Friday, 30 March 2012

Ben Markovits, Playing Days (Faber 2010)

Full disclosure requires I note that Markovits is both a colleague and a friend of mine; but though 'full disclosure' is often a token gesture it seems peculiarly appropriate in this context.  Playing Days is, amongst other things, about full disclosure. In the most obvious sense it is closer to memoir than novel. Markovits, an American, played professional basketball in his youth for a German team, living the while in Landshut, near Munich. His first novel was The Syme Papers which came out in 2004. Playing Days tells the story of a character called Ben Markovits, an American, playing professional basketball for a German team in Landshut, near Munich, and in his spare moments working on the first drafts of a novel called The Syme Papers. The few facts I know about this period of Markovits’ life fit precisely with the representation; but then again such facts as I know about him are of course external ones. If Playing Days claims to be fiction rather than memoir it is presumably on its psychological and emotional grounds. The title page says ‘Playing Days: a Novel’, and perhaps the subtitle is meant playfully—it has the faint shading of irony; not quite as full-on as Conrad subtitling the very unsimple The Secret Agent ‘A Simple Tale’; closer, perhaps, to Hardy’s title-page gloss on Tess as ‘A Pure Woman’. Then there’s the dedication, ‘To My Father’ (Markovits senior appears in the novel), which is followed, as we turn the page, by the book’s most tendentious moment, an epigraph from Byron. Of course, Byron.
But I hate things all fiction—there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric—and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.
OK then.

Since the purpose of this essay is not really reviewerish evaluation I suppose I need to get out of the way (if it doesn’t seem unseemly) the praise: this is an extraordinarily good novel, beautifully written, consistently and sometimes hypnotically involving on subjects about which I am either indifferent (basketball) or else which are designedly uneventful: waiting around, indecision, small-scale failure. The way things don’t quite happen. There are two main currents; on the one hand, we get a sensitive account of Markovits’ relationship with a local woman called Anke, the mother of a young child, separated but not divorced from one of Markovits’s team-mates, a Southern US man with the rather wonderful name of Bo Hadnot. On the other we have a detailed account of Markovits as part of the basketball team; his teammates (some American, some German), his coach, training, more training, the economics of running a minor league basketball team in a Continent in love with another sport—football—and accounts of basketball games. Markovits, cannily I think, does not soft-pedal any of this. Quite a high proportion of the whole is stuff like this:
Olaf drifted up to the elbow and Hadnot cut in to meet him with his forearms crossed. The big man curled off him, and Jurkovich stepped out to slow him down. Bo turned, too, but on the outside pivot, and Jurkovich got stuck on his shoulder. Karl bounced the pass in and Hadnot used the lift of the bounce to send him into his motion. [112]
And from time to time characters make this sort of assessment of one another:
Bad hands, too small, and what coaches call “hard”. Decent ups, a respectable shooting stroke, but no inside moves. His rotational quickness was poor, which is what big men depend upon in the pivot. [229]
As a fan of SF I’m used to reading descriptions larded with baffling terminology, and I quite liked all this material: I never doubted it was precisely framed, but it generated a useful distanciating effect.

The best sports novels, the cliché goes, are only incidentally about their sport. They are, rather, about the characters who play the sport, about the mentality of winning (or losing), about being part of a team or being isolated from a team. Playing Days is certainly about all that stuff, and some other things besides. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive; it’s superbly well rendered. One of the themes of the novel is repetition, and in this respect basketball is the right sport to write about. The thing I most love about football—the way so few goals are scored, the way the play builds and builds tension that is only finally released in the joy of your team scoring (or the agony of the opposing team scoring against you)—seems to me fatally dissipated in those US sports where points are scored with relentless frequency: basketball, baseball, hockey, American 'foot'-ball and so on. Some of the most viscerally exciting games I have ever watched have been close fought 1-0, or 2-1 matches; and when England beat German 5-1 (five whole goals!) it felt like a cataract, but that in turn set free blocked energies of having been, for decades previously, mostly beaten by Germany. Basketball is different. A player needs to score fifty points in a game for people to consider it remarkable. On the other hand, this is precisely what draws Markovits: not dissipated energies, but rather repetition—the repetition of training, day after day; the repetition of playing individual matches, scoring, clocking up scores; the repetition of playing match after match and slowly working your way up the league tables, hoping for a play-off place at the end of the season.

