Ark cover “If the answer’s not the one you want, maybe you’re asking the wrong question.” So says Patrick Groundwater, one of the multi-billionaire founders of the Ark One project. His mantra is taken up by others during the development of the spaceship that Patrick and his compatriots hope will offer some of humanity – specifically, their children – an escape route from a drowning Earth. Patrick’s daughter Holle, in fact, uses the principle to ask the question that leads to an essential technological breakthrough. A reader, meanwhile, faced with the answer that is Ark, might struggle to find the right question. It’s not the question that ended the book’s predecessor, Flood – “What is Ark Two?” – since although that question is answered, Ark’s primary focus is Ark One. Yet nor is the question as simple as, say, “what happened next?”

For quite a long time, in fact, the question appears to be “what happened elsewhere?” Flood made it clear that, beyond the launch of Nathan Lammockson’s absurd ocean-going Ark, other projects were afoot to save some remnants of humanity from the inexorably rising waters, and indeed, one of Flood’s rescued-hostage protagonists, Lily Brooke, handed over the daughter of a friend to the Ark One project specifically. Ark reprises that scene for its opening, from the point of view of the daughter, Grace Grey, but then, rather than taking off at a tangent to its predecessor, the novel flashes back to 2025 – not too long after the start of Flood – to spend 200 pages detailing the preparation of the ship and its crew. This can feel a little familiar. There is not, for example, much room within the chronology of the flood for different kinds of stories than the ones Flood covered, with the result that Ark necessarily recapitulates some of Flood’s key notions (most notably the destabilising effect of the steadily increasing flow of refugees from drowned areas into any remaining sanctuary) and partakes of the same urgent tone.

And in the context of Baxter’s work as a whole, even the foreground is not as new as it first appears. In place of Flood’s adult characters, harried from place to place, Baxter here focuses on a group of children growing up in the closest thing to a safe haven left in America during this period. But the sun around which their lives orbit is the Ark: that one of the children sits around reading Heinlein and Niven points to the tradition this novel is in dialogue with, I think. Ark is an Engineering Project novel, and bears plenty of comparison to, say, Voyage (1997), or perhaps more significantly, given the apocalyptic context, Titan (1998). It’s a more American sort of novel than Baxter has written for a while – certainly more American than Flood, which was, for all its ostensible globe-trotting, unashamedly a very British apocalypse; here, a President frames the Ark project, and survival, as part of America’s Manifest Destiny. At the same time, this is not to say that Ark is hard sf, and in fact it comes complete with an honest-to-god Star Trek-style warp drive, to carry the Ark along in a bubble of spacetime, and enable the plot to be completed within a single lifespan. But its themes are familiar from the earlier novels — the tensions between military and civilian interests, and between science and politics as a necessary cost of any large-scale space effort; the intense training programmes, which are in a significant sense literally inhuman, and which unignorably deform the humans who pass through them.

Ark can be a sternly utilitarian novel. To fuel their project, for instance, the masters of the Ark trawl the pool of refugees – “It’s astounding the talent you can filter out of the flood of displaced” (34) – and those who get picked up in such drags, such as the engineer Liu Zheng, are under no illusions about their position. “You’re more than a commodity,” Patrick tries to tell him. “More than a set of skills.” Zheng’s reply is chilling in its bluntness: “Am I? None of us is anything without land, Mr Groundwater” (40). Much is also made of the motivating power of a central mission, of not so much the potential of humans working as part of something grander than themselves, but – once again – the necessity for it. “We are not looking for the outstanding individual,” Holle Groundwater is told. “We are looking for a crew” (63). As with Zheng, the emphasis is on individuals demonstrating their value: Holle, aged six when we meet her and in her early twenties when launch day finally comes, is our primary viewpoint in this section of the novel, but it’s by no means certain that she will last the course. We stay with her as the Ark project is taken over by the rump of the US government, as the somewhat casual but relentlessly intellectual training programme is replaced with something more sternly militaristic, as knowledge of the project becomes public and she and her peers become the last celebrities – but also as people she has trained with her whole life are gradually winnowed out of the crew selection process. The psychological consequences of such a life are, it seems, inevitable.

Jonathan McCalmont’s review of Ark argues that its essential familiarity should be balanced against Baxter’s “seemingly ever-increasing control” over his material. There is something to this. Without question, many parts of the novel are vivid. A shuttle-crash training mission is interrupted by an incursion of “eye-dees” – the refugees not authorised to enter the polder – who are scared off when one candidate, Don, starts cold-bloodedly shooting them down. And there’s a good, if brief (probably too brief) interlude in which Holle experiences life beyond the walls of the project, as one of the faceless millions of refugees. And if much of Ark’s first half feels mechanical – as in the murder-mystery plot that, when the long flashback is over, seems to have been inserted only to give Grace a narrative excuse to get to know the main Candidates – well, you might say, Baxter is often a mechanistic writer, deliberately so, and in his best novels that suits the material he’s working with. In Flood, the plot is as remorseless as the rising water, and the most notable achievement of Ark’s first half, perhaps, is to convey a sense of the mundanity of the Ark project, its fundamental grubbiness. We’re told that “The Ark was an expression of dreams, as much as logic” (83), but for 200 pages, even as the story sweeps towards the launch, and the flight plan becomes ever more delightfully unlikely, that dream is mired in much of the worst of petty humanity.

I’m less convinced by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro’s argument that the paralleling allows for a satisfying “aesthetic of symmetry”. Indeed, between the recapitulation of Flood and the echoes of the “NASA trilogy”, the questions the first half of Ark answers seem to me to be rather unsatisfying ones, to the point that when launch finally comes – in frantic, well-described scenes, although ones that are again reminiscent of earlier Baxter, in this case the novella Mayflower II (2004) – and the Ark soars free, it might be a blessed relief.


He deliberately steadied his breathing. He turned, looking back the way he had come. And there were Earth and moon, hanging in space, visible now that the pusher plate eclipsed the sun. […] He held up his thumb, and was able to cover both of the twin worlds. In the first few days, as they had looked back at the receding home planet, they had all been shocked by how little land remained. Even Colorado, which had seemed so extensive when they were down there living on it, was only a scatter of muddy islands, threatened by the huge curdled semi-permanent storms that stalked the ocean world. But from here he could see no detail.

They had already come so far. (203)

Characters in Stephen Baxter novels are fond of remarking on how poorly humans, as a species that evolved on African plains, are adapted to life in space. But I think there is a sense in which humans-in-space is a natural focus for Stephen Baxter’s writing. The sparseness and directness of his style captures something of the all-alone-in-the-night situation of an ape on an interstellar voyage: takes the shock experienced by Wilson Argent in the above quote and makes the reader feel it as well. And the dysfunctions of Baxter’s characters – which loom as large in Ark as they ever have – seem an appropriate response to the vast concepts those apes must wrestle with. Jokes about shits-in-space aside (although, somewhat surprisingly, I don’t recall a single space-toilet scene in Ark), I can’t think of another contemporary sf writer who can so compellingly describe, as Jonathan puts it in his review, a sense of alienation in an empty universe. “They had already come so far”; but they have a very long way to go.

Which is to say that no, of course the launch doesn’t offer any relief. Not for nothing do the characters speculate that what they’ve built is merely “a prison in space” (276). The claustrophobic, crisis-riven atmosphere of much of the second-half of Ark is in an important sense merely an intensification of the atmosphere of its first half — the “bubble of safety” (60) that Holle recognises she grew up in becoming a literal bubble, the seeming-impossibility of the warp bubble shooting them off to the stars. No wonder that they turn inward, huddle inside the two counterbalanced hulls of the Ark (Seba and Halivah, named, we are told, for great-grandsons of Noah, though “Havilah” is consistently misspelled). What is in some undeniably literal ways “a whole new experiment in human affairs” (261) is, in other ways, the same-old same-old. Factions spring up in the aftermath of the chaotic launch – gatecrashers, illegals, Candidates – which quickly harden into prejudices and, crammed into the volume of three jumbo jets, the eighty or so crew find themselves frequently at loggerheads.

