A Discussion about Swiftly

Swiftly coverSince the Matter discussion went down so well, I’ve decided to turn it into a regular, or at least semi-regular feature. On the table this time: Adam Roberts’ ninth novel, which is “a rip-roaring 19th century adventure, a love story and a thought-provoking pre-atomic SF novel about our place in the universe.” Or is it?

Your participants this time, who should need little introduction if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time: me, Paul Kincaid, Victoria Hoyle, and Dan Hartland. If you haven’t read the novel, Dan’s review at Strange Horizons will give you some idea of what the book’s about; other online reviews worth a look are by Guy Haley, Nick Gevers, and Duncan Lawie. I kicked things off by asking for overall impressions of the novel …

Victoria Hoyle: I’ll start by saying this: I have always felt that Adam Roberts’ penchant for ideas and his novel writing have sat a little uneasily together — sometimes I think the latter has suffered from an over emphasis on the former. Up until Swiftly, though, I have been (mostly) satisfied that his books had coherent plots and characters, heightened by some excellent prose, that had the strength to carry the ideas through to their rightful conclusion. (For the record, of the four of Roberts’ books I’ve read I think Gradisil is the best, while Splinter is my peculiar favourite.) I felt that Swiftly failed in this regard. The first 80 pages (the two sections that have been published previously as short fiction) were wonderful. Muscular and toned and well-balanced, with strong characters to drive them. But I thought the later sections were positively surreal, plus a little clumsy, and I had great difficulty focusing on them around the huge lacunae in the plot. Characters fell through holes in time, and then reappeared utterly and inexplicably transformed. I found it impossible to put together as a single functioning narrative unit and, no matter the philosophy behind it, that is difficult for me to forgive.

Niall Harrison: I liked Swiftly a lot. I’m starting from a slightly different position to Victoria: I’ve read all of Roberts’ novels, and a majority of his short fiction; I’ve liked a lot of it, and admired almost all of it, so he’s clearly doing something that works for me. In fact, I think he’s been producing his best work in the last few years (as you’d hope, really) — I should probably say that during this time I’ve corresponded with him a bit as a result of my roles at Strange Horizons and Vector, but that’s just a happy coincidence. Swiftly struck me as a further development in three ways, all related. One, I think it’s the book in which he’s most successful at foregrounding his characters, or achieving a balance between the characters and the ideas he wants to explore. Two, I think it’s in many ways his most relaxed book, in a good way — in Swiftly he seems more willing to leave loose ends, to not have everything tied up in a little package of Meaning. I think the shift in tone that Victoria identifies is part of this. And three, I think it’s the most successful outing for Roberts-the-author-as-critic. I don’t know enough of Gulliver’s Travels to be able to pick up the nuances of his engagement with the book, but I enjoyed the various ways in which he explores the basic idea — and brings in dialogue with other texts.

Paul Kincaid: For the record, I like Roberts’ non-fiction, and though there is much to argue with in the book I have immense admiration for his History of sf. But I have never been able to get on with his fiction. Every novel or story I’ve read has disappointed me in some way or other. Swiftly seems to bring together all my discontents.

To start with, it is incoherent, and becomes more so as the book goes along and Roberts simply crams in more references to sf history. Obviously he is overt about the Jonathan Swift references, but the opening, when we first see the Lilliputians at work, owes more to Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester than it does to anything in Swift. And then he has to jemmy in Voltaire’s Micromegas (Littlebig). I think he assumes that because all these are concerned with scale, they can be pushed together with no harm, but that is just not the case. In the end I’m almost sorry that he didn’t try to squeeze Alice into the mix, it would have made about as much sense as everything else.

Then I think it is clumsy. As Victoria says, characters are simply forgotten for long stretches of the book, then brought back in because he needs them for some little bit of business. This is particularly true of the Lilliputians and the Brobdignagians, who never come across as anything other than authorial devices. Given that this is a book that is supposed to be about them, the careless way that they have no part to play in most of what goes on is amazing.

And the characterisation is so inconsistent that I spent a large part of the book thinking that through some oversight he had simply given exactly the same name to two totally different women. As we leave Eleanor the first time she is living with her mother, she has just witnessed the gruesome murder of her hated husband, she is living in a big house in fashionable London, she is negotiating for a mortgage to pay the fine of a treasure seeker, she is so ignorant of sex that she is frigid. The very next time we see her she is walking north alone. There is no indication of how she got there, there is not a single reference to her mother, her house, her husband, the treasure-seeker. And she has gone inexplicably from being frigid to being sexually manipulative. What on earth has gone wrong here? Does no-one else think this is at the least careless and at the worst witless?

Niall: I have to say, I didn’t find Eleanor nearly as inexplicable as Paul and Victoria did. If anything, my first reaction was that the dramatic transition from sexual repression to sexual exploration was perhaps a little clichéd — an overly-familiar idea of how a repressed person might suddenly go wild when freed from the constraints of family and circumstance. But I certainly didn’t think it was inconsistent.

Eleanor is introduced to us as a rationalist, scientific personality, fascinated by everything about the way the world works, but held back from direct engagement with it. Her interest in sex is almost the prototypical example of this — when she realises how human procreation must work, she’s not disgusted or reticent, she’s simply embarrassed that she didn’t already know. And so she decides that “the proper scientific thing to do [is] to study the phenomenon more carefully” (73). Of course her first attempt to doing that is to read, but that doesn’t get her very far; and because it doesn’t get her very far, because she understands everything intellectually first, her first physical relationship is a disaster.

When Bates’ invasion of her privacy spurs her transformation — and I do think it’s that moment that causes the change in her behaviour; there’s no sign that when she’s first picked up by Bates’ party that she’s already become so adventurous — it does so in ways consistent with her character. She approaches sex clinically, taking every opportunity to see how Bates reacts, or to study the way his body reacts, to what she does.

But if it’s not inconsistent, it is obviously discontinuous. And on that score, on the one hand, I can agree it’s a weakness — part three of the book is my least favourite, and that’s at least in part because Bates’ perspective is so stifling. On the other hand, though, it’s clearly deliberate, and it’s effective precisely because I find Eleanor interesting and would like to see more of her (and when we get to part four, the opening-out has that much more power). One aspect of the book is that our lives are shaped by forces we can’t always see or grasp: things like class at the upper end of the scale, things like bacteria at the lower end. A big part of the plot is carried out by sub-Lilliputian creatures we never see — we have to deduce that they were in the calculating machine, that they caused the disease, and so on – so it doesn’t surprise me in the least that we’re asked to deduce similar amounts about one of the human-scale characters. The dots aren’t particularly hard to join — London’s just been sacked, it’s not at all surprising Eleanor’s become a refugee — but they’re part of a strategy that runs throughout the book of refusing to give us some of the narrative satisfactions we expect a novel (perhaps particularly a science fiction novel) to give. The elisions are so precise that it’s impossible for me to see it as carelessness on Roberts’ part.

Dan Hartland: Swiftly is a troubling book, and that seems to me a good sign. As you all probably know, I reviewed it for Strange Horizons. It has to be said, in hearing of the editor no less, that I usually know what I’m going to say about a book I’m reviewing for Strange Horizons, and with pretty decent definition, by the time I finish its last page. This is because most of them are open-and-shut cases, largely due to their common and garden simple-mindedness. When it comes to Swiftly, I agree with a little bit of what everyone has said so far, and this reflects the fact that when I finished it, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was good.

But ultimately, I gave it a decently positive review. A large part of this is due to what Niall was talking about re: its intertextuality. Roberts is pretty obviously playing with ideas from his History of sf, and as Victoria points out at times writing good fiction and exploring ideas well are not necessarily compatible. But I disagree with Paul: the texts Roberts references do not crowd each other out, since he never goes as far to draw much more out of them than the reference itself. I was impressed by the novel’s sense of place, by how well it sits in its chosen milieu, and I think it achieves that by not over-simplifying it own concerns or those of the period in which it is (sorta) set.

Naturally this makes the book unwieldy. In that review of mine, my big source of complaint is just what Victoria picks up on when she talks about lacunae. It’s not just the large gaps of time that characters fall through, though — yes, Eleanor is transformed between her appearances, but Bates twists and turns in moments and pages just to get to the moral resolution Roberts wants him to achieve. I found this pretty difficult to swallow, and Niall’s defense of it — that the ellipsis is sort of a stylistic echo of the invisible agents the book is based around — doesn’t really help the reader escape the dislocation it engenders. Yet, like Niall, I had no problem with Eleanor’s change in circumstances at the novel’s half-point: she has implicitly lost everything which gave her life structure, and this has clearly killed the structuralist. She then rebuilds herself through experience, and more problematic are the on-a-dime nature of those experiences. She sees war on a Real Time Strategy screen and — poof! — she develops human empathy. It’s the psychological baby steps Roberts fumbles, not the leaps or the set-ups.

On the large canvas, Swiftly may veritably teem, and may defy easy categorisation or distillation … but I’m not at all that’s not a sign of its strength.

Paul: Niall, the idea that the lacunae in the book in some way stand for the influence of forces on a different scale is attractive, but that’s not what’s in the book.

