Reynolds and Roberts on Today

I mentioned in the link post earlier this week that Adam Roberts and Alastair Reynolds had been on Today talking about space opera, and that you should listen soon because the link would expire. Turns out I was wrong about that: I’d thought it would be on the same 7-day Listen Again cycle as most of the Beeb’s output, but Today seems to have archives going back to 2003, which is rather good of them.

However! Enterprising and generous Torque Control reader Jessica Eastwood very kindly emailed me a transcript of the interview anyway; and since I think transcripts are A Good Thing anyway, for ease of reference, speed of consumption and so forth (not to mention that it would be just plain churlish not to use it), here it is.

Space Opera — Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts
Monday 29 June 2009 08.50

Evan Davis (presenter): Now, it’s a genre you may never have heard of: space opera. No singing, it’s derived from soap opera, it’s a sub-genre of science fiction, and it’s making a renaissance. To explain more, we’re joined now by a writer of it and a fan of it: Alastair Reynolds is an author who’s just signed a £1 million book deal for a 10-part space opera, and Adam Roberts is professor of English literature at Royal Holloway College. Good morning to you both. Alastair Reynolds, can you tell us what space opera is, for those who aren’t so familiar with it?

Alastair Reynolds: Well, space opera is basically science fiction with all the stops pulled out. It’s the kind of science fiction we think of when we think of films like Star Wars and Star Trek. We’re talking about action in the deep future; we’re out into the galaxy, we’re dealing with huge, epic scales, different civilisations, that kind of thing, you know, it’s not near future, it’s not dystopian.

ED: OK. And what’s your 10-parter going to be about?

Reynolds: Well it’s going to be lots of different books, it’s not sort of 10…

ED: They’ll be linked, won’t they, in some way they’ll be…?

Reynolds: Some of them will be linked. I’ve been writing a number of different books set in the same universe, which is a sort of projection of where we’ll be in about 500 years in terms of going out into the galaxy and finding out what’s out there, and I’ll be doing a little bit more in that universe.

ED: And my guess would be, having seen a bit of Star Trek and a little bit of Star Wars, that although it’s set in the deep future and in… a long way from planet Earth that very earthly themes and morality comes to play.

Reynolds: Yeah, ultimately it has to be about human beings or no-one’s going to read it. You want people you can relate to, characters you can focus on and empathise with, and indeed we get into, if you like, realistic political and social themes within science fiction – even though you’re dealing with massive spaceships and killer weapons, at the same time you can also make pertinent points about real world politics.

ED: About the here and now. Well Adam Roberts, from Royal Holloway College, what do you like about it?

Adam Roberts: Well what I like is that it’s… it’s this sense of wonder, it’s the transcendent possibilities, it’s the most imaginative form of literature that there is, and that’s true across the board of science fiction, but it’s something that’s on a much larger scale with space opera. I mean, space opera used to be a fairly disreputable sort of literature, it used to be very pulpy and rubbishy and stupid adventures and lantern-jawed space jockeys and green, bug-eyed monsters, but the new space opera, the kind of thing that Al writes, is much more interesting on… in literary terms but also kind of aesthetically; it’s about comprehending just how vast and enormous the universe we live in is.

ED: Well what’s the advantage, if you want to take an issue, I don’t know, like the world post-9/11, what’s the advantage of setting a piece of fiction around that in the middle of the universe thousands of years hence? Why’s it somehow better to do that than just having a novel about life here and now?

Roberts: The short answer is that science fiction is a metaphorical genre, so it’s about metaphors that articulate key, important questions, which is exactly what we’re talking about, and it turns out that it’s better to address these things metaphorically than it is to try and reproduce them in a literal way, that metaphors are more eloquent, they are better at touching what really matters to us about 9/11. If you get actual novels set … at that time and in that city, it gets bogged down in the specifics and the minutiae, whereas science fiction enables imaginative freedom to really get to the heart of the issue.

ED: To strip all the irrelevant details out and to see it for what it is. Alastair Reynolds, how much role does science play in what you write? How important is the science? Do you have to understand the laws of physics, for example?

Reynolds: Well I came from a science background so I… it’s always going to be there in my fiction, but it’s important to realise that there are many very, very good science fiction writers writing very… you know, very good works that are not coming from a science background. I think it’s a question of taste, really. I like to get the science as right as I can without constraining the story too much. So it’s, you know, things like, do we have faster-than-light travel or not? Physics says it’s probably going to be impossible, but then you get into other areas where you’re sort of playing around with, if you like, the limits of knowledge of science, and that’s where you can have a lot of fun because you’re sort of keying off from very, very out-there extrapolations in the very limits of what we know.

ED: And there’s money to be made in it, is there, Mr Reynolds?

Reynolds: Well, there seems to be! Yeah, we’re fortunate, I think, in Britain that science fiction is indeed enjoying something of a renaissance and this is something that’s been, I think, building slowly for 10 or 20 years. I mean, when Iain Banks emerged as a science fiction writer this was a sign that it was something you could do – you could take it seriously and yet still have a lot of fun.

ED: And Adam Roberts, the British are quite good at it, actually, aren’t they? Is that right?

Roberts: It’s… we do seem to be leading the charge at the moment, and particularly with this sort of writing, the sort of books that Al is writing, these grand, majestic space operas, the kind of universal themes; writers like Steve Baxter or Paul McAuley or Al himself or Justina Robson, they really are… I mean, speaking as a professor of literature at the University of London, these are some of the best writers around today working in this genre.

