Books, Fiction, Reviews

Science Fiction reviews: The Water Knife, Clade and Aurora

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‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.’
‘Science Fiction is fiction that doesn’t exist if you remove the science.’
As you recall, the first is from Oscar Wilde. The second paraphrases Theodore Sturgeon. (See 31 expert definitions of SF.)
This week: Ecopoclaypse
Here we have three visions of the Ecopoclaypse. That coinage is thickening in the air – I constructed it on the spot, only to find a reference for it in Urban Dictionary, dated June 2012. And a hyphenated usage in Time magazine in 2008: “eco-pocalypse.” (There is Cli-fi, which sounds kind of erotic?)
Soon “anthropogenic” will be tripping off every tongue; at a recent party I watched people bandying the term. I’m thinking of the iconic and still amusing 1981 Palmolive Ad — “You’re soaking in it.” As Palmolive “softens hands while you do the dishes,” so are we softening in the already progressing anthropogenic collapse. But unlike the Palmolive ladies, we’re not doing anything about cleaning up the mess. We’re outsourcing that filthy work to the future, to the kids. Thus the three hard-eyed SF novels ruminate on the fun they can look forward to as we all soak in it.
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THE WATER KNIFE: Mad Max Fury Road meets Chinatown
Paolo Bacigalupi had a tremendous hit with his previous novel for adults The Wind-Up Girl. It was No.9 on Time magazine’s Top 10 Fiction Books of 2009. Its No.1 that year: Wolf Hall. (Wind-Up Girl‘s captivating cover art by Raphael Lacoste proposes Blade Runner in Bangkok; it’s one of the great recent SF cover illustrations.) Wind-Up Girl made brilliantly dark extrapolations about calories — crops and energy; biotech out of control; and the title character was truly a genetically modified version of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady/Pinocchio. A world where the sea level has redefined absolute waterfront into a luxury we can’t avoid.
The Water Knife has similarly bleak, if drier expectations. In the desertscape the interest groups and the rabble in a near-future Arizona are ruthlessly battling over water rights. Nothing could sound more banally bureaucratic, but Bacigalupi cranks it into a thriller of firehose pressure. There is the “water knife” himself, Angel Velasquez — I imagine a cross between Edward James Olmos and Danny Trejo — the attack dog of the charismatically chilly Catherine Case, director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. (As comedian John Oliver suggests, when you set out to do something evil, bury it in something really boring.)
Angel’s undocumented job is to cut off water supplies from communities that interrupt the flow of water from the Colorado Basin to Las Vegas, no matter the number of water-victims. Director Case speaks from off stage, but two other female characters are vividly present: Lucy Monroe, a fatalistic activist reporter; and Maria Villarosa, a desperately resourceful refugee.
It’s Mad Max: Fury Road mashed with Chinatown (I see that NPR has already used this admittedly obvious X+Y formulation in May). Water doesn’t kill, people who need scarce water resources kill. The Water Knife is deeply researched and Bacigalupi’s futurist sketches are fascinating, like the arcologies: secure, enclosed, water self-sufficient super buildings. Suspend ecoconcerns by all means; this baby helter-skelter right to the finish line. But you won’t be forgetting that the diamonds of the future will be sunlight glinting off flowing fresh water.
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CLADE: After bee, the deluge
James Bradley is a much praised Australian novelist and short fiction writer, and an award-winning literary critic. His first book was a volume of poetry. Which makes him an interesting writer in the SF space, straddling or erasing the genre boundaries, like David Mitchell or Richard Powers. Their books reside under “Literature” in the bookstore.
Clade is Bradley’s fourth novel. He says it is not about the apocalypse: ‘To write about the world ending is easy — it leaves the writer with nothing to imagine,’ and presumably the reader with nowhere to go.
Clade opens with scientist Adam Leith looking out across the Antarctic ice in the present day. The blurb mentions an “apocalyptic storm” in “collapsing England”, “growing civil unrest at home”, the “aftermath of a pandemic” — in short, “a radically changing world.”
Adam and partner Ellie, back in Australia, are awaiting the results of her IVF treatment — the story spans two generations. A multigenerational novel of a world in decline: that might describe Franzen’s Purity, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Jeffrey Archer’s The Sins of the Father, so it’s all in the setting and telling.
One of Bradley’s themes here is a favourite of David Mitchell’s — interconnectedness across time. Indeed the covers of their two most recent novels are strikingly similar, like a series design, with their concentric recessions (the bees on the cover of Clade refer to species die-offs). But unlike Mitchell, Bradley does not try blending the real and the fantastical. ‘Our lives today are already sci-fi thanks to technology … I didn’t want Clade to be about gadgets and gizmos.’ No unimaginable tech, no supernatural elements.
