This week, we have:
The original odd couple have their award shortlists out, and we're very excited to see two SH stories listed as Sturgeon finalists! Congratulations to Kate Bachus, Molly Gloss, and all the other nominated authors.
“Things Greater Than Love”, Kate Bachus (Strange Horizons 3/19/12)
Congratulations also to the Campbell nominees; that is certainly a list of largely decent science fiction novels by men, and G. Willow Wilson.
This week we had:
And on the blog, Niall rounded up reviews for the 2013 Clarke Awards, made notes on the shortlist, and commented on Chris Beckett's winning of the award. We also have the regular summary for what the SH contributors have been up to this April, so do check that out.
This year's Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, as announced a little while ago at the Royal Society in London, is ...
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
... and once again the judges ignore the 'wisdom' of the commenting crowd. Chris Beckett is the third successive first-time nominee to go on to win; It's the first time since 2007 that the Clarke has gone to a novel set off-Earth; and it's arguably the first time ever it's gone to a young adult novel. (The narrative is young adult coming-of-age, although the book is not category YA.) I'm happy for Chris personally and think his publisher, Corvus, deserve the recognition as well. Dark Eden wouldn't have been my pick; but so it goes.
EDIT: Guardian write-up.
The problem with collecting everybody else's reviews is the lingering sense that it's all been said. Perhaps it has, and perhaps a consensus is forming. Opinions as to the merits of four of the shortlisted novel certainly range quite widely, but at the top and bottom of the list the community-gestalt's preferences seem unusually clear. Out first should be Peter Heller's The Dog Stars, which elicits at most a hearty meh; last standing, as picked by Abigail Nussbaum, Dan Hartland, David Hebblethwaite, Farah Mendlesohn, and Liz Batty's poll, should be Ken MacLeod's Intrusion, winning its author a first Clarke at his sixth time at the party. I'm about to dissent (if I can finish this post before the award is announced), but only mildly; if things go that way I won't be displeased.
Still, first out of the balloon for me is not Heller, but Adrian Barnes' Nod, in which I found very little to love. One day, almost everyone in the world can no longer go to sleep; narrator Paul is one of the few who can, and we spend 200 pages watching him negotiate a collapsing world, as for most people tiredness gives way to delusions gives way to total mental and physical breakdown. Barnes is, however, less interested in this premise as a literal apocalypse, or even as a reflection on our world, and more interested in it as a sub-Ballardian externalisation of his narrator's psychology. Paul is elected prophet by one roving band of insomniacs who have decided his book-in-progress about the "old, unnamed realities" left behind when language and culture evolve has the ring of deep truth about it. Much of Nod is therefore an exercise in sickening validation of Paul's self-declared misanthropy: "Better things go into us than ever come out." The human animal proves itself more than capable of living down to Paul's low expectations -- redeeming features are few and far between, with the worst degradation reserved, as Abigail and Dan have outlined in their reviews, for the female characters, and in particular for Paul's partner, Tanya. Nor is there much in the way of purely aesthetic pleasure to be had from Barnes' prose. Throughout, the writing is rough around the edges, the occasional striking phrases overshadowed by agonisingly over-extended metaphors: "Where the previous morning she'd looked pregnant with unwanted knowledge, she now looked as though she'd given birth, misplaced the baby, and been up all night trying frantically to remember where she'd left it. Was it in the fridge? The laundry hamper? The microwave?" With better execution, the politics of Nod wouldn't exactly be forgivable, but might at least have a certain force; as it is, the reading experience is just limply unpleasant.
So now I come to Heller. The Dog Stars is straightforwardly an heir to books like The Road or Far North, a mainstream literary-fiction individualist post-catastrophe tale. The putative selling point is encapsulated in a truly awful strapline on the cover of the UK edition: "A novel about the end of the world which makes you glad to be alive." Traditionally, end-of-the-world novels make you glad that the world has not, in fact, ended; but this clearly means something more, that Heller is going to try to walk the terribly fine line between admirably allowing his protagonist to find some personal peace, and reprehensibly giving them a life that contemporary readers might envy. To Heller's credit, for about the first two-thirds of The Dog Stars I actually think he pulls it off. Protagonist Hig is torn between a deep and honest love of being-in-the-world, and grieving for everyone and everything lost. "There is no one to tell this to and yet it seems very important to get this right," he writes, owning up to the freedom he feels while flying, aware of precisely what has enabled that freedom. Meanwhile the novel's rugged survivalism is problematised through Hig's gung-ho companion Bangley, the sort of man who shoots first and asks questions later, and whose need for companionship is at least partly, Hig thinks, "so he can show someone how well he is surviving." So although it's light on event, and although Heller's style never quite stopped feeling a little strained, I found a good portion of The Dog Stars quite engrossing. Unfortunately in the last eighty pages or so, it all rather falls to pieces, as Hig encounters an old man with a conveniently available daughter -- who of course partners up with Hig before you can blink -- and proceeds to a roundly gung-ho Hollywood finale (complete with shoot-outs and explosions) that provides a much more simplistic feel-good conclusion than the quiet epiphany we had seemed to be heading for.
Then we have Chris Beckett's Dark Eden, a novel that a number of people have tipped as a dark horse and that has, in the main, been extremely well-received. As a long-time admirer of Beckett's work, it gives me no pleasure to say that I don't think Dark Eden deserves its award nominations; or that I find Abigail's critique overdue and necessary. For me the problem lies in the multiple levels of story being enacted. To recap: as science fiction, what we have is a planetary romance lost-colony tale. Then, structuring the narrative, are reworkings of core Western mythology: Stuart Kelly identifies Dark Eden's protagonist, John Redlantern, as "part Moses and part Cain; a Promethean rebel and a restless new Gilgamesh", which about sums it up. Finally, as humans move out from their initial dark eden, there is for me at least an increasing sense that Beckett is echoing aspects of the stories (some discredited, I understand) told about hominid "prehistory": a shift from female to male power; a shift from living with the land to imposing will on the land, represented by the domestication of local wildlife; a move from a repetitive dreamtime to a world with notions of history and progress. "We'd forgotten that there was any possibility that things could be different to what they already were", muses John. The problem is that while the science fiction says (convincingly) that this is how it could be, in this place, at this time, from these starting conditions, the myth and prehistory say (troublingly) that this is how it was, is, and will ever be between humans. For all Beckett's problematisation of John Redlantern himself, casting him as the only character capable of thinking differently, and linking that primarily to his maleness, establishes a context in which women are passive and nurturing, while men are aggressive and innovating; which in the context of all the novel's resonances argues that patriarchy will always and inevitably reassert itself, whatever society's existing story may be. There are indications that Beckett will challenge this in the forthcoming sequel, Gela's Ring, set hundreds of years later; in an extract posted at Aethernet Magazine, one of the first things the female viewpoint character does is explicitly appropriate John's mantle of change and progress to herself. But on its own, Dark Eden is a problematically essentialist novel that left me feeling deeply uncomfortable.
(I should perhaps pause at this point and acknowledge that it's not entirely unproblematic for a male critic to dismiss large chunks of a shortlist selected by a majority-female panel [four women, one man] in part for disappointing gender politics. In each of the cases above I think the portrayal of women is symptomatic of a systemic failure -- for Nod, a juvenile desire to shock; for The Dog Stars, a reluctance to fully address the complexities of the established premise; for Dark Eden, a lack of consideration for how the literal and symbolic levels of the story interact. But I think it's still worth making two points explicit. First, I'm trying to report my experience, not take offence on anyone else's behalf; I found that these three novels endorsed ideas and narratives of gender that made me uncomfortable, that is all. Second, as with many matters of literary interpretation, we're in a land of competing subjectivities and priorities. Others can and do disagree with my readings (each of the books above has been picked as a favourite by at least one person who's read the entire shortlist); or they may agree, but when evaluating the novels in the round find that other strengths compensate. My aim is not to be right, but to encourage others to think about why I might be, or not.)
