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Thoughts on the 2014 Clarke Award shortlist

Last night, they announced this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, and it looks like:

My first thought was that it’s a surprisingly safe shortlist. But then it struck me that with three debuts, “safe” is probably not the right word to use. And yet, in genre terms, in regards to the definition of science fiction with which this year’s jury were apparently working… it is sort of safe. Thankfully, there’s no talking horses (just perambulatory trees), but neither is there the usual left-field literary-fiction-dabbling-in-sf pick.

Unusually, I’ve read four of the books already – and one of them, the Priest, I’d planned to read. Nexus I’d ignored after seeing two negative reviews of it – in Vector and Strange Horizons. But of the books I have read… I thought both the Leckie and the Hurley good, and have written about them – see here and here. It’s also hard not to see Ancillary Justice as the sf book of 2013, given the buzz that’s surrounded it and its appearance so far on the BSFA and Nebula shortlists (and I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t make the Hugo shortlist as well). Smythe’s The Machine is also very good. And as a literary fiction pick is hardly a contentious choice – while Blue Door describes itself as a publisher of “commercial literary fiction” (an oxymoron, surely?), Smythe has also been published by Harper Voyager, a sf imprint. And The Machine is pleasingly Ballardian.

Then there’s the Mann… I’m a fan of Mann’s sf and I have copies of all his books (see here). But The Disestablishment of Paradise is his first novel since 1996, and a lot has changed since then. Which, sadly, means that The Disestablishment of Paradise feels very old-fashioned. The writing is assured, the structure is handled well, the world-building is clever… but the pace drags, the dialogue is stilted, and the interactions between the characters read like they come from a book written fifty years ago. I’ve not read The Adjacent, although I was planning to as part of my Hugo reading. But Priest is pretty much the Grand Old Man of British literary sf (from the inside, that is), a previous Clarke winner, and a four-time BSFA novel winner (the last in 2012). While The Adjacent‘s presence was by no means a certainty, the odds must have been good it would be there. Finally, all I know about Nexus is what I’ve read in a pair of not-very-complimentary reviews. Which makes its appearance on the list a surprise – but we’ll see what’s said about it now that it’s a finalist.

The Clarke Award has a history of generating odd shortlists. This year’s is perhaps the least contentious for a number of years. But it’s also quite a strong list, with some excellent books on it. Three speak to the future of the genre, two are by old hands, and one updates a 20th Century mode of sf for the 21st Century. That’s a pretty good spread. Who the eventual winner will be, however, is anybody’s guess…

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