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Reading diary 2018, Clarke Award special

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Last year’s Clarke Award shortlist was a bit pants, to be honest, and I’ve yet to even read the winner, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book whose reputation seems to have waned somewhat in the year since it won. I suspected this year might prove a bit more interesting as there were several novels published last year that I thought worthy of the award. Happily, one of them did make the shortlist. But a lot of expected titles did not – such as Nina Allan’s BSFA Award-winning The Rift (see here).

For the record, the shortlist is as below. I was more than happy to see Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time on it as I’ve been championing the book since I read it late last year (see here).

I’ve now read five of the novels. I’m not bothering with Borne – although I’ve heard good things about it – because I didn’t take to Vandermeer’s Annihilation and life’s too short and all that. The Charnock, of course, I’ve already read and rate highly. The other authors were completely new to me – and at least three of them are, I believe, debuts. Anyway, I ordered me some copies, and read them, and… Oh dear. That shortlist looked good on first impression, but it really didn’t survive scrutiny…

Gather the Daughters, Jennie Melamed (2017, USA). This has been described a post-apocalyptic dystopia but it’s nothing of the kind. A small religious community ekes out an existence on an island off the coast of the “wastelands”. The novel is told through the narrative of several girls in the community – all aged about twelve or thirteen, and yet to go through puberty. Once they have done so, they will be married off and bear children. A fair few of which may prove to be “defectives” and killed at birth, if they survive it. Melamed tries hard to suggest this is a consequence of whatever apocalypse it was, epidemic or nuclear war, which turned the rest of the world into a wasteland. But it quickly becomes apparent that the girls are being abused nightly by their fathers, and that the community was set up specifically for that end. It also becomes patently obvious that there is no “wastelands” – the world outside has not changed. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the premise of M Night Shyamalan’s film The Village. So, a group of religious nutjobs founded a community which would allow them to abuse their daughters and treat their wives as chattel. Oh, and euthanise their old people when they no longer proved useful – and they’re not all that old, to be honest, late thirties, perhaps. I don’t know what world Melamed lives in, but these are all illegal and hugely immoral in the real world. I know the US loves its nutjob religious communities and let’s them get away with, well, murder… but the island in Gather the Daughters is only plausible if there really had been an apocalypse. To make matters worse, Melamed completely fails to comment on the world she has built. In crime fiction, the reader witnesses a murder, but then the murderer is brought to justice. The moral consequences of murder are shown. Melamed doesn’t bother. She normalises child abuse and misogyny. She treats the monsters she writes about with total seriousness but makes zero reference to its morality. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the writing is terrible, the worst kind of creative writing programme prose. You know the phrase, “kill your darlings” that writer instructors like to parrot? If Melamed had done that, Gather the Daughters would have been a third its size. When I saw Gather the Daughters on the shortlist, I thought it looked interesting (after I’d thought, “shouldn’t it be Gather Your Daughters?”). Having now read it, I have to wonder why it was shortlisted.

Sea of Rust, C Robert Cargill (2017, USA). Some time in the near-future, robots became commonplace, and then somehow developed sentience. But then the owner of a robot died with no heirs, so the robot, now ownerless, argued for its emancipation. And succeeded. But then it, and thousands of other robots, were destroyed by an EMP set off by a nutjob church. The robots responded by somehow overcoming their “Robotic Kill Switch” – yes, it’s really called that; and don’t get me started on the hash Cargill makes of Asimov’s Three Laws, or the stupid random number generator – and slaughtering the church members. So kicking off a genocidal war. Sea of Rust opens decades after that war, after all the humans have been slaughtered and only robots remain, and two AI “mainframes” – yes, they’re really called that; and they fill entire skyscrapers! – are fighting each other and trying to assimilate all the free robots. The narrator of Sea of Rust is Brittle, a female robot, although not really gendered at all, who scavenges for parts in the Rust Belt in order to trade for parts specific to her model so she can keep on running. I really don’t know where to start with this book. The characters are all robots yet behave like human beings, even using expressions like “I knew it by heart” or “anger left his face”. They’re gendered but there’s no reason for that given in the text. The computing seems to be based on 1990s PC technology, except for mention of a “core”, which is something they all have but the book does not bother to explain (probably because it’s made-up bollocks). And they use “wi-fi”. But not to talk to each other. For that, they use speech, you know, actual sound waves. And how the wi-fi works without routers, satellites, or even an internet, is left unexplained. The plot pretty much rips off Mad Max, with a few bits from The Matrix thrown in; and the whole thing reads like Cargill couldn’t be bothered to research any of the details of his world. Every other chapter, pretty much, for the first third of the book is a history lesson – and they’re just as unconvincing as his robot characters. I have no idea why this was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. This is a book that wouldn’t have looked out of place 35 years ago (mentions of wi-fi aside), but I refuse to believe it was the best category sf novel published last year (it’s the only book on the shortlist from a British genre imprint).

American War, Omar El Akkad ( 2017, USA). It is the late twenty-first century and three of the US’s Southern states have seceded from the Union. A low-grade war now rumbles between them and the rest of the country. Rising sea levels have already drowned most of the coastal areas, and what remains of California and Texas are now part of Mexico. Sarat Chestnut was born in Louisiana, but when a suicide bomber kills her father, she, her twin sister, older brother and mother move to a refugee camp near the border with the North. All the time I was reading American War, I had trouble getting my head round it. It paints the secessionist states as the good guys – and the invective against the North in the book is really quite nasty – and yet not once does it mention the South’s racial history. The secessionists have also committed terrorist attacks against the Northerners – and yet are still painted as the side of good. The reason for their secession is their insistence on using fossil fuels after a total ban. It seems such a feeble excuse for a war – especially given the importance of Southern character, and how it relates to the war, in the narrative. It’s like El Akkad wanted the US as it now exists to be the bad guys – incarceration without due process, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, all of which the North uses routinely in the novel – but because it was a civil war, he had to make the South the good guys. Despite the fact the last war the South fought was to keep the right to own slaves, despite the fact they were forced to stop segregation only some two generations ago, despite the fact their racist mindset is seeing a resurgence since Trump took power… Anway, Sarat survives a massacre at the refugee camp by Northerner militia, and so is recruited into an underground southern army. She becomes a sniper, and is responsible for the death of the general leading the Northern army (it’s not an “assassination” when you’re at war, incidentally). She is later captured and incarcerated at a Guantanamo-like facility, and tortured, for seven years, although her jailers clearly don’t know what she’s done. When she is eventually released, she is desperate for revenge, so desperate she does the unthinkable… which is pretty much explained in the prologue. And yet… and yet… it works. The excess of detail in the prose is annoying at first, but soon drops away as the story picks up. Perhaps Sarat reminded me over much of Radix from AA Attanasio’s novel of that title, but El Akkad has done his homework and invented a mostly credible world for his story. And, to be honest, the novel improved as it progressed. It did feel like it wasn’t sure of its targets – and a story such as American War definitely has targets – so much so it actually rendered its commentary mostly toothless. Perhaps it was just because I read American War after Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust, but I thought it deserving of its place on the Clarke Award shortlist. I don’t think it deserves to win, but it at least deserves a chance at winning.

Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfař (2017, USA). If there’s one thing I hate it’s books which feature space exploration where the author can’t be arsed to get the details right. There is a vast amount of documentation out there, in books and on the internet, on the subject. How fucking difficult is it to get it right? It is, for example, “space” and not “Space”. FFS. A spacecraft shot into space on top of a rocket is not necessarily a “space shuttle” and, in fact, especially not if it’s not reusable. And if a comet enters the Milky Way eighteen months ago, then it actually entered it 29,998.5 years ago as the Sun is 30,000 light-years from the edge of the galaxy. And to reach Earth in 18 months, that comet would have to be travelling at 2.3 light years an hour, or 13,521,700,000,000 mph. It’s not fucking rocket science. Well, you know what I mean. In fact, the novel drops clangers throughout its space-set narrative: describing vacuum as tightening around the narrator “like bathwater”, confusing vacuum and zero gravity, seeming to think spacesuits only use pure oxygen on EVA and then to prevent decompression sickness… Fortunately, the novel’s other narrative is far better. Jakub Procházka has been selected as the first Czech astronaut. The aforementioned comet has left a cloud, named Chopra, “between Earth and Venus” – well no, between the orbits of Earth and Venus, since the distance between the two planets changes as they orbit the Sun. Anyway, the Czechs have decided to send the first crewed spacecraft to Chopra. Procházka is an astrophysicist and the person chosen for the mission – it seems stupid to send one person, especially given the size of the spacecraft, JanHus1, as it is described. En route an alien appears in the spacecraft and tells Procházka it wishes to study “humanry”. It’s not certain whether the alien is real or an hallucination, but given that so much of the space-set narrative is complete bollocks I’m inclined to go for hallucination. (At one point, Procházka sees a frozen Laika float past – which would be difficult as Sputnik 2 disintegrated on re-entry in 1958, five months after Laika’s death.) Interwoven with the JanHus1 mission are chapters on Procházka’s childhood and life and marriage. The son of a secret policeman, who died shortly after the Velvet Revolution, he and his grandparents, who raised him, were shunned by their neighbours. They moved to Prague, Procházka went to university, and became a world expert on cosmic dust – hence his selection for the mission to the cloud. These chapters are interesting and, I assume, much better researched than the other narrative. However, they do make you wonder what the point of Spaceman of Bohemia is. Why not write a novel about growing up in post-Revolution Czechia? Why all the guff about the cloud and the alien and the space mission? Which ends with Procházka being implausibly rescued by a space shuttle from a secret decades-long Russian space programme. Which he causes to crash on re-entry but he manages to survive… before returning home incognito to exorcise some ghosts from his past, which, er, had bugger-all to do with the space mission. The earth-bound narrative is good, a novel in its own right. The space mission is complete bollocks – badly-researched, pointless and dull. If it had not been for that – and given it’s so badly done, how the hell did the book make the shortlist for a science fiction award? – Spaceman of Bohemia would be a bloody good book.

It’s probably also worth noting that this year’s shortlist is one UK author and five US authors (both El Akkad and Kalfař moved to North America as teenagers and are resident in the US). This is not unusual – science fiction has been dominated by the US since the genre’s beginnings, and the Clarke Award shortlists have, since the award’s inception in 1987, mostly reflected this: it was last entirely British in 2008, and has included non-British authors in its shortlists for most years (although some non-British finalists have been resident in the UK).

I suspect I’m now going to have to read Borne, given how disappointed I was with three of the above. I think Dreams Before the Start of Time should win, as it’s a thousand times better than the Melamed, Cargill or Kalfař, and though it’s much better than American War I would not be overly disappointed if El Akkad won. I’ll reserve judgement on the Vandermeer until I’ve read it. Who do I think will actually win? I suspect the Kalfař is a good bet. It’s very literary and, despite the complete fucking hash it makes of its space mission, stylistically the best-written of the lot. But the Clarke tends to have a love-hate relationship with literary sf, lionising it one year and then giving the award to a hackneyed piece of pulp sf the next. Sadly, I don’t think Charnock will win, because I think the book is really good and I’m usually completely out of step with these things. The El Akkad would be my next guess, even if its attempts at relevance are badly mangled. The Cargill and Melamed should not stand a chance. But I’ll probably be wrong on that. Out of step, you see.

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7 thoughts on “Reading diary 2018, Clarke Award special

  1. I also plan on reading the entire shortlist, so far I have only read Borne and I am 20% in Spaceman of Bohemia. I really liked Borne but so far, I really don’t care for Kalfař’s work. The mission doesn’t make sense and the main character is annoying as hell. As you mentionned, the setting of the book doesn’t seem to matter as we spent more time learning about the protagonist’s life on Earth.

  2. I loved the Earth-bound bits of the Kalfar but thought the space ones were curiously old-fashioned, as if written when not much was known about conditions beyond Earth.
    I lean towards the hallucinations interpretation – the Laika “sighting” seems to underline that – and the whole space narrative could possibly be read as an hallucination.
    Which leads on to whether the book should be on an award list for SF. Its other aspects are definitely its strongest points – it’s certainly a good primer on the history of Prague – but there could be an argument that merely positing a Czech space mission is in itself science fiction.

    • I don’t think the space mission itself was a hallucination, since through it he met Tůma and so discovered the identity of Shoe Man. It was also why his wife left him. But given the details were all complete bollocks, it makes it hard to determine if the alien was real or not.

  3. I was in Hay on Wye yesterday, and in one shop’s quite good sf section, I found a first-edition hardback copy of the Kalfar for the princely sum of £6.95! (I left it there.) Given that most of the second-hand books in the shop – well, in the whole town, of course! – come from either reader’s discards or house clearances, finding such a recent book already discarded by its reader is not a good sign.

  4. Pingback: Reading diary 2018, #9 | It Doesn't Have To Be Right...

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