Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

mockingbird-661x1024I quite enjoyed the first hundred pages or so of Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird (1980), which manage to convey an intricate and moving sense of emotional introspection while simultaneously doing the big-picture busywork of establishing the novel’s creepy dystopian setting. Unfortunately, however, it’s all downhill from there. The book’s early chapters primed me to expect an open-minded and liberal argument about human behaviour and the future direction of society, but what I actually found was a disappointingly conservative piece of defensive status-quo-ism.

Mockingbird bathetically undermines its own thesis by concluding that the best way to overcome an enforced and judgemental attitude towards human behaviour is to replace it with… a different but still equally moralistic set of prescribed behaviours. Tevis fails to realise that the problem with his dystopian society isn’t that the wrong type of behaviour is being mandated, but that behaviour is being mandated in the first place. So the problematic here isn’t the kind of binary, but the very fact of the binary. The book’s basic argument is this: recreational drugs, T.V. casual sex, pornography, advanced tech, privacy = bad. The nuclear family, monogamous sex, labour, openness, knowledge, reading = good.

Yeah, it has that weird 1970’s Sci-fi thing of being obsessed with sex, which, coupled with a het male-gazey approach to women’s bodies, is just incredibly tedious, lechy and unnecessary.

It’s all really grah, because on a sentence-by-sentence level Mockingbird can be very expressive. Its characters are distinct, the dialogue is believable, and there are passages of wilderness writing that do a good job of evoking the emptiness of once-thriving cities abandoned and returning to nature, which is trope-ish, sure, but good fun nonetheless.

***

The novel opens with the story of the tongue-twistingly named Spofforth, a human-like robot so advanced that he falls in love, gets horny, and longs to start a family, all of which are, apparently, universal hallmarks of humanity. But being a robot and, shall we say, anatomically incomplete, Spofforth is unable to realise any of these desires, which are mostly hang-overs from the real-life human brain that was the model for his robot consciousness. Spofforth’s dilemma is this: while he’s unable to satisfy his sexual and familial desires, he’s also unable to end his own existence, as his anti-suicide programming kicks in whenever he tries to destroy himself.

I’m not sure if “the robot depressive who can’t kill himself” is quite the existential tragedy that the text would have us believe, but Spofforth’s chapters are nonetheless effecting, especially when he is tormented by dreams and imaginings that belonged to the long-dead human that his brain was, in part, copied from. In fact, the once-human dreams that plague Spofforth are where Mockingbird’s prose really shines. Here the text is beautifully estranging, offering one of the best and most othering examples of the robot-who-wants-to-be-human cliché I’ve encountered in a while.

A secondhand dream, taken by accident from a life he had not lived

[…]

“I wanted to live with you the way the man whose dreams I have might have lived; hundreds of years ago.”

(Though occasionally it does become hilariously pretentions, “I did not want to live with the real anymore”, so watch out for that)

The early Spofforth chapters also introduce us to Mockingbird’s future society. The global human population has collapsed to around 18 million, there’s nobody alive under 30, and everybody was brought up in these sort of brain-washing nurseries where they learn to follow the maxims of privacy and “inwardness”, a philosophy that espouses no eye contact, no touching, no intimacy of any kind. There’s also an obsession with “mandatory politeness” which, if this book wasn’t 36 years old, could sound like one of those anti-SJW satires the alt-right like to put out.

Most people waste their days taking “sopors” and smoking marijuana, which, as we know, turns anybody who ever touches it into a drooling moron. The book is extremely condescending in its anti-drugs preaching, and reaches peak silliness towards the end of the novel when a character in her late thirties suddenly realises that she hasn’t seen any children in decades: she’d been too drugged-up to notice their absence, or something. Yeah.

Oh, and everybody is illiterate.

Next the book introduces us to Paul, Mockingbird’s primary narrator. Paul teaches himself how to read, which opens up a world of understanding and empathy. In becoming literate, Paul learns about intimacy, society, work etc, all the things that have been eradicated by the new obsession with “inwardness”. The rebirth of literacy has the potential, it’s claimed, to end the decades of social inertia and to get history moving again, “when literacy died, so had history”.

I like the idea of literature being what finally overcomes the apocalypse, and the salvage of words becoming more important than the salvage of things, which is a nice inversion of the scrap fetish that’s so common in books of this genre. There are even some funny passages in which Paul becomes more and more frustrated as he plunders the world’s ruined libraries: the only books he can find are, like, manuals on Chess openings and useless stuff like that. Nature hasn’t been selective in deciding which books survived the centuries of decay, which is comically realistic. (although the discovery of a “how to fix robots” book is a bit too serendipitous for my liking)

But this argument about literacy as social panacea starts to lose its charm when Tevis begins coupling it with some pretty conservative ideas about the nuclear family. One of the book’s legendary and most literate characters “was, by the way, one of the few people I know who were brought up in a family”. The text all but states that family is the necessary context for literacy, intelligence and empathy, while failing to care that the necessary context for stable family is, so often, social privilege. The novel’s ending (which (spoilers) sees the establishment of a new two-parent family) infuriated me with its hypocrisy. After 250 pages of satire about the negative things that happen when people are told how to live, the book concludes by… telling us how we should live.

Eventually it all just begins to feel like an over-long dissatisfied allegory for late twentieth century social change. It reads like some op-ed columnist ranting about kids these days who watch too much T.V., don’t know the value of hard work, and who’re all drugged-up, promiscuous idiots. There are value judgements everywhere.

The book’s treatment of its female characters also leaves a lot to be desired. Mary-Lou, Paul’s lover, is repeatedly described in terms of her physical appearance, a stylistic tick that Tevis reserves for all of the book’s women, but none of its men. Indeed, the writer seems to be having a debate with himself about whether or not Mary-Lou is attractive. “Her face was not very pretty” is the opening of one chapter, while another chapter uses the exact phrase “she was very beautiful” twice in two pages. I don’t want to get too bogged-down in synopsis, but the narrative importance of Mary-Lou can be summed up thusly: to become a wife and mother so the world can start reading again.

Large tracts of the text also smack of authorial self-insertion fantasy. It’s the nerdy, hyper-literate reader who, in a world full of illiterate idiots, must save society by restoring it to its former, everything-in-its-right-place glory. There’s a creepy sense of awe that the women of the novel express when confronted with our literate hero. Seriously, Tevis pitches his protagonist, Paul, in language that’s more in keeping with superhero stories:

“Jesus Paul, you’ve changed”

I said nothing, but nodded,

“You look… you look ready for anything”

Suddenly I found words. “That’s right”, I said. And then I stepped forward and put my arms around her and pulled her to me, very hard.

I laughed.

It’s frustrating as hell, because there is some good writing here. There’s a great mid-novel chapter in which Paul stumbles upon an ancient toaster factory that recycles the toasters it makes and turns them into yet more toasters, which functions as successful and funny metaphor for the change-less dystopia in which Paul lives. The resolution of Spofforth’s story is also well done, a nice example of “the best laid schemes of mice and men [(and robots?)] gang aft agley”. It’s a shame, then, that these are rare moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout an otherwise moralistic, patronising novel. For a work of far-future science fiction, it’s surprising how socially conservative Mockingbird ends up being.

As a final note, can anybody fathom what the phrase “Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods” means? It’s this refrain that’s used constantly throughout the text, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what Walter Tevis is getting at. I assume the “mockingbird” is the mock-human Spofforth, but, as for the rest of it? No idea.

