By Nina Allan
As this year’s Clarke festivities wind inexorably towards their close, I thought it would be interesting to cast an eye over the landscape ahead of us. It does the heart good to have something to look forward to, after all, and what could be more fun than making a few early advance predictions about next year’s Clarke Award?
I’m not here to discuss the more obvious entries. We all know that Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow, Kameron Hurley and Ann Leckie have new novels out this year and everybody will be talking about them as possible contenders soon enough. As the books I’m most interested in tend to be those that hover around the edges of genre, I thought I’d do better to focus upon novels published by mainstream imprints that might otherwise be overlooked by SFF commentators. With a little over half the year gone, there will inevitably be titles I’ve overlooked, authors I’ve not come across yet. This is just a tiny sample of what next year’s Clarke jury might have to look forward to.
You know those Amazon algorithms that oh-so-helpfully guide you towards your next must-have purchase, based on your previous preferences? Well, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that if you liked Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, you’re going to love American War, by Omar El-Akkad (Picador).
At least with this novel, no one is going to be arguing that it isn’t science fiction. The action begins in the 2070s, when the effects of accelerating climate change have kick-started a second American civil war. With the rest of the world pushing ahead in the development and use of sustainable technology, the American South – in spite of the inundation of New Orleans and large tracts of its most vulnerable coastline – insists upon its ‘right’ to keep burning oil. The Chestnuts don’t have much but they get by, until the father of the family, Benjamin is killed in a suicide bomb attack by Southern rebels. Fearing that she and her children will be caught in the front line, Benjamin’s wife Martina is forced to abandon their home and take their chances on heading north. In less than twelve hours, Martina, her son Simon and twin daughters Sarat and Dana become refugees, one family of thousands whose lives have been bent out of shape by a conflict they never chose to become involved in:
Still, there were more blankets than anyone knew what to do with… They were useless as bartering currency, subject to an inflation even worse than that of the Southern dollar. And yet the anonymous benefactors across the ocean in China and the Bouazizi Empire kept sending more. For the life of her, Martina could not imagine what the foreigners thought the weather was like in the Red, but then she couldn’t even imagine the benefactors as people. They existed in another universe, not as beings of flesh and blood but as pipes in some vast, indecipherable machine, its only visible output these hulking aid ships full of blankets.
This first portion of American War is an exhausting, draining narrative of war with a level of effectiveness that is wholly different from most post-apocalyptic fiction. El-Akkad is especially skilled in presenting a realistic portrayal of the refugee experience, the dozens of tiny ways in which ordinary lives are denigrated, identities occluded or erased by the casual brutality of those individuals – almost always men – who find themselves in possession of a gun and the authority to use it. The rights and wrongs of the political conflict are deliberately muddied: the Southern cause (as in the first Civil War) is clearly selfish, outmoded, and morally reprehensible – and yet it is the Southerners we are embedded with, their griefs and terrors underlined for us in ghastly shades of red. El-Akkad presents the southern United States as a failed state, fragmented into a broken, semi-starved, semi-blasted, semi-submerged landscape of uncertain government – rather like most Westerners currently imagine the Middle East:
Sometimes it seemed to Martina that there had never been a Union at all, that long ago some disinterested or opportunistic party had drawn lines on a map where previously there were none, and in the process created a single country fashioned from many different countries. How bad would it really be, she wondered, if the federal government in Columbus simply stopped wasting so much money and blood trying to hold the fractured continent together? Let the Southerners keep their outdated fuel, she thought, until they’ve pulled every last drop of it from the beaten ground.
For the US, such fracture is a form of blasphemy, not to be imagined, which makes El-Akkad’s unapologetic vision of devastation all the more powerful. I read the first half of American War with a rising sense of excitement: here at last was a work of ‘military science fiction’ of an entirely different stripe, a narrative that focused not on soldiers or strategy but on the ordinary, working class civilians whose lives and fates are always the first and most numerous casualties of any conflict, a narrative whose science fiction was rooted in two of the planet’s most pressing contemporary concerns: climate change, and the devastating uprooting of lives caused by forced migration.
I found the second half of the novel less satisfying, for a variety of reasons. On arrival at Camp Patience, a vast refugee enclosure at the north-south border that has become home to many thousands of displaced persons, Sarat Chestnut, the more outspoken and alienated of the twins, falls under the influence of Albert Gaines, born in the north, seemingly loyal to the south, ultimately a self-interested and dangerous maverick. Gaines grants Sarat access to books, to music, to knowledge she has hitherto been denied as the result of her interrupted education. He also begins a slow process of indoctrination, turning her righteous anger at the fate of her family and her neighbours to a more generalised, unfocussed hatred of ‘the North’ and those who side with the North. It is clear that El-Akkad wants to shine a light on the mechanics of so-called radicalisation – Sarat does not come from a ‘political’ family, her trauma is weaponised by others for their own ends – but in a way, his portrayal of Sarat’s evolution from teenager to terrorist is rendered prosaic and pointless because there are no ideals at stake, just the idea of revenge. Sarat’s opposition to the North is little more than opposition for opposition’s sake, and what her actions ultimately come down to is tit for tat:
For Sarat Chestnut, the calculus was simple: the enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy. There could be no other way, she knew it. Blood can never be unspilled.
It could be argued that this is the point, that El-Akkad’s aim lies in thwarting the idea of the ‘chosen one’ and subverting the expected ‘redemption arc’ narrative by highlighting the randomness and pointlessness of conflict, the desensitising effects of trauma and torture on combatants and non-combatants alike. Even so, Sarat’s actions and thought processes seem to fly directly in the face of her intelligence – she seems unaware, for example, that Gaines is just using her – and for me at least this weakens the novel’s power considerably.
This nagging dissatisfaction could not help but be compounded by the fact that the South – as in the first civil war – is so clearly and demonstrably wrong in what it is fighting for. The ‘right’ to use fossil fuels is not a right, not when it is endangering the rest of the planet and most especially not when environmentally sustainable forms of energy are already widely and readily available. The South’s insistence on its ‘freedom’ is therefore both dangerous and – in terms of narrative – deeply irritating. It could be that as a European I’m not fully grasping El-Akkad’s aims here. The novel is called American War, after all, and the US does currently have a president who has just withdrawn the USA from the Paris climate change agreement simply on the grounds that the agreement is ‘not good’ for America. Is ‘the South’ actually a stand-in for the realtime US as a whole? This is a timely idea, certainly. Did I find this novel frustrating simply through its refusal to provide me with a hero, or does the book fall short in other ways, too?
There are reasons for me to believe that it does. Women in this near-future South seem to have been forced back into more traditional roles – cooking, cleaning, keeping house while the men go out to work – with no explanation given for their lack of agency. Although we are ostensibly in the latter quarter of the twenty-first century, women without the protection of men are depicted as powerless beings with no legal or practical recourse save to fall back on their status as widows or orphans and throw themselves on the mercy of the menfolk:
Karina hated to see the widows in black. They struck her as widows of their own making, frozen in permanent deference to reckless or foolish or simply unfortunate men who were nonetheless dead and sealed away in the earth forever.
Husbands never wore black. Husbands were never confined to that kind of passive declaration, were never compelled to sulk across the world for the remainder of their lives, walking signposts of mourning. Husbands were permitted rage, permitted wrath, permitted to avenge their loss by marching out and inflicting on others the very same carnage once inflicted on them.
I entirely missed the point of this. Is it a strange form of rewind, an unconscious attempt to replicate the old Southern ethos? Or to shine a light upon the comparable position of women in parts of the Middle East today? In either case, it doesn’t quite make sense and moreover, we learn nothing about the social status of women in the North. This is more than just a niggle and the whole thread bugged me.
The prologue to American War, recounted in the first person by Sarat’s nephew Benjamin Jr, hinted at another book entirely and one I think I would have preferred:
When I was young, I collected postcards. I kept them in a shoebox under my bed in the orphanage. Later, when I moved into my first home in New Anchorage, I stored the shoebox at the bottom of an old oildrum in my crumbling toolshed. Having spent most of my life studying the history of the war, I found some sense of balance in collecting snapshots of the world that was, indealised and serene.
Such an approach suggests depth, specificity, the uncovering of a broader history through intense personal experience. What we get as the novel progresses is a move away from such intensity towards a ramping-up of empty suspense, characters passed through an increasingly steep series of ordeals with the emphasis on a plot that no longer holds interest. The political interest in this novel lies elsewhere: in the North and in the wider world, beyond the frame of the narrative. El-Akkad’s writing is direct, unadorned, solidly crafted throughout – but it does not in itself offer sufficient stylistic or formal distraction from the innate dissatisfactions of the narrative itself. The more generic the book becomes, the less interesting it is, at least for me. As a whole, American War presents me with a more or less note-perfect recapitulation of my central beef with The Underground Railroad.
In spite of my disappointment in the direction American War chooses to take, I hope and expect to see it shortlisted for next year’s Clarke Award, not least because of the discussion it is bound to stimulate. In the meantime, I hope someone will write an essay enumerating everything I’ve missed or got wrong about this book, and persuading me I should reread it with these points in mind.
Heinz Helle’s Euphoria (Serpent’s Tail) is another kind of apocalypse entirely. Slim, fragmented, elliptical, understated, Helle’s novel could best be described as a tragedy of decadence. In Euphoria, five longtime best buddies spend a weekend drinking and lounging about in a ski cabin in the Alps. When they descend from the mountains on the Monday morning, the world they left on the Friday has been swept away:
We stood there looking down into the valley. Steam rose from our mugs. The shapeless clouds. The snow. Your hand holding the cup, the one in your pocket… The snow cannons were still off. It had been a nice weekend. But it was also OK that it was over. Perhaps this would be the last snow bar we ever built. Things we had to do on Monday. The cold on our heads. Thick, black smoke over the village in the valley. It was on fire.
Helle never tells us the exact nature of the catastrophe and Euphoria is the opposite of the usual kind of post-apocalypse survival story. Helle doesn’t care about the apocalypse, or how it happened. He is interested in relationships between human beings, between the past and present, in the spectacle of man adrift in a meaningless world and how such meaninglessness might be coped with in the absence of answers:
I think there are just too many things, says Gruber the following morning… I mean, all this stuff everywhere. Who is supposed to want it all? Everybody’s already got something, haven’t they?.. Hardly anyone has really got nothing,.. Fuck it, I’m talking about something much more basic than the things themselves. The really uncanny thing about it all is deeper, you know. When I’m standing there, in my warehouse, and the brown boxes full of men’s underwear are stacked all the way up to the ceiling, twenty feet high, that’s a lot of stuff, obviously, but it’s not really the amount that frightens me. Really, it’s something else. And I think to myself: all those boxes have got to go somewhere, and all of those Y-fronts in all of those boxes come from somewhere… I mean, we should have seen this coming. And what would we have done then?
It is remarkable, in a novel set in Alpine Austria, how little that spectacular mountain scenery is allowed to figure. The landscape is seen not just as pitiless but as a matter of total indifference to Helle’s mind-numbed company of comrades as they pass through it, presented merely as a series of unpleasant practicalities: it is warm, it is cold, it is raining, it is snowing. Helle reveals how our love of nature is a luxury entirely dependent on our having sufficient food and shelter for the night. These men were bored with their lives before the apocalypse happened. Having reached a stage in their careers where each day is a thoughtless repetition of the day before, they barely know how to spend their time outside of such constraints, how to be with one another in any context that is not preordained. Even their suffering is presented as muted, the nightmarish images of death and destruction placed at one remove:
There were times when burning villages were a regular occurrence. Burning cities, too. But here and now what we were seeing in the valley below was so completely out of context for our usual perceptual experience that we were incapable of any reaction. Perhaps the sight of a single burning house would have been easier to comprehend, would have more quickly allowed us to make use of our faculty of speech, of our hands and feet, I’m pretty certain. A solitary house on fire would have been something else entirely. Two houses on fire? Sure, why not, so long as they were right next to each other.
The absurdity of your own fears is the greatest comfort. Painting a mental image of all the things that will never come to pass is the best means of ensuring that they never come to pass. The last turn before the mountain road. Remind me exactly why I believed that, again?
Old hierarchies have been destroyed, the rhythms of human life eroded away. In his image of cars congealed about a dual carriageway roundabout with no exit, Helle has created a metaphor for Western capitalism that brutally and economically captures its essence: bright, swift, nonsensical, deadly.
Kari Driscoll does a marvellous job of capturing the splintered, poetical rhythms of Helle’s prose in a translation that reads satisfyingly close to the original. I’ll make no secret of it – I loved this book, a novel that draws its inspirations from European modernism and that cares nothing for the kind of derivative and pointless fantasies of apocalypse that continue to feed the genre machine. Helle’s concerns are metaphysical, philosophical, his shaping of language and structure original and daring in its refinement. This – like Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground – is the kind of novel that should be shaping the parameters of what is possible in science fiction today. Intelligent and provocative, this book’s snubbing by next year’s Clarke is a foregone conclusion.
Weirdly like the Helle in its capacity to distil lived experience into pure language, to strip away all but the barest essentials of story is Megan Hunter’s debut novel The End We Start From (Picador). Hunter gives us a little more detail on the catastrophe in question: Britain has become subject to a massive climate change event, resulting in the complete inundation of many London boroughs and with most of the population caught up in the resulting panic. The unnamed narrator gives birth to her baby more or less at the instant the disaster begins to unfold. Fleeing first to parents-in-law in the north of England, the unnamed narrator, her husband R and baby Z are finally forced to journey north to refugee camps in Scotland.
Hunter, who is a published poet, approaches the construction of her book – at just 127 pages of widely-spaced type it is a real stretch to call it a novel – in the manner almost of a prose poem: the paragraphs are short, flickering with allusions, assonance, the hypnotic, subtle rhythms of a more personal Odyssey. To call this book tender, beautifully imagined, touchingly intimate would seem almost to state the obvious. There is no doubt that Hunter understands language, that she seeks to marry narrative content with more abstract aesthetics in a manner that strives – honestly – towards newness and towards creative sincerity. But while I empathise with and admire what Hunter is doing here, I only wish the book as such had worked better for me. Whereas Helle’s stark, almost brutal deployment of language feels appropriate and even essential to the story he is telling, Hunter’s lyricism feels peculiarly at odds with its subject matter and as a result slides uncomfortably close to preciousness. Similarly, the deliberate elision of the more distressing aspects of Hunter’s story – a shying away from detail – feels like an evasion and a cop-out. As a novel of social and personal catastrophe it can sometimes come across as dishonest:
In the morning things are empty and strange, like camping used to be. I have started to think of myself as a bear, with my young clinging to my neck, when I hear the car.
R and N climb out slowly. There is no G. They come into the house like soldiers, like fading people from an old photo.
A tea towel in the back of the car, a crumple of pastel birds. One of her favourites.
You might not immediately guess from this that G – the narrator’s mother-in-law – has been crushed and asphyxiated to death in a supermarket stampede. I can entirely see how many readers would respond positively to what might be described as Hunter’s economy of expression – you do glean all the necessary information eventually, by reading between the lines – but for me it felt affected and deliberately coy. I also found Hunter’s insistence on designating everyone with a single initial – O, R, N, G, the list goes on – to be an irritating tic. Hunter has spoken of wanting to bring universality to the narrative by refusing to name people. For me, it felt like a debut novelist straining for gravitas.
In short, I wanted to like this book more than I did, though I would welcome its inclusion in next year’s Clarke discussions, if only because it does try something new with form. Science fiction can always use more experiment, even when such experiments are always entirely successful.
And what of Zachary Mason’s Void Star (Cape)? Here’s a book that I admired so much during its opening third that I felt sure I’d found next year’s Clarke winner twelve months early. Things turned sour for me at an alarming rate, however, as the novel cavorted swiftly towards a climactic sequence that was more Bourne Ultimatum than Bladerunner before coming to rest in a pool of leaky sentiment. Turning the final page, I gave Void Star a solid 7.5 for literary achievement – the book is well-made, holds its plot together skilfully and showcases some interesting if not always original science fictional ideas – but a dead-television-channel-coloured 5 on my personal scorecard for Do I Give a Toss?
Irina Sunden is an augmented human who can merge her mind with the internet in a seamless communion. She has been hired by the head of a mega-powerful corporation to investigate an anomaly with an AI. From there things get weird, and for a while the novel’s technical abstruseness, its linguistic complexity, its refusal to deliver ordinary meaning held me entirely captivated. The language in these early stages of Void Star is reminiscent of the best of William Gibson and even, on occasion, M. John Harrison’s Light novels:
Zooming in, the storm’s surface becomes glyphs flowing in waves over the screen. The glyphs are intricate, radiant with significance that she can’t quite articulate. Like rain, she thinks, on a clear day, seen over miles of ocean. Like ideograms distended in a black hole’s gravity. Like thick filaments of DNA, fraying before her eyes. This is what she always thinks, on seeing the glyphs, and then, as always, she remembers that language won’t suffice here. She remembers rain blatting on the bay windows of a high room in a good hotel rising over the surf of the South China Sea; her lover, a mathematician, whom she never saw again after that night, had asked her to explain a glyph, just one, the simplest, fully, and she had tried, as the hotel swayed, just perceptibly in the wind, offering analogies, at first, and then when that failed reciting the glyph’s structure in a child’s singsong, her voice rising and falling, and as she wound on and on she lost track of where she was, seeing blurred shadows of glyphs in the rain channels on the glass, and then of time, until, finally, he stopped her with a finger to her lips, and moved her hair tenderly aside to kiss tenderly her forehead’s faded scar.
I loved Irina as a character. I was enthralled by the mysterious mathematical depths of her communication with the digital infrastructure of Mason’s powerfully drawn post-climate-change world. All too soon though, her personal story is swept aside in favour of yet another by-the-numbers thriller plot: evil mega-rich, (private-army-rich) multinational exec Cromwell is willing to destroy anything or anyone if he can only lay his hands on the Holy Grail immortality retrovirus. The price? Irina’s memories. Enraged by Cromwell’s act of attempted memory-theft, Irina is going to stop Cromwell, no matter what. She’s aided and abetted by Kern, a canny street-fighter with a nous for weapons-handling, and Thales, son of the ex-Brazilian president with a price on his head and an implant similar to Irina’s. There’s a whole section where everyone seems to have a digital duplicate. There’s a city built around a space elevator that is probably part of a video game called Void Star. There’s a lot of dodging in and out of five-star digitally secure hotels on two or three continents. With a bit of tricksy manoeuvring, Irina manages to infect Cromwell with a lethal version of the retrovirus. Thales ends up as an algorithm but he’s happy. Kern winds up being apprenticed to a legendary maker of Samurai swords. Irina becomes immortal, part of a secret underground network of augmented humans who use the internet to predict future catastrophes and strive to prevent them. Everyone we meet is part of a super-rich elite, or else has smarts that make them useful to said elite and therefore ‘significant’. Rather than being the dense, richly textured, achingly clever linguistic construction it appeared to be at the outset, Void Star ends up playing out like the pointlessly complicated, increasingly trope-laden and ultimately generic video game of the title: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I felt the same sense of mounting disappointment with this novel as I did when I read Gibson’s The Peripheral a couple of years back. Void Star is literate, articulate and polished to a high shine. It employs the materials of science fiction with natural flair and the understanding of long familiarity. Which makes Mason’s assertion in a recent radio interview that Void Star isn’t influenced by cyberpunk all the more bizarre:
Not even remotely. I’m not even exactly sure what it means. Bionic implants and mirrored sunglasses? Yes, the definition eludes me.
I think of it more as literary fiction that uses science fiction and genre elements.
So what’s science fiction? It’s usually set in the future, it’s usually mostly about technology, usually there isn’t that much attention paid to the writing, usually it’s more for an adolescent audience. I feel like Void Star is, to a large extent, about the texture of consciousness and memory and time, and using memory implants and AIs and whatnot was a way to access that and a way to talk about it in a way that would have been impossible if it had been set in 1993.
Please. Mason is a computer scientist. He works in Silicon Valley. (I am reliably informed that Void* is itself a term in C++, though I can confirm that not knowing this will in no way impede your understanding or enjoyment of the story.) One would have thought that he of all people would understand that science fiction is a descriptor, not a curse word. In a world where science fiction is now a universally acknowledged component of mainstream culture – not to mention a highly profitable one – this kind of fannying about over semantics becomes increasingly tedious. Void Star is clearly science fiction, possibly the most technically assured work of science fiction I’ve read all year. I’d be happy to see it end up on the 2018 Clarke shortlist because it’s smart, well written and provides more than adequate material for constructive debate. For myself, I found it just a little too bloke-ish for my taste – all those immaculately thin women in designer labels – and hollow at the core.
And the best of the rest? I was hoping to read Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas (Voyager) before the deadline for posting as I’ve heard nothing but good things about this novel, which from its synopsis would appear to have plot-points in common with Gareth Edwards’s 2010 film Monsters. Likewise Lidia Yuknavich’s The Book of Joan (Canongate) a near-future reimagining of the Joan of Arc story, although it now appears that this novel will not be published until January 2018. Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers (Scribner), a novel that interweaves the stories of three astronauts as they prepare for a first manned mission to Mars alongside those of their conflicted families certainly sounds intriguing, as does Michelle Tea’s Black Wave (And Other Stories), a countercultural guide to the end of the world. I’ve not read Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Penguin) yet, but I’ve heard it employs a speculative device similar to that used in The Underground Railroad and I hope that rumour turns out to be true, because I would love to see Hamid’s work featuring in Clarke discussions. Angus Peter Campbell’s Memory and Straw (Luath Press), a novel of time, memory, AI technology and the Scottish Highlands sounds like a dream come true for me – I’ve read the preview online and I’m already smitten. I’m also more than a little excited about Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon (Heinemann). It’s been a while since we had a novel from Harkaway, but I ended up really admiring his most recent book Tigerman and Gnomon – surveillance-state future Britain, refusenik novelist, SFnal police procedural – looks to be very interesting indeed. With her first foray into openly speculative fiction since her 2007 Booker-shortlisted (and completely magnificent) novel Darkmans, Nicola Barker brings us H(a)ppy (Heinemann), a portrait of a future society where history is banned for the sake of progress and where the novel’s protagonist, Mira A, is faced with the slow unravelling of her accepted reality when she begins illegally researching the life of the Paraguayan guitarist-composer Augustin Barrios. Barker is one of my favourite writers and this new work, complete with typographical games-playing that brings to mind House of Leaves, is a novel I expect to be examining in greater depth at the first opportunity.
Finally, a note on two novels I would put forward for instant Clarke shortlisting, were it within my power: Dexter Palmer’s Version Control (Vintage) and Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (also Vintage). Intense, politically engaged and flawlessly executed, both novels demonstrate in their different ways everything that is possible in science fiction, and represent exactly that strand of writing – radical, original, clearly ‘of’ SF but upholding literary values – that should be driving SF forward. Sadly, neither of these books is eligible for the Clarke as they are so far only available in US editions. We can only hope that this situation is remedied sooner rather than later.
Will any of these books feature in next year’s Clarke discussions? Only time and the Clarke-mind will tell. Anyone with titles to add to the list above should feel welcome to include them by way of the comments!
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.