The reason I have a problem with Eleanor is the problem of memory. One of the most significant things that goes into shaping our character, and that is imperative for the continuity of that character, is memory. The persistence of memory is one of the things that defines us. In Eleanor there is no such persistence. When we leave Eleanor at the end of book two she has just witnessed the horrendous murder of her husband, her life is focussed on caring for her mother, she is even mortgaging her home for the sake of a fortune hunter. When we meet her again at the beginning of book three every single one of those things is completely absent, and is never referred to again. Even if she hated her husband and wanted rid of him, that murder at least would have had some effect on her consciousness. But no, it is excised from the record. Beyond her interest in science, which is of a somewhat different character in book two to the rest of the novel, there is not one jot that even connects the two Eleanors.

Nor is it sufficient to say that there has been an invasion and she has become a refugee. Because there is nothing other than the circumstances of the meeting on the road that actually marks her as a refugee. She has been forced out of her home, she has been forced away from her mother who had been the most important figure in her life, as a refugee in a time of war she had almost certainly witnessed scenes of chaos or mayhem, yet none of this has had an iota of effect upon her. She is a refugee who behaves from the instant of her reappearance as if she has undergone nothing more exciting or threatening or life-changing than a Sunday afternoon stroll. She is not a character, she is a contrivance to allow Roberts to set up situations as he will.

And if the discontinuities in Eleanor’s character are the most blatant, the discontinuities in Bates’ character are no less serious. He is a puppet, and where most puppetmasters would make an attempt to walk the puppet from point A to point B, Roberts simply whips him up and plonks him down willynilly without even a nod in the direction of verisimilitude.

But then, why expect coherent and consistent characters in a plot that makes no pretense of coherence or consistency? The Lilliputian in his flying machine who accompanies Bates for so much of the latter part of the book is simply forgotten for page after page when the plot has no need of him, only to re-appear miraculously just at the point where he is needed to rescue Bates, then is just as promptly forgotten again. A plague that touches each of our central characters but leaves them effectively unharmed then proves instantly and unfailingly fatal to every other human being it touches. Sorry, credulity can only stretch so far.

With most books, I’ve found, even bad books, if you are prepared to take it on trust right from the start then suspension of disbelief becomes easier as the story is developed. In this case, I wasn’t bowled over with the first part, I thought its shifts were far too abrupt, but I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. But in fact my disbelief increased as the novel progressed. I wasn’t being drawn into the world, in fact I found myself more and more being pushed out of it. Every few pages I was being asked to swallow some behavioural trait that made a mockery of everything we’d been told about the characters to that point. Every few pages I’d be asked to swallow some twist of the plot that was totally arbitrary. Every few pages I’d be asked to accept something that seemed like arrant nonsense to me.

This is a jeu d’esprit, a showing-off, a game to be played with bits and pieces from the history of sf. It is not a novel.

Dan: Paul’s pungency aside, I’m not sure we’re getting to the heart of things here. I can’t at all buy that Roberts wasn’t aware how odd a choice having Eleanor pop up, unannounced and unfamiliar, was going to be. The question of whether or not his choice is successful is being duly answered each to their tastes, but if Niall’s explanation doesn’t cut it then there is surely one that does. It occurs to me again that citing the severity of Eleanor’s position at the close of book two does not count as providing evidence that her state when she reappears is unlikely or unacceptable. It occurs to me that, having achieved what she had at such a cost, having even that then robbed from her would lead to precisely the dissolution of character Paul’s arguing does not follow. What occurs to Eleanor is that her natural tendency towards detachment is followed to its natural conclusion — disassociation. It is with the renewed perspectives she gains towards the ends of the book that she coalesces again into something resembling a person.

I have more sympathy with your problem with Bates, though, Paul. He is indeed jerked from pillar to post purely to reach predefined ends. Perhaps it is precisely the fact that we do see most of Bates’s important character moments which makes them for me less handwaveable. That and, I think, the fact that he is clearly meant to retain a character throughout. Eleanor, on the other hand, isn’t. If this is a mistake on Roberts’s part, so be it, but I don’t agree that it’s one he did not aim to make.

It might also be worth pointing out, perhaps, that character consistency is hardly a trait on show in Gulliver’s Travels, and that, quite the opposite to the manners in which Bates constantly shifts, Gulliver never really seems to learn a thing from journey to journey…

Victoria: I find that I am apt to agree (almost entirely) with Paul on Swiftly‘s weaknesses of character and plot. It strikes me that, for the most part, Niall and Dan accept them too, even as they try to explain them as an inherent part of the narrative’s landscape. But I’m troubled by the way our arguments keep dodging back to Roberts, as author of the work, in an incredulous disbelief at (what I perceive to be) his failure. So Dan says: “I can’t at all buy that Roberts wasn’t aware” etc and argues that, if Niall’s argument isn’t valid, then there surely must be one that is. And Niall suggests, implicitly, that Roberts’ “carelessness” can’t be accidental. To some extent these are apologetics based on what we already know (or think we know) about Roberts as an author; they’re founded in our trust of his skill and his intellectual prowess. I find them unconvincing because often (although not always) they’re based on assumptions imposed from outside the text; they are hypothesis founded on “second guessing” Roberts’ intent in a favourable light.

I’m not hostile to this kind of thinking altogether — I want Roberts to have written another great novel — but first, I need the text to speak for itself. It should work for itself, in and of itself. It has to be its own justification, at least in part. It can’t expect the reader to make great cognitive leaps alone, or rely entirely on playing referential games with its audience. If you have to have read Gulliver’s Travels, and invested deeply in the history of sf, to understand it, then it has failed at a basic functional level. It has become niche and, dare I say, elitist. So, for example: I need to see some evidence for Eleanor’s character change in the text. As Paul says, it isn’t enough to fill in the holes in the plot with scenarios of our own devising. Because if Eleanor is completely detached from her previous life when Bates meets her on the road, if she is so completely alienated from herself that she isn’t traumatised by the loss of her mother, of her home and of her way of life, then what is the point of it being her at all. Bates may as well meet a random woman on the road, since essentially she is completely devoid of history. For our purposes, she is a new character entirely. The only continuity is her devotion to scientific thinking, which Niall has stressed, but it is not enough. Certainly it is not enough to constitute a full human being — she is nothing but a scooped out shell. What has happened to Eleanor to so thoroughly strip her of the emotionality, the passion, which was also evident in the first part of the novel? She has been turned to stone, a dominatrix for the plot. Roberts’ has to justify this for himself; we can’t do it for him.

I hate to say this, because it is such a common criticism of Roberts’ work, but I think, essentially, Swiftly lacks a sense of humanity. It doesn’t connect with the ways in which people respond, emotionally, to crises and change. I’ve never felt it before — I’ve liked Roberts’ coolness, and I haven’t thought him overly clinical like others have. But Swiftly is too surgical a novel; all the heart has been cut out of it. It has tipped the scale from taut emotional control into a species of hollowness. I can just about imagining arguing the pros, and I can appreciate Niall’s sentiment in parts, but I still think it a failed novel.

Niall: I’m going to turn away from Eleanor for a bit, and address some of the other points that have come up. Broadly speaking, I agree with what Dan has been saying and disagree with Paul and Victoria, which is as much of a surprise to me as anyone. This is not to say that I expect Dan to agree with what I’m about to say, of course.

Victoria, you suggest I’m prepared to accept Swiftly‘s weaknesses of character and plot. I’m prepared to accept that the sense of discontinuity in both is a key aspect of the book; I’m not prepared to accept that it’s a weakness. Like Dan, when I finished the book I wasn’t sure exactly what I thought of it, but I found that weeks later it kept nagging at me — more than anything else I’d read in the interim — and that is usually a good sign, meaning that part of my brain has realised there’s more to get out of a book. So I went back and started thinking about it again.

While I find the setting utterly convincing, in the ways in which the various Pacifican peoples have been integrated into 19th-Century Europe, as I said at the start I haven’t actually read Gulliver’s Travels, so I don’t think it was sf-history connections I was picking up on. (I did subsequently read Micromegas, and since Voltaire explicitly nods in Swift’s direction, I don’t think its influence on Swiftly is at all crammed in or arbitrary.) I’ve come to think that what was nagging at me was the ways in which the real story of the book is hidden or obscured by its ostensible focus on Bates.

The most obvious way in which this happens is part three, which is so claustrophobically narrow in its focus that the external world all but disappears. The changes and movements that, we find out at the start of part four, have been going on seem all the more dramatic because they happened offstage (as with, for me, Eleanor’s character). Pretty much everything else important happens offstage, or in marginal moments, too; Bates and Eleanor’s immunity to the plague, which Paul mentions, is an obvious example, since it’s a long time before it’s explained that they were essentially vaccinated by their early exposure to the sub-Lilliputians in the calculating engine. Victoria, you ask that the text speak for itself: to me, this pattern, repeated so often in the novel’s largest elements and in its smallest, is the text speaking for itself. It’s the neatness with which the structure of the novel mirrors its themes — the shaping effect of class on a large scale, and of emotions on an intimate scale — and the consistency with which it is applied that convinces me it’s intentional, not some abstract trust in Roberts’ smarts.

And in that vein — whether it was intended or not — I think Swiftly functions as, among other things, a parody of the conventions of sf, in the same way that (I gather) Gulliver’s Travels is a parody of travelogue conventions. Things that we expect an sf novel to put front and center are obscured; every potential moment of wonder is undermined by something base and human; and so on. Another review described Bates and Eleanor’s relationship as “an amusingly apt rebuke to the 19th-century romantic novel”, which is something I’m certainly not qualified to judge, so I may be on the wrong track entirely, or there may be elements of both (having now read most of Quicksilver, what Bates and Eleanor’s relationship mostly strikes me as is a parody of Jack and Eliza’s relationship). Either way, I like the feeling that there is more to dig at, more to get out of this book than one reading has revealed to me.

Dan: Niall’s spot on, Victoria — were he and I trying to excuse a bad book on the basis of wishful thinking, I’d be happy to be first up against the wall. The point we are making is rather that the indications are in the text that this is a far more considered work than you or Paul are willing to allow. In its third line, we are introduced to the difficulty of perceiving detail on levels other than our own (“Bates could not see whether it was a he or a she”). Though he can make out creases of concentration, and even the tip of a tongue, on the Lilliputian before him, anything beyond what it is that he or she is doing — even a thing as simple as its gender — is out of sight. Critics of sf conventions like myself may see something of their own misgivings in that — all but the action is invisible.

And so it is in Swiftly, except that the absence of context, rather than going unnoticed, has attention drawn to it time and again. Eleanor’s change, the invasion of Britain itself, the grip of the plague (and Niall is right to point out that its sparing of the main characters is indeed explained away), the means by which the Pacificans were brought to Europe, what in other novels would have been the denouement itself … all are skipped grandly and brazenly. And what instead we are presented with are exaggerated instances of the sort of claustrophobic single-character perspectives a modernist might deploy in precisely the exploration of “humanity” Victoria perceives as missing from the book. Swiftly is toying with us, not a little cruelly.

Gugglerum tells Bates that the French should be the allies of the English, since they share an enemy whom they fight “and do not even notice” (296). Likewise, Eleanor, detached and disassociated Eleanor, suddenly realises what process it is that is going on in her: “She became aware of a new quality in her emotions, something that had been steadily cultivating itself inside her without her even being aware of the growth. She became aware of shame” (320). Shame, opposed as it is to the pride which is seen by the novel to be the sickest of man’s ills, but for what? For the murder, for failing to protect her family, for her scientific detachment, for her lack of humanity. This psychological imperative has been at work within her without her — and, in the absence of that ridiculously strangulating focus on a single character, us — noticing it. This may not be an effective means of structuring a novel (Paul may well be right that it is a collection of literary ideas rather than a story), but it is not engaging properly with the text to suggest it is not the means Roberts has actively, knowingly and deliberately chosen. Paul, you suggested the book has no coherence. Is it more the, wholly justifiable, case that the coherence it does have is not to your taste?

Paul: I don’t for a moment doubt that everything in Swiftly is intentional, for me the intentionality of the novel is not an issue. It is what he does with those intentions that bothers me. I’m entirely in agreement with Victoria here, in that Dan and Niall seem to be spending more time finding excuses for Roberts rather than accepting that there is a real and deep problem with this novel.

Niall says that the book lodged in his mind, which he sees as a good thing. But he sees it as a form of logical puzzle that he has to unpick (with no guarantee that there is a solution). To me that is exactly the wrong reason for thinking that the book is good. For me a sign that a book is good is if it lodges in the mind because it is rich, it opens up layers. There is no richness in Swiftly for me, rather it sticks in my mind for its poverty. Yes, it is possible to construct explanations for the works discontinuities, for the insubstantial characters, for the gaping holes in the plot — but these are not explanations we are led teasingly towards by what is in the book; rather they are things we have to construct out of whole cloth because they are so strikingly absent from the book. As Victoria says, it is cold, detached, distant; it is almost autistic in its failure to comprehend or convey human emotion.

As Niall says, virtually every event of any importance happens off stage. We are not taken into the world because we don’t see it. We have to construct scenarios to get us from A to B because there is no logical movement from A to B within the novel itself. Everything that happens comes as a shock not because it is a sudden jarring of a carefully constructed world picture, but because it comes out of the blue with no sense or context.

And Dan, it really is no excuse that Roberts’ characters are inconsistent because Swift’s were inconsistent also. For a start Roberts is not writing an 18th century novel, he’s writing a 21st century novel. And secondly, he’s setting the novel in 1848 when (as he would know professionally) the manners and styles of writing were vastly different from how they had been when Swift wrote.

Actually that is something else that bothers me about the book. Why did he very deliberately choose 1848, the year of revolutions? The Franco-British war (what pitifully small portion of it we glimpse) bears more relationship to Napoleonic era warfare nearly half a century earlier. And Bates’s limp, self-serving liberation movement is a poor substitute for the political ferment that was actually going on at the time.

Dan: Paul, I think the very fact that the novel does not resemble in any way an eighteenth century one might be reason enough to suspect Roberts isn’t trying to ape Swift’s characterisation. Rather, as Niall and I were arguing, the very mode he chooses — that strange single character perspective which eliminates all other personalities from its remit — is sort of uber-Jamesian (b. 1843), or more broadly Victorian, in its prim insistence on the primacy of character. And yet it subverts our expectations of that mode by, as you say, emphasising the endpoints rather than the process. I agree that this is a strange and frustrating way to “do” character, but when I pointed out Swift’s own inconsistences I was shooting for a more complex relationship between Roberts and Swift (and on the part of the former a more complex understanding of characterisation than “it began after the eighteenth century”) than you allow.

I was interested by the choice of 1848, too, and because I found the warfare similarly odd for the age. There is, I guess, a revolution in understanding by the end of the novel, but the easy labour the Pacificans provide has understandably led to a stagnation of European society but also perhaps its mild gentrification (early on, one character remarks that the giant cows have eliminated hunger on the streets, suggested that the proletariat may have less to revolt about, and the grunt work is no longer done by them). It occurred to me that 1848 was chosen not because the book intended to depict a revolution but because it wanted an easy way to signify the consequences of its premise. This 1848 is a bit timelocked, and without revolution. Again, it’s a deliberate subversion of a marker, a defenestration of a signifier.

I wonder if we aren’t going around in circles, though, because I do acknowledge what Paul and Victoria are saying — certainly the characterisation and plot structure of Swiftly is not perfect, and in large part this is because they are subject to thematic strictures. But, and it pains me to stick up for Niall, I think it’s unfair on him to say his response to the novel is a logician’s. I think he is responding to a textual richness, or at the very least a textual glut — it may be a cloying over-richness, and Roberts may have ruined his book by throwing too much theme, reference or playfulness at it, but I don’t see it as thin. Victoria called the book hollow, and that may perhaps be fairer if its concerns don’t quite ring true. But concerns it undoubtedly has, and I’m a bit baffled by the strength of reaction against it. At worst, surely it’s a not overly sober bit of thinking which is just trying a bit too hard?

Niall: What I should have said about importance is “pretty much everything we as readers would normally consider important happens off-stage”. I think this should make us ask whether those events are actually important, and if not, what we are meant to think is important, and to me that sort of question leads precisely to an opening-up of the book, rather than “solving” it or reducing it. I think some of Roberts’ earlier books are vulnerable to that sort of criticism, that they end up saying one thing too clearly; but while I think in some instances Swiftly does lead us towards an understanding of what’s been happening off-stage – the quote Dan cited about Eleanor’s half-understood emotional shift is one example – what I like about it is that it’s so open to potential readings, that it’s so not reducible. Perhaps I’m being generous to the novel because its idiosyncracies are refreshing when compared with the utter transparency of so much contemporary (particularly genre) sf; but that doesn’t seem to me such a bad reason for generosity.

Victoria: I’m beginning to suspect that a) we’re choosing to focus our analysis on different aspects of the novel — theme/structure vs. character/plot, I think — rather than disagreeing about either. Which puts me in the uncomfortable position of concurring with some of what Niall and Dan say specifically, while disagreeing more generally; and b) I’ve over-emphasised my dislike of the novel. I should reiterate that I didn’t hate Swiftly. I read parts of it with great pleasure. I just happen to think that, overall, it is an unsuccessful work. I am willing to accept that (what I perceive as) its weaknesses are intentional on Roberts’ part; but I don’t accept that they acheive their aims. For me, Swiftly is an experiment gone wrong.

But first, Niall, I agree with what you say about “the real story” being “hidden” by the focus on Bates and Eleanor, although I think I would change “real story” to “real ideas”. I contend that Swiftly doesn’t really have a “story”. It has events and happenings in a sequence. (Implicitly, this means I disagree with Dan that Swiftly insists on the “primacy of character” — I think this may be true of the first sections, but not the later ones.) And I can see that what you argue in the following paragraph — that “the structure of the novel mirrors its themes” — is right too. This in itself is not a weakness. But my problem has always been that there is no integration of this strong tide of structure/theme with the plot/character. I’m beginning to wonder if Roberts’ hasn’t sacrificed character (and, to some extent, coherent narrative) altogether in a quest for ideas — Eleanor and Bates are just a way in to the theory, which is why they don’t make sense as people. As I said originally, the ideas outweigh the narrative device. For me, the cleverness or not of Roberts’ schema (and I’m mostly convinced now that it is clever) is beside the point if his fictional conceit is crumbling around it. I don’t believe that a novel can function properly — that is, fully, as a whole text — with one and not the other. In Swiftly, we have a glut of ideas — concepts aplenty — but a cast of characters that act and react to (contrived) situations like conceptual analogies rather than human beings.

Which leaves me considering an essential question, I suppose: does Swiftly need a plot or successfully functioning characters in order to work? I’m glad Dan made the comparison with modernist novels, which have been in the back of my mind too. I don’t think Swiftly has anything in common with the great modernists stylistically or philosophically, but I think structurally there is a comparison to be made. As I’ve been arguing against its lack of narrative and character development, I’ve found myself expressing opinions that I don’t generally hold. I’m usually a great fan of non-linear, non-comformist novels; Woolf is the writer of fiction that I most admire. So why am I unable to accept Roberts’ particular vision in Swiftly? The more I muse on it, the more I think it’s less the absence of coherent character development, and more the stylistic schizophrenia that bothers me. The novel’s characters are human, emotional and passionate in the early sections, then discontinuous, cold and arbitrary in the latter half, even though both parts of the novel deal with their intimate experience. I can see how this might tie into Roberts’ thematic shifts between microcosm and macrocosm, and between inner/outer worlds. And I know that it mirrors the inconsistencies of character in many early novels of philosophical and conceptual bent, from which I think Roberts’ is claiming descent. I can even see how it subtly turns Swiftly into a meta-fiction, a commentary on how arbitrary character generation in fiction is. Yet I don’t seem to be able to get past it.

I think it is because Swiftly wants to merge an early device, of fiction as a carrier for ideas, with a species of post-Victorian realism and a contemporary vision. It turns out to be like mixing oil and water, so that which ever way I look at the novel it has holes in it or strange growths sticking off it. Which makes for an interesting intellectual exercise, but not a strong, rounded novel. It would have been better, I think, had Swiftly jettisoned mimesis altogether and gone completely wild, throwing continuity and character to the wind. Better a complete disavowal of narrative traditions and the making of something new, than a clashing mismash of flesh-and-blood realism with puppet-characters and allegory. Niall, I now think you’re right. The text does speaks, but only convincingly as regards theme and structure. These it ruminates over in abundance. I also think you’re right that structure is meant to act as a function of character and plot. In this case, it is Roberts’ first cause, the God of his text; the structure of his world = the structure of the novel and its inhabitants. I just don’t think that it works.

Paul: Dan, I have to say that I am quite happy to regard Swiftly as a jeu d’esprit, a game without much consequence that plays with ideas from the history of sf. If I don’t have to take it seriously, then I’m fine. My problem is that the more seriously I think about the book, and the more you and Niall claim for it, the more I dislike it, the more I find wrong with it in terms of structure, quality of writing, characterisation, sense — in other words all the basic things that make a novel work for me.

Dan: I think we’re heading towards a natural conclusion, but there are a few more things I want to say. I think Victoria comes closest to synthesising our positions, or perhaps summarising our differences, when she makes her point about the novel’s schizophrenia. Undoubtedly to my mind, Roberts is doing exactly what Victoria argues: trying to fuse that older tradition of fiction as an ideas delivery mechanism with a post-Victorian realism. As we’ve been discussing, this results in some very odd choices and some quite jarring juxtapositions.

It’s also why I made that point about primacy of character — not because I think that Swiftly is a traditionally character-driven novel (again, Victoria is quite right to say it is not), but because I think it is interrogating those kinds of fictions. In that sense, I agree also with Paul — the best way to see Swiftly is as a jeu d’esprit with a sort of seriousness of searching purpose. That is not to argue that it is a sober book, but rather to suggest that it is like Lear’s Fool, incoherent and scatological, but ultimately commenting with skewed perspicacity on the fundamental elements of its mileu.

This inevitably makes it a work which it is neither easy nor necessarily possible to digest as we would expect, like or prefer. I think this makes it much less than a successful novel, as Victoria says (but then, I’m not at all sure it’s even trying to confirm to those elements we might consider essential in “a successful novel”). But perhaps it also makes it much more than a bad text.

Victoria: Nicely summed up Dan. After all our wrangling I also feel as though we have come to something of a natural stopping point. I certainly agree with you that Swiftly is “more than a bad text”, and I feel more reconciled to it now, as a disconcerting scatological experiment if not as a novel.

Paul: I think if I were to try to sum up my feelings about Swiftly it would disappointment.

I am, like Roberts, something of a historian of science fiction, and Gulliver’s Travels and Micromegas were both exciting books within that history. I think I expected something more of a novel that tried to synthesise the two.

For a start, both Swift and Voltaire were writing philosophical works in one form or another, the placement of ideas was central to the whole purpose of both books. But Roberts has ditched ideas, I get no sense of any seriousness of purpose behind this novel. Instead we get disconnected chunks of crude action interspersed with scatalogical sexuality. But where sex in a novel usually helps to explore the mental landscape of the characters, there is no inner landscape to explore because there is no real character. The characterisation, like the plot, is so choppy that it becomes incoherent.

I’m okay with this so long as we can dismiss the novel as lightweight, a bit of fun. But the more Dan and Niall try to present the book as in some way significant (mostly, it seems to me, by extrapolating ideas into the setting of the novel that aren’t actually there in the text) the flimsier and more unconvincing the whole thing feels. Which is why I come across as so antagonistic. Swiftly could have been a really interesting novel of ideas, instead it is so incoherent that it barely comes across as a novel to me.

So yes, like Dan I think we’ve really come to a natural conclusion of our discussion. If we continue it further, I suspect you are just going to entrench me further into my dislike of the book.

Niall: Well, short of heading off into a debate about what a novel is — which I believe Dan, at least, is on record as regarding as an impossible question to answer — I think I also have to agree that we’ve reached the end of the line. I wonder if we’ll have persuaded anyone to try it for themselves — or avoid it?

15 Responses to “A Discussion about Swiftly”

  1. Karen Burnham Says:

    Well, as someone who hasn’t read the book, I’ll chime in. I was already ambivalent about Roberts’ fiction, having disliked Gradisil for a few reasons. Given that background, I suspect that I’d end up very close to Paul’s position if I were actually to read it. However, thanks to you guys, I don’t have to! Thanks, from the bottom of my heart.

    Niall, I have to ask, can you honestly say that you’d go so far to fill in the gaps left in the narrative if the name on the cover were, say, David Weber (speaking of counter-factuals)?

  2. Niall Says:

    If it’s so obviously central to what the novel is doing, of course.

  3. Niall Says:

    Also, I’m now wondering how clearly I expressed myself. I thought the book worked, as it is, with the words that are on the page. I did not find the changes in Eleanor’s character nearly as jarring as Victoria or Paul. But I think that may be because I bought into what I perceived as a key theme of the book — that many of the forces that act on our lives do so invisibly — and was willing to just accept that some unseen event had had an effect on Eleanor. That I can plausibly extrapolate to fill the gaps is nice, but not in any way necessary to my enjoyment of the book.

  4. Karen Burnham Says:

    I think I see what you’re saying: for you it was not a process of back-filling *after* you’d read it. For you it was a smooth narrative that made perfect sense *as you were reading it*. It fit in with the theme that you had already identified, so didn’t jar you out of the narrative at all.

    That makes more sense, thanks.

  5. Duncan Lawie Says:

    I find much to agree with in all of the above. Roberts books are by turns fascinating and infuriating.

    Reading the assorted reviews at the top of the piece was very reminiscent of the old blind men and the elephant problem. It’s a book which is hard to describe in fewer words than it took to write. My piece on it is by far the longest review I’ve written for Zone SF and in writing it I kept having to cut things I would like to have said, but which would have resulted in “strange growths sticking off it” as Victoria says of the book.

    I found the book a real roller coaster and was utterly lost as to where it might go next. In the end I was delighted – perhaps simply because I survived the ride!

  6. Jonathan M Says:

    Interesting stuff. I too have problems with Roberts as an author (I find him far easier to read as a critic) and I keep trying to make a real effort to get into him as I like the ideas but as Paul says, there’s always something that prevents me from really enjoying his books.

    To pick up Dan’s point, I think Roberts should be read as jeux d’esprits… his novels are all high concept even when he’s not playing around with the history of SF, but I’m not sure that that helps. Snow’s a good example of my problem as it starts really well with the actual snow falling but once it gets into the stuff with the American base and the aliens, it just fell apart for me.

    I think the problem for me is that Roberts’ secondary speculation is never as strong as his primary stuff. It’s like Father Ted when Dougal is horrified to learn that you can’t just have a good idea, you then have to have loads of good follow up ideas. Snow’s a good example of this as the high concept pitch is great but the secondary ideas about American bases and aliens feel slightly dated and don’t quite match up to the greatness of the idea of what might happen if it started snowing and never stopped. I think that mismatch is jarring in and of itself.

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