It's the same story every year. Some good books aren't submitted for consideration; some of the good books which are submitted don't make it to the shortlist; some of the books which do make it through aren't very good. Meanwhile, some of the good books which do make it through are too safe; some are too risky; of those that remain, a question mark hangs over their genre credentials, or maybe an exclamation point emphasises their total lack. The shortlist is too literary or too inward-looking. It's too male or too tokenistic. The shortlist is flawed.
The Arthur C. Clarke Award, bestowed each year upon a science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom during the previous twelve months, by a jury comprising representatives from the British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation, and—this year—SFCrowsnest.com, dares you to disagree with it. It at times seems fiercely proud of its anti-populist reputation, its status as a jury award gifting it the benefit of a literary orneriness; it enjoys pulling your chain. It's the same story every year. Only the characters are different.
It is the characters, then, upon which we should focus. Six books make the shortlist, and this year they are a uniformly solid bunch (too safe for one camp, naturally): there is not a single stinker, no real left-field addition which leaves all but the judges scratching their heads. Not only that, but of the submitted works, the correct six seem to have been chosen. There are the usual gripes about the absence of some novels which were not submitted in the first place. But all six of these novels are creditable. Some are weaker, some might to purists fail to count as, or be sufficiently creative with, SF. But all are worthy of attention—the griping is this year harder to maintain. If this reduces the fuming at the fringes, it might at least direct attention to the works themselves. Let us look past the context and engage with the content.
Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls may well be the shortlisted novel to benefit most from the extra attention. In a shortlist which is, as we shall see, otherwise taken up by stalwarts and worthies, Wooding's straight-forward adventure yarn stands out for its lack of pretension and modest craft. It might also be fair to say that it is the most obviously fantastic of the shortlisted works—that is, Retribution Falls is clearly written as fantasy, not science fiction. It's all souped-up zeppelins rather than spaceships, empty areas on curling maps rather than brave new worlds. The archaisms of the setting—essentially, Pirates of the Carribean in space—mixes knights and knaves, magic and religion, into a twisted version of our own history. It is a world which never existed rather than a world which might. It is, as Niall Harrison has argued, just possible to perceive Wooding's world as a weirded post-singularity landscape, but this would be a wilful reading. Retribution Falls is fantasy.
It is also, however, strongly redolent of one of the most popular science fiction series of the last decade. Joss Whedon's Firefly (2002), famously cancelled after just 13 episodes, was a space western in which a plucky crew made up of disparate individuals, each with a secret or two to hide, operated in the grey economy at the edges and in the crevices of a vast and unforgiving superstate. Wooding has claimed never to have seen an episode of the series, and yet his characters—the morally ambiguous captain with a troubling past as a soldier, the redoubtable (and ethnic) best friend, the upper crust stowaway running from his past life—match Whedon's routinely. Not only that, whole scenes—two crewmembers tied to each other as they are tortured, one wisecracking and the other whimpering, or the fish-out-of-water aristocratic ball—are practical remakes of ones from the TV show. In Wooding's defense, Whedon populated his show with stereotypes and stock situations, adding interest with wrinkles in execution; but the acceptance of Retribution Falls as science fiction feels to me at least in part a consequence of its apparently accidental familiarity.
But this all smacks dangerously of context. What of the content? Retribution Falls is a rollicking adventure of the sort for which both myself and Jonathan McCalmont have recently pined: it is sassy, quick and sexy, and doesn't pause to get bogged down in detail, or give the impression that its speed is designed to hide a lack of plotting or care. The novel is in fact refreshingly well placed, and its story hangs together very well—the secrets of the crew contribute not just to the endless series of sequels the "A Tale of the Ketty Jay" subtitle promises, but to the story in hand. The past, particularly that of the airship Captain, Darien Frey, is used to power both the narrative and its antagonist, and is revealed in spurts satisfying enough to maintain the reader's interest. Several other characters—notably Grayther Crake, the itinerant nobleman, and Jezibeth Kyte, a woman with an unusual story, and even more unusual powers—provide further grist for Wooding's storyable mill. The latter, however, is a little underdrawn and oversold, and this is a feature the author transfers to all his female characters: the womanising Frey's exes are given varying mixes of desperation, bitterness, and spite; both Jez and Crake's sister are revealed to be not quite human. Women are in Retribution Falls distanced and dangerous; it might be a thematically interesting depiction given Frey's clear trouble with with the female of his species, but the lack of countervailing argument begins to leave the novel unbalanced.
