“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.

“Argument Against Usefulness”: Christopher Priest’s “The Islanders”

Like so many others, when reading a novel I hold the book in one hand and a pencil in the other. I underline and scribble, and, modest though my marginalia may be, the act of scrawling helps me wend a way through the prose. There are, however, times when a book is so involving, confounding or both that the pencil is cast aside for a second read: no amount of exclamation marks beside the text will help when a text reads at first so elusively.

Christopher Priest’s The Islanders is one such novel. My last book of 2011, it was also one of the strangest. Indeed, it has troubled reviewers, leaving Le Guin frustrated, Adam Whitehead of The Wertzone with self-contradictory fragments, and even the inestimable Adam Roberts mostly searching for comparators. On one level, this is simply a function of Priest’s formal invention: not a narrative, and not a collection of short stories, The Islanders is a kind of travelogue – it features alphabetical entries guiding the readers around the various outcrops of the Dream Archipelago, a location of dubious reality which has cropped up before in Priest’s work. At the same time, however, it features several longer entries which do not pretend to guide or inform, but read more like traditional vignettes told from and by a range of views and voices: characters mentioned in a gazetteer piece recur as the first-person singular of a narrative passage, or artists described and located in the guidebook sections are complicated and humanised in extracts from a piece of journalism or a judicial report.

It is, then, hard to know how to read The Islanders (thus the enforced vacation for my pencil hand). What might it mean, for instance, to follow the REFERENCES clearly indicated in the text, to treat this novel as hypertext rather than start at page one and go forwards? Should we hang our interest on the peaks of narrative which rise above the topographical detail, following the relationship of the reclusive novelist (and author of The Islanders‘ introduction), Chaster Kammeston, and the revered social revolutionary known to the public only as Caurer? Can we read this novel, as we did The Prestige, as a story about public rivalry, doubled identity and the cost of creation, and is the murder of a stage magician part of that tale or to one side of it? Indeed, might this whole ‘novel’ in fact be a form of self-reflective criticism, with a character who writes a novel called The Affirmation, others artists who in some cases literally disappear into their own works, and cartographers attempting to map impossible landscapes? Is the book all of these, or none of them?

In one of the best reviews of the book I have read, Niall Alexander at Strange Horizons emphasises this intense uncertainty, arguing for the multivalence of Priest’s text, the endlessly movable frequency of its concerns. He personally opts for a vision of the book as a disputation on art, but I rather agree with (for it is again, Pimpernel-like, he) Adam Roberts when he urges specifity and uses the word ‘connections’; on the other hand, I think the connections of art are only one aspect of the way in which the novel interrogates the ligaments of its world – after all, Priest lingers over interpersonal connection, too, and indeed his entire text tests and teases how we understand narrative causality.

The novel ends with an elegiac chapter focusing on the relationship between a Yin- and Yang-ish pair of conceptual artists named Yo and Oy. Yo tunnels – at times so vociferously and inspirationally that she inspires one island to sink itself – and in doing so creates connections that would otherwise not exist. Like the time vortex that lies at the heart of the archipelago, Yo’s installations weird distance, toy with transit. They do so not just as art but as physical paths from one place to another – you can walk across the surface, but you might also follow an entrance to an exit.

Where Le Guin’s disappointment finds its justification, however, is in her criticism of the book’s heart. Alas, for a novel so clearly about connection it can at times fail to, well, connect: its characters, from the apparently (but not conclusively) serial-killing painter Dryd Bathurst to the campaigning journalist Dant Willer, can at times feel more like literary tools than real people. And yet. The Dream Archipelago is precisely that, a device of prosody: in The Affirmation, it is the fictional space of the schizophrenic novelist Peter Sinclair; Priest himself has written a sequence of short stories named after the islands the current book proposes to describe. “Reality lies in a different, more evanescent realm,” writes Chaster Kammeston in his introduction to the book-within-the-book (an introduction he would be incapable of writing was the book, which depicts his death, entirely rigorous). The way in which The Islanders leaves the reader feeling distanced and disoriented, then, is part of its effect, one of its many means of interrogating what it is we mean when we say, write or read ‘connection’. This gives it a weirdly unsatisfying sort of completeness.

The Islanders attains its depth from the intricacy of its formal invention – it shouldn’t work, but it does, and it is this quite magnificent structural achievement which off-sets what might traditionally been seen as the weaknesses arrayed against its success. Also at Strange Horizons, both Paul Kincaid and Duncan Lawie write of second reads, and I might add that a fourth, fifth and sixth would also probably reward. This is a measure of Priest’s cold kind of boldness, and ultimately of what is a remarkable novel. It deserves reams of marginalia – next time.