Arcadia – Iain Pears

31OP7N6X71L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Every now and then this thing will happen whereby a traditionally literary-realist writer will publish a decidedly genred work, and all hell breaks loose in the SFF community. Some genre fans will whine that the writer is merely appropriating Science Fiction as window dressing in order to make-cool an otherwise naturalistic narrative. Others will complain that the writer hasn’t “earned it”; how can they write compelling genre if they’ve not spent years steeping themselves in the history of said genre? And inevitably people get pissed when mainstream literary journalists who don’t know what they’re talking about praise a work that deploys tired and clichéd genre tropes because they simply don’t know that what they’re praising are tired and clichéd genre tropes etc. etc.

I try not to engage with this kinda stuff. Partly because it smacks of gatekeeping (fuck anybody who says you need to have read certain books or think certain things in order to take part). Partly because SFF is only going to shrivel and die if we don’t encourage writers from diverse places to join in. But mostly because I believe that huge swathes of genre writing have a quality-of-prose problem, and could learn a thing or two by engaging with different literary heritages. Hell, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant was the subject of this kind of community outrage last summer, but it’s the best Fantasy novel I’ve read in years. American poet Marly Youmans’ Thaliad might be the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve ever read. Neither of these writers come from traditional genre backgrounds, but they’ve shown up and produced dazzling works nonetheless.

However. However, while I am generally wary of perpetuating this eye-rolling “non-SF writer trying to do SF and failing” stereotype, there are times when this really is what’s going on, and Iain Pears’ Arcadia just smacks of it. The SF-nal tropes this book deploys really are tired clichés. Both its far-future and its Fantasy settings would have seemed out of date decades ago, and – at risk of becoming the sort of genre fan I was just criticising – Arcadia has a certain tonal smugness about it that really rubbed me up the wrong way; the book seems to think it’s being much more original and experimental than it really is. This is a feeling I partly gleamed from the novel itself, and partly from all the paratextual marketing gumpf that’s been surrounding it for months. All this could be forgiven if Arcadia had a depth of characterisation or a quality of prose capable of out-shining its otherwise tepid ideas, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t.

I will say this though: Arcadia is a structural masterpiece. The novel’s central idea is that time isn’t linear, it’s only our limited human perception that makes it seem so. Events in the future can alter events in the past. The past can change, the future isn’t certain, and the present is just as unstable.

Arcadia’s most successful element is the way its structure perfectly encapsulates this idea. The book flits, non-chronologically, between three different timelines, and it’s not uncommon for something to happen in the future timeline that influences and changes stuff going on in the past. Or vice versa. To really see this in action, you can download an app (not kidding…) which will provide you with different “paths” through the novel. You can read different chapters in different orders and it all still makes sense, hence reinforcing the book’s thematic concern for the non-linearity of cause and effect. It’s all very intricate. Every decision a character makes has a wider significance in the timeline. It’s very modern, too, and could probably be described as a novelistic attempt at the much-lauded videogame principle of “ludonarrative”, that is: the narrative generated by the different ways the reader (/player) can interact with a text. God knows how long it took to plot the whole thing. It’s very, very clever.

But clever structure is all that Arcadia is. And so much is lost in the service of being clever. Imagine an architect has designed a staggeringly impressive and convoluted building; weird geometry all folding in on itself, it’s self-supporting and will collapse if you remove any one part. But then imagine that this building is made from the dullest, most boring and grey materials imaginable. That should give you some idea of what Arcadia is like.

At 600 pages it’s also stodgy as hell. It’s very repetitive, which I’m convinced is a consequence of Pears’ decision to let the reader approach the book’s chapters in different combinations: he has to repeat the same info over and over in case the mid-way point for one reader is the entry point for another (for the record, I read it in the traditional, front-to-back kinda way). And although I like the idea that events in the story have consequences for the structure of the book, it nonetheless requires such a level of narrative engineering as to make large chunks of the novel seem contrived.

By the end of Arcadia, I definitely got the feeling that major plot events were happening more in service to the novel’s structure, than in service to any of its characters and their motivations.

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***

The future time-line is set in a quasi-dystopian, climate-changed UK that’s ruled by mega corporations. It’s a conform-or-die sort of place, where everything is geared towards profit, the private ownership of ideas, and generally being nasty to one another. It’s really, really bog-standard SF stuff (the biggest, richest, meanest bigwig is called “Oldmanter”, which is on-the-nose even for my tastes), and it’s so thinly drawn that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be visualising half the time. A genius scientist called Angela Meerson has invented a machine that opens portals to parallel universes, but the big bad corporation guys want to grab this for themselves in order to mine those other universes for raw materials, and make big buckaroos.

(Thought: if the mega corporations could strip other universes for coal or whatever, wouldn’t such a HUGE influx of minerals actually hyper-inflate the markets and therefore massively devalue those materials, and hence ruin the potential to profit from them? I guess if only one group controls access then they could still make their moneys, but once the stuff is out there, how do they control the secondary markets? etc….)

Angela is my favourite character; idiosyncratic, witty, and borderline sociopathic in her devotion to science. She doesn’t want her ideas stolen, so she destroys her notes, and uses her machine to send herself into another universe. However, Angela’s understanding of physics is incorrect; her invention is actually a time machine, and, instead of another universe, it sends he back to 1960s Oxford, the second of the book’s 3 timelines.

The Oxford chapters are, by far, the best in the book, perhaps indicating that when he’s not ventriloquising tired genre settings, Iain Pears can write compelling characters and descriptive prose. These chapters are chiefly concerned with an aging English Literature professor called Henry Lytten, and a local schoolgirl called Rosie. One of Henry’s subplots is actually a half-way decent cold war spy story; it’s a tad ancillary to the wider goings-on of the novel, but is nonetheless good fun (I’d be up for reading a cold war thriller starring an old Shakespeare scholar!).

Henry is also a writer, working on a Fantasy novel set in the imagined realm of “Anterworld”, with the eventual goal of creating a society that fully functions without any gaps or inconsistencies.  He wants the world of his novel to “work”. I have a slight theoretical problem with this, as I think it misunderstands the nature of worldbuilding and the ways in which texts relate to anything real: characters and worlds don’t consist of anything more than what’s on the page: the presence of boats in a novel may imply the presence of ship-builders in the fictional universe, but convoluted histories and meticulous attention to detail doesn’t make a text any more “real” or “stable” than any other. Hamlet is nothing more than the words he speaks etc.

Anyway, Angela learns about Henry’s “Anterworld”, and, attracted by its level of social realism (and hence “stability”) she uses it as a blueprint to test a new machine. Basically, Angela creates “Anterworld”, not as simulation, but real, living universe.

How exactly Angela “makes” Anterworld from Henry’s scrappy notes isn’t at all clear, and this speaks to a wider problem with the book’s narrative style. Large chunks of description have a definite “Hard Science” feel to them, especially when it waffles on about creating other universes and how cause and effect relate to one another. But elsewhere the book is remarkably twee. Angela’s machine is capable of creating, holding and sustaining an entire working universe and altering the course of human history, but, being trapped in the 1960s, she’s forced to make do with materials of the period:

I would have used refined aluminium, but I had to use aluminium foil in its place. Instead of sheets of pure graphite, I used lead pencils and old newspapers.

