By Nina Allan
Fair Rebel — Steph Swainston (Gollancz)
When discussing Steph Swainston’s fiction within the context of the Clarke Award, it is never long before the question arises: but is it even science fiction? I have heard it said that Swainston’s debut, The Year of Our War, should not have been eligible for the Clarke Award by reason of it being a work of fantasy rather than SF. No doubt similar objections were voiced in respect of the volumes that followed. The old dragons versus spaceships dichotomy, in other words, complicated only by the fact that there are no dragons in Swainston’s Fourlands novels, and there is a strong argument to be made that the multi-generational, FTL space craft so beloved of much heartland science fiction is as much a fantasy as any mythical leviathan and possibly more so. I have always found it something of an anomaly that worlds filled with semi-sentient super-soldiers and tentacular hive-minds should be accorded serious consideration under the science fiction aegis, whilst alternate worlds populated with telekinetically-abled people of smaller stature must be intellectually downshifted to the kingdom of fantasy. Whatever the cut of their speculative jib, the main arbiter here surely is execution, execution, and above all, execution. Not whether a book has a rocket ship on the cover, in other words, but its overall excellence in terms of its use of language and the sophistication and resonance of its ideas. When judged on such terms, a borderline case such as Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania is always going to be a more interesting contender for the Clarke Award than much trope-heavy centrist SF, evil queen or no evil queen.
Swainston’s Fourlands novels take place in an alternate world with many rough equivalences to our own. Human beings exist and are referred to as humans, coexisting alongside and sharing territory with other humanoid races such as the Rhydanne and the Awians. We know that Awians have vestigial wings but are (mostly) flightless, that the Rhydanne have an elongated, very light bone structure that makes them suited to living at high altitudes and being very fast runners. Technology in the Fourlands is developing rapidly – no cars, railways or internet yet, but yes to guns, dynamite, T-shirts and astronomical clocks. The main enemy in the Fourlands – and to an extent the defining element of its mapped reality and social hierarchies – is the Insects, a rapacious breed of predator somewhere between a giant beetle and a horse-sized locust, mindlessly intent on converting the fertile, Earth-like geographies of the known world into sterile, uninhabitable Paperlands.
There is an alternate universe called the Shift, which can only be entered (and at considerable personal risk) by means of strongly addictive drugs, willed self-hypnosis, or death. You could claim the Shift for fantasy, if you really wanted to, but for me the flavour is very much trippy to metaphorical rather than sword and sorcery. I feel the same about the Eszai, too – the band of elected immortals charged with the defence of the Fourlands and the central figures around whom the bulk of Swainston’s narrative revolves. I have seen the Eszai referred to as super-heroes, but for me they are anything but. They are flawed and fallible. They can lose their privileged status overnight. They can be as easily and horribly killed as any other human being or humanoid. Most of all, they do not attract the universal admiration and deference that is the usual prerogative of superheroes. As the action of Fair Rebel is swift to demonstrate, they can be the targets of envy, resentment and even hatred.
Fair Rebel is the fifth novel in the Fourlands sequence. I came to it having read just one of the others – The Year of Our War – and thus forearmed found no difficulty whatsoever in reading it as a strong story in its own right. How it might read to someone not previously acquainted with the Castle and its inhabitants it is unfair to speculate, though given the fact that readers are thrust into the action of TYOOW pretty much in media res anyway, I would hope that the intriguing nature of the happenings and the overall excellence of Swainston’s writing in Fair Rebel would allow them easily to catch up as they went along.
The novel opens with a burial on a beach. Swallow, a supremely gifted musician and composer, has petitioned the Emperor seven times to be allowed to join the Circle of the Eszai. Seven times he has turned her down – her music is of little use in fighting the Insects, he argues, and only those who can best fight the Insects can justifiably become immortal. Swallow is devastated – a snatched extract from her diary records the full extent of her humiliation and despair. Now, her body has been discovered by her steward, collapsed over her writing desk and with the grounds of a mysterious poison in her coffee mug. The tragic verdict among her friends and comrades is one of suicide, though our narrator Jant Shira, a chronic drug-user and something of an expert in matters pharmacological, is less sure. He does not recognise the substance in her cup. Could it be murder we’re dealing with here, or something far stranger?
With Swallow’s funeral behind him, Jant must fly (he is the only Awian who actually can) to the edge of the Paperlands, where a major onslaught is being prepared against the marauding Insects. With a new and powerful weapon in the Eszai armoury – gunpowder – the plan is to drive hundreds of thousands of insects into a single valley, then blow them sky high. The fuses have been laid, the Insects are where they need to be. The Emperor’s forces believe themselves to be on the verge of a massive victory. Then a major act of sabotage is discovered: the contents of the gunpowder barrels have been replaced with sand. Not only are the swarming Insects threatening to break out and wreak new carnage, there are thousands of barrels of deadly explosive unaccounted for. Who is responsible for this act of treachery, and are they linked in any way with the ‘death’ of Swallow? All these questions will be answered, but not before a terrifying wave of violence and destruction sweeps across the Fourlands, bringing horror and carnage right inside the gates of the Castle itself.
The main subject of Fair Rebel is disaffection, and the ways it may be harnessed to bring about traumatic upheaval within an established order. Swallow’s disaffection is highly personalised, the product of envy: since she cannot join the Circle, she is sworn to destroy it. The disaffection of the Litanee is something else entirely – a long-simmering resentment borne out of the systemic inequalities that maintain the status quo. As chief bomber Connell Rose describes the casual abuse inflicted upon her at the hands of the emperor’s soldiers, so we glimpse the oppressive system with which she has been forced into conflict on a daily basis. The Litanee – the Fourlands equivalent of the Roma people – are praised by the Eszai for their skill as labourers and artisans. Yet little heed is ever paid to the stark reality of their situation:
My goddamn axle was grinding. I couldn’t pause to mend it. I hoped I could reach Lowespass before it burnt through. This is the problem with being poor. You struggle against the shrinking world. It’s not the day-to-day stuff. It’s the unexpected disasters you can’t afford to fix, you can’t afford to escape. Even something small, that a rich lass would laugh off, knocks you into a spiral and you fall far and fast, accelerating, trying to clutch some support, there’s nothing to grab, you can fall to your death.
As a renegade member of the very aristocracy that oppresses them, Swallow uses her talent and charisma to radicalise sections of the Litanee community, bending their actions towards her own, finally selfish, ends. We never see her losing much sleep over the working conditions of her followers – all that matters to her is that the Eszai and the emperor who denied her be overthrown. Typically for such populist uprisings, the biggest death toll by far is among ordinary working people, whom Swallow is perfectly content to let be killed indiscriminately in the service of her higher purpose.
The realworld inspirations behind Swainston’s plot-building are clear – there is even a passage that feels strongly reminiscent of survivors fleeing Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – and while the story is deftly worked and exciting to read, reaching towards a conclusion that feels satisfying within the confines of the novel yet open-ended enough to hint at more to come, in terms of its political content there is nothing particularly complex or surprising here. The battle scenes against the Insects are invested with verve and are horrifically real-seeming, as are the bombing raids, yet the political discourse itself can come across as banal: predictably opposed positions, rendered in a manner that is occasionally too reductive and two-dimensional to be entirely convincing:
‘I’ll kill because we’ve nowhere else to go. No matter what I do, I can’t get anywhere. No matter how hard I work, I’ll always be your fucking slave. You’ve got it all sewn up… you rich pricks! You have all the money and the rest of us have nothing. I hate you! And I’ll destroy you, because the world has changed.’
The problem I find in much of genre fiction is its generality: people being types who fulfil roles. They’re not allowed to go off-piste much, because such digression would, in editor-speak, interrupt the flow of the narrative. Well, somewhat predictably, Fair Rebel worked best for me when it was doing precisely that: breaking the fourth wall with an irruptive flashback to an earlier volume in the series, musing on mortality and the passage of time, being angry about turning painters into soldiers (the Artillerist’s soliloquy on the giving up of his artistic vocation is one of the novel’s most affecting passages), bringing the protagonists suddenly face to face with an earlier, almost-vanished chapter in their planet’s history:
We passed a burnt column with a cracked and reddened surface. It had been plucked from a building destroyed in an inferno. Maybe, millennia ago, a family had watched, crying; maybe silent crowds gathered in a public square seeing smoke billow between the columns. Now it stood above pure water, with only the scent of our lamp oil.
What raises the Castle novels far above much series fiction is the intensity of Swainston’s imagination and the quality of her writing, which consistently manages to balance sincerity and irony in a perfect equilibrium. A difficult trick to pull off, yet one for which Swainston would seem to have a natural aptitude. Together with a clear-sighted, unshowy lyricism, and an ear for unaffectedly colloquial, quietly humorous dialogue that often feels wilfully, purposefully at odds with its grandiloquent setting, Swainston’s skills as a novelist are all the more impressive for appearing unlearned, an instinctive and necessary mode of expression for a series of deeply personal narratives she feels driven to share.
Swainston is often described as one of the key players on the mid-2000s New Weird scene, but the truth is that as a writer she is sui generis. That she has chosen to work exclusively within the framework of a single unique creation – the Fourlands – demonstrates a deep and lasting commitment to a particular landscape. That she has chosen to set against that landscape problems of political, social and ecological change, scientific advancement, mortality, morality and the prerogative of genius demonstrates a fascination with the ideas and concepts that are the very stuff of science fiction and the notion that Fair Rebel might be considered ineligible for the Clarke on grounds of genre is a non-starter for me.
Should Swainston’s latest be shortlisted for this year’s Clarke, though? Should it even win? Aside from the fact that mid-series novels often find themselves out of favour with awards juries, there is also the sense that Fair Rebel is insufficiently startling or new to take the prize – that in its strictly codified though curiously homogenous society (aside from the main groupings of human, Awian, Trisian and Rhydanne we hear little of any racial tension or conflicting belief systems in the Fourlands) it is a trifle old-fashioned even. However, it would be good to see this incessantly inventive, intellectually curious and richly talented author gain something of the wider recognition she so clearly deserves. And there is something in the interplay of feeling and ideas, of acute literary awareness and pure passion for story that makes the Castle books special. Though I would have liked to see Swainston playing with form more, I nonetheless enjoyed Fair Rebel as I enjoy Swainston’s writing, both as a reading experience and for its truth unto itself. If it were to turn up on the official shortlist I would feel far from dissatisfied.
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.