He knew that the Kilcannons had a gift that enabled them to beat the odds: a "house percentage" granted to them by some cosmic whim; a plenary indulgence protecting them from the mercurial wrath of mathematical probability. If common men were vulnerable to superstition, how much more vulnerable was a Kilcannon?
Nic: It's time to begin our reading of the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist here at Eve's Alexandria, which - as previously mentioned - Vicky and I shall be tackling in a series of joint posts. First up is Streaking, a slender small-press effort from veteran UK writer Brian Stableford - and which is (not to put too fine a point on it) probably the most infuriating book I've read in years.
Canny Kilcannon (a Dickensian monicker if ever there was one) is a rather lucky chap. He's a scion of the Yorkshire gentry, heir to both an Earldom and an age-old winning streak that - when treated with elaborate care - has boosted his family's fortunes for centuries. Naturally, he hangs around in Mediterranean casino towns, gambling in tedious moderation, torn between the superstitious caution inculcated in him by his father and a rebellious desire for a dissolute lifestyle. When news reaches him that his father is ailing, Canny makes a reckless final throw on the roulette table, before leaving Monte Carlo for home. His big win attracts attention, both welcome - in the shape of supermodel Lissa Lo, who might have her own sort of luck - and entirely not - he is mugged as soon as he returns to his hotel. The novel follows Canny as he inherits the estate, gets entangled with a criminal gang, enjoys a degree of success with women that can surely only be attributed to his money (certainly not a winning personality), and generally plots how to maintain and profit from the family luck.
It's a nice little idea that is - at times - neatly employed. Stableford flirts with genetic, quantum (ish), and folkloric explanations for the Kilcannon luck without really plumping for any single one, and provides interesting (if laboriously outlined) insights into how family tradition and superstition can become engrained, and self-reinforcing. The execution is generally poor, however. The prose is clunky in the extreme, bogged down by heavy-handed info-dumping, tell-not-show characterisation, plodding explorations of motivation, phrasings like "Bentley nodded his head, to signify that he understood" - and hosts of extraneous information:
By the time Canny got off the underground at Bond Street it was eleven o'clock. He dropped into a Pizza Hut and placed an order for a large ham and mushroom; there was a slight delay on deliveries but they promised to get it to him by half past.
Amid all this, there's barely a whiff of physical description; much of the action could be taking place between blank walls, for all the reader knows. (The only time I got a real sense of place was in the closing scenes, set in the Yorkshire countryside, and I have a suspicion that this is mostly because I came into the novel with my own image of that landscape...). Stableford relies on epithets where he should be conjuring images with his words - the most striking example of this is the figure of Lissa Lo, whose entire description consists in the oft-repeated phrase, "most beautiful woman in the world". Indeed, Streaking is brimming with lines that made me roll my eyes (and, on occasion, want to scrub them clean):
"My lips are sealed," she said.
He might have made a joke about lipstick, but he didn't. She was, after all one of the ten most beautiful women in the world - her best assets were perfectly natural.
...Which leads me, neatly, into the major problems I had with the book: the utterly smackable main character, and (which I accept may be very closely related) the truly bizarre construction of gender relations. Canny is a smug, patronising, and largely humourless lech, the type of man who instantly sizes up any woman he meets on the basis of his prospects with her, and editorialises her parts of the conversation with mental notes like this (upon his completion of a not-exactly-complex discourse on genetics):
"And you think it works the same way with us?" she said, apparently following the argument simply enough.
His relationship with Lissa Lo is conducted almost entirely on this basis. This might be acceptable, if it were simply a case of immersion in an unsufferable viewpoint character; indeed, Stableford does occasionally give sarcastic asides that seem to undercut Canny's self-satisfaction:
"It was all in your mind, Can," his loving mother told him, seemingly making every effort to be kind in spite of the harshness of the judgement.
But the issue is more widespread. It is there in the core concept of the novel: the Kilcannons' inherited luck, which runs through the male line, plays out as good fortune in business ventures and daring schemes; that running through the female line of Lissa Lo's family, however, confers great beauty and the ability to captivate (and enrich) useful husbands. (Again, potentially an interesting sociological/historical point lurks, but is largely ignored in favour of having Canny score with the ultimate desirable chick).
When Canny and Lissa decide to combine their genes to make the luckiest baby in the world (not without some mutual distrust), fate intervenes in the oddest way - just as she conceives, Lissa's memory and personality is abruptly wiped out. Female sexuality is punished, and the active mind that was a co-conspirator in the whole affair is wholly replaced with a more compliant one. CloneLissa obediently toddles off with her mother into a more suitably feminine future, and Canny is left to angst (briefly) over his lost love. Boo bleedin' hoo.
But who was really qualified to judge, at the end of the day, exactly how lucky or unlucky Lissa Lo had been when the moment of conception of her miracle child had killed her? It had, after all, placed a clone in her place who would doubtless carry her career forward when she had rested a while, perhaps even to greater heights of success, and make a spectacular marriage with an entirely suitable husband.
Because, naturally, what more could a woman want than to a) be pretty and b) marry well? Within a matter of pages, Canny is shamelessly romanticising her memory - and entirely ignoring her volition in the matter:
The inescapable truth was that Lissa had not only existed in the flesh, but that she had been the finest thing the old world - the true world - had contained... until he had broken the rules, precipitating her destruction, and the destruction of all the children he and she might have had.
Thoroughly irritating, and a not at all happy start to my Clarke reading.
Vicky: I'm glad that Nic quoted the short passage about Canny Kilcannon's large ham and mushroom pizza: it was the first (of many) points at which I closed Streaking by Brian Stableford, blinked, and sighed. In disbelief. My dear Clarke judges, what were you thinking about? Heavy-handed prose, stilted dialogue, two-dimensional characters, forced thematics and a blatant thread of misogyny - it's all here.
But. First, I shall endeavour to be nice.
Streaking is largely set in Yorkshire, in the village-cum-town of Cockayne, a (fictional) utopia of luxury and plenty. There the old ways and families still thrive: the community is tight-knit, ruled over by an oligarchy of Elders and self-sufficient because of the 'Mill', the centrepiece of the Kilcannon's thriving business empire. Commuters and outsiders are frowned upon; there is a waiting list for the limited number of living spaces - no new housing developments allowed! - and the preference is for the offspring of indigenous villagers. It is supposedly the last of the model industrial settlements of the nineteenth century - think Saltaire or Copley, or even Woodlands - being self-sufficient and socialist, traditionally minded and morally Victorian. It is quite clearly, although not always perfectly, the brain-child of a Yorkshireman. (Stableford was born in Shipley, not far from where Titus Salt established Saltaire in 1853.)
Streaking is at its most comfortable and affable in this northern landscape, when it is situating itself between Leeds, on the one hand, and York on the other - the Earls of Credesdale, steeped in superstition and lore, could hardly cut a credible figure anywhere else. When Canny quips about the 'Debs' of Harrogate or gaggles of Yorkshire gentry, he is not being entirely ironic: you can't move around York for the Manorial Oldguard. Stableford even pulls off a witticism about being on Ilkley Moor 'without a hat' that makes me, a Yorkshire girl born and bred, smile. (You may well have to be an English Northerner to get the reference...) If he also overlabours the presence of the local fish and chip shop and over emphasises cricket as the village sport, he at least gestures affectionately at the peculiarities of his home county. And Yorkshire folk do tend to their superstitions. If there was ever to be a family of lucky Earls - as 'canny as the de'il' - then it makes sense that they should be residents of the Vale of York, with a gloomy old house on the wind-swept moors.
Unfortunately though, I'm mostly letting my imagination carry me to this juncture. As it is Streaking doesn't have a great line in atmosphere, despite such a geographical potential - it's meant to be a novel that questions the provenance of luck, supernatural or otherwise, but turns out to be sadly, disappointingly mundane. Nic has already noted the minutiae that replaces effective description, the cliched formula used to describe the main actors and the boggy info-dumps. All are reprehensible, but worse still, I think, is Stableford's poorly worked central conceit: what is the origin and meaning of luck? He begs the question sincerely, but he never properly addresses it, or its implications.
Canny Kilcannon is an extroadinarly lucky man whose good fortune is accompanied by hallucinatory visions of 'the streak', a flash of light that 'has all the colours of the rainbow in it, not ordered into a spectrum but fragmented and mingled in a kaleidoscopic effect.' However, family traditions rules that his luck must falter and fade with the death of his father (which is imminent), only being renewed when he has a son and heir of his own (born of a dependable Yorkshire lass, of course) thus continuing the family line.
The early parts of the book begin to explore what this luck - his 'streak' - means to him, and what its loss might signify; it also questions what he is willing to sacrifice in order to keep it. His own will? His chances of romance and a marriage of love? His incredulity? It dabbles in setting the parameters of what luck can and cannot do for you: can it make you happy, or just rich, or neither? Now, certainly, all this is introduced in the aforementioned clunky set-piece dialogues, mostly between Can and his dying father, but there is definitely some potential there. When Can muses that 'luck' is not a static quantity, that the standards of 'lucky' change across time and between cultures, my interest is piqued; when his father highlights the disparity between being lucky and 'feeling lucky', between reality and what one expects out of one's life, I'm eager to explore further:
'What you're saying is that you might not be able to feel lucky if you don't get the kind of rewards that modern romantic fiction promises to lovers, no matter how much money you have.'
But I'm forever thwarted and sorely disappointed. The book doesn't set about these questions with any vigour; it loses itself in the academic question of whence Canny's (and Lissa's) luck comes and devolves into detailed wherefores. Diagnosing the cause - genetic, or supernatural, or mental disorder - becomes the sole order of the day. Alice, Canny's stolid alternative Yorkshire love interest, encapsulates this preoccupation perfectly: 'It's all just theoretical discussion.' she says, apparently with a shrug. I can only join her in a gesture of apathy and impatience of my own; I imagine most readers want more from their fiction than an inquisition on probability theory and genetic inheritance. I absolutely do. I want to know what the Kilcannon luck means, what its conceit reveals in relation to questions of 'fate' and chance and superstition.
I would also have liked to have seen a consideration of the moral implications of Canny's luck. Half way through the novel, an acquaintance of his is brutally and senselessly murdered, and he gestures at his sense of guilt: lucky escapes are his genetic inheritance, while other people suffer the vagaries and depredations of chance as and when they occur. He uses the language of 'deserving': his friend didn't deserve to die. He questions the fairness of his luck in comparison with other people's non-luck. But, again, Streaking fails to step up to the plate on the issue - what does luck really mean in a world of suffering; what are the psychological burdens that must result from winning when your friends, lovers and fellow beings must expect to lose?
It seems that Stableford's answer to this is to make Canny as solipsistic and unempathic as possible - he doesn't question his right to 'luck' because he can't imagine a world in which it isn't his birthright. The novel's ending confirms this rather neatly. Although Canny toys with rebellion throughout the novel, almost daring fate to wrench his gift from him, in the end he prefers to take the ultra-conservative and self-interested actions required to maintain his wealth. He is willing to compromise all of his ideals - his sense of justice (if he ever had one) and his romantic dreams - to the 'house percentage'. This is because Streaking privileges a passive and retroactive approach to living - it is really a bildungsroman in clumsy disguise, about a middle aged man, a pretend rebel, who negotiates his own comfort out of personal compromise. It clearly trumpets this ethic: you might try to innovate but experience will bring you back to the wisdom of your father and forefathers. Look after number one; don't take a chance on chance.
Finally, Nic has already condemned Stableford's gender dynamic, and rightly so. I can't adequately express my outrage at Lissa Lo's fate at the end of the novel. She literally 'Falls' as the 'New Eve', the transgressor in a ritualised male economy, becoming the catalyst that 'liberates' Canny into his new life of conformity and conservatism. It all makes for such a sad, crabbed little novel. Stunted and clumsy, laughable in parts and outrageous in others - misogynist, misanthropic and myopic.
A disappointment of the highest order.
Nic: Yes! Excellent on the deconstruction of what the novel fails to do with its idea.
I think the conclusion is implicit from the beginning. Canny is clearly much too steeped in Yorkshire thrift and Kilcannon caution to ever cut loose; he's a little old man in his (mid?) twenties, whose idea of cutting loose is to... have an alcoholic drink on an aeroplane.
I have little else to add. I think the Good and Bad of the novel can be summed up in two quotations. The first, showing the sly humour:
Bentley emerged from the house to summon them to the table with all the imperious obsequiousness one could expect of an authentic English butler with a passionate interest in bad Hollywood representations of authentic English butlers.
The second, showcasing both Canny's idiocy and Stableford's ability to drown the reader in spurious detail while still not giving us anything remotely informative:
Canny couldn't pinpoint their origins, although he was normally able to tell Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos apart - but then, he couldn't pinpoint Lissa Lo's origin either; she had a curously cosmopolitan quality even though she didn't seem to have a single drop of Western blood in her veins.