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REVIEW: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod


Title: The Night Sessions
Author: Ken MacLeod
Pub Date: April 3rd, 2012 (US reprint)
August 7th, 2008 (UK original)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A near-future SF thriller with painstakingly-explained world-building that slows the pace significantly in its first half.

Science fictional world building is a double-handed balancing act. On the one hand, it teeters between the communication of relevant facts to the reader and the maintenance of the narrative’s forward momentum. On the other hand, it wobbles between the implausibility of the conceit and the effort the reader must make to accept it. When either of these two balancing acts tilts in any direction, it threatens to upend the other. And in Ken MacLeod’s hard SF thriller The Night Sessions, the string that ties them together is the year 2037, when the book is set.

The Night Sessions is a near-future police thriller: it has a crime (the murder of a Roman Catholic priest), and it stars an engaging though forgettable crime solver (DI Adam Ferguson), who uncovers a complicated conspiracy with extremely high stakes. What sets MacLeod’s thriller apart from the usual fare is its near-future science fictional world. The book is set in 2037, in a society that has managed to erect a pair of space elevators, developed ubiquitous self-aware robotics, and whose recent religious wars have led to the global primacy of political and cultural secularism/atheism.

It is an ambitious work that tries to marry the thriller’s frenetic pace with classic hard SF themes of robotic faith. And in this case, I found the marriage a bit rocky. Structurally, police thrillers count on their high-stakes action and non-stop pacing to keep the reader flipping pages. We get so wrapped up in the events of the story that we don’t have time to consider its plausibility, or to really examine the hero’s leaps in logic. Thrillers rely on the speed of the narrative train to keep us from counting its rivets. But in the case of The Night Sessions, MacLeod’s pacing gets swamped by world-building.

The book features a fascinating vision of a future Edinburgh (and to a lesser extent, a future New Zealand). The settings, and the characters’ interactions with them, make for a great extrapolation of contemporary technology trends (MacLeod’s conjectures about augmented reality and self-aware AI are particularly well-rendered). The sociological concept of people willingly abandoning religion, of faith becoming an embarrassing family secret, is the type of high-concept theme that brings to mind classics like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, or Anthony Boucher’s “The Quest for St Aquin”. It was the idea of exploring how such a society came about and what life in such a society might be like which first drew me to the book. Yet because the story is set in 2037 (which isn’t that far off), MacLeod bent over backwards to establish how our world gets from where we are today to where his fictional environment becomes possible, and in doing so slowed the book’s pace significantly.

World-building is a particular challenge for near-future SF. When we write a story set one, two, or even twenty years from now, we always run the risk that life will outpace fiction. Far-future SF, or SF that is utterly removed from our contemporary environment, ducks this problem by asking us to accept the fictional environment as-is. Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space stories, or Frank Herbert’s original Dune are great examples of this at work: the scientific, sociological, and cultural conceits that are needed to make the story possible are easily accepted because the setting is fundamentally divorced from our reality. In one sense, they are secondary world fantasies, however plausible the science in their construction. Yet when a story is set in the near-future and on our planet no less, it automatically asks the reader to consider how our world gets to become the fictional one.

It is a challenge that some authors, notably Ian McDonald (especially in The Dervish House, see my earlier review), Paulo Bacigalupi, William Gibson, or Cory Doctorow (particularly in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) do very well. The trick, it seems to me, rests in avoiding history lessons. For example, in The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi wastes very little time on a high-level, abstract discussion of the ecological disaster that makes his fictional world possible. Instead, we see the near-future environment that his ecological disaster wrought filtered through the prism of his characters’ experiences. His characters know their world, live in their world, and we learn its dimensions and history through their perceptions of it. This technique is one which the New Wave’s sociological SF popularized in the ’70s, and which was further honed by the cyberpunk movement in the ’80s and ’90s. When done well, it takes a book’s themes and artfully expresses them through the story’s unfolding action, wasting no time (read: word count) on explanation when implication will suffice.

MacLeod, unfortunately, chose a different route. He painstakingly explains to us the history of his world’s Faith Wars (which he tells us began on September 11, 2011, and which were economically tied up with oil), and how they led to a (apparently global) rejection of religion, how global society grew disgusted the atrocities of war, and by society’s subsequent rejection of the faiths that spawned it. The book’s first half is essentially devoted to explaining this history and to establishing the characters’ relationships to it. This is a significant departure from a thriller or police procedural structure, and it is one which does the story no favors. Because so much of the book’s first half was explanatory, I found myself spending too much time questioning its conceits.

