CategoryBeckett Chris

Clarke Award 2013: And the winner is…

Quite a belated announcement at this point, but this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award went to Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. Not the result I had predicted, but that’s the Clarke for you.

All congratulations to Chris Beckett, who’s a writer I think deserves to be much more widely read. I didn’t get around to reviewing Dark Eden properly, so instead let me point you to some of my previous reviews of Beckett’s work: I’ve written about his Edge Hill Prize-winning collection The Turing Test (and did a guest post for Gav Pugh’s blog on the title story); and I considered his novel The Holy Machine (in a double review with Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys).

Clarke Award 2013: in review

I find the Clarke Award difficult to call this year, in terms of both what I think might win, and the order of personal preference in which I’d place the place the books. I think there are a number of books on the shortlist which are very close in quality, and they’re so different that they become hard to separate. But that’s no reason not to have a go, so let’s line the books up and whittle them down…

***

First out of the balloon this year is Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars – which is actually not as harsh a judgment on the book as it might seem. In the few years that I’ve been reading the whole Clarke shortlist, the titles I’ve thought weakest have ranged from OK to downright awful – but The Dog Stars is pretty decent. It has issues with plotting, and its treatment of female characters, but it’s also wonderfully written. My greatest problem with Heller’s novel as a Clarke contender, though, is that I can’t help feeling it would be stronger without its speculative content.

With reluctance, I’ve reached the conclusion that Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 just isn’t my type. I enjoyed Galileo’s Dream a few years back (admittedly some aspects more than others); but 2312’s panoramic view of a terraformed and colonised solar system didn’t engage me to nearly the same extent. I found Robinson’s prose beautiful at times (some of the best scientific writing I’ve come across in a work of fiction for a long time), but other parts of the book left me feeling indifferent. I must acknowledge that I’m not ina position to be able to form a proper view on 2312; but, on the basis that I enjoyed the remaining books on the shortlist more, it’s my second title to go.

Chris Beckett is one of my favourite contemporary science fiction writers, someone I always feel is serious about using sf to explore particular issues. Dark Eden is not quite Beckett at his best, but it’s an interesting piece of work nonetheless. It tells the tale of an abandoned colonists on a distant world, who have made rituals out of the wait for three of their number to return from Earth with help. Beckett is efficient and effective at showing how the colonists’ language, thoughts and behaviours have been altered by their isolation. I also appreciate the way he examines not only the desire for change (the novel centres on a teenage colonist who wants to break away from the others’ ritualistic existence), but also the need to keep going once a great change has been made. I like Dark Eden, but I don’t think it reaches as far as the remaining books on the shortlist, so I’m discarding it next.

If I were to rank these six novels purely by my enjoyment of the reading experience, Nod by Adrian Barnes would top the list – but is that enough to make me think it should win the Clarke? I like Nod’s nervy energy; I think it does interesting things with the form of apocalyptic fiction; and it shares with Dark Eden an interest in how mythologies may develop. But Nod also has its shortcomings: its portrayal of female characters is problematic (to say the least); it puts all its eggs in one basket, and gleefully throws the basket at the reader’s window. When I look at the two other novels left, I see fewer flaws and broader achievements, and I think those qualities make them more worthy of the Clarke than Nod.

There is no doubt in my mind that Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker is a showstopper, probably the most theatrical book on the shortlist. It has linguistic fireworks, grand imagination, and an underlying vein of seriousness to balance out its more playful aspects. Angelmaker has broad ambitions, and pretty much achieves them, even when they might seem contradictory. There’s a lot to recommend about Harkaway’s novel, and I think it would be a worthy Clarke winner – but for me it is just edged out by the last contender…

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod works on a smaller canvas than Angelmaker, and is a much quieter book. But it has a concentrated vision of a society stifled by prohibitions, ruled by a government afraid of anything it can’t label; and it uses very well the idea of seemingly innocuous details coming together in unexpected ways. It’s the completeness of vision – and the sharpness of observation and exploration of vision – that brings Intrusion to the top of the Clarke shortlist for me.

***

How about a guess at which novel will actually win? I don’t think my ordering here is going to be the same as the judges’ – I doubt that Nod will survive as long in their process, and I’m certain that 2312 will end up higher on their list than I placed it. But I do suspect that The Dog Stars will be shown the door early on, and that Dark Eden will be overshadowed by some of the other books. I’d expect the final tussle for the winner’s mantle to be between two of Angelmaker, 2312 and Intrusion  – and my instinct is to plump for Angelmaker as the likely winner. But maybe I’m barking entirely up the wrong tree; whatever, the winning title will be announced on Wednesday.

A selection of 2011 favourites

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying the festive season. Now it’s time for my annual look back on my favourite reads of the year. I’m going to split 2011’s list in two: six books from this year, six published in previous years. The lists are in alphabetical order of author surname, and all links will take you to my reviews.

Without further ado, then, here are six of my favourite books that received their first UK publication in 2011:

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love fantasy with structural elegance, and this book has it: it’s the tale of a girl who can taste the feelings of whoever made her food (and hence detects trouble in her family’s relationships); what I like most is that it works equally as well whether you read the protagonist’s ability literally or metaphorically.

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking

Certainly the best-designed book I read in 2011 (it comes in a flip-top box made to resemble a packet of cigarettes, this is also a fine set of stories which use smoking as a metaphor in various ways; I look forward eagerly to Evers’ debut novel next year.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

Variations on the tale of Bluebeard, embedded in the broader narrative of a writer and his muse, who is rather less imaginary than she appears. The sheer range of Mr Fox is impressive, but it’s a great read to boot.

Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country

The idea of a novel written as a ramblers’ guide might seem gimmicky, but what makes this book work is the way Segnit uses the structure as a means of characterisation: the protagonist’s wife has left him, and the walking-guide format is set against a more novelistic style as the narrator tries to keep a hold on his world.

Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation

A fascinating psychological portrait of a pilot who’s recovered from an air crash, only to find that his girlfriend has disappeared.  Williams brilliantly plays creeping personal fears of decline and loss against grander horrors, and asks which is truly the most frightening.

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

A superb portrait of a divergent England ruled by the Church, where members of the Secular Movement have been exiled to a nearby island. Wood creates a vivid sense of place and character, and a subtle sense of how isolation has changed the Islanders’ ideas about faith.

***

And now half a dozen from previous years:

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine

A translator in the world’s only atheist city-state falls in love with one of the city’s lifelike robots; when a new law raises the possibility that the android’s personality will be erased, the pair are forced to flee. Becektt’s complex examination of science, religion, and what it means to be human makes an interesting comparison with The Godless Boys, which I read in tandem with this.

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History

A wide-ranging and perceptive history of the British post-war road system. If that sounds dry, I can only emphasise that it’s quite the opposite, as Moran spins gold from such an everyday topic.

Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance

Another book which turns the ordinary into something more, this time in the form of short stories which reveal the significance of ostensibly mundane events to the people involved in them.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical

The single best book of short stories I read in 2011. Shearman combines the unremarkable and the fantastic to brilliant effect in a collection whose main subject is love, seen from various angles.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The story of how cancer cells taken from a poor African American woman played a vital part in modern medicine, though for twenty years her family didn’t even know a sample had been taken. Though this is a fascinating tale in its own right, Skloot’s orchestration of her material makes it all the more so.

Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook

I didn’t know what to expect from this story of a police officer going off the rails, and it utterly blew me away. One of the best written books I’ve read all year, one of the sharpest character-portraits… I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.

***

So that’s my dozen picks from the reading year. What books have you most enjoyed?

Faith, Love, and Hatred: Chris Beckett and Naomi Wood

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine (2004)
Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys (2011)

The two books I’m discussing today revolve around small atheist communities in worlds dominated by religious belief. Though they take their stories in different directions, both examine what kind of role faith may play in someone’s life (and what may fill a similar role in its absence), and offer fascinating studies of characters caught at the intersection of faith and non-belief.

Chris Beckett’s 2004 debut The Holy Machine is narrated by George Simling, a translator in the Balkan city-state of Illyria, a nation founded on the principles of rationalism after the rest of the world was taken over by religious extremists. George’s only company is his mother Ruth, a former scientist who has retreated from the world and now spends most of her time in the virtual reality of SenSpace. As a result, for all the material comforts in his life, George is missing true human contact (‘I spoke eight languages fluently, but I had no one to talk to and nothing to say’, p. 3).

George finds himself getting involved in radical groups who feel that, in its hard-line take on rationalism, Illyria is becoming as oppressive a place as the world’s fundamentalist states (and, indeed, the Illyrian government begins to persecute its foreign ‘guestworkers’ purely because they are uneducated). But even this does not provide him with what his is seeking; instead, George falls in love with Lucy, a syntec (a robot designed to be indistinguishable from a human) programmed for sex. Slowly, Lucy is becoming self-aware, and when the authorities announce plans to reprogram syntecs every six months to prevent their going out of control, George decides that he must escape from Illyria with the robot, even though syntecs are considered blasphemous (and therefore to be destroyed) in the outside world.

The Holy Machine examines several complex issues, and refuses to draw neat conclusions about them. One such issue is the relative merits of religion and science, and Beckett creates no simple opposition between the two; I’ve already described how Illyria is shown to be pretty much as intolerant and repressive as the religious nations of the book, but the issue is also explored through the character of George Simling himself. George is not religious, and his conversations with some of the believers he meets show how shaky the foundations of their beliefs really are. Yet George’s reaction to Lucy has a similarly flimsy basis, and his journey through the world beyond Illyria increasingly takes on the character of a pilgrimage, as he searches for the ‘Holy Machine’ of the title, a robot which is said to have a soul. ‘You’re actually just like an Illyrian atheist!’ George shouts at one priest. ‘You look at the appearance and not at what’s inside!’ (p. 221) Neither faith nor rationalism can entirely give George what he is looking for, but aspects of both are important to him.

Another key question posed by Beckett’s novel is that of just what it is that makes us human. The whole way in which George falls in love (or believes he does) and decides to run away with Lucy is clearly impulsive; he knows that Lucy is really an ‘it’ rather than a ‘she’, that the syntec will never belong to the natural world however much it comes to comprehend – but he can’t bring himself to admit this, and becomes shocked and angry when forced to confront the fact of Lucy’s mechanical nature. Contrasting with this, we have the character of Ruth Simling, who in a sense is the opposite of Lucy; whilst the syntec is a machine which at least appears to be turning more human, Ruth is a human merging with a machine – she spends so much time in SenSpace that her body wastes away and her consciousness has to be wired directly into the virtual reality. What is it, then, that makes characters human in The Holy Machine? Body? Sentience? The ‘human spirit’ championed by George’s radical associates? The question is left open.

By novel’s end, the principal characters have found a peace of sorts, and George might even have filled the gap he felt in his life. A search with a more concrete objective provides the impetus for Naomi Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys. The Church gained political power over its alternate England in 1950, and a series of riots led to members of the Secular Movement being sent to ‘the Island’, where they and their children now live in isolation. The Malades, a gang of boys born and bred on the Island, have taken it upon themselves to root out any English spies or believers; they’ll attack the houses and persons of anyone they suspect.

In the last week of November 1986, a girl named Sarah Wicks stows away on the last boat of the year bringing supplies from England; she intends to find her mother Laura, who was involved in a church-burning ten years previously, and may have been deported to the Island. Sarah is discovered by Nathaniel Malraux, one of the Malades, who falls in love with her, and tries to keep her existence a secret from his fellow gang-members; inevitably, though, he can’t do so forever.

Wood creates a wonderful sense of place in her novel. Cut off from the technological advances of England, the Island feels like a community out of time, one that’s almost hermetic (an impression reinforced by the fact that we don’t actually see life on the mainland, nor even hear mention of the other countries in our British Isles). It’s a community where the glorious optimism of independence has been replaced by inertia (‘Now the Islanders were free to do what they wanted, and they did very little,’ p. 189). Wood evokes the drabness of this place through the detail in her prose; and her careful use of dialect words (all the Islanders speak a north-eastern dialect; as a rebellion that would have been at least as much political as religious, the Secular Movement appears to have been a largely regional phenomenon) also goes a long way towards constructing the novel’s atmosphere, in a nicely subtle way.

The issue of religious faith itself impinges on The Godless Boys in a different way than on The Holy Machine; we see much of Wood’s novel through the eyes of characters who don’t truly understand what religion is, but they do know that their parents were against it; for those young people, it’s as much a political issue as anything, or even a matter of tradition. Nathaniel emphasises to the Malades the importance of knowing their history (‘You have to go [to the Island’s museum] often…so you can ken your past…You’ve got to go so you can understand who you are,’ p. 17); but one of his fellow young Islanders, Eliza Michalka, finds the letters INRI in the Island’s ruined church, and doesn’t know what it signifies.

The only truly religious character in the novel is John Verger, one of the original exiles, who later found God whilst wandering through the remains of the very church he helped to burn down. Verger’s faith is shown to be a guiding hand and source of comfort in his life, which is elastic enough to hold, whatever the circumstances. To the Malades, in contrast, what religion really represents is the opposite of the wild freedom offered by the Island; as one of them, Jakob Lawrence, reflects:

Jake had felt sick when he’d first seen these paintings of Christ. To be so coddled, he thought, with blurry distaste, to be so watched, was as abhorrent to him as his rare imaginings of what went on in England, with its damp and girlish God, and its feeble, pandering folk. (p. 209)

As with The Holy Machine, there are pairs of characters who may be seen as opposites: Sarah comes to the Island in search of answers; Eliza yearns to leave it for the life that she wants. Nathaniel’s love for Sarah and fondness for John Verger (who brought his parents together) leads him to feel conflicted over the gang’s activities; Jake, on the other hand, takes a much firmer stance. All these matters come to a head in the finale of The Godless Boys, which is brilliantly tense.

Both Wood and Beckett create worlds through which their characters negotiate with some difficulty. Some find their way, others don’t; some get what they wanted, others don’t even know what that is. It all makes, though, for a pair of very interesting and compelling novels.

Links

The Holy Machine
Chris Beckett’s website
An extract from the novel at Infinity Plus.
Other reviews: Michael Levy for Strange Horizons; Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman; Paul Graham Raven at Velcro City Tourist Board.

The Godless Boys
An extract from the novel at Litro.
Metro interview with Naomi Wood.
Other reviews: Harry Slater for Libri Populous; Karen McCandless for Bookmunch; Mary Fitzgerald for The Observer.

Chris Beckett’s ‘The Turing Test’: a guest post on NextRead

Gav Pugh of the NextRead blog devoted last month to posts about short stories. He published a number of guest reviews during the month, and was kind enough to accept one of mine. I decided to go back to Chris Beckett’s collection The Turing Test (which I reviewed here last year), and look at the title story in more detail.

My review of ‘The Turing Test’ is here, and you can read the story itself here. While you’re at NextRead, be sure to check out the other Short Story Month posts; there’s quite a variety of stuff covered in them. My thanks to Gav for posting my review, and for highlighting short fiction in this way.

Chris Beckett, ‘Johnny’s New Job’ (2010)

Chris Beckett’s professional background is in social work, and (he says in his guest editorial) he was inspired to write ‘Johnny’s New Job’ by reactions to the Baby P case. In Beckett’s story, a girl’s ‘wicked stepfather’ leaves her to die down a well. This is judged to be the fault of Welfare, and a Welfare Officer is denounced in public by the Chief Accuser. A crowd of people (including the titular Johnny) is soon out for the Welfare Officer’s blood — and so events move inexorably on…

As a satire on kneejerk reactions, the flow of this story may not be too difficult to anticipate — but I suspect that’s rather the point. Beckett constructs his tale as a kind of larger-than-life fable: many characters are identified en masse or by role, rather than by name, so they come to represent more than just individuals (and even Johnny is something of an everyman), and the telling has a folk-tale quality about it. ‘Johnny’s New Job’ is swift, sharp, and very good indeed.

