TagSheri S. Tepper

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.

Sheri S. Tepper, The Waters Rising (2010)

The Waters Rising is a loose sequel to Sheri Tepper’s 1993 novel A Plague of Angels (the two books share a protagonist, but pretty much stand alone). In a distant future where, after collapse, society has reverted to a medieval milieu, with added ‘magical’ phenomena (such as talking animals) courtesy of largely-forgotten science. Travelling pedlar Abasio and his wisecracking horse Big Blue arrive at the Duke of Wold’s castle, where the Duke’s Tingawan wife, Xu-i-lok, is ailing. Abasio meets Xulai, the young Tingawan charged with the traditional responsibility of carrying Xu-i-lok’s soul back to Tingawa, should the princess die away from her home country. Xu-i-lok does indeed die towards the start of the novel, and Abasio joins Xulai and guardians on their journey to Tingawa, where a solution might also wait to the rising waters which threaten to engulf the land – but, of course, there are those who would see Xulai fail in her quest.

Since I’m reading this book in the context of its Clarke Award nomination, I need to address the question of genre; because, for a novel which has been shortlisted for a science fiction award, The Waters Rising spends an awful lot of time looking like an epic fantasy. Yes, it’s set in the future; and, yes, its fantastications have scientific underpinnings; but they might as well be magical for all the difference it makes. Here, for example, is the evil duchess Alicia explaining the ‘curse’ she has placed on Xu-i-lok:

There’s no such thing as magic. No. My favourite machine makes lovely curses, invisible clouds of very small, powerful killers. I can make the cloud and keep it alive in a special kind of vial. Then, if I get close enough to the person and release the cloud, the cloud will find that person among all the peoples who may be near, no matter where the person is hidden, so long as I release it nearby! (p. 25)

What Alicia is describing here – though she doesn’t know the scientific words for it – is a nanotechnology weapon tailored to its target’s DNA; but it could just as easily be a magic spell. To me, his isn’t the sort of sf/fantasy bleeding that justifies considering a novel as science fiction. I’m not great fan of A Plague of Angels, but it was far bolder in the way it combined sf and fantasy: its characters moved knowingly between fantastical and science-fictional venues, and the novel held the two modes in tension. By The Waters Rising, enough time has passed that the science fiction is largely hidden behind the curtain of fantasy; and the odd intervention like Alicia’s nanotech ‘curse’ – or even the book’s final third, where the sf becomes more overt – is not enough to alter my perception that the beating heart of Tepper’s book is a traditional quest fantasy. That’s one reason why I’m annoyed that The Waters Rising has been shortlisted for the Clarke.

Another reason is that the book really isn’t very good, even as a quest fantasy. Structurally, the story is a fairly straightforward wander across the map, with occasional scenes joining the caricature villains (one even laughs, ‘Heh, heh, heh,’ at one point), who helpfully do much of their plotting out loud for our benefit. This might be fine in Saturday morning cartoons, but it reads very crudely in a novel. There are some diverting pieces of fantastication, such as the villagers of ‘Becomers’, whom Alicia has persuaded they must behave in a certain way (singing to each other, for example, or painting themselves blue) to receive the king’s favour.  But, like Declare on last year’s Clarke shortlist, too much of The Waters Rising is overstuffed with detail (the low point of this for me is a pages-long description of an abbey’s mealtime procedures).

As I mentioned earlier, the novel’s science-fictional aspect comes more strongly to the fore as we reach the final third, which is when the party reaches Tingawa, and solutions to humanity’s problems are mooted and implemented. But, even here, Tepper’s book frustrates. The Waters Rising has environmental degradation caused by humans in its background (‘Men were foolish and did foolish things [says one character], they did not respect the earth, they worshipped the ease machines and the world punished them by becoming barren,’ p. 200); but the immediate difficulties being faced in the novel have more fantastical origins, and the means of addressing them likewise. To my mind, this undercuts the book’s moral message, as well as its status as science fiction.

In sum, I really have no idea what The Waters Rising is doing on the Clarke shortlist, and can see no reason to recommend it.

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

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