—Lavie Tidhar, Central Station, p. 102
In an article published earlier this summer, the American historian and literary critic Jill Lepore labeled contemporary dystopian writing as “our new literature of radical pessimism.” “Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance,” she observed, “[but now] it’s become a fiction of submission … it cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one … Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination.” A mere three years on from Ursula Le Guin’s rousing call to science fiction and fantasy writers to help us “envision alternatives to how we live,” Lepore took a far more pessimistic view, arguing that “left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism.”
But Lepore’s causal story is surely one-sided. The “radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism” may well have contributed towards a political unraveling; but it is also perhaps the product of a decades-long constriction of political possibility. Ursula Le Guin’s own most famous re-imagination of “alternatives to how we live” came in her 1972 novel, The Dispossessed, at a time when the memories of the radical 1960s were still fresh, global decolonization was in full swing, and an altogether new world seemed entirely plausible. This was also the time of James Blish’s Cities in Flight and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War—grand, sweeping novels whose ambition spanned many millennia and ended with fundamental, Borges-esque overhauls of the basic categories that structure human existence.
But even at that time, there was writing that anticipated a narrower future. Hunter S. Thompson’s evocative image of “the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back” turned out to more accurately presage the coming future than Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which was published the same year: a future in which decolonised nations turned from being the standard-bearers of a new age to the importers of a familiar authoritarianism, the word “revolution” acquired the rusting sheen of debased currency, Margaret Thatcher declared that there was no alternative, and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history; a future that culminated in the 2008 financial crisis, itself birthing a politics of “austerity” that was, for many, even more stifling and constricting than what had come before. Until its recent, unpredictable rupture, the consequences of which are still entirely uncertain, this was a politics, above all, of a narrowing of imagination, and a foreclosure of possibility. Viewed in this context, Lepore’s “literature of radical pessimism” is perhaps better viewed as a response to a prevailing reality rather than a shaper of it.
In theme, style, and content, the 2017 Clarke Award shortlist—Emma Newman’s After Atlas, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me, Becky Chambers’s A Closed and Common Orbit, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station—is a diverse set. However, in different ways, each of these books speaks to Lepore’s concern about “a fiction of helplessness and hopelessness.” Perhaps, as a function of the times we are in, these books do not heed Le Guin’s call to envision alternatives to how we live. The futures—and in one case, the past—that these books offer is either dystopic or close to dystopic, in utterly recognizable ways. Many of the pregnant battles of today—for democracy, for equality, for privacy, and against universal surveillance—have in these pages been lost for good, and there is no pretence that any individual, or group of individuals, has the power to transform the world. There is little in the way of grand narrative or vaulting ambition in terms of the stories that these novels set out to tell. Far greater—and in some cases, exclusive—focus is placed on human relationships, on more mundane struggles; it is as if Marx’s utopianism of overthrowing centralized power has been replaced by Foucault’s bleaker understanding of power’s ubiquity, and the dispiriting realization that the struggle is limited to daily, quotidian acts. Above all, there is—almost—a palpable mistrust of any radical re-imagination of the ways in which society might be organised.
Importantly, however, this is not all there is to these novels. While they do not provide us with answers, they do accomplish the task of asking questions that leave to our imaginations the possibility of an answer. In this sense, there is an important departure from “the literature of radical pessimism,” and the politics that it is framed by—a politics that constricts even the vocabulary in which questions may be formulated, let alone allows for the possibility of answers. “You could only believe there were answers at all,” Lavie Tidhar’s narrative voice tells us in the middle of Central Station. This is a literature neither of radical pessimism, nor—as Le Guin would have it—of bold, alternative visions. It is somewhere in between: a literature that is neither defined by “hopelessness and helplessness”, nor ready to bear the burden—or the responsibility—of defining hope. Thomas Carlyle memorably termed the age of Walter Scott as “destitute of faith and terrified at skepticism.” Taking a cue from that, we can term the literature that the Clarke Shortlist represents as skeptical of faith, but terrified of destitution—a literature, in short, of half-doubt and half-possibility.
—Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit, p. 211
“Half-doubt and half-possibility” perhaps represents, most accurately, the narrative vision of the dizzyingly inventive and vividly imagined Ninefox Gambit, a military-space-opera with more than a few unexpected twists and turns. In Yoon Ha Lee’s unrecognizably far-future universe, an all-powerful “Hexarchate” rules the galaxy through the “Calendar”—a form of consensus reality literally constructed and “fueled by the coherence of our beliefs” (p. 264). The Calendar—which is a rigid, mathematical amalgam of the physical, social, and technological laws of the universe, and a series of rituals marked by “brainwashing and … torture” (p. 40), depends for its existence on “consensus mechanics … [where] everyone observed the remembrances and adhered to the social order” (p. 115). Any deviation from “Doctrine”—any imagination or exploration of alternative belief systems, which has an automatic effect on physical laws—is defined as “calendrical rot,” and must be treated as heresy, stamped out militarily, the survivors “re-educated” into the consensus. The military faction of the Hexarchate—the Kel—has developed an even more extreme version specifically for fighting wars: the deceptively benign-sounding “formation instinct,” which is anything but instinctual. The formation instinct, programmed into the Kel, incorporates each of its members into a kind of hive mind, establishing an unbreakable chain of command and a near-absolute unity of purpose that, in turn, allows the Kel, in war, to “channel exotic effects from heat lances to force shields” (p. 12).
In Ninefox Gambit, Captain Kel Cheris is commanded to recapture the strategically vital Fortress of Scattered Needles from heretics who have induced widespread calendrical rot, threatening the Hexarchate itself. She enlists Shuos Jedao, a General notorious for senselessly massacring his own navy during a siege many centuries ago, but whose undefeated military record persuaded the Kel to maintain him in a state of undeath and resurrect him from time to time to help with waging particularly difficult wars. It is midway through the battle for the Fortress of Scattered Needles that the nature of the calendrical heresy is revealed:
“She said ‘representing’. That wasn’t marketing research they were doing, that was polling. She claims to be sitting on a nascent democracy.”
Jedao sighed. “An obscure experimental form of government where citizens choose their own leaders or policies by voting on them.” (p. 273)
Kel Cheris’s response to this is bemusement and incomprehension, trying to imagine it and failing. “How could you form a stable regime this way? Wouldn’t it destroy the reliability of the calendar and all its associated technology?” (p. 273) A social order founded upon hierarchy denies the vast majority of its participants the conceptual and imaginative vocabulary to even formulate an alternative, and treats the minority who do as a dangerous cancer. Yet while there is something heart-sinkingly inevitable about Cheris and Jedao’s relentless advance into the Fortress to wipe out the heresy, the novel’s slow unraveling suggests that this (re)discovery of democracy is neither a fluke, nor entirely without precedent. Ninefox Gambit does not end with the triumph of the heresy, or even with its establishment as a viable dissident movement: that is not a luxury that Lee is willing to grant his readers. However, it does end with a sense that every failed “democratic heresy” contains the seeds of its own regeneration. To what end that might lead is left to the readers (or to a sequel). Space is full of questions, and you couldn’t answer everything. Half-doubt, half-possibility.
At a distance, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is the exact opposite of Ninefox Gambit. From a terrifyingly unrecognizable future to a terrifyingly familiar past, from unbounded imagination to a lived experience whose scars still shape the world we know today, The Underground Railroad takes us to the nineteenth-century slave state called the United States of America.
“The Underground Railroad,” in the words of a contemporary Philadelphia newspaper, was “an organization … established for the purpose of aiding slaves to escape from their masters in the South, but its operations were so mysterious and secret that, although everybody knew and spoke vaguely of its existence during the time of slavery, yet none but the initiated knew the secrets of its management and operations.” This was partly because the operations of the Railroad were conducted entirely in railway code. Safe houses were “stations,” facilitators were “conductors,” escaping slaves “passengers,” and donors were “stockholders.” Despite severe repression by the slave states, who were intent on uncovering and breaking the back of the “railroad,” many thousand slaves used the network to escape to Canada, or one of the free states of the North, their testimonies immortalized in the abolitionist William Still’s The Underground Railroad Records.
