Tag: Arthur C. Clarke Award

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2011)

They called it MDS – Maternal Death Syndrome. No one knew where it originated, but its effects were all too familiar: to lay waste to the brains of any women who became pregnant – with no possible exceptions, because everyone carries the disease. Jessie Lamb is a teenager living near Manchester; though her father is a fertility scientist, she has little care for the state of the world – as far as she’s concerned, this is just the way things are, and any problems are for adults to deal with.

But then, through a friend, Jessie gets involved in Youth For Independence (YOFI), a movement centred on the idea that young people must repair the damage to the world which adults have caused:

[…]maybe, if we could get enough people to join us, trying to create a different way of living on the planet, maybe that in itself would start to produce an answer to MDS. A solution we couldn’t even imagine yet. (p. 29)

There’s a touch of wishful thinking in Jessie’s thought process, here; and she soon leaves YOFI when the reality doesn’t match up to what she’d hoped. But there’s also a strong desire to do something to help; and, though none of the other protest groups which spring up in the wake of MDS is attractive to Jessie, she never loses that desire.

Jessie finally believes she has found the thing she can do when she hears about the Sleeping Beauties: girls who have volunteered to be placed into a coma so they can bring to term frozen embryos which can then receive a new vaccine against MDS (frozen embryos alone can be vaccinated because they don’t carry the disease). Jessie’s father is quite enthusiastic about the prospects of this programme initially, but soon changes his tune when his daughter declares her intention to volunteer – so much so that he holds her captive to stop her; that’s where we first meet Jessie, and where she’s writing the text we hold, which is her attempt to explain herself.

The whole world might be in the grip of an epidemic in The Testament of Jessie Lamb, but the focus is decidedly intimate. Jane Rogers seems to signal this near the near the beginning of the novel, when she has Jessie and her friend Sal imagine what would happen in a world without humans – the implication being that this playful speculation is as far as the book is going to go down that particular avenue. Likewise, though there’s social unrest in The Testament, it all takes place ‘off-stage’ or on TV news reports. This novel is about Jessie, her relationships, and the decision she wants to make.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a novel that challenges its readers to see things from its protagonist’s point of view. In the end, I can’t quite do this: I can see where Jessie is coming from – for her, it’s about having the power to do something that makes a difference, even if adults think that difference is too insignificant for the price that must be paid – and Rogers charts the course of Jessie’s thoughts clearly. But I still feel as though I’m viewing Jessie’s thought process as an outside observer, rather than truly inhabiting it. Be that as it may, The Testament is unforgiving in its treatment of hard consequences and decisions; it has the courage of its convictions and, for that, firmly deserves to be read.

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

Jane Rogers’ website
The publisher, Sandstone Press
Booker Prize interview with Rogers
Some other reviews of The Testament of Jessie Lamb: Niall Harrison for Strange Horizons; Aishwarya Subramanian at Practically Marzipan; Richard Palmer at Solar Bridge; Sophie Playle for MouthLondon.

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.

A guess (not a prediction) at the Clarke Award shortlist: 2012 edition

So, this year’s list of Clarke Award submissions is out, and a number of things immediately strike me about it. One is the number of eligible books that aren’t there. Last year’s pool of submissions felt fairly comprehensive to me; this year’s, despite being a longer list, feels less so. Admittedly I’ve paid more attention to what’s eligible for this year’s Clarke: I compiled a list of mainstream-published science fiction last year; if you add on the additional titles mentioned in the comments (and disregard the one I got wrong!), only two were submitted for the Clarke. That leaves at least a dozen mainstream-published sf novels that weren’t even submitted (my list was by no means exhaustive), and no doubt a fair number of genre-published titles weren’t either (Niall Harrison suggests a few in his post).

Of course, the Clarke submissions pool was never going to be entirely comprehensive, and sixty books is plenty enough for the judges to read and construct a decent shortlist. There would also have been no small amount of discussion over eligibility this year: there seems to be an unusually high number of submissions that fall outside the science fiction box (even by my own inclusive standards). Some of these (like Grimwood’s The Fallen Blade, or Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox) are clearly fantasy; but others are more ambiguous: Nicholas Royle’s Regicide (for example) doesn’t sound like sf – and I wouldn’t expect a book by hm to be sf – but I can’t be sure of that. The same goes for plenty more on the submissions list.

This makes trying to predict the shortlist all the more difficult, because there’s every chance that one of these borderline titles may be good enough – and sf-nal enough – to make the cut (it’s worth remembering that two of last year’s shortlisted titles – including the eventual winner – were just such borderline novels). And then, as Niall pointed out to me on Twitter this morning, there are the core science fiction titles which have so far garnered relatively little attention. With so many unknown quantities, how do I begin to guess what might be shortlisted for the Clarke?

Well, I’ll start where I always do: with the high-profile genre releases that feel like sure-fire Clarke material. This year, that’s China Miéville’s Embassytown (the closest thing to science fiction he’s yet written), and Christopher Priest’s The Islanders (a major return by a very significant author). I don’t think these books are their authors’ best work, but neither can I conceive that they’d be omitted from the Clarke shortlist.

Priest and Miéville are previous Clarke winners, and two others have had works submitted, so I need to consider whether they might be shortlisted. What I know of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde suggests that it falls far enough towards the thriller end of the thriller-sf continuum that I have my doubts. Ian R. MacLeod’s Wake Up and Dream is almost certainly a very fine book, but MacLeod doesn’t feel like a shoo-in for the shortlist in the way that Miéville and Priest do.

There are a number of sequels among the submissions and, whilst it’s not unheard-of for such titles to make it (Monsters of Men did last year, of course), I don’t think that will happen this time. Sophia McDougall’s Savage City is my guess at the most likely such candidate, but I’m going to leave sequels out of my guess.

Adam Roberts is a genre author I’d usually turn to as a Clarke contender, and here I can actually consider a book from a position of knowledge. I think By Light Alone is good, but not quite up there with Roberts’s previous two novels (and I haven’t been able to put my thoughts on it in order, hence no review from me as yet), so I’m inclined to discount it.

So far, I’ve mainly been ruling books out; which can I nominate in the affirmative? There’s one more genre sf title which has really stood out for me in terms of its positive coverage, and that is Osama by Lavie Tidhar. It sounds to me like a Clarke contender, so I’m going to put it on my list.

Turning to mainstream-published works, I must include The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood in my selection, because I think it’s a great book, and I want the Clarke to recognise it, and for it to be read more widely among the sf community. It’s the novel that, overall, I most want to be shortlisted for this year’s Clarke Award.

Staying with non-genre titles, I’d agree with Niall that Colson Whitehead’s Zone One sounds like the sort of book that might get shortlisted for the Clarke, and it has had enough positive reviews that I’m of a mind to include it.

Which leaves me with one vacant slot, and I’m not sure where to go with it. I don’t want to take a wild guess at a book, so I’ll play it relatively safe, and suggest Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which of course gained its attention from being longlisted for the Booker.

So, my guess at the Clarke shortlist is:

ChinaMiéville, Embassytown

Christopher Priest, The Islanders

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

Lavie Tidhar, Osama

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

I’m not calling this a prediction, because I don’t really think I’ll be right – and, indeed, in a way I hope I’m wrong, because I would like to be surprised by one (or more) of those borderline books. As to whether I will be, that will have to wait until the Clarke shortlist is announced at the end of March.

The Clarke Award and posterity

Last Friday, Adam Roberts posted a thought-provoking blog piece on literary awards, taking in the Man Booker Prize, the British Fantasy Awards, and more besides (do check it out if you’ve not read it). One of Adam’s key points is that it’s important for the selections made by awards to be able to stand the test of time; I was interested to see how successfully that happens, so I’m going to look at some award-winners and see how posterity has treated them. I’ll be concentrating on the Arthur C. Clarke Award, as that’s the one I feel in the best position to consider.

This is not about whether the books are good so much as how history seems to have judged them from the viewpoint of me as someone with a reasonably good knowledge (though not an expert knowledge) of fantastic fiction. I’ll be rating each Clarke winner for posterity using the following scale:

5 stars – an acknowledged and enduring classic, or the pinnacle of a distinguished career.

4 stars – a very important book, or a likely classic-in-the-making.

3 stars – a moderately significant novel, or a newer work whose long-term importance is still unclear.

2 stars – a book which has evidently not been treated well by posterity.

1 star – a work which has largely been forgotten.

I’ll try to be as objective as I can (but of course that is not going to be entirely possible). Here goes…

Continue reading

Science fiction in the mainstream: Clarke Award contenders

Two things struck me during a recent Twitter discussion on favourites for next year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. The first was that relatively few genre names came to mind; a few Clarke stalwarts were mentioned — China Miéville, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Neal Stephenson — but only enough to be a very small proportion of the 50-60 books which make up a typical list of submissions for the award (and it’s not even certain that the relevant books by all the writers I’ve named above will qualify as sf).

The second thing that struck me was that the number of mainstream-published novels which could be read as science fiction is rather high this year. ‘You should do a blog post!’ said Martin Lewis; so here is a list of those titles I know about (note that I haven’t read them all, so I’m going purely on the synopsis in some cases).

David Almond, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean

The first adult novel by children’s author Almond (Skellig) is a dystopian story narrated by young Billy in his own vernacular. With its manner of telling, comparisons with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy may well ensue.

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

A near-future tale of gangsters, set in a fictitious part of Ireland. Seems to be gaining acclaim for its prose style in particular.

Marius Brill, How to Forget

A magician with a murky past becomes involved in an experiment on memory which may allow him to forget the things he can’t help but remember. The potential is there for this to be reminiscent of Richard Powers’ Generosity from last year’s Clarke shortlist (albeit of course with different subject matter).

[EDIT: I’m wrong! How to Forget isn’t actually science-fictional at all.]

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Probably the best-known book on this list. I felt the novel was good, but no more than that; and only tenuously justifiable as science fiction — but, then again, I did find its sf content rather effective. My instinct is that Goon Squad is not a likely Clarke nominee, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Benjamin Hale, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

The memoir of a chimpanzee who acquires human language and intelligence. A very long book which seems to have attracted relatively little attention, but I’ve seen some very positive commentary.

Sam Leith, The Coincidence Engine

Interesting developments come to the attention of the ‘Directorate of the Extremely Improbable’, beginning with the spontaneous assemblage of an aircraft during a hurricane. Leith’s novel may or may not fall under the heading of Barleypunk, but it would seem to have a similarly self-aware approach to that of Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, the Mark Wernham title that was shortlisted in 2009.

Simon Lelic, The Facility

A near-future political thriller revolving around a secret detention centre. I think the novel takes an interesting approach to its form, but in doing so becomes less successful as sf, which might weaken its chances of being a real Clarke contender.

Anna North, America Pacifica

In search of her mother, a seventeen-year-old girl heads towards the only temperate land in a frozen world. From recent Clarke shortlists, this brings to mind Marcel Theroux’s excellent Far North; one can only hope it’s as good.

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The science fiction novel that made it on to the Booker longlist. May make an interesting point of comparison with the David Almond title above, as both seem to focus on young narrators who are key to their worlds’ survival.

Jonathan Trigell, Genus

A tale of life among the have-nots in a near future where complete genetic selection is available to the haves. I think the evocation of the setting is the greatest strength of this novel; whether that’s enough to make it a likely Clarke contender, I’m undecided.

Katie Ward, Girl Reading

Of all the novels I’m listing here, this is probably the one that looks least like science fiction at first sight, as it comprises a sequence of historical novellas on portraits and their subjects. But the final chapter is set in the future and makes sf out of the rest. I rather liked this book, and Adam Roberts really liked it; instinct says it may be too obliquely sf-nal to be shortlisted for the Clarke — but then, Cloud Atlas was shortlisted, so that instinct may be wrong (and I’d have no problem if that turned out to be the case).

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

The last on my alphabetical list and, conveniently, the one I’ve read which I like the most. Set in an alternate England where those of religious faith were exiled to an island off the north-east coast, Wood’s novel has a great sense of place and is a fine portrait of its world. I would certainly be happy to see this on next year’s Clarke shortlist.


There we have a dozen non-genre sf novels receiving their first UK publication this year, though I doubt very much that my list is comprehensive (for a start, it doesn’t include YA, which is not a field I know much about); I’d welcome any suggestions of books that I’ve missed.

What I don’t doubt is that mainstream-published work is a key part of the UK science fiction landscape at the moment, and it would not surprise me to see that reflected in the next Clarke Award shortlist. The Clarke hasn’t gone to a non-genre title since The Calcutta Chromosome in 1997 — will that change next year? Of course, until we see the shortlist and read the books, it’s impossible to say; but I suspect the genre titles will have a run for their money.

April wrap-up

Time for a round-up of what was happening on this blog in April.

Book of the Month

I meant to read it last year, but never got around to it; and I should have done, because it’s excellent. Mike Thomas’s debut novel Pocket Notebook is a brilliant study of a policeman’s life spinning out of control, and a superb piece of writing. I can’t wait to see what Thomas comes up with next; I’ll be following his writing career with great interest.



Clarke Award 2011: And the winner is…

The 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award has been presented to Lauren Beukes for her novel Zoo City.

Beukes becomes the first woman to win the Clarke Award since 2002, and the first author from outside the UK and North America to do so since 1997.

I must admit I didn’t see that result coming, but such is the nature of the Clarke. Zoo City is a fine book, and I hope this win brings more attention to the work of Lauren Beukes, a writer who I’m sure is set to build a fascinating body of work in the years ahead.

Index of my 2011 Clarke Award posts

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.

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.

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.

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.

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