SF and Experimentalism

SF makes this man cry.

A piece in the Observer’s New Review last weekend looked at an alleged decline in experimental fiction in English. “Avant garde fiction,” argued the writer, William Skidelsky, “at least in Britain and America, isn’t flourishing.” Skidelsky seemed to be defining experimentalism as a formal phenomenon – that is, one of style and structure rather than subject or theme. He opened his argument by recalling an NYRB review from Zadie Smith, in which she wrote that, “A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.”

I’m not sure that analogy quite works on any level, but my first thought was the exclusion of genre fiction from the discussion: there are many exits from this highway on which Smith can perceive only one type of car (told you it didn’t quite work), but they lead off to ghettoes and undergrowth. Surely science fiction, that literature of ideas, is a redoubt of expertimentalism? It can’t be by accident that one of Skidelsky’s cited experimenters – David Mitchell – brings to his work a science fictional perspective, or that any number of other literary adventurists (Simon Ings, Scarlett Thomas) also know the genre. On further thought, though, I couldn’t say hand on heart that science fiction at its core was any more expeimental in the terms set by Skidelsky.

Take China Miéville, who, despite what I perceive to be recent mis-steps, remains one of SF’s most exciting and inventive writers. Formally, his novels are standard narratives: expansive, discursive and roccoco narratives, but straight-forward all the same. You might not be able to use Smith’s term ‘lyrical realism’ to describe his novels’ content, but their style is not so far removed. For every Philip K Dick, who (at times only) wrote novels which approached a Joyceian sensibility, science fiction has a John Brunner, whose Stand on Zanzibar is only experimental in so far as it echoes a standard form established by Dos Passos; or an Ian McDonald, a writer whom, for all his flair and multiple perspectives, tells a straight story straightly. McDonald’s Brasyl is an example of how SF can use the fluidity of time to add grain to its structures in a way that literary and mainstream fiction often cannot – but Woolf did Time Passes in 1927. Temporal hi-jinx is not in and of itself so very daring.

Film has used science fiction more experimentally, perhaps – from La Jetée or Solaris to Primer and 2046 – and one wonders if the way in which science fiction has become a dominant aesthetic of film gives directors a courage that their literary counterparts, still fighting a losing battle against their own field’s dominant mode, might lack. There are, of course, always writers at the edges – John Burnside in Glister, or Jeff VanderMeer in City of Saints and Madmen – who ask questions of the dominant mode. SF is certainly no less experimental than mainstream or literary fiction – the New Wave largely saw to that. But is it, despite all its potential for mind-bending pyrotechnics, for the most part cruising in a similar gear?

Hm.

“Sometimes Life Really Was a B-Movie.”

Every now and again, you write a review you feel a little guilty about. Not only has China Miéville given me hours of pleasure with his previous novels; his latest, Kraken, was given to me as a very thoughtful birthday present by dear friends. So it feels churlish to have to admit I didn’t enjoy the novel – particularly as, I am fairly sure, I just didn’t give it the shake it deserved. But there you have it – I cannot tell a lie. I did not, alas, enjoy Kraken.

In this, as in my reaction to The City & The City, I’m in the minority. By and large, Kraken has received positive reviews which speak of a further gear change upwards for the darling of British SF&F. James Long at Speculative Horizons is typical: “Kraken is an excellent example of the potential that the fantasy genre possesses when its boundaries are pushed and pulled. It’s also the sign of a writer working at the height of his creativity; in terms of sheer imaginative power, Miéville blows most other writers away.” In a sense Long is right, since Kraken is nothing if not a non-stop parade of arresting images – striking familiars, grisly cultists, giant disappearing squid. But what felt lacking to me was the thread which joined all this invention together.

Perdido Street Station was in many ways a more intense blast of imagination; but it also featured vivid characters and a number of plots and subplots which coalesced to tell not just a complete story, but map an entire city. What is interesting about Kraken is that, despite the clear love for London Miéville again displays throughout its length, the novel’s thesis of London – its multiplicity, its near-infinite capacity – never quite comes together. In each positive review of the book, an aspect of this failure is allowed: Damien G Walter admits the novel’s cardboard characterisation; Gary Wolfe notes the curious passivity, the blandness, of its narrators and voice; and though Thea at The Book Smugglers is I think too harsh on the novel, there’s something in the criticism that Kraken is very close to a plotless melange of occurance. It’s a novel full of sound and fury, one might say.

To quote the first two of those reviews out of context is, however, unfair to Miéville. I’ve been distracted and over-stretched in the last week or so, and it may be that I simply did not give the novel its due attention – certainly, Gary Wolfe in particular is a careful reader whom one can usually trust to pay the proper attention. I may have missed a lot that he didn’t. In a way, I hope  I did. Take, for instance, this from his Locus piece:

Sometimes utterly chilling and sometimes very funny, it is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve seen to successfully combine elements of everything from the Victorian terror-tale to surrealism and Pynchonesque absurdity, and a good deal in between (several influences, such as Moorcock and Leiber, Dr. Who and Star Trek, are called out directly in the text, and for a while our hero is even armed with a Trek-like phaser).

This sounds like an awesome book. I hope that in a few months I can go back to the one on my shelves and find it to contain this great, coherent gumbo. What I found it to be, alas, was a somewhat floppy blancmange, all cute genre references without much in the way of meaningful combination. Not only that, but the conceit which asks ‘what would the world be like if all the conspiracy theories were right?’, and then applies the answer to its plot, is hardly as original as many of Miéville’s reviewers have supposed. In his recent review of Lost, Adam Roberts criticised the later years of The X-Files for assuming that everything was true; no milieu, no concept – not even Miéville’s beloved London – can in fact contain everything. This Kraken has a case of indigestion.

This difficulty is reflected even in Miéville’s prose, usually so skilful at leading the reader through what in a lesser writer’s hand would be impenetrable syntax and obfuscatory diction. Put simply, Kraken feels like Miéville squeezing, forcing, it all in. “He knew that he should listen,” we read at one point, “that he should wait and say nothing, if even he could answer the questions, which mostly he could not even if he would, which he would not, because this would not end.” [pg. 300] Got it? No, me neither. In Miéville’s defence, this garbled sentence comes from the point of view of a character being put to the question by a Cthuluish cult. But the bloated style is everywhere: “A pretty drab metaphor, such obvious correspondences; here he was about to pass on a message through the city’s traditional conduits.” [pg. 184] Or, “She glimpsed a look on his face so aghast it almost made you wince to see it, almost you could sob for it if you weren’t held in still-split time.” [pg. 426] You get what Miéville’s trying to do, but wish he’d try a little less. The lack of neologisms and thesaurus fodder this time around is deceptive – the prose here is doing more, not less, heavy lifting.

Or maybe that’s just me. In its dense, reference-heavy, high-octane and tricksy simulacra of a traditional plot, perhaps Kraken simply left my strung-out brain behind. “Kraken is full-strength, grade-A geekitude,” argues Jason Heller at the AV Club. “And as such, it’s brilliant.” Really? It’s brilliant because it has a Torchwood pastiche? Early on, Miéville’s protagonist, Billy Harrow, is told by his best friend that, “You can sneak out of the nerd ghetto and hide the badge and bring back food and clothes and word of the outside world.” [pg. 6] Kraken is a book happy to play in the nerd sandbox. Had it done so with a little more discipline, it may have been a great book – undoubtedly, Miéville’s intellect remains powerful and percipient. But in my reading Kraken failed in its core project to contain its multifarious inventions and borrowings, and as the twisted adventure story it wants to be it cannot satisfy in its pacing. What started out nealty amusing ended, for me, over-extrapolated and wearying.

And yet, every now and then, I write a review about which I feel a little guilty. Go on, read Kraken and tell me how I can do better next time.

Sometimes utterly chilling and sometimes very funny, it is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve seen to successfully combine elements of everything from the Victorian terror-tale to surrealism and Pynchonesque absurdity, and a good deal in between (several influences, such as Moorcock and Leiber, Dr. Who and Star Trek, are called out directly in the text, and for a while our hero is even armed with a Trek-like phaser).

In Search of Mycroft Holmes

The doctor paused before the canvas. His gaze fixed on the organs of the fanged beast, which appeared visible through an opening on the crown of his head.

“The beast’s tubes must serve some purpose!” cried the doctor.

My brother looked at me in bafflement.

“Alimentary, my dear Watson,” I said.

"The Paperchase", by Marcel Theroux

One of the things which has most struck me in my recent reading of some non-canonical Holmesian fiction is respect for the original stories. The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes, as it was known in the United States a novel by Marcel Theroux which is on the other hand not at all about the older, cleverer brother of the great detective. (Its UK title – The Paperchase – is thus far less disingenuous.) It is instead the story of Damien March – an under-ambitious, under-achieving minor BBC journalist whose bohemian uncle, Patrick, dies unexpectedly and leaves his Cape Cod home to his footling nephew. It is in going through the contents of that home that Damien discovers some distinctly unHolmesian manuscripts – a series of short stories starring Mycroft Holmes, one of which forms a single chapter of this slim novel.

The Paperchase is in no way the equal of Theroux’s much greater and most recent novel, Far North – which I reviewed here and argued should be the winner of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. Not only is this earlier novel less complete and less satisfying; it is also less imaginative – not in the sense that its world is in large part our own, but in that its narrative voice is simply a version of Theroux’s, all middle class angst and more famous, more successful, young brothers. This makes The Paperchase a diverting, rapid read – but not, perhaps, one which has much in the way of its own depth.

And the Holmesiana? It is so weak that one might almost conclude that Theroux’s knowledge of the canon was very slight indeed prior to beginning his novel. At one point we are told that, during childhood visits, the rabid Sherlockian Patrick would quiz his nephews with maddening Conan Doyle trivia. His questions – what was the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, what was the name of Sherlock’s brother – were, you’ll forgive me, elementary. This shallowness extends into Theroux’s pastiche of Patrick’s pastiche of Victorian prose style. Admittedly, March slyly accepts that his uncle was no great writer (he pauses particularly wryly over the phrase “the pungent shag tobacco of her nether hair”); nevertheless, the tone, pace and style of the Mycroft sections are so grandly divorced from any love of Holmes, his period or the  fiction of the time that the fictional fiction itself, and the supposed love of Patrick for Conan Doyle, are fatally undermined. The whole novel – unlikely wills, family secrets – feels strained and contrived, and Patrick’s writing does not help.

Still, The Paperchase is not in truth a slice of Holmesiana. (It might, indeed, provide ammunition for those who accuse Theroux of being a literary raider, in Far North abusing SF and here clumsily deploying crime fiction’s urtexts.) It should be judged on those other criteria – its forgettable characterisation, clever but brittle prose, and fumbled plotting.  Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that The Paperchase, whilst rarely naïve, lacks Conan Doyle’s compensatory heartiness.

First Thoughts: ‘New Model Army’

“I have come to understand that fighting and democracy are actually the same thing. Move the first term into the realm of the second we call it debate – democracy works best if debate is conducted briskly, candidly, sharply, with effective strategies such that the strongest case wins the day. If you reverse the semantic exercise and move the second term into the realm of the first, then what have you, if not the NMAs?” (New Model Army, pg. 88)

In a fabulous take-down of Philip Blond in the London Review of Books recently, Jonathan Raban explored the tensions between state and individual, between democracy and tyranny. These questions are at the heart of Adam Roberts’s latest novel, New Model Army, in which the eponymous forces champion an absolute democracy in which even armies are raised and run on the basis of the needs, desires and decisions of every member – no hierarchy, no chain of command, no boundaries. It’s the sort of unfettered libertarianism which has often been on show in other and older military SF.

Roberts is too canny a writer, however, to allow the novel to become merely a satire of the indefensible; there are arguments in his novel for the abandon of pure democracy, which is often as brutal as tyranny (“Democracy is not infallible,” one character accepts (pg 102)). Not only that, but New Model Army is more forward-looking than a book bashing Heinlein could hope to be: the science which enables the fiction of democratic people’s armies is, of course, the internet – its wikis and information-sharing, its real-time content tags and real-time maps. The novel is therefore also, fairly plainly, a satire of the ‘rapture of the nerds’ style of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. Especially early on, the narrator’s enthusiasm for his new way of doing things, and scoffing disdain for the oldsters, is familiarly and wildly oblivious: “The new e-democracy utopianism is fuelled by new technologies that make it much simpler to canvas everybody’s opinion quickly and efficiently.” (pg. 8)  Blah and, indeed, blah.

Beware snap judgements, but New Model Army is as whole a novel as Roberts has written: if it hangs on its opening note a little long, it ultimately shifts in tone, topic and tenor as much as either Swiftly or Yellow Blue Tibia, his two most recent books, but the reader feels the veers much less. Tony Block, a gay ex-member of the British Army who has adopted a New Model as his home, moves believably and incrementally from evangelising the new way to a more nuanced view of its dubious benefits. The novel plays fair, right to the very end: it doesn’t hide from difficulty, but nor does it wallow in it. The novel’s ultimate thesis about the reasons for man’s need both for fighting and for love may or may not convince the reader (a weakness, perhaps, is that ‘fighting’ is seen to be a synonym for ‘war’); but the journey Tony makes to his final position on the matter is paced just so.

The book is packed full of references – from Lord of the Rings to The Hudsucker Proxy, The Cranberries to War of the Worlds – and this enables Roberts to build quite a dense community within the New Model Army, one which thrives on shared knowledge and common culture. Early on, Tony tells us that direct democracy isn’t possible in states as large as the modern nation; New Model Armies, on the other hand, are the size of ancient Athens. Roberts’s satire of the internet is that it is full of self-satisfied and self-selecting groups of like-minded people: this makes in many ways for a harsher tyranny, and a far less tolerant climate, than exists in the imperfect consensual oligarchies for which the novel’s regular armies still fight. Hobbes’s Leviathan is one of the novel’s final references, suggesting that even these liveliest of democracies will create an absolute sovereign of sorts.

Indeed, despite the way in which the inter-connected communities of the New Models open a way to a new form of human consciousness, the novel suggests that ultimately we may never escape human nature. Roberts aims to understand why Europe in particular has for millennia been an arena in which the continent’s inhabitants squabble, murder and maim; in doing so, he posits the next place for our terrible dedication to creating ever more complicated ways of killing each other. We are so committed, New Model Army suggests, simply because we like it. Whether governed by tyranny, representative or direct democracy, we will continue to fight as we always have done. With much to say, too, about love and faith, New Model Army feels on first read like a thoughtful, layered and – yes – complete novel. Recommended.

Reviewing Politics?

If it's rubbish, should we say so?
Is it because I is right-wing?

Some of you may remember my review of Neal Asher’s Orbus. I wasn’t kind, and I thought quite deeply about that as I wrote it. Asher’s brand of gung-ho adventure, it seemed to me, had far more potential than its execution allowed, and, as Jonathan McCalmont later suggested in a more recent review of Philip Palmer’s Red Claw, science fiction might deserve more careful writers of entertaining adventure. As an example of how this lack of care, rather than any inherent faults of intent or purpose, might result in poor work, I said that the book’s “politics, if soft-headed, aren’t pernicious.” Again, I thought quite carefully about that phrase – I was very conscious that I didn’t want to be seen as dismissing Asher’s politics because I disagreed with it. Rather, it was the slapdash approach to expressing that politics (and, indeed, the book’s other ideas) with which I had a problem.

On which note, a comment left on the review this Monday by someone identifying themselves as, er, Neal Asher: “Tristan, that very often depends on which axe is being ground, and which axe it is the reviewer’s preference.” Tristan had said that, “I take the position that political content is orthogonal to literary quality. The problem is that writers with a political axe to grind often present simplistic versions of political positions that could be treated with a great deal of nuance.” (Well said.) My perception of Asher’s reply, however, is that he perceives my criticisms to proceed from political, rather than literary, differences. (This isn’t helped by a post which appeared on Asher’s own blog on the same day, bemoaning the pompous orthodoxy of the leftie literati. But no one review is mentioned specifically, and one wouldn’t want to assume.)

For the record, this was emphatically not the case. In defense of the Asher comment, the discussion following the review veered more deeply into politics than I did; by the same token, it was in that very discussion that I first explained my approach to the issue. If Asher had managed to give his characters and story a convincing political grounding of any stripe, I would not have been able to complain. (Indeed, I’ve been known  to – whisper it now – enjoy the writings of right-wing and conservative novelists. I might even say that to start ticking the left and right boxes next to a writer’s name is in itself pointless. I don’t do it.) Instead, Orbus presents politics without nuance, and political manoeuvrings without subtelty. On page 98 of the novel, the Prador’s political and military history is swiftly relayed: “since alliances tended to change very quickly, with betrayal and murder of one’s allies an utterly accepted political tool, […] technical knowledge gradually spread.” In case you were wondering, it doesn’t make any more sense in context.

The cynicism of the libertarian, the deep distrust of government and collective action, pervades Asher’s novels. But in Orbus at least, it is so baldly applied – so dulled of anything but the bluntest satirical edge – that, agree with Asher or no, it cannot convince in and of itself. This may or may not be bad politics; it’s certainly bad writing. In the comments to that review of Red Claw, Asher (if it is truly he) thanks McCalmont for cementing his position as “the SF-literati whipping boy.” But criticisms of his work aren’t personal. And they’re certainly not political.

Balancing It Out: ‘Caprica’

'Dynasty' with cybernetics

I’m a loyal viewer of television. If I start a series and like it, I’ll usually carry on – in most cases, if I start late I’ll go backwards, too. I watched season seven of The West Wing; I bought the fifth season of Babylon 5 on DVD; I went back to catch up on the first and second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m a completist by instinct.

So the fact that I gave up on Ronald D Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica – that at the end of its third season, as ‘All Along The Watchtower’ swaggered portentously on its closing moments, I decided I’d had enough of what had become a bloated, confused and wrong-headed series – and stuck to that fit of pique – says a lot. I don’t recall ever having given up on a show in which I’d invested so much – I gave up on Lost, for example, but way before the first season had even finished. Such had been the force with which BSG had careered into irrelevance, however, that I never looked back. I wasn’t even tempted to watch its very last episode. (Which, in case you were wondering, is billed by the people I listen to as a total cop-out. I was flabbergasted.)

So when I was asked, “Hey, do you want to watch some episodes of Caprica?” it might be fair to say my answer was equivocal. Caprica has been mooted since BSG’S second season, was put into development hell from 2006 thanks to wrangles between almost everyone involved, and seems to continue to have teething troubles behind the scenes – it has been through three showrunners, for a start. None of which necessarily means it will be bad; what made it sound bad was its premise – set 50 or 60 years before the fall of the Twelve Colonies depicted in BSG’s opening miniseries, Caprica was to focus on the events surrounding the conception and construction of the first Cylons. The Cylons – their exact nature, their essential purpose, their absurd simultaneous depiction as both omnipotent and incompetent – became one of the weakest elements of the parent series. A prequel focusing so fully on a subject the writers had already made such a hash of didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

But ultimately I have a lot of sympathy with this post at Cultural Learnings: any show, Caprica included, deserves to be judged on its own merits. In the last week, then, I’ve watched the series pilot, and two of the subsequent regular episodes. And the good news is that Caprica isn’t bad. The bad news is that nor is it actually good. It has potential, but it hasn’t yet made the sale.

As Abigail has pointed out over at Asking The Wrong Questions, it’s satisfying that Caprica posits that the Cylons find their origin in a self-absorbed teenage girl. This makes more sense of BSG than BSG made of BSG. I disagree, though, that the show’s core fault is its disconnect from its parent show – this is actually its only hope. Abigail was offended by BSG as much as I was in the end, so I’m surprised she feels this way; but Caprica must stand alone and apart from the earlier series, even as it feeds into it. It must try its best to ignore the controversies of the old series, and find a way of its own. True, it must also make sense of the wider story – but this is not something it’s having trouble, even as it becomes itself. It seems to me, for instance, that its high-tech future can conceivably give way to the more basic one of BSG rather easily – the highest technology in the series is froth on the top of a fiftiesish wider culture in which police detectives use old style phones, answering machines have switches, and men lower down the food chain than the proprieter of a major technologies company have never even touched that company’s most popular product. A sort of Butlerian Jihad Lite makes a lot of sense in this mashed-up world.

On which note, Abigail’s thoughts on the show’s admittedly poorly executed opening credits also seem to me to miss Caprica‘s vision of itself: its vision of an advanced society is precisely pulpy – all uncomfortable juxtaposition of 40s cars with cell phones that look like Kirk’s communicator, or fedora hats resting next to a comedy robot butler. Caprica seeks to be more accessible than BSG, softer, and its science fictional vision is consequently a grab-bag of everything from Philip K Dick to The Jetsons. Indeed, it is this which may be its flaw – I don’t disagree with the commenter at Enik Rising that this tension is deliberate on one level (although Seth’s on difficult ground with his point on decadence and the show’s marriages); but, at times, its Cylon, a military robot programmed with the personality of the aforementioned brat, can look comical rather than ominous, lost in the kitschy little retrofuture it stumbles through. Perhaps this element of physical humour is part of Caprica‘s softening; perhaps it’s a sign that the show is as confused as its forebear. (How much humour can be drawn out of a show taking place mere decades prior to the practical extinction of humanity?).

In the show’s defense, some of its central performances are very good: Eric Stoltz and Paula Malcomson as the Greystones are particularly fine. The couple’s daughter, Zoe (played not always engagingly by Alessandra Torresani), is the personality installed in that first Cylon, in the wake of her death in a suicide bombing performed by her boyfriend and fellow transgressive monotheist, Ben Stark. Zoe’s father, Daniel (Stoltz), is the show’s central figure, and it is his drive to reclaim his daughter which powers the creation of that ‘Cybernetic Life-form Node’; his wife, Amanda, is profoundly shocked by the extent of her daughter’s secret life, and Malcomson’s portrayal of a woman deeply conflicted is a highlight of the series (though, confusingly, she is not Trixie).

