Vector 265

Saturday morning’s post brought with it Vector 265, at long last. Not just Vector: the mailing includes a booklet in memory of Rob Holstock, edited by Niall Harrison; the BSFA Awards booklet, with all of the shortlisted short stories; and a ballot for voting on the BSFA awards.

Vector 265 is the last one edited by Niall, and it’s a hefty one, a rich tribute to Stephen Baxter, plus book reviews, edited by Martin Lewis. For those of you not currently BSFA members, here is what you’re missing out on:

Table of Contents
“That Cosmological Feeling: An Interview with Stephen Baxter”
“Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Cycle: No Coming Home”, Jonathan McCalmont
“The Settee and the Stars: Stephen Baxter and the Dilemma of Scale”, Gary K Wolfe
“An Atomic Theory of Baxter’s Fiction”, Adam Roberts
“Three Colours NASA: Reflections on Stephen Baxter’s ‘NASA’ trilogy”, Simon Bradshaw
“Putting the Past into the Future: The Time’s Tapestry sequence”, Tony Keen
“Foundation’s Favourite: Stone Spring”, Andy Sawyer
“Baxter’s People”, Niall Harrison
“Giant Killer Rodents in Space Armour, With Guns: the other side of Stephen Baxter”, Graham Sleight

“First Impressions”, Martin Lewis
Book reviews edited by Martin Lewis
Orgasmachine by Ian Watson (Newcon Press, 2010) – reviewed by
Justin Robson
Shine, edited by Jetse de Vries (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Anthony Nanson
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2010) –
reviewed by Paul Kincaid
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010) – reviewed
by Tony Keen

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by
Michael Abbott
The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2010) –
reviewed by Martin Potts
Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor, 2009)
– reviewed by Dave M Roberts
The Turing Test by Chris Beckett and The Last Reef by
Gareth L Powell (Elastic Press, 2008) – reviewed by Dave M Roberts
The Holy Machine (Corvus, 2010) and Marcher (Cosmos
Books, 2008) by Chris Beckett – reviewed by Jim Steel
Inside/Outside – Chris Beckett interviewed by Paul Graham Raven
Major Carnage by Gord Zajac (ChiZine Publications, 2010) –
reviewed by Shaun Green
Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk (ChiZine Pubications, 2010)
– reviewed by Graham Andrews
The Nemesis List by RJ Frith – reviewed by Ben Jeapes
The Noise Within by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Stuart Carter
Brave Story and The Book Of Heroes by Miyuke Miyabe
(Haikasoru, 2007 and 2009) – reviewed by Cherith Baldry
WE by John Dickinson (David Fickling Books, 2010) – reviewed by
Donna Scott
I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (Penguin, 2010) – reviewed by CB Harvey
Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2010) – reviewed
by Anne F Wilson
The Iron Hunt, Darkness Calls and A Wild Light by
Marjorie M Liu (Orbit, 2008-10) – reviewed by Amanda Rutter
The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan (Orbit, 2009) – reviewed by
Alan Fraser
Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov (Simon & Schuster, 2010) –
reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Office Of Shadow by Mathew Sturges (Pyr, 2010) – reviewed
by AP Canavan
Lord Of The Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier (Orbit, 2010) –
reviewed by Lynne Bispham

BSFA Awards Shortlist 2011

Anyone who joined the BSFA recently may end up with the wrong impression as to how frequently mailings occur, inasmuch as we expect the next one to be sent out within the next month-or-so. It’s all still quarterly, however.

Vector welcomes letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

The 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

The shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award is, gratifyingly, never quite what anyone thinks it will be in advance. I doubt even any given juror could have correctly guessed what their consensus would determine when they met to collectively choose the shortlist for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the award.

Here is what they chose:

  • Zoo City – Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
  • The Dervish House – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
  • Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness (Walker Books)
  • Generosity – Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
  • Declare – Tim Powers (Corvus)
  • Lightborn – Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)

The Arthur C Clarke Award is a juried award for the best work of science fiction published in Britain in the previous year. It’s judged from the works submitted by publishers so it’s theoretically possible for the award to miss out on options they would have liked to consider had they only been submitted. The “published in Britain in the previous year” is why an award-winning novel published in 2000 made it onto the shortlist this year: Tim Powers’s Declare only had its first UK publication in 2010.

These are six books from six different publishers (out of the twenty-two which submitted books this year), by four men and two women, one culmination of a trilogy, and five standalones. As more than one has already commented, the list features four authors of American origin (although some of them have lived in the UK for years) and one South African, Lauren Beukes. Only one of them, Ian McDonald, has been British and lived in Britain for the majority of his life. This is a point worth mentioning because the Clarke Award is specifically a British award, albeit for what’s published in the country rather than where those authors come from. In more trivial statistics: one-word titles make up 50% of the shortlist, but that’s not too disproportionate – they made up 27% of the list of eligible submissions. It was also a good year to have the last name “Powers”.

The shortlist was chosen by this year’s judging panel: Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Martin Lewis for the BSFA, Phil Nanson and Liz Williams for the Science Fiction Foundation, and Paul Skevington for SF Paul Billinger chaired the judges on behalf of the award. They will all be busy re-reading the shortlist in the coming weeks, in preparation for the jury’s final meeting to choose the winner.

I’m looking forward to reading this list too; from the reviews I’ve read and initial reactions to the shortlist, it looks like quite a good one. I’ve only read Lightborn so far, although conveniently, I started Zoo City yesterday and have The Dervish House handy since I’m reading the BSFA novel shortlist, and those three books (but no others) overlap with the Clarke shortlist.

In the weeks between now and the 27th of April, when the jurors, having reread the shortlist, will meet again to decide on the winner, and the award will be given at the SCI-FI London Film Festival, I look forward to reading all the discussion, speculation, and guesswork about just which of these books will take the prize and why it’s worthy of doing so.

See also comments on the shortlist from:

David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Cheryl Morgan at Cheryl’s Mewsings
Graham Sleight at Locus Roundtable
Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Amanda Rutter at Floor to Ceiling Books
Niall Harrison at Strange Horizons


Paul Kincaid’s review of Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth, at Strange Horizons yesterday, reminds me that I never did get around to posting about it, and that what I wanted to say about it chimes with some other half-thoughts I’ve been having about other recent reads, specifically about endings. For obvious reasons, we don’t talk about endings much; I’m going to try to get around the reasons here by sticking to talk about kinds of endings. Cold Earth first. It’s presented as letters home by the members of an archaeological dig in Greenland, written partly as diary or catharsis, and mostly because they lose contact with the rest of the world, but the last news they heard is that a new virus appears to be developing into a pandemic. Paul reads the book as being about the end of the world, as an exercise in the inevitability of the end of the world, which leads him to feel somewhat frustrated by the final chapter, and even uncertain about the apparent escape it offers: is it real? If so, it seems somewhat consolatory, or avoidant. Is it a dream? If so, it seems a betrayal of the book’s principles. For me, however, Cold Earth isn’t about inevitability so much as it it’s about exactly that uncertainty: is the world ending, or not? Are the characters being haunted, or not? Will they die, or live? In the baldest possible terms: what sort of story is being told here? And so for me, the closing chapter is a clever sort of imperfect cadence; it offers us resolution as a challenge to what we might have wanted, and (if we have decided what story is being told before we got there) what we expected.

Scarlett Thomas’ new book, Our Tragic Universe, plays a similar game more self-consciously. Its protagonist is a young author struggling to write a “real” novel, and meantimes making ends meet (just about) by writing genre fiction and reviewing weird and wonderful non-fiction books for a national newspaper. The first book she’s reading for review in the novel is a sort of new-age take on the Omega Point, the idea that we are probably living in a simulation of the universe at the end of time, which argues that this makes all sorts of things possible. Aha, we think, particularly (and, I am sure, deliberately) if we have read The End of Mr Y, which featured another book that purported to explain the nature of reality and was proved correct, and we sit back and wait for the fantastic to intrude into the story. But Thomas plays with us all the way through, not so much refusing to indulge us as refusing to tell us whether we have been indulged, whether or not certain improbabilities that dot the narrative are magical (or science fictional) in origin. (I have the impression that Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City plays a similar game: has anyone read it?) I have to admit, I admire the bloody-mindedness of Our Tragic Universe, its ability to pre-empty my every response and its refusal to confirm or deny anything, even as I find what I take to be the book’s ultimate argument – that art is a tool to enable us to resist narratives that get imposed on life – to be delivered with just a touch too much satisfaction. But even there I am anticipated, with one character claiming that what gives a story coherence is that it has an argument, or stakes out a position about the world, and that it doesn’t matter so much whether that position is true.

Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion, which I’m trying to write a proper review of for elsewhere, seems to me to similarly be about seeking a way to say something authentic in a world where story has been commodified and worn-out (this would be opposed to Elizbeth Hand’s take, that it’s “an elegy for … the passing of the power of the word, written and spoken”, in that ultimately I think it asserts the word’s continued power). Interestingly, compared to Our Tragic Universe, it never holds out any mystery about its ending. We know from the start where the narrator is (in a zeppelin that may or may not be powered by a perpetual motion, flying above a retro-futuristic metropolis), and in broad terms why he has ended up there. The book then records the narrator’s life story, and how it has been shaped by others. This means there are two key differences to Thomas – one, an explicitly fantastic setting, and two, a clearer focus on the process of finding a voice, finding a way to resist narrative – and I think those differences are why the book works better for me. Or, perhaps, not works better – since I think Our Tragic Universe achieves what it sets out to do, in terms of conflating the impulse towards story and the impulse towards the fnatastic – but why I prefer it. Palmer’s novel is no less self-conscious a work, nor any less playful (for certain, somewhat arch values of playful), but it feels perhaps less hesitant, more committed to its argument about the world. Of course, hesitance may also be a part of Thomas’ argument.

