"Sorry about the clichés," says Canny Kilcannon, soon to become the thirty-second Earl of Credsdale, to his family's faithful retainer, Bentley, about halfway through Brian Stableford's Streaking, "but they really do mean what I want to say." One almost suspects Stableford of making a direct appeal to his readers, desperately striving to justify this plodding, over-written, under-plotted, slow-paced, hilariously awful mess of a novel. Even if it weren't a complete and utter fallacy to argue that, in fiction, what you have to say matters more than how you say it, the fact remains that Streaking has so very, very little to say.
When we first meet Canny, he's living the playboy lifestyle in Monte Carlo, hobnobbing with the famous and glamorous (neither of which, in spite of his wealth and pedigree, he is) and making a killing at the gaming tables when the call comes in that Daddy is on his last legs. It takes about a hundred pages for the old man to finally kick the bucket, and most of them are spent in debates, either between Canny and his father or between Canny and himself, over the wisdom and necessity of buying into the family tradition--that the first Earl of Credsdale made a deal with the devil, securing for himself and his descendants a supply of good luck, which remains in effect so long as the reigning Earl has a living son. When the old Earl dies, the son's luck turns sour until such time as he produces an heir--a task at which Canny, already past his thirtieth birthday, has thus far spectacularly failed. If you ignore the fantastic element, what you're left with is the soap opera staple of a dying parent urging his son to find a nice girl--preferably from around the neighborhood, no need to bring outsiders into the mix--and continue the family line.
As it turns out, the fantastic element is extremely easy to ignore, as Stableford goes to very little trouble to establish either Canny's good fortune while his father is alive, or his ill fortune after the old man dies. We're repeatedly told--and, on one occasion, shown--that Canny is a successful gambler, but this seems like an awfully lazy, not to say unimaginative, way of depicting good luck. Far more suggestive is an event that takes place several pages after Canny hits the jackpot at the roulette wheel, when a passing acquaintance learns of his family predicament and shaves half a day off Canny's journey home by giving him a lift on her private jet. This piece of good fortune conjures images of a life littered with tiny moments of serendipity--finding a tenner in the street, never missing a bus, running into an old friend we'd wanted to get back in touch with--the cumulative effect of which is to make existence easier and smoother. As it turns out, however, Canny's benefactor, the supermodel Lissa Lo, has an ulterior motive, and Stableford seems to feel that having established Canny as privileged--born to wealth and power and spared any terrible tragedies--is the same thing as establishing him as remarkably--uncannily--lucky. Early in the novel, Stableford introduces the concept of the 'streak'--an event in which a Kilcannon consciously influences probability in their own favor. Using this power too often is allegedly dangerous--it can 'call down the lightning', as Canny's father warns him--but after its first introduction the streak is merely discussed and never repeated, and Canny's good luck is for the most part the unconscious--and, as previously established, unpersuasive--kind.
As half-hearted as Stableford's depiction of Canny's good luck is, however, it is still less confusing and contradictory than the alleged bad luck the young Earl suffers following the loss of his father. In the days and weeks following his father's death, Canny endures the following series of unfortunate events: he meets two potential love interests; the first, an international supermodel, throws herself at him and all but begs him to conceive a child with her; the second is divested of her husband hours after meeting Canny, after which she also throws herself at him. For a brief period, it appears that ill fortune has finally caught up with Canny when Eastern European mobsters, thwarted in their attempt to kidnap Canny himself, instead kidnap his friend and demand a terrific ransom, which Canny delivers only to become convinced that both he and his friend are about to be murdered. Just in the nick of time, however, a rival group of mobsters swoops in, dispatches the Eastern Europeans, and sends Canny, his friend, the money and their spotless consciences on their way unmolested. Poor, poor Canny Kilcannon.
If the preceding litany gives the impression that Streaking is, if nothing else, a novel full of event and pulse-pounding thrills, let me hurry to correct it. The bulk of the novel is given over to tedious, repetitious discussions of the nature and implications of the Kilcannon luck. Canny's father does a lot of info-dumping and repeatedly warns his son against rocking the boat. Canny wonders, to himself and to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen, whether there's really such a thing as the family luck, whether the occult traditions and ceremonies he was raised with have anything to do with perpetuating that good fortune, and whether he has the courage to test the existence of the family streak by not conceiving a child. Lissa Lo, who also comes from a lucky family, in her case traveling down the female line, announces that her luck and Canny's are due to a genetic abnormality, and pressures Canny to conceive a child with supreme good fortune. These debates go on interminably and to very little effect. It's a given that, right or wrong, the old Earl's exhortations are going to be ignored and that Canny is going to test the limits of the family's good fortune, and Stableford's choice to beat about the bush on this matter very quickly becomes exasperating. Stableford also lacks the ability to write compelling pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, and the sheer absurdity of his McGuffin--a gene for good luck that travels down a single family line--shines through Lissa Lo's every word.
It might, however, be simpler to say that Stableford lacks the ability to write compellingly, period. His dialogue is wooden, his descriptive passages rely, for the most part, on shared cultural experiences and movie references, and the novel's narrative maintains a steady mediocrity occasionally punctuated by torturous, howl-worthy passages such as "his former way of life was coming to an irrevocable end, within a maelstrom of possibilities and impossibilities that was dragging him inexorably along into an unanticipatable future", or, my personal candidate for the year's worst mangling of an innocent metaphor, "The food for thought she had fed him had given him terrible mental indigestion."
It's in his characterization choices, however, that Stableford crosses the line from tedious and incompetent and into the bizarre. Most of the main characters are nothing more than cardboard cutouts, defined by their attitudes towards the family luck. The minor characters, on the other hand, seem to know that they're in a novel about Canny Kilcannon, and adjust their behavior accordingly. How else to explain the following exchange between Canny and a childhood friend whom he meets at the neighborhood cricket game, only hours after her younger sister's husband is brutally and senselessly murdered:
"Alice said not to go over to hers," Ellen said--to Canny, not to her daughter. "Mum's gone, but Alice said she didn't want a crowd. Carry on as normal, she said--and Jack wasn't about to miss his cricket unless he absolutely had to, and Alice gave him the excuse he needed, so I thought I'd best take it too, in spite of... well, Dad's minding the shop, so I... only thought you'd want to know, with you having read his books, and invited him to dinner and all. Sorry about the waterworks."
This might be a cultural thing, so let me just ask: is being told by your husband that he's not about to rush with you to the side of your just-now widowed sister because he doesn't want to miss his cricket game not grounds for divorce in England? Of course, Ellen and Jack are behaving like sociopaths because Stableford needs them to--how else can Canny, a virtual stranger, become the most important person in Alice's life? Amazingly, Stableford manages to top the exchange with Ellen for inhumanity when Canny drives Alice and her mother back to the village, and somehow turns the conversation into a discussion of how miserable he is. When Alice is, quite understandably, snippy with him, her mother admonishes her for talking back to the Earl. Of course, Alice soon comes around. By the end of the novel, her husband barely a few weeks in his grave, she's agreed to enter into a marriage of convenience with Canny. Neither of them seem to think that a recently bereaved woman might not be in the right mental state to make such a momentous decision, although given that Alice's grief doesn't seem to express itself in anything more profound than being really sarcastic and jumping Canny's bones, they might be forgiven the oversight.
