Four Stories by Nina Allan

Early on in “Wilkolak”, the story’s protagonist, a London-based Polish teenager known as Kip, has spotted and photographed a man who he thinks bears a striking resemblance to a wanted criminal. But:

Kip didn’t want to think about the murder. It was the photograph of the murderer that interested him, some loser with a plastic carrier bag crossing the street. The image might seem ordinary but Kip knew it wasn’t, that the very act of framing the man in his viewfinder and then choosing to release the shutter made the picture significant. The main point of a photograph was to invite you to look, to concentrate on the world around you a little harder.

“Wilkolak” (which can be found in Crimewave 11) is a horror story with only the faintest hint of a suggestion of a trace of anything not scrupulously mimetic, yet this is a passage that can be taken as emblematic of Nina Allan’s approach to the fantastic in her short fiction. Situations seem ordinary, but are not, and their lack of ordinariness is signalled primarily by small details or moments. In “Wilkolak”, for all that the criminal’s victim is one Rebecca Riding, last seen wearing a red coat, and for all that the predatory nature of the man in the photograph reminds Kip of the Polish folk tale from which the title is taken, there’s no suggestion that the game of is-he-or-isn’t-he-guilty is going to resolve into a literal werewolf tale. Rather, if the fantastic lurks anywhere in this story, it lurks in Kip’s interactions with his girlfriend, Sonia, who asks for a print of the photo only to later reveal that it reminds her of a man she saw in a dream, “some kind of monster … He could kill people, just by looking at them”; and who, after a perfect afternoon in a park, insists out of nowhere that she wants Kip “to know that whatever happened today was real … That all of this really happened.” Such moments may seem to be sidebars to the main action, which circles around Kip’s growing fascination with the man, but the psychic dread they evoke is the story’s true motor.

Kip’s attraction to photography is typical, though: a lot of Allan’s protagonists either are or know people of a creative bent. In other stories she’s published this year we find a blocked writer of fiction, a somewhat desperate journalist, a documentary film-maker, and an acquaintance of a painter. The last of these, in “The Upstairs Window” (Interzone 230), provides the opportunity for another seemingly self-reflective passage. His paintings appear to be an abstract mass of colours, but in fact are composed of miniature paintings of disparate objects, whose connection is not at all clear to Allan’s narrator, Ivan:

Whenever Niko was interviewed he was asked to spill the beans on what the pictures were supposed to mean but he always refused. He said the meaning of any painting always depended on who was looking at it. I’ve never had time for that kind of talk and I didn’t pay it much attention.

Ivan may not have time for this, but we should; just because Allan’s stories are filled with the specific does not mean — in the best cases — that they are overdetermined. To go back to the earlier quote, framing does not determine meaning; framing is an invitation to look at the world around you.

And even in her overtly fantastic stories, Allan’s settings are recognisably derived from the world around her: that is, contemporary London. Often, the fantastic has been normalised; the first indication that the setting of “The Upstairs Window” is in fact not contemporary London, at least not as we know it, is a passing reference to what seems to have been a theocratic revolution. Gradually a clearer picture emerges, of a Britain in which the “Bermondsey Statutes” have instituted severe restrictions on freedom of expression, including the reintroduction of the death penalty for particularly upsetting artists. It’s these statutes that Ivan’s artist friend, Niko, has fallen foul of, and which mean he needs to flee the country. But that’s not what the story is about, it’s just what happens, and only part of what happens, at that. None of the threads are fully resolved; as Lois Tilton observes, it makes for an ending that forces us to choose, to find the overt meaning that the collage of glimpses seems to deny.

There’s another departure in Allan’s other Interzone tale of the year, the more science-fictionally sophisticated “Flying in the Face of God” (IZ227). This might have been the story of a bold American astronaut, Rachel Alvin, who’s volunteered for the deep-space adaptations known as the Kushnev process. Like Cordwainer Smith’s Scanners, or the Spacers of Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah”, once she’s gone through the process, Rachel will be removed from the normal run of humanity. The initial physiological changes involve thickened skin, paled eyes, reduced need for food and water, and by the time of the voyage the fliers will be able to exist in a “a kind of para-existence.” Allan’s focus, however, is not on the changes experienced by the woman travelling to the stars, but on the continuity experienced by a woman who remains behind. “Flying” is actually the story of the London-based film-maker, Anita Schleif, who has already had one flier in her life — her mother, now dead — and who in getting to know Rachel has had the misfortune to fall in unrequited love with another.

It’s a story with a complex relationship with more conventional sf, fully engaged with the troubled myths of the frontier that space exploration stories always draw on, yet more about a life touched by sf, struggling to integrate an sfnal event into the texture of the everyday, than about a life being shaped by sf, or using sf to shape the world. This is, of course, how it is and will be for most of us, most of the time, and I think the great achievement of the story is in the way it establishes a firm connection to the reader (at least this English reader) while acknowledging the frustrating partiality of any human connection — and without selling the strangeness of the Kushnev process short, to the point of actually allowing and succeeding in a moment of honest-to-god sense of wonder, when Anita visits Rachel before her launch: “She’s really going up, thought Anita. For the first time the sight of her friend brought not sorrow or anger, but awe.”

It remains an awe rooted in the specific — in the sense that Anita has finally seen Rachel’s new reality — but “Flying in the Face of God” is rare among Allan’s stories for representing a connection between humans so generously. “The Phoney War”, perhaps the best story Allan has published in 2010, portrays a more fraught situation, at all levels. In the foreground of the story is a journalist, Nicky, setting out on a journey to find out what’s happened to an old friend, across a landscape that if we didn’t read the story in Allen Ashley’s anthology Catastrophia we might at first think is just the greyest parts of Britain on an off-day. It soon becomes clear, however, that there’s an ongoing and pervasive deterioration. There are problems with the power supply. There are no broadsheets on sale, only slimmed-down tabloids. Petrol stations are empty. As much as anything, Nicky keeps working to try to impose a frame on the uncertainty, to force herself to pay attention to the world.

She still wrote for the Clapham Gazette even though her writing no longer paid her enough to make ends meet. She wrote her regular column in the form of a diary and it satisfied the same purposes: the need to externalise thought, the need to make sense of her life and above all the need to keep a record of the things that happened.

As Nicky travels, and the story flashes between past and present, we learn that the cause of the chaos is the possibility of first contact. News of impending alien arrival has caused widespread panic, and the government appears to have taken the opportunity to impose a more autocratic regime; the extent to which the former is exaggerated as cover for the latter is, to those on the ground, unclear. But this remains background — a more insistent background than the worlds of “Flying in the Face of God” and “The Upstairs Window”, but nevertheless — with Nicky’s foremost concern her attempt to find her friend. When she succeeds, however, on the cold coast at Dungeness, she finds that personal truth remains just as elusive.

In her conversations with her friend, and with the “foreign-looking” man she turns out to be living with, Nicky is almost, but not quite, allowed to reach a moment of understanding; indeed, another way of looking at Allan’s stories is that they almost all, in different ways, address moments of hesitation, both for their characters and for their readers. They get away with it, I think, because of the normalised, even mundane nature of Allan’s settings; but “The Upstairs Window” leaves threads dangling; “The Phoney War” refuses any neat emotional closure; “Wilkolak” ends literally in mid-scene, much like Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” leaving it to the reader to resolve the story. Only “Flying in the Face of God”, of the stories I’ve been discussing here, moves past the moment of hesitation to suggest that something like connection is possible — and even there, it may be a self-deluding, one-sided connection.

Nina Allan’s had a busy year, and a very strong one, yet I feel she’s still one of the better-kept secrets of British sf. What remains to be seen, I suppose, is how well she can sustain her approach — or how she evolves it — at greater length. Apparently she’s been putting the finishing touches to a novel; I’d like to read it.

Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson (2005)

Living Next-Door to the God of Love cover
Justina Robson has had one of the most interesting decades of any contemporary sf writer; by no means do I find all her novels successful, but they’re always fascinating to think about and rewarding to write about. My discussions of her story “Legolas Does the Dishes” and the most recent Quantum Gravity novel Chasing the Dragon have tried to set out some thoughts on how her body of work is developing, but the touchstone work for me remains Living Next-Door to the God of Love. A version of the following review first appeared in Foundation 96; thanks to Tony Keen for correcting my recollection of the end of Natural History.

Justina Robson’s fourth novel is about how we deal with possibility. At the end of Natural History (2003), humanity started to grasp the possibilities offered by Stuff – a disarmingly pragmatic name for a magical alien technology – with both hands. In Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Stuff is commonplace. With the aid of Unity, the intelligence guiding Stuff, humans have access to ‘sidebar universes’, worlds where they can do anything, be anyone. They can go to Metropolis, for example, and be a hero (or a villain); they can go to Sankhara, and live in a fantasy. The characters engage with this setting; they choose their stories. For one, it represents escape; for another, sanctuary; and for a third, it is home, something to be studied and understood. All of these assumptions are challenged in the course of this vibrant, intense novel.

The attention-grabbing first chapter opens in Metropolis. Our viewpoint, Jalaeka, is as much playing a role as anyone else in the city, but he seems to be less human than most. He’s an observer, and (for the moment at least) also a twelve-foot tall cupid with night-black skin and wings that beat on the fabric of reality. We stay with him until, at the end of the chapter, he flees the sidebar to escape Unity agents. It becomes clear that Unity is a collective consciousness, made up of the dreams and experiences of everyone it’s ever met. To become one with Unity – to ‘translate’ – is to disappear into a welcoming transcendence. Whether or not it represents oblivion isn’t clear, but most people, including Jalaeka, aren’t too keen on finding out. The point is underlined when, not too much later, it is offhandedly revealed that Metropolis has vanished, translated en masse. Back in the original reality, the human government isn’t best pleased about this development. Unity (or Unity’s representative, Theodore) insists that nobody has died, per se, but that’s not much consolation for a grieving family.

Meanwhile, Jalaeka has holed up in a sidebar to a sidebar, creating a replica Winter Palace in the back pocket of Sankhara (referred to as a ‘high interaction’ universe, which when it’s human intelligence doing the interacting is surely another way of saying the place is storyable). It’s in this world that we meet most of the rest of the cast and spend most of the rest of our time. Greg is a regular human, an academic researching Stuff and Unity. Rita is also human, but a partial avatar of Theodore. Hyperion and Skuld are Forged (biologically and cybernetically enhanced humans), but from very different backgrounds. And, of course, there is Francine, who with Jalaeka forms the novel’s center. Francine is a fifteen year-old runaway from reality: she has isolated herself from human interaction (symbolically and literally, by digging out the chip in the back of her hand that connects her to the local guide AIs), in an attempt to avoid the person she’s afraid she is, and become the person she wants to be. As for Jalaeka, our first instincts were right: he is not human. He is a side-effect of humanity’s contact with Stuff. We dropped into that everness like a stone tossed into the ocean, and the resultant splashes, drops and splinters scattered across reality. Separated from Unity, those splinters developed their own consciousness. Most were found and reabsorbed; Jalaeka is the last, and the shutdown of Metropolis demonstrates the lengths to which Unity is prepared to go to get him back.

You don’t have to get much further into Living Next-Door to the God of Love to realise that it isn’t going to be the novel you expect. Despite the high-stakes scenario, and the striking opening, its central story is relatively quiet. For most of its length, it is a study of the developing relationships between Francine, Jalaeka and Greg; each narrates sections of the story, their differing perspectives illuminating different facets of their situation. On one level it is a romance, and an uncommonly honest and thought-provoking one that looks at the costs, as well as the benefits, of relationships. But Robson never forgets the fantastic context within which her story is taking place, and uses it to explore and emphasise the reactions of the characters. An example: when avatars of Unity translate other characters, they are described as ‘eating’ them; and later, it turns out that they can call up instances of them, essentially recreating them from Stuff. Among other things this is a metaphor for how we carry others in our memories, and how coming to understand the experiences of others can affect and change us. Throughout, Theodore is always at least nominally trying to track down Jalaeka, but his schemes rarely feel urgent.

Robson is not always a writer of beautiful prose, and her landscapes, for all their variety, often seem rather dry; but she has a talent for characterisation, and is able to capture the uncertainty and rawness of strong emotion with some skill. In Living Next-Door to the God of Love, she has created a story and a setting that allow her to play to her strengths. We rarely get a true sense of the extravagant landscapes that Stuff allows. This is partly because those landscapes are frequently fluid—the Winter Palace changes and grows over the course of the novel; Sankhara is remade nightly, in a dreamtime shuffle that recalls Dark City—but it is also because Robson never quite seems comfortable with physical description. There is relatively little of it, considering how much the landscape changes, and when there is it often seems to strain to capture a sense of place. Of a cathedral that appears overnight, we are told: “It was gothic and black and almost entirely dwarfed by both the huge rocky bulk of SankhaGuide Massif and the twisting, half-alive towers of the Aelf, in whose shadow it stood at this time of the afternoon” (135). This is ungainly stuff, and lacking in specifics, and fails to take root in the imagination.

By contrast, Robson often excels at capturing the interior life of her characters. We viscerally understand how Francine and Jalaeka and Greg feel about where they are, even if we can’t quite picture it for ourselves. One of the most expansive moments in the novel is when Greg gains a glimpse of the cosmology of Sankhara, the centre of the galaxy of the planet of the city he calls home: “Disk stars and gas were so loud I couldn’t stand to look at them. Halo stars sang in almost single notes by comparison – a relief.” (200) Where a similar vista in, say, a Stephen Baxter novel would be a wonder unto itself, here it cannot be. Greg’s experience is central, and personalises our view; perhaps, Robson is saying, our experience is always central, because it’s the only thing tying us to the world. (The darkest moments in the book are equally personal, and more troubling because of it.) At the same time, Robson also has an ear for dialogue, and frequently uses discussion and debate (rather than flat explanation) to force the reader into a better understanding of her story, as when Greg and Jalaeka debate subjectivism (144–6). Her first-person voices are not as sharply differentiated as they might be, but the results can still be vivid, and in the context of the sketchy settings, disconcerting: flesh-and-blood characters walking through a wireframe world.

In one sense, given its distance from our contemporary lives, it is an abstract story, closer to pure thought-experiment than much sf gets. In another sense, given the questions being asked, it is about human nature at its most fundamental. Each of the characters is searching for self-understanding through love. Francine is just starting to understand who she might be; Greg has to ask who he is in the face of love’s loss. Even Unity is searching for answers: it wants to find the meaning of life, and create one if it turns out that currently there’s only an absence. Most intriguingly, Jalaeka is defined by love, to an extent that only becomes clear towards the end of the novel. Indeed, not just his identity, but his physical form is variable; although Jalaeka is male for most of the novel, he can just as easily be female. Jalaeka is not human, but he is a reflection of us. He is humanity trying to understand itself, and the novel is, in part, a window into his mind and into that process.

