Clarke Commentary

Graham Sleight:

[A]lthough you could argue with some of the exclusions, I think all the shortlisted books have something to commend them, and a couple are really exceptional.

The wildcard is probably Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, a book not much noticed by the sf community so far — an exception being Jonathan McAlmont’s review. I may wind up writing about it myself, so won’t give too many spoilers here; suffice it to say that it’s a fizzing near-future novel with plenty to say about contemporary media culture. I don’t quite agree with Jonathan’s argument that it sits in his new subgenre of Barleypunk (defined here, with some NSFW language) – I think the near-future elements have more in common with something like A Clockwork Orange.

Predictions? I’m rubbish at them, and in any case they depend so much on the personalities and tastes of the jury, and the dynamic between them. From my own tastes, there are two or three books on the list I’d be very happy to see win, but your mileage may vary. Emergent themes? Well, it may be just coincidence, but there are several books on the list about selfhood, and what happens to it when split or cloned. (So there’s a lot about memory too.) The state of sf? From this showing, very healthy.

Jeff VanderMeer:

It’s an interesting and quality list, with the early frontrunner being the Stephenson, even though McAuley, Reynolds, and MacLeod are fully their equals (and then some) as writers. Tepper’s presence as a finalist is very welcome–she’s a severely underrated talent. It’s also good to see the judges reaching somewhat far afield in selecting the Wernham, which is a dystopian satire. (Although a quick scan of reviews indicates it didn’t fare to well in some quarters; for example, The Independent wrote last year that it’s “not half as cynical or radical as it would like to think.”)

Martin Lewis makes odds:

Anathem, Neal Stephenson – 1/2
Song of Time, Ian R. MacLeod – 3/1
The Quiet War, Paul McAuley – 3/1
The Margarets, Sheri S. Tepper – 6/1
House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds – 6/1
Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, Mark Wernham – 12/1

In the past I have been right and very wrong.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Of the two novels I’ve read, The Quiet War is well-done but underwhelming (an opinion in which I am joined by practically no one, as it’s been lauded by most of its reviewers and has appeared on several best of the year lists). I enjoyed Anathem very much, though its spell has faded rather quickly. Only a few months after finishing it, I can more easily recall Anathem‘s flaws–its flat characters, its by-the-numbers plot, its frequent infodumps–than I can the qualities that made me enjoy it despite them. Also, as Jonathan McCalmont points out in the comments to the Torque Control post, giving the Clarke to Stephenson would be a safe and predictable choice, especially given that he’s already won it for the vastly inferior Quicksilver.

I haven’t heard much about the other nominees, but I’m not particularly inclined to read either Song of Time or The Margarets, having had previous bad experiences with both their authors. I found MacLeod’s The Light Ages stiff and overwritten, with barely an appealing character or an interesting plotline in sight, and none of the short stories by him that I’ve read since have shown an improvement on any of these counts. Tepper’s Beauty was preachy and hectoring, and Strange Horizons’s review of The Margarets suggests that she hasn’t backed away from that dogmatic tone. I’m also not terrifically interested in Alastair Reynolds, and I’ll hold off on reading the Wernham, this year’s off the wall literary selection, until I can get a better idea of whether it’s the 2009 equivalent of The Carhullan Army or The Red Men.

Jay Tomio:

I do wonder, was Harkaway not eligible?


Though the shortlist isn’t very diverse, all these authors are incredibly accomplished and have contributed a great deal to the genre. You should definitely check out all these books to see which one you’d choose as the winner.

David Hebblethwaite:

I had it in mind to blog about this year’s shortlist, though I’m a little put off by the great length of some of these tomes. I’ll see how far I get, and the titles above will turn into links as I post about the books.

I am not widely read enough to be able to judge whether these six novels represent the best science fiction of 2008 (though I have read two books from last year — one of which I have yet to post about — that I felt would be good nominees, and both are absent), and have read precisely none of the shortlisted books. But this strikes me as a shortlist which is very much weighted towards the ‘traditional’ end of the SF spectrum, in the sense that five of the books are by ‘name’ SF authors, with only the Wernham a ‘non-genre’ choice. (The novels themselves may be far from ‘traditional’ SF; I haven’t read them yet, so I don’t know.)

Ian Sales:

It’s not a list that makes me want to dash out and read the books. I’ve already read – and enjoyed – House of Suns, but I didn’t think it was good enough for the shortlist. (But then, I predicted Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World would be on the shortlist, but I’m currently reading it and not enjoying it at all….) I’ve only read MacLeod’s short fiction. Perhaps I should rectify that. I’ve read a few of Tepper’s novels, and they were all very much of a muchness – solid mid-list fare with a slight undercurrent of umbrage.