Even if I accept global disillusionment with faith, thirty years is an awfully short period of time for people to forget basic components of major global religions. MacLeod expects us to believe that his hero, who was raised in a society where religion was present, who served on the police force’s “God Squads” in persecuting religious citizens, has forgotten basic terminology associated with Christianity. I have difficulty believing that cultural concepts like the privacy of the confessional would be forgotten so quickly.

Furthermore, the book focuses exclusively on the Judeo-Christian faiths, with some off-hand references to Islam. This is somewhat understandable considering that the book is primarily set in Edinborough, with its strong Presbyterian and Calvinist traditions. But with MacLeod’s painstaking explanation of his world’s history, the lack of reference to Hinduism, Buddhism, or any of the other non-Catholic/Protestant denominations of Christianity (Greek or Russian Orthodox, for example) was striking. I suppose that it is possible that I missed a glancing reference somewhere, but as far as I noticed, there was precious little discussion of any religion outside of the Christian worldview. Where were the world’s other major religions during the Faith Wars? Where are they in MacLeod’s 2037?

Second, thirty years is an incredibly short period of time for a war-ravaged society to develop self-aware artificial intelligences and deploy them ubiquitously throughout society. The technological concept is interesting, the way that the robots operate within MacLeod’s fictional society is insightful, and the thematic exploration of AI and faith is reasonably well-executed. But frankly, I thought it unlikely that in twenty-five short years we might be at that point…especially if – as MacLeod makes clear – the United States was ravaged by a second civil war after the Faith Wars. I might be willing to offer a pass on the advanced technology: the Faith Wars would likely have spawned a lot of frenetic technological development, and MacLeod makes clear that the AIs were initially military technology. But for such technology to get broad distribution throughout society (rich and poor alike) in so short a time period also struck me as somewhat implausible.

However, these issues really only affected the book’s first half. By the second half, the world-building is mostly out of the way and allows us to buckle up for an exciting thriller. Though there is a bit of deus ex machina in places, and the unmarked perspective shifts were a bit jarring, the second half is paced well enough to be fun and intellectually engaging. While the doubts I experienced about MacLeod’s world-building continued to flutter in the back of my mind, I was able to get past them to enjoy the overall story.

The themes of faith, ecology, economics, justice, and identity that MacLeod explores were all interesting, but I felt that they all got fairly short shrift. With so many interesting concepts raising so many compelling questions, the relatively short novel was spread too thin to adequately explore all of them. Thankfully, novel’s the central question of machine faith gets just enough attention to ultimately be satisfying.

To be clear, despite its weaknesses Night Sessions is an enjoyable book, and it is ambitious. But it is not without its problems. It would have benefited greatly, I felt, from more rigorous attention to the methods of world-building, and to their relationship with the book’s pacing.

Fans of hard science fiction who are looking for an intellectual, mind-game playing book will likely enjoy Night Sessions, though they may find some of its conjecture irregular and implausible. Readers looking for a science fictional thriller will likely be disappointed by the book’s slow-paced first half, but may find that the conclusion makes up for the first half’s weakness. But readers who enjoy near future SF, and in particular those who are willing to deal with the challenges endemic to that sub-genre in exchange for stimulating extrapolation of current technological/economic trends, will find a lot to enjoy in Night Sessions.

Post-scarcity and Realistic Utopia: Where’s the fight?


One of the WIPs I’m working on right now is a far future SF novel inspired largely by Le Guin’s classic The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. As I’ve observed before, utopian novels are hard to pull off because an ostensibly perfect society removes – in most major ways – meaningful (read: existential) conflict. But I think I might have been wrong about that.

Fictional utopia and dystopia are tools through which we negotiate our society’s ethics. They are, in a very real sense, a debate about the values our society holds. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, or James Morrow’s City of Truth all ask us what price we are willing to pay for a perfect/harmonious society. In all utopian/dystopian stories, conflict occurs at the levels of logos and pathos, and traditionally, there are two structures through which that conflict gets expressed: the Outsider, and the Dissident.

The Outsider: Conflict in Utopia

A utopia is ostensibly a perfect environment, and that perfection tends to make society somewhat static. Lacking conflict, debate, the society becomes relatively unchanging. In some utopian environments, like Iain M. Banks’ Culture or John C. Wright’s Golden Oecumene, “constant change” may be the most static characteristic. But lacking internal debate, most authors positing a utopia turn to the borders of that perfect state to find conflict.

