Another Reading List

Following on from Jonathan Strahan’s year’s best, here’s Rich Horton’s:

Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2009

Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” (Asimov’s, March)
Daryl Gregory, “Glass” (MIT Technology Review, November/December)
Ted Kosmatka, “The Art of Alchemy” (F&SF, June)
Margo Lanagan, “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross” (Dreaming Again)
Robert Reed, “Character Flu” (F&SF, June)
Rivka Galchen, “The Region of Unlikeness” (The New Yorker, March 17)
James Alan Gardner, “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” (Asimov’s, February)
Will McIntosh, “The Fantasy Jumper” (Black Static, February)
James L. Cambias, “Balancing Accounts” (F&SF, February)
Charlie Anders, “Suicide Drive” (Helix #7, January)
Peter Watts, “The Eyes of God” (The Solaris Book of New SF, Volume 2)
Beth Bernobich, “The Golden Octopus” (Postscripts, Summer)
Jeff VanderMeer, “Fixing Hanover” (Extraordinary Engines)
Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, “Boojum” (Fast Ships, Black Sails)
Paul Cornell, “Catherine Drewe” (Fast Forward 2)
Mary Robinette Kowal, “Evil Robot Monkey” (The Solaris Book of New SF, Volume 2)
Garth Nix, “Infestation” (The Starry Rift)
Ian McDonald, “The Tear” (Galactic Empires)

Fantasy: The Best of the Year, 2009

Kij Johnson, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” (Asimov’s, July)
Naomi Novik, “Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake” (Fast Ships, Black Sails)
Eugene Mirabelli, “Falling Angel” (F&SF, December)
Meghan McCarron, “The Magician’s House” (Strange Horizons, July 14-21)
Karen Heuler, “The Difficulties of Evolution” (Weird Tales, July/August)
Jay Lake, “A Water Matter” (Tor.com)
Liz Williams, “Spiderhorse” (Realms of Fantasy, August)
Alex Jeffers, “Firooz and His Brother” (F&SF, May)
Ann Leckie, “The God of Au” (Helix #8, Spring)
James Maxey, “Silent as Dust” (Intergalactic Medicine Show #7, January)
Erik Amundsen, “Blue Vervain Murder Ballad #2: Jack of Diamonds” (Not One of Us, October)
Delia Sherman, “Gift from a Spring” (Realms of Fantasy, April)
Christopher Golden, “The Hiss of Escaping Air” (PS Publishing)
Peter S. Beagle, “King Pelles the Sure” (Strange Roads)
Alice Sola Kim, “We Love Deena” (Strange Horizons, February 11)
Jeffrey Ford, “Daltharee” (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy)
Patrick Rothfuss, “The Road to Levinshir” (Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy)
Holly Phillips, “The Small Door” (Fantasy, May)
Richard Bowes, “If Angels Fight” (F&SF, February

Let’s see if I can get my sums right this time: 18 stories in the sf book, 44% of which come from genre magazines; 61% of contributors are male, and there are three overlaps with Strahan (Bear, Kosmatka, VanderMeer). 19 stories in the fantasy book, 74% of which come from genre magazines; 53% of contributors are male, and there are four overlaps with Strahan (Bowes, Johnson, McCarron, Phillips). In terms of first publication sources, F&SF currently leads the pack, accounting for 10 different stories across the three books; Asimov’s is the next nearest with 4, while Realms of Fantasy and Fast Ships, Black Sails account for three each. I have to say that, “The Tear” and Rivka Galchen’s story notwithstanding, of these two books on balance the Fantasy volume looks more interesting to me.

A Discussion About The Ant King and Other Stories

The Ant King coverTime for another round-table discussion. On the table this time: Benjamin Rosenbaum‘s debut collection The Ant King and Other Stories, which you can purchase in dead-tree form or download for free here. Around the table: Abigail Nussbaum, Martin Lewis, me, and Dan Hartland. You can read Dan’s review of the collection today at Strange Horizons; other reviews can be found in the Washington Post by Ed Champion and in the Boston Phoenix by Nina MacLaughlin. I kicked things off …

Niall: I picked out “Sense and Sensibility” as a starting point for this discussion because it seems to me the closest Benjamin Rosenbaum comes to having a signature story, in terms of the number of boxes (favourite themes, subjects, techniques) that it ticks. This perhaps means it contains much more than any single story should ever try to contain – or alternatively, is pure ADHD fiction; whatever it is you’re not enjoying about the story will probably stop in a paragraph – and is always threatening to fly apart at the seams. It’s also referential (to Austen, Barth, and whoever it was wrote the original sf story about living on the flanks of an enormously larger creature – I want to say Damon Knight); metafictional; extrapolative of its implications; witty; and silly.

I think silliness is what holds this particular story together, actually. Rosenbaum can get away with a lot through sheer cleverness and technique – for example, his ability to control, and therefore anticipate, his reader’s response is what carries off a lot of the metafictional asides. And he orchestrates the various elements of his story to create thematic parallels and resonances almost too precisely (or at least almost too explicitly). And he seems to have access to an almost inexhaustible well of inventiveness. But the silliness prevents the story from feeling self-indulgent, or coldly controlled – even when it’s silliness that’s reinforcing one of the story’s core themes. I’m sure, for instance, that in a story about the interaction between the “sense” (meaning) of a story and the “sensibility” (reading protocols) of its readers, and given what happens a sentence later, “Miss Dashwood collapsed upon an Ottoman, sobbing” is meant to recall “he turned on his left side” as an example of a sentence whose sense depends on the reader’s sensibility; and that could be horribly po-faced, but is in fact done as a horrible, groan-inducing pun.

There’s so much going on in “Sense and Sensibility” that I can’t help but find the process of reading it exhilarating, and on more than just a purely intellectual level. And that goes for the best of the rest of Rosenbaum’s fiction, too. I think The Ant King is a flawed collection, but the flaws are almost all on the level of the collection, and very rarely on the level of the individual story.

Abigail: It’s precisely Rosenbaum’s expansiveness that has me uncertain about whether I like the story. On the one hand, you can’t help but admire an author who tries to do so much and with such insouciance. On the other hand, the pieces get somewhat lost in the whole. Unsurprisingly, I read this story concentrating on the Austen parody, and there’s a lot of meat there — Regency characters, with period-appropriate attitudes towards sexuality and proper relations between the sexes, whose lives are thrown into disarray precisely because the creature they live on has modern attitudes, of which they are aware. That’s not even to mention the interaction between the Dashwoods’ cool Austen-ish attitude (even Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood) and the more gothic sensibility they encounter once they reach the mouth (which reminded me, perhaps inevitably, of Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus”), and the fact that the story compares the insular world of Austen’s novels with the perhaps similar insularity of fantastic worlds. But in concentrating on that aspect of the story, I can’t help but feel that I’ve ignored others, and perhaps missed out on the whole. It’s not necessarily a flaw — I agree with Niall that the story is exhilarating — but it does make the story hard to discuss.

