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the shortlist

The Arthur C Clarke Shortlist 2003

a review feature by Adam Roberts

Links within this feature:

  • Introduction
  • Kil'n People by David Brin
    (US edition: Tor, US$26, 461 pages, hardback, February 2002; ISBN: 0675303558. UK edition: Orbit, £10.99, 502 pages, trade paperback, 2 May 2002; ISBN: 1841491381.)
  • Light by M John Harrison
    (Gollancz, £17.99, 335 pages, hardback, October 2002; ISBN 0575070250; trade paperback, £10.99, ISBN 057507026.)
  • The Scar by China Miéville
    (Macmillan £17.99, 604 pages, hardback, 2002; ISBN 033378174.)
  • The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
    (UK edition: Orbit, £6.99, 424 pages, paperback, 2002; ISBN 1841491411. US edition: Ballantine Del Rey, $23.95, 340 pages, hardcover, January 2003; ISBN: 0345447557.)
  • The Separation by Christopher Priest
    (Scribner/Simon and Schuster, £10.99, paperback, 464 pages, 2002; ISBN 0743220331)
  • The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
    (HarperCollins Voyager, £16.99, hardback, 724 pages, March 2002; ISBN: 0002246791. HarperCollins, £7.99, paperback, 772 pages, February 2003, ISBN 0006511481.)
  • Who should win?
  • addition, 18 May 2003: Who won?

This is the strongest Clarke shortlist there has been in a long time. It's true to say that literary prizes often position a couple of front-runners alongside other books that are obvious also-rans; but the six books up for British SF's most prestigious award in 2003 are all of them extraordinary works of fiction. I do not envy the judges their decision-making on this one. The upside, for fans, is the very positive message it sends out for the continuing vitality of our genre. It seems clearer with each year that we are passing through some sort of golden age of SF. Just mentioning the books that didn't make the shortlist, books of the very highest calibre, makes that plain: Richard Morgan's astounding debut Altered Carbon (Gollancz), Greg Egan's absorbing Schild's Ladder (Gollancz), Jon Courtenay Grimwood's sharp and atmospheric Effendi (Earthlight) and Steve Baxter's richest, best book for a long time, Evolution (Gollancz) are probably the four that come first to mind. But, with no disrespect to those authors, it is surely the case that the six titles listed are simply so good that other contenders have been legitimately squeezed out. This list omits no John Clute's Appleseed, no book that really should have been on the list but wasn't. This is a class A shortlist.

It is also admirably and agreeably varied. David Brin's Kil'n People is unlike any of the other books on the list: a kinetic, brightly coloured future thriller that blends Kil'n People by David Brinin a degree of metaphysical speculation without ever losing sight of its primary mission to entertain. In Brin's future world, mankind has discovered the ability to copy their consciousnesses into golems, man-shaped machines made of technologically tweaked clay. These golems live for a day before they begin to break down, during which time they can get up to all sorts of things and experience all manner of experiences. The original people can then download, as it were, the day's memories of these golems -- or not, if they prefer (if for instance the golem has had a particularly unpleasant time). Given Brin's premise that this technology is easy and cheap -- although we might expect it to be difficult and expensive -- society becomes reconfigured in very interesting ways. The laborious work is now done by golems, 'dittos' as they are called, freeing actual humanity to live a dole-supported life. Those few people with unique skills still work, the rest amuse themselves in whatever ways they please -- designing outlandish housing suburbs, fighting elaborate 'wars' with golems rather than people and so on.

Golem technology grades different levels of product with different colours: a green golem is a fairly basic creature, one you might copy yourself into and then leave to do the shopping and mow the lawn. Grey and black dittos have greater powers of intellectual concentration. Dittos may be modified for strength, stamina, appearance. Although each golem contains a human consciousness, with all its original's memories up to the point of download, it remains a piece of property, and can be damaged and even killed without fear of criminal prosecution. Although such destruction usually involves the perpetrator in a civil fine, many people are happy to pay this.

It is an intriguing scenario, once the premise is accepted, and Brin explores many facets of it. I particularly liked the ditto-eye-perspective on things: alive for only a day, a ditto's best chance at surviving their destruction is to make it back to their maker and reload their memories into a living brain, a consummation they describe as 'afterlife'. Nevertheless, they seem to accept their fate stoically if this is denied to them, collapsing into a pile of slurry after their brief existence.

The novel's protagonist Albert Morris works as a private eye, downloading himself into multiple dittos to investigate several aspects of his cases simultaneously. He begins the novel on the trail of a mysterious criminal mastermind called only 'beta', and the neo-Chandleresque plot works satisfactorily through its many convolutions, taking us through a series of exciting chases, life-in-peril scenarios, towards the solution of the larger mystery.

In a rather winning afterword, Brin acknowledges that, technically speaking, 'Kil'n People is one of the more challenging work I've taken on', and this is a fact that tells in the reading. Whilst the prose is unfussy, sometimes rather grey and functional, the narrative is much more experimental, divided complexly between multiple narrators who are all also the same person. We get Morris's real self, two of his grey golems and one of his greens, all exploring different aspects of the storyline. The point-of-view chops rapidly between these multiple points of view, and it is possible for the reader to lose track of exactly which narrative line she's jumping into; although it has to be said that by and large Brin handles this sprawling and potentially baffling structure with considerable aplomb. He builds much tension and many climaxes into his twisty plot, and once the reader has absorbed the initial oddity of the switching viewpoints it becomes very hard to put the book down.

This is also a consistently and colourfully inventive book. I warmed to the comic-book brightness of the imagined world, with its artificial dinosaur public buses, its golem-acted real-life soap operas, its various ingenious toys and tricks. The rather facetious chapter titles were less appealing; and personally I prefer the American book-title (the straightforward 'Kiln People', with its reference to the kilns out of which the golems are baked) to the tricksy British 'Kil'n People' with its lurching pun on 'killing people'.

Entertaining as this concoction is, it also conveys a more serious point. Although Brin is never heavy-handed about it, his hyper-postmodern world of multiple disposable copies of human beings contains within it a Baudrillardian commentary upon our own world. In important ways, Brin dramatises a world where the simulacrum has taken precedence over the real, and in which the real has accordingly waned. Occasional references tie this vision to the textual history of SF -- Metropolis and Frankenstein are the two works to which allusion is most consistently made -- but the brutality as well as the colour and vigour of Brin's universe work well as a hypertrophied caricature of contemporary capitalism rather than as an abstruse literary thought-experiment. Accordingly the form Brin has chosen is absolutely the right one: the fast-paced, crude energy of pulp fiction matches form to subject in a way that the attenuated longeurs of philosophical fiction would not have done. We recognise that the often 2-D lineaments of Brin's characters -- the resourceful and handsome hero, the eccentric sidekick, the mysterious and beautiful femme fatale, the mad scientist -- are not botched attempts at characterisation, but necessary adjuncts of the popular-cultural medium of the book as a whole.

Having said this, there are some problems. The book is, I think, too long: a Chandleresque 200 pages would have suited the snappy Chandleresque prose, pace and idiom rather than the sprawling 500 we actually have. There are too many climaxes, weakening the big kick that Brin reserves for the conclusion; and although in general Brin handles his complex plot well there are too many places where this reader (for one) found himself rather lost in a welter of detail. Some of the specifics of golem life seemed to me a little forced, a little mcguffinish -- the twenty-four-hour limit on golem life, for instance; or the fact that golem memories could be downloaded back into the original mind but not into other people's minds (I wondered: why not?).

The biggest problem I had with the novel arose, however, from precisely this premise; or to be more specific, arose from Brin's wholly creditable desire to make more of premise than just a throwaway SF 'what-if?' I felt that as the book went on it slipped into pseudo-mystical and rather unsatisfactory territory. Despite the care with which Brin articulates 'the thing that is transferred from person to golem' in terms of 'standing waves of consciousness' and 'phase-synchronizing of the pseudo-quantum', the suspicion grows on the reader as she reads further into the novel that in fact it is simply that old religious fallback, 'the soul'. Without giving away spoilers, the book's conclusion reinforces this notion, that human beings are this sort of Cartesian double-act, soul-inside-body.

This doesn't really work, or at least I didn't think it did. I'd suggest that nobody who has read Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained (1991) -- or any of Dennett's writings on the subject -- can ever again think fuzzily of consciousness as a pearl-like soul, a little homunculus sitting behind our eyes and pulling our levers, like the tiny alien inside the tall guy's skull in Men In Black. Consciousness, as Dennett shows, not only can't be separated from the body (even as a 'standing wave'), it is much gappier and sparser than people think it is. I can imagine readers of Brin's highly entertaining novel for whom this is not a problem; indeed, I can imagine readers for whom it is a positive benefit. But it got in the way of enjoyment for me.

M John Harrison's Light is a book that, surely, needs no introduction. It has been Light by M John Harrisonthe major event of the SF publishing year, richly and deservedly praised almost everywhere. Harrison has for years enjoyed the reputation of one of Britain's finest postwar writers of SF, although the work often taken as most successfully characteristic of his genius -- the Viroconium stories -- is more properly a type of fantasy. Light, his first SF novel in many years raised high expectations, and those expectations have not been disappointed.

I reviewed the novel on infinity plus when it was published, and rather than simply repeat myself I refer interested readers to that review. Summing up what I said: I was enormously impressed by the many brilliances of Light, although I had certain reservations. I praised Harrison's extraordinary control and range of prose style, his poetic and brilliant powers of description, and the depth and originality of the book's imaginative vision. I also admired the novel's construction, particularly in the latter stages. I suggested, though, that it is an ugly book, although I did not intend the phrase in a pejorative sense ('ugly in the sense that some of Picasso's most striking pictures are ugly, and to similar aesthetic effect'); and added that the brilliance with which its vision is captured only underlines a sort of cruelty in the novel that I, for one, found wearing and difficult, especially when women are so consistently the objects upon whom cruelty is worked out.

I might add a few comments, pendant on the fact that Harrison himself read and, I understand, disliked my review. I heard this information at second hand, not from the author himself, and of course there is always a danger in misrepresenting a person's opinions if one comes to them after any sort of Chinese-whispers. But authors rarely get the chance to rebuke reviewers who have perpetrated what they consider misreadings of their fiction, and accordingly I'd like briefly to mention what was reported to me -- which is that Harrison thought my praise often misapplied (for instance, the mainstream prose stylists with whom I favourably compare him at the review's beginning); that he repudiated the implied charge that this was a misogynistic novel; and that in general he felt I had missed the point of the book. He may of course be right. He spent years writing his book, I spent a week reading and reviewing it, so the balance of time is on his side. But a reviewer can only review a book as he or she reads it. Of course it may have been my personal idiosyncrasies rather than the novel itself that suggested to me, for instance, the whiff of misogyny. Other reviewers have not noted it, which suggests that it may not be there. I'd also be surprised if Harrison cared overmuch what I think or say: a great many people have reviewed this book over the last six months, most of them much more reputable and insightful than I, and the consensus has been almost overwhelmingly that Light is a masterpiece.

But looking at Light a second time I find my opinion largely unchanged, except in some minor regards. If I've missed the point of the novel then I've now missed it twice and I must be particularly dense. I exhort you to buy and read the book for yourself to see what you think. On re-reading it still dazzled and astonished me. It is undeniably an absolutely extraordinary achievement. For one thing it is like nothing else I have ever read, which is itself worth a great deal in a genre like SF where so much writing is derivative and 'school-of-so-and-so'. On a second reading the sense that women are disproportionately the target of violence did not strike me as strongly as it had done the first time: this is after all a book in which many people, of both genders, suffer a great deal. Maybe it is lily-livered of me to wince at all this cruelty. On the other hand I was a little less enamoured of the larger construction of the book than I was on a first reading. There seemed to me a certain intermittency about the more epiphanically powerful sections that revealed traces of the book's provenance, the several short stories that Harrison published over several years as forms of work-in-progress of the novel. It is not that the novel has dips in its quality -- it doesn't. But that there is a pull towards disintegration, on the level of plot and story as well as in the particular fabric of the prose, that characterises the entire novel. And this seemed to me one of the points of the book. Even its flaws (or those aspects I might regard as flaws) work towards its overall thematic. This is a book 'about' the flaws of human existence: flaws in the sense both of the myriad failings, and as the flecks that render otherwise monolithic mater aesthetically more interesting, like the tiny spars of colour in the iris of an eye. At the book's beginning Kearney, having murdered a woman, steps out into a rainy night in a northern English town and thinks he sees 'movement in the orange streetlight. Rain, sleet and snow all seemed to be falling at once. In the mix, he thought he saw dozens of small motes of light. Sparks, he thought. Sparks in everything' [3]. This sort of chilling, beautiful poetry runs through the whole novel. The SF idiom of quantum uncertainty provides one fluent language in which to express this insight; the New Wave-y dramatis personae of flawed characters provides another. But it is Harrison's control of English prose that most precisely captures this theme. This is a major work of contemporary literature, a major work of science fiction.

China Miéville's highly praised second novel, Perdido Street Station, won the Clarke Award in 2001. His third novel, The Scar, set in the same imagined universe, has been eagerly anticipated, and does not disappoint. Where Perdido confined itself largely to the sprawling pseudo-London of The Scar by China MievilleNew Crobuzon, The Scar ranges far and wide, a positively Homeric odyssey over more seas and oceans than I could count.

The main character, Bellis Coldwine -- a talented translator and, as her Dickensian name suggests, rather chilly woman -- has taken passage on an ocean-going liner, fleeing something in New Crobuzon, and intending to make a new life in colonies on the other side of the water, at least for a while. Also aboard the crowded ship is a consignment of slaves -- criminals and undesirables -- intended as a workforce for the colony. But the ship is intercepted by pirates, captured and made part of the Armada, a vast conglomeration of ships and water-borne craft several miles wide. The slaves are freed, and Coldwine finds work in a library in what is, in effect, a floating city of pirates, revolutionaries, human flotsam and visionaries.

The same thrilling diversity of character and species throngs the Armada as thronged Perdido's New Crobuzon: humans, vampiri, cactus people, men who have been 'remade' or surgically altered to become amphibious, and many others. The city is ruled by the Lovers, a man and a woman otherwise unnamed, who have both inflicted a multiple scars on themselves, each one's wounds a mirror image of the other's. Their right hand man is the mysterious swordsman Uther Doul, a sort of Elric-with-pigmentation, unbeatable in battle, sphinx-like the rest of the time. As the narrative progresses it is revealed that the Lovers have hubridistic plans for the Armada, first the capture of a great sea beast, and afterwards a quest to something profoundly dangerous, the physical wound in reality of the book's title.

Miéville's great talent is his imagination: it is an imagination like none other writing today, astoundingly fertile, sprawling, reckless, vulgar, brilliant. He has taken a great slew of influence, from Homer and Conrad to Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, from Lovecraft and Moorcock to M John Harrison and Emma Tennant's The Crack -- and melded it all into a perfectly distinctive voice of his own. At one point in this novel I found myself reminded of the Yellow Submarine movie, whilst also thinking that even this intertext could not simply be dismissed as irrelevant. Everything contributes to the whole. Just as the hugely diverse population of the floating pirate city forge something strong and new from their variances, Miéville works his myriad references into something rich and strange.

In its governing image of the scar, scar tissue and the wound to which it refers, Miéville has lighted on an eloquent trope. Many things are scarred in The Scar, from individual characters, to ships, monsters and even reality itself. 'Scars,' one character concludes, 'are memory': they link us to the pain of our past, but they can also be decorative. They have a certain fascination; harm inflicted by others, harm we inflict on ourselves, are recorded by the strange characters of scars on the book of our skin. Scars are skin that is neither quite alive nor quite dead, like many of Miéville's own characters.

