As with Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (and indeed, Drew Margary’s The End Specialist last year), it is difficult to account for the presence of Adrian Barnes’ Nod on the Clarke Award shortlist. Is it there because it looks like left field science fiction? A concession to the litfic tendency? Because it is an excellent piece of fiction in some way that currently eludes my critical faculties?
We may never know what was on the judges’ minds, but having already taken down The Dog Stars on the straightforward basis of its not being science fiction, I didn’t want to simply carry out a similar process with Nod. Sniping at shortlist choices is easy, can sometimes be fun, but in the case of things like The Dog Stars, or The End Specialist, or Nod, I’ve begun to feel that it’s ultimately neither satisfying or productive, not least because I think there is frequently a false comparison being made; i.e. as an apple, this makes a really crap orange, when no one actually intended that I should consider it as an orange.
To develop that point a little more, all three of these titles are novels that so far as I can tell were not deliberately written as sf, nor in two instances even marketed as such. Two out of the three may be characterised as dystopian, if one defines ‘dystopian’ as ‘oh my god, the world as we know it is falling apart’; it may just be the scholar in me but I think that is a definition that is very unhelpful, although it does seem to have become the default description for anything in which the world we’re familiar with is a teeny bit threatened by something or other.
All three novels utilise a scenario that might be characterised as catastrophic, apocalyptic even if you must (though again, I’d argue that the two are not entirely the same), though in The Dog Stars we are clearly dealing with a post-scenario, whereas with The End Specialist it’s never-ending, and in Nod, we’re in at the beginning. What does mark all three novels, however, is that these are writers using tropes of science fiction without necessarily seeking to write science fiction
In the case of The Dog Stars the catastrophe is clearly nothing more than a way of getting rid of most of the people and infrastructure, to facilitate the protagonist’s desire to bunker down on an airfield with his dog and grow vegetables in solitude. If anything, it reminds me most of children’s books of the 1950s and ’60s, where the author’s first job was to safely dispose of the parents for the novel’s duration. As I said when I reviewed the novel, the catastrophe is nothing more than window dressing. In which case, to co-opt the novel as science fiction by placing it on the Clarke Award shortlist, particularly when it isn’t very good science fiction, or for that matter very good fiction, is to ask far more of it than it was ever capable of giving.
In The End Specialist it was evident that Margary knew what a certain kind of science fiction looked like and he worked its motifs and metaphors as hard as he could. Yet I never had the sense that he was using them to tell a story. The novel was all surface and effect; somehow the idea of a narrative had got lost along the way. And yes, I don’t doubt that Margary was making a Big Point about Society, but that should by no means be antithetical to telling a story as well.
Nod falls into different territory again. We have what might be some sort of catastrophe and resulting associated rapid disintegration of society, and zombies, but we might also be invited to read the science-fictional trappings as nothing more than an extremely extended metaphor for the condition of late capitalist society. In which case, we shouldn’t be reading it as a novel of catastrophe at all, because ... metaphor trumps ‘realism’. This is a view that one or two people have expressed to me but while I understand what they’re saying, I remain sceptical as whether, assuming this is what Barnes is doing, he has been successful.
At this point, I need to introduce yet another novel into the equation, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, one of the most fascinating novels published so far this year. To all intents and purposes, it behaves like a realist novel, and a beautifully made one at that, set mostly in England in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s a familiar world, politically and domestically. Atkinson has really caught the feel of the middle-class house, with a couple of servants, a slight roughness in the domestic arrangements. It is pleasantly reminiscent of E.M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady taken seriously. Alongside this, two world wars take place, women struggle for emancipation on so many levels as well as demanding universal suffrage. Attitudes change as men go off to war and return. Atkinson observes the effects of war with great compassion and understanding.
Ursula, the ‘little bear’, the novel’s pivotal character, struggles to make a life for herself beyond her rather narrow-minded mother’s rather dismal expectations for her. This may all sound rather conventional, except for one thing: the baby Ursula dies in the opening moments of the novel. Except that a chapter later she is born again, and this time she survives. Later, she drowns, but another time she survives. And so it goes on.
Anyone familiar with J.B. Priestley’s time plays will already have some inkling of what’s going on here, and I’m guessing that Atkinson is also very familiar with J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment in Time. Ursula’s many lives ripple out from the novel’s opening. Some Ursulas are aware to a greater or lesser degree that theirs is not the only life; others are blissfully unaware or else vaguely troubled by visions and presentiments. Through this skilful layering of stories, Atkinson also presents a fantastic mosaic portrait of a woman’s life in Britain up to the 1960s.
Critical reaction has, needless to say, been mixed. Three critics on Radio 4’s Saturday night arts discussion programme tied themselves in knots, trying to figure out what was going on, and were generally very unhappy with the novel’s structure. Yet every genre-savvy reader I’ve seen commenting on the novel seems to immediately grasp that Atkinson is in some way working with alternative time streams, quantum universes, call them what you will, using them to construct this composite portrait of Ursula’s lives.
This is where it gets complicated. What I want to argue here is that Heller, Margary, Barnes and Atkinson – and we could throw in novels like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and P.D James’ infamous The Children of Men – are all attempting to Speak Trope, that is, to use ideas that might be classed as science-fictional but not in ways that are necessarily immediately identifiable as ‘genre’.
I’ve likened the process to using another language very deliberately because, in many ways it seems to me to be like, say, understanding music or mathematics, or being able to speak a foreign language sufficiently well to be able to use it idiomatically.
Let us consider these novels in the light of this idea. The Children of Men didn’t speak Trope at all, insofar as James kept telling us she was using ‘real science’, though all this demonstrated in the end was that she understood neither Trope nor science fiction. In fact, to judge from the relative success of the film, she intuitively knew what Trope looked like but couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate this.
The Dog Stars learned a word or two of Trope, perhaps because someone taught it to say a few useful phrases phonetically. I might learn to ask ‘where is the concierge?’ but, critically, will I understand the answer? The answer was not, I think, what Heller wanted to write about. Having invoked Trope with a little mystical hand-waving, Heller fells silent and swiftly moved on to the rest of the story, about love and loneliness and a blessedly empty landscape.
The End Specialist might seem to speak Trope reasonably fluently until you actually tried to make sense of what it was saying, at which point it turned out to be saying little more than ‘shiny shit’ over and over again, VERY LOUDLY, with slight variations and increasing frustration that people didn’t understand. It’s not that they didn’t understand, more that they understood only too well that while The End Specialist had the accent, it had only a fairly rudimentary vocabulary, one that ran to ‘electronic device’, ‘drugs’, ‘violence’, ‘kill’, and ‘shiny shit’.
Atkinson speaks Trope confidently, and uses it without needing to draw attention to what’s she’s doing. If you’re familiar with the tropes of sf, when you read her novel what she does simply feels … right. Of course this does in part depend on how you view sf but I am quite prepared to argue that Life After Life is part of an ongoing discussion about the nature of time, and that seems to me to be a part of sf. Atkinson’s is a natural, unforced use of Trope; indeed, I cannot see how she could otherwise tell the story. She understands the idiom and as a result it enriches the novel, not least because she does it in a way that also resonates with how writers of the period might have used it.
Which brings us back to Nod, though here the question might be not how well does Barnes speak trope, but why does he need to speak it in the first place? The tendency seems to have been for critics to read Nod as an apocalyptic or catastrophe novel, and as such to read it unfavourably, as a failed example of the genre. Here, I put up my hand and say that was my initial response. On the other hand, it has also been suggested that the apocalypse and accompanying zombies should be read in more metaphorical terms, mainly as a commentary on late capitalism and the way in which ‘we’ sleepwalked our way into the mess we now find ourselves in. That might also have a certain plausibility, though I would suggest that the zombie/sleepwalking metaphor is already more than a little well-worn, and anyway, I do believe Colson Whitehead covered that topic with Zone One which I believe to be a much more successful novel than Nod.
The problem for me is that I have begun to suspect that Barnes’s use of trope is not actually based on speaking trope, but for whatever reason on having run it through some literary equivalent of Google Translate. Some chapters into Nod, it began to occur to me that there was something very familiar about this novel and I eventually realised that in many respects it resembled John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (which happens to be one of my all-time favourite sf novels, cosy catastrophe novel, call it what you will); or rather, it was a kind of Triffids de nos jour. The incidents were often similar but the outcomes were frequently very different.
The Day of the Triffids famously begins with much of the world’s population waking up blind one morning, after observing a meteor shower the night before. Bill Masen, the novel’s first-person narrator, did not see the lightshow because he was in hospital, in a darkened room, his eyes bandaged, recovering from the effects of a triffid sting. As a consequence, the following morning he finds himself in the position of being one of comparatively few people who can see.
In the novel, Masen is positioned as something of a loner. He’s unmarried, an only child of parents who are now dead, a man of some means, solidly lower middle-class. He works for a company that farms triffids for oil and other by-products, and is something of a field expert on their habits and behaviour. As a result, he is quicker than most to realise the threat posed by walking stinging plants to a mostly blind population.
In London, where the novel begins, Masen finds himself witness to the rapid disintegration of civilisation. Those of the blind who have not already fallen victim to the triffids are starving. Some, the strongest and most violent, attempt to imprison sighted people to act as guards. Those who are sighted gradually find one another and begin to make tentative plans for the future, though these vary from setting up new colonies intended to replenish the population as fast as possible to setting up strict religious groups to care for the blind. In particular, a political agitator, Wilf Coker, kidnaps a number of sighted people, including Masen and his companion, Josella Playton, and assigns each sighted person to a group of blind people, a plan which fails as disease begins to set in.
When Masen’s group finally dies off he sets off in search of Josella, picking up Coker again along the way. Their journey across southern England is, as I’ve argued before, effectively a testing of a series of alternative approaches for coping with catastrophe. The monastic no-sex approach directly offsets the farming babies for the future model; Coker’s altruistic-cum-socialist approach is admirable but, as he admits, more difficult to execute than he thought as it does rely on getting others on board with the idea. Masen’s approach is more individualistic without being rabidly every man for himself, and works because Masen is already accustomed to taking care of himself, is resourceful but also not afraid of either hard work or to address the gaps in his knowledge. Also, critically, he is aware of the fact that this is going to be a long haul. His accidental model involves a group bound together by ties of family, friendship and filiation, and a willingness to see blind people as being adaptable human beings. Throughout there are hints of other responses to the crisis – towns barricaded off, gunfire when Masen attempts to scavenge – it is only at the very end of the novel that alternative political models intrude. The group that originally advocated polygamy makes contact, having set up home on the Isle of Wight, and admit that maybe … Significantly, Coker has found his way to them and we infer that there will always be someone to challenge and test their ideas. Another group, setting itself up arbitrarily as a new English government, proposes a much more totalitarian approach, not the least of which involves treating the blind as little short of animals, and it is this that prompts the group to escape and head for the Isle of Wight, recognising that there now needs to be safety in greater numbers.
Wyndham’s novel was published in 1951, and brings with it powerful resonances of World War Two, austerity, National Socialism, death camps, and the post-war drive to build a new and better world. While Masen himself is pragmatic rather than optimistic, he allows himself hope and the conviction that things can and will improve, slowly, gradually but in different ways to what went before. I’d also suggest that Masen fits squarely in the mould of the competent hero so beloved of science fiction (and for that matter, given the period in which the novel was written, Josella is very much his equal throughout the novel) but his is a more domestic competence than that found in much American sf of the time. He is not out on the hostile surface of an asteroid, saving himself from the burning rays of the sun; he’s in Pulborough, Sussex, saving himself from walking plants and worrying about milking the cows. It is, or was at the time, something much more realistic, easy to latch onto. As a young adult, at a time when the possibility of nuclear war was still a very real thing, I don’t mind admitting that The Day of the Triffids shaped my thoughts on survival (at least, until Raymond Briggs brought out When The Wind Blows)
Now let us turn to Nod. Barnes offers us a world in which, suddenly, almost no one can sleep. No one knows why but, given this is the 21st century, the media is pouring out speculation, and most people are already aware that unless a solution can be found, after thiry-two days they will die, though they will almost certainly have gone mad long before that. Paul, the novel’s narrator, is one of the few who can sleep – from an artistic point of view, this is very convenient as it means he will be able to continue documenting society as it, inevitably, falls apart.
What is immediately striking is how vulnerable the sleepers are. They are easily identifiable because they are clearly better rested and, unless they can keep their condition secret, they are of course very vulnerable when they sleep. Whereas the blind need the sighted, the presence of the sleepers merely enrages the insomniacs, who are already driven half mad by sleep deprivation and fear of what is to come. Many people in Triffids realised early on what was going to happen, faced the inevitable and committed suicide, in Nod the crisis comes with a built-in cut-off date, pre-planned obsolescence.
Paul himself is not that interested in finding out what’s going on, beyond sitting in front of the tv, at least until that goes off. Whereas Bill Masen’s impulse is to get out of the hospital as soon as he can, to witness for himself, Paul shows a marked reluctance to do anything. Until the crisis comes, he was a writer, working on obscure books about etymology that don’t, so far as we can gather, sell very well. His partner Tanya goes out to work while Paul hides away at home, in his high-rise apartment, crouched over his laptop, taking his view of the world from the internet, or more often ignoring everyone and everything. He appears to have few friends, his relationship with Tanya seems to an outsider to be unrewarding for both of them, and crucially, he seems to have no real interest in anything but himself.
In general, he lacks curiosity; in particular he seems unable to look into the future in any meaningful way other than to sit it out for the requisite number of days and then see what happens. It certainly hasn’t occurred to him that it might be a good plan to immediately get in some food and water, rather than waiting several days, only to find himself confronted by long queues, hyperinflation and a lack of commodities. Instead, Paul and Tanya go out for brunch.
A day or so later, when Paul is beaten up, though not particularly seriously, he and Tanya nonetheless decide that the sensible thing to do is to cross Vancouver in the dark, to visit the emergency room. The emergency room provides the first set-piece demonstration of how awful things actually are out there but one is left with a sense that Paul still doesn’t quite grasp what is going on around him. This feeling persists as he finds himself caught up in the cult of the Awakened and then, in a recapitulation of Masen’s journey with Coker, to find Miss Durrant’s community, when he makes the journey across Vancouver to visit the Cat Sleepers. Paul, one can’t help noticing, leads an oddly charmed life whenever he does venture outside. Despite his lack of awareness of what’s going on about him and his unerring ability to get into difficult situations from which he nonetheless always manages to escape; one is forced to the conclusion that this results from authorial fiat rather than arising naturally from the situation.
Masen’s narrative of his journeys provides a vivid account of the infrastructure of civilisation gradually crumbling, and owes a fair amount to earlier narratives such as Richard Jeffries’ After London, Paul’s narrative of his journeys through Vancouver and what he finds owes rather more to the likes of J.G. Ballard; a gazetteer of bizarre behaviour, brought on by lack of sleep, occasionally coloured by Paul’s own experience of being under intense mental pressure. Yet, while Ballard unerringly pinpoints the strange beauty embedded in collapse, and his portrayal of mental collapse is imbued with a sense of the humanity still lurking in the madness, Barnes’ portrayal of Vancouver on the brink of madness feels very superficial by comparison, as if, once again, he is dealing with the ‘look’ of sf.
Yet, tempting as it might be to simply dismiss Paul as a disorganised loser, the point here is surely that this is how most people are likely to react in such a situation. Indeed, Barnes could be read as going for the realist option – people are inevitably unprepared – but in doing so, he places himself in opposition to the most common sf model, that of curiosity, competence and resolution of a sort. One might then suggest that Barnes is deliberately writing antithetical science fiction, maybe even providing a critique of more conventional sf. Paul’s one piece of hypothetical strategising consists of taking over a millionaire’s mansion and holing up until it’s all over, as so often seems to be the case in a certain kind of sf novel, though here Paul has no particular mansion in mind, and one suspects he is just parroting things he has read.
But if Barnes is deliberately interrogating the nature of sf, he does so on the basis of a series of very crude dichotomies. Quite apart from the many differences between the protagonists, in terms of outlook and occupation, while Masen roams across south-east England, documenting the effects of the disaster, Paul is apparently trapped in Vancouver, unable to get through the streets or over the bridge, into the wilderness. Masen rarely encounters other people aggressively fighting for their lives whereas Paul simply can’t get away from them. Masen gets the girl and a ready-made daughter while Paul loses his partner – to be precise, in a rare moment of what might be called compassion he murders her to spare her what is likely to come – and later … I can only call it ‘sets free’ the child that Tanya had almost forcibly adopted at the beginning of the crisis. (The surviving children have become mute and have vanished into Vancouver’s parks to live.)
By the same token, we might read the novel as a critique of late capitalism, in the sense of it demonstrating how quickly the familiar structure of our lives can now collapse if an unconsidered variable suddenly arises, be it sudden endemic insomnia, or a Chancellor of the Exchequer accidentally creating a non-existent petrol shortage, particularly as it possesses that infallible marker of late capitalism, the zombie. The apocalyptic scenario might suggest that but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is actually a distraction, a canard. Which is itself problematic in that the reader has already been invited to address the book in a certain way, and a reader familiar with Trope is most likely to read the novel in the light of Trope. What I do not see are any indications that I am being intentionally encouraged to read against Trope.
What I think I do see, however, is a more subtle novel about manifestations of belief, buried inside a farrago of science-fictional notions that actually make little sense. The key to this novel is Charles, ‘an outsider always looking for a way in. But no one would let him in.’ Instead, according to Paul, everyone treats Charles ‘as though he were fictional.’ More to the point, Charles is clearly acutely aware of this. When sleeplessness suddenly impinges, Charles seizes the opportunity to begin to promulgate a new philosophy that he has developed, drawing on the manuscript of Paul’s book, Nod, which as luck (and again authorial fiat) would have it, Charles found when Paul accidentally left it in the café. Whatever Charles’ social failings, he appears to be an attentive reader, possibly Paul’s only reader, to judge from sales, and he quickly latches onto the portrayal of Nod, the empty land, east of Eden, site of Cain’s exile after his murder of Abel, and Paul’s linking the orphan words he’s writing about with ‘old unmanned realities’, to create a philosophy in which the sleepless are in fact the Awakened. Paul’s manuscript literally becomes his bible, while Paul himself, despite the complication of being a sleeper, is elevated to role of prophet or front-man for Charles in his moment of glory.
The question, though, is whether the novel needs an apocalypse in order to facilitate Charles’ brief moment in the sun, as leader of a rag-tag group of insane people, about to die from lack of sleep. The argument might be that it is only when society has reached a suitable state of collapse that the Charleses of this world can find their way to the front, but does it need a huge, inexplicable and indeed unnecessary worldwide event for Charles to seize his moment? I remain unconvinced that it does. Indeed, what strikes me most about this novel is that all the various groups come into being so very quickly, to such a degree that one suspects that many of them already existed. Why should it take a huge event like worldwide sleeplessness to trigger their takeover? Why not something like a large American city which has lost its manufacturing base, and much of its population, is now part deserted and on the verge of bankruptcy? No need for sleeplessness, nuclear strikes or any of the other ideas Barnes comes up with.
But what, then, is Nod trying to do? It is difficult to find any sympathy for Paul. He’s not even a particularly interesting misanthrope so much as a whiny, needy man-child who likes to show off the fact that he knows lots of unusual words. One might admire his candid disavowal of humanity but in order to disavow it one needs to engage with it in the first place and know it before writing it off, whereas Paul seems to have conscientiously spent as much of his life as he can simply hiding away from it. In his writing, he performs in a way he seems unable to do in person, even by his own admission. His ‘diary’ insofar as it is a diary and not a reconstruction made a couple of weeks into the crisis, is written with an awareness of audience that is quite stomach-curdling in its archness.
This, of course, is character performing as character, but quite apart from considering this novel to be poor science fiction, I think it is also rather poor fiction generally. Bear in mind that Paul is an etymologist, a man who thinks about words and their meanings. In his journal, he writes ‘Everything’s akimbo: heads flop, tongues loll, and mouths are corkscrewed holes’. The alert reader knows that ‘akimbo’ means to stand with your hands on your hips. The alert etymologist would surely also know this. Granted, meaning may drift, but less orthodox use of akimbo generally still invokes limbs at angles, not the floppiness suggested here. Can it really be that we have an etymologist with a tin ear? Or is the author overdoing things a little?
I did at one point try to argue myself into believing that Barnes was trying to show that Paul is indeed a poor writer but this overlooks various other things, such as those moments when authorial fiat allows Paul to wriggle out of a tight creative space, enabling him to conveniently leave the manuscript in the café or allows him to lower the child Zoe in a basket he’s conveniently found, on a rope he’s conveniently got, from a fourth-floor balcony without the slightest mishap, not even rope burn, given that Zoe is supposedly about four years old and presumably a reasonable weight. Now this may just be the sf reader in me monitoring for plausibility, but even so …
But mostly, I find myself thinking about the novel’s ending. The first-person narrative, the diary format, the hinted decision to die (through starvation? Or has he found some drugs he’s not mentioned?), the touching description of lying down on his bed, on his back. The list of things he must now say goodbye to … have you ever tried lying on your back and writing fifteen lines of prose?
So, Nod fails as science fiction so far as I’m concerned but even if one reads beyond that it still fails. It’s a literary salmagundi, a grab-bag of fictional bits and pieces but there is nothing to bind it together to make a coherent whole.