Thursday, May 03, 2007

Nova's Night

To the Arthur C. Clarke awards last night, held in the Apollo cinema at the beginning of the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival. The underground foyer was noisy and crowded, and there was the usual DJ playing the usual 120 bpm racket, but there are quiet places with actual seats, and it’s definitely A Good Thing that the British SF clan has an annual gathering like this. And amongst the usual suspects there’s always the chance of an unexpected meeting. A couple of years ago it was Fred Pohl (who is rumoured to be collaborating with Clarke on a novel) and Betty Hull; this year it was Kit and Joe Reed.

This year’s winner, the twenty-first, was M. John Harrison for Nova Swing. A popular win for a novel I think I need to read again to understand why I liked it so much, the first time around. In his brief acceptance speech, MJH noted that Clarke had written a couple of the best SF novels of the past century, and that to his eleven-year-old self Clarke had seemed like a god. If not a god, Clarke was certainly an avatar of SF’s Golden Age to my eighteen-year-old self when I saw him speak at Bristol University in a large lecture theatre filled to overflowing. And for what’s it’s worth, I think Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars are still capable of evoking the fabled sense of wonder.

After the ceremony, I went to dinner with the Adam Roberts and the Gollancz editorial team. MJH turned up a little later, having been feted with champagne by his agent. Amongst other things, we got to talking about the recent news that the function of a small part of a mouse brain has been simulated on a supercomputer; one of the editors chided us when we agreed that as far as we were concerned it wasn’t good fictional material. But this is an age of wonders after all, and there’s simply too much good stuff around - in this week’s New Scientist, for instance, there’s a report that there may be something to cold fusion after all (something Clarke has long championed, against the grain of scientific consensus), an item about gestural language in chimpanzees, a note about a planet-spotting telescope that’s proving to be 10 times more sensitive than expected, sensitive enough to spot Earth-sized planets, another note about drug-induced retrieval of ‘lost’ long-term memories . . . Besides, all novelists must have a good filter: the ability to select the pertinent fact or image and ruthlessly discard everything else is as essential as ruthless self-criticism, or the discipline of solitude, or Graham Greene’s infamous splinter of ice in the heart. ‘Discrimination in one’s words is certainly required,’ Greene wrote in A Sort Of Life, ‘ but not love of one’s words - that is a form of self-love, a fatal love which leads a young writer to the excesses of Charles Morgan and Lawrence Durrell . . .’ Nova Swing, like all of MJH’s novels and stories, is a lapidary exemplar of this discrimination.

After this excitement, anyhow, it’s back to the second draft of the ongoing, and the necessary hard work to make lucid Macy Minnot’s entanglement in the plots and counterplots of people more powerful and dangerous than her.


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