The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead‘s novel The Underground Railroad (review copy from Little, Brown) has achieved an interesting double: winning the Pulitzer and the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2017.  It’s also shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  The Pulitzer, the Clarke and the Booker are unlikely bedfellows, but they show the impact this book has had.  Whitehead has written a magical realism novel about slavery in America, following escaped slave Cora on her journey to freedom.

Whitehead literalises the underground railroad of the book’s title, using it as the engine that drives Cora from state to state on her escape, experiencing different aspects of the slave experience.  Whitehead moves Cora through time as well as space, enabling him to fictionalise real events that took place over American history.  This is an analogue of Pilgrim’s Progress, or the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Cora finds in the library: a journey that is enabled and hindered by people she encounters, and tempting her to end her travelling and settle at various points on her way.

Cora’s journey is one from a closeted, pastoral existence to increasing social and political awareness, and growing personal agency.  Each step on her journey broadens her understanding of the world and increases her dissatisfaction, showing a different aspect of the discrimination and exploitation suffered by black people, both enslaved and free.  Some of that is obvious: the cruel plantation owners or the weekly lynchings of escaped slaves.  But some of it is much more subtle and insidious, including the benevolent white people seeking to instil their own values and practices, a thin veneer of tolerance concealing medical experimentation and other forms of control.

Most of all, The Underground Railroad shows how people are active and complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression.  The system sets people against each other, even those that might appear at first blush to be natural allies.  Poor Irish immigrants like the maid Rose are keen to separate themselves from those at the bottom of the heap; others find it an outlet for their saviour complexes; still others live in fear of setting themselves against their neighbours by standing up against poor treatment.

Ultimately, Cora’s choice is one to pursue and shape her own destiny, rather than to fall into the choices and structures of others.  Freedom comes in many forms, but that is the only one that truly counts.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist 2016

On Wednesday night I was lucky enough to be at the announcement of the shortlist for the 2016 Arthur C Clarke Award.  The announcement took place at the launch even for the Sci-Fi London Film Festival, at Stratford Picturehouse.  There were canapes and I had a badge that entitled me to free wine.  If only it worked for more than just that night.

Award Director Tom Hunter announcing the shortlist

The Clarke Award is in its 30th year.  As a juried award it will always carry a certain cachet  The announcement of the shortlist just 24 hours after the Hugo shortlist was inevitably going to show up the differences.  The Hugos have always been a bit of a popularity contest, even before their recent Puppy-infested controversy.  By contrast, the Clarke Award is a juried award, and it often ends up reflecting a uniquely British take on genre fiction.  I frequently disagree with the judges’ choice of winner, but the shortlist is always an interesting snapshot of the state of genre fiction in the UK that year, and every book is an interesting read.

This year’s shortlist is no different.  The six books announced on the night were:

  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
  • The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)
  • Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

It’s a really interesting list and I have a huge amount of respect for the team of judges who have managed to whittle a submissions list of 113 books down to a shortlist of just six.  As Award Director Tom Hunter said, “This is a quintessentially Clarke Award kind of a shortlist. Look once and I’m sure everyone will see a choice they agree with. Look twice, and you’ll likely see a new book you want to read next. Look a third time though, and I hope you’ll see how well all of these six books sit together, and how they represent a particular special moment in time for UK science fiction. In other words, like all great books, this is a shortlist that rewards the more you read into it.”

I’ve read two of them already.  I really enjoyed the Becky Chambers, but it feels a bit lightweight to me for the Clarke.  I’d pegged it more as the kind of book that would be a Hugo contender (though it didn’t make the shortlist).  And even though I found the Tchaikovsky interesting and engaging, I preferred Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora as a colony ship story.  Even if it lacked Tchaikovsky’s super-evolved spiders.

Of the others, I already had Way Down Dark by J P Smythe on the TBR pile.  Much as I love Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, I thought his novel The Machine was far the stronger and more interesting book of that shortlist.  David Hutchinson made the shortlist last year with Europe in Autumn (to which Europe at Midnight is the sequel).  I haven’t yet read it (part of my failed bid to read the Clarke shortlist last year) but I’ll move that one up the list pretty sharpish.

Of the other two, I’m probably most excited by Arcadia.  I really loved An Instance of the Fingerpost by the same author, when I read it several years ago, so I’ll be interested to see how he’s evolved as a writer.  There’s quite the buzz about Arcadia at the moment.  I haven’t yet read any of Nnedi Okorafor’s writing, but I’m looking forward to The Book of Phoenix.  She is gathering a real head of critical praise as a writer.

If you’re interested in sampling the shortlist, by the way, all three of Hodder‘s shortlisted books are on offer on Kindle at the moment. I’m intending to read as many of them as I can between now and the announcement of the winner later this year.

In the meantime,  I’ll leave you with these pictures of some of the awesome cosplay on show on Wednesday night.


The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

My Welsh sister-in-law taught me a wonderful Welsh word: cwtch.  It’s a hug, but not just any hug.  It’s the kind of warm, comforting hug that one gets from a close friend or family member, full of love and reassurance and the knowledge that there is always a safe space full of unconditional love.  The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a cwtch in book form.