Markovits has inherited from his father a Jewish surname and Jewish looks, something he comments on in the novel. In Munich he attends a synagogue, looking amongst other things for community. He doesn’t understand the prayers, but joins in anyway.
I suppose the men there were as various as any other set of old men, but to my eyes they seemed mostly short and a little fat. It was something of a relief, after a week devoted to the perfection of the body, to spend an hour or two among people who had long ago accepted the eccentricities of their own. Besides, I didn’t really want to understand the prayers; incomprehensibility was a part of their charm. We bowed and ducked and shouted and mumbled. Sport is the art of repeating meaningless and tiny acts; I liked the idea of a God who required a similar duty in his people. [67]
The novel makes a lot, deftly and insightfully, out of this trope of repetition. It’s expressive: every writer knows that novels only get written by the writer clocking on, repeatedly, day after day, and going through many of the same motions over and over. Many jobs are like this; as are the habits of (say) raising children. Sex too, of course, involves repeating meaningless and tiny acts; and sex is one of the topics of Playing Days, as Markovits’ relationship with the attractive Anke moves from surreptitious voyeurism through friendship and drawn-out courtship to consummation, and then again through the dying fall into estrangement. Indeed, one of the novel’s few false-touches, I thought, was its opening paragraphs (the first sentence is ‘my first recognizable sexual experience took place in the weight room of my junior high school, after class, during basketball practice.’) It seems to promise something rather more gauche, or tacky, than the novel actually delivers.  In fact sex is handled in novel obliquely: the homosocial bond between the men is lightly treated, the (if you’ll pardon the phrase) ins-and-outs of Ben and Anke's phsyical relationship left discretely off-stage. That’s right, too; Playing Days has a core vehicle—basketball—that can do all that work perfectly well without spilling it all over the page.

