By Nick Hubble
Fair Rebel — Steph Swainston (Gollancz)
Before I get on with the review – feel free to skip ahead to the subheading at any point in what follows – I should note that my participation in this Clarke Award shadow jury has not progressed in the manner I anticipated. First an industry-standard biannual workplace restructuring took an unexpected detour into poorly-executed dystopian satire during March and, second, an unexpected family bereavement has wiped out the first half of April. I had anticipated being pretty much through reviewing my six titles by this stage and to be on the verge of subjecting unwitting readers to my own idiosyncratic analysis considering the wider issues of contemporary SF and the state of the novel today. However, as I still have four novels to write about, I have no choice but to try and weave any hot takes I might have gathered from the process in with the narrative analysis and close reading of the text in question. The time-honoured way of doing this for academics is to riff off the work of other academics and, therefore, I am going to consider a couple of points from fellow jurors.
Reading Nina’s half-time roundup of the books she has reviewed, I was struck by her discussion of the political ambiguity and unwillingness to be about anything that marked out Zero K and Infinite Ground from the three novels that were published as SF – The Destructives, Fair Rebel, and The Core of the Sun. I wondered where Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station fell on this spectrum. On the face of it, it would presumably have more in common with the latter three than the former two; yet Jonathan has made a very strong argument for its importance as a novel that not only speaks to the now and looks to the future but also displays an understanding of what it is to be modern. Surely, meaninglessness and ambiguity are crucial components of the modern condition and Jonathan’s review suggests that they are not incompatible with complex political thinking. However, he uses a different yardstick from Nina in order to differentiate between the emphasis on place of his chosen text as opposed to the nineteenth-century focus on character that he sees as more typical of the bulk of the genre: ‘Despite their futuristic trappings, most science fiction novels take their cues from the Victorian era in that they tend to revolve around relatable characters interacting in a consistent environment.’
My point is not to take issue with either of these analyses, which have persuaded me that Infinite Ground and Central Station are also books I need to read and think about seriously once I have completed my reviewing. Rather, I want to think about the process of selecting criteria on which to make a division between the sheep and goats. Drawing up a short list is inevitably an exercise in making such a division unless the selection is a random one. At least, that is the case in theory; it might be argued that some of the recent Clarke shortlists have looked a tad on the random side and, furthermore, that the point of this shadow jury process is to have a discussion about possible relevant criteria for such selections without necessarily seeking to impose a particular line. Part of this discussion needs to consider whether the emergence of new values is confusing criteria around which consensus exists and thereby leading to selections which appear to be random. So, for example, does Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which seems to be being used as a reference point in the current shadow Clarke discussions, embody some emergent values that offset the criticisms of it that Jonathan makes in his supplementary blogpost to the review of Central Station? To my mind, Chambers’s novel certainly wasn’t the most egregious inclusion on last year’s shortlist – in fact, I rather enjoyed it despite agreeing with much of Abigail Nussbaum’s rigorous dissection for Strange Horizons – and therefore the fact that debate continues around it suggests that it is expressing something of value to the present age. To say more about this would require a longer and more wide-ranging piece of cultural analysis, but what I would suggest is that this kind of problematic identifies some of the limits of using a specific value distinction to argue which of a group of disparate books is prize worthy.
What such binary focuses do particularly well, however, is reveal deeper meanings and values within works than would otherwise be readily apparent (this is, after all, why we have criticism). In other words, it is the procedure of reading text(s) A against text(s) B, that enables both Nina and Jonathan to produce a deeper and more significant analysis of text(s) A than if they simply discussed them in isolation. What I want to suggest, though, is that text(s) B are not simply playing the role of straw man in this process but are equally crucial to the derivation of that deeper and more significant meaning from the critical analysis. So, for example, the question of whether a text like DeLillo’s Zero K, is science fictional or not is irrelevant because regardless of what it is, it is the fact we read it in dialogue with unequivocal works of SF that enables it to generate its meanings (or meaninglessness). I very much doubt it would be so widely read (or, indeed, whether it could even be written) without that SF context to play off. More broadly speaking, literary SF exists only because it plays off genre SF and through its own internal differences from that body of work invites a degree of reflection in the reader that reveals deeper and more significant meanings of SF as a whole. The Clarke award has come to embody this process in Britain with the victory of literary SF such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Body of Glass and Station Eleven over more ostensibly genre works on the shortlist demonstrating how the establishment of difference from SF is necessary to produce a self-reflexive science-fictional understanding; an understanding of what it is to be modern.
