Best of the Arthur C. Clarke Award runners-up (those shortlisted but did not win)

In 1987, the first winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced. Margaret Atwood won with the sublime A Handmaid’s Tale. In 2016, the 30th award will be handed out in August. The shortlist of 6 titles, announced at SCI-FI LONDON on 27 April, has been whittled down from 113 submissions. That’s a lot of books!

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

We know about the 30 great and well-deserved winners, but what about the others? The one’s that didn’t quite make it. There are some terrific books in the shortlists each year and this is a perfect opportunity to look at some of the best of the runners-up. Having not read all of the short-listed books over the past 30 years (I have a bit of a life) these are my favourites. These are the one’s I’d should about to those who haven’t read them. These are the ones that have great characters, complex plots, interesting sub-texts and just plain awesome science fiction [note, some spoilers ahead].

2006 Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go

My favourite of all those runners-up is without doubt Ishiguro’s classic dystopian novel. It’s an examination of class via the premise of organ-farming with a difference. The book is a study in childhood friendship in an oddly sinister boarding school, the discovery of love in young adults and how we care for each other as a society, when illness strikes. Ishiguro’s prose is hauntingly beautiful yet bleak; full of ominous doom. Society has rarely been as heartless, while characters so full of heart.

(2006 winner Air by Geoff Ryman – I’ve read and while excellent, not as good as Ishiguro)

1996 Christopher Priest The Prestige

If you’ve seen the film directed by Christopher Nolan, you might already know the plot, but not necessarily the source novel’s narrative. This is the best way to experience Priest’s wonderful tale of magic and science. I’m not usually a fan of epistolary novels, but the diary format works well here. We only know what is written by the protagonists, highlighting both the mystery and the illusions. There is genuine antagonism between the magicians and not just based on their stage show. The very real Nikola Tesla invents something not so real, which takes this brilliant book into the realms of science fiction.

(1996 winner Fairyland by Paul J McAuley – not read)

1994 Nicola Griffith Ammonite

Ammonite is a wonderful book, in a wonderful year for science fiction (see below). Set on a distant planet, it is the story of women (men are all killed by a virus), of myth, of tribes and family and what home means. It is an excellent relationship drama. It hits all the science fiction notes perfectly (planet, space ships, mysterious virus, what it means to be a human) but it is the characters’ motivations and the magnificent magical prose by Griffith that elevates this above many of its contemporaries. As the books says, “What’s life without magic?”

1994 Neal Stephenson Snow Crash

Stephenson’s 3rd book is as textually complex as all his novels, but I submit that this one is the most fun to read. Set in an ‘independent’ 21st century Los Angeles, Hiro Protagonist (deliberately named) learns that the new titular drug is being sold in nightclubs. So he seeks it out. Hiro can now experience the metaverse (next-level internet) and the real world simultaneously. Featuring hacking, sword-fighting, anarcho-capitalists, class-war, the power of information, religion and the Sumerian language. What’s not to love!

(1994 winner Vurt by Jeff Noon – one of my all time favourite books and more deserving than Ammonite, just)

2015 Claire North The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The complexity and imagination of North’s debut (but not from her other selves, Catherine Webb and Kate Griffin) is mind-blowing. It’s not that Harry keeps dying and being reborn, but it’s in the lives he leads and how they interconnect with all those around him. When a message comes from the future the plot, delightfully, thickens. Webb’s talent is immense and as North, her prose is eminently readable. While not a page-turner in the classic sense, you simply want to keep on reading to find out how the final web (pun intended) will be revealed.

(2015 winner Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – just about deserved)

1988 Ken Grimwood Replay

Proper classic science fiction from Grimwood, and similar on the surface to North’s recent novel. Our protagonist is a 43-year-old man who dies and is reborn in 1963 in his 18-year-old body, memories intact. This rebirth happens again and again, with different outcomes. It has more of the time-loop premise than North’s as he always dies the same way at the same age, on cue. The best science fiction addresses life and death and Replay is no exception. Thoughtful and appealing writing makes this a terrific read and well worth digging out.