Older utopias, like Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Skinner’s Walden Two, tend to adopt the structure of a travelogue/fish-out-of-water story, and they typically prioritize logos over pathos in their conflicts. What little conflict they generate is produced by putting the utopian society’s values into conflict with an Outsider: typically a guest who comes to visit the perfect society, and thus disturbs – to some extent – that society’s equilibrium. More modern utopias, like Banks’ Culture novels, also rely on the Outsider to produce conflict. However, these stories focus on where the utopia’s remit ends, and where it comes into contact with different value systems. As such, it presents the utopia as being in constant conflict, to a greater or lesser extent, with the world outside its borders.

The Dissident: Conflict in Dystopias

Dystopias are generally characterized by their lack of defined borders. Look at any of the great dystopian novels, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Morrow’s City of Truth or even Collins’ The Hunger Games. The ostensibly perfect society is all-encompassing. Borders in Orwell are political and expedient, as opposed to ideological. Elsewhere, the totalitarian state controls the entire planet save for some few wild places that lack any structure through which the One State can be opposed. The classic dystopian narrative arc takes a character inside the dystopia, and translates them into an Outsider. These stories derive their tension from the fact that there is no Outside. Which is why their conflict stems from the creation of a Dissident.

The Dissident plays a more violent version of the Outsider’s role. His or her purpose is to oppose the dystopia’s value system, to express the nature of that opposition and to either withstand or fall beneath the system’s crushing totalitarian jackboot. And it is precisely that totalitarian, militaristic dimension which sets a dystopia apart from a utopia.

Characteristics of Dystopian and Utopian Environments

A utopia is generally a society which operates harmoniously, effectively, and perhaps most important, equitably. Historically, utopian fiction has been heavily influenced by the 18th and 19th century anarchist and socialist movements. But the basic premise underpinning all utopias is that within their borders, they function effectively and smoothly. Because utopian fiction tends to put value on its utopian precepts, it is typically a given that the society is internally cohesive. There is no dissidence, and nobody falls through the society’s cracks. Utopias are defined by the fact that, in their fictional universes, they work.

Dystopias, however, do not. They present the superficial appearance of effective operation. But that veneer hides the stick that the regime uses to enforce its values. Without the totalitarian police/military force, it would be impossible to concretely express the Dissident’s conflict with their society. When faced with internal opposition to its values, a dystopian regime cracks down, and does so violently, and it is from this conflict that we get a fun, action-packed narrative.

And yet, in thinking about it in light of the United States’ current economic troubles, I think we’re at a point in our societal development where a new type of utopian fiction can be proposed, and one which opens a third source of potential conflict: the Post-scarcity/Realistic Utopia, which can derive its conflict from the Marginalized.

The Realistic Utopia

Post-scarcity science fiction has been around for awhile, and lots of people have talked and written about it before. Much of the philosophical debates around post-scarcity society stem from anarcho-capitalist philosophy, which I’m going to leave to one side. Instead, I’d like to make the case that in essence, the developed world is today already a post-scarcity society. We produce more food than our population could ever consume. Consumer goods are available at a lower economic cost than ever before in the history of our species. We have access to healthcare that would boggle the finest minds of our great-grandparents’ generation. If there is a problem with our post-scarcity society, it is that the benefits of that post-scarcity are not evenly distributed.

Unlike the anarcho-communist utopias dreamed of yesterday, our society today still retains a division between the haves and have nots. And as a species, we have never been able to scale an equal distribution of societal benefit (whether we’re talking economic wealth, military power, healthcare, standard of living, etc.). As a result, the debates of today – as exemplified by the Occupy Movement – are less about ensuring economic equality, and more about negotiating how our society interacts with individuals or groups who otherwise fall through the current system’s cracks. The folks protesting in the Occupy movement are, to a great extent, either the Marginalized or the voice of the Marginalized in what by most measures can be considered a near-Utopian society.

If the past hundred years have taught us anything, it is that it is naive to believe that society will ever eliminate crime, or completely eliminate poverty, etc. These are ills that will always plague human society, and any utopia that tries to dream them away fails my plausibility test. Yet the mere existence of these societal ills is less important than how we as a society respond to them. And this, I believe, is fertile ground for utopian SF to explore. By focusing less on the economics of the utopian society, and by turning a lens on the values of that society through its marginalized constituents, we can gain greater insight into the human condition, and at the same time develop conflicts through which to tell compelling stories.

While it isn’t a perfect example, I believe that Samuel Delany’s Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, his response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, presages this future. His Bron Helstrom is ostensibly an Outsider, coming to the heterotopia of Triton from much more conservative Martian culture. In his new home, he is marginalized through his own value system, which is inimical to that of his new home. Yes, Delany also uses an Outsider structure in this novel, pitting his Triton against Earth in a devastating interplanetary war. And yet, it is Bron Helstrom’s narrative and personal experience of trying to adjust to his new – ostensibly Utopian – home that takes focus. Triton is not a perfect example of the kind of realistic utopia that I’m talking about here, but the focus on a marginalized individual who falls through the cracks of a supposedly perfect society is exactly what I believe utopian science fiction needs.

And I think it is exactly the kind of philosophical discussion that our society needs as well.

REVIEW: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald


Title: Planesrunner
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: December 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced adventure story that reads more like adult science fiction than YA science fiction.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s adult science fiction. His complex, multi-layered plots and penchant for near-future science fiction set in non-western cultures (Africa, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.) have always struck me as interesting, engaging, ambitious, and structurally complex. So when I heard that Pyr was going to be releasing a new YA novel by Ian McDonald entitled Planesrunner, I jumped at the chance to read it.

McDonald has earned a large, loyal, and very much deserved following for his adult fiction, I don’t know if the decision to market this particular story as YA lay with the author, his agent, or with his publishers, but it does make reviewing the book an interesting challenge. UPDATE: but his foray into MG/YA fiction represents an interesting critical challenge. The YA and SF genres have different (though overlapping) conventions which stem from both their respective histories and their divergent audiences, and it is unclear through which lens we should look at Planesrunner. What comes first: the science fiction, or the YA?

Planesrunner is told from the perspective of Everett Singh, the fourteen year old son of a quantum physicist involved in the development of doorways onto parallel worlds. Everett watches his father get kidnapped, and then finds that he alone has the clues and capabilities to rescue him.

Judged solely by the protagonist’s age, Planesrunner falls firmly into YA territory. Though the book opens in London, McDonald’s hero comes from a Punjabi background, and McDonald’s excellent ear for local cultures comes through in Everett’s voice. Particularly in the novel’s first third, McDonald paints Everett in solidly contemporary British colors, albeit filtered through his Punjabi background. Everett’s cultural background can likely best be compared to that of Jessminder “Jess” Bhamra in the excellent Bend It Like Beckham: to say that Everett is a soccer-loving British boy tells only half the story, while to say he is Punjabi does the same. This is a blend culture more accessible to western readers than the India McDonald took us to in his (adult) Cyderabad Days, but it is definitely not the whitebread England of Harry Potter. As always, I applaud McDonald’s presentation of cultural complexity.

The first third of the novel focuses on Everett’s reactions to his father’s kidnapping. From the high-powered opening, the story’s pace slows down significantly as we learn more about Everett’s family background (his parents have split up, he has a younger sister, etc.) and we get gradually introduced to our protagonist. We learn about Everett through his interactions with his mother, his soccer team buddy, the police, and his father’s co-workers. Throughout this process, we gradually learn more about the work his father does, and about the parallel worlds that he helped discover. This part of the book is written with McDonald’s typical skill, providing a good feel for Everett, his values, his cultural background, and his life. We grow to care about him, and get engaged in his desire to save his father. All of this is good, however by the standards of contemporary YA it happens rather slowly. Most contemporary YA that dives into the action the way this story does maintains and rapidly escalates the tension from page one. Here, the tension is maintained but its escalation unfolds more slowly. It is effective, but it has more of the feel of an adult novel than a typical YA story.

Once Everett deduces that his father has been taken to the parallel world of E3 and follows him through the gates, the book’s pace accelerates substantially. First, the alternate reality Everett crosses into is a vastly different London, where oil was never discovered. As a result, its 21st-century society runs on coal-powered electricity and has no access to technology we take for granted (e.g. plastics). It is a delightful and compelling steampunk world, complete with vast airship fleets. The concept of a 21st-century London where oil had never been discovered is an interesting one, and McDonald does an excellent job of rendering its technological development believably. But while he does a fine job of nailing the technological/scientific world-building, I am less sold on the cultural flavor of his alternate London, which blends contemporary and pseudo-Victorian sensibilities.

On the one hand, we see that the alternate world has values and a cultural background commensurate or at least compatible with those of our modern world. The villains in E3 are quite at home in skyscrapers, modern dress, and with modern weaponry. But they are set in opposition to a romantic rabble of airship sailors who dress, talk, and generally act like they stepped out of the Victorian era. Perhaps this disconnect is part of McDonald’s point, but upon reflection, I found myself doubtful. Nevertheless, it is a testament to McDonald’s skill at world-building that these quibbles only arose upon reflection: while reading the story, I found the world compelling, engaging, and believable.

Once in this new world, Everett quickly joins up with that staple of the steampunk sub-genre, a crew of airship pirates sailors. They are second-class citizens presented as a rough-around-the-edges but still lovable rabble, quasi-Romany in nature. The characters Everett runs into, in particular his fiesty love-interest Sen, her adoptive mother (the captain), and her Bible/Shakespeare-quoting crewman are all extremely distinct, very interesting, and very engaging. In portraying both this world and the harsh underbelly of its society, McDonald made an interesting authorial choice: most of these characters speak in polari, which IRL is a cant slang developed in the British theater community in the 17th and 18th centuries. McDonald portrays this dialect directly in dialog, making it hard to parse for the uninitiated. I found myself torn as to its effectiveness.

The strategic use of polari deepens the credibility of McDonald’s alternate world. Yet at the same time, it decreases the accessibility of that world. As an American whose only previous encounters with polari had been limited to a handful of phrases in a few episodes of Porridge while living in Europe, I found that it took real work to decode what characters in Planesrunner were saying. Interestingly, Everett had very little trouble doing so: it is possible that growing up in London, he would have had more exposure to polari than I have had growing up in the States. Readers as unfamiliar with it as I was might find that it takes a bit of effort to get through. Overall, this strategy marks an interesting choice, and one that in general McDonald pulls off effectively. However, it is a choice that I have rarely seen in YA. Experienced genre readers will probably just accept it and make use of the glossary at the end of the book, but I am less certain that YA readers will be willing to invest the same amount of effort.

The biggest weakness I found in Planesrunner was that once Everett stepped into the parallel world, it seemed as if he had entirely forgotten about the mother and younger sister he left behind. To some extent, this is a natural consequence of the plot’s focus on rescuing his father. Nevertheless, I had the impression that themes of Everett’s family introduced at the book’s opening remained unaddressed (let alone resolved) at the book’s end. Above all, it is this fact that makes the book feel more like an adult SF novel than a YA SF novel.

Themes of family, of choosing/balancing sides, and of cultural identity are all frequently explored in YA. One can argue (and I’ve done so on this blog before) that at some level all YA novels address the challenge of finding one’s place in a complex, multi-layered, and ambiguous world. McDonald sets these themes up fairly well in the opening of Planesrunner, but fails to follow through on them by its end. Themes of family get re-introduced, with the focus on Everett’s place within the airship’s “adopted family”, but it never ties back to the family he left at home. Perhaps as the series continues we will return to these themes and gain some closure. But stretching a single unresolved thematic arc across a series and without clear inflection points in each installment is something adult series may pull off, but flies in the face of typical YA conventions. It is one thing to end the plot of the first book on a cliffhanger as McDonald (more-or-less) does, but to leave thematic threads dangling (as opposed to tied, whether loosely or strongly) weakens the book’s emotional resonance.

Overall, Planesrunner is a solid adventure. Read as such, it is perfectly enjoyable. Fans of adult science fiction will find it especially satisfying, and will likely find it fast by the standards of the adult genre. Fans of YA science fiction will likely enjoy it as well, though I suspect that long-term it won’t be as memorable as more tightly themed YA novels. Readers of McDonald’s earlier work will enjoy Planesrunner for how it builds on McDonald’s strengths and how it diverges and expands on his previous patterns. However, readers looking for the thematic, structural, and sociological complexity of McDonald’s adult novels won’t find it here. That complexity may exist below the story’s surface, incorporated into the story’s world-building, but Planesrunner is a simpler, more adventure-focused story than McDonald’s earlier work. In general, I found Planesrunner a fun if only partially-satisfying read, but I am definitely invested enough to pick up the next book in the series when it comes out.

Science Fiction Techniques in Spy Novels: James Bond and George Smiley


One of the upsides of spending two weeks traveling on business in Eastern Europe is that it really adds some perspective to spy fiction. For years I’ve meant to read more of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and to pick up John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy. So I worked my way through them and came to an interesting conclusion: both Fleming and Le Carré are science fiction authors. I don’t just mean that in the sense that they use fantastical conceits or gadgets. Instead, I mean that they establish cognitive estrangement for the same reasons and using the exact same narrative devices and prose techniques as speculative fiction authors.

Cognitive Estrangement and the Novum as a Defining Characteristic of Spy Fiction

Reading Fleming and Le Carré brought to mind Darko Suvin’s concepts of cognitive estrangement and novum. Suvin uses cognitive estrangement to describe the method by which science fiction establishes itself as operating in a made-up world where the rules of our humdrum reality need not apply. That estrangement contributes to both our sense-of-wonder and to the genre’s escapist label: it gives us a world that we can inhabit where the impossible becomes possible, and thus opens our horizons to as-yet unimagined concepts.

All fiction relies on cognitive estrangement to some extent: even when we read a contemporary mainstream novel, we accept its fictional premises. How many people do you know who live or speak like fictional characters? None. Effective dialog and effective characterization both rely on carefully considered pruning of reality. Writers are like Mister Miyagi, carefully sculpting his bonsai tree. The natural tree may still be interesting and beautiful, but Miyagi shapes it to underline that beauty. Fiction works the same way. But the difference between speculative fiction and realistic fiction is the degree of cognitive estrangement demanded of the reader. And here is where Suvin’s second concept of novum comes into play.

Suvin claimed that science fiction relied on incorporating something new, something different, something outside of the experience of the real world as a device to achieve a cognitive estrangement. It might be time travel, or aliens, some fancy whiz-bang technology – doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it is a marker that tells the reader “Here there be dragons” and thus puts the reader into the frame of mind for receiving a fantastical story. Reading the Bond novels and the George Smiley novels, I’ve come to the conclusion that spy fiction works in the exact same way.

In order for us to enjoy a spy novel, we need to inhabit a world that most of us don’t ever see: the world of espionage, and assassination, and skullduggery. Does this world exist in actuality? It’s naive to suggest otherwise. But as I’ve never been a spy, it is as foreign to me as Middle Earth or the planet Arrakis. Are there some authors who portray this world more realistically than others? I’m sure there are (I’ve heard rumors that actual spies tend to prefer Le Carré’s novels to Fleming’s, for example). But who cares? In each case, as long as it is fiction, all that matters is the ride that the story takes us on, and whether it is compelling. Just like with science fiction, this ride’s effectiveness is dependent on the story’s ability to establish cognitive estrangement: on its ability to take me into that fictional world alongside our own.

World-building and Character as Tools of Cognitive Estrangement

I’d argue that the techniques Fleming employs are very similar to those used by urban fantasy writers (particularly those who write episodic urban fantasy, like Jim Butcher or Charlaine Harris).

Much urban fantasy posits a “hidden world” alongside ours. We might go our whole lives without ever touching on the affairs of the supernatural that Butcher’s Harry Dresden deals with every day. The same holds true for the cloak-and-dagger world that James Bond inhabits. In both cases, the authors need to establish a degree of trust that we will buy into their reality. And they generally do so in similar fashions.

Like Harry Dresden, James Bond is an initiate. When we first meet him in Casino Royale (or in any of the Bond novels), he already knows the score. He may have more or less experience, he may be more or less jaded, but it is through his already-experienced eyes that we perceive his world. This is a classic device in episodic fiction (see my earlier post on episodic heroes), and it is one that works just as well in spy fiction as in urban fantasy or science fiction.

Secondly, Ian Fleming gives us a setting that while ostensibly realistic, is entirely outside most readers’ experience. Bond doesn’t go to work in a small town in northern New Jersey. If he did, I’d have difficulty buying into the story. Bond travels to exotic locales, places where I’ve never been or places where I’ve only been as a tourist. The result is that Bond’s environment is a priori new to me. I’ve never been to Jamaica, and so the setting Bond moves through is as new to me as Tolkien’s Shire.

