This year’s Clarke shortlist is: Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls, Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night, Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, and David Wellington’s The Last Astronaut. One of these novels is really very good, two of them are competent, and two are mediocre. I leave it to your imagination to figure out which is which, but the last novel listed above is such a collection of tired clichés that the only polite thing to do is to pretend it doesn’t exist. Its sole purpose on the shortlist, as far as I can tell, is to troll Clarke fans. In another year, I would admire the audacity and say how nice it is for an award jury to have such a self-aware sense of humor. This year, having suffered through the novel, I can only say that this Rama(chandran) earnestly recommends you avoid the rendezvous. This essay contains spoilers for all the novels it does discuss, and I promise the jokes get better once the novels do.
A Memory Called Empire begins with Mahit Dzmare travelling to the capital-planet of Teixcalaan. Mahit is an ambassador from Lsel, a small space station on the imperial frontier, and she arrives at a time of tremendous upheaval in Teixcalaan: there are plans for fresh conquest, a battle for imperial succession, and rumors of revolution. Mahit is equipped with an imago—a memory imprint—that allows her to talk with her predecessor, a man called Yskandr, whose mysterious death sets the novel in motion. Imagos are a closely guarded Lseli innovation, though Yskandr has been bargaining with the secret to protect Lsel’s relative autonomy. Mahit’s own ghost-Yskandr is fifteen years out of date, and disappears early in the novel, forcing her to decipher Teixcalaan on her own—a task at which she proves implausibly adept, deftly maneuvering her way into the heart of court intrigue. Teixcalaan, ostensibly a vast and subtle bureaucracy, is laid bare to Mahit’s probing gaze; diplomats, courtiers, and paladins all rush to counsel, enlist, and guide her.
Imperial rule entails many things, most of them bad, but in this novel it seems to be entirely orchestrated by scrappy diplomats playing guessing games in decadent oriental courts. Martine insists that Mahit is unnerved by the opulence and sophistication of Teixcalaanli life, yet there is little evidence of estrangement beyond the initial dazzle of a new place. Teixcalaan might scorn that which it does not deign to know, but it is, in itself, remarkably knowable: Mahit acclimates quickly and expertly, having spent her entire life in training for this role, and the natives of Teixcalaan—this hungry metropole readying itself to conquer her people—embrace her equally wholeheartedly, whispering strategic secrets and accompanying her on dangerous missions. Like Yskandr before her, Mahit, a minor official in a galactic court, is universally beloved and universally protected. Everyone, including the Emperor, loves Mahit, and Mahit loves the empire enough to save it from itself.
Elsewhere, we see a few signs of resentment, even resistance, such as when Mahit ventures beyond the charmed circle of the diplomatic enclave and witnesses some of the routine violence that keeps Teixcalaan running. Back on the Lsel station, one of Mahit’s patrons notices herself reckoning time the Teixcalaanli way, though it bears little relation to local rhythms. “It is by such small degrees that a culture is devoured,” she muses, too busy fretting to wonder whether predation might be a bad metaphor for something as symbiotic as cultural transformation. Culture—heterogenous, transitive, simultaneously singular and various—exists precisely in the void between worlds, binding strangers together through habit and memory and ritual. Occasionally this is a novel that understands that; too often, as with this contradictory hyperbole, it does not. Beyond her, hovering ominously in Lseli space, are sinister “three-ring devouring ships” that kill every imperial ship they encounter. Alien and implacable, they are a sharp contrast to seductive Teixcalaan, waiting patiently in place so they may provide the sequel with its justification for imperial violence. (Or maybe the ships are also hoping a nice Lseli will turn up and solve all their problems?)
If empire is mostly a matter of lovers’ quarrels, poetry competitions, and dashing quests in Martine’s novel, Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade restores the impersonal brutality, bald hypocrisy, and rapacious greed some of us associate with colonization. Set on a depleted Earth a few centuries hence, the novel imagines the world divided into corporate zones in which inhabitants are stratified into citizens, residents, and ghouls. Citizens are the coddled elite, residents are workers with basic benefits, and ghouls are starving scavengers who are forced to live in vast forced-labour ghettos. The protagonist, Dietz, is a former ghoul whose parents worked their way into residency, and Dietz joins the local corporate militia to earn full citizenship in the aftermath of an event known as the Blink, which destroyed her hometown and vanished a million people. Corporate propaganda blames the Blink on Martian colonists, and Dietz enlists to avenge her family by conquering Mars for capitalism. As it happens, however, the militia’s teleportation technology untethers her in time as well as space, and her frayed timeline allows her to observe the unfolding war with growing horror.
