The first part of this review can be found here.
Ramez Naam's Nexus represents a by now venerable yet still baffling Clarke tradition: the forgettable, makeplace novel that somehow gets itself shortlisted. Often, as here, that novel is compounded of an OK but basically short-story idea expanded to low density novel length by the application of an air-hose plumbed to a pressurized tank of Genre Techno-Thriller Conventions. The thing to bear in mind here is that, by shortlisting this novel, the judges are sending a message to all the writers they didn't shortlist—to Marcel Theroux and Ruth Ozeki and Lauren Beukes, to Margaret Atwood and Kate Atkinson and Anne Carson, to Paul McAuley and Lavie Tidhar and to many more. They're saying: "hey, guys, gals, you see this rubbish novel? Well we think your books are even more rubbish than this!" Which seems unnecessarily harsh.
Nexus is named for a substance halfway between a drug and a nanobot-swarm. Ingested, it settles in the brain and bluetooths its way into wireless communication with other brains similarly dosed—or something. The "science" is a bit hand-wavy (one of the scientist characters, asked how the "nanotubes" are able to "talk by radio," replies: "I dunno" [p. 96]). I wouldn't normally nitpick over this, except that the book makes great play with the rigour, plausibility, and even inevitability of its science. Naam trained as a computer scientist (according to his website he now "lectures on energy, environment, and innovation at Singularity University, where he serves as Adjunct Faculty"). He includes a postscript entitled "The Science of Nexus"; and his publisher has boldly, or foolishly, printed the back of the paperback with the unambiguous assertion "This Will Happen." Will it? Will it really? I'm tempted to think: not. The "nexus" of the novel is a magic enabler, a McGuffin. Inserted into the brain it becomes improbably self-supporting and self-powered. It allows a blissful mode of group empathic telepathy between consenting users—which is why the naively hippy protagonists are developing an illegal version of it. But it is illegal, for the good reason that it can be used telepathically to control and torture others. Wicked people can, and in the novel do, use Nexus to turn others into puppets; to disable them, or override their muscular control to make them shoot and kill others (again: how a computing interface can force the remote transfer of functions of willpower and liberum voluntas is far from clear). Or it can be used to blast others' brains with searing pain. A bad thing, clearly. And there's more: it's possible to use the Nexus in order to upload programs—"Bruce Lee" is one such, which turns its otherwise untrained nerd into a kung-fu kickboxer. This Joe 90/Matrix conceit gets a lot of play in the novel.
Homeland Security send sexy superspy Samara Chavez to infiltrate the illegal Nexus operation of blithe-eyed ingénu Kade Lane and his pals. Sam likes the hippy-empathic-telepathy session in which she partakes ("she felt she might explode with joy"), but isn't seduced away from her duty. You see, when Sam was growing up her parents joined a cult in which bad men used a Nexus-equivalent to turn their followers into automata, all the better to beat and rape them. So Sam delivers Kade to the Spooks, who offer him a deal. He can save his friends from prison if he agrees to double-agent his way into the organization of I Never Believed Her Character For A Moment Su-Yong Shu, a brilliant, ruthless super-scientist who plans on using Nexus to breed a race of transhuman Übermenschen to RULE THE WORLD!! (remember: This Will Happen). Sam is ordered to accompany Kade on this mission, a prospect she views with a contempt that must surely, in this sort of story, eventually translate, via a lot of fighting and killing and peril, into Love. At this point the action shifts to Bangkok: oriental setting and the city don't know what the city is getting—fight after fight via Nexus in a show with everything but Yul Brynner.
In its favor, Nexus is a quick read: full of incident, though most of that incident is predictable fight-and-flight palaver exclusively concocted out of cinematic cliché ("she was beaten this time, she realized. There would be no rescue this time. . . . Then the ceiling exploded, something large and heavy fell from it onto the agents below, and someone tall and built like an ox dropped after it, full auto shotguns in both hands, firing as he landed" [p. 338]). In its disfavor, the novel fumbles the handling of its central premise via a storyline largely characterized by leaden triteness. So, you know. Swings and roundabouts.
On the subject of the novel's gender politics, and especially its lazy way of using "rape of women" as a mode of ramping up narrative intensity and backstory significance, I have little to add to Karen Burnham's insightful Strange Horizons review. An additional problem is the central premise's superfluousness. Human beings don't need magic nanotubule mindware to immobilize, torture, and rape other humans, after all. The entirety of world history stands testimony to that depressing fact. You don't need telepathy to empathize with somebody. You have, er, empathy for that. Cult leaders have proved over and again that they have no need for mind-altering nano-bots to compel others to do their bidding and endure their abuse. The novel's scenes recalling Sam's traumatic experiences in the cult could just as easily have been set in 1970 as 2040. As a whole the novel feels like a potentially interesting essay about mind-computing interfaces lying, like a layer of oil atop of a pint of vodka, over an unrelated old-school thriller plotline. The whole superstructure of this novel could have the Nexus stripped out, and replaced with whatever thriller McGuffin the reader prefers (heroin, nuclear weapon, computer virus on flashdrive that will crash all bank computers, Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing) without altering the basic shape of the whole.
I'd have minded this less, I think, if the action-adventuring had been more stylishly written. But the prose varies from unremarkable to actively bad. All the characters sound alike and most of them use speech exclusively as a means of conveying important plot points to one another. Scenes of exposition are layered like parfait between action set-piece scenes. In these latter there's a preponderance of words like "slammed," "spasmed," and "smashed," deployed in an attempt to add urgency and vehemence to Naam's flattened video-game moves: "Sam bellowed in rage . . . A rifle smashed into the back of her head. She kicked backwards and sent a body hurtling through the air. Another one slammed a rifle into her face" (p. 335). There's a lot of this—"her head slammed painfully into the brick. Stone chipped . . . her spine slammed into the wall hard . . . He spasmed roaring. She fired again. The man groaned louder" (p. 237)—and it entails sharply diminishing returns, a one-note intensity that is strident rather than exciting. Worse, Naam's descriptions of the choreography of the fighting are often just bewildering.
Wats saw the opening and threw a brutal fist at it, low and under her nearly unbreakable ribs. She accepted the fist, twisting to mute it, felt pain blossom inside her as he connected . . . She planted a leg behind his knees and slammed her other hand into his shoulder to bring him down. Sam's booted foot flashed out. (p. 47)
Really, nothing could be less like actual fighting than this stuff.
Nakamura parried the elbow, fell back and bent his leg to take Kade's kick on his thigh instead of knee. Kade's body came all the way around, free hand lashing out in a palm heel strike to break Nakamura's nose and drive the shattered fragments into his brain. The CIA agent dodged the strike with a preterhuman twitch of his neck. (p. 131)
Ah, the old preterhuman neck-twitch maneuver. Yes indeed. By the end of the novel the fights are being embroidered in note form, as if the author really couldn't be bothered to flesh them out further. I almost preferred this, actually, though it made the action no easier to visualize:
They came at her with fists and legs and knives and rifles used like clubs. Four of them.
Spin, dodge, strike.
Take the knife away.
Dodge spin sweep.
Get that one off his feet.
Strike, spin, block.
Lure that one in close.
Knit, knit, purl. (p. 423)
Not those last three words, obviously.
In the acknowledgements, Naam notes that he began thinking about the novel whilst pursuing his actual research (he is author of the non-fiction More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement). "Eventually," he says, "this work transformed from a lark to an actual attempt to write a novel." The result, sadly, is a case of The Lark Descending. What on earth possessed the Clarke Judges to shortlist it? I recommend, incidentally, the "what on earth possessed the Clarke Judges to . . . ?" game for wet bank-holiday afternoons.
It's difficult to review Christopher Priest's The Adjacent without giving away spoilers. Indeed, and more problematically, it's a little hard even to say what counts as a spoiler, since The Adjacent isn't a conventionally constructed novel (and, in what follows, I haven't specifically tried to give the narrative game away). Nonetheless, you may prefer to read Priest's new novel first, and only afterwards read my review.
