The Arthur C. Clarke award comes around but once a year, and as ever the judges have done sterling duty working their way through the best and worst of the British publishing scene. Their trawl is not limited to the SF publishing houses and their definition of SF is wide. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes, as this year, it seems to have offered little Added Value. There are three clear genre science fiction novels, all from Gollancz (as Gollancz is the premier UK SF publishing house, this should be understood as a bias in the field, not in the jurors), all of which are excellent in their own way. Then there is a weak piece of nuclear rapture fiction, a pale allegory, and, from one of our best SF small presses and one of our best SF writers, we have a 1970s Playboy cod-psychological battle of the sexes.
I'm going to tackle Brian Stableford's Streaking first, because it left such a bad taste in the mouth. I know and like the author and my reaction to his novel was utterly unexpected. I know the members of the jury. All of them are sound people. One of them is an outspoken, loud-mouthed feminist (that's a compliment, by the way). How they came to list this piece of misogynist claptrap is beyond me.
Canny Kilcannon places his final bet on a roulette wheel and wins 47,000 Euros. With this last, fate-defying chance, he upsets the luck of the Kilcannons, for Canny's father is dying and with his death the family luck will fade until Canny can marry (preferably someone local) and produce a son. But while there is interminable discussion about the psychology of gambling, and the possible genetics of luck, most of the real tension lies between Canny and the appallingly named "Oriental" model Lissa Lo, also intensely lucky but whose luck is in her beauty.
Lissa Lo's family inherit their luck from their mothers. Canny's line goes father to son, but just to make sure we are on the correct side when the sex war comes to a head, we are told that Lissa is a parthogenetic clone and that daughters of Lissa's line suck their mothers dry, while the sons of Canny's line are genuine gene combinations of both parents, refresh their fathers' luck, and only succeed to their own when they too have a son. Living off one's children will eventually receive the approval of the universe, while living off one's parents will be condemned. Furthermore, and just to underline the stacking of the metaphorical card deck, Canny is nice while Lissa Lo is cold; Canny's paterfamilias and his ancestors lived long although the wives decline to ciphers. The fathers in Lissa's line die young—which will create a threat to Canny in the plan Lissa proposes—there being apparently little benefit to a lucky woman in having a long-lived father (a clear defiance of all the sociological and historical evidence on the matter, but then this book is not grounded in anything I recognize as reality). As you will be able to tell by now, the focus of the book is not on probabilities, but on the cod science of the Oedipus complex.
Streaking is little more than a 1970s-style romp: much of the novel is taken up with discussion of the psychological nature of luck. What "action" there is consists of a grafted-on kidnap. There is little characterization, so it becomes plausible for Canny to explain where he lives, the length of his family, his role in protecting his village, and the entire aristocratic structure of England to a foreigner, Lissa Lo, without her ever once asking "what does that mean?" It is also perfectly plausible for Lissa Lo to lack any similar superstructure of personhood. Lissa Lo's function will be to explain the world to Canny and to reinforce his sense of inherent entitlement. The arrival of Alice Ellison on the scene is jarring. In Alice, Stableford shows us what a superb writer he usually is, but she is a real person walking into a cartoon set. When her husband dies suddenly it is just as if someone has dropped a piano onto his head, and the 'toons don't quite get that he is really dead. Watching Canny the cardboard cut-out interact with Alice the real person is quite bizarre.
Although there is a token nod to Lissa Lo's "academic" interest in the nature of luck, most of the time Lissa is obsessed with enforcing her own luck and having a baby, while Canny is obsessed with the nature of luck, being safe, and having a baby. At times it's like being at a maternity clinic coffee morning. All that would be irritating enough, but the nature of luck itself is not the centre of the novel: although there is a great deal of discussion about the nature of probability early on, once we have been told that luck adheres to some people more than others, the novel quickly veers into a fantasy in which luck is part of the moral order. This is not to say that luck itself is presented as moral or immoral, but that the conflict in the novel is over the moral consequences of the attempt to combine two types of luck. In order to pursue this without offering an arbitrary outcome (which is ironic since you would think this would be precisely the nature of luck), Stableford lectures the reader and refuses to allow any moral complexity that might cast doubt on the end results. Like many a too-rigid tree, the novel becomes vulnerable instead to one large gust of critical wind.