I was a little meh about the metafictional asides. Though it’s clear that Rosenbaum doesn’t truly expect us to forgive “Sense and Sensibility”’s metafictionality just because he’s hung a lantern on it, I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t trying reverse-reverse psychology — if a writer pointing out his own story’s metafictionality is tired and pretentious, then doing it egregiously cancels out that pretentiousness, and achieves the effect of getting us to swallow the metafictional asides without feeling that we’ve been pressured into it. If that makes even a little bit of sense.

As for your definitions of “sense” and “sensibility” — Hmm. Hmmmmmmm. I mean, it’s probably not significant that this not how Austen uses sense and sensibility, and it’s not that this approach doesn’t make sense. I’m just not sure I see that the story encourages it.

Lastly, I’m not sure what you mean by flawed on the level of the collection. How does that work? I’d call The Ant King uneven — half stories I really liked and half I didn’t have much time for — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t flaws in individual stories.

Niall: I just happen to have spotted Ed Champion’s review, which seems an interesting thing to throw into the mix, and in particular:

But the startling “Red Leather Tassels” atones for the collection’s filler material. The story begins with a captain of industry losing his shoes, continues with the businessman being lifted into the air by a flock of pigeons, and concludes with an adulterous affair between the robber baron’s wife and a woodpecker. It’s a testament to Rosenbaum’s talent that such an unusual premise offers an unexpectedly touching conclusion.

Now, “Red Leather Tassels” wouldn’t be in my top ten from the stories in the collection. Is it just the sort of collection where everyone’s going to have a different favourite? I’m imagining some kind of online test … WHAT YOUR FAVOURITE ROSENBAUM STORY SAYS ABOUT YOU!

Martin: I started re-reading “Sense And Sensibility” in order to comment on this and I was suprised at how quickly I ran out of steam (even given that I wasn’t very keen on it the first time.) When I got to the third paragraph I wished it was all over:

Though gifted with an insightfulness and candor suitable to a matron of advancing years and declining income, Mrs. Dashwood was generous, sympathetic, impatient, irregular, bashful, imaginative, dramatic, modest, fanciful, clandestine, opportunistic, prudent, celebratory, prurient, madcap, ostentatious, retiring, whimsical, and toothsome, qualities that her marriage and its subsequent devolvement into tragic farce (joined to the propriety and calmness of her instincts) had rendered sadly irrelevant.

This is just waffle — replace half the adjectives with entirely different ones and the sentence remains the same. The only thing that gives it the illusion of meaning is the fact that the prose style parodies Austen, so because Austen’s convoluted sentences made sense you are tricked into thinking Rosenbaum’s do. And you only need to read this paragraph once, not have it seemingly endlessly repeated. If the silliness is meant to be a refuge for the reader then it is too uniform to actually be leavening and ends being extremely tiresome.

Then another three paragraphs later we get the first straight-to-reader bit and I completely hit a brick wall. I like Abigail’s description of this as being reverse-reverse-psychology.

I didn’t finish my re-reading of the story. I did skip to the final page, was reminded of the further meta-fictional “look at me”s and the arch closing sentence and felt glad I hadn’t. Most of the time Rosenbaum could have probably programmed a computer to write it for him, in a similar manner to that automatic cultural theory generator. (Although admittedly he would have to have gone back over it to insert the diabolical puns.)

Dan: Martin is exactly right. Niall argues that Rosenbaum’s flightiness is his great strength, that because you know the next page will have something entirely new for you, it doesn’t matter if the current page is rubbish. This is such nonsense that it barely requires noting: I do not enjoy my half hour of The World’s Worst Doctors because I hope the next half hour of Eastenders will be better. Rosenbaum’s key weakness is his absolute inability to find a theme or story and stick to it. Again, the paragraph from “Sense and Sensibility” which Martin quotes is an obvious example of a total insistence on form over content, on tricking the reader into thinking what they’re reading is clever when in fact it is simply marking time until the next sleight of hand. Abigail’s point that Rosenbaum’s ubermetafictionality is a ploy to short-circuit his pretentiousness gets to the heart of his hollow trickery: he isn’t clever, merely big.

In this way, Ed Champion’s appreciation for “Red Leather Tassels” is actually understandable. It does manage simultaneously to pop with ideas but also hang together as a story. Its turns are at right angles, for sure, but they are not, I think entirely unconnected. Likewise, though “The Ant King” is hardly Saki, it does succeed in allying Rosenbaum’s love of the vignette with a theme strong enough to carry the required weight.

One of the strongest stories in the collection, for my money, is “Start The Clock“. Like the others, it doesn’t rewrite its chosen mode, but its profusion of images is carried along by a happily disjointed narrative and a point or two which manage to hit home. On the other hand, a story like “Biographical Notes” teems with concepts and episodes, but grows quickly tiresome in its failure to cohere. What it thinks is Boy’s Own lurching from incident to incident is in fact merely the sign of an author having more fun than his reader. And, again, Rosenbaum relies on the pastiche style to wink his way out of things. Surely this isn’t enough?

Niall: Given my lack of appreciation of Austen, I didn’t pick up on half of what Abigail did about the referentiality of “Sense and Sensibility” in that direction (though I assumed it was there). But I’m pretty confident that the story does indeed encourage other interpretations of its title, and specifically the one about genre protocols that I suggested. I’d say it’s one of the big things the metafictional asides are doing, actually. The very first time the narrator addresses us directly, it (he?) talks about whether the story is doing what we expect of it, speculating on our readerly sensibility: “Perhaps the quasiplastic penumbrarium has piqued your interest”, and so forth (which, of course, in my case, it had). And there’s a lot about people saying what they mean, or not, which brings out the “sense” of the story – the puns, of course, but also the conversation which is “conducted entirely in impenetrable euphemism”, for which the subtext is transcribed, or when Miss Dashwood speaks a ridiculously convoluted sentence and Mrs Dashwood takes “a necessary pause to reflect upon her daughter’s syntax”. If you like, the story marries Austen’s fascination with social protocols with a fascination with reading protocols.

