The primary function of literary awards, it often seems, is to spark controversy—a task which the Arthur C. Clarke Award usually carries off with aplomb. This year, the brouhaha erupted almost before the award's followers had had a chance to take in the shortlist, when award administrator Tom Hunter commented that the Clarke "has always been about pushing at the speculative edges of its genre. It's one possible map amongst many, never the whole territory, and this year's shortlist stands as both the perfect introduction to the state of modern science fiction writing as well as a first tantalising glimpse of possible futures to come." Was Hunter saying that the Clarke prioritized envelope-pushing and stretching the definition of the genre over identifying the best science fiction novel of the year, commentators wondered? It's a question that has, in one form or another, dogged the Clarke since its inception, as has the award's famously broad definition of science fiction.
On one level, the 2008 shortlist does bear out Hunter's promise of a panoramic, multifaceted snapshot of the present face of the genre. It encompasses a romantic fantasy and a surrealist parody of the modern corporate workplace. A present-day spy thriller and a children's adventure. A slim eco-feminist dystopia and a hefty testosterone-packed shooter. Its authors are stalwarts of British science fiction, promising up-and-comers, first-time novelists, and mainstream authors making a foray into genre writing. No matter what your definition of science fiction, there is almost certainly at least one book on the 2008 Clarke shortlist that won't meet it.
Delve a little deeper, however, and there begins to emerge a dispiriting sameness about the nominated novels. With only one exception, they take place in the UK. With only one exception, they take place in the near future, the present, and in one case even the not-so-distant past. With only one exception, the nominated novels are set in worlds much like our own or different from it in ways that, to a regular reader of science fiction (or political blogs and columns), will seem familiar and well-worn. Most significantly, with only one exception, the novels on the shortlist are all primarily or secondarily concerned with politics, and specifically with the war on terror and its effects on our culture—the erosion of civil rights, the use of a putative or even real threat to democracy to justify undermining it, burgeoning racial hatred and prejudice, increased militarization of civil society and the countenancing of violence by the government towards its citizens. A worthy theme, to be sure, but its worthiness seems to have hobbled many of the shortlisted authors, who for all their differing approaches to it ultimately seem to have the same things to say. (Were it not finally so offensive and irritating, there would almost be something amusing in the fact that almost every one of the nominated novels makes the effort to snipe at Americans, deriding them as belligerent, blinkered religious fanatics.)
If the resulting shortlist is not exactly good, neither is it particularly bad. It is a far worse thing—unexciting. There are no howlingly awful nominees like last year's Streaking, and at least two of the nominated novels are very fine—each, in their own way, worthy of the award—but for the most part this year's shortlisted novels are characterized by being uninteresting. Or perhaps I should say by focusing on things which this reader was not particularly interested in. Reading through the shortlisted novels, one can't escape the impression that the award's judges' definition of science fiction is a depressingly narrow one—science fiction as a Mirror for Our Times, working to combat the evils in our society and shed a light on its failings. This is certainly one aspect of the genre, but there are so many others, so many other things that science fiction can do that the books on the Clarke shortlist don't even try to accomplish. In a backhanded way, this year's shortlist is a perfect demonstration of just why the Clarke needs to be the award that Tom Hunter described, one that pushes the envelope and seeks to redefine the genre. Here's hoping future juries do a better job of adhering to this mandate.
About 150 pages into The Raw Shark Texts, the narrator, serial amnesiac Eric Sanderson, encounters a self-possessed young woman named Scout, who saves him from a conceptual shark (about which more in a moment) and then demands £5,000 to continue performing that function. Eric agrees and takes Scout back to his hotel room, which he shares with a cat called Ian, who is, Eric muses, not "a getting-to-know-you type of cat or even a casual-hello kind of cat, more a sort of whirlwind made of blades" (p. 171). When Eric returns to the room a few pages later, Ian is purring contentedly next to Scout. It's an obvious gag, and both that obviousness and the clomping, leaden manner of its delivery are perfect encapsulations of everything that goes wrong with Steven Hall's novel.
When we first meet Eric, he's regaining consciousness in a strange room with no idea of where, or indeed who, he is. Helpful notes point him towards a psychiatrist, who explains that, following the accidental death of his girlfriend, Clio, three years earlier, Eric suffered a bout of amnesia. And then suffered it again. And then again—eleven times over the course of three years, Eric has woken up with no memory. Though his doctor believes him to be some sort of medical marvel, Eric begins receiving letters from "the first Eric Sanderson," which describe a less rational, if no less marvelous, reason for his affliction. Eric, the letters reveal, has been the victim of a Ludovician, a conceptual shark which swims in the waters of humanity's collective consciousness, in the shared space created by shared concepts and languages.
"[T]ry to visualize all the streams of human interaction, of communication. All those linking streams flowing in and between people, through text, pictures, spoken words and TV commentaries, streams through shared memories, casual relations, witnessed events, touching pasts and futures, cause and effect." (p. 55)
What the Ludovician consumes is memories, and having devoured a victim's mind it will return to it again and again until what's left is nothing but a husk. The first Eric Sanderson's letters reveal that he sought the creature out for a reason related to Clio's death, with the help of a man named Dr. Trey Fidorous. Concealed by methods of camouflage taught to him by the first Eric's letters, Eric sets out to find Fidorous, on the way teaming up with Scout, and descending into "un-space"—"the labelless car parks, crawl tunnels, disused attics and cellars, bunkers, maintenance corridors, derelict industrial estates, boarded-up houses" (p. 80) and so on in that vein —for a final showdown with the beast.
Alone among the nominated novels, The Raw Shark Texts is not, in any way, about politics. But then, neither is it really about anything else. At its best, it is an entertaining adventure yarn with a plot that doesn't bear scrutiny too well, not least because of the many debts it owes to finer and more interesting writers. Much has been made of The Raw Shark Texts's blatant (and blatantly acknowledged) debts to films like The Matrix or Jaws, but its true roots are literary. In its basic plot—innocent dragged down into a fantastic, unseen world that exists on the edges of our mundane one, accompanied by a bratty, appealing girl and a savvy local—The Raw Shark Texts is obviously reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (which may very well be the ur-text for this particular plot). In its creative invention of fantastic antagonists who inhabit the borderland between fascinating and grotesque—not just the Ludovician but also Mycroft Ward, a distributed personality existing simultaneously in a thousand bodies, who once tried to take over Scout and is still pursuing her—it is reminiscent of similar inventiveness in the novels of China Miéville. Only, in both cases, not as good.
This would not be a problem were it not for the fact that The Raw Shark Texts has pretensions of cleverness. Hall uses typographic games, illustrations, multiple fonts and letter sizes, and, at the novel's climax, a 50-page flipbook drawing of a shark swimming closer made entirely out of letters. One gets the impression that these devices all struck him as terribly inventive and playful, and that The Raw Shark Texts is bucking for a spot on the experimental section of the bookshelf, alongside Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves or even Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. Sadly, in terms of its execution and the actual level of intelligence in evidence in the novel, a more useful comparison would be to the novels of Jasper Fforde.
Like Fforde, Hall describes a world in which thought and imagination have physical weight, and in which the collective human consciousness is a physical location which can be visited and manipulated with the aid of literalized puns and metaphors—Scout temporarily stops the Ludovician from pursuing her and Eric by attacking it with a "letter bomb," a bomb laced with typewriter keys, which interferes with the shark's ability to follow the scent of Eric's consciousness. And like Fforde's novels, The Raw Shark Texts is characterized by an inventiveness that is sorely undercut, and ultimately rendered inert, by poor writing, indifferent characterization, and predictable plotting, all of which combine to produce a novel that is not so much bad as airless.
Narrated in the first person, The Raw Shark Texts is graced by too many undistinguished, utilitarian passages—variants on and repetitions of I did this, I thought that, I felt the other—which are unfortunately punctuated by Hall's leaden attempts to inject drama into his prose:
It was a cloudy day, grey and edgeless. I felt edgeless too. I suddenly had an urge to rush out of the house shouting for help and running for as long as I could so someone would see me and acknowledge me as a real person and they'd call a doctor or somebody who could fit me back into my proper place, the way a clockmaker realigns all the tiny makings inside a broken watch. (p. 5)
This is high school writing. The unbroken sentences sound good when spoken in the author's head, inflected by the emotion they know their character to be feeling, and are transcribed verbatim without passing through the process that actually makes prose worth reading—the conscious effort to create rhythm, flow, perhaps even music, using nothing but words, and through them to convey that emotion to the readers. Much of The Raw Shark Texts bears the hallmarks of this kind of unmediated transcription. Hall's descriptions, in particular, are almost entirely uninflected (though one is made almost grateful for this on those occasions in which Hall painstakingly—and painfully—attempts to construct a metaphor). At times this is an effective technique—some of the descriptions in the novel have an almost cinematic immediacy. Upon reflection, however, it becomes clear that this immediacy has been borrowed from the readers. A scene in which Eric dreams of a museum exhibit showcasing Clio's belongings from the days just prior to her accident is compelling because we've seen variants on it in movies and on TV, and can make our own imagination do the work that Hall didn't. Most of the time, the absence not simply of detail but of distinguishing characteristics has the effect of making the novel's world seem flat and generic.
Which may very well have been intentional, a way of highlighting the flatness of Eric's existence. It certainly seems somewhat unfair to complain that Eric doesn't have much in the way of a personality in the wake of the shark's devastation of his mind, as he is keenly aware of this affliction and often laments it. But even after undergoing new experiences and regaining or reading transcriptions of some of his lost memories (which are told in the same narrative voice as Eric's—a choice which makes it difficult for us to appreciate his predicament, as it undermines one of the novel's core assumptions, that the original Eric Sanderson has died, leaving the narrator to rebuild himself as a person), Eric remains something of a blank. In Eric's interactions with Scout and Fidorous, Hall adheres slavishly to the rule of telling, not showing. He tells us that Eric is attracted to Scout, that he's in love with her, that he's grievously hurt by the discovery that she's been manipulating him, but never makes us feel it.
Eric's blankness is mirrored in the novel's other characters. Fidorous exists mainly to provide information and move the plot towards its climax, and Scout is a mass of mannerisms that doesn't amount to much more than a feminine cliché, bordering on a wish-fulfillment fantasy—the gorgeous, brainy, witty, tough-talking, courageous, super-competent girl who falls head over heels for our shlubby non-entity of a protagonist. (There's a sense that Hall realizes that Scout is too perfect, but his attempts to address this issue are laughably ineffectual—after describing her as thin, extremely fair, with sleek black hair and green eyes, he conscientiously tells us that Scout is "perfect-by-not-being-quite-perfect, real" [p. 191].) Late in the book, it's revealed that Scout is, in some indefinable way, Clio—even though the two women have different memories and histories—simply because they share core personality traits. Hall appears entirely oblivious to the disturbing undertones of this equation and its implication that two women are interchangeable because they love the same man.
In spite of these problems, The Raw Shark Texts is not a wholly unsatisfying reading experience. The book is at its strongest when Hall gets to build its world from the foundation up—when he's describing the mechanics of un-space, or inventing ways for Eric to keep the Ludovician off his trail (keeping personal effects swaddled in stolen letters, for example), and most especially when he's peopling it with fantastic creations. The Ludovician is a marvelous invention, a perfect synthesis of the real aquatic predator and the horror of amnesia. Mycroft Ward is similarly scary. The segment in which Hall describes Ward's genesis, from a single man obsessed with immortality to his eventual transformation into a shapeless mind-blob bent on endless expansion, is one of the few truly effective narrative passages in the book (and it's a shame, therefore, that Ward is only used as a weapon against the Ludovician, in spite of the lip service paid to the notion that he is Scout's antagonist). The Raw Shark Texts is also successful in its action set pieces, most particularly when Eric and his cohorts face off against the Ludovician. It's here that Hall's plainspoken transcription of the movie in his head serves him, and his readers, well, placing us beside the characters as they face their enemy. As a quick snack for readers weary of the long wait between Neil Gaiman or China Miéville (or Jasper Fforde) novels, The Raw Shark Texts will do the trick just fine, but its presence on the Clarke shortlist is quite baffling.
Matthew de Abaitua's The Red Men is, simultaneously, the most and least SFnal book on the Clarke shortlist. Most SFnal because, alone among the nominees, it takes place in a world that is alien and unfamiliar, not a mirror of our own or a two or three steps removed extrapolation from it. The Red Men's setting—in which the deranged and suicidal are counseled by soulful robots, businessmen's personalities are downloaded into a virtual reality where they can work non-stop, and public policy is tested by implementing it in a vast Sims-like environment representing the quintessential English village—is genuinely futuristic, and rendered even more so by the revelation, early on in the novel, that it takes place in the present day, made unrecognizable by incursions from the future.
In its invention and description of these SFnal elements, however, The Red Men strikes a tone that is far from SFnal. There is no underlying logic to the novel's universe. It is revealed to us through illogical leaps and sudden revelations which we—and the characters—are expected to accept unthinkingly, like the self-evident truths that come to us in dreams. There is, in fact, a certain dream-like (or nightmare-like) quality to The Red Men, a sense that we are not intended to take the novel or its events at face value. This sensation is only heightened by the realization that there is a strong allegorical component to the novel, which ultimately uses its SFnal setting to look at the present day.