Canny's moral fibre is demonstrated as being superior to Lissa's because he uses his luck to ensure the well-being of the paternalistic relic of the eighteenth century that he calls the family village. Lissa of course merely wants to continue her line—although as any daughter of hers will suck her dry, it's a little unclear why. Canny is continually shown as warm, generous, kind to others in good times and bad, and concerned not to abuse his luck and—at the end—to begin testing it, although as the outcome of the key incident has been decisive it's not particularly a risk.
The book ends up much as one would expect: the attempt to have a baby with someone who also has the luck results in only one winner ... Canny. Lissa conceives a boy. As her girl-child would have been a clone, but Canny's line are "real" humans, this is a nice restoration of the natural order in which girls aren't real children but boys are. Just to convince us that Lissa was truly unnatural she also has her memory wiped. She doesn't just lose: the Universe expresses its displeasure by destroying that which was Lissa Lo along with the unborn child, ensuring so that there are no second chances. I tried turning this around in my head but could not get away from the issue that it is Lissa that takes all the risks. There is no evidence at all that Canny could have been destroyed if Lissa had carried a girl—even the chance that he would die young could have been precluded by the birth of a later son. I could continue on this line, but I have five other books to discuss, and Nic Clarke and Victoria Hoyle have done a fine job at Eve's Alexandria of outlining just how misogynist this text is.
Once Canny has won, and destroyed the one person whose luck could compete with his, the natural order of sexual relations is restored. Canny sets Alice up in the library and tells her that they will probably get married. She acquiesces, even if intemperately. Alice, who once had a proper job, is pulled into the nineteenth-century attitudes of the village and the 1970s attitudes of the text. Jokes about gothic novels do not undercut the point. Once a person, now a helpmeet and womb. But that's luck for you, and it's Canny who has the luck.
Before I leave this book I want to exceed my remit for a moment. I know that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in this case it's almost unavoidable. PS Publishing have produced many fine covers, but the cover of Streaking isn't one of them. For some reason they have elected for a cover in which many of the letters of the title are replaced by symbols from playing cards. It's a neat idea. It works so badly that when asked to write this review I didn't realize I already owned the book. The title is impossible to read unless you already know what it is.
I don't feel as strongly about any of the other books as I did about Streaking, but I was less than impressed by either Jan Morris's Hav or Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Despite the impression created by this review, I don't have a problem with the Clarke Award looking beyond genre publishing for its selections, but what such activity usually does is to introduce us to authors who are doing things with genre techniques that genre authors don't do. I may not like what they do, but it is still something different. Reading Hav and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, however, was more like rummaging in the old dressing-up cupboard.
The first thing to note about Hav is that it is only barely eligible for the Clarke Award. While Sir Arthur has long declared that SF is what the jury point to, the terms of the award have always stated very clearly that the book should have been published for the first time in the year indicated. Hav is two books. Last Letters from Hav was first published as individual letters, and then in 1985 as a book. It appears here with Hav of the Myrmidions, which is a 2006 publication. It is unclear whether the jury wish us to consider only the last book, or whether they have chosen to regard this tome as one single text, a "fix up," which would indeed allow it to be eligible. If the latter, they cut across the intentions of the author—who presents the stories as two separate texts and clearly states that Last Letters from Hav is a reprint—and open up the nightmarish possibility of every omnibus edition of every lengthy series suddenly becoming eligible for the Clarke Award. But enough digression into the technicality of the award. What is Hav?
Morris says of it that it is an allegory, a city that represents all cities, in which all anxieties of modernity are expressed. For this reader it is a gentle tour around a confection, a Ruritanian idyll, approachable in Last Letters... only through a tunnel in the mountain. Hav is a polder which does not so much protect the past as protect the memories of the past. This is a place not where all people meet, but somewhere all people have (sic) passed through. A once-was kind of place. On Morris's first fabulated visit it is all quaint memories of the summer season, visits from Hitler and Freud, visits to the trogolodytes in their caves. The mood is Byzantine, a complex intermingling of West and East, summed up in the honorific, "Dirleddy." In its second incarnation, Hav, changed by the undescribed Intervention, is a place where even the past is now a once-was place; it has been swept up, tidied, made safe. A town of roof races and underground ethnicities is now one of flat roofs and commercial nationalism. The precious snow raspberries are grown in polytunnels, canned and shipped out, their taste blunted and sweetened for the mass market.
And there I run out of steam: Hav is beautifully written, but it has no bite. It is curiously old-fashioned, a relic of a literature that merely had to take us elsewhere to capture our attention, had only to render a place elusive to render it also attractive. Allegory of this kind needs an edge, it needs the occasional sharp claw. The work of Alasdair Gray shows how effective this kind of allegory can be. But Morris's gentle fable lacks wit or irony. If Morris wishes to tell us something about ourselves, it is merely that we are all tourists, keen to preserve the quaintness of others, resenting their modernity as we celebrate the fact that our own allows us to enjoy their heritage.
The opening of Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is a breathtaking swoop into the sense of wonder, science at its most marvelous, the splitting of the atom as the mundane matters of men made sublime. The second opening of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is a breathtaking swoop into a woman's dreams, the mundane of science made sublime. The third opening of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is a breathtaking swoop into the past, the mundane of atomic history made...
You get the picture.
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is a book both lifted and crippled by its determination to render awe from ore. It is written in terms of intense engagement, in a style at times not unlike that of M. John Harrison, and because it has no other gear and no other purpose, it quickly wears thin and finally drowns in narrative inevitability.
In the early twenty-first century, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szillard, and Enrico Fermi find themselves translocated from the atomic test explosion on July 16, 1945 into the brave new world of nuclear proliferation and a potential American first strike. Oppenheimer and Fermi arrive in Santa Fe; Szillard has to travel there from Chicago. They meet Anne, a librarian, and her husband Ben, who is a landscape gardener working for the rich who seek to deny the desert. Anne, who has just witnessed a madman with a gun die on the floor of her library building, is looking for greater meaning and finds it in these three men who are shell-shocked by the modern world, and even more by the consequences of their work. They set out on a trip to Hiroshima and then on a crusade. A crusade for what is not totally clear: peace is a nebulous concept at best, and these fine scientists seem to have no greater goal than access to the United Nations. They pick up followers. The followers become increasingly dominated by Christians, and the Christians by evangelicals, at which point the book loses what little plausibility it ever possessed. The evangelicals turn it from a crusade for peace to a march to the rapture. Oppenheimer is figured as the new messiah, Szillard as the new Judas. Handed a test, "let us take charge or we leave you," Oppenheimer fails, accepting as followers people with whom he has nothing in common. It is an abrupt rupture with the character of both the historical and the fictive Oppenheimer. Once in Washington, Szillard is assassinated, the authorities break up the demonstration, and Oppenheimer and Fermi appear to have been transformed into a flock of birds. World order is restored.
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is both pointless and inevitable. From the beginning it is clear that this will be a recursive book, without consequence. The two main challenges for Millet are both structural: the interesting one is how to convince her readers to absorb a very great deal of atomic history. Seen from one point of view this is done extremely well; the passages punctuate a tender story of married love fading and renewed. This reader, however, could have done without the dreary suburban love story and would have been quite happy to have just read the history book. The more tedious narrative challenge for Millet is how to remove Szillard, Fermi, and Oppenheimer from the scene. She cannot leave them there because the structure of the book is a classic escalation of A Movement; it needs the moment of outright victory or outright loss, but without any kind of political or science fictional narrative in place Millet has no real choice. Once you realize that, the badly grafted-on millenarianism is inevitable.
After all that it is a relief to get to the three straight-down-the-line SF novels. This is not bias or prejudice: each of these novels is far superior to the first three I have discussed simply in literary terms. They each stretch genre in some way, they each think through with rigour the ideas they want to explore. All of them understand that style should support story and story, style and that either one on their own is mere affectation, although their success varies.
