Tuesday 24 July 2018

Point counterpoint: New York 2140 versus The Stone Sky

Members of our book club disagreed about which novel deserves to win the Hugo this year.

As such, we are offering our arguments in favour of  both New York 2140  and The Stone Sky.

New York 2140 is the book that people need to read, and that is why it deserves to win.

In what may be his crowning achievement as an author of environmental science fiction, Kim Stanley
New York is going to have to deal
with rising sea levels — Robinson
manages to make this future real
and make it hopeful.
(Image via LeftForum.Org) 
Robinson imagines a New York City submerged beneath 50 feet of ocean.

There's a scene in New York 2140 in which Franklin Garr, an investment banker at the fictional firm WaterPrice, explains his system for the valuation of intertidal real estate.

"Intertidal Property Pricing Index. ... The name itself asserted something that before had been questionable. It was still questionable, but all over this world property had already become somewhat liquefied; property now is just a claim on the yield."

This quote is at the heart of what makes New York 2140 not only the most worthy work on this year's Hugo shortlist, but possibly the most important novel published last year: It forces us to ponder questions that humanity will have to — and is starting to — grapple with, in our post-climate-change future.
In New York 2140, Robinson delves
into the social, economic and engineering
challenges that people will face in the
wake of climate change.
(Image via Inhabitat.com) 
These questions range from logistical architectural and engineering quandaries to sociopolitical tensions including the fate of climate migrants and evolving forms of communal governance. Most of all, though, author Kim Stanley Robinson tackles economic questions.

In doing so, Robinson avoids the trap of despair that pervades many other novels about climate change. He offers a vision of the future in which there are catastrophes and significant problems, but a future in which there is also hope.

The central economic question of the novel is how climate change will affect real estate. There is a looming tension between the intertidal zone -- protected from ownership by international convention -- and the places which humans have already claimed as property. If people refuse to move as the intertidal zone encroaches, how will our economic tools resolve this tension?

These questions, and the implications of Robinson’s answers, are explored in the novel through the
The Met Life building in Manhattan
acts as the narrative focus of New
York 2140.
(Image via Wikipedia)
viewpoints of eight different narrators whose lives are tied together by the Met Life building.

Each of these eight viewpoints offer differing perspectives on a New York that is emblematic of how humans might adapt to climate change. In addition to the aforementioned Garr, there’s the building superintendent Vlade, who offers insight into the engineering of post-flood buildings. Social worker Charlotte Armstrong shows how civil society organizations adapt to the changing needs of the population. And orphans Stephan and Roberto’s story explores how the poor and the downtrodden survive. Tying all these narratives together are non-diagetic inserts offering the perspective of an antediluvian New Yorker, through historical notes and assorted philosophical musings.

Informed and leavened by a variety of intellectual traditions, and liberally referencing a variety of sources such as Le Corbusier, Samuel Beckett, and Thomas Piketty, New York 2140 does what the best Hugo winners do: offer a compelling blueprint of the future.

It’s not a novel without flaws. Not all narrators appealed to all of our book club members — for some, it was the comedic moments involving Amelia, while others found Franklin Garr to be a pompous jerk. Some members found the musings about property and economics to be a little on the dry side and found the book overly long — even going so far as to suggest that these inserts are superfluous or self-indulgent.

But these flaws are largely overshadowed by Robinson’s fully-realized vision of coping with climate change. This is a future that is believable, terrifying and hopeful.

At 624 pages, New York 2140 is the longest of this year's shortlist; a weighty novel filled with weighty ideas. The Stone Sky may be the most poetic. The Collapsing Empire may be the most fun. Raven Stratagem may be the most adrenaline-fuelled. Provenance may have been the most upbeat.

But New York 2140 is the book that people need to read, and that is why it deserves to win.

(This blog post is one of two in which different members of our book club make the case for the book they think should win. The second one on The Stone Sky is at this link.) 

The Stone Sky is the most artful book, and that's why it deserves to win.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky is a warning about ravaging the Earth, made relatable through the story
There's a reason the first two Broken
Earth books won the Hugo Award -
It's the same reason The Stone Sky
deserves to make it a clean sweep:
These books have emotional resonance.
(Images via Goodreads.com) 
of a shattered mother-daughter relationship.

Well-known visual art critic Edmund Feldman once argued that when considering any work, one should consider four basic questions. To paraphrase these questions, and repurpose them to the literary world, they might be summarized as: what does the work set out to achieve, what tools and techniques does the artist use to achieve those goals, is the work successful in what what the artist set out to achieve, and finally how does it make you feel. Great art, it is suggested, is that which provides satisfactory answers to these questions.

By this standard, The Stone Sky, the most ambitious of this year’s Hugo shortlisted novels, succeeds admirably. As such, it is the work that deserves to be recognized with the award.

As the concluding book in the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Stone Sky aims to provide a resolution to several intertwined storylines, to complete several grand metaphors and to deliver a powerful message on relationships. In this work, humans are at once our own worst enemies and our only hope for redemption. We see in The Stone Sky how hubris has brought the Earth to near ruination. In the distant past, thirsting for more power, humans drew more and more from the Earth. In a terrible accident, the moon was pushed into a different orbit causing chaos on Earth. In the present, two factions are trying to bring the moon back: one wants to bring it straight into the Earth destroying life, the other wants to return it to its former orbit. Both claim to want to end the chaos and suffering on Earth and both intend to do it with extreme interventions on the natural world.

The immediate relevance of the metaphor should not be lost on readers. Today, Earth is changing in
The Broken Earth trilogy has
inspired readers.
Image via BrokenEarth Tumblr.
ways that resemble the catastrophic fifth seasons of the Broken Earth trilogy. Humans are at fault for these changes. Our extreme interventions have caused pain and suffering for people, plants and animals. We regularly experience storms, floods and droughts that thousands of years ago would have been so unusual as to be considered divine punishments. We are also working on new and different extreme interventions that will return some balance to the world.

The setting and structure of the series are ambitious, and Jemisin’s prose is impactful and engrossing. But more than any of the other novels on this year’s shortlist, The Stone Sky has an emotional core with well-crafted human relationships.

The main actors in the books are all tied together through a variety of relationships. Master-slave, lovers, mother-daughter. The treatment of people in each of these relationships affects decisions they are making now. Essun and Alabaster overcome previous trauma to form a new trust. The Guardian, Shaffa, goes after Nassun and using his knowledge of what he did to Essun gains the daughter’s trust. Nassun is lashing out at Essun after Essun was at best a questionable mother but acted from love in the best way she knew how.

“I think,” Hoa says slowly, “that if you love someone, you don’t get to choose how they love you back."”

The misunderstandings and mistakes lead to conflict. Communication leads to understanding.

“Don’t be patient. Don’t ever be. This is the way a new world begins.”

Each book of this trilogy had highlights that add up to an overall story that is is cohesive. When books are well done, we shouldn’t punish them for being the third but reward them for doing it well. N.K. Jemisin would be the first “threepeat” in Hugo history and for this trilogy she deserves it. It is a well-crafted story relevant to our time with timeless messages.

While other shortlisted novels in 2018 may answer Feldman’s first three questions satisfactorily, only The Stone Sky is a novel that offers a profundity of emotion, and that is what elevates it above the other works.

(This is one of two blog posts in which members of our book club make the case for the book they think should win. The second one on New York 2140 can be found at this link.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Six Wakes - Review

Mur Lafferty’s contributions to the science fiction community are laudable. Her work as a podcaster
(image via Goodreads)
is worth celebrating. Some of her previous books have been entertaining, particularly the Shambling Guide To New York. And her advocacy for new and emerging artists is something that deserves significant recognition.  

It is a shame, therefore, that Six Wakes — a novel with significant flaws — may be many peoples’ first introduction to Lafferty’s work.

Early last year, when Six Wakes first hit bookshelves, several members of our book club picked the book up in anticipation of a fun mystery in space. At that time, we decided it was not a book we wanted to review, or to put on our nomination ballots.

Clearly, enough members of the World Science Fiction Society disagree with that assessment. To boot, those who select the Nebula shortlist also disagree with us. Our lack of esteem for this book appears to be a minority opinion.

So as we returned to the book for a more in-depth look after it was shortlisted, we struggled to ascertain why it had received this level of acclaim. While the world-building has interesting elements, and the set-up for the mystery is promising, Six Wakes suffers from structural issues, logical gaps, and stylistic blandness.

Lafferty’s decision to tell so much of the narrative in the form of flashbacks undermines the locked-
Lafferty (left) and Alasdair
Steward (right) at the Hugo
Awards in 2017.
Image by Henry Soderlund 
door mystery setup. Rather than offering us competing stories from unreliable narrators, we see definitive “true” versions of the past from an omniscient point-of-view. During the novel’s climax, this deflates much of the narrative tension.

The story’s set-up, which imagines a world in which the wealthy can live near-immortal lives through memory storage and cloned bodies, has enormous potential. But the “Codicils” which govern cloning make very little sense. It beggars belief to suggest that these extreme laws were created almost overnight, that those laws have withstood challenge, and that the wealthy and privileged wouldn’t use their societal power to prevent their voting rights from being stripped.

It feels like Lafferty has neglected to fully answer basic questions about class and societal privilege  which is surprising given how informed and nuanced she has been about these issues on her podcasts. She tries to explore these questions in Six Wakes, but her world-building is so perfunctory and built in service of the plot's conceits that it runs into logical inconsistencies under any scrutiny.

Finally, and most problematically, the sentence-by-sentence prose in Six Wakes is not up to the standard that one would expect from a Hugo Award-shortlisted work. At best, the writing is repetitious.

It pains us to be as negative about a book written by a person we like so well, and who we believe is capable of better work. Six Wakes will be at the bottom of most of our Hugo ballots, and for some of us, below ‘No Award.’