The Winner

The Arthur C Clarke Award ceremony, for those who don’t know, is currently held in conjunction with Sci Fi London at a central London cinema, most of which happens to be underground. This has a few consequences, the most notable of which are (a) the award reception tends to be noisy, crowded, and hot, and (b) there’s no reception for mobile phones, and no wi-fi network, which in this day and age means near-complete online silence for most of the event, followed by a sudden burst as people return to the surface following the award. I tend to find it an enjoyable draining experience — all credit to Tom Hunter, and Sci Fi London, and the cinema, for organising it — and invariably engage in half a dozen half-conversations, and don’t even see half the people I would have liked to say hello to. After the reception, everyone files into one of the cinema screens for the ceremony: speeches from Tom Hunter, festival director Louis Savy, and chair of the judges Paul Billinger, and the announcement of the winner

This year: The City & The City by China Mieville, who made a gracious speech. As the Guardian notes, this makes Mieville the first author to win the prize three times, and which instantly looks like one of those decisions that couldn’t have gone any other way. The Guardian refers to the quote I gave them when Mieville won the BSFA Award, saying that I thought it wouldn’t be the last prize the book wins this year. I didn’t actually have the Clarke in mind at the time, and in fact The City & The City becomes only the fifth book to do the double; I was thinking of the Hugo. I’m less certain about the Nebula, and will be fascinated to see if it makes the running for either the British Fantasy Society awards or the World Fantasy Awards later this year — or, indeed, any crime awards. All of which is horse-race stuff, and less interesting than the book itself; but I think I’ve pretty thoroughly said my piece about it at this point, and I don’t think I can face another discussion about whether or not it’s sf.

Here’s a thing, though: the Arthur C Clarke Award winners for the first decade of the twenty-first century:

2001: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
2002: Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
2003: The Separation by Christopher Priest
2004: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
2005: Iron Council by China Mieville
2006: Air by Geoff Ryman
2007: Nova Swing by M John Harrison
2008: Black Man by Richard Morgan
2009: Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
2010: The City & The City by China Mieville

That really makes clear just how impressive Mieville’s achievement is, I think; at least two of his wins, Perdido Street Station and The City & The City, are for books that undeniably caught the imagination of the field. (And you wouldn’t want to bet that The City & The City will be his last win, either.) Is it a good list of winners, overall? I’d say so. Most of those books are ones I would recommend without hesitation to almost anyone. You could argue, perhaps, that the complete absence of space opera looks a little odd — although neither the Hugo nor the Nebula recognised any in the same period — given the attention that subgenre has received over the last ten years. And Gwyneth Jones looks rather lonely; as the release of the submissions lists over the past few years has made clear, the relative absence of women writers from the UK sf field is a structural problem that just isn’t getting any better. But there is at least a reasonable diversity of protagonists and, increasingly over the course of the decade, of settings; after three books at the start of the decade that draw very strongly on British locations and ideas of Britishness, the winners range increasingly widely, and are probably all the better for that. I wonder what the Award will throw up next year?

Notes on a Shortlist

Almost everyone, it seems, agrees about at least one thing about this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award, the winner of which is announced tonight: that it’s a good shortlist. (That post now updated with more review-links, by the way.) I’m not about to break that hardening consensus, and may even raise the stakes slightly. I think the 2010 shortlist is one of the very good ones; for me, as a shortlist as a whole, probably the strongest since 2003, when Light vied against The Scar and the ultimate winner, The Separation. Two of the novels — Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream — have been hailed as returns to form, two more — China Mieville’s The City & The City and Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia — as their authors’ best to date; and the remaining two — Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and Marcel Theroux’s Far North — are certainly not without their champions. Perhaps the most pleasing thing about the shortlisted novels is their variety. There are more and less straightforwardly science fictional works, set in times ranging from the seventeenth century to hundreds of years hence, and if you’re not calling them sf, you could call these books crime novels, Westerns, comedies, and adventure stories. (Or just novels, of course.) It’s a good showcase. But a novel is a prose narrative with something wrong with it; and so, though it’s harder to do than it was last year, we must look for what’s wrong with these offerings.

What it isn’t, for once, is very British, and the most British book on the list — if only for its blokeish humour — is the one most people throw out of the balloon first. Retribution Falls has plenty to recommend it, particularly pace and, in its retro-magical setting, colour, and is welcome on the shortlist as an adventure story, a form too often given critical short shrift that nevertheless requires considerable craft. I kick it out of the balloon first as well, though, not for being what it is, but for flirting with smeerpdom. It seems to me that the story Retribution Falls tells is not sufficiently specific to its fantastic content: that it could be retold in another time or place without changing much more than the vocabulary. (I’d say this is partly where the omnipresent Firefly comparisons are coming from.) And that’s not enough to be the best science fiction novel of the year, the book put forward as an example of what science fiction can be and can do. There’s also the question of the book’s female characters, which aren’t exactly depicted on equal terms with the men, although on that point I’m willing to give the novel more credit for self-awareness than, say, Nic or Abigail are (although this is not to mention the question of the book’s sole near-silent ex-slave character of colour, which is harder to excuse). Such factors must be considered when assessing the book, I’d argue; the political is as inextricable a part of literary judgement as the aesthetic.

An author usually impeccable on both fronts is Gwyneth Jones, whose Spirit — being a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo — would seem to also risk smeerpdom, but which actually passes at least that test with flying colours. I haven’t read the original, but I know its outline, and Jones does not seem to be in thrall (and in the book’s last third, seems to revise her model quite inventively, if not, in the end, entirely convincingly); nor have I read the major preceding work in Jones’ own oeuvre, the Aleutian trilogy, but there to I didn’t feel the absence of context particularly strongly. That is: Spirit is a full, contained science fiction novel. It’s about that most speculative of subjects, identity, or at least is at its best, so far as I’m concerned, when it hews closest to this theme. There’s much here about what defines us, and what might define us, in an era when space travel that treats mind and matter as interchangeable information — the raw stuff of self — and much about individuals who are defined, usually as Other. The novel’s great weakness is a lack of consistency. It really is a bit all over the place, veering from political intrigue to action-led set piece to introspective periods of what is glossed as “poetic time”; the latter are the most reliably good, and a section half-way through the novel set in a prison is seriously impressive, but the quality is never as even as it should be. A lesser but still significant weakness, I think, is a lack of freshness, a sense of being a bit second-had. Sometimes this is to good effect. I can see how Jones’ Star Trek aliens play into her theme — the alien understood as an element of humanity; or, in this case, perhaps more accurately humanity understood as an element of the alien — and I don’t want to take, for instance, Jones’ playfulness with gender, which delivers plenty of welcome perceptual jabs, for granted. But on balance, even if some aspects of the book aren’t seen as often as we might hope, there seems to me too little here that hasn’t been seen before.

Which brings me to China Mieville’s The City & The City, whose central conceit has clearly already entered the canon of Really Neat Speculative Ideas. What is so very neat about it, it seems to me now, and the novel’s greatest accomplishment, is how successful it is at exposing readers’ assumptions. To talk about The City & The City in any sort of depth is to reveal with uncommon clarity how you think about the world, about people and about fiction: all of which are always worth doing. But it is for me a less satisfying novel — certainly a less satisfying science fiction novel; I do think it reads much more interestingly as fantasy — than it a political act. Its plot is seldom remarked upon, although I note that in general this aspect seems to pick up more praise from readers who spend more time with crime novels than I do; and its narrator contains no great depths, and to my ear just a bit of strain in his voice. It’s primarily for the neatness of its conceit, I’d guess, that the novel quite deservedly won the BSFA Award — and, not surprisingly, it’s the front-runner in Liz’s poll. (The BSFA Award is not a great predictor of success in the Clarke Award, though, with only four books ever having done the double.) Mind you, if it does win, it will be a remarkable event, making Mieville the first author to win the Clarke Award three times; and three times within a decade, no less.

Now it gets really hard. Is Yellow Blue Tibia Adam Roberts’ best novel? Well, that probably depends on why you read Adam Roberts novels. There is certainly something to the idea that it’s his most relaxed, owned novel — as Jonathan put it, the work that combines Roberts’ various hats, as a writer of novels, histories, spoofs and criticism, “into one magnificent red satin topper”. In the honorable tradition of sf novels about science fiction, it surely has a spot marked out for it; it is funny; it has things to say about totalitarianism as well; it’s as technically well-formed a novel as you could wish; and its science fictional conceit delights me. To date the major charge against Yellow Blue Tibia has been Catherynne Valente’s hard-to-ignore assessment of “painfully inept cultural appropriation” (on which Roberts lightly comments here). That is: it is hamfisted as a depiction of Russian-ness. To me, the novel seems much more about popular conceptions of Russian-ness than about the thing itself. As Dan puts it, River of Gods would have been both a poorer and less honest novel if it had been written primarily with reference to depictions of India, but I don’t see that Yellow Blue Tibia is trying to be River of Gods, and I’m a little baffled that anyone tries to take it as such. It seems to me far too ironic, too playful, to self-conscious to be taken as striving — as McDonald’s novel clearly does strive — for anything approximating that horrible concept, “authenticity”. (That, and cultural appropriation strikes me as most egregious when there is a severe power imbalance in favour of the person doing the writing; and I don’t see that between the UK and Russia.) That sense of play, indeed, is one reason I read Adam Roberts; but another is to be challenged, to have my expectations about fiction and the world in general confronted in some way or another. And on that score, Yellow Blue Tibia disappoints me, seems to have fewer edges not just than Roberts’ other novels, but than other books on this shortlist.

If The City & The City is a popular choice for the award, Far North is becoming something like the reviewer’s choice, with Dan, David, Nic and Abigail all leaning in that direction, and Martin revising his odds accordingly. And for all that it’s been a long time since “the mainstream book” went home with the Clarke Award — since The Sparrow in 1998 — my head thinks that this could be Far North‘s year. It has a purity of concept and execution matched by no other novel on the shortlist, save perhaps The City & The City, and Theroux’s offering is a substantially more interesting novel of character (which does tend to be, in the end, one of the things the Clarke goes for). In its pragmatic depiction of life after ecotastrophe it eschews judgement in a way that few other such novels are able to — as Abigail puts it, it shows The Road how it’s done — and its Zone is as provocative and memorably eerie a location as antecedents. (It is also, like the previous three novels, a work that draws on Eastern/Northern Asia for its affect — a huge region, of course, but there do seem to me to be some affinities between Spirit‘s Baykonur metropolis and Chinese-influenced culture, The City & The City‘s vaguely defined border location, Yellow Blue Tibia‘s Communist Russia, and Far North‘s Siberia. And, of course, the one novel I haven’t discussed has a European setting. This is not, as I said, the most British shortlist.) In all, Far North is a novel that’s easy to argue for and hard to argue against, which is why I think it will win: after all, my mostly strongly felt argument against it, like Amanda, is simply that I like Galileo’s Dream more.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, which ranges between Galileo’s lifetime and the medium-far future, is expansive and rough where Far North is contained and controlled. It is a long book and — like its protagonist — can be exasperating (although this does not mean that I agree with Rob Grant’s assessment that it is “written to impress rather than entertain“), but it nails the dismount. And more than any of the other books shortlisted, it’s the one I want to revisit. (Of course, the judges will have revisited it, and all the others.) This is partly just because Robinson’s model of human nature and culture is one I am quite strongly in sympathy with: that the world may not be sane, but that it behooves us to find as much sanity as we can, and struggle for more; that it is possible to be utopian without de-emphasizing the challenges to that position. And it’s partly because I want to explore how Robinson tackles the material that’s new to him — the alien — in more detail. But it’s mostly because I want to revisit the things that are specific to Galileo’s Dream that Galileo’s Dream does so extraordinarily well. The exploration of memory, of how human beings live in time; the science-fictional dreams that use the techniques of sf past to address the tropes of sf present; and most of all, the sophisticated analysis of what it means to write a biographical historical fiction, to intervene in the thoughts of a past life as a future traveller (or writer). You can feel the tension — can in fact see it develop over the course of the novel — between that idea of Galileo as we can imagine he might have been, and Galileo as we (as Kim Stanley Robinson) would like to be able to imagine he was. At the end of a decade that’s given us quite a lot of historical fiction novels about science, for me Galileo’s Dream stands as the best of them: and of the books on this shortlist, I think it contains the most beauty, and the most truth. And so I hope it wins this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award.


It’s been a while, hasn’t it?


Paul Kincaid’s review of Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth, at Strange Horizons yesterday, reminds me that I never did get around to posting about it, and that what I wanted to say about it chimes with some other half-thoughts I’ve been having about other recent reads, specifically about endings. For obvious reasons, we don’t talk about endings much; I’m going to try to get around the reasons here by sticking to talk about kinds of endings. Cold Earth first. It’s presented as letters home by the members of an archaeological dig in Greenland, written partly as diary or catharsis, and mostly because they lose contact with the rest of the world, but the last news they heard is that a new virus appears to be developing into a pandemic. Paul reads the book as being about the end of the world, as an exercise in the inevitability of the end of the world, which leads him to feel somewhat frustrated by the final chapter, and even uncertain about the apparent escape it offers: is it real? If so, it seems somewhat consolatory, or avoidant. Is it a dream? If so, it seems a betrayal of the book’s principles. For me, however, Cold Earth isn’t about inevitability so much as it it’s about exactly that uncertainty: is the world ending, or not? Are the characters being haunted, or not? Will they die, or live? In the baldest possible terms: what sort of story is being told here? And so for me, the closing chapter is a clever sort of imperfect cadence; it offers us resolution as a challenge to what we might have wanted, and (if we have decided what story is being told before we got there) what we expected.

Scarlett Thomas’ new book, Our Tragic Universe, plays a similar game more self-consciously. Its protagonist is a young author struggling to write a “real” novel, and meantimes making ends meet (just about) by writing genre fiction and reviewing weird and wonderful non-fiction books for a national newspaper. The first book she’s reading for review in the novel is a sort of new-age take on the Omega Point, the idea that we are probably living in a simulation of the universe at the end of time, which argues that this makes all sorts of things possible. Aha, we think, particularly (and, I am sure, deliberately) if we have read The End of Mr Y, which featured another book that purported to explain the nature of reality and was proved correct, and we sit back and wait for the fantastic to intrude into the story. But Thomas plays with us all the way through, not so much refusing to indulge us as refusing to tell us whether we have been indulged, whether or not certain improbabilities that dot the narrative are magical (or science fictional) in origin. (I have the impression that Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City plays a similar game: has anyone read it?) I have to admit, I admire the bloody-mindedness of Our Tragic Universe, its ability to pre-empty my every response and its refusal to confirm or deny anything, even as I find what I take to be the book’s ultimate argument – that art is a tool to enable us to resist narratives that get imposed on life – to be delivered with just a touch too much satisfaction. But even there I am anticipated, with one character claiming that what gives a story coherence is that it has an argument, or stakes out a position about the world, and that it doesn’t matter so much whether that position is true.

Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion, which I’m trying to write a proper review of for elsewhere, seems to me to similarly be about seeking a way to say something authentic in a world where story has been commodified and worn-out (this would be opposed to Elizbeth Hand’s take, that it’s “an elegy for … the passing of the power of the word, written and spoken”, in that ultimately I think it asserts the word’s continued power). Interestingly, compared to Our Tragic Universe, it never holds out any mystery about its ending. We know from the start where the narrator is (in a zeppelin that may or may not be powered by a perpetual motion, flying above a retro-futuristic metropolis), and in broad terms why he has ended up there. The book then records the narrator’s life story, and how it has been shaped by others. This means there are two key differences to Thomas – one, an explicitly fantastic setting, and two, a clearer focus on the process of finding a voice, finding a way to resist narrative – and I think those differences are why the book works better for me. Or, perhaps, not works better – since I think Our Tragic Universe achieves what it sets out to do, in terms of conflating the impulse towards story and the impulse towards the fnatastic – but why I prefer it. Palmer’s novel is no less self-conscious a work, nor any less playful (for certain, somewhat arch values of playful), but it feels perhaps less hesitant, more committed to its argument about the world. Of course, hesitance may also be a part of Thomas’ argument.

And last but not least there’s Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men, the conclusion of the trilogy started by The Knife of Never Letting Go and continued in The Ask & The Answer. This is a very different book to the other three in some ways, being a headlong narrative that isn’t in the least concerned with its existence as narrative, building towards an ending that we are not necessarily supposed to anticipate in the way that, I’d suggest, we’re asked to anticipate the other three. On the other hand, like every other story it is a narrative that creates expectations and, like Cold Earth – if not to an even greater degree, since there are many more questions to be answered – the process of resolving those expectations is a mixed blessing. Part of me looks at the ending and feels disappointment, feels that it’s more conventional than I might have hoped for from Ness; another part of me looks at it from another angle (having read the three books above) and wonders whether it’s not the simple fact that it is an ending that disappoints. Part of the pleasure of Chaos Walking – a large part, actually – is the suspension of the various narrative possibilities, Ness’ expert manipulation of what the reader knows, and thus what they might expect, which engenders the sense that the outcome is particularly fluid, that many different things could happen. After the last page of Monsters of Men those possibilities have resolved into concrete things that have happened, and I’m not sure there’s any configuration that would have been wholly satisfying. More than that, even, I’m not sure that a wholly satisfying configuration of this type of story is even desirable: even being satisfyingly unconventional is a convention: perhaps there is a boldness in the mix of conventional and unconventional that Ness offers. Alternatively, perhaps I’ve just reached the point where I’ll never enjoy an ending naively again.

BSFA Book Club: Winter Song by Colin Harvey

Earlier in the year, Angry Robot very kindly sent a copy of Winter Song to all members of the BSFA. Ah ha, I thought, this represents an opportunity. (I’m not Niall, by the way; I’m Martin Lewis, the new reviews editor for Vector.)

I imagine most people reading this like to talk about books and talking is best when it is a conversation, as was proved by the success of last year’s Torque Control short story club. However, one of the things most reviewers like to see (but rarely get) is engagement with their reviews. The problem is that there are a lot of books out there which means that – unless a book has a real buzz about it – it is unlikely that a lot of people will be reading a particular novel at the same time. Regardless of how you feel about the Harry Potter series, there was something quite exciting about the sheer density of debate every time the latest book came out.

So I thought I would try and take advantage of the unusual situation of a large group of SF fans all having the same book at the same time to try and recreate that sort of debate.

Winter Song is Colin Harvey’s fifth novel – his sixth, Damage Time is out at the end of the month – and Angry Robot have given it an uncompromising tagline: “Rock-hard SF adventure. No one here gets out alive.” They further suggested you file it under [Starship Crash / Abandoned Colonists / Alien Slaughter / Hell Planet] hammering home the impression that this is going to be a very grim story. So what did the reviewers think?

Mark Chitty at Walker Of Worlds:

Winter Song is another title in the strong list Angry Robot Books has released since it’s inception earlier this year. The new imprint has had good reviews for its titles and when I saw this one coming up for an October release I was very interested – any sci-fi set in a future where humanity has expanded across the galaxy is something I want to hear more about. Winter Song was not quite what I expected, but it delivered an entertaining read in an unforgiving environment. Following Karl Allman as he crash lands on a forgotten and primitive colony world where the terraforming looks like it’s going backwards, Winter Song is a novel that has more than a few surprises up its sleeve. I was expecting to walk into this with a more typical human vs alien world theme where there were many strange and wonderful creatures. What I got was a story focused on human characters that developed and grew with each situation they face.

Jared at Pornokitsch

Although Winter Song still isn’t the cutting-edge science fiction that the imprint promises, it is a genuinely solid effort that made my morning commute a lot shorter. Literature, it ain’t – but Winter Song combines good storytelling and strong (but not overwhelming) world-building to make for an entertaining read. It doesn’t push any boundaries – if anything, this is a throwback to the Ace or DAW era. But that’s no bad thing… For a small paperback, this is a book with some big topics. Between the front and the back covers, Karl stumbles across a second tribe of lost colonists, conducts a detailed exploration of space-Viking culture, gets mauled by a wild bestiary of alien critters, hikes across a frozen wilderness and saves the world from magnetic mangling. Makes for a long day. And, in the breaks, Karl explains the rest of the universe to his Girl Friday.

Anthony G Williams on the BSFA Forum:

The first three-quarters of the story is unremittingly grim as Allman first struggles to resolve his inner conflict while working with the settlers and then tracks across a bleak wilderness, at risk from wild animals and trolls and pursued by a posse led by an angry head man. Although the SF background is always there, this part of the story has more of the flavour of a fantasy. The pace and mood change when he arrives at the beacon and discovers what it is, and the tale then becomes a tense SF drama with a spectacular, if open-ended, conclusion. The story is well-enough written, and the complex relationships between Allman, Loki and the settlers sufficiently intriguing, to carry me through a grimness which could otherwise have become tiresome.

James Maxey at Intergalactic Medicine Show:

First, let me get my big gripe out of my system. Winter Song by Colin Harvey has one of the least inviting opening chapters to a novel that I’ve ever encountered… It’s a very busy chapter, tossing out a lot of information about the ship, about Karl’s biological and technological enhancements that make his survival likely, and a brief data dump on the solar system he’s in and the planet he’s going to try to reach. The one thing it utterly lacks is anything more than a hint of who Karl is or any reason anyone should care that any of this is happening to him. I was pretty much ready to give up and move on to the next novel in my stack, but I happened to read on a few pages into the second chapter, and, lo, I was interested… On the whole, a fun read, if you make it past the clunky first chapter.

Shivari on Amazon:

I felt that the early stages where Karl is struggling with psychosis simply weren’t very convincing. It was all rather simplistic, mostly repetitions of references to Oedipus; the sex & mothering theme was a bit too obvious and heavy-handed. I started to get rather irritated by it, and was very happy when Karl reached some kind of stability. The book then presents with another issue of identity, before turning into a rather cliched space-opera. I think it was basically a good idea, but I don’t think that the author quite had the skill to pull it off. He wanted to pack too much in, perhaps?

Keith Harvey at Red Rook Review:

In conclusion, I was duly impressed with Winter Song. The prose is direct, strong, and serviceable; the characters are clearly drawn, the world of Isheimur completely realized, and the narrative convincing and satisfying. Ultimately, I was struck by the complexity of the novel. Its complexity, however, does not arise from the plot; it is rather simple. Instead, it is the magnitude of detail that supports the world-building. Harvey has succeeded in creating a fascinating planet with a unique environment, exotic fauna and flora, a medieval culture with its social constructs, traditions, and structures, and three humanoid species, not to mention several off-world cultures.

Now it’s over to you. If you aren’t a BSFA member but have read the novel please come and join in. If you aren’t a BSFA member, haven’t read it but want to get an idea about the book, Angry Robot have made a series of extracts available on blogs like Grasping For The Wind.

Another Short Story Club

Not here, or at least not here yet; but anyone who participated in the discussions here last autumn may be interested to know that io9 is kicking off a weekend short story club, including both new stories and classics. Their schedule so far:

And they said it would never catch on.

Review of 2009

While I was away this week, BSFA members should have received the latest mailing, including Vector 262:

That Was The Year That Was — guest editorial by Ian Whates
The BSFA Award Shortlists 2009
The Vector Reviewers’ Poll — edited by Kari Sperring
2009 in Film — by Colin Odell and Mitch LeBlanc
Progressive Scan: Genre TV in 2009 — by Abigail Nussbaum
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Kari Sperring
Foundation’s Favourites — Andy Sawyer
Resonances 58 — Stephen Baxter
The New X: 2010 — Graham Sleight

Ian’s editorial covers the printer-related challenges (read: woes) the BSFA faced last year and, as you may be able to gather from (a) the fact that Vector contains the BSFA Award shortlists but not winners and (b) the fact that the mailing also contains a booklet featuring the nominated short fiction, those aren’t over yet. We’re working on it, though.

In the meantime, however: the previous mailing, you may recall, included a copy of Colin Harvey’s novel Winter Song:

Winter Song cover

As mentioned in Vector, Martin Lewis will be running a discussion of this book here, next week — so if you haven’t cracked it open yet, you have this weekend to do so!


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