The 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

Posted by Niall Harrison

After the speculation, the shortlist:

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz) (review by Finn Dempster)
Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan) (review by John Clute)
Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press) (review by Niall Harrison)
Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit) (review by Alexandra Pierce)
Sheri S.Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

I've only read Mieville and Rogers, which you would think might not leave me with much to say, but let's see how we go. What sort of list do we have? Four men, two women (but I think four female protagonists, two male); three Americans, three Brits; four genre-published (five if you count Magary, which I've seen shelved all over the place); one small press-published; two set out in space, four on Earth; two newcomers (Magary and Rogers) with four previous nominees.

One overlap with the BSFA shortlist (Mieville) and two with the Kitschies (Mieville and Rogers), which raises the question of omissions. I imagine most people will point first to the exclusion of Christopher Priest's The Islanders, which I still haven't read; for me the disappointment centres around Lavie Tidhar's Osama and Adam Roberts' By Light Alone, the absence of which strikes me as rather wrongheaded. Martin Lewis notes that Nicholas Whyte correctly predicted four of the novels based on the popularity of the novels as ranked by Goodreads and Librarything, and it has the feel of a playing-to-the-heartland shortlist. My own guess only picked out two of the eventual shortlist (Stross and Mieville) despite guessing that this was the direction this year's list would go; my wishful thinking shortlist didn't hit any.

Prejudicially, this makes it a disappointing shortlist for me, which may seem like I'm trying to have it both ways. I asked for the award to tell me a different story about last year than the one I'd already heard, and it has; but at the same time, this doesn't look like a list that captures what I think is interesting about where sf is now, it doesn't feel essential. (David Hebblethwaite is similarly underwhelmed.) I'm trying hard to reserve judgement, but I was distinctly unimpressed by the last Tepper to be listed, I've only heard mixed things about Bear, Magary and Stross, and though I enjoyed both the Mieville and the Rogers, after the fact I don't admire either so much that I would find their omission inexplicable. And while SFX has installed Mieville as the front runner, and he does look like the heavyweight in the room, I'd feel uneasy if Embassytown took the prize, both for reasons of merit -- it may or may not be the best book on this list, but it's quite a long way from being the best sf novel I read last year -- and for reasons of perception. If the award goes to the same writer for a fourth time in just over a decade, that makes the field look thin, except to those who know the field, who might start to think the award is becoming myopic.

(This is of course a year to year judgement: Zoo City's win last year felt like a choice that refreshed the award; to an extent a win for Rogers this year could have the same effect, proving that the Clarke is actually still willing to look outside the confines of genre for its winners. At the moment I think that's the outcome I hope for. But on with the reading!)


           

Comments (18)


As delighted as I am that Rogers is represented, I cannot express how disappointed I am that By Light Alone and Osama aren't on that list.


I can see how it happened, in that Roberts is a marmite author and Osama could be argued as not sfnal enough if you're in a mind to (which from the evidence of the books listed, this jury might have been). But yes, Bear and Tepper are going to have to go some to be better than those two.


Four men, two women (but I think four female protagonists, two male)

Bear and Magary have male protagonists, Miéville and Rogers female and Stross and Tepper have multiple mixed. So perfectly balanced.


You encapsulate my thoughts neatly when you say that the shortlist "doesn't feel essential". I want to give this list the benefit of the doubt, I really do; but I look at the selection and ask, "Is that the best we've got?" -- it just doesn't feel as though it could be.


I get a bit worried when people say they don't want Mieville to win again because it could appear myopic - mainly because Embassytown blew me away far more than anything else he's written. I really hope the judges are 'previous winner blind' - as they should be - because there is a reason why that book crosses all shortlists.

On another note, I too wonder about the lack of Osama and BLA on the list - partly because hey, I've read those ones and partly because they were just so damn good. Flawed, certainly, but thought-provoking and completely entertaining. I will have to read the entirety of this shortlist to understand their omission! And also read the Islanders to understand why people are annoyed at TCA overlooking Priest as well :)


Martin: Thanks for the clarification.

David: Yes, I see from your post we are of similar minds:

Lizzie: I can see where you're coming from, but I also said I didn't want Mieville to win this year on grounds of merit. Embassytown felt long, uneven, and incompletely developed to me -- not without moments of greatness, and with a great central concept, but not consistent -- although clearly I'm in the minority.

The argument about the award's myopia (or lack of) could stand to be developed a lot more, and maybe I'll feel differently after I've read the whole shortlist; but as important a writer as Mieville is, from where I'm standing now, four wins would feel disproportionate.


I'm inclined to think that four wins in a dozen years would feel disproportionate for just about any author.


Niall: "Embassytown felt long, uneven, and incompletely developed to me -- not without moments of greatness, and with a great central concept, but not consistent"

This description also fits The City & the City perfectly as far as I'm concerned, for whatever that's worth. Was that also a worthy winner? The value in both books seems more to me in the thoughts and conversations they inspire among readers than in the texts themselves.

That said, while four wins would seem disproportionate, to me this would really be the second win for Mieville's experimental period. If Mieville was winning awards by just churning out his standard brand (i.e. Kraken) it would be one thing, but Perdido Street Station and Iron Council strike me as from a completely different part of the genre (less charitably to the Clarke's mandate, one is tempted to say a different genre altogether).


I wouldn't say The City & The City was too long, or particularly uneven; I just didn't buy the conceit, or at least didn't buy it as science fiction. I liked Frances Hardinge's Twilight Robbery, which is a YA fantasy version of a similar conceit, much more.

I also don't know that I really buy that Mieville's work is as varied as all that. There's a consistency of concern -- cities, politics, perception -- that unifies his novels more than their subgenres separate them, for me.

That said, if the award were always entirely up to me, I'm not sure I'd given any to Mieville. Perdido Street Station would probably have gone to Ash, Iron Council to Cloud Atlas, The City & The City to Galileo's Dream. And that would also be disproportionate, which is why it's probably a good thing the award is not entirely up to me.


Niall: "Embassytown felt long, uneven, and incompletely developed to me -- not without moments of greatness, and with a great central concept, but not consistent"

Matt: "This description also fits The City & the City perfectly as far as I'm concerned, for whatever that's worth."

I thought the central conceit of The City & the City was stunning, even if the crime plot didn't quite gel (no surprise there: sf needs to reveal its world, crime needs to hide it). I wasn't so taken with the central conceit of Embassytown. It felt very 1970s to me, and even in style seemed to ape some of the post-New Wave sf of that decade. That it was nicely-written is a given, but it didn't feel to me as though it were representative of 21st century science fiction, never mind the best sf of 2011.


Tangent alert!

"no surprise there: sf needs to reveal its world, crime needs to hide it"

Surely crime also needs to reveal its world, and that's why there are so many notable sf-crime hybrids? Now, sf and the thriller, there I think there's a real opposition: sf wants to change the world, the thriller wants to reset it.

Back to the matter at hand.

"It felt very 1970s to me"

So aside from the potential myopia of the award, one of the other things that goes unexamined in my post is the bit about "where sf is now". I agree with you that Embassytown felt a bit like a novel out of time, and with comments elsewhere that Bear and Tepper look a bit past their prime, we assume they're reprising hits from decades ago; but none of those are unproblematic judgements. The field has this tendency to think that a canonical treatment of an idea means that the idea is time-locked; cf characterisation of The Carhullan Army as a throwback to 70s feminist sf, as though everything that went into those novels was specific to that time. Some of it was, but not all of it. Similarly, in the case of Embassytown, yes, it does feel quite a bit like the sort of thing Ursula Le Guin was writing thirty or forty years ago; on the other hand, in other ways it feels like everything else China Mieville has written; and its engagement with colonialism (however successful you feel that element is) feels like something that is specific and relevant to the field of 2011.

I don't have a conclusion, I just wanted to think out loud a bit more about what "where sf is now" means.


More tangent:

"Surely crime also needs to reveal its world..."

In Columbo, you witness the murder, and then spend an hour watching the detective discover what you already know. But in most crime novels / TV series, it's the process of discovery which drives the plot. Sf, it seems to me, usually involves exploration of the story's world, but nothing is kept back because there's no requirement for a big reveal in the last chapter.

It wasn't that the idea had been done before in Embassytown - yes, there are similarities with some 1970s works - but more than the tone of the novel felt a little old-fashioned. I did think the novel made a good fist of capturing the expat experience (something I know from firsthand), if only through its cast's refusal to engage with the culture of the Ariekans.


"Sf, it seems to me, usually involves exploration of the story's world, but nothing is kept back because there's no requirement for a big reveal in the last chapter."

This is an interesting tangent. I'd note that big reveals may not be required but they are quite common, and that the way an author must carefully allocate details so as not to overload the reader is, in practice, close to indistinguishable from how detective fiction authors operate.

On the topic of the, er, topicality of Embassytown, it reminds Niall (and plenty of others, myself included) of a book from the 70s because of the resemblance to Le Guin. But how many other authors were writing books like that in the 70s? Are The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness somehow representative of 1970s science fiction? If two books by Mieville can't define this decade, two of Le Guin's shouldn't define the 70s. Glancing at the BSFA and Hugo winners of the decade, Rendezvous with Rama, A Scanner Darkly, Ringworld, and Forever War seem a lot more 70s to me.

But in any case, if the Clarke is supposed to go a work representative of "where SF is" than Embassytown isn't a great choice (it's much too well-written for starters). But of course the Clarke is supposed to be given to the best SF novel. Insomuch as the genre needs to be represented, that sounds more like a task for the shortlist, not the winner, whoever that ends up being.


I didn't get a Le Guin vibe from Embassytown. The first third reminded me of Spinrad's The Void Captain's Tale and McIntyre's Superluminal, and other books of that type. The central conceit put me in mind of Watson's The Embedding and Watson & Bishop's Under Heaven' Bridge.


In terms of influences, hasn't Mieville said he is in dialogue with with Samuel R Delany novels like Babel 17 and Nova, making the vibe late Sixties rather than Seventies.


I find I have inadvertently read a shortlisted Clarke Award title - "The Waters Rising" was one of my recent library borrowings. I can't recommend it very highly, unfortunately, though I like many other Tepper books; overwritten, slow to get going, female lead given ridiculously over-egged gifts, villains with no shading of grey. I'm surprised it's on the shortlist to be honest.


Here's what I think of the Clarke shortlist:
tinyurl.com/chxq7pj


One of the things I work on - in fact what i was originally employed to work on - is post 1945 British fiction. But i can assure you that I simply don't give a monkeys about the Booker: shortlist or winner. I have followed the Clarke more closely and discovered some good books through it - notably, The Carhullan Army. However, it is still just an award - it cannot possibly set the field of sf for the year. That is something that will emerge with time and with readers.

I am a reader and i follow authors often through thick and thin. The awards and the shortlists are secondary - my main interest is the buzz around them which sometimes throws up suggestions for new things to try. I think it would be a mistake to ascribe too much power to awards. Ok, this year, the things that have come up that I might go and read are the ones that haven't made the shortlist - but that doesn't make any difference to me as a reader.

On the shortlist I've read Mieville and Stross - they are authors I've read other books by. I'd hesitate before praising either book to the skies but they both interested me for various reasons.
Whether they win or not is neither here nor there - and possibly wouldn't make too much difference to either of them either.

My point: building a readership is more important than the hoopla of prizes. The books and writers that endure will not necessarily be the ones who win the prizes.


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