The shortlist for the UK's most prestigious science fiction prize has been revealed:
- Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
- Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
- China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
- Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
- Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
- Sheri S. Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)
If you have any doubts about the glamorous "most prestigious" description, just look at the discussion going on. And it is discussion. The Clarke is known for its rather unpredictable shortlists (this year being a prime example), but if the knee jerk response is "WRONG", it is almost immediately followed by, "...but I'll read 'em so I can explain why". The Clarke promotes serious debate and consideration of science fiction (both the genre and the definition) and, frankly, bless 'em for it.
To take part in that debate, a few thoughts on the shortlist:
The easy ones are Embassytown and The Testament of Jessie Lamb. I'm delighted to see them both on the list, and thought they were "bankable" picks.* We've reviewed them both already (repeatedly, in Embassytown's case), and they were both finalists for The Kitschies' Red Tentacle. I don't think it is being disingenuous to say that they're my two favorites on the list, and by a country mile. Hell, it is already part of the record.**
Rule 34 is, on paper, a sort of heir to the recent Clarke tradition of vaguely mysterious near-future SF: for example, last year's winner, Zoo City. But that's an unfair comparison - if anything Rule 34 is an inversion of Moxyland, pen portraits of a tech-saturated near future. But, despite the lunge for empathy by using the second person narrative, Rule 34 lacks the strong characters or warmth of Moxyland. Still, Mr. Stross' work is both clever and fun, but I find a lot of space between it and the Miéville/Roberts standard.***
The End Specialist is a bit out of left field. Of all the books, this is possibly the most classical in construct, a very strong, very insightful exploration of a single scientific advancement (an immortality treatment). Mr. Magary explores it from the social standpoint - a sort of gen-Y everyman looks at the treatment's impact on his life and his family, plus an infusion of blog articles and other digital 'found' media. There's a lot of talent here, and this is a book I really enjoyed, but it is very much a debut novel, as evidenced by the cinematic crescendo of an ending. I think Mr. Magary has the potential for a "best SF of the year" novel in him, but I don't think this is the one.
I don't get Hull Zero Three, but it is so far not "my type" of book that I'm almost incapable of judging it impartially. I find Mr. Bear's prose alienating and slightly dense. It is, however, by many accounts, a very good book that's straight out of the SF "heartland". Pass.
The one that baffles me, quite frankly, is The Waters Rising. A farmboy, a talking horse and a princess quest along to the end of the world. I understand that this is underpinned by a post-apocalyptic science fictional premise, but after the hooplah about the many fantasies on the longlist, I'm surprised that this made it in. It is... fine, but certainly not so excellent that I would find it to be worth the subsequent explanation (which, I suppose, is a meaningless criticism - no explanation needs to be given). It is also a sequel, which the Clarke Award normally tries to avoid. I don't mean to be cruel, but this feels like a Lifetime Achievement Award for Ms. Tepper, who has been twice (now thrice) nominated for this prize.
Of course, a lot of attention has gone to the notable exclusions: By Light Alone, The Islanders, Osama and Savage City foremost amongst them. Niall, over at Strange Horizons, makes a good case for By Light Alone [Editor's note: actually, he doesn't, but see comments below]. I'm personally not so disappointed about The Islanders, which I also deemed more "fantasy" than science fiction (plus I found it deeply flawed, as expressed in a 30 word review). I miss Osama and Savage City. More than Rule 34, Osama feels like the brilliantly slipstream, noir heir to Zoo City. And if the gate is open to fantasy journeys in science fictional worlds, Savage City has heart, drama, character and chutzpah. I'd kick Waters off for it in a heartbeat.
BUT, that's the fun... just because a book isn't shortlisted doesn't mean we can't read it. This is an opportunity not only to read the Clarke shortlist, but also check out the rest of last year's great fiction. As devotees of genre fiction, we owe the Clarke a lot - not just for being a reputable, high-profile, excellently run celebration of the year's best work, but also for giving us another good excuse to talk about what makes great science fiction.
*For the record, my predictions were Embassytown, Jessie Lamb, Rule 34, The Islanders, 11.22.63 and Hell Ship. Not saying those are the "best" 6 of the year, but the ones that I thought the judges were most likely to pick. Also, 50% is pretty rubbish. Oh well.
**I think The Testament of Jessie Lamb will win.
***I've picked Rule 34 for the Hugo. Shrug.
[All opinions come from ME and ME alone, and are not representative of The Kitschies or its judges (past, present or future)]