Felaheen; Set This House in Order; Quicksilver

These are the three books that won the BSFA Award, the James Tiptree Jr (now Otherwise) Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2004 for work published in 2003. I had read Felaheen and Quicksilver before, but Set This House in Order was new to me (though I largely enjoyed the TV series Lovecraft Country, based on another book by the same author). To start with the shortest, also the least popular on Librarything:

Second paragraph of third chapter of Felaheen, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood:

He called again. Just in case either guard was within hearing and then turned his attention back to the snake. Death was always going to come. That it chose to manifest as a slithering viper was unexpected but not impossible. Although, if the elderly Emir had been forced to bet (a vice he deplored), he'd have selected a fat-tailed scorpion as being more likely.

When I first read this in 2004, I wrote:

The third in Grimwood's Ashraf Bey trilogy, set in an early 21st century North Africa where the Ottoman and German Empires never fell (though Russia is nonetheless soviet) and which is otherwise not very different from our own time-line (to the extent of having the same computer operating systems). Apart from the alternate history aspect, other sf elements include the hero's electronic alter ego and the fact that Tunis is under international sanctions for unauthorised genetic manipulation experiments. I like this series as much for the sultry, sensual prose as for the intricate plot and striking characterisations. This one didn't disappoint. However now that Ashraf Bey has reached a certain point in his political career I hope his creator will move on to other things – as long as they are as enjoyable as this.

I'm sorry to say that I found it much more difficult to get into this time round, perhaps because I am more separated from the earlier books in the trilogy, perhaps I was just tired. I guess it's good that just a couple of years after 9/11, UK fans were ready to celebrate a book that engages positively with the Arab world by giving it the BSFA Award ahead of some other good candidates. You can get it here and the whole trilogy here.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls, by Matt Ruff:

On the morning I met Penny Driver, I hiked to work across the canal bridge, following the same path I’d first taken with Julie Sivik two years before. The Reality Factory was located on a half-acre lot alongside East Bridge Street’s last stretch of asphalt. My father thought the lot had originally been a truck depot—there was an old fuel island with rusted-out diesel pumps at one end of the property—but for several years before Julie took out her lease it had been a storage facility. The main building, the one that became the Factory, was a long, concrete-walled shed. Shed anyway is what Julie called it, although it was huge, as big as Bit Warehouse inside, with nothing but a double row of support columns to break up the space.

This on the other hand I thought was brilliant; barely SFnal in that the viewpoint characters both have forms of multiple personality disorder, and the extent to which their different personalities have reality can be interpreted to different extents; but I found the Seattle setting thoroughly convincing, the characterisation engaging, and the gradual reveal of the twist ending very satisfying. I did wonder for the first half of the book how precisely it fulfilled the Tiptree Award mandate of exploring gender, but it all became clear on page 237. A worthy winner. You can get it here.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson:

Enoch takes advantage of the lull to make other observations and try to judge empirically whether Daniel’s as unsound as the faculty of Harvard College would have him believe. From the Doctors’ jibes on the ferry-ride, Enoch had expected nothing but cranks and gears. And indeed Waterhouse does have a mechanic’s shop in a corner of the—how will Enoch characterize this structure to the Royal Society? “Log cabin,” while technically correct, calls to mind wild men in skins. “Sturdy, serviceable, and in no way extravagant laboratory making ingenious use of indigenous building materials.” There. But anyway, most of it is given over not to the hard ware of gears, but to softer matters: cards. They are stacked in slender columns that would totter in the breeze from a moth’s wings if the columns had not been jammed together into banks, stairways, and terraces, the whole formation built on a layer of loose tiles on the dirt floor to (Enoch guesses) prevent the card-stacks from wicking up the copious ground-water. Edging farther into the room and peering round a bulwark of card-stacks, Enoch finds a writing-desk stocked with blank cards. Ragged gray quills project from inkpots, bent and broken ones crosshatch the floor, bits of down and fluff and cartilage and other bird-wreckage form a dandruffy layer on everything.

This seems to have been the very last book that I read before I started bookblogging in November 2003. (I was near the end on 29 October.) I must say I was dismayed as I contemplated the 916 pages, but it actually flew past rather well; the narrative, rambling between the late 17th century in Europe and the early 18th century in America, pulls in all kinds of intellectually stimulating thoughts about the geopolitics, economics and scientific theories of the day, with flashes of nerdy humour. Now that I'm a bit more of a Samuel Pepys fan than when I first read it, I wished we'd heard more from him, but you can't have everything. By glorious coincidence, as I reached the final chapters I was spending a weekend in The Hague, staying a stone's throw from the Huygens House (now demolished) and the Binnenhof (very much still there) where a substantial part of the story is set. It's rather a borderline call as to whether it's really SF (indeed, it may not even be clearly a novel), but the Clarke jury seems to have been satisfied. You can get it here.

One book was on all three shortlists, Maul, by Tricia Sullivan, which I rather bounced off I'm afraid. Midnight Lamp, by Gwyneth Jones, and Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson, were on both Clarke and BSFA shortlists. The Clarke list also included Coalescent by Stephen Baxter and Darwin's Children by Greg Bear. The BSFA list also included Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds and Natural History by Justina Robson, both of which I thought I had read but I find no record of having done so. The Tiptree list included Maul, three other novels and six short stories, none of which I have read.

Next in this sequence: joint Tiptree winners Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo and Camouflage by Joe Haldeman; Clarke winner Iron Council by China Miéville; and BSFA winner River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

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