There are six novels on this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist. I have each of them on the desk in front of me. On page 37 of my copy of Lauren Beukes's Zoo City, I read: "People want to believe: you just have to feed them plausible constructs." An unscrupulous essayist in Richard Powers's Generosity might agree. At one point, he receives a letter from the daughter of a missing man he claims to have met—in the witty, hipsterish, gonzo travelogue which made his name—outside the Arizona shopping mall of El Con. "When Julie Newstetter wrote back and asked why he'd said El Con," Powers writes, "he had no answer except the name's comical sound" (p. 16).
Lies both entertaining and plausible can also be rather useful. In Tricia Sullivan's latest novel, for instance, the adolescent protagonists come to realize, as they learn how to survive when not just the authority but the very presence of adults is taken away, that the stories they were told were only that, fictions which made sense of irresolvable experience. "People—Adults. Are just loosely connected. They're just a bunch of compulsions and stuff. Rationalizations. Seriously. . . . Small things could break them" (Lightborn, p. 128). This is a logic taken to its natural conclusion in Tim Powers's Declare, in which the whole of the Cold War is boiled down to a mystically Manichaean secret, and ancient, war between angels and demons; "Stories," writes Ian McDonald in The Dervish House; "people will always buy those" (p. 42).
All of which suggests that the books piled before me are intensely, or perhaps puckishly, self-aware not just as fiction but as science fiction—that is, a fabulation without even the fig leaf of mimesis, thoroughbred fibs fashioning an alternative sort of truth. This impression both is and isn't true: on the one hand, I reviewed last year's shortlist for this very organ, too, and am therefore willing and able to confirm that they sit more soberly in my memory than this year's have been received; on the other, however, the one shortlisted work not quoted above is in many ways more aware of itself, more self-conscious (if it is wise for reviewers ever to brandish that epithet) than any of the rest. For consciousness of content is one thing; ruthlessness of form is quite another.
Patrick Ness's Monsters of Men, after all, is proudly, defiantly, and unapologetically the most manipulative, and therefore self-aware, book on the shortlist. As in the previous volumes of the Chaos Walking trilogy, Ness has complete control of plot, pacing and character; by extension, and by design, he is also in complete control of you, dear reader. Those already familiar with the other books in the series—The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer—will be aware of the Chaos Walking style. Each viewpoint character has their own typeface; sentences and paragraphs are short and often exclamatory; and, most importantly, chapters always end on a cliffhanger. Reading Ness is like sitting in a fleapit cinema watching endless episodes of old Flash Gordon serials. Flash has fallen off a cliff! No, he's grabbed hold of a branch! Flash has been shot! No, it was someone else! Flash is trapped between . . . no, wait, he isn't. The only difference, of course, is that you don't have to wait any time at all for the resolution—as long as you keep reading.
This is the great strength of Chaos Walking, and of Monsters of Men: its addictive quality, the sureness of its grip on you. In a novel essentially about how and why we choose one action over another, this plunging of the reader into the immediacy of narrative is a pitch-perfect, and hugely successful, strategy. Not only that, but Ness's alternating points of view, his insistence on fundamentally primitive narrative tensions, are so slickly done, and their momentum so ruthlessly maintained, that the reader puts down this book only when there is a fire nearby, or possibly at the dismal bleating of the three-minute warning. It is a masterful performance, a novel in which a great deal happens, often at the same time, to an ever-increasing cast of characters, and yet one which never loses focus, never feels unwieldy, and—most of all—keeps the reader reading. This feat alone warrants its place on the shortlist—here is a book of humor and warmth, intelligence and energy, with a preternaturally deft sense of balance. It’s not the first time a YA novel has made it onto the Clarke shortlist—only recently, Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl (2008) made the running, too—but the judges should nevertheless be commended for seeing past classification and recognizing simple class.
