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the shortlist


The Arthur C Clarke Shortlist 2006

a review feature by Adam Roberts

Links within this feature:

  • Introduction
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (Faber and Faber, £16.99, March 2005, hardback, 272 pages; ISBN: 0571224113. Faber and Faber, £7.99, March 2006, paperback, 276 pages; ISBN: 057122413X.)
  • Ken MacLeod, Learning the World (Orbit, £17.99, August 2005, hardback, 352 pages; ISBN: 1841493430. Orbit, £6.99, 398 pages, paperback, this edition published May 2006.)
  • Alastair Reynolds, Pushing Ice (Gollancz, £14.99, October 2005, hardback, 460 pages; ISBN: 0575074388. Gollancz, £10.99, October 2005, paperback, 464 pages; ISBN: 0575074396. Gollancz, £6.99, October 2006, paperback, 512 pages; ISBN: 0575078154.)
  • Geoff Ryman, Air, or Have Not Have (Gollancz, £17.99, July 2005, hardback, 400 pages; ISBN: 0575076976. Gollancz, £6.99, 390 pages, paperback, September 2006.)
  • Charles Stross, Accelerando (Orbit, £16.99, August 2005, hardback, 448 pages; ISBN: 1841493902 . Orbit, £6.99, June 2006, paperback, 448 pages; ISBN: 1841493899.)
  • Liz Williams, Banner of Souls (Tor UK, £12.99, February 2005, paperback, 480 pages; ISBN: 1405041242. Tor UK, £6.99, February 2006, paperback, 480 pages; ISBN: 0330426907.)
  • Who should win?
  • And the winner is... (added after the winner was announced)

The word novel means new. 'Novel' was a word applied to prose fiction for the first time in the eighteenth-century (before that novels were 'Romances'), and it signalled precisely the novelty of the form, the way it opened up new modes of narrating and perceiving the world.

Can the novel still be novel, in this age of ours? There are times when, traipsing through the marshlands of silver-age fiction and derivative slush that constitutes the mainstream novel in the early twenty-first century, a reader might be forgiven for despairing. But surely SF isn't like this. Surely Science Fiction, of all genres, is one place where not only intellectual but formal newness would be welcomed? A literature of ideas, an imaginative entry into alien-ness and unfamiliarity, a canvas that apprehends the entire continuity of space and time rather than just the emotionally fraught goings-on of middle-class people in multicultural London or Chicago -- surely we can hope, surely expect, to encounter newness in SF?

I'm being heavy-handed. Of course we all know how much of the SF backlist is worryingly conventional, unadventurous: written in functional grey prose (or worse, in Thoggish cliché); structured according to a frankly 19th-century model of set-up, linear or interleaved plotline development and climax; populated by cookie-cut 'characters' that barely deserve the name, feeble types from Joseph Campbell's cardboard supply. If a novel doesn't make new in some sense, what good is it? Why read a third-generation retread of a classic original when you can, you know, just read the original?

This is a roundabout way of asserting one key criterion, perhaps the key criterion, for judging a writer: does s/he sound more-or-less like somebody else? Or does s/he have an original voice, a newness? Or to put it another way: are your favourite authors writing pastiche, of howsoever accomplished a variety; or are they writing novels?

This year's Clarke shortlist is a good list, not least in the sense that no obviously standout SF title published in the UK in 2005 has been omitted (with the possible exceptions of Justina Robson's challenging but brilliant Living Next Door To The God Of Love and James Lovegrove's witty Provender Gleed). But I find myself wondering: how many of them are doing anything conceptually, formally, tonally new? That, in Hamlet's once-new, now hackneyed words, is the question.

 

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is a carefully and even obsessively controlled piece of writing: a passionless and chilly little book that never heats up.

Now, straightaway I come upon a difficulty: how, or indeed whether, to avoid giving away spoilers. The focus of the novel is life in a boarding school from the point of view of one girl, Kathy H.; but it becomes quickly evident that this is not an ordinary boarding school. There is something about the place, a secret initially unexplained, to which hints are placed easter-egg-hunt-like through the first hundred pages. The children never see the outside world; they don't seem to have parents; they are absolutely forbidden from smoking or doing anything that would damage their organs; they are incapable of ever having children. Soon we discover that they leave the school at sixteen first to care for, and then to become, individuals whose organs are surgically harvested. But there is something clumsy about all this, since the solution to the mystery is egregiously obvious from the beginning -- we twig from the get-go that these are clones, bred specifically as a source of clean new organs that can be transplanted into the disease- or indulgence-compromised bodies of others. There's your spoiler; but I can't feel especially sorry for dropping it, since I would be as astonished as a wide-eyed basking shark if you didn't get it pretty much as soon as you started reading. Like the twist in the Sixth Sense, or the identity of the planet in Planet of the Apes, we are aware that there's supposed to be a shock twist without feeling any shock, or noting any twistiness. The 'c'-word is first dropped in at page 152, but we've all cottoned-on long before that.

It's the c-word, presumably, that has earned the book its place on the Clarke list, although it's a justification of 'WMDs-in-Iraq-therefore-we-invade' slenderness. Cloning in this novel means only two things. It means a certain difference between the protagonists and 'normal people': difference that is slight, in many ways, but felt profoundly by the individuals concerned. And it means death: the fact that these bright young people will, inevitably, have their bodies invasively compromised and their lives ended whilst they are still young. It may be that Ishiguro frames his fable as obliquely as he does in order to try and prevent it becoming too obviously an existential allegory -- 'for are we not all,' intones the pompous critical voice, 'in the same situation? Are we not all in a sense executed for a crime we did not commit?' Actually I'm not quoting criticus pompous here, I'm quoting Woody Allen's Love and Death, the bit where Boris is in the condemned cell awaiting execution for a murder he didn't commit ('the difference,' Boris observes, 'is that we all go "some time". Whereas I go at six o'clock tomorrow morning. It was going to be five o'clock, but I hired a smart lawyer. He got leniency.') I'm getting distracted; but there's a reason for that. That's what's missing in Ishiguro's treatment: comedy. Wit. Irony. Or, indeed, human warmth of any kind.

