What sort of a list is it, overall? Solid is one word for it, which is another way of saying safe. Which is another way of saying, not especially thrilling. Quiet War is probably the best novel here; The Margarets and Martin Martin’s On The Other Side are probably the worst, but none of the books are especially bad or unworthy nominees (Anathem, I take it as axiomatic, is sui generis). By the same token this list has the Cameline look of an Equine Assemblage Committee report: a couple of ‘literary’ titles, a couple unmistakeable this-is-what-fans-love SF titles, a little pinch of longservice medal (as it might be; ‘what do you mean Tepper’s never won a Clarke award? She’s a giant of the field!’) a little touch of ‘it is a good thing to shine the light on up-and-coming talent, so the fact that this is a first novel outweighs the fact that it’s rather flawed’). The danger in such a strategy—and actually it’s a perfectly honourable strategy—is that in attempting to cover all the bases the shortlist covers none; and Steve Baxter, Nick Harkaway and Patrick Ness would all be within their rights to be properly disappointed not to have made the cut: they all wrote books better than (at a conservative estimate) half the titles shortlisted here. But as is always the case (or as always should be the case) with awards shortlists, it’s not about any individual author; it is about the state of genre today. It is for instance about giving fans and interested parties a These Are Worth Your Time reading list; and such parties, and such fans, could do a lot worse than reading these six titles. If they add Baxter, Harkaway and Ness to their pile as well, they’ll do even better.
Ian MacLeod’s Song of Time is an honourable Literary SF failure; commendably ambitious, occasionally effective, but more often not—vague where it needed precision, pretentious (I appreciate the irony in me levelling that particular accusation) where it needed solidity, overplaying where it needed to underplay its affect. Narrator Roushana Maitland is an old woman recalling her eventful life at the heart of the musical avant garde in future-France(a notional 21st-century but actually 1920s Paris with a few hightech props). A beautiful young man, his memory a blank, is washed up naked on the shoreline near her Cornish house, and the narration of the past and the mystery of the present converge. I reviewed the book for Strange Horizons, and whilst I praised a number of impressive touches, more of my account was given over to what I saw as problems: ‘one problem is that much of the autobiographical stuff is what Salinger called "all that David Copperfield crap … Another problem is that this is a novel centrally about music, which necessitates a great deal of dancing about the architecture. There's something tiresome in being repeatedly told about "Karl Nordinger, and his magnificent Fourth Symphony" when the prose gives us no sense of how this alleged masterpiece is or sounds ...'
"There are broader pleasures to be had here, and some of them derive from MacLeod's often-praised prose itself—although I have to say that stylistically this is an only intermittently impressive book. There are many sentences that are simply beautiful, and MacLeod clearly has a good ear for a striking image or comparison: "Car and house alarms were squalling, buses lay overturned, and the pavements were already glittery from looting" (p. 92). "The vast mote of some leviathan is floating across the sky as it mouths and digests whatever poisons have been cast here from other, less fortunate lands" (p. 102). I loved the description of the steps up to Morryn blurring "in Escher angles of light and shadow" (p. 211). He's very good at the Sturm-und-Drang stuff:My final judgment is that the Madeleine is baked with as much that is good as bad:Then they are down beside the raging waves and the boathouse, part hewn-stone, part cliff, part cavern, Morryn's last outreach, at which the sea tongues and mauls, lies ahead. Blinding white froth rolls out of the blackness, draws back, rolls in again. Shingle slides. (p. 288)The style, though, is terribly uneven. For every well-turned sentence there's a sentence that is just horrible: "I noticed again the view through the window when Blythe and I returned to the charming virtual room she had first greeted me in" (p. 159); "Comets can approach enough to give us the apocalyptic willies" (p. 241). MacLeod has a fatal affection for "resolutely," a word he uses indiscriminately as adverb and adjective: "resolutely Anglo-Saxon enclaves," "resolutely fully dressed," "resolutely asleep," "my resolutely English ears," "resolutely male," "resolutely granite-grey" (Bodmin, this), "I stroked his resolutely flaccid penis," "a resolutely self-contained package," "resolutely doing the American thing" (p. 19, 30, 46, 80, 101, 151, 196, 197, 218). We can appreciate that certain words tend to stick in a writer's ear; that's one reason why revising one's first drafts is a needful activity. The problem here is not just the repetition but the sense that MacLeod evidently thinks "resolutely" a nonspecific intensifier rather than an inflection of the word "resolve" (does he really mean to say that Claude's penis was flaccid because Claude had resolved to keep it so? I have to say that's not my experience of how the organ works)."