The novel begins in media res: "'War,' says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting. 'At last'" (p. 1). The war in question is with the Spackle, the indigenous life-form of New World, a planet colonized some years previously by a scouting party of bickering humans; the Mayor is the militaristic leader first of the atavistic, male-dominated New Prentisstown, then President of the whole planet; and in the previous two novels he has been agitating for a final conflict with the aliens whom he has demonized, and who have demonized the humans in turn, since the first conflicts between them. That demonization, meanwhile, was part and parcel of Prentiss's wider plan to dominate New World by controlling its men and repressing its women, a strategy made more complex—but also more potent—by Noise, the curious condition developed from puberty by all males on the planet and by which their every thought or feeling is broadcast to all around them. Our narrator in this first chapter of Monsters of Men is Todd, a teenage boy struggling to understand his place, and that of goodness or conscience, in this increasingly stratified, increasingly bitter and broken, society. Todd's adversarial relationship with the Mayor—the fear and loathing in that word "glinting"—is powered by his love for the two men who brought him up, whom he believes the Mayor has had killed, and for Viola, the sole survivor of a scout ship sent by a huge colonizing vessel about to take up orbit around New World.
Some first sentence.
This is where I reach the caveats. The whole trilogy has been bedeviled by questions of its own making—why do only male humans experience Noise, for instance? How might we respond to Todd's intense confusion over what "manhood" may mean, and how do the actions of a violent band of female rebels reflect or negate their own gender? Ness knows all this will make his reader uncomfortable, and in his treatments he has always been canny enough to avoid the many potential pitfalls of his topic. Monsters of Men, however, needed to do more than walk this tightrope—it needed to come down, more or less, on one side or another. This it does through a mouthpiece character, but the resolution of several of its most potent questions feels briefer than the set-up. Perhaps Ness has no real conviction that the problems he identifies have any quick solutions (this will to impose an ending is a problem we'll encounter elsewhere in the shortlist); but I rather think that Chaos Walking is too clever a series not to have known what it thought before it began. There is, then, something lacking in the execution: the novel is too breathless to discourse at length.
Likewise, Ness can afford no time to recapitulate the events of the previous two novels himself. This information works its way into the reflections of his three narrators—Todd, Viola, and an emancipated Spackle bent on revenge—but of necessity not in the way a reader might require truly to feel the import of the events they recount. Ness's discipline is too pronounced to risk the momentum of his book by going over old ground; this makes Monsters of Men a better third volume in a trilogy, but weakens it as a standalone novel. The series's first installment, by its nature more free-standing than its third, has been garlanded: The Knife of Never Letting Go won the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Guardian Award and the James Tiptree Jr. gong; its second volume, The Ask and the Answer, won the Costa Children's Book Award, but was only short- or long-listed for other awards—perhaps those judges, too, found fault with the almost total interconnectedness of the Chaos Walking novels. On many levels, this is a great shame—Ness deserves the exposure and applause occasioned by awards shortlists. He thoroughly deserves his place on the current shortlist, too. His has been a remarkable achievement. But giving the award to Monsters of Men would be like giving the Oscar to The Return of the King (2003): bestowing upon a great series's final, and not necessarily its best, movement an award truly meant for the whole symphony. I happen to think Ness's sequence is essential reading for anyone interested in modern SF, and that, more importantly, it's also one of the most entertaining novel series published in some time; but were I a Clarke judge this year, I'm not sure I could perform that sleight of hand.
I might, however, look for a standalone novel which shares much of its vim and vision. In Tricia Sullivan's Lightborn, I might even think I'd found it. It has two teenaged narrators; it's about the failings of adults, and how they warp society; it doesn't shy away from unpleasantness or unpalatable truth, but it also has an essential optimism, a basic decency. It's the story of the American city of Los Sombres in what appears to be an alternative version of our immediate past, in which "shine"—a sort of datastream communicated directly into a person's brain by an indeterminate, and ultimately essentially magical, method—is used to medicate a variety of psychological conditions. Its effectiveness, however, has led it to be adopted more widely and less medicinally—as mood enhancer, instant educator, and entertainer. The lightborns which transmit "shined" data can be received only by those who have made it through puberty. In a less subtle writer's hands, this might be used as a gateway into some clumsy metaphor about sexual awakening or adulthood; for Sullivan, like Ness, analogy and allegory are weaker forms of storytelling. Lightborn, like Monsters of Men, tells only its own story, letting the resonances look after themselves.
"No one talks about what happens when the scientist hero solves the big problem," writes Sullivan. "No one's there to see the transformation. How the distribution of crumbs on a plate becomes galactic sprawl. How the work takes over the person. Uses him" (p. 353). Lightborn is in many ways more aware of itself as science fiction than Monsters of Men—or, at least, aware of itself as contemporary science fiction. Ness is a bit old-fashioned—sleeper ships and colonists, far-flung planets and alien lifeforms. Lightborn is less interested in tropes, and thus reads much more like a traditional Clarke nominee—literary and quietly experimental, it focuses on invention rather than elaboration, even where it riffs on the current vogue for zombies and teenagers. The scientist hero of the passage above is the ruined father of the book's female protagonist, Roksana. He was an architect of the system of shine in use in Los Sombres, and realizes rather late that it has serious weaknesses. When the system inevitably goes wrong, and is therefore shut down, Los Sombres is quarantined by the federal government and left to fend for itself. Roksana's bipolar father has been destroyed—is being used—by the shine and the lightborns he set free; it is left to his daughter to make sense of the zombie apocalypse his datastreams leave behind. When she first comes across Xavier, a teenage boy from outside the forbidden city seeking supplies of a drug which delays the onset of puberty, she remarks: "He was just another victim, left to deal with shit his elders couldn't even comprehend" (p. 111). Lightborn is a novel about the consequences of discovery.
I rather agree with Farah Mendlesohn, who wrote in these pages that Sullivan's treatment of the relationship between Xavier and Roksana is one of the ways she undermines our initial assumption that this putative bildungsroman must be a Young Adult book. Very shortly after the book's first pages, in which Los Sombres falls and Roksana is left alone, we move forward in time to a period in the lives of both these teens when they are essentially living as new kinds of adults: Roksana immune to shine but resourceful and even ruthless, Xavier physically under-developed but by necessity self-reliant and skeptical. Lightborn isn't, like the Chaos Walking trilogy, a work about learning how to be an adult; it's a book about creating whole new ways of being. Those compulsions and rationalizations about which Roksana is so scathing are seen to pervert good society, to go uninterrogated and even unnoticed and thus to operate like a destructive Trojan horse within the individual and civic community alike. "We're mostly a set of biological levers waiting to be pulled," explains Roksana’s father. "But we can change that, and that's what shine can give us. Better neurochemical paths. New ways of being" (p. 183). That shine is ultimately shown to be more malign than the mad professor might have hoped doesn’t necessarily undo the problem.
So Lightborn asks a big question and spins a tall-but-intricate story to answer it. It does so with much of the control—if less of the energy—deployed by Ness: there are pacey cliffhangers hand in hand with exclamatory dialogue, rewarding characterization, and unflagging momentum. If less kinetic than Monsters of Men, it is instead, perhaps because it is not quite a YA novel, more lyrical and more contemplative. Yet its great strength—its daring solution to its intractable problem—is also its greatest weakness. Something about Lightborn doesn't quite add up. In part, this is simply the small matter of shine operating essentially by pixie-dust: wish it and it is so. I rather enjoyed the alternative history element of the book, and have no particular grudge with Sullivan's decision to place so separated a technology in what must be a decidedly different version of our own past; rather, the lightborns of which she writes seem to me less science fictional and more fantastical, a kind of ESP citalopram. Her use of the Native Americans with whom Xavier lives in the ersatz townships around Los Sombres merely emphasizes this magical aspect: "The Native peoples were exploring these pathways long before lightborn technology was invented," we're told at one point. "Their culture knows all about opening up the unexplored potentials in our biology" (p. 254). That is, it wasn't a wizard, but a medicine-man that did it.
Sullivan has spoken in interviews about the importance to her of appearing not to appropriate other cultures for her own reasons, especially in the wake of RaceFail. In this she is broadly successful, but her treatment—perhaps as a result of such squeamishness—remains under-cooked; everything about shine, from its transmission to its negation (the smell of onions works, apparently), has the air of the ephemeral about it. In a novel in which characters openly refer to key plot elements as "McGuffins," perhaps this is a deliberate move. It leaves a shaky centre, however, at the heart of this otherwise slyly written, wryly expressed novel. If nothing else, Sullivan's prose disproves Xavier's contention in the the final pages of Lightborn that, "Words are like horseshoes thrown at the side of an F-16." She is a powerful and evocative writer. But even if the man who gave this prize its name is infamous for contending that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, Lightborn puts itself in a double bind which leaves the reader if not underwhelmed then sadly uncertain.
Ironically, some of the best science on the shortlist comes from its most avowedly literary entrant. It's not that the novels of Richard Powers have previously ignored science and technology—on the contrary, they are his central concern. But here is a winner of the National Book Award, a man who writes about the more or less modern day, and who stands aside from a genre which extrapolates the effects of technological advancement more often than it documents it. William Gibson, in novels such as Pattern Recognition (2003), has begun to direct the attention of his fellow SF authors towards the sorts of stories Powers writes—mundane in setting but intensely integrated with the kind of existential questions Sullivan asks in Lightborn. When science and technology outstrip all our previous understandings of ourselves, Powers asks, what does it mean to be—and remain—human? Powers's approach to these sorts of questions are SFnal in the contemporary sense, when our own rate of advancement and development, our own interaction with technologies once confined to Star Trek, has reached such a stage that extrapolation becomes almost redundant.
Generosity, then, is the story of Russell Stone, an ambivalent writing tutor who comes across a young woman named Thassa, an Algerian refugee who is not just permanently happy, but who also—shades of the lightborns here—actively affects the mood of all those around her. This intense mixture of positivity and charisma leads not just her tutor but the rest of her class essentially to become obsessed by her. For Stone, a man lost in a world for which he holds little respect and even less affection, Thassa acts a sort of kick-start—though Powers is a thoughtful enough writer not to render Thassa as some fetishised tool of male re-awakening (it is Stone who is written as the tool). When Stone introduces Thassa to the college's counsellor, Candace Weld, she "might have thought [Thassa] had just come from a concert or film, some exhilarating work of art that made life, for a moment, seem kind and solvable" (p. 91). We've all encountered such characters in less intelligent novels or movies: the mysterious but beautiful young woman who passes in and out of more isolated, more defeated middle-aged lives, without ever having character traits beyond those which have this effect: she's Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer (2009). She is a lie, and a pernicious one at that. It is the science which gives Powers his get-out-of-jail card.
Powers paints a picture of a modern America increasingly atomized and desensitized by technology. Stone berates his own writerly conscience: "Book-club moms were podcasting their teenage daughters' first sexual forays, and he was beating himself up for misrepresenting street people?" (p. 17). The popular science journalist Tonia Schiff sees no place for her parents' cultured optimism: "Both Vice-Consul Schiff and his beloved doctor wife felt something hopelessly magnificent about the human adventure, its ability to channel brute instinct of a few hard-pressed hunter-gatherers into creating Athens, Byzantium, Florence, Isfahan. But in Gilbert Schiff's considered opinion, the project had been running in reverse for more than a century; the beasts of unlimited appetite were loose and weren’t going back into the kennel any time soon" (p. 68). "Isn't this America?" Thassa asks. "No such thing as too much?" (p. 84). Science, and especially its bastard applied sibling technology, has enabled Powers's America to abandon itself to social networks which encourage not communication but hollow self-expression, (one thinks of Zadie Smith's "Generation Why"). No one is happier, merely more aware of an increasingly trivial corpus of data. The stroke of genius at the base of Generosity is the question: if Zooey Deschanel from (500) Days of Summer really existed, if there were someone we could bottle to make us all better, wouldn't we treat her as public property? Thomas Kurton, either the novel's hero or villain depending on your perspective, is a pioneering genomist who sits at the very equilibrium of purest science and crassest commerce; when he hears about Thassa, he wants her DNA. The world at large, meanwhile, just wants to blog her.
If all this sounds like a parable, that’s because in large part it is. Generosity is narrated by an omniscient voice which inhabits a series of viewpoint characters and is not beyond explicit moralizing: "If evolution favored conscience," it tells us, "everything with a backbone would have hanged itself from the ceiling fan eons ago, and invertebrates would once again be running the place" (p. 20). This interpolative voice also provides the parable with a complicating, literate metatextual dimension. Powers, who as an undergraduate shifted from physics to English majors before finding employment as a computer programmer, combines art and science in a rare way: Generosity's thesis is one which accounts for both disciplines, and comes out the stronger for it. "I'm caught like Buridan's ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction," opines the narrator (p. 129). Powers has his parable ask questions of the form: "For most of human history," argues Kurton, "when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we're on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it’s time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism" (p. 151). In this way, beyond and above its core narrative, Generosity becomes an argument about humanity's ability or even willingness to understand itself, and to move on to the next place. It is a brilliant, brave and exquisitely composed novel with fundamentally SFnal concerns.
But there are yet three more books to consider.
[Read the second half of Dan's review here.]
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.