She makes her universe-generating machine out of tin foil and pencils. And controls it with pot and pans:

The kettle sets the year and month, the saucepans fix the day and hour and the two tea mugs set the location.

While this stuff kinda matches the eccentricity of Angela’s character, it’s just too much kitsch, and in a novel very much concerned with how things work, it’s starts to feel silly.

Like the future time period, the third of the book’s settings, Anterworld, is likewise run-of-the-mill genre stuff. The phrase “standard fantasy setting” should tell you everything you need to know about it. The schoolgirl I mentioned earlier, Rosie, stumbles upon the doorway to Anterworld, and wanders inside. Here she becomes embroiled in an incredibly boring story about a contested lordship, she falls in love with a Robin Hood figure, and eventually becomes an important figure in the mythology of the world.

The Anterworld sections, then, are simultaneously both intriguing and dull. The way it interacts with 1960s Oxford and the far future timeline are fascinating, and showcases the cleverness of Pears’ convoluted structure. But unfortunately the majority of the Anterworld stuff is just bland, with nothing to set it apart from any other feudal fantasy. Given the urgency of the futuristic stuff, and the intrigue of the 1960s spy drama, I struggled to find any reason why I should care which deposed lord has the most genuine claim to the contested lands. Far too much of Arcadia is given-over to these dull feudal politics, most of which turns out to be just scene-setting for a somewhat predictable late-novel twist.

The girl who wanders into Anterworld Rosie, is equally inconsistent. In abstraction she’s great, a slightly precocious, adventure-loving loner. She’s witty, loyal, and takes no shit from anyone. On the page, however, Rosie is problematic. I think she too-willingly abandons her previous life in favour of staying in Anterworld. Her level-headedness and intelligence seems to evaporate in the face of her love interest, which is a disappointing trait to find in a character set-up to be independent and strong-willed. Rosie begins the novel as a promisingly contrarian young girl, but ends the book embracing and defending the traditional gender roles that the story forces upon her. There were several passages towards the end of Rosie’s story where I almost threw the book across the room.

Large sections of Rosie’s dialogue are also very odd. This is what Iain Pears thinks fifteen-year-old girls sound like:

“You speak with defiance. That is not unattractive. Indeed, I am sure that any woman would find it beguiling, even hard to resist. Almost impossible, I would say. Until she considers this: what trust can be put into your words?”

Rosie’s age results in some awkward reading, too. Her (underage) marriage in Anterworld is a key part of her story, and there’s a suggestion of underage sex as well, but Iain Pears takes great pains to creepily remind us, again and again, that, as Anterworld is a feudal-level society, this is all fine. Rosie is old, in fact, not to be married (apparently). Coupled with copious references to Rosie’s physical beauty, it’s all a bit uncomfortable. Why didn’t Pears just make her a year older and circumvent having to do this? It reminds me a bit too much of:

***

And so it goes on and on. I admire the structural ambition of Arcadia, as well as its thematic interest in narrative; focusing on the ways in which stories are changed and renewed in their re-telling is exactly the sort of metanarrative playfulness I enjoy. But the whole thing is just so contrived, and as the complex construction that is the novel’s plotting builds and develops, it only feels more and more forced. Mid-way through the book, for example, Rosie is cloned when attempting to leave Anterworld. The narrative rationale behind Rosie’s cloning is that the machine detected a change about her person (she’s wearing some rings acquired in the fantasy land), and so created two versions of her; one that can leave Anterworld, and one which has to stay behind, “Your profile did not match the one you had when you went through […] It didn’t know whether to allow you back or block you, so it did both”. But later in the novel, when another character leaves Anterworld after spending a long time there, there is no cloning, despite the fact that Chang’s clothing and history has been even more affected than Rosie’s. Why is Rosie cloned and not Chang? Well, the irritating answer is that the story’s convoluted structure needs two Rosies, but not two Changs. In a novel about the verisimilitudes of cause and effect, these types of rule changes have the potential to bathetically undermine the book’s entire argument.

I have more problems with Arcadia, but this review is already pushing 2000-words, and I don’t want to get too list-like, so I think I’ll finish off here.

(oh, wait, one more: for a book so focused on the mutable nature of history, why are some elements set in stone? Like a document that history won’t allow to be destroyed? There are numerous mentions of history’s “proper path”, but what force or consciousness sets this path in motion, and arbitrates over its propriety? It’s definitely at odds with the otherwise infinitely changeable nature of history put forward by the text. And, again, the answer is simple: certain events and objects are unchangeable merely because the intricate construction that is Arcadia’s plot requires them to be).

So, yes, what Iain Pears has done with structure is very clever. But as the novel progresses, more and more is sacrificed to the auspices of this structure until what’s left is nothing but the structure. Characterisation, consistency, pacing… it’s all secondary to the grander project. And although the end result is an impressive piece of narrative construction, you’ve gotta wonder…. Is it worth it?

Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson

I think the general consensus among SFF fans is that Dave Hutchinson was robbed (robbed I tell you!) of last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. His 2015 novel Europe at Autumn is a brilliant Science-Fictional spy novel – cum – satire set in a near-future Europe that has Balkanized into hundreds of different countries, city states, and polities; “the big thing in Europe these days was countries, and there were more and more of them every year”. Hutchinson is remarkably playful in creating his emergent nations, despite the fact that his fractured Europe has roots in some pretty serious contemporary politics (the increasing instability of the EU, the rise of reactionary nationalism right across the continent, austerity and the counter-emergence of a new and optimistic socialism, not to mention debt and refugee crises). There’s one country, for example, that’s occupied and governed by fans of Gunter Grass. Another appears to consist of two warring tribes of football hooligans. And one “nation” is a cross-continental railway simply dubbed “The Line”, a nod to the popular Science Fiction trope of the perpetual train.

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Hutchinson’s prose is lyrical, his politics insightful, and his satire of European national identities (and the rivalries therein) is spot-on. The heart of the novel, though, is the well-drawn and sympathetic character of Rudi, a chef recruited by the Coureurs des Bois, a secretive organisation of couriers determined to keep the spirit of Shengen alive in a Europe of ever-shifting Borders. Finally, Europe at Autumn was notable for its deft deployment of so many thriller/espionage tropes. Hutchinson does a sort of masterfully self-aware thing whereby he mocks and ridicules the more out-there clichés of the spy genre, but employs them as plot devices nonetheless, because he recognises that they’re damn good fun.

***

26009702Europe at Midnight is the follow up to Europe in Autumn, and, like its predecessor, has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It’s set in the same fictional universe, but other than a brief cameo, doesn’t feature any of the same characters. It’s a risky sequel in that’s it’s very, very different from the book that came before it. EaM is markedly more science-fictional, concerning itself with a parallel universe version of Europe called “The Community” and a further pocket-universe called “The Campus”, both of which were introduced in the final act of the last book.

Unfortunately, Europe at Midnight isn’t quite as successful as its predecessor. Neither of its two central characters are as compelling as Rudi. The frequent jumps in place and time – though sometimes good at generating momentum – can be disorientating as hell, and some of the book’s gender politics are a tad indelicate. I also missed the wonderful observations of European cultural idiosyncrasies that so coloured the previous novel. Their absence is mostly a consequence of Europe at Midnight being set almost entirely in England (or versions of…), so I recognise that there are plot-related reasons for this shift in narrative style, but still, the descriptions of, for example, Polish cooking, Hungarian aloofness and Estonian wit were among my highlights of the previous book.

None of these complaints are deal-breakers, however. Europe at Midnight is still really, really good, despite the aforementioned niggles. The two central characters are Jim and “Rupert”. Jim comes from the fractured Europe of the previous book. He’s a detective recruited by a shady department of the English secret service. “Rupert”, like Jim, is also an intelligence worker, but he comes from The Campus, a pocket universe consisting of a giant university in which the previous ruling body “The Old Board” has recently been overthrow in a democratic coup. The technology of the Campus is relatively old (there are no cars or mobile phones), but the mysterious Faculty of Science are conducting grotesque experiments using tech that’s out-of-sync with the rest of the pocket universe. Spooky. It’s Rupert’s job to investigate.

It’s not long before the narrative arcs of these two characters intersect, and both learn about “The Community”. This is a parallel universe version of Europe (of which The Campus is a small part) that was somehow created by a family of English cartographers in the Nineteenth Century. Jim’s team is interested in The Community mostly for national security/diplomatic reasons: are they a threat? Can they get to us? Can they be traded with? etc. Rupert’s interest is more personal, as various clandestine goings-on between The Community, The Campus and Europe may-or-may not have had a role to play in several personal tragedies the befall him in the book’s opening chapters. This dualism between Jim and Rupert – the personal versus the national interest in Europe – is a nicely balanced thing, perhaps reflective of the concerns may real-world Europeans harbour about the state of the continent. A dissonance of head versus heart.

So let’s talk about the novel’s parallel universe version of Europe (not the fractured, split one… I mean the other one, dubbed ‘The Community’). The Community is a brilliant conceit on Hutchinson’s part, narratively fruitful and loaded with symbolism through which he critiques real-world Europe. The Community is a fantasy manifestation of England that spans the entire European continent. Everybody is English, the only language is English, and there are no traces of non-English culture or history. It basically represents what certain sections of contemporary British society probably consider to be the ideal Europe, perhaps encapsulated by the “England Abroad” holiday resorts that’ve been cropping up on the continent in recent decades. This is Europe without foreigners, and represents an atavistic fantasy of English colonial ambition:

[It’s] very attractive to a certain type of English person. I know Tory politicians who are delighted that there’s a version of Europe where we conquered the Continent.

The Community is a satire of right-wing uber-nationalist self-importance in which England isn’t just a significant player in Europe: England is Europe.

The most successful part of Europe at Midnight is its simultaneous presentation of two extreme versions of European future: the homogenous super state, versus the fractured, ever-shifting mess. Of course both of these situations are hyperbole: Europe at Midnight is a satire in the sense that it takes two potentialities and pushes them to their most absurd conclusions, but, like all good satire, it’s telling in the way it exposes real-life issues, highlighting just what a cross-roads real-world Europe is currently faced with. It’s tempting to describe the book as being about two Europes: the fractured versus the superstate, but it’s actually about three, with our real Europe providing the paratextual context from which so much of the satire springs forth. Europe at Midnight works so well because its future Europe seems to alarmingly probably; what with brexit, the devaluation of the Euro, the rise of nationalist right-wing parties into government etc..

In fact, Europe at Midnight is at its best when Hutchinson takes the basic idea of his setting, and really runs with it. There’s a very funny passage in which he imagines what the Eurovision Song Contest would be like in a Europe with hundreds and hundreds of participant nations:

There were five hundred and thirty-two entries in this Eurovision […] The final was scheduled to last two days, with another three days set aside for voting.

Sure, the song contest has no bearing on anything that’s happening in the novel, and it would be easy to accuse Hutchinson of using it as a backdrop merely so he can crowbar the joke into the story, but it’s wry observations like this that ground the science fictional in the familiar. It works because it’s recognisable and it’s new at the same time.

***

Other aspects of the novel, however, aren’t quite as strong. There’s a real paucity of deep female characters in the book, and the three women who show the most potential for interesting development are variously and violently killed off before we really get to know them. Even with their very limited screen time, these women vastly outshine the sometimes bland male protagonists, which makes the brevity of their involvement all the more frustrating. I was especially taken by Araminta, for example, who arrives on The Campus and shakes up Rupert’s entire life while simultaneously hinting at a personal history that primed me to expect a complex narrative to follow. The ending of her story is so abrupt and unsatisfactory that I was half expecting her demise to be some kind of red herring, and for Araminta to show up later in the book, so we could continue learning about her story (people sometimes survive nuclear explosions… right?). Dave Hutchinson can definitely write strong, compelling women; the problem isn’t with how they’re presented, but with the roles they’re given in the text. It’s difficult to think of a single female character in Europe at Midnight whose primary narrative function isn’t reducible to motivating something that happens to one of the two male leads.

There are also difficult shifts in setting, character and time that can be so disorientating as to take quite a few pages to get your head around. This adds a layer of obfuscation that the already complex plot doesn’t really need. I’d have preferred a gentler way-in to some of the jumps in place and character. But who knows? Maybe this is just me being a lazy reader.

Taken as a whole, however, Europe at Midnight is still very good, and definitely the best book on this year’s Clarke shortlist. The conspiracy elements of the novel are complex enough to be unpredictable, but not so obtuse as to be confusing. The writing is characteristically swift, with a few well-deployed phrases (such as the casual mention of a “ten-pound coin”), Hutchinson can establish setting, tone and satire that would take lesser writers many pages to explain.

Dave Hutchinson is also very good at nailing that certain “this is exactly what would happen” cynicism that defines the best works of speculative political satire. For example when we learn about the capitalist organisations with an interest in the parallel universe Europe, “Two fast-food corporations, a sports clothing manufacturer [and] all the main high street coffee chains”. The prosaicism of these high-street brands, coupled with the inevitability of their involvement, is just so on point. It’s brilliant. What happens when we extrapolate contemporary neo-liberalism into a science fictional setting? Well, the invaders from another dimension are our profit-hungry coffee chains and sports shops, of course! The vision of capital enterprise being so ravenous for new markets that they’re willing to invade another dimension is funny because it feels so depressingly plausible, despite the inherent silliness of the situation.

It’s all to do with potentialities, really. What Europe is, what Europe could be, what different groups want to make Europe into, and the ways in which individual lives try to cope with and respond to this. Like it’s fractured setting, Europe at Midnight is a fluid patchwork of different ideas: part spy novel, part science fiction romp, part satire, part state-of-the-nation commentary, and I’m pleased to report that it handles most of these things very well indeed.

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

25499718This is a fun piece of core Science Fiction. I enjoyed it. And while it’s not really the sort of SF that particularly interests me, I appreciate it as a high-quality example of the kind of thing that it is.

Children of Time comprises two narrative threads told in alternating chapters. The first is set on a terraformed planet that was meant to be the home to a population of monkeys exposed to an evolution-accelerating nano virus.  Unfortunately, human society collapses just as the “experiment” is about to begin; the monkeys are killed by eco-terrorists, and the nano virus falls to the planet where it infects a species of spider (Portia Labiata), instead. The novel then charts the evolution of the spiders over thousands of years, from regular insects, to a hyper-intelligent, spacefaring global super society.

I was initially wary of this premise, as, let’s face it, a novel about super-smart space spiders has the potential to be more-than-a-little-bit naff, even twee. I also have a mixed history with anthropomorphic animals in Science Fiction: I can never resist the urge to visualise them as cutesy cartoon creatures, like with waistcoats and little hats and stuff (this is (partly) the reason why I can’t read Niven’s Known Space novels, what with their talking cats in space suits and all). Thankfully, Adrian Tchaikovsky treats his hyper-evolved spiders with a sense of extreme, joyous realism (…well, you know what I mean, maybe “authenticity” or “seriousness” would be better terms); they never become bipedal or wear clothing, they never “talk” (instead they communicate via a kind of sign language), and their societal structures are distinctly non-human. It’s really, really well done, actually.

Tchaikovsky’s imagined history of spider evolution is notable for the sheer thoroughness of its detail. He pays attention to all the sorts of things you might expect: how spider language evolves, how their webbing-based technology expands in scope and application etc. and etc. But there’s also an explicit focus on the workings of spider society, too. Children of Time plots the development of this society from hunter-gatherer, to feudalistic and, eventually, a space-faring multiculturalism (the mid-novel war between the giant spiders and giant ants is awesome bug-fight madness!).

I was particularly impressed with the way that Tchaikovsky depicts the intellectual evolution of the spiders. They begin the novel as somewhat superstitious, which swiftly develops into a full-blown religion, which is itself superseded (via a nice moment of existential enlightenment) by a scientistic materialism. Some of the inventions and ideas that the Spiders stumble upon can be a little too serendipitous (especially the confusing sequence in which they discover the nano virus that lives inside them), but this is a minor niggle drawn against what’s otherwise a very, very impressive work of evolutionary world-building.

Portia Labiata Jumping Spider

Ew gross. Portia Labiata as we know them. Just imagine it a metre long and super-intelligent.

***

Unfortunately, the other of the book’s two plotlines is less successful. Thousands of years after the aforementioned collapse, human society has just-about clawed its way back to a starfaring level of technology. However, Earth is now climate-changed beyond all hope of repair, so the surviving human populace must find another home. Cue every alternate chapter being set on a generation ship containing the last remnants of humanity.

These chapters are told from the POV of Holsten, a “Classicist” expert in pre-collapse human society and culture.  He’s a somewhat well-realised character, struggling to find a place among a crew of mechanical/military minded people who harbour little respect for his more academic and esoteric skills. The crux of his story is his relationship with an engineer, Lain, but this relationship is a baffling thing, moving from hot to cold, confrontational to affectionate in a way that serves the mechanisations of the plot, but that isn’t really conducive to the presentation of a realistic or complex set of human interactions. How Lain will react to Holsten at any given moment is wildly unpredictable, but in a bad-characterisation way, rather than quirky or fun kinda way. This means that the final resolution of their story doesn’t quite carry the emotional gravitas that the novel seems to think it does. A shame.

In fact, given how lively, well-rounded and unique the spider protagonists are, it’s disappointing that so much of the human characterisation falls short, relying as it does upon basic stereotyping.  There’s Karst, the hot-headed army guy, Guyen, the solipsistic leader guy, Vitas, who has no discernible personality whatsoever, and a whole bunch of disposable (/forgettable) grunt guys.

The run-of-the-mill nature of the characterisation is reflected in the overall plotting of the human sections, which reads like a checklist of Hard Science Fiction genre clichés. There’s a mad A.I., an attempted coup, and encounters with ancient artefacts and derelict spaceships. There’s a long sequence in which the commander tries to use dangerous tech to make himself immortal, and – because this is a generation ship and apparently ALL generation ship novels need to do this – there are generations of humans who become violent and tribe-like, never having known any existence beyond the confines of the ship.

There are some aspects of the human story I enjoyed. I especially liked the way that it tugs, thematically, in the opposite direction to the spider narrative. As time goes on, the spiders become less religious and more worldly/scientific, whereas, on board the generation ship, the humans become more and more superstitious and spiritual (some of the characters begin referring to their imagined new home as the “promised planet”). The fact that both narratives move thematically apart while being, physically, on an obvious collision course generates a really great sense of tension and momentum.

***

But let’s be honest; everything that happens to the humans is just filler; it’s the novel treading water until the spider-evolution story has advanced to a level sufficient enough to make a meeting between the two species narratively interesting. This means that, at 600 pages, the novel is about twice as long as it needs to be.

And this is where I think that Adrian Tchaikovsky has really missed a trick. In my opinion, he shouldn’t have included the human storyline at all. There are numerous reasons why I think this. Partly, it’s because the human story is boring. Partly, it’s because certain events that take place in the human storyline have the tendency to over-explain things that’re happening to the spiders (especially their worship of The Messenger, which we know in advance is a human satellite in orbit around their planet). But mostly, the human story detracts from the sense of alien otherness that the spiders experience as they slowly encounter/discover humanity.

How great would the spider story have been if we didn’t know what was up with the humans? If we discovered the truth about the nano virus and The Messenger and the generation ship in tandem with the spiders, rather than hundreds of pages ahead of them? There would have been some real “holy shit” moments. Not only would this generate a greater sense of reader empathy with the circumstances of the spiders, it would have massively reinforced the  “otherness” with which the spiders regard the humans, and given Children of Time an aura of profound science fictional weirdness. It would also have made a mid-novel moment in which a single human shuttle lands on the planet vastly more interesting for its unexpectedness.  In short: the book explains itself too much.

But maybe I’m just trying to make Children of Time into more of the sort of alienating Science Fiction that I want it to be. The predictable end-of-novel meeting between humans and spiders *is* very effective, (especially the description of what’s happened to the spider planet in recent years) and much of the language successfully imbues the feeling of sheer horror and confusion that the spiders feel when faced with humanity:

She would not have the first idea what to make of anything she sees. Every detail is bizarre and disturbing, an aesthetic arising from the dreams of another phylum, a technology of hard metal and elemental forces. (p.549)

It’s one of the most effective “the aliens are us” moments I’ve ever encountered, but it could have been so much better if we’d known next to nothing about what the humans are/have been doing.

This problem can’t really be fixed by just not-reading the human chapters. It would, I fear, require more of a total re-write. Despite all of this, however, Children of Time does what it does very well. It’s pacy, fun, peculiar Science Fiction, and the spider stuff is really well done indeed. Like, really well done. I just can’t help but feel that the book could have been so much more, if only it was so much less.

The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor

dl.jpgI really like what The Book of Phoenix is trying to do in a big picture kind of way. The most successful element of the novel is how it conflates science with myth, cleaving them together and apart, converging and substituting their signs and symbols until what’s left is a Gordian knot of science that could be mythology, and mythology that could be science. It rejects the linear Western cultural historicism in which myth is followed by religion, superseded by philosophical enlightenment and, finally, scientific process. It rejects a reductionist (materialism vs spiritualism) view of the world, and so revels in a beautiful maximalism that I find very appealing. It’s also exceptionally expressive in its representation of both anger and love. It examines heritage in numerous ways; from the genetic, to the historical, to the empirical, and it ends by looking at those aspects of identity that we choose for ourselves. Finally, The Book of Phoenix rages over the ways humans exploit one another, particularly with regards to slavery.

