Sunday, 22 December 2013

Mira Grant: Blackout

Well, that's that all sorted out. The Newsflesh trilogy is, in fact, one narrative packaged into three volumes when it would probably have been just as good as a single book. Shaun Mason isn't some implausible hot guy with no sex drive, but rather actually was the alternative that I considered and discarded as slightly too creepy for prime time - and Grant pulls off the reveal and the justification with less than a paragraph of coolly efficient plausible handwaving. That efficiency could have been put to much better use elsewhere, since Blackout is full of the kind of blind alleys I've seen in TV series struggling to reach their episode count.

Blackout was nominated for the 2013 Hugos, and lost to John Scalzi's Redshirts. That meant that every volume of the trilogy was nominated, which is a remarkable achievement, but one I find difficult to figure out. For me, at least, the books weren't that good, though as someone said to me last night, if you actually finish a book without tossing it aside in irritation, it must have had some good in it. 

Genre fiction exists at two levels; it has to meet the formal requirements of its genre and it is nice if it also works as good writing. So bodices need to be ripped, murderers need to be caught, cows need to be punched and big what-ifs need to be chucked on the page, as the case may be. 

Thinking about Grant's writing, it doesn't really pass my re-read test. I don't want to sit down with these characters again and hear their voices now that I know what they're going to say anyhow. The writing's solid, mind you. I didn't lose track of who was who, or what they'd done. It's not great writing, but it's getting the job done, hitting its marks. Reading so much of her stuff all at once, I was really struck by her near-perfect adherence to the idea that good guys are always good looking; the world of Newsflesh is like network tv shows, where everyone with a name and a line to deliver to is attractive, and the really good guys are way above the average. No-one is pudgy or ugly, and even the rumpled people are just rumpled the better to frame their physical charm. Grant lives in a world where every librarian just has to take off her glasses and shake out her bun to become a supermodel. Bad guys are either ugly or just flat out faceless; they get no descriptions at all. It got to the point that if anyone got a physical description, I didn't need to worry about which team they were on, no matter how ambiguously they were being introduced.

Mark Twain said that of course truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense. There's a nagging corollary to that; that in life, things just happen, with no fairness or reason, a myriad decisions and chances colliding with each other and giving some people what they want, almost at random. Human nature being what it is, we revisit those random chances and frame them as the just and inevitable consequences of our pluck and talent. Fiction just turns that knob all the way up to eleven, because we do love us a story where everything revolves around a plucky hero who overcomes adversity to triumph in the end. We love it because we know damn well the world's not like that, and we need to pretend. But it can go too far.

Blackout goes too far. Only the protagonists can save the world from the terrible conspiracy? Hmmm, OK. I think anyone tempted to go that way in a book ought to be stapled to their writing chair and have the last five minutes of Casablanca blasted at them on loop for a while. The problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Or, since Grant's that age, there's always Cordelia's epic moment in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she starts screaming "Don't you understand? It's all about me, me, me." Only the protagonists really have agency in these books; no-one else seems to be doing more than reacting. And it runs deeper; only the USA has agency in dealing with a world wide cataclysm. 

Which is a stylistic weakness; they're inward looking, self absorbed books. But it's also a weakness in the fiction of ideas. SF asks questions. Sometimes it asks "What if the world were different?" and sometimes it asks "What if we go on doing what we're doing?". It succeeds not just on the quality of its questions, but on the quality of its answers. The Newsflesh trilogy tries to imagine a world living with pervasive zombies, and succeeds in sketching in an America consumed by fear and paranoia about infection. The problem is that the world is paper thin; as soon as you start to think about it, you realise it couldn't possibly work. Too much of the security Grant imagines is the kind of security we have right now. But what we have right now relies on physical interactions which have become inconceivable in Grant's post-infection world; even if you assume that somehow the world is unchanged after a dieback so massive that India has been effectively depopulated (it's hard to imagine that China would have faired any better), it's hard to imagine how the pervasive technology in her world is being made; has the USA re-industrialised? How does everyone get to work? How do products move around the USA? We're never told; we never see anyone who has a life outside the preoccupations of the main characters.

Thus, I find myself thinking that the books don't work as good writing, and also misfire as good SF. And yet, there they are with Hugo nominations. I suspect that the Hugo nominating community is so inward looking itself that they didn't see the problem.

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