CategoryPowers Tim

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.

Links
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.

Tim Powers, Declare (2000/1)

For many years, Tim Powers’ work has largely been out of print in the UK, but that began to change in 2010, when Corvus gave Powers’s novel Declare its first UK edition, which quirk of publishing explains how a ten-year-old book ended up as a contender for the Clarke Award. It felt a little odd to see Declare so nominated, but I was optimistic because I’d read and liked a couple of Powers’ novels previously; Declare won the World Fantasy Award, which I’ve generally found a reliable indicator of good fiction; and the Clarke judges had made fine selections elsewhere in the shortlist. I pretty much took it for granted that we had six strong nominees this year.

Well, now I’ll have to eat those words, because I simply cannot see that this book stands up to any of the other shortlisted titles.

One of the hallmarks of Tim Powers’ fiction is the taking the fantastic and slotting it into the gaps in reality to create an alternative and hidden history of the world; in Declare, the author does this against the background of the Cold War. In 1963, a British former (or so he thought) spy named Andrew Hale is reactivated to complete Operation Declare, the previously failed mission to attack the djinns of Mount Ararat.

Declare is a very long book – 560 B-format pages of close-set type in the edition I have – and the key problem it has is being overly stiff with research for much of that length.  Overall, I find it a very slow read (not ideal for a book which is part spy thriller), because so much detail is crammed in at the expense of pacing. Actually, come to that, the general stodginess of Declare makes it difficult to appreciate most other aspects of the novel. For example, there’s a proper sense of otherworldliness in some of the scenes featuring djinns (made particularly interesting by the matter-of-fact tone of delivery), but the impact is diluted by all the less effective surrounding material – the more conventionally ‘spy-thrillerish’ sequences don’t work nearly as well for me.

Perhaps if I knew more about, or were more interested in, the details of Kim Philby’s life (around which Powers has constructed the supernatural framework of his novel) – or if I’d read John Le Carré – I might appreciate more of what Powers is doing in the book. But it does seem to me that Declare is too content to assume that sort of interest on the part of its readers, rather than trying to generate it – hence the profusion on detail.

It’s been a while since I read Last Call and The Drawing of the Dark, but I don’t remember their being a chore to read; Declare, on the other hand, was just that.

Elsewhere
Tim Powers website

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.

Tim Powers, ‘Parallel Lines’ (2010)

Caroleen Erlich reaches her seventy-third birthday, her first without her twin sister BeeVee. But it looks as though BeeVee may turn out to be as domineering in death as she was in life, because she’s writing out messages with Caroleen’s right hand. I like the way this is introduced and handled – Powers’ down-to-earth treatment gives the idea a freshness –but I don’t think the ending lives up to the promise of that beginning.

Rating: ***½

Elsewhere
‘The Works of Tim Powers’ website

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