An Open Letter From The Arthur C Clarke Award

Per the subject line, something a bit different for a Monday morning. Please do give Tom feedback on the questions he asks below, whether in a comment here, or by email or another route. And spread the link to this post far and wide! Thanks — Niall

The Arthur C Clarke Award

An open letter to all fans of Science Fiction from Tom Hunter, Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

In 2011 we’ll be presenting the prize for the 25th winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

A lot has changed in 25 years, and the Award has not been immune to that change.

In many ways the Award is now at one of its strongest points ever. Its profile has never been wider, its organisational and community ties are strong, endorsement and support is high both within the SF community and the broader cultural sphere, and increased sophistication in electronic point of sale tracking is now showing direct correlations between Award announcements and increased book sales.

However the Award has also proven notably vulnerable to change at various points in its history, especially in terms of its reliance on volunteer governance and its historic lack of core financial stability in terms of assets, revenue generation or its ability to capitalise on far reaching fundraising or partnership opportunities.

Following the death of Sir Arthur and the subsequent winding up of Rocket Publishing (Sir Arthur’s UK company which funded the Award’s prize) the Award is now faced with an immediate and pressing need to change, adapt and re-evaluate its role and function as it moves into 2012 and its next quarter century.

This is a process that is happening now, and this letter to you all is a big part of taking my plans and those of Serendip, the Award’s governing body, to the next level.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award is built around three core values:

  • To recognise the best science fiction novels of the year published in the UK.
  • To promote science fiction and science fiction literature both within the UK and internationally.
  • To honour the memory and legacy of Sir Arthur.

I don’t believe that our current resources should define the pursuit of this vision, and rather I see our previous funding model slipping away as a necessary transition and the first step on the road to transforming the Award into a more deeply engaged social enterprise.

The good news is everyone involved with the Award has already been doing a lot of work in this area, looking at consultation, starting new conversations and setting up new partnerships, and the next stage of that process is to open up that dialogue more widely and start sharing our thoughts in places like this blog.

For me, the success of the Clarke Award and Serendip beyond 2011 means more connections with new and existing fans and organisations, and working with them to further raise the profile of the Award. We are also creating ways to quantify the value of the Award and assess its impact. The idea being that from this we can then meaningfully judge its success and demonstrate its continued significance as a key voice within the SF community, the publishing industry and beyond.

The questions we’ve been asking ourselves mostly look like this:

What value does the Award bring to the SF community and what role should it play in its future?

How important is a UK focused prize in an increasingly international and digital marketplace?

What more could the Award do as part of its broader advocacy remit to promote science fiction?

How much does the success and the credibility of the Award depend on it having a cash prize?

What new partnerships and opportunities could we create to generate seed funding for the future?

What do you think? What does the Arthur C. Clarke Award mean to you, how important a part of the SF landscape is it, and where would you like it to go from here?

I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts and ideas here, and I’ll aim to answer every question as best I can.

I’d also invite anyone who wants to contact me to discuss these issues or to get involved to find me on Twitter, LinkedIn or drop me an email at

People are already asking how they can get involved, and all offers of help, advice or useful connections are greatly appreciated.

Three things people can do to get involved right now are help us show the size of our audience by Liking us on Facebook or following @ClarkeAward on Twitter, re-posting the link to this page and, of course, by letting us know your thoughts in the comments here.

Thank you for reading and for your continued support of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Tom Hunter
Award Director, December 2010

Women and the Clarke

There’s an interview with Tricia Sullivan at Geek Syndicate that’s worth a look; it covers her new novel, Lightborn, but one of Sullivan’s longest answers comes in response to a question about the Arthur C Clarke Award:

8. I’ve just checked on the winners of the last ten years’ Clarke Awards and I must admit to being shocked. Nine male winners, one female winner. Something about this quota strikes me as wrong. I’ve double checked and female authors have been shortlisted, which is nice, yet no one else has won. I find this peculiar. Where do you stand on this perceived “unequality”?

I went and looked it up and here’s what I found: gender parity in the judges has been spotty over time, but in recent years there’s generally pretty good ratio of women:men on the juries. One would think this would mean more women on the shortlist and winning awards. Not so.

For the first ten years from the award’s inception in 1987 until 1996, the genders were balanced, five female winners and five male. Between 1997-2006 there were three female winners out of ten (Mary Doria Russell, Gwyneth Jones, and me) and between 2006-2010 there have been no female winners. The shortlist since 2000 has included Gwyneth Jones a whole bunch of times, Sheri Tepper, Sarah Hall, Lydia Millet, Jan Morris, Liz Williams, Audry Niffeneger, me, Elizabeth Moon, Connie Willis, Justina Robson twice, Octavia Butler, Mary Gentle, and Kathleen Ann Goonan. Yet, since 2003 there has been only one year with more than one female author on the ballot. What are the odds of a woman being chosen when the judges’s shortlist is 80% male or more?

I do not know why this is the case, but I wonder whether, with science fiction declining greatly in the US, there may not be enough women playing the SF game right now. Only the most successful writers can survive in this climate, and that probably means women are being forced out at a higher rate than men. Without much input from women in North America or Australia, the burden may be falling on UK SF writers.

I think this diagnosis is broadly accurate. Certainly we can say that the number of books by women being submitted for the award is pretty low. For the last award, 20% of submissions were by women; for the 2009 award it was 13%; and for the 2008 award, 13%. Before that the submissions weren’t published, but as a judge I can tell you that the submissions for the 2007 award were in the same ball park. My perception is that the first half of the decade was slightly better, although I don’t really know. Over the whole decade, however, 13 of 60 nominations, or 22%, have gone to women, which seems to be proportional.

