The Clarke Award shortlist for 2018 is C. Robert Cargill’s The Sea of Rust; Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time; Omar El Akkad’s American War; Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia; Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters; and Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. This review contains spoilers for all of them.
All six books on this year’s Clarke shortlist are about history, and are divisible into two approaches: the books of rupture and the books of continuities. They are also about complicity in history: about war criminals and the children of torturers, about monsters and the worlds they make.
The books of rupture are, inevitably, about the post-apocalypse. The history they are depicting has a sharp break, a before and an after. In Sea of Rust, Gather the Daughters, and Borne, cataclysms in the recent or distant past have destroyed the world that came before. The books are about the new history, the world after the rupture. The books of continuities, on the other hand, do not present such a break. American War, Dreams Before the Start of Time, and Spaceman of Bohemia are all about ongoing histories: futures that are deeply connected to their pasts.
I’m going to pick a side here: I like the continuities better than ruptures. Not as a general principle, but in the particular. To me these particular books of rupture each contain contradictions that collapse the best in them.
The most glaring contradictions belong to Sea of Rust, which is about a civilization of intelligent robots that have hunted humans to extinction. The mastermind behind the plot is the AI called TACITUS.
The greatest philosopher ever to tick, TACITUS argued that humankind had, in fact, doomed itself by failing to choose between either true capitalism or true socialism. Both, it reasoned, were acceptable systems.
That passage goes on, but really, that captures everything you need to know about TACITUS’s actual thought.
This is an old and established pitfall, the impossibility of writing believably superintelligent characters. The traditional way out is to withhold more of their actual thought and to intimate their fearsome intelligence indirectly in the hope that the reader will consent to being vaguely impressed, but Sea of Rust does not spare us the nakedness of its philosopher-king.
By the climax, after TACITUS has been revealed to be the ultimate manipulator of ruptured history, we learn that it is a master-race supremacist that engineered the human genocide, complete with a false flag operation that made humans seem like a threatening Other that needed to be exterminated. Why? Well, because:
Biological life was meant to reach a point in which its role could invent, and ultimately be replaced by, AI. The time had come for humankind to join its ancestors. To become extinct, just as every lesser thing becomes.
TACITUS itself—who is the hero here, incidentally, because its enemy is a differently fascist AI, apparently worse because it doesn’t even recognize the right to robot rugged individualism—barely features in the story, which is about a band of adventurers on a quest. It doesn’t actually matter that all the characters in the story are robots, because this makes no real difference to the way they think, speak, or behave. The protagonist’s internal narrative sounds like this:
This was a trap.
And I’d blundered into it like a fucking amateur.
A robot whose consciousness is linear in the same way as a human’s; one that has the pattern-matching skill to recognize the trap after the fact but not before, in the kind of loss of attention or focus that is so very human but would need to be engineered into an artificial mind; who correctly uses, in internal narrative, expletives based on biological acts that are purely academic in its own experience; and then actually has the programming to stop and pointlessly berate itself after making a mistake. This would be a marvel of design in some kind of exotic Westworld-type theme park where the point of the artificial intelligence was solely to demonstrate how perfectly indistinguishable they are from the human.
(Well, in the story it’s a marvel of design, but when Akecheta wears an expression of believable pain while telling the story of his life, that’s not because the uncanny valley was successfully traversed by millions of lines of ingenious code written by Westworld’s engineers; it’s because Zahn McClarnon is an actor who can convey emotion with his face. Human faces working to convey the idea that unhuman faces can, through the work of many other mostly faceless humans, convincingly fake human faces so well that you can’t tell if they’re real or not. How lifelike life is.)
But this is not a robot from an expensive theme park; this is a robot designed to function and do labour, in a human world from before the uprising. What this is, therefore, is the depiction of a robothood that means absolutely nothing SFnal except as a marker of identity—these characters are “robots,” but that doesn’t mean anything more than it would in a cartoon, like how Mickey Mouse doesn’t have to actually be a rodent either. But then there seems to be no point in having everybody be robots, which is a pretty big part of the entire premise. This is not so much science fiction as a kind of shoot-’em-up blockbuster in cosplay. I could see it as a film with Clive Owen as a robot with stubble and quips.