Which is unfortunate, since the novel's story is otherwise one of finding equilibrium. Frey's difficult past, and increasingly hopeless present, is posited as the fault of his own self-involved inability to develop real affection for others. Retribution Falls is essentially a "how the gang got together" story, not in the sense that the gang is unformed as the novel begins—only Jez is a new addition—but because until the novel's close the crew has none of the camaraderie, mutual support and co-operative efficiency that is typical of so many plucky bands of space—er, air—pirates. Early on, Frey's commitment to his vessel is clear in his willingness to abandon a crewmember in order to keep the ship when Crake is threatened by a cheated client of Frey's who is seeking to take the Ketty Jay as compensation: "you will never get my craft you hear? You can stuff whatever you like in my ears. The Ketty Jay is mine" (p. 5). By the book's end, however, Frey has learned that the Ketty Jay can only be a shell in which something greater travels: "he was consumed by a surge of affection for these people, these men and women who shared his aircraft and his life" (p. 373). Through all the derring-do and cliff-hanging shifts in fortune that make up the novel's episode—cinematic—narrative, this lesson runs with consistency, if also inevitability.
It is indeed a little obvious a message, and a little bald a book, to win an award. Retribution Falls is an entertaining and not unintelligent read—and the genre desperately needs books which fall into both these categories, rather than one or the other. But it does not aim for the sort of literary style, complex characterisation, or intellectual insight of the novels which tend to win the Clarke Award. Having read it, I'm rather glad it made the shortlist—it deserves a wider readership—but I'm not convinced it was ever in the running to win.
This is not true of China Miéville's The City & The City, which is by most accounts—including that of the British Eastercon's annual Not The Clarke Award panel, which picked it in a 3-to-1 vote—the favourite to take the gong. This leaves my task here a little more difficult, since I have already discussed elsewhere and at some length the ways in which the novel does not work for me. Miéville has been circumspect about not giving away in interviews the core conceit of his novel, and has encouraged reviewers to do the same. It is impossible to discuss the book properly without doing so, however, so skip to the next section if you would prefer to remain unspoiled.
The City & The City, like Retribution Falls, is not science fiction. It is a sort of contemporary fantasy, in which two cities—Ul Qoma and Beszel—exist side-by-side and on top of each other, built on the same site and coexisting day by day for centuries as entirely separate entities. This improbability is rendered possible by a technique learned by every inhabitant of either city which is known as "unseeing." (In fact, there is also unhearing, unsmelling, and presumably unfeeling.) This is the mental process by which, for instance, an inhabitant of Beszel, upon catching from the corner of her eye a forbidden glimpse of Ul Qoma, will not just act as if, but convince herself entirely, that the sighting did not happen. It is a sort of doublethink which enables two wholly different societies—one a faintly central European, vaguely post-Ottoman city in decline, and the other a forward-looking, consumerist haven inviting exploitation by hungry Western powers—to lead wholly separated political, cultural, and social existences.
"That was just the city; it wasn't an allegory" (p. 22). Miéville does not want us to perform the literary sin of reading fantasy as representative; his cities are themselves only. This is in a sense fortunate. The temptation to map Ul Qoma and Beszel onto ways of perceiving, or rather forgetting, those parts of the world which, under obscuring layers of globalisation, power our lifestyles, or to take "unseeing" as a comment on the manner in which one's eyes may slip from a homeless beggar outside a redeveloped train station, would, if acted upon, fatally weaken the book. "Unseeing" as it is depicted in The City & The City is a fantastic phenomenon, not a strategy of realism; it does not operate as our own perceptions operate. Nothing can illustrate this better than Miéville's own concession to the ultimately untenable nature of his core conceit: the organisation known as Breach. An authority faced with enforcing the strict separation of the cities, Breach is simply magic: it materialises before the eyes of a "breached" inhabitant of one of the other cities, visible also to the innocent bystanders, and somehow whisks the breached away and maintains the power to erase all trace of them and appear as close to gods to all others: " . . . it isn't like other powers. You have some sense of its . . . capabilities? The Breach is . . . It has unique powers. And it's, ah, extremely secretive" (p. 79). If the bifurcation of the cities can only be enforced by an authority which itself is impossible, we must assume that so too is the whole arrangement.
The final third of the novel is set within the confines of Breach, and Miéville fails to make it work except as a fantasy construction. He may not have intended to, but if so it seems strange that he also so clearly sited the cities policed by Breach in our own quotidian world: Sterne has written a travelogue of the place; Bukowski novels are also namechecked, as are historical events with which we are familiar; the reader is even told in some detail how to reach Ul Qoma and Beszel by air (change in Athens). In some sense, this is an enjoyable aspect of the novel—it feels at times like a conscious pushing of the boundaries of the fantastic, for instance in its inclusion of each of the fantastic forms described in Farah Mendelsohn's recent Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) in a single fantasy; but if this is the case something should be revealed—the novel's purpose should be found—in the book's joins. In fact, where types of fantasy or reality overlap, all Miéville can manage is a muddy smudge. Where, for instance, the context of contemporary Europe meets the unknown and unknowable history of the twin cities (when did unseeing first begin—and for what earthly reason?), the reader—forbidden to read allegorically—must resort to loose and vaporous metaphor; the cities do not and cannot exist as Miéville attempts to persuade, and this fact begins to feel distracting rather than enlightening.
It's a similar story in his mashing of genres. The City & The City is most plainly a crime story—it begins with a murder and its main characters are police officers. It is also quite plainly a riff on the Cold War thriller—a fantastic Gorky Park (1981), in which agencies compete with each other, states within states slip between each other, and truth is blown in by accident and the pugnacious efforts of a rapidly disillusioned central figure (Miéville's Borlú, Cruz Smith's Renko). On top of all that, there are more shades of the Bas-Lag novels than has been acknowledged: the great Copula Hall, from which the two cities are separately governed but at the heart of which they are ultimately joined, could have been drawn straight from Perdido Street Station (2000); Breach is as weird and unknowable as anything in Iron Council (2004). Perhaps, like the layers of Ul Qoma and Beszel, these elements are intended to sit uncomfortably against each other; certainly The City & The City is a wry, tersely written interrogation of all kinds of borders. But, as Borlú discovers when he allows himself fully to see those borders, it is there where the truth—where the important revelations—lie. Conversely, the joins in the novel itself are where it is weakest, where it is hardest to discern sense or certainty. For this reviewer at least, that emptiness at the core of the novel's project should give the judges pause.
The limits of perception are also a focus in Adam Roberts's science fictional farce, Yellow Blue Tibia. This is a proper genre novel—at least in the sense that it has actual spaceships, proper aliens, and a significant discourse on what science fiction is and does. Roberts has, however, developed for himself something of the reputation of SF's enfant terrible, and Yellow Blue Tibia is no attempt to curry favour, as fresh and as different a science fiction novel was published all year. And yet it has received broadly good reviews, even from those who have not previously enjoyed Roberts's novels. I am no such beast, and continue to believe that 2008's Swiftly remains Roberts's most exciting and intriguing work. Nevertheless, Yellow Blue Tibia's mix of straightforward narrative, liberal doses of humour, and science fictional seriousness, deserves the warm reception.