The hundred pages or so documenting the Ark’s journey to “Earth II” are the best of Ark, and in many ways the best of Baxter. Along with Holle, and Grace, the most prominent crew members are Kelly Kenzie, their captain – or, as she designates herself once their journey is properly underway, with what Holle considers to be utopian optimism, “speaker” – and Venus Jennings, the sf-reader I mentioned earlier, in charge of the ship’s navigation and astronomical observation. The narrative is episodic, designed to allow us to get to know the crew in their new habitat. Baxter takes us though a day in the life of the Ark in mid-journey, from Holle’s point of view: a search for a missing child, how the senior crew deal with the seductions of virtual reality “headspace”, how they plan for crew expansion (that is: having more children), the shipboard games they play and laws they develop. And he gives us striking set-pieces, such as a fire that leads to an emergency separation of the hulls. Scattered debris sparkles prettily against the brutal walls of the warp bubble. The grip of necessity, already strong in the first half of the novel, tightens here, becoming Cold Equations bullishness. When they reach Earth II, after the best part of a decade’s travel, and find it less than the brochure seemed to promise, there is the clearest sense anywhere in the book of the most interesting question Ark answers. Not: can humanity survive? But: can it adapt?

One of the major battlegrounds for these tensions is sex. The original mission design called for a balanced crew, men and women boarding two-by-two, and a plan to maximise genetic diversity by ensuring that any given pair of men and women had only one child together. (There are a handful of gay candidates, we are told, but they’re still expected to “donate their genetic material” at the appropriate time.) After the chaos of the launch, which left some of the planned crew behind, and carried away some military and other personnel who forced their way on board at the last minute, there’s an imbalance – more men than women – which undermines almost every attempt to maintain a stable society. It may (or may not) have been clear from my review so far that, even more than Flood, this is primarily a story about women. The back cover, in fact, blurbs the novel as “the story of three women, Grace, Venus and Holle and their part in our struggle to rescue a future from the waves”; a slightly odd choice given that Venus is never as prominent a character as Kelly, but certainly accurate on the principle. Indeed the most important male characters are callous patriarchs, serial abusers, or mentally ill. Make of this, as they say, what you will; I at least did not detect any essentialising conclusions to be drawn, except perhaps the trivially true point that the sort of constraints that come to define life aboard the Ark are, across the world today, usually more familiar to women than men.

It’s at Earth II and after that Ark begins to spin apart. The crew splits: some wish to attempt colonisation, some to return to Earth, and some to travel onwards, to a newly detected Earth III. Although Baxter lets the colonists go (at least for now; their descendants’ fate is chronicled in last year’s pretty good novella, “Earth II”), he clings on to the other threads. There have been hints, it’s true, that something like this might happen – seemingly superfluous chapters about some of those left behind on Earth, interspersed with the crew’s antimatter-mining efforts at Jupiter, even a brief scene from the viewpoint of an elderly Lily Brooke – but it becomes, to my mind, a near-fatal flaw, a critical loss of focus. Adam Roberts notes that he didn’t know how the novel was going to end. I have to finesse that. I certainly had a sense of how each individual thread was going to end; to the extent that I didn’t know how the novel was going to end, it was the result of being unable to find any coherence among the divergent threads of story.

Or, put another way, in the end I couldn’t find the right question to ask of Ark. It seems too much a novel of disparate parts – not by any means all bad; but not unified. Perhaps I shouldn’t be treating it so much as its own book. It’s true that the series Baxter has written over the last decade or so – the Manifold books, Destiny’s Children, even Time’s Tapestry – follow the same general pattern, in that they eschew direct continuity even as they share a setting, and can generally be read in any order, and true that readers coming cold to Ark seem to find things to enjoy. But I can’t see the separation as entirely successful in this case. To the contrary, I start to wonder how the tale would have looked if the two novels – the one story – had been published in a single volume. I can imagine an integrated Flood and Ark, in which the overarching story is the trial of living in catastrophic times envisioned as a kind of generation starship, with each new generation raised in radically different circumstances to their parents, and thus coming of age with radically different expectations. Ark emphasises this theme in its second half, as the sense of a project the drives the first half is gradually lost, but for all its lopsided structure, without the additional context in Flood the treatment lacks weight. Now, Flood and Ark would have been a beast of a book, and would certainly have sacrificed Flood’s awesome clarity; but it might also have done some things better than either book does alone, and leave me less able to frame Ark as an answer to: “what bits of story were left over from Flood?”


Or, two bits of self-promotion. First, I have an article in the new issue of Journey Planet, the fanzine edited by the Bacon-Brialey-Garcia superteam:

The direct link to the (fairly hefty) pdf of the issue is here. It’s all themed around alternate history; my piece is about Stephen Baxter’s Voyage. I’m guessing this is probably also the only time I’ll share a table of contents with Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Paul McAuley and John Scalzi.

Second, I have a review of Justina Robson’s Chasing the Dragon, fourth in the slowly-improving Quantum Gravity series, at Strange Horizons, which is probably the only sf novel you’re likely to read in the near future to contain the phrase, “he was still surprised sometimes to look down and find that he was made of cloth.”

2009 BSFA Awards Shortlists

Best Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Discussion About Flood

Flood coverTime for another round-table discussion, this one looking at Stephen Baxter’s most recent novel, Flood, involving me, Karen Burnham, Adam Roberts and Graham Sleight.

“The ultimate disaster”, say the publisher. “The world is drowning and there is nowhere left on earth to go.” You can read a bit about the thinking that went into the book in this essay on Baxter’s website, and there’s a related short story here (although how much sense it will make if you haven’t read the book, I’m not sure). In the Guardian, Eric Brown liked it; as did Lisa Tuttle in the Times, albeit with more reservations; and there are a couple of other takes here and here. But what did our panel think? Read on …

Karen Burnham: I’ve always had a rocky relationship with Stephen Baxter’s writing. When I first started reading Locus and realized that there’s more to sf than Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, I read the entire “Manifold” trilogy. And then I swore that I wasn’t going to read any more Baxter.

My problem wasn’t with the books themselves. Each volume in the Manifold series worked perfectly well as a stand-alone book. However, when you give all the characters the same names from volume to volume, you expect the author to do something with that; perhaps to look at universalities, or to experiment with how the same personalities would deal with differing circumstances, or something. Instead it seemed like a total coincidence that these characters had the same names; in all other respects they were completely independent of each other from book to book. I appreciated the ideas, the space squids, the differing takes on the Fermi paradox and all that, but I felt completely cheated by the “characterizations” (or lack thereof).

And after reading Flood, I have to say that my opinion of Baxter has not fundamentally changed, although my complaints are easier to set aside with this book. The scenario (however scientifically implausible) is dramatic, well-realized, and well-extrapolated. Baxter’s descriptions of secondary effects are first rate — possibly the best in the field. But again, he has no respect for his characters. Since I really liked these characters and wanted to know more about them, this was particularly disappointing.

One example: Gary raises Grace for ten years. They walk together from Nebraska to the Andes. On the spur of the moment, with no consultation, he tosses Grace to Lily, hoping to secure a better future for this girl who is for all practical purposes his daughter. OK, no problem. However, when Gary next sees Lily, he doesn’t even ask how Grace is doing, where she is or what happened to her. He never mentions her again. What!?! He’s a nice guy, obviously very responsible, very smart, and he’s not even curious if she lived or died?

Perhaps from Baxter’s point of view there’s no need for them to have that conversation because it wouldn’t give the audience any new information: we already know what happened to Grace. But again, that’s disrespectful of the characters; Gary should need to know what happened, no matter what the audience already knows. This and many other similar offenses makes the characters seem little better than the salt and pepper shakers you’d use to explain a football game at a picnic table.

My impression of Baxter remains: brilliant intellectually, but it’s a shame that he has to use humanoid analogues to illustrate his fantastic imaginings.

Adam Roberts: I’d be surprised if you find yourself in a minority of one, actually, Karen: you’re articulating what I take to be one of the core criticisms of Baxter: brilliant ideas and sense-of-wonder etc, but 2D characterisation. Actually I’d say that his skill at characterisation has increased since he started writing, but I’d also concede that people don’t go to Baxter in the first instance for complex or Jamesian characterisation. I appreciate that Karen isn’t asking for The Wings of the Dove; she wants consistent characters with whom she can empathise. That’s fair enough.

This is where I stand: Baxter seems to me one of the major figures in contemporary genre, and Flood (which I reviewed for Strange Horizons when it came out) seems to me his best book for a long time, and one of his best ever (full disclosure: Baxter is a friend of mine). This isn’t to say that I’d stand up for the novel specifically as an exercise in characterisation as such, although I don’t read B.’s treatment of the characters in quite so negative a light. But it is to say not only that Flood does everything one wants of a sf disaster – the scope, the detail, the lack of cosiness, the inevitability, the sweep and momentum – but also that in this novel, as is not always the case in Baxter’s writings, he orchestrates a compelling and eloquent metaphorical totality.

