As the date approached for the announcement of this year's Clarke shortlist, at least one of the judges expressed mild apprehension via social media. Would the list be greeted with its usual howls of fannish outrage and derision? Would SF source pitchforks and firebrands for its popular "instant mob from The Simpsons" act? In the event responses were muted. It is, the immediate consensus seems to be, a pretty unobjectionable list of novels. It includes books written by women (something the 2013 shortlist couldn't boast). It has three first novels; it has two novels by writers in their 70s. Three Americans (one of whom was born in Egypt); three Brits (one of whom lives in New Zealand). The dust settles.
It's worth considering the lot of the Clarke judge. I daresay that it's because the award enjoys the esteem it does that it attracts ire in the way other awards tend not to. Because it is judged, that ire will sometimes be directed at the judges. This is, of course, unfair. Each judge must read, inwardly digest, and then rate an impossible quantity of novels over a limited timeframe (this year, an eye-watering 121 books were submitted), match their preferences against the other judges' over multiple meetings, and arrive at a consensus six. The labor the team has put in this year is boggleworthy, and deserves the highest praise.
Still, ire often is the reaction of SF fandom. This has become almost part of the Clarke Award tradition, like leaving a Christmas Eve carrot on the mantelpiece for Santa's reindeer or booing George Osborne. Fans are not sheeple, and it is within a fan's purview to police the genre where it seems to fall beneath the standards we expect. I believe the judges are motivated in the first instance by the individual aesthetic merit of specific books; but it is possible and perhaps even necessary that they also pay attention to the spread of titles, to ensure that the shortlist doesn't egregiously neglect women, writers of color, writers from non US-UK backgrounds, and so on. A list that had no debuts on it would look odd, as if the judges cared naught for encouraging new blood in the genre. A list that included none of the old guard might give the impression that the judges were modishly chasing after the fashionable and ignoring quality.
Last year's all-male shortlist was unfortunate, but not the product of a sexist panel of judges. It reflected the paucity of women publishing SF the previous year, itself a reflection of deeper problems in the industry and society. Nonetheless I feel the prize has missed a trick this year by not—as the quality of the fiction itself would have enabled it to do—selecting an all-female shortlist. Pick any six from Atkinson, Atwood, Beukes, Bourazopoulu, Carson, Hurley, Leckie, Ozick, Saulter, and Swift and you'd be guaranteed a storming list. The judges, clearly, saw it differently.
Of course, the true criterion of a well-chosen shortlist is not the immediate buzz. It is posterity, and by definition that's not something to which you can have in-the-moment access. If we look at the twenty-first-century Clarke through posterity-tinted glasses the result is, shall we say, spotty. Sometimes the prize has got it resoundingly right. When the prize went to Miéville’s Perdido Street Station in 2001 it was a surprise (the buzz had been that Mary Gentle would take the prize); but hindsight tells us this was a very good call by the judges—it's the only novel on that year's shortlist still current, still being read and talked about today. Similarly 2007's Nova Swing was as close to "right" as our sublunary world and a process that involves subjective assessments of taste can ever be—Harrison's trilogy is clearly a major contemporary work of fiction (indeed, this year sees an academic conference devoted to his writing). Lauren Beukes's Zoo City was another judgment that posterity appears to be in the process of endorsing; Beukes has leapt to global fame. But if the prize is often "right," it has also misfired fairly often. It is not to disparage the individual merits of books like Bruce Sterling's Distraction (2000), Ian R. MacLeod's Song of Time (2009), or Jane Rogers's The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2009) to say that they stand outside the larger ongoing discussion of genre—they have not proved to be touchstone texts in the way the titles by Miéville, Harrison, and Beukes have. The question, then, is: which of 2014’s six books will still be read and discussed and influential a decade or more hence?
With Kameron Hurley's God’s War, the judges have at least a head-start on posterity. First published in the States at the beginning of 2011, it has already generated two follow-up volumes in the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy. Hurley is thus both a first-time novelist (for our purposes here) and an established name. God’s War has already won a Kitschie golden tentacle, and been shortlisted for a clutch of other awards, and Hurley has augmented her reputation as a novelist with a series of rousing blog posts eloquently repudiating the shrinking-violet model of polite femininity and deploring the invisibility of women writers and fans in contemporary SF culture. One of these latter will, I’d bet my bottom dollar, win this year’s Best Related Hugo. You heard it here first.
I might describe God’s War as a safe bet for the shortlist, if the book itself crackles with a palpably unsafe energy. Three years on, it still feels dangerous. Much contemporary popular culture is designed to shock, from films to video games and comics; grimdark writers by the dozen make universal darkness bury all—yet the results are too often jejune, rote and tame. Not so Hurley. Like Hughes's hawk, God’s War is a novel whose manners are tearing off heads.
Every subgenre now is a -punk of one sort of another, cyber-, steam-, and clock- (and God’s War itself has, on account of its magical insectile energy system, been called "bugpunk"). Nonetheless, Hurley's novel is the first in a long time to remind me of the full force of that terminal syllable. It may be hard to believe now, but I'm old enough to remember that, once upon a time, the Sex Pistols actually shocked the bourgeoisie. As Greil Marcus insightfully puts it: the amazing thing is not that Johnny Rotten could sing "I am an antichrist"; it was that so many people actually believed him.
The book has the best opening line of any on the shortlist: chucking us straight in with a splendid piece of Lady Macbeth-ish unsexing:
Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert. (p. 5)
Nyx, our assassin (the merciless "bel dame" of the trilogy moniker) has a name that means "night." But of course she has. She is a gloriously unlikeable piece of characterization: professionally and sometimes personally violent; a bounty hunter; tough, unscrupulous, and belligerent; a shagger, a drinker, a brawler, and above all a survivor. "The world could burn around her," is the way the narrator puts it, towards the end of the novel: "the cities turn to dust, the cries of a hundred thousand fill the air, and she would get up after the fire died and walk barefoot and burned over the charred soil in search of clean water, a weapon, a purpose. She would rebuild" (p. 319). Nyx has gambled away the money she got for her womb by the novel's third sentence. In its fourth she has sex with the (female) boxer upon whom she had unfelicitously wagered. The girl—Jaks—is gone in the morning; and Nyx follows her to the town of Faleen, interested not so much in her as in her brother, an army deserter with a price on his head.
The war, it appears, is endlessly ongoing. The world's two main peoples, Nasheen and Chenja, are locked in enmity that seems, like Sunni and Shia (though Hurley doesn't use those names), to derive from differing interpretations of Islam, or an Islam analogue (Hurley doesn't use that name either). The main use for men in Hurley's matriarchal world of Umayma is as cannon-fodder in the fighting. Jaks says she has no idea where her brother is. Nyx is not diverted. She takes her to bed ("she kissed and licked Jaks in a detached sort of way. It was like watching two people she didn’t know having sex" [p. 46]). After the girl falls asleep Nyx creeps up to the loft where the boy, Arran, is hiding.
Nyz shoved her bloody hand against the boy's mouth and brought up the other hand with the knife . . . she shoved the knife fast and deep into Arran's naked armpit three times. . . . Arran tried to catch her wrist with his other hand. Nyx rolled the rest of the way onto the platform and pinned him still. She waited until the strength bled out of him, then began to saw at the neck with the stolen knife. For a stretch of time while she cut off Arran's head, she wasn't a bel dame at all—just another hacker, another organ stealer, another black trader in red goods. The only difference was, when she brought this boy in, her sisters would forgive her. (p. 47)
Ouch. Now, all this is preliminary to the main business of the book. In the main event Nyx is paired with a pacific, mimsy male called Rhys, a magician—which is to say, somebody able to control the bugs that power and maintain the world's technology. Nyx is tasked by the Queen with tracking down and bringing back a lost alien, who might or might not represent a chance to bring the devastating war to an end. Off they go, through a series of vividly written, violent adventures to a punchy conclusion.
