Tag: Arthur C. Clarke 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.

The obligatory Clarke Award speculation post

It’s that Clarke Award time of year again, and the list of submissions has been published over at Torque Control, in advance of the shortlist being announced this Friday. Fifty-four titles submitted, and it looks a pretty comprehensive list to me – I can’t think of any books I’ve read that have been undeservedly omitted; and the only other title of which I can think that perhaps should be there Walcot by Brian Aldiss. But it’s a very good pool all the same.

In terms of what may appear on the shortlist, it is a very open field this year. There’s only one title I’d consider a certainty to be shortlisted, and that is Ian McDonald’s excellent The Dervish House. The rest is wide open, though I’d imagine that some titles are more likely to reach the shortlist than others.  Before I make my prediction of the shortlist, I’ll go through what strike me as some of the more notable or unusual submissions.

Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine has had a rather ‘interesting’ publishing history, and only received its debut UK publication last year, despite being originally published in 2004. I haven’t read any of Beckett’s novels, but his short fiction is excellent, and I’d imagine this book is a strong contender.

It’s left to each year’s Clarke jury to decide what constitutes ‘science fiction’ and a ‘novel’; perhaps no title amongst the 2011 submissions would have tested those parameters more than Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, a semi-fictional history of the Soviet planned economy. It has been highly regarded, but will the judges have considered it valid for the Clarke Award?

Joanna Kavenna’s The Birth of Love, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, and Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming are all mainstream-published titles which I meant to get around to reading last year but never did. They’ve had mixed reviews, so I’m not sure how the judges will have viewed them; but, if there are going to be any wildcard entries on this year’s shortlist, I suspect these three are the most likely candidates.

Tom McCarthy’s C of course made the Booker shortlist. It’s debatable whether it can be read as sf, but it would certainly be an interesting addition to the shortlist.

Of all the submissions, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the one I’ve previously tried to read and given up on doing so; I just couldn’t get into it. I’m sure it is no coincidence that the book is set in the same world as the story in Pump Six with which I struggled the most. I will give it another go at some point, though; and that’ll be sooner rather than later if it makes the Clarke shortlist.

China Miéville, of all authors, can’t be ruled out of Clarke contention; but still I’d be surprised to see Kraken on the shortlist. I think its claim to being science fiction (rather than fantasy) is more tenuous than for any of his other novels, and too tenuous for it to be a contender. Never say never, but I don’t think it’s likely.

What do I think may be on the shortlist, then? A combination of wishful thinking and what I know of the books and their reputations leads me to suggest the following:

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

Adam Roberts, New Model Army

Tricia Sullivan, Lightborn

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

If you’d like to make your own guess, you can do so here, where anyone who guesses correctly by Wednesday night will win a copy of the entire shortlist.

On the Clarke Award

Tom Hunter, Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, has posted an open letter at Torque Control , asking for feedback on questions relating to the Award’s future direction. I’ve  sent in my comments by email, but also wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the discussion here, and to say something about what the Clarke means to me.

The Clarke Award is important to me because it stands for things that I believe in: it champions the best science fiction as a serious literary form; and it looks beyond genre publishing for relevant titles. I think the latter sets a good example for the book world in general:  too often, literary institutions can be unhealthily insular; only yesterday there was yet another article that advocated putting content ahead of quality in judging a book (an article nicely dismantled by Steve Mosby here). The Clarke is refreshing in that it faces outwards, and  brings excellent books to the attention of people who probably wouldn’t otherwise know about them. We should treasure it for that.

Colin Greenland, Take Back Plenty (1990)

The novel on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist that stuck out as being most anomalous was Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, because it was the kind of exuberant adventure sf which tends not to do well at the Clarke. Probably the last time a book of that kind won was back in 1991, when the Clarke went to Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland, a novel which also has a reputation as being one of the founding texts of the ‘New British Space Opera’ that’s flourished in the past two decades.

Quite a weight of expectation, then – but I’m pleased to say that, a few references to ‘tapes’ aside, Take Back Plenty holds up remarkably well today. Partly, I think, this is because the particular twist that Greenland puts on his setting hasn’t (as far as I know) been employed much since; and party it’s because of its sheer brio and sense of fun.

Take Back Plenty is set in the future of a different universe, a universe in which there really are canals on Mars and swampy jungles on Venus. Numerous alien species have made themselves known to humanity and populated the Solar System; but no one can leave, thanks to a barrier put in place by the mysterious Capellans. Greenland’s protagonist is Tabitha Jute, pilot of the Alice Liddell, who starts the novel in trouble with the authorities on Mars, and takes on a passenger because she needs the money to pay a fine. But that passenger. Marco Metz, and the other members of his entertainment troupe, may turn out to be more trouble than they’re worth.

I doubt it’s any coincidence that Greenland starts the novel during Carnival and names the ship after the girl who inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, because Take Back Plenty is a parade of incident and colour. Tabitha and colleagues hurtle out of one scrape and into another, but never with a sense of being all-conquering heroes – Tabitha is very much an ordinary, fallible human being; the Alice Liddell gradually falls to bits; and her passengers hinder as much as they help. Yet the rhythm of the story is as it should be: just when you think things can’t get worse, they do; and just when you think there’s no hope, there is. Greenland walks a fine line, but I think he gets the balance just right – Take Back Plenty is self-aware enough to recognise its absurdities, yet it’s also celebratory in its sense of fun, without either being ironic about it or skimping on substance.

The novel is also wonderfully written. Tabitha has periodic conversations with her ship’s AI persona; in what I think is a rather brilliant touch, the Alice Liddell seems to communicate at times in the style of the ELIZA program. Then there’s Greenland’s superb eye for description:

Carnival in Schiaparelli. The canals are thronged with tour buses, the bridges festooned with banners. Balloons escape and fireworks fly. The city seethes in the smoky red light. Though officers of the Eladeldi can be seen patrolling everywhere, pleasure is the only master. Shall we go to the Ruby Pool? To watch the glider duels over the al-Kazara? Or to the old city, where the cavernous ancient silos throb with the latest raga, and the wine of Astarte quickens the veins of the young and beautiful? A thousand smells, of sausages and sweat, phosphorus and patchouli, mingle promiscuously in the arcades. Glasses clash and cutlery clatters in the all-night cantinas where drunken revellers confuse the robot waiters and flee along the colonnades, their bills unpaid, their breath streaming in the thin and wintry air. (6)

I love the vivid details in that passage, and the rhythm of the sentences… just great. Take Back Plenty has stood the test of time so far, and I think it will continue to do so. I’d say it’s a worthy winner of the Clarke Award, and it shows just what adventure sf can be.

The month in reading: April 2010

April was the month of the Clarke Award, and completing the shortlist led me to read my favourite book of the month — Far North, Marcel Theroux‘s tale of survival in the aftermath of environmental change. I also read two great coming-of=age novels in April: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, set in 1960s Australia; and The Spider Truces by Tom Connolly, set in 1980s Kent. And, in terms of short stories, Sarah Singleton‘s tale ‘Death by Water’ from Black Static 15 was my pick of the month.

Clarke Award 2010: And the winner is…

It was a full house last night at the Apollo Cinema on London’s Lower Regent Street, as a bunch of interested parties (including your correspondent) attended the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award ceremony. Clarke Award history was made as China Miéville became the first author to win three times (and all in the same decade, no less).

This could be a major year for Miéville — The City & the City had already won the BSFA Award for Best Novel, and I’m almost certain it will win at least a couple more awards. And deservedly so — it’s a very good book, genuinely unique (as far as I can judge), and one of its author’s best.

A good winner of a literary award should, in my view, be a book that you could give to any reader interested in quality fiction and say, ‘You must read this.’  The City & the City is such a  book. You won’t read another book quite like it, you won’t read the same book that I (or anyone else) did — but you should read it.

Index of my Clarke Award 2010 posts

Clarke Award 2010: in review

The commentary I’ve encountered on this year’s Clarke Award generally agrees on two things: that it’s a five-horse race, and that Chris Wooding is the author who’s written the also-ran. Having read all the shortlisted novels, I must concur with that view. Retribution Falls is a good book on its own terms — a superior sf adventure story — but it seems lacking in the context of this shortlist. It just doesn’t have the extra depth that the others, in their different ways, all have. For that reason, Wooding’s book is first out of the running for me.