And last but not least there’s Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men, the conclusion of the trilogy started by The Knife of Never Letting Go and continued in The Ask & The Answer. This is a very different book to the other three in some ways, being a headlong narrative that isn’t in the least concerned with its existence as narrative, building towards an ending that we are not necessarily supposed to anticipate in the way that, I’d suggest, we’re asked to anticipate the other three. On the other hand, like every other story it is a narrative that creates expectations and, like Cold Earth – if not to an even greater degree, since there are many more questions to be answered – the process of resolving those expectations is a mixed blessing. Part of me looks at the ending and feels disappointment, feels that it’s more conventional than I might have hoped for from Ness; another part of me looks at it from another angle (having read the three books above) and wonders whether it’s not the simple fact that it is an ending that disappoints. Part of the pleasure of Chaos Walking – a large part, actually – is the suspension of the various narrative possibilities, Ness’ expert manipulation of what the reader knows, and thus what they might expect, which engenders the sense that the outcome is particularly fluid, that many different things could happen. After the last page of Monsters of Men those possibilities have resolved into concrete things that have happened, and I’m not sure there’s any configuration that would have been wholly satisfying. More than that, even, I’m not sure that a wholly satisfying configuration of this type of story is even desirable: even being satisfyingly unconventional is a convention: perhaps there is a boldness in the mix of conventional and unconventional that Ness offers. Alternatively, perhaps I’ve just reached the point where I’ll never enjoy an ending naively again.

Three Reviews

Graceling coverA first novel first, and one that by rights should be much more annoying than it actually is. Graceling is, after all, set in a generically medieval world with Seven Kingdoms, and never doubts that monarchy is just fine as long as there’s a Good Monarch on the throne; takes as its protagonist a very special young woman with a Grace — a magical talent of mysterious origin — that allows her to be the very best fighter in any of those kingdoms; and has its characters’ maturity levels thoroughly backwards, with a ten-year-old child who says things like, “Think … It wasn’t such a strange thing for him to do, knowing he might die in a fight” (280), and ostensibly worldly adults who need to ask, “Well, why does it pleasure him to hurt people? […] Everyone has some kind of power to hurt people. It doesn’t mean they do” (293). Moreover, it is distinguished by a procession of names that run from the uninspired — Wester for the Western Kingdom, Nander for the Northern one, Estill for the Eastern one, and so on — to the unbelievable — human characters called Tealiff, Raffin, Patch and, most painfully, Po. The whole book is like this, in a way that never really becomes unobtrusive: familiar, safely shaded within the lines of genre convention. And yet, somehow, it’s also zippy good fun, from first page to last.

My answer to this conundrum is to say that Cashore has a Grace of her own: a Grace for clarity. Graceling is distinguished by its crisp, direct language; by the orrery precision of Cashore’s plotting; by the careful but never ambiguous nuances of her characters’ emotional progressions; and by the firm yet unhectoring development of an argument about what it means to be a young woman — a woman with power — coming of age in a man’s world. The irritations noted above flow from the same well (Graces are never entirely without cost), as do some others: the Bad King Leck, for instance, who is simply and purely villainous not just because he has a Grace for telling lies about the world and making them stick — which would be enough — but because he tortures children and small animals.

On with the story. As the book begins, our Graceling, Katsa — yes, one letter away from being something you can order in Wagamama — is a thug for a Bad King, one who seized on her skill for violence as soon as it demonstrated itself, and moulded her into his strong arm. She has killed and tortured for him, often; but in secret rebellion, she has also set up a Council to carry out good deeds in an attempt to balance the scales. On one such Council mission, Katsa encounters another Graceling, a Prince from one of the other kingdoms — the aforementioned Po — who turns out to be on a mission of his own that intersects with hers. After some narrative throat-clearing, they join forces to solve the mystery of the kidnap of Po’s grandfather. It’s a well-paced adventure, with appropriately thrilling action, and satisfying revelations; but it is also, for a good long while, pretty much an excuse to have the two of them spend time together journeying across the Kingdoms, developing a relationship that is by turns affecting, nauseating, admirable and questionable: which is to say, believable.

In this Cashore is aided by her choice of Grace for Prince Po. Graces can be for almost anything you can imagine; physical skills such as swimming or climbing, say, or psychic talents such as precognition. Po’s Grace is of this latter type. He can sense the presence of other living beings, and when any of them think about him he picks it up like Noise. The downside is that, like other psychic Graces, such a talent attracts a certain degree of prejudice from the people of the Seven Kingdoms — or would, if they knew about it; Po takes care to keep the true nature of his Grace secret. On the upside, it’s a convenient way for Cashore to force characters to be direct with one another about their feelings, and provides many opportunities for knowing riffs on the development of relationships:

They had entire conversations in which they didn’t say a word. For Po could sense when Katsa desired to talk to him, and if there was a thing she wanted him to know, his Grace could capture that thing. It seemed a useful ability for them to practise. And Katsa found that the more comfortable she grew with opening her mind to him, the more practised she became with closing it as well. It was never entirely satisfying, closing her mind, because whenever she closed her feelings from him she must also close them from herself. But it was something. (177)

This is, though Katsa doesn’t use the word, what learning intimacy is like — a sense of the importance of human connection — and it’s a particular challenge for one as fiercely independent and physically-focused as she. (As she has to be, I might say; her Grace is an integral part of her, in that it’s shaped her personality, probably as significantly as anything in her lived experience.) There’s a lot of this sort of thing, and a lot of it goes straight to your heart. [Both Katsa and Po are extremely well-visualised characters, and their thoughts and reactions are complex and meaningful.] The problem, however, is an occasional sense that it’s too easy: that Po is too completely well-adjusted, too good to be true, too sympathetic, patient and generous at all times and to a fault. Po and Katsa’s relationship, for all its mutuality, is not one in which two people grow together, it’s one in which Po waits for Katsa’s emotional growth to catch up to his. The major emotional challenge faced by Po doesn’t come until late in the novel, and it’s the challenge of one who is knocked down and has to get up again, not — as Katsa’s challenge is — one of reaching beyond yourself. Some coincidences of content — an experienced survivor mentoring a younger girl; a long, frozen trek to get someone to safety — had me wondering whether Cashore was referencing The Adventures of Alyx; and thinking that, I can’t help wondering what Russ would make of Cashore’s certainty in the potential for and of open-hearted romantic relationships.

But the clear argument running through Graceling is that it is possible to see clearly in matters of the human heart, and always better to do so. As illustration, consider the portrayal of anger, or more accurately the portrayal of the limits of anger. Katsa is often angry, and her anger is always justified; her world is filled with injustices, and not just ones that afflict her personally. But her anger is also often problematic — “She must guard against using her Grace in anger”, she realises. “This was where her nature’s struggle lay” (94) — usually for the specific reason that it clouds sight, and leads to rash action. We are never allowed to doubt that impulsiveness, action by instinct, is a vital part of Katsa — again, probably innate, thanks to her Grace, as much as learned — but though it solves problems, such solutions are never fully satisfactory. (And towards the end of the book, one of the signs that a particular King is Good is his insistence that Katsa goes slow, thinks first, doesn’t rush in.) It is a somewhat refreshing approach, and one of the relatively few aspects of the book where Cashore does more than simply colour within the lines.

Many Graces, of course, turn out to be more subtle in their action than they first appear, and subject to change over time, with implications for both Katsa and Po’s sense of identity. But the true nature of Po’s Grace, when it is explicated, late in the book, is not a surprise. He begins to sense the physical world, as well as living creatures:

“And then, in the cave, with the soldiers shouting outside and my body so cold I thought I would bite off my own tongue with my chattering teeth — I found it, Katsa.”

He stopped talking, and he was quiet for so long that she wondered if he’d forgotten what he’d been saying.

“What did you find?”

He turned his head to her, surprised. “Clarity”, he said. (323)

In its best, purest moments, Graceling is like this: a revelation that lights the darkness.


Gullstruck Island coverIf Kristin Cashore’s Grace is for clarity, Frances Hardinge’s is for play. The opening paragraph of her third novel snares you not just because it’s so confidently done —

It was a burnished, cloudless day with a tug-of-war wind, a fine day for flying. And so Raglan Skein left his body neatly laid out on his bed, its breath as slow as sea swell, and took to the sky. (1)

— but because what it’s describing is a pure kind of freedom, and sounds like fun. And Hardinge doesn’t let it rest there. Skein is a Lost, which means that he’s capable of sending all his senses off independently: “a gifted Lost might be feeling the grass under their knees, tasting the peach in your hand, overhearing a conversation in the next village and smelling cooking in the next town, all while watching barracudas dapple and brisk around a shipwreck ten miles out to see” (1). Just imagine the possibilities. Hardinge does, both for humans and for other animals. Also found on Gullstruck is a species called the farsight fish, which possesses Lost-like abilities and is thus “notoriously difficult to catch because it was almost impossible to take by surprise” (37); though if you do catch it you can borrow its ability for a short period, leading to a rather Douglas Adams-ish observation about the problem of gulls who have feasted on farsight flesh getting confused, thinking they can still see around mist when they can’t, and flying into a cliff.

Hardinge is playing with us in another way here, though, because Raglan Skein isn’t the protagonist of Gullstruck Island. Who is? It might be the girl on whom Skein spies: Arilou, “the most important person” in her village, and “arguably the only excuse for its existence” (4). Arilou is a Lost too, the first born to the Lace — a coastal-dwelling tribe — in over fifty years, and approaching the age where her abilities are due to be formally tested. There is always the danger, with an untrained Lost child, that their senses will wander off, never to be fully reunited. But when they are trained, the Lost are vital, forming a sort of living communication network for Gullstruck, and (in the form of the Lost Council) mediating between the various peoples living on the island. Gullstruck is a messy place; the diverse cultures of the island’s native tribes have, for generations now, been subordinate to the impositions of Cavalcaste settlers — despite the settlers’ stubborn lack of adaptation to the requirements of their new home, in their stubborn retention of inappropriate clothing, in their too-tall buildings, and their outdated laws. (There are no exact historical parallels, but the Gullstruck natives are something like South Pacific islanders, and the Cavalcaste are something like Northern Europeans.) Given the relative lack of space, at this point almost everybody on the island is mixed-race — Hardinge’s word is mestizo — but it’s the Cavalcaste traditions that dominate, particularly their ancestor-worship. So having a Lost in the village is, indeed, a good thing; it brings respect, influence, possibly wealth, all things the Lace have lost. Unfortunately, the secret the village keeps from the outside world is that Arilou may be a lost Lost, her senses hopelessly scattered; or she may be a Lost and mentally damaged in some way; or she may not be a Lost at all.

So Arilou isn’t the protagonist either. Maybe it’s the girl we meet at the start of the first chapter proper —

On the beach, a gull-storm erupted as rocks came bouncing down from the clifftop. Half a step behind the rocks scrambled Eiven, her face flushed from running. (5)

Eiven looks like good protagonist material. She is bold, agile, and confident; she brings news of the arrival of the Lost Inspector, and sets off the preparations for his visit.

And then she pretty much disappears from the narrative. We are being played with, again. There is, admittedly, a clue; the narrative spots a girl who escapes Skein’s notice, “anonymous as dust”, and boldly informs us that “you have already met her, or somebody very like her, and you cannot remember her at all” (4). But it’s another fifteen pages or so before we actually get to meet Hathin, who turns out to stay at the centre of the narrative for most of the rest of the novel’s thirty-nine chapters. First we meet Minchard Prox, assistant to the Lost Inspector, and it’s through his eyes that we learn Hathin is Arilou’s sister, minder and translator. The Lace cover story is that Arilou’s slurred speech is the result of incomplete control of her body (not an uncommon problem for untrained Lost), and only Hathin can understand her. The reality is that Hathin is making it up as she goes, and she’s going to need all her wits to trick the Lost Inspector into thinking Arilou can pass the tests he’s going to set.

Oops. Played again. That is what happens next; but it’s also a distraction, marking time until the real plot snaps into action. Skein dies mid-way through the tests. Soon enough it becomes clear that every other Lost on the island has also died — except Arilou. At first it seems that this will be a benefit to the Lace, a chance to regain some respect and importance. Of course, all too quickly, suspicions are turned against the Lace: did they kill the Lost? They stood to gain. The village is destroyed, and Hathin flees with Arilou across the inland volcanoes. A quest is born: to escape, to clear the name of the Lace, and to bring the true culprits to justice. Hence, presumably, the rather naff title of the US edition: The Lost Conspiracy.

At that point things get a bit more predictable (making it a sort of inversion of Hardinge’s first novel, Fly by Night); but in the end you don’t read Gullstruck Island for the plot. You don’t even read it for the characters who, though appealing, and inter-related in complex and satisfying ways (Hathin and Arilou’s relationship is beautifully developed), are not that deeply rendered. You read it to be enchanted by Hardinge’s voice, whether whimsical or deadly serious, or both at once:

Despite her high status, Milady Page usually spoke Nundestruth. It was nobody’s language, everybody’s language, a stew of words taken from the tribes and the Cavalcaste alike. By the time the first settlers’ grandchildren were full-grown, they found that however carefully they taught their own children their ancestral tongue, the children caught the hybrid chatter in the streets and brought it home like mud on their boots. “That gibberish may be good for the fields and the beach but Not Under This Roof!” the parents cried, only succeeding in giving the new language its name. Proper-speak, the old colonial language, earned the nickname “Doorsy”, indoors-speak. (28)