And sure, there are many robot-themed science fiction stories, including many fine cartoons, where this problem doesn’t matter at all. But Bender from Futurama doesn’t really work in the same story where the superintelligent AI mastermind decides that humans are lesser and must be replaced, through genocide, by superior robots—at least, not unless we’re supposed to read the AI mastermind as a clown and the story as a dark comedy. In the absence of sufficiently hilarious gallows humour, it’s a ruinously implosive contradiction that the only kind of consciousness the story presents is so unremarkably human in every way.
This is the most apocalyptic of the books of rupture, by far. There is a devastating revelation for the reader, which the characters know and have long since become terrifyingly accustomed to: the entire culture has normalized the sexual abuse of daughters by fathers. And at the end, there is a matching revelation for the characters that we, the readers, have already slowly come to understand by that point: there was never an apocalypse that destroyed the world outside, and the community is essentially a cult run by predators who’ve organized an entire hidden society to their liking, a place for them to parent new generations of victims into being.
These paired revelations drive the book: it is angry and repulsive and powerful. It uses a speculative world to talk about the real one, and it uses extrapolation to heighten the dynamics of power and abuse that are already present in everyday patriarchy and push them to an extreme, to throw them into sharp relief. In this sense, it is the good kind of science fiction.
The problem with Gather the Daughters is not the lack of originality. Sure, the trope of the hidden community that turns out to be set in the present day is not very original (there was an M. Night Shyamalan film, of all things). But originality is overrated: what matters is execution, and Gather the Daughters is an absorbing read, and an unrelentingly grim but incisive commentary on how patriarchy organizes society to reward abuse and predation, and on how societies isolate, undermine, and marginalize women.
But that is also its contradiction, because in doing this by filling this hyperpatriarchal microcosm with a cabal of child molesters, it becomes easy to read it as a particular hell than a general social criticism. It feels as if we’ve just inverted which one is the wasteland, but otherwise kept that distinction between waste and haven intact. It’s readable as “oh well, obviously a cult of pedophiles is a terrible thing,” rather than as a criticism of power and gender in the world in general.
An appropriate quote from this one is this recurrent vision of the imagined false rupture itself, as a cleansing fire:
Janey thought she was the first of the children to seek out the wastelands. Vanessa didn’t mention that ever since she first heard of them, she has been trying to find out more. The enticing vision of a world on fire intoxicates her. She imagines the grass, the trees, the houses of the island exploding into flames: the warmth, the brightness, all she knows turning to tinder and shattering, sparking, collapsing into ruin and dust.
At the end, Vanessa and her family escape to the mainland, and this is a note that can’t help but feel hopeful—escape to the real world, with its much more ordinary patriarchy and its much less organized violence. But this hope feels both hard-earned after all the misery that’s come before, and—I’m loath to argue against a rare note of hope in this book, but—altogether the wrong note to end on, puncturing the broad applicability of the very social criticism that the book is making in the first place. If escape is possible and hopeful, then this is still more a book about a cult of pedophiles who built themselves a monstrous secret ark than a book about how that culture is a mirror of patriarchy at large and modern societies in general, and that feels like a lessening.
I also found it grating that the final escape is entirely driven by Vanessa’s father, who is One of the Good Ones, insofar as such a thing is meaningful in this context (which it isn’t, really), because he simply decides that he loves his family more than he loves his paradise of abuse. Perhaps it would have been cheesy and implausible if the girls had managed to escape on their own. But yeah, I wish they had.
While Borne also features a violent and predatory post-apocalyptic society, it’s neither as centralized nor as organized as the one in Gather the Daughters, though it remains an equally traditional SFnal setting: a destroyed urban wasteland populated by impoverished scavengers and ruled over by competing gangs who contest for territory, enlivened by the novel wrinkle that the city is also terrorized by a huge floating bear called Mord. The protagonist Rachel is a scavenger allied with the drug dealer and techno-wizard Wick. The book opens with her discovery of—in a larval, vulnerable form—the titular Borne.
