“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 Miéville’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.

“Puzzle Out The Results”: Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice”

ancillary justiceHere’s how my review of Ann Leckie’s rapturously-received – and Clarke-shortlisted – debut novel originally began:

I don’t get it. Ancillary Justice is by no means a bad book: it is competent, even rigorous, and despite some extensive longeurs it is also in places pacey and handily plot-driven. It has a certain singularity of voice, and something to say with it. It manages to tackle some big issues – gender, artificial intelligence, gestalt consciousness – with a real lightness of touch, an unshowy seriousness. It is solid. But I don’t get it.

The buzz for Anne Leckie’s debut novel has been, in tonal quality, closer to a thrumming bass note from a Marshall stack. From advance notice to considered think pieces, reviewers have fallen over themselves to get excited about this big oil’ slice of space opera, as if its mix of interplanetary romance and high-concept mil-SF really is something to write home about. To take the temperature of large parts of SF fandom on the topic of this novel has been to send the mercury soaring. It has been, in fact, rather like the hoop-la a couple of years ago around the US publication of Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, a book with which, since it has now been published in the UK, Ancillary Justice has quirkily enough found itself competing on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.

Nevertheless, I’m not ooh-ing. My aahs are muted at best. I do not think Leckie has written a book as good as the punchily patchy God’s War, much less one about to reinvent the genre’s ratty old wheel. I don’t get it.

And, then, dear reader, I paused. I ruminated. I checked the jerking of my knee. I’m as up for offering entertainment in the form of wilful gadflyery as (more than) anyone, but my tastes are so often peripheral not just to ‘core’ fandom but a certain literary subset of it that for once – just for once, mind – I wanted to understand. So I fired up Google, and I found Nina Allan at Arc.

Oh, frabjous day.

Leckie […] embraces the [science fiction] mission statement fully. Ancillary Justice gives us teeming galaxies, evil empires, a version of warp drive, and all without a hint of irony as the commonly accepted imagery of the particular version of SF that ranges itself against the mainstream as “a literature of ideas”.

When examined up close, however, the ideas contained in Ancillary Justice seem disappointingly simple: empires are evil, class systems are oppressive, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ancillary Justice is an SF novel of the old school: tireless in its recapitulation of genre norms and more or less impenetrable to outsiders.

The novel I happened to read immediately after Ancillary Justice was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Both novels are debuts, both are the first instalment in a trilogy. Both deal with far future empires, both have war as a central leitmotif, both have important things to say about society, faith and gender. At a surface level at least it would appear that these two books have much in common, but in fact, I would argue, they are different beasts entirely.

Allan has written her review so that I don’t have to, nailing all the ways in which Ancillary Justice underwhelms: in its characterisation, in its prose, in the execution of its core conceits. She even makes that same comparison with God’s War, pointing out what a properly adventurous debut novel really looks like (the comparison is made all the more damning for Leckie when one considers that Hurley’s effort is itself far from flawless). Here is a novel which routinely inserts its worldbuilding just after a character makes a reference to it: “I’m having trouble imaging you doing anything improper,” one says to another, before Leckie informs us that, “The word was weighted in Radchaai, part of a triad of justice, propriety and benefit.” This simultaneously offers a pretence of depth and the nagging feeling that we are less inhabiting a world and more taking a tour around it. Likewise, dialogue again and again services the plot – characters speak in the same voice, primarily to tell us how to interpret events and where they may next be headed (“It started at Garsedd,” another character explains to yet another. “She was appalled by what she’d done, but she couldn’t decided how to react.” “Oh,” the other doesn’t – but may as well – say. “OK.”)

One one level, perhaps all this is deliberate: Ancillary Justice is set in a quasi-fascistic empire in which to be civilised is to conform totally, and around which we are directed by Breq, a first person narrator who was once merely a tiny component in a gestalt intelligence. Breq is Pinocchio – a Spock or Data figure who was once an outpost of a spaceship’s AI and who may well now, it is strongly implied, be capable of a kind of personhood, about to transmute into a real girl or, since genders are often satisfyingly uncertain in this book, boy. It is in this addition of just a dash of zest to a hoary, tired old conceit that Leckie’s project is most evident: she is not reinventing science fiction so much as holding up a mirror to the genre’s best possible side. Allan suggests that Leckie hasn’t written her novel with anything like a commercial motivation, and in many ways that’s true of what is ultimately a rather awkward debut; but I’d also ask what novel better rushes to the aid of a core genre more embattled than usual, defending itself from all sorts of accusations of gender bias, from the assaults of new fangled literary modes and speculative writers not entirely interested in the genre itself; by new means of production and new forms and fora of criticism. Why, how much that core genre needs a novel from its own patch which doesn’t use the male pronoun. Cue predictably rapturous joy. “We can do this,” cry the SF massive. “We are not yet defeated.”

