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2018 Clarke Award

This year’s winner is Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock.

I’ve not yet read it but it’s on my list.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Solaris, 2016, 317 p.

 Ninefox Gambit cover

This was on both the Clarke and Hugo Awards shortlists last year, which is why I read it. After two or so pages I wondered why I was bothering. The first chapter is a morass of information dumping and telling rather than showing with a battle described in terms that dwell on the grisly details yet are also bathetic. Plus, for an interplanetary conflict some of the weapons seem far too prosaic; bullets for instance.

We are in a milieu ruled by an all-powerful hexarchate – Shuos, Kel, Andan, Vidona, Rahal, Nirai – each of whose adherents at first seem to stick to one aspect of life (for example the Kel are soldiers whose “formation instinct” is their greatest asset) but turn out not to be quite so restricted. Some time in the past there was a heptarch (Liozh) but that tendency was expunged for calendrical heresy. Lee makes much play on this notion of keeping order by specifying time intervals. Calendrical rot is presented as a constant menace.

In Chapter One main viewpoint character Kel Cheris (Ajewen Cheris) is on a military mission to take an objective but is told to pull out as soon as she achieves it. She reflects that “Kel luck was frequently bad” – in which case why would anyone take part in it, then? Oh, of course. “Formation instinct,” (which seems more like indoctrination than instinct but is injected so must be chemical and which in any case comes over more as hidebound obedience. Yet occasionally some of the Kel do question orders so the instinct can’t actually be all that binding.) Later we are told, “It was one thing to sacrifice Kel soldiers. That was the purpose of the Kel.” Soldiers are for sacrificing are they? That might explain US military tactics down the years.

Cheris has been extracted as a possibility to lead the response to a calendrical rebellion at The Fortress of Scattered Needles. (Quite why she has been identified as a potential candidate is a mystery to this reader.) Her suggestion to resurrect the notorious, never defeated general Shuos Jedao, killer of millions in Hellspin Fortress centuries before and whose personality has been preserved in the black cradle to be trotted out from time to time when needed, is immediately accepted. His essence is implanted in her brain and off they go to challenge the rebels who are influenced by the Liozh tendency and in particular are on the way to implementing democracy, which general Jedao characterises as, “An obscure experimental form of government where citizens choose their own leaders or policies by voting on them.” Kel wonders how that could possibly work. Having Jedao in her head of course changes her by the book’s end, which sadly leaves ample scope for sequels.

The author’s apparent relish in describing body parts on the various battlefields makes his later attempts to induce sympathy or pity for victims of such extreme violence seem hollow, bordering on objectionable, while sentences such as, “It didn’t make him a mathematician, let alone one specializing in calendrical techniques, let alone one trained in this kind of evaluation,” with a phrase repeated after just four intervening words shows the lack of care in the writing (or editing.) This is only one example of many pieces of clunking prose in the book which is more or less a standard piece of military SF and not ground-breaking in any way.

Thankfully Ninefox Gambit won neither of those awards. What it was doing on the shortlists goodness only knows.

Pedant’s corner:- staunch (I prefer stanch,) “all the Kel weren’t as straightforward” (not all the Kel were as straightforward,) indictaed queries from other moth commander as well” (commanders,) “a small team of deltaform servitors were cleaning up the messes” (a team was,) practicing (practising,) “about what about what” (it doesn’t need the repeat,) “it didn’t take long for him long to respond” (either take out “long for” or “long to”,) damndest (damnedest,) a closing quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue. “An infinitely brief pause.” (How can anything be infinitely brief? Infinite and brief are total opposites,) “alternately gold and bronze and silver” (successively gold and bronze and silver,) “‘They weren’t for the heretics, were they.’” (That sentence is a question; so needs a question mark not a full stop.) “‘I could care less.’” (The context is, “I couldn’t care less.”) “clear white” (there is no such thing, clear = see-through, white = opaque; so-called “white light” is actually colourless,) dodecahedrons (dodecahedra,) Nirai (the character has been called Niaad up to here – and later.)

