The first part of this review is here.
* Indicates I read this on my kindle.
Aliette de Bodard, The Red Scholar’s Wake (Gollancz, 291pp) *
Last year’s winner of the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction with the novella Fireheart Tiger (2021), de Bodard did the double of Best Novel and Best Short Fiction in 2016 with respectively The House of Shattered Wings (2015) and the short story, ‘Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight’ (2015). I have just looked at my review, which is available online here, of the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings, The House of Binding Thorns and found this statement: ‘The advantage of unabashed genre fiction over mainstream realist fiction is that it enables a much clearer depiction of how power relations, both at individual and societal level, function.’ Although somewhat dry and technical, that is a reasonable account of the knowledge we seek from de Bodard’s fiction in particular. Of course, as I went on to spell out, it’s not only a question of seeking knowledge: ‘A queer feudal society in which power relationships are openly visible and consent proves central to meaningful relationships turns out to be highly seductive’. It further turns out, funnily enough, that all of this equally applies to a lesbian space pirate romance concerned with questions of consent, contract, and indentures – only even more so!
The Red Scholar’s Wake is set in de Bodard’s far future Xuya universe, which is framed by Chinese and Vietnamese cultures. Inexplicably to me now, I haven’t actually read any of the other stories and novellas in this universe, which is a failing I will have to correct. The action begins following the capture of Xich Si in a pirate raid by the mindship Rice Fish, who is mourning the death of her wife, the Red Scholar Huan. It’s a romance, so we know that, as Gary Wolfe pointed out in Locus, ‘we can reasonably expect some of the high passions, miscommunications, betrayals, heartbreaks, sex, and reconciliations that seem to be checkboxes of that genre’. But one of the things that has occurred to me in writing this particular set of reviews is that meeting our readerly expectations is just as much a skill as playing with them, perhaps even more of one. I’m not going to summarise the plot here because the honed nature of its structure is a core part of the reading experience. We are introduced to the characters we need for the novel – and what I really liked was that there is a full range of generations represented from young to old. The parent-child relationships, whether the children are young or already grown up, are nicely judged and ring true to my own experience.
However, at the emotional core of the novel is the relationship between the two women, ship and human, which we are told from both perspectives. We (we being the people likely to read this novel and be interested in this award) expect this relationship to invest heavily in negotiating issues of consent, but nonetheless when the question ‘Are you going to ask permission for everything?’ is asked about a third of the way into the novel, it still required me to draw a sharp breath; the exquisite charge is earned. And the pronouns and shifting modes of address are also absolutely wonderful. But, to get down to the heart of the matter, Rice Fish is simply everything you would hope for in a pirate mindship:
Rice Fish walked in; she wore peach-coloured robes with imprints of moons and banyan trees. Her long hair flowed into the floor, turning into the vast expanse of the sky halfway down her back; it looked as though she was dragging the heavens behind her, beautiful and terrible.
Rice Fish’s eyes were black, the colour of space without stars, of black holes without escape.
Oh my! The symptom of the universe really is written in her eyes. You’d think, from the viewpoint of Xich Si, that this can’t possibly not be unequal (and perhaps you don’t even mind anyway), but you’d be wrong. From the moment Xich Si tastes Rice Fish and finds her ‘like brine, like oil’ with a sharp tang on the palate, subject-object relations just go into a spin. And they never stop of course; you just need to learn the fluidity to roll with them.
This might just be an artifact of their proximity on this shortlist, but I couldn’t help thinking about comparisons between The Red Scholar’s Wake and The This, while writing this review. I’m not going to write a full philosophical analysis here but, to put it more directly, what I wanted from The This was an exploration of the rainbow coloured (rather than grey) area between the black and white alternatives of subject-object divide and no-subject-object divide: so an account of the relationship between Rich with Emma and Aella and everyone else in The This which unfolds a bit like Xich Si’s negotiation of the pirate system, and an account of the relationship between Adan and Gee that works through switching power dynamics in the manner of those between Xich Si and Rice Fish. I didn’t necessarily want The Red Scholar’s Wake to be more than it is, because it is very adeptly engineered, but there are wider philosophical ramifications that could have rippled outwards if the central relationship was set in a broader framework. It might just be me again, but I would be interested in seeing the authors taking on the outline of each other’s works and doing their own version – of course, I don’t think creation works quite like that in practice and there’s an awful lot of readers who would expect both of them to continue producing their own work. Nor is ChatGPT at the level yet where you can ask it to write an Adam Roberts’s novel in the style of Aliette de Bodard or vice versa (although it can do some interesting things with Shakespearean sonnets if you ask it nicely). So, we just have to imagine such crossovers. And that of course is the beauty of reading through shortlists like this and having connections and crossover relationships springing into your mind automatically (‘buy the ticket, take the ride’ is my advice).
But I’m just digressing. I’m still experiencing the lingering sensation of crushed regolith on my skin. There aren’t many books which actually bring their readers into contact, however briefly, with Matter itself (but most of them are SFF). This is one of them. I don’t think much else needs saying.
Gareth Powell, Stars and Bones (Titan Books, 352pp.) *
Powell’s unforgettable Ack-Ack Macaque (2013) shared the BSFA Best Novel Award with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (2013). Since then, he has won again with Embers of War (2018) and been shortlisted for Fleet of Knives (2019) and Light of Impossible Stars (2020). When reviewing Fleet of Knives (2019) as part of my round-up of the BSFA shortlist for Best Novel published in 2019, I noted how Powell understands and adeptly utilises genre fiction’s capacity to combine ‘everyday qualities of friendship, responsibility, collaboration and self-sacrifice’ in order to resist apparently overwhelming forces but that ‘there is also a slightly offbeat, quirky side to his writing which underpins his popularity’. It’s a potentially winning mix that we find very much on display again in Stars and Bones.
Let’s pause a moment before beginning the actual review to reflect on the fact that for a good 30 years we haven’t constantly been having to think about the threat of nuclear armageddon. 1989 was the year when the world suddenly seemed to get beautiful (at least in Western Europe and North America). I wonder if this period will be remembered in this way historically or if the truth will simply become that ‘Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia’. Already, I’m thinking that closer links with China and the idea of Huawei being at the centre of the 5G network rollout must be unreliable memories [despite the fact that I am writing on a Huawei laptop and using a Huawei mobile phone, which is five years old but still to my mind better than the current Samsung equivalent] because surely the Cold War has carried on unabated. Finding out that the backstory to Stars and Bones is apparently a full-out nuclear war would be a really sobering wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment if we’d really just had 30 years of not worrying about it [where did I put that CND badge I used to have?]. Amusingly, the crisis is initaited by a ‘clown’ of a British Prime Minister not realising that the mike is switched on and making a joke about pressing the button. One imagines the particular clown in mind is *checks notes* the one before the last [if you’re reading this any time after the Conversation 2023 weekend, I can no longer guarantee that the countback will necessarily be accurate].
But just before we get too triggered, there’s a twist as benevolent aliens save (i) humanity from themselves by taking apart the whole rotten edifice of civilisation and (ii) the Earth by sending all the humans off in massive space Arks. However, 75 years later, as the huge armada of the Continuance steers through the substrate of Space (more on this later), something nasty is eviscerating its scout ships and their crews. In Space, no one can hear you scream. There is also a talking cat. In other words, Stars and Bones might be seen as an unlikely mash-up of elements of Alien, Childhood’s End, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Red Dwarf (which I didn’t imagine beforehand that I would be mentioning once let alone twice in this round-up review). Powell deliberately provides echoes of these and other classic SF texts (which I won’t list so that those who haven’t read it yet can find them for themselves). Quite a lot else gets thrown into the mix too in terms of cultural references, snappy chapter titles, and references to figures such as John Lennon (and I assume that the name of the character Jean-Paul Genet is a product of combining Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet). This hodgepodge shouldn’t really work but of course it does work precisely because of Powell’s ability to keep things moving while deploying a certain leftfield wit. One example of the latter is the way he gives some of the best lines in the novel to the cat, which like the monkey of his earlier books, gets a pass (because animal) on broad humour.
