CategoryHeller Peter

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…

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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.

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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.

“Took the end of the world to make us kings for a day”

Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (2012)

Why write about the end of the world? I suppose one of the attractions, for some writers at least, must be the capacity to strip the world back to its bare bones, and focus all on the subjects one wants to explore. These thoughts crossed my mind on reading Peter Heller’s first novel, because The Dog Stars leans so far towards certain issues that the book as a whole gets pushed out of shape.

It is the near future, after a vaguely defined pandemic  that did away with most of the people, and a side-order of climate change that (it seems) did away with much of the wildlife (Heller is sketchy on exactly what happened, but the point is that it was the end of the world). Our narrator, Hig, is one of the small number of humans who were immune to the sickness and are now eking out a living as best they can. Hig’s sole companions are Jasper, his ageing dog; a little Cessna aircraft that he nicknames the Beast; and Bruce Bangley, the only other human for miles around. There’s not much to be done beyond surviving, as other people invariably tend to be hostile, and hence need to be dealt with before they deal with HIg and Bangley. But the loneliness gets to Hig, and eventually he is driven to jump in the Beast to see what, or who, may be out there.

Hig’s narrative voice is what keeps The Dog Stars together: the spare, weary voice of someone resigned to the possibility that there may be nothing left worth saying, but who feels compelled to carry on speaking as it keeps the silence at bay. Hig feels guilty because he survived when his wife Melissa did not – and because he was the one who helped her through death’s door when she asked. In contrast with the much more hard-headed survivalist Bangley, Hig would be happiest just spending time fishing and flying; but Bangley’s disdain for such “Recreating” is hard to ignore. The gulf between the two men is underlined by a sequence where Hig attacks a drinks truck for its bounty and thinks he’s done well – until Bangley tears his pride to shreds by pointing out all his careless mistakes.

If the novel were just Hig, Bangley, and Hig’s introspection, I suspect that The Dog Stars would be a perfectly decent read. But there’s a world beyond them, and I’m with Nina Allan in thinking that Heller falters whenever he turns his focus towards that outer world. I’m willing to overlook the sketchy background, because the foreground interests me more (though it seems odd for hostility to be the norm amongst the survivors when there appears to be enough food and other natural resources to go round). But I can’t ignore the issues with plotting (the closing encounter is far too silly); or the way that Cima, the only living female character, is objectified and generally exists only to serve as an adjunct to Hig.

But perhaps my most nagging doubt over Heller’s book is the thought that it doesn’t really need its post-apocalyptic setting, and might even be better off without it. Hig remarks on the first page:

The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah. The titmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove. Sad but. Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water. (p. 3)

This is the sticking point: Hig pines for his wife and his trout. He’s not so completely self-absorbed that he dismisses the wider world; but his personal losses are far more important to him than any broader ones. As a result, the novel doesn’t feel nearly as emotionally invested in its end-of-the-world elements as it is in Hig’s personal reflections. Despite its flaws, The Dog Stars is not a bad portrait of someone coming to terms with loss and finding a way to move on. But add in everything else, and the book just unbalances.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts on this year’s Award.

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