Regular readers have probably already guessed that my recent flurry of posts on Paper Knife had a purpose behind it. In the last fortnight I’ve posted reviews of all the books on the Clarke Award and BSFA Novel shortlists and a handful of others which have been connected with the Clarke. The Ings and McLeod were mentioned by Christopher Priest in his blog post as having been overlooked, along with the Tidhar and the Roberts, both of which were shortlisted for the BSFA Novel Award. The Oyeyemi and the Hurley were mentioned at the Not the Clarke Award panel at Eastercon this year, along with the Roberts and the Priest, as novels panellists would have liked to have seen on the Clarke Award shortlist.
Like many others I raised an eyebrow when I first saw the 2012 Clarke Award shortlist. The inclusion of the Stross and Miéville didn’t really come as a surprise; both writers have been shortlisted before and Miéville has of course won three times already, although Stross never has. However, I had not expected to see either Tepper or Bear shortlisted (although both of them have also been previously shortlisted a number of times), judging from what I had read about their novels. And while it had been clear from the Booker coverage that the Rogers might be of interest to a genre readership I’d not had a sense that it was Clarke material. Meanwhile, the Magary had not even crossed my radar before it was shortlisted. But my curiosity was piqued as much by the omissions as the inclusions, Roberts, Tidhar and Priest being the most immediately notable by their absence. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before people were joking that the BSFA Novel Award shortlist was more like the Clarke Award than the Clarke shortlist. This, and indeed my own comment about ‘Clarke material’, raises an interesting point I’ll come back to a little later.
However, when the shortlist appeared I couldn’t venture an informed opinion as, unlike last year, I’d not yet read any of the shortlisted books. As it was, I’d been caught on the hop in 2011 by predicting that Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House would win when the award went to Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. I’d been surprised because, much as I’d liked its premise and its energy, I felt Zoo City had structural problems that couldn’t simply be ignored. Nonetheless, Zoo Citywas clearly a popular win, hailed for its freshness and invention, which made me wonder if my personal definition of sf was just getting a bit old and tired, and whether I set too much store by wanting to see good ideas andliterary quality.
Nonetheless, as I said at the time, and it is worth reiterating, it is always a bad idea to try to second-guess the Clarke judges because, given they write their own collective definition of sf and their deliberations are always (and properly) sub rosa, who among us has any idea of what they’re thinking? Nonetheless, looking at this year’s somewhat unexpected shortlist, particularly in the light of Chris Priest’s response to it and the furore following that, I felt I now really had to make an effort to read the shortlist.
In particular, I wanted to see if there were obvious themes and interests emerging which might offer some clues to the jury’s operational definition of sf for this year and give some sense of why this particular shortlist had come into being. Any conclusions I reach will of course be entirely speculative, based purely on my reading of the shortlist books and should not be seen as an attempt to presume to know what the judges actually intended.
However, I didn’t just want to read the shortlist. I felt I needed some sort of ‘control group’ against which to measure it. For obvious reasons of time and expense I couldn’t just go through the entire list of submissions as the judges had done. Instead, given the comments already being made about it, the BSFA shortlist would provide a good comparison point. To those novels, I then added Priest’s recommended additional titles and the Not the Clarke Award panel suggestions to create some sort of broader context.
The order in which I published my commentaries may seem idiosyncratic but I didn’t want to simply read one shortlist, then another, then the satellite titles, because that seemed to set up an antagonism I was particularly keen to avoid. After trying various arrangements, reading and publishing the reviews alphabetically by the author’s first name seemed to achieve the most balanced spread between shortlists and addenda. I determined I would post one review a day in the run-up to the Clarke Award ceremony, finishing on 1st May with a round-up of my thoughts.
I chose not to explain what I was doing before I started publishing the reviews because a) I didn’t want to have that comparative discussion just yet, and b) the devil in me wanted to see if anyone would figure out what I was doing. If they did, they haven’t said so.
What strikes me immediately about the Clarke shortlist is how conservative its view of science fiction seems to be, and how unadventurous it is. It is almost as though it hankers after the dear dead days of proper science fiction, with spaceships, aliens, alarming science, women in jeopardy, men coming up with all the solutions.
Bear’s generation starship story, Hull Zero Three, might have looked innovative fifty years ago, but in 2011 one somehow expects something more from a journey into space. Instead, it feels as though Bear is making a late play for a New Wave space story, evoking an hallucinatory atmosphere, the breakdown of shipboard society and the construction of strange new beings to accommodate new circumstances. It didn’t challenge our perception of science fiction so much as attempt to re-establish old and familiar tropes.
One might say the same of Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb which, as I noted in my review, seems to have certain affinities with John Wyndham’s domestic catastrophes. I was reminded most strongly of Day of the Triffids, not least because of the way that young men and women, faced with the realisation that Maternal Death Syndrome, which causes women to die in pregnancy, means the end of humanity, consider a range of possibilities for countering this. This seemed to resonate with Bill Masen’s encounters with different groups all trying to rebuild the world. Other commentators have also noted a connection with Trouble with Lichen, which focuses on the effects of increased longevity, but also on Diana Brackley’s perception that she needs to forge alliances with women in order to ensure that everyone has access to the anti-ageing drug. The empowerment and disenfranchisement of women is right at the heart of The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and indeed since I wrote my original piece on the Rogers it has further occurred to me that the advocates of the main solution to this rapid depopulation, the sacrificial Sleeping Beauties, who will willingly die in pregnancy to ensure the future of humanity, almost all come from an older generation, so there is another dynamic that needs to be more fully explored.
Stross’s Rule 34 and Magary’s The End Specialist are both very ‘contemporary’ in their presentation (incidentally reminding one at times of last year’s winner Zoo City) but once we step past the superficial glitz neither story seems to be particularly radical or innovative. Stross’s novel is little more than a conventional police procedural. Stross, I know, sees it more as a novel about future criminology than an actual police procedural, which may go some way towards explaining some very peculiar loose ends in the narrative. However, what he presumably regards as a feature – the at times crushingly tiresome detail of how they investigate crime in near-future Edinburgh – simply gets in the way of the storytelling, while the Big Idea (and it is actually a rather interesting Big Idea) is wheeled in rather too late in the affair and is literally a deus ex machina. I would argue too that the police procedural, the detective story, call it what you will, is a very conservative literary form, establishing as it does a series of clear dichotomies, between good and bad, right and wrong, problem and solution, and it is invariably driven by a need to find an explanation and re-establish equilibrium. Even a slightly doubtful ‘are you sureyou’ve sorted it out’ ending nonetheless indicates that this is what, in the normal way of things might be expected.
Magary’s novel deals with the consequences of immortality, another topic that is hardly new to sf. While admiring the fluency with which he presents his narrative, through a mixture of blog posts, articles and reports (though this is hardly a radical approach these days), once one actually starts to look at the story being told, it is a rather darker version of a domestic catastrophe, with resources dwindling away as an increasing population of immortals places increasing pressure on natural and economic resources. It is perhaps interesting insofar as we see consequences but have no sense that anyone in authority is trying to deal with those consequences. Indeed, there is no sense of this world having ever been regulated by government. Suicide is the only solution for those suffering ennui, followed by state-sanctioned murder and bounty-hunting as the situation gets worse. However, Margary is working out an idea rather than telling a story; as such, the inevitability of the narrative’s ending becomes annoying. I don’t particularly object to his not offering hope. I do object, however, to the notion that this novel is doing something new and exciting. It is the work of someone attempting to write something slick and hip for a hip and slick young audience, sf-lite, if you like. As such it doesn’t do a bad job but it is by no means as innovative as its appearance on the Clarke shortlist might imply.
Miéville’s Embassytownis the kind of thing we have come to expect from Miéville, and pleasant though it is to read, there is little sense of it pushing any creative boundaries, for Miéville or for the genre. Again, it is actually a very traditional form of sf, with its far-future setting, and its frontier planet setting and sensibility. And it is shaped by Miéville’s taste for insectoid creatures and the melding of the animate and inanimate. Miéville also tries to dig deeper into the philosophical issues surrounding the presence of humans on a planet that is not their own, and does it better than most. At the same time, is this really vintage Miéville? Probably not. On the other hand by comparison with several of the other books on the shortlist it is such a pleasure to read, its good points become unreasonably magnified. In fact, fighting one’s way past the halo effect, the plotting is remarkably uneven. A novel that starts out by pondering postcolonial issues and the philosophy of language is suddenly sidetracked into a novel about an admittedly perverse form of revolution before suddenly returning to its original concerns. And I found the ending a little weak.
And finally, there is Sheri S. Tepper’s The Waters Rising. If the other five novels between them present a conservative picture of sf as a genre, Tepper’s novel serves the twin roles of making the other five novels look so much better than they probably are while reinforcing that suspicion that so many non-sf readers have, that science fiction is utterly irrational and fanciful; in short, that it is rubbish. It’s poorly written, it’s poorly conceived, its characters are stereotyped, it contains some very worrying portrayals of women, particularly female children, as sexualised objects. I could go on and on. I honestly have no idea what it is doing on the shortlist of an award that is supposed to be honouring the best in science-fiction writing. The judges clearly find something in it that I do not, but even the inherent conservatism of the other choices cannot account for this. Possibly Tepper’s having been previously shortlisted contributed to her inclusion. One can only speculate but while I can make a case, admittedly thin at times, for the inclusion of the other candidates, I can find no explanation for this one.
On the whole, this shortlist suggests caution and a lack of adventurousness. Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that it perhaps exhibits a sense of nostalgia, a hankering for a safer, simpler time. Alternatively, and here I acknowledge comments Jonathan McCalmont and Paul Kincaid made in response to my commentaryon Cyber Circus which set me thinking about this, it could be construed as an attempt to formulate a different history for science fiction, one which establishes, or even reinforces, the persistence of that older style into the present day. In doing so, however, this shortlist goes against what has become a well-established characteristic of the Clarke Award.
I indirectly raised this earlier in my reference to the Rogers’ not being ‘obvious Clarke material’. Over the years the Arthur C. Clarke Award has acquired a reputation for really pushing the boundaries when it comes to recognising well-written and innovative science fiction, wherever it is published, and almost perversely so at times, although I think in most instances hindsight demonstrates that the judges’ choice has opened out the discussion about what science fiction not only is but also can be. Certainly, it has prompted a very lively discussion about the artificiality of genre boundaries, which can only be a good thing in my view. If we look to the Clarke Award to open our eyes about science fiction what happens when the shortlist appears to suggest the genre is in retreat, or even in denial. We must inevitably query this, and that is what my reading project has turned out to be about.
As noted earlier, the BSFA Novel Award shortlist was widely seen as being in part the shortlist the Clarke Award might have been. Miéville’s novel appears in both lists, while the BSFA Novel shortlist also features Tidhar, Roberts and Priest. What particularly strikes me about Tidhar, Roberts and Priest is how all three novels challenge the traditional linear narrative model. In terms of narrative form, the most experimental of the Clarke novels is Margary’s, with its collating of blog posts, reports and so on, or possibly Stross’s with its sustained use of the multiple second-person narrative viewpoint but even so, neither of them eschew a linear model of storytelling. Really, between the six novels, the most adventurous literary device in play is the flashback, and that’s hardly innovative these days.
Unreliable narrators? It is notable that four out of six novels use a first-person narrator. Again, though, this is not radical any more, insofar as a first-person narrator is by definition unreliable, or at any rate an incomplete observer. If anything is odd, it is how hard the authors of these unreliable narrators work to make their storytellers trustworthy. As it turns out, Margary’s John Farrell is a walking documentation tool, the novel being compiled from his recordings, so unless the compiler is unreliable, there is little scope for misdirection. The shifting ‘you’ of Rule 34 is a fully immersive experience so if ‘you’ miss something … well, did you actually miss anything? Rogers’ novel is emphatically and explicitly a personal testament so we have to assume that Jessie Lamb is recording everything she can remember, and given the religious and legal overtones of ‘testament’, we are obliged to assume that at worst she may commit the sin of omission rather than concealment, and anyway, if she does, we have absolutely no way of knowing. Bear’s novel features a first-person narrator who veers between being a tabula rasa and having access to past memories, as well as a lot of information that is simply inaccessible for much of the story, but this is not an intentionally unreliable narrator so much as one with massive holes where a memory should be, relying heavily on his previous incarnations passing down written information. Only Miéville has a first-person narrator who might be considered to be genuinely unreliable, but it is not entirely clear even at the end what Avice Benner Cho might be concealing. Tepper opts for a travelling third-person viewpoint narrative, which is probably just as well, given the state of the plot.
Let us turn instead to Priest’s The Islanders. It’s constructed as a gazetteer, a guide to the islands of the Dream Archipelago but as the reader quickly realises, it is a series of deconstructed narratives, dispersed by geography, held together by memory. The reader is obliged to piece together tiny fragments of information in order to construct the novel’s stories. The gazetteer’s deliberate fragmenting of geography through alphabetising becomes a metaphor for the elusive topography of the Dream Archipelago. Nothing fits together, and even if there was a map, it wouldn’t make sense. It is in the nature of a gazetteer to be a compiled artefact, written by anonymous authors, meaning that the narrative is stripped of many different reference points – time of composition is one, and the lack of a referent time frame is a marked characteristic. Put bluntly, this is a bloody difficult book to read but not only is it a fascinating exploration of the Dream Archipelago, a place Priest has already written about a number of times, it is performative in the way it shows us how we put together a picture of the world. And isn’t science fiction all about understanding our own world?
Tidhar’s Osama also engages with this narrative uncertainty, though in a rather different way. It is in part an alternative history but even the nature of that alternate history is slippery, as the reader moves between worlds but also in and out of fictions. At its most simplistic level, I admire the way that the novel doesn’t start where you might suppose an alternative history would, with a conscious signalling of differences between worlds, nor even with a clear idea of which world we are talking about. Roberts also breaks down the fictional walls but by drawing attention to their artificiality and by satirising them as well. One is reminded perhaps of Brecht’s plays, which deliberately draw attention to themselves as dramatic artefacts.
What all three novels have in common is a kind of playful acknowledgement of genre framework followed by a stepping over the fence and seeing how far they take genre ideas with them. Of the non-shortlisted novels I also read, Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox clearly exhibits similar traits. Oyeyemi takes a well-known folk tale, one which has already accreted a number of variants and thoroughly shakes it down by further retelling it but also exploring it from other fictional angles, stretching and bending it. The techniques are clearly related to those being employed by Priest, Tidhar and Roberts; only the subject matter clearly indicates that it is not science fiction. The Ings takes a different path, using scientific theory to provide deep underpinnings in Dead Water. It is difficult to get to grips with but it is a marvellous way of shaping a narrative. (Set this against something like Rebecca Goldstein’s excruciating 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, a novel about science but certainly not a science fiction novel).
All of the novels I’ve just discussed might be called difficult; certainly, they are the kind of novels I like to read with a set of post-it notes to hand, so I can tag the connections, but I enjoy reading novels that ask me to do this. Interestingly, it would seem that those members of the BSFA who nominated titles for the award feel the same way. I say ‘interestingly’, given the received wisdom that popular awards are not necessarily about literary quality but more about books and authors people happen to like, especially the latter. The Hugos serves a particular constituency, for example, one that is as much as anything driven by sentiment and personal liking. It reflects a very distinctive view of reading for pleasure, not one I personally recognise but one I can accept.
One might argue that the BSFA Awards are driven by a similar set of imperatives, and to some extent that might be true. However, it seems clear to me that we’re also dealing with a very adventurous group of readers, drawn from the BSFA and from the membership of this year’s Eastercon, and this is what they’re reading and enjoying.
Yes, Roberts and Priest are well-known writers whose work generally is much admired. Tidhar is an energetic promoter of other people’s writing as well as being a prolific writer. But one could equally point out that Charles Stross is a well-known and popular author not to mention being a prolific blogger, and that wasn’t enough to propel him onto the BSFA shortlist. Kim Lakin-Smith is of course well-known to BSFA members but while that might have contributed in part to her being on the shortlist, it’s clear from ‘Black Sunday’ if not, in my view, Cyber Circus, that she can write, and that her place on the shortlist was earned.
What is clear from this, however, is that a novel’s ‘difficulty’ is no barrier to it being on the shortlist of a popular award. In which case, one wonders what the Tidhar, Roberts and Priest lack when it comes to being included on the Clarke Award shortlist. They are subtle and complex novels, as indeed is the Ings, and I’d argue that the best kind of science fiction is precisely this. Yet the Clarke Award shortlist seems to be sharply skewed towards a very superficial presentation of sf, novels that can be clearly identified, without much effort, as science fiction. The pay-off, however, is that they seem to be less satisfying to read.
Another thing I feel the Clarke award shortlist lacks this year is energy. It’s hard to quantify this property. Excitement, perhaps? Zoo City crackled with the stuff, so much so that I stayed up all night to finish it. Tidhar’s novel certainly possesses energy, as does the Oyeyemi, and also Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. God’s War was ineligible for the Clarke Award but a lot of people would, I know, like to have seen it there, and for all I think it is a deeply problematic novel, it was also a hard novel to put down. It didn’t invite the reader to stop and ponder in the same way that some books require but it was an intriguing read that set a lot of trains of thought going. Critically, I want to read the sequel.
One might argue that Stross’s novel possesses energy, particularly given Chris Priest’s now infamous comments about the ‘internet puppy’. I doubt I would have chosen to frame my comments quite as Priest did but I do know what he means. Stross’s novel is energetic, exhaustingly so, pointing out all the shiny stuff but while I want fiction to excite me and keep me up at night, I really don’t want it to beat me about the head with its inventiveness.
