TagFar North

The month in reading: April 2010

April was the month of the Clarke Award, and completing the shortlist led me to read my favourite book of the month — Far North, Marcel Theroux‘s tale of survival in the aftermath of environmental change. I also read two great coming-of=age novels in April: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, set in 1960s Australia; and The Spider Truces by Tom Connolly, set in 1980s Kent. And, in terms of short stories, Sarah Singleton‘s tale ‘Death by Water’ from Black Static 15 was my pick of the month.

Clarke Award 2010: in review

The commentary I’ve encountered on this year’s Clarke Award generally agrees on two things: that it’s a five-horse race, and that Chris Wooding is the author who’s written the also-ran. Having read all the shortlisted novels, I must concur with that view. Retribution Falls is a good book on its own terms — a superior sf adventure story — but it seems lacking in the context of this shortlist. It just doesn’t have the extra depth that the others, in their different ways, all have. For that reason, Wooding’s book is first out of the running for me.

The favourite to win the Clarke this year is The City & the City. This is a fascinating, innovative novel (the first, as far as I’m aware, to engage so explicity with the crtical taxonomy of fantasy that has emerged in the last fifteeen years), possibly China Miéville’s best-written to date. I like it very much… but I don’t think it should win. The reason I don’t think it should win is that the Clarke is an award for science fiction, and The City & the City doesn’t make sense if read as sf — one is forced into an unsatisfactory psychological interpretation. However, the novel does make sense — and is much more interesting — if read as fantasy (see my review for more on this); I’d be happy for it to win any fantasy awards for which it may be nominated, but I don’t see it as a good fit for the Clarke.

I intended to review the entire shortlist, but, in the end, I’m one title down. The reason I haven’t written previously about Gwyneth Jones‘s Spirit is that I really struggled to get to grips with it. I grasped the basics of the story, but there’s so much else about which I’m not sure that I can’t see my way to giving the novel a proper review. Why I experienced this difficulty, I don’t know; maybe it was because of all the associated books I hadn’t read (Spirit is a re-interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and is connected to both Jones’s earlier Aleutian Trilogy and her Bold as Love sequence), maybe something else. Whatever, though I’m not able to comment on Spirit in detail, I do gain an impression of a significant work.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson combines fictional historical biography with far-future sf, to what I found was mixed effect. It is an excellent work at times, but tries one’s patience at others, and its two aspects don’t integrate as well as they might. But there’s a lot about the book that I know I missed (I didn’t pick up on all the sbutext, for example), so I’m quite willing to accept that Galileo’s Dream is a stronger book than I found it to be, and hence a strong contender for the Clarke.

There’s also a lot about Adam Roberts‘s Yellow Blue Tibia that I know I missed — but, all the same, I thoroughly loved it. Of all the shortlisted title, this is the one I enjoyed the most, both for its humour and for what it does as a work of imaginative literature. I can’t judge in full how successful it is, because for that I’d need more knowledge of its historical setting, and the science fiction with which it engages — but it’s worthy of winning the Clarke as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, Marcel Theroux‘s excellent Far North, which is my other pick of the shortlist. A post-disaster novel which is less about the effect of change on the world than itseffect on humanity, this is a quiet book that makes its point subtly and with force. It works superbly as an aesthetic whole, to a greater extent than perhaps any other novel on the shortlist. A win for Far North would be thoroughly deserved.

So, I’d most like to see Roberts or Theroux be awarded the Clarke this year, but, really, it’s an open field, and I would not like to predict who will win. The winner will be announced this Wednesday, and I look forward to finding out whom it will be.

Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009)

Marcel Theroux’s Far North is a tale of endurance and survival, though not necessarily in the way one might anticipate.

Our narrator is Makepeace Hatfield, the constable of a frontier town in Siberia, though she’s not really sure how many people there are to protect and/or fend off any more. Makepeace is the daughter of parents who, along with others from the US, settled in Siberia looking for a simpler life, environmental changes having put intolerable pressures on the life they knew. It didn’t work out, and now who knows what’s going on in the wider world? Not Makepeace, who has enough on her plate with day-to-day living. But when, one day, she sees a plane – a sure sign of other humanity – she decides to head out beyond her town to see what she can find. In due course, she is captured and taken to a prison-town, where she discovers that maybe not all of that old world has gone, or perhaps a new one may yet be forged.

Far North is striking both for what it is and is not. It is a clearly told tale (Theroux’s prose is expressive, but not densely poetic; the latter would be out of place in the harsh world of his book) of a woman who has to face up to a life and world of deep contradiction; for example, she doesn’t ‘share [her parents’] view of the merits of scarcity’ (50), yet efforts to rebuild the world bring their own difficulties.

But, even though Far North tells of an individual making her way through the wilderness, it’s not a tale of survival in a documentary sense; the landscapes and how people live are in there, but the details of those aren’t the main focus. Rather, I think Theroux is interested in depicting a more fundamental kind of endurance – the endurance of the human spirit.

Throughout the novel, one is constantly reminded that this is a story: the references to Makepeace writing her words down; the beats of the narrative (the knowledge that Makepeace is a woman comes twenty pages in, in a way that could wrong-foot the unwary reader). And, if we take the view that stories are a way in which humans make sense of the world, then we can say that a story is being enacted even in this harsh setting, which would seem to have no room for stories. Yet the story goes on, and so does humanity.

What I take away most from Far North is a sense of the enormous pressures (and I’m talking about psychic pressures here as much as physical ones) under which Theroux’s characters have been placed, and the price they’ve had to pay within themselves in order to survive. The novel’s title refers to a moral compass as well as a geographical one, and the idea that, if you travel far enough north, all directions start to lose meaning. Both Makepeace and other characters have done (and do) morally reprehensible things; but right and wrong become malleable concepts in the reality of this book, and that’s what Theroux captures so well.

Far North announces itself quietly, and never raises its voice – but its echoes remain after the book is closed. Like humankind in the tale, it endures.

Links
Marcel Theroux’s website
Theroux writes about the novel

This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

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