There's a long and proud tradition in science fiction of fire-breathing takedowns of book awards. A few years ago, it was Adam Roberts, launching a stinging critique of the Hugo shortlist. And now, The Prestige author Christopher Priest has crafted a particularly scorching rebuke to the Clarke Awards shortlist, one which probably makes the authors on that list feel as dreadful as if they'd been imperfectly teleported by Nikola Tesla.
Top image: Embassytown cover design by Vincent Chong
When we covered the Clarke Award shortlist the other day, we praised it for reflecting the breadth of science fiction, but Priest feels as though it fails to reflect the depth of the genre. Here's Priest's harsh takedown of a few of the novels on the list:
I also find [China] Miéville's lack of characterization a sign of author indifference: Embassytown is full of names, full of people, but mostly they just chat away to each other, interchangeably and indistinguishably. And for a writer who makes so much of ambience, China Miéville's fiction lacks a sense of place: this is not the same as a lack of description, as there is a lot of that, but a way of using a physical environment as something the characters notice, respond to, feel themselves to be a part of, so that the reader can also sense and respond to it. In Embassytown there is scene after scene in which these weakly drawn characters twitter away to each other in what might be a field or an airport terminal or someone's front room, for all the lack of evocation the author manages.
This is not to say that Embassytown is a bad novel. It is not, but neither is it a good one. It has too many common flaws that could have been eradicated by a more ruthless editorial process in the writing, or even more simply by an extra draft of the manuscript. Nor does it suggest that Miéville is a poor or failing writer: he is obviously not, but unless he is told in clear terms that he is under-achieving, that he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces, he will never write the great novels that many people say he is capable of. In the short term, to imply by giving it a prize, or even shortlisting it for one, that this is the best science fiction novel of the current year is just plain wrong.
... It is indefensible that a novel like Charles Stross's Rule 34 (Orbit) should be given apparent credibility by an appearance in the Clarke shortlist. Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long. You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet. Stross's narrative depends on vernacular casualness, with humorous asides, knowing discursiveness, and the occasional appeal of big soft eyes. He has PC Plod characters and he writes och-aye dialogue! To think for even one moment that this appalling and incapable piece of juvenile work might actually be chosen as winner brings on a cold sweat of fear.
Of Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three (Gollancz) there is little to say, except that it is capable in its own way, and hard in the way that some people want SF to be hard, and it keeps alive the great tradition of the SF of the 1940s and 1950s where people get in spaceships to go somewhere to do something. In this case, the unlikely story begins as the interstellar spaceship arrives somewhere. The paragraphs are short, to suit the expected attention-span of the reader. The important words are in italics. Have we lived and fought in vain?
Unlike Adam Roberts a few years ago, Priest does not take the time to explain or expound what he feels a great science fiction novel ought to be doing — except by criticizing these works for failing to do it. (Including basics like characterization and a sense of place, but also "a wider canvas, a sense that larger events are mounting in the background." And he praises a few novels that he feels should have made it onto the shortlist, including Simon Ings' Dead Water, which he singles out for "a multitude of ideas, a wide-ranging narrative, an almost unbelievably ambitious casting of its net, taking one narrative chance after another."
In any case, if you enjoy fire-breathing rants in the middle of the day, then you'll enjoy Priest's Clarke Awards takedown, whether or not you agree with his criticisms of these authors. [Christopher Priest, via Adam Rogers on Twitter]