That said, at that sort of rate you’d also expect to have had two women win over the decade, and there’s only been one, Gwyneth Jones in 2002. As Sullivan notes, I don’t think this can be attributed to an imbalance in judges, although there is room for improvement there; 34% of 50 judges over the period have been women. Women have made up the majority of the panel (i.e. 3 of 5 judges) twice in the last ten years, for the 2008 and 2009 awards; for the 2002 award, 2 of 5 judges were women.

Another way of looking at whether there are “enough women playing the SF game right now” is to consider how the boundaries are drawn, as Sullivan goes on to do:

We have a strong crop of men in writing SF in the UK now, and of course we have Karen Traviss and Jaine Fenn doing very well with commercial SF. But on the more literary side, only Gwyneth Jones has had recent recognition with many nominations and a win–and she’s achieved this despite the fact that she divides her energy with her alter ego, Ann Halam. Liz Williams’ work tends to be regarded as fantasy despite its cool SF elements; same with Stephanie Swainston. Sadly, Pat Cadigan hasn’t published an SF novel in nearly ten years. Justina and I have been dealing with pregnancies and babies and toddlers–I can’t speak for her, but for myself: been wrecked, for years. Brain and body and time, seriously drained. In this country we have women like Claire Weaver and Heather Bradshaw and I’m sure there are many others publishing short fiction, and abroad Aliette de Bodard looks like she’s going to be a major force. Still, in SF there aren’t enough women to fill in the gaps when one steps back for whatever reason.

And of course, since 2001 China Mieville has won three times. That does skew things toward the boys. But he has won with two fantasies and what is purported to be a crime novel, so that rather stretches the idea of what a science fiction prize is all about. I’m not sure why Stephanie Swainston’s work or Cathryn M. Valente’s Palimpset isn’t received as SF on the same basis as China’s, for example–or is it? I don’t know.

I’m guessing that literary novels employing SF ideas are more likely to be recognized than urban fantasy–which has loads of female authors–because science fiction ideas have wormed their way into the mainstream and now seep into literary fiction. The problem then becomes, where do the new ideas come from?

If we ask how many British women are publishing original adult science fiction with a major genre publisher in Britain, the answer is pretty bleak: with neither Liz Williams nor Gwyneth Jones having contracts at the moment, I think the answer may be just one writer, Jaine Fenn. [Edit: As of next year, thanks to a change in publisher, Sophia McDougall will meet these criteria; there is also the mysterious RJ Frith.] This is from one point of view a fairly restrictive way of drawing the boundaries, since if you drop out any one of those criteria you can easily think of more women, but in another sense it’s not strict at all, because it’s easy to identify a substantial cohort of male writers that fit the equivalent question: Neal Asher, Iain Banks, Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Ken MacLeod, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald, Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, Charles Stross, etc etc.

Of course, the Clarke doesn’t care about the nationality of the writer, or about who a writer’s publisher is. (Indeed, although the numbers involved are fairly small, I find it striking that “non-genre” books account for 1 in 3 Clarke Award nominations for women [4 of 13, or 31%] compared to 1 in 8 for men [6 of 47, or 13%].) It also already has a fairly flexible definition of sf, although not so flexible as to admit pure urban fantasy; but Liz Williams’ books have (I think) always been submitted, and shortlisted several times; Justina Robson’s recent fantasy/sf hybrids have also been submitted, although not shortlisted; and I’m guessing Gollancz will submit Sarah Pinborough’s near future supernatural horror A Matter of Blood this year. (Steph Swainston does not seem to be submitted, although I think Sullivan is right that she could be — some books more than others; The Modern World is her most sfnal, for me, this year’s Above the Snowline probably her least.) These factors account for most of the other submitted books by women. The Award could probably give broader consideration to YA fiction than it currently does; Gemma Malley’s books don’t seem to be have submitted, for instance, or Malorie Blackman’s. And there are, as Sullivan notes, some writers whose tie-in fiction who may be worth considering, such as Karen Traviss — her original fiction has still not been published in the UK. But I don’t think this would raise the submission statistics to parity, or anything like it, and it does not address the apparent imbalance in UK genre publishing.

The Clarke Award has not produced an all-male shortlist since its second year, but unless something changes, I imagine we’ll see another quite soon. To be positive, however, I don’t think it will be this year; here’s a list of all the books by women that I can think of that are eligible for this year’s award.

Candor, Pam Bachorz
Zoo City, Lauren Beukes
Servant of the Underworld, Aliette de Bodard
Alice in Time, Penelope Bush
Transformation Space, Marianne de Pierres
Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
Guardians of Paradise, Jaine Fenn
[The Nemesis List, RJ Frith?]
Feed, Mira Grant
The Carbon Diaries 2017, Saci Lloyd
The Birth of Love, Joanna Kavenna
The Returners, Gemma Malley
The Legacy, Gemma Malley
[The Folding Knife, KJ Parker?]
A Matter of Blood, Sarah Pinborough
The Dead-Tossed Waves, Carrie Ryan
Birdbrain, Johanna Sinisalo
2017, Olga Slavnikova
Lightborn, Tricia Sullivan
Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas
Walking the Tree, Kaaron Warren

Who have I missed?

