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.

Far North

The National Book Award nominees are out. In the fiction category, the nominees are:

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I mention this because I read Far North earlier this year, and thought it pretty good and interesting. Lydia Millet — one of the judges for this category, along with Alan Cheuse, Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, and Charles Johnson — raved about it for the Washington Post, although actually I find myself not so convinced by her review. Her opening is perhaps an over-ambitious claim — “Far North may well be the first great cautionary fable of climate change” — and while her conclusion that the book works because of “the imperfection of Makepeace’s understanding of her world, of the complex physical and social revolutions that brought her people to this post-apocalyptic pass” is right, I think, I’m not wild about her attempt to link it to contemporary American life.

Beyond Millet, it has not always been glowingly reviewed. M John Harrison, in The Guardian, found its approach unsatisfying:

There’s a lot of material packed into Far North. A revelatory narrative processes in fits and starts, withholding until last the things the reader most wants to know: how did the world get this way? How does it relate to the world we know? What are we being told about our own bad decisions? But by the time the revelations are made, it’s hard to care. The post-disaster world doesn’t really have a history, only a patchwork of bits and pieces whose existence is authorised by the story rather than the other way round. Despite its centrality in Theroux’s argument, the landscape lacks presence. And apart from Makepeace herself, the characters are not much more than ideograms, each with a simple, formal purpose in the text – the pregnant woman, the gangmaster, the religious lunatic and so on. When one of them develops a backstory and complex motivations, all you feel is surprise: the gaunt narrative suddenly blossoms into a Hollywood plot.

He also argues that “It forgives us our trespasses too soon and too completely.” In The New York Times, Jeff VanderMeer seems to have had similar qualms about the ending, but would have preferred less explanation:

But echoes have their own integrity and resonance. The true flaws in Far North are the coincidences that artificially tie Makepeace’s past to the novel’s present. Without the author’s prodding, would Makepeace really return to the same settlement where she’d already escaped from religious fanatics? Is it believable that the person responsible for Makepeace’s disfigurement runs the work camp? The reader doesn’t need banal explanations, and Makepeace doesn’t need the closure.

In The Telegraph, Tim Martin usefully points out the book’s (real, I think) nod to Stalker/Roadside Picnic, even if he thinks it’s tied up with pacing problems in the second half:

The magic begins to fade in the second half of the book, in which Makepeace, through a series of reversals, finds herself first a prisoner, then a guard in a work camp near the Zone. The conclusion to the narrative – which produces a figure from the distant past to speed things along, a shameless McGuffin in the form of a canister of healing blue light and a final revelation that’s pure Hollywood – feels rushed and out of step with the reflective tone of the rest of the book. Until about 40 pages from the end, Far North feels as though it’ll be the slightly bumpy first book of a promising trilogy: then Theroux begins channelling Stalker, and the book embarks on a headlong sprint to an unsatisfying finish.

Other than Millet’s, the most positive review I’m aware of is Dan Hartland’s, at Strange Horizons, which picks out the book’s Western heritage:

What all this amounts to is a novel which doesn’t practice ambivalence without aiming for safety; a book with a number of cross-currents, which refuses to settle one way or the other, and one which derives its richness from these internal struggles: a weak dystopia, but an informed contribution; a gender puzzle but one uninterested in pushing the study further than the bounds of the character allows. If Theroux does not possess the poetic vision of McCarthy, he is still some way ahead of many other writers in crafting a novel which works its sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes competing threads lightly and decoratively. Much of what is here builds up slowly, by cross-reference, by evocation and allusion, and Makepeace is by novel’s end, if not precisely a revolutionary study in cross-gender role-playing, then nevertheless a solid character with her own particular voice. (So particular, in fact, that early on the reader would be forgiven for thinking it is a voice with discrepancies—the faux-cowboy clunker “I didn’t know him from the oriential Adam”, for instance, or her fortitudinous, “the sight of that made me come over a bit queer”—whereas in reality Theroux is simply brave enough to let it jar as it should.)

In Clint Eastwood’s 1992 anti-Western, Unforgiven, a character begs, “I don’t deserve . . . to die like this.” His killer, the film’s hero, responds plainly, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” The new Western’s stoic acceptance that the white hats do not always win is more honest, and more in tune with science fiction’s tendency towards the apocalypse or singularity, than its traditional authorising and normalising aesthetic. It also informs every page of Far North, a novel which is carefully written and advisedly magpie-like, and which despite its weaknesses, tensions and evasions, depicts a character and a people who do not deserve to live in the time they do but are intent on survival now they must. It makes for an ambivalent book on all levels; but at times such a novel can leave a reader with more for later than a book more perfectly formed and finally stated.

For my own part, I thought the book more successful than most recent examples of its ilk, and very well controlled; I actually thought the first few chapters more awkward than the closing ones, in part because I read the change in pace that Martin diagnosed as deliberately wrong. My review is here, and there’s at least one paragraph in there that, looking at it now, desperately needs another draft, but I’m still quite happy with the conclusion:

But in this novel it is horribly out of place, jarring, and ultimately Makepeace, and the narrative, discard it. What happens then is that Makepeace escapes, and returns home, where life will go on, regardless of the wider world. This should not be mistaken for a valorization of a “simple life.” “There’s plenty of things I’d like to unknow,” Makepeace tells us at one point, “but you can’t fake innocence.” And then a crucial insight: “Not knowing is one thing, pretending not to know is deception” (99). So her decision to retreat to a self-imposed simplicity, removed from engagement with the world, should be understood with a sadness verging on despair. Makepeace isn’t in at the end of everything, it’s not the end of the world; but, she has decided, it is the end of a world that can afford to remember its past; it’s too late to go back to a world that could cross that gap between present and past. There’s only forward, and for that, the simple ways do, indeed, endure, more than the complexities of civilization. But a blank page is never a cause for celebration.

In sum: worth a look, I’d say, and I’m not sorry to see it getting more attention.