'In Arms,' originally written for Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow's Architecture (2019).
Friday, May 14, 2021
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Peter F. Hamilton, Great North Road (Pan Macmillan, 2013, 1104 pp.)
This review first appeared in Foundation Vol. 43, No. 118 (Autumn 2014), pp. 135-140. It's been very slightly amended. Thank you to Andy Sawyer, Maureen Kincaid-Speller, Paul March-Russell, and Tony Keen.
There is a body in the Tyne, and its autopsy suggests extraterrestrial incursion. When the case lands on Detective Sidney Hurst’s desk, so do the nebulous agendas of innumerable civil, political, military and corporate elites. Meanwhile, through the shimmer of Newcastle’s stargate, a military expedition strikes out into the vast unexplored jungles of St Libra, Sirius – oblivious to a mustering ecological cataclysm – in search of sentient life. Among them is civilian advisor Angela Tramelo, fresh from serving twenty years for a brutal massacre which she has always maintained was the work of an alien life form; her team is headed by Colonel Vance Elston, the same spook who twenty years earlier tortured her and suppressed key evidence at her trial. We can expect that people on this trip will get crabby.
The relationship between crime fiction and science fiction is an extremely intricate one. Any work which is serious about synthesizing the two tends to discover its own distinctive pattern of complements, affi nities, tradeoffs and contradictions. Ronald Knox’s fourth ‘fair play’ commandment for Golden Age crime writers (‘No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end’) suggests one way in which friction may emerge. To hide its solutions in plain sight, the clue-puzzle relies heavily on implication, on a shared social consensus. As often as not, it is not really until the last page of an sf novel that the reader knows enough about its world to start making clue-puzzle-style guesses about its secrets.
Great North Road is not particularly concerned with fair play. Data is supplied in whatever order is presumed to be most exciting. For much of the time, the novel solicitously stokes the possibility that Angela Tramelo really is responsible for the brutal massacre for which she’s been imprisoned. Eventually the backstory becomes interspersed through the main storyline, gradually rolling towards this alarming incident. The pattern of interleaved linear timelines is well established: but when we expect to find Tramelo either exonerated or recast as antihero, instead we confront … an ambiguous aftermath. We have skipped the massacre. Tramelo is scrabbling in panic, slicked with blood, her contribution still indeterminate.It is especially awkward that Great North Road sustains such indeterminacy whilst we pay frequent visits to Tramelo’s consciousness. Of course, many crime authors invite us to peer into characters’ heads without letting us glimpse their guilt or innocence. Guilty people are often experts at having innocent thoughts. But there must be a difference between allowing leeway for sleights-of-hand and excusing authors for withholding whatever they feel is convenient. So how might we formulate that difference? You could say authors should not artificially keep things from their readers. But that’s only a mildly satisfying way of capturing it. Literature is artifice through-and-through: why does only some of it strike us as illegitimate?
Another approach holds that crime fiction should offer a consistent epistemology. That is, good crime fiction takes a stance on what knowledge is and how it can be achieved. As we read, we learn what happened, but we also learn something about learning itself. The electrifying story tacitly establishes parameters within which many other stories are feasible. Disclosures in Great North Road, by contrast, often seem artefacts of its formal idiosyncrasies. They give us very little that is portable or expandable. Sitting and waiting for it to be your turn to know is not a convincing model of how knowledge is produced. Readers work patiently and attentively through a towering stack of pages. Just like the police investigators they depict, we may be tempted to skim, but risk missing something important if we do. The meticulousness and staying power which the novel requires of us are the same virtues it valorises in Detective Sidney Hurst and his team.
It is interesting that the novel’s dazzling socio-technological premises – interstellar wormhole tech, shapeshifter implants, an elite dynasty of clones, longevity treatments, drugs you take by banging them on your neck – don’t radically reorganize its police procedural dimension. The novel does explore how detection is transformed by a regime of sophisticated forensics and ubiquitous surveillance and archiving. With all this advanced kit, must we basically watch our protagonist click ‘solve’, our only source of narrative tension the progress bar moving to 100%, with its cryptic contour of humps and downhill stretches?
But that is familiar territory for police procedurals with a contemporary or near-future setting. In C.S.I., as in Great North Road, the detection function is distributed across a network of experts and technologies. The middleranking officer occupies the hero slot, though not in quite the same way as the classic sleuth. In integrating a variety of specialist perspectives, the managerial perspective is only primus inter pares, not a transcendental arbiter of salience. There is no subject who experiences every stage of the solution, nor could such calculations in principle be fully performed within human experience. This partial decentring of the detective is mirrored by a partial decentring of criminality; there is a heightened interest in its systemic context, and a decoupling of the execution of social justice from the determination of legal culpability.
Great North Road does not, thankfully, trouble us with the professional fetishism or the glossy state triumphalism of C.S.I. The atmosphere is perhaps more closely matched by The Wire (2002-8). Hurst must bargain, cajole, orate, gain leverage, bend rules, cash in favours. There are no faces, no heels, only tweeners. The priorities of individuals seldom harmonize with those of their job description. Bureaucratic and technological systems don’t function as they should. Great North Road is uninterested in fair play conventions; nor does it seem fully committed to exposing the systematic context of its criminality. The politicking, loopholes, glitches and mercurial surges of social complexity tend to be dictated by storytelling imperatives, rather than providing storytelling with its scope and materials.
John Doe sloshing downstream, for instance, may be a reputable way of opening a contemporary police procedural yet it is unclear why anyone in 2142 should take such pains to put John Clone in the Tyne. The gangland body disposal team can anonymize cyborg corpses and hack into municipal surveillance systems. With relatively comprehensive surveillance of public space, shouldn’t we expect such well-resourced criminality to shift to private space? Is melting a bit of meat and bone in a private apartment really beyond them? But the body is not put in the river by gangsters, to sink without a trace; it is put there by Hamilton, to be found.
The way of life shown in Great North Road is not always minutely reflective of its social, economic and technological infrastructure. There are exceptions, but to sloganize somewhat: Far Future Tech, Near Future Customs, Manners, Mores. This incongruously contemporary cultural atmosphere is not necessarily uncomfortable. A proudly Geordie stargate is, in and of itself, a very fine thing to contemplate. Moreover, it’s possible that this atmosphere has not accumulated by unexamined failures of the imagination, but rather been deliberately wrought, as a self-styled clear-eyed provocation that some things never change.
Exhibitions of extrapolative rigor are one widely acknowledged tactic by which science fiction negotiates its mandate. An awkwardness can cling to tacit claims of rigor when the axioms rigorously worked upon are conspicuously a legacy. New space opera is often spotted proving its seriousness by how responsibly it sponges off a trust fund established by cyberpunk. Less well attested but equally important is the tactic of exclusionary rigor. Here what is necessary is that nothing break the spell. The grizzled capsule pilot who, engrossed in the archipelago of an approaching asteroid field, so much as carelessly sparks up a Camel is in peril of losing his legitimacy as an image of our future. Superfluous innovations are as risky as superfluous relics. Just as nothing must improperly last, so nothing must improperly change.
In Great North Road not much seems to have changed about the aesthetics, habitus and culture of corporations, the military, and the police and prisons. No doubt such choices are mixed up with extrapolative worldbuilding to some extent. But I suspect that how plausible they are is fundamentally a wager about their aesthetic intelligibility. In other words, their plausibility solicits preferences and associations formed independently of the novel’s future history. If men in green fatigues with machine guns don’t look out-of-place milling around in front of a stargate, then that has little to do with how probable that scene really is. It has everything to do with the saturation of the contemporary imagination by images of prevailing military institutions.
There is another front, also closely connected with taste, on which Great North Road doesn’t play it quite so safe. One effect of the central mystery is to pose the question: is ‘the alien’ – in the sense of a monstrous, sentient extraterrestrial organism, perhaps the hegemonic trope of science fiction – still a legitimate sf figure? Or is the alien now a spell-breaker, rather like a rocket or a UFO? Eight hundred pages in, we still do not know for certain if we are reading a story with aliens in it. Instead, we are treated to a pageant of proxies. It is as though we are asked, will clones do instead? Or, genetically modified humans; won’t they do? Cybernetically enhanced people; will they do? Extraterrestrial plant life, surely it will do? Then there is the Zanth. The Zanth is a sort of kaleidoscopic reality glitch, akin to an ecological catastrophe. But it receives the kind of treatment typically reserved for Heinlein’s ‘Bugs’ or Wells’ Martians. It even gets called an alien threat. So, will it do? What, exactly, do we need an alien for? And how badly do we need it?
In its collusion with the spectacle of multinational corporations and standing armies that just keep on standing, Great North Road invites a critique of ideology, but it does make fairly safe wagers vis-à-vis evoking a convincing and immersive future history. The ‘ET or not ET?’ business is a bolder bet, but one which pays off. The alien that might be in this story could even be read as knowingly retro-futuristic, a nod to the far-fetched hominids of an earlier era, some horror confined to the shadows because budget is too low to show it in the light. We may realize we do miss this alien and are prepared, after all, to make some allowances.
