Notes on a Shortlist 2012
Posted by Niall Harrison
2 May 2012
It's often said that our field is obsessed with awards, spends too much time arguing about them, and perhaps that's true; but that's not the same thing as saying that awards don't matter. They do matter, as one of the ways in which our community tells stories about itself.
Some awards tell better stories than others. I've found the Arthur C. Clarke Award's stories to be consistently interesting. I've been aware of the Clarke for about fifteen years, and followed it seriously for about a decade. I appreciate the thoroughness of its process, which, for anyone who hasn't picked it up yet, involves a panel of five judges reading a pile of books submitted by UK publishers, arguing them down to the best six, and then -- crucially -- re-reading the entire shortlist before arguing those six down to a winner. And it has by and large rewarded my attention by highlighting excellent, essential novels. I served as a judge for the 2007 and 2008 awards; it was a pleasure and an honour to do so.
So the Clarke matters to me, which is why I spend time tracking the conversation about the award and the books it spotlights, and why for the past few years I've written a summary of my thoughts about the shortlist. This year, as the finish line hoves into view, it gives me no pleasure to report that the shortlist struggles to rise above mediocrity.
I'm hardly the first to say this, of course (Dan Hartland dissents slightly), which can't have made it an easy year to be a judge. I know well the frustrations of having to stay silent -- because Clarke judges are not meant to comment on their deliberations; the books stand or fall alone -- and watch commentators tell stories about your choices. It was true in both my judging years, and I have no doubt that it is true this year, that the judges see things in some of their books that nobody else spots; and equally that outside commentators fix on to things that nobody in the room considered. There are always inclusions seen as questionable or flatly inexplicable; there are always notable omissions. What marks out Christopher Priest's intervention this year is not its ferocity, but its scope: the entire shortlist deemed inadequate, the judges collectively held to be in dereliction of their duty.
I know some of this year's judges, and respect them, so I'm hardly about to call them incompetent; and in fact I think in the details Priest is wrong several times. But his core argument, that this is a weak shortlist whose weakness devalues the award, I feel unable to deny.
And so to the books, and my attempt to argue them down to a winner, worst to best.
The Waters Rising by Sheri S Tepper. To my mind, the greatest indication of Priest's disrespect for this year's judges was not his "modest suggestion" that they all be dismissed, but his failure to engage seriously with all the books they chose. Of The Waters Rising he said only: "For fuck's sake, it is a quest saga and it has a talking horse. There are puns on the word 'neigh'." And let's be clear: the problem with this novel is not that there is a talking horse. Geoff Ryman and Patrick Ness, to pick just two recent examples, have produced excellent science fiction stories featuring talking horses. Nor is the problem that it is a quest saga, even an unironic one. The problem with the novel is just about everything else. At the most abstract level, you could describe The Waters Rising in such a way as to make it sound promising: it is mixing up genres; it is ecologically aware; it is centred on women and people of colour. But the execution of each of these aspects is flawed. Its speculative conceits are unoriginal and muddled; its politics and morality are questionable; its characters are simplistic. Above all it is gracelessly written, long-winded and awkwardly shaped. I can feel the intemperance that seduced Priest approaching; thankfully I'm able to direct you to more thorough explications of the novel's limitations by Maureen Kincaid Speller and Dan Hartland. If I had seen a robust defense of the novel I'd link that as well, but I haven't. I will say that I enjoyed The Waters Rising more than I enjoyed Tepper's previous shortlist appearance, The Margarets, if only because occasionally, dimly, I felt I could glimpse a leaner, more urgent book within The Waters Rising, an exploration of pretence and fantasy as part of the psychological response to ecocrisis that I suspect I would still dislike, but would at least be able to respect and engage with. As it is, Tepper's inclusion on the shortlist seems to verge on cruelty, because this novel more than any of the other five cannot bear the close scrutiny the Clarke invites.
The End Specialist by Drew Magary. Most reviews of Magary's novel have pointed out how tremendously unimaginative its handling of a cure for immortality is, in terms of its characters' psychology and so forth; and that's true; but I haven't seen so many people note that its environmental speculation, based on resource exhaustion and population crash, is at least as tired. The End Specialist is, or at least wants to be, a novel about taking responsibility, both personally and as a species, which is an admirable enough goal, but it seems to me it has two major problems. The first is that it is a deeply mechanical tale: every conversation the protagonist has, every detail of the world that he relates, is fixated on the novel's novum, methodically working through Magary's list of extrapolations, with very little room for normal human emotion or texture, and the consequence that when he does reach for strong emotion, the results are unimpressive: one particular tragedy around the half-way mark struck me as simply hilarious in its clumsiness. The second problem is that it's a book with extremely narrow parameters. Within those parameters, I'll be honest, The End Specialist passed the time; but you don't have to raise your head very far to see the boundaries of Magary's imagination, and the novel's pretensions to scope encourage you to look around. When you do, you see no queer experience, minimal non-white experience, caricatured female experience, downright xenophobic characterisation of non-US experience. Such limitations make the lack of ambition in Magary's use of his chosen format -- the narrative is nominally an edited compilation of blog posts, which should have been a gift to a writer seeking breadth -- all the more obvious. The End Specialist is a novel that feels slapdash, half-thought.
Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear. I was cautiously optimistic when this appeared on the shortlist. Our field (and I don't exempt myself from this) can be damagingly neophilic, with too many writers drifting out of view when they are no longer the hot thing, and one great virtue of juried awards is that they can end up spotlighting works that represent an evolution, or a return to form, for such writers. And certainly Hull Zero Three is significantly more controlled and skillful than either of the novels I've discussed so far: it is a short, energetic, and coherent piece of writing. That it rehearses an extremely familiar sf trope -- the generation starship -- is not in and of itself a problem, and in fact Bear has some fun with this fact: his protagonist is acutely aware that he is not the first to face his situation, and that everyone he meets (including by implication the reader) is probably going to know more than he does about what's going on. It's also welcome that Bear makes the colonialist assumptions of the generation starship project into the crisis that drives his narrative. But, but, but. For every assumption challenged, another remains unaddressed. In particular there's an unsatisfying binary constructed in which the (male) narrator is the mind of the colonisers, and his (preassigned) (female) partner is the body, in a way that can't be entirely blamed on the ship's designers. And in the end it's all a little bit too pat. Generation starships systematise and schematise the world; their problems are contained, and can be (and of course, in this novel, are) solved, and for this type of problem, this type of solution is too neat. I think it's for this reason that the novel's successes have not lingered in my mind.
Rule 34 by Charles Stross. This, I think, is where most readers of the shortlist have parted company with Chris Priest. Adam Roberts finds Rule 34 arguably the "most fully accomplished" book on the list, for instance, while Dan Hartland suggests it might be "an important novel for our times". Those are decent blurbs. And insofar as Priest's core charge against the book is stylistic, I'm on Rule 34's side. Contra most of his actual blurbs, for me Stross's greatest strength is not his prolific inventiveness (or, if you prefer, his exuberant magpie-ness), but the voice he has developed to convey that inventiveness; and Rule 34 strikes me as the most accomplished execution of the Stross Voice to date. Certainly it does feel excitable and unruly to read; it does feel like the internet, bottled; but in any given paragraph of Rule 34 there are a lot of different things going on, several different idioms colliding (geekisms, Scots, ironised officespeak, police vocab), in a way that demands and, I find, rewards attention. Rule 34 also feels to me more comfortable with its second-person present tense narration than did Halting State, both in the sense of the various characters being more differentiated, and in the sense of the voice doing more thematic work, going beyond the earlier novel's rather facile adoption of a text-adventure pose (there's less mugging to the gallery in this book all round, actually) to critique a society of utter individualism (you do this; there is no space for we) in a way that dovetails with some of the book's technological novums quite nicely. Those differentiated characters are not much more than functional, and Jonathan McCalmont's five-year-old critique of the repetitiveness of Stross's plotting doesn't look like it's going to go out of date any time soon; but this is the first novel on the list where my plusses and minuses net out with a positive score.
Embassytown by China Mieville. It may be time for me to admit -- if only in the hope that doing so will ensure I'll be proven wrong sooner rather than later -- that there's something about China Mieville's writing, at least at novel length, that just doesn't click with me, and in the case of Embassytown in particular, I agree with Abigail Nussbaum that the novel feels less than the sum of its parts. It's not a novel short of admirable qualities: as with Hull Zero Three, there's a sense that Embassytown is a little bit more a rehearsal of an sf form than it is its own thing, but within that frame Mieville does an awful lot more than Bear. The alien Language, in particular, worked for me as an evocation of alterity; that is, the fact that the more you think about it, the less logically coherent it seems only made the Ariekei more convincing as non-humans. I liked the novel's coldness, its ability to convey a sense of the vastness of the universe and the smallness of people without using many of sf's standard cosmological tricks: the abstract impression of the book I have in my head is a tiny point of light in the darkness. And I very much liked the ending, the unbearable collision of the theological and Marxist and colonialist readings of the story. But Embassytown's pacing felt uneven to me -- or rather, it didn't carry me with it all the time, the large chunk in the second half during which the novel turns into a monster movie was much less interesting to me than a number of other things it could have been doing -- and its people felt uncompelling. It may be the most interesting science fiction on the shortlist; but it's not, for me, the most engaging novel.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. The only one of the shortlisted novels that I have previously reviewed; and rather positively, too. Since then I've gone back and forth somewhat, wondering if it is actually as nuanced as I felt at the time, so it's been particularly interesting to read reviews as other people have worked through the shortlist; Adam Roberts is not a fan, Maureen Kincaid Speller is somewhat ambivalent, Nic Clarke is more positive. I also think the point Nic makes at the start of her review, about the variety of responses, is important: Jessie Lamb seems to be provoking very distinct personal reactions in different readers, or to put it another way, general agreement with someone's taste is not proving to be a good predictor of agreement about Jessie Lamb. That, along with the fact that the emotional charge of the story has stayed with me, has convinced me that Rogers has captured something in this story. It's a novel that focuses very closely on the processing of a single choice, perhaps to the point of an underdeveloped backdrop, but in that choice resides the most compelling and memorable character from anywhere on this shortlist. So I think that I would like The Testament of Jessie Lamb to win this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award.
So what does this shortlist add up to? Perhaps most noticeably, it is a collection of unambiguously science fictional novels (yes, even the Tepper): all six are set in the future, contain familiar sfnal tropes, and most are entries into clear traditions and subgenres. It is, at least in principle, a very voice-driven list, with only one novel (Tepper again) written in the third person. Ecological themes figure in at least three of the novels (Jessie Lamb in addition to the two I discussed, and arguably Embassytown). The selection of characters is reasonably diverse; only The End Specialist has a straight white male protagonist. There are established and newer writers, genre and mainstream-published works. I think I'd like Rogers to take the prize, but I think Stross will, because Rule 34 strikes me as characteristic of the list as a whole.
Is it a strong shortlist? I've already said that I don't think so. A more interesting question might be: what makes a strong Clarke shortlist? In her summary, Maureen opines that this list is not "the celebration of science fiction in all its innovative glory that I would expect from the Clarke", but I'm not sure how useful innovation is as a benchmark; the award's mission statement is simply that it is presented for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in a given calendar year, it makes no promises about innovation, or cutting edge-ness -- nor about literariness, or hard-sf-ness, or genre-blurring-ness, or any other qualifier you might think of. In a given year, a shortlist might embody any or even many such qualifiers, but none of them are intrinsic to the award's purpose.
For me, rather, what defines a strong shortlist is variety and inclusiveness, in a range of dimensions, and whether it introduces me to good books I'd overlooked or not encountered. Put another way, a strong shortlist is not one where I like all six nominees: it's one where I respect all six nominees, and can recognise them all as worthy representatives of their traditions. One metric of this in the world outside my head might be how many of the shortlist gain supporters arguing for them as winners. In 2010, for example, five of the six -- Spirit, The City & The City, Yellow Blue Tibia, Galileo's Dream and Far North -- were seen as serious contenders. Each of those novels also had its detractors; but my sense is that any of them would have been generally received as a good, credible winner. This year, in every discussion I've seen, it's come down to Mieville, Rogers, or Stross, if that: the other half of the list quickly dismissed as not in contention.
Could it have been a stronger list, in this way? This, I'd argue, is the crux. There are always omissions, and one person's argument about what constitutes an omission from a shortlist is always political, because it's the practical demonstration of one person's particular biases as to what that award should be for. But consider the counterfactual in which The Waters Rising is switched out for say, By Light Alone: that is, a surprise book that people are dubious about is replaced with an expected book that a lot of people are enthusiastic about. It would be seen as a better shortlist, certainly; but not, I think, all that much better. In the current lineup, I'd argue that Tepper and Magary make their companions look good by comparison; with a more widely-praised book on the list, I think some of those companions would look less impressive, and attention would simply turn to what else had been omitted. Because this year, there are a lot of well-regarded novels not on the shortlist: The Islanders; Osama; Zone One; Dead Water; The Clockwork Rocket; The Godless Boys; Wake Up and Dream: that's more than an entire alternative shortlist's worth, pointing to ambition and variety in the pool of submissions that the final Clarke shortlist does not represent.
No award tells good stories all the time, and in a sense I got what I asked for. When this year's submissions list was announced, I felt I knew one story about 2011 in science fiction in the UK -- the story represented by the BSFA Award ballot, the Priest/Tidhar/Roberts/Mieville story -- and asked for the Clarke to tell me something different. It did; but what it failed to do this year was convince me that its story was worth telling. Dan Hartland does his best to argue that this is a coherent list, "a pause at a moment in time when not just the genre but our world isn’t sure what will happen next ... a shortlist of conflict rather than resolution", but I don't know that this holds up. Embassytown certainly ends in conflict, and Jessie Lamb induces us to conflict, and Stross slingshots; but The Waters Rising finds resolution in fantasy, The End Specialist stuffs its novum back into its box, and Hull Zero Three solves its problem. Once again I find myself back at that half-way split, reluctantly concluding that what we've got is one of the least convincing stories the Clarke has told. Perhaps the 2002 shortlist, which featured great wodges of Peter F Hamilton and Connie Willis, plus Justina Robson's weakest novel, runs it close; but at least that year they got the winner very right. This year, for just about the first time I can remember, I don't feel emphatically postive about any of the nominees: which means that whoever wins, it will be hard not to feel the award has got it at least a little bit wrong.