All of which is great in abstraction. Unfortunately, however, there’s a huge chasm between this book’s ideas, and their execution. On a sentence-by-sentence level the writing is very poor, I think. The Book of Phoenix feels both rushed and repetitive. Reminders that the protagonist, Phoenix, is two years old but has the body of a forty-year-old are repeated almost every 5 pages. Adverbs are everywhere, (“Thankfully, I knew where the exit was, generally.”), and much of the book’s imagery is plain baffling, “You look like a sleeping bolt of lightning”. I have no idea what sort of visual I’m supposed to take from that. There are numerous phrasings that are just odd “The driver, whose name was Endurance, was driving”. Outside of the protagonist, the characterisation is also pretty thin; the majority of the book’s cast are basic types employed to either propel the action forward, or to make easy moral points about Phoenix’s situation (this is especially true of the villainous LifeGen Corporation). All of which is frustrating, given that TBOP deals with so many important issues. These aren’t unmitigated flaws, and, indeed, the book does some things quite well, but taken as a whole, this is a wearisome experience.

***

It’s the near-future(ish), and the narrator is the titular Phoenix, a genetically-engineered African woman who begins the novel trapped in Tower 7, a research facility in New York in which she was “born”. Phoenix is a weapon, a “reoccurring small nuclear bomb”; she can burn, levelling cities to the ground, only to be reborn from the ashes with all her memories intact. But that’s not all Phoenix can do.  She can fly, too. And she can read incredibly fast. She’s got an eidetic memory. And some kind of titanium skeleton. She can massively accelerate the growth of nearby plants and trees.  Also (and this is where the book really jumps the shark) she can “slip”, which is a combination of teleportation and time travel. Basically, the novel imbues Phoenix with a new super power whenever it’s convenient to the narrative for her to have that power.

It’s not long before Phoenix breaks out of Tower 7 and teams up with a small, X-men-like band of fellow super-powered escapees. What follows is a pretty wacky series of events as the story, with very little structure or sense of overall arc, follows Phoenix from one adventure to the next, during which we learn about the climate-changed world of the book’s setting, and the deeper mechanisations of the group that created Phoenix in the first place. There’s a calmer mid-section in which she travels to Ghana, finding a measure of peace before the LifeGen Corporation inevitably catches up with her, but then the disarray begins anew.

It’s a tumbling-down-the-stairs kind of chaos; it’s always changing direction. Ideas are thrown around, then immediately abandoned, replaced by others, which are themselves abandoned, etc. and etc. It’s pacy, but my God is it erratic. Many of the book’s SFnal concepts are very creative, but almost none of them are explored with any kind of rigour or consequence. There are off-the-cuff references to contagious cancers and trees that can stop time. There’s a short passage told from the p.o.v of an interstellar seed, and, near the end, we’re casually informed that humans have settled on Mars, and that a red dust-monster we encountered 200 pages ago was, in fact, an alien from that colony. But it’s all very throwaway; a manic outpouring of stuff that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, let’s look at Phoenix’s speed reading. We’re told that, while imprisoned in Tower 7, she has access to “700,000 books of all kinds”, and that she has read “over half of them”. Let’s round that up conservatively and say that Phoenix has read 400,000 books. Now, she’s not a computer, these books aren’t instantaneously downloaded into her brain, she has to spend time reading them one after another. Apparently she can “read a 500-page book in two minutes”, which is a reading speed of about 4 pages a second. According to a couple of surveys I found online, the average length of a book is 320 pages. So Phoenix could polish off most books in 80 seconds. Reading 400,000 books at a speed of one book per 80 seconds would take Phoenix 370 days. That’s non-stop reading. No eating, no sleeping; nothing but reading.

But Phoenix has only had access to this library for one year. And we know that she eats and sleeps and gets experimented upon, etc. So there’s no way she could have read that many books (and as a brief aside, Phoenix later demonstrates an unnerving naivety about the world for someone who’s supposedly read so much). This is, of course, an overly pedantic thing for me to pick apart, but it’s symptomatic of The Book of Phoenix’s entire narrative praxis, which throws around big numbers and florid ideas, but isn’t at all interested in how these concepts relate to one another.

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Many of Phoenix’s interpersonal relationships are likewise under developed. The emotional crux of the novel’s opening chapters is the death of Phoenix’s lover, Saeed, a fellow research specimen trapped in Tower 7. Her emotional reaction to Saeed’s death is profound, and the language that surrounds this sequence is clearly engineered to inspire feelings of sympathy and sadness in the reader. But other than some retroactive descriptions of their first conversation, we’re barely given a glimpse of this important relationship. Saeed dies too soon for the novel to establish his character, and what little information we have regarding their bond is paltry at best. We’re told how significant this relationship is, but we’re not shown. This means that any attempts the language makes to inspire sadness in the reader inevitably falls short; the book doesn’t give us sufficient context for that sadness. In brief: the novel doesn’t earn it.

This is further complicated by a mid-novel revelation that Saeed isn’t dead after all. This twist is a sort of double-edged sword. I like the fact that Saeed’s “death” and re-appearance mirrors the death and rebirth that is Phoenix’s power, but the fact that he’s been alive the whole time has the potential to bathetically undermine the book’s earlier emotional tone, simultaneously putting at hazard the idea that any of the novel’s events can have serious consequences.

A similar disappearing-then-reappearing character is “Seven”, a giant, winged man whose primary narrative role seems to be appearing when Phoenix most needs him, only to inform her that he’s not going to help. He’s a baffling character. Why he lets himself be captured by LifeGen prior to the beginning of the novel is anybody’s guess, as is his overall roll in the plot. He seems, to me, to hold some symbolic significance for Phoenix, who views him as a mentor and representation of freedom and possibility, but when I tried to find significant textual evidence in support of this, I came up short. It’s just a bit clumsy

***

Okay, we’ve strayed quite far from what was a relatively positive opening paragraph, so let’s talk about the things that The Book of Phoenix does do well. One of the aspects of the book I really liked is the running joke that nobody knows how to react to a black super hero. This is true on both an immediate, physical level, and a grander, mythological one:

They kept my hair shaved low because neither they nor I knew what to do with it when it grew out. (p. 15)

“He saw you and attacked you because you could not possibly be an angel from God. You are African” (p. 80)

This not only establishes the novel’s sociological setting as being identical with our own, but it also works as a wry metaphor for genre fiction’s much-publicised problem with representing non-white characters. These confused and often hostile reactions to Phoenix as a super hero offer an intertextual reflection of the current state of Science Fiction culture, in which the relative invisibility of women and non-white characters remains a problem.

Nnedi Okorafor also uses her characters’ identity as super-powered to examine and articulate her anger at the Western exploitation of native African cultures. This is extremely powerful stuff. When Phoenix spends time in Ghana, for example, she is slowly exposed to the extent of colonialist abuse; LifeGen views Africa as nothing more than a seam of natural resources to be mined, be that the mining of minerals, people, or, in Phoenix’s case, of power:

[They] had taken him, too. Just as they’d taken Saeed. They were always taking from me. Always taking the best. Of my people. Of my world. Take take TAKE! (p. 82)

The manipulation of Phoenix by LifeGen – their attempts to take ownership of her, and to use her for their own (warmongering) ends – becomes an extended metaphor for colonialism and exploitation. The most emotionally hard-hitting passages of the novel, for me, occur when Phoenix refuses to board a trans-Atlantic vessel, framing it as a symbolic manifestation of the white men’s ships that transported slaves to America.

This anger builds in both scale and eloquence until the novel’s apocalyptic denouement, in which Phoenix transcends her previously bipartite identity. When she’s in America, Phoenix is the product of science; when in Africa, she is spirituality and heritage. Thankfully, The Book of Phoenix doesn’t privilege either one of these interpretations over the other. At the novel’s end (which transpires in a far-future setting, used as a framing device to bookend the story), Phoenix is both of these things. She is science and myth; story and history; anger and love. What I like about this is how it successfully fuses so many disparate traditions of genre fiction, allowing for an interpretation of Phoenix that neither has to be purely science fictional, nor purely fantastic. (Though I did feel that things got a little on-the-nose when the book starts referring to Barthes’ post-structuralist theory). Part of this book’s argument, then, is against genre essentialism.

It’s frustrating that the actual experience of reading The Book of Phoenix doesn’t match up to the novel’s thematic and narrative ambition. There’s a lot to like about it, definitely, but the gaps in its worldbuilding, the serendipitous nature of so many of its major plots events, and the overall awkward quality of writing perpetually pulled me out of the moment. It’s an important novel in so many ways, I just wish it was more robust.

Way Down Dark – J. P. Smythe

neon.jpgI was quite torn by this one, which came to my attention after being nominated for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. Microcosmically I think Way Down Dark is pretty effective; it’s well-written, pacy, and has some beautiful turns of phrase. It manages to convey a lot of information about its setting without ever resorting to info-dumping or dry exposition. The narrator is a delight, too; Chan is multifaceted and idiosyncratic, often wrestling with complex ideas about a moral code as a philosophy, versus a moral code as practice, which is a nicely intricate thing to find in a YA novel. I also liked the cloying sense of claustrophobia that acts as a satisfying metaphor for the characters’ ignorance about their wider circumstances. Macrocosmically, though, the book has problems. The worldbuilding is, at best, very inconsistent. Aspects of the plot are highly derivative, and the constant, constant violence quickly moves from being shocking, to apathetic, to downright tedious.

The book is a sort of salvagepunk science-fictional Young Adult dystopia (seriously), and while I don’t know much about YA in general, Way Down Dark seems, to me, to tick all the more voguish boxes of that genre’s clichés. Kickass teenage protagonist? Check. Who’s an orphan? Check. Struggling to survive in a hyper-violent nightmare society? Mega Check!

Okay, so while that’s all broad-strokes unoriginal, the actual setting is pretty intriguing. The action transpires aboard the ‘Australia’, a vast spaceship that fled a dying Earth hundreds of years ago in search of a new home. Since the ship left Earth, something has gone wrong, and society aboard has devolved into a barbaric feudalism. Almost none of the ship’s wonderful technology functions anymore, and most of its metal has been stripped away for makeshift stabby weapons (leaving grating for floors and curtains to separate living areas); it’s one of those setting-as-metaphor-for-the-decay-of-society things. Oh, and nobody on board has any control over the ship’s systems or location “There are no windows on Australia, no view of the stars”.

The ship is divided into a hundred or so floors, all looking inwards around a central pit, at the bottom of which is a dark mulchy landfill of whatever garbage the ship’s inhabitants decide to throw down there (which mostly seems to be dead bodies and faeces. Lovely). Most of the novel is concerned with a civil war, as the ultra-violent inhabitants of the lower decks – dubbed “The Lows” – attempt to take over the rest of the ship, indiscriminately killing and torturing whosoever resists them.

And it really is violent. Removing the physical descriptions of violence would probably reduce the book’s length by a third. Much of this violence is highly visceral, revelling in gory detail, “I kick one to the floor, jamming the stick into his mouth, smashing his teeth and frying his tongue.” and, “I can see the bone jutting through her torn skin. I don’t have time to save her”.  And even when the violence isn’t being described so vividly, it forms the general background to the book’s events. Such asides as “two Lows were in the middle of torturing man I know”, and “The Lows were stringing them up” are commonly peppered throughout otherwise more prosaic passages of description. In fact, these casual asides irked me more than the gratuitous stuff; rather than meaningful attempts to create tone or transmit information, they come across as just patronising reminders of the setting’s intrinsic horror, as if we could ever forget that EVERYBODY IS ALWAYS FIGHTING.

I guess the brutality does serve a purpose in the novel’s opening chapters, establishing WDD as a book that doesn’t pull its punches in regards to its depiction of the human propensity for savagery. The violence also marks Chan, our teenage protagonist, as even more distinct for her refusal to commit murder.

It’s not long, however, before the sheer amount of violence begins to have implications not just for the reading experience (the aforementioned creeping tedium), but for the wider worldbuilding itself. How has the society onboard the Australia lasted so long if this level of violence is the norm? Surely it would have destroyed itself long ago? As @Couchtomoon eloquently tweeted, Way Down Dark “isn’t really concerned with how this all works”.

The shining star of the book is the narrator, Chan. Her personal journey from raw ingénue, through to self-preserving egoist, and, finally, compassionate saviour is convincing. But her refusal to kill anybody can be a little baffling in light of a) the society in which she’s grown up, and b) the fact that her enemies, the Lows, are characterised as raving murderous lunatics incapable of reason or empathy. That Chan’s moral sensibilities are so well-developed despite the brutality and ubiquitous darkness of her entire lived experience is a little hard to swallow in places, but the novel’s justification that she learned all this from her dead mother more-or-less has things covered. Just about. Her voice is also nicely distinct, a believable blend of emotional introspection, moral uncertainty, and frantic teenage expression, “And suddenly, as if we blinked, it happened, fast as anything”.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention The Twist. Towards the end of the novel, the core protagonists discover that they’ve been wrong about their circumstances for their entire lives. Yup, it’s one of those generation ship novels in which you’re led to believe one thing is happening, but then it turns out that, actually, the setting is something very different. DUN-DUN-DUUUN!

The Twist seems to divide readers in a love-it-or-hate-it kinda way; people are either gobsmacked, or they cry “bullshit”. Personally, I found the whole thing exasperating, and saw it coming a mile away; not because it’s particularly over-telegraphed in the narrative, but because this kind of plot twist is such a cliché of the generation ship sub genre, starting with Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958), and re-appearing in everything from Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe (1969), to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993 – 1996), and terrible SF horror movie Pandorum (2009). I get why it’s so popular (and hence over-used); it’s a fruitful kind of twist that generates impressive narrative momentum and sense-of-wonder while simultaneously knocking on the door of deeper philosophical ideas about a Platonist questioning of the material evidence for the world around us. But c’mon, it’s 2016, and this is very old hat. Hell, it’d be more radical for the inhabitants of a generation ship NOT to face such an existential volta.

I mean, it’s not a bad book; Way Down Dark is mostly good fun if you don’t think too hard about all the inconsistencies and holes in the worldbuilding (seriously, how is there enough food for everyone? Why would anybody wade out into the gross sea of decomposing bodies at the bottom of the ship? How does anybody reach child-bearing age without being murdered? And The Twist exposes even more flaws that I can’t really talk about without resorting to massive spoilers). Chan is a compelling protagonist in the Katniss mould, and some of the sub-cultures onboard the Australia (such as the religious fanatics living at the top whose doctrine consists of scraps of bible verse combined with bits of Dante’s Inferno) are interesting and quirky. I just, I dunno. It’s a really odd book, fun and action-packed, but let down by an over-reliance on old genre clichés, and a OTT amount of violence. But I’ve read lots of Amazon reviews, and the target audience of teenagers seem to love it, so what do I know?

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-coverIs fun underrated by literary criticism? There seems to be a cultural hang-up about reading a book just because it’s enormous megafun, rather than because it wrestles with demanding intellectual subject matter. This is of course encapsulated by such common phrases as “guilty pleasure” (etc.). And how often will a reviewer acknowledge that a book *is* good fun, only to immediately qualify that statement by adding “but it also engages with x Serious Issue and y Meaningful Drama”? As if the “fun” only has value by dint of its association with more lofty content.

I remember the debates back in 2010 when Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question became the first comic novel to win the Booker Prize. Some critics asked if comedy was “proper” for such a prestigious institution. Others, as above, moderated their analysis of the book’s humour by primarily engaging with its more serious psychological and religious concerns, or talked about the humour and seriousness “balancing each other out”, as though the former is only justified by the latter.

This seems to be a problem unique to literature; everything from Marvel’s Cinematic Universe to Beyoncé’s new album to Doctor Who is lauded for the craft that’s put into being fun. Books, however, are always expected to contain something more: to pry into the darkness of the soul and psyche. Any comment about fun being an aesthetic achievement in and of itself seems notably absent from literary discourse. Hell, for the past several years the SFF genre-scape has been dominated by grimdark dystopias, post-apocalypses and Game-of-Thrones-esque relentless, scowling gloom.

All of which makes Becky Chambers’ debut The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet even more note-worthy. This is anti-grimdark. This is un-dystopia. This is joyous, rollicking, unapologetic fun that’s beautifully crafted and socially on-point, while being sensitive enough to avoid descending into outright farce. It’s light on plot but big on characterisation, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a Space Opera set in a Banksian galaxy-spanning super society. Like the Culture novels, the setting is, socially, very liberal, inclusive in terms of sexuality, gender, race etc.  Such sentiments as “I am currently male” are common throughout the narrative. It’s an optimistic and uplifting extrapolation of current liberal ideologies that reminded me somewhat of Ann Leckie’s ‘Ancillary’ trilogy as well. Unlike The Culture, however, this society is still capitalistic, predicated on private ownership and wage labour.

The book is about the crew of The Wayfarer, a motley bunch of humans, aliens, A.I’s and virus-symbiotes. Comparative touchstones for the ragtag crew might be the cast of Farscape or Firefly. The Wayfarer is a working ship, equipped with a machine that can create wormholes between star systems. The crew are commissioned to do this by various governments, mostly for economic and trade purposes. I liked this presentation of SF-nal labour, where building wormholes isn’t a high-concept and jargon-filled thing, but, literally, engineers taking a giant drill and boring a hole through space. I guess it makes sense that Chambers would pair her far-future reproduction of capital with an equally material reproduction of labour, regardless of its lack of scientific verisimilitude.

As for plot, well, as I intimated above, there isn’t much of one. The crew are tasked by the galactic council with travelling to a distant star system controlled by new (but dangerous), allies, and to tunnel a wormhole from that system back into their home space. Cue a more-or-less 400-page journey filled with mini adventures and self-contained escapades, but very little in the way of overarching plot. You could probably isolate many of the books chapters as entirely independent short stories.

What The Long Way… is really about is its eight central characters: the crew of The Wayfarer; their relationships, hopes, flaws, and the uplifting sense of camaraderie, even family, that they share with one another.

As the book begins, we experience events through the eyes of Rosemary, the ship’s clerk and newest recruit (there’s a nice running gag about the wonderful opportunities open to The Wayfarer now that they’ve finally employed an administration assistant), but the focus soon expands to encompass the entire team. Each character is brilliantly distinct, from the dwarf, Jenks – a tech expert in love with the ship’s A.I., to Sissix, the humanoid-reptilian pilot, to Corbin, the grumpy “algae technologist”, and, unforgettably, the weird, multi-limbed cook-cum-medic, dubbed “Dr. Chef”. Each personality is so unique; all of them clearly designed to play-off one another’s idiosyncrasies. Sissix’s knowing sensuality is a nice contrast to Rosemary’s more ingénue naivety, and Corbin’s quick temper and stubbornness is satisfyingly matched against Captain Ashby’s fairness and flexibility.

The most striking stylistic feature of the book (and the source of most of the aforementioned “fun”), is the dialogue, which is predicated on an effortless Whedon/Sorkin-esque wit, combined with the sort of internet-speak that uses juvenile or voguish slang to address sometimes quite serious issues. Don’t expect any naturalism going into this book. Many of the conversations resemble witty Twitter exchanges, rather than ordinary speech. Chamber’s greatest achievement, though, is that this highly-stylised prose manages to retain a recognisable emotional quality and depth. It never tips over the edge into farce.

This style of dialogue is most keenly focused in the character of Kizzy, the hyperactive, snack-obsessed, but highly-skilled, witty and caring ship’s engineer. Kizzy is everyone’s favourite character; infectiously giddy but ultra-competent. Some examples of her in action:

After an existential discussion about loneliness:

“I am now starving. What sounds good? Noodles? Skewers? Ice cream? We’re grown-ups, we can have ice cream for lunch if we want.” (p. 128)

Interrupting her captain who’s trying to comfort her when she’s desperately upset:

“Eek!” cried Kizzy. “Mail! A mail drone!” She tumbled out of the wall and ran down the hallway with her arms outstretched like shuttle wings. “Interstellar goodies iiiiiiincomiiiiin!” (p. 153)

When she’s surrounded by tiny “fixbot” machines:

“Are… are you making them hats?”

“Yeah,” she said, and pointed absently. “Alfonzo’s already got his”

Jenks looked to the bot wearing a blue beanie with a yellow pom-pom. (p.393)

 You get the idea. The styling won’t be to everyone’s taste, of course, but it’s refreshing to find this concern for characterisation and interpersonal relationships in Space Opera, a genre more associated with technological plausibility and large-scale plotting than the small mechanisms of human interaction.

Indeed, the witty dialogue wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if it wasn’t placed in the context of deep and sensitive relationships. One of the most compelling of which is the romance between the tech expert Jenks, and Lovelace, the ship’s bodiless Artificial Intelligence. This is definitely the novel’s most extreme challenge to socio-sexual norms, making the alien sex (oh man, there’s weird alien sex) seem positively parochial in comparison. As with the comedic dialogue, this relationship has the potential to descend into meaningless silliness (especially when Jenks expresses his love by hugging some coolant vats or whatever), but so deft is Chambers’ handling of their feelings, that this thankfully never happens. The language that surrounds this affair is no different from that which surrounds any other of the book’s romantic relationships. And this is why it works. It’s a sort of lesson in liberalism: if you want to understand something that’s outside of your personal experience, just treat it sensitively and it’ll make perfect sense. Despite the weirdness of the book’s cast, its relationships, its sex-scenes, nothing is ever othered; everything is treated as normal. It’s remarkably uplifting.

So, that’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. A wacky, action-filled, colourful and fast-paced Space Opera that focuses on relationships, character and inclusive diversity. Would I want all of my SF to be like this? No, far from it. Its sexual and gender politics aside, it may not be ground-breaking or experimental; it wears its influences on its sleeve, and in some places is a tad predictable. But it’s just so much fun. Perfectly-crafted, elegant fun, which manages to describe an impressively complex science fictional universe without ever relying on info-dumpy exposition. As an example of literary craft: swift prose, idiosyncratic dialogue, well-balanced humour and a sensitive understanding of human relationships, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is very good indeed.