BSFA Review – Vector #269
In the last issue, I suggested that there was an increasing Transatlantic divide within science fiction. Since then I’ve read two debut SF novels which have further fuelled this belief. Both are published by Night Shade Books in the US but have no UK publisher and, although they are only a mouse click away from the British reader, this at least partially removes them from the discourse. For example, they won’t turn up on the BSFA or Arthur C Clarke Award shortlists because they can’t.
The first of these novels is Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh and there is a small irony here in that the novel is expanded from a short story of the same name which was originally published in this country in Interzone (and shortlisted for the BSFA Award). It is an interesting take on one of the two currently dominant modes of SF: the collapse.
“It’s so hard to believe,” Colin said as we crossed the steaming, empty parking lot toward the bowling alley.
“That we’re poor. That we’re homeless.”
“I mean, we have college degrees,” he said.
“I know,” I said.”
Is this now our default future? Not too long ago the singularity was the next big thing and humanity was potentially unbounded. Now, the idea that things are bad and are just going to keep on getting worse seems less pessimism than realism. This is reflected in the increased popularity of depictions of bleak futures by writers both within and without the science fiction community. I was a judge for last year’s Clarke Award and therefore read pretty much every science fiction novel published in the UK and, along with space operas, such stories made up the biggest chunk of submissions. We used to call such narratives “post-apocalyptic” but these days the term seems both too cataclysmic and too abrupt for the type of fiction that is most commonly being produced. A book like The Road by Cormac McCarthy is anomalous, a throwback; rather than nuclear fire or The Day After Tomorrow ice, the world usually ends not with a bang but a whimper. There is no scourged Earth for our lone protagonists to wander through, no clear before and after, rather they must live through the slow degradation of everything they have known. Energy prices keep increasing, food prices keep increasing, unemployment goes up, homelessness goes up, the weather becomes more and more extreme, disease becomes more and more prevalent. Eventually the strain proves too much and the centre cannot hold: things fall apart. I’ve taken to calling this subgenre simply “collapse”; however, you might just as easily call it “soft apocalypse”.
Jasper is a white American with a college degree who somehow finds himself destitute and living the life of a gypsy. That is McIntosh’s term and deliberately adds a racial element; Jasper’s whiteness has been rescinded and those who have managed to keep a precarious hold on their possessions treat him as they would once have treated immigrants. Indeed, the US apparently has no qualms about rescinding his very citizenship: “They’re deporting homeless US citizens to third world countries along will illegals… They’re trying to defend it as retaliation for poor countries encouraging their people to come here. And they’re getting lots of support from people on the right.”
Starting by deliberately echoing the Great Depression, the novel slips forward in time a couple of years with each chapter. This is a technique used to impressive effect in Steve Amsterdam’s brilliantly titled but wildly uneven collapse novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming, and allows for the fact that the future will undoubtedly be both weird and changeable. Post-apocalypitic literature was a fiction of finality: this is the end, all options are closed down, reduced to the basics. The collapse is more fluid, as the years pass society ebbs and flows as it tries to keep purchase on the concept of civilisation. So Soft Apocalypse whilst there is a focus on ensuring basic needs (water, food, shelter) are met, there is also a focus on things that would be ridiculous luxuries in the post-apocalyptic world (dating, music, education). The sort of things that pre-collapse young people are interested in, in other words.
McIntosh’s biography describes him as a “psychology professor at Georgia Southern University, where he studies Internet dating, and how people’s TV, music, and movie choices are affected by recession and terrorist threats.” Much of this fertile ground is clearly present in the novel and his great achievement is projecting his current milieu into a downwardly spiralling future. But that is also its limitation. Projecting the quarter life crisis of the post-campus novel is something that core SF couldn’t do but once you’ve made that leap there isn’t anywhere else to go. When Jasper speaks it is in a voice we know all too well:
“Sometimes I hated these people, who lived so comfortably while the rest of us barely got by. Maybe I hated them because I always figured I’d be one of them, I don’t know.”
The second of the two books was God’s War by Kameron Hurley which has benefited from liberal online promotion amongst the British science fiction community courtesy of ex-Vector editor Niall Harrison but it remains a novel that is resolutely under the radar. It is a planetary romance, the once popular subgenre that currently finds itself outshone by its well-travelled younger sibling, space opera. The great virtue of space opera is scale, the widescreen baroque as Brian Aldiss brilliantly put it; the planetary romance offers something similar in microcosm, the different cultures and colours packed side-by-side on a globe. In this focus on worldbuilding, the form frequently resembles epic secondary world fantasy (especially since the cultures involved are often at comparable levels of technological advancement). The interplay between fantasy and science fiction is particularly intriguingly in God’s War which critic Farah Mendlesohn has gone so far as to describe as being “sword and sorcery far future fantasy” rather than SF. For me, the novel is clearly and importantly science fiction but has been interestingly filtered through a New Weird sensibility that we would more usually expect to be applied to epic fantasy.
