What is the purpose of the Arthur C. Clarke Award? What constitutes the best British SF for a given year? Its shortlist history is not without stylistic range, with Miéville and Stephenson, Robinson and Okorafor, Chambers and Leckie all sitting comfortably within its recent ranks; and its winners in recent years have included everything from military SF to deep-space colonization and first-contact tales, to two books that were first warmly welcomed as mainstream speculative fiction in non-SF literary circles, as well as a multigenerational tale of future reproductive choices that contributes pointedly to political crises in the world today. Historically, then, the specific subgenre of SF has mattered less than the ideas that writers advance within their chosen forms, and how well a given book’s form harmonizes with its content. For this reason, some shortlisted books that, on the surface, seem to check off all the requisite boxes for SF excellence might in practice fall short of the judge’s mark.
One such text is Sue Burke’s Semiosis. After finishing this novel, which invokes a great deal of biological terminology, I was surprised to discover that “semiosis” (PIE: dhyeh2), the process of creating meaning, does not in fact share etymological roots with “seed/semen” (PIE: seh1). And yet, the existence of false cognates for ideological and biological growth, which seem like they should arise from the same linguistic well, works effectively as a metaphor for Burke’s seven-generational narrative about humans and alien plants learning to support one another on a distant world.
Why? Because, on the surface, Semiosis makes an excellent contender for the Clarke Award, dealing as it does with questions of emergent intelligence, food science, speculative ecology, and the fragility of subsistence-level communities. There are whispers here of everything from Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955) to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) to Emma Newman’s Planetfall (2015) and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s (2016-Clarke-Award-winning) Children of Time (2015).
Scratch the surface, though, and Burke’s narrative often frustrates as much as it intrigues—it is filled with plenty of “signs” of hard SFnal quandaries, but without the attendant depth of “signifiers.” Our first generation’s narrator, Octavo, is a perfect cipher for many of these problems—a biologist who can cite species in full latinate, but whose worldview never seems genuinely informed by the underlying theory of his discipline. Likewise, the book’s emergent plant-consciousness reveals the persistent difficulty of writing non-human intelligence: he’s a … he, first of all, without explanation in his three-sexed species; and a singular entity, despite the vastness of his root-based communications network; and bizarrely claims a hard binary between plant and animal life (what, no fungi, bacteria, or flesh-eating flora in this world?).
A major through-line of Burke’s text, maintained by plant and human alike, is also that the complexity of civilization—with its capacity for war and peace—requires intelligence. As such, the book develops the idea of elaborate social contracts between animal and plant, as if only by conscious choice and superior thinking can lifeforms learn to cohabitate. This is a strangely anti-evolutionary argument, for we who inhabit a planet rife with farming insects: ladybugs with their aphids, ants with their crops and slave-spoils of tribal warfare, alongside millions of other mutually beneficial relationships between species on the land and in the sea.
Semiosis also advances this argument in service to an exceptionally discomfiting plot-point: as an excuse for the white-normative (in name as much as language) human colony to “domesticate” (through capture and imprisonment) the descendants of an ancient civilization now gone “primitive.” Many reviews of Semiosis discuss the completely illogical use of rape as plot device in one of the earlier chapters (it’s meant to punish someone seen as disruptive yet still necessary for breeding, but then … why use violent assault when facial mutilation, say, would get the message across without risking damage to the reproductive organs?). However, there seems to be far less discourse around this later, curious rewriting of ecological theory to suggest that a superior intelligence is necessary to teach “lesser” life forms basic harmony with nature.
Multiple-generation narratives aren’t easy feats, granted; but SF has seen a few excellent ones as of late, like Arkwright (2016) and Seveneves (2015). These successes highlight, in turn, the many potential difficulties with this form: the importance of ensuring character distinction when working with multiple POVs, for example; or giving coherent reason for specific entry and exit points into each generation; and not sacrificing individual character arcs in service to more abstracted ends.