The favourite to win the Clarke this year is The City & the City. This is a fascinating, innovative novel (the first, as far as I’m aware, to engage so explicity with the crtical taxonomy of fantasy that has emerged in the last fifteeen years), possibly China Miéville’s best-written to date. I like it very much… but I don’t think it should win. The reason I don’t think it should win is that the Clarke is an award for science fiction, and The City & the City doesn’t make sense if read as sf — one is forced into an unsatisfactory psychological interpretation. However, the novel does make sense — and is much more interesting — if read as fantasy (see my review for more on this); I’d be happy for it to win any fantasy awards for which it may be nominated, but I don’t see it as a good fit for the Clarke.

I intended to review the entire shortlist, but, in the end, I’m one title down. The reason I haven’t written previously about Gwyneth Jones‘s Spirit is that I really struggled to get to grips with it. I grasped the basics of the story, but there’s so much else about which I’m not sure that I can’t see my way to giving the novel a proper review. Why I experienced this difficulty, I don’t know; maybe it was because of all the associated books I hadn’t read (Spirit is a re-interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and is connected to both Jones’s earlier Aleutian Trilogy and her Bold as Love sequence), maybe something else. Whatever, though I’m not able to comment on Spirit in detail, I do gain an impression of a significant work.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson combines fictional historical biography with far-future sf, to what I found was mixed effect. It is an excellent work at times, but tries one’s patience at others, and its two aspects don’t integrate as well as they might. But there’s a lot about the book that I know I missed (I didn’t pick up on all the sbutext, for example), so I’m quite willing to accept that Galileo’s Dream is a stronger book than I found it to be, and hence a strong contender for the Clarke.

There’s also a lot about Adam Roberts‘s Yellow Blue Tibia that I know I missed — but, all the same, I thoroughly loved it. Of all the shortlisted title, this is the one I enjoyed the most, both for its humour and for what it does as a work of imaginative literature. I can’t judge in full how successful it is, because for that I’d need more knowledge of its historical setting, and the science fiction with which it engages — but it’s worthy of winning the Clarke as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, Marcel Theroux‘s excellent Far North, which is my other pick of the shortlist. A post-disaster novel which is less about the effect of change on the world than itseffect on humanity, this is a quiet book that makes its point subtly and with force. It works superbly as an aesthetic whole, to a greater extent than perhaps any other novel on the shortlist. A win for Far North would be thoroughly deserved.

So, I’d most like to see Roberts or Theroux be awarded the Clarke this year, but, really, it’s an open field, and I would not like to predict who will win. The winner will be announced this Wednesday, and I look forward to finding out whom it will be.

Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls (2009)

When first we meet Darian Frey, freebooting captain of the Ketty Jay, he is being held captive by a smuggler. That can’t last for long, of course, as there’s a story to get underway; sure enough, a bit of artful escaping later, and Frey is back on the run with his raggle-taggle crew of misfits. Over the course of the novel, the Ketty Jay will be drawn into a far-reaching conspiracy, which will see her crew being hunted by some of the world’s most feared individuals, including the pirate captain Trinica Dracken, who just happens to be an old flame of Frey’s.

The stage is set for Retribution Falls to be a fine adventure story, and Chris Wooding does not disappoint in that regard. He imbues his prose with the requisite amount of energy and colour, and knows just when to move the plot in another direction. Quite often, a significant event may happen in between chapters or scenes, which is a neat way of sustaining momentum, as it constantly shifts events beyond the reader’s understanding (albeit for only brief amounts of time). Although the characters aren’t overly fleshed out (this being primarily a plot-driven novel, and the first in a series), they have their share of flaws and interesting back-stories. And Wooding’s world of airships, electricity and magic, is not without its quirks (magic in this world takes the form of ‘daemonism’, a semi-scientific practice in which all effects are achieved by binding daemons, who take a little of the practitioner’s energy for their trouble). There is enough here to keep one engrossed to the end of the book.

The thing is, though, that Retribution Falls lacks that certain something which would take it beyond being a fine adventure story. The plot is not so surprising, the characterisation not so rich, the setting not so distinctive, as to make the book truly shine. In other words, the novel is good as far as it goes, with both the positives and negatives that stem from that. But, if you’re looking for an entertaining tale of swashbuckling adventure, Retribution Falls is most definitely a title you should investigate.

Chris Wooding’s website
Ketty Jay blog

This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009)

Marcel Theroux’s Far North is a tale of endurance and survival, though not necessarily in the way one might anticipate.

Our narrator is Makepeace Hatfield, the constable of a frontier town in Siberia, though she’s not really sure how many people there are to protect and/or fend off any more. Makepeace is the daughter of parents who, along with others from the US, settled in Siberia looking for a simpler life, environmental changes having put intolerable pressures on the life they knew. It didn’t work out, and now who knows what’s going on in the wider world? Not Makepeace, who has enough on her plate with day-to-day living. But when, one day, she sees a plane – a sure sign of other humanity – she decides to head out beyond her town to see what she can find. In due course, she is captured and taken to a prison-town, where she discovers that maybe not all of that old world has gone, or perhaps a new one may yet be forged.

Far North is striking both for what it is and is not. It is a clearly told tale (Theroux’s prose is expressive, but not densely poetic; the latter would be out of place in the harsh world of his book) of a woman who has to face up to a life and world of deep contradiction; for example, she doesn’t ‘share [her parents’] view of the merits of scarcity’ (50), yet efforts to rebuild the world bring their own difficulties.

But, even though Far North tells of an individual making her way through the wilderness, it’s not a tale of survival in a documentary sense; the landscapes and how people live are in there, but the details of those aren’t the main focus. Rather, I think Theroux is interested in depicting a more fundamental kind of endurance – the endurance of the human spirit.

Throughout the novel, one is constantly reminded that this is a story: the references to Makepeace writing her words down; the beats of the narrative (the knowledge that Makepeace is a woman comes twenty pages in, in a way that could wrong-foot the unwary reader). And, if we take the view that stories are a way in which humans make sense of the world, then we can say that a story is being enacted even in this harsh setting, which would seem to have no room for stories. Yet the story goes on, and so does humanity.

What I take away most from Far North is a sense of the enormous pressures (and I’m talking about psychic pressures here as much as physical ones) under which Theroux’s characters have been placed, and the price they’ve had to pay within themselves in order to survive. The novel’s title refers to a moral compass as well as a geographical one, and the idea that, if you travel far enough north, all directions start to lose meaning. Both Makepeace and other characters have done (and do) morally reprehensible things; but right and wrong become malleable concepts in the reality of this book, and that’s what Theroux captures so well.

Far North announces itself quietly, and never raises its voice – but its echoes remain after the book is closed. Like humankind in the tale, it endures.

Marcel Theroux’s website
Theroux writes about the novel

This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2010: The shortlist

The shortlist of the 2010 Clarke Award (for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2009) has been announced. The six nominees are:

Gwyneth Jones, Spirit

China Miéville, The City & the City

Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream

Marcel Theroux, Far North

Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls

This is an interesting mix of books. I plan to read and review the entire shortlist (I’ve read three already; reviews are linked above, as will the others be), so I’ll have more to say as time goes on, but here’s an initial reaction:

The book I’m most pleased to see on there is Yellow Blue Tibia.  It has met with mixed reactions, but I found it a stunning read. The City & the City is a novel which has generated much debate, and is very much open to interpretation (perhaps more so than any of Miéville’s previous works); I like it, but I don’t think it quite works. I didn’t like Galileo’s Dream as much, but I know there’s more to it than I was able to see.

As for the three books I’ve not read: I had a feeling that Spirit might make the shortlist, as I’ve heard some very good things about it. I don’t know much about the other two titles: I’ve read one of Chris Wooding’s previous books , and thought it good (albeit not great), but I’ve not read Marcel Theroux at all.

Overall, from what I know of these six books, I would say this a nicely varied list — varied in terms of settings, types of sf, and approaches, and in the mixture of well-known and lesser-known names. I look forward to reading the complete shortlist, and finding out who will win.

UPDATE, 26th Apr: Round-up post

Second UPDATE, 29th Apr: The winner

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