2011 Arthur C Clarke Award – What did I think?

Congratulations to Lauren Beukes for the remarkable Zoo City; winner of the 25th Arthur C Clarke Award. Congratulations to the other nominees as well: BSFA 2011 best novel The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, Generosity by Richard Powers, Declare by Tim Powers and Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan.

I try to read the nominees every year, although I rarely manage to get through all of them in time for the winner to be announced (I am a seriously slow reader). This year, when the nominees were announced I was actually half way through Lightborn and I’d already read Zoo City. And still, I’ve only just finished The Dervish House, with Monsters of Men and Declare still to read. I haven’t read the earlier Ness novels and I might not bother with Declare, as it’s not my usual taste. So I can’t say for certain if, in my opinion, Beukes’ novel is the best of the nominees. I would say it is the best of the four that I did read. But only just.

Lightborn follows the fortunes of Xavier and Roksana, trapped within a quarantine zone in the city of Los Sombres. Lightborn is also known as shine. It is a mind-altering technology which has changed everything. Imagine brain-training taken to the nth degree. It is a way to educate, improve and also to entertain the user. Information, or distraction, is beamed direct into the users brain. However, as with most technology in science fiction, things have gone wrong. Shine has rendered the adult population in the city useless, and thus it has been sealed off by an over-zealous government. The young are turning to drugs to stave off maturity in an attempt to avoid the shine. Xavier is looking for the drug when he meets Roksana, an adult immune to the shine. What is her secret and how does Xavier’s quest change the world?

What struck me about Lightborn is that although we are dumped straight into Sullivan’s world with little exposition, you immediately feel comfortable in it. The nature of the chaos and even the nature of the shine is carefully revealed throughout the novel. The characters take us with them as they discover what’s really going on in the world around them. As with Sullivan’s previous novels, the characters are very well drawn with realistic motivations. Family is key with Roksana and I felt the relationships were genuine. The near-future is one of those that you can see happening, with just a short nudge in the wrong direction from where we are today.

The Dervish House is a complex tale of several characters who live in the titular abode in near-future Istanbul. A detailed plot synopsis would be as long as the book. It is so rich, detailed and bristling with ideas that at times it might seem to be drowning under its own weight. It’s 2025 and as a heat wave hits, a terror attack also hits. Necdet witnesses the attack but all is not as it seems. An elderly Greek economist befriends a 9-year old boy who is obsessed with his robot toy. Leyla gets a job working for distant relationships developing nanotechnology while Ayse, a gallery owner, accepts a job looking for a Mellified Man, which is a human mummy confection. There are half a dozen more important characters. The characters’ lives inter-weave in the multifaceted narrative while the plot navigates between nanotechnology, future AI based-economics, robotics, political conspiracy, ancient history, religion and mythology.

There is so much to admire about McDonald’s opus. The imagination and research that has gone into the book is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It feels genuinely authentic, as if McDonald has lived there all his life. There are as many ideas as there are words, or so it seems. And I think, being critical, that this is the problem with the book. There are so many plot threads and characters, it is almost exhausting keeping up with them all. I think McDonald could have lost a couple of characters and dropped a few ideas and presented a much more satisfying read. That takes nothing away from the impressive scale, however, and repeated reads may lead to a more enjoyable experience.

Generosity is possibly the start of all post-human tales set way in the future. Teacher Stone has a young Algeria student, Thassa, who has escaped from a terror regime. And yet she is luminescent. She is joy personified. How is it possible? How is she always full of beans and is it becoming infectious? Her disposition is noticed by a geneticist who believes in genomic enhancement – the idea that you can genetically select preferential traits. Thassa is tested by science and the growing media circus, and she starts to doubt herself. Is she about to transform the world? Meanwhile, Stone has to come to terms with who he really is and a new relationship which might just be the one.

Generosity is told mostly from the perspective of the flawed Stone, who is pretty much at a loss to explain what is going on around him. It also has what could be called a meta-fiction concept. Powers talks direct to the reader, explaining how he feels about how he is manipulating the characters. This was a gripping read that dragged me along at speed, while wondering where Powers was taking us. I kept thinking about novels I’d read by the likes of Charles Stross, Hannu Rajaniemi, William Gibson and oddly enough, Tricia Sullivan. This book describes the moments when the futures imagined by these authors began. And I think that is pretty much inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed Generosity and I can’t think of anything negative to say about it. The writing is first class. The characters are multi-dimensional, flawed, emotional and human. The plot roars along and the concepts flawless.

And Zoo City, which sounds like it must be good to be better than Generosity. Beuke’s novel is a highly originally tale of the animalled Zinzi. The animalled are a criminal underclass, a darker version of the demon concept from Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Once you commit a crime, you are magically attached to an animal. Zinzi has a sloth. She also has a talent for finding lost things. Only one rule, however, no people. But of course she has to take a job when a pop star disappears and a dubious record producer makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Set in a twisted version of Johannesburg where magic is commonplace, Zinzi must confront her past in order to come to terms with the present.

Zoo City brims with imagination and wonderfully intriguing characters. I am a huge fan of urban fantasy, and while this was similar to books I’d read recently, I also felt it was new. Fresh. I don’t usually enjoy mysteries or crime, but I was gripped by Zinzi’s plight as she investigated the missing pop star. The descriptions of the seedier side of the city were compelling and really put you in the story. Unlike Pullman’s universe, the animals are not as integral to the personalities of the characters and the plot. Zinzi is anything but sloth-like. Although they have this unspoken association with ‘something bad’, known as the Undertow. Highly originally stuff. As a whole, I thought Generosity was a better read, but Zoo City is something special, when the sum is greater than the parts. It was also interesting to read the story of a black protagonist; very rare in genre fiction.

I don’t always read all the nominees as I’m not going to read books about subjects I’m not interested in, or sub-genres I don’t like. Life’s too short. And some books simply don’t work for me. I read the first four pages of Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham in 2009 and absolutely hated it, so put it down. I also didn’t read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Have you seen it? It’s a brick. A huge brick. I don’t have that much time on my hands. Every one of the nominees I have read over the years is clearly science fiction.

However, I question, slightly, that Zoo City is actually science fiction. The main plot driver is a kind of unaccounted for magic. The animalled and Zinzi’s talents are not provided by science. The Undertow is something supernatural. Jo’burg is not really the current incarnation with the city. Is it a science fiction city? It is, however, one of those on-going and unanswerable debates. What is science fiction and what is fantasy? If science fiction is about following laws and rules and examining the impact of innovations in science and technology, Zoo City, in my opinion fails. Johannesburg might be a rational examination of alternative possibilities, but in my mind, the magic-driven plot deposits the novel firmly in the realm of fantasy. So why did Zoo City win a science fiction prize? Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe it’s just because it’s a great book.

What really winds me up, however, is the lack of mainstream media coverage. Googling the award shows that most of the UK quality newspapers have an article and some even have a related blog. Most focus on the fact Beukes is a South African. Unusual for SF? Maybe. However, there was no coverage in the popular press. Nothing on the BBC, and yet, according to their own advertising, they are promoting the novel in 2011 – see here.  Shocking. The mainstream media pretty much ignored the year’s biggest genre literary prize. I call on the mainstream media and the BBC in particular to stop being to elitist and remember how loved Doctor Who is, and cover events such as the Clarke Award.

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