But Great North Road makes another wager which is neither bold nor really pays off. Just as corporate life has proved robust, and standing armies are standing in pretty much the same pose we left them in back in 2013, so too gender institutions have changed very little. The drip-fed revelations of Tramelo’s past, for instance, ooze sleazy glamour and gratuitous fan service. As we try to conceive of a credible 2140s, we may want to ask – as a rough benchmark – how have gender and sexual politics changed from the 1880s to the present day? Yet Great North Road gives us a deeply binary and subtly hierarchical world, peppered with hokey truisms about boys and girls, men and women, husbands and wives.
Complexity is added, however, in the form of Hurst’s sidekick, Detective Ian Lanagin. We first meet Lanagin on duty, flirting with a pair of scantily clad lassies: ‘I’m in there, man. Did you see those lassies? Up for it they were, both of them’ (9). Lanagin is a manifesto for cyborg misogyny, who abuses police data systems to stalk his targets and devise his pickup strategies. As an institutionally fostered social type, and a case study in police sexuality at the intersection of voyeurism, chivalry and clout, Lanagin is one of the novel’s subtler achievements. But the resolution of his plot arc is unacceptable. When Lanagin meets his match – gorgeous, rich and, discomfitingly, class-inflected – revisionist implications ripple back across his previous frightening behaviour. Boys will be boys, seems to be the official line, but some day they all grow up and settle down. Lanagin’s emasculation is apparently being played for laughs. Are we soon to meet the predictable evolution of this comic character; grumbling, doting Lanagin under-the-thumb? Luckily, a monster slashes his throat out before we have to discover.
Great North Road is tricky to place ideologically. On balance, my impression was one of discreet Middle Englishness. Granted, the capitalism it portrays is one of corporate misdeeds, cronyism, corruption, decadence and precarity. Teamwork, even to the point of sacrificing oneself for a collective, rises and disports itself rather elegantly above this mire. But for all that the novel’s capitalism resembles our own, it is an embroidered version of the current regime. There's a kind of literary centrism at play here. What a left-wing reader could just about celebrate as a prophetic satire, a right-wing reader can still regard as a boundary flag – as a pathological and dysfunctional extreme implying, the relative moderation of our contemporary status quo. Perhaps Sid Hurst was a bit of an Ian Lanagin himself in his day! But now he is a decent, family man, doing what he has to do: possessive individualism and civil, vocational and familial privatism. We are supposed to like him, his long-suffering wife Jacinta, and their two impertinent kids. So if Hamilton is trying to please everyone, I think he catches the right-wing reader’s eye oftener.
That said, thoroughgoing Middle Englishness could never really survive an act of imaginative expression of such scale and ambition. There is ultimately a great deal to like about this novel. There is merit in the bare fact of being able to turn out 1,000-plus pages of proficient prose. Certain economies of scale kick in: a plot thread simply left hanging long enough then seized up again can feel satisfying in the same way as a plot twist can; and though Hamilton does not achieve the stylistic variety of, for instance, Iain M. Banks’ space opera, by the end of the novel a diverse grandeur has gradually accumulated.
There is some excellent interplay between passages of deliberately arduous information and often bloody action sequences. The St Libra narrative strand is dominated not so much by military science fiction as military logistics science fiction. The fine grain elaboration of its material culture is another of its admirable features, albeit at times a bit Top Gear. Hamilton is particularly proficient at contriving tense scenarios by layering together mundane and extraordinary mishaps. Sometimes the slow, detailed mode is also deployed as a crucible of tension in its own right. The plodding early phases of the expedition employs that mode, gradually establishing a potent sense of remoteness. There is a real sense that small decisions or acts of neglect can have tremendous consequences. The Zanth in particular is used sparingly but thrillingly; the novel’s closing sentences are excellent. Part of me was left wondering, however, whether Hamilton could have cast his exacting eye a little oftener in the direction of the human (posthuman) heart? Or indeed, what might he have written had he permitted himself complete absorption by his unfolding material, bringing to bear his considerable talents – his comprehensiveness, his copia, his evident interest in pacing and his skill at convergence – in a manner less attentive to his presumed readers, and to their presumed appetites for worlds and thrills?
For my own future reference really, some recommended TTRPGs with strong and/or interesting collaborative worldbuilding elements:
- The Quiet Year / The Deep Forest
- Shock: Social SF
- The Sword, The Crown, The Unspeakable Power
- Companion's Tale
- Dawn of Worlds
- Soft Apocalypse Anthology
Monday, March 22, 2021
I am going to Eastercon! To make it feel really special, I might even go and sit on the other sofa.
I am going to do four things ...
- A shift at the virtual BSFA stall in the dealer's hall
- 11am on Saturday [time change!]: Moderate a panel about contemporary children's SFF, which I don't know much about but hope to learn a lot about
- 7pm on Friday: Give a presentation about utopia, board games, and being very tiny, alongside presentations from Avery Delany and Francis Gene-Rowe. GAMES, FRAMES & FLAMES TALK TRILOGY. If you wish to do some prepatory reading (optional) for my talk, please watch J. Balvin's 'Verde' and read The Bible.
- Monday at noon: Be on a panel about dragons, which I know all about and am one
Saturday, February 20, 2021
The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the[Pg 168] linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.
Friday, January 15, 2021
I liked and highly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future (2020), a big and miscellaneous quiltwork of a book, filled with vignettes, mini-essays, lists, and prose-poem riddles. It lays out a guardedly optimistic vision of the next few decades, and shows humans (and many other actors) mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis that is currently unfolding.
You could call it solarpunk, delivering a promise that genre intermittently delivers: gritty and realistic hope, integrating technological innovation with real economic and socio-political change. The Ministry for the Future is fiction, of course, but it often holds the interest in the same way non-fiction does. It is about us, it is about now. It exemplifies a kind of hard science fiction that is worth wanting, borrowing and synthesizing from across STEM, social sciences, arts and humanities, and other forms of expertise.
The Ministry for the Future gathers up numerous utopian sparks from contemporary radical and progressive projects and -- like a Magpie for the Future -- arranges them into a pleasing heap, rather than some rigid causal sequence. It is a novel filled with judicious gaps and uncertainties. About some ideas, the novel is enthusiastic, and about others it is lukewarm. For the most part, this is a book that doesn’t want to take things off the table. It does frame a few hopes as false hopes, perhaps: the notion that billionaires may start to show compassion and rationality if petitioned persuasively enough, for example. And while it has a lot of time for myriad diverse economy practices, including those of an anarchist cast, it ultimately sees governments, law, and central banks as key actors in any credible positive future.
But not through their being seized. I'm especially interested in the novel's themes of violence and revolution. When we think of revolutionary violence (and maybe even when we try to put it into practice) we usually think of two things. There are protestors throwing things at lines of riot cops, as military vehicles rumble closer in the distance. And then there's the well-organised armed coup, seizing the state apparatus. So this sets up a lot of questions about how the two things might relate. But maybe these questions are sometimes red herrings. Because really, this is a rather narrow imaginary, one enthusiastically embraced by right wing media, but one which The Ministry of the Future tries in its own gentle way to dislodge.
Because the actual histories of successful radical social change usually reveal a much more diverse array of tactics. If there must be a default way of thinking about the role of violence in revolutionary activity, maybe a good candidate is "militant self-defense." Many activities in Ministry's optimistic narrative fit this definition. I.e. one way the people in this book defend themselves is by conducting their paramilitary operations in secret. So secret, in fact, most of the time even the reader doesn't find out about them! They don't storm in trying to seize state power. Another way they defend themselves is by targeting the infrastructure and logistics the enemy is using to kill them. They presumably have fierce debates about what is and isn't acceptable (rejecting nonviolence doesn't mean "anything goes").
State power is still absolutely crucial to Robinson's optimistic vision, but he doesn't foresee seizing it. There are two prongs here. One, there is a vast and plural uprising which doesn't attempt to unify itself, but rather embraces a diversity of tactics, including paramilitary action aimed primarily at multinational corporations. Two, there is an intense, grinding badgering of states, and especially their central banks, to begrudgingly take more radical action than they otherwise would have. This sometimes involves gritting our teeth and putting things in terms they can understand. How can you have stable currencies if you don't have civilisation? Let them put the cart before the horse, if it will stop us all from riding off the cliff.
Stylistically, this won't be for everyone. Notes from meetings, flat and largely vague eye-witness accounts of extraordinary events, infodumps, mini-articles on topics in political economy, a giant list of names of organisations ... this is a book which has a very particular, very strange relationship with "boring" and "exciting," and how desirable these two things are, in what proportions and in what rhythms. It sometimes makes me think of grindy games, where what you are doing is certainly work, but oddly compelling and absorbing, and it draws you along in a way that mere entertainment might not. For some people, nyway. Others may find the whole thing a bizarre imposition.