Basketball is a sport that rewards not brilliance per se, but the ability to be consistently brilliant, to repeat brilliant manoeuvres over and over again.**  Hadnot, Anke’s estranged husband and Markovits’s teammate (the novels plays the awkwardness of this juxtaposition very well indeed), has something of this brilliance.
On the Tuesday, after lunch, I headed back to the gym to work on my shot and found Hadnot there. No one had turned the lights on, and for a minute I stood in the tall twilight of the sports hall watching him, about twenty feet away. ... Of course, whatever he was doing he had done a hundred thousand times before, planting his feet, lining his elbow up and following through. Watching the ball go in or out, starting from scratch. How much would it help him to practice a thousand more? But you do it anyway. [284]
Markovits has, the novel implies, perhaps inherited this machinic ability to repeat things over and over again from his father. We learn that Markovits senior likes ‘ethnic foods’, which is to say, ‘anything that can be consumed in small repeatable portions.’ When he visits he plays with Anke’s daughter with the repetitive persistence that small kids really love. The narrator notes that ‘my father has always liked children ... it’s his job, but it suits him too, and tests his great patience, whch I have inherited to a degree, for repetition’:
Franzisca had found a small plastic ball in the playground, which she wouldn’t let go of, even when climbing—she kept falling over wet bars. My father convinced her at last to let him roll the ball up the slide instead of down and crouched at the bottom, propping her in his lap. He threw it against the incline, again and again; they watched it bounce towards them. Franziska tried to catch it by clapping her hands together, but mostly she just clapped, [199-200]
As it happens repetition bores me very much, agonizingly so sometimes, so all this struck me forcefully. Anke at one point compares Markovits with her (soon to be) ex-husband. ‘“You are like Bo,” Anke said to me. “You don’t mind doing something over and over again.”’ [249] But this is a compromised virtue; one of its faces is ‘stubbornness’. Bo Hadnot, for instance, refuses to learn German properly, even though he is living and working in Germany and more to the point even though his daughter doesn’t speak any English. The pig-headedness serves him as a sportsman (‘all he does is play basketball and think about basketball’), although even there the matter is complicated; but as a pen-portrait of a human being Hadnot comes over as trapped in stubborn small-c conservatism and competitiveness in ways that make him nothing but miserable. Anke, having had one failed relationship with a basketball player, looks for much of the novel to be about to repeat her mistake with Markovits. The narrative/protagonist himself, unsparingly, attributes his own actions, or his more damaging inaction, to laziness and drift; but there’s a stubbornness there, too. Or perhaps the stubbornness is in the grain of things; the way the cosmos keeps wheeling through the same old same old, the inertia of it all.
Books are mostly about things happening to people, I said, but nothing ever seems to happen to me. So I want to write books about that. ‘That doesn’t sound very interesting,’ she said. [166]
It is interesting, of course; because it speaks to our sense of how life is actually lived, or our lives at any rate. Or: it is interesting if it is written properly. The book builds to the sort of climax we might associate with a sports-novel: the team, though put together on the cheap and insufficiently coached, manages to pull together. Hadnot leaves and goes to play for the opposition, but they make the league playoffs anyway. Victory will mean promotion, more money, more coverage and for the best players a shot at the big time. Landshut play Würzburg, the team to which Hadnot had defected. Markovits and Hadnot meet on the court as rivals, with Anke in the audience (over-egging it slightly, the narrator comments ‘I wondered who she was rooting for’ [310]). Hadnot is getting on, but has significant talent and a victory here could give his career the boost to achieve greater things. The game is close-fought, and comes down to the last seconds. Markovits, marking Hadnot, has a sudden insight into the move he is going to try: ‘plant your right foot, take two hard dribbles right. Fix the defender against your left shoulder. Plant your left foot, then jump a little backwards with your shoulder still turned and shoot. If you do it correctly, moving quick and hard, it’s almost impossible for anyone to reach your shooting hand. Hadnot alone in the gym expected to make eight out of ten ... Against a tall defender, who knew what was coming, his chances dropped to five out of ten; he had told me this himself’ [312]. Here is the last paragraph-and-a-bit of the novel:
When we were working on the move together, one morning before practice, I asked him again what he thought about while going up to shoot—forgetting I had asked him before. But this time he gave a different answer. “I always think the same damn thing,” he said. “Go in.” The phrase came back to me, in the heat of that moment, as phrases sometimes do—without meaning much. For a few seconds we stood there, amid three thousand people, on one of those strange, sudden islands that emerge from the flow of play. This is how I like to think of him; just as far away as the reach of my arm, with the ball in his hands and everything still undecided.
This is a beautiful moment on which to end: the culminating swerve where the thing repeated over and over gives, unexpectedly, a different answer, or else fails to do. But Markovits doesn’t leave it there, and I rather wish he had (perhaps he considered it too cheesy, like the freeze frame at the end of another sporting text, the movie Gallipoli). There is a 9-page epilogue in which we discover who won the play-off, what happened to Hadnot—and to Markovits. Too many loose ends are methodically tied; we can, after all, intuit from the novel itself that Markovits abandoned basketball for writing. Or perhaps it is his sense that the freeze-frame mendaciously isolates moments of intensity that are actually experienced, in life, in terms of anticipation and longer-lingering aftermath and anticlimax. Markovits is, as a writer, particularly gifted at the representation of those latter two qualities; and verisimilitude is certainly part of his skill-set. In his essay on Colm Tóibín’s Henry James novel, The Master, [in Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan (eds), The Good of the Novel (Faber 2011), 186-200] Markovits praises Tóibín’s rather un-Jamesian prose:
What Tóibín avoids, for the most part, are metaphorical flights and grammatical complexities ... When he runs on he runs on unashamedly, connecting the parts of his thought with nothing more elaborate than a few commas. He balks at elegant variations, and has never taken seriously Nabokov’s advice, to avoid starting successive paragraphs with the same word. Subject + verb suits him fine. Children tell stories by saying, this and then this and then this; his novels are enormously complicated versions of this technique. The effect can be relentless, but his relentlessness is also deeply persuasive. Modesty is the proof he gives us of his realism. [188]
He could be describing his own writing in Playing Days; indeed, he could be describing the flow and leap of a player on the basketball court (‘when he runs on he runs on unashamedly’). The repetitiveness of this approach is, as the phrase goes, a feature, not a bug; not only well-fitted to the repetition of the sport Markovits is describing, but to the larger aesthetic project of writing about the way things don’t happen, the way life is an untraumatic, non-Beckettian, ordinary and in a way happy series of repetitions of nothing very much. The question I have is the modesty one. He means it in an aesthetic rather than a personal or practical sense, but although it tells its semi-, or hemi- or whatever-autobiographical story with a quantity of effective self-effacement, I’m not sure modesty is really the currency of this novel. That US habit of treating the word ‘loser’ as the most devastating of put-downs can’t help filtering through. The point of view is rather more with the lions than the Christians. ‘There’s a lot of talk in the sporting news about the love of underdogs,’ the narrator opines towards the end, ‘but it really shouldn’t be confused with an attraction to failure. Really what we like to see is people winning and beating others—the bigger victim, the better’ [301]. Gracious, really? An attraction to failure would be, what—morbid? In a passage I had to read twice to try and work-out if it was framed ironically, the narrator reports on what it is like playing for a winning team.
It turns out that playing for a winning club is kind of wonderful. No matter what else is going on in your personal life, you’re always a little bit happy. Not deeply happy, of course, but as happy as you might be in this first few weeks after buying a new convertible. It’s enough on a sunny afternoon to be driving around in it with the top down, to be publicly visible.’
I don’t think this is irony; I think it’s as ingenuously shallow as it seems, which in turn makes the tonal qualifications (‘kind of’ ‘not deeply happy of course’) a little jarring. Jarring not because the passage trades in a kind of immodesty, but because if you’re going to be immodest you might as well do it wholeheartedly. Winning makes us happy; new cars make us happy; showing off to other people makes us happy. The converse is presumably that losing, not having material possessions, not having a crowd to show-off to, make us unhappy. That’s not fair, of course; Playing Days is a much more nuanced and subtle piece of fiction than that. And I suppose there is some force to the objection that a Jamesian, or perhaps more pointedly a late-Jamesian approach to the business of representing human psyches and their interactions can turn obliqueness itself into a sort of fetish, in ways that are more evasive than revealing. And there is a central point which I haven't made yet, but which is actually vital.  The largest trajectory of Markovits’ novel is about how he didn’t repeat—how he did minor-league basketball for a while in Germany but now he’s doing something quite different. If he was a minor basketball professional he is a major novelist, so we might want to say: he jumped the right way. And perhaps that’s one of the things the novel is about, as well.

**

A personal postscript. To go back to that Byron epigraph once again.
But I hate things all fiction—there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric—and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.
I want, naturally, to avoid the cheap trick of turning this essay about a near-memoir into a near-memoir itself, but I will note that when I opened the book and read that Byronic passage my first thought was: ‘hey, Ben really is a very different sort of novelist to the sort I am, whatever that is.’ Because that Byron quotation seems to me almost entirely wrongheaded.  It seems to me that any given novel’s relationship to reality, though unavoidable and even, to some extent, a becessary feature of its effectiveness, ought to be ironic rather than mimetic. Markovits is capable of genuinely brilliant ironies as a writer, here and elsewhere; but his overall approach here is evidently on the mimetic side of things. Indeed, only our chance proximity, teaching at the same institution, even prompts the comparison: for what sane critic would put one of my novels alongside one of Markovits’s? But my point is, on reflection I’m not sure we are that different as writers. I’m not talking, incidentally, in terms of our respective merits, something I neither would nor, frankly, could attempt to judge.  No, I mean approach, I mean the sort of books we write (whether or not we successfully achieve what we’re aiming at). To be a little more precise, I would say that Markovits and I are different varieties of the same thing: Romantic writers. Byron -- about whom Markovits has written a trilogy of novels, and to whom he evidently feels a complicated sort of affinity -- was, in one sense, the least Romantic of the Romantic poets. He despised most of his contemporaries, Southey and Wordsworth (‘Turdsworth’ he called him) most of all, and he thought the last great English poet had been Pope. He was a writer whose sensibilities were much more classical than anything else, and whose writerly self-revelations were very different to those of what has come to be called ‘confessional’ writing—extremely allergic to gush or self-pity, his self-revelations are staged instead according to a drama of self-conscious doomed nobility—a drama which, perhaps counter-intuitively, is as hospitable to the comic as the tragic. Me, I like Byron fine, but my heart has always been with Shelley and Keats (and even more, with Tennyson and Browning). De gustibus, and so on. I write science fiction novels of varying degrees of metaphorical extravagance. Markovits writes autobiographical fictions that evade confessional mush with a precision of tone and insight. I came across a passage from Santayana in a recent Adam Phillips book (the passage is from The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy).  It strikes me as pertinent here:
To understand oneself is the classic form of consolation; to elude oneself is the romantic.
I have the sense Markovits’ writing gets him closer to understanding himself than mine does to me eluding me. But part of the thing this very fine basketball novel achieves is the sense that understanding is a less dramatic, more elusive thing than it is sometimes taken to be.

---
** You might want to object that all sport is like this, but I don't think so.  To watch a film like Zidane is to be struck how much of the match that amazing player spent doing nothing very much, standing about, strolling up and down.  That's how I play football too, as it happens.  The difference is that when Zidane did get on the ball, he was astonishing.  Matthew Le Tissier was a bit like that, too.  Me ... not so much.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Geoffrey Hill, The Orchards of Syon (2002)

This week's Unexpected Coming Across The Name Of Connie Willis In A Book In Which I Really Did Not Expect To Find Such A Thing is Orchards of Syon by the abstruse Geoffrey Hill ('The greatest living poet in the English language', Nicholas Lezard; 'the best writer alive in the English language', A N Wilson). The book is a long poem, seventy-two 24-line blank verse stanzas that's sort-of about versions of Eden, but also of course about all the classic Hill themes: difficulty, attentiveness, respect for tradition (English social and national tradition, European poetic tradition), death, darkness. Not a bag of laughs. Tom Payne's Telegraph review is nice insofar as it refuses to play Hill's game, but also contains this nugget:
He writes about things that matter, such as the horrors of history and abuses of language. Better still, he tries to redeem language by honouring his words' etymologies and exploring their potential. In this collection he comes closest to attaining that redemption, with bursts of rapture and occasionally colourful landscapes. It is, we learn, a kind of Paradiso, making, together with his previous three books, a kind of Divina commedia. That said, you might laugh more reading Dante. In a periodical called Stand (whose latest issue is mostly devoted to Hill, coming as it does from Leeds University, where he used to teach), one friend lets slip that secretaries used to call him "Chuckles".
I was, at any rate, surprised to find this in stanza 50:
Covenants, yes; outcries, yes; systemic
disorders like the names of rock-plants, yes;
right side for creativity, yes; and well
if none of us / fails our prevision.
Re SEVENTH SEAL: prefer bright Connie
Willis to glum Ingmar? Pass.
Doomsday Book, presumably (something about The Black Death, that is); and more to the point, irony, presumably.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

James Garner (with Jon Winokur), The Garner Files (2012)

Browsing the public library’s new acquisitions, I picked this up on a whim. Not sure why: I’m no big Garner fan. But I’m glad I did; it’s splendidly splenetic and bad-tempered.
If I didn’t want to be an actor, I certainly didn’t want to be a star. Fame is a trap. It comes and goes in a flash ... I wanted fortune, but never fame. Not only is fame fleeting, it’s also deceiving. People are constantly telling you how wonderful you are. Your ego blows up like a balloon. You get sucked in by your own publicity and lose your grip on reality. It’s a drug; you need more and more of it. It’s also a bargain with the devil: you win fame and lose anonymity. It sounds like a fair trade. It isn’t. ... I wasn’t always polite to autograph seekers. One year after a round at the Greater Greensboro Open, Billy Dee and I were being taken back to our hotel. A woman approached, stuck a paper and pen in my face and asked for an autograph. ‘Lady,’ I said. ‘How would you like to kiss a fat man’s ass?’ ... There are a few perks. You get special treatment here and there, but it isn’t worth it. If America suddenly got amnesiac and forgot who I was, that would be fine with me. I just don’t get it. On the one hand, I know that some people like my work, but somehow that doesn’t get through. I’ve never thought of myself as anything special, and I don’t like to be the centre of attention, but there wasn’t much i could do to avoid it. I’d have worn a disguise in public if i thought it would have done any good, but I figured they’d know who it was the minute I opened my mouth. It was once reported that I paid the seller of a map to the stars’ homes to take me off the list, but that’s not true. I may have threatened to give the guy a shot in the mouth, but I didn’t bribe him. [181-4]
Marvellous stuff. Otherwise I learned that Garner’s surname is actually ‘Bumgarner’, which is simply too wonderful; that his politics are, by American standards, left-wing (‘I’m a bleeding heart liberal, one of those card-carrying Democrats that Rush Limbaugh thinks is a communist. I’m proud of it’), and that there is only one thing he likes about being famous:
Nope, there’s nothing I like about fame. Except for the ten-foot-tall, bronze statue of me as Bret Maverick that was unveiled in Norman, Oklahoma, on April 21 2006.
There’s a profound truth here somewhere: fame is all downsides, except for the statues.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Greg Egan, The Clockwork Rocket (2011)


