In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield (2009)

In Great Waters cover
But wait! I hear you cry. Didn’t you say Kit Whitfield’s World Fantasy Award-nominated novel isn’t really “justifiable as sf? Answer: yes, yes I did, and now I’ve changed my mind, in part thanks to revisiting Not Before Sundown, in part because I could talk about how the Deepsmen are portrayed as evolved creatures, about the fact that the novel’s universe is clearly impersonal, or about how it’s extrapolative alternate history in an sfnal tradition, but mostly because it’s just that good and I want to include it here. So there. My review:

To my mind there is a powerful Darwinian undercurrent to In Great Waters, not just in the portrayal of the deepsmen — their lives, red in tooth and claw, and the impression that they are water-adapted humans, part of the ecology, not magical creations — but in the clear understanding throughout the book that both Henry and Anne are unfit only to the extent that they do not match their environment. So perhaps it would be more apt to say that what they do is to open up a new niche in which they can live safely. Or to emphasize their strength, and say that like Whitfield’s first novel, Bareback (2006), In Great Waters is ultimately a story about ways of being human, however alien you seem: a reminder that more than reading or writing, the greatest act of creation available to us is living.

(In my defense, I did at least say that I wished it had been submitted for the Clarke, so that the judges would have had a chance to decide what they thought.)

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 tonight, Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.

BSFA Survey Response: Kit Whitfield

Survey coverKit Whitfield is the author of two novels: Bareback (2006), set in a world in which only a small percentage of people are not werewolves; and In Great Waters (2009), an unsentimental alternate history in which mermaids are instrumental to the balance of power in medieval Europe. She lives in London. Whitfield was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and her responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

Yes and no. If you classify books by content, mine could certainly fit in that category; I’ve written one with werewolves and one with mermaids, and those are pretty traditional staples of fantasy or horror. But it’s my belief that genre classifications aren’t really that good for either writers or readers. The main purpose they serve is to make it easier for booksellers to pitch to shops. That’s useful for business, but it can be rather cramping for books, and a writer who feels they have to fit too precisely into this artificial category is probably going to limit their own writing. My first novel, for instance, was published by a science fiction imprint in the US, a literary fiction imprint in the UK, and wound up in the Crime section of Borders, and that feels comfortable to me: the idea that a book has to fit in one category and one category only seems kind of reductive. So I’ll happily classify myself as a sci fi/fantasy writer if I get to classify myself as a literary writer and a thriller writer as well. If I have to pick just one category, I tend to dig in my heels and say that i just write books.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

Pretty much the subject matter. This seems to me the way sci fi/fantasy is generally classified: if a book contains something that doesn’t exist in the real world, you can technically put them on those shelves. It’s fair enough, but it’s definitely not the whole picture.

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

I like writing about imaginative scenarios for two reasons. One, the world itself is a magical and numinous place; we get used to it, but when we really stop and look, reality is extraordinary. Writing an imaginary situation allows me to caricature the extraordinariness of reality, to create that stop-and-look effect by presenting a world that’s as new and strange to the reader as reality can be to all of us when we see it with fresh eyes. Two, it makes it easier for me to be a bad girl. If I steer too close to literal reality I start getting conscientiously worried about whether I’m portraying it accurately. If I’m portraying stuff I just made up, that gets me off the hook: I can write whatever I darn well please. It’s disinhibiting. Writing non-realistic scenarios gives me a more direct line to my subconscious, and that’s where the fire is.

On the other hand, if I get an idea for a non-science fiction or fantasy story, I’ll happily write that too. I just go with whatever ideas seem likely to come out best.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

Well, my work is distinctively me, and I’m British, so inevitably my novels are distinctively British in some way. They probably have a British sensibility (or rather an English-Irish sensibility, those being the two nationalities I was raised by). I’m a member of a country with a tremendous history of imperialism and bad karma that I love nonetheless, that’s currently fallen from its power and has spent a lot of time truckling to the dangerous superpower that was Bush’s America – a nation that seemed rather to despise us and everyone else who wasn’t a member of the fatherland, which meant we got a certain dose of what we’d dished out in previous centuries, although on a smaller scale. The politics of that situation have influenced my writing: there are a lot of moral incompatibilities and power dynamics in there. Also, as a writer I tend to resist easy solutions. Having parents from two different countries, and countries that have historically been oppressor and rebel (English father, Irish mother, and the struggle for peace in Northern Ireland was very prominent in the news during my teens), has probably influenced me: I grew up in a house where there were two completely different ways of looking at the same situation, and where you came from made a big difference to how you thought. That’s a truth about human thought that tends to shape my stories.

None of this is really conscious, though. At least in my own experience, deliberate point-making tends to lead to heavy-handed writing. I just try to write as honestly as I can and let my nationality influence things how it will.

5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

In my second novel yes, because it was set specifically in an alternative England in the past. In my first novel no, because the whole idea was to create an imaginary city that would feel as much as possible like everybody’s home town; I was trying to tell a story about societal prejudice in an Everysociety, so it needed to be anonymous – and in fact, we changed some of the vocabulary in the US edition so the narrator would feel American to Americans and British to Britons. So it depends on the novel. The aesthetics of Britain tend to influence my backgrounds – grey English cities and beautiful English woodlands both spark my imagination at times – but it’s best if I just let those chips fall where they will. The settings have to work for the story, and that varies from book to book.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

Most of the writers I’d pick out have influenced me as stylists rather than storytellers. Margaret Atwood is at the top of my list for that; Toni Morrison and Antonia White are my other favourite authors. But when it comes to writing, you learn by osmosis. Probably everything I’ve read has influenced me; it’s just in the primordial soup at the back of my brain. When it comes to the writing process, the books of Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg are my touchstones; without them, I don’t know if I’d ever have discovered I could write at all.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Oh yeah. In Britain I’m published by Jonathan Cape, a literary imprint; in America it’s Del Rey, which is popular science fiction. I’d class that as pretty different! America, in my limited experience, is a bit more likely to classify something as science fiction because it has a science fictional component, whereas Britain can be a bit more flexible in its classifications. But I could be wrong about that; it might just be that I caught the eye of different editors who happened to work in different genre imprints. A lot of the difference is packaging rather than essentials. My editors in the different countries are all original, intelligent and sensitive people who’ve had insightful things to say about the books, and the different things they’ve spotted are probably as much a mark of their personalities as their genres. Everyone’s an individual.

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Different packaging, different promotion, and inevitably this will have an effect on what people expect from the books. But again, it’s more about individuals than it is about nationality. I’ve had a good relationship online with plenty of readers who post to my blog, and I know it’s less about where they live and more about who they are. The thing about the Internet is that it’s international, so I don’t really meet my readers in national groups; they come from all over the place, and that makes for a nice, vibrant mix.

Of course, this is self-selecting: I encounter the readers who introduce themselves to me, and it’s a pleasure to meet them, but I have no idea how the silent majority is reacting. I can’t control how people will react to my books once they’re out there, and it only gives you headaches to worry about stuff you can’t control, so I’ve pretty much filed reader responses in the ‘Not my business’ drawer in my mind unless the readers themselves want me to know about them. Fan-watching stresses a writer out and probably makes the readers nervous as well, so I try to adopt a laissez-faire attitude.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

The same effect that any good book should have. It should be an engaging read that touches the reader in some way. Beyond that, every book’s effect will be slightly different whatever the genre, so hopefully the book will have an effect that’s close to what the writer intended – or at least an interesting one.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

Self-ghettoisation, to coin a horrible word. A lot of science fiction and fantasy readers get mocked for liking those books, and that’s bad, but some of them react to this by declaring that every other genre is rubbish, which is just as bad – or, on a lesser scale, by starting to see SFF as a political category rather than just one of a number of ways of describing a book. This can lead to the genre turning inwards. Sometimes SFF can have a rather embattled attitude, and that’s not a creative atmosphere, because there are beautiful, wonderful books in every genre and shutting oneself off from them is simply cutting off your nose to spite your face. Other genres are not our enemy. If you read them openly, they’re not even very Other. Even if people aren’t embattled, every genre has readers who only read books from that within genre; SFF is no exception to this, and while people are obviously free to read however they want, I think it’s a pity. The best thing to do is to draw influences and enjoyment from as wide a range of books as possible; if we stay in too tight a circle we’ll only get stale. Anyone who only reads within a single genre – be it science fiction, crime, romance or modernist experimental metafiction – is going to miss out.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

I like to take every book on its own merits rather that seeing them as developments.

History and In Great Waters

I’ve been meaning to post this all week, but somehow not getting around to it. Anyway: as Martin noted, the most popular fiction books in this year’s Strange Horizons best of the year round-up were, first, The City & The City by China Mieville, second, In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield, and third equal, Ark by Stephen Baxter and Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman. (And wouldn’t those four be a good start for a Hugo shortlist?) I’d been meaning to link to Hannah’s appreciative post about In Great Waters anyway, but it picked up this fascinating comment:

I happened to read this just this week because sovay told me to, and it staggered me. It’s set in a period where I do know the history very well, and one of the things that absolutely blew me away was the way it uses the real history to create suspense. After the marriage, I was absolutely terrified for everybody, simply because of the names of the characters, because she’s Anne and he’s Henry and the ramifications of that. Anne and Mary are the Boleyn girls, with Philip changed from brother to uncle, incestuous implications and all. I sat there going oh, God, do not be Anne of the thousand days, it would be so easy, with the most significant man Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery with (other than Philip) cast as Henry’s foster-brother… and I knew what kind of trouble Henry was going to have most violently on coming to the throne, and couldn’t guess how they were going to get out of it. Because of course Samuel is Saint Sir Thomas More, and that was a trainwreck coming.

I can’t recall seeing another novel that has done this particular thing, where it isn’t a one-to-one AU but the resonances of our history shape the tensions of the plot without being either obtrusive or implausible. The expectations that come from knowing what ought to happen to these people make the last half of the book almost unbearably cruel, but then also pull off what I experienced as a genuine eucatastrophe, also an incredibly rare bird.

This book gets my Hugo nomination this year, and I need to write a long review in hopes of drawing the attention of more people towards it, because I’ve seen almost no buzz, which is a damn shame.

The long review has, sadly, not appeared yet, but I’d love to hear more about this side of the book; history is very much not my thing, so my appreciation for In Great Waters — it’s getting my Hugo nomination, too — is independent of any of these resonances.

Also of note: Faren Miller’s Locus review.

While Whitfield’s strong sense of character gives life and complexity even to the schemers, arrogant power-mongers, and borderline maniacs who collectively make life for Henry, Anne and other relative innocents more dangerous than any ocean current swarming with sharks, her two young protagonists stand at the heart of the book. Still it’s not just their tale. She interweaves the story of their trials and maturation into a mixture of real and imagined political and cultural history (both English and in a larger European sphere) that manages to be thoroughly compelling, even without the drama of those later revolutions.

Go on, pick up a copy of In Great Waters. You know you want to.

In Great Waters

In Great Waters coverFantasy, I think it is fair to say, is a little bit in love with acts of creation. It is the genre of extravagant creation, in fact, the fiction for which an intuitive understanding that both writing and reading are inherently creative acts is not sufficient: thus the monsters, maps and magic, and the praise for imaginative density and thoroughness. But most of this praise is directed at the density and thoroughness that goes with the creation of the world; hence, for example, the awareness — and implicit prioritization — of the story’s environment that goes with the tags “epic” and “urban”, hence the familiar litany of the famous places of fantasy. Less frequently do books stand out for creating textured and original experiences for their characters. This is not the same as saying that fantasy novels are prone to poor characterization; what I mean is that, for all its merits, in a book like The War With The Mein the characters are human on terms that we can immediately recognise and understand. Strangeness doesn’t enter into it, and not just because the characters are natives of their world. But you can argue that it should: that in a fantastical world, experience, patterns of thought, and the consequent characters should be, to some degree, alien to us.

This is, as Martin Lewis has pointed out, part of what Kit Whitfield gets up to in her very fine second novel, In Great Waters, with the additional complications that we follow both of the main characters growing up, that neither of them are ordinarily human, and that both are children of two worlds. They are hybrids, with blood from both the people of the land and the people of the sea in their veins; although beyond this similarity they mirror each other. Henry is born as Whistle, under the sea, his “bifurcated tail” marking him out as a freak, and providing a handicap that leaves him a target for bullying, and — until he realises he is more intelligent than most of his peers, and able to trick them — often struggling for food. Eventually his mother takes him to the place where “the world gave out”, that is, the shore, and abandons him. Whitfield is good on Henry’s life underwater, in his cradle, alien to us but not to him: the cruelty of it, the tribal rituals, the sense of space and motion that goes with life in three dimensions, the baffling otherness of the sky above the sea. But she is very good at Henry’s life on land, alien to him but not to us. After two days of lying in the surf, Henry is discovered by a man:

In the sea, he’d been small, smaller than other boys his age, but this skinny creature made Whistle feel tiny. Most strange of all was the tint of his skin, a pink-red pale colour like you got in the first few feet of water below the surface, before descent into the depths greyed everything out to shades of blue and green and white. The man himself gasped endlessly for air, inhaling again and again, faster than the waves beating on the shore. Whistle watched the straight limbs of the man as he paced, bizarrely inverted with his body upright as if permanently breaking the surface. (9)

The succeeding pages depict Henry’s experience of being raised by the above man to survive on land. Awareness of his position as (forgive me) a fish out of water is never neglected, and Henry’s situation quickly becomes engrossing. So he conceptualizes new information in terms of what is familiar to him — posture, and the tint of skin, in the quote above; later, he imagines soldiers as being like a shoal of fish — but more immediately, his surroundings are thoroughly strange. The world below had limits, but within itself no boundaries; on land, Henry is constantly thwarted by borders and barriers. He has trouble grasping the concept of nations, their scale and locatedness. More immediately, buildings are “an endless profusion of boxes that [daze] his focus with their stiff, enclosing order” (10; his unfamiliarity with right angles also makes the Christian cross a threatening symbol, a fact which becomes important later in the novel); clothes are “a blindfold for his body” (19); he feels constantly heavy, without the sea to support him, has to walk on crutches, and has to fight the urge to attempt to swim out the window of the room in which he is imprisoned. But as Nic Clarke notes, as good as the physical, tactile elements of Henry’s experience are, equally important are the conceptual challenges he faces. Language becomes a site of struggle. In keeping with their more animalistic intelligence, the language of the deepsmen is simple, declarative, consisting primarily of warnings or commands. English contrasts in every way: complex and contradictory, with meanings to Henry quite unlike those we might construct. One word is totemic: “to Henry, ‘understand’ meant to take up the posture of a landsman: impossible, and unwelcome” (40). So there is no sudden, total conceptual breakthrough, no moment when the nature of his new world becomes suddenly clear to Henry, only a slow, continuous, imperfect process of understanding and adaptation.

Then there is Anne. At this point some additional context is necessary. We are in early Renaissance (or thereabouts) England. The story, as told to Henry early in his captivity, is that first contact between landsmen and deepsmen took place in ninth-century Venice. The landsmen sent out ambassadors in boats, playing beautiful music; the boats were attacked and quickly sunk, and the landsmen moved into the city’s canals, resisting attempts to dislodge them. The situation worsened, and worsened again as Venice found itself under threat from land as well as sea. Then, a woman walked out of the water, and announced that she could command the deepsmen. Soon enough, Venice’s power was once again waxing, with any country dependent on trade or travel by water at the city-state’s mercy, and Angelica on the throne. An empire was forged and, ultimately, crumbled, as other countries learned to put hybrids on their thrones, to negotiate with their local deepsmen. In Anne and Henry’s time, landlocked countries remain relatively stable, but for everyone else Whitfield would have us believe (I can believe it) that times remain edgy. Deepsmen blood has become royal blood. The lines must be preserved at all costs, even as the blood thins, and in-breeding among royal families takes its toll. Every so often, a regime is deposed, as a new bastard emerges from the ocean; the last such event took place in France, a century ago. Now, Henry is being groomed for the same role in England; and Anne is the youngest granddaughter of the current king.

Anne’s narrative is, less ostentatiously but no less thoroughly than Henry’s, a masterclass in the construction of personal worlds. Like Henry, Anne has two worlds, the land and the sea; but they are not Henry’s land and sea. For Anne, the land is home, where she was born. It is still a place whose rules must be learned: her world is the court, after all. Like Henry, Anne is a disappointment to her parents, and to the court: “born a disappointment”, we are told, “but such was often the fate of royal girls” (57). A second girl, in fact, and not only that — meaning that England has no heir ready to take over from an aging king, and that marriages will have to be brokered. This fact becomes only more urgent when Anne’s father, the king’s first son, dies, because the second son, Philip, is no heir. He is, however, an extraordinary, grotesque creation, a full deepsman throwback (tail and all), dumb and violent, driven by unreflexive desire, yet horribly indulged by the landsmen around him. So where for Henry it is the physical challenges of life on land that are most immediate, for Anne it is the political challenges, the constant negotiation of the invisible protocols that shape a society. And no wonder, then, that for Anne the water — which was Henry’s cradle, yet never his home — is a place of freedom. Periodically, the court visits the coast, so that the royals may swim and negotiate with the local deepsmen tribes; but though these visits are a duty, they offer Anne a degree of mental, social and physical escape. “Anne felt stronger, wider awake […] she turned with a flex of the spine that felt almost forbidden in its ease” (78). Of course, this simplicity does not last.

As time passes — we follow both Henry and Anne from childhood to young adult-hood, although with little of the emotional familiarity that such a framework would usually imply — we see how the pair are shaped by their worlds. By their existence, for us Henry and Anne shade each other, but it is their contexts that make them different. Faced with a deteriorating situation at court, we are told that Anne, “not knowing what to do, did nothing”; and that “in consequence, rumours began to build that she was a simpleton” (80). Her deepsman heritage here comes in handy. In moments of high emotion, her face becomes lit by phosphorescence, creating a rather grisly visage — “The effect was only to cast her eyes into shadow, rendering the sockets hollow like a skull” (58) — but one that allows her to build a façade behind which Anne can maintain her own thoughts and a secret self. Of necessity, she becomes observant, careful, resourceful and brave, as she attempts to assert some measure of control over her life. Henry, meanwhile, is raised on land with the expectation that he will one day be king, and acquires the ambition and arrogance that go with that, but neither does he escape the feral, mercurial part of his nature, and he is consequently defined by fear and, inevitably, by anger. Whitfield does a marvellous job with this latter emotion, in particular: Henry is a potent portrayal of the destructive, distorting effect of anger. That he is able to use it is a hollow comfort; it defines him for too much of his life, bringing isolation and instability and reinforcing incomprehension. When he finally meets Anne, his reaction could be Philip’s, if we could believe Philip could articulate his thoughts so clearly: “He would have liked to defeat her, somehow, beat her down in a fight or make her obey him, to stop her face from troubling him any further. He wanted to eat her tongue” (222).

There is, of course, recursion here: the differing experiences of Anne and Henry create our sense that they exist in different worlds; and those different worlds give rise to differing experiences in turn. They read the world, and the world writes back on to them. But in a less subjective sense they live in the same world; and in order to make any headway against the forces that constrain them they each have to, somehow, gain the other’s world. Gradually their stories do merge: from alternating fifty-page chunks we move to alternating chapters, then paragraphs, and then finally the two are together in a single narrative. But their alliance is one of pragmatism, not romance. For Anne, Henry is a way out; for Henry, it is simply that Anne is the first person he has met to speak both his languages, the only one who has a chance of understanding both his worlds.

I have talked so little about the actual story of In Great Waters because, in a sense, it is extremely simple. Stripped down, it is a fantasy of political agency. “Given the right push”, the narrator tells us, “customs could change” (326); and Henry and Anne, thanks to their dual and doubled perspectives, can get themselves into a position from which they can give the right push. But familiar arc though this may be, it is never less than deeply felt, made credible by the texture of its protagonists’ experience. Whitfield’s language is (indeed, languages are, given the attention paid to the representation of the deepsmen tongue) carefully tailored to support her creation. The writing is not archaic, but shaped by a few choices that leave an archaic flavour in the mind: there are almost no contractions, almost no use of the continuous present tense. (I might compare the carefully complementary artifice in this novel to the carefully contrary artifice on display in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.) Whitfield’s shifts in emotional register are adroit, and her grasp on her narrative is assured. So it is possible to believe that Henry and Anne can create their world anew.

But putting it this way is too sentimental for an unsentimental novel. To my mind there is a powerful Darwinian undercurrent to In Great Waters, not just in the portrayal of the deepsmen — their lives, red in tooth and claw, and the impression that they are water-adapted humans, part of the ecology, not magical creations — but in the clear understanding throughout the book that both Henry and Anne are unfit only to the extent that they do not match their environment. So perhaps it would be more apt to say that what they do is to open up a new niche in which they can live safely. Or to emphasize their strength, and say that like Whitfield’s first novel, Bareback (2006), In Great Waters is ultimately a story about ways of being human, however alien you seem: a reminder that more than reading or writing, the greatest act of creation available to us is living.

British Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Panel

As noted in the original post about the survey, one of the panel’s at last week’s BSFA/SFF AGM event was a discussion of some of the questions it raises. For those who weren’t able to attend (and indeed those who were), here’s a recording — you can download the mp3 direct from here, or listen to it on the BSFA site. The panelists were Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Paul McAuley, Juliet McKenna, and Kit Whitfield, with me moderating.