The first part tells the story of a photographer called Tibor Tarent. It is set in an alt-reality near-future Islamic Republic of Great Britain—a pleasingly unsensationalist representation of the UK under Islamic rule, actually. Climate change has made grievous inroads into the world; storms (powerfully described) are devastating; much of the Mediterranean basin is uninhabitable. Tarent and his wife were aid workers in Anatolia; his wife is killed—disappeared, annihilated by a strange device or weapon that leaves a perfectly triangular patch of blackened earth behind it. A similar but presumably larger device has obliterated a portion of West London. Because of this, the government of IRGB brings Tarent home to debrief him. The first section of the book is mostly travel: Tarent never quite sure where he is going, or what is wanted of him; a brilliantly realized, quasi-Kafkaesque account of being in the system; waiting in hotel rooms or safe houses to be told what to do and where to go; long, dull journeys inside armored 4x4s.
A second narrative concerns Tommy Trent, a stage illusionist, who travels by boat and train to the Western Front during the First World War. The RFC want him to use his tricks to camouflage their planes—effectively to make them disappear. He meets H. G. Wells on the way. At the airfield he discovers the senior officer does not want him around, and comes to the swift realization that his stage tricks are useless where military aircraft in a warzone are concerned. He sees a plane crash killing its pilot. Then he absents himself from the war and comes home. A related strand also concerns wartime aircraft, this time WWII: a RAF mechanic called Torrance meets a female Polish pilot, and falls in love with her. She in turn is drawn to him because he reminds her of her lost love, an officer in the Polish army (missing presumed dead following the Soviet invasion). She herself goes missing during the war.
The mysterious triangle seems to be the consequence of research by Professor Thijs Rietveld: he hoped to create an anti-weapon weapon that would disappear ordnance into an adjacent quantum state. His discovery is soon weaponized, of course. He commits suicide.
In addition to the IRGB scenes, and the twentieth-century World War scenes, there is, late in the novel, a wonderful novella-length episode set in Priest's Dream Archipelago—set, specifically, on the island of Prachous (which includes a shanty town called Adjacent, which may or may not be the place where all the disappeared people from the other two narrative strands end up).
The Adjacent reads like late Priest—I use the qualifier in the sense in which art historians and literary critics talk of a "late style." He's only 70, and hopefully has many more novels to write; but to read The Adjacent is in part to engage with the whole of Priest's oeuvre. Many of his perennial fascinations are here: stage magic and sleight of hand; doubles and twins; the observer or surveillant photographer character who finds it hard actually to engage with real life (as in The Glamour ); World War Two and its aircraft. Priest's characters are displaced: they live in countries other than those of their birth, for instance; they are orphans, or their hearts belong to people who have died—or who seem to have died. The whole is written in a clean, unfussy, extremely effective style.
What is it all about? That's a good question. Triangles, it seems, are important. The triune crater left by the adjacent weapon emblematizes several things; one being the novel's fascination with ménage à trois —for instance, the male character caught, emotionally, between his wife and his distant but sexually fascinating traveling companion. Another is intertextual: the novel feels like a potent metamorphosis of three earlier Priest works: the stage-magic, doubling, and troubled relationship between past and present of The Prestige (1995); the uncanny wartime vibe, doubles, and orthogonally-conceived love of The Separation (2002); and the every-man-is-an-island-entire-of-itself imaginary realm of the Dream Archipelago, most recently rendered in his BSFA/Campbell-winning novel The Islanders. In each case the aim is, it seems, partly the aesthetic resonance of creative juxtaposition (often very, if sometimes inchoately, powerful in this novel). In part, though, the aim is a narrative sleight of hand. Transported to the Western Front, tasked with developing effective camouflage for planes, Tommy Trent ponders:
Misdirection can take two forms. The first is to manipulate the audience's expectations, to allow them to recognize their own knowledge of the world of normality, and from there allow them to assume that those tricks will still apply to what they are watching when a trick is in progress . . . the other way to misdirect is to play against the audience’s expectations. In other words, to distract them momentarily, to disarm them with an unexpected pleasantry, to make them look at the wrong object on the table, or to watch an unimportant movement of a hand, or to look in the wrong direction. (pp. 102-3)
He has more to say about this second kind of misdirection.
Another kind of misdirection is in the use of adjacency. The magician places two objects close together, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing or amusing) to the audience . . . the actual set-up is unimportant—what matters is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction. An adept conjurer knows exactly how to create an adjacent distraction. (pp. 103-4)
Trent thinks this may be the solution to his particular problem. "One aircraft, two aircraft, one adjacent to the other. Or maybe a third: two aircraft, apparently in formation together, while the third is adjacent to the other two. If I could make the extra aircraft interesting in some unexpected way the Germans would be distracted by it—they would fire their guns in the wrong direction" (p. 104). That, then, is presumably what Priest is doing, narratively speaking, by juxtaposing his three main narrative constructions. What is it that distracts us? What does it distract us from? Drawing out the parallels (so that Tarent Trent, photographer, traveling across IRGB seems to be the same person as Tomak Tallent, photographer, travel ling across Prachous in the Dream Archipelago). But these echoes and linkages and so on are distractions, I think. Whilst all this restless, involving business is going on, Priest does something remarkable. We start with a man bereaved of the love of his life; and by the end—somehow, without straining credulity or outraging our sense of practical or emotional rightness—he brings the dead woman back. It's an Alcestis-trick of great skill and heart, and it works. This is a superb novel, written by an artist at not only the height but also the breadth of his powers.
It does no favors to Naam's Nexus to appear on the same shortlist as James Smythe's powerful, focused The Machine. Where the former novel treats its brain chemistry as an excuse for a welter of melodramatic kung-fu nonsense, Smythe works inwards, working a potent and only too believable narrative over and over the problematic of meddling with the human mind. One thing this short novel does exceptionally well is dramatize how easy it is to mess up a human, and how hard to mend—how extraordinarily fine-tuned the functioning human consciousness is. The strongest section of this novel is its middle third, I think: when our protagonist, Beth, painstakingly re-assembles the metaphorical LEGO blocks of her husband Vic's shattered consciousness using the Machine of the book's title. In its unhurried, obsessive, claustrophobic build relentlessly demonstrates the one core fact of human consciousness that Naam comes nowhere near: its fragility.
Smythe's novel is set in a slowly collapsing near-future Britain, and it sets its scene unfussily and show-don't-tellishly in a way that is powerfully vivid. The word is suffering the consequences of runaway global warming, something Smythe evocatively picks out via telling detail (Beth keeps a towel in the fridge) rather than grandstanding outrage or larger set-piece. Life in this near future is a slog; Beth scurrying back to her flat to avoid the gangs of near feral kids that flock about the estate. Beth is a schoolteacher on a massive, run-down housing estate on the Isle of Wight. She's teaching her kids Lord of the Flies, significantly enough.
At the center of her life is her husband, or the person who used to be her husband. He (Vic) returned from his army tour of duty with post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he agreed—foolishly—to try an experimental new treatment. This is the "Machine": a device that selectively wipes memories, like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind although with markedly fewer laughs. The treatment backfired badly, and Vic is now brain damaged, barely able to function, requiring constant care. After a tranche of similar disasters, the Machines were banned. Beth, though, has a plan. She has used all her money buying an illegal black-market Machine, so as to re-upload Vic's memories back into his head from the flash drive on which they are stored. It is not much of a spoiler to note that this does not go to plan. Like Dr. Frankenstein (Smythe's publishers make this comparison explicitly) the idiom of the Machine is the unintended consquence. The reconstituted Vic, placid most of the time, is prone to abrupt, violent rages. He has the strength and Fight Club skill (I use the comparison advisedly) to take revenge on those who have tormented Beth during her long, secretive sojourn in her flat. But even more alarming than Vic is the Machine itself: inanimate, but an increasingly sinister presence as the novel goes on.
The Machine is a very tight piece of writing indeed. The worst you could say of it is that it is Grim, verging on None-More-Grim, but there's nothing modish or gratuitous about the grimness. Of course it's possible to imagine a reader less inclined to experience so grueling a novel. A lot depends upon how the reader takes Beth, for she is front and center for most of the whole. Her desire to get her man back feels obsessive and rather unhealthy from the get-go, and there is a psychologically claustrophobic feel to her characterization. Since we see things from her point of view this in turn gives the world a straitened, pinched feel. The tripartite structure reproduces the action of the machine itself: "Purge," "Commit," and "Replenish." First, flush out the patient's memories; then commit the memories to the machine's hard drive and finally fill the mental gaps in the patient with positive memories.
There are three things that Smythe does, in terms of technique, that impressed me very much with this novel. One is the way he structures the whole: a slow burn build that never loses the reader, and that works in flashbacks and memories effectively without disturbing that increasing sense of dread. Two is his prose: clear and unfussy yet evocative. And the third thing is his way with detail. Smythe has a wonderful way with well-observed, small but telling specifics. Some of the book's strongest scenes show the physical and emotional drain entailed in being a carer for someone: Beth looking after Vic as he slowly reboots as a person. I was more ambivalent about Smythe's decision to cast the whole in a prose stripped of speech marks. I have seen comparisons with Cormac McCarthy made, although the effect is rather different. To be honest, and much as I admire McCarthy's good qualities, I've never really been able to shake my sense that his non-use of conventional punctuation indexes a macho disdain for all that frou-frou faggoty quotation-marks shit. That's not the impression Smythe gives in this novel, I should add. I assume he eschews quotations marks to generate an effect both more intimate and less refined, less balanced than conventional narrative. It sort of works.
The ending, though, is a gamble. I shan't give it away except to note that it involves a twist; but that is, in part, indeed to give it away—since a reader making her way through the novel expecting a twist is likely to anticipate the actual ending here (there are only a limited number of ways the story could go, after all). Twists are tricky things to orchestrate, and Smythe works hard to avoid making his too facile. It's possible that he goes a touch too far in the other direction, and makes it a little too oblique.
Still, this is a very remarkable novel indeed. It is, in part, about the notion that memories are stories and story is untrustworthy—a pre-eminently novelistic conceit, of course. But at no point does the execution feel knowing, or meta, or like a thought experiment. On the contrary it all feels intensely lived.
The Machine, filling in the gaps with things that didn't stick, stories of its own creation to cover up the cracks. And what makes her think that it will be so different this time? Because the stories are Vic? From his own mouth, 100 per cent pure and unfiltered, every part of his life spilled on to digital tape? She doubts herself. She doubts the Machine. (p. 123)
It is about memory, partly in the old Phil-Dickian chestnut about the unreliability of memory, the artificiality of it as "story." But actually that's not the meat of the novel (it would be a lesser achievement if it were). More to the point The Machine is about the pains of memory, and about the way the cure for that sorrow is not, actually, forgetfulness. Lord keep my memory green said Dickens, who had plenty of psychologically disabling trauma in his backstory. Memory in this novel is about the words Vic spoke to his doctor, recorded and re-uploaded into his reassembling mind. But more powerfully, memory is in certain beautifully filled-in details. When Vic is himself again (or the monstrous approximation of himself is close enough to his old self) he comes out of the spare room and joins Beth again in the marital bed. And the mattress remembers him ("he takes his side like it's ingrained in him to do so, and he slumps into a mattress that has seemingly remembered his shape and his form and the way that he sleeps" [p. 209]). When they make love again, it is as it is when you make love with somebody after a long period of not doing so with that person: which is to say, it is as much about a somatic remembering of previous lovemaking as it is an in-the-moment experience. And this memorious inertia has its malign side too: kids on the estate do not forget words spoken that have slighted them, no matter how trivial. The world is running down because it has been running down and running down is all, collectively, it remembers how to do. All this is superbly done.
Because of this, the novel feels like the work of an older writer. In fact, Smythe is young, although he has created the impression of being mid career by publishing four novels in something like four months (I exaggerate the time frame involved; but only a little. A data point for comparison: Pynchon published his first novel in 1963, and didn't put out his fourth until 1990). Nonetheless. The Machine feels not in the least rushed, or hastily thought-through, and the maturity with which Smythe handles his theme never wavers.
So, despite starting with heartfelt praise for the judges, I've been unable to forbear shaking my metaphorical fist at the judges' heads just a little. Nexus shouldn't be on this list at all; and if Disestablishment of Paradise wins I'll eat my Saturn's-rings-shaped futuristic levitating hat. Ancillary Justice is a fine book, though I think it'll take Leckie a few more novels to get her writing mojo into properly Clarke-winning form. That leaves three credible candidates for the 2014 Clarke. Were the prize in my gift, it would go to Priest; his novel seems to me the richest and most profound of the six. But it is in part a reworking of career-long Priestian fascinations, and I'm not sure it will yield up its treasures to a reader new to the author, or one less than sympathetic to what Priest has been doing since the 1970s. So I have a hunch it won't take this year's prize. That leaves Hurley and Smythe to duke it out. God's War and The Machine are very different books: but either would make a worthy winner of this year's prize.