Having recently discovered Adam Roberts as a short story writer, I now know that he can do story, but none of his novels have indicated this, and his latest, Gradisil, is no different. Roberts is a writer for whom the built world is frequently far more important to his craft than the characters in it, and the story, which stands between the two, can often be thin. I'd be hard-pushed to tell you what the story was in any of his earlier books, as they are frequently constructed like middle-volumes of fantasy trilogies in which it is the process of moving through the world which is intended to be of interest. Gradisil doesn't break with this pattern, but it does do some interesting things with it. In the first part, we meet Klara, the child of an Uplander—as the colonists of near-Earth space in this book call themselves—who sees her father killed and their Uplander house stolen, and finds herself stranded on Earth and pregnant. Her story, such as it is, is the hagiographical "mother of the saint." She herself is not important, except insofar as she will eventually give birth to the saviour of the Uplander movement, the creator of the nation in space. Part three of Gradisil is told by Hope, one of the sons of Gradisil the saint, who must deal with the consequences of his brother's vengeful feelings toward the man they both believe to be their father, who handed their mother over to Earth authorities.
I'm separating out these two parts from the middle because independently they work rather well. Klara is a very convincing teenager, making reckless decisions and coming to understand the kinds of generational differences that shape her relationships, and the political tensions with which she has to work. Klara makes choices which to outsiders look like collaboration but in contexts in which there genuinely is no choice. She does what all of us do, our best: to raise a child, to support the concerns we want to support. Similarly, Hope is drawn effectively as the child who remembers his father. His younger brother is much more consumed with imagery and hagiography, far more wedded to the public image of their father. The difficulty is that these two sections do not fit with the middle chapters, the story that Paul (Hope's father) tells of the rise of Gradisil as the saviour and founder of the Uplander nation. The Gradisil who Klara raises is fiercely hostile to Uplanders, consumed with bitterness about the hostility she experiences on earth as a descendant of an Uplander. There is no indication whatsoever how she came to change her mind, to the point that I spent much of the book wondering when she would betray the Uplanders. It is also difficult to understand how this particular teen came to be simultaneously an extremely controlled and hard-hearted person, and how she became so charming in public. Neither facet is indicated in Klara's account, and while mothers may be blind, it leaves a huge gap for the reader. Petty though it may seem, hardest of all was to believe that this woman's name would be shortened to "Gradi." I can see that Roberts was intending to indicate the affection and esteem in which she was held, but it just doesn't work. Some people don't attract nicknames: "Indy" for Indira Gandhi? I think not, and only those who loathed her ever called Margaret Thatcher "Maggie."
If I ignore the first two books and focus on the central text—the tale told by Paul, Gradisil's husband—what remains is an intensely interesting tale alike in structure to many of Joe Haldeman's books (the Forever sequence in particular). Through the eyes of Paul we see the development of the social and economic infrastructure of the Uplanders, in particular the transition from a very loose anarchic structure of wealthy frontierspeople to a federation held together by a Grand Unifying Story of betrayal, siege, starvation, military victory, and eventually sacrifice, and we also see the way in which Gradisil achieves all this. Gradisil is a Clinton: charming, adept at pressing the flesh and, like Gandhi, expert in making herself a leader while denying that she is any such thing. Her "presidency" is notable for being both self-created and self-denied. Alongside this is a second story in which Gradisil, having married for money, constructs a complex family life in which her husband raises two children which he knows are not his own. Roberts handles this deftly, showing how Gradisil uses her children to cement a particular image, uses them again to create long-term bonds with certain workers, and uses one child in particular to cement a bond with her nation while, deliberately or not, alienating her husband. The key turning point in this book is when Gradisil, pregnant at last by Paul, chooses not to surrender to America. As a foetus cannot survive in the conditions the Uplanders are living in, to her compatriots she is making the ultimate sacrifice. What is odd about this section of the book is that while Paul resents Gradisil's ability to make this sacrifice, he never considers that it was a deliberate strategy, to lure Earth/American forces to attack on the assumption that a pregnant Gradisil would surrender, and that the choice of Paul as father was because his child did not matter. Yet this may be the strength of the novel: Roberts does not make the mistake of assuming that a character-narrator has to represent the intellect of the reader. Paul's naivety may be annoying, but it is perfectly in character. Paul, at the very moment of betrayal, acts within a paradigm of love for Gradisil; it would be unbearable to him to consider the ways in which he has really been used.
M. John Harrison, on the other hand, specializes in writing the unbearable. Nova Swing, like Light before it, is a novel of the desolate, of people beyond rescue. It is so brilliant (in all senses of that word) that it hurts.
Light illuminated edges and peripheries, it peered into darkness seeking ... what? Fractal mazes, tessellated constellations. Its most memorable image was data swarms of light taking over the materiale. Nova Swing is a sliver of consequence flung out but not flung free, an edge of a rainbow drawn in anti-colours.
It begins with a man in a bar. Vic Serotonin sits and waits for customers in Liv Hula's Black Cat White Cat. He chases Edith Bonaventure, once child star, for her father's brown leather notebook, and falls in love with the tourist who pays him to take her into the event site.
But this is not where it begins. It begins with a man who looks like Einstein watching the freshly hatched of a wild fantasy world emerge through a blind portal in a nightclub, who seeks both to prevent leakage from the site, and to court it, who falls in love with the fantastic and with the future and seeks in both his own past.
Or it begins with Fat Antoyne and Irene, who make common cause and move from despair to escape.
Or does it begin with Edith Bonaventure and her accordions, waiting for her father to die and release her from the obligation of love? Or with her father Emil and his explorations into the site, and the maps he claims to have brought back with him of a place that is unmappable?
Aschemann is a detective. His wife is dead. He is haunted by the extruded fantasy product of the event site, the wan boys, the startled girls, pale, slight, striving to be human, attempting sex in back lots to work out how, attempting love because to be loved is to exist, moving into rooms, furnishing them with kick-knacks and the stuff of memory, making themselves by making a self-shaped hole in the world. It is Aschemann's job to prevent leaks, to track down the alien technology explorers regularly bring back to close the portals which open on the borderlands. But for Aschemann what was once clear is now liminal: as the site bleeds so too do his notions of inside and outside, human and not-human. His wife's agoraphobia becomes paradigmatic for the loss of self inside the shaping force of objects: the fear of outside becomes the fear of one's own inside. As ever Harrison focuses on obsession, and Utze's agoraphobia is a structure of fierce control, an attempt to hold the universe in a tight grip. Aschemann slips like a tadpole between the knuckles, as the data stream slips through his.
At the centre of the investigation is Paulie DeRaad, a local wide-boy, pimp, and fence. Vic Serotonin is merely one of the suppliers, but when Serotonin hooks up with a tourist he also supplies to Paulie a daughter, an artefact whose data seeks a host, data which slips between the clenched fingers and swarms the body, finds its own self surrounding data with meat, as Utze surrounded herself with objects. Data seeks personality, seeks shape.
Much happens: Edith tries to seduce Vic with a book. Emile hallucinates and reveals the zone; Fat Antoyne and Irene become a couple and their story steps off and outside the page. Liv Hula decides to sell the bar, and Paulie investigates a counter-investigation into Vic, while Aschemann's assistant starts an investigation into Aschemann. The assistant detective uses her own tailoring and data to shift realities and to destroy what is left of Paulie.
Strip away the SF façade and what is left is an unexpectedly domestic account of love and loss. Harrison does not write grand narratives, but he does gift to the individuals a personal grandeur, a sense that small specks in the universe though they may be, they are still the only story that matters. This is why Harrison's use of the multi-strand story is not quite like anyone else's. In Millet we could not escape the notion that however important the nuclear scientists, Anne's marriage was the real narrative. Harrison's work never departs from the understanding that for each character or each narrator the only story that matters is theirs. The result is simultaneously a weird directness and elision in Harrison's writing: people tell the truth about themselves yet avoid ever dealing with the real issues at hand. They impose upon the landscape the fracture inside themselves, so that the about of the tale is both fractured and incidental except when it is, as it is in Nova Swing, precisely about relationship to The Tale and the process of being. Harrison is writing about the way we all make ourselves present by making a self-shaped hole, by surrounding the thing we are by Stuff that points to our presence.
