Size / / /

[The first part of Dan's shortlist review can be found here.]

Zoo City original cover

Zoo City UK cover

There's a probably false drive when considering any shortlist to imagine a personality onto it: any given judging panel, and the Clarke's changes each year, will naturally bring different prejudices and enthusiasms to the process of selection. But by the same token chance and compromise must inevitably affect the outcome. I'm therefore not so certain about the wisdom of making bold claims for the statement a shortlist might make about itself or the wider genre; a shortlist is ultimately simply an argument for the quality of six individual books. Nevertheless, the next of this year's crop of novels, Zoo City, picks up where we left off: it has the energy of Monsters of Men, the demotic verve of Lightborn, and some of the literary play of Generosity. If this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist doesn't have a personality, it at least has a few characteristic tics.

Lauren Beukes had already raised approving eyebrows with her 2008 debut, Moxyland, which by most accounts (I've not, I admit, yet read it) delivered a refreshed, revivified cyberpunk based in, but eating outward from, William Gibson (shades of Richard Powers again). Beukes is no shrinking violent: the first line of Zoo City explicitly recalls the famous opening words of Neuromancer (1984), describing a sky the "sulphur colour of the mine." On the strength of Zoo City, then, I can well imagine Moxyland had as much verve and self-confidence as the reviews asserted. The story of Zinzi, a sort of freelance investigator with a sideline in penning spam emails for a gangland kingpin to whom she is indentured, Beukes's second novel is a noirish fantasy (the Clarke judges again cavalier with their definition of SF, protected by Beukes's hand-waving term "neural spells"). It plunges its narrator into a satisfyingly serpentine, underworld mystery involving pubescent popstars, sinister svengali, and the chaotic horrors of the African continent. Set in yet another alternative version of our recent past, Zoo City posits a Johannesburg with one more ghetto: the urban menagerie of the title, where congregate those people whose crimes have led them to accrue an animal familiar, relatively safe in numbers from the prejudicial ministrations of a hostile wider society. In explaining and texturizing this condition (it comes to be known as Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism), Beukes makes use of the techniques of John Brunner, interspersing her narrative with shots of faux-journalism, spurts of broadcast, and the abstracts of scientific papers. This works exceedingly well—we never truly understand AAF, but unlike Sullivan's shine it somehow develops its own weight and believability. We, too, come to fear the Undertow—a sinister, subterranean force which comes literally to disappear an "animaled" should their symbiote be unfortunate enough to pre-decease them.

So the story has ballast. But it also has speed. In the style of Raymond Chander, Zoo City thrusts us through chases and beatings, sex and violence, at full tilt. It is crucial to the effect of such a novel that the reader is not given time to pause or consider: the joins in many such mysteries, and here Zoo City is no different, are often shaky, and it is invariably best for everyone if the reader doesn't see them. This approach puts the book second only to Monsters of Men in terms of its sheer readability, and there's enough going on—almost everyone in the novel lives a double life of one form or another—to ensure the hectic dash doesn’t become one-note. Chandler, however, never felt obliged, at the end of one of his literary drag races, to come full circle. Famously, when his novel The Big Sleep (1939) was filmed, Chandler was consulted on whether one particular character had been murdered or had committed suicide; he hadn't the slightest clue. Chandler is bold—or perhaps stylishly sloppy—enough to leave strands dangling if it suits him. Beukes, on the other hand, works very hard to give her novel a proper ending. This is a commendable, but perhaps unwise, endeavor: the odd imbalance in Zoo City's structure, which sees its first part last 250 pages and its second only a hundred, hints at the under-cooked quality of its denouement. Beukes leaves everything a little too pat on the final page, following an overly melodramatic final confrontation and an unconvincingly fortuitous turn of good luck. In so doing, she undermines the strange, murky joy of the rest of the book.

"Even vague proximity to celebrity turns people into attention whores," sneers Zinzi at one point (p. 139): she and the novel she narrates entertainingly share a cynic's disdain for human behavior. Indeed, Zoo City perhaps revels a little too much in its own grime—pretending a sad, world-weary shake of the head at the sight of every depressing depredation, but in fact fascinated, even faintly admiring, of them—but the world it inhabits is so lustily realized you can almost forgive that. If Zinzi is a little too witty, a little too self-reliant, a little too capable, to be true, so are gumshoe heroes from Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade; Beukes takes that well-worn trope and runs with it, offering us a fiercely female viewpoint character in what is very often a drearily male environment. From internet scams to sleazy tabloids, exploitative commerce to heartless militarism, Zoo City gives us a world intensely at odds with itself, but with a slim chance for companionship at its margins. In this way, the "aposymbiotes" (Zinzi's is a sloth) become not just the novel's most memorable gimmick but also its clearest self-expression: they are loyal attendants who offer their lonely, transgressive hosts a special ability or particular insight; but if the host tries to get too far away from their familiar, intense pain is the result. There is an argument somewhere in the filmy miasma of Beukes's Johannesberg which argues not for despair, but for hope. Her novel might totter structurally, and might lack some conviction, but this colorful ambivalence lodges it in the memory.


Declare US cover

Declare UK cover

Indeed, if I were to cling on to the "tic theory," I might say that, for all their concern with isolation and decay, a number of the books on the shortlist share this consolatory aspect. Monsters of Men pulls a happy ending from the jaws of nihilism; Generosity does likewise; and Zoo City has that vague "love conquers all" subtext. Most of all, however, there is Tim Powers's Declare, a novel hiding from harsh reality. Not only does it feature a secret history, fashioning a fictive means of lending meaning and significance to random and often inhumane events; it is steeped in the sort of warm-beer-and-tweeds Englishness that his main inspiration, John Le Carré, works so hard not just to eschew but to explode in his own fiction. "Andrew Hale," the book's faceless protagonist, "had grown up in the Cotswold village of Chipping Campden, seventy-five miles northwest of London, in a steep-roofed stone house that he and his mother shared with her elderly father. . . . Andrew had frequently escaped to hike the couple of miles to the windy Edge-of-the-Wold . . . below which on clear days he could see the roofs of Evesham on the plain and the remote glitter of the River Isbourne" (pp. 14-15). This is England as the Shire, sleepy and content. It is also a lie, even in the early 1940s—and Powers's unsure grasp on England and the period as a whole comes only a few pages later, when we are confidently informed that Oxford has sidewalks (naturally, it has pavements). Powers's colonial Middle East is all white suits and pith helmets—quite at odds with the dingy, prostrate region depicted in Tom McCarthy's recent chronicle of the early twentieth century, C (2010)—and his Soviets and spies, for this is an espionage novel, are all of the snowbound steppes, mindless socialist automaton variety. This is an Ovaltine version of history.

Nevertheless, the novel gets worse. The passage quoted above begins to suggest how: Powers is a slave to his research, all those seventy-five miles northwest of so-and-so, or all that precise topography of a Worcestershire market town, carries right through the book. Here's something from later, much later, on: "The Zagros mountain range was a vast snow-capped wilderness that extended from western Iran by the Persian Gulf up along the boundaries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and the Soviet Union. During the war the United States army had run supply trains through the mountain passes to Russian bases on the Caspian Sea, and the Red Army had established transient outposts in the highlands, above Teheran, but the Zagros Mountains had always belonged to the Kurds—who had been the Kardouchoi, described by Xenophon in the fourth century B.C. as 'warlike people who dwelt up in the mountains,' and who had been the Medes who stormed Babylon and killed King Belshazar at his feat" (p. 361). This splurge of superfluous detail is as representative of Powers's style as it is dismally, soporifically, irrelevant.

Declare posits that, beneath the neo-colonial to-ing and fro-ing of the official Cold War, lay a secret war fought over, about and around supernatural beings: Powers calls them djinn to lend orientalist flavour to his subject matter, but they are presented essentially as common-or-garden angels and demons. In his defense, Powers is intermittently good at conjuring up dread or awe in the manner in which he skirts around these creatures, the elaborate rituals and reverences that his characters and his world build up around their distant presences. But he also too often falls into lazy, Indiana Jones-style sequences—in one such episode, Hale and his hearty native companion come across a spirit trapped in a stone statue, naturally in a dusty cave in the middle of the desert, no less—which reads less like potent legend and more like leaky farce. Hale is motivated by redemption: a previous mission on Mount Ararat, designed to rob the USSR of their djinn allies, went awry for him and his company, and, when he is recalled to active service in the above-super-secret section of MI6 which is responsible for supernatural warfare, he seizes his chance to make amends. But he is also twinned in several ways with Kim Philby, a treacherous double agent and possibly the most interesting character in the book (it is probably no coincidence that he was an historical figure and is therefore not wholly a product of Powers's imagination), and in truth it is this relationship with forms the basis of what little forward movement the book has. Unfortunately, for the most part Philby stays in the background and, for the most part, Hale is a cipher. This hideous alchemy results in a novel with a stutter more pronounced than Philby's (his every hesitant utterance, by the way, is somewhat naively transcribed by Powers), and one which is dragged relentlessly backwards by the sheer weight of Powers's voluminously insistent research.

Quite what Declare is doing on the shortlist is, I must confess, beyond me; there's always a book you disagree with more than any other in affairs such as these, but beyond its pulpy sensibility—and even that is marred by a ponderous structure replete with unnecessary flashbacks—there is little to recommend it. Couple this with the fact that it was first published 10 years ago, and is eligible for the Clarke only because it has recently received its first UK publication, and one is left wondering what happened in the judging room. Perhaps one of those infamous compromises, or perhaps I'm missing something: Declare won the World Fantasy Award, after all. But this reviewer at least remained immune to its exceedingly dubious charms.


The Dervish House US cover

The Dervish House UK cover

The Dervish House, on the other hand, had me from its first line. In fact, it was flirting with me even before its publication. I’m a long-term admirer of Ian McDonald's work, especially his River of Gods (2004), and was therefore awaiting his novel of Turkey in 2025 with some relish. Nevertheless, I'd been left rather disappointed by Brasyl (2007)—though it won the British Science Fiction Association award in 2008—and was uncertain how I'd take to this latest. I needn't have worried. From first arresting, even poetic, opening, in which a stork flies above Istanbul, "riding the rising air in a spiral of black-tipped wings," McDonald is in full control. Where Brasyl at times felt unwieldy and unfocused, The Dervish House—though it is more ambitious, more lyrical, and more densely populated than either that novel or indeed than River of Gods—maintains a balance and momentum which quite puts into the shade the efforts of Declare. This novel inhabits Turkey in a manner Powers never approaches with his own milieu, and it does so with a lightness of touch and a characteristic focus on personality (rather than mere topos) which commends McDonald greatly.

He also eschews Beukes's will to completism: for its first half, The Dervish House wilfully ensures its many subplots—which include commercial takeovers, miniature robots, and a prince preserved in honey—remain atomised, unconnected and mutually unintelligible. Even as they begin to coalesce, they do so in subtle and tangential ways. This is a deliberate strategy, since McDonald is ultimately interested, as the other Powers is in Generosity, in trying to ally fiction with figures:

The man of words and the man of numbers see a white room differently. To the writer it's a cube of horror, a blank needing to be filled with the spurt of imagination. It is that space you write about when you have looked at nothing else for days. It is writing about writing. To the mathematician it's the void, the pure white light which, falling through a prism of analysis, breaks into the numbers that are ultimate reality. The walls of the white room are the walls of the universe and beyond them lies mathematics. (p. 92)

For all that McDonald is interested in how developing societies may become the dominant forces of the future, and for all that each of his novels map out plausible ways in which such nations might develop along with, and quite beyond, current technological progress, he never loses sight of how these grand narratives might impact, as it were, on the ground. The Dervish House is very much a novel about and of Turkey, which doesn't use that curiously liminal city of Istanbul as a stand-in for anything but itself (a sure-fire way of avoiding Sullivan's discomfort following RaceFail); but it is also, ultimately, a story about how systems—of society or of number—are also fundamentally a matter of faith—that is, a kind of story. In this way, Ayse, the antiques dealer who embarks on a quest to find the last surviving Mellified Man, discovers the hidden "code" of Istanbul's architecture: "She clicks in to the architectural image archive. All Istanbul exists here, digitized, eternal, fully explorable. . . . Fractal geometry. The great composed of the small" (p. 265). That is, in The Dervish House, super-structures can and should be seen—thanks in part to technology, no less—from the bottom up. McDonald's playful nine-year-old boy, Can, possesses a legion of robot toys able to assemble and re-assemble into as many constituent parts, in as many disparate shapes and sizes, as necessary; Istanbul, likewise, is made up of Christian and Muslim, Eastern and Western, Asian and European. The very strength of its underlying code lies in the storied complexity of its many building blocks. So, too, with the novel itself.

"The market is not some lofty, abstract edifice of pure economic behavior," insists Georgios Ferentinou, McDonald's most humane character (he's an economist, natch). "At every point it is connected to the world of people and their values. It is human hearts and dreams" (p. 321). What is exciting about this concept is that in The Dervish House we begin to understand how technology may help unlock the many aspects of these systems rather than contributing to their mere destruction—as the novel's rabid fundamentalists might hope. That is, McDonald asks how we might empower and enhance structures that are too often seem to dominate and funnel. Georgios sees the market as the squaring of individual desire with social need, and the novel follows suit; this might make McDonald sound like an unreconstructed disciple of Milton Friedman, and he is not that. Rather, "the market" is his novel's governing metaphor: The Dervish House is, rather like Lightborn, about taking our flawed shibboleths and making something rather better with them. This makes it not just a very fine science fiction novel, but an extremely topical one to boot.

The reader might, therefore, already know my preferred candidate for this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award. Richard Powers gave McDonald a run for his money with an eloquent, evocative and beautifully stylised novel; but ultimately the sheer unity of The Dervish House, the quality of its writing and the breadth of its scope—and, yes, given that this is an SF award, its intense but also thoughtful and transformative science fictionality—makes it the clearest winner in this quirky field. The judges should mostly be congratulated for deciding upon so witty, diverse and daring a shortlist. Five of the six books are well worth your time; the other is written by Tim Powers. That's a rather better hit-rate than some shortlists can manage, and its gratifying to see books like Monsters of Men, and writers like Beukes and Sullivan, receive this sort of recognition and exposure. But there can, of course, be only one winner—and The Dervish House, in its relevance and imagination, its humanity and its vision, is certainly that already. Go and read it before it gets the gong.

Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.



Dan Hartland's reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
3 comments on “The Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist, part 2”
Nathan

Um, what is DECLARE doing here anyway? It was released in 2000, not 2010.

Is this the first time there's been a substantial gap between first publication and year shortlisted? It seems that while there were intervals of several years before this is the first one over five years, much less ten, which creates somewhat of a sense that this book has been resurrected. It will be interesting to see what this leads to for future shortlists, since it seems to be the one main point of cricicism of the Clarke this year, and it's been widely expressed. Of course it would probably have been a different dialog if the past book was an obscure and well-liked book, but I'll confess that I put a fair bit of value in the notion of the Clarke as contemporary, as capturing a rough sketch of where genre writing was at the previous year in its mostly top-tier embodiment. It makes it seem difficult to have the same dialog with the work, in that regard even shortlist items that I disliked, such as Martin Martin spoke more to contemporary culture and politics.
Great review, Dan. One of my favorite parts about the Clarke-award cycle is seeing this type of comparison, weaving together the connections. I was a bit less negative towards Declare than you were and considerably less enthusiastic for Generosity, but the analysis here here is excellent on all counts. Definitely the Dervish House for winner, this is posed to be the best Clarke-winner since Air, in my opinion.

Bob

Excellent critical reviews of these six novels, of the four I've read I agree very much with the diagnosis. (I even remember saying to myself while reading Declare 10 years ago that it was just Indiana Jones dressed up. Which is odd because I very much like most of Tim Powers novels but just never understood the furor over this book.)
Monsters of Men will be next as I am in the middle of The Ask and the Answer as I type this - I need to read all of the series if a book in a series is nominated (thank God no one has nominated Robert Jordan). And I have Generosity to read yet. It's waiting on my kindle. But, I don't see how they could have given the award to Zoo City (a book I really admired) and not to The Dervish House - one of the best SF works in the past ten years. Oh well, it's still a good novel that won and the award will hopefully give Lauren Buekes more visibility in the genre.

 

%d bloggers like this: