Speculations on Speculative Fiction: Is This Alastair Reynolds’s Most Political Novel?

Elysium Fire coverElysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds is a Brexit novel. Not in the sense of, say, how Dave Hutchinson’s Europe books (2014, 2015, 2016) captured the zeitgeist of the populist, Balkanizational energies which prefigured the referendum. Or not in the way literary fiction like Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016) uses the referendum aftermath as a backdrop for the relationship between characters. No, Elysium Fire is more focused than that, explicitly concerned as it is with voter manipulation in a society that prides itself on abiding by ‘the will of the people’ (158) and offering us a villain who, with shades of so many prominent Brexiters, is the scion of privilege rather than ‘the common man he makes out’ to be (15). In the process, Reynolds tackles the inherent inconsistencies of the Brexit movement specifically, as well as, in a more general sense, the manner by which voters making bad choices are the Achilles’ heel of otherwise robust democratic systems. To the author’s credit, he does not settle for any easy answers…

Please note: this post contains SPOILERS from here on out…

A superbly paced sequel to The Prefect (2007; now retitled Aurora Rising), Elysium Fire is essentially a police procedural – ‘A Prefect Dreyfus Emergency’ as the new series banner attests – set in the ‘Glitter Band’, a ring of ten thousand orbital habitats around the plant Yellowstone. Within the wider fictional history of Reynolds’s Revelation Space series, the Glitter Band is humanity’s Belle Epoque and home to about ‘one hundred million living souls’ (1). Each habitat is a world in its own right, each a place with its ‘own name and customs’ (1) yet all are united by a common belief in ‘Demarchist’ principles, in the sanctity of universal suffrage. Every Glitter Band citizen is equipped with neural implants which poll them constantly on ‘every conceivable matter’ and through which ‘the process of participation became as habitual as breathing’ (2). The integrity of this system is overseen by a limited force of ‘Prefects’ such as series protagonist Tom Dreyfus, an independent monitoring taskforce – part police, part tech-support – who might best be thought of as lightly armed returning officers.

Yet the accepted utopian conception of the Glitter Band – where ‘wealth and power were in almost limitless abundance’ (1) – has been upset. Public confidence in the Prefects and in the security of the Glitter Band has been damaged by the so-called Aurora Crisis of the preceding novel, and this has allowed for the emergence of other narratives. Specifically it has allowed room for a breakaway movement led by one Devon Garlin. As if to hammer home the Brexit comparison, our first glimpse of Garlin – ‘not the only figure associated with the breakaway movement, but he was by far the most influential and outspoken’ (14) – occurs in a kind of idealised version of rural England which could not be further removed from the realities of a high-tech and highly connected inter-orbital economy. He makes his initial bid at separatism on a habitat where ‘modest, stone-built homes dotted a gentle hillside, with smoke curling up from their chimneys. A waterwheel turned next to a mill, and off in the distance two woodcutters were at work with manual saws’ (11). ‘We surrendered our sovereignty,’ he tells the inhabitants of the Glitter Band as though reading from a UKIP manifesto (13). He maintains that separatist habitats are – stop me if you have heard this one before – ‘taking back control’ (13): ‘Control to manage their affairs in a way that suits their needs, not those of some distant, disconnected network of overseers’ (13). Thus Garlin sets himself up as ‘the voice of the people’ (15) and surrounds himself with ‘common thugs and bully-boys’ (287) as his ideas take ‘a toxic, ineradicable hold’ on the wider population (14).