I’m confused by Martin’s criticism of that list as waffle. Of course it’s waffle: that’s the punchline of the paragraph, that this extravagant list of qualities is “sadly irrelevant”. Similarly, Dan’s comparison to TV is misleading; on the one hand because a lot of people regularly invest time in series television on the understanding that the quality of individual episodes will vary, and on the other because spending half a minute reading a page of prose is hardly a comparable investment to spending half an hour watching World’s Worst Doctors. I don’t feel “tricked” by the paragraph Martin quoted; I feel amused to a level not disproportionate with the time it takes me to read it. Similarly with my disappointment when it’s a paragraph I think doesn’t work.

Looking at Dan’s other criticisms, it strikes me that we are looking for entirely different rewards from Rosenbaum’s stories. “Red Leather Tassels” does indeed hang together as a story, but for me that is all it does; it did not particularly inspire or amuse or impress. “The Ant King” feels somewhat second-hand — I’ve said before that I find the combination of pop culture and deadpan tone feels too in thrall to Kelly Link – whereas I can’t see anything tiresome about “Biographical Notes”. I’ve read it four times now, and each time it has seemed both coherent and fun; or rather, I think it’s clear that any “failure to cohere” is entirely deliberate, since the story is an extended argument with the way we construct narratives around events. I fail to see what is hollow about that.

The furthest I can go towards agreeing with Dan is to say that it is almost impossible to make general statements about Rosenbaum-the-writer on the basis of this collection, except to say that he likes to play. But so what? The fact that we can’t agree on which experiments work and which don’t hardly seems an adequate criticism of his drive to experiment. And there are plenty of other writers who demonstrate a similar fickleness – David Mitchell comes to mind.

I do think there’s an argument to be made that the way the stories in The Ant King are sequenced doesn’t prepare you adequately for what follows, which is what I meant by the book having collection-level flaws; “The Ant King” strikes me as too tame to make a good opener, and liable to cause disappointment if it becomes the standard against which the rest of the collection is compared (I, at least, have a tendency to take opening stories as in some way being statements of intent). Were I introducing someone to Rosenbaum, I would probably tell them to read “Biographical Notes” first, and “Other Cities” last, since they seem to me a much better pair of bookends for the range of what his stories attempt.

Martin: Niall, If that is your idea of a punchline it is no wonder we have different opinions of the story. Rosenbaum is doodling here — there is clearly no coherent Mrs Dashwood in his mind that he is trying to accurately describe — which is “Sense & Sensibility” in microcosm. It seems we are all agreed on this. You will only put up with this sort of thing if the pay off is worth it and from where I’m sitting “Sense and Sensibility” has no punchline. There is a reason most jokes don’t start “Did you hear the one about the reading protocols?”

I think you are too harsh on “The Ant King” because I don’t think it has a overpoweringly specific debt to Link. It is more of collision between the new wave fabulist school in general and gonzo-tech Doctorow/Stross axis. Obviously this is a terrible idea, but the story doesn’t fail because it is a poor imitation of Link, it is much more individual than that. Besides, you say the mix of pop culture and deadpan prose is inherently Linkian but she dials the pop culture stuff way down low and Rosenbaum’s prose here is not what I would call deadpan, it is too glib, you can see his mouth turning up at the corners. There is a connection between the two but it isn’t as strong as you make out (and it doesn’t overdetermine how I view the rest of the book).

I like “Red Leather Tassels” because its silliness is not inordinately overextended like “Sense and Sensibilty”, nor is it too pleased with itself like “The Ant King”. Like Champion I think it makes a welcome contrast to the aimlessness on display elsewhere in the collection.

Finally:

One of the strongest stories in the collection, for my money, is “Start The Clock”.

Dan Hartland in preference for conventional SF shock!

Abigail: It seems to me that, when it comes to “Sense and Sensibility,” Martin and Dan are assuming that the story’s ADD-esque flitting from subject to subject, style to style, and excessive game-playing, are all that it amounts to, whereas Niall and I are trying to find some unifying theme or point. I’m not saying that we’re right and you guys are wrong — it’s probably telling that we’ve each come up with a different interpretation which is rooted in topics we found interesting before reading the story — but I do think the story achieves the effect of suggesting that such a unifying element exists, which I find compelling in itself even if this suggestion is false (Donnie Darko and Magnolia both get a lot mileage out of this suggestion of a greater meaning). Not to drag us back into the question of whether Rosenbaum’s writing is Link-ian, but I kept thinking of “Magic for Beginners” when I read “Sense and Sensibility.” On the one hand, this is an unfortunate comparison, because Link’s story is a great deal better than Rosenbaum’s, but I do think that “Sense and Sensibility” comes close to doing what “Magic for Beginners” does, which is to create, from disparate, ill-matching, and nonsensical pieces, a whole that is, though not coherent, at least cohesive.

Dan, on waffling, said:

Again, the paragraph from Sense and Sensibility which Martin quotes is an obvious example of the writer’s total insistence on form over content, on tricking the reader into thinking what they’re reading is clever when in fact it is simply marking time until the next sleight of hand. Abigail’s point that Rosenbaum’s ubermetafictionality is a ploy to short-circuit his pretentiousness gets to the heart of his hollow trickery: he isn’t clever, merely big.

And now to contradict myself: though the ubermetafictionality (love this word) left me cold, in general I don’t think that “not clever, just big” is necessarily an indictment of a writer. A brazen author can sometimes get away with far greater flaws than a more competent but also more timid author might, simply by virtue of having the balls to go completely off the deep end. “Sense and Sensibility” does this. So does “Biographical Notes,” which holds on to the courage of its convictions all the way to its end. Stories like “Red Leather Tassels” or “The Ant King,” meanwhile, are perhaps more technically accomplished and coherent, but in terms of theme I didn’t find them any more resonant than it was, and so the relative modesty of their surrealism becomes their undoing.

Or, to put it another way: why I liked The Book of All Hours and you didn’t.

Since Dan’s mentioned “Start the Clock,” shall we talk about the SF/F divide in the book? It seems to me that the SFnal stories in The Ant King are a great deal more conventional (for a certain value of the word) than the fantastic, surrealistic, or parodic stuff (with the possible exception of “A Siege of Cranes” which was written for a traditionally-oriented anthology). “Start the Clock” is at the far end of the scale from “Sense and Sensibility,” but “Embracing-the-New,” “The House Beyond Your Sky” and even “Biographical Notes” are a hell of lot more grounded than stories like “The Ant King” and “Other Cities.”

