… being a round-up of thoughts on some of the new (that is, 2013) books I’ve read so far this year, and some related items.
The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord (Jo Fletcher Books). There’s an awful lot going on in Karen Lord’s second novel, that's for sure. The content is serious social sf in the Le Guin mode: a galaxy where there are many varieties of human and human life, all one species but with greater phenotypic divergences than found in contemporary races -- high grav builds, different lifespans, different fertility spans, different sleep requirements and, er, psychic powers (these last, we are specifically told, the result of both nature and nurture). Following a genocide, the survivors of one group, the superior and emotionally contained Sadiri, are looking for a new home that will allow them to preserve their distinctive culture and traits. The form of the novel is a highly episodic memoir, written by a part-Terran part-Ntshune civil servant on Cygnus Beta, assigned to escort a party of Sadiri around a succession of different diaspora communities. And then the narrative style is a very middle-class light romantic comedy, with culture-clash humour in the Star Trek vein, as our expressive narrator and the Englishly reserved lead Sadiri start to form a serious bond. These disparate elements make for a novel that is by turns charming and jarring; a book that nods to contemporary inclusive attitudes to gender and sexuality -- there is a non-gendered character, and a gay couple, and some polyamory -- yet is ultimately about a strangely old-fashioned performance of monogamous heterosexual femininity; and a story that sometimes leaves you feeling, as Nalo Hopkinson put it in a caveat to her broadly positive LARB review, “as though you’re in a tour bus being whisked past a war zone.” The most curious thing is that Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo, was notable for its assured navigation of a comparably varied range of emotional registers and contexts; I’m not sure quite what happened here to lead to such a tonal see-saw, but it’s a bit of a shame.
The Machine by James Smythe (Blue Door). When I read Smythe’s The Testimony last year, I admired the novel’s suppleness, but felt it didn’t quite commit to its premise: not quite global enough in its voices, a bit too generous to its characters towards the end. With The Machine, certainly a superior novel, I feel a bit like he’s gone too far in the other direction. The canvas is much smaller, and at its centre is a brutal blank novum, the titular Machine. It can edit peoples’ memories; it has rendered Beth’s army husband a vegetable, but may yet be able to bring him back. Around this central relationship is shaded a worn near-future Britain, warmer, more authoritarian, less cohesive than the present: a nation that ruthlessly turns individuals back on themselves, sets them searching for their identities. Smythe’s chosen style is an obsessive pseudo-real-time claustrophobic present tense, a voice that juxtaposes mundane details of action with startling nuggets of information, and which naturalises, when they come, the descriptions of human indignities and wounds. Like The Testimony it is an exploration of the limits of human authority in the world, but it is more clearly a horror novel than its predecessor -- and a harsh and effective story for much of its length, but one that is in the end perhaps let down again slightly by its ending. This time around the last page felt to me like a release from the engrossing intensity of the previous three-hundred-odd pages, just a little too close to well, there is a moral after all for my taste. Before that, however, The Machine is one of the most convincing iterations of 21st-century British science fiction I’ve come across.
Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterannean). If there’s a problem with Six-Gun Snow White, it’s that it doesn’t really go beyond what you envisage when you hear the elevator pitch: Catherynne Valente rewrites Snow White in the American West, with added Coyote. So the voice is slightly coarser than usual, but no less conspicuously elegant. There are striking and original images, but also the requisite gunfights and outlaws, woodsmen and dwarves. There are bones of story that rub close to the surface -- always implicit in a retelling, and explicit here. A repeated motif is the moment that seems like a choice but is not, in particular such moments that amount to the imposition of femininity on a child to construct a woman (specifically the imposition of white femininity on a half-Native American child, in this case). The cumulative effect is deeply claustrophobic for both protagonist and reader. A partway shift from Snow White’s first-person to a self-conscious third-person -- after we leave her childhood, because “no one can tell a true story about themselves” -- provides an illusion of freedom, which finally becomes more than an illusion in the story’s closing chronological leap. But this is itself a move borrowed from Theodora Goss’ “The Rose in Twelve Petals” (2002), and no doubt others I’m not familiar with, and so for me Valente's novella didn’t quite manage to re-set the bones it borrowed. Interesting, and not without moments of beauty, but not a whole-hearted success.
