The Turbine Hall Strikes Back

Previously, in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall:

And more besides. But now, journey fifty years into the future!

Turbine Hall cover

From the BBC:

Entitled TH.2058, the artwork – created by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster – symbolises an apocalyptic vision of London in the future.

Set 50 years from now, the installation is inspired by both real and fictional scenarios of the capital under attack.
A giant screen overlooks the work, playing extracts from science-fiction and experimental films.
Books such as JG Ballard’s The Drowned World and Mike Davis’s Dead Cities have been placed on top of the bed frames, which are illuminated by piercing lights.

Visitors are encouraged to stop and rest on the beds, experiencing the refugee camp atmosphere of the vast hall, and the dystopian worlds presented on screen and page.

The exhibit is accompanied by the sound of never-ending rainfall – supposedly the environmental catastrophe humanity has sought shelter from inside the gallery.

Further Notes from Newcon 4

The Guests

I attended both days of Newcon 4, plus I took more pictures than Niall, so some thoughts on the Sunday panels and the convention in general:

  • The Fishmarket in Northampton is a really nice venue – light, airy, right in the town centre, and there’s even a garden outside. Unfortunately, it’s a terrible venue for a panel discussion because it lacks certain features essential in a panel room, like walls and a ceiling. I went to less panels than I otherwise would have, because I wasn’t willing to put in the effort to listen to anything. I started watching the “Are Graphic Novels the future of Genre Magazines?” panel and gave up when I realised that no one had a clear idea of what it was going to be about, and I could go and sit in the sunshine.
  • I did make it to Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod in conversation with John Clute, which was only an hour and could have easily stretched to two. It wasn’t a typical Guest of Honour interview – as Clute himself admits, he’s not that good at interviewing unless you’re happy with a question which lasts for three minutes and confuses your interviewee, but it was a fascinating discussion. They started out with a discussion of the public persona of the author and those of Banks and MacLeod in particular, and moved to the reviews in New Worlds by Clute and M. John Harrison (Banks called it a move away from ‘cosy criticism’), and how they wanted to write the science fiction they would like. I hadn’t seen Banks speak before, and I liked how relaxed, laid-back, and most of all how funny he was.
  • The last panel was Just an SF-ing Minute, starring Banks, MacLeod, and Cornell, plus Ian Watson and someone else whose name I have forgotten but was pretty funny. An hour was possibly too long, but we did get such gems as Iain Banks channeling Ian Watson, and Paul Cornell’s whole minute on the sonic screwdriver.
  • Acoustic problems aside, it was a fine little convention which I will attend again, especially given it’s so close to home and attracts so many cool people.
  • And on a final note of fangirl squee, I met Alan Moore! Who was extremely nice when confronted with a tongue-tied person shaking his hand.
  • More pictures here.

Notes From Newcon 4

I spent yesterday at Newcon 4, a small Northampton con that punches above its weight when it comes to guests of honour. Although I missed some of the GoH stuff by virtue of only going to one day of the con. Still, I did catch:

  • Science fiction non-fiction: what’s the point? Panel discussion moderated by Tom Hunter with Donna Scott, John Clute, Farah Mendlesohn, Colin Harvey, and er, someone else who is apparently not listed in the programme booklet Paul Skevington. I thought this went rather well, actually; particularly enjoyed the discussion of reading criticism as a constructive act (Clute: reviews as documents of recovered naivety; Farah, reviews as opening a window onto a text, and as well-constructed pieces of writing in themselves). Useful discussion of canons, too, and whether or not they are a barrier to reading enjoyment, the role of multiple canons in the sf field, the difference between historical canon (i.e. lines of influence) and personal canons and critical canons. Also interesting points about what sorts of criticism are scarce, particularly criticism about fantasy and criticism about endings, and the idea that even the most basic synopsis, in that it is a partial representation of a larger work, is an act of criticism; the problem with reviews that focus on plot synopsis is that they are unaware of the choices they’re making.
  • Is ‘New Space Opera’ just ‘Old Space Opera’ in fresh clothes? This one felt a bit over-endowed with authors to me, since the panel consisted of Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Jaine Fenn, Tony Ballantyne, Ben Jeapes, and Ian Whates moderating. As a result it tended to circle around surface points without really getting under the skin of the topic.
  • Paul Cornell‘s guest of honour spot, and later, excerpts from his adaptation of Iain Banks’ “State of the Art”, to be broadcast on Radio 4 next year. (The condition for playing the excerpts at Newcon, apparently, was that the broadcast date be repeated many times. So: it’s going to be the afternoon play on 6 March, 2009, from 14.15.) I thought it sounded very promising; and the new ship name Paul Cornell has added fits right into the Culture. Other upcoming Cornell projects: a contribution to an anthology organised (and presumably edited) by Geoff Ryman titled “science and fiction”, in which sf writers were paired off with working scientists (Cornell got someone working on the LHC) and chatted until they came up with an idea for a story; and a new novel, described as being of the Buffy meets The Sweeney school of urban fantasy. If that is an extant school of urban fantasy.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable day, let down only slightly by the venue, which was a big, echoey hall in which if could be difficult to hear what panellists were saying. I imagine I’ll be back for the next one.


Anathem coverMy review of Anathem has been published in this month’s IROSF:

One repeated theme, for instance, is how much can be figured out from very limited knowledge by the systematic application of logic and reason: how accurate a picture is possible from a limited number of facts. But at this point, I run into a problem not dissimilar to that facing reviewers of Ian McDonald’s Brasyl last year, which is to say that the specific nature of the story being told is a withheld revelation that it would be unfair to spoil. Suffice it to say that it’s a familiar kind of sf narrative, and that although from one perspective it’s a version of that narrative that takes an extraordinarily long time to get to the point, from another it’s the most detailed working-out of the theory underlying that narrative for many years. This is, of course, what many people said of The Baroque Cycle. I am not one of them: in fact, my reaction to Quicksilver is handily summed up by Raz in this book, who is at one point sentenced to the standard punishment of his Order, to copy out a number of chapters from a tome whose contents are said to have “been crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless … The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all of that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain” (157). But while on one level I’m ready to acknowledge that Anathem simply engages with a cluster of ideas that are more interesting to me, I think it is also a better book.

See also Liz’s review; and elsewhere in that issue of IROSF, Nick Mamatas on “Why Horror is the Odd Man Out in Genre Fiction“, and Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake asking “Is it the Age of Fantasy?“, among others.

Life on Mars, US style

The revamped pilot (with Harvey Keitel, no less, as Gene Hunt) airs next Thursday. Io9 has a puff piece about it, with this interesting tidbit:

In the British version, Sam has really only three options for what’s happening: he’s time-traveled, he’s in a coma and dreaming, or he’s gone insane. But the American version will add another 10 possibilities, for a total of 13. Including the idea that Sam is dead and in purgatory. At the start of the second episode, Annie walks in on Sam writing all 13 possibilities on a chalkboard. And the show’s first 13 episodes will each explore one of those possibilities. “In the second episode, there’ll be a visitor that will come into Sam’s life that alone will open up the mystery significantly,” says Appelbaum.

Place your bets! (I’m hoping for this.)

A Discussion About Flood

Flood coverTime for another round-table discussion, this one looking at Stephen Baxter’s most recent novel, Flood, involving me, Karen Burnham, Adam Roberts and Graham Sleight.

“The ultimate disaster”, say the publisher. “The world is drowning and there is nowhere left on earth to go.” You can read a bit about the thinking that went into the book in this essay on Baxter’s website, and there’s a related short story here (although how much sense it will make if you haven’t read the book, I’m not sure). In the Guardian, Eric Brown liked it; as did Lisa Tuttle in the Times, albeit with more reservations; and there are a couple of other takes here and here. But what did our panel think? Read on …

Karen Burnham: I’ve always had a rocky relationship with Stephen Baxter’s writing. When I first started reading Locus and realized that there’s more to sf than Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, I read the entire “Manifold” trilogy. And then I swore that I wasn’t going to read any more Baxter.

My problem wasn’t with the books themselves. Each volume in the Manifold series worked perfectly well as a stand-alone book. However, when you give all the characters the same names from volume to volume, you expect the author to do something with that; perhaps to look at universalities, or to experiment with how the same personalities would deal with differing circumstances, or something. Instead it seemed like a total coincidence that these characters had the same names; in all other respects they were completely independent of each other from book to book. I appreciated the ideas, the space squids, the differing takes on the Fermi paradox and all that, but I felt completely cheated by the “characterizations” (or lack thereof).

And after reading Flood, I have to say that my opinion of Baxter has not fundamentally changed, although my complaints are easier to set aside with this book. The scenario (however scientifically implausible) is dramatic, well-realized, and well-extrapolated. Baxter’s descriptions of secondary effects are first rate — possibly the best in the field. But again, he has no respect for his characters. Since I really liked these characters and wanted to know more about them, this was particularly disappointing.

One example: Gary raises Grace for ten years. They walk together from Nebraska to the Andes. On the spur of the moment, with no consultation, he tosses Grace to Lily, hoping to secure a better future for this girl who is for all practical purposes his daughter. OK, no problem. However, when Gary next sees Lily, he doesn’t even ask how Grace is doing, where she is or what happened to her. He never mentions her again. What!?! He’s a nice guy, obviously very responsible, very smart, and he’s not even curious if she lived or died?

Perhaps from Baxter’s point of view there’s no need for them to have that conversation because it wouldn’t give the audience any new information: we already know what happened to Grace. But again, that’s disrespectful of the characters; Gary should need to know what happened, no matter what the audience already knows. This and many other similar offenses makes the characters seem little better than the salt and pepper shakers you’d use to explain a football game at a picnic table.

My impression of Baxter remains: brilliant intellectually, but it’s a shame that he has to use humanoid analogues to illustrate his fantastic imaginings.

Adam Roberts: I’d be surprised if you find yourself in a minority of one, actually, Karen: you’re articulating what I take to be one of the core criticisms of Baxter: brilliant ideas and sense-of-wonder etc, but 2D characterisation. Actually I’d say that his skill at characterisation has increased since he started writing, but I’d also concede that people don’t go to Baxter in the first instance for complex or Jamesian characterisation. I appreciate that Karen isn’t asking for The Wings of the Dove; she wants consistent characters with whom she can empathise. That’s fair enough.

This is where I stand: Baxter seems to me one of the major figures in contemporary genre, and Flood (which I reviewed for Strange Horizons when it came out) seems to me his best book for a long time, and one of his best ever (full disclosure: Baxter is a friend of mine). This isn’t to say that I’d stand up for the novel specifically as an exercise in characterisation as such, although I don’t read B.’s treatment of the characters in quite so negative a light. But it is to say not only that Flood does everything one wants of a sf disaster – the scope, the detail, the lack of cosiness, the inevitability, the sweep and momentum – but also that in this novel, as is not always the case in Baxter’s writings, he orchestrates a compelling and eloquent metaphorical totality.

If cards are required on the table, I’ll lay mine down, before taking a puff from my Le-Chiffresque platinum asthma-inhaler: I take sf to be a primarily metaphorical literature. (That’s “primarily”, not “exclusively”, nor “wholly” neither, and that’s … probably an argument for another day.) More than this, I’d argue that it is in metaphor (rather than in, say, “sense of wonder”, or ideas, or technology, or anything else) that the genre can do genuinely penetrating things … to represent the world without reproducing it. In Flood Baxter works systematically through a very effective, very expressive metaphor. Since metaphor is primarily poetic, rather than primarily narrative, it finds some of its most enduring effects in haunting or luminous or expressive images; not that narrative and character are unimportant, but that one of the things that lifts Flood are the various vignettes, especially towards the end: the submarine perspective on drowned London; the Queen Mary sailing over the Matterhorn; the final submersion of Everest; the huge continent of multicoloured floating plastic.

As for character, well it seems to me there are various ways of addressing it if you’re a novelist. One is simply to inhabit those nineteenth-century novelistic criteria of (as it might be) plausibility, consistency, likeability (or empathisability) and so on. Nothing wrong with that. But there are other ways. Now I’ve got into trouble with critics because of my take on characterisation, so conceivably I’m not best placed to argue this: but another approach, and one we might think is peculiarly well suited to sf, is to interrogate what we mean by “character”; to unpick or otherwise play around with our assumptions about “personality”, “motivation” and so on. One of the things that makes Evolution (2003) a stand-out Baxter title for me is that it’s a novel that, inter alia, does precisely this; puts “character” centre stage and portrays it as a blip on the larger evolutionary timescale, one amongst very many strategies genes use to make genes. It’s a novel that deconstructs character, in other words. In a smaller sense, Flood is doing something different. I read it as being, in part, about our passivity in the face of climate change. This is something so huge that there’s nothing we can do about it. Starting his main characters off as helpless prisoners is one way of articulating that; but the characterisation throughout shows individuals as largely passive; as reactive rather than proactive; as enervated, emptied-out and so on. Even Nathan Lammockson who appears at first to be an active, can-do individual, is revealed by the novel’s end to be passively in thrall to an image of a lost past (recreating the Queen Mary and so on). That’s part and parcel of the larger theme of the book, surely.

Niall Harrison: Without wishing to pile on, I broadly agree with Adam, in that while I’ll freely acknowledge that Baxter’s oeuvre in general, and Flood in particular, is not over-stocked with characters who have rich internal lives, I think it raises interesting questions about the place of character in fiction. That said, I feel obliged to defend Flood‘s cast somewhat from Karen’s criticism. To take her specific example, the scene in which Lily and Gary are reunited (chapter 95, beginning p. 461 in my UK trade paperback), after a gap of thirteen years, doesn’t seem to me to be inconsistent or disrespectful to their relationship. They start by exchanging small talk (which Baxter uses as an excuse to describe some neat post-flood tech); there is some discussion of how much time has past, and how Gary in particular has changed (“He leaned forward and took her hands. ‘God, it’s good to see you, Lily'”: maybe it’s my Englishness, maybe it’s just an example of the success of the novel’s tone, but that gesture of familiarity, isolated in their interaction, does feel successfully invested with evidence of a deep loneliness), and then they get down to swapping stories. “They spoke of other friends, of Thandie and Elena and the rest of the scattered community of scientists […] They spoke of Nathan […] and of their fellow hostages […] And of Grace.” So while Karen is perfectly correct that we never see Gary ask about Grace, we know they talk about her. More, I would argue that the progression of their conversation — from the trivial to the shared, and ultimately to the very personal – is itself characterisation, indicative of a gradual process of reconnecting. And I can even see an argument that gesturing towards the conversation about Grace, rather than relating it in detail, is the more effective choice, in that it eschews melodrama. We know they talk about her; we know, because “And of Grace” is the start of a new paragraph, that it’s a significant conversation; and the rest is left to us to imagine.

So I can’t see Baxter as disrespectful of his characters. Distant from them, certainly, but that’s a different thing. Actually, the more serious criticism of Baxter’s characters, to my mind, is the way that they tend to repeat from book to book: one of the reasons I like Flood as much as I do is that I think it’s less susceptible to this than some of his other recent works — Piers’ Englishness makes an interesting contrast to, say, George Poole’s, for instance — but it still falls foul of this to an extent. Lily is not so different from Manifold’s Emma Stoney or even Voyage‘s Natalie York.

I think there’s a case to be made that the distance Baxter assumes from his characters is integral to the virtues of his novels – it’s hard for me to imagine getting the same sense of a vast and impersonal universe from a novel that renders the personal in compelling detail – but in general I’m not very interested in debating whether or not Baxter “should” have more rounded characters. I don’t consciously read a book with a model of what a good novel is in my head. I’m much more interested in trying to let a book teach me to speak its language, and then — if something entertains, or moves, or enlightens, or provokes — trying to work out what it is that enabled the book to achieve that effect. Flood managed to do all of those things at various points. I cared deeply about the story, far more deeply than I cared about any of the individual characters in it, and since that’s something unusual in fiction, and since it worked, I regard it as a strength of the book. Of course, I’ve been reading Baxter since I was old enough to buy books for myself; I have quite literally grown up on his work, and I’ve no doubt my approach to reading has been shaped by it.

Graham Sleight: You’ve zeroed in on something I was wanting to talk about: Baxter and characterisation.

General agreement with points already made: Baxter is very good indeed at depicting the effects of the disaster he depicts, and doing so is something you can’t imagine happening outside sf. My problem with Flood is that it winds up doing the splits, between two kinds of genres/expectations, and that its problems with characterisation are a symptom of that — and that they’re distinct from the way characterisation works out in, say, Evolution. Very sketchy outline of the two sets of expectations follows. In disaster novels (or movies), you tend to have big casts of characters, whose background you’re told about in detail (so that, for example, you can sob when Shelley Winters snuffs it), and they tend to have some degree of agency and ability to affect events. In scientific romances, you don’t have characters so much as places to put the camera. Insofar as there are “characters” in something like The Time Machine or Last and First Men or The City and the Stars, they tend to be hollowed out, transparent, designed to be observers. (And hence, often, couched as scientists of one kind or another.)

The obvious thing to say about Flood, then, is it starts off looking like a disaster novel (about an immediate threat we know about), and morphs into a scientific romance, as it becomes apparent that the threat is more universal and less fixable than seemed to be the case. (And, in parenthesis, this is why I disagree with Adam’s reading of it as being about our passivity in the face of climate change; but then I disagree with his take on sf as primarily metaphorical, though as he said that’s a whole other conversation…) So you start of with disaster-novel characterisation, which doesn’t necessarily allow much interiority, but does specify a lot. (See, for instance, the first couple of paras of Ch 9, p.45.) But by the end, the interesting stuff is viewed by, literally, inanimate objects, like the ROVs sent down to London, pp422-4. (Interesting, too, that everyone talks about the Queen Mary travelling over the Matterhorn rather than any given character.)

So I’m arguing that Flood is a book that starts off in one genre and ends in another, and that its progressive lack of interest in characters (or even character traits) is a symptom of this. I guess we can’t get into the question of whether this is deliberate – the author is, of course, dead, as I’m sure Adam will tell Steve next time he sees him. But we can deal with whether this seems to each of us to work. I agree that you can’t/shouldn’t use a yardstick of Jamesian interiority – but you can talk about, say, fitness of means to ends, or whether the experience of the world seems as full or as intense as your own. I can see the case that Niall makes, that we are in the end meant to care about “the story”, rather than “the characters”. (Arbitrary distinction, but more useful in this case than in others.) The problem with that, though, is that the book does start off making rather dutiful disaster-novel gestures — and continues to make them, to some extent — it looks as if we’re supposed to care about them as individuals. My own theory — were the author not dead — would be that Baxter is happiest writing in the omniscient viewpoint, flitting from character to character or setting to setting as much as possible. Hence my view, despite the many local successes of Flood, that Evolution remains the book that best displays his talents.

Karen: This time around, let me start by acknowledging Niall’s proof of Gary asking about Grace: yup, I totally missed that. While I could point out that it’s easy to miss, I certainly should have gone back with the fine-tooth comb to find it. However, it seems like we all agree that characterization is problematic with Baxter?

Niall says: “I cared deeply about the story, far more deeply than I cared about any of the individual characters in it, and since that’s something unusual in fiction, and since it worked, I regard it as a strength of the book.”

But I wonder why we can’t have both? Amazing stories and fascinating characters? To say that it’s OK to have stock/2-D characters if the plot/imagery/ideation are first class (and they are here) strikes me as a sort of special pleading. Sure, other forms of literature should have well-drawn characters, but you can’t expect us to do that sort of thing…

The odd thing to me is that I absolutely love Stapledon (total character count = 0) and I’ve got a huge soft spot in my heart for Asimov (total character count = something less than 1), but Baxter’s characters put my teeth on edge for 4 straight books now. I’m trying to work out why… Stapledon’s easy to figure out; as Graham says, he’s writing straight scientific romance, and you can’t blame someone for “not having characters” when they’re not even pretending to do so. Perhaps Baxter sacrifices paying off character arcs in favor of paying off plot/ideation arcs? Thus, while Susan Calvin may not be a 3-D character (although she was a godsend identification character for me, growing up as a girl geek), in each story she gets the satisfaction/vengence/resolution that we want for her. I’m not totally convinced of this explanation, I’m just throwing it out there.

Gary Wolfe mentioned that in his reading, the characters all become less human as the story progresses… the catastrophe overtakes and overwhelms their humanity. I could buy that, except that having failed to establish really human characters in the beginning (how many readers were saddened when Helen died? Why did Michael, random bureaucrat, adopt her cause so obsessively?) it makes that sort of move lack any dramatic impact at all: it’s hard to become less human when you start from so little depth.

Again, I really wanted to like these folks. Lily, Piers, Gary, Thandie, Kristie — they all had aspects that I could relate to. However, whenever something interesting about them came up, it always seemed to be subsumed into moving the plot forward, then left hanging.

However, I also wanted to address a non-character related thread. Adam mentioned “I read it as being, in part, about our passivity in the face of climate change. This is something so huge that there’s nothing we can do about it.” I felt that the story takes an important turn when the flood is revealed to be a product of forces acting on water in the Earth’s crust instead of anthropogenic climate change. The apocalypse is fundamentally different if we bring it upon ourselves than if it is the product of forces beyond our control. In Flood I assumed it was the latter, but Thandie Jones continues to speak as if it’s the former. As Niall discovered, I didn’t catch all the detail in this book. Did Baxter suggest that human-caused climate change caused the water to come out of the Earth’s crust (maybe by shifting the pressure loads on the crust through melting ice caps or something) and I missed it? It seems like the moral dimension was totally changed, but the characters and narration still had the tone of a Man-made disaster.

I think I’d enjoy Baxter more if he were able to abandon characters like Stapledon did. From the sound of things, should I pick up Evolution?

Adam: Graham said, “the problem with that, though, is that the book does start off making rather dutiful disaster-novel gestures …” What are the templates for the Big Disaster Story? It’s generally either Disaster Averted, like (I don’t know) Armageddon (1998); or Disaster Fulfilled, like The Day After Tomorrow (2004). In both these cases, and the differing conclusions notwithstanding, the stories are apotropaic; they are about rehearsing ways in which we can act to stop the bad stuff happening, or at the least about imparting an urgency (which is to say, if we don’t get our shit together soon then look what will happen). Flood starts out like one of these sorts of stories, but actually it isn’t either kind of tale. There’s nothing to be done, nothing that could ever have been done, that would avert this particular disaster. There’s a deal of faffing around in the first third of the book, Thandie Jones persevering with her vision of the true nature of things in the teeth of general hositility: a section of the novel during which characters and possibly readers think they’re reading DA, or that if they’re reading DF then this section will satirise the inertia of the scientific community/human population whatever. But it’s all a narrative tromp-l’oeil; the scientific community ignores what’s going on, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if they’d seen what was happening right away. There’s nothing to be done. Graham implies that this shift is a kind of false-start, but I read it as being a deliberate and important part of the whole. Baxter’s disaster stories almost never (I’m ready to stand corrected of course) tread the conventional DA or didactic-DF model: I’m thinking of Moonseed (1998) [though it’s not my favourite Baxter book] or the environmental meltdown in the background of Transcendent (2005). There’s something less wish-fulfulment about Baxter’s writing, and it’s one of the things I love about his work: the uncompromising-ness of his imagination. It goes hand in hand with a sort of determinism, in the philosophical sense, which also inflects his sense of character: but I’m starting to repeat myself.

Actually one criticism I might put forward (although tentatively, because the ending felt right to me for all that I’m about to say) is that the relatively happy ending … as happy as the aftermath of six-billion deaths can be … is a bit too rosy for the scenario painted: messing about in boats in the sunshine as your children rapidly evolve into homo aquaticus. Under the sorts of pressures the novel so vividly paints, wouldn’t extinction be more likely? (They’re now elevated six miles or so; wouldn’t they be panting for lack of air? And the water they’ll lolling about in will surely be polluted with literally all the toxins in the world. And wouldn’t the sunlight smother them with cancers? Or to put it most baldly: what does natural history teach us about animals faced with catastrophic destruction of their habitual environment … they die out, surely). On the other hand, there’s the sequel volume Ark due soon, so maybe I’m speaking too soon.

Niall: I wonder whether it would be fair to split us into those who think the overall shape of the book basically works and is coherent (me and Adam) and those who think it is in some way broken (Graham and Karen). I think Graham’s diagnosis of the overall shape of the book – that there is a change – is accurate, but I’m not convinced by the explanation he’s constructed around the change. I don’t think, for example, that the flood is initially presented as something fixable; to the extent that the characters ever have agency, it’s tied up in coping strategies. Right from the start, Lammockson’s plans are about adapting to a fundamental state change. Nor do I agree that there is a fundamental difference in the kind of characterisation Baxter offers in the early and late stages of the book, or a progression from interest to disinterest; when he puts Lily in a helicopter so she can get an aerial view of flooding London, she is precisely a scientific romance viewpoint character. We are quite noticeably not provided with the kind of detailed character background that Graham argues is typical of disaster stories — I’d argue that Karen’s reaction to, for example, Helen’s death illustrates that. Similarly, there’s plenty of interesting stuff seen by humans in the later stages of the book, such as the trash-continent-rainbow that Adam highlighted in his Strange Horizons review.

Nor, while I’m at it, do I agree that characterization is problematic for Baxter (as Karen put it). To make the point I made earlier a bit more strongly, I think his characterization is fit for his purpose. I saw Michael’s relationship with Helen, for example, as one of the first occurrences of a motif that repeats throughout the novel, namely that extreme circumstances tend to produce unusual relationships (see also Lily and Piers). Or to answer Karen’s question directly, Michael adopted Helen’s cause because it was something he could do, when there was absolutely nothing he could do about larger events. It’s part of the orchestration that Adam mentioned earlier on, and it’s another example of a distant, scientific romance perspective in the early stages of the book, and it worked for me.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it has to work for everyone else; but I do think asking if we can’t “have both” ideation and characterization is a bit of a red herring. Obviously, it’s perfectly possible to have both, since the elements of fiction are not a zero-sum game, but that doesn’t mean both have to be present to allow us to describe a book as good. I’m mildly allergic to arguments based on class properties, I think. So far as I’m concerned, a story that foregrounds ideation over (a certain kind of) characterization is no more inherently a failure (or a success) than a story that foregrounds (a certain kind of) characterization over ideation is inherently a success (or a failure); and stories that have both are not inherently superior to stories that only have one.

So now I suppose I should present my argument for the book, rather than just trying to take other peoples’ criticisms to pieces. Broadly speaking, I still agree with Adam. As I said, I do think Graham is right to identify a shift as the novel progresses, but I don’t think it’s a shift between character-focused and story-focused, I think (as indeed I argued in my own review) that it’s a shift between literal and metaphoric idioms. We start out with what looks like climate change – a comprehensible, recognisable aspect of our world – and end with something far more extreme and stranger. One of the reasons I like this so much is that I can’t, offhand, think of another book in which Baxter links those two idioms (which I think are his two dominant idioms) so directly. To an extent the Manifold books do, perhaps; but Flood is more like starting with Voyage (alternate history nuts-and-bolts space exploration) and ending up in Exultant (gonzo space opera and a trench run on the black hole at the centre of the galaxy).

I take Karen’s point about the potential disingenuousness of this move, and there is a slight grinding of gears when Baxter uses it to take some swipes at scientists who can’t adapt to the new paradigm, but in the end I think the novel maintains its moral coherence. Because at this stage, I don’t really see climate change as something “fixable”; it is something we need to take account of, and ameliorate as far as possible, but ultimately it’s something we’re going to have to adapt to. And whether or not sf works primarily or best as a metaphorical literature (as Graham says, a debate for another day), I certainly think Flood works best when considered as a book about that need for adaptation. It may not be literally about climate change, but metaphorically – tonally – it underlines the urgency of the issue.

Finally, on Adam’s point about the ending: I don’t know what exactly would happen to the depth of atmosphere in such a flood, but in general terms, yes, you would think extinction is the likely outcome. Except that, as much as Baxter likes to end the world or the universe, one of the themes that runs through much of his work (and particularly the Xeelee stuff) is that life finds a way. He’s probably written a dozen or more stories by now that riff off Blish’s “Surface Tension” in this way – adaptation to survive conditions radically different from human baseline – and I think, in a way, you can read the end of Flood as a continuation of that theme.

Karen: Just a quick note on the ending: as sea level rises, the atmospheric pressure at sea level would stay the same (the ocean “pushes up” the atmosphere as it rises) so breathing at the former Everest site wouldn’t be a problem. However, my thinking about the kids is that Man literally cannot live by fish alone. Wouldn’t they all at least have scurvy by that point? (And for the horrors of scurvy, see Dan Simmons’ The Terror: the reality of dying from disease is the scariest part of that novel.) I’m with you guys in thinking that extinction is the most likely outcome; provisional pending the plot of Ark.

Adam: Not sure about this: the problem for Franklin’s sailors was that they didn’t eat fish (or seal); Inuit get all the vitamin c they need from fish, seal and whale; we can assume that Baxter’s survivors will have access to those sorts of animals.

The situation of the atmosphere is trickier. The ocean currently constitutes (says wikipedia) 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of water. In Flood it rises at least as far as Everest’s peak (8.8 km high): so adding a shell 9km deep all around the world (four-thirds-pi-r-cubed for both the post-flood and pre-flood radii, take the smaller from the larger) would add over 4.5 billion cubic kilometers of water. Now, the ocean is presently oxygenated (which is how fish breath), but this new water presumably wouldn’t be — it comes from deep underground, after all. There’s a hundred trillion metric tonnes of oxygen in the atmosphere. How much of this would dissolve in the new ocean? I can’t find out the figures for how much oxygen is dissolved in the present world oceans, but it’s something like 0.3 mole 02 per cubic metre (given that a mole of oxygen is 32g this means something like 10g in mass … this may be an overestimate, actually): if so, then 5.8 billion cubic kilometers would soak up an awful lot of that hundred trillion tonnes.

I’m nitpicking, I know; and, actually, contradicting what I was saying earlier … which is that, for all its trappings of scientific precision, Baxter’s novel works more fully on the level of metaphor. The global flood is culturally, and mythically, enormously resonant, and one of the ways the novel works so well is Baxter’s dexterity in incorporating and playing-off those associations.

Graham: I’m especially interested in Adam’s suggestion that Big Disaster Stories “are apotropaic; they are about rehearsing ways in which we can act to stop the bad stuff happening, or at the least about imparting an urgency (which is to say, if we don’t get our shit together soon then look what will happen).”

You see, I don’t think you can sustain the argument that disaster stories in general are a Dire Warning, or therefore Adam’s later point that Flood represents some kind of skewing away from that template. I mean, take a couple of others: Bear’s The Forge of God has all the trappings I’ve been describing — multi-viewpoints, high politics as well as ordinary people, etc etc. But what’s the moral? Don’t let aliens release planet-eating black hole wossnames into the core of the Earth? Or, say, the movie The Swarm? “Don’t stray near giant flocks of killer bees”? The Poseidon Adventure? “Don’t be on board a cruise liner when it gets struck by a tsunami”? In all of those, I’d suggest, any lesson-learning stuff is a very minor element compared to the real point of the disaster story: showing you destruction on a vast scale from the safety of observation.

In that respect, I’d suggest, the disaster story’s pleasures are cognate to a) those of the horror story (except that horror tends to focus on smaller groups or individuals, punished out of all proportion for some transgression), and b) whoever it was — Saint Augustine? — who said that one of the joys of being in heaven will be to look down on the damned suffering in hell. In that sense, I’d suggest that the Devlin/Emmerich team have made their career doing disaster movies: what everyone remembers about Independence Day is not how the aliens get defeated but how New York and the White House get destroyed; ditto Godzilla. So saying that The Day After Tomorrow is “about” rehearsing ways in which the bad stuff can be stopped is … a misprision, I guess. Can you really argue that Kenneth Welsh’s “I was wrong” speech at the end, or Quaid’s endless blather about superstorms, is more memorable, more emblematic than the wave advancing on New York of the other visual setpieces? The warnings may be a pretext for the setpieces, but they’re no more the point of the movie than the Vitamin C in tomato ketchup is the point of a cheeseburger.

So … returning to the topic, I still maintain that Flood — by the effect-based criterion I set out above — is a disaster story for most of its length. I still maintain, also, that it takes a turn (I increasingly think of it as an L-shaped book) into another mode as it runs out of things to trash, and it heads off into a more detached and abstract realm. Now, of course, writers messing with reader (and critic) expectations is all to the good if it’s done well; some of my favourite works are those that start in one form and end in another. My problem with Flood — and what all these words have been spent getting to the point of — is that the transition doesn’t work for me. Baxter shapes his text to give one kind of pleasure at the outset — you can just imagine the CGI work of the flooding Thames Barrier in some bad miniseries. By the end he’s doing something else entirely, and the two halves don’t quite join. Actually, there’s a comparison, since I’m reading it for Locus at the moment: Stapledon’s Last and First Men. All that stuff at the start, with relatively detailed satire on national attitudes, the whole quasi-comic thing of “Gordelpus”, seems to me to fit increasingly poorly with the cosmic stuff in the latter part. So yes, Flood is a really interesting book, but I’d still file it under “Perils of zooming out”.

Karen: The more I reflect on it, the more I’m persuaded by Graham’s “disaster-pivot-scientific romance” argument. Niall is right in that it’s not a clear line; there are plenty of scientific romance moments in the beginning of the book as well — most of which scenes I thoroughly enjoyed. I realize now that I would have preferred it if it had been a scientific romance all the way through with even fewer gestures towards character drama (hence my love of Stapledon).

I also agree that this book certainly taps into the major anxiety of our time, climate change, and weaves an incredible scenic epic around it. I’m still a bit bothered by the “it’s not our fault” science behind it, but that’s certainly forgivable.

Suffice it to say, I enjoyed this book on several levels, and more than I thought I would. However, I suspect that Baxter’s characterization techniques will continue to set my teeth on edge into the future (although that’s obviously a personal threshold). As much as I love a good scientific romance, I’ll probably continue to be hesitant about picking up Baxter’s.

Adam: Happy as I am being in the wrong, usually, I don’t think I can let this go. We’re talking about Flood; which is to say we’re talking about environmental disaster (see also: Kim Stanley Robinson’s last few novels; The Day After Tomorrow; Al Gore’s lecture etc). Graham’s counterexamples are novels in which bad shit happens. But bad shit happens in almost every novel, and usually without it speaking to our present widespread cultural anxiety about incipient environmental armageddon. (Actually I suppose we might argue that “economic meltdown!” is the Corporal Jones “don’t panic! don’t panic” at this precise moment; maybe it will overtake the Green Disaster narrative that has dominated cultural discourses for the last decade or more in the same way that nuclear armageddon dominated the 60s, something that manifested in a series of atomic and post-atomic disaster novels). I respectfully disagree with Graham that the “enjoyment” in watching An Inconvenient Truth, or reading about rising global sea levels, is the toddler-esque love of seeing stuff smashed.

Graham: It’s certainly true that there is a specific subset of the disaster story in which the disaster is environmental, and it carries (more or less prominently) a “message” about what we might do to avert it. Sometimes, as with KSR, it’s detailed and precise (I’ve only read about 50% of the Capitol trilogy; but the reasons for that would merit a whole other discussion); sometimes, as with The Day After Tomorrow, it’s woolly and (I’d argue) tokenistic. (To misquote Mary Poppins: a spoonful of medicine makes the sugar go down.) I think that shifting the goalposts to non-fiction accounts such as An Inconvenient Truth is, well, shifting the goalposts. A non-fiction account, particularly one that aspires to responsibility — as does Gore’s — is inevitably going to concentrate on facts and figures, rather than placing worst outcomes in a narrative frame. (And, if it’s a disaster movie, a spectacular narrative frame.) But then, that’s saying that fiction and non-fiction are different forms: film at 11.

That said, I’d agree with one argument that Adam edges towards making- that disaster stories are a kind of sublimation (good old Freudian sense) of certain cultural anxieties, a place to put our worries about climate change (or nuclear holocaust or whatever). Hence their tendency to extremity and the emblematic in visualising the whatever-it-is. Indeed, there’s an argument — though I wouldn’t push it too far — that they’re a kind of token genuflection at the altar of whatever anxiety is lurking in the hindbrain. Hence the occasional disaster movie that really violates the conventions — I’m thinking of Dr Strangelove in particular — is far more shocking than one that just makes the expected transaction.

