On Holiday

Oh, I had such noble aims. I was going to use this holiday as an excuse to do a proper stock-taking post, looking back over what I’ve read so far this year and forward to what’s still to come. Instead, it’s got to the point where I’m out the door in an hour, and have various things to do before then. So all you get is some raw numbers: I’ve read 42 books this year; and these are, I think, the six best (in alphabetical order by author), that you all really should read.

In fact, if you want me to know which one of these you should read, it’s the Whitfield; really, In Great Waters and Lavinia should both be on the BSFA Award Best Novel shortlist come 2010.

And with that, I’m off!

Posted in Books, Reading. Tags: , . 4 Comments »

Best Linked Cold

Worldcon Schedule

As I think I’ve mentioned, I’m going to Worldcon this year. The full draft programme is now available [pdf]; and if you’re going, should you want to you can find me on these items:

Thursday 17.00-18.30
Bookgroup: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

Discussion of one of last year’s blockbusters, led by Niall Harrison.
Location: P-523A

Thursday 22.00-23.00
I’ll Be Back

Who could have guessed 25 years ago that “The Terminator” was starring a future governor of California? Having spawned several sequels and a TV series this jarring image of a bleak future that might yet be averted or changed continues to hold our attention. Why have the “Terminator” films been so influential, and what do they say about the times that produced them? How does “Terminator Salvation” fit in?
Jeanne Cavelos, Niall Harrison, Russell Blackford (m), Seanan McGuire
Location: P-511BE

Friday 14.00-15.30
The Hugo Award: Short Form Dramatic Presentation

The nominees: who will win, who should win, who was overlooked? What does it say about the state of the art as of 2008?
James Zavaglia, Lee Whiteside, Mandy Slater (m), Niall Harrison, Vincent Docherty
Location: P-524B

Friday 17.00-18.30
Handicapping the Hugos II: The Short Fiction

Our panellists survey the Hugo-nominated short stories, novelettes, and novellas: they tell us what they want to win, what will win, and why.
Ann VanderMeer (m), Jonathan Strahan, Karen Burnham, Niall Harrison, Bill Fawcett
Location: P-516AB

Saturday 17.00-18.00
Is Blogging an Art Form, or Just a Fanzine by Any Other Name?

Does a blog require a different style? A different layout? A different mode of approach? Do the technical requirements make it more or less accessible a medium?
Cheryl Morgan, Kathryn Cramer, Niall Harrison, Heather McDougal, Tobias Buckell
Location: P-514AB

Sunday 10.00-11.00
Kaffeeklatsch: Niall Harrison and Graham Sleight

Two non-fiction editors answer your questions.
Location: P-521B

Monday 11.00-12.00
Non-Fiction for SF Fans

What non-fiction should SF fans be reading? The panel recommends and discussed recently published books and perennial classics.
Geoff Ryman, James Cambias, Kari Sperring, Niall Harrison (m), Vincent Docherty
Location: P-511BE

If you’re not going, you should feel free to share your thoughts on any of these topics, so that I may steal them and pass them off as my own.

London Meeting: Andrew McKie

The guest at tonight’s London meeting is reviewer Andrew McKie, who will be interviewed by Paul Kincaid.

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.

In Great Waters

In Great Waters coverFantasy, I think it is fair to say, is a little bit in love with acts of creation. It is the genre of extravagant creation, in fact, the fiction for which an intuitive understanding that both writing and reading are inherently creative acts is not sufficient: thus the monsters, maps and magic, and the praise for imaginative density and thoroughness. But most of this praise is directed at the density and thoroughness that goes with the creation of the world; hence, for example, the awareness — and implicit prioritization — of the story’s environment that goes with the tags “epic” and “urban”, hence the familiar litany of the famous places of fantasy. Less frequently do books stand out for creating textured and original experiences for their characters. This is not the same as saying that fantasy novels are prone to poor characterization; what I mean is that, for all its merits, in a book like The War With The Mein the characters are human on terms that we can immediately recognise and understand. Strangeness doesn’t enter into it, and not just because the characters are natives of their world. But you can argue that it should: that in a fantastical world, experience, patterns of thought, and the consequent characters should be, to some degree, alien to us.

This is, as Martin Lewis has pointed out, part of what Kit Whitfield gets up to in her very fine second novel, In Great Waters, with the additional complications that we follow both of the main characters growing up, that neither of them are ordinarily human, and that both are children of two worlds. They are hybrids, with blood from both the people of the land and the people of the sea in their veins; although beyond this similarity they mirror each other. Henry is born as Whistle, under the sea, his “bifurcated tail” marking him out as a freak, and providing a handicap that leaves him a target for bullying, and — until he realises he is more intelligent than most of his peers, and able to trick them — often struggling for food. Eventually his mother takes him to the place where “the world gave out”, that is, the shore, and abandons him. Whitfield is good on Henry’s life underwater, in his cradle, alien to us but not to him: the cruelty of it, the tribal rituals, the sense of space and motion that goes with life in three dimensions, the baffling otherness of the sky above the sea. But she is very good at Henry’s life on land, alien to him but not to us. After two days of lying in the surf, Henry is discovered by a man:

In the sea, he’d been small, smaller than other boys his age, but this skinny creature made Whistle feel tiny. Most strange of all was the tint of his skin, a pink-red pale colour like you got in the first few feet of water below the surface, before descent into the depths greyed everything out to shades of blue and green and white. The man himself gasped endlessly for air, inhaling again and again, faster than the waves beating on the shore. Whistle watched the straight limbs of the man as he paced, bizarrely inverted with his body upright as if permanently breaking the surface. (9)

