Twenty Years, Two Surveys (and other BSFA matters)

The survey has landed! Or, at least, is landing. BSFA members should receive their copies this week (or have already received them); non-BSFA members can order a copy (for the low low price of £7.99 plus postage! That is, plus £1.24 in the UK and £4.35 overseas) here.

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Along with the book, BFSA members will receive their ballot for this year’s awards; note that these need to be turned around pretty sharpish (although you can send in your votes by email), unless you’re planning to vote at Eastercon.

Also in the post to BSFA members this week: the latest mailing, comprising a new Vector (the review of 2009), a new Focus (featuring Christopher Priest, Gareth L Powell, Nina Allan and others), and this year’s short fiction award booklet. I’m thinking of hosting discussions about each of the shortlisted stories next week, in the run-up to Eastercon, to encourage people to read the last of these!

And it would be remiss of me not to note that this week’s BSFA London Meeting, on Wednesday evening, will be a discussion of the awards shortlists, featuring Graham Sleight, Damien G Walter, and Martin McGrath. Be there, as they say.

Back to the survey. All comments are, of course, very welcome — indeed, I’d love to be able to include a really substantive letter column in the summer Vector. And, as I previously noted, there’ll be a panel to discuss the survey’s findings at Eastercon; at 5pm on the Friday, to be precise, with John Jarrold, Caroline Mullan, Claire Brialey, David Hebblethwaite and myself as panelists. Please do come along and offer your thoughts, if you’re going to be there. In the meantime, however, and since in the final book each question in the survey is considered in a separate chapter, with context and analysis, to give a flavour of the project, I thought it would be nice to post some authors’ original responses. So that’s what I’ll do this week.

2010 Arthur C Clarke Award Submissions

Now we come to it! The shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award will be announced on Wednesday 31 March, and the award ceremony will be held on Wednesday 28 April, at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival. However, as last year, the Award is releasing the list of books that were submitted and considered and you heard it, quite literally, here first. Or rather, saw it:

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Full-sized image to follow at lunchtime, but in the meantime, far be it from me to stop people trying to work out which book covers those are. (Amazing how distinctive some of them are even at this size, I think.) Note that this is not a formal longlist; it’s the books that were submitted by publishers and considered by the judges.

UPDATE: And now, the full list.

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Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers (Solaris)
Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher (Tor)
Orbus by Neal Asher (Tor)
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury)
Twisted Metal by Tony Ballantyne (Tor)
Transition by Iain Banks (Little, Brown)
Ark by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)
Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
The Accord by Keith Brooke (Solaris)
Xenopath by Eric Brown (Solaris)
Seeds of Earth by Mike Cobley (Orbit)
And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer (Penguin)
Makers by Cory Doctorow (Voyager)
The Babylonian Trilogy by Sebastien Doubinsky (PS Publishing)
The Wild Things by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton)
Consorts of Heavenby Jaine Fenn (Gollancz)
The Stranger by Max Frei (Gollancz)
Concrete Operational by Richard Galbraith (Rawstone Media)
Nova War by Gary Gibson (Tor)
Winter Song by Colin Harvey (Angry Robot)
The Rapture by Liz Jensen (Bloomsbury)
Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (Gollancz)
Journey into Space by Toby Litt (Penguin)
The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove (Solaris)
Halfhead by Stuart B MacBride (HarperVoyager)
Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
The City & The City by China Mieville (Macmillan)
Red Claw by Philip Palmer (Orbit)
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperVoyager)
Chasing the Dragon by Justina Robson (Gollancz)
The City of Lists by Brigid Rose (Crocus)
Flashforward by Robert J Sawyer (Gollancz)
Wake by Robert J Sawyer (Gollancz)
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (Tor)
The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber)
Far North by Marcel Theroux (Faber & Faber)
Before the Gods by KS Turner (Ruby Blaze)
The Painting and the City by Robert Freeman Wexler (PS Publishing)
This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit)
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding (Gollancz)

So there you are: the 41 books in contention for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. (The Rise of the Iron Moon by Stephen Hunt was also submitted, but ineligible due to SF Crowsnest‘s association with the award.) Does it look like a good year? What would you put on the shortlist?

Polyphony 7

Signal boost: I like the Polyphony series of slipstreamy-fabulist anthologies. I would like to read volume 7; the series is well regarded, and I’ve enjoyed the earlier volumes that I read. However, the publisher is finding it tough to make that happen, and posted this back in November:

The harsh economic climate threatens to kill this vital series. Wheatland Press is asking for your help.

