Clarke Award 2014: in review

This year, the Arthur C. Clarke Award received a record 121 submissions, which set the stage for an exciting shortlist and debate. However, my initial feeling about the actual shortlist was that it felt a bit… well, unadventurous; it wasn’t going to stretch anyone’s idea of science fiction (something which the Clarke often does, and which I value it for), didn’t seem to have benefitted from the uniquely broad view of the field that the Clarke enjoys. Of course there’s no reason in principle that a shortlist focused on core genre can’t be a good shortlist; now I’ve read the books, however, I can’t help feeling that the titles on the periphery of the shortlist should be at its centre, and the titles at the centre of the shortlist shouldn’t be there at all.

DisestablishmentI’ve been going back and forth, trying to decide which one of two shortlisted books I’d jettison first; in the end, there’s so little to choose between them that I may as well call it a tie for last place. Listing the two in alphabetical order means I start with The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann. This is the story of a scientist taking a final sojourn on the planet of Paradise as its human colony is dismantled, and uncovering the secrets of its strange ecology. Mann’s novel feels curiously old-fashioned to me, and is scuppered by its terrible treatment of gender (‘What fools we women are sometimes!’ thinks the protagonist at one point; there are many more examples). This goes right down into the heart of the text, and overshadows what interest there may be in its ecological themes.

Nexus

Also bringing up the rear of the shortlist for me is Ramez Naam‘s Nexus, named for an experimental drug which links human minds. Like Mann’s book, Nexus gives its female characters a poor deal, mostly sidelining them or otherwise using them as adjuncts to its male protagonist. The novel also has its weaknesses structurally: though there are moments when Nexus reflects on the implications of its titular drugs, these are largely drowned out by a humdrum thriller plot that doesn’t do the book’s ideas justice.

AncillaryAnn Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice – a thundering space opera with an AI-protagonist whose consciousness once spanned a gestalt of spacecraft and human auxilliaries, and is now confined to a single human body – has been a very popular book. I’ve seen effusive praise for it, and also some more lukewarm reactions; I’m in the latter camp. Leckie sets out some interesting territory to explore, such as issues of colonialism and gender (the protagonist defaults to using the pronoun ‘she’ for all characters, which gives the novel a distinctive texture); but, again, it feels to me as though the adventure plot is holding everything back.

Adjacent

Now to the second – and, to my mind, more successful – half of the shortlist. The Adjacent is pretty much a distillation of Christopher Priest’s individual creative vision, so what you think of it will largely depend on whether you like Priest’s work in general. I do, and I like The Adjacent: yes, there are issues with the book (particularly around its treatment of gender and the depiction of a British Islamic republic); but it also contains what I found to be the single most affecting sequence in the entire Clarke shortlist (at heart, The Adjacent is a love story), and its portrayal of bleeding realities is bracing stuff for the imagination. I don’t think that The Adjacent quite reaches the heights of Priest’s previous Clarke-winning The Separation, but it’s a considerable work all the same. I just think there are two other novels on the shortlist which are even more fully realised than this.

God's WarAction-adventure sf tends to be the poor relation when it comes to the Clarke, so it’s nice to find an example on the shortlist that feels as though it can hold its own. God’s War by Kameron Hurley comes tearing off the page with its protagonist, a no-nonsense female bounty-hunter, and its vividly depicted background of a centuries-long war on a planet with insectile technology. Issues of faith,  gender, and the body combine in a novel whose adventure aspects complement its ideas, giving them room to breathe and flourish.

Machine small

In some ways, James Smythe‘s The Machine is a very different book from God’s War, its almost claustrophobic calmness and intimate canvas worlds away from Hurley’s widescreen action. But I do think the two novels share an intensity of focus and a facility for dramatising their concerns. If I prefer The Machine over God’s War, it is really only because my personal taste runs more towards the quieter sort of novel than to action-adventure; I couldn’t place one novel ahead of the other in terms of how well each embodies and achieves its own project. That’s why I would be most happy to see either Smythe or Hurley take the Clarke when it is announced next Thursday.

James Smythe, The Machine (2013)

The MachineLast year, I watched ‘Be Right Back’, an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in which a woman has her dead husband’s personality downloaded into a robot body. It was the kind of intimate, human drama that genre science fiction doesn’t seem to do very much these days (on page or screen); too often, I find, interesting ideas will be drowned out by an ill-suited conspiracy/thriller plot.

It was so refreshing, then, to read James Smythe’s The Machine, and find a work of contemporary science fiction that’s happy to be understated (tellingly, the novel is published as mainstream). We begin with Beth McAdams taking receipt of three large packages. The delivery men don’t know what they are (‘exercise equipment,’ Beth tells them, though she knows they won’t believe her); the neighbours gawp as these parcels have to be brought in through Beth’s window because they won’t fit through the door. When the whole contraption is assembled, it fills most of one wall and emits a constant whirring noise; even before Beth begins using it, the Machine has staked a claim on her world.

The Machine was originally invented as a means of treating the effects of harmful memories (such as those of conflict experienced by soldiers like Beth’s partner Vic), but it left those who used it severely brain-damaged, and the original device was banned. Later, it emerged that the Machine might also be able to reinstate the memories it took; Beth has sourced an outlawed model, and plans to use it on Vic.

So there are questions of identity to be explored – who will Vic be if his memories are restored? for example – but what particularly intrigues me about The Machine is how much it focuses on Beth. The first third of the novel consists largely of Beth’s preparations for the summer holidays, when she will be able to put her teaching job aside and concentrate on tending Vic. The second part of The Machine then begins with Beth bringing Vic home from the hospice; his unresponsive body is difficult to get through the door, and she wonders if the neighbours are watching. This is a marvellous touch, because it draws parallels between Vic and the Machine, underlining the similar position that each has come to occupy in Beth’s life. Smythe then depicts the routine that Beth has to establish, looking after Vic in his current state, and playing back his memories through the Machine. The detail is unflinching, emphasising that this is what Beth must do to achieve the end she wants – perhaps the regime that Beth’s caught up in is the real Machine.

Smythe’s evocation of place in The Machine is economical and effective. Beth lives on the Isle of Wight, the crossing to the mainland now made more treacherous by the effects of a warming climate (so Beth is partly dislocated by geography, which mirrors her emotional state). The heat frays tempers has brought about all sorts of little pragmatic social changes; we see these particularly through the tense relations between adults and young people in the novel – and, again, the technique underscores Beth’s feelings, this time her desperation.

I’m tempted to quote from The Machine, because its prose hits the mark so well. But the real effect of Smythe’s writing comes not from its individual pieces, but from the accumulation of the whole – its relentless, plain-speaking precision. Smythe portrays a situation which is as intense for the reader to experience as it would be for Beth, because we move through it in the same way, and at the same pace, as she does. The line ultimately blurs between whether Beth is doing what she does for Vic or for herself ; and maybe it doesn’t matter – maybe it all comes back to the actions, the mechanics.

Elsewhere
James Smythe’s website
Some other reviews of The Machine: Nina Allan; Savidge Reads; Words of Mercury; For Winter Nights.

BBC National Short Story Award 2013: the result

Last night, the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award was won by Sarah Hall for her story ‘Mrs Fox.; Lucy Wood was runner-up, for ‘Notes from the House Spirits’. It’s a good result, I think: Hall’s story, about a man whose relationship starts to break down when his wife undergoes a profound transformation (which may or may not be literal, for all the difference it makes), has a brilliant sense of wildness and mystery. I’ve already written about Wood’s tale in my review of Diving Belles; it was one of my favourite stories in her collection.

Actually, Hall’s and Wood’s were two of my three favourite stories on the Award shortlist (the third was ‘Barmouth’, Lisa Blower’s depiction of a woman’s life depicted through her caravan holidays, which creates a wonderful sense of time and place, and captures the melancholy of change). Interestingly, both the first- and second-place stories make use of the fantastic to explore personal concerns and notions of change. You can still pick up a copy of the Award anthology, which I’d suggest is well worth doing.

Clarke Award 2013: And the winner is…

Quite a belated announcement at this point, but this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award went to Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. Not the result I had predicted, but that’s the Clarke for you.

All congratulations to Chris Beckett, who’s a writer I think deserves to be much more widely read. I didn’t get around to reviewing Dark Eden properly, so instead let me point you to some of my previous reviews of Beckett’s work: I’ve written about his Edge Hill Prize-winning collection The Turing Test (and did a guest post for Gav Pugh’s blog on the title story); and I considered his novel The Holy Machine (in a double review with Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys).

Clarke Award 2013: in review

I find the Clarke Award difficult to call this year, in terms of both what I think might win, and the order of personal preference in which I’d place the place the books. I think there are a number of books on the shortlist which are very close in quality, and they’re so different that they become hard to separate. But that’s no reason not to have a go, so let’s line the books up and whittle them down…

***

First out of the balloon this year is Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars – which is actually not as harsh a judgment on the book as it might seem. In the few years that I’ve been reading the whole Clarke shortlist, the titles I’ve thought weakest have ranged from OK to downright awful – but The Dog Stars is pretty decent. It has issues with plotting, and its treatment of female characters, but it’s also wonderfully written. My greatest problem with Heller’s novel as a Clarke contender, though, is that I can’t help feeling it would be stronger without its speculative content.

With reluctance, I’ve reached the conclusion that Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 just isn’t my type. I enjoyed Galileo’s Dream a few years back (admittedly some aspects more than others); but 2312’s panoramic view of a terraformed and colonised solar system didn’t engage me to nearly the same extent. I found Robinson’s prose beautiful at times (some of the best scientific writing I’ve come across in a work of fiction for a long time), but other parts of the book left me feeling indifferent. I must acknowledge that I’m not ina position to be able to form a proper view on 2312; but, on the basis that I enjoyed the remaining books on the shortlist more, it’s my second title to go.

Chris Beckett is one of my favourite contemporary science fiction writers, someone I always feel is serious about using sf to explore particular issues. Dark Eden is not quite Beckett at his best, but it’s an interesting piece of work nonetheless. It tells the tale of an abandoned colonists on a distant world, who have made rituals out of the wait for three of their number to return from Earth with help. Beckett is efficient and effective at showing how the colonists’ language, thoughts and behaviours have been altered by their isolation. I also appreciate the way he examines not only the desire for change (the novel centres on a teenage colonist who wants to break away from the others’ ritualistic existence), but also the need to keep going once a great change has been made. I like Dark Eden, but I don’t think it reaches as far as the remaining books on the shortlist, so I’m discarding it next.

If I were to rank these six novels purely by my enjoyment of the reading experience, Nod by Adrian Barnes would top the list – but is that enough to make me think it should win the Clarke? I like Nod’s nervy energy; I think it does interesting things with the form of apocalyptic fiction; and it shares with Dark Eden an interest in how mythologies may develop. But Nod also has its shortcomings: its portrayal of female characters is problematic (to say the least); it puts all its eggs in one basket, and gleefully throws the basket at the reader’s window. When I look at the two other novels left, I see fewer flaws and broader achievements, and I think those qualities make them more worthy of the Clarke than Nod.

There is no doubt in my mind that Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker is a showstopper, probably the most theatrical book on the shortlist. It has linguistic fireworks, grand imagination, and an underlying vein of seriousness to balance out its more playful aspects. Angelmaker has broad ambitions, and pretty much achieves them, even when they might seem contradictory. There’s a lot to recommend about Harkaway’s novel, and I think it would be a worthy Clarke winner – but for me it is just edged out by the last contender…

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod works on a smaller canvas than Angelmaker, and is a much quieter book. But it has a concentrated vision of a society stifled by prohibitions, ruled by a government afraid of anything it can’t label; and it uses very well the idea of seemingly innocuous details coming together in unexpected ways. It’s the completeness of vision – and the sharpness of observation and exploration of vision – that brings Intrusion to the top of the Clarke shortlist for me.

***

How about a guess at which novel will actually win? I don’t think my ordering here is going to be the same as the judges’ – I doubt that Nod will survive as long in their process, and I’m certain that 2312 will end up higher on their list than I placed it. But I do suspect that The Dog Stars will be shown the door early on, and that Dark Eden will be overshadowed by some of the other books. I’d expect the final tussle for the winner’s mantle to be between two of Angelmaker, 2312 and Intrusion  – and my instinct is to plump for Angelmaker as the likely winner. But maybe I’m barking entirely up the wrong tree; whatever, the winning title will be announced on Wednesday.

“Took the end of the world to make us kings for a day”

Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (2012)

Why write about the end of the world? I suppose one of the attractions, for some writers at least, must be the capacity to strip the world back to its bare bones, and focus all on the subjects one wants to explore. These thoughts crossed my mind on reading Peter Heller’s first novel, because The Dog Stars leans so far towards certain issues that the book as a whole gets pushed out of shape.

It is the near future, after a vaguely defined pandemic  that did away with most of the people, and a side-order of climate change that (it seems) did away with much of the wildlife (Heller is sketchy on exactly what happened, but the point is that it was the end of the world). Our narrator, Hig, is one of the small number of humans who were immune to the sickness and are now eking out a living as best they can. Hig’s sole companions are Jasper, his ageing dog; a little Cessna aircraft that he nicknames the Beast; and Bruce Bangley, the only other human for miles around. There’s not much to be done beyond surviving, as other people invariably tend to be hostile, and hence need to be dealt with before they deal with HIg and Bangley. But the loneliness gets to Hig, and eventually he is driven to jump in the Beast to see what, or who, may be out there.

Hig’s narrative voice is what keeps The Dog Stars together: the spare, weary voice of someone resigned to the possibility that there may be nothing left worth saying, but who feels compelled to carry on speaking as it keeps the silence at bay. Hig feels guilty because he survived when his wife Melissa did not – and because he was the one who helped her through death’s door when she asked. In contrast with the much more hard-headed survivalist Bangley, Hig would be happiest just spending time fishing and flying; but Bangley’s disdain for such “Recreating” is hard to ignore. The gulf between the two men is underlined by a sequence where Hig attacks a drinks truck for its bounty and thinks he’s done well – until Bangley tears his pride to shreds by pointing out all his careless mistakes.

If the novel were just Hig, Bangley, and Hig’s introspection, I suspect that The Dog Stars would be a perfectly decent read. But there’s a world beyond them, and I’m with Nina Allan in thinking that Heller falters whenever he turns his focus towards that outer world. I’m willing to overlook the sketchy background, because the foreground interests me more (though it seems odd for hostility to be the norm amongst the survivors when there appears to be enough food and other natural resources to go round). But I can’t ignore the issues with plotting (the closing encounter is far too silly); or the way that Cima, the only living female character, is objectified and generally exists only to serve as an adjunct to Hig.

But perhaps my most nagging doubt over Heller’s book is the thought that it doesn’t really need its post-apocalyptic setting, and might even be better off without it. Hig remarks on the first page:

The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah. The titmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove. Sad but. Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water. (p. 3)

This is the sticking point: Hig pines for his wife and his trout. He’s not so completely self-absorbed that he dismisses the wider world; but his personal losses are far more important to him than any broader ones. As a result, the novel doesn’t feel nearly as emotionally invested in its end-of-the-world elements as it is in Hig’s personal reflections. Despite its flaws, The Dog Stars is not a bad portrait of someone coming to terms with loss and finding a way to move on. But add in everything else, and the book just unbalances.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts on this year’s Award.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2013: The Shortlist

You can’t predict the Clarke Award, though you can try. Whatever anyone may have predicted, it almost certainly won’t have been the actual shortlist, which was announced this morning:

  • Nod by Adrian Barnes (Bluemoose)
  • Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
  • Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Headline)
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
  • 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)

(Links above go to my reviews.)

In the end, I guessed four correctly – though, as Nina Allan points out, the two books I missed have given the actual shortlist a rather different shape. I have also read four of these novels already; so I can say with some certainty that, on its own terms, this is a good shortlist featuring some strong works.

Still, there is no getting away from the fact that this an all-male shortlist, the Clarke’s first since 1988. As Niall Harrison says, this is something that was probably bound to happen sooner or later. There’s been a chronic lack of science fiction by women published by UK genre imprints these last few years; if you look at this year’s Clarke submissions, the titles by women tend to be borderline fantasy (such as G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen), YA (such as Juliana Baggott’s Pure) or mainstream-published (such as Juli Zeh’s The Method) – all categories which are far more hit-and-miss in terms of their shortlisting chances than (say) a Tricia Sullivan or a Gwyneth Jones (neither of whom, I believe, has a UK publishing contract at the moment). When we look for genre sf among this year’s submissions, we’re looking at something like Madeline Ashby’s vN, which is simply not a good book – and, if you don’t have strong core-genre candidate titles, there’s more likelihood that the fringe titles with more hit-and-miss chances will – well, miss.

This situation should change next year, as there’s a substantially larger amount of genre sf by women being published in the UK in 2013 (Niall has a good list in his post). So, what of the books actually shortlisted this year?

For me, the shortlist falls interestingly into two halves. First, there are three genre titles – the Beckett, MacLeod and Robinson. It is notable that these books also featured on the shortlist for the (popular-vote) BSFA Award; and notable in turn that the Clarke omits the other two BSFA nominees – no M. John Harrison, no Adam Roberts. So there is a sense in which this side of the shortlist is playing it safe to an extent; Robinson, Beckett and MacLeod are all good writers who are serious about their work and the possibilities of science fiction (and I think two nominees of theirs that I’ve read deserve their places on the shortlist) – but all write firmly within the core of genre.

This is so striking to me because the other three shortlisted novels are all non-genre – an unusually high proportion for the Clarke, especially in recent years. There’s also an interesting range of flavours amongst them. It’s nice to see Harkaway getting some Clarke recognition after he missed out with The Gone-Away World; he’s a distinctive and significant new voice in contemporary fiction, I think. I’m pleased that Nod is on the list, because it hasn’t had much attention from the sf community as yet, and I think it’s an intriguing book that could have good cross-over appeal. I don’t know much about the Heller, but it looks like the most traditionally “mainstream” Clarke nominee, and I didn’t have it down as a contender.

Finally, my plans for blogging the shortlist: though I’ve read four of the titles, I have reviewed only three – I never got around to writing up Dark Eden. I’ll be concentrating on reading and reviewing the two unfamiliar titles,which are 2312 and The Dog Stars; if time allows, I will go back to Dark Eden. But I’m fully intending to have at least read all six titles by the announcement of the winner on 1 May.