(It would be nice to be able to say, having cast Barnes, Beckett and Heller aside, that I would include at least one novel by a woman in their stead. And, actually, there is a science fiction novel published in the UK last year by a woman that I'd include without hesitation: Arcadia by Lauren Groff, which is the life story of Ridley "Bit" Stone, raised in a utopian commune in the 1970s and carried through recent history into a near-future debilitated by ecological and political fracture. Whether anyone else would agree that an episodic and sometimes sentimental story set three-quarters in the past qualifies as one of the best science fiction novels of 2012, however, is open to debate; and more pertinently, it wasn't submitted, and so could not be considered by the judges. Of the books that were available, the strongest contender is clearly Juli Zeh's The Method, which appeared on the Kitschies shortlist and tackles similar themes as Intrusion, but in radically different style: a spiky, provocative thought-experiment if you like it, or a stagey, ideologically schematic and scientifically simplistic lecture if you don't. I vacillate between the two positions on a daily basis. Otherwise you're looking at books like Madeline Ashby's vN [a fine short story with a disappointing 300-page novel tacked on the back], Juliana Baggott's Pure [an evocative, strange apocalypse yoked to a familiar YA narrative], or G Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen [distinctive but lacks nerve, and is nearly as sexist as the trio I've just excluded]: and while I'd have certainly preferred any of them to Nod, I can't honestly say they'd have been in my top six for the year.)
Back to the shortlist. Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker is one of those that got away, a novel I enjoyed tremendously when I read it, but never found the time to write about properly. It's a book whose style is as distinctive as you've heard: loquacious and rambunctious are words that both describe Angelmaker and almost certainly appear somewhere within it. It's not always the most disciplined voice in the world, but it's very engaging, and capable of greater emotional range than you first expect. At least, it was for me, and here things turn a little confessional, because Angelmaker's protagonist, Joe Spork, is one of the very few characters I've found myself identifying with and projecting onto in the last year, to the point that when he's described as an everyman I feel a little protective. I recognise of course that his journey is highly formulaic, that the narrative is structured to endorse and reward his choices -- to the point of unceremoniously sidelining almost all of the female characters, as I am doing by not talking about them, but you can read Abigail's review for why that hurts so much -- but he embodies a particular and specifically English learned haplessness with painful familiarity. Perhaps that makes me more susceptible than other readers to the serious undercurrents in the novel, the sense that the world's evils and abuses of power have become more insidious, harder to rally against; the apocalyptic Angelmaker itself destroys the world by revealing too much of it, denying the truism of most government conspiracy thrillers that sunlight is the ultimate disinfectant. In its place is only the good fight: "We never reach the end. All we ever get is means. That's what we live with." All the flaws identified in other reviews are present and are flaws, which is why I wouldn't give Angelmaker the prize; but it chimes with me at a personal level that the rest of the shortlist doesn't equal.
So that leaves Ken MacLeod's Intrusion and Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, and I think Abigail pretty much has the measure of the choice in her closing summary:
One is small and intimate; the other is wide-ranging. One achieves its SFnal effect by slightly skewing the familiar. The other, through good old fashioned sensawunda. One is set in close interiors, dominated by claustrophobia and the feeling of being trapped. The other revels in a sense of possibility and of endless new frontiers. One is an angry denunciation of wishy-washy leftism; the other tries to argue that there is still hope for it.
We've talked about 2312 before. It, too, has its problems, politically, but -- without excusing those problems -- it's doing so many things at the same time that it would be truly astonishing if it succeeded at all of them; and it does succeed at a great deal. It's the most formally ambitious novel on the shortlist (every time I read someone criticising it for not having a strong enough central plot, I die a little inside), and it still feels to me the most open to disagreement, the most ready to acknowledge that it is, like all art, a work in progress, merely the best that could be done at the time. It's expansive and inspiring: the prologue alone is probably my favourite five pages of fiction from the last year. I would, I must admit, probably give it the prize.
So in a perverse way I'm glad that I'm not a judge this year, because I can easily see Intrusion winning, and it might be a more deserving winner. It would certainly be a good novel for MacLeod to win with: a democratic dystopia that is one of his best explorations of his core themes, told in a cool and less jokily referential voice than some of his recent books; a voice whose very restraint draws you into the argument, and dares you to define and defend your own line on civil liberties. I like the way that "the Fix", the pill Hope Morrison refuses to take to pre-emptively correct potential genetic defects in her unborn baby, is an improbably clean magical drug, sitting at the centre of a grounded political narrative like a tiny flaw in reality. I like the down-to-earthness of the characters and the milieu, I admire how cleverly both are constructed. I think there's a case to be made that the novel as a whole feels just a little belated -- a response to the UK under New Labour, rather than the UK of today; strange as it sounds, I think Angelmaker may be the novel on the shortlist that feels most contemporary -- and I'd want to read the novel a second time before declaring the mysterious visions of Hugh Morrison a success. But it is, as a whole, impressive. I read it first of any of these six novels, over fifteen months ago, and it's stuck with me.
The other reason part of me wants Intrusion to beat out 2312 is because I think it would feel a bit like a capstone on an era of British sf, the era of writers who started writing as I came into the field in the 90s. Not that MacLeod, or most of the other members of that generation, are running out of things to say, and I look forward to many more novels from them; but they suddenly have serious competition. I mentioned in my first post about this shortlist that this year sees a notable increase in the number of sf novels by women being published -- EJ Swift's Osiris, Stephanie Saulter's Gemsigns, Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds, and Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls are out now; Kameron Hurley's incendiary God's War, which will be on this shortlist next year or I'll have a thing or two to say about it, is out tomorrow; and Madeline Ashby's iD is out in a couple of months. The 2013 pool is more international as well, with Lord and Beukes, Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century, Manil Suri's The City of Devi, Ioanna Bourazopoulou's What Lot's Wife Saw, and others. There are even a couple of books by white British men to throw into the mix, in the shape of James Smythe's The Machine and Peter Higgins' Wolfhound Century! Any of these would be first-time Clarke nominees. I'm still excited, of course, for the next books by names I know well: the new Kim Stanley Robinson, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts. But this year feels like a tipping point, and it's about time.
First up in our review of SH contributor news for April, congratulations to Leah Bobet, whose poem "Hold Fast", which we published last June, is on the ballot for this year's Aurora Awards! Other awards news: Lawrence Schimel's picture book Just Like Them/Igual Que Ellos, illustrated by Doug Cushman, was chosen by IBBY for their Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities 2013 list. (It's also been released in a range of different language editions.)
On the books front, a reminder that Athena Andreadis' The Other Half of the Sky is out, featuring stories with "heroes who happen to be women, doing whatever they would do in universes where they’re fully human", by Alex Dally McFarlane, Kelly Jennings, Ken Liu, Nisi Shawl, Vandana Singh, and others. Lavie Tidhar's new book, Martian Sands, is available from PS Publishing; Mary Robinette Kowal's Without a Summer came out at the start of the month. Lori Ann White's ebook Spiritual Growths, in which mysterious trees grow all over San Jose, is out from Eggplant Literary Productions, and Aliya Whiteley's collection Witchcraft in the Harem is out from Dog Horn Publishing.