The Winner

The Arthur C Clarke Award ceremony, for those who don’t know, is currently held in conjunction with Sci Fi London at a central London cinema, most of which happens to be underground. This has a few consequences, the most notable of which are (a) the award reception tends to be noisy, crowded, and hot, and (b) there’s no reception for mobile phones, and no wi-fi network, which in this day and age means near-complete online silence for most of the event, followed by a sudden burst as people return to the surface following the award. I tend to find it an enjoyable draining experience — all credit to Tom Hunter, and Sci Fi London, and the cinema, for organising it — and invariably engage in half a dozen half-conversations, and don’t even see half the people I would have liked to say hello to. After the reception, everyone files into one of the cinema screens for the ceremony: speeches from Tom Hunter, festival director Louis Savy, and chair of the judges Paul Billinger, and the announcement of the winner

This year: The City & The City by China Mieville, who made a gracious speech. As the Guardian notes, this makes Mieville the first author to win the prize three times, and which instantly looks like one of those decisions that couldn’t have gone any other way. The Guardian refers to the quote I gave them when Mieville won the BSFA Award, saying that I thought it wouldn’t be the last prize the book wins this year. I didn’t actually have the Clarke in mind at the time, and in fact The City & The City becomes only the fifth book to do the double; I was thinking of the Hugo. I’m less certain about the Nebula, and will be fascinated to see if it makes the running for either the British Fantasy Society awards or the World Fantasy Awards later this year — or, indeed, any crime awards. All of which is horse-race stuff, and less interesting than the book itself; but I think I’ve pretty thoroughly said my piece about it at this point, and I don’t think I can face another discussion about whether or not it’s sf.

Here’s a thing, though: the Arthur C Clarke Award winners for the first decade of the twenty-first century:

2001: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
2002: Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
2003: The Separation by Christopher Priest
2004: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
2005: Iron Council by China Mieville
2006: Air by Geoff Ryman
2007: Nova Swing by M John Harrison
2008: Black Man by Richard Morgan
2009: Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
2010: The City & The City by China Mieville

That really makes clear just how impressive Mieville’s achievement is, I think; at least two of his wins, Perdido Street Station and The City & The City, are for books that undeniably caught the imagination of the field. (And you wouldn’t want to bet that The City & The City will be his last win, either.) Is it a good list of winners, overall? I’d say so. Most of those books are ones I would recommend without hesitation to almost anyone. You could argue, perhaps, that the complete absence of space opera looks a little odd — although neither the Hugo nor the Nebula recognised any in the same period — given the attention that subgenre has received over the last ten years. And Gwyneth Jones looks rather lonely; as the release of the submissions lists over the past few years has made clear, the relative absence of women writers from the UK sf field is a structural problem that just isn’t getting any better. But there is at least a reasonable diversity of protagonists and, increasingly over the course of the decade, of settings; after three books at the start of the decade that draw very strongly on British locations and ideas of Britishness, the winners range increasingly widely, and are probably all the better for that. I wonder what the Award will throw up next year?

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.

Clarke Comment

Rounding up the reactions to the shortlist (aside from those in the comments to that post): first, there’s been plenty of chatter on Twitter; second, Alison Flood in the Guardian has comment from Chair of Judges Paul Billinger and Gwyneth Jones:

The full panoply of science fiction – from space opera to parallel worlds to dystopian futures – is represented on the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke awards for the best SF novel of the year, announced this morning.
“It’s a very strong selection and quite varied, reflecting science fiction publishing in this country,” said chair of judges Paul Billinger. “There are novels from people well-known in the genre – Miéville, Robinson and Roberts – but what they have written is not perhaps standard SF; they don’t have space ships, but these books are clearly SF.”
[Jones] decided to write the novel, she said, because she’s loved Alexandre Dumas’s original since she was a child. “It’s definitely not the first time this has been done in SF, but I felt there was room for a 21st century version, with a female ‘Count’; and I had a lot of fun with that idea,” she said. “Space opera is also, ironically, a great place to showcase the big, strange things that are going on in real-world science. In Spirit that means the concept of information space, and the really ‘out there’ idea that you can get one set of information to end up somewhere else, somehow without traversing the space/time between. Admittedly, so far this has only been done in the lab with a photon or two at a time, but I did not make it up.”

The award was originally set up after a grant from Clarke himself, with the aim of promoting British science fiction. “It’s good to have a judged award,” said Jones. “It gives unlikely candidates, and outstanding works from small presses, a chance to shine, which otherwise they might not get. And it’s good, particularly for an inward-turned genre like SF, to have an award that brings in a breath of fresh air. When a highly regarded mainstream writer is ‘up for the Clarke’ (such as Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Amitav Ghosh, and this year Marcel Theroux) hopefully that inspires SF fans to take the bold step of reading something different.”

And there’s a guest blog from Award Administrator Tom Hunter on the SFX blog:

But how to know why particular books are chosen when the deliberations are kept secret and the shortlist left to float alone like an alien monolith awaiting the attention of SF fandom?

Well, the short answer is that the silent monolith is a deliberate big what if?

It’s a precursor to debate and an invitation to speculation. In other words, it’s the beginning of a shared conversation about our genre.

The conversation starts right here at SFX by the way, and thanks to the team for being our media partners and helping to spread the word.

If you’re lucky enough to be at Eastercon this weekend, then I also recommend checking out the infamous Not The Clarke Award panel where a team of pundits attempt to unravel the judges’ decisions and have a punt on the potential winner.

I can’t underline the recommendation of the Not the Clarke Award panel strongly enough, by the way; it’s always an Eastercon highlight. And if you’re wondering who the judges are, there’s a photo at SF Crowsnest: excellent pose from Francis Spufford.

Joe Gordon comments at the Forbidden Planet blog:

Theroux and Wooding are authors I’ve not had the pleasure of reading yet, but China, Gwyneth, Adam and Stan are all exceptionally fine authors who I’ve recommended many times to readers searching for quality SF. Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville, Adam Roberts and Kim Stanley Robinson have all been nominated for previous Clarkes, with Gwyneth and China having won (Gwyneth in 2002 for Bold as Love, China twice, for Perdido Street Station in 2001 and Iron Council in 2005). I must say though that as with the BSFA shortlist I’m really surprised not to see a single author from Orbit (one of the biggest SF publishers) making the final list, but it isn’t an SF&F awards list until we have something to start debating, is it?

Orbit may be one of the biggest genre publishers, but I have to say I perceive them as stronger on the fantasy side than than the sf side. Checking the submissions, there were three Orbit titles in the running this year: Red Claw by Philip Palmer, Seeds of Earth by Mike Cobley, and This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams. Going purely by reviews (I’ve read none of them), I can’t say I’m hugely surprised none of them are on the shortlist. Meanwhile, as the Bookseller points out, Gollancz (not for the first time) nabbed half the shortlist slots.

Martin Lewis offers his odds:

The City & The City by China Mieville – 2/1
Spirit by Gwyneth Jones – 4/1
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts – 6/1
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson – 9/1
Far North by Marcel Theroux – 9/1
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding – 12/1

As I commented on the shortlist post, I think almost any of the books could win it (Wooding does strike me as the outside bet). Which means I think Martin underestimates the chances of Galileo’s Dream and Far North, in particular. Still, he’s not the only one to think Mieville the favourite.

Ex-judge Graham Sleight’s thoughts can be found at the Locus blog:

1) This is not one of the Clarke shortlists that occasionally emerges and prompts everyone to question the sanity of the judges. Though there are books I’d personally have argued should go on the list – most obviously Paul McAuley’s Gardens of the Sun – there’s no question that this is a pretty good representation of the best sf published in the UK.

2) The list does, however, underline the degree to which the sf published in the UK and the US has diverged. Unless I’m missing a trick, only three of these books (the Mieville, Robinson, and Theroux) are seeing US publication. And hardly any of the US-written books perceived as being the best of 2009 (eg Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Priest’s Boneshaker, Marusek’s Mind Over Ship – just for a start) are getting UK editions.

Both good observations (there are several more, if you click through).

Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books is planning to read the shortlist, as is James at Big Dumb Object, and David Hebblethwaite:

This is an interesting miz of books. I plan to read and review the entire shortlist (I’ve read three already; reviews are linked above, as will the others be), so I’ll have more to say as time goes on, but here’s an initial reaction:

The book I’m most pleased to see on there is Yellow Blue Tibia. It has met with mixed reactions, but I found it a stunning read. The City & the City is a novel which has generated much debate, and is very much open to interpretation (perhaps more so than any of Miéville’s previous works); I like it, but I don’t think it quite works. I didn’t like Galileo’s Dream as much, but I know there’s more to it than I was able to see.

And Nic Clarke, at Eve’s Alexandria:

The general feeling seems to be that this is a solid shortlist; I agree. It’s not the most adventurous list the Clarke has ever produced – but, on the plus side, there’s no obvious candidate for this year’s What Were They Thinking prize (see, previously: this, this, or – ack – this).

I’ve read three already: the Jones, the Mieville and the Theroux. All are strong contenders. I reviewed Spirit last year – a feminist The Count of Monte Cristo in space! – and longer considerations of the other two will follow in the next week or so. Post-apocalyptic loner-in-the-landscape tale Far North I liked a lot, once I got over the comparions with The Road; The City & the City, meanwhile, has a brilliant central conceit and provides much food for thought (and debate), but is let down by being hitched to an unremarkable thriller novel.

Of the rest – which, again, I’ll review here once I’ve read them – I’m most looking forward to Yellow Blue Tibia, which has had generally excellent reviews. Galileo’s Dream is a doorstep about intellectual history, although it sounds less of a slog than Anathem was last year; I’ve read two of Robinson’s previous novels (one rather good – review in the works – and one rather annoying), and I live with a die-hard Robinson fan, so that should be interesting, one way or another! The Wooding is apparently a fun romp with more than a passing resemblence to Firefly, which sounds like a perfectly acceptable way to round out a shortlist.

So it does indeed seem to be the case that the main Clarke Award controversy so far is an absence of controversy. We’ll have to see if that holds up once people have actually read the books.

EDIT: at Omnivoracious, Jeff VanderMeer has rounded up comments from Mieville, Roberts and Robinson:

Asked about the general response to The City & the City, also a Nebula finalist, Mieville said, “I’ve been incredibly happy about the response to the book for a bunch of reasons. It’s very different from my other stuff and one of the things, like loads of writers, that I’d like to do, is try writing in different styles and voices, traditions and forms, so to get good responses to something quite different, that there’s no reason my existing readers should have liked, feels like a real vote of trust in me, which I find moving. It makes me fired up to try all kinds of different things. I am increasingly excited by trying to write all kinds of different stuff in different voices, and hope readers have the patience to stick with me. Also because the book was a present to my mother, which makes it personally important to me, it’s affecting to have it received well.”

And some out-takes on his blog.

The 2010 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

So. This year’s judges — for the British Science Fiction Association, Chris Hill and Jon Courtenay Grimwood; for the Science Fiction Foundation, Rhiannon Lassiter and Francis Spufford; and for SF Paul Skevington — have deliberated and decided. Forty-one titles have become six. Among the six nominees for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award there are two previous winners, and two first-timers; five Brits and five men. Two of the novels also appear on this year’s BSFA Best Novel Award shortlist. Settings range from seventeenth-century Italy to twentieth-century Russia to worlds distant in time and space: which is the sort of variety you want from a science fiction award, isn’t it?

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 28th April, at a ceremony held on the opening night of the Sci-Fi London film festival. Get reading!

Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Paul Kincaid, for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Karen Joy Fowler, for The Guardian
Reviewed by Nic Clarke, for SFX
Reviewed by Lisa Tuttle, for The Times
Reviewed by Duncan Lawie, for The Zone
Reviewed by Cheryl Morgan
Reviewed by Ian Sales
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books

The City & The City by China Mieville (Macmillan)

Reviewed by Michael Moorcock for The Guardian
Reviewed by Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Robert Hanks for The Telegraph
Reviewed by Andrew McKie for The Spectator
Reviewed by Martin Lewis for The SF Site
Reviewed by Thomas M Wagner for SF
Reviewed by Helen Zaltzman for The Observer
Revieed by Eric Gregory for IROSF
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books
Discussion between Dan Hartland and Niall Harrison

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Reviewed by John Clute for Sci-Fi Wire
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum and Michael Froggatt for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Adrienne Martini for Locus
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
Reviewed by Lisa Tuttle for The Times
Reviewed by Adam Whitehead
Reviewed by Catherynne M Valente
Reviewed by Rich Puchalsky
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Cheryl Morgan
Reviewed by Shigekuni
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books
Reviewed by Niall Harrison

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperVoyager)

Reviewed by John Clute for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Adam Roberts for The Guardian
Reviewed by Roz Kaveney for The Independent
Reviewed by Robin Durie for ReadySteadyBook
Reviewed by Paul di Filippo for Barnes & Noble review
Reviewed by Greg L Johnson for the SF Site
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling Books

Far North by Marcel Theroux (Faber & Faber)

Reviewed by M John Harrison for The Guardian
Reviewed by Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Lydia Millet for the Washington Post
Reviewed by Brandon Robshaw for The Independent
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont for The Zone
Reviewed by Tim Martin for The Telegraph
Reviewed by Jeff VanderMeer for The New York Times
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Niall Harrison for IROSF
Reviewed by Shigekuni
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Michael Levy for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Alice at Sandstorm Reviews
Reviewed by Adam Whitehead at The Wertzone
Reviewed by Simon Appleby at the Bookgeeks
Reviewed by Joe Abercrombie
Reviewed by Tamaranth
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Niall Harrison

Initial reactions
The trouble with shortlists by Tom Hunter
What do we mean by “best”?
Shortlist overview by David Hebblethwaite
Shortlist overview by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling Books
Shortlist overview by Niall Harrison
A poll

Previous shortlist roundups

2010 Arthur C Clarke Award Submissions

Now we come to it! The shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award will be announced on Wednesday 31 March, and the award ceremony will be held on Wednesday 28 April, at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival. However, as last year, the Award is releasing the list of books that were submitted and considered and you heard it, quite literally, here first. Or rather, saw it:


Full-sized image to follow at lunchtime, but in the meantime, far be it from me to stop people trying to work out which book covers those are. (Amazing how distinctive some of them are even at this size, I think.) Note that this is not a formal longlist; it’s the books that were submitted by publishers and considered by the judges.

UPDATE: And now, the full list.


Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers (Solaris)
Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher (Tor)
Orbus by Neal Asher (Tor)
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury)
Twisted Metal by Tony Ballantyne (Tor)
Transition by Iain Banks (Little, Brown)
Ark by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)
Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
The Accord by Keith Brooke (Solaris)
Xenopath by Eric Brown (Solaris)
Seeds of Earth by Mike Cobley (Orbit)
And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer (Penguin)
Makers by Cory Doctorow (Voyager)
The Babylonian Trilogy by Sebastien Doubinsky (PS Publishing)
The Wild Things by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton)
Consorts of Heavenby Jaine Fenn (Gollancz)
The Stranger by Max Frei (Gollancz)
Concrete Operational by Richard Galbraith (Rawstone Media)
Nova War by Gary Gibson (Tor)
Winter Song by Colin Harvey (Angry Robot)
The Rapture by Liz Jensen (Bloomsbury)
Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (Gollancz)
Journey into Space by Toby Litt (Penguin)
The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove (Solaris)
Halfhead by Stuart B MacBride (HarperVoyager)
Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
The City & The City by China Mieville (Macmillan)
Red Claw by Philip Palmer (Orbit)
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperVoyager)
Chasing the Dragon by Justina Robson (Gollancz)
The City of Lists by Brigid Rose (Crocus)
Flashforward by Robert J Sawyer (Gollancz)
Wake by Robert J Sawyer (Gollancz)
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (Tor)
The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber)
Far North by Marcel Theroux (Faber & Faber)
Before the Gods by KS Turner (Ruby Blaze)
The Painting and the City by Robert Freeman Wexler (PS Publishing)
This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit)
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding (Gollancz)

So there you are: the 41 books in contention for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. (The Rise of the Iron Moon by Stephen Hunt was also submitted, but ineligible due to SF Crowsnest‘s association with the award.) Does it look like a good year? What would you put on the shortlist?

The Winner

As noted last night, the winner of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award is …

Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod

The Guardian’s write-ups are here and here. Obviously, I’m thrilled by the result and think it is the right decision. Congratulations to Ian MacLeod, and to PS Publishing! (From whom you should all now buy the book.)

