The Arthur C Clarke Shortlist 2003
a review feature by
Links within this feature:
- Kil'n People
by David Brin
(US edition: Tor, US$26, 461 pages, hardback, February 2002; ISBN:
0675303558. UK edition: Orbit, £10.99, 502 pages, trade paperback,
2 May 2002; ISBN: 1841491381.)
- Light by
M John Harrison
(Gollancz, £17.99, 335 pages, hardback, October 2002; ISBN 0575070250;
trade paperback, £10.99, ISBN 057507026.)
- The Scar
by China Miéville
(Macmillan £17.99, 604 pages, hardback, 2002; ISBN 033378174.)
- The Speed of Dark
by Elizabeth Moon
(UK edition: Orbit, £6.99, 424 pages, paperback, 2002; ISBN 1841491411.
US edition: Ballantine Del Rey, $23.95, 340 pages, hardcover, January
2003; ISBN: 0345447557.)
- The Separation
by Christopher Priest
(Scribner/Simon and Schuster, £10.99, paperback, 464 pages, 2002;
- The Years of Rice
and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
(HarperCollins Voyager, £16.99, hardback, 724 pages, March 2002;
ISBN: 0002246791. HarperCollins, £7.99, paperback, 772 pages,
February 2003, ISBN 0006511481.)
- Who should win?
- addition, 18 May 2003: Who won?
This is the strongest Clarke shortlist
there has been in a long time. It's true to say that literary prizes
often position a couple of front-runners alongside other books that
are obvious also-rans; but the six books up for British SF's most prestigious
award in 2003 are all of them extraordinary works of fiction.
I do not envy the judges their decision-making on this one. The upside,
for fans, is the very positive message it sends out for the continuing
vitality of our genre. It seems clearer with each year that we are passing
through some sort of golden age of SF. Just mentioning the books that
didn't make the shortlist, books of the very highest calibre, makes
that plain: Richard Morgan's astounding debut Altered Carbon
(Gollancz), Greg Egan's absorbing Schild's Ladder (Gollancz),
Jon Courtenay Grimwood's sharp and atmospheric Effendi (Earthlight)
and Steve Baxter's richest, best book for a long time, Evolution
(Gollancz) are probably the four that come first to mind. But, with
no disrespect to those authors, it is surely the case that the six titles
listed are simply so good that other contenders have been legitimately
squeezed out. This list omits no John Clute's Appleseed, no book
that really should have been on the list but wasn't. This is a class
It is also admirably and agreeably varied. David
Brin's Kil'n People is unlike any of the other books on the list:
a kinetic, brightly coloured future thriller that blends in
a degree of metaphysical speculation without ever losing sight of its
primary mission to entertain. In Brin's future world, mankind has discovered
the ability to copy their consciousnesses into golems, man-shaped machines
made of technologically tweaked clay. These golems live for a day before
they begin to break down, during which time they can get up to all sorts
of things and experience all manner of experiences. The original people
can then download, as it were, the day's memories of these golems --
or not, if they prefer (if for instance the golem has had a particularly
unpleasant time). Given Brin's premise that this technology is easy
and cheap -- although we might expect it to be difficult and expensive
-- society becomes reconfigured in very interesting ways. The laborious
work is now done by golems, 'dittos' as they are called, freeing actual
humanity to live a dole-supported life. Those few people with unique
skills still work, the rest amuse themselves in whatever ways they please
-- designing outlandish housing suburbs, fighting elaborate 'wars' with
golems rather than people and so on.
Golem technology grades different levels of product with different
colours: a green golem is a fairly basic creature, one you might copy
yourself into and then leave to do the shopping and mow the lawn. Grey
and black dittos have greater powers of intellectual concentration.
Dittos may be modified for strength, stamina, appearance. Although each
golem contains a human consciousness, with all its original's memories
up to the point of download, it remains a piece of property, and can
be damaged and even killed without fear of criminal prosecution. Although
such destruction usually involves the perpetrator in a civil fine, many
people are happy to pay this.
It is an intriguing scenario, once the premise is accepted, and Brin
explores many facets of it. I particularly liked the ditto-eye-perspective
on things: alive for only a day, a ditto's best chance at surviving
their destruction is to make it back to their maker and reload their
memories into a living brain, a consummation they describe as 'afterlife'.
Nevertheless, they seem to accept their fate stoically if this is denied
to them, collapsing into a pile of slurry after their brief existence.
The novel's protagonist Albert Morris works as a private eye, downloading
himself into multiple dittos to investigate several aspects of his cases
simultaneously. He begins the novel on the trail of a mysterious criminal
mastermind called only 'beta', and the neo-Chandleresque plot works
satisfactorily through its many convolutions, taking us through a series
of exciting chases, life-in-peril scenarios, towards the solution of
the larger mystery.
In a rather winning afterword, Brin acknowledges that, technically
speaking, 'Kil'n People is one of the more challenging work I've
taken on', and this is a fact that tells in the reading. Whilst the
prose is unfussy, sometimes rather grey and functional, the narrative
is much more experimental, divided complexly between multiple narrators
who are all also the same person. We get Morris's real self, two of
his grey golems and one of his greens, all exploring different aspects
of the storyline. The point-of-view chops rapidly between these multiple
points of view, and it is possible for the reader to lose track of exactly
which narrative line she's jumping into; although it has to be said
that by and large Brin handles this sprawling and potentially baffling
structure with considerable aplomb. He builds much tension and many
climaxes into his twisty plot, and once the reader has absorbed the
initial oddity of the switching viewpoints it becomes very hard to put
the book down.