With the exception of The Old Drift (on which more later), The Light Brigade confronts contemporary concerns more directly than any of the other novels on the shortlist. It reminded me of Darryl Li’s excellent ethnography The Universal Enemy, which tells the story of the Yugoslavian wars through the mujahideen that fought in them. The soldiers that Li interviews enlisted for practical as well as ideological reasons; they fought so they might belong to the new society they aspired to create. As Dietz discovers, though, there is no home for old soldiers—the only worlds they make are stacked pyres of lies that burn for the benefit of others. Soldiers are the currency of war, and in our world, as in hers, war never ends.
The traditional concern of milSF has been how it is that soldiers are forged into an army: strangers made allies, willing not only to die together but also, and more importantly, eager to live for one other. Hurley’s clever subversion of this classic trope helps her avoid the risks inherent in writing anti-war novels narrated by the soldiers trapped in them. In Li’s ethnography, too, this precarious solidarity emerges as the final frontier, as impossible in peace as it was necessary during the war. The defense of Bosnia attracted Muslims from all across the world, he explains, and while this diversity was itself considered a source of legitimacy, maintaining a shared identity across it and transcending the ways in which the world is conventionally divided required an ongoing and collective practice of imagination. Our world might be divided into nation-states and Deitz’s into corporate ones, but the dilemma remains the same: how might we imagine alternate horizons of belonging from within the limited ones imposed upon us? I don’t agree with Hurley’s solution—it reads, to me, like an abdication—but I respect the courage with which she approaches the problem.
The Light Brigade is skillfully constructed, though the final twist collapses if you poke at it too hard. At times woefully didactic—Dietz has an unfortunate habit of lapsing into soliloquies about liberal democracy—the novel ends on a hazy and hopeful note: she leads her people away from a broken world into a better one. This happens also in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls, where the escape is rather more nihilistic than it is emancipatory. The novel’s protagonist, Stefan Advani, is exiled from the dying city of Shadrapar on a dying earth. Shipped off to a prison known only as the Island, he finds that the world around him is brimming with sentience. Everything—everyone, I should say—is in evolutionary overdrive; everyone, that is, besides humans, who remain the same sloppy species we are now. (There is a subplot involving mind control [telepathy and telekinesis because why not] but it is implied to be a pedagogical victory rather than an evolutionary one and might well be an ability lurking undetected within you and me.) Outside and beneath the narrow confines of decrepit Shadrapar there are talking salamanders, mechanically-minded rodents, and sly serpents, as well as the guileless web-children, the noble savages of the far future. Advani returns to Shadrapar after a series of tedious adventures featuring various monsters, finds that the last of all human cities has annihilated itself, and runs away to the jungle with his friends to live with the web-children. Cage of Souls is a bloated and self-indulgent novel; by the end of it one hopes that the next monster will be the one that helpfully eats the few humans left.
The problem with monster-novels is that monsters are rarely memorable. They are an easy way for writers to evoke existential dread, hoping that their readers will ride the adrenaline train without wondering why all these masses of (seemingly sentient!) beasties are so invested in attacking trivial humans. It’s the woke way to summon a barbarian horde, and the creatures here are practically indistinguishable—toothy, gigantic, cunning without being intelligent, aggressive, vaguely amphibious—it’s as if nature gave up on creatures of stealth and beauty around the same time she gave up on humans and concluded that angry snake-fish were her best bet. The few exceptions to this are described both too much and too little, such that they remain assemblages of limbs and beaks and tentacles rather than being interesting animals with a distinctive presence radically at odds with our own. This fascination with gimmicky monsters was also my frustration with the Gelet in Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night, a book I otherwise liked considerably more than I did Cage of Souls. The Gelet, a sort of snow-crustacean, are indigenous to a tidally locked planet called January. They watch while humans settle and then wreck their planet, finally reaching out to one at the beginning of the novel to establish interspecies communication because the changing climate is harming their offspring. Humans, meanwhile, call the Gelet crocodiles and hunt them for sport.