Let us look at Rule 34 compared to a novel Priest recommended, Ian R McLeod’s Wake Up and Dream. Its main character, as already noted, is a private investigator, Clarke Gable, so not only is this a detective novel, it’s an alternate history too. McLeod seems to me to do a decent job of setting up a believable alternative 1940s LA. The novel opens on the cusp of a point of divergence but it doesn’t dominate the novel by any means, so one is not admiring the author’s cleverness in his extrapolation. In the same way, McLeod carefully, unobtrusively lays out the science behind his story. The ‘feelies’ have in short order displaced the talkies as the must-have cinematic experience but what becomes clear as the story unfolds is that vested interests in feelie technology are already considering ways in which they might exploit the cinematic experience and transfer it into daily life, producing a nicely compliant population. We see, at the microcosmic scale, what it can achieve in a mental hospital. It is shocking, more so because McLeod presents it in a very understated way. Stross, as it happens, is on a not-dissimilar track, but with software that can identify those likely to commit crime; the problem here is that the software has attained self-awareness and is casting itself as a vigilante. In many respects they tackle the same subject but the McLeod is undoubtedly the more thoughtful piece, raising the same concerns as the Stross, but without leaving the reader beaten to a pulp and then tossed in a corner, crying surrender. Which then is the better novel?
It is part of the game, of course, to complain about books being missed off the shortlist. A number of people expressed surprise that Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boyswas left off. What about Colson Whitehead’s Zone One? Both, like the McLeod, and indeed the Oyeyemi, were submitted to the Clarke Award. What novels were missed?
In fairness, it should be noted that the Award is as much subject to the vagaries of what is published in the UK in any given year as it is to the judges’ definition of sf, and also, crucially, to what publishers are willing to submit to the Award. Juries have in the past asked for books and the publishers have refused to send them. So, a title’s absence does not automatically mean that the judges overlooked it. On the other hand, this year’s submission list suggests that there was either not a lot of action beyond genre publishing, or that, putting aside recalcitrant mainstream publishers, the judges didn’t call in other texts. But again, we can never know.
Insofar as I can reach any conclusion, my feeling is that whatever the Clarke Award shortlist might indicate, there is still plenty of life in the genre. My reading through the BSFA Novel shortlist as well as the recommendations made by Priest and the Not the Clarke Award panel certainly suggests this is so. Other people’s ideal shortlists indicate that there is other material I should also be reading. The mystery, then, is why the Clarke Award shortlist doesn’t reflect this. It is not the celebration of science fiction in all its innovative glory that I would expect from the Clarke. Instead one is left with the sense of old and nervous tropes huddling anxiously round the campfire, feeling threatened, hoping for better times, and all the while blissfully unaware that just over the rise a vibrant literary existence awaits them.
And the winner is?
I have hummed and hawed about calling the result of the Clarke Award this year, in part because I don’t want to embarrass myself a second time, in part because I feel I’m not so much calling the best sf novel of the year as the least worst on the shortlist, and to me that is not what it should be about.
At the Not the Clarke Award panel at Eastercon, there was something of a tussle as to whether the Bear or the Tepper should be dropped first. So far as I am concerned, the Tepper goes first, as poor science fiction and as a poor novel. The Bear would go next because it’s so tired. After that, I’d drop the Magary because it is not really advancing the argument. It’s a jeu d’esprit by a clever young writer. If he does another sf novel, I’ll be keen to look at it, but he needs to dig deeper. The Stross is an amiable sort of book but tries too hard for what it is, which brings me to the Miéville and the Rogers. The Miéville is the safe choice of the two, given his position within the genre, but the novel also seems safe. Which leaves the Rogers. I am well aware that Rogers has written other novels with genre interest, and it is a well constructed novel. But what does it say about science fiction in 2012? That it is reaching into the past, revisiting old ideas, old tropes? Is that really how science fiction should present itself to the world?
Addendum 19:10 pm
Chatting with Ian Sales about this post on Twitter this morning, he pointed out that my discussion of the shortlisted books pointed towards Charles Stross’s Rule 34 being most likely to win and not Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb. On reflection, I think he’s right. I was, in the end, choosing the book I wanted to win rather than allowing the winner to emerge from the shortlist’s own presentation of sf. So while I’d still prefer to see the Rogers win, or the Miéville at a pinch, I shall not be surprised if it is the Stross. But, as I have said several times, second-guessing the judges is never a wise move.
Adam Roberts – By Light Alone
Charles Stross – Rule 34
China Miéville – Embassytown
Christopher Priest – The Islanders
Drew Magary – The End Specialist
Greg Bear – Hull Zero Three
Helen Oyeyemi – Mr Fox
Ian R McLeod – Wake up and Dream
Jane Rogers – The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Kameron Hurley – God’s War
Kim Lakin-Smith – Cyber Circus
Lavie Tidhar – Osama
Sheri S Tepper – The Waters Rising
Simon Ings – Dead Water
Addendum 1st April 2013
Two books mentioned in discussions last year but not included in the original project were
I read both over this Easter weekend and am adding them now to bring the project to full closure.