Thursday, 27 March 2008

Stephen Baxter, The H-Bomb Girl (2007)

Baxter is no stranger to the Clarke shortlist. Indeed, Baxter is no stranger to the Clarke shortlist is rank litotes, for he has been nominated more than any other author, and the fact that he has never won is starting to look peculiar. A superb SF writer with all the Golden Age virtues, he has increasingly been perfecting his fictive craft, with a more complex and rewarding sense of characterization and the formal balances of his art. His prose is never fancy, although (like Simenon) its clarity sometimes disguises a more considered thematic and playful complexity.
The H-Bomb Girl is a YA novel, and about such writing I would say this: YA is a mode of writing it is ferociously difficult to do well. I have tried, and failed, to master it; and my admiration for The H-Bomb Girl is inflected via a heartfelt envy of Baxter’s effortless technical facility in this unforgiving medium. A good YA novel must have all the virtues of a good adult novel in terms of topic, development, character, narrative, mood, theme and worldbuilding; but it must be much more efficiently worked. Younger readers are much less forgiving of writerly self-indulgence, waffle, padding, loss-of-focus or pretension; they read sentence by sentence, and every sentence they read must move them forward in some way. The H-Bomb Girl succeeds. It is a gripping, informative, extremely likeable little novel.
The worst that can be said of it is that it's, perhaps, slight. The difficulty, as far as critical judgment is concerned, is to determine how far such an assessment reflects the novel itself, and how much it simply voices a prejudice against children’s literature as such. The latter position, of course, would not be defensible. Yet I finished reading The H-Bomb Girl with a sense of it as a minor addition to the Baxter canon. It treats the same topics as most of his recent fiction has done: alternate history and timelines parsing the same ethical dilemmas of how individual choice creates our mature selves, how much agency we possess as individuals in the face of larger historical forces, what possibilities for escape and for atonement are at our disposal. These are the themes of the Times Tapestry books; the Manifold novels and to an extent the Destiny’ Children books as well. I don’t think it’s just the larger canvas, and greater scope, that these novels provide that is responsible for their greater sense of heft and sway. But I do think nevertheless that Baxter's current Big Theme just needs more space in which to be developed than a novella-length YA title allows.
The H-Bomb Girl reads like a CBBC drama one-off, especially in its denouement where the British army bazookas its way through the wall of Liverpool’s famous rock-venue The Cavern (whilst the Beatles are playing) and into the high-tech Dr-Evil-style lair the Hegemony have constructed beneath the city. This is lightly handled: fun and amusing (Henry Cooper is the soldier aiming the bazooka; John Winston Lennon is wisecracking in the background; the kids get to swarm in and defeat ultimate evil in a playground bundle). The downside is that so happy an ending feels a little safe, given how uncompromising the rest of the novel is.
Now it could be argued, I suppose, that the happy ending is necessary in structural terms, following as it does the novel’s tour-de-force account, via Laura’s diary, of the alt-1960s in which the Cuba crisis led to nuclear catastrophe. This embedded narrative of a late twentieth-century Britain ruined by atomic war is excellent, harrowing stuff; strong meat for a child audience including as it does mass death, vividly rendered physical suffering, the exploitation and rape of the heroine, and a vertiginously depressing glimpse down a time line in which life is very close to unbearable. Harrowing, but well judged, and the heart of the book.
The alternative timelines don't devalue the central worldbuilding exercise of the novel, which is an thoroughly believable and immersive recreation of early 1960s Liverpool. The closest The H-Bomb Girl comes to anachronism is the very twenty-first century valorization of ethnic, sexual and cultural diversity it retcons into the early 1960s: Laura’s friends are a Catholic pregnant schoolgirl and single-mum-to-be, a young black guy called Joel; a gay rock singer called Nick; amongst her opponents is a disabled man in a wheelchair, so all the equal opportunity boxes are ticked. Baxter does not soft-pedal either the racism or the homophobia of the period, although of course and creditably enough he ensures that examples of bigotry are rebuked by characters in the book (A biker in the cavern racially abuses Joel. ‘Bernadette moved in, tall, commanding. “Hey face ache. Leave him alone.”’ [107]) The only danger—and I’d say it’s a danger Baxter just about avoids—is that of a certain right-on-ness. But that’s by no means a bad thing
And one quality this short novel has that none of the other shortlisted Clarke 08 titles share is a saving irony--a ludic quality: its topic is serious, but Baxter understands that po-facedness is not the best way to handle serious stuff. ‘I was there in 1990 to help throw Nelson Mandela back into jail…’ boasts the hateful Miss Wells, representative of the fascistic time line ruled by the militaristic Hegemony. ‘I’ve been there all my life. Working to make sure the Hegemony’s grip is absolute … I was involved in the Fire Power movement in 1967, and the Live Hate concert in Wembley in 1985…’ [227] Baxter also confronts the inevitable intertextuality:

‘Time travel’s perfectly sensible,’ Joel said. ‘The BBC are making a show about it, that will be on the telly in the autumn.’ Joel always knew about that kind of thing. ‘Called Dr Who. There will be this old man and his grand-daughter, and a time machine.’ [258]
A little hard to believe that a kid in the pre-internet pre-fanzine early 1960s would be so clued-up on a BBC show that hadn't even been filmed yet, but we can let that go.
Very few of the novel's touches seemed to me to sound false notes, although I baulked a little at the nineteen-eighty-four-ish timeline that the H.G.-monkiered ‘Miss Wells’ calls home, in which the US and Russia have been fighting a mock-war for decades to keep the population in line.

Bernadette said, ‘So everybody thinks they’re at war. Even though American and Russian soldiers haven’t fired a shot in anger for forty years. Doesn’t anybody ever rumble you?’
‘Of course,’ said Miss Wells. ‘Every ten years or so you have a new crop of teenagers … who get suspicious. Who want to be free, to live their own lives … every ten years or so they have to be reminded.’
‘By what?’
‘A bomb in the heart of Russia. A missile hitting America … The devastation, the fear, the suspicion, the paranoia—that’s what prods the public back into their sheep pens.’ [229-30]
I found that hard to believe (would it really work?); but it’s a marginal facet of an excellent book. All in all The H-Bomb Girl is a find: splendidly evocative of a place and a time, it manages to be morally serious without ever losing its playfulness, its charm or its scouse nous.

Merseybeat PS: At one point we see posters for ‘local groups with names like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Derry and the Seniors, John Smith and the Common Men, Bob Tanner and the Threepenny Bits. The freshest poster announced that the Beatles would be playing at the Cavern on Monday night, supported by the Woodbines.'[93] The Woodbines is the novel's own group. The first two bands on this list were real groups, of course; John Smith and the Common Men is a fictional group from, of course, Doctor Who; and Bob Tanner and the Threepenny Bits I take to be Baxter's own contribution to the lexicon of made-up band names. A nice one too, given that a bob is twelve old pennies, a tanner six old pennies, and a thrupenny-bit three. The groupies could be three round-faced copper-haired ha'pennies. The Beatles, on the other hand, are a different matter.

1 comment:

The Tin Drummer said...

Well, yes, it is an excellent novel, but with conflations (ie Protect and Survive stuff) and the mention of John Smith and the Common Men just really hacked me off: I mean, why aren't I that clever?