CategoryMacLeod Ken

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…

***

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.

***

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.

“They’d never see it coming”

Ken MacLeod, Intrusion (2012)

The thing about choice is, there are so many variables. In the future of Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion, there is a “free and social market” to give people a hand with all that choice. As the protagonist’s MP explains:

For the market to be really free, it has to work as if everyone involved had perfect information…This is where the social side comes from – the state…steps in to allow people to make the choices they would have made if they’d had that information. Because these are the really free choices (p. 147, italics in original).

This sort of pernicious rhetoric has pervaded government and society in the novel: licensed venues don’t allow music or swearing (“Creating a hostile environment,” p. 28); hand-delivering a letter to your MP is considered a possible act of terrorism (who knows what could be inside, and why didn’t you use the official channels?). It’s absurd, but this is the world in which MacLeod’s characters find themselves all the same.

The particular development which provides Intrusion’s impetus is a pill called “the fix”, which a pregnant woman can take to safely eliminate genetic defects from her developing baby. I say “can”, but talking the fix is on its way to becoming compulsory in England, unless you have a legitimate objection. Faith-based objections are fine, and there are various acceptable humanist justifications available; so more or less anyone who objects to taking the fix has a way out. No problems, eh?

No problems, that is, unless you don’t really have a reason for objecting to the fix – unless you simply don’t want to. This is the situation of Hope Morrison, expecting her second child, who can’t honestly commit to any of the stances that would permit her not to take the fix. The saying goes that nature abhors a vacuum, and the authorities in Intrusion abhor people like Hope, because they cannot put these individuals into boxes, and hence cannot understand them – and who knows what such people might do?

The main engine of Intrusion’s plot (particularly in its latter half) is the Morrison family’s attempt to escape London for a now-independent Scotland (where Hope’s husband Hugh was born) – but it is in MacLeod’s portrait of his future society that the novel shines most brightly. Several times, we see how the authorities cross-reference online traces and other seemingly-unremarkable points of data, and infer that someone might be a security risk – and the first they know of it is when the police come for them. This mirrors the novel’s sense that isolated bits of rhetoric have cohered invisibly to form the framework of government ideology; which can also be a net to trap the unwary, as Hope and other characters discover. The ending of Intrusion is also built on the idea of isolated details coming together unexpectedly, which is a satisfying touch.

Perhaps what’s most chilling about Intrusion is its quietness. As terrible as the society and events of MacLeod’s novel can be, its prose treats them largely as banal, which is quite fitting for the insidious way they’ve come about. Intrusion is likewise a book that creeps up on you – and stays there, just out of sight, waiting.

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

© 2021 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: