By Nina Allan
After Atlas — Emma Newman (Roc)
I thought my feelings about this book were all sewn up. I actually began drafting this review with a hundred pages still to go, so secure did I feel in my opinion of After Atlas as the Clarke equivalent of His Bloody Project in last year’s Booker line-up: my hands-down favourite as a reading experience, though perhaps insufficiently innovative or controversial to justify its winning. And then came the ending, the unveiling of the central mystery, and I found myself thinking back to the autumn of 2015, when I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s lavishly over-produced haunted house movie Crimson Peak. I wasn’t expecting much from that movie, if anything, and so I spent the first hour and a half feeling excited at how wrong I’d been in my prejudgements. The film looked amazing, as predicted. Far more surprising was the conviction of the performances and – what’s this?? – a strongly scripted storyline I actually cared about. I began mentally drafting a blog post: how wrong I’d been about this film, how Del Toro had actually managed to square the circle and make a genuinely decent horror movie whilst operating within commercial constraints.
Which just goes to show that the critic’s job is never really over until the credits roll. Crimson Peak ended like any other indifferent piece of Hollywood horror: people dashing around in the dark stabbing each other with the ‘monster’ rising unexpectedly from the dead to claim one last victim. Del Toro had effectively trashed himself, abandoning strong characterisation and solid storytelling in favour of blockbuster clichés and trite resolutions. The spectacle filled me with gloom, and most especially since it would have taken very little by way of change in the plot to keep that movie true to the best elements of its original premise.
I feel pretty much the same about After Atlas. I should state upfront that I came to this novel without having read its linked predecessor, Planetfall. There will undoubtedly be those who argue that my lack of familiarity with the overall story arc has impacted disproportionately upon my judgement of After Atlas, and there may well be something in that. I would have to maintain though that After Atlas has been shortlisted for the Clarke not as part of a sequence but on its own terms, and should be judged accordingly. There is also the argument that a critic who has not read previous instalments is actually in a better position to judge the book as a standalone. I would happily affirm that After Atlas works perfectly well as a novel in its own right – any and all relevant information from Planetfall is skilfully and unobtrusively incorporated into the current narrative, there’s little to no infodumping and unless you knew about it in advance you wouldn’t necessarily deduce that there was a prequel. How you respond to the book’s denouement might come down to how interested and/or invested you are in the events of the Planetfall sequence as a whole or it might not. As for myself, I can speak only of the text in front of me.
After Atlas takes place in what might be called a post-democratic society. We are given to understand that the world order has become destabilised through a series of climate-related events, industrial pollution and possibly biological and chemical warfare. Forty years ago, a spacecraft named the Atlas left Earth in search of a new Eden, taking the planet’s brightest and best with her. Those left behind struggle to lead lives in a society deeply divided along class lines. Democratic government has been usurped in favour of rule by vast, all-powerful international corporations. Digital surveillance is universal and more, those who choose to exist off-grid find themselves in danger of being classed as non-persons, illegals who are routinely trafficked and sold to the corporations as indentured slaves.
Carlos Moreno is one such. A DCI for the Ministry of Justice, his superlative skills in detection have ensured that he is on a higher pay-grade than many ‘free’ citizens. Yet he can never change jobs, complain about his hours or his working conditions, settle with a permanent partner, or reveal his indentured status to those unaware of it, which is mostly everyone. His pleasure in problem-solving ensures that he enjoys his job, yet Carlos can never be certain how much of his enjoyment is real, and how much the effect of the ‘hothousing’ he was forced to undergo in order to be sold to govcorp in the first place.
But Carlos’s status as contracted property is not his only problem: he is also labouring under the shadow of his past as the abandoned son of one of the interplanetary pioneers who left on the Atlas. Carlos is surprised and dismayed when his MoJ boss Milsom assigns him to the case of what looks like the brutal, ritualistic murder of Alejandro Casales, the leader of the powerful Circle cult that formed in the wake of the Atlas’s departure. Carlos wants to put his childhood in the Circle behind him, and the death of Alejandro, the man he once looked upon as a second father, is bound to stir unwelcome memories. Who exactly would want him dead, though, and why are the Circle’s lawyers so insistent that only Carlos should be assigned to the case? The detective in Carlos cannot resist the challenge, any more than his govcorp status would allow him to. The mysteries quickly multiply, and Carlos will inevitably find himself returning to the scene of his childhood, whether he likes it or not.
I happen to love police procedurals, the more painstakingly forensic the better and for what I imagine must be reasons similar to Carlos’s: the interrogation of mysteries, the following of leads, the parsing of evidence set against the peculiarities of a particular landscape. One of the reasons I enjoy the TV series Line of Duty comes down to writer Jed Mercurio’s recognition of the fact that a scene comprising four people sitting around a desk sparring over evidence can be as gut-churningly tense as any number of shoot-to-kill set pieces (though there are plenty of those as well) – which is probably the reason I was gripped by the first two-thirds of After Atlas, simply as a reading experience.
Newman is a natural storyteller, and equally skilful in her handling of complex and potentially yawn-inducing technical information. No yawning this end – indeed of all the six shortlisted novels this was the one I found myself itching to return to between reading sessions. Newman is adroit throughout in making the invasive digital technology that dominates Carlos’s world an integral part not just of his story but of the way he handles the case: the language of APAs (Artificial Personal Assistant), edentities, hothousing, local nodes, chips, mersives and so on rises above being standard dystopian stage dressing to form the mechanics of the narrative itself.
