Two futures

charnock calculated lifeAnne Charnock‘s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle last year. I remember thinking that it looked like one of the most interesting books in contention, but by the time I finally got around to reading it (last weekend) I found I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about it. This turned out to be a good thing, a wonderful thing, even. I’m one of those people who takes pleasure in information-gathering, and usually when I sit down to read a novel I’ve already consumed at least half-a-dozen reviews of it. I know, broadly, what to expect, and whilst I’ve never found my enjoyment of a text to be impaired by this kind of advance preparation – if a film or a novel genuinely can be spoiled by spoilers, it probably didn’t have that much substance in the first place – it’s great to be reminded of how surprising and thrilling it can be, to go into a book completely blind.

I found the first dozen or so pages of A Calculated Life to be curiously affectless. The prose seemed rather blank and toneless, the point of view character – a young woman named Jayna, working for some kind of faceless corporation in a vaguely futuristic Manchester – rather flatly drawn. The story was oddly hypnotic, though – I think I may have previously mentioned that I always enjoy reading about work – and so I kept reading. My initial feelings of vague frustration with the text were soon replaced by admiration and increasing pleasure as the narrative became more complicated, its particular use of language entirely comprehensible, and I discovered what Charnock was really up to.

It turns out that Jayna is a construct, an artificially grown simulant, one of many thousands leased out to (read ‘owned by’) high-end businesses that make use of their superior abilities – in calculation, in business modelling, in predicting future patterns in behaviour and trade – in the race to get ahead.  Jayna has been designed to be perfectly happy with her life, the small freedoms she is allowed giving her – and the rest of her kind – just enough of a sense of independence to stop her demanding more.  Something is changing, though. Jayna is curious – more curious than perhaps she should be – about the unexpected results of some of her calculations. Her investigations lead her in a risky direction.

I’m aware that in giving this brief outline I’m making A Calculated Life sound like Bladerunner, or 1984, even. But although it shares aspects in common with these two SF masterpieces, Charnock’s novel is entirely and definitively her own. It is lovingly crafted, beautifully made in the economical, expert way a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture is made – pure lines, and perfectly suited to its intended purpose. In the spare, clean language of her novel, Charnock makes a valid and convincing attempt to imagine how a person – for of course she is a person – like Jayna would think and feel. I found Charnock’s writing about mathematics, and pattern recognition especially to be – well, the only words that come close for me, paradoxically, are moving and beautiful.

Additionally, I found Charnock’s AI community a great deal more involving and realistic-seeming than Ann Leckie’s portrayal of Breq in Ancillary Justice, the novel that eventually won the Golden Tentacle and just about everything else that year. I’m not knocking Ancillary Justice here – it’s a different book, with different aims – but I do feel that A Calculated Life has been very hard done by in comparison, and should have received a great deal more attention than it did.

Anne Charnock is clearly a gifted and sensitive author of acute intelligence, writing science fiction of a kind – quiet, intense, thoughtful – we could do with more of. I’m looking forward to her second novel, Sleeping Embers of An Ordinary Mind, with some anticipation. It’s published on December 1st, and I’ve already pre-ordered it.

The future depicted in Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s story in the latest edition of Clarkesworld, ‘The Occidental Bride’, is several degrees harsher and yet displays some striking parallels to the one we find in A Calculated Life. The continent of Europe has literally been shattered, devastated by some new and terrible kind of weapon. One of the engineers of that weapon, a woman named Kerttu, has more in common with Charnock’s Jayna than we might initially imagine: sold by her mother at the age of six, she becomes the property of the state, indentured intellectual labour with no rights to her own life. At the beginning of the story, we see Kerttu being purchased again, this time by Heilui, a woman living on the other side of the world both politically and geographically. Heilui seems to hold all the cultural and material advantages, but as we discover, she too is the prisoner of political forces, and has her own deadly service to perform.

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things I admire most about Sriduangkaew’s stories is their complete lack of sentimentality, their willingness to be dark in a way that picks at the soul. Although there is always a temptation to refer to her language as ‘lyrical’ – because it’s so descriptively intense, I suppose – the more I read of her the less this word seems to jibe with what’s on the page. Sriduangkaew’s visions are too fraught, too disturbing for that, and even the word ‘haunting’ does not wholly convey the discomfort that comes to sit with you as you read them. As with many of Sriduangkaew’s protagonists, both Kerttu and Heilui are brittle, driven characters who exude the sense of having only just survived their memories. The beautifully polished, artfully rendered surface of the story is like mirror glass – bouncing our own gaze back at us, attracting our attention away from the shattering realities that lurk in the depths beneath before revealing them full force.

Heilui monitors Kerttu’s progress, trying to use the map of her wife’s virtual wanderings to create an image that would pierce the inscrutable, remote shell. A crucial piece that would make the Kerttu she is seeing cohere with the Kerttu the mass murderer who created weapons that destroyed the shattered continent, the war criminal. Often she thinks of asking, Did you understand what you were doing? At the beginning, she mustn’t have, a prodigy whose supple intelligence was exploited, whose mind was slowly conditioned to regard her work as normal.

The keenest pleasure of this story is the disquiet it engenders. The cultural commentary – on terrorism, on exotification, on the whole concept of mail order brides – is fiercely articulate and uncompromising. Sriduangkaew’s science fiction is radical in a way we don’t see often enough: it is angry – about the past, about the future that past is forcing upon us – and it is unapologetic in insisting that we should know it.

I would rate ‘The Occidental Bride’ as Sriduangkaew’s finest story since her 2014 ‘Autodidact’. It makes me hungry to see more longer-length work from her and I’m hoping it won’t be too long before we do.