Cross Farscape with Firefly and add in a hefty dollop of life-affirming goodness and you have The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.  A multi-species crew travel across the galaxy under contract to build a new tunnel connecting the centre of the galaxy and the Galactic Commons, a collection of planets that have formed a loose alliance.

This novel is a love-song to the human condition, and our relationships with one another.  As the crew of the Wayfarer travel across the galaxy to the start point for their tunneling operation, we learn about them and their relationships with one another.  Everyone has secrets, but these are ones that expose their essential humanity – stories of love and loss that have shaped them as individuals.  Rosemary is coming to terms with her father’s arms dealing, Ashby with his love for an alien woman in a dangerous profession, Dr Chef wrestling with the self-destructive urges of his species and Ohan with the beliefs of their people that propel them on a course towards self-destruction.  And then there’s Corbin, the annoying flatmate we’ve all had to deal with at some point or another.

Although this isn’t the deepest or most complex of books (it’s a little too on-the-rails, with little sense of real peril at times), it’s one of those rare and special books that left me in tears.  Jenks’s love for Lovey, the ship’s AI, is real and intensely moving, and there are moments of real connection for all of the characters.  The visit to Sissix’s homeworld, in particular, reveals all that she has given up to travel with the crew of the Wayfarer.

The story of the novel itself is equally life-affirming: Chambers found herself out of work and short of money.  The generosity of strangers through a Kickstarter campaign enabled her to complete the book and self-publish it.  The success of the novel meant it was picked up by Hodder, a mainstream publisher.

Ultimately, what The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet teaches us is that we are all made of stardust.  All essentially the same, and capable of profound  connections with one another, regardless of how different we may seem.  We are enriched by our diversity if we are open-minded enough to appreciate it and let it blossom.  And I, for one, want to spend more time with the crew of the Wayfarer.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

What would you do if you could live your life over again, with the knowledge and experience you’ve gained in this one?  That’s the question posed by Claire North in her Arthur C Clarke Award-nominated novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.  Those known as kalachakra or ouroborans face an eternal Groundhog Day, born to the same parents and living through the same events over and over again.

But Harry August isn’t just fated to be reborn over and over again.  He is a ‘mnemonic’, someone with perfect recall of everything he’s learned and experienced throughout all of his many lives.  Over the first few he comes to terms with his existence, cycling through mental health problems, spirituality and science in a search for an explanation for his condition.

Harry connects with generations of other kalachakra through a loose, global organisation called the Cronus Club.  Each chooses to spend their multiple existences in different ways, but all obeying the convention that no-one should seek to alter the course of history.  But that comfortable existence changes for Harry when he learns that someone is changing the future and accelerating the end of the world.  What follows is the story of Harry unravelling the mystery and saving the future.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August gives us a fascinating insight into how we grow and change and how our experiences shape us as individuals.  That knowledge and experience cannot help but influence our actions and the approach we take to the issues in our lives.  For the ourobourans, death and injury hold no fears (beyond the inconvenience of having to relive childhood and puberty), leading to a low appetite for risk and a potential longer term strategic view that eludes those of us consigned to a single life.  Harry is content to spend several of his lives preventing the premature end of the world, far in the future.  But for many, the endless cycle of repeated existence leads only to endless rounds of fruitless hedonism.

Where the novel excels for me is in the portrayal of Harry’s relationship with Vincent.  The friendship between them is profound and fully-realised, despite the dark turn that it takes.  There are no pantomime villains in this novel, just competing visions of what the role of individuals in society should be.  Is our role to promote human development, or to live a good life helping others?

But that strong portrayal of male friendship comes at a price.  Where the novel falls down for me is in its portrayal of women.  They are largely absent, falling into the category of prizes/rewards (Harry’s wife Jenny),  helpmeets/henchpeople (Virginia and Charity) or are used simply to illustrate the implications of the ultimately constrained life of the ourobouran (Akinleye).  It’s a disappointment, given how well North’s more recent novel Touch deals with questions of gender and identity.

Goodreads rating: 4* 

Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice, was a huge success, achieving the near-unprecedented triple of the Arthur C Clarke, Hugo and Nebula awards.  It was a refreshing take on good, old-fashioned space opera: spaceships and laser guns set in an empire loosely based on Ancient Rome.  That civilisation had had an absolute ruler and complex relationships of power and patronage that had created a wealthy aristocratic elite.

What set Ancillary Justice apart was how those familiar tropes had been updated.  The story was told through the eyes of one of those spaceships, Justice of Toren.  Like the Lord of the Radch herself, Justice of Toren’s AI consciousness was distributed among a number of bodies known as ancillaries.  But unlike Anander Mianaai, Justice of Toren’s ancillaries were captured human bodies, implanted with technology, rather than clones. There was a wonderful commentary on contemporary gender issues: the Radch is a culture with no gendered pronouns (all characters are described as ‘she’) and where bisexuality is the norm. And the treatment of colonialism was subtle and highly relevant.