Burke’s work is uneven on all three accounts. It’s not just that earlier chapters offer little reason for emotional investment in the protagonists; the characters are also by and large addressing themselves directly to the reader as if, for all their overt desire to scrap Earth history and start over, they’re not so detached from our time and context after all. To this end, naming traditions (and prejudices) do not adapt significantly to the new environment. Likewise, a sixth-generation colonist raised up alongside the three-sexed plant intelligence, in a city built by a predominantly asexual species, still finds anything but two sexes “weird” (a reaction in keeping, too, with an alpha-/beta-male heteronormativity that oddly persists even in a society with sterile members).
But the real problem for this text, as a Clarke Award nominee, is ideological. Our universe is a brilliantly complex place—and, once we discover its complexity, we sometimes fall prey to the assumption that a staggeringly high level of intelligence must be necessary to navigate it. And yet breathing, for instance, is a complex function performed unconsciously. To carry the analogy, Semiosis attempts to establish the plant/animal equivalent of a social contract between breathers and their autonomic neural systems. And yes, in so doing, Burke’s world introduces us to some fascinating botanical concepts … but in a way that loses the forest to the trees.
Other shortlisted nominees are a touch more stylistically and ideologically cohesive, even when juggling between highly fragmented narrative components. And one of those—based on historically savvy past winners like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (published 2016, Clarke Award for 2017) and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (published 2010, Clarke Award winner for 2011)—is my personal favourite to take the prize this year.
In the case of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, that history, of course, goes back to the inception of modern SFnal narrative. When Mary Shelley first wrote Frankenstein; Or the Modern Prometheus (1818), she lived and breathed a late-Romantic context of anticipatory horror for the fruits of rapidly formalizing scientific progress, especially when bestowed upon both so mighty and so monstrous a work as man. Her novel is now seen as a seminal text in the history of SF, but in that delightfully pre-Gernsbackian era, commercialization hadn’t rigidly divided speculative from general literary culture. It is therefore immensely fitting that Frankenstein in Baghdad should also be one of those exceptional texts that escapes genre confinement, and has earned for itself a Man Booker nomination before arriving at the gates of the Clarke Award, too.
First published in 2013, Saadawi’s patchwork account of a patchwork man, Whatitsname, offers perhaps the most compelling argument for how a re-envisioning of the Frankenstein mythology should look, if it is to reflect today’s crises-of-conscience as satisfyingly as Shelley addressed those of her own social vantage point. Saadawi’s “Dr. Frankenstein” is an unreliable blowhard, Hadi, who scavenges at sites of local devastation in 2005 Baghdad, after the US invasion. Amid a life of mid-war trauma dedicated to making just enough to keep him in alcohol and sex workers, Hadi has developed the half-baked notion that if, in the wake of every fresh attack on the district, he collects enough body parts along with resellable refuse, he might be able to put together something substantial enough to receive a decent burial.
It’s a heartbreaking notion, and one especially ripe for supernatural intervention in this war-torn neighbourhood. Predatory landlords and resolute old ladies; grandiose newspaper men and their sometimes-lovers; and empty-hotel managers, street-bound drunkards, and military brass using fortune-tellers: the city’s inhabitants are all average human beings, in other words, persevering in their petty feuds and vices, eccentricities and everyday needs, within the shells of their former lives. So when the extraordinary has already been made mundane, and everyone lives more or less on whispers and prayer and hard liquor between bombings, why shouldn’t saints’ paintings talk to residents whose grief has deepened in them a blind-but-still-bartering faith? And why shouldn’t some drifting soul, detached from an utterly random victim of the latest suicide-bombing, seek out some new, strange, patchwork body in which to rest?
Saadawi himself also slips into Whatitsname’s story, through a central character—a journalist, Mahmoud—who kept his father’s last name, Sadawi (an invented reversal of the ancient tribal affiliation), out of anger with the family’s attempts to suppress the messier side of his goodly father’s life. This character’s fealty to the fabricated, as a better path to human truth, proves a fitting correlate for the whole of Saadawi’s novel, which embraces the clutter and chaos of individual moral characters as much as it does their communal destiny.
What do I mean by “clutter and chaos”? Well, for instance, when Whatsitsname rises and finds safe harbour in a home of blind faith, the monster’s mission starts cleanly enough: avenge each body part within itself, each a victim of the horrors of the US invasion’s local fallout. But even a reanimated corpse is still a corpse, and thus decays—so even though the monster tries desperately to complete its mission before becoming too complicit in further violence, Whatsitsname eventually has to appropriate body parts from its murder victims to replace the rot. And sometimes, too, it takes from the innocent and the sacrificial—adding to its list, adding itself as a target on its list, and still, it never seems to get any nearer to its final rest.
Quickly, then, the monster’s purity of purpose takes on the mess of real-world attempts at retributive justice—an allegory, on Saadawi’s part, that evades the charge of didacticism by offering no clean solutions, no perfect breaks from culpability among any of the book’s main characters. The closest to kindness Saadawi offers is to the old woman who adopts Whatsitsname as her dear son Daniel come back to life—and who eventually agrees to leave her ruined neighbourhood to live with family elsewhere … at least, once they introduce her to a grandson who bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Daniel.
In short, Saadawi suggests—without plainly stating it—that, in the end, time and the perseverance of life itself are as close to true healing as any of us can ever hope to receive.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is also the rare text that matches form perfectly with function. A collection of chapters exploring different local perspectives of key events, the text reinforces suspension of belief for its core speculative element by foregrounding how the surface-world is often seen by spiritual persons, and also by highlighting the quotidian role of hyperbole in any neighbourhood where gossip spreads just as quickly as violence. This wealth of story fragments, scattered among the novel’s major players in varying chapters, invites the reading of Whatsitsname’s mythology as on par with any number of other local, kernel-of-truth tall tales.
Now, at first, I regarded Saadawi’s opening gambit, a “top secret final report” introducing the subsequent seventeen chapters as events requiring further military investigation, a touch too on-the-nose. But then I reached chapter eighteen, and—not for the first time, in a book that manages humour amid the macabre very well—had to smile at this Frankensteinian extension of the novel’s original parameters.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is not just a strong contender, then, for the 2019 Clarke Award, but also a strong overall testament both to the capacity for complex narratives to remain organized even in their depiction of chaos and mayhem, and to one especially critical role of speculative fiction that dates back at least the last two hundred years: namely, the ability to reflect the real world back to us, through whatever exceptional happenstance holds up that mirror best.
Saadawi is not the only contender, though, to match narrative form so well to function, because Simon Stålenhag also reaches for an atypical toolkit to tell his story of fragmented selves and patchwork sentience. Some might liken The Electric State to a graphic novel (and indeed, that might work against him, ultimately, with the jury), but the better genre comparison is a rather new entrant to formal SF circles: the video game (writers for which were just added to Nebula Awards categories for this year’s iteration). Fans of Gone Home (2013), What Remains of Edith Finch (2013), and Dear Esther (2012)—narrative walkthroughs, that is, with a nostalgic feel, rife with visually arresting backdrops—will easily recognize Stålenhag’s creation as an analog variation on the theme. (Games developers, take note: this story could easily be digitized, too!)
What makes Stålenhag’s blend of art and prose so effective for this story in particular is the frequent—but not absolute—narrative convergence between both storytelling forms. At its core, The Electric State is a road trip through a desolate Californian landscape in an alternate late-‘90s, mostly narrated by a runaway teen both with and in search of her little brother, Skip. (More on that below.) Sometimes the book’s detailed images of sparse desert and decaying suburbia, hazy interstates and abandoned buildings—all marked by the hulking wrecks of giant and often comically ominous battle drones—match Michelle’s vignette-length descriptions of the journey. Other times, Stålenhag’s images simply set atmospheric context for the narrative, which aligns well with the feel of an actual road trip—wherein people might talk in spells, but then pass whole hours in quiet contemplation of their seemingly alien surroundings. Tellingly, Stålenhag’s story also ends in a sequence of pictures without text, which allows readers to decide for themselves Skip’s true nature, and the likelihood of the siblings’ continued survival.
Another strength of Stålenhag’s writing, which captures the voice of this youthful protagonist well, is his fealty to depicting the cultural detritus of the nineties, in food and music and even the late-model Oldsmobile as much as in societal and common histories norms. All the detailed turns of Michelle’s wistful memories serve to naturalize the inclusion of an alternate history in which military computer-tech in the ‘60s veered hard toward the study of neuronics (mind/machine interfacing), with ultimately society-ending consequences thirty years on.
