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.