Ancillary Sword is the second novel in the series.  Not only do middle novels in a trilogy have to pull off the trick of continuing and maintaining the story, albeit without being able to provide a final resolution, it was always going to be difficult to follow up the success of the first book.  Ann Leckie manages a barnstorming second novel, and does it with great style.

We follow Breq, the last of Justice of Toren’s ancillaries, now (ironically) made the captain of the of the Mercy of Kalr, a ship crewed by humans.  Breq has been posted to the remote system of Athoek, to protect it while Anander Mianaai’s war with herself plays out.

This is a novel with a much smaller focus than the first, but the issues it deals with are no less significant than those in the first novel.  Primarily the novel explores issues of class and poverty, and the abuse of power by those in privileged positions.  There is also a sensitively written subplot about domestic violence.  We also get to see some of the complex network of relationships and ritual that underpin Radchaii civilisation (the subtle insult that can be delivered by serving a guest tea on the everyday china is particularly delicious).  All of this plays out in a way that reveals more about the overarching story, setting up the final volume in the trilogy.

Breq herself remains utterly compelling.  She remains driven by her guilt and grief about the death of one of her former officers, Lieutenant Awn, and continues to struggle to life as an individual rather than as part of a larger whole.  She is a tough and uncompromising captain, but one who is capable of great compassion towards others.  Her friendshitp with Seivarden continues to deepen, albeit that Seivarden’s attachment to her is not returned in the same terms.

Once again, Leckie has proved that the genre can be used to explore complex and highly contemporary themes and issues with great sensitivity.  And while telling a bloody good story.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

The cover of Station Eleven (this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner) suffers from a bad case of adjective blight.  The blurbs on the cover and first few pages of the novel variously describe it as “stunning”, “atmospheric”, “disturbing, inventive and exciting”, “captivating”, “haunting”, “spellbinding” and many more.  Having now finished the novel I can see why those reviewing and blurbing it have resorted to quite so many adjectives.  It is a beautiful book, but a slippery one to get hold of.

Prosaically, Station Eleven charts the interconnected stories of the survivors of Georgia Flu, a particularly virulent flu virus that has wiped out 99.9% of the population of the Earth, leading to the devastation of civilisation.  Survivors huddle together in small settlements surrounded by the wreckage of the 21st Century, living as subsistence farmers and consumed with nostalgia for the artefacts of a past that their children cannot conceive of.

Post-flu, the world is a dangerous place, full of brigands and messianic cults.  But the Travelling Symphony – a touring group of actors and musicians – aims to keep the crowning artistic creations of civilisation alive.  One of their number, Kirsten, is the primary focus of the novel as she seeks to find links to a defining incident in her childhood – the collapse and death of a noted actor onstage in a production of King Lear where she was a child actress, the very night that Georgia Flu hit the city in which she was performing.

Station Eleven illustrates, with great delicacy and restraint, the fragility of 21st Century human civilisation.  For all that we live disconnected from one another, often misunderstanding each other or struggling to get along, we are interconnected and dependent on each other at a fundamental level.  That civilisation is a house of cards that could very easily collapse, and is difficult to put back together.

But the novel also carries threads of hope.  In amongst the brutality lie friendships and aspiration for a better future, and the hope of redemption.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky is best known for his fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt.  In his new novel, Children of Time, (published today by Macmillan, advance copy courtesy of NetGalley) he takes a different direction, writing hard SF.

Children of Time follows two parallel story arcs.  In the first, the inhabitants of an ark ship called the Gilgamesh are fleeing a polluted and dying Earth.  They are seeking a new home for humanity.  They spend most of their time in cryogenic stasis, waking occasionally to deal with crises and examine potential new home planets.  The story is told mainly from the perspective of a classicist who is an expert in the ‘Old Empire’ civilisation that wiped itself out in a global war.  The ensuing ice age returned the survivors to a more primitive way of life, with society struggling to piece together enough technology to escape and find a new home.

The second story arc follows the evolution and development of a society of super-evolved spiders on an experimental world terraformed by the Old Empire at its height.  Although the experiment had originally been intended for primates, none survived to reach the surface of the planet and the nano-virus designed to hasten evolution and embed certain traits has taken hold in the invertebrate population of the planet instead.  We follow a spider called Portia and her descendants as they build complex societies, create new technology and come into conflict.

The vast time scale over which the story plays out makes this a truly epic novel.  It’s placed firmly at the harder end of the SF spectrum, with nods to prominent figures in the genre: a spacestation orbiting the terraformed world is called the Brin Sentry Pod, for example.  This means that its focus is very much on the underlying ideas about how humanity would cope with a civilisation-ending disaster, rather than looking at the human impact.

The novel forces you to make interesting comparisons between a conflict-ridden human society and a spider culture genetically engineered to avoid conflict and work together as far as possible.  It poses questions about whether history is determinative, and what rights we have to steer the fate of other cultures and civilsations.

At the time of writing, I’ve not yet finished reading the novel, but it’s a very interesting piece and should be enjoyed by lovers of hard SF.