The Winner

As noted last night, the winner of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award is …

Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod

The Guardian’s write-ups are here and here. Obviously, I’m thrilled by the result and think it is the right decision. Congratulations to Ian MacLeod, and to PS Publishing! (From whom you should all now buy the book.)

Of course, in an ideal world, I would now like to see MacLeod find a UK (and, hey, US too, why not?) publishing deal that includes some or all of the following:

  1. A paperback edition of Song of Time (Preferably, much as I think PS did a great service in publishing the book, after giving the text a thorough proofread and commissioning a new cover).
  2. A new edition of The Summer Isles (it is really inexplicable that this book has only appeared in a small-press hardback edition in the US)
  3. His next novel, Wake Up and Dream
  4. A short fiction collection, probably pulling together the best stories from the two collections that have never been published in the UK (Voyages by Starlight — “Starship Day”, “1/72nd Scale”; Breathmoss and Other Exhalations — “New Light on the Drake Equation”, “Isobel of the Fall”) and the more recent, uncollected stories (“The Master Miller’s Tale”, “Elementals”)

Well, one thing at a time, maybe. But if nobody picks up the paperback rights to Song of Time, at least, I’ll be very disappointed, so fingers crossed on that front.

Notes on a Shortlist

It has not been hard for me to decide which novel I think should win this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. There are, for starters, two nominees I neither particularly admire nor particularly like, one that I like more than I admire, and one that I admire more than I like. But differentiating the two nominees that I both like and admire isn’t hard, either: for there is one that lives more vividly in my mind, that I am more eager to reread, and more evangelical about pressing into others’ hands. So my preference is clear. But here, for the record, in advance of the announcement of the winner this evening, is a summary of my opinions of the whole shortlist.

I don’t think it’s a bad shortlist, per se; there are several books that spring to mind when I think about books I would rather have seen listed, but on the whole Adam Roberts’ judgement that “Solid is one word for it, which is another way of saying safe” is right, I think. It is a shortlist whose values are predominantly the core values of genre sf. There are a lot of spaceships; for all the talk about New Space Opera, only one other Clarke Award shortlist this decade has had as many.

There are also a number of recurring themes. Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets, which would be at the bottom of my list if I got a vote, incorporates a number of them. Like four of the remaining five shortlisted books (which is surely more than the average among the submissions), it is written in the first person, which immediately puts questions of identity front and centre. Like Reynolds’ House of Suns, it explores these questions through multiple narrators who are in a sense the same person (and physical cloning features in The Quiet War, while mental cloning is an important element of Song of Time). It is concerned with ecological questions (like The Quiet War, and to a lesser extent Song of Time); and in that Margaret’s multiple identities spring from her childhood imaginings, it invokes questions of youth and maturity that, I would say, resonate in every nominee other than The Quiet War.

Adam Roberts’ review, I think, gets to the heart of the problems with this book, although for a more sympathetic take see Nic Clarke and Sherryl Vint at Strange Horizons. The Margarets is a book in which the value of life resides in its fecund diversity, but this leads to a number of problems. There is a moral problem: as Adam puts it, it leads to Tepper prioritising forest over humans. There is a structural problem: the diversity, and the divergence, of Margaret’s lives is never conveyed as well as it should be; it’s all too abbreviated, or too clumsy. There is a a stylistic problem, in that Tepper has an absolute tin ear for names. Sentences such as, “We were shortly disabused of this idea when several humans in transit to Chottem from bondslave planets farther into Mercan space were also slain by the ghrym” are, to my mind, at least as wearying as anything Stephenson comes up with in Anathem; there is an absolute profusion of proper nouns, none of which seem to follow particularly well thought-out linguistic schema. (I think Tepper is winking at the reader at least some of the time — more, in fact, than many discussions of this book have given her credit for — but that does not excuse, for example, cat-people called Prrr Prrrpm and Mrrrw Lrrrpa.) And finally, there is the problem that Tepper’s stance seems to me a lie. Were she writing of just Earth — or a fantastical analogue of Earth, which is what she seems to want to be writing for most of the second half of the book, at least — her argument would be sound; but in the vastness of space, life’s value seems to me to inhere in its scarcity, in how fragile it is. The Margarets never conveys that sense; indeed, life in its galaxy is so commonplace that it is hard to care whether humans learn the error of their ways. The book has plenty of other problems — a distressingly Campbellian attitude to alien life, for example, as Edward James points out; and I can’t help thinking that a critique of humanity’s willingness to lean on comforting stories of magic instead of facing up to reality would carry more force if it didn’t co-exist with telepathy as a crucial plot element — and the result is a near-incoherent muddle.

