“We Are All Migrants Through Time”: Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

In my review of Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t pay much heed to the sense of place it evoked. In large part, that’s because I found it unconvincing – perhaps deliberately, the bardo of the title feels timeless, and the characters speak not so much to themselves in their own idiolects but to us, the twenty-first-century reader, in ours. At no point did it really feel as if I was observing the nineteenth century, or communing with antebellum spirits; I was being told stories, in the most effective and accessible way possible.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, on the other hand, revolves around locality, is focused laser-like on the ways in which places characterise themselves, and are in turns characterised; it is a novel about how cities and countries are in an endless process of becoming themselves, and of simultaneously resisting that change – sometimes violently and often begrudgingly, but almost always eventually.

The novel’s central characters, Nadia and Saeed, meet in its opening pages, at a business course being held in a nameless city in a nameless country. Saeed works in advertising, Nadia in insurance. He is the secular son of a teacher and a university professor; she wears a long black robe whenever she is in public, but smokes marijuana and listens to soul records in private. “If you don’t pray, […] why do you wear it?” he asks her when they first drink a coffee together. “So men don’t fuck with me,” she replies [p. 16]. This complexity of identity is the novel’s lodestar.

You may assume their city is Aleppo before its destruction, or Fallujah before it descended into chaos. In one scene, however, Saeed shows Nadia photographs of Western cities manipulated to appear lit only by starlight, and “whether they looked like the past, or the present, or the future, she couldn’t decide” [pp. 55-6]. Their city could be ours: its religions are never mentioned by name, much less its streets or neighbourhoods. The first half of the novel takes place almost in its entirety there, and Hamid’s writing is often at its strongest in those passages: precisely because it is nameless, one feels the city’s slippage from normality to conflict in this town alongside the characters, feels their taking leave of it as an almost equal wrench.

As the novel opens, the city is already used to refugees filling many of its public spaces, as if they are not harbingers of the future. Hamid is excellent at the incremental degradations of societal collapse: “because of the flying robots high above in the darkening sky, unseen but never far from people’s minds in those days, Saeed walked with a slight hunch” [p. 82]; the man who delivers early on in the novel some magic mushrooms to Nadia’s apartment “would [in a few months] be beheaded, nape-first with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort” [p. 38]. Saeed’s mother is shot “through the windscreen of her family’s car […] not while she was driving, for she had not driven in months, but whiole she was checking inside for an earring she thought she had misplaced” [p. 72]; the city’s “relationship to windows now changed […] A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come” [p. 68]. The world doesn’t end; it changes.

By the time Saeed’s father insists that the young couple leave him behind – “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind” [p. 94] – the reader may feel the prickle of tears. Exit West methodically makes refugees of its readers. The method open to Nadia and Saeed to escape their homeland, however, is not one available to refugees in our own world: in Hamid’s novel, particular doors, often for no reason and certainly with no explanation, become portals to another place – and, if the authorities don’t get to them first, refugees may slip through them to one or another form of safety.

These wormholes have a simple effect on the narrative: they enable Hamid to make his characters, and his readers, rootless whilst also still focusing on place rather than transit. Usually, a novel has to focus on one or the other state: Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015), for example, brilliantly depicted the lives of refugees and migrants in one English town, but in so doing became a static story of settlement; Dave Eggers’ What is the What (2006), meanwhile, primarily emphasised its protagonist’s lengthy journey from Sudanese boyhood to American refuge. In Exit West, via the conceit of the doors, Hamid can both demonstrate the liminality and itinerant lot of the refugee whilst also settling in specific locations and assessing – animating – them.

For example, Nadia and Saeed first emerge – and now, the novel having made its assumed Western readership complicit in its refugees’ movement, places gain their names – in Mykonos, at the edge of one of many refugee camps, “with hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colours and hues – many colours and hues but mostly falling within a  band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea” [p. 100]. The world of Exit West is on the move, and at this point resembles our own: “without warning people began to rush out of the camp and Saeed and Nadia heard a rumour that a new door out had been found, a door to Germany” [p. 107], though eventually they are shuffled through to London by a clinic worker who grows quickly intimate with Nadia.

London is where the novel begins another of its increasingly radical shifts. Where in Mykonos, Nadia and Saeed were still new to their refugee status, strolling around the island almost as tourists, in London – and amidst the manifold pressures of so large a city so hostile to its newcomers – things begin to become difficult and calcified. They find a room in a house, but the refugees’ houses slowly break down in ethnic groupings. Saeed begins to feel kinship with his “own kind” [p. 143], but Nadia wishes to remain with the Nigerians who have formed their group in the building around their room. There is violence between these gangs, even as the authorities bear down on them without perceiving the particularities they read onto themselves. Then a war begins, “military and paramilitary formations […] fully mobilized and deployed in the city from all over the country” [p. 159]; Britain takes up arms against it migrants … and then pulls back. Even as the wedge in Nadia and Saeed’s relationship becomes ever more plain, Hamid begins to strike a note of hope: “Perhaps [the British] had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open” [p. 164].

From here, the novel proceeds further into the couple’s – and perhaps our own – future, beginning gently to evaporate away. Nadia and Saeed move through a door to one of the many new cities being constructed for the migrant populations worldwide – this one in California –  and Saeed becomes increasingly nostalgic and religious, while Nadia does not. Their relationship cools to nothing: “Saeed wanted to feel for Nadia what he had always felt for Nadia, and the potential loss of this feeling left him unmoored” [p. 188]. The future, however, begins to seem more hopeful: rather than a tenement they live in a house, with wireless data and solar panels and batteries and rainwater collectors. The world, and its peoples, adapt. The final scene of the novel takes place back in their nameless home city, fifty years on, and Nadia “watched the young people of this city pass, young people who had no idea how bad things once were, except what they studied in history, which was perhaps as it should be” [p. 228].

Throughout all this, and in the novel’s weakest, most tangential, moments, Hamid intersperses scenelets of reconciliation: a refugee emerges from a door in the large house of a paranoid Westerner, does not experience the spontaneous desire to rape and kill her and instead simply seeks out a window through which he may leave; a newly-arrived elderly Brazilian man meets an old Dutch man and they share a kiss; an old woman lives in the same house for her entire life, as the world around her nevertheless changes beyond all recognition. If these brief interludes sometimes feel abrupt or disconnected, by the end of the novel their purpose becomes clear: they are examples of the coming-together Exit West proposes and, in its early identification of reader with refugee, enacts.

In contemporary science fiction, this sort of optimism has almost entirely disappeared. In one respect – its vision of transit – Exit West reads more like magic realism than SF, but as Nadia and Saeed proceed into a potential future Hamid seems capable of imagining a transformation rather than a half-century of things getting worse. If its pivotal moment – London pulling back from the abyss – feels in these days of Brexit far-fetched, we too might yet want to share Hamid’s optimism: “It has been said that depression is a failure to imagine a plausible desirable future for oneself,” his omniscient narrator declares, “[… but] the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic” [p. 215].

All this makes for a novel both elegant and urgent. It is a slim work that somehow manages to be more expansive than many a novel twice its length. It reads like reportage and fairy tale, news story and futurology. It takes on a topic of the greatest pitch and moment – “all over the world,” as Hamid has it, “people were slipping away from where they had been” [p. 211] – and emerges equal to the task. It is both universal and specific, generalised and granular. In her New Yorker review of the novel, Jia Tolentino suggests that the novel “feels instantly canonical”; this is the sort of statement that might in some cases be hyperbolic, but in the case of Exit West it feels wholly earned. In it the Booker judges may have their winner.


“Can You Shortcut An Insight-Hunt?” China Miéville’s “Railsea”

Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! [Hamlet, I. V. 148-163]

The mole, that subterranean mammal, is a metaphor embodied: visible only before and after its tunneling, the very matter of its life – the movement from A to B – is invisible, and untellable. Where Shakespeare used the image in part as a cheap joke – one assumes Hamlet’s ghost appeared on stage via a trapdoor – Marx used the mole as the conveyor of revolution through history. As is often the case, Marx brings us to China Miéville, whose latest novel, Railsea, depicts characters hunting moles as Ahab hunted whales – relentlessly, monomaniacally, significantly.

The giant, mutated moles of Railsea are explicitly freighted – like the weird trains that chase them – with meaning: their hunters are said to be hunting their “philosophy”, a conceptual as well as a corporeal being with which they are forever associated in the popular imagination. This embodying shapes the text in a variety of complex and metatextual ways in a manner which might surprise some parts of the intended audience for this, a YA novel: most obviously, the prominent stylistic innovation of using the ampersand throughout is explained by the symbol’s similarity-on-the-page to the way in which a train changes direction. “What word better could there be,” asks the author rhetorically, directly addressing the reader for neither the first or last time, “to symbolise the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself?” [pg. 143]

That railsea is the novel’s most striking invention. The world of Railsea is arid and oceanless – moles burst from the desert like the sandworms of Arrakis – and connecting the scattered ‘islands’ of humanity in this unforgiving landscape are vast, criss-crossing stretches of rail. Far from unidirectional, the trains which travel on the railsea are constantly shifting the rails’ points as they ride, switching and navigating the railsea dependent upon speed, direction and gauge. There is something gee-whiz about this improbable world – Miéville makes little detailed effort to sketch in its history, beyond implying that the railsea exists on the charred remnants of a planet which was once our own – that will surely capture a YA readership. Yet the manner in which Miéville explores his conceit – self-referentially, and with quite astonishing prosody – underscores first and foremost a respect to that readership, an aliveness to the fact that a cool premise is not enough to capture the oft-patronised YA audience, but also suggests a less market-oriented project to write a novel on a number of levels and for a variety of readers.

This is a fitting purpose for a novel which revels in multiplicity. Ostensibly the story of its protagonist, the pleasingly named Sham ap Shoorap, Railsea very rapidly expands to encompass a range of supporting characters and their own, various, stories. This ecumenical spirit drifts through Sham’s narrative, and shapes his experience of it: early on, Sham feels sure that “there was something he fervently wanted to do & to which he was excellent suited” [pg. 17], and yet he is consistently frustated in his attempts to figure out what that may be. Indeed, when Sham’s surrogate parents, whose reunion with their charge takes place suspiciously early on, go so far as to tell him, “You’re a proper grown man now” [pg. 89], and proceed thus to invite him to the pub, we begin to understand that Miéville is rather wryly playing with our expectations of the YA bildungsroman. The echoes of Patrick Ness’s generously subversive Chaos Walking trilogy resonate throughout Railsea – Sham’s parents are both men, whilst the other child protaonists, the mysterious explorers known as the Shroakes, are the offspring of a line marriage, and similarly violence is never shied away from (the novel opens by announcing itself to be “the story of a bloodstained boy” [pg. 1]) – but Miéville goes further than Ness, questioning the very concept that a YA novel must teach its protagonist a lesson. Indeed, it is no less an unreliable source as a pirate who parrots a familiar kind of platitude: “Don’t you think there’s someone out there on the railsea on a salvagetrain, & all the time when they pass moletrains they’re like, ‘They do such more exciting stuff than me.'” [pg. 164]  In many other such novels, that would be the moral: here, they’re the poorly expressed weasel words of a thief.

This distrust of the didactic is mirrored in the stories of others: Captain Naphi, the commander of the Medes, the moletrain on which Sham serves as a doctor’s assistant, is in hot pursuit of a great white moldywarpe; Sham imagines the competitive bar-talk of her fellow captains, each of whom also hunts a philosophy, wryly observing the “one-upmanship, one-upcaptainship, of the themes some quarries had come to mean.” [pg. 85]  When Naphi tells Sham that, “I’m a moler. You are a doctor’s assistant. Whatever you saw or thought you saw, it has nothing to do with your life & aims, whatever they might be, any more than it does with mine” [pg. 79], he takes a dim view of the concept that a person’s role must limit the knowledge they are allowed to accrue. Even the Shroakes, whom Sham comes to idealise, admit that, though their explorer parents “took them all over”, they “can’t say we know anywhere.” [pg. 169]   The closest Sham comes to the de rigeur completion expected of such a character, then, is the refusal not to continue to learn and question: “I’m not a kid any more,” he tells himself at one point. “Shouldn’t take anything for granted.” [pg. 257]

All of this makes Sham one of the best-realised and most well-rounded of Miéville’s characters since Bellis Coldwine, the protagonist of what I consider to be Miéville’s best novel, The Scar. In his recent work, concept has tended to trump character – from the admittedly conflicted, but also necessarily rather shallow, Inspector Borlú of The City & the City, to Embassytown‘s frankly anonyous Avice Cho – and its refreshing to see the two proceed in better tandem. Not only that, but the YA format appears to have freed Miéville to write the kind of prose which first made him famous: combative, rococo stuff full of neologisms and consonants. Indeed, the first half of the novel in particular is amongst the most exciting writing he has committed to paper again since The Scar:

Of all the gapers on the Medes none gaped harder than Sham. Shamus Yes ap Soorap. Big lumpy young man. Thickset, not always unclumsy, his brown hair kept short & out of trouble. Gripping a porthole, penguins forgotten, face like a light-hungry sunflower poking out of the cabin. In the distance the mole was racing through shallow earth, a yard below the surface. Sham watched the buckle in the tundra, his heart clattering like wheels on tracks. [pg. 6]

This attention to the rhythm and the flow – the appositeness – of the words he uses has become Miéville’s trademark, but in Railsea it often reaches a pitch unattained in much of his recent work. It is both more colourful and better targeted than in Kraken or Iron Council, and more disciplined than in his previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, which was replete with rather too much languageplay. Here, the puns – “Give me the inland or give me the open rails, only spare me the littoral-minded” [pg. 29] – and the witty plasticity – “Do please expedite this journey relevance-ward” [pg. 107] – are surprising little gems hidden amongst the layers, rather than the latest addition to an over-encrusted surface. It is true that in the final third of the novel, which shunts more cleanly into plot-driven territory, rolling relentlessly towards the destination long promised by the exploring Shroakes, Miéville rather falls back on dialogue and action, and events conspire more conventionally; but such is the work Railsea has already done that the reader does not feel the urge to disembark.

Indeed, the reader should stick around for the denouement, onto which Miéville tacks a parable about the foolishness of attaching financial value to every possible resource (“such intimations as there are to hunt […] revolve around money,” insists a pirate, against all Railsea‘s evidence to the contrary [pg. 218]). With such patience, he or she will witness Sham informing his monomaniacal captain that her aims are merely, “what you’ve wanted. The rest of us been wanting other, bloody, things!” [pg. 320]  The deliberate foregrounding of the inevitably heterodox significance of any story is the way in which Miéville embodies Sham’s core, but diffuse and open-ended, lesson. “To messy-minded humans,” the narrator intones shortly afterwards, “so glass-clear and precise a drive makes no sense at all. It is considerably less comprehensible than the ravings of those we call insance.” [pg. 329]

If this wilful imposition of an omnipotent voice, this attempt to provide the moral – to underline that variegation is the very stuff of human experience – is somewhat cheating the message of his own novel, Miéville can perhaps be forgiven given Railsea‘s intended readership: leaving them much more adrift in their own expectations could well have been considered a kind of unusual cruelty. Earlier, in fact, the author has gone further: “We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast and awesome hole.” [pg. 295] Distrust all philosophies, Railsea tells us, but hunt them all. This is not a perfect novel, but it is undoubtedly an invigorating one: told with brio and invention, it may remind many of what is not just intelligent or innovative about China Miéville’s fiction, but also what is entertaining and energising. It is something of a joy.

“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.

“It’s Just A Pulp Novel”: Lavie Tidhar’s “Osama”

Manflu did it for Osama. I speak not of an alternative history in which the mastermind of 9/11 was struck low by fatigue and fever, but of the post I had intended to write about Lavie Tidhar’s BSFA-shortlisted novel: a fug of the last few days has led not just to an inability to write it up, but to a clouding of the glass through which I read the novel. I experienced Osama  as a compulsive whereisit, a gumshoe noir focused not on the perpetrator of crimes (although it is, in its own way), but on the literal location of the detective. The reader cracking Osama‘s spine to read an Inglourious Basterds-type tale of fantasy revenge will be disappointed.

On the recovering side of one of those frustrating winter bugs which knocks the stuffing out of you without providing the externalised symptoms – snot, sweat or squealing – to justify your indolence, I find myself remembering Osama differently. In his friendly review of the novel, Adam Roberts writes of the “impressive degree of emotional traction” Tidhar achieves by juxtaposing the generically hard-boiled story of his pocket universe PI, Joe, with the mimetically crystalline reportage written by the missing pulp novelist he is asked to find. The events these latter fictions describe, however, are recognisable to us as grisly remixes of a hundred newspaper front pages. With this inversion of style and content, Osama dramatises the horror of terrorism – the individual human lives obliterated – better than anything else I can recall reading. John Clute makes Matt Ruff’s similarly-premised The Mirage sound well worth the read even in the wake of Osama, but he doesn’t succeed in convincing me that Ruff’s novel will be as visceral. Tidhar’s effect in Osama is a real achievement.

Roberts also hovers, however – delicately, like the humming-bird of criticism – over what are at times the novel’s stylistic farts. “The point of transit was like the epicentre of two opposing forces,” the voice blunders at one point, for instance, “like the equilibrium found when an equal pull is exerted on a body from all directions, creating the moment of stillness that is freefall.” This sort of clumsiness is relatively common throughout Osama and is, I think, the reason for its transformation in my Beechams-addled memory: the craftiness of its structure keeps the reader turning its pages, encouraging us at all times to think we can crack the mystery of the ‘Fuzzie-Wuzzies’ who drift through these terrorism-free streets; but on reflection Osama can also be rather bumpy ground.

Joe’s world is one in which Al-Qaeda exists only in gaudy pulp novels sold next to pornography and science fiction, and in which the impressionistic jonbar point appears to occur around the time of the Cairo Conference of 1921. Except that this may not be Joe’s world, and from very early on we are asked to question his place in this weirdly retro 21st-century. Others seem to perceive Joe as if through a haze: “And if I didn’t smoke? I might not even see you,” remarks the vendor of several of the works of Mike Longshott, the elusive hack who churns out endless fictions centring on the impossibly evil genius, Osama Bin Laden. Osama is, then, a novel intensely interested not just in the connection between fiction and reality, but in how we perceive it – and how we signify it. Those confrontationally lucid evocations of terrorist attack are dismissed by Joe’s contemporaries as crass filth, to be sold in paper bags.

This world’s dim understanding of the nastier one which lies beyond it, meanwhile, is defined almost entirely in terms of popular culture. “How do cell phones work?” an interrogator demands of a thoroughly nonplussed Joe. “What is an iPod? What is in Area 51?”  In a sense, Tidhar has been overtaken by events: Bin Laden has now been found and killed extra-judicially, no longer the elusive pop culture meme which might have given Osama more punch. Ultimately, after all, this is a novel about the mutability of symbols – about the siteing of meaning within a given, yet in truth moveable, space. We locate our own wispish understandings of Al-Qaeda in what we establish as sober and terrorised tenors, encasing the future we are more commonly experiencing (and which Joe’s world does not) in a ghettoised and patronised genre of paperback fluff. Throughout the novel, Joe is “trying to understand a war no one seemed to understand, not even those who were fighting it hardest”; Osama works entertainingly to interrogate the discourses we use to (fail to) achieve that understanding.

This, however, is where the occasional clumsiness of  its prose can come also to characterise its wider project. In the novel’s final denouement, which takes place in a blissfully unbombed (and apparently unTalibaned) Afghanistan, I’m not sure what Joe’s liminal position on the border of two worlds really tells us about either. Over at SF Signal, John Stevens argues that “this is not a novel that is about satisfactory endings, since it is not about satisfactory beginnings or middles either”, but the circularity of Stevens’s nevertheless very interesting piece suggests to me that nor is Osama a novel with a clear thesis about the absence of clarity. Simply, it is just a tad uneven. Sometimes it gets lost – Tidhar has a weird fetish for describing the movement of people around London as if staring at an A-Z – and sometimes it’s too bald – “was mass murder a crime, or was it a political act? And who decided?” Osama deserves to be read for the imaginative way in which it uses genre to challenge the semiotics of the war on terror, but it doesn’t seem to know what to do with the discourse once it has been deconstructed. It may well be a feature rather than a bug, then, but Osama is in one sense a fuzzy-wuzzy sort of book.

But that may be the manflu talking.

“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.

“We’ve Been Like Countless Things”: China Miéville’s “Embassytown”

I find myself writing the second review in a week in which I wish to ignore the author. This isn’t especially because I subscribe to Barthesian canards, though in discussing a novel like China Miéville’s Embassytown recourse to a semiotician might not be so very bad an idea. It’s simply that so many other reviews of this and of the novel I wrote about on Wednesday, Great House, will refer to the controversies surrounding their respective writers that, wearily, their identity becomes almost the least interesting thing about their book. (The great absence at the centre of my piece on Great House, of course, was that Nicole Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer – Patrick Ness has summarised my feelings on this ‘issue’ so that I don’t have to.)

Miéville’s mantelpiece strains under the weight of an unprecedented haul of genre awards; Embassytown arrives in a stable already full of some of the finest thoroughbreds the track has seen in the last decade; and, as a longterm fan of his, I could write passably about how this new book resembles The City & The City in form and style more than it does the Bas-Lag trilogy that made his name, despite a return to ‘core genre’ trappings. But the (perhaps enviable) difficulty faced by a book welcomed with such breathless expectation is that it risks being lost in these comparisons and contextualisations. Impossible as it is to separate the novel from these kinds of questions, forgive me for now if I try and decide what sort of a book Embassytown is, rather than what sort of a writer its author might be.

