Clarke Award 2012: in review

The Guardian’s Robert McCrum recently expressed concern that literary awards were becoming more about gossip than about actual books. Whether or not he’s right about that, McCrum is certainly correct to highlight the value of awards in creating focal points for discussion. As I know first-hand, talking about and comparing a given set of books can be a tremendously stimulating and rewarding experience – but it helps if the books are worth discussing in the first place.

And, on that note, let’s turn to the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. This is the third year I’ve read the full Clarke list and, I have to say, it’s a dispiritingly bland selection this time around. Anyone looking for the cutting edge of UK science fiction publishing – or even just literary excellence – is not going to find it on this list. It frustrates me when I think of the eligible novels I’ve read which are better than any of the shortlisted titles; and the gems I haven’t read which must be out there.


There’s usually one obviously weak candidate to be struck off the shortlist first; but this year I’m spoilt for choice, which is not a pleasant situation to be in. After due consideration, I think I’m going to hand the wooden spoon to The End Specialist by Drew Magary. This is a novel which fails on just about every level, right down to being a thriller that doesn’t thrill; it’s pedestrianly written, parochial when it purports not to be, ineffective as both a character study and an exploration of a world without ageing… I could go on, but the book really doesn’t deserve more words.

I could do with two wooden spoons, really, because there’s barely a difference in quality between the Magary and The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper. This is the book which has been most comprehensively disliked by just about everyone I know who’s been reading the shortlist (see Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review, for instance). Leaving aside issues of its genre, the Tepper shares many of The End Specialist’s faults – weak writing, poor plotting, questionable morality – but I think its ideas are marginally more interesting. That’s the only reason The Waters Rising isn’t out of the balloon first.

Now on to Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, which, unlike the previous two novels, at least achieves a baseline level of competence. Bear’s mystery-thriller-space-opera is decently written, reasonably diverting – and, as far as I can see, has nothing to distinguish it from the many other competent-but-unremarkable science fiction novels out there. We’re now halfway through the shortlist, and we still haven’t come to a book which, in my eyes, has any claim to be on it.

I don’t really want Embassytown to win the Clarke; it’s nowhere near China Miéville’s best work, and – well, frankly, it’s the closest I have ever come to being bored by a Miéville book. I have to acknowledge that, compared to the three novels I’ve already covered, Embassytown is a much better written, constructed, and more ambitious work – indeed, it’s probably the most conceptually ambitious novel on the shortlist – but I think it’s ultimately too dry and abstract to be successful. Better Miéville than one of the previous three, yes – but, better still, one of the remaining two.

Rule 34 by Charles Stross has its flaws – its exposition is at times overdone; its police-procedural plot doesn’t quite cohere – but, of all the books on the shortlist, it is the one which feels most engaged with the present and the near future. The world it depicts is intriguing and compelling; the issues it raises demand serious consideration; and the prose, at its best, is snappy and sharp. This novel does the sorts of things that good science fiction should be doing.

That leaves The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, which I think is a very well-realised study of its teenage protagonist and, in its own way, one of the more challenging shortlisted works. This may be the most successfully achieved of the novels on the list, but it’s also rather narrow in its focus. So it’s quite a fine line between this and the Stross, which trades a little polish for a broader scope; I’d be happy enough for either The Testament or Rule 34 to win. But the thing is that books like these two should really be the bread and butter of the Clarke shortlist, not its centrepiece.


That’s what I’d like to win, but what may actually take the Clarke? Having been through the Fantasy Clarke panel at Eastercon, I have a better idea of the kinds of discussions which might have taken place between the judges, and I’m fairly sure that the Bear and Tepper are too generic to survive the judging process. The Magary may do (though I hope is doesn’t): there’s an energy to its telling that may – along with whatever the judges must perforce have seen in the novel that I don’t – carry it through. The Rogers may not last long in the judging (though I hope it does) – its narrow focus may prove the book’s undoing, depending on how the judges weight that against its craft. The Miéville will almost certainly be a contender, and is enough of an all-rounder that it might even win. The Stross is difficult to call, though I suspect it will survive in the judging process for quite some time, possibly to the very end. We’ll find out when the winner is announced on Wednesday.

Charles Stross, Rule 34 (2011)

Charles Stross returns to the near-future Edinburgh of his 2007 novel Halting State for this police procedural (though I’ve not read the earlier book, I don’t believe there is any substantial crossover between the two). A decade from now, DI Liz Kavanaugh’s CID career has stalled as she’s currently heading up the Innovative Crime Investigation Unit (or ‘Rule 34 Squad’), which investigates crime based on the spreading of internet memes; one of ICIU’s current cases, the bizarre murder of a known spammer, suddenly gains more prominence when similar crimes come to light. Elsewhere, Anwar Hussain, an ex-crook on probation, gets a job through a friend as Consul for a months-old breakaway republic, though he doesn’t quite appreciate what he’s getting into; and a man known to us as ‘the Toymaker’ arrives in Scotland to set up a new branch of his criminal enterprise – if only the people he’s there to recruit didn’t keep getting themselves murdered…

Perhaps the most immediately noticeable thing about Rule 34 is that (like Halting State) it is written in the second-person. Now, a childhood of adventure gamebooks and text adventures means I’m reasonably used to being addressed as ‘you’ by a text; but that kind of narration has always tended to distance me from viewpoint characters, because it focuses my attention on action rather than on interior life – and I found that to be the case again here. There are a few occasions when emotion leaps off the page; but, for the most part, the style gets in the way.

Mentioning the style brings to mind Christopher Priest’s infamous comment that ‘Stross writes like an internet puppy’. He has a point – Stross tends to include slightly more detail than will sit comfortably in the narrative, and there are times when this threatens to halt Rule 34 in its tracks (especially a long stretch of exposition towards the end) – but there’s also a restless energy to Stross’s telling; at its best, the writing works very well indeed (a passage on the war on spam, for example, captures an aspect of Stross’s imagined future in a particularly compelling way).

Stross presents an intriguing vision of a society which is substantially more technologically advanced than the present, yet still fraying at the edges; a world of fluidity and compromise. Police officers are wired into an augmented reality called ‘CopSpace’, but useful teleconferencing and face recognition remain beyond reach.Scotland has seceded from the United Kingdom, but not fully, so politics can be messily ambiguous. Policing is less about great detectives than groups of workers searching for patterns in data (‘crowdsourcing by cop,’ as Stross puts it [p. 227]). Throughout the novel, we see individuals, groups, and nations finding gaps and weak points in the system to use to their own advantage, or at least to get by.

As a procedural, I don’t think Rule 34 works quite so well: some of the connections between plot threads take too long to come into the narrative after they’ve been made apparent to the reader; the threads as a whole don’t mesh together as successfully as they might; and the foregrounding towards the end of a particular plot element (which has previously been mentioned in passing) is rather too abrupt. But the book and the world around the procedural are what make Rule 34 worth reading – and what make it one of the stronger titles on this year’s Clarke shortlist.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Charles Stross’s website
Some other reviews of Rule 34: Maureen Kincaid Speller; Dan Hartland; Niall Alexander.

Sam Mills, The Quiddity of Will Self (2012)

The quiddity of something is its ‘whatness’, the essential aspects which it shares with other things. This contrasts (we learn in Sam Mills’s first novel for adults) with haecceity, which is a thing’s ‘thisness’, the essential characteristics which make it particular. With that in mind, I’d say that the world could do with more novels which have the quiddity of The Quiddity of Will Self; not to mention more novels with equivalent haecceity to The Quiddity of Will Self.

Still with me? Excellent – let’s go!

We start in 2006: a young middle-class layabout named Richatd Smith strikes up a conversation with Sylvie Pettersson, his downstairs neighbour; afterwards, he finds a card which has fallen from her pocket. A week later, Richard decides to return the card – and discovers a man’s body in Sylvie’s flat. It turns out, though, that the body was Sylvie’s – she had been undergoing plastic surgery to change her appearance to that of Will Self. Following a lead on the card he found, Richard finds himself becoming drawn into the strange world of the WSC, a clique of writers with a Will Self fixation, and a penchant for bizarre masked gatherings.

In the subsequent four sections of the novel, we meet Sylvie’s ghost, frustratedly searching for her killer; Richard Smith a year later, when he’s won the opportunity to follow in Will Self’s footsteps by writing in public in a tower block (though more sinister forces are at work than he realises); Mia, a journalist in 2049, who wonders whether the octogenarian Self’s recent death was as straightforward as it appeared; and a present-day writer named Sam Mills working on a novel called The Quiddity of Will Self – but it’s a different Sam Mills…

I won’t pretend to have understood everything Mills is trying to achieve in her novel, nor all the ways in which it’s in dialogue with Will Self’s work – but I found Quiddity a rewarding and intriguing read nonetheless. Themes of identity and obsession reverberate through the book, and the shape of the narrative is especially interesting: each section brings into question the integrity of the previous one, and the story collapses in on itself repeatedly – so, whenever you think you have a handle on it, something will soon be along to change that.

Reading The Quiddity of Will Self made me think of Leo Benedictus’s Prospect article on ‘hindered narrators’ from a couple of months ago. To my mind, Benedictus conflates a few ideas which don’t quite sit together comfortably; but what particularly interests me here is the contrast between narrators ‘with a limited ability to understand the world or write about it’ (which concept shades into narrators with idiosyncratic voices); and those who speak with the Voice of the Author, whatever the character’s name happens to be. It seems to me that the narrators in Mills’s novel (though not necessarily powerless or inarticulate) are all hindered narrators (in that there are fundamental aspects of their world about which they don’t know – but which we, as readers, do); and that Will Self represents the Great Literary Author with the all-encompassing voice – so the characters’ interest in Self may be read as a search for understanding and mastery of the world (in whatever sense).

It’s perhaps difficult to describe The Quiddity of Will Self in a way that doesn’t make it sound like a curio which will only be of interest to lovers of Self’s work – but I do think the book is more than that. It reminds me a little of Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, in the sense that the shape of the novel is important for its own sake; but there’s so much going on, and the energy of the narrative so great, that one can’t help being swept along.

There should be more books like The Quiddity of Will Self. There should also be more books which are nothing like The Quiddity of Will Self – preferably the same ones.

Sam Mills’s website
Some other reviews of The Quiddity of Will Self: Alan Ashton-Smith for PopMatters; Workshy Fop; Nicholas Royle for the Guardian.

Sunday Salon: Favourite books from A to Z

The Sunday

I came across this meme on the Musings of a Bookshop Girl blog: for each letter of the alphabet, name your favourite book whose title starts with that letter. I’m not much of a one for naming definitive favourites, so instead I’ll list a favourite book for each letter (with links to where I’ve written about them. Here goes:

A  An A-Z of Possible Worlds – A.C. Tillyer

B  Beside the Sea – Véronique Olmi

C  Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

D  Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

E  Everyone’s Just So So Special – Robert Shearman

F  The Facts of Life – Graham Joyce

G  The Godless Boys – Naomi Wood

H  How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu

I  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

J  Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey

K  The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

L  Legend of a Suicide – David Vann

M  Mr Shivers – Robert Jackson Bennett

N  Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

O  On Roads: a Hidden History – Joe Moran

P  The Prestige – Christopher Priest

Q  The Quiddity of Will Self – Sam Mills

R  The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

S  Solo – Rana Dasgupta

T  Tender Morsels – Margo Lanagan

U  Under the Sun – Hanne Marie Svendsen

V  Vellum – Hal Duncan

W  We Had It So Good – Linda Grant

X  Xenogenesis – Octavia E. Butler

Y  Yellow Blue Tibia – Adam Roberts

Z  Zoo City – Lauren Beukes

I wasn’t sure whether I’d find something for each letter, but, luckily, The Quiddity of Will Self (which is the last book I read) turned out to be really good, and gave me the Q. (The X is a slight cheat, as it’s the omnibus of a series which I only read as individual volumes, but I think I can be allowed a little leeway.)

Let me know if you decide to do this meme yourself, as I’d love to see how our lists compare.

Sheri S. Tepper, The Waters Rising (2010)

The Waters Rising is a loose sequel to Sheri Tepper’s 1993 novel A Plague of Angels (the two books share a protagonist, but pretty much stand alone). In a distant future where, after collapse, society has reverted to a medieval milieu, with added ‘magical’ phenomena (such as talking animals) courtesy of largely-forgotten science. Travelling pedlar Abasio and his wisecracking horse Big Blue arrive at the Duke of Wold’s castle, where the Duke’s Tingawan wife, Xu-i-lok, is ailing. Abasio meets Xulai, the young Tingawan charged with the traditional responsibility of carrying Xu-i-lok’s soul back to Tingawa, should the princess die away from her home country. Xu-i-lok does indeed die towards the start of the novel, and Abasio joins Xulai and guardians on their journey to Tingawa, where a solution might also wait to the rising waters which threaten to engulf the land – but, of course, there are those who would see Xulai fail in her quest.

Since I’m reading this book in the context of its Clarke Award nomination, I need to address the question of genre; because, for a novel which has been shortlisted for a science fiction award, The Waters Rising spends an awful lot of time looking like an epic fantasy. Yes, it’s set in the future; and, yes, its fantastications have scientific underpinnings; but they might as well be magical for all the difference it makes. Here, for example, is the evil duchess Alicia explaining the ‘curse’ she has placed on Xu-i-lok:

There’s no such thing as magic. No. My favourite machine makes lovely curses, invisible clouds of very small, powerful killers. I can make the cloud and keep it alive in a special kind of vial. Then, if I get close enough to the person and release the cloud, the cloud will find that person among all the peoples who may be near, no matter where the person is hidden, so long as I release it nearby! (p. 25)

What Alicia is describing here – though she doesn’t know the scientific words for it – is a nanotechnology weapon tailored to its target’s DNA; but it could just as easily be a magic spell. To me, his isn’t the sort of sf/fantasy bleeding that justifies considering a novel as science fiction. I’m not great fan of A Plague of Angels, but it was far bolder in the way it combined sf and fantasy: its characters moved knowingly between fantastical and science-fictional venues, and the novel held the two modes in tension. By The Waters Rising, enough time has passed that the science fiction is largely hidden behind the curtain of fantasy; and the odd intervention like Alicia’s nanotech ‘curse’ – or even the book’s final third, where the sf becomes more overt – is not enough to alter my perception that the beating heart of Tepper’s book is a traditional quest fantasy. That’s one reason why I’m annoyed that The Waters Rising has been shortlisted for the Clarke.

Another reason is that the book really isn’t very good, even as a quest fantasy. Structurally, the story is a fairly straightforward wander across the map, with occasional scenes joining the caricature villains (one even laughs, ‘Heh, heh, heh,’ at one point), who helpfully do much of their plotting out loud for our benefit. This might be fine in Saturday morning cartoons, but it reads very crudely in a novel. There are some diverting pieces of fantastication, such as the villagers of ‘Becomers’, whom Alicia has persuaded they must behave in a certain way (singing to each other, for example, or painting themselves blue) to receive the king’s favour.  But, like Declare on last year’s Clarke shortlist, too much of The Waters Rising is overstuffed with detail (the low point of this for me is a pages-long description of an abbey’s mealtime procedures).

As I mentioned earlier, the novel’s science-fictional aspect comes more strongly to the fore as we reach the final third, which is when the party reaches Tingawa, and solutions to humanity’s problems are mooted and implemented. But, even here, Tepper’s book frustrates. The Waters Rising has environmental degradation caused by humans in its background (‘Men were foolish and did foolish things [says one character], they did not respect the earth, they worshipped the ease machines and the world punished them by becoming barren,’ p. 200); but the immediate difficulties being faced in the novel have more fantastical origins, and the means of addressing them likewise. To my mind, this undercuts the book’s moral message, as well as its status as science fiction.

In sum, I really have no idea what The Waters Rising is doing on the Clarke shortlist, and can see no reason to recommend it.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (2010)

When I think about what I want from a literary award shortlist, a selection of excellent books is of course a must; but I’d also like to see books that, once read, feel essential – selections that mean you’ll have missed out if you don’t read them. In Hull Zero Three, the Clarke judges have chosen something different: a decent-enough novel that nobody needs to read.

A man, who comes to be known as ‘Teacher’, wakes (with no memory) from his induced hibernation to discover that his dream of having travelled across the stars to a new planet has not become reality. On the contrary, Teacher finds himself aboard a cold, dark, and largely deserted spacecraft (called simply ‘Ship’)  – deserted, that is, but for the monstrous creatures which threaten to do away with him; and the handful of survivors who might help him figure out what has happened.

As a mystery-thriller-in-space, Hull Zero Three works well enough. True, its prose rarely rises above the level of straightforward functionality; but the aesthetic that creates is entirely appropriate for the stark geometry of Ship and claustrophobic focus of the novel (tellingly, I think, those scenes where the prose does move into a more poetic register tend not to be set in the fictional present). The pacing is fine, and Greg Bear is a sufficiently canny science fiction writer that his plot twists and resolution are interesting.

