Monday, April 28, 2008

Arthur C Clarke Shortlist

For once, I've read the whole shortlist for The Arthur C. Clarke Award before the Award is announced (on Wednesday). The nearest I've got before to this was in 2004, where I'd managed to read all but two (which, as it turned out, included the winner). It would have been nice if I'd managed to do this before appearing on the Not the Clarkes panel at Eastercon, but at least I'd read a substantial proportion of all the novels by then, even if I hadn't finished three.

As usual, the shortlist has created controversy, with impositions of narratives upon the jury process on flimsy evidence, and noted omissions. I remain surprised at the absence of Ian McDonald's terrific Brasyl. I haven't read the other notable absentee, Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, so can't really comment; but my partner has read it, and didn't like it much. But as I said on the panel, one of the things to note is that 2007 was a great year for science fiction, and picking just six novels must have been a hard task for the jury.

Matthew de Abaitua, The Red Men. I read the first hundred pages of this at a rush, and as a result, did the novel a bit of a disservice. I couldn't see what it was trying to say, or what the point of the exercise was. It is a little better than that. But, unfortunately, not much. That Snowbooks are too cheap to employ copy editors should not be held against the novel, but in the end its tale of AI copies of people and robots is the sort of thing Charlie Stross does in his sleep. There's nothing The Red Men does that other books on the shortlist don't do better. It most deserves the charge Abigail Nussbaum hurls (unfairly, I think) at the shortlist as a whole, of being not very interesting. I can't see why this is on the shortlist and Brasyl isn't. And I have no idea what the cover quote, "Makes Michel Houellebecq seem like Enid Blyton", actually means.

Steven Baxter, The H-Bomb Girl. There has been a lot of talk about this as a Young Adult novel. I have to say, thinking about it, I'm not sure whether it will connect that well with Young Adults, because they might not understand the world it depicts. I wasn't alive at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I did live at a time when two heavily-armed superpowers were staring at each other across Europe, and with a feeling that, sooner or later, things would deteriorate to such a point that nuclear war would happen. This was how people saw the world at the time of the TV film Threads (which has heavily influenced Baxter's picture of a post-nuclear Britain), and how the world was until Mikhail Gorbachev's meeting with Ronald Reagan at Reykjavik in late 1986. I'm not sure anyone under 30 can connect with that. But let's leave that aside. This is the best writing from Baxter that I've read since Voyage (admittedly, I've not read everything he's written in that period, but I have seen a representative sample). Everything that annoys me about the use of history in the Time's Tapestry series he gets right here. I'm not even irritated by John Lennon, resistance hero. It helps enormously that Baxter, if not actually writing about his own teenage years, is writing about a time he lived through, and where he grew up. I enjoyed this enormously.

Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army. This has been often compared to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and one can see why. There is the same notion of an anti-feminist dystopia, in which women have no rights over their own reproductive processes. But it's very English as well. It has the same sense of place as to be found in Alan Garner (I could easily picture where the novel is set). There's also more than a hint of John Wyndham's "cosy catastrophes". I also admire the way Hall constructs her narrative presentation in order to skip over the boring bits (and I have realized from a comment somewhere else in the blogosphere that the framing device employed is, like the historical section at the end of 1984, a means of signalling that this oppression will not last). It's very well-written (and refreshingly short), but in the end it's just not quite as good as two other novels on the shortlist.

Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts. I quite liked this. As with The Red Men, it reads like a mainstream author toying with sf tropes (and that'll get me in trouble again, no doubt). But it's interesting, if perhaps inconsequential. There 's a definite sense of menace, even if a lot of it comes from slyly-acknowledged lifts from Jaws. And just when the length is getting a bit much, there's a fifty page flipbook.

Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel. This begins as the novel one might expect from MacLeod, a direct response to the War on Terror and contemporary politics. As such it is well-written and passionate, picking up themes that have been in his writing ever since the first Fall Revolution novel. Then, halfway through, he pulls the rug out from under the reader, with a section that shows this is not quite the novel that was expected. Then, at the end, he does it again, with a spectacular sf twist. When you think back, your realize that all the pieces to accomplish this trick have been in plain sight all the time; we were just misdirected. This is what makes a good novel into a glorious novel.

Richard Morgan, Black Man.
My heart sank when I picked this up and realized it was 600-plus pages long. There is a certain point at which sheer length can become oppressive in itself, and, as Mark Plummer wrote in a recent Banana Wings of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, any judgment of the quality of the novel is lost under a sheer desire for it to be over. In truth, Black Man is okay. But it's a technothriller in the Tom Clancy mould (and I bet I get in trouble again for saying that as well); a good example of the genre, beyond doubt, but I don't get much real sense of pushing back the boundaries, except in one section where a Hollywood action version of this plot would have copped out, and Morgan, to his credit, doesn't. But does this outweigh what Graham Sleight identified as being Morgan having his cake and eating it; the hero and his ilk are genetically-modified throwbacks to traits that were eliminated to allow us to live in civilized communities, and everyone in the novel says we should be glad those traits have gone - yet he is the hero, gets all the girls, and is generally presented as admirable.

Two of these novels I found highly enjoyable experiences, rather than just reasonably good, the Baxter and the MacLeod. Of those, I would like to see The Execution Channel win. And that, I must emphasize, would be my opinion even if Brasyl was on the shortlist. But the ending of MacLeod's novel divides its readers - some love it (such as me), some hate it. So I can see, if role-playing a jury (as we did at Eastercon), that a compromise candidate might emerge, in which case I would expect it to be the Baxter, which few people can object to (though Abigail Nussbaum does). I wouldn't be unhappy with that. I'd be less happy if The Carhullan Army won, but could live with it. If The Red Men wins I will be at the head of the queue to call the jury wrongheads.


Emma Barnes said...

Sorry you feel like that, Tony.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

the historical section at the end of 1984, a means of signalling that this oppression will not last

I think you mean The Handmaid's Tale again there.

I think there's more to Black Man than just the high octane thriller. Though I agree that there is an element of having your cake and eating it about a novel that questions the ultra-male ethos while reveling in the exploits of such a person, I think that by the end of it the book manages that balancing act handily, and ends up being a novel with a great deal to say.

Tony Keen said...


No, I definitely mean 1984. There was a piece in The Guardian some years back (which I think may have been an extract from the introduction to a new Penguin edition) that argued strongly for the idea that the appendix on Newspeak writes as if Newspeak is a historical phenomenon, giving a note of hope at the end of the novel. The 'recovery' of documents from the Authority in The Carhullan Army serves the same function.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Huh. Did my copy of 1984 have an appendix? I'm suddenly not sure. At any rate, so does The Handmaid's Tale, though it explicitly states that Gilead fell whereas the ending of The Carhullan Army is, at best, ambiguous.

Tony Keen said...

Which makes the comparison to 1984 more apposite, as that is also ambiguous, where Atwood is explicit.