None of which is necessarily bad, but some of which goes a little way to understanding why Ancillary Justice has been hyped beyond its capacity to fulfil expectations. If it is not quite pedestrian, it is a gently jogging novel with some nice ideas but a ponderous style. The excitement around a book like this reminded me of the work of Algris Budrys, some of which I recently reviewed for Vector but which has also been considered in much the same vein by Paul Kincaid, for Foundation and, briefly, on his own blog: in the 1970s and 1980s, as Kincaid writes, Budrys read science fiction through “a series of columns that turn again and again to John W. Campbell, Lester Del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein and a host of writers of the same era”. In much the same way, Ancillary Justice does not feel like a new work of science fiction, but rather as a zeitgeisty iteration of the same old same old. (Lila Garrot at Strange Horizons, in a review full of praise for the book: “The novel’s core questions, such as the meaning of personhood in a world containing artificial intelligences and the meaning of individual identity in a world containing multi-bodied minds, are not new to speculative fiction, but they are combined in ways which shed new light on them, and Leckie never allows anything to resolve into a simple answer.”)

This leaves the Clarke Award looking more like a commemoration of what science fiction likes than it often prefers to seem: where Ancillary Justice ports SFnal conceits, it doesn’t transform or even bend them out of shape very much. It’s comforting and well-meaning all at the same time. On that level, at least, perhaps I do get it, after all.

The Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to unexpected surprises.

“How Can Such Things Even Be Happening?” Bulawayo, Ozeki, and the Booker

I mentioned, in my first pair of reviews drawing from this year’s Booker shortlist, the sad omission by the judges of M John Harrison’s superb Empty Space. This was a novel, it seemed to me, with all the poignancy and pregnancy the Booker seeks to reward, replete with the subtle craft and canny artistry it likes to encourage. In the comments to a recent post on the blog of science fiction author Adam Roberts, himself a previous recipient of the shoulda-woulda-coulda SF Booker badge, the estimable Matt Cheney agrees:

By your criteria here, it would be hard to make a case for even, say, Harrison’s Empty Space to make it to the list — and I think it certainly deserved to be there. But it’s complex, difficult, allusive, elusive. Certainly not primitivist, unless “primitivist” is stripped of much meaning.

The comment is part of a discussion about the criteria Cheney mentions, a set of propositions Roberts establishes in an attempt to argue not just for the importance of Young Adult fiction but for its primacy in contemporary literary culture. There’s a lot in Roberts’s post to like – I’m particularly intrigued by his idea that education and school represents a dominant strand of post-modern experience – but his position on YA seems unusually wobbly. This has led Nina Allan, who shares my admiration for Roberts’s criticism, to wonder if he isn’t, gadflyishly, playing Devil’s advocate; Allan also pre-empts most of my quibbles with the original post, but I wonder if encoded within it – and implicit in Allan’s response – is a more compelling ‘great definer’ of our age. But more of that anon.

a-tale-forthe-time-beingFor the moment, it’s worth sticking with YA, not least because Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being reads a good deal like fiction aimed at teens for a good part of its length. Half of its pagecount is handed over to Nao, a Japanese adolescent whose diary is found by Ruth, an American writer living on a sparsely inhabited island in Desolation Sound. In reading Nao’s journal, Ruth comes to feel impossibly close to the teen’s stories first of dotcom bubble prosperity in Silicon Valley, then poverty back home in Japan when her depressive father loses his job and takes to placing ill-fated bets as a means of maintaining the family income. Nao’s narrative truly revolves, however, around Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who is also Nao’s improbably wise grandmother.

Into this tale therefore enters the concept of Oneness: Jiko’s philosophy is filtered through Nao’s naivety (“everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap” [pg. 6]), resulting in a good deal of restatements of the gnomically obvious. “Being a Buddhist,” Nao tells us of Jiko, “she really understands impermanence and that everything changes and nothing lasts forever.” [pg. 27]   This Cliff Notes approach to Jiko’s beliefs infuses Nao’s half of the novel, in which we are treated to related wit and wisdom ranging across a number of contemporary hot topics: “Everybody in California has ADD, and they all take meds for it, and they’re constantly changing their prescriptions and tweaking their dosages” [pg. 161]; “September 11 is like a sharp knife slicing through time” [pg. 265]; “all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting” [pg. 26].

There’s a reductiveness to a lot of this which characterises the worst kind of YA, the type rolled out by lofty adults to help young people understand what it means to be proper people. (Not for the first time, m’learned friend Martin Lewis nails this problem with concision and vim.) Nao’s passages start off promisingly – the first chapter in particular reads freshly and cheekily, and made me genuinely excited for the novel – but it never really deepens or complicates itself. We might assume, then, that Ozeki simply suffers from the same malady which afflicts many such writers when slumming it by writing from a teen perspective: she simply doesn’t capture the sophistication of the voice. The difficulty is that this is true, too, of Ruth’s passages, albeit in a different way. They very often take the form of dialogues between her and another character – most often another improbably wise interlocutor, her husband Oliver.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“She says she’s writing it for you. So do you feel special?”

“That’s ridiculous,” Ruth said.

“Speaking about garbage,” Oliver said, “I’ve been thinking about the Great Garbage Patches recently …”

“The what?”

“The Great Eastern and Great Western Garbage Patches? Enormous masses of garbage and debris floating in the oceans? You must have heard about them … ”

“Yes,” she said. “No. I mean, sort of.” It didn’t matter, since he clearly wanted to tell her about them. [pg. 35]

This format is fitting for the book Ozeki has written – which is essentially a disputation, a didact’s philosophy primer – but it grinds wearyingly on over the space of a 400+ page volume that insists upon presenting as a novel. Of course, the diary-reading and letter-writing at the heart of this story – emails and blogs feature, too, but only as spruced-up accoutrements to what is a fairly traditional epistolary structure – are all a metaphor for the act of creation undertaken in collaboration by a reader and a writer. Ruth and Nao are in a mystical way the same person, forming (in the oneness of the – geddit? – now) their story together. This is gratingly obvious early on, and the digressions and multiplying frame narratives Ozeki employs to complicate this schematic endeavour don’t sufficiently distract from a core predictability. By the 400th page – when, of course, Oliver reveals all (“the superposed quantum system persists, only, when it is observed, it branches” [pg. 397]), it comes as both relief and let-down. Perhaps this is true primarily for readers of novels like M John Harrison’s; perhaps there are those for whom the Ozeki will come as a revelation; but one wonders why a novel in the footsteps of Jostein Gaarder trumps a more complex novel with the same quantum-philosophical base.

We-Need-New-NamesWhich might return us to Roberts’s thoughts: “No SF? No YA? No Crime? Insular, backward looking shortlist.” Except that Roberts does not consider SF’s science to be as vital as YA’s, well, youth. Indeed, in his trio of defining contemporary characteristics, Roberts places technology on the lowest rung. Above it but below youth, in the role of our age’s Ronnie Barker, he sites globalisation. With self-conscious finesse, then, I direct your attention to NoViolet Bulawayo’s tilt at the Booker, We Need New Names.

Darling is another young girl in unfortunate circumstances: in her case, she and her single mother (who operates, at the edge of Darling’s understanding, as an occasional sex worker) live in a Zimbabwean shanty town known drolly as Paradise. She and her friends spend their days causing trouble and playing Find Bin Laden (all these international children are so interested in the War on Terror, one finds), stealing intermittently into the better parts of town to grab fruit from trees and gaze, wide-eyed, at the privilege they cannot quite imagine, “the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on” [pg. 2]. Globalisation, then, touches their lives in a myriad ways: the well-heeled visitor from London who will “throw food away” as if it’s nothing [pg. 7], the charity workers who arrive at the village without the language, who dole out rations and are mocked by the children; the teachers who have “left to teach over in South Africa and Botswana and Namibia and them, where there’s better money” [pg. 31]; and, finally, the family members who have already escaped to America, to work as cleaners and orderlies in luxury quite alien to Darling’s contemporaries.