(1988 winner George Turner The Sea and Summer – not read)

2011 Ian McDonald The Dervish House

Set in the near future, McDonald’s story is an engaging book about how disparate characters’ lives can affect each other, often without them ever meeting each other. Our world and McDonald’s is an interconnected and complex one. In 2027, a bomb goes off during a heatwave. Ordinary people are drawn into extraordinary events. The world is seen through the perspective of 6 main characters, all richly drawn and complex. This is thoughtful science fiction, but also dips into mythology and cultural identity in a region that has always been a melting-pot.

(2011 winner Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – a clear and deserved winner)

1993 Connie Willis Doomsday Book

Named after the actual 1086 book, Willis engages in a time-travel MacGuffin in order to take us back to middle ages. Most of this book is set there so feels less like a science fiction novel than a historical story of the coming of the Black Death. Only as it is seen through the eyes of the late-21st Century traveller, Kirvin, does Willis’ tale fall in the realms of speculative fiction. There are some lovely ideas in this book (a machine refusing to send someone back in time if it thinks the past will be altered) but it is the bleak history (the sense of dread is palpable) and personal tragedies the Kirvin witnesses that fascinates.

(1993 winner Body of Glass by Marge Piercy – not read)

Never

Honourable mentions: 2008 Sarah Hall The Carhullan Army; 2008 Ken MacLeod The Execution Channel; 2010 Adam Roberts Yellow Blue Tibia; 2013 Ken McLeod Intrusion; 2003 David Brin Kiln People; 1987 Greg Bear Eon; 2011 Richard Powers Generosity; 2010 Marcel Theroux Far North; 2014 Christopher Priest The Adjacent.

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And the winner is…

Congratulations to Adrian Tchaikovsky for winning the 2015 Clarke Award for Children of Time, announced on 24 August 2016. Well done also to N. K. Jemisin for Hugo Best Novel success for The Fifth Season.

Now these winners have been announced (along with Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings -BSFA winner, The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood which won the Kitschies Red Tentacle and Making Wolf, by Tade Thompson, debut novel winner of the Kitschies Golden Tentacle), I can reveal the Forgottengeekmetaawardforbooks, after my shortlist was announced last week:

  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
  • Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

And the winner of the inaugural Forgottengeekmetaawardforbooks is….

  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts

The Thing Itself

For my review, see: https://theforgottengeek.wordpress.com/2016/01/31/the-thing-itself-by-adam-roberts/

 

ForgottenGeekMetaAwardForBooks Shortlist Announced!

With a week to go before the Clarke Award is announced it is time to reveal my inaugural major SFF meta shortlist. First, the nominations:

meKitschies Golden Tentacle:

  • The Shore by Sara Taylor
  • Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
  • The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
  • The Night Clock by Paul Meloy
  • Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

Kitschies Red Tentacle:

  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Reflection,by Hugo Wilcken
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts

BSFA:

  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett
  • The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
  • Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
  • Glorious Angels by Justina Robson

Clarke Award:

  • Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Way Down Dark by JP Smythe
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

Hugos:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
  • The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik

So I’ve NOT read: Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson; Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie; The Cinder Spires by Jim Butcher; Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett; The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken (which I still hope to read at some point); and Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett.

So, and fanfare, drumroll and other such musical precursors, here is my top 7:

  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts
  • Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

What will be my book of the year? Find out next week!

Now, can someone make me an award?

Arcadia and The Book of Phoenix: Critical thinking about science fiction and enjoying the fluff

Book of PhoenixThinking critically is an important life skill. Having your own opinions and being able to back your arguments shows you’ve understood your subject. I always think that you can’t describe one side of an argument without at least acknowledging other options. I can argue that this is green without understanding the rest of the colour spectrum. Fandom is full of opinions, and many are informed and interesting. Many less so. I’ve decided to apply these concepts to the last two science fiction books that I’ve read: both Clarke Award shortlisted Arcadia by Iain Pears and The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.

