The Thriller’s Chilling Grip: Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan – a review by Nina Allan

The Thriller’s Chilling Grip: Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan – a review by Nina Allan

By Nina Allan

Occupy Me — Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)

And then came 72B. There was something almost poetic about the way he shot past me. He looked like a doll as his slim body was sucked into the sky. He tried and failed to get purchase on the plane’s hull, then he grabbed on to my arm, then the briefcase itself as the drag of the plane’s passage tore at him. His face was a mask of human terror, but I knew better. No human could have done the things he’d done to me.

His mouth was moving. It was like a cartoon.

“You’ve got the wrong man. I’m not that guy.”

(Tricia Sullivan, Occupy Me)

One of the most common accusations levelled at genre fiction is that it is… generic: a typical police procedural will see a detective with a troubled home life win out over bureaucratic incompetence to catch a killer, a standard romance will see two seemingly ill-matched individuals coming together across geographical and social divides to reach a perfect understanding, and we’ve all watched horror movies where we spend the first half of the film yelling at the characters not to go into the house. The reason we still enjoy such stories is often related to their very predictability – we find a formula that works for us, where each new iteration is a pleasure that is doubled in its anticipation, like slipping back into a comfortable pair of slippers.

I would suggest there is something folkloric in such archetypes, something of the mythical, and what genre’s detractors often fail to notice about archetypes is how flexible they are, how ripe for re-imagining and subversion. It is a strong and stable structure that can best withstand pressure, after all, and so it is that getting on for one-hundred years after Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories in 1926, a great deal of science fiction storytelling still revolves around our hero getting into a spaceship to go somewhere and do something, aliens with designs on Earth, or the rise of the machines. More or less. Of course the potential for variation is endless, and with a steadily increasing enthusiasm for science fiction among an ever more knowledgeable readership, the writer has considerably more scope for invention than was evident when the genre was a relatively new form, and little practised. With the acceptance of speculative ideas not only into mainstream literary fiction – a subject that has cropped up in discussion among the Sharkes time and again – but into other genres too, the scope for reinvention has been redoubled. There is now a whole subgenre of occult or supernatural crime fiction, for example, and I’m sure there’s no need for me to mention paranormal romance.

The genre that has tended to form the most natural pairing with science fiction has been the thriller. There is perhaps something in the very DNA of science fiction – privileged elites engaged in the buying and selling of dangerous technology, covert scientific institutions conducting underground experiments into gene-splicing, mind control or the production of weapons of all kinds – that suggests conspiracy and danger, the unmasking of sinister motives, the unsettling sense that we are not alone. And with the tropes and imagery of science fiction in play, the writer is left free to imagine conspiracies on a universal scale.

This is precisely what Tricia Sullivan sets out to do in her Clarke-shortlisted novel, Occupy Me. Kisi Sorle occupies two timelines from within the same body, one in which he is an embattled and angry survivor, a man who has seen his country laid waste by the forces of capitalism and who will stop at nothing to restore justice. The alternate Kisi Sorle was rescued from poverty and deprivation by the very person responsible for these outrages, given an expensive education in the United States and is now a successful and well-liked doctor with a loving family and excellent prospects. Yet something is wrong: Dr Sorle finds his mind being repeatedly taken over by his ‘other’, his quantum doppelganger, who uses his physical presence to accomplish his will and forces him increasingly towards a single, deeply unwelcome conclusion: that they are one and the same.

The good doctor has been called to stand vigil at the bedside of his corrupt mentor, the corporate billionaire businessman Austin Stevens. Stevens is old, physically failing and close to death, yet – like so many billionaire supervillains before him – he has become convinced that his worldly power is infinite and that the ordinary rules of human mortality do not apply. He has gained access to a piece of technology that he is convinced will enable his continuing existence within a higher dimension. It is Sorle who will oversee his transition, willing or not.

Meanwhile, on a transatlantic flight, a quantum being is having difficulties with a would-be hijacker. Pearl, or P.E.A.R.L, as she is later revealed, is working as a flight attendant, because it seemed like the most useful role she could perform whilst in pursuit of the stolen component that will enable her to return to her own dimension. Unlike Austin Stevens, Pearl truly is not subject to the ordinary rules and regulations of blood-and-meat humanity. She has wings, for a start, although they are not usually visible in our dimension. She also has knowledge – knowledge of a higher purpose and a more complex reality – which she is foresworn to keep secret, whilst at the same time using it to protect and provide security for the known universe.

Any glance through online reviews will tell you how quickly the story of Occupy Me manages to complicate itself when you attempt to synopsise it in any detail. Shorn of this detail though, it is actually very simple: there’s a bad guy with a lot of power who wants to steal something valuable and dangerous, a good angel who is out to stop him, a number of innocent and quirky bystanders who get dragged into the action. Occupy Me follows much the same plot as any other techno-thriller or superhero story, in other words. Huge consequences are hinted at. Banter is exchanged. In the end our heroes emerge, mainly intact and somewhat chastened. Life resumes.

I remember reading somewhere that Tricia Sullivan began writing Occupy Me in response to a challenge: angels seemed to be everywhere in fiction these days – was it possible to write a novel in which an angel played a key role, but that could also be accurately characterised as science fiction? There’s no doubt that Sullivan has succeeded in proving that such a novel is possible. Pearl is a great protagonist, her powerful angelic being a rich subversion of the fluffy stereotype. The quantum reasoning behind Pearl’s existence is also sound, so far as any purely science fictional construct can be deemed sound.

As might be predicted from my assessment of some of the novels on the Clarke submissions list thus far, my favourite parts of Occupy Me are those that have little or nothing to do with the overall plot arc: Pearl waking up in a junkyard. A peculiar job advertisement for a transatlantic flight attendant. Pearl reconnecting with her girlfriend Marquita:

How can I explain about Marquita? It would be like explaining the sun. I remember when I first called the number on her business card. She took me back to her seedy apartment in Queens with the smudgy windows and sink full of dirty dishes. Jars of spices everywhere. She had a heating pad she kept near the window for Tsubota, and she had what seemed like a forest of house plants. She had stacks of old paperback crime novels and the furniture was covered with Mexican horse blankets and random pieces of dyed cotton. I can still smell the place.

Sullivan’s writing is richly imaginative throughout and she makes effective use of techniques I will always enjoy: filmic jump-cuts from one scene to another, second person narrative, the skilful interweaving of different timelines. The sense of the author’s pleasure in complex ideas, and in attempting to grapple those ideas into something resembling a cohesive narrative is everywhere apparent.  Occupy Me comes across as a novel that was both fun to write – the author’s devotion to her characters is clear – and a challenge to execute. A satisfying challenge, I am sure.

On a first reading, the balance between premise and plot in Occupy Me felt perfectly achieved, and only during my second reading – when I knew who everyone was and what was coming – did some doubts creep in. It was at this point that I began to see the pervasiveness of the novel’s thriller template as being a problem, because it acts like a straitjacket. Here we have characters who aren’t allowed to lead lives or have interests beyond the immediate dictates of the conspiracy theory they’ve been dragged into, speaking in dialogue that can sometimes sound like excerpts from the screenplay of the novel’s theoretical movie adaptation:

‘You’re a fool and a coward,’ he seethes. ‘You were told it would be messy. You were told. What do you think the reason for all the codes and secret handshakes was? You know I am doing precisely as Mr Stevens wished.’

And:

‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ Stevens rasped. ‘What are you, stupid?’

And:

The old man coughed. When I went over to him he bestowed on me a weak yellow smile. ‘Let’s talk turkey,’ he said.

