CategoryHarkaway Nick

Clarke Award 2013: in review

I find the Clarke Award difficult to call this year, in terms of both what I think might win, and the order of personal preference in which I’d place the place the books. I think there are a number of books on the shortlist which are very close in quality, and they’re so different that they become hard to separate. But that’s no reason not to have a go, so let’s line the books up and whittle them down…

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First out of the balloon this year is Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars – which is actually not as harsh a judgment on the book as it might seem. In the few years that I’ve been reading the whole Clarke shortlist, the titles I’ve thought weakest have ranged from OK to downright awful – but The Dog Stars is pretty decent. It has issues with plotting, and its treatment of female characters, but it’s also wonderfully written. My greatest problem with Heller’s novel as a Clarke contender, though, is that I can’t help feeling it would be stronger without its speculative content.

With reluctance, I’ve reached the conclusion that Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 just isn’t my type. I enjoyed Galileo’s Dream a few years back (admittedly some aspects more than others); but 2312’s panoramic view of a terraformed and colonised solar system didn’t engage me to nearly the same extent. I found Robinson’s prose beautiful at times (some of the best scientific writing I’ve come across in a work of fiction for a long time), but other parts of the book left me feeling indifferent. I must acknowledge that I’m not ina position to be able to form a proper view on 2312; but, on the basis that I enjoyed the remaining books on the shortlist more, it’s my second title to go.

Chris Beckett is one of my favourite contemporary science fiction writers, someone I always feel is serious about using sf to explore particular issues. Dark Eden is not quite Beckett at his best, but it’s an interesting piece of work nonetheless. It tells the tale of an abandoned colonists on a distant world, who have made rituals out of the wait for three of their number to return from Earth with help. Beckett is efficient and effective at showing how the colonists’ language, thoughts and behaviours have been altered by their isolation. I also appreciate the way he examines not only the desire for change (the novel centres on a teenage colonist who wants to break away from the others’ ritualistic existence), but also the need to keep going once a great change has been made. I like Dark Eden, but I don’t think it reaches as far as the remaining books on the shortlist, so I’m discarding it next.

If I were to rank these six novels purely by my enjoyment of the reading experience, Nod by Adrian Barnes would top the list – but is that enough to make me think it should win the Clarke? I like Nod’s nervy energy; I think it does interesting things with the form of apocalyptic fiction; and it shares with Dark Eden an interest in how mythologies may develop. But Nod also has its shortcomings: its portrayal of female characters is problematic (to say the least); it puts all its eggs in one basket, and gleefully throws the basket at the reader’s window. When I look at the two other novels left, I see fewer flaws and broader achievements, and I think those qualities make them more worthy of the Clarke than Nod.

There is no doubt in my mind that Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker is a showstopper, probably the most theatrical book on the shortlist. It has linguistic fireworks, grand imagination, and an underlying vein of seriousness to balance out its more playful aspects. Angelmaker has broad ambitions, and pretty much achieves them, even when they might seem contradictory. There’s a lot to recommend about Harkaway’s novel, and I think it would be a worthy Clarke winner – but for me it is just edged out by the last contender…

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod works on a smaller canvas than Angelmaker, and is a much quieter book. But it has a concentrated vision of a society stifled by prohibitions, ruled by a government afraid of anything it can’t label; and it uses very well the idea of seemingly innocuous details coming together in unexpected ways. It’s the completeness of vision – and the sharpness of observation and exploration of vision – that brings Intrusion to the top of the Clarke shortlist for me.

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How about a guess at which novel will actually win? I don’t think my ordering here is going to be the same as the judges’ – I doubt that Nod will survive as long in their process, and I’m certain that 2312 will end up higher on their list than I placed it. But I do suspect that The Dog Stars will be shown the door early on, and that Dark Eden will be overshadowed by some of the other books. I’d expect the final tussle for the winner’s mantle to be between two of Angelmaker, 2312 and Intrusion  – and my instinct is to plump for Angelmaker as the likely winner. But maybe I’m barking entirely up the wrong tree; whatever, the winning title will be announced on Wednesday.

Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker (2012)

Two novels into an author’s career might be too soon to generalise, but we have to work with what we’ve got. I’m coming to think of Nick Harkaway’s novels as battlegrounds between whimsy and cold, hard seriousness. The Gone-Away World combined mime artists and digressive prose with a desire to treat the effects of its reality-bending weapon matter-of-factly; Angelmaker embodies the conflict in its protagonist. Joe Spork’s father, Mathew was a master criminal – and no ordinary one, but a gentleman-crook of the old school. As a boy, Joe spent his days in the world of the Night Market – the kind of shadowy gathering which one assumes could only exist in fiction, whose changing locations is revealed only by clues hidden in newspapers. It’s crime that belongs in a heightened version of reality; but here it is in the world of Angelmaker, and Joe wants none of it; instead, he has followed in the footsteps of Daniel, his grandfather, and become a clockmaker. But his latest job makes Joe cross paths with Edie Banister, a nonagenarian ex-spy; and eventually he gets caught up in a plot to end the world with a swarm of clockwork bees – components of the Apprehension Engine, a device which would cause people to apprehend truth so clearly that it would render the universe static.

Like the criminal underworld of Joe’s youth, Edie Banister’s world of espionage is  more colourful than our reality should be able to hold – she was schooled in the ways of spying from an early age, aboard an artisan-crafted train and submarine, and has a ruthless arch-enemy who makes Keyser Söze look like a sissy – and Joe remains protected by a firm of old-school-tie types with seemingly bottomless resources. But Harkaway underlines that the passage of time has been squeezing out these ways of being: ‘The world was getting old and cruel. The great game [Edie] had played, the wild, primary-colour roller coaster, had become something harsher.’ (p. 347) That primary-coloured world is what Joe has spent his life trying to escape, but his story throughout Angelmaker is one of learning to balance his past and presenrt – just as the novel as a whole finds a balance between its outlandish and down-to-earth aspects.

Not everything in the novel works so well: Joe’s love interest, Polly Cradle, remains a little too close to the stereotype of super-competent totty; and I think Angelmakerasks its readers to feel more warmly towards its larger-than-life crime capers than I personally was able to. But then the novel treads its high-wire with nimble feet and gives us genuinely chilling scenes in which Joe has been seized and is tormented by his gentlemanly captors. It shows that Edie’s nemesis is no cartoon villain, but all too real and ruthless beyond belief. It causes the hairs on the back of one’s neck to rise with its fantastical hints of a world changed by the Apprehension Engine. It wrong-foots us with passages of genuine emotion in the midst of a deceptively light narrative. If Angelmaker pits whimsy against seriousness, the outcome is a stalemate; but the real winners of the fight are Nick Harkaway and his readers.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts on this year’s Award.

Elsewhere
Nick Harkaway’s website
Some other reviews of Angelmaker: John Clute for Strange Horizons; Emily St. John Mandel for The Millions; Matt Craig at Reader Dad.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (2008)

The Gone-Away World

The Jorgmund Pipe is on fire. It shouldn’t be, because it was designed to be the most resilient structure ever built by humans; but then again, the very notion of  things that should or should not be looks kind of quaint in this future. The Pipe is vital because of what it carries around the world: a substance called FOX that keeps the Unreal at bay. The fire must be put out, and who better to do so than the people who constructed the Pipe in the first place? That small band of people are hired by the Jorgmund company to do so, and they set out at the end of the first chapter.

And then we go back in time and, for the next 300 pages, follow the intertwined lives of Gonzo Lubitsch and his best friend (who is the novel’s narrator) from their childhoods, through their time spent studying martial arts, to university, and then into the army, where the pair meet the others with whom they will eventually build the Jorgmund Pipe, and where they encounter the weapon which will literally change the world. The Go Away Bomb works by removing the information from matter, leaving nothing behind: the target is simply ‘edited out’ of reality, no mess, no fuss. Except, wouldn’t you know it, there is unforeseen mess and fuss, and it’s the end of the world as everyone knew it.

Back to the novel’s present, and our heroes extinguish the fire — but it’s not over. On returning home, the narrator finds that his life has changed inexplicably. Then the truth dawns, and the course is set for the final showdown…

I don’t know whether to love or hate The Gone-Away World, and I suspect I’ll end up doing both. For one thing, it’s the writing: this is a long book, and Nick Harkaway‘s prose is dense, detailed and discursive. For example:

The apple cake is very good. It is fresh and sweet, with moist bits of apple and the applegoo which happens when you make a cake like this and get it just right. There are none of those retch-inducing bits of core which some cooks insist are an important part of the apple, presumably out of a false sense of parsimony, because those bits ruin perfectly good mouthfuls and therefore consume scarce apple cake resources. Elisabeth is an apple cake perfectionist.

Then comes an even longer section about the cake box.

500-plus pages of this stuff is somewhat wearying; but reading The Gone-Away World is not a hard slog, and certainly I never considered giving up. I think the main reason for this was Harkaway’s superb control of the prose: he surely knows exactly what he’s doing — when other characters take over from the main narrator to tell brief stories, the changes in voice are distinctive — and, once you get into the syle, it’s quite easy to accept the eccentricities and digressions (though there are still a few passages where you might feel like skimming). And there are some sharply effective nuggets of prose within, too; for example, when a soldier is injured: ‘Bobby Shank will escape, but he will not be okay. Not unless a miracle happens, and the reason they’re called miracles is that they don’t.’

The prose style adds to a more general feeling of being somewhere sideways of reality. That sense also comes from the novel’s quirky accoutrements (a pig-powered dynamo! bands of ninjas and mime artists!); and in the ways that its world differs from ours — it’s quite feasible to create alternate worlds that feel grounded in reality, but Harkaway’s doesn’t because, for example, its history and geography seem outlandish: Cuba has become part of the UK, and Gonzo and his friend live in a vague place which seems British, but might be somewhere else.

Fair enough, but in the early stages of The Gone-Away World, I started to wonder whether this quirkiness was going to muffle the emotional impact of Harkaway’s story. To a large extent it doesn’t: the author is quite able to weave in sharp satire; and in particular can get across the horrors of war — both its underpinnings (a modern war like the one fought in this book is an ‘un-war’, a ‘hyper-violent peace’) and its realities (as in his descriptions of the consequences of the Go Away Bomb).

Yet there are still times when it is harder to care. The quirky prose can make the characters seem distant; and aspects like the ninjas and mimes never quite lose their sheen of absurdity, which particularly lets down the story’s final act. But the sheer presence of The Gone-Away World is undeniable and, overall, welcome.

At first, The Gone-Away World is like a jolly, eccentric uncle who comes to visit, wraps you in a bear-hug, regales you with strange tales of his past, and never pauses for breath. As time goes on, though, you see more of the person beneath the eccentricity, and discover that you had more in common than you thought. I am glad I read the novel, and I won’t forget the experience in a hurry — for more good reasons than bad.

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