New stories. Our podcast editor Anaea Lay has a story in this month's Lightspeed: "The Visited." The July Asimov's, which is likely to hit shelves at the end of the month (yes, I know) includes David J. Schwartz's first story there, "Today's Friends." Meanwhile, the current June issue includes Megan Arkenberg's short story "A Love Song Concerning His Vineyard", and Bruce Boston's poem "Fate of the Time Meddlers." The April AE includes John Zaharick's story "Dysmorphic", and Ada Hoffman's "Feasting Alone." Beneath Ceaseless Skies featured Rich Larson's "The Mermaid Caper." Hunter Liguore is in The Masters Review with "The Writer Who Slept for a Hundred Years: A True Story", and Samantha Henderson's "The Strange Tale of Samuel Winchester" (co-written by Andrew Nicolle) is in the April Lovecraft Ezine. James Dorr has a story, "Ghost Ship", in the anthology Techno-Goth Cthulhu. Missing last month's round-up by a couple of days were "Liz Argall's Shadow Play", in Daily Science Fiction, and Jason Erik Lundberg's novelette “Always a Risk”, in the anthology Eastern Heathens from Ethos Books. Lastly, Stephen V. Ramey's flash fiction "A Snifter of Absinthe" is in the current Zodiac Review.
Genevieve Williams' new serial drama podcast, the Hermes and Hekate Roadshow, is up to episode 4 (also via iTunes). And I should have mentioned the most recent Outer Alliance Podcast last month, wherein Julia Rios talks to Christopher Barzak about his upcoming short story collection, and much else besides.
Poetry: Sally Rosen Kindred's "Sleeping Beauty Says Goodnight to Little Red" appeared at Heron Tree. Joanne Merriam guest-edited the April issue of Eye to the Telescope, and her selections include work by Susannah Mandel, FJ Bergmann, Marge Simon, Lisa Bao and others. The latest Star*Line includes work by Peg Duthie, Andrew Kozma, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Alicia Cole, Ann K. Schwader and others; and the latest Mythic Delirium features Alexandra Seidel's "The Nostalgia of Roads", Mari Ness' "Gleaming", Sofia Samatar's "Persephone Set Free", and Sonya Taaffe's "The Ceremony of Innocence", among others. Lawrence Schimel and F.J. Bergmann have poems in On the Dark Path, an anthology of fairy tale poetry edited by Anita M. Barnard. Elizabeth Barrette's poetry fishbowl focused on her Path of the Paladins series.
Non-fiction. Carmen Machado writes about "The Imaginary Republic of Molossia" at VICE. Nina Allan is impressed by The Machine by Jame Smythe. And Adam Roberts has finally got around to starting a new blog, Sibilant Fricative: you'll find him working his way through the Banks back catalogue, at present.
Round-ups and shortlist reviews
Nod by Adrian Barnes
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
A quick reminder! The membership rates for Loncon 3, the 2014 Worldcon, are going up tomorrow -- so if you're thinking of attending, and you should be because it will be excellent, think about joining today. You can also arrange to pay in instalments. This ends our public service announcement.
We're heading into the Clarke endgame for this year -- the winner will be announced this coming Wednesday. Among other things this means we're starting to get to the stage where people have read the books and we get actual shortlist reviews; with any luck I'll have time to do a full review-roundup next week. In the meantime, here are the other posts that have crossed my radar in the last few weeks. This covers quite a span of time, so I've added dates.
Charlie Jane Anders at io9 (4th April):
It's just a bit sad that when the Hugo Awards are making huge strides towards inclusivity, the Clarke Awards, which are juried and thus less subject to popular sentiment, are still so slanted towards male authors. One notable omission: vN by Madeline Ashby is a fine, challenging science fiction book — but maybe it wasn't published in the UK last year?
Tom Pollock (6th April):
I’m not saying the Clarke list is a bad list, I’ve seen good cases made for every book on there. What I do think is that it would make much more sense, when selecting eligibility for an SF award, to judge the books on the presence of SF, rather than the absence of Fantasy, YA tropes or whatever other genre markers you might like to flag up. It would still be an SF award, in spirit as well as name, and you might even get a more diverse shortlist*. Just an idea.
Cora Buhlert (8th April):
Indeed, my main reaction to the Clarke shortlist in comparison to this year’s Hugo controversy is the question to all the Hugo critics, “Is this really what you want?” An award shortlist chosen by a jury of qualified experts, which nonetheless winds up consisting entirely of white men and books which are far less diverse in theme and style (several of the nominees are basically reimaginings of hoary old SF tropes) than those on the Hugo shortlist, for all their flaws.