I will resist the temptation to attribute aspects of Garlin’s background – the wealth, the private education, the supposed historic linage – to specific real-life figures from the Brexit movement but, suffice to say, the character emerges as a composite of the current British political rogue’s gallery. Yet Reynolds grants Garlin a far more interesting and compelling backstory than the Johnsons and Farages and Rees-Moggs of the world. Indeed, one could argue that Garlin, though despised by the Prefects as someone ‘who disseminates lies and half-truths for their own ends’ (129), is in fact Elysium Fire’s most engaging character and, rather than simple villain, is a true tragic antagonist compelled by a mix of idealism and circumstances beyond his control. This is never clearer than in the strand of the novel which follows his childhood (on a landed estate, of course) growing up with his brother Caleb in a brilliantly warped re-imagining of the Cain and Abel story (pleasantly eschewing a one-to-one match-up for a remix of elements such as each brother making sacrifices of sorts to prove themselves; one being favoured by the god-like powers guiding them; a visible mark set upon one who is exiled after a fashion, and so on). Reynolds transforms this straightforward story into a rich and multi-layered personal history for Garlin, complicated by instances of targeted amnesia and, in Brexiter fashion, a conviction that he recalls an almost mythological version of history (in this case the near legendary ‘Amerikano’ era of early interstellar colonisation). These inconstancies are eventually unsustainable for the character, who must in the end confront himself – in the most direct sense imaginable – when it is revealed that Julius is actually Caleb who has had his memories rewritten by the real Julius.

Such is the division and confusion of Garlin’s true self (echoing divided characters found elsewhere in Reynolds’s work such as the Ness sisters of 2016’s Revenger, Tanner Mirabel in 2001’s Chasm City, or the Chiku Akinya clones of 2013’s On the Steel Breeze) that, by Elysium Fire’s conclusion, even the identification of Julius and Caleb has been thrown into doubt as the separatist finds ‘an ending of sorts’ (391) in a union with his brother, their very bodies merging in a reckoning which is both as ambiguously ironic as it is ironically inevitable. For the reader, such irony has perhaps been foreshadowed by the chosen names (which are in fact his two middle names) of the novel’s separatist-in-a-time-of-Brexit: a merging of Devon, a county in southwest England, and Garlin, a commune in south-western France. The result is a character constructed, fittingly, to perform double duty. On the one hand Garlin, uncovering his true identity in the pursuit of his breakaway agenda, comes to embody the perceived dissolution of personal and national narrative certainty which some have glimpsed behind the Brexit movement. On the other hand, his very name announces the inescapability of blended European identity to the reader from the outset. In this way Garlin provides the link between the political allegory of the novel’s B-plot – the separatist movement – and its more recognisably science fictional A-plot, an investigation into a spat of citizens’ heads melting down (if ever there was a metaphor for the Brexit campaign…) as neurological implants malfunction across the Glitter Band. In both cases the crime is the tampering with flaws in the fundamental and supposedly inviolable machinery of democracy, that being in the philosophical sense – the idea that democracy can only be preserved if it chooses self-preservation – and in the actual machinery emplaced inside the brains of citizens.

Within the Glitter Band, democratic participation is conducted through a cranial implant known as the ‘Voi kernel’. The device is named after its creator Sandra Voi, the founder of Demarchist society and, not unimportantly, the ancestor of Julius Devon Garlin Voi and his brother Caleb. Aware that ‘true democracy embodies the possibility of its own dissolution’ (158), Voi granted herself and her descendants the ability to ‘guide the hand of democracy, to keep it from undoing itself’ or ‘from making choices it might come to regret’ (158). Voi intended such interventions to be ‘limited to marginal ballots, where a one or two percent shift is all that’s needed’ (184). It is this concept of ‘intervention’, along with the question of who should be allowed to intervene, which underpins the ethical quandary (of which Garlin is but a symptom) at the heart of the novel. The dishonesty within the Voi kernel, within the apparatus of democracy itself, may act, counter-intuitively, as a corrective inversion of the flaw within the righteous idea of democracy, but it is nonetheless a criminal act. Elysium Fire is clear that a ‘guiding hand’ such as Voi’s is a bad idea, offering examples of the corruption and moral bankruptcy of Julian and Caleb’s parents, as well as instances of how the brothers themselves abuse their privileged access, but nonetheless – and this is the uncomfortable but brilliantly executed slight-of-hand which Reynolds orchestrates in Elysium Fire – it is difficult for the reader not to speculate about how easily such a domestic intervention might have spared Britain from its current predicament. Certainly the figures given in the novel – again, a shift of ‘one or two percent’ – imply a certain preoccupation with the contemporaneous Brexit vote carried by a mere 1.9%. Changing such a result would, of course, have been fraud. It would have been unethical. It would in fact have been immoral. But, through the possibilities inherent in the Voi kernel’s backdoor, Elysium Fire nonetheless leaves even the most principled of readers considering if such intervention would have been correct?