Konstantin Skvorecky, the novel's protagonist, is a Soviet writer of science fiction asked, in 1946, to devise with his fellow genre hacks an alien invasion plausible enough to supplant the United States—which Josef Stalin believes will soon crumble—as the USSR's unifying threat. They craft this narrative in a remote dacha and afterwards return to their lives; for most of them, this involves varying sorts of death. For Skvorecky, it involves literary disappointment and personal dissolution. We rejoin him in the 1980s, and Soviet Russia's decay is reflected in his own: a lonely alcoholic limited to a life of translation, he has put science fiction behind him as the genre of dreamers and fools. The only problem is that the alien invasion he helped write has in fact commenced.
Upon this unlikely setup, Roberts is daring enough to erect two quite separate structures. The first is a knockabout, slapstick farce in which Skvorecky careers around the Soviet bloc, avoiding Marxist men in black and suffering a wide range of injuries with a dry sarcasm most redolent of Roberts's own reviewing voice; the second structure is a high concept quantum time war which sets out, in the words of the Author's Note, "to suggest a way of reconciling the two seemingly contradictory facts about UFOs": that many people claim to have seen them, and that they clearly don't exist (p. 325). Skvorecky discovers that radiation aliens able to slip amongst the gaps between quantum realities are slowly manipulating the observable probabilities of timelines in which they do not successfully conquer the world. UFOs thus exist at the edges of these realities—as in Miéville, the truth lies at the edges.
"What form of life am I?" an alien Stalin asks of Skvorecky, just after the writer is caught up in the explosion at Chernobyl (Yellow Blue Tibia is that sort of book). "Did I hide it? Did I ever pretend humanity?" (p. 212). Roberts's novel posits that by reorienting reality science fiction is able to stumble closer to its truth. It is, beneath the droll—and often laugh-out-loud—humour, a quite complex intellectual exercise. To leave aside the Asperger’s and Tourette’s syndromes, the convoluted chase scenes and ironic narrator, would be to rob the story of its personality but not its purpose. This is by way of saying that I consider Yellow Blue Tibia to be, though more straightforward a novel than some Roberts has written, also a satisfyingly multifaceted work.
And yet it is also something of a cheat. For a start, much of that intellectual meat is stuffed into two sections of the book—a dreamscape section in which the alien Stalin appears in order to lecture Skvorecky (and, by extension, the reader), and a final climactic scene in which characters are thrown together beneath a flying saucer-filled sky to explain quantum physics and the big invasion itself. Meanwhile, whole swathes of the rest of the novel pass by in moments of great hilarity but little purpose. Roberts's twin structures are a little like Miéville's twin cities—they coexist but often fail to interact.
There is also the Russian question. In a post on her own blog, the novelist Catherynne Valente charged Roberts with egregious cultural appropriation, marshalling several arguments in order to show that the novel's grasp on Russian and Soviet culture is tenuous and at times wholly wrong-headed. Some examples are less serious than others—that Skvorecky, when arrested by the KGB, angrily (but impotently) demands he has rights, is surely more forgivable than the suggestion that the genre and literary circles depicted in the novel might bear no relation to their counterparts in reality. The book struck me as more interested in reflecting and interrogating the Western tradition of writing about the USSR than in actually writing about the USSR. But had Ian McDonald, for example, written his superlative River of Gods (2004) not with intimate knowledge of and familiarity with India, but with reference to Forster, Rushdie, and Farrell, it would have been not just a poorer book but a less honest one.
Ultimately, this is Yellow Blue Tibia's great fault: it feels more like a lark, more of a game, than it does a truly committed, fully convincing literary statement. It is hugely entertaining, and not a little intellectually satisfying, but it is in some way not quite whole; it lacks follow-through or an authentic vision. Roberts has argued that he uses humour in the book not just as entertainment but as a critical tool. He does indeed achieve this with aplomb, but many of the novel's scenes still feel somehow separate from many others: Roberts's many experiments don't quite cohere, despite their joyful execution. It should be read, and richly deserves its place on the shortlist; it is undoubtedly one of the finest novels written within the field, and probably outside of it, last year. But it is exhilaratingly clever without quite having equal conviction.
[The second half of this shortlist review can be read here.]
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
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