Actually this latter three quarters of the novel is rather joltingly bolted onto its opening act. In between Nyx goes to prison for a year, and the story grinds gears getting back up to speed after this hiatus with a quantity of rather clumsy infodumping. When I first read the novel I was struck by the formal awkwardness of this, and wondered if it was a clever, thematically relevant attempt to do violence to the conventional shape of the action-adventure novel. Re-reading it I wonder if it's less competent than that: Hurley is superb at atmosphere and writes set-pieces well, but her architectonic skills, from longer-scale plotting to pacing and balance, are not so hot. Still, a certain rawness of execution isn't out of place in a work so kinetically rendered.
What, we might ask, is the pleasure in reading a story that is so relentlessly grim and downbeat? It's easy to see the sorts of escapist pleasure entailed in imaginatively relocating to the rainbow land of My Little Pony; it's harder to fathom why people want to "escape" to Westeros, or Hurley's Umayma. Patently, though, they do, and in large numbers. Let's posit a reader of God’s War. She is a literate individual (of course: after all, she's reading a book), educated, in regular employment, pleasant to her co-workers, committed to political ideals of fairness and respect. She could no more decapitate an actual human being than turn into a dragon and fly to the moon. So she reads, and loves, a character who is profoundly unliterate (Nyx has, it seems, dyslexia); uneducated; and living a precarious hand to mouth existence dependent on being very unpleasant to other people, has no interest whatsoever in fairness and thinks of respect as something forced from others at knife- or gunpoint. The appeal of the escapism, in other words, is actually the escape from one's own decency and civilization.
This in turn speaks to the way violence figures in the novel. I think this is more than a simple middle finger raised at social notions of the inherent sentimental sweetness of the feminine—although it is in part that. "The cunt is not the heart," Nyx notes at one point, "though a lot of people get the two confused" (p. 260), to which one can only say: indeed. More than this, though, the novel is about a particular version of projected invulnerability. The fantasy, in other words, is not just of being unshackled from civilization and its discontents so as to be able to vent all the anger and savagery you've kept bottled up (all that "be the good girl you always have to be" stuff that moves people to sing along so lustily to Frozen's "Let It Go"). It is, more directly, the fantasy of being able to absorb extraordinary amounts of punishment without becoming incapacitated. The sheer physical resilience of Nyx is amazing: poisoned, scorched by the desert, shot in the hip, repeatedly battered and attacked, she always picks herself up and goes on. Indeed, "Nyx went on" is the last sentence of the novel. To this end, the world of Umayma is pitched halfway between overbearing theocracy and anarchy, the latter a function of the endless warmaking. The former gives us something, imaginatively speaking, to kick out against; the latter provides the imaginative space to do whatever the fuck we like. And actually it turns out what we would like, even more than kicking out, is the ability not to be hurt or afraid any more.
Indeed, one of the things Hurley does very well is the representation of fear—its disabling ubiquity, its protean force. Rhys is drawn to Nyx because he thinks her fearless; but the reality is that she is afraid all the time. It's just that she refuses to let the fear override her. Early in her mission, alone in a hotel room, Nyx has what amounts to a panic attack. She has to be talked down by Rhys, over a mobile phone (well: a "transceiver"), by reading her poetry. After a while it starts to work:
The fear started to bleed away. It was like loosening up a garrotting wire pulled taut. She clutched the transceiver to her ear as if it, too, were a weapon as effective as a dagger. But after a while, her death's grip eased up. She realized her hand hurt. (p. 159)
This is key, I think. This is a novel in which externalized, physical violence (in the form of boxing matches, combat, assassinations and so on) stands as a sort of fairground mirror of the rather different violence that structures life for marginalized groups in actual life—a systemic violence so embedded in social praxis that many people can no longer even see it. The nature of this structural violence is, quite specifically, that certain groups—like women—are compelled to live in fear. Slavoj Žižek, in Violence (2008), notes that America is much more comfortable with "actual" violence like gun crime than it is with the sort of violence that disturbs socially symbolic categories, like homosexuality (in Hurley's world male homosexuality is "illegal in Ras Tieg, Chenja, and Nasheen, for no good reason except that it scared the shit out of people" [p. 198]). Hurley's fantasia is, after this fashion, hair of the dog.
Still, there are problems. It would not be fair to accuse this book of simple-minded Orientalism, and I don't see that the tendentious word "appropriation" is always fitting when a writer from one culture writes about another. The Orientalist, in Said's formulation, styles the "east" as Other, feminine, luxurious, colorful, sensual, cruel, sadistic, and weak. Hurley very deliberately upends most of those stereotypes. But the question of religion remains. I know Muslims who are not so much outraged as genuinely puzzled that Islam, centrally a religion of peace, has become so conceptually connected with terrorism and war in the Western imagination. Of course it's not that Westerners think "the West" a utopian and pacific place. But "we" do tend to believe that "we" go to war for reasons of rational statecraft and homeland security; where "they" go to war for reasons of irrational religious obsession.
Corey Robin's 2011 book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin discusses the way "ideology", especially religious ideology, is so often pegged as the source of all global ills.
The twentieth century, it's often said, taught us a simple lesson about politics: of all the motivations for political action, none is as lethal as ideology. The lust for money may be distasteful, the desire for power ignoble, but neither will drive its devotees to the criminal excess of an idea on the march. Whether the cause is the working class or a master race, ideology leads to the graveyard.
Although moderate-minded intellectuals have repeatedly mobilized some version of this argument against the "isms" of right and left, they have seldom mustered a comparable skepticism about that other idée fixe of the twentieth century: national security. Some writers criticize this war, others that one, but has anyone ever penned, in the spirit of Daniel Bell, a book titled "The End of National Security"? Millions have been killed in the name of security; Stalin and Hitler claimed to be protecting their populations from mortal threats. Yet no such book exists.
Adam Kotsko glosses this passage:
To me, this is the ultimate disproof of the secular liberal contention that religion is the biggest possible cause of violence. Literally nothing could be more rigorously secular than "reasons of state," and yet this principle has led to millions upon millions of deaths in the 20th Century alone. Of course, one could always fall back on the same dodge that allows one to get around the deaths caused by International Communism, for instance—"yes, they may have been officially atheistic, but in the last analysis Stalinism and Maoism are really religious in structure"—in order to define away aberrant forms of "national security."
And I think this typical dodge shows why the notion of religion as chief cause of violence has such a powerful hold—what "religion" signifies in such statements isn't a body of beliefs and rituals, etc., but irrationality itself. It's this irrationality that makes "religious violence" violent, not the body count. Within this framework, then, when rational people—for example, legitimate statesmen calculating the national interest—use violence for rational ends, it is not, properly speaking, violence. It is simply necessity.
This runs deep, I think, in Western culture. We pitch "our" warmaking as Clausewitzian diplomacy by other means, a rational set of strategic goals achieved whilst regrettable collateral damage is limited. We trope "their" warmaking as a desert wind howling out of the wilderness with insanity in its eyes, an eternal jihad against logic and temperance. That is—for want of a better word—racist of us; and it is racism that utilizes the common twenty-first-century proxy of reorienting its bigotry away from ethnos and towards religion.
To be clear: I'm not saying God’s War is racist. I don’t think it is—it's no Windup Girl. But it is a novel that tropes war as eternal, irrational, religious—and Eastern. A lot of the novel involves discussion of religion. This is not all Islam. There are Christians and Jews, or their descendants, on this world too; though they are marginal. It's mostly Islam, or an imagined matriarchal descendent of that faith.
