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Clarke Award 2012: in review

The Guardian’s Robert McCrum recently expressed concern that literary awards were becoming more about gossip than about actual books. Whether or not he’s right about that, McCrum is certainly correct to highlight the value of awards in creating focal points for discussion. As I know first-hand, talking about and comparing a given set of books can be a tremendously stimulating and rewarding experience – but it helps if the books are worth discussing in the first place.

And, on that note, let’s turn to the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. This is the third year I’ve read the full Clarke list and, I have to say, it’s a dispiritingly bland selection this time around. Anyone looking for the cutting edge of UK science fiction publishing – or even just literary excellence – is not going to find it on this list. It frustrates me when I think of the eligible novels I’ve read which are better than any of the shortlisted titles; and the gems I haven’t read which must be out there.

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There’s usually one obviously weak candidate to be struck off the shortlist first; but this year I’m spoilt for choice, which is not a pleasant situation to be in. After due consideration, I think I’m going to hand the wooden spoon to The End Specialist by Drew Magary. This is a novel which fails on just about every level, right down to being a thriller that doesn’t thrill; it’s pedestrianly written, parochial when it purports not to be, ineffective as both a character study and an exploration of a world without ageing… I could go on, but the book really doesn’t deserve more words.

I could do with two wooden spoons, really, because there’s barely a difference in quality between the Magary and The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper. This is the book which has been most comprehensively disliked by just about everyone I know who’s been reading the shortlist (see Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review, for instance). Leaving aside issues of its genre, the Tepper shares many of The End Specialist’s faults – weak writing, poor plotting, questionable morality – but I think its ideas are marginally more interesting. That’s the only reason The Waters Rising isn’t out of the balloon first.

Now on to Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, which, unlike the previous two novels, at least achieves a baseline level of competence. Bear’s mystery-thriller-space-opera is decently written, reasonably diverting – and, as far as I can see, has nothing to distinguish it from the many other competent-but-unremarkable science fiction novels out there. We’re now halfway through the shortlist, and we still haven’t come to a book which, in my eyes, has any claim to be on it.

I don’t really want Embassytown to win the Clarke; it’s nowhere near China Miéville’s best work, and – well, frankly, it’s the closest I have ever come to being bored by a Miéville book. I have to acknowledge that, compared to the three novels I’ve already covered, Embassytown is a much better written, constructed, and more ambitious work – indeed, it’s probably the most conceptually ambitious novel on the shortlist – but I think it’s ultimately too dry and abstract to be successful. Better Miéville than one of the previous three, yes – but, better still, one of the remaining two.

Rule 34 by Charles Stross has its flaws – its exposition is at times overdone; its police-procedural plot doesn’t quite cohere – but, of all the books on the shortlist, it is the one which feels most engaged with the present and the near future. The world it depicts is intriguing and compelling; the issues it raises demand serious consideration; and the prose, at its best, is snappy and sharp. This novel does the sorts of things that good science fiction should be doing.

That leaves The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, which I think is a very well-realised study of its teenage protagonist and, in its own way, one of the more challenging shortlisted works. This may be the most successfully achieved of the novels on the list, but it’s also rather narrow in its focus. So it’s quite a fine line between this and the Stross, which trades a little polish for a broader scope; I’d be happy enough for either The Testament or Rule 34 to win. But the thing is that books like these two should really be the bread and butter of the Clarke shortlist, not its centrepiece.

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That’s what I’d like to win, but what may actually take the Clarke? Having been through the Fantasy Clarke panel at Eastercon, I have a better idea of the kinds of discussions which might have taken place between the judges, and I’m fairly sure that the Bear and Tepper are too generic to survive the judging process. The Magary may do (though I hope is doesn’t): there’s an energy to its telling that may – along with whatever the judges must perforce have seen in the novel that I don’t – carry it through. The Rogers may not last long in the judging (though I hope it does) – its narrow focus may prove the book’s undoing, depending on how the judges weight that against its craft. The Miéville will almost certainly be a contender, and is enough of an all-rounder that it might even win. The Stross is difficult to call, though I suspect it will survive in the judging process for quite some time, possibly to the very end. We’ll find out when the winner is announced on Wednesday.

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (2010)

When I think about what I want from a literary award shortlist, a selection of excellent books is of course a must; but I’d also like to see books that, once read, feel essential – selections that mean you’ll have missed out if you don’t read them. In Hull Zero Three, the Clarke judges have chosen something different: a decent-enough novel that nobody needs to read.

A man, who comes to be known as ‘Teacher’, wakes (with no memory) from his induced hibernation to discover that his dream of having travelled across the stars to a new planet has not become reality. On the contrary, Teacher finds himself aboard a cold, dark, and largely deserted spacecraft (called simply ‘Ship’)  – deserted, that is, but for the monstrous creatures which threaten to do away with him; and the handful of survivors who might help him figure out what has happened.

As a mystery-thriller-in-space, Hull Zero Three works well enough. True, its prose rarely rises above the level of straightforward functionality; but the aesthetic that creates is entirely appropriate for the stark geometry of Ship and claustrophobic focus of the novel (tellingly, I think, those scenes where the prose does move into a more poetic register tend not to be set in the fictional present). The pacing is fine, and Greg Bear is a sufficiently canny science fiction writer that his plot twists and resolution are interesting.

But the mystery is all in Hull Zero Three, and the novel can’t move beyond the limitations that creates. There’s not much room for characterisation, nor to really explore the moral issues raised by the situation. And, even though Bear’s narrative moves along at a fair old clip, three hundred pages still feels rather long for what it is.

Hull Zero Three is a novel that can sit happily on bookstore shelves and be pointed to as evidence that solid reads are still being produced in the science fiction genre. But, if you never took it down from the shelf to read it, you would be none the worse off. It’s a book that passes the time, but I can’t get at all excited about it; that’s not the kind of work I want to see on the Clarke shortlist.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2012: The Shortlist

For the second year running, I’ve predicted only a third of the Clarke Award shortlist. Here are this year’s contenders:

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)

Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)

China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone)

Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)

Sheri S. Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

(The titles above will become review links as I work my way through the shortlist.)

It’s customary, on first seeing a shortlist, to rue the absence of certain titles – I’ll name Christopher Priest’s The Islanders as the big genre name I expected to be there; Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys as the book I wanted to be shortlisted because I loved it; and Lavie Tidhar’s Osama as the talked-about genre title I was looking forward to reading – but what of the actual shortlisted books?

It’s no surprise to see China Miéville shortlisted for the Clarke when he has an eligible title, and Embassytown is his most unambiguously science-fictional work yet. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if it won (which would give Miéville his fourth Clarke win), but I found Embassytown rather dry to read, and can’t see it as a sure-fire winner.

There are no other previous winners on this year’s shortlist, but Sheri S. Tepper has been nominated for the Clarke three times previously, in 1997, 1998,and most recently in 2009 for The Margarets. I tried to read that book at the time, but didn’t get along with it; The Waters Rising, though, is sequel to a novel I’ve long wanted to read – 1993’s A Plague of Angels – so we’ll see.

Greg Bear has been shortlisted twice previously, in 1987 and 2004. Like Tepper, I think of him as a writer whose heyday was in the 1980s and ‘90s; but the premise of Hull Zero Three – the voyage of a generation starship goes badly awry, and it falls to the survivors to work out what happened – sounds intriguing enough. I’m less sure that it sounds like the premise of an award-winning science fiction novel, though.

Charles Stross has received one previous Clarke nomination, in 2006. I’ve not read him before, but Rule 34 – a near-future thriller concerning an investigation into the murders of several spammers – has been well-received, and it is probably the book on the shortlist to which I’m looking forward to reading the most.

Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb is this year’s non-genre contender. It was, of course, longlisted for the Booker last year, and has been rather well-liked in sf circles; however, I don’t know that what I’ve heard about it convinces me that it was the best mainstream-published sf novel of 2011. Still, I have been intending to read this book for ages, and now I will finally be doing so.

Which leaves Drew Magary’s The End Specialist as the least-known quantity on the shortlist for me. From my researches, I can tell you that it’s a debut novel, a thriller set in a future where a treatment has been developed to halt ageing, and there have been a range of reactions to the book. The synopsis wouldn’t move me to read The End Specialist, but if its Clarke nod means I’m introduced to an enjoyable book, that’ll be great.

I must own to being less excited about reading this year’s Clarke shortlist than I have been in the last couple of years. The Miéville is far from being its author’s best work. Bear and Tepper would not spring to my mind as authors who might be producing cutting-edge science fiction in 2012, though Stross probably would. The Magary doesn’t sound like anything special; and the Rogers, good though it may be (and strange though it seems to say about a book from such an obscure publisher), feels like the most obvious choice for a non-genre title.

My main sense at the moment is of wells untapped – I can’t help but wonder about the other debuts that were eligible, the other mainstream-published titles, the other books by established names. But I am always open to having my preconceptions overturned, and I very much hope that will happen with this year’s shortlist; there is a lot of overturning to be done.

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