Nic Clarke:

I’ve already read two of them: The Margarets, a solid but not spectacular effort from Tepper that I reviewed for Strange Horizons last year (and so won’t do a separate piece on it here); and the excellent Song of Time, a review of which will be appearing here shortly. I’ve started a third, the intimidatingly mountainous Anathem, which (thus far at least) is managing to leaven its inherent po-facedness with some silly humour.

The other three are all from authors new to me (if not, in the case of both Reynolds and McAuley, new to my interminable TBR pile…), so I couldn’t possibly prejudge, except to note an entirely unfounded suspicion that the Wernham will be this year’s Red Men. I have to confess that, on first glance, none of them strike me as deeply unusual or intriguing – but I thought that about two of last year’s list, before I read them, and they both turned out very well indeed.

Joe Gordon:

Wow, no less than three nominees – half of the final shortlist – come from the respected Gollancz SF list, they must be pretty pleased this morning (and none of those authors is a stranger to awards list, all come with a terrific literary pedigree). I’m not surprised to see Neal Stephenson’s latest work on there; I haven’t had a chance to read it yet myself (its on the must get that list) but I’ve devoured most of Neal’s other (often massive) books and they are usually a real tour-de-force of imagination, clever ideas and well-researched, richly detailed history (they’re practically an education as well as good novels). And good to see another award nomination for the independent PS Publishing crew, who seem to increasingly pop up on awards lists.

Quite a shock though not to see any contenders from one of our largest SF&F imprints (and a damned fine one), Orbit – I’m especially surprised not to see their publication of Ken MacLeod’s Night Sessions on the final shortlist. But that’s the nature of awards shortlists and the fact it may get some of us debating why certain authors were or weren’t on the final list is a good thing, because it gets us talking and thinking about good books (and while there are some I’d personally have liked to see in the final, that’s my taste and I have to say I don’t envy the judges – just look at the long list they had to choose only six finalists from).

Adam Roberts:

Sometimes things don’t go so well. Yesterday my bike was stolen (the sort of thing that happened all the time when I lived in London, but which is something of a shock after six hitherto biketheft-free years of living in Staines). Today it seems that my car has died: unsurprisingly, since it’s a banger, but still. And this afternoon I discover not only that Swiftly has not been shortlisted for the Clarke, but that Graham Sleight, a critic whose opinions I respect enormously, doesn’t consider it a book he or anybody else might even have expected to see on the shortlist. [Update, 19.3: I spoke too soon, as you’ll see if you click the link] So it goes, of course, howsoever disheartening. I get the sense that the stuff I’m interested in and value, SF-wise, really aren’t the things SF as a whole considers interesting or valuable. The wisdom of crowds, and okham’s razor, suggests that SF as a whole may be in the right. Ho hum.

More Adam Roberts:

Rather startled, to be honest, that Niall has taken my earlier whinge as a commentary upon the Clarke shortlist as a whole — it’s really no such thing, and provides commentary only upon a writer’s individual crumbliness, which is presumably banal enough news not to need wider distribution. As far as Clarke commentary goes, I’ll instapundit thus: it looks, at first blush, a solid list, with some strong books on it. I’m not the only person to be a little surprised at the absence of Baxter’s Flood (his Weaver would be just as valid a title there), Harkaway’s Gone Away World or Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go. But otherwise: Anathem‘s presence has the feel of inevitability; I thought The Quiet War a very very good piece of writing (and would happily see it beat Stephenson to the prize); House of Suns is not Al Reynolds’ best book, but it’s a perfectly good book for all that; and whilst I didn’t go overboard on Song of Time plenty of people were properly moved by it, so it clearly works brilliantly for some. I haven’t read the other two, but will remedy that soon.

Lou Anders:

I’m thrilled for Paul McAuley, whose novel The Quiet War, just made the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist. The Quiet War was one of my favorite reads of the past year. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I acquired US rights to it, and Pyr will be publishing it in September, with a new cover from the magnificent Sparth (who just turned in his illustration last week; I’ll debut the cover on the Pyr blog in a few.)

Meanwhile, the prize of £2009, along with a commemorative engraved bookend, will be presented to the winner on Wednesday, April 29th, at an award ceremony held on the opening night of the SCI-FI-LONDON Film Festival. Congrats to all the nominees.

(And yes, those of you in the US should wait for our edition, as I’d really like to be able to publish the sequel, Gardens of the Sun, which I’m about to start reading shortly. If you can’t wait, you could always read the UK edition, vote for it for the Hugo, then gift the US one when it comes out to that friend you’re trying to get into smart, literate, award-calibre SF. It’s just a suggestion…)

James Nicoll:

I notice 1: that all but one of the nominees is male and 2: nobody seems to have taken issue with this the way some people have with male-dominated Hugo lists. Is it just that someone has to be the first person to point the gender balance out and this time it’s me or have I been missing discussions? ObAcknowledgment of the excluded middle.

