Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Clarke shortlist 2016 - Part 1 (Pears, Chambers & Smythe)

So it seems I can split the Clarke shortlist into 4 sections - a) can't be arsed b) mediocre if I'm being kind c) quite good really d) very good.

Here, briefly, I'll concern myself with a) and b) and I'll assume that you've either read the books or can get a quick prĂ©cis of the plots online. 

And yes, this is a long way from a proper infinity plus/Strange Horizons roundup. I just can't be arsed when there is a lifetime of great books still to read. 

a) Arcadia - read 80 odd pages (out of 736!!!!!!) That's plenty. Life is too short. Don't care. Feels a bit like Harkaway without the skill, the crazy, complex ideas or the politics. And that's being kind.

b) Way Down Dark and A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Normally I would have read these and thought 'pacy YA' and 'Firefly fun' and bought copies for the library. Then I would have happily encouraged the girls to read them, swallowed down my reservations and forgotten them in a heartbeat. But no, someone somehow thought they were good enough for the Clarke shortlist - I would simply ask.... 
Why on Earth would anyone want to reread them? What riches do they hold? 
Because there are no riches here.  
And bear in mind that I wanted Smythe to win in 2014 - or to share with Priest - and I was more than happy to believe Chambers deserved her place on the Kitschies Golden Tentacle shortlist. 

Way Down Dark

So, action films are really hard to pull off right? Certainly if you're in any way discerning. The first Die Hard, Aliens, The Long Kiss Goodnight, the Bourne trilogy, Pitch Black, the latest Mad Max are my favourites. Way Down Dark is an action novel, turned all the way up to 11. Relentless action and not much pausing for thought. Nonstop action and lots of violence. So much action! So much violence! I like violence - especially in films - but here it gets a little monotonous. And btw I don't want to suggest that any of those films are without flaws - there's a lot of silly movie violence where it seems that characters are impossible to kill, dubious plots and so on. It's just that they are two hours long and make my heart beat a little faster. Smythe's writing certainly serves the need for pace and erm, action. And I appreciate that is a great skill. I do. I was relatively content on my first swift read through. But otherwise move along - there is nothing to see. Or enjoy. It doesn't have the visceral thrill or the beauty or the characterisation of those films - few books do - so without anything in the form, structure or writing to return to it's repeat value is nil.

   That said Smythe's novel deserves credit for its cast of uncompromising female characters. I think the 14-year-old me would have enjoyed the righteous asskicking, and exciting, second half. Moreover even if there's nothing great about it - I've read it twice and the second time felt like a complete waste of time - there are nonetheless a couple of interesting things worth talking about. There is something of a taunt I think in its mix of Mad Max and Ellen Ripley and especially in its portrayal of the villains of piece - the Lows and their reversion to a chaotic band of grunting Neanderthals over the course of a generation or three. Most of all that taunt is in thinking about how close to savagery and anarchy we humans are. And what are the fine lines in behaviour and morality that separate out the 'just about OK' individuals from the ones that have gone too far and are irredeemable. The trouble is that most of these debates are framed around fatuous distinctions and dichotomies.  Agatha's use of torture goes unquestioned. Will Chan kill or not? Yawn....she'll maim, disfigure, shock and leave people to die but can't quite bring herself to do it in cold blood. It's the old 'some violence is necessary, (especially to make this book exciting) but there are limits don't you know'. Many YA novels are well above this kind of fantastical delusion.

    Moreover the text makes very little sense. When the novel begins there is a status quo of sorts with half of the ship 'free' but the novel doesn't give the reader a sense of how that has been achieved. There is evidence perhaps of a slow decay and of stories and rituals that reinforce the power of certain individuals and groups. But what is the ideology that glues the 'free' half of the ship together? How are the balance of forces maintained? Without any kind of organisation or law or the self interest and organisation built around commerce and expansion? How on earth is there enough to eat for heaven's sake? 

   And the trouble is, all of this has implications for the figuring of humanity. Even the 'free' people are a bunch of selfish cowards or potential rapists in Way Down Dark. In a crowd they cheer when a trader is beaten and thrown to his death. Fine, if you want to discuss the ability of humans to revert to barbarity let's have context, social forces and ideology because the inability or refusal to give those details means the text just becomes a reactionary tract that crystallises silly notions about human nature. People are awful. Blah, blah, blah, tell me another one. Unless, miraculously you're Chan and you have a conscience. Despite the fact that we are told she is not special. A lot. 
   And let's not fool ourselves, this bunch would have died out decades ago.

And then there are nuggets like this: "Our stories are something we make for ourselves, not something we’re born into" (Ch 10, loc 3121) Chan assures us, which speaks to the other side of liberal ideology I guess - tokenistic idealism over materialism any day. 

During the last big fight in Chapter 11 Smythe tries to make it all a little more discursive and problematic but just succeeds in making the text even more annoying, offensive and hypocritical: 
"Jonah is watching, waiting for me; and so is Mae. I can’t let her see me kill Rex. I need her to believe that life isn’t just death and revenge. I would let Rex go, but I can’t. The war would end another way if I did. She’s ceaseless, and she’s had too many chances. I have to end it, I know that, but it doesn’t mean I want Mae to see it."
And: "‘No,’ I say. ‘You’re already done.’ She is in so much pain. She’s devastated, ruined. I do not need to lower myself to murder. Agatha was right, in the end. You can make your own story. And this is my story. You can be better than them."
Arrggghhhhhhhh!!!!! Laughable, bizarre and dishonest. If only it were ironic. Nothing in Smythe's work so far  - I've read all but one - had led me to believe he could get it so wrong. Hopefully this is a one-off. 

The cynic in me can only wonder if the Clarkemind wanted a YA novel on the shortlist to broaden its appeal. If that is the case then either The Death House or Railhead could have offered some grace, gravitas and imagination. 

A Long Way to A Small Angry Planet

519 pages.
I gave the reread a half-hearted try but I just can't bring myself to read it again.
My memory (and a little skim) is that there is far less to criticise than there is in Smythe's novel. And that it was kinda fun at various points. That's it. 
If anyone can convince me I missed out on some profundity then I'll contemplate the full-monty reread.

Next time....I promise to be slightly less grumpy about two of the other novels (and repost my discussion of the one that should win).

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