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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Puppet vies with puppet-master in thrilling cyberpunk debut

A great novel I read over the summer but which I’m only getting around to blogging about now…

Crashing HeavenCrashing Heaven
Al Robertson
Gollancz
Review: Val Nolan

An accountant and a ventriloquist’s dummy walk into a bar. One is an ex-soldier branded a traitor; the other is “a military grade systems infiltration unit” capable of hacking into anything. Such are the heroes – and the term is used loosely in the case of the sociopathic dummy – of Al Robertson’s hugely satisfying cyberpunk debut, a noirish sci-fi detective story pounding its neon beat from grotty backstreets to the minds of gods to the edges of death itself.

Of course, labelling Jack Foster an accountant is selling him short. He was the best forensic auditor there was before being drafted into “the Soft War” against rebel AIs in the outer solar system, at which point he was feared as much by his own side as by the enemy. Thus nodding to the best traditions of crime writing, Robertson portrays Jack as a hard-nosed investigator traumatised by his time on the front and by memories of a botched love-affair back home, an underdog for whom the reader roots more with every beating. But, that said, the real draw here is Hugo Fist.

An offensive weapon “grown” in Jack’s mind itself, the foul-mouthed Fist manifests virtually, with a macabre touch, as a “half a metre of wooden viciousness, all dressed up for an elegant night out”, a pair of “little black polished shoes, a scarlet cummerbund, bright red painted lips, a black bow-tie, dangling unarticulated arms, and varnished shining eyes”. He is both an unqualified bastard and an utterly memorising character.

For now Fist is “caged”, reduced to taunting and chattering inside Jack’s head, but, like most software, he has a licence agreement. When it runs out – and it soon will – Fist will take over Jack’s body and erase the identity of his host. This literal ticking clock grants the novel a propulsive quality and leaves Jack just enough time to return from internment and find out who murdered the woman he loved.

Home, however, is a nauseating futurescape of neoliberalism run amok. With the Earth a toxic ruin ravaged by war machines, humanity shuffles forward aboard an industrialised asteroid known simply as Station. Here they are watched over by the “Pantheon”, sentient corporations who behave somewhere between gangsters and Greek gods. In fact the Pantheon are worshiped by the humans of Station and, in return, grant favours and status to those who please them or prove themselves of use.

Robertson too rewards the reader by way of the attention and detail through which he brings Crashing Heaven to life. His Station blends the decaying urban dystopia of Blade Runner with the overly connected, information saturated world of today. In turn he populates this with cackling mobsters, despised artificial beings, and with eerie “fetches”, those being digital ghosts who mostly exist on the novel’s immersive version of the internet, though some have escaped that restriction.

Discarded into this morass of criminality and corporate skulduggery, Jack and Fist discover that they are both puppets in the wider machinations of the Pantheon. Yes, their seeming powerlessness contrasts starkly with their war record but, when Fist is eventually unleashed, it is everything the reader has been hoping for and the gratifying throw-downs which ensue confirm that, as much as Crashing Heaven is packed with ideas, Robertson also possesses the descriptive muscle to back them up. Indeed, as a consistently arresting and carefully paced novel combining striking characterisation with a masterclass in worldbuilding, the clever, cynical Crashing Heaven might well be the science fiction debut of the year.

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Wry dispatches from a west coast state of mind

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Pond
Claire-Louise Bennett
The Stinging Fly Press; €12.99
Review: Val Nolan

An unnamed woman lives on the edge of a coastal village in the west of Ireland. She reads books about the “gruelling practical exigencies occasioned by confinement”, cultivates “low maintenance crops”, and only rarely experiences “any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk”.

Thus uproarious, digressive, and predicated on a subjective accentuation of meaningless detail, Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut volume succeeds where other contemporary depictions of rural life collapse beneath the weight of their own self-conscious seriousness. It is a work which exists as both a short story collection and as a novel, surely even as a memoir of sorts, a narrative linked by the voice of a narrator for whom the unravelling of “minor foibles is a relevant pursuit”.

Embracing formal experimentation in this fashion grants the volume an usual energy and, though any work pushing fiction in this manner is in danger of confounding reader expectations, Bennett finds balance here in a pleasing back-and-forth between shorter pieces capturing moments of personal significance and longer offerings – stories or chapters as the reader prefers – which yoke the often abstract artistic ambitions of stream-of-consciousness writing to the more mundane trepidations of everyday life.

