A theory on why we stop remembering: there is a part of our story that we do not know how to tell to ourselves and we will away its existence for so long that finally our brain agrees to a trade: I will let you forget this, but you will never feel whole. (Find Me, p. 243)
In his 2014 essay for Strange Horizons, "The Non-Genre Boom," Martin Lewis explores the increasing influence on science fiction literature of incursions from the mainstream. "The last decade or so has seen an acceleration of what can uglily but accurately be described as non-genre SF," Lewis writes. "I don't think that it is a coincidence that this trend has occurred in parallel with the emergence of the New Weird since it points to a generation shift. Just as contemporary genre authors are writing in the context of several mature subgenres and so are influenced by all of them, so too contemporary literary authors have increasingly been immersed in science fiction through their formative years." The normalisation of SF in recent decades, through popular TV series, blockbuster movies and even novels from the school curriculum such as The Handmaid’s Tale, has granted an aura of cultural respectability to core science fictional conceits, and, as Lewis suggests, encouraged an upsurge in the number of writers more commonly associated with the literary mainstream who feel drawn to experiment with speculative materials.
Among the heartlands of genre science fiction, this tendency is alternately decried and welcomed with equal vigour. Detractors insist that so-called non-genre SF is all style and no substance, a pallid and derivative imitation of science fiction spun out by Johnny-come-latelies who have neither read the canon (yes, that again) nor grasped the fundamentally fractious and divisive nature of a literature in which ideas are the driving engine, with literary style having about as much relevance to a book’s ability to go places as the condition of the paintwork on a vintage Mercedes Benz. Those who are more open to the idea of literary interlopers suggest that such infusions of new blood are essential to the health of the genre, that they will help break down barriers to a wider readership and usher in an era of more serious critical recognition.
I go back and forth on this. As a reader and as a writer, I come from both sides of the fence (a condition which might more accurately be described as sitting on it). Style—a writer’s use of language and form and their approach to and awareness of such precepts—is vitally important to me, and writers who do not pay attention to it will most likely fail in persuading me to get excited about their brilliant ideas. On the other hand, I love science fiction and I care about it. I care about it as a concept, as a literature, and I really do loathe those books that arise from the literary mainstream on the back of an idea that has been explored many times, and with greater intellectual vigour, by writers who have spent their entire careers immersed in the science fiction conversation and yet are routinely ignored by the critical mainstream. I dislike such jejune attempts at science fiction all the more when I see broadsheet critics cooing about their writers’ originality and bravery in tackling such audaciously non-traditional subject matter. I’m not going to name names here, but suffice it to say the list would be quite long.
Whatever our personal feelings about non-genre SF, the one certainty is that it isn’t going away. We could argue all day or all year over whether more literary writers writing science fiction will eventually mean the complete erosion of genre boundaries and the death of ‘real’ science fiction as an identifiable literature. Some would say that this has already happened. Others would counter that this is nonsense. Are we all writing science fiction now, in any case? I enjoy these discussions, all the more so because I waver so dramatically back and forth over where I stand in them. The one thing I do know is that when a book appears that is the real deal—a true novel of science fiction with true literary qualities—it is an event to be celebrated. And, much though the diehard genre-ists may seek to deny it. it can and does happen. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is such a novel, and so is Jan Morris’s Hav. Coming from the other side of the fence we have M. John Harrison’s Empty Space and Mary Gentle’s Ash, to name but two. (It won’t surprise us to discover that those writers who most frequently excel at writing literary science fiction are those who come from science fiction in the first place. It will probably surprise those broadsheet critics, though, as we shall see.)
Laura van den Berg is a young and clearly talented writer. A graduate of Emerson College, she has already published two collections of short fiction to critical acclaim. She has taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins University among other venues, and has been the recipient of several prestigious grants and prizes. Her credentials are devoutly literary. Find Me is her first novel, and it is published in the USA by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a firmly literary house. In the UK, however, it is published by Del Rey, the science fiction wing of Random Penguin. Omitting Daunt Books's edition of her short story collection The Isle of Youth, this is van den Berg’s first UK publication, and it would appear that there has been some confusion over how to market her. I would be fascinated to discover how, when, and why the decision to publish Find Me under the generic SF imprint Del Rey came about, because I am interested in such things. A more immediate and relevant question might be: what kind of a novel is Find Me, exactly, and is it really science fiction?