If cards are required on the table, I’ll lay mine down, before taking a puff from my Le-Chiffresque platinum asthma-inhaler: I take sf to be a primarily metaphorical literature. (That’s “primarily”, not “exclusively”, nor “wholly” neither, and that’s … probably an argument for another day.) More than this, I’d argue that it is in metaphor (rather than in, say, “sense of wonder”, or ideas, or technology, or anything else) that the genre can do genuinely penetrating things … to represent the world without reproducing it. In Flood Baxter works systematically through a very effective, very expressive metaphor. Since metaphor is primarily poetic, rather than primarily narrative, it finds some of its most enduring effects in haunting or luminous or expressive images; not that narrative and character are unimportant, but that one of the things that lifts Flood are the various vignettes, especially towards the end: the submarine perspective on drowned London; the Queen Mary sailing over the Matterhorn; the final submersion of Everest; the huge continent of multicoloured floating plastic.

As for character, well it seems to me there are various ways of addressing it if you’re a novelist. One is simply to inhabit those nineteenth-century novelistic criteria of (as it might be) plausibility, consistency, likeability (or empathisability) and so on. Nothing wrong with that. But there are other ways. Now I’ve got into trouble with critics because of my take on characterisation, so conceivably I’m not best placed to argue this: but another approach, and one we might think is peculiarly well suited to sf, is to interrogate what we mean by “character”; to unpick or otherwise play around with our assumptions about “personality”, “motivation” and so on. One of the things that makes Evolution (2003) a stand-out Baxter title for me is that it’s a novel that, inter alia, does precisely this; puts “character” centre stage and portrays it as a blip on the larger evolutionary timescale, one amongst very many strategies genes use to make genes. It’s a novel that deconstructs character, in other words. In a smaller sense, Flood is doing something different. I read it as being, in part, about our passivity in the face of climate change. This is something so huge that there’s nothing we can do about it. Starting his main characters off as helpless prisoners is one way of articulating that; but the characterisation throughout shows individuals as largely passive; as reactive rather than proactive; as enervated, emptied-out and so on. Even Nathan Lammockson who appears at first to be an active, can-do individual, is revealed by the novel’s end to be passively in thrall to an image of a lost past (recreating the Queen Mary and so on). That’s part and parcel of the larger theme of the book, surely.

Niall Harrison: Without wishing to pile on, I broadly agree with Adam, in that while I’ll freely acknowledge that Baxter’s oeuvre in general, and Flood in particular, is not over-stocked with characters who have rich internal lives, I think it raises interesting questions about the place of character in fiction. That said, I feel obliged to defend Flood‘s cast somewhat from Karen’s criticism. To take her specific example, the scene in which Lily and Gary are reunited (chapter 95, beginning p. 461 in my UK trade paperback), after a gap of thirteen years, doesn’t seem to me to be inconsistent or disrespectful to their relationship. They start by exchanging small talk (which Baxter uses as an excuse to describe some neat post-flood tech); there is some discussion of how much time has past, and how Gary in particular has changed (“He leaned forward and took her hands. ‘God, it’s good to see you, Lily'”: maybe it’s my Englishness, maybe it’s just an example of the success of the novel’s tone, but that gesture of familiarity, isolated in their interaction, does feel successfully invested with evidence of a deep loneliness), and then they get down to swapping stories. “They spoke of other friends, of Thandie and Elena and the rest of the scattered community of scientists […] They spoke of Nathan […] and of their fellow hostages […] And of Grace.” So while Karen is perfectly correct that we never see Gary ask about Grace, we know they talk about her. More, I would argue that the progression of their conversation — from the trivial to the shared, and ultimately to the very personal – is itself characterisation, indicative of a gradual process of reconnecting. And I can even see an argument that gesturing towards the conversation about Grace, rather than relating it in detail, is the more effective choice, in that it eschews melodrama. We know they talk about her; we know, because “And of Grace” is the start of a new paragraph, that it’s a significant conversation; and the rest is left to us to imagine.

So I can’t see Baxter as disrespectful of his characters. Distant from them, certainly, but that’s a different thing. Actually, the more serious criticism of Baxter’s characters, to my mind, is the way that they tend to repeat from book to book: one of the reasons I like Flood as much as I do is that I think it’s less susceptible to this than some of his other recent works — Piers’ Englishness makes an interesting contrast to, say, George Poole’s, for instance — but it still falls foul of this to an extent. Lily is not so different from Manifold’s Emma Stoney or even Voyage‘s Natalie York.

I think there’s a case to be made that the distance Baxter assumes from his characters is integral to the virtues of his novels – it’s hard for me to imagine getting the same sense of a vast and impersonal universe from a novel that renders the personal in compelling detail – but in general I’m not very interested in debating whether or not Baxter “should” have more rounded characters. I don’t consciously read a book with a model of what a good novel is in my head. I’m much more interested in trying to let a book teach me to speak its language, and then — if something entertains, or moves, or enlightens, or provokes — trying to work out what it is that enabled the book to achieve that effect. Flood managed to do all of those things at various points. I cared deeply about the story, far more deeply than I cared about any of the individual characters in it, and since that’s something unusual in fiction, and since it worked, I regard it as a strength of the book. Of course, I’ve been reading Baxter since I was old enough to buy books for myself; I have quite literally grown up on his work, and I’ve no doubt my approach to reading has been shaped by it.

Graham Sleight: You’ve zeroed in on something I was wanting to talk about: Baxter and characterisation.

General agreement with points already made: Baxter is very good indeed at depicting the effects of the disaster he depicts, and doing so is something you can’t imagine happening outside sf. My problem with Flood is that it winds up doing the splits, between two kinds of genres/expectations, and that its problems with characterisation are a symptom of that — and that they’re distinct from the way characterisation works out in, say, Evolution. Very sketchy outline of the two sets of expectations follows. In disaster novels (or movies), you tend to have big casts of characters, whose background you’re told about in detail (so that, for example, you can sob when Shelley Winters snuffs it), and they tend to have some degree of agency and ability to affect events. In scientific romances, you don’t have characters so much as places to put the camera. Insofar as there are “characters” in something like The Time Machine or Last and First Men or The City and the Stars, they tend to be hollowed out, transparent, designed to be observers. (And hence, often, couched as scientists of one kind or another.)

The obvious thing to say about Flood, then, is it starts off looking like a disaster novel (about an immediate threat we know about), and morphs into a scientific romance, as it becomes apparent that the threat is more universal and less fixable than seemed to be the case. (And, in parenthesis, this is why I disagree with Adam’s reading of it as being about our passivity in the face of climate change; but then I disagree with his take on sf as primarily metaphorical, though as he said that’s a whole other conversation…) So you start of with disaster-novel characterisation, which doesn’t necessarily allow much interiority, but does specify a lot. (See, for instance, the first couple of paras of Ch 9, p.45.) But by the end, the interesting stuff is viewed by, literally, inanimate objects, like the ROVs sent down to London, pp422-4. (Interesting, too, that everyone talks about the Queen Mary travelling over the Matterhorn rather than any given character.)

So I’m arguing that Flood is a book that starts off in one genre and ends in another, and that its progressive lack of interest in characters (or even character traits) is a symptom of this. I guess we can’t get into the question of whether this is deliberate – the author is, of course, dead, as I’m sure Adam will tell Steve next time he sees him. But we can deal with whether this seems to each of us to work. I agree that you can’t/shouldn’t use a yardstick of Jamesian interiority – but you can talk about, say, fitness of means to ends, or whether the experience of the world seems as full or as intense as your own. I can see the case that Niall makes, that we are in the end meant to care about “the story”, rather than “the characters”. (Arbitrary distinction, but more useful in this case than in others.) The problem with that, though, is that the book does start off making rather dutiful disaster-novel gestures — and continues to make them, to some extent — it looks as if we’re supposed to care about them as individuals. My own theory — were the author not dead — would be that Baxter is happiest writing in the omniscient viewpoint, flitting from character to character or setting to setting as much as possible. Hence my view, despite the many local successes of Flood, that Evolution remains the book that best displays his talents.

Karen: This time around, let me start by acknowledging Niall’s proof of Gary asking about Grace: yup, I totally missed that. While I could point out that it’s easy to miss, I certainly should have gone back with the fine-tooth comb to find it. However, it seems like we all agree that characterization is problematic with Baxter?

Niall says: “I cared deeply about the story, far more deeply than I cared about any of the individual characters in it, and since that’s something unusual in fiction, and since it worked, I regard it as a strength of the book.”