ED: I should pick up a few of these and read them. Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, thank you both.

Notes on a Shortlist

It has not been hard for me to decide which novel I think should win this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. There are, for starters, two nominees I neither particularly admire nor particularly like, one that I like more than I admire, and one that I admire more than I like. But differentiating the two nominees that I both like and admire isn’t hard, either: for there is one that lives more vividly in my mind, that I am more eager to reread, and more evangelical about pressing into others’ hands. So my preference is clear. But here, for the record, in advance of the announcement of the winner this evening, is a summary of my opinions of the whole shortlist.

I don’t think it’s a bad shortlist, per se; there are several books that spring to mind when I think about books I would rather have seen listed, but on the whole Adam Roberts’ judgement that “Solid is one word for it, which is another way of saying safe” is right, I think. It is a shortlist whose values are predominantly the core values of genre sf. There are a lot of spaceships; for all the talk about New Space Opera, only one other Clarke Award shortlist this decade has had as many.

There are also a number of recurring themes. Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets, which would be at the bottom of my list if I got a vote, incorporates a number of them. Like four of the remaining five shortlisted books (which is surely more than the average among the submissions), it is written in the first person, which immediately puts questions of identity front and centre. Like Reynolds’ House of Suns, it explores these questions through multiple narrators who are in a sense the same person (and physical cloning features in The Quiet War, while mental cloning is an important element of Song of Time). It is concerned with ecological questions (like The Quiet War, and to a lesser extent Song of Time); and in that Margaret’s multiple identities spring from her childhood imaginings, it invokes questions of youth and maturity that, I would say, resonate in every nominee other than The Quiet War.

Adam Roberts’ review, I think, gets to the heart of the problems with this book, although for a more sympathetic take see Nic Clarke and Sherryl Vint at Strange Horizons. The Margarets is a book in which the value of life resides in its fecund diversity, but this leads to a number of problems. There is a moral problem: as Adam puts it, it leads to Tepper prioritising forest over humans. There is a structural problem: the diversity, and the divergence, of Margaret’s lives is never conveyed as well as it should be; it’s all too abbreviated, or too clumsy. There is a a stylistic problem, in that Tepper has an absolute tin ear for names. Sentences such as, “We were shortly disabused of this idea when several humans in transit to Chottem from bondslave planets farther into Mercan space were also slain by the ghrym” are, to my mind, at least as wearying as anything Stephenson comes up with in Anathem; there is an absolute profusion of proper nouns, none of which seem to follow particularly well thought-out linguistic schema. (I think Tepper is winking at the reader at least some of the time — more, in fact, than many discussions of this book have given her credit for — but that does not excuse, for example, cat-people called Prrr Prrrpm and Mrrrw Lrrrpa.) And finally, there is the problem that Tepper’s stance seems to me a lie. Were she writing of just Earth — or a fantastical analogue of Earth, which is what she seems to want to be writing for most of the second half of the book, at least — her argument would be sound; but in the vastness of space, life’s value seems to me to inhere in its scarcity, in how fragile it is. The Margarets never conveys that sense; indeed, life in its galaxy is so commonplace that it is hard to care whether humans learn the error of their ways. The book has plenty of other problems — a distressingly Campbellian attitude to alien life, for example, as Edward James points out; and I can’t help thinking that a critique of humanity’s willingness to lean on comforting stories of magic instead of facing up to reality would carry more force if it didn’t co-exist with telepathy as a crucial plot element — and the result is a near-incoherent muddle.

Mark Wernham’s Martin Martin’s on the Other Side spends a good portion of its time being incoherent, but at least it does so deliberately; this, and the fact that it is just over half the length of Tepper’s novel, are the only things raising it above The Margarets in my estimation. It was over sooner. Jonathan McCalmont has noted that the book grew on him since he first read it, but I find it hard to imagine that happening to me; though there is an extent to which I admire, as Adam puts it, “the inadvertent eloquence of Jensen’s ‘fucking fucker’ laddishly limited register”, there is a much greater extent to which I simply found it tedious. I diverge from Jonathan, too, in that I don’t think it’s a novel about idiocy; it’s a novel, as Nic has it, about infantilisation, which is somewhat different. It means, for a start, that there were a few moments where I felt sympathy for Jensen Interceptor, trapped within the role his society has forced him into: the eternal puerile child There is also something inspired about the melding of PKD-style undermining of consensus reality with a cultural drive towards getting totally fucking hammered; but it is never elaborated coherently enough to sustain an entire novel.

The rest of the nominees I have already written about. Reynolds’ House of Suns is the book I like more than I admire, and a book that articulates the idea that we, the members of the human race, are all children, much more effectively than does The Margarets. I liked the expansiveness of the novel, and I found it rather more visual and well-paced than did, for example, Edward. I also think the flashback sequences are more effective, and better-integrated into the novel, than many other reviewers. But there’s no denying that it does have limitations: “Narrative, tick. Widescreen visuals, tick. Other stuff, hmm.”

Unlike the judges, I don’t have the benefit of a second read of the shortlist to give depth to my opinions; however, for the remaining three novels on the list — the three I could live with winning — I do have the benefit of time, in that it’s some months since I read any of them, and my opinions have accordingly had more time to settle. The Quiet War is the novel on the list I feel most out of step with the consensus on; Edward picked it as his favourite, as did Adam, and the Not the Clarke Award panel at Eastercon. But in Liz’s poll, at least at the time of writing, far more people think it will win than think it really should win; so maybe I’m not as out of step as all that.

