Monday, 14 March 2011

Paul McAuley, Fairyland (1995)

1: SF and Fantasy

Is Fairyland Hard SF or Fantasy?

Of course, for many the distinction between ‘Science Fiction’ and ‘Fantasy’ is part of the problem rather than the solution. Yet I’d like to argue that there is a crucial difference between these two sorts of writing, something which has deep roots in the traditions of our genre. And I think it helps illuminate McAuley’s extraordinary achievement in his own Hard SF Fantasy Fairyland. Bear with me whilst I dilate on this topic a little.

Fantasy is premised on magic, the supernatural, the spiritual: it articulates a cosmos as a divine quantity, as does religion. The relationship between the individual and the universe in religion is an ‘I-Thou’. That same relationship, under the logic of Science, is an ‘I-It’. Science Fiction, which unsurprisingly begins when ‘science’ begins, is premised on a material, instrumental version of the cosmos. Fantasy happens in Dante’s solar system; SF in Copernicus’s and Kepler’s—indeed, Kepler is the author of what I take to be the first SF novel (the trip-to-the-moon speculation Somnium, written in the early 1600s and published in 1634). Personally I date the rise of SF from this period, and I see it as no coincidence that it happens about the same time that the effects of the Protestant Reformation established themselves in Europe. Without wishing to be sectarian, we might use ‘Catholic’ as a descriptor of Fantasy: the boss text of Fantasy in the twentieth century The Lord of the Rings is, amongst many other things, a great Catholic book. ‘Protestant’ writing, on the other hand, was (slightly) more amenable to the new Scientific thinking about the cosmos.

But in another sense it is misleading to tag Fantasy and SF with religious terminology in this manner: of course a great many SF writers, even Hard SF writers, have been Catholics or have come from Catholic backgrounds (Steve Baxter, one of the key living writers of Hard SF, is an example); and some Protestants (for instance the High Anglican C S Lewis) have been Fantasists, more comfortable inside medieval ‘I-Thou’ world-views. The ways in which the rise of SF is tangled up with the Reformation and the vicissitudes of scientific development in the seventeenth- to twentieth-centuries are complex. Even the Hardest of Hard SF is likely to be fascinated with tropes that are, at root, religious: transcendence, say—look at the works of Arthur C Clarke: rigorously rational and opposed to mumbo-jumbo, Clarke’s books nevertheless return again and again to transcendent, almost mystical conclusions, Childhood’s End (1950), ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) all move towards endings that border on the mystical sublime. The ‘sense of wonder’ that tough-headed atheist Hard-SF fans crave is closer than they admit to the sublime of religious contemplation.

I rehearse all this at the beginning of this piece (in rather truncated form) because it seems to me that Paul McAuley’s Fairyland mediates this divide more effectively than almost any other book I can think of. McAuley trained as a scientist before becoming a writer. His PhD was in botany and he worked as a researcher in California and the UK. His earlier novels are firmly rooted in an SF ethic (the blurb on the back of my copy of Secret Harmonies (1989) praises it as ‘better hard science writing than any British author since Clarke’). Fairyland is also carefully positioned in the idiom of Hard SF: nanotechnology, biotech, virtual-reality, genetic engineering, holograms, hardware. Nor is the idiom of the book Fantasy. It starts, rather, as cyberpunk; in a grittily run-down near-future London of cops and high-tech robbers, and although it moves away from this environment it never quite steps out of the ‘body/technology overlap’ and ‘reality=information’ premises familiar from cyberpunk. It is also stylistically resonant of those same Chandleresque crime stories, the densely worked texture of McAuley’s perfectly handled writing.

Yet in another sense Fairyland is Fantasy. This is the case not just because the book deals with ‘fairies’, important though that fact is. It is rather a formal truth of the book. McAuley has attempted an ambitious fusion of SF and Fantasy tropes, setting out to explore from several angles the dialectic of metaphorical (‘magical’) versus ‘real’ (‘technological’) that determines SF/Fantasy today. It does much more than simply bolt a few Fantasy props onto a noirish cyberpunk SF plotline, although all the props are there (elves, wizards, dragons, trolls, beautiful female warriors, castles, goblins and a Fairy Queen). Rather this is a book that interrogates the point at which culture determines the escapist other we associate with Fantasy.

Another way of putting this is to say that there are no High Fantasy gods and demons in McAuley’s book; there are only humans (and, in the case of the fairies, posthumans) striving and living. Everything in the novel is given a scientific, technical or at the very least a pseudo-scientific explanation. The novel’s ‘fairies’ are genetically engineered monkeys, conscious-less ‘dolls’ that are made over a second time by Alex Sharkey, a fat, anxious gene-hacker, and ‘Milena’ a brilliant and mysterious little girl. With this second reinvention the blue-skinned dolls become feral, canny, liminal creatures, who pursue their own projects on the margins of human society.

But despite the fact that it is set in a future world emptied out of theological certainty, there is a glamour in the interstices of this novel, a god-ish quality that touches and moves the reader for all that the fact that the novel never leaves its materialist-atheist idiom. One of the best definitions of this materialist-atheist understanding of the religious impulse comes from a 1931 essay by Aldous Huxley, ‘Meditation on the Moon’ in which Huxley defines ‘god’:
How shall we define a god? Expressed in psychological terms (which are primary—there is no getting behind them) a god is something that gives us the peculiar kind of feeling which Professor Otto has called “numinous” (from the Latin numen, a supernatural being). Numinous feelings are the original god-stuff from which the theory-making mind extracts the individualized gods of the pantheon. [Huxley, Music at Night and Other Essays (1931; reprinted London: Grafton 1986), 60-61]
For Huxley this ‘numinous’ feeling is a core aspect of the healthy psyche. It does not relate to the actual existence or non-existence of a divine being, but rather to the psychological make-up of the human animal. Alex, McAuley’s flawed hero, knows full well that he isn’t really in love with the girl he calls Milena; he knows that he’s only the victim of a sophisticated nanotechnological ‘love bomb’, infecting his brain. He knows that Milena is not actually the Fairy Queen; just as he knows (because he helped create them) that fairies are not actually magical woodland creatures, but only chimps profoundly genetically engineered and uplifted. And yet, in another sense, this knowledge does not obtain. Alex’s search for Milena, which structures the various strands of the book, gives meaning to his life. She is the focus for his sense of the ‘numinous’; and it is his feelings (of love, of yearning for something unattainable and transcendent, of fairy glamour) that seep through the diamond-sharp Hard-SF details of virus-bombs and manned missions to Mars, and create an aura about Fairyland that we can properly call magical. The postcard message that Alex sends Morag, after the latter character has endured a series of horrific adventures, manages to send shivers up the spine because it taps into this common apprehension of the numinous: ‘Still looking for Fairyland’ [269].

2: Three Fairylands

The books three parts provide three different modes of conceptualising ‘Fairyland’. The first ‘Edge Gliding’, set in London, treats that city as a metaphorical Fairyland; where the gap between the expertly delineated grim realities of London life on the streets and the sparkling conceit of Fairyland functions as an ironic reinforcement of the metaphor. Alex, the ungainly gene-splicer trying to pick a path between the demands of lethal gangsters and the harassment of cynical policemen, recalls his childhood with his mother, Lexis.
Alex … thinking of his mother, the times they had up in the windy air above the Thames. A nation of two, with the city at their feet. Sitting in the dark, watching the lights, Lexis slowly getting smashed on rum and coke. Fairyland, she’d tell her son. There’s anything you want out there, anything at all. [49]
This is an only partly ironic evocation of London as an ideal location (McAuley is nothing is not a London author; he lived in the city, and evidently he loves it). Part 1 of the novel—although often portraying London as broken-down, violent, seedy and unpleasant—nevertheless shares Lexis’s slightly misty-eyed, romantic excitement about the buzz of the streets, the possibilities of the city.

Part Two, ‘Love Bombing’, takes another ironic literalisation of ‘Fairyland’, this time the (unnamed, for copyright reasons) resort of Disneyland Paris. Taken over by wild fairies, who are tolerated by the big corporations because of the genetic agents they manufacture, this ‘Fairyland’ is a site of refugee camps, heavy surveillance, and some appalling violence. The section is built around an aid worker, Morag, and her search to recover a ‘changeling’ child kidnapped by the fairies. In other words, McAuley is working with the simulacrum of Fairyland that is a Disney theme park.