Sometimes representations of nationality feel a bit cringe. Especially Ireland. The novel seems to have a sense of Irishness, or of a plausible Irish person's sense of their own Irishness, which I don't recognise anyway. I'm also not sure how credible I find Mary mentioning "some good" in the British Empire, and perhaps Stan's not aware what a right-wing talking point that is in these isles? But the grinding insistence on the reality of nations, ethnicities, and cultures is admirable, even if it sometimes generates awkwardness.
A longer review will appear in Stir magazine, focusing a little bit more on the novel's political economy.
Monday, January 11, 2021
Just a few I kind of like:
Scifi & Fantasy - I am liking this a little less than I used to, but maybe still worth a whirl!
The top one was a splinter from biggest SFF group by some way, called just "Science Fiction," which is implicitly the dumpster fire.
Wednesday, January 6, 2021
‘An invite to Mannerly Manor? If it were just Katie and her mum!’ I sighed. ‘But the cousins are sure to be there. And the groundskeeper, who has a gun, and chambermaid and scullery chef, and the grouse, who may all have guns for all I know of the world. And all the butlers in all their siller finery. I am just so nervous. I am not sure who will be there. No one's explained the event.’
‘Save Reason,’ I said.
Together Tamburlaine and I attempted to formulate the customs of the upper classes by Reason alone.
‘Give me some task, Tam.’
‘Say you are to pick your nose, Arthur.’
‘Which finger does one use?’
‘Where do the other nails point while the principal is busy? Start simple.’
We tried every finger we could find, falsifying the pick itself so as not to run out of matter.
Thus laughing, we lay contentedly in each other arms. ‘Perhaps they leave it in the ground,’ Tam muttered. But soon we were frowning again.
‘Aye,’ I added softly, ‘or it doesn’t even matter which fingers? It’s which nostril. Nor are nostrils the only niches.’
Tam shrugged me off, leapt up and began to pace. ‘No they’re not! Well then! Reason man! Think! Do the upper classes of Britain sit at their feast-laden tables manually disimpacting earwax or is it sometimes poop? Think! Think!’
He looked aghast and I didn’t know how to calm him down. He was right. Did they reach one slimy arm down their gullet, shortly having swallowed their meal, as some pythons are said to do, and pull it intact back onto the siller plate?
Soon it was mid-morning. My train would soon be leaving for Katie’s country estate. We had got nowhere. And then suddenly, as Tam helped me into my scarf and mittens, it all came pouring together. An avalanche of reason alone.
First, a good bully always maximizes cognitive load. For example, pick on your prey by presenting insoluble puzzles and palpably false attributions. The pot shoving the kettle up against the lockers and sneering at its searing, and so on.
Thus for many years the upper classes have been evolving tells and shibboleths that make them out to be simple, dumpy, down-to-earth folk.
‘They won’t ostentatiously thrust the fingers in?’ suggested Tam, grinning avidly. ‘They’ll wait till it pokes out of its own accord!’
‘They love all the creeping beasts of the earth,’ I agreed. ‘They’ll wobble the philtrum to and fro till it plops out, without any fuss. It is not for them to pick which noses.’
But there was more. At the top, power frequently acquires the morphology of an 'overlapping consensus.' Not always, but among the upper classes of Britain, Tam and I reckoned that it did. That is, ceteris paribus, the upper class will prefer manners that they can agree upon for many different reasons, without recognising that they are so doing.
Tamburlaine and I did a few quick calculations. Around three-quarters of toffs believe they are looking down their noses at everyone else. We uppity and grasping plebs are hilarious with our shabby fool’s gold, and so on. Their idea (which when it gets out of hand is genocide) is: Look at those fools! If the situation were reversed, they would do the same as we do.
Understanding now its underpinning logic, I felt confident I would be able to reason out all the etiquette that lay ahead of me this afternoon and evening. Which salad spoon. How to greet the groundsman. Anxiety diminishing, my crush on Katie revealed itself once more, raw and pink with a new lustre of lust.
After all, do not the upper classes of England simply love duels where only one fighter is allowed oxygen? Thrust! Parry! Look at that footwork! Da da da da da! Ta ta ta ta! Look at those chaps dance, two consummate artists, equally matched! The flashing silver! On the side-lines, variegated princesses simper and swoon! And that will be me in a couple of hours. My starlight white frock with the flared silhouette that bells when I spin, my golden locks done up with bright red ribs and bins.
‘Oh, Arthur,’ squawked Tamburlaine, and tied my scarf, and my heart, in a complex knot.
Thus equipped I went to Mannerly Manor, to meet my betters.