(Calgary: EDGE Press/Tesseract Books, 2006; $14.95 tpb; 311pages)
Less Than Human by Maxine McArthur
(New York: Warner Books, 2004; $6.99 pb; 387 pages)
Earlier in the year Australian writer Ben Peek reviewed the short fiction finalists for the Aurealis Awards in a piece called ‘Scalpels And Surgical Masks’ for the online magazine Strange Horizons. The juried Aurealis Award is one of two Australian awards (the other being the fan-voted Ditmars) and in his own words Peek found the work selected decidedly wanting:
[T]he overall quality of the fiction nominated for the Aurealis Awards this year has not been equal to that of a professional standard.Peek’s piece was unusual in that the Australian speculative fiction scene is even more closely-knit than the rest of the genre and such forthrightness is rare. The review and Peek’s blog attracted strident denials from those involved in the scene and this is a not uncommon response. It is easier for an outsider to pass judgement because they have less at stake so I have few qualms about echoing Peek’s view in relation to this year’s Aurealis Award winner for best science fiction novel.
This year’s winner was second time novelist K. A. Bedford’s Eclipse, which sets alarm bells ringing from the outset. In his well-received novel Accelerlando, Charles Stross tries to make a virtue out of what is traditionally considered a flaw of science fiction writing: info-dumping. It is a brave attempt, but in the end Stross’s enthusiastic and inventive density proves overwhelming to the reader. Eclipse, on the other hand, does not even pay lip service to its own such problems. More than mere info-dumping, this is an info-avalanche starting from the very first page:
My name is James Robert Dunne. I joined Eclipse when I was twenty-one years old, a fresh graduate from the Royal Interstellar Service Academy in Winter City, Ganymede, and I was ready to join the crew of Her Majesty’s Starship Eclipse for my first three-year hitch of active space duty. (1)This is a deeply uninspired way to start a novel and sets the tone for the rest of this clumsy, often baffling book. Bedford is not shy about filling in the reader as to the nature of his universe nor is he particularly consistent in doing so.
In a perfunctory jettisoning of history, he destroys Earth before the novel starts, allowing a clear break with plausibility. In another early infodump we are told:
There were old folk tales from way back—before Earth’s destruction—that things for most women had been pretty good. These stories were laughed at, of course, particularly by women these days. [...] Women were welcome in the Service now, no questions asked, but only as long as they didn’t get in the way. (8)No explanation for this dramatic reversal in fortune is given, and it is immediately contradicted by the fact that the Starship Eclipse’s chief of security and her most promising cadet, not to mention the Admiral of the Fleet, are all women. This suggests that the building blocks of the story have been selected on an individual basis with little heed paid to their overall pattern. Often information is dropped into the story with barely a splash before sinking without a trace. Halfway through the novel, we are told that resurrection is now possible, indeed “the cost of having that done was coming down all the time” (159). Nothing is ever made of this revelation again.
More bizarre than the lackluster world-building is the extreme tonal dissonance of Eclipse. Bedford seems to set out to write a dark novel, and a cursory synopsis would make the book out to be very dark indeed. Dunne is an officer in a military organization that is so corrupt that murder and rape are routine. On his first day, he is hospitalized by four disposables acting on the orders of his Executive Officer. This is punishment for passively intervening to prevent the XO from forcibly propositioning a friend of his. Over the course of the novel (and, we learn, beforehand) Dunne is repeatedly physically and sexually assaulted. Upon making first contact with an alien species, the Fleet responds first with disinterest and then genocide. This act is then partially revisited on humanity. Iain M. Banks would be proud. And yet...
What should be black is often treated surprisingly lightly. In part, this is because of Bedford’s use of language. In his acknowledgements he commends those who have helped him as “good eggs all” and the novel is infused with this sort of folksy, chummy Australianness. His monstrous characters never go beyond the words “crap” or “bloody” and the lack of profanity is jarring. Bedford’s prose is bland when it should be hard to stomach. There is nothing to shock, or even unsettle, in it and this is the sort of novel that seems to me to demand it.
The plot can be readily dispensed with since it makes no real sense and is clearly of little importance to Bedford. Rather, he is primarily concerned with writing a character study. The judges of the Aurealis commended the novel by saying it “comes across as a standard ‘starfleet space adventure’ until... the extraordinarily well-drawn and far from stereotypical characters take over.” It is true that Bedford seeks to move beyond the standard template of militaristic science fiction and that this is to be admired. His characters do resist stereotyping but this is not to say that they are well-drawn. As an individual under extreme physical and psychological stress, Dunne a prime candidate for a character study but unfortunately the execution of this study fails in the worst possible way. Dunne is a man who has experienced more than one sexual assault and yet he behaves like a blushing preteen:
“Um, your hand appears to have strayed, somewhat,” I said.Not only is this dreadful writing, it shows an utter lack of empathy or psychological understanding. Dunne’s earlier trauma in the Academy makes no discernable impact on him, and this can’t help but be viewed as trivializing rape. In this way, Eclipse moves beyond being merely badly written to becoming actually offensive. The irony of this is that it is partially caused by a wish on Bedford’s part not to offend. By choosing to draw a discreet veil over words and acts that should not be shied away from, he is rejecting realism. Bedford’s reticence makes him seem like his hero, Dunne: a Boy Scout completely out of his depth in the real world.
“Hands will do that,” Sorcha said, smiling.
[ . . .]
I swallowed hard. Swallowed again. I needed to adjust my trousers. (185–6)
At the very beginning of the book Dunne tells the reader:
You’d think, after all the crap I’d been through at the Academy, I wouldn’t still be quite this naïve or idealistic about it. (1)This is true. Since no reason is advanced for this unlikely and persistent naïveté, the fact that Dunne inhabits a bubble undermines everything Bedford is trying to achieve. The disengagement of his central character leaves his novel divorced from that which it seeks to comment on and means the effect can never rise above the superficial.
If Eclipse represents a failure of skill then the previous year’s winner, Maxine McArthur’s Less Than Human, is a failure of nerve. McArthur started by writing space fiction of a type not dissimilar to that practiced by Bedford, with a pair of linked and well-received novels: Time Past and Time Future. Her latest breaks this pattern. In fact when McArthur started writing Less Than Human, it was not a science fiction novel at all but rather a crime novel, and one of the biggest problems with the book is that its author doesn’t know what it is. By failing to fully embrace either genre the novel is left floundering in a state of mild schizophrenia. Which is not to suggest that genre blending, or even shifting, is inherently a bad thing; in fact, it can be highly profitable, both artistically and commercially. Paul McAuley has very successfully repositioned himself as a technothriller writer. Michael Marshall Smith has gone one step further: dropping the “Smith” and moving wholesale into the crime market. What these writers have in common are publishers who are consciously changing the way in which they market them and an understanding of the genre they are moving into and. McArthur has neither.
It is impossible to say how much influence her publishers had on the genesis of the novel. Regardless of this Aspect/Warner Books have chosen to jacket Less Than Human in a traditional, not-very-well-executed SF cover (just like her first two novels) with nothing at all to suggest any crossover potential. Despite the contents between its covers the book appears to all the world as another pulp SF novel. Even a full-throated SF writer like Richard Morgan has orientated himself better towards the thriller market than this. However, this is incidental to the insurmountable obstacle that in the end this is more crime novel than SF novel and McArthur haves little grasp of the thriller as a form. As with Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s recent 9TailFox there is a strong sense that the SF aspects of the novel have been shoehorned into what would be better served as a straight thriller. This makes the inclusion of both novels on award shortlists in their respective countries slightly baffling. However, where Grimwood showed good awareness of the genre to produce a deft page turner McArthur has ignored some of the principles: namely pace and intrigue. Less Than Human is incredibly ponderous, leaving the reader with little interest in what happens next. What is missing is the feints and misdirections, the heightened sense of tension, the sense of wheels within wheels.
So, the plot: a factory worker is killed by a machine in an industrial accident that should be impossible. Eleanor McGuire is sent to investigate by the robotics company; Assistant Inspector Ishihara leads the police investigation. They alternate viewpoint chapters as they try to get to the bottom of this uninvolving mystery. About halfway through the novel, McArthur introduces a second plot in which McGuire’s niece gets, involved with a cult. Conveniently, Ishihara is investigating that case as well. Wouldn’t you know it, both plots are related and in the end all becomes clear and the day is saved. It’s very hard to care about any of this, though, so plodding is the pace, so straightforward the mystery and so boring the characters. If McArthur shows little awareness of the importance of these fundamentals of the genre nor does she refrain from plundering its most obvious archetypes. Ishihara is very much the clichéd dinosaur detective, so it’s little surprise that his boss is a young woman straight out of the academy who has never pounded the beat. McArthur clearly has some awareness of how hackneyed this is:
He consoled himself with the thought that in police manga, the young female detective is almost always rescued at the end by her more experienced male colleague. (68)It is a shame this awareness did not translate into revision. Given that McArthur spent sixteen years living in Japan, you might think she could impart some sense of what Japanese culture is like from an outsider’s perspective, but we are only presented with banalities. Stylistically, the best she can manage is the mundane execution of a decent observation:
He had shaved and changed his smoke-stained shirt, but he ate with a dogged care that told Ishihara how tired he was. (292).Again and again the feeling is that McArthur is better at watching than telling. This is obviously a bit of a problem in a writer.
McArthur is clearly politically aware, but she does not seem to know how to express this fact. In her previous novel, Time Past, she touched on important contemporary political issues such as globalisation and immigration. Here she mentions ID cards, national databases, terrorism laws but again shies away from actually grappling with them. In a similar fashion philosophical ideas engendered by the science fiction aspects of the book receive only cursory interrogation. In its ideas and execution, Less Than Human is timid to the point of being enfeebled.
So where Eclipse aims high and misses by a mile, Less Than Human aims much lower and just about hits its modest target. Neither situation is really acceptable for a novel that a jury has selected as the best of the year. At the close of his review of the short fiction Peek remarked:
[I]t is an appalling thought that someone could judge the standard of Australian speculative fiction by these fifteen stories… the majority of the stories rely on tired genre elements, lack vitality, creativity, or freshness, and have elementary flaws in characterisation and pacing. If you did not know better, you would assume that this represented the work from an entire population, an entire local scene that did not know how to recognise professional level writing and run a professional level award.Likewise the award for novel length science fiction only serves to present a damaging view of Australian genre fiction. If this is the best they can offer shouldn’t they keep quiet about it?
One problem is that the pool of Australian fiction is simply not large enough to credibly support such an award. There is no shame in this. There is shame, however, in falsely praising minor works, a process which merely serves to undermine the reputations of all involved. There are two issues involved here. Firstly, the major fan and juried awards of the much bigger markets of Britain and the United States are not closed to entrants from outside those countries (although, of course, native entries often win.) It is an understandable fear that such an open borders policy in Australian awards would leave little, if any, Australian fiction on the shortlists. Perhaps, though, only lauding that rare fiction that can compete on the international stage is preferable to the current situation. Secondly, and more troubling, is the fact that the award is split into five categories - science fiction, fantasy, horror, young adult and children – further reducing the amount of fiction available. Even if the award is restricted to Australian fiction (and there is a clear case for this, especially given how liberally the judges interpret “Australian”) there can be no reason to sub-divide so excessively. Something has to give: together these two facts make the awards simply unsustainable.
This review originally appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction #215.