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Clarke Award 2011: in review

When it was first announced, I speculated that we had a very strong Clarke Award shortlist this year, with no duds. Now that I’ve read the list entirely, I regret to say it is not so; the book I want to jettison first, Tim Powers’ Declare, falls squarely into the please-oh-please-anything-but-this category. To explain why I think it shouldn’t win, I could suggest that the thought of a ten-year-old book winning the Clarke, technically eligible though it may be, strikes me as rather odd. I could also suggest that Declare shouldn’t win because it is science fiction by only the most tenuous of definitions. But I don’t have to do either of those in the end, because Declare puts itself out of the running for me simply by being a poor novel. True, there is some interest, some effective pieces of fantastication, in its hybrid of fantasy and Cold War spy thriller; but all that is buried in far too much clumsily-deployed research which thickens the narrative until it becomes unpalatably stodgy. I really don’t see that Declare merits a place on the Clarke shortlist, let alone the top spot.

Although I’ve read all six shortlisted titles, there are two I had hoped to re-read before the Clarke announcement. I haven’t had, and won’t now get, the opportunity to do so, which means I’ll have to rely on my original impressions for those books, which are the next two I’d remove from consideration. I didn’t quite know what to make of Tricia Sullivan’s Lightbornwhen I read it last year; though I liked the book and remain glad to have read it, there were aspects of it, large and small, that I couldn’t puzzle out (the decision to set it in an alternate present rather than the future, to name just one). The Torque Control discussion of Lightborn suggested to me that Sullivan’s novel was riffing off quite a few things that were outside my sphere of knowledge, so it might well be the case that I’m missing the key that would otherwise unlock the book for me. But I don’t think Lightborn comes together well enough to win the Clarke, and my sense is that knowing more about the novel’s  reference points wouldn’t change that opinion drastically, so out of the balloon it goes.

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness is the only title here which I didn’t really read with a critical eye. I loved The Knife of Never Letting Go when I read it in 2009; read the sequel  later that year, and, though I liked it,  didn’t think it quite as successful and did not review it; then read this final volume of Chaos Walking towards the end of last year, not expecting to write about it. That makes my opinion of Monsters of Men more tentative than those of the other books; for what it’s worth, my impression of the novel is that it has the same narrative energy and brilliant use of voice as its predecessors – and that it creates a stronger sense of otherness than any other book on the shortlist – but it doesn’t have the thematic depth of The Knife of Never Letting Go. I’ll acknowledge that I may be seriously misjudging Monsters of Men here, but I would take it out of contention at this point.

Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City is a fine portrait of a place, namely a version of Johannesburg in which those who have transgressed (the exact criteria for which are unknown) gain an animal familiar and a special ability. Whatever impression that description might give, though, Zoo City is the least overtly fantastical work on the shortlist; Beukes is far less concerned with displaying the fantastical phenomenon than with examining the world that has emerged from it, and she does that latter superbly. The ending is the novel’s weak point, but the journey to that point is strong enough to make up for it. I’m pretty sure that Lauren Beukes will win the Clarke one year, but I don’t think it will be this year – simply because two books on the shortlist are even better.

Now it gets really difficult. Generosity by Richard Powers is in many ways a wonderful book, with its examination of the intersection between science, humanity, and stories (in a neat example of how artificial is the divide between sf and ‘mainstream’ fiction, Generosity is the only mainstream-published title on the shortlist, yet also the most overtly ‘scientific’), and its exploration of ethics, as a woman has to decide whether to sell her genes, which may hold the secret to human happiness. Generosity contains some beautiful writing, and leaves one with a great deal to think over. It would surely be a worthy Clarke winner, yet the story is not quite as strong as the themes, and there’s another book in which it is

So, finally, to The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. In its portrait of a near-future Istanbul, it has a brilliant sense of place, like Zoo City; in its examination of systems beneath and beyond the world as experienced in individual lives, it has a thematic richness like that of Generosity. But both aspects of The Dervish House are richer than those of the other books; and McDonald’s novel combines them with a stronger narrative and better prose. The Dervish House is a superlative novel, the fullest achievement on the Clarke shortlist. Whilst I’d be happy enough to see any of the books bar Declare take the Award – whilst all five of those novels are worth reading – it’s ian McDonald whose novel I think most deserves the Clarke, and his name which I hope will be read out at the ceremony next Wednesday.

Further Clarke shortlist round-ups (to be expanded as I come across them):
Niall Harrison
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons: Part 1; Part 2.

Richard Powers, Generosity (2009)

Russell Stone is a washed-up writer making ends meet by teaching a ‘Journal and Journey’ class to a group of art students at a Chicago college. One member of that group stands out because of her remarkable personality: Thassadit Amzwar is a young woman from Algeria who is apparently happy all the time; nothing seems to bother her, and people are naturally attracted to her sunny disposition. Even after everything she has experienced in her life, Thassa remains in perpetual good humour; Russell speaks to Candace Weld, one of the college’s counsellors, who can only conclude that nothing is wrong, and Thassa is just a naturally happy person. At the same time, we read about Thomas Kurton, a biotechnologist with an evangelical zeal for his work in the field of genetics. Kurton’s current project is to isolate the genetic basis for happiness; when he hears about Thassa, he invites her to participate in his study – and soon she becomes public knowledge.

Generosity has a number of concerns, but the one that’s most prominent to me is stories. The novel is full of then: the creative nonfiction taught by Russell makes a story out of one’s life; media reporting makes a story out of science; science itself makes a story out of the stuff of the universe. The characters are presented to us through filters of story: we first encounter Thomas Kurton as a talking head in a science documentary; and there are frequent asides from the narrator (whose identity is unclear; it may be Richard Powers himself, or perhaps Russell Stone, or the science broadcaster Tonia Schiff, or someone else entirely) which emphasise the fictional nature of what we’re reading. The effect of this is to suggest that reality is mutable: our conceptions of the world change with the telling, and there is no escaping the web of story, however much we might think otherwise (some of the most effective passages in the book show this in action, describing the spread of information in an age when the boundary between public and private has all but dissolved).

This leads into another of Generosity’s main themes, which has to do with the ethics of science and its reporting. Powers is more concerned with dramatising questions than providing answers, and paints a complex picture: is it unethical for Thassa to profit from her genes, if it means that she can improve her family’s lot to a degree that would otherwise be impossible? When Kurton makes a song and dance in the media over his company’s research, is he feeding the flames of hype, or just doing what he has to do to get noticed in that day and age? Such issues never quite lose their shades of grey in the book, as characters are shown to both benefit and lose out from the choices they make.

I’ve been thinking about the characterisation in Generosity for some time, particularly that of Thassa. For one so charismatic with by definition an extraordinary personality, she comes across on the page as remarkably unremarkable – I never felt Thassa’s charisma when reading about her. At first, I considered this a problem, because generally I want to experience characters’ traits, rather than just read about them. But now I tend to think it’s a way of showing how this aspect of her character can be a space that other people fill in their own way; there’s a striking scene where Thassa makes an impassioned speech that spreads all over the internet, but we witness its detail only through the online reactions and imitations. Of the other characters, I found the depiction of Russell Stone particularly vivid; in some ways, he is the opposite of Thassa – where her personality faces naturally outwards, his turns inwards (when we first meet him on the train to work, Russell is described as being ‘dressed for being overlooked’). Over the course of the novel, Powers traces the (fairly complex) development of Russell’s character, as he becomes less withdrawn, but without shaking off his doubts.

Generosity leaves one with much to think about in a variety of areas, from ethical issues in science to the effects on people of being caught up in scientific change; from the place of story in the world to the effects of contemporary communication methods. Recommended.

Richard Powers website
Generosity reviewed elsewhere: Paul Kincaid for Strange Horizons; Just William’s Luck; Word Travels; David Loftus for the California Literary Review.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2011: The Shortlist

The speculation was fun (though I was only a third right), but now the real journey begins, as this year’s Clarke Award shortlist has been announced. It’s a fascinating and exciting list:

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (Angry Robot)

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (Gollancz)

Patrick Ness, Monsters of Men (Walker)

Richard Powers, Generosity (Atlantic)

Tim Powers, Declare (Corvus)

Tricia Sullivan, Lightborn (Orbit)

(Links above are to reviews of mine.)

Some general thoughts: I’m glad that sf by women has made such a strong showing on the list. It’s good to see such a diversity of publishers, and I like that four of the authors are first-time Clarke nominees. It’s also an interesting combination of nationalities (four American writers, one from the UK, one from South Africa).

I’ve said all along that The Dervish House was a dead cert for the shortlist, and so it has proved, giving McDonald his fourth Clarke nomination (though he has never won). It’s also no surprise (in a good way!) to see Zoo City and Lightborn nominated – both fine sf titles from last year; Lauren Beukes gets her first Clarke nod, and Tricia Sullivan her third (one of which led to a win, for Dreaming in Smoke in 1999).

The other three novels on the list are perhaps more unusual nominees, and therefore deserve a little more introduction here. Monsters of Men is the third volume in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, which – rarely for the Clarke Award – is YA fiction. Regardless of this, the Chaos Walking books are well worth the time of adult readers; it’s a pleasure to see this excellent series gaining such recognition.

Richard Powers is an author who has been on the barest fringes of my consciousness; I’m not even sure whether or not he is routinely identified as a writer of science fiction (not that it matters, of course). Generosity, in which the genetic basis for happiness is discovered, sounds interesting; and Paul Kincaid’s glowing review at Strange Horizons makes me even keener to read the novel.

Declare is probably the most surprising novel on the shortlist, because it dates from as far back as 2000. Tim Powers has been out of print in this country for many years, but his alternate-world Cold War spy novel finally received its first British publication last year, which made it eligible for the Clarke. It comes with a strong reputation (it won the World Fantasy Award, for one thing), and I very much look forward to reading it.


On a personal note, the shortlist presents me with ‘interesting’ questions over how to blog it, because I’ve read four of the books but only actually reviewed two of them. Zoo City and The Dervish House are already written up, and linked to above. Generosity and Declare are new to me, so those books will be my priority. And the other two…

I took part in the Torque Control discussion on Lightborn last December, and it was clear to me at the time that I lacked the frame of reference to do the novel justice. I probably still don’t have the frame of reference, but I would be interested to return to Lightborn in light of the discussion, and see what more I can find.

I’ve read all three of the Chaos Walking books, but only reviewed The Knife of Never Letting Go because, though I liked the later volumes, I didn’t feel I had enough to say about them. At this stage, I honestly don’t know whether I will revisit Monsters of Men, as these are all pretty hefty tomes, and I don’t know whether I’ll have time for all of them. We shall see.


Finally, some thoughts on the shortlist as a whole. The overall quality of the list strikes me as very high indeed. If I wanted to demonstrate to someone the vibrancy, vitality and quality of sf as a literary form, I could hand them the books on this shortlist. I also think that – perhaps more so than is usual for a Clarke shortlist – these books go well together as a set; I think we’ll find some interesting commonalities and contrasts to discuss amongst them. I look forward to seeing how those discussions unfold as we count down to the announcement of the winner on 27th April.

UPDATE, 28th April: Read my thoughts on the winner here.

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