The Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist, Part 2
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
18 April 2012
Part 1 of Adam Roberts's shortlist review can be found here
Item 4, Jane Rogers's The Testament of Jessie Lamb, was previously longlisted for the Man Booker prize, something that in itself may have piqued the Clarkemind's interest. But the Bookermind, an older and rather less sophisticated hive-consciousness than the Clarke, has been showing signs of incipient decrepitude for several years now, and its choice of Lamb's stiffly uninvolving novel is, I think, symptomatic of that. The Testament of Jessie Lamb revisits the hoary old Greybeard or Children of Men-premise of a world into which no new babies can be born—in Rogers's imagined near-future this is because pregnancy has become inevitably fatal for both women and fetuses: "Maternal Death Syndrome." Rogers renders this world largely although not exclusively via the first person narrative of its titular character, the teenaged Jessie Lamb, whose testimony gives the novel its title.
The story is not complicated, and Rogers has clearly opted for a deliberately downbeat, worn down, unmelodramatic mode of realizing her world. In the depressing teeth of impending human extinction some people despair, some plan grandiose schemes, most just muddle along as before. The narrative wrinkle is that Jessie's father is a scientist working on a possible cure for the plague, something that involves implanting vaccinated embryos into sacrificial "Sleeping Beauties": the mothers might die, but the babies could live. This is the moral dilemma the novel parses. Whilst she's not doing the usual teenage things of moping about, losing her virginity to her boyfriend, or thinking Really Deep Thoughts (and what's so amazing about Really Deep Thoughts?) Jessie decides—pace her surname—that she wants to sacrifice herself for the greater good. Her Dad, naturally enough, doesn't want to see his daughter die. He forbids it and sends her to her room; she sticks to her resolution. Slowly the situation settles into the grooves of inevitability. That's the whole ambit of the work.
Rogers follows the template of the P. D. James novel The Children of Men (1992), whose premise (minimally adapted) it re-heats, rather than Alfonso Cuarón's vastly superior 2006 film treatment. That is to say, like Smith, it treats its topic portentously, slowly and with unsubtle religious resonance, rather than following the punchier, rangier and much more gripping approach of the film. The deal-maker, or -breaker, here is the book's affect. If, as reader, you are moved by Jessie's predicament, and particularly if you think her rather peculiar situation scales metaphorically in ways that illuminate actual life, then I daresay you will like this novel more than I did—although even then it will surely strike you as a one-trick pony of a novel. Perhaps my heart is harder than Pharaoh’s, but for me neither circumstance obtained: I was not moved and I didn’t (in the deeper sense) believe it. This, to slip into a personal observation for a moment, may reflect my own limitations as a reader—I mean, specifically, that I am the father of a daughter not too many years away from Jessie's age. I found not only that my sympathies were with the father, here, but also that Rogers's thumb is pretty obtrusively in the balance against such sympathy. Jessie's Dad is no ogre; he does what he does for love, but the book only renders him in relation to his daughter, as a bit of a blockhead—which, whilst doubtlessly reflecting the way teenagers regard their parents, seemed to me a larger aesthetic weakness.
Much inevitably depends upon the tone of voice of its titular narrator; and this voice, either through authorial ineptness or perhaps, ironically, because Rogers has succeeded too well in ventriloquising the prolix banality of teenagerdom, is dull. Jessie shares with us such profundities as "what would it be like to die? I told myself it would be like the time before I was born" (p. 156), or "I love the way your brain can do that, solve things while you sleep" (p. 207), or, in more Beckettian mode: "walking down the corridor I wished I'd told her that everything people do is pointless—none of it fixes anything" (p. 143). Sometimes Jessie thinks extremely hard about the predicament humanity has gotten itself into: "I thought so hard my eyeballs felt like they were being pushed out of my head" (p. 171). I'm a university professor and I've never thought that hard! Mind you, not all the novel is written like this; portions are not filtered through Jessie's consciousness—and even Jessie herself lifts her style from time to time. And there are some praiseworthy things about the book. It is the only book on the shortlist to deal with the interactions between adults and children; and much of this is minutely observed. Indeed, the tone of the whole is very YA, which is by no means a criticism. But good YA writing is, amongst other things, more focused than adult fiction, because young readers are generally more demanding, and more easily bored, than jaded grown-ups. The Testament of Jessie Lamb would bore the teeth-braces off most young readers, I fear. I'm a bit thrown to see it shortlisted for this award; but perhaps that is the point, for we all know the Clarkemind loves to mystify.
Item 5 is Charles Stross's Rule 34: not only the most entertaining book on the list, but arguably, within its admittedly narrow parameters, the most fully accomplished. Equal parts near-future police procedural and satirical funhouse mirror of the modern world, it is briskly written, plotted with snap and verve and populated with deftly realized and believable characters. It is hard to see how this sort of novel could be better done. The sting in that praise, I suppose, is the "this sort of novel" qualifier; but I'll come to that in a moment.
The narrative is disposed between three main points of view. The most likable figure is DI Liz Kavanaugh, whom we first meet zipping through the streets of near-future Edinburgh on her police Segway to investigate the novel's first grotesque murder. A trussed-up victim has been given a fatal enema of stimulants and souped-up Viagra via—in a lovely touch—Nikolai Ceauşescu's personal industrial-sized enema-delivering kit. Kavanaugh is serving time on the "porn squad" for a previous career-political miscalculation; and police work in the book is portrayed as evolved from present day practice in thoroughly plausible ways: much crime is effectively "managed" out of existence via a virtual "Cop Space" that overlays the real world.
Thread two belongs to Anwar Hussein, venal but not evil, newly released from prison and ready to go straight but weak willed enough to be tempted back into shady business by a thoroughly unpleasant individual called Adam (a slur, I must say, on a fine first name). Anwar ends up as Scottish diplomatic liaison with a new Eastern European republic, where he gets tangled up, in all things, with shipments of illegal yeast. Thread three details the unpleasant activities of a psychopathic underworld enforcer called The Toymaker, so thoroughly nasty a piece of work it's possible that he too is called Adam, though we don't find out.
The titular rule may not have the cultural cachet of "Catch-22," or not yet, but it is well enough known: "if it exists, there is porn of it on the internet." Humans have made fetishes of sex for as long as there have been humans (consider the famous "Pompeii Fresco" Regula XXXIV mentioned by Pliny: Si sit, iam est in pariete Pompeii ex aliquot libidinis). What's new in the equation is the internet, and Stross is most excellent on the way our still-accelerating social media technologies are ramping up the intensity and the danger, turning slap and tickle into stab and throttle. And I don't want to imply Rule 34 is a bad title. On the contrary, it's a very good title; a better pick than (say) Attack of the Killer Spam-Filters! or What Not to Malware, either of which the author could have gone with.
Not to get distracted.
Stross handles the threads, and the escalating series of linked murders, with a fair amount of aplomb, running them in parallel for a while and then bringing them smartly together. The whole thing is undeniably readable, as well as being (this being part of Stross's USP) full of cool ideas, neat touches, and ingenious extrapolations. But what really lifts it above the rank of competently delivered near-future thrillers is the way it elaborates a core idea, one both powerful and, I suspect, true. At the heart of Rule 34 is a thesis about the internet itself, the thing you're looking at right now. It is, Stross is saying, a sort of symbolic cultural enema, spiked with potent conceptual stimulants, flushing out all the stuff "inside" our society. That "stuff" is the topic of the novel—and it is, as it turns out, intensely SFnal; not just that we geeks are more at home online than many communities, but that it is this (new levels of interconnectivity; new margins and dangers; news modes of realizing and indeed generating appetites) that will determine the future itself. As potential tyrants go, "the internet" would be the worst imaginable.