Clarke Award Short List

I’m in Holland at the moment (unlike last year scheduled posts have been appearing okay though) so I’ve only just discovered this year’s Clarke Award nominees which are:-

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
After Atlas – Emma Newman (Roc)
Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)
Central Station – Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

I’ve read one of them but two others were on my look out for list. I suppose I’ll now be adding two more. (Yes that makes only five. There is one I certainly won’t be reading as the author’s previous book was a waste of my time.)

The winner will be announced in July.

Clarke Award Winner

This year it’s Adrian Tchaikovsky for Children of Time. As I mentioned when this year’s short list was annnounced I haven’t read this. The Clarke judges, though, usually choose a worthy winner. Mr Tchaikovsky will need to go on my list.

The Clarke Award for 2014

Hot from the BSFA website, here’s the shortlist:-

The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. Carey (Orbit)
The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber (Canongate)
Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta (HarperVoyager)
The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North (Orbit)
Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

I’ve read four of these! I’m delighted to see both Emmi Itäranta and Emily St John Mandel (who missed out on BSFA Award nominations) on this list.

Clarke Award Shortlist

Last year it was Chris Priest who incited controversy over the Clarke Award, this year it seems to be the judges themselves – for not including a book by a woman on their shortlist.

The contending books are:-

Nod by Adrian Barnes (Bluemoose)
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)*
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Headline)
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)*
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)*

I’ve read the last two of these and Dark Eden is on the TBR pile.

The overlap with this year’s BSFA Awards novel short list is strong (asterisked titles) but only 2312 is also up for the Hugo.

I’m a bit surprised that M John Harrison’s Empty Space didn’t make the list, it’s the sort of book that Clarke Award juries tend to like.

The Islanders by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2011, 339p

The Islanders cover

This one is odd. Normally a novel unfolds by the interactions of various characters and the intertwinings of their stories – however separate their narratives may seem to be from the outset – all set out in a standard narrative format, albeit with digressions or flashbacks or indeed flashes forward. This book strays far from such conventionality. It is set out as a gazetteer. Each “chapter”€ title is that of an island in the Dream Archipelago – a place of indeterminable geography due to “€œtemporal gradients”€ and a “vortex”€ which distorts perception – which Priest has visited before. Different “€œchapters”€ take different forms: some are exactly like entries in a gazetteer (including tourist information relating to local laws, currencies used etc) others are more conventional first person narratives, there is even a police (Priest uses the description policier) interview transcript; but all drip information either about the world of the Dream Archipelago or its inhabitants. Indeed were I to be hypercritical I could describe the book as a giant info dump interspersed with (relatively few) short stories.

However, SF likes to think of itself as innovative. Where better to find altered ways to tell stories, to redefine what constitutes a novel? And this is on the BSFA Award short list (but not the Clarke, to whose choices this year Priest has objected.) I somehow doubt, though, that writing novels as if they were gazetteers is going to catch on.

Nevertheless in The Islanders a picture of the world and its complexities builds up over time. Early on, a confession to a murder in a theatre leads to an execution – later episodes cast doubt on whether the death was a murder at all, and if so who was really responsible. The narrative sections are mostly concerned with creative types, mainly writers and artists. Events are experienced through various eyes and are seen to be as mutable -€“ or incapable of full comprehension -€“ as the Archipelago’€™s geography.

Yet – to be hypercritical again – none of the stories really requires the off-Earth setting, each could take place in our here and now. Much of the discourse is familiar, we have cars, computers, the internet, email; the flora and fauna are unexceptional, we even have bananas. The world, set between two warring powers – one from each of the two polar continents which are separated by the ocean in which the Archipelago (more or less protected by the neutrality pact which is supposed to safeguard the islands’ sovereignties) sits, is almost humdrum in its similarities to our own. The islands’€™ polities appear akin to our own Channel Islands, being feudal and overseen by Seigniors some of whom are more benevolent than others. And warring powers behave as they will in any time or place.

The Islanders is novel, I would agree. But a novel? It’€™s ingenious and an impressive achievement; but in the end the structure does not fully satisfy; there are too many interconnections between the “chapters” for the book to convince as a gazetteer, and too few for a rounded novel. Nevertheless between the three candidates for the BSFA Award which I have read so far it is, I would say, the strongest contender.

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