Less convincing is Esai Morales as Joseph Adama. This is a shame, given his character’s importance to the BSG mythos – Adama is the father of the boy who will become the Admiral of the Colonial Fleet, after all – but a combination of slow writing and forced stoicism gives his portrayal too little fizz. A lawyer who bribes judges and asks his gangster brother to settle personal scores, it’s pleasing to see in him something of the moral dubiousness he will pass on to his son, but given how badly Bill Adama’s misplaced righteousness came to unbalance BSG, it may again portend badly for the future of the show. (If, indeed, it has one.)

Despite these concerns, the show still feels like it’s limbering up, setting things in their proper places. Its pilot episode packs a lot into its 92 minutes, and yet much of it is merely getting the show to where it needs to start – grieving parents, creepy robot, febrile society. And if its confounding opening 15 minutes, set inside a virtual reality designed to symbolise, but not be in the way viewers may first suspect, a civilization collapsing into self-indulgence, also feels a little teen-angsty, this merely throws into greater relief the adult angst which comes later. If Adama feels at times so repressed as to be unknowable, this makes in the second regular episode for some effective moments of surprise which serve to add some much-needed grit. And if it seems that the whole thing is moving too slowly, it is also true that rather a lot has already happened – if it is uncomfortable to realise that a main character (Sister Clarice, a teacher at Zoe’s school) has, yes, a shadowy Plan, then it is also true that the Cylon stuff happens surprisingly quickly. All of which careful placement suggests a show with a sense of balance and proportion. But there are, alas, sins other than those of the father.

Twitter and Difficulty

Hmm.

This post is brought to you by an unseemly urge to over-expound.

Anna and I are now both on Twitter. Already, I’ve been involved in genre wrangles. Jonathan McCalmont is currently reading In Great Waters, which you might remember I liked, though not as much as some. Apparently, he’s been reading some classics, too, and remarked that moving from Fitzgerald and Camus back to genre writing was a curious experience: like moving, I guess, from cordon bleu to pub grub. I’ve some sympathy with this feeling – rare has it been that I’ve moved from a out-and-out literary text to a pure work of genre (which In Great Waters is not, despite its clear relationship to SF&F) and not felt the downwards gear change. This, however, is also true of moving from a canonical author to a contemporary novelist yet to prove his mettle – so the contest is somewhat rigged.

In Whitfield’s defense, her own eatery is a gastropub rather than a boozer with a few sarnies on the bar. And here lie the limits of Twitter – Niall Harrison objected to Jonathan’s use of the word ‘simplistic’ to characterise In Great Waters. I’d agree with him that ‘simplistic’ is not the word to use – because, yes, it suggests distorting naivety – but by the same token I think we both agree that In Great Waters doesn’t quite pull itself together. That is a fault, ultimately, of its prose style, which cannot sustain and stretch itself across the novel’s length and breadth. To this extent, then, the spirit of what Jonathan was saying was spot on – he was experiencing less powerful prose.

Twitter, however, is not the place to have a semantic debate – it pretty much demands poor choice of words. How is it possible to have a proper debate about difficulty in prose (and there is now a putative Obfuscatory Writers project abroad) when you are being forced to limit your own words to 140 characters? Whitfield’s writing is not simplistic in the way that – as again we all agreed – much genre writing can be; but it isn’t as rewardingly complex as the writers Jonathan cited. Again, important semantics are unexplorable in a Tweet.

What are the pleasures of difficult writing, though? A plain, unadorned style can be a thing of beauty – Kurt Vonnegut remains one of my very favourite writers, and it is stunningly difficult to emultate his spare, skeletal style. Whitfield’s own writing is comparably full of allusion and play, and, if it is without the on-the-other-hand poetry of a Fitzgerald, is that so bad a thing? Some baroque edifices are ugly; there is a limit to the virtue of ornamentation. But it also seems to me that the fault of Whitfield’s style – its ultimate failure completely to encompass its theme – proceeds from what Jonathan may or may not still call its ‘simplicity’. Moby Dick, for example, is a forbidding novel; but its success lies in that repulsion. Its discursive, Biblical, roiling style provides the echoing space and inward movement required fully to explore depths not entirely divorced from Whitfield’s. The difficulty of the style supports the easing of the theme.

Not all books benefit from an excess of style. Dorothy Parker wrote of Ernest Hemingway (not a writer I care for, but still) that “Hemingway stands as a genius because Hemingway has an unerring sense of selection. He discards details with a magnificnet lavishness; he keeps his words to their short path.” This control – a word used by Niall to describe (some of) Whitfield’s prose – is, like Vonnegut’s, key not only to the merits (as they may be) of Hemingway’s writing, but also the success of its content. It’s missing the point, of course, to think all good writing must be difficult; but there is still a difference between Hemingway’s unadorned prose and the simplistic failures of genre: a clarity, a precision. It may well be harder to achieve this trick, this stripping back, than Melville’s deep soundings. Parker on Hemingway again: “The simple thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it.” Even unadorned prose is difficult.

Jonathan was aiming, perhaps, at the descriptive rather than the evocative function of genre prose versus its literary counterpart’s. In this lies the real issue, not the ‘simplicity’ or ornament of the styles in question: it is not enough to tell; prose, as much as the story it strives to contain, needs also to show.

The Early Modern Moon

A More Modern Moon...

Due to the weather over the past few days, I have found myself snowed in with a little time on my hands.  I have been reading a few books, and writing the reviews I’ve had on my ‘to-do’ pile for ages.  It has been quite nice to re-enter the early modern world, which, since finishing my PhD, has grown somewhat distant to me.  Absorbing myself again has been a bit like visiting an old haunt, reassuringly familiar.  A place easy to forget when you’re busy in the day-to-day gruels of ‘normal’ (as opposed to academic, perhaps) life.  You don’t realise how much you miss a place until you return.  So, for that reason, I am going to try to write a few more early modern blogs!

My PhD considered early modern patterns of story-telling, and the weaving of cultural narratives, in sixteenth and seventeenth century England.  I looked at fairy-tales, and witchy tales, and I have been exploring these ideas a bit further.  A little facet of early modern life and story-telling I’ve recently stumbled across is the idea of the moon.

It’s difficult to imagine a world where, at night, everything would fade into almost complete darkness.  One in which the night was black, the skies full of stars, and the lights from peoples homes just dim specs in the distance.  Not surprisingly, the moon would have been luminous and significant.  It would have lit the sky and eased after dark travel.  The lunar cycle provided a rhythm to the lifecycle calendar; marking the passage of time, the dawning of festivities and the ebbing and flowing of the tides.

I recently came across an article by David Cressy which explores ideas about the ‘English Man in the Moon’.  What did people in early modern England believe about the moon?  The answers are numerous.  But, the ‘man in the moone’ was a familiar concept.

Man in the Moone

The man in the moon looked down on earth; he watched the skies at night.  Was he a Christian man, they asked?  Did he answer to God?  Or was he in limbo, irredeemable?  According to Plutarch, who wrote ‘the face appearing in the roundel of the moon’, published in English in 1603, the moon was populated by nimble creatures, demons and departed souls.  Whereas seventeenth-century writers, such as Francis Godwin, who wrote ‘The Man in the Moone’ told stories of the moon as a “faerie land”, and tales of men who had caught many birds in a net in their endeavours to fly in the moon-lit sky.

One of the most prominent early modern ideas about the moon, however, was influenced by Renaissance theories of travel and of undiscovered, untameable and non-Christian worlds.  Ideas about newfound lands filled imaginations and led to stories about the man, or people, who may have walked the moon.  In the words of poet Edmund Spenser:

“what if within the moon’s fair shining sphere,
what if in every other star unseen,
of other worlds he happily should hear?”

Such worlds clearly led to many stories and narratives, some sincere, others tongue-in-cheek.  Whatever they were, they are undoubtedly worth hearing again…(someone should do some research on them!)

Paul McAuley’s “Gardens of the Sun” [2009]

“You’ve wasted too much time in debate. You’re all infected with the pernicious virus of democracy. The idea of fairness. The idea that everyone deserves an opinion about everything, and everyone’s opinion is worth the same as everyone else’s. That kind of stupidity was wiped out years ago in Greater Brazil. Its hosts were killed by the Overturn, and it was unable to find a foothold in those who survived. For only the strong survive. Because they are able to withstand everything the universe can thrown at them. Because they have proved themselves strong by defeating the weak, not by treating them as equals.” [Euclides Piexoto in Gardens of the Sun, pg. 389]

Gardens of the Sun, by Paul McAuley (UK Cover)

Euclides Peixoto, the patriarch of a great ruling family of Earth in Paul McAuley’s sequel to The Quiet War, is no pantomime villain. One of the reasons that McAuley’s future operates on the level of the believable is that his awful logic is in some senses irrefutable: following catastrophic climate change, biology has been grafted even into stage religions, and the doctrine of natural selection demands of the evolving organism that it simply be strong enough to beat the competition. The human society created on Earth by men like Peixoto is feudal and brutal – but, crucially, it works. Unlike the culture of greed and individualism that preceded it, Peixoto’s does not repeatedly rape the planet.

In The Quiet War, the tightly controlled, rigidly hierarchical political settlement on Earth was contrasted sharply with the democratic, consultative societies of Saturn and Jupiter. Gardens of the Sun picks up where that novel left off – with those city states of the ‘Outers’ subjugated and occupied by Earth, and the culture they once championed kept alive only by a small band of survivors who have fled all the way to Neptune, the ‘Free Outers’. This alone suggests something of the structure of the book – it cycles through points of view separated by even greater distances than was the case in the first novel: we have Macy Minnot with the Free Outers, the rescued pilot Cash Baker on Earth, the spy formerly known as Dave #8 on a wandejahr around the former Outer societies, and the diplomat Loc Ifrahim at the centre of a complex web of alliances and conspiracies stretching across all the inhabited rocks of the solar system.

So where The Quiet War could be imagined as conical – broad at the start, but inevitably tumbling towards a clear, non-negotiable bringing-together, Gardens of the Sun is structurally far more ambitious. As Duncan Lawie noted in his Strange Horizons review, Gardens of the Sun covers the same plot developments once, twice, often three times, as it flashes through its various protagonists. Duncan is astute to note that “this approach says as much about perspective and context as it does about the data.” He ultimately finds this method, however, a little wearying, and yet I think it central to the book’s purpose. Here is a novel, contra Peixoto’s powerful and inexorable logic, which champions and puts the case for respectful diversity. Its multiplicity of voices underlines the sheer range of human experience and potential.

Towards the close of the novel, the gene wizard Sri Hong-Owen, who has slowly become as isolated and mysterious a figure as her inspiration, the Outer Arvenus, reveals her great project to Alder, her biological son:  “We are the clade now,” she tells him. “One flesh, one purpose.” [pg. 423] Hong-Owen has cloned a whole population of “sister-daughters”, using her own genome as the basis for an entire ecosystem. “You have become a nation of one,” Alder observes [pg. 425], and silently concludes that his mother will never achieve her life-long goal of equalling or bettering the great Arvenus. The reason for this is simple: Arvenus never tired of reiterating humanity, constantly recycling the species’ endless potential in order to adapt it for disparate environments. In collapsing her society into a simple self, however tweaked and twisted, Hong-Owen has abandoned this project in favour of dictation and narcisissm. What Gardens of the Sun suggests is that the mark of true genius is to accept multiplicity and work with it.

Perhaps this grand – and intelligently enacted – theme lies at the heart of the problem Adam Roberts identifies with the novels final quarter. To quote in full:

“I don’t exactly mean that Gardens of the Sun’s ending is too happy—although, and without spilling spoilers, it kind of is, both in the way it delivers a dividend to key characters, but in the way it embodies a weirdly symmetrical didacticism, by which the two books’ agents of aggression and reaction are killed off, and the agents of peace and reform are rewarded (and agents of the former who reformed and became the latter are doled a mix of punishment and reward). But I mean that it is too neat.”

The novel’s wider project has been softly-softly (as Roberts says, nothing much happens in the novel – all its biggest events are captured in hearsay and elision, which is of course again a way of emphasising the disparate human reaction to a given environment over the pow-wallop of events); its final hundred pages or so try very hard to round things off with something approaching finality. There was indeed a sense of forced pay-off in this, that McAuley was aware the reader had followed his characters for hundreds of pages, and that said reader therefore deserved some dividends. But “symmetrical didacticism” rubs ungainly against the more expansive mood of the book as a whole. It is against didacticism and forced endings, and for organic development and open-ended consideration; if the novel has a fault it’s that narratively it doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions.

Eric Brown in the Guardian wrote of McAuley and this novel that, “Even when his characters seem cold and unsympathetic, they are convincing creations manifestly of their time and environment.” I find that a particularly useful observation – again, both Gardens of the Sun and The Quiet War make no apologies for their at times aloof or cold characters, because they are of their environments. Being of the environment is absolutely central to this duology – working with it rather than against it, adapting to its demands rather than subjugating it to our will.

There are passages of stark beauty in this novel, most of which come from McAuley’s capacity to describe and extrapolate the solar system; there are moments of science overload, too, but it is the other side of McAuley’s prose coin and your toleration for each may be a matter of degree. I’m not sure that Adam is right when he says The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun should be published together – as above, I rather found them to be different both structurally and thematically, one resolving into a focusing event, the other resisting the same – but, even when they are clumsy, they are undoubtedly unified works in and of themselves, carefully constructed and deeply considered. At times cold and uninviting, perhaps – but then so, too, are the environments in which we can find ourselves.

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

"In Great Waters" by Kit Whitfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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