Of course, in an ideal world, I would now like to see MacLeod find a UK (and, hey, US too, why not?) publishing deal that includes some or all of the following:

  1. A paperback edition of Song of Time (Preferably, much as I think PS did a great service in publishing the book, after giving the text a thorough proofread and commissioning a new cover).
  2. A new edition of The Summer Isles (it is really inexplicable that this book has only appeared in a small-press hardback edition in the US)
  3. His next novel, Wake Up and Dream
  4. A short fiction collection, probably pulling together the best stories from the two collections that have never been published in the UK (Voyages by Starlight — “Starship Day”, “1/72nd Scale”; Breathmoss and Other Exhalations — “New Light on the Drake Equation”, “Isobel of the Fall”) and the more recent, uncollected stories (“The Master Miller’s Tale”, “Elementals”)

Well, one thing at a time, maybe. But if nobody picks up the paperback rights to Song of Time, at least, I’ll be very disappointed, so fingers crossed on that front.

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?

House of Suns

The Quiet War coverOn the one hand, coming to a novel this late, when numerous people have pretty much reviewed the heck out of it, makes life easier, in that I can point at what they’ve said; on the other hand, in the case of House of Suns, there isn’t much left that hasn’t been said, which you can take as an indication of the kind of genial, transparent book it is. (This may seem ironic, given the evident length this post has grown to, but really, it’s all just my variations on themes already identified.) In particular, Adam Roberts’ review says almost everything I would, give or take some differences in emphasis, and his summary judgment gets to the heart of the matter for me:

if it is your contention that the face of SF 2009 is Asimov’s mutton-chops and meaty NHS-style-but-presumably-not-actually-NHS-what-with-him-being-American glasses, and if you’re not bothered by bourgeois heteronormativity, then this is most definitely the book for you.

On the Asimov thing: Jonathan Wright also notes an Asimovian flavour to the proceedings and, though it doesn’t seem to have been deliberate, it was there for me, too. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing; specifically, there were times when I felt that House of Suns was doing salvage work on some of the more satisfactory aspects of Asimov’s late novels — even more specifically, Foundation and Earth (1986). The future history in House of Suns features a galaxy in which the only forms of intelligence are human or human-derived; the central characters are members of an organization that sets itself above or beyond the immediate, squabbling concerns of planetary and interplanetary civilizations; and there are some radically divergent posthumans wandering around, but the story’s ultimate focus is the relationship between humanity and robots, known here as Machine People. One of the main characters, Hesperus, is a Machine Person with some similarities of attitude to some incarnations of R. Daneel Olivaw (updated for the noughties, of course). If you squint a little, I think you can even see a deformed magus-figure shadow of Hari Seldon behind Abigail Gentian, the woman who establishes the primary clone Line with which House of Suns concerns itself, in the way she establishes rules, a preservational Plan that her “shatterlings” follow down the deep well of centuries.

Incongruously enough, my other touchstone while reading this book was Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who. Dan Hartland mentions Star Wars as a reference point, which captures the curious innocence of House of Suns; there is less New in this Space Opera than in the others that I have read by Reynolds. (Also, one of the Machine People looks like a slightly more sculpted C-3PO.) But Who has some of that innocence to it as well, and for all its inanities, I think it’s a better match, and not just because one of Reynolds’ posthuman races are called the Sycorax. First, what Reynolds brings to Asimov’s framework is colour, gleeful splashes of the stuff. In a science fiction novel like this, which essentially takes an infinite empty void as its backdrop, there is particular skill needed in choosing which bits to sketch in; Reynolds makes good choices, and goes about his sketchings with gusto. So although a fair portion of the book takes place in deep space, depicting voyages or chases (Reynolds does like his chase sequences, particularly interstellar ones that go on for tens of pages; fortunately the one that closes this book is rather better paced than the one that closed Century Rain [2004]), there are marvels at every waystation, from giants with faces to dwarf even the Face of Bo, to sleeping beauty awaking in a techno-forest of gold and silver cables. Sometimes these settings are handled off-handedly:

Ashtega’s world — shown beneath the map of the galaxy — was an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons. We were crossing the ecliptic, so the rings were slowly tilting to a steeper angle, revealing more of their loveliness. There was no doubt that it was one of the most glorious worlds I had ever seen, and I had seen quite a few.

But we had not come here to gawp at a picturesque planet, even if it was a spectacular exemplar of the form. (21)

Sometimes more attention is lavished on them:

Four stiff black fingers reached from the dunes, each an obelisk of the Benevolence, each tilted halfway to the horizontal. The shortest of the fingers must have been four or five kilometres from end to end, while the longest — one of the two middle digits — was at least eight. From a distance, caught in the sparkling light of the lowering sun, it was as if the fingers were encrusted with jewellery of blue stones and precious metal. But the jewellery was Ymir: the Witnesses had constructed their city on the surface of the fingers, with the thickest concentrations of structures around the middle portions of the fingers. A dense mass of azure towers thrust from the sloped foundations of the Benevolence relics, fluted and spiralled like the shells of fabulous sea creatures, agleam with gold and silver gilding. A haze of delicate latticed walkways and bridges wrapped itself around the twoers of Ymir, with the longer spans reaching from finger to finger. The air spangled with the bright moving motes of vehicles and airborne people, buzzing from tower to tower. (161)

This is not elegant writing; it is even a bit laboured (“… on the surface of the fingers … around the middle portions of the fingers”). But it’s trying to get us excited about something extraordinary. So my second comparison point is that, as in Doctor Who, the characters are not immune to wonder; dialogue like this, for example, would I think be entirely at home in that show:

“Sand grains start sliding downhill, just beneath the outer membrane of the dunes […] The membrane vibrates even more strongly and sets up excitations in the surrounding airmass. You get something like music.” After a pause, he said, “Wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Wonderful and a little spooky.”

“Like all the best things in the universe.” (172-3)

Comparisons with Who can only go so far, though. There is, for example, that whitebread heteronormativity that Adam mentions — not something Who can be accused of too strongly these days — which is for most of the novel a nagging annoyance, and a couple of times something more than that. [EDIT: Although there are also the orgies during the thousand nights, which suggest a certain degree of flexibility …] The projection of particular standards of beauty got me, too: the descriptions of how beautiful the Machine People were, in particular, felt very culturally specific, and while I’m fine with the shatterlings having retained the standards of beauty they started with (see below), I’m a little disappointed that the standards of beauty in Abigail’s time, which is already some way in the future from us, apparently hadn’t changed at all. What most irritated me, however, was the abuse of bioscience. Reynolds is scrupulous about stressing the physical constraints of the universe — say, the speed of light — yet is, bizarrely, happy to construct a scenario in which a female progenitor gives rise to a clone line containing both male and female individuals. If there’s a reason for this beyond Reynolds wanting to include more male characters, I missed it. If there’s an explanation given for how this miracle is achieved, I missed that, too; [EDIT: It could be, for example, that Abigail has a rare variant of Klinefelter’s syndrome, though I don’t recall such an explanation being offered in the text (though see discussion later regarding the flashbacks) and so] I’m left imagining that they imported a Y chromosome from somewhere else, which makes any male shatterlings less than an exact clone. (Indeed, I found myself defaulting to imagining the shatterlings as female until otherwise specified for just this reason, which led to a couple of interestingly disconcerting moments.)

A more global difference to Who (but a similarity with Asimov) is that Reynolds is in earnest. House of Suns never indulges in the sort of ironic nudging that Who — or a writer like, say, Ken MacLeod, in a novel like Newton’s Wake; or Banks in any Culture novel– so often enjoys. Dan Hartland put it this way: “Reynolds manages space opera that does not read like farce.” I will go a little further: one of the novel’s strengths is that Reynolds manages to keep a straight face almost all of the time. There are no knowing winks. There is some — not that much — snappy dialogue, but when Reynolds has one of his characters report that “The next three minutes passed like an age as I watched Hesperus streak forward and then slam past Mezereon’s position, missing her by barely half a million kilometres” (123), the deadpan delivery is essential, because on the face of it that “barely” looks absurd.

It’s this earnestness, also, that makes it possible to believe in characters driven by the search for wonder: a perhaps childish impulse (see Who, again; and Charlie Anders touches on this in a piece at io9 about childhood and sense of wonder that I’ve only just seen; and also see below) but one that, as the ending makes clear, is a function of civilizational youth as much as individual organism youth. The shatterlings are flung outwards by her at the close of humanity’s dawn age, explicitly in search of knowledge and experience. In each Line, each of a thousand clones is given a ship; each is then set on a different course, with instructions to rendezvous after completing a “circuit”, a trip around the galaxy. At the rendezvous they share experiences; then they do it all again. For the Gentian Line, these circuits now take two hundred thousand years each (the shatterlings spend much of their time in suspended animation, “tunnelling through history” as one character puts it), during which time they may interact with civilizations caught in “the endless, grinding procession of empires” (15) that the shatterlings call “turnover”. It is, at any rate, no surprise that Abigail’s rules have, by the time of the novel, some thirty-odd circuits down the line, hardened into commandments; no real surprise that maintenance of continuity is one of the book’s main themes.

Here is where I diverge slightly from most other reviewers of this book. House of Suns is narrated by two Shatterlings of Abigail’s line, Campion and Purslane, in alternating chapters. (At the start of each of the book’s eight sections, there is also a flashback chapter to Abigail’s youth; but all the Shatterlings share these memories — both Campion and Purslane refer to events that take place in the flashbacks as theirs, as happening to “me” — so there is no way of knowing which is narrating them.) And they do sound frightfully similar. As Adam puts it:

all the characters are pretty much the same character. Of course most of the characters in this novel are the same character, or clones thereof, but I don’t think this excuses it; they’re supposed to have been living separate lives, and developing separate personalities, for millions of years after all. They haven’t done so, though, on the evidence of this text. I was perhaps a quarter of the way into the book before I twigged that the narrative p.o.v. was alternating between the two twin-like deuteragonists (Purslane and Campion), and that’s not a good thing.

Or Paul Kincaid:

House of Suns is a novel with three narrative voices: Campion and Purslane narrate alternative chapters, while each section of the novel is introduced with a passage narrated by Abigail Gentian, the founder of the line (I will come back to her shortly). This is a technique that has a number of problems. For a start, Campion and Purslane spend most of the novel together, so that until the climax the alternating chapters don’t actually show us anything different. More seriously, the voices of male Campion and female Purslane are indistinguishable, and both are indistinguishable from Abigail Gentian. Is Reynolds making the subtle point that, as clones, these are all the same person anyway? If so, he actually does nothing with the idea, and the point could have been made as well without the exchange of narrative duties. I suspect, rather, that Reynolds has got hooked on multiple narrative strands, a technique he has used repeatedly before, and has followed it regardless of the fact that in some instances, as here, it can be more harmful than helpful to the novel.

I actually think the technical issue Paul identifies, that for most of the novel Campion and Purslane are sharing the same experiences (and thus that it’s sometimes only possible to tell which is narrating a chapter when they refer to the other), does the more harm. On the other hand, I can make an argument that the similarity of identity is deliberate; or at least, I feel I can construct a satisfactory rationale for embracing the confusion it causes based on what’s in the text, which is actually the more important thing. I’ve already mentioned that both Campion and Purslane claim Abigail’s memories as their own, but it’s also the case that they share their own memories with each other, and share memories with other shatterlings; indeed, at one point Purslane misremembers something that happened to Campion as having happened to her. So I don’t think they have been developing separate personalities for millions of years — I think, in fact, that they have been developing parallel personalities for millions of years. The point is repeatedly made that the differences between members of the Line are much less significant than the similarities, and I don’t think that is just clan loyalty.

At the time we meet them, just before a reunion, after hundreds of thousands of years apart, the shatterlings are as divergent as they will ever be; the point of the thousand-nights reunion is to celebrate sharing that experience. Before it can take place, the assembled Gentian Line is ambushed, and most of them are killed, so; yet they are still remarkably similar individuals. (One shatterling’s taste for torture, for instance, is merely out at the end of the bell curve compared to the rest of them; even those who object to the torture most are prepared to embrace its use in other circumstances, later in the book.) The differences between Line members — in particular, between Campion and Purslane, the former pruning regularly, the latter sentimentally hoarding — seem to arise in large part from differing choices about which memories to delete than they do from differing individual experiences. It is the presumed similarity between the shatterlings that makes Campion and Purslane’s romantic liaison anathema to the rest of their Line — it is rather worse than incest — and it is the need to maintain continuity that makes Campion’s decision to delete his “strand” (the archive of his memories) a transgression beyond the pale. Both actions threaten the stability of the Line.

This obsession with continuity has, I think you can argue, resulted in a kind of arrested development on the part of the shatterlings; it is emphasized more than once that near-baseline humans such as they are not perceptually suited to experiencing long stretches of “raw time”, and that their pride in their longevity is, in important ways, a delusion. But it’s interesting to think of them specifically as children, of a kind, who have not yet become full individuals; as Purslane says, shortly after the ambush, “now we are growing up” (99). You can even gloss the overall shape of the novel as being about humans learning exactly how young they really are in comparison to the depth and breadth of the universe. Coming to terms with being, in a sense, spoiled children. The Gentian Line is incredibly conscious of its fragility; for some of them, the worst consequence of the ambush is not that eight-hundred-odd unique individuals have been killed, but that as a consequence the Line may cease to exist. They take pride in their status as one of humanity’s strategies to maintain continuity over deep time, one way to rise above the churn of turnover (they would probably say, the most human such strategy). As Ludmilla Marcellin, creator of the first line, puts it:

“If [Faster-than-light travel] is developed, it will clearly be of significance to us. We’ll embrace it wholeheartedly, have no fear. But it won’t change the nature of what we are, or the reason for our existence. The galaxy will still be too big, too complex, for any one person to apprehend. Shattering, turning yourself into multiple points of view, will still be the only way to eat that cake.” (225)

If Ludmilla Marcellin’s shatterlings cease to be her, the whole point of the endeavour is lost; and as with Ludmilla, so with Abigail.

This doesn’t do away with the problems Paul and others have noted; but I think it suggests a way to reframe them as part of a more satisfactory reading of the novel. (I actually think more points of view — probably other shatterlings, though someone outside the Line would also work — would make the point more clearly.) Similarly, I think the flashbacks work better than many have given them credit for. They are there, in part, to emphasize the shared lineage of the line, but their real trick is that they turn out to be false memories, indicators of both a cargo of damage that must be common to all Gentian shatterlings, and of displacement of a specific, repressed act that stains the history of the Line. And perhaps more than that. Note that in the memories Abigail’s development is arrested in childhood for thirty years; this could perhaps represent a displaced consciousness of the thirty circuits the Gentian Line undergo before the ambush, before they start growing up; or perhaps is just a parallel to note as something that shapes the Line. [Equally, is the fact that Abigail’s guardian is “Madam Klinefelter” significant, a nod to Abigail’s genetic heritage? It’s rather a coincidence if it’s not.]

Certainly, though, my qualms didn’t bother me much during the actual reading. Back to Adam:

Reynolds is rather disgustingly skilled, actually, when it comes to plotting—not only structuring his story so that its build-ups and pay-offs are all in the right places, but pacing the whole, drawing the reader along, with only the occasional longeur. The first 200 pages hurtle by; the next hundred tread narrative water a little, but things pick up again around 300 and the reader is propelled nicely down the flume to the end-pool.

This is, clearly, not enough to make a truly good novel; but it’s not nothing, either. House of Suns is by some way the most satisfying of Reynolds’ novels that I’ve read (i.e. of those since Century Rain). I did sometimes feel that it became a touch genteel, a touch domesticating; although again, a concern with rules, the value of them as well as their limitations, whether set by Abigail or the universe, is a concern of the novel, and to manifest this as a kind of formality makes a certain amount of sense. Reynolds also falls foul of a personal bugbear, in that he fails to explain how or why his first-person narrators are relating their story. But as I was reading, only rarely were the problems severe enough to pull me up short; for the most part I barely paused for breath. I blasted through House of Suns in a little over a day and, while I wouldn’t give it this year’s Clarke Award, and am not even really sure it belongs on the shortlist, I don’t begrudge the time I spent with it one jot. A guilty pleasure is still a pleasure.