Links
Chris Beckett’s website
My review of The Turing Test, Beckett’s Edge Hill Prize-winning collection

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

The Turing Test by Chris Beckett (2008)

4102ooW3sWL._SL160_AA115_Earlier this month, the winner was announced of the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The shortlist included collections by a Booker Prize-winning author, and two former Booker nominees — and this Elastic Press book of science fiction stories by Chris Beckett. A classic case of tokenism, one might think — except that Beckett won.

‘It was…a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand,’ commented one of the judging panel. Well, the obvious thing to say to that is that you don’t need to consider yourself a ‘science fiction fan’ to appreciate science fiction, any more than you have to be a ‘literary fiction fan’ to enjoy literary fiction (not, of course, that the two need be mutually exclusive). Readers interested in good fiction shouldn’t be surprised to find stories of interest in any given quarter — but apparently some still are.

Anyway, I don’t know the other books, but it’s not hard to see why the judges thought The Turing Test a winning book, because Beckett’s stories are superb. He’s especially good at examining human concerns against the background of a science-fictional future. The title story sums this up nicely. The ‘Turing test’ refers to a means of assessing whether an artificial intelligence is convincing enough in conversation to be indistinguishable from a human being. Our protagonist is a gallery owner named Jessica, who finds herself the recipient of a highly sophisticated ‘virtual PA’. Jessica is feeling rather insecure with life (one of her first acts is to ask the PA to change its avatar to something less attractive, and hence less threatening to her self-esteem), and the real question Beckett asks is not whether a computer could pass the Turing test, but whether a person could — perhaps Jessica’s greatest fear is that she could not.

The theme of artificial intelligence returns in ‘La Macchina’, where a man finds his ideas about robots challenged when he vists his brother in Italy. Robots are now commonplace, but they’re not supposed to talk to humans, except in superficial, rote ways — so when one tries to strike up a friendly conversation with our man, does that alone make it a ‘Rogue’ that could cause havoc, and hence needs to be destroyed? Then there’s the ‘Safe Brothel’ staffed by sinteticas made to look indistinguishable from human women — but sinteticas are more popular, so some human women pretend to be robots. What’s the protagonist to make of that? All adds up to a very different kind of robot story; the experience of reading it is distinctive.

The same could be said of many stories here; Beckett transforms SF staples with the ‘ordinary’ grounding he gives them. ‘Dark Eden’, for example, is a space opera where a small group of people travel to an exotic world — but the ups-and-downs of their relationships are not so different from ours. And ‘The Marriage of Sky and Sea’ puts yet another spin on the form with its tale of a spacefaring writer who makes a living from books about the cultures of more ‘primitive’  human colonies than his own — but his latest trip, to a Viking-style society, makes him question his attitude…

My favourite story in the book (which forms the first half of a pair) is about virtual reality, though with Beckett’s characteristic twist. ‘The Perimeter’ is set in a London where the vast majority of people are ‘consensuals’, living in a virtual world; and the more they can afford to pay, the higher their resolution. Only a few, very rich, individuals remain flesh and blood, inhabiting the ruined ‘real’ world, and able to experience the virtual reality through an implant. This story tells of how young consensual Lemmy meets the physical Clarissa Fall, and has his very sense of self challenged. But the tables are turned in ‘Piccadilly Circus’, where we meet Clarissa again a few years later, and she has to face up to her increasing irrelevance as a ‘physical’. To my mind, these stories — and ‘The Perimeter’ especially — have the best fusion of ideas and human consequences; but many of the other tales are almost as strong.

In his introduction to The Turing Test, Alastair Reynolds makes what has turned out to be a very appropriate comment: that he hopes the book will bring more attention to Chris Beckett’s fiction. He ends by saying, ‘I’m confident that you’ll finish The Turing Test wanting to turn more people on to this singularly underrated writer.’ So I’ll end by saying: yes. Yes, I do.

© 2019 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: