Friday, April 22, 2011

The 2011 Clarke Award shortlist

Running through the shortlist in ascending order of preference:

6. Declare by Tim Powers. This one doesn't seem to have a large amount of defenders, and seems to have earned the general 'does not belong' standard that usually puts one nominee as significantly lower in ambition and quality than the others (Retribution Falls for last year). I don't hate the book, and my initial review was a lot more favorable than a lot of others. Still, the book doesn't work that great as speculative fiction, as spy fiction or as a take on history. It's the last element that, ironically, looks most vulnerable for the book's resurrection. It would probably have been possible to make a case for the book's weaving of mythological strands, conspiracies and the Cold War in 2001, but there's been too much great stuff written that melded speculative fiction with history since then. The Baroque Cycle, Baxter's Time's Tapestry series, Galileo's Dream which I've now mostly come around to liking, and especially Roberts' brilliant recent take on fanciful Soviet Union intrigue. Given that, Powers' work looks almost embarrassingly over-literal or, as I argued in my immediate reaction, very shallow.

5. Generosity by Richard Powers.
It's certainly more ambitious than the other Powers, and gives some interesting arguments and presentations on near-future science. I wondered for a bit in reading reviews, and even while reading it, if this wasn't actually a good book that I wasn't effectively positioned to appreciate. I'm still ambivalent, but I maintain that the work doesn't gel in some significant ways, the characters and story are awkward rather than truly effecting. I can recognize that a lot of people see great value in the work, and unlike Declare I don't view it as a real disappointment that it's on the list. Yet I don't get any value from the novel itself that I couldn't have obtained from some of the well done favorable reviews. Call it a testimony to overall analysis, but there still seem to be some non-trivial structural issues.

4. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes.
Very intriguing setting and overall tone, but there's a question of not quite enough plot to carry the work through, as well as this halting and drawing attention to some less justifiable aspects of the work. My views on the work have shifted several times, always thinking it's good but not quite consistently great. At present I'm in a lower level of regard currently, finding it easier to remember the awkwardness of the novel and a lack of meaning behind some elements. There's still a great setting though, all the more interesting for pushing a rich history, intricate urban fantasy and South African context. The book seems more substantial when read in relation to other works than in isolation.

3. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness.
The last and least satisfying volume in the Chaos Walking trilogy, and it brings the whole universe to conclusion that's less than I had hoped. Still, that's a minor grudge compared to the number of things this work does right: non-romantic male female relations, ambitious space environment, effective exploration of gender, aliens and personal identity. Pretty stunning ambition, all in all, compared with the genre as a whole, and in a way that makes YA exceedingly relevant in consideration of quality literature. My criticism would be that Ness in some ways tries to answer too much, and ends up filing off some of the more interesting ambiguities and questions of the series. It's not a cataclysmic drop in quality and it doesn't prevent the trilogy as a whole from being a major work, but it does seem to close off a lot even as it opens some other questions. In the end I find it a bit difficult to judge compared with other shortlisted items, it's still very entertaining and ambitious, but feels somewhat more restricted in its rounding-out-the-story format, and in how that story settles into a somewhat conventional framework. What is offered is interesting and challenging enough, in the setting as much as in the story, that in another year I'd have no hesitation in embracing this as the Clarke nominee, or finding some other way to laud the series as a whole. Not this year, though.

2. Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
Very impressive work, and one that I feel somewhat similar to Spirit and Yellow Blue Tibia of last year. It's an excellent, genre-breaking and reconstruction work, a great novel that's close to the top for the year. Yet it doesn't quite make my own top five books, and is distinctly secondary to the best on this shortlist. Moving beyond comparison it's worth championing in its own light. It's a pretty narrow book, focusing on a couple of characters experience as they slowly develop understanding of the SFnal premise. There's perhaps more plot movement here than any other book on the shortlist, and Sullivan succeeds in establishing a great deal of happening in some brilliant writing.

1. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.
A work that I probably was too harsh on after my initial reading, but that's grown on me after a bit of time. Partly from drawing out the great strengths of the piece, particularly the way it re-centers expectations, but also because a different context allows me to compare it to things other than River of Gods and Brasyl. Taken as a shortlist I've not doubt that it's the strongest book by a considerable margin, four of the items are pretty great, but McDonald's is really the outstanding piece. Above anything else it's the best structured work here, as well as the best structured of McDonald's novels and arguably one of the most precisely designed narratives in recent science fiction. From first line to last the book connects prose, characterization, setting and plot in a very powerfully structured work. Even better is that McDonald has a lot of substance to say through this, and he offers it effectively in the direct arguments and the subtle, especially in relation to the market. It shows a future and more prominent Turkey, and one hovering at the brink of even more substantial changes but the leading thing is what the book shows as already happened: a richly woven past that includes unfamiliar non-Western cultural patterns, invented future circumstances and the record laid by anticipations of the future. It's more technically effective and beautiful than almost anything that gets written, ultimately.

The shortlist as a whole:

It's a strong list, certainly, almost certainly better than any other genre award is going to present (and quite likely the non-genre lists, although I lack enough familiarity to assess with real credibility). I experienced it as being a bit less than last year, as the two new items I read didn't really satisfy as against last year's discovery of Far North, a quite magnificent work. I was also in a position of reading Beukes and Ness' latest shortly after earlier ventures that I found more effective, giving the list a second-rate feeling that seems undeserved. So there's a lot of circumstantial factors at work here, although I also think there's some objective ground for criticism, in particular concerning the absence of Surface Detail, Red Plenty and the Windup Girl from this list, as it seems very hard to argue against any of these in terms of quality or core creativity. For all that I only guessed 50% it seems in some way to be an unsurprising list, or at least one that follows a fairly conventional pattern: the long-acclaimed discussion-provoking standpoint science fiction of the year (The Dervish House), the effective narrative deconstruction (Lightborn), the literary work previously given an enthusiastic Strange Horizons review (Generosity), the dubious claim to be science fiction but popular work (Zoo City) the surprising and widely praised choice (Monsters and Men) the surprising and widely condemned work (Declare). Largely non-British in character this time, one previous Clarke-winner, another that has been nominated, four other authors shortlisted for the first time. Most of the authors have a well built reputation, although Beukes has only been practicing for a few years. Two women, four men. Six different publishers.

Themes on the shortlist:
The titles do run together in some interesting ways, put it another way it's one of the shortlists that's stronger than the sum of its parts although not as a whole achieving the level of the strongest of them. It's a very presentist list, even for the Clarke, with three works basically a clock's turn from the current day (Generosity, Lightborn and Zoo City) one set during the Cold War (Declare) and one within the next generation (The Dervish House). Monsters of Men is the only distanced SF, for time or space, being set on another planet centuries in the future. It's also unusual in being one of the few YA books nominated, and a work that's not standalone. There have been books linked to a series that have been nominated, and even one (Baroque Cycle and Bold as Love) but not recently, and to my knowledge this book is unique for being the third volume of the trilogy and the first one to be nominated. Looking at this list in comparison with 2010's it seems more standalone titles, less meta-fictional. If last year's science fiction depended to a large degree on familiarity with preceding texts, for detective noir (City & the City), the Count of Monte Cristo (Spirit), science fiction as a whole (Yellow Blue Tibia), the adventure template and Firefly (Retribution Falls), Galileo's texts (Galileo's Dream) and The Road (Far North) it was a set of texts rather uniquely framed as commentary on what the condition of writing was at. This year seems more focused on where people are in terms of larger community, the main focus seems less on literary patterns and texts as such, and more on questions of wider community. The Dervish House makes this centrally, with different lives from the city used to flesh out an invented future and unfamiliar past, for a story with much plot around literary codes in a near-occult investigation it's ultimately concerned with the ways of understanding and remaking community. Lightborn focuses on very similar things in the context of a traumatic transition that proves less apocalyptic than the setup or standard conventions would seem to demand. The same point could be made with Monsters and Men, although there's some tension with specifically YA questions of personal accomplishment the story is much more about how opposed communities can co-exist, and how the politics of information impact on this. There's arguably some similar concerns at work with Zoo City, although with less overall coherence which points to some of the problems in embracing this novel. As well Generosity brings in a concern with social process relating to happiness as well as the individual level, and Declare is about the (magical, conspiratorial) processes offered as gloss over large-scale political stability in Britain and the Soviet Union.

To an extent most science fiction is about imagined communities, but the items on this year's shortlist seem particularly interested in exploring strains and rebuilding of this in close relation to the present day. It's notable that in this process it's less dystopian than most other shortlists that come to mind. All the invented societies have problems and profound tensions, but none of them are doomed, and all rally elements of hope and even optimism.

Conspicuous absence from this shortlist: Mieville. He's been almost consistently nominated, and usually won, since Perdido Street Station, and Kraken was less fantasy-linked than two of the current nominees. I'm pleased to see this development, though, while Kraken was quite good it seemed a step down from his recent material, and Mieville has gotten quite enough Clarke exposure. I'd be inclined to not see him on the Clarke unless he again comes up with something awesomely challenging and distinct from anything he'd previously written. Perhaps I'm putting impossibly high standards on him, but for a triple Clarke-winner it makes sense to use a pretty high bar.

The Dervish House will win, as it well deserves to. It's a book that subsequent years will be seen as even more significant than it is now, a moving beyond customary assumptions that yields insight in context of McDonald's larger career and science fiction as a whole. The awarding will be one of the choices that people looking back will use to show it's effectiveness, as one of the relatively uncontroversial, popular and critically beloved works that stands the test of time--much like 2006's award Air. Lightborn should also age pretty well, in the context of female science fiction, inter-generational stories, deconstructions of zombie fiction, Sullivan's larger career and post-cyberpunk. Zoo City and Monsters of Men will be decently regarded five years from now, and the nomination will help draw deserving attention to both authors. Declare is unlikely to look any more appealing in another ten years time, and the clunkiness of its Cold War focus and the anachronism of the nomination will probably make this seem a bit of a puzzler looking back, a rough equivalent to Martin Martin or Streaking, although it is much better written than either. Generosity is the wild card in terms of long-term trends, as it's not generally classified as SF for most of its readers, and will either age well or badly. Confessing that I don't really get the appeal of it now, it might be seen as a neglected classic that the Clarke jury shrewdly recognized--I'm not sure.

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