writing sf: a semi-horrible example anatomised

Damien Broderick (damien@ariel.ucs.unimelb.edu.au)
Fri, 19 Sep 1997 18:00:53 +0000

Here's quite a long piece by me from the August 1997 issue of The New York
Review of Science Fiction, an admirable monthly journal I recommend to
anyone seriously interested in sf (they have a web site):

Spares by Michael Marshall Smith
New York: Bantam Books, 1997; $22.95; 321 pages
reviewed by Damien Broderick

Look, this reviewing caper has its quandaries. I'm prattling away in one
corner of someone's kitchen to a couple of pals who know the genre, the
mode, whatever the hell it is, and a young women who knows very little
about sf sticks her head in, a little puzzled, raises a question that shows
she's never read Martin Amis, or maybe even heard of Cordwainer Smith, and
the self-satisfied verities jolt across the sudden narrows, wander into
sidebar data-dumps, or nose-dive into confused silence.

Who are we doing this for? How much are we suppressing, anyway, in this
supposition that we are indeed `we', with some joint stock of common
truths, perceptions, positions, cultural capital? Is the review sub specie
aeternitatis, as it often comically pretends, or du jour? Who's the
babbling loon sitting here in judgement of someone's months or years of
effort, who's this arrogant character asserting with a straight face that
for the duration (a thousand or so words) `Science fiction, c'est moi'?

Just now it's me. What follows does not pretend to be the word of God,
even when the shape of reviewing language makes it sound as if that's what
I'm trying to marionette.

I just read a book I'd never heard of, by an author ditto. It took me
weeks, and was not fun. The packaging of my `advance reading copy' was
minimal, less than you'll find in the stores. It told me that Spares will
soon be `a major motion picture' from Spielberg's Dreamworks company. This
is not a good start. Most mass media sf is dire, debased. By contagion,
you suspect that anything deemed suitable for translation into big
Spielberg candy came pre-digested as pap. Not always - not Empire of the
Sun, after all, not The Color Purple, maybe not Keneally's Schindler's Ark.
But the title here is not encouraging, especially given the happy
coincidence (I write in March, 1997) of Dolly the woolly clone. What luck
for Mr Smith! How much better luck, of course, if Dolly had made the 11
o'clock picture opportunity after the movie. Maybe the first human clone
will drop in on time.

Are these maunderings suitable to a review of a book (I learn after a foray
into the Net) by the winner, for his first novel, Only Forward, of the
August Derleth Award? Paul McAuley, a wonderful writer, recommends Smith's
`clutch of fine short stories', telling me that he is `a hot new dark
horror/SF writer, who sort of wandered into the genre without knowing too
much about it, rather like Jeff Noon.' Yes. Smith is a mass media man who
wrote for some British Radio 4 program called `And Now, in Colour', and
today is scripting the mini-series adaptation of Clive Barker's vast and
legless Weaveworld. Yes, and he was born in 1968 in Cheshire, England, but
has lived in the USA, South Africa, Australia, and now is back in the UK.
Do we need to know all this, we readers? Most don't know the least thing,
or care, I'm told, about the authors or their lives, literary views,
politics, marital status, number of functioning limbs. I do, because I'm
steeped in the mega-text, which is a net for trawling up whole struggling
ecologies from the deep.

Spares, eh? Before opening the covers you knowing sf knowers know
something of what you'll meet. Cloned copies of the rich and famous,
something like that, kept on ice or otherwise quiet, culled in emergencies
for their histocompatible organs (proof against immediate immune system
attack by the recipient). Like zombies they will rise, taking their
revenge as Other against the smug, hegemonic Self. Or they will be set
free (as they are in Lois McMaster Bujold's Mirror Dance) against their own
ferocious and indignant, or just muddled, opposition. And all of it likely
to be a category mistake, a congeries of dumb errors, so blatant and
infuriating that you wish the author had a dozen necks so that he might be
hanged more than once for his crimes.

Well, Spares is all that and worse, but also more than that, and strikingly
better, here and there, in bricolaged patches that peel off like organs
stitched together without much concern for their mutual coding. That kind
of audacity is fun. You can be reading some conventional evocation of
visceral horror (`Vinaldi and I stopped running, our chests suddenly filled
with liquid fire. I reeled off into the bushes and vomited
uncontrollably') and lurch right into Martin Amis trade-marked wry: `Bodies
are great, and I wouldn't go anywhere without mine, but sometimes they're
so disappointing. If we mistreated them as badly as we do our minds then
everyone would be dead, and yet there they go, complaining all the time.
Someone needs to get all our bodies, sit them down, and give them a good
talking to.'

But this isn't really a Robert Sheckley knockoff, so whimsy takes it only
so far. Its generic cut-ups echo a certain non-stop hallucinogenic
whirlpool which is the narrator's Rapt-ruined brain, but the central
seriousness (I suppose it is) gets compromised again and again by cheap
theatrics, or bleugh yuck Barkeresque set-pieces, or Hitchhiker's Guide
frolics, and those dumb, dumb, truly stupid trope snowcrashes.

Here's a Douglas Adams bit: Our guys (ragged breathing, bang bang the guns
at their backs) slam into an xPress elevator and Jack Randall, our main
guy, lights up. The elevator's droid halts between floors and delivers a
tiresome health lecture. Jack's not going to be stalled by a politically
correct machine. `"Where are your cognitive centers stored?" I asked,
racking a shell into the barrel of my gun... "And can the elevator function
without them?"

`"Yes it can," the elevator said, with an air of slight puzzlement...

`"Because,' I said, `if you don't shut the fuck up I'm going to blow you to
shit and then spend the rest of the journey smoking in comfort. I may even
have a cigar.'"

Fun-ny, as Homer Simpson would say appreciatively. But in the context of a
story set in the 22nd century, we're being told that nobody in a century or
more has ever before scammed an AI, or if they did nobody reported the
fault, or if they reported it nobody worked out how to fix the glitch. Or
am I being way too dully earnest here? After all, the story is set in New
Richmond, which is a city that grew out of a five-mile square aerial
shopping Mall whose engines failed one day. It is a sort of Blishean
Cities-Not-In-Flight, a kind of Ballardian Really-High-Rise, a merry gag
that never quite takes off because it's stuck on the ground to begin with.

I was once sent a feminist woman's sf novel entitled, unpromisingly,
Wingwomen of Hera. It started with some astronomy:

`Two planets hung in a quiet corner of space, revolving in leisurely orbits
around their two suns...

`[A] comet fell between the two planets, coming so close to the second that
all landgrowths spontaneously burst into flames and the seas boiled at the
same moment. But not close enough to pull either planet into its lethal

`As its tail lashed them, both planets were pulled away from their
comfortable orbits, reeling crazily until they found and settled into new
paths of destiny.

`The first planet now swung in a slow figure eight around both of the
suns,' and so on and so forth. I did not read any further.

Was it unfair of me to be offended by such culpable ignorance, such
`poetic' tosh? The author, one Sandi Hall, and her publisher,
Spinsters/Aunt Lute, of San Francisco, might have felt that I was being
unduly severe. But I didn't care. Ms Hall was playing, as Gregory Benford
might say, without the net up. Indeed, I doubt she had ever heard of the
net. I'm pretty sure Mr Smith, too, is innocent of that informal contract
which binds us to make sense in science fiction, even when the high point
of our novel is peeling off a child's face and sticking it on the front of
the television set.

The big problem, the one that won't sink down and go away nicely, is the
Spares, of course. They live in horrid humid tunnels, the Farm, where
bruised Jack has wandered after barely surviving the Vietnam War, sorry,
The Gap War, where they went into the jungle and killed and raped the
uncomprehending, incomprehensibly violent villagers and children (`often
used by the villagers to carry mines') who lived in the North, appearing
and disappearing through a confusion of military-industrial quantities of
drugs. Jack, reduced by a domestic horror that we finally meet on page 116
and a military atrocity on page 278, oversees and tends the mindless Spares
who blunder in the Farm's tunnels, until he takes upon himself the
redemptive task of teaching them to be human.

These are teenagers who have never had the least socialising, and who are
regularly mined for organs, limbs and other portions of their persons, and
beaten and raped between times. There is a word for such unfortunates:
`wolf-children'. In the real world wolf-children are, and remain, mute,
barely human, even when they're caught young and treated with great care.
Jack teaches some of them to read. Then he cracks his aptest students out
of the Farm and takes them on a ruinous saga, blundering forward in a path
that reflects, unless I'm mistaken, the author's anguished real-time search
for a plot.

I won't try to explain the plot he stitched up, because it wouldn't be fair
and because it doesn't matter a hoot. There are mock-Lacanian essays in

`"...the fucking Gap... It's making people think things that aren't true."
I told him that it was true now. That it was seepage, stuff that should be
unconscious become conscious. The planet's dreams, seeping through the
wall like hallucinations on the edge of sleep.'

You can get a long way with an explanatory device like that. But once
you've got there, where have you got? `I believe The Gap is made up of all
the places where no one is, of all the sights which no one sees. It comes
from silence, and lack, and the deleted and unread; it is the gap between
what you want and what you have...' Desire as absence, as Lack. Well,
yes, ho hum.

What I Lacked, dragging myself unwillingly though a book I'd agreed to
review, was some explanation for how Smith thought he could get away with
the fundamental dumbness of his titular idea. What he's trying to blend is
schlock horror and genuine science, casting aside the guidance of fifty
years of cloning as a well-plumbed, highly developed sf trope. I'm not
blaming him for going off on his own. I'm complaining because of where he
went. Look at the logic of the thing.

Against the law, one gathers (not that there is much, for this is a crude
police state where the rich and lofty own the police) rich people have set
up reserves of genetically identical copies of their children, a year or
two younger. Evidently they have no feelings of kinship for these twins.
And only one copy per donor, apparently, but maybe there is some
redundancy, for there is more than one Farm. At any rate, the rich have
gone to the trouble of cloning their kids, lest something awful happen to
these scions. And this is the condition of their ambulatory organ-banks:

`Twice a day, a medic drone checks vital responses and gives each spare a
carefully designed package of foodstuffs to ensure that it grows and
develops in tandem with its twin. [!] Sometimes the droids'll get them to
move around a bit, so their muscles don't atrophy. [!!] Apart from that,
all the spares know is one long endless twilight of blue heat... The
doctors find the right spare, cut off what they need, and then shove it
back in the tunnel. There it lies, and rolls, and persists, until they
need it again.' `[M]angled and dissected bodies stumped around them,
clapping hands with no fingers together, rubbing their faces against the
walls and letting shit run down their legs.'

Yes, I guess that'd be the optimum way to ensure that your medical back-up
is in peak condition for the rare disaster when you'll require a graft or
organ transplant. But wait a minute - rare disaster? The SafetyNet Farms
are less than 20 years old. A clone is useless to anyone except the
original donor. So what are these hapless creatures doing with no fingers,
or missing limbs or eyes? Even at my advanced age I don't know anyone who
needs a compatible major body part. True, given the amount of feckless
gun-play reported in the novel, these people are careless with their fleshy
parts. But this careless?

Even Michael Marshall Smith is embarrassed by the absurdity. He mumbles a
bit as he mentions the exemplary case of Steven Two and his `brother out in
the big room' who was `a real piece of work'. Steven Prime crushed one
hand in a car door at 10. `A little discomfort for a while, some tiresome
physio sessions, but he ended up whole again.' I wonder if Smith has ever
broken a major bone, or had eye surgery. You wouldn't be eager to go
through that again. But Steve was such a rotter that at 17 his face was
scalded by a woman scorned, so the doctors `took his brother's face away'.
That would be the way to do it. Just peel it off, I suppose, and pop it on
the scraped surface.

And the SafetyNet doctors have a strange idea of the impact of stress on
the human body. `The operations on the spares were never made under
anesthetic, [just] muscle paralyzer...'

In other words, we have here Grand Guignol under the pretence of medical
science, and it doesn't stand still for an instant when you pay it the
mildest scrutiny.

It would have made more sense to kludge the science more boldly, as others
have done before. Solve the rejection problem, and a single body-shop
spare can be mined by numerous purchasers. That way you can whittle down
your victims without making a complete fool of the reader. Even so, it's
hard to make sense of the economics of `spare hands [with] no fingernails
left, only ragged and bleeding tips, when internal organs were found to be
so bruised they were barely usable, when spares' skins showed evidence of
cuts and burns which did not tally with any official activity'. Smith
makes some sort of attempt to rationalise these atrocities, and their
acceptance by those who pay to sustain their children's spares (it's the
pathology of The Gap, poisoning everyone it touched), but by that stage we
aren't just playing with the net down, we've abandoned our racquets and balls.

Enough. I'm taking my bat and ball home.

Silly. Sorry. Too silly, or not silly enough.