Fragmented dwellings: ontology and architecture in The City and the City (2009) and Learning the World (2005)

In this academic article, Alexei Warshawski explores themes of architecture, fragmentation, and ontology (in the sense of existence or Being as such) in two speculative fiction novels, China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) and Ken McLeod’s Learning the World (2005).

The relationship between architecture and its inhabitants is a powerful one which can be liberating or repressive, inclusive or exclusive, reflective or reductive. These relations are neither cohesive with one another, nor mutually exclusive, so they problematise our relationship with architecture in spatial, temporal and ontological terms. Examples may be found in China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) and Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World (2005). Miéville’s The City and the City follows Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates the murder of a foreign student whose body is found in Besźel, a city which is topographically twinned with another city called Ul Qoma. These two cities are on the same physical site and their residents are expected to ignore the city which they don’t live in, ‘unseeing’ any elements that they accidentally notice. Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World follows a future human race’s attempts to find a new planet to colonise as they travel on their planet-sized generation ship, and grapples with the problems they face in understanding a temporary architectural construct as a seemingly permanent and homely environment. Both novels engage with one of postmodernism’s key architectural concerns – the question of fragmentation, which this paper will argue is a necessity in sustaining the architecture of the worlds of both texts. While The City and the City explores fragmentary architecture through its twinned cities, Learning the World presents architecture as an inherently fragmentary construct, both in spatial and temporal terms. This paper will suggest that the ‘necessary fragmentation’ of the architecture in these texts proves the untenability of postmodern, neoliberal architecture as something permanent or fixed, in both spatial and temporal terms. Furthermore, this paper will argue that the idea of necessary fragmentation in this context give credence to Martin Heidegger’s understanding of ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’, a distinction he outlines in ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951) which suggests that ‘dwelling’ as an ontological condition is not a guaranteed effect of building or settling within architectural constructs, and that the ability to ‘build’ in an ontologically authentic manner requires one to possess the capacity to ‘dwell’ in the first place. This paper will outline how these paired concepts of building and dwelling can affect the formation and occupation of architecture, as well as architecture’s relationship to nature. Drawing together the fragmentary elements of architecture and their relationship to Heidegger’s thinking in both texts, this paper will conclude with an analysis of the reflective properties of architecture – in both literal and metaphoric senses – to demonstrate the extent to which architecture can affect not just our social and domestic lives, but our ontology itself.

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Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist 2012

The Waiting, Part I, is over, and this year’s Clarke Award shortlist is out. (Since it was released all of twelve hours ago, many or most of you reading this are already well-aware that it’s out.)

There are five members of the jury, which this year is comprised of Juliet E McKenna (BSFA), Martin Lewis (BSFA), Phil Nanson (SFF), Nikkianne Moody, SFF, and Rob Grant (SCI-FI-LONDON film festival), with Andrew M. Butler representing the Arthur C. Clarke Award as the Chair of Judges. The jury read the sixty books submitted to the award, ruled out the ones they considered to not be science fiction, and from the rest, chose what they collectively agreed (through however much argument and compromise) to be the best six works of science fiction published in Britain in 2011.

  • Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
  • Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
  • China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
  • Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
  • Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
  • Sheri S.Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

There’s plenty of commentary elsewhere about the items actually on the shortlist. I’ll be number-crunching all of the entries in the Guess the Shortlist contest in another day or so, although some of that analysis has already been done elsewhere.

There’ll be even more speculation available at the SFF’s Not-the-Clarke Award panel at Eastercon on Saturday, 7 April, at 17:30 (but only if you’re an Eastercon member this year; join now if you haven’t already and plan to attend, as they’re on course to sell out this week, before the convention.).

But meanwhile, speaking of the Clarke Award, have a look at its tasteful, newly-redesigned website!

The BSFA 2011 Shortlists!

The BSFA is delighted to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2011 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan (Interzone 233, TTA Press)
The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell (Asimov’s, July)
Afterbirth by Kameron Hurley (Kameron Hurley’s own website)
Covehithe by China Mieville (The Guardian)
Of Dawn by Al Robertson (Interzone 235, TTA Press)

Best Non-Fiction
Out of This World: Science Fiction but not as we Know it by Mike Ashley (British Library)
The SF Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition ed. John Clute, Peter Nicholls and David Langford (website)
Review of Arslan by M J Engh, Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions blog)
SF Mistressworks, ed. Ian Sales (website)
Pornokitsch, ed. Jared Shurin and Anne Perry (website)
The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the New Doctor Who (Foundation Studies in Science Fiction), ed. Graham Sleight, Tony Keen and Simon Bradshaw (Science Fiction Foundation)

Best Art
Cover of Ian Whates’s The Noise Revealed by Dominic Harman (Solaris)
Cover and illustrations of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls by Jim Kay (Walker)
Cover of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama by Pedro Marques (PS Publishing)
Cover of Liz Williams’s A Glass of Shadow by Anne Sudworth (Newcon Press)

This year a number of members nominated the British Library’s Out of This World exhibition for the Non-Fiction Award. The Committee has decided that this does not meet the eligiblity criteria for the award. However, in recognition of the support it has received and its success in encouraging people to explore and enjoy science fiction (one of the primary purposes of the BSFA Awards) will be giving it the status of Specially Commended. In addition, the accompanying book by Mike Ashley made the shortlist and can still be voted on, along with the other nominees.