Carlos might resent the fact that he is never not watched, yet he relies upon the same technology in every aspect of his work and his use of it is instinctive and virtuosic. Aside from his friendship with fellow slave Dee, Carlos’s most intimate personal connection is with his APA, Tia – ever present, ever reliable, ever helpful. So much do we enter into Carlos’s mindset that the moment when Tia is hacked by a rival corporation becomes one of the most chilling and claustrophobic in the entire narrative.
The mystery surrounding Alejandro’s death is pursued meticulously and in painstaking detail. Newman is not above poking a little subversive fun at the well worn rituals of contemporary detective fiction here and there either, as this brief excerpt demonstrates:
Fuck modern art. Fuck this office. I want to bang my fist on the desk like in some cheesy mersive, yell that the case needs to stay open if she’s interested in knowing the truth. I want to shout that I need to be left to do my job, dammit, and that all the pen pushers and bean counters – and whatever else those lone DCIs say in these situations – need to butt out and let me get my job done. But I stand here, feet exactly half a metre apart, hands clasped behind my back, standing straight, waiting for her decision in silence.
Touches like this add life to the narrative, further enriching our sense of a grounded story, well told. If I have any complaint about this first half of the novel it would be that only sketchy attention is paid to the landscape against which the action takes place. We are made aware that the environment has been damaged, that there are high grades of pollution, that food items we consider ordinary today have become luxury commodities available only to the very rich. We are shown in some detail how the hotel where Alejandro dies has managed to perfect anachronism as a species of privilege – yet what of the Devon landscape it sits in? Do visitors still come to Dartmoor to enjoy the unspoilt beauties of its ancient habitats, or have these also been ravaged? Are ordinary villagers allowed to grow and sell their own food, or are their actions as spied-upon and state-suppressed as those of the people in the cities? As with Ninefox Gambit, I gained little insight into how ordinary citizens – people who are neither part of the oppressive state machinery nor its specific victims – live their lives. There is an advertisement in a newsagent’s window for a holiday cottage – such a detail hints at life going on at a grubbier level of ‘normal’, for some at least, yet this detail is passed over without comment.
There is also the perennial problem within genre fiction of characters existing simply to fulfil their remit within the plot. We never get to know Alejandro sufficiently for him to come alive on the page except as the usual type of ‘Master’ figure he has been set to emulate. Tension around Carlos’s backstory is created more by the use of standard thriller-style withholding techniques (always a considerable source of annoyance to me by virtue of their narrative laziness) rather than through genuinely deep and rich characterisation, which is best achieved through the accretion of significant detail. The most interesting supporting character – a non-binary journalist and hacker named Naal Delaney – is summarily killed off as soon as hir usefulness to the plot has been expended.
It is compromises like these that ultimately prevent a novel like After Atlas from becoming a true classic, from providing anything more substantial than that ‘need to know’ buzz that keeps you turning pages. On more than one occasion I found myself wistfully imagining a novel that combined the social realism and authentic characterisation of Carl Neville’s Resolution Way with the dynamic and painstaking plotting of After Atlas – what a marvellous addition to any prize shortlist such a novel would be. Writers like Ruth Rendell in her Barbara Vine incarnation and more recently Tana French and Megan Abbott have proved through their vibrant characterisation and sense of place that it is perfectly possible to write thrilling detective fiction that also rewards multiple rereadings. After Atlas doesn’t quite get there – but this is a solidly crafted, highly readable novel with an admirable attention to detail and for these things alone it deserves commendation.
Until the final third, when everything this novel works so hard to achieve is cast aside in favour of a [MILD SPOILERS AHEAD] reveal it’s hard to give a damn about, a resolution to a personal crisis that feels like a cheat and a thermonuclear conflagration that is 1) more senseless, gratuitous and just plain unlikely than any of the violence that occurs in Ninefox Gambit (which is saying quite a lot) and 2) clearly just a set-up for the next book in the sequence.
Reader, I was robbed. I never imagined I’d wind up comparing the denouement of After Atlas with the outlandishly disappointing endgame of The Destructives, but here we are. With the well drawn, close focus forensic investigation of an individual death within the context of a grimly imaginable future segueing headlong into world-shattering histrionic conspiracy on a grand scale, I found my interest in and sympathy for this novel evaporating more or less instantly. What annoyed me about The Destructives was its sacrifice of incisive social comment to shenanigans on the moons of Jupiter involving a hive-mind space-octopus. Swap the space octopus for…thermonuclear conflagration and it’s the same here. The disconnect is massive and jarring. I should add that a fair percentage of my dissatisfaction with the book’s finale probably resides in the fact that my tolerance for genre crime is significantly higher than my tolerance for genre SF. Your mileage may vary.
And what of After Atlas’s position on the Clarke Award shortlist? Had the novel kept to its seeming remit as a science fictional police procedural I would have been happier to support its presence there, although even then I would no doubt have remarked on the work’s conventionality, its median level of literary achievement, its lack of innovation along any axis. It’s a good read, but shouldn’t the Clarke Award shortlist provide us with something more challenging?
I can see an argument for shortlisting After Atlas as an example of the flexibility of contemporary science fiction in its use of different genre materials to create new kinds of stories and that’s an argument I like – but for it to work to best advantage would mean the pruning of other dead wood from the shortlist (the Chambers definitely, the Sullivan possibly) and its replacement with works better suited to challenging the Newman in its genre assumptions.
But what with the book going all space octopus I find it impossible to fight its corner under any pretext, a fact that still grieves me because Newman can certainly tell a story and she clearly cares a great deal about the words she puts on the page. More, she possesses the attention to detail and fascination with problem-solving that is the hallmark of so much classic crime fiction and she deploys them well. If Newman should ever feel tempted to write a series of straight detective novels, minus the colony ships and the thermonuclear war, I’m sure thousands would enjoy reading them, myself very much included.
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.