As such, we glean this novel’s much more devastating story almost in passing. Michelle’s central concern is finding her little brother with the help of … well, her little brother—the digital version of Skip, that is, manifested in a toy robot that gives her directions to the house where the body lies incapacitated, alone. And along the way, we learn too about the painful breaking points that landed her in foster care in the first place, as well as how neuronics interfaces turned her complicated family into vegetables after the Mode 6 update, and how her heart was broken by her first young love, and how she spent her time with her grandfather before he passed, and how precious her little brother has always been to her.
Less important, to Michelle, is the civilization-ending drama all around her as she drives, even while zombified components of the Convergence, an emergent sentience on the neural network, shuffle quietly through the streets around her. A secondary narrative tells of an intelligence, created by the joining of so many neurons into a collective hive mind, that piloted drones in the last war, and thereafter sought to bring about the birth of a new entity, a child with a “perfect nonhuman genome” that the Convergence would then focus on further propagating.
Is Skip that child? There are hints to this end, not least of which include his lack of father, his delivery into Michelle’s life via military doctor, and a strong dependency on the “neurocaster” that does not result in his completely losing, as others do, his sense of self. But Michelle—the rare being for whom a neurocaster would never function in the first place—never poses that question, never wonders, never seeks to connect those dots. From her we receive only notions of love and loss and of what human life has thus far been for her: a kind of eulogy for an age of civilization that, if Skip’s destiny truly lies with this emergent sentience, has now ceased to be.
As metaphors for society go, this narrative arc makes The Electric State a poignant exploration of how much has changed, and perhaps been lost, with our civilization’s full-throttle entrance into the digital era. The emergence-point for Stålenhag’s new sentience—namely, the military, through drone-pilot programmes attempting to minimize human involvement—is also key, because it suggests that all our attempts at greater efficiency carry with them an immense cost, humanitarian as much as physical. (I’d like to suggest, too, that remote drone piloting also resonates profoundly with today’s military dilemmas, but … Toys, with its proposed use of children playing video games to conduct wars, came out in 1992—so the more accurate, if also shameful, observation would be that pressing moral issues from the ‘90s haven’t left us yet.)
What lends particular strength to this novel’s meditation on humankind and its “toys,” though, is its lack of interest in questions of right and wrong, per se. To this end, although neurocasters plainly did harm to Michelle’s fosters, Skip’s manifestation in a robotic children’s toy at the other side of the state is literally what saves his corporeal form from the same. And so this facet of Stålenhag’s storytelling, perhaps more than all the exceptionally well-crafted rest, especially marks out The Electric State as an embodiment of the timeless SF notion that it is not our technology which defines our destiny, but rather whatever version of ourselves we use our technology to extend.
All six shortlisted nominees for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award present fragmented selves in thought-provoking ways, although the depth with which each novel explores its SFnal components varies. Today, July 17, we’ll find out which discourse and manner of delivery satisfied the jury most: the space opera that explores the culpability of multiple selves; the speculative mystery that literalizes longterm emotional changes; the alien-invasion tale featuring a telepathic being who struggles with both personal and adopted guilt; the multigenerational epic that charts the intellectual growth and diminishment of three sentient species; the contemporary SF-horror that builds a patchwork sentience to effect an equally patchwork justice; or the art-and-text-based walkthrough that eulogizes an era before the convergence of our neural networks.
I’ve already noted my personal favourite to win—Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad—but in recognition of, respectively, the elegance of their narration and the immensity of their SFnal ideas, both Stålenhag’s The Electric State and Thompson’s Rosewater fill out a strong top half of this year’s wide-ranging shortlist. Coming away from the whole shortlist, I cannot help but note, too, that an abiding preoccupation with fragmentation does not mean that this list gives way, ultimately, to chaos. Rather, in all of these texts there exists enough narrative momentum to suggest an impending emergence of more nuanced societal wholes—a fittingly hopeful outcome for any state-of-the-genre prize intent on representing the best of contemporary SF.