Nina Allan: The Race

Allen, Nina (2016), the Race, Titan Books
ISBN 978-1785650468

There’s so much good science fiction coming out these days, it’s quite mind boggling. Not, I think, since the heyday of Delany, Blish, and Ballard have we had such ample riches of good science fiction, with the good, older writers like M. John Harrison and China Miéville still actively contributing masterful work, and newer writers like Ann Leckie and Karl Schroeder offering astonishing contributions to the field. And even among all that competition, the Race, Nina Allen’s debut, stands out. It’s not even entirely clear that it IS indeed science fiction, depending on where you’d draw your line, but it contains science fiction, and as a whole offers a new direction in the genre, reflecting on the possibilities of the languages of science fiction, and presenting a story that is connected to present day concerns like violence, misogyny, race, fear and class. Nina Allen isn’t a great stylist, and in her debut, her cuts and shift are still a bit abrupt (she manages these much better in her sophomore novel) but the overall effect is enormous and stunning. I’m not sure who can read this book and not like it. It’s entertaining, smart, if sometimes a bit on the nose. It draws from all kinds of literature, in all kinds of genres, and it explicitly names Lessing, Murdoch and James Herbert as some of its parameters. It’s science fiction, and for that matter, hard science fiction, as it’s called. But it’s also literary fiction about science fiction. It’s careful and kind and generous, and truly unique. I recommend you go and buy it now, before you read on. I think this book is best read if you don’t know what’s coming, if you experience the book and its turns “cold.” And it’s not about not giving away a putative “twist” ending – the whole structure of the book should come as a pleasant and intriguing surprise to the reader. So, I mean, go, go, go.

I assume if you are reading this paragraph you have either read the book or are not planning on reading it. Or maybe you are in neither camp but still read on? So I’ll say more about the way the book is built, without giving away everything. The book has basically four major sections and one small one.

The first section, “Jenna,” named after protagonist and narrator, is the longest one. It’s a “hard SF” story about a literal “race,” a dog race that is. In an unspecified future in a place called Sapphire, people have developed “smart” dogs which can connect to human handlers through a process involving complicated technology which is sorta-kinda explained. The narrator is a woman whose brother runs a stable of such dogs. Her brother is in a lot of debt and one day, his daughter gets kidnapped. This child had developed a kind of psychic connection with dogs that doesn’t need technology. While we at that point don’t know who kidnapped the child, some aspects of the development had me thinking of Childhood’s End (I was wrong, kinda), but certainly, Allen’s science fiction story combines many other SF stories of human evolution, but Allen also weaves into it a different kind of narrative that I’m still not entirely sure how to pinpoint, but I think there’s a connection to some female centric YA literature in the way we are told about the protagonist’s involvement in making special gloves for racing the dogs. And finally, Allen makes a point of mentioning James Herbert’s Rats trilogy in that section.

James Herbert’s 1974 debut The Rats is a masterpiece of horror, structured in a simple way, absolutely terrifying, but offering a story that is both a kind of biological horror, and a metaphor for the state of the United Kingdom in the 50s and 60s, with suburbs disintegrating, and the darkness of poverty and marginalized existence breeding a new, almost unsurmountable terror, that will hunt you down, eat you and your children. The main terror coming from the rats is not their size and ferocity, though that contributes, it’s their intelligence. A few times in the book, Herbert has a human character look at one of the smart rats and feel how their intelligence changes the level of power. One is tempted to see in this fear the common fear of the establishment at minorities moving closer to power. Brexit voting in the UK and Trump’s ascendance in the US are examples of this fear. Herbert manages to both offer a metaphor, and the thing itself, marginalized communities and poverty, that is, in the same, rather slim, tale. Allen doesn’t reference the first, but rather the third book, Domain. The third book keeps the subtext, but moves the whole conflict into a postapocalyptic future, an obvious reference to the The Race itself.

The second section, “Christy,” is set in our time, and from the first sentence reveals that this section is narrated by the person who wrote the science fiction story of the first section. And immediately, Allan sets about not just complicating the previous section, but commenting on the writing generally: “You’ll imagine that I created Sapphire as an escape – from the ordinariness of my own life, from the difficulties I found in making friends, from the isolation I felt after our mother left. I’ve learned not to waste time denying this, some of it is probably true after all, at least partly – but my main reason for writing about Sapphire was because the place felt so real to me, and I wanted to imagine it in greater detail.” We get imagined places both as something that has its own logic, as well as something that has some undeniable connection to the “real” world, whether as metonymy, metaphor or allegory. Christy’s story also involves a brother, but it’s a much darker story of rape, queer love and suspected murder. It ends on a brilliantly written, harrowing, cinematically powerful scene. Christy also offers books as comparisons, particularly Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Memoirs of a Survivor and her Golden Notebook, as well as Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn. Briefing for a Descent into Hell somehow anticipates Nina Allen’s second novel more than it helps understand The Race, but the Golden Notebook (though the protagonist prefers Briefing due to its title) is actually very fitting in the way its chapters are structured. Lessing’s masterpiece, apart from being one of the many, many reasons she was one of the last deserving winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a complex meditation on the connection of life, experience and fiction, with journal entries, novel-in-novels, memoir and conventional literary fictional narrative.

I found this focus on Lessing an interesting choice (Say, Atwood’s Blind Assassin would also have been fitting in some ways), that points to the specific concerns Nina Allan’s novel has with female experience, British colonialism and race. Indeed, the third, the book’s shortest section, called “Alex,” concerns a black male character who has made an appearance previously and whose role it is to sort out some mysteries, to provide a different angle on Christy-as-writer and on the topics of masculinity and race. “Christy,” the second section, is intensely class conscious – it provides a very clear sense of how poverty limits the possibilities of children, teenagers and adults, and how education can helps navigate these limits, but cannot completely overcome them. We also see how gender interacts with these limits. What’s more, the second section contextualizes the science fiction we started with, by rooting and grounding its elements and concerns, which has two effects. It makes our original reading of the first section deeper, it also asks us to read the realist second section with eyes trained by reading the previous science fiction. And there’s a third effect – being so plainly and unsubtle prodded to connect section one and two, we’re also quietly asked to expand our reading of the many science fiction intertexts. Not James Herbert, whose own book is already doing the same things, but the unnamed intertexts, from YA novels to Clarke. The third section doesn’t add a ton to this mechanism, except to reflect on some previous assumptions regarding race. It feels like the third section’s main function is narrative, as it provides some kind of closure for the literary fiction of the second and third section, without answering all the questions.

The two final sections, then, are two more science fiction stories, one, like the first section, offered in tone and font like the first, expanding on the tropes, ideas and story of the original science fiction story. It’s set in the same world and shares the same characters. The same, to an extent is true for the last section. But while the literary fiction in “Christy” implied that the first section was written by Christy, it is only the final section that is explicitly labelled as “written by Christy Peller,” which returns us to Christy’s assertion of the world having its own logic. Nina Allan never clarifies anything, but there’s a good case to be made that the science fiction of the book is not a “novel within a novel” kind of writing, but that as presented, it is a third space, not reality, not the “author’s” imagination, but something else, a new space, as only, it is implied by this book, science fiction can create. This is a topic that the sophomore novel The Rift would expand and improve upon, but it’s already clear in the debut. The Race is a complex book, with engaging characters, good ideas, and many, many worlds contained within.

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