The Ones that Got Away: by Nina Allan

The Ones that Got Away: by Nina Allan

By Nina Allan

With both the Sharke Six and the official Clarke shortlist now out of the bag, I thought I’d like to reflect a little on some of the books I encountered that did not make the running, either through being ineligible (i.e US-published) or through not being submitted. I’ve found myself wanting to talk about them because even now at the end of Phase One of my Sharke reading and with a sizeable number of eligible submissions under my belt, these omissions still feel notable, with discussion around the Clarke Award seeming the poorer for their absence.

The Booker Prize has already had its debate about allowing American novels into the mix, with predictably divided responses. Whether or not the Clarke should open itself up to US submissions is a discussion that lies beyond the remit of this essay, though it does seem a shame that there have been and will continue to be books that stand central to any discussion of the year’s SF and yet under current Clarke rules must remain excluded from one of its most prestigious awards.

Take the winner of this year’s Philip K. Dick Award as a case in point. Similarly to Eleanor Lerman’s Radiomen, which won the Campbell Award last year, I had not even heard of Claudia Casper or her third novel The Mercy Journals until it was shortlisted for the PKD Award. As with Radiomen, here was a novel by an established writer of experimental literary fiction, suddenly turning up on a science fiction awards shortlist. My kind of thing exactly, and I had to read it.

The Mercy Journals is the story of Allen Quincy, nicknamed ‘Mercy’ by his army comrades for the part he played in a state-sanctioned genocide at the US-Mexican border. Years after these seismic events, Allen finds himself a depleted, washed-up veteran, an old man in a new world where his future and even his past have become uncertain. When his brother Leo turns up out of nowhere, claiming sanctuary and bearing the rumour that Allen’s two sons might yet be alive, Allen has some hard choices to make, both about the life he is living now and the life he lived then.

The problem with a book like The Mercy Journals, at least within the context of the Clarke Award, is that there will inevitably be readers and commentators who come to it with the conviction that they have seen it all before: that it is yet another ‘tourist’ novel, an attempt by a mainstream writer to make a radical incursion into science fiction but without the relevant nerdcraft at their disposal. The more one examines this assumption though, the more it seems bizarre, as if one needed a qualification in science fiction history in order to be allowed to speculate about the future or even to imagine it. In a world where science fictional ideas have been the lifeblood of mainstream popular culture for two decades and more, such essentialism is laughably outmoded, designed to keep SF as a gated community and – it could also be argued – to bolster otherwise mediocre texts against a more rigorous literary criticism.

Which is also something of a preamble to my stating that I loved The Mercy Journals, a novel that –no doubt because it is the work of an older, more experienced writer who is not a part of what is loosely termed the science fiction community – is not in the least self-conscious about current SF community rhetoric or SF in general. Casper simply uses science fictional concepts as and when she sees fit. The Mercy Journals also – mercifully – displays something very different from the bland, planed-down, professionally veneered surface that is now the norm for so many zealously over-edited debuts, where original vision is sacrificed more or less entirely to ‘narrative flow’.

As a novel of post-apocalypse, The Mercy Journals is more than competent, with a compelling, well-handled storyline, a fascinating cast of characters (the relationship between Allen and his sociopathic brother Leo in particular is brilliantly evoked) and a lot to say about climate change, sustainability and the inevitable collapse of unrestricted capitalism. The book’s overarching agenda though has to do with writing, the act of remembering, and the ways in which the two are both essential to each other and mutually destructive:

When I told Ruby about the genocide on the border, the words were warm from my breath, but when I wrote them down they turned hard and armoured, and this fills me with disgust. Of course writing doesn’t destroy memory. I’ve known that since just after I started, yet it does alter memory and it does destroy living memory. I thought that might be enough. Who can shoot the written word? Who can punish it or kill it? Does it die from lack of oxygen? From a broken heart? From shame? Can it lose its soul? But writing also turns private memory out onto the street like an underage runaway and makes me feel like both a pimp and a john, as well as a murderer.

There will no doubt be those who would argue that The Mercy Journals, like Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven before it, is a regressive text in science fictional terms, that it is essentially an act of nostalgia, a wishing-away of the digital world. I would say in reply that – as also with Station Eleven – when I find writing this powerful and this competent, when I see the art of the novel practised to such a high order, quite frankly I don’t give a damn about whether this book is giving me anything ‘new’ in science fictional terms. The newness is in the writing, the quality of expression, the extent to which the work stays with me as literature, the desire I might feel as a reader to read it again. One should also ask (and it is surprising how rarely this question comes up) how many genuinely fresh conceits are offered by genre SF in any given year anyway?

If The Mercy Journals was ineligible for this year’s Clarke on grounds of its North American publishing provenance, the absence of David Means’s Hystopia from the submissions list is more of a mystery. I very much admired Means’s story collection and his debut novel Hystopia was one of the first books on my radar when I first began thinking about what I might like to see on any potential Clarke shortlist for 2017. Published on both sides of the Atlantic, Hystopia was definitely eligible and I would be interested to learn why it was not submitted.

The facts of this novel as we know them are as follows: Eugene Allen, a damaged Vietnam veteran, writes a novel and then kills himself. Doctors, friends, family members and historians try to work out the sequence of events that led to his suicide. Allen’s novel, Hystopia, forms the bulk of the text, whilst the interviews with interested parties are presented as supplementary notes.

The action of Allen’s text takes place in an alternate USA in which the Vietnam War is still ongoing, and President Kennedy, visibly injured in a botched assassination attempt, has just entered his third term of office. A new drug, Tripizoid, has been developed with the aim of helping the many thousands of damaged veterans regain their foothold in society. Tripizoid works by ‘enfolding’ the veteran’s trauma in a mental cocoon, making the memories inaccessible and thus rendering the veteran’s trauma non-existent. It’s no surprise to discover that Tripizoid doesn’t work for everyone, and in many cases makes the trauma worse, doubling its impact and sending already unstable veterans over the edge. A part of upstate Michigan has become a savagely lawless enclave in which some of the worst failed ‘enfolds’ re-enact their war experiences. One such unfortunate is Rake, a terrifying psychopath who has embarked on a series of killing sprees, kidnapping a young woman fellow enfold and dragging her along for the ride. Two special operatives, Singleton and Wendy, are charged with the job of locating Rake and taking him down. The fact that they themselves are also enfolds with possible personal connections to Rake can only complicate matters. As a third wave of riots break out in the decaying Rustbelt cities, a final battle seems inevitable.

It’s a complicated narrative full of interesting ideas. The counterpoint between the action of the novel (Rake’s rampage, Meg’s unfolding, Singleton and Wendy’s journey into the forest, Hank’s relationship with Rake and its eventual denouement) and ‘what really happened’ to Eugene Allen (the death of his best friend in combat, the murder of his sister Meg – the only ‘character’ in Allen’s novel who keeps her real name – the subsequent breakdown of his family and the corrosive nature of Allen’s memories) forms the work’s key dynamic, though I equally found Means’s ‘supplementary notes’ outlining the imagined historical reality behind Allen’s manuscript and the witness testimonies as interesting as Allen’s Hystopia itself.

Allen’s novel is more interesting in its first half, when the action seems confused and we have to unpick the various strands to work out what is going on. Once Singleton and Wendy go on the road, the narrative become more conventional, and the cheat denouement – even though Allen ‘explains’ his decision not to end with a classic shootout scenario in an attempt to head off exactly this criticism – is something of a disappointment, if only because the threat Rake poses is so easily dispensed with.

Hystopia does not seem to care much about its science fiction – there is scant exploration of the wider implications of Tripizoid, for example, and little attention is given to the historical counterfactual beyond the fact that it exists. Personally I have the feeling that Hystopia exists mainly because Means was itching to write a Vietnam novel, to evoke the atmosphere of the counterculture, to play games around the idea of the Manson ranch. Yet the most resonant aspect of his vision lies in the breakdown of the Rustbelt cities as depicted by Eugene Allen, the fracturing of communities, the discontent erupting into street violence. This makes for potent reading, especially now.

As a novel, Hystopia feels rather thin in places, the results not entirely living up to the author’s clear ambition for them. However, I admired Means’s book for its formal innovation, its willingness to utilise speculative ideas within a political context, its deliberate evasiveness in terms of both its language and its plot. Even if the book did not entirely win me over at the gut level, as with DeLillo’s Zero K, my intellectual interest in it as a work of fiction provides more than enough of an inducement for a second read, and I would have loved to have seen Hystopia discussed as a Clarke contender.

Carl Neville’s Resolution Way poses a different kind of problem, although I suspect the question as to why it wasn’t submitted for the Clarke Award is a simple matter of neither party knowing the other existed. Published by UK indie Repeater Books, a press that has as its mission statement the aim ‘of bringing marginal, esoteric, idiosyncratic and necessary literature and thought into a mainstream that would otherwise ignore it’ it is a shame that Resolution Way has not garnered more attention generally, either from within SFF or from further afield.

The novel begins with Alex Hargreaves, a young-ish writer with one moderate success under his belt and currently paralysed with writer’s block as he confronts the spectre of the Difficult Second Novel. At a party someone – he can’t afterwards remember who – mentions to him that he might like to look into the work of Vernon Crane, a writer and composer briefly active in the mid-nineties and since vanished from view. Initially unconvinced, Alex quickly becomes obsessed with Crane. Propelled by hunger for fame and increasing doses of the new performance-enhancing drug Deverotol, Alex sets off on a mission to track down Crane’s erstwhile compadres, a scattered crew of dropouts and misfits, each of whom holds part of a work, an unpublished novel that Alex fervently believes will make his name.

Alex is a self-centred hipster of the most insufferable kind, obsessed with building his brand and more than happy to hijack the talent of others in order to do so. We follow him in a kind of dazed fascination, appalled not so much by him as by the world he inhabits, a very-near-future version of our own in which there is a semi-legal app for everything and data privacy is an extinct concept. The corporate, segregated London held up as a spectre of endgame global capitalism is Alex’s daily reality. There are even two grades of tube travel, with the new SoftRail zooming along in pacific efficiency above the heads of the masses, a kind of super-DLR that can only be accessed by those with the necessary contacts and stratospheric earning power. The majority of Londoners, effectively barred from entering Zone 1 unless they’re working there as cleaners or restaurant staff, scrape by on zero-hours contracts, many of them facing eviction to derelict towns on the south coast when they inevitably fall foul of a social security bureaucracy that is designed to turn citizens into indentured slaves.

Whilst we might imagine that Alex is insulated by his money and privilege, as he moves from buoyant complacency to paranoid delusion we begin to realise he is in his own way as much a prisoner of a toxic reality as those he meets on the road: Paula Adonor, Vernon Crane’s ex-girlfriend, now fighting for justice for her son Lee, catastrophically brain-damaged in an act of police brutality and facing eviction; Rob Gillespie, old comrade from the 90s rave scene, washed up, half-crippled, subsisting on pot noodles; Nick, a job centre employee working fourteen-hour shifts just to not be fired. Resolution Way introduces us to characters from right across the social spectrum, all crushed and beholden to a system that exists solely for the benefit of the ultra-capitalists: a distant directorate of über-aesthetes who mix with the people at street level only to prove their cool credentials, who condescend to buy their art or their old mix-tapes at vastly inflated prices in order to own something that reminds them of a world they have destroyed.

This is an odd book to review. Its closest cousinage is with the miserabilist writers of the 1990s: Joel Lane, Chris Kenworthy, Nicholas Royle, writers who grew up in the shadow of Thatcher and who portrayed a near-future that was really the present, a junkyard economy of destroyed manufacturing, derelict shopping centres and washed up revolutionaries, a movement that reached its apotheosis in works such as ‘The Ice Monkey’ and The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison. In many ways, Resolution Way can be read as the digital sequel to Joel Lane’s final, as-yet unpublished novel The Missing Tracks. If Tracks reveals a post-Blair Labour movement lost in a wasteland of numb disbelief and terminal fragmentation, Resolution Way takes us forward to a time in which the very idea of a Labour movement or indeed any viable political opposition has been put into receivership.

It presents a chilling vision, perhaps the most uncannily percipient expose of our present and future that I have yet read (published in May 2016, Resolution Way refers to a political bid for an independent London that would ‘at least keep us in Europe’. The North is a kind of no-man’s-land, Scotland a ‘rebel outpost’. Where on Earth does Neville get his ideas from?) The science fiction in Resolution Way hovers so close to the brink of presently-lived reality that it is barely science fiction at all – and yet is that not exactly where SF is at its strongest?

The best thing about this book is its anger: its searing condemnation of a vision of free-market economics that amounts to social apartheid, its charting of the deep damage wrought by the ongoing gentrification tsunami, of the wholesale demolition of every notable achievement of the British Labour movement. As a portrait of post-Brexit Britain, Resolution Way has an acuity and a depth of understanding that verges on the uncanny. As a snapshot of the yawning precipice on which we currently stand, this novel has an honesty and a value that is difficult to articulate save by quoting vast chunks of it to anyone who will listen.