Critical thinking (2015) can be defined as “disciplined thinking, by a rational agent who is able to evaluate the information available to them and the relationships among pieces of that information, and analyze and synthesize the results in the process of developing their views. Key to critical thinking is the awareness of the process, of one’s own biases and the biases of others, and the ability to see multiple sides of a scenario, rather than responding from emotion or “going by the gut.””

Everyone lives within a personal bubble. People rarely think consider viewpoints beyond those that immediately affect them. A farmer might be pro-EU, for example, because she gets a good subsidy. She might, however, have ideological reasons opposing a non-elected European institution deciding on that subsidy. I’m reminded of the Asian story of the bug in the rug, as found on Harmonic by Hex. I love science and logical and pragmatism. I love storytelling and imaginary worlds. I love fairy tales and heroes. I know my bias, both emotionally and politically.

ArcadiaI sometimes think about critical thinking before I start reading a book, especially if I’m planning to review it. Sometimes, however, I want to enjoy the book without thinking too much about its contents. Sometimes I want just the gut pleasure. At times, I start thinking critically about books only after I’ve started reading them. Arcadia is a complex tale of time travel and alternative, fictional realities, and how a variety of characters interact with either other through these periods and realities. It is also very much as story about storytelling and the production of fiction. Henry Lytten used to be a spy but now he’s an academic who scribbles away trying to create the perfect fictional world: Anterwold. Lytten’s fiction begins with the character of Jay, a young boy who one day thinks he meets a fairy. This fairy is Rosie, Lytten’s friend, who has stumbled into a portal made by another of his friends, Angela. Lytten doesn’t know that she is from the future and has created this fictional universe based on his writings. It gets even more complex that, and Pears writing is sublime. It is one of my favourite novels that I’ve read for a long time, although didn’t pack the emotional punch I’d hope it would, as it built towards the climax.

Arcadia is generally known as a kind of pastoral utopia, which has a connection to the ancient Greek region of the same name. I’m not sure which came first and I don’t want to look it up. This is key. I don’t want to think too much about Pears novel. I wanted to enjoy it for what it was, much like one might imagine the enjoyment of a pastoral utopia might feel like.

I’m not for a second suggesting Arcadia is fluff. Far from it, but I enjoyed it as something light, not something I had to think too deeply about; it was something I could get swept up in and enjoy the lives of the characters. I suspect it is Pears writing, rather than the story itself, that made me feel like this. It wasn’t overly analytical and the science fiction bits weren’t too sciencey. The issue with time travel and alternative worlds and physics in fiction, is that unless you are an expert in the fields discussed, it is hard to known if they make sense. Without giving the plot away, the cause and effect created by Angela’s machine and Henry’s fiction world are so wrapped up in knots, it is impossible to say if they made sense. For me, anyway.

But of course there’s nothing wrong with some fluff every now and then. My favourite fluff are the early books of Robert Rankin for example. After all, you need a little bubble-gum to with the broccoli sometimes.

The Book of Phoenix has almost the opposite issue. While half the size of Arcadia, it appears to be more densely packed with meaning but with not a whole lot of plot. It is a delicate Persian rug, one which I can see but not necessarily understand. The story is about an accelerated human; a woman called Phoenix, who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. As she discovers herself and her past, she also awakens her powers, including the truth of her creation. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. She escapes, finding an usual seed en route. She ends up in Africa where she learns some truths before deciding to take out the company that created her and her kind. Her revenge is total. There are some interesting characters and ideas, and especially when writing about the relationships between characters, Okorafor’s writing is charming. It feels almost like a superhero – or supervillain – origin story, without being so explicit.

The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression. Americans and their corporations taking Africans and their lives as if they mean nothing. An American life is worth more than an African life. A white person is worth more than a black person. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments. I can’t really think critically about it, textually. I have no frame of reference. I’m not oppressed and I’m fairly certain I’ve never been directly culpable of oppressing anyone else, although I do benefit from being a white, middle-aged, middle-class male, whether I like it or not. Plot-wise, not a lot happens. Phoenix travels about, learning bit and bobs and makes a few decisions, before moving to the next place. As a piece of fiction, I can say it’s far from the greatest I’ve read, but I did enjoy reading it, and spending time with Phoenix.

 

When I read about so-called fans arguing about the relevant merits or lack-thereof of this book or that author, I suspect that they’ve either missed their critical thinking training, or missed the point. A book can entertain without any depth of meaning. A book can oppose your worldview and be a valid work or art. Some books are all about the characters or a situation. Others are about story or plot. Others still are about the process of writing or reading. People, fans, forget this. They argue vehemently that their opinion has validity and none other does. A recent thread on Reddit tore apart The Sparrow. I should have countered, but I couldn’t face the argument, to be honest.

Many people who read The Book of Phoenix won’t think about it critically, I suspect. Which is fine, of course. I wanted to, but couldn’t. I have no personal understanding of racial oppression. I don’t know if Okorafor’s perspective is fair or valid. Of course slavery is heinous and corporations do take at the expense of people. All this is true, but I don’t think I can appreciate her writing critically.

I didn’t want to read Arcadia critically; in case it didn’t make sense. I wanted the story regardless of accuracy and the opinions of Pears.

I enjoyed both books but for very different reasons. The Book of Phoenix won’t be making by best of books of the year by some distance, although Arcadia might.

 

Critical thinking (2015) In: J. Mcray (Ed.) Leadership glossary: Essential terms for the 21st century. Mission Bell Media, Credo [online]. Available at:http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/mbmlg/critical_thinking/0 [Accessed: 3 June 2016].

Brum Radio Book Club – me on the radio again

So I was on the Brum Radio Book Club again, which was cool. You can listen here: https://www.mixcloud.com/BrumRadio/brum-radio-bookshow-featuring-joanne-harris-and-carole-and-john-barrowman-27516/

Or the transcript of my bit is here:

ArcadiaHowdy, this is the forgotten geek, otherwise known as ianjsimpson, back to report once more from the world of speculative and science fiction. The last few months have seen most of the major science fiction book awards announce their shortlists and in most cases, the winners too.

There was the usual who-ha regarding the Hugo’s in the US. For those who don’t know, these are what might be called the Oscars for science fiction. There’s always some controversy surrounding these awards, as some old fashioned, right wing fans and writers known as the rabid puppies try to dominate the shortlisting slates, much to the chagrin of regular fans. If you have a look on my blog – the forgottengeek.wordpress.com – there are links to some interesting analysis.

In the UK, the Kitschies announced their winners over Easter. Margaret Atwood won for best novel with The Heart Goes Last. In this wickedly clever novel, Atwood considers a social experiment, where desperate members of society are offered a stable job and decent housing. The payoff, however, is they have to spend every second month in prison. The protagonists house share with others who are in prison when they are ‘out’. We are in a near future dystopia here, and Atwood’s satire is biting. Featuring groups of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley impersonators, not only does Atwood comment on the commercialisation of the penal system, but on the dangers of role play and the nature of love. A worthy winner. Back to the Kitschies, and the debut novel award went to Making Wolf, by Tade Thompson. Set in a fictional African nation, the protagonist lies to impress old friends when returning home for his Aunt’s funeral. Investigating corruption, sexual identity and cultural mythologies, Thompson’s book is something a little different for those who like their fiction just on the speculative side.

The winner of the British Science Fiction Association award went to Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings. Which is odd, because it isn’t science fiction but a blend of religious and far-eastern mythology set in a future Paris. Dragons from the east and fallen angels conspire and plot in a post-apocalyptic Notre Dame. Ah, that’ll be the sci-fi element. The prose is a tad overwrought at times, but the plot is intriguing and the characters are interestingly complex. The delight, however, lies in how de Bodard weaves the various fantasies into a coherent and satisfying story.

The Clarke Award winner will be announced in August. Check out my blog for the full short list. Having read half of them thus far, and currently ploughing my way through Iain Pears beautifully written Arcadia, I wouldn’t like to call this, although I’d love it to go to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Beckie Chambers. Never has a story about a diverse bunch of characters on a space ship been so joyful!

Outside of the shortlists, and perhaps the most eagerly awaited book of the summer is Joe Hill’s The Fireman. Despite being a doorstop, this is a less epic, more intimate study of life in a cult during the apocalypse. The book I’m most intrigued by in the coming weeks, however, is The sudden appearance of hope. This is the third book – cough – by Claire North. It is the story of a girl who no-one ever remembers. Which makes her dangerous. If North’s previous – Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – are anything to go by, this will be an imaginative and brilliantly written page turner.”

Sci Fi Shortlist Update – Hugos and Clarke Awards

Long Way to a Small Angry PlanetLast night the Hugo Award short lists were announced, much to my amusement. I don’t quite get how people can get so worked up about what is essentially a good and kind message (what the bad guys call SJWs) in fiction that they sabotage an award. Nuts. Anyway, many more eloquent comments are available than could come from my brain, so check out HUGOPOCALYPSE II: Where Do We Go From Here? From Nerds of a Feather for example.

So the shortlist for best novel is:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit) – not interested after finding problems with the first one
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc) – not read, but come on!
  • The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (Orbit) – interesting and valid nomination, on my to-read list
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow) – ditto
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey) – not as good as most people claim. Weird!

For more on the Hugos: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/26/hugo-awards-shortlist-rightwing-campaign-sad-rabid-puppies?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

And so tonight, the Clarke Award shortlist was announced:

  • Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Way Down Dark by JP Smythe – already read this one
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – already read this one
  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

This seems like a pretty good list, although I’m gobsmacked that Adam Roberts’ novel isn’t on it!

And as a reminder, the other awards I pay attention to which have been announced:

BSFA:

  • Dave Hutchinson: Europe at Midnight
  • Chris Beckett: Mother of Eden
  • Aliette de Bodard: The House of Shattered Wings – read this one, which won
  • Ian McDonald: Luna: New Moon
  • Justina Robson: Glorious Angels

Kitschies Red Tentacle:

  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood – read, which won
  • Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Reflection, by Hugo Wilcken
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts – read

Kitschies Golden Tentacle:

  • The Shore, by Sara Taylor – read
  • Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett
  • The Gracekeepers, by Kirsty Logan – read
  • The Night Clock, by Paul Meloy – read
  • Making Wolf, by Tade Thompson – read, which won

So, I still plan to read most of these that I haven’t read, and produce my own list and award!

So come the announcement of the Clarke Award winner later this year, I’ll be announcing the inaugural ForgottenGeekMetaAwardForBooks.

Watch this space.

Keeping my mind open: Genre-fiction short lists and awards update (2015)

At the end of February I appeared on the Brum Radio Book Club, talking about science fiction. I mentioned that it was science fiction short list season. For the full text that I recorded and to listen to the show see: https://theforgottengeek.wordpress.com/about/my-radio-debut

Since the recording, the BSFA and the Kitschies have announced their short-list while the Clarke Award have released their submissions list. This is a terrific time for me, as a genre reader, as I pick up book recommendations that I wouldn’t always come across from the likes of SFX or Twitter. I try to read as many of the short-listed books as I can, that suit my tastes (too many books out there to read something I know I won’t be interested it!).

Starting with the BSFA, their shortlist for best novel is:

  • Dave Hutchinson: Europe at Midnight
  • Chris Beckett: Mother of Eden
  • Aliette de Bodard: The House of Shattered Wings
  • Ian McDonald: Luna: New Moon
  • Justina Robson: Glorious Angels

I’ve not read any of these, although I might check out the McDonald especially as I enjoyed The Dervish House. The Hutchison is intriguing. I’ve tried reading Robson in the past and not got on with her and I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first in Beckett’s Eden books so I might give that one a miss. While The House of Shattered Wings appears to be the book most up my street, I naturally take against anything that declares itself to be book one in a series. Still, it’s on my to read list. Whether it makes the leap from the list to the shelf is touch and go. For more on the BSFA: http://www.bsfa.co.uk/bsfa-awards-2015-shortlist-announced/

Moving on to the Kitschies. These are my favourite awards. They always introduce me to new writers, as they have a debut novel category. In their main shortlist known as Red Tentacle, the books are:

  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Reflection, by Hugo Wilcken
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts

I’ve already read the brilliant The Thing Itself. I waxed lyrical on the radio, and also on BookGeek. I’ve already got the Atwood on my shelf, and plan to read it before Easter. Both the Wilcken and the Jemisin are not books or authors I’ve heard of. They may have to wait in line, unless one beats Roberts to the prize.

The Golden Tentacle goes to a debut novel from this list:

  • The Shore, by Sara Taylor
  • Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett
  • The Gracekeepers, by Kirsty Logan
  • The Night Clock, by Paul Meloy
  • Making Wolf, by Tade Thompson

I’m half way through The Shore as I write. It is a hard book to love but an easy book to admire. I hope it all comes together as it promises. I’ve got the Logan and the Meloy on my shelf. I’ll be reviewing The Gracekeepers for BookGeek in a few weeks’ time. Blackass sounds interesting and I’ve added it, and the Thompson, to my to read list. The winners are announced tomorrow. For more information on these shortlists and awards see: http://www.thekitschies.com/the-kitschies-2015-shortlists-revealed/

I usually try to read as many of the Clarke Award shortlisted books as I can, although this has dropped off in recent years. To date, they have announced 113 books on their submission list, and while they make it clear it’s not a long list, I’ve only read or plan to read 19 of them. I certainly hope these make the short list:

There’s a very interesting discussion on the list over here: https://medium.com/@arthurcclarkeaward/the-arthur-c-clarke-award-complete-submissions-list-2016-eee27947f30e#.cxunoofpi It will be a while before the winner of the Clarke Award is announced although the shortlist is expected on April 27.

I expect the usual bickering once winners are announced. Such and such isn’t science fiction, or such and such only won because a woman wrote it or has a gay character. Nonsense and tosh of course. I can’t stand the social media bullshit that surrounds the awards, but it is a price to pay for the democracy of opinion and voice. All I know is that I will take some of these books, and some I’ll enjoy and some will inspire, and in some I might find new favourite authors. And for that, I thank all those involved in putting these awards together, for they help to keep my eyes open. Keep my mind open.

 

Image credit: Share Alike Some rights reserved by Eddi van W.

What’s the point of Sci-Fi Book awards? Or, some great books I’ve read thanks to the Clarke Award.

Station Eleven proof.inddThe Hugo Award fiasco really upset me. Of course, the whole right wing bully-boy tactics is offensively stupid, but I’m not part of that world (thankfully) so I had little vested interest. Most people who were involved wrote about it far better than I even could. Seek out their words. What upset me more was everyone seemed to be arguing about what books were on the short-lists and which ones weren’t. No-one seemed to be taking about reading. The quality of the fiction. The passion of the stories (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t read anything about great genre fiction in relation to the Hugo nominations. Even though I’ve read Jim Butcher in the past (great first few novels then…bored now) I’ve no desire to read any of the shortlisted novels this year.

Does anyone care about reading anymore?

I like the Kitchies. They seem to me to highlight innovation. They are progressive and diverse. From this year’s shortlist, I’ve read and enjoyed Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor although I didn’t think it was amazing. No emotional resonance for me. Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith, The Peripheral, by William Gibson and The Race, by Nina Allan are all on my to read list for this year. As for the debut category, I’ve read Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (see below), while Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and The Girl in the Road from Byrne are on my pile. While intriguing, Viper Wine (Hermione Eyre) doesn’t really appeal to me. Good lists and plenty of good stuff on there, but to my sensibilities (and like an indie music or film festival) there does seem to be an agenda of sorts. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that notion, just to be clear, and if so, it is a good agenda (inclusive, diverse, innovative as I mentioned).

To me however, the Clarke Award appears to be just about the books. This year’s short list is:

  • The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. CareyThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
  • Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson
  • Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North
  • Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
  • The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’ve not read the first two and probably won’t. Carey’s is possible but it just isn’t grabbing my attention. I’ve read that Europe In Autumn is more of a sci-fi spy-fi techno-thriller type which isn’t really my bag. So, thoughts on the rest:

 

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North

To me, this reflects the genre-defying fiction that I love. It is really a time travel story without traditional science fiction time travel elements and reminded me a little of Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls. However, it is character study. A lesson in choices. We all regret this choice or that one and in North’s story, Harry August gets to make different choices and also pre-empt the actions of choices to come. North’s prose is so very readable and the world she creates is so detailed and believable. One of those books that you never want to end because you enjoy being in it so much.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

The same can be said of Station Eleven. It is a traditional science fiction trope – the end of the world caused by something as ordinary as flu, but told in a complex and gripping narrative style from varying points of view – including that of someone who wasn’t even around when the end comes. The idea of focusing on actors and musicians is unique – certainly in what I’ve read previously. Friendships, survival and religion are key themes. Again, the world Mandel’s creates with brilliant prose and intriguing characters is one (despite its horrors) where I just wanted to stay in. The way she combines the various threads of the narrative so they make sense without being over-blown is admirable. The ingredients are familiar, the recipe common, but the final meal is deliciously new.

Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta

Itäranta’s debut appealed to me, although I hadn’t heard much about it. In a weird way, this could be set in the same world as Station Eleven although much further into the future, when the post-apocalyptic recovery is further along. Although in this case the cause was apparently environmental. Itäranta writes beautifully, especially considering it isn’t in her first language. Some of the sentences are pure poetry. “But water doesn’t care for human sorrows. It flows without slowing or quickening its pace in the darkness of the earth, where only stones will hear.” Sadly, the story is somewhat lacking. The characters (who have complex and secretive relationships) and world building (I like the plastic graveyard motif) are fine but there was lots of set up which promised so much but never really delivered. I was more interested in the words than the story.

The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’m about 2/3s through this excellent book. Almost directly opposed to the Memory of Water it is written in a straight forward manor but the story is so very engaging. I can’t wait to find out what happens. Essentially about the power of religion (so far) and trying to understand a new intelligent species on an alien planet, the corporation who has sent the pastor is represented by engineers and pharmacists who would be home on the Nostromo in Alien. It is intensely interesting and readable. I hope the ending is the one the reader deserves after 300+ pages.

Congratulations to the 2014 winner: Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – which I think is awesome! A triumph of story-telling.

 

What I love about all four of these is that I’ve really enjoyed reading them. Not thinking about them for what they are or what they represent in the wider sense (short-listed literature). I’d read North’s book before the list was announced and Faber’s was on my pile to read. I probably would have stumbled across Station Eleven but I probably wouldn’t have known about Memory of Water. I was lost in all of these books. Proper joy of reading stuff. I read Mandel’s 330 pages in 4 days because I didn’t want to stop reading it. I wanted to know what happened in the conclusion but I wanted to keep reading forever. This is the power of great fiction and it is something that I believe gets lost in award season with all the perceived in-fighting and back-stabbing. Of course, the contradiction is that I wouldn’t have read the latter three on the above list quite so soon (if at all) had they not been short-listed.

So I have a love/hate relationship with science fiction and speculative fiction awards. They often point me in the direction of terrific stories and characters and introduce writers I might not have come across. But to me, they are missing the point of what good books are for and not celebrating the story as a thing itself enough.

 

Science fiction novel shortlists. Sigh.

There was a time when I enjoyed shortlist season. It was a time when I was young and innocent (and worked in a public library and therefore had first dips on many a new book before it hit the shelves – shocking but hey, everyone needs a perk). It was a time when I discovered new authors and new books (Lauren Beukes, Sarah Hall, Jan Morris and others, for example). As soon as the shortlists were announced I’d rush around the shelves gathering up those books I’d not yet read and ordering others from other libraries if they weren’t available.

I think Twitter has killed my enthusiasm for shortlisted science fiction books. Firstly, there’s the constant bickering and intense evaluation of the value or worthiness of each entry. Is it sexist? Is it modern? Is it safe? Does it represent fandom? What is fandom anyway? I’ve also been introduced to a whole bunch of new authors and books via Twitter, Goodreads and elsewhere that I’m less excited about discovering new books on the shortlists.

The big three in my eyes are the Kitchies, the BSFAs and the Clarke Award. I’m discounting the Hugos for reasons too boring to elaborate on. But blame Twitter on that too. So here are the 2014 short-lists:

The Kitchies:

The Red Tentacle (Novel) – selected by Kate Griffin, Nick Harkaway, Will Hill, Anab Jain and Annabel Wright:

  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth OzekiThe Machine
  • Red Doc> by Anne Carson
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness
  • The Machine by James Smythe

The Golden Tentacle (Debut) – selected by the above panel:

  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Stray by Monica Hesse
  • A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam
  • Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

BSFA Best Novel:

  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley
  • Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

Arthur C Clarke Award:

  • Nexus by Ramez Naam
  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley
  • The Machine by James Smythe
  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie
  • The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

Not many books have been agreed on by the panels but the main titles that jump out are:

  • The Machine by James Smythe (2 appearances)
  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (3)
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (2, and the only one I’ve read)
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam (2)
  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley (2)

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is about the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, which suggests some level of quality. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, but I’m not sure why. I will read it at some point soon. The Machine looks interesting, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is on my to read list and there’s been a lot of positive noise made about Leckie’s debut, so while it’s not my usual bag (usually find space opera dull), I might give it a go. As for the rest? Meh. Nothing about most of them excites me.

Red Doc> – mythic boy-hero into the twenty-first century to tell a story all its own of love, loss, and the power of memory.

Bleeding Edge – crime and the internet from set in 2001.

More Than This – an afterlife mystery?

Stray – an artificial intelligence thriller.

A Calculated Life – genetic engineering, data and crime

Nexus – near-future nano-technothriller

God’s War – far future thriller on a war-torn planet (1st of a series *groans*)

Evening’s Empires – a far future tale of revenge, of murder and morality and a semi-intelligent space suit (I read about half a McAuley once, found it tedious at best)

Ack-Ack Macaque – is a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey hero from WW2 who doubts his own existance

The Disestablishment of Paradise – problems on the planet of Paradise with man vs nature

Maybe the Powell stands out too as being different to raise an eye, but the rest, well, sighing, I wonder if I either don’t have any interest in SF any more, or that they shortlists are terribly uninspiring. The evidence suggests the latter, however, because while I really liked The Adjacent if you look at some of the books I’ve read in the last few months (going back into last year), I’ve read some terrific books that might make next year’s shortlists and others that should have made this year’s, maybe.

  • The Shining Girls by Lauren BeukesDog Stars
  • Lexicon by Max Barry
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  • Red Rising by Pierce Brown
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh

So, I’m not rushing out to read the books on these lists before the winners of the Clarke Award and BSFA winners are announced (the Kitschie winners are already known). I would have added my opinion to those voices who picked their best novels in years gone by. Now, I’m more interested in picking up something different and new.

Awards season stuff… in which I sit back and watch the squabbling over 2014’s awards season

Well, science fiction and fantasy awards season is almost upon us for 2014 and Twitter is already abuzz with gossip and backbiting. Some people Winners?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 HellerDog Stars
  • 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 iJack Glasss 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.