That the question of Brexit should so preoccupy Reynolds in his first major work since the referendum is not surprising. After all, before he was a full-time author he spent almost fifteen years working for the European Space Agency in The Netherlands and so it is hardly a leap to wonder if the anger Prefect Dreyfus experiences towards Garlin might be a reflection of the author’s own feelings at the damage being done by Brexit’s ‘shallow populism’ (289)? Yet as a novel rather than a work of political theory or moral instruction, there is no onus on Elysium Fire to offer actionable solutions to the self-inflicted wound that is Brexit. If anything, the novel’s implication that good old-fashioned police work can temper the worst ramifications of ‘populist, rabble-rousing nonsense’ (135) is perhaps too naïve for our current reality (in Dreyfus, Reynolds offers a robust investigative response, a strategy of following the shadowy money funding the breakaway movement, but one sees in real life how ineffectual such a response can too often be). For Dreyfus may be able to resolve his latest emergency by forcing Garlin to confront the inconsistencies in his identity and hence in his philosophy, but one suspects that real life Leave voters cannot be so easily convinced. The Brexit process they have set in motion has already proven too vulnerable to ‘misjudgements… over-reaction on both sides. Regrettable acts. Provocation and counter-provocation. Wiser minds will attempt to slow the fragmentation, even turn it back. But that wheel, once started turning, will not be easy to stop’ (366).

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Speculations on Speculative Fiction: Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie – Genetic Conflict as Genre Conversation?

Acadie_coverSpeculative Fiction and Literary Fiction are two parts of the same organism. Go far enough back and you find that they share a common ancestry (the cornerstones of the traditional western canon – be that the gods of The Odyssey or the ghosts and witches of Shakespeare – are all dependent on elements of Fantasy). Project yourself far enough into the future and you can imagine them becoming the same thing once again (‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ might as well be ‘any sufficiently imaginative Literary Fiction is indistinguishable from Fantasy’). In the present, of course, critics differentiate between them by – if I may generalise – the way one depicts the realistic (or close to it) and the other proposes its own reality entirely, by looking at their rhetorical strategies, by considering their publication contexts, and so on. Readers in turn are guided by personal tastes, by how these books are marketed, and by a whole cultural and commercial architecture which surrounds them. Many people enjoy both Literary Fiction and Fantasy, though often readers tend towards one or the other. The resulting discussions over what a particular book is or isn’t, or about what kind of writing does or does not have merit (ugh) are a facet of not just genre mutability but of how genre itself is disputed territory. I’ve been thinking about this since I read Dave Hutchinson’s excellent Acadie (Tor, 2017) and here I’m going to propose a reading of that text (a reading I might someday expand into a conference paper or something) as a commentary on the fruitlessness of inter-genre squabbling…

Please note: this post contains SPOILERS from here on out…

Acadie centres on Duke, the ‘Mayor’ of a hidden colony in a distant solar system. Presented initially as a kind of Utopian ‘hippie paradise’, the colony was founded by a scientist who wished to explore human potential without regulation or restriction (the inhabitants call themselves ‘The Writers’ on account of their penchant for genetically rewriting themselves  into ‘elves and dwarfs and hobbits and goblins’). Hunting for this secret society is the Earth-based Bureau of Colonization. The Bureau is depicted as a conservative organisation with rules and uniforms and a philosophy based on conformance and good order and doing things by the book. Thus from a certain perspective it is as though the conflict underpinning Acadie is less about genetics than it is about genre; it is as though the author has pitted Fantasy’s impatience with Literary Fiction’s straight-laced realism against LitFic’s exasperation with what they perceive to be Fantasy’s outlandishness. Read in this fashion, Acadie becomes a most curious thing: a Science Fiction novella about the antagonism between Fantasy and Literary Fiction, a story about how disputes over the primacy of one or the other are not just irrelevant but are to the betterment of absolutely no one.

