TagEmbassytown

Clarke Award 2012: in review

The Guardian’s Robert McCrum recently expressed concern that literary awards were becoming more about gossip than about actual books. Whether or not he’s right about that, McCrum is certainly correct to highlight the value of awards in creating focal points for discussion. As I know first-hand, talking about and comparing a given set of books can be a tremendously stimulating and rewarding experience – but it helps if the books are worth discussing in the first place.

And, on that note, let’s turn to the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. This is the third year I’ve read the full Clarke list and, I have to say, it’s a dispiritingly bland selection this time around. Anyone looking for the cutting edge of UK science fiction publishing – or even just literary excellence – is not going to find it on this list. It frustrates me when I think of the eligible novels I’ve read which are better than any of the shortlisted titles; and the gems I haven’t read which must be out there.

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There’s usually one obviously weak candidate to be struck off the shortlist first; but this year I’m spoilt for choice, which is not a pleasant situation to be in. After due consideration, I think I’m going to hand the wooden spoon to The End Specialist by Drew Magary. This is a novel which fails on just about every level, right down to being a thriller that doesn’t thrill; it’s pedestrianly written, parochial when it purports not to be, ineffective as both a character study and an exploration of a world without ageing… I could go on, but the book really doesn’t deserve more words.

I could do with two wooden spoons, really, because there’s barely a difference in quality between the Magary and The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper. This is the book which has been most comprehensively disliked by just about everyone I know who’s been reading the shortlist (see Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review, for instance). Leaving aside issues of its genre, the Tepper shares many of The End Specialist’s faults – weak writing, poor plotting, questionable morality – but I think its ideas are marginally more interesting. That’s the only reason The Waters Rising isn’t out of the balloon first.

Now on to Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, which, unlike the previous two novels, at least achieves a baseline level of competence. Bear’s mystery-thriller-space-opera is decently written, reasonably diverting – and, as far as I can see, has nothing to distinguish it from the many other competent-but-unremarkable science fiction novels out there. We’re now halfway through the shortlist, and we still haven’t come to a book which, in my eyes, has any claim to be on it.

I don’t really want Embassytown to win the Clarke; it’s nowhere near China Miéville’s best work, and – well, frankly, it’s the closest I have ever come to being bored by a Miéville book. I have to acknowledge that, compared to the three novels I’ve already covered, Embassytown is a much better written, constructed, and more ambitious work – indeed, it’s probably the most conceptually ambitious novel on the shortlist – but I think it’s ultimately too dry and abstract to be successful. Better Miéville than one of the previous three, yes – but, better still, one of the remaining two.

Rule 34 by Charles Stross has its flaws – its exposition is at times overdone; its police-procedural plot doesn’t quite cohere – but, of all the books on the shortlist, it is the one which feels most engaged with the present and the near future. The world it depicts is intriguing and compelling; the issues it raises demand serious consideration; and the prose, at its best, is snappy and sharp. This novel does the sorts of things that good science fiction should be doing.

That leaves The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, which I think is a very well-realised study of its teenage protagonist and, in its own way, one of the more challenging shortlisted works. This may be the most successfully achieved of the novels on the list, but it’s also rather narrow in its focus. So it’s quite a fine line between this and the Stross, which trades a little polish for a broader scope; I’d be happy enough for either The Testament or Rule 34 to win. But the thing is that books like these two should really be the bread and butter of the Clarke shortlist, not its centrepiece.

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That’s what I’d like to win, but what may actually take the Clarke? Having been through the Fantasy Clarke panel at Eastercon, I have a better idea of the kinds of discussions which might have taken place between the judges, and I’m fairly sure that the Bear and Tepper are too generic to survive the judging process. The Magary may do (though I hope is doesn’t): there’s an energy to its telling that may – along with whatever the judges must perforce have seen in the novel that I don’t – carry it through. The Rogers may not last long in the judging (though I hope it does) – its narrow focus may prove the book’s undoing, depending on how the judges weight that against its craft. The Miéville will almost certainly be a contender, and is enough of an all-rounder that it might even win. The Stross is difficult to call, though I suspect it will survive in the judging process for quite some time, possibly to the very end. We’ll find out when the winner is announced on Wednesday.