Martin Lewis (8th April):
In this respect, I was struck by something that Paul Kincaid said before the award: “If, for instance, Empty Space, Jack Glass, Angelmaker and Alif the Unseen are all excluded from the list, we will have very legitimate cause for concern.” Angelmaker did make the shortlist so hopefully he didn’t find cause for concern with the award this year (Kincaid has written his own dyspeptic piece on the Hugos and the Clarke). What struck me, however, was that you would be hard-pressed to change the ratio of authors and make this core proposition 75% women. If the judges don’t like a highly-rated novel by a man then there are plenty of other highly-rated options by men. If they don’t like a highly-rated novel by a woman then that can wipe out a lot of the available pool. Niall Harrison suggested in his excellent piece on the shortlist that the most plausible other contenders by women were The Method by Juli Zeh (which was shortlisted for a Kitschie) and Pure by Juliana Baggott. There is also vN by Madeline Ashby, a book that had much more mixed reviews but represents pretty much the only core science fiction contender by a woman). I am looking forward to reading these novels but I wish there were many, many more of them; as with the employment example above, I think the focus of fixing the problem needs to be on removing barriers for people who aren’t white men.
Chris Gerwel (9th April):
The fact that UK speculative fiction publishing seems to discriminate against women authors is notable, and worthy of discussion. The “controversy” that arises from this year’s Clarke Award does well to shed light on this fact, and to hopefully encourage publishers, authors, booksellers, and readers to change that (consider this comment from Farah Mendlesohn on the role of booksellers in this process, and this post from Martin Lewis about Clarke Award statistics). The Clarke Award also raises troubling questions for speculative fiction publishing across the pond (or quite frankly anywhere) in terms of our own (often troubled) relationship with gender. Any introspection that results from such controversy is valuable in that it fosters greater inclusion in the field while simultaneously presenting the field as mature and introspective.
Niall Alexander at Tor.com (11 April):
So was the reaction to this year’s shortlist basically a case of much ado about nothing?
Jared Shurin (24th April):
Before I get further in, please understand that I think the Arthur C. Clarke Award is the most prestigious prize in science fiction and, without a doubt, it does an amazing job of promoting science fiction to genre and non-genre readers. I like the fact that, not only does it provoke conversations like this, but it also encourages them. If I come across as more critical of the Clarke than I am of other awards, it is because I hold it to a higher standard.
Liz Williams (25th April):
There has been a lot of debate recently about the lack of women in SF - the general consensus, with which I concur, is that it's a buying issue, but quite what fuels that is debatable (promotion, or lack of it, in bookstores, buying habits, and self promo). It's a phenomenon of some concern, since women have been writing in the genre since its inception and the squeeze on the female presence in SF was highly noticeable in the Clarke submissions this year (I'm hoping that there'll be more of a balance next year, with some interesting work coming up). Most of the criticism that was got, as female judges, was from men: for being insufficiently feminist. There was finger-wagging on a number of male-dominated threads as to what I, in particular (as a result of the Guardian article) should be thinking and feeling, and there seems to be an assumption in some quarters that our primary issue, as female judges, should be gender. I need hardly point out how problematic this is.
Also: partly in response to the SF Count, Kari Sperring has kicked off the #womentoread hashtag on Twitter. Explanatory post:
But why now, exactly. I've done something like this before (last year with the fantasy by women thing). That's part of it. I am an activist to my bones: it's coded into me to try and *do* something when I see an injustice. And I know far too many really great women writers who are underrated, under-reviewed, under-recognised. I see male writers praised for doing things in books which women did before them, which women are doing as well as them -- but the women are ignored and sidelined. It is a fact that books by women are reviewed less frequently than books by men, and that prestigious review locales pay less attention to women than men.