9tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Gollancz, 2005, 328pp, £12.99
reviewed in Foundation 97, Summer 2006

So we come again to another version of the age-old question: what is science fiction? 9tail Fox is a good book, readable, well-written, telling a compelling story, but it sails the genre boundaries and the interesting question is whether it crosses into the territorial waters of science fiction long enough to warrant a review here.

You can anatomise any book in any number of different ways. Thus in one reading this is a book about being outside of the power structure. It is a story of Chinese police, Russian criminals, black down-and-outs in a San Francisco where the predominant white Anglo-Saxon culture is barely glimpsed. When our viewpoint character unexpectedly finds himself playing the rich white intruder into this world the reactions of the other characters represent different ways of accommodating or resisting the prevailing social model. Written by an outsider about an aspect of San Francisco that is virtually invisible to the outsider, it is impossible for another outsider such as me to say how accurate this portrait is. But it has the breath of life, it has the feel of cultural insight, and it sits comfortably, indeed proudly, with the post-colonial ambitions that have characterised Grimwood’s other novels, the Arabesks and Stamping Butterflies. The title suggests that this is an intended reading of the novel, for it relates to Chinese legend and the cultural identity of the exile.

But turn the head slightly and this is a violent crime novel. There is a break-in at the home of a mysterious Russian émigré in one of the wealthier parts of San Francisco, but the would-be thief is killed, apparently by a young girl who can barely lift the murder weapon. An unconventional policeman of Chinese extraction has his doubts, but before he can take the case further he is himself killed. Enter a stranger from the East who has seemingly endless resources and shadowy links with the FBI, or the intelligence services, or possibly the White House. The stranger takes an unwelcome interest in the murder of the policeman and, with the (often unwilling) assistance of a policewoman of Spanish extraction and by listening to the drug-addled tales of the dispossessed, he manages to piece together a complex web of medical and criminal secrets. The title suggests that this is an intended reading of the novel, since it relates too death, and in particular to the central murder of the policeman.

As a crime novel this is bloody and brutal. The casual violence and equally casual sex which punctuate the action are described with insouciant detail on a par with Grimwood’s earlier books. Yet this is matched with a control of event and revelation that would make any casual reader push on through the gore. The structure of the novel, the pacing of the revelations, the way in which answers to questions only deepen the mystery, illustrate how thoroughly Grimwood has appropriated the needs and characteristics of the best crime fiction. (This is no surprise, for all their science fictional flights the Arabesks and Stamping Butterflies were both at their best in those sections which most closely followed the model of the crime and mystery story.) If the structural control slips slightly towards the end – the ending is telegraphed and needed at least one more twist if it were to climax with the sort of sudden surprise we’ve been led to expect throughout the body of the novel – it remains a finely-wrought crime thriller.

But whether 9tail Fox is a delicately precise social dissection or a brusque, robust sex-and-violence thriller, neither reading makes it science fiction. That Grimwood writes both well (the post-colonial analysis slightly better than the crime thriller, though the crime thriller is more colourful and more dominant) doesn’t help, the science-fictionality of the novel is underpowered and underplayed in comparison.

It is, of course, possible, indeed easy, to read this as a science fiction novel. Grimwood is recognised as a science fiction author whose work has previously garnered sf awards (and 9tail Fox has also been shortlisted for the BSFA Award), though that in itself is no guarantee that any of his books is in fact science fiction. He and his publishers appear to regard this novel as science fiction, though intentionality is no real guide to how we should read a book. The story occupies a marginally alternate history; but it differs only in the details of policing in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which is apparent to the majority of the audience only because it is specifically remarked upon in a note tacked on to the Acknowledgements at the end. It is set in the near future; but a future so near that the fashions, mores and devices of the world would not appear in the slightest way different to the vast majority of the audience. More importantly, the policeman of Chinese extraction killed at the beginning of the novel is reborn as the mysterious New York millionaire who returns to San Francisco to investigate his own murder.

That this happens is central to the novel. The death of Bobby Zha, a weary cop negligent of wife and daughter, honest but neither trusted nor liked by his colleagues, and his rebirth as Robert Van Berg, a young man in a coma with a fortuitously immense trust fund at his disposal, is the event around which the whole story turns. It also provides the McGuffin that lays out the vital clues to the solution of the mystery, as well as being the scientific rationale that explains what has happened and why.

How this happens is less clear. We know that something is messily and painfully removed from the not yet dead body of Bobby Zha. But there is no suggestion that anything analogous is inserted into the as yet comatose body of Robert Van Berg. So the principle science fictional element in the novel serves the purpose of providing a rationale and a dramatisation for the crime thriller, but in science fictional terms alone this transference of vitality and identity from one body to another might as well be supernatural.

Science fiction is in the eye of the beholder. If you choose to read a work as science fiction, if you find within it some strands that are reminiscent of other science fictions, whether plot devices or references or whatever, then it is science fiction. It is also many other things. I could not read 9tail Fox as science fiction alone, and in fact for me it is the least of the potential readings. Read it as a crime thriller and you will discover a more coherent work, one as structured and compelling as any thriller. Read it for its post-colonial thoughts on the outsider within the world’s dominant power structure and you will discover something richer and more allusive than the simple crime story might suggest. Read it either way and recognise that there are strands of science fiction – or at least of the fantastic – braided through it, though some of those strands may be elusive. But however it is read it remains tightly written, vividly characterised, intricately plotted.