[Book Review] Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

My second review for the #ShadowClarke project posted last week at the @csffanglia site. Here it is in all its unimpressed glory, although I recommend you make your way over to the site, at least to read the enjoyable comments.

*****

Good Morning, Midnight is a bit of a shortlist risk, as shadow jury conversations have proved. Ranging in complaints about too much lyrical sciencing to complaints about too much overt preciousness, overall, the general jury criticism toward the book has been along the lines of “too much too much.” And yet, the novel has been blurbed as a blend of Station Eleven and Kim Stanley Robinson– two supreme yet entirely different approaches to SF, flawed in their own “too much” ways (the first, a well-written, but literary carpet bagging of superficial SF tropes, the other, an over-lingering on most things, including the sublimation of ice). With comparisons like these, Good Morning, Midnight might be just the kind of “too much too much” I, and other Clarke readers, would relish. Besides, it has stars on the cover, a spaceship in the story, and is free of the usual, predictable pew-pew hijinks that tends to come with spaceship stories, so, for those reasons, it seems like something worth discussing within the context of possible Clarke contenders.

Good Morning, Midnight is about two corresponding perspectives on silence, isolation, and unacknowledged regrets. As Sully and her fellow crewmates return from their mission to Jupiter, all signals from Earth go silent. Meanwhile, Augustine, an aging astronomer, is the only person left at his research station in the Arctic after he stubbornly refuses an unexpected evacuation. Neither scientist knows what has happened to the rest of the earth, but now they find themselves navigating their respective silent voids, inside and out.

It sounds promising and poignant, but it’s considerably less than what the blurbs promise. While the tale is not overburdened by a fixation on the transitions between the physical states of ice, the problem is that it’s not burdened by much at all. It’s all a bit slight. While the “too much too much” critique of my fellow jurors addresses the contrived sentimentality of tale (with its opening metaphor of the watermelon-like cosmos being an early red flag to the teeth-hurting saccharin inelegance left in store), “too much not enough” could be applied in most other ways. From the most profound moments to the day-to-day internal contemplations, things happen in a snap, and entire paragraphs expose any and all thoughts, feels, whats, and whys, undermining all of those tantalizing mysteries that normally inspire joy in reading:

He didn’t understand love any better than the bear did. He never had. In the past, he’d felt the nibble of a lesser emotion–shame or regret or resentment or envy–but whenever that happened, he would turn his gaze to the sky and let awe wash it away. Only the cosmos inspired great feeling in him. (ch. 1)

What would normally be an intriguing exploration of an individual’s psyche becomes over-explained sentiment, psychoanalyzed by an intrusive narrative via entire backstories, presented in clunky paragraphs of redundant, negligible insights. This kind of overexposure kills any sense of intrigue or discovery:

The closest he’d ever come to letting his adoration rest on human shoulders was a long time ago. He was in his thirties when he impregnated a beautiful woman with a razor-sharp mind at the research facility in Socorro, New Mexico. She was another scientist… (ch. 1)

You would think this approach would burden the tale, but in fact, it de-fleshes it, leaving the whole thing bare-bones skeletal. There is little mystery here, most major plot twists can be spotted a mile away, and, most disappointingly, the characters are so splayed and vivisected from the start, actions feel more like narrative-fulfilling prophecies.

Moreover, many readers will find most problematic the mishandled multicultural cast–the narrative hovering over each person’s cultural background and hair type, just in case the conspicuous naming scheme doesn’t do the job. It’s soon clear they’re all there to support the white woman protagonist’s personal growth, including the dreaded sacrificial WoC and MoC. It is the kind of multiculturalism that well-meaning white readers might applaud, but readers represented by these characters will mistrust. There are more subtle and natural approaches out there, but this just happens to be that kind of representation that does little to move beyond the flesh and stereotypes of the mere supporters:

They took in the view in companionable silence, young Devi with her long hair in a messy knot, eyes wide beneath thick eyebrows, and Thebes, his round black face split in two by an easy, gap-toothed smile. Thebes called their stargazing ‘having a big picture moment’ in his smooth South African accent. (ch. 2)

‘I keep having this dream,’ she murmured. ‘It starts with the colors and smells of my mother’s kitchen in Kolkata, just blurriness and spices. Then my brothers come into focus, sitting across from me, jabbing each other with their elbows, scooping up rice and dal with their fingers… and I see my parents at the head of the table, sipping chai, smiling, watching all three of us…” (ch. 4)

(Naturally, the Anglo-American characters are never described by skin color, facial geometry, or kitchens smelling of eggs or mayonnaise.)

These major flaws are most frustrating when assessing the novel as a whole, because, despite all my complaints, Good Morning, Midnight has the workings of a strong, poignant, even original, novel. Beyond the most clichéd parts (the made-for-TV rhythm; the over-explaining; the white woman leading a narrative of multicultural peers, all while benefitting from them), we find misleading clichés that prove to be otherwise (that odd little girl and her heart-warming relationship with the old man isn’t what it seems; the great puzzle of earth’s apparent apocalypse is left unsolved), and it becomes apparent that this isn’t quite the too-much-preciousness it first appears. Brooks-Dalton wisely goes for strangeness and ambiguity in the final plot turns. There was plenty I saw coming, but some of the biggest, most resonant moments are surprising and significant.

A first novel for Brooks-Dalton (her previous book being a collection of memoirs), it reads very much like a first novel by a young writer, written in the style of stock expectations, customary framing, and overexposed characterization. Its strength as a mainstream novel—to hit every prescribed emotional cue—is its biggest flaw in the context of award-worthiness. Designed for the casual, passive reader, it can easily be read by a distracted mind, in a matter of hours, thanks to its sparse, white noise detail, with crucial points emboldened and repeated. It’s a nice, easy book, with a couple of novel moments.

However, good art defies expectation, and Good Morning, Midnight’s defiance of mainstream expectation in those few crucial places is just enough to raise Brooks-Dalton to the special status of “author to watch.” (It’s also just enough to suspect that some of this vanilla writing may be blamed on too much editorial oversight for this first-timer.) While it’s not the rich, artful story it could be, by golly, it tries, and the last few pages break away from its prescribed modeling of pop culture inclination to become something we didn’t quite see coming.

What it does, it does very well: a symphony of clichés that resolves into something slightly unexpected, reaching above standard for a mainstream sci-fi adventure romance. That’s not enough to make it Clarke worthy, though.

 

* This review was originally published at the Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy for the Shadow Clarke Jury Project. Read my introduction and shortlist.

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4 thoughts on “[Book Review] Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

  1. This was a rather nice, “quiet” read. Wasn’t really into the weepy, lonely vibes but if creating that atmosphere had been the author’s intention then she did it very well. I liked the book, though I too join you in your skepticism that it is “Clarke worthy”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember seeing your review and that you weren’t too impressed either. I wanted to call it a “beach read,” but I didn’t want to sound more condescending than I already do, but it is, as you say, “nice” and “quiet” which does tie into why I would recommend it for the beach.

      Like

  2. inthebrake says:

    “when he impregnated a beautiful woman with a razor-sharp mind” – ouch.

    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

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