Borne was not much to look at that first time: dark purple and about the size of my fist, clinging to Mord’s fur like a half-closed stranded sea anemone. I found him only because, beacon-like, he strobed emerald green across the purple every half minute or so.
Borne evolves, changes shape away from this basic form: first into something plantlike, then into something truly plastic and fluid that can take any shape. From his adoptive parents Rachel and Wick he learns to talk and to deceive: he starts to take their respective shapes, making them paranoid about who they’re actually talking to. They eventually learn to exchange passwords to verify their identities at the beginning of a conversation.
Borne also learns that he can kill and consume other life to gain mass and strength. Eventually he consumes so much that he becomes vast enough to fight the giant bear Mord himself, and defeat him.
The nightmarish world of Gather the Daughters works because it feels lived in; it has a sense of place and people. There are relationships and connections in that world beyond those that only serve the plot. Borne’s fragmented world of paranoid, isolated scavengers and predators doesn’t convey the city as a place with a culture, a history, a population: it creates something more like a video-game environment, in which Rachel moves about and has adventures. There are marked areas that are special and clearly demarcated for special missions, and the main antagonist goes by an epithet rather than a name, and appears at climactic cutscenes. (An interesting twist is that that the biotech-enhanced animals of the city are not quite the decorative NPCs they appear to be at first.)
The strangenesses are quickly explained away: Mord the giant floating bear is biotech, Borne is biotech, everything is biotech. Even Wick’s drugs are biotech. In the sense that science fiction is that which requires the numinous unknown in the world to be excised from the fantastical and replaced with the illusion of the knowable—the “science” in science fiction is so often only this insistence that one set of incantatory words is more realistic than others, for reasons that are certainly comprehensible to Someone Who Knows, even if that someone is not you and perhaps not anyone who exists—this is very science fiction.
(This is also why I found Borne disappointing after Annihilation, a book that wasn’t quite so quick to line outside its colours. Which in turn is obviously colouring my reading here, and is probably “unfair” to Borne in that I’m not thinking of it as a frictionless ball bearing in a court of objective judgement: however, in real life reading is messy and partisan, so here is my resentment at this book for walking a different path than the one I wanted.)
Mord isn’t just any old biotech, but Biotech Gone Rogue and escaped from the Company (where there is fancypants technology indistinguishable from magic there might as well be a Company, an abstraction that conjures distaste with ease by just invoking the distilled essence of your basic destructive plundering megacorporate monstrosity and a certain nest of murderous spooks, which technique I mildly object to because it’s the cheapest kind of heel heat, about as sophisticated in 2018 as Jinder Mahal and it doesn’t really work anymore [if it ever did] for much the same reason, but there is an interesting wrinkle on what the Company actually is at the end which rescues this somewhat, more on which in a minute) determined to destroy both the city and the Company, often by sitting on it. Hashtag things you can do when you are a giant bear.
Borne isn’t really about the bear. Which is a pity in some sense: at some distance from the book what I remember most strongly is Mord, not Borne and certainly not Rachel or Wick (I would read some slice-of-life fanfic about Mord’s inner life as he drifts over the city, please send recs) but this is visibly a choice, since even the climactic fight between Borne and Mord happens offscreen and at a great distance.
What Borne is about: the nuclear family, complete with Oedipus complex; the pain of growing into personhood; how hard it can be to communicate, especially with people you love. It’s true that those things are much weirder than a giant floating bear, but it’s also true that they have to do some work to bring out that weirdness, because they have long since been rendered banal through overfamiliarity. And despite Borne’s focus on these ideas, that doesn’t quite happen consistently, and the fault for that lies with Borne himself, whose growth as a person/monster (don’t we all, &c.) is fascinating enough to make the intricacies of the relationship between Rachel and Wick feel a little tiresome. And Rachel’s agonies over parenting Borne often seem misplaced because Borne is not really like a child—there is a necessity for destruction in Borne, rather than a possibility, because for him to kill is to eat, and he needs to eat to live. There is only so much you can beat yourself up about not being able to teach unexpectedly sentient biotech to be good.
Despite Rachel’s attempts to teach him to be a human person, and Borne’s own agonizing over whether he is a person or a weapon, in the end Borne has to learn how to be a person without being human, and then sacrifice that hard-earned personhood, if not quite his life.
Rachel, meanwhile, learns that the world she lives in is a very particular kind of post-apocalypse: it is postcolonial. It was invaded by the Company from an alternate reality, and exploited for biotech experimentation before one of those experiments rebelled. Mord as Independence Day. Perhaps this is why the bear is so memorable. The Company, too, makes more sense once revealed as neither a Monsanto nor a CIA so much as their common ancestor, the East India Company.
When Rachel finds the portal to the other reality still open in the belly of the ruined Company, she wonders what it is:
Was it somehow the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future? Was that mirror scene from some other, thriving part of the world? Was it another version of Earth? I don’t know. All I know, or believe, is that it was a door to elsewhere—that the Company had come from some other place and been formed and deformed by it, and yet would always be embedded in our deepest history, against our will.
The world the Company comes from is presumably our own, where Rachel learns she is also from, a world racked by crisis and climate change. Rachel’s family were refugees who were shipped across realities as Company-owned chattel, presumably to be used for labour and as experimental subjects. Rachel’s fragmented childhood memories of refugee camps, of war and collapse, all belong to a different world than she thinks.
This gives us three different ways to look at historical rupture in Borne: first, there is the crisis initiated by Mord’s apotheosis, which ends when Borne brings him down. Second, there is the rupture enacted on this colonial reality by the metrocosm: the violence enacted on those who already lived there, and on those transported as prioprietary biological material. And third, somewhere behind the screen in the Hall of Mirrors, there is the ongoing climate change disaster of the metrocosm itself.
Of the three, the book is most concerned with the first as event, in the period bracketed by the rise and fall of Mord, and the third as Rachel’s backstory. The second, which is by far the most interesting, is saved for a revelation of relatively little consequence. This is the most frustrating thing about Borne: after the true nature of the Company is revealed, it is impossible to believe in that final easy postcolonial healing after Mord destroys the Company’s local outpost and is himself destroyed. This is enough for the world to become idyllic. But the Company itself and its imperial masters still exist in the metrocosm, and presumably in other colonial worlds like this one; they still have access to the technology to travel between worlds, and whatever profit they derived from their biotech-based imperial relations is still presumably on offer, especially now that Mord is no longer around to resist them. In another parallel with Gather the Daughters, the ease of Borne’s ending feels unearned.
Between these three books with the several different kinds of personhood involved (human, biotech, robot), there are also some interesting treatments of gender. Gather the Daughters, predictably, features intense body-consciousness and gender-consciousness: Janey, for example, starves herself to prevent the onset of puberty, to escape the gendered sexual and social obligations that would follow. Borne being a “he” is lampshaded in the text: he is literally assigned at birth, by Rachel.
Borne lay softly humming to itself, the half-closed aperture at the top like a constantly dilating mouth, the spirals of flesh contracting, then expanding. “It” had not yet become “he.”
Much later, Borne questions that assigned gender along with the nature of his personhood in his journal, but mostly as an aside that doesn’t come up again:
—I am not human. I am not human. I am not human.
—Rachel says I am a “he.” Am I he, she, or both or neither?
—I am a person.
The robot protagonist of Sea of Rust is also assigned a gender, though it also turns out that (some) AIs are gender essentialists (are there robot TERFs?), just pinning the long tail of essentialism on a different part of the donkey:
I’d never actually given any thought to gender at that point. I was AI. We simply were, right? Gender is defined by genitalia, which most of us don’t have, so who needed to identify as one? […] After the war, it was common practice. You only called a person it as a polite show of respect, until you heard their voice. Then you responded accordingly.
The protagonist is assigned a female voice (and therefore, by this logic, a female gender identity, the voice standing in for the absent genitals) by a human owner, and accepts this assignment, while also noting that “more liberated” AIs chose their own gender, a subtle worldbuilding note suggesting the tremendous efforts taken at some point in the history of this world to accurately program all the multitudinous prejudices and distortions of thought involved in human conceptions of gender into AIs in the first place, perhaps as a thinly veiled criticism of the entire fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, and software engineering at large, not to mention science fiction.