Indeed, Bulawayo spends a lot of time in the first half of her novel on the degradations which contrast so vividly with these glimpses of the West: the woman with AIDS who hangs herself, and whose corpse is found, dangling, by the young tearaways; the girl who is pregnant with her grandfather’s child, having been repeatedly raped; the sinister village preacher, the satisfyingly monikered Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, who accuses women of witchcraft and demonic possession in order to abuse them. “There is just no sense in being afraid when you live so near the graves,” Darling says [pg. 132], and there is certainly an air of resignation to Bulawayo’s work. When Darling flies to America to join a relative there, her life – and the prose style itself – changes utterly. We Need New Names proceeds from Bulawayo’s Caine-winning short story ‘Hitting Budapest‘, which is here the first chapter, but the book takes a huge swerve at its centrepoint, shifting from a demotic, almost innocent style, to a breathless, almost bitter one: “If I were at home I know I would not be standing around because something called snow was preventing me going outside to live life.” [pg. 153]

This doesn’t lead very far, however: Darling watches pornography with her new group in America and grows into awkward adolescence; she dismisses the pain of a friend who is physically assaulted by her boyfriend (“I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis” [pg. 218]); and she returns to her village to be scolded and rejected by her former friends. All this, as in A Tale for the Time Being, is much as you’d expect, a sort of grand thematic tour. On the other hand, it is also written with more clarity and playfulness than Ozeki’s novel, and though it is in its own way just as insistent, it is much less didactic – because much more sprightly. Still, I find it hard not to agree, insofar as it is possible or reasonable for me to do so, with Helon Habila in the Guardian: “To perform Africa […] is to inundate one’s writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense.” Bulawayo has one of Darling’s childhood friends counter this accusation – “You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on?” [pg. 285] – but in her clear and understandable desire to document the deprivations of a country often invisible to inhabitants of the one to which Darling emigrates, she does somewhat load her novel with precisely the negative resignation one assumes she wishes to eschew.

Bulawayo ends We Need New Names on an ugly image of a dog crushed by traffic on a Zimbabwean road; her final sentence, however, emphasises the “delicious, delicious smell of Lobells bread” which wafts across the scene, as if – aha – to leaven the darkness, to emphasise that all in Africa is not dead dogs in the road. In her second novel, one hopes she succeeds in better achieving that balance. One worries, however, that Philip Hensher is right: that the inclusion from 2014 of American novels in the Booker race will hollow out the prize, render ever more predictable its shortlist; already, in three of these six shortlisted novels (the two reviewed here and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), America acts as a prism through which more particular struggles are viewed. Hensher, I think, over-eggs his pudding, but concern about a flattening-out is valid: in his own Booker post, after all, Roberts notes that the youth culture he sees as permeating and defining our particular moment was “invented to relieve young people of their pocket money in the 1950s”; in her response to the post, Nina Allan points out that YA is written not for young adults but for “the young adult market“. The characteristic of our age – as Darling, imprisoned in her shanty town and pining for “the TV, the large radio, the beautiful things we don’t know” – is not the youth Nao and Darling share, but the commodification which places intolerable pressures on the lives of all around them, the packaging and repackaging of stuff. Selling to markets is the sine qua non of our technological, globalised, youth-obsessed culture, one in which leisure time expands and is filled not by more time for reflection but by more product – not by what Roberts calls ‘clever clever’ art, but by accessible mass media.

The Booker, one hopes, won’t reward books which play to those pressures.

On Negative Reviews

Strange Horizons has my review of Anthony Huso’s Black Bottle. It is not kind:

All this leaves the story mired in accident, and it becomes difficult to draw out salience from the glutted page. The withered attempts to enliven what are at times indecipherable proceedings, to jump on a bandwagon which has itself long since become part of the generic landscape, fail to do for Huso’s story what Sena does for Caliph Howl—revive it. The early matching of Pandragor with the USA—it suffered a Civil War in ’61 and perceives itself to be “the freest country north or south of the Tehesh Plateau” (p. 38)—come to very little, perhaps because by its very nature the novel itself isn’t capable of very much. Either way, however, Black Bottles‘s focus turns rapidly inwards—to sexing-up magic or telling Westerosian tales of aristocratic derring-do. We have seen this done before and better, and reading Huso is to be left wondering what the point was.