The succeeding pages depict Henry’s experience of being raised by the above man to survive on land. Awareness of his position as (forgive me) a fish out of water is never neglected, and Henry’s situation quickly becomes engrossing. So he conceptualizes new information in terms of what is familiar to him — posture, and the tint of skin, in the quote above; later, he imagines soldiers as being like a shoal of fish — but more immediately, his surroundings are thoroughly strange. The world below had limits, but within itself no boundaries; on land, Henry is constantly thwarted by borders and barriers. He has trouble grasping the concept of nations, their scale and locatedness. More immediately, buildings are “an endless profusion of boxes that [daze] his focus with their stiff, enclosing order” (10; his unfamiliarity with right angles also makes the Christian cross a threatening symbol, a fact which becomes important later in the novel); clothes are “a blindfold for his body” (19); he feels constantly heavy, without the sea to support him, has to walk on crutches, and has to fight the urge to attempt to swim out the window of the room in which he is imprisoned. But as Nic Clarke notes, as good as the physical, tactile elements of Henry’s experience are, equally important are the conceptual challenges he faces. Language becomes a site of struggle. In keeping with their more animalistic intelligence, the language of the deepsmen is simple, declarative, consisting primarily of warnings or commands. English contrasts in every way: complex and contradictory, with meanings to Henry quite unlike those we might construct. One word is totemic: “to Henry, ‘understand’ meant to take up the posture of a landsman: impossible, and unwelcome” (40). So there is no sudden, total conceptual breakthrough, no moment when the nature of his new world becomes suddenly clear to Henry, only a slow, continuous, imperfect process of understanding and adaptation.

Then there is Anne. At this point some additional context is necessary. We are in early Renaissance (or thereabouts) England. The story, as told to Henry early in his captivity, is that first contact between landsmen and deepsmen took place in ninth-century Venice. The landsmen sent out ambassadors in boats, playing beautiful music; the boats were attacked and quickly sunk, and the landsmen moved into the city’s canals, resisting attempts to dislodge them. The situation worsened, and worsened again as Venice found itself under threat from land as well as sea. Then, a woman walked out of the water, and announced that she could command the deepsmen. Soon enough, Venice’s power was once again waxing, with any country dependent on trade or travel by water at the city-state’s mercy, and Angelica on the throne. An empire was forged and, ultimately, crumbled, as other countries learned to put hybrids on their thrones, to negotiate with their local deepsmen. In Anne and Henry’s time, landlocked countries remain relatively stable, but for everyone else Whitfield would have us believe (I can believe it) that times remain edgy. Deepsmen blood has become royal blood. The lines must be preserved at all costs, even as the blood thins, and in-breeding among royal families takes its toll. Every so often, a regime is deposed, as a new bastard emerges from the ocean; the last such event took place in France, a century ago. Now, Henry is being groomed for the same role in England; and Anne is the youngest granddaughter of the current king.

Anne’s narrative is, less ostentatiously but no less thoroughly than Henry’s, a masterclass in the construction of personal worlds. Like Henry, Anne has two worlds, the land and the sea; but they are not Henry’s land and sea. For Anne, the land is home, where she was born. It is still a place whose rules must be learned: her world is the court, after all. Like Henry, Anne is a disappointment to her parents, and to the court: “born a disappointment”, we are told, “but such was often the fate of royal girls” (57). A second girl, in fact, and not only that — meaning that England has no heir ready to take over from an aging king, and that marriages will have to be brokered. This fact becomes only more urgent when Anne’s father, the king’s first son, dies, because the second son, Philip, is no heir. He is, however, an extraordinary, grotesque creation, a full deepsman throwback (tail and all), dumb and violent, driven by unreflexive desire, yet horribly indulged by the landsmen around him. So where for Henry it is the physical challenges of life on land that are most immediate, for Anne it is the political challenges, the constant negotiation of the invisible protocols that shape a society. And no wonder, then, that for Anne the water — which was Henry’s cradle, yet never his home — is a place of freedom. Periodically, the court visits the coast, so that the royals may swim and negotiate with the local deepsmen tribes; but though these visits are a duty, they offer Anne a degree of mental, social and physical escape. “Anne felt stronger, wider awake [...] she turned with a flex of the spine that felt almost forbidden in its ease” (78). Of course, this simplicity does not last.

As time passes — we follow both Henry and Anne from childhood to young adult-hood, although with little of the emotional familiarity that such a framework would usually imply — we see how the pair are shaped by their worlds. By their existence, for us Henry and Anne shade each other, but it is their contexts that make them different. Faced with a deteriorating situation at court, we are told that Anne, “not knowing what to do, did nothing”; and that “in consequence, rumours began to build that she was a simpleton” (80). Her deepsman heritage here comes in handy. In moments of high emotion, her face becomes lit by phosphorescence, creating a rather grisly visage — “The effect was only to cast her eyes into shadow, rendering the sockets hollow like a skull” (58) — but one that allows her to build a façade behind which Anne can maintain her own thoughts and a secret self. Of necessity, she becomes observant, careful, resourceful and brave, as she attempts to assert some measure of control over her life. Henry, meanwhile, is raised on land with the expectation that he will one day be king, and acquires the ambition and arrogance that go with that, but neither does he escape the feral, mercurial part of his nature, and he is consequently defined by fear and, inevitably, by anger. Whitfield does a marvellous job with this latter emotion, in particular: Henry is a potent portrayal of the destructive, distorting effect of anger. That he is able to use it is a hollow comfort; it defines him for too much of his life, bringing isolation and instability and reinforcing incomprehension. When he finally meets Anne, his reaction could be Philip’s, if we could believe Philip could articulate his thoughts so clearly: “He would have liked to defeat her, somehow, beat her down in a fight or make her obey him, to stop her face from troubling him any further. He wanted to eat her tongue” (222).

There is, of course, recursion here: the differing experiences of Anne and Henry create our sense that they exist in different worlds; and those different worlds give rise to differing experiences in turn. They read the world, and the world writes back on to them. But in a less subjective sense they live in the same world; and in order to make any headway against the forces that constrain them they each have to, somehow, gain the other’s world. Gradually their stories do merge: from alternating fifty-page chunks we move to alternating chapters, then paragraphs, and then finally the two are together in a single narrative. But their alliance is one of pragmatism, not romance. For Anne, Henry is a way out; for Henry, it is simply that Anne is the first person he has met to speak both his languages, the only one who has a chance of understanding both his worlds.

I have talked so little about the actual story of In Great Waters because, in a sense, it is extremely simple. Stripped down, it is a fantasy of political agency. “Given the right push”, the narrator tells us, “customs could change” (326); and Henry and Anne, thanks to their dual and doubled perspectives, can get themselves into a position from which they can give the right push. But familiar arc though this may be, it is never less than deeply felt, made credible by the texture of its protagonists’ experience. Whitfield’s language is (indeed, languages are, given the attention paid to the representation of the deepsmen tongue) carefully tailored to support her creation. The writing is not archaic, but shaped by a few choices that leave an archaic flavour in the mind: there are almost no contractions, almost no use of the continuous present tense. (I might compare the carefully complementary artifice in this novel to the carefully contrary artifice on display in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.) Whitfield’s shifts in emotional register are adroit, and her grasp on her narrative is assured. So it is possible to believe that Henry and Anne can create their world anew.

But putting it this way is too sentimental for an unsentimental novel. To my mind there is a powerful Darwinian undercurrent to In Great Waters, not just in the portrayal of the deepsmen — their lives, red in tooth and claw, and the impression that they are water-adapted humans, part of the ecology, not magical creations — but in the clear understanding throughout the book that both Henry and Anne are unfit only to the extent that they do not match their environment. So perhaps it would be more apt to say that what they do is to open up a new niche in which they can live safely. Or to emphasize their strength, and say that like Whitfield’s first novel, Bareback (2006), In Great Waters is ultimately a story about ways of being human, however alien you seem: a reminder that more than reading or writing, the greatest act of creation available to us is living.

On Hugos

A quick post this morning, since I’ve got to catch a train to York (to visit two-thirds of Eve’s Alexandria). So I leave you with two perspectives on this year’s Hugo Awards. Abigail Nussbaum writes about the Best Novel shortlist here (Zoe’s Tale and Saturn’s Children) and here (Little Brother, The Graveyard Book, and Anathem). Her final judgment?

In the end, I placed Anathem above The Graveyard Book in my Hugo ballot. Though both novels are flawed, I think that The Graveyard Book‘s flaws would come to seem more irksome in later years if Gaiman were to win. It’s the better novel from a technical standpoint, but Anathem is the one that does something new and different and uniquely SFnal, as well as being the novel that engaged me emotionally when I first read it. If I had managed to read all five nominated novels before July 3rd, I still would have voted No Award in the third slot (followed, in case you’re interested, by Zoe’s Tale, then possibly another, more emphatic No Award vote, then Little Brother and Saturn’s Children). I think Anathem has a good chance of winning, though Doctorow and Gaiman also have strong fanbases among Hugo voters, and both of their novels have had a lot of buzz (Scalzi, meanwhile, is a long shot, and Stross probably doesn’t have a chance). It’s hard to work up much pleasure at that thought, however, as this year’s ballot has me rooting against the nominees I dislike rather than for the ones I like. I think it’s safe to say that my first experience reading all five Hugo nominated novels has not been a positive one. I’m going to hold on to the hope that 2008 was an aberration, both in the quality of books published and in the tastes of the Hugo voters, but I’m suddenly very pleased that this experiment in being a Hugo voter is unlikely to recur for some time.

Adam Roberts, meanwhile, has written an open letter to sf fandom:

Dear Science Fiction Fandom

I wanted to have a word about the Hugos. Science Fiction Fandom, these are your awards: the shortlists chosen and voted for by you. And because I too am a fan (though without Hugo voting privileges) they are my awards. They reflect upon us all. They remain one of the most prestigious awards for SF in the world. These lists say something about SF to the world.

Science Fiction Fandom: your shortlists aren’t very good.

I’m not saying the works you have shortlisted are terrible. They’re not terrible, mostly, as it goes. But they aren’t exceptionally good either. They’re in the middle. There’s a word for that. The word is mediocre.

On Expertise

A perspective on Readercon:

This weekend I went to my first Readercon. There’s a lot to like about Readercon, but there’s also a lot to dislike. To start off with, the name is false advertising. This isn’t a con that centers itself on or meets the needs of readers, or enables readers to talk to each other. This is a professional networking conference that also meets the needs of a small set of fans, most of whom seem to be white, male, and over 50. It is designed, in many ways large and small, to reinforce the status of professionals–particularly writers, but also editors, paid critics, and academics–above that of people who are “just fans” or “just readers.”

The con’s setup (everything from the programming to the hotel selection) allows and encourages this group of people to talk to each other, and fans and readers to express appreciation to this set of authorities, but does very little to encourage literary conversation as a conversation among equals. Readership, audience reaction, is strongly encouraged to stay within strict bounds; criticism and participation in the discussion are treated as privileges accorded to a few, not the basic rights of every reader.

(I was going to do a general post-Readercon links post, but then it was pointed out to me that the relevant links are already being collected at the Readercon livejournal community, so I suggest you go there, instead, and I’m just going to single out this one post.)

I haven’t been to a Readercon. It’s always been on my list of conventions I’d like to go to someday, but to date has never quite made it to the top, because the constellation of writers it places in the centre of the field is in large part not a constellation that particularly excites me. (I have a memory of seeing, in a panel description somewhere, a statement to the effect that Little, Big was the definitive Readercon book, to which my response was: right, well, this is not for me, then.) But I have to say that this description of it, though intended as criticism, really, really makes me want to go.

Panel discussions have always been part of the draw of conventions, for me. I can get readerly discussion of books in conversation with friends, down the pub, or online; I can, almost literally, get it all the damn time if I want. At conventions it is what the bar is for, what going out for meals is for, what book groups are for. You know what I can’t get on a regular basis? What I very rarely get enough of even at a convention? The experience of listening to experts on a particular topic discuss it in depth. That, to me, is what panels are for.

When I started going to conventions, I chose the panels I wanted to go to by topic. This proved to be a very hit-and-miss way to approach things, as you can imagine. So then I started to choose panels based on the panelists, because experience taught me that nine times out of ten, published authors will be more interesting on a panel focused on a topic they know about than “just fans”, and a good proportion of the time critics and academics will be more interesting than authors.

