Good Morning, Midnight  by  Lily Brooks-Dalton: a review by Megan AM

Good Morning, Midnight  by  Lily Brooks-Dalton: a review by Megan AM

By Megan AM

Good Morning, Midnight — Lily Brooks-Dalton (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson) 

Good Morning, Midnight is a bit of a shortlist risk, as shadow jury conversations have proved. Ranging in complaints about too much lyrical sciencing to complaints about too much overt preciousness, overall, the general jury criticism toward the book has been along the lines of “too much too much.” And yet, the novel has been blurbed as a blend of Station Eleven and Kim Stanley Robinson– two supreme yet entirely different approaches to SF, flawed in their own “too much” ways (the first, a well-written, but literary carpet bagging of superficial SF tropes, the other, an over-lingering on most things, including the sublimation of ice). With comparisons like these, Good Morning, Midnight might be just the kind of “too much too much” I, and other Clarke readers, would relish. Besides, it has stars on the cover, a spaceship in the story, and is free of the usual, predictable pew-pew hijinks that tends to come with spaceship stories, so, for those reasons, it seems like something worth discussing within the context of possible Clarke contenders.

Good Morning, Midnight is about two corresponding perspectives on silence, isolation, and unacknowledged regrets. As Sully and her fellow crewmates return from their mission to Jupiter, all signals from Earth go silent. Meanwhile, Augustine, an aging astronomer, is the only person left at his research station in the Arctic after he stubbornly refuses an unexpected evacuation. Neither scientist knows what has happened to the rest of the earth, but now they find themselves navigating their respective silent voids, inside and out.

It sounds promising and poignant, but it’s considerably less than what the blurbs promise. While the tale is not overburdened by a fixation on the transitions between the physical states of ice, the problem is that it’s not burdened by much at all. It’s all a bit slight. While the “too much too much” critique of my fellow jurors addresses the contrived sentimentality of tale (with its opening metaphor of the watermelon-like cosmos being an early red flag to the teeth-hurting saccharin inelegance left in store), “too much not enough” could be applied in most other ways. From the most profound moments to the day-to-day internal contemplations, things happen in a snap, and entire paragraphs expose any and all thoughts, feels, whats, and whys, undermining all of those tantalizing mysteries that normally inspire joy in reading:

He didn’t understand love any better than the bear did. He never had. In the past, he’d felt the nibble of a lesser emotion–shame or regret or resentment or envy–but whenever that happened, he would turn his gaze to the sky and let awe wash it away. Only the cosmos inspired great feeling in him. (ch. 1)

What would normally be an intriguing exploration of an individual’s psyche becomes over-explained sentiment, psychoanalyzed by an intrusive narrative via entire backstories, presented in clunky paragraphs of redundant, negligible insights. This kind of overexposure kills any sense of intrigue or discovery:

The closest he’d ever come to letting his adoration rest on human shoulders was a long time ago. He was in his thirties when he impregnated a beautiful woman with a razor-sharp mind at the research facility in Socorro, New Mexico. She was another scientist… (ch. 1)

You would think this approach would burden the tale, but in fact, it de-fleshes it, leaving the whole thing bare-bones skeletal. There is little mystery here, most major plot twists can be spotted a mile away, and, most disappointingly, the characters are so splayed and vivisected from the start, actions feel more like narrative-fulfilling prophecies.

Moreover, many readers will find most problematic the mishandled multicultural cast–the narrative hovering over each person’s cultural background and hair type, just in case the conspicuous naming scheme doesn’t do the job. It’s soon clear they’re all there to support the white woman protagonist’s personal growth, including the dreaded sacrificial WoC and MoC. It is the kind of multiculturalism that well-meaning white readers might applaud, but readers represented by these characters will mistrust. There are more subtle and natural approaches out there, but this just happens to be that kind of representation that does little to move beyond the flesh and stereotypes of the mere supporters:

They took in the view in companionable silence, young Devi with her long hair in a messy knot, eyes wide beneath thick eyebrows, and Thebes, his round black face split in two by an easy, gap-toothed smile. Thebes called their stargazing ‘having a big picture moment’ in his smooth South African accent. (ch. 2)

‘I keep having this dream,’ she murmured. ‘It starts with the colors and smells of my mother’s kitchen in Kolkata, just blurriness and spices. Then my brothers come into focus, sitting across from me, jabbing each other with their elbows, scooping up rice and dal with their fingers… and I see my parents at the head of the table, sipping chai, smiling, watching all three of us…” (ch. 4)

(Naturally, the Anglo-American characters are never described by skin color, facial geometry, or kitchens smelling of eggs or mayonnaise.)

