The 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist, Part 1
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
16 April 2012
There have been many attempts before to plumb the mysteries of the Clarkemind, though few of these have reached any satisfying conclusions. The Clarkemind is larger than any one consciousness; it co-opts individuals to its uses, although they are generally released afterwards and most are able to reintegrate themselves into society. But we still find ourselves wondering: what motivates it? How does it reach its decisions? According to what agenda does it sort through the year's SF, hidden, away in that bunker in the middle of its blasted Zona? These remains object of speculation amongst mundane humanity. Once a year it speaks, leaving its pronouncements to be worried over by swarms of commentators. This year is no exception: in this year's shortlist the Clarkemind has juxtaposed the obvious nominee with the unheard-of, the good book with the bad, the blatant with the opaque. Whatever else we may say about this list, we must concede from the get-go: it is characteristically unpredictable. And what a maelstrom of disagreement and fury it has provoked!
This year, as usual, Torque Control ran a competition to guess the shortlist; and one of the most successful attempts was by Nicholas Whyte. He correctly anticipated four of the six shortlisted titles by checking the 60-strong Clarke submissions list against two much larger groupminds, Librarything and Goodreads. (Martin Lewis points out that, had he been stricter in his definition of science fiction as a grounds of eligibility, he would have anticipated five of the six.) Perhaps it ought not to surprise us that groupminds are the best predictors for other groupminds, although the flaw in such an approach—namely the bias by which such sites rate (say) The Da Vinci Code as a better novel than Madame Bovary—is also seems to have worked its way into the Clarke decision. This brings me to the matter of omissions.
Nominees often say: it's an honor to be shortlisted. Sometimes this is code for I'm livid I didn't win; more often it's heartfelt, and indeed embodies an important truth. It is an honor to be shortlisted. This year the Clarkemind digested sixty novels, and those threescore were pre-selected by publishers as the best of their best. Merely making this shortlist puts a writer in the top 10% of the very best SF being written today. That's something. On the other hand, "it's an honor to be shortlisted" carries with it the necessary correlative "it's a dishonor not to be shortlisted." This, we might say, is an inevitable part of the logic of awards; and in a way it's appropriate to the move-in-mysterious-ways nature of the Clarkemind that it dispensate dishonor as well as honor. But we must note that Christopher Priest's The Islanders—a novel of rare beauty and profundity—does not deserve the dishonor. It is more than the best SF book published in 2011; it is a work of art. Neither do Lavie Tidhar, Simon Ings, Neal Stephenson, Alexandra Clare, or Helen Oyeyemi deserve the dishonor of omission, although the dishonor is rather less in their cases than for Priest. And it's perhaps surprising the Clarkemind didn't call in Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, as it is, I believe, entitled to do. (If I were to hazard a guess, I would imagine the Clarkemind excluded this excellent fantastical narrative on the grounds of genre demarcation; although if so, it is characteristically perverse that it went on to shortlist The Waters Rising, a work of core Fantasy in all but peripheral details.) This year's shortlist contains three very good novels and three mediocre ones, which is not out of keeping with the usual run of Clarkemind decision-making—although it is certainly not a strong shortlist, and has attracted, over the last few weeks, an unusually intense amount of often hostile commentary.
Perhaps the Clarkemind's reasoning this year was a deliberate attempt to put a value precisely on diversity—to generate a shortlist that reflects the fact that SF today is an increasingly varied and diversified field. That would at least be a worthwhile thing. It is also possible, however, that the Clarkemind puts a premium merely on being unpredictable, after the fashion of the character Vector in Despicable Me, who agrees to release his child hostages if Gru hands over the shrunken moon, but who immediately reneges on the deal. "Un-pre-DICTable!" is not a very dignified governing principle for the UK's premier SF award.
So: item 1 is Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three, the most Clarke-like title here and the one closest to what is sometimes called "core genre": spaceships, competent heroes exploring a strange and dangerous spaceship environment, learning their world and eventually breaking (conceptually) through. Bear's novel achieves a measure of actual sense of wonder. Though the title stuck in my head as Hull Zero Cardiff Three, the book itself is a very solid example of a certain sort of hard SF.
It starts with the best opening sentence of any of the six shortlisted books ("Cloud modest, the planet covers herself"—although I should also note that most of the book is written in the same Utility English as a thousand other space operas). An amnesiac man wakes, cold and naked, inside a generation starship; or more precisely he is woken by a young girl. The man is known as "Teacher"; we only find out his name much later: Sanjay. Indeed, there's hardly time to find out anything about him: straightaway he and the girl are running for their lives. Bulkheads close, monsters chase and try to eat them, gravity stops and starts; it's frantic stuff. The poor fellow doesn't even get a drink of water for forty pages. The opening section (of three) is the best, actually: neatly conveying the confusion of the protagonist by giving us only his point of view. He is in Hull Zero One, and it's not safe there. Indeed, the ease with which life can be snuffed out, how hard-won wisdom is and an unforgiving attitude to his own creations gives Bear's novel a rather austere mouthfeel—an observation I do not intend as dispraise.
Bear deftly threads the needle, narratively speaking. His character's exploration of his strange, threatening environment withholds just enough information to maintain tension and keep us intrigued without ever becoming merely annoying. The narrative is a nice metaphor, too, for human life: "we are born in ignorance," the narrator observes, "we die in ignorance, but maybe sometimes we learn something important and pass it along to others before we die. Or," he adds, "we write it down in a little book" (p. 96). Books are important to this novel, as to other works by Bear; they play a major role in his last, The City at the End of Time (2009) for instance. Books (says this book) are our bulwark against forgetting. That's right.
On the other hand, Bear doesn't entirely escape the problem of derivativeness: Hull Zero Three works in a well-worn Cube (1997), or Pandorum (2009), idiom—the whole world is a machine designed to set us deadly puzzles!—or to be less filmic, it exists somewhere between Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon (1960) and Clarke's own Rendezvous With Rama (1972). And Generation Starship Stories are, of course, ten-a-penny, or at least seven-a-Solarian-credit. Nevertheless it is a mark of how well Bear realizes his subject that the novel rarely feels second-hand. There is a freshness to it, a blend of seriously worked through science and Lewis Carrollian play. Best of all the novel has a well judged expansive narrative trajectory, a growing sense of momentum and a good, solid ending. It's particularly canny in the way it plays with our readerly sympathies and identifications. It is likely we (if "we" are SF fans) will have read many generation starship stories, and many more Cube-like "working one's way through the deadly labyrinth" stories. Bear knows this, and builds his plot twists in part to push against what we might expect, or what convention might dictate, at any given moment.
It is, in short, a very well made short novel. But there's a rub, and it is this: I'm not sure it's much more than that. Its mystery absorbs the reader, the payoff is worthwhile and well done; but to look back upon it a week after finishing reading it (as I am doing now) is to be struck how little it stays in the mind. It may be too competently finished properly to haunt the mind. Having written that down I'm struck that it seems a strange criticism to make; but there you go.
Item 2 is Drew Magary's The End Specialist. It is possible that the Clarkemind included Magary's novel in its shortlist deliberately to mess with our human minds; for it is by a long chalk the least deserving nominee: an egregiously mediocre book, thinly conceived, poorly realized, sprawly and forgettable. It takes an unoriginal premise and handles it unoriginally, with unconvincing characters and starchy dull prose. If this novel were a stick of Blackpool Rock you could snap it in half and find the word "meh" written all the way through. It reminded me in some ways of the 2011 BBC/Starz Torchwood series Miracle Day, which (it goes without saying) is not a good thing.
The premise is that science has invented a cure for aging. Our protagonist, the unexceptional, unlikeable John Farrell, takes "the cure" (as it is called) in 2019, when he himself is 29; and stays at that age for the next sixty years. The novel is filtered through his personal blog, along with various other material. People who have taken the cure can still die—indeed, some actively opt so to do—by physical trauma, cancers and the like; but aging is banished. In the novel's Part 1, "Prohibition," the cure is illegal. Farrell takes it anyway: three injections. Soon enough the POTUS yields to the inevitable and legalizes the cure. Part 2 is called "Spread" as more and more young people take it, and some old people die off (it is not a rejuvenation treatment, you see; it merely fixes you at the age you are). Since people keep having kids, Part 3 is inevitably enough "Saturation"; and Part 4 follows through on the social breakdown—perhaps aiming at tragic intensity, through tragic intensity is not achieved. Much of the novel is a bricolage assemblage of news reports, blogs, messages and the like, piecing together—through rank infodumping—how society changes under the pressures of "the cure." There is early euphoria ("I'm gonna party my ass off until the year 5000!" (p. 8) one character announces, presumably no fan of the pop group Busted); but soon society is straining at the seams. Overcrowding leads to OAD, "Overcrowding Anxiety Disorder" (and a pharmaceutical solution for same in the form of "Claustrovia" tablets). A Church of Man is founded. Anti-cure terrorists, not to mention various other terrorists with various other agenda, bomb people to death—we're told that "suicide bombings are down 70%" whilst "non-suicide bombings are up 200%" (p. 188). People work at the same jobs with the same youthful intensity for decades and decades; which in some careers—soldiering, most notably—concentrates a pool of highly experienced psychopathic nutjobs. Things become increasingly and violently anarchic; law and order break down. It's all obvious stuff, really: twenty minutes down the pub brainstorming with your friends and you would come up with all of the things Magary portrays.
Beyond its foursquare worldbuilding the novel has little to offer. There are some sophomoric meditations on death and finitude, none of them very memorably conceived or expressed. The characterization is thin, the plotting sags badly in the middle two hundred pages and the ending, in part foreshadowed at the beginning, is anticlimactic. There are a few thriller-y plot twists, some running back and forth, guns being brandished and sometimes discharged, the occasional bomb going off—in fact, here's one: "I heard a gigantic BOOM! Everything, everyone, everywhere froze to turn. What the fuck just happened?" (p. 43). Never mind the-fuck-happening; how did these people manage simultaneously to freeze and turn?
This brings me to the novel's style. Stylistically Magary alternates long stretches of bland description and flavorless dialogue with lurches into actively bad prose. Here the protagonist is lying in bed with a woman: "I studied her eyes and nose and her pores, as if I were looking through the porthole of a wrecked ship at the bottom of the ocean" (p. 183). Reading this sentence, and then reading it again, inclines me to opinion that troping intense physical attraction via a metaphor of a submersible visiting a sunken ship is not a good idea (elsewhere we have: "Solara remained attentive. I felt a need to funnel every crevice of my soul into her brain as quickly as possible"). Magary has a naïf belief that WRITING THINGS IN CAPITAL LETTERS adds EMPHASIS. A ten year old might be the author of "I heard a gigantic BOOM!", quoted above, and a ten year old with a precocious vocabulary might write:
He drew his gun on her. "Give me your food."
"I SAID I WOULD FUCKING SHOOT YOU!" (p. 399)
Some of the problems with this text go deeper. In the earlier sections, endless youth is largely parsed via male heterosexual randiness, pretty narrowly conceived. In the later sections, the breakdown of law and order is dramatized via a male-centric perspective of fight or flight. There are female characters, but they exist as adjuncts to the men; and an odor of manliness, and American exceptionalism, hangs over the whole project—when the narrative cuts away to Russia, say, it is to a cartoonish libel on the barbaric savage oriental, mass-murdering the elderly, subordinating everything to an expanding, immortal Red Army. Before starting out on this project Magary could have done worse than skim-read the entry on "Immortality" in Clute, Nicholls, and Langford's Science Fiction Encyclopedia, which sets the novel in its context by effectively demonstrating how little The End Specialist adds to what is already a very crowded subgenre. And by "little" I mean: NOTHING, ACTUALLY!
The appearance of item 3, China Miéville's Embassytown, on the shortlist is perhaps its least unexpected feature. However baffling the tourbillions of Clarkemind brain activity may be to those of us who follow it, its admiration for Miéville (author of six adult novels; five time Clarke nominee and three-, perhaps four-, time winner) has never wavered. And it's easy to see why: not only is Miéville is a very gifted writer of novels, there's something in the gnarly quiddity of his imagination that clearly appeals to the Clarkemind, perhaps because it itself possesses something of this quality.
Embassytown is a novel that stands out from its company on the Clarke shortlist, not least because it is the most distinctive work here. It feels like nothing else on the list: the mutant offspring of Delany's Babel-17 (1966) and Harrison's The Centauri Device (1975) (The Centauri Delany, perhaps). The titular location is an intricately seedy enclave within the alien city on a planet, home to many ET species including the superbly alien "Hosts" who speak "Language," an idiom which avoids the slippage of signifier over signified and apprehends reality directly. Human ambassadors learn to speak this peculiar tongue by working as twinned pairs, uttering tweedledumtweedledee-ish phrases disposed into the text via a font convention of numerator and denominator parcels.
The Hosts do not lie, and cannot employ symbolic speech. In point of fact they can lie, by speaking things that do not correspond to reality; but this is a game to them, giving the sort of pleasure we might get from nonsense poetry. Nonetheless untruth (this novel says) is much more complex that pointing to a black stone and calling it green; indeed there are modes of untruth that are, paradoxically, truer than representational similitude. This is at the heart of what the novel is about: the lie that tells the truth—or fiction, as well call it, of which science fiction is the most ontologically mendacious example ("We are insane," one character notes, speaking on behalf of all of us who write SF. "We tell the truth with lies" (p. 321)). A novel that begins "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich . . ." is open to the counter-claim "that’s a lie! There never was such a woman, and therefore she could never possess those attributes!" This is one possible reaction to the novel, although it's not a very interesting one. Another way of proceeding is to accept that fiction has access to sorts of truth unavailable to factual history. A third approach—which I'll come to in a bit—is to take the view that "factual history" itself is a mode of fiction; but if we do that we're straying into the dingy suburbs of postmodernism. Embassytown, though a novel about novel-writing, and more specifically a science fiction about science fiction, eschews the tricksy formal and stylistic games of postmodern novelists. It is, in the end, traditionally written space opera (though of a high calibre): a straightforward two strand plot, recognizable characters, big ideas.
The novel details a main character Bildungsroman, a slightly obliquely handled love affair, and a large scale social revolution. I found the last of these much more believably rendered than the first two. The social upheaval works in part because Miéville orchestrates its telling with great panache, but also because the world in which it happens is so cannily realized. Embassytown and its inhabitants are sketched in incomplete but neatly suggestive ways. The Hosts have "swaying grace" and "complicated articulation"; they walk with "crablike precision", "quivering with whiskers" and "sprawling limbs" (I was sometimes put in mind of the aliens from Tiptree"s story "And I Awoke and Found Me on a Cold Hill Side"). The closest we come to actual description of them is "insect-horse-coral-fan-things" (p. 123), but the imprecision is a well-judged primp to the reader's imagination. Likewise the world as a whole is vividly opaque, with its unexplained organic technologies and strange architecture, from Geiger-ish "enormous throats" that deliver supplies and energy ("flexing wet ends of siphons extending kilometers beyond our boundaries" (p. 25)) to more familiar Miévillesque Big Neo-Gothic Industrial Structures Strangely Come Alive (or BNGISSCA as I like to call them):
A squirming tower laid young machinery in eggs. The paper-shred birds picked parasites from it. The farm lowed. (p. 280)
Miéville's aesthetic is baroque, but in the Deleuzian Le Pli sense rather than in the common or garden arty-architectural sense. This is true imaginatively, in terms of his worldbuilding, but also on the level of sentence by sentence prose.
Since part of the reaction to this year's shortlist has focused on Miéville's style, it is perhaps worth dilating upon that subject for a moment. Bear's Hull Zero Cardiff Three (and Stross's Rule 34, which I’ll come to in the second part of this review) both inhabit a well-worn, unremarkable content delivery system approach to their prose—better of course than Magary's extruded prose product, but a tad functional nonetheless. Not so Miéville, who has with each novel been improving his own voice, increasingly perfecting prose that is by turns bristly, lyrical, fruity, eloquent, jagged, and evocative. The prose of Embassytown struck me as being not quite so bristly as some of his earlier books—it's smoother, without ever being too smooth; and that not-too-smoothness is, I would say, precisely part of what Miéville brings to the table. Sometimes he writes superbly. Sometimes his style is clumsy, or naff or overreaches itself. But the whole package, I would say, is part of its appeal, because these things are signs it is alive. At any rate I found the book much more a pleasure to read than otherwise, which is more than can be said for the writing that constitutes most of the books published today—or on this shortlist. Here's an example:
The miab on [the train's] back was bigger than my nursery's hall. A very real container, snub-bullet-shaped, mobbing through light rain. Its surface sheened with saft that evanesced out from its crystal shielding on threads that degraded to nothing. (p. 23)
There's a discipline to Miéville's prose in this novel (as there was in his last, The City and The City (2009)) that restrains his weirder imaginative impulses, and that wasn't necessarily quite there in his earlier books. He has, for instance, gotten much better about balancing his own neologisms ("miab," "mimer," "stichling") against the more Clutean vocabulary actual English permits him ("eisteddfods of mendacity"), such that sentences often turn, and generate considerable affect, upon words that might be either of those two things—"safe," in the passage above, for instance. Sometimes all this becomes fruity enough to approach self-parody ("urgency is not a bacillus that can cross exotypes" (p. 416)), but over the broad reach of the novel it is well-handled.
Nonetheless, it seems to me fruitless to deny that the core of Embassytown is a pretty rarified Wittgens-type "Philosophical Investigation" tract, a quasi-philosophical disquisition on meaning and truth. I'm going to spend a few paragraphs discussing that, because it’s clearly central to how the novel works, but I'll preface my comments by noting that it is the extent to which Miéville is able to integrate this abstruse stuff with the living warp-weft of narrative and character that'll determine whether you, as a reader, consider the novel a success.
There are several kinds of language in Embassytown (including the intriguing-sounding Homash, a language spoken by means of the speaker vomiting up pellets embedded with semantic enzymes which the auditor eats) but centre stage is given to Language. This is a truth tongue, like the originary magic-language in Le Guin's Earthsea books. "Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts each is an opening. A door through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen" (p. 50). Indeed there's some slippage here; because sometimes Language is characterized as directly apprehending not thought but physical reality—such that if the Hosts want to talk about a stone that has been split in two and then joined together again, they have first to actually manufacture such an object. Hosts can't learn other languages, can "understand nothing not spoken in Language, by a speaker, with intent, with a mind behind the words." They cannot talk in generalities or abstractions; cannot for instance talk about "glass," can only refer to specific glasses ("the blue one," "the one with the crack in the base" and so on). They can speak in similes, provided that the similes have a real-world analogue. The main character, Avice, is one:
They said me first as fact. There was a girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her. Then they began to deploy me as a simile. We now are like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her. When we take what is given in god-drug's voice, we are like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her. (p. 368)
This is a cool notion, although not a very coherent one. I say so not necessarily to dismiss it, because SF is full of premises that we all cheerily accept even though they make no sense (FTL is the most obvious example of this). And Miéville even acknowledges, or perhaps tries to inoculate his novel against, this problem—one character observes: "does it occur to you that this language is impossible, Avice? . . . How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? How do their numbers work?" (p. 114). It's more than numbers. Language is presumably incapable of expressing counterfactuals or what-ifs; and so, although it has tenses ("present discontinuous" and "elided post-present" are mentioned) it cannot have future or subjunctive tenses. The Hosts somehow have metonymy without metaphor, which is a bit as if we described a square as having height without length; and they must perforce lack the vocabulary to talk about things in the world that depend or are genuinely arguable (to make value judgments, for instance) which in turn closes down large swathes of discrimination and competition. More crucially it remains unclear to me how, absent magical "presence" (as in Le Guin's Earthsea), this language could apprehend unambiguous factual reality, since there really isn't such a thing (there are, to boil Derrida down to a three-word slogan, no real presences). The universe isn't like that. Host scientists could presumably get no further than putting into Language "light is a particle" and "light is a wave"—never mind framing statements about relativity and quantum mechanics—before throwing up their hands (tentacles, claws, whatever) and slipping back into the calm physical facticity of Newtonian mechanics. More, the innate nobility of the Hosts in this novel, the exaggerated respect with which other species treat them, is grounded in precisely an abstraction—Truth—which is held in arbitrarily high abstract esteem, much more so than is the case with banal specific truths such as "2+2=4" or "Berlusconi is a crook."