"That said, as the novel draws to its conclusion it accumulates a genuine, and affecting, emotional heft. Perhaps it is in part a consequence of the momentum of a fairly long novel (which in turn perhaps justifies the sometimes stodgy build-up): certainly as it closes the fate of Roushana, the identity of "Adam" and the sheer pressure of memory acting upon the present become properly involving and even a little moving. On this emotional level, then—which I take to be the level for which the novel aims—the novel works, at least in the final stretches. This is not to say that it achieves its implicit Proustian ambition of articulating the strangeness and depth of memory's action on the present. It does manage some striking effects, but it also reads as often mis- as well-judged."
Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War ‘tells a simple tale, parsing four main characters and half a dozen minor ones, through the run-up, outbreak, prosecution and into the immediate aftermath of 23rd-century solar-systemic war. In the green corner we have Earth, dragged back from the brink of environmental collapse by radical measures, governed by essentially feudal power blocs, most of the population penned in the cities and the countryside given over to reclamation projects aimed at undoing centuries of environmental damage. In the purple corner are those humans who have colonised myriad sites and arcologies in the Jovian and Saturnian moons, not to mention Uranus and various other places. Unlike the radical ‘nature’ conservatives of Earth these colonist revel in genetic modification, of plants and animals and of humans too, the better to adapt them to the extremes of their worldlets.’ I thought it—and still think it—one of McAuley’s best novels: ‘quietly brilliant’, a masterpiece of the understated accumulation of detail, the beauties both of inflection and innuendo (the blackbird whistling, and just after).
I do not consider it flawness. There are two problems in particular. One is the infodumping, of which there is a lot. But I didn’t mind this as much as I might, because when not infodumping McAuley is writing like a space angel.
"It is superbly, and often exquisitely written; for despite (or who knows, because of) his academic background in the hard sciences McAuley is simply one of the best prose stylists working in the genre today. To an extent his writing shows the balance of clarity and considered poeticism also found in William Golding—both McAuley’s blog, and the epigraph to this novel (it quotes the last line of Free Fall) suggest that Golding is one of his influences. It is also, as it says in the blurb, a ‘scrupulously realised’ novel: every aspect of the worldbuilding, from science and technology to sociology and psychology, has been carefully worked through, and the result is a fictional environment that has the absolute smack of verisimilitude."The other problem I had was with the denouement, which flirts with anticlimax; but on reflection I suspect, given the text’s aesthetic focus on quietude, that a bigger splash, at the end, would have been a misstep:
"What’s going on here is not that the book lets the reader down, but rather that it fulfils it promise of relating a futuristic interplanetary war—something other SF novels style crassly as a! FUT-ur-ISTIC! IN-TER PLLLLANETARY WARRR!!—precisely quietly. It is, for all the sense of wonder the book cultivates, an example of literary understatement. There have been other novels published recently on the subject of a war between a powerful, dominating neo-imperialist earth and a scattered group of ideologically-rhizomatic spacers in the near future; but such novels have been more (if you like them) operatic, or Jacobean, and (if you don’t) melodramatic. McAuley’s treatment is very far from that; and to the extent that less is more (which is a large extent) it succeeds much more completely than any earlier novel on a similar theme. It’s not that the book lacks excitement, for there’s lots of that: hairs-breadth escapes, spectacular scenery, massive SFX explosions … it’s that McAuley mutes his representation of these, like a virtuoso jazz trumpeter holding his bowler over the mouth of his horn."Having read the whole shortlist I would say that The Quiet War is, despite its sunspots, the best novel on offer here. Were the Clarke in my gift it would go to McAuley, for the second time. (It’s not in my gift though, and will probably go to Stephenson.)
Alistair Reynolds’ House of Suns is a good old fashioned galactic (by the end intergalactic) space opera; not the best book Reynolds has written, but not a bad book by any means. I thought it ‘a confection’:
"... a dash of Doc Smith’s enormous spaceships, a slug of Asimov’s Second Foundation (in the titular organisation—and in the whitebread pangalactic civilisation of the worldbuilding) a flavour of Iain M Banks, a splash of Egan’s syncromesh stasis devices (to facilitate Newtonian sublight interstellar travel) that slow people down to glacial speeds; and an inadvertent whiff of Un chien andalu (‘The wind hardened, cutting into my eyes as if with a razor’ 236) … there's a neat series of narrative bait-and-switches, and it all culminates in a roaring starship chase, although I wasn’t quite sold on the final ending, in which the two main characters literally fly out the window (the galactic window, I mean), leaving one of them in a position such that I wasn’t sure how she’d narrated her half of the book. But if it is your contention that the face of SF 2009 is Asimov’s mutton-chops and meaty NHS-style-but-presumably-not-actually-NHS-what-with-him-being-American glasses, and if you're not bothered by bourgeois heteronormativity, then this is most definitely the book for you."
Stephenson's Anathem is the shortlisted title with the highest profile; it has been widely reviewed, sold lots and lots of copies and—in some quarters—been very highly praised. I can sort-of see why, although I didn’t especially enjoy the book, and since finishing my reading it has diminished, rather than grown, in my imagination. But I’m reconciled to the fact that I’m in the minority on this.
It tells (as if you didn’t know already) the story of Erasmus, a sort-of monk (a sort of science-and-philosophy rather than a religious monk, although it’s complicated) on a sort-of Earth, who spends a great deal of time kicking Big Ideas around his convent (concent, it’s called in this novel). Then he spends a great deal of time trekking across his world, and then another great deal of time tangled up in the arrival of a UFO—a UFO that’s at the other end of the scale, both in terms of complexity and enjoyability, from the one piloted by Kang and Kodos. This is a very long novel indeed. Not much happens in the first half, quite a lot happens in the second, but the whole has that aura of geologic time to it: it all sort-of evens out. Anathem also deploys a great number of squint-and-you’ll-recognise-me neologisms, part of its larger project, which some readers loved, and which I found irksome.
"Considerably better formed and more enjoyable than Stephenson’s prodigiously clotted Baroque books, Anathem is a pudding baked of equal parts Harry Potter, A Canticle of Leibowitz, Tolkien, Heinlein’s juveniles (or some of them) and Bertrand Russell’s History of Philosophy. A thousand pages of Fatasy, give or take … The main point of Stephenson’s tekst is the worldbling, which is very expensive and showy. For people who like worldbling this is presumably almost a perfect book; but those who prefer something a little less flashy, a little more substantial in aesthetic and novelistic terms, may find it tiresome. But it is surely beside the point to object to the tell-don't-show styless, or to the myriad annoylogisms, which are amongst the showiest elements in S.’s worldbling. My problem with the tekst can be boiled down to one focus: its monstrous and inflated infodumping. Of course I appreciate that for some ridders, and perhaps for many ridders, this 'problem' will be the whole point of the book. My own progress through this treaclestorm of a narrative was slow, and my main emotion upon completion was relief. But for all that I had some faint inkling of why some readers have fallen wholly in love with this book."
With Sheri Tepper’s The Margarets I found myself really quite conflicted. Tepper is an important writer for me; I loved, and have been shaped and moved by, some of her earlier books more than almost anybody in the field. Nevertheless my heart battled my head over this poorly organised tale of Margaret (born into a solar system in which humanity has been overruled by aliens outraged at our environmental destruction) who splits into seven separate versions of herself, lives seven lives—happy and sad, SF and Fantasy—before coming together to save the universe via a little selective ethnic cleansing. Bits of the book embodied some of the Tepper magic; most of it didn’t, and despite its ingenuousness—or maybe even because of it—it is ethically one of the dodgiest books I’ve read in a long time.
"The Margarets is a broken book, much more a failure than a success. It is too long, and it lacks the structural or stylistic deftness to orchestrate its crowded, friable plot across its length. The different Margarets are insufficiently differentiated for the architectonic needs of the book: which is to say they're presented at different ages, and in one case as of a different gender, but stylistically and formally they are all the same thing. The writing and plotting is diffuse; I found it a sticky, onerous process making my way through. Tonally the sections are too much of a muchness; there’s not enough local variety to tell them apart, so the reader is forced back upon the elaborate lists of characters and planets at the beginning. There’s a distinct lack of overall tension, for I never doubted for a minute that the novel would follow its own Fairy Tale logic to a happy ending. Well, I say happy … There’s a level—and I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s precisely the level of the fairy tale—where Otherness is demonised in so complete and so unironic a manner that it crosses over from fable into ideological repulsiveness. The enemies in this novel are called The Vile Races. Of the K’Famir and the Quataar we are told that they are literally nothing but cruelty: the hold other ‘races’ in utter contempt. ‘They don’t care about their own families. Their women are for amusement or breeding; their daughters are for sale or disposal; their sons are turned into copies of their fathers’  … The villains have exchanges as absolutely wooden as these (one K’Famir has just tortured his daughter to death): ‘“She did not live long. Her pain was amusing.” “I too find females’ pain most amusing,” they other answered.’ . That’s just plain clumsy. (Imagine a historical novel in which two agents of the Inquisition were conversing: ‘I spent all day torturing Jews and heretics; it was fun.’ ‘I too enjoy torturing Jews and causing them pain.’)
The Vile Races are plotting to destroy humanity. The Seven Margarets, with divine help, light upon a Solution to their wickedness; but it is tantamount to a Final Solution. So, the entire combined aristocracy of the K’Famir, the Frossians and the Quaatar (many millions of beings) get into some space ships—Humans then destroy the ships, and this holocaust puts an end to the Vile Races’ evil scheming. Do you see what I mean when I say the happiness of this ending left me itchy?"
I also didn’t think very much of Mark Wernham’s Braying New World dystopia, Martin Martin’s On the Other Side. Jensen Interceptor is a dumb, sweary public official in a dumbed-down future world who gets tangled up, for reasons not properly explained, with Martin Martin, a dead TV-psychic could-be Christ from our present. Almost all of the novel is written in Jensen’s argot (‘Oi oi! Heads up! Jensen Interceptor here. And here is what I have to tell you; my fucking story … Let’s get right to it, then, yeah? Fucking great.’ 9). I thought the heart of the novel was
"... straight from the ideological arsenal of the Daily Mail. The pastimes favoured by the working classes, particularly by working class males (larking about with mates, getting drunk, snorting coke, having sex) are Literally! Hell! On! Earth! On the other hand, the pastimes favoured by the middle classes (going to nice Italian restaurants, drinking glasses of red wine, not swearing, gathering in one another’s flats to talk about how the world is not as nice as it used to be) are Mankind’s Only Hope In These Desperate Times! The word for this is Snobbery. We might call it Reactionary Snobbery, except that that's two words. The novel continually risks collapsing back into the Harry Enfield one-note gag (the boneheaded South African gym trainer who glosses his account of last night’s horrible, violent pub-binge with ‘you would have loved it, man’) from which, I'm prepared to believe, it originated."On the other hand, and despite its various flaws and problems, there’s evidence of some considerable writerly talent in this novel.
"Now, if we take the book to be an exercise in dystopian fiction, it seems to me it fails quite badly, for it is incoherent and excessively derivative. But actually I don’t think the book is an exercise in dystopia, or not primarily so. I think it’s an exercise in tone—the inadvertent eloquence of Jensen’s ‘fucking fucker’ laddishly limited register, the creation of a world less through description of concrete paraphernalia and more through monotony of narratorial voice. In that respect the book is rather better that it might at first appear."The Clarke has a tradition of nominating otherwise little-regarded first novels, something for which I have personal reason to be grateful; so whilst I couldn’t say that this novel deserves its place on the list as far as intrinsic merit is concerned (when set against Knife of Never Letting Go or Gone-Away World), I can understand why it might have been selected for shortlisting. Wait, here come some hot-footing second thoughts: actually Knife of Never Letting Go and The Gone-Away World are first novels too, and either of them is streets better than this one. So scrub that last thought.
Who will win? Anathem, probably. Who should win? Quiet War, probably. See me pick them wrong! Roll up! [Update 30th April: ... and I was wrong on both counts, as it turned out: MacLeod’s Song of Time wins the prize ... congratulations to him! For a more positive account of the novel than mine, check out Niall's wise words.]