Living Next-Door to the God of Love is sf of the mind, not the world; that the scenery changes doesn’t matter nearly as much as the hopes and dreams that cause such shifts. Or to put it another way, it is a novel about character, if perhaps not classically a novel of character. Francine, Greg and Jalaeka are people who know their universe is made out of Stuff. They are conscious of their existence in a way that we generally aren’t; they can bitch about reality with a confidence that comes of knowing it is arbitrary. And yet, they are as cautious with each other as we are, because they remain human. The multiple first-person viewpoints allow Robson to demonstrate the shortcomings of the way we mentally model each other, all the time, but more than that the nature of Unity allows her to ask how existence and memory are linked. More than once in the novel, as the relationship between the two characters develops, Francine literally relives Jalaeka’s memories. The lines between them blur as their experiences converge (and don’t ask what you do when you’re confronted with the inevitable ex in that situation). What, the story asks, does a relationship ask of our individuality, our self-identity? What is the cost (given that Jalaeka is Unity writ small) of engagement with the universe?

It is, of course, an unanswerable question—where do we draw the line between our self and the world?—but Robson’s examination of it is thought-provoking and dramatic. It suggests that life is, finally, about negotiation—about finding the balance between your terms, and everyone else’s. A simple epiphany, perhaps, and for these characters strengthened by a metaphysical certainty that in the real world we lack, but no less intoxicating for that. Living Next-Door to the God of Love is a story of grand melancholy, pain, and – most wonderfully, despite everything – choosing to live. It is, as I said, about possibility; and, of course, about love.

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.

Under Heaven

Under Heaven coverCasting around for a way to start to convey what Guy Gavriel Kay gets up to in Under Heaven, I found myself thinking of another recent fantasy novel. Jo Walton’s Lifelode (2009) is a rather different kind of book, one that does not attract adjectives like “sumptuous” so readily — it is, for not quite enough of its length, a beautifully low-key rural-domestic fantasy, set in a world in which time moves faster, and life is more wild, the further East you travel. Perhaps partly in response to this flux, and the effect it has on people as they travel, the characters in Walton’s novel have a word to describe someone who is being utterly, characteristically, themselves: truly embodying a quality. No such word exists within the world of Under Heaven, and for a reader looking in from outside the reason seems clear: it is unthinkable that any character in Kay’s novel could act in any way other than to be utterly, characteristically, themselves.

The daunting clarity of Kay’s vision extends beyond the individual. It’s probably well-known by now that Under Heaven tells a story inspired by events that took place in China’s Tang Dynasty — it’s certainly not a secret, since a letter to readers at the start of the Roc ARC sets out to justify this choice. And in fact, I’d argue that any solid understanding of the novel must confront and absorb at least the implications of Kay’s approach. (A deep reading would consider the details of the execution as well, but that’s not something I’m competent to attempt.) Under Heaven’s debt to history is heavier than most epic fantasy seeks, and evident in its choice of setting, story and characters, most of which have real counterparts; even if you don’t accept Kay’s assertion that this is a more moral strategy than straightforward history would be, it’s worth recognising how it shapes the narrative and tone of the novel. Precisely because it is a fantasy novel, and not a historical novel, Kay’s creation can be what you might call a platonic ideal of Tang China: a world of heart-stopping beauty, home to humans capable of astonishing subtlety and cruelty, all described with precision and thoroughness. Or to use Walton’s term, Under Heaven seems raensome.

This affect — magic but little mystery — is familiar from the other Kay novel I’ve read, The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), and from what I gather it’s an increasingly prominent feature of his work. But it seems particularly useful here, given the particular history being reworked, in defusing the notion of inscrutability. Characters outside the empire of Kitai — Kay’s Tang — are liable to find its citizens as baffling as Western stereotypes assert in our world, complaining of “the breeding and courtesy” that Kitai citizens “donned like a cloak” (29). A courtesan known as Spring Rain, brought to the very heart of Kitai from Western lands, reflects that she could study her masters until she was “bent like an ox-cart wheel” without understanding them, “or how the Celestial Empire dominates the world they know” (148). And Kay’s superlative-rich style risks beauty fatigue; there are more than a few moments when it seems the extravagance of his vision might be better expressed as one of the poems whose cultural importance he so openly admires.

But we readers are led into the minds the outsiders cannot know: so we can appreciate how the elaborate dances of the Kitai Court are designed to both channel and restrain human responses, how they perpetuate themselves and how human passions, like water from a dammed river, may find a new course. It is an article of faith within Kitai that it represents “the most civilized empire the world had ever known” (79). The intertwined superiority and fear that this attitude breeds snake into every character’s heart, surfacing in the superstitious caricaturisation of the world beyond Kitai; or in the tendency to philosophise about changes in “the world”, as though Kitai were the whole of it. The empire is a weight; a lot of characters spend a lot of time being angry under its burden, or exhausted by the attempt to negotiate the elaborate formalities of their society.

Our guide in this, the figure to which the novel most consistently returns, is so far as I can tell one of the characters that Kay creates from whole cloth. Shen Tai is the second son of a dead general; a man of deep passions and firm convictions. When we meet him he is embarked on a ritual mourning whose duration and ambition would be absurd if not rendered within Kay’s stately narrative. He has travelled to the edge of the empire and beyond, to the site of a great battle — a place whose extraordinary beauty is thrown into relief by the numberless bones that litter it — to bury the dead of both sides. As the novel opens, two things happen that will draw Tai back East, to the heart of the Empire. The first is that he escapes an assassination attempt for which there is no clear motive. The second is that a princess of Kitai’s past opponents, ostensibly as a token of her admiration for Tai’s work, gifts him two hundred and fifty quality horses — “Heavenly Horses”, as they are known, bigger and stronger than any Imperial stock — instantly, and unwelcomely, making him a player in the Emperor’s court.

Although the assassination attempt initially provides the more urgent narrative impetus, in the end it’s the existence of the horses that shapes the story told in Under Heaven as much or more than the actions of any individual characters, providing the new angle on the well-known story. It’s an interesting frame; it keeps some of what might be expected to be big set-piece events off-stage, but I think Kay is less interested in capturing those than he is in describing the feel of a moment of historical possibility. What’s significant about the gift of horses is that it positions Tai as someone able “to play a role in the balance of power towards the end of a long reign” (139). Certainly, Tai himself seems crafted to play this role: his connectedness allows him to slide in and out of the levels of society, while his initial innocence enables him to serve as our guide. It is easy to follow him. But more than that, both Kay’s letter-to-reader and the text of the novel are at pains to point out that creating a fantasy of history such as this is inherently an act that creates possibility. That is, the novel does successfully open up a space between what was and what might happen: enable a sense that, in contrast to the fatalism on display from some in the Kitai court, lives can and do fork, and that there can be, for better or worse, other worlds.

At this point I should probably specify that the historical event from which Kay weaves his story, the narrative through which Tai and his horses ghost, is the eighth century An Shi rebellion, in which a powerful governor of humble ancestry attempted to usurp the ruling dynasty, resulting in nearly a decade of strife and the deaths — as much from famine and disease as anything else — of several tens of millions of people. To set this out is not a spoiler, not just because Kay acknowledges the inspiration, but because of that possibility space, which refreshes the seeming inevitability of history.

But the relationship goes deeper. Kay is scrupulous about emphasising that Under Heaven is a story. We are, he writes, pattern-seeking creatures, and this shapes our approach to history: we are liable to abstract it, to simplify it, to use it for our own ends. Put another way, the creation of a possibility space — the creation of story from history — creates meaning. The novelistic attention to coincidence becomes an illustration of such: “Only a patient historian with access to records is likely to discover such links,” Kay writes; only “someone shaping a story for palace or marketplace … would note these conjunctions and judge them worth the telling” (542). And for all that Kitai is no less concrete than a description of the historical Tang would be, for all that the overlap between the two is not nearly small enough for Kitai to be taken as entirely independent — for all that Under Heaven’s raensomeness inescapably makes it a novel “about” Tang China in a way that it is not a novel “about” any specific Tang figures — it is still an abstraction, still a use of history. Under Heaven aims to extract the essence of a time and a place, such that it becomes “universalized in powerful ways”: but it tells you it’s doing it, and argues that if all history is story, there can be no final, specific truth, only degrees and directions of universalization.

