TagLauren Beukes

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.

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.

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (2010)

The late 1990s saw the first case of what became known as Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism (AAF) – or, more bluntly, the Zoo Plague.  Anyone who does something bad gains an animal (which is apparently an extension of their selves), a magical ability of some sort, and the threat of destruction by the “black cloud” of the Undertow. That “something bad” is deliberately vague, because nobody in the alternate present/several-months-hence of Lauren Beukes’ novel knows precisely what causes this condition; which of course means that people can place their own meaning on to it – but to become a “zoo” or “animalled” is certainly a social stigma.

On that note, meet Zinzi December, one-time journalist, now living in the Zoo City area of Johannesburg. Responsible for the death of her brother, Zinzi now has a Sloth and the ability to find lost things; she earns her money from the latter, and from a sideline in 419 scams. When her current client turns up dead, Zinzi has to take the best job she can get, which is being hired by a music mogul named Odi Huron to find the missing half of his latest act, the teen duo iJusi. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s not as simple as that.

But hold on, because that makes it sound as though Zoo City is a noir-ish mystery with fantastical overtones – which it is, but the mystery is not the most important thing; rather, the investigation seems to me a device to facilitate a journey through the book’s world (the city, that is). And one of the most striking things about that world, as both John Clute and Niall Harrison have noted, is how low-key its fantasy is; the presence of animal familiars aside, if you didn’t know there were magic in the novel’s world, it would be easy to miss. This is magic so thoroughly integrated into the world that it becomes just another tool to be used in life (as Zinzi says, “You do what it takes, you take the opportunities” [p. 346]); in this regard, Zoo City reminded me of The City & the City (the presentation of the Undertow, as an overt irruption of the possibly-supernatural into real life, also recalled for me the latter novel’s Breach), though where Mieville’s novel puts its fantastical construct front and centre, Beukes’ keeps its one hidden like an individual tree in a forest.

Adam Roberts coined the term “worldbling” to describe showing off through world-building; when I’d first finished Zoo City, I thought to myself, this novel demonstrates the opposite of worldbling.  But, having since read Clute’s review, I’m coming to a slightly different view: if this novel has any worldbling (and I do think it has some), it’s of the Cook’s-tour kind, not about the magic, but about the place. And Zinzi’s travels in the city are extensive, taking in glitzy clubs, the sewers, and more besides. She also finds herself taking on many roles during the course of the novel: as well as the standard finder of lost things, she will step back into her old journalistic circles, and act out parts in face-to-face scams; she’ll be the lover she is, and perhaps even the lover she once was. I think this is where AAF really comes in at a metaphorical level; to acquire an animal in Zoo City is to become displaced and different – literally so, as a part of you manifests as another creature; but also displaced from society, and Zinzi is not the only character who is forced by circumstance to become someone else. Even the area which is now Zoo City used to be different.

I think I’d agree with Niall that the ending of Zoo City lets the book down somewhat. There’s a too-strong sense of pieces being moved into position on the gameboard, in a novel that doesn’t initially feel as though it has a board. However, Beukes’ telling is what carries the day; quite apart from anything else, the momentum of the story and narration is gloriously unstoppable.

Lauren Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland, has been on my shelves waiting to be read for some time. After this, it won’t be staying that way for long.

Elsewhere
Lauren Beukes’ website

This review is posted in support of ‘women and sf’ week at Torque Control.

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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