But the mystery is all in Hull Zero Three, and the novel can’t move beyond the limitations that creates. There’s not much room for characterisation, nor to really explore the moral issues raised by the situation. And, even though Bear’s narrative moves along at a fair old clip, three hundred pages still feels rather long for what it is.

Hull Zero Three is a novel that can sit happily on bookstore shelves and be pointed to as evidence that solid reads are still being produced in the science fiction genre. But, if you never took it down from the shelf to read it, you would be none the worse off. It’s a book that passes the time, but I can’t get at all excited about it; that’s not the kind of work I want to see on the Clarke shortlist.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Drew Magary, The End Specialist (2011)

A few years hence, an accidental scientific discovery has led to a treatment which will halt the process of ageing; barring disease or accident, immortality may be yours – provided you can afford the fee, of course. Divorce lawyer John Farrell has the ‘cure’ (as it’s known) in 2019, weeks before it is legalised in theUSA. We then follow his life at various intervals over the course of the following sixty years, during which Farrell ultimately changes career to ‘end specialisation’, facilitating (for a fee) the deaths of those who wish to end their lives, in the manner of their own choosing.

The End Specialist (aka The Postmortal) provides an interesting point of comparison with its fellow Clarke Award nominee The Testament of Jessie Lamb, in that both examine futures with game-changing medical developments, but do so firmly from the vantage-point of one individual. The key difference, I think, is that The Testament shows the outside world from within Jessie Lamb’s frame of reference – which makes for an incomplete examination, but one that nevertheless works as an aesthetic whole; whereas The End Specialist tries to show the outside world from beyond John Farrell’s frame of reference – hence the protagonist includes news reports and link round-ups in the ‘blog entries’ that make up the text of this novel – and, in doing so, reaches beyond itself.

Much of the positive commentary I’ve seen on Drew Magary’s novel – both in reviews and the Not the Clarke Panel at Eastercon – seems to emphasise the extent to which Magary delineates the consequences of the situation he sets up. There are certainly aspects of The End Specialist which ring true, such as the sense of ennui felt by Farrell when he notes that his photo doesn’t change, and wonders if maybe he hasn’t either (‘The time span is invisible. It’s as if I haven’t lived at all,’ p. 84); and I can buy, for example, the idea that some people might be pettily cruel enough to blind or scar immortals out of spite. But much of Magary’s depiction of his wider fictional world (whether within or outside theUS) feels superficial to me, because it is dependent on John Farrell’s interest; and, as a character, Farrell really has only a passing interest in the world beyond his immediate circumstances.

Even when it’s concerned with Farrell’s circumstances, though, The End Specialist falls short. As Dan Hartland notes, Farrell is a fairly anonymous presence; nothing really seems to touch or change him, no matter what he might say in his narration (that’s another way, incidentally, in which the depiction of the world feels flat; no matter how sour life has apparently becomes, the fictional society feels much the same, because the tone of Farrell’s narration doesn’t change). The depiction of the secondary characters is similarly wanting, particularly that of the female characters; it’s true that most of the minor characters, male and female alike, exist to be adjuncts to Farrell, but I gain more sense of his father and adult son as rounded individuals than I do the key women in Farrell’s life. I rolled my eyes particularly at the essentialism of a scene in which Farrell leaves his pregnant partner Sonia rather than get married, because immortality has caused him to realise (as the other men he knows have similarly concluded in their own lives) that he can’t make a lifelong commitment to her – whereas Sonia maintains a desire to fulfil traditional gender roles (and Farrell has no doubts about his ability to commit to his son for however long their lives may be).

On the level of prose, I’m still struggling to see The End Specialist as a worthwhile read. The scene I mentioned earlier, where Farrell is reflecting on his unchanging appearance, stands out to me for its writing; as did one in which an end specialism client describes his wish to become one with the sea. But the rest feels unremarkable, even when the novel takes on the shape of a thriller in its second half – and a thriller can’t do its job if it doesn’t have gripping prose.

Frankly, I’m baffled as to why this book is on the Clarke shortlist. However I look at The End Specialist, I see a novel which is mediocre at best – and sometimes considerably poorer. What I can’t see is any way in which it could be considered one of the six best science fiction novels of the year.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.