The first part of this shortlist review can be found here.
Every Clarke shortlist has one novel on it that sticks out like a sore thumb, and with both of this year’s literary SF novels falling into such predictable ruts, it falls to Nick Harkaway’s second novel Angelmaker to fill that niche. In a shortlist that feels very down to earth—either set in deliberately un-flashy worlds or drawing on very familiar SFnal templates—its baroque style and flourishes of gonzo inventiveness feel almost out of place. They are also, of course, entirely typical of Harkaway, who if anything has toned his style down a tad from his debut The Gone-Away World (2008), to arrive at a novel in which clockwork soldiers do battle underground, and ninjas (there are always ninjas in a Harkaway novel) are saved from certain death by marauding war elephants.
Our hero, Joe Spork, is a restorer and repairer of clocks and clockwork, and the son of a (deceased) mobster whose life of crime gives him so much shame that the novel’s opening chapters find him trying to make amends to the owner of a truck-load of argyle socks stolen by the late Mathew Spork. His lonely, aimless life is thrown into disarray when one of his repair commissions turns out to be of interest to both shady government agents and an even more shady secret society calling themselves the Ruskinites, after the critic John Ruskin. Before long, Joe is in the crosshairs of an utterly ruthless group of conspirators, his life has been demolished, and he may be the only person who can save the world from total annihilation.
This is, obviously, a very familiar premise, which promises a very familiar plot. Neil Gaiman’s version of it, Neverwhere (1996), was so robustly built that it lies at the core of a substantial percentage of modern fantasy (though Gaiman was hardly inventing the wheel himself). Angelmaker borrows less from Gaiman than is traditional (though it does feature a criminal demi-monde that is literally underground and described in terms that would have perfectly suited Gaiman’s more fantastical London Below, for example, its function in the novel is limited) but nevertheless most readers will be able to map out the novel’s plot after a few chapters: here’s where Joe’s friend will die to establish that the rules of normal life no longer apply; here’s where the love interest turns up; here’s where Joe makes peace with the memory of his father and unlocks his inner badass. That Angelmaker nevertheless feels fresh and almost unpredictable is down, for one thing, to Harkaway’s exhaustingly ornate style, to a propensity to embroider more and more details, backstory, quirks, and rambling asides onto his story so that its familiar skeleton becomes obscured. Here is Joe, for example, contemplating his late father:
he wonders sometimes—when he contemplates the high days and the dark days of his time as the heir of crime—whether Mathew ever killed anyone. Or, indeed, whether he killed a multitude. Mobsters, after all, are given to arguing with one another in rather bloody ways, and the outcomes of these discussions are often bodies draped like wet cloth over bar stools and behind the wheels of cars. Is there a secret graveyard somewhere, or a pig farm, where the consequences of his father’s breezy amorality are left to their final rest? And if there is, what liability does his son inherit on that score? (p. 5)
It would be perfectly possible to establish Joe’s feelings of ambivalence towards his father with just the first and last sentences, and none of the stuff in the middle can be said to intensify the point—the reader can presumably be counted on to know that mobsters sometimes kill people (indeed, later in the novel we’re expected to forget that knowledge, when Mathew turns out to have been a gentleman mobster who never hurt a fly), and those images of a pig farm, or bodies draped “like wet cloth” seem to be there less to make a point than simply for the fun of it, because if you’re going to describe the victims of a mob shootout, you might as well reach for an overheated metaphor. Which, in a nutshell, seems to describe most of Harkaway’s oeuvre. It’s the sort of thing that has to be done with panache or not at all, but happily Harkaway has panache to spare.
Still, at nearly 600 pages, such a familiar story would begin to grate no matter how elaborately told. Happily Angelmaker has a secondary plotline where much of the novel’s originality and pizzazz live. Centering on the youthful misadventures of Edie Banister, the nonagenarian who sets Joe’s troubles in motion, this plot strand finds Edie recruited to a particularly esoteric branch of his majesty’s service during WWII, first as a codebreaker, and then as a secret agent (this, of course, involves training in the martial arts, because there is nothing Harkaway loves better than some invented martial arts). Specifically, a secret agent in drag: Commander James Bannister.
In his review of Angelmaker for Strange Horizons, Martin Lewis appropriated Christopher Priest’s accusation, originally directed at Charles Stross in the infamous “Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3,” of writing puppyishly. The description fits Harkaway to a T; his novels are energetic, rambunctious, seemingly inexhaustible, and rather slobbery. They also can be a little fatiguing, and unlike real puppies, my tolerance for Harkaway’s style has its limits. But even I can’t remain stone-faced at the sight of a James Bond knockoff who is also a crossdressing gay woman. Though most of the jabs Harkaway makes at Bond are aimed at a very easy target (of the Commander’s education: “The playing fields of Eton have birthed him, and if they have not also been successful in teaching him classical Greek or mathematics, nor made any attempt to instill a sense of compassion, they have at least prepared him for his likely tasks with a sense of monstrous entitlement.” (p. 185)), Edie, and her adventures, are so much fun that they drown out the occasional whiff of self-congratulation that attaches to her chapters.
Edie’s first mission is to rescue/kidnap the eccentric genius Frankie from the palace of Shem Shem Tsien, the Khan of a tiny Indian nation and wannabe Bond villain. Tsien wants Frankie to build him a machine to end all wars, and with the shortsightedness and greatness of spirit typical of geniuses in these kinds of stories, she is about to, which makes both British intelligence and Tsien’s mother, a former good-time girl with intimate tied to his majesty, very nervous. The chapters in Tsien’s palace, and later on as Edie and Frankie escape in a crippled submarine, and later still when they become lovers—in fact any scene that involves interaction between Edie, Frankie, Tsien’s mother Dotty Catty, or Amanda Baines, the commander of the aforementioned submarine—are where Angelmaker comes alive, finally shaking off the deceptively lively straightjacket of its ornate style and becoming a genuinely exciting story.
Still, perhaps the comparison between the two plot strands is unfair, because while Frankie is saving Baines’s submarine from German depth charges by manipulating the molecular properties of water to create a new hull made out of ice, Joe is faithfully trudging along the next predictable step of his hero’s journey. For most of Angelmaker, Joe’s plotline functions mainly as scene-setting, a way of getting him and the rest of his cohort to where they need to be for the novel’s denouement, while Edie is delivering new information—namely, the nature of Frankie’s machine, the device Joe has been tasked to fix, which may or may not be a doomsday weapon.
Frankie’s machine, the Apprehension Engine, is intended to eliminate lies, to make people aware of perfect truth—in which conditions, she believes, war will be impossible. It’s perhaps Angelmaker‘s most interesting touch that despite treating Frankie as almost a secular saint, it throws quite a bit of doubt on that assertion. For one thing, when the Engine is turned up too high, the result are mindless zombies, so overwhelmed by a complete understanding of reality that their humanity is snuffed out. As Joe is told, if human consciousness is water, the Apprehension Engine freezes it, eliminating free will and reducing humans to “Clockwork men” (p. 161) whose choices are entirely predetermined. And even when Frankie turns the machine’s effects way down, the result of exposing the world’s dirty secrets isn’t peace but more bloodshed. But after a lifetime of serving her country and coming to realize that she has done nothing but prop up corruption, Edie feels that the risks might be worth the reward, and that Frankie’s utopian vision of truth finally bringing an end to war might be worth believing in.
What this amounts to, however, is a lot of gesturing at interesting avenues of discussion, but very little followup. The questions raised by the Apprehension Engine are drowned out by Angelmaker‘s need to have it both ways—to be a novel of trenchant, angry realpolitik (“Yes, Joe! It is against the law! It always is! And yet it happens. Or did you think they only did this to taxi drivers from Karachi?” (p. 390) is the response to Joe’s indignant rage after being kidnapped and tortured by the government) at the same time as it romanticizes not only such actions as Edie’s late Empire spying, but Mathew Spork’s criminal empire (“I see talent going to waste,” Joe says when he recruits his father’s colleagues to save the day. “I see skills like no one ever had before or since. ... and what have you done for us lately? You’ve let crime get white-collar and dull. You’re rich and you’re dying of respectability.” (p. 445)). On the question of whether truth can end war, or whether too much truth can destroy us, or whether the state of the world is shitty enough that that could still be a risk worth taking, it has surprisingly little to say.
Meanwhile, when the clock runs out on Edie’s story—when she brings her backstory and the background of the Apprehension Engine and Shem Shem Tsien to the present day—a dispiriting transformation occurs. Edie’s story turns out to have been nothing but setup. All those wonderful, lively women in her subplot end up either dead or acting to enable Joe’s hero’s journey, and usually both. The women who appear in Joe’s story have no other purpose to begin with; the most egregious offender is Joe’s love interest Polly, who appears to have nothing better to do than fall madly in lust with Joe as soon as she sees him, have incredibly acrobatic and satisfying sex with him soon thereafter, and spend the rest of the novel being uncannily sensitive to his thoughts and feelings, and all too happy to drop her whole life in order to play a supporting role in his.
That Polly feels more like an automaton than a human being is a sad precursor to what happens to all of Angelmaker as soon as Edie Banister and her story are done away with. Finally, the Neverwhere plot has no competition, and it proceeds towards its utterly predictable conclusion with a resolve that is almost deadening. It is as if Frankie’s machine had suddenly ground into motion over the readers—knowing exactly how the novel is going to end leaches all life from it, and turns it into a clockwork story, each cog falling into place at precisely the right moment.
An important subplot in Angelmaker revolves around the nature of made objects. The Ruskinites believe that objects should be made with love, care, and most importantly, to be one of a kind. Mass production is held by them to be a terrible evil (this is another one of the novel’s interesting ideas that Harkaway fails to explore in any meaningful way). But to the Ruskinites, making something one of a kind seems to mainly mean decorating it, and Harkaway seems to have taken the same approach—Anglemaker might be called his Ruskinite version of the story about a sad-sack who loses everything, becomes a major player in spite of himself, gets an impossibly cool girl almost without trying, and saves the day. In novels, however, unlike trains and submarines, that decoration ultimately melts away, and what’s left behind—what lingers even a few days after turning the last page—seems hardly worth the effort.
After the rich but empty calories of Angelmaker, it’s something of a relief to come to the sparse prose but meaty substance of Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion. But then, Intrusion is a pleasure in its own right. Its near-future world is only very nominally SFnal—but for the McGuffin around which the plot revolves, most of the novel’s technology is a mere hop and skip away from our own. This familiarity arguably puts Intrusion in the same class as NOD and The Dog Stars (it’s a novel that one could safely give to someone who doesn’t read any SF). Unlike those novels, however, Intrusion‘s interest is in how the world changes, not how it ends. This is good old social SF, with a strong streak of political advocacy that nevertheless leaves room for a compelling story and characters.
Hope and Hugh are a middle class London couple. They have a young son, Nick, and Hope is pregnant with their second child. During her first pregnancy, Hope refused to take “the fix,” a pill that weeds out harmful mutations and genetic diseases, and confers immunity to childhood illnesses. Though the fix isn’t mandatory, it has become folded into the seemingly endless host of precautions, behavior modifications, and attitudes that our culture defines as good parenting, and Hope has met with both benign incomprehension and outright hostility for her refusal to take the fix—or perhaps more importantly, for her failure to give an “acceptable” reason for that refusal, for example a religious objection. Now, another refusenik’s test case is giving the authorities the excuse to do something that Hope has suspected they’ve long wanted to do, and make the fix compulsory.
What works best about Intrusion is how low key Hope’s dilemma is. Hope herself isn’t a crusader or a political activist. She can’t properly explain, even to herself, why she so opposes the fix, and several times over the course of the novel comes close to bowing to the pressures placed on her by doctors, case workers, and even neighbors to take it. When various other characters try to recruit her as a political symbol, she demurs, and when her own attempts to recruit support from her local politicians fail, her response isn’t outrage but simply to write them off. This is, in fact, how Hope often responds to authority figures or to challenges from her fellow citizens—by trying to disarm their anger or hostility with bemusement. Throughout the novel, Hope has a sort of isn’t-this-a-bit-ridiculous-really attitude, as if she can’t truly believe that she—a law abiding, middle class, privileged woman—might be forced by the state to do something she doesn’t want to her body. When her exasperation at the growing knowledge that this might really happen—and at the steps she’s been forced to take to avoid it—finally boils over, she expresses what might be the novel’s (and perhaps even MacLeod’s) credo:
“Oh God,” Hope groaned. “I am so fucking bored with hearing this. I’m not scrabbling around for any kind of get-out, you know. I just want to be left alone to make up my own mind, and for my decision to be respected just because it is my own fucking decision, OK?” (p. 326)
That Hope is not a crusader is crucial to Intrusion‘s success because the novel around her most definitely is a crusading work, a polemic. “Like any responsible father, Hugh Morrison had installed cameras in every room in his flat” is the opening sentence, so at least you can’t accuse MacLeod of trying to slip his concerns on the reader unawares—or the somewhat snide tone with which he introduces them. At times, MadLeod’s constant refrain of new ways in which an obsession with public, and sometimes personal, safety has been allowed to override privacy and personal liberty comes to seem almost like unintentional comedy. “Hope had had a slight nervousness about people in uniforms,” we’re told, ever since her childhood, when “the men from Environment had come to take away the Aga” (p. 34). No! Not the Aga! We’re presumably intended to cry. The line must be drawn here! This far and no further!
That bemused reaction may very well be intentional, however, since a lot of the security measures that MacLeod reports with such alarm are ones that we might approve of, or existing measures taken to extremes, such as the ban on public smoking. Female readers in particular might feel a chill at the restrictions placed on women—like every woman in the novel, Hope has, since puberty, worn a “monitor ring” to determine whether she’s consumed alcohol or inhaled cigarette smoke while pregnant, and women have to prove that they aren’t pregnant to buy drinks—but when it comes down to it, the actual dilemma around which the novel is built isn’t an entirely sympathetic one. If, as Intrusion posits, the fix is proven to be harmless (and anyway Hope’s objection isn’t rooted in any concern about the fix’s safety), is refusing to take it any more admirable than refusing to vaccinate your children?
From that position of very ambivalent sympathy towards Hope, MacLeod takes us on a tour of the varieties of subtle, sometimes well-meaning pressure exerted on her even before the fix becomes officially mandatory. The other parents at Nick’s preschool try to keep him from attending because of his weak immune system (ironically, these are the parents who have refused to take the fix for religious reasons, who fear that Hope being made into a test case is a preamble to rescinding their exemption). Her doctor maneuvers her into signing a letter of intent to take the fix by complaining about her own problems—if she has a patient who hasn’t taken the fix, her insurance premiums will go up. Her home visitor passive-aggressively points out how several “transgressions”—a small drink, standing around smokers—are calling into question Hope’s fitness as a parent.
“There, there, Hope,” she said. “It’s not that bad. It’s not at the danger level yet. I’m just telling you all this because I’m on your side, really I am. And, well . . . you know the one thing you could do that would clear all that nonsense away, without so much as a word from me. You know what to do, Hope.” (p. 238)
This is as manipulative towards us as it is towards Hope, but the intended effect is the same in both cases: a sense of claustrophobia, of limited options, of nowhere to go. As Hugh says when Hope expresses the wish to get away from the authorities pressuring her to take the fix, “There’s no away” (p. 71). At the same time, MacLeod is careful not to make his future UK seem like a tyranny (or, at least, not in Hope’s plot strand; a secondary plotline about a researcher named Geena whose ethnic group are the novel’s terrorists du jour paints a less rosy picture). When Hope hears from politicians the reasons that her personal autonomy is being impinged, the picture they paint is terrifyingly sunny.
“Nobody really has perfect information. In fact, even if we make it a bit more realistic, they don’t have all or even most of the relevant information. So for the market to be really free, it has to work as if everyone involved had perfect information, or at least as if they had all the relevant information. This is where the state, of course along with civil society, the unions and campaigns and so on, steps in to allow people to make the choices they would have made if they’d had that information. Because these are the really free choices.”
“Not the ones they actually chose, then?”
“Exactly!” said Crow. “Because they’re not the choices they would have made if they’d known all the facts, which would have been the rational choices, so society helps them to make those choices. And that’s your free and social market, right?” (p. 161)
This is, again, massively manipulative—the smugness of the politician, the near-Newspeak of what he’s saying—but, especially to someone who is not unsympathetic to some less Orwellian version of the argument that “free choice” is meaningless without a sufficiently powerful authority to protect one from bad choices, such as contaminated food or unsafe working conditions, it’s a challenging reductio ad absurdum. Where does the line fall between acceptable government interference in our choices, and the unacceptable kind? MadLeod seems to be positing that all interference is unacceptable, but the way in which he’s couched that argument leaves those of us with a more moderate approach scrambling to defend it.