These major flaws are most frustrating when assessing the novel as a whole, because, despite all my complaints, Good Morning, Midnight has the workings of a strong, poignant, even original, novel. Beyond the most clichéd parts (the made-for-TV rhythm; the over-explaining; the white woman leading a narrative of multicultural peers, all while benefitting from them), we find misleading clichés that prove to be otherwise (that odd little girl and her heart-warming relationship with the old man isn’t what it seems; the great puzzle of earth’s apparent apocalypse is left unsolved), and it becomes apparent that this isn’t quite the too-much-preciousness it first appears. Brooks-Dalton wisely goes for strangeness and ambiguity in the final plot turns. There was plenty I saw coming, but some of the biggest, most resonant moments are surprising and significant.

A first novel for Brooks-Dalton (her previous book being a collection of memoirs), it reads very much like a first novel by a young writer, written in the style of stock expectations, customary framing, and overexposed characterization. Its strength as a mainstream novel—to hit every prescribed emotional cue—is its biggest flaw in the context of award-worthiness. Designed for the casual, passive reader, it can easily be read by a distracted mind, in a matter of hours, thanks to its sparse, white noise detail, with crucial points emboldened and repeated. It’s a nice, easy book, with a couple of novel moments.

However, good art defies expectation, and Good Morning, Midnight’s defiance of mainstream expectation in those few crucial places is just enough to raise Brooks-Dalton to the special status of “author to watch.” (It’s also just enough to suspect that some of this vanilla writing may be blamed on too much editorial oversight for this first-timer.) While it’s not the rich, artful story it could be, by golly, it tries, and the last few pages break away from its prescribed modeling of pop culture inclination to become something we didn’t quite see coming.

What it does, it does very well: a symphony of clichés that resolves into something slightly unexpected, reaching above standard for a mainstream sci-fi adventure romance. That’s not enough to make it Clarke worthy, though.

*

Megan AM is a lifetime SF fan, but a longtime sufferer of bland SF. She realizes now that this is the fault of the commercially-hyped SF publishing industry and spoonfed awards machine that insists on promoting cheesy, regurgitated SF, and she’s pissed off about all the good books she’s missed as a consequence. She blogs about her reading experiences at From couch to moon but she’s kind of bitter about it because it shouldn’t take this much work for a layreader like her to find inventive and well-written SF. She writes for no one.

>> Read Megan’s introduction and shortlist

12 Comments

  1. PhilRM 7 months ago

    He was in his thirties when he impregnated a beautiful woman with a razor-sharp mind … That seems likely to be a tricky delivery.

    Snark aside, the excerpts you present strike me not as clunky but as actively dreadful, which surprises me given the number of reviews which praise it as beautifully written.

    • Megan 7 months ago

      Haha, yes.

      I find that “beautifully written” too often means “describes pretty things in detail, like, a lot.”

  2. Nina Allan 7 months ago

    “It’s also just enough to suspect that some of this vanilla writing may be blamed on too much editorial oversight for this first-timer.”

    An important point to make and could very well be true. So much editorial input (especially in the larger publishing houses) is concentrated upon the idea of ‘readability’, of planing off any perceived rough edges in order to facilitate ‘narrative flow’. As I’m sure I’ve said before, this kind of interference is one of the major hurdles facing new writers at this time.

    Indeed, one could also add that it’s precisely this kind of approach that leads these blander, more palatable quasi-SF narratives to be picked up by mainstream houses in the first place. Let’s not frighten the horses, please!

    • Megan 7 months ago

      And how funny that ‘readability’ really means nothing of the sort, but instead means ‘hit all the cues that we’re most comfortable and familiar with.’ It means ‘stick to the path,’ and ‘don’t step on that lush SF grass.’

      What’s also been churning in my mind since writing this review is how this mainstream soft SF book is very much like popular stick-to-your-widgets genre SF: so patterned by pop culture expectations, so ordinary in its use of language, so driven by this need for supposed ‘readability,’ that it will hardly be remembered as anything but a consumable for this moment in time. I find this interesting because it provides another angle to the supposed lit v genre battle that is often constructed in discussions surrounding the Clarke (and SF in general). It’s too simplistic to think that way when you see the mainstream lit world encouraging the same bland techniques that we often encounter in mainstream genre SF. As I often hit upon in reviews on my own blog, it’s that mainstream, corporate influence that’s watering down the shelves with reproduced stuff, rather than any real tension between or ignorance of literary and genre sensibilities: A novel can be one or the other or both, and be perfectly wonderful, as long as it’s spared that corporate, one-size-fits-all influence.

      • Nina Allan 7 months ago

        “…it’s that mainstream, corporate influence that’s watering down the shelves with reproduced stuff, rather than any real tension between or ignorance of literary and genre sensibilities.”

        Exactly. And the problem is just as prevalent within mainstream literary fiction. What many much-lauded literary debuts have in common is a superficial polish concealing not-very-much. Think also of how certain approaches to writing – the whole ‘show not tell’ epidemic and its various permutations – are strongly encouraged on creative writing programs and the way this perpetuates certain expectations as to what a novel should be.

        Esme Wejun Wang’s experience puts the problem in a nutshell:

        “The thing I kept hearing over and over again was that it was a very bleak book, and that was making it very difficult to market and very difficult to sell. There were many editors who talked about how they loved the prose and loved the characters, but that they needed more light or more happiness.” (Full interview is here: http://fusion.net/story/289860/esme-wang-borders-paradise-review/ )

        Publishers are always insisting they’re looking for ‘real books’ with ‘real issues’, yet when they’re offered exactly that (Wang’s novel is highly original and brilliantly written) they will often reject it because it’s deemed ‘too difficult’ or otherwise unpalatable.

        • Megan 7 months ago

          Thanks for that link. How disappointing, yet not surprising. And now I’m very interested in Wang’s novel.

      • PhilRM 7 months ago

        This brings to mind the glorious exchange that reputedly** took place between John M. Ford and the editor of his alternate history/fantasy masterpiece, The Dragon Waiting ( from 1984):

        Editor: You’re not making it easy for the reader.
        Ford: I’m not interested in making it easy for the reader.

        I think this is a problem that has grown noticeably worse over the last couple of decades, as a result of the acquisition of all of the major publishing houses by mega-corporations that demand profit margins that the publishing industry has never delivered. Hence the immense pressure on writers to deliver books that can be marketed as completely interchangeable commodities: the endless series volumes desired by genre publishers in particular, the filing-off of anything unique or difficult in mainstream publishing.

        **I can’t recall now where I read this, but it was somewhere I trusted for its veracity.

        • Megan 7 months ago

          …which means everything is becoming mainstream now. Which is why SF isn’t usually interesting anymore. How depressing.

  3. Jesse 7 months ago

    Am I the only one who feels the point of Good Morning, Midnight is being under-recognized in the commentary? I don’t think it’s intended to be a secretly sf, genre-sneaking-into-mainstream C.O.N.S.P.I.R.A.C.Y. by publishers. It’s a character study, more particularly, the study of transitional moments in the lives of two characters, and the higher planes of personal understanding they achieve. The other story elements like setting, time, plot, etc. always play second fiddle to the noise inside the characters’ heads that define these transitions. (I wish more sf writers were willing or able to express such aspects of the human condition.) Brooks-Dalton cares so little about the post-ap and spaceship (i.e. typical genre) aspects, they are never really explained in detail. They are just tools to put her characters into relative isolation – under the microscope to better examine their thoughts as they evolve. As an example how characterization takes front and center, the line about impregnating a beautiful woman with a razor sharp mind is intended to be an indirect description of Augustine. He is an asshole, and that line proves it – an ugly line for a morally ugly person. I don’t believe it was intended to be offensive toward readers or transgressive toward gender politics – which is a portion of the reaction I’m catching above.

    Apologies, but I get really frustrated reading criticisms like literary author A carped-bagged genre trope X. It’s so us vs. them, so juvenile. Who cares who uses what? Fiction is fiction. We should be looking at how the qualities of the novel fit together to form its image or message, regardless where it is shelved, nor how trope X or Y has been described in better detail by genre author B. And the same holds true for Good Morning, Midnight. Sure, other writers have described post-ap or spaceships better. But, as mentioned above, it is clearly not Brooks-Dalton’s intention to set a new bar for such stories. The tropes are just lenses to examine her characters in finer detail – waypoints to loftier goals than world-building or pseudo-technical exposition.

    And from the review, I have to take issue with the multi-cultural commentary. In today’s political climate it’s a no-win for the author. If they do, as Brooks-Dalton did, and describe specific aspects of non-Anglo culture or society to indicate their characters are not Anglos, then they are criticized for not describing their Anglo characters as such. If they don’t include such details, then the author is accused of an Anglo-only cast. If they make non-Anglo characters as secondary characters, they are accused of idolizing Anglos. If they make their main character non-Anglo (and they themselves are), then the author is accused of cultural appropriation. It’s a lose-lose all around. I think we can chide authors to be more expansive in their usage of character and culture, but to be openly critical of them for inclusion seems a step too far. I can accept criticism that the elements of non-Anglo culture Brooks-Dalton uses are too generic, but when the inclusion is so obviously well intended and inoffensive, it’s difficult to be harsh. Compare: Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station has a similar presentation of non-Israeli, secondary characters, yet I don’t find the same level of criticism leveled at him, rather he is praised for multi-culturalism…

    And made for tv material?? C’mon, in today’s cultural climate, the majority would tune out of a Good Morning, Midnight adaptation due to boredom by the second episode – precisely because it does not focus on the post-ap or spaceship tropes. I won’t argue it’s the greatest novel ever written, but for certain I don’t think it deserves some of the criticism it’s getting here…

    • Megan 6 months ago

      Hi Jesse,

      Sorry for the late reply. I haven’t been following these comments as closely as I should, and I just discovered yours. I’ll try to keep it short:

      I think you overlooked that my comment about ‘carpet-bagging’ was stated as an “it could be.” My conclusion is that it’s not. It’s also not a KSR-style infodump, which was the other “it could be” I posited, and I only brought up those examples (S11/KSR) because they were the most common comparisons I was seeing in reviews. Those reviews are wrong, and I thought I made that clear.

      I’m having a hard time finding where it is you think I or the other commenters have insinuated that SF in literary works is a giant publishing conspiracy. Furthermore, I want to point out that I don’t find this novel to be very literary. I find it very mainstream, which is an entirely different thing in my mind, even though they often go on the same shelves. (And SF in mainstream fiction is a huge thing, especially in the movies/TV. It’s definitely bait for selling tickets.)

      You say ‘character study’ as if that automatically means it’s a good thing. I enjoy character studies, but this one is quite superficial, when a more literary effort would aim for ambiguity, and that’s my biggest complaint. Even though the commenters found humor in the “impregnation” quote, my selection of that quote was intended to demonstrate the sudden, unnatural and clunky head-dumps and past-dumps we get in this novel. I get that the coarseness of language is styled from Augustine’s own head–that is obvious, too obvious–but this novel involves a lot of jerky movements from in-the-moment to let-me-explain-everything-that-happened-to-make-this-person-this-way. It’s awkward and unnatural, and it’s unfair to the characters (and readers) to explain them so completely, especially so early in the narrative. With this example, I contemplated quoting the entire dump, but it was just too much.

      I’m not sure I can respond to your complaints about my criticisms about the treatment of the multicultural cast, because it sounds like it’s all the same to you. Diversifying characters is not a ‘no-win’ for white writers… unless they are completely tone-deaf, in which case, they really need to just drop the pen. I’ve seen it done well. I’ve seen it done okay. This novel made me cringe in several places and it was worth noting.

      I disagree with your argument about my TV comment. This story would be perfect for Lifetime TV or the Hallmark channel; it has that cadence. (My childhood and teen years were in a household with those stations constantly on in the background. I know the cadence well. It is canned, clichéd, and very familiar.) In fact, this is a novel I am already poised to recommend to people I know who are looking for a nice, poignant ‘beach read,’ which was a term I purposely left out of my review because it has such a negative connotation, especially among SF people, but it is how it felt to me.

      Following that, ultimately–and I think my conclusion states this strongly enough–I appreciate Brooks-Dalton’s use of those SF tools to construct her story. It’s a perfectly acceptable and competently-written book, but needs some finesse, more richness and less strategy, and is not something that belongs on an awards list–which is the whole point of this exercise.

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