It has not been hard for me to decide which novel I think should win this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. There are, for starters, two nominees I neither particularly admire nor particularly like, one that I like more than I admire, and one that I admire more than I like. But differentiating the two nominees that I both like and admire isn’t hard, either: for there is one that lives more vividly in my mind, that I am more eager to reread, and more evangelical about pressing into others’ hands. So my preference is clear. But here, for the record, in advance of the announcement of the winner this evening, is a summary of my opinions of the whole shortlist.
I don’t think it’s a bad shortlist, per se; there are several books that spring to mind when I think about books I would rather have seen listed, but on the whole Adam Roberts’ judgement that “Solid is one word for it, which is another way of saying safe” is right, I think. It is a shortlist whose values are predominantly the core values of genre sf. There are a lot of spaceships; for all the talk about New Space Opera, only one other Clarke Award shortlist this decade has had as many.
There are also a number of recurring themes. Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets, which would be at the bottom of my list if I got a vote, incorporates a number of them. Like four of the remaining five shortlisted books (which is surely more than the average among the submissions), it is written in the first person, which immediately puts questions of identity front and centre. Like Reynolds’ House of Suns, it explores these questions through multiple narrators who are in a sense the same person (and physical cloning features in The Quiet War, while mental cloning is an important element of Song of Time). It is concerned with ecological questions (like The Quiet War, and to a lesser extent Song of Time); and in that Margaret’s multiple identities spring from her childhood imaginings, it invokes questions of youth and maturity that, I would say, resonate in every nominee other than The Quiet War.
Adam Roberts’ review, I think, gets to the heart of the problems with this book, although for a more sympathetic take see Nic Clarke and Sherryl Vint at Strange Horizons. The Margarets is a book in which the value of life resides in its fecund diversity, but this leads to a number of problems. There is a moral problem: as Adam puts it, it leads to Tepper prioritising forest over humans. There is a structural problem: the diversity, and the divergence, of Margaret’s lives is never conveyed as well as it should be; it’s all too abbreviated, or too clumsy. There is a a stylistic problem, in that Tepper has an absolute tin ear for names. Sentences such as, “We were shortly disabused of this idea when several humans in transit to Chottem from bondslave planets farther into Mercan space were also slain by the ghrym” are, to my mind, at least as wearying as anything Stephenson comes up with in Anathem; there is an absolute profusion of proper nouns, none of which seem to follow particularly well thought-out linguistic schema. (I think Tepper is winking at the reader at least some of the time — more, in fact, than many discussions of this book have given her credit for — but that does not excuse, for example, cat-people called Prrr Prrrpm and Mrrrw Lrrrpa.) And finally, there is the problem that Tepper’s stance seems to me a lie. Were she writing of just Earth — or a fantastical analogue of Earth, which is what she seems to want to be writing for most of the second half of the book, at least — her argument would be sound; but in the vastness of space, life’s value seems to me to inhere in its scarcity, in how fragile it is. The Margarets never conveys that sense; indeed, life in its galaxy is so commonplace that it is hard to care whether humans learn the error of their ways. The book has plenty of other problems — a distressingly Campbellian attitude to alien life, for example, as Edward James points out; and I can’t help thinking that a critique of humanity’s willingness to lean on comforting stories of magic instead of facing up to reality would carry more force if it didn’t co-exist with telepathy as a crucial plot element — and the result is a near-incoherent muddle.
Mark Wernham’s Martin Martin’s on the Other Side spends a good portion of its time being incoherent, but at least it does so deliberately; this, and the fact that it is just over half the length of Tepper’s novel, are the only things raising it above The Margarets in my estimation. It was over sooner. Jonathan McCalmont has noted that the book grew on him since he first read it, but I find it hard to imagine that happening to me; though there is an extent to which I admire, as Adam puts it, “the inadvertent eloquence of Jensen’s ‘fucking fucker’ laddishly limited register”, there is a much greater extent to which I simply found it tedious. I diverge from Jonathan, too, in that I don’t think it’s a novel about idiocy; it’s a novel, as Nic has it, about infantilisation, which is somewhat different. It means, for a start, that there were a few moments where I felt sympathy for Jensen Interceptor, trapped within the role his society has forced him into: the eternal puerile child There is also something inspired about the melding of PKD-style undermining of consensus reality with a cultural drive towards getting totally fucking hammered; but it is never elaborated coherently enough to sustain an entire novel.
The rest of the nominees I have already written about. Reynolds’ House of Suns is the book I like more than I admire, and a book that articulates the idea that we, the members of the human race, are all children, much more effectively than does The Margarets. I liked the expansiveness of the novel, and I found it rather more visual and well-paced than did, for example, Edward. I also think the flashback sequences are more effective, and better-integrated into the novel, than many other reviewers. But there’s no denying that it does have limitations: “Narrative, tick. Widescreen visuals, tick. Other stuff, hmm.”
Unlike the judges, I don’t have the benefit of a second read of the shortlist to give depth to my opinions; however, for the remaining three novels on the list — the three I could live with winning — I do have the benefit of time, in that it’s some months since I read any of them, and my opinions have accordingly had more time to settle. The Quiet War is the novel on the list I feel most out of step with the consensus on; Edward picked it as his favourite, as did Adam, and the Not the Clarke Award panel at Eastercon. But in Liz’s poll, at least at the time of writing, far more people think it will win than think it really should win; so maybe I’m not as out of step as all that.
Still, reading my review of The Quiet War now, I can’t shake the feeling that I didn’t get to the core of the novel, either in terms of its virtues or its flaws. I think Nic does that rather better in her post about the book, although Edward also inadvertently put his finger on it when he compared the book to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: “a cast of well-imagined characters, a mixture of political and scientific speculation, and a complete ease with the occasional infodump”. That is exactly right, and exactly my problem at the same time: I simply never felt the spark of life, in either The Quiet War‘s characters or its landscapes, that so distinguishes Robinson’s work. It is a book with few major flaws — its greatest virtue is its coherence of thought, although as the first volume in a duology, it is not quite self-contained — but almost by the same token, it is a book that never truly excited, challenged, or inspired me.
That leaves the two novels I both like and admire. Stephenson’s Anathem is an extraordinary book, there is no doubt of that; as Martin Lewis put it, “one part hubris to one part taking the piss to one part gnarly geek awesomeness.” As a vehicle designed to explicate and demonstrate a set of mind-expanding ideas, I have difficulty thinking of a recent, or even not-so-recent, work to match it. When I wrote my original review, however, I think I was perhaps too impressed by the overall architecture of the novel, that Stephenson had written something that worked as a novel, rather than (as I see The Baroque Cycle, or at least as much of it as I’ve read) an epic mess. It has not worn well in my mind; it’s still a book I will have no hesitation in recommending to (some) people, but I feel absolutely no need to revisit it. I am also, now, rather more sympathetic than I was initially to Abigail Nussbaum’s criticism of the novel for installing an intellectual homogeneity in its invented world. Or rather, it’s not the intellectual homogeneity per se that troubles me — I don’t want there to be a range of theories about how gravity works, or time works, or consciousness works; I want there to be single theories, that work — but that, as Nic explores, in setting up that intellectual homogeneity, Stephenson does away with cultural diversity. Perhaps the most telling indicator of this flaw is that while there are nods to equality of gender and sexuality — even if they are absolutely tokenistic — there is no equivalent nod to cultural diversity.
Which leaves Song of Time — or rather, doesn’t leave, since it is emphatically not the case that MacLeod is my preferred winner by default. Once again, and gratifyingly, I find that on the evidence of Liz’s poll, more people feel the way I do about the book than I expected. I think I came rather closer to getting to the bones of it in my review than I did with either The Quiet War or Anathem; although I have to say, although Nic’s review and Tanya Brown’s review are both very good, I don’t think anyone has yet fully captured what makes Song of Time so compelling. Adam Roberts’ criticisms of the book are largely reasonable, but don’t seem that significant to me when weighed against its virtues. On a shortlist which emphasizes the value of personal, subjective, human experience (as opposed to the kind of distanced perspective found in, most obviously of the novels not shortlisted, Flood), Song of Time offers unambiguously the best realised, most fascinating character; and for all the detail of McAuley’s colonies, for my money MacLeod offers the most vivid settings of any of the nominated authors. (Particularly, as Nic notes, cities; not because they are particularly “authentic”, but because the versions of their subjects that they construct feel so convincing.) It is the book that most productively challenged my sympathies; it is a novel saturated with science-fictional speculation, grounded in the emotions those speculations generate; and it is the only novel on the list, I would suggest, that engages with what it means to write science fiction in the early twenty-first century, both on a literal level, through the reflections of its characters, and stylistically, in how its voice refracts our understanding of some of contemporary sf’s common images and ideas. There is an irony, I’m aware, in asserting this in a week when YA novels have been awarded Nebula and Tiptree awards; Song of Time is about as far from the concerns of most YA fiction (and certainly as far from the narrative propulsivity of most YA fiction) as it is possible to get. But it is, I think, the best book on the list, and one of the best novels published in 2008. I hope it wins. Whatever does, I will post here as soon as I can, with a full update tomorrow. Let’s see, eh?