Dan: When Martin says that “Red Leather Tassels” is coherent enough and short enough not to tire, he is not I think getting at what Abigail suggests is his (and my own) position: it’s not so much that Rosenbaum is only about the metafictional gameplaying; it is that the ends to which he uses that technique are not sufficiently weighty. I’m surprised, too, that Abigail thinks the “Sense and Sensibility” convinces that there may be a unifying theme beneath its surface, since I agree with Martin that it is patently obvious that Rosenbaum has no coherent purpose in the story beyond the metafictional. And from my perspective, if the only unifier exists above the level of the text, then no amount of cleverness can pull a story together. (Indeed, if Donnie Darko is a touchstone on this matter, I rest my case.)

This is what I think makes Rosenbaum’s flightier stories ultimately hollow. Niall suggests that the failure to cohere is deliberate, and that therefore there is no hollowness. But, again as Martin points out, if the pay-off isn’t enough then the reader will still find that deliberateness tiresome. A deliberately incoherent story is still incoherent, regardless of the meta piled on top of it, as if to apply downward pressure on the text itself. The illusion that the vignettes stick together is thus artfully created, but it remains a trick rather than the real thing. In this sense, Niall is right about one thing: that Rosenbaum is indeed merely all about the playfulness. There’s nothing else of any weight to him.

Abigail boils all this down: if the reader is willing to prise ambition over craft then they will like Rosenbaum; if they are not, they won’t. I don’t see the different between an incoherent story and a coherent story with similar thematic resonance, except that one is coherent and the other isn’t. If you’re interested, as Niall is, in generic reading protocols, then perhaps there is something in incoherent metatextuality to get your juices flowing. But otherwise you have a choice between two stories with not half as much thematic insight as they’d like to have, but one that has a plot where the other doesn’t.

The only line I’m willing to throw Rosenbaum is one labeled “dissolution”. Time and again in his stories, the old encounters something different, destroys itself to assimilate it, and creates the new. The flux and confusion in his stories mirror that of his worlds. Rosenbaum is perhaps interested less in the coherency of his stories than he is in the incoherency of existence. Whether or not this excuses his failings is obviously down to individual taste!

Niall: There are a whole pile of things in Dan’s last email that I’d be inclined to press a bit further on. Rosenbaum’s use of metafiction is “not sufficiently weighty”? I disagree with that on general principle; if we start down the road of only assigning worth to those fictions which deal in Serious Topics, we’re going to exclude a lot of very good and enjoyable and admirable fiction from the ranks of the worthy. And to suggest that certain techniques are only allowed if they are counterbalanced by a seriousness of topic is patently ridiculous. “The House Beyond Your Sky” is not a good story with metafictional elements because it portrays abuse, it’s a good story because the metafictional elements and the elements of abuse are handled well. Similarly, Dan talks of Rosenbaum’s stories being “tricks” rather than the “real thing”: what, exactly, is the “real thing” when we’re talking about a short story? A deliberately incoherent story may encourage us to find enjoyment in incoherence.

I second Abigail’s discussion that we shift the topic somewhat, to consider the more traditionally science fiction and fantasy stories; I think perhaps another way of parsing her descriptions of them as “conventional” and “grounded” is to say that they do not trade in the same incoherence that “Sense and Sensibility” does. To continue talking about “The House Beyond Your Sky”, which I think is one of the best stories in the collection, one of the things that sets it apart for me is that I find it very hard to reduce, to summarize in any way that doesn’t do damage. It strikes me as the epitome of coherence, in fact, every element reinforcing every other; the shifts in this one between abstraction and personal detail feel seamless, as do the juxtaposition of radically different kinds of detail (“sodium and potassium” vs. “button nose”, for instance.) It’s a textbook example of finding a sense of wonder in the small.

Of the others Abigail mentioned, I find “A Siege of Cranes” relatively unsatisfying precisely because, as she hints, it retains elements of unconventionality. Something I didn’t realise the first time I read it is how well it sits in a tradition of Moorcockian epic fantasy, with the compression of events into a short story frame … except that the humour Rosenbaum uses continually breaks the immersive aspects of the story, in a way that for once doesn’t feel intentional. “Embracing-the-New” seems to me interesting as a story that can be read either as sf or as immersive fantasy (it reminds me somewhat of Tiptree’s “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” mashed up with Stross’s “Tourist“), and because I think it generates quite a substantial emotional weight in relatively few pages. And I’m intrigued that Dan listed “Start the Clock” as one of the strongest stories, and would like to know why; not that I don’t think it’s good, but it struck me as more of an outline for a story than a full story – in contrast to, say, “Falling”, which packs an incredible amount into its two pages.

I’ll end with a question: do Martin and Dan think it is even possible to reconcile the breadth of references that Rosenbaum attempts to reconcile throughout this collection? Do your objections boil down to thinking he should just pick a style and work in it?

Dan: I think Niall’s banging the wrong drum here. It’s not that Rosenbaum’s use of metafiction isn’t weighty, it’s that the stories onto which he bolts his meta simply aren’t strong enough in the first place. My argument simply is that, however well executed this particular technique is, its explicit status above the story renders it particularly susceptible to being left high and dry by a weak story. In this way, it’s not that metafiction is “non-serious”; it’s not even that the stories are non-serious, though in trying to add substance to themselves through metafictional trickery they certainly hold themselves open to accusations of bald pastiche; it’s that, even as non-serious stories, they don’t quite work. And no amount of oh-so-arch metafiction can rescue them from that.

Niall’s right in saying that a great story can very easily be a light and fun story. Rosebaum’s are neither, regardless of his cleverness. I’m only interested in the meta if I’m interested in the fiction. It’s been suggested that the fictions in this collection are deliberately incoherent; so it may be. But deliberate inocherence is a coherence of a stripe. In don’t detect much in terms of even that in Rosenbaum — his is a scattergun approach to the short story, and inevitably each of his attempts at the art miss as much as they hit.

Abigail: OK, but this seems to be starting from the assumption that metafiction is solely a technique, a means to an end rather than an end in its own right. I don’t disagree when you say that some of the stories in The Ant King are weak and substanceless — though I’d count “Red Leather Tassels” in that group — but in the case of a story like “Sense and Sensibility,” and despite the fact that I found the metafictional asides manipulative, I thought the less obvious metafictional aspects of the story actually added substance to it and helped knit together a fractured plot.

Dan: In one sense, Niall and I do agree: “The House Beyond Your Sky” is one of the very strongest stories in the collection, not because it is Serious or Grounded, but because it is a finished, rounded artifact, very much its own thing and irreducible. Sadly, elsewhere Rosenbaum too often falls back on distractions, sleights of hand and tipped winks. I’m not sure this means SF is Rosenbaum’s strength — merely that it may impose upon him an external discipline. He’d be a fine writer if he could find his own internal discipline to match: not so much pick a style to stick with, as draw in his many influences more tightly.

Martin: I’m confused by Niall’s use of the word “reconcile”. I’m not sure Rosenbaum attempts to reconcile his grab bag of stories in way I am familiar with, and the fact that he doesn’t makes no difference to me. I don’t dislike the collection because it isn’t cohesive — I admire it for this. I just happen to dislike one particular recurring part of it, his laboured postmodern schtick.

Moving on to the “straight” stories. They don’t put me off but they don’t particularly entice me either. “Start The Clock” is the Stross/Doctorow half of “The Ant King” that I refered to before. Heartland stuff. I liked “Embracing-the-New” without ever getting excited about it but I’m not sure what is interesting about the fact that it can be read as either SF or fantasy. This is true of a large class of stories, what we might call the indistinguishable from magic set, and it makes no difference. Multiple valid readings are only interesting when they allow you to read the same story in different ways whereas whether it is SF or fantasy you still read the story in the same way.

I recently read “Bright Morning” by Jeffrey Ford which I thought made an interesting contrast with “Biographical Notes”. (Even the comparison between the two titles is slightly illustrative.) Ford’s story also features a character with his own name as well as a narrator who is also (to some extent) him, but it is carried off with a grace that makes Rosenbaum’s story seem crude. When Dan talked about prising ambition over craft, here is a story that shows you can have both.

I don’t especially prize ambition on its own. I don’t want to have to read The Book Of All Hours again. It is true that control isn’t everything — there is more than one way to skin a cat and sometimes it nice to read something completely off the wall — but I do think The Ant King is a collection that is often lacking restraint in the worst possible way. The exception is the one story we seem to be agreed on, “The House Beyond Your Sky”, which I liked a great deal for the same reasons that Niall outlines. Along with “Red Leather Tassels” it is one of the few times Rosenbaum strikes the right balance and shows what a good writer he is.

Niall: I’m taking Dan’s answer as a “yes”. I think.

Martin, I think the argument I’d put forward for “Biographical Notes” being of equal worth to “Bright Morning” (which I do like) is that they’re trying to do different things. Ford’s story is primarily about that confusion of narrative identity – that’s the main interest. In Rosenbaum’s story the confusion of identity is worth a few gags, but it’s mainly a starting point for an attempt to explore (and re-invigorate) a classic genre story form, the pulp adventure.

And with that … I think we’re done. It’s nice to end by agreeing about one story, at least!

Chinese Futures

The Del Rey Book of SF and Fantasy coverGiven how astonishing China’s story over the past twenty-five years has been, and the implications that story would seem to have for both China and the rest of the world, it’s perhaps slightly surprising that there is relatively little sf that deals with that country’s future in any depth. On of the best-known examples, of course, is Maureen F. McHugh’s generous China Mountain Zhang (1992), set in a twenty-second century in which Communist China is the dominant superpower. But the future looks different now than it did then, so I had a certain amount of expectation for McHugh’s “Special Economics”, published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy earlier this year. Also set in China, but rather closer to now, the story’s major speculative conceit is that a quarter of a billion people have been killed by a bird flu plague. Against that background, it tells the story of 19-year-old Jieling, who has moved from her home in Northern China to Shenzen in the South in search of a job. My expectations were more or less met: it’s a good story, perhaps a little undercut by the ease with which Jieling manages to do the sf-protagonist thing of pulling the levers of the world, but good nonetheless. One of the things that’s good about it, I think, is the deftness of its construction, which allows Jieling’s life to quietly illuminate her country.

China Shakes the World coverIn that sense, plague notwithstanding, Jieling could almost have walked out of the country drawn in James Kynge’s 2006 book, China Shakes the World: the Rise of a Hungry Nation. Kynge, who spent over two decades as a journalist in Asia for Reuters and the Financial Times, is interested in the past two or three decades, the forces that during that time have driven China’s economic and political rise, how China relates to the rest of the world, and how that may change in the near-ish future. In China Shakes the World, a broad range of facts and figures — as you’d expect, staggering comparisons are commonplace, such as the fact that between 1998 and 2004 Chongqing grew by more than the size of two Birminghams, eight times faster than Chicago’s nineteenth-century peak of growth — are orchestrated into a series of narratives, case studies that illustrate particular aspects of his argument. Some are set in China — the story of Liu Chuanzhu, founder of Legend computers and recent purchaser of IBM, is one compelling example. Jieling could be one of these: another one of China’s millions of poorly-treated, economically essential internal migrants. Some of the case studies, meanwhile, range as widely as a UK private school, a small town in Ohio, or a textile town in Italy (the sort of migrant factory seen in the recent, and superlative, film Gomorrah); perhaps most striking is the book’s opening chapter, which describes the infamous wholesale relocation of a steel plant from the Ruhr to China. But it’s the movement between the specific and the general that gives the book its distinctive and welcome fluidity.

Broadly speaking, the first half of China Shakes the World is concerned with establishing the narrative of the past; the second, with speculating about the narrative of the future. Kynge argues that China’s recent development is actually something historically new. This he puts down not just to the sheer speed of the transformation, what he describes as “the compression of developmental time” that puts skyscrapers next to huts, though that is of course daunting. It’s China’s most obvious characteristic — its size — which is, for Kynge, ultimately telling. Crucially, it enables China to simultaneously possess the characteristics of multiple countries: it has a vast workforce prepared to work for preindustrial wages and yet it also has a highly educated workforce skilled with modern technology; the result is immense productivity, but also, per the book’s subtitle, powerful hunger. Kynge’s argument that “Chinese history is very much less the story of multiplication than of long division” (48) rings true, with a tension between the number of mouths and the amount of food available to feed them having been replaced by a related-but-different tension between the number of people, and the number of jobs available to occupy them. One of the reasons Kynge’s choice of case studies ranges so wide is to demonstrate how that hunger can reach out around the world.

Kynge also describes the shape of China’s economy, and its inherently unstable aspects. Although it’s no longer accurate to describe the economy as “communist”, government policies have the effect of ensuring that almost all manufactured products are in chronic oversupply, with the result that where other nations’ companies export to expand their success, China’s companies export simply to stay afloat. One of Kynge’s contacts in China explains that the central principle of the Chinese economy is that, “when reform is too fast there is chaos. When reform is too slow there is stagnation” (178) – i.e. that although the power and legitimacy of the Communist Party springs from continued growth and total control, maintaining both is nigh-impossible; one must be sacrificed to achieve the other. The extent to which China’s internal development has been unplanned was also new to me: in Kynge’s analysis, Deng Xiaoping is notable as much for being disobeyed as for being an architect of economic reform; he gave local governments and businesses an inch, and they took a mile, which has ultimately led to the promise we’re now confronted with nearly every week, of China’s economic dominance in the century to come.

But it may not happen. Kynge gives four reasons why. The first is the environment. Kynge describes conservation as a “blind spot” for Chinese authorities, pointing to systemic failures of policy which cause immense damage, and suggests that if China’s “Green GDP” – the cost of dealing with the damage that has been done – is factored into estimates then growth has actually been more or less flat over the period of China’s miracle, rather than at 10% or more. Second, there is endemic corruption throughout the Chinese state; Kynge argues that most analyses of China’s economic potential do not take account of its underground economy, not just in its direct monetary value — which may be up to a third of the value of the mainstream economy — but in the effect it has on the value of China’s brand. He cites numerous examples of Chinese companies increasing their value by acquiring Western brands (such as Liu Chuanzhu’s takeover of IBM), rather than by exporting their own brands. Third, Kynge suggests that the “overriding contradiction” of China is simply that a communist state cannot manage a capitalist economy appropriately, leading to accumulating hidden costs, primarily in the form of bad debts and deferred insolvencies. And finally, he points to the consequences of the rest of the world’s attitude to China in recent years, speculating that Western hunger for access to Chinese markets may not, in fact, be limitless, and that Western societies could descend into resentful protectionism (because the benefits that trade with China brings are less visible than the job losses it causes). We may, in other words, yet prevent China from rising. There is, of course, the obligatory suggestion that now, when this book is being written and published, is the crucial moment (Kynge actually pinpoints the Rubicon-crossing in 2004), about which I am sceptical; but in general this is an engaging, thoughtful analysis.

As I said earlier, Jieling’s narrative has the sort of solidity found in Kynge’s case studies, and many of the factors shaping her life are factors he describes; the plague has perhaps intensified some, but it has not been transformative. In the intervention of a somewhat hapless government agent towards the end of the story, for example, “Special Economics” gestures towards the idea that Beijing’s power is ebbing, that a communist government inevitably cannot fully control a capitalist state. Moreover, although Jieling finds a job with relative ease, despite her migrant status – she is hired by a biotech company to do basic work that is “pleasantly scientific without being very difficult” (150), and serves as both macguffin and metaphor — there is a nasty catch, which is that employees at New Life (the ironically-named company) sign away their basic rights and become slaves. Among other things, living expenses, food, and uniforms are all deducted from their wages – and there are further performance-related deductions. One of the driving forces behind this is a desperate need for New Life to remain competitive in foreign markets; but the human result is that Jieling is heavily in debt by the time she receives her first pay cheque. Faced with near-impossible odds of ever paying off their rapidly accruing debt, some of Jieling’s colleagues have surrendered themselves to the company – after all, they reason, it’s not such a bad life – but Jieling, with Heinleinian resourcefulness, of course Finds A Way to pay off her debt, by dancing in the “plague-trash markets” where the possessions of bird flu victims are sold on. None of this is to disown the story’s more straightforward humanity; just to say it is not the only thing that drives it.

UFO in Her Eyes coverI could provide a similar analysis of UFO in Her Eyes, despite its garish-seeming title. The starting point for Xiaolu Guo’s fourth novel to be published in English is an event that took place in Silver Hill village on the twentieth day of the seventh moon of 2012 (as the local calendar has it). Standing in a rice field, a friendless, unmarried peasant woman named Kwok Yun saw a big silver plate in the sky, heard a strange noise, and felt a force from above tugging at her. When the moment passed, she found a foreigner – a Westerner – lying nearby, sunburned and with a wound in his leg. For fear of damaging relations between China and other nations if she does nothing, with the help of some children she takes him to her home and dresses the wound, then goes to collect some healing herbs. When she returns, however, he has vanished. After some thought, Yun realises she needs to report the incident to Chang Lee, the village chief (unfazed by, and in all honesty not entirely understanding of, the potential for first contact; she is more concerned with where dinner is coming from). Chang passes the news on up the chain; and in September, two government agents arrive in Silver Hill to investigate.

UFO in Her Eyes is the story of that investigation and what follows. It is presented, as were A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, as a series of documents: in this case, primarily transcripts of interviews conducted by the two agents, but also emails they send to and receive from their superiors, maps drawn by Chief Chang, lists of local vendors, minutes of village meetings, and other odds and ends. This makes for an appealingly magpie-ish book, as interested in assembling a collage portrait of Silver Hill from individual stories and details – the first time, I think, that Guo has used multiple first-person narrators, and she handles them pretty well – as it is concerned with establishing any one character, or the facts of the incident described above. Although UFO in Her Eyes has its own epigraphs (from Ban Gu and Milan Kundera), to return to McHugh for a moment, it strikes me as a novel that could have been written around the epigraph which China Mountain Zhang takes from Camus: “A simple way to get to know about a town is to see how the people work, how they love and how they die.”

And Silver Hill is an emblematic place indeed. It is located, as several villagers proudly note, less than fifteen kilometres from the birthplace of Chairman Mao; as a result it was gifted with generous amounts of farm equipment — eight tractors and ten manure spreaders. But that was fifty years ago, and since Mao’s death the village seems to have dropped off the government radar. “Once we were revolutionary and progressive,” Chief Chang notes, in a careless moment of honesty, “now we are slow and backward” (7). Every trend seems to be moving against the villagers. The young think that “any big city is better than Silver Hill” (17) and leave; the youngest person interviewed by the government agents is Yun, aged 37. (Jieling, we can imagine, came from a village like Silver Hill. For her, country is axiomatically bad and city is axiomatically good; her friend’s plans to go home and get married when she pays off her debt “seemed very country”) And each year, creeping desertification makes it harder for those who remain to draw a living from the land. No wonder the villagers constantly refer to their past; no wonder many of them cite an old proverb to the effect that people must be prepared to “eat bitterness”.

In his report into the UFO incident, the lead agent – BJ1919; in one of the novel’s faintly absurd touches he, like his counterpart, HN1989, is never given a full name, although you can translate the two as “bad cop” and “good cop”, respectively, with the clichés those labels imply – provides a cautiously paranoid assessment. In the absence of a clear explanation, all nearby aerial activity should be monitored; Kwok Yun should be visited regularly; Chief Chang’s leadership should be more closely scrutinised; and, if possible, the identity of the foreigner should be determined. The last of these proves surprisingly easy – early the following year, the village receives a letter from Michael Carter, claiming to be the rescued man, thanking Yun for her kindness (he remembers her for her sloganed t-shirt: “Is This The Future?”), and offering a check for $2000 “in the hope that it will help fund your village school and any children in need” (82). Inspired, Chief Chang awards Yun a “model peasant” medal, and declares that

“For the last thirty years,” Chief Chang said, raising her hand to show everyone she was going to make an important speech, “the people of Silver Hill have eaten enough bitterness to last us to eternity! And because we are poor and uneducated, we have been unaware of what has been going on in the rest of our country, let alone in the world! Well, I can tell you that, recently, China has changed beyond recognition. Silver Hill is running far behind. It is time for us to do something!” (88)

I would be surprised if, on reading passages like this, I’m the only person reminded of Geoff Ryman’s Air (2004). That novel is not set in China, but Silver Hill and Kizuldah are the same kind of place, and Chief Chang seems cut from the same cloth as Ryman’s Chung Mae – a middle-aged woman determined to pull her village up by its bootstraps. Subsequent to the speech above, we find that as a result of Chang’s lobbying the government has awarded two million yuan to Silver Hill to make it “one of China’s ‘up to speed’ villages”, to which end a Five Year Plan has been prepared which entails investment in such things as infrastructure, a “future technology hub”, service industries, entertainment provision, and housing – and developing tourism as the village’s major growth industry, based on Yun’s “significant contribution to science” (108). The next batch of reports are transcripts of interviews carried out by Hunan Finance Officer 8 (again, no name) to document the villagers’ reactions to this incipient economic miracle, which are about as mixed as you might expect.

If Guo’s novel also has a certain amount of stylistic similarity to Ryman’s – in prose that aspires to a sort of unjudgemental innocence about its characters, in its portrayal of a living small community, in its themes of the impact of globalisation and development – it is, ultimately, rather different in temperament. Air is not uncritically optimistic, but it is, at heart, optimistic – luminously so; it is one of the book’s virtues – and, particularly in its later stages, evinces a fable-like conviction in the story being told. UFO In Her Eyes, by contrast, is a far more sceptical work. The urbanisation of Silver Hill (the characters describe it as modernisation) becomes a goal unto itself, a pursuit of something they should be whether or not it’s something they want to be, and irrespective of its worth to the village’s inhabitants. In many cases, that worth is “not much” – there are interviews with the fisherman whose pond will be destroyed, the rice farmer whose field will be replaced with a UFO memorial and restaurant, the noodle seller whose stall will be forced out of business. These are men who know no other life, who in some cases are unable to live any other life – who struggle with the transition from their “proper peasant calendar” to an “impossible city people’s Western thing” (35), who may be scarred by previous Chinese attempts at modernisation. Even when they can adapt, they may be prevented from doing so by bureaucracy or circumstance. Much is lost in the rush to progress.

Of course, Silver Hill is not a unique creation. The speed and ferocity of China’s urban boom is well documented, as are the development policies which drive it, not least by books like Kynge’s. And in sfnal terms, UFO in Her Eyes is lower-key than any of the other works I’ve mentioned here, even “Special Economics”; even in the background of Guo’s story there are no grand events, and there’s certainly no innovation as transformative as Air. Yun’s sighting remains enigmatic to the end – the UFO is never seen again – and, at least at first glance, appears to be important more for its catalytic effect on the local economy than anything else. So there is an extent to which UFO in Her Eyes could be characterised as sf in trappings only. Seeking to portray the normal life of the future is one thing – an admirable thing – and understatement is appealing, but merely placing an existing normal life in the future could be said to lack a certain vigour.

I think Guo is cannier than that, though. I don’t think it’s a stretch, in fact, to suggest that Yun’s t-shirt hangs a lantern on this very issue. To say that the book demands to be read as an exploration of that question – Is this the future? – might be taking it too far, and would in any case sound awfully ponderous for a book with as light a touch as Guo’s usually has, but the resonances that the book’s sfnal trappings raise are significant. There may or may not be any actual aliens in the story (I think there may in fact be one, hidden in the interstices of other people’s stories), but there is no shortage of alienation, from the nameless government officials, and Yun’s initial position as an outsider, to the connotations of foreigner-as-alien and how they reflect on Chang’s desire to get Silver Hill to engage with the outside world, and the silent but increasing number of deprived migrants who arrive in Silver Hill seeking the new jobs that development creates.

There are moments of bureaucratic absurdity, and moments when the remote fumbles of government have all too real consequences. The society presented is one in which “peasant” is a political designation, where by habit much is censored, or simply not reported. (“Disaster belongs to the West” [154], Chang cynically notes, in another unguarded moment.) If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover in a slim book (it is only a shade over 200 pages) then, well, it is. Guo is not a writer who paints her panoramas with detail; rather, she suggests much with a few strokes of the pen, and provokes much in the reader. The bulk of UFO in Her Eyes has a documentary coolness and sweep, which is occasionally counterpointed by vivid close-ups. Much that is troubling hides behind the carefully correct official answers, through reference to the past or gesture to the future; along with just enough sweetness to make eating the bitterness bearable, even as the first smog clouds the sky above Silver Hill.

Speaking To The Mysterious Fears Of Our Nature

Earlier in the autumn, the Bodleian Library hosted a one day event to mark the publication of The Original Frankenstein:

… a ground-breaking new edition of the first and most popular work of science fiction, allowing Mary Shelley’s pure authorial voice to be heard for the first time since 1817, when the book was initially written. The Bodleian publication uses the unique handwritten draft of 1816-17, held at the Library, to distinguish Mary’s own words from the additions written in by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I didn’t manage to make it to the event, but thanks to Vulpes Libris I (and you) can now read Brian Aldiss’ closing speech:

A teenager! She was a teenager, you know?! Not the sort of female teenager today’s newspapers would have us believe in. Mary came from a civilized — a crowded but civilized — home. Literature, science and politics were regularly discussed there; Coleridge read his poetry there. (To see and to hear Samuel Taylor belting out ‘The Ancient Mariner’ might not have been to everyone’s taste — a bit like early Dr Who — but it is something to have a living poet rampant in the parlour, even if aided and abetted, I might say, by ‘a substance’ …) Anyway, Mary would have been aware that new things had developed and that the world was opening up, in the same way that we’re aware now that we’re closing down the shop — victims of our own cult of greed.

(There’s more substantive stuff about Shelley’s writing and significance, too.)

Lessing and Reviews

The new issue of Vector should be dropping through letterboxes right about now. It looks like this:

And contains the following:

Torque Control — editorial
Letters — from Nic Clarke, Lindsay Jackson and James Bacon
The BSFA Awards — call for nominations by Donna Scott
Doris Lessing and SF — by Adam Roberts
… And The Law Won — by Jonathan McCalmont
On the ‘Art’ of Reviewing — by Frank Ludlow
First Impressions — reviews, edited by Kari Sperring
Particles — books received, compiled by Kari Sperring
Transmission Interrupted: Midnight at the Lost and Found — a TV column by Saxon Bullock
Foundation’s Favourites: Vector 1 — by Andy Sawyer
Resonances — by Stephen Baxter
The New X: Photocopying the Navel of Augustus Caesar — by Graham Sleight

There’s already been a bit of discussion about the issue on the BSFA forum; as ever, all feedback is welcome. I’d particularly like to be able to continue running a print letters column, so send your comments to the usual address.

Although this issue was a bit (cough) delayed, V258 is following close behind, and with any luck should go to the printers next week. And if you’re really lucky, I’ll get around to putting some articles up on the website this weekend.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go coverEveryone has a good word for this book: Liz liked it, Rachel thinks it’s probably the most gripping book she’s read this year, Martin thinks it’s the best effing science fiction novel he’s read all year, Frank Cottrell Boyce thinks it is fantastic, and it’s already won this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and Booktrust Teenage Prize. So at this point it’s probably very nearly redundant for me to say I like it too; but here goes. I like it.

From the start, two things make The Knife of Never Letting Go one of the most admirably readable books I’ve encountered for ages: pace and voice. Regarding the first, Patrick Ness simply has that gift of being able to structure a narrative so that you want to read just one more page, just one more chapter. The bones of his story are familiar – it’s a pursuit story-stroke-bildungsroman – but what could be a haphazard ricochet from incident to incident is held together by a process of continuous revelation, in which just about everything young Todd Hewitt initially believes to be true about life on the frontier-style colony world he calls home —

There ain’t nothing but Noise in this world, nothing but the constant thoughts of men and things coming at you and at you and at you, ever since the Spacks released the Noise germ during the war, the germ that killed half the men and every single woman, my ma not excepted, the germ that drove the rest of the men mad, the germ that spelled the end for all Spackle once men’s madness picked up a gun. (13)

— is revealed to be a lie. As just about every one of the commentaries I linked to above notes, Ness’ control over his dripfeed of information is so good that it’s a bit unfair to tell a naïve reader much about the story. In nearly every encounter you learn something new about Todd’s world, and almost all of the revelations are interesting enough to distract you from the fact that they’re usually not what you went into the scene wanting to learn. (The success of this tactic is perhaps lessened a bit if you read it in one sitting.) And then the next scene starts. As Todd puts it at one point, “the world keeps getting bigger” (100); his story is driven by expansion.

But if it’s pace that made me want to read The Knife of Never Letting Go, it’s voice – and the consequent emotional weight that accretes behind the runaway train of narrative – that makes me want to re-read it. This is where the Noise comes in, which is just what Todd says it is in that quote above: the thoughts of men shoved out into the world. Before too long, it becomes apparent that one way of describing what we’re reading in this book is to say that it’s Todd Hewitt’s Noise. He is stripped naked before us — and before anyone else who happens to be listening. This is a book which feels immediate and unfiltered, rough-edged; Todd’s joy and pain, however fleeting, are our agony. At times, under intense pressure, Todd’s narration becomes fragmentary, or entirely lost in the babel that surrounds it. This allows Ness to get away with some narrative cheats — there are several key pieces of information which Todd glimpses in the Noise of others early on, but refuses to accept, which means they’re withheld from the reader until he’s ready to face them, at nearly the end of the book — but it also means the manner in which he’s telling his story (i.e. prose) becomes inextricable from that story, which seems a fair trade.

That what is being unfolded in the course of the story happens to be science-fictionally interesting is a happy bonus. Noise, for example, can’t be ignored, but also can’t be trusted. “Noise ain’t the truth”, Todd reminds himself at one point, it’s “what men want to be true, and there’s a difference twixt those things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don’t watch out” (23). In Prentisstown, which Todd believes to be the last town on the planet, Noise is peer pressure, monsters from the id, information overload: all of this and more. The implications and possible variations of Noise continue to be developed throughout the novel — dogs and sheep are sort of eagerly dumb, for instance, while some of the native fauna make more creative use of Noise — but the first and most elaborated variation flows from the first truth that Todd uncovers, that there are still women in the world.

One of the few things Todd is right about, in his initial understanding, is that women don’t have noise. Ness treads a fine line with this, repeatedly leaning towards literalising a hoary cliché, only to upset things later in the novel. Shortly after fleeing his all-male home — for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture; save to say that the enemy chasing him is appropriately chilling — Todd encounters a girl called Viola. When he first perceives her, from a distance, as a silence, he finds her cooling and soothing; and he (sort of) rescues her from one of the nastier townfolk. However, although Viola is (initially) strangely silent, she is impressively self-possessed; she fairly quickly decides that Todd is a bit useless, hits him with a big stick, and starts walking back to where she came from.

Of course, things between them do improve from there, and in fact one of the joys of the book is watching the relationship between the two of them develop, not least because it doesn’t become romantic — although in the promised sequels I imagine that’s unavoidable — but it’s apparent that Viola is rather more with-it than Todd. (During the reading week, a number of people read this book; and one of them explained that he liked it a lot more once he realised Todd was a bit of a twit, and switched his mental identification to Viola.) Other cliches played with: initially, Todd is frustrated because he (literally) can never tell what Viola is thinking (so the connection between the two of them is ultimately all the more powerful for existing independently of Noise); and the emotional incontinence Noise causes in men is used to good effect.

All of which, perhaps, is merely to say that for all that The Knife of Never Letting Go looks straightforward, it is not. Hidden within its Allen-Steele-style-colonization exterior beats a darker, Tiptree-ish heart and, an odd timidity about swearing aside, The Knife of Never Letting Go rarely disappoints. Rather, it develops its premise with consistent wit (“he hears me looking”, Todd thinks at one point), not a little charm, and absorbing thoroughness. It is fast to read, and intense; channelled Noise. As everyone else has said: roll on The Ask and the Answer.

Special Linkanomics

It’s a while since the last link-dump, so some of these are a little stale now, but since this is as much for my future reference as your benefit: