Well, science fiction and fantasy awards season is almost upon us for 2014 and Twitter is already abuzz with gossip and backbiting. Some people claim that the awards are irrelevant and bias towards to old-school, unoriginal and predominantly white male traditional science fiction. As always, there is some hoo-haa about eligibility, authors pimping their books, withdrawing their books and other such goings on. Some people are claiming a whole lot of stuff in relation to eligible books and short-lists. To be honest, I’m not interested. In the age of Twitter, the loudest voices tend have the most extreme opinions, which they dress up as fact. They are mostly self-serving and wrong. I am, and always have been, about the quality of a story. Is it good, interesting and well written? And does it say something to me. In the past, the Arthur C Clarke award has always been a standard of quality and I have endeavoured to read all the shortlisted novels before the winner was announced. This didn’t happen last year. I think I was a bit peeved at the fuss surrounding Christopher Priest and awards in general.
As a recap, these are the shortlisted books from some of the awards in 2013 (in other words, books published in 2012)…
BSFA best novel: Winner – Jack Glass by Adam Roberts; Nominated – Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, Empty Space by M. John Harrison, Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Arthur C Clarke best novel: Winner – Dark Eden by Chris Beckett; Nominated – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, Nod by Adrian Barnes.
The Kitchies best novel: Winner – Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway; Nominated – Jack Glass by Adam Roberts, The Method by Juli Zeh, The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington, A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge.
The Kitchies best debut: Winner – Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord; Nominated – vN by Madeline Ashby, Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, The City’s Son by Tom Pollock.
Hugos best novel: Winner – Red Shirts by John Scalzi; Nominated – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Blackout my Mira Grant, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.
To be fair to the critics who have read them all and have commented, it’s not a particularly diverse and representative list of speculation fiction. Karen Lord and Saladin Ahmed stand out a bit. But as I said, I’m less interested in the authors and the opinions of other critics, and more interested in the actual books. So, these are the books I’ve read from these shortlisted and winning novels, in order:
- The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
- Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
- The Method by Juli Zeh
- Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
- Dark Eden by Chris Becket
- The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
- Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
- The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington
(I still hope to read Vn, Redemption in Indigo and Nod, but not the others.)
Ok, from the bottom upwards then. I am gobsmacked the Bullington’s effort made any shortlist. It was just so dull and pointless. Not even sure what it was in terms of genre, sub-text, or anything else really. The only good thing about it was the quality of the writing and some interesting characters. Angelmaker has pretty much the same criticism. Not sure what it is. Ok, so it’s a golden-age fantasy spy thing and a fun-ish romp. But not particularly inspiring other than again the quality of the writing. Very surprised it won the Kitchies although it does fit their brief rather well in terms of having that indefinable quality to it. Even more surprised it made the Clarke shortlist. It is definitely not science fiction. Meanwhile, there is nothing special at all to be said of Pollock’s debut. More of the same in terms of Urban Fantasy, but nothing better than anything done by Kate Griffin or Ben Aaronovitch and the like. It was a fun but forgettable read.
Now time for some proper quality. I’ve enjoyed the writing of Chris Becket before and Dark Eden shows the potential coming to fruition. The idea of Dark Eden is something I’ve not come across before – an abandoned colony who almost deify its founders. While I enjoyed the message of Beckett’s The Holy Machine more, this effort is more wholly satisfying. Despite roots in traditional science fiction, I always enjoy Ken MacLeod’s fiction. And it’s interesting that in Intrusion he tackles similar themes to Juli Zeh’s entry. They are both, essentially, medical-based dystopias examining the individuals rights, especially over their own bodies. Great subject matter, great ideas and great writing from both (with a nod to the translator of The Method too).
I probably can’t separate Jack Glass and The Dog Stars in terms of the best read from the shortlisted books. I would say I enjoyed two-thirds of the former more than all of the latter, but I struggled to get into the first third. It was only once we were into part two, that part one came into focus for me. I think it is Roberts most enjoyable yet, and probably the best story he’s written too (although I think New Model Army resonated more). Meanwhile, Heller’s effort is probably one of the best new post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read in long while. It was everything you’d hope for in a story of survival and the demise of humanity. Interestingly, like the previous two books mentioned, they climax with a similar theme – motivation by love and not by hate or politics or anything else.
So, my award last year would have probably gone to Jack Glass from this list, followed by The Dog Stars, and then third would have been a novel not even short-listed; Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson. I thought it was a lovely combination of near-future science fiction and ancient mythology, with great characters, an interesting story and really good writing. I think maybe the fact it is almost genre-defying may be the reason it’s not represented in the science fiction or speculative fiction shortlists. But it is more science fiction than Angelmaker!
And thusly, it is time to sit back and watch the squabbling over this year’s awards season. No doubt shortlists will be decried, juries bemoaned, entrants bitched about and all the other nonsense will capture the headlines and the quality – or lack thereof – the actual books will all but be forgotten about. This year, for the first time in years, I won’t be trying to read all of the Clarke shortlisted books before the winner is announced, because this year, thanks to the internet, I no longer care.