughtie: she has never read 1984. Everyone should read the book for purely political reasons, of course; but when Niall writes about the force of the novel’s “entry into the discourse of feminist utopia/dystopia”, he chooses his modifier wisely: Hall has read The Handmaid’s Tale, not George Orwell. Hall makes reference to the ‘dialogue’ of science fiction, but is vaguer on her own place within it.

The programme’s well worth a listen.

‘Mankind Collaborates’: The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Popular belief has it the old SF Masterworks covers were better. Popular belief is wrong.

The more books you read, the harder good reading becomes. Not because you grow bored, but because there is a danger of becoming complacent. The regular reader, the reviewer and perhaps most of all the critic must constantly guard against employing the same old filters to brand new books. Many books yield relatively easily to the regular reader; the temptation will always be to take the path of least resistance, employing the tools and methods you’ve used before to good effect. The self-conscious effort required not to do so may be doomed to failure, but it’s the first duty of the reader. Few books are so discombobulating that they don’t encourage one methodology or another.

Of the stories of Gene Wolfe, on the other hand, that eminent critic and uber-regular reader, John Clute, once wrote: “They make me feel as though I’ve read or wrestled with a story way outside my grasp, that I’ve somehow been translated to the innards, and that once inside find myself clinging to the inside walls of a building by Escher built of Braille.” This is very much how I feel having read for the first time Wolfe’s linked trio of novellas, collected under the title The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I was inspired by Martin over at Everything Is Nice, who identified a similar gap in his reading. “I was reminded of Sacsayhuamán,” he wrote of the novel, “its interlocking parts constructed so seamlessly that it shouldn’t be possible.”

This, too, is just right. The three novellas – ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, ‘”A Story” by John V Marsch’, and ‘V.R.T.’ – reflect and refract each other constantly. But the links are far from apparent – they must not just be teased but crow-barred out, ferreted and foraged for. I confess to pausing in my reading to trawl the web for secondary material, and in this I felt a little like the adventure gamer who sits at the screen with a walkthrough close to hand; but The Fifth Head of Cerberus demands re-reads, and, in the absence of those, what limited materials I found undoubtedly enhanced my appreciation of this tricksy work. At the same time, I’m not sure I trust the urge, most clearly exhibited in what I’ve seen by Robert Borski, to read The Fifth Head of Cerberus as a puzzle to be solved: where are the abos, who is John Marsch, what is Maitre? In his introduction to the new SF Masterworks edition, Adam Roberts (for it is he) resists this reading, and that is to his credit. The novel seems much stranger and more oblique than all that.

Wolfe’s prose style ranges, as Niall tweeted to me last night, “from dry to austere”, and this surprised me: everything I’d heard about the book, and my very experience of reading it, would have led me to expect elaborately, deliberately, rich language. Wolfe’s inspirations – Proust, Dante, the Bible – are indulgent in their use of language; The Fifth Head of Cerberus achieves a similar air of parable or poem without anything like the same technique. This is one of the many ways in which Wolfe defies the usual strategies of reading: though his novel has the feel of deeply symbolic myth, it is so matter-of-fact, so baldly itself, that it cannot properly be read as allegory or fable. There is something disconcerting in this, an uncertainty of understanding which is of course fitting for what can be read as a thoroughly ambivalent coming-of-age novel. The way the text shifts depending on your angle is a function of its refusal to be reduced to single readings and singular meanings: it is a novel full of duality, in which John Marsch is both human anthropologist and clandestine abo; this is its weird strength, the source of its impertience towards the usual methods.

I’m no fan of Seamus Heaney, but a line from his ‘Personal Helicon’ comes to mind: “I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” In the opening novella, Maitre, and all those clones before him, seek to achieve self-knowledge (and self-perfection) by endless repetition of themselves. What Wolfe achieves in his writing is a cacophonous echo chamber, in which allusion and elision repeatedly rebound around the reader. The darkness echos, then, loud and clear; but the meaning, the novel’s knowledge of itself, is one of eternally shifting shape.

Ursula Le Guin’s “Lavinia”

"Lavinia"

When you come to a widely-praised novel a year late, your expectations risk being unmatchable. The most exciting thing about Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, which I finished this week, is therefore that it not only met mine, but confounded them. I hadn’t read about the novel in detail, which perhaps helped; but largely Lavinia is simply a very special book. Until you have read it, I’m not sure your expectations could be quite right.

