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.

Links

I’m still in Cologne at the moment, but have some links to keep you amused. One: Paul Witcover’s Locus review of The Secret History of Science Fiction:

Kelly and Kessel have selected stories from inside and outside the genre to demonstrate that, in fact, despite the continued reliance of publishers on such marketing labels as science fiction and fantasy, “the divide between mainstream and science fiction is more apparent than real,” and that “outside of the public eye,” writers on both sides of the supposed divide have been producing work that, on the one hand, has the ambition and sophistication of literary fiction, and, on the other, makes use of the tropes of speculative fiction, though not necessarily labeled as such by writers, critics, or readers. This is the secret history to which the title refers.

It’s a bold assertion, and I have a lot of sympathy for it. In fact, before I read this anthology, I was inclined to agree with it. But as I read these stories, I began to doubt it more and more, and finally I became convinced that Kelly and Kessel are wrong in an centrally important way, and that there really are substantial differences between genre speculative fiction of literary ambition and what is written outside the genre, even if it contains speculative elements. And I think these stories prove it: that is the secret history of The Secret History.

Note that John Kessel turns up to discuss in the comments.

Two: Mark Newton and Dan Abnett discuss tie-in fiction:

I’ve never known tie-in novels receive so much fanfare and review coverage as [Sebastian Faulks’ Bond and Eoin Colfer’s Hitch-Hiker’s]: because that’s the other bizarre thing – franchise fiction tends to be ignored by reviewers, especially in major genre magazines. They treat it as a lesser product, and hate to give it air time. I’ve heard some talk that, because it’s assumed tie-in fiction always involves a one-off payment and no royalties, the author gets little benefit. That’s certainly not the case for several franchises, and Some tie-in books make careers.

Sometimes I find that genre magazines are ignoring the very “brands” that sell hundreds of thousands of copies – brands, therefore, that readers want to know about.

I merely note that I was out at dinner the other night, and my colleagues were discussing Harry Potter and some other franchise I temporarily forget, and expected me to know all about them; when in fact neither interests me in the least. [EDIT: still can’t remember what the other franchise/series discussed was, but I did remember the other thing I wanted to say: Faulks’ and Colfers’ books may have attracted a lot of attention, but not much of it was positive.]

Terry Bisson interviews Kim Stanley Robinson:

There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.

And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost, there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.

I really must re-read Pacific Edge soon.

And for good measure, another KSR interview, this one by Alison Flood:

But this rapid change, in turn, leads to another sort of crisis. “Depending what we do in next 20 years, it’s very hard to be plausible, to say this is what’s going to happen. At that point you can’t write science fiction, [so] the genre is in a little bit of a crisis, and all the young people are reading fantasy.” Robinson himself, however, presses on undaunted. He’s considering future novels set around Saturn or Mercury; he’s looking into a book about Herman Melville, who “after his career as a novelist crashed had another career as a customs inspector”; he’s keen to put what he learnt from Galileo – the work ethic, “the tenacity of the man”, into practice.

But he worries about “the crisis for this tiny genre”, recently launching an impassioned defence of science fiction in the New Scientist, where he accused the Man Booker judges of neglecting what he called “the best British literature of our time”. “It’s a different situation than it was when I began, the relation between world and genre. Back then you could read science fiction and get a sense of what the world was going to be – now, I don’t think you can be prophets in the same way,” he says. “If the world is a science fiction novel then what do you read? What can the literature do for you?”

Oh, and Dollhouse has been cancelled, though all 13 ordered episodes will air. Not in the least surprising, and in some ways deserved, though I will still miss it; there are plenty of failures on tv, but very little ambition.

Writing About Europa

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War (2008):

It took Sri and Alder more than a day to reach him, travelling in stages down a series of elevator shafts, a vertical journey that on Earth would have taken them to the edge of the discontinuity where the continental plates rafted on molten lava. On Europa, it delivered them to a canyon cut into the underside of the ice and filled with air. Huge biome chambers had been excavated on either side of the canyon, and its walls were hung with tiers of platforms gardened with alpine meadows and dwarf pines and furs, jutting out above a silverly halflife membrane that flexed and undulated with the heavy wash of currents beneath. Despite the elaborate seals along the edges of the membrane, a faint curdled-egg odour of hydrogen sulphide leaked in from the anoxic ocean, and although chains of sunlamps brightened the air and panels of ice were tinted with bright, cheerful colours, it was very cold. The older citizens wore long fake-fur coats and tall fake-fur hats, and many of the younger citizens had been cut to give them thick, lustrous coats of fine hair and insulating layers of fat — seal-people with human faces and human hands and feet, clad only in shorts and many-pocketed vests. (125)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream (2009):

To one side of the white towers, an arc of pale aquamarine appeared across the whiteness. The stranger led him to this arc, which proved to be a broad rampway cut into the ice, dropping at a very slight angle, down to where it cut under an arch or doorway into a long wide chamber.

They descended; the chamber under the ice roof had broad white doors, like white gates. At the bottom of the ramp they waited before these. Then the gates went transparent, and a group of people dressed in blouses and pantaloons of Jovian hues stood before them, in what seemed a kind of vestibule. The stranger touched Galileo lightly on the back of the arm, led him into this antechamber. They passed under another arch. The group fell in behind them without a word. Their faces appeared to be old but young. The space of the room made a gentle curve to the left, and beyond that they came to a kind of overlook, with broad steps descending before them. From here they could see an entire cavern city stretching to the near horizon, all of it tinted a greenish blue, under a high ceiling of opaque ice of the same colour. The light was subdued, but more than enough to see by; it was quite a bit brighter than the light of the full moon on Earth. A hum or distant roar filled his ears. (51-2)

I’m working on a review of Galileo’s Dream at the moment, and posting these here because I probably can’t justify including two quotes this long, certainly not when one of them isn’t even from the book at hand. But I’m fascinated by them, and how differently they describe what is essentially the same thing — a traveller arriving in an under-ice city on Europa; how they get down, the quality of the space they find themselves in, the nature of the people there. The difference, of course, is the viewpoint character. Both are scientists, but Sri is native to the time, and knows what she’s looking at, whereas Galileo has been whisked forward hundreds of years, and doesn’t. I can’t help feeling you shouldn’t be able to get away with the second one in a work of twenty-first century sf — it’s a tour of utopia (except it’s not utopia); how quaint! — and yet in a sense it works because it’s a work of twenty-first century sf, because we can sense (or impose, if you don’t believe Robinson did the research) the detail beneath the surface that Galileo sees.

Out of interest, which do you prefer?

Where’s the sf?

Well, this is fun. Kim Stanley Robinson sayeth of sf:

The result is the best British literature of our time. Oh, I know there is a Booker prize, I’ve heard of it even in California – supposedly given to the best fiction published in the Commonwealth every year – but there are no Woolves on those juries, and so they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels.

Sometimes these are fine historical novels, written by tremendous writers; I particularly like Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, and my favorite was Penelope Fitzgerald. But working, like all of us, in the rain shadow of the great modernists, they tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways. A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is. Thus it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn’t read. Should I name names? Why not: Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, Life by Gwyneth Jones in 2004, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison in 1997. Indeed this year the prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.

I note (a) that Life could not have won, alas, since it has not yet been published in the UK; and (b) that I really should get around to reading Yellow Blue Tibia. More usefully and proactively, the Guardian has put the issue to this year’s Booker judges. Quoth the chair of judges:

James Naughtie admitted that Robinson “may well have a point”, but suggested that “perhaps his arrows could be directed even more towards publishers than to judges”.

“There has always been a debate about whether the prize is sufficiently sensitive to all the forms of contemporary writing. He may well have a point,” he said. “We judge books that are submitted. The fact is that the science fiction component this year was very, very thin. If it is the best contemporary fiction in this country then most publishers haven’t yet tumbled to the fact.”

He said that judges had, collectively, been “disappointed at the way ‘the new’ was represented” in this year’s submissions, but said that “the idea that historical fiction is fusty is absurd”. “Our shortlist speaks to us about things around us, from whenever and wherever the books are set,” he said.

And John Mullan:

According to Mullan there was “essentially no” science fiction submitted for this year’s Booker prize, apart from Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, set in a dystopian future, which failed to make the longlist. “We as judges depend a great deal on what publishers submit,” he said. “There are certain kinds of genre fiction which get submitted – thrillers and detective books – which publishers think have literary quality, but this year I find it hard to think of any science fiction which was submitted.”

Around 40 years ago, it was historical fiction which was overlooked, he said. “Thirty to 40 years ago there was Georgette Heyer and it was generally speaking a fairly derided genre, whose standing was rather lower than science fiction where you had John Wyndham. Yet historical fiction has escaped the bodice ripper, so everyone does it,” he said, rejecting Robinson’s claim that historical novels “tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways” and “are not about now”.

“That’s absolute bullshit,” he said. “Of course historical novels can be like that, but really it is not to do with being a historical novel.”

To be pedantic, Robinson didn’t say historical novels aren’t about now, he said they aren’t about now in the way science fiction is. Though of course whether you apply a value judgement to that difference, and if so what judgement you apply, will differ from person to person.

But I have wondered, before, whether sf writers get submitted for the Booker. If I understand the rules correctly, publishers get two titles per imprint, so it doesn’t seem like (in most cases) they’d be using up slots by submitting sf; just getting extra slots, in effect. Of course, I may not understand the rules correctly. Ultimately, this is just one more reason why it would be nice to see a list of what’s submitted for the Booker prize in any given year.