The authors have graciously made concessions to make Polyphony 7 a reality. They’ve agreed to a reduced pay rate to see the volume published. Now we need readers.

In order to publish Polyphony 7, Wheatland Press must receive 225 paid pre-orders via the website by March 1, 2010. If the pre-order quantities cannot be met, Polyphony will cease publication. It’s that simple. The preorder link is here: http://www.wheatlandpress.com/polyphony/v7.html.

If the preorder number is met, then Polyphony 7 will be published on or about July 1, 2010.*

I pre-ordered my copy. In all the time since then, apparently they received just over half of the pre-orders they need. If they don’t get the rest by Friday evening, that’s it. Some people have been surprised by the disparity between this number and the number of submissions Polyphony typically receives, and encouraged more writers to support the market they’re submitting to. I’d like to encourage non-writing readers to support it as well; if you like short stories, I don’t think you’ll regret doing so.

Awards

In mainstream-land, today is the day of the Orange Prize Longlist, which I always think should be more amenable to the speculative than other awards, but never is. (I suppose you can count The Little Stranger, this year, but really, they couldn’t find room on a 20-book longlist for Lavinia? Or White is for Witching? Or…?) On the upside, in SF-land we have the Tiptree Award winners and honor list:

Winners

  • Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales, Greer Gilman (Small Beer Press)
  • Ooku: The Inner Chambers (volumes 1 & 2), Fumi Yoshinaga (Viz Media)
  • Honor List

  • Beautiful White Bodies”, Alice Sola Kim (Strange Horizons)
  • Distances, Vandana Singh (Aqueduct Press 2008)
  • “Galapagos”, Caitlin R. Kiernan (Eclipse 3, Night Shade Books)
  • Lifelode, Jo Walton (NESFA Press 2009)
  • “Useless Things”, Maureen F. McHugh (Eclipse 3, Night Shade Books)
  • Wives”, Paul Haines (X6, coeur de lion)

There’s also a special citation for L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle. Judges this year were Karen Joy Fowler (chair), Jude Feldman, Paul Kincaid, Alexis Lothian, and Victor Raymond.

I’ve read the entire honor list, which seems pretty strong to me, but neither of the winners. I’m still not a fan of having tied award-winners, actually, but if you’re going to do it, you might as well make the two works as different as you can. And it’s interesting — though perhaps not surprising, given the indie-press lean of the list — that Ooku is the only work mentioned that’s available in the UK.

EDIT: And the website has been updated with details, including judges’ comments on the honor list, and the longlist. Pleased to see Helen Keeble and Xiaolu Guo there.

Quote for the Day

Saladin Ahmed:

I wish writers — white, Black, Arab, etc. — would just say “I have X personal experience with this place/culture, have done Y amount of research, and have tried my best. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is SOME SHIT I MADE UP.” There are lots of things in our writing we can take a deep stake in — but ‘authenticity’ is probably the least productive one.

More to the point, I wish reviewers/critics would stop using this as a criterion. 90% of critical/readerly praise for authenticity amounts to either “this guy imagines this culture in a manner which agrees with my imagining of this culture,” or “I didn’t know anything about Malaysian street culture, but now I do!”

(via.)

Tools of the Trade

From Farah Mendlesohn’s review of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction:

Yet, as we shall see, Csicsery-Ronay succeeds in incorporating movies successfully only in his chapters on the science-fiction sublime and the grotesque, and, within that, in his discussion on the visual forms. While I accept his arguments (and those of other critics) that sf cinema and games, among other forms, are becoming the dominant cultural conception of what sf is, their values are so different, or so skewed in a specific direction that it seems to me ‘accommodation’ is neither enough nor appropriate, that the tools applied to literary forms of science fiction can only leave the impression that the non-literary forms are inadequate, and that it is past time that the academic community withdrew from a theory of everything in this field, and acknowledge instead that there are separate and immensely valuable critical approaches which place cinema and gaming and graphic novels at the centre, and leave the literary beyond the Pale when viewed through their filters