This is also a consistently and colourfully inventive book. I warmed
to the comic-book brightness of the imagined world, with its artificial
dinosaur public buses, its golem-acted real-life soap operas, its various
ingenious toys and tricks. The rather facetious chapter titles were
less appealing; and personally I prefer the American book-title (the
straightforward 'Kiln People', with its reference to the kilns out of
which the golems are baked) to the tricksy British 'Kil'n People' with
its lurching pun on 'killing people'.
Entertaining as this concoction is, it also conveys a more serious
point. Although Brin is never heavy-handed about it, his hyper-postmodern
world of multiple disposable copies of human beings contains within
it a Baudrillardian commentary upon our own world. In important ways,
Brin dramatises a world where the simulacrum has taken precedence over
the real, and in which the real has accordingly waned. Occasional references
tie this vision to the textual history of SF -- Metropolis and
Frankenstein are the two works to which allusion is most consistently
made -- but the brutality as well as the colour and vigour of Brin's
universe work well as a hypertrophied caricature of contemporary capitalism
rather than as an abstruse literary thought-experiment. Accordingly
the form Brin has chosen is absolutely the right one: the fast-paced,
crude energy of pulp fiction matches form to subject in a way that the
attenuated longeurs of philosophical fiction would not have done. We
recognise that the often 2-D lineaments of Brin's characters -- the
resourceful and handsome hero, the eccentric sidekick, the mysterious
and beautiful femme fatale, the mad scientist -- are not botched attempts
at characterisation, but necessary adjuncts of the popular-cultural
medium of the book as a whole.
Having said this, there are some problems. The book is, I think, too
long: a Chandleresque 200 pages would have suited the snappy Chandleresque
prose, pace and idiom rather than the sprawling 500 we actually have.
There are too many climaxes, weakening the big kick that Brin reserves
for the conclusion; and although in general Brin handles his complex
plot well there are too many places where this reader (for one) found
himself rather lost in a welter of detail. Some of the specifics of
golem life seemed to me a little forced, a little mcguffinish -- the
twenty-four-hour limit on golem life, for instance; or the fact that
golem memories could be downloaded back into the original mind but not
into other people's minds (I wondered: why not?).
The biggest problem I had with the novel arose, however, from precisely
this premise; or to be more specific, arose from Brin's wholly creditable
desire to make more of premise than just a throwaway SF 'what-if?' I
felt that as the book went on it slipped into pseudo-mystical and rather
unsatisfactory territory. Despite the care with which Brin articulates
'the thing that is transferred from person to golem' in terms of 'standing
waves of consciousness' and 'phase-synchronizing of the pseudo-quantum',
the suspicion grows on the reader as she reads further into the novel
that in fact it is simply that old religious fallback, 'the soul'. Without
giving away spoilers, the book's conclusion reinforces this notion,
that human beings are this sort of Cartesian double-act, soul-inside-body.
This doesn't really work, or at least I didn't think it did. I'd suggest
that nobody who has read Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained
(1991) -- or any of Dennett's writings on the subject -- can ever again
think fuzzily of consciousness as a pearl-like soul, a little homunculus
sitting behind our eyes and pulling our levers, like the tiny alien
inside the tall guy's skull in Men In Black. Consciousness, as
Dennett shows, not only can't be separated from the body (even as a
'standing wave'), it is much gappier and sparser than people think it
is. I can imagine readers of Brin's highly entertaining novel for
whom this is not a problem; indeed, I can imagine readers for whom it
is a positive benefit. But it got in the way of enjoyment for me.
M John Harrison's Light is a book that,
surely, needs no introduction. It has been the
major event of the SF publishing year, richly and deservedly praised
almost everywhere. Harrison has for years enjoyed the reputation of
one of Britain's finest postwar writers of SF, although the work often
taken as most successfully characteristic of his genius -- the Viroconium
stories -- is more properly a type of fantasy. Light, his first
SF novel in many years raised high expectations, and those expectations
have not been disappointed.
I reviewed the novel on infinity plus when
it was published, and rather than simply repeat myself I refer interested
readers to that review. Summing
up what I said: I was enormously impressed by the many brilliances of
Light, although I had certain reservations. I praised Harrison's
extraordinary control and range of prose style, his poetic and brilliant
powers of description, and the depth and originality of the book's imaginative
vision. I also admired the novel's construction, particularly in the
latter stages. I suggested, though, that it is an ugly book, although
I did not intend the phrase in a pejorative sense ('ugly in the sense
that some of Picasso's most striking pictures are ugly, and to similar
aesthetic effect'); and added that the brilliance with which its vision
is captured only underlines a sort of cruelty in the novel that I, for
one, found wearing and difficult, especially when women are so consistently
the objects upon whom cruelty is worked out.
I might add a few comments, pendant on the fact that Harrison himself
read and, I understand, disliked my review. I heard this information
at second hand, not from the author himself, and of course there is
always a danger in misrepresenting a person's opinions if one comes
to them after any sort of Chinese-whispers. But authors rarely get the
chance to rebuke reviewers who have perpetrated what they consider misreadings
of their fiction, and accordingly I'd like briefly to mention what was
reported to me -- which is that Harrison thought my praise often misapplied
(for instance, the mainstream prose stylists with whom I favourably
compare him at the review's beginning); that he repudiated the implied
charge that this was a misogynistic novel; and that in general he felt
I had missed the point of the book. He may of course be right. He spent
years writing his book, I spent a week reading and reviewing it, so
the balance of time is on his side. But a reviewer can only review a
book as he or she reads it. Of course it may have been my personal idiosyncrasies
rather than the novel itself that suggested to me, for instance, the
whiff of misogyny. Other reviewers have not noted it, which suggests
that it may not be there. I'd also be surprised if Harrison cared overmuch
what I think or say: a great many people have reviewed this book over
the last six months, most of them much more reputable and insightful
than I, and the consensus has been almost overwhelmingly that Light
is a masterpiece.
But looking at Light a second time I find my opinion largely
unchanged, except in some minor regards. If I've missed the point of
the novel then I've now missed it twice and I must be particularly dense.
I exhort you to buy and read the book for yourself to see what you think.
On re-reading it still dazzled and astonished me. It is undeniably an
absolutely extraordinary achievement. For one thing it is like nothing
else I have ever read, which is itself worth a great deal in a genre
like SF where so much writing is derivative and 'school-of-so-and-so'.
On a second reading the sense that women are disproportionately the
target of violence did not strike me as strongly as it had done the
first time: this is after all a book in which many people, of both genders,
suffer a great deal. Maybe it is lily-livered of me to wince at all
this cruelty. On the other hand I was a little less enamoured of the
larger construction of the book than I was on a first reading. There
seemed to me a certain intermittency about the more epiphanically powerful
sections that revealed traces of the book's provenance, the several
short stories that Harrison published over several years as forms of
work-in-progress of the novel. It is not that the novel has dips in
its quality -- it doesn't. But that there is a pull towards disintegration,
on the level of plot and story as well as in the particular fabric of
the prose, that characterises the entire novel. And this seemed to me
one of the points of the book. Even its flaws (or those aspects I might
regard as flaws) work towards its overall thematic. This is a book 'about'
the flaws of human existence: flaws in the sense both of the myriad
failings, and as the flecks that render otherwise monolithic mater aesthetically
more interesting, like the tiny spars of colour in the iris of an eye.
At the book's beginning Kearney, having murdered a woman, steps out
into a rainy night in a northern English town and thinks he sees 'movement
in the orange streetlight. Rain, sleet and snow all seemed to be falling
at once. In the mix, he thought he saw dozens of small motes of light.
Sparks, he thought. Sparks in everything' . This sort of chilling,
beautiful poetry runs through the whole novel. The SF idiom of quantum
uncertainty provides one fluent language in which to express this insight;
the New Wave-y dramatis personae of flawed characters provides another.
But it is Harrison's control of English prose that most precisely captures
this theme. This is a major work of contemporary literature, a major
work of science fiction.
China Miéville's highly praised second
novel, Perdido Street Station, won the Clarke Award in 2001.
His third novel, The Scar, set in the same imagined universe,
has been eagerly anticipated, and does not disappoint. Where Perdido
confined itself largely to the sprawling pseudo-London of New
Crobuzon, The Scar ranges far and wide, a positively Homeric
odyssey over more seas and oceans than I could count.
The main character, Bellis Coldwine -- a talented translator and, as
her Dickensian name suggests, rather chilly woman -- has taken passage
on an ocean-going liner, fleeing something in New Crobuzon, and intending
to make a new life in colonies on the other side of the water, at least
for a while. Also aboard the crowded ship is a consignment of slaves
-- criminals and undesirables -- intended as a workforce for the colony.
But the ship is intercepted by pirates, captured and made part of the
Armada, a vast conglomeration of ships and water-borne craft several
miles wide. The slaves are freed, and Coldwine finds work in a library
in what is, in effect, a floating city of pirates, revolutionaries,
human flotsam and visionaries.
The same thrilling diversity of character and species throngs the Armada
as thronged Perdido's New Crobuzon: humans, vampiri, cactus people,
men who have been 'remade' or surgically altered to become amphibious,
and many others. The city is ruled by the Lovers, a man and a woman
otherwise unnamed, who have both inflicted a multiple scars on themselves,
each one's wounds a mirror image of the other's. Their right hand man
is the mysterious swordsman Uther Doul, a sort of Elric-with-pigmentation,
unbeatable in battle, sphinx-like the rest of the time. As the narrative
progresses it is revealed that the Lovers have hubridistic plans for
the Armada, first the capture of a great sea beast, and afterwards a
quest to something profoundly dangerous, the physical wound in reality
of the book's title.
Miéville's great talent is his imagination: it is an imagination
like none other writing today, astoundingly fertile, sprawling, reckless,
vulgar, brilliant. He has taken a great slew of influence, from Homer
and Conrad to Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There,
from Lovecraft and Moorcock to M John Harrison and Emma Tennant's The
Crack -- and melded it all into a perfectly distinctive voice of
his own. At one point in this novel I found myself reminded of the Yellow
Submarine movie, whilst also thinking that even this intertext could
not simply be dismissed as irrelevant. Everything contributes to the
whole. Just as the hugely diverse population of the floating pirate
city forge something strong and new from their variances, Miéville
works his myriad references into something rich and strange.
In its governing image of the scar, scar tissue and the wound to which
it refers, Miéville has lighted on an eloquent trope. Many things
are scarred in The Scar, from individual characters, to ships,
monsters and even reality itself. 'Scars,' one character concludes,
'are memory': they link us to the pain of our past, but they can also
be decorative. They have a certain fascination; harm inflicted by others,
harm we inflict on ourselves, are recorded by the strange characters
of scars on the book of our skin. Scars are skin that is neither quite
alive nor quite dead, like many of Miéville's own characters.
But perhaps this gives the impression that Miéville's book is
merely meditative. Far from it. The latter half of the novel has a tremendous
tug to it, as we read hurriedly on to uncover the mysteries sown through
the narrative, and to encounter the strangeness at the end of the quest.
It is no small achievement, given the enormous expectations that the
book builds, that we do not finish with a sense of anticlimax.
I did, however, think the book too long: it was two hundred pages into
it before I found myself really gripped, the first chapters move too
slowly -- although, having said that, I concede that a large part of
the effectiveness of the book's conclusion depends upon a certain narrative
momentum, an accrued weight, which means that it would probably have
been a structural mistake to skimp on the earlier passages.
There are some other problems. One (and it may sound like a strange
criticism to make) is that the book is almost too polished, too well
wrought. A major delight of Perdido Street Station was that novel's
very raggedness, its weird and uncanny shape, its sheer peculiarity.
The plot, although strung along a compelling central narrative, was
jagged and ribbed in strange and inviting ways, liberally supplied with
cul de sacs and follies. Many aspects of the imagined world were hinted
at, not explained, a tactic which gives the reader potent imaginative
elbowroom. In a word the truly distinctive thing about Perdido
is its atmosphere: dark, strange and never fully rationalised; and that
atmosphere relies upon a certain artistic imprecision, a roughness.
The Scar, on the other hand, fills in too many of its mysteries,
ties up too many of its loose ends. In part this is an unavoidable problem.
With each new New Crobuzon novel, Miéville must specify more
and more of his imagined cosmos; there will be fewer shadows at the
corner of things, his vision will become more described and less implied.
In this book, for example, I found the external perspective of New Crobuzon
as a naval and imperial power shrank the city, imaginatively, so that
it became just another late nineteenth-century analogue European city,
rather than occupying the almost mythic, archetypal and unaccountable
place it did in the earlier novel. Of course, on the other hand, many
of Miéville's myriad fans will enjoy this new detail about a
world they have come to love.
Another problem is Miéville's prose. This, again, is difficult
to criticise: he doesn't write badly, and sometimes writes very well,
but his style is uneven and can be distracting. He's too fond of certain
words ('congealed' is one). His copious use of swear words is more often
wincing than not. Swearing in a novel is fine, of course, but as Philip
Larkin once said these are words that have their palettes, their associations
and effectiveness, and you need to know how to deploy them, sparingly
if you want to shock, copiously if you want them simply to become the
texture of everybody's speech, as in the film Scarface (another
possible influence on the book, perhaps). Miéville's swearing
falls somewhere in the middle. His naming of characters and places,
though not altogether bad, is not where his greatest strength lies,
and some passages clot the onward flow of the prose:
'It's in High Kettai,' she said, 'but it's not from Gnurr Kett, and
it's not old. Krüach Aum is anophelii.'
Silas looked up, aghast. 
These terms are all explained in due course, but when we first meet
these sentences we don't know what they mean, we have to take Silas's
shock on trust, and the effect is one of telling not showing. Sometimes
Miéville's exposition is info-dumpish ('"why," I said slowly,
"are you telling me this?"', 269). Various and sometimes lengthy passages
seem to exist to show off Miéville's prose in poetic and evocative
mode, which I found less effective. Once again, this is not where his
talent lies. But having said that, it is difficult to pick critically
at this or that aspect of the book. Miéville is a major Fantasy
writer, and his distinctive excellence lies to a large degree in the
unbridled sprawl of his texts, the sheer vigorous melange of it all,
powered by his unique imaginative power. If he were to polish off the
ragged edges of his prose it might, very well, diminish the whole.
Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark is on the
surface a straightforward
book, telling a simple story. But in fact it is much more than that,
a book that draws out of a reviewer words like 'unparalleled' and 'genius'.
Its protagonist and main narrator is a man called Lou Arrendale, who
works for a near-future company finding patterns in data. He lives by
himself, goes fencing on Tuesdays, and nurses an unrequited passion
for a woman called Marjorie who also goes to these Tuesday meets. Lou
is autistic, and the division of the company for which he works is staffed
wholly by autistic people: they have certain work-aids -- a private
gym, with trampolines and expensive music systems -- but their particular
mental skills mean that they are a highly productive part of the company's
work force (what they do, exactly, is not specified in too much detail).
Moon builds her novel around a few carefully chosen premises that create
narrative tension. One is that a new manager at Lou's company, the odiously
bossy Crenshaw, wants to remove the autistic workers' special privileges,
apparently fixated on the idea that they must be treated like everybody
else. A second is the question of whether the intensely reserved Lou
will ever summon the courage to ask Marjorie out on a date, a plotline
spiced up by the jealousy of another member of the fencing group, the
non-autistic Don. What makes the novel SF is the third premise. In Moon's
near future Autism is a curable condition when diagnosed in the young:
Lou and his fellow autistics represent the last generation of autistic
adults, just too old to have benefited from the new treatments. They
are offered the chance of an experimental procedure that will cure their
autism. Should they take this and become 'normal', even at the risk
that who they are will be radically changed? Should they resist the
pressure to conform, and take pride in their difference, their limitations
as well as their strengths?
This plotting is well done: nicely paced, involving, compelling. On
reflection, I had the sense -- not an unpleasant sense, I should add
-- of having been emotionally manipulated by the author, rather in the
way that I feel when I read Dickens. Lou is so talented and likeable
a man; Crenshaw such an irritating and stupid boss. Crenshaw's irrational
victimisation of his autistic underlings, and Don's irrational jealousy,
can only be read one way. We cannot help but sympathise and even identify
with Lou (I wonder how the book might have been if Crenshaw for instance
had been humanised, less a melodrama villain). But the experience of
reading the book was not one of an unfair hand on the readerly steering
wheel. We, as readers, enter completely into the world presented to
us. It moves us, excites us, alarms us. It would be possible to imagine
a novel in which there is more of a grey area between the good guys
and the bad guys, but that is clearly not the novel Moon wanted to write.
Indeed, the genius of Moon's novel is not in this storyline, compelling
though it is. It is in Lou's characterisation, and above all in the
first-person narration with which his character is brought to life.
This is a quite superb fictional achievement. Moon has an autistic son,
and therefore has first-hand (or, I suppose, second-hand experience)
of how an autistic consciousness functions; but even given her lived
intimacy with the topic her recreation of what an autistic consciousness
might be like from the inside is simply breathtaking. This is
autism as a real circumstance, not the Hollywood-friendly 'idiot savant'
form of the condition: Lou is not incomprehensibly gifted with a compensatory
genius (mathematics, memory, music); although he is very talented at
pattern recognition, and some other things. The point is that he is
not a mere freakish premise to a plot, he is completely a real person.
Moon's portrayal of Lou convinces utterly. It educates from the inside
out, such that I finished reading the book not only with a much clearer
sense of what is involved in autism, but with insights into male character
more generally conceived. The back of the paperback carries an endorsement
from Jack McDevitt, 'Lou is unforgettable, one of those rare characters
who changes forever the perspective of the reader.' McDevitt is right.
Some researchers suggest that autism is less a distinct mental condition,
and more one end of a continuum of personality traits. Asperger's syndrome
is a milder point on the same continuum, characterised by difficulties
of social interaction, a rather withdrawn or diffident manner, a preference
for 'hard-edged' thinking like list-making, maths, machines and technology
over 'soft-edged' thinking like emotions and the codes of human interaction.
Many men would recognise an 'asperger' aspect of their own personality,
although for most it could not properly be described as a personality
disorder. A book like Nick Hornby's High Fidelity makes comic
potential out of this circumstance. Speed of Dark does something
more profound. I was reminded, reading the novel, not so much of the
more severely mentally restricted autistic man that Dustin Hoffman played
in Rain Man, and more of Star Trek: the Next Generation's
Data. Perhaps that's an odd connection to make, but the point about
Data is that most people would agree he is not 'retarded' or 'handicapped'.
He has emotional limitations, but he has other skills. He is also, of
course, male. What gives Speed of Dark its penetration is that
it works not only as an elucidation of autism, but as a subtle critique
of masculine mind-sets and modes of living as a whole.
Lou's mind loves habit, and dislikes the unexpected. He has learned,
with considerable intellectual effort, some of the conventions of human
behaviour that come more 'naturally' to non-autistic people, and can
behave in socially appropriate ways. But he has a much more logical
cast of mind than most people, and he is much more observant. The slightly
stiff but immensely expressive prose that Moon uses to capture this
is marvellous to read: short sentences, logical progression, mundanity
and insight reported in the same level tone. 'When I first went to get
my state ID card, the form asked for eye color. I tried to write in
all the colors in my own eyes but the blank space wasn't big enough.
They told me to put brown. I put brown, but that is not the only color
in my eyes. It is just the color that people see because they do not
really look at other people's eyes' .
Lou is observant where somebody else might not be, but he can be maddeningly
blind to inferences we, as readers, tend to make intuitively. We as
readers know, for instance, who has been sabotaging Lou's car long before
he does, even though all our evidence has come through Lou's own narrative.
At one point Lou says, 'it is all knowing what to start with. If you
start in the right place and follow all the steps, you will get to the
right end' , a sentiment that perhaps epitomises the logic that
underlies his consciousness. But he has come to an important understanding
about his own world-view.
Who I am now thinks that if people were more like numbers, they would
be easier to understand. But who I am now knows that they are not
like numbers. Four is not always the square root of sixteen, in human
fours and sixteens. People are people, messy and mutable, combining
differently with one another from day to day -- even hour to hour.
I am not a number either. 
There is something heroic, and (without wanted to sound pompous) something
profound in this. Art tends to make its representations of humanity
by schematising them to one degree or another, reducing them to numbers;
but people are not like this. Lou's rigidly eloquent point of view,
his bland itemising of the ordinary events of his day and the extraordinary
things that happen to him, give a much more nuanced sense of the ordinariness
of most people than conventional 'realist' strategies.
Nor does Moon, despite her evident sympathies, heroise her 'different'
characters to an implausible degree. Their lack of empathetic understanding
is not glossed over. When one autistic character insists that 'autistic
people care about autistic people', another, Cameron, replies that autistic
people accept other autistic people but they do not care. 'You
do not care about me. When I had flu last spring, you did not call or
bring food.' Lou's reaction to this is: 'I do not say anything. There
is nothing to say. I did not call or bring food because I did not know
Cameron wanted me to do that. I think it is unfair of him to complain
now. I am not sure that normal people always call and bring food when
someone is sick' [324-5]. This novel teaches us about ourselves. It
is beautiful and moving, a superb achievement.
Nothing on the front of Christopher Priest's new
novel The Separation gives the hint that it is a work of science
fiction. Either the publisher or (possibly, but I hope not) the author
has made the decision to market the book as mainstream historical-lit.
The sea-green cover art
juxtaposes a Messerschmitt Me-110 and a seagull; the blurb summarises
a seemingly run-of-the-mill world-war two plotline. The tag line on
the back-cover reads: 'The Choices of Men Determine the Fate of Nations'
-- a line which strikes me entirely to misrepresent what Priest's complex,
haunting novel is saying.
You might pick the book up from a bookseller's display, glance at it,
assume that Priest has moved into the territory of Sebastian Faulk or
Richard Harris, and put it down again. You would be mistaken. There
have been many novelistic recreations of the second world war in recent
years, but Priest's novel stands head and shoulders above them all,
and does so precisely because his science fiction idiom allows him imaginative
freedoms that are denied to hamstrung hist-lit. Indeed, this book is
an astoundingly good piece of fiction: its narrative is gripping, its
characters are involving, its prose is resonant, poetic, subtle, its
overall effect is thought-provoking, haunting, brilliant. And maybe,
to be fair, there is something misleading about pigeonholing
it as SF. It is far too unique a piece of work to be pigeonholed.
Strictly we would call the novel 'alternate history'. It begins in
Buxton, in an alternate 1999, a world in which Churchill and Hitler
made peace in 1941. A popular historian called Gratton is researching
the strange story of an RAF pilot, Flight Lieutenant Sawyer, who is
on record as being an operational bomber pilot and a conscientious objector
at the same time. The novel then steps us back to the late 1930s and
the early 1940s. We learn the reason for the mystery -- there were two
Sawyers, Jack and Joe, twin brothers. Priest unravels their stories:
their brief sporting careers in the coxless pairs (including a medal
at the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and a meeting with a lascivious Rudolph
Hess); their love for the same woman; their very different wartime careers
as a pilot on one hand and a Red Cross worker on the other. This is
very well drawn, involving and powerfully written. The prose is beautifully
restrained, the detail precise and powerfully evocative of the period.
But the meat of Priest's novel is not in this conventional narrative.
Nor does he play the usual games of alternate-historians: the 'what
would it be like if?' of Harris's Fatherland, or Len Deighton's
much better (but now forgotten) SS-GB. The details of the alternate
1999, and the alternate history that led to it, are evocatively but
briefly sketched. Instead, Priest is interested in the necessary parallelism
of alternate history itself. We know what happened in 'our' history
of 1939-45. Priest sketches-in what happened during and after his alternate
World War II, 1939-41. This inevitable pairing of two similar-but-different
narrative lines involves us, as readers, in a complex game of comparison.
Few 'alternate history', and fewer 'Hitler Wins' tales exploit the literary
possibilities of this pairing -- the great exception, of course, is
Philip K Dick's masterful Man in the High Castle, a novel which
The Separation resembles in complexity and evocativeness if not
at all in tone or treatment.
Priest's novel is built around a series of doubles, pairings of real-and-fake
where it is hard or impossible to distinguish which is legitimate and
which illegitimate. His central conceit is to dramatise his two like-but-unalike
identical-twin protagonists as, respectively, an honourable war-maker
and an honourable pacifist. Joe, the conscientious objector, believes
in the overwhelming necessity of peace; Jack, the pilot, believes in
the necessity of fighting Hitler. Both brothers are in love with Birgit,
a beautiful Jewish woman they rescue from Germany after their trip to
the Berlin Olympics. Joe marries Birgit, but Jack continues loving her
from afar. Indeed, the character of Birgit brilliantly focuses the moral
dilemma at the novel's heart: on the one hand we might say that Hitler's
attempted extermination of the Jews provided an inescapable and clear-cut
moral justification for making war upon him, which brings us close to
Jack's position. On the other hand, Joe's commitment to love, to home
and family are surely a nobler, better human impulse than the urge to
bomb and destroy our fellow human beings; Birgit gives him a reason
to commit to pacifism. Priest avoids easy answers, and the present state
of the world brings the same dilemma back to us all. Surely Saddam's
many crimes against humanity make the moral case for a war against him?
But, equally, surely the lives, homes and families that would be destroyed
in such a war make the moral case for not going to war?
During the course of the narrative, which slides smoothly from one
possible historical line to another, things seem to happen and un-happen
to Jack and Joe in turn, in ways that keeps the reader engaged trying
to work out where in the possible two histories she finds herself. We
meet Churchill, who seems to be sometimes real and sometimes an impostor.
Joe meets one Rudolf Hess in Berlin in 1936. Jack meets Hess again in
1941, after his flight from Germany to try and negotiate peace, but
he seems to be a different man -- this is the Hess who spent the rest
of his life in Spandau prison.
It works as well as it does (and it works extremely well) partly because
Priest's writing is so evocatively powerful that it manages to make
us feel both 1941s to be, in some sense, real. We believe it possible
that Churchill could have contemplated a peace treaty with Hitler's
Germany. But it also works well because its alternate history is so
well chosen. The Sawyers are half-German, half-English; their dialogue
slips between English and German (nicely rendered in the text by enclosing
English versions of German sentences between square brackets). The point,
of course, is that before the war England and Germany were perceived
by many people as twin-nations. These are two countries that have shared
much, a royal family, cultural and national traits and attitudes, and
Priest uses the trope of twin brothers who fall out, follow different
paths and fight (until one or other of them triumphs, depending on which
history one believes) as an eloquent commentary -- not allegory, exactly,
but fertile ground of application -- to the circumstance of England
and Germany as nations. We understand how the bitterest fighting can
flare up between people who are close, because they are close.
Priest skilfully implies a number of resemblances between, for instance,
Churchill and Hess. He uses the theme of travel -- the Sawyers moving
along in their row-boat, Jack in his plane, Joe in his Red Cross ambulance,
water, air and land -- to express the sense of moving forward that our
'being-in-time', our 'being-in-history' brings with it.
Technically speaking, the novel is astonishingly well handled and assured.
Priest swaps between half-a-dozen points-of-view, interiorised first-person
narrations from both brothers, exterior third-person narrations from
various people, documents, letters, interviews, transcripts of meetings
-- never fumbling or dropping the ball. The strategy is highly effective.
Having got used to Jack Sawyer's own sense of himself it is startling
to see him as his bomber crew see him (aloof, odd, rather disconcerting).
And the larger point holds as well; the deliberate, crafted uncertainty
of the novel's narrative position compels us to question the rightness
of any historical line. This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice
and Salt is also an alternative history novel, although of a very
different cast to Priest's. This is a panoramic novel that starts in
the Middle Ages and moves through to, roughly, the present day. But
in Robinson's version of history the
Black Death is much more thoroughly fatal than the actual Black Death
was. Europe is wholly depopulated, and world history continues without
a European aspect. Europe, or 'Firanja' is eventually inhabited by Islamic
settlers. Over six hundred years and more Islam, China and an Indian
League become the major world powers, jockeying for political supremacy.
Robinson tells his story over many generations, and in a bold device
he brings unity to multiple novelettes by having his two main characters
repeatedly reincarnated. These two who have many names of course, but
for our convenience always have names beginning with the same initials,
B for one, K for the other. 'B' is a solid yang-figure, associated with
the 'monkey' character of Chinese folklore, more often male than female;
'K' is a more volatile, passionate, yin individual, a tiger, more often
female than male. These two are born into many different cultures and
locations through the six centuries of the novel, yet their karma is
intertwined and they always meet and affect one another's lives. Robinson
has divided his novel into ten books, but these tell more than ten (I
counted fourteen) distinct stories. In between these connected novellas,
we are given glimpses of B and K in the 'bardo' or the spiritual arena
of judgement between incarnations. They seem to be learning something
from their repeated existences, but then they seem not to be. Whatever
shape their multiple existence takes overall, it is not a facile or
easily explicated one.
There are many things to say about this book, and the first is that
its sheer scale and ambition set it apart from the other books on this
year's shortlist, large and ambitious though they are. This is an enormous
book: enormous in conception, enormous in achievement, thrown out by
a supremely gifted writer working at, as the phrase goes, the height
of his powers. It is not wholly successful, I think; but its occasional
false steps are interestingly symptomatic of the project as a whole,
and I'll mention my reservations first, rather than drop them in at
the end and leave a sour taste in your mouth. The book is too good for
Firstly, I doubted the premise. A 'world without Europe' thought-experiment
is a fascinating one, and well worth doing, but personally I'm persuaded
by Jared Diamond's argument in his study Guns Germs and Steel.
Diamond asks why Europe conquered and colonised the rest of the world
rather than some other portion of the globe conquering and colonising
Europe. His answer boils down to the largely longitudinal lay of continental
Europe (as opposed to the latitudinous lay of the Americas), which resulted
in similar climates, flora and fauna across a large space of land. This
meant that where South and Central America (for instance) was divided
into a series of separate climates and cultures that interacted only
minimally, European cultures were all shaped by similar climate and
land and interacted promiscuously. In turn this meant more war, with
correlative advances in military technology, and more trade, with advances
in other sorts of technology; it also meant the spread of more disease
from populations to populations. This disease-ridden aspect of European
culture is where Robinson starts, of course; but Diamond's point is
that more disease produced more resistance to disease in European populations
-- so that European explorers had immunity to the smallpox that they
carried to America with such devastating results. In short: Diamond
argues that Europe conquered the world because of disease, the
germs that repeatedly devastated our cultures and allowed us to build
up resistances. Robinson's premise is exactly the reverse; disease knocks
Europe out of his world picture.
Secondly, I found the realisation of Robinson's American continents
rather underpowered. Robinson's alternate-history Asia is vividly brought
to life with an almost overwhelming precision and vigour, capturing
the beauties and strengths of the cultures that develop there without
avoiding the barbarism and cruelty. North America, on the other hand,
is more sparsely rendered. I did not believe that the Native American
peoples would be able to resist colonisation as Robinson has them here.
The rather utopian America this alternate history produces seemed to
me an exercise in wish-fulfilment, and it sat jarringly with the less
sentimental vision of Asian development. Robinson's vision of war is
powerful and pulls few punches, but his alternate world seems innocent
of the larger scale genocides that so marred the actual twentieth-century
-- I wondered why, and I wondered whether this was plausible.
A reader is, of course, permitted to disagree with the author about
the conclusions he or she draws from his or her thought-experiment,
and another reader might not have the same objections. Other problems
with the book are not to do with the content but the structure. Despite
Robinson's fine, expressive, thoughtful and often poetic prose, and
despite his deep grasp of character and history, I found some of the
ten novellas that compose the book better than others. More to the point,
the two most perfect of them seemed to me to be books one and two. In
the first, 'Awake to Emptiness', Bold Bardash, a Mongol warrior from
the army of Temur (Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great) roams across a beautifully
evoked, spookily empty Europe, is sold to slavery, and ends up in China.
His destiny intertwines with a fierce eunuch slave called Kyu. In the
second, 'The Haj in the Heart', an Islamic scholar called Bistami becomes
a confidant of the Persian emperor, travels to Mecca, then travels on
to attend the party of the Sultan Mawji Derva and his brilliant Sultana
Katima as they colonise the empty continent of Firanja.
These two novellas do everything that Kim Stanley Robinson does at
his best: they grip, they make you think, they educate, they touch and
surprise with their beauty and insight. But they unbalance the novel
as a whole, because they are such hard acts to follow. Of the remaining
books, some (such as Book Six 'Widow Kang', or Book Eight 'The War of
the Asuras') are similarly effective, but some of the others seem flatter,
weigh the whole down. Book Four 'The Alchemist' is little more than
a slightly clotted account of discoveries in the physical sciences made
by an Islamic alchemist who seems to be Galileo, Leonardo and Newton
all rolled into one. It goes without saying that it is no small challenge
to maintain both narrative interest and Robinson's high standards of
aesthetic and intellectual complexity over such a vast canvas, and Robinson
succeeds in this far more than he fails.
Indeed, there is something extraordinarily timely about this book --
extraordinarily because Robinson has been working on the project for
many years, long before '9-11' and the whole 'war against terror' happened.
Now, more than ever before, the times behove western artists to explore
Islam and the east in an insightful and humane manner. We can only hope
that Robinson's powerful and brilliant work is read widely, especially
in America and Britain. It does not whitewash Islam (one character describes
Muslims as 'ignorant fanatical disciples of a cruel desert cult', 567),
but it is a book profoundly alive to the strength and beauty of Islamic
culture and belief. Indeed, the necessarily completely non-Eurocentric
perspective novel is a wonderful, beautiful and educative thing in its
This is a book, clearly, about history, and many of its characters
meditate and pronounce upon historical process. Robinson seems to incline
towards a sense of the complex dialectic of historical process that
derives (as it did in the Mars books) at least in part from his
friend Fredric Jameson. 'History,' says one character, 'may not resemble
so much the seasons of a year, as waves in the sea, running this way
and that, crossing, making patterns, sometimes a triple peak, a very
Diamond Mountain of cultural energy, for a time' . At the novel's
end, indeed, I wondered if the insightful old academic Zhu Isao was
a version of Jameson, evidenced for instance by his extremely Jamesonian
statement about 'what interests me extremely these days, which is not
history's content, but its form' . Robinson also mentions a 'Scholar
White' here, who may or may not be a version the prestigious US historian
Hayden White, whose book The Content of the Form makes a similar
case for the importance of attending to the form of historical narrative.
This seemed to me insightful and fascinating, and casts light back on
Robinson's own complex and supple use of various cultural forms to shape
his narrative of an alternate history.
Beyond all this, what gives the novel an amazing, haunting timbre is
the way Robinson returns to a thematic of emptiness. The first book,
'Awake to Emptiness' sets this in motion with its brilliant evocation
of a depopulated Europe, so that we understand that one of the absences,
the gaps or empty spaces with which Robinson is concerned, is empty
landscape, the empty path history did not take. But in book two, this
emptiness is inflected as Sufi mysticism, the blankness of mind brought
about by fasting and meditation, the nothingness at the heart of many
eastern spiritual traditions. These different senses, of emptiness as
absence, and as nirvanic fulfilment, resonate through the whole novel:
we see the calm at the eye of a storm; characters with missing body
parts or missing husbands, in the later books we glimpse the emptiness
at the heart of atomic matter. Familiar Robinson images -- particularly
that of a devastating flood -- reappear in this novel, acting often
as externalisations of this same pull, yearning almost towards emptiness.
There is so much in this novel, it is so crammed and filled with vivid
life, and yet it is haunted all the way through with this beautiful,
eerie vacancy. It is a novel that lives powerfully in the mind once
the reader puts it down.
So, who will win the 2003 Clarke Award? Light, of
But who does this reviewer think should win? This is a very
tough call indeed. All these novels are excellent, but it seems to me
that three of them are masterpieces, works of unusual and extraordinary
accomplishment: Light, Speed of Dark and The Separation.
Comparing the relative merits of these three radically different works
is an almost impossible task. Should any of them win, nobody would complain
or kvetch. On balance I felt that Priest's The Separation was
the best book on the list; a subtler and deeper achievement than the
more barnstorming Light, more rounded and technically perfect
than Speed of Dark. It works on many levels, and the human dilemmas
it dramatises in its untendentious way are profound and important ones.
Perhaps this should, finally, be Priest's year.
Addendum (18 May 2003): Who won?
18th May 2003. Last night the award was announced in the Science
Museum by Paul Kincaid, with John Clute opening the envelope and reading
out the name of Chris Priest. I'd hedged my bets in my review to a certain
extent by mentioning both M John Harrison and Chris Priest in the 'who
will win?' section, but I was quietly pleased that my mind seemed to
be working along the same lines as the Clarke committe. Paul Kincaid
stressed the unusual strength and excellence of this year's shortlist,
and John Clute said, before revealing the winner's identity, that whoever
the winner was he or she would be first among equals. Often these sorts
of sentiments at awards ceremonies are polite fictions to save the blushes
of the losers, but on this occasion John's words were the literal truth:
a superb novel won, but the whole shortlist is superb. AR.
Review by Adam Roberts.
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