All this is very well done. The novel is at its weakest when it succumbs to mere outrage-venting:
Then the terrible teens hit, with a global recession followed by a stuttering shock-wave of corporate scandals as rock-ribbed enterprises were exposed as hollow husks run by conscience-free predators who were even less community-minded and altruistic than gangsters . . . Maximizing short-term profit worked brilliantly for sociopathic executives looking to climb the promotion ladder, but as a long-term strategy for stability, a spiraling Gini coefficient left a lot to be desired. (p. 82)
It's the dramatic inertness of this, not its ideological content, that jars (as it happens I share Stross's outrage. That's not the point). The loosely falling away "left a lot to be desired" is rhetorically feeble. Actually it might have made more sense to open the outrage throttle as wide as it would go—although that would have turned the book into fiery polemic, and risked swamping the canny crime story. Best of all, I'd say, would have been to take a more thoroughly ironized approach; to inhabit the cultural logic being satirized without the unmistakable satirical distance. But that's not the novel Stross has written, and the one he has written is plenty fast, scintillating, twisty-turny, and thought-provoking enough. Much better even than the very good Halting State (2007) (to which it is a kind of sequel), this is perhaps Stross's single most accomplished novel.
Item 6th and last: Sheri Tepper's The Waters Rising. I can say of three of the authors of this shortlist that I have read every single one of their published novels, and Tepper is one of the three. Not to put too fine a point on it, I've loved her work for decades. There is immense charm in Tepper's voice; a story-telling skill, gorgeous imagination and much wisdom too. But I finished the book thinking it minor Tepper: diverting but bland and debilitatingly old fashioned.
The Waters Rising is a distant sequel to Tepper's A Plague of Angels (1993), although you don’t need to have read the earlier novel in order to enjoy this one. Abasio, a farmboy in the first book, is now a full grown man, living an itinerant life with (in a sadly bathetic, Mister Ed style move) a talking horse. But a new reader would gain little by knowing his extensive backstory, I think. Also from A Plague of Angels is the future Earth setting: a post-collapse reversion to pre-Industrial medievalia spiced up with renascent mythical beasts, fairy tale archetypes, wicked witches, giants, charms, krakens, talking horses and the like—all of this the product of a Clarke law "indistinguishable from magic" technology. The inhabitants of Tepper's world have lost the ability to manufacture this tech, although legends of "ease machines," and rumors that not all of them were destroyed in the collapse, provide some of the plotting here. And basically Tepper uses the shibboleth "high-tech" to justify the writing of an intensely old fashioned fairy tale Fantasy narrative.
Indeed, this is by far the most traditional novel on the Clarke shortlist: a leisurely cook's tour of an far too familiar Fantasyland. Tepper writes with her usual grace and the narrative is busily full of detail; but the pacing is much too gentle, the whole thing too underwound, and the result is a frankly bland book. There are likable characters and hissable villains; there are varied landscapes and set-pieces, but we've seen all of them before. One modification to the standard Fantasy Quest template is signaled by the novel's title; for in Tepper's imagined realm the sea levels are on the way inexorably up. Eventually everyone is going to be drowned, unless a solution to the problem can be found; and such is one of the tasks Tepper appoints to the characters in this peripatetic narrative. A-questing they must go, as if Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) had got stuck in the matter-transporter with Steve Baxter's Flood and emerged the other end weirdly blended. Or blanded.
We start with Abasio trundling up to a castle in the northwest corner of the map (of course the book comes with a map—although in my copy the image has been so savagely shrunken as to be literally unreadable). Inside is a little girl called Xulai, from Tingawan across the western sea—which is to say, future-China, just as Tepper's Norland is future North America. Xulai is a distant cousin of the ruling Duke, and is especially close to the Duke's dying wife Xu-i-lok; and this latter character is sickening because a wicked witch called Alicia has put a curse upon her. When Xu-i-lok finally dies it falls to Xulai to "carry her soul," according to the customs of her land, back home. For a long time the reader is unsure whether this "soul carrying" is a purely ceremonial business, or whether ten-year-old Xulai is actually porting the dead woman’s spirit, after the manner of McCoy containing the deceased Spock in The Search for Spock. There is certainly something weird about Xulai; a wisdom beyond her years.
At any rate, Xulai eats a magic bean and then sets off on the journey that structures the whole of this lengthy novel. She is accompanied by Abasio, his talking horse, a couple of servants, and a big lunk Tingawan guard called Bear. She goes to various places, and has various adventures, some more diverting than others; but the whole thing happens in a kind of narrative slow-mo. From time to time the magical mood is well-evoked, Tepper dwells in often very pretty prose upon the moonlight and cobwebs, the (as it were) forests of Arden of her world. But more often it is just treacly, cloggily over-detailed. There are more than 200,000 words here; each chapter pushes 20-25,000 words in length; and a good portion of that is stuff like this (the party has stopped for the night, and is fixing something to eat):
Precious Wind and Oldwife went into the meadow where Oldwife had seen a ragged stretch of ripe grain along the trees, something left, perhaps, from some long-ago farm, the grain reseeding itself year and year. Among the tall stems of ripe wheat they found remnants of root crops, parsnips and carrots and turnips, some so huge they had obviously been grown for years, but others first-year roots, young enough to be tasty. Black Mike went off into the woods, returning well before dark with a young boar over his shoulder. He skinned and butchered it in a clearing far enough away that the carrion eaters and flies would not be a nuisance before bringing it to the women. "It's only half-grown," he said softly. "It should be reasonable tender." Oldwife and Precious Wind had wrapped the grain heads in a canvas and beaten them with sticks to break them up, then laid the canvas flat and tossed the grain in the light breeze to blow the chaff away. Now they cooked a cauldron of mixed meat scraps, grain and root vegetables to accompany the roast pork. The meat they didn't eat would be rubbed with salt and herbs and dried beside the fire, or in the smoke, if they etc. etc. (p. 139)
One rationale for this splurge of detail is cod-realism: a sort of "well, you need to think about these sorts of things if you're going to mentally inhabit a fictional medieval world! No high-street butchers or greengrocers here!" Which seems to me a thin sort of justification for what amounts to (in places) almost Jordanian bloat. But it is also rather undercut by the advanced-tech-future-world basis of the novel—presumably the grounds for its inclusion in the Clarke shortlist in the first place.
I should add, of course, that it wouldn’t be fair to muddy Tepper's name by associating it with Robert Jordan. She's a vastly better writer than he ever was; and The Waters Rising, though slow and predictable, is pleasantly immersive. What it doesn’t do is bring anything new to the table. In a larger sense this novel is a fable of environmental collapse, an attempt to chivvy us out of complacency or despair: as Xulai's pet talking chipmunk (no, really; her pet talking chipmunk) says to her near the beginning: "stop that! It's always easier to whine than to do something, but something must be done! Now figure it out" (p. 27). Talking chipmunk, yes. The something-that-has-to-be-done with respect to the rising waters is revealed in the later sections of the whole, where the protagonists meet the Sea King. They get their hands on some marvelous machines left over from previous ages and begin to think about an adapt-or-die magical DNA mermaid-oriented solution. Climate change, the novel says, is the mountain to which Mohammed must go, since it cannot be made to come to him. The book's refusal of easy, "magical" answers to the global problems it poses is, in a way, admirable; although there’s a whiff of tentacle porn about the solution too, at least in this quasi-erotic encounter.
Xulai moved restlessly. "I still don’t understand . . ."
"Come here," he said. "Come here."
The words were gentle, but they were still a command. Something tiny within her struggled, only for a moment, before she went toward him, the great buttress of him lying there near the waters' edge, his tentacles spiraling among the stone, his great eyes peering at her, his terrifying beak motionless below though the hypnotic word flowed from it. "Come."
She went. A tentacle as wide as a tree rose from the sea, the bottom side circled with cups that had a life of their own, gaping and contracting. The tentacle rose over her, curved away, growing smaller as it tapered away, branch sized, then arm sized, then finally the tip, only the size of a finger, delicate as her own, came forward to touch her. (p. 419)
This brings me to the way the novel handles sex, something I thought edged towards problematic. Not the tentacle porn aspect, from which Tepper rather shies away (it transpires the actual engendering of homocephalo sapiens is "an arm's length business") but the central love story between Abasio and young Xulai. At the beginning Abasio is troubled to find himself sexually attracted to the girl; bothered since he "didn't like children," at least "not in that way" (p. 25). Later we discover that Xulai is actually in her twenties, but that her adulthood had been hidden with a "glamour" that made her appear to be a child. So that's alright then! My first reaction to this was that it's at least preferable to the George R. R. Martin mode of fantasy, so popular today, in which medieval men rape pre-teen girls as a matter of grisly course, because, you know, We're All Gritty Now. But at least the GRRM horribleness is unambiguously front and centre. The conceit here—that sexually immature girls have sexually mature women magically hidden away inside them—is, as far as abusers' enabling fantasies go, rather more dangerously perverse. Nor is more explicit rape absent: as the novel works through its familiar Romance twists and turns (I mean Romance as a narrative category, not in its love-story sense) Xulai is kidnapped and must evade the threat of rape and torture, which she does in ways that stretch credibility.
I don't want to misrepresent the novel. Although its love story is an important part of it, Tepper is almost egregiously seemly about the way she writes about physical love. When Abasio and Xulai finally consummate their growing love it happens, discreetly, off-page; and the book as the whole feels much more 1950s than it does twenty-teens. And despite concentrating on a heroine of East Asian provenance, The Waters Rising is an extremely American book—as with several classic Tepper titles, it is concerned with what critic Leo Marx, decades ago, identified as the crucial dynamic of American Literature: The Machine in the Garden (1964). The garden, here, is often very prettily rendered, and the book's best passages are its most unashamedly pastoral. But the machine, though it occupies an increasingly prominent position as the book goes on, hardly has enough of a place here to classify the novel as science fiction, and the whole thing is too rambly, too unoriginal, and a touch too rubbish to be a likely winner. And it has a talking chipmunk.
So if not Tepper, who will win? I find myself (after pausing once again to deprecate the absence of Priest's Islanders, a better book than all six put together) thinking that, despite its flaws, Miéville's novel deserves the palm. But I'd be surprised if it does win: the Clarkemind loves to baffle, and giving Miéville yet another award might look predictable. And though we can, I hope, all agree that the winning novel should be chosen upon its own intrinsic merits rather than extraneous factors, we also live in the real world, and extraneous factors do sometimes filter through. That combined with the high quality of his novel incline me to wonder whether Stross's Rule 34 will be this year's winner. The risk Rule 34 runs is disposability: however fun it is to read it doesn't really haunt the mind afterwards—that, after all, is not really the point of the crime-thriller police procedural, even in its near-future thought experimental form. But that fact may not work to Stross's disadvantage. In 2000 the Clarkemind gave the prize to Bruce Sterling's similarly fizzy but—posterity informs us—forgettable near-future thriller Distraction. (By comparison: a few years later it didn't so much as shortlist Cormac McCarthy's profoundly haunting The Road, the most important dystopian novel of the last half century.) And it is after all no sin in a novel for it to be an entertaining read. In fact, several considerations come together here: Stross has a large fanbase; he has never previously won the Clarke but has been in the game long enough for that to look anomalous; Rule 34 is a well-realised and intensely characteristic Stross novel. These things may combine to nudge him to prize glory.
There's one other consideration, of course. I drafted this entire review before the shortlist was formally announced; but I have added a few sentences, and this penultimate paragraph, afterwards, in the wake of what is surely the stormiest shitstorm to strike a Clarke Award shortlist announcement. It's been good clean fun, for the most part; and has tested the veracity of those who claim to believe the point of a shortlist is to provoke debate—not everybody has risen to this latter challenge, actually; and a good portion of the debate has involved blanket dismissals of the rights of decriers of the list to express their views, or at least to express them so vehemently. The main axis of debate, I suppose (if we set aside risible "it’s all sour grapes!" or "you're confusing your personal taste with objective critical standards" nonsense, of which there has been a good deal) has been to do with "literary merit" versus "entertainment." The novels on this list with the best claim to the former are Rogers and Miéville; Bear, Stross, Tepper and (at a stretch) Magary stand for the latter camp. If the Clarkemind has been at all moved by these arguments it may plump for Rogers, as the most "literarily" respectable shortlisted novel. If it sets itself stubbornly against them, I would guess Stross will win.
I await the decision of the Clarkemind. I daresay it will prove me wrong.