I actually said something related to Richard last week, that part of the reason I don’t write much about films or TV is that I feel I lack the vocabulary to talk about them seriously: that is, to address their specifically filmic or televisual aspects. So I’m sympathetic to the argument here (and to the criticism of Seven Beauties; although it hinges on what you mean by incorporating “successfully”, and I would allow some of the instances excluded in the review as successful), even as I’m also sympathetic to those critics arguing that visual modes of sf are culturally dominant, and feel that I should write more about film and TV. On the other hand, I can’t be so absolutist as to state that a primarily literary understanding of sf will inevitably cast non-literary forms as inadequate, or indeed vice versa. See, for example, Gattaca, Primer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, films with goals not very different from the types of literary sf I tend to enjoy; and is a generic sf action flick any less “inadequate” as serious sf, or inadequate for radically different reasons, than your average Neal Asher novel? It’s not as though “academics” are out on a limb in placing sf films within essentially the same framework as sf books, either. Not for nothing is the fannish crack about the former being at least a decade behind the latter so familiar. Nor, I think, is it possible to deny that the relationship is a two-way street, and that we have seen an increasing amount of cinema-influenced sf. So I end up thinking that accomodation actually is the correct approach (and that I want to read more film criticism) — that there are enough points of overlap between the two modes to make co-consideration useful, as long as the non-overlapping points are not ignored. Agree? Disagree?

Final Hugo Ballot

So, deadline time at last. Here’s what I just submitted. And here are some other ballots.

Best Novel (“A science fiction or fantasy story of 40,000 words or more that appeared for the first time in 2009.”)

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books)
Flood by Stephen Baxter (Roc)
The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham (Doubleday)
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperVoyager)
In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield (Del Rey/Jonathan Cape)

Depending on your point of view, it’s either a sad comment or a testament to greatness that Baxter’s on my ballot again this year, for the same novel as last year. But if nothing else, reading Ark reminded me how much I liked Flood. And I’ll be looking out for the voting stats when they’re released after the Worldcon, to see how many nominations In Great Waters picks up. I’m hoping at least ten.

Best Novella (A science fiction or fantasy story between 17,500 and 40,000 words that appeared for the first time in 2009.)

To Kiss the Granite Choir” by Michael Anthony Ashley (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
“Earth II” by Stephen Baxter (Asimov’s)
Wives” by Paul Haines (in X6, ed. Keith Stevenson)
Crimes and Glory” by Paul McAuley (Subterranean)
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald (in Cyberabad Days, Pyr/Gollancz)

Completing this ballot was something of a struggle; I don’t think it’s been a terribly strong year for novellas. But I do think each of these has something to recommend them: the energy of “To Kiss the Granite Choir”, the ending of “Earth II”, the intensity of “Wives”, and the moments of flair in “Crimes and Glory” that set off a fairly meat-and-potatoes setting to good effect. “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” is the one I hope wins, however.

Best Novelette (A science fiction or fantasy story between 7,500 and 17,500 words that appeared for the first time in 2009.)

Sinner, Baker, Fabulist Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster (Interzone)
A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc; or, A Lullaby” by Helen Keeble (Strange Horizons)
“The Long, Cold Goodbye” by Holly Phillips (Asimov’s)
Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky (Tor.com)
“The Island” by Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2, ed. Dozois/Strahan)

I’m pretty happy with this selection, though I particularly hope the Swirsky and Keeble stories make the ballot.

Best Short Story (A science fiction or fantasy story of less than 7,500 words that appeared for the first time in 2009.)

“Microcosmos” by Nina Allan (Interzone)
Turning the Apples” by Tina Connolly (Strange Horizons)
All the Anne Franks” by Erik Hoel (Strange Horizons)
Spar” by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld)
“Useless Things” by Maureen F McHugh (in Eclipse Three, ed Jonathan Strahan)

Of the fiction categories, probably the one where I feel least informed; but I like all these stories a good deal. (I seem to be out on my own with respect to the Hoel, but never mind.)

Best Related Work (Any work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom appearing for the first time during 2009 or which has been substantially modified during 2009, and which is either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and which is not eligible in any other category.)

Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint (Routledge)
The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr (Wesleyan, 2008 with extended eligibility)
Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology and Politics by Gwyneth Jones (Aqueduct)
Canary Fever: Reviews by John Clute (Beccon)
On Joanna Russ ed. Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan)

Still several books that, frustratingly, I haven’t been able to get to in time; but all of these deserve attention.

Best Graphic Story (Any science fiction or fantasy story told in graphic form appearing for the first time in 2009.)

Don’t Split the Party by Rich Burlew (Giant in the Playground)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Oni Press)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (Any theatrical feature or other production, with a complete running time of more than 90 minutes, in any medium of dramatized science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects that has been publicly presented for the first time in its present dramatic form during 2009.)

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Moon
Up
Torchwood: Children of Earth
Where the Wild Things Are

If, twelve months ago, you’d told me I would be nominating Torchwood for a Hugo, I’d have looked at you like you were crazy. But credit where credit is due. Speaking of crazy: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is bonkers, but very well done.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (Any television program or other production, with a complete running time of 90 minutes or less, in any medium of dramatized science fiction, fantasy or related subjects that has been publicly presented for the first time in its present dramatic form during 2009.)

“Season Two, Episode One”, Ashes to Ashes
“Epitaph One”, Dollhouse
“Born to Run”, The Sarah Connor Chronicles
“Pilot”, Caprica
“The State of the Art” by Iain M Banks, adapted by Paul Cornell (Radio 4, 5 March 2009)

Best Editor, Short Form (The editor of at least four (4) anthologies, collections or magazine issues (or their equivalent in other media) primarily devoted to science fiction and/or fantasy, at least one of which was published in 2009.)

Susan Marie Groppi, Strange Horizons
Jonathan Strahan, various anthologies
Scott H Andrews, Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Andy Cox et al, Interzone
Sheila Williams, Asimov’s

Best Editor, Long Form (The editor of at least four (4) novel-length works primarily devoted to science fiction and/or fantasy published in 2009 that do not qualify as works under Best Editor, Short Form.)

Jo Fletcher
Jeremy Lassen
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Simon Spanton
Juliet Ulman

Best Professional Artist (An illustrator whose work has appeared in a professional publication in the field of science fiction or fantasy during 2009. If possible, please cite an example of the nominee’s work. Failure to provide such references will not invalidate a nomination.)

Raphael Lacoste (The Windup Girl, The Caryatids)
Adam Tredowski (Interzone covers)
Stephan Martiniere (Desolation Road)

Best Semiprozine (Any generally available non-professional publication devoted to science fiction or fantasy which by the close of 2009 has published four (4) or more issues (or the equivalent in other media), at least one (1) of which appeared in 2009, and which in 2009 met at least two (2) of the following criteria: Had an average press run of at least 1,000 copies per issue; Paid its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication; Provided at least half the income of any one person; Had at least 15% of its total space occupied by advertising; Announced itself to be a “semiprozine”.)

Ansible
The Internet Review of Science Fiction
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Clarkesworld
Interzone

Best Fanzine (Any generally available non-professional publication devoted to science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects which by the close of 2009 has published four (4) or more issues (or the equivalent in other media), at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year, and which does not qualify as a semiprozine.)

Banana Wings
Asking the Wrong Questions
Coffee and Ink
Journey Planet
Punkadiddle

Best Fan Writer (Any person whose writing has appeared in semiprozines or fanzines or in generally available electronic media during 2009.)

Claire Brialey
Martin Lewis
James Davis Nicoll
Abigail Nussbaum
Mark Plummer

Best Fan Artist (An artist or cartoonist whose work has appeared through publication in semiprozines or fanzines or through other public display during 2009.)

Kate Beaton

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo) (A writer whose first work of science fiction or fantasy appeared during 2008 or 2009 in a professional publication. For Campbell Award purposes a professional publication is one for which more than a nominal amount was paid, any publication that had an average press run of at least 10,000 copies, or any other that the Award sponsors may designate.)

Jedidiah Berry
Lauren Beukes
Kristin Cashore
Patrick Ness
Ali Shaw

And there we are. Roll on Easter, and the shortlists.

If you wanted some last-minute reading…

… before doing your Hugo nominations (deadline 07.59 on Sunday, Brits), you could do worse than check out the short fiction reviews at Strange Horizons this week:

Alvaro’s comments on “Spar“, for instance, have made me reconsider its omission from my draft ballot, and Abigail is particularly right about “To Kiss the Granite Choir“, which is an enormous amount of fun. (Though I do feel it’s been a pretty weak year for novellas in general.) And I’d appreciate any additional thoughts on, in particular, Daniel Abraham’s “The Curandero and the Swede”, which I’m sort of teetering on the brink of nominating.

Ark

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

They had already come so far. (203)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Links We Share Without Knowing

As you may have spotted, I didn’t manage to get that post about Ark finished. I’m now aiming for Monday, although I have a daunting number of other things I need to get done this weekend, as well. In the meantime: some links!