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the shortlist


The Arthur C Clarke Shortlist 2002
a review feature by Adam Roberts

Links within this feature:

  • Introduction
  • The Secret of Life by Paul McAuley
    (UK edition: HarperCollins Voyager, £16.99, 391 pages, hardback; 2January 2001. Paperback £6.99, 518 pages, 3September 2001; ISBN: 0-00-225904-4. US edition: Tor, $25.95, 413 pages, hardback; March 2001.)
  • Pashazade: the First Arabesk by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
    (Earthlight, £12.99, 326 pages, hardback; published 21 May 2001; ISBN: 0-743-20284-8. Paperback, £6.99, published April 2002; ISBN: 0-671-77368-2.)
  • Passage by Connie Willis
    (UK editions: HarperCollins Voyager, £11.99, 594 pages, trade paperback, 18 June 2001, ISBN: 0-00-711825-2; £6.99, 780 pages, mass market paperback, 20 May 2002. US edition: Bantam, $23.95, 594 pages, hardback; May 8, 2001.)
  • Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson
    (Macmillan, £9.99, 465 pages, trade paperback, 12 October 2001, ISBN: 0-333-75438-7.)
  • Fallen Dragon by Peter F Hamilton
    (Macmillan, £17.99, 634 pages, hardback, October 2001, ISBN: 0-333-90065-0.)
  • Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
    (Victor Gollancz, £10.99, 308 pages, trade paperback, 30 August 2001, ISBN:0553583743; hardback also available, £16.99; ISBN: 0-575-07031-5. Mass market paperback: Gollancz, £5.99, 403 pages, May 2002.)
  • Who should win?
  • addition, May 2002: Who won?

So it's the Arthur C Clarke Award time of year again, and the panel has produced its usual argument-provoking shortlist. The Clarke is one award that has, if anything, grown in stature and repute in the last few years, and excitement this year is fuelled by the success of last year's ceremony--which took place in the Clarke-specific year of 2001, with Sir Arthur himself making a video appearance, and the winning book (China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, as if you didn't know) being widely regarded as the most deserving choice, both a popular and critical success. This year's prize is, I think, harder to call: no one of the six titles on the shortlist stands out in the way that Miéville did last year. But they are all works of high calibre.

Paul McAuley is one of Europe's most gifted SF writers. He has the grand ideas and the imaginative expanse that the genre cover scan - The Secret of Liferequires, but he is also a writer of quite breathtaking stylistic and formal skill. Everything he writes is interesting, and if his The Secret of Life is not flawless it's a powerfully realised work nonetheless. Chinese expeditions to Mars in the near future have discovered a form of microbial life called Chi which, smuggled to Earth in a bid to exploit it commercially, contaminates the Pacific, growing huge slicks of rapidly mutating gunk. The novel's protagonist, a research biologist called Mariella Andres, is recruited on a mission to Mars to try and uncover the mystery of the organism and stop the Chi spreading; returning to earth she goes on the run across Mexico and the USA.

The book is in three parts. The first, 'Life on Earth' deals with the spread of the Chi lifeform, and the first attempts to get to grips with it. Andres is a well-drawn character, a likeable balance of attractive and unattractive personality traits and a striking taste for rough-trade sex. The second part, 'Life on Mars', covers the expedition to the Red Planet. This, somehow, struck me as not so exciting as it ought to be, despite being vividly and plausibly handled, with space-travel, exploration, shoot-outs and the theft of a space-ship. The best of the three parts is the final one, 'Fugitive Life'. McAuley runs the risk of anticlimax here, when the 'mystery' of the Chi, such as it is, is revealed, and the slick cleared away; but the sheer inventiveness and power of the passages about Andres on the run, the various strange peoples and landscapes she encounters, makes marvellous reading and carries the day.

The book's biggest problem, it seems to me, has to do with the integration of its science and its fiction. The originality of the central conceit, the microbial life and Mars and its relationship to life on Earth, has a biologist-specialist edge to it; unsurprising given McAuley's background, but something that gives the science of the book a slightly oblique feel for the more general reader. More than this, the science is disposed into the text as more or less indigestible info-dumps:

You pump carbon dioxide enriched with methane and nitrogen from Sabatier reactors through the soil, and inject cocktails of cyanobacteria, especially capsule-forming species, nitrogen-fixing bacteria and a variety of decomposers. The cyanobacteria would fix carbon dioxide into organic material and release oxygen; the nitrogen-fixers would turn nitrogen gas into biologically useful ammonia and nitrate; the decomposers would begin to cycle organic material. [p.156]

That's how to process Martian soil: interesting, perhaps, but dramatically fell in terms of pacing a novel. Here's the Chi itself:

It injects its genetic material into the cells leaving behind protective protein capsids. At first, it is nonvirulent; its DNA inserts itself into host cell chromosomes and is replicated along with the host genome each time the host cell divides. During this stage of infection, only one of the infective agent's genes is active, producing a repressor protein which inhibits transcription of genes responsible for virulence. But when the host cells are mildly stressed production of the repressor protein halts, and the entire suite of infective agent genes is transcribed independently of the host cell's genome, making so many millions of copies of DNA and protein capsids that at last the host cell bursts open. [p.263]

What makes this kind of textbookese stand out so awkwardly is the fact that, in other parts of the book, McAuley's writing is so effortlessly superb. There are passages in The Secret of Life, and many of them, the match of any novel I've read in many years, SF or otherwise. Here, in only one example, is Mariella and a friend on the run and staying in a cheap Mexican motel.

They spend the night in a Motel Six at the edge of Monterrey. The parking spaces are full of battered Japanese pickups and American jeeps and 4x4s. People come and go at all hours. Headlights stroke the cheap curtains of the room, turning the weave into a translucent grid. It is very hot. A dog barks monotonously, as if barking is the only idea it has left. Mariella lies awake, fragments of the day replaying in her head, while Ellen Esterhauzy snores beside her on the double bed like a ship steadily making its way towards morning. [p.316]

I'd give my left arm to be able to write so well: the barking dog, and the use of the word 'stroke', are genius. More of this, and less of the protective protein capsids, and the novel would have been untouchable.

McAuley is the only person on this year's shortlist already to have bagged a Clarke. It's difficult to say whether The Secret of Life will win him another one. I happen to hold the rather heretical view that, after Fairyland, his Confluence sequence is his major work; but the far-future Gene Wolfe/Jack Vance sweep of that trilogy, its strangeness and unabashed SFness presumably put off the Clarke nominating panel, a panel which seems to be (certainly on the evidence of this year's list) happier with near-future, techno- mystery- or crime-thriller, and pseudo-mainstream fiction. If McAuley were to win, perhaps it would be the syndrome seen often in literary prizes, where a lesser work is given the award in belated tribute to an earlier, greater work that was overlooked.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Pashazade, like McAuley's book and Gwyneth Jones's too, has also been shortlisted for the BSFA award. cover scan - PashazadeA pashazade is the son of a pasha, an Arabic nobleman who is (in Courtenay Grimwood's detailed alternate-history Egypt) effectively above the law. Pashazade is situated in a timeline in which Germany and the Ottoman Empire won the first world war, and Alexandria, or El Iskandryia, is one of the world's key cities. ZeeZee, a young white American with a criminal history and a cyber-enhancement in his head, doesn't realise he's a Pashazade until his twenties. It's an inheritance he owes to his mother's exotic sexual history, and ZeeZee arrives in El Iskandryia as Ashraf Bey, to the promise of a wealthy marriage and the affluent life as one of the city's elite. Of course things don't run smoothly; ZeeZee/Ahraf's aunt is found dead with a pen stuck through her heart (murder or suicide?) and the plot moves us, with gathering speed, through the labyrinths of city and family politics, past violent confrontation and the openings of skeleton-crammed closets on all sides.

The Courtenay Grimwood trademarks are all here: the ultra-violence that explodes from nowhere and disappears again as quickly leaving the reader with her heart thudding and a queasy feeling in her stomach; suave characters and sexy interaction; and above all an expertly delivered mood, an ability to evoke a particular atmosphere. But there's something new to Grimwood in Pashazade: a perfectly tooled Chandleresque or Dashell-Hammett plotline that keeps you reading. The writing is flawless as ever, never over-wrought, not too reliant on dialogue or flat exposition, well paced and well formed. We've seen the component parts of this book before, of course, in many different places, but Grimwood puts them together in a unique way.