Nasheen and Chenja are the two major powers on the planet of Umayma, both subscribing to slightly different branches of an Islam further filtered through thousands of years of thought and both at war because of this for what is functionally forever. As is traditional, it is young men who are forcibly recruited to feed this machine. In Chenja, this has resulted in a small upper class of old men with dozens of wives. In Nasheen, the prevelance of women on the home front has led to them taking control. This “genocide of gender”, as one character aptly puts it, leads to a matriarchy with no men and a patriarchy with none either.
Nyx is a bel dame, rounding up Nasheenian deserters for the endless war at the front. She is an alpha female, a badass action hero, but not a man with breasts as is so often the way in genre fiction. Earlier in the year an aphorism (or ‘Tweet’, as we call them these days) was floating round the internet wondering: “Why do people say grow some balls? Those things are weak and sensitive. If you want to get tough, grow a cunt. Those things take a pounding.” Nyx would be onboard with that.
When we meet her, she is already ragged; she has just sold her womb and has taken black work in addition to her government contract. The first act ends with her being violently cast out of her murderous sorority and imprisoned. The book returns to her eight years later and, after the density and intensity of the first half, the world becomes a more familiar place. She has assembled a crew and is scratching out a living as a bounty hunter when she is inevitably drawn into a potentially epoch-shattering conspiracy.
It is fair to say that the plot is the most underpowered aspect of God’s War but it is hard to care too much when it is so intellectually and imaginatively stimulating. The science fiction heart of the novel comes through in the intersectionality of Hurley’s work, the way she pushes together and pulls apart huge issues like religion, feminism and warfare. For example, the women of Nasheen claim to love their boys but they idealise them for a supposed virtue that allows them to dehumanise them and ultimately send them to the slaughter, echoing both the way young men are currently treated and reminds us of the way women have similarly been objectified throughout the history. This is melange of ideas is furthered further thickened by the intrusion of the weird; shapeshifters and magicians and insect technology, all with a SF underpinning but used for the same destabilising purpose. The result is a novel that is overwhelming and by the end there is a sense of exhaustion; for Nyx, for the world, for the reader. The sequel, Infidel, was also published this year and opens up the world but is this necessarily a good thing?
Tom Hunter, director of the Clarke Award and BSFA Committee Member Without Portfolio, is fond of saying that the future of SF is hybridity. I’m not entirely convinced by his evangelism but this blending – whether literary fiction with genre as in McIntosh or fantasy with SF as in Hurley – is clearly oxygenating speculative fiction. The US and UK genre publishing pools are big enough to be in no danger of stagnating but a bit more percolation between them would definitely be healthy.
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- Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman (Big Finish, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M Valente (Night Shade Books, 2010) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
- Ventriloquism by Catherynne M Valente (PS Publishing, 2010) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
- The Immersion Book of Steampunk, edited by Gareth D. Jones and Carmelo Rafala (Immersion Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
- Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by David Towsey
- Escape Velocity: The Anthology, edited by Geoff Nelder and Robert Blevins (Adventure Books, 2011) – Reviewed by Dave M. Roberts
- Crash Day by Jack Mangan and The Legend of False Dreaming by Toiya Kristen Finley (Pendragon Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Penny Hill
- Rule 34 by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- Equations of Life by Simon Morden (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by CB Harvey
- Germline by TC McCarthy (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
- The Map of Time by Félix J Palma (HarperCollins, 2011) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- Heaven’s Shadow by David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt (Tor UK, 2011) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
- Wither by Lauren DeStefano (HarperCollins, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- The End Specialist by Drew Magary (Harper Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- Redlaw by James Lovegrove (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Jon Wallace
- Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? by Max Brallier (Gallery Books, 2011) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- Indigo Eyes by Fel Kian and Greyglass by Tanith Lee (Immanion Press 2011) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
- Echo City by Tim Lebbon (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Sea of Ghosts by Alan Campbell (Tor, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Harding
- The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2011) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
- Blackdog by KV Johansen (Pyr, 2011) – Reviewed by AP Canavan
- A Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin (Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser