Dispatches from the sofa: some half-time analysis

Dispatches from the sofa: some half-time analysis

By Nina Allan

Having read the six novels on my personal shortlist, and with the announcement of the official Clarke Award shortlist a mere three weeks away, I thought now would be an interesting time to reflect on what I have learned from the experiment thus far.

If you’re wondering about my review of Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, the sixth and final book in my personal line-up, have no fear – that review is written and will be posted next week. All I’m saying on that subject for now is that Infinite Ground was far and away my favourite book on the list, and one that also provides better than worthy competition for Don DeLillo in the finest literary achievement category. Whether either of these novels stands even the ghost of a chance of arriving on the official shortlist is another question entirely.

I’ve been surprised by how many themes my selected novels turned out to have in common. Fair Rebel, Zero K and A Field Guide to Reality all concerned themselves, to greater or lesser extents, with the idea of immortality, with Steph Swainston’s approach in Fair Rebel being arguably the most straightforwardly generic. Swainston is not remotely concerned with the science of immortality. In the Fourlands, immortality is simply a fact, a state of being like old age or infancy, and Swainston’s interest in it pertains to its effects on society, especially given that immortality is only afforded to a privileged few. Though this inequality has hitherto been accepted by the general populace as the natural state of things, as the Insect plague advances and conditions for ordinary people worsen, the status quo finds itself increasingly under threat.

For DeLillo’s protagonist, immortality is a gimmick, yet one more bland-tasting, over-fertilized carrot offered up as an inducement to would-be top entrepreneurs, the last hurrah of a failing capitalism that does not know it is failing. The Convergence is more like a bomb shelter than a scientific institution – in fact it has been built inside a bomb shelter – and this sense of super-defensive, end-time fatalism pervades Zero K to the point of inducing stasis.

For Joanna Kavenna’s Eliade, immortality is an irrelevance when the nature of reality itself is under question. While all three novels speculate about immortality in a philosophical or political sense, none of them seems interested in biting the science fictional bullet. As my fellow Sharke Paul Kincaid remarks in a comment on my review of Zero K, ‘it is definitely not science fiction…because what is important to the story is not the technological aspects of the device or the experience of going into the chamber or any of the other things that a science fiction story would normally concentrate upon’ and the same could equally be said of A Field Guide to Reality or Fair Rebel.

Another theme coincidentally shared between several of the novels on my list is that of malign social environments, and how these impact on the human beings that are forced to live in them. Whilst the technological advances available to humans in Matthew De Abaitua’s The Destructives are substantially in advance of what is normal for today’s world, the overall effect has been one of deadening, a levelling-off of potential rather than the incremental advance we are led to believe is normal and desirable. Human beings are living on the moon and preparing to colonise other bodies within the solar system, yet their ability to do these things depends on the emergent AIs that have in many senses superseded humanity as the dominant intellectual life form on the planet. Humanity seems an injured, fragmented thing, unsure of its direction or purpose. The close of the novel sees a revolution of sorts, as is traditional in dystopian novels, yet the nature of that revolution appears more fantastical pipe-dream than practical advance.

Similarly in Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, human beings at the heart of an oppressive regime may hope for individual escape, though there is little to no attempt to disable the system at large and the lone-rebel-against-the-marching-morons presentation of possible rebellion seems curiously old-fashioned.

The world of Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground feels more immediately familiar, although the unexpected side-effects of corporate control swiftly render it alien. We end the novel with a sense that everyone we meet within its pages is somehow ‘in on it’, and that if we are not careful what we wish for, we’ll be in on it, too. Infinite Ground reveals – among many other things – how the status quo can also be toxic, how the forced divide between people and their Earth environment can result in species of personal and societal dislocation hitherto unexplored.

Both The Destructives and The Core of the Sun make unashamedly science fictional approaches to their subject matter, The Core of the Sun via the traditional dystopia and The Destructives through the grimier passageways – for the first half of the novel, anyway – of mundane SF. It is a shame for genre cheerleaders therefore, that both novels fall considerably short of the achievement of the quieter and more generically ambiguous Infinite Ground, The Destructives through its mystifying suicide-leap into space opera and The Core of the Sun through feeling tonally like every other us-versus-them dystopia ever written.

If science fiction is defined as the literature that takes you to the regions other literatures do not dare inhabit, then Infinite Ground – a strange amalgam of postmodern experimentalism and detective story – is the only book of the three that succeeds in being it, though I’d imagine there would be plenty of folk prepared to challenge me on that count.

I had not definitively intended to alternate between genre and non-genre imprints in my order of reading, but once I accidentally started doing so it seemed a useful way to continue, as it threw up some interesting questions in and of itself. It seemed clear to me, for example, that the three novels published as science fiction – The Destructives, Fair Rebel, The Core of the Sun – felt, perhaps unsurprisingly, most like science fiction. All three have defined, mostly linear structures, clear, well-signposted aims in terms of the stories they wish to tell, recognisable heroes and villains. They wear their science fiction credentials – malign AIs, giant insects and tottering empires, sinister government forces and genetic engineering – front and centre. Character development – in terms of emphasis on character at the expense of plot, anyway – seems less important to these novels than forward momentum and a defined conclusion.

The conclusions of both Zero K and Infinite Ground are highly ambiguous, centred upon the interior states of mind of their protagonists rather than any easily pin-downable event or sequence of events in the outside world. It is harder to draw direct conclusions from these novels in a political sense, and it is this lack of closure, this unwillingness to be ‘about’ anything that I suspect would disappoint many science fiction readers and – I would hazard – will keep them and novels like them off the official Clarke Award shortlist.

A Field Guide to Reality goes one further in almost refusing to have a plot at all. It is extremely difficult to disguise a philosophical treatise as a novel and emerge with a text that is satisfying on both counts. For me, Kavenna’s novel makes a brave attempt but ultimately fails, a failure that might have been entirely mitigated had Kavenna been a little less stringent in steering clear of story, her protagonist just a smidgin less sternly objective and a little more needy.

On which note, it seems only fair that I come clean regarding how I, personally, feel about my personal shortlist now that I’ve read it. Did the books I chose turn out to be as worthwhile, not to mention as Clarke-worthy, as I hoped they would be? The short answer, I suppose, would have to be partly, and no. Above a certain level, very few books are ever entirely a waste of reading time, and that certainly holds true here. I would say that I’ve read one badly flawed but nonetheless fascinating work of near-future SF from one of Britain’s most important newer writers (The Destructives), one highly articulate work of experimental fiction that is a little too emotionally unyielding for my taste, yet nonetheless presents a unique vision and rewards discussion (A Field Guide to Reality), one passionately-argued, vibrantly imagined work of science fantasy that doesn’t quite go that extra mile in terms of literary ambition (Fair Rebel), one slim, terse volume on the way we live now that felt a privilege to read even if not consistently a pleasure (Zero K), one half-cocked, toothless dystopia that, to its credit, at least proved reasonably entertaining as a reading experience (The Core of the Sun) and one scintillatingly abstruse debut that doesn’t – let’s be honest here – have a great deal to do with science fiction but then who cares?

 

Is the winner of the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award among these six books? I’d be amazed if it were. Both The Destructives and The Core of the Sun are the kind of books that stand a reasonable chance of appearing on a Clarke Award shortlist, but again, I’d be surprised if either of them garnered enough momentum among the jurors to make a showing.

 

So where next? At this point and having read my personal six, I’m now trying to read as many of the other Sharke selections as I can – as well as some books that aren’t on anyone’s lists – before the official Clarke shortlist is revealed on May 3rd. I aim to be back before then with a ‘best of the rest’ post, giving a rundown of my bonus books and – maybe – attempting to hazard some guesses as to which books might end up on the official shortlist.

 

And in the meantime, there are still plenty more excellent reviews to come from my fellow Sharkes, so watch this space!

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Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her second novel The Rift will be published by Titan Books in July 2017. She enjoys arguing about books in general and science fiction literature in particular, and makes these arguments public from time to time at her blog, The Spider’s House. Nina lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.

>> Read Nina’s introduction and shortlist.

3 Comments

  1. PhilRM 2 months ago

    Very interesting roundup!

    In purely marketing terms (surely the least interesting of all possible book topics) isn’t The Core of the Sun – despite being unequivocally SF – a non-genre book? In the US it appeared from Black Cat, which is an Atlantic/Grove imprint that publishes both fiction and non-fiction; in my local Barnes & Noble it was shelved with general fiction, not SF.

    As you said in your review, Zero K (which I hadn’t finished reading at the time) is a difficult book to love, but an easy book to admire. And while I did wind up agreeing with Paul that it could be described as ‘anti-science fictional’, it’s for a different reason: to my reading, Zero K recoils from a vision of the future as the vitrified past/present. And the latter view – the future as an eternal, unchanging Now (not necessarily our Now) seems to me to be a very major strain of SF (good SF, bad SF, merely conventional SF). Not that it’s the only strain, of course – this is precisely the opposite of Paul McAuley’s interesting definition of SF in his post on last year’s Clarke list that you excerpted in a comment on your Zero K review.

    I found Infinite Ground fascinating and frustrating in almost equal measure – I say almost, because by the time I reached the end I’d come to the conclusion that it is something of a masterpiece – a minor masterpiece, perhaps, but a masterpiece nonetheless. I’ll hold any other comments until either your review or Maureen’s review appears.

  2. Nina Allan 2 months ago

    Hi Phil!

    You’re right in that The Core of the Sun isn’t published by a genre imprint (Grove/Atlantic in the UK, too) but all the marketing has stressed the novel’s dystopian credentials and drawn on Huxley/Atwood parallels, so it’s kind of a halfway house (note that I wrote ‘published as science fiction’ when I spoke about it as apposed to ‘published by a genre imprint’. But yes, could be construed as cheating :-))

    The MacInnes is the only one of my six that I’ve so far read twice, and whilst I admired the book immensely on a first reading I came away with an impression of dense opacity and it was the second reading that really opened the book up to me, so much so that it almost felt like a different novel. My review should go up next week and I totally agree that it’s a small masterpiece. I can’t wait to see what he writes next.

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