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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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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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.)

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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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.)