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the shortlist


The Arthur C Clarke Shortlist 2005

a review feature by Adam Roberts

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There's usually a fairly broad crossover between Britain's two main literary-sf prizes, the BSFA Award and the Clarkes -- which is only to say that different groups of readers often arrive at a general consensus as to which sf novels are the most significant in any given year. But not this year: the only novel the two shortlists have in common is Ian McDonald, River of Gods (rightly so, since it is head-and-shoulders above the competition; by far the best sf book published in 2004). Otherwise the BSFA voters have plumped for a much more obviously sf-nal list: Al Reynold's ambitious generic fusion Century Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson's stodgy if worthwhile Forty Signs of Rain, Susanna Clarke's engrossing and very highly praised Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (perhaps omitted from the Clarkes as a fantasy title? But the award has included fantasy titles before), and two really excellent books: Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Stamping Butterflies (perhaps the best book this talented author has yet written; it's a great shame it didn't make the Clarkes list), and Ken MacLeod's uneven but exciting Newton's Wake. Each of these books -- even the sluggish Robinson title -- is trying to do something new in the genre. This isn't the case for the majority of titles chosen by the Clarke panel.

Of course, the diversity of choices is an index to the continuing rude health of SF in this country: any of the five non-McDonald BSFA titles could with justice have claimed a place on the Clarke list -- as could Paul McAuley's consummately-written White Devils, or Iain Banks' The Alegbraist, or Stephen Baxter's Exultant. With so many very good novels published every year, judges need an orienting principle to be able to sift the better from the good. The Clarke panel this year seem, consciously or unconsciously, to have elected for Populism. Now, Populism is a Good Thing. Few of the titles on the BSFA list have sold more than respectably (the exceptions are Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and, to a lesser degree, Century Rain). On the other hand, three of the Clarke list titles (Mitchell, Niffenegger and Morgan) have been bestsellers, and two (Miéville and Stephenson) have sold very well indeed. These are books that people, in large numbers, actually want to read; and they have become popular because they manifest manifold virtues.

But the best of the shortlisted books is the one that has had the least popular success (in terms of sales, at any rate), and there's something in that as well: which is to say that popularity, whilst often an index of literary worth (Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolkien were all populist writers), can also easily be an index of literary cruddiness (Marie Corelli was popular; Barbara Cartland was popular, even Robert 'I could no more write a good sentence of English prose than fly to the moon using only my ears' Ludlum has been popular). There is a danger that this year's list, commendably populist though it is, does not quite avoid the drift towards the middlebrow.

 

Ian McDonald, River of GodsStraight away I must withdraw that statement and admit that there's nothing middlebrow about Ian McDonald's superb River of Gods. McDonald is a writer of mind-boggling gifts. We might want to call him a writer's-writer, because much of what is implied by that phrase is true: that he is primarily admired by writers, because they know from their own experience how difficult it is to orchestrate multiple storylines with such aplomb, to differentiate multiple characters so soundly and well, to capture and evoke place, mood, landscape, detail so deftly and vividly, to write so well throughout, and to tell so completely convincing and satisfying a tale. By the same token, a writer's-writer often has to do without widespread popularity; and in McDonald's case this has also been true, oddly. River of Gods is a marvellously readable, marvellously realised, marvellously satisfying piece of work. It ought to sell more than cookery.

The scene is India (and a few other locations) in 2047. The overarching plot is a Neuromancer-retread about 'third generation AIs' acquiring godlike powers and consciousnesses, and the running hither-and-thither that this alarming prospect occasions in humankind: the police whose job is to terminate rogue AIs, the developers who are implicated in their programming and so on. There's also a mysterious Big Dumb Object in space, a strange silver sphere inside an asteroid, that seems to have crossed over from a less imaginative and much more ordinary Hard SF novel. This unexceptional constellation of sf ideas is positioned against a compellingly realised future India split into devolved nation-states, crowded and bustling, facing environmental crisis and war. The over-story is handled in a way that reminded me of McAuley's excellent Fairyland (McDonald even calls one important off-scene character McAuley, presumably in tribute): an equally powerful sense of the myriad-minded detail and poetic possibilities of a bustling imagined world, a similar fascination with genetic refashioning of people -- McDonald posits surgically altered neutered humans, 'neuts' in place of McAuley's fairies. Like McAuley McDonald has a complete control over the instrument of his prose: he writes consistently well and often breathtakingly well. But this is not to suggest that River of Gods is a derivative book. On the contrary, it takes a series of fairly conventional sf tropes and makes them new.

The real topic of this book, I think, is sprawl: by which I mean to evoke the poetic project of the major Australian writer Les Murray. Like Murray, McDonald is more interested in the outcast, the ordinary, the ragged-edges of life, and life's vital centrifugal expansiveness than in plastickly self-contained heroes and heroines, or overly polished narrative containers. Like Murray he sees aesthetic sprawl as a valid strategy for capturing some of the qualia of life; and also like Murray he has managed to make sprawl an exacting, penetrating and often beautiful aesthetic guiding star. McDonald is a poet who happens to possess an exceptional gift for narrative and character. One character contemplates spirituality whilst riding the night train: 'the train ploughs on peeling a bow-wave of night from its streamlined prow as it eats two hundred and eighty kilometres of India every hour' [207]. That's such a beautiful sentence I could read it over and over. And, like the train, McDonald's novel ploughs elegantly through its dense medium throwing off its beautiful tourbillons.