The key to reading Acadie in this way lies with the character who sets the story into motion, a woman who – with shades of JK Rowling, perhaps – provokes ferocious levels of devotion from her acolytes and encourages them to follow in her fantastical ways. The Rowling comparison might seem farfetched but the novella seems to invite the identification by pointedly naming this character ‘Professor Potter’. In Acadie, Potter’s followers become the next generation of ‘Writers’ who, as mentioned, are defined by their obsession with fantasy creatures. Yes there is an occasional Klingon in the mix, along with a Wolverine (‘There’s always one’) and some cartoon characters (their choices emphasising the youth of The Writers, it seems), but for the most part these Writers have remade themselves as creatures straight out of the Fantasy genre: ‘werewolves, orcs, vampires, ghouls, zombies’. The Writers develop technology which is repeatedly described as ‘magic’ and eventually give rise to the ‘Kids’, a further generation who endlessly discuss everything and who, in the end, are revealed to have become grotesque and deformed parodies of their creators’ intentions. Were one inclined, one might see these ‘Kids’ as a comment on fandom’s tendencies towards negativity and toxicity.

By contrast, the Bureau of Colonisation is much more in keeping with Literary Fiction (which, despite protestations form some quarters, is as much a genre as any other kind of writing). The Bureau are all about rules and propriety and cataloguing. Their technology develops slowly and methodically. They don’t do magic, they do ‘lists’ (something which creates a sense of canon). Where the ‘Writers saw the promised land’ in Fantasy Fiction, the Bureau only ‘saw junk’. Nonetheless, it would be incorrect to accuse the Bureau of being unimaginative. A better word might be (despite their mission statement) unadventurous. Their most advanced technology, in a direct literary reference, is a spaceship named Gregor Samsa which appears late in Acadie’s storyline. Here Hutchinson makes overt (by way of another novella) the connection between his story’s fictional tech and what we might think of as literary technology. The Gregor Samsa is capable of manoeuvres other Bureau craft are not. It does so by utilising not a ‘magic’ hyperdrive but something that ‘might be related’ (my emphasis). It is as though the Bureau has made advancements by experimenting – even if only in limited fashion – with aspects of the Colony’s imaginative toys in the same way that Kafka, by transforming his protagonist into a giant insect, prefigured Literary Fiction’s renewed appreciation for the power of the Fantastical.

Between the Colony and the Bureau we have Acadie’s narrator, Duke. Disillusioned with the literary Bureau and reluctantly recruited by the speculative Colony, Duke complicates this reading of the novella by displaying aspects of both in the same way that, say, commercial fiction might (his full name, John Wayne Faraday, evokes the image of electrifying mainstream entertainment for all). Acadie calls him a ‘mundane’, a term still sometimes heard in the spec-fic community to describe someone with no interest in either Science Fiction or Fantasy. When not briefing hobbits and elves about the evacuation of the Colony, Duke is partaking in the stereotypical literary activities of drowning his sorrows in a bar and having flashbacks to the fallout from quitting his job in spectacular style (Duke’s former profession as a lawyer is mentioned several times and, though it has little purpose story-wise, it would not be out of place in a mainstream novel). Nevertheless, Duke’s limitations see him trapped in an endless cycle of destroying himself, repeating himself, and destroying himself again (a comment on the repetitious nature of much commercial fiction, maybe?). Though of course a last-minute reveal (which I won’t spoil) directly rooting this mainstream character in the same imaginative soil as the speculative material around him is a sharp reminder of the novella’s central argumentative thrust: that framing different kinds of stories as being in competition with each other only diminishes all.

Stressing that point, Hutchinson appears unwilling to play favourites. Potter’s children may have broken away from the restrictions of ordinary life on Earth (the bread and butter of literary realism, say) but they have changed too quickly. Their work has become ‘painfully thin’ or ‘grey and listless’ the way subsequent generations of Harry Potter clones fail to replicate the original’s spark. The Bureau, on the other hand, has changed too slowly, and in its reluctance risks stagnation and failure despite the considerable financial support they have received from the government (one might think of the patronage afforded to Literary Fiction even as it suffers from declining readership). What’s more, the climax of Acadie is, figuratively at least, the representatives of different genres arguing that their opponents are not real. Though given that, as in reality, these genres have become muddied and overlapping in the course of the story – literary fiction having undergone a metamorphosis *cough*Kafka*cough* by taking on characteristics of the fantastic, Fantasy having acknowledged the need to recruit ‘new blood, new talent, new perspectives’ from the literary – is there really any difference worth contesting for these characters? Note the intentional similarity in names between the Colony and the Bureau of Colonisation: they might as well be the same thing. Continued discord between them accomplishes nothing even as the conflict between them has flared up ‘fifty times in the past three hundred years or so’. Should one wish to apply the same timeframe to arguments about the respective primacy of Fantasy and Literary writing, one would find this almost precisely delineates a period from the publication of Acadie back to when Daniel Defoe arguably inaugurated the era of the realistic fiction novel in English with Robinson Crusoe in 1719. A coincidence, perhaps, but this entertaining and engaging novella has too many coincidences to be able to discount them all.

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Deleted Notes from a Coma

 

Earlier this month I was notes-from-a-comadelighted to contribute an article to the Irish Times about Mike McCormack’s 2005 novel Notes from a Coma (the story of JJ O’Malley, a troubled young man who volunteers for an experiment in the use of deep coma within the EU penal system).

As with any piece of writing, I am left with a handful of notes and observations that didn’t make the final cut (mostly because they didn’t fit with the direction the piece went in or they exceeded the word count; in one or two cases because they’re nothing more than asides). But I thought it might be fun to share the excised bits and some of the thinking behind them here as a kind of addendum to the article itself …

  • I made an effort to structure the piece as a reflection of the novel, with JJ O’Malley at the literal centre of things. Though that didn’t quite work out! Thus my discussion of how JJ lies at the centre of the book’s singularity is a little more than halfway through the article.
  • The sense of JJ O’Malley as a Jesus figure is compounded by his adopted father and virgin mother… of sorts (the latter being the Romanian nun who runs the orphanage where he lives as an infant).
  • The five narrating characters essentially offer five gospels of JJ O’Malley.
  • On the “contingent riffs” (what people have mistaken for footnotes) which form the broken boundary of McCormack’s effort to inscribe JJ’s story as widely as possible: It is surely no accident that “riffs” (the author’s term) contains a phonetic echo of “rifts”, and so suggests tears in narrative integrity.
  • One striking comment about three-quarters of the way through the novel describes how “fiction and history are put through narrative loops beyond all unravelling”. It serves as a nod to the Irish experimental fiction tradition – which Notes from a Coma is consciously situated in relation to – and, just maybe, specifically to a work like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  • The participants in the novel’s coma remind me of another group of sleepers wired up to machinery aboard a ship (and in their case receiving literal messages from the future): the subjects of Galania’s Exordium experiment in the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds.
  • McCormack’s Louisburgh is an important and increasingly storied part of his fictionalised Mayo topography (look no further than the recent Solar Bones). Given time it could yet become an Irish analogue to something like Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
  • One of the key themes of the novel is the struggle to resolve the spiritual with the scientific: the question of self-definition against “the technological phenomena of image and information dispersal”. Hence the novel’s obsession with ghosts as much as with digitality.
  • Note the book’s original cover (pictured above): A child – “the type of face new Ireland doesn’t wonder at anymore” – considering their own reflection. Or, just maybe, his own ghost…

Notes from a Coma will be republished by Canongate next year as part of their Canongate Classics series.

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I’ve finished reading Revenger by Alastair Reynolds and, look at that, just in time for Talk-Like-a-Pirate-Day…

revengerRevenger
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; £14.99
Review: Val Nolan

When ya first clamp yer lamps upon the nightblack new tome from Welsh landlubber Alastair Reynolds yar grey’d be wonderin’ what it is dis author’d be at. Cove’s tellin’ tall tales in a mismatch ‘a piratespeak ‘n technobabble? Ancient skulls whisperin’ t’each other across the night? Fifty million worldlets circlin’ the Old Sun like islands in the sky? Yet when the book spills its secrets like so much fancy loot ya quickly sight the glimmer o’somethin’ worth yar quoin, a swashbucklin’ ‘n unapologetically pulpy tale filled with sly-eyed characters ‘n daring-do. Whereas the last Reynolds voyage, Poseidon’s Wake, dallied for sure with Gulliver’s Travels, Revenger is more’a piece with Treasure Island: a comin’a’age yarn run through with’a cutlass o’moral ambiguity as the young sisters Adrana ‘n Arafura Ness light out inta the Empty with Cap’n Rackamore in search o’baubles ‘n fortune.

The Ness sisters be green but they both got the aptitudes, the skills for readin’ the alien bones which allow ships to communicate instantly over the interplanetary seas. That makes ‘em valuable to a captain like Rack, atop a’which they’re eager to tackle their share o’hazard by pickin’ over the ruins o’dead worlds shielded behind dense energy fields “like god’s own scab”. But things ain’t all peachy out on the edges o’the Swirly ‘n when their ship is murderously jumped by the ruthless pirate Bosa Sennen, Adrana ‘n Arafura are separated. The former is taken prisoner by the vicious Bosa; the latter carried by fate ‘n law back to her family ‘n an insidious bout o’pharmaceutical gaslightin’.

Things are thus knottier at the sharp end o’the story. The yo-ho-ho o’the opening salvo gives way to a darker aft half and the development o’Arafura, the prim and proper book-learned “girlie”, into just Fura, someone “harder and scowlier and [who] knew what needed to be done…” Her arc rigs a taut plot cuttin’ quick through a universe rich for the narrative plunderin’. Reynolds doesn’t hold back on the blood ‘n violence neither, not when close action is called for, while his taste for “wrong things […] things against the common laws o’nature” seeps through in the “Ghostie gubbins”, the high-tech treasures buried in the shivery places o’long gone civilisations.

Settin’ a course ‘tween the near-future plausibilities o’the Poseidon’s Children trilogy ‘n the cold hard sci-fi Gothicism o’the Revelation Space series, Revenger offers an adventure that t’aint hard to sign aboard for, an engagin’, shipshape, ‘n standalone (for now) Reynolds space opera which the author anchors deep in character. Tis a fast read for all the right reasons ‘n, with more than one unexpected tack that’ll have ya gaspin’ for lungstuff on yer way to its satisfyin’ final port o’call, Revenger is a story that oughta put the spur for more in any reader.

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Ten thoughts about Barkskins by Annie Proulx

BarkskinsFor the last fortnight I have been making my way through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a 700 page generational saga following two North American logging families from the late-1600s to the present day. It’s a novel that brought me terrific enjoyment (it wasn’t unknown for me to wander around the house reading passages aloud to anybody who would listen!) and one which I’m somewhat bereft to have finished (and yet I couldn’t not finish it).

Here are ten things (be warned, *minor* spoilers ensue) that stood out to me about the book…

  • If there is an underlying structure to Barkskins, it goes something like: beautiful prose, beautiful prose, beautiful pose, SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENS, beautiful prose, beautiful prose… In that way the novel has a rhythm. Like chopping a tree until it comes crashing down and then starting again on the next one.
  • Barkskins feels like the LitFic novel you give your friend who only reads Science Fiction: colonists arrive in a distant new world, begin to exploit it to the detriment of the native inhabitants, and along the way develop new social structures and technologies (an unexpected aspect of the novel was how it touched upon the development of things such as modern paper, plywood, and prefabricated buildings). Moreover, Barkskins ends where an environmentally focused science fiction novel, say something by Kim Stanley Robinson, might begin.
  • The novel is a masterclass in showing and telling as appropriate (the “gearbox” approach as I like to think of it). Long stretches of time are covered quickly via telling and then Proulx slows things down to bring to life – to show us – the figures who intrigue her the most. One appreciates the richness of these dramatized sections all the more for the deftly sketched historical backdrop which Proulx plays out their lives against.
  • The reader ends each section reluctant to leave the character(s) they have been following. Thus one begins the next section almost resentful towards the new cast… until Proulx works her magic and one falls in love with/reconnects with the next set of protagonists, ending that section hungry for more, and beginning the cycle anew.
  • This passage:
    Barkskins Page
  • “Ships get built in the woods”. I love that observation.
  • The multitude of characters living through the novel’s three hundred years allows Proulx to explore a whole spectrum of sexualities and relationships. Which she does with maturity and sympathy. It goes a long way towards humanising the book’s protagonists and ensuring that each generation is not merely a carbon copy of their predecessors.
  • The obvious way of summarizing Barkskins is as a novel about the denudation of the vast North American forests but, flipping that around, it is also a story of just how destructive the relentless accumulation of capital can be to both one’s humanity and to the environment.
  • Lavinia Duke is such a wonderful character! This is all.
  • Proulx’s prose is obviously a major draw here but she always remembers that a novel has to not just be beautiful but also to entertain. She therefore weaves an almost pulpish quality into Barkskins, especially as the book progresses: for instance, the reader is regaled with the ghoulish tale of a burning railroad car rolling through America full of charred corpses; a key character freezes to death instantly on the shores of the Great Lakes where their body is left standing like a statue; a mad scientist reveals that his greatest invention is actually just a gigantic block of stone, and so on. Such moments have a borderline Pynchon quality but, simultaneously, one wonders just how many of them are based on real anecdotes which turned up during Proulx’s research…

Last year the English Department where I work asked staff members to recommend a book for a shelf – a miniature library of sorts – from which students could borrow and read. If we do that again this September then I might just name Barkskins as my pick… 700 pages be damned!

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Stephen Baxter’s Titan: Twenty Years Later

TitanIt is almost two decades since Stephen Baxter’s Clarke Award nominated novel Titan (1997) first appeared. I have been reading it over the past week and despite its transformation into “a period-piece, a description of a lost alternate world,” it is impossible not to be struck by the prescience of a novel in which Baxter correctly predicts things like the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia, a widespread American rejection of science, and – in all but name – the rise of Donald Trump.

Set between the early-2000s and the present day, the novel follows an outlandish, years-long crewed mission to confirm signs of life on the titular Saturnian satellite. It is a sprawling, multi-faceted work told from the perspective of nearly a dozen characters including American and Chinese astronauts, beleaguered NASA administrators, Moon-landing veterans, rogue US Air Force officers, scientists, and journalists. Its near six hundred pages are rigorously researched (occasionally to Titan’s detriment) and it displays a strong thematic link to both Baxter’s other NASA novels (Voyage, 1996, and Moonseed, 1998) as well as to later work like 2009’s Ark. Indeed, the unrelenting “squalor and crap of [the characters’] lives aboard the spacecraft” (recounted over long stretches of Titan and Ark) is almost enough to make a person think twice about deep space travel.

Just as uncomfortable is the accuracy by which Baxter predicts contemporary life on Earth from his mid-1990s vantage. “It seemed America was likely to lapse into fundamentalism, and isolationism, and a kind of high-tech Middle Ages,” we are told as the novel charts the rise of a regressive energy which recasts science as a “spiritual dislocation” and sees creationism and Aristotelian physics made cornerstones of school curricula. Yet the eeriest aspect of Baxter’s almost precognitive world-building in Titan is the character of Xavier Maclachlan, an ambitious, rabble-rousing Republican who harnesses popular discontent into a presidential run. Maclachlan is, in essence, Donald Trump: A “nationalist-populist” who promises to “build walls around the nation” both metaphorically and physically.

One cannot help but think of Trump supporters being told to bring their firearms to polling places when reading about “armed militia bands” converging on Washington to support Maclachlan. Like Trump too, Maclachlan’s followers include members of the Ku Klux Klan and there is a rumour that “a former Klan leader was being made ready to become a future White House chief of staff”. Though of course the real clincher is how Maclachlan pushes for “a wall, two thousand miles of it, along the Mexican border, to exclude illegal immigrants”. All of this grants Titan a contemporary feel further bolstered by the fact that much of the book takes place during 2016.