Part Three, ‘The Library of Dreams’, moves us to Albania, which for our purposes can better be described with the Shakespearian term ‘Illyria’. This is the location of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and is part of the same geographical world (Macedonia, Albania, Greece) as Shakespeare’s great fairy drama A Midsummer Night’s Dream (McAuley nods towards this with one of his chapter headings: ‘In Another Part of the Forest’). It’s here, where the ‘real’ fairies, and the ‘real’ Fairy Queen, are finally encountered. McAuley’s writing hits precisely the right spot in passages that expertly trace out the collision between actuality and fantasy. Attacked, Alex breaks a fairy’s neck; but he has already been infected by the fairy’s ‘fembots’ (the nanotechnological agents that power much of the book’s action), and his perception of the wood around him begins to change:
Slowly, like an old fashioned TV warming up, a new layer of reality is worked into his sight. The air is alive with bright motes that slant through the night, each as individual as a snowflake. It is as if every tree, every branch and every leaf, is coated with a frost of photons. Ahead a glorious music rises in a neverending harmonic.
‘Welcome to our land,’ the fairy croaks. Its head lolls on its broken neck. Its eyes are points of red flame. [349]
This Fairyland is, in one sense, only in Alex’s head. It evokes memories of his mother (‘the child who once stood with its mother on the shabby balcony of a highrise council flat, surveying the skeins of London’s lights … is now once again looking through his eyes. He hears Lexis say, quite distinctly, “Fairyland”’). And it leads to a lush vision that might be from a Victorian fairy painting:
A wash of huge, blurry stars arch overhead. The glow of the half-moon that hands above the treeline seems to be focused into a kind of temple of vaporous illumination in the middle of the road. Within that distilled light, a host of fairies and other creatures flank the two figures sitting on high-backed spiky chairs fretted from thin white spars that might be the bones of extinct birds. [349]
This, we might say, is all ‘only’ an illusion: but that doesn’t really help us understand what’s going on here. Because, in another sense Alex has truly arrived in the real Fairyland. Indeed, this seems to me one of the deep points of the book: the larger trajectory it takes from ‘metaphorical Fairyland’ (London), via ‘the simulacrum of Fairyland’ (the ‘Magic Kingdom’ of Disneyworld) to this complex interaction of real/hallucinated Fairyland in Illyria. This enacts a complex modernist/ postmodernist/post-postmodernist narrative logic (metaphor to simulacrum to the dialectical interrelation of real and imaginary) that provides the whole book with its larger-scale structuring principle. The central idea, Fairyland itself, shifts and moves just as Western culture, and its key icons, has shifted and moved over the last century or so. A book in motion.

3: A book in motion

It is not a coincidence that the novel opens in a railway station. Fairyland is a book about travel as reality (it ranges widely across Europe) and also a book about travel as metaphor—specifically, travel as evolutionary narrative. This evolutionary theme is present glancingly in Part 1 (Milena’s first pseudonym is ‘Alfred Russel Wallace’, and Alex ‘remembers that the idea of natural selection by survival of the fittest came to Wallace when he was tossing and turning in his hammock, burning with swamp fever … Evolution was a fever dream burning away the fossilized hierarchies of the Victorian age’, 51). This theme is more centrally apprehended in Part 2, where we discover that Milena is using the Magic Kingdom as a breeding ground to evolve by natural selection the nanotechnology she’s interested in. ‘We walk into the future,’ she says, making explicit the travel metaphor. ‘Fairyland isn’t a place … it’s a hyperevolutionary potential. It is where we can dream ourselves into being’ [265]. Finally, in Part 3, we understand cumulatively that the novel as a whole is about the evolutionary journey of the fairies themselves.

Fairyland is a restless novel, never content to settle in any one attitude or place. But this very restlessness is a key to the aesthetic project of the whole. Truth, in this novel, is not a set or solidified notion, but rather a continual movement towards a horizon of knowledge whose margin (as the poet put it) fades for ever and for ever as we move. It is not just that characters are constantly walking, driving, flying, travelling from place to place (although this is true); and nor is it just that characters are constantly reinvented themselves (although they are). The novel’s restlessness is a cultural fact, apparent, amongst other things, in the welter of cultural references.