If, in Ninefox Gambit, the discipline of mental consensus can change the physical world, then in The Underground Railroad, metaphor has transformed itself into concrete reality. Whitehead imagines an actual railroad (“Who built it?” “Who builds anything in this country?” [p. 99]) instead of a euphemistic one, running underground for miles beneath the slave plantations of the American South, all the way to the Mason-Dixon line and beyond, its stations, station-masters, conductors and passengers, all involved in a desperate game of “tag” with slavers looking to discover and root out the sources of the Railroad.
The Underground Railroad follows the life of Cora, a black escapee from the South, whose life intersects with the Railroad every time she attempts to take a few more steps towards freedom. It constructs a partially-real and partially-imagined political topography of the South, from the hanging trees of North Carolina to the burnt countryside of Tennessee, through which Cora is perpetually fleeing her pursuers, a half-step ahead of them but never liberated: running, captured, free again, running, trapped, captured, running again. It is a topography that is framed by a near-ceaseless violence, which takes different and ingenious forms, from “scientific” experiments to burning of property (and of books), to public lynchings, and whose victims are almost always black, but occasionally sympathetic whites as well. Even though The Underground Railroad is framed around the classic Western—and SF—trope of the heroic quest, as Kathryn Schulz perceptively notes, “freedom is illusory in his novel, and iniquity unbound by latitude.” Until the very end of the novel, Cora is dogged by her slaver-pursuers, dogged by slavery itself, and as Schulz goes on to say:
…anyone alive in today’s America knows that she will never entirely outrun it. Indeed, at times Cora seems to be already traversing a future bereft of full freedom—the landscape blighted by proto-Jim Crow, her journey a private Great Migration. Behind the slave-catcher we can almost glimpse the police officer misusing lethal force; behind the manacles on the walls of a train depot, the bars of mass incarceration.
If “democracy” is the idea that dared not speak its name in Ninefox Gambit, then “freedom” is the hope that helplessness can barely imagine in The Underground Railroad. Ninefox Gambit does not give us democracy, and Underground Railroad does not give us freedom. But it is the very existence of the railroad—in metal, wood, and human flesh—and what that existence means, which allows Cora (and us) to rediscover the word, and imagine its possibility.
Democracy. Freedom. Now all we need is equality. We find it—or something like it—in Emma Newman’s After Atlas. Out of the six Clarke Finalists, the world of After Atlas is the most immediately recognizable (Megan AM of the Shadow Clarke jury calls it “appropriately in tune with our current situation”), and it is a bleak and terrifying world: every battle between the individual and structures of power, which presently appears to hang in the balance, has been decisively lost (“the transition from pseudodemocracy into nonliberty” [p. 29], the protagonist’s narrative voice summarises bluntly at one point). The world has been cut up into super-entities ruled by “gov-corps” (we never hear of elections—presumably, they’ve been abolished). Data privacy has been permanently forfeited, with “artificial personal assistants” (“APAs”) available on summons through a neural implant, and “chipped” people walking around with their “profiles” attached to them, accessible at a moment to anyone with the right police credentials. Debt-servitude (and servitude as punishment for crimes) —the logical extreme of the prison-industrial complex that already exists in some form in most countries—is back, in all its crippling denial of humanity, much like it was in the world of the The Underground Railroad, except that the corporate entity has replaced the plantation farmer (“. . . my contract has always prevented full-time cohabitation, as they call it” [p. 30])
In this eerily familiar world, Carlos Moreno, a crime investigator indentured to the Noropean Gov-Corp Ministry of Justice, is called upon to solve the murder of Alejandro Casales, a brilliant and famous religious leader, found hanged and brutally hacked to pieces in a secluded English country hotel. The investigation plunges Moreno into his own past, a past that includes his personal estrangement from Casales’s “Circle”, and the momentous departure of a thousand of Earth’s most talented individuals in a spaceship called “Atlas” for a new home among the stars. As he burrows deeper into the cause of Casales’s bizarre death, Moreno finds himself up to his ears in an international conspiracy linked to Atlas and to the “Circle,” which seems suspiciously more than just another religious movement opposed to the proliferation of technology and its unstoppable intrusion into human life.
