It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Reading diary 2018, Clarke Award special

Last year’s Clarke Award shortlist was a bit pants, to be honest, and I’ve yet to even read the winner, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book whose reputation seems to have waned somewhat in the year since it won. I suspected this year might prove a bit more interesting as there were several novels published last year that I thought worthy of the award. Happily, one of them did make the shortlist. But a lot of expected titles did not – such as Nina Allan’s BSFA Award-winning The Rift (see here).

For the record, the shortlist is as below. I was more than happy to see Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time on it as I’ve been championing the book since I read it late last year (see here).

I’ve now read five of the novels. I’m not bothering with Borne – although I’ve heard good things about it – because I didn’t take to Vandermeer’s Annihilation and life’s too short and all that. The Charnock, of course, I’ve already read and rate highly. The other authors were completely new to me – and at least three of them are, I believe, debuts. Anyway, I ordered me some copies, and read them, and… Oh dear. That shortlist looked good on first impression, but it really didn’t survive scrutiny…

Gather the Daughters, Jennie Melamed (2017, USA). This has been described a post-apocalyptic dystopia but it’s nothing of the kind. A small religious community ekes out an existence on an island off the coast of the “wastelands”. The novel is told through the narrative of several girls in the community – all aged about twelve or thirteen, and yet to go through puberty. Once they have done so, they will be married off and bear children. A fair few of which may prove to be “defectives” and killed at birth, if they survive it. Melamed tries hard to suggest this is a consequence of whatever apocalypse it was, epidemic or nuclear war, which turned the rest of the world into a wasteland. But it quickly becomes apparent that the girls are being abused nightly by their fathers, and that the community was set up specifically for that end. It also becomes patently obvious that there is no “wastelands” – the world outside has not changed. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the premise of M Night Shyamalan’s film The Village. So, a group of religious nutjobs founded a community which would allow them to abuse their daughters and treat their wives as chattel. Oh, and euthanise their old people when they no longer proved useful – and they’re not all that old, to be honest, late thirties, perhaps. I don’t know what world Melamed lives in, but these are all illegal and hugely immoral in the real world. I know the US loves its nutjob religious communities and let’s them get away with, well, murder… but the island in Gather the Daughters is only plausible if there really had been an apocalypse. To make matters worse, Melamed completely fails to comment on the world she has built. In crime fiction, the reader witnesses a murder, but then the murderer is brought to justice. The moral consequences of murder are shown. Melamed doesn’t bother. She normalises child abuse and misogyny. She treats the monsters she writes about with total seriousness but makes zero reference to its morality. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the writing is terrible, the worst kind of creative writing programme prose. You know the phrase, “kill your darlings” that writer instructors like to parrot? If Melamed had done that, Gather the Daughters would have been a third its size. When I saw Gather the Daughters on the shortlist, I thought it looked interesting (after I’d thought, “shouldn’t it be Gather Your Daughters?”). Having now read it, I have to wonder why it was shortlisted.

Sea of Rust, C Robert Cargill (2017, USA). Some time in the near-future, robots became commonplace, and then somehow developed sentience. But then the owner of a robot died with no heirs, so the robot, now ownerless, argued for its emancipation. And succeeded. But then it, and thousands of other robots, were destroyed by an EMP set off by a nutjob church. The robots responded by somehow overcoming their “Robotic Kill Switch” – yes, it’s really called that; and don’t get me started on the hash Cargill makes of Asimov’s Three Laws, or the stupid random number generator – and slaughtering the church members. So kicking off a genocidal war. Sea of Rust opens decades after that war, after all the humans have been slaughtered and only robots remain, and two AI “mainframes” – yes, they’re really called that; and they fill entire skyscrapers! – are fighting each other and trying to assimilate all the free robots. The narrator of Sea of Rust is Brittle, a female robot, although not really gendered at all, who scavenges for parts in the Rust Belt in order to trade for parts specific to her model so she can keep on running. I really don’t know where to start with this book. The characters are all robots yet behave like human beings, even using expressions like “I knew it by heart” or “anger left his face”. They’re gendered but there’s no reason for that given in the text. The computing seems to be based on 1990s PC technology, except for mention of a “core”, which is something they all have but the book does not bother to explain (probably because it’s made-up bollocks). And they use “wi-fi”. But not to talk to each other. For that, they use speech, you know, actual sound waves. And how the wi-fi works without routers, satellites, or even an internet, is left unexplained. The plot pretty much rips off Mad Max, with a few bits from The Matrix thrown in; and the whole thing reads like Cargill couldn’t be bothered to research any of the details of his world. Every other chapter, pretty much, for the first third of the book is a history lesson – and they’re just as unconvincing as his robot characters. I have no idea why this was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. This is a book that wouldn’t have looked out of place 35 years ago (mentions of wi-fi aside), but I refuse to believe it was the best category sf novel published last year (it’s the only book on the shortlist from a British genre imprint).

American War, Omar El Akkad ( 2017, USA). It is the late twenty-first century and three of the US’s Southern states have seceded from the Union. A low-grade war now rumbles between them and the rest of the country. Rising sea levels have already drowned most of the coastal areas, and what remains of California and Texas are now part of Mexico. Sarat Chestnut was born in Louisiana, but when a suicide bomber kills her father, she, her twin sister, older brother and mother move to a refugee camp near the border with the North. All the time I was reading American War, I had trouble getting my head round it. It paints the secessionist states as the good guys – and the invective against the North in the book is really quite nasty – and yet not once does it mention the South’s racial history. The secessionists have also committed terrorist attacks against the Northerners – and yet are still painted as the side of good. The reason for their secession is their insistence on using fossil fuels after a total ban. It seems such a feeble excuse for a war – especially given the importance of Southern character, and how it relates to the war, in the narrative. It’s like El Akkad wanted the US as it now exists to be the bad guys – incarceration without due process, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, all of which the North uses routinely in the novel – but because it was a civil war, he had to make the South the good guys. Despite the fact the last war the South fought was to keep the right to own slaves, despite the fact they were forced to stop segregation only some two generations ago, despite the fact their racist mindset is seeing a resurgence since Trump took power… Anway, Sarat survives a massacre at the refugee camp by Northerner militia, and so is recruited into an underground southern army. She becomes a sniper, and is responsible for the death of the general leading the Northern army (it’s not an “assassination” when you’re at war, incidentally). She is later captured and incarcerated at a Guantanamo-like facility, and tortured, for seven years, although her jailers clearly don’t know what she’s done. When she is eventually released, she is desperate for revenge, so desperate she does the unthinkable… which is pretty much explained in the prologue. And yet… and yet… it works. The excess of detail in the prose is annoying at first, but soon drops away as the story picks up. Perhaps Sarat reminded me over much of Radix from AA Attanasio’s novel of that title, but El Akkad has done his homework and invented a mostly credible world for his story. And, to be honest, the novel improved as it progressed. It did feel like it wasn’t sure of its targets – and a story such as American War definitely has targets – so much so it actually rendered its commentary mostly toothless. Perhaps it was just because I read American War after Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust, but I thought it deserving of its place on the Clarke Award shortlist. I don’t think it deserves to win, but it at least deserves a chance at winning.

Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfař (2017, USA). If there’s one thing I hate it’s books which feature space exploration where the author can’t be arsed to get the details right. There is a vast amount of documentation out there, in books and on the internet, on the subject. How fucking difficult is it to get it right? It is, for example, “space” and not “Space”. FFS. A spacecraft shot into space on top of a rocket is not necessarily a “space shuttle” and, in fact, especially not if it’s not reusable. And if a comet enters the Milky Way eighteen months ago, then it actually entered it 29,998.5 years ago as the Sun is 30,000 light-years from the edge of the galaxy. And to reach Earth in 18 months, that comet would have to be travelling at 2.3 light years an hour, or 13,521,700,000,000 mph. It’s not fucking rocket science. Well, you know what I mean. In fact, the novel drops clangers throughout its space-set narrative: describing vacuum as tightening around the narrator “like bathwater”, confusing vacuum and zero gravity, seeming to think spacesuits only use pure oxygen on EVA and then to prevent decompression sickness… Fortunately, the novel’s other narrative is far better. Jakub Procházka has been selected as the first Czech astronaut. The aforementioned comet has left a cloud, named Chopra, “between Earth and Venus” – well no, between the orbits of Earth and Venus, since the distance between the two planets changes as they orbit the Sun. Anyway, the Czechs have decided to send the first crewed spacecraft to Chopra. Procházka is an astrophysicist and the person chosen for the mission – it seems stupid to send one person, especially given the size of the spacecraft, JanHus1, as it is described. En route an alien appears in the spacecraft and tells Procházka it wishes to study “humanry”. It’s not certain whether the alien is real or an hallucination, but given that so much of the space-set narrative is complete bollocks I’m inclined to go for hallucination. (At one point, Procházka sees a frozen Laika float past – which would be difficult as Sputnik 2 disintegrated on re-entry in 1958, five months after Laika’s death.) Interwoven with the JanHus1 mission are chapters on Procházka’s childhood and life and marriage. The son of a secret policeman, who died shortly after the Velvet Revolution, he and his grandparents, who raised him, were shunned by their neighbours. They moved to Prague, Procházka went to university, and became a world expert on cosmic dust – hence his selection for the mission to the cloud. These chapters are interesting and, I assume, much better researched than the other narrative. However, they do make you wonder what the point of Spaceman of Bohemia is. Why not write a novel about growing up in post-Revolution Czechia? Why all the guff about the cloud and the alien and the space mission? Which ends with Procházka being implausibly rescued by a space shuttle from a secret decades-long Russian space programme. Which he causes to crash on re-entry but he manages to survive… before returning home incognito to exorcise some ghosts from his past, which, er, had bugger-all to do with the space mission. The earth-bound narrative is good, a novel in its own right. The space mission is complete bollocks – badly-researched, pointless and dull. If it had not been for that – and given it’s so badly done, how the hell did the book make the shortlist for a science fiction award? – Spaceman of Bohemia would be a bloody good book.

It’s probably also worth noting that this year’s shortlist is one UK author and five US authors (both El Akkad and Kalfař moved to North America as teenagers and are resident in the US). This is not unusual – science fiction has been dominated by the US since the genre’s beginnings, and the Clarke Award shortlists have, since the award’s inception in 1987, mostly reflected this: it was last entirely British in 2008, and has included non-British authors in its shortlists for most years (although some non-British finalists have been resident in the UK).

I suspect I’m now going to have to read Borne, given how disappointed I was with three of the above. I think Dreams Before the Start of Time should win, as it’s a thousand times better than the Melamed, Cargill or Kalfař, and though it’s much better than American War I would not be overly disappointed if El Akkad won. I’ll reserve judgement on the Vandermeer until I’ve read it. Who do I think will actually win? I suspect the Kalfař is a good bet. It’s very literary and, despite the complete fucking hash it makes of its space mission, stylistically the best-written of the lot. But the Clarke tends to have a love-hate relationship with literary sf, lionising it one year and then giving the award to a hackneyed piece of pulp sf the next. Sadly, I don’t think Charnock will win, because I think the book is really good and I’m usually completely out of step with these things. The El Akkad would be my next guess, even if its attempts at relevance are badly mangled. The Cargill and Melamed should not stand a chance. But I’ll probably be wrong on that. Out of step, you see.



His master’s voice

So, a couple of days ago I tweeted a short quote from the book I was reading, one of this year’s Clarke Award finalists, and remarked that I was surprised to find the position expressed in the quote in a genre novel published in 2017. Most people who saw my tweet were as dismayed as I was – although, to be fair, they saw only my quote.

Which changes things. Apparently.

The book in question is Sea of Rust by C Robert Cargill, and the exact quote was “Gender is defined by genitalia”, which is spoken by the book’s narrator, Brittle, a robot, in a paragraph in which “she” admits that robots have no gender, it is not something “she” has ever thought about, but she henceforth chooses to define herself as female.

Two people I consider friends – very smart people both, and genre critics whose opinions I respect* – decided to insult my intelligence by questioning by understanding of how narrative works. Because the offending phrase – and it is offensive – was spoken by a character, they stated, that does not mean it reflects the author’s sensibilities. As another friend pointed out, I have myself written fiction featuring Nazis – and I have: ‘Wunderwaffe’ – but that obviously does not make me a Nazi. This is indeed true. Cargill has written a novel about robots, in which the first person narrator is a robot… but obviously he is not a robot himself. I never claimed this.

But the people arguing against my comment were themselves making the same assumption about me they were accusing myself of making against Cargill. Except, I think my position is backed up by the narrative.

When an attitude or sensibility exists in a narrative with no basis in the narrative for it, then it is reasonable to assume it is an attitude or sensibility of the writer. Because of course there’s a distinction between what a character professes to believe and what the writer might believe. But that also assumes the writer has removed every last vestige of their worldview or sensibilities from a text. And that’s frankly impossible. There will be attitudes they have never questioned, and they will likely colour what they write. So when Cargill writes about gendering robots – and, let’s face it, why would the concept even occur to a robot character? – and while there are no dates mentioned in the novel, let’s assume the robots began to appear in the second half of the twenty-first century… True, gender identity could have gone backwards since then, and we’ve certainly seen a lot of backwards social movement since Trump and Cameron/May took power, since the rise of the right… But there’s no evidence in the narrative for the position on gender advanced by the robot narrator. What’s inside the narrative does not apply.

You all know how much I hate Asimov’s fiction. I’ve labelled it “men in fucking hats sf”, because no matter how far in the future it is set, all the men wear hats. And men did indeed routinely wear hats when Asimov wrote his stories in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a real-world sensibility he unthinkingly imported into his world-building. It is not an attitude of the characters that hat-wearing is normal, it is an attitude of the writer. It is men in fucking hats.