Looking at the short lists does suggest the short list generally has more men than women,

Of the twenty-two winners, eight were women (although none since 2002, which I think is the longest stretch without a female winner since the award was created).

And me? I think it’s a solid list for a very solid year; more than most years, I think there were a lot of justifiable possible six-book shortlists to be had. I’ve only read Song of Time, Anathem, and The Quiet War, but each of those strikes me as a perfectly valid nominee — though I’m willing to declare right now for Song of Time, which I still think is marvellous — and the balance of opinion of the other three seems favourable. That said, I find myself, for almost the first time ever, in sympathy with io9, when they say it’s not the most diverse shortlist ever. They may mean that in terms of diversity of authors — five white men (although it’s pretty representative of the demographics of the submissions, sadly, and it’s worth noting that the demographics of the protagonists are somewhat more diverse) — but I’m thinking in terms of types of sf. Flood is probably the one omitted book I would say really should be on the shortlist, and does modern disaster novel very well indeed; and I’d have welcomed the energy of something like The Knife of Never Letting Go or The Gone-Away World, or a more adventurous definition of science fiction represented by, yes, something like Swiftly, or perhaps Blonde Roots (a book of which my opinion has improved since I read it and which, as I noted yesterday, did make the Orange prize longlist). But I’m looking forward to reading Reynolds’, Tepper’s and Wernham’s books, nevertheless.

9 thoughts on “Clarke Commentary

  1. Adam’s reaction is really sad. I imagine him typing that with tears streaming down his face. To his left a loaded revolver; its cartridges spilled across the desk. To his right a bottle of whiskey, half drunk. Next to the bottle there may be an empty tumbler with a lipstick stain on the rim but the time for that has passed. Now there are decisions to be made.


  2. It wasn’t intended as a dig! :-( I genuinely felt sympathy for the emotions you expressed in that post and I could, to drop some Clintonian lingo, “feel your pain”. I meant no disrespect by my comments at all and I apologise if you thought I was taking the piss.

  3. This is all getting worryingly emo. At this rate we’re going to need a group hug, never mind individual hugs.

    I’ve updated the post with Adam’s edit. [Edit: and subsequent post.] I did dither about linking that post at all, but (a) I aspire to comprehensiveness, and (b) the point about the extent to which a Clarke award shortlist is an indication of what “sf as a whole” finds interesting and values in sf is of interest to me. This shortlist does look like one that holds up what for want of a better phrase you might call “core genre values” for what good sf looks like and does: is it surprising that the best six books of 2008 have shaken out that way? Jonathan, I look forward to reading whatever it is you’re writing on “Gollancz style”, because I have a feeling that it might play into this topic …

  4. ‘what good SF looks like and does’ . . . Hmmm. Here we come down to a familiar problem. Publishers are concerned both with books that can be marketed and easily sold as what everyone thinks good SF looks like and does (that being a publishing issue) and with books that they read and which make them think ‘hey! that was a bloody good SF book’ (that being a, for want of a better word, artistic issue).

    The two categories form a venn diagram. You strive to have the central crossover area as large as possible. Awards juries are free to pick their books from whichever part of the diagram they choose.

    Inevitable confusion comes from most people not being able to agree (and rightly so) which book falls in what bit of the diagram and both the awards and the publishers being pulled in different directions when it comes to trying to decide which part of the venn diagram they should be concerned with.

  5. Thanks Niall for keeping track and rounding up all of the commentary here, and thanks to everyone for all of the comments themselves as well – it definitely looks like being an interesting and unpredictable final call for the winner.

    Jonathan, I’ll add my voice to those people keen to hear your thoughts on that elusive Gollannz style. With three books on this year’s shortlist and three winners in the last three years there’s clearly something to hook on to there. Also, belated thanks for coming back to me on my earlier query re Anathem. I’m always really interested in people’s take on the shortlist of course, but I’m equally interested in what it is people look to take from the shortlist, so this was really helpful.

    I was also interested in the thread that span out from james Nicholl’s original post linked here, and I’ll definitely have to look at some of the stats people there were pulling together from the past years of the award.

  6. hey, it’s a list is all – in a few year’s time the significant books may well look like the ones everyone is lamenting the lack of here (although, I hate to break the news, Stephenson will still look significant in a few and many years’ time)

    However, I see Anathem as an immensely enjoyable jeu d’esprit rather than a Clarke winner. So I’m putting my money on McAuley.

  7. I detest flat characters, and I love contrived plots and info dumpos. None of your critiques will ever be able to change my mind about those, and so I continue writing accordingly. I have never read anything from Neal Stephenson, but he seems to be a heroic example of a writer to live up to, regardless of how many people try to force me to consider his most adorable strengths as flaws.

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