Blake Crouch: Dark Matter

Crouch, Blake (2016), Dark Matter, Pan
ISBN 978-1-4472-9757-4

I’ve said it before, on this blog and elsewhere – the power of science fiction is to make familiar things less so, to expand the way we read, both texts as well as the world that surrounds us. That doesn’t mean that all texts have to be Dhalgren, but they don’t also have to be Crichton light. It is particularly odd when basic structures of our world as we know it, are lazily reinforced in fiction that would not need to be tied to them. Some books are under-girded by sexist stereotyping but are otherwise well meaning and expansive in other ways. None of that is true for Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter the most disappointing book I can remember reading in a long time. Not the worst, mind you, there are a lot of bad books out there and I do read epic fantasy. But the most disappointing. A book I was told was, to quote a blurb, “mind-bending,” when, in the end, there wasn’t as much bending as settling. My god what a boring book Dark Matter turned out to be. A book about the multiverse, about identity, reality, about who we are, or at least that is what it could have been. Instead, Dark Matter is about one man’s quest to get back the woman he feels he owns. It’s utterly baffling that anyone who has ever read a good science fiction novel would look at this godawful mess and think, yes, this is good, I have no notes for the author. To be clear – this is not about the prose. With genre, I am willing to make compromises. Not everybody is Brian Evenson. So yes, the prose is absurdly bad. It’s not overwritten purple prose. It’s merely plain, and banal, and utterly unaware and directionless, with its writer having invested as much effort into crafting interesting sentences as he has into the structure of the novel as a whole.

The main effort, clearly, went into researching the science behind it all. The whole book has a massive masculinity problem, as has the odd modern obsession with science over philosophy (Neil Degrasse Tyson is a particularly noxious example) and general forms of thought. Science fiction has always attracted scientists and sometimes they have not been the greatest stylists. But writers like Asimov and Clarke are considered classic writers because they use their background to dig deeper into the soft flesh of the world, to grope for possibilities, for pushing our understanding. There is none of that here, or in the current fascination with science, or rather, engineering, as an answer to all our problems. Fittingly, the book has a blurb by Andy Weir, whose Martian had also disappointed me, a book unwilling or unable to imagine anything beyond an engineering problem. But Dark Matter even undercuts the Martian on the marketplace of ideas. And it’s such a bummer, because as always, the science is truly fascinating and begs for someone to find the right literary approach. What’s worst is that the book isn’t even any fun. I have a big heart and soft spot for genre books that may not enlarge the language or possibilities but are greatly enjoyable. That’s not the case here. There is no difference between the incessant, dour, seemingly unending monologue of Crouch’s protagonist and all the many thousands poor, put-upon white men all over mainstream fiction who walk through their cities, their banal, unfair worlds, eager to stick it to the lesser people around them, and to stick it into a woman, any woman, ideally a woman that somehow belongs to them. These are worlds that give the lie to Galileo – the earth doesn’t revolve around the sun, it revolves around the taint of mediocre white men who think they are geniuses in disguise.

Only in this case, Crouch constructs a fictional universe that does revolve around his unbelievably unbearable protagonist. He gives up the game real early – his protagonist used to be a brilliant scientist, and teaches at a second rate college now, because he gave up his career to raise a child with a woman who’s an artist. Yes, this is the same gender split as in Charlie Jane Anders’s reactionary novel. But what’s worse is that he makes the woman such a wooden regurgitator of the praise he feels is owed to the protagonist.

I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, “Your father could have won the Nobel.”
I laugh. “That’s possibly an exaggeration.”
“Charlie, don’t be fooled. He’s a genius.”
“You’re sweet,” I say. “And a little drunk.”
“It’s true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your family.”
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward hyperbole.

Who is he talking to here? This last condescending remark – who is he arguing against? Do men have to explain their silly wives, even when they are fictional? Don’t mind her, after a few drinks, you know how she gets. And also – “hyperbole”? This misplaced modesty is both unpleasant and typical. We know, from the rest of the book, that it’s true, that the protagonist has indeed made a spectacular discovery. He made it largely on his own, which is not how big scientific discoveries are made, but coming up with a team of scientists would have complicated Crouch’s shitty narrative, so it’s one man, one theory, and, crucially for the plot, once that man vanishes, nobody can reconstruct what happened, not even with all notebooks and data intact. I mean, he’s a real genius, and somewhere in Crouch’s infested mind, this is how geniuses work in science.

So what happens in the book is this (spoilers, spoilers, etc): a version of our protagonist, who didn’t abandon his career for a baby, creates a machine that allows people to access the infinite other selves that exist in the multiverse. You have to take a drug, and hop into a kind of time machine, which is half TARDIS, half HG Wells. Now, that scientist visits our protagonist, takes him and basically does an exchange of hostages, takes over his happy family life. Our protagonist, meanwhile wakes to a world where he is a successful scientist who has made a pact with a ruthless billionaire. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the protagonist decides to get back to his original “world” and reverse the exchange. He takes with him a female scientist who, of course, is a psychologist, because GOD forbid there are female physicists in Crouch’s dick-shaped worldview.

Now, due to complications and an equal amount of stupidity on the part of the so-called genius that’s our protagonist and the so-called “mind-bending” nitwit who wrote him, a proliferation of versions of the protagonist, a multitude of selves, descends on this original world, and in the end, after some chases, some gun- and knife-fights, the protagonist escapes with his wife and child, into the multiverse. If this sounds like a stupid plot, it is. But the most bizarre thing is that the idea isn’t necessarily bad? Crouch is aware that his scientific research gives him no firm ground to stand on, ontologically. Differences between the multiverses are minute, the same applies to the different versions of the protagonist. At no point does this lead Crouch to introduce the idea of undecidability, of ambiguity, into the book. Everything in the book is always exactly clear, exactly nailed down. We know that the world he lands in last is the original world, because he can tell, of course. And what’s more important, because we always follow his voice, we are never shaken in our faith that the person we’re listening to is the original one, the real one, the one who “deserves” to get the wife.

If anything’s mind-bending, it’s the author’s utter gall to write a novel based on a science of ambiguity, and undecidability, and make it absolutely, boringly immobile. Nothing changes, nothing is odd or unexpected. We are always where we need to be. It’s always clear what’s real and what’s not, who’s real and who’s not. And added to that, we are let into the mind of our protagonist, who needs his wife back – not any old version of her, but the one he met and fucked. I mention that part, because that part is particularly important to him. He’s obsessed whether the self that replaced him temporarily fucked his wife better than he did. It’s constantly on his mind, and once he re-acquires his wife, it is one of only a handful questions he asks, and she, of course, answers in detail. And symbolically, she only becomes fully his (and comes fully on board with this multiverse story he tells her) after they have sex and he re-asserts his territorial importance.

This is a story about two things: about identity and how fractured it is in a multiverse, and about love. But this is a diseased, greedy, kind of love where the woman is a mere bit player. And the question of identity? We are never, not for one moment, shaken in our sense of who we follow, who is where, and it feels like taunting when Crouch has his stodgy, surprisingly stupid protagonist say: “My understanding of identity has been shattered – I am one facet of an infinitely faceted being who has made very possible choice and lived every life imaginable. I can’t help thinking that we’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.” But of course, he has to say it, absolutely HAS to, because the novel doesn’t fucking say it anywhere in the way it’s made. And as if to affirm all this, the very next sentence is “but none of the other Jasons matter. I don’t want their lives. I want mine.” I thought these facets are inseparable? They are not? Who’d a thunk it.

Dark Matter has already been optioned for the screen and it will make a passable movie, maybe even a good one. The writing already reads like explanations for the screen. As far as thrillers go I have read worse. But this is mainly disappointing, because of what it could have become, instead of what it is, a spoonful of spunk after 300 pages of masturbatory, uninspired middle-of-the-road thriller fare. Sad.

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Mur Lafferty: Six Wakes

Lafferty, Mur (2017), Six Wakes, Orbit
ISBN 978-0-316-38968-6

I’m behind on reading all kinds of lists and books – and this year’s Hugo shortlist is no exception. For whatever reason, the first book I picked off that list is a novel I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of: Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes. It was an excellent choice: Six Wakes is a very good science fiction novel. For some reason, reviewers of science fiction – and genre generally – are obsessed with the question of ‘transcending genre’ – can a book be more than ‘just’ a genre novel? It is a bad question and the books that ‘transcend genre’ can be quite dull, to be honest. And it is applied more often to science fiction and fantasy novels than to crime novels, for example. And while it’s true that certain novels, mired in genre conventions, may not be appealing to a general public, it is not due to immutable literary laws. SO yes, it is true: there may be readers who may not take to Six Wakes, because it is written within the conventions of science fiction – but at the same time, it also has all the trappings of a conventional mystery. Most of the book’s events could also take place in a locked house, or a house locked down due to weather phenomena – and inside the house, a drama between six individuals with their secrets develops. It would be a quite traditional set-up, if not for the fact that the house is a space ship, and the house itself is a character here. But everything truly science fictional has happened in the past, and Lafferty cleverly restricts the possibilities of the book’s present in such a way that you could replay most of its plot with Agatha Christie’s vocabulary and furnishings. This allows us to appreciate what the truly unique elements are that science fiction brings to this particular table: questioning the limits of what it means to be human, in a way that is just not possible for a plain ‘realist’ mystery. Lafferty won’t win any points for language or concision here – the book is a bit longer than it needed to be – but it is an exceedingly intelligent book, which, like all good mysteries, is very well constructed. This is a genuinely good work of science fiction, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason why you shouldn’t read it. Should it win the Hugo? Probably not – but it is a strong field this year. It is still one of the better science fiction novels I’ve read over the past years.

It’s a bit of an irritant: Mur Lafferty, the internet tells me, has written a lot of books and I have read none of them before Six Wakes. At the same time, this appears to be her first foray into ‘proper science fiction,’ after several books that sound more like urban fantasy. And while I enjoy zombies as much as anyone, a book that interrogates our sense of identity and self – and the future of the way we construct those two things – is more up my alley. On the surface, the book is about a generation starship which is run by a small crew of six people. One day they all wake up with no memories of what happened – except the knowledge that one among them is a murderer. The rest of the book is spent figuring out who dun it and what it means for their mission. The actual details of that surface plot are a bit more complicated, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But the most interesting aspect of the whole book was the unexpected decision by Lafferty to make much of the book about religion and faith. One character in the book has an obvious, strong connection to the topic, but ultimately, the question of religion and faith touches all the characters, and Lafferty yokes her discussions of what it means to be human to the question of what it means to have faith. There is no snideness or irony to any discussion of faith here – it is, excuse the pun, enshrined by the author as a fundamental human act, one that helps us and our selves, our morals and values cohere in a way that nothing else does. And it is the aspect of humanity that is the first to be endangered when the basic parameters of being human fall by the wayside and we can become, technically, immortal. Over the past five, six years, there’s been an on/off debate about secularism, and the role of faith in our world – this debate left its fingerprints all over the humanities. At every conference, someone brings up at least Charles Taylor. The religiousness of everything has been offered, denied, interrogated. It is quite refreshing to see a use of faith that does not take sides in this debate, that takes faith seriously as a technique of the self. This is not about God. This is about people.

And people are, in some ways, on their way out in the world of Lafferty’s book. At least people as we define and understand them today. Cloning has become viable – more than viable, it has become an almost everyday occurrence, a tool. In fact, abuse of cloning has become enough of a problem that laws dealing with it have been enacted. Lafferty’s invention here is the idea, which I have not seen before, of the use of cloning. Books involving cloning very rarely follow the interesting uses such a technology might have: in this case, a form of immortality. Humanity has learned how to make mindmaps – and if you want, you can have your mindmap implanted in a clone that carries your DNA, thus living on for as long as someone is there who can wake a new clone and imprint it with your most recent mindmap. There is, in the world of Lafferty’s book, a debate between humans (people who have not exceeded the “normal” human lifespan) and clones. Since there is always only one version of each person (multiple clones are banned by law), clones are as individual and unique as normal humans. This development also gave rise to a new form of hacking. If you hack someone’s mindmap, kill them, and wake a clone with their modified mindmap, you have created a version of the same exact person that may be more to your liking. A rebel who is no longer interested in being a rebel, for example. She does not make the connection more explicit, but this is the first novel I have read that almost directly engages with the ideas put forth by Achille Mbembe in his seminal essay “Necropolitics” – and puts a new spin on it. The new technology of cloning was at first a wild field of possibility – the law, specifically, to rein in the numbers of clones (only one at a time) seems like an exercise of sovereign power in line with Mbembe’s ideas.

The cloning technology also allows for longer distances to be bridged in space travel, with the crew dying and waking up again anew in the cloning bay. And indeed, this is what happens as the book opens – with one crucial technical problem: before death and revival, the mindmaps had not been updated – indeed they had been wiped of everything that happened since they were loaded into the ship’s data. What’s more, the previous bodies of the crew were not properly disposed of. They are found floating around the ship with signs of violent death. Someone stabbed, strangled and poisoned the crew. It stands to reason that it was one of the six. It could have been any one of them. Not only do they not know – the murderer him or herself also does not know since all six mindmaps have been wiped clean. The rest of the book is dedicated to resolving that mystery.

Six Wakes very specifically works on two levels: each person’s memory of the time before the ship’s take-off is a dive into Lafferty’s ideas and the political and social consequences of technology as she envisions it. That part is straight – and very good – science fiction. Everything that happens on the ship after waking, could strictly speaking, with one significant difference (the AI on the ship plays a major role), be rewritten as a Gothic mystery. The ship functions as a big gothic mansion. The six people in it barely know each other. They all have secrets that they hide from one another and the revelations of those secrets will lead straight to the discovery of the murderer. While this story has SF elements, it doesn’t need them, and it is quite clever of Lafferty to write a novel so clearly in two different conventions. It allows her questions about humanity and identity to resonate on different levels as well, allows her novel to push and pull at the reader in two different, but entirely conventionally recognizable ways, which makes the fundamental ideas of the novel stand out. The impression, structurally, is one of craft and care – which, regrettably, doesn’t filter down all the way to the sentence level. The book is too long for the story it tells, and many paragraphs feel padded and superfluous. Long mystery novels structured like Lafferty’s tend to employ incident, conflict and revelation more densely. She does not do that – and at the same time, many of the recollections that form the backbone of the crucial SF parts of the novel are not structured at all with notions of conflict, they are meant to add up to a final revelation, to add up to a picture of the society and this difficult technology it has brought forth. And there is one final weakness: almost all mystery novels I have read suffer from a very weak conclusion and revelation. Six Wakes doesn’t escape that particular fate either.

And yet – this is a very enjoyable book, despite its weaknesses. It is very smart, its ideas unique and cleverly used. The use of genre is done with judiciousness and care. It is not meant to be analyzed sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, but as a whole the book holds up very well to careful critical (even academic) analysis. This book is very good.

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Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky

Anders, Charlie Jane (2016), All the Birds in the Sky, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-7995-5

20171129_0244401773454544.jpgSo I love science fiction. And nothing bums me out more when a book or text or movie is marred by a lack of imagination or a conservatism that is both boring and extremely reactionary. I wrote an essay in The Fanzine on the topic. It’s particularly frustrating with books that are otherwise interesting and engaging. This brings us to Charlie Jane Anders’s novel All the Birds in the Sky which is a hybrid fantasy/science fiction novel that spans a long period of time, involves high school intrigue, adult disillusionment and a powerful war between science and magic. Oh, it also contains a very romantic love story. The novel contains so much. Written by someone who is clearly around silicon valley types a lot, the book discusses the atmosphere and thinking in tech start ups and how it connects to contemporary ways of viewing the world, it discusses magic and the romantic attitudes towards it. It discusses, movingly, the alienation of “weirdo” high school kids, and much of the novel focuses on a search for belonging – on how we make our communities, how we deal with ourselves, what role technology plays in this process and what role nature does. It’s an enjoyable read – but as with many fantasy novels, you’ll have to hold your nose about some aspects. In particular its oppressively anachronistic view of gender roles.

Fantasy has the most annoyingly persistent conservative attitudes towards gender and gender roles – and while science fiction has recently (and traditionally, see Delany) offered diverging and interesting takes on these attitudes, one feels like in this case, the fantasy component of the novel has dragged its science fiction portions into the same regrettable conservative hole. In a novel that is so fundamentally based on the binary – science and magic, destruction and creation, nature and technology, it’s very sad that the author’s apparent reactionary views mar it all. By making the story fit a very simple heterosexual frame, and by connecting everything in line with the usual, very typical associations, there’s a lack of tension and intrigue to the structure of the book. The female protagonist, of course, likes nature and magic, and the male protagonist likes technology and maths. This is such a fundamentally anachronistic view of gender roles that you can find a critique of it in Wollstonecraft’s classic treatise on the subject. These associations have been recognized by progressive writers as anachronistic and reactionary for longer than the whole modern genre of fantasy and science fiction have existed. Which is some kind of achievement, I suppose. Interestingly, it doesn’t mar the readability of the book. In fact, in some sense, this conservative throwback view of gender connects with the old fashioned way the story is narrated: a sweeping, traditional kind of narrative, unafraid of big moments and well executed sentimentalism.

20171120_2338471446691837.jpgHonestly, if this wasn’t partially science fiction, I wouldn’t have reacted negatively to its 1950s view of gender roles at all – if you are in the habit of reading fantasy novels, particularly epic fantasy, you know that this kind of thing is to be expected. Fantasy doesn’t usually, in my reading experience, enlarge the pool of possibilities in quite the same way as science fiction does. And All the Birds in the Sky downright teases us with its allusions to Donna Haraway, Deleuze and other theories of change, dissolution and new formations. There are so many possibilities, so much potential – the same thing that bothered me about the Luc Besson movie – and Charlie Jane Anders picks the most boring one, boring, that is, from a SciFi point of view. As fantasy, it mines a trope that works extremely well. Fantasy and romance are a great combination – with a lot of room to maneuver, too. Even in mainstream fantasy, one sometimes gets something not as GOP-approved straight as this one (Jen Williams, in her fantasy novels, has a remarkable hand at sketching gay attraction, for example), but let’s be fair – this is the norm. And it’s so well executed by Anders. Trust me, if you’re looking for romance, this is right up your alley. Not to mention that Anders is extremely skilled at writing erotic scenes. The whole package is wildly engaging. I have a weak spot for romance in fiction and on screen and boy did this novel deliver. Anders manages to pace her two storylines, one of the war between science and magic and the other one of the love story between her protagonists, extremely well, so that as one comes together slowly, haltingly, so does the other, and each story’s ebb and flow is mirrored on the other level, until the dramatic conclusion, which feels extraordinarily satisfying.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole set-up is that the idea of shifts and shape-changing, despite me mentioning Haraway just now, isn’t just a riff on the idea of the cyborg, or anyway not in the way you’d expect. Yes, the technological part of the story is in many ways a story about augmentation, about changing the limited abilities of human beings to achieve means seemingly out of reach. And to Anders’s great credit, the book isn’t full of artificial limbs or other boring feats of imagination. The very first invention we are made aware of is a clock that allows its wearer to jump just a handful of seconds into the future. It’s not a time machine, not anyway as you’d imagine it. Its effect is small enough that it works, indeed, like an augmentation, like a stronger limb or a better eye, but Anders picked an unexpected human ability to augment – to interact with time. The small amount of seconds truly makes it akin to moving a bit faster, or seeing a bit better. As time goes on, the gains, the leaps with technology get bigger, and less pleasurably surprising. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but Anders just settles more comfortably into various genre tropes. Artificial intelligences, wormholes, she uses many things that we know from science fiction, in the exact way we know them to work. She distinguishes herself in these sections specifically through her enormous skill. The whole book reads as if it went through a hundred drafts, because all the details work, the allusions, the structure.

This includes a character that tries to stop a catastrophe by finding the people who will cause the catastrophe and killing them as children or at least stop them from doing their evil deed. That person’s narrative is a roving narrative, it doesn’t fit the solemn binary nature of the whole book, and, consequentially, she writes this character differently. He wears his influences much less lightly than the two protagonists, he is much more obviously a compositum, and Anders’s very tone in the prose reflects this.

20171129_024737966625666.jpgBut to get back to why this book doesn’t use Haraway in the way you’d expect – it’s not just the technological parts that are augmenting. The natural – regrettably gendered female, as technology was gendered male – part of the equation is also about augmentation, and about becoming more, doing more, understanding more. The initial augmentation, the mirror of the tiny time jump I mentioned, is the ability to talk to animals, but not fluently, at will and at all times, but a stubborn, halting, difficult ability that could, in some ways, be seen as an augmentation of human empathy, human abilities to understand animals through gestures, tone etc. Making this ability this inaccessible, and hard to use, was an extraordinary authorial decision, that doesn’t fit the usual smooth discoveries of magic. Often, while actually using magic skill is shown to be hard, fantasy novels treat the discovery of mere magical ability like the discovery of someone, thrown into water, that they can, indeed, breathe under water. This decision, and several others, show us a writer who has done some careful thinking about genre and how it works and how it is usually presented. It is such a shame, and such a bummer that Charlie Jane Anders decided to stop there, and thus meshed this intelligent careful use of tropes with this medieval view of gender roles, not to mention class or race. Maybe she kept to 1950s attitudes because of the enormous colorful way the whole book works. I mean it’s so much fun, even in the dramatic parts.

One reason I may have been disappointed is that, at the same time as All the Birds in the Sky, I read and reviewed Gwyneth Jones’s most recent book – and Jones takes on a very similar topic, but she takes only the sci-fi aspects: as in All the Birds in the Sky, there’s a think tank that tries to find a way to save humanity, that tries to open something akin to a worm hole, and that spends approximately as little time thinking about the consequences in a race to push through a scientific barrier. Like Anders, Jones’s book touches on the ecological aspect (though Anders’s book is specifically about ecology in a way that Jones’s book isn’t). But Proof of Concept is a dark novel, and not ultimately as hopeful as Anders’s fable. Jones is daring in terms of what humanity means for our bodies, in a way that Anders is not, but one feels that to use all these ideas in the sharp way that Jones does would not allow for the engaging, joyful, almost, ride that All the Birds in the Sky clearly is. So I understand why Anders made the decisions she did. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. The book itself, outside of its medieval attitudes, I loved. If you don’t like the book, you don’t like fun. I don’t always need innovation. Sometimes, nigh-perfect execution and the sparkle of narrative is a lovely thing to have, also. Read the dang thing already.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Nina Allan: The Rift

Allan, Nina (2017), The Rift, Titan Books
ISBN 978-1785650376

20171111_122327443566726.jpg I love Nina Allan. You can read my review of her debut novel The Race here. Go ahead. And this week, I am pleased to tell you that Strange Horizons has published my review of Nina Allan’s excellent sophomore novel The Rift. You can read the whole review here. Below an excerpt from my review. You should read the whole thing though. And the novel. Nina Allan. She’s the real deal.

This is additional language that enhances speech, enhances empathy, and allows for other, different, and kinder connections between people. Nina Allan’s vision of what science fiction can do is unique, and if the improvement she offered from The Race to The Rift holds, she may be one of the more important science fiction writers of our time.