The whole novel also ties together well on a conceptual level. I really liked the idea behind the navigator-ship link where the subconscious of the navigator is used to resolve all the different possibilities that the ship perceives into one singular reality, which is the route that the ship then travels along. For navigator, I kept reading narrator and I don’t think this was an accidental association. Therefore, Star and Bones is another example of a genre novel which is about genre. In the same way that Tchaikovsky (whose name is shared by one of the spaceships in Stars and Bones) blends all sorts of fantasy tropes together in order to create something like a generic fantasy map from which there is only one shifting route of escape, Powell lovingly assembles a chaotic melange of SF tropes that characters (and readers) have to learn to observe from their own perspective in order to collapse this waveform and ‘turn formlessness into flightpath’.
As discussed at the beginning of the first part of this roundup and implied through the preamble, Powell is popular. I think his social media generates a lot of good will: I have certainly followed him for many years, rolling through the ups and downs, and finding the tweeting while trying to write in the early hours especially relatable. I should imagine (and indeed hope) that this novel continues to build his popularity. It’s a lot of fun, interlaced with some smart concepts and has its heart in the right place (I know this phrase is often used as a slight put down but I’m trying to reclaim it here because I think in the world we live in at the moment this should be one of the primary requirements and not some afterthought). I was a bit flippant in the review above in describing the mash-up element of Stars and Bones as a hodgepodge, it’s actually very artfully put together. Aside from the bigger conceptual points discussed above, there’s also a lot of sound common sense in this novel and pertinent comment on issues of our times. I particularly enjoyed the line that ‘if you’re a civilisation stupid enough to wire your nuclear arsenal to an emergent neural net you deserve to everything you get’ (although, see above; I also hope that the nuclear war never catches up with any of us years later, but that is also a potential dynamic of fate which people don’t always consider). But perhaps the wisest observation is: ‘As a species with a history as turbulent as ours, it amazed me to realise that as individuals, we were still so afraid of change.’ One of the best digressions of the book, on the ‘Ship of Theseus’ thought experiment, illustrates the queer, uncanny nature of change; we live in a world in which millions of people, including very powerful people, are getting really angry about this, and lashing out. Well, as this novel gets totally in its own way, change is coming and, amidst the chaos, we need to steer a course out of the wreckage of civilisation and capitalism and into the future, while taking the people who want to come with us.
E. J. Swift, The Coral Bones (Unsung Stories, 401pp)
Swift is the only author in contention who hasn’t won the award before. The Coral Bones is her fifth novel. I haven’t actually read any of the others (another situation that requires correction) and so I can’t discuss any of them here. What I can tell you is that The Coral Bones is a particular example of a green overshoot novel, employing a temporally-braided [P]AZ[P]AZ[P]AZ[P]AZ[P] structure to address the climate crisis, where [P] is the present (more or less) and A is set in the historical past and Z is set in the future. Here is the review I wrote of the novel for ParSec #6 (Winter 2023)
The Coral Bones is a substantial and satisfying novel with engaging protagonists that we care about and passages of outstanding writing, especially the descriptions of coral reefs. Swift weaves a temporal braid of past, present, and future as the stories of her three protagonists are told in repeating sequence across the five sections of the novel. In a nice touch, these sections are named after the five ocean zones, so we begin with the epipelagic (from 0-200m) and gradually work ever deeper, metaphorically speaking, until we finally reach the hadalpelagic (below 6,000m).
The novel begins in the present day with marine biologist Hana Ishikawa describing to her estranged partner, Tess, the discovery of a body in an orange inflatable off the south coast of Lizard Island, which is off the Northeast coast of Australia on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The body has been painted white, and black letters on the surrounding lip of plastic spell out: ‘This is what it looks like when coral dies’. The man turns out to be Jake Kelly, a secondary school teacher who liked to volunteer for local environmental projects. On impulse, Hana tracks down and meets Jake’s widow, Donna, who persuades her to take away his heavy trunk full of books and papers on coral reefs. While this sounds like the setup for a thriller, what Hana finds, when she finally persuades herself months later to go through the trunk’s contents, is not the evidence of a conspiracy or cover-up but a means of rethinking her own relationship to nature and the world.
The sections concerning the second protagonist, seventeen-year-old Judith Holliman, consist of first-person entries in her journal beginning from August 4, 1839, and chart her escape from the social boredom of Sydney by accompanying her naval captain father on a voyage north around the east coast of Australia. These chapters comprise a wonderfully vivid naval yarn, complete with everything from shark encounters to mutiny, described with relish and wit by this exceptional young witness, who proves herself the best scientist aboard. Last but not least, the post-climate-disaster future sections set round about the mid- to late-twenty-second century, feature Telma Velasco, who works for the Restoration Committee, investigating animal sightings and sometimes taking rare animals into custody from private collectors. Pets are legally classified as companions and those who keep them must pay custodian taxes, but these measures have been enacted far too late for the vast majority of species which are now extinct, except for the activities of illegal DNA resurrectionists. A vaguely plausible report of the sighting of a seadragon sends her off to Northeast Australia, where she will make several unexpected discoveries.
Even before they eventually connect, these storylines resonate gently but tellingly in ways that encourage us to think about how the past has a future and vice versa. Our present society is not the teleological end state of a history that is fully known and documented, but a fleeting moment amidst ongoing change, which is already largely in progress. There are certain tipping points when Swift’s protagonists become aware of larger paradigm shifts around them. At one point, while looking back at her relationship with Tess, Hana tries to identify when she first became aware of the fault line in her life. She considers a number of possible milestones of climate change and species extinction, before realising that the cumulative effect only came into focus as the process of intrauterine insemination that Tess was undertaking started to run into difficulties. Hana’s resultant thoughts concerning what kind of world their daughter would even inherit make painful reading: ‘By the time she was ten, every year would be an El Nino year. By the time she was twenty, the GBR would be unrecognisable from today. The wildfire season would advance each year, pursued by flash floods and mudslides as the tree line reduced and the topsoil eroded. At thirty, she would see the wetlands vanish, as the sixth mass extinction ramped up gear.’
For Judith, a different moment of realisation occurs when an encounter with the native people of Lizard Island reminds her of a conversation with her father in which he had warned of the need to guard against the possibility of colonists adopting the native way of life, as has happened in the Americas. Rather than being repulsed at the thought of such ‘primitive degeneration’, she is tempted to slip away into the trees, so that she can walk hidden trails and sleep under the stars at night. Although the illusion vanishes, leaving her herself again, she realises that she is changing, ‘and the girl who returns to Port Jackson may not be the same as the girl who left’.
All three stories are about change and the hard-won knowledge of self that allows the acceptance of it. They suggest the possibility of a new society stabilising after climate disaster, but it won’t be the same as the one that existed before.
I should add to the above review, which was obviously constrained by word count, that the scene that actually completely sold me on this novel, was the first section concerning Telma, in which she is heading into the interior to check on the reported sighting of a hitherto presumed-extinct lizard. I was really enjoying the novel to this point but to have the future so grounded in a convincingly realised non-utopian scenario, suddenly brought the whole structure into focus. Sometimes interwoven novels work because the switch of perspective functions to keep you engaged, and while this is obviously true of The Coral Bones, I felt that the way the stories interlinked meant that the whole was more than the just the sum of the parts.
Having said that, as I’m sure is also true of other readers, I have to admit that I was particularly entranced by Judith’s nineteenth-century journal, with its tale of nautical adventures. As a teenager I read Napoleonic era naval series novels by C.S. Forester, Alexander Kent and others repeatedly and while I can’t see myself ever going back to those, I do still love the setting when represented, as here, from a different gendered perspective or via some form of twist: other recent British SF examples include Paul McAuley’s War of the Maps (2020) and Alastair Reynolds’s Eversion (2022). So if anyone out there wants to do a series of that sort …
But, seriously, The Coral Bones is an exceedingly good novel. One that I hope, and expect that, we’re going to be talking about for a good while to come.
First, any of these five novels would make a worthy winner. One might say that it is always true of a voted award that whoever wins is by definition the worthy winner, but, in this case, I think it will be particularly so. Moreover, I will be perfectly happy which ever novel wins because I very much enjoyed reading all of them (more of which later).
Second, I think this shortlist represents a good selection of the range of works characterising the contemporary SFF field. Looked at one way, we have a pirate romance, a space opera, a fantasy novel, a high-concept philosophical mystery and a temporally braided Anthropocene fiction. From another angle, there are works here which centre queer and non-binary characters, which explore complex aspects of consent between people, which explore relationships between humans and non-humans, which employ sophisticated temporal structures, which have great fight and love scenes. All of them (even the Hegel novel!) decentre bourgeois individualism (or at least estrange it!). They also talk to each other in interesting ways, as I have tried to suggest at points above while discussing individual novels. What’s not to like.
Third, and this is more of a personal afterthought, enjoying reading these books so much reminded me once again, as the BSFA Award so often does, that I identify primarily as much as a reader as a fan and certainly much more than I do as an academic. As a child I was a bookworm, I read after school (and in school) and during the holidays and I still read as much as possible across a fairly wide range of fiction and nonfiction. Reading is fucking great! I love, and to some extent live for, experiencing the subjectivity of protagonists of all races, genders, sexualities, species, types of AI, talking animals: all of it!. Reading is fundamentally a queer and genderfluid practice; at least if you’re doing it right! And therefore, as I’ve said before on this blog, I’ve had enough of ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’ which still dominates academic Eng Lit criticism. I’m currently transitioning away from that in my day job towards a more sociological, historical and Cultural Studies approach, which has always been part of what I do but is becoming the main part again. But I’m still going to write about fiction as a reader and I am intending to do that from what I’m now thinking of as a reading-positive approach. I think that there are whole new histories of fiction/literature to be written from this angle (and this review round-up is a draft contribution to such a project). There are historical reasons why ‘English Literature’ has been a central academic discipline since the 1920s. Following the First World War, a universally educated public gained the vote and a process of the mass democratisation of culture took off exponentially (not so dissimilar to the take up and take off of internet culture) and therefore certain proprietary structures and protocols were put in place, which have ended up controlling that. This is not the time to go into the full ins and outs of what is a fairly complex cultural history, so all I will say is that now is the time for new open-source protocols which centre actual readers and writers.
Finally, when it came down to voting, I was caught between putting either The Red Scholar’s Wake or The Coral Bones first. I went with the latter in the end (but there is a part of me which desired to go the other way) because I think, apart from everything else, it was the most insistent and relentless in transporting me into its locations. The three main protagonists were all complex and interesting and the plot was beautifully worked and linked to how life will change with the climate catastrophe (and I have to mention the naval scenes again!). However, I want to emphasise how alive (albeit somewhat tired at this stage) I feel from committing to all five novels. So many books we read, enjoy, and move on but sometimes I just want to inhabit them and stay there and occupy all the subject positions and all the object positions.
Thanks to anybody who has read through this far! It’s got a bit out of control and therefore I think I’m unlikely to do it quite like this again in the future. We’ll see what happens next year but before that we’ll see what happens at the Awards ceremony at the con! (I was going to include even more analysis here, some thoughts on the state of the field in 2023 etc, but I have now decided to wait until after the Award is made before posting this – so there will be a Postscript).
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