The Resistance – a network of quantum beings and human ‘helpers’ that seek to steer history in the right direction follows a slightly different permutation than so many other fictional organisations of its kind – it seeks to affect change through small yet significant actions that will have a larger impact – and yet it is also so much the identical sibling of so many sister ‘Corporations’ or ‘Societies’ or ‘Organisations’ in so many science fictional thrillers, all with higher case designations, all seeking either to seize or overthrow power via shadowy means. It is all very well put together, but I found it difficult not to switch off from such generic ideas. Similarly with Alison, the middle-aged veterinarian who unwittingly becomes the hero of the hour: in another narrative, one not shackled so tightly to its thriller template, Alison might have been a complex character with plenty to say for herself. As things stand, it is hard not to see her as the redoubtable sidekick, the Velma of the piece, issuing pithy put-downs in a Scottish accent and with a taste for good whisky.

I like this book. It has warmth and wit and heart and many bright flashes of both linguistic and conceptual virtuosity. But in returning to the subject of mythic archetypes, I do not think that Occupy Me, in the end, deviates sufficiently from the tone, texture and plot trajectory of its thriller template to truly subvert it. As a criticism, this might not bother some readers. Speaking for myself, it is crucial to any evaluation of the text as a whole.

As I mentioned at the outset, the use of genre conventions and archetypes can be a rewarding and resonant way of approaching more complex arguments. In order to truly subvert its origins though, a thriller must show depth. If the curse of the Hollywood horror movie is predictability, the curse of the thriller will always tend towards unnecessary complication in pursuit of a too-simple goal. Complication, whether it be introduced in the form of a double agent, an alien gang boss or quantum realities, does not inevitably equate with depth, which is better achieved through richness of characterisation, or genuine moral or narrative ambiguity. Off the top of my head, I would point to Richard House’s 2013 novel The Kills as a superlative example of what can be done with the thriller template. A masterclass in form, an urgent political polemic and a labyrinth of speculation in one, if it had been up to me I would have had The Kills take home the Booker, the Goldsmiths and the Clarke Award – even if not as everyone’s preferred winner, the book certainly qualifies for all three on equal merit.

Reading Occupy Me for a second time, on the other hand, rather reminded me of some of the disappointment I felt on encountering Peter Higgins’s much-praised debut Wolfhound Century: all that loving attention lavished on emulating the language of Ivan Bunin (and doing a pretty good job of it), all for the sake of a thriller plot that lacked for political subtlety populated by characters straight out of Gorky Park. In both cases, the ambition and the talent are clearly there, and it is a shame the final results do not entirely do them justice.

Does Occupy Me nonetheless have the potential to win the Clarke Award? I would say that it does. The novel’s playfulness, its quality of mercy, its clear intelligence and elasticity of form, not to mention Pearl herself – Pearl the quantum angel is undoubtedly the star of this show – could and might all find favour with the jury. In many respects, Occupy Me represents the quintessential early-21st-century science fiction novel, blending traditional SF tropes with contemporary political and social concerns in a blaze of quantum lighting effects. In many respects, it is absolute classic Clarke, and there would be nothing unorthodox or inappropriate in its taking the prize. Will it win, though? My hunch says no, perhaps because in many respects it is just too classic.

*

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. Paul Kincaid 3 months ago

    And I am reminded that last year’s Clarke shortlist also had a novel about an angel as science fiction: Nnedi Okorafor’s Book of Phoenix. Is this a trend?

    • Nina Allan 3 months ago

      I think there’s long been an interesting tradition of recasting fantasy tropes as science fiction (the dragon factory in Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a classic example). I’m looking forward to seeing an imaginative spin on fairies into bots…

      • Niall 3 months ago

        I think Paul McAuley already won the Clarke with that one in 1996!

  2. PhilRM 3 months ago

    Thanks for reminding me of House’s ‘The Kills’ – I’ve been meaning to read it since Jeff VanderMeer raved about it a while back.

    • Nina Allan 3 months ago

      It truly is a great book, Phil – and perfectly expresses the author’s stated interest in ‘longform fiction’. Rather like the books of Bolano’s 2666 (the only novel I can meaningfully compare it with) each of the integral novels does work as a standalone but the cumulative effect of the four together gives the work a whole new dimension. It is also properly a thriller – it was for me, anyway. The kind of book one would ‘kill’ to write…

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