A few years ago, Margaret Atwood helped inaugurate the Canongate Myths series with The Penelopiad. A retelling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, left behind on Ithaca during his years of siege and sea-voyage. It was a bold if intermittently brittle feminist reclamation of its subject. “If you see someone you’d rather not speak to,” Penelope observes early in the book, “you can always pretend you haven’t recognised them.” [pg. 15] The implication is clear: this is what Homer did, and his readers, in following him, have also done. Penelope is merely in the way of the greater story of her fabulous husband. So we affect not to see her.

This is what you might expect from Le Guin, too: Lavinia, if anything, is even more elaborately over-looked by Virgil than Penelope by Homer. At least Odysseus’s missus (say it twelve-times fast) shows agency, putting off remarriage, and exhibiting much of her husband’s guile in setting a high bar for any suitor who wishes to win her. Lavinia, on the other hand, is practically a marginal note in Virgil, existing largely to provoke the Latin war between Aeneas and Turnus. One of the joys of Lavinia, though, is that Le Guin resists the obvious way to rectify this under-writing. “I am not the feminine voice you may have expected,” Lavinia warns us. “Resentment is not what drives me to write my story.” [pg. 65]

Le Guin’s Lavinia wants to do all she is expected to do – she wants to marry Aeneas, and wants to fulfil the role alotted to her by society and by fate. But none of this, crucially, is due to a lack of thought: Lavinia is an intensely reflective narrator, who considers and analyses all around her. Her voice is calm and even cool, flowing through the story serenely and confidently; it is the voice of a woman at home with herself, and committed to the benefit of those around her. This isn’t the feminine voice we may have expected, but it is gorgeously done – and thoroughly proper. Atwood’s Penelopiad, with its forced modernity and precocious narrator, felt at times like a game; Lavinia is never confected, and never rings false. It is, like Lavinia, fully itself, and fully realised.

In the first part of a discussion about the book, Nic Clarke, Jo Coleman, Niall Harrison, Abigail Nussbaum, and Adam Roberts spent some time going over what a familiarity with the Aeneid adds to a reading of Lavinia. In part, I’d argue, nothing: the novel is its own story, delivered with an immediacy of narrative which Virgil lacks (on which more shortly). On the other hand, knowledge of the world of the Aeneid might underline more than anything the extent to which Lavinia is part of it. A familiarity with this world, in which feminism as we understand is impossible, can help the reader become more alive to the book’s central project. The danger of the Atwoodian approach is to suppose that, if Penelope did not think and behave like Germaine Greer, then womanhood in distant periods of history was somehow incomplete. Le Guin does not accept this.

What Lavinia is, then, is a novel of co-existence. In the second part of that noble quintet’s colloquy, Adam Roberts memorably and perceptively separates Le Guin’s chosen mode, the narrative, from Virgil’s, the lyric. This distinction is a key to the novel, but I think it should not be taken too far – there are in Lavinia moments of intense lyricism, and passages deeply Virgilian in style. Lavinia is, as noted, reflective, constantly settling in the moment and finding in it a modest epiphany. Her exhortation to “go, go on” is certainly a statement of her storytelling style; but it is not, as it were, the full story. Lyric and narrative cohabit in Lavinia as womanhood and patriarchy do.

(Incidentally, there is, as Cheryl Morgan has noted, a vague discomfort in the novel with homosexuality, or perhaps more properly homoeroticism; but this, I think, as well as emphasising Lavinia’s deeply pre-modern conceptions of the world, is a condemnation not of Ascanius’s sexual preferences but his pursuit of the masculine to the exclusion of the feminine. Problems with this treatment remain, but it is in this sense thematically justified.)

The one choice of Le Guin’s I might properly dispute – and here I side with Nic Clarke in the, yes, third installment of that discussion – is her exclusion of the gods. In Lavinia, the gods are constantly evoked, indeed are a part of the fabric of the day-to-day, but do not appear as active participants as they do in the Aeneid. I find this curious – particularly as Le Guin inserts the time-travelling spirit of a dying Virgil into the narrative, and gives him the god-like abilities of foresight and the control of fate – and yet, if we accept co-existence as the novel’s key theme, then had Le Guin included the personified, active, fixed gods of Troy and Greece, she would necessarily have rejected the dispersed, passive, unlocated gods of the Latin peoples. Her novel takes place when one polytheistic tradition meets another, and holds the two in beautiful tension throughout. Had she followed Virgil this would have been impossible.

The Penelopiad begins by emphasising Penelope’s fictionality: “they [are] turning me into a story, or into several stories.” [pg. 3] Lavinia ends with Aeneas’s wife accepting her own immortality: “he [Virgil, of course] did not sing me enough life to die.” [pg. 249] The similarities between the two novels, and their awareness of the power of story, are clear, but Le Guin’s approach is immeasurably more sophisticated. Some have felt the final third of the novel sags, limping on as it does past the bounds of its great canonical forebear; I found it in its own way more compelling than the middle section, which owes most to Virgil. The poet’s story is greater than itself; once set in motion, it continues – though never ends – without him. As he recognises when perceiving Lavinia as a greater woman than the one he wrote, the poem has a life, a reality, beyond itself. Virgil is a god who cannot fully control the human drama laid before him. In other words, fate and agency possess a simultaneity with each other. The tripartite structure of the book – pre-poem, poem, post-poem – is in itself in a sort of balance.

Lavinia is a pastoral with the nostalgic, elegiac tone that term implies. Its nostalgia, however, is not for a rural, close-to-nature never never land, or even for a world in which empires and male power have flown out of control. It is nostalgic for the balance which inhabits its very structure. Aeneas’s heroism in Lavinia is in his even-handedness: his willigness to act, but his openness to reflection; his respect for women, but his necessary masculinity; his generosity to the Latins, but his championing of the Trojans. The novel’s is a nostalgia for that wisdom – for co-existence and co-habitation, for a world in which women and men are different but not opposed, in which religious differences are tolerated, and we each fulfil the duties we have to each other. That, too, may be a never never land, like all nostalgia a yearning more than a memory; but the Aeneid has only ever been a story.

Twitter and Difficulty

Hmm.

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.

The Girl With Glass Feet, by Ali Shaw

The Girl With The Glass Feet, by Ali Shaw

I usually try to write at (greater) length on a Friday, but I’m not sure my equivocal thoughts about Ali Shaw’s debut novel, The Girl With Glass Feet, quite support that. Allow me, then, the sin of appropriating the views of others as a frame. Plenty of reviewers have tackled this quirky, bleak little fantasy, not least Robin Romm in The New York Times: “The hybrid form of the book — fairy tale, myth, psychological realism and fantasy — impresses. But Shaw’s most delightful offerings are the vivid details he provides to make the magical real.” Certainly, one of the book’s great strengths is the telling detail, memorably expressed: “A black seabird dipped into the ocean like a nib dipping into an inkwell.” [pg. 181]

Shaw is very good at landscape and place in this way. The over-riding impressions of the novel derive from the grey, bleak mulchiness of St Hauda’s Land, the fictional northern islands on which his story is set.

From an aeroplane the three main islands of the St Hauda’s Land archipelago looked like the swatted corpose of a blob-eyed insect. The thorax was Gurm Island, all marshland and wooded hills. The next was a natural aqueduct with weathered arches through which the sea flushed, leading to the eye. That was the towering but drowsy hill of Lomdendol Tor on Lomdendol Island, which, local supposition had it, first squirted St Hauda’s Land into being. The legs were six spurs of rock extending from the south west coast of Gurm Island, trapping the sea in sandy coves between them. [pg. 22]

It goes on, but that gives the flavour: this sort of description is Shaw’s principal talent, and it is a significant source of pleasure, and the main source of character, throughout the novel. “I think places take hold of us and we become mere parts of the landscape, taking on its quirks and follies,” one character explains. [pg. 267]  This trick is expertly done. And yet I find it hard to echo Romm’s full-throated endorsement of the novel as a whole.  This despite the fact that, on the book’s back cover, Patrick Ness – a reviewer whom I was only a few days ago citing as a trusted source – assures me that “Ali Shaw has written a rare orchid of a book.” I find myself, in fact, closer to the position of that esteemed literary organ, the Metro: “Ali Shaw’s debut novel is a bravura conceit but it’s virtually weightless in execution, striving for a mythic depth it never achieves.” Strangely, ‘virtually weightless in execution’ is treated as a positive comment by the book’s blurb writers, and a part of that two star review appears on its cover. Perhaps there’s hope for Ness yet.

So why this equivocation, despite Shaw’s obvious talent? Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic, another reviewer more positive about book than I can be, puts it like this: the book’s “interesting cast of characters is not fully developed outside the main heroes.” I’d go further than that, and say that even Ida, the girl with the feet of glass, is under-developed; that, essentially, the book whose title she inspires is the story of the St Hauda’s Land native who falls for her, the socially awkward Midas Crook. The problem, though, is that – either deliberately or otherwise – Shaw’s prose matches in its scope a character who admits to himself that he is “plainly incapable of social interaction.” [pg. 220] All the character relationships are consequently written in the same brittle, spare way. I am happy to suppose that, in a book about the fragility and entropy of human relationships, this is a carefully selected, and ruthlessly executed, strategy. But it’s hard not only to care about, but to get to know, characters who are all quite so constipated.

“Quite, quite. I couldn’t agree with you more.”

“Yet you still don’t want him in your house. The two of you fell out, he said.”

“He hasn’t told you why?”

“No.”

“Did he … tell you anything at all?”

“Only that he’d found you. He said the two of you talked about his mother. He said you knew her once.”

“I … That is, I … ” He scratched his beard. “Did he tell you what I showed him in the bog?”

“No. What did you show him?” [pg. 166]

This exchange was taken at random – its style and content characterises most of the conversations which take place in the book. Shaw has moments of human observation as acute as those he reserves for the landscape (“He had wanted to kiss her but when the moment arose his head had been yanked away as if nerves were a bridle.” [pg. 197]), but they are too few and far between. The unfortunate consequence of this strain is that his female characters recede into the distance, whilst only the male characters who are his real protagonists come into Shaw’s overly harsh and excluding focus.

Even Ida seems almost to exist merely to precipitate the plot. Her character is largely flat and expressed in terms of clear and straight-forward desires: to be cured of her condition, or for “a warm body at her side and some recognition that she was alive.” [pg. 199] Naturally, it is Midas who is the focus of this unambiguous desire. More problematically, it is only he and his other males – his deceased father, or the conflicted Carl – who are asked the complicating questions. Kari Sperring at Strange Horizons has rolled out this issue rather well: “I don’t know if I enjoyed The Girl with Glass Feet, although I admire it and I’m glad to have read it. […] Everyone suffers in this book, but the women suffer most while the men (or at least some of them) achieve some level of understanding and enlightenment.” If the book is against this objectification, it is so only obliquely.

Over at Torque Control, Niall is positive about the book, although you detect something of a wish on his part that he didn’t have to be. He’s right that The Girl With Glass Feet is a challenging read, but he’s also right to feel a little uncomfortable about it: even if it is doing what it does deliberately, I’m not sure that is a defence of either its problematic execution or its consequently dubious gender politics. Even if both are a function of its sceptical vision of people, and that vision is certainly a compelling one worthy of exploration, Shaw’s execution speaks of a lack of balance: he allows his story no countervailing view,  no opposite movement, and this makes it less rich than it might have been. To return to Romm, however, he on the other hand seems spot on in his conclusion: “The end of the book, saturated with color and emotion, is risky and brave like the message it imparts. Only a heart of glass would be unmoved.”

The ending, despite all the awkwardness that has gone before it, is indeed a devastatingly well executed bit of writing. Shaw is, on the strength of that last-minute save alone, one to watch. But perhaps he needs to allow his at times quite beautiful prose a little more room to breathe.

Even A Pawn May Checkmate A King: ‘In Great Waters’

"In Great Waters" by Kit Whitfield

“I thought you meant to begin by umanning me,” admits Henry, the bastard half-breed protagonist of Kit Whitfield’s second novel, In Great Waters. He is speaking to Anne, a legitimate half-breed who is third in line to the throne of England. It’s a curious construction Henry uses: not only are neither he nor Anne entirely human; the genitals of which he is in fear are one of the more human things about him. Henry has just accused Anne’s murdered mother, Queen Erzebet, of wantoness: “He had not really meant that Erzebet fucked landsmen; if he thought about it, this girl must have been the child of a half-caste, her parents the children of half-castes, back and back, generations of hobbling spiders like her. She had understood what he meant, which was odd in itself; John or Allard would have frowned, made him explain.” [pg. 224]

Questions of otherness and similarity, race and ‘purity’, resonate throughout this accomplished novel. Henry and Anne are at such loggerheads on only their second meeting because their interests have been opposed, by the John and Allard Henry recalls above: the throne to which Anne has a claim has a weak royal family, populated beneath an elderly king by enfeebled men and youthful girls; Henry, washed up on the shore and discovered by Allard, represents a rival claim to that throne – a figurehead behind whom an army of renewal might rally.

Whitfield’s medieval England exists in an alternative past, in which the seas are inhabited by what appear to be adapted humans, deepsmen, who – following an invasion of Venice in the 9th century – have come, through interbreeding with the royal houses of the ‘landsmen’, to dominate European courts. (Only the landlocked ‘Switzers’ have fully human kings.) Simply put, alliances with deepsmen – possible only through half-breeds because of the vast linguistic and cultural differences between deepsmen and landsmen – are the sole means of establishing secure borders against rival states. A strong monarchy, as was of course the case in our own medieval world, is therefore crucial. Anne’s enervated family are ill-equippped to defend England; Henry, untainted by the consequences of in-breeding, represents a stronger future. The alternate history is too total to allow for exact parallels – is this the War of the Roses or the Northern Rebellion? – but the echo of all medieval unrest is here.

The novelty of the concept, then, is skilfully handled, deepened and textured throughout: this is no excuse for a generic fantasy with medieval trappings, but instead the placement of a recognisable medieval mindset upon a different world. Kari Sperring questions the novel on the basis of Whitfield’s assumption of “political stagnation”; the medieval world was neither stagnant nor uncreative, but it was fond of systems, precedent and order – Whitfield dramatises this nicely. If she doesn’t quite explain how Christianity – which, through the sympathetic character of Bishop Samuel Westlake, features heavily – remains in a recognisable form despite the total absence of the deepsmen from its sacred text and theology, she does much to show how a medieval world might have accomodated them. This refusal to reshape – but instead to adapt – is also shared by the novel’s characters, and, though at times a poorly wrought adaptation might let down a reader and appear as fudge, I think Niall Harrison is right to detect a Darwinian subtext to all this.

Indeed, the principle pleasure of the novel beyond its conceit is the way in which Whitfield shows Henry and Anne building their worldviews around their circumstances – adapting. A good chunk of the novel deals with Henry’s education by Allard, which proceeds fitfully because the deepsman’s mind is not adapted to concepts and dialogue in the way that the landsman’s is: “Understand, in Henry’s mind, was a word of imprisonment.” [pg. 41] Placing herself in a venerable literary tradition (Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea comes particularly to mind, but so too might The Seafarer or Moby Dick), Whitfield’s sea is unknowable and untameable, and her deepsmen accept this by speaking a booming, musical language of simple commands and warnings, unadorned with the proprietary aspect of defintion. But Anne, too, though from birth more part of the landsman’s world than the deepsman’s, must be educated about the world – in her case towards a broader and more flexible view of people and all, good and ill, of which they are capable.

Henry and Anne thus ultimately meet halfway – a marriage of convenience to save a monarchy. At times, alas, Whitfield is as awkward as her central couple: her exposition, in particular, is often poorly handled, and too often a character’s epiphany is experienced as an internal question-and-answer session. So on the level of technique In Great Waters is less impressive than it is on the level of concept. It is still, however, a solidly written novel with three good characters (Henry, Anne and Westlake), a colourful, if occassionally one-note, supporting cast, and a robust, memorable world. As Martin Lewis implies at The SF Site, the book is a confident and entertaining entry in the human-as-alien/learning-the-world stable of SF&F novels; Owen Jones, too, has the book’s number when he says at SFF World that, “With any number of reasons why this novel could have failed, many inherent to the type and style of story chosen, this is a highly crafted piece worthy of a far more experienced writer.”

All of this suggests (though Martin in particular stretches further in his review) a book which is competent but not explosive: Whitfield has written a thoughtful and entertaining novel which may at times lack elan but never good intentions. It’s hard, then, not to like In Great Waters. It is also a book with a good deal to admire about it – although ultimately you may be more fond of than impressed by it.