Yesterday, I brought you my thoughts on the 2015 Kitschies Golden Tentacle shortlist (the newbie award). Today, I bring you my thoughts on the Red Tentacle shortlist (ie the established writer’s award).
This year’s breakneck pace between shortlist announcement and award ceremony made it impossible for most people to play along at home with The Kitschies’ search for the most progressive, intelligent, and entertaining speculative fiction. A full list of ten novels, five book covers, and five digital creations (one of which is another novel), is a lot to digest in a matter of weeks. Without a chance of making the deadline, I opted to string out my Kitschies reading for most of the year.
So, ten months later… I give you my impressions of the Kitschies Red Tentacle list. In short, this is a good list, notwithstanding a couple of odd inclusions.
I reviewed the Golden Tentacle list here.
The Red Tentacle list (the old hat veteran writer award)
The Winner! The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Reviewing this in the midst of the largest (we think) nationwide (we think) US prison strike (we think) (but who knows if it’s still going on because where. is. the. media?), The Heart Goes Last feels more relevant now than it did when I read it this summer, which has promoted it in my mind from “cute jokey Atwood” to “eerily commentative but still too suburban Atwood”. It’s a company town premise, but with a prison spin, as the story follows a young married couple as they move into a prison-sponsored suburban neighborhood, sharing their home with another young couple as they alternate each month at the house with a month of working and living inside the prison. Merging the company town trope with suburban satire, obvious metaphors of “married life as prison,” “suburban life as prison,” “work life as prison,” and “prison as profit,” spring to mind in this dystopian vision where we are all probably headed since at least one-third of US voting population is afraid of the outer world and now they control everything, but there’s probably even more to pick apart if you can get over the superficial feeling, the safe suburban whiteness of it all, and the old-fashioned Elvis impersonator gags.
*shakes her head at the Elvis impersonator gags*
Given that Atwood was the first recipient of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, sparking the first of many Clarke-related lit vs. genre tug-of-wars, it seems like this win is The Kitschies’ way of staking their territory on the genre award battlefield, lest anyone forgets their motto to “reward the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining speculative fiction”. But, while the battlecry of “ATWOOD!” translates to the battlecry of “LITERARY FICTION!” in most circles, all I hear is “MAINSTREAM!” which also sounds like, “WE’RE LIKE THE CLARKE! LIKE US NOW! COVER US IN THE GUARDIAN! HERE’S A PICTURE OF MARGARET ATWOOD!”
It’s a good, readable book, dark humor in some places, corny humor in other places, but it’s not even close to the best of Atwood, let alone the best of this list.
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
I reviewed Europe at Midnight here.
Having just finished Hutchinson’s third installment of this series, Europe in Winter, which begins with a monster armored car in downtown Paris in the middle of a flash mob protest and ends with a stolen Heathrow Airport, I’ve almost been over-entertained to oblivion. So much so, that I’ve had to revisit Europe at Midnight in order to remember what I once considered *the* entertaining Europe novel (but now after Winter, I can see Hutch was just warming up). (more on that later. maybe?)
Europe at Midnight is the English leg of the Fractured European journey, which might sound kind of bland when sandwiched between the offbeat central and eastern European sightseeing that Autumn and Winter showcase, but it shouldn’t be neglected. The fine, dense third-person prose of Autumn and the explosive, event-laden Winter might overshadow Midnight in future discourse about the series, but Europe at Midnight hosts its own dark form of satire, adventure, and, most interestingly, prescience: a glimpse at a cloistered, caricatured alternate universe England (introduced in the form of an English university campus) that was published only a couple of beats before the surprise victory of Brexit. This is a reminder of just how uncanny Hutchinson’s foresight seems to be. (not that that’s important, but still, how cool?)
The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken
If you hold this book to a mirror in a dark room and say “unreliable protagonist” three times, you’ll see Christopher Priest staring back at you.
The title and cover alone suggests driftwood from Christopher Priest’s draft bin, and other reviewers have noted that the setting and style owes much to Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy (which I really must check out), but even with all that absorbed influence, it was still a catching and hard to put down read. The fragmented psyche motif has been done before, to varying degrees, but it’s well done enough here to prolong its welcome, and Wilcken uses it to say some new and interesting things, even tying in the frantic construction and destruction of 1940’s Manhattan. I went in suspicious and did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did, but a few months later, I find myself at a loss to explain what was so special about it. I’m a bit surprised that this ended up on the Kitschies list, primarily because it seems out of place among the other big-leaguers on this list. Newbie qualifications aside, this novel might have felt less out of place on the Golden Tentacle list.
(And if it’s just Christopher Priest twinning himself in literary form for a real-life twist of metafiction, now… wouldn’t that be something?)
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
I reviewed this here.
Having just put down The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee, unfinished, I can confirm that this particular subgenre just isn’t for me, even when it’s done well, even when it’s touched by relevance, even when it’s done subversively. And even discovering that The Fifth Season is, at its very core, a different kind of subgenre entirely didn’t alter that mouthfeel for me. It’s engaging enough to enjoy at an intellectual level, stylistic enough to appreciate the endeavor, but it’s burdened by an adherence to genre pattern and commercial expectations, and it’s so serious as to nullify any attempts at ambiguity.
The Fifth Season is a number of things that are hard not to spoil, but overall it is a multi-strand novel about three women navigating a shaking, apocalyptic world. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful novel, with dynamic world-building, experimental touches, and high drama. It is absolutely the kind of book I would expect to win the Hugo–would want to win the Hugo– however, I wish it were messier and more ambiguous. Though the components are exciting, this style doesn’t really zest my quest. That said, it definitely belongs on this list, and I defer to others who genuinely enjoyed it.
The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
I reviewed The Thing Itself here.
It should be no surprise to readers of this blog that it is only with great restraint that I haven’t abandoned all other books just to read all of Adam Roberts’ novels in one go; I’ve enjoyed his recent novels that much. The Thing Itself is exactly the kind of novel– a loose kind of novel– that I love: dark and humanist, tragic and comic, intelligent and pliant, with stylistic vignettes intruding on the SFnal backbone of the story, reflecting its philosophical foundation with juddering, frenetic confusion. It’s a story about aliens, God, madness, and AI, and the narrative itself crosses into variety of eras, styles, and themes. The blurbs always make me wary, yet I’m always pleasantly surprised by how easily I sink into Roberts’ novels, and I’m always impressed by how finely his novels explore the human condition. The Thing Itself is no different in this regard, giving the reader lots to do, even when they’re bored by plot. Plus aliens and car chases. It’s a win-win.
Commercially, every marketing blurb has made The Thing Itself sound either too silly or too pretentious, but it’s neither and it’s both, and that’s one of the many paradoxes you’ll find in this novel. Roberts invokes familiar patterns, but the presentation is a surprise, the juxtapositions antithetical, and the commentary underneath is difficult and odd and resonant.
Of course it’s not going to win awards.
This would be an excellent list, yet The Heart Goes Last and The Reflection make it an odd mish-mashed-looking thing. Unlike the Golden Tentacle shortlist, which benefits from the freshness of a newbie requirement, this shortlist is best characterized as aiming for the unorthodox, yet with an identity crisis between Big League and the unknown, with the least appropriate example of each of the being thrown in at the last minute.
While Europe at Midnight, The Fifth Season, and The Thing Itself are unsurprising, yet completely appropriate selections for a list of this kind, the toss-in of a lesser novel by an accomplished, mainstream author (Atwood) seems like a lost opportunity for someone else, while the inclusion of an otherwise enjoyable, yet seemingly derivative work by a far lesser known author (Wilcken) sticks out like a random sore thumb. Had the jury gone with a selection of all five Wilcken-level lesser-knowns, this might have been a more refreshing list, with The Reflection being more justifiably fitting. Had the jury gone with a selection of all five Hutchinson/Jemisin/Roberts-level dynamos, it might have been a more exciting list. As it stands, it’s a hard list to encapsulate thematically, and the confusion drags down the importance of including something as relevant as Europe at Midnight, as subversive as The Fifth Season, or as bold as The Thing Itself.
I expected The Fifth Season to win this award, and although it doesn’t fit my literary taste, I get what it’s doing, and I wouldn’t begrudge it the win. Perhaps the jury expected The Fifth Season to pull a triple-crown, Ancillary Justice-style win (as I expected) with more commercial award programs, but to pass over other deserving books and hand the award to Atwood’s weak The Heart Goes Last is just a weird move.
On the other hand, The Thing Itself easily should have snatched the title of most progressive, intelligent, and entertaining speculative fiction. While I’m not surprised that it didn’t get picked up by the more stale and conventional SF award lists, I’m also surprised The Kitschies chose The Heart Goes Last over The Thing Itself (or, really, any of the other options on this list). That said, it’s always exciting to see a win for the strange and difficult books of the world, but if it ever becomes the default situation, I’ll know I’ve lost my edge. May Adam Roberts always be not-really-obscure-but-not-universally-popular-either, because if he starts winning awards all over the place, I will probably quit reading.
Both the Golden Tentacle and Red Tentacle shortlists were fantastic reads this year and I’m grateful to the Kitschies for their pliable genre borders, especially in this ho-hum SF award climate. Thanks again, Kitschies! See you in 2018!