The 2018 Clarke Award shortlist review and initial reaction.

Fitting for this dumpster fire of a year, but good lord, there is a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction on this list. Six novels. Well, five novels and one screenplay with a few extra words. It’s hard on the system to read this much social decay in one go. One about an alternate tomorrow, one about the near future, and four novels about the post-apocalyptic dystopia we are all surely headed for. I’m glad this is a “Pick the Best Sci-Fi Novel” Award and not a “Pick the Best Future” Award. Because I’m not up for any of this.

That said, I have to admit this might the most enjoyable experience I’ve had reading an SF shortlist in a long time. Partly because I can say, without hedging, that I had three great reading experiences from this list, and partly because I have finally given myself permission to come up for air from the books I don’t enjoy once I get a feel for them and then just start skimming. It’s really improved my mood.

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Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

Synopsis: Mad Max, but for bots.

Other Synopsis: Shoot ‘em up! Shoot ‘em up! Bang! Bang! Bang!

I often complain that people mistakenly conflate movie-writing with novel-writing and I think this is a clear example of what I mean. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this because this is not worth anyone’s time or consideration for a best novel award. There is clearly a vintage SF influence here (I don’t think the names “Doc” and “Herbert” are accidents), but the author makes little use of the expansive narrative space left in this novel, making it feel empty and old-fashioned. There’s already a ton of old-fashy, shoot -em up robot literature out there and at least the vintage element would add some novelty that you wouldn’t get out of this one.

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Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

Synopsis: Young girls survive the oppression of an island civilization run by disgusting, abusive men.

Now here’s for some wild speculation presented as fact: I’ve heard people refer to each year’s Clarke shortlist as having an “Atwood slot” and I always thought it was funny but now I think it might actually be a real thing. Because while this novel is gripping and page-turning, it is not very special, and bit hackneyed.

Fans of Gather the Daughters seem most won over because the girls “don’t see themselves as victims,”–I’ve seen that written in several places–but I can’t think of any good novel where the abused protagonists behave like victims (and what does that even mean, anyway); in fact, that’s often a problem with modern literature: that everything and everyone is hero-ized. It’s usually the ironic anti-heroes, a la Holden Caulfield types who see themselves as victims. The girls in this novel don’t behave like victims (and what does that actually mean, really?) because the abuse is embedded into their culture, and they have little reason to expect anything different.

What I think these fans mean to say is that the author realistically depicts the complex relationship between abused and abuser, about how it’s possible for the abused to both love and hate and care for the abuser, and it’s especially realistic for some abused women to stay, obey, and facilitate or look the other way. This is certainly a strength of the narrative as a moral tale, but that and page-turning suspense are all the book rides on. The novel is dependent on the tension of opposing forces: the suspense of danger and the unknown at every page turn, and the revulsion at the never-really-stated-until-later dirty underbelly of this civilization. The tension of these two things keeps the reader locked-in…for as long as they can stand the revulsion. The author is gambling that the suspense will be enough. For most people, it probably is, because so much of the thriller subgenre has conditioned us for this.

I’ve always found that technique kind of manipulative, and I usually end up resenting any book that hooks me along like this. And that’s really all it’s doing. It’s a moral tale that’s doing a public service by illustrating the complexity of abuse and the many factors (like shock, submission, grooming, resiliency, and guardedness) that explain behaviors of the abused to an often baffled and callous public (why are these women coming forward now?). While that’s not unique in the literary world (see 1st, 2nd, AND 3rd wave feminist fiction, even in the SF genre for proof), it doesn’t hurt to see it again, and again, and again in any form, until society finally gets it… although, unfortunately, the people who need to learn these lessons aren’t going to read this, or, if they do, they aren’t going to get it. This is a “preaching to the choir” type of book, and, frankly, SF has been really good about sustaining that feedback loop for at least the past five years.

And there aren’t any layers beyond that: no new insights into the individual and humanity, no innovative uses of SF tropes, nothing that will alter our imaginations or view of the current world. And because the story can only work this way if it is hammered into the mold of the lesson it’s teaching, the characters of the story–these delightful little girls (and the grim, unresponsive women who suffer with them)–remain as characters; they never really lift off the page; they are too burdened with the message to be anything more.  And while this is a page-turning suspenseful story with an important moral lesson about how we view survivors and facilitators of abuse, it doesn’t do more than that, and because there are novels on this list that do achieve more than that, at a more nuanced and complex level, that have more potential to change the way we see things, this novel falls short of deserving the prize.

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The American War by Omar El Akkad

Synopsis: Everything terrible that is happening in the United States is going to keep on happening and it’s just going to get worse.

In my quest to read all the sci-fi, I have finally learned that an author’s extrapolation does not require my convincing; that artistic license is, in the end, more important to me than whether the author’s A+B actually does equal C. After all, would any of us expect to be convinced that Jeff VanderMeer’s giant flying bear in Borne actually awaits us in our near future? If not, why place the burden of convincing extrapolation on Omar El Akkad? Some extrapolations might required more extra than others. (And, clearly, the giant flying bear is a metaphor for Donald Trump.)

So convincing extrapolation doesn’t matter… but let’s say it does: I might be slightly more convinced by this novel than the other Clarke Shadow Jury members simply because I live in the middle of a thriving American oil patch and just recently watched the demise of our local farmers market due to one member’s very public (and, fwiw, relatively benign, tbh) criticism of the oil industry. It was ugly. Oil is blood in this part of the world, and it is enough to drive secession, and this is, unfortunately, a well-armed area of the world. (In my town, our sheriff has a tank. A tank! He drives it to lunch sometimes!)

But I have to agree with Gary K. Wolfe’s observation that something bigger is amiss:

While the idea of a second Civil War seems credible enough given the current polarization of American politics, the invisible elephant in the room of American War is American racism. It seems almost coy to attribute these very real schisms to something as simple as petroleum, when the more credible problem lies far deeper and is far more visible these days than the debate over renewable energy.

Akkad’s depiction of the future, dire as it is, is more optimistic than I’m willing believe, and brings to mind the kind of American Civil War apologism we are used to hearing: that’s it was all just about economics. Sarat’s timeline is too close to our own to assume that all racial prejudice has been wiped out, that a mixed Hispanic/black family can travel across the disintegrating South and only be hassled about their assumed political allegiance. (Even today, there are certain towns along I-20 and I-10 my own husband doesn’t feel comfortable stopping in when he is traveling alone because of his skin color.)

But more than a lack of racial tension, I’m more dubious of a not-so-future South where everyone talks like they just walked off the set of Gone with the Wind. No matter what terrible path our burgeoning dystopia chooses to follow, can it be possible that in fifty years, all influence from our digital, emoticonned, and rap-filled era will be completely expunged and replaced with the linguistic patterns of Deliverance? One of the few delightful things our current era boasts is its playful flexibility with language and while, yes, I agree a “YOLO” or “Ain’t nobody got time for that” would be an eyesore in Akkad’s solemn prose, the old-timey Southern country drawl is cloying and heavy-handed, and not (I’m going to hate myself for saying this) technically accurate. In fifty-odd years, today’s teenagers of the Deep South will be in their sixties; follow some Snaps and listen to some trap and then tell me what the old people of Sarat’s childhood should sound like. My guess is they won’t sound so cartoonishly country.

But as I said, extrapolative persuasion isn’t important and these are minor complaints. While it is a strong and interesting novel with an intriguing premise and a point to make, the best way to sum up my impression of this novel is my memory of the first page: I have a tendency to dismiss books that precede their narratives with maps, having been my jam all through my teens and twenties until my realization that the more maps and glossaries a book needs, the less meaning it actually has, but in this novel, the map is the best part. For all the atmosphere, tension, and decline American War portrays, that single page of political and geographical erosion captivated me most of all. The open-ended awe those maps evoked set up an expectation that the standard mimicry of southern gothic despair, though distressing and competently written it might have been, could never have achieved.

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Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

Synopsis: In the future, women will no longer have to bear the burden of child-bearing.

Okay, this one isn’t post-apocalyptic, but you get this feeling there’s more around the edges of the lives of these fairly privileged people. I reviewed this novel a long time ago, but I think I still feel the same way about it. Some members of the Clarke Shadow Panel have some diverging, yet interesting and illuminating thoughts about it that hadn’t occurred to me and I had to wonder if we had read the same book. Some excerpts from my review that might clarify where our opinions diverge:

“…(though, this is less a story about romance, and more a story about alienation, so be aware that no lifestyle is necessarily promoted). Each variation of family life brings its own benefits, disadvantages, and neuroses, as families are wont to do.