The City in the Middle of the Night is told from the perspective of two human orphans, Sophie and Mouth. Sophie lives in Xiosphant, a conformist city that excommunicates her at the start of the novel, which is how she meets her first Gelet. Mouth, a smuggler, is based in Argelo, the only other city on January, as freewheeling as Xiosphant is claustrophobic. Mouth is the sole survivor of a nomadic clan, and her desire to preserve their legacy leads her to Sophie’s former classmate, Bianca, who belongs to Xiosphant’s ruling class. The three of them go to Argelo with Mouth’s smuggling crew, encountering further Gelet as well as a giant squid and a blur of fangs and armor that the humans call bison. Once there, Bianca begins mounting a military campaign against Xiosphant, and Mouth eventually accompanies Sophie to the Gelet city. While Sophie undergoes surgery to become half-Gelet herself, Mouth discovers that her lost people ritually harvested the fungus that the Gelet used to stabilize the planet’s climate—the Gelet being advanced bio-engineers who never learned how to construct a fence or put up a don’t eat the magic mushrooms sign—and were murdered by them in retaliation. Nothing much comes of this revelation, and Sophie and Mouth return to Xiosphant to liberate it from Bianca and begin the long process of introducing humanity to the Gelet.
Sophie, Mouth, and Bianca are the most fully realized people in the novels I have talked about so far, and The City in the Middle of the Night is strongest when it focuses on their interpersonal dynamics, such as the ways in which guilt and privilege corrode Sophie’s affection for Bianca. Bianca’s class privilege is apparent in Xiosphant, but it is only in status-conscious Argelo that her racial privilege becomes obvious. We are told that the colony ship was racially segregated, and that those divisions continue to influence politics in January. This, while plausible, is also why it’s disturbing that the novel occasionally relies on racist stereotypes in its own characterization, such that Bianca, for instance, winds up becoming a full-fledged dragon lady. I don’t mean to suggest that Anders is being willfully racist, only that her novel is confused about the relationship between race and culture in much the same way that A Memory Called Empire is. Culture, in these novels, becomes a matter of inheritance and transmission, a fixed set of traits and traditions that define a preordained community rather than an ongoing conversation that makes any community possible. Combined with the repeated invocation of racially coded features—Bianca’s delicate cheekbones, the lush mouths and short stature of all Teixcalaanlitzlim—character descriptions in both novels risk collapsing behavior into biology. This holds true for anyone in them besides the protagonists, who frequently behave like white people with light tans exploring an exotic landscape. This entitlement means that the authors’ critique of white supremacy in science fiction inadvertently reaffirms both the essentialism and the exceptionalism that make it possible. Both novels certainly expand the bounds of personhood, but they only give their heroes personalities.
The deep ambiguity in Anders’s approach to racialization is most apparent in her treatment of the Gelet, who seem to be more of a wish-fulfillment fantasy than the inhabitants of a complex and mysterious alien civilization. They are everything the novel wants humans to become, providing a convenient foil for “human nature” rather than possessing a coherent character of their own. Human nature being the clumsy and contradictory abstraction it is, the Gelet are a confusing union of opposites as well. All-knowing and yet curiously passive (why did they wait several generations before revealing themselves to the settlers?), the Gelet live communally but have no real government, and therefore no politics that might disturb their innate and harmonious egalitarianism. They communicate telepathically and have no need for language, and yet they possess an intuitive grasp of symbolic representation—so much so, in fact, that they teach geometry to their young. The Gelet collective never forgets anything, and thus has no history, but they have a mythology and exchange personal memories as a form of communion (occasionally memories are “forbidden” but here even Sophie gives up on explaining how or why). Having evolved the miracle of frictionless communication, the Gelet don’t use it to develop any sort of collective agenda (besides, arguably, survival); they exist only to teach Sophie and her fellow humans how to be better people.
The Gelet are the perfect species; each individual is born perfectly adapted to its environment and perfectly isomorphic with its perfect civilization, and all of them collaborate without any conflict, an ideal race of animals in the most literal sense. They are the wise aliens of the night, the rhetorical inversion of Tchaikovsky’s naive web-children, graciously parting with their secrets in order to rescue divided humanity from the disasters it inevitably makes. Why they might want to do so remains something of a mystery. It is their nature to help humans, you see, just as it is in the nature of snake-fish monsters to attack them.
The inexorable manner in which the dual engine of deification-and-vilification justifies exploitation is familiar to anyone who understands how oppression works in our world. Perhaps this is why the only novel on the shortlist to treat race as a structural paradox—as a pernicious and totalizing fiction that simultaneously makes our reality thoroughly transparent and utterly opaque—is The Old Drift, a novel concerned almost entirely with the real world in which we live. The Old Drift is a sprawling, multigenerational epic that is nearly impossible to summarize. It follows three families in (what is now) Zambia and spans several decades, starting at the turn of the twentieth century and concluding deep into the twenty-first century. It is a beautifully written and somewhat old-fashioned drama (complete with a chorus!), narrating as it does the life cycle of a postcolonial nation through the lives of the people it throws together and calls a community.
Seamlessly bending and blending genres, Serpell weaves together the lives and loves of six women—three white, three Black—for the first two-thirds of her book. Each of these chapters reads like an independent novella, with its own distinctive voice and cast of characters. My favorite one is about Thandiwe, a flight attendant who marries a man called Lionel Banda. The reader has met Lionel, who prefers to be known as Lee, twice already: first as the brilliant and beloved son of Agnes, a blind Englishwoman who elopes with a Zambian engineering student and witnesses the birth-pangs of the new nation, and then as the tragic Sylvia’s charismatic lover. We are, until Thandi’s chapter, inclined to like him: he rescues Sylvia from a difficult life, he is funny and generous, and he is quite literally trying to cure AIDS. It is only when seen through Thandi’s wry and penetrating gaze that Lee’s entitlement and casual cruelty come into focus and we realize how his privilege as the biracial son of wealthy parents allows him to navigate the world without noticing most of the people in it. Lee, having knowingly exposed himself to HIV as part of his research, eventually dies of complications from HIV/AIDS without curing it; but not before turning the genetically-immune Sylvia into a scientific spectacle, or passing on the infection both to Thandi and through her to their second son. The Thandi-Lee-Sylvia triangle also sets up the final section of the novel, which is about the relationship between Joseph (Thandi’s first son) and Jacob (Sylvia’s) and their mutual affection for Naila, the Zambian daughter of an Italian woman and an Indian man.
Only the final third of The Old Drift, during which Joseph, Naila, and Jacob fall in love with one another and plot a (truly pathetic) revolution, is properly science fiction. This is the least ambitious novel on the shortlist in terms of the quality of its speculation, if by that one means divergence from extant reality. Within speculative worlds, Samuel Delany once wrote, “the impossible relieves the probable, and the possible illuminates the improbable.” It is certainly true that there is precious little relief from reality to be had in The Old Drift, but that only highlights just how improbable its very existence is. The novel’s strength is in the close and careful attention it pays to the world, which might make the conclusion Serpell draws about the impossibility of revolution within its constraints seem that much more depressing. The charm of Serpell’s winding narrative, however, lies in her appreciation of the absurd: the way in which this dark story about colonization, dispossession, and commodification can also accommodate mutant hair, rebellious astronauts, and singing swarms of drone-mosquitoes. The Old Drift is a generous novel that sustains many readings; a more optimistic one would point out that it imagines a world in which a woman weeps half her life away only to wake up one morning a blazing revolutionary. Everything changes even when nothing changes, and reality is remade at every moment.
Insofar as we all live in the one world we are given, race (like class, like caste, like gender) is the shorthand we employ to solve the problem of other minds: it allows us to slot humans into boxes, predict their responses, and adjust our own. It disappears the messy particularity of the human experience into the certitude and uniformity of an identity, the greatest science fiction of them all. The genres of social hierarchy make strangers legible to us, but only as commodities: as objects to be used rather than as people to be engaged. Speculative fiction is perhaps our only real hope of transforming those hierarchies, but only when it is willing to grapple with how they actually work in the world. This is not to assign a moral function to literature, simply to point out that cruel fictions can only be defeated by gentler ones. On a shortlist in which most novelists offer vibrant and thoughtful critiques of gender (besides Tchaikovsky, whose women are worse than his web-children), their unwillingness to think seriously about race is especially disheartening, and Serpell’s emphasis on how race haunts our reality remains the exception that proves the norm. If the purpose of the Clarke Award is to recognize and honor novels that imagine strange new worlds, what does it mean that the best novel on the shortlist is the one least fascinated by that possibility?
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