Prœgan: Yalda is an alien entity who lives in a cosmos where physics is shaped by different determining fundamentals. Most particularly, the speed of light is not a universal constant, and the creation of light generates energy. Instead of absorbing light from the sun and photosynthesising it, plants emit various wavelengths of light to make their food. Yalda herself is an amiable loner. One of a somatomorph species, she is larger than most and solitary where the default is to be paired with a mate. In her species females die giving birth; but postponing mating can lead to involuntary parthenogenesis. Yalda observes strange light-trails in the night sky, and is amongst the first to recognise that they are meteors (they become known as ‘the Hurtlers’) potentially enormously dangerous for Yalda’s world. A group of scientists recognise the danger. They decide to do something about it. But what can be done? The Hurtlers are symptoms of Yalda’s cosmos coming into collision with another cosmos, one that runs on an orthogonal physics. Perhaps the collision will be only a glancing blow, but that seems unlikely. As Yalda herself notes much more likely is that ‘the Hurtlers will keep coming, ever larger and in ever-greater numbers, until the odds that we’re struck approach a certainty. If we survive that we’ll probably collide with an orthogonal clump of gas—turning the world into something like a giant Hurtler ... the world will end as a lifeless mass of thermal fluctuations in a state of maximum entropy.’ A daring plan is hatched. Because of the nature of physics of this cosmos, travel at relativistic speeds involves much more subjective time for the travellers than it does for those waiting at home: a spacecraft, the Peerless, is dispatched. Its flight will seem to last only four years from the point of view of the world, but will last through many generations of shipboard time, giving the crew of scientists time to develop new technological and scientific remedies. The novel feels longer than its 300+ pages, but only because Egan is not a writer who pads or wastes space. There is a challenging, and (ultimately) intensely intellectually rewarding density to this work. The science is both rigorously extrapolated and brilliantly original; the worldbuilding is immersive, detailed and immaculately worked-through; the ideas little short of mind-blowing.

At the heart of all of this is science, and the scientific method in its most appropriately sciencefictional form—the thought experiment. Tolkien is praised by critics for creating an entire parallel human culture, including background history, languages and customs; but Egan has achieved something more capacious, more ambitious and considerably more impressive: not only an entire alien biology and society, but an entire new kind of physical universe. There isn’t another SF writer capable of it, I think. True, the early portions of the novel read in a rather, shall we say, up-hill manner—the premises of this universe are so different, and there is just a certain quantity of material the reader must grasp if she if fully to appreciate the rest of the novel. But SF fans claim to be interested in the new, in challenging and intellectually stimulating fiction. They should be called on those claims. Clockwork Rocket makes an effective test-case: if this doesn’t grab you, then perhaps you’re not a true SF fan. If that’s the case, don’t worry! There is plenty of soft-sf, or indeed Fantasy in the bookshops. Maybe you’d enjoy that more.

Antegan: The first half of this novel is one of the most indigestible reading experiences I have ever had. The book does get a little more readable in the second half, but not much. At one point a scientist-character explains to another scientist-character that talking of infinite velocity is no more intrinsically absurd than describing an upright pole as possessing ‘infinite slope’. Through too much of Clockwork Rocket the learning curve approaches that asymptote, and reading is too strenuously like trying to haul oneself up such a pole. The emotional narrative here—Yalda’s struggles against social and scientific prejudice, against a backdrop of the threat of global annihilation—is almost wholly swamped by the minutely delineated discussions of physics and science. Clotted with diagrams and equations, dense to the point of frank indigestibility, this is a novel that grows grey with the breath of Scientist discussing endlessly with Scientist about Science. Indeed, at places the novel reads almost like a radical experimentation in anti-art, an exercise in seeing how much raw intellectual weight the load-bearing walls of aesthetics (let’s say, ‘character’, ‘style’, ‘form’ and ‘image’) can stand. And perhaps that’s fair enough; for half of ‘science fiction’ is science. But half is fiction, and the fiction here is so rebarbative handled, so uncompromisingly subordinated to rational extrapolation, that it withers on the vine.

Prœgan: What nonsense! You’ve done this sort of thing before, you antieganic fool, in your wrongheaded Strange Horizons review of Egan’s Incandescence (2008). There you perpetrated a kind of category error of critical judgment. Specifically, you complained that a novel explicitly dedicated to the elaboration of a number of brilliantly original conceptual and physical ideas did not dissipate itself in Henry Jamesian excursi of psychological and stylistic extravagance. What nonsense! In Clockwork Rocket, scientists give a public lecture warning their world of the very real dangers facing them, but a fashionable magazine called Talk reports the occasion in a smugly dismissive and complacent manner.
When Yalda reached the apartment Daria was awake, so she showed her the piece. “I wouldn’t pay too much attention to Talk,” Daria said loftily. “Their idea of pushing the intellectual boundaries of journalism is to cover a literary salon.” “What’s a literary salon?” “An event where people who can’t read or reason gather to reassure each other of their own importance.” [158]
That’s you, that is. My guess is that Egan will be perfectly indifferent to reviews written from within such a salon; and so will his fans. His novel deserves to be judged for its pushing of intellectual boundaries—its ideas. And its ideas are amazing.

Antegan: But novels are not made out of ideas. Novels are made out of words. Nature shows itself to us, and science sets out to explain that show, to tell us what is going on. In this sense, science tells, it doesn’t show. But there’s some merit in the old adage that art should show, not tell, for all that; and it’s an adage that Egan resolutely repudiates. The ‘literary salon’ snipe is an aside, and most of the novel doesn’t worry itself about that sort of thing; but I thought it ill-judged nonetheless ... not because its implicit criticism of Humanities types necessarily lacks point, but because it betrays, even only briefly, a kind of slippage of nerve; a queasiness that this text is setting itself up to be judged by the criteria of ‘literature’ at all. It wants to be assessed on the grounds of its novel and complex ideational content, not on the tedious extrapolative prose, its meagre characterisation, its economy-brand minimum efficiency form and narrative structure. It lacks grace, it evinces neither charm and wit, it is not stylishly done. This is not a work of literary art that burns with the hard gemlike flame. We ought to hold out for the highest standards in our SF content—but we ought simultaneously hold out for the highest standards in our SF style and form too. Why can’t be have both? At any rate, we don’t get both in this novel. It is uneasy with its own mode. Clockwork Rocket is one-fifth Novel and four-fifths Lecture.

Prœgan: What’s wrong with lectures? Lectures can be illuminating. Lectures can change lives.

Antiegan: There’s nothing wrong with lectures. But we’re talking about a novel, here. Or to put it another way: what does the—undeniably cool and original and thought-provoking—worldbuilding of Clockwork Rocket gain from being cast in the form of a novel? Why not simply publish it as a treatise?

Prœgan: Why? Because the characters and their stories personalise the physics. We learn the world alongside Yalda. It is not simply the ‘cool worldbuilding’ as you rather dismissively put it; it is also the thrill of scientific discovery. We can retrace the steps Einstein trod, and get some, second-hand sense of the thrill he must have experienced discovering an entirely new physics. But Egan gives us the chance to do more than that; because his physics is newly minted for this imaginary world, and this means—if only we are ready to make a little effort—we get to experience the excitement of discovery (as it were) first hand! You say the opening sections are dense, and perhaps they are; but they are necessarily so. An attentive reader will find the opening of this novel a necessary pedagogy in order to take the force of the later sections.

Antegan: ‘The characters and their stories personalise the physics,’ you say. But I don’t think this happens; or at least, it did not for me. The prose is too pedestrian. The characters are weakly drawn to emotionally engage us. Yalda’s problems were too flattering to the sensibilities of the thoughtful SF-nerd (a bit of an outsider, a bit looked-down upon, yet Slannishly in possession of truths that will shape the future of the whole world). The other characters were of varying varieties of cardbosity.

Prœgan: Cardbosity is not even a word!

Antegan: I’m not trying to be prescriptive here: art can come in manifold forms, of course. But the test no art can afford to fail is the test of dullness. And that Dunciad quality is what informs much too much of the prose here. This is what it’s like at the beginning:
“If you plot the downward force on the book against its height above the ground,” [Yalda] said, “it’s a constant, a flat, straight line. Now think about the area under that line up to the point representing the book’s current height. When the book falls, the reduction in the area—the little rectangle that gets chopped off—will equal the force on the book times the distance it travels—which is precisely the amount by which its kinetic energy increases: force times distance.” Eusebio examined the diagram. “All right.” [39]
And this is what it’s like at the end:
Yalda said: “exactly. And the thing is, the shape of the potential energy that we get from Nereo’s equation doesn’t allow for perfect orbits, or perfect rolling in the valleys. The main cycle can have a high enough frequency to avoid creating light, but the potential has built-in flaws that guarantee that there’ll be lower-frequency motion as well. It seems to be unavoidable.” “But solid don’t blow themselves up,” Fatima proclaimed irritably. “Not without a liberator.” “Of course,” said Yalda. “... there must be something we;re missing ... There are plenty of symmetrical polyhedrons where putting a luxagen at every vertex gives you a mechanically stable configuration--which seems to make them good candidates for the little balls of matter of which we expect a gas to be comprised. But those polyhedrons share the problem solids have: the luxagens rolling in their energy valleys will always have some low frequency components to their motion, so they ought to give off light and blow the whole structure apart.” [305]
It’s like that for the large part of what lies in between too.