An extended thought experiment as much as a science fiction story – something especially true of the final section – Titan is not a perfect novel (the writing isn’t necessarily Baxter’s strongest) but it is one which wonderfully captures the sense of wonder at exploration and the possibilities of the space programme. Nods to Clarke (a significant influence here) and Bradbury jostle for space alongside references to Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, various incarnations of Star Trek, and other science fiction staples. This is a novel where the characters are in love with the idea of space travel and, in particular, with the heroism of the Apollo era. Still, for all of that, the reality of their experiences is surprisingly downbeat. The back half of the book is relentlessly grim as Baxter’s astronauts struggle to survive first the journey to Saturn and then the sucking methane slush of their new home all while their old one collapses under Maclachlan’s malign influence.

In an afterword from the year of publication, Baxter muses on how the then recent loss of Carl Sagan (who plays a small role in the novel) immediately rendered Titan “an alternate history”. Nonetheless it is the potential future history of the novel’s final fifty pages which seems to have consistently been Titan‘s most divisive element. Depending on your perspective, the book’s conclusion is either a whiplash inducing tonal three-sixty or a textbook example of what The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction memorably called Baxter’s “sweet-tooth for the eschatological climax”. Personally I would place it somewhere in the middle: an ambitious, left-field dénouement which cuts the novel’s hard science with something much closer to the fantastic. It is obviously fuelled by the author’s longstanding interest in evolutionary science (seen again in the stories of, as you might imagine, 2002’s Evolution) and it provides perhaps the happiest ending possible given everything that has come before. Is it a perfect landing? No, but in its messiness and aspiration it is as true to life as anything which Baxter’s astronauts encounter on faraway Titan.

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Thoughts on Emma Newman’s Planetfall

PlanetfallThe affecting, twisty-turny, and beautifully written Planetfall (ROC Publishing) is easy to recommend but difficult to review because, honestly, the less you know going into it then the better your reading experience will be. Personally I knew almost nothing about the story when I began the novel a week-and-a-half ago (I had seen it praised by Gareth L. Powell on Twitter and, honestly, that was good enough for me). I read the first hundred pages or so aboard the train en route to Mancunicon and quickly finished it over the following few days.

This is a very strong novel which consistently surprises the reader despite what, in retrospect, seems to be the inevitability of the story’s trajectory. The protagonist is Renata Ghali, or simply Ren, is a fabrication engineer and one of the leaders of a human colony on an alien planet. Twenty years ago she followed “Pathfinder” Suh-Mi – part scientist, part messiah – to the foot of an alien structure known to the settlers as “God’s City”. Since then Shu-Mi has resided in the city alone while the colonists wait for her return and Ren struggles with the difficult, debilitating truths of life on this otherwise desolate world.

Newman carefully paces Planetfall and builds the novel around a handful of genuine game-changing moments (the first of which is the appearance of a stranger who bears a striking resemblance to Shu-mi despite being far too young to have been part of the initial landing). Such reveals are convincing, with the reader never feeling cheated or mislead. What’s more, they build on one another in organic fashion. The novel is thus a masterclass in using little details to prefigure big developments. It is delicately done – typically arising from Newman’s logical, lyrical worldbuilding – and for the most part it is not apparent until after the event. In that regard, Planetfall is a novel I am already looking forward to rereading.

Indeed, as much as a reread offers the chance to trace Newman’s careful use of foreshadowing, it also offers an opportunity to spend more time with Plenetfall’s complex and realistically rendered protagonist. For it is Ren’s perspective, informed by suspicion and loneliness (and there are good reasons for both of those), which grounds this otherworldly novel. She refers to her own story as a “mosaic” and it is one assembled not just from secrets dating back to the colony’s foundation but from fragments of a heart broken multiple times over. Her narrowly focused first person narration further allows Newman to conceal and manipulate in satisfying fashion.

Some observations:

  • Newman employs something akin to social media throughout the novel but does so in a laudably unobtrusive fashion. Despite the tech underpinning it, it is nothing special; it is simply part of the characters’ lives and how they communicate.
  • Planetfall is, in many ways, like Prometheus done right.
  • The novel is as much an indictment of organised religion as it is an endorsement of faith.
  • If you enjoyed Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation you are likely to find things you will enjoy in Planetfall.
  • This might be the first great novel about 3D printing.
  • Go read it.

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