Still, reading my review of The Quiet War now, I can’t shake the feeling that I didn’t get to the core of the novel, either in terms of its virtues or its flaws. I think Nic does that rather better in her post about the book, although Edward also inadvertently put his finger on it when he compared the book to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: “a cast of well-imagined characters, a mixture of political and scientific speculation, and a complete ease with the occasional infodump”. That is exactly right, and exactly my problem at the same time: I simply never felt the spark of life, in either The Quiet War‘s characters or its landscapes, that so distinguishes Robinson’s work. It is a book with few major flaws — its greatest virtue is its coherence of thought, although as the first volume in a duology, it is not quite self-contained — but almost by the same token, it is a book that never truly excited, challenged, or inspired me.

That leaves the two novels I both like and admire. Stephenson’s Anathem is an extraordinary book, there is no doubt of that; as Martin Lewis put it, “one part hubris to one part taking the piss to one part gnarly geek awesomeness.” As a vehicle designed to explicate and demonstrate a set of mind-expanding ideas, I have difficulty thinking of a recent, or even not-so-recent, work to match it. When I wrote my original review, however, I think I was perhaps too impressed by the overall architecture of the novel, that Stephenson had written something that worked as a novel, rather than (as I see The Baroque Cycle, or at least as much of it as I’ve read) an epic mess. It has not worn well in my mind; it’s still a book I will have no hesitation in recommending to (some) people, but I feel absolutely no need to revisit it. I am also, now, rather more sympathetic than I was initially to Abigail Nussbaum’s criticism of the novel for installing an intellectual homogeneity in its invented world. Or rather, it’s not the intellectual homogeneity per se that troubles me — I don’t want there to be a range of theories about how gravity works, or time works, or consciousness works; I want there to be single theories, that work — but that, as Nic explores, in setting up that intellectual homogeneity, Stephenson does away with cultural diversity. Perhaps the most telling indicator of this flaw is that while there are nods to equality of gender and sexuality — even if they are absolutely tokenistic — there is no equivalent nod to cultural diversity.

Which leaves Song of Time — or rather, doesn’t leave, since it is emphatically not the case that MacLeod is my preferred winner by default. Once again, and gratifyingly, I find that on the evidence of Liz’s poll, more people feel the way I do about the book than I expected. I think I came rather closer to getting to the bones of it in my review than I did with either The Quiet War or Anathem; although I have to say, although Nic’s review and Tanya Brown’s review are both very good, I don’t think anyone has yet fully captured what makes Song of Time so compelling. Adam Roberts’ criticisms of the book are largely reasonable, but don’t seem that significant to me when weighed against its virtues. On a shortlist which emphasizes the value of personal, subjective, human experience (as opposed to the kind of distanced perspective found in, most obviously of the novels not shortlisted, Flood), Song of Time offers unambiguously the best realised, most fascinating character; and for all the detail of McAuley’s colonies, for my money MacLeod offers the most vivid settings of any of the nominated authors. (Particularly, as Nic notes, cities; not because they are particularly “authentic”, but because the versions of their subjects that they construct feel so convincing.) It is the book that most productively challenged my sympathies; it is a novel saturated with science-fictional speculation, grounded in the emotions those speculations generate; and it is the only novel on the list, I would suggest, that engages with what it means to write science fiction in the early twenty-first century, both on a literal level, through the reflections of its characters, and stylistically, in how its voice refracts our understanding of some of contemporary sf’s common images and ideas. There is an irony, I’m aware, in asserting this in a week when YA novels have been awarded Nebula and Tiptree awards; Song of Time is about as far from the concerns of most YA fiction (and certainly as far from the narrative propulsivity of most YA fiction) as it is possible to get. But it is, I think, the best book on the list, and one of the best novels published in 2008. I hope it wins. Whatever does, I will post here as soon as I can, with a full update tomorrow. Let’s see, eh?

House of Suns

The Quiet War coverOn the one hand, coming to a novel this late, when numerous people have pretty much reviewed the heck out of it, makes life easier, in that I can point at what they’ve said; on the other hand, in the case of House of Suns, there isn’t much left that hasn’t been said, which you can take as an indication of the kind of genial, transparent book it is. (This may seem ironic, given the evident length this post has grown to, but really, it’s all just my variations on themes already identified.) In particular, Adam Roberts’ review says almost everything I would, give or take some differences in emphasis, and his summary judgment gets to the heart of the matter for me:

if it is your contention that the face of SF 2009 is Asimov’s mutton-chops and meaty NHS-style-but-presumably-not-actually-NHS-what-with-him-being-American glasses, and if you’re not bothered by bourgeois heteronormativity, then this is most definitely the book for you.

On the Asimov thing: Jonathan Wright also notes an Asimovian flavour to the proceedings and, though it doesn’t seem to have been deliberate, it was there for me, too. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing; specifically, there were times when I felt that House of Suns was doing salvage work on some of the more satisfactory aspects of Asimov’s late novels — even more specifically, Foundation and Earth (1986). The future history in House of Suns features a galaxy in which the only forms of intelligence are human or human-derived; the central characters are members of an organization that sets itself above or beyond the immediate, squabbling concerns of planetary and interplanetary civilizations; and there are some radically divergent posthumans wandering around, but the story’s ultimate focus is the relationship between humanity and robots, known here as Machine People. One of the main characters, Hesperus, is a Machine Person with some similarities of attitude to some incarnations of R. Daneel Olivaw (updated for the noughties, of course). If you squint a little, I think you can even see a deformed magus-figure shadow of Hari Seldon behind Abigail Gentian, the woman who establishes the primary clone Line with which House of Suns concerns itself, in the way she establishes rules, a preservational Plan that her “shatterlings” follow down the deep well of centuries.