Most of the time, Hardinge writes in a kind of Nundestruth; resolutely playful in her descriptions, fearlessly indulging in rhyme (“Like many Gullstruck officials he was both well-heeled and bell-heeled”, 9), or cranky repetition (Port Suddenwind, the largest Cavalcaste town, is a “creaking clockwork of laws, laws, laws”, 26), or alliterative chapter titles (“Twisted Tongues”, “Farsight Flesh”, “Trial and Trickery”, “Heat Haze”). But she’s equally competent in Doorsy, when the situation calls for it: “And so ended the conference of the invisible, in the cavern of blood and secrets, on the night of the mist” (43). It is in no way as neat a novel as Graceling (a quite Doorsy book), but it makes of its freedom a strength: it finds joy and pride in its messiness, in the messiness of the things it describes.

Everything is alive, in Gullstruck Island. “Thunder rolled unseen cannonballs across the sky” (69); “the little clock gnawed away the hours” (111); “flames flung loving, golden arms around the summer-roasted palm thatch” (123). And there are the volcanoes that define Gullstruck’s geography and are, to the tribes such as the Lace, the true powers on the island. These are wonderfully handled: clearly, meticulously researched, but gifted with their own personalities that aid and abet Hathin and Arilou on their journey, from cranky Mother Tooth to mad Lord Crackgem, and the jealous love triangle that is Sorrow and her two suitors, Lord Spearhead and the King of Fans. So much in Gullstruck Island rests on who and what you see as living and worthy of respect, as distinct and individual. For the Lace, the answer is just about everyone and everything; the Cavalcaste are distorted by their fixation on the dead. And in the novel’s darkest moments, the islanders cease being individuals altogether, and become something else: “Mob wasn’t people. It took people and folded their faces like paper” (278).

This is, ultimately, the only real source of disappointment in the book. Gullstruck Island is a light address to serious topics — the hatred stirred up against the Lace in the wake of the Lost deaths is not new, it is an awakening of an old, ingrained prejudice, exploited by the story’s villains. (Who, if doubt remained, are Bad News either because they actively dislike the mess of diversity that characterises Gullstruck, or because their preference for order, their aversion to play, enables them to be twisted into malicious tools.) Hathin’s campaign to right the scales leads her down a dark path, swearing a vengeance that it is very clear could break her, that does in some ways immediately break her. All of this is good: that you don’t put a bunch of volcanoes on the mantel in Act I if you’re not going to do something with them in Act III does not make the ending too neat. What does, unfortunately, is the reduction of people to Mob, because it allows problems to be solved too easily. It’s too great a contrast with Hathin’s spirited individualism (no romance here); it’s not just that it allows there to be a spider at the centre of the web, but that it allows removal of the spider to leave the world a better place. This is, of course, marvellously freeing; the end of the novel is full of messy freedoms — “true joy, like true pain, does not care how it looks or sounds” (487) — and puts Hathin in a position to be whatever she wants to be. But freedom from the ancestor-worship of the Cavalcaste even becomes, it seems, freedom from history: and that’s a freedom too far for me.


The Ask and The Answer coverThere is some discussion of the ease with which groups of people can be manipulated in The Ask & The Answer, too. “A man is capable of thought”, one character notes. “A crowd is not” (120). It’s a sentiment that acquires new force in the context of Chaos Walking, for a couple of reasons. One is that the series is set on New World, a planet on which all men, and all active fauna, constantly broadcast their thoughts as Noise. (This includes the sentient Spackle, for whom it is the only method of communication, but not women, who remain exempt — at least for this, the middle book of the trilogy. Since it is pointedly noted, without explanation, that this fact sets humans apart from every other species on the planet — female animals have Noise — presumably further developments will be forthcoming in volume three.) The second reason is that if Patrick Ness has a Grace, it is for manipulation; like The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask & The Answer is staggeringly effective at guiding the responses of its readers, at controlling the flow of information and shaping raw events into irresistable story.

We start out with protagonists Todd and Viola in the power of the series villain, Mayor Prentiss, who has brought the largest town on New World under his sway, and is keen to use the excuse of Noise to institute full-scale segregation of men and women. As he puts it, so carefully and reluctantly: “The borders between men and women had become blurred, and the reintroduction of those borders is a slow and painful process […] but the important thing to remember is, as I’ve said, the war is over” (130). You might be forgiven for thinking, just briefly, that he’s right. The council of what was once Haven, and is now New Prentisstown, did after all vote to submit to the Mayor’s authority because they didn’t want more war, because they decided that capitulation was the best way to save lives. The deposed chair defends the decision: “Not everything is black and white, Todd. In fact, almost nothing is” (36).

Yet what happens in The Ask & The Answer seems black enough. Crudely put, it is the first steps towards building Gilead. Todd and Viola are split up, and the narrative splits with them. Todd is kept alive for the potential the Mayor sees in him, and assigned to oversee the management of a contingent of Spackle prisoners — previously used as servants by the inhabitants of Haven, they are now locked up together, and kept docile through the application of a “cure” for Noise. Viola, meanwhile, is kept alive for the information the Mayor thinks he can get out of her, about the incoming second wave of colonists, and locked up in one of the town’s Houses of Healing with the other women.

The bond between Todd and Viola is — of course — unbreakable, but both are, to an extent, seduced by the crowds they find themselves associating with. Viola becomes part of The Answer, originally set up as an all-female — and thus silent — combat unit in the Spackle war, now reformed as a a Carhullan Army waging a bombing campaign on New Prentisstown. (It’s interesting to note how completely normal it is, both for the novel and for its characters, that the women fight and can fight; there is no amazement on anyone’s part, not even any pointed remarks. The Mayor’s misogyny is not grounded in thinking women weak, in other words; nor does it seem to be grounded in wanting to control their bodies. It seems, instead, to be grounded in the fact that, without Noise, he cannot control them.) Todd, on the other hand, finds himself trying to rationalise the actions his new position forces him into — better he’s the one to implement the latest restriction on Spackle freedom, because at least he cares a little — all the while being shaped by the Mayor’s insistent thoughts, which, he tells us, “hatched right in the middle of my brain, like a worm in an apple” (207). Todd’s sense of self — always fragile, in Noise — starts to deteriorate, and worse, to be consciously repressed.

Even leaving aside the narrative split, The Ask & The Answer is thus a very different book from its predecessor. It’s still told in forthright Nundestruth (Viola’s voice is a bit more Doorsy than Todd’s, but not dramatically so), but a headlong chase is replaced with a slow accumulation of intensity; a tour of New World is replaced with a close focus on New Prentisstown; and an unpeeling of the truth of the world is replaced — other than in a couple of broad hints such as the one noted above — by a concern with the manipulation of truth, how lies become truth in the first place. (The Mayor’s ability to manipulate Noise is, it is clear, an ability to manipulate truth, an ability to make lies true not a million miles from that possessed by Bad King Leck.) It is still, fear not, a quite extraordinarily absorbing story, one of those books you inhale more than read; and though it is (inevitably) a less tidy book than The Knife of Never Letting Go, I think it perhaps more penetrating.

We are the choices we make: nothing more, nothing less. That’s what the Mayor tells Todd in the book’s opening scene, and what Mistress Coyle, head of the Answer, tells Viola somewhat later. Even choices we think we have to make are choices, this book says: rationalizations are just that. And individuals are, in fact, as vulnerable as crowds, if not more so. But this is not to say — despite the insistences of several characters — that there are no right and wrong moves, no black and white to be found in this novel. Todd and Viola’s complicity in the actions of the Mayor and of The Answer is pushed just about as far as it can go; to follow their progress through this book is to watch them make choices, to understand why they make those choices, and yet to know that the choices they make are wrong. The novel insists that what matters is not how you fall down, but how you pick yourself up again; but Viola and to an even greater extent Todd, fall a long way in this book.

The Mayor’s actions are unambiguously black from the get-go, and it becomes increasingly obvious as the novel wears on that Mistress Coyle’s tactics are just as unforgivable. The thing is that they are, both of them, plausible kinds of wrongness, ones that exist, with all their seductive and coercive potency, in our world as much as in that of Chaos Walking. What is hard is not identifying them as wrong, but finding and acting on the right and the good in the face of their existence, and their tendency to grapple each other in violent, escalating feedback loops. This is something Ness gets right that I think the other two books discussed above don’t quite manage. The Mayor is ultimately as cartoonish as Leck, and he’s on screen for a whole lot longer. This seems like a weakness. But in fact his one-dimenstionality matters less, because it’s so clear that he’s merely the visible tip of an iceberg. Leck’s ideas may be insidious, but they’ve got nothing on the prejudices into which the Mayor taps and to which he gives form. By the end of The Ask & The Answer, Todd and Viola have demonstrated that the Mayor can be defeated, but they’re left to face the world the Mayor has wrought: left to face, in other words, the Mayor’s ideology. There’s more than one war that needs to be won in Monsters of Men.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go coverEveryone has a good word for this book: Liz liked it, Rachel thinks it’s probably the most gripping book she’s read this year, Martin thinks it’s the best effing science fiction novel he’s read all year, Frank Cottrell Boyce thinks it is fantastic, and it’s already won this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and Booktrust Teenage Prize. So at this point it’s probably very nearly redundant for me to say I like it too; but here goes. I like it.

From the start, two things make The Knife of Never Letting Go one of the most admirably readable books I’ve encountered for ages: pace and voice. Regarding the first, Patrick Ness simply has that gift of being able to structure a narrative so that you want to read just one more page, just one more chapter. The bones of his story are familiar – it’s a pursuit story-stroke-bildungsroman – but what could be a haphazard ricochet from incident to incident is held together by a process of continuous revelation, in which just about everything young Todd Hewitt initially believes to be true about life on the frontier-style colony world he calls home —

There ain’t nothing but Noise in this world, nothing but the constant thoughts of men and things coming at you and at you and at you, ever since the Spacks released the Noise germ during the war, the germ that killed half the men and every single woman, my ma not excepted, the germ that drove the rest of the men mad, the germ that spelled the end for all Spackle once men’s madness picked up a gun. (13)

— is revealed to be a lie. As just about every one of the commentaries I linked to above notes, Ness’ control over his dripfeed of information is so good that it’s a bit unfair to tell a naïve reader much about the story. In nearly every encounter you learn something new about Todd’s world, and almost all of the revelations are interesting enough to distract you from the fact that they’re usually not what you went into the scene wanting to learn. (The success of this tactic is perhaps lessened a bit if you read it in one sitting.) And then the next scene starts. As Todd puts it at one point, “the world keeps getting bigger” (100); his story is driven by expansion.

But if it’s pace that made me want to read The Knife of Never Letting Go, it’s voice – and the consequent emotional weight that accretes behind the runaway train of narrative – that makes me want to re-read it. This is where the Noise comes in, which is just what Todd says it is in that quote above: the thoughts of men shoved out into the world. Before too long, it becomes apparent that one way of describing what we’re reading in this book is to say that it’s Todd Hewitt’s Noise. He is stripped naked before us — and before anyone else who happens to be listening. This is a book which feels immediate and unfiltered, rough-edged; Todd’s joy and pain, however fleeting, are our agony. At times, under intense pressure, Todd’s narration becomes fragmentary, or entirely lost in the babel that surrounds it. This allows Ness to get away with some narrative cheats — there are several key pieces of information which Todd glimpses in the Noise of others early on, but refuses to accept, which means they’re withheld from the reader until he’s ready to face them, at nearly the end of the book — but it also means the manner in which he’s telling his story (i.e. prose) becomes inextricable from that story, which seems a fair trade.

That what is being unfolded in the course of the story happens to be science-fictionally interesting is a happy bonus. Noise, for example, can’t be ignored, but also can’t be trusted. “Noise ain’t the truth”, Todd reminds himself at one point, it’s “what men want to be true, and there’s a difference twixt those things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don’t watch out” (23). In Prentisstown, which Todd believes to be the last town on the planet, Noise is peer pressure, monsters from the id, information overload: all of this and more. The implications and possible variations of Noise continue to be developed throughout the novel — dogs and sheep are sort of eagerly dumb, for instance, while some of the native fauna make more creative use of Noise — but the first and most elaborated variation flows from the first truth that Todd uncovers, that there are still women in the world.

One of the few things Todd is right about, in his initial understanding, is that women don’t have noise. Ness treads a fine line with this, repeatedly leaning towards literalising a hoary cliché, only to upset things later in the novel. Shortly after fleeing his all-male home — for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture; save to say that the enemy chasing him is appropriately chilling — Todd encounters a girl called Viola. When he first perceives her, from a distance, as a silence, he finds her cooling and soothing; and he (sort of) rescues her from one of the nastier townfolk. However, although Viola is (initially) strangely silent, she is impressively self-possessed; she fairly quickly decides that Todd is a bit useless, hits him with a big stick, and starts walking back to where she came from.

Of course, things between them do improve from there, and in fact one of the joys of the book is watching the relationship between the two of them develop, not least because it doesn’t become romantic — although in the promised sequels I imagine that’s unavoidable — but it’s apparent that Viola is rather more with-it than Todd. (During the reading week, a number of people read this book; and one of them explained that he liked it a lot more once he realised Todd was a bit of a twit, and switched his mental identification to Viola.) Other cliches played with: initially, Todd is frustrated because he (literally) can never tell what Viola is thinking (so the connection between the two of them is ultimately all the more powerful for existing independently of Noise); and the emotional incontinence Noise causes in men is used to good effect.

All of which, perhaps, is merely to say that for all that The Knife of Never Letting Go looks straightforward, it is not. Hidden within its Allen-Steele-style-colonization exterior beats a darker, Tiptree-ish heart and, an odd timidity about swearing aside, The Knife of Never Letting Go rarely disappoints. Rather, it develops its premise with consistent wit (“he hears me looking”, Todd thinks at one point), not a little charm, and absorbing thoroughness. It is fast to read, and intense; channelled Noise. As everyone else has said: roll on The Ask and the Answer.