What's especially nice, in a cyberpunk mutation such as this, is the prominence of female characters. Apart from the title feller, all four main figures in the narrative are women, and their resourcefulness (or deviousness), their strength (or their cunning, depending) are thrown into excellent relief by the vivid sense of official misogyny, of the restrictions of traditional Islamic and Arabic notions of female modesty and limitation. Grimwood is confident, too, in handling the influence of his ur-text, Neuromancer--so, where Gibson's sky, famously, was the colour of TV tuned to a dead channel, Grimwood's intensifies colour and vividness:

The sea was wine-dark, the sky a blue so impossible that, even through shades, it looked as if some unseen hand had ditched the preset and started messing with both saturation and brightness. [p.251]

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the reference to Homer (for mythic depth), the brilliant sunshine, the notion of things being 'messed with' (central to Grimwood), and, of course, the Shades. Where would a Jon Courtenay Grimwood novel be without Shades?

Pashazade is not, whatever the publishers say on the cover-blurb, an SF version of Durell's Alexandria quartet--it's better written than that, more controlled and more focussed, and although the sense of the city's duality is sometimes over-cued ('she loved El Iskandryia, its uncertainties and contradictions. Its outward self-assurances and inner darkness' etc.) the flavour of the book, its smell and taste, is richly evocative. Possibly the central murder whodunit, although smartly developed, is too one-dimensional to carry the weight of significance that the book as a whole requires: the novel wants to be about cultural permanence and cultural change, about east and west, the old fashioned and the newest technology, but it never quite picks its feet up swiftly enough to carry such freight. The body-count reaches, by the novel's end, Jacobean-Tragedy proportions, and there is a consequent diluting in emotional impact. But this is the first book in a projected trilogy, so perhaps judgments like these are premature.

Connie Willis's absorbing novel Passage draws together cover scan - Passagemodern hospital 'near death experiences' with the mythic intensity of the sinking of the Titanic. The book's protagonist, Joanna Lander, is a psychologist investigating the testimonies of those who have returned from near-death experiences, and trying to keep her research rigorously scientific whilst working alongside another researcher, a noisome religious-nutter called Mandrake, who is convinced that 'NDE's (as they are called) are spiritual rather than physical. Lander joins forces with a young neurologist, Richard Wright, who is convinced that NDEs are simply the side-effects of the brain shutting down as it dies, and who has found a way of reproducing them harmlessly using psychoactive drugs.

Lander becomes one of his experimental subjects, and experiences an NDE for herself: moving along a tunnel towards a bright light where figures in white are waiting for her. But with repeated experiences she comes to realise that she is not ascending towards heaven, but coming out of a passage-way onto the deck of the RMS Titanic shortly after it struck the iceberg. The way Willis links together these (we might assume) radically disparate premises is marvellous: never strained, never implausible, always on the proper side of realistic. The details on NDEs themselves are extremely interesting; the account of Lander's spectral explorations of the vividly realised Titanic are genuinely spooky.

In the way that some crime books are 'police procedurals', this novel is a 'science procedural', the science in this case being that of investigative medical research. The hospital mileu is convincingly drawn, and some of the characters are brilliant (especially a sparky, catastrophe-obsessed little girl with a degenerative heart condition called Maisie), although some veer closer to the two-dimensional. As a novel it is, at 600-pages, probably a little over-long; we realise early on that Lander will take Wright's drugs and experience an NDE, but it's 150 pages before she goes under and nearly 200 before she recognises that she is visiting the Titanic. The book is almost entirely constructed of dialogue, with little description or exposition, to the point where it rather mimics the atmosphere of a film or TV mini-series.

But then again, the length works, because it enables Willis to draw the tension properly out; will Lander get to the bottom of the significance of NDEs? Why does she see the Titanic? Will Maisie die? More than this, a large part of the book deals evocatively with 'not quite being able to put your finger on something', on that sort of half-memory that just refuses to come into focus, on that word that just refuses to leave the tip of your tongue (a condition which is, the novel explains, a particular temporal lobe phenomenon). Willis's leisurely, discursive manner is perfect for this, working to postpone the answer with an assured touch, enhancing the suspense as the reader eagerly presses on.

