Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: The 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist, part 2

The second part of my review of this year's Clarke shortlist is now online at Strange Horizons, covering Arcadia by Iain Pears, Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, and The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.  You can find it here, and in case you haven't already read part 1, that's here.  The actual winner will be announced in London in a few hours, but as I write in the conclusion to the review, I tend to see that announcement as less of a triumph for any particular book, and more a data point that will help to clarify--at least a little--what the judges were aiming for with this year's bland and conventional shortlist.  The book that wins will tell us a great deal about how this year's judges saw the Clarke, and their task as its jury.  But I'm hopeful that next year the jury will make more interesting, more challenging choices.

Martin Petto has updated his collection of links to discussion of the shortlist, including this essay by Megan of the (new to me) blog From Couch to Moon.  It's very much worth reading, including some interesting reflections on both the Clarke and this year's nominated books.  To me, it also clarified many of my problems with this shortlist.  Megan and I largely agree about the ranking of the six nominated books, and our thoughts about the ones that, I suspect, we'd both happily knock off the shortlist are largely in line.  But when it comes to the two books that I think we'd both class as good--Europe at Midnight and The Book of Phoenix--our opinions diverge widely.  Megan sees Europe as much more self-contained and self-sustaining than I do (to me it feels like a pendant to the previous volume in this trilogy, Europe in Autumn, whereas Megan calls it superior to that book).  And though we both agree that The Book of Phoenix is the most likely winner of this year's Clarke, it's clear that we took very different things away from the book, and read it quite differently.

And that, not to keep repeating myself, is how the Clarke should work.  The books it highlights should be the ones that people disagree about, even if they're broadly in agreement about their quality and literary merits.  I want the Clarke shortlist to be full of books that I could write 3,000 words about, and then go and read someone else's 3,000 words and discover a whole host of ideas I'd never considered.  I hope I won't have to wait too long before getting a shortlist like that again.


from couch to moon said...

Hi Abigail,

Thank you for linking to me and the nice comparison. It's clumsily stated in my review, but I want to clarify that I find Europe in Autumn to be the superior of the two Europe novels. Europe at Midnight is a more accessible book that I think will have more success with most readers not already attracted to the series, but Europe in Autumn is the stronger novel, better written, and my favorite of the two.

Discovering the actual winner today has thrown me for a loop.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Yes, that winner... I'm really not sure how to react to it, and I say that as someone who was really very pleasantly surprised by Children of Time, and found the parts on the planet genuinely delightful. As I say in my review and here, it's obvious that I haven't been able to get into the judges' headspace at all, but it still seems very strange to me to reward a novel that is so clearly half-done, and whose other, less successful half is almost embarrassingly old school.

I suppose what I keep coming back to is the fact that I really think Tchaikovsky is a writer to watch. It's clear that he has interesting ideas and is willing to take them to unexpected places, even if Children of Time rather badly needed a very serious edit. I don't see that it serves the Clarke well to reward him for that kind of novel - what is it going to do when he publishes a genuinely successful one?

francessmithsite said...

Can I just say that it's a little bit weird, you talking about Tchaikovsky like a newb when Children is his 12th (maybe 13th, I've got a nagging feeling there's one I can't remember) novel.

I would argue that he has already written several successful novels, particularly the middle volumes of his Shadows of the Apt series (5 and 7 are, for my money, the best, although they do depend on a familiarity with the characters that requires you to have read 1-4 first; I didn't enjoy the last three books as much, but that was more to do with the dissonance between the story I, as a reader, thought he was telling and the story that the author was actually telling as anything else).

I haven't read Children of Time, but from your review it seems as though a lot of the ideas (matriarchal societies of spiders, hive mind ant civilisations) and themes (the harm that comes from clinging obsessively to a dead past, and failing to develop your own future) were already explored in his fantasy series, albeit with variations. I supposd I'd have to read the book to decide if he was going deeper with the same ideas or simply getting stuck in a rut.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Tchaikovsky is an experienced writer, but his experience is in fantasy. Children of Time is his first science fiction novel, and to be honest, it shows. The parts that employ familiar, even shopworn SF tropes are by fear the weakest aspects of the novel, strongly indicative of a writer without enough grounding in the genre to know when he's retreading familiar and overused ideas. If you compare them to something like Aurora, whose main concern is to interrogate the generation ship concept, and the very idea of human colonization of alien planets, there's simply no comparing the complexity of the ideas and their execution.

Thomas Wilson said...

Arcadia is a very good book. Whether it should win the Clarke is another question, but it's probably the best book in the list.

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