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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The 2012 Arthur Clarke Shortlist and the Critical Response from Christopher Priest (by Liviu Suciu)

Since the 2012 Arthur Clarke Award shortlist has been announced a few days ago, I thought of discussing it here, comparing it with my prediction post etc. But as I thought the list a bit meh and my reaction was "this is a Hugo Award-like list" - as it is not a secret that I have quite a low opinion of the Hugo though sometimes it manages to surprise me with an ok shortlist - and time/energy have been in quite short supply recently I thought the post on Announcements will be my last here at least until mid-April.

The 2012 Clarke shortlist is:
  • Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
  • Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
  • China MiĆ©ville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
  • Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
  • Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
  • Sheri S.Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)
One huge omission, The Islanders by Christopher Priest and another surprising one, Osama by Lavie Tidhar, while I still do not see why the women author quota could not have contained something that is at least 2010's in sensibility and style like Bringer of Light if say Mr. Fox was deemed un-sfnal - though considering some of the past winners like Perdido Street Station for example, sfnality is very fungible and I can think of at least two ways in which Mr. Fox - which I started and is quite good - could be thought of sf, using for example a Tegmark like argument about the Multiverse and what it contains - btw I highly recommend everyone interested in sf to read Is the Theory of Everything the Ultimate Ensemble Theory?, the semi-technical paper of Max Tegmark published in The Annals of Physics and available free at arXiv that classifies possible universes and think about how this relates to sff - or using the convention that makes alt-history sfnal in most cases.

Instead we got the latest Sheri Tepper and while the author wrote some memorable sff in the 80's and 90's when her perspective was fresh and different - I remember enjoying a lot Grass, Beauty and a few others - this reads like shortlisting the latest Connie Willis (see the Hugo analogy again) though of course considering Ms. Willis' very bad mangling of London that one was clearly off the table here, but the sense is the same.

But then I have just seen Christopher Priest, Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3, quite scathing but entertaining take on the shortlist and while I thought it a little bad form as this could easily give the impression of "sour grapes", the actual content of the post is very to the point and presents quite a few alternatives to the actual list including making me wanting to check out Simon Ings' novel Dead Water which I previously dismissed as thriller-ish; also not being available in the US directly, jumping through the needed hoops to read a sample seemed a waste of time and energy anyway.

*Edit Later - I managed to buy at a good price Mr. Ings earlier novel The Weight of Numbers from Kobo as I really enjoyed the Amazon sample (comparison shopping goes the other way too as Kobo has a better price and there are coupons available online too - oops, just checked and Amazon lowered the price to 5.67$ from earlier when it was in the 8-9$ range, but still Kobo's better as long as the 40% off code still works!) and I think I will try and get Dead Water too soon even with reading time/energy low, as I strongly believe in Darwinian competition for books to attract my reading time, while of course I am addicted to buying books anyway...

Mr Priest's post linked above contains quite a lot and I strongly recommend to check it out. I thank the always dependable Larry from the Of Blog from bringing it to my attention. I think this post is a pitch perfect example of how to be critical, even scathingly so, without being nasty and insulting in language, just in its implications. A quibble maybe, but one worth pondering as I think good manners vs bad manners makes all the difference in the quality and usefulness of such attacks.

As it happens I agree with what Mr. Priest says about Rule 34 and Charles Stross in general - his writing is mediocre at best but as long as he would write something cool and with sense of wonder, I would not really mind that, however near-future, Lovecraftian pastiche and alt-histories make most of his novel length work the kind you would have to pay me well to wade through and even then I may have to return the money so to speak as not being able to overcome the "I'd rather read cereal box labels" syndrome.

I also agree in some ways with what he says about Hull Zero Three which I quite liked but I never thought would make the Clarke shortlist as it is a 50's novel. Done very well and with modern sensibilities, but again something I can see on the Hugo but not on the Clarke.

The criticisms of China Mieville are spot on too but where I disagree is that I think Embassytown remains close to the top of the sff of last year, flaws and all, as it combines literary level writing - quite rare in sff though this is not necessary a bad thing as imho sff first satisfies other itches so to speak - with enough sense of wonder to compensate for the lack of originality in the general storyline - sure Mr. Mieville can do much better and hopefully he will shake again the genre like in his first two superb novels and I wish Embassytown would have at least destroyed its world like Mary Gentle or John Barnes did in similar novels which remained in my memory for longer than Embassytown most likely will despite its higher literary qualities.

I also agree with Mr. Priest that The Testament of Jessie Lamb, again flaws and all is the only credible winner outside the Mieville, especially considering that turning the Clarke into the "China Mieville appreciation award" is not desirable imho either, however much I admire the author.

As for Mr. Priest's take on the judges and his suggestions, I am not sure that they are either practical or useful as ultimately it comes down to personal and collective taste and there are worse lists that could have been produced - think Connie Willis, Robert Sawyer or the surprisingly bad UF Straight Razor Cure for example...


Unknown said...

Yeah, I posted about this earlier this morning. I thought Priest's rant was embarrassing, and completely without class. Just atrocious.

Elfy said...

Priest's rant was quite extraordinary, most of it was very well written and argued, but then he had to descend to the level of personal attacks and that always damages an argument.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

"quite scathing but entertaining take on the shortlist and while I thought it a little bad form as this could easily give the impression of "sour grapes", the actual content of the post is very to the point"

That's a surprisingly unruffled response. Given our latest head-to-head I expected you to be at the head of those decrying Priest's incivility and condemning his post as an illegitimate personal attack. What differentiates his post from Liz Bourke's review of Theft of Swords?

Liviu said...

The difference is in the tone, the words, the usefulness quotient, the target and of course who is writing the piece

Tone - not angry and/or spiteful at least imho; while puppies appear in both cases, in Mr. Priest's case I found it quite funny and the target, Mr. Stross found it similarly so.

Words - scathing in implications but not in themselves; this probably is the most debatable point but I simply did not get the sense Mr. Priest hates those authors as I did from Ms. Bourke's piece. There is no questioning for example the decision to publish those books, just their quality especially at the lofty levels Mr. Priest sees the Clarke award

In this context, as mentioned in the post, when I saw the list, I thought this is a Hugo list and I generally look at the Clarke for much better, but that's neither here not there.

Usefulness - other books we should read - that incidentally goes a long way for me at least; hate/simply find mediocre a book or a few books, fine but please tell us about something else to read

Target - not the cheap "self published" author that made it, but quite a few established writers

And finally who wrote the review - let's put it like this, Mr. Priest earned the right to criticize as harshly as he wants and he knows a little bit about writing; I read a ton of his reviews prior to this piece, bought/tried a few books based on his recs including most recently Emmanuelle Carrere's Life as a Russian Novel and while I disagreed in some places with his reviews (eg I loved Sense of an Ending), I saw his point since he had one beyond "this book is trash, I hate this book, this book is trash, I hate this book..."

Personally I think the two pieces (Mr. Priest's post and Ms. Bourke's review) are so very different in quality that to compare them in any way is a bit laughable.

As for the last part with the jury and the prescriptions, that's clear hyperbola and again while I would not presume to do something like this and as menitoned I found it neither practical nor useful, Mr. Priest has the standing to do it...

E A M Harris said...

Who actually compiles the list? I would be interested to see what they have written or published.


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