All of Stableford's technical failings might be excusable if he had anything interesting or insightful to say about luck and the ways people react to it. As previously established, his idea of what a charmed life looks like is unimaginative, and although he touches on the human tendency to feel responsible for luck--particularly when it turns against us--he lacks the courage or insight to take this idea to its logical conclusion. Canny and Lissa possess the ability to consciously and unconsciously influence probability, but neither one of them takes responsibility for the effects of that influence. Canny spends a lot of time telling Alice that it is entirely irrational for him to feel guilty for her husband's death, but as it turns out, in the long run Alice being widowed is a stroke of good fortune for Canny. Why shouldn't he feel responsible? Stableford instead chooses to view Canny and Lissa--who may very well posses more agency and control over their fates than any other human being on the planet--as victims of forces they can't even understand. When they do finally conceive a child, they call the lightning down. The history of the world is rewritten to prevent their gaining such a tremendous advantage over the laws of probability, leaving them with just their alloted portion of good luck. In their essentials, Canny and Lissa are therefore no different than the rest of us, which really begs the question of why Stableford bothered to write Streaking in the first place.
Moving back and forth between England and Japan in the near future, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's End of the World Blues concentrates primarily on Kit Nouveau, a thirty-something ex-pat who owns a bar in one of Tokyo's seedier neighborhoods. Kit is a quintessential anti-hero stewing in the juices of his bad choices, both current--an addiction to heroin; an affair with the wife of a Yakuza boss; a loveless marriage to a neurotic artist--and ancient--the girl he loved and left in a lurch; the best friend he may have driven to suicide; a brief and disastrous stint in Iraq; giving testimony against his father when the latter was accused of killing Kit's mother--and refusing to let go of either his guilt or his grief. End of the World Blues joins him just as the cumulative weight of these missteps comes down to bear on him--he narrowly escapes an assassination attempt, watches his bar go up in flames with his wife inside, and is approached by Kate O'Mally, mob boss and the mother of his childhood sweetheart Mary, with an offer he can't refuse. Six months ago, Kate tells Kit, Mary committed suicide and left all her worldly possessions to Kit. Now Kate wants Kit to prove Mary is still alive, and so Kit returns to England, determined to discover the truth about the life and death of both of the women in his life.
Grimwood's choice to set End of the World Blues in 2018 is somewhat baffling--the only justification for it seems to be his desire to make Kit an Iraq veteran, and the narrative does frequently, if obliquely, refer to a gruesome battlefield experience as one of the defining events of Kit's life, a trauma which has left him incapable of forming healthy relationships. Unfortunately, Grimwood doesn't manage to sell his vision of the character. Perhaps because we never see Kit as he was before his tour of Iraq, and perhaps because the narrative offers a much more compelling explanation for his anti-social tendencies in the form of his abusive and possibly murderous father, it seems far more likely that Kit went to war a violent, emotionally stunted man than that the war made him into one. The failure of Kit's characterization is perhaps exacerbated by Grimwood's choice to make 2018 all but indistinguishable, both technologically and politically, from 2007. It's difficult to think of Kit as a fifteen-year veteran of a war that is still ongoing when, the occasional reference to global warming, anti-terrorism laws and video-phones notwithstanding, the novel might as well be taking place in the present day.
Grimwood certainly didn't need to set End of the World Blues in the near future in order to establish the novel's SFnal credentials. The novel's secondary plotline takes place in the far, far future--at the end of the world, in fact, as the sun's light turns from life-giving to life-ending and the Earth spins ever more slowly around its axis. The last remnants of humanity as we know it huddle under a vast radiation filter (made, legend has it, out of the moon itself), ruled by six aristocratic houses which divide their time equally between infighting and scheming against one another. Lady Neku is the youngest daughter and only survivor of the house High Strange. She escapes her enemies by taking over the body of a contemporary Japanese girl named Nijie. Living on the streets of Tokyo, she is befriended by Kit, and later saves him from the aforementioned assassination attempt. Later, Kit accidentally destroys Neku's 'memory bracelet'--a repository of her experiences that spares her from straining her 'wetware.' An amnesiac Neku returns to the end of the world to relearn the reasons for her exile. In the present-day storyline, Neku is not much more than a plot device--Kit's protector, helper, and finally a catalyzer for his actions. There's no indication that she grows or changes over the course of the novel, or that what she learns about herself in her journey back to the far future (which, in spite of the fact that her plot strand alternates with Kit's, takes place before Kit's story even properly begins) has any lasting effect on her personality beyond motivating her to stay with Kit. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the far future plotline exists because Grimwood thinks that hot, knife-wielding Japanese girls in pseudo-feudalistic, space-opera settings are neat, although his execution more often shades into silliness.
Other reviewers have suggested that the far-future plotline is actually a protective fantasy created by Nijie, who at the beginning of the novel flees the massacre of her family by a rival Yakuza boss. This is not an unreasonable reading, but I find it unpersuasive. More precisely, while I can believe that Grimwood might have intended for the reality of Neku's storyline to be ambiguous, I think he fails to bring this point across convincingly. For one thing, Nijie, who is featured once at the beginning of the novel and mentioned fleetingly at its end, is a non-entity. There are no instances of her personality or experiences impinging on Neku's reality or on her behavior around Kit. For another, Neku displays some extremely unusual skills--she has frightening familiarity and lightning-quick facility with knives, and picks up languages incredibly fast--which, if she really is nothing but an ordinary girl, would send the novel careening even further into the realm of cliché. Most importantly, Neku's world doesn't feel fake. Or, at least, it doesn't feel any more fake than the contemporary plotline--both are equally flat and cliché-ridden.
It is to Grimwood's credit that he manages to make exciting fare out of the largely domestic events that follow Kit's return to England--Kit and Neku setting up housekeeping in Mary's apartment; Kit reconnecting with an old girlfriend; Neku meeting a cute university student; Kit forming a slightly demented family group with Neku and Mary's parents. There are, admittedly, not a few action elements in the mix. Mary's troubled past includes a connection to a drug dealer, and through him to a terrorist. Kit and Neku become entangled in a sting operation meant to capture him. Back in Japan, the former regulars at Kit's bar--the Japanese equivalent of Hell's Angels--are making trouble for the local Yakuza on his behalf, and there are some lingering questions about the death of Kit's wife. There's a great deal of violence, and also a lot of vomiting. For the most part, however, the focus of End of the World Blues's second half is on Kit's emotional life, and on his progress towards closure and forgiveness--that standard Hollywood trope, psychological healing through casual violence. End of the World Blues is an effective thriller, which means that the cliché works, and if it weren't for the novel's deeply disturbing treatment of its female characters I would have no hesitation in calling it an enjoyable read.
