Zoo City

Zoo City coverWelcome to Zoo City:

People who would happily speed through Zoo City during the day won’t detour here at night, not even to avoid police roadblocks. They’re too scared, but that’s precisely when Zoo City is at its most sociable. From 6pm, when the day-jobbers start getting back from whatever work they’ve been able to pick up, apartment doors are flung open. Kids chase each other down the corridors. People take their animals out for fresh air or a friendly sniff of each other’s bums. The smell of cooking — mostly food, but also meth — temporarily drowns out the stench of rot, the urine in the stairwells. The crack whores emerge from their dingy apartments to chat and smoke cigarettes on the fire-escape, and catcall the commuters heading to the taxi rank on the street below. (132)

What I like about this passage is its incongruous homeliness. Despite the fact that none of the details are original — several are close to cliche — and for all that it’s clear that Zoo City is a pretty beat-up place, this isn’t a judgmental portrait. These people may be caged, but they’re not animals. Our narrator is matter of fact about the meth being cooked alongside the food; if we didn’t already know by this point, we probably wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that she lives here, that she is part of the community she sets out for our consumption.

It’s clearly a place for people short on choices, however. Zinzi Lelethu December is out of prison but far from out of debt, and has been forced to turn her journalistic tricks to 419 scams: a role she’s good at playing, but not happy about. What’s weighing her down is the novel’s fantastic conceit, so thoroughly normalised that taking the above passage in isolation you might miss it. In Zoo City‘s alternate day after tomorrow (the novel is set in March 2011), there’s a new outcast class, sufferers of a fantastical condition termed Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism by researchers, and animalism or worse on the street. Its defining symptom is the appearance of a flesh-and-blood animal familiar (and these are animals, not talking pets), it seems to afflict those condemned by society or even by their own conscience (justice be damned) and those affected are excluded, exoticised, or both; and they need places like Zoo City to live. The resonances with Pullman’s His Dark Materials in this setup are unavoidable but, apparently, coincidental, although the similarity is acknowledged and there is at least one witty reversal: familiars often reflect their host’s inner character through a mirror darkly. So Zinzi’s sloth, which appeared after the death of her brother, tells you that she’s smart, sharp, and constantly on the move.

As she has to be, to navigate the competing currents that make up the novel’s plot. There’s her desire to pay her way out of her scamming debt; her uneasy relationship with Benoit, a Zoo City hustler whose presumed-dead wife may in fact be alive; the cryptic emails that keep mysteriously appearing in her inbox; and her private enterprise, her magical talent for finding lost things. It’s the last of these that provides most of the forward motion in Zoo City, as Zinzi is recruited by two deeply shady animalled, on behalf of mysterious music mogul Odi Huron, to track down the missing half of the twins that make up his latest pop sensation. The quest takes her, naturally, out of the zoo and into the wilds of the middle and upper class enclaves of Johannesburg: and back, in some cases, into the circles in which she used to swim.

So far so noir, an impression reinforced by the cool terseness of Zinzi’s narration and, at times, of Zinzi herself — “There are two things in the interrogation room with me and Inspector Tschabalala. The one is Mrs Luditsky’s ring. The other is twelve and a half minutes of silence” (28) — and by the pervasive unfairness of the unfolding story. AAF confers something between the stigma of the ex-con and, as the pervasive presence of AIDS reminds us, the stigma of the disease sufferer. Like those, it is based as much or more on assumptions as it is on any empirical reality. Found documents scattered through Zoo City tell the story of AAF — the journal article, the documentary synopsis, the prison tales. The fantastic nature of the conceit has put some reviewers in mind of Jeff Noon’s surreal Vurt (1993), although I was reminded of the more rationalised fantastic of Kit Whitfield’s Bareback (2006). Either way, for most of the novel what’s striking is how low down in the mix it seems to be: a back-note, not a central flavour. It’s only quite late on that it becomes clear, not just from those found documents, how much the existence of AAF has shaped the society Beukes describes.

More immediately obvious, however, is the care with which Beukes sketches the jungle of Johannesburg, and the people Zinzi meets. We watch, fascinated and helpless, as they are used and use each other in turn. Like Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland (2008 South Africa, 2009 UK, 2010 US), Zoo City is distinguished by its texture. The husbandry of information is mostly superb; the glimpses of Zinzi’s world captivate, from the gated high-rise where a broken lift means the wealthy residents simply throw their rubbish out of the windows, to be cleaned up once it hits the ground, to a “Great Gatsby by way of Lady Gaga” (219) nightclub and Zinzi’s own cluttered, crappy flat; and the various characters Zinzi meets, from Huron himself, to popsters Song and S’bu, to current and ex lovers Benoit and Gio, are captured with precision and detail. Per John Clute’s review, Zoo City is indeed an energetic read; but it’s Zinzi’s binding voice that makes it a visceral one, and more transporting than the earlier novel.

Less welcome is the way in which the marketing-driven cynicism familiar from Moxyland — “it’s not just about the music anymore,” Zinzi is told, “it’s about the brand” (120) — becomes here something of a red herring. Shadowing the brisk surface narrative is the Undertow, a metaphysical darkness that threatens to consume those with AAF. It is the attrition of stigma, and the burden that the novel’s villain seeks to use power and privilege to escape. The impeccably chroegraphed ending that Beukes contrives from these ingredients however, is a betrayal, an imposition of justice that everything else Zinzi has told us, and everything Moxyland might have lead us to expect, insists is unearned. And it diminishes an otherwise fine novel, even if the clue was there from the start. The thing about a zoo, after all, is that it’s a lie: the real world is a jungle.

Retribution Falls

Ark coverINT — STORE ROOM. ANGLE on a BULLET, over which a VOICE: “Just imagine. Imagine what this feels like, going through your head.” Our heroes (Darian FREY and Grayther CRAKE) have obviously been captured by a BAD GUY — who now puts that bullet into a REVOLVER, spins the cylinder, and puts the revolver to Crake’s head. Crake seems unsettled, indeed properly upset. He carries himself, we notice, in a manner at odds with his scruffy appearance, not to mention out of place in this room. Captain Frey is unmoved. The bad guy pulls the trigger. There is a loud CLICK from the gun, and quiet WHIMPERING from Crake. “You’d let him die”, the bad guy says, “rather than give up the Ketty Jay? That’s cold.” Frey shrugs. “He’s just a passenger.” In a WIDER ANGLE, as the bad guy paces the room, we can see some THUGS. Bargaining ensues — on Frey’s part, at least. Then, after a bit of clever trickery involving Crake’s GOLD TOOTH — there should be a CLOSE-UP here — our heroes get loose! A MELEE ensues, during which Frey acquires a SHOTGUN. Charging down a nearby CORRIDOR towards some shuttered WINDOWS, Frey leads with said gun, and then we’re EXT — ALLEY, with an OVERHEAD SHOT on the pair of them falling out of a shabby wooden building towards a COBBLED LANE. Crake lands awkwardly; Frey, of course, is poised. “I feel a sudden urge,” he says to Crake, “to be moving on. Open skies, new horizons, all of that.” Crake looks at him for a beat, perhaps listening to the SHOUTING in the background, probably thinking that this man was, in the very recent past, willing to let him get shot if it would save the ship. “I have the same feeling,” he says. They start running, and off their disappearing forms we SMASH CUT to —

MAIN TITLES: TALES OF THE KETTY JAY

And we’re off. This much — allowing for some elisions, and some obvious stylistic liberties in my version — is covered in the first chapter of Retribution Falls, and it very neatly sets the tone for what follows. Chapter two is a meet-the-crew, as Malvery, the ship’s surgeon, introduces Jez Kyte, a navigator and the new recruit, to pilots Artie Pinn and Jandrew Harkins, and the silent, ex-slave engineer, Silo — only to be interrupted by the return of Frey and Crake, and the firefight they bring with them. After the crew’s escape (aided by the ship’s golem, Bess), and a bit of scene-setting explanation — the Ketty Jay “looked as if she couldn’t decide if she was a light cargo hauler or a heavy fighter” (11); Frey’s crew mostly do black-market work, or “sort of anything, really, if the price is right” (12), largely because he won’t work for the ruling Coalition — our heroes are hired, in what looks like the opportunity of a lifetime, to steal a shipment of gems. But — wouldn’t you know it — the heist goes wrong, and pretty soon everyone and their mother (or at least Frey’s ex-fiancee, now a pirate captain) is after the Ketty Jay, leading to inventive set-pieces, well-judged reversals of fortune, some reasonably convincing character growth, and at least one thrilling sky battle. It is, in other words, a romp, and really a very well paced one: only in the final third, thanks to one too many backstory-revealing sidebars, are there any glitches in the pacing. For the rest of the time, the pages fly by.

So Retribution Falls is perhaps the smart solid action-adventure sf recently sought by Dan Hartland and Jonathan McCalmont, and for that reason welcome as a Clarke Award nominee, even if I wouldn’t give it the prize. It succeeds, in part, as the opening of this review should suggest, by following the narrative model that has come to dominate genre television. It is not at all a surprise to find that it inaugurates a series of books: the characters are established as ongoing entities, which means their arcs in this novel are rather limited things, interesting as much or more for where they will go next as what happens now; and its themes are broad, “universal” ones, the challenges of leadership and loyalty, not particularly inflected by the book’s sfness. Following a specific narrative model, indeed, that may seem overly familiar to fans of contemporary genre TV; which is a roundabout way of acknowledging that if there’s one thing people know about Retribution Falls, it’s that it’s a bit like Firefly.

It would undoubtedly be unfair to Chris Wooding to dismiss his book on such grounds, since not only has he (I gather) never seen the series, but there are important differences. The setting is probably the most obvious. As with Wooding’s rather good previous novel, The Fade (2007), Retribution Falls can be understood as fantasy or as science fiction, which means the furniture is rather different to Firefly’s many moons: in their stead we have one large continent on one planet, airships lifted by electromagnets that turn “refined aerium” into “ultralight gas”, and are powered by “prothane thrusters”; “daemonists” like Crake who can entice “little sparks of awareness” into artefacts (such as a mesmerising gold tooth, or the handily magic sword he gives Frey in payment for his passage); and a deity, the Allsoul, whose worship wiped out the “old religions”, and who is believed by its devotees to be a kind of “sentient, organic machine … they believe our planet is alive, and … vastly more intelligent than we can comprehend” (104). To get the sf reading you have to assume this is all post some kind of singularity, in other words, although Wooding is careful never to finally confirm or deny this reading, and thus avoids his tale degenerating into a frictionless pocket-universe escapade along the lines of Karl Schroeder’s Virga books, and preserves some joy and mystery in his setting. As much as Firefly, actually, I was put in mind of the techno-magical beauty of some of the Final Fantasy games. More than this, the most prominent character dynamic, that between Frey and Crake, is much more central than its Firefly equivalent (that between Mal Reynolds and Simon Tam), and really as much or more reminiscent of that between Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin. All the characters, indeed, are pretty familiar types, and none are unique to Firefly.

That said, the similarities are real. You might say, for instance, that this particular constellation of character types is strongly reminiscent of that found in Firefly, pace certain differences, such as the on-the-run noble (Simon/Crake) being more prominent, and the taciturn but intensely loyal friend (Zoe//Silo) less prominent. Or you might say that the situation within which these characters operate, as the crew of a small and very grey-market trading ship in the shadow of a large and resented central authority, is more than a little comparable. And you might suggest that the tone of the whole enterprise, the mix of humour and action and drama — battles punctuated by one-liners, and yet willing to take a moment to understand Crake’s shock at seeing death, for the first time, up close — could almost be a variation on a theme of Whedon. But for fairness, if you were going to go down that road, I think you’d have to point out that if Retribution Falls is read as echoing Firefly, it can’t be read as doing so uncritically: this is a version of the story in which Mal is genuinely a bastard, in which Simon is directly responsible for the terrible things done to River, and in which Kaylee is in the process of turning into a Reaver. Or, as a friend put it, it’s like Firefly, except everyone is a bit more dickish.

It’s also a version of the story in which women get a rather less good deal. Not only are Frey and Crake always the central duo — making for a rather bloke’s own adventure — the crew’s two women are, not entirely metaphorically, different kinds of dead, and as a result set distinctly apart from the menfolk. Each has the potential to become the centre of an enormously interesting tale, but in this novel you’d be hard-pressed to call either of them a success. Better done, if less interesting, are Amalicia Thade and Trinica Dracken, both of whom serve as romantic foils for Frey, and both of whom emphatically escape his expectations of their weaknesses. They do this in a feisty action-fantasy way, no doubt — the former by, for instance, kicking Frey in the head after he “rescues” her, the latter by showing absolutely no compunction about shooting her ex when the moment calls for it — but that’s the idiom of the whole novel, and arguably Wooding goes further than most in encouraging us to dislike his protagonist. Frey does, inevitably, start to Learn Better, but even then he’s not so much a charming rogue as an infuriating one. The extent to which he sees Amalicia and Trinica primarily as reflections of his own inner turmoil is foregrounded by the longing of Pinn to return home to his (alleged) sweetheart Lisinda; she is, in so many words, “the heroic conclusion to his quest”, and

… the promise of home comforts after his great adventure. But what if she wasn’t there when he returned? What if she was holding another man’s child? Even in the dim clouds of Pinn’s mind, the possibility must have made itself known, and made him uneasy. He’d never risk the dream by threatening it with reality. (84)

You don’t put that in a novel and then unknowingly recapitulate the same sort of self-centredness elsewhere; you put it in as a signpost. In this case it’s a signpost doing double-duty, not only foreshadowing Frey’s complete bafflement when confronted with an idea of Trinica that contradicts his existing conceptions — “his position was so fragile that it fell apart when exposed to the reality of an opposing view” (298); although the new position he constructs for himself is still steeped in denial — but also the men’s general disillusionment when they reach the legendary pirate hide-out of the title, only to find that it’s somewhat of a dump. “This place was better as a legend,” a clear-sighted Jez tells an upset Pinn. “The real thing doesn’t work” (280). It’s the closest thing Retribution Falls offers to a unifying argument, and as I’ve suggested, does undercut some of the book’s more cliche moments. In the end, of course, the Big Damn Heroes save the day. “They were happy,” we’re told, “and free, and the endless sky awaited them. It was enough.” But, you know, sometimes it is.

Ark

Ark cover “If the answer’s not the one you want, maybe you’re asking the wrong question.” So says Patrick Groundwater, one of the multi-billionaire founders of the Ark One project. His mantra is taken up by others during the development of the spaceship that Patrick and his compatriots hope will offer some of humanity – specifically, their children – an escape route from a drowning Earth. Patrick’s daughter Holle, in fact, uses the principle to ask the question that leads to an essential technological breakthrough. A reader, meanwhile, faced with the answer that is Ark, might struggle to find the right question. It’s not the question that ended the book’s predecessor, Flood – “What is Ark Two?” – since although that question is answered, Ark’s primary focus is Ark One. Yet nor is the question as simple as, say, “what happened next?”

For quite a long time, in fact, the question appears to be “what happened elsewhere?” Flood made it clear that, beyond the launch of Nathan Lammockson’s absurd ocean-going Ark, other projects were afoot to save some remnants of humanity from the inexorably rising waters, and indeed, one of Flood’s rescued-hostage protagonists, Lily Brooke, handed over the daughter of a friend to the Ark One project specifically. Ark reprises that scene for its opening, from the point of view of the daughter, Grace Grey, but then, rather than taking off at a tangent to its predecessor, the novel flashes back to 2025 – not too long after the start of Flood – to spend 200 pages detailing the preparation of the ship and its crew. This can feel a little familiar. There is not, for example, much room within the chronology of the flood for different kinds of stories than the ones Flood covered, with the result that Ark necessarily recapitulates some of Flood’s key notions (most notably the destabilising effect of the steadily increasing flow of refugees from drowned areas into any remaining sanctuary) and partakes of the same urgent tone.

And in the context of Baxter’s work as a whole, even the foreground is not as new as it first appears. In place of Flood’s adult characters, harried from place to place, Baxter here focuses on a group of children growing up in the closest thing to a safe haven left in America during this period. But the sun around which their lives orbit is the Ark: that one of the children sits around reading Heinlein and Niven points to the tradition this novel is in dialogue with, I think. Ark is an Engineering Project novel, and bears plenty of comparison to, say, Voyage (1997), or perhaps more significantly, given the apocalyptic context, Titan (1998). It’s a more American sort of novel than Baxter has written for a while – certainly more American than Flood, which was, for all its ostensible globe-trotting, unashamedly a very British apocalypse; here, a President frames the Ark project, and survival, as part of America’s Manifest Destiny. At the same time, this is not to say that Ark is hard sf, and in fact it comes complete with an honest-to-god Star Trek-style warp drive, to carry the Ark along in a bubble of spacetime, and enable the plot to be completed within a single lifespan. But its themes are familiar from the earlier novels — the tensions between military and civilian interests, and between science and politics as a necessary cost of any large-scale space effort; the intense training programmes, which are in a significant sense literally inhuman, and which unignorably deform the humans who pass through them.

Ark can be a sternly utilitarian novel. To fuel their project, for instance, the masters of the Ark trawl the pool of refugees – “It’s astounding the talent you can filter out of the flood of displaced” (34) – and those who get picked up in such drags, such as the engineer Liu Zheng, are under no illusions about their position. “You’re more than a commodity,” Patrick tries to tell him. “More than a set of skills.” Zheng’s reply is chilling in its bluntness: “Am I? None of us is anything without land, Mr Groundwater” (40). Much is also made of the motivating power of a central mission, of not so much the potential of humans working as part of something grander than themselves, but – once again – the necessity for it. “We are not looking for the outstanding individual,” Holle Groundwater is told. “We are looking for a crew” (63). As with Zheng, the emphasis is on individuals demonstrating their value: Holle, aged six when we meet her and in her early twenties when launch day finally comes, is our primary viewpoint in this section of the novel, but it’s by no means certain that she will last the course. We stay with her as the Ark project is taken over by the rump of the US government, as the somewhat casual but relentlessly intellectual training programme is replaced with something more sternly militaristic, as knowledge of the project becomes public and she and her peers become the last celebrities – but also as people she has trained with her whole life are gradually winnowed out of the crew selection process. The psychological consequences of such a life are, it seems, inevitable.

Jonathan McCalmont’s review of Ark argues that its essential familiarity should be balanced against Baxter’s “seemingly ever-increasing control” over his material. There is something to this. Without question, many parts of the novel are vivid. A shuttle-crash training mission is interrupted by an incursion of “eye-dees” – the refugees not authorised to enter the polder – who are scared off when one candidate, Don, starts cold-bloodedly shooting them down. And there’s a good, if brief (probably too brief) interlude in which Holle experiences life beyond the walls of the project, as one of the faceless millions of refugees. And if much of Ark’s first half feels mechanical – as in the murder-mystery plot that, when the long flashback is over, seems to have been inserted only to give Grace a narrative excuse to get to know the main Candidates – well, you might say, Baxter is often a mechanistic writer, deliberately so, and in his best novels that suits the material he’s working with. In Flood, the plot is as remorseless as the rising water, and the most notable achievement of Ark’s first half, perhaps, is to convey a sense of the mundanity of the Ark project, its fundamental grubbiness. We’re told that “The Ark was an expression of dreams, as much as logic” (83), but for 200 pages, even as the story sweeps towards the launch, and the flight plan becomes ever more delightfully unlikely, that dream is mired in much of the worst of petty humanity.

I’m less convinced by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro’s argument that the paralleling allows for a satisfying “aesthetic of symmetry”. Indeed, between the recapitulation of Flood and the echoes of the “NASA trilogy”, the questions the first half of Ark answers seem to me to be rather unsatisfying ones, to the point that when launch finally comes – in frantic, well-described scenes, although ones that are again reminiscent of earlier Baxter, in this case the novella Mayflower II (2004) – and the Ark soars free, it might be a blessed relief.

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He deliberately steadied his breathing. He turned, looking back the way he had come. And there were Earth and moon, hanging in space, visible now that the pusher plate eclipsed the sun. […] He held up his thumb, and was able to cover both of the twin worlds. In the first few days, as they had looked back at the receding home planet, they had all been shocked by how little land remained. Even Colorado, which had seemed so extensive when they were down there living on it, was only a scatter of muddy islands, threatened by the huge curdled semi-permanent storms that stalked the ocean world. But from here he could see no detail.

They had already come so far. (203)

Characters in Stephen Baxter novels are fond of remarking on how poorly humans, as a species that evolved on African plains, are adapted to life in space. But I think there is a sense in which humans-in-space is a natural focus for Stephen Baxter’s writing. The sparseness and directness of his style captures something of the all-alone-in-the-night situation of an ape on an interstellar voyage: takes the shock experienced by Wilson Argent in the above quote and makes the reader feel it as well. And the dysfunctions of Baxter’s characters – which loom as large in Ark as they ever have – seem an appropriate response to the vast concepts those apes must wrestle with. Jokes about shits-in-space aside (although, somewhat surprisingly, I don’t recall a single space-toilet scene in Ark), I can’t think of another contemporary sf writer who can so compellingly describe, as Jonathan puts it in his review, a sense of alienation in an empty universe. “They had already come so far”; but they have a very long way to go.

Which is to say that no, of course the launch doesn’t offer any relief. Not for nothing do the characters speculate that what they’ve built is merely “a prison in space” (276). The claustrophobic, crisis-riven atmosphere of much of the second-half of Ark is in an important sense merely an intensification of the atmosphere of its first half — the “bubble of safety” (60) that Holle recognises she grew up in becoming a literal bubble, the seeming-impossibility of the warp bubble shooting them off to the stars. No wonder that they turn inward, huddle inside the two counterbalanced hulls of the Ark (Seba and Halivah, named, we are told, for great-grandsons of Noah, though “Havilah” is consistently misspelled). What is in some undeniably literal ways “a whole new experiment in human affairs” (261) is, in other ways, the same-old same-old. Factions spring up in the aftermath of the chaotic launch – gatecrashers, illegals, Candidates – which quickly harden into prejudices and, crammed into the volume of three jumbo jets, the eighty or so crew find themselves frequently at loggerheads.

The hundred pages or so documenting the Ark’s journey to “Earth II” are the best of Ark, and in many ways the best of Baxter. Along with Holle, and Grace, the most prominent crew members are Kelly Kenzie, their captain – or, as she designates herself once their journey is properly underway, with what Holle considers to be utopian optimism, “speaker” – and Venus Jennings, the sf-reader I mentioned earlier, in charge of the ship’s navigation and astronomical observation. The narrative is episodic, designed to allow us to get to know the crew in their new habitat. Baxter takes us though a day in the life of the Ark in mid-journey, from Holle’s point of view: a search for a missing child, how the senior crew deal with the seductions of virtual reality “headspace”, how they plan for crew expansion (that is: having more children), the shipboard games they play and laws they develop. And he gives us striking set-pieces, such as a fire that leads to an emergency separation of the hulls. Scattered debris sparkles prettily against the brutal walls of the warp bubble. The grip of necessity, already strong in the first half of the novel, tightens here, becoming Cold Equations bullishness. When they reach Earth II, after the best part of a decade’s travel, and find it less than the brochure seemed to promise, there is the clearest sense anywhere in the book of the most interesting question Ark answers. Not: can humanity survive? But: can it adapt?

One of the major battlegrounds for these tensions is sex. The original mission design called for a balanced crew, men and women boarding two-by-two, and a plan to maximise genetic diversity by ensuring that any given pair of men and women had only one child together. (There are a handful of gay candidates, we are told, but they’re still expected to “donate their genetic material” at the appropriate time.) After the chaos of the launch, which left some of the planned crew behind, and carried away some military and other personnel who forced their way on board at the last minute, there’s an imbalance – more men than women – which undermines almost every attempt to maintain a stable society. It may (or may not) have been clear from my review so far that, even more than Flood, this is primarily a story about women. The back cover, in fact, blurbs the novel as “the story of three women, Grace, Venus and Holle and their part in our struggle to rescue a future from the waves”; a slightly odd choice given that Venus is never as prominent a character as Kelly, but certainly accurate on the principle. Indeed the most important male characters are callous patriarchs, serial abusers, or mentally ill. Make of this, as they say, what you will; I at least did not detect any essentialising conclusions to be drawn, except perhaps the trivially true point that the sort of constraints that come to define life aboard the Ark are, across the world today, usually more familiar to women than men.

It’s at Earth II and after that Ark begins to spin apart. The crew splits: some wish to attempt colonisation, some to return to Earth, and some to travel onwards, to a newly detected Earth III. Although Baxter lets the colonists go (at least for now; their descendants’ fate is chronicled in last year’s pretty good novella, “Earth II”), he clings on to the other threads. There have been hints, it’s true, that something like this might happen – seemingly superfluous chapters about some of those left behind on Earth, interspersed with the crew’s antimatter-mining efforts at Jupiter, even a brief scene from the viewpoint of an elderly Lily Brooke – but it becomes, to my mind, a near-fatal flaw, a critical loss of focus. Adam Roberts notes that he didn’t know how the novel was going to end. I have to finesse that. I certainly had a sense of how each individual thread was going to end; to the extent that I didn’t know how the novel was going to end, it was the result of being unable to find any coherence among the divergent threads of story.

Or, put another way, in the end I couldn’t find the right question to ask of Ark. It seems too much a novel of disparate parts – not by any means all bad; but not unified. Perhaps I shouldn’t be treating it so much as its own book. It’s true that the series Baxter has written over the last decade or so – the Manifold books, Destiny’s Children, even Time’s Tapestry – follow the same general pattern, in that they eschew direct continuity even as they share a setting, and can generally be read in any order, and true that readers coming cold to Ark seem to find things to enjoy. But I can’t see the separation as entirely successful in this case. To the contrary, I start to wonder how the tale would have looked if the two novels – the one story – had been published in a single volume. I can imagine an integrated Flood and Ark, in which the overarching story is the trial of living in catastrophic times envisioned as a kind of generation starship, with each new generation raised in radically different circumstances to their parents, and thus coming of age with radically different expectations. Ark emphasises this theme in its second half, as the sense of a project the drives the first half is gradually lost, but for all its lopsided structure, without the additional context in Flood the treatment lacks weight. Now, Flood and Ark would have been a beast of a book, and would certainly have sacrificed Flood’s awesome clarity; but it might also have done some things better than either book does alone, and leave me less able to frame Ark as an answer to: “what bits of story were left over from Flood?”

Elsewhere

Or, two bits of self-promotion. First, I have an article in the new issue of Journey Planet, the fanzine edited by the Bacon-Brialey-Garcia superteam:

The direct link to the (fairly hefty) pdf of the issue is here. It’s all themed around alternate history; my piece is about Stephen Baxter’s Voyage. I’m guessing this is probably also the only time I’ll share a table of contents with Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Paul McAuley and John Scalzi.

Second, I have a review of Justina Robson’s Chasing the Dragon, fourth in the slowly-improving Quantum Gravity series, at Strange Horizons, which is probably the only sf novel you’re likely to read in the near future to contain the phrase, “he was still surprised sometimes to look down and find that he was made of cloth.”

The Returners

The Returners coverThe Returners – Gemma Malley’s third young adult science fiction novel, and the first to stand alone — tells a tense, uneasy story. It may open with a too-familiar earnestness — “What is important,” Will Hodges insists, almost as soon as we meet him, “is that you never know. You never know when everything is going to change” (3) — and, indeed, it may be the case that, by the end of the novel, there has been a little more change for the better than can be entirely believed. But it would be a mistake to make up your mind about this story too quickly, I think; the revolution is at least more internal than external, and there are moments worth experiencing during which it does not seem like a foregone conclusion.

We are in the near future: to be precise, the main action of the novel takes place in suburban England between 4th May and 18th July, 2016. Malley’s extrapolation to this point is minimal. By far the most obvious shaping conceit of The Returners is that The Recession Never Ended, with the consequence that Britain is sliding ever faster down a right-wing nationalist slope. The “National Party” is gaining in power and influence, promising a government that will “work to make Britain great again”, instead of letting the country “get walked over by anyone and everyone” (26). A friend of Will’s father, a policeman-turned-politician called Patrick, takes them to rallies with queasily familiar chants: England for the English! British Jobs for British Workers! If Will’s mother was still alive, it is suggested, things may not have got this bad for this family. But she has been dead for some years, and in her absence neither Will, nor his father — a lawyer whose high-paying private-sector job was a casualty of the economic climate, and who now works for the Crown Prosecution Service – have been immune to the temptations of Patrick’s slogans. Simmering anger, rooted in fear and confusion, is a constant of their lives; and if their resentment is not exactly handled with the subtlety of, say, Ian R MacLeod’s The Summer Isles (2005), it is still grimly recognisable. Enter the plot: a Chinese youth called Yan, once Will’s friend, is arrested for stabbing a white pensioner, and Will’s father is assigned as prosecutor in what is, it becomes quite obvious, a frame job, designed to inflame racial tensions and build support for National Party policies.

While we’re worrying about all this foreground – and, to be honest, whether we can take an entire novel of a narrator as obnoxiously insecure as Will – Malley is establishing a quite peculiar background, one that makes The Returners even more claustrophobic. There’s something funny about Will’s memory. He remembers his mother, dead, “her long hair splayed out over the water like a painting” (5) – like a cliché – but not the circumstances surrounding that death. He remembers whole conversations word for word, and others not at all. He hates history lessons, not least because they give him migraines, and remind him of the terrible dreams – dreams of people suffering and dying – that he doesn’t understand. And then there are the freaks, the strangely familiar people who stare at him in the street: “haunted, sad-looking eyes boring into you, eyes that you recognise; that recognise you, except you don’t really recognise them because you don’t know them, you know you don’t – you’ve been through every person you’ve ever met in your life and they are none of them” (15).

How does all this start to come together? With the hollow-eyed freaks catching up with Will:

“Not reincarnation. Not like other people think of it,” she says. Her voice is soft but insistent. “We actually come back, Will. We’ve existed throughout time. We experience the worst that humankind is capable of; we absorb the pain, contain the horrors. We remember, Will. We are humanity’s conscience.” (134)

Will is, it seems, one of them, and in fact something unprecedented: a Returner who doesn’t remember. Hence the dreams, of Native American massacres, of slave ships, of concentration camps and of Rwanda. He was there, he is told, for all of it. He will be there for it, this time: a gathering of Returners means that suffering is on the way. Hence the visceral reaction against history; as he later puts it, “What’s the point of remembering if it just happens again and again?” (177)

So here, we think, is the twist. Now we will see Will learn about the other side of the coin. The sudden inversion of Will’s privilege seems a bit easy, perhaps, but it’s a worthy story, isn’t it? If there are no characters of colour actually on stage, as such (we have barely seen Yan, and the ethnicity of the Returners is carefully unspecified), Will’s attitudes are worth exploring, aren’t they? And if there’s something disquieting about the notion that humanity was somehow protected from the worst of the Holocaust (and the rest), well, perhaps that’s an unfortunate but unintended consequence.

We should give Malley more credit. The Returners, of course, have not told Will the whole truth, and when they do it becomes clear that we are meant to be asking all the questions listed above, and others. And if the novel’s final third is on one level a conventional broadside against the sort of lazy hands-off fatalism the Returners advocate – they insist that events are “All pre-determined, all set out like milestones on a journey we haven’t met yet” (176-7), and that “We cannot change them. Only humans can change themselves” (178) – it also becomes a rather more nuanced examination of inherited or inculcated responsibility, one that confronts the role of those who held the whip, rather than fetishises those who suffered under it. It remains a white story — a final, cathartic, plot-resolving confrontation aside — and, perhaps just as significantly, a masculine story. But it is also a story that refuses easy sympathy without refusing all sympathy, and one that presents a convincingly scary portrait of the ease with which prejudice can take root and grow, complete with two or three scenes whose intensity I suspect will stay with me for some time. The very end, as I already suggested, perhaps does take Will (and his world) too far for me: “Argue”, he tells the Returners. Argue with those “who think that foreigners are to blame for all our problems, or people who believed different things, or people who eat different food or watch different television programmes. Tell them they’re wrong. Make them see it. Force them to see it” (249). It sounds strange to hear the words in his mouth, after everything he has said and done by this point. But I wonder whether, for a few people, it might be what works.

Seven Bites of Tender Morsels

Tender Morsels coverOne. Tender Morsels is not a short story. This is stating the obvious, but it bears repeating for any reader of Margo Lanagan who, like me, has had their expectations of her fiction shaped by the work collected in White Time (2000), Black Juice (2004), and Red Spikes (2006). There is a temptation, after a particularly striking encounter with a writer working in one form, to be disappointed that their work in the other form does not have the same zing of newness: to feel that, say, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl “merely” explores in greater depth a future already presented in stories collected in Pump Six; or, in the other direction, that Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days “merely” adds a spectrum of perspectives to the world of River of Gods. I do not claim to be immune; I feel the lure of both those opinions, though I try to resist them. And in that sense, Tender Morsels is “merely” another fairytale retold with an emphasis on the grit and grim of the real. But, you know, longer.

Two. Re-reading “Snow White and Rose Red” once done with Tender Morsels, it is a real joy to discover how clever, and how sly, Lanagan’s revisioning is. The spine of the Grimm tale – two girls, living with their mother in a cottage in the forest, have encounters with a friendly bear and a wicked, treasure-hungry dwarf – is retained in Tender Morsels. But in Lanagan’s novel, the realm in which this takes place is a secondary world, a personal heaven to which the mother, Liga, escapes from a horrific childhood in a “real” world: this is both a necessary escape, and the sort of sanitisation of reality performed by the Brothers Grimm on the later editions of the tales they collected. The bear (multiple bears, actually, in the novel) and the dwarf are intrusions from the “real” world, and eventually harbingers of heaven’s end; and, most importantly, the novel shows us the story before and after the fairytale.

Three. Lanagan remains an extraordinary writer of action, of things happening. Her language itself can create unease; it is only very carefully euphonious, far more often tending to beauty of a guttural, earthy sort, particularly in dialogue or first-person narration, suited to action and discussion. (Less suited to description and reflection, which occasionally seemed to me a weakness.) But this is not to say she is explicit. Much attention has been lavished on the first few chapters, which cover Liga’s upbringing. She is repeatedly raped by her father (leading to several forced abortions, and eventually to Branza, the novel’s Snow White); after her father’s death, she is raped by a gang from a nearby village (leading to Urdda, Rose Red). Reading about this is even more harrowing than it may sound, in part because it does not seem to be leading anywhere (perhaps because a direction would mean a hope of escape), but primarily because Lanagan writes around the terrible events so effectively. Miscarriages endured by Liga are covered (“She tried to stop the baby, but it had been poised to rush out, and so it rushed out, with a quantity of wet noise”, 15), as is the aftermath of rape (how Liga “washed and washed her cringing parts”, how “to walk was to hurt”, 47); but the rapes themselves are not. That’s left to us to imagine.

Four. The novel seems to me to be built around a series of stark contrasts, set up early in the book. Most obviously, there is the contrast between Liga’s two worlds: that defined by her father – “he had run the world for her” (37) – and that defined by her own desire. The former is a place of relentless brutality, the latter somewhere Liga can be utterly trusting of everyone and everything around her. The tranquillity of this world is equally relentless in its way, and bold Urdda, in particular, grows to chafe against it, and eventually leaves. Men and women are divided by perspective: every scene told from a man’s point of view is first-person, while every scene told from a woman’s point of view is third-person. The logic behind this division never quite became clear to me; it could be an effective way of underlining the privilege accorded the male gaze in the novel’s “real” world, but the first-person perspectives persist even when the men are in Liga’s heaven; and a mild criticism of the novel might be that we are never given access to the perspectives of the men who actually commit the worst acts. But perhaps the argument should be that the perspectives we are given access to confirm that not all men are beasts, because man and animal are also contrasted, as young men taking part in a local ritual intended to “civilise” them find themselves transported to Liga’s heaven and transformed into bears. One such is noble, the other rather less so. And so on.

Five. The final section of Tender Morsels – when both daughters and Liga are back in the “real” world – is, I think, the best, but not without its perplexing moments. There are two points in the novel at which Lanagan seems to give her characters a freebie. The first is Liga’s salvation, when she is given the means to access her heaven by a force that is never explained; if the characters were religious, it would be an act of God. The second comes in the latter stages of the book, after Liga tells Urdda how her daughter was conceived. Urdda becomes (not surprisingly) incandescently angry; it is revealed that she has magical talent; in her sleep, unconsciously, she causes five voodoo dolls to go out into the village and gang rape each man involved in her mother’s ordeal; and in the morning she wakes, unknowing, and “fresh of it all”; “Yesterday”, she says, “I thought I would burn with that rage for the rest of my life. Today – well, I have no particular feelings about it at all” (407). She acknowledges that this is “not natural”; but it still feels far too consoling. Life does not provide vengeance so clean, or so easily.

Six. Urdda’s vengeance stands out all the more because most of the second half of Tender Morsels is devoted to questioning and — partially — deconstructing its earlier dichotomies. When the family are first reunited in the “real” world, there is a sense of right finality, as though the story is ending; yet at the same time you can feel, between your thumb and forefinger, the thickness of pages still to go. And so you conclude, because you are back in the world where Liga was so abused – because that horror, as Urdda puts it, is sitting “lumped in the past … impossible to ignore” (389) – that something bad is going to happen. It never does. But the expectation leads to some scenes of almost unbearable tension, often revolving around Branza. Unlike her sister, Branza never chafed against Liga’s heaven. She is desperately unworldly; in Gwyneth Jones’ resonant phrase, a true veteran of utopia, confused by the tragic distance between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. So when she goes for a walk on her own – having been warned against such excursions by her sister – we fear for her. And, sure enough, she is menaced; yet she stands her ground, and bites one of the boys, and the rest are cowed. She walks home safely. Liga is delighted by the sight of her daughter’s accomplishment — “In some way, she had bested them; they were afraid of her, look!” (337) — but another character, standing at Liga’s shoulder, remarks that there’s nothing like being raised in heaven to give someone false confidence. The moment is punctured: we have to agree with that. And yet, Branza walks.

Seven. As Gary K Wolfe puts it in his review, the central theme of Tender Morsels is “the balance between the brutal abuse Liga herself has suffered and the overprotectiveness of the world she has made”. For Abigail Nussbaum, this leads to the novel’s major flaw: that it tells two stories, and that the morals of those stories clash:

Tender Morsels starts out as a story about a character who endures terrible injustices because she lives in a world arrayed against her, and who escapes into another world. It ends as a story about that character learning that life in the real world, though fraught with dangers, is worth more than life in a dream. The problem is that the lesson learned from the second kind of story–acceptance of the inevitability of heartbreak and pain–is precisely the lesson one shouldn’t learn from the first kind of story, which strives to elicit rage and indignation. It’s one thing to say ‘unhappiness and misfortune are the risks you take if you choose to live in the world,’ but it’s quite another thing to say ‘being made into a sex slave by your father and then gang-raped by men who think that having been impregnated by him makes you fair game is the risk you take if you choose to live in the world.’

I don’t entirely disagree with this, as the discussion above of Urdda’s vengeance – which I think can be read as existing to address the rage and indignation produced by Liga’s story, and sweep it under the carpet – may suggest. But it does strike me as risky to draw such direct morals from a novel which is, at base, about revising one of the most moralistic forms of literature there is, and which seems to me to so carefully manage the possible meanings of its events, inviting interrogation. Still, the novel has a happy ending, or something very close to it, despite the well-established darkness of the world — Wolfe writes of “a note of almost astonishing sweetness”, while Meg Rosoff describes a book that “celebrates human resilience” with “audacity and grace” — and a reader does have to be able to accept this as honest. For my part, the security the women achieve, while limited by the nature of the society in which they live, seems convenient but not tenuous. As the novel closes, Urdda is (thanks to the revelation of her magical talent) well on her way to being a powerful witch, Branza is marrying the story’s most noble man (who she met, as a bear, in Liga’s heaven), for love, and Liga is sharing a good house with another witch, who (thanks to the dwarf’s trips to Liga’s heaven) is independently wealthy. As to lessons, if we must have one I think I’m closer to David Hebblethwaite: neither Liga’s childhood nor her heaven makes a good guide to living in the world; neither should be trivialised, but they must not be the whole of the story. Or as Rosoff asks: is it possible to return to life from unspeakable trauma? Answering that question without seeming patronising is a tricky needle to thread, but I’d say Lanagan manages it much more than not; and that if you’re looking for a guide to living in the world, you could do worse than look at Tender Morsels.

The Girl With Glass Feet

The Girl With Glass Feet coverA brief break from Interzone to say that I agree with everything Kari Sperring has already said about this book in her review for Strange Horizons, except that I gulped it down in a couple of days. An intense, entropic, ugly-beautiful fable; heavy with the cold, crisp details of remote St Hauda’s Land, tangled in the quasi-incestuous closeness of the community that lives there, people both exquisitely and exasperatingly broken. A book about ways of seeing, about what we don’t see of other people, or choose not to see, or are incapable of seeing, and what we lose in consequence; and therefore about the power of glimpses, where the fantastic lies in how something is seen as much as in the images breaking through a convincing quotidian skin: “Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialized faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle … In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles” (62). And a cruel story that chooses, uncomfortably, to pay more attention to its men and its landscape than its women; a story that does address this uncomfortableness and this cruelty, but doesn’t escape either. Somewhat in spite of myself, I am transported.