Clade, Mark Budz

Bantam Spectra, 2003, 372 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58658-0

The publishing industry has evolved a lot over the past decade, and one of the most profound changes has been nearly-invisible to end-readers. The consolidation of book distribution to just a few players has wreaked havoc on mass-market paperback distribution in non-bookstore outlets, which means that if your corner convenience store may once have boasted a well-stocked paperback section, today’s books are selling primarily in bookstores and nowhere else. Financially, this has destroyed the niche for mass market paperback, concentrated the buying public in bookstores visitors and driven publishing toward higher-priced formats, hence the explosion in hardcover and trade paperback publishing. The classic mass-market paperback survives, but as a second life for books already very successful on the hardcover circuit.

Alas, this squeezes out newer and mid-list writers who had, up until that crunch, relied on sales from truck stops and drugstores to make up their numbers. Today’s mass-market paperback original is a solitary and beautiful creature in danger of extinction.

Which brings us to Clade, a first novel by SF writer Mark Budz. I know that I should pick up more first novels by unknown writers as a matter of principle, but I can claim no such lofty intention for buying Clade: I just loved Stephen Youll’s luminously futuristic cover. That, and the fact that Budz’s second book, Crache, was neatly shelved right next to it, with matching cover art. Who can tell what will work in convincing people to pick up strange new books?

As it turns out, I’m not displeased at all by this debut novel. The central conceit of Clade is simplicity itself: what if we end up using our knowledge of biotechnology to enclave ourselves? Social classes are already a fact of life, but what if poor people could be made to be sick in rich people’s presence? Wouldn’t that be an efficient way to clean the room for the rich? But why stop there? Why not codify racism as an allergen responses? What if the presence of a certain ethnic group can truly made you sick?

Not a fun future, but one worth pondering. Despite SF’s claims as an all-inclusive literature, class issues don’t often pop up as a issue of interest to its writers. (Cynics will say that as a middle-class American literature, SF loathes to cut too close to the central assumptions of its readership: the very thought that America is a class-stratified society is so taboo that everyone pretends it’s not there.) In Clade, Budz doesn’t shy away from a future where Caucasians are in the minority, where the rich use everyone else for their own purposes and where ethnic/social/cultural barriers are accepted with scarcely more than a resigned shrug.

Calling a novel “post-cyberpunk” nowadays is doing no one any favour, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to see the common links between this novel and the Gibson generation of the late eighties. The world awareness, the dirty side of technology, the idea that corporations certainly aren’t our best friend: These ideas, now familiar, permeate Clade and yet do much to give it the feel of a contemporary piece of Science Fiction.

Given such high and exciting ambitions, it’s perhaps no surprise that the execution of the novel can often be disappointing. Budz’s writing betrays a lack of polished experience, and the structure of the story can be a bit clunky: the ending, in particular, seems rushed and pat. It is a conclusion, but one that seems to leave a lot of material up in the air. (Crache is billed as an independent sequel –we’ll see what that means.)

The other problem with the book is that it works as long as you’re willing to grant the author a bit of indulgence. When words like “ecocaust” figure heavily in the novel’s backstory, it’s a good hint to stop worrying about consistency and just enjoy the ride: Standard post-apocalyptic SF reading protocols suggest that said catastrophe frees the author to do whatever is necessary to required to set up the world of the story. That the “cades” and “pherions” of the story aren’t plausible isn’t the point: The point is using those tools to tell a story about something. It’s just a shame that it’s impossible to believe in this future as anything but authorial decree, a feeling that the sometimes-silly thriller mechanics don’t do much to dispel.

But I still enjoyed the book: as a debut novel, it’s got good energy, a few terrific idea and -perhaps most importantly- the willingness to engage with some vital issues. Crache is up next on my reading stack and I’m looking forward to it. While Clade may not blow open any doors nor any minds, it’s a perfect example of the type of good solid mid-list SF that is threatened by the disappearance of mass-market paperbacks. Do yourself a favour: The next time you’re in a supermarket, have a look at the paperback originals on the wire racks.

[June 2006: Alas, sequel Crache isn’t nearly as interesting. While more complex, better written and gifted with higher stakes than the prequel, Crache is far less grounded in reality, and that ultimately takes away a lot of Clade‘s initial appeal as a champion of the lower classes. There are three plot-lines in Crache and the only one I found constantly interesting was the one about “L. Mariachi”, a former rock star now surviving as a migrant worker. The rest was hit-and-miss, damaged by lengthy interludes, wonky plot mechanics intersecting hard science (including programmable matter, straight from Will McCarthy’s speculations) with quasi-mysticism in which a guitar song can cure cancer. (Well, maybe not cancer, but at least an otherwise incurable disease.) Some aspects of the book are stronger than Clade (something I have to admire), but the overall impact is muted. Though billed as an independent sequel, Crache uncompromisingly re-uses so much jargon and setting from the first novel that people reading this without the required background may find it a hard slog.]

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