The Arthur C Clarke Award 2013

So I recently finished reading all six of the novels shortlisted for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. Just in a ‘because it’s there’, kind of way. Having completed this essentially arbitrary task, I thought I’d do a victory lap by blogging about it. Will I pick the same winner that the judges did (semi-controversially selecting from an all-male shortlist, chosen by a 4/5ths female judging panel)? Read on to find out!

I’ll talk about the books in the order I read them….

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Synopsis: This was the actual 2013 winner. Set on a distant planet named ‘Eden’ populated by human inhabitants, all of whom are descended from a single couple who ended up crashed there by accident decades ago. The plot follows their five hundred or so descendants several generations on, still awaiting rescue from back on Earth. The younger generations start to wonder whether they should be focussing on life in Eden, rather than waiting in limbo for salvation that may never come.

My verdict: I think this is  a very well imagined piece of writing, with a clear underlying message about being present in the moment and valuing what you have. Eden itself is suitably alien as a place. All the flora and fauna are named after earth equivalents, but their strangeness creeps up on you. There are ‘leopards’ which live outside the community, and have disc shaped dark green eyes to adjust to Eden’s almost total darkness, as well as bizarre trees which pump out heat from within the planet. The incestuous angle isn’t played up too much, instead the guilt of all Eden-ites being told that their sexual relationships are inherently wrong sits subtly in the background. The quasi-religious nature of the community and the wait for salvation isn’t overplayed either, but the parallels are clear, and the fuddy-duddy ‘Oldest’ who safeguard (inaccurately, we see as readers) the oral histories of back home are clearly painted as being on the wrong side of the debate.

I enjoyed this a lot. If I had any criticism it’s that the plot unfolds almost exactly as you would expect it to.

Nod by Adrian Barnes

Synopsis: Often the best sci-fi starts from the simplest premise and explores it inside out. In ‘Nod’ Barnes simply removes one element of human life – sleep. All of humanity finds overnight that they are no longer able to sleep, other than one in a thousand who continue unaffected. The protagonist Paul is one of those who still can, but his partner Tanya starts to suffer the physical and mental strain of a life without sleep. Society rapidly crumbles as the sleep deprivation takes hold more widely. A bizarre cult emerges, inspired by an incomplete scholarly work of Paul’s about archaic, forgotten words. The cult christens the new world ‘Nod’ and anoints Paul as an unwilling prophet.

My verdict: Based on the synopsis I read, this was the book other than ‘Dark Eden’ which most appealed, but it was actually the only one on the list that I didn’t really enjoy. Mostly I think because it’s so unremittingly bleak. It reminded me a little of Drew McGarry’s ‘The End Specialist’, a book I found too pessimistic about mankind’s likelihood of pulling together in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

The madness and masochism of the Nod Cult is, to me, a narrative dead end which offers no catharsis. The ‘archaic language thesis’ angle seemed contrived and under-developed – perhaps a stab at adding some ‘literary’ worth? Ultimately we don’t even find out what causes the end of sleep. To be honest I hadn’t, expected to – most such explanations end up feeling like the last five minutes of Dr Who. That said, not all do – and at least it could have been an opportunity to surprise us at the end, or even go on for longer/save the world – anything that might have cheered me up. Ultimately even the slightly Children of Men like MacGuffin that drives Paul’s actions as the Good Guy doesn’t really lead anywhere. Bad things happen to good people, lives are ruined, everything spirals down.

An interesting read, but ultimately a bit too pessimistic for me.

The Dog Stars – Peter Heller

Synopsis: Billed in some quarters as ‘the Road with optimism’ this was already set up to be a welcome antidote to Nod’s bleak outcome. A virus has wiped out much of mankind, there are small pockets of survivors, some making do in small communities, some are loners like Hig – the protagonist, and his neighbour Bangley. Hig is a pilot, regularly scouting the area in his Cessna aeroplane. Some years ago he picked up a signal from an distant airbase suggesting more survivors were out there, but to fly out and investigate would be a one way journey – there would be no guarantee he could find the fuel to return.

My verdict: I really warmed to this book. So very simple in construction – I could spoil the entire plot in about four sentences – it gets by on the very well drawn cast of characters. Hig and Bangley’s relationship is complex and engaging. The occasional bursts of violence and cruelty from outside are underpinned, in the end, by optimism.

I found the book’s inclusion in a ‘science fiction’ award a bit of a stretch – the blood virus plays hardly any role in the story, so in the end the most advanced technology is Hig’s plane. That’s not to take away from a book which succeeds in exactly the way that Nod failed – by injecting a little hope and warmth into its otherwise bleak narrative.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Synopsis: A more traditionally ‘sci-fi’ book, in the ‘space opera’ style. It concerns mankind’s early colonisation of the solar system, and the conflict between the balkanised states on the various planets, moons, and asteroids. Beginning with the destruction of Mercury’s only city, ‘Terminator’, a giant machine which moves perpetually across the planet’s dark side on giant train tracks to avoid the lethal heat of the sun. We follow a native Mercurian, Swan, in her efforts to find out whether this was an accident, or an act of terrorism – and who might be responsible.

