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I always enjoy Adam Roberts' reviews of the Arthur C Clarke award shortlist, and the most recent is now up at Infinity Plus. As a reminder, that shortlist in full:
River of Gods by Ian McDonald
Iron Council by China Mieville
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Market Forces by Richard Morgan
The Time-Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
I've read three (McDonald, Mitchell, Niffenegger), so this isn't the most well-grounded of predictions, but if you asked me to predict a winner I'd go with Cloud Atlas--though I'd be thinking of River of Gods. Roberts also thinks McDonald's book should get it, but thinks calling what will win is a harder task. Most of the books come in for criticism as well as praise. On Iron Council:
For weirdness to register, there needs to be a normality against which it can be measured. When everything in a text is weird nothing is. Particularly in the first 120 pages of Iron Council this becomes something of a problem. Bizarreness after bizarreness harries the hardy band of travellers, all of them rendered with Miéville's impressive ingenuity and inventiveness. But there's so much of it, and it's rendered so densely, that the effect is one only of sluggishness, an effortful slog through oddity piled on oddity.
Cloud Atlas:
And, despite the fact that the novel ends in a genuinely affecting way (and despite the fact that it wears its undeniable technical accomplishment on its sleeve throughout), this is the problem with Cloud Atlas. What is the novel saying? It is saying that Racism is Bad; that we ought to take Care of The Environment; that People Can Sometimes Oppress Others and Be Nasty To Them and that this, like Racism, is A Bad Thing. And above all it is saying that, although it may not appear so to a superficial analysis, in fact We Are All Connected In This, Like, Cosmic Oneness That Transcends Time and Space Or Something.
The Time-Traveler's Wife:
In other words I'm suggesting that there is, in the final analysis, a triviality to The Time Traveler's Wife: not because love is a trivial subject (obviously it is not) but because Niffenegger's treatment is fundamentally and irrevocably sentimental, and the time travel premise is used only to magnify that sentimentality.
Interestingly I didn't find that it was overly sentimental myself; I liked it a lot, though I also think it's overlong.

System of the World (his least favourite):
It is not that the book entirely lacks interest. The reader cannot trawl through these many fact-swarming pages without snagging all manner of trivia in his/her net. And if lots of factoids and a broad sense of the historical circumstance of England in 1714 is what you are after, then this is the ... no, wait, what am I saying? If that's what's you're after, log on to Wikipedia and spend an hour or so browsing. If what you're after is a book that hangs about you like a ball-and-chain, a reading experience that seems to trudge on forever, a narrative whose ending seems to fade for ever and for ever as you move gaspingly towards it, then this is the book for you.
To me, though, the most interesting aspect of the review is how he characterises the differences between the Clarke list and this year's BSFA list:
The Clarke panel this year seem, consciously or unconsciously, to have elected for Populism. Now, Populism is a Good Thing. Few of the titles on the BSFA list have sold more than respectably (the exceptions are Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and, to a lesser degree, Century Rain). On the other hand, three of the Clarke list titles (Mitchell, Niffenegger and Morgan) have been bestsellers, and two (Miéville and Stephenson) have sold very well indeed. These are books that people, in large numbers, actually want to read; and they have become popular because they manifest manifold virtues.
This is one of the things that interested me about the Clarke list. I mean, good lord, the Niffenegger and Mitchell books are in the Richard and Judy book club, of all things, and being sold three-for-two in promotions in supermarkets (and judging by the number of people I've seen reading it on the Tube recently, the Niffenegger at least is doing quite well out of it; I have allowed myself to feel ever-so-slightly smug about having read it over a year ago) and for all Roberts' criticisms they are indeed both novels with numerous virtues.

But he also says:
Each of these books -- even the sluggish Robinson title -- is trying to do something new in the genre. This isn't the case for the majority of titles chosen by the Clarke panel.
I'm not sure I agree with him here. I'm reluctant to say it, but to me the BSFA list looks a little bit like the usual suspects. This is not to say that they're bad books--I've read five of the six on that list, and enjoyed them all, more or less--but I'm not sure any of them are radical departures for the writers involved, whereas the Clarke list seems that bit more diverse, that bit fresher. The science fiction in Cloud Atlas, for instance, is thoroughly traditional, but I think the way it's handled in the context of the rest of the book makes it new; whereas I think that in Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain, the mixing of subgenres isn't as fruitful as it perhaps might be. On the other hand, maybe Roberts is right; maybe my sense of freshness in the Clarke list comes more from the fact that there are authors there I haven't seen up for awards before than any particular boldness in the books themselves. It's something to consider. In the meantime, I recommend you go and read the whole article, because even if you disagree with what Roberts is saying he's likely to make you think.

(I also wish someone would do an equivalent review of the BSFA list--possibly for Vector, although I suspect the combination of production and award deadlines would make that tricky. Maybe if I read Stamping Butterflies in time I'll try to do something here).
 
 
 
 
 
 
"[T]his is the problem with Cloud Atlas. What is the novel saying? It is saying that Racism is Bad; that we ought to take Care of The Environment; that People Can Sometimes Oppress Others and Be Nasty To Them and that this, like Racism, is A Bad Thing."

I haven't yet read Cloud Atlas, but I have to say that Roberts does nothing to demonstrate why it's a bad thing for the novel (or any novel) to be saying that racism is bad, or that we ought to take care of the environment, et cetera. Indeed, as far as I can tell from reading the review, the only point of putting that passage about Cloud Atlas into Winnie-the-Pooh upcase style is to signal, without bothering to argue the point, that we really ought to sneer at Mitchell's book for having boringly earnest didactica on its mind, since earnestness is, like, boring and uncool.

Roberts may have a better point to make about Cloud Atlas, but he doesn't actually make a case so much as he strikes an attitude. It's an amusing attitude, but an attitude isn't the same thing as an argument.
Roberts may have a better point to make about Cloud Atlas, but he doesn't actually make a case so much as he strikes an attitude.

No, he really doesn't, but I did feel similarly at the end of Cloud Atlas - that the moral lessons inherent in the narrative were a bit too obvious, too much front and center and the narrative suffered for it. (This is something I felt in both his previous books.) When reading Cloud Atlas, I amused myself by trying to predict what was going to happen when the narrative resumed, and quite often I could. And therein lies the problem with his message - not that it exists, but that it is so obvious that I knew where he was going to take the story.

I find Mitchell a very frustrating author to read -- I like to say he is a bit too smart for his own good, and if he were a bit less so I would engage with his characters and stories far more than I do. What I mean by this is I think he gets wrapped up in the intellectual crafting of the story, and I do find him extremely interesting for the way his stories are structured and particularly in Ghostwritten how all the disparate stories echoed back to each other. But with this focus on craft, I think the heart of the story gets lost. To me, his characters lack a layer of realism, unpredictability that would really make his stories work for me. Too often I feel the hand of the author moving the characters around.

On the otherhand, his books never fail to engage me on some level, and I (even as I grumble about it) eagerly await his next book.
No, he really doesn't, but I did feel similarly at the end of Cloud Atlas - that the moral lessons inherent in the narrative were a bit too obvious, too much front and center and the narrative suffered for it.

I understand this criticism, and you're certainly not the only person I've seen to voice it. In the novel's defence, I'd point to what Iain said in his recent post:
It’s about the way that any era - past or future - is simply a projection of what we think they were or will be: that there is really no distinction to be drawn between historical fictions and futuristic fictions, since ultimately they are all about exploring parts of ourselves.
It is quite deliberately an exercise in artifice; I don't have a problem with that, but I think it's fair enough that some do.

But, I didn't get the same feeling from Ghostwritten. That seemed much more natural and rounded, and less didactic.
Roberts does nothing to demonstrate why it's a bad thing for the novel (or any novel) to be saying that racism is bad, or that we ought to take care of the environment, et cetera

I don't think he intends to say that it is (in fact, he says the opposite). I take his point to be more that the novel is too scattershot--too broad. That it broaches too many topics to deal with any of them satisfactorily, and as a result ends up less than the sum of its parts.

Personally I disagree. If anything, I found that it was the opposite--a little too keen to reduce every human problem to one cause, the abuse of power (although that no doubt is an important cause!)

That said, you're right that he's not offering real criticism here, rather a starting point for discussions such as this.
I thought his point was that Cloud Atlas was too obvious in the way it put its message across.
I think maybe it's both. He asks, "what is the novel saying?" and lists half-a-dozen things. Then goes on: "It is a novel invested too greatly in technique, and too little in depth. [...] Ultimately it is a slightly preachy, rather middlebrow entertainment."
My own characterization is that the BSFA represents what people who specialize in reading sf have liked in 2004 (with a slant towards work published at the end of the year), whilst the Clarke list is what people who are not in general exclusive or primary readers of sf have liked that can be considered sf.

As for what will win, I can't see it being the Stephenson after Quicksilver won last year, and too many people have expressed surprise over Moran being on the shortlist for me to think that will win. Personally, I think Cloud Atlas could split the jury, and River of Gods may well emerge as the winner.
That's a good way of looking at it, I think. And I hope you're right about River of Gods. Have you read that paperback yet?
There are many things I can do, but reading a 500+ novel in a week is not one of them!
Tsk. Slacker! :p
Glad you liked the review Niall, but more glad that you didn't agree with all of it: the purpose of round-up reviews like this is to provoke discussion (short of actively misrepresenting the books), not a monolithic agreement, after all. Adam R.
Agreed! Now, I don't suppose we can persuade you to do one for the BSFA list, can we ...?
Mum recently borrowed the Time Traveler's Wife from me because it had appeared on Richard and Judy. She also told me they completely trashed The DaVinci Code so I'm gaining more and more respect for them.
they completely trashed The DaVinci Code

This is almost enough to make me send them fanmail. :D
Agreed! It soundly deserves trashing. Also, I was wondering why I found Cloud Atlas on sale at Tesco, but the Richard and Judy connection explains it.
Oh, and whilst I am (so far) enjoying Quicksilver more than Roberts did, he's exactly right about Stephenson's anachronistic language. In such a carefully drawn picture of Restoration and Georgian England, the sudden appearance of phrases like 'Isaac's shit list' cannot but jar with the reader.
Welcome back to livejournal coalescent, it's nice to see you posting again. Your new job sounds good. I am reading cloud atlas at the moment and I am delighted by it. It's such a relief to read a new book which is engaging and well written. And to discover a new author whom I like.
I read Roberts' review at the Alien Online of Market Forces with great interest, and have a renewed desire to read the book now. I enjoyed Altered Carbon, with some misgivings, but was very very disturbed by the particularly awful torture scene(s), and not convinced I wanted to read more Morgan.
However, I think this could be a case of the review being better than the book ;) Roberts' articulation of the politics of the book is so excellent that I wonder whether I need to read the Morgan. I will though, eventually.
I'm puzzled by the whole intro. First of all "trying to do something new in the genre" is a red herring because that's not the point of the ACCA. It seeks the best sf novel not the most novel, er, novel. Then to claim the ACCA is Populist and do some based on sales seems to get it completely backwards. The BSFA and ACCA are both genre awards only really know within the genre, in this context it is the BSFA that is most populist, providing as it does a list of the usual suspects.
I mean the last paragraph of the intro must be the most banal thing Roberts has ever written: some popular writers are good and some are bad. Woah!