Prœgan: If you want to read stories written according to Jamesian, Joycean or Nabokovian sensibilities, read James, Joyce and Nabokov. This book is science fiction. I’d invite you to consider that simple fact again: science fiction. Are you really complaining that this science fiction is too committed to the science, both on the level of content and clear, expository style? There is nobody who commands the science of hard science fiction like Egan.

Antegan: SF is a metaphorical literature, one that aims to reproduce the world without representing it. It is more akin to poetry than it is to science.

Prœgan: I honestly don’t recognise the genre at all from this description. SF is the imaginative extrapolation of scientific premises. Poetry, howsoever pretty, is nothing but vagueness. Metaphors? M John Harrison’s much praised Light does tremendous things with style and form and literary experimentation, I don’t doubt; but compare its understanding of its titular quantity with Egan’s. Egan’s novel makes light new! It compels us to look again at this ubiquitous thing; it refreshes it and opens it out, conceptually—and it does all that not through fuzzy metaphors, but by the rigorous application of scientific extrapolation from core principles.

 Antegan: I wonder if you mention Harrison by way of trying to anticipate one criticism of Egan’s novel? A few years ago Harrison, of course, wrote eloquently and—I would say—with superb perception about ‘worldbuilding’. His essay could be taken as embodying all that is wrong with Clockwork Rocket. It’s already been widely quoted, but I think it can stand being quoted once again: ‘Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, and if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication -- lifelong study.’ Clockwork Rocket is the triumph of worldbuilding over writing.

Prœgan: I can only shake my head. Perhaps it really does look like that, from inside the salon! If so, I can only say: you should get out more. Worldbuilding bad? How can you say so! It can hardly be anything other than a mode of building, after all. It is construction and creativity. Critics like you pretend to object to novels of the sort Egan writes from the position of ‘artistry’ and ‘aesthetics’—but isn’t architecture an art? Doesn’t it bring newness and order and beauty into the world along with its utility? Mightn’t you want to at least consider that a novel can be made with the virtues of good architecture, just as some other novels have been made to imitate music or painting? For it seems to me that conceptual architecture is an altogether more impressive undertaking than conceptual sonnet-writing or conceptual action painting. You think a Louise Bourgeois spider more impressive than a box girder bridge? The bridge has all the structural complexity and expressiveness of the sculpture, plus it has one added advantage: you can use it to get across the river. Similarly, a masterclass in worldbuilding—like Clockwork Rocket—gives the reader all the complexity of any artwork, but it will also teach you about the universe in which you live. Who opposes builders? Wreckers and vandals, that’s who.

Antegan: You’re missing my point. Science tells us that the cosmos is immensely diverse and complex. A fiction predicated upon science ought to reflect this: ought to prize diversity and complexity. Two-dimensional caricature and simplification, stereotype and ‘plain’ style have no place here. You think the book of the universe is written in a plain style? Stanisław Lem, an expert at the marriage of science and literature, once talked about the difference between them. Science, he said, is about asking questions, attempting to describe the world and looking for answers. Literature, on the other hand, may pose questions that have no answers. It may pose questions that are not understood or understandable.

Prœgan; I don’t see what this has to do with Egan.

Antegan: I’m saying Clockwork Rocket lacks negative capability.

Prœgan: You’re saying it bored you. I reply: saying so reveals a great deal about you, and very little about the novel.

Antegan: No! Well, yes ... it did bore me. And I’m not proud of that reaction. But that’s not really the basis of my objection. SF strikes me, necessarily, as an ironic mode of art—its relationship to reality is not mimetic, but neither is it entirely arbitrary or disconnected (we would hardly care about it, if so). Yalda’s struggles, as a female, against ingrained sexism in this novel clearly have some relationship to sexism in our world; although raised to a hyperbolic level by the biological difficulties of being female in this imagined world. But as an intervention into discourses of female experience, this novel is one-dimensional and thumb-in-the-balance. That’s not where it’s genius lies; because its genius is meticulously and, indeed, earnestly building its imaginary physics from its new premises. It is as unironic a novel as I can think of.

Prœgan: You say that like it’s a bad thing. It’s not.

Antegan: We’ll have to agree to disagree.