It is, first and foremost, an intellectual pursuit (and, yes, here we might consider, if we were so minded, Miéville’s previous form in using the novel as an engine for an idea): set on a planet at the outer reaches of a future ‘Terran diaspora’, Embassytown is the story of a ghetto-cum-trading-post-cum-consulate, inserted at the edge of a city inhabited by the Ariekei, known as the Hosts by the human interlopers and a species which speaks quite literally with a double tongue. Slyly, this literalness is not matched metaphorically, since the Ariekei are incapable of speaking that which is not – they cannot lie, since for them to speak is to think, and they can no more speak what they do not think than a human can have faith in what they know not to be true.

Two observations about this sleight of hand: first, it is an inversion of the laziest of SF cliches, in which the physical qualities of an alien species are used in some way to signify their moral status in the work’s analogy or social comment; secondly, this encoding in the text of the Hosts’ inability precisely to signify is characteristic of the novel’s extreme subtelty. We might, were we interested here in Miéville’s oeuvre, observe that earlier in his career the criticism most often levelled at his writing was its wildness, its unconstrained insistence upon itself. The Miéville we now read is more controlled, far more ruthless with himself and his language.

This process of self-editing, this consideration of verbiage, may well be what has given rise to a book about language – or, more properly, Language, the capitalised tongue spoken by the Hosts. Language is spoken by two mouths – a Cut and a Turn, to provide their technical descriptors – which humans cannot replicate except by a merciless genetic engineering which bonds test-tube twins as an empathic, double-tongued Ambassador. Ariekei recognise speech only when it is spoken by two voices with a mind behind them – synthesised language is meaningless to them, as is the ‘Anglo-Ubiq’ spoken by the individual humans whom remain unsure that the Hosts recognise them even as sentient. Embassytown thus links language not just to sentience but to will – the Ariekei can only comprehend words like their own which proceed from a directing intelligence. In their inability to lie, however, the Hosts lack what we might think of as the crowning achievement, and the original sin, of such intelligence: invention and imagination.

For instance, Hosts must contrive to place humans in a particular situation if they to be able even to speak of that situation. Thus, the novel’s narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is taken as a child to a room full of Ariekei, where she becomes the girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. She and others – the man who catches fish every week, for example – are entered into Language as similes. “I am like the girl who was hurt and ate what was given her,” a Host might say if just that happened to it. That is, Language does not signify; it refers. Miéville is interested in how language controls thought, and vice versa – about how it holds us back as much as it might enable us to imagine the next place. (Anne at Pornokitsch is particularly good on Embassytown’s moment of revelation.)

Issues of control are especially charged in the complicated colonial relationship Embassytown (the place, not the novel) negotiates: its human inhabitants teach the Hosts how to trade, thus obtaining access to the resources of a planet rich particularly in biotechnology; yet the Ariekei remain, in the superstitious and polite culture of Embassytown, almost god-like in the reverence they are afforded by the humans. When Embassytown’s ruling power, Bremen, dispatches a new kind of Ambassador – one not manufactured on Arieke but compiled on the humans’ distant motherworld – something about how they speak Language ruptures this delicate balance. That Miéville has avoided in the previous pages anything banally analogous to a colonial relationship in our own past enables a series of quite bewildering narrative developments (at times, the reader suspects that this is less a novel and more a masterfully condensed trilogy). He is thus enabled to investigate a whole series of linked questions which would be impossible to juxtapose beyond the confines of a science fiction novel. To be sure, there’s something about Embassytown that gives you the sense you know it, that you’ve read it before – it is avowedly SFnal, to the brink of pulpishness. But Miéville continues to use genre wisely – uses it, as he always has should we care to remember, to refigure and recalibrate ideas and concepts. To posit, that is, new ways of imagining.

Nevertheless, and despite the swift narrative clip Embassytown establishes and maintains throughout, the novel risks becoming unbalanced towards its end, when the linguistics takes a necessary-but-noisy centre-stage. Avice routinely skips through and over time – the first half of the novel is told non-linearly, and its second habitually elides whole episodes – and this permits the novel an awful lot of room to grow almost out of sight, to plant ideas and concepts which feel to the reader to have a life of their own. But these are blotted out as the climax approaches, leaving only the promise of another novel in the series to answer our questions and tilt the uncertainly precarious finale of Embassytown one way or another. In a novel which does so much so elegantly, however, these are brutish complaints: in just 400 generously spaced pages Embassytown gives us interstellar flight (Avice has a brief career as an ‘Immerser’, travelling in the sub-reality shortcuts which connect her universe’s outposts), societal collapse (the passages which deal with the consequences on Ariekei civilisation of the Language spoken by Bremen’s Ambassador are some of the novel’s most memorably horrific), and conceptual transf0rmation (if the Ariekei can develop similes, how might they untether them from their referrents – how might they lie, fabulate, invent?).

Despite – or perhaps because of – this heterodoxy, Embassytown remains very much itself. It is muscular, confident and unusually coherent. It isn’t an homage, or a response, or merely the latest horse to arrive in the paddock. It is Embassytown, by China Miéville, and will require further thought.

SF: 2010

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

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

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

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.

Short Thoughts on Shorts

I’ve been writing a review of a collection of Larry Niven’s short stories, and analysing the way in which he puts them together has led me to reflect a little on what I look for in a short. The introduction to the collection, by Jerry Pournelle, claims that SF shorts are harder to write than any other, but I don’t think this is right. I think I’m closer to Richard Ford, who writes in an introduction of his own (to the Granta Book of the American Short Story):

I’ve always liked stories which make proportionately ample rather than slender use of language, feeling as I do that exposure to a writer’s special language is a rare and consoling pleasure. I think of stories as objects made of language, not just as reports on or illustrations of life, and within that definition, a writer’s decision to represent life ‘realistically’ is only one of a number of possibilities for the use of his or her words.

I like this very much, and think it somewhat short-circuits the often heard SFnal complaint that the standards of short story criticism are routinely weighted in favour of ‘mimetic’ writers. The idea that great short story writers should have their own ‘special’ language – Ford explicitly says that this excludes writing merely functional – which they use for whatever purpose to which it is best suited is a liberating one in many ways, and puts me in mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, whose Holmes stories are such pulp and yet are rescued by their particular prosody. The type of story you’re writing is not what makes it hard.

What all this means for my take on Larry Niven, you must, dear reader, continue to guess for now.

Fractal Geometry: Ian McDonald’s ‘The Dervish House’

The place he lives, the dervish house; he never thought about it as more than a place to sleep, smoke, escape but it has a history, it has lives woven through it, it has holy men. [The Dervish House, pg. 206]

The UK Cover

Not that long ago, I sang the praises of Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days over at Strange Horizons, contrasting its exuberance with the at times stilted interiority of the stories of Vandana Singh. That collection was a companion piece to McDonald’s superlative River of Gods, which also revelled in happening and high concept, barrelling along at a pace both cerebral and breathless. In an SFX review of McDonald’s latest, The Dervish House, Ian Berriman notes that McDonald has retained this “shiny precision of the airport tech-thriller”; but what most interests me about this latest novel are not the similarities it shares with River of Gods, but the two books’ many differences – and one of those is a sort of focus on interiority, on what makes us an individual, but also what makes an individual a member of a community.

I am often guilty of judging a work in light of the one preceding it in the artist’s oeuvre. This can be a poor substitute for reviewing, which should always attempt an open and honest approach to the subject. By the same token, context is essential to understanding. McDonald has long been interested in what the West may call the ‘developing’ world, but it was in River of Gods that he found a literary voice perfectly suited to his cause. Its follow-up, Brasyl, which despite my qualms also won the BSFA Award for best novel, felt to me less perfectly turned: distracted, diffuse. In some ways, The Dervish House reads like a return to the formula of River of Gods: a multiplicity of viewpoint characters, a single city, a tight time frame. Where Brasyl was expansive and elusive, shuttling backwards and forwards in relatively deep time, The Dervish House is focused, like River of Gods, on an imagined near future linked explicitly to our own moment.

Nevertheless, where the plots of McDonald’s India were straight-forward, and its characters very clearly drawn, The Dervish House tests its readers with some boldness. The first half of the novel largely refuses to connect its subplots and characters beyond walk-ons and namedrops, the second half is drawn together only lightly, at times thematically. This is the sort of effort one rarely finds in the airport techno-thriller or, for that matter, your average science fiction novel.

The man of words and the man of numbers see a white room differently. To the writer it’s a cube of horror, a blank needing to be filled with the spurt of imagination. It is that space you write about when you have looked at nothing else for days. It is writing about writing. To the mathematician it’s the void, the pure white light which, falling through a prism of analysis, breaks into the numbers that are ultimate reality. The walls of the white room are the walls of the universe and beyond them lies mathematics. [pg. 92]

If this is the underlying tension of the novel, between story and number, then its governing metaphor is that of the market. This makes it, of course, an intensely topical book, despite its setting of 2027; The Dervish House is about what happens in the reaction between faith and mathematics which constitutes late capitalism, about people who love the market, who are its victims, who are indifferent to but trapped within it. For Georgios Ferentinou, the retired Greek academic and one of the novel’s most compelling characters, “economics is the most human of sciences” [pg. 93]; this is a thought echoed by Adnan, a trader far more in love with the ecstacy of the market than Georgios: “The market is not some lofty, abstract edifice of pure economic behaviour. […] It is human hearts and dreams.” [pg. 321]

Adnan’s wife, Ayşe, is an art dealer (that is, a broker in the transaction between qualitative art and quantitative commerce), and is tasked by a client with unearthing the last surviving Mellified Man. In so doing, she uncovers the “sacred geometry” [pg. 259] encoded into the very heart of Istanbul by the architect Sinan, in which she finds “the great composed of the small” [pg. 265]. In other words, robust systems in The Dervish House, a novel named after the structure in which its many characters live, do not dominate, but are of, the individual – such is the source of their peculiar strength. The nanotechnology start-up of Yasar Ceylan provides a science fictional amplification of this concept: Ceylan’s technologies promise – or threaten – to revolutionise the world not through changes on the macro level, but by altering individuals at the micro. The robot toys of the nine-year-old Can can assemble and re-assemble themselves and their parts into innumerable shapes and swarms. Finally, Giorigios contends that, “The jihad is on the streets. I know, I’ve seen it. Tarikats, kadis, shaykhs;the solve problems, make the peace, keep social order, judge in a dispute.” [pg. 253] He is suggesting that the closer a system keeps to its members, the more effective it remains.

A rare example of a better US cover.

Thus the market, in which bad deals and bad companies are those which become so complex and – ha – Byzantine, that they cease to have any relation to reality: “We’re over-extended in every division to six times our capitalization,” is how one major corporation is described to Adnan. “We’re an accounting fiction.” [pg. 247] Likewise, the further the legends of the Mellified Man are removed from the original history, the more impossible they become: “Stories are all there are,” Ayşe is warned at one point. [pg. 213] She is also, however, exhorted “never [to] let your theory be exposed to vulgar empiricism” [pg. 166] – there is nobility and value in fiction and faith – but in a novel, and a world, in which moments of crisis are precipitated by an accretion of untenable untruths, it is difficult entirely to hold both possibilities in balance.

The novel begins with a quite beautiful piece of writing, in which we come into land at Istanbul in the company of a flock of birds, and arrive in the middle of a terrorist attack. If we were to search for a fault, however, McDonald at times stretches to accomodate all of his novel’s ambitions, and some characters, such as Necdet, the radicalised former drug addict, or Can, whose heart condition demands he is never exposed to sudden noise, somehow never quite find their voice or place in the novel (as distinct from the plot). Perhaps, though, this was simply my readerly enthusiasm for certain other storylines, and a concomitant impatience to know what happened next – a trick McDonald played on me with the aplomb of the, er, airport techno-thriller.

These niggles firmly aside, The Dervish House is a bold and ambitious statement which, perhaps deliberately, never quite comes together in the way River of Gods managed. Nor, perhaps, does it quite capture Turkey in the way that its predecessor captured India. This, though, is unfair to McDonald’s unrivalled facility for writing about cultures other than the Anglo-American, which despite some challenge in recent years continues to dominate science fiction written in English: when nobody does it better, it’s senseless to poke holes.

The best stab anyone in the novel has at squaring the circle of story and number is that of a Professor Budak, in conversation with Ayşe: “value as a shared asset and as something that binds together and gives identity to a community.” [pg. 181] Identity and community (and, as Adam Roberts points out in his jejune review, the interaction between the two) are the key concepts in The Dervish House, a novel which, though at times it strains against itself, never once bursts its banks. No one but Ian McDonald could have written a novel quite like this one. He’s done it again.