Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Clarke shortlist 2016 - Part 2 (Okorafor, Tchaikovsky & Hutchinson)


   There are times when all manner of THINGS feel pointless and even a little macabre. I feel this a lot at the moment especially in the light of the UK's referendum result: as racists and fascists become emboldened and as millions fear for their futures; as the Labour right capitulates to that rightward momentum rather than back Corbyn and some principled politics; as refugees are ignored and ostracised; as Trump lies and breeds hatred. Hell, it would be a very long list if I carried on. So this review doesn't feel like a very important thing right now. That said the three books speak to me a little nonetheless. Dave Hutchinson's book is about Europe, nations, imperialism and much more. His trilogy feels more timely than ever. Adrian Tchaikovsky's novel of wonder ends with a heartfelt plea for empathy and understanding. We need those simple things more than ever right now. And though I can't connect to Okorafor's novel as others have I suspect it will make many readers feel represented and give voice to their anger and pain.

Part 2

  As I thought of how to introduce these reviews I realised my responses to books come in three main categories (though of course it is more of a spectrum): 1) the first is a kind of excited puppy response as in 'Holy Crapola Batman' that is SO good. It's kind of like a phwoah! Most of those books have STUFF - usually a mixture of content, form, style, tone that I might find difficult to parse but are, at the same time, deeply pleasurable. I'd characterise these texts as having an overabundance perhaps: they are complex and they are plentiful. That said, every now and then my excited puppy response comes from a text that is modest but perfectly achieved: that's great too. I don't want to harp on about my preferred list but all of those texts fit in to this wow category.

   Next come the books that I think I understand fairly well on a first reading and that I can admire but wish for a little more. Or rather, more often than not, a little less: a little less obviousness, a little less direction, a little less repetition of the stuff that I need to remember, a little less telling; and often these days a few less pages too.

   The third category encompasses the texts that are bad, mediocre or dull, that are obviously reactionary, that perhaps desperately want to teach me something (I usually already know). They are not all terrible but if vaguely enjoyable then instantly forgettable. I've got to the stage where thankfully I don't have to read too much of the this category: I'm discerning, I've been reading a long time and I have little patience!
   If the first three texts fit too easily in to that third category - and sorry I don't mean to be unkind or dismissive - then the other three are a little harder to pin down. First and foremost I'm glad I read them. You'll find I'm still grumpy about The Book of Phoenix but in many respects it feels like the YA text that the judges seemed to want and at least it has the merits of a crazy kind of energy and righteous politics. I wonder too if Okorofor just isn't for me. I admire Binti but didn't really get on with Lagoon either.  I have however found a lot to admire about the novels by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Dave Hutchinson. 

As with Part 1 I will assume you've read the books.

The Book of Phoenix

   So, I'm not usually shy about criticising books and films but on this occasion I am, a little. Various people whose opinions I respect like this book a LOT - see From couch to moon and Ana at The Book Smugglers for example. I spent an hour reading the overwhelmingly positive set of reviews on Goodreads too to see if I could identify what I was missing. I understand and appreciate many of the sentiments I found but still feel like I was reading a different book.

   These are some of the words I found when I looked back through my notes attached to various passages and paragraphs: guileless, rough-hewn, wholesome, juvenile, outlandish, overwrought, weirdly formal, stilted, raw, angry, righteous, histrionic, dull, crude, portentous. Not good really!  Most of those feelings and descriptions related to style. This, for instance is just pure melodrama: “No! Get out of my HOUSE!” he screamed. “You’ve taken enough from me! You will NEVER have her.” Tears flew from his eyes, spittle from his lips. He turned to me, his eye twitching and blazing with warrior’s blood and rage. “I won’t let them take you, Okore.” (81) And this, repetitive and awkward: "This gentle, powerful man who’d understood matter so profoundly that it allowed him to pass through it. How could they kill him? Why?" (214). Elsewhere Phoenix's assertions just come across as bombastic and unnecessary: "I could have resisted Sarah. I was certainly stronger than she. But in me, no matter how hopeless I feel, is the instinct to survive" (76) and on the same page: "The smell of exhaust filled the car. I hated that smell. It was the smell of self-inflicted death." Perhaps some of this naivety and unevenness is meant to give voice to the discrepancies in Phoenix's age but if so then it was a misjudgement. 

   And plot wise it's a bit messy and episodic. The worst section is the middle when Phoenix, Saeed and Mmuo are in New York and in the Library of Congress - it's oddly dull and awkward. There are sentences like this: "My eyes were watering from the stress of what I’d just read about Mmuo. Had they really peeled away all of his already special skin, injected it with some sort of sentient molecular shifting compound and then grafted it back on?" (141) Straight out of the comic book of nonsense methinks. Furthermore, for large sections of the novel its heroes are virtually omnipotent so that plot contrivances can be explained away with some new power or other - a situation I find a complete bore. I'm fine without plot but if it is vaguely irrelevant for your purposes then there must be a more elegant way to negotiate it than this. 

   But now take a look at Brit Mandelo's review for Tor because she sees a book I would love to read: an urgent, political novel that avoids becoming a tract. Yet for me the novel often felt unsophisticated and obvious, like being smashed and thrown around by the Hulk. The Book of Phoenix has lots to say about contemporary geopolitics, global capital and the state of the world, the unbridled greed and inhumanity of corporate capitalism, the intersections of racism and sexism with inequality and class tensions, the catastrophic consequences waiting around the corner unless a fight back begins. Can or should we have all these elements in a novel? Of course!! But don't they require estranging metaphors, subtlety, symbolism that seeps down deep into the unconscious and won't let go.... or else, all too easily, they can end up as simplistic and pious - or else, you only succeed in preaching to the converted. And unfortunately the novel's answer is the same one given by numerous superhero narratives since their inception: Phoenix, taking on the role of villain must obliterate everything so that humanity might start again. That it is an African woman doing this, and that Okorafor is being somewhat playful, doesn't take away from the fact that revolution is figured as destruction, that it can only be implemented by powerful individuals and that it is seemingly everyone's responsibility that the world is in such a terrible state. Perhaps for some this will be read as a cry of pain and revolt for large sections of the world that aren't given a voice and whose history is forgotten or rewritten. Perhaps others will accept that Phoenix is the consequence rather than the cause, that her character literalises Armageddon and the hope of renewal.  But I can't accept that. To me her actions signify nihilism, moralism and a bourgeois outlook. It's too attached to the ideology of despair and a contempt for any kind of complex solution. God, why can't people get organised in one of these texts, smash the bastards and forge something new? Has all that anti-communist propaganda seeped so far into the American psyche that it can only see and imagine so narrowly? It reminds me of similar concerns and feelings when I finished The Fifth Season though I loved Jemisin's novel. Furthermore the elements of fable and the text's understanding of myths and the stories we believe about ourselves just don't offset its comic book simplicity. 

   And yet The Book of Phoenix is such an odd book. And odd is usually a good thing: The X-Files meets X Men or in this case African X Woman. I applaud Okorafor's desire to give a powerful voice to an African woman and I think the better moments are when she writes about the history of slavery and colonialism, and the exploitation of Africa - it's people, it's resources and its culture. And there's certainly energy here, and creativity, and a kind of power - a righteous anger that I could get behind at times. When Phoenix reports on Seven's murder and the destruction of the Backbone it speaks directly to the schizoid, and very dangerous, nature of our times: "Why hadn’t any of those people considered the damage such a huge thing would inflict when it fell? This was fear. And guilt. This was people scratching at their flesh to excise a demon so deep within that it was beyond their grasp." (196). That one passage almost makes it all worthwhile. It manages to be moving too especially when Phoenix visits her mother. 

   Even if I'm not sure the text earns those moments of grace. 

   One of the other things I often liked was how visual it was: "Thick vines and even tree roots quickly crept, stretched and blocked the elevator door. Leaves, branches and stems grew so thick around the guards to my right that they were blocked from view." (26). Many sections like this would work wonderfully well imagined as a comic or graphic novel. I suspect it would suit the declamatory tone too.

   There are also some reasonable meta moments: “The beginning and the end always matter.” (176) and the framing devices succeed in complicating the text a little. But do they make The Book of Phoenix a pleasing puzzle - a slidey, slippery thing to resist the reader? Does the mischievousness invocation of Roland Barthes work? The answer for me, as with so much of the text is not really. It's not earned. There are too many points where Phoenix is telling me what to think and feel. It often feels far too literal.  

  Other readers are obviously seeing something profoundly different in Okorafor's prose and storytelling style. Perhaps I just can't get along with her sensibility? It's a book I didn't enjoy very much but it's unusual and ambitious. I can see why someone would want to reread it and discuss it. 

Children of Time

   Children of Time is I suppose quite a traditional SF text - a novel of wonder and ideas that nods and winks to lots of other bits of SF knocking around in my brain. There was little that annoyed me and much that I enjoyed. Tchaikovsky shows a great deal of skill and ingenuity in holding the two strands of his narrative together. If someone were trying to write SF I suspect they could revisit this novel again and again to learn how to write about complex ideas with clarity and simplicity. 

   Just a few thoughts then. First there are some GREAT images and scenes in this novel. The human left to live on the spider's world as an exhibit, a zoo animal. Done in just a few paragraphs but long lasting in the desolate impression it leaves. The oddly moving scene when Fabian sacrifices himself to save Portia in the Space Nest (487). Holsten's moving, frantic speech when he has been woken up yet again: "‘What is it about us that we cannot live together in this fucking eggshell ship without tearing at each other? That we have to try and control one another and lie to one another and hurt one another? Who are you that you’re telling me where I have to be and what to do? What are you doing to the poor Gilgamesh? Where did all you freaks come from?'" (439) Just a little bit Planet of the Apes I thought. Also there are some lovely, elegant passages in the spider sections where genetic determinism and evolutionary psychology are questioned quite effectively (see 361 for example). Always a good thing!

- Another book about the catastrophic future of humans? Is there any other way of imagining at the moment? Can there be, should there be more? Don't know, but I think of this book sitting happily beside Aurora and Clade this year - there's space for all three. 
- The dominance of the females in the spider society is used to draw out the obvious inequality of our own sexual relations. Good, but does the metaphor help us to understand inequality and oppression with greater depth or profundity? Probably not, but if these points are somewhat obvious and didactic they are earnest and well done nonetheless. 
- Just as Holsten bemoans their efforts as too closely tied to the mistakes and evolution of the Old Empire - Homo sapiens and our forbears - then does Tchaikovsky sometimes veer too close to the formulaic as he imagines the evolution of the spiders? In my most cynical moments I couldn't help but think of the stages of Sid Meier's Civilisation game at certain points - rather than their historical counterpoints - as the spiders seemed to go through quite distinct phases. But there are also playful and ironic notes to it all. The text wears its understanding and knowledge lightly and for the most part I really enjoyed these sections. So no massive doubts and the horrible, cynical side of the Beniston brain was silenced fairly easily.
   Children of Time is not always subtle but is skilfully achieved. It is plaintive, deeply humane and often ambitious. Tchaikovsky could have misjudged so much but again and again he gets it right. Just consider the fantastic moment when Karst and his crew begin to fight the spiders on the hull of the ship. Briefly you are excited and complicit in wanting to shoot those horrible alien things - you can happily have your "game over man, game over" moment. But then you are forced to admire the ingenuity of the 'alien' and to see from their point of view - it is genuinely thrilling. 

   This novel fits into my "modest but perfectly executed" category. My friend was disappointed with the ending. I think he wanted Tchaikovsky to follow through on the dark heart of his story - of humans unable to do anything other than destroy themselves and others but, even if a little cliched, I loved it. It's the book, along with Ancilary Justice, I'll be recommending to SF newbies for quite a while I suspect. 

Europe at Midnight

    I wrote about Hutchinson's excellent novel at length earlier in the year. It's a bit messy and as with most things I write here, it would have benefitted from a little more time and care but I stand by both the praise and the criticism. In addition I would recommend Helen Marshall's excellent review in the LARB. 

The winner

   I'll be in Greece volunteering in a refugee camp when the winner is announced and hopefully full to the brim with more important things. That said if Smythe, Pears or Chambers win I will probably spontaneously combust through anger and, unfortunately, a measure of contempt. In this 30th anniversary the judges had the opportunity to do so much more - to reward all kinds of skill, ambition and exuberance or to do something completely different - perhaps a list of all women. Readers hoping to experience the best of what SF has to offer has been ill-served by this shortlist yet I'm fairly sure anyone will find enough complexity, to enjoy, admire and discuss, in the novels by Okorafor, Tchaikovsky and Hutchinson. For what it's worth I think Hutchinson should win.

   In what I can only think of as a weird kind of revenge I'm rereading Alexis Wright's astonishing The Swan Book. It's making my head fizz, soar and crack. Phwoah!

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