Notes on a Shortlist

It has not been hard for me to decide which novel I think should win this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. There are, for starters, two nominees I neither particularly admire nor particularly like, one that I like more than I admire, and one that I admire more than I like. But differentiating the two nominees that I both like and admire isn’t hard, either: for there is one that lives more vividly in my mind, that I am more eager to reread, and more evangelical about pressing into others’ hands. So my preference is clear. But here, for the record, in advance of the announcement of the winner this evening, is a summary of my opinions of the whole shortlist.

I don’t think it’s a bad shortlist, per se; there are several books that spring to mind when I think about books I would rather have seen listed, but on the whole Adam Roberts’ judgement that “Solid is one word for it, which is another way of saying safe” is right, I think. It is a shortlist whose values are predominantly the core values of genre sf. There are a lot of spaceships; for all the talk about New Space Opera, only one other Clarke Award shortlist this decade has had as many.

There are also a number of recurring themes. Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets, which would be at the bottom of my list if I got a vote, incorporates a number of them. Like four of the remaining five shortlisted books (which is surely more than the average among the submissions), it is written in the first person, which immediately puts questions of identity front and centre. Like Reynolds’ House of Suns, it explores these questions through multiple narrators who are in a sense the same person (and physical cloning features in The Quiet War, while mental cloning is an important element of Song of Time). It is concerned with ecological questions (like The Quiet War, and to a lesser extent Song of Time); and in that Margaret’s multiple identities spring from her childhood imaginings, it invokes questions of youth and maturity that, I would say, resonate in every nominee other than The Quiet War.

Adam Roberts’ review, I think, gets to the heart of the problems with this book, although for a more sympathetic take see Nic Clarke and Sherryl Vint at Strange Horizons. The Margarets is a book in which the value of life resides in its fecund diversity, but this leads to a number of problems. There is a moral problem: as Adam puts it, it leads to Tepper prioritising forest over humans. There is a structural problem: the diversity, and the divergence, of Margaret’s lives is never conveyed as well as it should be; it’s all too abbreviated, or too clumsy. There is a a stylistic problem, in that Tepper has an absolute tin ear for names. Sentences such as, “We were shortly disabused of this idea when several humans in transit to Chottem from bondslave planets farther into Mercan space were also slain by the ghrym” are, to my mind, at least as wearying as anything Stephenson comes up with in Anathem; there is an absolute profusion of proper nouns, none of which seem to follow particularly well thought-out linguistic schema. (I think Tepper is winking at the reader at least some of the time — more, in fact, than many discussions of this book have given her credit for — but that does not excuse, for example, cat-people called Prrr Prrrpm and Mrrrw Lrrrpa.) And finally, there is the problem that Tepper’s stance seems to me a lie. Were she writing of just Earth — or a fantastical analogue of Earth, which is what she seems to want to be writing for most of the second half of the book, at least — her argument would be sound; but in the vastness of space, life’s value seems to me to inhere in its scarcity, in how fragile it is. The Margarets never conveys that sense; indeed, life in its galaxy is so commonplace that it is hard to care whether humans learn the error of their ways. The book has plenty of other problems — a distressingly Campbellian attitude to alien life, for example, as Edward James points out; and I can’t help thinking that a critique of humanity’s willingness to lean on comforting stories of magic instead of facing up to reality would carry more force if it didn’t co-exist with telepathy as a crucial plot element — and the result is a near-incoherent muddle.

Mark Wernham’s Martin Martin’s on the Other Side spends a good portion of its time being incoherent, but at least it does so deliberately; this, and the fact that it is just over half the length of Tepper’s novel, are the only things raising it above The Margarets in my estimation. It was over sooner. Jonathan McCalmont has noted that the book grew on him since he first read it, but I find it hard to imagine that happening to me; though there is an extent to which I admire, as Adam puts it, “the inadvertent eloquence of Jensen’s ‘fucking fucker’ laddishly limited register”, there is a much greater extent to which I simply found it tedious. I diverge from Jonathan, too, in that I don’t think it’s a novel about idiocy; it’s a novel, as Nic has it, about infantilisation, which is somewhat different. It means, for a start, that there were a few moments where I felt sympathy for Jensen Interceptor, trapped within the role his society has forced him into: the eternal puerile child There is also something inspired about the melding of PKD-style undermining of consensus reality with a cultural drive towards getting totally fucking hammered; but it is never elaborated coherently enough to sustain an entire novel.

The rest of the nominees I have already written about. Reynolds’ House of Suns is the book I like more than I admire, and a book that articulates the idea that we, the members of the human race, are all children, much more effectively than does The Margarets. I liked the expansiveness of the novel, and I found it rather more visual and well-paced than did, for example, Edward. I also think the flashback sequences are more effective, and better-integrated into the novel, than many other reviewers. But there’s no denying that it does have limitations: “Narrative, tick. Widescreen visuals, tick. Other stuff, hmm.”