It is also a deeply allusive novel. From the first few chapters alone we are presented with allusions to Oscar Wilde, Lou Reed, Gary Larson, Mortal Kombat, The Killing Fields, Benson and Hedges, Lamb’s Navy Rum, HMS Belfast, ‘Elvis, or Elle, or Fred Flintstone’ [56] and many others. But the point here is not to list all this stuff, but to recognise how McAuley’s pastiche and quotation from the full range of culture works in this book. McAuley’s quotations range from pop songs (there are too many examples of this to note), to painting (Turner’s Slaver Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying—Typhon Coming In, 58), to high literature (I’m confident that McAuley’s readers recognised the quotation from William Golding’s Free Fall in Alex’s walk up Charing Cross ‘past secondhand bookshops where bargain books burst in white hosannas from wooden racks’, 59). None of the allusions are random; they all relate to the main themes of the whole. McAuley even has his characters pointedly not get popular cultural references. Milena is talking about one fembot that spreads an ‘abduction by aliens’ meme. ‘“Klaata barada nikto,” Alex says, and isn’t surprised to see that she doesn’t get it’ [82]. Milena might recognise High Cultural reference, but not 1950s SF films. Later Alex quotes ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ to Katrina, but once again she ‘doesn’t get the reference’ [289]. Not everybody is, or can be, as crammed with cultural knowledge as Alex, or as McAuley.

The motion is counterpoised by a steadier set of thematic and mythic anchors. Underpinning this kaleidoscopic welter of pastiche reference is a series of architectural or sustaining intertextual references, repeated many times. It will often happen that a writer will adapt a classic or familiar narrative to his or her own purposes; and if done well this strategy can pay off twice—the story borrows from the resonance and power of the original story, and at the same time we recognise the riffs and variations—powerful and expressive in themselves—that the author has worked on a traditional base. So we recognise Hamlet when we watch Disney’s Lion King, we hold in our heads Wagner’s Ring when we read Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series. McAuley’s ambitions are larger, and skill in keeping multiple balls juggling in the air defter than either Donaldson or Disney. Quite apart from relating his narrative ubiquitously to the traditions of fairy Fantasy, he orchestrates a number of other intertexts. Four in particular struck me: first, Frankenstein (Alex and Milena act as a sort of Frankenstein in giving life to the first fairies, their creation then assuming powers they did not anticipate); second, Tarzan (we remember that both dolls and fairies were originally genengineered from monkeys; Alex functions as a kind of king and an ironic anti-Tarzan, fat, unfit, unphysical, to whom Milena, overlooked in the first part by ‘Nanny Greystoke’, is a sort of Jane); thirdly, the Terminator films (themselves, of course, versions of Frankenstein)—films about the relationship between humans and a technologically created mode of life that proves both threat and friend: the novel twice cites the tag line ‘come with me if you want to live’ [259, 375]; and finally, Arthurian myth. Indeed, the characters themselves are most likely to try and make sense of the multifarious sorts of experiences they undergo with reference to this last reference. Milena tells Alex that she ‘chose him to be her Merlin’ [101]; he recalls it later in the book: ‘she called me her Merlin, once upon a time … well, if I’m Merlin, then she’s Nimue’ [320].

This novel, in addition to telling an exciting and thought-provoking story peopled with vivid and believable characters (as any good novel should) works through these underlying mythic contours in firework scatterings of allusion, reference and intertextuality. It’s mode is not exactly meditative (it moves too rapidly for meditation); but it does process the mixed implications of genetic-engineering, of slavery and the effects slavery has on both slaves and enslavers (Slaver Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying—Typhon Coming In), of the power of fantasy, of the unconventional but life-warping shapes love takes. There are, accordingly, many points of access to the novel; readers interested in different things may find in Fairyland fertile dramatisations of the crises and exhilarations of technology, the imagination, the media, war, life, love.