Members of the BSFA and Eastercon will now have the opportunity to vote on the shortlists.

Advance voting forms will be posted out to BSFA members, who will have until 2nd April 2012 to get their nominations in. They can do that by post, email or online form, ranking each of the nominees according to their personal preference: 1 for favourite, 2 for second favourite etc. They don’t have to rank all nominees and they don’t have to vote in every category. The awards ballot is available online here. After 2nd April, the only way to get your voice heard will be to attend the Eastercon and grab a ballot form from your pack or the BSFA desk. Deadline for voting at Eastercon will be 12 noon on the day of the ceremony, the date of which will be confirmed shortly.

Congratulations to the nominees!

Cheltenham 2010

My main complaint about the sf programme at this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival is that I couldn’t spare the time and money to go to more of it. As it was, I spent a very pleasant weekend in Cheltenham, staying with friends, and went to three events over two days. All three were worth attending, if only for the pleasure of seeing serious items at a mainstream literary festival take sf seriously. Of course, though it should go without saying that my recollections are likely imperfect, there were also some frustrations.

Most of those came in the first event, China Mieville and John Mullan, in conversation:

Why is there never any science fiction on the Booker shortlist? Yet why have so many ‘literary’ novelists, from Atwood to Ishiguro, borrowed their stories from science fiction? Where does sci-fi lie on the literary landscape? What are the issues of perception surrounding this genre and its counterpart ‘literary fiction’, and how porous are the borders between them?

This was a follow-up to last year’s brief fuss on the same topic, and as Mieville emphasised more than once, all credit to Mullan for turning up to defend his remarks. Each man set out their stall for about ten minutes, then there was some back and forth, and then they opened the floor to questions. Mieville’s contention was that the Booker prize should do one of two things: either be genuinely open to all types of fiction; or admit that it is concerned with a specific category of fiction, no more or less a category than the many others with which bookshops are stocked. Mullan’s reply, stated with increasing firmness as the discussion wore on, was that literary fiction is a category apart, primarily because it eschews formula.

There were, I think, two problems facing the debate, one embedded in the panel description, the other in the panelists. The former was the assumption — pushed at slightly, but never to the extent that I would have hoped for — that a work published outside the category science fiction, and not stocked in the “special room in bookshops” that Mullan talked of, is not science fiction. So Mullan, for instance, mentioned his surprise at being informed that Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to his mind the greatest English novel of the last ten years, could have been nominated for a science fiction award; and confessed that although his first thought on hearing that it had lost the Arthur C Clarke Award to Ryman’s Air was to be intrigued, his second was to assume that it must have lost not because Air was a better novel, but because Never Let Me Go failed to meet the rules of science fiction (specifically, he suggested, in focusing on the characters instead of explaining its world). The assumption buried in there did not go uncommented on — Mieville even dragged out sf’s no good/they bellow ’til we’re deaf. But, although I wouldn’t wish to claim that that attitude towards “outsider” sf doesn’t exist, it would have been good to be able to suggest a bit more strongly that Air is indeed a novel very worth Mullan’s time; and to be able to emphasise that Ishiguro is far from the only non-category-sf author to be shortlisted for, or to win, a science fiction award; that David Mitchell, Jan Morris, Marcel Theroux and Sarah Hall have all appeared on the Clarke Award shortlist in recent years, and that a couple of years ago Michael Chabon won a Hugo and a Nebula. If, as Mullan contends, the borders have hardened since he was younger, the hardening doesn’t seem to be coming from the sf side.

The second problem was related to the first, insofar as it became awkwardly clear that while the discussion was going to be primarily about the absence of category sf from the Booker list, only one of the participants could and would talk fluently about fiction from all over the literary map. Mullan had almost no recent primary experience with category science fiction. His astonishment, for instance, that Mieville could suggest that a science fiction writer — Gene Wolfe, to be specific — might be the equal of JM Coetzee, seemed to be genuine. And it meant that he had no real way to engage with Mieville’s suggestion that different categories of fiction might have different, but equally valid, “aesthetic specificities”; and that one of sf’s specificities might be estrangement, as compared to literary fiction’s preference for recognition. When making his case for the importance of formula to genre it was telling that Mullan pointed over and over again at crime fiction, describing a template detective story. It would have been good to ask: what is the template story of a science fiction novel? The clearest demonstration of Mullan’s inability to consider that the characteristics of literary fiction Mieville was pointing at might be, in their way, as much generic markers as anything in a science fiction novel was highlighted by his description of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — which he’d read as background for a documentary on first novels — as “a send-up of science fiction”, when in fact — with its solipsistic, sadsack narrator obsessed with his relationship with his father — it plays with the conventions of “literary fiction” at least as thoroughly. (And in fact, I’d argue the metaphysics of Yu’s novel are constructed — not even subtly! — to articulate, among other things, precisely the sorts of points about literary categorisation that Mieville was trying to make.)

