Edited and collated by Nick Hubble
A Closed and Common Orbit — Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
The inclusion of A Closed and Common Orbit on this year’s Clarke shortlist follows hard on the heels of Chambers’s 2016 shortlisting for her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. In a very short time, Chambers’s books have proven extraordinarily popular and drawn an enthusiastic fan response. Unsurprisingly, ACACO has also been shortlisted for the 2017 Hugo. The novel has also drawn praise from reviewers, such as Adam Roberts in the Guardian. However, despite the shadow Clarke jury being split fifty-fifty between those who found ACACO to be a compulsive read and those who struggled to find any interest in it whatsoever, this is also the novel that has come closest to unifying what is often a more diverse body of opinion than it might appear from the outside. We are unanimous in thinking that ACACO is not one of the six best SF novels of the year and, in contrast to the other five works on the list, there is nobody among us who would make any kind of case for its inclusion on the Clarke shortlist.
Speaking personally, I enjoyed Small Angry Planet when I read it last year following its inclusion on the 2016 shortlist. It had a freshness and charm and the episodic structure made the reading experience somewhat akin to binge-watching five episodes of a favourite TV show. Therefore, I read ACACO soon after it came out but, while still enjoying it, I felt there were diminishing returns because rather than the focus being maintained or deepened, it was drawn back to a much more restricted scale. Many of the themes in the novel are personally important to me – affirmation of non-normative identities, AI rights, co-operation rather than antagonism – and as Nina admits in her review of the novel there is a genuine emotional payoff when Owl finally reappears at the end of the novel. Nevertheless, it read like a book to curl up with under the covers while taking refuge from a hostile world. As Victoria said in the roundtable, ‘maybe everyone is just so worn down by world affairs that they need a safe-space-warm-bath of a book’. But while everybody does deserve occasional respite, doesn’t the political context of 2016-17 mean that it is now more than ever important for culture to contest the political and social circumstances we find ourselves in? As Victoria went on to say: ‘When I think back over everything I’ve read for this project The Underground Railroad, Ninefox Gambit and The Fifth Season stand out as books that harness the anger and momentum of the political moment – to a greater or lesser extent they’re engaged with the dynamics of change, systemic abuse and inequalities. Chambers seems utterly unaware’.
During the course of our discussions of the novel, ACACO increasingly morphed into COCOA as we came to see it as the kind of sugary bedtime treat that is sometimes necessary at the end of a hard day but no alternative to making the difficult decisions about how you transform those hard days into a different form of living. In the same way that there would be no point making a political judgement about someone based on their choice of bedtime beverage as opposed to their actual actions and stances, there is no point in criticising COCOA for what it is. But we do need to talk about COCOA in the larger context of the Clarke Award.
I couldn’t put it down
The roundtable kicked off with Nina suggesting we began ‘by asking Victoria to elaborate on what she was saying about wanting to keep “furiously turning pages” in spite of being disappointed by ACACO’. ‘That interests me,’ Nina added, ‘because it was my experience, too – I wanted to finish the book in spite of my dislike for it. So what’s going on there?’ ‘Of all the Clarke books, I read ACACO the most compulsively,’ Victoria replied. ‘I fished it out of my bag on a rush hour train and juggled it amidst sweaty commuters; I found myself holding it in one hand and making dinner with the other.’ While Megan and Nick agreed that they too had felt compelled to read on, Paul said that his experience had been ‘the exact opposite’: ‘I really had to struggle to keep reading. Nothing excited me, nothing engaged me. If not for this project there were at least a dozen places where I could have just shut the book and felt no inclination to go back to it’.
Maureen noted that ‘there is something about the rhythm of ACACO that seems familiar. I’m very struck by the tidiness of the relationship structures, and the sense of everyone being paired off, behaviour explained, lessons learned. There is even more than a faint whiff of old-style boarding school novel about it. It also makes me think of things like the photo-novels you used to get in Jackie magazine. And the food obsession is pure Enid Blyton’. Nina agreed that ‘the Enid Blyton comparison is very resonant for me – as is your reference to Jackie photo-stories (the emphasis on “happy resolution and a lesson learned” is identical) but what ACACO brings to mind for me more than anything is generic SF TV. I’ve not seen Farscape [the series Chambers has cited as a core inspiration for the Wayfarer novels] so for me it’s always going to be Star Trek that comes to mind most but I’m sure the two have a lot in common’. Victoria also found mileage in the comparison with SF TV: ‘The only thing I can equate it with is binge-watching something unchallenging like Gilmore Girls, which is something I also do from time to time. It’s no work at all; it keeps my brain monkeys busy and it’s distant from the tension and challenge of the real world’.
Maureen commented that ‘one of the reasons I didn’t watch a lot of SF TV growing up was because of the way everyone had to be gathered round, still alive and laughing, at the end of each episode. Well, except the redshirts, but we didn’t think about that then’. ‘Like Maureen, I’m not that familiar with TV sf, though I suspect I’ve seen a little more than she has,’ Paul added, ‘but the one thing I can’t get away from is the episodic nature, where whatever happens everything has been put seamlessly right by the start of the next episode’. Nina pointed out that the aliens in ACACO ‘are all Star Trek aliens’. This struck a chord with Vajra who complained that ‘ACACO is very frustrating to read, Star Trek aliens and all … tiresomely human faux-alien points of view are a go-to for newbie writers for some reason. And it’s always so bizarrely uneven, like “what is pet? I don’t know this human concept of pet” on the one hand, and on the other hand the AI independently invents incredibly specific-to-the-author’s-milieu social mores like “giving people their privacy when they’re being publicly affectionate” because it “seems right”. I don’t know if Chambers is the influence so much as herself just a successful example, really. I blame Star Trek tie-in novels in the 80s…’ ‘I know Star Trek tie-ins have been incredibly popular and must have exerted some influence, even over and above the TV series themselves,’ Nina added. ‘I’ve known people for whom the Star Wars and Star Trek tie-in novels were their first major intro to SF, and completely defined a period of their adolescence. This all goes back to what we were talking about earlier in the project, about the influence of media SF on newer writers.’
‘This brings us back to the ongoing problem of writing multiculturalism in sf,’ said Maureen, ‘We really have not got over the cantina in Star Wars.’ ‘For a novel that is supposedly about diversity, COCOA is oddly undiverse,’ Paul commented. ‘Every alien is human in character and attitude, every human is white and western.’ Megan noted that ‘I think Chambers and her fans would argue that we’re assuming they’re white’, before adding, ‘but I think the characters are supposed to be variations of a melting pot ethnicity – which is also problematic and probably feels western dominant to most readers.’ Vajra pointed out that the representations of diversity didn’t make sense given the technological capacity of the society represented: ‘A far-future society with true AI and non-relativistic space travel and yet they can’t design multispecies seating in public transport?’ Megan agreed and argued that it is perhaps a consequence of the simplification and false positivity of the novel that major problems such as ‘a segregated transit system’ are overlooked. ‘The whole “different butts for different seats” bit, right?’ Vajra affirmed. ‘The actual word “segregation” is used there at least once I think. The bizarre thing is that this is presented as some kind of pragmatic solution – but what if the Aandrisks have a football match and they need more space than the tail-friendly seating provides? The worst public transit system ever!’ Indeed, as Vajra went on to note, this transit system is the equivalent of the Star Wars cantina. Megan seized on Vajra’s description of the future setting consisting of a ‘train through multicultural neighbourhoods’. ‘That’s the entire book,’ she agreed.
Nina reflected on how ‘the segregated transport system brought me up short when I first came upon it, because it seemed so at odds with the picture Chambers was trying to paint of a multicultural utopia. But as the book progressed I found myself increasingly reluctant to get involved intellectually with the diversity aspects because the whole premise – the whole arc of reasoning – seems so flimsy in any case that any serious discussion of the novel’s social comment becomes next to impossible’. Maureen added that she was worried that a sizeable section of the SF community believes that this is the best way to be ‘up-front and out there in addressing issues’ when in fact it amounts to no more than barely hinting at them. ‘And hinting is worse than actively engaging and getting it wrong.’ Nick wondered whether the Sharkes were missing anything: ‘Is ACACO the product of a different context? Is it assumed by fans and judges that it recognises something that is going unrecognised by other texts?’ ‘But what?’ more than one Sharke was curious to know. ‘A post heteronormative outlook – I think some might see the book as diverse in those terms,’ Nick suggested. ‘Not that I think it does this particularly well.’
Jonathan noted that ACACO was representative of how certain SF texts provide ‘a way of reading about “important issues” without the necessary political complexity and psychological nuance’ to do them justice. ‘Like Small Angry Planet “dealt with” racism,’ he added, ‘but the version of racism it dealt with was stripped of economy, history, and the perversity of actual human nature.’ Megan suggested that perhaps the attraction was precisely that these other elements were left out. Jonathan added that this kind of engagement with social justice issues might be seen ‘as a variation on “as you know Bob” dialogue. As opposed to tediously delivering watered-down physics lectures, the characters deliver diversity 101 talking points!’ This suggestion caused Megan to muse on whether ACACO tapped into a kind of transmuted nostalgia for the technical utopias of Golden Age SF, ‘where civilization includes a diversity of lifestyles and people, everyone is valued and accepted, everyone has friends they can depend on, conflict is resolved easily and nonviolently, and technology makes life richer. It’s taking the technological dreams of sci-fi from the 1950s and combining it with modern social mores and an adolescent need for fitting in. Of course it resonates with many people’. ‘Yes,’ Nick agreed, ‘but I can’t help feeling that most of the people in ACACO would vote for something similar to Brexit – on the mistaken grounds that they’d get a safer, nicer, more positive version of the 1950s.’
Maureen noted that she had reread Small Angry Planet recently and ‘was thinking about how people might see it if they were looking for … themselves, I guess. It ticks a lot of boxes.’ ‘I absolutely agree,’ Nina said. ‘Problems are presented as eminently solvable, and at no cost to anyone, no grey areas, no anger even.’ ‘Except,’ added Paul, ‘that I don’t think problems are solved, they are magicked away, there is a wave of the hand and suddenly it wasn’t a problem after all.’ Maureen pointed out that the “make it go away” solution has often been favoured by the young and inexperienced. ‘The fact that so many readers are turning to Chambers as a strong example of inclusivity is a sign of how pitifully shallow our cultural commitment to those principles are,’ Victoria said. Nina noted that ‘Ninefox Gambit is a completely different proposition. One of the best things about that book is the way Lee incorporates the “progressive” elements into the narrative such that they drive it but are not in and of themselves the focus. This is a much more honest, constructive approach that I wish more of the writers who profess an interest in these topics would take’.
Conclusion: The Context of the Clarke Award
Following on from the discussion of diversity, Nina observed that ‘one of the key qualities of speculative fiction is its capacity for imaginative and radical approaches to difficult and complex subjects’. While a novel like ACACO which smooths away conflict – personal, political and literary – might be popular or even what people need to read at particular moments ‘it is a travesty of what a Clarke shortlistee should be. As a text, there’s simply nothing to it. The novel pretends to be about conflict and resolution but there is never any attempt to render any of that in a truthful fashion. All behaviour fits neatly into categories, is easily explained, addressed and resolved. I can readily understand the appeal – I’ve looked at a number of reader reviews and there is no doubt that these books have struck a chord. But the fact remains that as a choice for the Clarke shortlist, this is baffling and antithetical, even, to what the Clarke should be about’. Jonathan noted that ‘the Hugo deals with books like the Chambers quite comfortably already’. Megan agreed: ‘That’s been my observation all along. The worst books I’ve read from the Hugo lists are beginning to turn up on the Clarke lists’. ‘The whole point of the Clarke is to push the envelope,’ said Nina. ‘Dropping back into Hugo territory is a serious misstep.’
Jonathan wondered if the Sharkes were in fact challenging the social contract that allows the Clarke Award to function: ‘If the Clarke shortlist consisted of six left-field experimental novels from outside genre, then fandom would ignore the award. So I’m wondering if the Clarke jury’s de facto position might actually be to allow for one or two experimental novels at most amongst a shortlist dominated by core genre. [NB. We know perfectly well that the Clarke’s only official position is to select what they consider to be the six best science fiction novels from the submissions list – Ed.] This makes genre culture look open-minded and flatters the genre novels by putting them in good company’. ‘Maybe the majority of the SFF community thinks things are fine just the way they are,’ Nina suggested, ‘with the net result that we get novels by Chambers on the Clarke shortlist two years running.’ ‘I think juries have done Chambers a terrible disservice by shortlisting her twice running,’ said Victoria, ‘Putting her under the critical spotlight is like asking reviewers to shoot fish in a barrel.’
More generally, Nina argued, the question arises as to how much the Clarke really has changed during the past decade. ‘If you look back over the submissions lists from previous years (from 2009 anyway, when ACCA first started making it public) you’ll see many slighter books selected, many much better books ignored. It’s been a slow drift rather than a sudden cataclysm.’ ‘I do very much think that books like ACACO get included in award shortlists because the current state of the discourse is such that (a) not only is there is no distinction being made between “I like this” and “this is good”, much less “this is popular” and “this is important”,’ Vajra responded, ‘but (b) there is a widespread perception that making those distinctions is elitist or exclusionary. The answer to which, I think, should not be that this perception is outright wrong, because it’s sometimes quite accurate: this is obviously one of the mechanisms through which the preferences of some readers are reinforced as marginal. But more that the distinction needs to be interrogated every time, which is quite easy to do in this case, I think, because any non-defensive reading of ACACO should make it clear that it doesn’t succeed on its own terms. However, the perception of exclusion isn’t going to be eradicated easily, because it’s extremely difficult to budge any idea that can be boiled down to oversimplified principles and still contains a germ of truth somewhere.’