(Note that I do not consider myself a critic, precisely because of the status implications of the term. I am not putting myself in the top tier of panelists that I’m creating in the paragraph above, and if I went to a Readercon and was offered more than, say, a panel on the collected work of Stephen Baxter, I would think something had gone wrong somewhere. You would be amazed [or maybe not] at the breadth of the shallowness of my knowledge of sf and fantasy. Note, also, that I am talking about literary panels; science and technology panels, fan panels, culture panels and so forth are a different kettle of fish. And I tend to go to less of them.)

I have lost count of the number of times that audience involvement has been the death of a fascinating panel discussion. Few phrases strike fear into my heart like, “This is really more of a comment than a question …” Sometimes the audience discussion phase is fascinating and insightful; but mostly, not. And there are obvious reasons why problems arise: a room is more difficult to moderate and focus than a panel. These reasons are not insurmountable, but if they are surmounted then you get a different kind of discussion — it becomes, again, the kind of discussion I can easily get in other times and places.

Of course, this approach to panels necessitates among other things (a) a convention committee who can be trusted to find the five best people for a given discussion, and (b) a programme book that allows con-goers to find out who the names on the panels are. Readercon seems to have (b) covered, since it provides more extensive biographies of panelists than any other programme book I’ve ever seen. The other criticism in the post linked above, though, is that they’re not so good at (a): “There are a number of perspectives which simply do not appear–particularly those of people of color, but also those of younger generations, queer people, women, young professionals, poor or working class people, and fields of literary criticism developed since 1968.” This is, no doubt, a problem, and makes me move Readercon back down my list of priorities. If they’re not including a wide variety of perspectives, they’re not finding the best five people to discuss a topic, which undermines the whole point of being so strict about the regulation of panels.

But in principle, a convention that, within the panel format, unashamedly celebrates expertise? Bring it on.

The Golden Age

It feels churlish to complain about a feature in a major British newspaper that boils down to “British science fiction, yay!”, but Stuart Jeffries’ article in the Guardian is a bit … odd.

Here’s the intro:

This is a golden age for British science fiction, chiefly thanks to a wave of writers who are tackling an area their American rivals tend to leave well alone — far-future set, space-operatic, hard sci-fi. Americans tend to set their sci-fi in soft (ie, scientifically unsupported) near futures. Wimps.

Let’s take this bit by bit. The argument that the writers most associated with space opera at the moment are British is relatively sound, I think, although a look at the contents of The New Space Opera and The New Space Opera 2 anthologies reveals plenty of Americans. (And even a few people from other countries!) But it seems to me it rather sells short the diversity of current British sf to say that is chiefly what is going on — it leaves no room for, say, Ian McDonald, and though you can include writers such as Justina Robson or M John Harrison or Gwyneth Jones on a list of “people who have at some point in the last decade committed space opera”, that is to pigeonhole them more than they deserve. Still, I can live with it. If you need a hook to hang your article on it, this one will do.

Two things trip me up, however. First is the addition of the “hard sci-fi” qualifier. Reynolds, sure; McAuley’s The Quiet War, OK; Baxter’s Exultant, arguably. Charles Stross, perhaps. So you can build that argument, if you want. Jeffries’ actual examples, however, are brief profiles of four writers: Peter F Hamilton, Neal Asher, Liz Williams, and Iain M Banks. Say what? Remember, these are meant to be examples of hard sf space opera. When Peter F Hamilton is the best fit to that description, something’s not quite right. (I’m not sure Williams has even written a novel that could be considered space opera, has she? Certainly the example they give — Darkland — is more of a planetary romance.) Reynolds and McAuley are particularly noticeable by their absence — they get a name-check at the end of the piece, but they fit its overall argument better than, well, anyone else Jeffries mentions. Maybe it’s just that he didn’t contact anyone from Gollancz when he was researching.

Second, there’s the swipe at American sf: that it tends to be set in “soft” near futures. Now, we can argue all day about what counts as a “soft” near future, but the examples of American near-future sf that spring to mind — David Marusek, Kim Stanley Robinson and, because I’ve just received a proof of The Windup Girl in the post, Paolo Bacigalupi — are surely closer to the hard end of the spectrum. Indeed I would say the more commonly heard complaint is not that the near futures of American sf are “soft”, but that they are absent; that, proportionally speaking, writers are turning to the past, to alternate history or, yes, to space opera, rather than the next ten years. Of the two Americans on this year’s Hugo ballot for Best Novel, for instance, one — John Scalzi — has written a textbook definition of a soft space opera, while the other — Neal Stephenson — has written, well, it’s not soft near future sf, that’s for sure.

So, yes. Not unwelcome. But it’s a bit like Jeffries took that interview from Today, put it through a blender, then removed any mention of Reynolds on the grounds that the Guardian ran a whole feature just on him the other week. Odd.

EDIT: As Joseph points out in the comments, this is actually a sidebar to an in-depth interview of Alastair Reynolds, which explains his absence here.

Posted in SF. Tags: , . 14 Comments »

Children of Earth

Torchwood posterThere are times when Russell T Davies’ work — and for all that John Fay and James Moran have writing credits on the middle episodes of Torchwood: Children of Earth, the finished product does feel very much like Russell T Davies’ work — seems to be the work of a man obsessively iterating a set of concerns that deserve the attention, and times when it just feels repetitive. Which side of the line any given story falls on, of course, depends on the execution, and partly it’s about the reappearance of themes, rather than devices. By the time you get to Doctor Who‘s season four finale, an army of metallic aliens invading Earth from some kind of Elsewhere starts to feel somewhat familiar, for instance. “Planet of the Dead”, earlier this year, appeared for all the world to be an attempt to see how many previous plot points could be repeated in the course of a single story. But I think Children of Earth works, much more than not, despite the fact that Who did an aliens-want-children plot barely six months ago, despite the fact that the questions it asks have been asked before, because it found a new angle from which to approach those questions.

Most obviously Children of Earth is “Midnight” — that story about the worst self-destructive tendencies of humanity, and for my money, the best episode of Who‘s fourth season — retold as an epic. In both stories, the assistance of an outside agent who could assist humanity is rejected (the parallel between Jack and the Doctor is unavoidable by the end of Children of Earth, I think); and we are shown what happens when humanity stands alone. They are the flipside of The Second Coming, which asserted the ability and necessity of humanity to stand on its own two feet, without (in that case) God. To frame Children of Earth as drawing its core concerns from this strand of Davies’ work is perhaps merely to observe what much commentary on the series has observed, that it is not Torchwood as we know it (depending on your perspective, for better or worse; on the latter, see also comments here, and if you want to depress yourself, Moran’s description of feedback he has received here). And there is also the fact that the crass camp of the first two seasons, which seemed at the time to be part of the point of the show, is very noticeable by its absence. Yet Children of Earth also more fully expresses ideas that have been central to Torchwood from the start, and only relatively lightly touched on in Who, most notably the consequences of Captain Jack’s ambiguous Angel-like past, and the costs of putting regular humans on the front line in a fight against alien threats.

What Children of Earth is most memorable for, perhaps, is changing the focus of that last question slightly, to ask who decides where the front lines are. That means, on one level, Jack Harkness, and to what extent he is responsible for the vulnerable humans he recruits to fight alongside him; and it means, on a rather bigger level, those at the top of governmental and military organizations. Much is made, throughout the series, of questions of expediency and expendability. We are told that the Civil Service, as personified by Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher (a really excellent turn from Peter Capaldi), are the middlemen of British government, and they are here used by the Prime Minister in an attempt to keep his hands clean: but, under no illusions what this means, he tells Frobisher directly that “all I’ve done is put you on the front line”. The cost for Frobisher is, ultimately, as high as that implies; it is nearly as high for his temp assistant, Lois Habiba, and for Torchwood, on the front lines in a different sense, it appears to mean the end of the line entirely.

Torchwood itself, I would suggest, is acknowledged here to be the tin-pot personal outfit it has been since after the battle of Canary Wharf. “What do you think Torchwood is now?” Frobisher asks, in “Day Five”. “Do you think you’re still players?” Whatever institutional power it had in the past, it strikes me that the incarnation of Torchwood that we have seen through these three seasons is held together pretty much by Jack Harkness’ bare hands, out of a belief in its necessity. Children of Earth is where his grip slips, where his cavalier choices bite him. The undercutting of his heroic “I’m back” in episode three, having replaced his totemic coat – followed by the undercutting of the Doctor-ish trope of “let’s go stand up to them”, rushing in to confront the aliens — is one of the most savage, and satisfying, progressions in the series. And back at the top of the ladder, the scenes in “Day Four” in which the COBRA team talk themselves not just into capitulating to the 456′s horrific demands, but into seeing a political opportunity in that capitulation, are some of the most chilling, not because they are “realistic” — they are not — but because the characters in the scene embody a kind of twisted, prejudicial realism that is all too common.

None of this, of course, would be worth talking about if Children of Earth showed the same lack of basic narrative and technical competency that so blighted earlier Torchwood. Fortunately, it’s a step up in those regards, as well; there are flaws, but none so terrible as to derail the whole enterprise. From “The End of the World” through “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Silence in the Library”, Euros Lyn has often been one of new Who’s more successful directors, and his work here is solid, giving many scenes — in particular those in the 456′s room — the space and framing they need to be effective. And I’ve already singled out Peter Capaldi for praise, but most of the rest of the guest cast are also very good: in particular, Cush Jumbo’s Lois Habiba pulls off “I’m a temp, it’s what I do” where Catherine Tate failed, Katy Wix is agreeably down-to-Earth as Ianto’s sister, and Nicholas Farrell is believably trapped and calculating as the PM. (This is not to say the regular cast are bad — Eve Myles is probably the best I’ve seen her — but they are, perhaps, outshone.) Nor was the pacing of the story bad. It could perhaps have been cut down to four episodes rather than five, given that episode two consisted mostly of characters running around in an attempt to get back to where they started, and that the “previously on” for that episode was arguably more effectively creepy than the whole of episode one, but the key scenes were given the time they needed to breath. I’m thinking here, of the extended first contact and negotiation scenes in “Day Three”; the COBRA scenes, again, in “Day Four”; the one-on-ones in “Day Five”; and a good number of the scenes involving Ianto’s family. All of these are leagues more involving than anything Torchwood has managed, or even attempted, in its previous incarnations. Of course, Murray Gold and Ben Foster’s score is still intrusive and garish, but you can’t have everything; and at least they did away with the music for the scene in “Day Five” in which the PM tells Frobisher his children will be inoculated.

The flaws in the series, as so often in Russell T Davies’ work, seem to me (if not to others) to be primarily to do with a failure to stick the dismount. I should say, before I get into my reservations, that I still rate Children of Earth as good, and not even just good-for-Torchwood; I think it’s the most interesting, and most nearly successful, work that Davies has had a credited writer’s role in since The Second Coming. The ending, for example, is much better set up than in any of Davies’ Who finales — and hence its manipulativeness is much less distracting. The revelation that the 456 are drug addicts (presumably, given the observation that there are at least three life-forms in their box, they make a habit of sampling different species to get different highs) is not only astonishingly creepy in itself, but renders them satisfyingly banal, and neatly justifies their ham-fisted tactics, and their leaving what looks like an obvious backdoor into their brains lying around to be exploited. (The aliens are all-around better handled than they usually are on Who or Torchwood, I think; still monstrous, but mysteriously so, tantalizingly so.) So many of my objections are niggles. I didn’t like the use of the contact lens cameras in “Day Five”, for instance, because it was the result of a scene we didn’t see all of, a flourish that was only possible because Davies didn’t play fair with the viewers. There was perhaps too much focus on Ianto’s death, eliding the deaths of everyone else who was in Thames House at the time. I wasn’t convinced by Gwen’s final decision to keep her pregnancy; her cold “Is that right?” in response to Rhy’s insistence that “You’re not getting rid of it” had more credibility. And there are some elements that simply felt too clean, too neat: the rounding up of children in “Day Five” proceeded with too little effective resistance (and was perhaps too uniform); and at the end of “Day Four” I couldn’t help feeling that a virus which kills you that fast shouldn’t leave you looking that pretty.

My two more substantive criticisms, I think, have to do with the contract that appears to be made by the narrative. One is the treatment of children: this is a story in which children are, without exception, tokens, or “units” as COBRA euphemistically describes them. They are utterly at the mercy of, first, the 456, and second, the British government. This powerlessness is surely the point; the horror of the pathology that leads to exerting such control over children is surely the point. And yet it undermines the final emotional climax: how much more would Steven’s death have hurt, I found myself wondering, if we had a sense of him as a person, rather than just “Jack’s grandson”; if we had a sense of who was being lost, rather than what. (This is to say that I can’t quite read that absence of identity as increasing the horror of that specific scene, though it does increase the horror elsewhere in the series, so perhaps it is just a necessary trade-off.) My other problem is with the final resolution: it seems that, apparently, Torchwood never went public with their recordings of the COBRA meetings — either those recorded by Lois, or those recorded by Bridget — which strikes me as brushing consequences under the rug, rather. You can, indeed, construct reasons internal to the story why this choice might be made — it’s the best option for continued stability, for instance — but they are not articulated on-screen; which leaves it feeling like a decision made for reasons external to the story. That is: I understand why you might choose to write this ending for a spin-off series, because you don’t want Doctor Who to have to deal with a Britain, and indeed rest of the world, in which trust in the political system has entirely broken down, and very possibly resulted in violent unrest, but it doesn’t feel entirely natural to Children of Earth as told to that point.

As Saxon Bullock suggests, this is the first time that Torchwood has felt as though it matters; but I’m coming close, here, to arguing that Children of Earth would have worked better as a standalone story told in an independent universe; that it would have been better to divorce it from Torchwood entirely, rather than reshape Torchwood so that it could tell this story. Indeed at first I did think that. On reflection, there’s one significant reason why I’m glad they didn’t, which has to do with What Happens Next. (Because if ratings are any indication, there will be a next series, no matter how final it feels now.) Weighing together The Second Coming and the various messianic moments in new Who, there seems to me to be some ambivalence in Russell T Davies’ work about the relationship between baseline humanity (or children of Earth) and outside agents (be they God, or the Doctor, or simply immortal). And if Children of Earth is perhaps his most cynical exploration of that relationship to date, it seems to me that it sets up an opportunity: a story that is perhaps lower-key, but crucially only about contemporary humans confronting the alien. And while that is often, for Davies, a bleak prospect — witness Rupesh’s line in “Day One” about the doubling of the suicide rate since first contact, as humans struggle to come to terms with their small-ness and the universe’s big-ness — I don’t believe it is always, or necessarily bleak. The Second Coming is, after all, about humanity growing up. Future Torchwood could, from a different angle, be about that process, too; and in doing so within the Who universe, could continue to matter.

The War With The Mein

Acacia coverIt’s a small part of a big book, but I want to start by saying that I like how David Anthony Durham handles his map. We know what The Tough Guide to Fantasyland has to say about maps: that to see one at the front of a book is to know that you must not expect to be let off from visiting every damn place shown on it. At first glance, Durham does not disappoint. Indeed, he opens with a tour, in which an unnamed, pale-skinned assassin rides out from a stronghold in the North, down across the frozen plains of the Mein plateau, down through the fertile woodlands of the Methalian Rim; he then passes through the port of Alecia and boards a boat for the island of Acacia, seat of the empire that dominates the Known World, and home of his target, Leodan Akaran, the king. At each stage the culture and climate of the region through which the assassin is passing are described, along with the darkening colouration of its inhabitants. It’s a smooth introduction to a slice of the world, and it shapes our understanding of the rest of Book One of The War With The Mein (which is itself Volume One of Acacia), also known as “The King’s Idyll”. The next two hundred and fifty or so pages focus primarily on the seat of empire, and there introduce the main cast, each in their own chapter: Leodan himself, aging widower king; his chancellor, and “first ear for any secret” (32), Thaddeus Clegg; his four children (in descending order of age), noble Aliver, brittle Corinn, precocious Mena, and innocent Dariel; a talented Acacian general, Leeka Alain, stationed in the assassin’s homeland; and Rialus Neptos, scheming governer of the fortress where Alain’s army is barracked. A few players remain to be introduced — notably Hanish Mein, brother of that assassin, leader of his “tribal, warlike, bickering” people, and architect of a multi-pronged invasion that stuns the Acacian empire with its speed, ferocity and thoroughness — but you get the idea. This is a story of princes and princesses, soldiers and battles, empires and destinies. With what can only be called, despite its chunkiness, admirable economy, The War With The Mein covers years and a continent. It asks us to learn (and think about) a lot, and by the end of it, we have travelled to each compass point of The Known World. It is, oh, what’s that word? Epic.

But, much as I love a story with scope, such a summary gives only a partial sense of what it is like to read The War With The Mein. There is an iceberg effect here. A Known World — and this is what I like about his map — implies an Unknown World, after all, and what I have so far failed to convey is that the contract made by the story is that it will, when all is said and done, tell a true societal epic, by which I mean an epic that takes at least as much account of large-scale socioeconomic changes as it does of the martial and heroic adventures of a chosen few. Durham’s chosen style is appropriate to the task: dignified, measured, explicative (occasionally ponderous), with an echo of Guy Gavriel Kay, though Durham is less lyric, and more clinical in his dissections of his characters for our edification. When you’ve finished reading this paragraph, for instance, you will know pretty much all you need to know about Leodan Akaran:

Leodan Akaran was a man at war with himself. He carried on silent conflicts inside his head, struggles that raged one day into the next without resolution. He knew it was a weakness in him, the fault of having a dreamer’s nature, a bit of the poet in him, a scholar, a humanist: hardly traits fit for a king. He enveloped his family in the luxurious culture of Acacia, even as he hid from them the abhorrent trade that funded it. He planned for his children never to experience violence firsthand, even though this privilege was bought with a blade at others’ necks. He hated that countless numbers throughout his lands were chained to a drug that guaranteed their labor and submission, and yet he indulged in the same vice himself. He loved his children with a breathless passion that sometimes woke them in terror from dreams of some misfortune befalling them. But he knew that agents working in his name ripped other parents’ children from their arms, never to be seen again. It was monstrous, and in many ways he felt it was his fault. (114)

Many chapters begin with this sort of thing. These are characters who are not allowed to keep very many secrets from their readers; the nuances of their emotional progressions are laid out in careful detail, meaning that if there is sometimes suspense about what exactly they are going to do, the cumulative effect is that we almost always know with piercing clarity why they act. More, this is how Durham gets in a lot of his background. Every sentence in the above paragraph is about Leodan, but most of them are telling you something about how he feels about the world – how he has been shaped by it; in The War With The Mein this is far more common than the reverse – and thus telling you something about the world. There is also a greater-than-average amount of diegesis, or put another way, a relative lack of direct speech (and hence, banter: none of your Scott Lynch snap here) and direct action (there’s a bit more of this, particularly late on, but, for example, the first major battle of the war takes place off-screen), to the point that I don’t think it would be entirely unfair to suggest that The War With The Mein is interested in its characters and their inner lives less for their own sakes, and more for the light those lives can shed on their roles as historical agents. These are, the novel appears to say — thanks to the aesthetic choices that shape it, as much as in any explicit sense — the people by whose actions this world will be turned: now watch it turn.

There is certainly a lot to be turned. “This world is corrupt from top to bottom,” as Thaddeus at one point puts it to Aliver. Acacia, home of our heroes, is a slaving empire — it is said as bluntly in the novel — supported by a trade that sees thousands of children shipped into bondage each year, in exchange for a supply of a drug, Mist, that is fearsomely addictive, and keeps the populace numb and domesticated, such that they don’t object next time the Quota comes around. More details become clear as the novel unfolds, of course, but this much is laid out for the reader very early on and returned to very often. As Leodan says, however, for the royal children this truth is initially hidden. The King’s Idyll is ignorance. It is symptomatic of a wider cultural malaise, and one of the reasons Hanish Mein hates the empire. “We Meins live with the past,” he tells his people. “It is the Akarans who rewrite the past to suit them” (173). Sure enough, the legends we learn in the first few chapters of the book about the founders of Acacia and the ancestors of the Akarans turn out to only be true from a certain point of view. But Acacian blinkers go beyond history — and here we come back to the map. It is Mena Akaran who asks the question that frames the rest of the book:

“Why is Acacia always at the centre of maps?” she asked. [Like the one at the front of this novel, she cannot say.] “If the world curves and has no end — as you taught us, Jason — how is one place the centre and not another?”

Corinn found the question silly. [...] “It just is the center, Mena. Everyone knows that.”

“Succinctly put,” Jason said, “but Mena does make a point. All peoples think of themselves first. First, central, and foremost, yes? I should show you a map from Talay sometime. They draw the world quite differently.” (24)

The story of Books Two and Three of The War With The Mein (“Exiles” and “Living Myth”) is largely the story of how the royal children come to terms with having their perspective shattered: how they come to terms with knowledge of their inherited guilt, and of the true shape of the world. Though we never leave the map’s boundaries, “The Known World” is, as we may have suspected, very far from being the Whole World. The slave trade that supports Acacia is managed by a commercial organization, the League of Vessels, on behalf of a people, the Lothan Aklun, who appear on no Acacian map. Hanish Mein’s invasion is only a success because he negotiates new deals with these powers. We will turn to them, presumably, in the second and third volumes of the trilogy (volume two, out later this year, is called The Other Lands, though there are reasons internal to volume one to understand that some form of exploration is inevitable), but in the meantime we begin to appreciate that the Known World is not nearly top dog. And every time we check a location, the map at the front of The War With The Mein serves as a reminder of how incomplete the story told so far really is.

Absent that reminder, it would be easy to get lost in the sweep of Durham’s story, because Durham really is good at sweep. So: the royal children are spirited out of the capital as the inevitability of Mein victory becomes apparent, dispersed to various corners of the empire to be raised in secrecy. Three of them make it. The fourth, Corinn, is recaptured and held in a gilded cage by Hanish Mein. Of the others, Mena washes up on an island in the East, hailed as a living incarnation of the local goddess of wrath; Dariel joins the pirates of the West, harrying the League of Vessels and others who ply the same waters; and Aliver is sent to one of the tribes of Talay, in the South, where he becomes a warrior, and a leader. There are adventures and excitements in all four strands of the story, for the most part executed with some flair. In another review I would pay more attention to the vigour that Mena and Aliver, in particular, bring to their fighting by fusing their arthritic Acacian “forms” — literally rehearsals of famous conflicts — with the techniques of other cultures. “Unlike the forms”, we are told, the new style of warfare that Aliver must learn “allowed no actions not entirely necessary” (284). In that other review I might suggest that part of Durham’s project with Acacia is to infuse the forms of epic fantasy with a similar energy. In this review, however, I will point out that it is another way in which Durham is economical: we only get the full Mary Gentle blood-and-guts fury late in the book, when it has most impact, in part because the characters are not capable of giving physical voice to their anger until then. Sometimes, certainly, economy works against the book, such as when Mena goes from swordfighting neophyte to winner of the local tournament in one chapter (chapter forty-seven, thirteen and a half pages), but at other times it is incredibly refreshing. A raid by Dariel on one of the League’s mighty trading platforms, for example, is similarly conceived and executed within a single chapter, and all the better for it, while Aliver’s inevitable quest sees him set out in one chapter and arrive in the next. This isn’t just a matter of pacing; the sense is that there is a lot of story here that could be told, a lot of canvas to be covered, and that (as with the map) Durham is being very selective about what he’s showing us. So what we do get carries weight.

And so you have to think about what it adds up to. Hannah Strom-Martin is right, I think, to identify something fundamentally American in The War With The Mein’s underpinnings; I do not consider myself competent to fully unpack this aspect of the novel, but it’s hard for an observer not to notice that Acacia’s trade with the Lothan Aklun conflates a great sin of America’s past (industrialized slavery) with a great boogeyman of its preset (drugs), and that framing the trade as a product of the supremacy of one race over others is a twist of the knife. Mein aggression is, in part, the aggression of a marginalized race against a dominant one; “Had the entire world,” the assassin sneeringly wonders, “forgotten pride of race?” (102). Equally the ignorance of the Akarans is not just the ignorance of children kept in the dark by parents; it is the ignorance of the privileged, and their exiles are, in part, about challenging that ignorance. So, for example, when Aliver communes with the immortal sorcerers that lurk at the end of his quest, his eyes are opened:

All races are one? Aliver asked.

All races of the Known World are one, Nualo said. Forgetting this was the second crime done by humans. We suffer for it still.

Aliver would have to live with this new version of the world for some time for it to become real for him. [...] He was so sure of his own failings that he had sought to hide them every day of his life. None of this had shaken his belief that the differences observed on people’s outsides mirrored equally indisputable differences within. Nualo and the other Santoth slipped this belief from beneath his feet and left him drifting upon a sea of entirely unimagined possibility. For reasons he did not fully acknowledge, this troubled him more than any of the other revelations he received from the Santoth. (416)

(I wonder, now, about that first answer: “All races of the Known World are one”. It has a weasel quality about it that makes me wonder what we may find in the Other Lands. As of the end of The War With The Mein, we have seen only one race from that continent: the Numrek, barbaric and brutal fighters — pale-skinned Orcs, essentially — who serve as Hanish Mein’s shock troops, and whose human-ness, or lack thereof, is a point of debate throughout the book. I had taken it as axiomatic that, per the logic of Aliver’s revelation, the Numrek would be confirmed as human, too. Re-reading the above I am not so sure.)

No zealot like a convert: Aliver is driven forward by a vision of dramatic reform: “He, when victorious, would not rule over them. He’d rule for them. By their permission and only in their interests” (613). The Lincolnesque tone there is unmistakeable, surely, and stirring. Nor is the attack of the white-but-powerless Mein against the brown-but-powerful Acacians as straightforward a revision as it seems: the Acacian empire is set up in such a way as to sustain the power of one race over others, but (as it turns out), the blind mechanisms of the state don’t much care which race is pulling the levers. Hanish finds “the Acacian template the only reasonable, achievable answer” (320) for many situations; the institutions, once created, are resistant to change. Indeed, we are told that Hanish’s rule is rather worse for the average citizen than Leodan’s was. So much for the actions of a few turning the world.

Or so you might think. But all of this is talk on behalf of a general populace whose absence leaves a ragged hole at the core of The War With The Mein. There is no street-level perspective in this book. Certainly, as I mentioned, the Akaran children all have their privilege challenged by their exile. For Mena, the challenge comes as she flees, and is confronted by the desolation and cruelty of an enormous mine run by her family. “Clearly,” she realises, “the world was not as she had been led to believe [...] Those people, those children … they worked for her” (327). Dariel, meanwhile, is the most sympathetically inclined of the children from the start, being the youngest and having befriended some of the palace staff even before the trouble starts. But entering Talay, on his way to join Aliver’s crusade, he finds himself disoriented by the polychromatic display that leaves him feeling that his brown skin is “weak tea in a sea of black coffee” (494). “Nobody looked at his features and read his identity on his forehead”, he realises. “How could he be central to the workings of the world when nobody even knew who he was?” (496). And Corinn faces the realization that her dark-skinned features, so beautiful to her countrymen, are unappealing in the face of icy Mein standards of attractiveness. Yet each of these incidents is extremely limited, and none of them feel lasting. Mena becomes a goddess, moving from one privileged position into another; Dariel is back at his brother’s side, back at the heart of events, within pages of the above doubts; and although Corinn never fully loses her outsider status, she does find that she is attractive to at least some of the Mein. (The relationship that results is not the most successful part of the novel — indeed, neither Corinn’s story nor Mena’s is impervious to feminist critique. But they are well-done iterations of their kind, and may develop further.) It all leaves the grand sentiments of equality espoused by Aliver ringing slightly hollow. A story about the inadequacy of a model of history based solely on the actions of Great Individuals cannot get by only telling the stories of the elite, even if it is to reveal that, in the bigger picture, they too are constrained.

While reading the book, this does cause problems. It gets repetitive to be told that the Akarans (or at least Aliver) are fighting on behalf of a mass of people we don’t know, and whose plight we are to a large extent taking on trust; and at the same time, there is something unavoidably patronising about such a fight, for all Aliver’s tentative yearning towards a more democratic social order. Moreover it leaves some of the detail of the current social order – precisely how it sustains itself – vaguer than is desirable. But all this may be deliberate. I am more than half-convinced that it is, that the social gap in the book is part of the contract made, intended to be as keenly felt as the geographic vacuum within which these events take place. The War With The Mein appears to stop at a natural ending – the Akaran lineage is restored, and the Mein are vanquished. But this is, as an epilogue makes clear, a metastable situation at best. The relationship between Acacia and the Lothan Aklun has changed and will have to be addressed. But by all rights, the internal politics of the Empire will also be thrown into disarray. No trade with the Lothan Aklun means no Mist, and no Mist means that at least some people should be thinking about Aliver’s dream. So the end of The War With The Mein is an end that requires more story, and more radical change, to complete its argument. There are hints that Durham is well aware of this — a revelation that the characters we have become invested in are not the centre of the story would seem to be foreshadowed by the demonstration of the limits of their control; and Aliver is seen by at least some people not as a saviour but as a “lesser evil” — and it is Mena, once again, who asks the pertinent question. “Are we going to make a better world?” (682). I hope so. I want to believe so. I want to know what happens when the Whole World is the Known World. Because the map thing isn’t so small after all: to say that I like how Durham handles his map is to say that — so far — I like how he handles his world.

[January 2010: review of the second volume of the trilogy, The Other Lands]

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