By Paul Kincaid
Occupy Me — Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)
Any work of fiction is a formal exercise in the controlled release and withholding of information. What is withheld and for how long is a key element in how we read the work and even how we classify it. To give an obvious example, in a detective story in the classical mode it is essential that the identity of the killer is withheld until the last page, the structure of the novel is therefore dictated by the need to steadily release information that leads towards this conclusion without actually pre-empting it. How successful the novel is depends upon the skill with which this information is managed. If too much is given away so that readers can guess whodunnit too early, the work is adjudged a failure; similarly, if too little is revealed so that the denouement comes out of the blue, it is seen as a cheat and again the work fails.
Other types of fiction have different requirements for the control of information. In some, such as romances or comedies, it may be that very little needs to be withheld; others, such as novels in which a character comes to understand the nature of the circumstances in which she finds herself, may require revelations to come at a steady rate throughout the work; while still others, such as mysteries, need to withhold their secrets for as long as possible.
This control, therefore, is an essential element both in how we read a novel, and how we rate it.
My problem with Occupy Me is that the release of information is intermittent, in a way that suggests to me that the author is not always in control. Which is not to say that it is a bad book; there are engaging and interesting elements to it. But it is problematic.
For me the book falls into three parts. The first part, the first 20 pages or so, is excellent. Sullivan deftly introduces, in media res, two characters in search of an identity. One, Dr Sorle, is aware that he shares his body with another, that on occasion he loses awareness of what is going on as the other takes over. The second, Pearl, is in a world, our world, in which she does not belong, but she does not know where she comes from, how she got here, or how she can get home. All she knows is that something, some part of herself, has been taken from her, and she must get it back. The stage is set for an intriguing mystery in which a drip feed of information will slowly reveal clues that help us and them to piece together the who, what and why of the two characters.
But there’s more. There are, within these early pages, two interpolations of documents, one headed “HD waveform launcher instructions: Appendix F”, the other taking the form of a want-ad for a transatlantic flight attendant. The postmodernist irruption of these extraneous documents into the narrative tells us two things. The fact that we have no idea what an HD waveform launcher might be suggests that some unknown technology will be central to the unravelling of the plot, but contrasting this with a transatlantic flight attendant places that technology as something exceptional within our mundane here and now rather than as something familiar within a fanciful future. Secondly, by taking us outside the perceptions of the two semi-detached central characters, it suggests that the mystery is at least partially ontological, that learning to understand the nature of the characters will in turn lead us to understand something significant about the nature of the world.
There is, in other words, an immense amount of promise in this opening. It is a promise that is at best only partly fulfilled. Because around page 20 two things happen: Sullivan stops interpolating documents into the narrative, and she loses control of the story. I believe that these two things are connected.
Two extraneous documents within a handful of pages of each other stand out like a sore thumb when they are the only examples within the body of the novel. It suggests to me that Sullivan’s initial plan for the novel involved the narrative voice associated with the two central characters, a voice necessarily urgent, mystified, afraid, being periodically interrupted by the dispassionate text of some document or other, and that these documents would help to provide perspective and information not available through the confused experiences of the two characters. But at this point she abandons that initial plan and replaces it, for the next hundred-and-odd pages, with what is effectively a madcap chase sequence.
Throughout this whole section the pace is not allowed to flag. It’s a bravura display of high speed writing in which an immense amount happens, but neither we as readers nor the characters actually learn very much. Instead we get vivid special effect after vivid special effect, lots of flash and dazzle, but not a great deal of sense.
