Notes on a Shortlist

Almost everyone, it seems, agrees about at least one thing about this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award, the winner of which is announced tonight: that it’s a good shortlist. (That post now updated with more review-links, by the way.) I’m not about to break that hardening consensus, and may even raise the stakes slightly. I think the 2010 shortlist is one of the very good ones; for me, as a shortlist as a whole, probably the strongest since 2003, when Light vied against The Scar and the ultimate winner, The Separation. Two of the novels — Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream — have been hailed as returns to form, two more — China Mieville’s The City & The City and Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia — as their authors’ best to date; and the remaining two — Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and Marcel Theroux’s Far North — are certainly not without their champions. Perhaps the most pleasing thing about the shortlisted novels is their variety. There are more and less straightforwardly science fictional works, set in times ranging from the seventeenth century to hundreds of years hence, and if you’re not calling them sf, you could call these books crime novels, Westerns, comedies, and adventure stories. (Or just novels, of course.) It’s a good showcase. But a novel is a prose narrative with something wrong with it; and so, though it’s harder to do than it was last year, we must look for what’s wrong with these offerings.

What it isn’t, for once, is very British, and the most British book on the list — if only for its blokeish humour — is the one most people throw out of the balloon first. Retribution Falls has plenty to recommend it, particularly pace and, in its retro-magical setting, colour, and is welcome on the shortlist as an adventure story, a form too often given critical short shrift that nevertheless requires considerable craft. I kick it out of the balloon first as well, though, not for being what it is, but for flirting with smeerpdom. It seems to me that the story Retribution Falls tells is not sufficiently specific to its fantastic content: that it could be retold in another time or place without changing much more than the vocabulary. (I’d say this is partly where the omnipresent Firefly comparisons are coming from.) And that’s not enough to be the best science fiction novel of the year, the book put forward as an example of what science fiction can be and can do. There’s also the question of the book’s female characters, which aren’t exactly depicted on equal terms with the men, although on that point I’m willing to give the novel more credit for self-awareness than, say, Nic or Abigail are (although this is not to mention the question of the book’s sole near-silent ex-slave character of colour, which is harder to excuse). Such factors must be considered when assessing the book, I’d argue; the political is as inextricable a part of literary judgement as the aesthetic.

An author usually impeccable on both fronts is Gwyneth Jones, whose Spirit — being a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo — would seem to also risk smeerpdom, but which actually passes at least that test with flying colours. I haven’t read the original, but I know its outline, and Jones does not seem to be in thrall (and in the book’s last third, seems to revise her model quite inventively, if not, in the end, entirely convincingly); nor have I read the major preceding work in Jones’ own oeuvre, the Aleutian trilogy, but there to I didn’t feel the absence of context particularly strongly. That is: Spirit is a full, contained science fiction novel. It’s about that most speculative of subjects, identity, or at least is at its best, so far as I’m concerned, when it hews closest to this theme. There’s much here about what defines us, and what might define us, in an era when space travel that treats mind and matter as interchangeable information — the raw stuff of self — and much about individuals who are defined, usually as Other. The novel’s great weakness is a lack of consistency. It really is a bit all over the place, veering from political intrigue to action-led set piece to introspective periods of what is glossed as “poetic time”; the latter are the most reliably good, and a section half-way through the novel set in a prison is seriously impressive, but the quality is never as even as it should be. A lesser but still significant weakness, I think, is a lack of freshness, a sense of being a bit second-had. Sometimes this is to good effect. I can see how Jones’ Star Trek aliens play into her theme — the alien understood as an element of humanity; or, in this case, perhaps more accurately humanity understood as an element of the alien — and I don’t want to take, for instance, Jones’ playfulness with gender, which delivers plenty of welcome perceptual jabs, for granted. But on balance, even if some aspects of the book aren’t seen as often as we might hope, there seems to me too little here that hasn’t been seen before.

Which brings me to China Mieville’s The City & The City, whose central conceit has clearly already entered the canon of Really Neat Speculative Ideas. What is so very neat about it, it seems to me now, and the novel’s greatest accomplishment, is how successful it is at exposing readers’ assumptions. To talk about The City & The City in any sort of depth is to reveal with uncommon clarity how you think about the world, about people and about fiction: all of which are always worth doing. But it is for me a less satisfying novel — certainly a less satisfying science fiction novel; I do think it reads much more interestingly as fantasy — than it a political act. Its plot is seldom remarked upon, although I note that in general this aspect seems to pick up more praise from readers who spend more time with crime novels than I do; and its narrator contains no great depths, and to my ear just a bit of strain in his voice. It’s primarily for the neatness of its conceit, I’d guess, that the novel quite deservedly won the BSFA Award — and, not surprisingly, it’s the front-runner in Liz’s poll. (The BSFA Award is not a great predictor of success in the Clarke Award, though, with only four books ever having done the double.) Mind you, if it does win, it will be a remarkable event, making Mieville the first author to win the Clarke Award three times; and three times within a decade, no less.

Now it gets really hard. Is Yellow Blue Tibia Adam Roberts’ best novel? Well, that probably depends on why you read Adam Roberts novels. There is certainly something to the idea that it’s his most relaxed, owned novel — as Jonathan put it, the work that combines Roberts’ various hats, as a writer of novels, histories, spoofs and criticism, “into one magnificent red satin topper”. In the honorable tradition of sf novels about science fiction, it surely has a spot marked out for it; it is funny; it has things to say about totalitarianism as well; it’s as technically well-formed a novel as you could wish; and its science fictional conceit delights me. To date the major charge against Yellow Blue Tibia has been Catherynne Valente’s hard-to-ignore assessment of “painfully inept cultural appropriation” (on which Roberts lightly comments here). That is: it is hamfisted as a depiction of Russian-ness. To me, the novel seems much more about popular conceptions of Russian-ness than about the thing itself. As Dan puts it, River of Gods would have been both a poorer and less honest novel if it had been written primarily with reference to depictions of India, but I don’t see that Yellow Blue Tibia is trying to be River of Gods, and I’m a little baffled that anyone tries to take it as such. It seems to me far too ironic, too playful, to self-conscious to be taken as striving — as McDonald’s novel clearly does strive — for anything approximating that horrible concept, “authenticity”. (That, and cultural appropriation strikes me as most egregious when there is a severe power imbalance in favour of the person doing the writing; and I don’t see that between the UK and Russia.) That sense of play, indeed, is one reason I read Adam Roberts; but another is to be challenged, to have my expectations about fiction and the world in general confronted in some way or another. And on that score, Yellow Blue Tibia disappoints me, seems to have fewer edges not just than Roberts’ other novels, but than other books on this shortlist.

If The City & The City is a popular choice for the award, Far North is becoming something like the reviewer’s choice, with Dan, David, Nic and Abigail all leaning in that direction, and Martin revising his odds accordingly. And for all that it’s been a long time since “the mainstream book” went home with the Clarke Award — since The Sparrow in 1998 — my head thinks that this could be Far North‘s year. It has a purity of concept and execution matched by no other novel on the shortlist, save perhaps The City & The City, and Theroux’s offering is a substantially more interesting novel of character (which does tend to be, in the end, one of the things the Clarke goes for). In its pragmatic depiction of life after ecotastrophe it eschews judgement in a way that few other such novels are able to — as Abigail puts it, it shows The Road how it’s done — and its Zone is as provocative and memorably eerie a location as antecedents. (It is also, like the previous three novels, a work that draws on Eastern/Northern Asia for its affect — a huge region, of course, but there do seem to me to be some affinities between Spirit‘s Baykonur metropolis and Chinese-influenced culture, The City & The City‘s vaguely defined border location, Yellow Blue Tibia‘s Communist Russia, and Far North‘s Siberia. And, of course, the one novel I haven’t discussed has a European setting. This is not, as I said, the most British shortlist.) In all, Far North is a novel that’s easy to argue for and hard to argue against, which is why I think it will win: after all, my mostly strongly felt argument against it, like Amanda, is simply that I like Galileo’s Dream more.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, which ranges between Galileo’s lifetime and the medium-far future, is expansive and rough where Far North is contained and controlled. It is a long book and — like its protagonist — can be exasperating (although this does not mean that I agree with Rob Grant’s assessment that it is “written to impress rather than entertain“), but it nails the dismount. And more than any of the other books shortlisted, it’s the one I want to revisit. (Of course, the judges will have revisited it, and all the others.) This is partly just because Robinson’s model of human nature and culture is one I am quite strongly in sympathy with: that the world may not be sane, but that it behooves us to find as much sanity as we can, and struggle for more; that it is possible to be utopian without de-emphasizing the challenges to that position. And it’s partly because I want to explore how Robinson tackles the material that’s new to him — the alien — in more detail. But it’s mostly because I want to revisit the things that are specific to Galileo’s Dream that Galileo’s Dream does so extraordinarily well. The exploration of memory, of how human beings live in time; the science-fictional dreams that use the techniques of sf past to address the tropes of sf present; and most of all, the sophisticated analysis of what it means to write a biographical historical fiction, to intervene in the thoughts of a past life as a future traveller (or writer). You can feel the tension — can in fact see it develop over the course of the novel — between that idea of Galileo as we can imagine he might have been, and Galileo as we (as Kim Stanley Robinson) would like to be able to imagine he was. At the end of a decade that’s given us quite a lot of historical fiction novels about science, for me Galileo’s Dream stands as the best of them: and of the books on this shortlist, I think it contains the most beauty, and the most truth. And so I hope it wins this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award.

26 thoughts on “Notes on a Shortlist

  1. Nice survey. Do I detect a softening towards Mieville’s conceit? Also: YBT is not, of course, a River of Gods; but nor am I sure it can point to its irony and say, ‘see? I can now decouple myself entirely from the setting I have chosen!’

    We agree, of course, on the two best, and they are close contenders indeed. I think, though, that Galileo’s Dream has far from a monopoly on beauty and truth – Far North bursts with both.

  2. Thanks for a great round up as always Niall

    Whether this is indeed one of the ‘very good’ shortlist years I’ll necessarily leave to others to debate and decide, but I will say this.

    If I had to pick a single element that made this a great shortlist for me – its signature vintage note if you like – I’d likely point to the fact that every single one of the books has its loyal camp of fans and advocates cheering it on, and for me this is a very good thing indeed.

    Couple that with a debate that’s been both exceeding rich and well thought as well as notably good-natured, and I think I’m close to understanding why, for me, this has been a very good year for the award in indeed, and certainly one I’ll remember very fondly.

  3. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that Spirit‘s final third decouples the book from The Count of Monte Cristo. Sure, there’s one huge deviation in that (SPOILER) the character is less interested in revenge than Edmond Dantes was (though one could make the argument that this is simply skipping ahead to where he ends up at the end of the book) (END SPOILER) but otherwise these chapters actually hew more closely to the original novel than the rest of the book – nearly every one of Bibi’s projects has its parallel in Dumas.

    Far North is becoming something like the reviewer’s choice, with Dan, David, Nic and Abigail all leaning in that direction

    Also Jonathan!

  4. I haven’t finished City and the City or read Galileo’s Dream or Retribution Falls but I do think that Far North is an incredibly strong candidate for the best work of science fiction published in 2009.

    Much like Yellow Blue Tibia, it engages with the collective history of SF but it does so in a very different way. A much more mournful way. The book is kind of a lament for a lost future. I think the reinvention of the Zone as just a modern city is one of the most inspired pieces of postmodern trope-wrangling I can remember. I also think that it is an exceptionally well written novel. Everything from structure to voice to pacing to imagery is stunning.

    Having said that, I am liking The City and The City. I think that it brings to the forefront a linguistic awareness that had previously been lurking in the background of Mieville’s writings. I’m not that far into it but so far I think it makes up for the horror of Un Lun Dun.

    As for YBT, I think that Valente’s criticisms are profoundly and laughably wrong-headed on a number of levels :

    Firstly, I think that the ‘cultural appropriation’ argument is a moral one not an epistemological one and it is difficult to ‘do an Achebe’ about someone who wrote a book about the Soviet Union with any degree of moral force.

    Secondly, I agree with you Niall that the novel is partly about the Western perception of the USSR but I think it is also about the way in which the Russians see (or at least saw) themselves. As I said in my Strange Horizons round-up, if you look at something like the Brothers Karamazov you will find that Roberts has perfectly captured one strand of Russian artistic self-representation – a strand that is all about exposing the absurdity of life and combining it with a lacerating sense of self-criticism. This is the strand that many ‘existential’ Russian novels flow from and Roberts nails it perfectly. Indeed, compare the scene in which daddy Karamazov talks to the elderly monk with the scene in which elderly SF writer is interrogated by the KGB and you will find all kinds of similarities.

    Thirdly, I think that even if you do want the ‘cultural appropriation’ argument to be epistemological then you are on quite shaky grounds anyway. Do you really want to be saying that a novel with a robot Stalin in it is unrealistic?

    And let us not forget than Ian McDonald is from Manchester and not from India or Brazil. Both River of Gods and Brazyl are westernised images of their relevant countries. In fact, Brazyl’s near-future sections are almost parodies of the way in which we in the Global North see people in the Global South : All of that sex, samba and poverty? Please and (to take us back to the first point) the section set in the past is heavily reliant upon works like Heart of Darkness and The Mission, themselves works produced by Westerners.

    If there’s a case to make about cultural appropriation then I think it is at the genre level : How do we feel about all of these post-cyberpunk authors exporting the American apocalypse to the developing world? This feeds into a strand in current political thought and arguably does have negative political and cultural impact by virtue of the fact that it amounts to western authors determining how we in the west see the Global South.

    But I don’t think this applies either to the former Soviet Union (though it did with regards to spy novels written in the west) or to Yellow Blue Tibia.

    Yeah so… laughably wrong-headed IMO.

  5. Dan: a slight softening, perhaps; or a recognition of its power, even as I would have liked more rigour? As for RoG/YBT: I never thought I would be more ironising than you.

    It’s slightly odd, having read Far North over a year ago now, even having liked it, to see how much enthusiasm it’s generating. I’m not saying it has no beauty or truth to offer, of course, just that KSR has more! And the more I think about it, the more I do think Galileo’s Dream is the most beautiful of the novels, both in terms of craft and concept, and I’m in the mood for beauty.

    Tom: roll on this evening.

    Abigail: My take on the final third was that Bibi was less concerned about revenge than I understand Dantes to be; she explicitly says, several times, that she is taking Lady Nef’s advice not to indulge in revenge to heart, and the misfortunes that befall her enemies seem to be more side-effects than deliberate. Which I like, to a point; when I say that I don’t find it entirely convincing, it’s because I think Jones tries to leave it somewhat ambiguous, and to suggest that by eschewing vengeance karma will have its day, which is a bit much for me. But my reading of this section could be entirely wrong, of course.

    Jonathan: if you like engagement with the history of sf, you should love Galileo’s Dream! I’m not sure I see Far North‘s engagement with sf so clearly, though I do think it chimes very nicely with things that sf has done and continues to do.

  6. Niall — History is the wrong term really… I think that Theroux is intensely aware of the origins of the tropes he plays with (far more than McCarthy whose usage of, say, Mad Max imagery is far less calculated) and the spin he places on these re-used ideas are part of what the novel is about.

    You may be right about the KSR but no paperback till August :-(

  7. Jonathan, how does THeroux’s engagement with SF square with his reputed unawareness that he’d written SF?

    Niall, I think that less explicitly than Roberts but more thoughtfully KSR is writing about SF and how it fits into his world. Like you I think it is the best on the list, for its multiple depths and great writing.
    Can’t make tonight so twitter hard please.

  8. Part of the problem I have with Galileo’s Dream is because of the quality of the writing. The historical sections of the book have such a rich texture, so sensual an awareness of colour, smell, taste, touch, that it throws into sharp relief the thinness of the future sections. At no point during Galileo’s various excursions to the moons of Jupiter, did I get a sense that anyone actually lived in these places. They were underimagined to the point of being barren, at least when you compare them to the Italian passages. And the less convinced I was about the settings, the more I found myself questioning the logic. If KSR had gone more wholeheartedly for dream logic, I’d have liked the book a whole lot more, but he didn’t and the various reasons he gives for all that happens in the future never actually make sense. I agree, this is the best written of the four novels I’ve read, and it’s one of the best historical novels I’ve read in a long time; but as a work of science fiction it is, I fear, at best only mediocre.

    But then. I have problems with all four of the novels I’ve read. Spirit falls apart disastrously at the end, mostly, as you say, because she is trying to do too many things with the novel. Yellow Blue Tibia has one character who suffers from the unlikely combination of autism and obsessive compulsive disorder; yet every single character in the novel talks as if they share the disorder. I don’t think there is a single exchange in the entire novel that convinced me it was a genuine conversation. And The City and the City has the most exciting idea and the most conventional plot of any of the novels.

    Of course, what wins the Clarke tends to be not the best book on the shortlist, but the least worst. So there are going to be arguments whichever way the result goes tonight.

  9. I have posted a blog entry considering the vital question of what to wear and the less important issue of what I think might pick up the gong. I’m a little wrong-fotted on the latter, having not read Gallieo’s Dream and not finished Far North, but I think it’s going to be between Far North and The City & The City.

    If am wrong, I will at least look fabulous.

  10. Paul: That seems an odd objection to level at YBT; isn’t it like saying nobody talks like the characters in The West Wing or Buffy? As for Galileo’s Dream, I thuoght the futures worked because, although not particularly dreamlike, they were clearly drawn from Galileo’s uncomprehending and somewhat distanced point of view. (Whether or not the lectures he receives there work is a separate issue; I’m quite happy to forgive them just for the sight of an author prepared to argue that sf can speculate about history more than five minutes into the future.) You should try Far North, though; it may well be the least flawed book on the list.

  11. “smeerpdom”? Y’what? That’s incredibly ugly, as made-up words go :p

    I think I should read Spirit. I love The Count of Monte Cristo in all its huge sprawlingness, and retellings of it too.

  12. No, what I’m saying is that none of the characters talk like a human being. There is no interaction between them, they don’t respond to what others say, each is there as no more than an authorial mouthpiece putting across the bit of information that they have to announce, but not actually hearing the information that anyone else is providing because nothing in the plot would work if anyone actually listened to anyone else.

    As for Galileo’s Dream, the future doesn’t work for me because Galileo looks at it differently from how he looks at everything else in the book. In the historical sections he pays attention to details and misses the broad picture, in the future he misses the details. For someone who is so open to sensory detail throughout the rest of the book I’d expect him to suffer a sort of sensory overload trying to take in all the newness of the future; but in fact there seems almost no sensory awareness whatsoever.

    The lectures, on the other hand, I don’t mind. Having sat through the interminable debates that have been such a feature of Robinson’s novels since the Mars Trilogy, I thought we got away remarkably lightly in this book.

    And yes, everything I’ve read about Far North intrigues me. I am rather expecting it to be the one to win.

  13. “smeerpdom”? Y’what?



    nothing in the plot would work if anyone actually listened to anyone else.

    Well, yes, that’s rather a function of the chosen style, isn’t it? But again I don’t think I can agree about voice. All the characters in The West Wing sound the same (well, to a first approximation; there are differences), and they all sound strongly authored, and their interactions are distinctly artificial in structure; it’s no different in YBT, for me.

    For someone who is so open to sensory detail throughout the rest of the book I’d expect him to suffer a sort of sensory overload trying to take in all the newness of the future

    Of course, the book’s narrator is present in the historical sections and not in the future sections (when he has only quite faint memories, and observations of Galileo from a great distance, to go on); that surely accounts for some of the difference.

  14. Niall, it’s not a matter of them sounding the same. It’s the fact that no conversation actually takes place, because nobody hears what anyone else is saying. But maybe this is just another example of why I have never found a single work of fiction by Adam Roberts that is remotely believable to me. As far as I’m concerned, none of his characters ever sound as if they are meant to be people.

    And the absence of the narrator doesn’t explain things in Galileo’s Dream: the narrator is absent for many of the most significant historical moments also and must rely on Galileo’s memories, yet the sensory description of those moments is no different from what he actually witnesses.

  15. It’s the fact that no conversation actually takes place, because nobody hears what anyone else is saying.

    I’d say that people don’t understand what other people are saying, being too locked up in their own worldviews. Which is common enough, surely, particularly in the sorts of Russian fiction Roberts is clearly referencing here?

    the narrator is absent for many of the most significant historical moments also and must rely on Galileo’s memorie

    … and on the immediacy of being in the same general time and place himself. I don’t say that this is the whole and entire explanation for the difference in the tone between the two settings, but I think it feeds into it.

  16. I’m not aware of any novel, Russian or otherwise, in which no characters pay any attention to what is being said by the person they are talking to. And it’s not a matter of understanding, it is a matter of not listening. And that holds true even when it is one character supposedly interrogating another.

    And Galileo is supposed to be excited by the future, to the point of addiction. He is enthralled by what he encounters, he is delighted by the people he meets. And back home in his own time there is only one person he can talk to about it. Does it really make sense, then, that he would give even less detail than e does about some of the more insignificant moments in his own life?

  17. I think we’d now have to pick out specific conversations from YBT to advance that thread further — which I may well do, but not right now, unfortunately! As for Galileo’s dreams: I had the impression the narrator was watching him through the telescope, not that Galileo talked about the events later. But I could be misremembering that point.

  18. re Spirit – I interpreted the ending as a finding of balance, rather than taking of revenge. Especially given that those who get their comeuppance don’t do so as a direct result of Bibi’s actions. If anything, it’s incidental. The fact that the book departed from its model in this regard I thought made it better than it would have been.

  19. Paul, Niall: YBT is satirical farce. If its characters are at wilful odds with each other, that seems to me part of the point. As we know, I disagree with Paul on the relative merits of Roberts’s work, but even were he right that by and large characters in those novels are always like this, then it seems to me the form in YBT is the perfect one for the style.

    As for Galileo’s Dream, I write a little about my take on its ‘thin future’ in the SH piece. But the point about Galileo’s perspective is key: as Niall says, it is itself mediated through the narrative voice, which has even less experience of the shifting futures than Galileo does; secondly, they are explicitly divorced from the observable reality with which Galileo is concerned. He cannot draw general principles from what he sees; it is not surprise, therefore, that he does not register or record it. The future is so different that he cannot theorise in order to have something to test with observation; he relies, then, on psychotropic drugs and wordy lectures. He must, before observing, first relearn the world.

  20. Jonathan, I got the impression you were talking about Theroux deliberately engaging with SF, which does somewhat clash with his not realising he’d written SF. Of course so many SF tropes are now universal that a novel doesn’t have to be remotely SF to interact with SF.

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