The bleakness of the world of After Atlas does not lie in any great event of tyranny, or some visible mark of oppression, but in a thousand tiny instances, each one a strand in a carefully-designed web that has enmeshed the individual in an almost imperceptible—yet unbreakable—grip. Whenever indentured people spend any money, it adds days, months, and years to their contract (“… the ingredients I plan to buy will amount to an extra three hours on my contract to pay off the credit required” [p. 14]); if you refuse to be “chipped” (and thereby relinquish control over your data to the authorities), you can only make purchases by relinquishing your biometrics, so that they can be tracked (the ongoing, bitter controversy in many nations over biometric databases suggests that Newman’s choice is by no means accidental); university syllabi are determined by gov-corps, with Cambridge having been the first to cave in; and so on. We are, in fact, in the realm of Lepore’s helplessness and hopelessness, when Moreno says: “No, you’re right. It’s not funny. But corporate injustice is just . . . it’s the way things are now. Who are you going to expose it to? There are no people who aren’t already in it. And those who say they’re independent just don’t know who owns them.” (p. 243)
In After Atlas, the only possible escape is an actual, physical escape from Earth. As an imagining of alternative ways to live, this is not much of a solution; and even this is diluted by Newman, because the end of After Atlas hints strongly that as long as people exist, institutions of domination and structures of cruelty will also exist. We cannot run away from ourselves, even if we may run away from Earth. After Atlas does not, however, definitively settle the issue one way or another. For now, it remains open, leaving—once again—the potential construction of an alternative vocabulary and an alternative set of institutions, away from the ruined Earth, to the imagination of the readers.
If centralized corporate power is the background theme in After Atlas, it comes to the foreground in Occupy Me, Tricia Sullivan’s brooding journey through time, space, and other dimensions, where the hopelessness of Newman’s “corporate injustice is just … it’s the way things are now” is more than matched by Sullivan’s “in your heart you can’t even imagine a world where the powerful don’t determine everyone’s fate by thuggery and domination. You realise that you’ve never even really tried” (p. 306). In Occupy Me, an angel called Pearl, with the assistance of a “waveform” that has entered the body of a doctor, Kisi Sorle, is tasked with saving the existence of “The Resistance” on earth, by going through the classic causal loop of time travel. The Resistance—which, with the benefit of hindsight, was surely an ill-chosen phrase—turns out to be far more modest than an underground organization aiming at the transformation of the existing order of things. Created by an emergent intelligence that cannot be defined precisely, The Resistance resists (the rather abstract concept of) “entropy” (p. 72), through imperceptible, individual acts:
“The whole purpose of the Resistance is to keep it low. Our angels don’t do pyrotechnics. They don’t fly around performing stunts! They are ordinary janitors and health care workers and truck drivers and waitresses. The whole point of what we do is to tweak causal nature in small ways. Small, unobtrusive ways, Pearl, because that’s how the work of the world gets done.” (p. 74)
And, in what appears to be a reverse-version of chaos theory’s “butterfly effect”:
“It seems random, or maybe a tiny act of senseless kindness, but actually it’s contrived. According to Marquita, each of these actions is possibly a minute tipping point that sets in motion a chain reaction to advance humanity.” (p. 102)
While this may sound disconcertingly like an SF version of Tony Blair’s incrementalist “third-way politics,” there’s more. To break through the causal loop, Pearl and Doctor Sorle have to overcome the machinations of Pace Industries, a particularly ruthless global corporation in the business of oil extraction, which, long ago, was, in its pursuit of markets, responsible for the violent destruction of Sorle’s native village. The struggle takes Pearl across both physical space and “HD” (higher-dimensional) space, across “the bleeding edge of time” (p. 102), and to knowledge of “The Immanence,” a higher-order intelligence that exited the Universe long ago, but whose traces remain in the world, and have been preserved by a scavenger-race of beings in a massive data-library, itself guarded by HD gates and “spanning time and space” (p. 249). The race to save the Resistance mutates into a Noah’s Ark quest to save this multi-dimensional Borgesian library of babel (“… the Immanence is not really gone. Because the past is built out of the future and we have the past” [p. 285]) – and carry it across dimensions to wherever the Immanence went.
If, in After Atlas, escape was a willed exile from a terminally diseased planet, in Occupy Me, escape means to leave the universe – this universe – altogether, with a data-library of all that could have been but never was – languages, cultures, ecosytems, “ideas and movements, half-formed plans and near misses and ideas before their time and times before their ideas... [a closet] where history has stuffed all its unwanteds.” (p. 250) This hope of a fresh start in an entirely new universe is reminiscent of the vaulting ambition of the novels of the 1970s: the final volume of James Blish’s Cities in Flight, for instance, ends with the destruction of the universe and the creation of new universes from the dead bodies of five space-farers present at the end of time (“I wish I could believe,” Estelle said, “that there will be no sorrow in the universe that I make” (James Blish, A Clash of Cymbals, p. 197). But in keeping with the literature of half-doubt and half-possibility, this potential future is allowed to flicker briefly in Occupy Me, before we return to a more prosaic earth and a pitched battle on board a Pace Industries ship. What happens to the library remains unwritten, but Sullivan’s closing warning – “no superglue to repair the tear in this universe” (p. 339) suggests a repudiation of too wild a hope.
If Occupy Me is about trying to save the lost promise of destroyed possible pasts, Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station captures a moment to come where many futures are suspended in a time of coming-into-being (or, in the words of a review, the story of “a used-up earth gone exhausted with age, and a new one still waiting to be born.”) The eponymous Central Station of Tidhar’s novel is a gigantic spaceport built above the near-future city of Tel Aviv, connecting Earth to human colonies on the moon, on Mars, and elsewhere. Central Station and the surrounding area, uneasily bifurcated between Jews and Arabs,is home to a bewildering smorgasbord of characters: robotniks (discarded cyborg soldiers of finished wars) fall in love with human beings; religious enthusiasts and oracles mingle with scavengers, called “alte-zachen men”; professional gamers convert their spoils from virtual reality into gains in the non-virtual world; and in this same virtual world, immensely powerful AIs—called “the Others”—hold sway. Meanwhile, individuals shut out from “the Conversation” (see below) and condemned to “base reality” (p. 196) take up arcane hobbies, like the collection of paper books; victims of a family boon—or curse—that compels them to remember everything each of them has ever done struggle with the weight of their memories; data-vampires with strange and secret powers come down from the stars, for purposes of their own; and “god-children,” beings with the ability to naturally immerse themselves in the data-stream, come together to combine forces. Like Central Station itself, Tidhar’s novel is a loose amalgamation of sharply-drawn characters and intersecting—but not overlapping—stories. The connecting thread is “the Conversation,” a constant stream of all the world’s data in real time, which most individuals are tuned into at every waking moment:
… the nearness and yet the distance of it, the compressedness of it all. Billions of humans, uncounted billions of digitals and machines, all talking, chattering, sharing at once. Images, text, voice, recordings, all-immersive memcordist media, gamesworlds spill-over—it came on her at once, and she reeled against it. (p. 62)
The Conversation is as normal a part of existence as an arm or a leg (one accesses it through a physical implant), and its absence more crippling than a physical disability:
… nodal connection mixed in with the broadcast of a hundred thousand other voices, channels, music, languages, the high-bandwidth indecipherable toktok of Others, weather reports, confessionals, off-world broadcasts time-lagged from Lunar Port and Tong Yun and the Belt, Isobel randomly tuning in and out of that deep and endless stream which was the Conversation. (p. 22)
This is, obviously, a world without the concept of privacy. Indeed, more broadly, it is data that is the central theme of Tidhar’s novel, and individuals’ relationships to data that constitute the lynchpin of their stories: whether it is the doomed Weiwei family, unable to forget anything, or Carmel, the strigoi (“data-vampire”), who depends on feeding upon other peoples’ data streams for sustenance. Tidhar imagines existence at the cusp of a fundamental transformation, but chooses not to wager on what that transformation might look like (extinction of humanity? an unrecognizable modification? a data utopia, a dystopia, or neither?); instead, he writes about human relationships, and individuals attempting to negotiate this new form of life in their own way (readers might experience a vague similarity with Isaac Asimov’s canonical I, Robot (1950), another set of stories that excavated how human beings would respond to the reality of automata). There is no conclusion. As one of the characters points out about the god-children: “… what the children represent is a future … not, perhaps, the future, but a future”(p. 57). What that future might look like is left to our imagination.
Many of the themes discussed above are at the forefront in Becky Chambers’s A Closed and Common Orbit, the last of the six nominees. A sequel to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015), Chambers’s novel weaves together two stories: that of Sidra/Lovelace, a spaceship’s AI who takes a human form, and must survive undetected on a teeming border planet, without compromising Pepper and Blue, her human hosts; and the quest to find and recover Owl, another AI, who once helped Pepper escape from terrifying servitude upon an alien planet. A Closed and Common Orbit eschews grand narratives entirely. The struggles of its characters are struggles of basic adaptation in unfamiliar, mildly hostile, and occasionally threatening environments but, as Sidra finds out, they can be as daunting and exhausting as anything else:
“I have a fixed limit on hard memory. I was designed to have constant Linking access at all times. I wasn’t meant to store everything locally. I’m going to have to start deleting things at some point. Any time I learn someone’s name, any time I’m taught a new skill, I’m going to have to pick and choose which of my memories to keep. I’m going to have to tear pieces of myself out. You say you understand, but you don’t. You have no idea what this is like. You have no idea how this feels.” (p. 117)
To fully participate in human society, Sidra needs to learn how to reprogram her own protocols so that she can be able to tell a lie (readers will recognize a whiff of China Mieville’s Embassytown (2011) here), a painstaking process that ultimately comes in handy during Pepper’s rescue operation for Owl, during which Sidra discovers that most “human” of all things, a sense of purpose. A Closed and Common Orbit is a sensitive exploration of acculturation and even transculturation between species, and between species and AI, with all the limits of language and imperfect fusions of horizons at the forefront of the narrative.
There is also a darker reality that exists in the background of the novel, in the shape of a race that calls itself “The Enhanced”These manufacture human beings—and in particular, girls—from “some grab-bag gene junk and pull [them] out of a gooey vat” (p. 210), to provide slave labour in factories. This was the past that Pepper escaped from, a past that impinges upon the present through alternative flashback chapters in the novel. The Enhanced, however, are to be escaped from, and not to be fought, because as Pepper realises soon enough:
“She was just one girl. The Enhanced were a society. A machine. And no matter what the simssaid about the power of a single solitary hero, there were some things just too big to change alone.” (p. 268)
Out of the six Clarke finalists, A Closed and Common Orbit comes closest to an unambiguously happy ending (Nina Allan calls it “the literature of reassurance”, and not in an entirely positive way). Also out of the six Clarke finalists, it most consciously avoids the grand sweep of ideas, consciously – to paraphrase the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani “making its world smaller to fill it with happiness.” A Closed and Common Orbit is certainly a novel about hope, but hope only within ... a closed and common orbit. And, as the dim, background presence of “the Enhanced” testifies, beyond the orbit of hope lies a galaxy of doubt.
The second part of this review will appear on Wednesday.