Most writers take a couple of leading characters, and a supporting cast of a handful more. McDonald has ten, or perhaps more, main figures, each of them deftly and believably characterised, each contradistinguished from the others, all so well-handled technically that the reader is never lost or confused as to which character the new chapter is reverting to. Of the ten I liked best Mr Nandha, the rather priggish Krishna Cop whose job is the Blade Runnerish 'retiring' of rogue AIs, and who loves his wife too much to see how unhappy she is; I also liked Tal, the neut, his differently-configured emotional and erotic intensities very ably captured by McDonald's prose (despite the rather distracting neologism for s/he 'yt'). I liked randy Vishram, the stand up comic who becomes a major businessman overnight; and the slightly stiff Prime Ministerial advisor Shaheen Badoor Khan, who lives through disgrace and downfall with very affecting dignity. But the most memorable character in the book, if I might slip into reviewerish cliché for a moment, is India itself.

McDonald brilliantly captures the hectic, burlying crowdedness of his India; the sheer press of people, and the multifarious hybridity of it all. 'Parvati goes to the edge, peers over the parapet. Ten stories down the street is thick with people as an arm with blood' [121] -- a brilliant image that captures both claustrophobia and vitality, and one that later becomes pathological (a hydrofoil overcrowded with passengers looks, to one character 'peering through the streaky window ... like a blood clot', 494). Sprawl is the human condition, and will be more so in the third world's twenty-first century. Indeed, McDonald's sprawl is so well captured, and so compellingly done, that it is almost disappointing when the narrative winds itself up at the end by neatly disposing of all the loose ends. There's a slight anticlimax in the tidiness of this, a polish that throws the reader back against his/her memories of the Neuromancer/Fairyland inspirations of the novel. But this does not undermine McDonald's achievement in the book as a whole: something approaching a masterpiece.

China Miéville, Iron CouncilChina Miéville's Iron Council, on the other hand, is something approaching a failure, although a very interesting and stimulating one, one that makes for a better read than the successes of many less gifted writers. Miéville's has built up a very substantial reputation as a writer, inside and to an extent outside the genre; and it would indeed be a shame if he now found himself subject to the shabby British 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', in which success gets treated with snide and automatic derogatoriness simply because it is success. It bears repeating that Miéville's reputation is a reflection not of hype, but of one of the most exciting and original talents to have emerged in sf for a very long time. He has found a way of melding tremendous literary ambition (a bold scope in theme and topic, a formal and stylistic experimentation that is always muscular and never content with cliché) with a genuinely popular sensibility, a commitment to story and character, to imaginative newness. Perdido Street Station is an undisputed classic of contemporary literature. The Scar was a worthy pendant to that achievement.

In Iron Council, his third New Crobuzon novel, there is much to admire; but there is less to love. It is very much to Miéville's credit that he has refused to simply rehash what he has done before; he is trying something new here. But it doesn't quite work. This is not to say that the book doesn't merit attention: on the contrary, it is a fascinating and often arresting read. But it struck me as a book written by a writer in the process of developing his talent. Miéville is on his way somewhere very exciting as a creator of imaginative fiction, and when the whole of his career is in view Iron Council may be seen as an important transitional novel, but that's not the same thing as saying that it succeeds on its own terms.

The story is split between New Crobuzon, Miéville's crenulated and ormolu gothicpunk city, and the various wasted lands that surround it. In the city a war with a rival polis called Tesh has brought simmering urban discontent to boiling point; revolution seems imminent. Meanwhile a symbol of rebellion and utopia, the Perpetual Train, governed by the Iron Council of the title, is making its way through the wilderness. The gang of workers, technicians and camp followers who had been laying the railway line between New Crobuzon and a couple of other cities, overthrew their overlords. Freeing the enslaved ReMade (criminals who have been punished by having bizarre steampunk-cyborg attachments added to their bodies), this revolutionary crew took their giant train away into the waste lands, pulling up track behind them and laying in front of them, rather after the manner of the famous sequence in the Wallace and Grommit animation The Wrong Trousers, although with rather less tonal levity. The train has become a symbol of the oppressed of the city, and a band of renegades trek through many dangers to try and find it.

This is a good topic. Since Fantasy is a genre currently relocating itself from a Tolkienian cod-medievalism to a Peake-ish cod-Victorianism (something given momentum in part by Miéville's own success in this idiom) then important features of nineteenth-century proletarian experience clearly now fall within its purview: the organisation of labour into effective trades unions, the rise of the first coherent philosophy of working class revolution, the many strikes and popular risings. But it is hard to care about, and sometimes hard to distinguish between, Miéville's proles and his oppressors.

