Alien clay

Alien Clay: a story of rebellion against authority

In a Rolling Stone interview with Philip K Dick (a titan of the genre), the interviewer described science fiction as ‘a self-perpetuating side street of modern literature’. It isn’t taken seriously enough to be considered proper literature, leaving it isolated among other genres. He’s talking specifically about Dick here but it applies to the science fiction genre as a whole too. It’s not the wild and outlandish ideas themselves that alienate science fiction but the misconception that all they are is merely wild and outlandish. 

A consequence of this outsider status is that science fiction is clouded by depreciating assumptions: since it isn’t literature, the thinking goes, it must be without the sophistication and profundity we would expect from literature; merely a palette cleanser between bigger courses. Childrens’ stories for adults, basically. Though I’d read very little science fiction before writing this review, I had left such assumptions at the door. I was reading Alien Clay on its own terms and was duly rewarded.

Adrian Tchaikovsky is a veteran science fiction author; his first novel, Empire in Black and Gold, was published in 2008 and he’s been making consistent in-roads in both the science fiction and fantasy scenes ever since. He’s no stranger to accolades either and has earned himself many of science fiction’s highest honours like the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Fantasy Award for Best Fantasy Novel. Alien Clay sees Tchaikovsky on top-form, expounding ambitious ideas and themes with great energy.

At its core, Alien Clay is the story of rebellion against authority. Arton Daghdev’s attempts to undermine earth’s iron-fisted totalitarian regime – known as the Mandate – have caught up with him. As punishment, he has been sent to a labour camp on the acrid and inhospitable planet of Kiln. The planet contains the remnants of a (supposedly) long-dead civilisation whose scientific origins and whereabouts have proved too confounding for the Mandate to ascertain or understand. Herein lies Daghdev’s job: to serve penance by helping to uncover the mysteries of Kiln.

In this context, the science fiction genre, far from limiting the questions one can ask, is the perfect medium in which to explore science’s relationship with politics and authoritarianism. There is a gripping dialogue throughout the novel between Daghdev’s integrity as a scientist and the fact that he has been forced to work under the auspices of an anti-scientific organisation; the genuine awe of being at the forefront of scientific understanding mingled with the disgust of having to contort and debase it to align with rigid orthodoxy. For in a world of space travel, science, rather than religion, is the best source from which to derive legitimacy. Precisely the end it employs for the Mandate. 

What becomes clear is that there are plenty of nuances in this dichotomy. The commander of Kiln, Terolan, embodies and navigates these contradictions as he is both a strict adherent to party doctrine and genuinely curious to uncover Kiln’s secrets: Daghdev describes him as ‘[s]imultaneously driven to find out the answer, and absolutely sure he knows what the answer will be.’

Though his nationality isn’t mentioned, Arton has a remarkably British sense of humour. Not a moment goes by without a bit of sarcasm or a wisecrack. While this made for enjoyable reading, his humour was not reined-in enough and the novel’s tone suffered as a consequence: poignant moments could never be left alone. In one particularly moving scene, Daghdev is isolated with a scientist, Ylse Rasmussen, who was horribly maimed by creatures from Kiln about whom the other scientists know too little to adequately treat her wounds. She is left to writhe in agony, alive only for experimental pique. As she wails in pain for days on end, Daghdev is driven insane and has merely been watching her ‘[u]ntil I eventually break and shriek back at her to stop, to stem the tide of her gibbering insanity, because I can feel it eroding my mind like the sea devouring a crumbling coast.’ 

This arresting moment is followed up far too quickly by a wry mockery of Rasmussen, belittling the woman for whom we have just felt so much pity. It isn’t that Tchaikovsky misses consistently – as the tone becomes more balanced as the novel progresses – but that he misfires at essential moments which limits the overall potential of his story to affect us deeply.

Alien Clay is a fascinating study of something neglected in most explorations of dystopian societies: how scientists and science as a whole would be caught up in it. The genre is a boon to the story as it augments both the scope and stakes of scientific endeavour; it has a profound importance that may not have been possible without the extraordinary circumstances the genre permits. Though undercut at times by its tone, the novel is an eloquent and well-paced consideration of the liberating wonderment of science and what happens when authorities attempt to extinguish it by using it for their own ends.