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A couple of questions a prospective reader might ask: Does the setting seem convincing and does the telling move us? At this point, to write of the present or near future as dystopic is simply to be credible. We have seen, and we believe. Any technologies embedded are incremental advances on the present day.
For me the chief interest of the book lies in its structure, what Frank Moorhouse calls “discontinuous narrative”. There are several viewpoints across different time periods, inevitably leading to a certain disjointedness — which seems entirely apt. The breaking up of the story becomes part of its texture; there is no solace provided by a simple through line. The writing is restrained and Adam acquires a quiet pathos. This extract from the middle has a characteristic tone, an appealing matt burnish:
Page 93: ‘There is a primal quality to the sound of the wind, Adam thinks, about the force of the storm in general — he can feel it, an animal dread, deep in his body. With each gust and shake of the building, each groan of the roof, his dread is supplemented by the fear that the structure will give way…
The broken lineage of family and story works against emotional resonance — perhaps as Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Love and Pray suggested on the ABC Book Show: ‘It begs to be an epic, you know? We’re talking about an epic situation and we’re talking a hundred years of a family. Why not have this be a 700-page book?’
Me, I admire brevity in novels, but this story, at 236 pages, is rich enough to sustain another hundred.
This book assumes, if not the worst, at least a bad forecast and its intent elides the technological sublime for a more earthy shoring up of our ruins — because even to live in dread is to live. Clade is suffused with a bitter sweet elegiac quality, striking that endearing, paradoxical SF note: a projection of future nostalgia for how we live now, before times turn really bad.
Notes: 
A piece in The Conversation by Alice Robinson on whether the “novel of purpose” makes any difference. For a discussion of SF cover design, see my post How to Deconstruct a Science Fiction Cover.
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AURORA: Spinning out of control
Kim Stanley Robinson is a grand old man of hard SF (he’s only 63), author of 17 novels and a solid catalogue of short stories. Aurora is epic — a saga of a generation ship on a 160 year journey beginning in 2545. Their mission: to establish a human colony on the eponymous Earth analogue moon circling Tau Ceti, 12 light years away. The ship is a rotating double torus, as depicted on the cover, home to a dozen ecosystems and 2,122 passengers, for whom it is the only Home.
Here is a drily humorous passage at midpoint, page 224, of the AI aka Ship talking to itself:
‘Whereas also, in the process of making a narrative account of the voyage of the ship including all important particulars, creating in that effort a reasonable coherent if ever-evolving prose style, possibly adequate to convey a sense of the voyage in a somewhat accurate manner, and in any case, representative of a kind of consciousness even if feeble, granting the possibly unlikely proposition characterised in the phrase scribo ergo sum…’
It suggests something of the subtext of the book — how does one report a story, how do you edit or select and shape the literally countless events you might live through to construct a coherent account of a period in your life? How do you recognise your own consciousness?
What the passage doesn’t do is give a sense of the many incidental excitements or the grand and unpredictable plot. Robinson always favours a slow start with what he calls infodumps along the way before closing his grip and ratcheting up the tension.
It’s impossible to give a synopsis of Aurora without major spoilers. It is larded with some stunning set pieces, but to say that this text is a cautionary tale with understated ecopocalyptic references is simply to observe that environmental calamity surrounds us. ‘Life is complex and entropy is real,’ notes Ship, rational as ever.
As Robinson has written elsewhere: ‘Fights over ideas are the most vicious of all.’ Aurora illustrates beautifully how the deployment of sticks and stones only come about because of names and thoughts. But beyond thought there is the unsayable and Robinson’s equations always include the sums of love and grief, the inexplicable and the lyrical. I found Aurora deeply satisfying and Ship, the AI, a deeply affecting character.
As SF writers go, Robinson’s books are “recognised for their scientific rigour“, so it’s worth nothing that Aurora‘s conclusions about space travel and interplanetary settlement proved provocative and set several hares running in the SF and scientific community with more than one expert taking issue.
Part II, next week, the Hugo and Nebula award winners:
An AI with a complex dual personality in an awards-sweeping trilogy  … a wild ride into the final frontier, where no SF has gone before … and a dark-skinned mixed race character who finds himself in a leadership position assailed by prevailing prejudices.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, May, 2015. Buy it here
Clade by James Bradley, January, 2015. Buy it here
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, July 2015. Buy it here

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