Incongruously enough, my other touchstone while reading this book was Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who. Dan Hartland mentions Star Wars as a reference point, which captures the curious innocence of House of Suns; there is less New in this Space Opera than in the others that I have read by Reynolds. (Also, one of the Machine People looks like a slightly more sculpted C-3PO.) But Who has some of that innocence to it as well, and for all its inanities, I think it’s a better match, and not just because one of Reynolds’ posthuman races are called the Sycorax. First, what Reynolds brings to Asimov’s framework is colour, gleeful splashes of the stuff. In a science fiction novel like this, which essentially takes an infinite empty void as its backdrop, there is particular skill needed in choosing which bits to sketch in; Reynolds makes good choices, and goes about his sketchings with gusto. So although a fair portion of the book takes place in deep space, depicting voyages or chases (Reynolds does like his chase sequences, particularly interstellar ones that go on for tens of pages; fortunately the one that closes this book is rather better paced than the one that closed Century Rain [2004]), there are marvels at every waystation, from giants with faces to dwarf even the Face of Bo, to sleeping beauty awaking in a techno-forest of gold and silver cables. Sometimes these settings are handled off-handedly:

Ashtega’s world — shown beneath the map of the galaxy — was an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons. We were crossing the ecliptic, so the rings were slowly tilting to a steeper angle, revealing more of their loveliness. There was no doubt that it was one of the most glorious worlds I had ever seen, and I had seen quite a few.

But we had not come here to gawp at a picturesque planet, even if it was a spectacular exemplar of the form. (21)

Sometimes more attention is lavished on them:

Four stiff black fingers reached from the dunes, each an obelisk of the Benevolence, each tilted halfway to the horizontal. The shortest of the fingers must have been four or five kilometres from end to end, while the longest — one of the two middle digits — was at least eight. From a distance, caught in the sparkling light of the lowering sun, it was as if the fingers were encrusted with jewellery of blue stones and precious metal. But the jewellery was Ymir: the Witnesses had constructed their city on the surface of the fingers, with the thickest concentrations of structures around the middle portions of the fingers. A dense mass of azure towers thrust from the sloped foundations of the Benevolence relics, fluted and spiralled like the shells of fabulous sea creatures, agleam with gold and silver gilding. A haze of delicate latticed walkways and bridges wrapped itself around the twoers of Ymir, with the longer spans reaching from finger to finger. The air spangled with the bright moving motes of vehicles and airborne people, buzzing from tower to tower. (161)

This is not elegant writing; it is even a bit laboured (“… on the surface of the fingers … around the middle portions of the fingers”). But it’s trying to get us excited about something extraordinary. So my second comparison point is that, as in Doctor Who, the characters are not immune to wonder; dialogue like this, for example, would I think be entirely at home in that show:

“Sand grains start sliding downhill, just beneath the outer membrane of the dunes […] The membrane vibrates even more strongly and sets up excitations in the surrounding airmass. You get something like music.” After a pause, he said, “Wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Wonderful and a little spooky.”

“Like all the best things in the universe.” (172-3)

Comparisons with Who can only go so far, though. There is, for example, that whitebread heteronormativity that Adam mentions — not something Who can be accused of too strongly these days — which is for most of the novel a nagging annoyance, and a couple of times something more than that. [EDIT: Although there are also the orgies during the thousand nights, which suggest a certain degree of flexibility …] The projection of particular standards of beauty got me, too: the descriptions of how beautiful the Machine People were, in particular, felt very culturally specific, and while I’m fine with the shatterlings having retained the standards of beauty they started with (see below), I’m a little disappointed that the standards of beauty in Abigail’s time, which is already some way in the future from us, apparently hadn’t changed at all. What most irritated me, however, was the abuse of bioscience. Reynolds is scrupulous about stressing the physical constraints of the universe — say, the speed of light — yet is, bizarrely, happy to construct a scenario in which a female progenitor gives rise to a clone line containing both male and female individuals. If there’s a reason for this beyond Reynolds wanting to include more male characters, I missed it. If there’s an explanation given for how this miracle is achieved, I missed that, too; [EDIT: It could be, for example, that Abigail has a rare variant of Klinefelter’s syndrome, though I don’t recall such an explanation being offered in the text (though see discussion later regarding the flashbacks) and so] I’m left imagining that they imported a Y chromosome from somewhere else, which makes any male shatterlings less than an exact clone. (Indeed, I found myself defaulting to imagining the shatterlings as female until otherwise specified for just this reason, which led to a couple of interestingly disconcerting moments.)

A more global difference to Who (but a similarity with Asimov) is that Reynolds is in earnest. House of Suns never indulges in the sort of ironic nudging that Who — or a writer like, say, Ken MacLeod, in a novel like Newton’s Wake; or Banks in any Culture novel– so often enjoys. Dan Hartland put it this way: “Reynolds manages space opera that does not read like farce.” I will go a little further: one of the novel’s strengths is that Reynolds manages to keep a straight face almost all of the time. There are no knowing winks. There is some — not that much — snappy dialogue, but when Reynolds has one of his characters report that “The next three minutes passed like an age as I watched Hesperus streak forward and then slam past Mezereon’s position, missing her by barely half a million kilometres” (123), the deadpan delivery is essential, because on the face of it that “barely” looks absurd.

It’s this earnestness, also, that makes it possible to believe in characters driven by the search for wonder: a perhaps childish impulse (see Who, again; and Charlie Anders touches on this in a piece at io9 about childhood and sense of wonder that I’ve only just seen; and also see below) but one that, as the ending makes clear, is a function of civilizational youth as much as individual organism youth. The shatterlings are flung outwards by her at the close of humanity’s dawn age, explicitly in search of knowledge and experience. In each Line, each of a thousand clones is given a ship; each is then set on a different course, with instructions to rendezvous after completing a “circuit”, a trip around the galaxy. At the rendezvous they share experiences; then they do it all again. For the Gentian Line, these circuits now take two hundred thousand years each (the shatterlings spend much of their time in suspended animation, “tunnelling through history” as one character puts it), during which time they may interact with civilizations caught in “the endless, grinding procession of empires” (15) that the shatterlings call “turnover”. It is, at any rate, no surprise that Abigail’s rules have, by the time of the novel, some thirty-odd circuits down the line, hardened into commandments; no real surprise that maintenance of continuity is one of the book’s main themes.

Here is where I diverge slightly from most other reviewers of this book. House of Suns is narrated by two Shatterlings of Abigail’s line, Campion and Purslane, in alternating chapters. (At the start of each of the book’s eight sections, there is also a flashback chapter to Abigail’s youth; but all the Shatterlings share these memories — both Campion and Purslane refer to events that take place in the flashbacks as theirs, as happening to “me” — so there is no way of knowing which is narrating them.) And they do sound frightfully similar. As Adam puts it:

all the characters are pretty much the same character. Of course most of the characters in this novel are the same character, or clones thereof, but I don’t think this excuses it; they’re supposed to have been living separate lives, and developing separate personalities, for millions of years after all. They haven’t done so, though, on the evidence of this text. I was perhaps a quarter of the way into the book before I twigged that the narrative p.o.v. was alternating between the two twin-like deuteragonists (Purslane and Campion), and that’s not a good thing.

Or Paul Kincaid:

House of Suns is a novel with three narrative voices: Campion and Purslane narrate alternative chapters, while each section of the novel is introduced with a passage narrated by Abigail Gentian, the founder of the line (I will come back to her shortly). This is a technique that has a number of problems. For a start, Campion and Purslane spend most of the novel together, so that until the climax the alternating chapters don’t actually show us anything different. More seriously, the voices of male Campion and female Purslane are indistinguishable, and both are indistinguishable from Abigail Gentian. Is Reynolds making the subtle point that, as clones, these are all the same person anyway? If so, he actually does nothing with the idea, and the point could have been made as well without the exchange of narrative duties. I suspect, rather, that Reynolds has got hooked on multiple narrative strands, a technique he has used repeatedly before, and has followed it regardless of the fact that in some instances, as here, it can be more harmful than helpful to the novel.

I actually think the technical issue Paul identifies, that for most of the novel Campion and Purslane are sharing the same experiences (and thus that it’s sometimes only possible to tell which is narrating a chapter when they refer to the other), does the more harm. On the other hand, I can make an argument that the similarity of identity is deliberate; or at least, I feel I can construct a satisfactory rationale for embracing the confusion it causes based on what’s in the text, which is actually the more important thing. I’ve already mentioned that both Campion and Purslane claim Abigail’s memories as their own, but it’s also the case that they share their own memories with each other, and share memories with other shatterlings; indeed, at one point Purslane misremembers something that happened to Campion as having happened to her. So I don’t think they have been developing separate personalities for millions of years — I think, in fact, that they have been developing parallel personalities for millions of years. The point is repeatedly made that the differences between members of the Line are much less significant than the similarities, and I don’t think that is just clan loyalty.

At the time we meet them, just before a reunion, after hundreds of thousands of years apart, the shatterlings are as divergent as they will ever be; the point of the thousand-nights reunion is to celebrate sharing that experience. Before it can take place, the assembled Gentian Line is ambushed, and most of them are killed, so; yet they are still remarkably similar individuals. (One shatterling’s taste for torture, for instance, is merely out at the end of the bell curve compared to the rest of them; even those who object to the torture most are prepared to embrace its use in other circumstances, later in the book.) The differences between Line members — in particular, between Campion and Purslane, the former pruning regularly, the latter sentimentally hoarding — seem to arise in large part from differing choices about which memories to delete than they do from differing individual experiences. It is the presumed similarity between the shatterlings that makes Campion and Purslane’s romantic liaison anathema to the rest of their Line — it is rather worse than incest — and it is the need to maintain continuity that makes Campion’s decision to delete his “strand” (the archive of his memories) a transgression beyond the pale. Both actions threaten the stability of the Line.

