You can’t please everyone, especially when it comes to awards, but the Arthur C. Clarke award often seems to go out of its way not to please anyone. Precariously perched atop the genre divide, the award has enraged insiders, who view it as trying to curry favour with the mainstream establishment by nominating literary and unclassifiable fiction, and ruffled the feathers of outsiders, who accuse it of trying to appropriate the same fiction, thus gaining the genre some undeserved credibility. This year’s shortlist is a perfect demonstration of such schizophrenia. The novels on it range from the barely publishable to the sublime, with just about every flavor and possible definition of science fiction represented: thrillers (one successful, the other most decidedly not) with SF sprinkles; outsider SF with its trademark shoddy worldbuilding; literary fiction with a vague SFnal connection; commentary on the genre; even a genuine, honest-to-God technically oriented story set in the future.
One almost suspects Stableford of making a direct appeal to his readers, desperately striving to justify this plodding, over-written, under-plotted, slow-paced, hilariously awful mess of a novel. Even if it weren’t a complete and utter fallacy to argue that, in fiction, what you have to say matters more than how you say it, the fact remains that Streaking has so very, very little to say.
End of the World Blues is an effective thriller, which means that the cliché works, and if it weren’t for the novel’s deeply disturbing treatment of its female characters I would have no hesitation in calling it an enjoyable read.
Morris’s Hav is nothing but an agglomeration of extraordinarily common attributes, given an imaginary name and location. Her sole act of creation in bringing Hav to life is the Cathar conspiracy, and by her own admission this element of the story is symbolic. More importantly, it is unsuccessful–if Hav were science fiction, we’d have to take Morris to task for shoddy worldbuilding.
What’s most remarkable about Gradisil is that, in spite of the bleakness of its message, it isn’t a depressing novel. It achieves this effect in much the same way that Deadwood does–by being entirely persuasive. In its best parts, Gradisil reads like a history of a future that hasn’t happened yet–depressing, because it confirms our worst suspicions about human nature, but true, and therefore compelling and impossible to ignore.
In spite of this problematic ending, however, there is enough that’s remarkable about Oh Pure and Radiant Heart to mark it out as one of the finest, most intelligent and most beautifully written novels I’ve read this year, and while it probably doesn’t belong on the shortlist for a science fiction award, it is worthy of recognition and acclaim.
On Nova Swing:
In 2002, Harrison published Light (which was nominated for–and should have won–the 2003 Clarke award), a breathtaking space opera which ended on a curious and atypical note of hope and forgiveness. Nova Swing, a companion piece to Light which takes place in the same universe, might be seen as Harrison’s attempt to back away from this seeming change of heart, but its more quiet benevolence very nearly puts Light to shame, making it seem almost bombastic in comparison.