The problem, if I can put it like this, is that Miéville's conception of language itself is insufficiently Heideggerian. There, I've said it. I take no bets on the likelihood of Miéville's publishers including that as a blurb on future paperback editions of the novel ("Insufficiently Heideggerian," Adam Roberts), but I stand by it. The ground of Embassytown's linguistic conception of veracity ("Everything in Language is a truth claim," the novel tells us (p. 60)) is parsed via an unexamined correspondence theory of truth. You'll be familiar with this from your grounding in linguistic philosophy—a statement is true if it corresponds to a state in the world: "it is raining" is true if and only if it is actually raining; "Roberts's objection is absurdly pretentious and nitpicking" is true if and only if my objection actually is pretentious and nitpicking to an absurd degree. (Talking of nitpicking: Miéville makes reference to "homo diaspora" (p. 39); surely this should be "homo diasporens"?) Some philosophers are happy with a correspondence theory of truth; but most aren't, and it is a narrow grid with which to sieve—especially—art and metaphor. Better is Heidegger's sense of truth as a fidelity to Being, an aletheia or "unconcealement": better not in absolute philosophical terms, but in the terms laid out by Embassytown itself.
It's almost a spoiler, though an oblique one, to say: the novel enacts a shift from correspondence to simile to metaphor precisely as political revolution ("a lie was a performance; a simile was rhetoric; their synthesis, though, the first step in their becoming quite another trope, was sedition" (p. 227)). As it happens I have long advocated the view, critically rather an unfashionable one, that SF is essentially a metaphorical mode of art—that is to say, an artform that aims to represent the world without reproducing it, via fundamentally ironic, not mimetic, devices. I tend to go further and suggest that because "the metaphor" is central to SF, the genre is (pace Jakobson) closer to poetry than conventional fiction—the bone, thrown into the blue sky by Kubrick's ape-man that transforms so marvelously in to a spaceship: potent, beautiful and moving, but not a moment that lends itself to rational explanation. As far as that goes, Embassytown is truly a novel to gladden my heart; not just full of exquisite, poetic moments; but centrally about the transcendent possibilities precisely of metaphor, or metaphorisation. A re-literalisation, into the terms of SF narrative, of the governing trope of SF itself.
This wouldn’t be the first novel in which Miéville implicitly used the metaphors of SF and Fantasy to argue that the "truth" of social inequality and oppression is Revolution. And whilst I have read reviews of this novel unconvinced by its big set-piece concluding revolution, I thought this portion of the novel very strong. But the very lack of dialectical possibility, except in the authorial get out clause of "madness," in the Host Language vitiates precisely the ground of the novel as a whole. And although Miéville is better than almost most other SF writers at handling the not-revealed along with the revealed, the unexpressed along with the carefully laid out, he's happier when the unrevealed is presented as background details—all those suggestive fragments of worldbuilding—rather than central planks of his novel.
All this, I freely grant, may seem like the worst kind of angels-on-pinhead philosophical pettifogging. It strikes me as a core incoherence in the way the novel does what it does. It may not bother you, but whilst the technicalities of this sort of argumentation may strike you as irrelevant you may nevertheless find it hard to fall in love with a novel that is, unavoidably, about this sort of stuff. For all its (as I see them) flaws, I found Embassytown fascinating, stimulating, often beautiful, occasionally infuriating; all the things we go to art for. In terms of its ambition as well as its writing it rather overshadows the other books on the list.
Read the rest of Adam Roberts's 2012 Clarke shortlist review here