This is also a pretty good description of Jon Courtenay Grimwood's End of World Blues. Kit Noveau ran from Britain fifteen years before the book's now: he left behind the army, a dead best friend, and a possibly pregnant ex-girlfriend. His wife has just died, and no one will recognize her as his wife. Neku, meanwhile, has run from a massacre, her family dead. The remaining question is which family.
The Japan Kit has washed up in is essentially current Japan, politeness covering a brutal underworld, formal uniforms emphasizing hierarchy and order. It is a world of high-tech modernity which yet cherishes the old—cast-iron baths sit in rooms wired for sound. As a foreigner, Kit can play a part in this, but he cannot be accepted as a full member of society, and for Kit, who has been rejected by father and by friends, this seems fine, a clear place to stand. But when his wife Yoshi dies in an explosion he loses the bar they ran together and is forced out of the country.
Following Kit goes Neku, an apparently fifteen-year-old girl, a cos-play, and a killer who has already rescued Kit from a mugger and may have saved his life in the bar. When we meet her she is running from the massacre of her family; she has a suitcase full of money and the skills to get out of Japan. For much of the novel she is Kit's sidekick, assisting his investigation into his ex-girlfriend's disappearance and his wife's death. At one point she is a handy abductee, and her rescue justifies a nice bit of JCG trademark ultra-violence.
But Neku may or may not be Japanese, may or may not be of this century. She may or may not be Nije Kitegawa. She may or may not be Lady Neku daughter of Lady Katachka, heir to a part in the floating world that keeps a future Earth alive. She may or may not have followed an antique dish back to its past to find a present in which she can live.
A simple description of End of the World Blues doesn't do it justice, and neither does just one reading. This is a book which opens up as one re-reads. Its structure and style mimic the aesthetics its Japanese characters propound, revealing shocking violence between a carefully polite exterior, and a complex aesthetic behind a straightforward thriller plot. On the surface it is barely SF: Neku may well be delusional, there is no evidence to support her claim to be from the future, and plenty of corroborative evidence to suggest she is a traumatised remnant of a once-powerful family. Yet as the tale went on I became increasingly fascinated by the question of focus: whose story is being told here? Kit is more central, yet Neku is apparently more important. One of the less commented-on themes running through Grimwood's work is the constructed family, or family of choice, and the way in which brutal honesty can conceal more lies than can silken deception; yet it is the most science fictional of elements in this otherwise rather ambivalent SF thriller. Kit's involvement with his ex-girlfriend's family takes us into yet another set of family stories until towards the end one begins to see Kit as merely a necessary link between a set of stories about family (the O'Malleys, the Katachkas, and the Family), a hub at the centre.
Grimwood has never been hailed as a stylist. His writing has been strong, serviceable, and straightforward, but his narrative structures have always been intensely complex. In End of the World Blues Grimwood's style comes into its own. As with Harrison's writing, Grimwood's rhetoric encapsulates the fracture of the personal world. Grimwood uses that straightforwardness as an exoskeleton; his characters rely on straight-talking for both self-deception and public presentation. Frequently it is the elisions that hold the real truth, direct comments that are most tangled in intention and desire.
The joy of the Arthur C. Clarke Award is its eclecticism. This is also its flaw. As a juried award it is fiercely negotiated by people selected for their knowledge of the field. In the shortlist one can often see the range of approaches to negotiation which each year's committees take. Some years there is a clear sense that the best novel of each sub-genre in the field has been selected. Other years, you can see a jury where each have chosen their favourite book and fought to the death for it. Sometimes the list is dominated by genre publishing houses, sometimes it is not. Occasionally there are shortlists that really do express the field reaching beyond itself. This year, however, the shortlist seems impermeable to the usual understandings.