[Read the first part of Abigail's review here]
The cover design, the tagline ("The war on terror is over... terror won"), and the back-cover blurb for Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel, all strive to describe the book as a near-future spy- or techno-thriller. For at least a hundred pages, this does seem to be the book MacLeod has written, and specifically one that approaches the War on Terror from a leftist perspective, focusing less on actual terrorist organizations and terrorist attacks than on the effect that the threat of terrorism has on its targets, on their commitment to democracy, civil liberties, and basic human decency. The novel kicks off with a literal bang when James Travis, a middle-aged programmer and systems analyst, receives a late night phone call from his daughter, Roisin, who reports a nuclear explosion on an American military base in Scotland, where she has been encamped with anti-war protestors. Almost simultaneously, Travis receives a coded message informing him that he has been exposed as an asset of the French intelligence agency. As Britain is hit by further attacks—exploded highway overpasses, planes flying into buildings, refinery fires—Travis and his daughter scramble to evade the joint efforts of MI5 and the CIA to capture them, and a whole host of characters—intelligence operatives of all nationalities, socialists and peace activists, bloggers and conspiracy nuts—desperately try to work out what has, and is, happening.
In its early pages, The Execution Channel hits many of the buzzwords of the current left-wing's bleak vision of the future (and present). Britain is a nation under constant surveillance, through the twin application of total CCTV coverage and computerized national IDs. Though officially repudiated, torture is a commonly used interrogative tool, with 'facilities' scattered around the globe and extraordinary rendition practiced even by allegedly socialist nations such as Norway. MacLeod's own addition to this dystopia is the titular channel, a pirate signal broadcasting images of torture and death in an endless stream—from criminal executions to terrorist murders to the deaths of detainees after "repeated application of legitimate force" (p. 231).
In other words, The Execution Channel initially presents itself as a novel whose primary purpose is political and topical, an attempt to draw attention to real-world crises by positing a horrible future that might result from their going on unchecked. It is more than a little disorienting, therefore, to come, after several puzzling hints, to the following passage, from a post on the character Mark Dark's political blog:
OK, so imagine Bush wins. In August 2001 Bush is in the White House. On August 6 he gets a President's Daily Brief across his desk headed 'Bin Laden determined to strike in US.' ... Would he have turned around and ordered a cruise missile attack on Afghanistan? Like hell he would. ... But Gore did. His cruise-missile strike killed Bin Laden, dozens of other AQ sand nazis, and hundred of innocent Afghans. Whatever Bin Laden was planning, it wouldn't have been anything like as crazy and over the top as what was provoked by the sheer fucking outrage Gore's assault on Afghanistan aroused. It was a gift to the sand nazis—suddenly they've got a martyr, a Che Guevara figure, and they've got a huge base among ordinary Muslims. Can you imagine the 9/11 attacks happening without that? Out of a clear blue September sky? I can't. (pp. 120-1)
It's surprising enough to be jettisoned out of a political thriller and into an alternate history, but what are we to make of the fact that the reality of The Execution Channel is alternate only in its recent past? The election of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000—the event commonly identified by many left-wing thinkers as the moment everything went seriously wrong—is overturned, and yet nothing changes. The Western world and the Arab world are still fighting over oil. The invasion of Iraq (and later Iran) still happened. Civil rights are still being curtailed and ignored. Democracy and decency are still being eroded. It's another world, but everything is the same. What the hell is MacLeod up to?
It's plain from this startling and impeccably executed switcheroo that The Execution Channel isn't merely a near-future political thriller, which might go some way towards explaining why it achieves, at best, an indifferent quality in its attempts to either thrill or comment on the current political climate. On the first count, MacLeod does his best, and in fact achieves more than one might expect from a novel whose characters act chiefly by Googling or navigating crowded and overextended public transport systems. On the latter point, however, The Execution Channel evinces a curious hollowness. Soon after the nuclear strike, Travis muses that "The bomb, assuming it wasn't an opening shot in the big one, would in time become another date that marked a before. ... Yet another date that changed everything." (p. 6) Missing from the novel, however, is that very sense that everything has changed, that September 12th feeling. Though there are physical displays of panic and random retribution—mass exoduses from the attack sites and attacks against Muslims—the sense of dread, dismay, and helplessness that was so palpable on that day, even halfway around the world and in a country by no means unused to terrorist attacks, is all but absent from the novel.
Instead, MacLeod delivers characters who matter-of-factly go about their business, and though obviously one can justify this choice by pointing out that most of the novel's characters are precisely the people who ought to be going about their business in a time of emergency, it hardly seems unreasonable to expect even these people to feel shock and sorrow. The closest The Execution Channel comes to exploring the emotional effect of terrorism, or of sustained mistrust in one's government, amounts to not much more than a well-meaning didacticism which would more properly belong in a junior high social studies class. Some eye-roll-inducing examples would include Travis, after rescuing a Muslim family from a mob: "It was on the tip of his tongue to add: If the Mozzies hadn't blown up the fucking motorway then maybe... How convenient it would be to think like a fascist, he thought" (p. 96). Or Mark Dark, after rejoicing in what may well have been a murderous, unprovoked display of American military superiority: "Shock at what had happened and dread of what might be about to happen made the idea of an invincible America almost irresistibly reassuring." (p. 349) Well, yes, but we've all been living on this planet for the last seven years—surely MacLeod had more to offer us than these shallow, easily-digestible platitudes?
Given the shakiness of the novel's foundations—the alternate-yet-not-alternate reality in which it takes place, which encourages us to follow the further adventures of James and Roisin Travis, as well as their various allies and enemies, with a jaundiced and dubious eye—one is tempted to read The Execution Channel as an elaborate gag, a parody of post 9/11 political thrillers (and of Cold War thrillers, which its myriad crosses and double-crosses and copious use of cloak and dagger techniques are obviously meant to recall), and therefore to classify MacLeod's frequent resorts to cliché as very dry humor. (Certainly there is something of the absurd about a story in which the major world power working to undermine Britain and the US is France.) Whether or not the novel was intended as a joke, once the initial bait-and-switch is pulled off we can't help but suspect that another one is in the offing. And indeed, The Execution Channel ends with a revelation that pulls it firmly into the realm of science fiction—perhaps even space opera. More importantly, the novel's ending reveals its events to have been nothing more than misdirection—the magician's hands flailing about and distracting the audience while the real business of a disappearing trick is happening elsewhere. The audience, in this case, is made up of both the novel's readers and its characters, both of whom are trapped by the last remaining imperialist fallacy—that we are the center of the world, and that anything that happens to it must happen to, or even be caused by, us. In the world of The Execution Channel, the West has been left behind—quite literally, in fact. The empire has fallen, and in fact fell a long time ago—the business of the novel is in describing the moment in which its citizens realize this.
As a delivery system for this stinging indictment, The Execution Channel is nothing short of spectacular. On top of the two major revelation scenes, whose dizzying, wrong-footing effect can't be overstated, there are a myriad tiny clues and references peppered throughout the novel, clever allusions and double meanings which only reveal themselves in hindsight, and which all combine to place us in the characters' headspace—utterly convinced that we know what kind of story we're in, right up until the moment it changes. The further one gets from The Execution Channel, the more substantial a reading experience it seems, not just because of these little time-delayed bombs of meaning and foreshadowing going off in our heads, but because the actual, and rather unimpressive, business of reading the novel fades. As impressive as it is structurally, The Execution Channel is, emotionally, quite hollow. It's a clever novel, but not a good one. I'm not, in general, a fanatic about avoiding spoilers in either my reading or my writing, but I've gone out of my way to avoid giving away The Execution Channel's final revelation because that is all the novel amounts to, and I can't imagine a reader who knows it taking any pleasure in the rather pedestrian experience of getting to it. The hallmark of a truly great magic act is that it manages to excite and titillate even those who know how it is accomplished. For all its strengths, The Execution Channel, unfortunately, is nothing but a parlor trick.
There's something amusing about coming across Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army on the 2008 Clarke shortlist. Its presence seems to bring the award full circle to its first winner, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Though there are key differences between Atwood's bleak, clear-sighted narrative of cowed subsistence in a fundamentalist future in which women are enslaved for their reproductive abilities, and Hall's equally bleak, unreliable narrative of violent revolt in an ecologically devastated future in which women's reproductive abilities are enslaved, the two books are obviously of a piece. Upon learning that The Carhullan Army had won this year's Tiptree award, Cheryl Morgan commented that "Sometimes I think that Feminism is heading back to the 1970s at breakneck speed," and though I am fonder of the novel than she is, I can see her point.
Short, stripped-down, and decidedly unflashy, The Carhullan Army is told as the recorded statement of a prisoner, who answers only to the title Sister. It tells the story of her transformation, from downtrodden victim to a free human being and then perhaps to another sort of victim. Devastated by floods and changing weather patterns, Sister's Britain has devolved into a third-world country and a police state. The environmental crisis has been used a pretext to round the population up into cities, tagged and tamed. People are assigned housing, jobs, food, and the right to have children. The defining event of Sister's existence is the day on which she was fitted with a 'coil'—an intra-uterine device mandated for all fertile women by the government, as a form of population control. Sister's rage at this violation consumes her, destroying her relationship with her husband (whose youthful idealism has curdled into a terrified conservatism in the face of the nation's devolution), and ultimately spurs her to leave him and the city in search of the women's commune in Carhullan.
Led by the magnetic Jackie Nixon, Carhullan was a self-sustaining farming community before the social collapse, and in the present day has become a legend, something to be feared and wondered at. Memories of childhood encounters with Carhullan farmers have sustained Sister throughout the disintegration of her adult life, and she sets out to find the farm in the hopes of finding acceptance and shelter from a government she has come to despise. Sister finds a new home in Carhullan, but the community she becomes part of is just this side of a cult. Her descriptions of life on the farm are simultaneously a narrative of deprogramming—from the learned helplessness of life in a police state and from traditional gender roles—and brainwashing—into the cult of Jackie Nixon and her ethos of self-sufficiency and female strength of arms.
Like all first-person narratives, The Carhullan Army lives and dies with its author's ability to put us in her protagonist's head, and this Hall manages handily. In fact, the more Sister is dehumanized, the more magnetic her narrative becomes. Upon arriving at Carhullan, Sister is attacked and wounded by a patrol, force-marched to the farm at a punishing pace, and forced to spend days stuffed into a small metal box without food or water. Readers will recognize these techniques from a thousand narratives of military and para-military induction, and it is therefore unsurprising when Sister, having proved her worth, is let out of the box and tended back to health. Nor are we surprised when Sister, upon meeting the inhabitants of Carhullan, realizes that
To get here I had committed a kind of suicide. My old life was over. I was now an unmade person. In the few days that I had been at Carhullan nobody had called me anything other than Sister, though they had seen my identification card and knew my name, and I had shouted out my story over and over from behind the metal walls of the dog box, trying to engage their sympathies, trying to tell them who I was. The person I had once been, the person who had walked out of the safety zones and up the mountain, was gone. She was dead. I was alive. But the only heartbeat I had was the pulse these women were beating through me. (p. 94)
What is surprising is how joyful this realization is, as are the further instances of Sister's dehumanization—when she joins Jackie's army-in-training and takes part in their punishing training exercises, when she volunteers to go back in the box as part of that training, undergoes brutal interrogation and inflicts it on others, and helps Jackie track down and kill a a couple who flee the farm after Jackie declares her intention to attack the government facilities in the nearby town. Though we are properly horrified by the abuses Sister accepts for herself and inflicts on others, Hall expertly captures the seductive lure of her willing abdication of self. In Sister's world, there are no good choices. She can be a caged person or a free tool, and it's hard not to see how she might choose the latter.
The Carhullan Army is, in other words, an effective and disquieting novel, but its overall effect is undercut by what feels like a curious datedness. It's a common complaint when mainstream authors venture into genre that they reinvent the wheel, revisiting well-worn tropes and ideas in the ignorant belief that they are the first to come up with them. The Carhullan Army does these novels one better—it seems unaware of its mainstream antecedents. Reading this novel, you would have to swear that its author had never read The Handmaid's Tale, as in spite of their differences—Sister's refuge from this world is in violence and loss of self, whereas Atwood's Offred (another narrator deprived of her name) resorts to ineffectual rebellion, and struggles to preserve her sense of self—the two works dovetail in their essence. Both are stories about women being unmade by a male-dominated society that sees them, first and foremost, as machines for making babies, and expects them to sacrifice and bow down before the will of men. The Carhullan Army is a good book, but it can't be said to have brought anything new to the conversation, or to have revitalized it, despite having been published over two decades after The Handmaid's Tale.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Hall's treatment of feminine strength. In a scene midway through the novel, Jackie asks Sister why she allowed herself to be implanted with the contraceptive coil (she presents this as a feminist issue, but surely the tendency to back down before the overwhelming power of the state crosses gender lines?) and whether she believes that women have the power to fight. Sister responds that
"I think women are naturally just as violent. Especially when we're young. But we're taught it's not in keeping with our gender, that it's not feminine behaviour. Men are forgiven for it. Women aren't. So it's suppressed. We end up on the defensive a lot of the time. But I think we're capable of attacking when it's something worth fighting for." (p. 116-7)
While this is obviously not an incorrect answer, it doesn't feel like a complete or timely one either. Especially within science fiction, we are bombarded with images of strong, physically assertive and aggressive women. Even keeping in mind that these images represent a skewed and unrealistic worldview (though perhaps no less unrealistic than the all-encompassing victimhood that The Carhullan Army suggests), one would have expected Hall to at least engage with them. The Carhullan Army doesn't read like a novel written after the release of Terminator 2 or Thelma & Louise. It certainly doesn't read like a novel written several years into a war in which women have repeatedly gone into combat, and proven themselves to be capable of the same violent brutality as men. This is particularly odd when one considers that Jackie herself is a combat veteran, which presumably is where she learned how to train an army. This, however, is a unique quality, in or out of Carhullan. No other women on the farm come to it with combat or law-enforcement experience, and there are no women of note in Sister's life before coming to Carhullan. It's as though the last thirty years of feminism had been (selectively) rolled back.
In spite of all of this, The Carhullan Army is a successful novel—for what it tries to be. One could quibble, certainly, over its presence on the Clarke shortlist. This is not great science fiction, but rather, like The Handmaid's Tale, a novel that uses an SFnal premise to tell a political story, and sketches its future world as faintly as it possibly can, focusing on those aspects which Hall and Atwood fear will lead to our undoing. Nevertheless, The Carhullan Army is a good example of this technique, and though, on and off the Clarke shortlist, it is probably doomed to be overshadowed by Atwood's earlier novel, it is a worthy entry in the sub-genre she created.
Richard Morgan burst onto the SF literary scene in 2002 with Altered Carbon, a high-octane far-future noir mystery slash technothriller with lots of interesting meditations about the nature of identity and individuality thrown in. Two sequels (the first, Broken Angels, was Altered Carbon but without the crackle of raw intelligence;. I haven't read the second) and a standalone novel, Market Forces, followed, all cementing Morgan as a writer of enjoyable and effective SFnal thrillers who might also have something to say if he put his mind to it.
Along comes Black Man (or, in its less enticing American title, Thirteen), which plot-wise reads like the second coming of Altered Carbon. Once again, an extraordinarily dangerous, unusually skilled man teams up with a female cop to solve a mystery. They squabble and spark, which allows her to educate him about her corner of the world, and him to educate her about the wider world she's never paid much attention to, until it's revealed that she's recovering from a romantic relationship that ended tragically, and that he has a connection to her lost lover, at which point they jump into bed. In the interim, there are many cool and extremely well-written action scenes, and an interesting and impeccably-paced mystery, which our hero solves with a maximum of drama and shouting. The end.
Happily, Black Man also matches, and indeed outdoes, Altered Carbon when it comes to having something of substance to say. The hero this time around is Carl Marsalis, a variant thirteen—genetically engineered recreations of the original proto-human hunter-gatherers, constitutionally incapable of performing any of the acts necessary for the existence of civilization, such as cooperation, adherence to rules and hierarchy, empathy. Their strand was weeded out of the population with the advent of agrarian, centralized societies, until the magic of genetics brought it back in the form of government-sponsored supersoldier projects. Several decades later, in a comparatively saner climate, the UN declares thirteens a menace to society. Those who won't accept transportation to Mars are rounded up into camps, and society in general treats them with equal parts fear and revulsion. Carl is one of the few licensed thirteens, and he earns that license by rounding up escaped specimens, and bringing them in dead or alive—usually the former.
It is almost physically pleasurable to delve into Black Man after making one's way through the other five Clarke nominees, with their near futures or psychedelic presents or recent pasts or metaphorical, thinly sketched futures, and find a proper SFnal future brimming with the meat and potatoes of science fiction—spaceships, cities on Mars, genetically engineered supermen, intricate virtual realities, and enough high-tech weaponry to arm a really violent video game. So powerful is this relief that it takes a while to notice how closely Morgan's early 22nd century dovetails with the early 21st.
Morgan's done something very clever here—on the one hand, creating an elaborate future setting, whose major and minor players, political factions and crises, and dominant philosophies and thought-patterns are lovingly detailed (one strongly suspects that Morgan plans to set other novels in the Black Man universe, and even if he doesn't his construction work in this novel is so fine that we very much want him to), and on the other hand, making that world's present not only a logical progression from ours but a reflection of it. So, for example, the red state/blue state divide in the US, and the jokes about flyover country and the two Americas, are literalized in the form of a genuine schism. The coastal and heartland states now make up two separate nations—the liberal, humanistic American union (also known as the Rim) and the restrictive, fundamentalist American republic (colloquially and rather disparagingly referred to as Jesusland). There are still tensions between the Western and Arab worlds, still drug wars, still a constant competition for supremacy with China, still drug and smuggling wars in which the affluent West funds both sides, still turf wars between corporate and government interests. Nothing is the same, but everything is familiar.
The world of Black Man is neither a utopia, nor has it gone to pieces. Rather, it seems to be moving in cycles, in and out of the same dark patches of prejudice, distrust, and war. Morgan puts a decidedly SFnal twist on present day issues—most prominently, imagining a racial prejudice with actual scientific underpinnings, thus marrying the familiar observation that humans sometimes just need an other to hate with questions about just how much of our personality is determined by our genes. The result is a novel that manages to be topical without losing itself in reality.
At the beginning of Black Man, Carl is banged up in a Jesusland prison and at the center of a game of political arm-wrestling between his UN employers and a belligerent republic when representatives of COLIN—the semi-corporate, semi-governmental body in charge of the colonization effort on Mars—approach him with an offer he can't refuse. A transported thirteen has escaped the red planet and returned to Earth, and has been leaving a trail of bodies behind him for months. The COLIN representatives—former New York cop Sevgi Ertekin and her company man partner Tom Norton—want Carl to track the thirteen, Merrin, down.
Black Man being the kind of novel that it is, the story is of course much more complicated, and Merrin's escape and killing spree turn out to be part of a vast and far-reaching conspiracy which Morgan reveals with a verve and intelligence too enjoyable for me to spoil any part of it here. And, at any rate, it's not what Black Man is really about. Carl's investigation, and his interactions with Sevgi—who is still grieving the loss of her lover, a thirteen who tried to hide his heritage and was killed upon being discovered—give Morgan a chance to ruminate on the many meaty and thorny issues raised by his premise. Black Man is full of conversations about the root causes of prejudice and the true nature of human societies (for example, at one point in the novel it is suggested that the true danger of thirteens lies not in their violent natures but in the violent feelings of hatred and fear they arouse in normal humans), and most especially about the biological and genetic components of our behavior. I haven't read a novel this chock-full of biology- and sociology-themed infodumps since Peter Watts's Blindsight (which, like Black Man, ends up taking a rather utilitarian, not to say jaundiced, view of human civilization), but Morgan's version is more elegant, and slightly less intrusive. Though he clearly has a hell of a lot to say on several subjects, he for the most part maintains a balance between plot and pontification.