I once had a reputation for being a shark of a reviewer – though Nina Allan recently, and generously, placed me in the same tent as Paul Kincaid, John Clute, Matthew Cheney and Messrs McCalmont, Harrison and Lewis, so I’m not sure whether this is still the case – and it’s possible, what with reviews like this one, that some might imagine I enjoy writing hatchet jobs. Certainly there’s a satisfaction to turning a decent argument, but ultimately there’s very little joy in reading a book you don’t like and then having to ‘fess up about it. Black Bottle has a lovely cover and some decent blurb – I cracked the spine expecting, and wanting, to like it. That wasn’t to be.

Richard Cooper blogged recently on “the tricky but interesting position of trying to bring the language of criticism – heartfelt, individualistic, provocative, unashamed – into the world of fandom”. There’s a professionalism – and a respect – about finishing a book you don’t enjoy and then being honest enough to say why. Cooper deals at length with the resistance in Doctor Who fandom to this kind of approach to discussing a writer’s work, but what he says is true for much of SF&F fandom – in fact Paul Kincaid, he not just of Allan’s admiration but of the exhaustion meme I mention in the Huso review, tweeted that, “I’ve been on the receiving end of this [hostility to criticism] way too often”. Kincaid is a grand old man of SF&F reviewing – if his criticism is considered too harsh, my negativity must at times seem positively malicious.

In fact, it isn’t. Some of my favourite works of fiction are SF&F – but the genre disappoints more than it enlightens, and a comparison with work from outside of the ghetto walls – I agree with Martin Lewis that “I  get a sensawunda from literary fiction more frequently than SF” – does not help books like Huso’s. All of this is by way of thinking the obvious out loud, though since my policy on negative reviews has never been to sin the sin of the soft-pedal it’s worth writing it down. Most importantly, you should contribute to Strange Horizons’s fund drive – because the magazine consistently supports honest, robust and useful criticism of precisely the kind many SF&F sites avoid like the plague.

“It’s Important To Pay Attention to the Details”: Sam Thompson’s “Communion Town”

In the spirit of equal opportunities, and having poked Christopher Priest’s review of Jack Glass last week, I suppose I should start this post by picking a fight with a review by Adam Roberts. It isn’t easy to find fault with his recent blog post about Sam Thompson’s debut, Booker longlisted novel, Communion Town (it is more accurately a sequence of ten linked short stories), and much of what you’ll read here is eminently sensible; but it’s also a shade more positive than I might be about to make my own review. “Will Thompson win the Booker Prize?” Roberts asks. “Maybe, though not with this novel.” The good Professor resolves that Thompson has promise, but that Communion Town is an immature expression of it. I might correct this view immediately by suggesting that Communion Town seems to me to have rather a looser grip on itself (oo-er) that that position might suggest, except for Nina Allan at Strange Horizons:

these finely wrought stylistic essays are much more than literary jokes. Far from having a laugh at genre’s expense, the stories in Communion Town are more like love letters, declarations of allegiance in which Thompson demonstrates that he is a writer of genuine quality. He brings situations and characters to life with wit and panache, yet the underlying melancholy and uncertainty in these tales mean that they are also replete with a genuine emotion. Thompson’s “ear” for nuance and style is, quite frankly, extraordinary. His considerable linguistic dexterity allows him to pay homage to the styles of past masters even as he critiques them.

My own experience of the book was of its essential thinness, however. How to reconcile these two readings? I’m not sure it’s possible, but allow me at least to illustrate the counter-argument. Communion Town is replete with characters, voices and genres – each of the ten stories features a different combination – and yet it feels weirdly static. It is simultaneously chock-full of the variety Allan praises, and entirely without it. In large part, I think, this is a function of the unearned quality which so much of Thompson’s writing seems to own. Sometimes, this is the result of a resort to cheap effect: the second story, a faintly adolescent romance with added (poorly evoked) songwriting, begins: “The first time we met, she was climbing into a rickshaw” [pg. 29]; barely a few lines later, we learn that it is the narrator’s rickshaw into which the woman in question is climbing, the indefinite article employed not in line with an internal logic of narration, but in order to catch us short when our narrator turns out to be a poor person. At other points, it’s a matter of giving into the temptation of over-simplistic pastiche: in ‘The Significant Case of Lazarus Glass’, Thompson has his Holmesian protagonist say, “It is in any case a nice knot, this business with Lazarus, not without certain points of interest.” [pg. 195]   Quoting is not the same as evoking.

There is also an extent to which the, to use Roberts’s nomenclature, Pratchett-Harrison-Gaiman-Miéville line followed by Thompson  is neither as vividly nor as carefully drawn here as it is in the work of his forebears. The city in which the metro station of Communion Town can be found is not just London – it is also Paris and Istanbul, Rio and Atlantis. It is a hodgepodge, an at times wilfully allegorical place: “You might spend a lifetime in the city and never glimpse one, if you’re lucky,” we learn of the monsters that inhabit the city, “but few of us escape the occassional reminder of their presence.” [pg. 8]   I might have had issues with China Miéville’s concretising of this metaphor-for-homelessness in The City & The City, but it at least had the virtue of courage. For all the glimpses we receive of the geography of Thompson’s city – the student quarter here, the playground of the rich and famous there – there remains something of the ingénue about it: teasing, and ultimately rather vapid. Thompson foregrounds this habitual withholding in his story ‘Outside The Days’ (“Something had been waiting for him in the derelict house. He didn’t want to describe it.” [pg. 236]), but, tellingly, that story ultimately comes across as a lyrical description of water-treading.

Barring the clangs of generic bum notes, in fact, Thompson’s prose is his principle ally. In ‘The City Room’, a story featuring a small boy who builds a model of the urban space in his bedroom, he tidily captures the mindset of its protagaonist in a scene set in a toyshop: “He wanted a goody but he did not know which were which: they looked at one and his grandmother said it must be a goody because the baddy would not have such a sad expression on his face. He agreed. One figure was a girl, the only girl allowed in Captain Maximum’s team. He did not look at her in case his grandmother noticed.” [pg. 88]   Or here, closing the elegiac ‘A Way To Leave’: “As the rooms darkened, early evening light came up in the windows and faded from blue to grey, offering a last view of the heath and the rooftops. She took the pocket street atlas from the drawer of the hall table, then changed her mind and put it back. She buttoned her coat, and, after consideration, left a lamp on in the hall.” [pg. 278]

This is elegant, pregnant stuff. But it is also insistent: the goody and baddy palaver, the heavy symbolism of putting a map back in a drawer. In ‘Good Slaughter’, a man who makes his living butchering animals takes up precisely the criminal pastime you might expect. ‘Gallathea’, meanwhile, has what Roberts rightly calls “a slightly clumsily ventriloquized Chandler tone”. It’s all a bit pat, a tiny bit safe. Despite this, few of the stories stand up outside of the supporting novelistic architecture, which is itself rather slim. There is, in other words, a sense of a simultaneous absence and profusion of consideration: on the level of the sentence, too intent on emphasising the purpose, if not the plot, of the story; and on the level of the world, far too little focus on real material weight.

In ‘Three Translations’, a story featuring something like a gap year student which turns out – surprise! – to be about foreignness, the narrator’s visiting friend opines that “she hated this city that made her seem so stupid” [pg. 180]. One wonders if this isn’t what Thompson wants us all to feel, and whether we are meant to conclude that the problem with the visitor is that she finds this experience discomfiting: embrace, we are exhorted, the bewildering unknowability of the city. This isn’t quite what Thompson gives us in practice, however: coyness isn’t the same as mystery. In ‘The Rose Tree’, the narrative revolves around what is imparted when a man on an evening walk meets a strange creature: “It told him a secret. A story about itself, that was what it told him. Later, the details escaped him completely.” [pg. 249]   This is less learning from unknowability, more revelling in it.

Ultimately, the reader experiences Communion Town as a kind of semiotic limbo. Thompson is good at atmosphere, and provoking this feeling may well have been his intent: if so, he is indeed a talented writer as Roberts suggests. But one wonders what kind of a talent this is, and whether Thompson will need (and here perhaps I arrive at last on the same page as Nina Allan) to develop its effect  if he is to make good on its promise.