Fleming uses classic fantastical devices to make this world real for the reader: he employs the tried-and-true science fictional method of salting his story with very small details that ground his setting and earn my inherent trust in his skills as a storyteller. He goes into painstaking detail about the planes, trains, and automobiles that Bond interacts with. He uses precise language to describe the settings where the action takes place. He doesn’t infodump that information: he just uses it like a dash of spice in his prose, and even though I know that at times it’s absolutely inaccurate, I accept it because it contributes to the story’s flow and the establishment of his environment. I see no difference between this approach and the way George Alec Effinger establishes the Budayeen in When Gravity Fails or how William Gibson assembles his cyberpunk reality in the Bridge trilogy.

It’s easy to see Fleming’s gadgets or his larger-than-life villains as being the primary novum that establish cognitive estrangement, but I actually think it is his world-building that really does it. If we had not already bought into Fleming’s fantastic slice of our world, then we would never believe in Bond’s gadgets or in his monologuing villains.

Neologism as Novum: John Le Carré and the Language of Tradecraft

In many ways John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People) are like the anti-James Bond spy novels. Bond is crystal clear in that he is on the “right” (British) side. Even in those books where Bond wrestles with doubts, it is a superficial wrestling and not one that really drives to the heart of the story. The heart of Bond is adventure. The heart of George Smiley is ambiguity (or as Kingsley Amis put it in The James Bond Dossier, anguished cynicism).

The Smiley trilogy is set in a world that more clearly borders on our own. Smiley’s adventures take place in London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Prague. These aren’t tourist wonderlands like Caribbean or the French Riviera. I can’t speak for every reader, but these are often places where I’ve spent a fair amount of time. Unlike Fleming, Le Carré doesn’t spend a lot of time with detailed descriptions of his settings or of the ingredients that make up those settings. His focus is on his characters. The setting, and the world that his characters occupy comes across, but it is always filtered through the film of his characters’ perceptions.

But even if he doesn’t salt his prose with telling details to make the setting seem real for us, Le Carré does use a different science fictional technique to establish cognitive estrangement: neologism. Like James Bond, George Smiley is an initiate: he understands the world of spies and secret service. And that comes through in the language that he uses, in particular in his reliance on the jargon of the trade. His fluency with terms like “tradecraft” and “lamplighters” and “mole” (a term which Le Carré actually popularized, based on a translation of the KGB term for a long-term deep cover agent).

These neologisms are employed to the same end as other science fictional neologisms (grok, hyperspace, warp, cyberspace, ansible, etc.). They establish a sense of cognitive estrangement without distracting from the story. Those of us who aren’t spies don’t use words like “tradecraft” or “lamplighters” in our everyday speech. But whatever our profession, I’m sure we’ve all encountered jargon before. It’s a very real and unavoidable part of life. Because Le Carré uses these terms so fluently, so sparingly, their use buys our belief in Smiley’s world and his perceptions of it.

Of the two techniques, I think Le Carré’s is the harder sell. It is a very fine line to walk between successfully establishing cognitive estrangement, and confusing the reader. But I think he pulls it off, and the fact that words he introduced (mole, tradecraft, etc.) can now be found on most any television show is a testament to his success at pulling it off.

Science Fiction Tropes in Spy Fiction?

If spy fiction relies on science fiction techniques, do the tropes of science fiction get play in spy fiction? Here, I think the answer is less clear. The two genres definitely share some common ancestors. Most spy fiction (in particular the James Bond novels) probably trace their lineage to the noir mysteries of the pulp era. The George Smiley books can probably be traced back to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare or Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. The same books often show up in science fictional lineages, but I’m not sure if the two genres share more than a reliance on the same techniques. It’s something I’m going to be thinking some more about, but I’d love to know what everyone else thinks. How are spy fiction and speculative fiction similar? How are they different? What methods and devices work in one but fail in the other?

REVIEW: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald


Title: The Dervish House
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: July 27, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exceptionally well-crafted setting and utterly believable.

The Dervish House is Ian McDonald’s new novel set in a near-future Istanbul. Soaked in history, nanotechnology, and McDonald’s always-amazing settings, this book is arguably one of the best science fiction titles I’ve read this year.

I have loved “traveling” with McDonald since I first picked up River of Gods, his 2004 novel set in a near-future India. Following that book, he has carved a very nice niche for himself by setting his novels in somewhat unusual (read: non-American/British) settings. Chaga (published in the US as Evolution’s Shore) took us to Kenya, River of Gods took us to India, Brasyl took us to (surprise!) Brazil, and now The Dervish House brings us to Istanbul.

Setting has always been central to McDonald’s works (even in his earliest novels like the harsh yet beautiful Desolation Road). I’ve traveled a lot in my life, but I’d never visited India, Brazil, or Kenya. So when I read his earlier books, the settings were lush and fascinating to me, but still alien. But Istanbul, I’m familiar with. I lived in Europe for ten years and spent quite some time in Turkey on business, so for the first time I was able to read a McDonald book with pre-existing familiarity with the setting and culture. And as far as I can tell, McDonald nails it.

Istanbul has always been a crossroads of commerce, history and religion. Today, it’s at the heart of a maelstrom of geopolitics, religious debate, and energy economics. McDonald captures that intersection and projects outwards from it, taking us to a Turkey that just-recently joined the European Union and still struggles with its identity as a nation, its religious history, its place in the region, and its internal politics (generals vs. intelligentsia vs. religious fundamentalists of various types). His Istanbul is recognizable to anyone who has even spent a day in that city, capturing the Byzantine streets and the culture of a city that straddles two continents. A writer of lesser skill would have simplified the reality, perhaps skimped on the economics or drawn caricatures of the complex cultures that intertwine in the city. But McDonald doesn’t. He balances the different interests and cultural backgrounds of his characters deftly, showcasing a nation that waking up to its dreaming potential.

The book follows the lives of six characters who live in an old building that long ago had belonged to or been involved with an ascetic Sufi fraternity. The dervish house is the hub, the connecting strand that joins together the six characters in this story. The events of the book unfold starting with a suicide bombing, and how it affects – directly and indirectly – the lives of the people who live in the tekke (dervish house). The story is told from the perspectives of each:

  • An academic economist forced into retirement,
  • A nine-year old boy with a dangerous heart condition,
  • A rural young woman determined to make it as a professional in the big city,
  • An ambitious young woman who runs a religious art gallery,
  • A ruthless energy trader, and;
  • A troubled, screw-up caught up in the development of street sharia.

Their lives are tied to together by the tekke, by the suicide bombing several blocks away, and by a near-mythical relic from Istanbul’s past. Each character is painstakingly crafted. Their voices are distinct, their judgments and values a clear outgrowth of their background. These characters have depth, and plainly show McDonald’s careful research into some of the more esoteric branches of market theory, contemporary futures contracts, and obscure kabbalistic sects. This research gives this book its lush, rich texture and bring the characters and setting alive.

The intersecting character arcs are exceptionally well done, and they are at once the book’s primary strength and its greatest weakness. In fact, that’s the only reason why I’m giving this book four stars instead of five: I feel like I have seen this device used before. When I think about McDonald’s works, the ones that instantly come to mind are Desolation Road, its sequel Ares Express, and River of Gods. Each of these books relies on the same narrative structure: different characters whose lives intersect through one (or a handful) of locations. McDonald does this better than anyone I can think of just now. But I’d like to see him stretch more, maybe try some different structures out. It would be nice to see, because having read most of his work I find that I know how it will flow. I can’t predict the events of the plot, but I can predict its cadences and rhythms. It’s like listening to a new symphony by a beloved composer: you can just tell how the music will swell next, even if you’ve never heard it. Much as I enjoy McDonald’s symphonies, I’d like to be surprised.

The physical book itself is great. Pyr did an excellent job with the hardcover, designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and with a cover illustration by Stephan Martiniere. The cover illustration sets the tone for the whole work, showing the crowded streets of 2027 Istanbul, the combination of history (old buildings, traditional clothes) and uber-modernity (neon advertisements, robots, etc.). That cover image captures the mixing pot that is Istanbul, and captures the intersections of its residents lives just as well as the text. Martiniere’s covers and McDonald’s prose are a great pairing, and I’m glad to see that Pyr has maintained that connection through all of McDonald’s books they have published. Great job with that, and I hope they maintain it since I think that combination is just getting better and better.

This is not a rip-through-it-in-one-night, page-turning adventure. It has its moments of high tension and danger, but this is the kind of book that you want to enjoy over the course of several nights. This prose should be savored. If you have had your fill of anglophone settings and cultures in your science fiction, you should pick this up. If you are interested in high-quality literary fiction that just happens to be set in the future, pick this up. I think this is one of McDonald’s better works, and I definitely enjoyed the trip he took me on. If you find that you like this, there’s a variety of other great science fiction set outside of the American/British cultural background that you might enjoy, most notably the books by George Alec Effinger and Lucius Shepard‘s Life During Wartime.

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