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.

“A Proof of Sincerity”: Sherri S Tepper’s “The Waters Rising”

"I have never felt so well planned for," grouched Abasio.

What is a reviewer to do with Sherri S Tepper’s The Waters Rising? It is part of the function of shortlists like the Clarke’s to shine a light on books which have been overlooked by reviewers and readers, but in the case of this novel it is hard not to assume that it has been passed over for want of anything nice to say. When Maureen Kincaid Speller (whose review of the novel is sensible and inhumanly alert to Tepper’s endlessly shapeless plot) tweeted, “Have finished reading #watersrising. Er …”, it occurred to me that in a way that was all that needed to be said about a novel which loses itself well before its hundredth page. The hashtag Maureen uses began as a joint reading project – within a few hundred pages it had fallen silent, the assembled tweeters presumably struck dumb by a book which defies reasoned analysis.

First and foremost, Tepper’s style is so discursive as to erase entirely all possible intimations of whatever structure she might have intended. In large part, the novel is the story of Abasio and Xulai, lovers who are in Adam Roberts’s polite terminology “problematic”. (Roberts is more admiring – although still dismissive – of the book than many, and this must be related to his long-term admiration for Tepper – to call The Waters Rising “pleasantly immersive” is like describing the experience of being drowned as ‘getting a bit wet’.) The pair of lovers are problematic because, you understand, Xulai appears to be a child when we first meet her – a ‘soul-carrier’ for the wife of the Duke of Wold. When the princess inevitably dies, Abasio must join the fellowship which is tasked with returning her Ring soul to the place of its making, Mordor Tingawan. It is on this quest that endless subplots are opened and tediously explored, and on which we learn that Xulai is really twenty years old, so it’s fine for Abasio to have the hots for her – it just means he is unusually perceptive.

If The Waters Rising has a theme, it is this: secret knowledge. Tepper’s world is not the slowly flooding realm of core fantasy it at first appears to be – indeed, so necessary is it to read the novel as sf that I disagree even with David Hebblethwaite’s view that, so thin is the book’s science, it should be read otherwise. Rather, its technological past – our own climate change-threatened present – is literally submerged beneath the waters of time. Information scarcity comes to characterise the whole novel: Abasio can see past the immediately apparent to the supposed truth beneath; his wise-cracking talking horse possesses a wit which can cast new light on human problems; and even Xulai’s tutor, Precious Wind, has frankly compendious knowledge of the past, which she reveals in one great gout when it is necessary for Tepper to have her do so (that Precious Wind is even in a position to have this kind of knowledge is also kept secret for a large chunk of the novel).  “People don’t always tell everything, you know,” one characters informs us – the interminable dialogue in The Waters Rising is never between characters, but amongst them for our benefit. “Mostly they don’t.” [pg. 31]   The Waters Rising paints this truism gauchely large: we are never drip-fed clues, but left to blunder ignorantly through huge reams of text before an absurdly bald expository lecture enlightens us.

The very narrative voice is part of this bland project: though ostensibly in the third person limited mode, in practice the prose reminded me of a tone-deaf George Eliot, since it offers constant judgement on its own story in an ironic, although bathetic, sort of way. The following is typical of the approach (where ‘typical’ means ‘deliberately selected for its unusual brevity’): “‘I have just learned…,’ said Alicia, going on to quote what she had, in fact, just learned.” [pg. 227]  As the novel continues, however, the judgements of this distanced, incompetent narrator – who seems to know everything and yet share nothing – turn from irony to cruelty. Alicia is one of the novel’s villains – responsible, for instance, for the death of the princess – and there is no mercy for her, even when we learn she is in a real way not at all responsible for her actions. (“Magic,” sneers one character named Boromir Bear in both a moment of significance for the novel and an instance of characters suddenly attaining language the cod-medieval setting pretends to deny them: “From what I know, more likely genetics.” [pg. 57])

Alicia is in fact the plaything of the Old Dark Man, a survival from the Before Time when humans were nasty and made nasty gadgets, creating in his case a killing-machine with a murderous hatred of any being he is programmed to target – that is, anyone at all different to those who programmed him. This selfishness, this will to power, is the position against which the novel primarily sets itself. “Land is merely land,” another villain cackles; “trees are trees; rivers are rivers, all of them ours to do with as we will!” [pg. 108]  Yet ultimately, and in perhaps the most unhinged of all its many expository lectures, the solution to the rising waters and the otherwise inevitable extinction of humanity is offered, at the end of the fellowship’s journey, by the Sea King, a kraken with a curiously similar logic: “There must be no odds at all! Xulai must be sure each fertile sea egg is given to a person like herself. Otherwise, we will have wars beneath the sea, hatred, species-ism, territoriality – who knows what horrors we would have.” [pg. 412]  The future is safe, because in the future everyone will be like you.