The focus of Never Let Me Go is claustrophobically upon the frictions and pleasures of the relationship between its three main characters: clever and self-effacing Kathy, poisonously selfish Ruth (well drawn, by Ishiguro, so as not to become too ghastly) and not-so-bright Tommy. They love and hate one another over trifles. Eventually Ruth and Tommy die, and the book ends with Kathy on the same road. That's the whole story. Moreover, everything happens in a weirdly dissociated climate of affluent seclusion; one amongst many elements lacking is any context for the experience of cloning as Ishiguro represents it. We have no idea how society reacts to this (secret? well-known?) practice. Surely there would be opposition, at least from some quarters, at this slaughter of beautiful young boys and girls? I suppose it can be argued that one point of Ishiguro's novel is to treat exploitation as the background noise of society, not as the main item; but it's hard to deny that without this broader social idiom the action becomes schematic, unreal.

There is also (without wishing to sound Puritanical) a lie in the conception of the novel. Because Ishiguro's premise is, of course, no mere fantasy. In our world some people are surgically exploited for the benefit of others who do not give their donors a second thought: people who give up blood, kidneys or other organs -- or, even, give up their children, their health -- to feed a medical market. But the people who make these sacrifices are not affluent middle-class white teenagers; they are the invisible underclass poor. The motive in most cases is financial desperation, or pleb bravado (because one's own body is a pretty finite resource). To reorient this circumstance so that it becomes the plight of these clever, artistic, well-spoken, polite young things is to do a violence to the genuine applicability of the story Ishiguro tells.

Ishiguro is drawn to the artificially confined environment: the stately home in Remains of the Day, the fictitious European City in The Unconsoled, the carceral school in Never Let Me Go. He's fascinated too by the notion that service can become an ethos that utterly determines and misshapes human life; a notion given a certain bite by the widespread belief that service is a good thing rather than a bad. And he has generated a surprisingly wide array of fictional effects out of that one fascination. But it may not be a coincidence that his most enduring achievement, Remains of the Day, was a period piece. Because -- and here's the rub -- duty no longer carries the widespread ethical and cultural weight it once did for most people. The valorization of a whole tribe of people whose whole lives were hidden away, squeezed under the lid of 'service to others', who happily denied their own desires in favour of others, who went (even) to their deaths, and who took pride in not complaining about their exploitation because it was their duty: this is an historical, and not a current, notion. It works in a novel set in the 1930s. But in the sparely drawn 'late 1990s' which Ishiguro's epigraph identifies as the location of Never Let Me Go, it results in a group of characters who feel undermotivated, and indeed simply underdrawn. They all sail past the zeitgeist at right-angles; for the zeitgeist is and has been, for the last three decades at least, much more punk and antagonistic than this. You got to fight the power, fight the powers that be, as somebody once, quite properly, insisted. That's a sentiment utterly alien to this novel. Even hinting at it would have destroyed the bloom of Ishiguro's delicate blandness; might -- who knows? -- have polluted the book with excitement, drama, stuff like that.

Nor is this a specially well-written novel. This isn't to say it's badly written, exactly; but only that it is so carefully written, its prose is so neurotic about putting a single foot wrong, that it becomes bloodless. Ishiguro's tweezer-ish manipulation of his stifled emotionally dwarfish characters does not achieve the deeper resonances for which the novel aims. The representation of banality need not itself be banal; and, indeed, SF has greater need than most genres of the understanding that most of life is trivial, that banality is a major force in life. But Ishiguro is so allergic to melodrama that he's gone too far the other way: he's purged his drama of any music at all, save (perhaps) a thin atonal melody playing very distantly in the background. It's conceivable that some readers will prefer this to the full Puccini-esque clamour, but more likely readers will find it incomprehensibly underpowered.

Most pressingly of all: is it new? No, it isn't. It is a close-worked minor variation on the Ishiguro Novel; tonally almost exactly the same as Unconsoled or When We Were Orphans; formally identical to all his other books (which are all first-person narrations by slightly strangulated but essentially decent individuals); touching on the same themes (servitude, duty, bafflement), the same subjects (intricate codes of behaviour, thwarted love), even the same visual icons and emblems (Ishiguro seems fascinated by large houses, for instance: or by vehicles -- in this case a boat -- out of context). It's possible to instance great artists who have built their careers working and reworking variations on as limited a core set of premises, but not many: and I worked my way through Never Let Me Go with the feeling that this Ishiguro schtick is getting old; it's tired, it's glum, it's uninvolving and worst of all it's uneloquent. I finished reading thinking it a very meagre novel indeed.

Ken MacLeod, Learning the WorldMuch more engaging and thought-provoking is Ken Macleod's Learning the World, a book that works certain variations upon well-worn textual precedent. The front cover is honest about this: it's 'a novel of first contact', and many of its fixtures and fittings slot neatly into the seasoned SF reader's sense of genre antecedence -- humans aboard a giant cylindrical generation-starship with an axial-line illumination for a sun (like Gene Wolfe's Whorl); aliens that are somewhat batlike; modulated misunderstanding; disagreements (on both sides) about how to handle the new arrivals; debates about Fermi's paradox; a nineteenth-century-esque culture stimulated into sudden technological advance by the arrival of much more advanced visitors.

There are, as always with Macleod, many wittily-handled incisive ideas and speculations; and the whole thing is deftly written. But it didn't seem to me to be quite as deft or thoughtful a book as Newton's Wake or any of the Engines of Light series, both of which covered many of the same questions rehearsed here. For example: isn't it a little too foursquare for a writer as canny as Macleod to begin a novel called Learning the World with chapters in which representative human and alien characters literally learn their worlds, thereby setting the stalls out straightforwardly for us, the ignorant reader? In chapter one a young girl starts climbing a ladder towards the axial sun -- a lovely Jack-and-Beanstalkish opening; but then she's picked up by a kindly elder in a plane and whisked through a Cook's Tour of the spaceship. In chapter two an alien goes into a Department of Astronomy apparently only in order to look at a series of photographic images that give us, the ignorant readership, a guided tour of the alien's solar system.

A different way of putting this would be to note that there are certain dinted footsteps in which a novel of this sort, like the young page following Wenceslas through the snow, will tend to tread. Remember Planet of the Apes, and those delightful touches in which apes would say human-typical things with apeness substituted at salient points? ('I never met an ape I didn't like' and so on.) Here the batlike aliens do the same. So, for instance, the brilliant Darvin is trying to build heavier-than-air flying machines ('there was even a standard abbreviation for it: HTA') but is opposed by traditionalist batoids: 'if the gods had meant us to build flying machines ... they wouldn't have given us wings' [23]. Witty, a little second-hand, it's typical of the novel.

I started by thinking the bat-aliens were an intriguing gloss on Robert Paltock's eighteenth-century novel Peter Wilkins, with its flying humanoids. By the end I was more struck with the close parallels between this story of first contact (in which competing cliques of humans encounter a bat-like population of aliens whose technology is turn-of-the-twentieth-century) and Vernor Vinge's story of first contact, A Deepness in the Sky (1999), in which competing cliques of humans encounter a spider-like population of aliens whose technology is turn-of-the-twentieth-century. But perhaps this is only to observe that it would be very hard to write a straight novel of first contact nowadays without moving over territory already pretty thoroughly mapped by writers like Vinge, Mary Doria Russell, Fuzzy old H Beam Piper, Sheri Tepper, Arthur Clarke, H. G. Wells ... I'd better stop now, or I'll end up listing every single writer of science fiction there has ever been.

Sometimes Macleod does what he is expert at doing, making the reader see things anew. I liked, for instance, the 'in gravity' adventures of a smart and educated human character who has spent his whole life in a freefall environment: he sees bushes ('plants with green photo-receptors and red insect-attractors' 59); he has a go at walking on the ground ('it was a bit like flying a scooter' 60); it rains on him ('it was like a shower, except that the water came from only one direction', 61). But sometimes the episodes feel over-familiar; as for example, and unfortunately for the overall success of the novel, in many of the scenes with the bat-aliens. Too many times the stress on sleeping hanging upside down, or the translating of distances into 'wingspans' (as if late nineteenth-century science still measured the world in 'arms-lengths') just annoys.

The problem is that I didn't believe the alien society MacLeod creates. We're talking about a lifeform whose development started from radically different physiological and social premises to humanity (they can fly, after all: and it transpires they rarely go to war, and have never enslaved their own kind). This is, moreover, a lifeform which never passed through an agricultural stage of cultural development; they went straight from hunter-gathering to technology. I am flat unconvinced that such a creature would evolve culturally so as to become almost exactly like late 19th-century European humanity, with metalled roads, universities, scientific journals, bars, butchers, a secret police, tourism and steamships. It's not just the props and the settings: the characters act and react, plot and dream like human beings. (It also kept niggling at me that a language consisting of squeaks and clicks produces names such as Darvin, Bahron and Kwarive.)

There is also another spoiler problem for the reviewer to worry about here, although of a different order of magnitude to the case of the Ishiguro novel. Learning the World begins with the Fermi paradox (if there are any aliens out there then chances are there are loads, so, like, where are they all?) and ends with a solution to the paradox. This solution may, or may not, explain the oddly human-ish-ness of the aliens. I'm really not sure. I am sure that it makes a frustratingly insufficient closing note for the book, as if the reader has been reaching out with her hand to shake MacLeod's and at the last moment he's whipped his arm away and thumbed his nose at her. It may be the wackiest Fermi-explanation I've come across, and it may (but, infuriatingly, then again it may not) explain much of what has preceded it. But I can't say any more without letting the spoiler cat out of the bag. And I believe firmly in keeping cats inside bags. Airtight ones, preferably.

So I'll leave that alone. Instead I'll note what I took to be a weakness in the dramatic construction of the whole, about which I can talk without spoiling anything. Much. One of the ways in which Vinge's Deepness in the Sky differs from Macleod's book (apart from the fact that the earlier book is much longer) is that Vinge construes his human space-explorers in a much more good-and-evil manner: his characters comprise a greater range of human good and evil; they are more dramatically rendered. But none of the characters in Learning the World are particularly nasty. Macleod's humans may scheme a little, may bicker a bit, but the very concept of (for instance) people making war on people strikes them as a historical anachronism ghastly almost to the point of unbelievability. The bat-aliens are a little more involved in the potential for dramatic agon, but even here they're all pretty much charming and lovely. Even the bat-SS is comprised of politely considerate individuals, who inflict no permanent harm upon anybody. No characters were ever as untainted by original sin as these. The word for this is 'gentle', as in 'this gentle narrative of the slowly-unfolding first-conflict between...' But a gentle narrative can easily become a lax one; it can be hard for the reader fully to engage in the action. Macleod is a major writer, but Learning the World struck me as a minor work in his burgeoning canon.

Alastair Reynolds, Pushing IceAlastair Reynolds' enormously readable if chug-hearted Pushing Ice is a refreshingly unpretentious book, and one of the things to which it makes no pretensions is radical novelty, either in form or content. There's something very agreeable about this, particularly when the pieces are manoeuvred with such expert and professional skill. The effect on the reader is as beguiling as settling into a comfy chair in which the contours perfectly match the knobbles of your own spine.

Here is the mid-21st-century spaceship Rockhopper, with its gnarly, feisty, can-do crew of engineers and technicians. Here's the comet they are grappling, in order to deflect it in-system and sell the water. Here're their various backstories, their previous lives amongst the lunar and Martian colonies, the unforgiving economics of this near-future solar system. But here's a surprise (or, maybe, surprise is the wrong word): here is a huge alien artefact! It's so large that people had mistaken it for a Saturnian moon until it baffled their expectations by setting off on a trajectory out through the solar system, heading in the direction of the constellation Virgo. Specifically it's heading for Spica (which no Latinist would pronounce, as these characters do, 'spiker.' That's a short 'i.' More like spicka. But this is by the bye). This artefact -- let's call it Rama -- is highing on its way, and the Rockhopper is the only ship in the system with a chance of intercepting it. Clearly this Rama is mystery that needs to be figured out. Off they go.

The artefact isn't called Rama, of course. It's got a different mythological moniker, which is on the tip of my tongue. It'll come to me in a moment.

Anyway, this Budrysesque rogue moon (complete with booby-traps that slay unwary explorers) is clearly a great prize for mankind. Janus! That's the name of the moon. But Janus is not easily to be won. On the journey out to the mysterious artefact the Discovery suffers serious malfunction (wait, no, not the Discovery, the Rockhopper). Indeed, it transpires that the resourceful crew have been shafted by their unscrupulous corporate owners who cynically regard everybody on board the Nostromo as expendable when set against their own profit.

Rockhopper, not Nostromo. And they're chasing Janus, not Rama. I'm getting it clear in my head now.

The narrative thunders onwards, gaining relative mass as it gains relative speed. I quickly found that the book had become too massy to escape the puny gravity well of my comfy chair. The adventures take satisfyingly expected-unexpected directions. There are long-haul relativistic journeys to the end of the universe, like Anderson's Tau Zero. There is a mysterious black monolith -- (no, really, there is) -- the dimensions of which are accurate to the molecule and which is composed of a substance that science cannot penetrate. It's a cube rather than a slab, true, but it does present our key character with an avatar that hints at deeper mysteries and depths of time, and it does perform various trippy, miraculous actions. It may remind you of something from a film you once saw.

I'm not saying that all this familiarity reduces Pushing Ice to mere derivativeness, although it doesn't help lift the novel past the category of comfortable reading experience. Nevertheless, readable it most assuredly is: I finished it in one day-long sitting, neglecting several pressing work commitments in order to find out what was going to happen. Reynolds is disgustingly adept at playing the make-em-wait game, revealing slivers of his mystery only to draw the reader deeper in. The danger of course is that the pay-off in such a narrative scenario will feel anticlimactic, and here Reynolds manages to stay just on the right side of the line: the book ends with a satisfying whump. There are flashes of real flair. In particular his excellent new coinage 'gristleships' -- to describe a noisome variety of alien spacecraft -- deserves to become a feature of the genre.

Overall Pushing Ice is written in what we might call a two-tone style: which is to say, the fabric of the text (its lengthy conversations between characters, its technically precise chunks of descriptive prose, its occasional infodumps) tend to be in one of two voices. On the first hand is a rather crashing vernacular, of the 'kill margin set to fifty!' and 'you know what they say about shit coming in threes' and 'we blew them out of the goddamn sky!' variety. On the second hand is a rather stiffly chilly idiom, in which quite a lot of information can be conveyed at the expense of flavour, tone or character: people saying things like 'we inhabit a relatively stable region, but other zones are subject to disputes that occasionally overspill into nearby volumes' and 'you disobeyed a direct ruling not to talk to the Musk Dogs. In addition you owned and operated an illegal forge vat and ran an unauthorised construction file.' There is, in between these two tones, little chiaroscuro. This doesn't interfere with the onward surge of the novel's swell, but it perhaps gives the text a slightly angular rough-edged feel.

The book's weakest feature, I think, is its characterisation. The two main figures, both women, are defined almost entirely in terms of their extraordinary, even inhuman, stubbornness towards one another: Bella Lind, the captain of the Serenity, sorry, Rockhopper; and Svetlana Barseghian, her chief engineer. At the book's beginning they are the best of friends, or at least this is what we are told, not really what we are shown. But as the narrative proceeds they become foes as implacable as those characters from Les Miserables. They take turns in the command, during which times they spend as much time punishing or trying to thwart the other as they do on anything else. It's the fact that we see almost nothing of these characters except their professional competence and their maniacal stubborn animosity that makes them not read true (Svetlana is given a boyfriend later in the story, but he's a shadowy figure in a merely sketched-in relationship). Without flesh and blood animating its core the novel perhaps feels more like a slightly under-powered exercise in big machines, big distances and big ideas. But you won't be able to put it down.

Geoff Ryman, Air, or Have Not HaveIt is one expert irony amongst many that Geoff Ryman's Air carries the Hemingwayesque subtitle Have Not Have. It's harder to imagine a novel less committed to the nihilist Iron John posturings of Hemingway than this exquisite, beautiful, moving, and perfectly-judged fictional marvel.

The story is about the last village in the world to go online: not our wiry internet but a new beyond-bluetooth protocol called 'Air' into which anybody with a working brain can plug. The coming of this technology changes life in the village forever. But saying this gives no flavour of how utterly compelling and immersive the reading experience is; how brilliantly Ryman has generated genuine drama and must-keep-reading grippability out of the ordinary trivialities of everyday life; how the small summative changes in the lives of a group of ordinary peasant characters builds into a profound meditation on Change in the largest sense.

The scene is a small village called Kizuldah in rural Karzistan, a land which (as its Carry-On name suggests) is not a real place, but a fictional kingdom supposedly bordering China, Tibet and Khazakstan. The main character is Mae, married, her children grown-up, her good-hearted but dull husband scraping a living, and she augmenting their income with 'fashion work', mostly consisting of making dresses for village women to wear on special occasions. Apart from the day-to-day dramas of village life the only thing that happens in the novel is the introduction, by the UN, of the 'Air' protocol. Because this operates directly in the mind, it promises -- or threatens -- finally to connect the remote village to the rest of the world.

The medium of village life is beautifully captured: the interactions, the claustrophobia and the sense of belonging, the little hierarchies and their minute shifts and readjustments, the interference patterns different people and different families create by interacting with one another. There is absolutely nothing forced about it: the fact that the author is a white Western male simply never intrudes into the representation of this Eastern peasant and largely female milieu. Indeed, how Ryman managed to create such wholeheartedly believable portraiture is something of a puzzle: there's no whiff of 'research', or book-learning, about the novel; there's nothing second-hand or internet-prompted about the mis-en-scène. It reads as effortlessly, absolutely real, quite convincing, and you can't help, as reader, but suspend your disbelief. I really don't know how he has done it; and I say that in as frankly envious a manner as any writer can when faced with a technique and vision so thoroughly superior to his own.

The premise for the novel is particularly well chosen: the internet, globalising though it be, is as Western an invention as can be imagined: it's the apotheosis of Capitalism, spreading rhizomatic through all the world and bringing such double-edged Western virtues as 'stuff for sale', 'people exercising their rights to free speech in ways that may upset you', 'technological gobbledegook' and, well, 'porn' to every corner and crevice of the world. But Ryman's iteration of the net, his 'airborne' variety, connects eloquently with more traditional Eastern idioms: it is spirit, it is elemental. It is, in fact, haunted -- the first experiment with the technology terrifies the blind old woman Mrs Tung (Mae's neighbour) so much that she stumbles against a cauldron of boiling water, scalding and killing herself. Mae, also terrified by the visions in her head, is with her when this happens, and somehow Mrs Tung ends up inside Mae's head. If this sounds cheesy as I have written it here, I can only implore you to believe me that Ryman writes this so naturally and powerfully that you believe it without cavil.

It means that Mae sees the village as it is, and sees how the new technology will change it: but she also experiences flashbacks of Mrs Tung's early life. She mediates the past and the future. In a novel, like Air, which is about the way the old inevitably gives way to the new there is a danger that the burden of the representation will tend towards mere conservatism. It is easier to mourn what is lost than confront the inevitability of change. But Ryman's novel is not sentimentally sad-eyed about the past. Though the old ways are presented as having great appeal, his village is no rural idyll. By the same token his is a balanced apprehension of the gains and losses the new technologies bring with it. I was reminded, in this, of Le Guin's The Telling -- it's the highest praise I can think of that Ryman merits comparison with a writer of Le Guin's stature, and indeed in one respect his vision is more rounded and compelling even than hers. With the quasi-Chinese culture of The Telling we, as readers, are never allowed to doubt that the new technologies are essentially ruinous of an older, more authentic, spiritually-connected mode of living. But in Air things are not so simple or clear-cut. It makes the earlier book more schematically polemic, and the later novel deeper, more profound, and more connected to life as it is.

Another novel that Air brought to my mind was A House For Mr Biswas, perhaps Naipaul's most completely achieved novel. I don't mention Naipaul here simply because his book, like Air, concerns the day-to-day struggles of poor 'third world' individuals in a changing world. The two novels share more than a superficial resemblance; and their respective protagonists are both inspiring and deeply human, marvels of characterisation. Nor does Ryman's book simply recast Naipaul's. He is doing something new, saying something powerful about the passage from old to new that utilizes the trope of information (education, bildungsroman, money, knowledge-as-power) as the spirit dimension that elevates life from pig-herding, mud and clouds of fleas biting your ankles.

Actually I don't think I'm doing a very good job here of capturing the unique flavour of Air. It's much funnier than perhaps I'm implying; and its ending moves beyond conventional realism into something which, whilst precisely prepared for in the body of the whole, is magical and marvellous.

Is Air new? In this case the answer is yes. Of all the books on this list, it is the most original in conception, the most brilliant in execution, and the most haunting. It reconfigures science fiction away from hyperbolic overstatement, and towards an aesthetic of detail and delight. Its stock is a 'sense of wonder' in which the phrase is more than simply a euphemism for 'cod-Gothic sublimity of scale'; it helps, in fact, to redefine the possibilities of 'sense of wonder'. Ryman gets everything right in the novel. It is an unforgettable piece of fiction.

Charles Stross, AccelerandoThere's one obvious way in which Charlie Stross's Accelerando lacks the shock of the new: we have of course already seen the stories out of which it has been fixed-up in the pages of Asimov's. Indeed, several of them have already been nominated for prizes, and it's no surprise to see the complete tome on the Clarke (and also the BSFA) shortlists. I'm not sure that, at the moment, I can think of a more now SF writer than Stross. He may have been publishing since the 1980s, but he seemed in 2005 to have arrived suddenly, like the screaming across the sky with which Gravity's Rainbow opens, trailing clouds of slightly belated glory as he came. Accelerando even has its own wiki. How many other novels on the shortlist can boast that?

It would be surprising if so much rapturous buzz were founded in nothing at all, and there are many reasons to be excited by Stross's writing. Above all his breathtaking prodigality with fascinating ideas creates a sparky and spectacular effect. I finished it feeling as if I had been well and truly tango'd: smacked about the chops by a big orange Idea baldie and no mistake. So blinding, indeed, is Stross's sheer density of ideas that it takes a little reflection to recover the novel, as it were, as fiction. When it's considered more carefully certain flaws become apparent in the crystal.

Stross, for instance, is much more comfortable with the further future than the nearer. The earlier sections of the novel fall back on over-familiar touches. (Here's Milton Keynes. How's he gong to characterise that town? Concrete cows? Is that the best he can do?) A key character, who happens to be French, is hired direct from central casting, with not just a Gallic shrug but 'a very Gallic shrug' [45-6] and a manner characterised by 'a distinctly Parisian rudeness.' Moreover she does that Poirot thing of knowing the English for complex expressions but falling back on French for simple ones ('mais oui' and 'mon cher' and so on). This isn't how French speakers of English actually speak, as anybody who has English-speaking French friends will confirm; it was merely how Agatha Christie indicated to her readers that Poirot was, you know, foreign. It doesn't ring true.

But the near-now stuff isn't what we read Stross for, and anyway he soon leaves it behind. The nine chapters trace a narrative line from the early twenty-teens, to the end of this century and a little way beyond, but more happens in the hundred-plus years than the chronology might be thought to admit: a constantly accelerating rate of change that jets through the singularity and out the other side. The first character we meet is Manfred Macx, a 'pronoiac meme-broker' who thinks of cool ideas and gives them away, living on the tide of goodwill he thereby generates. Manfred gives Stross an opportunity to blizzard ideas and idea-ettes upon his reader, and we're so busy digesting the implications of smart AI networks derived from lobster-ganglia and human-free economic systems and diagnostic toilet-paper that monitors your cholesterol when you wipe your bum (and many, many other ideas) that it's hard to keep any emotional focus on the story. Manfred has a love-hate thing going with an improbably characterised dominatrix called Pamela. They have a child. Manfred hooks up with the parle-comme-poirot French woman. Contact is made with aliens. The gradient of the graph of technological change steepens, moving towards (and then through and out t'other side of) a Vingean singularity.

