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…

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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.

Guessing the Clarke Award shortlist

Let me point you towards a couple of excellent posts discussing this year’s potential Clarke Award nominees, by Nina Allan and Niall Harrison (the latter with a substantial comment thread, including some thoughts from me).

I’ve been struggling to come up with my own guess at the Clarke shortlist this year, because  there are many titles which seem to me equally plausible candidates (not necessarily equal in terms of quality, but in terms of whether I could instinctively imagine their being shortlisted), and I’m honestly not sure how to choose between them. For that reason (and because I don’t have as much spare time at the moment as I’d wish), I’m not going to go into detail about my thoughts.

But here is an approximation of what I think the 2013 Clarke shortlist may look like:

  • vN by Madeline Ashby
  • Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
  • Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  • 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

And my preferred shortlist would look something like this:

  • Nod by Adrian Barnes
  • Empty Space by M. John Harrison
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  • The Explorer by James Smythe
  • The Method by Juli Zeh

The shortlist will be revealed on Thursday 4 April, with the winner to be announced on Wednesday 1 May.

First thoughts on Clarke Award submissions

Clarke season began today with the publication of the submissions list over on the SFX website. Here are some initial thoughts:

First of all, the length: 82 books, which is a lot for an award that normally peaks at around 60 (though there continues to be a low proportion of books by women – and it may be even lower than usual this year). This upsurge seems largely to be down to a greater number of YA titles being submitted. It’s good that the Clarke’s submissions base is broadening in this way, though of course it remains to be seen whether that will have much impact on the shortlist.

Submission of non-genre titles continues to be hit-and-miss, with some publishers (such as Granta and Random House) clearly keen to engage with the Clarke Award; but no submissions at all from, say, Simon & Schuster (publishers of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles) or Bloomsbury (publishers of Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited). From the genre imprints, perhaps the most notable omission is Peter F. Hamilton’s Great North Road.

Turning to what actually has been submitted, I think the book that most surprises me is Kimberly’s Capital Punishment by Richard Millward, which I hadn’t had down as being sf (which is not to say that it necessarily is, because there are always borderline cases and outright fantasy amongst the submissions). It’s a pleasure to see Adrian Barnes’ Nod (one of my favourite reads of last year) in the pool; and I’m now intrigued by the sound of The Dream Killer of Paris, a book that was previously unknown to me.

The shortlist will be announced on 4 April, which will sadly be too late for there to be a Not the Clarke panel at this year’s Eastercon. We can still try to guess the shortlist, but I’m not going to do that just yet. At first blush, though, I think I could narrow the submissions list down to about a dozen likely contenders; and I expect we’ll see a shortlist that skews towards core genre. But the Clarke is rarely predictable, so I could be entirely wrong. As ever, I look forward to finding out.

The Clarke Award asked for suggestions…

Tom Hunter from the Arthur C. Clarke Award has been asking for possible contenders that may not have been submitted so far. I take an interest in the fringes of sf and mainstream fiction, and was able to suggest quite a few. “These really all need to be in a blog post,” said Niall Harrison; so here they are, along with three that Niall suggested to Tom.

To be clear, I haven’t read all of these myself, and some of them will turn out in the reading not to be  classifiable as science fiction. But they all sound to me like books that should be on the Clarke’s radar at this stage, so the judges can have the opportunity to make that call.

(EDIT 18/10 — two more books, by Peter Carey and Ben Marcus, added to the list)

Alex Adams, White Horse (Simon & Schuster)

A post-apocalyptic tale of a pregnant woman journeying through a disease-ravaged world.

Juliana Baggott, Pure (Headline)

Another dystopian novel, this one for a YA audience.

Adrian Barnes, Nod (Bluemoose)

A third story of society transformed, this time as a result of near-total insomnia.

Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears (Faber & Faber)

A museum conservator explores the story of an extraordinary 19th century automaton.

Jennifer Cryer, Breathing on Glass (Little, Brown)

The personal and professional dramas of two scientists aiming to grow pure stem cells in the lab.

Carlos Gamerro, The Islands (And Other Stories)

One of their titles was shortlisted for the Booker; could And Other Stories also have a Clarke contender in this novel of the Falklands War and virtual reality?

Harry Karlinsky, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects (The Friday Project)

The biography of the fictitious Thomas Darwin, who applied his father’s theories to the development of everyday objects. Recently longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

Torsten Krol, The Secret Book of Sacred Things (Atlantic)

More post-disaster fiction (the moon knocked out of orbit), set amongst a religious community.

Liz Jensen, The Uninvited (Bloomsbury Circus)

Children begin to attack their families at the same time as a spate of bizarre suicides occurs worldwide; an anthropologist tries to spot the patterns beneath it all. Reviewed by me here.

Russell Kane, The Humorist (Simon & Schuster)

A comedy critic with an intuitive understanding of humour, but no sense of empathy, discovers a formula for the ultimate joke – one that can make people laugh to death…

Alan Lightman, Mr g (Corsair)

Mr g creates the Universe – then has to grapple with the philosophical implications.

Evan Mandery, Q: A Love Story (Fourth Estate)

A man meets his ideal woman – and is then visited by his future self, ordering him to end the relationship. Reviewed by me here.

Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (Granta)

A new epidemic – children’s speech becomes literally toxic to their parents.

Lydia Netzer, Shine Shine Shine (Simon & Schuster)

A woman faces the demands of domestic life while her astronaut husband is stranded in space after his ship is struck by a meteor.

Simona Sparaco, About Time (Pushkin)

A rich playboy without a care has to adjust when time begins to speed up for him.

Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles (Simon & Schuster)

A coming-of-age novel set at a time when the Earth’s rotation begins (and continues) to slow.

Juli Zeh, The Method (Harvill Secker)

A young woman seeks justice for her brother in a place where good health is enforced by law.

EDIT, 25/10 — More suggestions, from the comments:

Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident (Sceptre)
Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (Headline)
Lauren Groff, Arcadia (William Heinemann)
Mez Packer, The Game Is Altered (Tindal Street Press)
C.J. Sansom, Dominion (Mantle)
Sam Thompson, Communion Town (Fourth Estate)

Book notes: Nell Leyshon and Beryl Bainbridge

Nell Leyshon, The Colour of Milk (2012)

You can read The Colour of Milk in one sitting, and I think doing so is the best way to experience this short, intense work. Set in 1830, it’s the account of Mary, a young farm girl who has acquired a measure of literacy and now sets out her story in her own halting prose. One summer, Mary is sent to work at the local vicarage, looking after the vicar’s sick wife; it’s clear from her tone that something bad has happened, but the full picture doesn’t emerge until the end.

Nell Leyshon paints a portrait of how circumstance can create a prison. It’s the middle of the Industrial Revolution, a time of great change; but that’s happening a long way from Mary’s world in rural Somerset. She’s quick-witted, but not educated; in another time or place, she might have flourished, but Leyshon shows how Mary’s situation conspires against that. Mary’s literacy is a form of release for her – she keeps emphasising that this is her book, her writing, her words – which lends a bittersweet note to the ending of this fine novel.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Colour of Milk: Prose and Cons Book Club; The Little Reader Library; writingaboutbooks; For Books’ Sake.

Beryl Bainbridge, An Awfully Big Adventure (1989)

Annabel’s hosting a Beryl Bainbridge reading week this week; since Bainbridge’s work is one of the gaps in my reading history, I thought I’d join in. But I hope I was just unlucky with the book I chose, because I didn’t get along with An Awfully Big Adventure as well as I hoped  to.

It’s Liverpool in 1950, and young Stella Bradshaw, who lives with her aunt and uncle, dreams of a life in the theatre, something that’s not typical of girls with her background (‘People like us don’t go to plays,’ says Aunt Lily, ‘[l]et alone act in them.’ ‘But she’s not one of us, is she?’ replies Uncle Vernon). Stella gets her wish, joining Meredith Potter’s repertory theatre company backstage; she develops an (unreciprocated) crush on Potter himself, and, as the months go by, gains acting work, but also the kind of attention she could do without.

In many ways, An Awfully Big Adventure is Stella’s novel – certainly its resolution hinges on revelations about her character – but, in terms of focus, the book is much more an ensemble piece, and our view of Stella is often distanced (necessarily so, but still). I wonder if these latter qualities didn’t prevent me from truly engaging with Bainbridge’s novel – I felt it was that bit too distanced, too broad, to work for me. But the ending is as powerful as I could wish, one of the strongest narrative jolts I’ve experienced in some time.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of An Awfully Big Adventure: Book Around the Corner; Harriet Devine’s Blog; The Octogon; Jo Wyndham Ward.