Charnock’s novels are chattier than I normally like, but it’s a different kind of chatty, where empty words host all kinds of subtext, nontext, and unsaid things. While I love all this subtext, this is where I think Charnock’s novels lose favor with pop-SF audiences: by capturing the quotidian in this way, it might be all that some people see. Her depictions are holistic, atmospheric, forest instead of trees; not something popular SF writers are encouraged to do. With Charnock’s work, the best advice is to take nothing at face value.

Along those lines, like any story about birth, this is also a tale about death. The tragic loss of Toni’s mother from the previous novel haunts Toni’s life, influencing her decisions, her fear of commitment, her stubborn practicality, and even how she approaches adventures at the sunset end of her own life. It’s not only about family, but social influence, even from beyond the grave.”

So, where other reviewers see optimism, I see hesitation. Where others see neglect, I see a snapshot. Dreams Before the Start of Time is a tale of the not-so-distant future from the perspective of the privileged families who can afford to explore these proposed technologies. It is not a promotion of the people depicted.

I am acquainted with Anne and adore her greatly, so there’s this part of me that would love to see her win the Clarke Award–because it does seem like the perfect kind of modern Clarke-ian novel. While there is a lot of talent on show in this novel, there are two more novels I enjoyed even more…

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Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Synopsis: ET for the biotech generation.

Synopsis quote: “…the wrenching dislocation of trying to make two separate worlds match up, the one that was normal and the one that was grotesque, the old and the new–the struggle to make the mundane and the impossible coexist just as it seemed impossible.”

I genuinely enjoyed this novel. To compare it to ET, as I did above, is to undermine its potential as a bizarre and esoteric metaphor for current events. I think. (Furtherpoint: To present ET in this way is to also undermine ET.) Witnessing his tweets, I have no doubt Jeff VanderMeer is just as distressed about the political climate as many of us are, and it’s only logical to assume that some of that distress might have worked its way into the schematics of this novel, whether consciously or subconsciously, and would make for a valuable and enlightening review. For starters, Mord is Donald J. Trump.

But that’s just wild speculation posited as fact, and I, for one, am not up to doing the work to prove it. Love or hate the Southern Reach series (I, unlike anyone else on the planet, didn’t love it but also didn’t hate it), I do believe VanderMeer’s work is not just relevant to our times, but a psychological manifestation of our times– not in the way that most novels are psychological manifestations of the authors who create them, but VanderMeer’s work is a manifestation of American culture. And American fear. As if VanderMeer’s pen is just the instrument through which all of our collective anxiety chooses to express itself.

And Borne is the next installment of that manifestation. So, in some ways, if we are to pick at the metaphor I don’t intend to write about at great length, Borne is a Borne, because it represents a destiny that is alien and out of our control. But does that mean it’s a Person?

While reading this novel, there were a few times when I had to wonder just what kind of mushrooms VanderMeer was eating while writing this thing, because it is exceptionally vivid and surreal in its details, admirable and original in its peculiarities (decaying astronauts planted like tulips. Dat symbolism!). But where many stories of the New Weird threaten to alienate non-genre readers with their unworldly peculiarities, Borne has a heart, a warmth, an inherent optimism in the relationships between Borne, Rachel, and Wick, and the city itself, that we are only so lucky that VanderMeer was in tune to this optimism and did not succumb to the gritty nihilism that permeates of the air of this domain. In many chapters, that hope is so small, so buried in toxic mud and fish scales that you barely know it’s there. But it’s there, and it is allowed to blossom at the end. This reader needed that. (Especially after all that incest and civil war from the novels above.)

One technique I’ve learned to value as a reviewer is to allow for a very pregnant pause between reading and commenting, because my mind can change so much between the exhilaration of reading and the contemplation of the experience. For the first 12 hours after I read this book, I was sure this was the one: My winning choice. But after some distance, the spell has worn off, and I’m left with the aftertaste of a children’s book: sweet, cute, funny, vividly imaginative. I have to wonder what about this really is special.

Did, perhaps, the positive ending undermine the novel’s contribution? Perhaps it’s too positive and sure of itself in the end to be fully transcendent. The melodramatic arguments (you know what, Pete? Only in soap operas do people say each others’ names that often during an argument!), the screwed-in creative elements, the occasionally awkward prose hinting at a rushed, over-reaching, thrown-together feeling (“One wing sighed bellows-like out of the naked back of the shortest,” “Borne was a sibilant blue-green…”)–these are minor complaints, but all together, is it enough to keep it from taking home the much-lusted-after Clarke bookend?

No. Because like all Persons, Borne is flawed, and imperfect, but I would be thrilled to see it win. In fact, I will be personally affronted if it doesn’t. Still, it’s not my top choice.
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Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

Synopsis: Now THIS is a proper space spider story!

It was only two years ago when I derided the Clarke Award jury for awarding a novel about space spiders as their number one. Children of Time was a decent read, fun and cute, and the spiders were just so lifelike! but many of us were confounded when it took the win. It was such an odd situation because, prior to it winning the award, I felt genuinely generous toward the novel. I didn’t mind reading it, enjoyed the more evocative parts, and forgave the stodgier parts. But I never once imagined it would actually win the award, much less beat out Nnedi Okorafor or Dave Hutchinson! I. Was. Appalled. And suddenly this quirky little throwback book became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the award.

(Maybe it sounds like overreaction this many months later, but as I type this up during the final hours before the ceremony, I’m feeling that same sense of distrust creeping in… I promise, I really do have a life.)

Now THIS is a good space spiders novel. Inverting the haunting lost love of Stanislaw Lem and the cosmic sanctity of Olaf Stapledon, this novel takes everything I love about sci-fi and reinvigorates it with fresh thought, modern sensibilities, and deep interiority. It’s exactly the kind of book I want to cover on this new blog of mine. It is a perfect example of moondane literature.

I’m disappointed others don’t see it that way. Most of the reviewers I follow, including the Shadow Clarke jury, seem to love it, but stop short of recommending it because it’s not quite sci-fi enough, or the sci-fi elements seem unnecessary, or thin, or forced.

This is the junction where I always get lost when navigating the sci-fi field. Giant flying bears are perfectly reasonable, but an isolating four month mission to Mars where a man obsesses about his father and romanticizes his marriage is superfluous? (Put that way, it makes me wonder if Frederik Pohl’s Martian manifesto on toxic masculinity, Man Plus, is also part of this novel’s lineage.) Much like the complaints about the believability of Melemed’s cloistered island and El Akkad’s United States, at what point do we decide an outrageous SFnal device is an appropriate metaphor or platform and when it is not?

No, I don’t think this lovely novel will win the Clarke Award, but yes, I think it should. It is my favorite novel of the six and I hope to see more from Kalfar in the near future.

 

Take Aways

As I wait during the final minutes before the winner of the 2018 Clarke Award is announced, I would like to point out how much appreciate the shortlist this year. I’m inclined to agree with Nina Allan that the judges have extended a wide armspan this year to capture every corner of the SF field in this assortment of books, and each novel, regardless of whether I value them or not, really does contribute to the various definitions of sci-fi as they exist today. As Vajra Chandrasekara points out, in this list, there is an even split between positive and negative visions, and as I also agree with him that, in this state of mind, I’m more inclined toward the continuities. My only concern about this list is that it does lean heavily toward the post-apocalyptic, but that does seem to sum up 2018 quite well now, doesn’t it?

I would also like to commend Maureen K. Speller and the 2018 Shadow Jury team. I’ve been a lowly lurker this year, but I have enjoyed their contributions and I appreciate the new panel review format for each book, which made it easier and less stressful to follow along.

In addition to the blogs I’ve linked to, please read Tomcat’s micro reviews on Twitter. I wish he still blogged.

The Winner!

And well, well, well, it looks like Dreams Before the Start of Time takes the bookend this year! Many congratulations to Anne Charnock! I’m thoroughly pleased to see a novel so subtle and deft win a major sci-fi award! This is great news!

I have nothing snarky to say. Hmph.

 

Finally, please remember to follow this blog as I think this will be my main writing platform from now on, at least for the next three to five years, or until I find some new focus to chase after. In the coming weeks, I’ll be reviewing not-a-long-listed books that I wish had been considered for the Clarke Award.

 

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