Her narrator sees the world through “thoroughly square” windows and has an “innate weakness for shabby clothes”. Men and cattle drift through her life, yes, but Bennett’s focus never leaves this woman who is curious in all sense of the word. She displays a “level of intuition” of which it “is impossible for anyone to make anything without mirroring the nascent twists of cosmic upheaval” and, in that way it must be said, is often “highfalutin”. Indeed, the narrator is the type of character who uses “highfalutin” with nonchalance and a total lack of irony.

Her resulting wordiness borders on overt parody of the artistic-temperament, yet Bennett imbues Pond’s narrator with just enough self-reflection to undercut any charge of true pretentiousness. And when she fails to do so – one suspects deliberately – the side-splitting results veer from meditations on the “stigma” of writing in green ink to quasi-Beckettian asides on rural living such as “I am used to vehicles coming up this way. That is something I am used to. And sometimes – though less often – they go down the way, and I’m used to that too”.

This is to say that Pond is a very funny book. It is also one which benefits from being read – and for that matter reread – aloud, perhaps to family or friends, perhaps alone. Only in that way is the slow building avalanche of Bennett’s weird hilarity truly apparent. From a delightful early description of bananas and oatcakes to a letter to a South African company requesting replacement nobs for an “obsolete mini-cooker”, the volume’s defining characteristic is a tendency to ramble which is both ridiculous and ridiculously profound.

Like the bird which falls down its narrator’s chimney, Pond is “a small sharp thing”. The book is “something to do with love. About the essential brutality of love. About those adventurous souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation”. But, at the same time, Bennett consistently roots these desires in her narrator’s shyness and her cockeyed way of looking at the world. It lends the heroine of this highly recommended volume all the tremendous authenticity of a “mind in motion as it railed, proclaimed, recalled, confessed, imagined, and eventually wrung itself out”.

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The importance of human bonds in a world short of people

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel
Picador; £11.99
Review: Val Nolan

On a snowy winter’s evening in Toronto, a famous actor named Arthur Leander dies on stage during a performance of King Lear. As his friends and colleagues gather for a drink to process this event, the author tells us, with astonishing casualness, that “the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city”.

Because the night Arthur dies is the night the “Georgia flu” touches down in North America. Within a day this illness has overwhelmed hospitals and, before too long, the pandemic has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the world’s population. Goodbye air travel, goodbye internet, goodbye antibiotics. It is the ultimate Malthusian check and, in its wake, cities lie empty and survivors wander a desolate Earth. Yet Mandel is less interested in disease vectors than she is in characters and in interrogating the notion of interconnectedness, and that is the great strength of Station Eleven.

Thus when the novel jumps forward twenty years we meet a young woman named Kirsten who, as a child, was on stage during Arthur’s death. Kirsten is now part of a “Travelling Symphony”, assorted performers plying their trade in the string of small settlements along the coast of Lake Michigan. She is considered “the best Shakespearean actress in the territory” but, fittingly for a novel so concerned with the power and legitimacy of popular culture, “her favourite line of text is from Star Trek”.

Her story anchors this carefully and cleverly structured novel which dances back and forth between the recent past of Arthur and his various ex-wives, the near-present in which the flu strikes, and the world two decades hence which is slowly being rebuilt. In between, Mandel treats us to brief glimpses of the horrific years of collapse. Many will consequently draw comparisons with The Road by Cormac McCarthy but, though both novels emphasise the importance of familial bonds and the precariousness of social institutions, Station Eleven is the more generous work.

Moreover, the novel is built like a puzzle with Arthur at its centre, his greatest performance of all being how he ties together the disparate storylines. In the future, Kirsten collects old tabloid articles about him even as the Travelling Symphony finds itself on the wrong side of an eerie – and admittedly somewhat stock – religious cult; in the present, the man who tried to save the great actor struggles with the fact that civilisation has entered its closing act; while in the past, Arthur’s wife Miranda labours over an intensely personal art project, a comic book named Station Eleven.

Mandel reveals more and more connections between the different timeframes as the novel progresses but this never feels forced as the world of these characters is one of coincidence rather than fate. Though the symphony’s final confrontation with the cult feels rushed, the novel builds to a conclusion which is otherwise largely earned, one simultaneously sad and uplifting. It is a serious and realistic affair awash with unexpected “moments of transcendent beauty”.

There are shades of Stephen King (The Stand) and Douglas Coupland (Girlfriend in a Coma), but, ultimately, Station Eleven is entirety Mandel’s own thing. She combines the familiar crossbows of post-apocalyptic fiction with an astute assessment of how important stories – everything from the Bard of Avon to the bridge of a starship – are to the human experience in times of crisis. Her narrative is propulsive but her prose never loses the polish of a gifted writer. The resulting novel is, in a word, unputdownable.

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The aliens are here… and they want to help

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner…

Something Coming Through

Paul McAuley
Gollancz; £16.99
Review: Val Nolan

Paul McAuley’s twentieth novel is the ultimate bailout narrative. Economic collapse, environmental destruction, terrorism, and political extremism have crippled the world, but help is here in the form of the Jackaroo. These secretive aliens “gift” fifteen planets and the means to travel to-and-from them to the human race. It is “a chance to redeem ourselves” however, after much fine talk, all humanity seems to have ended up with are new ways of killing one another.

Thus it is not the aliens which are McAuley’s focus here but characters like Chloe Millar, a sociologist investigating “deep changes in the collective human psyche” caused by the appearance of the Jackaroo. Chloe tracks outbreaks of “people trying to express the new ideas that have infiltrated their minds”, dangerous memes, algorithms, eidolons, and memory fragments spreading like flu. In the process she is drawn into the hunt for a particularly transformative piece of alien technology.

Meanwhile, on one of the fifteen planets, hard-bitten homicide cop Vic Gayle has seen too much to believe that humanity can ever change (“What does it say about us when just about the first thing we do when we reach other worlds is look for stuff to get us high?”). Vic’s beat is Mangala, a “strange, old, vast and mostly empty planet”, a “dry red world like Mars, which is why it had been given one of Mars’s old names”. It is a Wild West of murders, kidnapping, extortion, and all the skulduggery of the new interplanetary drugs trade.

Something Coming Through is therefore as much a detective novel as it is a work of science-fiction, a change of gear after McAuley’s more recent space operas. It is a human story set against a sci-fi backdrop, one which in this case is not that far-fetched. Climate refugees and petty criminals populate the artificial reefs of a flooded London and the dusty streets of Mangala alike; all the while a UKIP style movement calling itself the “Human Decency League” dominates the Earth-side political landscape and regards both the aliens and those investigating them with hostility.

Readers of McAuley’s previous novels will recognise the manner in which he takes an interest in “humanity’s bicameral nature. Love and hate. Phobia and agape. All that jazz”. Like the Jackaroo, he toys with the reader in ways they cannot immediately see. A case in point is the true cost of alien assistance. It is never the primary concern of Chloe or Vic yet it informs everything about their lives, especially as no one knows what happened to the Jackaroo’s previous client races.

For though all fifteen worlds have been occupied multiple times before, the Jackaroo will not say what happened to those species. They are thought to have destroyed themselves, dwindled on account of pronounced culture shock, or even transcended into something beyond understanding. The human race may or may not have been set on a similar path but, by the time Chloe, Vic, or indeed the reader place all the greedy intrigues and manipulations within their larger context, events have taken on a certain inexorable momentum.

McAuley of course knows exactly what he’s doing and so the multiple strands of the story converge in satisfying fashion via not just plot developments but through a clever use of structure (one impossible not to read as a nod to the work of the book’s dedicatee, novelist Alastair Reynolds). The result is a compelling and realistically imagined piece of speculative fiction anchored by weighty contemporary concerns over doing deals with the devil.

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A Character Test for Authors

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner…

On Writers and Writing 

Margaret Atwood
Virago; £9.99
Review: Val Nolan

“Who do you think you are?” Margaret Atwood asks early in this volume. It is a question which frames On Writers and Writing as a challenge to both creators and consumers of literature. Within its pages, Atwood dares authors and audiences to rethink their self-constructed identities and their “position in relation to the rest of humanity”. As such, this collection of essays serves as a witty and cerebral exploration of creative possibilities rather than a text of a dourly didactic nature.

That a writer like Atwood advocates for protean qualities on the part of both creative practitioners and their readerships should not be a surprise. After all, this genre-bending Canuck has won everything from the Arthur C. Clarke Award to the Booker Prize. Best known on this side of the Atlantic for dystopian but prescient work including The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003), she has further made a robust contribution to the critical recognition of Canadian letters as a separate and energetic literary tradition.

The seeds of On Writers and Writing lie in Atwood’s Empson Lectures from fifteen years ago, her contribution to a Cambridge event which, in the proud tradition of academia trying to claim back those whom it once rejected, celebrates William Empson – he of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) – who the university expelled when he was found in possession of contraceptives. Yet the style Atwood adopts here is not as abstract as the volume’s origins might suggest. It is intelligent, yes, but for the most part conversational, often jokey, and closer to an informal sit-down than it is to a scholarly address.

“I am a writer and a reader, and that’s about it,” she says, selling herself quite short but succulently setting out her self-deprecating stall. Here her focus darts frantically around as might one’s eyes in a well-stocked library. Her discussion circles “a set of common themes having to do with the writer,” with their medium and their art. Indeed, in many respects this book is – like her multi-layered historical novel The Blind Assassin (2000) – an effort to understand the character of those who create characters.

Again and again she interrogates the myths we as a society have constructed around the idea of being a writer, our very own “many-headed Hydra” indebted to melodramatic notions of creativity “inherited from the Romantics”. She is, for instance, wary of the way culture fetishizes the artist starving in their garret “like a self-mortifying Christian ascetic of old”. She is acutely aware too of the extent to which creativity is rooted in a more pagan “desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld”; to write is thus to subject one’s self to a little death of sorts, a petite mort which inevitably brings up the eroticized aspects of the creative act.

“It’s a short step from that to the femme fatale” stereotype, be it Salomé or Sylvia Plath, and so the manner in which creative women have long been sexualised by the male establishment out of fear or lust or both. This constraint on the role and position of women in literary circles is a key concern for Atwood. “The word ‘genius’ and the word ‘woman’ don’t really fit together in our language,” she says, “because the kind of eccentricity expected of male ‘geniuses’ would simply result in the label ‘crazy’ should it be practiced by women”.

Of course such issues are not merely theoretical for an author who has lived with their effects for decades. In what is half-way between the book’s moment of deepest frustration and its darkest instance of comedy, she reveals that she withdrew from poetry as a young women after being asked one too many times “not whether I was going to commit suicide, but when”.

Yet as a “highbrow” writer who happens to pen bestsellers (“Not on purpose,” as she allegedly assured a patronising Parisian intellectual), Atwood is also ideally placed to consider the on-again, off-again discord between the genres of literary and commercial fiction. She does so here by examining the sacred or religious function of literature – “Art with a capital A” – and asking if “the mark of a true priest is his lack of interest in money”? This dichotomy of “Apollo vs. Mammon”, as Atwood memorably phrases it, provides an intriguing means of exploring the issue of recompense, one which is too often dismissed as vulgar, occasionally even as prostitution, by the literary community.

“There are,” she says only “four ways of arranging literary worth and money: good books that make money; bad books that make money; good books that don’t make money; bad books that don’t make money.” Is a writer a hack for cranking out “stuff he thought would appeal to his audience”? Obviously not, though while Atwood provides (admittedly exceptional) examples of those who “lived by the pen”, Shakespeare and Dickens among them, she stops short of fully legitimatising art for money’s sake. In that way, On Writers and Writing raises more questions than it answers. But then that is the author’s stated intention: to generate debate and let the reader draw their own conclusion.

First published in 2002 as Negotiating with the Dead, these efforts by Atwood to engender discussion around the mutable nature of professional creative practice reveal a great deal about herself as a thinker, an author and, for that matter, as a voracious reader. Existing Atwoodians will delight in the humour, intelligence, and breadth of reference to be found here, while novice scribblers of all genders and genres are also sure to benefit. Though this book is not a guide to how one might begin writing, its provocative and insightful sketches of the kinds of writers which one could become are arguably of much greater value.

  • This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on 10 January 2015, Weekend, pp.34-35.

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