This obsession with continuity has, I think you can argue, resulted in a kind of arrested development on the part of the shatterlings; it is emphasized more than once that near-baseline humans such as they are not perceptually suited to experiencing long stretches of “raw time”, and that their pride in their longevity is, in important ways, a delusion. But it’s interesting to think of them specifically as children, of a kind, who have not yet become full individuals; as Purslane says, shortly after the ambush, “now we are growing up” (99). You can even gloss the overall shape of the novel as being about humans learning exactly how young they really are in comparison to the depth and breadth of the universe. Coming to terms with being, in a sense, spoiled children. The Gentian Line is incredibly conscious of its fragility; for some of them, the worst consequence of the ambush is not that eight-hundred-odd unique individuals have been killed, but that as a consequence the Line may cease to exist. They take pride in their status as one of humanity’s strategies to maintain continuity over deep time, one way to rise above the churn of turnover (they would probably say, the most human such strategy). As Ludmilla Marcellin, creator of the first line, puts it:

“If [Faster-than-light travel] is developed, it will clearly be of significance to us. We’ll embrace it wholeheartedly, have no fear. But it won’t change the nature of what we are, or the reason for our existence. The galaxy will still be too big, too complex, for any one person to apprehend. Shattering, turning yourself into multiple points of view, will still be the only way to eat that cake.” (225)

If Ludmilla Marcellin’s shatterlings cease to be her, the whole point of the endeavour is lost; and as with Ludmilla, so with Abigail.

This doesn’t do away with the problems Paul and others have noted; but I think it suggests a way to reframe them as part of a more satisfactory reading of the novel. (I actually think more points of view — probably other shatterlings, though someone outside the Line would also work — would make the point more clearly.) Similarly, I think the flashbacks work better than many have given them credit for. They are there, in part, to emphasize the shared lineage of the line, but their real trick is that they turn out to be false memories, indicators of both a cargo of damage that must be common to all Gentian shatterlings, and of displacement of a specific, repressed act that stains the history of the Line. And perhaps more than that. Note that in the memories Abigail’s development is arrested in childhood for thirty years; this could perhaps represent a displaced consciousness of the thirty circuits the Gentian Line undergo before the ambush, before they start growing up; or perhaps is just a parallel to note as something that shapes the Line. [Equally, is the fact that Abigail’s guardian is “Madam Klinefelter” significant, a nod to Abigail’s genetic heritage? It’s rather a coincidence if it’s not.]

Certainly, though, my qualms didn’t bother me much during the actual reading. Back to Adam:

Reynolds is rather disgustingly skilled, actually, when it comes to plotting—not only structuring his story so that its build-ups and pay-offs are all in the right places, but pacing the whole, drawing the reader along, with only the occasional longeur. The first 200 pages hurtle by; the next hundred tread narrative water a little, but things pick up again around 300 and the reader is propelled nicely down the flume to the end-pool.

This is, clearly, not enough to make a truly good novel; but it’s not nothing, either. House of Suns is by some way the most satisfying of Reynolds’ novels that I’ve read (i.e. of those since Century Rain). I did sometimes feel that it became a touch genteel, a touch domesticating; although again, a concern with rules, the value of them as well as their limitations, whether set by Abigail or the universe, is a concern of the novel, and to manifest this as a kind of formality makes a certain amount of sense. Reynolds also falls foul of a personal bugbear, in that he fails to explain how or why his first-person narrators are relating their story. But as I was reading, only rarely were the problems severe enough to pull me up short; for the most part I barely paused for breath. I blasted through House of Suns in a little over a day and, while I wouldn’t give it this year’s Clarke Award, and am not even really sure it belongs on the shortlist, I don’t begrudge the time I spent with it one jot. A guilty pleasure is still a pleasure.

London Meeting: BSFA Awards Discussion

A Very Special Meeting, tonight: instead of an interview, a panel discussion about this year’s BSFA Awards, featuring Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Alastair Reynolds, and Adam Roberts.

The time and place stay the same, though: turn up from 6pm for discussion from 7pm, in the upstairs room of The Antelope (22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here). The meeting is free, and open to any and all; and there will be a raffle with books as prizes.

The 2009 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

Forty-six from seventeen publishers have become six from four. There are two previous winners among the nominated authors, and two first-timers (one with their first novel); one woman, and two Americans. One novel also appears on the BSFA Best Novel shortlist. There are, this year, quite a lot of spaceships.

Yes, the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist is upon us! This year’s judges — for the British Science Fiction Association, Chris Hill and Ruth O’Reilly; for the Science Fiction Foundation, Robert Hanks and Rhiannon Lassiter; and for SF, Pauline Morgan — have deliberated, and decided.

Paul Billinger, Chair of the judges, reports:

“It was a long and intense meeting to decide this year’s shortlist, with passionate debate from all of the judges. Although at times it seemed almost impossible, they eventually concluded that these six books were the ones that demonstrated to them what was best about the science fiction novels published in 2008.”

And Award Administrator Tom Hunter says:

“Speculation and active debate have always surrounded the announcement of the award shortlist, and earlier this year we took the unprecedented step of releasing the full long list of eligible submitted works from which this final shortlist was decided. Our aim was to highlight the strength and diversity of current science fiction publishing and to show the awesome task that faces our judging panel every year. I think they’ve risen to this challenge admirably and I’m greatly looking forward to the full range of reactions and conversations to come and, of course, to finding out the eventual winner at the end of April.”

That winner will be announced on Wednesday 29th April, at a ceremony held on the opening night of the Sci-Fi London film festival. They will receive £2009, and a commemorative engraved bookend.

Let the debate begin! I’ll be updating this post with links to additional reviews as they appear, but for now, here are the nominees:

Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod (PS Publishing)

Reviewed by Adam Roberts for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
An appreciation by Helena Bowles
Reviewed by Tanya Brown
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Reviewed by Niall here

The Quiet War by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid for SF Site
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Duncan Lawie for The Zone
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
Reviewed by Annalee Newitz at io9
Reviewed by Lisa Tuttle for The Times
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by Niall here

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Rich Horton for SF Site
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid for SF Site
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by Charlie Jane Anders at io9
Reviewed by Lisa Tuttle for The Times
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
Reviewed by Jonathan Wright for SFX
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Reviewed by Niall here

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic)

Reviewed by Martin Lewis for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Gary K Wolfe for Locus
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum at Asking the Wrong Questions
Reviewed by Michael Dirda for the Washington Post
Reviewed by Laura Miller for the LA Times
Reviewed by Tom Shippey for the TLS
Reviewed by Andrew McKie for The Telegraph
Reviewed by Jakob Schmidt for SF Site
Reviewed at The Complete Review
Reviewed by Niall here
Reviewed by Liz here

The Margarets by Sheri S Tepper (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Nic Clarke and Sherryl Vint for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Andrew McKie for The Telegraph
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by Annalee Newitz at io9
Reviewed by David Langford for SFX
Reviewed by Cynthia Ward for Sci-Fi Weekly
Reviewed by Adrienne Martini for Bookslut

Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham (Jonathan Cape)

Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Jonathan Gibbs for The Independent
Reviewed by Cathi Unsworth for The Guardian
Reviewed by Saxon Bullock for SFX
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Reviewed by Andrew McKie for The Telegraph

Roundups and miscellany
Edward James
Adam Roberts
Nic Clarke
Niall’s roundup
A poll
The winner

Previous shortlist roundups

Understanding Space and Time

To judge by some of the most visible metrics of quality, Alastair Reynolds had a good 2005. His novel Pushing Ice was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and three of his short stories were picked up for various year’s best volumes: “Beyond the Aquila Rift” by Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer; “Zima Blue” by Dozois again; and a novella, “Understanding Space and Time” by both the Strahan and Horton volumes. As this perhaps indicates, although Reynolds is best-known for his novels—and in particular the four-volume Inhibitors sequence—he has been amassing a significant body of short fiction, culminating in not one but two short fiction collections due later this year: Galactic North, from Gollancz, collecting the existing Inhibitors stories (except for “Diamond Dogs” and “Turquoise Days”, which are available as a separate double-feature) and adding a few new ones, and Zima Blue and Other Stories, from Night Shade, collecting everything else.

Because I haven’t read any of the Inhibitors books, I can’t help feeling relatively under-read in Reynolds; this can in fact be attributed to being thoroughly dissuaded from reading his work by a story published in Interzone sometime in the late nineties, which I suspect was “Galactic North” itself. Since then I’ve gradually read more of his output, although I think he remains a problematic writer. The two novels I’ve read both had fairly serious flaws (Century Rain primarily of pacing, Pushing Ice primarily of characterisation), and while I’ve been impressed by much of his work at shorter lengths, the three stories I mentioned above run the gamut from forgettable to surprisingly moving. “Beyond the Aquila Rift” falls into the first camp, “Zima Blue”, with its build to a striking abdication of humanity, into the second; and Understanding Space and Time (published as a standalone book for last year’s Novacon) seems to me to equally illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of Reynolds’ writing.

In many ways, it’s a prototypical cosmological hard sf story. A catastrophic plague on Earth wipes out humanity; the story’s protagonist, the last man, John Renfrew, escapes by virtue of the fact that he’s in a base on Mars; he decides to spend his remaining years studying the mysteries of the universe; and he is contacted by aliens who help him with his quest. So much is familiar. The ultimate revelation is, for obvious reasons, withheld from the reader, but even that is hinted to be somewhat hoary. But in most such stories, that doesn’t really matter: we read them for the experience, to feel the thrill of approaching transcendence.

There’s an intriguing subgenre of sf stories that take music as a metaphor for their subject. Reynolds doesn’t take it as far as, say, James Alan Gardner’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Organism” (1992), or John G. McDaid’s “Keyboard Practice, Consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord and Two Manuals” (2005). His story, although it has the graceful swell and fade of music, is not literally structurally dependent on it. But it sings the music of the universe. It is threaded through with musical analogies: the life-support machines surrounding Renfrew’s last colleague begin to seem to him like music; the aliens, when they turn up, communicate in musical tones; Renfrew’s imaginative exploration of the universe leads to fever dreams which recapitulate “the entire history of the universe, from its first moment of existence to the grand and symphonic flourishing of intelligence”. (There’s also, as Peter Hollo points out, an egregious misuse of the word ‘crescendo’, but you can’t have everything.)

The most obvious representation of music in Reynolds’ story, though, is the delusion that Renfrew indulges in to cope with his isolation: he strikes up a dialogue with a hologram of Elton John (named throughout only as ‘Piano Man’, and who also contributes the story’s epigraph). At first, the appearance of the hologram, and his white Bosendorfer grand piano, seems like a sign of hope—the station isn’t broken beyond repair, Renfrew has more options than he thought he did. It’s not true, but even so “when the piano man was playing,” we are told, “he did not feel truly alone.” Gradually, their interaction deepens, their conversations becoming more involved. Narratively, this is useful for Reynolds—along with the dreams mentioned above, it allows him to make the physics lectures slightly more digestible—but what’s most interesting about the piano man is how he becomes a hook for characterisation.

John Renfrew appears, at first glance, to be a standard hard sf protagonist. Andrew Wheeler neatly nailed the type recently, with reference to Spin: “everyone in it is just a bit more like an engineer than real people actually are: they all explain things just a bit more clearly, and they all do what they say they will do, and they’re nearly always rational.” And sure enough, when the time comes to sit down with the Mars station’s supply of books, Renfrew discards the fiction—”too depressing, reading about other people going about their lives before the accident”—and the philosophy—not a total waste of time, but “detached from anything that Renfrew considered mundane reality”—which leaves (ta-da!) the physics textbooks. When it comes to the day to day stuff, Renfrew acts like an engineer. But Reynolds’ trick is in how Renfrew reacts to his larger situation:

And what if there was in fact no one else out there at all: just empty light years, empty parsecs, empty megaparsecs, all the way out to the furthest, faintest galaxies, teetering on the very edge of the visible universe?

How did that make him feel?

Cold. Alone. Fragile.

Curiously precious.

It’s that trace of ego that’s the key, because it only grows. Confronted with the immensity of the universe, Renfrew strengthens his belief in himself. It is strongly implied that, like the creation of Piano Man, it’s a survival tactic, a mild insanity to prevent a much more total one. As Maureen Kincaid Speller notes, this sort of thinking-through of the psychological consequences of hard-sf scenarios is characteristic of Reynolds’ work. In Understanding Space and Time the sense of pressure builds steadily, although Renfrew’s situation is not visibly changing; it’s his conversations with Piano Man that spur him on.

Piano Man was right. It was a question of how deep he wanted to go.

But surely there was more to it than that. Something else was spurring him on. It felt like a weird sense of obligation, an onus that weighed upon him with pressing, judicial force. He was certain now that he was the last man alive, having long since abandoned hope that anyone was left on Earth. Was it not therefore almost required of him to come to some final understanding of what it meant to be human, achieving some final synthesis of all the disparate threads in the books before him?

On one level, this is simply a description of the force of the story, a recognition that this is how the last man is meant to live his life. Later on, as Renfrew’s quest nears its end, he senses the proximity of an answer as an approaching ending. But more immediately, when the (refreshingly unenigmatic) aliens arrive, bearing the bad news that the virus that wiped out humanity subsequently mutated and wiped out every other biological organism on Earth as well, a stereotypical hard-sf dismissal—”Renfrew dealt with that”—looks somewhat more pathological than usual. Even more tellingly, when the Kind offer to create new humans from Renfrew’s genetic material, he refuses, because “When I was alone, I spent a lot of time thinking things through. I got set on that course, and I’m not sure I’m done yet. There’s still some stuff I need to get straight in my head. Maybe when I’m finished …” It’s not exactly a profound examination of the human condition, but it’s something for us to hold on to.

And so Renfrew upgrades. And so the story almost grounds itself. Reynolds is committed to hard sf—even the Kind are explicitly limited in their capabilities—with the advantage that his work engenders trust that it means what it says: that Renfrew’s characterisation is grounded in a fairly close approximation of what his situation would really be like. But despite this, his portrayal of deep time is curiously flat. It is a portrayal rooted in casual dissonance, the sudden passing of great gobs of time, or the creation of great structures. As his intellectual exploration becomes more demanding, Renfrew leaves behind his human body, becoming first a kilometre-high crystalline mound on the summit of Pavonis Mons, and then growing until eventually he has to detach himself from the planet (for the wonderfully practical reason that the heat dissipation from his thinking is starting to disrupt the planetary climate). But throughout, Reynolds’ description is matter-of-fact:

In space he grew prolifically for fifteen million years. Hot blue stars formed, lived and died while he gnawed away at the edges of certain intractables. Human civilisations buzzed around him like flies. Among them, he knew, were individuals who were engaged in something like the same quest for understanding. He wished them well, but he had a head start none of them had a hope of ever overtaking. Over the years his density had increased, until he was now composed mostly of solid nuclear matter. Then he had evolved to substrates of pure quark matter. By then, his own gravity had become immense, and the Kind reinfoced him with the mighty spars of exotic matter, pilfered from the disused wormhole transit system of some long-vanished culture. A binary pulsar was harnessed to power him; titanic clockwork enslaved for the purposes of pure mentation.

It’s the sort of thing that put me off “Galactic North” way back when. There’s nothing in this that captures how Renfrew’s pursuit of knowledge feels; compared to similar passages in most Stephen Baxter novels (or any of the vastly more personal stories of intelligence amplification that sf is fond of), this is cold, flat stuff. That the story doesn’t collapse entirely is a tribute to the groundwork Reynolds has laid earlier on. We’re content to wait for wave to break, because we suspect it’s fundamentally unstable.

As it turns out, it is and it isn’t. As noted above, the answer Renfrew seeks is both old-fashioned and eventually sidestepped, left to implication. In fact, Renfrew splits his identity: one part of him goes on to the answer, and possible oblivion, while the other waits, receives confirmation that an answer is reached (without being told what the answer is) and chooses to diminish, to return to humanity. As is common in such cosmological stories, a certain amount of this is cast in religious terms, and for the second time Reynolds’ touch almost fails him (there is little excuse for dialogue such as “But that would mean I’m—” “Don’t say it”). But this time, it is not just the glimpses of selfish humanity that keep us reading. The echoes, in Renfrew’s return, of a similar, much more famous story, are distorted, muffled: but in the distance there is the music of the universe, cold and clear.