The rhetoric of revolution, particularly Marxist revolution, gains much of its potency from the sheer common-sense obviousness of the points it makes (of course it's wrong that 5% of the population should hoard 95% of the wealth; of course revolution is laughably easy -- as Shelley so simply put it: 'rise like lions after slumber ... ye are many, they are few'). The Communist Manifesto is a profoundly commonsensical work, articulating the sense that ordinary life has been bent out of shape by the depredations of capitalism; and that the solution to this state of affairs is, once Marx and Engels have pointed it out, blindingly simple. But Miéville's universe has no room for the commonsensical, or the simple. It is bent out of shape already by the Weirdness of its aesthetic; and the impression of the novels is that life in New Crobuzon is hellish not because of (easily corrected) oppression by ruling classes but because the fabric of its thaumaturgic reality is inherently hellish, perverse, peculiar.

In part this is a more general generic problem with Weird writing. For weirdness to register, there needs to be a normality against which it can be measured. When everything in a text is weird nothing is. Particularly in the first 120 pages of Iron Council this becomes something of a problem. Bizarreness after bizarreness harries the hardy band of travellers, all of them rendered with Miéville's impressive ingenuity and inventiveness. But there's so much of it, and it's rendered so densely, that the effect is one only of sluggishness, an effortful slog through oddity piled on oddity. The narrative changes direction at this point, stepping into backstory to trace the slow development of conscience in Judah, a main character. This is better, because more fluent, section of the book, but the narrative still cannot mesh the gears of its ethical motor. We are introduced to the stiltspear tribe, whose way of life is destroyed by the coming of the train; but, as one more group of oddities in a universe of oddities, it's hard to feel the outrage that Judah feels at this turn of events; and the authorial thumb slips into the balance, telling (not showing) that they are deeply courteous, attractive coves.

Then there is the business of Miéville's prose. It is one of the things that differentiates Miéville from most writers of Fantasy that he takes his prose seriously, and Iron Council contains some of his best writing yet; a compacted prose that works with a thesaurus-density of signifiers to build, layer on layer, a distinct and often atmospheric effect. Where the writing in Perdido varied between the carefully wrought and the sometimes sloppier, every sentence in Iron Council has been carefully attended to. Often this works well, with myriad striking and beautiful phrases peppering the pages ('Spring is starting to sing summer ... '); but taken as a 500-page lump the prose becomes treacly, too dense and blocked, a medium that clogs forward passage and, by the end, is just hard work.

It would be facile, and unjust, to accuse Miéville of overwriting: the book is overwritten, but deliberately so, part of a valid aesthetic project to cram in as much from as wide a variety of provenances as possible, the creative dissonance of fecund juxtaposition, like the treasure chest given to one character early in the book that contains 'shekels, nobles and guineas ... ducats too, dollars, rupees and sandnotes, arcane bawbees, square coins, little ingots from maritime provinces' [84]. This is one of the ways that Miéville creates his distinctive texture.

The problem is not overwriting as such; it is the sense of strain, of strenuous effort, that the prose cannot quite shake off. Perdido and Scar both manage the balance between the arresting clots of prose-imagery and the onward flow of narrative; Iron Council is all on the former side. The prose strives for a continual intensity, extremes added to extremes, and the lack of leavening -- of, for instance, humour or lightness -- means that we, as readers, are eating dough rather than bread. It is this, I think, that gives the writing (although only from time to time) the undedetermined unconvincingness of sixth-form poetry, a slightly Goth, slightly Sisters-of-Mercyesque emphasis on violence and darkness:

... heaped up carcasses, a charnel mass -- blackened remnants of snouted ungulates ... Pomeroy found a trench, where scores of men and women rotted ... their pumice-coloured skins were death-besmirched, stone jewels piercing them' [96]

The author is fond of the word 'besmirched'; it crops up many times, and each time it sounds a dead note in a book largely governed by an appropriately contemporary idiom. The man who goes into a dry-cleaners and says 'can you clean my suit? It is besmirched' is only being whimsical; and whimsy sits poorly with the overall tone of Iron Council I think.

But at least this is a book that tries to do something new with its genre; a book of such furious ambition and diabolic, gnashing, handcuffed energy that it makes many of these cavils less important than they might otherwise be. And who would not rather read a lesser Jane Austen novel than the most polished Georgette Heyer?

David Mitchell, Cloud AtlasDavid Mitchell's Cloud Atlas has been in the news already, shortlisted as it was for the Man Booker prize, a literary award that (certainly over the last three or four years) has placed before the public much less interesting shortlists than the Clarke, and which though more highly regarded by the media is actually a less significant prize. Nevertheless it's hard to believe that Mitchell's publishers will put 'shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award!' on the cover of the mass-market paperback Cloud Atlas. Which is a shame, I think.

Cloud Atlas is a thoroughly accomplished, very readable and, once the final page has been turned, curiously unsatisfactory novel. As with earlier Mitchell fiction, the whole is confected of six apparently unrelated (but actually, and rather obscurely, linked) narratives separated by time and space. The book's one mildly interesting formal innovation is that these six narratives are layered around one another like a Russian doll. The first of them concerns Adam Ewing, a nineteenth-century American seeking passage back home from New Zealand, who becomes caught up in the genocide of the native Chatham Islanders by white and Maori settlers, inadvertently saving one man's life. It is engaging stuff, written in an expert pastiche of period prose: 'our conversation then voyaged from my home-town San Francisco to my recent notarial duties in New South Wales thence to Gibbons, Malthus & Godwin via Leeches & Locomotives' and so on. It stops in mid sentence, its narrative unresolved, and we turn the page to encounter the beginning of the second strand: 'Letters from Zedelghem', set in Holland in the 1930s, and concerning the misadventures of a louche young English composer who insinuates his way into the home of an older and much more famous composer, acts as his amanuensis and begins an affair with his wife. This also cuts off halfway through.

The third story 'Half Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery' is written in the idiom of a pulp genre crime thriller, and follows the eponymous reporter-heroine around 1970s California on the trail of some nuclear-power-plant related conspiracy. Halfway through, at a cliffhanger moment, this plot snaps off and Narrative 4 begins: 'The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish', the weakest of the six stories, a winsome and clumsy story of an elderly publisher getting into improbable scrapes in the present-day and ending up incarcerated in a sort of malign asylum. This shears off halfway to reveal the first of the two sf-nal strands of the book, 'An Orison of Sonmi-451', in which a near future cloned servant, or fabricant, working in a hellish Korean McDonald's/Burger-King-style restaurant, transcends her slavery and breaks free. Written well in a Q&A format, there's nevertheless something quaintly old-fashioned about this SF: it reads as late 1960s agit-prop sf, rather worthy and obvious, but compelling nonetheless. This story also stops abruptly, and we start the sixth narrative: 'Sloosha's Crossin' an' Everythin' After', a further-future tale of degenerated human society set on a Pacific island, written in a frankly second-hand pastiche of the idiom Russell Hoban created for his powerful 1980 novel Riddley Walker.

This story runs its whole course without interruption; it ends, and we resume Sonmi-451's story. Here, to pick up the slack of his narrative, Mitchell engineers a not-very-convincing narrative surprise-ending that seems not to grow organically out of the logic of the story, except insofar as the story adopts a rather adolescent tone of pessimism and outrage. But at least there is a twist. The present-day publisher story winds down with minimal excitement (will Cavendish escape his strange prison? Well, what do you think?); the 1970s thriller is similarly formulaic according to the logic of its different formula. The 1930s-composer story engineers another twist, even less convincingly than Somni's. Only the first, and last, narrative strand manages a satisfying ending; a touchingly unsentimental conclusion that is about redemption, an awakening of conscience, and about how Bad Racism Is. And indeed Racism, we of course all agree, is a Bad Thing. There's no mileage in a novel that suggests Racism is a Good Thing, because, really it isn't.

And, despite the fact that the novel ends in a genuinely affecting way (and despite the fact that it wears its undeniable technical accomplishment on its sleeve throughout), this is the problem with Cloud Atlas. What is the novel saying? It is saying that Racism is Bad; that we ought to take Care of The Environment; that People Can Sometimes Oppress Others and Be Nasty To Them and that this, like Racism, is A Bad Thing. And above all it is saying that, although it may not appear so to a superficial analysis, in fact We Are All Connected In This, Like, Cosmic Oneness That Transcends Time and Space Or Something.

It is a novel invested too greatly in technique, and too little in depth. Its onion-skin narrative strategy does not (as perhaps it was designed to) speak to the complex interlocking of human life and human life; it does nothing more than demonstrate that 'make 'em wait', though a proven narrative strategy, can become overextended. Actually it is to Mitchell's credit as a writer that his formal gimmick does not become tiresome; that we read through his box-of-tricks fluently and rapidly. Cloud Nine is a very entertaining read, a book it's hard to put down, and one with many moments of beauty, insight and finesse. But, as some reviews have suggested, it adds up to less than the some of its (already variable quality) parts. Ultimately it is a slightly preachy, rather middlebrow entertainment.

Richard Morgan, Market ForcesI reviewed Richard Morgan's Market Forces on its publication, and so as not to repeat myself I refer interested readers to my review at The Alien Online.

I thought, and think, very highly of the book; something partly (but I hope not wholly) compromised by the fact that the author is a friend of mine. But there has been some ungracious surprise expressed, in the narrow world of sf blogdom and e-commentary, that a book so undeniably populist has made the shortlist of the Clarke's. This is stupid.

Market Forces is a near-future thriller, a blend (as Morgan himself notes on the Acknowledgments page) of Mad Max and Rollerball, with a good twist of Death Race 2000 stirred in as well. Chris Faulkner demonstrates sufficient ruthlessness, measured in to-the-death auto jousting on future-UK's roads, to join a top corporation. In this unappealing if unhypocritical future capitalist world corporations make money from war, drug dealing, violence, wherever the money is to be made; and Faulkner is caught between the adrenalised excitement (and material rewards) of that world, and the slowly dawning sense that, actually, come to think of it, there might be a difference between right and wrong. It is extremely pacy, sharply and efficiently written, exciting and gripping, as a good thriller should be. It is also makes many visits to Planet Violence (with occasional excursions to its satellite, the Moon of EvenMoreViolence) which might put more squeamish readers off. There's more bone-grinding, skull-crunching, blood-gushing violence in the book than in an average episode of the Fimbles, for sure. But that is also part of the idiom of the corporate thriller, and the violence is never merely gratuitous. The reader closes the book unable to doubt that violence does something horribly distorted to the soul of the violent person, however exciting, adrenalised and apparently justifiable it may have appeared at the time.

Violence is the idiom of this sort of book, and objecting to it on principle (as it were) is as daft as objecting to a space opera because it has starships in it. The point is what does the author do with the violence, how does s/he use it, and Morgan uses it very deftly indeed. Violence, in its various forms, is the currency of Late Capitalism: the violence that maximises profit, small wars, the destruction of consumer durables like cars so that people have to replace them more frequently, the fuck-you-over ethos of globalised life. Exploitation and oppression are violence, first and foremost. Market Forces expresses that polemical ideological truth more potently than any number of sociological tracts.

Suggesting, as some have done, that a populist near-future thriller has no place on the Clarke shortlist is no more valid than suggesting that alternate-history, or space opera, or New Weird, or any of the genre's sub-genres, has no place on the shortlist. A reader may legitimately say 'I personally prefer space operas to thrillers', but s/he may not say 'the thriller is inherently an unworthy and should be excluded from prize shortlists'.

Of course Market Forces does not have the sophistication of characterisation and narrative development of say, River of Gods: that degree of elaboration would get in the way of the novel's primary purpose, the delivery of thrills. But that's not to say that it is a one-dimensional novel. It uses its sometimes toonish Hollywood idiom to make some timely, intelligent and ideologically penetrating points.

I've only one cavil with the novel, which is not actually a criticism of this book. But I wonder if one reason Morgan made the shortlist is that he recently won a (much deserved) Philip K Dick award, and that this has raised his profile in the world of awards. Market Forces is an excellent book, but it is not as major a sf achievement as either of Morgan's two previous novels, Altered Carbon and Broken Angels. The Clarkes overlooked those achievements Perhaps there's an element of catch-up in the decision to shortlist him this year.

Audrey Niffenegger, he Time Traveler's WifeAudrey Niffenegger's first novel The Time Traveler's Wife has already been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, and it's easy to see why: it's a very readable love-story that builds (after a rather slow start) a considerable narrative momentum towards its nicely bittersweet conclusion. The writing is fluent, perfectly digestible if never particularly flavoursome or remarkable, a pop-lit pabulum prose that delivers its story efficiently, without fuss or excitement. The novel's main strength is its ending, which does manage a genuine affect, a really quite touching emotional tone. But taken as a whole this is a book with many weaknesses; it is too long, too self-indulgent, too reader-reassuring, too safe, and -- the word that encompasses all those characteristics -- too middlebrow.

The two protagonists (deuteragonists, I suppose we should call them) get equal billing, the narrative divided between their two voices. One, Henry, is a Chrono-Displaced person: which is to say, somebody suffering from an epilepsy-like genetic condition that, in the presence of certain stressors, throws him out of time, back to early moments in his life, or less frequently into his future. This means that he can meet his wife when she is only a girl, or meet his younger self, although his time-travel excursia usually only last a short time, and he snaps back into the timeframe from which he left. The other, Claire, is the titular wife, the love of Henry's life, whom he visits as a girl and marries as a woman, and whom he is constantly leaving.

The Time Traveler's Wife makes a perfectly good love-romance. It does not make a very good science fiction story. In interviews Niffenegger has said she likes but doesn't really read sf. This, I think, is a fact that tells in the novel, which comes across as one of those books by a mainstream writer who's had a vaguely sf-y idea and has become intoxicated by the imaginative freedoms it permits her without realising that dozens of brilliant writers have already used it as a premise -- rather as if a late nineteenth-century painter had suddenly stumbled upon the laws of perspective for the first time, or an early twenty-first century composer announced excitedly to the world that she'd just realised that music can sometimes explore the atonal as well as the tonal.

Which is to say, anyone who has read even some of the backlist of masterpiece sf will surely be struck, reading Niffenegger's novel, by how derivative it seems. The hero who is thrown about time by forces beyond his control, always remaining within the timescale of his own lifespan (or straying only a very little way beyond it) is a neat idea. It allows a degree of formal fracturing of the narrative; it takes the overfamiliar trajectory of boy-meets-girl-fall-in-love-marry and shuffles it around in interesting ways. But precisely because it is so neat an idea it has been treated many times before; and to set The Time Traveler's Wife beside some of those treatments is to realise how limited a novel it is. The most obvious referent is Kurt Vonnegut's extraordinary Slaughterhouse 5, which uses precisely this sf premise as the prism to fracture, not the experience of love-in-life, but the rather denser and more tragic (in the strict sense) experience of war-in-life. Clare's troubles with miscarriage are affecting, saddening, and well-handled; but Vonnegut's descriptions of the Dresden bombings are searing, life-changing. He uses the premise to say some profound things about life, fate, death, Big Themes. Niffenegger uses the same premise to construct a hall-of-mirrors portrait of a rather oppressively self-absorbed couple, the sort of couple who think that the fact that they are so in love makes them the centre of the universe, and that everybody else will be as wincingly delighted with them as they are themselves.

The love-story, in other words, hijacks the novel, overwrites the interesting premise, and ultimately smothers it in its sexy syrupiness. Another prior sf treatment, much more arresting and powerful than Niffenegger's, is Silverberg's 1975 classic The Stochastic Man, which breathes intense and rather choking life into the question of free-will versus determinism that believing in time travel necessarily entails (if we know we're going to marry X in the future, then what happens to our power to choose what we do? Can we elect to marry somebody else? Or does time travel in fact make plain what Spinoza, and others, insist is true: that our free will is only an illusion).