Actually there's some creative ambiguity in the way Stross takes the conceit of 'singularity'. On the one hand he is (of course) riffing off Vinge's original concept, the event Ken Macleod famously glossed as 'the rapture of the nerds' -- that point separating human and posthuman such that the latter are radically different to, and unimaginable by, the former. On the other hand he invokes 'singularity' as a grand-sounding euphemism for pretty much any technological change, such that his characters debate amongst themselves to name previous singularities: suggestions include agriculture, 'the invention of algebra' or the first internet connection. These count as singularities, apparently, because it wasn't possible, before they came along, to predict what would happen after they came along. But this is a feeble usage, it seems to me; it speaks to the difficulty of prediction (chaos theory and so on) rather than to anything singular about the singularity. We might as well say that it would be impossible to extrapolate text-messaging from the work of Alexander Graham Bell, or (for that matter) impossible to extrapolate from the fact that Scooby Doo was on the telly this morning to the fact that my daughter would take her breakfast cereal through to the sitting room and accidentally spill milk all over the carpet. This doesn't make Scooby a singularity. Or if it does, then it's a pretty weak form of the concept.

This weak-form singularity manifests in the novel in terms of an imaginative limitation that stands out all the more strikingly in a novel in which imagination is, in other senses, so prodigiously untrammelled. The post-singularity human society is rendered in the motley of a rather tired sub-Moorcockian Dancers-at-the-end-of-Time style of decadence: VR recreations of orgiastic chunks of history: fin-de-siecle or seventeenth-century France (specifically Chéreau's gorgeous 1994 film of La Reine Margot), elaborate costumes, sensual indulgence. There's a lot of posing about by various characters, and some kinky sex that would have been envelope-pushing in the 1970s but which reads as rather tame today. There are also some unshocking shock scenes -- for example, since resurrection is a trivial business for this future society, children are allowed to play as rough as they like, and indeed torture one another to death.

To his credit, actually, Stross has his 'singularity' cake and eats it too (presumably by creating an atomic hologram of his original cake out of a bunch of Bose-Einstein condensates across which a superimposing interference pattern has been focussed). He gives us two different sorts of posthumans: firstly there is an unknowable mass of superhumanity, of whom we learn almost nothing in the novel -- an entity which strip-mines the inner planets to create nested Dyson-spheres of 'computronium' the better to facilitate their processing powers and play ever more complex games of Donkey Kong (or whatever). Secondly there are various significantly tech-augmented but still recognisable anthropoid post-humans living in habitats around Saturn, or even further out. These beings are where the story mostly is.

Now the obvious point to make about Accelerando (and many critics have made it already) is that it is not, and does not really work as, a novel. It is nine linked short stories fixed-up into a novel. Indeed Stross's fixing-up has not even gone so far as to remove those passages at the beginning of each tale explaining the status quo ante from which the narrative will move on -- and very tiresome indeed did the nine-fold repetition of background become by the end of the book. There's a lot of overlap, and at the same time there's a spastic lurchiness to the overall arc of the narrative, an architectonic clumsiness that militates against the success of the whole. It's possible that another reader will not find this feature as irritating as I did -- for, after all, some of SF's most revered and canonical texts were fixed-up with just as little regard to the esemplastic whole: Foundation comes to mind, for instance. But I thought it unfortunate that the metaphorical sanding block had not been passed over the metaphorical rough mortise-and-tenons of the story, precisely because the story concerns the smooth procession up the steepening curve of technological change.

There are, I think, two stumbling blocks upon which the success of the novel snags; one is part of Stross's general style, and the other specific to this novel. Both, moreover, admit of argument as to whether they are stumbling blocks at all, or might on the contrary be celebrated. It may just be me.

The first is the way Stross tells his story. His style is always lively, albeit in a rather fidgety way, compounded out of a mulch of cultural reference, gags, quotations and other bits of flotsam and jetsam picked up from SF, pop, film and all sorts of other places. This works well in short-story doses, although it gets more than a little wearing at novel length. But I suppose there's little point in objecting to Stross's outrageous infodumping: a practice he does with such gusto and at such prolonged and eye-jarring length that it becomes, perhaps, a kind of anti-style in its own right. The effect is a novel that inverts the traditional criteria of good writing. I tell my creative students: show don't tell -- that's the golden rule of writing. Stross busts his chops to tell me, as reader, everything, and conversely to show me nothing at all. My reaction tends to be that this works as osteoporosis on the skeleton of fiction, and that at no point in the narrative did I feel involved or emotionally engaged; and that at no point did it seem terribly real to me. The book dazzled me with its sparkle of ideas without managing to move or touch me.

If this might be pardoned as, at the least, a bravura experiment in fictional approach, then there remains a stumbling point (and I'm still on the first of my stumbling blocks here), I think, in the matter of the written style of the book itself. It is the baseline aesthetic question as to whether the reader finds passages such as the following bearable or unbearable:

Rita flicks a location-cached idea at him and he takes it cautiously, spawning a couple of specialized Turing Oracles to check it for halting states. It seems to be some kind of optic lobe hack that accesses a collaborative database of eigenfaces, with some sort of side interface to Broca's region. [359]

The problem here is not that these sentences don't parse (they do, with a bit of work); and not that they wholly lack tone (theirs is a rather nerdy and constipated tone, but nonetheless). The problem is just that they strike me as really ugly; and the larger problem is that the whole book is construed through this sort of aesthetic maladroitness. Often the ugliness is leavened by humour, or rather by a shiny sort of witty allusiveness; but the ugliness never, it seems to me, goes away. Stross's writing simply lacks the elegance, the beauty, the inflected suggestiveness of the best writing -- or, for that matter, of the best science.

Here's another example. Beckett once wrote that we 'give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams for an instant, then it's night once more'. This has resonance, a haunting quality: this is eloquent. Stross writes:

An unoptimized instance of H. sapiens maintains state coherency for only two to three gigaseconds before it succumbs to necrosis. [397]

That sacrifices eloquence to precision, filtered through the rather superior wit of the one-time professional writer for technical journals. I'm not sure it's a commendable sacrifice. On the other hand, this may be a failing in my own aesthetic sense. To me a sentence like 'a futon of spun diamondoid congeals out of the utility fog floating in the air' sticks thornily in my craw ('Diamondoid'? 'Congeals'? The way 'floating in air' ambiguously modifies both fog and futon? The imprecision of 'spun'? The prosodic lurch of the whole? yuk-yuk-yuk); but conceivably there are readers for whom it is pure and thrilling poetry. De gustibus = non-disputable etc.

Frankly I'm more concerned with what I take to be the novel's second stumbling block. This is the cat. I'm tempted to say that sodding cat, but such language would be out of place in a serious review. The cat is a key player in the novel, starting out as Manfred's pet, computationally enhanced and repeatedly software-updated its intelligence blooms. It comments upon the action, and by the novel's end is playing a large part in the tying together of all the threads. Now it may be that Stross is a cat-lover; that many of his readers will be cat-lovers; and that they will coo over this fictional cat and indulge Stross in his conceit. It so happens that I am not a cat-lover. It happens to be the case that, in addition to suffering allergic asthma when exposed to the foul polluting fur of these quadruped Nazis purrers, I find it morally inconceivable that any human could waste their affection on a creature that takes such delight in torture and selfishness -- that it takes a self-deluding anthropomorphisation and a soppy moral indolence to afford these parasites space in a person's heart.

There. Feel better for having gotten that off my chest.

But setting my personal animadversion aside, I still think the cat is a blot in the novel. The cat is chorus to the drama, and is presented as if sharply charming ('"yeah, whatever." The creature yawns'; 395). The cat is supposed to be sardonically witty, sly and likeable. But the cat is not these things. The cat is annoying, as artificial (in a bad sense) as the jerky puppet that provides commentary upon episodes of the live-action Sabrina the Teenage Witch TV series. Insulted by Annette, it wittily remarks: 'Snotty Parisian bitch. I'll piss in her knicker drawer. I'll molt in her bidet ... ' [135]. The cat elects, at one point, to manifest as a ginger-and-brown female, 'just to mess with the heads of those people who think all ginger cats are male' [163]. Observe my stony face. See how completely my mouth is failing to curl into a smile.

Humbug, I say. The idea that cat-owners should be indulged in their self-satisfied fabulation about their creatures -- the wincing cat-lover joke that they are the pet and their cats the real owners (oh ha! ha-ha! what a delightful joke that is; see how he manipulates me to get cat-food and cuddles and diddy liddle catnip oochi-coochi) ... this needs to be stamped firmly on its serpent-head, not -- as in Accelerando -- pandered to.

Now I concede that I'm doing nothing here but alienating cat-lovers. Of course I hold in my head the same venn diagram that you do -- you know, the one that maps 'the set of sf fans' onto 'the set of cat-lovers', leaving, well, only myself on the outside of the overlap. But I separate myself from my personal reaction to insist that as a character in this novel the cat trades too much on the indulgence of a cat-loving readership, and does not do enough work in the text itself to succeed. It's an underwritten and unconvincing character. It needs to be a dark-side version of Bugs Bunny, or at least it needs to be Top Cat; but it achieves no more depth than Itchy from Itchy and Scratchy.

And, ironically (given the sheer force of Stross's power of original-thinking) there is something over-familiar about Accelerando, there's a sense that it really isn't doing anything new. It exists in the shadow of Vinge, something about which Stross is perfectly honest. It owes as much to Gibson's cyberpunk as any other post-cyberpunk novel; and owes more, I think, to Sterling's more distinctive blend of that genre. But Stross lacks Vinge's 'big' conceptual originality (is it just me, or does the Singularity seem a little old hat -- a little last century -- nowadays?). And he lacks Gibson's seemingly effortless cool (Stross tries too damn hard all the way through to manage cool: hard to picture him laying back, you know?).

He compensates for all this with sheer density of neat ideas, leavened with a great deal of knowing cultural reference and some very likeable spins on classic SF. It is so thoroughly and intelligently thought-through, and so compacted with ingenuity and thought-provoking talking-points, that it makes the other novels on the list seem a little simple-minded. But density, especially when its jarringly packaged into nine part-repetitive lumps, doesn't by itself provide a very satisfying aesthetic: if it did, Berlioz's third-symphony scored for nine simultaneous orchestras would be more beautiful than one of Satie's piano pieces, Prog would be better than Pop and Finnegan's Wake would make better literary art than Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. But it isn't so.

The Clarke surely ought to go to a book that does more than scatter ideas to the wind; it should reward the formal and affective qualities of good writing as well as the 'literature of ideas' tag. Though often exhilarating, Stross's density becomes cacophonous long before the end of Accelerando.

Liz Williams, Banner of SoulsLiz Williams' Banner of Souls is an elegant, atmospheric and readable book, but it is also rather un-novel. Indeed it leads me to imagine a textual thought-experiment: take Frank Herbert's Dune. Keep the weird de-technologised quasi-magic mood of the book, the desert world and the ocean world, the sense that the secret plotting of quasi-religious cabals is the true motor of politics. Then make the following alterations: change 'male and female characters' to 'exclusively female characters'. Change the 'quasi-Arabian orientalist atmospherics (exoticism, cruelty and sensuality)' to 'quasi-Chinese orientalist atmospherics (exoticism, cruelty and sensuality)'. Change the kwisatch haderach, Herbert's 'messiah' figure who can do mystic and slightly vague things with time that just might, who knows, save the cosmos, to the hito-bashira, a 'messiah' figure who can do mystic and slightly vague things with time that just might, who knows, save the cosmos. Change the sandworms, huge creatures infesting the desert sands and pregnant with mysterious significance, to the Dragon Kings, huge creatures infesting the oceans of the dying Earth and pregnant with mysterious significance. Change the 'peripatetic adventures of a protagonist fleeing attempted assassination who discovers the secret that will change the world' ... or, no, actually you can leave that bit as it is. Voila. Banner of Souls.

Given the number of very great writers who have so brilliantly inhabited this particular form of late fin-du-monde romance, from Jack Vance to Gene Wolfe and Paul McAuley, it takes a certain courage for a young writer to launch herself into the genre. It's to her credit that Williams manages some beautiful localized effects, and keeps her story turning over; but she doesn't, ultimately, add anything new to the form. We've seen too many times before the SF-ized vampire and zombie figures, the decaying world-landscape as romantic arena for adventure, the deliberate exoticism. Some moments in Banner of Souls have a languid, hothouse beauty, but they are folded too easily into a by-the-numbers adventure across a flooded landscape that leads inevitably to the over-explanation of all mysterious elements in a 'this is the end' finale.

If the humour in Stross gets a little relentless after a while, at least it's there. Banner of Souls doesn't want any sniggers disturbing the mood of its poised orientalist fantasy. Characters will say things that no flesh-and-blood person could say without starting to giggle at the sense of their own absurdity in acting out the pomp of the phrases -- things like 'I came to honor an old bargain. And to call in an old debt' or 'Come with me. There are preparations to be made.' This is a world in which people send 'missives' instead of letters, 'prey upon' instead of victimise, 'seek' instead of look ('do you seek a place to hide?' 294) and cod-Biblically suffer instead of allowing ('If the Kami now know she is the hito-bashira ... they will not suffer her to live', 55). Given the often expert touch of the rest of the writing -- and as a whole the book is cleanly, vividly and often strikingly written -- I thought these archaisms a false step.

The main character is Lunae, hunted by a mysterious assassin and by the assassin's arachnoid lover over several worlds. Why? Because Lunae possesses (in a phrase liable to strike as unfortunate anybody who has ever taught on courses from which students graduate with Masters degrees) 'a degree of mastery' over time [302]. We're not initially told precisely at what level she has passed this Masters, and for most of the book Lunae gets to use her skill hardly at all, mucking about with a chrysalis, testing herself now and again. She meets, and continually interrogates, characters about her destiny, her nature, about the general story; but according to the Iron Law of Narrative Parsimony (whereby readers must be drip-fed crucial details rather than being told the core secret and capsizing the story) the answers she gets are all partial and mystifying ('the hito-bashira ... I have grown tired of asking what this means' she notes, wearily, at once point).

Perhaps it's wrong to put too much emphasis on the story, which, though derivative is very readable. The novel works more powerfully as a mood- than a story- piece; Williams goes all out for the atmospherics, and she is successful more often than she is unsuccessful. There are some vivid visuals, although those are not as forcefully rendered as the smells. It's a pungent pong that wafts through the novel: 'the alley ... smelled pungent, of rotting fish' and 'the kappa ... had a strong shellfish smell' [both 280]; 'fish refuse and shit' [294]; 'reeked of fisherwomen's offal' [295]. And the fish are the least of it: 'a heady, complex smell of spice and shit, smoke and dust' [44]; 'the scent of night jasmine and unburned fuel' [116]; 'a smell of mingled soap and fat' [272]; 'the air smelled ... hot and dry with a mushroom mustiness' [275]; 'the cave was filled with a pungent smell' [315]; 'the charred odors of human flesh, fire, sweat. And above all these scents was the rank-blood and rotten-meat signature of the Earthbones ... ' [348] There are times when the novel gives the impression of having been observed through Futurama's Smelloscope, pointed at the far future world. But at least Williams is working to make her exotic locale come alive; it is always a vividly realised scenario, it is never pasteboard.

Threaded through this readable but rather standard far-future romance are two much more interesting things, aspects of Williams' vision that deserve a better forum for dramatic expression than the conventionalised Vancean adventure in which they find themselves. One is the way gender is handled, the fact that men have almost entirely died out, or de-evolved, in this future world. Williams holds back from making too obvious a set of points about gender, as an older generation of feminist writers might have been tempted to do. For much of the novel the lack of males is simply not remarked upon, and does not figure in the larger tapestry of the book. I thought this a nicely handled touch, its very reticence more eloquent about gender than any amount of preaching. Williams' one male character, the bizarre, insectoid 'Animus', is also used well as a foil to the assassin Yskatarina Iye. There's one very striking sex-scene between this limbless woman and her techno-arachnoid lover that manages to be distanciating and weird as well as queerly erotic and even touching. In general the relationship between Iye and her Animus works as a resonant commentary upon the logics of gender. Imagistic vignettes of the two of them together stick in the reader's mind: for instance in a ruined tower, amongst weeds in the 'shattered, fire blackened courtyard' where 'everything seemed sticky, as though the air itself exuded a resin. Yskatarina's clothes and hair were matted with it, and it crept into the joints of her artificial limbs'.

'What are you going to do if the assassin does not return?' the Animus asked from his place beneath the jasmine. She could smell him beneath the strong, sickly scent of the flowers: the odor of fungal musk. [128]

Such moments manage to transcend their setting; it's a shame there aren't more of them.

The other more interesting thing happening in this novel has to do with death. Haunt-tech, Williams's intriguing invention of a spiritualised software protocol in which the souls of the dead are re-used to run high-tech hardware, literally downloaded into sentient armour, ships, or even the bricks of houses -- this is very striking. 'Séance is a viable form of scientific methodology' [374] as one character mordantly notes. I'm not sure there's enough to lift this novel out of the familiar into the same class as Ryman or Stross, but it's a memorable and largely effective piece of fiction.

Who should win? All these books are interesting, meritorious, deserving of your attention. But Ryman's Air stands head-and-shoulders above even this strong crowd. It deserves the award.

But who is actually going to win? And this is where I hesitate. The last few years my predictions have been not just wrong, but crazy-daft wrong. My guess would be that either Stross or Ryman stand the best chance; but who can peer into the mystery of the Clarke judges brains and fathom their motivations? Not me, that's for sure.

And the winner is...

(added 27 April 2006)

This year's prize ceremony was was held in the Apollo cinema, Lower Regent Street, on the 26th April 2006. All six authors attended, as did a large and excited crowd of SF glitterati. Geoff Ryman was announced as the winner. He paid tribute to the other shortlisted authors, and to Paul Kincaid, the estimable Clarke Award administrator, who used the occasion to announce his retirement from that position. Kincaid got a well-deserved standing ovation; Ryman got a Clarke statuette to stick on the mantlepiece next to his BSFA trophy; SF as a whole got a night of which to be proud; and I got to know what it was like accurately to predict this least predictable of awards. Tune in next year, gentle reader, to see if I can do it again.


Review-feature by Adam Roberts.

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