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Carnival cover

Catalyst cover

Idolon cover

Living Next-Door to the God of Love UK cover

Living Next Door to the God of Love US cover

Mindscape cover

Recursion UK cover

Recursion US cover

Spin Control cover

The Philip K. Dick Award is given every year for "distinguished science fiction books published for the first time in the United States as a paperback original," in memory of the works of Dick, which were overwhelmingly paperback originals. It is sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, administered by David Hartwell and Gordon Van Gelder, and judged by a jury of five SF writers. The winner of the award for 2007 will be announced at NorWesCon on 6 April. It may or may not be significant that five of the seven novels are published by Bantam Spectra. It may or may not be significant that five out of the seven authors are women. It is probably not significant that five of the seven have one-word titles.

Like other juried awards, the Philip K. Dick Award's history includes some well-known winners that were the flavour of that particular year (Tim Powers, Stephen Baxter, most recently perhaps Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon) and some that are very obscure but which the jury decided deserved wider recognition (with last year's winner, War Surf by M. M. Buckner, probably fitting into that category). Having read the seven books on this year's short list, I think the jury is more likely to go for a known quantity this time around.

But before I get into the books individually, I think Dick himself would have been pleased by the candidates arrayed to honour his memory. Almost all of them deal with his favourite themes of politics, the nature of reality, or both. (There are few sentient alien beings, though there are plenty of artificial intelligences and many very strange humans.) Of course, science fiction has moved on since Dick's death in 1982, and all the authors also deal with the legacy of cyberpunk and the latest thinking on AI, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology; our thinking about the nature of reality and how we experience it has moved to a more scientific basis than Dick's rather primeval and suspicious take on it, a transition for which his writing of course pointed the way.

I shall review the books in order of increasing merit by my own reckoning, and I am afraid that means staring with Tony Ballantyne's Recursion. This first novel is an ambitious exploration of the future development of AI through three viewpoint characters separated by decades (2051, 2119, and 2210) but sharing the problems of an intrusive nanny state and also a consistent uncertainty—extending to the characters' perception of themselves—as to who is human and who is an AI. However, I was left unconvinced by the external world building—on the very first page, one of his central characters accidentally destroys an entire planet, which for me raises important questions, never answered, of how planets are in such plentiful supply that they can be so casually destroyed. In addition, I felt that the leaden prose (to pick one crucial example, the very first sentence: "Herb looked at the viewing field and felt his stomach tighten in horror") simply did not rise to the level needed for such an ambitious plot.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman's Catalyst: A Novel of Alien Contact (previously reviewed for Strange Horizons by Duncan Lawie here) is a young adult novel less than half the length of any of the other six nominees. Kaslin, her adolescent hero growing up on a recently colonised planet, falls into a cave while escaping the torments of the rich girl whom he fancies and discovers a hitherto unknown indigenous alien life form, a hive-mind that communicates through sex and food. This could have been a great novel of sexual and political awakening as Kaslin gets to grips with the alien being and the girl in the first case and her greedy oligarch parents in the second, but somehow it doesn't gel; Kaslin himself (as a catalyst) remains curiously unchanged by his experiences, and too much of the plot depends on the friendly adults (his mother and her colleague) making decisions that are completely irresponsible for professionals in their position but necessary to move the story forward.

While I felt that the flaws outweighed the merits of both Recursion and Catalyst, the next four books on the list are all good enough that I will understand (without agreeing with) the judges if they give the award to any of them. Which is not to say that they are without flaws. I had high hopes of Living Next-Door to the God of Love, by Justina Robson (previously reviewed for Strange Horizons by Tanya Brown here). The premise of the novel—an exploration of individual identity in a world where AIs are in charge of both the ordinary world and various pocket universes, which can be easily accessed—is promising and very much in the tradition of Philip K. Dick. The plot concerns the struggle for dominance between two godlike entities, Theo and Jalaeka, brought down to the level of their human friends and lovers, particularly through researcher Greg Saxton and runaway schoolgirl Francine, in a pocket universe called Sankhara.

Unfortunately I really had to struggle to finish it. Robson's high-risk strategy of jumping between eight different first-person narrators does not really pay off; I often had to flick back to the start of each chapter to remind myself who was speaking. This lack of differentiation was matched by an equally frustrating lack of signposting for the context; it is all very well to start a book with little idea of how its world works, but it seemed to take a very long time before a picture emerged of what was and was not possible in the worlds of Living Next-Door to the God of Love. Robson is a good writer, and there are lots of good ideas here, but they are not laid out clearly enough. For almost the first time I can remember, I found myself wishing that the book had been equipped with a glossary and a dramatis personae.

Andrea Hairston's Mindscape is an intriguing first novel. Her future earth has been divided into feuding zones by the alien-imposed Barrier—shades of Greg Egan's Quarantine or Robert Charles Wilson's Spin, but with the planet itself being geographically fragmented rather than merely isolated from the rest of the universe. The Barrier itself can be crossed, but only by people with the correct training, which of course includes our viewpoint characters. The future world is richly realised and politically complex, with a strong African element in its culture and a cynical take on the future development of the entertainment industry. It is easy to read into it a metaphor for the continuing apartness of black and white in contemporary America—the dividing Barrier is difficult to cross, but music is one of the ways of crossing it.