This is one issue that Niffenegger soft-pedals. Characters talk about it from time to time, but in a warm-fuzzy manner. Generally the future Henry simply refuses to tell people in the past what is going to happen ('I ran into my self from 2004. Are we ever going to have a baby? I asked. My self only smiled and shrugged. You just have to live it, sorry, he replied, smug and sympathetic. Oh Jesus, just tell me, I cried', 339); but a fair bit of the future leaks through anyway ... so Claire as a child knows that she will eventually marry Henry, Henry knows when he is going to die. Nevertheless there is enough that Henry doesn't know to keep the narrative suspense, for us and for him, so he never falls into a thoroughgoing deterministic passivity -- as both Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim and Silverberg's Martin Carvajal do. This, though, is a cheat. The point of Nietzsche's eternal return -- the philosophical nexus for this sf trope -- is that absolute determinism means that happiness is to be found in living each inevitable moment to the fullest, such that we would be content to live every moment of our life over and again forever.

In other words I'm suggesting that there is, in the final analysis, a triviality to The Time Traveler's Wife: not because love is a trivial subject (obviously it is not) but because Niffenegger's treatment is fundamentally and irrevocably sentimental, and the time travel premise is used only to magnify that sentimentality.

Apart from the Vonnegut and the Silverberg, the text that most came to my mind whilst reading Niffenegger's novel was Quantum Leap: the batty but hugely entertaining 1990s TV series in which rudder-nosed Scott Bakula hops randomly into various personae within the timeframe of his own life. Indeed, The Time Traveler's Wife reads like a rather overextended and underimaginative episode of Quantum Leap, without the gonzo wit and inventiveness of the show (although Niffenegger's dialogue is often pleasant and amusing), and more importantly without the show's excellently skewed perspectives on the last half century of American history (the moment in The Time Traveler's Wife when Henry and Claire watch 9-11 happening on the television is piously reverential; otherwise it's as if the second half of the twentieth-century is marked only by minor shifts in taste in popular music). And without, obviously, Scott Bakula's marvellous conk.

It also annoyed me, as reader, that Niffenegger had not thought through her premise more carefully. It contains conceptual holes that a writer with some knowledge of the long tradition of sf writing on time travel would surely have plugged. For instance, Henry refuses to fly, since he might zap out of the airliner in mid-air to visit the past, such that when he zapped back to the place where he left, the airplane would have flown on, and he would emerge in midair and tumble fatally to the ground. I ask you to think about this for a second and a half.

Are you done?

Yes, you're right: Henry is, as we all are, hurtling along much more rapidly than any airliner all the time, since we live on a globe that is spinning at several thousand miles an hour, as well as moving through space around the sun at thousands of miles an hour more, and following the sun in its slow spin around the galactic core. Drawn in spacetime the earth is not a globe but a spirograph tracery of helixes and curls. If Henry would re-emerge from time travel in the place where his airplane was, then he would certainly re-emerge buried under miles of rock, or left behind by the departing Earth in deep space.

This doesn't happen. Why not? Because Niffenegger imagination has oriented her premise not around the principle of 'what would it actually be like to be in Henry's position?' (even though the novel purports to do that), but instead around the lines of force of her love-story. She can't see beyond that. She is, as an author, in love with her own love-story, with the two loving characters she has created, and that affection -- whilst sometimes touching -- distorts the novel.

Similarly Henry re-materialises (say) in the middle of the road he was crossing and nearly gets run over by the cars that weren't there when he left; but he never rematerialises inside the engine block of a lorry that has parked up; or rematerialises with his leg inside a dog that happened to have wandered there, or inside another human, or anything like that. The difficulties he encounters (leaving his clothes behind him, running around naked, getting beaten up because he's running around naked) are cosmetic. It's all just garnish on her story of a lurve that transcends time. It's a nice story; the ending is touching; but there's nothing in here that Vonnegut, Silverberg or even Scott Bakula haven't already done, and better. Which leads me to think: so derivative and safe a book could only make the shortlist of a major prize like the Clarkes if the judges are prioritising niceness and emotional sweetness over aesthetic novelty, edge, brilliance and vim. Maybe they're right; but it seems wrongheaded to me.

Neal Stephenson, The System of the WorldWhich brings us to Stephenson's The System of the World, and to the heart-sinking moment when I realised that, in order to do my annual Clarkes review, I was actually going to have to read this enormous book from start to finish. In fact I'd better start this review with a mea culpa. Writers invest thousands of hours and genuine heart's-blood in writing their books; they hang their souls out in public for cormorant-reviewers to peck at; they are brave and committed. Reviewers have an infinitely easier time: they are asked to spend tens of hours reading and writing about books that publishers provide for them for free. Accordingly it has always seemed to me that there are certain ungetaroundable courtesies owed by reviewer to writer: to take the book seriously, to approach it with as few preconceptions as possible, to read it properly right through, to try and see what the writer is trying to do, before rushing to judgment. Usually to review a novel like this one (which is part three of a sequence) I would read the first two books so as to understand the heft of the whole. But, although I'd previously read Quicksilver, the first of the Baroque Trilogy, I could flat not bring myself to read The Confusion, the second. Worse, I came to the novel not with an open mind, but with the preconception that I wasn't going to like it, because I had disliked the first in the trilogy so very much (you can see my opinion of it in last year's infinity plus Clarkes review). You may feel that these circumstances invalidate, or at least diminish, the force of the review that follows.

And it must be acknowledged that many people (and I'm talking clever people, not dunderheads) regard this trilogy as a contemporary masterpiece, the best thing that this prolific and undeniably talented author has produced. Quicksilver, after all, won the Clarke last year. I can't agree with many people on this one, but I also can't (of course) pretend that my judgment is necessarily truer than theirs. The System of the World is very much the same sort of thing as Quicksilver, so much so that I wondered whether it was only the exigencies of publishing that had prevented the whole project being published as one gargantuan 3000 page singleton. Reading Baroque: Episode III has not changed my opinion that, were I to search the English language for the two words that best describe this trio of dropsical, overboiled, enormous books, then those words would be sawdust-pudding. Of course it could be argued that those two words count as one because hyphenated. I wouldn't want to dispute the point.

Here at extraordinary length and in benumbing detail we pick up again the threads (or ropes, or anchor chains) of the adventures of Daniel Waterhouse, moving amongst the greatest scientists and philosophers of the early eighteenth-century; and the adventures of rascally on-the-make Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds. On and on they chug, with hundreds of supporting characters, through crowding incident, past cardboard backdrops of massively detailed historical and cultural exegesis. On and on.

It is not that the book entirely lacks interest. The reader cannot trawl through these many fact-swarming pages without snagging all manner of trivia in his/her net. And if lots of factoids and a broad sense of the historical circumstance of England in 1714 is what you are after, then this is the ... no, wait, what am I saying? If that's what's you're after, log on to Wikipedia and spend an hour or so browsing. If what you're after is a book that hangs about you like a ball-and-chain, a reading experience that seems to trudge on forever, a narrative whose ending seems to fade for ever and for ever as you move gaspingly towards it, then this is the book for you.

There are some engaging episodes, although many of these are cut from the pattern-book of Ruff-and-Roisterdoistering Restoration-lite: a bear-baiting; lively conversation at the Kit-Kat Club; scenes in Newgate Prison; adventure on the high seas. The climax, involving the bloody execution of one key character, is especially vivid (or was it just tinged with my relief that I was nearly at the end of the book?).

There is also, as in Quicksilver, an enormous amount of stuff: historical details and trivia, some quite involved discussions of Natural Philosophy. There's a deal more plot, bombs and fireworks, political machinations, forgery, false coinage, and Newton's attempts to find the philosopher's stone that could turn dross into gold (which this book treats as a more serious and worthwhile occupation than most biographies of Newton do).

There's an elaborate (everything in this book is elaborate) schematizing thematic that links gold, currency, the circulation of wealth, the economy and other things into a lacework web of signification. Characters infodump outrageously upon one another, telling people all manner of facts and opinions at exhaustive length, some interesting, most clunkingly leaden:

'On the contrary Mr Threader. I know that the Tories have established their own Bank, as a rival and counterpoise to the Bank of England. But the Bank of England is capitalized with East India shares. The equity of the Tories' Land Bank is, simply, land ... with all due respect to the busy, but misguided men of the Juncto, their Bank's health is as precarious as the Queen's. The war we have just brought to an end was a Whig war, pressed upon a reluctant Queen by the importunities of a warlike parliament, led by a Juncto intoxicated by dreams of adventures on foreign soil.' [35]

Do we mind that this is not how real, breathing, stammering human beings speak? Does it bother us that characters stand together in gentlemen's clubs saying things like --

'If there are two things, call them A and B, that have a particular relationship to each other, for example my lord Wragsby's wig and my lord Wragsby's head, and if I have in my mind an idea of my lord Wragsby's wig, call it alpha, and an idea of his head, call it beta, then the relationship between alpha and beta is the same as that between A and B. And owing to this property of minds, it is possible for me to construct in my head an whole universe of ideas, yet each idea will relate to all of the other ideas in precisely the same way that the things represented by those ideas relate to one another; lo, 'tis as if I have created a microcosm 'tween my ears without understanding a bit of it.' [169]

This is Dappa, a main character, explaining Spinoza; and the problem here is not that he is wrong (although obviously he is: dreams, for example, are ideational without sharing the cause-and-effect coherence of reality). But would you really want to be locked in a room with Dappa as he chundered on about Lord Wragsby's wig? The System of the World is a Dappa that buttonholes its listeners without mercy for nine hundred close-printed pages.

And then there is the anachronism. All the way through this novel, character A addresses character B in 18th-centuryese, and character B replies out of the 21st-century, or vice versa. For instance:

'Our Uncle Bob phant'sies he's doing us a boon by bringing us under military justice, so's we'll be hanged fast instead of drawn and quartered at Tyburn Cross.'

Danny was impressed. 'Good one, uncle! Sorry I called you a prick. But just as Jimmy and Tomba would not abandon me, so me and Jimmy won't leave Tomba to be gutted by Jack Ketch all by his lonesome, will we, Jimmy?' [661]

I was very down on the anachronistic dialogue of Quicksilver, as indeed I was about the whole book, when I reviewed it for infinity plus last year. Now, I should explain that I'm not trying to suggest Stephenson mixes together slangy twenty-first century chat and pastiche seventeenth-century blather for reasons of sloppiness, or out of ignorance (indeed, this is a book -- and I never thought I'd say this about a work of sf -- that could have done with a little more ignorance, a little less of the pathologically metastasising Knowledge!-Knowledge!-Knowledge!). No, Stephenson knows what he's doing. His use of anachronism is part of a deliberate aesthetic strategy. This, from a recent interview on reasononline:

Stephenson: I could have tried to write the entire Baroque Cycle in Jacobean English, but at some point I'd have had to ask myself, "Who am I kidding? Everyone knows this was written in the 21st century." The sensibility from which it's written is that of the high-tech modern world. To purge the whole cycle of all traces of modern English would have seemed forced and absurd. So I just wrote it in whatever language seemed best to get the story across, which in some places was modern-sounding English and in other places was period English.
[reasononline Feb 2005]

But this is to misunderstand the aesthetic parameters of the historical, or even the alt.historical novel. Remember: we're not just talking writing descriptive prose in a modern idiom (which, though cheesy, is just about defensible); we're talking the whole shebang, including, or especially, the words the characters themselves speak.

Let me put it this way: how would we, as readers, react to this novel if Daniel Waterhouse pulled out his mobile phone and started a conversation with Newton whilst sipping a Starbucks skinny latté? This, I submit, would be jolting and distracting, countereffective to the novel's success. But given Stephenson's justification, why would it be? Why doesn't Stephenson include speed dating and Jennifer Lopez and eBay in his Baroque books? If such things would offend our readerly acuities, then how much more calamitous is a studied wrongness of language itself? Presumably people don't mind the anachronistic dialogue so much because they tend to downplay the importance of language today, people are deaf to the nuances and valences of it. But no serious writer can be deaf to language. Books are not made out of historical-technical theories; books are in the first instance made out of words.

Why pick and choose some elements to be evoked with historical consistency and sensitivity, and some to be tossed in with complete disregard to the suspension of willing disbelief of the reader? Stephenson says 'to purge the whole cycle of all traces of modern English would have seemed forced and absurd'. Try that sentence with the operative phrase adapted: 'to purge the whole cycle of all reference to mobile phones, motorbikes and eBay would have seemed forced and absurd.' That's obviously crazy. Well, the first version of the sentence is crazy for exactly the same reasons: and in a verbal work of art is crazy a fortiori.

Stephenson's 'Who am I kidding?' argument is specious. He wants, in fact, to have his cake and eat it too: to evoke the experience of living in eighteenth-century world in its detail, its verisimilitude, with the thickness of affect and sensation evoked by the best writers; but he also wants to wink knowingly at the reader, to absolve himself of the more profound authorial responsibilities on the grounds that 'it's all a game'. He wants, in short, to write a Realist/Postmodern novel. Either narrative strategy is defensible; both together is Jeff-Goldblum-plus-fly disaster. I try to imagine other writers trying this line.

Henry James: I could have tried to write the entirety of What Maisie Knew in the idiom of a young girl's thoughts, but at some point I'd have had to ask myself, "Who am I kidding? Everyone knows that I'm not a little girl, but a big gay writer living in England in the late nineteenth-century", so I decided to cut out all the stuff about being a girl and observing my parents' broken-down relationship from a position of helpless half-comprehension, and instead put in stuff about this sexy young trooper I saw yesterday on the Strand."

This, as Francis Jeffries once wrote in a review of Wordsworth's Prelude, will not do. Anachronistic dialogue is not as bad as anachronistic clothes, props or politics; it is much worse than. It debilitates the novel. It means that The System of the World becomes not about history, or information, or the birth of modern science, it becomes only about Neal Stephenson, How Much He Hath Read, and How Very Clever He Is.

So who should win? Ian Ian McDonald, River of GodsMcDonald's River of Gods is a wonderful, dazzling novel, the best I read in any genre in 2004.

And who will win? I really have no idea. Last year's award to Stephenson wrongfooted me completely, and made me wonder if my increasingly middle-aged crankiness has started to alienate me from what Many Reasonable People consider award-worthy. The whole of my negative review of The System of the World above could be boiled down to the statement 'this book is pretty much like Quicksilver', which for many would be not dispraise but rather the highest commendation. Since Quicksilver had what it took to win the Clarke, and since The System of the World has everything that its predecessor has, maybe it will carry away the £2005. Maybe Mitchell's readability and storytelling skill will persuade the panel. Maybe Morgan's slam-bang focus and verve will win. But I'd like to think that McDonald will take the prize, for he deserves it.


Afterword

This year's winner was China Miéville, with Iron Council. As my wife said to me when I told her this news on returning home from the ceremony, 'so you were wrong again!' I'd suggested that maybe one of three other 'M's on the list would win, but Miéville's unique and powerful vision had what it took on the night. In a gracious acceptance speech Miéville paid tribute to the other titles on the shortlist, and said quite rightly that one main purpose of awards like the Clarkes is precisely to generate debate. Amen to that.


Review-feature by Adam Roberts.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:


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