Rhys is devout; Nyx's refusal to "bend the knee" is central to her nature. She sums up the difference between them pithily, when one of her casual lays notes how longingly Nyx looks at pretty young Rhys: "no amount of looking is going to make any difference. He's still godfull, and I’m still godless" (p. 358). Hurley is too clever a writer to pile on to this discussion with any neo-Dawkins tub-thumpery, but there's little doubt that the novel aligns us with Nyx's cynicism. ("'We have a war to fight. You don't understand. We fight in God's name.' 'I understand just fine,' Nyx said" [p. 323]). When Nyx is taunted near the end as "a filthy, godless woman" it reads almost as a compliment. Rhys fled his father's house rather than be sent to the front as a futile sacrifice to God because he understands that he is worth more than that. ("More?" his father retorts, outraged. "More than a sacrifice to God? We must submit ourselves to God's will. We are fighting a holy war. God's war. Every one of us. We fight. We die. This is who we are" [p. 382]) The endless war in this novel, in the final analysis, is not rational; it is a sort of madness. Because, for Hurley, even in a planet where actual magicians control magical bugs to power all manner of fantastical machinery, where cats the size of horses pull carts and women mug men in the streets rather than the other way around, even in such a world religion is irrationality itself.
Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is a considerably less heated novel than Hurley's, which is perhaps both good and bad. It is certainly a very readable and intelligent space opera, set in a far future interstellar empire called "the Radch." Said empire is ruled by one Anaander Mianaai, whose identity is divided through hundreds of individual bodies, in part to make it hard to assassinate him. A similar logic is at work for the titular ancillaries—human bodies whose minds have been overwritten by one of many AIs that runs the Radchaai warships. Large numbers of bodies from captured ("annexed") worlds are kept in stasis inside the starships to be brought out and so used as needed. The result is that the ship AI has a myriad of separate points of perception and experience, all integrated into one. Breq, the novel's narrator, was once a single ancillary amongst thousands servicing the ship Justice of Toren. By the time of the main narrative strand the ship has been destroyed along with all but one of her fellow ancillaries. Ronin-like, Breq is now roaming the galaxy looking, it seems, for revenge. She is a female Heinleinian Competent Hero, always well prepared, although alas never referred to in the book as "Ready" Breq.
The novel supplies many of the enjoyments of old-fashioned space opera: quest and adventure, mystery and character arcs, individual storylines set against the backdrop of a large-scale and well-rendered galactic worldbulding. Worldsbuilding, I should say. But it's not old-fashioned in a backward-looking way: Leckie not only nicely deconstructs the attitudes to gender and to imperialism that informed many of those old books; she cannily resists the ideological piety that informs too much contemporary "progressive" writing. "She" is the default pronoun throughout, the "actual" gender sometimes but not always being spelled out afterwards (but with "she" still, mostly, being used): a surprisingly effective and expressive textual strategy. The advantages as well as the oppressions of being "annexed" by the Radch are covered.
Ancillary Justice is a novel well supplied, but not overstuffed, with cool ideas. It does sag rather, narratively speaking, in its middle third (something not uncommon with first novels) but it's always cleanly written and crisply characterized. That last, actually, is more a problem in this book than it might be in another one: I'll come back to that; for now, it's enough to note that the main character twofer between buttoned-down, efficient, driven squaddie Breq and the selfish, posh de-haut-en-bas drug-addicted Seivarden is well drawn. The story starts when Breq, on a remote ice planet for his own reasons, happens upon the comatose Seivarden in a snowdrift outside a low-dive bar. Rather than abandon her (him, actually, but let's stick with her), Breq helps her; cold-turkeys her and helps her back to Radch space.
Leckie's "Radch" is a sort of Interstellar Roman Empire. Or not: in an author interview (appended to my Orbit edition of the book) Leckie declares firmly that "the Radchaaii aren't meant to be Romans in Space," an ex cathedra declaration only slightly undercut by the fact that she also notes, "I took a number of things from the Romans" (those things include: polytheist religion, omens, divination, the mode of military conquest followed by cultural assimilation, the distinction between "citizens" and non-citizens and much else), adding, "the Romans have provided a lot of writers with a model for various interstellar empires, of course, and no wonder." I suppose we ought to say that the Radch aren't only Romans in Space. They're also a bit Star Wars Imperial, with the main narrative position being that of one of the cloned stormtroopers. And they're also a bit British Imperial: deeply defined by class and caste, with a particular emphasis on exacting codes of social courtesy and politeness as covers for a ruthless capacity for violence and military invasion. I'm British myself, and recognize the truth of this. Oh: and they drink tea. Lord, how they drink it. This novel contains loads and loads of tea-drinking. I can't think of another SF novel with as much tea-drinking in it as this one. It’s almost Charpunk. Also: "Radch" keeps sounding on my inner ear as "radish," which is surely one of the least imperial of vegetables (though it is, I suppose, purple: which is a properly Roman-imperial color).
Not to get distracted. The novel as a whole is solid without ever being exactly scintillating. Part of the problem is its length: at 400 pages it's about a hundred pages too long, I think. At such length the attention paid to particular types of tea, and the protocols governing the degree of offense caused by ungloved hands in particular circumstances does start to drag. Too much of the dialogue is expository; and the ending felt a little anticlimactic to me. It's a bit Iain M. Banks (though its imagined cosmos feels thin compared to his more capacious imaginative capacity) and a bit Elizabeth Moon. So it is like Banks and Moon, though I would not describe it as in any way like Ban Ki Moon. But I think my main issue with the novel was the way it treats one of its core (and cool) conceits.
Breq is a consciousness that is used to functioning with thousands of pairs of eyes, thousands of locations, all integrated into one. The emperor is a similar multiple-clone-mind set-up. Leckie does interesting things with this idea, and her characters have interesting discussions about what such dissipated expansion of "individuality" might mean for conventional versions of subjectivity. But the book itself is formally conservative: clear, declarative prose telling two linked and linear narratives, one set back-in-time from the other in order to provide the latter with backstory and explain what is going on. This linearity struck me as a missed opportunity. At no point did "Justice of Toren" feel like a centripetal agglomeration of multiple consciousnesses; Breq, her remnant, always reads like a single, bourgeois individual (if a rather emotionally buttoned-down one), with a set of recognizable individual motivations, appetites, emotions and responses. Her "multiplicity" is never properly holey, or rhizomatic, or Hardt-Negri multitudinous. Indeed, the very conformity of Radchaai culture (outsiders assume that all Radchaai citizens have been brainwashed, so precise is the lockstep in which they all march) struck me as Leckie pulling a punch—for how else (the novel seems to be saying) could hive-minds work without eradicating all the important liberal-humanist qualia of individuality except by their being a sort of pre-established harmony of society? A linear storyline will tend to construe a linear notion of subjectivity; which is fine, although Ancillary Justice's premise has the capacity to work through something more formally de-arborializing. The final battle in which various clones of the emperor are killed read rather like the ticking-off of Horcruxes from the hit list.
Of course, it's foolish to criticize a book for not being what it never set out to be in the first place. This is a fine first novel; not flawless but certainly a cut above. It is a book that has stayed with me, in the weeks since I read it, which counts for something. Mind you, much of the process of subsequent mental digestion has been an attack by my own Plausibility Enzymes. I wasn't persuaded by the scarcity economics of this imagined world, or the anachronistic (for so vast a multiworld cosmos) way money works. And I wasn't persuaded by what, for want of a better word, we might call the imperial topography of the novel. At one point the Julius Clone-sir Anaander Mianaai explains that she built the whole vast Radchaai empire only in order to provide a buffer zone to protect a single Radch homeworld:
When most people spoke of the Radch they meant all of Radchaai territory, but in truth the Radch was a single location, a Dyson sphere, enclosed, self-contained. Nothing ritually impure was allowed within, no one uncivilized or nonhuman could enter its confines . . . "I made myself into what I am, built all this"—[Mianaai] gestured sweepingly, the walls of the decade room encompassing, for her purposes, the entirety of Radch space—"all this, to keep that center safe. Uncontaminated." (p. 236)
I didn't buy this at all. It didn't work for the Romans (from Hannibal to the Goths, armies were able to strike through the buffer territory easily enough); and it certainly wouldn't work in a cosmos where warp-gate technology enables ships to go pretty much wherever they like instantly. But of course it's a symbolic rather than a practical topography—another symptom of an imagination that can only conceptualize power arborially. And that's the missed opportunity here: that's what hamstrings the book's ability to rewire our assumptions about gender and colonialism. The whole thing is itself too arborially conceived. Ancillary Justice is smart, enjoyable, and cool; but it is also insufficiently Deleuze-Guattarian.