But perhaps this gives the impression that Miéville's book is merely meditative. Far from it. The latter half of the novel has a tremendous tug to it, as we read hurriedly on to uncover the mysteries sown through the narrative, and to encounter the strangeness at the end of the quest. It is no small achievement, given the enormous expectations that the book builds, that we do not finish with a sense of anticlimax.

I did, however, think the book too long: it was two hundred pages into it before I found myself really gripped, the first chapters move too slowly -- although, having said that, I concede that a large part of the effectiveness of the book's conclusion depends upon a certain narrative momentum, an accrued weight, which means that it would probably have been a structural mistake to skimp on the earlier passages.

There are some other problems. One (and it may sound like a strange criticism to make) is that the book is almost too polished, too well wrought. A major delight of Perdido Street Station was that novel's very raggedness, its weird and uncanny shape, its sheer peculiarity. The plot, although strung along a compelling central narrative, was jagged and ribbed in strange and inviting ways, liberally supplied with cul de sacs and follies. Many aspects of the imagined world were hinted at, not explained, a tactic which gives the reader potent imaginative elbowroom. In a word the truly distinctive thing about Perdido is its atmosphere: dark, strange and never fully rationalised; and that atmosphere relies upon a certain artistic imprecision, a roughness.

The Scar, on the other hand, fills in too many of its mysteries, ties up too many of its loose ends. In part this is an unavoidable problem. With each new New Crobuzon novel, Miéville must specify more and more of his imagined cosmos; there will be fewer shadows at the corner of things, his vision will become more described and less implied. In this book, for example, I found the external perspective of New Crobuzon as a naval and imperial power shrank the city, imaginatively, so that it became just another late nineteenth-century analogue European city, rather than occupying the almost mythic, archetypal and unaccountable place it did in the earlier novel. Of course, on the other hand, many of Miéville's myriad fans will enjoy this new detail about a world they have come to love.

Another problem is Miéville's prose. This, again, is difficult to criticise: he doesn't write badly, and sometimes writes very well, but his style is uneven and can be distracting. He's too fond of certain words ('congealed' is one). His copious use of swear words is more often wincing than not. Swearing in a novel is fine, of course, but as Philip Larkin once said these are words that have their palettes, their associations and effectiveness, and you need to know how to deploy them, sparingly if you want to shock, copiously if you want them simply to become the texture of everybody's speech, as in the film Scarface (another possible influence on the book, perhaps). Miéville's swearing falls somewhere in the middle. His naming of characters and places, though not altogether bad, is not where his greatest strength lies, and some passages clot the onward flow of the prose:

'It's in High Kettai,' she said, 'but it's not from Gnurr Kett, and it's not old. Krüach Aum is anophelii.'

Silas looked up, aghast. [189]

These terms are all explained in due course, but when we first meet these sentences we don't know what they mean, we have to take Silas's shock on trust, and the effect is one of telling not showing. Sometimes Miéville's exposition is info-dumpish ('"why," I said slowly, "are you telling me this?"', 269). Various and sometimes lengthy passages seem to exist to show off Miéville's prose in poetic and evocative mode, which I found less effective. Once again, this is not where his talent lies. But having said that, it is difficult to pick critically at this or that aspect of the book. Miéville is a major Fantasy writer, and his distinctive excellence lies to a large degree in the unbridled sprawl of his texts, the sheer vigorous melange of it all, powered by his unique imaginative power. If he were to polish off the ragged edges of his prose it might, very well, diminish the whole.

Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark is on the surface a Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moonstraightforward book, telling a simple story. But in fact it is much more than that, a book that draws out of a reviewer words like 'unparalleled' and 'genius'. Its protagonist and main narrator is a man called Lou Arrendale, who works for a near-future company finding patterns in data. He lives by himself, goes fencing on Tuesdays, and nurses an unrequited passion for a woman called Marjorie who also goes to these Tuesday meets. Lou is autistic, and the division of the company for which he works is staffed wholly by autistic people: they have certain work-aids -- a private gym, with trampolines and expensive music systems -- but their particular mental skills mean that they are a highly productive part of the company's work force (what they do, exactly, is not specified in too much detail).

Moon builds her novel around a few carefully chosen premises that create narrative tension. One is that a new manager at Lou's company, the odiously bossy Crenshaw, wants to remove the autistic workers' special privileges, apparently fixated on the idea that they must be treated like everybody else. A second is the question of whether the intensely reserved Lou will ever summon the courage to ask Marjorie out on a date, a plotline spiced up by the jealousy of another member of the fencing group, the non-autistic Don. What makes the novel SF is the third premise. In Moon's near future Autism is a curable condition when diagnosed in the young: Lou and his fellow autistics represent the last generation of autistic adults, just too old to have benefited from the new treatments. They are offered the chance of an experimental procedure that will cure their autism. Should they take this and become 'normal', even at the risk that who they are will be radically changed? Should they resist the pressure to conform, and take pride in their difference, their limitations as well as their strengths?

This plotting is well done: nicely paced, involving, compelling. On reflection, I had the sense -- not an unpleasant sense, I should add -- of having been emotionally manipulated by the author, rather in the way that I feel when I read Dickens. Lou is so talented and likeable a man; Crenshaw such an irritating and stupid boss. Crenshaw's irrational victimisation of his autistic underlings, and Don's irrational jealousy, can only be read one way. We cannot help but sympathise and even identify with Lou (I wonder how the book might have been if Crenshaw for instance had been humanised, less a melodrama villain). But the experience of reading the book was not one of an unfair hand on the readerly steering wheel. We, as readers, enter completely into the world presented to us. It moves us, excites us, alarms us. It would be possible to imagine a novel in which there is more of a grey area between the good guys and the bad guys, but that is clearly not the novel Moon wanted to write.

Indeed, the genius of Moon's novel is not in this storyline, compelling though it is. It is in Lou's characterisation, and above all in the first-person narration with which his character is brought to life. This is a quite superb fictional achievement. Moon has an autistic son, and therefore has first-hand (or, I suppose, second-hand experience) of how an autistic consciousness functions; but even given her lived intimacy with the topic her recreation of what an autistic consciousness might be like from the inside is simply breathtaking. This is autism as a real circumstance, not the Hollywood-friendly 'idiot savant' form of the condition: Lou is not incomprehensibly gifted with a compensatory genius (mathematics, memory, music); although he is very talented at pattern recognition, and some other things. The point is that he is not a mere freakish premise to a plot, he is completely a real person. Moon's portrayal of Lou convinces utterly. It educates from the inside out, such that I finished reading the book not only with a much clearer sense of what is involved in autism, but with insights into male character more generally conceived. The back of the paperback carries an endorsement from Jack McDevitt, 'Lou is unforgettable, one of those rare characters who changes forever the perspective of the reader.' McDevitt is right.

Some researchers suggest that autism is less a distinct mental condition, and more one end of a continuum of personality traits. Asperger's syndrome is a milder point on the same continuum, characterised by difficulties of social interaction, a rather withdrawn or diffident manner, a preference for 'hard-edged' thinking like list-making, maths, machines and technology over 'soft-edged' thinking like emotions and the codes of human interaction. Many men would recognise an 'asperger' aspect of their own personality, although for most it could not properly be described as a personality disorder. A book like Nick Hornby's High Fidelity makes comic potential out of this circumstance. Speed of Dark does something more profound. I was reminded, reading the novel, not so much of the more severely mentally restricted autistic man that Dustin Hoffman played in Rain Man, and more of Star Trek: the Next Generation's Data. Perhaps that's an odd connection to make, but the point about Data is that most people would agree he is not 'retarded' or 'handicapped'. He has emotional limitations, but he has other skills. He is also, of course, male. What gives Speed of Dark its penetration is that it works not only as an elucidation of autism, but as a subtle critique of masculine mind-sets and modes of living as a whole.

Lou's mind loves habit, and dislikes the unexpected. He has learned, with considerable intellectual effort, some of the conventions of human behaviour that come more 'naturally' to non-autistic people, and can behave in socially appropriate ways. But he has a much more logical cast of mind than most people, and he is much more observant. The slightly stiff but immensely expressive prose that Moon uses to capture this is marvellous to read: short sentences, logical progression, mundanity and insight reported in the same level tone. 'When I first went to get my state ID card, the form asked for eye color. I tried to write in all the colors in my own eyes but the blank space wasn't big enough. They told me to put brown. I put brown, but that is not the only color in my eyes. It is just the color that people see because they do not really look at other people's eyes' [86].

Lou is observant where somebody else might not be, but he can be maddeningly blind to inferences we, as readers, tend to make intuitively. We as readers know, for instance, who has been sabotaging Lou's car long before he does, even though all our evidence has come through Lou's own narrative. At one point Lou says, 'it is all knowing what to start with. If you start in the right place and follow all the steps, you will get to the right end' [190], a sentiment that perhaps epitomises the logic that underlies his consciousness. But he has come to an important understanding about his own world-view.

Who I am now thinks that if people were more like numbers, they would be easier to understand. But who I am now knows that they are not like numbers. Four is not always the square root of sixteen, in human fours and sixteens. People are people, messy and mutable, combining differently with one another from day to day -- even hour to hour. I am not a number either. [192]

There is something heroic, and (without wanted to sound pompous) something profound in this. Art tends to make its representations of humanity by schematising them to one degree or another, reducing them to numbers; but people are not like this. Lou's rigidly eloquent point of view, his bland itemising of the ordinary events of his day and the extraordinary things that happen to him, give a much more nuanced sense of the ordinariness of most people than conventional 'realist' strategies.

Nor does Moon, despite her evident sympathies, heroise her 'different' characters to an implausible degree. Their lack of empathetic understanding is not glossed over. When one autistic character insists that 'autistic people care about autistic people', another, Cameron, replies that autistic people accept other autistic people but they do not care. 'You do not care about me. When I had flu last spring, you did not call or bring food.' Lou's reaction to this is: 'I do not say anything. There is nothing to say. I did not call or bring food because I did not know Cameron wanted me to do that. I think it is unfair of him to complain now. I am not sure that normal people always call and bring food when someone is sick' [324-5]. This novel teaches us about ourselves. It is beautiful and moving, a superb achievement.