Casting the book in dialogue form works, too, in a way--I like the idea of the novel's own narrative being based on the fundamentally narrative idiom of the Near Death Experience: NDEs of course are essentially people telling the story of their NDE, and Willis's book is telling the story of these people telling their stories. Willis cleverly builds her book around a series of embedded narratives told by the core characters, some revealing others carrying buried significance, some reliable others mendacious or fanciful. This in turn reflects interestingly upon the central concern of the book, the questions of 'truthfulness' and 'reliability' of NDEs, and the way people's recollections of NDEs follow the conventions of the genre (she identifies ten conventions in most NDE accounts, from the tunnel and the light to an angel and a Life Review) just as literature does, just as all storytelling does. You quickly give up wondering 'do NDEs mean there is life after death?' as the dullards do, and start to think about the part the stories we tell others and ourselves play in our apprehension of anxiety, fear, bereavement and death.

But does Willis's novel deserve the Clarke? A difficult call. Apart from the fact that Willis's title opens herself to all manner of ribald chuckling in the Reviewers' Old-Boys Home ('Connie Willis's Passage is first-rate ... metaphorically speaking, the sun shines out of Connie Willis's Passage' and so on) there is the greater objection that her novel, though brilliant, is simply not Science Fiction. Of course Willis is an enormously respected SF writer, but SF writers are under no general obligation to remain faithful to the genre and often write other sorts of book. Passage lacks a single SF feature, unless NDEs themselves, or the scientific exploration of NDEs, are taken to be SF, which I don't think is a tenable position to argue. I don't mean to pick nits here: it in no way detracts from Willis's excellent book that it isn't SF--many brilliant books aren't SF--and for sheer reader-engagement and thoughtful depth Willis's novel is the match of any on the shortlist. But with so much actual SF published, and so much good SF in competition for a place on this prestigious award, it seems somehow unfair to grant a book of this nature shortlist space.

Both of Justina Robson's novels have now been shortlisted for the Clarke, and the odds are not at all bad on her winning this year. Mappa Mundi is a significant advance on her first cover scan - Mappa Mundibook Silver Screen--and that was an excellent novel. The book is a near-future thriller, conspiracy and chase, but of remarkable sophistication of characterisation, smoothly and elegantly written throughout and extremely thought-provoking. Like Passage it is on the 'now' side of the SF envelope, so much so that it might even be taken as straight techno-thriller: the book's palmtop computing and brain-mapping technology is with us now, and only the nanotechnology capable of tweaking neurones and, potentially, controlling human consciousness functions as an actual SF novum. But it has a surer place on the Clarke shortlist than Connie Willis's book, because it brings the dystopian future over which the characters are fighting into immediate focus: the book does not inhabit, but it conjures vividly, a world in which human mood, happiness, consciousness, even bedrock subjectivity could be manipulated at the flick of a switch.

What raises the book out of its genre groove is the intelligent confidence with which Robson handles theme and character. We are given the intriguing speculations on how far technology could go, and an X-Files plot in which half-Cheyenne FBI agent Jude Westhorpe's investigations are being covertly foiled by his partner, Mary Delaney, and these keep the reader hooked. But a much more challenging book is lurking in the interstices of this (by the conclusion) tartly bitter thriller plotline.

Robson is interested in subjectivity, in that philosophically fundamental question of what makes us what we are, of what determines our consciousness and sense-of-self. Dramatising this debate in techno-thriller terms, through the premise of a mcguffin that can manipulate our subjectivity for the benefit of somebody else, is a brilliant way of vitalising this issue. The book sets out its stall cleverly: beginning with six 'legends', in which six key episodes from the childhood of six key characters are sketched with efficient vividness. The point is to suggest the ways our subjectivity is already mapped, already a sort of prison. Turning the rest of the story into narrative is also apropos; as one character puts it, subjectivity is largely narrative itself: 'the past and the future exist only in our minds ... the past and the imagination and the future, fusing identity out of experience and fantasy. Every one of us a unique product, constantly evolving along a narrative storyline that chooses us as we choose it, without knowing' [p.143]. Indeed, we might imagine that a machine that can mould and alter people's consciousness is actually a version of the author-position; this is what Robson, or any writer, does. It is Robson's own subjectivity-as-writer becomes externalised in her MappaWare: all very clever indeed.

The successful execution of a premise such as this is going to depend upon the subtlety and range the writer can bring to bear on his or her representation of subjectivity. The most obvious manifestation of this is characterisation, and this is an area in which Robson scores in a major way. Her heroine the psychologist Natalie Armstrong (although the book has several points of character focus) is likeable and well-drawn. Robson manages to make Armstrong psychologically flawed, even slightly unbalanced, without making her annoyingly kooky. The villain of the piece, Mary, is similarly complex: not a cardboard baddie, but a complex human being.

Other characters are perhaps less thoroughly realised. I could see why Robson brought in Mikhail Guskov, a shadowy Eastern European bad-guy who slips through multiple identities as easily as somebody else might change shirts--he represents the other extreme of subjectivity, somebody who's identity is almost entirely relative--but he seemed a little cardboard, a little Bond villain to me. Similarly I never quite warmed to the hero-hunk Jude, though there are passages of extremely good writing associated with him. Perhaps the book is a little too long, and the street-level mileu is rendered in a more believable way than the 'high level' governmental environment. I also thought the more exciting philosophical issues were sometimes a little swamped by the bombs-on-planes, people-vanishing-before-your-very-eyes twists. But all in all this is an excellent novel; if it wins the prize, as I tend to think it will, the victory will be well deserved.

Peter Hamilton, who bestrode the 1990s Brit-Sf scene like a Rutland Colossus, had, oddly, never before been nominated for a cover scan - Fallen DragonClarke; but the Luciferian-titled Fallen Dragon has finally done the business for him. Like the Night's Dawn trilogy that made his name, this is another big, bouncy space-opera tome with a broad cast of characters and a large sweep that never loses sight of the smaller details. It is a tale of the military occupation of a distant planet and covert resistance by the native population. What makes it cleverer than a Nazis-in-France-in-Space retread is the way Hamilton balances sympathies. His corporate Z-B starship troopers are servicing a vile policy of barely-legal piracy--unable to recover their large investments in interstellar settlement through normal trade, Corporations in Hamilton's universe fly their private armies out to settled planets and raid them every ten years or so, a process called 'asset realisation'. The native populations resent this enormously, as you'd expect, but the beSuited soldiers, with their techno-enhancements, are not to be trifled with.

Hamilton's soldiers, though, are sympathetically drawn, in all their macho-limited humanity, such that the reader can never simply pigeonhole them as the Baddies. The natives of the planet Thallspring start from the more likeable position of being a benign, peace-loving population of affluent liberals; but as the story develops their underground resistance movement reveals itself to be stranger than we expected, as the plot moves towards the revelation of alien life indicated by the book's title. The effect is to wrongfoot the reader, leading her sympathies towards military and civilians in turn, and producing a book of greater complexity and depth. Hamilton's plain, effective prose and the sheer accumulation of detail across the 630 pages create an involving and satisfying whole.

Aspects of the novel work less well, I think. The central character's backstory for instance: Lawrence Newton falls in love with the beautiful Roselyn when they were both teenagers, and under her influence he becomes an A-student at school. Then he discovers that his father has paid the girl to have sex with his son and keep him in school, to stop him from running off to join the ranks of starship pilots and explorers. In his disappointment and anger Newton leaves home and joins the army. It's a perfectly readable piece of plotting, but its Harold Robbins flavour jarred, for me, with the rest of the book.

Similarly the deliberate injection of a studied Englishness of tone (which is something many of his fans particularly like about his work, I know) struck me here as a little forced: characters with names like Colin, Roderick and James saying 'bloody hell' and 'bugger off' and drinking tea, or at least drinking hot water with tea-cubes in it. But in many ways I thought this book worked even better than Night's Dawn; the James Herbert 'evil dead attacking the living' component has been replaced with a totally believable rendering of interstellar colonisation and trade, and a nice angle on the alien superbeing trope.

A much more nuanced sense of what it means to be 'English' is found in Gwyneth Jones's Bold as Love. In the near future the UK is cover scan - Bold as Lovebreaking up into Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English components; the Counterculture--green activists, hippies, drop-outs, musicians and the like--are now a considerable political presence, and the government enlists a Countercultural thinktank, a political platform from which a rockstar called Pigsty seizes power in a bloody putsch. With various aspects of society fraying at the end, Yorkshire threatening to succeed as an independent Islamic state, refugees flooding the nation, a devastating computer network crash, a new political establishment comes to power--guitarist Ax Preston becomes defacto President of England, with techno-wizard Sage Pender as his right-hand man and his girlfriend Fiorinda, a singer-songwriter, as a sort of latterday Gloriana.

It sounds, perhaps, politically implausible, but Jones maintains an effortless thorough-going atmosphere of real-life throughout. Indeed one of her major achievements in this fine novel is the way she captures the messiness of actual politics, and actual life, without ever becoming aesthetically messy. Jones is a marvel as a writer: her control, her technical skill and her sheer imaginative energy and wisdom are evidenced on every page. The deep connection she makes between politics on the one hand and music (with its enormous power to move and give coherence to people's lives) on the other is extremely fertile. Anyone who watched, for example, Queen's turn at LiveAid and noted the Neuremberg Rally quality of the occasion, the crowd clapping and heiling in perfect time to We Will Rock You, will recognise this. As the novel goes on it becomes, just, believable that a government of drugged-up musos could hold the country together with tours of free concerts backed up by guns and TV interviews.

But the book isn't really about politics: it is about Englishness, and it joins a select band of books that explores exactly what has happened to that complex, troubled cultural identity over the twentieth century. Indeed it's odd to think how few novels have tackled this enormous topic with any success: a few books by Le Carre (The Honourable Schoolboy above all, perhaps), Fowles's Daniel Martin, Zadie Smith's deeply flawed White Teeth. Gwyneth Jones succeeds brilliantly where each of these writers has stumbled. She absolutely captures the nexus of characteristics that determines contemporary Englishness: land (both landscape and ecological commitment), humour, music, diversity and violence. Above all it is a stroke of genius to link the whole thing with Rock, because since the 60s a tradition of English music has done much more than Literature to explore what Englishness is: the Beatles, Pink Floyd, punk, the Jam, the Smiths, Britpop. Jones is able to tap into that artistically vigorous tradition.

Above all Jones manages to overlay her plotline with mythic significance in an unobtrusive but powerful way, because in each case the skeins of myth articulate various aspects of Englishness: Ax leading his army across battlefields in Yorkshire has parallels with Cromwell in the Civil War; Fiorindia quotes Elizabeth I before a festival crowd, because the influx of boat-people refugees is a new armada; and most important of all, the whole book functions as an elegant refashioning of Arthurian myth, that body of story so central to English identity. With Ax as Arthur, Fiorinda as Giunevere and Sage as Lancelot, we can assume that the subsequent books in Jones's series will follow a tragic trajectory.

The book is not without problems. The most basic one is ungetaroundable for a project such as Jones's: the book constitutes writing about music, which is, as the bon mot has it, like dancing about architecture. Added to this is the libel/copyright problem, which means that apart from occasional references to the Grateful Dead or John Lennon almost all the music, all the bands and singers, all the famous songs and lyrics that whip audiences to frenzy have been made up by Jones herself. The reader accordingly lacks the musical correlative, which can empty out the affect from certain scenes; real songs would have brought their ghostly real selves to the reading experience. Imaginary songs can't, clearly, do this.

I also got the sense, reading the book, that although Jones clearly has a wide-ranging musical knowledge, Bold As Love is largely generation-specific--that, in other words, the book is less 'a Near Future Fantasy' as the subtitle announces, and more an alternate 1960s. Surely it was the 60s when rock was politically engaged, when rock musicians and fans were radicalised, when people genuinely believed they could build Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land. Jones's characters smoke weed and drink like 60s people, they admire musicianship, they fuck, they care like 60s people: they don't take ecstasy and dancedancedance in a depoliticised postmodern delirium emptied-out of social meaning like 90s/00s people. And although Sage and Aoxomoxoa are, we are often told, techno-hardline cuttingedge musicians (in contrast to Ax's old fashioned guitar-virtuoso style), they are nonetheless named for a Grateful Dead album, and the music playing in my head as I read was an endless Dead jam, not a bashing-tranceout thrash. Perhaps that's my problem; and arguably there's nothing wrong with writing a sort-of alternate 60s into your near Future Fantasy if that's what you want to do.

A more worrying problem has to do with the novel's construction. It's so dense with detail that it's easy to lose track of this or that minor plot-strand, and the characters beyond the central trio tend to be indistinguishable. This makes the book the hardest to read of the shortlist--but don't under any circumstances let this put you off. Persevere: because despite these niggles Jones has achieved something profound, something great, with this book: a hard look at what it means to be 'English' in this prismatic day and age, a challenging but gorgeous parade of marvels and terrors.

So who should win?

This is, in several ways, a difficult question to address. We can break it down into two parts: first, who is likely to win? And second, which book is, taking all considerations into account, the best? It so happened that these two questions had the same answer in 2001, but it is not always thus in the tradition of the Clarkes. What can be said in 02 is that neither of these questions admits of straightforward answer. When it comes to the first, the buzz throws up several titles as possible winners: maybe the fact that Pashazade is Grimwood's best book yet will win him the prize; maybe Robson's very well received novel will take the prize; perhaps Willis's excellently crafted book will win, as literate American novels often do when they appear on the Clarke shortlist (I've heard people on 'the scene' energetically champion all three titles as the inevitable winner).

It would be no injustice for any of these three to triumph, but there are surely other considerations. Hamilton's book, for instance, is the book most in the spirit of Arthur C Clarke, and the only one of the six titles wholeheartedly to inhabit the wonderful, mind-expanding (or if you don't like them, adolescent) logics of the SF genre, instead of hugging the shore of 'mainstream' fiction with near-near-future, could-be-mistaken-for-a-real-novel, squint-and-you'd-never-know-its-sf, "look-ma-I'm-a-technothriller" manners.

But, taking everything into account, the two best-written, best-made books on this list are McAuley's and Jones's; and although it is probably unlikely that either will take the Clarke, one of these two novels should be the winner. Neither is entirely without flaw, but both have long stretches which made this reviewer (for one) sit slack-jawed in humble astonishment at the brilliance of the writing, the ideas, the characterisation, the form, the pattern, the whole glorious aesthetic form-content shebang. Jones's is a more completely excellent work than McAuley's, but The Secret of Life has the advantage of being a complete novel, where Jones labours under the fact that her book is only a fragment of a larger whole. McAuley's is also unambiguously Science Fiction, appropriately for the Clarke, where Jones's is, despite occasional sf gestures (a machine for generating power from cellular mitochondria, for instance) Fantasy. If I had to plump for one, I'd probably say that Jones just about pushes its nose ahead, but that may be because I happen to be more interested in the resonances of Englishness today than in microbiology, but it's hard to slip even something as slim as a cheque for #163;#163;#163;2002 between the two of them.

Addendum (19 May 2002): Who won?

At last night's awards ceremony, held in the Science Museum, London, the winner of the 2002 Arthur C Clarke Award for best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2001 was announced as:

cover scan - Bold as Love

Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
(Victor Gollancz, £10.99, 308 pages, trade paperback, 30 August 2001, ISBN: 0553583743; hardback also available, £16.99; ISBN: 0575070315. Mass market paperback: Gollancz, £5.99, 403 pages, May 2002.)

Elsewhere on this site we have: the short story, Bold as Love, which was first published in Paul McAuley and Kim Newman's anthology In Dreams (Gollancz 1992), and has been developed into the award-winning novel; and Two Thousand Words, the author's factual account of the night in Brighton that inspired the story "Bold as Love".

Review by Adam Roberts.

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© Adam Roberts 2 March 2002; updated 19 May 2002