Ultimately, however, Morgan's real subject in Black Man is masculinity, and specifically the raging-testosterone, big-guns-and-fast-cars variety. Carl is the kind of character with whom our society has a love/hate relationship. We admire his strength, abhor his actions, pity him for his tragic past and resent him for his inability to rise above it (or his genetic heritage). Second generation action narratives like the Jason Bourne films or the most recent entry in the James Bond franchise try to satisfy their audience's warring desires for unrepentant violence and moral rectitude by presenting characters who are victims as well as victimizers, made into monsters by an unfeeling government and tormented by their monstrousness, but, crucially, no matter how much they may desire to do so, never allowed—by either their writers or their audience—to give up violence. Morgan does this already-hackneyed plot one better. Carl is neither tormented nor a monster. He is a victim who revels in the results of his victimization. He is a person, and therefore more than the sum total of his biology or upbringing, but he is also inhuman, and therefore compelled to act in accordance with this inhuman nature, which inevitably means killing without remorse.
Morgan expertly maintains the tension between these two views of Carl, never allowing either one to gain supremacy. This allows him to interrogate the core assumptions of his own story, and taunt us with our warring desires for the character—victory and salvation. In Black Man's final third, Morgan uses the most common trope of the lone-wolf action thriller—having the villain kill someone the hero loves, thus spurring them to bloody action. Usually, in these kinds of stories, the hero will do one of two things—kill the villain, thus satisfying the audience's bloodlust, or recognize that vengeance is futile, thus satisfying their sense of morality. Carl does both, and the marvel of Black Man is that by the time he executes his revenge we, the readers, feel the conviction that is so often stated, but so rarely believable, in these stories—that it's futile, that it will accomplish nothing and help no one—while simultaneously realizing, on that same visceral level, that Carl's nature compels him to take it anyway.
There are, of course, imperfections in the novel. For a work allegedly concerned with interrogating masculinity, and whose male characters represent a broad spectrum of male behavior and attitudes, Black Man has a surprising blind spot when it comes to male sexuality. Masculinity in the novel is invariably heterosexual—none of the thirteens or the human men Carl meets are gay, and gayness is hardly even mentioned over the course of the novel. Also, while the female characters are generally appealing, and represent a reasonably broad range of approaches to femininity (including two instances of genetically engineered women which allow Morgan to consider, briefly, the female analogues of the same nature vs. nurture questions so copiously applied to Carl and his fellow thirteens), at no point over the course of the novel are women allowed to interact with anything resembling civility, and when they clash it is almost always because they are bucking for the attentions of a man. In spite of these concerns, Black Man is a successful and exciting novel, Morgan's best to date and one which finally cements him as a talent to watch with some very smart things to say.
Both The Carhullan Army and Black Man would be worthy winners of the Clarke Award, but my vote goes to the latter. It is more a interesting, more substantial novel, and certainly a more meaningful and timely statement about gender than Hall's (as several people pointed out to me when Hall's Tiptree win was announced, it is surprising that Morgan's novel didn't even make it to the honor list). Perhaps most importantly, Black Man is better science fiction—not only because it takes place in fully realized future world, but because it actually asks complicated questions about how the future might look and provides us with complicated answers, as well as pondering what to my mind is the core question of science fiction—the meeting point between unchangeable human nature and the fluidity of technological progress. One of the effects of the Clarke's commitment to pushing the genre's boundaries is that it often produces a shortlist on which the best novel is not the best science fiction novel, but 2008 is one of those happy occasions on which the two are one and the same. Richard Morgan should win the Clarke for Black Man, and may it herald a new stage in his career.
Abigail Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly the Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.