Here we come to the crux of this bizarre novel. The Sea King’s solution, simply, is to use incredibly unlikely genetic science – not for the first time, Clarke’s Third Law has a lot to answer for – to create new generations of humans who are also, well, fish. The way this jonbar-point evolution is achieved is for someone to eat a ‘sea egg’ – they will then, if mating with another consumer, produce spliced offspring equipped to survive in the pending aquatic future. Xulai, like the “chess piece” Alicia [pg. 362],  has no real choice in becoming the brood mother for this absurd new race – “You can give them [the eggs] to others and let your own grandchildren drown,” the Sea King suggests helpfully when she first appears reluctant to take him up on his offer [pg. 413] –   but nor is the option presented as troubling in the slightest. “Let us drink to the next generation,” Abasio huzzahs near the end of the novel [pg. 494], and presumably the reader is meant also to raise her cup.

The novel’s uninterrogated focus on determinist destiny – early on, the canny talking horse sings, “Hey-oh, the wagon pulls the horse / Or else the horse the wagon / And no one really knows what force / By which the which is draggin'” [pg. 2] – is of a piece with its understandable horror (and terror) at the present world (“Truly, they did marvels then, but none of these marvels profited the human race,” sighs Precious Wind [pg. 382]). But Tepper’s response is to retreat into the insane vision of the Sea King – to retreat, that is, into fantasy. The Waters Rising‘s genre is so tricky to identify because it presents as science fiction but is in fact an attempt to escape from, rather than honestly deal with, the flood. At one point, Xulai daydreams: “How wonderful to be someone other than oneself! Someone who couldn’t be hurt, or killed, or lost in some terrible spasm of obliteration that she knew existed, that she had always known existed though she could not remember being told.” [pg. 47]  The Waters Rising is Xulai’s impossible hope in novel form.

All of which leaves me to wonder if there isn’t a cleverer book under the frankly pathological accretions of The Waters Rising. This could be a knowing novel about the dangers of both science and fantasy, a wry exploration of how knowledge can be simultaneously withheld and misused. There are hints this is what Tepper was attempting – when we first meet Abasio, in the opening pages of the novel, he smirks, “In order to allay suspicion, I am about to sing something pastoral and suggestive of bucolic innocence.” [pg. 2]  Likewise, when the fellowship passes through the villages of the Becomers, people convinced by Alicia that to win the favour of the Duke they must act in certain artificial ways, Xulai observes of one that, “One could play pretend with total convicton, but one could not pretend play in the same way. His every movement spoke of mockery.” [pg. 120]  It is tempting to see intent in this, but such are the failings of the book that this is a reading that cannot take us very far.

In his review this week of Philip Palmer’s Artemis, Martin Lewis writes of feeling forced to read a text as satire. I recognise this feeling from both my own reading of Artemis and from The Waters Rising itself:

“Falyrion, Duke of Kamfels, had a wife, Naila; a daughter, Genieve; and a son, Falredi. Naila died. Not long thereafter, Falyrion married Mirami, who bore him a daughter, Alicia, and a son, Hulix. Then Falyrion died and Falredi succeeded to the ducal throne of Makfels. Then Falredi died. Mirami’s son Hulix succeeded him as duke.” [pg. 184]

This can easily be read as a satire of the fetish for detail found in epic fantasy of the Tolkein mode. So, too, can the parallels I have oh-so-archly referred to above. The novel’s tedious coda, in which the fellowship return to the Shire Norland to resolve unfinished business with Saruman the Old Dark Man, can be read similarly. As with Artemis, however, the incoherence of the final text precludes this kind of reading. By the close of the novel’s first third, when Tepper’s questing band of adventurers reaches an abbey in which not everyone is as they seem (“Wilderbrook abbey was deceptive at first appearance,” she shouts at us [pg. 154]), it has simply lost control: its plotlines proliferate, its backstory metastasises, and the characters struggle – and fail – to retain anything like individual identities. The Waters Rising is neither clever comment nor ripping yarn; it is, alas, a dim-witted slog suitable primarily for readers who revel not in story but in detail and ill-considered concepts (we know they’re out there – publishing figures tell us). One wonders which of those it was who won through on the Clarke’s judging panel.