The Arthur C. Clarke Award nominees for 2019 all tell stories about the incoherence of sentient identities: within individual lifespans, over generations, from skin to skin, across species, and along real and imagined geopolitical territories. Not every awards shortlist can boast so much thematic resonance, but the 2019 Clarke Award’s record-breaking one hundred and twenty-four entries from forty-six UK imprints and independent authors gave its jury a wide pool from which to distill representative samples of the best in UK-published SF&F for 2018. Its ultimate shortlist selections—Sue Burke’s Semiosis, Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, Simon Stålenhag’s The Electric State, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, and Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin—vary in storytelling finesse, but all offer thought-provoking discourse on the porous nature of the self.
A quick caveat to the following reviews: the first four books assessed in this two-part essay have significant narrative weaknesses, while the last two appeared to be more cohesively designed texts from beginning to end; but it must be stressed that narrative control and sentence-level elegance are not the sole metrics for Clarke Award excellence. What Lee, Whiteley, Thompson, and Burke’s texts might struggle with narratively does not intrinsically make them lesser contenders for this year’s prize—which is why the following summaries reflect on these books both as stories in general, as well as in relation to what their discourse brings, thematically, to the thirty-third iteration of the Clarke Award.
Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun, for instance, is the third in a series, The Machineries of Empire. The series opener, Ninefox Gambit (2016), won a Locus Award and received nominations for the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke. This series is often presented as SF, but “military fantasy in space” might be a better fit: it relies upon a “calendar” of handwavey mathematical precepts that, when believed in strongly enough, can alter the properties of reality such that different factions manifest specific superpowers. You might draw on Clarke’s famous comment that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and suggest that only Western bias makes this trilogy—with its fox-spirit iconography, clan-based honorifics that invoke layers of specialized social relationships, and strong influence from Korean TV—seem more fantastical than, say, Star Wars. And that would be fair enough (though I consider the Force pure fantasy, too, midi-chlorians be damned).
More to the point, for Clarke-Award purposes: the series isn’t nearly as math-driven as it’s hyped to be—something that Lee himself has always been upfront about in interview. Lee also later wrote that his political-faction framework was inspired by two RPGs, Legend of the Five Rings and his own, shelved, space opera, Rokugan 3000 (a variant on the pre-existing Rokugan 2000). Although this is not an entirely different origin story from, say, James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse, this comment amply matched my feel for the series from the outset: a work less interested in technical discourse than political intrigue. That feel continues in Revenant Gun.
What does that “feel” look like, on the page? Well, all three books rely on a form of infodump provided through dialogue among a massive cast of characters. (You can tell it’s still infodumping when conversations about political affairs and motivations in this universe tend to involve one person feeding questions and reactions so the other can expound.) Most of the characters have similar voices, too, even if their swears vary by faction, and some of them fall into perfunctory lust for one another at odd plot junctures. As Lee has often noted, the series’ culture is inspired by K-drama and anime, so these sharp turns into erotic intensity amid military strategizing are not surprising, but they do make politicking (personal and statescraft-related alike) a stronger on-page priority than the implications for any proximate SFnal elements.
Some fans also suggest that Lee’s vagueness in relation to black cradles, psych surgery, and mothdrive technology is a conscious strategy related to fuller narrative immersion, with Lee electing not to explain how his technology works because it would be taken for granted by those living in the culture. However, in Revenant Gun as in the prior two volumes, there’s just too much narrative inconsistency with what Lee does explain more overtly (e.g., in Revenant Gun, TV-series fan culture, the choice to chest-wrap, and fungal weapons) to give the largely off-screen manifestation of calendrical “rot,” “spikes,” and “effects” an easy pass.
In short, Lee makes choices, as all authors do, and he’s upfront about his choices, which not all authors are, so it’s not a slight against the series to suggest that The Machineries of Empire often reads more like fantasy RPG than military SF. And yet …
Halfway through Revenant Gun, the Clarke-Award resonance picks up. This trilogy-closer mostly takes place nine years after the events of the previous novel, Raven Stratagem (2017), wherein one strategist, Cheris, used the mentally uploaded “ghost” of a mass-murdering general, Jedao, to dismantle the hegemonic hexarch entirely. But after that event, she’s still stuck with fragments of Jedao in her head, and her sudden disappearance leaves Brezan (our chest-wrapper, but more importantly our beleaguered high general) to figure out how to rebuild society. Meanwhile, the nearly immortal Nirai Kujen, a nefarious general who created the system nine hundred years ago, has built himself a new Jedao, with all muscle memory intact, but memories only to the age of seventeen.
It’s young-Jedao we start out with, bewildered in a strange time and context, which gives the text plenty of opportunity for infodumping via dialogue to get him up to speed. (And us, too; I highly recommend having read the preceding volumes first.) Kujen wants to use Jedao to reclaim the system; young-Jedao gradually realizes the war crimes he committed in previous incarnations; and the Jedao/Cheris formation are trying to end Kujen once and for all. Oh, and there’s a snakeform servitor, Hemiola, who likes this society’s soap operas but has been without recent episodes for many decades while operating on a remote station, and passes the time by making fan edits? Hemiola has to decide whether to keep serving its old, still mass-murdering master, or support a reformed mass-murderer from a different faction.
Of all of these supposed crises, young-Jedao’s feels like it should be the most serious—he wants to kill himself when he realizes what his older self did—but … his suicidal impulses are interwoven with trips to the porn library to manifest anxiety about whether he’ll be a good enough lover for the crush he develops along the path to righting century’s-old wrongs. When folks say things like “this reads like fanfiction,” they’re generally being pejorative, but it’s hard not to make this association for a text that veers sharply into knife-play and bondage on first coitus between a mentally seventeen-year-old and a sixty-five-year-old compelled to serve him. Tonal jumps like this diminish the strength of the text as a meditation, say, on the culpability of split and modified selves for past wrongs committed by a more cohesive whole.
At its strongest, then, Revenant Gun explores the fragmentation of identity that pits someone’s kid-version against an older version sharing another’s headspace—and then further muddies the waters by suggesting that one version isn’t even in a human host at all, and might have allegiance to another species entirely. This storytelling approach is a bit like the Squire’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: it’s all told with great enthusiasm for the genre, but is also so on-the-fly in execution that it’s easy to lose confidence in the narrator’s larger aims.
Such narrative restlessness is not unique in the shortlist, though, which further attests to the Clarke Award’s diverse range of narrative criteria for its nominees. In at least one case, too, that very notion of restlessness is a key part of the story’s SFnal components.
In Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Celia” (1957), a curious neighbour discovers that one Celia Sarton needs to change between two human-shaped skins on a daily basis to survive. Some sixty years later, Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin naturalizes skin-shedding as a normal behaviour, in a speculative world where most people simply slough off a layer of themselves every seven years or so. This proves an obvious metaphor for the common human process of emotional rebirth and renewal, so that the more extraordinary aspect of this story becomes its own “Celia,” Rose: a bodyguard to the stars with a condition that leaves her shedding all major relationships from one skin to the next, as well. Other people also lose love between skins, but that doesn’t intrinsically mean abandoning everything else. Rose can’t help but move on.
Ostensibly, the plot follows Rose and her ex-lover, a movie icon, who needs her help after his own skins go missing. (Most people burn theirs, but celebrities are, of course, different.) However, Max is still in love with Rose, so this mystery quickly gets personal, and a massive tonal shift ensues. There was an opportunity here, after all, for an intriguing SF whodunnit in an alternate universe—and indeed, that was the approach taken by the promotional copy—but instead the book rushes past these plot points to reach a discomfiting second act, wherein (yes, spoilers) a kidnapped Rose is forced into her old skin and held captive by her ex, who believes that, if she just recounts the stories of her preceding skins, she can be made to love him again. It’s genuinely unclear, too, how much Whiteley wants us to be rooting for Rose’s reawakening via such heavyhanded and nonconsensual methods, especially since (oh my yes, spoilers) its failure to take hold ends with the ex letting her leave, then later ending his life.
Either way, this rushed mystery/thriller plot only sustains the first two thirds of the novel, leaving a third part which involves a switch in POV, and a focus on the aftermath of a story alluded to throughout the first two: namely, the memoirs-turned-film-project of a polyamorous sextet that boasts a perfect retainment of love. By this third part (spoilers again), that best-selling phenom of a relationship has collapsed, with the sextet going its separate ways just as a medication transforms the marketplace, binding people for longer terms to specific skins (and therefore, specific loves)—and also triggering an aggressively fatal form of skin cancer.
Suffice it to say, there’s a wealth of thought-provoking discourse here, and if not for the narrative restlessness, the world it gestures toward could have sustained a great deal more close examination. I am personally a sucker for a good SF mystery, which this could have easily continued to be if its initial cast had been more thoroughly fleshed out (no pun intended). However, an equally viable alternative would have been an interweaving of different POVs throughout, to defend against the reader needing to find a reason to give a hoot about a sudden change in protagonist in the final third. Rose’s character wouldn’t need to be given much more depth to effect such an end, either; her investigation into the stolen skins (and her subsequent kidnapping) could simply have been alternated with records from the once-miraculous sextet, so as to juxtapose the supposed exceptionalism of her skin “condition” with the equal exceptionalism of their supposedly steadfast love.
But the author always has reasons for massive genre or POV shifts, and here more rigorous worldbuilding simply seems a lower priority than the societal discourse that can be hung upon Whiteley’s mashup of failed relationships. As such, for all the speculative excellence of her chosen metaphor—a world exactly like ours, except for the part about literally shedding skins that retain our past loves—much of this book focuses on talking plainly about different ideas of love and sex, of love formed through sexual bonding, and the overall role of intimacy in our lives. This isn’t a mark against The Loosening Skin as a general narrative, either—it would make a solid conversational opener, for instance, about polyamory—but it does make the work a less structurally sturdy platform for SFnal discourse.
And this thematic wobbliness is especially true for that third act, wherein we’re given to believe that society has essentially changed overnight thanks to the now widely adopted medication. Our new protagonist even posits that films about the oddity of abiding love in a world of relentless skin-swaps would now seem archaic to the point of socially irrelevant—which seems a little unrealistic, considering that humans in this alternate reality would’ve been shedding skins and loves for millennia prior to this point, and historical/cross-cultural pieces featuring love against the odds of other social contexts do perfectly well in our own universe.
There’s also the third-act introduction of the pill-as-carcinogen: the idea that you can destroy your body by trying to suppress its shedding of past loves. But like every other SFnal element in Whiteley’s extraordinary alt-world (which would’ve worked splendidly as an episode of Sliders!), this complication is simply raised then set aside. And those pivots are a touch frustrating, from a SFnal perspective: we’d barely gotten to know the first world, after all—the world where skin-shedding was the status quo—and then we missed out on a zeitgeist that essentially turned the novel’s norms into our own. With the speculative element mostly vanished, we’re simply left with a few characters seeking closure for past emotional trespass.
However, if the point of this text was simply to stump for the intricacy and nigh-on-impossibility of longterm constancy in human relationships, then perhaps the surface of this text was never really supposed to be something we held to too closely. Perhaps the reader’s job was to learn to love the idea of bonding, as so many of us do in the real world … and then—hopefully in far less dramatic ways than Rose—eventually learn to let it go.
Another excellent metaphor for the human condition also emerges in Tade Thompson’s Rosewater—re-released in 2018 after its original publication in 2016, and jam-packed with striking SFnal concepts. Here, we find a Nigerian city, Rosewater, that has essentially arisen from a toroid surrounding the enigmatic Utopicity—less a city, we’ll soon discover, than an alien consciousness, even though it’s treated far more like the former. Kaaro is a “sensitive,” and even though we start the novel with him using his skills to keep invasive mental energies from stealing user-data from bank customers, he also moonlights as a government interrogator and occasional field agent. The book also spends a significant amount of time bouncing around his backstory as childhood thief and older special-missions spy … which, as you can imagine, gets narratively complicated fast. It doesn’t help, either, that Thompson favours a cliffhanger style for most every chapter, as we hop into and out of Kaaro’s many mental lives.
Before we delve further into the fascinating ideas this series-opener advances, though, it bears noting that Kaaro’s characterization is also, well, kind of dull.
How dull? I’ll put it this way: anyone who ever played the Sid Meier’s Civilization game series probably remembers how frustrating it was not to be able to bypass certain historical missteps—like needing to ruin the world with industrial factories before discovering renewable energy. A similar tension is currently rippling through SF&F publishing, wherein discussion of moving past “overdone” and “reductive” stereotypes can’t be separated from racialized, gendered, and orientation-specific erasure. The argument from one side goes that we should be beyond certain “tired” tropes (e.g., the Chosen One), while the other notes the remarkable convenience of dominant-culture publishers deciding that these tropes are overdone just as marginalized populations get a chance at presenting the trope with demographic reversals.
In the case of Rosewater, then, I’m not so sure how much better it is for a Yoruban, as opposed to white, protagonist to spout clichéd misogyny about being able to read minds, but not understand women—all while relentlessly commenting on women’s breasts and overall body-forms, making comments about their different calibres of beauty, and having ready access to sex despite this supposed estrangement from their motivations. (Also, was the visceral depiction of another’s murder of a cheating wife really necessary? Or the coitus with a mysterious butterfly avatar in his telepathic realm, which later yields half-hearted self-reflections on the nature and limits of cheating?) Now, I accept that this stale characterization still has significant real-world purchase—and frankly, I prefer texts that are as ugly as we are over the purely aspirational. But I can also empathize with anyone who finds Kaaro disruptive to full narrative immersion—because the lament in Clarke’s own Rendezvous with Rama (1973), about the dangers posed to crew safety by “well upholstered lady officers,” kept resurfacing as I read.
(One day, Sid Meier! One day we’ll jump straight to renewable energy!)
However, if you can buy into, say, Kaaro’s relationship with Aminat (a woman who becomes vitally important to the second book in this series), and tolerate a great deal of temporal jumping that doesn’t seem to serve much purpose save to delay the reveal of plot-critical ideas and characters in our POV-protagonist’s past, then Rosewater opens itself to some striking SFnal discourse about alien lifeforms, the nature of invasion, and our desire to be healed.
Because Utopicity is alien, a giant blob that has taken over a specific territory and that annually releases microorganisms capable of healing whatever lies in the immediate vicinity. Or … at least they heal as much as any microorganism can heal—because sometimes the repairs that these autonomous spores work upon human bodies have unfortunate consequences. The dead, for one, are accidentally restored into zombified consciousness, and need to be put out of their misery for everyone’s benefit. Moreover, sometimes the microorganisms mistake which parts of the human they’re supposed to excise, causing tumescent masses to grow instead of be eliminated. People being people, the locals also vary in their responses to this new form of medicine—some seeking to be healed of physical and mental complaints, while others try to trick the microorganisms into aiding them in extreme body modifications, like the affixation of wings to their backs. Either way, cults and cultural traditions form around this “miracle,” making it a strong SFnal element for the advancement of social discourse.
The existence of “sensitives,” meanwhile, is another intriguing phenomenon in Rosewater, related as it is to unintended interactions between the alien consciousness’s widespread fungal networks and humanity’s own microbial cultures. Also a pleasant surprise: even though a major plot point is the sudden dying-off of sensitives from Kaaro’s class of trainees, Thompson resists the usual persecution tropes associated with “special” humans in major SF vehicles. Instead, Thompson is much more invested in exploring personal culpability, and as such looks at the pressures faced by Kaaro as a young sensitive in a culture with brutal responses even to normal human transgressions, like petty theft. Unaware of his talents at the time, past!Kaaro makes a series of bad decisions that end in someone’s horrific murder at the hands of his vengeance-seeking childhood community—and then, after putting his talents to better social use, has to live not only with his own guilt, but also with the memories of other people’s traumas, which he has difficulty detangling from his own sense of self.
In short, Rosewater boasts thought-provoking, Clarke Award-worthy applications of the SFnal, and uses them to expound upon real-world issues—like the uses and abuses of medical miracles to transform the self, and the complex interplay of individual and communal guilt over any given lifetime. It’s a shame that the central POV character is a bit on the simplistic side himself—and more so, that the novel’s flashbacks/flash-arounds are structured more with narrative subterfuge than plot-progression in mind. But there’s a vibrant array of speculative ideas here, and all are explored at sufficient depth to make Thompson’s novel a strong contender for 2019.