My annual witterings concerning SFF shortlists for best novel

a-closed-and-common-orbitLast night, the Clarke Award announced its shortlist for the 2017 prize. The Hugo Award shortlist was announced a few weeks ago to the least amount of irritating noise I can recall for years. The BSFA announced a shortlist and a winner a while ago. While the most progressive award in my opinion, the Kitschies, don’t appear to have a list out this year.

My motivation is low. In past years I’ve tried to read as many of the shortlisted novels as possible and pass an opinion on my favourite. This year, that isn’t going to happen.

Anyway, the shortlists are thusly:

Clarke Award

  • A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
  • Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
  • After Atlas – Emma Newman
  • Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan
  • Central Station – Lavie Tidhar
  • The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Hugo Award

  • All the Birds in the Sky Charlie Jane Anders
  • A Closed and Common Orbit Becky Chambers
  • Death’s End Cixin Liu
  • Ninefox Gambit Yoon Ha Lee
  • The Obelisk Gate K. Jemisin
  • Too Like the Lightning Ada Palmer

BSFA Award

  • Daughter of Eden Chris Beckett
  • A Closed and Common Orbit Becky Chambers
  • Europe in Winter Dave Hutchinson – WINNER
  • Occupy me Tricia Sullivan
  • Azanian Bridges Nick Wood

Ok, so from this list I wasn’t massively impressed by Sullivan’s Occupy Me. I’m quite a fan europe-in-winterof hers but I think this is her weakest book for a while, despite it being a quite an original concept. I really enjoyed A Closed and Common Orbit from Chambers. It was even better than her debut! And I really loved Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky! Europe in Winter from Dave Hutchinson – in fact the whole fractured Europe series – is excellent and it isn’t a surprise it won the BSFA gong. Haven’t read the rest. Probably won’t.

I quite fancy After Atlas from Emma Newman but it’s number 2 in a series and I haven’t read the first one yet. It is on my Goodreads tbr list, but whether or not I get around to it is another matter. I wasn’t massively impressed by Jemisin’s first in this series, despite about a million people seemingly loving it. Ninefox Gambit has a couple of nods to might be worth an investigation, but to be honest, I’m losing the will to give a shit. Tidhar’s book is on my tbr list and I’ve enjoyed his previous novels so I will read this. Eventually! I read Whitehead’s zombie effort a few years ago and hated it. I know and appreciate that The Underground Railroad has had some amazing notices, and I’m tempted, but I don’t think it’ll be my cup of tea. And science fiction? Doesn’t sound like it…

Anyway, I hope that Anders wins the Hugo and Chambers wins the Clarke!

all-the-birds-in-the-sky

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A journey: Favourite re-reads – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowI’ve read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell twice before. I remember vaguely picking it up when it first came out in 1997 – I suspect as a result of a review from SFX which was one of only a handful of sources of science fiction book reviews at the time – and about 10 years ago. It seems like it will be one of the books I need to come back to every ten years or so. So I picked up my smelly, dog-eared and stained Black Swan paperback edition and settled back with a smile on my face.

The Sparrow is, at a fundamental level, an alien first-contact novel. However, when you consider that this story is about Emilio Sandoz and a mostly Jesuit party who are party to the discovery of alien life, and who subsequently travel to the planet Rakhat, you realise that this is about God, religion, faith, colonisation, acceptance and more. The narrative has two time-streams. The first is on Emilio’s return to Earth, a physically and emotionally destroyed man. He is facing charges of murder and prostitution on the alien planet. He is the only survivor. The Jesuits are also under scrutiny for his behaviour. The second stream starts with the pulling together of the core group of friends who eventually find love and the alien signal. They travel to Rakhat where they make contact with two sentient species. Russell skilfully plays the narrative time streams off against each other, as you warm to the characters and feel their joy and pain and tragedy.

The first 100 pages

It was remarkable how easily I recalled all the characters and the plot within the first few pages. When Sandoz is helped by Brother Edward and John Candotti and has his braces fitted, I started to recall the trauma of the journey to come. The story flooded back to me. And when he meets Ann and George, and eventually Jimmy and Sophia, the initial warmth and comfort of the characters was replaced by dread, as I recalled their fate. It is a testament to Russell’s writing that in the opening chapters of this book, you fall in love with the characters (again, for me) and really enjoy spending time with them regardless of the story. The characters in the ‘after-the-event’ time are perhaps less well-rounded and while not cyphers, you never connect with them on any emotional level.

Within the first 100 pages, there are hints of tragedy and signposts to much worse, but the actually science fiction and alien elements are largely missing from the story (Sophia’s AI work excepted). While clearly and proudly science fiction, it only dwells on these certain elements in passing. This is a story about people and their love.

100-200 pages

The next 100 pages opens with a litany of abuse against the Jesuit church. I wondered if this was Russell’s personal attack on religion, but then I remembered that it is fiction and the views expressed in any book aren’t necessarily those of the author. And then…

Then Russell writes the warmest and loveliest description of friends becoming a family, even with what happens to poor Jimmy (I’d not fully recalled the plot towards the end), I have ever read, just before they are all brought together before god and alien contact. Although there is the duel narrative structure, this line in particular is very linear storytelling and fairly obvious in hindsight, but so wonderfully written it does matter?

An interesting parallel comes to light in this section. All the characters from the time of discovery of the alien signal have the correct experience (astronomy, linguistics, engineering, computer programming, medicine) and relationships with each other. Sandoz and others start to believe this is the work of god, bringing them together. Is any author, god, then? In all books, characters and plots must have the required coincidences to make the story work. Life isn’t a story because it isn’t full of these coincidences but all fiction must. Is Russell acknowledging this? I think so. Turtles and fence-posts.

There is a scene on p188 of my copy when the crew first board their vessel, where Anne and George attempt to complete a mission of their own in zero g. Rarely does a book make you smile at the dialogue and interaction of a bunch of fictional characters as The Sparrow does. It is so convivial and warm. It is like a favourite pie in winter or ice cream in summer. And yet Russell signposts the tragedy ahead a few passages later. Perfect storytelling.

And at this point, 2/5 of the way into the book, we still don’t know why the book is called The Sparrow.

200-300 pages

As I passed the half way mark it occurred to me that there can’t be many alien contact novels that can get to this point without actually contacting the aliens. [Spoiler alert] Around this point, one of the main characters dies. However, he was never really one of the main, main, characters so while the method of his demise was unexpected, the fact he was the first to go wasn’t a surprise. Bit of a red shirt moment, and doesn’t really add anything to the story. In fact, it counters the rest of the narrative. When others die, there is deep and prolonged grief. While this character who dies was never core, his death appears to be too quickly forgotten.

300-400 pages

And now to the main course. Russell explains the alien cultures as experienced through Sandoz and the team. It made me consider how tricky it must be to invent an alien culture in fiction. It needs to be alien yet comprehensible to the reader. It needs to be plausible but different enough to be interesting. It was fun when Russell includes the Star Trek reference to make that point. There is no point in having aliens who all speak English and act like us. Russel takes proper zoological and ecological theory and weaves a believable yet alien civilisation. Of course, many, many other science fiction authors have also achieved this, but still, it can’t be easy.

And then, when DW – Sandoz’s father figure – falls ill the dread returns. Having read the book before I know he dies, but I couldn’t recall quite how…

As the 400th page approached, one of the main issues with re-reading a novel comes to the fore. You  know something bad is coming – there are still 6 of the main characters to die – but you can’t quite remember the precise moment, or page. Every event, every new chapter might bring death.

400-501 pages

Re-reading an old favourite is a mixed blessing. I must have read a fair few hundred books since I last read The Sparrow. I’m 10 years older. You always bring something of yourself to every novel you read. Different experiences in real life and in fiction. I was glad I’d forgotten (even mis-remembered) how DW had died. However, as everything really tragic happens in the last section of the book, this time round his and the rest of the crew’s demise felt a little rushed. Even though the plot demanded it, the explanations of how the contact had changed the aliens, and how the aliens had changed Sandoz could have played out a little longer. I was still gutted by the finale, although due to my years of reading, the dramatic conclusion was a little less shocking than it was 20 years ago. And as for the title, it is only revealed on page 499: Matthew 10 v29. Apparently.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading The Sparrow. It every bit as good as I remembered. The characters every bit as warm and the writing as engaging and as thought-provoking. I only wish Russell had continued writing SF (sequel aside). There is so much depth to her story, although it didn’t make me think much about god and religion, or faith. It did make me think more about how our actions affect others, even the seemingly harmless ones. Even when we think we’re doing a good thing. We cannot know how other people think or will react to us. Russell seems to understand this both personally and culturally.

The Sparrow won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award, which it thoroughly deserved.

A short note on why Ancillary Justice really annoyed me.

Ancillary Justice won just about every award going: Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, BSFA, Locus and Kitchie. Almost a clean sweep. It was criticallyAncillary Justice acclaimed pretty much everywhere.

Firstly, after reading this, I can confirm that I’m not a huge fan of far future space opera. I never got on with the Culture Novels, for example, although my favourite books include Jem, Hyperion, and The Sparrow. Maybe I should just stop reading this kind of book? Secondly, I thought Ann Leckie’s debut was original, imaginative and very well written. I thought the characters were interesting and I enjoyed getting to know them. I thought the gender politics were excellent. I thought the attention to detail and the deft writing were pretty much spot on. I thought the science was plausible enough. I never once thought ‘no way’. The universe Leckie created was one I bought almost completely, in terms of civilisation and politics, although the tea thing was a bit twee (and I couldn’t stop thinking about the Firefly episode Shindig for some reason).

I totally get why it was so critically acclaimed, up to a point. However, I think it was intrinsically flawed and therefore probably shouldn’t have won anything. The story is told in two strands early on, from the first person perspective of Breq (the ancillary) and from the Radch starship, the Justice of Toren One Esk. Necessarily, there is a lot of world building in the early chapters. This is where the novel falls down. The first person narration is wrong. The conceit is wrong. First person narration usually has some acknowledgement of its intended audience. The reader knows why the story is being told to them. As the end of Ancillary Justice approached I had increasingly hoped that the conceit would reveal itself, but it didn’t. So who was Breq narrating too? If it was us, the 21st Century reader, then how or why isn’t made evident. If Breq was narrating to someone in her own time, why all the description of politics, society and science. Why the narrated world building? Surely they wouldn’t need it?

Simply by putting Ancillary Justice into first person ruined it for me. It was never going to match the hype, and everything else about it was pretty much spot on, but Leckie’s choice not to write Ancillary Justice in the third person really, really annoyed me.