Nothing on the front of Christopher Priest's new novel The Separation gives the hint that it is a work of science fiction. Either the publisher or (possibly, but I hope not) the author has made the decision to market the book as mainstream historical-lit. The sea-green cover The Separation by Christopher Priestart juxtaposes a Messerschmitt Me-110 and a seagull; the blurb summarises a seemingly run-of-the-mill world-war two plotline. The tag line on the back-cover reads: 'The Choices of Men Determine the Fate of Nations' -- a line which strikes me entirely to misrepresent what Priest's complex, haunting novel is saying.

You might pick the book up from a bookseller's display, glance at it, assume that Priest has moved into the territory of Sebastian Faulk or Richard Harris, and put it down again. You would be mistaken. There have been many novelistic recreations of the second world war in recent years, but Priest's novel stands head and shoulders above them all, and does so precisely because his science fiction idiom allows him imaginative freedoms that are denied to hamstrung hist-lit. Indeed, this book is an astoundingly good piece of fiction: its narrative is gripping, its characters are involving, its prose is resonant, poetic, subtle, its overall effect is thought-provoking, haunting, brilliant. And maybe, to be fair, there is something misleading about pigeonholing it as SF. It is far too unique a piece of work to be pigeonholed.

Strictly we would call the novel 'alternate history'. It begins in Buxton, in an alternate 1999, a world in which Churchill and Hitler made peace in 1941. A popular historian called Gratton is researching the strange story of an RAF pilot, Flight Lieutenant Sawyer, who is on record as being an operational bomber pilot and a conscientious objector at the same time. The novel then steps us back to the late 1930s and the early 1940s. We learn the reason for the mystery -- there were two Sawyers, Jack and Joe, twin brothers. Priest unravels their stories: their brief sporting careers in the coxless pairs (including a medal at the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and a meeting with a lascivious Rudolph Hess); their love for the same woman; their very different wartime careers as a pilot on one hand and a Red Cross worker on the other. This is very well drawn, involving and powerfully written. The prose is beautifully restrained, the detail precise and powerfully evocative of the period. But the meat of Priest's novel is not in this conventional narrative.

Nor does he play the usual games of alternate-historians: the 'what would it be like if?' of Harris's Fatherland, or Len Deighton's much better (but now forgotten) SS-GB. The details of the alternate 1999, and the alternate history that led to it, are evocatively but briefly sketched. Instead, Priest is interested in the necessary parallelism of alternate history itself. We know what happened in 'our' history of 1939-45. Priest sketches-in what happened during and after his alternate World War II, 1939-41. This inevitable pairing of two similar-but-different narrative lines involves us, as readers, in a complex game of comparison. Few 'alternate history', and fewer 'Hitler Wins' tales exploit the literary possibilities of this pairing -- the great exception, of course, is Philip K Dick's masterful Man in the High Castle, a novel which The Separation resembles in complexity and evocativeness if not at all in tone or treatment.

Priest's novel is built around a series of doubles, pairings of real-and-fake where it is hard or impossible to distinguish which is legitimate and which illegitimate. His central conceit is to dramatise his two like-but-unalike identical-twin protagonists as, respectively, an honourable war-maker and an honourable pacifist. Joe, the conscientious objector, believes in the overwhelming necessity of peace; Jack, the pilot, believes in the necessity of fighting Hitler. Both brothers are in love with Birgit, a beautiful Jewish woman they rescue from Germany after their trip to the Berlin Olympics. Joe marries Birgit, but Jack continues loving her from afar. Indeed, the character of Birgit brilliantly focuses the moral dilemma at the novel's heart: on the one hand we might say that Hitler's attempted extermination of the Jews provided an inescapable and clear-cut moral justification for making war upon him, which brings us close to Jack's position. On the other hand, Joe's commitment to love, to home and family are surely a nobler, better human impulse than the urge to bomb and destroy our fellow human beings; Birgit gives him a reason to commit to pacifism. Priest avoids easy answers, and the present state of the world brings the same dilemma back to us all. Surely Saddam's many crimes against humanity make the moral case for a war against him? But, equally, surely the lives, homes and families that would be destroyed in such a war make the moral case for not going to war?

During the course of the narrative, which slides smoothly from one possible historical line to another, things seem to happen and un-happen to Jack and Joe in turn, in ways that keeps the reader engaged trying to work out where in the possible two histories she finds herself. We meet Churchill, who seems to be sometimes real and sometimes an impostor. Joe meets one Rudolf Hess in Berlin in 1936. Jack meets Hess again in 1941, after his flight from Germany to try and negotiate peace, but he seems to be a different man -- this is the Hess who spent the rest of his life in Spandau prison.

It works as well as it does (and it works extremely well) partly because Priest's writing is so evocatively powerful that it manages to make us feel both 1941s to be, in some sense, real. We believe it possible that Churchill could have contemplated a peace treaty with Hitler's Germany. But it also works well because its alternate history is so well chosen. The Sawyers are half-German, half-English; their dialogue slips between English and German (nicely rendered in the text by enclosing English versions of German sentences between square brackets). The point, of course, is that before the war England and Germany were perceived by many people as twin-nations. These are two countries that have shared much, a royal family, cultural and national traits and attitudes, and so on.

Priest uses the trope of twin brothers who fall out, follow different paths and fight (until one or other of them triumphs, depending on which history one believes) as an eloquent commentary -- not allegory, exactly, but fertile ground of application -- to the circumstance of England and Germany as nations. We understand how the bitterest fighting can flare up between people who are close, because they are close. Priest skilfully implies a number of resemblances between, for instance, Churchill and Hess. He uses the theme of travel -- the Sawyers moving along in their row-boat, Jack in his plane, Joe in his Red Cross ambulance, water, air and land -- to express the sense of moving forward that our 'being-in-time', our 'being-in-history' brings with it.

Technically speaking, the novel is astonishingly well handled and assured. Priest swaps between half-a-dozen points-of-view, interiorised first-person narrations from both brothers, exterior third-person narrations from various people, documents, letters, interviews, transcripts of meetings -- never fumbling or dropping the ball. The strategy is highly effective. Having got used to Jack Sawyer's own sense of himself it is startling to see him as his bomber crew see him (aloof, odd, rather disconcerting). And the larger point holds as well; the deliberate, crafted uncertainty of the novel's narrative position compels us to question the rightness of any historical line. This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt is also an alternative history novel, although of a very different cast to Priest's. This is a panoramic novel that starts in the Middle Ages and moves through to, roughly, the present day. But in Robinson's version of history The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinsonthe Black Death is much more thoroughly fatal than the actual Black Death was. Europe is wholly depopulated, and world history continues without a European aspect. Europe, or 'Firanja' is eventually inhabited by Islamic settlers. Over six hundred years and more Islam, China and an Indian League become the major world powers, jockeying for political supremacy.

Robinson tells his story over many generations, and in a bold device he brings unity to multiple novelettes by having his two main characters repeatedly reincarnated. These two who have many names of course, but for our convenience always have names beginning with the same initials, B for one, K for the other. 'B' is a solid yang-figure, associated with the 'monkey' character of Chinese folklore, more often male than female; 'K' is a more volatile, passionate, yin individual, a tiger, more often female than male. These two are born into many different cultures and locations through the six centuries of the novel, yet their karma is intertwined and they always meet and affect one another's lives. Robinson has divided his novel into ten books, but these tell more than ten (I counted fourteen) distinct stories. In between these connected novellas, we are given glimpses of B and K in the 'bardo' or the spiritual arena of judgement between incarnations. They seem to be learning something from their repeated existences, but then they seem not to be. Whatever shape their multiple existence takes overall, it is not a facile or easily explicated one.

There are many things to say about this book, and the first is that its sheer scale and ambition set it apart from the other books on this year's shortlist, large and ambitious though they are. This is an enormous book: enormous in conception, enormous in achievement, thrown out by a supremely gifted writer working at, as the phrase goes, the height of his powers. It is not wholly successful, I think; but its occasional false steps are interestingly symptomatic of the project as a whole, and I'll mention my reservations first, rather than drop them in at the end and leave a sour taste in your mouth. The book is too good for that.

Firstly, I doubted the premise. A 'world without Europe' thought-experiment is a fascinating one, and well worth doing, but personally I'm persuaded by Jared Diamond's argument in his study Guns Germs and Steel. Diamond asks why Europe conquered and colonised the rest of the world rather than some other portion of the globe conquering and colonising Europe. His answer boils down to the largely longitudinal lay of continental Europe (as opposed to the latitudinous lay of the Americas), which resulted in similar climates, flora and fauna across a large space of land. This meant that where South and Central America (for instance) was divided into a series of separate climates and cultures that interacted only minimally, European cultures were all shaped by similar climate and land and interacted promiscuously. In turn this meant more war, with correlative advances in military technology, and more trade, with advances in other sorts of technology; it also meant the spread of more disease from populations to populations. This disease-ridden aspect of European culture is where Robinson starts, of course; but Diamond's point is that more disease produced more resistance to disease in European populations -- so that European explorers had immunity to the smallpox that they carried to America with such devastating results. In short: Diamond argues that Europe conquered the world because of disease, the germs that repeatedly devastated our cultures and allowed us to build up resistances. Robinson's premise is exactly the reverse; disease knocks Europe out of his world picture.

Secondly, I found the realisation of Robinson's American continents rather underpowered. Robinson's alternate-history Asia is vividly brought to life with an almost overwhelming precision and vigour, capturing the beauties and strengths of the cultures that develop there without avoiding the barbarism and cruelty. North America, on the other hand, is more sparsely rendered. I did not believe that the Native American peoples would be able to resist colonisation as Robinson has them here. The rather utopian America this alternate history produces seemed to me an exercise in wish-fulfilment, and it sat jarringly with the less sentimental vision of Asian development. Robinson's vision of war is powerful and pulls few punches, but his alternate world seems innocent of the larger scale genocides that so marred the actual twentieth-century -- I wondered why, and I wondered whether this was plausible.

A reader is, of course, permitted to disagree with the author about the conclusions he or she draws from his or her thought-experiment, and another reader might not have the same objections. Other problems with the book are not to do with the content but the structure. Despite Robinson's fine, expressive, thoughtful and often poetic prose, and despite his deep grasp of character and history, I found some of the ten novellas that compose the book better than others. More to the point, the two most perfect of them seemed to me to be books one and two. In the first, 'Awake to Emptiness', Bold Bardash, a Mongol warrior from the army of Temur (Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great) roams across a beautifully evoked, spookily empty Europe, is sold to slavery, and ends up in China. His destiny intertwines with a fierce eunuch slave called Kyu. In the second, 'The Haj in the Heart', an Islamic scholar called Bistami becomes a confidant of the Persian emperor, travels to Mecca, then travels on to attend the party of the Sultan Mawji Derva and his brilliant Sultana Katima as they colonise the empty continent of Firanja.

These two novellas do everything that Kim Stanley Robinson does at his best: they grip, they make you think, they educate, they touch and surprise with their beauty and insight. But they unbalance the novel as a whole, because they are such hard acts to follow. Of the remaining books, some (such as Book Six 'Widow Kang', or Book Eight 'The War of the Asuras') are similarly effective, but some of the others seem flatter, weigh the whole down. Book Four 'The Alchemist' is little more than a slightly clotted account of discoveries in the physical sciences made by an Islamic alchemist who seems to be Galileo, Leonardo and Newton all rolled into one. It goes without saying that it is no small challenge to maintain both narrative interest and Robinson's high standards of aesthetic and intellectual complexity over such a vast canvas, and Robinson succeeds in this far more than he fails.

Indeed, there is something extraordinarily timely about this book -- extraordinarily because Robinson has been working on the project for many years, long before '9-11' and the whole 'war against terror' happened. Now, more than ever before, the times behove western artists to explore Islam and the east in an insightful and humane manner. We can only hope that Robinson's powerful and brilliant work is read widely, especially in America and Britain. It does not whitewash Islam (one character describes Muslims as 'ignorant fanatical disciples of a cruel desert cult', 567), but it is a book profoundly alive to the strength and beauty of Islamic culture and belief. Indeed, the necessarily completely non-Eurocentric perspective novel is a wonderful, beautiful and educative thing in its own right.

This is a book, clearly, about history, and many of its characters meditate and pronounce upon historical process. Robinson seems to incline towards a sense of the complex dialectic of historical process that derives (as it did in the Mars books) at least in part from his friend Fredric Jameson. 'History,' says one character, 'may not resemble so much the seasons of a year, as waves in the sea, running this way and that, crossing, making patterns, sometimes a triple peak, a very Diamond Mountain of cultural energy, for a time' [460]. At the novel's end, indeed, I wondered if the insightful old academic Zhu Isao was a version of Jameson, evidenced for instance by his extremely Jamesonian statement about 'what interests me extremely these days, which is not history's content, but its form' [744]. Robinson also mentions a 'Scholar White' here, who may or may not be a version the prestigious US historian Hayden White, whose book The Content of the Form makes a similar case for the importance of attending to the form of historical narrative. This seemed to me insightful and fascinating, and casts light back on Robinson's own complex and supple use of various cultural forms to shape his narrative of an alternate history.

Beyond all this, what gives the novel an amazing, haunting timbre is the way Robinson returns to a thematic of emptiness. The first book, 'Awake to Emptiness' sets this in motion with its brilliant evocation of a depopulated Europe, so that we understand that one of the absences, the gaps or empty spaces with which Robinson is concerned, is empty landscape, the empty path history did not take. But in book two, this emptiness is inflected as Sufi mysticism, the blankness of mind brought about by fasting and meditation, the nothingness at the heart of many eastern spiritual traditions. These different senses, of emptiness as absence, and as nirvanic fulfilment, resonate through the whole novel: we see the calm at the eye of a storm; characters with missing body parts or missing husbands, in the later books we glimpse the emptiness at the heart of atomic matter. Familiar Robinson images -- particularly that of a devastating flood -- reappear in this novel, acting often as externalisations of this same pull, yearning almost towards emptiness. There is so much in this novel, it is so crammed and filled with vivid life, and yet it is haunted all the way through with this beautiful, eerie vacancy. It is a novel that lives powerfully in the mind once the reader puts it down.

So, who will win the 2003 Clarke Award? Light, of course.

But who does this reviewer think should win? This is a very tough call indeed. All these novels are excellent, but it seems to me that three of them are masterpieces, works of unusual and extraordinary accomplishment: Light, Speed of Dark and The Separation. Comparing the relative merits of these three radically different works is an almost impossible task. Should any of them win, nobody would complain or kvetch. On balance I felt that Priest's The Separation was the best book on the list; a subtler and deeper achievement than the more barnstorming Light, more rounded and technically perfect than Speed of Dark. It works on many levels, and the human dilemmas it dramatises in its untendentious way are profound and important ones. Perhaps this should, finally, be Priest's year.

Addendum (18 May 2003): Who won?

The winner: The Separation by Christopher PriestUpdate 18th May 2003. Last night the award was announced in the Science Museum by Paul Kincaid, with John Clute opening the envelope and reading out the name of Chris Priest. I'd hedged my bets in my review to a certain extent by mentioning both M John Harrison and Chris Priest in the 'who will win?' section, but I was quietly pleased that my mind seemed to be working along the same lines as the Clarke committe. Paul Kincaid stressed the unusual strength and excellence of this year's shortlist, and John Clute said, before revealing the winner's identity, that whoever the winner was he or she would be first among equals. Often these sorts of sentiments at awards ceremonies are polite fictions to save the blushes of the losers, but on this occasion John's words were the literal truth: a superb novel won, but the whole shortlist is superb. AR.

Review by Adam Roberts.

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