TagRule 34

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.

Charles Stross, Rule 34 (2011)

Charles Stross returns to the near-future Edinburgh of his 2007 novel Halting State for this police procedural (though I’ve not read the earlier book, I don’t believe there is any substantial crossover between the two). A decade from now, DI Liz Kavanaugh’s CID career has stalled as she’s currently heading up the Innovative Crime Investigation Unit (or ‘Rule 34 Squad’), which investigates crime based on the spreading of internet memes; one of ICIU’s current cases, the bizarre murder of a known spammer, suddenly gains more prominence when similar crimes come to light. Elsewhere, Anwar Hussain, an ex-crook on probation, gets a job through a friend as Consul for a months-old breakaway republic, though he doesn’t quite appreciate what he’s getting into; and a man known to us as ‘the Toymaker’ arrives in Scotland to set up a new branch of his criminal enterprise – if only the people he’s there to recruit didn’t keep getting themselves murdered…

Perhaps the most immediately noticeable thing about Rule 34 is that (like Halting State) it is written in the second-person. Now, a childhood of adventure gamebooks and text adventures means I’m reasonably used to being addressed as ‘you’ by a text; but that kind of narration has always tended to distance me from viewpoint characters, because it focuses my attention on action rather than on interior life – and I found that to be the case again here. There are a few occasions when emotion leaps off the page; but, for the most part, the style gets in the way.

Mentioning the style brings to mind Christopher Priest’s infamous comment that ‘Stross writes like an internet puppy’. He has a point – Stross tends to include slightly more detail than will sit comfortably in the narrative, and there are times when this threatens to halt Rule 34 in its tracks (especially a long stretch of exposition towards the end) – but there’s also a restless energy to Stross’s telling; at its best, the writing works very well indeed (a passage on the war on spam, for example, captures an aspect of Stross’s imagined future in a particularly compelling way).

Stross presents an intriguing vision of a society which is substantially more technologically advanced than the present, yet still fraying at the edges; a world of fluidity and compromise. Police officers are wired into an augmented reality called ‘CopSpace’, but useful teleconferencing and face recognition remain beyond reach.Scotland has seceded from the United Kingdom, but not fully, so politics can be messily ambiguous. Policing is less about great detectives than groups of workers searching for patterns in data (‘crowdsourcing by cop,’ as Stross puts it [p. 227]). Throughout the novel, we see individuals, groups, and nations finding gaps and weak points in the system to use to their own advantage, or at least to get by.

As a procedural, I don’t think Rule 34 works quite so well: some of the connections between plot threads take too long to come into the narrative after they’ve been made apparent to the reader; the threads as a whole don’t mesh together as successfully as they might; and the foregrounding towards the end of a particular plot element (which has previously been mentioned in passing) is rather too abrupt. But the book and the world around the procedural are what make Rule 34 worth reading – and what make it one of the stronger titles on this year’s Clarke shortlist.

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

Elsewhere
Charles Stross’s website
Some other reviews of Rule 34: Maureen Kincaid Speller; Dan Hartland; Niall Alexander.

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