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press). I said more than once, while waiting for this somewhat delayed first novel to appear, that Sofia Samatar is one of the few writers who has intrigued me about their long-form fiction through their criticism, reviews in these pages and elsewhere. For others I gather Samatar’s poetry was as much of a draw. Both tendencies are as visible as you’d hope in A Stranger in Olondria, which is a remarkable and beautiful secondary-world fantasy whose capacious voice encompasses, among other things, literary-cultural history, biography, journal fragments, poems, songs, and a lengthy heart-rending testimonial from a ghost. Parts of the novel, particularly in the first half, reminded me very much of Jan Morris’s Hav, or its narrator as described in this review: an “erudite, charming, witty, purblind, drowning-in-the-right-quotation eternal-spectator innocent-abroad twit, unable to see three feet beyond the end of her own nose.” And to make that narrator work Samatar has to give us a painstakingly rich creation, not just a world, but an entire cultural nexus -- famous writers are quoted, snippets of story and history are introduced to provide context -- and then hint that her protagonist is getting it wrong, or at least not getting it wholly right. In other parts I thought I detected echoes of Earthsea, or at least of my memories of those novels, which I haven’t actually read for about twenty years. What’s constant throughout the novel is a suffusing love of the written word -- not just the common physical form of words, bound in books (though there is that, to the point that reading an ebook of Stranger could be a slightly weird experience), but a cautious love for the immense power of the act of writing, the way it shapes and controls and defines a world. Very occasionally I found myself getting lost in the richness; there is little in this novel that is not in some way elaborate or elegant, even the violence and tragedy, and sometimes I wanted a little more viscerality. But more than that I want to re-read it, because so much of it is unambiguously astonishing and lovely work.
Shackleton’s Man Goes South by Tony White (Science Museum). This is a curiosity, and a labyrinth of found texts. In chapter one, an authorial introduction claims that what follows are introductory notes to an unrecovered book by James Colvin -- a winking reference to Michael Moorcock tells us we’re to take this New Worlds house pseudonym for real -- that describes the workings of an immense early-twentieth-century telegraphic listening post in Kensington, razed to the ground by zeppelin attack in 1916. Chapter two switches to a near future in which Emily and her daughter Jen are fleeing south, illegally, to Antarctica, the last refuge in a environmentally destablised world. Chapter three is, so far as can be determined, straight non-fiction about Ernest Shackleton’s arctic adventures, leading up to his creation of South Polar Times as expedition newspaper, in the archives of which real-world author Tony White unexpectedly found … a short climate change parable by the meteorologist GC Simpson. For real this time, no faking. Ah. The rest of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, part of White’s output as writer-in-residence at the London Science Museum (linked to an ongoing climate-change exhibition, and available for free download until the end of this month) continues in this playful mode, blurring expected stylistic lines between fiction and non-fiction, challenging the resolutions we expect from each form, passionate yet never wholly earnest. A late shift in focus from the ongoing failure to address climate crisis to a different kind of political disingenuousness didn’t quite work for me, but it’s certainly the most distinctive and formally creative novel I’ve read this year.
… which means that at least in that respect it beats out the year’s second museum exhibition science-fictional tie-in literary experiment, Memory Palace by Hari Kunzru (V&A museum), although the latter is still a beautiful artefact and a pretty decent tale. The main attraction is a long dystopian novelette (or thereabouts) by Kunzru, the last testament of a captured dissident describing the world in which they live and how they live. It is ‘curated’ along with artwork from an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum (reviewed by Nick Harkaway here), plus an afterword by the curators, Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar, and a short graphic story by Robert Hunter about the preparation of the exhibition. (And with all of that it’s still more straightforward than Shackleton.) The backstory of Kunzru’s dystopia runs thus: a great event known as the Magnetization wiped all the world's electronic systems leading to a general collapse known as the Withering. In a ruined and drowned London, the authority of the Thing works towards the Wilding, a time when humanity can abandon all attempt to measure or control or impose on the world, and live as one with the world, outside time, in a pure natural/spiritual existence. Opposing them are the Memorialists such as our hero, who pass down sparks of knowledge from our world, many corrupted. As in other tales of this type, discovering the corruptions is half the fun -- voicemail is “a kind of armour made of speech”, an internet is “a plot against nature”, photoshop is “a ritual conducted before going out into the world” -- and in this case, it’s also where the artworks, which range from sketched scenes to purely abstract representations, come into their own. The body of the story -- an interrogation, a debate between abnegation and corruption -- is compelling enough, but it’s the whole artefact that impresses, right down to the typeface, which was apparently designed by William Morris.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins). I don’t think any review of this book would surprise me, because it seems continuously contradictory. Are the characters vibrant and distinct individuals, or are they types? Yes. Is Beukes’ imagined Chicago constructed vividly and precisely, or is it thin and cliche? Yes, again. Is the story original and beautifully constructed, or familiar and too neat? Yes once more. I think The Shining Girls’ greatest virtue is probably its structure, the way it braids a story not just from its two main threads -- malevolent serial killer Harper and precocious victim-survivor Kirby -- but from a succession of character vignettes scattered across the twentieth century, without ever losing momentum or clarity. I think it’s by far Beukes’ most successful attempt at a novel-shaped piece of prose. At the same time, I think the novel’s great weakness is probably the execution of its “high concept”. It’s a time travel novel in which the time travel is just a mite too convenient for the story being told: this is the dispiriting recurrence of misogyny, yes, but it’s also a force of nature that diminishes the agency of Beukes’ killer, leaving him too much of a motivational blank to justify the number of pages we spend with him. My preferred solution, actually, would be to decrease Harper’s page count rather than increase his depth, because I don’t think the force-of-nature metaphor is entirely a bad one for the book’s political goals, it’s just that as things stand Harper -- and his concept of ‘shining’ -- seems to get in the way a bit. At one point, Kirby is told that “justice is high-concept”, which is a typically witty turn of phrase; but I did close the book wishing it was a sufficiently high concept to sell a commercial novel all on its own.
Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins (Gollancz). This, I think, is good: a swift, creative and intense political fantasy, reminiscent of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels as a secondary-world tale that begins and ends pretty much in media res, and in its capacious and modern attitude to fantastical worldbuilding, building an original setting the conveys a sense of many potential stories to be told. Nina Allan’s thorough and thoughtful review for us outlines in much more detail than I could the nature of Wolfhound Century’s resonances with Russian history and (more importantly, I think) fiction; she worries that in the forthcoming sequel said resonances may not amount to much, but given that the central concern of the narrative is not just the fate of the world, but the fate of the past -- there exists a snapshot of the world before, waiting to be restored or erased -- that seems unlikely to me. Higgins feels consummately in control of his creation, and even just looking at the material between these covers it seems to me that his story has much to say about how societies structure, sustain and remake themselves in response to internal and external challenge. And unlike other reviewers, perhaps because I was thoroughly forewarned, I don’t find myself terribly discombobulated by the ending: it may be abrupt, but it’s also a natural break point, with our core protagonists finally united by experience, and having decided their next course of action. Which is not to say I don't feel a burning need to snap up Truth and Fear as soon as it’s available and find out what happens next.
Adam Robots by Adam Roberts (Gollancz). Thesis: Adam Roberts is distinctive among contemporary sf writers not just because he writes unashamed ideas-fiction, but because he writes unashamed old ideas-fiction. There aren’t many novums here you won’t have seen before, from the Adamic robot of the title to the various kinds of immortality, the ethics-modifying substances to the time travel devices. That’s perhaps true of much of the field, and yet by and large Roberts doesn’t pursue either of the common strategies for dealing with it, or even give much indication that he sees it as a problem; he doesn’t really write multi-novum stories, and his worlds are often too streamlined to be fully immersive. So in what ways do the stories here work? First, I think Roberts is getting extremely good at structure; his stories vary widely in length and register, from a very effectively fragmented tale like “A Prison Term of a Thousand Years” (2008), which at four pages is in no danger of outstaying its welcome, to a near-novella-length piece like “Anticopernicus” (2010), which uses its duration to invest its Fermi Paradox-riff with psychological and thematic complexity. Second, his writing is precise and often funny, with its now-familiar precise yet fussy-fidgety style. And third the absence of immersion is actually often freeing, used as a prompt to encourage critical reading and reflection. Some of my favourite stories are the most meta-referential, such as “Wonder: A Story in Two” (2007), which explicitly investigates the notion of conceptual breakthrough, and is echoed by “Dennis Bayle: A Life” (2013), a review of an imaginary book filled with imaginary books that asserts and (I think) disproves the notion that sense-of-wonder requires “novelistic momentum.” Most of the pieces here didn’t get much attention on their first publication -- there are few Year’s Best alumni, and no award nominees -- but Adam Robots demonstrates that Roberts can be as effective in the short form as in the long.
Briefly noted: Two partly-read anthologies, themed around climate change in the case of Beacons ed. Gregory Norminton (Oneworld), and the solar system in the case of The Lowest Heaven ed. Anne Perry and Jared Shurin (Pandemonium). Both pretty strong and tonally varied so far. Two pre-2013 novels reaching UK shores for the first time: God’s War by Kameron Hurley and Osiris by EJ Swift, both definitely worth seeking out. And one novella, Spin by Nina Allan, that I was fortunate enough to read last year; a version of the Arachne myth, and a critical fiction, about art and systems of thought.
Some good stories: (excluding SH, obviously): “We’re All Gonna Have the Blues” by Rodge Glass (Beacons), the bleak reflections of an environmental lobbyist boozing in a jazz bar in Krakow (really); “Saga’s Children” by EJ Swift (The Lowest Heaven), taut and enigmatic family future history; “In Metal, In Bone” by An Owomoyela (Eclipse Online), discussed here; “The High King Dreaming” by Daniel Abraham (Fearsome Journeys), a compressed time-skipping epic fantasy; “Terrain” by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com), about the coming of the railroad in the steampunk west, and about race; “With Fate Conspire” by Vandana Singh (Solaris Rising 2), a long and complex tale of time-viewing and ecological collapse; “Dennis Bayle: A Life” (Adam Robots), discussed above.
And last but not least, a list of books to be read in the second half of the year (he said optimistically): Sunburnt Faces by Shimon Adaf; Microcosmos by Nina Allan; Stardust by Nina Allan; iD by Madeline Ashby; Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; Proxima by Stephen Baxter; American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett; Days of the Deer, Liliana Bodoc; What Lot's Wife Saw by Ioanna Bourazopoulou; Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell; Self-Reference ENGINE by Toh EnJoe; Seoul Survivors by Naomi Foyle; Trafalgar by Angelica Gorodischer; The Folded Man by Matt Hill; No Return by Zachary Jernigan; The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson; Reflections by Roz Kaveney; River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay; Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan; Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee; More Than This by Patrick Ness; The Glass Republic by Tom Pollock; The Adjacent by Christopher Priest; On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds; Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich; Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson; The Water Sign by CS Samulski; Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter; Gooseberry Bluff by David J Schwartz; Theatre of the Gods by M Suddain; The City of Devi by Manil Suri; How the World Became Quiet by Rachel Swirsky; Necessary Ill by Deb Taber; Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux; The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar; The Stone Boatmen by Sarah Tolmie; The Healer by Antti Tuomainen; The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi.