The first part of this short list review can be found here.
In every Clarke short list there is at least one book that clearly does not belong. This probably requires a bit of clarification. For every Clarke short list, you could very easily find a reviewer who could convincingly argue that any book on the short list does not belong on it. But on every Clarke short list, there is one nominee that nearly everyone agrees was a strange, unexpected, in some cases inexplicable choice. Usually these are books published by mainstream publishers, marketed as mainstream novels, and without any hint of being science fiction. Some of these books turn out, despite their outwardly respectable appearance, to be so blatantly SFnal that you have to wonder who the publisher thought they were fooling. Some of them turn out to be masterpieces. Some of them win the Clarke. I do not think that Iain Pears's Arcadia will turn out to be one of these books.
To be clear: Arcadia is blatantly and unabashedly a work of science fiction. It's even reasonably good science fiction, working out an interesting variant on time travel and using it to power a convoluted plot that requires the reader to have, or develop, the kind of reading protocols that we SF fans like to imagine are our sole purview. It's also, on a metafictional level, an experiment in the future of fiction and the novel, Pears having originally published it as an app in which the reader gets to choose to follow one narrative strand after another, instead of getting them all mixed up in the author's approved order, as they are in the print version. (The print version is the one that I read, and though I appreciate the idea of Pears's experiment, Arcadia is simply too long, and not nearly enough fun, to have gone through it all again via the app.) So on that front at least, Arcadia has earned its spot on the Clarke short list, no matter how many people raise an eyebrow at it. But is it any good?
Well, yes and no. Arcadia is a big, baggy novel, and some parts of it work better than others (and almost all parts of it work better than its whole). Describing its various access points can be a bit of a chore, so let's try to be as brief as possible. In 1960 Oxford, Henry Lytten is a former MI6 spy, current literature professor, wannabe author, and Inkling. He is writing a fantasy novel in which his primary focus is not the story, but the ability to "construct a society that works. With beliefs, laws, superstitions, customs. With an economy and politics. An entire sociology of the fantastic.” Henry has befriended fifteen-year-old Rosie Wilson, who one evening chases his cat into his basement and there finds a portal into Anterworld, the world Henry is writing about, where she begins to play out a role in his most recent chapters. In a dystopian far-future, renegade scientist Angela Meerson discovers that the process by which she believed herself to be making contact with alternate universes is actually achieving time travel, despite this being impossible according to her understanding of physics. This is a problem for Angela's employers, who want to exploit the alternate universes for profit, so she steals her work and escapes back to 1960, trying to perfect it into a machine for creating alternate worlds. She befriends Henry, and stores her project in his basement. And in Anterworld, the Storyteller Henary, keeper of The Story, the narrative by which all citizens order their lives, and which is the root of their legal code, is dismayed to discover that parts of the apocrypha—viewed by certain simpletons as prophecy—are coming true, chiefly the appearance of Rosie and her meeting with Henary's apprentice, Jay.
In other words, Arcadia is a story about stories, and more than that, a story about stories becoming reality, and reality becoming stories. It's easy to spot the references to Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the summary above, but aside from them, Arcadia contains copious references to books such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Shakespeare's As You Like It. There are some clever gags on this level: discussing Narnia, Henry complains of "Lewis's annoying tendency to make everything so terribly suburban.” Anyone crossing over into a fantasy world, he's certain, "would be terrified, aghast, awe-struck.” A few chapters later, Rosie, who is accosted by the soldiers of a fantasy kingdom "wagged her finger disapprovingly as one soldier approached her. 'I know my rights. Touch me and I shall write to my MP.'"
At the same time, Arcadia is a story about time travel, and a rather unusual one at that. Angela, the novel's most delightful character, is a drugged-out, sociopathic genius to whom the vindication of her scientific career is more important than the survival of the human race. She is also, however, a true seeker, more interested in understanding the truth than in any reward for being right, and as a result she quickly becomes endearing, as she matter-of-factly explains a take on time travel and causality that is entertainingly trippy.
There is no difference between cause and effect. That is an illusion created by belief in time. If I drop a cup, the cup breaks. The dropping is the cause, the breaking is the effect, because one happens after the other. Remove the notion of time and that no longer works. Each is the required condition for the other to take place. As the cup breaks, I am required to drop it.
It's passages like this that make clear what an intriguing project Pears set himself when he set out to write a novel that could be read in (almost) any order. Along the different plot strands, events occur out of linear progression. Events that occurred in the distant past in one strand are set into motion at the end of another. Much like Angela's technology, the key to the novel is realizing that its plot strands are happening not in parallel to one another, but in sequence with one another, and in working out what that sequence is.
So, Arcadia is very clever, and cleverly put together. But once again, is it any good? Once again, yes and no. Pears's literary references are clever, but they eventually outstay their welcome, especially in a novel as long as this one. Rosie's adventures in Anterworld are initially amusing, as she and the cod-medieval people she meets puzzle over each other's behavior. But she's quickly subsumed into some rather conventional plot machinations—a love story, a murder mystery, a tale of a prince falsely disinherited—none of which are done well enough to justify the time Pears spends on them. Similarly, the mole hunt in which Henry is embroiled, and the security officer from Angela's time who is tasked with tracking down her estranged daughter, and along the way learns more about the dark underbelly of his seemingly perfect society, are limp retreads of classic novels, without much flavor of their own. In the end, Arcadia's claim to relevance and importance comes from the way it puts itself together, not any of its individual pieces.
And unfortunately, the solution to that puzzle is where the novel undermines itself. To begin with, Angela's theory of time travel is a nice exercise in mind-expansion. Working out how effect dictates cause—how her creation of a world ends up requiring that world to be a part of our world's history—is a tricky, slippery process, and a lot of fun in the attempt. It doesn't hurt that along the way there are passages seemingly designed to appeal to the genre geek, such as Angela's early experiment in world-creation, in which she uses as a template Tolkien's Middle Earth:
As I stood there, I felt the temperature of the wind changing, from mild to freezing cold, then hot in a way that nature, no matter how constructed, could not possibly emulate. I saw the sun change color, then seemingly begin to melt in the sky. The buildings turned into something resembling mud and slid down into a sea that was no longer made of water but was sticky and glutinous, shining with a light that came from deep underneath. Even the hills themselves began to turn fuzzy and smudged round the edges.
The problem, Angela concludes, is the existence of religion in Tolkien's narrative, which forces her machine to try to create the gods. "Human beings can believe and disbelieve at the same time. Physics, alas, cannot". Hence, Anterworld's perfection for her purposes, since Henry doesn't want any religion in his creation, and the only thing that Henary and his fellow citizens believe in is the Story—appropriately enough, since that story brought them into existence.
Here, however, is where Arcadia begins to lose its flavor, for as the pieces start falling into place, Angela's philosophy of time travel and world creation starts to seem less mind-blowing, and more mechanical. It is, ultimately, the engine through which Pears can tie his various narratives together and achieve his neat—if, ultimately, sterile—ending, not a goal onto itself. Though I've called Arcadia a science fiction novel, this is where it betrays that trait, because it is fundamentally uninterested in the most interesting thing about itself, which it treats as a means to an end.
In a stronger short list, one might be able to justify Arcadia's presence. It's just weird enough, and just sufficiently out of the common way, that there would be some value in alerting science fiction fans to its existence, even if they, like myself, ultimately came away from the novel disappointed. On this short list, Arcadia feels like a cruel trick. After three space operas that don't even try to test the limits of their tropes and conventions, to finally have a nominee that seems to be bending the meaning of something as fundamental to the genre as time travel, and then to discover that it's all in the service of a metafictional gag? It feels almost like a statement on how this year's judges saw their role—not to explore science fiction, but to use it as a jumping-off point for other, less interesting projects.
Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn is exactly the sort of novel that the Clarke was created to recognize. Accomplished, clever, weird. SFnal in a way that you could argue about quite a bit—I mean, yes, there does seem to be some bizarre topology folding going on, but that could just as easily be magic for all that it's explained, and anyway, it doesn't show up until nearly the end of the book. And, of course, deeply political. It reads like what you'd get if you took the premise of a China Miéville novel—The City & The City, or Iron Council—brushed off quite a bit of the irony with which he leavens all his work, and added a hefty helping of John le Carré. It's unlike almost any novel published, in or out of this genre, in years and years, and if all that were not enough, it's a hell of a fun read.
Unfortunately, the novel nominated for this year's Clarke is Europe in Autumn's sequel, Europe at Midnight.
OK, that's unfair. Europe at Midnight is a good book, at least as well written and as enjoyable to read as its prequel (which, and again to be fair, was nominated for the Clarke last year). But the problem is right there in the book's title. Autumn is a season. Midnight is a moment. As the fashion for trilogies becomes ever more dominant, we are exposed to more and more books that suffer from what's known as "middle book syndrome". Books that are about getting us from the first book's ending to the third book's beginning, and which tend not to have much of an identity, or a purpose, of their own. Europe at Midnight suffers from this problem in spades. It is clearly a transitional novel, an interlude in which certain elements and characters are set up, but very little actually happens.
Europe in Autumn's protagonist was Rudi, an apprentice chef in a near-future Europe that seemed daily to be fracturing along ethnic and nationalistic lines. Rudi is recruited by the Coureurs, a group of smugglers and messengers who specialize in getting across the ever-proliferating state borders and out from under the eyes of constantly sprouting security services. At the end of the novel, Rudi discovers that there is another country in Europe, hidden from all eyes and existing alongside, or on top of, the known geography. This country, known as the Community, spans nearly the entire continent, and guards its borders jealously—which, as Rudi the Coureur concludes, means that there must be people there who want to get out.
Rudi and the small group he amasses around himself make barely any appearance in Europe at Midnight, whose main focus is the slow realization of the larger intelligence agencies—chiefly MI6—that the Community exists, and their attempts to place assets within it and gauge its abilities and intentions. In other words, this is a lot more le Carré, a lot less Miéville. First, though, we have the novel's most interesting and enjoyable sequence, told from the point of view of Rupert, the Professor of Intelligence on the Campus. Rupert is new at this job, the previous Professor of Intelligence having shot himself in his office when he realized that the revolution against the board of governors was about to succeed.
A little less than a year ago, we had been planning Revolution, stockpiling weapons, coordinating action, collating intelligence reports. On a misty day not unlike this one, the Chancellor's Autumn Term Speech had been booed by fifteen thousand students and Lecturers, and Security had turned water cannon, tear gas, and finally rifle fire on the subsequent protest march.
It's a darkly funny combination of the Soviet Revolution and English campus politics, and what makes it all the funnier is that Rupert isn't in on the joke. He's lived on the Campus his whole life. The idea that, for example, Lecturer and Research Assistant and Professor are not heritable traits passed down from parent to child would strike him as strange. When it's finally revealed to Rupert that he's been living in a pocket universe, that all the deaths, torture, secret experiments, and suffering he witnessed were needless and purely at the behest of the Community, who used the Campus as their deranged R&D lab, he is understandably vengeful. When MI6 knock on his door and ask him to be their mole in the Community, he doesn't hesitate.
Europe at Midnight is at its best in the chapters told from Rupert's point of view, when he's still on the Campus, or when he first arrives in London and suddenly learns the full complexity of the world that had been denied to him.
I had come from a world where everyone was white, no one had to pay for anything, and there were no gods. All our books had been rewritten and edited so that we had no idea that this other world existed. We all spoke the same language. Compared to this place, my home was a pale, insipid thing, and I came to hate whoever had condemned my people to that.
It's here that we begin to see the first inklings of the political undertone that strongly informed Europe in Autumn. In Europe at Midnight, Hutchinson's disapproval of Europe's fragmentation is given an extra dimension through greater exploration of the Community. Founded by a single English land-owning family in the early nineteenth century, it embodies their idea of what the world, and particularly Europe, should look like.
Everyone in the Community was English. From one end of the Continent to the other. There were only English things here. There were no other languages, only regional dialects. No other cuisines but English. No other clothing styles but English. No other architectural styles but English. It was awful. After a year here I would have gladly lynched someone for a kebab. After two years, I would have committed mass murder for a portion of sweet and sour pork. The months living with Alison in Kentish Town had provided me with an indelible education in fast food, and I was now an addict. English cooking was stodgy and unimaginative and under-spiced. I had not found a single dish which employed garlic.
Alongside Rupert's growing disdain for the Community and desire to return to multicultural Europe, a second plot strand in Europe at Midnight focuses on the MI6 operation that, as well as running him, is struggling to amass any amount of information about Europe’s new neighbors, and potential enemies (at the beginning of the novel, it's revealed that one of the Campus's early successes was a strand of flu that killed tens of millions of people in Europe). Through the eyes of a mid-level agent known to us only as Jim, we see the working group expand and metastasize, as what initially seems to these agents like science fiction quickly becomes an opportunity for profit. The "reading list" for the intelligence being gathered on the Community, Jim discovers, is being distributed to
All the main intelligence services in Europe. Of course. Then the CIA. Then Mossad. Then a number of very large companies whose main business is the extraction and processing of fossil fuels. Then some more very large companies whose main business is the mining and processing of mineral ores. One large media multinational. . . . Two fast-food corporations. A sports clothing manufacturer. All the main high street coffee chains. . . . Three US firms specializing in building infrastructure in countries whose ruling regimes have fallen.
In other words, Europe at Midnight sets a lot of balls into the air: Rupert's mission, the obvious implication that some combination of forces from Earth is planning to invade the Community, a subplot in which Rupert rescues a scientist who claims to have invented a method of transport that will mean "the end of borders." And all the time, there is still our awareness that Rudi is out there, that whatever his story has led to, we still aren't privy to it. Add to that the stop-start progression of the novel's storytelling, which jumps years between chapters, jumping in and out of Rupert and Jim's operations so that we're never quite clear who they're pretending to be and what their objective is, and the result is a novel that doesn’t feel quite deserving of that term. I don't doubt that the forthcoming Europe in Winter will be an exceptional ending to this strange and unusual trilogy, but it seems impossible to judge Europe at Midnight as its own entity.
And then, of course, there is the issue of the novel's—or perhaps the series's—politics. Both Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight are good at sounding political without giving their readers a very strong idea of what their politics are. The closest one can come to a statement from either of these books is "borders are bad," but this is so generalized as to be almost anodyne. A further statement made by Europe at Midnight is "intelligence work is messy and often more about corporate profit than protecting the nation." But I'm pretty sure we didn't need a science fiction novel to tell us that.
One of my problems with Europe in Autumn was that, in the guise of topicality, it actually avoided making any meaningful statement about Europe's present-day problems. The Eurozone crisis, rampant and destructive austerity, refugees, tensions around Muslim immigrant communities, rising anti-semitism and other forms of far-right extremism—all these felt ancillary to a novel whose concerns began and ended with the fragmentation of the EU, and the proliferation of nations. In a post-Brexit world, that emphasis hardly seems inapt, but on the other hand, how seriously am I supposed to take a world in which the city of Potsdam is a self-sufficient sovereign state?
Europe at Midnight feels, if anything, as if it's exacerbating that irrelevance masquerading as relevance. Its le Carré influences extend to an almost Cold War-esque approach to intelligence—with the exception of scenes, like the one quoted from above, in which we suddenly and momentarily remember that the CIA exists, and that the US has a history of invading nations and letting corporations suck the marrow out of them. The fact that it's a novel without much in the way of a story throws into sharper relief the fact that it hasn't really got much to say—that this series may never amount to more than its fun writing and the utterly bizarre, evocative idea of the Community.
Once again, this is the sort of thing that a stronger short list might have been able to carry. In this short list, however, we are forced to ask: is Europe at Midnight here for any reason other than momentum? Can a novel with so little identity of its own really deserve to be on a short list for the best novels of the year?
The framing story that opens Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix explains to us that were are about to be told how the titular book was written. In the story, an old man named Sunuteel goes wandering, leaving behind his wife Hussaina. The couple live in a tent in the desert, and the setting invites the reader to presume pre-modernity. It's thus an amusingly wrongfooting moment when Sunuteel, a few minutes away from his camp, takes out his "portable" and sends his wife a loving text message. Later on, when Sunuteel comes across "a cave full of computers", it becomes clearer what kind of story we're reading, a tale of industrial collapse looked back upon from a less advanced, but perhaps wiser, age. When one of the computers in the cave hijacks Sunuteel’s portable, injecting it with Phoenix's story, we realize that Okorafor is deliberately blending the fantastical and the technological. Phoenix is a ghost in a machine, and also a djinn enchanting a traveler with a tale.
Within the story proper, Phoenix is a lab experiment. A resident of "Tower 7", she has lived there her entire short life—she is only two years old, though accelerated aging means that she looks forty, and can learn and absorb massive amounts of information very quickly. Phoenix is one of many experimental subjects in Tower 7, products of genetic engineering: "Some were deformed, some were mentally ill, some were just plain dangerous, and none were flawless." When Phoenix's only friend Saeed kills himself by eating an apple, her latent powers reveal themselves. Despite the best efforts of the scientists who have studied her, Phoenix loses control—largely because she finally realizes that she doesn't want to stay in control if it means remaining in Tower 7. The book's first chapter is a tense, exhilarating set-piece in which Phoenix makes her way to freedom, learning her powers as she goes. It ends in an orgy of destruction in which, as Phoenix tells us, "I realized the meaning of my name."
The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Okorafor's 2010 World Fantasy Award-winning novel Who Fears Death (which I haven't read). The opening chapter, with its explosive battle between Phoenix and the forces of The Big Eye, was excerpted in Clarkesworld and Subterranean Magazine in 2011 and 2012. It reads, unsurprisingly, like its own self-contained story, so much so that it's hard to imagine that anything could follow it. And indeed, the rest of The Book of Phoenix is, if not a letdown, then at least a comedown from this early climax.
Okorafor gets around this issue through the simple expedient of her heroine's nature. Phoenix is, as her name indicates, someone who can immolate herself and then come back to life. The insidious purpose of such an experiment is "A human bomb that self-regenerated to blow up another day." For Okorafor and her story, it means that Phoenix can die—can lose everything she works to build every time she escapes death—and then be reborn to try again, hoping to find a way of living that does not end in persecution and death.
Phoenix's origin story—a genetic experiment, granted amazing powers but intended as a weapon, breaking out of the control of her handlers and trying to make a life for herself away from them—is of course a standard of superhero stories, the dominant genre of our present moment. Much ink has been spilled about the racism inherent in the tropes of this genre—the way it sidelines people of color or designates them as villains, or the way it takes forms of abuse habitually visited on people of color and applies them to white characters so that they can become heroes. The Book of Phoenix is one of several recent works that try to overturn that status quo (another recent example is N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season). And like many of those works, it doesn't try to simplify or erase the complexity and ugliness of racialized abuse.
Most superhero origin stories are rooted in abuse. The conventions of the genre tell us that heroes respond to this abuse with generosity, choosing to use their powers to help society, even though those powers come from their own dehumanization. This is, obviously, a more fraught proposition if the abuse that created our superheroes is racialized in nature, since in that case the people whom the superhero has to save are often complicit in the system that created them—if only by silently tolerating it, and taking in its poisonous ideas about race. (As Phoenix notes, when she sees reports about herself on the news, the journalists take care to stress her race because "An African was a threat, so do not hesitate to kill her".)
Phoenix's story is paralleled with that of several other experiment subjects, all Africans. The fact that the Big Eye uses only Africans as its subjects is pointed out several times, with Okorafor suggesting several interpretations for it—at times it seems, as noted above, like an attempt to create subjects that will not arouse public sympathy; in other cases, the choice feels more like a metaphor, as in the case of the experiment subject who calls herself HeLa, after the gene line derived from the unwitting Henrietta Lacks. Each of the people Phoenix meets, and sometimes travels with, takes a different approach to their abuse, to the oppression they experienced in their human life, and to life after their escape from Tower 7. The most blatant superhero reference comes from Seven, a man whom Phoenix frees during her escape from the tower. Like Phoenix, he is winged, and he tries to teach her to overcome her anger, to be like the superheroes we know from comic books, who repay kindness for cruelty.
Saeed had collected several newsfeed articles written up about "the winged human speciMen on the loose" who stalked the skies and repeatedly came to the rescue of people in need—from people in car accidents, to mugging victims, to attempted suicides.
It says quite a bit about the kind of book that The Book of Phoenix is that not only does Phoenix reject Seven's approach, but he ends up being killed because of it, when an angry mob turns on him after he, Superman-like, tries to dissuade them from violence. The world of The Book of Phoenix has no room in it for heroes, and certainly not African ones. The lesson that Phoenix learns from her deaths and rebirths, from all the losses of the lives she tries to build for herself, is that the only role available to her is that of a villain.
I am the villain in the story. Haven't you figured it out yet? Nothing good can come from unnatural bonding and creation. Only violence. I am a harbinger of violence. Watch what happens wherever I go.
Okorafor has a lot to touch on as she describes Phoenix's many lives. As well as Henrietta Lacks, and the way in which the media constructs images of black people in such a way as to make their deaths seem permissible or even desirable, she discusses economic colonialism, the way in which Western corporations and corrupt African governments combine forces to exploit and oppress citizens. This means that every one of Phoenix's lives is different, even if they all tend towards the same end. In each, she learns of a different kind of exploitation, a different kind of abuse, whether her own or that of her friends. The cumulative result is to make The Book of Phoenix a punishing read, but also a bleakly triumphant one. The fact that Phoenix keeps coming back, despite witnessing and experiencing such atrocities, is not exactly a victory—in fact, each return is driving her closer to the moment where she decides that there is no hope at all for humanity—but it is a way of triumphing over forces that define Phoenix and her friends as expendable. By witnessing, Phoenix ensures that her suffering isn't for nothing.
Despite this, and despite the power that The Book of Phoenix holds, the experience of reading it is ultimately a frustrating one. There's never any doubt where Phoenix's story is headed (even if we weren't told of it in the framing story) and the path there eventually starts to feel a little roundabout, for all its force. Okorafor is telling the story of a superhero who is first radicalized, then turned into a supervillain, and finally driven to a despair that is beyond good and evil. It's a story worth telling, especially as a counterpoint to a genre that treats abuse and racism with such glibness. But though each of the individual pieces of The Book of Phoenix is well-crafted and powerful, and though Okorafor keeps finding new things for Phoenix to learn about how the world treats those it designates as an underclass, the effect of the whole is overbearing. The Book of Phoenix might have been stronger as a novella than as a novel.
So who should win? I'm sure it will come as no surprise that my response is "no one." And just as obviously, if the judges' choices in selecting a short list are so opaque and inexplicable to me, it's highly unlikely that I'll be able to guess the winner. The best books on the short list are Europe at Midnight and The Book of Phoenix, though both are incomplete in themselves, and feel more like extensions of their authors' better work. Children of Time would also not be an indefensible winner, even though what is familiar and underdone about the book outweighs, to my mind, the things about it that are interesting and original. One can only hope that none of the other three nominees have a realistic chance of winning, though with this short list, who knows?
So perhaps the more important question is, what message would each of these nominees send, if it won? What would it tell us about the Clarke, and about how this year's judges see it? The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet would be a zeitgeist choice, a decision to honor legions of online fans who may not have been part of the Clarke's traditional audience. Arcadia would be a gonzo choice—to anyone who hasn't read the book, and doesn't know how conventional it ultimately is. Like other literary winners, it would send the message that the Clarke sets itself a little bit apart from the rest of the genre, even if this year that statement can't really be backed up. Europe at Midnight would be a grown-up choice, a sign that SF doesn't need spaceships or McGuffins to blow our minds. In many ways it would be a classic Clarke choice, a book that doesn't necessarily look like a lot of fun, but which is still a cracking good read. The Book of Phoenix would be a topical choice, a recognition of the emerging wing of SF that is putting racial issues front and center. It would be a long overdue shift for the Clarke, which has so far ignored this movement. Children of Time would be an old-school choice, while still rewarding a relative newcomer to the field. And Way Down Dark . . . well, honestly, I have no idea what message that would send, except that the judges and I are on completely different pages.
One of the things that make the Clarke a special award is that, at one time or another in its thirty years of existence, it has been all of these things: literary and genre, old school and avant garde, grown up and silly, political and indifferent to politics. It's an award that keeps changing, and challenging us to follow along with those changes, and perhaps discover new aspects of the genre we hadn't previously known. This year's short list doesn't do justice to the complexity and richness of this award, but in a way that is also part of its nature. You never know what you're going to get, and a lot of the time you're disappointed. But you always know that you're going to be surprised.
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