Where the world building in Robson's book was not clearly enough defined, I had a slightly different problem with Mindscape: there were a couple of elements that I found improbable. I would have liked a better sense of how large the zones are supposed to be and how (if at all) they fit together geographically. The entire premise of the book is that an interzonal peace treaty is both necessary and fragile yet it seemed unlikely that given the resources available and the impenetrability of the Barrier, serious conflict could ever really break out between the zones rather than within them. Indeed, most of the violence in the book is perpetrated by on one another by people who are coresidents of the same zone. The second point is about language: Hairston's use of English is great, and one character memorably affects twentieth-century African American dialect. But her characters also use plenty of Yoruba and German phrases, and while these are always (as far as I can tell) in context and used with confidence, the presence of these combined with the complete absence of any other African or European languages from her future world struck me as anomalous.

Spin Control, by Chris Moriarty, is a future spy story, a loose sequel to her earlier Spin State; its setting alternates between an unsuccessful research mission by a crew of cloned scientists to the planet Novalis and the process of selling the secret they discover to the highest bidder in a 26th-century Jerusalem. Unlike Hairston and Robson, Moriarty has created two truly memorable settings, with the professional and personal tensions between the clones on the alien planet—which, as it turns out, is not quite alien enough—balanced well against the convincing sordidness of a dying earth, where Israeli and Palestinian security services view each other with mutual paranoia, each (rightly) convinced that it has traitors within its own ranks. There are some gems of description and characterisation along the way; this was the only book on the short list whose best lines I found myself reading out loud to my wife.

However, the huge amount of technical vocabulary supporting the book's themes—biology and AI—became very distracting after a while, especially since the plot of potential betrayal and counterbetrayal already requires the reader's concentrated attention. In addition, I have to wonder if the Levant in five hundred years will be as similar to the region today as Moriarty depicts it here; consider how much (unlike some places) it has changed since the sixteenth century, and then add centuries of peaceful coexistence to come between the Israeli and Palestinian states, followed by a sudden return to conflict. If we take the Middle East of Spin Control as an ironic reflection on today's situation, then it is indeed a thought-provoking exercise, but one that comes at the expense of the credibility of the rest of the future universe as extrapolation rather than parable.

If Spin Control is a future spy novel, Idolon, by Mark Budz (previously reviewed for Strange Horizons by Niall Harrison here), is a future noir thriller. Our setting is Santa Cruz, California, about a hundred years from now; everyone (at least everyone we meet) has had their skin covered with a nanotechnology gimmick called "philm," which allows its wearers to look like anybody they please. Our viewpoint characters are a detective trying to solve a murder, a man who tests out experimental new philms, his cousin who has gotten more involved with the seedy side of the philm business than she would like, and an illegal immigrant who appears to have become impregnated by her philm. Appropriately enough for a Dick nominee, the backdrop is very reminiscent of Blade Runner, which is not to accuse Budz of unoriginality: the ideas in here fizz and pop.

They fizz and pop just enough to help you through the many neologisms (you don't "wear" philm, you "ware" it; anyone fancy a fajizza takeaway?—although in fairness I found this aspect of the book much less intrusive than the neologisms in both Living Next-Door to the God of Love and Spin Control) and to distract from the fact that several important questions in the plot are not very satisfactorily resolved: What are the virgin pregnancies all about? What are the mysterious images of fish and dragonflies generated by the experimental philm meant to be? Is the religious cult, the Transcendental Vibrationists, actually meant to be a serious statement about belief (as Budz has hinted in interviews) or just a front for unscrupulous philm developers (as it seemed to me reading the book)? And while the characters were all credible and believable, I didn't find any of them truly engaging. I finished Idolon feeling that it was a very good book but not quite a great one.

If you've stayed with me this far, you will have worked out that the book I am tipping for the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award this year is Elizabeth Bear's Carnival. This is a superb tale of two galactic diplomatic agents sent to liaise with the matriarchal society of a formerly isolated planet; they are both men, former lovers reconstructing their relationship. Each of the two has his own secret agenda, and so do the women (and occasional men) they must deal with on the planet; the revelation and casting aside of their various masks both meshes with the carnival theme and keeps up the tension of the narrative. I found this a brilliantly realised future environment at every level—the physical description of the planet (urban, alien ruins, and wilderness), the societal background of the human characters (with both the war-weary galactic milieu and the matriarchy of New Amazonia having clear plus and minus points), and the future technology imagined (your basic galactic empire stuff, but with a few interesting wrinkles thrown in). Add to that an intriguing and cryptic alien intelligence (or is it an artificial intelligence? or both?), and you are set for a great ride.

It's also notable that Carnival is the only book of the seven nominees to put gender issues front and centre. There are discernable homages to Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin, and yet Bear develops their arguments somewhat—not prescribing how society ought to be but looking at the damage that people can do to each other under any circumstances. Carnival takes us to another world, from which we can look back more critically at our own. While gender was not a subject Dick dealt with particularly successfully, in fiction or (as his five failed marriages witness) in real life, the award in his memory specifies only that it should go to "distinguished" science fiction. As I said above, I can just about bring myself to understand the judges of the award if they decide to give it to Mindscape, Spin Control, Idolon, or Living Next-Door to the God of Love; but I won't agree with them.

Nicholas Whyte works in international politics in Brussels, Belgium, and reads SF unashamedly.

Nicholas Whyte (email Nicholas) works in international politics in Brussels, Belgium, and is an unashamed Doctor Who fan.
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