The Ones That Got Away

Any cutoff point for a poll like this causes problems; ten years may be a neat round number to think with, but it does a disservice to books that lie just on the wrong side of the line. Based on the number of times they were nominated by mistake, plus the number of wistful wishes that the poll extended back just one more year, the following three books published in 2000 might have been, in a different poll, serious contenders.

Ash by Mary Gentle

Ash cover

2001 was the year of Big Genre-Crushing Books on British sf award shortlists: specifically, Ash and Perdido Street Station. Mieville took home the Clarke, of course, while Ash walked off with the BSFA — you wonder whether a reversal of those fortunes would have changed the way the decade looks now. Online commentary on the book is relatively scarce, but thanks to the internet archive we can still watch John Clute wrangle with it:

Very simply, Ash works.

There is much more to talk about: the brilliance of the conversations and debates; the astonishing clamour of combat; the roundedness of almost every character in the vast tale; the sense of continuous argument; the occasional moments when Ash and her gang act as though the world were a game, and all they needed to do was turn off the VR machine to return home, and you almost begin to think none of them is ever going to die (but you are very wrong). And there is Ash herself, whose life is genuinely hard, and who (unlike some of Gentle’s earlier heroines) pays dearly, time and again, for what she does to others. She may be something of a Temporal Adventuress, but she pays for it. She pays.

There is more, much more. (Ash is also extremely funny.) But enough for now. Buy the four volumes, or the one. Sit in a corner. Open the book. Hold on.

Wild Life by Molly Gloss

Wild Life cover

Wild Life is a book that’s lurked on the fringes of my consciousness since it won the Tiptree Award; here’s Jo Walton enthusing about it:

Wild Life is the story of Charlotte, a Victorian writer of romantic adventures and mother of five, who sets off into the wilderness in search of a lost child and finds something stranger than she could have imagined. (I don’t want to tell you what, because I don’t want to spoil it.) The way the story is written, with diary entries intercut with newspaper cuttings, fragments from Charlotte’s stories, and vignettes of the interior lives of other characters, leads you forward over an abyss you don’t know is there. It’s moving, it’s effective, and it would be a very good book even without that. Charlotte’s early feminism, her rebellious bicycle riding, her fiction deeply influenced by H. Rider Haggard, her ways of coping with her housekeeper and the neighbour who wants to marry her would be enough. I’d have enjoyed the book if that’s all there was to it, a historical perspective on the Pacific North West and logging and nineteenth century independent women. But there is more, and that lifts it from a good book into something altogether astonishing.

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber cover

Nominated for just about everything going when it was published — Hugo, Nebula, Philip K Dick, Locus, Tiptree — Nalo Hopkinson’s second novel is an act of vivid and original world-creation, as Gary K Wolfe described in Locus:

Hopkinson, however, reminds us that most of the world does not speak contemporary American middle class vernacular, and never has. Instead, she adapts the convention of unchanging language to her own variety of Caribbeanized Creole, so that the characters in her indefinitely distant future — the planet Toussaint has already been colonized for two centuries when the novel begins — still say things like “It ain’t have no doux-doux here” while sprinkling their speech with references to “dimension veils” and “nanomites”. The resulting dissonance is only one of Hopkinson’s techniques for making us question the hegemony of American culture in SF worlds, but it’s the most immediately striking. And when the heroine Tan-Tan and her father Antonio are exiled to the low-tech prison planet of New Half-Way Tree after he kills a rival in what was supposed to be a non-fatal duel, we find ourselves in an even more distinctively non-Wester environment that calls to mind both aspects of West African folklore and Caribbean folklore (in the culture of its human inhabitants) and of Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest” (in the cultures of its native species).

6 Responses to “The Ones That Got Away”

  1. Martin Says:

    Following on from a conversation yesterday, has Nalo Hopkinson ever been published in the UK? I hope Jo Fletcher is reading these threads…

  2. Niall Says:

    I don’t think so, but now I’m all unsure of myself!

  3. Farah Mendlesohn Says:

    None of Nalo’s novels are published in the UK. One story was published by the SFF in Foundation 100.

  4. Joe Sherry Says:

    It’s probably been ten years since I’ve read it and so I’m not quite sure how I really feel about the book, but Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin probably would have been under consideration.

  5. Kiolia Says:

    I was /wondering/ if anybody else had really heard of Ash! It’s not perfect, but it’s basically just as Clute described in that extract, and I’ve always been at a loss for why so few people seem to have heard of it.

  6. Farah Mendlesohn Says:

    Kiolia: part of the problem with Ash is that it was published as a single volume in the UK–where it is well known and admired–and mutiple vols in the US, where it just disappeared.


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