After all that, the second event — an interview of Iain M Banks by the editor of the Guardian Books website, Sarah Crown — was thoroughly refreshing for the unabashed enthusiasm for sf that radiated from Banks. Indeed, the first audience question could have been a plant, so completely did it seem to justify every caricature of literary snobbishness ever constructed by sf fans — the guy actually stood up and asked, in so many words because I wrote them down, “I realise this may provoke a fight, but I have to ask: why does Iain Banks, one of my favourite writers, spend so much time wasting his prodigious talent on science fiction?” — and so fully did Banks seize the opportunity to offer a full-throated and crowd-pleasing endorsement of sf as “the most important genre of the modern age”. (It was also rather cheering to hear Banks refer to himself off-handedly as writing “in two genres”…) Surface Detail sounds, in many ways, like Culture business as usual; but Banks did a good job of reminding the audience of how appealing that business can be.

Sunday’s event, also ably moderated by Sarah Crown, was probably the one I went into with highest hopes:

British Science Fiction From H G Wells to John Wyndham, Britain has been home to some of the most groundbreaking and successful classic science fiction writers. Explore past classics and the best of the current crop as authors Iain M Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Michael Moorcock and Guest Director China Miéville discuss this very British tradition.

Inevitably — and not just because three of the four panelists were respondents to the survey! — there was familiar ground covered, but it was covered thoughtfully. So, we had a consideration of how the loss of empire shapes British sf, and the extent to which in some cases it may be an assumed influence, even imposed by expectation rather than springing from within. We had The Politics Question, with the observation that it’s not so much that American sf is right-wing and British sf left-wing, but that American sf has both right and left wings, and British sf, generally speaking, has not heard from the right, plus a discussion of how individualistic vs communitarian philosophies work themselves out at the level of narrative. And we had some discussion of how sf has been positioned in relation to mainstream literature, with Michael Moorcock suggesting (not for the first time, I think) that where American sf has a stronger tradition of writers who express their ideas through sf, British sf has a stronger tradition of writers who seek to express science-fictional ideas: that is, more writers for whom science fiction is not an entire career, for whom the idea comes before the form.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion came when it strayed into what-next territory. Nic, braver than I, raised the topic, pointing out that the recent history of British sf has been a self-described golden age, particularly in the resurgence of space opera, but that other developments, such as the reduction in the number of women writers, suggested a narrowing of the field, and asked which the panel felt was the more powerful trend. Gwyneth Jones suggested, in line with recent discussion here, that British space opera, at least, is no longer a growth industry and may be starting to stagnate; and that women writing sf and feminist sf in general may have suffered for being positioned as “the next thing” in a genre that is always hungry for the next thing, rather than more usefully seen as a an evolution. (Mieville, in turn, suggested that it may be worth looking to what he characterised as an “underground tradition” of British sf — involving Katharine Burdekin, Jane Gaskell, and another writer whose name I forget — for a more congenial reception of women.) And speculating on the next thing, the panel suggested that the sf to look for may be that coming from elsewhere — from the Pacific Rim, or Africa — and may not necessarily be prose sf. Or it may be — and this was the point missing from the earlier debate for me, even bearing in mind Moorcock’s comments — that more and more interesting fantastical writing is coming from writers positioned outside the current category; Mieville cited Toby Litt, David Mitchell and Helen Oyeyemi as writers to keep an eye on, all picks I’d cheerfully agree with

All good clean fun. Perhaps not all attendees agreed, mind you; as we were leaving the panel discussion, an elderly gentleman behind me was heard to wonder why, oh why, do sf writers always seem to be so interested in navel gazing?

When A Datapoint Becomes A Trend

Earlier this week, John Gray wrote about sf in the New Statesman, setting out an argument about The State Of Science Fiction. He begins by praising The City & The City‘s insight into the way we live our lives, asserts that “this insight comes without any suggestion that the situation can be changed”, and takes this stance as paradigmatic of modern sf, as opposed to classic sf’s belief that humanity can and will shape the future.

Even at its most pessimistic, science fiction has always been a humanist genre. The consoling assumption has been that while civilisation may be flawed and fragile, it can always be rebuilt, perhaps on a better model, if only humans have the will to do it.
If science fiction is no longer a viable form, it is because the humanist assumptions that underpinned it are no longer credible even as fictions. The hybrid type of writing that has evolved in recent years is symptomatic. “Slipstream”, “cyberpunk” and “new weird” blend together influences as diverse as Arthur Machen and Mikhail Bulgakov, Charles Williams and William S Burroughs. What these styles of writing have in common is an absence of politics. No world-changing project features in any of them. Miéville is an active member of the Socialist Workers Party, but his brand of fantastic fiction has as much to do with his political hopes as Wells’s scientific fables did with his utopian schemes. Wells may have fantasised about a world government using science for the masses, but it was the clairvoyant dreams that appear in The Island of Dr Moreau that expressed his true vision.

During much of the 20th century, speculative fiction served an impulse of world transformation. Fantasy was understood as an exercise in which alternative worlds were imagined in order to create new possibilities of action. Today fantasy has the role of enabling us to see more clearly the elusive actualities. The question of action is left open. We debate what can be done to change the world, but no one expects an answer.

This is not an argument that comes completely out of left field. It is not the same thing as William Gibson’s future fatigue — the idea, as expressed in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, that all we have is the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios — but it’s related, I think, inasmuch as if you think you can’t realistically talk about the changes to come, you’re not talking about changes that will come. Nor is it the same thing as Gary Wolfe’s proposition of Evaporating Genres, which is much more an argument about where and how science fiction appears; except that you would expect some changes in the character of science fiction to go along with changes in where and how it’s published, and Mieville’s book is the exemplar of a crossover text.

So in some ways I agree with Cheryl Morgan that “instinctively” Gray’s point has “a certain validity”, at least that the sort of sf he describes has become a more prominent strain of sf. But there’s an awful lot to argue with. Some of the argumentation is dubious — I’m a little bit in awe of that “If science fiction is no longer a viable form”, for so unapologetically repositioning as a given what was at best an implicit proposition a few paragraphs earlier — and, most problematically, as presented Gray is extrapolating from an absolute paucity of datapoints. He probably didn’t have to do so for the sake of his argument. He would have been justified to arrogate to his cause The Road — certainly the most widely-noticed apocalyptic vision of the last decade, and distinguished by its utter refusal of Wyndham-esque rebuilding — and perhaps the advocates of Shine might say that, in part, they’re addressing the gap that Gray identifies.

But here’s the complete list of writers of sf cited in Gray’s piece, as it stands: Wells, Zamyatin, Huxley, Stapledon, Orwell, Heinlein, Wyndham, Moorcock, Harrison, Lem, Ballard, Mieville. Laurie Penny has an excellent, necessary riposte on the familiar imbalances here:

Gray’s article lists not a single woman writer, nor any writer of colour — nor, indeed, any living writers from the 21st-century save Miéville. It is particularly startling that, in his digest of 20th-century dystopian fiction, he neglects to mention Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a near-future novel set in a brutal patriarchal theocracy, alongside Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World.
Women’s liberation has always been, in Gray’s words, an “impulse of world transformation”. Imagining alternative futures in order to create a potentiality of action has been particularly important for women writers and writers of colour seeking to articulate social oppression.

There’s a list of the usual counter-suspects at the end of Penny’s piece, credited to Farah Mendlesohn and (suggestively) China Mieville. A few things strike me about that list. One, it’s as American-led a list as Gray’s piece is Brit-heavy; make of that what you will. Two, someone really needs to fix “Tricia O’Sullivan”, because I wince every time I read it. Three, Sullivan’s Maul is a good example of the sort of sf that — having spent part of the weekend discussing it — jumped out at me as noticeable by its absence from Gray’s piece, that is, sf engaged with some form of posthumanity. There’s plenty of it around, and it’s exactly about imagining radically transformed human experience. Fourth, and finally, Gwyneth Jone’s Bold as Love sequence is a pretty devastatingly effective counter-example to Gray’s argument, being as Sherryl Vint puts it, precisely “a thoughtful and thorough meditation on the political options facing us in the 21st century”, clearly accepted as a major work.

Penny’s piece itself, however, I find myself unable to agree with entirely. I’m not sure that sf “can’t help but replicate the strategies of radical politics and identity politics”; I might be convinced by “is particularly amenable to”, but there’s an awful lot of conservative sf out there. And moreover it seems to me that it’s not hard to come up with examples of books by women that fit Gray’s agenda — he includes weird fiction, for instance, which gets him books like Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War, and he includes slipstream, which gets him books like Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Both of those are, you can argue, works that highlight “elusive actualities” rather than propose alternatives. I rather suspect Gray didn’t mention them not because sf by women, in a broad sense, is antithetical to his argument or his particular humanist sensibility, but because he’s just not familiar with it.

The Winner

The Arthur C Clarke Award ceremony, for those who don’t know, is currently held in conjunction with Sci Fi London at a central London cinema, most of which happens to be underground. This has a few consequences, the most notable of which are (a) the award reception tends to be noisy, crowded, and hot, and (b) there’s no reception for mobile phones, and no wi-fi network, which in this day and age means near-complete online silence for most of the event, followed by a sudden burst as people return to the surface following the award. I tend to find it an enjoyable draining experience — all credit to Tom Hunter, and Sci Fi London, and the cinema, for organising it — and invariably engage in half a dozen half-conversations, and don’t even see half the people I would have liked to say hello to. After the reception, everyone files into one of the cinema screens for the ceremony: speeches from Tom Hunter, festival director Louis Savy, and chair of the judges Paul Billinger, and the announcement of the winner

This year: The City & The City by China Mieville, who made a gracious speech. As the Guardian notes, this makes Mieville the first author to win the prize three times, and which instantly looks like one of those decisions that couldn’t have gone any other way. The Guardian refers to the quote I gave them when Mieville won the BSFA Award, saying that I thought it wouldn’t be the last prize the book wins this year. I didn’t actually have the Clarke in mind at the time, and in fact The City & The City becomes only the fifth book to do the double; I was thinking of the Hugo. I’m less certain about the Nebula, and will be fascinated to see if it makes the running for either the British Fantasy Society awards or the World Fantasy Awards later this year — or, indeed, any crime awards. All of which is horse-race stuff, and less interesting than the book itself; but I think I’ve pretty thoroughly said my piece about it at this point, and I don’t think I can face another discussion about whether or not it’s sf.

Here’s a thing, though: the Arthur C Clarke Award winners for the first decade of the twenty-first century:

2001: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
2002: Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
2003: The Separation by Christopher Priest
2004: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
2005: Iron Council by China Mieville
2006: Air by Geoff Ryman
2007: Nova Swing by M John Harrison
2008: Black Man by Richard Morgan
2009: Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
2010: The City & The City by China Mieville

That really makes clear just how impressive Mieville’s achievement is, I think; at least two of his wins, Perdido Street Station and The City & The City, are for books that undeniably caught the imagination of the field. (And you wouldn’t want to bet that The City & The City will be his last win, either.) Is it a good list of winners, overall? I’d say so. Most of those books are ones I would recommend without hesitation to almost anyone. You could argue, perhaps, that the complete absence of space opera looks a little odd — although neither the Hugo nor the Nebula recognised any in the same period — given the attention that subgenre has received over the last ten years. And Gwyneth Jones looks rather lonely; as the release of the submissions lists over the past few years has made clear, the relative absence of women writers from the UK sf field is a structural problem that just isn’t getting any better. But there is at least a reasonable diversity of protagonists and, increasingly over the course of the decade, of settings; after three books at the start of the decade that draw very strongly on British locations and ideas of Britishness, the winners range increasingly widely, and are probably all the better for that. I wonder what the Award will throw up next year?

Notes on a Shortlist

Almost everyone, it seems, agrees about at least one thing about this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award, the winner of which is announced tonight: that it’s a good shortlist. (That post now updated with more review-links, by the way.) I’m not about to break that hardening consensus, and may even raise the stakes slightly. I think the 2010 shortlist is one of the very good ones; for me, as a shortlist as a whole, probably the strongest since 2003, when Light vied against The Scar and the ultimate winner, The Separation. Two of the novels — Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream — have been hailed as returns to form, two more — China Mieville’s The City & The City and Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia — as their authors’ best to date; and the remaining two — Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and Marcel Theroux’s Far North — are certainly not without their champions. Perhaps the most pleasing thing about the shortlisted novels is their variety. There are more and less straightforwardly science fictional works, set in times ranging from the seventeenth century to hundreds of years hence, and if you’re not calling them sf, you could call these books crime novels, Westerns, comedies, and adventure stories. (Or just novels, of course.) It’s a good showcase. But a novel is a prose narrative with something wrong with it; and so, though it’s harder to do than it was last year, we must look for what’s wrong with these offerings.

What it isn’t, for once, is very British, and the most British book on the list — if only for its blokeish humour — is the one most people throw out of the balloon first. Retribution Falls has plenty to recommend it, particularly pace and, in its retro-magical setting, colour, and is welcome on the shortlist as an adventure story, a form too often given critical short shrift that nevertheless requires considerable craft. I kick it out of the balloon first as well, though, not for being what it is, but for flirting with smeerpdom. It seems to me that the story Retribution Falls tells is not sufficiently specific to its fantastic content: that it could be retold in another time or place without changing much more than the vocabulary. (I’d say this is partly where the omnipresent Firefly comparisons are coming from.) And that’s not enough to be the best science fiction novel of the year, the book put forward as an example of what science fiction can be and can do. There’s also the question of the book’s female characters, which aren’t exactly depicted on equal terms with the men, although on that point I’m willing to give the novel more credit for self-awareness than, say, Nic or Abigail are (although this is not to mention the question of the book’s sole near-silent ex-slave character of colour, which is harder to excuse). Such factors must be considered when assessing the book, I’d argue; the political is as inextricable a part of literary judgement as the aesthetic.

An author usually impeccable on both fronts is Gwyneth Jones, whose Spirit — being a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo — would seem to also risk smeerpdom, but which actually passes at least that test with flying colours. I haven’t read the original, but I know its outline, and Jones does not seem to be in thrall (and in the book’s last third, seems to revise her model quite inventively, if not, in the end, entirely convincingly); nor have I read the major preceding work in Jones’ own oeuvre, the Aleutian trilogy, but there to I didn’t feel the absence of context particularly strongly. That is: Spirit is a full, contained science fiction novel. It’s about that most speculative of subjects, identity, or at least is at its best, so far as I’m concerned, when it hews closest to this theme. There’s much here about what defines us, and what might define us, in an era when space travel that treats mind and matter as interchangeable information — the raw stuff of self — and much about individuals who are defined, usually as Other. The novel’s great weakness is a lack of consistency. It really is a bit all over the place, veering from political intrigue to action-led set piece to introspective periods of what is glossed as “poetic time”; the latter are the most reliably good, and a section half-way through the novel set in a prison is seriously impressive, but the quality is never as even as it should be. A lesser but still significant weakness, I think, is a lack of freshness, a sense of being a bit second-had. Sometimes this is to good effect. I can see how Jones’ Star Trek aliens play into her theme — the alien understood as an element of humanity; or, in this case, perhaps more accurately humanity understood as an element of the alien — and I don’t want to take, for instance, Jones’ playfulness with gender, which delivers plenty of welcome perceptual jabs, for granted. But on balance, even if some aspects of the book aren’t seen as often as we might hope, there seems to me too little here that hasn’t been seen before.

Which brings me to China Mieville’s The City & The City, whose central conceit has clearly already entered the canon of Really Neat Speculative Ideas. What is so very neat about it, it seems to me now, and the novel’s greatest accomplishment, is how successful it is at exposing readers’ assumptions. To talk about The City & The City in any sort of depth is to reveal with uncommon clarity how you think about the world, about people and about fiction: all of which are always worth doing. But it is for me a less satisfying novel — certainly a less satisfying science fiction novel; I do think it reads much more interestingly as fantasy — than it a political act. Its plot is seldom remarked upon, although I note that in general this aspect seems to pick up more praise from readers who spend more time with crime novels than I do; and its narrator contains no great depths, and to my ear just a bit of strain in his voice. It’s primarily for the neatness of its conceit, I’d guess, that the novel quite deservedly won the BSFA Award — and, not surprisingly, it’s the front-runner in Liz’s poll. (The BSFA Award is not a great predictor of success in the Clarke Award, though, with only four books ever having done the double.) Mind you, if it does win, it will be a remarkable event, making Mieville the first author to win the Clarke Award three times; and three times within a decade, no less.

Now it gets really hard. Is Yellow Blue Tibia Adam Roberts’ best novel? Well, that probably depends on why you read Adam Roberts novels. There is certainly something to the idea that it’s his most relaxed, owned novel — as Jonathan put it, the work that combines Roberts’ various hats, as a writer of novels, histories, spoofs and criticism, “into one magnificent red satin topper”. In the honorable tradition of sf novels about science fiction, it surely has a spot marked out for it; it is funny; it has things to say about totalitarianism as well; it’s as technically well-formed a novel as you could wish; and its science fictional conceit delights me. To date the major charge against Yellow Blue Tibia has been Catherynne Valente’s hard-to-ignore assessment of “painfully inept cultural appropriation” (on which Roberts lightly comments here). That is: it is hamfisted as a depiction of Russian-ness. To me, the novel seems much more about popular conceptions of Russian-ness than about the thing itself. As Dan puts it, River of Gods would have been both a poorer and less honest novel if it had been written primarily with reference to depictions of India, but I don’t see that Yellow Blue Tibia is trying to be River of Gods, and I’m a little baffled that anyone tries to take it as such. It seems to me far too ironic, too playful, to self-conscious to be taken as striving — as McDonald’s novel clearly does strive — for anything approximating that horrible concept, “authenticity”. (That, and cultural appropriation strikes me as most egregious when there is a severe power imbalance in favour of the person doing the writing; and I don’t see that between the UK and Russia.) That sense of play, indeed, is one reason I read Adam Roberts; but another is to be challenged, to have my expectations about fiction and the world in general confronted in some way or another. And on that score, Yellow Blue Tibia disappoints me, seems to have fewer edges not just than Roberts’ other novels, but than other books on this shortlist.

If The City & The City is a popular choice for the award, Far North is becoming something like the reviewer’s choice, with Dan, David, Nic and Abigail all leaning in that direction, and Martin revising his odds accordingly. And for all that it’s been a long time since “the mainstream book” went home with the Clarke Award — since The Sparrow in 1998 — my head thinks that this could be Far North‘s year. It has a purity of concept and execution matched by no other novel on the shortlist, save perhaps The City & The City, and Theroux’s offering is a substantially more interesting novel of character (which does tend to be, in the end, one of the things the Clarke goes for). In its pragmatic depiction of life after ecotastrophe it eschews judgement in a way that few other such novels are able to — as Abigail puts it, it shows The Road how it’s done — and its Zone is as provocative and memorably eerie a location as antecedents. (It is also, like the previous three novels, a work that draws on Eastern/Northern Asia for its affect — a huge region, of course, but there do seem to me to be some affinities between Spirit‘s Baykonur metropolis and Chinese-influenced culture, The City & The City‘s vaguely defined border location, Yellow Blue Tibia‘s Communist Russia, and Far North‘s Siberia. And, of course, the one novel I haven’t discussed has a European setting. This is not, as I said, the most British shortlist.) In all, Far North is a novel that’s easy to argue for and hard to argue against, which is why I think it will win: after all, my mostly strongly felt argument against it, like Amanda, is simply that I like Galileo’s Dream more.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, which ranges between Galileo’s lifetime and the medium-far future, is expansive and rough where Far North is contained and controlled. It is a long book and — like its protagonist — can be exasperating (although this does not mean that I agree with Rob Grant’s assessment that it is “written to impress rather than entertain“), but it nails the dismount. And more than any of the other books shortlisted, it’s the one I want to revisit. (Of course, the judges will have revisited it, and all the others.) This is partly just because Robinson’s model of human nature and culture is one I am quite strongly in sympathy with: that the world may not be sane, but that it behooves us to find as much sanity as we can, and struggle for more; that it is possible to be utopian without de-emphasizing the challenges to that position. And it’s partly because I want to explore how Robinson tackles the material that’s new to him — the alien — in more detail. But it’s mostly because I want to revisit the things that are specific to Galileo’s Dream that Galileo’s Dream does so extraordinarily well. The exploration of memory, of how human beings live in time; the science-fictional dreams that use the techniques of sf past to address the tropes of sf present; and most of all, the sophisticated analysis of what it means to write a biographical historical fiction, to intervene in the thoughts of a past life as a future traveller (or writer). You can feel the tension — can in fact see it develop over the course of the novel — between that idea of Galileo as we can imagine he might have been, and Galileo as we (as Kim Stanley Robinson) would like to be able to imagine he was. At the end of a decade that’s given us quite a lot of historical fiction novels about science, for me Galileo’s Dream stands as the best of them: and of the books on this shortlist, I think it contains the most beauty, and the most truth. And so I hope it wins this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award.