Book and story notes: Miéville, Brown, Hyslop

China Miéville, Embassytown (2011)

The rumour before publication was that Embassytown would be China Miéville’s first proper oray into science fiction; and, technically, it is – but Miéville is a fantasy writer at heart, and setting a novel on a planet in deep space with aliens hasn’t changed the essential feel of his work. Our narrator is Avice Benner Cho, a human native of Embassytown, which lies on a world whose indigenous species are known as Hosts. The Hosts can only understand their own language, and even then only if it’s spoken by a sentient being; as the Hosts have two mouths which they use simultaneously, humans communicate with Hosts through specially-bred clone pairs called Ambassadors. The start of the novel sees the arrival in Embassytown of a new Ambassador named EzRa who are, uniquely and impossibly, not clones – and when they address the Hosts, they start a change of events that will lead to all-out war.

Embassytown may not represent a dramatic shift in genre for Miéville, but it is his first novel in quite some time not to be set at least partly on present-day Earth, and here things do feel different. I’m thinking in particular back to Perdido Street Station; granted, it’s a good ten years since I read that book, but I remember it glorying in its own strangeness. Embassytown is more subdued and remote: partly this is a function of its narrator, who admits that she’s not naturally one for the limelight; and Avice’s voice remains correspondingly cool and measured throughout. But it’s also appropriate to the story Miéville is telling, as it concerns a species and mode of communication which are so very inscrutable.

Yet, even though I recongnise its importance, that distancing effect still stops me from really engaging with the novel. There’s certainly some interesting fantasy in there: for example, the Hosts cannot lie, even to make metaphors; they can use similes, but have to enact the object of comparison first – and they can involve humans, including Avice herself. However, mostly, I find the issues around Hosts and their language too abstract to really work as the key emotional anchor for the story; and that is what puts Embassytown in the lower tier of Miéville’s works for me.

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

Kat Brown, ‘A Marvellous Party’ (2011)

This new story from Shortfire Press concerns Adie, whose boyfriend Simon breaks up with her on a railway-station platform just as they were about to go on holiday for Christmas. He boards the train, and she returns dejectedly to her flat – where her friend Becca invites Adie to a party that might just turn her life around. There’s some neat writing here, as Kat Brown creates an atmosphere very efficiently, with a few choice details; whether it’s life in Adie’s flat (‘John [her flatmate] dropped four Nurofen into a carton of orange juice’), or the party itself:

Glazed middle managers buzzed around a beige buffet, and Becca was absorbed almost immediately by a cloud of sequins and novelty jumpers. Adie took a glass of festively disgusting red wine and was swept into conversation by a group who spoke only in buzzwords.

Brown won this month’s Literary Death Match in London with ‘A Marvellous Party’; it’s not hard to see why, and I imagine that the story works just as well read aloud as it does on the page.

Jess Hyslop, ‘Augury’ (2011)

Another new Shortfire Press piece, in this case one that won its author Cambridge University’s Quiller-Couch prize for creative writing – again, it’s clear why. Jess Hyslop takes us to Nazi-occupied Guernsey, where Peter Davies gets by after a German soldier shot him in the leg; he only survived because his neighbour, Anne Brehaut, found him and took him in – not that Anne’s blind husband Louis was keen on having a man in the house who could see her when he himself couldn’t. Now, Peter fixates on the Brehauts’ shed, where he’s sure they’re keeping a bird; or perhaps he’s really fixating on Anne.

Peter Davies comes to life as an ambiguous, not-quite-sympathetic character, who has been scarred (emotionally as well as physically) by his injury, and left world-weary and cautious:

What currently worries him most is Talk. There is a lot of Talk about. This Talk is surreptitious, taking place at odd hours in odd corners amongst what he considers, frankly, odd people. And it is idealistic, which means that it is dangerous. It is exactly the kind of Talk he tries not to get involved with, the kind that he will hurry past with his head down, if he catches so much as a whisper.

The tension which builds throughout this story comes from never being quite sure what the characters might do, or what their true motivations are – right up to the sharply effective ending.

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