Such an argument requires a carefully controlled narrative, and Kay’s control of his narrative is very good indeed; may be the best thing about the book, in fact. He works diligently not just to create but to maintain the spaces he claims, particularly in Under Heaven’s final third, when it is confirmed that the novel is a threnody for a culture at the height of its power choosing to diminish. As the implied narrator becomes a real narrator, and the focus gradually pulls back from the story’s present, we are reminded that this telling is only one among an endless series of interpretations and reinterpretations. It’s a hugely moving and fascinating gambit: never in the novel is the potency of historiography clearer, never the distinction between story and history more important, never the tension between the transparency of Kay’s created characters and the unattainability of the people who really lived more palpable. It is, in many ways, a tremendous achievement.

Bearings

Bearings coverA traditional divide drawn through the history of science fiction criticism is that between the amateur and the professional; so you have the tradition of fanzine-originated criticism, as exemplified by Damon Knight and James Blish, and the academic tradition, with Darko Suvin as an equally central figure. But if we have to break things down, I wonder whether it might be as helpful, or at least not any more unhelpful, to draw a line between those who review and those who do not. Let’s be clear, this is an act of naked advocacy for the review on my part, because at its best – for a definition of which I take John Clute’s suggestion of a first response to a book that’s worth re-reading ten years later – it is the form of critical writing I enjoy most, and because such a division allows me not just to keep Knight and Blish, but to arrogate to my camp such entertaining writers as Joanna Russ and Adam Roberts. But at the same time it’s undeniable that reviews have made a significant contribution to sf criticism over the years, and to generalise wildly I tend to find that the essays and studies I enjoy most are written by those whose critical skills have at some stage been deployed to the front line. Such writers seem to be more likely to talk about the field of fantastic literature as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. As good an example of this as you’ll find anywhere is Gary K Wolfe, whose essay collection Evaporating Genres will be out later this year from Wesleyan, and whose review collection Bearings, published by the much smaller press Beccon, I have just finished.

Bearings collects review-columns published in Locus between 1997 and 2001; like the earlier Soundings (2005), it is a rewarding and not a little awe-inspiring book. It’s no mean feat to turn out up to half a dozen reviews month in, month out, and say in almost all of them something worth re-reading ten years later, particularly when many of the pieces are only a few hundred words long. Wolfe claims in his introduction that he has no real rules for reviewing except to let the book under consideration guide the terms of engagement, but he certainly has some strategies, and if over the course of several hundred thousand words these become slightly more obvious than they are on a month to month basis, they don’t become less effective. The most characteristic Wolfe reviews open with a lump of discursive contextualisation that’s always worth thinking about – indeed in some cases you feel Wolfe is on the verge of breaking out into a full-blown essay – even if there’s the occasional sense that he’s teasing the reader by making the case for a proposition that only occurred to him fifteen minutes ago. This is followed by a concise and often witty summary of the plot and/or other salient facts about the book on the table; once that’s out of the way, Wolfe tends to deftly dissect his subject into its constituent parts and consider the strengths and weaknesses of each, before offering a conclusion that weighs up how those parts work together or don’t. It’s an approach that emphasises description over evaluation, which is perhaps one reason why Wolfe probably should take his share of responsibility for the myth that Locus never publishes negative reviews. Given the volume of work he considers, limiting himself mostly to cases where there’s at least something to praise is probably a sanity-preservation measure as much as anything else, but it still carries the obvious danger that it could end up providing a rather partial view of the field. One way Wolfe gets around this is by being very good at finding something to praise. He’s mastered the art of picking out the specific aspect of a novel most worthy of admiration or simply the one that’s new, even in cases where the whole is a failure. Sometimes this is used to place a book in the context of its author’s oeuvre — Bearings includes considerations of Stephen Baxter’s “most unalloyed thriller” (Moonseed), Connie Willi’s “most courageous” book (Passage), and Distraction, which is “easily more fun than any Bruce Sterling novel to date” — but it can soften the sting of criticism. Wolfe is, as Peter Straub notes in his introduction, a deliberately open-minded reviewer, one who always starts out on the author’s side, and usually ends up there as well. “Purely as sf”, for example, Walter Mosley’s Futureland “has to be regarded as something of a blunt instrument”, but “as a book about discovering the uses of SF, it may be more clever than it first appears”.

If this can just occasionally create the impression of a cat toying with its food, in the vast majority of cases Wolfe’s critical distance from the texts he discusses is a thing to be admired. That distance carries through the book on a broader level, as well. In addition to his preference for separating out the various elements of a book (as opposed to, say, Clute’s tendency to find a single organising principle around which virtues and flaws are constellated), Wolfe shows a marked reluctance to impose narratives on the field as a whole, despite the fact that he’s probably in a better position than just about anyone else to do so, and the fact that arguably one of the pleasures of collections of reviews is gaining exactly that sense of shape. (It was certainly something I hoped for from this particular collection, which covers precisely the period during which I became a more serious sf reader.) There’s some commentary within the compass of individual reviews, but this is always tentative and often has tongue at least partly in cheek. Moreover in this book – in contrast to Soundings – Wolfe has deliberately omitted the year-end summaries he writes for Locus and almost all of reviews of the various Year’s Best anthologies. His rationale is that all these too often “strained to identify ephemeral trends of relatively little interest from the broader perspective of several years later” (10), which seems a bit of a spoilsport way to go about things, and a significant loss in the case of those anthologies, since it cuts out a lot of useful commentary on how different editors approach the task of corralling a year’s best short fiction (not to mention a lot of worthwhile commentary on the stories themselves), and leaves some columns looking distinctly anemic. This is, however, the only major cavil I have about what is an extremely useful and lucid book; above all, this showcase of the generous Wolfean method stands as an ample demonstration of the utility and scope of the short (ish) review, and could stand to be more imitated.

Reading List: “Rats”

From a writer whose stories tend to be relaxed about their storyness to Veronica Schanoes’ profoundly anxious tale from Interfictions: “The shape of it will feel right,” the narrator tells us up-front. “This feeling is a lie. All stories are lies […] There is no narrative causality” (142). True, and not an uncommon observation. Scarlett Thomas published a novel about it, just last month. But it’s a big gun to bring out in a short story, and I think Adrienne Martini’s assessment of the story is right: “a raw effort with some truly sardonic moments that never quite moves beyond cliché.”

We open — after further dire warnings that the story-shape will betray us — on a young, sadly childless couple in Philadelphia. They visit fertility clinics, and generally try everything to have a child; and, eventually, they succeed. The “four shadows” — grandparents — visit the newborn and make fairy-tale predictions about her life: “She will have an ear for music”; “She will be brave and adventurous”; “She will always be alone in her suffering”; “On her seventeenth birthday, [she] will prick herself on a needle and find a — a respite, you might say — and after she has done that, she will be able to rest, and eventually she will be wakened by a kiss, a lover’s kiss” (144-5). Sleeping Beauty, in other words.

Lily grows up with a sense of “burning gnawing rats under her skin”. She falls into the punk scene, and the respite-on-a-needle turns out to be the high of heroin. She moves to London. “Can you recognise Lily?” (148) the narrator asks us, and later, “Do you recognise this story yet?” (150). Her relationship with her boyfriend becomes — as we can tell it will — fully abusive. Eventually she asks him to kill her, and he agrees. So is the tragedy of this story “right”? For my money, Schanoes overplays her hand here:

You know the rest of the story. He dies a month later of an overdose procured for him by his mother. Why are you still reading? What are you waiting for? (153)

At which point, I think: I’m not waiting for anything. I’m reading to see if you put any further spin on the tale. Then:

They were children, you know. And there still are children in pain and they continued to die and for the people who love them that is not romantic. (153)

This would seem less trite, perhaps, if the story hadn’t gone out of its way to make us understand that what it was about to show us was in no way romantic — was a lie — from the start. But there’s a fairly substantial paragraph in this vein, and only the story’s very last sentence achieves any sense of real outrage, real force:

Death has no narrative arc and no dignity, and now you can silkscreen these two kids’ pictures on your fucking T-shirt. (153)

“This story is about what it means to grieve for the suffering of a thoroughly unpleasant, even hateful, person”, writes Schanoes in the story’s afterword. I didn’t get a sense that Lily was a particularly unpleasant person. I just thought she was trapped in a particularly unpleasant story.

Reading List: Winterstrike

Winterstrike coverAfter a great splurge in the 1990s — evident in the list of notable works compiled by John Joseph Adams in this 2004 IROSF article — Mars sf hasn’t had all that much play in the last decade, with the most notable recent entry in the subgenre aside from the book on the desk probably being Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars (2009). The original venue of planetary romance has, perhaps, lost some of its mystique, if not its allure: Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road/Ares Express duology aside, it’s hard to think of examples that don’t make a point of treating Mars literally, now that we know enough to do so.

Winterstrike makes a play to reclaim Mars as a venue for mythic-fantastic adventure — it tells of high adventure and political shenanigans, all set in the far-distant future when a dying sun glowers over a land long since terraformed and colonised, and technology is far more than sufficiently advanced — and arguably its greatest success is as a venue. Its Mars is a vivid place, painted in rich colours and striking contrasts; it opens with a woman in “a mass of vitrified stone striped as white as bone and as red as a still-beating heart” — a tower in a crater at the centre of the city of Winterstrike — wearing, prosaically, “woollen mittens knitted by a grandmother” (1-2). The images we’re familiar with from Spirit and Global Surveyor and the rest are buried by such language, a ghost landscape beyond the novel’s present – several layers beyond, in fact. In a later scene, one of the novel’s narrators uses some of the powerful “haunt-tech” available to the elites of this Mars to view the memories of a ruined city; it is precisely a haunting effect, and in general the deployments of this technology, which also include strange organic machines and space travel that is a kind of death, provide some of the novel’s most visceral moments, all the while contributing to the sense of an ancient world, vastly different to the one we’re starting to know. Perhaps the one attribute retained from our associations with the planet is the chill promised by the title, complete with, wittily, frozen canals running through Winterstrike’s heart.

Across this landscape run two cousins. Essegui Harn and Hestia Mar are noble daughters of the Matriarchy of Winterstrike. The former is the woman we meet in the tower, ringing the bell that marks the start of the midwinter festival of Ombre. Soon after the novel begins, her younger sister Leretui — disgraced since she was caught with a vulpen man-remnant — either flees or is abducted from the lovingly restrictive embrace of her family, and Essegui is not just charged with finding her but cursed to do so by a compulsive “geies” cast by a “majike” in the employ of her family. Hestia, meanwhile, is a spy for Winterstrike; she voluntarily indentured herself to the same majike to escape life as a political pawn for her mother. Sent to the rival Matriarchy of Caud in pursuit of an ancient weapon, she also finds a remnant of an ancient library in the form of a “ghost warrior”, whose flayed body is sustained by more ancient technology — “She moved stiffly beneath the confines of her rust-red armour: without the covering of skin, I could see the interplay of muscles” (14) – and who accompanies Hestia more or less enigmatically through the rest of the novel. Before too long, both Winterstrike and Caud have been attacked, and both Essegui and Hestia are off on longer journeys, relating their various escapades in alternating chapters.

If the greatest strength of Winterstrike is its setting, its greatest weakness is how its narrators both rush across that setting almost without pause. It’s surely telling that even two hundred pages into the novel it’s not clear what the nature of the weapon used to attack the cities is, or even exactly what it did. When they are allowed to reflect on their situations, Essegui and Hestia have fairly interesting things to report, but they’re not often given the time to make meaningful choices. Far more often the end of each short chapter sees them thrown into another peril: kidnapped, chased, shot at or otherwise attacked, and so on and so forth. It’s all beautifully constructed, with the two narratives gracefully converging for the lightest of touches, and then separating dramatically. But it’s also often somewhat unengaging. The amount of artifice involved is clear from the neatness with which the closing chapters reflect the novel’s opening, and it could be argued as appropriate to the tale’s mythic ambitions (not for nothing are fairytales invoked with reference to some character’s storylines), but by virtue of some odd “interludes” that alert us to Leretui’s situation, and the involvement of a faction on ancestral Earth, the reader is pretty much always ahead of the not entirely dynamic duo. The ennui and looming inevitability that result can also be seen as apt for a story that repeatedly emphasises that it’s taking place on an old world, one where “You know how it is, these days […] everything’s breaking down” (160), but it’s still probably the case that neither Essegui’s story nor Hestia’s is as interesting as that of Leretui, who is right at the heart of what turns out to be a plot to restore “balance” to Martian society.

Said balance, as you may guess, has to do with the absence of anything we would recognise as men, devolved in the wake of ancient, unstable genetic adaptations for the inhospitable native Martian surface into what Essegui and Hestia certainly think are various bestial subspecies. Once again, the novel’s present is shadowed by its past: “The oldest legends tell of cycles,” Leretui is told; “first women dominated, and then men, and now women again.” As far as the novel’s prime antagonist is concerned, the citizens of Mars “need to get past that kind of thinking […] need equality” (147). Bestial men is a trope that’s cropped up elsewhere in Williams’ work — it’s a feature of her Darkland/Bloodmind duology — but this is the most interestingly I’ve seen her integrate it into the fabric of a novel, since it’s far from clear that “equality” is a meaningful concept to apply to what’s left of men. That said, it becomes frustratingly clear in the last thirty pages or so that Winterstrike is not a complete story, and I suspect that if sequels ever do get published (and in the end, despite Winterstrike‘s weaknesses, I hope they do), they will gradually move towards the reintroduction of men, not least because it turns out they do still exist elsewhere in the solar system. From another point of view, what the novel’s antagonists are struggling for is an escape from the weight of history that hangs on Winterstrike: this is in very literal ways a book about how the past remains and is reconfigured into the present, and I suspect that sequels would proffer a fatalistic opinion on the possibility of that escape coming good.

Some of the future history behind Winterstrike has, I think, been outlined in other of Williams’ novels, such as Banner of Souls (2006), that I haven’t read. But even beyond this, Winterstrike felt very strongly embedded in the science fiction megatext — perhaps partly because the central trope of a woman-only world has such an illustrious history, from Herland via Whileaway, but mostly, I’m sure, because I just happen to have read a set of contemporaneous books whose themes and content set up interesting resonances. I can’t help thinking, for instance, that it would have been fascinating to have read this novel in the context of the 2009 Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist; it could be compared on the one hand with Sherri Tepper’s approach to mythologising science fiction, and on the other with Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns, which also features two first-person narrators drawn from the same clone stock. Williams’ narrators have the same problem as do Reynolds’, namely that they sound the same (give or take slightly more indications of confidence from Hestia, and a slightly less worldly perspective from Essegui), but reading Winterstrike and occasionally being reminded that, yes, everyone is female (for some reason, perhaps not helped by the fact that she’s most often referred to by name or title and not by pronoun, I kept having to snap myself out of visualising the majike as male) is a useful underlining of how Reynolds rigged his set-up. The other book that came to mind while reading Winterstrike wasn’t nominated for the Clarke Award, but did win that year’s Tiptree; it is of course The Knife of Never Letting Go, a radically different planetary romance that portrays a society in which the gender balance is massively lopsided in the other direction, and which is an interesting contrast if only because it makes clear how matter-of-fact Williams is about the fact that her women have spread out into every social role. Perhaps it’s this very backgroundedness, relative to the gothic intensity of the other elements of Winterstrike, that led to the novel’s slightly surprising omission from the Tiptree honour list; but for me such a normalised, grounded imagining makes a significant contribution to the unarguable distinctiveness of Williams’ Mars.