Unlike the judges, I don’t have the benefit of a second read of the shortlist to give depth to my opinions; however, for the remaining three novels on the list — the three I could live with winning — I do have the benefit of time, in that it’s some months since I read any of them, and my opinions have accordingly had more time to settle. The Quiet War is the novel on the list I feel most out of step with the consensus on; Edward picked it as his favourite, as did Adam, and the Not the Clarke Award panel at Eastercon. But in Liz’s poll, at least at the time of writing, far more people think it will win than think it really should win; so maybe I’m not as out of step as all that.

Still, reading my review of The Quiet War now, I can’t shake the feeling that I didn’t get to the core of the novel, either in terms of its virtues or its flaws. I think Nic does that rather better in her post about the book, although Edward also inadvertently put his finger on it when he compared the book to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: “a cast of well-imagined characters, a mixture of political and scientific speculation, and a complete ease with the occasional infodump”. That is exactly right, and exactly my problem at the same time: I simply never felt the spark of life, in either The Quiet War‘s characters or its landscapes, that so distinguishes Robinson’s work. It is a book with few major flaws — its greatest virtue is its coherence of thought, although as the first volume in a duology, it is not quite self-contained — but almost by the same token, it is a book that never truly excited, challenged, or inspired me.

That leaves the two novels I both like and admire. Stephenson’s Anathem is an extraordinary book, there is no doubt of that; as Martin Lewis put it, “one part hubris to one part taking the piss to one part gnarly geek awesomeness.” As a vehicle designed to explicate and demonstrate a set of mind-expanding ideas, I have difficulty thinking of a recent, or even not-so-recent, work to match it. When I wrote my original review, however, I think I was perhaps too impressed by the overall architecture of the novel, that Stephenson had written something that worked as a novel, rather than (as I see The Baroque Cycle, or at least as much of it as I’ve read) an epic mess. It has not worn well in my mind; it’s still a book I will have no hesitation in recommending to (some) people, but I feel absolutely no need to revisit it. I am also, now, rather more sympathetic than I was initially to Abigail Nussbaum’s criticism of the novel for installing an intellectual homogeneity in its invented world. Or rather, it’s not the intellectual homogeneity per se that troubles me — I don’t want there to be a range of theories about how gravity works, or time works, or consciousness works; I want there to be single theories, that work — but that, as Nic explores, in setting up that intellectual homogeneity, Stephenson does away with cultural diversity. Perhaps the most telling indicator of this flaw is that while there are nods to equality of gender and sexuality — even if they are absolutely tokenistic — there is no equivalent nod to cultural diversity.

Which leaves Song of Time — or rather, doesn’t leave, since it is emphatically not the case that MacLeod is my preferred winner by default. Once again, and gratifyingly, I find that on the evidence of Liz’s poll, more people feel the way I do about the book than I expected. I think I came rather closer to getting to the bones of it in my review than I did with either The Quiet War or Anathem; although I have to say, although Nic’s review and Tanya Brown’s review are both very good, I don’t think anyone has yet fully captured what makes Song of Time so compelling. Adam Roberts’ criticisms of the book are largely reasonable, but don’t seem that significant to me when weighed against its virtues. On a shortlist which emphasizes the value of personal, subjective, human experience (as opposed to the kind of distanced perspective found in, most obviously of the novels not shortlisted, Flood), Song of Time offers unambiguously the best realised, most fascinating character; and for all the detail of McAuley’s colonies, for my money MacLeod offers the most vivid settings of any of the nominated authors. (Particularly, as Nic notes, cities; not because they are particularly “authentic”, but because the versions of their subjects that they construct feel so convincing.) It is the book that most productively challenged my sympathies; it is a novel saturated with science-fictional speculation, grounded in the emotions those speculations generate; and it is the only novel on the list, I would suggest, that engages with what it means to write science fiction in the early twenty-first century, both on a literal level, through the reflections of its characters, and stylistically, in how its voice refracts our understanding of some of contemporary sf’s common images and ideas. There is an irony, I’m aware, in asserting this in a week when YA novels have been awarded Nebula and Tiptree awards; Song of Time is about as far from the concerns of most YA fiction (and certainly as far from the narrative propulsivity of most YA fiction) as it is possible to get. But it is, I think, the best book on the list, and one of the best novels published in 2008. I hope it wins. Whatever does, I will post here as soon as I can, with a full update tomorrow. Let’s see, eh?

17 thoughts on “Notes on a Shortlist

  1. I don’t think I agree about ‘infantilisation’ re Martin Martin.

    Does not ‘infantilisation’ imply some kind of deliberate process of dumbing down? My problem with that is that when you catch glimpses of the PM or a senior civil servant, they’re arguably as stupid as Jensen is. There is no smart person pulling the strings. As a result, I’m not sure that seeing Jensen as being trapped as correct. There’s an element of whiggishness to that assessment similar to say Dawkins seeing the religious as trapped in some kind of childish mindset. Nobody is forcing the people in Martin Martin to be idiotic, it’s just that society has undergone radical change and that’s the stable shape it has settled into.

    It’s a bit like the ending of Baxter’s Flood where they talk about the Earth changing into a new, different but stable state. For those of us who live outside of this state it seems like a complete perversion of the natural order of things but for the kids who grew up in that state, it is natural. It is the older people who are pointlessly over-complex. I think that Martin Martin captures that same sense of intra-generational/intra-cultural alienation.

    For exampe, do you really think that Jensen Interceptor is unhappy spending his time at Starfucks and lying in bed watching up-skirt cameras on the giant plasma telly he has implanted in the ceiling? I’m not sure that he is. In fact, he’s probably a damn sight happier than anyone I know.

  2. Replying from my phone here, which is a bit of an experiment since it doesn’t render TC particularly well, and means my comments will be necessarily abbreviated. But a) I don’t think that infantilised necessarily implies an agent driving the dumbing-down, b) I think there almost certainly was an agent at some point in MM’s timeline, but a blind agent, the swell of market forces, that has now been pulled down into the morass, c) I’m certain that Jensen is happy – excepting the occasional moments of near-insight – but I don’t think that changes the fact his society is set up to keep him locked in certain patterns of behaviour, and I feel some sympathy for him at the moments when he comes close to realising that. He is naturalised to it, in the way that we’re naturalised to our world, and you’re right that that does model generational differences, but I think it’s still possible to say that Jensen’s society is even more rigid than our own. Put another way, my problem with saying Jensen is an idiot is that it seems to imply that, removed from his environment, he would still behave idiotically, and I’m not sure that’s true.

  3. … two nominees I neither particularly admire nor particularly like, one that I like more than I admire, and one that I admire more than I like … differentiating the two nominees that I both like and admire isn’t hard.

    So, what’s your position on known knowns, unknown knowns and known unknowns?

  4. I can certainly live with SONG OF TIME winning, but I have to say it’s a book that I felt I should both like and admire more than I did. My main problem with it was the rather tired device of the main character being a magical superhero musician — and the book’s failure really to convey that, rather we are simply told that. (I do not deny that conveying that would be hard, mind you.) I also felt its 21st Century, though interesting enough and sensible enough, never felt new — it felt at times almost like a check the box list of ills and wonders. Which perhaps is unfair, because perhaps that depicted future is actually more plausible than something more spectacular, but there you are.

    That said, I really did enjoy the book as a whole. I basically agree with the standard review of HOUSE OF SUNS (and in fact my SF Site review was pretty much in line with that), but, mainly because of its expansiveness, and because of my fondness for its particular style of SF, I think I liked it more than SONG OF TIME, even if maybe I admired SONG OF TIME more.

    (My actual SONG OF TIME review is sitting in John O’Neill’s inventory at BLACK GATE …)

    I haven’t read the other books on the shortlist, and will probably only get around to ANATHEM and THE QUIET WAR among them. Both of which I look forward to …

  5. My problem with that is that when you catch glimpses of the PM or a senior civil servant, they’re arguably as stupid as Jensen is. There is no smart person pulling the strings.

    Jonathan, were we reading the same book? We DON’T catch a glimpse of the PM, quite deliberately so I think, only a carefully portrayed public image of the PM. (I personally have my doubts the PM exists at all, but that’s a different issue.) Whereas we do see senior civil servants, and they are quite obviously very different from the world in which the public are encouraged to remain; there’s a very noticeable shift in Jensen’s perception when he is first taken by Brock to see the senior civil servant (forgotten his name, Mishkin?) and he sees a quiet office, with people doing serious paperwork and Jensen realises that this is SERIOUS. Near the end of the book, there is another explanation from the civil servant about why they’re doing what they’re doing, and it is quite clear that the bureaucracy knows precisely what it is doing, and is deliberately “pulling the strings” as you put it.

  6. You see glimpses of him through his media presence; posing with a banana, doing tricks on skateboards, nude portraits.

    As for the civil servant, yes… he claims to be pulling the strings but the reasons he gives for doing so are completely ridiculous. I seem to remember it’s essentially about recruiting spies in order to generate work for other spies to do. It’s like Lem or Kafka to the nth degree. It’s institutional madness and blindness.

  7. You see glimpses of him through his media presence; posing with a banana, doing tricks on skateboards, nude portraits.

    We are also told that the portrait of the PM in the Department of Security is very serious so obviously different fronts are presented to different audiences. In fact, it does not seem at all unreasonable to suggest there is no PM at all or if there is he is unconnected to the media images.

    It does seem obvious that there are people pulling the strings and that as you get older and advance up the hierarchy the reward/control system changes. So if you are a drone like Jensen you get boris and whores and if you are someone like Mishkin you get something more sophisticated. Like golf and whores.

    I agree with Niall that it is about infantilism and I do think there is a clear current agent. “Nobody is forcing the people in Martin Martin to be idiotic”? What about the life long indoctrination and pharmaceuticals? It seems likely that as you get older these things decrease and you return to a less idiotic state (again, see Mishkin).

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