Perhaps most indicative of the mood surrounding the 2016 Clarke Award shortlist is that most of the discussion is about the Clarke Award itself, rather than the mostly baffling list of novels the jury selected this year. It’s a fairly cut-and-dry list that doesn’t garner much debate or consideration; each book seems to inspire unequivocal feels from most readers, but they do make a odd collection when taken together. After much thinking, and some discussion with Jonah Sutton-Morse and Maureen K. Speller on the Cabbages & Kings podcast, it seems some themes of kinship have emerged from what is an otherwise unfocused and random-looking award list.
There is more than one way to slice this, but I think the following pairings seem to suit: Surface. Contrivance. Salience.
Surface: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Way Down Dark
There’s nothing wrong with a surface story: the kind that delivers exactly what one expects, and requires little contemplation. The presence of surface on what is considered to be “the most prestigious SF book award in the UK” might raise some eyebrows, though one could argue that the inclusion of such books best represents a snapshot of the field. Strangely, two of the shortlisted novels that couldn’t be more extremely opposite of one another fall into this category.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Given the gulf between fan and critical reactions, it seems every reader has taken the short way to their respective happy or angry position on this book, including me. Fans are won over by the representation of gender and sexuality, the nonviolent message, and the cooperative spirit among the over-the-top personalities onboard. Critics find fault with the superficiality and timidity of these themes, its hand-wavey naivete with potential conflict, and its unwillingness to engage with the more deeply embedded problematic components of what’s become conventional television sit-com-drama space opera. “It’s fluffy!” fans praise/critics complain.
So, we’re all in agreement.
But I side with the critics: the shallow depiction of what is billed as progressive SF is less than satisfying. While much of the novel is concerned with interaction and acceptance, there are moments when we are taken just to the brink of character complexity (Ohan’s deathwish, Jenks’ virtual romance, Lovie’s reboot, Rosemary’s and Sissix’s interspecies sex play) only to shuffle backward quickly, usually to go to have dinner with Chef. This kind of retreat from the most interesting dramatic moments of the story signifies an author who is not confident with depicting anything beyond talking and eating and narrator-dumped backstories. This is fine for fluffy space opera drama, but is that enough to qualify for a prestigious book award?
However, the further away I get from this novel, the less bothered I am by its superficiality than I am by its traditionality. How does a novel of such apparent openness get to be so boxy and suffocating? Why include a traditionally passive feminine heroine who serves as secretary to the Big Guy? Why include the oppressive sit-com/space opera premise of the Big, Happy Family, where cooperation is key, hierarchy is stable, and personality conflicts can be solved over an exotic space dinner. Ultimately, it comes down to one main thing, which is, I think, as superficial a complaint as the book itself: I have already seen something like this many, many times before. Not only is it an almost character-for-character match with Farscape, the arcs and cadences of the story feel as familiar and nonthreatening as an air mattress in a zero-G chamber. Despite being hailed for its progressive casting and interrelational depictions, The Long Way is as traditional as space operas go, reinforcing traditional space opera structures along the lines of power, gender, personality, and storytelling. The crew is cooperative. The crew is diverse. The crew supports the captain. The captain is a sturdy fellow. And Rosemary (like, god, how many Golden Age SF novels?) is the newbie secretary who is subservient to the crew’s needs: she reinforces the captain’s stature, Dr. Chef’s pride, Kizzy’s belongingness, and Sissix’s sex life.
I mean, I get it. You can’t tear me away from my ST:TNG nostalgia, no matter how problematic it is. If you’re are new to this type of story, enjoy. I need something different.
–Unless… it’s satire. Consider those few moments of oddness: why on earth a tunneling ship would suddenly gain universal prestige for hiring an administrative assistant, or when the captain says, “I worry about more than just Captain things sometimes” and no one rolls their eyes, or when Rosemary (I think) pulls the ultimate As You Know Bob with “I could use a refresher course,” or when the entire crew watches poor Ohan succumb to atrophy and illness while offering no support or sick days, and then forced to remain alive when Ohan decides their sick of this shit and would prefer to kick the bucket. Is this book an attempt at some very subtle, yet critical, humor about the subgenre? Is this why Chambers chose to place Rosemary in the role of traditional passive subservience– not to reinforce the traditional female role on a spacecraft, but to highlight the faults of such a story? And if that’s the case, perhaps we can chalk up the overkill with canned dialogue, food descriptions, and interrupty backstories to a kind of mockery. If so, then The Long Way may very well deserve an award, but I’m not willing to read it again to test this theory because I. just. can. NOT. with. Kizzy.
Way Down Dark by J.P. Smythe
If The Long Way represents the Tyranny of the Big, Happy Dysfunctional Family, then Way Down Dark represents the Tyranny of the Individual, the lizard-brained us-versus-them mentality that also infects a lot of genre work. Billed as Young Adult fiction, appropriate because of its sparseness, it does not belong on a non-dedicated YA shortlist; a mixed list like this is unfair to both sides of the divide that draw from different skills sets and techniques. Stop this nonsense and create more YA-dedicated SF awards lists.
Taking place on a generation starship with an Inferno-like vertical quality, the young protagonist scoots and climbs and hops around the decaying vessel making it more like a kind of Chutes and Ladders: In Space. But Chan steals the show anyway, because she is a total shaved-head badass, leaping off railings, fighting crazies, and saving kiddies. Her adventures, though nonsensical most of the time, are riveting. Smythe knows how to hook: the story opens with Chan violently euthanizing her mother, she murders (or not?) a man for a pair of shoes, and her persistent enemy, the mindlessly violent “Lows,” attack from every nook and stairwell. Never mind that the bottom of the ship is a noxious lake of human effluvia that Chan must swim in, in order to reach Sanctuary.
Rip-roaring space adventure for kids, it is. Gruesome? Brilliant. Hyper-violent? Sign me up. Baby saving? I’ll read that shit. Oh, but now here come the “why’s?”
Violent, barbaric, and just as vertically symbolic, J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975) traces the devolution of residents in a tower block as they retreat inward to their concrete world and away from their humanity. A harrowing account of a community’s descent into isolation, individualism, and inhumanity, and how the structures of our world are fostering this descent, it is a brilliant masterpiece that ends just before the submission to complete animalism. Way Down Dark begins after that point. All we know is that the “Lows” are tribal, territorial, violent, and destructive. They kill for pleasure. They terrorize for fun. The normal citizens are the minority, picked off one-by-one, or absorbed into the clan. It makes for great high-stakes drama, but only if you don’t think about it too much because the philosophical magic of High Rise is missing: Why? Why are the Lows so inhuman? Have they evolved to a point beyond the animal instincts of propagation and cooperation? Are they just so bored? Haven’t we learned from our own human history that cooperation is so crucial and instinctual as to make a survivalist story like this dubious without a proper explanation for why the tendency for human cooperation has been undermined in this setting?
The clincher may be in the SPOILER: This generation starship, called The Australia, is actually a prison colony suspended outside Earth’s (assuming) atmosphere. On the Cabbages & Kings podcast, Maureen K. Speller goes into a very interesting account about how this ties into the Australia-that-we-know’s own heritage of being the home of British-expelled convicts. For that reason, we might be able to retroactively view this as a critique of prison systems and the institutionalized cruelty they nurture, but that doesn’t save the novel from reinforcing the idea of heroic exceptionalism, with Chan and her few friends being somehow immune to the call of the Lows, instead desiring safety, structure, spaghetti, and a good washing up. Although Chan experiences a few moments of morally ambiguous decisions, she’s never in any danger of becoming “one of them.” What makes her so fucking special?
So, this could have been a critique of prison systems. More interestingly, it could have been an inside look at the “Lows,” their power structure, their system, and their history. Way Down Dark is successful as pure entertainment, but, even as a YA novel, it could do these other things, too. So why didn’t it?
Contrivance: Arcadia and Children of Time
Contrivance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a working-really-hard-to-make-something-work kind of fiction. Whether it works or not, and whether it’s all worth it, is a different story.
Arcadia by Iain Pears
I joined my mother for lunch one afternoon and made the mistake of walking into the restaurant with a dreamy smile on my face, having started Arcadia that morning and stopped just at that peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate moment when the girl from the time travel machine meets the boy from the fantasy portal. Naturally, I had to explain my silly smile and then the delightfully twee crossover scene until I finally waved it off because ohmygod how embarrassing to talk about SF. in public. To my mother.
To my horror, she texted me that night to thank me for “the great book recommendation” because she just bought it and could now enjoy Arcadia along with me.
For anyone who has actually tried to read Arcadia, you know how this story ends: I never heard back from her about it.
A gentle deconstruction of twee fantasy and gnarly sci-fi that ends up back where it started, and not really doing anything radical enough to justify the heavy-handed metaness of it all. Traditional roles are reinforced, motivations remain conventional, and the adorable moral sticks close to shallow waters: question AUTHOR-ity. It’s a case of “too little; too late”, when much wilder dismantlings of sci-fi and fantasy have occurred, like, decades ago, but even that could be forgiven if not for the tedium of having to spend 500+ pages with an entire cast of wooden characters and–
–kitschily sudden POV changes.
For a novel that delights in toying with the constructs of science fiction and fantasy storytelling, it is exactly that: a construction project. The parts never meld into an intoxicating dreamlike atmosphere of fantasy nor the cognitive estrangement of science fiction; instead, the nuts and bolts and cables of each chunk-o-fiction are bare, unvarnished, and a tripping hazard. Perhaps the dedicated Apple app is supposed to ameliorate this problem, but I’m an Android user and, besides, this is a book, and one would hope that a book can withstand its own page-after-page format above all others. (On the Cabbage & Kings podcast, I’m pretty sure someone likened the app to those “Choose Your Own Adventure” Books.)
On the podcast, Maureen K. Speller poses a tasty theory that perhaps the unsuccess of the novel is actually Pears’ meta-point: throughout the story, an Inklings-like writer discusses the techniques of fiction writing, dissects his own work, and even, at some points, writes the story himself. With so much of the story hearkening to suspicion of authorial authority and criticism of world- and character-building, particularly of the Inklings’ ilk, it’s a delicious thought, though it does seem exceptionally sadistic to write 500-plus pages of bad writing about a bad writer who writes bad stories that makes the story bad– on purpose.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
It really is just about the spiders, isn’t it?
Definitely the most Arthur C. Clarke-ian of this year’s shortlist, with its progressivism tinted by flat human characters and a darting to-and-fro starship, this is exactly the kind of book I would expect to see on a shortlist named after the only interesting writer of “The Big Three.” Children of Time is a well-done generation starship tale about uplift, First Contact, and the best I’ve read when it comes to animal-pomorphized aliens, though it might be the only version of Alien Space Bat writing where the humans are more fatally drawn than the aliens. The nature doc-style spider strands in the early chapters steal the show over the stale human characters in the space opera strand, making it an odd fit in British SF where human concerns usually tend take precedence over (or at least rate alongside) gizmo porn and alien shoot-em-ups.
It’s the kind of book I can’t help but rearrange structurally in my head, though, the most obvious alteration being to cut out most–if not the entire–human strand. Although I suspect Tchaikovsky is going for a mirroring of events in the two strands to highlight our shared existence as human and arachnid, the human arc of the tale adds unnecessary bulk, the jumps in human time to match that of spider evolution are jarring and unconvincing, and, frankly, the human adventures are just plain boring (and recycled BSG at times, which is probably recycled something else I haven’t read). Besides, the human presence isn’t necessary to remind us that the spiders’ progress is much like that of human (Western) progress, which emerged and thrives on the work of stolen civilizations. In fact, the entire metaphorical subplot of spider progress mirroring exactly that of Western civ–while I get what Tchaikovsky wants to do–feels blunt and contrived.
But to cut out most of the human arc leaves us with just a 250-page story (plus!) about the evolution of Alien Space Spiders (minus) (but done so well!).
Another kind of restructuring might also improve the reception of the tale: There are a couple of moments of true, palpable horror– both when the two species meet, once on the ground of Kern’s World and once in the final space combat scene– both of which vividly raises the stakes of the story. Perhaps these scenes could be better utilized as flash-forwards, escalating tension at earlier points while leading the reader to succumb to base instincts of spider fear. Then, with the steady evolution and progress of the spider story to fill in the gaps between those flash forwards, this would push the reader into an unwilling, then willing, recognition of the humanity of this new species (and the brutality of our own). It would be a more engaging and active experience for the reader, rather than the passive tale of cultural evolution that we see here.
But I’ll give it to Tchaikovsky that when those strands of vivid spiders and boring humans finally converge, it becomes apparent that the 2-D characterization of the human characters might be intentional. Because it really is just about the spiders. If that’s the case, this is one SF story I won’t diss for neglecting the human element; Tchaikovsky is after something different here and succeeds… boring though it may be half the time.
Salience: Europe at Midnight and The Book of Phoenix
No one agrees on what “science fiction” should do, but for me, it’s most successful when a novel has a firm grip around the wrist of what’s going on in the world/in people’s minds, dragging it out into the spotlight, naked and ashamed, but holding some cool gadgets at the same time. The best of these kinds of novels can be blunt or subtle, often a combination of both, but it must be genuine, cutting, and most certainly salient. Both novels below are sharp and penetrating, as well as entertaining, and offer a treasure’s worth of subterranean excavation.
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
I’ve already written a review of this novel and I think I’ve made it clear I’m a Hutch convert and an one of his auto-order readers, plus he sometimes talks to me on Twitter. So I’m just going to post my old words here, because I’m a little too biased to try writing anything new about it at this point.
With the second release of his Fractured Europe series (which is itself fracturing as its cult success breeds promises of another book, then another book, then maybe another book…) it might seem as though somebody is milking the fractured cow, but Fractured Europe is a series in the sense that Bas Lag is a series, with Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight being very different novels about disconnected places. While Autumn gave us a larger picture of the continent, with Rudi sneaking across borders on various coureur errands, we learn by the cliffhanger ending that what we saw wasn’t the complete picture. In the next step of the sequence, Europe at Midnight, Hutchinson slows the shutter speed just enough to afford us a glimpse of where this might be going. As a series, these two novels are less a linear story, more a close-up lens of his favorite speculative hot spots. Perhaps we’ll never get a panoramic view of this extrapolative world, but these novels seem to be headed toward at least a photographic collage of this border-loving landscape. Hutchinson sees the imminent through his journalistic eyes, and we’re flipping through the pages of his Fractional Geographic:
…the problem with people like us is that we only ever see parts of the story… Or we see it from odd angles and perspectives. We very rarely see the whole picture (loc. 6473).
So, it’s a not-a-series, and Midnight is a not-the-same-book. The (mostly) first-person lens leaves less room for Hutchinson’s own under-the-breath narrative cynicism, and absent are the picaresque antics of Rudi and his family and accomplices, but Hutchinson’s cutting dry humor is present in other ways. In Midnight, the pseudonym’d protagonist and friends tend to play it straight, but “Rupert’s” Boardroom savvy and Real World innocence are positively entertaining. And anyone who has ever worked within the political vestibules of Academia will find the setting of Midnight more than a little satirical.
As for the SF crowd that may be holding back, it is quite sci-fi: invisible staircases, gene-mod torture, porkchop guns, European sewage systems, dangerous maps, shifting landscapes, and orphan universes infiltrate this spy-thriller plot.
What Hutchinson fans might miss is the thick atmosphere and evocative prose of Autumn-– those metaphors of sunburn peels and Burger Kings have been exchanged for a frank accessibility that new readers should find welcoming or, rather, ensnaring. Where Autumn dances around the mystery, Midnight is the mystery. Autumn is more absorbing, Midnight is more engaging—a fine point of differentiation to make, but one that could make or break new readers. Because of the engagement that Midnight offers, I almost consider Midnight to be the more important of the two books; in fact, I almost dare to recommend this second installment first, especially to readers not already attracted by geopolitical commentary or jaded male protagonists. Midnight just might hook the readers that Autumn didn’t attract. (I should add here that Autumn is still my favorite of the two, but by a fraction of a margin.)
It’s a good thing that both novels share this capacity to hook different audiences, because the undercurrent of commentary radiating from them is as smart and stimulating as it is indispensable, establishing the Fractured Europe series as the most relevant SF project to hit the bookshelves this political era. I can’t wait for more.
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
If Europe at Midnight is the most geopolitically-relevant SF novel of recent times, then The Book of Phoenix is the most sociopolitically-relevant novel I’ve encountered in a long time. I hesitate to make a grandiose statement like that, because I suspect this observation would bother Okorafor who, based on interviews and introductions, indicates that she prefers her novels to be viewed with fewer sweeping generalizations and more as a lens into the nature of the personal, the story, and storytelling itself. Well, that puts a damper on the way I approach things, which The Book of Phoenix is absolutely ripe for, so I’m wondering if I can successfully toe the line by staying within the confines of the story while at the same time pointing out where my mind went at certain points. So I’m going to hedge more than usual.
A lot of readers quickly latch on to the oral storytelling cadences, the Naijamerican influences, and cross-continental mythological elements, but it should be no surprise that I see a lot of classic sci-fi influence in Okorafor’s stories. The Book of Phoenix is no different, not only introducing old sci-fi concepts like strange gadgetry, government oppression, and transhumanism–none of which is unusual in modern-day sci-fi–but they are introduced in a way that is written like old sci-fi (simple, direct language), and portrayed like old sci-fi. Early scenes bring to mind old school evil science labs, genetic tinkering, and government conspiracies that I’ve enjoyed in old Philip Jose Farmer, Samuel Delany, and Philip K. Dick. Even Seven’s death on television in the novel seems like an exact replay of another small screen death of an SF martyr: Mike from Stranger in a Strange Land (what I consider Heinlein’s only near-literary moment). Even the relationships of TBoP feel as perfunctory as those in classic sci-fi (and maybe that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but sometimes relationships are overwrought to silliness in more modern SF).
Part of this sense of “the old school” is also due to the bold comic book hero motif that emerges early on, where characters take on superpowers, scenery becomes more visually chunky, rather than atmospheric, and scenes are chopped and delineated as if illustrated in panels. For a non-graphic novel reader, whose observation skills diminish when faced with a (gods forbid!) picture, reading in this style is something of a mixed experience: easier to read than a graphic novel, but disappointingly less concentrated with prose and ambience. I suspect this will turn off some readers wanting something chewier.
Additionally, the colloquialism and oral cadences might also turn off typical Clarke readers. Okorafor–a Ph.D. mind you–tends to favor sentences of the broken, repetitive, truncated, and beginning-with-”I” variety. This is a stylistic choice and may be tied to Okorafor’s strength as an oral storyteller, which, as I learned with her last novel, Lagoon, (one of my few five-star experiences with audiobooks) works better in the audio format, as the oral rhythms of TBoP open up the prose into a more talkative and demonstrative piece of fiction. (Although some typographic touches, like unexpected capitalizations, will go unseen in the audio format). While Lagoon is a more performative novel, The Book of Phoenix is better approached as spoken word in some sections.
Another element that makes this novel so interesting is Okorafor’s choice of symbolism, particularly my favorite symbol of the novel, the tree. While the root of the novel lies in the preoccupation of freedom, a theme that rings throughout the narrative, the very center of the tale is The Backbone, a Gormenghast-like tree that supports and destabilizes Tower 7, where Phoenix is created and imprisoned. It’s not so much the tree itself, or even the idea of the tree that I find so disarming, but the label Okorafor uses for it: “The Backbone.” The Backbone tree is an element of Phoenix’s life that is complicated and consuming; it–like any common backbone– gives her strength, but it also undermines the rest of her structure. It is a symbol of life, freedom, and promise, but it’s also a symbol of captivity, injustice, and Phoenix’s own paralyzing fury. It brings to mind the belittling advice we’ve all heard (and said) to “get a backbone,” and its many emotional contradictions: to adapt and be resilient, but accept the injustice of the status quo. Like Phoenix’s own complex relationship with the tree, it’s never quite clear what we should feel about our own Backbones.
You cannot contain The Backbone. But I can burn it and the rest of this remorseless city to ash. They made me here. I will be exactly what they wanted… Let me be the villain for the sake of justice. (105)
But that’s just the mouthfeel. More important–what is truly exciting about this work– is the sense that The Book of Phoenix is a dangerous book–in the way that Stand on Zanzibar, Slaughterhouse-5, or The Female Man are dangerous books. A science fiction story about an angry black woman in a burka who wants to blow up the Capitol building and set fire to NYC because of the systematic mistreatment of the domestic and globally colonized is long overdue. This is bold choice for any writer, but how many science fiction writers are daring enough to write “the burka is freedom” or “these people would live forever, infecting the world to its very soul.” There is an edginess, a subversiveness, a fury in this novel that I normally only encounter in the literary or memoir aisles. Okorafor is pushing science fiction where I want it to go.
Who Will Win?
The Book of Phoenix will likely win and should win. However, I live in the alternate universe where Dave Hutchinson won the Clarke Award last year. Both writers deserve this award, preferably in this universe.
What does the Clarke Award Win?
The 2016 Clarke Award shortlist wins my utter regret for reading this entire shortlist. I’ve experienced more excitement reading shitty Retro Hugo lists because at least that’s funny.
The 2016 Clarke Award shortlist also wins vigorous debate about the future of the award, the most compelling debate being the necessity of a longlist, which, fun as it would probably be, also sounds like a way for a small circle of critics to police the jury on their decisions. Which might need to happen: When I realize how a small, subtle novel like Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of the Ordinary Mind has gone ignored by both the Clarke and Tiptree juries, I can only wonder if a small group of speedreaders (no matter how skilled or experienced) can effectively ruminate on the nature of 100-plus texts within a matter of months, when it took me a good couple of weeks of blank stares and long walks to adequately appreciate the subtleties of Charnock’s work.
However, while this current Clarke shortlist certainly highlights why critical policing is probably necessary (to give ME a well-designed personal reading experience, duh) it does bring up the question of what a juried SF book award is supposed to do. Much as I complain about personality-driven fan awards and nepotism-driven industry awards, juried award shortlists aren’t much better, but it does seem like they are in a better position to provide a complete snapshot of what the genre is doing at the moment.
But if that were the case, one would expect more of the big splash or cult hit novels to be present on this list, but instead we get things from left field, and not even a hip or innovative left field. This year’s uninspired, stodgy, and bloated Long Way, Arcadia, and Children of Time easily should have been Glorious Angels, The Thing Itself, and Aurora, three novels that achieve what the previous three merely attempt, and in far more beautiful and eccentric ways.
But there’s the other angle that juried awards offer that fan awards have no control (though I wish they did): juries can neutralize the danger of personality domination, which might be what happened here. Robson, Roberts, and Robinson (jesus christ, I did not intend to do that, wtf sf? no… we don’t need diversity at all.) have all appeared on Clarke shortlists before, and for a list that’s in danger of being renamed the Mieville Award, maybe the omission of the 3Rs and writers like them is due to an effort to add new writers to the Clarke canon. (My own rule might be draconian, but I say ALL awards should have long ago instituted a one-done clause). As to whether vigorous longlist blogging would also ensure a wider scope of neglected authors, I don’t know; it seems the loudest voices still have their tried-and-true champions. (And while The Thing Itself might be my own personal winner of the year, I wasn’t too bothered to see it not included on this list.) (Well, until I read Arcadia.)
But I also feel like I should have been in the jury room in order to teach the jury how to read Sleeping Embers of the Ordinary Mind, so maybe a longlist followed by vigorous blogger debate would be a good idea.
We’ll see what Tom says. Happy Clarke Award Day, everybody!