Friday, July 29, 2016

Clarke Award Round-Up

Ideally, the winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award should be more than the best sf novel of the year: it should be the best of the best, chosen from a strong shortlist of ambitious, innovative, gripping and genuinely exciting titles. A shortlist that not only stimulates debate about the contenders among readers and critics, but also showcases the vitality and diversity of the genre. So what, then, of the novels selected by the award's panel of judges for the 2016 shortlist? Do they give a fair and useful snapshot of the state and concerns of the current sf scene in Britain? And are they a worthy set of competitors for the bookend trophy and £2016 cheque? And which of them is mostly likely to win?

Chosen by the award's judges from 113 titles submitted for consideration by publishers, the six titles contending for this year's award are:

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)
Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)
Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

The size of the submissions list shows that in terms of volume, if nothing else, British sf publishing is in a healthy state. There were also a good number of titles submitted by publishers who don't ordinarily produce sf, suggesting that the genre's toolkit is proving to be useful and relevant to authors who haven't developed inside it. Nevertheless, all but one of the shortlisted novels (Iain Pears's Arcadia) were published as science fiction. Three are partly or largely set on spaceships or starships, one features posthuman superheroes and another time-travel, and two not only explore the idea of pocket universes via plots in which the British secret services play a role. In short, their tropes and ideas are reassuring familiar, embodying what are popularly perceived to be the central concerns of sf and deployed in narratives that for the most part are driven by action and suspense. None of the shortlisted novels are outright clunkers, all have their virtues, and there's a considerable amount of accomplished writing on display, but the shortlist is dominated by a sense of middle-of-the-road orthodoxy rather than cutting-edge innovation. If I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be safe, and I can't help feeling that it's a shame that complex novels of ideas like Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last, Adam Roberts's The Thing Itself, Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, Justina Robson's Glorious Angels and Jo Walton's The Just City failed to find a place on it.

It's notable that while J.P. Smythe's Way Down Dark is the only shortlisted novel specifically marketed as a Young Adult novel, two others, Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Iain Pears's Arcadia, feature protagonists who are teenagers or just a little older, and focus on the kind of problems -- assuming responsibility, working out personal ethical and moral values, and so on -- characteristic of the YA genre. I'm not sure if this reflects a preference of the judges or the growth in numbers, quality and influence of sf novels aimed at a rising cohort of younger readers (there's a YA Literary Convention happening in London as I type this), but it does seem to exemplify the ongoing shift away from the kind of sf that investigates our relationship with the universe or our own inner spaces, or wildly extrapolates from cutting-edge science to the kind of sf that uses established tropes, devices and situations as scaffolding for stories that interrogate, satirize and illuminate contemporary personal and social issues.

Links to my reviews of all six shortlisted novels can be found here, but I'll indulge in short discussions of each of them below.

J.P. Smythe is a rising star whose earlier novel, The Machine, a marvelously controlled fable of self and memory, was shortlisted for the 2014 Clarke Award. Way Down Dark, his first YA novel,
follows the struggles of teenage heroine Chan Aitch after she inherits the responsibility of protecting her people and the home they've carved out of the mid-levels of a decaying multi-generation space ship. Chan's moral dilemmas and the casual savagery of the ship's inhabitants are forcefully conveyed, but the grimdark ultraviolence grows wearyingly repetitive, and the book, abruptly ending with a not-especially novel twist that leaves Chan's conflict with the leader of a nihilistic gang unresolved and aims her towards new challenges in the rest of the trilogy, is the weakest on the shortlist.

Mainstream author Iain Pears's use of genre elements in Arcadia's intricate story about (among other things) a teenage girl's entanglement in the fate of a pocket utopia created by a refugee scientist from the future, is both playful and assured. He expertly knits up an intricate plot complicated by time-traveling protagonists and makes some interesting arguments about the nature of story and story-telling, but while Arcadia is a witty and entertaining page-turner that investigates the nature of story and story-telling, but it never feels especially serious, its future dystopia is sketchily imagined and rather too familiar, and the story looks more to the past than to the future.

The plot of Becky Chambers's debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, is the stuff of a hundred space operas, but its focus isn't on interstellar politics and derring do but on the virtues of diversity and decency. There are sympathetic characters, nicely varied aliens and alien worlds, and oodles of snappy dialogue, but the narrative is unevenly episodic, the life lessons are too often easily won or turn on implausibly neat coincidences, and the novel comfortably inhabits rather than transcends its space-adventure milieu. It's a fun, enjoyable read that explores complex problems of tolerance, diversity and identity with wit and good humour, but doesn't quite attain the necessary heft of a Clarke Award winner.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time is closest in form and theme to Arthur C. Clarke's writings about the future of humanity. Tchaikovsky has built a considerable reputation as a fantasy author, and his first sf novel is equally accomplished, its century-spanning narrative cleverly maintaining consistent viewpoints as it chronicles the rise of a civilisation of spiders on a terraformed planet and the gradual descent into barbarism of the human crew of a starship that's fled a dying Earth. The development of arachnid technology is packed with ingenious ideas; while the human narrative arc is more familiar, it provides some lovely moments of cognitive estrangement during clashes with the alien yet sympathetically drawn spiders. Children of Time doesn't quite avoid cliche (that flight from a dying Earth, for instance, which also features in Becky Chambers' novel), but its thoughtful depiction of two civilisations attempting to understand each other cleverly inverts and interrogates the usual narrative of planetary conquest.

Dave Hutchinson's Europe At Midnight is firmly set on Earth, in a Balkanised near-future Europe darkened by mistrust and conflict. Deploying a rich array of spy-novel tropes, the story moves from the Campus, a seemingly hermetic pocket world suffering the aftermath of a bloody revolution, through an austerity-stricken London, to a mission to infiltrate the Community, a quaint yet sinister English Ruritania that underlies or sits sideways to reality. A section involving infiltration of the sewers under a micro-state created by kleptocrats in the middle of Dresden doesn't quite escape the spy-novel cliches Hutchinson knowingly repurposes elsewhere, and it's a rather blokeish novel -- the two main female characters are sacrificed on the altar of plot. But the narrative that leads its characters ever deeper into a warren of rabbit holes is expertly carpentered and informed by a wry cynicism, the backdrop of Europe's patchwork of microstates, with their rivalries and cross-border capers, is vividly realised, and Hutchinson's exploration of the Community's stifling utopia satirises and explores the Matter of England and the nature of Englishness with a trenchant and mordant wit.

I suppose that Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix could be counted as the fourth YA-inflected novel on the shortlist. The memoir of a self-styled supervillain, Phoenix Akore, bookended by the story of its discovery in a post-apocalyptic future, it's in part a coming-of-age narrative, and pits its narrator against the kind of malevolent world-spanning corporation that too often features as the antagonist in YA dystopias. But it's also a furious political polemic driven by Phoenix's self-education and radicalisation: the story of a superhero's justification of how she chooses to use of her world-scorching powers. Her anger is fueled by her education about the extent of colonial exploitation of Africa and its peoples: the narrative is shot through with explicit references to slave ships, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the immortal cell line of Henrietta Lacks, and much more. In parts it's wildly uneven, and its villains are thinly sketched straw men, but the scenery-smashing superhero stuff is tempered with some lovely tender and reflective passages, and the whole burns with a vital exuberance.

Which of the six will win? I don't think that Way Down Dark is in the running, and although Arcadia and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet are both likeable they're also somewhat lightweight -- but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Chambers on the Clarke shortlist again, after the not-inconsiderable achievement of winning a place with her first novel. We're down to the last three, any one of which would be a worthy winner. The Book of Phoenix is my personal favourite, but may be too uneven and too strange to win over all the judges. Despite its many virtues, Children of Time is the kind of so-called heartland sf that rarely wins the Clarke, but given that Anne Leckie's space operatic Ancillary Justice was successful in 2014 it may be in with a chance against Europe at Midnight, which I suspect will be the popular choice for the prize.

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