Air by Geoff Ryman
An Extended Review of the 2005 Arthur C. Clarke Award-Winning Novel, by Andy Sawyer
The success of Air in the latest Clarke award is nothing less than an act of magic.
The shortlist as it stood presented a number of problems which potentially could have wrecked the credibility of the Award at this rather troubled stage of its existence. It consisted of two novels (Geoff Ryman’s Air and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go) which by anyone’s standards (though see below) should be considered outstanding, and four also-rans of varying quality from excellent to enjoyable-but-forgettable which suffered from being read in the shade of Ryman and Ishiguro but which were on the face of it considerably more science-fiction-ish. “Also-rans” sounds harsh, so I must qualify that by saying that I mean no insult to Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World, Alastair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice, Charles Stross’s Accelerando, and Liz Williams’ Banner of Souls by saying that they did not move and excite me in the way Air and Never Let Me Go did. Were those two not on the shortlist I would have been considerably less disappointed if one of the other four had won, if any of them had — if that makes sense. But with the short-list as it stood a decision to honour any other than Ishiguro or Ryman would have been a travesty.
Air took the award, of course, and this means that the science fiction writer, as opposed to the “mainstream” writer with something which looks like science fiction, was the success. In what follows I am, I hope, going to suggest why I feel uncomfortable writing a sentence like that, but also why it’s good for both the Clarke award and that collection of extremely different texts that we point to and call science fiction that it was Ryman who won the award. This is not to say that Air is the obvious compromise choice, a charge which is laid against just about every juried award at some time or another. I don’t know, or care, what happened in the discussions, but there’s no sense in Air that justifies this. In not giving the award to an outsider-sf text in favour of a book which must be sf because it has also won the BSFA award (as well as a number of other sf awards including the Tiptree), the jury has given first prize to a book that deserves it. As well as being central-sf, Air is also stunningly written; inventive and open, as sympathetic to the human costs of change as, without the darkness and claustrophobia of, Never Let Me Go. But why should I be presenting this as an ideological conflict as much as a simple decision between which of two books is the better?
Partly, of course, because it’s something that arises from the our-gang tribalism that is still a feature of the science fiction world. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is one of those novels from “outside” which often appear on the Clarke shortlist and sometimes carry off the prize. Ishiguro has never denied that he did not intend the novel to be science fiction, that he has little interest in futuristic technology except as metaphor, and that he finds writing futuristic fiction uncongenial. M. John Harrison, reviewing Never Let Me Go for The Guardian , argued that despite a motif which we would find science fictional, it was more centrally a “sleight of hand” novel of contemporary identity, how we unquestioningly accept the lives our parental, educational and political authorities give us and in doing so, experience the “steady erosion of hope”. I’d suggest that (if we must do so) it’s certainly possible to read Never Let Me Go as one of those rare but essential sf texts which give us an alternative world from the inside. We accept one novum — that a technology has been developed which means that certain things common in sf novels can be done — and then explore the consequences. And one of these consequences is that although we may find the effects of that technology horrible, for people living in that world they would be as normal and natural as — I don’t know — the assumption we all make that living with a mode of transport that kills or injures thousands of people a year is natural and normal. In other words Never Let Me Go is an alternate history (not a future) involving a technology which most people, including those most intimately involved with it, never even think about but live with the moral consequences of as if there were no moral question whatsoever. Which makes it science fiction, in my book, and gets over what we may see rather too sensitively as the author’s problem with the form.
(Above, I wrote “by anyone’s standards” and five minutes ago I read Adam Roberts’s thoughtful survey of the complete shortlist in the May New York Review of Science Fiction  in which Never Let Me Go is described as “passionless and chilly” with characters who “sail past the zeitgeist”. Roberts, I think, is right in the effects he describes, but he is as wrong, I feel, in the conclusions he draws from them as he is right when he enthuses over Air. Without banging on at a sidebar area of disagreement, this is not our world, nor our zeitgeist, and so perhaps we have a case where calling something science fiction strengthens its literary qualities. That should scupper the book’s reputation in the Sunday heavies … )
This rather strained definition of sf is something that has traditionally caused some people some problems with the Clarke, so I should lay my cards on the table and say I’m not one of them: whatever the merits of individual books may be, the Clarke tradition of including books which may not be published as sf or even read as sf (but which the jury can argue are sf) is one I’m happy with. Indeed, if we want to be even more pedantic, Air is not sf in a strict sense either, even though Ryman takes a more confident and assured stance towards the fantastic than we find in Never Let Me Go. In Air, what we read as the sf element, the new development in communications technology, appears from the start; the novel is quite clearly about that fundamental sf theme, change, and Ryman’s technique of identifying what is causing this change could not be more different from Ishiguro’s oblique, rather gothic approach. Nevertheless, Ryman’s Web-substitute, “Air”, is essentially as hidden and “magical” as Ishiguro’s off-stage technology, and if we want to know how this actually works we’re going to be disappointed. If Ryman wasn’t known as a science-fiction/fantasy writer but had written only his more mainstream works, Airmay have been as outsider a text as Never Let Me Go. But this particular identification of the novum is, I think, important. If sf is what we point to when we say it we can point to Air with more confidence than to Never Let Me Go. Airchecks more boxes if we want to be compulsive about definition. Air also reminds us, however, that there actually is something that we call science fiction, that deals with specific questions using specific literary techniques and conventions, and that we do not have to be defensive about it. Air‘s victory in the Clarke Award is good for the award, and sf, simply because, as I have said, it is a deserved victory.
While change was also a foregrounded feature in at least two of the other shortlisted novels, it was social or species change: the collective march towards the Singularity or the awareness that we are not alone in the universe. In Air, change is culturally focused around a single individual and her family and friends. Chung Mae is a small-scale entrepreneur in a remote central Asian village. The world is about to change from the old-fashioned Web to Air, which will link minds: “They will give us TV in our heads, all the knowledge we want.” Following a world-wide test, Mae is left with a permanent link to the mind of an old woman, Mrs Tung, who is one of the experiment’s casualties.
Mae moves from village “fashion expert” to a player on the world scene; a small-scale player, true, but a player on a larger scale than otherwise could be possible. But there are other changes as well. Her marriage breaks down following an affair with her neighbour Ken Kuei. In her traditional society this is a serious matter. Her imposed memories make her realise the likelihood of a flood, like one which devastated the village in the 1950s. She becomes pregnant, and the nature of this pregnancy is perhaps what changes Air from being a straightforward sf novel to something more explicitly symbolic. Nothing necessarily wrong with this, but the story seems to be telling us it’s symbolic. “Walked together into the future” are the novel’s last words, which somehow — perhaps it’s just the common image of the “baby” — in their evocation of an open, uncharted future remind me of the last words of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) : “but he would think of something”. Clarke/Kubrick’s “Star Child” is powerful, perhaps even ominous. What do we make of Air‘s blind, crippled “Formatted” child, though? A symbol of the future, but what kind of future?
The first chapter, set just before the Test which is going to change everything for Mae, ends with an equally evocative question: “How dare they call us have-nots?” Mae’s people are backwoods, peasants, remote, “the last village in the world to go online”, and ignorant and at times petty. Mae herself is illiterate. Her husband Joe is stupid enough to be swindled by Haseem, a local moneylender. But none of this means that Mae and the people she lives among are bad people who deserve what their future might be — colourful “primitives” exploited both by the affluent richer nations and the powerful centre of their own country, Karzistan (an imaginary Central Asian country bordering China, Tibet and Kazakhstan). No one, after all, appears to have asked them if they want Air or not. But volition has nothing to do with change. Change is coming whether Mae and her friends, family, enemies and companions want it or not and it is up to Mae to ride the wave. If science fiction’s strength is that it is the “literature of change” that may be its weakness as well. Far too often sf fails to uncritically examine change: to celebrate it is not to engage with it. Ryman is giving us the opportunity to face this question, and that he does so without patronizing his characters or his readers is yet another strong point for this marvelous book.
Assimilating the memories of Mrs Tung, Mae realises the impossibility of conventional phrases like “she led a full life” to sum up a human being, a half-forgotten grandmother who made love in the rushes and hid guerillas in the school during the revolution. Her angry words “Why do people treat the past as if it lost a battle that the present won?” are partly spurred by this realization of human worth, but they are also from the same anger that protests against being called a “have-not”. In hanging on to this, Mae does what so many people in science fiction don’tdo: she neither celebrates change nor attempts vainly to reverse it but she takes control, aware that she is only a bit-part player, with no real decision-making powers, but more and more determined to make a difference in the small world around her.
And, of course, with the technology of “Air” the difference between the local and global does become more blurred. Mae’s village is after all a small remote village in a “backward” country, but she is able to gain the knowledge to communicate with a fellow entrepreneur in New York. The global village is taking shape: but more on that later.
Air is beautifully written and its remoteness from the technology gives us a focus on its effects — the “Air” system itself is in truth as magical as birth through the throat, and although “Air-mail” is a neat conceit for a science fiction novel, the engineer Sloop’s explanation in the first chapter, involving dimensions “left over after the Big Bang” and the “Lightning-Flow, Compass-Point Yearning Field” is deliberately arcane. Mae doesn’t understand a word of it and neither do we. In a Terry Pratchett novel, someone would inevitably describe it as “quantum” (and actually, someone does). There are jokes: one of the tribes of Karzistan (itself almost certainly a joke, especially to anyone of a military or Cockney background) is the Eloi, seen in a government film as happy folk in tribal costumes relocated to shiny new apartments. This Wellsian reference has to be a sly insert from Ryman, but there’s a suggestion that it’s there to suggest a wider, less Arcadian back-story. “They call it ‘information’,” says Mae. “That does not make it true.” (This is a book of wisdom: that is not the only such aphorism.) Even later on, when we learn more about the new technology of this world and a rationale is given of how Mrs Tung remains with Mae after the “Air Test”, we have singing food and a talking dog and a sense that there is much more happening on the governmental and international level than we (or Mae) are privy too. Mae — and this is one of the strengths of Ryman’s characterization — is smart enough to work this out. As a result, she is neither confident in nor wholly accepting of this new world, and this balancing act between the Old and the New offers us what new technologies always give us. Sezen (the village “bad girl”) “was someone who wanted Air. Mae was afraid of it.” Air offers instant worldwide communication, new art forms, ways of being other than yourself in a manner we can hardly dream of. It will be, in a sense, the Rapture. Mae’s self-imposed task is to prepare her people for something that they cannot escape, even though the experience of the flood of information which will come their way has already changed her in ways which have alienated many of the villagers from her.
But it’s the small, narrowly focused elements in Air — the changes in Mae herself and the effects they have on her family and friends — which make the novel so wonderful to read. Unlike any other of the books on the shortlist — even Ishiguro’s, which creates its effect by precisely avoiding identity — it is about a person, an individual human being whom we get to know, contradictions and all; and about how that person’s internal and collective worlds have been transformed. Ryman manages to be comic without putting his characters down. There are characters who are stupid, malicious, ragged-arsed poor, vain and with every shade of small-village clownish incompetency: they are never sneered at and even when Mae’s personal fortunes are at their lowest we can sympathise with her without being judgmental about her enemies. In her review of Air in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Joan Gordon uses a telling word: “respect” . In a world linked by Air, the story seems to be saying, the hackneyed old metaphor of “global village” is literalised: if village life is to work, everyone — good, bad, old, young, weak, strong — needs to be respected, and technologies like Air bring village closeness to everyone. And of course, this can be “just a metaphor” for the communications technologies we already have and misuse, and after all we already are — and always have been — close to the paradigm shift a new technology brings to the way we live together. At the same time, if my reading of the backstory in the previous paragraph is correct, this is not a feelgood, heartwarming story of how little people take hold of a new technology and make good. Ryman is too good a writer, too expert in the nuances of character for that. Gernsbackian sf may go Gosh! Wow! at smart shiny new technology, but Ryman is surfing the boundaries here. Change always comes at a cost.
But what makes Air a justifiable winner of so many prizes is the pleasure of its telling. It would be easy to back up that statement by quoting passages; every chapter is full of little epiphanies which build until you realize how orchestrated these effects are. The conceit of “Air” itself becomes more of an extrapolation — of, naturally, the Web but something more tenuous and pervasive and connecting than mere “web” — than an image which is central to the novel itself. The school Mae establishes is called the “Swallow” school, to teach people to soar in the Air (and there are other bird images which play with multiple meanings of their specific motifs). The atmosphere itself, in creating the conditions for another event which is both symbolic and concrete, the flood, plays a role in events. Through the air, the waves are carried which to our ears become music — I did say “orchestrated”, after all. And Air is, of course, only one of various elements in both Oriental and Occidental pre-scientific world-views. Air is a novel to be read slowly, not because it is difficult to tease out the meaning, but because the beauty of the form with which this meaning is expressed needs to be savoured. Virtually every sentence plays a part, becomes a light into the soul of a character or a wry comment upon events. Air wins the Clarke Award not simply because it is the best of a shortlist but because it is an outstanding work: a novel which matches any test which could possibly given to a novel and comes up triumphant.
1. M John Harrison, “Clone Alone: review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro”, in The Guardian 26/02/2005. Online.
2. Adam Roberts, “The Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist 2006”, in The New York Review of Science Fiction 213, pp1, 8-15. Also online at Infinity Plus.
3. Joan Gordon, “Review of Air”, in The New York Review of Science Fiction 200, p. 4-5
Andy Sawyer is Librarian for the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool. He is also a critic, a reviewer, and reviews editor for the journal Foundation.
This article first appeared in Vector 248, and has been made available on our archived site.