Steph Swainston by Fair Rebel: a review by Nick Hubble

Steph Swainston by Fair Rebel: a review by Nick Hubble

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 DestructivesFair 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.

 

Review:

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.

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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 HorizonsLos Angeles Review of BooksFoundation and Vector.

>> Read Nick’s introduction and shortlist

5 Comments

  1. Tom Hunter 4 months ago

    “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”

    Yep.

    It was a great book and a hugely popular win.

    “It might be argued that some of the recent Clarke shortlists have looked a tad on the random side.”

    Nope.

    Or, to be more specific, the most recent lists are no more or less coherent than lists dating back to the beginning of the award, and this is due primarily to the judges selecting collectively on the criteria of ‘best SF novel of the year.’ They are not selecting on anything else e.g. coherent themes that link the six shortlisted books together. The link is that the judges think the selected books are the six best. You can disagree with that (and, oh boy, so people do that, and it’s usually in a fun way) but that’s the connecting point between the books.

    Changing tack slightly, I can totally accept that perhaps recent lists might seem more random on the surface, but would counter that this is primarily a result of the dramatic increase in submission numbers in recent years rather than a flaw in judging.

    Back when I started on this whole award running thing ten(ish) years ago we were getting 40 something books a year, so it could certainly follow that a shortlist back then might have a degree more predictability about it versus one with 80 to over 100 books in contention.

    I would argue that more books being submitted is more of a win than a seemingly coherent shortlist. The coherence is there to find in all the last few years, and you’ll just have to wait a little longer to see how this year’s shortlist compares to that suggestion.

    Fingers crossed the Shadow Clarke team mostly like it (mostly).

    • Nina Allan 4 months ago

      Hi Tom!

      I don’t think anyone – least of all Nick – is suggesting that recent Clarke shortlists indicate anything in the way of a ‘flaw in judging’. Indeed unless we are talking about a judging process that has become corrupted or open to undue bias in some way (which we most assuredly are not) then under the current rules there is no such thing as a flawed judging process. One could raise questions about the critical rigour of the jury’s in camera discussion, but that would be guesswork. One could state that ‘these particular five judges have not selected the books I – or these other five judges over here – would have chosen’ but that is irrelevant.

      That Children of Time was, in your words, ‘a hugely popular win’ is, in terms of literary criticism, equally irrelevant.

      In terms of literary criticism, what matters – more, what is interesting – is what a shortlist or set of shortlists might have to say about the state of the genre in any given year or span of years. I think what Nick is saying here in his essay about the emergence of ‘new values’ in selection criteria and the effect these might be having, both on current judging discussions and by extension on current shortlists is both fascinating and deeply relevant. Personally, I would argue that last year’s shortlist has a great deal to say about current genre consensus and zeitgeist, the ‘new values’ of which Nick speaks, and virtually nothing to say about the six best novels AS NOVELS on that list of submissions. That’s my personal thesis, not a definitive pronouncement. Like all critical opinion it is offered as an invitation to further discussion. The purpose of literary criticism – the purpose of the shadow Clarke – is not to dis books (or judges) or indeed to lavish unequivocal praise upon them but to learn more about what they are saying and how and why they are saying it.

      Whether members of the shadow Clarke jury personally ‘like’ the official shortlist is, therefore, mostly irrelevant also – but I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’re hugely looking forward to seeing what this year’s judges have come up with, and to a lively discussion of what that selection might – possibly – have to say about the state of science fiction in the current term!

  2. Tom Hunter 4 months ago

    Hi Nina

    I am merely glad that Nick made that particular point about Children Of Time winning in 2016, but disagree with the later suggestion that the Clarke Award shortlists in recent years have possibly been a tad random (other than that I greatly enjoyed the post).

    My particular experience of those shortlists is different, but it’s not really a point I want to argue strongly – we don’t claim a shortlist should have a recognisable continuity or theme, for instance ,and as you say the whole process of a juried prize process is clearly not random.

    Anyway, as I suggested above, even if there were a case for randomness to be made it might not necessarily be such a bad thing because any perceived randomness in a shortlist selection is likely to be the result of our significant uplift in total submissions numbers in the last five years, which is (I would hope) generally seen as a good thing.

    To the point about popularity, I entirely accept that’s not necessarily important or interesting to a project like the Shadow Clarke reviews, but it is a very crucial consideration in terms of how I measure the success of the Award itself.

    It is not always possible to quantify the impact the Award has on a book, so I celebrate when we have popular success we can point to.

    I was delighted when Ancillary Justice went on to win pretty much everything a few years back, but it did muddy the water data-wise for me, and likewise Station Eleven was already a very popular and widely read/purchased title before it took the Clarke prize, so again hard to measure.

    The last time I saw as powerful an example of the Clarke Award in action as I have with Children of Time was with Lauren’s win for Zoo City in 2011.

    • Nina Allan 4 months ago

      Nick can correct me if I’m wrong, but I took his use of the word ‘random’ to be code for baffling rather than thematically disconnected. It certainly is baffling, in a year that produced novels of genuine literary and science fictional significance (such as De Abaitua’s If Then, Roberts’s The Thing Itself, Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Hall’s Speak, Wright’s The Swan Book, van den Berg’s Find Me to name but a few) to see a Clarke Award shortlist so heavily weighted towards more lightweight YA-type narratives, just for example, and to my mind at least can only point towards the increasing influence of those ‘new values’ in critical approach referenced by Nick’s article. The fact that this phenomenon was not discussed much at the time – that critical discourse around the Clarke generally seemed to have entered something of a slump – is something I would count as a significant indicator of the diminishing vigour of genre SFF specifically (and indeed the reason the shadow Clarke experiment was initiated in the first place). While genre SFF swings ever further to the commercial centre right, the real speculation in speculative fiction – whether in terms of formal experiment, stylistic innovation or radical subject matter – comes increasingly from writers published by mainstream literary imprints.

      The true significance, not to mention lasting success of an award like the Clarke lies in its ability to generate discussion and debate around the very notion of science fiction, its continuing relevance (or not) within the literary landscape, the ideas expressed and explored by those writers who feel drawn towards speculative approaches.

      The popularity of any single book in a given year is a wonderful thing for the author and should be celebrated as such but in terms of the overall health and longevity of the award itself, it is ephemeral, gone with the wind. In an ideal world, part of the remit of an award’s directorate would be to recognise the value of engaged critical discourse in promoting the award and – if we must use such language – growing its brand. Without engaged critical discourse, the field either atomises or turns to mulch, and the award with it.

  3. Nick Hubble 4 months ago

    To clarify, I was suggesting that recent shortlists ‘might’ look a bit random according to past critical consensus. I wasn’t particularly endorsing that perspective. Nor am I necessarily committed to critical consensus, which by its nature is subject to continual fluxes. However, I do think that critics need to continually reflect on such issues.

    To me it looks clear that new values have emerged and that therefore there currently isn’t a critical consensus on how value distinctions currently work. I don’t see that as a problem in itself. It might be the case that the success of the Clarke is one of the factors in the emergence of new values. I suspect there is a feedback loop by which the change in perception of what SF is, has fed into the field of what is published and hence a wider range of books are submitted to the Clarke. In turn, the wider range of submissions means that the shortlists look different to ten years ago and are less easy to predict. On one level, this is quite exciting for everyone. On another level, it is especially exciting for me as a critic who likes analysing cultural change, social values and the role of the imagination etc. But it is also a cultural field in its own right in which various people have got stakes and interests and therefore there is going to be critical debate about every aspect of these changes because this is the arena where meanings are contested and forged. The good thing from the point of view of the Award is that it is at the centre of the debate.

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