However, I would suggest that this difference is not always created by the move away from genre. Rather, there is a more continual set of exchanges moving in both directions. For example, in twentieth-century mainstream literary history, while modernism differentiated itself from Victorian realism, it was the object against which postwar social realism was established, only in turn to be supplanted by 1960s experimentalism etc. Moreover, this is not a linear process but one of a number of overlapping, multivalent exchanges all swirling around. Consideration of such complexity leads to the conclusion that just because a work is competently literary or modernist or experimental doesn’t necessarily make it better than one that is a competent work of realism or, even, of genre SF. To put it another way, there is nothing inherently problematic about Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time winning the Clarke Award in 2016 just because it’s relatively core genre. While some of Tchaikovsky’s genre elements (the intelligent spiders) work better than others (the generation starship subplot), the overall effect of drawing on elements of classic SF from Wells to Clarke, himself, is to decentre mankind – in both senses of the term – and therefore produce a knowing text for the twenty-first century. In its self-conscious manipulation of genre tropes in contrast to a literary SF sensibility, Children of Time also provided an understanding of what it is to be modern, but crucially one that is not rooted in a human-centric universe. Therefore, on reflection, I think it was a worthy winner (even though I was rooting for Europe at Midnight). This is not to say that I still wouldn’t rather have seen Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself and Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels on the shortlist alongside Children of Time; those three texts together would provide the basis for a very interesting essay on British SF in 2016.
All of which brings me to Swainston’s Fair Rebel, the fifth volume in a fantasy series in which peoples, including the winged but flightless Awians, fight an endless horde of insects in often visceral detail. The first book in the sequence, The Year of Our War, appeared as long ago as 2004 from what in hindsight was the closing years of a long twentieth century soon to implode in the financial crash of 2007-8. As Farah Mendlesohn noted, reviewing it in Vector #236, while it might have been as solidly grounded in genre as it is possible to get, it was breathtaking rather than hackneyed. The complex politics of the ‘Fourlands’ are held together by the Emperor and the ‘Circle’ of fifty immortal heroes surrounding him, who have to defend their positions as the best at what they do from challengers, who by victory can take over the position in the Circle and the consequent immortality. For example, the aristocratic Awian, Saker, known also as Lightning, is the best archer in the Fourlands and has been in the Circle ever since its formation. In contrast, the protagonist of the first novel and the sequence as a whole, Jant/Comet, has risen from the streets to the Circle by virtue of being the fastest messenger. In this respect, he enjoys something of an unassailable advantage because his shared Awian and Rhydanne (a thin-boned mountain people) heritage means that he alone can use his wings to fly. As Mendlesohn points out, Jant is in love with Saker in a non-sexual sense and this closeness, combined with his upbringing and aerial viewpoint, allows him a unique overview of the politics and morality of the Fourlands. While the novels have not all followed in chronological sequence or featured exactly the same setting, Fair Rebel does, like The Year of Our War, begins with a vicious insect battle and centres on the Jant-Saker relationship against a background of the unwinding political stability of the Fourlands. In this respect, Fair Rebel could be seen as the archetypal genre novel functioning in the manner of a nineteenth-century character-based novel. Nevertheless, I would argue, it is as much concerned with the understanding of what it is to be modern as any other novel published in 2016.
The modernity of the sequence was first highlighted (although viewed in retrospect it was always a theme) in the third book, The Modern World, which, as I have argued in various places, should really have been on the 2008 Clarke Award shortlist. Towards the end of that novel, Saker voluntarily gives up his immortality to take power in Awia and the clock starts ticking in what had seemed a timeless, feudal state. Fair Rebel is set fifteen years after that novel ended and covers the events of a short but apocalyptic period of two summer months. In some ways, the novel can be considered the middle volume of a trilogy – we already know that the sixth volume of the sequence, The Savant and the Snake, will carry straight on from the events of Fair Rebel – and this does perhaps count against it in terms of an award that has been historically dominated by standalone books. However, the novel does have a well-constructed beginning, middle and end. Essentially, what happens in Fair Rebel is that someone literally puts a match to the stacked powder kegs of social and economic tensions that have built up over the previous books and the result is every bit as explosive as the political events that rocked the UK and the USA in 2016. On one level, this contemporary relevance is coincidental as Swainston surely had the book planned for earlier publication before terminating her then publishing contract in 2011 in order to work temporarily as a teacher. However, on another level, there is no coincidence to the relevance, as the roots of 2016 clearly extend further back than the years since the Global financial crisis and more like the quarter of a century mapped by Swainston’s series. As so often, fictionalisation of our world throws it into revealing relief.
In this respect, Swainston’s sequence bears structural similarities to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. While there is never the same broad (but pointed) satire, the novels are regularly punctuated with wry moral commentary. For example, the odious philosophy of the Sky professional cycling team is the target in one of Jant’s typically irreverent descriptions of a fellow immortal:
‘He drinks a faddish brew blueberries, ram’s testicles and crushed sea krait fangs, in the belief it’ll further his fitness, though he’s as fit as it’s possible to be. He calls it “winning by the accumulation of marginal gains”. I live in hope that one day “the accumulation of marginal gains” will make him sick.’
Elsewhere, he contemplates the increasingly erratic behaviour of the now-normally-ageing Saker in response to the series of deadly explosions destabilising Awia: ‘Only the self-consciously moral feel the need to protect the rest of us poor bastards, and they’ll fail their own morals, when they do.’ In this manner, Jant functions as the participant observer of the collapse of a hierarchical society. Although he owes his own success and extended life to the Emperor’s system, he is well placed to appreciate the anger of those excluded by that system. While his loyalties remain with his friends, his understanding reaches across the various divides at play in the Fourlands. One of the questions that begins to arise as the end of the novel as the Circle successively breaks – which happens when one of the immortals dies – and reforms with ever more difficulty, is how long will Jant maintain these loyalties. As the title Fair Rebel suggests, the discontent in the story is being led by a woman. In fact, there are two women leaders: the aristocratic Swallow, who has been repeatedly refused immortality as the best musician in the Fourlands, and Connell, radicalised through exploitation and then caught up in Swallow’s plans. The fact that the novel ends with Connell in hiding reflecting on her realisation that Swallow’s ego was as big as any of the immortals suggests that Swainston’s own sympathies are with the marginalised and dispossessed.
Swainston first imagined the world she writes about when she was five years old and this history of imaginative engagement is what maintains the integrity of the sequence. If as a genre series it inhabits the character-based structures of the nineteenth century, then the specific examples it calls to mind are the childhood fantasy worlds created by the Brontës. While these worlds were not continued in their adult fiction, their Byronic hero figures certainly reappear in transposed forms. The resulting novels, especially Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, generate what is in some respects an alternate order of subjectivity – an order with radically different values and meanings – to that implied by the conventional Victorian bildungsroman. While I wouldn’t want to overburden Swainston’s novels – which are arch and witty – with a sententious and weighty literary significance, they do cut against the norms of bourgeois subjectivity. Although it is now apparent that her work, which was initially connected by critics to the New Weird, is very much following a direction of her own, it does bear out China Miéville’s argument that fantasy is as much, if not more, the literature of alterity and difference than SF. Jant’s multiple perspective may be unique in the world of the Fourlands, but it is not unusual in our world with its fragmented identities. It is precisely through its embrace of imagination and fantasy, that Fair Rebel helps us understand what it is to be modern.
Nick Hubble is an academic working in the English department at Brunel University London, where they teach modern and contemporary literature, including Science Fiction and Fantasy. In addition, they have reviewed SFF for journals including Strange Horizons, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foundation and Vector.