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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Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Tevis, Walter (1962, 2015), The Man Who Fell To Earth, Gollancz
ISBN 978-1-473-21311-1

Greene, Graham (1936, 2009), A Gun For Sale, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-099-28614-1

I read Walter Tevis’ SF novel on a hot summer afternoon in preparation for a paper that I will not, as it turns out, present at a conference (travel expenses to Salzburg didn’t work out, regretfully). The topic was the idea of the Good. Walter Tevis puts a curious spin on this, in a book that is as much a moving and plausible examination of loneliness as it is anything else. My original paper examined the many science fictional narratives of Alien visitation that were in some ways trying to communicate a sense of the Good to the human race, whatever the ends ultimately were. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is the most famous, I think, example of this. There’s a sense in which one can read Newton, the alien who arrives on earth with plans for advanced technologies and a secret mission to save his home planet, as another one of those aliens. Newton ultimately fails, and I’m not spoiling the story here, because the whole book is imbued with a sense of resignation, and the sad and shabby way in which Newton fails is notable more for its Kafkaesque ordinariness more than anything else. There’s a darkness at the heart of the novel, but unexpectedly, it’s only marginally connected to the science fiction story at the heart of it. Fundamentally, if you strip this novel down to its most essential elements it is a searing novel about the horrifying loneliness many of us feel, the desperation of being alone and the way alcohol offers a welcome but destructive recourse to it. Tevis manages to tell a heart wrenching story by not indulging in the sad parts of it – he employs shifts in perception and time to provide a distance, making the final confrontation all the more emotionally charged. I end these first paragraphs on the blog with a recommendation to read or not read the book. In this case, I assume you know you should read this book, right? It is a classic of science fiction, but even if you don’t like the genre it is a powerfully sad tale about the difficult to stay the course in the face of public resistance, and personal mistrust. The way Tevis depicts the attraction and use of alcohol to the lonely mind is exceptionally sharp and painful to read. Go, go and read the damn thing already.

His planet having run out of fuel – and soon sure to witness the death of his race, Newton was carefully selected by his peers to do this job: use the knowledge about his planet’s advanced technology to quietly build a business empire on Earth and within a few years, assemble enough money to build a large rocket and send fuel back. In 1963, Tevis’s vision of the dying planet “predicts” our own trouble with fuel, but then, these kinds of predictions were in the air – just think of JG Ballard’s first three novels. Newton isn’t personally brilliant – he was chosen for the task, the plans were given to him. He was chosen for his resilience – an important factor, since even he, an exceptionally resilient member of his race, is pale and thin, basically walking on bones of glass. The first time he rides and elevator, the mild gravity pressure lands him in a hospital. More importantly, for people around him, Newton is weird. He talks weirdly, he looks weird with his long limbs and pale skin, and he doesn’t do well at the usual social games. He doesn’t comply with the expectation of heterosexual masculinity, he’s just himself, a weird person. And his reaction to seeing this reception is to retreat, and restrict contact to humans to the absolutely necessary. He keeps a servant around, an isolated, somewhat weird woman, who I will talk more about below. Eventually, he takes an engineer into his inner circle. That engineer, too, is a bit on the strange side. Clearly, he attracts people who are a bit “off,” just because he himself is perceived in that way.

And increasingly, he starts drinking alcohol to balance himself emotionally. The pressure of his mission, the complicated relationship to the human race (and the humans around him), all of this becomes just the teeniest bit smoother with alcoholic lubricant. And In Tevis’s novel it is alcoholism, but this mechanism is absolutely true for all kinds of coping mechanisms of people who feel they have to deal with a kind of intense loneliness. Looking at someone in front of you and seeing your insufficient self reflected back, and still having to deal with that person and people like him – it explains many addictive behaviors and choices, from drugs and alcohol, to the barely-better-than-placebo world of psychopharmacology (I comment on it here). At the end, in Newton’s most human moment of the whole novel, a bartender remarks to another customer: “I’m afraid that fellow needs help.” And he doesn’t mean: help to reach his home planet. He means help dealing with what is clearly a severe case of addiction, desperation and loneliness. Newton, throughout the book, operates on the margins of sanity and while the alcohol doesn’t help, Tevis demonstrates with enormous skill the attraction of it as a coping mechanism. And despite all this, Newton manages to maintain a solid performance, until, in the novel’s dramatic finale, his professional self, the part of him that worked on the mission, also fails. That’s when everything truly ends, when his half-imagined pride in his work, his confidence of sorts in its success collapses.

And he’s not the only one with such problems and such coping mechanisms in the book, but before I expand on that, I want to pivot for a second: I decided to make this a double review of sorts. Recently, on a train ride home with dampened spirits, I was reading Graham Greene’s novel A Gun For Sale. I have not read as much Greene as I should have, but this is, as far as I can tell, considered a minor novel. Greene split his work into serious fiction and what he called “entertainments.” A Gun For Sale is such an entertainment and indeed – what you have is a very entertaining noir crime novel, with murder, shootouts, twists, betrayals, and dark conspiracy. It tells the story of a contract killer, the gun for sale from the title. He kills an ambassador and is then framed for a robbery and soon, the police is closing in on him – not for the crime he committed, but the one he did not commit. On the surface, the novel does not seem to be very similar to Walter Tevis’ novel of alien visitation, but as I was reading it, I kept thinking of Newton and his isolation. Raven, Greene’s protagonist has a cleft upper lip and he’s always painfully aware of his reflection in the eyes of the people he talks to. When a woman offers him genuine trust and affection, he, raised to be lonely, has a hard time understanding it – and by the time he accepts it, the facts on the ground already changed and he has lost that trust without realizing it. Yes, Greene’s novel is about crime and murder, and Greene depicts various seedy characters extremely skillfully, including a Thénardier-like couple, but at the same time, it is an extended study in loneliness. Raven, fleeing the police, is trying to clear his name – or rather: he’s trying to find out who cheated him, who disturbed his professional routines and environment, in order to exact some revenge on him, to regain some balance. This is not about being declared innocent, as it is about fighting to maintain some professional pride. Because really, that is all he has. Even an occasional love interest in his past admits openly to be repulsed by his harelip, and the structures and connections he expected to be able to trust prove to be slippery and deceitful. His reaction is not anger or noir cynicism. It’s a desperate confirmation of his profound loneliness: “ He was touched by something he had never felt before: a sense of injustice stammered on his tongue. These people were of his own kind […]. He had always been alone, but never so alone as this.”

Now, of course, Newton is a kind of benefactor to humanity, and is on a mission to help his own race, while Greene’s Raven is a cold and particularly brutal killer, and so on some level their situations are not comparable (though Raven’s efforts to exact revenge on the man who tricked him do lead to a beneficial outcome for his country, but unintentionally). But the way they are isolated from their fellow man, the way a profound experience of loneliness is mediated by both men on the professional level, until, for both men, that level, too collapses, leading to catastrophe. I’m sure that’s not the most common or popular reading of Greene’s novel, I suspect many readers are more interested in the connections it makes between class and war and gender. And it’s true, it’s a frightfully complex and interesting novel on those levels as well, but I am fascinated by the thread of loneliness that runs through it all. In a way, Raven’s abject loneliness helps motivate others to deal with their own fears of abandonment, from a recently-engaged couple, to a young muscular bully, who, forced by Raven at gunpoint to strip down to his underwear, is seized with immediate social anxiety. In a sense, class pressures, predatory capitalism and war are presented as weapons that only work because we are lonely and isolated and cling to our fears and coping mechanisms. There are not as many carefully detailed characters in The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is more of a character study of Newton, but even there, loneliness abounds. Newton “learns” his alcohol habit from his servant, a woman who is also riven with fears of dying alone, and who drinks to compensate. It is meeting Newton that leads to her and another character to eventually marry, to avoid the strange and unpleasant isolation Newton spends his life in. Newton’s desperation is encouragement enough.

The right street for our time

As with Greene’s novel, I focused on one aspect of Tevis’s novel to the great detriment of many others. It does offer a take on the idea of the Good and how it is connected to human actions (I suspect Tevis shared Iris Murdoch’s distrust of what she calls “the rational man”). It also makes very interesting observations on race, on reality, on hope, language and many more topics. There’s a reason Tevis’s novel is considered a classic of science fiction, and it’s not because it’s a very realistic and harrowing portrayal of loneliness and alcoholism. But I think these are important aspects of the book, and it, in itself, is a very important book, but it is not a happy one. Maybe I should close with the words Greene uses to describe Raven’s death:

Death came to him in the form of unbearable pain. It was as if he had to deliver this pain as a woman delivers a child, and he sobbed and moaned in the effort. At last it came out of him and he followed his only child into a vast desolation.

How is that for an outlook on life. And indeed, some of us will be heading into a vast desolation with pain as the only companion. In this, Walter Tevis and Graham Greene agree. Cheerful.

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Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept

Jones, Gwyneth (2017), Proof of Concept, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-9144-5

So I am biased, I suppose. I love science fiction, and I love every Gwyneth Jones book I have ever read. Regrettably, that’s not a ton, because she hasn’t written that much. So coming across a new novel, however short, by this outstanding writer in the genre was a great delight for me, and I would have probably liked this book even had it been remarkably mediocre (see Williams, Tad). Thankfully, Proof of Concept is absolutely excellent. This is everything you want from science fiction: a riveting plot, plausible (to the layman) science, and most importantly, a brilliant literary mind using the unique narrative and tropological tools offered by SF to say something interesting, complex and maybe profound. Jones has done it before: in her novels about the Aleutians and their invasion she took the science fictional tradition about physicality, race and identity and ran with it, creating a meaningful literary discourse about these issues. If you have read any of her recent novels there can be no doubt she should be counted among the major British writers. Compare the Booker shortlist with her 2010 novel Spirit: or The Princess of Bois Dormant. Using the language developed in earlier books she takes on James, Conrad, Greene and contemporary discourses of identity with an ease that puts the whole shortlist to shame (and I liked that Galgut novel). Proof of Concept is not on the same level as those novels, but it’s a smaller novella, anyway, working through its ideas on just over 100 pages. This is the closest that I can remember Jones coming to a technological thriller, and the best, most condensed example of an interrogation of that form itself that I can remember reading. The assumptions regarding knowledge, necessity and, again, identity are all put into play here, and a complete, complicated plot is introduced and seen through all the way to the end. If you like science fiction at all, you want to read this. I cannot vouch for a scientist’s view of the science here, but if you are an interested layman, proceed.

This will be one of my shorter reviews because I am loath to give away anything of the plot and the scientific concept, because the slow, precise unraveling of these two things is one of the major pleasures of reading the book in the first place. The novel is set in a future where earth has been horribly affected by climate change. Humans have colonized the nearby planets, but that’s not a solution in a situation where all of humanity is in danger of being wiped out. All humans live in so-called hives. They keep up the pretense of nationality, but really, they are all part of one of three distinct clusters of humanity, all three controlled by corporations. Outside the livable cluster is the Dead Zone. It’s not really “dead,” but the plant- and wildlife is largely poisonous to eat, and one cannot survive without gas masks, if survival is possible at all. The book itself explicitly connects the Dead Zone to Chernobyl, with all the attendant tropes and traditions. Here, as in other places, Gwyneth Jones gestures towards a genre and asks of us to follow and understand. There’s a specific discussion half way through the book that reads very metatextually, where a character, deprived of the main bulk of some important information, infers the majority of it through allusion and metainformation. Jones, in her fiction generally but in particular here, asks of us to do the same. The same applies to her vision of the future, dominated by corporations, and a dying earth. It’s not new, but very blatantly and carefully so: Jones relies on us seeing and understanding the trope so she can move on. The future of mankind hinges on getting everybody off the planet and far, far away. To achieve this, Dan Orsted, a populist, and Margrethe Patel, a scientist, pool their public funds and influence and embark on a year-long experiment underground called The Needle. The team consists partly of Orsted’s team, mostly young, virile people whose life is one big live-streamed social media feast, and Patel’s team, a group of younger and older scientists who will work on the actual engineering and science. Jones’ protagonist is the most essential member: a young woman named Kir, who was rescued from the Dead Zone as a child and had a quantum computer implanted in her head without her consent. Kir is brilliant, but as the book develops, she notices that the computer in her brain, an AI called Altair, has some doubts about the project. And then, people get murdered.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? And it really is! Having a suspense plot turn around an intellectual mystery and a murder is what moves this novella so forcefully into technothriller territory. I am very fond (see this review and this one) of comparing science fiction novels to the works of Michael Crichton, due to his outsize influence on the literature of suspense and (bad) science, and the way various ideologies come together in his books. Additionally, Crichton, no stranger to bending science to serve his ideology (see particularly the “climate change is a hoax by fat cat scientists” novel State of Fear) or plot (Timeline seems particularly worth noting here) always seemed curiously self-limiting in what he could say or show, keeping certain ontological assumptions close to the vest, and I feel, among the “technothriller” SF, you can distinguish hacks (Charles Stross) from real, intelligent writers (Jones or Scalzi) by the way they deal with the genre as coded. I think many of the good recent works of SF can be read with Giorgio Agamben’s work in mind. The idea of a state of exception and the way he explores, in his recent Stasis, how a civil war, for example, draws on the private and the public but is of neither, can, I think, be considered in connection with Jones’ novel and the way it deals with sexuality, identity and humanity. Also, after finishing it, I pulled Malthus from my shelf to look up some things, and wandered over to Deleuze and ideas of becoming. I really enjoy science fiction that invites me to look at the philosophy shelves behind my desk and consider some of its implications. Agamben, Malthus, Deleuze, I think that’s the core of the book, with some light waffle about social media as an appetizer. But I think I am drifting off course. This book is primarily a thriller. A very well done one, with a moving emotional resolution and a complicated moral arc. It doesn’t talk down to you, but it does cajole you into keeping up, rereading older texts and finding a way in which this story fits into how you think about the issues it raises. It’s playful more than anything.

As for the writing, well, it’s hard to say. It’s good, but it’s not as exact as it could be. It’s the kind of writing where you don’t notice it – it won’t bother you, but you also won’t stop to admire sentence construction. Strike that – I went back to the book after writing the last sentence: Jones’ writing here is definitely beyond what one might call dismissively ‘serviceable’ – her prose in this book has to do a lot of work: moving a plot forward, making scientific concepts understandable all while not losing sight of the emotional core of the narrative, and it does this remarkably well. In fact, of you look at the language on the page, you can tell how well Jones manages the limited real estate offered by a novella, how she shifts perspectives and manages events and dialogue. So, while I didn’t notice anything while reading the book, I can see the writing’s power now that I go back to the page. I don’t teach an MFA course, but some of these pages could easily be used as illustrative material. I just looked at last year’s Booker nominees and except for Levy and the tumultuous Beatty, none of the writers, including the inexplicably lauded David Szalay, are as remarkable on the page as Jones is, if you look closely what the language has to achieve and what it does achieve.

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Andy Weir: The Martian

Weir, Andy (2013), The Martian, Gollancz
ISBN 9781101905005

DSC_1911So I have become a bit of a science fiction fan in the past decade. I mean, I’ve always liked it, but it’s only fairly recently that I started reading more of it. My awakening, if we want to call it that, came when I first encountered the work of Samuel Delany, and so my early reading was more in the New Wave vein, plus contemporary weird science fiction. It took a while to read more broadly, but if you look at my reviews, it’s books by China Miéville, Adam Roberts plus that smelly thing you found behind your couch. It’s no accident that I haven’t read John Scalzi (who is fantastic) until this year. All this is to say that I’m a bit worried I might be a bit of a snob when it comes to science fiction. Not that I’m not willing to call trash what it is, but some books just make me apprehensive. The Martian is one such book. It was recommended on the internet as a ‘scientifically accurate’ book that would ‘make a great movie.’ All the comments on it stressed the accurate nature of its descriptions and the technical obsessiveness of its tale of a Martian Robinsonade. I evaded getting the book for months until I found it among my birthday presents. And as it turns out, I was both wrong and right. The Martian is damn, damn good. A book that I assumed to be movie fodder, it’s surprisingly clever in its structure, deft in its characterization and written in surprisingly effective prose. At the same time, for an exhaustively researched book that makes living on Mars, even just a few hundred days, believable and plausible in a way that even Kim Stanley Robinson hasn’t managed, I was profoundly struck by the novel’s utter lack of imagination and vision. The effectiveness of the prose style is achieved through a kind of sleight of hand – Weir has his protagonist write a diary, in the style that’s current among Internet denizens today. The voice of his protagonist is clear and recognizable – because we know that person. Many of his early readers are, in fact, that kind of person, a white male narcissist. Which, to be fair, is the central character in many Robinsonades. Weir, however, stops there. He makes no use of the form, displays no real sense of the traditions he works in and squanders the potential of both genres he works in, science fiction and the Robinsonade. And yet, despite all this, do I recommend the book? Of course I do. Ultimately, it’s a big bag of fun and you’ll remember all its good parts for a long time. A vivid, exciting read. And smart.

DSC_1914It’s more clever than it is actually intelligent, though. We don’t get the sense that Weir has thought about his form beyond coming up with a fun idea and working out the practical details. A comparison with a similar science fiction novel, Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust shows us both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. The Martian is much more immediate, and its world unfolds in a much more palpable and believable fashion for the reader. At the same time, Weir’s secondary characters are all cardboard cutout caricatures. Not having seen the movie, I assume that losing the voice of the man stranded on Mars, Mark Watney, and getting more (quite literally) fleshed out versions of the other characters, the overall depth and verisimilitude of the story’s characters is more balanced. Weir’s big sticking point is the science, and he applies it well to create -and sustain- excitement. He is quite excellent at adding new elements to his world, new bits of knowledge, just at the right time to catch falling arcs of suspense and create new ones. Much like classic 19th century works of fiction, this book was written in small installments and you can tell by its structure. A Fall of Moondust is just as technical (although probably not as plausible today as it was then), and just as exciting, but instead of consisting mainly of one character’s ramblings, it’s an ensemble piece, with a large section of moon-inhabiting humanity involved in the accident and the eventual rescue. I’m not totally spoiling the book because, much like The Martian, it’s a story that is predicated on the excitement of following along. There is no abyss of unknowability, no postmodern darkness here. In my Scalzi review I mentioned the push by reactionaries for a more obviously and directly enjoyable science fiction and The Martian is really it. It might seem that Clarke’s book is an obvious predecessor – but that’s only superficially true. If you read Clarke’s work you know he doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions – so why is this such a straightforward book? I always assumed that Clarke was aware of the genre he was working in and its traditions, the Robinson Crusoe line of writing, and instead of making the easy choice of just transposing the situation onto a different, more spherical, kind of island, he leaned on something that was actually rather common in old fashioned science fiction, contra Puppies, the idea of looking at a future society.

DSC_1918Make no mistake, Clarke doesn’t offer us any kind of grand vision of the future either, but there is a broader sense of community, of where he thought society might go in the time allotted between his time and the time he assumed we’d be living in lunar colonies. Unless I missed a major element (in which place, please comment), there’s really no obvious reason -apart from the actual technology- that The Martian couldn’t happen next year. Drop us the necessary technology under the Christmas tree (please?) and this story could happen in January. There’s no inherent reason why this has to be on Mars or in the future. My complaint here is similar to what bothered me about Charles Stross’ mediocre look at the near future, except it’s a bit more frustrating and that’s because while Stross draws on contemporary traditions that have limited potential as is, and he lacks the punch/interest to push them beyond what they are, Andy Weir is working in a line of writing that has, almost from the moment of its inception, produced interesting and exciting literature. Having man isolated from others, or a selection of humanity separated from the rest, this motif has led to some of the most memorable and powerful books. The ur-text of the genre, Daniel Defoe’s novel, is already much more complicated than you’d think. Defoe already has his stranded man tied into some important questions of his day. The question of owning another human being, selling them, how it ties into wealth and colonial narratives are, unexpectedly for anyone who hasn’t read the book, raised. Crusoe is sold himself into slavery, escapes with the help of a black boy, and then, deliberately declines selling the boy into slavery (but gives in and hands him over for a three year period of enforced labor) because “he had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own [liberty].” Just a short time later, he is convinced to embark on an expedition to buy and trade “negroes” for rich plantation owners. It is this trip that puts Crusoe on that island. After his escape, he returns to his “colony” which in his absence has become plentiful and Crusoe, almost by accident, has become a rich man. Intentionally or not, Defoe offers us a discourse on freedom, and on the way colonialism was built on the self-interest of the English despite knowing full well its harmful effects. Books afterwards kept adding to the debate. Frequently, they used the situation between Crusoe and Friday to illuminate power dynamics. Michel Tournier’s book is probably the most accomplished take on that. The Martian completely rejects this tradition, and declines absolutely to offer any sort of commentary or context. We even get odd, borderline racist, but definitely contemporary (for us) pieces of slang. Multiple times, a rough construction is described as “ghetto” by the white, definitely not “ghetto” protagonist of the book. If any thinking has gone into his book concerning contexts and futurism, it’s that the near future is just as terrible in terms of racial construction as the present. Harsh pessimism, if so, Mr. Weir.

DSC_1913But there’s more. The central conceit of Defoe’s book is (along the line of many books of his time) that the story is the journal of a real person and the book merely “a just history of facts.” The diary/journal has been enduring as one of the most interesting literary genres. Some takes on Crusoe’s story, like Coetzee’s masterful novel Foe, have examined the epistemological situation. What’s truth in narrative? The diary as a whole is interesting, as it is splayed wide between authenticity and artificiality. A few decades ago, in an essay that still holds up marvelously, Felicity Nussbaum painted a picture of the diary as a pre-modern attempt at constructing a public self. That explains why women, whose writing had been relegated to the margins for a long time, used the diaries to gain purchase for autobiographical narratives. One of the interesting aspects of the way The Martian uses journals as the primary way to record the story is that these diaries are half way between journals and letters. They are written with the express purpose of being preserved for people to find in case Mark Watney’s goose is cooked and his life on Mars ends ignominiously. This method would explain why so much of this diary is a performance. Stranded alone – one thinks of William Golding’s Pincher Martin as a particularly brutal variety – does not bring out the sadness, isolation, alienation of brutality one might expect or fear. In fact, Watney, isolated for hundreds of days, is as upbeat on his last day as he is on his first. This could be due to the performance aspect of the journals-turned-letters, a way, say, of putting up a facade for those coming after him. But there’s no undercutting of this attitude in the later scenes of the book where we see him interact with other people and we are privy to their points of view. In all the research that Andy Weir has undertaken to make his book realistic and interesting – one wonders how much of it was spent looking at anthropology, sociology and psychology. I do agree, as I said elsewhere, that bleak writing has become a tired and tiring cliché in and of itself, but the buzzing happiness in the pages of The Martian can be a bit grating.

This is a book that, carefully, intentionally, thoroughly, has NOTHING to say about people, the future, emotions, society – anything, really, that doesn’t involve the growing of potatoes on a wasteland planet. What it does express is a sense of social isolation of a certain class of citizen and writer today that exceeds the blindness of slave trader Crusoe. Crusoe was aware of how terrible it is to lose one’s freedom when he embarked on his slave trading mission. Defoe wrote this into Robinson Crusoe. Like many Europeans during colonialism, he just didn’t consider the treatment of black people a moral imperative that was more important than developing and growing wealth. Mark Watney – and by extension, Andy Weir – don’t even have that level of reflection. And yet – it’s such an expertly written book. The prose is never great, but always at least serviceable. The book is captivating and fun, and for a week after finishing it, I walked about town, partly living on Mars in my head. The Martian could have been more – but it’s a sign of the times that it is not. And what it is, is quite a lot.

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John Scalzi: Lock In

Scalzi, John (2014), Lock In, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8132-3

[A note: this review has somehow turned out very digressive, so here’s a quick tl,dr summary of my opinion: Lock In is an intelligent, fun, exciting science fiction novel built around a brilliant idea, somewhere between Merleau-Ponty and Michael Crichton and executed by one of the most prolific and best SF authors we currently have. If you like techno-thrillers and/or you like science fiction, read Lock In. It’s very good.]

DSC_1559So if you are not following what’s happening in English-language science fiction, it’s quite likely you missed quite a solid amount of drama. The magnificent Adam Roberts has summarized the affair succinctly here. If you don’t feel like clicking on links (another good take is here), the even shorter version is this: dismayed by a distorted perception of who is being fêted by the prize-giving crowd in science fiction, a group of mediocre-to-terrible writers have set up a list of “preferred” writers. Their moniker is “sad puppies” or “rabid puppies” (technically two different groups, practically indistinguishable) and they feel they have to protest what they feel is boring, politically correct fiction. Recent Hugo winners and nominees include books that question gender, race and class, and writers like Larry Correia, who runs a gun shop and likes to shoot guns in his spare time (like, really likes to shoot guns) feel there’s not enough old fashioned ass-kicking and shooting going around, and very much not enough veiled (or not so veiled) xenophobia and misogyny. They are just, we hear, not enough fun. The Hugos should be awarding the fun books, the popular books rather than the books well loved by critics. I remember a similar debate around the Booker Prize and its dreary results [insert here a complaint about many recent Booker shortlists]. But the Booker is not a award that the public can vote on, so what the “Sad Puppies” did wouldn’t have been possible there: they organized a crowd of rowdy, angry, mostly white and male supporters and rigged the voting process, getting a disproportionate amount of “Sad Puppies” on the list. Now, the awards ended in a curious result, which you can find summarized here and here. But of all the essays and thinkpieces on the award, what struck me most strongly somehow was this Hugo analysis (and it’s follow-up here) which I was interested in for two reasons. One, apparently, without the Puppies voters, the award for best novel would have gone to The Goblin Emperor, a nice but not spectacular book (my review here). Two, and more relevantly for this review, without the “Puppy” books, John Scalzi’s Lock In would have been nominated. This is interesting. Neither The Goblin Emperor, which treats class and power with dubious sloppiness nor Lock In are boring-but-critically well received books. In fact, the closest non-SF point of comparison for Scalzi’s excellent book is Michael Crichton’s oeuvre. It’s a fast paced thriller, brilliantly conceived, with smart ideas and a sleek, efficient execution. If you like fast paced SF-y thrillers, read it. It’s a blast.

DSC_1557The reason I suppose Scalzi was not among the recommended authors is not this work in particular. It’s not even his work in general. Lock In is not some nifty exception to an otherwise more complicated and/or difficult oeuvre. It’s not to his oeuvre what Kraken was to Miéville’s, for example. In fact, his Hugo-winning novel Redshirts (2012) is similarly an absolute joy to read. It’s a story about Star Trek, it toys with genre, with conventions and characters. It’s absurdly funny. Sure, there’s a level on which it’s a clever take about truth and narrative, but we are at no point obliged to stop and consider this take in order to enjoy the book. In fact, the reason I never reviewed it here is because I thought it was lovely but a bit breezy and slight. Would I recommend it? Of course. It’s endlessly amusing. And I think the deeper its reader has fallen down the SF culture wormhole, the more enjoyable it is. So is this the kind of dour politicking the Sad Puppies warned us? It’s clearly not about popularity because Scalzi’s books sell like cold drinks in a hot summer. He’s so successful in fact, that Scalzi recently inked a 3.4 Million $ contract with Tor (read the man’s own explanation here). Scalzi is popular, he writes breezy, not entirely weighty books that are not super left wing (Old Man’s War is a good example) in an accessible style – the kind of style, indeed that would allow him to publish 19 books in 10 years. So the issue isn’t with his work per se – it’s with Scalzi the person who runs a blog that frequently discusses political issues in science fiction, and a Twitter account that does the same. For these reasons, Scalzi has become the bête noire of the “Puppies” crowd. And the most fascinating part about it is that Scalzi at no point in his recent work fills the role he’s expected to fill. There are practically no flat polemics, no open and excessive politics, nothing. Lock In is politically interesting, but not overtly so, and his asides that may be read as commenting on the debate are minor, such as when a character says to the other “I get that you’re used to saying what you think to anyone, anytime. That comes from being an entitled rich kid.” Compare this to, say, Rushdie’s grumpy asides on the New Atheism debate in Enchantress of Florence, for example, where he inserted anachronistic debates just to (I guess) make a point.

DSC_1556For all the baggage that comes with the name Scalzi and with the science fiction community and the Hugo dustup, Lock In is an intricate (but not overly so) techno thriller that happens to be SF, but reads in many ways like a novel by Michael Crichton. A new technology is introduced, it proves to be dangerous and influential people behind the curtain try to abuse it to their own benefit and it’s up to some detective-like character to figure it out. It’s not the first time on this blog that I’ve compared a SF writer to Crichton, and last time, it was Charles Stross’ lamentable Halting State. (click here for my review) – but there is a key difference. Stross copied the school of Crichton to a fault, from the narrative skill to the odd politics and even xenophobia. Stross presented a SF novel entirely denuded of all that makes science fiction such a vital and important genre. Because that’s another way that the “Puppies” got it wrong. Science fiction has always been full of exciting books that pushed the intellectual envelope, that managed to say things in the grammar of science fiction that couldn’t have been said equally well within the genre of “literary fiction” – Coreia, Beale and their ilk didn’t just misread and mistreat contemporary science fiction – they also seem entirely unaware of the genre’s proud and interesting tradition. Scalzi on the other hand – and unlike Stross- wrote a book that makes heavy use of the advantages of SF. That summary just now doesn’t really do justice to Lock In and that’s because the book, despite having a thriller corset, wouldn’t work as it does in a pure thriller structure. It’s SF skeleton are as important to the book as its thriller muscles. Unlike Halting State, whose speculative technologies are at best hair’s breadth more futuristic than the technology that Crichton’s more speculative books revolve around, Scalzi’s basic idea is the backbone, the most essential element of the whole book. In fact, in some of its slighter moments the book feels like the author competently-but-quickly fleshed out his ideas. There’s no complex structure to the book, it develops rather straightforwardly from its initial premise. Much like the idea of Redshirts, i.e. what if the characters on a TV show were somehow real, and script rewrites would inexplicably change the world around them. And what if they then managed to escape to “our” world and contact the actors and scriptwriters and producers of “their” show? The rest of the book just fleshes out that idea, expands on it, adds joke and easter eggs. In a more serious way, the same thing is true for Lock In. There’s a premise and the writing just fills in the gaps and wrangles a plot. That premise, however, is so good that it allows Scalzi to really go to town.

DSC_1568The basic idea is that in the near future, an illness strikes a vast portion of the population, the so-called Haden’s syndrome. For a small percentage of those inflicted, falling ill means being locked out of your body. These people are basically paralyzed for the rest of their lives, with active brains and nerves, but without control over their bodies. And there is no cure for Haden’s syndrome. However, after a few years, technology has developed to help the millions inflicted. Many of those technologies involve the transfer of consciousness. Into a virtual community called the Agora, into robots, and into the brains of people who serve as carriers. These solutions are not permanent. The Haden’s victims still have their bodies around which need to be tended to and there is a transfer of physical sensation from the body to the consciousness, and if the body dies, the consciousness dies with it. The transfer is achieved via neural transmitters. Some people, born with the illness, never really encounter the physical world actively and spend all their life in the Agora. Some enter some means of transportation every day. There are CEOs, politicians and people from all walks of life who suffer from Haden and use robots to get around town. This technology is accessible to everyone because, until very recently in the book’s timeline, it was heavily subsidized by the government. The book’s protagonist is a famous Haden’s patient, Chris Shane, who we meet on day one of his new line of work: rookie FBI agent. Shane comes from a famous/rich family, but want to make it on his own. I think you can recognize the trope. On day one, he and his new partner, the troubled but brilliant agent Leslie Vann, are called to the scene of a murder involving Hadens. The book covers roughly one week during which their initial murder case leads them to uncover a conspiracy that involves more murder, corporate greed, terrorism and a popular uprising of those affected by Haden. The book moves quickly, as there’s just not enough time to meander, given all that happens, and it does it with efficiency and narrative excellence. However, just because the book doesn’t offer us digressive essays and pamphlets, it doesn’t mean the book is bereft of intelligent points on a wide range of things.

DSC_1555I have recently been reading (in PhD work breaks) quite a few genre novels and I am vaguely aware of the attempt to establish the term “slipstream”, which I mostly encounter in the writings of genre writers who want to sidle up to the “literary fiction” genre by claiming a kind of shared space. But good literary fiction does more than tell a good yarn, it offers us structures and ideas and an elevated level of prose. Some books, like the incomprehensibly dull The Doors You Mark are Your Own by “Alexander Tuvim” mistake the recent resurgence of narrative (I commented a bit on that resurgence in my review of Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise) for some new literary license to sprawl without having the intellectual nous to actually say something rather than merely indulge. If there was a slipstream genre, surely it would involve books with genre trappings that also fill the shoes usually worn by what is generally perceived as literary fiction. The problem with that is that this is already amply covered, say, by science fiction. M. John Harrison, Iain Banks, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe and China Miéville are as skillful writers of prose as many “literary” novelists (and certainly better than “Tuvim”), and intelligent and even brilliant ideas abound in science fiction, which has never confortably settled within any arbitrary set of genre conventions. The mere history of science fiction explodes that idea. I know the idea comes from Bruce Sterling who is always worth considering, but to me what he describes is more like a gothic alienating technique (which you’ll also find in the recent works of William Gibson), but I’m always open to being proven wrong about the validity of “slipstream” as a genre. If it hadn’t come from Sterling, I would have assumed it came from someone who doesn’t really understand the reach and power of science fiction. And Lock In is an excellent example of the reach and unconventional positioning of science fiction. Scalzi employs the tropes of thriller writing, with small but significant twists. At the same time, his reliance on his science-fictional premise allows him to implicitly debate issues such as the question of how society and the structures of knowledge intersect with disability. How do we construct a disabled body? Where does deficiency end, and identity begin?

DSC_1566There is a moment where the protagonist is offered a broken robot as his only option to get around town. The robot works, but its legs don’t, so the rookie agent is offered a wheelchair to get around in. It comes near the end and allows the reader to come to terms with the many other ways disability has been portrayed in the book. There are mental disabilities that are shown to be both limiting as well as empowering. We are confronted with the question of how connected our sense of humanity is to our corporeality. In many places, Scalzi appears to offer a riff on Merleau-Ponty’s famous discussions of the corps propre. Even as early as in his 1942 work The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty points out that “[l]’esprit n’utilise pas le corps, mais se fait à travers lui” – the consciousness doesn’t merely use the body as a host. It could not just be made independent from the body – despite the fact that Hadens can easily and quickly transfer their consciousness from and into different hosts as you would get into and out of different cars (the protagonists keeps traveling throughout the country by downloading into available robots). Very subtly, Scalzi also discusses the topic of race and how visibility and disability play into the cultural construction of race. Least subtly, and likely connected to contemporary American domestic debates, he offers a withering indictment of the opposition to government-supplied healthcare. And I’m not transposing some kind of reading on a more innocuous book – all this is really in there, and he uses plot and setting to offer a debate without having to stop for narrative breath. This is enormously hard to do in “literary fiction” because it’s not as easy to mold the environment to convey a philosophical argument as it is with the grammar of science fiction, and downright impossible to do while maintaining fluid readability. Lock In is a barrel of excitement – did I mention that it’s also humorous and witty? It’s just enormously good at what it does – and it does a lot. It#s the best book by Scalzi that I’ve read so far – although I am far from a Scalzi completist. This is very good and I recommend it to you with all the conviction I can muster. It’s a fantastic book, and the “Puppies” can go suck my big toe.

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Charles Stross: Halting State

Stross, Charles (2008), Halting State, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-441-01607-5

These past years, I have recommended Philip K. Dick’s impressive novel Ubik to a number of serious readers of literature interested in Dick and/or Science Fiction literature in general. It’s the perfect introduction to Dick’s work, because it’s both straightforward and pleasantly odd. But there’s more. Several readers have written back to me to complain about how little sense the book supposedly made, how Dick made gross errors in narrative logic etc. This is more than the usual philistine hurry to blame the author for one’s own careless reading. I ‘d suggest that it points to something that is quite typical of the genre of Science Fiction. Dick isn’t the only writer who’s used to infusing a narrative that seems straightforward enough with a dose of the odd or strange. There’s something angular, uncomfortable about many good books of the genre, a sort of basic difficulty, almost independent of the literary skills of the writer in question. Science Fiction demands, like no other genre, that its readers take each book on its own terms. It’s always dangerous to interpret difference as erroneous writing, but with regard to SF, this assumption is more likely to be incorrect. There is no other genre I know of that constantly mixes the tools of experimental fiction with the storytelling of an action movie to produce all kinds of inventive yet readable results. Given the prolificacy of many prominent SF novelists, it’s also astonishing that a great deal of them are greatly attentive not just to matters of literary structure and the like, but also pay extraordinarily close attention to the words they use, to the way they connect to the ideas put forth in the novel. Form is always connected to content in SF, and more often than not, it’s germane to any significant understanding of the book in question. All this means that any work of SF is likely to be less encumbered by conventional expectations of narrative logic, and it’s why Science Fiction is such a worthwhile genre to read. Even so-so works like Tobias S. Buckell’s Ragamuffin contain a daunting intellectual structure; apparent mistakes in narrative logic (as the aforementioned readers thought to find in Ubik) are usually more than that. They are part of a sophisticated, passionate, elaborate literary undertaking that has languished for far too long on the grubby shelves of ‘genre literature’ while the Franzens, Austers and Mitchells of this world reaped critical success and broad public appreciation. This tension between quality and lack of critical success has, on the other hand, led to a tradition in SF that tried to make the genre palatable, relatable, clean, acceptable, slowly draining the genre of everything that made it as powerful as it was. Charles Stross’ 2007 novel Halting State represents a kind of end point for this development. It would be silly and facetious to compare it to accomplished works of science fiction. In fact, the author it most resembles is not strictly speaking a SF writer, it’s Michael Crichton.*

Make no mistake, Halting State is a very good read, a real page turner of a novel; it’s both efficiently written and smartly constructed. Charles Stross is clearly a highly competent novelist, and Halting State is a well-nigh flawlessly executed thriller: in it, Stross displays an uncanny knack for timing, for example. Characters, plot elements, surprises and moments of shock and breathless action are released at just the right moment, a skill that should not be underrated. The book’s sleek efficiency is also visible in the way the characters are fleshed out in just the right amount. There is enough depth to care about the things that happen to Stross’ characters, worry about them, and cheer them on when they fall in love or have an arduous fight to endure, yet not so much as to make readers stumble over potential ambiguities and complexities. To sum up: if you like thrillers and/or Michael Crichton’s work, you’ll love Stross. Another similarity with Crichton’s post-Sphere work is the gentle way that Stross introduces his futuristic technology. Halting State is set in the near future and its technologies are rather similar to ours; the same is true for the kind of social and political structure we encounter. The changes are so slight, so carefully wrought, that they allow any reader to catch up with the author and quickly relate to the events without having to think or re-contextualize. The contexts stay, broadly speaking, the same; additionally, Stross presents a near future with completely believable and utterly dull developments. Nothing is surprising in any way, every single technology in the book is rooted in something that we already use and, in some cases, he uses ‘new’ technology that is already in development. One of the fundamental conceits of Halting State, about the interconnection of private entertainment and the grander world of global espionage, is so banal and unsurprising that it’s been taken up in various guises in pop culture, most recently in an episode of Nathan Fillion’s comedy-drama TV show Castle. Well, I have to admit: this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, what it means is that Stross has utterly professionalized his genre. He has moved away from visions and conceptual difficulties into the realm of professional thriller writers whose books are based on easy emotive access and, ultimately, fear. A fear of that which is still somewhat alien to us, a term which usually means foreigners and technology, i.e. things and people we can’t really understand. That’s why easy relatability is so important – only in a sequence of knowns can the unknown stick out as it does in the work of Crichton. This kind of discourse is of course buttressed by a defense or acceptance of the status quo, of things as they are, of ruling hierarchies and exploitative mechanisms. That this sort of thing, hitherto mainly typical of thrillers, crops up in SF as much as it does these days is sad, but true. Stross is only one of many examples: Cory Doctorow (cf. my review of Little Brother) is another, though less problematic one.

Thus, with a cleaned up language, efficient plot and relatable discussions of future technologies, only one potential stumbling block for readers remains, and it’s one of the few concessions Stross makes towards his genre: he toys a bit with pronouns. The book has three distinct protagonists, each of whom narrates their own chapter. However, the book does not use the first or third person singular, but the second person singular. This trick, which has no further consequences for the way the story is told, does not extend to difficulties of speech and perception, barely engages questions of identity or anything else. Stross could have removed this from the manuscript by copy & paste without damaging the rest of the text except in negligible ways. It’s a nod to his genre, no more than that. Since the novel is concerned with virtual realities, and the ways that our world interacts with the virtual, the use of the second person singular allows Stross to mirror virtual relationships as well as relations that we engage in in dealing with one another (and us ourselves) through online media. As as I mentioned before, using form in order to reflect on content is a commonly used tool in science fiction prose and this appears to be Stross’ main difference to Crichton et al. In most other ways, he follows the mainstream thriller guidelines almost exactly. The similarities to Crichton in particular are both general structural similarities, as well as more specific resemblances. Among the closer ties is an eery similarity to Crichton’s famously racist 1992 novel Rising Sun, which painted the ascendancy of the Japanese economy as a threat to Americans in several garish colors. The apprehension towards dominant Japanese companies had already produced books like Tom Peters’ fun but ridiculous In Search for Excellence (1982), but for Crichton, exalting American values or Americans in general was not enough. His novel contains murderous Japanese businessmen, scheming Japanese officials and two Americans caught in the middle of an intricate intercultural intrigue. Something somewhat similar happens in Halting State. A robbery and a murder have been committed and a police officer, an insurance investigator and a software geek are trying to get to the bottom of an affair that keeps getting more and more complicated. As in Rising Sun, inquiries are quelled or at least hampered by political interference, by executives’ and politicians’ schemes and manipulations. In Stross’ 2007 novel, the Japanese are no longer the bad guys as they were in Crichton’s and other novels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s (as can be expected) Chinese hackers on the payroll of the evil Chinese government that are the enemy now. Actual people of Chinese descent barely make an appearance in the book, but that’s largely unimportant, since, as any racist will be able to tell you, it’s not the specific individual that attracts their rage, it’s the general idea of the foreign culture/race. ‘They’ are different, and ‘they’ are a threat. That’s the name of the game Charles Stross is more than happy to play.

Like Crichton, Stross leaves, of course, ample room for a denunciation of corporate greed. For both writers, this is an important element, because readers are just as likely to reject executives as grossly incompetent, stupid or gluttonous, as they are to reject foreigners as scheming, lazy or destructive, and both writers are engaged in an attempt to build an alliance with their readers built on shared prejudice. Stross even does Crichton one better. Unless I misremember, there is nothing in Crichton’s post-Sphere work that corresponds to what I like to call Stross’ trinity of identification. Stross’ three protagonists are Elaine Barnaby, a woman, who is drawn in a mildly clichéd but not aggressively sexist way, a smart and quirky closet geek. There is Jack Reed, the software engineer, who is the most knowledgeable of the three, constantly explaining facts about the technological background, a nerd who likes to drink, is shy around women, and incredibly smart. The third narrator and protagonist is Sue Smith, a police officer, and representative of a whole strain of elements that crop up all over the book. Thing is, Halting State, a book about the global world of hackers, espionage and online gaming, is rooted in a weird sort of patriotism tinged with localism. It’s set in Edinburgh, and reflects its Scottish background in multiple ways. For starters, there’s Sue, who speaks/writes a mild sort of Scots-inflected English, which stands out among the verbal offerings of the other characters. It is Sue’s point of view that foregrounds most a contrast between locals and foreigners, because in Halting State, only Scottish citizens are truly locals, and Jack and Elaine, the two English geeks, are always slightly out of place. The book crawls with comments about how little the streets and facades of Edinburgh have changed; this is accompanied by comments about the specific/unique relationship that this Scottish metropolis has with the modern world outside. In a way, Stross reproduces the larger discursive concerns that power books like Crichton’s and includes a miniature model of them, localized in terms of references and language. And it’s all so incredibly well made! Halting State is a stunningly crafted thriller, but a mediocre, fifth rate work of science fiction. If the genre did not also contain writers like Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville, Adam Roberts or Vernor Vinge (who, by the way, praises Halting State), I might be worried. There is much to admire in this book, and compared to other, let’s say, thrillers, it would stand out. In its own genre, however, it’s its deficiencies that stand out starkly. If you want a quick, good read by a writer with a good grasp of current technology and excellent command of a certain kind of narrative, this book is highly recommended. If you want something more, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

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*A lot of Crichton’s books can of course be categorized as science fiction, among them probably Sphere or Jurassic Park (incl. sequels). I’d argue, and in a way that is what I’m doing in this review, that Crichton’s main influence and the genre he mainly belongs to is the thriller genre. He may use a SF tool now and then, but they are just props. Crichton’s intentions and visions are those of a mainstream thriller writer, and his approach is the same in Jurassic Park, Next, Rising Sun or any other of his best known works. Finally this: what I take to be the core of the Science Fiction genre I laid out in my first paragraph. It’s a different kind of approach to seeing the world. Iris Murdoch wrote in The Book and the Brotherhood about Marxism: “The only good Marxist is a mad Marxist. It’s not enough to be a revisionist, you’ve got to be a bit mad too – to be able to see the present world, to imagine the magnitude of what’s happening.” I think this madness is necessary for good science fiction, as well, this imagination of possibilities and impossibilities. This is true for space operas, hard sf, cyberpunk, steampunk or the straight madness of Dick’s later novels. The best test for good SF is this: if you take away the odd objects, and the unfamiliar settings, are the texts in front of you still different from mainstream fiction? In my review’s first paragraph I suggest they should be, and any of the authors I mentioned appraisingly in this review have produced works for which that is indeed the case. It is not true for Halting State which is powered by the same visionary black hole that brought forth Michael Crichton’s works. A reader on a literature forum suggested that part of the book were a straight yet awkward pastiche of Ian Rankin‘s books. I would not be surprised to find that to be the case, although I haven’t been able to sample Mr. Rankin’s work yet.

Adam Roberts: Yellow Blue Tibia

Roberts, Adam (2009), Yellow Blue Tibia, Gollancz
ISBN 978-0-575-08357-8

Here’s the deal. You will have to read Adam Roberts, unless Yellow Blue Tibia, his most recent novel, grossly misrepresents his oeuvre. There is just no way you can bypass this writer, who is so self-controlled, so sure of his capabilities and his craft, who is able to engage both the humorous and the darkly serious nature of his work. Yellow Blue Tibia may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly an excellent novel and a truly dazzling display of skills. So far, he has ten novels under his belt, a few academic studies (including a regrettable one on Frederic Jameson, in the sense that any study on Jameson is regrettable), some parodies and a few shorter pieces. If any of them so much as approach the quality of Yellow Blue Tibia, you’re in for a treat. Read it. You don’t even have to like science fiction, because one of the remarkable things about the book is that it is as much a literary novel about science fiction as it is a science fiction novel proper. In this extraordinarily funny and smart book, Roberts managed to seize his genre, and put it through the wringer, spinning it around, examining it, without ever becoming too intellectual or too cerebral. It’s also a joy to read, a book that scoops up a lot of the canonical postmodern playfulness of the 1970s, but has, below this, the elegant, moving structure of a more traditional novel. What’s more, Roberts’ playfulness is always in the service of real concerns, real problems, and implies the possibilities of real actions. Adam Roberts is a very serious writer, who likes to use the word “ballsack” a lot. And he excels at both of these kinds of writing. Read this writer. You will not be disappointed.

The plot is hard to describe, mostly because it’s actually quite surprising. It’s not that you can’t see the final twist coming a mile off, but Yellow Blue Tibia, at the beginning, hedges its bets, shows you ways of continuing its tale, before stepping up to the plate and fully delivering its story. It starts off like this: in 1945, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, i.e. Joseph Stalin, ruler of all the Russias, asks a group of well-known Soviet Science Fiction writers to convene in a cabin in the woods. They come by train, by mule cart, they are both giddy and elated to meet Stalin, and mortally afraid. Instead of sending them all to the Gulag, however, Stalin asks them to write a story. In what seems to be a very Wag the Dog-ish line of thought, Stalin has decided that the USSR needs an enemy to unite against. Now that the Germans have been beat, and that (in Stalin’s estimation), victory against the US is, at most, five years away, it is time to plan and come up with a new enemy after the US are conquered. And why not invent an enemy? This is what Stalin wants his science fiction writers to do: invent an enemy to rally the peoples of the USSR against, “an extraterrestrial menace. It will be the greatest Science Fiction story ever told! And we will write it collectively! It will inspire the whole of the Soviet Union – inspire the whole world!”. So, this is what they do. After long discussions and deliberations, they come up with a species of “radiation aliens”, and they even imagine some of their early attacks, such as a destroyed US spaceship, and a bomb launched against the Ukraine.

This section is very densely narrated and it contains a lot of the ideas and themes that the rest of Yellow Blue Tibia later pursues. We learn that these men are all tired, all afraid, but they’re all, additionally, Communists. In period novels such as Vassili Grossmann’s Life and Fate, we learn hat even those afraid to be murdered by Stalin’s henchmen, even those in camps and at the front, that there are many ardent Communists among them, because the idea of Communism is unharmed by the horrific political events in the 20th century, engineered by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and their vassals. So it is with the men in that cabin. Their visions, thought, and basic motivation are informed by Marxism even as their faith in the political reality of their country has long gone. These writers are beat, exhausted, they are all soldiers, and they’re tired of war. One of the writers grumbles that, if he were alive today, Tolstoy wouldn’t write “War and Peace but War and War. He would write War and War and More War”.The connection between fiction, and history, as well as individual fates is established in that first section; also, the truthfulness of journalistic nonfiction, as well as, very importantly, questions of authorship. But as soon as we start to enjoy the odd rhythms of that discussion, that creation of an original story, the meeting in the woods is stopped short. Stalin, without offering explanations, dissolves the project, and swears all the writers to silence. For some decades, nothing else, pertaining to these days in the cabin, happens, as the narrator explains. Until 1986, when the narrator is visited by ghosts of his past.

The narrator of Yellow Blue Tibia is called Konstantin Skvorecky, one of the Science Fiction writers from the cabin. Choosing that name was certainly not accidental: in part it appears to be a clear reference to Josef Škvorecký, the Czech writer, who, like Roberts’ creation Konstantin Skvorecky, is a translator from English to a Slav tongue, and Roberts’ use of detective fiction tropes and his use of some elements of the roman noir may also, albeit in a more subdued manner, tie in with Škvorecký’s Lieutenant Boruvka novels. One suspects that all the names in Roberts’ fine novel are fraught with allusions and references, more than one. Is it coincidence that another writer, Ivan/Jan Frenkel shares his surname with a renowned Soviet physicist? That one writer’s surname and the title of his main book are semantically related? These are just a few of the examples and ideas that will creep up on the reader, and that crowd the margins of my copy of the novel. This is part of the method (and success) of this book: it creates a text that is often suggestive of ideas, that implies tangents, and hints at propositions, rather than blathering at length about them. It’s a book, like the best literary novels, that keeps the reader thinking: not just whodunit, but about all kinds of things, more or less connected with the book’s subject matter. And as we make our way through the book, more and more suggestions and ideas accumulate, making us think, not about a specific topic or problem, but making us, in a broader sense, just think. And for every association and loose idea, there is also a theme threaded through the book, recurring in different guises, suggesting different conclusions each time.

One of these themes is the topic of authorship, and, ultimately, of truth, fiction and authorial intent. The book’s subtitle is Konstantin Skvorecky’s memoir of the alien invasion of 1986 but much of the book’s suspense revolves around the question whether the alien invasion is really taking place or not, and in answering (or not) that question, the book makes use of our belief and disbelief in authorizing genres and gestures. An appended fictional Wikipedia entry for Konstantin Skvorecky ties in these concerns with our reading of our own history and how we understand chronology and time-lines. In this, there is an odd connection of Yellow Blue Tibia to the mad work of writers like Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to 1986 and Konstantin Skvorecky’s troubles. After decades during which nothing happened that related to the events in the cabin, Skvorecky, a resigned old man, left by his wife, recovering alcoholic, who makes some money as a translator now, is suddenly swept away by a series of events that are all connected to the story he and his colleagues made up 41 years ago. People claim that the fiction has come true, that UFOs really exist and radiation aliens, as well, and that the January, 28, 1986 breakup and disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle was the attack prognosticated in the story. What ensues is a delightfully strange picaresque tale that borrows quite a few elements of the noir, mostly in its setup of situations with shadowy government agents who may or may not pursue their own agenda. In scene after scene we encounter wonderfully warm and colorful images, although some of the events that are recounted for us, are dark and brutal.

Generally speaking, Roberts manages to bridge the distance between a serious, even vicious, kind of story/background and a laugh-out-loud funny tale with great aplomb. Like all great satirists (cf. Tova Reich), he is able to approach a situation like an interrogation in the cellars of the KGB and lace them with a humor that is at times almost silly, as with an interrogator, who, off the record, enjoys threatening his interlocutors with castration, which leads to a dialog that had me wheezing with laughter. This does not take away or detract from the dark history that Roberts engages here. But Roberts wants more than just instigate sadness in his readers, he wants us to think, comprehend, and contextualize this mass movement with others in the 20th century. He does this not by lecturing us, by cloaking non-fictional propositions in the soft cloth of a novel. Instead, what is on display in Yellow Blue Tibia is a genuine interest in the ideas and concerns of the novel and its readers are invited to take part in the swirls and eddies of its thinking. This makes for a very rich reading that does not bludgeon the reader with a disquisition on, for example, mass culture, or mass movements; we are rather presented with different elements that we can connect if we want to and in what way we see fit, although the general theme and focus of the novel do limit us somewhat. That theme and focus is writing, specifically the writing of Science Fiction. We are presented with a handful of categorical statements of what science Fction is, or is not, of what it can do, and what it can’t. It is, again, not a coincidence, that we are reminded of a classic of SF here, L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky.

L. Ron Hubbard, his dangerous religion and his mediocre writing have often been mentioned in these contexts and they are a great example for mass movements, because in the evolution of Scientology from Dianetics and Hubbard’s work as a writer of science fiction the interconnectedness of fiction and religion becomes most obvious and clear. Hubbard’s pseudoscience, first published in the leading SF weekly Astounding Science-Fiction under John W. Campbell, Jr.’s editorship, is one of Yellow Blue Tibia‘s most important references. Not only does the book feature two members of the Church of Scientology, but its discussion of aliens, its depiction of UFO obsession, and, finally, its overriding theme of how narratives shape our perceived reality share many links to Hubbard’s new religion. The suggestibility of human beings, especially those ‘schooled’ by authoritarian belief systems is repeatedly brought up, with links, perhaps, to Elias Canetti’s brilliant opus magnum Crowds and Power. Crowds, for Canetti, don’t need a leader, they need a direction. Fiction, for both Hubbard and Roberts, provides the possibility of shaping exactly that: a direction that crowds can use as orientation, orientation that is beyond doctrine. It gives direction not just to explicit thought, but to the essentials of perception. In this criticism, Yellow Blue Tibia allies itself with orthodox Marxist thought and its Ideologiekritik, but it exceeds these narrow boundaries as well. Although it is committed to its ideas, it is not settled or determinate. The whole story is pervaded by a thorough ambiguity, an irony, if you will, which does not undermine the ideas of the book, but is part and parcel of these very ideas.

In the end, despite its concern with crowds, it is, I think, in part a rejection of Mao II‘s dictum that the future belongs to crowds. Nonsense, the book says, the future belongs to human beings, but they have to think for themselves. It is crowds and their narratives that are limiting, forcing people onto their narrow paths of thought. In this, Yellow Blue Tibia tars religion and ideologies with the same brush, calling on its readers to emancipate ourselves from hierarchies and structures that are narratives, i.e. fiction (in what is clearly a work of fiction, a contradiction that the book seems very aware of). This is by no means even close to be new, but then Roberts does not employ the gesture of much science fiction that wants to be ‘mind-blowing’. Yellow Blue Tibia is a novel that is very conscious of its antecedents, philosophically and literary. There is Stirner, maybe, Wilhelm Reich, certainly, Golden Age science fiction, 1970s paranoid classics like the novels of Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick, and many many novels about 20th century’s totalitarian systems. The associative, broad nature of its references and allusions means that its connections extend to books that the author may not have read at all, like the trash of Maurice Dantec and Imre Kertész’ fine meta-novel A Kudarc. Yellow Blue Tibia is conscious of the libraries of books that preceded it and doesn’t even attempt to be full of new ideas. Instead, it opts, surprisingly, for something else. The structure of the book’s narrative, as its ending shows us, is incredibly traditional, and both moving and charming, and it’s Adam Roberts’ major achievement that he managed to ground the story and its ideas in a humane, personal narrative that suggests to us that its concerns are more than fun and games. They matter.

As does science fiction. Yes, the book constantly contrasts fact with fiction, showing how lines get blurred, creating an atmosphere, a sense of undecidability, but it’s not plain ‘fiction’. It’s science fiction. Adam Roberts wrote a paean not just to imagination proper but to science fiction especially. Science fiction is stronger than imagination: at one point, a character exclaims

I only mean – it’s science fiction! If your science-fictional imagination is broken, you can rebuild it with imaginary high technology! If your writer’s soul is amputated, then because we are talking of science fiction you can fit it with a robotic prosthesis. You can write again, write better, stronger, as a cyborg!

Good science fiction offers tools not just to understand history or the present but to change our perception. The ‘cyborg’ bit here is significant: technology does not just provide props (as furnishings in historical novels tend to be), it allows the writer to supplement the imagination. Science fiction does not need to pretend to work from within a fixed, limiting world, its hierarchies and priorities need not be the small, polar ones of what we perceive to be the necessary, inevitable limits. There is, I think, an openness to good science fiction that is more than seeing clearer. It’s not seeing clearer, which is implying an exploration of limits, it’s glimpsing possibilities beyond this table, that wall or that window, without indulging in sloppy metaphysics. Science fiction, dark or light, is a kind of dreamy materialism. Adam Roberts does not attempt to seriously engage these possibilities, instead he highlights the literary genre of science fiction, and its viability as a tool in world building. Science fiction, he says, is worth engaging with, worth writing and reading. As is Yellow Blue Tibia. Read it. You will not regret it.

Marcel Theroux: Far North

Theroux, Marcel (2009), Far North, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23777-7

Had Marcel Theroux’ latest novel not made the shortlist of the National Book Award, I doubt I would have looked twice at the book, which seemed to me rather unremarkable, a book in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s decent The Road and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (recently recommended by a friend), to name just two of the many post-apocalyptic books published this decade. It’s not that the book is horrible, it’s not. It’s dull, but as a whole decent enough not to throw into the garbage right away although it’s sure as hell not a good book. Its saving grace is not the actual writing or storytelling but its protagonist. Makepeace, who is the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a fascinating character, and, what’s more, a very well drawn one, whom the reader gladly follows across the rickety bridge that is the novel’s construction and writing. It’s a surprise, really, that, after putting this book down with almost a sigh of relief, I felt a vague but definite yearning for another story featuring the jolly heroine of Theroux’ mediocre novel.

By calling her a ‘heroine’ I have given away a ‘surprise’ that Theroux reveals some twenty pages into the story. As we enter the book, we encounter a lonesome figure, patrolling an empty town. The first sentence of the novel ably conveys the atmosphere of that part of the book: “Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city.” That sentence could well belong to a western, but the story is set ‘Far North’, in the vast emptiness of the Siberian tundra. It’s also set in the future, in a world after natural catastrophes have destroyed civilization as we know it. The explanation how the catastrophes came about is, let’s say: interesting.

The planet had heated up. They turned off smokestacks and stopped flying. Some, like my [Makepeace’s] parents, altered the way they lived. Factories were shut down […] As it turned out, the smoke from all the furnaces had been working like a sunshade, keeping the world a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise. He said that in trying to do the right thing, we had sawed off the branch we were sitting on. The droughts and storms that came in the years after put in motion all the things that followed.

Theroux, however, isn’t a scientist (although, in 2004, he did present a TV show on climate change on Channel 4) and Far North isn’t a scientific essay on the topic of impending ecological doom. In fact, the ecology of the story, the science, takes a back seat, almost as much as in The Road, where we have no idea what happened, we’re just confronted with the brute facts of post-apocalyptic reality and how to deal with it. In contrast to The Road, Theroux does express an interest in history, both the general history, for example, of the US, and the particular history of Makepeace’s family and people in her time frame.

All this history is so important in the novel because of its overriding interest in Makepeace’s character. Makepeace is an odd character, who dresses like a man and behaves like one. Due to a disfiguring accident she suffered as a girl, she can also quite easily pass for a man, without actually aiming to deceive. This is because she dresses in the most practical fashion possible and that kind of dress is usually, in our time, as in Makepeace’s, read as masculine. Theroux toys with our expectations a bit at the onset of the story, letting us buy into the idea of this tough male frontiersman who, in the opening pages, shoots a thief for making away with some books. During the rest of the book, the revelation accorded to us, the readers, is likewise accorded to several groups or individuals in the novel who find out what or who that man is who can prowl the woods and hunt caribou with the best of them. He could have revealed Makepeace’s sex at the end of the book, but he didn’t, and some of the reasons for his decision go a long way towards explaining why Far North is such a weak book. One of the reason sis that Theroux is a weak writer.

Not just a weak writer in the sense of a mediocre writer. He is weak in the sense that, instead of working through his ideas and assumptions, instead of engaging more fully his concepts and the world he built, frequently opts for easy, weak solutions. The ecological science might be one of them. Another is the world. People, places and objects flit in and out of focus, without anything that is really endowed with depth. Apart from Makepeace, all characters are caricatures, cardboard cutouts, like the Bad Priest, the Evil Corporate Boss, and a few characters which are even tinged with racism. There is The Muslim, but most importantly, the indigenous peoples of the area, whom Theroux called the Tungus people. These days, these people are called the Evenks, the ‘tungus’ moniker gained currency when the Russians conquered and colonized Siberia, but apparently, it will be popular again in the future (here’s an interesting factsheet about the okrug where most of them live). Theroux places them, and this is what’s problematic, as a group, clearly racially defined, into the ideational structure of the book where they represent the opposite of civilization, an Other of sorts, living in a natural state devoid of ‘civilized’ morality, but also devoid of hypocrisy.

Here, as in other places, Theroux holds back, not ready to doff the overcoat he’s brought with him, spread on the floor for the reader to inspect. The Tungus people are not better or superior to civilized people, they’re just not as bad, and regret drips from Far North‘s pages where Theroux extols their practical morality. The book, in the end, ends up with the image of someone cuddling up in a nest of books while the world outside is slowly reclaimed by nature. Books are good and nature, while not bad, is, in more than one sense of the word, outside, as are the Tungus people. Sex and gender are subject to a very similar kind of indecision. On the one hand, Theroux’ heroine flaunts traditional gender roles, she shoots from the hip, rides horses, can catch and corral several caribou at once and is generally badass. She wears men’s clothing, doesn’t care much for so-called feminine wiles and never expresses an interest in make-up or jewelry. Diamonds are not, in fact, her best friends, but the bullets that she herself casts are. A writer herself, she is thus also shown to be at the beginning of a new tradition, with the whole of Far North the self-narrated manuscript she leaves to posterity, thus usurping a role traditionally accorded to men. But, to see it this way is to dismiss the reason why she behaves as she does. It’s the absence of men.

Granted, Makepeace can better all the men she meets, but it’s still their absence that has her fill in for them. And as for looks and the maintenance of them, men, again, have fouled up her looks which has set her on the masculinized path that we then, in the opening pages of the book find her on. And this is not enough. Additionally, Theroux surrounds her narrative with images of birth and rebirth, in such an emphatic manner that I was under the impression that he strained to smooth out any irritation caused by the first passages. Look, she’s a woman after all, he appears to say. Although I did find another, far more subtle reference I thought I saw in the ties of Theroux’ book to Canadian literature. Nothing in his biography or in explicit references supports this, but hear me out. On the one hand, his construction of the landscape is in keeping with a lot of well-known clichés about the north, which have been particular well explored with respect to the Canadian north. In her 2001 study on the topic, Sherrill E. Grace ends an enumeration of typical elements (a disconcerting number of which turn up in Far North) with the sarkastic exclamation: “and…Voila! A northern novel!”

But Grace mentions another novel about the north, Margaret Atwood’s haunting Surfacing, which is also an appropriate reference here, in a more positive way. Atwood’s novel of contacts with nature and awakenings, replete with images of birth and rebirth, too, might be an antetype, conscious or not, to Theroux handling of issues of sex and gender. His cliché idea of female experience. however, demonstrates how sorely, in this, too, his book is lacking. He mentions an idea but doesn’t really follow through with it. This is what I called weakness and holding back. Tentatively, Theroux shows us what you can do in such a radically altered social landscape, the possibilities in such a narrative, but he quickly smooths things over. The impulses I just described culminate in the last fifth of the book, where he tacks on an impossibly saccharine, contrived and far-fetched ending that would not be jarring in any of the hundreds of telenovelas that crowd daytime television in most countries, and that is a fitting conclusion for a messy book that consists of odd pieces and ideas, some of whom work and some don’t. Makepeace, the protagonist, is one of those that work. She’s such a good character that she can almost make the book work and cohere all on her own.

Almost, I said. Of the other ideas, so many are lame or dull that I caught myself pitying Makepeace as I watch her being shoved through Theroux’ story, in effect running the gauntlet. The most interesting of Theroux ideas is his use of early American history. These are not hidden references: after the aforementioned catastrophe, American Quaker families and similarly minded communities move to the Far North, to start anew, to establish communities in the wilderness, on a different continent. Their fate in general and a cartoonish but surprisingly effective depiction of a particularly pious settlement (Makepeace’s encounter with this community really sets the story in motion) will remind any student of American history of the reports and stories that tell us about that time. No-one who’s read sermons from the time of the Great Awakening can be deaf to the echoes of that rhetoric in the sermons and speeches of Far North‘s Christian preachers and believers. It is, of course, part of Theroux’ essentially conservative tropes of rebirth that keep cropping up in the novel, but as a motif, and an idea it is remarkable, and solitary in the novel in that it is complete and satisfying. Using frontiersmen and puritan-like communities appears to me to be quite a common motif, almost de rigeur, in SF, but I have rarely come across a rendition of that particular theme as interesting as this.

An equally well known but infinitely less well wrought motif is that of the ‘Zone’. In the novel we will encounter prisoner camps, with men used as working slaves and other men employed to scout out ‘the Zone’, a huge abandoned city that was used by the Russians, before the catastrophe, as a scientific and intellectual center. Now, however, no-one is alive or reachable who knows its secrets but maps have survived, and rumors of dangers and treasures hidden in it. Not gold, but odd and inexplicable objects created by a science that the scavengers roaming the city can neither understand nor really make use of. The nature of some of the objects recalls Clarke’s famous bonmot (actually I think it’s one of his three rules) that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If that reminds you of the Strugatzki brothers’ classic science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, or the movie or even the video game that has been made of it, it reminded me, too, and not in a good way. Again, Theroux is content with spreading this coat, too, on the floor, not really committed to wearing it. Theroux dips in and out of the theme, suggesting loads of interesting ideas but following up on few of them. There is a strong undercurrent that is concerned with myth and modernity, and the Zone is part of that, but, as far as its execution is concerned, it’s sketchy at best.

I’ve left the writing for last. Far North is written in what seems to me to be an American idiom or, alternatively, a simple English based upon the American variety of English (I may well be wrong, since Theroux lives and works in London and has barely any connections to the US, according to his wiki). However, although it needs to be stated that Theroux enjoys making Makepeace say trite and trivial aphoristic sentences far too much, the writing is solid throughout the book. The contrast to a book like Paul Auster’s most recent novel Invisible, which is similarly built with a great deal of grandstanding remarks, but written less well, shines a favorable light on that aspect of Theroux’ book, although, by itself, the writing’s not actually good. The simple language and even the flat aphoristic sentences are even put to good use in characterizing the simple mindset and education of Makepeace. As a reader I may have wished for more, for at least an attempt to use language in an interesting way, but you take what you get and with the slim pickings that the book otherwise provides, I’m fine with the writing. But, with all the coats tried on and spread on the floor for inspection, the novel feels quite bare. Not naked in any sensual or interesting sense, more like a mannequin robbed of its clothes. The face may charm you, but the body, in a bland color, with screws and joints visible, is a turn-off at best. Much to Theroux’ credit, the basic idea, the scenario, is a winner, it’s, as Grace would have said, a case of “and…voilà! a postapocalyptic novel!” and while his world-building is perfunctory and cliché-ridden, Theroux is competent enough not to ruin this solid foundation altogether. Far North‘s certainly no recommendation but it won’t make you chop off your own hand either in an attempt to forget the book. It’s really ok.

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