2009 BSFA Awards Shortlists

Best Novel

Ark cover Lavinia cover
The City & The City cover Yellow Blue Tibia cover

Ark by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)
Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin (Gollancz)
The City & The City by China Mieville (Macmillan)
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Best Short Fiction
Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster (Interzone 220)
The Push by Dave Hutchinson (Newcon Press)
Johnnie and Emmie-Lou Get Married” by Kim Lakin-Smith (Interzone 222)
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald (in Cyberabad Days, Gollancz)
The Beloved Time of Their Lives” [pdf link] by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia (in The Beloved of My Beloved, Newcon Press)
The Assistant” by Ian Whates (in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 3, ed. George Mann)

Best Artwork
Alternate cover art for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (art project), Nitzan Klamer
Emerald” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Cover of Desolation Road by Ian McDonald, by Stephan Martinière, jacket design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke
Cover of Interzone 220, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 224, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 225, Adam Tredowski

Best Non-Fiction
Canary Fever by John Clute (Beccon)
I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” by Deepa D
Ethics and Enthusiasm” by Hal Duncan [Note: withdrawn from consideration]
“Mutant Popcorn” by Nick Lowe (Interzone)
A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James (Middlesex University Press)

Congratulations to all the nominees! Note that there are only four nominees in the Best Novel category, and six nominees in the Best Short Fiction and Best Artwork categories due to ties for fifth place. The Awards will be presented at this year’s Eastercon, Odyssey.

Mr H & Mr H discuss The City & The City

The City and the City coverAttentive readers may remember that I was a bit sceptical about China Mieville’s new novel when I started it. I didn’t end up any less sceptical when I finished it, but struggled to articulate my reasons in a review (subsequently aborted). More recently, Dan Hartland also read it, and asked me if I would like to discuss it. This post is the first part of that discussion; you can find the second part over at Dan’s place, here. Bear in mind that of necessity our discussion assumes knowledge of the nature of the book’s setting, which I’m not sure is yet quite common knowledge. There aren’t many in-depth reviews out there yet, either, but this IROSF review by Eric Gregory will give you a flavour of the book, without fully revealing the gimmick (it’s cruel of me to call it a gimmick, but there you go). But if you already know what I’m alluding to, or don’t mind knowing, then read on …


My problem is, I’m not sure I have anything to say that would be productive enough to be worth dialoguing about. I suddenly realised, when I was writing my abortive review of the book, what it reminded me of — a graphic novel I read last year called Rumble Strip, which is about contemporary society’s obsession with cars. There’s a brilliant section about how believing in road markings — believing that lines of paint on the ground denote actual boundaries — is a necessary absurdity, essential to keeping the whole system going. The book points out that our shared belief in those lines of paint is so strong that driving across them — even in, say, an empty car park — always carries a transgressive thrill. And I read that, and while intellectually I already knew what it was telling me, the book brought out the emotion of the situation in a way that made it fresh.

The City & The City wants to be that writ large, I think. It seems to me that for the book to work, you have to be convinced by the central conceit — you have to believe, even if only temporarily, in the separated coexistence of Beszel and Ul Qoma as Tyador Borlu believes in it, as necessary even if absurd – and unfortunately, I never was. Which leaves me intellectually appreciating the neatness of “unseeing” and the rest as refractions of real-world behaviours, but not emotionally engaged by most of the book. Sometimes, yes — I found any scene with driving in is terrifying, because it taps into the same knowledge as Rumble Strip, except here you have a sustained, deliberate transgression of the rules. But mostly, I just didn’t think it scaled. Yes, I “unsee” homeless people sometimes; not that I’m proud of doing so. Yes, people can live in the same physical cities and, metaphorically, in entirely different places. No, I don’t believe that metaphor can be formalized in the way that The City & The City asks me to believe it can.

What did you think?



Well, I think that you’ve cottoned on to what Mieville is up to — not that it wasn’t blatantly obvious — but, at the same time, he reminds us very early on that “this city is not an allegory”. With that warning in mind, I didn’t worry too much about whether the behaviours on show in Ul Qoma and Beszel ‘scaled up’ from our own urban villages; instead, I tried to see whether or not they made sense in and of themselves. Undoubtedly they do — the book is very successful in making sense of its wild conceit. As you say, the concepts of unseeing and unsensing are very neat, and all the cross-hatched city stuff very well drawn: I believed that Borlu believed in it and, more importantly, lived by it.

To that extent, I’m not sure the reader has to believe in the cities as Borlu does for the book to be a success — do we believe in the Ring as Frodo does? Of course not. And yet, of course, LotR is not set in our world. Explicitly, The City & The City is — or rather, it is set in a parallel world as close to ours as not to matter. People write books, use telephones and board planes in Borlu’s world as they do in ours; they speak the same languages, have the same emotions. For me, that’s where the book trips up — it situates its metaphor in a milieu too familiar. I didn’t believe in, as you say, the necessity of the separation because I didn’t believe the cities’ inhabitants would — not because people can’t be conditioned to accept something so absurd, but because people would never have made the separation, or sustained it, in the first place. Unusually for Mieville, I just didn’t buy the sophistication of his politics.

He thanks Farah Mendelsohn in his acknowledgements, and that makes me wonder if The City & The City fails because it is more excercise than fleshed-out world: this fantasy is a portal quest (Copula Hall), yet it is also immersive (because we begin in the world and our POV character is part of that world); at the same time, it is intrusive — Breach and one city exist constantly at the edge of perception for inhabitants of the other — and liminal, since that gap between our world and the fantasy is never properly resolved. Is The City & The City less a novel and more a deliberate taxing of the taxonomy?


To take your last point first: ah, I hadn’t thought of it like that! It’s certainly plausible that he was familiar with and playing with Mendlesohn’s taxonomy, particularly since he’s borrowed at least one term from the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. (Crosshatch: “in many fantasy tales the demarcation line is anything but clearcut, and two or more worlds may simultaneously inhabit the same territory … in a novel like M John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings (1980 US) the entire landscape is a crosshatch … In other words, when borderland conventions are absent, there is an inherent and threatening instability to regions of crosshatch.”) And the book clearly plays with other conventions of fantasy, too, such as the specialized vocabulary — Breach, unseeing, topolgangers, all the rest — which I think is one of the ways in which The City & The City attempts to shape our thinking, as readers: it takes the familiar geeky joy of getting to grips with worldbling and attempts to make it do some work. On the other hand, Mieville has also said that one of the impetuses behind the novel was that it was written as a present for his mother, who liked mysteries; so presumably it is intended to succeed on that level as well.

But your second paragraph nails the problem, for me: my argument with the book is precisely in the extent to which it is not fantasy or allegory. If The City & The City had been set in an invented world, or if it had created a secret, mythic world within our own, I suspect I would have found it (paradoxically) easier to believe in. But all the trade agreements, and the stuff about tourism, and the mention of a Chuck Palahniuk novel set in the cities — all of this repeatedly and explicitly places them in our world, and undermines my ability to believe that people could, as you say, ever have made that separation or sustained it.

I’m harping on about belief because I do think it’s central to the book — and in particular to the ending. You say you didn’t buy the politics of the novel: clearly, in addition to commenting on urban blindness, it’s also a comment on international relations. What did you take it to be saying, on that front? On the one hand, the selective ignorance of Borlu and everyone else in the cities can be seen as a false consciousness, called out as such by some of the political radicals, and by the foreign businessman at the end of the book: the inhabitants of the cities should realise that they are stronger united than divided, but they never will. On the other hand, you can see it as an argument for the necessity and value of borders, the distinct cultures of Beszel and Ul-Qoma being preserved by the separation. (Either way the businessman is a hypocrite, blind to his own blindnesses, but that’s neither here nor there.) But while in principle I’d like to be able to take the ending as holding these two ideas in tension, in the way that it holds the two cities in tension — because both arguments are to some extent valid — in practice the former reading seems very much stronger. I do believe that Borlu believes in the cities; I just think he’s a complete dolt for doing so. Which doesn’t make him a terribly satisfying narrator to spend time with.

[End of part one. In part two: more on politics, detectives and doltishness!]

When A Fantasy Is Not A Fantasy

Charles N Brown, March Locus:

Of the newest books, I loved The City & The City by China Mieville (Del Rey — June), a total departure from his earlier books. The language is much more spare, the story very tight, and the mystery involved very satisfying. There is no magic at all, and I would catalog it as an alternate world or Graustarkian fantasy since the only element that ties it to our field is the very strange central European country it’s set in.


Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other. It is a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen, a journey to Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma.

First review I’ve seen:

What makes this book fascinating is that the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma exist in the same space, sitting one atop the other, and residents of each city have been trained since birth not to notice the other for fear of ‘breach’, the movement or acknowledgement of the other city that is punishable by the folks known only as ‘Breach’ who investigate and severely punish transgressors. Functionally each city is different. They have different architecture, different currency, they work completely independently but they have to avoid collisions while driving in the same space and avoid noticing each other as they walk the same streets; it’s this setting that makes The City And The City such a compelling read.

The book itself:

“You know that area: is there any chance we’re looking at breach?”
There were seconds of silence.
“Doesn’t seem likely. That area’s mostly pretty total. And Pocost Village, that whole project, certainly is.”
“Some of GunterStrasz, though …”
“Yeah but. The closest crosshatching is hundreds of metres away. They couldn’t have …” (16)

“This morning I found a few of the locals I used to talk to,” Corwi said. “Asked if they’d heard anything.” She took us through a darkened place where the balance of crosshatch shifted and we were silent until the streetlamps around us became again taller and familiarly deco-angled. Under those lights — the street we were on visible in a perspective curve away from us — women stood by the walls selling sex. They watched our approach guardedly. “I didn’t have much luck,” Corwi said. (21)

I lived east and south a bit of the old town, the top-but-one flat in a six-storey towerlet on VulkovStrasz. It is a heavily crosshatched street — clutch by clutch of architecture broken by alterity, even in a few spots house by house. The local buildings are taller by a floor or three than the others, so Besz juts up semi-regularly and the roofscape is almost a machiocolation. (28)

I have to admit, so far I’m a bit sceptical: the metaphor is clear enough, but as framed at this point in the book, if it’s not fantastic in some way, then it seems too improbable to believe. (I’m also not entirely convinced that Inspector Borlu’s narrative voice can accomodate words like “alterity”, or elsewhere, “polysemic” and “effaced”, as casually as Mieville seems to want it to, but that’s a separate issue.)