We see a lot here, in terms of action it is overly extravagant: two people, Pearl and Sorle, struggling on a plane suddenly burst through the roof; a massive prehistoric creature emerges from a briefcase; an angel, Pearl, arrives in this world inside a fridge on a New York scrapheap. Everyone is constantly rushing from place to place. Somewhere in the middle of it all is a shadowy organisation called “Resistance” whose entire raison d’être is to do small acts of good. Resistance is symptomatic of what is wrong with this part of the novel: its organisation, its function, its personnel are all woolly. You get the impression that Sullivan herself doesn’t have any very clear idea of what or why it is, and it comes as no surprise when it quietly disappears from the novel. For page after breathless page we get elaborate set pieces, but no story. Two people plunging from a plane over mid-ocean is arresting, but it tells us nothing further about who they are or advance either of them one step more on their quest. Hot, sweaty sex between two women tells us that one of the women seems to find nothing at all unusual in the fact that her partner, Pearl, has massive angel’s wings growing from her back, but it doesn’t really tell us any more about who the angel is or why she’s on Earth. A long passage showing Pearl hiding out in the New York scrapheap only repeats what we’ve already learned: that she doesn’t know who she is or where she came from. One gets the distinct impression that Sullivan is feverishly writing and writing and writing in the hope that at some point it will all start to make sense. But she has forgotten that she herself is supposed to be in control; or maybe, having abandoned the extraneous documents, she hasn’t worked out how best to convey information throughout the mess and confusion of this part of the book.
I confess, if I hadn’t been reading it for the Shadow Clarke jury, I would readily have given up on the novel at this point. But then, a little over half way through the book, the whole thing suddenly starts to gel. I don’t think it is any coincidence that a new character is introduced at this point, an overweight female vet already contemplating retirement. As she becomes the dominant figure over the course of the last part of the novel, she turns into a very unlikely action hero. But that silliness aside, she is the still central point, the calm sounding board, that the novel has needed all along. At last, Sullivan has a way of providing the information that should have emerged from the previous half of the book. Not that everything comes out in conversation with Alison, the vet, but it is as if her presence in the story, the sense that there is someone here who isn’t inside the mind of one or other of the protagonists, serves as a reminder that the reader, too, needs to be given some inkling of the what and the why and the how of the story.
If anything, events accelerate now: there is a need to rush towards a dramatic climax while trying to satisfactorily tie off the loose ends that dangled in such profusion throughout the first half of the novel. But it doesn’t feel as pell mell as the first part of the novel for the simple reason that Sullivan seems to be back in full control of her material. So in one strand we get ambushes and angry confrontations and possible kidnappings and shootings and cross-country flights and menacing men in business suits and embezzlement on an incomprehensible scale and a violent climax on board a North Sea oil platform; while in the other we get Pearl diving into the briefcase and emerging in an entropic future where it turns out that she was created by beings implausibly manifesting as birds (hence, perhaps, her wings) as an agent sent to change the past in order to preserve information into the future. Pearl, it turns out, is not a name but an acronym, PEARL, though if we’re told what this stands for it completely passed me by. Her mission into the past involves appearing as an angel to a dying billionaire in order to convince him to shift his feloniously acquired fortune to help set up an organisation, Resistance, that apparently already exists, but this plan is compromised when someone else embezzles his money. It’s complex, it’s out of whack, and it’s not altogether convincing, on top of which the idea that something as ill-defined as Resistance might save the world is frankly risible. Nevertheless, this all makes a great deal more sense than anything that happened in the first half of the novel, and Sullivan has at least made a stab at tying off the loose ends she scattered so carelessly earlier in the book.
Part of the problem is that one word, “quantum”, is meant to settle every incongruence and incoherence and inconsistency. It’s the magic wand of the contemporary science fiction writer: just let your imagination run as wild and as wacky as you like, then wave “quantum” over it at the end and it all comes out right. But that’s not how it works. The more bizarre and grotesque elements that are introduced into a work, the more control the author needs to exercise; the more complex the circumstance, the more thoroughly the author needs to understand every aspect. Without that control, the fiction will end up a mess that no amount of chanting “quantum” can ever rectify. Tricia Sullivan came desperately close to losing control of this novel, and her efforts to pull it back on track over the closing stretch show signs of scrambling. She manages it, but it’s a near run thing, and the result is still more of a mess than it should be.
Will Occupy Me make the shortlist? I can certainly see the hell-for-leather plotting will appeal to some readers. But honestly, I don’t think that it should.
Paul Kincaid was one of the founders of the Arthur C. Clarke Award; he served as a judge for its first two years, and administered the Award from 1996 to 2006. He co-edited The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology with Andrew M. Butler. He has contributed to numerous books and journals, and is the author of two collections of essays and reviews: What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and Call And Response. His book on Iain M. Banks is forthcoming from University of Illinois Press. He has received the Thomas Clareson Award from the SFRA, and the Best Non-Fiction Award from the BSFA.