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Month: March 2012

Clarke of Clarkes

The heated discussions of the past few days have led me, perhaps inevitably, to go back and look at the Clarke Award shortlists that have inspired and perplexed us over the course of the past decade. The welcome practice of releasing the submissions list is a relatively recent thing (how interesting it would be to see which novels were submitted during the 90s and early 2000s – I love stuff like this) and looking back there’s only so much we can guess about the political hinterland of earlier award slates. Of those years where the submissions list has been available for our inspection, I think it’s fair to say that in each and every instance there has been at least one surprising, not to say inexplicable omission from the eventual shortlist. Perhaps in the long run what we will say of 2012’s shortlist is that it was the sheer quantity of quality omissions that made it stand out.  One thing is for certain, though: the Clarke Award has highlighted some magnificent books over the years, which is, we all surely agree, the main point of it.

In celebration of that and just for fun really I’ve decided to make a list of the books I would put on the shortlist for my own Clarke of Clarkes. Ten books instead of six to reflect the fact that this is a decade’s worth of novels, all of them drawn from the existing shortlists 2003-2012.

I have to stress that I have not – far from it – read every book on every shortlist, so my selections cannot be described as completely informed and impartial. But here goes anyway:

 

Pattern Recognition (2004 shortlist) William Gibson

The Carhullan Army (2008 shortlist) Sarah Hall

Nova Swing (2007 winner) M. John Harrison

Never Let Me Go (2006 shortlist) Kazuo Ishiguro

The Dervish House (2011 shortlist) Ian McDonald

Speed of Dark (2003 shortlist) Elizabeth Moon

Hav (2007 shortlist) Jan Morris

The Separation (2003 winner) Christopher Priest

The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2012 shortlist) Jane Rogers

Anathem (2009 shortlist) Neal Stephenson

 

Now that would be one mean competition!

Looking at this list now that I’ve chosen it I’m struck by how satisfying it feels as a whole, how full of creative nourishment. You could exile yourself to a desert island with this lot and feel confident about retaining most of your sanity. There are books here I’ve read thrice over and hope to read several times more before I die. There are others I am less well acquainted with but still hope to draw strength from. Hav sparkles like a brilliant-cut diamond. The very thought of Anathem makes me hyperventilate over the sheer power and scale of Stephenson’s literary and intellectual ambition. Never Let Me Go continues to vex me with its imperfections, yet the understated beauty of its writing and the very real chill it delivers keep drawing me back. Leaving aside The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which is of course still in contention, you’ll notice that only two of the books I’ve selected here actually won the award in the year in question, a fact that, once again, reflects the diversity of opinion that exists, and will always exist, among both readership and judges.

The book that didn’t win that I think most deserved to? Probably The Dervish House. But hey, at least it got shortlisted……

Some words on the Clarke Award shortlist

My first sight of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist left me with the same feeling of queasy disbelief experienced the morning after a general election when you wake to find that the British electorate – most of whom did actually live through the Thatcher era – have somehow conspired to vote in another Conservative government.

We had to rush off to Oxford first thing on Monday morning, so this has been the first opportunity I’ve had to try and put my feelings into words. Catching up with the news and comment of the past two days, I found amongst the various rumination and reaction a post on the Guardian books blog by Damien Walter entitled Should Science Fiction and Fantasy Do More than Entertain? I have to say that when applied to the judges’ decision it seems a fair question.

I’m not having a go at Damien Walter – I follow his ‘weird things’ series with interest and applaud his fascination with the fantastic in general – but I had (perhaps stupidly) been hoping that we were moving however gradually towards a state and time where such a question (such an overworked, ignorant question) need no longer be asked. Apparently not. In the grudge match against misconception, it would appear that this year’s Clarke team have succeeded in scoring the most spectacular own goal of the decade.

The central criticism of SF by the literary mainstream persists in the idea that even when SF is cool, groundbreaking, thought provoking and awe inspiring, when it comes to style, form, language, psychological verisimilitude, characterisation, sense of place – all those markers by which mainstream literary fiction is customarily judged – it is slipshod, second rate and often embarrassingly lacking in finesse. In other words, SF is great at ideas but cannot be taken seriously as literature. As a writer and reader who is committed to speculative fiction heart and soul, who believes that SF has given us some of world literature’s most enduring classics and that literature achieves its highest potential precisely where the quotidian and the fantastic intersect, I cannot stress how bored and tired I have become with that pronouncement. I’ve said before that I’m evangelical about SF. I stated here last month that I believe the Clarke Award is there – more than the prize money, more than the kudos of winning – to showcase the best that speculative fiction has to offer, as a platform for us to shout about what we’ve got.

Not, then, as an affirmation of literary parochialism, a placard on the ghetto gate proudly proclaiming our critical indifference.

When I look at this year’s shortlist, what I see is not an honest selection of the best SF novels of 2011, but a political decision to promote what is known as core or heartland SF at any cost, regardless of literary quality, regardless of how far the work goes to promoting speculative fiction as a credible artistic movement. That cost is not only to the authors of the five or six genuine works of literature that have been wilfully excluded from the sbortlist, but to SF in general and those who love it and care passionately about it.

Let me stress that this is not a diatribe against so-called core SF. I write literary speculative fiction, and so my own personal tastes are bound to err in that direction. But when I find and read SF with a hard science edge that is as achieved as art as it is as SF – Ian McDonald, Neal Stephenson, Simon Ings – then I am exhilarated, excited, passionate in its defence. It is not about the what, but the how.

Writing earlier this month about Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket (not one of the shortlisted novels but I sense it very easily might have been), Adam Roberts gets it spot on:

We ought to hold out for the highest standards in our SF content—but we ought simultaneously to hold out for the highest standards in our SF style and form too. Why can’t be have both?…… SF is a metaphorical literature, one that aims to reproduce the world without representing it. It is more akin to poetry than it is to science.

The answer is of course that we can have both, do have both, and that a generous handful of the novels submitted contain both. It can only be a source of shame that this year’s Clarke shortlist does not offer a full and frank representation of that fact. (AR’s post, structured as an argument, is brilliant from beginning to end and I would recommend it to anyone but particularly to members of this year’s ACCA judging panel.)

Some readers of this post might express bafflement at this point. The current shortlist does contain two of my own guesses, after all, two-and-a-half if you count the Miéville, which has things wrong with it, sure, but could not be counted as anything less than a hard-fought and honest attempt to write serious fiction. So what am I getting so worked up about?

What I am getting worked up about is that we now have – in 2011 Booker Prize parlance – a Julian Barnes Situation. In other words, the shortlist as a whole is so weak that the reasonable stuff that is on it is forced to assume an importance that is wholly out of keeping with its genuine stature. Julian Barnes almost had to win last year’s Booker, because any other result would have been ludicrous, a situation as unfortunate for Barnes himself as for everyone else.

I love Jane Rogers’s book. I love its neatly crafted sentences, its clear descriptive language, its all round competence. I think the voice of Jessie Lamb, the story’s young narrator, is beautifully and convincingly rendered, the story itself provocative and compelling. The novel possesses a level of literary achievement that sets it way ahead of the other five books on the shortlist, and I think it will rightfully become a minor classic. I would recommend it without hesitation to anyone, regardless of whether they were regular readers of SF, which surely should be the acid test applied to any novel that hopes to find itself in contention for the Clarke Award. However, in SF terms The Testament of Jessie Lamb is fairly conservative, what you’d call a Kazuo Ishiguro kind of book rather than an Ian McDonald kind of book, and although it should absolutely be on the shortlist, in an ideal world and measured against other books that should more rightfully have been in contention with it, it probably shouldn’t win.

Drew Magary’s The End Specialist is great fun, with some degree of flair on display in the writing. The book plays around with form a bit and I like that. It’s a neat effort by a first-time novelist. I’m pleased to see it on the shortlist, I hope Magary intends to stick with speculative fiction and that we’ll see more of him in the future. But light on its feet as it is, this book simply does not have sufficient power to propel it to the top. It should have been a wild card, an outside bet, not a major contender.

Then there’s the vexed question of China Miéville. China is a serious artist with serious concerns. He’s a talented writer who cares, clearly committed to what he does and with the intellect and passion to make a unique and important contribution to the field. I like him and I admire what he’s doing. But he is still an evolving writer, a fact that gets overlooked far too often and more or less ignored by pundits who seem determined to crown him the once and future king of contemporary speculative fiction. My reading time these past few days (and fortunately the train journey to and from Oxford meant I had more of it than usual) has been spent in finally catching up with The City and the City, widely considered to be CM’s most achieved work to date. The core concept is glorious, and Mieville handles his faux Eastern Europeanisms beautifully, but as with Embassytown I found the final quarter of the book disappointing. Indeed, TCATC and Embassytown – the book on this year’s Clarke shortlist – in spite of their differing premises are actually very similar, almost templates for one another. Characterisation ends up taking second place to the too-bald exposition of an idea; sense of place – which in the case of both novels has astounding potential – is finally relegated to the status of backdrop for a revolution that fails to ignite our enthusiasm, largely because the characters caught up in it never get around to revealing to us their inner lives. Consequently very little seems at stake. We could easily care more about Mieville’s protagonists – if only we knew more about them.

In sum, I have no problem with Embassytown being on the shortlist – it probably should be. Where I do have a problem is when I see the main discussion around the ACCA coming down to whether Miéville should win the prize for a fourth time. In my opinion he should not, on this occasion – not because it somehow looks greedy, but because there were other books published last year that were ultimately more satisfying than Embassytown. To sanctify the idea that CM is the perennial best that SF has to offer, the ‘thinking man’s science fiction writer’ if you will, does none of us a favour and least of all Mieville.

I do not have much to say about the other three books on the shortlist. The Egan I would probably have enjoyed when I was fifteen and indeed it could easily have been written that long ago. I can see what Stross is trying to do – I can see merit in what he’s trying to do – but the problem is he pays too little attention to the nuts and bolts craft of writing good fiction. What aspires to be hip, slick and cool too often comes across as rushed, written on the run. Personally I prefer Coupland and Gibson. Sheri Tepper’s novel is a retrograde, overwritten fantasy that contains nominal SF elements but to my mind entirely lacks a SFnal sensibility. Could any of the judges honestly say that any of these are better books than Osama, Dead Water or The Islanders? I seriously doubt it.

Whoever wins now, this year’s Clarke, like last year’s Booker, is basically a write-off, an opportunity wasted. I’m sad and I’m angry. Most of all though I feel let down.

Jerwood

The new Jerwood Gallery, Hastings opened today. A couple of months later than originally planned, but so very much worth the wait, and finally the town has a space, a place for people to come to and be inspired by that reflects the creative spirit that is alive here.

Hastings is an odd place. Oddly special, oddly neglected, oddly itself. It worms its way into your thinking. I grew up mostly in rural West Sussex, had a grandmother in Worthing, and the particular flavour, both architectural and psychological, of English seaside resorts has become a central strand in my writing. But East Sussex is not like West Sussex. It’s weirder, more remote. There are fewer people, fewer main roads. The sizeable tract of land – cliff path and marshland and levels – east of Hastings is the last stretch of unspoiled coastline in the whole of Sussex.

Chris said something interesting today, that Hastings has sat so long in the shadow of 1066 that people have come to believe that’s all there is to the place. What’s almost never talked about outside the town itself is the extraordinary number of artists and writers who have a connection to Hastings and its environs. Attracted by low property prices, a mild climate and a rare abundance of natural beauty and historical detailing, artists and writers come here for a while and end up staying.

It’s a strange place. There’s something about it, a secret undercurrent of self awareness that hovers uncertainly between the numinous and the uncanny. The Stade, where the new Jerwood gallery stands, is itself an oddity, the last working fishing beach in England where the fishermen drag their craft out to sea manually straight off the shingle, a jumble of boats and shacks and net shops and rusting machinery that sets the writer’s pulse racing just to look at it, the most evocative of locations, a fully functioning quotidian reality that is at the same time a storehouse of the symbolic and the imagined.

To the north of the Stade are the cliffs. Between the cliffs and the Stade stands the Jerwood, a window on and a showcase for both realities.

It’s a beautiful building. Formal yet intimate, striking yet able to blend in so perfectly with its surroundings it’s difficult to believe it’s not been there for years. And inside – it’s a treasure house. Walking around the galleries – warm with wood, bright with glass, so full of light and at the same time almost cosy – I found myself close to tears. I’ve rarely if ever visited an art space so obviously designed with the pleasure of the visitor in mind, not just those consummately at home with art but those – and as word begins to spread about the Jerwood I feel sure there will be many – who are dipping their toe in that ocean for what might be the first time.

I’ve visited and enjoyed the Towner in Eastbourne, the Turner in Margate, the Delawarr in Bexhill. I love what’s being done to promote the arts in Folkestone, a town I’m extremely fond of. But what’s different about Jerwood is that this fine new gallery is to serve as the permanent home for the Foundation’s own collection, which is as good a survey of British 20th and 21st century painting as you’ll find anywhere in the country, including London. There are rooms full of the paintings I love – paintings I recognise instantly by their colour and texture, the way the paint has been arranged on the canvas, even before I’ve fully focussed on what is being depicted, as the work of old friends. Keith Vaughan, Ivon Hitchens, John Craxton, Carel Weight – all specialists (horribly underappreciated) in what you might call the mystical landscape, and all particularly loved by me for many years. There’s a wonderful portrait by Stanley Spencer of his niece, Daphne with a Green Scarf. There’s a gorgeous, sunny Christopher Wood, The Bather, a woman surrounded by shells who just might be a selky. Almost in front of you as you enter the galleries hangs a stunning Prunella Clough (I’m obsessed with Clough, she quite literally spent most of her career painting rubbish: street detritus, the scattered contents of pockets and waste bins), a dozen shades of grey and dirt with a characteristic shimmer of pink, a dropped sweet wrapper perhaps, towards the upper right corner.

There’s one of Winifred Nicholson’s rare portraits, painted in the 1920s when she was still married to Ben Nicholson. It’s as luminous as her later, almost abstract still lifes.

There’s a John Bratby – he lived in Hastings, had a fascinating and slightly sinister house here, which Chris showed me last year – and an Edmund Burra, an artist I always associate with London because of his Soho paintings but who, I discover today, was born in Rye and, like Bratby, died in Hastings.

There is more, a lot more. The place was packed. The whole thing is marvellous.

I knew that Hastings was beginning to work for me when I started to write about it. My new book has a lot of London in it, but it is also permeated, wormholed by the raddled strangeness of Hastings. The two central sections are set here. The town’s steep inclines and ragged edges characterise it, leave their scars in the minds and memories of its characters. It’s kind of a Hastings book. Weird but true.

I’m happy to report that the novel now stands at 78,000 words in first draft. Not quite sure how that happened, but I’m relieved that it has. Another 20,000 to write, give or take, and then I can begin on the second draft. I’m looking forward to that, very much. I know so much more about the book now than I did at the start.

And I know that the cafe terrace of the Jerwood, directly overlooking the Stade, will be the perfect place to sit and untangle all those final, crucial details.

Layers of meaning

Whether we like it or not, the net is rewiring our reading habits. As Benjamin said, the novel, as it exists, cannot contain the threat from the form that is greater than it: information. If it is to be relevant at all, the novel must break into new hybrids and leave the 19th-century segregation of fact, fiction, memoir and essay behind. The novel must let the world in and speak through the many forms that the world already speaks through. (Ewan Morrison in The Guardian)

I’ve been thinking about this article all week. Summarised in the quote above, Morrison’s argument – and it’s not just his, it’s been going on for ages – states that the ‘traditional’ linear narrative work of fiction is doomed in the internet age, that our ‘hopping from screen to screen’, as Morrison puts it, has changed not only the way we read but also the kind of fiction we are interested in reading.

I’m kind of with him. The great philosophical novels of nineteenth century Russia formed the bedrock of my literary education. They shaped my thinking and to some extent my personality. I’ll never regret a moment spent reading them. But now as a reader and as a writer I am finding that I prefer fiction that has some interface with the world – whichever world that may be – beyond the pages of the book. In the last five years or so I’ve noticed a distinct shift in the kind of novels I like to read, which has reflected itself in the kind of fiction I’m trying to write, and back again and vice versa. It’s rare these days for me to pick up a novel that is ‘just’ a story and feel wholly satisfied by it. I used to believe it was bad form, a gross discourtesy, to abandon a novel once I’d started to read it; more recently I’ve found myself reluctant to plough on with a book once it becomes clear to me that I’m not going to gain much by it. This is something I rather regret, but is nonetheless true. Novels I’ve abandoned have often been competently written and engaging on the story level at least – but they’ve been lacking in what I’d call creative nutrition.

I like a text that is self-aware. I like a book that talks back.

Where I differ from Morrison though is that I don’t wholly attribute these changes in my preferences to the arrival in my life of the internet. If you read the whole of Morrison’s article (which I strongly recommend because it’s excellent) you’ll see that many of the works he cites as examples of the ‘fracturing’ of the traditional linear novel date from before the modern computer age truly began and certainly before the internet became ubiquitous. Milan Kundera published The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in 1979. Douglas Coupland’s Generation X came out in 1991. We might also mention D. M. Thomas’s 1981 novel The White Hotel, and the ‘document in the form of a novel’ it so shamelessly ripped off, Anatoli Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar, first published in 1966.  Further examples of ‘factual fiction’ are Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1980), Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) and Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). None of these guys had iPads or worried about whether their readers were suffering from screen-hopping-related ADD or not. They just wanted to try new things, to push fiction as far as it would go and see what happened.

And it’s not just the writers. Kids take to gaming and social networking more or less instantly but when it comes to reading they are more likely to begin their adventures in fiction with Harry Potter than with William Burroughs. Fiction takes time, and literary taste takes time to develop. In spite of any changes the internet might have made to the way we spend our leisure hours, the majority of book readers still prefer traditional linear narratives because that is what they are used to and therefore feel most comfortable with. You only have to look at this year’s Orange Prize longlist to see how the traditional novel still dominates the literary establishment. Of the twenty writers selected, only two (Ali Smith and A. L. Kennedy) show a consistent interest in literary form – how as opposed to what – and Helen Oyeyemi, whose novel Mr Fox presents one of 2011’s most gorgeously daring experiments in structure, is yet again conspicuous by her absence. (I note with dismay that the chair of this year’s Orange is Joanna Trollope….)

Those who seek out newer forms of fiction are likely to do so not because their brains have somehow been altered by too much screen time but because they are actively interested in how the traditional medium of literature reacts and changes when faced with the encroachment into its territory of new media. They enjoy the internet as theory as well as practice. The readers and writers who gain most inspiration and enjoyment from new forms of writing are not necessarily the most media savvy; they are more likely to be the most intellectually curious – in other words, precisely those same people who would have been galvanized by Moby-Dick a century ago.

One of the things I love most about SF is that by its very nature it has already called the traditional novel into doubt. By presenting the reader with the unexpected – with fact that might be fiction and vice versa – it has already confounded reader expectations, added an extra layer of significance to the experience of reading it. It’s no surprise then to discover that some of the greatest literary innovators – Dick, Strugatskys, Lem, Ballard, Gibson, Priest, (M. John) Harrison, (Steve) Erickson, Coupland, Tidhar – are to be found at the borderlands of slipstream and SF.

I’m guessing that some readers will have discounted Ewan Morrison’s article as simply one more unwelcome pronouncement that ‘the novel is dead’. I found what was said here not only interesting and relevant but inspirational. We can debate the reasons for change and enjoy doing so, but what is important is the change itself, the pushing forward. Like I say, I’ve been thinking about this all week.

Guessing the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2012

On Monday of this week, the good people at Torque Control launched their by now traditional annual contest to guess the shortlist of the Arthur C. Clarke Award by selecting from the list of all eligible submissions. This year there are sixty novels in contention, and here is my shortlist of six:

Dead Water Simon Ings

The End Specialist Drew Magary

The Islanders Christopher Priest

The Testament of Jessie Lamb Jane Rogers

Osama Lavie Tidhar

The Godless Boys Naomi Wood

 

Awards tend to generate controversy. Last year saw both the biggest Booker debàcle since the inception of the prize, and the total meltdown of the British Fantasy Awards. One spectacle may have taken place on a smaller stage than the other, but in both cases the bloodletting was furious. Part of the problem seemed to be a confusion over what literary awards should be for. Last year’s Booker judges seemed to believe that novels should exist primarily for the purposes of middlebrow entertainment, while certain elements within the British Fantasy Society seemed happy to see the BFS awards reduced to a popularity contest. While the idea that anyone on the BFS committee was complicit in any actual wrongdoing was preposterous and the scapegoating of individual nominees was unfortunate and unfair, the changes to the awards system brought about by the BFS palace revolution were desirable and necessary and we will hopefully see the BFAs regaining some measure of value and credibility as a result. With the Booker I’m not so sure. The judges this year will probably be a tad more hardcore, but my guess is that the change will be short lived. The literary mainstream in this country, terrified of being charged with elitism, tends to pander to the middle ground. More and more regularly we see Booker shortlists crammed with works that fail to challenge the reader on any level. These are books that conform. It is a literature of obedience, the kind of books you can read in your lunch hour or at the airport then forget about immediately afterwards. It’s literary television.

The Clarke Award is different. There is always a genuine excitement around this time of year, not only over who is going to win, but about which books have been submitted, and what that says about the shifts and developments in speculative fiction generally. SF is not just a broad church, it is an evangelical one. Readers of speculative fiction by their very definition seek to have their assumptions challenged, and for the kind of SF writer in the running for the Clarke Award, their life’s main purpose is to use each new book to push at the boundaries of what literature can do and what words can say. As with any literary genre including the mainstream there is a conservative wing of SF, writers who seem content to give the reader more of what made them happy the last time, but they are increasingly unlikely to be in the running for the Clarke.

The Clarke has been attracting more and more attention of late. It now has its own page at the Guardian website, and several of the major literary festivals have recently included SF strands in their programmes. As more young writers step across from the mainstream, less worried about being tarred with the geek brush than Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, happy to mix genres and break boundaries in much the same way as young composers have been eager to incorporate elements of jazz, hiphop and world music into their classical compositions, so SF finds itself becoming less typecast and ever more adventurous.

What is the Clarke Award for? As the one award that sets out specifically to reward innovation and the pushing of the literary envelope, I believe it’s the most radical award out there and therefore the most worthy of notice. Mainstream pundits who still believe that heartland SF is great when it comes to ideas but conservative and usually incompetent when it comes to literary expression and the refined use of language clearly have not read Ian McDonald or Simon Ings. Those advocates of nineteenth century realism who insist that SF has nothing to say about character or the human condition have obviously had no contact with the work of M. John Harrison or Ian R. MacLeod. Cynical postmodernists who claim that SF has no interest in literary form should have a read of Christopher Priest’s The Islanders or Steve Erickson’s The Sea Came in at Midnight.

What matters most about the Clarke is not who wins, but that it acts as a showcase for what is happening in SF now. As such, I believe it should take a pride in presenting writers who are prepared to risk themselves intellectually, stretch themselves imaginatively and hone their skills as writers to produce works of artistic originality and lasting literary power. In putting forward my own guesses at the six books that will make up this year’s Clarke Award shortlist I’ve tried to reflect these ideals. There are some interesting omissions.

The first thing you’ll probably notice is that I haven’t included China Miéville’s Embassytown on my list. Mainly this is because I was disappointed by the final third of the book. I thought the premise was intriguing, and I enjoyed the setup a great deal. I found Miéville’s working out of his ideas about truth and language to be original and on occasion genuinely beautiful. As a writer I admire Miéville’s imaginative reach and stylistic originality and I admire Embassytown because it’s a novel that was clearly intended to break new ground in SF and to a point it succeeds. However, I found the ending – a kind of ‘last battle’ that appeared to have been grafted on in an attempt to add some blood and thunder to a book that is essentially an intellectual pavane – to be rushed and unconvincing. Everything happened way too quickly and was resolved too easily. SF doesn’t demand a traditional happy ending, and I found the easy assumptions of Embassytown’s conclusion sharply at odds with the more questing, ambiguous tone of the bulk of the text. This book had the potential to be better than it finally was and I think China would have done well to recast the ending in a more ambiguous tone.

I’m an admirer of Ian R. MacLeod’s work, but I feel his decision to cast Clark Gable as the protagonist of Wake Up and Dream has his latest novel stymied somewhat. There’s some lovely writing here and the noir elements work well but you cannot escape the sense of being trapped in someone else’s joke. It’s all a bit flat on the page, and the characterisation never truly comes to life. I know this is kind of the point of it, but with regret I have to strike it from my list.

I enjoyed Nicholas Royle’s Regicide very much indeed, but the book is clearly dark fantasy and should not be included here. Helen Oyeyemi is a writer I feel deeply in sympathy with. I love her work, and Mr Fox is possibly her finest achievement to date, but once again if I had to call it anything it would be fantasy/slipstream and not SF, so I can’t elect it.

Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is elegantly written and sets out to be emotionally affecting. I started by wanting to admire this novel, but in the end I found its overly mannered, ornate style to be seriously out of keeping with its subject matter. Whichever way you look at it, you can’t get away from the fact that Zone One is just another zombie novel, a late addition to a shelf now so heavily laden it has worked itself loose from the wall and crashed into the abyss. No matter how gorgeously you dress it up, a zombie remains a zombie: a worn out horror trope that is not frightening, not interesting, and – forgive me – long dead.

As for the Stephen King, I haven’t read enough of it yet to be able to judge whether it is SFnal in any true sense of the word. From where I stand at the moment it appears to be just a portal novel – fantasy, not SF, and although I frequently cite King as being the finest storyteller alive on the planet today, I think that 11.22.63 would be the most boring choice for the Clarke ever. King hardly needs further promotion, and awarding him the prize would do nothing for SF whatsoever.

So on to my guesses. I came to Simon Ings’s Dead Water through Martin McGrath’s recommendation and I am impressed. His incisive, clear-eyed extrapolation of complex ideas, together with his dextrous use of language and imagery has a stylistic virtuosity reminiscent of Ian McDonald. The novel’s characters are shockingly alive, and with its complex, many-stranded narrative Dead Water is as well constructed and compelling as a movie by Iňárritu.

I loved Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. The concept is superb – an idea any writer would kill for. But it doesn’t stop there. Tidhar is a wonderful writer, as bold and beautiful in his use of words as he is radical and brave in his deployment of uncomfortable truths. He is an artist of intellect who is not afraid of writing from the heart, a rare and valuable combination that should be rewarded.

Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a near-near future catastrophe novel that ably employs science fictional ideas to chart a young girl’s evolving understanding of the world she lives in. I heard Jane Rogers speaking about Jessie at the Cheltenham Literature Festival while the novel was still in its infancy, where she expressed her enthusiasm for the novels of John Wyndham, whose writing she felt as a guiding inspiration behind this book. Jessie is not remotely imitative of Wyndham, but with its involving first person narration and its close examination of a thought-provoking ‘what if?’ scenario it does have something of that addictive Wyndham vibe about it. Most of all I love its prose, which is simple, direct, and quietly poetic. It’s a clear contender.

If Jane Rogers’s book contains echoes of Wyndham, Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys explores themes of spirituality and faith that remind me of Keith Roberts’s great 1968 novel Pavane. Like Pavane, it’s set in an alternate Britain where after bitter political upheavals religious belief has become the defining characteristic of the social order. Atheism has been outlawed, and the ‘Godless Boys’ of the title are now exiled to a remote island. Wood’s novel is sensitively written, and takes a brave step in its exploration of contentious themes. This is a debut of merit and interest and Wood herself is clearly a writer of serious intent. This book would be a worthy addition to the shortlist and the Clarke judges would do well to include it.

I started reading Drew Magary’s The End Specialist and became immediately hooked. I loved the ‘found footage’ element because I always love found footage elements and because it lent the novel a trace of the metafictional. Besides that, I happen to envy writers like Magary who are able to achieve, seemingly without effort, a style that is so natural and loosely flowing, that chatty American vernacular. Perhaps it’s simply because I can’t write like that myself. It’s the opposite of what I do and I’m jealous. It goes on the list.

People are bound to wonder whether I am able to comment objectively when it comes to Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. What I would say in reply to that is that Priest’s novels had been delighting me for many years before Chris and I met, and the qualities that made me shout about them – a prose that is limpid, beautifully crafted and a delight to read, ideas that could have come from no one else and that changed the very ground rules for what speculative fiction could aspire to, all encased within a formal perfection that makes his novels increase in power with every subsequent reading – have never been more powerfully persuasive than they are in The Islanders, and that this novel deserves to be classed as a landmark in British speculative fiction. Like all Priest’s books, it subverts the very notion of science fiction even as it delights in it, and makes us re-evaluate what we are looking for when we read SF, or indeed anything else. By deconstructing the novel, Priest makes it exciting again. I love this book!

Any or all of these six novels could have – and by God, should have – graced the Booker shortlist. They shine as literature every bit as much as they succeed as SF. It is precisely works like these that the Clarke Award exists to promote. It’s quite simply fantastic to observe how much the SF community values and is galvanised by the concept of the written word. The level of informed discussion and speculation surrounding the Clarke Award is a perennial delight to me, and our huge thanks should go out to Tom Hunter, to the Clarke judges, and to Torque Control for providing us yet again with such a marvellous forum for debate. The Clarke Award discussion thread is here, and you still have a week to post your own guesses.

The Clarke Award shortlist will be released towards the end of March, and the winner will be announced as part of SciFi London on May 2nd.

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