Del Rey’s marketing – indeed the very presence of Del Rey’s colophon on the novel’s spine – insists that it is. Find Me is being touted as (yet another) post-apocalyptic vision of Middle America. The publicity material for the novel bills it as "a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of a dystopian future." Review quotes from the likes of Huffington Post and People reveal Find Me variously as "a fresh take on apocalyptic stories" and "a thoughtful, touching story about survival." For some distance into the text at least it seems like this is exactly what you are getting. The novel opens with our protagonist, Joy, as a voluntary patient in an isolated hospital somewhere in Kansas. The United States has been devastated by a mysterious pandemic, a CJD-type infection that causes rapidly accelerated memory loss, physical degeneration, and death:
An epidemic of forgetting. That much is known. First: silver blisters, like fish scales, like the patient is evolving into a different class of creature. Second: the loss of memory. The slips might be small at first, but by the end the patient won’t remember the most basic details of who they are. What is a job? What is a staircase? What is a goldfish? A telephone? A spoon? What is a mother? What is a me? Coordination deteriorates. Vision goes strange. The patient falls into a coma and never wakes. (p. 30)
As communities flounder and the country’s infrastructure begins to collapse, Joy is selected to participate in the hospital’s research program on the grounds that she is one of the few who seem to be immune to the disease. Reluctant at first, she is quickly persuaded by the powers-that-be that being taken to the hospital represents her best chance of survival in a world gone feral. The hospital itself is what you might expect to find in any number of "mad doctor" movies. It’s a long way from anywhere, so your chances of successful escape are pretty remote. Pilgrims seeking a cure for the disease gesticulate like zombies beneath the windows. The medical staff—N5, N1—attend on their patients clad in biohazard suits. As a corporate entity, the place is even referred to using the ubiquitously dystopian capital: "H."
Nothing is as it seems, however. As we discover more about Joy’s background, we also learn more about what this novel is, and what it is doing. Abandoned when she was a week old, Joy has spent her childhood and adolescence in the care of foster parents and the State. Now in her early twenties, she lives in a squalid basement apartment and works on a supermarket checkout. She has learned to nullify the dreariness of her existence through her addiction to cough syrup. The apocalypse, when it arrives, is just one more problem at the end of a very long list.
At first, Joy finds the very monotony of life at the hospital to be a source of security, especially when she begins to form a relationship with Louis, another young internee whose wife has already died of the sickness. But as always, time means change. Louis switches his affection to another patient, the mysterious Dr Bek reveals troubling information about the real work of the hospital, and in spite of the fact that the pandemic appears to be burning itself out in the real world, the patients are given no indication of when or if they will be allowed to leave their confinement. Twin brothers Sam and Christopher manage to escape from the hospital by tunnelling through into the air conditioning system, only to die of exposure in the snowy wasteland outside. Their deaths serve only to exacerbate Joy’s uneasiness, but it is something else—an increasing obsession with finding the woman she believes to be her mother—that precipitates her decision to make her own break for freedom:
She is slim, but her sleeves are cuffed and I can see the muscle in her arms. Her hair is an inky knot at the base of her neck. She points the walkie-talkie antenna off at something in the distance. The chief engineer nods.
This captain she is striking, serious. The more I look at her, the more I can’t stop looking.
I get on the floor, on my hands and knees. A primal feeling takes hold and I move closer to the TV on all fours. The paper lei swings from my neck. I get close to the screen, so close I can feel the static on the tip of my nose.
There are things aging changes and things it preserves. It’s like looking into a mirror and having my future self projected back at me. Still, it takes me the entire episode to believe what I am seeing. (p. 67)
The immediacy of this virtual encounter is striking and all the more powerful in being understated. What Joy sees on the screen alters the course of her life, and that portion of it we are made privy to within the text. Similarly, when Joy begins to touch on the trauma she endured as a child, her thoughts are conveyed to us in language that is simultaneously direct and elliptical. We know Joy has allowed herself to forget some of the central facts about her life, but what exactly might these lost memories contain?
There is a period of time in Allston, during the eighth year of my life, that I still cannot remember. One day I was nine years old and away from Park Vale Avenue, living on the farm in Walpole. One day I was sitting at a school desk in a renovated barn and sleeping in a cottage dorm that overlooked a green field. I can’t remember arriving there or leaving Allston. It was like waking up from, or into, a dream. (p. 62)
These two incidents—Joy’s discovery of her mother’s identity and this first stirring of memory surrounding the abuse she suffered at the hands of a foster-brother—form seismic events within the book, and yet Van Den Berg admirably resists the temptation of grandiloquence. Both episodes unfold quietly and without undue foreshadowing. Like Joy, we may not at first feel sure of what we are seeing. It is only by persevering with the narrative that we come to understand the complications and even the chronology of this absorbing story.
The quality of van den Berg’s writing alone would be enough to indicate that Find Me is something more than standard near-future-disaster fare. I would categorise her style throughout as expressive rather than decorative and therefore perhaps the perfect technical prerequisite for writing excellent science fiction. Words are chosen because they mean something rather than just because they sound nice (though crucially they sound nice as well). Van den Berg’s use of language pays attention to itself as language, and yet never veers from its primary objective: that is, to tell this story in the manner most ideally suited to the events described and the character of the protagonist as the author has imagined her. Here is Joy Jones, telling us about an incident from her childhood:
Once a fire alarm tore open our night. Eighteen girls raced down the staircase, led by our overnight counsellor, a woman who wore white knee-length socks with sandals and her hair in a thick braid. Eighteen girls scattered across the front lawn. Some had thought to pull on shoes and some, like me, had just run. It was September and already there was a sharp chill in the air. I could feel a splinter settling into the arch of my foot. I stood on one leg. The night was dark and still. A grease fire had ignited in the kitchen. We watched smoke blacken the windows as we waited for the howl of the sirens, waited to be saved. (p. 27)
The way van den Berg expertly uses small, intimate and specific details to point the reader towards the novel’s greater metaphors and overarching themes is a consistent and recurring marker of her literary intelligence.
Once Joy is free of the hospital, the novel immediately takes on a new dynamic. Stealing money and hitching rides, Joy journeys towards Florida through a landscape of desperation and cruel intent. In imagining her apocalypse, van den Berg has succeeded in showing us something that is, above all, completely believable. The ramped-up zombie- and plague-lit scenarios that have tended to predominate in recent genre fiction have in their predictability and reliance on tropes denatured into a bizarre form of comfort food, or, as some have called it, apocalypse porn. Far from being frightening or even discomfiting, these stories are reassuring through their very familiarity, their unrealistic assurances of heroism and triumph against the odds. Van den Berg, by contrast, shows us a civilization that is not so much exploding as coming adrift from its moorings. Here, as everywhere, it is the disadvantaged and dehumanised who continue to suffer, whose life post-apocalypse, in fact, is not so very different from the life they were leading before. Find Me presents a merciless snapshot of the world that we are making for ourselves, an unsustainable economic structure that is now so precarious that one disaster is simply the precursor of the next:
The bus driver has the radio turned up and I catch something about more snow where there is not supposed to be snow and E. Coli in a New Hampshire town’s water supply and fires on the plains of Nebraska that can’t be put out, because nobody can identify the source.
I have started to think of the sickness not as a single, contained catastrophe but as part of a series of waves. We are still burning. What will be the wave that puts us out? I feel the heat of my mother’s photo in my pocket and try not to think about what might be coming next. (p. 269)
We cannot doubt, then, that van den Berg is much preoccupied with some of the core concerns of contemporary social science fiction: climate change, economic implosion, the exploitation of disenfranchised people by those ‘with means,’ the spread and structure of disease pandemics. There is still more to be unpacked, though. In what might be classified as the strangest part of the narrative, Joy and another foster brother, Marcus, find themselves seeking refuge in a decayed farmstead they come to know, ironically, as the Mansion. Though they appear to be safe there, an atmosphere of unease and unspecified threat persists, and in fact I found the whole of the Mansion sequence weirdly reminiscent of the passages in Richard Adams’s Watership Down that deal with Cowslip’s warren, where the rabbits are appeased with food before being snared. The Mansion is owned or at least inhabited by Nelson and Darcie, two lost souls who may or may not be brother and sister and who scrape the bare means of survival from the bottom of their neighbours’ dumpsters. In a degraded parody of Dr Bek, Nelson conducts bizarre experiments on living specimens, while Darcie communes with the spirits via the intercession of some pretty noxious home-brewed psychedelics. After Marcus releases a captured raccoon from its prison under the floor—again, shades of Hazel releasing Bigwig from the snare—our two companions decide to take their chances on the road again. But not before Joy is triggered by Darcie’s drugs into remembering more of her past than she has hitherto had access to:
The Psychologist is busy recording new data on his laptop. He doesn’t yet know that his parents are in the room, that they are approaching from behind, slow and slack with shock, and very soon this girl will be sent away.
She sees them coming. She sees the wrongness grow. Piss runs down her legs and darkens the carpet. She feels the hot liquid curve around the edge of her foot. (p. 242)
As we have seen elsewhere, part of van den Berg’s skill as a writer lies in her coupling of pinpoint-accurate physical descriptions with a more allusive symbolism. In this way the Mansion sequence is both a warped recapitulation of the scenes at the hospital that open the novel and a surreal metaphor for the traumatic events that define Joy’s childhood. As Joy penetrates further into the tunnel that runs beneath the Mansion, so she remembers more of what happened to her before she arrived there. We come to learn that Joy was selected by Dr Bek as much for her ability to forget as for her immunity from any disease, and how Find Me, as much as it is a science fiction novel concerned with our current impasse as a species, is also a speculative treatment of more abstract concepts such as memory, identity and the imprecise nature of empirical reality. Indeed, as we later learn what happened to Dr Bek and the remaining inmates of the hospital, there is a case to be argued that the Kansas project never existed, that the pandemic and everything associated with it is simply a construct in the mind of Joy: a self-erected barrier between herself and the truth, a metaphor for her traumatic amnesia.
The novel’s ending is brilliant and could not have been bettered. Find Me is in its entirety a beautiful, complex and thoroughly engrossing work of art, a novel in which aesthetic and subject matter, science fiction and literature, exist in glorious harmony. I might add that perhaps the reason I’ve chosen to sully what could have been a straightforward review with the permanently vexed question of the genre wars is that the more perfect a novel is, the less I have to say about it.
Indeed, my instinct is to shy away from writing about Find Me, because writing about a novel this achieved feels superfluous, an act that can only be to the detriment of its excellence. But then I read a review like this in The Independent, apparently positive and yet at the same time so deeply patronising, of science fiction as a project and therefore by extension of the author—woe betide her!—who chooses to work in the field. The continuing pronouncement of such tedious prejudices makes me so angry that simply exhorting anyone and everyone to "read Find Me!" is no longer enough. What I want to say is that it is novels like this, novels that understand science fiction well enough to challenge its orthodoxies, that love it enough to appreciate its unique potential for originality and radicalism—in terms of subject matter of course, but also in terms of form and new modes of expression—that will continue to push the genre forward, to widen its view of itself, to invite in new and diverse talent. The mainstream will do anything to rid a novel like Find Me of its science fiction tag, to claim it for itself. I say: let’s claim it back. If only Del Rey and other science fiction imprints choose to make a habit of publishing novels like this one, it will be to the immense and lasting benefit of SF as a whole.
Nina Allan's stories have appeared in many anthologies, including Best British Fantasy 2014, Solaris Rising 3, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a reimagining of the Arachne myth, won the British Science Fiction Award in 2014, and her collection The Silver Wind, a story-cycle on themes of time and memory, won the Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race, set in an alternate future England and featuring bio-engineered greyhounds and island-sized whales, was published in 2014 by NewCon Press. She lives and works in North Devon.