Philip Mann's The Disestablishment of Paradise has its own entry in the SFE.
After the mid-1990s, Mann published no further sf until The Disestablishment of Paradise (2013), an ambitious, intensely emotional presentation of the potential costs attending the Colonization of Other Worlds, certainly when the nature of First Contact is radically misunderstood—the "inhabitants" of Paradise comprise an extraordinarily sensitive interwoven matrix of the planet's flora (> Gaia), a matrix so encompassing that Paradise may be deemed a Living World. Unfortunately, this gestalt is easily imprinted with the killing-fields mentality of the humans in charge of exploiting the planet (> Ecology), and begins to respond in kind. In a classic biter-bit climax, the human inhabitants must abandon a world whose life (some of it Triffid-like) has learned how to kill back.
That this is the case speaks to how established Mann's reputation is. No school like the old school, they say; and there is something dusty and chalky and didactic about this novel. The thing that most strikes the reader is how old fashioned it all is, both in its worldbuilding and its fictive style. Despite being set in a future cosmos where interstellar travel is possible (through "fractal" gates) the vibe is thoroughly 1950s. This is a culture that communicates by handwritten letters sealed inside envelopes. Official communications come "bearing the official stamp of the secretary general"; meetings, from small to large, happen face to face—at one such meeting early in the novel an angry audience member throws a chair that hits the protagonist, Dr. Hera Melhuish, on the ear. When the human colony on Paradise is dismantled, it is by "men with sledgehammers and crowbars." Mann's future society seems to have forgotten laser eye surgery and contact lenses ("on her face were half glasses with golden rims" [p. 26]). When Hera strikes out alone on the otherwise abandoned planet, her kit is a sketchbook, a tent, and some candles ("Amazing, isn't it? Able to reach the stars, but you still need a candle in an emergency" [p. 91]). Money is banknotes, people smoke cigars and read paper books. There's a sprinkling of actual novums, but even these are retro-futurist—"SAS" shuttles out of TOS Star Trek; "Tri-Vid" 3D telly—"many of you will remember the programme, which was in continuous transmission for almost three days and did more to awake public awareness of the deep issues behind our journeying into space than the thousands of documents issued annually by the Space Council" (p. 2)—it's hardly the YouTube generation, this; let alone a coherent extrapolation of current screen and media trends into the future.
Then there's Mann's prose. Some of the writing is quaint; much of is plodding. The dialogue is so stilted it could join the circus wearing ten-yard-long trousers. There's a great deal of "bloody hell!" and "bugger off," and when something stronger is required, "shee-it" ("shee-it, that was some mother of a spider!" [p. 333]). "What happens when we all bugger off back to Birmingham?" (p. 81), wonders one settler. People jocularly call one another "boss" and "sunshine."
"Before you ask, the answer is no."
"You don't want me to make a cup of tea?"
"That's not what you . . . Oh, bugger it. Yes, make me a cup of tea." (p. 184)
Hera expresses her sexual attraction to a man in this wise: "he had red hair and I suppose I thought he looked a bit dashing" (p. 340). I don't believe a female has used that word unironically in half a century. Along with this creakiness of tone is an antique attitude to gender. Niall Harrison, that tall man, has pertinent and insightful things to say about the way Mann's notionally post-sexist future is shot through with regressive gendered idioms, attitudes, and phrases.
It's worth wondering how far we might consider this old-fashioned-ness a feature rather than a bug. There are two sides to this, I think. One is that it would miss the point of Mann's sensitive engagement with questions of nature and the natural for him to have stuffed the book with too much High Tech and Future-Culture. The portions of the book that work well—and these portions work very well indeed—are the ones in which Hera and Mack observe the flora of Paradise slowly reasserting itself after the departure of contaminating humanity: pushing the graves of dead settlers up and out as creatures considered extinct grows back through, the sea giving up its dead and its rubbish. The world is richly and dream-hauntingly built, not according to rules of biological or even xenobiological plausibility (how is it that Paradise wholly lacks fauna? What are the odds it would develop to be so hospitable to human beings whilst remaining so inhospitable to tomato plants?) Rather the logic has to do with myth and psyche: with Eden and childhood. This, presumably, is why the books feels so very late 1950s: because that’s when Mann was himself a child. The old-fashioned-ness of the book is a self-conscious casting back, an imaginative un-picking of the orientation of science fiction towards a future. "A lifetime ago," Mack tells Hera after lovemaking, "you asked me whether I thought the future could cast shadows" (p. 357). (Her actual question was: "I wonder if events are casting their shadows backwards in time? So we hear them before they happen?" [p. 233]). This whole novel is an attempt to set a stage illuminated with that backward-gleaming light, drawing the reader from the future and into the past.
The resulting novel has an elegiac and autumnal feel to it. Hera and Mack spend most of the novel together in the Paradisical wilderness, and find love together, but the reader doesn't really doubt where all this is going—what, that is to say, is entailed in the expulsion from paradise. The two of them discuss it at some length:
"If I asked you, out of the blue, what you thought the last, biggest adventure in life was, what would you say?"
"I'd say . . . I'd say it was death."
"That's what I think too." (p. 358)
This allusion to Peter Pan is not the only one in the novel; although Mann emphasizes the Panic element in that too-Disneyfied fable (one of the novel's imaginary paratexts is an opera called Chrysalis, about "how the god Pan is born again of Earth" (p. 343), the music for which has a kind of telepathic/erotic effect on young Hera). J. M. Barrie's story was about not growing up, which makes it really about that thing which fixes us forever at a certain age and prevents us from ever maturing beyond it—death, of course. As the novel moves through its second half Hera wants nothing so urgently as to get herself and her lover safely offworld, past hostile triffid-y plants and a reacting planetary consciousness; but you'd have to be dense not to see which direction their awfully big adventure is tending. At one point the pair even descend, with facility, to Avernus—here styled as a chthonic passageway whose entrance is indicated by the petrified corpse of a previous explorer, Pietr Z. "It's like a pathway to the underworld," Mack notes (p. 389); and though Hera disagrees ("it isn't. It is the internal cavity of a long dead plant and a short cut" [ibid.]) it, of course, is.
We may wonder what Mack had seen when he looked down that dark pathway into the earth. Was it another frightful memory from his dreams of childhood? Or some deep, almost accessible racial memory of the path to sacred knowledge? That path often traverses death and terror. Or was it simply that he associated the hole with the trap of the funnel web spider from his native Australia? (p. 390)
The novel's power, however, is patchy. Sometimes the writing comes alive with a Wordsworthian intimations-of-immortality brightness. But most of it doesn't, and without that the text plods, plods and plods some more. There's too much data about the flora of this planet; too many interpolated documents and transcribed interviews—the novel, indeed, is some 150 pages too long—and the orientation to the wisdom we forget when we mature crusts over into a crankier nostalgia and dislike of newness and progress as such. Recalling her first underwhelming sexual experience, Hera notes: "too many new things together is a recipe for disaster" (p. 340); and this novel clearly believes that. There is something that almost amounts to perversity in a science fiction novel as hostile as this one is to so much of the stuff that makes SF SFnal.
If The Disestablishment of Paradise is core genre, it is rather in the sense that those indigestible black seeds and all that starchy matter could be described as "core apple." That said, it is at least a novel that understands the wisdom of eating the whole apple, seeds, starch and all; not just biting at the tastier cheeks of flesh. It is a novel about how hard won wisdom can be, but how important that winning is nonetheless. It is a strange, stiff, rather ponderous book that occasionally rises to remarkable heights; but overall it is a weirdly disappointing read. Not that it's the worst book on this shortlist. We have to look elsewhere for that.
The second part of this review can be found here.