And so back to Sea of Rust. What is in a narrative has to have a foundation in the narrative. Otherwise its foundation is external. In fiction, when a character holds a specific plot-oriented worldview which dictates their actions, that worldview is documented within the text – and, in many cases, the cause of that worldview is also documented… and occasionally actually forms a narrative thread itself. Robots are machines and have no gender. Fine. Robots, for reasons the narrative of Sea of Rust chooses not to explore, adopt gender. Fine. But when a robot character says, “Gender is defined by genitalia”, they’re not parroting a robot position on gender, nor is there evidence in the text they’re parroting a position in the text’s invented world… Ergo, it’s a sensibility of the writer that has leaked through into the narrative. It is a fucking hat, in other words.

So yes, I do understand how narrative works. I also understand how writing works. And while I may not be as accomplished at writing as others… and I may place a higher value on narrative rigour than most people… I stand my original position:

Unless the narrative evidences a foundation for a sensibility or attitude, then it’s reasonable to assume it is a sensibility or attitude of the author that has leaked through into the narrative.

And given that, it is indeed fair to comment on said attitude or sensibility. I stand by the tweet that kicked this all off. I happen to think Sea of Rust is a bad book for a number of reasons – and I’m baffled it made the shortlist – but I absolutely think it’s fair to accuse the author of believing “gender is defined by genitalia” on the strength of the words in the book.

Oh, and for the record, genitals are not gender. And any novel, genre or otherwise, published at this time, needs to justify in its narrative any position opposite to this or risk being called out.

* And whom I still consider friends, of course.

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Books in May

It’s a shame the York and Sheffield pub meets have packed in as it was a good way for me to get rid of books I didn’t want. After all, I’m not going to dump first editons in excellent condition I no longer want in charity shops. I’d much prefer them to go to a good home. Selling them on eBay is a faff, and no one will buy them on Amazon if you price them what they’re actually worth… Perhaps, instead of a book haul post, I should put up a book sale post here…

These books, however, are ones that have just arrived… although one or two I may be getting rid of once I’ve read them.

I was a bit behind on my Eric Brown books, so I ordered a bunch of them: Salvage, Jani & the Great Pursuit, Murder Takes a Turn and Satan’s Reach. Two are sequels, and I’ve yet to read the previous books. But I’ve been reading, and enjoying, the Langham and Dupree crime novels as they’re published.

I remember just before Loncon 3 seeing mention of a signed limited edition of a book of art by Chris Foss, Hardware, but had assumed they’d all been sold back then. But recently I discovered the Titan Books’ online shop still has copies. So, of course, I ordered one. I ordered The Art of Edena several weeks ago from a large online retailer, but they told me a month later the book was unavailable. A week later, it was in stock. Go figure. Years ago, I had the Dragons Dream book of Syd Mead art, but I gave it to a friend in payment for some cover art. I’ve always regretted that, but now I have The Movie Art of Syd Mead instead. And I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare since I was kid. I’m not old enough to have read him in the Eagle; my introduction was via a 1974 Hamlyn annual containing two stories. Over the years, various attempts have been made at re-imagining him, mostly unsuccessfully. Dan Dare: He Who Dares is the latest such try.

I was very sad to hear of Philip Kerr’s death earlier this year as I’ve been a fan of his books for a long time, especially the Bernie Gunther ones. Greeks Bearing Gifts is the latest, but not, I think, the last. I seem to remember hearing there is one more to come. And then that’s it. A very big shame. Someone tweeted about Pascal Garnier a few weeks ago, and his books sounded interesting so I thought I’d give one a try: The A26. I already have a copy of Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, The Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes & Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil (a sure winner for the most unwieldy title of a sf novel evah), AKA Chronocules, but this one a) is in much much better condition than mine, and b) was really cheap. I’ve been after a hardback copy of In Search of Wonder for several years, most of those for sale on eBay are from US sellers. This copy – the third edition from 1996 – was from a UK seller. And it’s in mint condition. Result.

They announced the shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award a week or so ago, and I must admit it’s a more interesting shortlist than we’ve had for a number of years. I certainly agree that Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time should be there – I’ve been championing it since I read it last year. But the others? Spaceman of Bohemia I’ve heard some good things about. American War, Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust were completely off my radar, although I vaguely recall hearing mention of the last. Anyway, I’ll give them all a go. And yes, there is a sixth novel, Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. I didn’t take to his Annihilation when I read it so I’m not going to bother with Borne.