Mark Wernham’s Martin Martin’s on the Other Side spends a good portion of its time being incoherent, but at least it does so deliberately; this, and the fact that it is just over half the length of Tepper’s novel, are the only things raising it above The Margarets in my estimation. It was over sooner. Jonathan McCalmont has noted that the book grew on him since he first read it, but I find it hard to imagine that happening to me; though there is an extent to which I admire, as Adam puts it, “the inadvertent eloquence of Jensen’s ‘fucking fucker’ laddishly limited register”, there is a much greater extent to which I simply found it tedious. I diverge from Jonathan, too, in that I don’t think it’s a novel about idiocy; it’s a novel, as Nic has it, about infantilisation, which is somewhat different. It means, for a start, that there were a few moments where I felt sympathy for Jensen Interceptor, trapped within the role his society has forced him into: the eternal puerile child There is also something inspired about the melding of PKD-style undermining of consensus reality with a cultural drive towards getting totally fucking hammered; but it is never elaborated coherently enough to sustain an entire novel.

The rest of the nominees I have already written about. Reynolds’ House of Suns is the book I like more than I admire, and a book that articulates the idea that we, the members of the human race, are all children, much more effectively than does The Margarets. I liked the expansiveness of the novel, and I found it rather more visual and well-paced than did, for example, Edward. I also think the flashback sequences are more effective, and better-integrated into the novel, than many other reviewers. But there’s no denying that it does have limitations: “Narrative, tick. Widescreen visuals, tick. Other stuff, hmm.”

Unlike the judges, I don’t have the benefit of a second read of the shortlist to give depth to my opinions; however, for the remaining three novels on the list — the three I could live with winning — I do have the benefit of time, in that it’s some months since I read any of them, and my opinions have accordingly had more time to settle. The Quiet War is the novel on the list I feel most out of step with the consensus on; Edward picked it as his favourite, as did Adam, and the Not the Clarke Award panel at Eastercon. But in Liz’s poll, at least at the time of writing, far more people think it will win than think it really should win; so maybe I’m not as out of step as all that.

Still, reading my review of The Quiet War now, I can’t shake the feeling that I didn’t get to the core of the novel, either in terms of its virtues or its flaws. I think Nic does that rather better in her post about the book, although Edward also inadvertently put his finger on it when he compared the book to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: “a cast of well-imagined characters, a mixture of political and scientific speculation, and a complete ease with the occasional infodump”. That is exactly right, and exactly my problem at the same time: I simply never felt the spark of life, in either The Quiet War‘s characters or its landscapes, that so distinguishes Robinson’s work. It is a book with few major flaws — its greatest virtue is its coherence of thought, although as the first volume in a duology, it is not quite self-contained — but almost by the same token, it is a book that never truly excited, challenged, or inspired me.

That leaves the two novels I both like and admire. Stephenson’s Anathem is an extraordinary book, there is no doubt of that; as Martin Lewis put it, “one part hubris to one part taking the piss to one part gnarly geek awesomeness.” As a vehicle designed to explicate and demonstrate a set of mind-expanding ideas, I have difficulty thinking of a recent, or even not-so-recent, work to match it. When I wrote my original review, however, I think I was perhaps too impressed by the overall architecture of the novel, that Stephenson had written something that worked as a novel, rather than (as I see The Baroque Cycle, or at least as much of it as I’ve read) an epic mess. It has not worn well in my mind; it’s still a book I will have no hesitation in recommending to (some) people, but I feel absolutely no need to revisit it. I am also, now, rather more sympathetic than I was initially to Abigail Nussbaum’s criticism of the novel for installing an intellectual homogeneity in its invented world. Or rather, it’s not the intellectual homogeneity per se that troubles me — I don’t want there to be a range of theories about how gravity works, or time works, or consciousness works; I want there to be single theories, that work — but that, as Nic explores, in setting up that intellectual homogeneity, Stephenson does away with cultural diversity. Perhaps the most telling indicator of this flaw is that while there are nods to equality of gender and sexuality — even if they are absolutely tokenistic — there is no equivalent nod to cultural diversity.

Which leaves Song of Time — or rather, doesn’t leave, since it is emphatically not the case that MacLeod is my preferred winner by default. Once again, and gratifyingly, I find that on the evidence of Liz’s poll, more people feel the way I do about the book than I expected. I think I came rather closer to getting to the bones of it in my review than I did with either The Quiet War or Anathem; although I have to say, although Nic’s review and Tanya Brown’s review are both very good, I don’t think anyone has yet fully captured what makes Song of Time so compelling. Adam Roberts’ criticisms of the book are largely reasonable, but don’t seem that significant to me when weighed against its virtues. On a shortlist which emphasizes the value of personal, subjective, human experience (as opposed to the kind of distanced perspective found in, most obviously of the novels not shortlisted, Flood), Song of Time offers unambiguously the best realised, most fascinating character; and for all the detail of McAuley’s colonies, for my money MacLeod offers the most vivid settings of any of the nominated authors. (Particularly, as Nic notes, cities; not because they are particularly “authentic”, but because the versions of their subjects that they construct feel so convincing.) It is the book that most productively challenged my sympathies; it is a novel saturated with science-fictional speculation, grounded in the emotions those speculations generate; and it is the only novel on the list, I would suggest, that engages with what it means to write science fiction in the early twenty-first century, both on a literal level, through the reflections of its characters, and stylistically, in how its voice refracts our understanding of some of contemporary sf’s common images and ideas. There is an irony, I’m aware, in asserting this in a week when YA novels have been awarded Nebula and Tiptree awards; Song of Time is about as far from the concerns of most YA fiction (and certainly as far from the narrative propulsivity of most YA fiction) as it is possible to get. But it is, I think, the best book on the list, and one of the best novels published in 2008. I hope it wins. Whatever does, I will post here as soon as I can, with a full update tomorrow. Let’s see, eh?

The Art of Penguin Science Fiction

Your nifty website of the day: James Pardey’s collection of the art of Penguin science fiction.

There’s a full table of contents here, and something of an explanation here:

Penguin books and their iconic covers have a place in history that merits study and appreciation. They have influenced generations of readers and played an important role in our cultural heritage. Over the years new cover designs have appeared, and in the 1950s a transition took place from typographical to pictorial covers. This was followed by the introduction of a radically new cover design in the 1960s, and the launch of a Penguin science fiction series with covers featuring reproductions of abstract and surrealist art.

This curious linkage of modern art and sf is at the heart of this website, and is made all the more intriguing by the subtle and often ingenious connections between the artworks and the stories within. Following on from this, Penguin continued to publish sf as a number of mini-series, with covers that reveal the influence of Pop Art and to some extent Op Art. But to put these later developments in perspective it is necessary to go back to the first sf titles that Penguin published in the 1930s, for these early covers, now celebrated on a stamp, have come to be regarded as artworks in their own right.

Until recently the history of Penguin sf and its cover art has been largely overlooked. This website, along with a series of articles on the subject, attempts to rectify this. But what the articles convey with words this website does with images, and thereby offers what words cannot: over 150 Penguin sf covers, and the ability to trace their evolution at the click of a button, as titles were reprinted and different covers came and went. As such this website complements the articles, which focus more on the science fiction and its linkage to each book’s cover art. Here, however, it is the covers themselves that light the way along the multiple paths that weave through the history, and art, of Penguin sf.

One of the mentioned articles is available here; the others are forthcoming. Still, plenty of browsing pleasure to be had!

The Linkarets

  1. Ballard

  2. I have finally watched the finale of Battlestar Galactica, and my basic reaction is: oh dear. It’s most frustrating because I don’t think it would have been hard to make it good; see, for instance, Abigail Nussbaum on the need for the ending to have the courage of its convictions. Other links:
  3. Awards news
    • This year’s Tiptree Award winners are Nisi Shawl, for Filter House, and Patrick Ness, for The Knife of Never Letting Go; I’ve not read the former yet, but I’m pleased by the latter, which I think is not only a good winner of the award, but also pleasingly Tiptree-ish in the ferocity of its execution
    • The ballot for the Shirley Jackson Awards
    • Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, which I rather liked (but not everybody is so keen) is on the shortlist for this year’s Orange Prize
  4. Reviews
  5. Miscellany

Hugo Nominee: “Pride and Prometheus”

The story, and the comment:

Nick Gevers, in Locus:

The closing story in this collection, ‘‘Pride and Prometheus’’, recently published in F&SF, is a splendid exercise in Jane Austen pastiche, a younger Bennet sister meeting Victor Frankenstein and striving to reconcile his cruel Gothicism with scientific ideals. Enlightenment scientism is beautifully burlesqued here, both Austen and Mary Shelley coming in for gentle mockery, the worldliness of the one interweaving mischievously with the emotional extravagance of the other. Each satirizes its counterpart, and the result is a spirit of wry realism. In short, a perfect summary of the complementary contraries within John Kessel, who in The Baum Plan for Financial Independence has produced one of the best collections of the year.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, at The Fix:

“Pride and Prometheus” is a technically dazzling Jane Austen pastiche which brings Miss Mary Bennett in contact with Victor Frankenstein. There is much to admire here: the language, both Victorian and Gothic, the philosophical discussions around naturalism and the limits of what empirical research ought to concern itself with, as well as the search for redemption through companionship from opposing and contrasting points of view. And yet, for me, some dramatic tension was diffused through the forced juxtaposition of thematic concerns and reverberations. The impeccable narrative style already places us at one remove from contemporary sensibilities; rather than spontaneously generating from this construct, the inclusion of Frankenstein’s world seemed more like a nifty exercise in literary mutagenesis that further constrained the dramatic potential. This story has already proven popular, though, and despite my reservations on these grounds, readers will find plenty to savor here.

Abigail Nussbaum:

If I have any complaints against “Pride and Prometheus” they are first that Kessel hasn’t really got the Austen-ish voice right. His pastiche rings hollow, emulating Austen’s grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure but lacking the spark that imbued her writing with so much humor. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the plain fact that “Pride and Prometheus” is barely even a genre story. That’s not always a problem–Kessel’s story is a hell of a lot more SFnal than Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See,” which quite rightly won the Nebula in 2004–and if nothing else “Pride and Prometheus” has once again reminded me to be grateful for the broadness and inclusiveness of the genre short fiction scene, since I can’t for the life of me imagine what mainstream short fiction magazine would publish this story. But with a shortlist already stacked to the rafters with metafictional games, literary pastiches, and appeals to the reader’s nostalgia and fannish affection, Kessel’s story, which unlike “Shoggoths in Bloom” doesn’t do much besides be metafictional, is somewhat devalued. Finally, given my chilly response to Bear’s story, I can’t help but wonder how much of my positive response to “Pride and Prometheus” has to do with my previous familiarity with the novels Kessel is drawing on.

Paul Kincaid, at SF Site:

Other than the hard-riding heroines of “The Invisible Empire” or the rather fearsome autocrats of the lunar stories, the strongest character is probably Miss Mary Bennet in “Pride and Prometheus,” in which the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice encounter Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creature. It is becoming impossible to keep count of the number of novels and short stories that revisit Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though this is certainly one of the better examples. This is at least in part because of the novelty of including Jane Austen in the mix, and even more because of the consistent way in which Kessel views the action from the point of view of Mary Bennet. Rather than the horror of monstrosity, therefore, this becomes a story about the constrictions of society. Kessel’s women are as trapped by perceptions of what they should be and how they should live their lives as his men.

Best SF:

What I believe the younger generation call a “mash-up”. Kessel puts the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice together with Victor Frankenstein. Kessel does a more than passable rendition of the writing style of Miss Austen, which will doubtless please those who like their fiction written in a style now two centuries old, although it can at times err on the pastiche, and I for one was reminded of the classic French & Saunders pisstake on such costume dramas on TV (“You suppose? You suppose? Madam, I find you very suppository!”)

The two unmarried Bennet daughters, Mary and Kitty, are in London, the younger, prettier, out to catch herself a man, like Mr Darcy, of some six thousands pounds per year. However, it is Mary who is smitten – by Mr Frankenstein. The creature also lurks, and the story leads a leisurely pace until a dreadful denoument, when young Kitty dies of a fever, and her body is resurrected by Frankenstein, to furnish the creature with a mate.

Actually, this is a false denouement, as we find through means of a newspaper clipping a year hence, of the likely fate of several of the characters, although this rather wraps up the story post-haste and with less satisfaction than one would like.

Colin Harvey, at The Fix:

But where Kessel scores is in fusing two seemingly disparate genres together so beautifully; it’s a wonderful Austen pastiche, and only rarely does he ever let control of his material slip. Once the initial bemusement at such an unlikely juxtaposition has passed, it’s a well-written story in its own right, with Mary [Bennet] at times quoting contemporary beliefs in such a way that they feel as if they could as easily have come from the mouth of Mary Shelley, who was, after all, a feminist almost two centuries before the term was popularized.

While the first half of the story is as light a soufflé as any Austen created, the mood gradually darkens with the second half to bring it emotionally closer to Shelley’s Gothic denouement—although in the end, Kessel reins in the story to steer a middle course which, unlike many genre romances, avoids both a contrived resolution and some of the histrionics that characterized his source material, and he manages to wring fresh pathos from what could, in a lesser writer’s hands, simply be a reworking of familiar materials. In all, “Pride and Prometheus” is highly recommended.

Broadly positive, then — and, of course, it’s just won a Nebula award. There’s also a short interview with Kessel about the story here.

And now, over to you …

Reminder: “Pride and Prometheus” discussion

Coming this Sunday! You can read the story here.

I’m slightly surprised by the relative lack of discussion of “The Gambler” relative to “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders“. Did fewer people read it, or do you just not have much to say about it?

House of Suns

The Quiet War coverOn the one hand, coming to a novel this late, when numerous people have pretty much reviewed the heck out of it, makes life easier, in that I can point at what they’ve said; on the other hand, in the case of House of Suns, there isn’t much left that hasn’t been said, which you can take as an indication of the kind of genial, transparent book it is. (This may seem ironic, given the evident length this post has grown to, but really, it’s all just my variations on themes already identified.) In particular, Adam Roberts’ review says almost everything I would, give or take some differences in emphasis, and his summary judgment gets to the heart of the matter for me:

if it is your contention that the face of SF 2009 is Asimov’s mutton-chops and meaty NHS-style-but-presumably-not-actually-NHS-what-with-him-being-American glasses, and if you’re not bothered by bourgeois heteronormativity, then this is most definitely the book for you.

On the Asimov thing: Jonathan Wright also notes an Asimovian flavour to the proceedings and, though it doesn’t seem to have been deliberate, it was there for me, too. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing; specifically, there were times when I felt that House of Suns was doing salvage work on some of the more satisfactory aspects of Asimov’s late novels — even more specifically, Foundation and Earth (1986). The future history in House of Suns features a galaxy in which the only forms of intelligence are human or human-derived; the central characters are members of an organization that sets itself above or beyond the immediate, squabbling concerns of planetary and interplanetary civilizations; and there are some radically divergent posthumans wandering around, but the story’s ultimate focus is the relationship between humanity and robots, known here as Machine People. One of the main characters, Hesperus, is a Machine Person with some similarities of attitude to some incarnations of R. Daneel Olivaw (updated for the noughties, of course). If you squint a little, I think you can even see a deformed magus-figure shadow of Hari Seldon behind Abigail Gentian, the woman who establishes the primary clone Line with which House of Suns concerns itself, in the way she establishes rules, a preservational Plan that her “shatterlings” follow down the deep well of centuries.

Incongruously enough, my other touchstone while reading this book was Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who. Dan Hartland mentions Star Wars as a reference point, which captures the curious innocence of House of Suns; there is less New in this Space Opera than in the others that I have read by Reynolds. (Also, one of the Machine People looks like a slightly more sculpted C-3PO.) But Who has some of that innocence to it as well, and for all its inanities, I think it’s a better match, and not just because one of Reynolds’ posthuman races are called the Sycorax. First, what Reynolds brings to Asimov’s framework is colour, gleeful splashes of the stuff. In a science fiction novel like this, which essentially takes an infinite empty void as its backdrop, there is particular skill needed in choosing which bits to sketch in; Reynolds makes good choices, and goes about his sketchings with gusto. So although a fair portion of the book takes place in deep space, depicting voyages or chases (Reynolds does like his chase sequences, particularly interstellar ones that go on for tens of pages; fortunately the one that closes this book is rather better paced than the one that closed Century Rain [2004]), there are marvels at every waystation, from giants with faces to dwarf even the Face of Bo, to sleeping beauty awaking in a techno-forest of gold and silver cables. Sometimes these settings are handled off-handedly:

Ashtega’s world — shown beneath the map of the galaxy — was an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons. We were crossing the ecliptic, so the rings were slowly tilting to a steeper angle, revealing more of their loveliness. There was no doubt that it was one of the most glorious worlds I had ever seen, and I had seen quite a few.

But we had not come here to gawp at a picturesque planet, even if it was a spectacular exemplar of the form. (21)

Sometimes more attention is lavished on them:

Four stiff black fingers reached from the dunes, each an obelisk of the Benevolence, each tilted halfway to the horizontal. The shortest of the fingers must have been four or five kilometres from end to end, while the longest — one of the two middle digits — was at least eight. From a distance, caught in the sparkling light of the lowering sun, it was as if the fingers were encrusted with jewellery of blue stones and precious metal. But the jewellery was Ymir: the Witnesses had constructed their city on the surface of the fingers, with the thickest concentrations of structures around the middle portions of the fingers. A dense mass of azure towers thrust from the sloped foundations of the Benevolence relics, fluted and spiralled like the shells of fabulous sea creatures, agleam with gold and silver gilding. A haze of delicate latticed walkways and bridges wrapped itself around the twoers of Ymir, with the longer spans reaching from finger to finger. The air spangled with the bright moving motes of vehicles and airborne people, buzzing from tower to tower. (161)

This is not elegant writing; it is even a bit laboured (“… on the surface of the fingers … around the middle portions of the fingers”). But it’s trying to get us excited about something extraordinary. So my second comparison point is that, as in Doctor Who, the characters are not immune to wonder; dialogue like this, for example, would I think be entirely at home in that show:

“Sand grains start sliding downhill, just beneath the outer membrane of the dunes [...] The membrane vibrates even more strongly and sets up excitations in the surrounding airmass. You get something like music.” After a pause, he said, “Wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Wonderful and a little spooky.”

“Like all the best things in the universe.” (172-3)

Comparisons with Who can only go so far, though. There is, for example, that whitebread heteronormativity that Adam mentions — not something Who can be accused of too strongly these days — which is for most of the novel a nagging annoyance, and a couple of times something more than that. [EDIT: Although there are also the orgies during the thousand nights, which suggest a certain degree of flexibility ...] The projection of particular standards of beauty got me, too: the descriptions of how beautiful the Machine People were, in particular, felt very culturally specific, and while I’m fine with the shatterlings having retained the standards of beauty they started with (see below), I’m a little disappointed that the standards of beauty in Abigail’s time, which is already some way in the future from us, apparently hadn’t changed at all. What most irritated me, however, was the abuse of bioscience. Reynolds is scrupulous about stressing the physical constraints of the universe — say, the speed of light — yet is, bizarrely, happy to construct a scenario in which a female progenitor gives rise to a clone line containing both male and female individuals. If there’s a reason for this beyond Reynolds wanting to include more male characters, I missed it. If there’s an explanation given for how this miracle is achieved, I missed that, too; [EDIT: It could be, for example, that Abigail has a rare variant of Klinefelter's syndrome, though I don't recall such an explanation being offered in the text (though see discussion later regarding the flashbacks) and so] I’m left imagining that they imported a Y chromosome from somewhere else, which makes any male shatterlings less than an exact clone. (Indeed, I found myself defaulting to imagining the shatterlings as female until otherwise specified for just this reason, which led to a couple of interestingly disconcerting moments.)

A more global difference to Who (but a similarity with Asimov) is that Reynolds is in earnest. House of Suns never indulges in the sort of ironic nudging that Who — or a writer like, say, Ken MacLeod, in a novel like Newton’s Wake; or Banks in any Culture novel– so often enjoys. Dan Hartland put it this way: “Reynolds manages space opera that does not read like farce.” I will go a little further: one of the novel’s strengths is that Reynolds manages to keep a straight face almost all of the time. There are no knowing winks. There is some — not that much — snappy dialogue, but when Reynolds has one of his characters report that “The next three minutes passed like an age as I watched Hesperus streak forward and then slam past Mezereon’s position, missing her by barely half a million kilometres” (123), the deadpan delivery is essential, because on the face of it that “barely” looks absurd.

It’s this earnestness, also, that makes it possible to believe in characters driven by the search for wonder: a perhaps childish impulse (see Who, again; and Charlie Anders touches on this in a piece at io9 about childhood and sense of wonder that I’ve only just seen; and also see below) but one that, as the ending makes clear, is a function of civilizational youth as much as individual organism youth. The shatterlings are flung outwards by her at the close of humanity’s dawn age, explicitly in search of knowledge and experience. In each Line, each of a thousand clones is given a ship; each is then set on a different course, with instructions to rendezvous after completing a “circuit”, a trip around the galaxy. At the rendezvous they share experiences; then they do it all again. For the Gentian Line, these circuits now take two hundred thousand years each (the shatterlings spend much of their time in suspended animation, “tunnelling through history” as one character puts it), during which time they may interact with civilizations caught in “the endless, grinding procession of empires” (15) that the shatterlings call “turnover”. It is, at any rate, no surprise that Abigail’s rules have, by the time of the novel, some thirty-odd circuits down the line, hardened into commandments; no real surprise that maintenance of continuity is one of the book’s main themes.

Here is where I diverge slightly from most other reviewers of this book. House of Suns is narrated by two Shatterlings of Abigail’s line, Campion and Purslane, in alternating chapters. (At the start of each of the book’s eight sections, there is also a flashback chapter to Abigail’s youth; but all the Shatterlings share these memories — both Campion and Purslane refer to events that take place in the flashbacks as theirs, as happening to “me” — so there is no way of knowing which is narrating them.) And they do sound frightfully similar. As Adam puts it:

all the characters are pretty much the same character. Of course most of the characters in this novel are the same character, or clones thereof, but I don’t think this excuses it; they’re supposed to have been living separate lives, and developing separate personalities, for millions of years after all. They haven’t done so, though, on the evidence of this text. I was perhaps a quarter of the way into the book before I twigged that the narrative p.o.v. was alternating between the two twin-like deuteragonists (Purslane and Campion), and that’s not a good thing.

Or Paul Kincaid:

House of Suns is a novel with three narrative voices: Campion and Purslane narrate alternative chapters, while each section of the novel is introduced with a passage narrated by Abigail Gentian, the founder of the line (I will come back to her shortly). This is a technique that has a number of problems. For a start, Campion and Purslane spend most of the novel together, so that until the climax the alternating chapters don’t actually show us anything different. More seriously, the voices of male Campion and female Purslane are indistinguishable, and both are indistinguishable from Abigail Gentian. Is Reynolds making the subtle point that, as clones, these are all the same person anyway? If so, he actually does nothing with the idea, and the point could have been made as well without the exchange of narrative duties. I suspect, rather, that Reynolds has got hooked on multiple narrative strands, a technique he has used repeatedly before, and has followed it regardless of the fact that in some instances, as here, it can be more harmful than helpful to the novel.

I actually think the technical issue Paul identifies, that for most of the novel Campion and Purslane are sharing the same experiences (and thus that it’s sometimes only possible to tell which is narrating a chapter when they refer to the other), does the more harm. On the other hand, I can make an argument that the similarity of identity is deliberate; or at least, I feel I can construct a satisfactory rationale for embracing the confusion it causes based on what’s in the text, which is actually the more important thing. I’ve already mentioned that both Campion and Purslane claim Abigail’s memories as their own, but it’s also the case that they share their own memories with each other, and share memories with other shatterlings; indeed, at one point Purslane misremembers something that happened to Campion as having happened to her. So I don’t think they have been developing separate personalities for millions of years — I think, in fact, that they have been developing parallel personalities for millions of years. The point is repeatedly made that the differences between members of the Line are much less significant than the similarities, and I don’t think that is just clan loyalty.

At the time we meet them, just before a reunion, after hundreds of thousands of years apart, the shatterlings are as divergent as they will ever be; the point of the thousand-nights reunion is to celebrate sharing that experience. Before it can take place, the assembled Gentian Line is ambushed, and most of them are killed, so; yet they are still remarkably similar individuals. (One shatterling’s taste for torture, for instance, is merely out at the end of the bell curve compared to the rest of them; even those who object to the torture most are prepared to embrace its use in other circumstances, later in the book.) The differences between Line members — in particular, between Campion and Purslane, the former pruning regularly, the latter sentimentally hoarding — seem to arise in large part from differing choices about which memories to delete than they do from differing individual experiences. It is the presumed similarity between the shatterlings that makes Campion and Purslane’s romantic liaison anathema to the rest of their Line — it is rather worse than incest — and it is the need to maintain continuity that makes Campion’s decision to delete his “strand” (the archive of his memories) a transgression beyond the pale. Both actions threaten the stability of the Line.

This obsession with continuity has, I think you can argue, resulted in a kind of arrested development on the part of the shatterlings; it is emphasized more than once that near-baseline humans such as they are not perceptually suited to experiencing long stretches of “raw time”, and that their pride in their longevity is, in important ways, a delusion. But it’s interesting to think of them specifically as children, of a kind, who have not yet become full individuals; as Purslane says, shortly after the ambush, “now we are growing up” (99). You can even gloss the overall shape of the novel as being about humans learning exactly how young they really are in comparison to the depth and breadth of the universe. Coming to terms with being, in a sense, spoiled children. The Gentian Line is incredibly conscious of its fragility; for some of them, the worst consequence of the ambush is not that eight-hundred-odd unique individuals have been killed, but that as a consequence the Line may cease to exist. They take pride in their status as one of humanity’s strategies to maintain continuity over deep time, one way to rise above the churn of turnover (they would probably say, the most human such strategy). As Ludmilla Marcellin, creator of the first line, puts it:

“If [Faster-than-light travel] is developed, it will clearly be of significance to us. We’ll embrace it wholeheartedly, have no fear. But it won’t change the nature of what we are, or the reason for our existence. The galaxy will still be too big, too complex, for any one person to apprehend. Shattering, turning yourself into multiple points of view, will still be the only way to eat that cake.” (225)

If Ludmilla Marcellin’s shatterlings cease to be her, the whole point of the endeavour is lost; and as with Ludmilla, so with Abigail.

This doesn’t do away with the problems Paul and others have noted; but I think it suggests a way to reframe them as part of a more satisfactory reading of the novel. (I actually think more points of view — probably other shatterlings, though someone outside the Line would also work — would make the point more clearly.) Similarly, I think the flashbacks work better than many have given them credit for. They are there, in part, to emphasize the shared lineage of the line, but their real trick is that they turn out to be false memories, indicators of both a cargo of damage that must be common to all Gentian shatterlings, and of displacement of a specific, repressed act that stains the history of the Line. And perhaps more than that. Note that in the memories Abigail’s development is arrested in childhood for thirty years; this could perhaps represent a displaced consciousness of the thirty circuits the Gentian Line undergo before the ambush, before they start growing up; or perhaps is just a parallel to note as something that shapes the Line. [Equally, is the fact that Abigail's guardian is "Madam Klinefelter" significant, a nod to Abigail's genetic heritage? It's rather a coincidence if it's not.]

Certainly, though, my qualms didn’t bother me much during the actual reading. Back to Adam:

Reynolds is rather disgustingly skilled, actually, when it comes to plotting—not only structuring his story so that its build-ups and pay-offs are all in the right places, but pacing the whole, drawing the reader along, with only the occasional longeur. The first 200 pages hurtle by; the next hundred tread narrative water a little, but things pick up again around 300 and the reader is propelled nicely down the flume to the end-pool.

This is, clearly, not enough to make a truly good novel; but it’s not nothing, either. House of Suns is by some way the most satisfying of Reynolds’ novels that I’ve read (i.e. of those since Century Rain). I did sometimes feel that it became a touch genteel, a touch domesticating; although again, a concern with rules, the value of them as well as their limitations, whether set by Abigail or the universe, is a concern of the novel, and to manifest this as a kind of formality makes a certain amount of sense. Reynolds also falls foul of a personal bugbear, in that he fails to explain how or why his first-person narrators are relating their story. But as I was reading, only rarely were the problems severe enough to pull me up short; for the most part I barely paused for breath. I blasted through House of Suns in a little over a day and, while I wouldn’t give it this year’s Clarke Award, and am not even really sure it belongs on the shortlist, I don’t begrudge the time I spent with it one jot. A guilty pleasure is still a pleasure.

London Meeting: Amanda Hemingway

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Amanda Hemingway; she will be interviewed by Roz Kaveney.

As usual, the interview will start at 7pm, though there will be people in the bar from 6-ish; the meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle (with sf books as prizes).

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

Hugo Nominee: “The Gambler”

Here’s the story. Here’s the comment:

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, at Strange Horizons:

“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi explores one character’s sense of responsibility to honest news-reporting in a world that dictates content by popularity (pings, clicks, links, social pokes, etc.). The narrator’s distinctive first-person voice and observations on culture (“Americans are very direct”) weave a fascinating tapestry, though I personally found some of his uninformed perspective unlikely, and bordering on irrational righteousness. Search for identity is always compelling, though, when handled adeptly, and that is certainly the case in this piece. “True Names,” “Molly’s Kids” and “The Gambler” all make comments of varying seriousness on generational succession. “The Gambler” does so most eloquently by having the protagonist explicitly recognize how he is following in his father’s ideological footsteps.

Paul Raven, at Futurismic:

With “The Gambler“, Paolo Bacigalupi steps out of the niche that has been built around him on two counts – first by writing something so near-future it could be set before the close of the current decade, and second by writing something with a glimmer of hope to it. A plausible enough vision of the future of web-based new media to provoke io9 to cite it as accurate (albeit slightly ironically, considering their recent broadening of remit), “The Gambler” is actually a classic story re-told – the journalist who, despite the disapproval of his superiors, wants to write the news stories that really matter as opposed to puff-pieces.

David Soyka, at Black Gate:

However, the story here that I’d pick for the “hit single” [...] is “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi. The narrator is a web journalist in a near future in which readership – and the news feed’s stock price – is measured instantly. Reporters who file stories that get the most clicks directly contribute to company profitability. What kind of stories get the clicked on most frequently? Well, if you’re guessing that it might be the tabloid celebrity stuff as opposed to detailed analyses of government reports, you’d be making a reasonable extrapolation based on the current state of media “news” coverage.

The “gamble” is that there might be an audience for something more substantive than the usual fluff. That the gamble might have a chance of winning is why it is a science fiction story.

Charles Tan at Bibliophile Stalker:

Another undeniable favorite is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Gambler” due to its focus on its Vietnamese protagonist. The strength of the piece is Bagicalupi’s focus on character and this is evident as we get flashbacks of the narrator’s father who is a martyr of sorts. There’s a lot of details packed into the story that gives it a rich flavor and makes it believable. Where Bacigalupi triumphs is that while the story could easily have taken place in the modern era, what makes it science fiction is the exaggerated qualities of our culture. By the time we reach the end, the story’s fairly predictable, but it nonetheless hits your gut and even I’m forced to evaluate my reasons for writing.

My original comments:

There’s an unavoidable element of meta about “The Gambler”, never more prominent than when Kulaap tells Ong, with a sigh, that “No one reads a depressing story, at least, not more than once”, and Ong responds by insisting (quite rightly) that his stories are real news. Thus (the suspicion is unavoidable) does Bacigalupi deal with his reputation for miserablism. But the reader is never nudged into noticing this parallel — you need information external to the story to see it — and the story instead wisely spends its time deepening Ong’s quiet but firm sincerity. The end of the “The Gambler” is probably the most touching thing Bacigalupi has yet written: what Ong gambles on is human nature, and Bacigalupi makes us want him to win.

So generally positive, then, but with some reservations — the plausibility of the central character, and I’d like to know what others make of Abigail’s observation in the comments to my original post that the ending felt truncated to her. I’m also slightly surprised not to have found more comment about this story out there; have I missed any significant write-ups?

Reminder: “The Gambler” discussion

As the subject line says, this is your weekly reminder about the ongoing discusison of the Hugo shortlist for Best Novellette. On the block this week: “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Discussion to start on Sunday afternoon/evening, again.


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