With almost no exceptions, the female characters in End of the World Blues are trapped by their circumstances. Most of them were born into crime families--Mary, Neku, and Nijie most obviously, but also Kit's wife Yoshi and her sister Yuko. All of them are restricted and frustrated by the institutions to which they belong--Neku is first forced into a political marriage and then, once she befriends her future husband, discovers that her family plans to assassinate him; Kit's lover Mrs. Oniji has a degree in marine biology, but spends her days in indolence; Amy, the old girlfriend Kit reconnects with in England, turns out to be working for MI6, but is soon revealed to be a pawn of her employers, whose methods and decisions she questions but can't affect, and whose constant oversight prevents her from pursuing her attraction to Kit. They lash out against these restrictions in ineffectual, self-destructive ways--Mary runs away from home and takes up with a drug dealer; Neku plays games of power with her mother and brothers; Yoshi marries a foreigner she barely even knows; Mrs. Oniji screws the English tutor. None of them are capable of effecting genuine change in their lives, of escaping their past in a way that doesn't leave them crippled and torn apart.
The person who is capable of escaping, and of effecting the escape of others, is Kit. In spite of the fact that there isn't a single one of them who isn't smarter, stronger, and more emotionally stable than him, each of the women in the novel ends up turning to Kit for help--even the novel's two powerhouses, Mary's mother and Amy's boss, Brigadier Miles, need Kit to perform the final, decisive act that will bring their plans into fruition. The novel climaxes with an almost farcical scene in which Kit, who has determined that the bomb that killed his wife was meant for him and planted by her sister's husband Mr. Tamagusuku, and has traveled back to Japan to denounce Yoshi's murderer, is repeatedly attacked by Tamagusuku as Yuko stands by and petulantly demands to hear what Kit has to say.
'Yuko,' [Kit] said. 'We need to talk.'
Another shot, making seven.
There's nothing to discuss,' Tamagusuku shouted.
'It's not you I want to talk to. Don't you think it's time Yuko knew the truth?'
A shot splintered frame near Kit's hip. Eight shots in total... 'I'll take that as a no,' he said.
'What truth?' Yuko demanded.
A quick burst of Japanese, low and intense, came from within the cabin, almost swallowed by the wind.
'Tell me,' Yuko yelled. 'What truth?'
Tamagusuku's protests were harsh now. His voice loud enough to compete with the exploding spray and the whistle of metal hawsers leading to high empty spars.
'I have the right to know,' yelled Yuko.
'Your husband,' Kit shouted, and felt the world twist sideways and the stars flare.
It would take a half-wit not to work out what Kit is getting at by this point, but it is only once he utters the words 'Your husband killed Yoshi' that Yuko acts, as though she needed him give her permission to act, or break a spell--although, given that, once the words are uttered, Yuko never doubts Kit or demands proof of his accusations, it might be more accurate to describe his effect on her as that of casting a spell rather than breaking it.
What's most disturbing about End of the World Blues is that the gradual attrition of the female characters' agency--often to the point of revealing that they never possessed it in the first place--is a necessary component of Kit's healing process. By the end of the novel, Mary and Yoshi's ghosts have been laid to rest, Yuko and Mrs. Oniji have been left to their fates, Brigadier Miles, Kate O'Mally and Neku have been de-clawed, and the latter two have been domesticated, taking up the roles of Kit's adopted mother and daughter (there's even a subplot in which Kit orchestrates a reconciliation between Kate and her estranged husband), and Amy makes it clear that, despite her superiors' objections, she is open to the notion of romantic relationship with Kit. It's worth noting that Kit's attitude towards all of these women is benevolent--he acknowledges and expresses genuine remorse for his culpability in Yoshi's death and his mistreatment of Mary, seems genuinely interested in a relationship with Amy, arrives at a tentative reconciliation with Kate O'Mally, and claims Neku as his daughter. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that, instead of being a novel about a man strong enough to deal with the strong women in his life, End of the World Blues is a novel about a weak man, who is only capable of behaving decently towards those women once they've been brought down to his level.
In 1985, novelist and travel writer Jan Morris spent five months in Hav, a city-state on the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean, not far from the Turkish border. Morris chronicled Hav's history and customs, as well as her encounters with citizens both prominent and common. Her visit was cut short by a violent coup, which forced her to make a hurried escape even as warships made their way into Hav harbor. Twenty years later, Morris was invited to return to Hav by its authoritarian government, to witness the changes wrought in the coup's wake.
Well, no. In 1985, novelist and travel writer Jan Morris published "Last Letters from Hav", a fictional account of her visit to a fictional city named Hav, written so convincingly in the style of a travel narrative that many of her readers contacted her, or their travel agents, wondering how they might purchase a ticket there. Twenty years later, Morris returned to that setting in a second novella, "Hav of the Myrmidons." Both stories are collected in the Clarke-nominated volume Hav .
The accusation that a writer has prioritized their story's setting over its plot is encountered quite often in fantasy circles. It is leveled against authors of traditional books-with-maps such as Tolkien and his imitators, as well as against authors of modern, experimental fantasy such as Jeff VanderMeer, whose novels City of Saints and Madmen and Veniss Underground often seem primarily concerned with evoking a sense of place. In Hav, Morris eschews plot completely, and her chosen form discourages the reader from expecting it. It is precisely because of her commitment to this form that Hav is more satisfying and successful than many works of fantasy, which struggle to find a balance between worldbuilding and plot. Morris's descriptions of Hav are fascinating not because they tell a story, but rather in the same sense that all history is fascinating, because it deepens and broadens our personal and incomplete image of the world--regardless of the fact that this particular addition to that image is entirely fictional.
In "Last Letters from Hav", Morris integrates Hav seamlessly into the history of its region. Its origins lost in the mists of history, Hav's status as a stop on the Silk Route made it an appealing prize, and the city spent most of the last millennium passing from one empire to another: from the Crusaders to Saladin to the Ottomans to Napoleon to the British to the Russians, and finally, by order of the League of Nations, into the hands of a tripartite mandatory government--French, Italian and German--which, following the second World War, dissolved and left the inhabitants--Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Arabs, as well as a small Chinese settlement, the indigenous, cave-dwelling Kretev people, and a smattering of European ex-pats--to their independence. Schliemann originally believed the hills around Hav to be the site of Troy. Hemingway, Thomas Mann, and Noël Coward stayed in its casino resort. T.E. Lawrence had a clandestine meeting there with the man who would later become Attaturk. Even Hitler is said to have visited, although the current British diplomatic representative believes this to be a fabrication: "believe me, if he had ever come within a hundred miles of this Agency, he would never have got home alive."
Morris creates for Hav not only a believable past but also a persuasive present, including exotic customs--the trumpet call that has greeted the sunrise for nearly a thousand years, the arrival of the snow berries, a local delicacy only available for a few days of every year, or a grueling race across the city's rooftops that is the Havian equivalent of the running of the bulls--and colorful inhabitants--the man who claims to be the 125th Caliph of Islam, the woman whose girlhood was spent among Russian aristocrats who, before the revolution, made Hav a popular vacation destination. In her descriptions, Morris keeps just on the right side of caricature. None of the people she meets leap off the page as fully realized human beings, but there is constantly a sense that Morris herself is at fault for this--that as an experienced, slightly jaded traveler, she is wary of allowing herself to become emotionally involved in the places she visits, lest she stop being a tourist and become a native.
As Morris herself says in the afterword to Hav, she originally wrote "Last Letters from Hav" in order to express her frustration at her inability to fully comprehend any of the places she visited and wrote about, and the slight flatness of her descriptions, as well as the sense of detachment that permeates the narrative, perfectly express that difficulty (in fact, they do a much better job than the device Morris uses to symbolize Hav's inscrutability, a frequently-referenced and dimly-understood secret society whose machinations culminate in the coup that sends her packing). The only real failure in Morris's portrait of Hav is her physical descriptions of the city, which rely too heavily on comparison. A market square reminds her of "somewhere like Cracow or Kiev". The waterside market is "partly like a Marseilles fish-wharf, and partly like the old Covent Garden". Hav harbor reminds her "a little of Sydney Harbour, and sometimes of Bergen." I'm not a frequent reader of travel narratives, however, and for all I know this is an acceptable technique for writers within that field, although I find it distracting.
In "Hav of the Myrmidons", Morris returns to Hav to find it partially subsumed into the Western world and the 21st century, homogenized and commercialized. Most of the old city was destroyed in the coup--now referred to as The Intervention--and instead of its genteel chaos Morris finds "a brand-new metropolis of mirror-glass, steel and concrete, metallic, regimented, criss-crossed with over-passes, traffic-lights blinking everywhere, teeming in an almost stylized way with traffic and pedestrians ... Its buildings were flat-roofed and of uniform height throughout, except for a few shining minarets, lumpish cranes and aerials." Much of Havian culture has also been eroded. A recording has replaced the morning trumpeter. Flavorless, genetically modified snow berries are available from every vendor. The roof race has been domesticated and made significantly less dangerous, in the hopes of its being adopted as an Olympic sport. The Kretevs have been moved out of their caves and into housing developments, and the indigenous Hav bear has become extinct. Tourists hardly ever leave the Lazaretto resort, situated on an island in the middle of Hav harbor, where, as a visiting English couple tells Morris "one feels so safe ... it's all so clean and friendly, everything we're used to really."
Where "Hav of the Myrmidons" fails is in its descriptions of the city's rulers, the Cathar conspiracy whose presence cast a shadow over Morris's stay in "Last Letters from Hav" and whose ideology now informs the city's physical appearance and personality. In her descriptions of the city's new functionaries and political apparatchniks, Morris finally strays into caricature--most particularly in the person of Dr. Porvic, a man with the Orwellian title of Director of the Office of Ideology, who speaks in a constant stream of malapropisms and mangled idioms. Morris clearly intends the Cathars as stand-ins for any authoritarian, fundamentalist ruling body, but in her descriptions of them they are too monolithic, too ideologically uniform, too steadfast and unironic in their beliefs to be credible. It is the first instance of Morris's descriptions deviating from the reader's experience of the world, and in a novel whose primary appeal lies in its total believability, this is a nearly fatal flaw.
Nevertheless, between its two halves Hav perfectly captures the dilemma facing any tourist or traveler: the exotic is scary and incomprehensible, but the de-exoticized is too familiar to be bothered with--one might as well have stayed home. In a larger sense, Hav also touches on issues of globalization, on the dilemma faced by developing nations, forced to either discard their culture or be left behind by a rapidly changing world (that said, there is a certain level of condescension in Morris's lament for Hav's lost uniqueness. I'm reminded of a scene in Michener's The Source in which American photographers visit Israel in the early 60s and lament that the rapidly modernizing nation can no longer provide them with their bread and butter--quaint images of cod-Biblical landscapes and rustic inhabitants). The only real objection I have to Hav, in the context of reviewing it as a Clarke nominee, is that under no circumstances can the novel be classed as science fiction.
Ursula K. Le Guin disagrees. In her effusive review of Hav in The Guardian, she writes
Probably Morris, certainly her publisher, will not thank me for saying that Hav is in fact science fiction, of a perfectly recognisable type and superb quality. The "sciences" or areas of expertise involved are social - ethnology, sociology, political science, and above all, history. Hav exists as a mirror held up to several millennia of pan-Mediterranean history, customs and politics. It is a focusing mirror; its intensified reflection sharply concentrates both observation and speculation. Where have we been, where are we going? Those are the questions the book asks. It poses them through the invention of a place not recognised in the atlas or the histories, but which, introduced plausibly and without violence into the existing world, gives us a distanced, ironic and revelatory view of everything around it.
To my mind, this argument comes close to suggesting that the act of creating an imaginary world is inherently SFnal (personally, I'd be inclined to class such works as fantasy, but as the Clarke jury has in the past nominated and awarded the novels of China Miéville, as well as other fantasy writers, this seems like pointless hair-splitting). The problem with applying this approach to Morris's novel is that Hav is far from imaginary. It is, in fact, generic. Stepping out of my house in Tel Aviv right now, I could drive in just about any direction but directly due East and, pesky national borders and enmities notwithstanding, I wouldn't be able to go twelve hours without hitting a Hav. Hav is Jaffa. Hav is Acre. Hav is Beirut, and Tyre, and Izmir, and any other of the vast number of port cities on the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Morris's Hav is nothing but an agglomeration of extraordinarily common attributes, given an imaginary name and location. Her sole act of creation in bringing Hav to life is the Cathar conspiracy, and by her own admission this element of the story is symbolic. More importantly, it is unsuccessful--if Hav were science fiction, we'd have to take Morris to task for shoddy worldbuilding.
I don't say this to be critical of Morris. As I've noted already, and as Le Guin also argues, Hav is a successful work precisely because it slots so effortlessly into the history and geography of the region, because it creates the illusion of reality, which is something very different from the illusion of believability that one finds in successful science fiction. Where I disagree with Le Guin is in her assertion that the act of creating this illusion for the purpose of holding a mirror to the world is SFnal, for the simple reason that writers in every genre have been utilizing this approach for as long as the novel has existed. To put it simply, if Hav is a work of science fiction, then so is every other novel that takes place in an imaginary analogue of real-world locations, a vast group which includes Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, Charlotte Brontë's Villette, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Middlemarch.
Some 200 pages into Adam Roberts's Gradisil, the title character gives a speech to a small group of fellow 'Uplanders'--colonizers of Earth's orbit--in which she describes the society she envisions them creating (for reasons of convenience, all quotes from the novel correct the alternative spelling used by Roberts's characters--'wat' for 'what' and so on):
"Upland is a new country. But more than this it is a new kind of country. In the past when new territory was opened up it was ... largely colonized by the poor. ... Those poor did not, many of them, stay poor for many generations: there were indigenous populations to press into servitude ... when they were plagued and slaved into abeyance, there was also the new poor, settlers from other lands, who also could be harnessed. This has been the logic of colonization on Earth for centuries.
Not in Upland. We have no poor. We supplant no aborigines. ... And so we are in a unique position. We can build a nation that--for the first time in the history of the world!--is not founded on conquest, oppression, on human misery. To build a fair nation! To build a strong nation.
To build a guiltless nation, a beacon for the future. That is our challenge--and our glory!"
Space exploration stories have frequently delved into the vocabulary and tropes of the Western, our culture's primary narrative of expansion, colonization, and nation-building--space being, if not the final frontier, then at least a new one. Gradisil's utopian vision sits comfortably within the confines of this sub-genre, but in his novel, Roberts appears to be trying to write an SFnal Deadwood --a narrative that undermines the powerful creation myths that accrue around a nation's period of genesis by exposing the petty personal motivations of the individuals, and dishonorable political and economic motivations of the institutions, that brought that nation into being, while simultaneously charting the process by which those myths develop. The person responsible for both myth and reality is Gradisil, who through cunning, political savvy, and sheer force of will, binds together a group of "eccentrics, millionaires, wealthy criminals looking for a hideaway, cranks, plane-nuts, space-nuts, hermits, libertarians, romantics, a real mixed bag" into a nation capable of fighting off the military and political advances of two major world powers.
'Gradisil' is a corruption of Yggdrasil, the world-tree out of Norse mythology whose roots hold the Earth together and whose branches prop up the sky. The image of the tree is used in Gradisil as a metaphor for the means by which humans perch themselves in space, climbing the Earth's magnetic field like the branches of a tree and placing crude habitats in orbit. It also comes to represent history's influence on the present and the future, both for communities and individuals. Gradisil, the novel's lynchpin and most important character, is the trunk of both trees. The novel appropriately starts by examining her roots--the events that led to her birth and to the shaping of her personality, as well as the Uplands' origins--and ends by visiting her branches--the effect that her personality and political career have had on her children and the shape that Upland takes in the wake of her struggle for its independence.
Gradisil may be the novel's most important character, but she is certainly not its protagonist. There is, in fact, in spite of the many perspectives the novel offers us on this enigmatic, forceful woman--her neglectful, emotionally stunted mother Klara, her lovelorn husband Paul, David Slater, an American military officer planning an attack against her interests, as well as his colleagues and superiors, and finally her sons Hope and Solidarity--a Gradisil-shaped hole in the center of the novel. Was she born a self-contained, self-reliant person, or did she develop these traits because her mother was too damaged to properly care for her? Did she love her husband or was his wealth simply her ticket to the stars? Did she goad him into betraying her? Was she a monster or a saint? The narrative is, for the most part, silent. Tiny insights into Gradisil's character--"What is alien to her is pity. She just doesn't do pity--or more precisely, she thinks of pity only as a weakness", her husband is told, by way of an explanation of Gradisil's choice to let their unborn child die so that she can lead a campaign against the Americans without distractions--come side-by-side with huge gaps in our understanding of her growth as a person and a political thinker. At the end of Klara's narrative, for example, a young Gradisil is strongly anti-Upland. When we rejoin her several years later, this time through Paul's eyes, she is devoted to its cause. We never find out what brought about the change in her opinions. We don't even get to hear the definitive version of how she dies.
It is precisely this opacity, however, that sets Gradisil so powerfully at the center of the novel. We break ourselves against her just as her followers, enemies and family do. She is a myth taking form before our eyes, larger than life and yet somewhat less than human, as all the great people of history inevitably become. When Roberts allows us to see past Gradisil's facade of omniscience and invulnerability, we see a sly, calculating, in some respects breathtakingly self-centered person--a petty "homunculus" operating the huge edifice of myth and public relations that has been erected around her. In Gradisil, Roberts creates a character in constant tension between greatness and monstrousness, and the readers finish the novel not quite certain which side of the question they fall on.
If Gradisil is the novel's center, its topic is the Uplands, and more generally, the process by which individuals cohere into a group, and by which that group develops, asserts, and sometimes loses its identity. Uplanders, when we first meet them, are reclusive and determinedly self-sufficient people who have, for various reasons, chosen to walk away from the human commonality. Their very location and the difficulty of arriving and remaining there self-select for anti-social tendencies and an antipathy towards the very idea of forming a community. By the end of the novel, Upland is a nation like any other. It has been folded into the Earth's political matrix, and the world's superpowers, having failed to take it by force, are gently but determinedly bringing their political and economic strength to bear against it.
By its very nature, the story Roberts is telling is a political one, so it may seem strange to say that that the novel is at its weakest when dealing with the purely political. When he portrays nations--in Gradisil, this means primarily the EU, now acting largely as a single body, and the US--Roberts has an unfortunate tendency to lapse into what is--to take the most charitable interpretation possible--a Swiftian satire that little suits the more sombre tone of the novel's Upland-set, family-oriented segments. In Klara's narrative, the Europeans, who first establish a presence in Upland in an attempt to preempt the Americans, with whom they are in an increasingly tense, and ultimately violent, opposition, are portrayed as bumbling, wasteful, institutionally corrupt, self-important bureaucrats who govern, set policy and make technological advances by committee. The Americans, meanwhile, are represented by Slater, whose narrative alternates with Paul's as he first plans what he believes to be an effortless and unstoppable offensive against the virtually unarmed, unorganized, and widely dispersed Uplanders, and is then taken aback by the mother of all asymmetrical war campaigns, having failed to consider that, in an environment in which "any pressurised container ... is effectively two-thirds bomb anyway", there is very little difference between a ballistic missile and a harpoon (and yes, the real-world parallels are unquestionably intentional). As represented by Slater (and as described by the faux-naive tone reserved for his narrative), the Americans come off as arrogant, unsophisticated, and if not precisely stupid then certainly too locked in a specific mindset for their intelligence to be of much use.
Juxtaposed against the complex and morally ambivalent Paul narrative--even ignoring her personal issues with Paul, Gradisil achieves cohesiveness of the Upland community by forcing its members to endure a siege, manipulates a prominent Uplander into betraying her and then kills him as a way of solidifying her status within the community, and launches kamikaze attacks against the Americans' space enclaves--the simplicity of the Slater narrative, and its willingness to indulge in crass national stereotypes, are grating. It increasingly comes to seem like a refugee from another, less intelligent, novel. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that Slater, simply by virtue of being ordinary--not a gaping maw of selfishness like Klara, not an indomitable force of nature like Gradisil and, to a lesser extent, Sol, not a weakling trapped in orbit around that willpower like Paul and Hope--quickly becomes the novel's most appealing character, and that the process he undergoes over the course of the novel, of realizing just how little control he has over his life, is heartbreaking, I'd argue that Roberts might easily have excised his narrative completely and ended up with a stronger novel.
In the end, however, Gradisil is stronger than its weakest aspects. In the novel's final narrative, Gradisil's grown-up sons are each involved, in their own way, with determining the Uplands' future. Sol is a member of the Upland government, and imperiously certain of the invulnerability of Gradisil's achievement. The Uplands' independence having been secured, Sol is convinced that it can never be threatened again. "We permit them to be here in the Uplands," he says of an American hotel, without considering the economical implications of allowing an outside interest to gain a financial foothold in a nation with no natural resources, and whose citizens are entirely dependent on outsiders for the very air they breathe. Hope, meanwhile, has dedicated his life and squandered his fortune on one of those vast public works projects that always seem like complete pipe dreams until one of them, inexplicably, comes to fruition. Hope wants to move Mercury closer to the Earth, providing the Uplands with a vital resource, and leveling the economic playing field. Unfortunately, if Hope has his mother's share of vision, Sol has her strength of will, and when the brothers discover that their father has returned to the Uplands, he forces Hope to scuttle the last chance of his project coming into being in favor of seeking vengeance--an act which Sol recontextualizes as communal justice. At a hastily convened trial, Hope asks for forgiveness for his father
'I'm not talking about revenge,' says Sol. 'I'm talking about the best thing for the Uplands. One thing Gradi saw clearly was that it takes blood to fertilize a new republic, as it always has. We are a young country. The branches of our nation-tree are still growing. What we do today now--what we do today--will have the greatest resonance for the way our nation develops into the future.'
'Then why not,' says Hope, mastering his sobs, 'establish the principle of forgiveness? That's a good principle for a growing nation, isn't it?'
'Nations are not people, to turn the other cheek. If another country makes war upon you, you do not surrender, you do not forgive them, you don't accept your defeat passively--you fight. Fight, fight, fight. This is what we are doing here today. We are asserting the strength of our nation.'
In the end, Paul dies, and with him Hope's dream for the Uplands and the last embers of Gradisil's dream of a nation without original sin--a dream which perished, we eventually conclude, long before she ever put it into words. It's a bleak ending to an even bleaker story. The traditional frontier narrative stresses the ways in which individuals are altered by new landscapes, but with Gradisil, Roberts is telling a story about people who shape their landscape--even when that landscape is nothing but a vast emptiness--in the image of the societies they left behind, and who bring into it the very things they sought to escape--violence, corruption, intolerance, incompetence. What's most remarkable about Gradisil is that, in spite of the bleakness of its message, it isn't a depressing novel. It achieves this effect in much the same way that Deadwood does--by being entirely persuasive. In its best parts, Gradisil reads like a history of a future that hasn't happened yet--depressing, because it confirms our worst suspicions about human nature, but true, and therefore compelling and impossible to ignore.
Atomic energy, its use and misuse, was once a common driving element in science fiction stories. It powered spaceships and planet-destroying weapons. It devastated the Earth, leaving a few ragged survivors to build civilization anew or die trying. It featured in the nightmares of neurotic everymen, catalyzing them into doing everything from digging holes in the ground to building time machines, the better to escape the coming devastation. It gave teenage boys and grown up atomic scientists superpowers. It was the monster under the bed and boogeyman in the closet. Over the last few decades, and especially since the end of the Cold War, atomic energy seems to have receded from both science fiction and the public consciousness (although recent rumblings in Iran and North Korea are bringing it to the fore again). There are, as one of the characters in Lydia Millet's exceptional novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart says to his wife, other ways for the world to end.
Live under a sword for long enough and it will come to seem normal and familiar. Oh, that old thing? It's always been there. No one is stupid enough to use it. In Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Millet appears to be trying to break through half a century's accumulated apathy. She does this by resurrecting some of the people who brought the bomb into being, the people whose world was irretrievably transformed into ours the minute the first nuclear bomb exploded on the planet's surface. On March 1st, 2003, three men intimately involved with the Manhattan Project--J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard--inexplicably appear out of nowhere, having been whisked away from the first atomic test at Trinity, July 16th, 1945. The scientists converge in Santa Fe, and are soon taken in by a librarian named Ann and her dubious husband Ben. They embark on a quest to understand the ramifications that their discovery has had on human society, traveling first to Hiroshima, and then devoting themselves to the cause of nuclear disarmament and gathering around them an army of hippies, New Agers, lunatics and religious fanatics who march on Washington demanding peace.
Millet never explains how the scientists come to be in 2003, nor who or what they actually are--the 'real' Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard having continued their lives and careers uninterrupted after the Trinity test. There is, towards the end of the novel, a strong indication that divine intervention is responsible, and that the references made by the scientists' evangelical followers to the second coming may not be entirely off-base. 'God did it,' however, is merely a more confident way of saying that we don't know why or how the scientists' appearance is managed, and while slotting that appearance into a second coming narrative is convenient in that it provides us with a neat rubric into which Oh Pure and Radiant Heart can be fitted, it doesn't actually answer any questions. In the end, we have to face up to the fact that Millet is asking us to believe in the impossible encroaching, politely but undeniably, into the mundane--in other words, that she is telling a surrealist story.
Millet does a masterful job of maintaining a balance between the impossibly weird and the ordinary elements in her novel. It is all too often the case in surrealist fiction that characters are overwhelmed by the weirdness they encounter. They cease to be human because their responses to the impossible strain credulity. Millet never falls into this trap. Her characters, modern and historical, major and minor, sympathetic and villainous, are never less than entirely believable, and almost always likable. At the heart of novel is Ann, who might easily have descended into obnoxiousness--born to all the luxury and privilege of the American middle class, happily married, comfortably well off, but still bored and looking for something more. And yet Ann is immediately appealing. She stumbles across the scientists and, like the protagonist of a young adult fantasy, is compelled to investigate, and we can only sympathize with her curiosity, and with her unwillingness to let the scientists, and the hint of the fantastic they bring into her life, go.
Ann's husband Ben, who is probably the novel's most appealing character, never entirely relinquishes his belief that Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard are con-men, and he too might easily have descended into the stereotype of the blustering, domineering white male incapable of handling any upheaval to his established way of life. Instead, Ben is an instantly lovable combination of kindness and no-nonsense realism. He's sarcastic, but never cynical. Supportive, but not blindly so. Ben's childhood, unlike Ann's, was troubled and touched by tragedy, and as a result he doesn't share his wife's thirst for adventure. A boring, ordinary, comfortable life is good enough for him. Nevertheless, his innate good nature, and his overwhelming love for Ann, carry him into the scientists' orbit, where he takes on the role of unshakable skeptic, thus providing the readers with a much needed outlet for their own disbelief. In spite of the best intentions on both sides, Ann's fascination with the scientists strains her and Ben's relationship to the breaking point, a process which Millet depicts without ever resorting to raised voices, snide remarks, or long sulks. Ann and Ben never stop caring about one another, but they come to want different things from life, and the novel's ending is heartbreakingly ambivalent about their chances of restoring their marriage.
Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard are also brought to appealing and fully-realized life in Millet's hands, both in their personalities--Oppenheimer is an old-world gentleman, courteous and yet somehow chilly; Fermi is reticent and passive; Szilard is an overbearing, egotistical powerhouse--and in their reactions to their predicament and the world they've arrived in. Szilard soon decides that all-out nuclear war is around the corner, and, having acclimatized himself almost instantly to the information age, launches a media blitz aimed at proving his and the other scientists' legitimacy and calling for nuclear disarmament. Oppenheimer, appalled by the crass commercialism and ugliness of our era, quietly goes along even as he recedes further and further into his shell of gracious yet impersonal manners. Fermi has a nervous breakdown and seems happiest when he can work, undisturbed, for Ben's landscaping business.
Best of all, Millet avoids the pitfall of turning the scientists' enemies in the US government into mustache-twirling, black hat villains. The government is obviously opposed to the scientists' message, and isn't shy in its attempts to dissuade them from speaking it, but there is a logical progression to its tactics--initially the military is understandably dismissive of the scientists' claims, and ignores their Freedom of Information Act suit to release the real Oppenheimer and Fermi's fingerprints; later they graduate to intimidation, from there to attempting to arrest the scientists under the Patriot Act and finally to all-out violence--that suggests an actual person making decisions at the other end, someone whose morals and outlook are completely abhorrent, but who is nevertheless recognizably human, and all the more terrifying and infuriating for being so. The same, unfortunately, can't be said of the evangelical group whose sheer force of numbers eventually gives them control of the disarmament campaign, and whose members seem more interested in the scientists as harbingers of the Rapture than in bringing about world peace. Millet veers quite close to caricature in her depiction of these characters, particularly near the end of the novel when they resort to violence to achieve their aims (although, in all fairness, caricaturing the more fanatical kind of fundamentalist Christian is often redundant).
Interspersed with the narrative of the scientists' progress towards Washington are factoids about the Manhattan Project, the process by which the decision to drop the bomb on Japan was made, the effects of the atomic explosion on Hiroshima, and, most terrifyingly, of nuclear tests on the inhabitants of Pacific islands, as well as Alaska and remote parts of Russia. Info-dumping is, of course, a much-maligned SFnal practice, but like Jan Morris Millet gets away with it precisely because she doesn't try to ameliorate its effect. She baldly interrupts her narrative for the sake of giving her readers a history lesson, and her choice not to conceal her purpose makes these interludes palatable, and even fascinating. They are also, in their breathtaking absurdity, quite funny--"...from the informational materials of the Nevada Test Site: Pregnant women are discouraged from participating in Test Site tours because of the long bus ride and uneven terrain." One is reminded of Terry Pratchett's oft-repeated claim that he would write a book about his experiences as a press officer for a nuclear oversight board if he thought anyone would believe him. The slide into absurdity also occurs quite often in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart's narrative chapters, whether it's Szilard boasting about his Grand Theft Auto skills or the drugged exclamations of the scientists' hippie admirers. Once again, Millet keeps her hand firmly on the tiller. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is a funny novel without descending into farce.
Towards the end of the novel, Millet suffers what I believe is a crucial failure of nerve, although she might argue she is simply acting in service of her novel's message. The scientists and their entourage arrive in Washington and stage a huge demonstration, which is disrupted when both the government and the evangelicals decide to use violence to silence the scientists' call for peace. Just as they are about to be overrun, the scientists are swept away by birds--taken, one assumes, bodily into heaven. And then everything goes back to normal. The crowds disperse, the members of the scientists' entourage go back to wherever they came from, the usual disclaimers and disavowals are issued from above, and the status quo is restored. After everything she's put us through, after the miraculous, hilarious, heartrending odyssey she's carried us off on, all Millet can offer by way of a crescendo is a reset button. Nuclear war might very well be imminent, but then again it might not be--which has been the case for fifty years.
Clearly, Millet is making the point that, for most of us, the ability to ignore the fantastic and awesome truths about our world--the imminence of nuclear annihilation, or the dangers of global warming, or the provable existence of an interventionist God--is a necessary prerequisite for normal function. The people who, like Ann and Ben, acknowledge what they've experienced over the course of the novel, find themselves unsuited for life in the world. It is this necessary obliviousness, Millet seems to be saying, that may very well doom us all to one of the many ways in which the world might come to an end. Whether or not Oh Pure and Radiant Heart works as a political novel (some might argue that it is, if not facile, at least a great deal of hullabaloo over a fairly simple message), I think this final choice on Millet's part renders it an unsuccessful work of science fiction.
At the risk of venturing into the definitional argument, I think it's possible to say that SF is fundamentally about change, about envisioning the ways in which the future is going to be different. Millet refuses to take this step. Whether or not you believe that it altered the metaphysical nature of the universe, there's no denying that the first coming had an incalculable impact on every aspect of human existence. There's no indication that the second coming will have any such effect on the world of Millet's novel--in fact, it can't, because Millet's message is dependent on the restoration of the status quo, on the absence of change. In spite of this problematic ending, however, there is enough that's remarkable about Oh Pure and Radiant Heart to mark it out as one of the finest, most intelligent and most beautifully written novels I've read this year, and while it probably doesn't belong on the shortlist for a science fiction award, it is worthy of recognition and acclaim.
In a blog entry dated April 3rd, 2007, M. John Harrison wrote that he wouldn't like being called a "grand old man of SF." One hopes that Harrison was being sincere, as, no offense intended, I really don't think he has anything to worry about. His novels are too harsh, too bleak, too demanding, to ever garner the kind of mainstream acceptance that is a prerequisite to the title he seems to find so repulsive. What Harrison may well find himself being called--what, in certain circles, he is already being referred to as today--is SF's conscience, the man who points out the genre's fundamental fallacies, its promise of a rational, solvable, comprehensible and controllable universe. In Harrison's novels, people who believe that they can escape into wonder are either doomed to a life of crushing ordinariness or consumed by strangeness. Others, who seek to dominate their surroundings through rational investigation, are destroyed by the grandeur they seek to control.
In 2002, Harrison published Light (which was nominated for--and should have won--the 2003 Clarke award), a breathtaking space opera which ended on a curious and atypical note of hope and forgiveness. Nova Swing, a companion piece to Light which takes place in the same universe, might be seen as Harrison's attempt to back away from this seeming change of heart, but its more quiet benevolence very nearly puts Light to shame, making it seem almost bombastic in comparison.
Nova Swing 's plot borrows heavily from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's 1971 novel Roadside Picnic, in which an alien visitation litters the Earth with zones of otherness into which humans venture, seeking to understand the aliens and their motivations. In Nova Swing , the otherness is the result of a piece of the Kefahuchi Tract--an area of space whose inscrutability drove the actions of Light 's protagonists, at whose borders humanity has stopped in bewilderment--crashing down in the middle of the city Saudade. As soon as the smoke clears, adventurers made their way into the 'event site', seeking to map it and sometimes returning with alien artifacts which either melted away or turned out to be infected with 'code'--as one of the earliest explorers, Emil Bonaventure, calls it, daughter-code--which alters and makes alien anything it comes into contact with.
Harrison's first twist on the Strugatskys' story is his choice to retell it within the conventions of the noir detective genre. You've got your damaged PI--Vic Serotonin, formerly an explorer of the event site and now a tour guide, leading the rich and bored who tour the Kefahuchi Tract's borders safely into and (sometimes) out of the site--your femme fatale--Elizabeth Kielar, who at first appears to be merely another of those bored tourists but who turns out to want far more from the site, and from Vic himself--and your dogged police detective--Lens Aschemann, tasked with preventing expeditions like Vic's, whose obsession with the death of his wife is transforming into an obsession with the site--as well as a host of banged-up has-beens, pickled by alcohol and made timid by one too many knocks to the head or heart. Saudade itself might, but for one or two slightly futuristic touches and the occasional reference to the more overtly SFnal universe that surrounds it, have been lifted whole out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Its shabbiness and its beauty, its bright lights and snappy music, the excited screams and the tang of fresh blood emerging from its fighting arenas all seem to belong to an era not far-flung but bygone. It's a choice that might easily jettison readers out of the novel. Does one accept, for example, that Aschemann drives a pink Cadillac convertible? To my mind, Nova Swing works in spite of its incongruous set dressing because there is never a sense that Harrison is being lazy. His fusion of the future and the past is meticulously detailed, an original creation rather than an attempt to ride the coattails of the writers whose vocabulary and stylistic choices make up noir's DNA.
The bar was about halfway down Straint, a cluttered, narrowish street of two-storey buildings, along which two out of three had their windows boarded up. Like all the streets in that part of Saudade, Straint was full of cats, especially at dawn and dusk, when they went in and out of the event site. As if in acknowledgment, the bar was called Black Cat White Cat. It featured a zinc counter slightly too high for comfort. A row of bottles which contained liquids of unlikely colors. A few tables. The long window steamed up easily, but no one but Antoyne cared. In the morning the bar smelled of last night's garlic. Some mornings it smelled of mould too, as if something had crept out of the event aureole in the dark and, after a few attempts to breathe the air in the bar, died underneath a corner table. Shadow operators hung high up in the join between the walls and the ceiling, like cobwebs. There wasn't much for them to do.
Harrison's second deviation from the Strugatskys' original concept is his focus on tourism, which he views as an attempt to domesticate the alien, to make it more like ourselves (this, of course, recalls Jan Morris's take on the same topic in Hav). The people Vic takes into the event site aren't even interested in conquering it as he wishes to do. They simply want to have seen it, perhaps simply to tick it off a list. Many of them don't even want to go inside.
They never got any further than the Lots. They had sex with you in open view of the thing out there -- as if that was how they understood it; not as a state of affairs but as a live thing, perhaps even a conscious thing, they wanted it to be watching when they came -- and then didn't speak on the way back. It was just a choice that made life more interesting.
At the same time, Aschemann discovers a kind of reverse tourism. Inhabitants of the event site--creatures who look human but almost certainly aren't--are venturing into Saudade, exploring its bars, tapping their feet to its music, and, yes, having sex. It's here that I feel Harrison allows his social criticism to overwhelm the integrity of his story, as the same narrative that dismisses the human tourists as emotionally bankrupt affectionately embraces the reverse tourists. The very glimpse of them is uplifting, an unexpected gift, like catching sight of fox cubs or a double rainbow. The possibility that the alien tourists are just as bored as Vic's clients, that their forays into Saudade are just as much of a consequence-free escape, a choice that makes life more interesting, is never even considered.
The urge to experience without cost or consequence, as well as the urge to comprehend the unknown without any alteration to the self, are frequently criticized in Harrison's novels ... Nova Swing diverges from [Harrison's earlier work], however, in positing a third alternative. If ignoring the existence of the Other is wrong, and absorbing the Other into the Self is impracticable (and, perhaps, also wrong), there still remains the possibility of allowing the Other to absorb the Self.
Especially given the prevailing opinion that this year's Clarke decision was a two-man race between Harrison and Jon Courtenay Grimwood, it's interesting to note that Nova Swing is in many ways the anti- End of the World Blues. Both novels are steeped in the noir tradition, and pit their anti-hero against a host of enemies from both sides of the legal divide--on top of Aschemann, Vic has to deal with the well-connected operator Paulie De Raad, to whom he sells a site artifact, and from whom he is forced to flee once that artifact turns out to be infected with daughter-code--but whereas Grimwood takes his noir premise to the conclusion demanded by its genre's conventions, and solves his protagonist's problems through violence, Harrison's characters seek to avoid confrontation (Aschemann in particular is almost obsequious towards the criminals he pursues, and frantic to avoid harming the reverse tourists, much to the confusion and frustration of his assistant). When that confrontation finally comes, it is messy and ineffectual, doing very little to affect the status quo except for giving Vic, and later Aschemann, the opportunity to escape their proscribed roles as rational, pro-active males, and allow themselves to be subsumed by the event site.
Nova Swing also starts out, much like End of the World Blues, sidelining its female characters, whose choices are limited by the men who surround them and by their own unwillingness to take action. Once again, unlike Grimwood Harrison doesn't predicate the female characters' salvation on the willingness of a man to effect it. In fact, it is only once the men are out of the way--once they allow themselves to be consumed by the event site--that the women in their lives can break free. At the end of Nova Swing the neglected girlfriends, unappreciated daughters, washed up bar-owners and aging floozies who make up the wallpaper of Vic and Aschemann's existence--the women who, like the event site itself, they could never comprehend or fully control--simply walk away, changing those aspects of their lives that can be changed and accepting those that can't be, like the mystery of the event site.
There is, obviously, much that's problematic about Harrison's choice to correlate gender to the ability to accept the existence of the unknowable. It buys into stereotypes of the male obsession with conquest and female intuitiveness. (There are exceptions to both gender stereotypes. Aschemann's female assistant inherits his obsession with the site, and Fat Antoyne, Vic's friend and sometimes partner-in-crime, surrenders his fascination with the site, finds love and a new calling in life.) The reader might also, and quite understandably, recoil from Vic and Aschemann's fate, feeling that they had been unfairly punished for the all-too human desire to understand--a failing common to both genders. That said, the very fact that Nova Swing suggests the possibility of happiness--albeit a bittersweet, costly, kind of happiness--is so revolutionary that it overshadows these concerns. In much of Harrison's earlier work, there isn't even a possibility of such a transformation--his characters are doomed to mundaneness whether they like it or not. Though we may recoil at the choice Vic and Aschemann make at the end of the novel, there is no denying that the mere act of offering it to them is an act of benevolence on Harrison's part.
Light ended with a well-meaning (though not entirely sane) alien granting its characters their fondest wishes--freedom from the consequences of a life-altering choice, death, the chance to go where no man has gone before--as well as the promise that everything was about to change. It's an ending that suited the story preceding it, a larger-than-life adventure spanning centuries and galaxies. Nova Swing tells a more intimate tale, and its ending is, ultimately, a more subtle one than Light's. "None of us is anyone any more. We all lost who we were," Liv Hula, the proprietor of the Black Cat White Cat, tells Fat Antoyne. "But we can all be something else." If they choose to. If they have the courage to either walk away from fantasy or commit themselves to it whole-heartedly. As usual, and as he keeps demanding that we do, in our lives and in the fiction we read and write, Harrison is defying expectations.
And the winner is...
The 2007 Arthur C. Clarke award was announced on May 2nd. The winner was M. John Harrison's Nova Swing . The very worst thing that can be said about Harrison's victory is that it was unsurprising. The next worst, that it was long overdue. Nova Swing is a novel that answers the three questions I posed at the beginning of this review with a resounding 'yes.' It comes from SF, and unlike the admittedly fine outsider works on the ballot it is knowledgeable about the genre's tropes and skillful in employing them. It is also, however, a novel interested in contemplating SF, and is therefore neither reverent towards the genre's underlying conventions, nor does it take them for granted, as some of the insider works nominated this year are prone to doing. It is, in short, the most complete, successful, and accomplished novel on this year's Clarke shortlist, and a damn fine novel to boot. My congratulations to Mr. Harrison, and to the Clarke judges for a job well done.
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© Abigail Nussbaum 23 June 2007