Adam: I didn’t mean to move goalposts: I was taking it for granted, I suppose, that Flood connects with the same cultural anxiety about environmental disaster as lots of other texts (fictional and factual); where stories about invasion by giant space bees doesn’t. I take the force of the “responsibility” angle, but don’t see that Gore’s account is “narrative free”. Any account is necessarily narrative, and Gore’s film tells a number of stories, although admittedly it does not use the conventional fictive paraphernalia of the Hollywood blockbuster to do so. “Facts and figures” seems a little off the point, too: as if sf novels never trade in the idiom of fact, or figures.

Anyway, disaster-stories-as-sublimation was indeed the argument I thought I was making (or more precisely: the ground of what I was saying), and I meant actually to make it, not edge towards. Probably I took too much for granted. But it’s nice to have a measure of agreement, if only a measure, so I’ll stop here.

Graham: I’m happy to leave it there too, with a happy dose of Freud. What the world needs!

Adam: Sigmundtastic.


Kairos coverKairos is a novel that spends a lot of time refusing to look you in the eye. Very nearly half of its pages (which number 260 in the revised 1995 edition, i.e. not the one pictured; I don’t know if the original 1988 edition is substantially shorter or longer, although Jones’ afterword suggests not) have passed before it actually admits that it’s going to be something more than one of the most grimly hypnotic visions of a real-year-88 near future committed to paper, but the pattern is there from the start. The first person we encounter is Sandy Brize who, on a cold August day, is deciding to leave the lover with whom she has spent her whole adult life. We never see the leave-taking itself: what we get is Sandy’s thought that, “around her failing love affair the failing world had gathered: started and spoiled, tried and failed, until Sandy could scarcely tell the two apart” (3), and other cheerfully entropic observations. Similarly, chapter two, a flashback to ten years earlier, doesn’t show us the couple in happier times; rather, it begins with Sandy having visited Otto Murray, who has just given birth, in hospital. Chapter three then opens with Otto Murray alone in a protesting crowd, Sandy having stormed off after an argument. And so on. In each case, the imagined scenes are more powerful than anything Jones could have written, of course; when Otto does visit Sandy, post-breakup, in the story’s present day, it’s something of an anticlimax, although one in which what is not said, what is absent, remains a looming presence — which, for marginalized inhabitants of a United Kingdom falling to pieces, whose inhabitants are only too well aware that the future is being decided elsewhere, even if by war, is only fitting.

The urban gloom that pervades most of Kairos is a peculiarly British drabness, but — another way in which the novel is evasive — conjured predominantly in the corner of the eye, through observations such as Sandy’s that relate a character and their environment. It’s an approach you could describe as street-level, if that didn’t conjure images of the lurid angsts of cyberpunk. Things that would be the meat of a more typical science fiction novel are passed over in brief, or excluded altogether. We are told that the Tories are in power — after one term of a “moderate” Labour government — but the Prime Minister is never named. The first decade of the twenty-first century has apparently seen “the oil crisis, the dollar crisis, the Japanese Rearmament”, and there’s mention of “the Islamic Bomb” and “the Israeli Bomb”, plus various brushfire wars, but Kairos cares about these events only to the extent that they shape the people who have to live with them in the back of their mind. Most characters are introduced in terms of the niches they cling to, of class, race, gender, sexuality, and how those niches constrain and define them. Sandy and Otto are unambiguously poor, but even the better-off characters seem excluded from wherever it is that the decisions are being made. For Sandy, increasingly as the novel proceeds, the only way to live in such a world is to seek a kind of psychic oblivion. Otto, on the other hand, raised in a relatively more liberal time, feels “betrayed […] she had no choice but to consider certain conditions normal and struggle for their recovery” (39). At times, it’s almost a cliché of how the eighties in Britain are meant to have felt, but its power remains. For all that Otto, Sandy and their friends try to find a way to deal with the world they find themselves in, Kairos can be as corrosive to the soul, if not the senses, as its inspiration.

The sf plot is, to start with, a conjuring trick. There is an organization, with the slightly cringe-inducing name of BREAKTHRU, which probably started life as a pharmaceutical company, apparently became a millennial cult, and has hung around for reasons not fully apparent to any of the characters. Sandy goes to one of their meetings, and is partly baffled, partly repulsed by their ideology. At the same time, Otto’s young son, Candide — a cruel affliction of a name if ever there was one – reports occasional sightings of things that may or may not be angels. Otto herself ends up in possession of a package, containing something taken from BREAKTHRU, which is barely mentioned until one of Candide’s angels turns up, explains the plot (ta-da!), and then anatomizes Otto and her friends:

“Okay, so we’ll rerun the story so far. The container that has gone astray holds an enormous quantity, relatively speaking, of a very new and potentially very dangerous drug.
“With the concentration that is packed in that little tube, there is no need to ingest it. It affects any contacts like a kind of radiation. Touch isn’t necessary, even: intention is enough.
“It gets right back to the, um, sub-particulate interface between mind and matter. It is operating under Planck’s constant, down where everything turns into everything else. It’s like, you can really play around with things.
“[You] probably think of yourselves as outsiders, dissenters. That isn’t true at all. In fact you epitomise the present state of the world, especially in this country and the others like it; white consumerism. […] You’re very comfortable in your separate ways but deep down it’s all based on denial.” (113-5)

It’s difficult to convey how incongruous the twin intrusions this passage represents — the appearance of an angel, kilt and golden breastplate and all, and the sudden, brazen clarity he brings to the story — seem after a hundred densely gnarled pages of Kairos. Whether or not the angel came from heaven, or is simply a kairos-user, he certainly appears to have come from another story, though as the last part of the quote may suggest, he doesn’t herald a dramatic shift in the novel’s trajectory. With kairos loose in the world, what the second half of the book sets out to demonstrate is that denial does you no good if intention is enough.

So the characters set out on journeys that take them deeper into landscapes that they are probably creating. These chapters are, at times, almost unbearably tense; they are also largely superb. Otto finds herself wandering dazed through the ultimate betrayal, a postapocalyptic Brighton — the aftermath of World War, for her, is marked by silence everywhere, the absence of people — then incarcerated in a prison that may be as much mental as it is real, before temporarily losing her identity entirely: one chapter begins, starkly, “The prisoner had escaped. It could not remember how” (220). Meanwhile, Sandy journeys with Candide to the headquarters of BREAKTHRU; she was not actually present during the angel’s visitation, but is increasingly conscious that the separation between her mind and the world is breaking down. She may be trapped in a version of the story that Otto has created, refracted through her own psyche. In one of the book’s most striking images, while trapped in a motorway traffic jam Sandy looks up to see ” the pale November sun burst into an arc. A multiple arc of white suns spanned the sky. Everyone in all the cars shouted in terror and amazement” (150). Whether this is a literal change in the nature of reality, or simply how Sandy interprets the sunbursts of nuclear war, is unclear; as is, for a long time, whether the war itself is real, or caused by the protagonists thinking it so, or simply happens to coincide with the Kairos event. It seems to be the revolution the characters have been yearning for. It is terrifying. It even succeeds, briefly.

Or perhaps more than briefly. John Clute described the end of the book this way:

But Candide joins forces with Sandy, Otto’s working-class lesbian lover who has suffered both the snubs of her circle and most of the wounds an uncaring state can inflict. Sandy’s apocalyptic bitterness now combines with Candide’s natural abandon to impose a convulsive transmutation upon the shattered land. But kairos, which literally means fullness of time, has also a specifically Christian meaning: the moment of Christ’s appearance. Though Jones wisely refrains from attempting to limn an actual Second Coming, the vision that closes Kairos, of an unpatriarchal world in which it is inconceivable that dogs (and humans) might be tortured, rings backwards through her text like a blessing, and justifies it. (Look at the Evidence, 135; TLS, 6 January 1989).

I’m with him for the first couple of sentences, but although the vision he mentions is in the book I read, it doesn’t close it. This may be what changed between the two editions, because in mine the final chapter of Kairos takes place after the event has ended — after, in fact, it has been made safe to think about, by parcelling it away as some kind of cosmic phenomenon, not a human action at all — in a world which in many ways appears to be going on much as it ever has. Not all: there are echoes of the power that kairos lent its users, and Otto in particular seems to have retained some ability to shape the reality she sees, and in fact worries that “I have to keep imagining things now” (259), lest they end. And some characters who had been dead are restored to life. But although there may be more, as Otto puts it, to the kairos event than “a changing of the guard” (231), there is also less. Sandy’s new job working on road repairs is purely mundane. Torture remains conceivable, although perhaps it might be more effectively resisted; an absence of dialogue has been replaced by “the ever present murmur of the human ocean”.

If it’s a blessing, it’s a fundamentally pragmatic one. I can’t think of many other novels in which the political and science fictional arguments complement each other quite so carefully; nor many from which the science fiction ultimately evaporates so devastatingly. What is left are people. Essays could be written about the way this novel plays with identity, but they would have to note, as Otto ultimately does, the potential for self-defeat in such considerations. “We would rather be slave owners and slaves,” she declares, “than try to live in the real world” (220). And so it seems to me that Kairos ends where it must. More people may have realised that opportune moment — the time of changes – is always right now, but crappy jobs and politics remain. The world remains; and we remain.

On Being A Fan

Dan Hartland writes about reviewing within the sf community, following the comments on his review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:

For those of you unaccustomed to science fiction reviewing, here’s a rule of thumb: reaction to a review will always hone in on the point most applicable to the community that reads science fiction, rather than anything which might relate to science fiction itself. In a way, this is inevitable in a field of criticism largely conducted by enthusiasts, and in a genre so thoroughly sealed off from respectability (national newspapers frequently review crime fiction, but rarely give science fiction more than a passing nod).
Some years ago, Niall Harrison, aforementioned editor of Strange Horizons Reviews who doubles as editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal of record, Vector, interviewed me for a fanzine article he was writing. He asked me whether I self-identified as a ‘fan’. My instinctive response was in the negative: being a fan, I argued, meant putting aside some or all of one’s critical faculties.

A Manchester United fan may gripe about team selection, but he will probably never abandon his team. If you’re going to talk seriously about books, you need to be able to abandon the ones that are bad. Being a fan is like carrying the card of a political party: it asks you to bury your misgivings and stick up for your crowd against the other bullies in the playground.

I rise to this shamless bait because it’s been a while since I talked about reviewing, rather than posting reviews. So: I am a fan.

Martin Lewis has already come close to articulating the first point I’d make in response to Dan, which is that while there are sf books (and authors) I love, I’m not a fan of the books, I’m a fan of the form. Or, more specifically, I’m a fan of the potential of the form. I read a lot of science fiction because I know what science fiction can be, because I know that it can engage me in ways other fiction does not. That doesn’t stop me thinking plenty of sf novels are bad, though it might (okay: does) lead me to disagree with non-fans about the merits of specific books.

Martin also suggests that Dan’s initial rule of thumb is predominantly an artifact of the review format: a given review-reader is unlikely to have read the book under discussion, but may still have an opinion on generalizations expressed in the review. This is undoubtedly true, so far as it goes, and I doubt that talking about the community around fiction instead of the fiction itself is unique to the sf community, but here I think Dan still has a point. I don’t think community standards and traditions are inherently bad things, but if we’re going to fret about the potential for sf to become recursive and overly self-referential (as witness the past few years’ recurring angst about the need for “entry-level sf”), we have to at least be wary of the possibility that sf criticism can go the same way. Which, incidentally, is one reason I ask Dan to write reviews for me.

But I don’t think it follows that community affiliation is itself a bad thing. Without wanting to dive fully into the question of whether or not there are absolute standards of goodness and badness in literature, I find myself sympathetic to the notion that if someone enjoys something, and can explain why, then that something has value. So for me the trick, and the challenge, is to explain why, as a fan of science fiction, I like (and dislike) the science fiction I do. To explore what it means to read from the perspective I read from, and to try to communicate that understanding to other people. (It seems to me this is where Michael Chabon is coming from, for example, however much I might quibble with his results in practice.) Or, to directly respond to the last point of Dan’s I quoted above: what’s so bad about sticking up for your crowd against playground bullies?