Earth Abides – George R. Stewart

Earth_Abides_1949_smallEarth Abides (1949) is an early post-apocalyptic SF novel notable for its rigorous attention to ecological and sociological verisimilitude. The book opens when reclusive Geography student Ish – having been bitten by a rattlesnake while conducting fieldwork in the wilderness – returns to his native San Francisco to discover that a plague of unknown origin has killed 99% of the world’s population. Here he unintentionally becomes the de facto leader of a small group of ragtag survivors, and together they try to make a life for themselves in the ruins of the world while simultaneously attempting (and failing) to maintain such tenets of civilization as democracy, education, justice etc.

Ironically the novel feels somewhat refreshing by today’s standards purely because it pre-dates the establishment of many of the genre’s more tiresome clichés; there are no mutants roaming the wastes, no militaristic tribes or would-be warlords, no irradiated “zones” and no visual fetish for gasmasks, makeshift weaponry and all other such over-familiar genre paraphernalia. The most recognisable intact trope is an obsession with the idea of salvage, but rather than scrap metal, guns and trains, Ish is concerned with the salvage of learning: his primary site of plunder being the city library. Perhaps the novelty of this approach to salvage speaks to the current state of the genre: a kind of retrospective proof of how post-apocalyptic fiction has dumbed down in recent years, from mostly scientific thought experiment, to mostly hyper-violent glamourisation of neo-con survivalism. (Not that the so-called salvagepunk variety doesn’t occasionally throw up interesting stuff). It’s notable that modern apocalyptic settings are often used as a narrative device to legitimise character behaviour that, under normal circumstances, is hard to justify: particularly violence.

The apocalypse of Earth Abides undoubtedly fits Brian Aldiss’ much-quoted notion of the “cosy catastrophe”. Almost everybody has died, but the world, in fact, doesn’t seem at all that bad. Characters are liberated from the post-industrial emasculation of the nine-to-five office routine, and, unchained from the shackles of societal responsibility, are free to live where they want, to take what they want, and to behave how they want. The big draw of so much apocalypse stuff seems to be that, in a post-apoc world, nobody would need to get a job. Surely it’s a damning indictment of society that apocalypse has become a kind of fantastical or idealist escapism? There’s no radiation or zombies here; indeed, the only concern is the procurement of clean water (and in this regard the catastrophe is uniquely First-World: scarce access to drinking water is a situation so alien to our experience that apparently we need to invent some extraordinary apocalypse in order to appreciate such a thing, when, as we know, a lack of clean water is a real-world lived reality for millions if not billions of people).

There’s definitely something of a male power fantasy about not just Earth Abides, but (post)-apocalypses in general, too: the way in which they welcome an atavistic return to a time of more “empowered” or “natural” manliness: hunting, butchering and providing; it’s a vision of building the world, rather than just living in it. In Earth Abides, this brings an uncomfortable utopian tone to the book, with the frequent suggestion that humanity has fucked-up so badly that hitting the apocalyptic reset button is probably the best thing for the species. The plague, then, is a happy accident that brings with it a sort of fortuitous social cleansing: a chance for liberal scientist Ish to restart society as he sees fit. Ish protests that his apparent enjoyment of the empty world is merely a scientific interest, but such claims are thrown into question by the novel’s commonplace assertions that he is living a life “of greater freedom than anyone could possibly have lived in the Old Times”.  The bare world is painted as a kind of post-deluvian paradise, washed free of all the bad stuff, enabling Ish to (attempt to) create the kind of society he’s always wanted. Apocalypse is societal palimpsest. A catastrophe for the rest of world, the plague is the making of Ish: transforming him from a nobody into a great leader of men. (He claims to be a reluctant chief, but I don’t believe this for a second. He loves it). It’s apocalypse as a personal utopia, then; though little space is given over to the billions who’ve died to make this possible.  (And as a note: 99% of the global population had been killed; surely there should be a lot more bodies lying around than, like, the two or whatever that Ish encounters?)

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In fact, I’m not sure what’s more bleak: the assessment of humanity as a species so far down the road to failure that a 99% killing-off is the only chance we have of regaining the true path… or the novel’s problematic and inconsistent treatment of race and gender. The former is dour in an obviously nihilistic way, and can perhaps be accounted for today as post-war anxiety(/scaremongering), but the latter issue raises some difficult questions for modern readers concerning the novel’s moral identity. The text will frequently take snipes at women (such as a description of mothers as “bovine”), which seem part tongue-in-cheek, and part downright offensive. But things get even worse when Ish encounters a group of black people basically scraping around in the dirt because, apparently, without civilization to guide them, they’ve reverted to their more natural behaviour. Or something.

At this point it would seem easy to categorise the book as appallingly racist, but such an exegesis is complicated by later narrative developments, such as when Ish marries a black woman – Emma – whom the text portrays as a complex, sympathetic and strong-willed character, dubbed the “mother of nations”. It’s difficult to overstate quite how progressive the wilful presentation of an interracial marriage was in 1940s America. Biblical analogues are easily drawn against many of the book’s ideas, and as the starting point for a second replenishing of the Earth, if you will, what could be more liberal-idealist than an interracial union? But comparing this with the aforementioned bigoted presentation of black people (and the potential damp-squib-making comment that Ish only marries Emma because, in a post-apocalyptic landscape, one can’t afford to be picky…) makes for a pretty inconsistent treatment of race. Indeed, trying to reconcile the book’s progressive handling of Ish’s marriage with its occasional racist asides is a tricky business, and perhaps the novel’s major difficulty.

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Much of the book is given over to meticulously thought-out descriptions of the survivors’ day-to-day lives; how they make new tools, build shelters, try to farm etc. There’s very little dialogue, and stylistically the prose (at least for the first two thirds) smacks more of ecology textbook than novel; but I guess this is in-keeping with its realist agenda and Ish’s identity as a man of science. The writing isn’t especially florid, except for occasional (though unnecessary) interjections from Ish’s diaries. The descriptions of plant life slowly encroaching on urban areas, of rusting industry and crumbling metropolises have become standard fare for the genre, but any sense of familiarity is mitigated by the knowledge that Earth Abides’ imagery was the progenitor of this now commonplace SF aesthetic.