All the more pity then that it is barely a novel at all. Resolution Way is considerably more than just agitprop, and yet as a reading experience it remains unsatisfactory, partial, as unconcerned with the art of fiction as The War Game. I’m not talking about any lack of skill in the writing. Neville can put sentences together, and his pared down, unshowy directness of approach is ideal for his subject matter and not at all inelegant. The problem lies more in Neville’s unwillingness to pander to the bourgeois demands of style over substance even a little bit. The Vernon Crane thread – an intriguing plot hook with a touch of Harrisonian occult Gnosticism about it – is proved to be nothing more than a scant flap of connective tissue, a convenient means of bringing Neville’s series of character vignettes under one umbrella. That the vignettes are compelling and the characters and their situations memorably well drawn serves only to highlight how little those characters participate in any story beyond the gruelling facts of their situation. The novel as it stands feels incomplete, indicative but not substantive of the thing of power and beauty it might have been.

The novel’s ending is particularly galling, the rushed, perfunctory way in which the author attempts to pull the threads together serving as a final demonstration of the fact that Neville never cared that much about Resolution Way as a novel in any case, that what mattered to him was its polemic, its existence as a frank and bitter testimonial to the attack on the physical and spiritual existence of the city he loves.

Which is fair enough, if one chooses to discount the irony that in its current form, Resolution Way is unlikely to circulate much beyond a small coterie of readers who are already more than convinced of such a text’s necessity. Neville’s passion for his subject is clear, the urgency of his message never in question, yet Resolution Way does not come even close to matching the imaginative reach of more fully realised novels with similar underlying mission statements: M. John Harrison’s Signs of Life, Tobias Hill’s The Cryptographer, even Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island which, though similarly sparse in terms of its texture, possesses – perhaps in part because of its emotional opacity, its self-conscious ambiguity – a literary sophistication of another order.

I have no idea why Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims was not submitted for the Clarke Award. With her debut novel The Panopticon shortlisted for the Kitschies in 2012 and the cover of this new novel in contention for this year’s BSFA Best Artwork award, Fagan has clearly entered genre consciousness and her omission here is a mystery, especially since The Sunlight Pilgrims is that much more upfront about its science fiction than The Panopticon.

Set against a background of accelerating climate change, The Sunlight Pilgrims introduces us to Dylan, a gentle giant of a man whose life in London collapses with the death of his mother and the sale of the near-derelict cinema that has until now functioned both as his home and as his livelihood. He travels north to a holiday park on the Scottish coast, where his mother, unbeknown to him, owned a caravan. Here he meets Constance, a local woman with a complicated past and a teenage daughter, Stella, who is transgender:

This feeling lately that a boy is following her, ready to take over her body. She will wake up and have to walk around inside someone else’s body. She’ll feel like a skinny girl who is being forced to wear a sumo suit and a guy’s hairy chest, but worse. When this boy who is coming turns up with his face hair and his deep voice, she won’t know where she is or who she is any more, but she’ll be stuck there like a witch has cursed her to stay inside someone else’s form, no matter how uncomfortable the fit of skin, hair, muscles, the protrusion of an Adam’a apple, a deepening in vocal tone.

The theme of tolerance – the undramatic, humane acceptance of difference – is a key aspect of The Sunlight Pilgrims: Stella’s warmly functioning, mutually supportive relationship with her mother, Dylan’s acceptance of his grandmother’s very difficult personal history as it is revealed to him are wonderfully realised. Whilst some readers will complain that Fagan’s novel is not properly science fictional because it is not ‘about’ the new ice age, I would argue that its strength as speculative fiction lies precisely in the act of imagining and detailing what ordinary people might do in extraordinary circumstances, in presenting the oncoming climate catastrophe initially as an inconvenient backdrop to individual personal drama, ultimately as a terrifying new reality that will subsume those individual lives and leave nothing untouched.

The Sunlight Pilgrims is a quiet apocalypse, a powerful story of human connections amidst inhuman conditions. The ending, in its descriptive splendour and its narrative ambiguity, is wholly satisfying and entirely appropriate. Should have been a contender.

So too should Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, a climate change novel as blisteringly hot as Fagan’s is icy and with as little clue as to its omission from the Clarke submissions list. A US novel yes, but its UK publication in February of last year makes it perfectly eligible, and with Watkins recently announced as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, its absence from Clarke discussion seems doubly harsh. I’ve made no secret of how much I admired Watkins’s debut collection Battleborn, and as a follow-up, Gold Fame Citrus initially seemed somewhat uneven, if only because my expectations were so high.

What I can now say, a full year after reading it, is that this book is a grower. Its strength lies in its weirdness, its discomfiting non-sequitors, its deeply flawed characters. As a depiction of climate change already underway it is both timely and terrifying – I had not realised at the time of reading how much of Gold Fame Citrus is already at least partially true for California – and in its use of language and stylistic innovation it can compete with anything on the submissions list and outshine most of it. My fellow Sharke Jonathan McCalmont has written eloquently about the strength and purpose present in this novel and I heartily recommend his article on the subject. This is a book that would definitely benefit from a second reading, which is reason enough by itself to regret its mystifying absence from the Clarke this year.

So what have I learned from this project so far? More than I could possibly have imagined at the outset, firstly about how difficult a jury’s job truly is and most of all, how large a part of literary criticism is actually subjective. I can talk about the kinds of books that most engage me and I can try and work out for myself (and for anyone else who happens to be reading along) why I am drawn to them, but that is really all I am doing. What I say has no absolute value – there is no objective yardstick for these things – and that is fine. As for my own feelings about speculative fiction, how it relates to other genres and how I position myself within it, I have felt these things shift and change even throughout the first phase of this project. This has been fascinating, exhilarating and alarming in equal measure. I feel I have an equal amount to learn during the second phase of the shadow jury, where we read (or in some cases reread) the shortlisted books, together with any that each of us feels have been unduly overlooked.

As this process nears its conclusion, I hope I’ll have more to say about this process of discovery, including an overview and summing up of the official shortlist once I have read everything, then a new version of my personal shortlist post, in which I’ll reveal the books from 2016 I would place on my ‘ideal’ shortlist, whether they were submitted for the Clarke Award or not. I have a draft list of those books in front of me right now, but I’m almost guaranteed that it will change before this journey is over.

*

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.

>> Read Nina’s introduction and shortlist

 

6 Comments

  1. Tom Hunter 5 months ago

    I’m sorry to say I make a commitment to not discuss particular eligible books that were not submitted and to respect the publishers decisions in those matters by keeping those conversations private, but I can say I actively tried to get many more titles than you see in our submissions list and the same is true of most years.

    On the other hand, and as I’ve commented elsewhere already, we do have a lot successes as well, and indeed you can see the results of that in the current Shadow shortlist

    • Nina Allan 5 months ago

      No reason to be sorry, Tom. This post is not about the ‘failure’ of the Clarke Award to get certain eligible works submitted, nor is it about the negligence of publishers in not submitting them. I would always have a casual interest in the whys and wherefores because such things are fascinating but I was not expecting you to address them here. This is just a post about some books I read and admired and wanted to talk about.

  2. Tom Hunter 5 months ago

    No worries Nina, I didn’t read this as a ‘failure to secure books’ piece. I just wanted to note for other readers that while it will necessarily be a mystery why certain books weren’t submitted, the normal answer is ‘we asked, and were (usually politely) declined’

    The reasons for those declines vary, and while I love publishing our submissions list, a ‘books we asked for but didn’t get’ list is not a good idea. Not suggesting you’re asking for one btw. In truth I’d happily share that info as it’s a useful measure of how different publishers attitudes to sf shift, but really I think those conversations necessarily need to stay private.

  3. PhilRM 5 months ago

    I had exactly the same reaction to the announcement of the PKD Award: “How did I not know about this book?” Your description of this and Hystopia (which is probably next up in my TBR pile, and which I picked up because its eye-catching psychedelic cover caught my eye while I was browsing a local bookstore) reminded me of Willy Vlautin’s excellent The Free (which I only knew about because Paul McAuley blogged about it) – a novel that I would fault only for not quite having the courage of its adopted genre convictions. And despite its failings I clearly need to read Resolution Way (which Jonathan raved about in Interzone): you had me at “Harrisonian occult Gnosticism”. (Well, that and “searing condemnation”.)

    Somehow I still have not caught up with Gold Fame Citrus, even though I was so impressed by Battleborn that I picked up a copy of GFC the day it went on sale. Interestingly, in the context of Watkin’s shift to SF with GFC, I thought the strongest story in Battleborn was “The Diggings”, which was the only story with unmistakable fantastic elements.

    • Nina Allan 5 months ago

      …which reminds me I must read The Free. Mike Harrison is a fan of that novel, too.

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