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.

Vector 260: Fantasy and Mythology

A bit belated, this, for which I apologise. While I was away on holiday, the latest BSFA mailing should have dropped through members’ doorsteps. If you haven’t received it, let us know; it should have looked like this:

And the contents of Vector:

Torque Control — editorial
Letters — or, this issue, letter; keep ’em coming, though
Of Time and the River — Paul Kincaid on Robert Holdstock
Across the Dickian Multiverse — Hal Duncan interviewed by Tony Keen
Euripedes Bound: Hal Duncan’s use of Greek tragedy — Tony Keen
Other Views — Gwyneth Jones interviewed by Tanya Brown
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Kari Sperring
Progressive Scan — a column by Abigail Nussbaum
Foundation’s Favourites — a columnn by Andy Sawyer
Resonances — a column by Stephen Baxter
The New X — a column by Graham Sleight

There’s a little discussion of the issue in the BSFA forum. And inexcusably not credited in the issue is Drew Brayshaw, whose photograph provides the basis for the cover.

Also in the mailing, as the photo shows, is the latest issue of Focus, and the latest BSFA Special booklet: SF writers on SF film: from Akira to Zardoz, edited by Martin Lewis, who has posted about the booklet here. Adam Roberts has posted his contribution, on Blade Runner, here.

Last, but certainly not least: Matrix Online has relaunched. with oodles of features and reviews.

Kairos

Kairos coverKairos is a novel that spends a lot of time refusing to look you in the eye. Very nearly half of its pages (which number 260 in the revised 1995 edition, i.e. not the one pictured; I don’t know if the original 1988 edition is substantially shorter or longer, although Jones’ afterword suggests not) have passed before it actually admits that it’s going to be something more than one of the most grimly hypnotic visions of a real-year-88 near future committed to paper, but the pattern is there from the start. The first person we encounter is Sandy Brize who, on a cold August day, is deciding to leave the lover with whom she has spent her whole adult life. We never see the leave-taking itself: what we get is Sandy’s thought that, “around her failing love affair the failing world had gathered: started and spoiled, tried and failed, until Sandy could scarcely tell the two apart” (3), and other cheerfully entropic observations. Similarly, chapter two, a flashback to ten years earlier, doesn’t show us the couple in happier times; rather, it begins with Sandy having visited Otto Murray, who has just given birth, in hospital. Chapter three then opens with Otto Murray alone in a protesting crowd, Sandy having stormed off after an argument. And so on. In each case, the imagined scenes are more powerful than anything Jones could have written, of course; when Otto does visit Sandy, post-breakup, in the story’s present day, it’s something of an anticlimax, although one in which what is not said, what is absent, remains a looming presence — which, for marginalized inhabitants of a United Kingdom falling to pieces, whose inhabitants are only too well aware that the future is being decided elsewhere, even if by war, is only fitting.

The urban gloom that pervades most of Kairos is a peculiarly British drabness, but — another way in which the novel is evasive — conjured predominantly in the corner of the eye, through observations such as Sandy’s that relate a character and their environment. It’s an approach you could describe as street-level, if that didn’t conjure images of the lurid angsts of cyberpunk. Things that would be the meat of a more typical science fiction novel are passed over in brief, or excluded altogether. We are told that the Tories are in power — after one term of a “moderate” Labour government — but the Prime Minister is never named. The first decade of the twenty-first century has apparently seen “the oil crisis, the dollar crisis, the Japanese Rearmament”, and there’s mention of “the Islamic Bomb” and “the Israeli Bomb”, plus various brushfire wars, but Kairos cares about these events only to the extent that they shape the people who have to live with them in the back of their mind. Most characters are introduced in terms of the niches they cling to, of class, race, gender, sexuality, and how those niches constrain and define them. Sandy and Otto are unambiguously poor, but even the better-off characters seem excluded from wherever it is that the decisions are being made. For Sandy, increasingly as the novel proceeds, the only way to live in such a world is to seek a kind of psychic oblivion. Otto, on the other hand, raised in a relatively more liberal time, feels “betrayed […] she had no choice but to consider certain conditions normal and struggle for their recovery” (39). At times, it’s almost a cliché of how the eighties in Britain are meant to have felt, but its power remains. For all that Otto, Sandy and their friends try to find a way to deal with the world they find themselves in, Kairos can be as corrosive to the soul, if not the senses, as its inspiration.

The sf plot is, to start with, a conjuring trick. There is an organization, with the slightly cringe-inducing name of BREAKTHRU, which probably started life as a pharmaceutical company, apparently became a millennial cult, and has hung around for reasons not fully apparent to any of the characters. Sandy goes to one of their meetings, and is partly baffled, partly repulsed by their ideology. At the same time, Otto’s young son, Candide — a cruel affliction of a name if ever there was one – reports occasional sightings of things that may or may not be angels. Otto herself ends up in possession of a package, containing something taken from BREAKTHRU, which is barely mentioned until one of Candide’s angels turns up, explains the plot (ta-da!), and then anatomizes Otto and her friends:

“Okay, so we’ll rerun the story so far. The container that has gone astray holds an enormous quantity, relatively speaking, of a very new and potentially very dangerous drug.
[…]
“With the concentration that is packed in that little tube, there is no need to ingest it. It affects any contacts like a kind of radiation. Touch isn’t necessary, even: intention is enough.
[…]
“It gets right back to the, um, sub-particulate interface between mind and matter. It is operating under Planck’s constant, down where everything turns into everything else. It’s like, you can really play around with things.
[…]
“[You] probably think of yourselves as outsiders, dissenters. That isn’t true at all. In fact you epitomise the present state of the world, especially in this country and the others like it; white consumerism. […] You’re very comfortable in your separate ways but deep down it’s all based on denial.” (113-5)

It’s difficult to convey how incongruous the twin intrusions this passage represents — the appearance of an angel, kilt and golden breastplate and all, and the sudden, brazen clarity he brings to the story — seem after a hundred densely gnarled pages of Kairos. Whether or not the angel came from heaven, or is simply a kairos-user, he certainly appears to have come from another story, though as the last part of the quote may suggest, he doesn’t herald a dramatic shift in the novel’s trajectory. With kairos loose in the world, what the second half of the book sets out to demonstrate is that denial does you no good if intention is enough.

So the characters set out on journeys that take them deeper into landscapes that they are probably creating. These chapters are, at times, almost unbearably tense; they are also largely superb. Otto finds herself wandering dazed through the ultimate betrayal, a postapocalyptic Brighton — the aftermath of World War, for her, is marked by silence everywhere, the absence of people — then incarcerated in a prison that may be as much mental as it is real, before temporarily losing her identity entirely: one chapter begins, starkly, “The prisoner had escaped. It could not remember how” (220). Meanwhile, Sandy journeys with Candide to the headquarters of BREAKTHRU; she was not actually present during the angel’s visitation, but is increasingly conscious that the separation between her mind and the world is breaking down. She may be trapped in a version of the story that Otto has created, refracted through her own psyche. In one of the book’s most striking images, while trapped in a motorway traffic jam Sandy looks up to see ” the pale November sun burst into an arc. A multiple arc of white suns spanned the sky. Everyone in all the cars shouted in terror and amazement” (150). Whether this is a literal change in the nature of reality, or simply how Sandy interprets the sunbursts of nuclear war, is unclear; as is, for a long time, whether the war itself is real, or caused by the protagonists thinking it so, or simply happens to coincide with the Kairos event. It seems to be the revolution the characters have been yearning for. It is terrifying. It even succeeds, briefly.

Or perhaps more than briefly. John Clute described the end of the book this way:

But Candide joins forces with Sandy, Otto’s working-class lesbian lover who has suffered both the snubs of her circle and most of the wounds an uncaring state can inflict. Sandy’s apocalyptic bitterness now combines with Candide’s natural abandon to impose a convulsive transmutation upon the shattered land. But kairos, which literally means fullness of time, has also a specifically Christian meaning: the moment of Christ’s appearance. Though Jones wisely refrains from attempting to limn an actual Second Coming, the vision that closes Kairos, of an unpatriarchal world in which it is inconceivable that dogs (and humans) might be tortured, rings backwards through her text like a blessing, and justifies it. (Look at the Evidence, 135; TLS, 6 January 1989).

I’m with him for the first couple of sentences, but although the vision he mentions is in the book I read, it doesn’t close it. This may be what changed between the two editions, because in mine the final chapter of Kairos takes place after the event has ended — after, in fact, it has been made safe to think about, by parcelling it away as some kind of cosmic phenomenon, not a human action at all — in a world which in many ways appears to be going on much as it ever has. Not all: there are echoes of the power that kairos lent its users, and Otto in particular seems to have retained some ability to shape the reality she sees, and in fact worries that “I have to keep imagining things now” (259), lest they end. And some characters who had been dead are restored to life. But although there may be more, as Otto puts it, to the kairos event than “a changing of the guard” (231), there is also less. Sandy’s new job working on road repairs is purely mundane. Torture remains conceivable, although perhaps it might be more effectively resisted; an absence of dialogue has been replaced by “the ever present murmur of the human ocean”.

If it’s a blessing, it’s a fundamentally pragmatic one. I can’t think of many other novels in which the political and science fictional arguments complement each other quite so carefully; nor many from which the science fiction ultimately evaporates so devastatingly. What is left are people. Essays could be written about the way this novel plays with identity, but they would have to note, as Otto ultimately does, the potential for self-defeat in such considerations. “We would rather be slave owners and slaves,” she declares, “than try to live in the real world” (220). And so it seems to me that Kairos ends where it must. More people may have realised that opportune moment — the time of changes – is always right now, but crappy jobs and politics remain. The world remains; and we remain.

London Meeting: Gwyneth Jones

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Gwyneth Jones, author of Bold as Love and many other books, and winner of the 2008 Pilgrim Award for SF Criticism. She’ll be interviewed by Tanya Brown.

As usual, the venue is 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 (although there will be a raffle), and any and all are welcome. The interview will start at 7pm, although there’ll be people in the bar from 6 onwards. (Annoyingly, those people won’t include me.)