Reading List: The Heritage of Hastur

The Heritage of Hastur coverWhatever the virtues of The Heritage of Hastur — and to my mind they are limited in the extreme, although apparently enough people thought it had virtues to nominate it for a Nebula Award in 1976 (although not, so far as I can tell, the Hugo Award that the back cover of the edition I read claims) — it is a deeply tedious read. This is, in part, because it contains dialogue like this —

“You’re a licensed matrix mechanic, aren’t you, Lew? What’s that like?”

This I could answer. “You know what a matrix is: a jewel stone that amplifies the resonances of the brain and transmutes psi power into energy …” (32)

— despite the fact that “As you know, Bob” must have been a cliche even in 1975. And in part it’s because Marion Zimmer Bradley is careful never to tell you just once what she can tell you three times. For example:

“Give it up, Regis. Only a catalyst telepath can ever do it safely and I’m not one. As far as I know, there are no catalyst telepaths alive now.” (33)

Two pages later, some narration from the above speaker:

Then he had at least latent laran. Arousing it, though, might be a difficult and painful business. Perhaps a catalyst telepath could have roused it. They had been bred for that work, in the days when Comyn did complex and life-shattering work in the higher-level matrices. I’d never known one. Perhaps the set of genes was extinct. (35)

And a scant three pages on, from the same narrator:

A catalyst telepath probably could have reached him. But in these days, due to inbreeding, indiscriminate marriage with nontelepaths and the disappearance of the old means of stimulating these gifts, the various Comyn psi powers no longer bred true. […] As far as I knew, there were none left alive. (38)

Nor is this the last time we are earnestly informed that a catalyst telepath is urgently needed, but that there are none left alive. The problem with this – or at least, the first problem with it — is that it all rather primes the pump, so that it’s no surprise at all when a catalyst telepath does turn up, and so that it’s blindingly obvious who said catalyst is about fifty pages before Bradley will admit it to us. And the whole novel is as thuddingly obvious as this. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s a complete lack of spark in Bradley’s writing. The Heritage of Hastur tells, according to the back cover, this epic, tragic story:

This is the complex and compelling tale of the early life of Regis Hastur, Darkover’s greatest monarch. But HERITAGE also spins the terrifying and heartbreaking story of those who sought to control the deadly Sharra Matrix, and tells how Lew Alton met and lost his greatest love, Marjorie Scott.

The two narratives are told in alternate chapters, Lew’s in the first person, and Regis’ in the third person. Despite the blurb’s emphasis, I’d say the end result is much more Lew’s book than Regis’; it’s Lew who is sent to investigate rumours of an alliance between a rogue Darkovan kingdom and Terrans, and Lew’s decision to try to use the Sharra Matrix that leads to the novel’s climax. But neither strand lives up to its promise. Here’s the young Regis, resentful of the path laid out before him by his heritage, yearning to escape offworld:

Below him an enormous cargo ship was in the final stages of readying for takeoff, with refuelling cranes being moved away, scaffoldings and loading platforms being wheeled like toys to a distance. The process was quick and efficient. He heard again the waterfall sound, rising to a roar, a scream. The great ship lifted slowly, then more swiftly and finally was gone … out, beyond the stars.

Regis remained motionless, staring at the spot in the sky where the starship had vanished. He knew there were tears in his eyes again but he didn’t care. (45)

Do you feel moved to tears by his experience? ‘cause I don’t. There’s no specificity in this image, no gnarls or details to really ground it; it’s just a generic ship, going through a generic takeoff procedure. There’s nothing to really evoke the gap between Regis’ experience of life and the life he dreams of – or rather, there’s a huge gap, indicated by “… out, beyond the stars”, that we’re left to fill ourselves.

Lew, meanwhile, is our vehicle for experiencing Darkovan psychic life. But here too Bradley’s writing is flat:

His pain tore at me; I was wide open to it. Through the clawing pain I could feel his emotions, fury and a fierce determination, thrusting his will on me. “You will!

I’m not Alton for nothing. Swiftly I thrust back, fighting his attempt to force agreement. “There’s no need for that, father. I’m not your puppet!” (55)

To anyone who’s read – to take a recent example – Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books, such exchanges will seem rather lacking in intensity, and even plausibility. We’re told that there was “clawing pain”, but the experience is distanced: there’s no sense that Lew still feels that pain, looking back on it, just that he knows it was there at the time. “There’s no need for that, father”, meanwhile, sounds like a polite disagreement over tea, not a fierce riposte in the middle of a psychic duel. (Mind you, this is a novel in which the naughty words are literally censored: “He used a word which made Regis, used as his was to Guard Hall coarseness, gasp aloud and draw away, shaking and almost physically sick” [139]. So perhaps the politeness here shouldn’t be a surprise.) Later, Lew notes that in Darkovan psychic circles you have to get used “to knowing that everyone … can share all your feelings and emotions and desires”; but if there’s one thing that’s notable about Lew’s narrative, it’s that he’s locked inside his own head, with little sense of the experiences of others.

What energy the book does possess comes not from its sentences but from its melodrama; unfortunately, this is almost all psychologically unconvincing. Most notable is the aforementioned relationship between Marjorie – very nearly the novel’s only significant female character – and Lew, which is one of those supremely unconvincing romances in which the participants fall madly in love (and, inevitably, we’re told over and over that they’re madly in love) on the basis of no obvious fellow feeling whatsoever, and which consequently has absolutely no impact when it ends badly. But it infects other relationships as well: we will pass lightly over the honourable but unfortunate attempt at including gay characters, save to note that the insistence that the bad gay is bad for reasons that have nothing to do with his gayness comes, precisely because Bradley repeats it so often, to have an air of protesting too much, while it’s noticeable that the good gay remains chaste for the entire novel.

All of this is a tremendous disappointment. I did not want to dislike The Heritage of Hastur; I actually wanted quite badly to like it, since the planetary romance itch – taking the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s definition of the form, as “Any sf tale whose primary venue (excluding contemporary or near-future versions of Earth) is a planet, and whose plot turns to a significant degree upon the nature of that venue” – is one that I don’t find contemporary sf particularly effective at scratching. And in the abstract, the Darkover setting sounds fine and interesting. Here’s how the Encyclopedia describes it:

[…] perhaps the most significant planetary romance sequence in modern sf […]

Darkover’s inhabitants — partially bred from human colonists of a previous age — successfully resist the Empire’s various attempts to integrate them into a political and economic union. Darkovans have a complex though loosely described anti-technological culture dominated by sects of telepaths conjoined in potent “matrices” around which much of the action of the series is focused. Increasingly, questions of sexual politics begin significantly to shape the sequence, and to cast an ambivalent light upon the gender distortions forced primarily upon women (and the androgyny required by all aspirants to a higher state) through the strange exigencies of Darkovan culture.

[…] Shadowy, complex and confused, the world of Darkover is increasingly a house of many mansions; a few (either writers or readers) seem to feel unwelcome.

This is, indeed, what I want from a planetary romance: a full exploration of an alternate human society. Unfortunately, little of the sophistication claimed here is in evidence in The Heritage of Hastur. The central conflict of the book – and, I gather, the series – has to do with the relationship between Darkover, an early colony that developed its psychic potential as a result of a lack of the materials needed for more mechanistic technology, and the rest of human space, and in particular whether Darkover should join broader human society, or remain separate. This has potential — there is an obviously useful frisson to be generated from the juxtaposition of higher and lower-technology societies, not to mention the more general questions of community identity that this set-up raises – and Heritage is not entirely without moments when you can feel the weight and frustration of, as one character puts it, “living inside a dead past”, the cost of an enforced societal stasis. Even with the flatness of Bradley’s writing, it does add some shading to Regis’ otherwise by-the-numbers reluctance to embrace his destiny.

But there’s a wearying thinness to the cultural construction. We’re told that Darkover’s culture is descended from a mix of Spanish, Gaelic and English colonists; it’s good that we’re told, because to that point, names aside, the lands of the Seven Domains are to all intents and purpose a generically ersatz feudal setting. And while it is rather wonderful, in a pomp-deflating sense, that among all the grandly named nobles there is one that the text regularly insists on referring to as “Bob”, the court of which he is part, which should be (we’re told is) the best of a fusion between Darkovan custom and Terran tech, feels little different to every other place we see. And so on and so forth. Even ignoring the wince-inducing comments about “alien blood” in human lines – I hold out some faint hope that this is explained in other Darkovan books as simply a family mutation, and that Bradley isn’t actually trying to offer up human/alien interbreeding as plausible – it becomes increasingly clear that The Heritage of Hastur is not, in any meaningful sense, science fiction. The Darkovan psychics are functionally wizards, and the Sharra Matrix is your standard immensely powerful but corrupting magic item: what we have here is the most generic of fantasy narratives, complete with a map to travel across, and even some ballads.

This last problem, of course, will only be a problem for some readers. Those who see fantasy and science fiction as straightforwardly interchangeable will (assuming they can get past all the other flaws chronicled above) not be bothered by the idea that Darkover is generic fantasy with sf window-dressing. Me, though, I can’t see the point of it; and to be clear, the problem is not the fantasy so much as the generic. A large part of the point of setting a society such as Darkover within a science-fiction context – for me, the major attraction of planetary romance, which I would not dispute is a kind of fantasy – has to be that it creates a distinct perspective from which to interrogate that society’s values. But all Bradley seems to be interested in is the recreation of too-familiar tropes. In this as in other things, repetition is the novel’s undoing. As The Heritage of Hastur wears on, we’re told with increasing frequency and emphasis that Regis Hastur really is born to lead, while others are born to serve (when a friend offers him his service, it is “a pleasure and a relief” for that friend); and while we may well be meant to greet such statements with scepticism, with Regis only once allowed the faintest of twinges that something might not be right with the distribution of power in his society, clumsiness can’t help but start to look a little like convenience – or even, whatever the Encyclopedia may say about the Darkover series in the round, an endorsement.

Notes on a Shortlist

Almost everyone, it seems, agrees about at least one thing about this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award, the winner of which is announced tonight: that it’s a good shortlist. (That post now updated with more review-links, by the way.) I’m not about to break that hardening consensus, and may even raise the stakes slightly. I think the 2010 shortlist is one of the very good ones; for me, as a shortlist as a whole, probably the strongest since 2003, when Light vied against The Scar and the ultimate winner, The Separation. Two of the novels — Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream — have been hailed as returns to form, two more — China Mieville’s The City & The City and Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia — as their authors’ best to date; and the remaining two — Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and Marcel Theroux’s Far North — are certainly not without their champions. Perhaps the most pleasing thing about the shortlisted novels is their variety. There are more and less straightforwardly science fictional works, set in times ranging from the seventeenth century to hundreds of years hence, and if you’re not calling them sf, you could call these books crime novels, Westerns, comedies, and adventure stories. (Or just novels, of course.) It’s a good showcase. But a novel is a prose narrative with something wrong with it; and so, though it’s harder to do than it was last year, we must look for what’s wrong with these offerings.

What it isn’t, for once, is very British, and the most British book on the list — if only for its blokeish humour — is the one most people throw out of the balloon first. Retribution Falls has plenty to recommend it, particularly pace and, in its retro-magical setting, colour, and is welcome on the shortlist as an adventure story, a form too often given critical short shrift that nevertheless requires considerable craft. I kick it out of the balloon first as well, though, not for being what it is, but for flirting with smeerpdom. It seems to me that the story Retribution Falls tells is not sufficiently specific to its fantastic content: that it could be retold in another time or place without changing much more than the vocabulary. (I’d say this is partly where the omnipresent Firefly comparisons are coming from.) And that’s not enough to be the best science fiction novel of the year, the book put forward as an example of what science fiction can be and can do. There’s also the question of the book’s female characters, which aren’t exactly depicted on equal terms with the men, although on that point I’m willing to give the novel more credit for self-awareness than, say, Nic or Abigail are (although this is not to mention the question of the book’s sole near-silent ex-slave character of colour, which is harder to excuse). Such factors must be considered when assessing the book, I’d argue; the political is as inextricable a part of literary judgement as the aesthetic.

An author usually impeccable on both fronts is Gwyneth Jones, whose Spirit — being a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo — would seem to also risk smeerpdom, but which actually passes at least that test with flying colours. I haven’t read the original, but I know its outline, and Jones does not seem to be in thrall (and in the book’s last third, seems to revise her model quite inventively, if not, in the end, entirely convincingly); nor have I read the major preceding work in Jones’ own oeuvre, the Aleutian trilogy, but there to I didn’t feel the absence of context particularly strongly. That is: Spirit is a full, contained science fiction novel. It’s about that most speculative of subjects, identity, or at least is at its best, so far as I’m concerned, when it hews closest to this theme. There’s much here about what defines us, and what might define us, in an era when space travel that treats mind and matter as interchangeable information — the raw stuff of self — and much about individuals who are defined, usually as Other. The novel’s great weakness is a lack of consistency. It really is a bit all over the place, veering from political intrigue to action-led set piece to introspective periods of what is glossed as “poetic time”; the latter are the most reliably good, and a section half-way through the novel set in a prison is seriously impressive, but the quality is never as even as it should be. A lesser but still significant weakness, I think, is a lack of freshness, a sense of being a bit second-had. Sometimes this is to good effect. I can see how Jones’ Star Trek aliens play into her theme — the alien understood as an element of humanity; or, in this case, perhaps more accurately humanity understood as an element of the alien — and I don’t want to take, for instance, Jones’ playfulness with gender, which delivers plenty of welcome perceptual jabs, for granted. But on balance, even if some aspects of the book aren’t seen as often as we might hope, there seems to me too little here that hasn’t been seen before.

Which brings me to China Mieville’s The City & The City, whose central conceit has clearly already entered the canon of Really Neat Speculative Ideas. What is so very neat about it, it seems to me now, and the novel’s greatest accomplishment, is how successful it is at exposing readers’ assumptions. To talk about The City & The City in any sort of depth is to reveal with uncommon clarity how you think about the world, about people and about fiction: all of which are always worth doing. But it is for me a less satisfying novel — certainly a less satisfying science fiction novel; I do think it reads much more interestingly as fantasy — than it a political act. Its plot is seldom remarked upon, although I note that in general this aspect seems to pick up more praise from readers who spend more time with crime novels than I do; and its narrator contains no great depths, and to my ear just a bit of strain in his voice. It’s primarily for the neatness of its conceit, I’d guess, that the novel quite deservedly won the BSFA Award — and, not surprisingly, it’s the front-runner in Liz’s poll. (The BSFA Award is not a great predictor of success in the Clarke Award, though, with only four books ever having done the double.) Mind you, if it does win, it will be a remarkable event, making Mieville the first author to win the Clarke Award three times; and three times within a decade, no less.

Now it gets really hard. Is Yellow Blue Tibia Adam Roberts’ best novel? Well, that probably depends on why you read Adam Roberts novels. There is certainly something to the idea that it’s his most relaxed, owned novel — as Jonathan put it, the work that combines Roberts’ various hats, as a writer of novels, histories, spoofs and criticism, “into one magnificent red satin topper”. In the honorable tradition of sf novels about science fiction, it surely has a spot marked out for it; it is funny; it has things to say about totalitarianism as well; it’s as technically well-formed a novel as you could wish; and its science fictional conceit delights me. To date the major charge against Yellow Blue Tibia has been Catherynne Valente’s hard-to-ignore assessment of “painfully inept cultural appropriation” (on which Roberts lightly comments here). That is: it is hamfisted as a depiction of Russian-ness. To me, the novel seems much more about popular conceptions of Russian-ness than about the thing itself. As Dan puts it, River of Gods would have been both a poorer and less honest novel if it had been written primarily with reference to depictions of India, but I don’t see that Yellow Blue Tibia is trying to be River of Gods, and I’m a little baffled that anyone tries to take it as such. It seems to me far too ironic, too playful, to self-conscious to be taken as striving — as McDonald’s novel clearly does strive — for anything approximating that horrible concept, “authenticity”. (That, and cultural appropriation strikes me as most egregious when there is a severe power imbalance in favour of the person doing the writing; and I don’t see that between the UK and Russia.) That sense of play, indeed, is one reason I read Adam Roberts; but another is to be challenged, to have my expectations about fiction and the world in general confronted in some way or another. And on that score, Yellow Blue Tibia disappoints me, seems to have fewer edges not just than Roberts’ other novels, but than other books on this shortlist.

If The City & The City is a popular choice for the award, Far North is becoming something like the reviewer’s choice, with Dan, David, Nic and Abigail all leaning in that direction, and Martin revising his odds accordingly. And for all that it’s been a long time since “the mainstream book” went home with the Clarke Award — since The Sparrow in 1998 — my head thinks that this could be Far North‘s year. It has a purity of concept and execution matched by no other novel on the shortlist, save perhaps The City & The City, and Theroux’s offering is a substantially more interesting novel of character (which does tend to be, in the end, one of the things the Clarke goes for). In its pragmatic depiction of life after ecotastrophe it eschews judgement in a way that few other such novels are able to — as Abigail puts it, it shows The Road how it’s done — and its Zone is as provocative and memorably eerie a location as antecedents. (It is also, like the previous three novels, a work that draws on Eastern/Northern Asia for its affect — a huge region, of course, but there do seem to me to be some affinities between Spirit‘s Baykonur metropolis and Chinese-influenced culture, The City & The City‘s vaguely defined border location, Yellow Blue Tibia‘s Communist Russia, and Far North‘s Siberia. And, of course, the one novel I haven’t discussed has a European setting. This is not, as I said, the most British shortlist.) In all, Far North is a novel that’s easy to argue for and hard to argue against, which is why I think it will win: after all, my mostly strongly felt argument against it, like Amanda, is simply that I like Galileo’s Dream more.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, which ranges between Galileo’s lifetime and the medium-far future, is expansive and rough where Far North is contained and controlled. It is a long book and — like its protagonist — can be exasperating (although this does not mean that I agree with Rob Grant’s assessment that it is “written to impress rather than entertain“), but it nails the dismount. And more than any of the other books shortlisted, it’s the one I want to revisit. (Of course, the judges will have revisited it, and all the others.) This is partly just because Robinson’s model of human nature and culture is one I am quite strongly in sympathy with: that the world may not be sane, but that it behooves us to find as much sanity as we can, and struggle for more; that it is possible to be utopian without de-emphasizing the challenges to that position. And it’s partly because I want to explore how Robinson tackles the material that’s new to him — the alien — in more detail. But it’s mostly because I want to revisit the things that are specific to Galileo’s Dream that Galileo’s Dream does so extraordinarily well. The exploration of memory, of how human beings live in time; the science-fictional dreams that use the techniques of sf past to address the tropes of sf present; and most of all, the sophisticated analysis of what it means to write a biographical historical fiction, to intervene in the thoughts of a past life as a future traveller (or writer). You can feel the tension — can in fact see it develop over the course of the novel — between that idea of Galileo as we can imagine he might have been, and Galileo as we (as Kim Stanley Robinson) would like to be able to imagine he was. At the end of a decade that’s given us quite a lot of historical fiction novels about science, for me Galileo’s Dream stands as the best of them: and of the books on this shortlist, I think it contains the most beauty, and the most truth. And so I hope it wins this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award.

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?”

Cyberabad Days

Cyberabad Days coverAfter a novel as thorough as River of Gods (2004), any add-ons have to earn their keep. The stories collected in Cyberabad Days do so by fleshing out the timeline of the future, and (perhaps less nerdily) fleshing out perspectives excluded from River of Gods — and not just in the sense that none of the characters live in Bharat, the seat of the novel’s action. So, for example, in the first story, “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” (2007), we see the collapse of our India into the nation-states of McDonald’s novel, and the arrival of the “lighthoek” personal computing devices that will become ubiquitous; and we see it through the eyes of a village boy who becomes a combat-robot fan, is drawn into the circle of the child-soldiers who remote-pilot them, and confronted with the terrible mundanity of war. Convincing youthful perspectives are a feature of the book, actually, from the bratty Westerner in “Kyle Meets the River” (2006), whose father is involved in (redundant) nation-building efforts after India fractures, to “An Eligible Boy” (2006) caught, by changing demographics, in a wife-drought. The first-person, subjective account is also common, with slightly more mixed results: Hugo-winner “The Little Goddess” (2005) reads even better this time around, smoothly exploring McDonald’s future from the perspective of another kind of outsider, a young girl chosen as the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, while “The Dust Assassin” (2008) is probably the closest thing the collection has to a weak story; it’s not long, but feels too long for the ground it covers. “The Djinn’s Wife” (2006) conceals the identity of its narrator until its final page, and in doing so plays with the idea of McDonald’s India as “exotic”, as a location for outlandish tales. Each story’s protagonist, however, is their own person; each provides an angle we haven’t had before, each explores new facets of the social and technological changes that run through this future.

Put another way:

India is her people and we are all only, ultimately, the heroes of our own lives. There is only one hero’s journey and that leads from the birth-slap to the burning-ghat. We are a billion and a half heroes. (297)

(Or indeed: “if it were a different man preparing to blow up the same bridge it would be a different story. Most idea-driven SF that purports to treat of character misses that.”)

The blockquote is from near the end of “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, the collection’s only original work; although to compare it to any of the other tales in the book feels rather unfair, since at a shade under 100 pages it truly is a short novel, not a short story, and surely would be published and considered as such in any other genre. Couched as the seemingly-garrulous life story of an aging Brahmin, one of the genetic elite of River of Gods — engineered to live twice as long and age twice as fast as regular humans — it is both a brilliant study of another convincingly different character and, because a crucial part of that difference is the ability to see “the connectedness of things … the biggest picture” (236), the most complete description McDonald has produced of this future history. I did feel just a little pandered-to by this, actually; the transparency of what elsewhere is left to inference, the pulling-together of many threads, the revelation of What Happens Next. But to linger on that feeling would be to sell “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” very short indeed, since it’s surely forgivable in a swansong to a setting as rich as this, and since (among other things) the story is, without ever being heavy-handed, precisely about the act of storying a future, of standing back as an author (or a critic) and trying to get a sense of the whole (the sense that River of Gods refuses to allow its characters), trying to make sense of the whole. Easily worth the price of admission, as they say; one of the best things I’ve read all year, in fact.