My verdict: In parts a little slow, in parts a little dry, I still enjoyed this book. Other than the fact of it being set In Outer Space, and including new technologies, like references to quantum computing, and artificial intelligence, this is actually more of a political thriller. The depiction of a post climate-change earth where billions live in poverty whilst new colonies out in the solar system thrive is chillingly plausible. Whilst some might find it a little overwrought and didactic, I don’t – because climate change is fucking scary. Such a complicated book is hard to summarise, and some might find themselves losing patience with some of the sequences, such as the part Swan finds herself pacing for weeks on end through tunnels under the surface of Mercury – herself going half mad with boredom.

Ultimately a believable and insightful vision of mankind’s future – if our technological skills outpace our growth as a more egalitarian society.

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

Synopsis: A near-future dystopian Britain is the setting for another ‘what if’ thriller. ‘The Fix’ is a voluntary, one-off medical treatment, taken in the form of a single tablet taken by a mother when pregnant, which prevents numerous common childhood diseases by altering DNA. Opting out on anything other than religious grounds is highly unusual, and somewhat socially unacceptable. New legal precedents are being established which may ultimately make it compulsory.

Hope is pregnant with her second child, having declined to take ‘The Fix’ for her first she intends to do the same this time. Her reason remains unarticulated, beyond the desire for it to be her choice. The book explores how she is treated in a society where smoking whilst pregnant is now illegal, and a mother-to-be’s body is constantly monitored for alcohol intake, or other sources of harm to a foetus. This assertion of foetus’ rights is enforced to the extent that most women now have no choice but to undertake menial remote work from their homes. As the law closes in around her, well-meaning activists seek to use Hope’s predicament to further their own agenda.

My verdict: For the most part this is a really well developed ‘thought experiment’ of a book, it explores its central premise well, and sets it in the context of a hyper-controlling society in which everyone wears something which very much resembles Google Glass, with disastrous consequences for personal freedoms. Political and ethical stances from both the left and right are taken to their most absurd conclusions to result in an unusually liberal dystopia with nods to 1984 and other classics. A socialist Hindu terrorist group – the Naxals – is a presence at the fringes, but isn’t central to the plot. This enables MacLeod to make an interesting, almost passing, point about how close modern British society is to a socialist state. In the book, the state parties conspire to ensure the population doesn’t realise this, or existing power structures would collapse.

The story also introduces another more overtly ‘sci-fi’ element which I won’t divulge but which complicates Hope’s decision, and lifts the novel out of what could have been a very dry satire by introducing more action. The book only falls down a little right at the very end, having hinged so much around whether or not Hope will take ‘The Fix’ I found her ultimate decision didn’t quite seem to flow from what had gone before… I won’t elaborate. Ultimately an enjoyable and thought provoking book.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Synopsis: Joe Spork is a clockwork repair expert, and the son of a Reggie Kray style mobster, who finds himself duped into instigating a potential apocalypse by an elderly former spy. The unlikely method of destruction comes in the form of a hive of clockwork bees. Pursued throughout by various shadowy agencies, and never quite sure who is on his side and who isn’t – he uncovers the truth about his own history in the course of unravelling the mystery and trying to save the world.

My verdict: Summaries I read of this book before reading it probably did as poor a job of selling it to me as I’ve just done above. However I was pleasantly surprised by Angelmaker. It succeeds through sheer intrigue and enjoyment, with a high stakes plot based on somewhat preposterous science – which I can’t describe without spoiling it. The characters are well drawn and you really do root for them. It’s a deeply British book MI5, Bletchley Park, obsessive hobbyists, the civil service, and old school London gangsters all play a part in a story which is thrilling and keeps you guessing.

It’s probably the least believable book on the list, in terms of its ‘science’ content, this is far from an issue. It also probably tries the least to contain a ‘message’. Yet it isn’t shallow or ‘wacky’ either, despite its ‘terrifying clockwork bees’ premise. My only criticism is that it’s a little dense and hard to follow at first – being something of a unique plot, I found myself looking up an online synopsis to help me figure out where all the initially disparate elements were going. Ultimately highly enjoyable, with an interesting thought experiment about quantum theory, the nature of truth, determinism, and heisenbergian uncertainty at its heart.

Final verdict

So which one was my ‘winner’? Here are my rankings

1st Angelmaker
2nd Dark Eden
3rd Intrusion
4th 2312
5th The Dog Stars
6th Nod

So Angelmaker is the winner! Meaning you shouldn’t judge a book by…. well anything at all really. It was a close call between that and Dark Eden, but I think Angelmaker took it for originality and unpredictability.

Looking forward to next year’s list!