Tigerman: Escape from the genredarmes

TIGERMAN by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)

Puppies are often cute. The Sad and Rabid Puppies, who recently waged their doomed Hugo Award vendetta against “literary and ideological” science fiction and fantasy nominees, were about as cute as some drooling, mangy, potentially rabid mutt attempting to fuck your shin, shred your ass and wee on your carpet.

It’s hard to fathom their objection to “literary” science fiction and fantasy. A frequent antonym for literary is illiterate; to campaign for illiterate writing – on an awards shortlist, nogal – is just slightly (oxy)moronic. But chief rug-stainer Brad Torgersen has saved us the trouble of pondering about “ideological”. He’s explicit; he means “leftist”.

Nick Harkaway’s third speculative novel, Tigerman, wouldn’t please the puppies. It’s unashamedly literary and metaphorical, and has some unkind things to say, obliquely, about industrial, military and political colonisation. It’s also one of the most powerfully moving works you’ll encounter this year in any genre.

Although it riffs on the comic-book fantasy of the superhero, Tigerman is rooted more firmly in hard science fiction. Decades of industrial chemical waste, roiling and mingling in its volcanic substrates, have left the tiny island of Mancreu off the East African coast so environmentally risky that the international community is poised to obliterate it. Sergeant Lester Ferris, veteran of allied military interventions in the Middle East – or “goatfucks”, as his American equivalent calls them – is serving out his remaining time as Britain’s representative there.

He attempts to maintain law and order, observes the evacuation and waits for the red phone to ring. His orders include carefully not seeing the “Black Fleet” exploiting Mancreu’s ambiguous, not-quite-nonexistent status to anchor offshore as platforms for illegal fishing, smuggling, renditions and worse.

Ferris fantasises a lot: about the “normal” family life he never had; about sex with the American doctor who marshals dwindling drug supplies and island herbs to keep healthcare going; and about adopting a preternaturally smart, apparently orphaned street kid he has befriended, who might otherwise be lost in some refugee camp when the end of the world arrives. Ferris almost fails to notice the romantic interest of Inoue Kaiko, the lead scientist mapping the pollution.

As the island nears the end, its social fabric shreds. When things turn really nasty, Ferris, egged on by the boy, becomes Tigerman: a monstrous figure cobbled together from embassy military supplies, comic-book imagination and island folklore to put things right. He brings to the role his own real but small superpower: foresight; in battle, “his boys said … he could smell the mortars before they were fired”.

His campaign brings patchy success and revelatory outcomes as startling as anything ever dreamed up by Stan Lee.

Tigerman’s antecedents are far broader than the comics that fuel the novel’s doses of technicolour flash-bang-kerpow. Graham Greene and Harkaway’s own father, John le Carre, provided analogues for Ferris’s character: the good servant of empire drawn away from obedience by his own moral compass. William Boyd – and Evelyn Waugh before him – explored the blend of farce and protocol that characterises the end of Empire. Kipling painted disillusioned old soldiers seeking the sons they never had. But there’s also a taste of Marquez in the genuine magic of landscape and tradition, and the impish perversity of nature. Previous poison clouds erupting from Mancreu’s deeps brought blight and madness; the next one brings all the flowers into bloom.

In Harkaway’s hands, these disparate elements – hard SF, superman fantasy, apocalyptic disaster movie, spy thriller, romance and magical-realist fable – form a unique alchemical brew, as mysterious as anything roiling in Mancreu’s caverns.

The catalyst for the magic is Harkaway’s beautifully crafted writing. Ferris’s terse, matter-of-fact sergeant’s tone weaves through baroquely imaginative scene-painting with challenging questions about our real world, not Mancreu’s fictional one. How will we behave when the end looms close? What sacrifices does the responsibility of love demand? And aren’t we all, like Mancreu, poised to “ruin a beautiful thing for the sake of a security we cannot have”?

GLORIOUS ANGELS by Justina Robson ­(Gollancz)

Nothing irritates writers more than being confined within a narrow genre box. It’s particularly irritating within science fiction and fantasy where, increasingly, the boundaries between the two categories are fluid, and some of the most interesting work juggles elements from both.

Writer Mary Gentle’s White Crow series – founded on Giordano Bruno’s 17th-century Hermeticism – offered a witty riposte to the split: “These novels and stories are science fiction (…) it just isn’t the science you’re probably used to.”

That grey area is also where Justina Robson operates. Her earlier novels all had cosmologies and technologies so carefully mapped they garnered British Science Fiction Association, Campbell, Phillip K Dick and Arthur C Clarke nominations. Her subsequent five-book Quantum Gravity series was set after a fictional 2015 when the barriers between the faery, daemon, elemental, ghost and mundane worlds of Otopia had been shattered, adding multiple layers of complexity to a rather more familiar meat versus machine trope. (Robson has also authored a Transformers book.)

Glorious Angels is Robson’s 10th outing. Again, it plays on the turf where magic and science meet, with classic tropes on display. Glimshard, one of the eight great cities dominating their war-torn planet, is the home of mages whose “magic” is often the kind defined by Arthur C Clarke: almost indistinguishable from the highly advanced technologies buried beneath their soil. Gradually – and this is a plot spoiler – it becomes clear that the creators of that technology may not be extinct: their crashed ship is buried near a particularly contentious border, and there’s a tiny star resembling an observation satellite still winking.

That’s one plotline. Alongside it, we read of Tralane Huntingore, a more-than-usually bohemian mage from an aristocratic house in decline. She strives to juggle her disorganised life and relationships with two talented, rebellious teenage daughters, with the polity seeking to control her discoveries, and with Mazhd, a state agent torn between their mutual attraction and his duties.

The society is female-run, the state riven by murderous factions and the wars include an apparently unwinnable one against some very strange nomads, the Karoo, who have the power to absorb minds.

Robson manages all these elements marvellously. The Quantum Gravity series sometimes felt overdressed in its rich externals; here the balance between ornate appearance, costume and protocols is balanced by a sensitive exploration of internal lives. That’s particularly true of the nuanced portrayals of power struggles between mother and daughters trying their wings, and of the awkward but genuinely affectionate relationship with Mazhd.

Scenes such as scientist Tralane’s farcical attempt to create a domestic dinner for her assignation with Mazhd ring true in their human comedy – in the end, it’s cooked by her toy-boy lab assistant, with whom she is also sleeping.

Writers of speculative fiction set in male-run societies rarely feel the need to explain that situation, and Robson similarly naturalises her female elite. There is no preaching; it’s just the way society is. Thus we see how any unquestioned order of power and privilege impacts very precisely on individual lives.

The ideas flower along an action-driven narrative arc with chases and battles, betrayals, kidnappings and ample sex. There’s a different, equally piquant, excitement in the discoveries made via experiment and intellectual effort.

Uniting these diverse strands is the meta-theme of observation. The satellite watches the planet while observed as a star. The bureaucracy watches the people. The Queen is telepathically linked to her seven counterparts, all watching one another. Tralane watches – but often does not really see – her daughters. Mazhd watches his targets and everyone watches the Karoo.

Observation towers and spyware, parade grounds and court, ancient binoculars, bath-house venues for very public sex, and the mind-melding of the Karoo are all sites where private space and private thought (and through them, free will and power) are contested. Robson has painted a huge, intriguing canvas.

When more watchers become participants in the next volume, it can only get trickier.

THE WATER KNIFE by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit)

Since his award-winning debut, The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi has published mainly young adult fiction: tough, subtle, tightly wordsmithed dystopian tales such as Ship Breaker, offering far more excitement and ideas than the solipsistic norm.

He is firmly back in adult territory with his sixth book, The Water Knife: a thriller set in an American Southwest just around the corner where recurring drought has tipped into apocalyptic resource collapse. Angel Velasquez is a “water knife”: part legal bulldog, part lethal enforcer. He digs up and implements historic water rights on behalf of the corrupt Southern Nevada Water Authority.

State water supplies to cities and communities are cut off at the stroke of a judge’s pen, so the water can be diverted to plush, enclosed arcologies where only the rich can buy space, and from which the SNWA corruptly profits. Militias police internal borders against refugees from the drought, who survive on the trickles from their Clearsacs: recycled urine.

Two other protagonists collide with Velasquez. Lucy Monroe is a sharp East Coast online journalist gone native. She shares life under the drought, documenting and investigating it. When a friend of hers, a water lawyer, is tortured and murdered, Lucy follows the trail of what he might have known that got him killed. Maria Villarosa is a young Texan refugee living at the sharp end, at the mercy of squatter-camp gangsters demanding protection money for simple survival.

The plot turns on previously unknown water rights to a rich, almost-forgotten source. Chasing those rights down, with multiple flights, gunfights, beatings and betrayals along the way, shapes a narrative more taut than Maclean or Fleming. Bacigalupi has created a solidly old-fashioned, edge-of-your-seat SF-based thriller, complete with a ruthless, square-jawed protagonist tooled up with guns and cars.

The plotting is tight and the hard science of the near-future setting convincing and interesting: 3-D printers, for example, have been developed into fabrication units for entire housing estates. At this level, the book might even please Torgerson’s Rabid Puppies.

Except, of course, that the tale is a great deal more thoughtful than that trope usually turns out. If the hardcopy McGuffin seems to be a set of water rights, the real plot engine is environmental devastation, social inequality and corporate exploitation. Velasquez is not the white saviour; he’s as Mexican as many of his victims, and often torn between his remembered past life and loyalties, and what he has become. His largely Anglo employers see him as an expendable tool.

And there is no neat, happy ending where the people get the water and the black-hat corporates slink off into the sunset. Bacigalupi’s strongest terrain has always been ambiguity and the recognition that circumstances shape moral choice. Though his protagonists survive, they have all had to take difficult, damaging decisions to do so. At the end of the book they – and we –are still untangling the dilemma of when to stand up and say “no more”. It’s a bitter draught the author has given us, but one well worth downing.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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