But I wonder why we can’t have both? Amazing stories and fascinating characters? To say that it’s OK to have stock/2-D characters if the plot/imagery/ideation are first class (and they are here) strikes me as a sort of special pleading. Sure, other forms of literature should have well-drawn characters, but you can’t expect us to do that sort of thing…

The odd thing to me is that I absolutely love Stapledon (total character count = 0) and I’ve got a huge soft spot in my heart for Asimov (total character count = something less than 1), but Baxter’s characters put my teeth on edge for 4 straight books now. I’m trying to work out why… Stapledon’s easy to figure out; as Graham says, he’s writing straight scientific romance, and you can’t blame someone for “not having characters” when they’re not even pretending to do so. Perhaps Baxter sacrifices paying off character arcs in favor of paying off plot/ideation arcs? Thus, while Susan Calvin may not be a 3-D character (although she was a godsend identification character for me, growing up as a girl geek), in each story she gets the satisfaction/vengence/resolution that we want for her. I’m not totally convinced of this explanation, I’m just throwing it out there.

Gary Wolfe mentioned that in his reading, the characters all become less human as the story progresses… the catastrophe overtakes and overwhelms their humanity. I could buy that, except that having failed to establish really human characters in the beginning (how many readers were saddened when Helen died? Why did Michael, random bureaucrat, adopt her cause so obsessively?) it makes that sort of move lack any dramatic impact at all: it’s hard to become less human when you start from so little depth.

Again, I really wanted to like these folks. Lily, Piers, Gary, Thandie, Kristie — they all had aspects that I could relate to. However, whenever something interesting about them came up, it always seemed to be subsumed into moving the plot forward, then left hanging.

However, I also wanted to address a non-character related thread. Adam mentioned “I read it as being, in part, about our passivity in the face of climate change. This is something so huge that there’s nothing we can do about it.” I felt that the story takes an important turn when the flood is revealed to be a product of forces acting on water in the Earth’s crust instead of anthropogenic climate change. The apocalypse is fundamentally different if we bring it upon ourselves than if it is the product of forces beyond our control. In Flood I assumed it was the latter, but Thandie Jones continues to speak as if it’s the former. As Niall discovered, I didn’t catch all the detail in this book. Did Baxter suggest that human-caused climate change caused the water to come out of the Earth’s crust (maybe by shifting the pressure loads on the crust through melting ice caps or something) and I missed it? It seems like the moral dimension was totally changed, but the characters and narration still had the tone of a Man-made disaster.

I think I’d enjoy Baxter more if he were able to abandon characters like Stapledon did. From the sound of things, should I pick up Evolution?

Adam: Graham said, “the problem with that, though, is that the book does start off making rather dutiful disaster-novel gestures …” What are the templates for the Big Disaster Story? It’s generally either Disaster Averted, like (I don’t know) Armageddon (1998); or Disaster Fulfilled, like The Day After Tomorrow (2004). In both these cases, and the differing conclusions notwithstanding, the stories are apotropaic; they are about rehearsing ways in which we can act to stop the bad stuff happening, or at the least about imparting an urgency (which is to say, if we don’t get our shit together soon then look what will happen). Flood starts out like one of these sorts of stories, but actually it isn’t either kind of tale. There’s nothing to be done, nothing that could ever have been done, that would avert this particular disaster. There’s a deal of faffing around in the first third of the book, Thandie Jones persevering with her vision of the true nature of things in the teeth of general hositility: a section of the novel during which characters and possibly readers think they’re reading DA, or that if they’re reading DF then this section will satirise the inertia of the scientific community/human population whatever. But it’s all a narrative tromp-l’oeil; the scientific community ignores what’s going on, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if they’d seen what was happening right away. There’s nothing to be done. Graham implies that this shift is a kind of false-start, but I read it as being a deliberate and important part of the whole. Baxter’s disaster stories almost never (I’m ready to stand corrected of course) tread the conventional DA or didactic-DF model: I’m thinking of Moonseed (1998) [though it’s not my favourite Baxter book] or the environmental meltdown in the background of Transcendent (2005). There’s something less wish-fulfulment about Baxter’s writing, and it’s one of the things I love about his work: the uncompromising-ness of his imagination. It goes hand in hand with a sort of determinism, in the philosophical sense, which also inflects his sense of character: but I’m starting to repeat myself.

Actually one criticism I might put forward (although tentatively, because the ending felt right to me for all that I’m about to say) is that the relatively happy ending … as happy as the aftermath of six-billion deaths can be … is a bit too rosy for the scenario painted: messing about in boats in the sunshine as your children rapidly evolve into homo aquaticus. Under the sorts of pressures the novel so vividly paints, wouldn’t extinction be more likely? (They’re now elevated six miles or so; wouldn’t they be panting for lack of air? And the water they’ll lolling about in will surely be polluted with literally all the toxins in the world. And wouldn’t the sunlight smother them with cancers? Or to put it most baldly: what does natural history teach us about animals faced with catastrophic destruction of their habitual environment … they die out, surely). On the other hand, there’s the sequel volume Ark due soon, so maybe I’m speaking too soon.

Niall: I wonder whether it would be fair to split us into those who think the overall shape of the book basically works and is coherent (me and Adam) and those who think it is in some way broken (Graham and Karen). I think Graham’s diagnosis of the overall shape of the book – that there is a change – is accurate, but I’m not convinced by the explanation he’s constructed around the change. I don’t think, for example, that the flood is initially presented as something fixable; to the extent that the characters ever have agency, it’s tied up in coping strategies. Right from the start, Lammockson’s plans are about adapting to a fundamental state change. Nor do I agree that there is a fundamental difference in the kind of characterisation Baxter offers in the early and late stages of the book, or a progression from interest to disinterest; when he puts Lily in a helicopter so she can get an aerial view of flooding London, she is precisely a scientific romance viewpoint character. We are quite noticeably not provided with the kind of detailed character background that Graham argues is typical of disaster stories — I’d argue that Karen’s reaction to, for example, Helen’s death illustrates that. Similarly, there’s plenty of interesting stuff seen by humans in the later stages of the book, such as the trash-continent-rainbow that Adam highlighted in his Strange Horizons review.

Nor, while I’m at it, do I agree that characterization is problematic for Baxter (as Karen put it). To make the point I made earlier a bit more strongly, I think his characterization is fit for his purpose. I saw Michael’s relationship with Helen, for example, as one of the first occurrences of a motif that repeats throughout the novel, namely that extreme circumstances tend to produce unusual relationships (see also Lily and Piers). Or to answer Karen’s question directly, Michael adopted Helen’s cause because it was something he could do, when there was absolutely nothing he could do about larger events. It’s part of the orchestration that Adam mentioned earlier on, and it’s another example of a distant, scientific romance perspective in the early stages of the book, and it worked for me.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it has to work for everyone else; but I do think asking if we can’t “have both” ideation and characterization is a bit of a red herring. Obviously, it’s perfectly possible to have both, since the elements of fiction are not a zero-sum game, but that doesn’t mean both have to be present to allow us to describe a book as good. I’m mildly allergic to arguments based on class properties, I think. So far as I’m concerned, a story that foregrounds ideation over (a certain kind of) characterization is no more inherently a failure (or a success) than a story that foregrounds (a certain kind of) characterization over ideation is inherently a success (or a failure); and stories that have both are not inherently superior to stories that only have one.

So now I suppose I should present my argument for the book, rather than just trying to take other peoples’ criticisms to pieces. Broadly speaking, I still agree with Adam. As I said, I do think Graham is right to identify a shift as the novel progresses, but I don’t think it’s a shift between character-focused and story-focused, I think (as indeed I argued in my own review) that it’s a shift between literal and metaphoric idioms. We start out with what looks like climate change – a comprehensible, recognisable aspect of our world – and end with something far more extreme and stranger. One of the reasons I like this so much is that I can’t, offhand, think of another book in which Baxter links those two idioms (which I think are his two dominant idioms) so directly. To an extent the Manifold books do, perhaps; but Flood is more like starting with Voyage (alternate history nuts-and-bolts space exploration) and ending up in Exultant (gonzo space opera and a trench run on the black hole at the centre of the galaxy).

I take Karen’s point about the potential disingenuousness of this move, and there is a slight grinding of gears when Baxter uses it to take some swipes at scientists who can’t adapt to the new paradigm, but in the end I think the novel maintains its moral coherence. Because at this stage, I don’t really see climate change as something “fixable”; it is something we need to take account of, and ameliorate as far as possible, but ultimately it’s something we’re going to have to adapt to. And whether or not sf works primarily or best as a metaphorical literature (as Graham says, a debate for another day), I certainly think Flood works best when considered as a book about that need for adaptation. It may not be literally about climate change, but metaphorically – tonally – it underlines the urgency of the issue.

Finally, on Adam’s point about the ending: I don’t know what exactly would happen to the depth of atmosphere in such a flood, but in general terms, yes, you would think extinction is the likely outcome. Except that, as much as Baxter likes to end the world or the universe, one of the themes that runs through much of his work (and particularly the Xeelee stuff) is that life finds a way. He’s probably written a dozen or more stories by now that riff off Blish’s “Surface Tension” in this way – adaptation to survive conditions radically different from human baseline – and I think, in a way, you can read the end of Flood as a continuation of that theme.

Karen: Just a quick note on the ending: as sea level rises, the atmospheric pressure at sea level would stay the same (the ocean “pushes up” the atmosphere as it rises) so breathing at the former Everest site wouldn’t be a problem. However, my thinking about the kids is that Man literally cannot live by fish alone. Wouldn’t they all at least have scurvy by that point? (And for the horrors of scurvy, see Dan Simmons’ The Terror: the reality of dying from disease is the scariest part of that novel.) I’m with you guys in thinking that extinction is the most likely outcome; provisional pending the plot of Ark.

Adam: Not sure about this: the problem for Franklin’s sailors was that they didn’t eat fish (or seal); Inuit get all the vitamin c they need from fish, seal and whale; we can assume that Baxter’s survivors will have access to those sorts of animals.

The situation of the atmosphere is trickier. The ocean currently constitutes (says wikipedia) 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of water. In Flood it rises at least as far as Everest’s peak (8.8 km high): so adding a shell 9km deep all around the world (four-thirds-pi-r-cubed for both the post-flood and pre-flood radii, take the smaller from the larger) would add over 4.5 billion cubic kilometers of water. Now, the ocean is presently oxygenated (which is how fish breath), but this new water presumably wouldn’t be — it comes from deep underground, after all. There’s a hundred trillion metric tonnes of oxygen in the atmosphere. How much of this would dissolve in the new ocean? I can’t find out the figures for how much oxygen is dissolved in the present world oceans, but it’s something like 0.3 mole 02 per cubic metre (given that a mole of oxygen is 32g this means something like 10g in mass … this may be an overestimate, actually): if so, then 5.8 billion cubic kilometers would soak up an awful lot of that hundred trillion tonnes.

I’m nitpicking, I know; and, actually, contradicting what I was saying earlier … which is that, for all its trappings of scientific precision, Baxter’s novel works more fully on the level of metaphor. The global flood is culturally, and mythically, enormously resonant, and one of the ways the novel works so well is Baxter’s dexterity in incorporating and playing-off those associations.

Graham: I’m especially interested in Adam’s suggestion that Big Disaster Stories “are apotropaic; they are about rehearsing ways in which we can act to stop the bad stuff happening, or at the least about imparting an urgency (which is to say, if we don’t get our shit together soon then look what will happen).”

You see, I don’t think you can sustain the argument that disaster stories in general are a Dire Warning, or therefore Adam’s later point that Flood represents some kind of skewing away from that template. I mean, take a couple of others: Bear’s The Forge of God has all the trappings I’ve been describing — multi-viewpoints, high politics as well as ordinary people, etc etc. But what’s the moral? Don’t let aliens release planet-eating black hole wossnames into the core of the Earth? Or, say, the movie The Swarm? “Don’t stray near giant flocks of killer bees”? The Poseidon Adventure? “Don’t be on board a cruise liner when it gets struck by a tsunami”? In all of those, I’d suggest, any lesson-learning stuff is a very minor element compared to the real point of the disaster story: showing you destruction on a vast scale from the safety of observation.

In that respect, I’d suggest, the disaster story’s pleasures are cognate to a) those of the horror story (except that horror tends to focus on smaller groups or individuals, punished out of all proportion for some transgression), and b) whoever it was — Saint Augustine? — who said that one of the joys of being in heaven will be to look down on the damned suffering in hell. In that sense, I’d suggest that the Devlin/Emmerich team have made their career doing disaster movies: what everyone remembers about Independence Day is not how the aliens get defeated but how New York and the White House get destroyed; ditto Godzilla. So saying that The Day After Tomorrow is “about” rehearsing ways in which the bad stuff can be stopped is … a misprision, I guess. Can you really argue that Kenneth Welsh’s “I was wrong” speech at the end, or Quaid’s endless blather about superstorms, is more memorable, more emblematic than the wave advancing on New York of the other visual setpieces? The warnings may be a pretext for the setpieces, but they’re no more the point of the movie than the Vitamin C in tomato ketchup is the point of a cheeseburger.

So … returning to the topic, I still maintain that Flood — by the effect-based criterion I set out above — is a disaster story for most of its length. I still maintain, also, that it takes a turn (I increasingly think of it as an L-shaped book) into another mode as it runs out of things to trash, and it heads off into a more detached and abstract realm. Now, of course, writers messing with reader (and critic) expectations is all to the good if it’s done well; some of my favourite works are those that start in one form and end in another. My problem with Flood — and what all these words have been spent getting to the point of — is that the transition doesn’t work for me. Baxter shapes his text to give one kind of pleasure at the outset — you can just imagine the CGI work of the flooding Thames Barrier in some bad miniseries. By the end he’s doing something else entirely, and the two halves don’t quite join. Actually, there’s a comparison, since I’m reading it for Locus at the moment: Stapledon’s Last and First Men. All that stuff at the start, with relatively detailed satire on national attitudes, the whole quasi-comic thing of “Gordelpus”, seems to me to fit increasingly poorly with the cosmic stuff in the latter part. So yes, Flood is a really interesting book, but I’d still file it under “Perils of zooming out”.

Karen: The more I reflect on it, the more I’m persuaded by Graham’s “disaster-pivot-scientific romance” argument. Niall is right in that it’s not a clear line; there are plenty of scientific romance moments in the beginning of the book as well — most of which scenes I thoroughly enjoyed. I realize now that I would have preferred it if it had been a scientific romance all the way through with even fewer gestures towards character drama (hence my love of Stapledon).

I also agree that this book certainly taps into the major anxiety of our time, climate change, and weaves an incredible scenic epic around it. I’m still a bit bothered by the “it’s not our fault” science behind it, but that’s certainly forgivable.

Suffice it to say, I enjoyed this book on several levels, and more than I thought I would. However, I suspect that Baxter’s characterization techniques will continue to set my teeth on edge into the future (although that’s obviously a personal threshold). As much as I love a good scientific romance, I’ll probably continue to be hesitant about picking up Baxter’s.

Adam: Happy as I am being in the wrong, usually, I don’t think I can let this go. We’re talking about Flood; which is to say we’re talking about environmental disaster (see also: Kim Stanley Robinson’s last few novels; The Day After Tomorrow; Al Gore’s lecture etc). Graham’s counterexamples are novels in which bad shit happens. But bad shit happens in almost every novel, and usually without it speaking to our present widespread cultural anxiety about incipient environmental armageddon. (Actually I suppose we might argue that “economic meltdown!” is the Corporal Jones “don’t panic! don’t panic” at this precise moment; maybe it will overtake the Green Disaster narrative that has dominated cultural discourses for the last decade or more in the same way that nuclear armageddon dominated the 60s, something that manifested in a series of atomic and post-atomic disaster novels). I respectfully disagree with Graham that the “enjoyment” in watching An Inconvenient Truth, or reading about rising global sea levels, is the toddler-esque love of seeing stuff smashed.

Graham: It’s certainly true that there is a specific subset of the disaster story in which the disaster is environmental, and it carries (more or less prominently) a “message” about what we might do to avert it. Sometimes, as with KSR, it’s detailed and precise (I’ve only read about 50% of the Capitol trilogy; but the reasons for that would merit a whole other discussion); sometimes, as with The Day After Tomorrow, it’s woolly and (I’d argue) tokenistic. (To misquote Mary Poppins: a spoonful of medicine makes the sugar go down.) I think that shifting the goalposts to non-fiction accounts such as An Inconvenient Truth is, well, shifting the goalposts. A non-fiction account, particularly one that aspires to responsibility — as does Gore’s — is inevitably going to concentrate on facts and figures, rather than placing worst outcomes in a narrative frame. (And, if it’s a disaster movie, a spectacular narrative frame.) But then, that’s saying that fiction and non-fiction are different forms: film at 11.

