A Pregnant Widow: The Arthur C Clarke Award 2012

Previously: Embassytown [2], Rule 34, The End Specialist, Hull Zero Three, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, The Waters Rising

I seem to be in what is for me an unusual position within the sf reviewing diaspora: playing the role of apologist. I began my series of Clarke reviews by referring to Christopher Priest’s savaging of the shortlist and those who crafted it. Since then, he has written a gloss upon that post, reminding us that the fury of its original tone was a rhetorical device. No doubt this is true – and it was a ruthlessly effective one – but it has coloured even the moderate voices in the ensuing debate about the six books vying for the Award. David Hebblethwaite wants at least two wooden spoons to hand out amongst the nominees, but his round-up of the shortlist suggests he’d prefer something like five-and-a-half; Maureen Kincaid Speller, meanwhile, writes:

What strikes me immediately about the Clarke shortlist is how conservative its view of science fiction seems to be, and how unadventurous it is. It is almost as though it hankers after the dear dead days of proper science fiction, with spaceships, aliens, alarming science, women in jeopardy, men coming up with all the solutions.

It is impossible to argue that the Clarke’s shortlist is strong. It may well have been immeasurably strengthened not, in the way of many years, by the switching of one stinker for something smarter, but by a wholesale reconsideration of its choices: even the better books on the list preen more attractively because of the company they are keeping. Many seem to single out Magary’s The End Specialist as the real offender of the bunch, and it is certainly depressingly heteronormative; but it is clear to me that it is The Waters Rising which deserves most opprobrium: Magary’s is ultimately a deeply simple-minded novel, but it is not quite so vehemently shapeless. Something has gone very wrong when a shortlist features a book quite so poorly conceived, much less executed, as Tepper’s.

Simultaneously, and on the other hand, The End Specialist seems to me to offer a way in to what the shortlist has got right. It is not a great novel – it is barely a good throwaway thriller – but it is contemporary. I say this expecting a dozen rebuttals, and Maureen’s will be in the vanguard: this year’s shortlist, Magary most certainly included, is backward-looking, populated by tired clichés and tropes, and bereft of invention or dynamism. It is a gaggle of books which feature generation starships and cops and robbers, immortality and post-apocalyptic medievalism. Even the entry from China Miéville, so often cited as the standard-bearer for the next generation of sf writers, looks back to a kind of New Wave-ish aesthetic, all interplanetary hi-jinx and alien lifeforms.

I would argue, however, that the shortlist is a little more sophisticated than all that. That what these books represent is a stumbling in the dark, a pause at a moment in time when not just the genre but our world isn’t sure what will happen next. Allow me to reprise a technique from one of my Clarke pieces – on Embassytown – in which I argued for this reading most strongly. In a wonderful essay on Europe’s current malaise in a recent issue of the LRB, Neal Ascherson quotes Alexander Herzen:

The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

In The Testament of Jessie Lamb, MDS asks profound questions of a society which struggles to change (or rather, change ethically) to accomodate its implications; in The End Specialist, the material effects of immortality pose insoluble problems; in Hull Zero Three, the very act of carrying forward one’s society and culture into the future is brought into troubling question. The Waters Rising, punchdrunk on revulsion for our present world, cannot see a way forward for its dead-end empires that is not unconscionably – impossibly – radical. What these books do, and in way or another each renders itself fatally flawed as the demands of their task stretch existing logic to breaking point, is to find familiar tools, in the absence of any visible new ones, to bring to bear on their respective moments of crisis: that is, a chisel is insufficient to the task, but at least it can chip away, begin to find a shape.

This is a shortlist of conflict rather than resolution – which might explain its rather misshapen appearance. Does The Islanders, a work of art which Priest is right to be peeved has missed its moment in the sun, really speak to this sort of moment? I think not. Perhaps, of the frequently cited also-rans, only By Light Alone does. In terms of this shortlist, it is certainly Rule 34 and Embassytown which come closest to seeing a viable Beyond through the fog of systemic failure. Outside of their qualities as novels – and, again, each has downsides (Rule 34 can seem superficial and manic; Embassytown over-conceptualised and abstract) – there is a perhaps unfair reason to overlook the latter: Miéville has won too many Clarkes already. This may be part of what attracts me to Rule 34 as a winner – that and my surprise at even being able to finish it, given my previous experience with Stross’s unstructured ideas-dump prose. I think, too, though, that, if the shortlist can be said to have a story, it is Rule 34 that tells it best. It is the story of our times, a story which as yet has no end and perhaps only the sketchiest of middles.

This might not make for the best shortlist, and in some cases it certainly does not make for the best novels; but nor is is true that this is the wilfully perverse shortlist it might first appear to be. A vintage year? No. A vital one? Despite it all, maybe so.


“You – That Is To Say, Me”: Charles Stross’s “Rule 34”

ACCA-nominated juvenalia

It will surely be impossible to discuss this year’s shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award without now referring to Christopher Priest. Not, alas, because his The Islanders made the shortlist – but because it didn’t, and because he’s mad about it. In his defense, he is also mad that  Dead Water, Osama, By Light Alone and Wake Up And Dream didn’t make the final cut, either. I’ve read the first three of these, and whilst I’m far from certain that Dead Water can usefully be classified as SF, the other two novels are muscular and inventive works that I’m disappointed not to see pushed towards a larger audience.

Indeed, on that basis I was initially rather sympathetic towards Priest’s invective – in particular, his characterisation of Charlie Stross as an “internet puppy” agreed in large part with my previous experience of his writing. Accelerando, for instance, seemed to me hyperactive and super-attenuated, which may have been the point but which was also thoroughly dispiriting. If my reading of Embassytown was significantly more positive than Priest’s, I expected very much to agree with his opinion of Stross’s Rule 34.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Stross proved entirely worthy of his place on the shortlist.

Priest’s primary – and apparently solitary – objection to Stross is that he is juvenile. That Charlie chose to respond to this criticism by creating a slangy t-shirt has probably enranged Priest yet further, but it is a fitting riposte to what is itself a pretty juvenile brickbat: Rule 34 is written in what might on the surface appear to be a lazy, second-person vernacular, but in no small part this is because it depicts a lazy, second-person vernacular world. Set around 2030, and spending much of its time following the deflationary ripples of 2008, Stross’s future is here one of interconnected surveillance. To avoid being eavesdropped upon, the inhabitants of this future must remove the batteries from their phones and check that the cameras over the bar are far enough away to exclude lip-readers. His ‘cop’ characters – ostensibly Rule 34 is a whodunnit – exist in “a coccoon of augmented reality” [pg. 4], recording a ‘lifelog’, a real-time document of their every professional moment. The ‘robber’ characters are enmeshed in a palimpsest of plots and counter-plots, most of them relating to national debt, which all ultimately lead back to nudge theory and the necessity of electronic oversight for increasingly complex societies: “the project of law,” declares a professor of ‘automated social engineering’ towards the end of the book, “ever since the Code of Hammurabi – the entire idea that we can maintain social order by obtaining voluntary adherence to a code of permissible behaviour, under threat of retribution – is fundamentally misguided.” [pg. 287]

All this plays with the concept of the panopticon singularity, an idea with which Stross has been playing for a decade or more. “Privacy is a peculiarly twentieth-century concept, an artefact of the Western urban middle classes,” he writes [pg. 93]. Whether his book is dealing with a Detective Inspector, a minor hoodlum, or an agent of a shadowy inter-continental conspiracy, the reader is addressed directly: the second-person present tense rarely breaks down into first-person, and though structurally the book creaks occasionally – particularly in the ‘interlude’ passages, it’s clear that Stross cannot quite contain his story within the limits he has attempted to impose – Rule 34 achieves not so much an immersive effect as one of complicity. All the characters become avatars for the reader, and we watch them as if observing the CCTV footage of our other lives. It is a curious technique, simultaneously inclusive and distancing, which becomes more and more fitting a style the further one proceeds into the novel. Indeed, not all of this surveillance is bad – in light of today’s news, for instance, the sensitivity of Stross’s police officers to the fact that they are constantly monitored seems salutary. This is a complex world. There are lapses – Stross’s sneer at decades of public policy directives aimed at pub drinkers (“the real problem drinkers weren’t in the pubs in the first place” [pg. 285]) has arguably been answered within weeks rather than decades by yet another poor piece of public policy – but by and large, and unlike many similar attempts to envision our near future, Stross’s feels eerily credible.

What Stross has done – and it is something he has always attempted, but which he seems finally to have achieved by adopting precisely the sort of Brookmyre-esque rough vernacular to which Priest seems to object  – is to present an extrapolation of our current, intermittently interconnected world, and show how social networks themselves could become connected with aspects of our lives from which they are apparently divorced: law, statehood, morality. That he achieves this within the context of one of the finest fictional responses to the 2008 crash I have yet read is doubly remarkable. His Operation, for instance, sits at the centre of many of the novel’s strands, but is essentially a neo-Thatcherite attempt to revive for a world more interested in corporate oversight the rapacious culture of pre-2008: “In our world of unregulated free-market enterprise there is no “society” to off-load business externalities like insurance onto, no courts to settle disputes equitably, and no presumption of goodwill.” [pg. 36] It is precisely this inability of human morality to meet the demands of complex 21st-century societies – the Operation deliberately employs psychopaths – that seems to Stross to make inevitable the rise of the panopticon.

All this is cut-to-the-bone stuff. In Stross’s future, states allow constituent elements of their post-national make-ups – Scotland in the UK, Issyk-Kulistan in Kyrgyzstan- to secede to one extent or another (Stross presumes devo-max for the Caledonians); but they do so in cases such as the latter’s merely to off-load omnipresent debt via credit default swaps which will become worthless upon the inevitable, and planned, re-absorption of the region back into the wider state. “They can’t do that!” exclaims the perennially confused Anwar, the Muslim hoodlum who becomes in many ways the novel’s most sympathetic character. “Isn’t that what made the banks collapse?” [pg. 192]  Warren Ellis, with whom Stross is often compared, recently tweeted, “If contemporary literary fiction doesn’t read a bit like science fiction then it’s probably not all that contemporary, is it?” This goes much too far, but it is nevertheless in precisely this way that Rule 34 is an important novel for our times.

Indeed, in many ways Rule 34 reads like Zoo City, last year’s winner: a hardboiled, subversive caper of a thriller, all page-turning energy and pop cultural smarts. It isn’t perhaps quite as alive to the wider world as Beukes’s novel – there’s a sense in which Stross knows so clearly what Rule 34 is about that his novel doesn’t tremble when it hits against other concerns, except to deliver one of Stross’s strident opinions (for instance, he’s despairing of “the chill wind [… blowing] through the halls of academia” [pg. 281]) – and it relies rather heavily on a final infodump, in a manner which reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (which was rather derided by critics within the genre for precisely that fault). There are also clumsy sentences and occasionally stilted dialogue. It may be, then, that Rule 34 is not so well-placed as that earlier novel to take the prize; at the same time, I suspect it is a rather strong contender. I am as surprised as Christoper Priest, albeit for different reasons.