This Blog is going to feature reviews mainly and other occasional pieces orientated to the future. Nick Hubble @Contempislesfic @SocialHums
This is the post excerpt.
This Blog is going to feature reviews mainly and other occasional pieces orientated to the future. Nick Hubble @Contempislesfic @SocialHums
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The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. (Woolf 2000: 31)
Or, to put it another way, despite passing the Equal Franchise Act, England was so patriarchal in 1928 that you could see it from space. Kim Stanley Robinson has argued, on the basis of the correspondence between Woolf and Olaf Stapledon – and Woolf’s obvious admiration for Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) – that Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941) ‘ends with Stapledonian imagery, describing our species steeped in the eons. Woolf’s last pages were a kind of science fiction’ (Robinson 2009: 46). This Woolfian propensity for science fiction, including Orlando (1928) and The Years (1937) – which was originally intended to depict the period from 1880 up until 2012, rather than the mid-1930s when the published version ends – can also be found in A Room of One’s Own in Woolf’s discussion of a fictitious novel, Life’s Adventure by Mary Carmichael, in which Chloe and Olivia share a laboratory together, mincing liver as a cure for pernicious anaemia (see Woolf 2000: 75). Woolf describes the faults of this fictional novel but also suggests that given the context of women’s lives in the 1920s, Mary Carmichael ‘did not do so badly’: ‘Give her another hundred years […] give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book’ (Woolf 2000: 85).
We can judge the real book Woolf is alluding to, Marie Stopes’s Love’s Creation – A Novel (1928), for ourselves; although as Deryn Rees-Jones points out in the introduction to the 2012 reprint, it both is and isn’t the kind of book Woolf is talking about. In fact, in some ways it reads as a slightly disappointing version of H.G. Wells’s Ann Veronica (1909) written nearly 20 years earlier, in that Lilian, the scientist one of the two central sisters, dies. But the passages where Lilian and her sister, Rose Amber, discuss ideas, such as evolution, rather than men also suggests other possibilities and it is these, one assumes, that Woolf valued. For example, Rose Amber criticises her sister’s exceptionalness for removing her from the ordinary concerns of people’s lives and the deficiencies of the whole social system:
I can’t put it into words exactly, but it seems to me what the world needs at any rate what England needs, is someone to sympathise and understand the real insides of people’s private troubles. We need some great person – big enough to be able to weld all the yearnings of all the people who are unhappy into something new, into some kind of new social conscience that will put things straight and bring happiness to everybody. (Stopes 2012: 35)
If we leave aside the idea of a ‘great person’ or leader-figure, then this concern with the private sphere – personal relations, or what Woolf later called ‘private means in private’ – as central to rethinking society is one of the key developments emerging at the time from women writers aware that they were living at a significant juncture. As noted, 1928 was the year of the Equal Franchise Act representing the fulfilment of the main aim of the suffrage movement and the clearing of a barrier to a transformed world in which women could live freely. Love’s Creation, therefore, can be seen as poised halfway between the Edwardian ‘New Woman’ novel and the fiction of the cohort of professional women writers – such as Storm Jameson, Winifred Holtby and Stella Gibbons – who came to the fore in the 1930s (see Ewins 2019). In particular, Stopes’s novel contains a progressive argument about getting away from the old ideas of the romantic novel and the old ideas of propriety; instead calling for a realignment of science and poetry in a ‘Universe of the stars’ (Stopes 2012: 91). In these respects, the science-fiction element of the novel comes into focus because – influenced by her friend Wells – Stopes uses the idea of the new perspectives opened by laboratory microscopes to suggest that new social possibilities can also be opened up. But as Woolf suggests, despite this growing awareness of the need for society to be transformed, Stopes’s novel only represents a small step along the way towards fulfilling such a radical project. Not only was there a need for an awareness that other worlds were possible but this awareness had to permeate the struggles and routines of ordinary everyday life which set the horizons of the masses.
At the end of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf echoes her earlier claim that given a hundred years Mary Carmichael will write a better book, by arguing that the changes necessary for a transformed society enabling a genuine women’s writing will happen, providing ‘we live another century or so’ (Woolf 2000: 102). This is a double-edged sword perhaps because, as another of her predictions earlier in the book foresees, ‘in a hundred years […] women will have ceased to be the protected sex’:
Remove that protection, expose them to the same exertions and activities, make them soldiers and sailors and engine drivers and dock labourers, and will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men that one will say, ‘I saw a women to-day’, as one used to say, ‘I saw an aeroplane’. Anything can happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation… (Woolf 2000: 36-7).
Various constructions might be put on this passage but my preference would be to see it as a vote for crossing that threshold of radical indeterminacy. In this sense, A Room of One’s Own might be read as an entry in the To-Day and To-Morrow book series on ‘The Future of Women’, which anticipates a world to come in which ‘the nursemaid will heave coal’ and ‘the shopwoman will drive an engine’.
In particular, Woolf’s choice of Stope’s novel as the intertext of A Room of One’s Own (and her rewrite of this as ‘Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a laboratory together …’) is inspired because, as she predicted, it is in the science fiction novels of the twenty-first century – from Gwyneth Jones’s Life (2004) to Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade (2019) – that women write as women in a context in which anything can happen. Already in 1928, the stage was set. Woolf’s description of the final chapter of Life’s Adventure, as ‘people’s noses and bare shoulders showed naked against a starry sky, for someone had twitched the curtain in the drawing room’ (Woolf 2000: 85) anticipates exactly those passages from Between the Acts that Robinson identifies as evidence of her commitment to science fiction: ‘it was the night before roads were made, or houses. It was the night that dwellers in caves had watched from some high place among rocks. Then the curtain rose. They spoke’ (Woolf 1978: 160).
Kristin Ewins. ‘Professional Women Writers’. In Benjamin Kohlmann and Matthew Taunton, eds, A History of 1930s British Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019: 58-71.
Kim Stanley Robinson. ‘The Fiction of Now’. New Scientist,2726 (19 September 2009): 46-49
Marie Stopes. Love’s Creation. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2012.
Virginia Woolf. Between the Acts. Hammersmith: Grafton, 1978.
Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2000.
On the one hand, it seems a bit perverse to write a review of my cultural activities and output for this plague year, but, on the other hand, the necessarily finite nature of the proceedings lends itself more readily to summary than a ‘normal’ year would. For example, I went to the theatre once – to see the panto at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in January – and to the cinema once – to see The Lighthouse (a weird and wonderful premonition of going bonkers in isolation) – at the beginning of February. So there is no real scope for a list of the best things I’ve seen. Bizarrely, though, I went to four exhibitions by the beginning of March which is rather above my usual annual average. These were ‘Africa State of Mind’ and ‘Refuge and Renewal: Migration and British Art’ (I particularly liked Edith Tudor-Hart’s ‘Demonstration in the Rhondda’ (1934)), on simultaneously at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, in early February. We were intending to go and see the latter again when it moved on to MOMA Machynlleth but of course that wasn’t to be. I also absolutely loved both ‘Genders: Shaping and Breaking the Binary’ at Science Gallery London, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons, and ‘Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography’ at the Barbican, which I was intending to write about but never got around to (but here is Samuel Fishwick’s review in the Evening Standard). I don’t watch much TV but under the circumstances I did manage the first season of The Witcher, pretty much all of The Crown, season three of Babylon Berlin, and we’ve just started Dark. I have watched a few films at home (including some of the offerings available at this year’s Sci-Fi London, which took place online) and a few past performances streamed by the National Theatre, such as Frankenstein and a very good A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
I read a lot despite being ill (see below) and I included some of the books I enjoyed most in this end-of-year tweet thread (repeated with more text on instagram). Back in February, in an attempt to combat the alienation induced by the prospect of another night in the Uxbridge Travelodge, I recklessly embarked on a twitter read-through of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991), since which I have been haunted by the disappearance of history and my possible complicity with this crime committed by the suburban middle classes (further reflections will follow at some point in the future). I’m going to find something else to tweet-read in 2021. In another project, I reviewed various shortlists for SF awards this year: the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards for Best Novel, here and here, for Best Shorter Fiction, here, and Best Non Fiction, here; the three novels on both the Hugo and Clarke shortlist, here, the other Hugo novels, here, and the other Clarke novels, here. Since the Autumn I have been reading SF novels written in 2020 as a member of the jury for next year’s Clarke Award; so I can’t really comment about those too much, except to say that there are a lot of them and they have continued to arrive in just about every delivery over this holiday period.
I feel very fortunate to have been able to read during a year in which I know so many people have had difficulty concentrating and in which it eventually transpired that I was suffering from post-viral syndrome. I was unwell in March – it didn’t seem to be Covid as I didn’t have the right symptoms and I didn’t seem to be ill enough (an antibody test in August was negative) – and then I felt all right until the end of April but from that point on I have felt out of sorts (see, for example, the day-diary I wrote for Mass Observation on 12 May 2020) and been subject to recurring bouts of what I now know to be post-exertional malaise. I could read but often I had difficulty with actually writing anything more complex than a brief review or a diary entry. Then, from late September I was completely laid out for a while with extreme fatigue, which led to the diagnosis. It’s been a long and very gradual process of recovery since then – involving trying to increase exercise but also pacing myself. So I’ve had months of thinking that maybe I’m suffering from a spell of lockdown anxiety and that I’d be fine in a week or two, followed by a period of worrying that I’m never going to be fine again, followed by a more recent period of knowing that I’m getting better but that it is a protracted process. I’ve given up worrying whether or not I had Covid and I’m trying not to get lost down the rabbit hole of wondering if I’ve had post-viral fatigue for longer (e.g. I was unwell in November and December 2019) and trying to remember when I last felt really good etc. As I wrote for Tribune in ‘How Sci-Fi Shaped Socialism’ – a piece I wasn’t entirely confident that I was going to be able to write when I took it on at the beginning of December – it’s time to stop comparing life today with the past and instead orientate towards the future.
In fact, one of the things I’m going to be writing about in 2021 is futurology and, in the first instance, the Futures series from Unbound. I also going to be writing more about gender and SF, including an essay on Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) as a companion piece to my recently republished review of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).
This review first appeared in Foundation 137 (2020): 124-126.
Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth (Tor, 2019, 444 pp, £11.99)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble (Brunel University London)
The iconoclastic tone of Gideon the Ninth is set by its already-celebrated opening sentence: ‘IN THE MYRIADIC YEAR OF OUR LORD – the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! – Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth’ (15). However, while Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel might fairly be described as irreverent pulp with good swordfights, it is not as schlocky as its ‘lesbian necromancers in space’ tagline suggests; in fact, beneath the thick layers of cunningly plotted genre mashup, it’s a rather fine planetary romance with an emotional punch that will remain with readers long after they have completed their compulsive consumption of the text. For all that it is, in many respects, the leftfield inclusion in the Hugo and Nebula shortlists of 2020, Gideon the Ninth has some things to say about the way forward out from the stifling traditions that have been weighing particularly heavily on us in this plague year.
Returning to the beginning of the novel, Gideon does not of course escape. Her dirty magazines are put away, never to be seen again, and even her beloved double-handed sword will not reappear until a very late and desperate point in the proceedings. Instead, she has to learn very quickly to use a rapier to the standard of a ‘House cavalier primary’ because she needs to accompany her hated contemporary, the Lady of the Ninth House, Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, in her bid to become a Lyctor of the King Undying. This process entails Gideon and Harrow travelling to the planet of the First House and there taking part in a series of trials with their counterparts from the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Houses. These range from the obnoxious twin heirs of the Third, Coronabeth and Ianthe, and their irritating cavalier Nathan, to the consumptive Dulcinea of the Seventh and her thuggish aide, Protesilaus. Some of these are innocent, such as the teenage Isaac and Jeannemary of the Fourth, some are actually admirable, such as Palamedes of the Sixth and his redoubtable cavalier, Camilla, and some of these are clearly unpleasant such as Silas and Colum of the Eighth. In another book, this latter House would be the equivalent of Rowling’s Slytherins but here that honour goes to the Ninth, itself, with Harrow and Gideon the pair that everyone else is worried about. Gideon – who we learn is not a native of the Ninth but was found as a baby – is also worried about Harrow, especially as their rival competitors begin to meet grisly ends.
While the set-up of all this seems in some respects reminiscent of the tri-wizard tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (albeit with a higher body count), any lingering sense of cosy competition quickly evaporates in the second half of the story as Gideon endures a series of increasingly more extreme ordeals. The initial engaging blend of whodunit and rivalry gives way increasingly to horror, which has interesting effects on how we should classify the novel. In an interview in the April 2020 edition of Locus, Muir commented,‘I wrote the book thinking it was a standard young-adult novel. I was told very quickly it was not a young adult novel.’ This was because while YA can be quite extreme, it is normally characterised by a moral framework which is broadly compatible with the ideological framework of Western liberal democracy. With the possible exception of Palamedes, none of the characters in Gideon the Ninth display anything like a conventional moral framework; although this is not to say that they don’t adhere to other values, such as feudal loyalty. Moreover, the novel occupies a different space to our world; there is no sense of normal ‘muggle’ life going on just around the corner. As Muir also points out, there is no homophobia in this world but also very little patriarchy on display beyond the distant off-screen presence of the King Undying. Palomedes is no alpha and the other male characters are either unpleasant or die early on. In her Locus interview, Muir corrects herself for saying that ‘fear completely unmans you’, but it’s actually a telling comment on how the continuous tension in the second half of the novel takes us outside the patriarchal symbolic order which for most of the history of novel-writing has constituted narrative meaning. The resultant story is different, both queer and non-normative, and it is this difference which gives the novel its freshness and originality. The ending – although trailed – provides a genuine shock that is nonetheless satisfyingly climatic without being either tragic or triumphant. Neither Gideon nor Harrow mature in any conventional sense of the term but they nonetheless become more than they were.
The twenty-first century is emerging in its true colours from the shadow of its compromised predecessor and we’re seeing a default context that just didn’t exist before. Where Joanna Russ had to painfully break ground against an oppositional culture in order to write her Alyx stories in the 1960s, female-centred non-patriarchal adventure stories and romances have become the dominant form of contemporary SFF over the last decade (as demonstrated through Hugo nominations and awards). As Muir points out in Locus, ‘everybody loves this stuff. People love female-fronted stories, and they get even more excited if there’s any queer element’. That ‘everybody’ includes men who are as keen to escape from compulsory masculinity and the narrow, restrictive frameworks it places on existence as women and non-binary people. It is not necessary to over freight Muir’s novel with significance to suggest that in its fullness and sheer uninhibited brio, it both testifies to changed times and points the way the way ahead to greater transformations. Gideon the Ninth is the first of a projected trilogy of which the second volume, Harrow the Ninth, will be out by the time this review is published. It sounds as though Muir is not intending to let the assault on outdated moral values relent, as she claims to have turned up the dials on everything: ‘Harrow the Ninth is just absolute pulp lesbian trash from the first page to the last, and it’s a long book.’ Let’s welcome that.
I was at some of Sci-Fi London (8-13 December) in machine form. As a colony of cells, I was not present. I didn’t see as many films as I would have liked but the films that did happen to fit in with my schedules turned out to have an uncanny thematic coherence. A Report on the Party and the Guests (2020; dir. Søren Peter Langkjær Bojsen) takes the same title as the 1966 Czech political satire directed by Jan Němec but its target is late capitalism (or zombie capitalism) rather than state socialism. The film is described on the Sci-Fi London website as ‘a cyberpunk odyssé that explores the nature of a machine take-over of the world – a take-over not with a bang, but a whimper. There are no killer robots knocking on the door, instead, humanity is slowly and unfathomably rendered irrelevant within their own society. The aesthetic of the film is a frenetic mixture of styles and formats from the future as well as the past, conveying an otherworldliness unlike any other film.’ The androids or replicants in this film are called ‘reporters’ – in news flashes from ‘Truthrage’, which looks to be a British youtube channel – but for most of the film, there is only one, Rudolph, who wanders around fairly aimlessly but not as aimlessly as the humans around him. As one of these plaintively comments, ‘When the universal basic income was passed, we thought we’d solved it’. I’m for that idea but it’s not going to ‘solve it’; we need to find ways of rethinking what it is to be human.
Bojsen said in the post-screening Q&A that ‘the film is not an essay or statement but an investigation – the perspective of the film is not my perspective.’ It’s not my perspective either but I really liked this idea of it being an investigation. The reporters are regarded as constructs but what they ‘report’ (to watchers) is how humans have become constructs: ‘They are like the orcs in The Lord of the Rings. Once they were elves and then they were tortures and now they can’t remember their past lives.’ The only place to look for solutions is in the post-human future. A nice take on this was the Chinese film Mirror Human (2019; dir. Zhang Linzi) which jumps around between the stories of three generations of ‘transcendents’, who are living illegally as humans (rather than being shipped off to do terraforming for ‘the programme’). With their shortened life span and their need to live on the margins, first and second generation transcendents are reduced to those characteristic resorts of outsiders to achieve fulfilment: boxing and car racing. I liked this idea of this pulpy solution to the problem of alienated identity (which is a problem faced by most people on the planet today). The film is quite clear about this: ‘A transcendent is the epitome of the human condition’. I also like the fact that ‘a transcendent’s gender is always a little tricky’ and that ‘their sexuality was always a bit murky’. The whole vibe reminds me of one of the best SF novels of recent years, Justina Robson’s The Switch (2017), which features queer replicants/transcendents who work their way up from the wrong side of the tracks. All of these texts will be classics in the android centuries to come.
In the current circumstances of being trapped on a small island off the coast of Europe run by cheapjacks and charlatans without a clue, I too feel that ‘my interplanetary visa has been cancelled’. Which is a pity because I could really do with jetting about in a bed-sit spaceship like that of The American Astronaut (2000; dir. Cory McAbee). As Festival Director, Louis Savy, noted in his intro to the screening, this is an acquired taste; but one that I could see myself acquiring. I really liked McAbee’s description of it in the post-screening Q&A as a kind-of fictional autobiography. Its version of men are from Mars, women are from Venus is certainly preferable to John Gray’s. But I found the short film Doppelbänger (2020, dir. Sophian Khan) to have better tips on android sexual etiquette: ‘Listen, George, you can’t fuck my doppel and get with me!’ To be honest, though, just trawling around the near systems in a non-gendered aimless manner and reading some good books would suit me.
I, for one, am happy to acknowledge my android, replicant, transcendent, reporter self. Now, give me back my future, fuckers!
I’m currently busily reading through the UK-published SF of 2019 as one of the 2020-21 judges for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and proud that I will be involved in what will be the 35th anniversary of the Award. This seems a good moment to recirculate this essay I wrote in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the Clarke back in the now impossibly distant days of early 2016. This was originally published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 123 (2016), pp.83-89. It was the second part of a feature, ‘The Arthur C. Clarke Award: Thirty Years On’, of which the first part was written by Andrew M. Butler, the Chair of Judges for the Clarke Award. Our two pieces weren’t subtitled but I originally drafted the essay as ‘The Clarke Award, Gender Diversity and “Literary SF”’. I’ve added some links and updates in square brackets but this is otherwise as it ran at the time apart from a few very minor edits:
The annual Arthur C. Clarke Award will be presented for the thirtieth time in May this year and we can expect extensive analysis and debate surrounding this anniversary. In some ways, though, perhaps Emily St John Mandel’s success in 2015 with her elegant literary dystopia, Station Eleven, came a year too early. To be able to point to both the fourth victory by a woman writer in five years and the obvious symmetry with the first ever Clarke Award going to Mandel’s Canadian compatriot, Margaret Atwood, in 1987 for The Handmaid’s Tale, would have suggested the award’s ongoing standing as both an arbiter of cultural value and a beacon of liberal feminist sensibility. The 2016 winner might not provide such a neat story.
However, the emergence of such a positive narrative is not merely the by-product of a happy accident or the award’s relative longevity but also stems from hard work in establishing and administering the award, intelligent marketing, and growing press coverage, especially by the Guardian. Their report of Mandel’s victory, which appeared online within minutes of the announcement, quoted the award director, Tom Hunter, on the importance of diversity in genre and the broadening of interest in the award:
One of the reasons for this continuing growth is the rise in submissions, and recognition of the award from more mainstream publishing houses – and of course the attraction of science fiction and fantasy stories to an ever-growing fanbase. Publishers know that the barriers between genres are coming down.
Nevertheless, the rise of what we should specify as gender diverse [at the time, the Clarke had been predominantly won and contested by white writers but this has significantly changed over the last five years with victories in 2017 for Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, in 2019 for Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, and in 2020 for Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift], mainstream-friendly sf is not as straightforward as this suggests. Mandel, herself, sounds a more sceptical note, as quoted in the above Guardian report, ‘If you write literary fiction that’s set partly in the future, you’re apparently a sci-fi writer’. On one level, this is the response of a writer who, understandably, does not want to be stereotyped or limited by the demands of a specific marketing category but it also indicates a wider problem of the relationship between gender and genre. For example, the all-male Clarke shortlist of 2013 was described by the Guardian’s Alison Flood as ‘reinforcing science fiction’s image as a boys club’ but prompted a public confession of envy from Man Booker Prize judge, Stuart Kelly, who noted that ‘all the titles deploy techniques from literary fiction … The false dichotomy between “literary” and “genre” has never seemed so slight’ (Kelly 2013). Generally, critics – especially male critics – are still more likely to award ‘literary’ status to men and so it makes sense for women writers with literary ambitions to resist genre labels.
Hence the almost unique significance of Atwood, who is referenced by both Kelly’s blog and the Guardian report of Mandel’s Clarke win as a kind of implicit guarantor of the award’s status. This is not surprising given that The Handmaid’s Tale is widely accepted as a canonical text and taught across school and university curricula. However, what makes it problematic as a role model for sf has been Atwood’s periodic insistence that she writes no such thing and that the novel should be regarded as a work of speculative fiction. While, in practice, Atwood’s position can be ignored because, whatever she might say, later novels such as Oryx and Crake and MaddAddam clearly demonstrate that she does write sf, her example neatly demonstrates the double-edged nature of the term ‘literary sf’ and its potential to signify different things to different people. As Paul Kincaid noted when reflecting on administering the Clarke for its first twenty years, giving Atwood the inaugural award was presented by critics ‘as the Clarke jury turning its back upon traditional science fiction, a stance that they see replicated throughout the Award’s history in the crowning of Marge Piercy and Amitav Ghosh’ (Kincaid 2006: 5). Although Kincaid points out that the motivation for these decisions was the desire to applaud something new being brought to the genre, the fact that he nonetheless feels the need to clarify that these decisions were not intended ‘to ingratiate ourselves with the mainstream’ (Kincaid 2006: 6) indicates the strength of feeling on the issue.
The term ‘literary sf’ rarely functions as a neutral guarantor of a certain level of quality in terms of writing style and characterisation but instead serves a political purpose. Adam Roberts only exaggerates about the level of diversity involved in most such texts and not the current oppositional intensity of the term when he defines it as the marker of one camp in an ongoing culture war: ‘the Literary SF, “science fiction is about the encounter with otherness”, lovin-the-alien, polymorphous, feminist, queer, coloured, trans and politically liberal crowd’ (Roberts 2015: 9). However, the problem with such a stance is the persistent idea that there is something essential to sf that distinguishes it from ‘literature’. From this perspective, a ‘literary sf’ undermines the diverse, radical potential of sf rather than exemplifying it.
Fredric Jameson suggests that it is this radical capacity of sf that arouses a specific ‘generic revulsion’ stemming from a ‘literary “reality principle”’ that is neither ‘a matter of personal taste, nor is it to be addressed by way of purely aesthetic arguments, such as the attempt to assimilate selected SF works to the canon as such’ (Jameson 2005: xiv n9). It is an oft-repeated truism that sf is really concerned with the present rather than the future but as Jameson argues, drawing on the ideas of Jürgen Habermas, what it really does is question that present and thereby generate a sense of the possibility of a ‘future as disruption of the present’ (Jameson 2005: 228). It is this capacity of sf – whether through style, plot, or combination of both – to represent the possibility of transformative change that triggers the ‘generic revulsion’ of those who are unprepared to countenance any significant alteration to property and gender relations, or, indeed, to societal norms in general. In this context, the significance of The Handmaid’s Tale being the first Clarke winner lies not in its canonical status, which actually serves to enable the downplaying of its material effects by disguising them as ‘literature’, but its ongoing capacity to disrupt the gender relations of the present.
By imaginatively demonstrating the links between radical feminism, religious fundamentalism and patriarchy, Atwood contributed to the development of third-wave feminism and helped create a space of public reception for it amongst her large readership. Where she was once an outlier, the success of novels such as Mandel’s Station Eleven, 2012 Clarke-winner Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and the 2015 Clarke-shortlisted Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water indicate that her approach has become more widespread as cultural practice in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Similarly to The Handmaid’s Tale, all three of these texts turn to a greater or lesser extent on the struggle of younger protagonists to free themselves from – as opposed to establishing themselves among – a parental generation compromised by association with dystopian social structures. As Roberts comments, reflecting on his experience as a judge for rival sf award the Kitschies in 2015, lots of ‘really good stuff is being written at the moment – especially (but not exclusively) by women, especially (but not exclusively) in YA and what we could call “near future dystopia”’ (Roberts 2015: 14). However, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, which won the Clarke from the 2013 all-male shortlist, also fits much of this template with the difference that its protagonist is a young alpha male. This novel highlights gender in a very contemporary manner but it is difficult to decide whether the effect of this is to critique or reinforce essential difference. There are passages which could come straight from a Heinlein juvenile [in the light of Farah Mendlesohn’s The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein (2019), I realise this is a more complicated and ambiguous analogy than I intended], which begs the question as to how far such new-generation fiction has really advanced from that written in the Fifties and Sixties beyond simply gender flipping. One of the key points made by Christopher Priest in his savage critique of the 2012 Clarke shortlist is that while he considered eventual-winner The Testament of Jessie Lamb to be the only novel on the shortlist worthy of victory, he still argued that ‘to be fully realized as a work of speculative fiction it needs a wider canvas, a sense that larger events are mounting in the background’ (Priest 2012). This problem with this absence, which exists to a greater or lesser extent in all three of these books and others like them, is that it leaves their radical charge open to appropriation by more totalising narratives.
As soon as one thinks about the Clarke award in these political terms it becomes impossible to think of it as a straightforward tale of progressive ‘literary’ evolution from Atwood onwards. This is a point that is also immediately evident from the statistics. The fourteen awards made from 1987 to 2000 were split evenly between women and men writers despite a respective 31:69 ratio across all of the shortlisted novels. In contrast, the fifteen awards since 2001 have yielded only five wins by women writers from an equivalent shortlist ratio of 27:73. Given that, as noted above, four of those five wins have come since 2011 and that the shortlist ratio for this latest period is 30: 70 [in the subsequent five years, 2016-20, there have been a further two wins by women from a women: men shortlist ration of 43:57], the question arises as to what happened in the decade between 2001 and 2010 when only one women writer won and only 15 novels by women made the shortlist (and five of those were in 2001 and 2002)?
There is no definitive answer but a number of factors can be identified which acted and interacted across that decade in a way that they had not previously. These include the decline in publication of sf relative to the publication of modern fantasy, the tendency to blend fantasy with sf, the rise to prominence of British as opposed to American sf, and the emergence of China Miéville – who won the Clarke in 2001, 2005 and 2010 – as the star of the new century. The problem with Miéville’s unprecedented success, as Priest noted in 2012, when there was the possibility of him winning a fourth award, was that it came close to sending out ‘a misleading and damaging message to the world at large […] that not only is Mr Miéville the best the SF world can offer at this moment, he is shown to be more or less the only writer worth reading’. The attraction of Miéville is easy to see. The powerful blend of sf and fantasy that he achieved in the 2001 Clarke winner Perdido Street Station created what was virtually a new genre, perfectly fitted to explore the intersectional ethics and politics of urban identity in the new millennium. But, as a consequence, comparable, albeit less urban, works such as Mary Gentle’s Ash, which mixed alternate history and fantasy and was also shortlisted in 2001, have not had the critical attention they deserve. It is true that in the following year Gwyneth Jones’s equally genre-fusing Bold as Love did win the Clarke but that was to represent the high point for women writers in the decade. While Jones, the most shortlisted writer in the history of the Clarke, would be in contention twice more during the decade, others such as Gentle, former winner Tricia Sullivan, Liz Williams and Justina Robson only made the list once. One assumes that their other books were either considered not literary enough or too fantasy-inflected or both of those. It is not clear if the novels of Steph Swainston, whose In the Year of Our War was one of the most feted debuts of the decade, and whose work is every bit as elegantly weird as Miéville’s, were even entered by her publisher.
Meanwhile, British sf was apparently booming, which, as Kincaid explained in an email to Andrew M Butler, had been one of the founding aims of the Clarke:
When we set up the award, the one remit we set ourselves was to encourage British science fiction […] When we started the award, a British writer on the shortlist was a rare event […] By 2001, there were 5 out of 6 British writers on the list. I’m not claiming that the Clarke Award was responsible for the British boom, but it was certainly part of the mix of things that were going on between the late-80s and the turn of the century that encouraged British writing.
However, none of the six women winners of the Clarke before 2000 (Pat Cadigan won twice) had been born or brought up in Britain (although Cadigan and Sullivan both relocated there in the mid-1990s) and, with the exception of Rogers, none of the women winners since 2011 have been British either [Anne Charnock has since won for Dreams Before the Start of Time in 2018]. Statistically, it is very difficult for a woman raised in Britain to win the Clarke award, which indirectly indicates just how largely Jones looms in British sf. In contrast, three of the seven male winners of the Clarke before 2000 were born and brought up in Britain and a fourth, Geoff Ryman, had lived in Britain since the early 1970s. In the 2001-2010 decade, when Ryman made the list of winners again, alongside Jones, Miéville, Priest, M. John Harrison, Richard Morgan and Ian R MacLeod, the only international name to join them was Neal Stephenson.
An interesting analysis of what was happening can be found in James Lovegrove’s 2007 review of four novels: Ryman’s Air, which had won the Clarke in 2006, Morgan’s Black Man, which would win in 2008, Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, which would be shortlisted in 2008,and Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, which would not be shortlisted. Lovegrove suggests that these novels show that sf, which is ‘written predominantly by white Western males’, is starting to turn away from a preoccupation with using space settings to examine the world as it is and instead focusing on the ‘others’ around ‘us’ – those with ‘a different language, skin colour, set of cultural signifiers, even gender’ (Lovegrove 2015: 143). While the encounter with otherness has always been a part of sf, it arguably had not been the dominant collective preoccupation of major male sf authors until this time. However, once this cultural shift had happened in Britain, it heavily influenced prizes such as the Clarke and raised the standing of British sf internationally.
One negative consequence of this phenomenon was that it probably contributed to the dearth of women being shortlisted for the Clarke during the decade because men had now occupied the territory of difference. However, most of the writers involved had long honourable records of working with these kinds of themes and, moreover, many of the key novels were not written from the viewpoint of a white male protagonist. For example, Black Man is unambiguously about a black man, Air and Ian MacLeod’s Song of Time, the 2009 winner,are both long, complex novels woven around the perspective of non-white women, and even Stephenson’s Quicksilver includes probably his most complex and satisfying female protagonist. Brasyl, with its three intercut narratives and range of protagonists, including the bisexual and gender-fluid Edson, is as pluralistic as any of the above but its non-appearance on the 2008 Clarke shortlist was seen at the time as a perverse product of the jury’s desire to include seemingly mainstream texts such as Mathew De Abaitua’s The Red Men and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army in its place. Because of its quality and embrace of diversity, it is difficult to argue that Brasyl lost out to more literary sf, but equally, given both that De Abaitua has continued to work in the field and The Carhullan Army [you can see my essay on it here] went on to be voted the top sf novel of the decade by a woman in a poll run by Niall Harrison on the Vector editorial blog, it can no longer be said in retrospect to have lost out to texts that are somehow more marginal to the genre. This is an example of how the debate and developments surrounding the award can be mobilised to equalise the momentary hierarchies created by the mundane fact that only six people can be shortlisted in any one year and only one of those can actually win it.
There is little question that the Clarke has been influenced by such debates. For example, the 2010 Vector poll mentioned above originated from the commentary on an interview with Sullivan concerning how difficult it was for women to win the award and went on to generate wide discussion. Subsequently, the 2011 Clarke jury shortlisted both Sullivan and Lauren Beukes, and the latter won with Zoo City, an sf-fantasy blend as uncompromisingly urban as anything by Miéville. The real significance of this breakthrough is not that it led to subsequent shortlists (apart from that of 2013) containing at least two women writers – although this is welcome – nor even that it led to so many women winning – although this is also very welcome – but that it demonstrated that the Clarke is more than a list of winners and shortlists precisely because it is at the centre of the relatively unique participatory culture of sf. Let us hope, therefore, that whoever wins in May [Adrian Tchaikovsky for Children of Time, rather to my surprise because much as I enjoyed it, I hadn’t expected a novel with talking spiders to win], the story will not be too neat [it wasn’t!]. It is the controversies and the debates – and the reactions, syntheses and breakthroughs they inspire – which make this award special and demonstrate that sf is so much more than just a type of literature.
Jameson, Fredric, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fiction, London: Verso, 2005.
Kincaid, Paul, ‘Twenty Years After: The Clarke Award so far’, Vector 248, 2006, 5-6.
Lovegrove, James, ‘The Terrestrial Alien’ in Lifelines and Deadlines: Selected Nonfiction, Alconbury Weston, Cambs: NewCon Press, 2015: 142-7.
Roberts, Adam, Rave and Let Die: The SF and Fantasy of 2014, Alconbury Weston, Cambs: NewCon Press, 2015.
This review first appeared last year in the BSFA Review 7 (summer 2019). The version here is slightly revised and a little longer.
By the Pricking of Her Thumb by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2018)
Haven by Adam Roberts (Solaris, 2018)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
If I listed all of Adam Robert’s published output for 2018 I would have no space left to actually review these two particular novels: By the Pricking of Her Thumb, the sequel to The Real-Town Murders (2017), and Haven, the sequel to Dave Hutchinson’s Shelter (2018). But I would urge interested readers to google and wonder. If ever there was a contemporary version of the Renaissance Man then it is Roberts. Four hundred years from now a minor academic industry on the ‘Roberts Authorship Question’ may well flourish in the margins of a monumental canonical edifice surrounding one of the giants of twenty-first-century posthumanist fiction. I’m not being entirely facetious here but rather want to make the point that Roberts raises serious questions about the status (ontological as well as societal) of authorship today. If we focus on his nineteen (including these two) sf novels to date, Roberts has already written three which are so good that any one of them might form the pinnacle of a major writer’s career: Yellow Blue Tibia (2009), Bête (2014) and The Thing Itself (2015). However, it is not clear how widely the excellence of these works is recognised; for example, only the first was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. On the other hand, would anyone want to be weighed down with the label of ‘major writer’ today? It all sounds rather regressively hierarchical and living examples such as Ian McEwan hardly present an attractive role model. While Roberts would no doubt love greater recognition and the increased readership that goes with it, the tendency of his fiction until recently has been to deconstruct playfully, but nonetheless brutally, his unattractive middle-aged male protagonists and to point to futures beyond the patriarchal order.
Aside from his personal creative capacity, the productivity of Roberts’s career reflects an ongoing historical shift from the shared understanding of authors as public authorities to the idea of writing being a desirable profession in much the same way as being a footballer is a desirable profession. While the status and acclamation of an earlier period are no longer available, a democratic model of creative professional work has taken its place. In line with this shift, both By the Pricking of Her Thumb and Haven seem more straightforwardly intended as professional genre fiction than Bête or The Thing Itself, which suggests Roberts has made a conscious decision to step back from uncompromising literary provocativeness in his sf. Significantly, neither novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged male, unattractive or otherwise.
Haven is book two of ‘Tales of the Aftermath’, set in a post-apocalyptic Britain, which Roberts is writing in alternating instalments with Hutchinson. The plot is not directly sequential; Haven can be read as a standalone novel (although, given Shelter is also highly enjoyable, you might as well read them in sequence). Enjoyment is the key word here; I devoured Haven in pretty much one go, loving every second. Written predominantly from the point of view of a teenage boy with epilepsy, it’s a fast-paced tour – much of it is an extended chase sequence – through a reimagined Thames Valley complete with technologically-regressed settlements and a more advanced women-only community. As someone who grew up with cosy catastrophes such as The Day of the Triffids (1951) and the 1970s TV series Survivors but also loves the feminist sf of Le Guin and Russ, I found this irresistible and working all the better for Roberts by-and-large telling it straight and resisting the temptation of indulging in playful pastiche. I would have preferred it more from the women’s point of view, but they are the most powerful presence anyway.
I would certainly read the two concluding ‘Aftermath’ volumes if they ever appeared [which doesn’t seem like something that is going to happen] but there is perhaps an argument that even if Roberts can write a better conventional sf narrative than most, it would still be in the public interest for him to concentrate on what he can do better than absolutely everyone else, which is to write distinctive Roberts-type novels. Fortunately for us, he seems to be able to do both simultaneously as By the Pricking of Her Thumb testifies. When The Real-Town Murders was published it appeared as though Roberts was returning to the high-concept version of the locked-room whodunnit which had underpinned the popularity of his BSFA-Award-winning Jack Glass (2012), but it turned out to have a different, quirkier and more engaging feel than its polished but sharp-edged predecessor. There was something about the repeating structure, enforced by the need of detective protagonist Alma to return to her flat at four-hour intervals in order to save her bed-bound partner Marguerite from the latest iteration of a malicious gene-hacked disease, that made the novel human even as it explored a post-digital-singularity world in which people spend most of their lives in online sim(ulation)s. I must admit that after reading the first few chapters of By the Pricking of Her Thumb, I was starting to have doubts as to whether this structure would support a second novel, but then Roberts changes gear as, in turn, we are transported inside a detailed sim of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)– Kubrick pervades Thumb in much the same way as Hitchcock haunts The Real-Town Murders – and onward into unexpectedly deep waters of profound emotion and meaning. In the end, Thumb reveals itself to be just as much a rounded novel of ideas as The Thing Itself, although with less Kant and male whingeing, as it considers the big questions of love, money and death.
It’s still pulp, however. Roberts might quote Nabokov in By the Pricking of Her Thumb but he’s working in the tradition of Philip K. Dick by showing how professional genre writing is often the most effective medium for expressing what it is to live in the contemporary world.
The review below first appeared in BSFA Review 5 (Winter 2018); although I wrote it during the winter of 2016-7 (after reading The Gradual appropriately enough on a poolside lounger in Lanzarote). The version here is slightly edited and then linked at the end to the reworked version of its argument that I wrote for the Shadow Clarke project later in 2017. Since The Gradual, Priest has published a novel, An American Story (2018), a retrospective selection of short stories, Episodes (2019), and (this month) another new novel, The Evidence, set, like The Gradual, in the Dream Archipelago. In 2013, when I reviewed The Adjacent (2013) for the LARB, I welcomed its publication in succession to The Islanders (2011) as representing ‘a significant upturn in his output’; little did I then know how much of an upturn there was going to be! In that review of The Adjacent, I suggested that his books might be seen as ‘as a series of paintings that may potentially be displayed in various configurations at different types of exhibition, none of which would be definitive’. That remains the case, but each new addition to his oeuvre reconfigures all the existing relationships between the different works and opens up new potential meanings. Therefore, my attempt to make sense of the Dream Archipelago in the following is now out of date but I hope nonetheless useful as a reminder for readers of The Evidence of what has been published before (although, of course, there is no temporal continuity across the islands . . .).
The Gradual by Christopher Priest (Gollancz, 2016)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
Rather than try and summarise the plot of Christopher Priest’s fourteenth and latest novel, The Gradual, it is easier to quote the opening paragraphs in which the narrator, modernist composer Alesandro Sussken, tells us:
I grew up in a world of music, in a time of war. The latter interfered with the former. After I became an adult, a composer, many pieces of my music were stolen, copied or rehashed by a plagiarist. I lost my brother, my wife and my parents, I became a criminal and a fugitive, I travelled among islands, I discovered the gradual. Everything affected everything else, but music was the balm, the constant.
When I went in pursuit of my tormentor, I became an inadvertent traveller in time.
Time is a gradual process – like ageing, you do not notice it happening.
That this is a pretty good description of the plot, albeit imprecise concerning substance and detail, and their signification, indirectly suggests that Priest values these qualities above the outline of the storyline that we are told in advance. The frequent appearance of magicians in Priest’s work (notably in The Prestige , The Islanders and The Adjacent), although there are none in this novel, is a testament to his fascination with misdirection – whether of the audience in front of the stage or the reader in front of the page. However, this misdirection is not deployed in the service of concealing plot twists until the last possible moment, as in a thriller, but in order to make readers have to think about the significance of subtle shifts in narration. Because meaning is rarely stable in his novels, we have learnt to forego our need for a uniform and comprehensive explanation and instead settle for an endlessly deferred pleasure of sifting through fragmentary states of being. This experience, of course, is not dissimilar to listening to works of modernist composers, perhaps those of Schoenberg’s second period or of early Stockhausen, which may encompass all sorts of variations on recurring motifs without a central melody.
Priest is not the first SF writer to draw on the model of modernist composition in his work. Indeed, the last few years alone have seen Ian R. MacLeod’s Clarke-Award-winning Song of Time (2008) and the late Iain M. Banks’s The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). However, in Priest’s case the choice is particularly interesting because it adds to the range of creative artists represented in his work, which have included not just magicians, as in The Prestige, but also documentary film-makers, as in The Glamour (1984), writers, as in The Affirmation (1981), and painters and sculptors, as in The Islanders. Significantly, these last two novels were set, like The Gradual, in the Dream Archipelago. As readers of these earlier works will know, this is a strange space. For example, at the age of forty, now an established composer, Sussken accompanies a six-week concert tour of the Archipelago and becomes obsessed with the fact that the two clocks in his cabin, measuring ‘absolute time’ and ‘ship time’ are always at variance. He is woken in the middle of the night by the mechanical whirring of the clocks’ hands, as they race independently forward, or even sometimes backwards, according to a weird logic of their own. When he returns as scheduled to his homeland, the authoritarian Republic of Glaund, he is in effect doubly disconcerted by having to leave the collective atmosphere of the tour while simultaneously coming to realise that much more time has passed here than in the islands. Everyone he loved has either left or died. This time dilation effect is familiar to genre readers from both SF accounts of faster-than-light travel and fantasy excursions into the perilous realm of Faerie. The question arises as to what the Dream Archipelago really is.
In the Introduction to his 1979 collection of short stories, An Infinite Summer, Priest tells us matter-of-factly that the Dream Archipelago ‘is more idea than an actual place, but if it has a correlative reality then it would be a kind of fusion of the Channel Islands and Greece, with bits of Harrow-on-the-Hill [where Priest lived in the 1970s] and St Tropez thrown in for good measure’. Only three of the stories in this collection are concerned with the Archipelago and one of these, ‘The Negation’ is actually set in Faiandland, the warring neighbour of Glaund, on the northern continent bordering the sea containing the islands. Priest notes that the other two stories, ‘Whores’ and ‘The Watched’ were, respectively, the prologue and epilogue to A Dream Of Wessex (1977) in the sense that writing them closely preceded and succeeded the writing of that book in 1976. Given that Wessex is an island in the novel, at least in some versions of an unstable future, it is tempting to connect the Dream Archipelago to Britain as a geographical means of representing a temperamental unconsciousness otherwise suppressed by Anglo-Saxon cold-bloodedness. Priest however was quick to warn us about looking for connections even between the stories: ‘Do not, please, make assumptions about one story from reading another; there are very few “links”’.
The Archipelago also featured in The Affirmation (1981), which bears the same title as a novel mentioned in ‘The Negation’ and is sometimes considered as the key Priest text, marking a transition from early works to core concerns. The three stories from An Infinite Summer were later combined with three others – ‘The Trace of Him’, ‘The Miraculous Cairn’ and ‘The Cremation’ – and a brief prelude, ‘The Equatorial Moment’, to be published as The Dream Archipelago in 1999. This collection was subsequently republished in 2009 with revisions and an additional story, ‘The Discharge’. Aside from the two novels already mentioned, the Archipelago is also the setting for a section of The Adjacent. Occasionally characters do reoccur across texts – for example, Dryd Bathurst, the charismatic painter featured in The Islanders is mentioned in passing in The Gradual (Moylita Kaine, author of The Affirmation in ‘The Negation’, is another recurring character) – but, appropriately enough given the Archipelago’s temporal anomalies, there is no linear narrative running across these loosely related texts. Perhaps the only significant historical event in the history of the Archipelago is the decision of Glaund and Faiandland to stop bombing each other’s territory directly and instead send their conscripts by regular troopships south through the islands to fight on the uninhabited continent of Sudmaieure. This is the context of a number of the short stories, which revolve around related concepts such as the islands’ neutrality, soldiers on leave, and prostitution, as though these are the age-old parameters of existence. Indeed, ‘The Discharge’ is set in the run up to the 3000th anniversary of the start of hostilities on Sudmaieure. Therefore, it is significant, that Sussken experiences enemy air raids growing up as a child and that the temporary ceasefire to enable the war to be moved to the south occurs when he is fourteen. In this respect, The Gradual might perhaps be seen as a reintroduction ofhistory into the Dream Archipelago.
Once upon a time, a certain type of Marxist critic could have essayed a contextual hypothesis at this point. If A Dream of Wessex and the early Dream Archipelago stories are seen as a response to the collapse of postwar social democracy and its replacement by the rapacious economic depredations from the public realm of neoliberalism (prefigured by the deeply unpleasant Paul Mason in Wessex), then might not the increasingly unstable death throes of that neoliberal order (‘Brexit’, the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency), mark the return of exactly the history which was considered to have ended once for all after the fall of Communism. On this reading, the Dream Archipelago, with its tourists determinedly trying to enjoy themselves despite island weirdness and the barely-concealed background of endless war, could be seen as a fictional correlative of the unreality of life under neoliberalism.
However, such a reading would be unduly allegorical and also blind to Priest’s understated but absurdist sense of humour. In a somewhat ambiguous review of The Islanders for the Guardian, Ursula Le Guin complained about the ‘mostly dry, ironic, aloof, sometimes pedantic’ nature of Priest’s tone: ‘It’s a bit too much like the small, dusty history of Sark that you found was the only thing to read by the 25-watt lamp in your hotel room’. What she misses is a mental vision of him writing with a frown of concentration not quite suppressing a slight sardonic smile. The Gradual includes a wonderfully Kafkaesque sequence in which Sussken is apprehended on the street by some men, who are clearly the equivalent of Glaund’s secret police, and taken away in a car before being ushered through a series of ominous looking hallways and corridors, and then through a series of progressively more dehumanising encounters. However, when thrust through a final doorway, he is not subjected to the brutal interrogation we anticipate but instead to something much worse. He suddenly finds himself the surprised subject of an official state reception from the ruling junta. Generalissima Flauuran, the feared dictator of Glaund, takes charge of the ceremony, herself, and announces to the assembled dignitaries that Sussken has been selected to compose the official orchestral piece celebrating ‘the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Democratic Council of Leaders’.
If this sounds as though Priest has had some mixed experiences as Guest of Honour at SF conventions, the next scene in the novel indicates a shift to target wider genre expectations. In a private face-to-face audience, Flauuran informs Sussken that his composition must be wholeheartedly patriotic: ‘we do not want irony, subversion, subtlety, cryptic statements, cross references, allusions, knowing asides, quotations, hidden meanings.’ Readers and critics with similar dictatorial preferences for texts that can be read straightforwardly or neatly shoehorned into off-the-peg theories should take note that The Gradual is probably not going to work for them. But, then, few who venture fully into the Dream Archipelago emerge unscathed and none unchanged.
Does Sussken himself emerge unscathed from the Archipelago? While it is clear that he does not drive himself to the point of self-laceration in the manner of the protagonists of earlier Archipelago stories, such as ‘Whores’ and ‘The Discharge’, there will undoubtedly be some discussion of how happy the ending to the novel is. Critics have sometimes described the apparent happy endings of other Priest novels, such as A Dream of Wessex or The Quiet Woman (1990) as a sarcastic mocking of people’s capacity for self-delusion. There is certainly an element of ambiguity as to how reliable Sussken’s narration is. Early in the novel he tells us:
Like all children I lived in two worlds: the outer reality, which was sometimes grim or frightening or depressing, but mostly was simply ordinary, and the inner world of dreams and the imagination. Here, in the privacy of the mind, stimulated and enlivened by the making of music, I dwelt as long as possible each day.
This might suggest a problem with separating the outer world of reality from the inner world of the imagination. The theme of separation runs through Priest’s oeuvre but, again, it is often ambiguous as to whether he might actually think that the problem is not that people can’t separate the inner and outer worlds but that they do separate them.
Where it seems to me that The Gradual, following on from its immediate predecessor The Adjacent, does differ from the other Archipelago fiction, is in its adoption of something like the four stage model of fantastika proposed by John Clute: wrongness, thinning, recognition, return. The wrongness of Glaund, the hollow experience of restlessly travelling through the islands, and the recognition gained by Sussken in finally confronting his plagiariser are all clearly demonstrated. His return, under the frustrating guidance of the adepts of the gradual, is more enigmatic and something that has to be experienced by readers for themselves. Rather than as a metaphor for the creative process, Sussken’s experiences should perhaps be thought of as a demonstration of how changing through creativity is a form of negotiating the chaos of the real world.
My Shadow Clarke discussion of The Gradual can be found here but in what follows I’ve cut it down to fit into the context of this post:
Not only is Sussken forbidden from employing irony or any post/modernist tricks in the orchestral piece celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Republic but he is also required to include a minimum of four movements, three major instrumental soloists, four operatic soloists, a mixed chorus of over three hundred voices, a sequence of peasant celebration, a triumphal march and ‘cannon effects in the climax’. It’s difficult not to see this as a commentary on the ironies of being a writer torn between desiring the possibilities that SF opens up for interrogating the limits of consensus reality while hating the conformist demand to meet certain expectations that it also embodies. Imagine Gollancz said to Priest, ‘We’ll leave you alone to write your weird stories of alienation and separation, as long as you knock out a mass-market, three-act space opera with a world-weary hero, feisty heroine and cynical robot as the three main characters, and include alien sex, a heist sequence and a climactic space battle.’ Would Priest indignantly decline or take the money and run as Sussken does? The answer, based on the evidence of The Gradual, is not as obvious as you might think.
Even before this encounter with the ruling junta, Sussken is already experiencing drastic challenges to his adherence to ‘ascetic, theoretical modernism, with its experimental clashes and pauses’ from an unexpected surge of romanticism: ‘I wanted to write sea shanties and children’s musicals and I wanted to celebrate the love affairs of famous people’. The implication is that the structuring binary divide that makes us think there is an unbridgeable canon between high (literary) art and low (genre) fiction is false. Therefore, while The Gradual is apparently more conventional or, leastways, more recognisable as a conventional story than, say, the fragmented gazeteer-form of The Islanders or, even, The Adjacent, which hops between different alternate realities. It is this veneer of conventionality – in what is after all still a trademark Priest text of misdirection and ambiguity – that foregrounds more clearly the symbiotic relationship between genre conventions and literary experimentalism that characterises his work. Sussken recognises the extent to which he is a duplicitous copy of himself through meeting his plagiarist, And Ante, but at the same time he recognises that the type of story he is in is not one of literary existential horror but rather one of generic ontological possibility. By abandoning his desire for the mastery of the modernist artist, and allowing himself to be led by the example of the enigmatic female adepts of the gradual into opening himself to the possibilities the universe permits of meaning being continuously constructed, he actually ends up unwittingly creating something of value in the world.
Afterthoughts (having read The Evidence): I don’t think it is necessary to have read any of the other Dream Archipelago books to enjoy The Evidence. While not everyone will agree with Nina Allan’s assessment that it is ‘a Dream Archipelago novel like no other’ – it does, in fact, include stage magic, the war between Glaund and Faiandland (so it’s not on the same timeline as The Gradual), and also identical twins, which are a recurrent theme across Priest’s fiction and not just the DA texts – I think her point that it ‘might be exactly the right place to start’ for those who have ‘never read Priest before’ is a good suggestion. The Evidence, despite having a protagonist named Todd Fremde, is funny, warm and engaging. Like The Gradual, it explores the relationship between genre conventions and literary writing (in fact, I’m wondering if Gollancz asked for a locked-room mystery with action sequences) and so if it was a work of art to be displayed in an exhibition then it would probably best be hung next to its predecessor. However, there is also a fascinating extended commentary on the class relations of the feudal Dream Archipelago, and in particular the relationship between serfdom and vassalage, which does have consequences for how we consider all the other works in the sequence. If The Gradual marks the reintroduction of history into the Dream Archipelago, then The Evidence might perhaps be seen as the moment when the sequence comes fully into alignment with our own post-financial-crash twenty-first century.
This review first appeared earlier this year in BSFA Review 10 (summer 2020)
Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley (Titan Books, 2019)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
Aliya Whiteley is one of the writers of the moment: her The Loosening Skin was shortlisted for the 2019 Clarke Award and her forthcoming Greensmith is one of the most anticipated titles of 2020. Skein Island is an earlier novel, first published in 2015, that has been republished by Titan (who have also republished The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives) with an accompanying short story, ‘The Cold Smoke Declaration’. The titular island, which I assume to be an alternate-world version of Lundy, is a privately-owned retreat for women only. Any woman can spend a week there as long as she writes the story of her past and deposits it in the archive. The experience of this visit has the potential to be life changing: the mother of Marianne, the protagonist of the novel, went to Skein Island seventeen years before the novel’s opening and never returned to her family.
The novel’s opening in Wooton Bassett, where Marianne lives with her husband David, reflects the attenuated nature of twenty-first-century English life, in which fear and anger are often the only remaining primary emotions. Marianne is musing over the arrival of an unexpected and unsolicited invitation to Skein Island while shutting up the library in which she works, when a strange man with a knife walks in and tells her to go into the back, take her clothes off and lie on the floor. We then cut to David waiting for Marianne in a car park, which turns out to be outside the Police station in which she is reporting what has just happened to her. He is reflecting on the fact that he never remembers driving anywhere; in the morning it is just like a continuation of the previous night’s dream. ‘Would he’, he wonders, ‘react in a crash, a crisis?’ This, of course, is what we are going to find out as events in the novel cause everyone to wake up to the crisis of modern life.
In particular, David wakes up the next day to find Marianne has left for Skein Island. ‘She won’t be coming back’, his father-in-law Arnie tells him in the pub, where the all-male customers share an unspoken understanding that beer is the best form of mutual support and that ‘this leaving business was something that women did’. These men are here for ‘the game’, which involves Mags the barmaid placing four small cubes on the bar, one red, one blue, one yellow, one green. Wisely, David leaves the pub at this point but of course he is drawn back later in the novel and ends up playing. After choosing the red cube, he is given a drink of something that isn’t brandy by Mags and told to come out back, where, as reality fades and his erection rises, he finds himself jousting as a knight before being overwhelmed in a sexual encounter. The experience reminds him of his discomfort at being a sexual object for Marianne and the only way to assuage the resultant emptiness is for him to take on the role of the manly hero by attempting to get to Skein Island to find out what has happened to her.
Meanwhile, Marianne is on the island, marked out with a logo of four coloured squares, trying to break into the archive in order to read her mother’s story. In the process, she exposes a much larger story which embroils everyone as the segments of the plot snap violently together just at the moment David arrives on the island; and suddenly the world is changed. But, as Marianne realises, if men now find themselves at the centre of the meaningful stories they have craved, ‘women will be marginalised into minor characters once more’ and lose the freedom they never knew they had to make their own stories. Whiteley’s resolution of this ingenious but also classically set-up genre plot is an exquisitely pleasurable combination of dark comedy (mostly at the expense of the four types of men in the world) and terror, which includes the greatest terror of all: the freedom of choice to make a truly different future.
Following the first part of my combined Hugo and Clarke Award 2020 shortlist discussion, Part One, in which I considered the three novels on both award shortlists (and a subsequent post in which I looked at the remaining three novels shortlisted for the Hugo), here are my thoughts on the remaining three books on this year’s Clarke shortlist and some concluding comments on the list as a whole.
David Wellington, The Last Astronaut (Orbit, 2019, kindle edition)
I enjoyed this more than I thought I was going to from what I had heard in advance (although to be honest that wouldn’t have been difficult). A very big dumb cigar-shaped object arrives in the Solar System on course for Earth and provokes a speedy return to crewed spaceflight by NASA, after a twenty-odd year hiatus following the disastrous abandonment of a Mars mission in the 2030s. However, a spaceship owned by the KSpace corporation beats them to ‘the Object’, which becomes know as 2I. When the NASA crew arrive they find the KSpace ship deserted because the crew have already entered 2I. Mission Commander, Sally Jansen, still haunted by her guilty memories of an aborted Mars mission from years before, ignores orders from the ground and takes one of her crew in to 2I because she is convinced that the KSpace team are in trouble and need rescuing. Needless to say, things soon start to go wrong.
The cultural reference point here is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973) but the whole effect of that novel was achieved through the purpose of the ‘Big Dumb Object’ remaining an enigma. In The Last Astronaut, we’re given a full explanation of everything that happens and, although this provides a serviceable enough story, it defeats the point of the set-up. The characters as they are introduced are uninteresting and stereotypical (the unyielding military guy etc) and show emotion in unlikely ways such as punching the inside of the spaceship walls. Ironically, the KSpace crew, of whom we see very little save traces, are far more enigmatic and intriguing (even the dead one!). Quite why they would take dozens of memory sticks onto an alien spaceship and leave them at convenient intervals attached to orange flags with recorded video snippets is beyond me (and let’s not even think about the recorded thoughts of the NASA characters which crop up to explain their actions). Yet, there is a definite Heart of Darkness vibe to the proceedings as we track down Foster, the leader of the KSpace crew, and Wellington handles the pace and tension well so that I did find myself invested in the action. Finally, there is a nice turnaround to events when it transpires that Sally is able to communicate with the alien mind better than Foster can. But even if you like astronaut novels (and I do as it happens), there were better examples on the submission list by Mary Robinette Kowal and Becky Chambers.
Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cage of Souls (Head of Zeus, 2019, kindle edition)
A long novel (I’m not sure if this year’s shortlist has the greatest number of average pages per volume ever but it must be in contention), which I approached with some trepidation and then found myself thoroughly absorbed within from start to finish. Cage of Souls begins – in what could be read as another vague allusion to Heart of Darkness – with its narrator, Stefan Advani, on board a riverboat taking him with other convicts to a prison island on a lake within a jungle. Stefan is an educated man, a product of the Academy in the city of Shadrapar – the one city left in this far-future and slowly-dying Earth – who has read all twelve volumes of Trethowan’s Bestiary; but he is destined to be locked up as convict labour for the rest of what is likely to be a nasty, brutal and short life. In fact – dear reader, please remember this and tell your relations of university-going age – his rounded education in the Humanities and Social Sciences proves to be his salvation, as he is the only one on the island who can transcribe the hitherto undiscovered thirteenth volume of Trethowan from old shorthand for the Governor. Further on in the novel – quite a lot further on but not particularly near the end – when Advani unexpectedly comes across an elderly Trethowan very much alive in the jungle living in a village of ‘web-children’ whom he has taught to speak, the stage is set for a Kurtz-like encounter but instead we get a very funny scene in which Trethowan is shown to have been decentred by the irreverent web-children who pay no attention to his commands whatsoever. The message is clear that humanity is being supplanted by a new intelligent species.
However, neither the web-children nor any of the other array of fantastic (carnivorous) beasts are really the ‘other’ of this book because that role is taken by women. Stefan might not always feel at ease with his brother men but he understands them better – even the fascist Marshal and the homicidal evil genius, Gaki – than any of the women he meets. This could be seen as a fault in the novel but it’s actually the point. While Wellington’s The Last Astronaut gestures at privileging women’s outlooks over men’s, Tchaikovsky writes explicitly about a failed patriarchal order and he is absolutely unflinching in its depiction of it falling apart under the contradictions of its own logic. While the structure of the novel, with its two lengthy flashback sections, appears simply to be a long, rambling and entertaining narrative, it has a governing logic which is backhandedly acknowledged in the text by Advani’s periodic admissions that he is only a social historian. Gaki’s desire to hear only his own thoughts is the logical endpoint of a patriarchal order predicated on the (white, male, bourgeois) unified subject of classical liberalism. A future can only lie with the misfits and rejects of this system (such as the insouciant Peter Drachmar and Sergei, the Marxist cosmonaut from 1972) and the others which it rejects (such as Faith, Hermione and the web-children). On the one hand, Tchaikovsky is an old-fashioned writer of the novel of ideas; but, on the other hand, Cage of Souls is peak 2020 and the combination works. I think this novel is a real achievement which will repay re-reading over the years and (hopefully) decades to come.
Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift (Vintage, 2019, kindle edition)
This is another long novel that, amongst other things, tells the history of Zambia through several generations of what become an interconnected family. A family tree after the contents page begins in the nineteenth century and culminates in an unnamed boy born in 2024. This indication that The Old Drift moves into the near future is for several hundred pages the only sign of science-fictionality, if we don’t count the intriguing story of Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, and Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy in the 1960s, which turns out to be true and the topic of a 2017 article that Serpell wrote for the New Yorker, ‘The Zambian “Afronaut” Who Wanted to Join the Space Race’. For me, this was where the novel really started to come alive. This was not because the early part of the novel was boring but because its curious, rotating, drifting rhythm takes the reader (or, at least, this one) a couple of hundred pages to adjust to and start to appreciate its very-large-scale kaleidoscopic effect. To say I became utterly transfixed is to suggest simply that I was drawn into the story whereas I think it would be more accurate to say that the reading process shifted my perspective. This was not just a geographical switch to a novel located in Africa in a country which I’d heard of and knew approximately where it was but precious little else about; it was also a move away from the idea of the individual, rounded, meaningful life. Other fiction does this, of course, but I felt that it was done better here and set convincingly on a philosophical level in a universe in which human life is ephemeral as opposed to the type of human-centred worldview that has historically characterised the novel as a bourgeois literary form.
On an ‘ideas’ level therefore, The Old Drift, is definitely science-fictional (and there is explicitly sfnal content in the final quarter) but also formally the novel is structured in the manner of a ‘fixup’, which is not to say that it is comprised of pre-published stories (although a couple were) but that its form suits its wide historical sweep and drift (to labour that point again). When I initially put these three novels together for discussion it was for the simple reason that these were the three I hadn’t yet read and it was only when I finished them all that I thought about the Conrad allusions as a common thread. The Old Drift specifically addresses Heart of Darkness (1899) and ‘writes back’ to Conrad but it also shifts the frame of reference by closing with a description of the void of space as ‘the darkest heart of them all’. All three of these books in their very different ways play with the idea of the decentring of the human species and while The Last Astronaut doesn’t follow through on that, both Cage of Souls and The Old Drift do in a way that combines a broadly Marxist conception of history with a science-fictional perspective from outside that history. There is a beautiful irony in Serpell’s depiction of this relationship through the eyes of a swarm of mosquitoes (or are they moskeetoze?):
These fiery young bolshies [Naila, Joseph and Jacob, the twenty-first century generation] tried to blow up the dam and take down the government that way. But their blueprints were old, their calculations too tight, and they’d made no concessions to chance.
The past matters but the old blueprints no longer work (if they ever did) for a twenty-first century in which global politics, the climate and viruses are rapidly shifting into a new and fluidly chaotic patterns. The Old Drift is an essential point of departure for exploring this new world.
Thoughts: In the preamble to the first half of this post, I argued that it is no longer possible if ever it was to make arguments about ‘the field’ as a whole from the Clarke shortlist and that was one of the motivations (apart from the overlap of three titles between shortlists) for linking my discussion of the two awards. One reason why this is necessary is that there has been a shift over the last twenty years (at least) in the heart of ‘the field’ from SF to SFF. The Clarke’s remit is in terms of SF and therefore it is unlikely to cover books such as the other three titles on the Hugo list (and indeed only one of these was even entered for the Clarke). But even so, The Old Drift, The City in the Middle of the Night and Cage of Souls all contain fantasy elements. I see this shift to SFF as part of the wider shift within the structuring consciousness of fiction that I was talking about in that first post. This is in part a political shift away from bourgeois values (classical liberalism, the unified subject) towards intersectional feminism and therefore away from the symbolic order to the imaginary order (hence SFF rather than the engineering paradigm of golden age SF). In this context, the argument over the respective merits of genre and literary fiction, which has dogged the history of the Clarke, has now been superseded in part by the question of where a text sits on the spectrum of political value but more importantly how successful it is in fulfilling its objectives and setting out new possibilities. In other words, aesthetics and politics remain linked.
It is no surprise to me that that the field is apparently tipping more towards genre under these circumstances because, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, genre is a proven method of breaking-up the literary reality principle (which is tied to bourgeois values etc). Therefore, the problem is not genre, itself, but how genre is used because it is a double-edged sword. In a recent interview, M. John Harrison said:
I use whatever mix of genres I need to service the themes and meanings. Genre looks at itself as its own produce – if you write generic science fiction, then the science fiction is the be-all and end-all of the text. It’s like a substance the writer is supposed to extrude. That’s the main problem with that. In my stuff, the genre is not the product, it’s there to serve the product. It’s taken up and put down when the product demands. If you read for the genre element, you’ll be missing what’s actually there and conclude there’s no content.
To translate that into cruder political terms: either you use genre or it uses you.
‘Not the Clarke Award’: I find it difficult to rank books because I don’t think you can put them on a linear scale but the Clarke demands a winner and so, in the style of the former annual Eastercon panel, I’m going to make myself discard novels from the shortlist until one is left.
First out: The Last Astronaut. I doubt too many will disagree with me on this. In fact, judging from various comments I saw in corners of the web, I enjoyed it rather more than some other people did. I can think of worse books on the shortlist in recent years but I can also think of more interesting books on the submission list that didn’t get selected. As I’ve discussed above, in terms of pacing and structure it does work efficiently as a sci-fi thriller and there are some interesting bits too. However, it never really exceeds its genre components. In this respect, there is a kind of meta element to it in that, like 2I and its cargo of worms, The Last Astronaut is a vehicle for a ravenous need to consume all meaning and propagate more genre. There is a moment near the end of the novel in which the mask slips and Wellington clearly toys with letting 2I just carry on and reach Earth. That was one of the bits that made the novel more than mere entertainment but there were not enough of these to bring The Last Astronaut into contention for the award.
Second out: The City in the Middle of the Night. This was an ambitious book and I loved the way it took on patriarchal narrative structure and tried to generate a queer alternative, despite never finding quite the right register for what it was trying to do. However, the struggle to use genre rather than be used by it is so intense that it virtually destabilises the whole undertaking and made parts of it heavy going. Anders should be applauded for ultimately landing the ending in such a way that we learn something from Sophie’s journey. The fact that it left me with plenty to think about makes me think that she will write better novels in the future for having persisted with this one.
Now, it gets more complicated because the remaining four novels all successfully use genre more than it uses them and would all be worthy additions to the list of Clarke winners.
Third out: Cage of Souls. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and the only reason I am eliminating it at this stage is because this is a strong shortlist and there are three other very fine books that have ended up sitting above it. As I’ve said above, through an apparently old-fashioned type of narrative, Tchaikovsky is doing something different with a contemporary relevance. I love his books with these ‘soft academic’ social-historian protagonists because I’m one of those myself and I think perhaps the most fitting way for me to respond to that would be to write about his work in this respect at greater length in the future.
Fourth out: A Memory Called Empire. This has already won the Hugo and I could see it winning the Clarke too, especially if the panel are split in any way because I suspect it will be high on most people’s lists even if not their number one choice. It’s a good novel with witty and engaging interaction between interesting characters, and an entertaining Buffy-like vibe, but I feel that the narrative arc of Mahit is not yet complete; part of the meaning of A Memory Called Empire won’t be revealed until A Desolation Called Peace (which I’m very much looking forward to reading) appears next year. Together the two books have the potential to expand on the ‘one is too few but two are too many’ (with added martinis) paradigm, I discussed towards the end of my second post on the Hugo shortlist.
Fifth out: Aghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I can’t do it! They’re both exceptional novels; head and shoulders above a strong field. I’m also worried that the choice I make here will be seen – despite my lengthy assertions to the contrary – as some sort of choice between genre and literary fiction, when it isn’t. For me these are both necessary books in 2019-20 in which politics and aesthetics are brilliantly attuned and the genre is very much there to serve the product. I will be extremely disappointed unless one of them wins and equally happy whichever one it is. But the Clarke doesn’t accept ties and I think that this is rightly so and so therefore ‘fifth out’ for me, with heavy heart, after changing my mind several times, even while writing this, is The Old Drift. This is, as I’ve just said, an exceptional novel, which I think will be read for years to come. In particular, it uses narrative and genre adeptly to generate a new kind of consciousness that is not that of the unified (white western) liberal subject. The central literary conceit of ‘the Old Drift’, itself, unfurls brilliantly and quite unexpectedly (to me) as we reach the climax. The only thing I was left wanting was … more … but in order to have had another generation it would probably have required at least another 2-300 pages.
My winner:The Light Brigade. Destined to be a classic, I think this is an example of how a genre writer, through hard experience writing genre, bends genre to her will with vision, precision and concision. The factor which tips the balance in its favour for me is the nonbinary indeterminacy of Dietz, the narrator, up until the end of the novel, which is a key component of the temporal and spatial instability that helps undermine the dominance of corporate dystopia (because binary gender is a key component of the nightmare of capitalist realism). A number of reviewers have elided this nonbinary indeterminacy by referring to Dietz as she or Gina throughout their discussion of the novel. I would assume that this was a difficult decision for Hurley but I think that the reveal has to happen or (some) readers would assume Dietz was a man (and it is those readers who need their assumptions challenged). As discussed, in my first post, one (but by no means the only) reference point of the novel is Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959). Another more poignant Heinlein reference is surely to ‘—All You Zombies—’ (also 1959) but here the lonely solipsism of that story is rewritten to find a sense of wholeness in the intersubjective political collective of the Marxist rebels. For me, this is the best book of 2019 and one of the best books of the decade. But what all of these books (on the Clarke and Hugo shortlists) show to varying degrees and effect is that, to rephrase Gramsci, the old is dying and the new is being born and it is very much the decisive moment in time for everybody to decide which side they’re on.
This is a longer version of the written paper I have circulated for the ‘Wall & Barriers: SF in the Age of Brexit’ Conference, Anglia Ruskin University, 12 September 2020. Here I draw together some ideas I’ve written about elsewhere into a work-in-progress draft to enable me to think about how a longer version of the arguments would work and how long it would need to be.
The historian A.J.P. Taylor described Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 (he was opposed) as the most decisive historical event for the country since the Norman Conquest, showing how it could be seen from a nationalist perspective as a European invasion of England. Arguably, therefore, that decision in the mid-1970s represents a real-life example of a jonbar point, in which an England-dominated UK switched tracks on to an alternate timeline. Before the switch, it was orientated towards the exceptionalism of an imperial British past; afterwards, it had turned to face a future that its four constituent nations might share in common with other European countries.
Or, at least, that is how it seemed until a 2016 referendum on remaining in what had since become the European Union resulted in a narrow vote to leave and consequently plunged the UK into an ongoing state of political, social and constitutional crisis, which has in no way been resolved by the UK’s actual departure from the EU on 31 January 2020. In retrospect, it now becomes apparent that there have been two alternate UKs running in parallel since the 1970s (although their origins lie deeper); one that embraced a new identity as part of a European collective and one that first resented and then ultimately rejected that identity. Admittedly, these positions mean different things to different people, with the consequence that, rather than there being one central opposition between two clashing worldviews, there are now numerous fault lines dividing society. It is this kind of process—by which a fundamental incompatibility splinters apparent unity into a multiplicity of difference—that has been so comprehensively captured on a wider scale by Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence (2014-18), which portrays a near-future Europe that has fissured into hundreds of mini statelets.
I’m not going to write any more about Hutchinson’s books in this version of the paper – you can get an idea of the kind of approach I might take from my review of Europe in Winter (2016) which relates the effect of the book to ‘the tragi-comic horror of returning to … England from an extended trip abroad to continental Europe; the initial relief at no longer having to feel self-conscious because of cultural inadequacy quickly changes into a sobering awareness of the impossibility of simply slotting back into the two-dimensional existence which is the only one on offer’. Instead, I want to discuss how SFF (science fiction and fantasy) enables us not only to see the incompatibilities and differences fissuring apparently common cultures but also provides us with future-orientated approaches for moving beyond these multiple binary divisions. To this end, I will examine how such approaches have worked in the past, with reference to the example of Naomi Mitchison and (briefly) Iain M. Banks, before considering their function in two recent novels, (again, briefly) Simon Ings’s The Smoke (2018) and (in more detail) Justina Robson’s The Switch (2017).
However, first I want to say a bit more about the 2016 EU referendum as an example of the kind of process by which a fundamental incompatibility splinters apparent unity into a multiplicity of difference. Various attempts have been made to categorise the leave-remain divide – e.g. as generational, as determined by education level etc. – and various attempts have been made to use ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ as categories to understand other attitudinal divides – e.g. to cultural values, to wearing a facemask in the covid pandemic etc. While social scientists such as Matthew Goodwin are keen to portray the 2019 General Election results in terms of the socially conservative values that can also be aligned with a ‘leave’ position, it strikes me that these explanations and categories never add up. For example, attitudes to Scottish independence in Scotland, which is linked to but does not by any means exactly map on to the leave-remain divide are further complicated by attitudes to self-id for gender recognition. There are now – at time of writing – three new small pro-independence parties, which are all opposed to gender self-id; a position which they share with the new pro-union ‘Alliance for Unity’ (all of these parties designed to stand only for the ‘list’ component of the Scottish additional-member electoral system). If someone had speculated on this development in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, I don’t think many people would have seen this as a plausible or likely outcome. We might well describe the situation as divisive but there is no central binary division. And neither is there regarding Brexit. What we have in all these cases are apparently absolute divides that in fact obscure very murky and messy networks of alliances of enemies’ enemies and even less fathomable alignments, bound up with confusion and bigotry. This is why we can’t simply compromise to resolve a specific difference and ‘move on’. There is no common ground, or ‘common culture’ such as apparently existed in the early decades of postwar Britain, to fall back on: it has fractured into a multiplicity of differences (and was only originally constituted through the rigid suppression of those differences).
As Žižek notes in The Parallax View (2006), the ‘Real’ is ‘not the hardcore which exists as the Same, but the hard bone of contention which pulverises the sameness into the multitude of appearances’ (26) but we can’t apprehend this ‘Real’ other than through fantasy. In his earlier Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), Žižek takes a line from the Wachowski sisters’ The Matrix (1999) to stand for Western societal realisation in the 21st century (following 9/11, the 2008 financial crash, Brexit, Trump and the pandemic) that the stable consensual shared understanding we used to take for ‘real life’ is an illusion. The way we fully overcome that illusion (rather than go on kidding ourselves that things will go ‘back to normal’) is by constantly reminding ourselves that we live in a kind of fiction: ‘we should be able to discern, in what we experience as fiction, the hard kernel of the Real which we are able to sustain only if we fictionalize it’ (Žižek 2002: 19). It is precisely through SFF rather than straightforwardly realist or mimetic fiction that we can see through the illusoriness of ‘real life’. In this respect Hitchinson’s Europe books follow in the tradition of writers such as Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ and Christopher Priest in highlighting not just the fragmentation of ‘reality’ but the way in which we’re always caught between competing illusory versions of reality.
Naomi Mitchison is an example of the generation of British professional women writers who became established between the wars; many of whom – including Stella Benson, Katherine Burdekin, Storm Jameson, Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner and even Virginia Woolf – wrote at least some works that would be thought of as SFF from a twenty-first century perspective. Mitchison’s early fiction was set in the classical Greek or Roman periods but employed modern idiom, incorporated socialist and feminist politics, and also featured fantasy elements such as characters transforming into animals. As Kristin Bluemel observes, amongst so much romantic and fantastic content, reviewers generally failed to notice that a novel such as The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) was centrally concerned with critiquing patriarchal societies and promoting female sexual- and self-actualisation (Bluemel 2015: 51). Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935) transposes all of these themes to present-day England and uses a blend of free indirect discourse and realist documentary style to represent not only May Day marches, parliamentary elections, a socialist revolution and a fascist uprising – all of which is contrasted with a glowing pastoral account of the industrial and technological progress of the Soviet Union – but also free love, rape and abortion. As a result, the socialist and feminist politics were not only unmissable but present in a tightly entwined configuration including witchcraft and future speculation that alienated just about everybody at the time, including publishers and reviewers. As a result, Mitchison’s literary reputation in England never recovered. The critics were wrong, however; it is a fantastic novel by one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century.
I first became interested in Mitchison because of her involvement in Mass Observation (MO), the literary- and surrealist-inflected social research organisation founded in 1937 and then relaunched in 1981 (Mitchison contributed to both phases). One of the fundamental purposes of MO was to record everyday life for future historians. As Ben Highmore has noted, an understanding of this historicity in the minds of the people who write for MO generates a ‘temporal atmosphere’ of awareness of the future, which ‘places the intimate politics of living within the realm of the day-to-day imagining of narrative cohesion, continuity and change’ (Highmore 2011: 92). Such writing potentially carries a proleptic charge in its capacity to help bring into being the future that it imagines or invokes. The mechanism for this is not difficult to grasp: it is like keeping a diary. Anybody writing about their own life on a daily basis will at some point start to picture their actions as they will appear when written up later that evening or the following morning and make choices accordingly. In this way imagination is able to precede and shape events; diaries are inherently science fictional. Mitchison’s description of We Have Been Warned as a ‘historical novel about my own times’ (Mitchison 2012: xxi) indicates the way it functions as a kind of imaginary diary, or what Max Saunders calls ‘autobiografiction’:
Autobiografiction can include material that writers may prefer not to own in their own person; but rather than suggesting that their fiction gives them away, either consciously or unconsciously, they are claiming that the fictional permits a fuller autobiography. This is partly a matter of its being able to include the shameful as well as the honourable, and thus assemble a more complete, more human picture. (Saunders 2010: 205)
Shame is crucial here because it is part of a process of self-realisation that enables individuals to move beyond the dominant ideological and moral values of the society that they are living in. Helen Merrell Lynd (1958) theorises shame’s role in achieving self-realisation as being due to the fact that it is a two-stage process involving first ‘feeling shame for things that one believes one should feel ashamed of and [then] feeling shame that one is ashamed of feeling ashamed because one does not actually accept the standards on which it is based’ (37). For example, Mitchison’s fictional alter ego in We Have Been Warned, Dione Galton, undergoes this two-stage process when she feels shame at kissing working-class Donald in the street and then immediately feels, as a socialist, a second wave of shame for feeling ashamed because of bourgeois standards of behaviour that in theory she rejects. Such shame provokes two general types of response: either a retreat into the safety of life lived according to social conventions or a revelation of oneself, society and the wider possibilities for living which those existing conventions prohibit. For Lynd, someone reacting in the second way would move ‘beyond [their] own limitations in depth of feeling, understanding, and insight’ by entering ‘into relations of intimacy and mutuality’ (159). This is the trajectory followed by Mitchison, both fictionally and in real life, as she came to the realisation that what was really important to her was the prospect of living fully in an open society of the future.
By fictionalising her own life and times, Mitchison was able to discern what Žižek calls ‘the hard kernel of the Real’ (I’d like a better term) and see beyond the multiple binary divisions of the age – Fascist/Communist, Socialist/Communist, Socialist/Liberal, women/men, active/passive, proletarian/bourgeois, free love/respectability – and thereby transform herself from someone who had hitherto been aligned with the liberal norms of bourgeois society into someone who was now orientated and committed to a transformed future. She was a married woman with children who realised that in order to achieve the classless, gender-equal society she yearned for it was necessary to overcome contemporary conceptions of morality and good taste. Therefore, she subsequently wrote a long theoretical book, The Moral Basis of Politics (1938), which argues for the moral revolution necessary to underpin social change. Although by the mid-1980s, when she wrote the foreword to the published version of her wartime diaries for MO, she expressed sadness at the failure of both ‘a new kind of world’ and ‘self-government and a recognition of nationhood’ for Scotland to materialise (2000: 12-13), her work looks very different when viewed from the perspective of 2020. Post third-wave feminism provides a context in which Mitchison’s sexual politics make sense and, as Anna McFarlane (2016) notes in an article for The Bottle Imp, We Have Been Warned ‘is a compelling read in contemporary Scotland in the aftermath of the 2014 Independence Referendum and the ongoing discussion about the nature of nationalism’ (2). Beyond the binaries of all these debates, we can see how Mitchison’s fiercely intersectional novel heralded changes to women’s position in society and to Scotland that only relatively recently became realisable. Although contemporaries largely rejected the desires expressed and possibilities imagined by Mitchison in the 1930s, her fiction demonstrates a sustained mapping of not only the fundamental binary oppositions of the period onto the multiplicity of differences underlying them, but also of ways beyond those binaries
A review of my book, The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (2017), in which I analyse We Have Been Warned in detail, commented on the contemporaneity of some of my terminology – ‘intersectionality’, ‘post-scarcity’ etc – and pointed out that ‘the insights and ambitions these [terms] have come to name are themselves products of the long 20th century, the advances and limit points of the socialisms it has engendered’ (Taylor 2018: 120). When I was writing that book and applying ‘post-scarcity’ to We Have Been Warned, I thought I was consciously using the term anachronistically in order to create a link between Mitchison’s writing of the 1930s and the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, which he began writing in the 1970s but were only published from 1987 onwards. (To be clear, I didn’t even mention Banks in the book but in my mind I was imagining ‘the Culture’ as the logical endpoint of proletarian modernism). However, subsequently when I was re-reading Mitchison’s The Moral Basis of Politics (1938), I discovered that her criticism of the dominant ‘Western culture pattern’ (i.e. the morals and culture of Anglo-American class-based capitalist society) (Mitchison 1971: 14) was framed in exactly the terminology of scarcity that I had thought was a later coinage: ‘the present culture pattern is founded on economics of scarcity, and scarcity is now an abnormality except in times of war (when the culture standards of our immediate past always seem to become more valid)’ (Mitchison 1971: 15). In other words, in the 1930s Mitchison understood not only that a fully-functioning post-scarcity economics was necessary in order for a new, more liberated, culture pattern of living to evolve but also that her and other women’s desire for that way of life – free love, gender equality etc. – was a driver for that social and economic change. Mitchison continued to write fine SFF into the 1990s, including the anti-oedipal Travel Light (1952) – which is repeatedly referenced in Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s multi-award winning This Is How You Lose the Time War (2019) – and Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962). It is difficult to link bodies of fictional work from different periods and contexts but one way is to actually try and think about authors who fictionalise the multiplicity of difference in order to map out some of the coordinates of the Real and try and write their way into the future. Therefore, one similarity that can be drawn between Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory (1984) and We Have Been Warned, which was written half a century earlier,is that both anticipate the twenty-first-century future we inhabit today by registering the emergence of both a new gender politics and a reawakened sense of Scottish identity.
While the Culture novels are not ostensibly Scottish, they are similarly orientated towards the future and a new kind of world free of failed patriarchal orders, such as those found in the first three Culture novels – Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), and Use of Weapons (1990) – which were all initially drafted in the 1970s and early 1980s. Written amongst these, first drafted in 1978, was The State of the Art (1989), the novella in which the Culture visit the Earth c.1977. The narrator, Diziet Sma, one of the few recurring characters in the Culture series, views the failed patriarchal orders with absolute horror and advocates for an immediate programme of urgent socialist intervention and yet when she looks closer into the realities of the ‘walls and barriers’ of that time – such as Berlin at the time of the wall, in which the East is a poor mirror of the West, and Year Zero in Kampuchea (see Banks 1991: 138-42, 167) – she comes to wonder if there is a ‘genetic flaw’ (Banks 1991: 141) preventing humans from living and working together in a non-hierarchical, equal society. In the end, she concludes – anticipating Žižek’s argument in Welcome to the Desert of the Real – that:
… there is an osmosis from fiction to reality, a constant contamination which distorts the truth behind both and fuzzes the telling distinctions in life itself, categorising real situations and feelings by a set of rules largely culled from the most hoary fictional clichés, the most familiar and received nonsense. (Banks 1991: 201)
Against this, Banks situates the fiction of the Culture as generated from the different temporal perspective of the Minds, the artificial intelligences which are equal citizens of the Culture but have longer perspectives. The Mind of the ship that Sma is on tells her it estimates it will take another ‘ten thousand years at least’ for Earth society to accept that ‘there is nothing intrinsically illogical or impossible about having a genuine, functioning Utopia’ (Banks 1991: 168, 170). By writing from a far-future AI perspective, Banks decentres humanist approaches and gives an overview of the scale of the transition required to move beyond the binaries generated by Earth’s hierarchical patriarchal culture.
There isn’t space here to discuss fully how we get from twenty-first century Scotland to a post-scarcity future ten thousand years in the future but in a longer version of this argument, aside from discussing Bank’s Culture series in more detail, I would look at SFF that deals with the trajectory towards an intermediary transhuman future, such as Simon Ings’s The Smoke. A subplot in The Smoke concerns the ‘chickies’, a telepathic posthuman nonbinary species who are trying to intervene in and thereby transform the gendered sexual violence of male human beings. However, The Smoke is also an alternate history – there is no America and no Second World War has happened – in which Britain is trying to hang on as a global power in the face of globalisation and rapid technological change; a set-up which brilliantly illuminates all the fantasies surrounding Brexit and the internal barriers between the post-industrial North and metropolitan liberal London. As I wrote in a review of The Smoke, its strange blend of gender politics, British social realism, alternate history, and futuristic technology does not dovetail into a neatly unified whole but I don’t think anyone has previously managed so well to capture the full humiliating awfulness of what it feels like to be trapped within backward-looking, jingoistic, introverted British culture while it lurches drunkenly forward, trousers round ankles, slap-bang into the relentlessly onrushing future of climate catastrophe, technological singularity, post-binary genders, and transhumanism.
One of the ways in which The Smoke tries to move beyond the binaries still residually governing twenty-first century Britain is by relating personal development to spatial experience; the mechanism which Fredric Jameson has described as a solution to SFF’s structural problem with closure (well, being Jameson, he was talking specifically about SF but I am expanding the scope of the argument here). As Jameson (2005) points out in his essay ‘Science Fiction as a Spatial Genre’ (296-313), the novel is a bourgeois literary form which is structurally dependent on formal resolution but SF is a genre that desires to boldly go beyond closed thinking and social constraints. He argues that Vonda McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting (1975) transcends this problem by reformulating the relationship between personal subjectivity and social intersubjectivity into an interplay between inside and outside, which scales up from the protagonist, Mischa, hiding in a cave from the people of Center, to her looking down on the planet from a departing spaceship, with a whole galaxy spreading before her (see also my review of The Exile Waiting). Therefore, The Exile Waiting does not provide a formal resolution but moves beyond the constrictions and binary divides of its hierarchical planet-bound context through a switch of perspective that opens up an exploration of individual and social possibility without limits.
It’s possible to think of other SFF texts that employ similar strategies, such as Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956). One of my favourites is the 2000AD comic series, The Ballad of Halo Jones (originally serialised between 1984 and 1986) by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson. The first episode of Book Two of Halo Jones is particularly suggestive in this respect because it is a flash forward 1500 years to 6427, in which an academic at the Institute for Para-Historical Studies is lecturing on Halo and how she ‘went out past Vega, out past Moulquet and Lambard! She saw places that aren’t even there anymore.’ Yet despite doing these things that no one else had ever done, he argues that the most amazing thing about her was her insistence that she wasn’t anyone special because ‘anyone could have done it’. The implication of this episode, which lies in the contrast between the lecturer’s description of the conditions of the Hoop (where Halo was born) and the generally idyllic, gender-equal, post-scarcity appearance of the Institute, is that Halo’s example has somehow helped bring about this utopian transformation of conditions in the human-inhabited universe (see here, here and here for my discussion of 2000AD and its relationship to what Pat Mills describes as ‘our unique, isolationist Brexit cultural identity’)
However, the final text I want to discuss is Justina Robson’s The Switch. The Switch is set in Harmony, which appears to be a planet but is in fact a section of a Culture-style Orbital (Robson explicitly mentions the work of Banks in her ‘Acknowledgments’) that is cut off from the rest of the universe by ‘the wall’:
a massive, grey cliff, a klick high, of billions of panels that cut straight up from the sandy ground in a perfectly straight line that ran for thousands of miles in both directions. High on its summit a field blurred the edges of the sky. Drones patrolled in groups of three, no cluster ever out of sight of its comrades. Nothing had ever passed through or over this structure. (Robson 2017: 189)
People know there is an ‘offworld’ but they can’t see it or get to it. Harmony, itself, is an alchemical, religious utopia in which perfection is rooted in balance and perfectly engineered gene lines result in adherents of the faith effectively having superpowers. In other words, it is another failed patriarchal order dependent on the maintenance of a brutal hierarchy within a closed society. This society is not just aggressively heteronormative and cisnormative but it is clear that Tecmaten, the 300+ years old leader, has specifically taken these concepts from old Earth sociology (of perhaps 10,000 years in the past) and used them as the basis of social engineering. As Nico, the queer protagonist of the novel, notes ‘[cisnormativity] shouldn’t even be an idea, it’s so ruinously ugly in every way’ before going on to expand ‘In the Alchemy, it was essential that one’s gender matched one’s physical form but, as with my particular variant, this was something that even the most refined Alchemist had yet to assure’ (Robson 2017: 171, 172). The Switch shows that not only that these binaries are maintained to structure the hierarchy but also how they can only be maintained within a hermetically-sealed off society with closed borders. In fact, Harmony has to create its own apparent opposite – the slum, Chaontium – in order to help obscure the fact that there is a much wider outside universe. Nico lives variously on the streets, as a gang member and then part of a crime cartel in Chaontium after escaping from the orphanage where he grew up in. He understands perfectly well that ‘people like me walk the plank to keep the ship straight’ (Robson 2017: 9).
The novel unfolds with a delirious pulp sensibility – at one point a pink-haired Nico with lotus tattoo on inner thigh is working as no-holds-barred Arena fighter under the stage name of Pretty Flower’ – and through the concept of being a ‘switch’, which draws on every possible meaning of that term. At one level, Nico himself is clearly ‘The Switch’ of the title but also he becomes the possessor of a ‘pilot Switch’, a piece of offworld ‘transcendent wetware’ that is surgically implanted and which enables him to sync with a starship (and thereby ultimately get out of Harmony). This is not the deus ex machina it appears and raises all sorts of questions of where Tashin, the girlfriend of Twostar – Nico’s ‘sister’ from the orphanage, who he has protected on the streets and in the gangs – has got this amazing piece of tech from. In fact, Tashin turns out to an offworlder with an agenda not dissimilar to those of Special Circumstances agents in Banks’s Culture novels in that she wants to overthrow the failed patriarchal order of Harmony for committing ‘choice theft’ on its people. Tashin can also override Nico’s consciousness and take control of his body through the switch but as the relationship between the two becomes more complex – as represented mainly through trash talking – Nico has to take over Tashin’s body at one point. Therefore, while switch can connote taking advantage, or a con as in ‘bait and switch’, it also suggests a mutuality and interdependence that transcends the binary thinking of Harmony and Chaontium. Nico learns to adjust from street thinking to this new mutuality throughout the novel through his interaction with others, including the relationship he develops with Isylon, while infiltrating the elite seminary at the centre of Harmony in order to find proof that the Alchemy is dependent on offworld tech for its genetic engineering. These interactions follow a trajectory of initial shame which always gives way to the choice of moving beyond individual limitations and moving on to a wider outlook.
At the end of The Switch, Harmony and Chaontium are revealed as a ‘storefront display’ for gene-tailored perfect human forms made by the Alchemy to be bought and occupied via the trading post at Skyline Orbital on the other side of the wall. Nico realises that ‘everything I had lived in as absolute reality was a lie’ (Robson 2017: 317). This realisation relates back to an earlier conversation between Nico and Isylon in which the former disagrees with the latter’s insistence that ‘Reality is very much a matter of interpretation’ (Robson 2017: 216). The point here is not just that people on Harmony have confused a fiction with reality but rather that by working through this fiction, a view of reality is gained and sustained: ultimately for Nico, Twostar and Isylon by getting offworld and finding they have a whole universe to discover. One of their first stops is the harmony shop where they find their various body types in the catalogue and Nico’s is described as ‘model still under test’ (Robson 2017: 355). As with The Exile Waiting and Halo Jones, a spatial switch of perspective takes us beyond limiting binaries.
Although novels such as The Smoke and The Switch do not directly address Brexit, they are nonetheless very suggestive about how the dynamics created by walling in a society accentuate binaries and hierarchies. While Brexiteers talk of ‘sunlit uplands’ and the glories of global trade, these novels suggest that the reality of that kind of relationship to the wider outside is providing entertainment in the form of a soap opera or farce while functioning as a glorified version of Argos run on cheap labour and the click-and-collect availability of off-the-peg products. However, the point that I’m trying to make here is that Brexit is just another version of the process by which the underlying fragmentation of supposedly common cultures (which as in the case of Britain and Harmony are normally rooted in rigid hierarchies and binaries operating in a system of ‘choice theft’) is revealed. In this respect, there is actually some truth in the way that ‘science fiction’ is often used as a synonym for nonsense because Brexit is a ‘science fiction’ which reveals ‘Britishness’ as an illusion and exposes the hard kernel of the Real. However, when SF/F is understood further as a future-orientated shift or switch of spacial and temporal perspective, then it opens up different and more open possibilities for living.
Banks, Iain M. (1991) The State of the Art. London: Orbit.
Bluemel, Kristin (2012) ‘Exemplary Intermodernists: Stevie Smith, Inez Holden, Betty Miller, and Naomi Mitchison’ in Maroula Joannou, ed., The History of British Women’s Writing, 1920-1945. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 40-56.
Highmore, Ben (2011) Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. Abingdon: Routledge.
Jameson, Fredric (2005) Archaeologies of the Future. London: Verso.
Lynd, Helen Merrell (1958) On Shame and the Search for Identity. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
McFarlane, Anna (2016) ‘Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned in Post-Referendum Scotland’, The Bottle Imp, 19 (June): 1-4
Mitchison, Naomi  (1971) The Moral Basis of Politics. Washington, NY: Kennikat Press.
—  (2012) We Have Been Warned. Kilkerran: Kennedy & Boyd.
Robson, Justina (2017) The Switch. London: Gollancz.
Saunders, Max (2010) Self-Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, Elinor (2018) ‘Review of Nick Hubble, The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question’. George Orwell Studies, 3: 1: 118-120.
Žižek, Slavoj (2002) Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso.
— (2006) The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.