By Megan AM
Since the 2013 all-male Clarke shortlist, it’s been assumed that Clarke jurors have been striving for gender parity of authors when constructing their shortlists, but more recently, through the data analysis of Nicola Griffith, we’ve become aware of the even greater problem of protagonist gender disparity: Apparently, genre readers and critics prefer to award books about males, regardless of author gender. I’ve often noticed that this is particularly true of the of the investigative-type police procedural mystery narratives, a modality SF writers often like try on, and exactly true of the police procedural selections on both the Clarke and Sharke lists.
While I wouldn’t be so hyperbolic as to say there is a deafening silence about female investigative protagonists, because there are a ton, but within SF, and especially within the SF book awards machine, the general perception of this mode is that it belongs in the masculine realm. The pragmatic, dogged, stiff upper lip investigator is a common, easy mold for authors to sink into, and although women protagonists could easily slip into that role, we readers, unfortunately, get more Mulders than Scullys.
I bring this up, not because I have any regrets about the books under discussion below—I’m actually pleased with both—but because I still see a lot of back-patting about gender parity on shortlists when protagonist genders are rarely commented on. And, besides, it’s something that’s been on my mind, especially as I enjoy the latest SF police procedurals, but find them wanting of Scullys.
I also mention this because I expect this trend will change, for the police procedural is here to stay, and SF writers are always looking for ways to shake things up. And who can blame them? It’s an easy modality to work with because it arrives pre-built: the motivation is built in and the character templates are set. It’s both interesting and familiar to readers, allowing readers to be aware of and comfortable with a cluster of traits and experiences without requiring the author to spend many words on foundational detail. The challenge for any writer taking on this work is to construct a plot that allows for a satisfying solution via a number of small, sometimes misleading reveals, all without being too obvious or too ambiguous. An added challenge for the SF writer is to work this structure into a futuristic or scientific context of some kind.
In After Atlas, Emma Newman does all of this well. In Infinite Ground, Martin MacInnes bashes it in the back of the head and leaves it to decompose.
After Atlas by Emma Newman
In After Atlas, we find ourselves at the discovery of a mysterious and grisly death: a famous space cult leader has been hanged, drawn, and quartered. Our detective is a man who, to heighten drama and add some psychological complexity to the case, is an escapee of this cult, and was once close with the victim. References to the previous novel indicate he also has mommy issues. And daddy issues. Alongside the mystery is a vividly-rendered Gibsonian future dystopia where real food is in short supply and oppressive labor contracts extend to cover a human being’s entire existence.
It might help that this is the second book in a series, but Newman avoids the over-explainyness that often weighs down SF novels. While the protagonist explains almost too much—he seems aware he is telling his story to people not of his world—he is never able to provide a complete enough picture to dissolve the natural intrigue that comes with visiting this remote future world. In fact, the world might be the most interesting thing about this novel; so far from our own, yet clearly an evolution of existing economic and political policies into brutal, oppressive relationships borne of empowered corporations, extreme wealth, and disenfranchised people. Labor contracts control entire human lives, while the human body is a meat platform for tech. It’s a blend of Brunner, Gibson, and Stephenson, but less show-offy, more intuitive, and appropriately in tune with our current situation.
The mystery portion of the novel is less fascinating, but intriguing nonetheless. While the rhythms of space opera and fantasy always cause my eyes to glaze over, the rhythms of the police procedural usually pass or fail with equal measure. Newman makes it work. The usual suspects are unusual enough to not slip into predictability, the high-tech components add flair to stale tropes, and the investigator is multidimensional enough to be interesting, flawed, and unique.
The self-pitying misery twists into anger, settling into a more familiar shape inside me.
(While I love this kind of insightful writing, its position within a first-person narrative is always a bit dubious, considering most people, especially someone as avoidant and isolated as this guy, aren’t usually so insightful and exact about themselves.)
One regret I have about After Atlas is its treatment of suicide—not a flaw with Newman’s thinking, but just a flaw with pop culture in general. While I’ve come around to view fact-checking in fiction reviews as a tedious exercise in smugness, we now sit in the aftermath of 13 Reasons Why, a show which has fixated masses of teens and tweens on the topic of suicide, and has re-crystalized the idea of suicide as a retributive means backed by rational thinking, rather than a mental health disorder characterized by a disruption of cognitive pathways and instinctual survival mechanisms. Research has shown that suicide completion is rarely the result of “A Reason,” yet it’s sexier for pop culture to frame it that way.
It’s especially disappointing because, for most of the novel, it appears the suicide case will be left unresolved, forcing the protagonist detective to come to terms with the lack of resolution, which is a far more realistic experience for survivors of suicide deaths, and would have opened the novel to a richer psychological experience than the standard police procedural normally allows. But, in the end, the protagonist finds the victim’s note, and the suicide is attributed to A Reason.
But that is a personal and professional qualm, and not one that should get in the way of enjoyment of the story for most people. An even greater disappointment is in the final quarter of novel, where the novel succumbs to serialitis, and the soul of the story is abandoned to set up the next installment in the series. This is a common and frustrating technique that I blame more on the strictures of commercial publishing than the creativity of the author. It’s clear Newman worked well with what she had, but it inevitably comes off as contrived, abrupt, and dissatisfying.
Regardless of this disappointment, After Atlas is a pleasant surprise. Having briefly sampled Newman’s podcast and immediately withdrawn due to feelings of cringe and an impending toothache, I did not expect to get along so well with her writing. The novel is serious, sturdy, and pleasantly dark, and I crave another look at this dystopian world we are so clearly headed for (although the contrived ending has blown that possibility to bits). This is a satisfying Clarke shortlistee. It’s not a winner among its shortlisted peers, though.
Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes
…in dense pedestrian areas you could actually feel, live, the substance sloughing off the population. At the same time other life quickened.
‘There is no clear distinction between him and his room, inside and out. Likewise no neat separation of physical and mental parts. There was nothing he could do about that – he couldn’t decide, say, to no longer have anything to do with the life of the room; he would be thinking via the life of the room. It’s harder to see his shape, harder to locate him. There isn’t a free-standing identity surveying its environment, Inspector. I think he’d seen that.
A police procedural about a mysterious disappearance. An investigation of the ecology of modern life. A dismantling of genre expectations. A mystery with no less than twenty-nine resolutions. Maybe more. A novel that experiences its own existential crisis.
‘Definition was his problem. None of him was solidly drawn… He was a segment of environment. He was almost nothing. Take a cup, scoop some air, that’s what he was. How are you going to find that?
This is a novel after my own heart. This is a novel!
Like so many before him, the investigator is a bumbling workaholic with job-related PTSD and dead wife issues. He is lonely and antisocial. He is isolated. Naturally, and quite literally, he is absorbed by the case. The biodegradability of office life consumes him. He is infected by the disappearance of his subject.
He used to see think he could see language where it fell.
When I flip through the pages of Infinite Ground and select a random sentence, any sentence, I delight in MacInnes’ grasp of and playfulness with language, of his understanding of the imagery inherent in the plasticity of words. He says more in one paragraph than Becky Chambers can say in an entire novel, and he does it with the added obstacle of an avoidant protagonist personality who does not observe his internalized self.
He tried to circle around the thoughts, rather than confront them.
While Infinite Ground appears to fall into that trap of being yet another book about a man, a troubled man, a widowed man, an investigator man, it’s perfectly aware of its tired platform and structure, and more than willing to take out the garbage, pick at the refuse, then set it on fire. While MacInnes hints all along at his own exhaustion with more obvious characteristics of genre style, chapter six of part two takes aim as “What Happened to Carlos: Suspicions, Rumours, Links” dismembers the entire fantasy, offering not one satisfying resolution, but every possible resolution to the mystery. Twenty-six solutions aimed at the mystery of the disappearance of Carlos, and they’re funny and brilliant, and likely inspired by MacInnes’ own obsessive reading of cardboard genre and insipid realism, and speaking to the creativity and stunted, recycled nature of both.
(Of course, I’m inclined to align with resolution number five—I’ve read these books before—but MacInnes isn’t done decomposing his subject at that point…)
To compare After Atlas and Infinite Ground in the way I compared books in my last review is less compatible: despite appearing as if they are on similar ground, they both aim (and succeed in those aims) for completely different things. On its own, After Atlas is an intriguing blend of thoughtful extrapolation and investigative pacing, a success for genre literature, but when examined next to the dazzling insight and strange approach that is Infinite Ground, After Atlas is just a story, a generic story, a story with not much to say and a couple of big fumbles.
Rather than Battle Book this, because this is a case of apples and oranges, I’d rather let Isabella, the forensic biologist and Weird thinker extraordinaire from Infinite Ground, share her own observation, which, when applied to science fiction literature, and even the stunted ending of After Atlas, feels perfectly apropos:
We spend too much time looking at the fucking stars… That urge to look to the transcendent. This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled. Honestly, give me grandeur, give me my feet. Look at your feet, Inspector, at what you stand on. No, really. Forgive me, I’m being serious. I am. Yes, yes, you can laugh. We are generally, I think, so prejudiced when it comes to scale. There is enough in a simple glimpse of the ground. More than enough. The earth surface is an infinite mesh of bio-trails. You work on it, too, at a slightly different scale – of course you do, you inspect it. The mesh of lines is constantly renewing, but so are we. If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.
It is my hope that more SF authors work to dig up the lost civilizations of individual persons. Imagine the things we would discover!
Megan AM is a lifetime SF fan, but a longtime sufferer of bland SF. She realizes now that this is the fault of the commercially-hyped SF publishing industry and spoonfed awards machine that insists on promoting cheesy, regurgitated SF, and she’s pissed off about all the good books she’s missed as a consequence. She blogs about her reading experiences at From couch to moon but she’s kind of bitter about it because it shouldn’t take this much work for a layreader like her to find inventive and well-written SF. She writes for no one.