MacLeod’s thought experiment does have one flaw, however. In positing a direct tradeoff between “freedom” and “security,” he unthinkingly accepts that the latter can mean one and only one thing, and does not consider the possibility that the way in which we choose to make ourselves more secure can in itself be a political choice. When Hope and Hugh flee to the remote home of Hugh’s parents, they take a walk to his old primary school, and Nick marvels at the fact that he can see through the school’s windows. Hope notes that “It feels wrong, seeing a primary school without a screen” (p. 288). MacLeod is trying to drive home how even a form of prison can become so familiar that it feels safe, but to do so he implicitly assumes that if we want to protect children from pedophiles, the only way to do so is to lock them behind high walls. When really, that tactic is a choice, where another choice—to try to combat the social attitudes that produce pedophiles—is one that our society has consistently refused to make.
Throughout Intrusion, there is a failure to recognize that a lot of social policies that MacLeod describes as merely the application of the drive towards greater safety might represent other political agendas. The limitations placed on women, for example, wouldn’t feel out of place in an anti-choice society. What is the monitor ring, after all, but a physical manifestation of the belief that a woman is but a walking uterus, and that her value is summed up by her potential to become pregnant? When Hope attends a Labour party rally, some of the women she meets are protesting new work safety laws, allegedly meant to protect women (that is to say, potential mothers) from “third- and fourth-hand smoke,” but whose actual effect, they argue, will be to keep more women out of the workplace, as employers will find it cheaper not to hire women than to clear these residues from their premises. No one stops to consider that this might have been the law’s actual intent, because in MacLeod’s schema, the only axis on which government and the people might disagree is the one between freedom and security.
It’s a flaw, as is the subplot revolving around Hugh and Geena, which strikes a much less ambivalent tone than Hope’s plot strand, ultimately coming out in favor of the collapse of civilization if it takes authoritarian New Labour with it. Neither of them, however, are enough to keep Intrusion from being one of the most interesting, thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time, a novel that it is a joy to chew over and discuss. Social SF feels like it ought to be an easy trick—there’s no heavy lifting involved, after all, no strenuous invention, merely a slight stir of existing conditions. When really, it’s the realism that is the pitfall, the backdrop against which even the slightest bit of implausibility will stand out where in a space opera it would pass unremarked. MacLeod makes threading that needle between realism and extrapolation look easy, and he does it while positing a polemical future that is almost daring us to say “but things could never get that bad!” It’s a deeply impressive accomplishment, and a worthy addition to this year’s shortlist.
The sharpest tonal shift in this review comes as we turn to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a novel that is almost Intrusion‘s polar opposite. If Intrusion could be safely handed to genre neophytes as an example of what science fiction can do (and of how relevant is can be to their lives), 2312 is the sort of book that ought perhaps to be kept on a high shelf, where only people with the correct reading protocols can get at it. Unlike Intrusion‘s close interiors and stifling sense of claustrophobia, 2312 is literally about space—even its dispossessed characters are described as living with the luxury of a great open sky, and those with more options zip back and forth across the solar system. As its title suggests, 2312 is a novel driven less by story or characters, and more by the desire to capture a certain (fictional, futuristic) moment of human history, which Robinson accomplishes first by trotting out all the best known (and often derided) tools of SFnal worldbuilding, but also by referencing much of the work that has gone before him, so that 2312 often seems as much a commentary on visions of the future as one of its own.
The story kicks off with the funeral of Alex Er Hong, one of the leaders of the human settlement on Mercury, and an influential figure throughout the solar system. Though Alex was nearly two hundred years old, her granddaughter Swan is bereft, left adrift by the loss of such an important presence in her life. When she encounters one of Alex’s friends, the Saturnian Fitz Warham, she seizes the opportunity he offers to help complete Alex’s final projects. This sets Swan and Fitz on a tour back and forth across the solar system. Traveling together and separately, they visit Mercury’s moving city Terminator, which rides on rails ahead of the sun’s lethal rays, the semi-terraformed Venus, various “terrariums” constructed inside hollowed-out asteroids, the Jovian and Saturnian moons, and an ecologically and economically ravaged Earth (perhaps unsurprisingly given Robinson’s exhaustive handling of it in his previous novels, Mars is mentioned only briefly, and visited only in the novel’s final pages).
Robinson does make some gesture towards providing Swan and Warham’s journey’s with a semblance of plot. Or rather, he provides several such stories—unraveling the mystery of message left behind from Alex, investigating a terrorist attack that destroys Terminator, organizing relief efforts on Earth, pursuing possibly malevolent AIs (here called “qubes”) who have been decanted into human bodies. It’s the proliferation of these strands, however, as well as the fact that none of them are imbued with much urgency, that drives home the point that what 2312 is really about are the sights that Swan and Warham see when they travel, the panoramic view that their journey gives us of Robinson’s populated, three hundred years hence solar system.
Much of this is, of course, simply a matter of infodumping. Many reviewers have noted Robinson’s imitation of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy in interspersing the novel’s narrative chapters with document fragments and lists (of names for craters on Mercury, different types of biomes and human settlements, possible space accidents, etc.), but many of the narrative chapters in 2312 have the feel of documents as well, as Robinson describes the geology and conditions on various bodies in the solar system, or goes into minute detail about the methods by which they have been converted to sustain human life. But astronomy and engineering are not 2312‘s sole concerns. What it often seems much more interested in is the society that has created—and been shaped by—these monumental projects. 2312 covers art, culture, recreational activities, relationships, social norms—all the stuff that makes life in the early 24th century worth living. In trying to describe how a novel that consists mainly of infodumps and “as you know, Bob” dialogue could be legitimately exciting and readable, this shift from the grand scale to the intimate and back again is probably what we should be looking at. The world of 2312 is fascinating and complicated, but it’s also familiar. Bombarding Venus with a disassembled ice moon in order to give it an atmosphere is exhilarating, but its purpose is for people to make friends, go to the pub, fall in love, and then turn around and keep remaking an alien world as if it were just another day at the office.
“It would be a way to pass the time,” (p. 18) is almost the first thing Warham says to Swan, trying to persuade her to take a trip with him to a Mercury museum. This feels like a statement of intent for Robinson’s construction of spacer society, a post-scarcity, quasi-Communist, not-quite-utopia. Socially liberal and crime-free (when Alex’s colleagues suggest she might have been murdered, Swan is barely able to contemplate the idea), genetically diverse—Swan encounters “smalls” and “talls,” and Warham has been engineered in ways suitable to his home moon, which gives him a toad-like appearance—and sexually permissive—many people, including Swan and Warham, have both male and female genitalia—spacer society allows its citizens to live lives of not just leisure but purpose. Swan is an artist and former terrarium designer; Warham is a civil servant. Both their jobs allow them enough flexibility to drop everything and pursue new projects, or personal matters, as they do throughout the novel. For all that freedom, however, Swan feels unfulfilled. She engages in risky sports and performance art, and experiments with her own body, but what 2312 concludes is missing in her life is a sense of purpose and meaning.
There’s an obvious analogy here to life in affluent first world countries in the present day, but to me what Robinson’s worldbuilding calls to mind even more powerfully is another author’s work. 2312‘s solar system feels almost like a proto-Culture, and it reaches a similar conclusion as Iain M. Banks’s novels regarding the answer to its pampered, restless citizens’ search for purpose when Swan decides to continue Alex’s work and try to improve conditions on Earth. (Nor is this the only reference to another science fiction author’s vision of the future in 2312. The system’s economic model, calculated by quantum computers, is called “the Spuffordized Soviet cybernetic mode” (p. 125), and in one of the document extracts describing its attitudes towards gender, we’re told that “cultures deemphasizing gender are sometimes referred to as ursuline cultures, origin of term unknown” (p. 206).)
A crucial difference—perhaps one that Robinson was hoping to call attention to—is that where Banks assumes a society that has been perfected, Robinson presents us with one whose perfection is partial, and in some places only skin deep. Even off Earth there are places, like Venus, where an opaque leadership makes decisions in secret, and “People got their working orders and moved as a unit” (p. 289). An important subplot in the novel is the possible emergence of sentient qubes, which scares Alex’s former colleagues for reasons that not even they can fully express, and which is dealt with in a short-sighted, authoritarian fashion that almost certainly sows the seeds for future mischief.
Earth, meanwhile, is “a development sink” (p. 310), full of governments, corporations, and special interests working at cross purposes, whose complexity and tangled history leaves the spacers befuddled. A point made repeatedly in the novel is that while uninhabitable rocks like Venus can be transformed into Earth-like planets in only a few centuries, these terraforming techniques can’t be applied on Earth to repair the damage to its biosphere, because they are too aggressive. They require a blank slate—an apt metaphor for the way that the tangled politics on Earth get in the way of spacers like Alex and later Swan, who for all their good intentions think that they can simply wade in and solve the planet’s problems, and are brought up short by the realization that it’s all a bit more complicated (or, more often, by failing to come to that realization).
Despite that gesture towards ambivalence, the chapters dealing with Swan’s philanthropy on Earth are where 2312 is weakest (another contender for that crown would be the novel’s weirdly alarmist attitude towards China, which is treated as the closest thing it has to a villain; the junta governing Venus is Chinese, and is accused of promoting China’s interest over those of Venusians, who are of no interest “except insofar as they were useful to the terraforming. In other words, same old China! China 2.0! Chinaworld! The Middle Kingdom Relocated Closer to Sun!” (p. 286)). Terrans, we’re told, view spacer civilization as “perverse, wicked, decadent, and horrible. Destabilizing human history itself” (p. 233). The novel treats this as a prejudice, or the understandable but irrational resentment of those who have little towards those who have a lot, even though the latter, in the case of the spacers, are supplying Earth with most of its food. But if we’re to carry the analogy that Robinson implies, between spacers and the present day first world, this interpretation seems facile, a variation on “they hate our freedoms.” The possibility that Terrans might hate spacers because spacers, for all their kind words and philanthropy, are causing actual damage on Earth, doesn’t exist in 2312 although its analogue is certainly true today. The only Terran character in the novel is entirely silent on the question, and can’t wait to leave Earth behind.
That absence of voices from Earth becomes even more glaring as Swan’s philanthropic projects advance and come to seem more and more like helping Earth in spite of itself and for its own good. Swan brings fabricators that build houses to impoverished villages in Africa, and activates them without so much as asking the locals’ permission. Later she and Warham conceive a plan to reintroduce extinct animal species, who have been flourishing on terrariums, with total insouciance about the effects that this might have on the actual locals, and how they might feel about it: “the hope was that after being escorted [on migration] the first time, the animals would manage on their own, and become popular with the indigenous humans, even the farmers, who were not having that much success anyway” (p. 399). As Vandana Singh has pointed out in her astute critique of the novel, Robinson’s decision to reward this high-handed, thoughtless interference—and its underlying assumption that there is a certain class of people who can do with the Earth as they please—has a whiff of precisely the same neo-colonialist attitudes that brought Earth to a state of ecological collapse in the first place. In a novel that is so trenchant in its criticism of these mistakes, this is a strange oversight that possibly points the way to a blind spot in 2312‘s optimistic assumption that technology can solve, or at least alleviate, our present ecological problems.
If there’s one saving grace to these chapters, it’s that they act as a magnifying lens for Swan’s faults and strengths. I don’t tend to read Kim Stanley Robinson for characters, but Swan is an intriguing creation. In many ways, she’s utterly unbearable—self-absorbed, self-righteous, careless with the feelings of others and always willing to impose her own on anyone in the vicinity. The adventure on Earth shows her at her worst. Contemplating Warham’s choice to leave the housing project in Africa, she assumes that he has been “frustrated by so many before him by irrefragable Africa” (p. 387). We the readers, however, know that what has frustrated Warham and driven him away is irrefragable Swan:
Warham, more and more aware of [Swan’s] bitterness, more and more the target of her anger, watched her one morning abuse one of the Harare women who helped run their operation—saw the woman’s face as she was chastised—realized that if he stayed, he was going to end up crossing Swan in some catastrophic way, or simply not liking her. (p. 379)
What works about Robinson’s portrait of Swan, and what ultimately makes her sympathetic despite the fact that she often behaves so badly, is how unapologetic it is. Swan is only ever herself—difficult, self-absorbed, appropriately mercurial. Her flaws are never treated as something cute or potentially attractive. No one—including herself—ever tries to cure her of them, and 2312 is not the story of how Swan grew up and out her quirky, immature behavior. Both the novel and the people around her accept that Swan is a grown-up, and that for better or worse her personality is what it is—and there are moments where Swan’s stubbornness is a positive trait, such as when she recognizes, alone among the novel’s characters, how shortsighted and unfair the policy towards sentient qubes is. This is an unusual attitude when it comes to female characters, and particularly ones who behave difficultly; finding it in 2312 feels like the relief of a burden you didn’t know you were carrying. By the end of the novel, we’ve gotten to know Swan in so much detail that it’s impossible to either hate her or love her—she is simply herself.
Which is why Robinson’s choice to tie the novel together with a romance between Swan and Warham is both 2312‘s masterstroke, and deeply problematic. It is the former because the love story gives the novel a shape where otherwise it has none. You can measure the story’s progress by where Swan and Warham are in their relationship, and even when they’re apart from each other, the way that they think about one another tells you what stage of the story you’re in—it’s a major turning point, for example, when Warham returns home, slightly relieved to be away from Swan’s chaos, and realizes that he misses her. The romance is also a problem, however, because though Robinson does a good job of persuading us that Swan and Warham love each other (and of making us root for them to realize this and act on their feelings), he’s a lot less persuasive at arguing that they have a future together. The stolid, thoughtful, considerate Warham is Swan’s opposite in every way, and 2312 is too serious a novel to persuasively argue the romantic cliché that opposites attract (or rather, that that attraction is something you can build a long-term relationship on). That the book ends with a wedding feels a bit like an attempt to tamp down Swan’s messiness (especially since Warham often takes it on himself to “handle” her). It’s not quite enough to undercut Swan’s strengths as a character—the romance is affecting enough that culminating it with a wedding can’t help but feel a little satisfying—but it adds a sour note to what is otherwise a satisfying conclusion.
Towards the end of the novel, some of the extracts Robinson brings begin to hint that 2312 was a turning point in human history, but though we might have some broad idea of what that means, the novel doesn’t signpost any single event. Instead, it feels like living through a crucial moment of history—messy, complicated, its importance obscured by everything that was going on around you, and by the changes that were happening in your own life—changes like falling in love. For all its flaws—and they are worth acknowledging and discussing, because they point at some of the core problems of a genre that still hasn’t acknowledged that not every problem can be solved by throwing a (white, male, Western) engineer at it—2312‘s ability to evoke that sense of being in the midst of history, and of that history being entirely personal and immediate, is deeply satisfying. It’s a novel that shows off what science fiction can achieve, and does so with exuberance and generosity of spirit.
So, is the 2013 Clarke shortlist any good? At the beginning of this review I called the shortlist solid, and I stand by that description. There are flaws in each of the novels here, and a few that I might have been happy to see replaced, but on the whole this is readable, enjoyable shortlist, containing a broad range of styles and attitudes towards its genre. The absence of female authors and the relative paucity of independent, self-willed female characters are serious problems, however, ones that future shortlists—and the UK publishing industry that feeds them—will hopefully address. I think we can conclude that though we may not have lived and fought in vain, there’s still a lot of fighting left to be done.
Still, there are two novels on the shortlist that I would be happy to see win, and it may be a point in its favor that they are so different from one another. One is small and intimate; the other is wide-ranging. One achieves its SFnal effect by slightly skewing the familiar. The other, through good old fashioned sensawunda. One is set in close interiors, dominated by claustrophobia and the feeling of being trapped. The other revels in a sense of possibility and of endless new frontiers. One is an angry denunciation of wishy-washy leftism; the other tries to argue that there is still hope for it. If it were at all possible, I’d like this year’s Clarke Award to be split between Intrusion and 2312. Since that’s not a likely outcome, I would give a slight edge to Intrusion. Like 2312, it’s an imperfect novel, but one whose flaws lie further away from the heart of what its author tried to achieve.
In a few hours, the result will be known and this year’s Clarke cycle will end—as always, for everyone except the person who takes away the prize, the greater fun is in not knowing. Still, next year will see a new shortlist, a new discussion, new ways of calling the judges wrongheaded. See you then.