And so the book would seem to be a straightforward story of survival coupled with a scientific thought experiment, and in some ways it has that classic SF feel of Vernelarge or Wells about it. The novel’s final third, however, is a far stranger thing, elevating the book from something kinda interesting if forgettable, to something that’s actually very good indeed. A temporal jump shifts the narrative into the future to show us Ish’s old age; the style changes from one of cold objective description to a highly sympathetic third person, and the imagery becomes more and more hallucinatory, dreamlike and uncharacteristically vague. Ish spends his old age in a kind of fog (the cause of which is not disclosed, though dementia is most likely), with only fleeting moments of clarity. Years pass in a matter of pages as Ish, mostly living in his own head and unaware of the world, ruminates on the possible futures of humanity. When the fog occasionally lifts, we’re given glimpses of Ish’s band of survivors and the generations coming up behind them: the people who were born after the plague and who have no experience of the world before. Without Ish to lead them, the tribe becomes increasingly primitive, both in action and language. In one of Ish’s final moments of clarity, he finds himself on the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge with some men dressed in animal skins and carrying spears, and realises that all trace of the pre-apocalyptic civilization has now vanished.

It’s a profoundly moving passage, made all the more affecting by the sudden and jarring way it contrasts stylistically with the novel’s first two acts. It also adds a subtextual depth to the novel, too; with the playing-out of the apocalypse functioning as a metaphor for the slow degeneration of old age, both bodily and, in Ish’s case, mentally. You can almost track the progress of the apocalypse in time with the aging of our protagonist. Just as Ish’s consciousness and body are decaying around him, so too is the world until, as epitomised in the spear-carrying, superstitious primitives of the final pages, things have changed so much that Ish no longer has a place. This parallel between the decay of society and the decay of Ish as a person further strengthens the aforementioned argument that Earth Abides is a deeply personal apocalypse; the world of the novel behaves in sympathetic tandem with Ish, from the limitless opportunities it offers him in his youth, through its creeping deterioration, to something finally, utterly broken and changed.

It’s almost tempting to argue, therefore, that the apocalypse of Earth Abides isn’t a literal narrative event, but a metaphor for Ish’s slow decay; an externalisation of how Ish psychologically conceives of the world around him, rather than a factual representation of the world as it is. I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much (and it would, of course, be more convincing if the novel were written in the first person), but the fact that such an interpretation even suggests itself speaks to the highly personal and human nature of Earth Abides. Ultimately the book isn’t without its flaws (flat prose, rambling explanations of day-to-day-life, racism, sexism), but its concern for psychological realism initiated an engagement with human emotion that wasn’t really seen again in “realistic” post-apocalypse fiction until Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2006, and this, if nothing else, is what makes the book worth reading.

Inverted World – Christopher Priest

9780575082106I like to think that there’s a sort of spectrum of expositional praxis available to authors who want to create (science)-fictional settings so estranged from everyday life that they require a shitload of explaining if they’re to make any sense whatsoever. On one end of the spectrum you’d find the ‘information dump’ method, which I guess has the merit of getting the heavy, boring, background clarification stuff out of the way as quickly as possible, and is charming in its own no-nonsense manner; but that’s about the limit of its appeal as a stylistic or narrative technique (I’m looking at you Arthur C. Clarke). The opposite end of the spectrum would be a kinda Miévillian refusal to provide any helpful context or perspective of any kind, and instead expect the reader to orientate herself by decoding subtly deployed clues as to  the nature of the fictional world a la The City and The City (c.f. also: M. John Harrison, Michael Cisco etc.). The latter is definitely my preferred delivery method, but I get that it’s a significantly harder sell than the former, requiring as it does some vested input (/work?) from the reader, and a higher level of technical ability from the writer.

Christopher Priest’s Inverted World occupies an expositional space half-way between these two extremes;  it casts an adolescent ingénue as its protagonist, and proceeds to guide him (and by proxy the reader) through the weird post-apocalyptic wilderness of the book’s setting via a continuous slow-reveal of facts that doesn’t let up until the novel’s infamous mind-fucky dénouement. But while this expositional praxis avoids the awkward “As you know, Geoff…” explanations of the ‘info dump’ method, it isn’t without its difficulties, namely: Christopher Priest has to contrive a reason why the hero should reach his 18th (or whatever) birthday without having learnt anything about the world in which he lives. Happily Priest manages this in a way that’s not just congruous with the book’s setting, but darn near essential to the both the immediate narrative and it’s subtextual concerns for perception, protest and the way we handle the evidence for the world around us. Given the nature of the book’s setting, and the slow but constant bleed-out of major plot revelations, it’s almost impossible to discuss Inverted World without recourse to at least a few spoilers, so consider yourself duly warned…

As its title implies, Inverted World is set in a kind of opposite-universe: an infinite world in a finite space. Which is to say, the planet on which the book is set stretches forever; it’s not a globe, but a never-ending hyperboloid. The action transpires on the last human city of “Earth”, as it is winched slowly forward on rails (which are taken up from behind the city and re-laid ahead of it) in order to avoid a crushing gravity field that’s eternally moving forward a few miles in the city’s wake.  It’s difficult to overstate the influence of this idea, and indeed you might recognise the ‘ever-moving-city-on-rails’ trope (I can’t think of a better name…) from the giant Cathedral trains of Alastair Reynolds’ Absolution Gap, or the titular train city of China Miéville’s Iron Council. (And isn’t it awesome to encounter the sparking genesis of a now commonplace SF trope? At least, I can’t think of any direct predecessors to Inverted World…) Most of “Earth”’s inhabitants don’t know that the city moves, or anything about the world that surrounds them: they are raised within the city’s walls, never allowed to leave, fed on synthetic foodstuffs and are generally kept as unwitting thralls to the city’s directorate. Only specially privileged “Guildsmen” (who travel outside the city to help move it, or to map the forward terrain etc.) are privy to the truth, and are oath-bound to keep it a secret.

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The narrative follows new Guild initiate Helward Mann (I know, I know… I laughed too, but I promise the twee-ness off this wears off with time; much like with “Batman”, or “Superman”, you kind of get used to the weird silliness of the name), who, as the novel’s opening tells us, has “reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles” (I challenge you to find a more immediately estranging first sentence).  Having come of age, Helward takes various oaths, learns about the city’s founder, Destaine, and gets hitched.

The first half of the novel is essentially an extended description of how a massive city can be moved in the first place. There’s an initial charm to be found in the seriousness with which Priest treats this idea, but as the novel delves deeper into the mechanics of city moving, I became genuinely impressed with the depictions of scale, hard labour and the pyramid-building magnitude of such an endeavour; the dirty, sweaty, ironclad reality of which offers a nice visual and thematic contrast to the somewhat dry opening passages of solemn oath-taking, governmental procedure and explanations of familial privilege.

Interspersed between these long descriptions of engineering are chapters with a tighter, more human focus: Helward’s relationship with his new wife, Elizabeth, and his internal struggle with – on the one hand – her demands for openness and whole truths, and – on the other – his commitment to his Guildsman vows of secrecy. These smaller, quieter scenes offer a nice counterpoint to the high Science Fiction of the city-moving stuff, and make for impressive proofs of Christopher Priests’ writing chops; he’s equally as comfortable with the most demanding of the genre’s fantastic tenets as he is with the most intimate study of human relationships. My fear that the kitchen-sink drama of Helward’s marriage was nothing but filler to break up the descriptive monotone of the engineering chapters was proven unfounded, too; as such intensely personal scenes of marital difficulty function as both microcosm and set-up for the novel’s prominent crisis: a schism and rebellion within the city.

When the inhabitants discover that their leaders have been withholding the truth, they inevitably become restive, demanding that the city stop moving, that they stop exploiting the local tribes people, and that the population settles in a permanent site: they refuse to believe that the city will be destroyed if they stop moving forward. This is exacerbated by the arrival of some outsiders who see the world very, very differently. Cue lots of dispute, civil unrest and threats of sabotage. But while we’re treated to some interesting and lengthy debates, it’s a shame there isn’t more visceral description of the protests that wrack the city; we’re mostly forced to settle for second-hand reports and hearsay, with the majority of the disorder happening off-stage, as it were.

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For left-wing readers like me, it’s tempting to deconstruct Inverted World in terms of economic structures and modes of production. The moving city is a definite metaphor for late-stage capitalism: devouring all resources in its path at the behest of a small minority of privileged elite who propagate a politics of fear that keeps the workers loyal, industrious and unambitious despite their subsistence-level living conditions. Likewise the plundering of the land and exploitation of the surrounding tribes definitely rings of the colonial. The civil unrest that occurs when the workers of the city are finally educated about their true condition is an explicit class struggle, and the threats from the ruling Guildsman that the city “will be destroyed” if things change reflect Capitalism’s disdain for any narrative that differs from its own self-imposed and self-serving world-view.

But what of that crushing gravity field that pursues the city? Well, this too becomes a metaphor of sorts; not for any existential or physical threat, but for the realpolitik of capitalist narrative. By which I mean the capitalist assertion (lie) that society has to function this way, or surrender itself to a terrible alternative. It becomes a matter of perception: it’s obvious that the ruling Guildsmen genuinely believe in the crushing gravity wake, so much so that they are unwilling to test it, challenge it or entertain the notion of an alternative explanation. Just as, say, the bankers in our world insist that their way of handling the economy is the only way that works. Conveniently, though, this rigid belief that this is the way things are is what enables the Guildsmen to maintain their control in the first place. They refuse to entertain the notion of an alternative way of seeing the world. The city, therefore, becomes itself a mode of production; the movement of which is the industrial process by which the ruling Guilds implement their will to power.

So while stopping the city may not actually be dangerous in any material sense, it’s dangerous because it would free the workers from the grind that keeps them down, and challenge the Guilds’ political hegemony.  The Guildsmen are unwilling to accept any alternative narrative to the “crushing gravity field” because to do so would neuter the fear with which they shackle the people and keep themselves in power.

Similarly, the moving city – trundling along in its never-ending straight line – and the infinite world ahead of it, function as allegory for the so-called ‘End of History’: acity kind of capitalist end-game: the point at which social, cultural and economic progress halts, and society stagnates and just rattles on in the same way, forever. It’s at this point that we become aware of Inverted World’s greatest irony: the city – so long a literary metaphor for movement, bustle, energy and ambition – is turned by Priest into a metaphor for stasis; the most striking of the title’s many suggested inversions. Indeed, a real movement would be to stop the city; freeing its citizens from the back-breaking labour of moving the thing, and instigating instead an opportunity for social change. Perpetual movement is the same as inertia.

Inverted World, then, functions as a warning against the single-minded and unthinking acceptance of the narratives imposed on us by our masters. The tragedy of the book lies in the protagonist’s socially-encoded refusal to look at the world from a different perspective. It’s essentially an appearance vs. reality paradox: a classic mode of Science Fiction, here re-figured into possibly the strangest and most original planet I’ve ever encountered.

The Devil in Silver – Victor LaValle

DISBeing the slow-on-the-uptake kinda guy that I am, it took me until about halfway through Victor LaValle’s horror-drama The Devil in Silver (2013) to realise that it’s one of those location-as-metaphor books, wherein the claustrophobic, dilapidated corridors of its New York mental health institution setting (the narrative in fact never exits this one building), functions as a microcosm for 21st Century socio-political America. By which I don’t mean that the novel’s overarching message is “America is like a mental ward”, rather, LaVelle uses this setting to both illustrate and critique the US’s wider and frequently shameful track record with various social issues: mental health, race, immigration, old age, sexuality, disability and poverty. The events that take place in the mental institution, then, are representationally characteristic of what happens in American on a larger scale. So we know that when a riot breaks out and the cops storm in – only to shoot the first black person they encounter – LaValle is taking on the wider problem of institutionalised (pun quasi-intended) racism, and so on.

But it’s not all as heavy handed as that.

The novel opens when “Pepper” – our working class, uneducated, loving but short-tempered protagonist – is sanctioned into a psychiatric ward by a group of police officers who’re too lazy to go through the bureaucratic rigmarole of processing him at the station: Pepper has committed an assault, and by the time he’s released back into police custody after the weekend, he’ll be somebody else’s problem. (The police are a particularly frequent target of the writer’s needle-sharp ire).  Pepper may be ineloquent and unable to control his temper, but he’s not crazy (though this is no impediment to the overwhelmingly patronising treatment he receives from the hospital’s orderlies). Once inside, Pepper befriends a rag-tag group of psychiatric patients, ranging from schizophrenics to manic depressives, and together they hatch a plot to kill the “Devil”, a nightmarish creature with the body of an old man and the head of a giant buffalo who stalks the ward at night, occasionally murdering patients (more on this later).

The characterisation of these patients is highly sympathetic: this to simultaneously de-stigmatise the conditions from which they suffer, and to critique the US health system’s approach to such people.  Several of the characters are also minorities, which allows LaValle to tackle such auxiliary issues as racism, ableism, xenophobia (etc.), and the places where these problems intersect with mental health difficulties. But this isn’t to say that the characters are nothing but proxies for whichever social/mental health issue they represent, and if anything LaValle should be praised for his efforts to avoid the stereotypes so often so offensively associated with the fictional presentation of mental health patients.  Of particular note thereby are “Coffee”, an African with conspiracy obsessions, and Sue, a middle-aged Chinese asylum seeker whose story is equal parts horrifying and heart-breaking: a much stronger character study than any that appeared in ether of LaValle’s previous novels.

The moral course of the book is a somewhat predictable one: the patients, initially strange, ambiguous characters, are slowly revealed to have deeper hearts and brighter eyes and greater value than we (and Pepper) may at first believe. If you’re the sort of person who’d pick up this book in the first place, then The Devil in Silver probably won’t challenge any of your prejudices, but the treatment of its characters and the dismissive manner in which they’re hidden away (the hospital in question is oh-so-knowingly named “New Hyde”) is nonetheless shocking. Patients are (illegally) restrained in their beds for days on end, sedated so heavily that weeks pass without their knowledge, made to live in filthy clothing, and generally thrown about like ragdolls by the orderlies, to whom consent seems to be an alien concept. This makes for some distressing (and potentially triggering) reading, which is augmented when the text is suddenly (and frequently, and brilliantly) interrupted by newspaper clippings detailing some failure of the state to provide adequate care for those suffering from mental health disorders, addictions and other vulnerabilities.

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What I’ve described thus far could almost sound like a work of realist literary fiction, but that’s merely a trick of the light: there’s a tension at play between the hyperreal (the patients’ emotional lives, the real-world setting, the social justice issues), and the fantastic (the monster that stalks the wards), with much of the book functioning in a hinterland between these two spaces.  Stylistically the book is decidedly genred; in its form, content and the tropes it deploys, The Devil in Silver reads as a horror novel. And like so much horror, the impetus for narrative action is the setting, which is explored via the horror-fictional device of an ingénue outsider being unwittingly thrust into a strange and dangerous situation from which he has to escape. Similarly, the claustrophobic hallways and the “Devil” that stalks them are evocative of more traditional haunted house mysteries. The gore, the preoccupation with the body, and the tangible physicality of the buffalo-headed demon likewise take cues from the so-called New Weird horror sub-genre.

And yet (and yet…) while The Devil in Silver is decidedly horror-fictional – and would seem to self-announce as such – to call it decidedly ‘horror fiction’ feels somewhat to short-change it, if not to miss the point entirely. For every horror trope that the reader encounters (the gore, the slow-build of tension before the violent cathartic release, the stylistic focus on atmosphere and the deliberately estranging setting), there are several others that LaValle sub(/in-)verts.  The most prominent of these is the characterology, particularly the sympathetic portrayal of the hospital’s patients. It reads like horror fiction, and there are mental health patients involved, but where we might expect knife-wielding, straight-jacketed crazies running amok in blood-stained gowns, we instead find a pair of old women in what’s obviously an undeclared lesbian relationship; a self-harming teenage girl tragically too-aware of the life she’s missing, and a lonely man from a fractured, messed-up family.

But why filter this realism through the lens of horror fiction? Well, in part, The Devil in Silver is an attempt to liberate horror from its own appalling track-record of presenting the mentally ill as, variously: demonically possessed, pathologically violent, physically deformed, criminally insane etc. The tropes of horror fiction give LaValle access to signifiers which, when flipped, expose the unpleasant, often unspoken truths of his subject. For example, a superficial reading might conclude that the “monster” of this horror is the buffalo-headed-man-thing that haunts the ward, and on a surface level this appears to be the case. But what’s really going on is a kind of inversion of the monstrous that results in the demon and the patients becoming, ultimately, victims at the hands of the fair-faced monsters of a negligent care system, inadequate funding and a stigmatising media. If you want to be particularly twee about it, you could argue that the buffalo demon is a metaphor for the harmful and false public perception of the mentally ill as dangerous, ugly, frightenting people.

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Elsewhere a rat (another standard trope of horror fiction that comes with its own pre-attendant signifiers (disease, decay, general uncleanliness)) is coupled with the post-modern device of an anthropomorphic internal monologue, through which LaValle describes the history of the now- decaying mental health institution. Sure this rat is a more cutesy horror inversion than the monster-as-victim (a rat – so often one of faceless millions – here individualised), but it serves a narrative purpose nonetheless. Not only does the rat’s confessional de-fang and personify the setting, turning it from a place of unknowableness and horror into something deeply tragic with a material past, it simultaneously acts as a middle-finger to horror fiction’s impolitic history of exploiting and misrepresenting mental health facilities as places of terror and strangeness.

So if horror’s mandate is to shock, disturb and, well, horrify, then The Devil in Silver definitely succeeds: but not in terms of horror as a mappable genre; the word “horror” is appropriate here in its literal gloss: more like how the media would use the word, than a bookshop. The horror is explicit in the novel’s exposé of the uncaring, abusive and oftentimes illegal treatment of mental health patients, and the demonising manner in which they’re frequently portrayed. The Devil in Silver is, as we’re coming to expect from Victor LaValle, a powerful, imaginative, big-hearted novel that simultaneously celebrates and challenges the precepts of traditional genre fiction, and much like Big Machine, the book’s resounding achievement is a convergence of the fantastically genred with the socially relevant.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

 

AJ coverI’m an infrequent consumer of Space Opera, and on the rare occasions when I do indulge, I tend to gravitate towards stand-alone novels rather than the epic 10-volume series of door-stop-sized instalments that the genre is perhaps synonymous with. Having said that, though, I’ve recently enjoyed Hannuu Rajaniemi’s stuff, and I’m liking Alastair Reynolds’ Poseidon’s Children sequence, too. I’ve also got some Peter F. Hamilton lying around here somewhere. So while I’m on this Space Opera roll, if you will, I thought I’d check out Ann Leckie’s debut (and first of a series(/trilogy?)) Ancillary Justice. There’s a whole lotta buzz surrounding the novel, mostly to do with its attempts to enforce readerly genderblindness; and while I was impressed with this as a conception – as well as the book’s characterology and philosophical ambitions – I found the novel somewhat flawed in execution; this mostly technically and stylistically. In fact, it’s been a while since I was quite so divided by a book. In some ways it is, of course, disappointing that the book as a reality doesn’t live up to the book as an over-hyped abstraction, but in other ways I kinda masochistically enjoyed this distance and the tension therein: the reading experience akin to watching the writer trying to wrestle her own ideas into submission. I don’t want to argue that Ann Leckie’s creativity overreaches her technical ability; it’s obvious that she’s a very talented writer; but Ancillary Justice definitely has that ‘it could have been done better’ feel about it. But who knows? Perhaps a more generous reading than mine would argue that this divide between the quality of the book’s ideas and their executions is a proof-in-action of the very limitations of language to express the estrangement inherent in such high-falutin far-future stuff. Or something.

Breq used to be the A.I. of a colossal army-carrying starship called the Justice of Toren; to all intents and purposes, she was the Justice of Toren; able to simultaneously inhabit and control the bodies of her crew: hundreds of humans (“ancillaries” or “corpse soldiers”) specially captured and biologically re-fitted for the purpose. When Justice of Toren is destroyed, the A.I., – used to living in (if not actually being) hundreds of bodies at the same time – is reduced to a single human avatar, and sets out on a galaxy-spanning revenge quest to find and kill the ‘Lord of the Radch’, the being that destroyed her when she was a ship. But… problem no. 1): The Lord of the Radch has bagillions of bodies scattered all over human space, and problem no. 2): wears this nano-armour stuff that nothing can penetrate. Cue an over-long fetch quest as Breq hunts down the requisite legendary gun (an all-powerful McGuffin analogous with, say, The Sword of the Dawn, The One Ring etc.: a Fantasy Quest item (“plot coupon”) here transposed to an SFnal setting), before seeking an audience with the Lord of the Radch herself.

So far so standard Space Opera. The Radch Empire is painted with vivid colours: it’s somewhat reminiscent of Rome (especially in its absorption of the cultures of conquered peoples (or as they put it in a beautiful act of linguistic denial, “annexed” peoples – as if it’s all friendly and consenting, this conquering malarkey)), and there’s plenty of world-building detail about their customs and history, if you’re into that kinda thing. But it’s the narrator Breq who really piqued my interest. The novel comprises a dual narrative: a flash-back arc, which focuses on when Breq was a mighty starship; and a present-day plotline, many years after Breq’s ship-body has been destroyed, and she’s been reduced to a single mind in a single re-animated human cadaver. The book flips and flops between these two strands every other chapter or so.

Unfortunately, Leckie never shows us what happens between these two periods, even though the inter-space that links them is by far the most interesting part of the character’s story. Breq’s life as a starship in control of  thousands of human “ancillaries” is quirky in a sense-of-wonder kind of way (such as when Breq is having a conversation while simultaneously (i.e. in another body) on patrol, while simultaneously eating dinner, while simultaneously in orbit etc. etc.), but there’s only so  far this kind of unrelatable High SF can carry my interest (though I suppose you could make a round-about defence of it by claiming that it’s all a big metaphor for how technology fractures our personalities or whatever). The “present-day” stuff, by comparison, features Breq as a now more-or-less adjusted individual human, familiar with occupying just one body and adept at tricking real humans into believing that she is one of them, rather than the remains of a colossal A.I. unit that’s trapped in a human homunculus (“humanculus”?) that she really is.

Both of these versions of Breq – the starship and the individual human – are competently presented: the passages concerning the former are disorientatingly weird in a pleasant (and sometimes even funny) way, while the chapters that focus on human Breq feel somewhat prosaic in comparison. There’s also a strange dissonance between, on the one hand, the way people react to her (nobody ever suspects that she’s not human) and her inner-monologue protestations that she actually makes for a clumsy, incompetent and uncanny impression of a real person. But either way, these two versions are the least interesting of the character’s timelines. I wanted to read about the hinterland Breq: the Breq who has just lost her starship body, and is adjusting to her human one. The one story I most wanted to read – how Breq learns what it is to be human – is the one story the book doesn’t tell. The robot-who-wants-to-be-human is a common trope in SF (with obvious origins in Pinocchio), and Ancillary Justice nearly hints at a remix of this: a computer who is forced to become a human. But after setting the stage for a traumatic period of adjustment, pathos, inner turmoil and philosophical debate, Ann Leckie jumps the book 20 years into the future to pursue the banal revenge-chase-through-space story instead. Basically: she skips over the difficult bit.

FinalAncillaryJusticeComposite

The other noteworthy facet of the novel is its aforementioned attempts to enforce a sort of genderblindness on the reading experience. The book does this by exclusively employing female gender specifiers to describe its characters. Everybody, regardless of gender, is spoken of as “she/her”. So even when the reader and narrator know that a character is a male, they are still referred to as “she” etc. The textual rationale for this is that the Radch language (in which Breq is supposedly narrating) has no linguistic means of differentiating gender. The subtextual reasoning is, however, up for debate. Most readers have reacted to it with one of two interpretations: one of these is very successful; the other less so, and predictably, they both kinda get in each other’s way. My own personal reading falls into category number 1, but to break it down:

Interpretation 1) Ann Leckie does the exclusive-female-gender-pronouns thing to challenge the male-centric history of Science Fiction as a genre, and to confront the sexist default positioning of certain SF character types (starship captain, galactic emperor, warrior etc.) as automatically male. It’s a gimmick, sure, but a necessary one; one that made me re-assess my go-to gender assumptions about characters and their roles. By which I mean, the unconscious way I might automatically attribute such titles as “commander”, “captain”, “doctor” to specific genders, even when no clue of gender is provided.

Unsurprisingly, the ubiquitous female pronouns affect the reading experience in various ways. Firstly: you want to visualise every character as female: even when you know (or when certain subtly-deployed clues have suggested) that a character is probably male. The pronouns are just too dominating to do otherwise. You can either struggle against this, or just go with the flow. It creates an odd sort of brain-wobble sensation, whereby you have to keep reminding yourself that not every character is female: it’s just the Radch language that doesn’t recognise gender. It’s a fascinating idea, which speaks to the power of gendered language. Secondly: you begin searching the text for any hints you can find as to a character’s actual gender, until you realise that it just doesn’t matter. It’s a futile act: Ancillary Justice forces the reader to recognise that personality types, professional competencies, physical gestures and socio-sexual behaviours are not gender-exclusive. It’s remarkably effective, and perhaps somewhat ironic that a book composed exclusively of female gender pronouns manages to draw attention to the invisibility of women (both as characters and writers) in SF as a literary field.

Interpretation 2) The pronoun thing isn’t necessarily feministic, rather it’s a more broad attempt to deconstruct the entire notion of binary gender as a sociological construct.  It’s true that the Radch people don’t “perform” gender: not in their language, their fashion or their societal roles; but arguing that Leckie has produced a “non-gendered” civilization is, I think, missing the point. The Radch are binary-gendered in a biological sense – there are males and females – it’s just their language and behaviours that don’t recognise gender. This is distinct from, say, the Gethenians in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, who are specifically, biologically a race of non-gendered androgyne people.

The reason this interpretation doesn’t hold up can be found in Leckie’s decision to employ gendered pronouns (albeit exclusively female) as opposed to some Spivak alternative, which would surely have been a more obvious go-to linguistic praxis if Leckie’s goal was to present non-gendered people?

Many readers have deconstructed Ancillary Justice in terms of its similarities to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but this is, I feel, a false parallel.  About LHOD, I said this:

The book is almost completely broken by Le Guin’s baffling stylistic decision to refer to every non-gendered native of Gethen using exclusively male personal pronouns (“he”, “his”, “him” etc.). This influenced my visual conception of the novel to such an extent that I couldn’t help but imagine all of the book’s characters as physically male. The effect of these male pronouns is to undermine the dissociative power of the genderless society as a narrative conceit. If Ursula Le Guin’s goal was to suggest that the consequences of a non-existent gender bias was a societal structure inordinately different to our own, then surely it would have been more successfully alienating to neologise a set of non-sexed pronouns that don’t carry any of the gender baggage that the writer is attempting to dismiss? It’s a small oversight that has regrettably deleterious consequences.

If we follow interpretation 2), then, we must also accept that Ancillary Justice frustrates its own goals in a similar manner to LHOD. And as I’d rather not accept this, I choose to doubt that this is what Leckie is really up to. I would contend that the device is successful in highlighting the aforementioned male-centric gender assumptions that many readers bring to Science Fiction, but fails in any attempt at forcing the reader to ignore gender entirely, purely because the reader is confronted with gendered pronouns on every single page.

Elsewhere there are some minor technical things that got on my nerves. The prose can be a bit flat, with little attempt at any sort of idiosyncratic style. Wrapped up in this is Leckie’s unfortunate habit of repeating similar words too close to one another in a way that disrupts the flow of a passage and is just kinda clunky.  Most of the dialogue is plot-driven (though the bits about drug addict Seivarden’s struggles with withdrawal can be powerfully emotive), and there’s a definite over-reliance on unlikely coincidences to move events forward (Leckie attempts to justify this with some ponderous but vague stuff about how the Radch religion gives special significance to coincidence, but this just seems like post-factum editorial damage limitation to me). Most heinous, however, is the uneven nature of the book’s exposition and world building. Some information is dumped on the reader over and over again, whereas other aspects of the universe (such as the baffling nomenclature behind the names of ancillaries) are never explained at all. But the action sequences are fantastic – especially a mid-novel volta or shit-hitting-fan moment that really gets things moving. So there’s that.

Ancillary Justice left me disappointed.  It initially feels like a book heading towards something really new and interesting, but it never quite manages to tip itself over the precipice of the mundane and into the exciting unknown. The uni-gendered pronoun stuff is worthwhile, and enough happens to keep things pretty pacey – it’s not boring. It’s just a shame that the quality of its ideas don’t shine through in its execution.  I wonder if I’d have enjoyed it more had it not been so hyped, not so shoved-in-my-face. I’ve enjoyed talking about it more than I enjoyed reading it – which, I guess, has its own value.

 

Jack Glass – Adam Roberts

Jack GlassAdam Roberts’ Jack Glass (2012) carries the subtitle ‘A Golden Age Story’, which, for me at least, problematised the book before I’d even started reading it. Other than writing that was published between two dates (nominally 1938 – 1946, though debate rages on…), I’ve never been able to figure what unifying factor exactly constitutes ‘Golden Age’ Science Fiction. Having been published in 2012, Jack Glass’ subtitle implies that there’s some quality inherent in Golden Age-ness that’s independent from the date of composition, though the novel itself doesn’t really offer any suggestions as to what this quality might be.

Jack Glass certainly isn’t a planet-hoping space adventure of the pulp variety (though there are nods to this), nor does it pit some moral paradigm of hero against an unequivocally evil villain, and it’s not particularly Hard SF; all of which have, at one point or another, been put forward  as Golden Age genre markers. This is further complicated by some of Roberts’ stylistic choices: the prose is characterised by rampant and strange neologisms, there’s a very un-Golden Age focus on the politics of this far-future solar system, and the whole thing is filtered through the modernist device of an unreliable narrator. Oh Adam Roberts, you tricksy game-player you.

But maybe I’m looking at this ‘Golden Age’ subtitle through the wrong lens. As well as being a Science Fiction story, Jack Glass is also a murder mystery novel (it’s actually three locked room/murder mysteries brought together under one, over-arching story), so perhaps the intended referent of this subtitle isn’t just Golden Age SF, but Golden Age detective fiction, too. The locked room mystery is certainly a staple of classic Crime Fic.

However, considering Jack Glass as a Golden Age Detective novel is, it turns out, even more problematic than reading it in terms of Golden Age Science Fiction. But I guess all of this red-herring, self-problematising and game-playing trickery is characteristic of Roberts’ style.  For example: we’re told on the very first page that the killer is the titular Jack himself, which immediately positions the novel as a how- rather than who-dunit. Similarly, several of Roland Knox’s famous so-called ‘Ten Commandments’ of the detective genre are flamboyantly broken by Roberts in the course of the three stories: the solution to one of the murders relies on some long-winded explanation of a technological MacGuffin, while the narrator (or ‘Watson’ figure, if you must) conceals their true identity as a physical participant in the narrative until the very end of the book. Most damaging, though, is the fact that Jack Glass himself is privy to information that he pretends he isn’t privy to (until he absolutely has to reveal it, that is), which bathetically undermines the denouement of at least one of the stories, as well as some of the tension the book is attempting to generate.

***

The first of the three stories is, by some margin, my favourite: an SF-nal take on the impossible prison break, which sees Jack (here ‘Jac’) and several other crims imprisoned inside a tiny asteroid, given two drills so that they can hollow-out some living space for themselves, and enough supplies to last their sentence (if they cooperate, that is). Jack’s inevitable escape from this apparently inescapable prison is brilliantly inventive and utterly unpredictable, but it’s the politics of the prisoners’ relationships that really makes this story shine. The traditional dichotomy of alpha and beta prisoners (with all of the rape and subjugation this entails) is manipulated by Jack to his own advantage, as he weaves lies, misdirects and false friendships into his plan for escape. In contrast to the book’s light-hearted and playful prologue, this first story is nauseatingly violent and dark; seemingly the least Adam Roberts thing that Adam Roberts has ever written. Tempering this brutal content, however, is the character of Jack himself: a spritely self-interested manipulator whose appalling behaviours make for weirdly addictive reading: a challenge to the worryingly popular critical notion that all protagonists should be ‘likeable’.

The second and third stories shift focus to Diana Argent, a fifteen-year-old heiress to one of the solar system’s ruling families, and a freakishly gifted solver of mysteries (albeit simulated VR mysteries). There’s even some suggestion that Diana has been born and bred in an Iain-Banks’-Player of Games kinda way to be the galaxy’s greatest detective.  Her character’s development is refreshingly deep; the novel tracks a convincing journey from precocious and over-confident spoiled rich girl, to a morally interested, politicised and self-aware young woman (Jack Glass is similar to Roberts’ previous novel By Light Alone in this regard).

Diana initially approaches the murders she’s investigating as a sort of game, akin to the simulated adventures she grew up playing. But as the body count rises, and her own safety is threatened, her wide-eyed glee at the prospect of solving a ‘real’ murder mystery is replaced by fear and a cogent self-analysis. There’s a nice moment when she admits that “An invented whodunit has the same relation to real life as a chess puzzle has to an actual game of chess”.

But man does this complicate things further. As readers, of course, we’re aware that Jack Glass is exactly the type of “invented whodunit” that Roberts was just questioning the value of.  The two most conspicuous aspects of Jack Glass are the provocative subtitle (‘A Golden Age Story’), and the book’s constant pairing of murder mysteries and games. When this is coupled with the novel’s predominant imagery – that of break out and escape – perhaps it wouldn’t be too twee to suggest that the sort of game Adam Roberts is really playing is an implied questioning of the genre boundaries of “Golden Age” SF and Detective fiction. The book’s subtitle is more likely an invitation to question and investigate the tenets of golden age-ness (reader become detective..?), than it is a definite statement about the book’s genre. As, as we have already seen, the very moniker ‘Golden Age’ is riddled with problems of definition.

Superficially, then, Jack Glass is a Science Fictional murder mystery – and an excellent one at that – , but on a subtextual level, the book definitely had me scratching my head over issues of genre identity, and science fiction’s unhelpful structuralist habit of pigeon-holing books into neat genre categories. The three mysteries make for fantastic page-turning reading, and the characters (notably Diana Argent) are impressively well-developed. But at the same time, Jack Glass’ un-crime fiction stylistic ticks (lotsa neologisms, an unreliable narrator, revealing the murderer on the first page etc.) had me wondering what it was that Adam Roberts really wants to reader to investigate.

Tomcat.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessOn the surface at least, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is a classic First Contact story, and initially conforms to all of the structural and narrative tropes of that SF archetype. Genly Ai is a human envoy sent to the planet of Winter (a sobriquet given to the alien world by us humans, & inspired by its planet-wide perpetual ice age), to convince the quasi-industrial natives to join the Ekumen, an inter-planetary er… federation. Of sorts.

The book opens with Genly witnessing an esoteric alien ritual, in which a local ruler places a keystone into an arch, forever joining its two sides together, in union. Seemingly this is a clumsy metaphor for the coming-together of the two races: stronger as one, now we can bear weight etc. etc. (insert cliché of your own choosing). But as we learn more about the aliens of Winter, it soon becomes apparent that the real subtextual referents of this arch metaphor aren’t aliens and humans, but men and women. The First Contact plot line is merely a McGuffin or way-in for the writer to analyse the nature of gender binaries, and of their wider implications for societal structure and behaviours. As such, The Left Hand of Darkness is characteristic of the anthropological mode of le Guinian fiction.

The inhabitants of Winter (“Gethen” in their own language) are genderless; every individual is capable of bearing children, and everyone is physically androgyne. The non-gendered nature of the Gethenians is, the text argues, in direct correlation with the organization and manners of their society, with stereotypically feminine qualities being more prominent, and stereotypically masculine qualities less so than our own: the result an ostensible balance between the two.

Conflict, for example, is significantly more subtle and nuanced when male physicality and aggression is almost entirely absent.  Gethenians resolve interpersonal differences via a convoluted and dense system of etiquette known as ‘shifgrethor’, and the human protagonist’s constant failures to understand the subtleties of this system are responsible for both the novel’s most comic moments, and its most tragic. It’s a concept that draws on Eastern religious ideologies, without actually name-checking any of the real-world systems that so obviously inspired it. When individuals aren’t able to “other” one another along gender lines, the resulting interplay of social relations requires a notably more convoluted system of differentiation: hence shifgrethor.

And “othering” really is the central theme of the novel. With the arrival of the envoy Genly, the native aliens are able to “other” – for the first time along gender lines – another individual. Simultaneously, of course, Genly is able to (eventually) appreciate the benefits of a social system absent any gender biases. It’s tempting, therefore, to suggest that The Left Hand of Darkness espouses the old empirical cliché of the privileged and enlightened ambassador coming to liberate the natives from their ignorance, but who eventually ends up learning more from them than they do from him. I think that this would be a somewhat simplistic reading, however, as LHOD’s presentation of an ambisexual society is anything but utopian and parochial. It’s certainly feministic; a contemporary cultural reflection of the late 1960’s, when traditional gender roles were becoming less and less rigid; but I’m wary of saying that LHOD offers any kind of prediction, or even mandate for social change. It’s more thought experiment than it is extrapolation.

This isn’t to say that the Gethenians have no notion of deep-structured duality, as political and national differences, jingoism and xenophobia seep in to fill the psycho-social void left by the absence of gender disparities. There’s a cold war taking place on Gethen (ice age pun unintended… honest), with all of the historical and social positioning that such a term suggests;  each nation defining itself in terms of its difference to the “other”. Hence:

“I don’t mean love when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other.”

The planet’s two major nations are locked in a kinda passive-aggressive stalemate: as consequent of their societies’ lack of masculine aggression, there has never been a war on Gethen. This perhaps being the most heavily implicated correlation that le Guin makes between the absence of gender, and the political behaviours of a society. War is: “[...] a purely masculine displacement activity, a vast rape.”

Supposedly, then, LHOD invites the reader to judge its characters purely on their identity as moral agents:

The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept. After all, what is the first question we ask about a newborn baby? ….there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protected/ protective. One is respected and judged only as a human being. You cannot cast a Gethenian in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards ‘him’ a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex.

LHOD

It’s unfortunate, then, that the book is almost (I said “almost”…) completely broken by Le Guin’s baffling stylistic decision to refer to every non-gendered native of Gethen using exclusively male personal pronouns (“he”, “his”, “him” etc.). This influenced my visual conception of the novel to such an extent that I couldn’t help but imagine all of the book’s characters as physically male. The effect of these male pronouns is to massively damage the dissociative power of the genderless society as a narrative conceit. If Ursula Le Guin’s goal was to suggest that the consequences of a non-existent gender bias was a societal structure inordinately different to our own, then surely it would have been more successfully alienating to neologise a set of non-sexed pronouns that don’t carry any of the gender baggage that the writer is attempting to deconstruct? It’s a small oversight that has regrettably deleterious consequences.

The novel’s final third is a brilliantly intense piece of wilderness writing, a ‘journey through the snowy wasteland’ passage that’s alternately told from the P.O.Vs of the human Genly, and a native of the alien planet. It’s here that Le Guin most successfully marries the themes of anthropological thought experiment, with a more emotional, personal and zoomed-in focus on an individual’s deep-rooted and subconscious gender assumptions.

The Left Hand of Darkness rightly has a place in the pantheon of Science Fiction masterpieces, exposing the un-spoken biases of our own social structures by presenting to the reader a society that’s markedly at odds with our own. It’s beautifully written (if occasionally essayistic), challenging and, despite what some commentators would have you believe, still 100% relevant. It’s just a shame about that pronoun stuff.

Tomcat.

Quick post, just some thoughts…

Iron CouncilWhile there’s a whole lot of focus on China Miéville’s Big Ideas – his seemingly limitless creativity, his rigorous political convictions, his baroque genre smorgasbording – there’s considerably less attention given over to the minutia of his prose, and his identity as a master stylist. It would be a shame if the grand schemes of his stories overshadowed too much the actual words he uses to tell them.

And while most readers acknowledge that he is an incredible stylist, most reviews don’t delve any deeper than vague comments about how cool and adjectival and maximalist his writing is. All of which is true, of course, and all of which I love; but it’d be nice to see some closer sentence-by-sentence readings and appreciations of China Miéville’s texts.

I mean, he doesn’t always hit the mark (describing a forest as a ‘barkscape’ is an attempt at linguistic estrangement that, for me at least, veered dangerously close to twee, much as I love that particular suffix…(though who knows, maybe ‘twee’ was what he was aiming for?)), but when you encounter such gems as this paragraph from Iron Council, then all is forgiven:

Time was stilled. Cutter walked through a ghostworld, the earth’s dream of its own grasslands. There were no nightbirds calling, no glucliches, nothing but the dark vista like a painted background. Cutter was alone on a stage. He thought of dead Ihona. When at last the lights were close he could see a kraal of heavy houses. He walked into the village as brazen as if he were welcome.

Themes here include wilful loneliness and grief; the language becoming suitably poetic in order to handle such things; perhaps an attempt at finding a narrative register appropriate to the lofty (dare I say ‘tragic’) emotions being described. A head count of the rhetorical devices in the above paragraph includes: psychological abstraction (‘Time was stilled’), neologism (‘ghostworld’), description via negatives that reinforce the themes of loss and absence (‘no nightbirds, no glucliches’); there’s simile (‘like a painted background’), as well as metaphor, (‘alone on a stage’), simple direct sentences (‘He thought of dead Ihona’), contrasting imagery (‘dark’ / ‘light’), as well as subjunctive mood (‘as if he were welcome’).

That’s a real magician’s hatful of rhetorical techniques, all of them pushing and tugging and rubbing against one another in a brilliant linguistic maelstrom that echoes the tensions and conflicts roiling up within the protagonist. If you were feeling particularly generous, you might even claim that the theatre-centric imagery is an attempt to recall the literary space most familiarly given-over to addressing tragedy, despair and loss. Just please stop short of saying ‘Shakespearean’.

So, the TL:DR version of this is: don’t lose sight of the details in looking at the bigger picture. It’s something I know I do all too often, and I’ll endeavour to give more space over to close reading in future posts.

New reviews coming soon. Honest.

Tomcat.