MonthMarch 2010

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2010: The shortlist

The shortlist of the 2010 Clarke Award (for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2009) has been announced. The six nominees are:

Gwyneth Jones, Spirit

China Miéville, The City & the City

Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream

Marcel Theroux, Far North

Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls

This is an interesting mix of books. I plan to read and review the entire shortlist (I’ve read three already; reviews are linked above, as will the others be), so I’ll have more to say as time goes on, but here’s an initial reaction:

The book I’m most pleased to see on there is Yellow Blue Tibia.  It has met with mixed reactions, but I found it a stunning read. The City & the City is a novel which has generated much debate, and is very much open to interpretation (perhaps more so than any of Miéville’s previous works); I like it, but I don’t think it quite works. I didn’t like Galileo’s Dream as much, but I know there’s more to it than I was able to see.

As for the three books I’ve not read: I had a feeling that Spirit might make the shortlist, as I’ve heard some very good things about it. I don’t know much about the other two titles: I’ve read one of Chris Wooding’s previous books , and thought it good (albeit not great), but I’ve not read Marcel Theroux at all.

Overall, from what I know of these six books, I would say this a nicely varied list — varied in terms of settings, types of sf, and approaches, and in the mixture of well-known and lesser-known names. I look forward to reading the complete shortlist, and finding out who will win.

UPDATE, 26th Apr: Round-up post

Second UPDATE, 29th Apr: The winner

Alastair Reynolds, Terminal World (2010)

It’s more-or-less exactly a year since I read an Alastair Reynolds novel for the first time, and now here I am, looking at his latest book. Once again, I had a great time reading him – though I can’t shake the feeling I like the idea of Terminal World (and here I’m referring to the underlying structure of the story, rather than the novel’s setting, which is a fine creation) more than I like how that idea plays out in actuality.

At some point in the future, after even the word ‘science’ has been forgotten by many, there is Spearpoint, a giant vertical city divided into ‘zones’, each of which, by some quirk of reality, has a limit to the technology that will function within its boundaries; the further up you go, the more advanced is the technology that becomes feasible. Passing through a zone boundary places great strain on a human body, and ‘antizonal’ drugs are needed for survival (though they’re not a panacea; they just mean you don’t die as quickly).

In the zone of Neon Heights (whose level of technology is equivalent to that of a couple of decades or so before our time), an angel (highly advanced human, that is) falls from the levels above, and is taken to the district pathologist, Quillon. This apparent accident has been engineered just to get a message to Quillon; the pathologist is himself an angel, who was modified to see if the human zones could be infiltrated – and now the angels are coming after him.

In short order, Quillon is given a female bodyguard/courier, Meroka; covertly escorted from Spearpoint; and sets off across the lawless face of Earth to the safety of another human settlement. Capture, intrigue, rescue and discovery all ensue.

The thing that struck me first of all about Terminal World was that Reynolds is a great writer of pace; especially at the beginning, he keeps the plot moving with merciless efficiency. Unfortunately, the pace flags a bit towards the middle, though it does crank up again towards the end. I also found the characterisation rather sketchy (Meroka, for example, never seemed to me to become much more than a ‘tough female bodyguard’, and Quillon felt too much like someone the story happens to, rather than a fully rounded character).

But… Reynolds does something particularly interesting in this novel, which is to take a world with a puzzle at its centre (i.e. what happened to create the zones?) and make that puzzle a tangent to the main story. In other words, this isn’t a straightforward tale of Uncovering the Secret of the World – but, you know, that’s not to say it doesn’t happen… As I said at the beginning, I like the idea of this technique, but I’m not sure how well the mix actually works; in a way, it seems to work against the forward momentum of the story. Still, despite these reservations, I enjoyed Terminal World; it’s a good read.

Alastair Reynolds’s website

TV Book Club: The Silver Linings Play Book

So, that was the first series of The TV Book Club, and it has been rather a mixed bag. The series was notable, partly for being a programme about books (of which there are very few on British television), but also for being a continuation of the highly influential Richard & Judy Book Club. Although it improved as it went along (certainly compared to the first episode, which, let’s be honest, was a mess), I don’t think the show ever quite lived up to what it could have been.

The format stayed essentially the same throughout the series: a short interview with the guest celebrity panellist; a filmed ‘non-fiction’ item; an interview with the author of a title chosen in previous years, examining what has happened to them since; and discussion of the week’s choice, after a short filmed interview with the writer. All these elements have had their ups and downs: the panellist interviews were better when the guest was talking about the books they liked, rather than their own book, or something else entirely (a more diverse range of guests would also have been welcome). The ‘book club stories’ always struck me as rather too much like trumpet-blowing (though some of the authors’ comments were interesting), and the non-fiction items were often just too frivolous for their own good.

The discussion of the weekly choice is the centrepiece of the programme, yet even this has been variable – indeed, for the first week or so, it seemed almost an afterthought to the interview with the guest panellist. Some, however, have been rather good (taking into account that there’s obviously a limit to what can be covered in eight or ten minutes): for example, I thought this week’s discussion of The Silver Linings Play Book was quite robust, with some lively debate.

But I think the greatest weakness of The TV Book Club – something which was carried through to the very end – is an apparent reluctance to engage seriously with its material. Whether it was generally superficial discussion, or a tendency to undercut serious points with a quip, it seemed to me that the show was uncomfortable with saying substantial things about books. And it needn’t be – discussion can be intelligent without being forbidding or abstruse, and, in my view, book programmes should assume that’s what their audience wants. The TV Book Club was at its best when it was making substantial points.

I like the idea of a reader-focused book programme, but, for all its improvements, The TV Book Club still has some way to go. I hope its creases can be ironed out in time for its return in the summer.

Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Play Book (2008)

Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Play Book is the final choice for the current series of The TV Book Club. The last time I opted to read one of their choices, I made a good call, with Liz Jensen’s excellent The Rapture; this time, however, it wasn’t such a good call.

We meet Pat Peoples just as he’s about to be released from a psychiatric unit (the ‘bad place’, as he calls it) to move back in with his family. Pat believes his life is a movie directed by God, and that every cloud must have its silver lining. He’s lost track of time in the hospital, and can’t even remember why he was admitted – but Pat looks forward to the end of ‘apart time’, when he’ll finally be able to go back to his wife, Nikki. In the meantime, Pat finds himself gaining the attention of Tiffany, a friend’s sister; he tries to ward her off, but perhaps he should be doing the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong: when The Silver Linings Play Book is at its best, it’s very good – but there’s something that stopped me getting along with it fully, and it took me a while to put my finger on exactly what that something was. It’s partly the somewhat-naive tone Quick uses for Pat’s narrative voice, which does create his character well – and is particularly effective when the calmness of that tone acts as a counterpoint (almost a mask) to Pat’s periodic outbursts, reminding us that he’s still in a fragile state – but gets annoying after a while. It’s also that the novel seems content to amble along for about half its length before really getting going. Most of all, perhaps, it’s that I just didn’t find the book as touching as it tries to be.

So, The Silver Linings Play Book is okay, and rather better than okay in places, but, overall, I found it unsatisfying.

Matthew Quick’s website

Emily Mackie, And This is True (2010)

Emily Mackie’s first novel takes us into the mind of Nevis Gow, which is not the most comfortable place to be. When we meet him, Nevis is fifteen and, for the past eleven years, has lived on the road with his father, Marshall, a teacher-turned-writer (Nevis’s mother – whom the boy doesn’t remember – left Marshall for another man). Now, their van has been involved in an accident, and it seems the pair’s travels are at an end. They’ve been staying on a farm in the Scottish Highlands with the Kerrs: Nigel, the farmer, who’s coping with the death of his wife, Caroline; Nigel’s son, Colin (nicknamed ‘Duckman’); Colin’s cousin, Ailsa; and her mother, Elspeth. Nevis has been struggling to adjust to this static existence, because he doesn’t like all these people muscling in  on his relationship with Marshall; you see, over the years, Nevis has grown rather too close to his father – in fact, he’s in love with Marshall.

And This is True is a character study that gains its affect from the interplay of two themes. The first of these is the way in which Nevis’s psyche has been shaped his life so far. It’s not just that his feelings for his father lead Nevis to do things (like stealing kisses when Marshall is asleep) that seem normal to him but less so to us. It’s also that Nevis has grown to have certain expectations of how life is going to be, and he struggles to cope when those expectations aren’t met – and to notice everything that’s going on around him.

The second theme concerns memory and truth. The text of the novel is Nevis Gow’s attempt to sort out his memories of what happened on the farm, whilst being only too aware that a memory isn’t necessarily ‘what really happened’, and trying to follow his father’s advice on how to write a good story, even when he finds that life won’t quite fit that model. Nevis discovers that maybe not everything he remembers is accurate, which, I suppose, leaves him in a quandary – if his past is as uncertain as his present seems to be, what does that mean for Nevis’s future?

The best passages in And This is True are simply stunning, when Mackie lays bare the pressures that Nevis is under. But there’s hope in there, too – the hope of journeys continuing. It ends on just the right note; the end, that is, of a fine debut.

Interview with Emily Mackie (

Black Static 15: Daniel Kaysen, ‘Babylon’s Burning’

A relatively short piece in which the narrator, a poetry translator named Daniel, reluctantly goes along with his brother to a party at the International Security firm where the latter works. This organisation worships ‘the Gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood’, and it seems those gods answer back. Whilst at the party, Daniel discovers that he has a gift for prophecy, and is offered a position at the company; he doesn’t want to accept, but the temptation may be too great…

I’m undecided about ‘Babylon’s Burning’. On the one hand, Kaysen’s writing is great (though the short paragraphs don’t always allow it to flourish); on the other, I don’t find the story particularly interesting (and the biblical coding of the names feels gimmicky to me in a story so short, where it doesn’t have room to blend in). I really don’t know which side of the fence to come down on, so… I’ll stay in the middle.

Index of my Black Static 15 posts

Suzanne Bugler, This Perfect World (2010)

At the age of thirty-six, Laura Hamley lives the life of a stereotypical ‘yummy mummy’ — married to a successful lawyer, attractive children, yoga classes, paninis and air-kissing and dinner parties with friends. She has attained an aspirational dream of the times, but a phone call threatens to dredge up her past. The caller is Violet Partridge, whose daughter, Heddy, went to school with Laura. Heddy has been placed in a psychiatric institution, and Violet wants to get her released; perhaps Laura, being married to a lawyer, could help? There’s a very good reason, however, why Laura doesn’t want to get involved: she hated — and bullied — Heddy at school; but, try as she might, Laura can’t seem to extricate herself from the situation.

This Perfect World (Suzanne Bugler’s first adult novel, following two YA books) is a sharp character study. Bugler paints Laura as someone who’s only too aware of the artificiality of the world in which she lives (‘Do any of [her friends] have a skeleton rattling around in their cupboard? […] We meet, we chat, we think that we are the dearest of friends, but we all keep our cupboard doors firmly shut’ [41]), but clings on to it regardless, for fear of where she might be otherwise — the world she came from, as exemplified by Heddy and Violet Partridge.

I think Bugler spells out Laura’s view of her current life rather too much — it becomes clear enough in quite subtle ways, and we don’t really need (for example) Laura to reflect ruefully on her vow never to become like The Stepford Wives, because we’ve already understood the point. This is a collective problem, however; individually, Bugler’s observations are incisive and striking.

The author also establishes some effective parallels within her narrative. As far as Laura is concerned, Heddy Partridge is a blank screen on which to project her memories; she remembers what she did to her, but has never thought about Heddy as a person in her own right — what matters is that Heddy was, and is, the polar opposite of Laura. So, when Laura learns from Violet that Heddy has been cutting herself — like Laura did as a girl (because that’s what her friends did) — she has to consider the uncomfortable possibility that she’s closer to Heddy than she thought.

Bugler also skilfully portrays Laura’s adult social world — with its social conventions, and boundaries of speech and action that you don’t cross — as being every bit as mired in politics and snap judgements as was the playground. Laura’s discontent with her life bubbles under throughout, eventually bubbling over — and the result is a fine novel that stays in the mind afterwards.

Black Static 15: Alan Scott Laney, ‘Maximum Darkness’

A debut story now, and one that,unfortunately, misses the mark for me. ‘Maximum Darkness’ is the tale of  twenty-two-year-old Robin Parker, who has become plagued by visions — he sees auras of light and shadow around people. He doesn’t understand what they are, but remembers reading a story once about something similar; if he could only find the book it was in…

The problem with this story is that the real turmoil in Robin’s mind doesn’t come across strongly enough. We know that he’s deeply disturbed by his visions, but we’re watching him react to them from a distance, rather than experiencing them with him — and, because we’re not so invested in Robin’s experiences, it becomes harder tio empathise with him. ‘Maximum Darkness’ ends up as okay, but nothing more.

Index of my Black Static 15 posts

Black Static 15: Simon Kurt Unsworth, ‘The Knitted Child’

A young woman suffers a miscarriage, and her grandmother knits her a doll to replace the child she lost. It’s no ordinary gift, though, because the old woman has magic, and her doll is sentient — but it has no way to communicate.

This is such a beautiful story. For a start, Unsworth’s prose has the rhythm of classic storytelling — one imagines ‘The Knitted Child’ being great read aloud. The tale as a whole is a highly evocative portrait of grief, made perhaps all the more so because we see much of the story from the knitted child’s viewpoint; so, we experience not only the family’s heartbreak, but also the doll’s frustration and sadness at not being able to act — at not being able to be in reality the child that it wants to be in its mind.

‘The Knitted Child was the first of Simon Unsworth’s stories that I’d read; it will not be the last.

Simon Kurt Unsworth’s blog
Index of my Black Static 15 posts

Black Static 15: James Cooper, ‘Eight Small Men’

It never ceases to fascinate me how different people can have such different views of the same story. As an example, Des Lewis liked James Cooper’s ‘Eight Small Men’ very much, whilst Jonathan McCalmont didn’t. I’m somewhere in the mddle of those two views, though falling more on the negative side.

Cooper’s narrator is Victor Farnsworth, who is visiting his dying foster father, Aubrey Bunce. The bulk of the story takes place a quarter-century earlier, when Victor and his older brother Franklyn lived with Aubrey, and Aubrey’s wife Edith (whom the boys called ‘the Matron’) and son Edwin (nicknamed Roach). The Matron’s household rules are strict and her punishments draconian; Roach gets his share of the latter, and in turn bullies the Farnsworth brothers — until, after one incident, tragedy strikes.

The key issue I have with ‘Eight Small Men’ is that, to me, it doesn’t manage to evoke the emotions underlying its events at the deep level which is necessary for the greatest effect. When I read about the treatment meted out to the boys, I reacted with disgust, as one would expect — but the feeling of what that was really like to the characters involved didn’t radiate from the page. Similarly, Victor’s major psychological transformation is portrayed ‘at a distance’, so its affect is weaker than it might otherwise be.

I also haven’t yet come to a satisfactory interpretation of the tale’s supernatural overtones (to which the title refers, though I won’t dwell on that). An iffy start to this issue of Black Static, then, but there are still four stories to go.

James Cooper’s website
Index of my Black Static 15 posts

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