Not Before Sundown, Sinisalo; Camouflage, Haldeman; River of Gods, McDonald; Iron Council, Miéville

These are the four books that won the Tiptree, BSFA and Clarke Awards in 2004. (The Tiptree Award was shared.) I had already read three of them, and I found I didn't really want to reread one of those three. Which one? Well, you'll find out…

The one I had not read was one of the two Tiptree winners, Not Before Sundown, aka Troll, a Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo. I met the author in Helsinki in 2017, when we got her to read the final ballot for Best Novel in that year's Hugo Awards as part of the superb announcement video (now vanished, alas); we filmed in the mini-shopping mall at Eteläesplanadi 22, Johanna standing beside the mermaid statue by Tove Jansson's father for which Tove herself modelled, me holding an umbrella just out of camera shot because it was pouring with rain.

Thanks to the wonderful Sanna and Jukka, working in parallel, I managed to track down the Finnish original of the second paragraph of Part 3:

Se ei tunnu sairaalta, ei ollenkaan, vaikka sen turkki pölisee jatkuvasti synkeänä pilvenä Electroluxin letkussa. He doesn't seem ill at all, though the shreds of his coat are a dismal sight in the Electrolux [vacuum cleaner].

This is a really intense and complex (and short) novel, which it would be slightly unfair to call urban fantasy even though it's about a troll taking up residence in a contemporary Helsinki apartment block. Mikael, who finds and cares for the troll, is a gay photographer who lives upstairs from a Filipina mail-order bride. The troll's pheromones cause massive sexual confusion for everyone, sparsely recounted in that very Finnish way. The narrative is bolstered by a history of humanity's coexistence with trolls over the centuries and millennia. Helsinki is a sober nineteenth century city which has undergone some occasionally brutal twentieth century development; but it's not difficult to feel older forces tugging at you when you are there, and Johanna Sinisalo has captured that, as well as exploring some important human issues.

I had previously read the other Tiptree winner, Camouflage by Joe Haldeman, because it also won the Nebula the following year. The second sentence of the third chapter is:

Of course Jack Halliburton knew that the sub had ruptured and that there was no chance of survivors. But it made it possible for Russell Stearns to ply down the length of the Tonga and Kermadec trenches. He made routine soundings as he went, and discovered a mysterious wreck not far from the sub.

When I read it in 2006, I wrote:

Well, its high points are less high but its low points not as low as the three other books on the Nebula shortlist which I had read (Air, Going Postal and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). It bears a very strong resemblance to Octavia Butler's Wild Seed, with the story being the interweaving of two threads about immortals (in this case, probably alien) living in our world, who are drawn together by an alien artifact discovered in the Pacific Ocean in 2019. Indeed, perhaps the award of the Nebula was partly a tribute to Butler's novel. Haldeman, of course, puts his own riffs on it – basically, he brings in much more science, and much more of the military, and makes it into a love story as well. All adds up to a very enjoyable book, which I would certainly have overlooked if it had not won the award.

Coming back to it after fifteen years, I had forgotten almost everything about it but enjoyed it all the more for that, though I have little to add to the above. Haldeman is not what you would think of as a typical potential Tiptree/Otherwise Award winner, yet he has always had an inclination to explore sexuality, which doesn't always take him down the right track; but this time it did. You can get Camouflage here.

The Tiptree Award showed an interesting balance of old and new, fantasy and science fiction, in its choice of winner that year. It also had two special mentions of non-fiction books; a short list of two novels, two collections and two short stories, none of which I recall reading; and a long list on nine novels and five shorter pieces, which included Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, on which more in a moment, and Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment.

The BSFA Award went to River of Gods, by Ian McDonald. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

With a manifest of Bengali politicians and their diplomatic guests from neighbour and erstwhile rival Bharat, the States of Bengal tilt-jet lurches in the chill microclimate spiralling up from the ice floe. Shaheen Badoor Khan notices that the surface is grooved and furrowed with crevasses and ravines. Torrent water glitters; ice-melt has gouged sheer canyons in the ice walls, spectacular waterfalls arc from the berg's cliff edges.

I gave River of Gods my first preference for the Hugos, and would certainly have voted for it in the BSFA Awards if I had had a vote. (My first Eastercon was still seven years away.) In my 2005 Hugo round-up, I wrote:

I realise I'm partly cheering for my home team here. I believe the last Hugo winner from Northern Ireland was Bob Shaw, who was voted Best Fan Writer in 1979 and 1980 (and I think Walt Willis' "Outstanding Actifan" Hugo in 1958 may complete the list not just of Ulster winners but of Irish winners in toto). However I'd like to think my opinion of this book would be just as high if it had been written by a Californian, or indeed an Indian since that's where it's set. In 2047, a hundred years after independence, the sub-continent is embedded in ecological troubles and accelerated technology. The cast of characters includes a comedian who inherits a business empire, a journalist, a policeman hunting rogue AI's, an American scientist, a politician, a neuter, a small-time crook, a Big Dumb Object, and India itself. McDonald keeps all these balls hurtling through the air, to dazzling effect. A great book in a good year.

I slightly sighed when I considered the 477 pages of the novel, but in fact rereading was a joy, with the complex, vivid society of India in the near future, confronted with internal tensions and, as with Camouflage, an alien intrusion. The one point I picked up on this time around is that I think McDonald's future India has Bangladesh (re)united with West Bengal, which seems improbable from here. Otherwise I stand by what I said sixteen years ago. You can get it here.

(Particularly thinking of Ian right now; he suffered a bereavement last month.)

The BSFA shortlist also included four other books that I have read – Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley RobinsonJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna ClarkeNewton's Wake, by Ken MacLeod; and Stamping Butterflies, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood – and one that I haven't – Century Rain, by Alastair Reynolds. As will already be clear, I think the BSFA voters got it right.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award went to Iron Council, by my fellow Clare College alumnus China Miéville. (We have never met.) The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

‘We’re taking a diversion,’ Cutter said. ‘It’s going to take you a few extra days to get to Shankell. We’re going southwest first. Along the coast. Up the Dradscale Rover. You’ll make Shankell a few days late, is all. And minus a bit of stock.’

Again in my 2005 Hugo round-up, I wrote:

Back to the fantasy city of New Crobuzon, setting of Mieville's two earlier books, but this time with revolution, and the legacy of a socialist train from years ago in time bringing the ideology back home, combined with the variegated humans and near-humans and the distorted landscapes of Mieville's created world. Lots of fascinating stuff here, including desperate if unusual love affairs, extraordinary landscapes, and nods to many historical revolutionary movements (New Crobuzon for once more reminiscent of Paris than of London in places). But I felt it went on a bit too long, and the language, while lyrical and wonderful in many places, was verbose in others, and that the ending didn't really reward the effort I'd had to put in; actually my least favourite of the three New Crobuzon books. Also the fact that Mieville's politics are well to the left of the average Hugo voter's will probably put him out of contention. (Of course, that is less true this year than most years.)

If you've been counting, you'll have worked out that this is the one I couldn't finish when I tried re-reading it. Seventy pages in, with my brain fogged by COVID, it all seemed like a bit too much effort and I turned to other, less profound reading. Be that as it may, you can get it here.

The Clarke shortlist also included River of Gods, along with three other books that I have read – Cloud Atlas, by David MitchellThe Syſtem of the World, by Neal StephensonThe Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger – and one that I haven't – Market Forces, by Richard Morgan. To be honest I think I would rate all of the ones I have read ahead of Iron Council, but that's the breaks. I'd have found it tough to choose between Mitchell and Niffenegger; while I love The Syſtem of the World I wouldn't put it top of that list.

Interesting to note that three of the four above are about non-human intrusions into our world – extraterrestrial intrusions in Camouflage and River of Gods, an ancient entity in Not Before Sundown – even though two of those three aren't quite our world – River of Gods is set in 2047, and in Not Before Sundown, humans and trolls have a long history of uneasy coexistence.

For completeness, River of Gods and Iron Council were also losers on the Hugo ballot, along with The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks and Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross. This was the year of the most recent Glasgow Worldcon, and I diligently read everything and voted for River of Gods, but it lost fairly narrowly to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The rather crazy Nebula system of the time means that you have to compare with two different years, in one of which Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls beat Cloud Atlas, and in the other, as noted above, Haldeman's Camouflage repeated its Tiptree success, ahead of Air, by Geoff RymanGoing Postal, by Terry Pratchett (who had declined a Hugo nomination for it); Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell yet again; Orphans of Chaos, by John C. Wright; and Polaris, by Jack McDevitt.

This has been a long entry for the three awards that I am following in this series of posts. The next will be shorter, as all three were won the following year by Geoff Ryman's Air, a feat otherwise only achieved by Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow.

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