Thursday 2 September 2021

Clarke Award 2021

The Clarke Award is always one of my cues to catch up with the year's SF - along with Kitschies and Strange Horizons end of year round ups - but this year it has coincided with a return to reading after a 13 month COVID/depression draught. As you might imagine I've been a bit high on it.

This is not an in depth analysis. My brain is only just beginning to wake up. It's more, an encouragement to read, think and share and a smiley burst of enthusiasm for the world.

Why the Clarke? Why not the Hugo or the Nebula or the BSFA? Because when I started reading SF consistently I discovered Adam Roberts' shortlist analysis on Infinity Plus, then the analysis on Strange Horizons and more recently the Sharkes. I no longer think of the shortlist as trying to represent the best of SF for the year and I no longer get annoyed or harbour feelings of injustice about books I feel passionately about that don't make the shortlist. I was once overly impolite about a book by an author I admire greatly during one of these roundups and still feel guilty. I still think bad books should be criticised, especially reactionary ones, but not mediocre ones that get some life and light through their shortlist spotlight. And having never served as a prize judge I'm not privy to the pressures and the compromises that must be part of the process.

I've read 22 out of 105 of the books on the submisions list: Agbabi, Arnott, Bradley, Charnock, Cook, DeLillo, Harrison, Hughes, Jimenez, Johnson, Kelly, MacInnes, McAuley, McKay, Pinsker, KSR, Schweblin, Solomon, Tchaikovsky, Tidhar, Valdes & Whiteley. I will definitely get to Jingfang's Vagabonds, the only book on the shortlist I've haven't read yet, in the next week or so. At some point I'll read Bear, Gibson, Hinton and Jemisin but maybe not before the prize is announced - I'm anxious to read some of the books on the Booker longlist in September. 

I should also say that I started by reading last year's winner, The Old Drift at the start of the summer and I snook in Hurley's The Light Brigade, Ling Ma's Severance and Susanna Clarke's Piranesi. I loved them all and are perhaps my measuring stick for what 2021's Clarke texts have to offer. 

First the shortlist, I read Agbabi's The Infinite when it was published for school and have been recommending it to our students ever since. Valdes' Chilling Effect was one of the first novels I read and was ideal for the exited-to-be-reading-again-me - generic and fast paced, like an episode of Firefly. McKay's The Animals in That Country is a very fine, ambitious novel and I'm glad more people might read it: I admired it more than I loved it but I admired it a LOT. The Vanished Birds is also well worth reading - I enjoyed its melancholy and its grim trajectory. It also feels very thin in terms of characterisation and that meant, for me, the impact of its politics and atmosphere was diminished. R B Kelly's Edge of Heaven has its heart and its politics in the right place but I disliked its laboured style - detail in all the wrong places - and I found it hard to care about the characters or the plot. You will find plenty of reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere that champion these books so don't be put off by my lukewarm appraisal. We all like different things and yes, clearly I'm going soft in my old age....

So how would I decide on a personal shortlist this year? Which books did I enjoy the most? Sarah Pinsker's A Song for a New Day, despite its troubling, prescent storyline is like a REALLY long hot bath with candles and a rubber duck. It's clever, subtle, hopeful and lovely. I read it in a day. I seem to love every book Lavie Tidhar writes and By Force Alone was no different. I've already written about it briefly ( and even though I enjoyed it in ways I'm not sure Lavie would appreciate...I don't care :-) James Bradley's Ghost Species is tender and beautiful;  Rivers Solomon' The Deep is vivid, powerful and moving; War of the Maps has all the usual McAuley magic; as does Anne Charnock's Bridge 108: Aliya Whiteley's Greensmith IS funny but its also wonderfully weird and full of compassion (I think it's my favouite Whiteley and that says a LOT) whilst Martin McInnes Gathering Evidence is cerebral and exciting in all the right ways (I may well now try Infinite Ground again - I found its density cloying and unrewarding the first time around).

Mike Harrison's The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is the only book I've read twice so far. As usual, images spring into my brain unbidden and I find myself reflecting on it at the weirdest times. And as usual, I don't understand all the things that are going on but that's part of the joy! It's already won the Goldsmith's prize. I don't love it like I love the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy or some of the short stories but then, I don't think I'm supposed to. 

Clearly, many writers are thinking about the near future. I'm fascinated by the politics of it all and how they envisage our climate crisis turning, much sooner than we thought, into climate hell. Some authors seem to favour the worst of evolutionary psychology or an inability to throw off capitalism's selfishness and stupidity, whilst others give us the hope of say, Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell, in their imaginings. I'm interested that Diane Cook's The New Wilderness found a place on last year's Booker shortlist. Will other (better?) books with a SF component follow? [It IS an interesting book btw with two fascinating protangonists - even if some of the other characters are cliches or way too thin]

A few words on Rian Hughes' XX. It is, at nearly 1000 pages, too long. It is almost obnoxiously clever: it has an annoying main character - another one of those neurodiverse geniuses; it has some facile politics, as though the author had been reading too much Anne Applebaum; it badly misjudges some of the sections where it tries to replicate news reports or other media and a couple of imaginary interviews featuring ultra-left lefties are monumentally stupid. A decent editor should have insisted on some rewrites and reimaginings. And yet, I really enjoyed it! It's a LOT of fun, it has a lot of ideas and is full of ambition. I loved debating with it and disagreeing and rethinking. I've already lent it to a friend. 

And then there is The Ministry for the Future..... Does KSR need even more exposure? Do I think it is too hopeful? (Yes) Do I think it sidesteps important questions? (Yes) Do I think people should be encouraged to read it and debate it and explore/research the ideas and politics anyway? (Yes) I should also say that, unlike others, I found it incredibly readable and I wanged through it in a couple of days.

Honestly, there's no book that I regret reading and most of them I enjoyed a great deal. Also, I wish I could remember my response to Samanta Schweblin's Little Eyes more clearly but it's a good 15 months since I read it! I know I liked it a lot though.

And so my shortlist? What would I read again? What would I want to discuss? What would I want others to discuss? What would I want people to discover? And yes, what did I love?
Ghost Spcies - James Bradley
Gathering Evidence - Martin McInnes
The Ministry for the Future - KSR
The Deep - Rivers Soloman
Greensmith - Aliya Whiteley

....with a final spot for Pinsker, Johnson (The Space Between Worlds has already won a Kitschie Tentacle) , Schweblin or Lingfang. Lolz - 6 is never enough! 

Tom Hunter enthuses about the shortlist on 5 Books here: 

You can get the full submissions list plus a look into the current state of SF publishing in terms of diversity here:

A shout out to Nina Allan, Adam Roberts, Abigail Nussbaum and Steven Shaviro who continue to blog and of course Strange Horizons for intelligent, questioning analysis week in week out. They all inspire me to keep engaging however difficult it gets.

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