This technique—the future as a metaphor for the present and almost nothing in its own right—has been used before to great or dismal effect. The Red Men falls somewhere in between these extremes. In its earlier segments, in which it presents a dark parody of the modern corporate workplace, the novel is successful and intriguing. In its final third, in which the plot kicks into gear and uncouples from even the semblance of reality and logic, The Red Men sadly devolves into a self-important mess.
The narrator is Nelson Millar, a domesticated anarchist. In his youth, Nelson published a counter-culture magazine with the hilariously self-regarding title of Drug Porn, but turned his back on that life upon becoming a husband and father. In the present day, Nelson works for the gargantuan Monad corporation as a PR consultant, coming up with slogans and product names, but really his task is to be the firm's in-house free-thinker, playing the role of court jester to Monad's owner, the philosopher-shark Hermes Spence, and its officers. In The Red Men's first third, Nelson fades into the background and narrates the adventures of his friend, Raymond Chase, in the world of business. A poet and a manic-depressive, Raymond is the kind of person whose constant neediness wears through friendships, and at the beginning of the novel Nelson has very nearly had enough. He is persuaded, however, to arrange for Raymond to interview with Monad for a position in customer support.
There follows a bleakly amusing period in which Raymond, unused to even the slightest compromises to his lifestyle, discovers the sad truth that most of us work out when we start our first job—"Monad gives me money that makes my life easier but takes away the time I need to live it" (p. 91). His predicament is made even trickier by the type of job that he and the other bohemians and misfits hired into his department have been asked to do—liaise between Monad's customers and executives and their virtual reality simulations, the titular red men. These duplicates are not exactly copies of their originals' personalities—as one of them says of himself
"I am not a copy. I am a story about myself told by an artificial intelligence which resembles a writer. This 'writer' has been given a considerable amount of information about me and has decided to create a character out of that research." (p. 45)
The resulting beings are often the worst possible versions of their originals, stripped of compassion and human frailty, and incapable of comprehending their originals' desire for anything but financial success and professional advancement. They are, in other words, the perfect businessmen, and in their zeal to succeed some of them drive their originals insane. When one of these originals disappears in a desperate attempt to escape his copy's harassment, the copy latches onto the weak-willed Raymond and bullies him into finding the original and forcing a confrontation between the two. There follows an entertainingly trippy interlude in which Raymond—quite possibly the world's least likely detective—attempts to track down the vanished executive and escape the red man's harassment, constantly hindered by his mayfly-like attention span, tendency towards doubt and self-involvement, complete lack of willpower, and emotional instability, which ends with Raymond being sucked into a counter-culture scene that seeks to eradicate Monad, and vanishing from his bourgeois life.
In the novel's second segment, the focus shifts back to Nelson as the red men project is taken to the next level with Redtown, a simulation of an English town in which social theories can be implemented and refined. Nelson is tasked with finding Redtown's real-world model and arranging for its inhabitants and environment to be copied into the virtual world—an undertaking which forces a separation from his family, and gives us our first real glimpse at this clamped-down, repressed man. By way of explaining himself, Nelson quotes George Orwell's saying that "after the age of thirty the great mass of human beings abandon individual ambition and live chiefly for others. I agree with his insight, but it is no cause for despair" (p. 58). Nelson finds fulfillment by providing for his wife and caring for his young daughter, and for the sake of the ability to continue doing so he is willing to be subservient to Monad executives whom he despises—unctuous, perpetually medicated Morton Eakins; belligerent and overbearing Bruno Bougas; ice-maiden Alex Drown, who is said to have "yoked a suitable executive to her life project, ensuring brisk matrimonials, property acquisition and insemination" (p. 73). (Drown's comparatively unsophisticated portrait is sadly echoed by most of the novel's female characters, none of whom achieve the complexity or nuance of the male ones.)
Nelson's isolation in the exclusively work-oriented life the Redtown project imposes on him is brought home by the style of his narrative voice, which leaves nothing unstated.
"A family should live together," replied El, and this was her closing statement on the matter. She refused to accept Monad's hold over us. Stubbornly she hunkered down as power strode by, hoping to hide from it, hoping that it would ignore and not step on us, not inspect or wound us with its clumsy prodding." (p. 185)
Most writers, I believe, would have lopped off the last two sentences in that paragraph, trusting to their readers—and to their own construction of El's character—to fill in the gaps. De Abaitua never does. Nelson's narration is exhaustively detailed, recounting not only his fellow characters' actions but their motivations, both stated and real, and their emotions, both surface and deeply concealed. The effect of this excess is, perversely enough, alienation. The omnipresent and very nearly omniscient Nelson drowns out the other characters until it becomes difficult for us to believe that any of them even exist. Like so much else about The Red Men, this choice on de Abaitua's part has been used successfully by other writers—Anna Kavan's Ice is told in a similarly suffocating first person, and it heightens the novel's surreal and dream-like tone (in dreams, after all, all knowledge and information comes from the dreamer, whose job it is to animate and flesh out the other characters as Nelson does to the characters in The Red Men). The Red Men is plainly aiming for just that tone, but what worked in Kavan's slim and thinly-plotted dystopian fantasy quickly becomes cumbersome and wearying in de Abaitua's 400-page thriller of corporate intrigue.
In the novel's final segment, Nelson and Raymond face off as representatives of Monad and its corporate competitor, Dyad, an artificial organs manufacturer whose technology is just as futuristic and improbable as the red men's virtual existence. Dyad is the yin to Monad's yang, catering to the fleshly and corporeal, the very things Monad's manufactured reality was meant to be an escape from. It becomes the rallying point for the counter-culture scene. The anti-Monad group with which Raymond becomes involved wants to use its resources to destroy Redtown and the infrastructure that allows it and the red men to exist. De Abaitua pulls out all the stops in this segment, moving from SFnal-tinged parody to outright surrealism, as Raymond and his cohorts traipse around the countryside wearing WWII gas masks and performing pagan rituals through which they implant potential Redtown inhabitants with a thought virus with which they hope to destroy Monad from within, and Nelson is swarmed by computers that can melt into gelatinous blobs, and move to restrain and even infest him. Unfortunately, as Martin Lewis so perfectly put it in his review of The Red Men for Strange Horizons, "the stranger The Red Men gets the less interesting it becomes." The plot in this segment is moved along by proclamations with very little grounding in the previously established truths of the novel's universe, or even in storytelling logic. Destroying Monad will mean destroying Dyad too, Nelson announces, apropos of almost nothing. No one believes him, but then, why should they? He's only right because the author says so.
This lack of internal coherence, of any substance to the novel beyond the shell for de Abaitua's parody, ultimately scuttles it. By the time the grand denouement arrives, there's so little left to hang onto in The Red Men that we have been rendered numb. We can't care about the characters, their relationships, or their world, because these have all been flattened and worn away at. What's left is an exercise in tone—a claustrophobic, disorienting tone which, for a few hundred pages, is successfully engaging and disquieting. Spread out over such a large canvas, however, that tone simply isn't enough to sustain a novel.
Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl is set in 1962 Liverpool, on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and features beehive hairdos, shillings and halfpence, visits to the Cavern, an abortive show by the Beatles, and bland English food. Nothing in this novel, however, is quite as quaint as its very premise—the imminence of nuclear war, specifically an eruption of the Cold War into open hostilities. Frequently over the course of the novel, its juvenile protagonists are told by their parents, teachers, and casual acquaintances that they don't know how good they have it, not having lived through the War. By the end of The H-Bomb Girl, it is hard to escape the impression that Baxter is saying exactly the same thing to his young readers, who were born into a world with no Berlin Wall and no Soviet Union, and whose fears for the future probably involve terrorism, ecological devastation, or the diminution of the Western world's supremacy in the face of the burgeoning Chinese superpower. The war he didn't have to endure, Baxter seems to be telling these young readers, would have been so much worse than the war they haven't (yet?) lived through.
The protagonist and title character of The H-Bomb Girl is fourteen year old Laura Mann, who at the novel's outset moves with her mother to Liverpool. Laura's parents are separating, and her mother has brought them back to her home town while her father, an RAF officer, remains near his base. Stationed at Strike Command, Laura's father is more than usually nervous about the thawing cold war, and, in a desperate bid to protect his daughter from afar, gives her the launch key to one of Britain's nuclear bombers. If worse comes to worse, Laura is to hand the key in, which, according to her father's reasoning, will result in her being arrested and thus protected from the worst that nuclear war has to offer.
It is probably to Baxter's credit that the sheer preposterousness of this plan takes some time to register with the readers, as does the fuzziness of the novel's SFnal crux—that Laura is being pursued by people from several possible futures (or alternate universes), all of whom want to use her key to create one that is more to their liking. Nevertheless, it is clear that the plot of The H-Bomb Girl is significant only inasmuch as it allows Baxter to expand on the novel's themes. The visitor from a nuclear wasteland exists in order to segue into an excerpt from Laura's future diary, which describes her experiences in the days and weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis erupts into full-scale war. The sinister operatives from a future much like our own, who want to perpetuate the Cold War in order to ensure both world peace and their own stranglehold on the world's governments, give Baxter a chance to speak out against totalitarianism and for democracy and free will. The friends Laura makes in Liverpool—Joel, who is black, Nick, who is gay, and Bernadette, who is pregnant out of wedlock—are each given their turn at the soapbox. Each, in their turn, is subjected to the standard abuses inflicted on their "type." The n-word is hurled at Joel. Nick is beaten by skinheads. By the time the father of Bernadette's child cavalierly tells her that it's "Up to the judy to stop a kid" (p. 97), one has formed the distinct impression that Baxter is checking items off a list.
The question, of course, is whether it is fair to take Baxter to task for the obviousness and predictability of his writing. It's entirely possible, after all, that to the novel's target audience, the callousness of Bernadette's boyfriend, and her dismal situation once her pregnancy is discovered—she is carted off to a Magdalene house and pressured into giving her baby up—will be so surprising and unthinkable as to overshadow the tunelessness of this sub-plot's execution. Supporting this hypothesis is my own reaction to the one aspect of Laura's world I had never encountered before—the ambivalence, bordering on nostalgia, demonstrated by her mother and other adults when they reminisce about the Second World War. For Laura's mother, Veronica, the war coincided with her coming into womanhood, and its outbreak signaled the beginning of a magical, romantic period in her life.
'London was a fairyland, as long as a bomb didn't actually land on you,' Mum said. 'The searchlights waving across the sky like wands. The barrage balloons like great whales in the air. Star flares like fireworks. I was just about your age then, Laura.
'Even when the bombs fell it could be, well, marvelous. Sometimes a building would just jump up and settle back, unharmed, in a great cloud of dust. Or you would see waves passing through brickwork, like shaking a sheet. After a big raid Peggy and I would walk around Piccadilly or Trafalgar Square or along the Strand, just looking. Dust covered everything, making it all pink or grey.
'And whenever there wasn't a raid, in the dark—the blackout, you know—we'd go crazy. No rules! We'd dance and dance.' (p. 70)
She goes on to say that Laura must be jealous at having been born too late, into a drab era. It's an outlook I'd never considered before, and the newness of it brings The H-Bomb Girl to life—in spite of the shrillness of Veronica's characterization and her unearned redemption later in the novel, when she turns out to have a bit of sense in her head after all, and helps Laura take a stand against the conspiracy who wish to bring about "peace through war." (Besides coming out of left field, Veronica's staunchness in opposition to this plan seems out of character in light of her romanticized recollections of the war. Of all the novel's characters, she should be most in favor of the conspiracy, which would plunge Britain back into a state of perpetual emergency.) It's possible that less experienced readers will find this newness in other aspects of the novel, which to me seemed hackneyed and overdone.
If I'm reluctant to call The H-Bomb Girl a bad novel, however, I have no qualms about saying that it doesn't belong on the Clarke shortlist. It simply isn't reasonable to judge this pleasant, unremarkable book by the same criteria as the other, adult novels on this shortlist. This is not to say that no young adult fiction can be judged against novels for adults. One of the finest novels I read last year was M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, which like The H-Bomb Girl attempts to shed light on a bygone horror—in this case, institutionalized slavery—for the benefit of an audience which may never have considered it as anything more than a dry history lesson. Where The H-Bomb Girl is simplistic and cliché-ridden, however, a tale told in primary colors and finger paint, Octavian Nothing is heartbreaking, and will shock and haunt readers of any age.
It is similarly impossible not to compare The H-Bomb Girl to one of last year's Clarke nominees, Lydia Millet's exquisite Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, whose subject is also nuclear war and the pall that its inevitability casts on our lives. Millet's novel manages to do for adults what Baxter's only tries to elicit in children—make nuclear war horrifying again, and a plausible way for the world to end. It is nothing short of an absurdity that the two books can now be spoken of in the same breath. It may well be that a children's novel will one day make a worthy nominee for the Clarke, and perhaps even a winner, but The H-Bomb Girl isn't that novel.
[You can read the second half of Abigail's review here.]
Abigail Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly the Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.
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