A Pregnant Widow: The Arthur C Clarke Award 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Nobility Sounds Wonderful As A Concept”: Drew Magary’s “The End Specialist”

"Climate Change. Boy, I don't know."

Every Clarke Award shortlist has a slot for the outsider, the mainstream science fiction novel, or the slipstreamy not-quite-anything piece. This year, that slot is filled, one would assume at first glance, by Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, a refugee from the Booker longlist which has made a longer run of it in the genre award stakes. I’ve yet to get to that volume, but having read Drew Magary’s The End Specialist, which is conversely sold in the science fiction sections of the bookshops and has been reviewed by a slew of genre bloggers (though apparently no one else), I feel like I’ve found this year’s true naïf.

Published in the USA under the title of The Postmortal, Magary’s debut novel does exactly what it says on its American tin: in 2019, a cure for death becomes widely available, first on the black market and then, following riots demanding its legalisation, through the healthcare system. Following a short prologue set in 2093, which makes clear that the world (and for the world, we must read ‘the USA’) survives the cure in only the loosest sense, we join our narrator, John Farrell, in his journey through the forty-or-so years of his immortality. Like the police in Rule 34, Farrell uses a LifeRecorder to document his life, and this provides us an archive of ‘blog posts’, grouped into sections often separated by a decade or more, through which we can read his future history.

Farrell is a passive kind of protagonist, to whom things happen – he is given access to the cure through a friend and doesn’t really think through his choice to take it, and later he suffers bereavements and career changes largely it seems by accident. Magary’s choice to skip whole swathes of his protagonist’s story leaves so many gaps in not just his history but his characterisation that the only justified conclusion we can draw about Farrell is that he is intensely solipsistic. Perhaps this is the point – the doctor who undertakes the procedure with Farrell remarks that it is vanity that powers every individual to opt for immortality, and later in the novel we are introduced to the Church of Man, which opts to worhsip not a deity but humankind itself. So curious an alignment of self-absorption with passivity, however, conspires to produce a strangely featureless narrator.

In his acknowledgements, Magary cites his agent as the figure responsible for turning a ‘masturbatory idea dump’ into a novel, and in this crude fashioning of his protagonist – and, so cursory are his writerly glances at anyone else, his only real character – there appears to be the remnant of Magary’s rougher, poorer draft. Indeed, the editing appears only to have provided a stronger through-line in the episodic second half of the novel, which piles scene upon scene to no great effect. One of the greatest weaknesses of The End Specialist is that its plot is insufficiently muscular: this is a novel written and structured like an airport thriller, like a Hollywood blockbuster, and yet it lacks the thundering engine of story that kind of work requires. The closest thing Farrell’s disjointed jaunt through the deleterious effects of immortality has to a plot comes in the shape of a woman, a uniquely beautiful blonde he first sees at his cure doctor’s offices; Farrell makes some considerable hullabullaloo about this individual in the first third of the novel, but she disappears for the middle third before returning in its final straight. We learn that her name is Solara Beck and that, far from being the driver of a novel’s hidden events – which, with her connections to several bombings and her uncanny ability to disappear, we may have hoped her to be – she turns out to be a damsel in distress who provides Farrell, within a few pages of rapid conversion from nihilist to knight, his chance at redemption.

This is clumsy, ill-paced stuff, and Magary’s treatment of Beck is of a piece with his treatment of anyone in his novel who isn’t male and American. Women either die or get divorced; other nations, in particular China and Russia, are depicted as dark, barbaric places, governable only through dictatorship and devilry. The End Specialist is a dark book because it posits that the openness and faith in humanity professed by the reasonable American president who legalises the cure in the face of mass protest is ill-suited to a world of depleting resources and human venality. It’s hard not to read the book as an allegory for climate change – which is nevertheless conspicuous in its absence from Magary’s 2059, suffering from over-population but not rising sea levels or intolerable summers. Our earth, too, is having trouble keeping up with the “epidemic of living” [pg. 226], and, in depicting a savage future governed solely by human want, Magary provides a circumlocutory riposte to the shock-jock talkshow hosts of his own world: “See, this […] is liberal thinking at its absolute worst. […] Humans are bad. ‘Oh, you can’t live forever! You’ll emit too much carbon! You’ll throw away too much garbage! An owl will die!” [pg. 33]  The implications of his riposte, however, are not thought through: if not liberal democracy, and if not unjustifiable brutality, then what?

This is a pity, because otherwise the principal achievement of The End Specialist is the detail with which it extrapolates from its central conceit. The cure itself is surely a nonsense scientifically: “what this involves is me taking a sample of your DNA,” says John’s doctor, “then finding and altering – or, more precisely, deactivating – a specific gene in your DNA, and then reintroducing it to your body” [pg. 6]. Given that little absurdity, however, The End Specialist exhaustively explores a world in which death has been abolished. Indeed, and especially early on, the novel at times takes on rather too Socratic an air, with characters talking to each other about complex ethical issues. Likewise, Magary recalls a less economical John Brunner, pouring in endless quotes from ‘newsfeeds’ and ‘streams’, interviews and videos, which paint in yet further detail. The occassional cartoonish of this detail – the baby-branding Chinese (“what else do you expect from a country that tattoos newborns?” [pg. 320]) and the unconscionable rationalism of the Russians (“dictatorship was not an option, but a necessity” [pg. 277]) –  doesn’t help Magary’s case, but at the same time he can nail human nature with some pith: “I’m guessing there will be a point where [the cure is] legal and everyone has it and I feel obligated to get it too,” grumbles Farrell’s sister. “I was like that with cell phones.” [pg. 63]

Unfortunately, Magary’s structure creaks under the weight of all these discursive detours – tellingly, in an interview with the AV Club he seems to persist in understanding the first and second halves of the novels as separate entities. Furthermore, beyond this illusion of detail, and the witticisms and wisecracks which are his strength, his material is undeniably thin. There’s a moment when Farrell is selecting his ‘grail’ – there comes a fashion for all postmortals to own a little cup like Christ’s – when Magary inserts Indiana Jones into his text. Much of The End Specialist feels received in this way, as if Jonathan Swift made all the salient points about immortality in 1726 and Magary’s job is merely to insert smartphones into the milieu. For all his invention – the eponymous job title belongs to government-sanctioned euthanisers, for instance, and their opposite numbers come to be the fanatical ‘Greenies’, internet trolls made flesh who seek to spoil postmortality with violence and torture – there remains in the air between these pages a certain staleness: “cheap suits flooded the hallway and skittered around like vermin, [pg. 370]”, for example, is a clause powered purely by cliché.

In that AV Club interview, Magary confesses that he discovered only once he had completed his novel that Kurt Vonnegut had written a short story about precisely the same concept (one assumes he means ‘2 B R o 2B’). It’s this ignorance of its forebears, of course, which leads The End Specialist, despite its accumulated variety of incident and its comedic deftness, ultimately to read thinly and clumsily. I can see why those former qualities were deemed by the Clarke judges as reason enough to honour the book with a spot on the shortlist; I struggle, however, to understand how they trumped the similar qualities of other books which did not exhibit the latter demerits to quite so pronounced a degree.