That said, I’d agree with one argument that Adam edges towards making- that disaster stories are a kind of sublimation (good old Freudian sense) of certain cultural anxieties, a place to put our worries about climate change (or nuclear holocaust or whatever). Hence their tendency to extremity and the emblematic in visualising the whatever-it-is. Indeed, there’s an argument — though I wouldn’t push it too far — that they’re a kind of token genuflection at the altar of whatever anxiety is lurking in the hindbrain. Hence the occasional disaster movie that really violates the conventions — I’m thinking of Dr Strangelove in particular — is far more shocking than one that just makes the expected transaction.

Adam: I didn’t mean to move goalposts: I was taking it for granted, I suppose, that Flood connects with the same cultural anxiety about environmental disaster as lots of other texts (fictional and factual); where stories about invasion by giant space bees doesn’t. I take the force of the “responsibility” angle, but don’t see that Gore’s account is “narrative free”. Any account is necessarily narrative, and Gore’s film tells a number of stories, although admittedly it does not use the conventional fictive paraphernalia of the Hollywood blockbuster to do so. “Facts and figures” seems a little off the point, too: as if sf novels never trade in the idiom of fact, or figures.

Anyway, disaster-stories-as-sublimation was indeed the argument I thought I was making (or more precisely: the ground of what I was saying), and I meant actually to make it, not edge towards. Probably I took too much for granted. But it’s nice to have a measure of agreement, if only a measure, so I’ll stop here.

Graham: I’m happy to leave it there too, with a happy dose of Freud. What the world needs!

Adam: Sigmundtastic.

The Short Story Nominees

I am usually underwhelmed by the Hugo short story nominees. I accept that my tastes are out of step with the pool of Hugo voters, as I am not a big fan of Michael Burstein’s short fiction, and the less said about most of Mike Resnick and Robert J. Sawyer’s previous nominees the better, but the one time I voted in the Hugos I put No Award first as a protest against how uniformly terrible the stories on that year’s ballot were. So it’s pleasing to report that the short stories, while not all great, range from pretty decent to really pretty damn good. Here’s my ranking:

Bottom of my ballot I would put Mike Resnick’s ‘Distant Replay‘. It’s the best Mike Resnick story I have ever read, and that’s why it wouldn’t end up below No Award, but the appeal of his work remains a total mystery to me. Yet another story about science fiction being used in some way to reunite a man with his love, (in this case, a man meets a young man and woman who are exactly like him and his (dead) wife, and hooks them up), it’s less cloyingly sentimental than usual and has a couple of nice ideas, and that’s about it.

‘A Small Room in Koboldtown,’ by Michael Swanwick, is a locked-room mystery noir in a fantasy setting. The internet informs me it’s a universe he’s written in before, and the setting is interesting, but then it uses the fantasy setting to pull a big cheat. I like mysteries, and they work best when they are clever enough that you can’t work out exactly how it was done but all the clues are there. When the resolution of the mystery is a magical solution I couldn’t predict, I feel cheated out of my ending.

Having dispatched with the bottom two, we get to two stalwarts of the UK SF scene who are harder to separate – Ken MacLeod’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?’ and Stephen Baxter’s ‘Last Contact.’ Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? is space opera from Ken MacLeod, in the same setting as his BSFA-award-winning Lighting Out. Proper hard SF, it has AIs and seedships and lots of future civilizations, I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I expected. I think it could do with being longer, to flesh out the events around the ending, and give us more of the central character. There’s just nothing which particularly grabs me, so I put it at number three.

Last Contact is a very English disaster story – the big SFnal idea is the end of the world, but the story is about two women preparing for the end in Oxfodshire, planting flowers that will never grow and sitting in the garden drinking tea while they wait for the ground to be ripped apart under them. It’s a cosy catastrophe, with a much lower degree of looting and general chaos and anarchy than what I think would actually happen if you announced the world was going to end in six month’s time, but I found it rather charming. I don’t think Baxter quite pulls it off, but it’s in second place for me.

My pick of the short stories is Elizabeth Bear’s ‘Tideline,’ which is a great example of how a small SF idea can turn into a lovely story. Lovely is the appropriate word, as it’s a heartwarming little tale of a shipwrecked war-machine, alone on a beach mourning her lost compatriots, and the human boy she meets and takes care of. The hints of worldbuilding fit around the well-drawn characters, filling out enough of the background to satisfy but leaving parts of it unknown, and Bear’s prose is probably the best of all the stories, bar maybe the Swanwick. It pulls off beautifully what Last Contact can’t quite do.

So I’d like the Best Short Story Hugo to go to Elizabeth Bear, but I won’t be upset if it goes to MacLeod or Baxter.

Other views:
Abigail Nussbaum mostly agrees with me, but doesn’t like Baxter as much. Nicholas Whyte doesn’t like the MacLeod at all, but agrees with my top pick. Karen Burnham agrees with my top two, but hasn’t read any of the others. John at SF Signal also isn’t fond of the Macleod, and likes the Resnick much more.

Two Reviews Elsewhere

I’m having the good fortune to be going through a period of reading good books, reviews of two of which have recently gone up elsewhere. First: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, at Strange Horizons:
Dreamers of the Day cover

And then every so often comes a reminder that Agnes is dead. The effect of this, which I take to be deliberate, is to break the immersion associated with historical fiction. Agnes’s times are not for us to live in—they are for us to watch (as, later, our times are for her), and to read Dreamers of the Day is to take part in a game of knowingness with Agnes and her author: they know we know they know we know, and so on. So we see Agnes in conversation with Lawrence, and we interpret what is said according to our knowledge; later, Agnes discusses the events with Karl Weilbacher—a German with whom she has struck up a friendship—and he provides his own interpretation, which is then on the table for us to interpret once more. As a formal device for relating the politics of 1921 to those of our times this is elegant and often extraordinarily effective, the more so because the tale is of sufficient complexity—and aware enough of the limits of the possible—that it cannot be summarized as a lesson. (Agnes herself tries and fails at the end of the novel.)

On the basis of this review, yesterday I got involved in an email debate about whether or not a novel with a dead narrator should count as fantasy, which involved mutual incomprehension on both sides. (Although I have the satisfaction of having the author on my side.) For me it’s as simple as saying the narrator’s position is impossible, and that it implies the existence of a secondary (fantastic) world, whether or not the author chooses to explore it. If the author doesn’t choose to explore it, it may not be very satisfying to consider the work in question as fantasy — there may be other, better ways to approach the book — but that doesn’t mean it’s not fantasy. In fact, in Dreamers of the Day Russell does spend some time in the afterlife world, although it’s towards the end of the book, so I didn’t want to talk about it in the review; but even if she hadn’t, my knowledge that the narrator was dead would have made the book a fantasy for me. And that had an effect on my reading experience: for example, it made the moments where Agnes (the narrator) remembers hearing the voice of her dead mother more ambiguous since, after all, Agnes herself proves that communication from beyond the grave is possible.

The second review is of Stephen Baxter’s latest novel, Flood, in the Internet Review of SF; as I understand their subscription options you should be able to access the review for free even if you’re not a subscriber, unless you’ve already looked at an article from the current issue this week. A quote:
Flood cover

In order to make something as slow-moving as climate change storyable, you either need to make your characters live longer, as, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson does in Blue Mars, or you need to make the change shorter and sharper, which is the route Robinson takes in Science in the Capital and the route Baxter takes, to a much greater degree, here. (Of course you can set stories within an ecologically devastated future without deploying either of these strategies, and many writers have; but they then stop being stories about the process of climate change, and become stories about living with it.) The big advantage to Baxter’s strategy is that it tremendously intensifies the problem, particularly in the early stages, creating a crucible within which the dramas caused by a changing environment—mass migration, for one—can play out on a human timescale. Stern currents of class, race, gender, religion and evolutionary biology all swirl through Flood, driving and shaping the drama. (The religious echoes, in particular, are well handled.) But once you’ve introduced that sort of acceleration, if you’re a writer like Baxter you have to follow it through to its conclusion; and in this case that means shifting modes. So Flood skyhooks us into a story that—while still predominantly literal—is stranger and more emblematic than it at first appears.

As this indicates, one of the things that really interests me about the book is how it negotiates between two forms of writing about its subject: the opening is very literal, realistic, climate-change-ish stuff, whereas the later parts of the novel are more extreme and strange. But that’s only the most impressive aspect, for me, of what is quite possibly Baxter’s best novel this decade (Evolution runs it close), and certainly the best new science fiction novel I’ve read so far this year. I’m hoping to organize a Swiftly-style discussion of this book, to look at it in more detail.

2008 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

It may look as if everything is normal, but actually, I’m in Switzerland, where I’ve just had an absurdly early breakfast in anticipation of a long day’s work. But I’ve found time (and some internet) to bring you the shortlist for the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Award anyway. (OK, I wrote most of this post at the weekend. But the principle stands.) Am I good to you, or what?

Tom Hunter, Award Administrator, says:

Featuring visions as diverse as a dystopian Cumbria and a future Hackney, time-travel adventures in 1960’s Liverpool and an alternate world British Isles in the throes of terrorist attack, through to tech-noir thrillers and a trawl through subconscious worlds where memories fall prey to metaphysical sharks, the Clarke Award has never been so close to home and relevant to the British literary scene.

The Clarke Award has always been about pushing at the speculative edges of its genre. It’s one possible map amongst many, never the whole territory, and this year’s shortlist stands as both the perfect introduction to the state of modern science fiction writing as well as a first tantalising glimpse of possible futures to come.

And those books? Read on.

Shortlist overviews
Abigail Nussbaum at Strange Horizons
Adam Roberts at Futurismic
Lisa Tuttle in The Times
Steven Shaviro
Tony Keen

A poll

The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter

The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod

Black Man by Richard Morgan

So. Run the numbers. Six novels, five publishers. Four stories set in the future. Three first-time nominees — two debut novels, in fact. One young adult book. What else?

(When everyone in the UK’s woken up, there may well be some discussion here, here and here.)

John Jarrold
Abigail Nussbaum
Paul Raven
The Guardian
Martin Lewis
Jeff VanderMeer

The Siege of Earth

Writing about favourites is always hard. Not — at least for me — because it’s hard to be critical, but because it’s too easy. Writing about something I really like, I often feel somewhat self-conscious, and try to compensate by pointing out all the flaws before anyone does. And when we’re talking about a writer like Stephen Baxter — who started publishing just as I reached the golden age of twelve, who I keep thinking I should try to write about in some vaguely substantive way, and who remains one of my favourite writers — it has to be admitted that there are flaws to be pointed out. Baxter stories are full of passages such as this, from “Last Contact” (in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, ed George Mann). Caitlin is visiting her mother, Maureen; at this point, on the second page of the story, all we know about the larger situation is that Caitlin is about to deliver news about something called the “Big Rip”:

It was just a scrap of lawn really, with a quite nicely stocked border, behind a cottage that was a little more than a hundred years old, in this village on the outskirts of Oxford. “It’s the first time I’ve seen this properly.”

“Well, it’s the first bright day we’ve had. My first spring here.” They walked around the lawn. “It’s not bad. It’s been let to run to seed a bit by Mrs Murdoch. Who was another lonely old widow,” Maureen said.

“You mustn’t think like that.”

“Well, it’s true. This little house is fine for someone on their own, like me, or her. I suppose I’d pass it on to somebody else in the same boat, when I’m done.”

Caitlin was silent at that, silent at the mention of the future.

It’s that last phrase — “silent at the mention of the future” — that grates, a clumsy intrusion into Caitlin’s thoughts. And it seems both unnecessary — we don’t yet know for certain that we’re reading an end-of-the-world story, but we could have made an informed guess without that sort of nudge — and premature. Why not build up the atmosphere of unease just a bit longer?

Baxter’s writing is never going to be lauded as beautiful, exactly (although more often than not he has a good eye for description), and I think this sort of infelicity is part of the reason why — the sort of thing that, even if entirely intentional, looks like it would have been caught and removed if there’d been one more draft. Of course, there are compensations, most commonly the sort of cosmological vistas that almost nobody else is writing right now. Which is why I was so glad to read, and so dazzled by, “The Siege of Earth”. It’s been over year since I read a really mind-expanding Stephen Baxter story — Transcendent, the third of the three novels that make up what is probably Baxter’s most consistently impressive (if somewhat unfortunately named) sequence of novels to date, Destiny’s Children. “A Siege of Earth” is another pure hit of no-apologies, no-compromises science fiction.

It’s the closing story — and the only original story — in Resplendent, a (very) loosely linked collection of short stories which was published as “volume four” of Destiny’s Children. All four books are set in Baxter’s well-established Xeelee universe, a future history in which godlike and eternally-offscreen aliens deliver as thorough a kicking to the idea of a manifest destiny for humanity as you could wish for. Moreover, all four track the fate of humanity over evolutionary timescales, but in truth most of the stories in Resplendent add little to arguments already made in the novels. In particular, many of them read as pendants to the second Destiny’s Children novel, Exultant. Some of the stories explicate events referenced in the novel — as part of a Grand Tour of the solar system, for instance, Exultant’s protagonists visit the site of “Reality Dust”; you don’t need to know that, but if you do the scene in the novel acquires an additional resonance. Most of the stories are also set in roughly the same period as the novel — give or take ten thousand years, and on the scale Baxter’s working to you can give or take ten thousand years quite easily — and share a predominantly militaristic tone. “The Siege of Earth”, though, is a leap forward from the rest of the book, more elegiac in tone, and set almost four times further in the future than its nearest neighbour, “Between Worlds” (AD 27,152). Admittedly this may seem rather inadequate by the standards of something like “The Baryonic Lords”, which capped Baxter’s previous Xeelee collection, Vacuum Diagrams, and which takes place more than four times further into the future again; but it’s still deep enough into time for the solar system to be virtually unrecognisable, and well past the events of Transcendent, noted in Resplendent‘s timeline as “the high water-mark of human destiny”.

Most of Baxter’s Xeelee stories have a specific date attached to them, but the date of “The Siege of Earth” is tidier than most: 1,000,000 AD. Such an ostentatious declaration of futurity can’t be accidental, and nor, surely, are the associations raised by the oh-so-familiar image in the story’s opening line: “The canal cut a perfect line across the flat Martian landscape, arrowing straight for the crimson rim of sun at the horizon.” Not for the last time, the writing trades openly on a presumed familiarity with earlier sfnal visions to gain emotional power. (With a commendably broad scope of reference; one character even says, in so many words, that “Earth got used up”, albeit to an extent far beyond that implied in Firefly.) The three paragraphs immediately following that opening sentence establish the tone of the story more firmly:

Walking along the canal’s bank, Symat was struck by the sheer scale on which people had reshaped the landscape for a purpose — in this case to carry water from Mars’s perpetually warm side to the cold. Of course the whole world was engineered, but terraforming a world was beyond Symat’s imagination, whereas a canal was not.

His mother had always said he had the instincts of an engineer. But it wasn’t likely he would ever get to be an engineer, for this wasn’t an age when people built things. A million years after the first human footsteps had been planted in its ancient soil, Mars was growing silent once more.

Symat was fourteen years old, however, and that was exactly how old the world was to him. And he was unhappy for much more immediate reasons than man’s cosmic destiny. He stumbled on, alone.

Plainspoken these may be, but they achieve an impressive amount nonetheless, taking us with satisfying economy through several different understandings of what the story is going to be about. Depending on the reader, the “Of course” in the first of the above paragraphs is either a slight jolt (how casually such grand work is mentioned!) or an expression of trust (yeah, you know what Mars is going to be like in 1,000,000 AD). The next paragraph swiftly punctures any hopes we might have been harbouring that this is a time of human prosperity: Mars is “growing silent”. But we’re not given time to fully absorb the implications of that, either, because the next paragraph focuses the story down onto Symat, the boy-engineer, and his much more mundane unhappiness. He has, in fact, run away from home.

The first part of the story continues Symat’s exploration of Mars, gradually unpacking some of the other implications of those opening paragraphs. Through his eyes, we start to see a solar system not just engineered (Mars no longer rotates) but prematurely aged (the sun has swollen into a red giant before its time, and has already swallowed Mercury and Venus). The towns and cities through which Symat passes are magnificent but empty. He encounters some other children, and befriends one in particular, a girl called Mela. But none of them are true humans; they’re Virtuals, holographic projections of Mars’s own artificial mind (which is in turn part of a galactic-scale assembly known as the Conclave), created as surrogates by a human race so broken it seems to have forsaken the future altogether. This turns out to be more of a literal truth than we might expect; in fact, it’s another iteration of evolutionary destiny, probably the grimmest anywhere in Destiny’s Children. The forces shaping human development in Coalescent, Exultant, and Transcendent were (loosely) family, war, and religion: here it is ultimate defeat that provides a selection pressure. The humans of “The Siege of Earth” live between the might of the Xeelee on one hand, humanity having become enough of an annoyance that they merit being dealt with permanently, and the inevitability of the sun’s death on the other. “The trap of history”, we are told, “closing in Symat’s lifetime.”

“The Scourge has been continuing now for three hundred thousand years. To the Xeelee the Scourge is a conscious project. To humans it has become our environment.” Mela’s voice was neutral, her words not quite her own, Symat thought. “A steady force applied to a population for long enough becomes a selection pressure. In such an environment those able psychologically to accept the reality of inevitable defeat will prosper. And that is why you are prepared to walk trustingly into the booths, even without knowing what lies beyond. Your ancestors have learned to accept similar bolt-holes without question, far back into your history. You’ve been preadapted to accept the booths for ten thousand generations! Perhaps even that was part of the grand design of the Scourge.”

As evolutionary theory this may not be entirely convincing, even with godlike aliens to help the process along, but it’s a powerful starting point for a story. Of course the reason Symat is the protagonist of the story, it transpires, is that he’s different. He has, as his mother says, the instincts of an engineer, the engineer’s urge to investigate, find out, solve; which is a shorthand way of saying he has the instincts of someone from our own time, that he is someone we can safely identify with in this alien deep time. The very last thing Symat wants to do is walk into a “transfer booth” of uncertain origin, even if it does ostensibly lead to a pocket universe that might be a sanctuary for humanity. (And others: one of the story’s multiple grace notes establishes that booths have also been provided for the solar system’s other indigenous intelligences, such as those identified in Baxter’s 1993 story “The Sun-People”. Another sidebar notes that Saturn’s moon Titan, now warmed by the sun, is finally blooming into life, an idea Baxter spent more time on in his 1996 novel Titan.)

In pursuit of an alternative ending, Symat and Mela embark on their own Tour of the solar system. Revelations come thick and fast, producing repeated shocks of perspective in Symat, and the cumulative effect is powerful, even if some of the surprises are easily enough anticipated by readers familiar with the shape of the Xeelee timeline. There are still some immortals (described, perhaps too cutely, as “Ascendents”) trying to save humanity from the transfer booths. The plan involves saving the Earth, over the course of millennia — although given the state of it, you’d be forgiven for wondering why they’re bothering. The Earth Symat imagines, our Earth, is a “story-book vision”. In reality, “The mountains were worn down”, and “the air seemed thin, supporting only wispy traces of cloud. And though a few cities still glittered, the ground of Earth shone brick red, the red of Mars, of rust and lifelessness.” The ecology is even more radically reconfigured than this suggests, imported alien species gone wild having developed a new balance with the native flora and fauna. Even the gravity has been reduced. It is through such dramatic aftereffects, rather than direct effects, that Baxter most effectively conveys the scope and power of the forces which have worked on the solar system over time.

There is an extent to which a good-sized chunk of Baxter’s recent sf, and certainly a story like “The Siege of Earth”, can be read as grappling with the challenge of personalising cosmic-scale events. Primo Levi’s recent story notwithstanding, a date like “1,000,000 AD” is not meaningless — quite the opposite. Such a great vista of time, so effortlessly stated, is invested with an almost overpowering amount of meaning. The challenge, for a writer, is to draw that meaning out, and shape it into something resembling a readable story. “The Siege of Earth” is arguably not entirely successful, if you object to being told things by fiction: it contains great gobs of backstory to explain the mighty ruins that Symat finds around him, such as the changed Earth noted above, either exposited by other characters, or by the omniscient narrator. What makes it work, I think, is the impersonal tone with which such information — and the story as a whole — is delivered, the casual mentions of immense projects, and the contrast between that tone and Symat’s emotional, excitable reactions.

Ultimately, as you may already suspect, the story’s resolution involves a choice made by Symat that only Symat can make (in flat contradiction of an earlier assertion by Mela that “every important choice was made long ago”). The setup is a black inversion of the robots-poison-Earth dilemma in Asimov’s Robots and Empire: here, the Ascendents know how to save Earth, but like the robots they need to have their solution authorised, and to do that they have to get around a restrictive definition of “human” that prevents them enacting their solution. So, R. Giskard invented the Zeroth Law; and Luru Parz, first Ascendent, spent several millennia selectively breeding herself a throwback human to fool an ancient machine. The whole situation is so extensively and coldly rigged — not to mention fail-safed, since if things don’t go the way Luru wants, she’ll just start again from scratch; she has time, after all — that the only response left to the reader is a kind of bleak awe.

I don’t know of any contemporary writers as skilled at evoking this sort of vertigo of perspective as Baxter, from the cold immensity of Ring to the dizzying well of futurity in Time to the epic sweep of Evolution. Like the vast emptiness that suffuses “The Siege of Earth”, it’s something that can’t be trivialised, can’t be reduced to something within normal human experience by refiguring it as a metaphor; it simply is. It’s the sort of choice that results, Baxter seems to be saying, when you look the universe as it really is in the eye and don’t blink. It’s also a choice that kills Symat. The story, however, lives on: in the last few pages, it becomes apparent that Luru Parz’s vision of an “Old Earth” is one that Baxter has already started exploring. A sequence of stories beginning with “PeriAndry’s Quest” (2004) has explored a world encased in a pit of spacetime that isolates it from the universe outside, where time runs faster the higher you climb — an extraordinarly resonant setting for all sorts of stories. Symat’s choice is where “The Siege of Earth” ends, where Resplendent ends, where Destiny’s Children ends; but not where the story ends. We’re only in 1,000,000 AD, after all. There’s plenty of time left on the clock yet.

Vector #235

Over the past two years or so I’ve been building up piles of back issues of magazines and journals I use. I’d had a sizeable run of Foundations for a while, and filled in all but about four gaps, even the Philip K. Dick issue which sold out centuries ago; but my five years’ worth of Science Fiction Studies expanded to cover virtually the entire run (again four issues or so missing) and I’ve even found most of the Extrapolations since the mid-1970s, leaving the first third to get. As far as I can tell, that’s going to involve waving my flexible friend at some American bookdealers. (Note to Word fans – my spellchecker tells me that should be booksellers. Ho hum.)

Vector was more hit and miss. I had a patchy run of the various times I joined and fell off the mailing list, a pile I acquired off the back of a lorry, and a much larger pile I’d been given by the former administrator, Maureen Kincaid Speller, when I took the job on. But that only really took me back to issue 123 and (this is sad – I have a table telling me these things) the end of 1984. OK, so getting on for twenty years’ worth, with some gaps, but still less than half the run – plus there were issues of Focus, Paperback Inferno, Matrix and the other, mysterious, transient BSFA magazines such as Tangent, Parabola and Hypotenuse. OK, I made some of those up.

But I’ve recently acquired two large boxes that filled many of the gaps in the collection, and pushed me at least into the mid1960s for Vector, also filling most of the runs of the other magazines. This was fortuitous, as a number of recent articles I’ve been writing have required me to read some of the early material. To every magazine there is a time and place.

We’ve come a long way from typed stencils and duplicating machines to word processing, desktop publication and burning PDFs onto CD-Roms. There are indeed letters complaining about the placing of staples, and apologies for tardiness, and authors getting upset about reviews, and people saying the rot would set in if we stopped collating the magazines manually. Oh, and editors getting upset about only having six pages of letters of comment. One thing struck me as I’d been in a reflective mood and taking stock of my life, counting how many issues I’ve edited, how many I’ve got left: the recurring commentary on the role of the editor of Vector. It is made clear by contributors, chairs and editors alike, that the job is one held in trust. The magazine is not the mouthpiece of the editor, but the mouthpiece of the BSFA.

Any decisions and tone should reflect the feelings and opinions of the BSFA. I’m not sure how far this is the case today – I don’t think there is the same sense of ownership and stakeholding. It is clear that personalities have been reflected in the magazines, and priorities have altered over the years. I’ve largely been allowed to get away with what I’ve wanted to do, as long as I’ve kept to schedule and not gone on too long. Certainly when Cary S. Dalkin and I took over as feature editors in 1995, we were given instructions about the party line and told not to frighten the horses. Perhaps the horses are beyond frightening now. Perhaps the editorial structure — Tony Cullen as layout/production/general editor, Cary and I and then just me as features editor(s) and the various reviews editors — has meant that a single voice has not dominated, that we balance each other. There is no editor of Vector as such.

Perhaps we’re just too close to it — and in 2024 the editor of the holographic interactive Vector will laugh about how that old guy, Whatisname, used to go on about stuff and the old days; this is sf, ferchrysakes, it’s meant to be about the future. And as she searches for some inspiration for the topic of her next editorial, there is a bleep from her mobile phone to indicate a txt msg has been received (she knows it’s archaic, but there are still some members who prefer to receive Vector that way. OK, so they lose a bit in boiling it all down to 256 character chunks, but the highlights can be digested). Apparently the virtual staples are in the wrong place.

Andrew Butler