Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit

When I read Becky Chambers’ first novel, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, back in January, I felt I’d finally discovered a writer with ambition for my favourite genre. What I particularly enjoyed was the absolute focus on the characters and the relationship between them. While lesser writers appear to believe that if the first gun didn’t solve the problem, a bigger one should (can there ever be a more contrary and confused state-of-mind than so-called ‘military sci-fi’?), Becky intuitively demonstrates an understanding of the question: ‘What if we’re not top of the food-chain and have to communicate?’ This question is never written out loud. It’s there in the novel’s quietness and grace.

In a genre that is defined by the idea of big ships and men in rubber masks – at least to non-readers of sci-fi – it must be extremely difficult as a writer to resist the temptation to go write the shock-and-awe ‘wow’ moments but to instead trust your reader’s attention-span. First one then two, then three and later four characters grapple with the idea of what it is to be sentient/ human. Philosophical questions of this sort are where the greatest works of sci-fi have always been produced. The canon would be very different without Lem, Tepper, Asimov, Clarke or Le Guin but if Becky Chambers keeps this form, her name will surely be added to this pantheon.

It would have been easier as a writer to create a sequel to her first novel but Becky has taken the more difficult road: write a story that will be familiar to readers who enjoyed the first novel but can be read as a standalone. It’s an investment that will pay-off as it’s not only allowed the author to experiment with style and theme but creates in readers the expectation that there will be more ‘Rogue One’-style spin-offs.

Reading ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ as a reader, I was reminded of the very best of Le Guin (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness) or Asimov’s Robot stories.

Reading ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ as a writer, I was jealous because this was the sort of book I would be very pleased to send to an editor, knowing that it could not be better.

Reading ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ as a bookseller, I am really looking forward to 20th October (the UK publication date) and being able to put a finished copy in people’s hands and saying ‘Just read it!’

Taking back control?

Never in the fields of ingenuity – and marketing resources – have so many people been so deluded by the prospect of this season’s must-have item: ‘independence’ from the EU.

Forget arguments about economics which cannot be proved either way until events transpire to overwhelm us.  Forget arguments about immigration/ control of our borders/ racism.  Having continued access to the single market promised by the Leave campaign requires agreement to the free movement of people (ask Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein).  One argument that has resounded again and again and has never been analysed in any depth is the idea that voters in the UK can ‘take back control of their government’.

Let’s break down what we mean by government here in the UK.

First, the government in Westminster is called ‘HM Government’ which means ‘Her Majesty‘s Government’.

Second, though Lizzie Windsor has always maintained – in public, at least – a politically neutral position, she retains the power to dissolve parliament.  Remember that the UK is a constitutional monarchy (albeit one without a written constitution).  These vague powers also require that her First Minister of the Treasury (or, what you oiks call a Prime Minister) attend on Lizzie to give her a regular update on the business of her parliament.

Third, just because HM Government has debated and voted on what items should be made into law, those bits of legislation don’t reach the statute and become law until Lizzie Windsor signs them off.  Every odious bit of rank bullshit passed by HM Government in the last six years – including the additional taxing of bedrooms required by disabled people for medical equipment/ live-in carers etc – has been signed into law by Lizzie.  And don’t say she can’t refuse because on at least one occasion – The Local Government etc Act (Scotland) 1973 – she has.  (Thank you Fife Regional Council for digging your heels in on that bit of needless meddling by Westminster).

Fourth, the monarchy is not the only unelected, antidemocratic force in the UK, whether in or out of the EU, at this time.  The House of Lords.  That’s 800 gallows needed right there.  A mixture of tax-dodging political donors and former MPs thrown out of office by voters who wanted someone to better represent them in the lower House of Commons.  Only the Chinese government has more uneelected bums on seats making laws.

Fifth, the presence of unelected Parliamentary Agents in the House of Commons.  There are at least five appointees with the power to order your elected MP out of the chamber.  You can’t get rid of these people who variously represent the monarchy, The Corporation of the City of London and others.

Sixth, and perhaps not least.  Before we were members of the EU, everyone was a ‘subject of the Crown’.  In effect, you, your family, your possessions, your right to fair representation in the courts and so on, were at the discretion of the monarch, which is to say that you were property, a slave in effect if not in so many words.  Today, you are a citizen of the EU.  A citizen is one who takes part in the process of selecting governments and in other civil acts.  If, after today, you are not a citizen of the EU, you are demanding the right to once again wear the shackles that previous generations fought so hard to be rid of (and that, Jeremy Corbyn, is the argument which as Leader of The Labour Party you should have been making).  Even if you like Lizzie Windsor and willingly refer to her as your queen*, do you trust the people advising her?

For all its apparent complexity, the EU works on simple basis.  The EU Commission proposes laws to national governments.  Those elected governments then debate between them what should be considered for legislation.  This proposed legislation is then put to the EU Parliament where MEPs elected by you then debate the merits of these proposals before voting on them.  There are 50 thousand bureaucrats for the whole of the EU (of which a third are translators making sure that the laws are properly codified and stated for all 28 member states).  There are ten times that many bureaucrats for the UK alone.

If you think the EU is anti-democratic or unrepresentational then perhaps the problem – and the solution to that perceived problem – is closer to home.  It might be a different referendum from two years ago but the same issues remains in contest: who should lead us?

Remember that when you vote today.

(* I’ll call her ‘queen’, ‘Your Highness’ or whatever when I get a chance to vote on who should be my Head of State… which kind of defeats the point.)

Brian Catling, The Vorrh

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Brian Catling’s novel ‘The Vorrh’ is quite unlike anything you have read before. In a just world, where bland, conservative middle-class literary types who’ve never journeyed much beyond the M25 except on a gap year did not get to decide that only books about failure in middle-age, divorce or a distrust of ethnic minorities in a multicultural urban setting should be the accepted standard for literary fiction, Brian Catling’s novel would be getting hailed from the roof-tops as the very best fiction published in years. There is a strong argument to be made that this novel is in fact one of the greatest of the twenty-first century.

The novel’s many failings as literary fiction include its categorisation as fantasy; it is set in a mythologised version of equatorial Africa and is a critique of British Empire at its peak but is not based on real-life events; it has a man born as a cyclops as one of the main characters; there are ghost-like forms and the suggestion that the great forest is alive, and; it doesn’t spoil the book to mention the extraordinary first chapter where the protagonist turns his lover into a bow. This novel is not quaintly described as a work of ‘speculative’ fiction but instead plants it’s flag proudly.

But ‘The Vorrh’ is much too exciting to be just a work of literary fiction. It is a work of fantasy and all the better for it. There are no dragons here. There are no swords and sorcerers and certainly, no derivative fellowships or demonic Bad Guys attempting to take over the world. There is also no Final Battle in which the forces of good overcome evil and all is made good in the end… and thank f*ckety f*ck for that.

‘The Vorrh’ re-imagines fantasy. It goes further and re-imagines imagination. Though a greater part of the narrative involves two journeys – one taking the protagonist on a physical expedition through the great forest, the other taking a young woman on a journey to the dark interior of her heart and mind – the majority of the tropes familiar to readers of fantasy are going to find themselves on very strange domain. In short, Catling has taken the rulebook created by Tolkien and used it as a wick to light the candle to altogether deeper depths of the imagination.

If there was a list of ingredients for this novel, it would include M John Harrison’s, Pale City series and the writings of HP Lovecraft, there’d be a generous handful of Ursula Le Guin and a pinch of the nature writings of Nan Shepherd. Poetic language abounds and recalls Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene, Rossetti’s The Goblin Market and a big heft of Blake. There’s a hint of Rider Haggard, David Lindsay and Conan Doyle and from more modern influences, there is a nod to Susan Cooper, and Jonathan Carroll and Alan Moore.

Right from when I first obtained a sample of the first chapters as a digital download to when I finished reading the hardback edition, I felt that this was not the work of a young, début novelist but instead someone who has spent a lifetime reading and enjoying literature, both high-brow and pulp, someone who has a very visual grasp of the world the characters inhabited and I resisted the temptation to Google any more about the possible identity of the author (and my determination to avoid clues as to the author’s identity, ensured that I read Alan Moore’s introduction last). It’s nice to know that as often as I’m wrong about things, I can still occasionally be proven right. If everyone has just one book in them then I’m glad Brian Catling took the time to write this one.