It is also an extremely well-written book. McAuley builds up his world by an, as it were, verbal and semiological impasto, giving it tremendous immediacy by writing in the present-tense. He can also turn a vivid or arresting phrase better than almost any writing working today: an overbred dog is ‘a crufty creature’ [11]; Alex ‘sits under a roaring air conditioner outlet’ in a loading bay one hot night in London, whilst ‘traffic ghosts by at either end of the little street’ [56]; another night-time, still in London ‘a dog barks monotonously as if barking is the one idea it has left’ [117; McAuley reused this image in The Secret of Life]; Morag tries to get to sleep in a strange flat: ‘the swags of cable seem ominously like snakes, the random pinhole speckles in the ceiling tiles a movement away from making some kind of sense’ [233]; in Illyria ‘crickets stitch the night with pulses of insect code’ [336]. It’s all beautifully written, and to more than just localised effect. This dense, vivid style is about creating a certain affect of immediacy, of ‘realness’, that is absolutely germane to the themes of the book. It is one of the reasons the book works as well as it does: the richness of the writing continually connects us back to the texture of lived experience, saving the work from becoming too esoteric.

But it seems to me that there is a deeper mythic equation underpinning the modish seeming-chaos of the novel’s glittering surface. And it is at this point that analysis of the novel moves towards the more subjective: so that if I talk about the particular site of the numinous for me—the White Goddess—I may no longer be communicating with the reader of this essay (who may find the numinous in quite another place). It may also be bending the novel around the lines of force of my own response, rather than being, as a critic should be, properly attentive to the particularities of the text in front of me. But this is how the book struck me, and powerfully, when I first read it.

The White Goddess

The spine of the novel, we might say, is ‘Alex searching for Fairyland’. In practice this general search boils down to looking for a particular woman (Milena, or Antoinette as she is later called). In other words the book elaborates the relationship between the male acolyte (in terms of poetic myth, the hanged king; or, as one character in the book describes Alex, Spenser’s ‘parfit gentle knight’, 318) and the Great Goddess, the Fairy Queen herself.
The crucial work here (not mentioned explicitly in Fairyland but, I feel sure, present in its conception) is Robert Graves’ eccentric but brilliant ‘historical grammar of poetic myth’ The White Goddess (1946). The elusive, alluring, cruel and powerful female figure that is the object of Alex’s search is none other than Graves’s Muse figure; and Alex is perfectly well aware of this. Mrs Powell, the Englishwoman Alex and Katrina run into in Albania, asks who Milena is, and Alex reels off this answer. He could be quoting chunks from Graves’s book:
She wants to be thought of as the lineal descendant of Daphoene, the huntress of the moon, the triple goddess of the moon, the triple goddess of air, earth, and the secret waters of death … The Age of Reason was almost a fatal blow to the triple goddess, but in its ending is a new beginning. The last century saw the deposition of the paternal God who was set on the throne of Zeus, which was once her throne … [Milena] believes she is the triple goddess returned. In Catholic countries the triple goddess never quite went away, for the cult of Mary was little more than a dilution of her own cult. Crusaders brought back a version of this story to Britain, although Mary quickly became Marian, the companion of that Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood. She is waiting, a seed in the bitter earth … It was she who ordered the lives of our ancestors. Without her there was no sacrifice of temporary kings; without her no seasons, no harvest. And here she is again, incarnated as the self-appointed queen of the fairies. She marked me, you know. Long ago when she was making her first fairy. I’ve been trying to understand ever since. [318-9]
In other words, Alex is a version of Thomas the Rhymer (working with genes and fembots rather than words), in thrall to the Queen of Fairy. His friends find it hard to take seriously the notion that Alex is actually, hopelessly in love with Milena; and the fact that her ‘glamour’ has a technological-mechanical explanation (the fembots with which Milena infected Alex in London the night they created the first Fairy) seems similarly to devalue his feelings for her. Yet not only Alex but the whole novel is in thrall to the White Goddess: as is—in fact—most of McAuley’s fiction.

This is by no means to suggest that Fairyland is a New Age novel, a crystal-believing dreamcatcher-hanging exercise in neo-mystic gibberish. On the contrary, McAuley’s imagination has deep roots in English and Celtic myth, where most of the Glastonbury tree-hugger crowd are interested only in the tinsel. Mrs Powell (who may have been introduced into the novel gently to satirise precisely this contemporary tendency towards muddle-headed romanticism) says to Alex ‘we really do have a lot in common’, but he retorts: ‘not really. You believe that’s the literal truth. I believe it’s a metaphor my dark lady has been playing with’ [320]. The point here, I think, is that the metaphorical is better than the literal. Certainly Fairyland dramatises its titular metaphor so powerfully, and (I have been arguing) so variously—which is to say, in so fertile and unfolding a manner—that we can begin to understand how living metaphor works as the pumping heart of Art; not the straight-jacket of allegory, but something deeper and more creative.

Morag encounters the Fairy Queen only once, in a beautifully handled, hallucinatory scene (pages 262-67), but the meeting ends in loss.
Morag realizes that the woman [Milena] has been growing smaller—when she speaks her last word, she and her retinue are no higher than Morag’s knees. Then Morag realizes that they not shrinking but flying from her. The speed of their passage makes their clothes flap and billow like banners around them.… Morag goes down on her knees, on her belly, to watch them dwindle into unguessable distances, and then she is awake.
She is lying on a cold bleak hillside. [267]
The allusion, of course, is to Keats’s extraordinary fairy-poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, a lyric whose mournful beauty is unsurpassed even amongst Keats’s exquisite body of poetry. A Knight at arms meets a lady ‘full beautiful, a faery’s child’, with whom he falls in love. Lulled asleep by her he sees a vision:
I saw pale Kings, and Princes too
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all
Who cried La belle dame sans merci
Thee hath in thrall.

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill’s side.
Here is the ‘numinous’ Huxley was talking about. If reading this poem doesn’t send shivers up your spine, then there must be something wrong with you.

McAuley’s Fairyland does more than just invoke this powerful poetic mythos: the book explores the way this romantic image gets reconfigured under what, for want of a better phrase, we had better call the logic of postmodernity. Take two key scenes where the book steps entirely into the fantasy idiom of Fairyland: first the one I’ve just mentioned, from the end of part 2, with its deliberately overinflected Keatsian lushness (‘the night is alive with light, a river of stars carried by people with grave, beautiful, shuttered faces, endlessly rising from darkness and sinking away’, 264). This, we might say, is the traditional, romantic conception of Fairyland, a locus classicus for the numinous White Goddess (as Robert Graves argues at some length, we find her not only in Keats, but in Coleridge’s Christabel and ‘the Nightmare Life-in-Death’ from The Ancient Mariner). We can set against this a second visit to Fairyland, placed in a structurally similar place towards the end of the third part of the novel: ‘green hills saddle away under a bright blue sky towards a horizon where … a vast forest looms … In the middle distance, a little pavilion, its walls cream silk, its conical roof pink, is pitched in a daisy-starred meadow. A white horse grazes beside it. The horse has a spiral, nacreous horn as long as a man’s hand growing from its forehead’ [380]. This saccharine vision strikes Alex, understandably, as ‘a bit of an anti-climax’ (McAuley even flirts with overstatement when ‘a disneyfied bluebird flies up to the window, its brown, human eyes, with coy fluttering lashes, stare into Alex’s’).

This disneyfied simulacrum of Fairyland replaces the older, Keatsian mode; thematically mimicking the broader trajectory of the novel. Because one of the many things the novel does is to trace out a shift from ‘real city’ (London, in part 1), to simulacrum city (The Magic Kingdom, in part 2), to a VR simulacrum of a simulacrum (on the net, in part 3—it is in virtual space that Milena/Antoinette finally apotheosises). If this positions the book as in part about the postmodern retreat from authentic reality into simulation, then it needs to be said that Fairyland is much more than this. Like Alex, the novel traces a path towards an unreachable (and female) object of desire. As Graves says, the White Goddess is the Triple Goddess; she is maiden mother and crone; she is air, earth, and the secret waters of death; she is Nimue, and Mary, and the Fairy Queen. But above all she is the Muse, and Fairyland is a work written, almost archaically, in thrall to the Muse. Understanding this begins to open the beauties and numinous chill of this wonderful book.

[Footnote: I wrote the above in January 2005, for Paul Kincaid’s excellent volume, The Arthur C Clarke Award: a Critical Anthology (2006). I’m reprinting it now to tie-in with Orion’s ‘Celebrating Fairyland and 25 years of the Arthur C. Clarke Award’ post—nobody who is interested in SF excellence needs reminding about how central the Clarke award has been to British SF over the last quarter century: the list of winners really is is a rollcall of SFnal excellence. Still, though a couple of other winners run it close, I’d still pick Fairyland for my Clarke-of-Clarkes, should such a meta-award ever be mooted. Partly that’s because it is a novel that chimes particularly melodiously with some personal crotchets of mine; for all aesthetic judgement is grounded in the personal. But all aesthetic judgement should also aim to transcend the personal, and I’d maintain that, irrespective of my personal response, this is a book of remarkable power, wholeness and beauty.

And on a related note (whilst we’re talking prizes); a word about the editor who originally commissioned this piece, Paul Kincaid. Paul is one of those people without whom British SF, and SF criticism, wouldn’t be what it is now (not least because of his own involvement in the Clarke award). You can see from his website that his own critical writing has been shortlisted for a range of prizes (including a Hugo for Related Book; and BSFA, Locus and BFS Awards for Non-Fiction) without actually winning any. He has been BSFA-nominated once again this year for his excellent roundup review of the Hugos. It’s the best piece of criticism on the list, I’d say; and Paul is long overdue recognition for his critical writing. So if you’re a BSFA member do me a favour: get in touch with Donna Scott, and vote for him this year


Chris said...

Sounds very interesting and I have reserved, although I worry with deeply allusive novels that I might spend too much time spotting the allusions, tracking them down and putting them in my collecting jar. Something that's much easier today than when it was published.

The opening line of the review did make me wonder - is SF to Hard SF as Fantasy is to High Fantasy?

Adam Roberts said...

Chris: well, this is more by way of being a critical article, so I don't start out by stressing -- as I would in a review -- how very readable, and compelling this novel is, irrespective of its allusiveness. It would be a shame if this piece gave potential readers any other impression.

A Writer said...

This sounds fucking great! Ordering now.

Ruzzock said...

really good to see this - Fairyland remains one of my favourite books, and it is very satisfying to see some heavy duty critical perception brought to bear, and bringing out the real genius of the text. (On a similar note, what about a re-read and re-appraisal of Cecilia Holland's Floating Worlds - a book that one generation of SF readers rated highly, but which I suspect is now forgotten. It too has something of this genre-straddling quality - with its roots in a failed historical novel, its apparent allegiance to political hard SF of the 70s, but with a space opera reach to the plot - or is it the other way round.

As for Fairyland, my own view would be that some of the last third of the book doesn't work that well, enjoyable though Illyria/Albania may be. The burning man wandering in cyberspace didn't make a huge amount of sense (and distractingly evoked Bester (?)), and most of the plot that involved the digital uploading of personality seemed disappointingly mainstream for a book whose plots up to that point had been anything but.

I know you rate McAuley's quiet war series highly, but I have to say that nothing that he's written since (and I've bought everything, even if I haven't always got to the end (Whole Wide World,anyone?)has quite reached the imaginative and literary (woops, sorry, forbidden word in SF quarters) heights of Fairyland.

Thanks for writing about it - a really excellent piece of work.

David Duffy said...

On Fairyland, surely the biggest influence at the time of writing would be Little, Big. The other SFnal handling of Faerie I have been impressed by is Poul Anderson's Harvest of Stars (1992), where the post-humans on the moon have remade themselves in that image: tolerated for inscrutable technology desired by ordinary mortals, cold and alluring, aristocratic and violent.

On Floating Worlds, yeah ;) On rereading the debt to Foundation and Empire, was slightly more grating [the Wikipedia notes Genghis Khan], but the anarchist heroine good value. It a while since I read it, but her career is presumably flavoured by those of the foreign women at the Ottoman court eg Nurbanu Sultan.

Gregory said...

Very good analysis. This is why we of the Campbell award gave this fine novel the 1997 award.
Gregory Benford