Filter House, by Nisi Shawl; The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

It being a new year and time of renewal, I’ve decided that I will (again) change the way I am writing up the previous winners of the Tiptree, Clarke and BSFA Best Novel Awards; if I have already written them up on this blog, I won’t revisit them. I have a couple of other long blog post series of projects that I’d like to think about starting, and a couple that will end naturally this year (Oscars and bookblog nostalgia).

However, I’ll still write up joint winners of the same award together, so for today it’s the winners of the 2009 Tiptree Award (as it was then called). This was the year that Song of Time, by Iain MacLeod, won the Clarke Award and The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod, won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. The Tiptree jury made a joint award (which has happened eight times in the last twenty years) to Nisi Shawl’s collection Filter House, and to Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go. The twelve-strong “Honor List” included one novel that I have read and very much enjoyed, Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin, and a set of short novels by a different author of which I have tried one and didn’t like it.

The second paragraph of “The Pragmatical Princess”, the third story in Filter House, is:

Ousmani closed her eyes again. She did not believe in dragons, any more than she believed in the affrits and djinns of her father’s homeland, or the water-demonesses of Mali, where her mother had been born. “It is a horse,” she told herself. “A very large and very ugly horse.” Peering out under her long, dark lashes, she considered the dragon’s glittering snout, its gleaming, golden eyes. Its irises were formed like slits, as were the nostrils inches from her own, from which an occasional wisp of steam escaped.

I think this may be the only collection of stories to have won the Tiptree / Otherwise Award. Perhaps I was just in a tired mood, after an exceptionally busy period at work, but none of these especially grabbed me. I guess the two that lingered most are “The Pragmatical Princess”, whose title character cuts a deal with the monster that was supposed to eat her, and “The Water Museum”, about a society where water is scarce and its guardian is an assassination target. I slightly bounced off Shawl’s Everfair as well, and perhaps this is just one of those authors who is not for me. You can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness, is:

“I was in the swamp getting apples for Ben,” I say.

I enjoyed this more – a big chunky fantasy about a boy growing up in a village where all the women have died, and where dark secrets lurk in the hearts of the surviving men; he runs away and explores his world, discovering the awful truth. There is a cute dog and a smart girl. Slightly surprised by the ending, which is a cliff-hanger for the next volume. I would not have voted for this myself (of the Tiptree works, my choice would have been Lavinia), but I enjoyed it. You can get it here.

For completeness, I’ll note that from that year’s BSFA shortlist, apart from The Night Sessions, which won, I have read Anathem by Neal Stephenson but not Flood by Stephen Baxter or The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. Of the two I have read, I’d have voted for The Night Sessions.

For further completeness, I have previously written up here all three winners of the relevant awards for the following year. The BSFA Best Novel Award went to The City & The City, by China Miéville, though as previously noted I’d have voted for Lavinia; the other two finalists were Ark by Stephen Baxter and Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts.

The City & The City also won the Clarke Award that year, and Yellow Blue Tibia was also on the shortlist, as were Far North by Marcel Theroux, Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant by Gwyneth Jones, Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson and Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding. Marcel Theroux was an exact contemporary of mine as an undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge, though we did not know each other well; China Miéville also went to Clare, but arrived after both Marcel and I had left. I’d have voted for the winner here.

The Tiptree Award was again a tie, between the first two volumes of Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, by Fumi Yoshinaga (volume 1; volume 2) and Cloud and Ashes, by Greer Gilman. I enjoyed the former and bounced off the latter, and haven’t read anything else on the long list.

So next in this sequence of reviews will be the 2011 Tiptoe winner, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugrešić.

The Carhullan Army, by Sarah Hall; Brasyl, by Ian McDonald; Black Man aka Thirteen, by Richard Morgan

Next in my sequence of books that have won the Clarke, Tiptree/Otherwise and BSFA Best Novel Awards. I had read two out of these three before.

The second paragraph of the third chapter (“File Three”) of The Carhullan Army is:

I did not know how I had kicked away the iron walls and freed up enough space to straighten my legs and uncurl my back. My thoughts were slow to arrive and difficult to arrange. If the door of the dog box was open I could escape. If the pen was like a puzzle, somehow I had decoded it, made one sprung move, one solving turn, and the sides of the cage had released. I could sleep. The stool was gone and I was lying in the dirt. And yet it was smooth and there was the fragrance of soap.

When I first read The Carhullan Army in 2008, I wrote:

I thought it was a very good book. The setting is a near-future Britain, underpopulated and oppressed due to climate change and war; the narrator, a woman known only as “Sister”, flees her native town to join a community of women in the Lake District, and they spend the rest of the book preparing for their struggle with Authority (ie the government). This is the kind of story that is often done embarrassingly badly (see, for instance, Sherri S Tepper on occasion, or The Rising of the Moon) but Hall does it well; Carhullan is emphatically not a utopia, nor is it destined to be a permanent answer to an unjust society, and the leader Jackie and her colleagues are memorable figures. Some readers will be reminded of The Dispossessed, or The Handmaid’s Tale, and I guess it’s fair to say that if you didn’t like either of those books The Carhullan Army will leave you cold. But actually I felt it was also perhaps a response to John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, where the protagonists are engaged in essentially a selfish struggle to get through their post-apocalyptic landscape to (if I remember rightly) the Lake District; the Carhullan Army have a more altruistic and redeeming purpose.

Rereading, I still enjoyed it. The feminist community is not a utopia; it’s a very flawed society, which is still better than the alternative. The theme of eco-catastrophe is all the more relevant in 2022. The characterisation is desperate and convincing. Well worth returning to. You can get it here.

The Carhullan Army won the James Tiptree Jr Memorial Award for 2008. The shortlist included six novels, of which I have read two (Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce and Glasshouse by Charles Stross), a short story, an anthology, and a comic series of which I have read the last volume. It was also on the shortlist for the Clarke Award. From what I’ve read, the jurors made the best choice.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Brasyl (“Our Lady of Trash”) is:

“I know a hundred World Cup Stories.” Raimundo Soares watched his weight drop into the glowing water. He claimed to be the last professional carioca; sometime journalist, sometime writer with a good book about the new bossa nova, a better book about Ronaldo Fenômeno, and a so-so guide to how to be a professional carioca on his backlist. A little fishing early with the brothers, a little cafezinho when the heat got up, a few hundred words on the laptop, the rest of the afternoon he’d spend in a cafe, watching ass on its way to the beach, or strolling around his city, remembering it, memorizing it. In the evening, receptions, parties, openings, his many lovers: a late sleep and up again at fish-jump. He claimed to have worn nothing but surf-Ts and Bermuda shorts for twenty years, even to his own mother’s funeral. He was the loafer, the malandro who doesn’t have to try too hard, carioca of cariocas: they should make him a Living Treasure. “This is true. David Beckham comes to Rio; he’s going to play at the Maracanã for a benefit for Pelé. He’s the guest of the CBF, so he’s got the wife, the kids; everything. They put him up at the Copa Palace, nothing’s too much trouble for Senhor Becks; presidential suite, private limo, the lot. Anyway, one evening he goes out for a little kick-about on the beach and these hoods jump him. Guns and everything, one two three, into the car and he’s gone. Lifted. Right under his guards’ noses. So there’s Beckham in the back with these malandros with the gold-plated guns thinking, Oh sweet Jesus, I am dead. Posh is a widow and Brooklyn and Romeo will grow up never knowing their father. Anyway, they take him up into Rocinha, up the Estrada da Gávea, and then from that on to a smaller road, and from that onto an even smaller road until it’s so steep and narrow the car can’t go any farther. So they bundle him out and take him up the ladeira at gunpoint and anytime anyone sticks so much as a nostril out of their house, the hoods pull an Uzi on them; up and up and up, right up to the top of the favela, and they take him into this tiny little concrete room right under the tree line and there’s Bem- Te-Vi, the big drug lord. This was back before they shot him. And he stands there, and he looks at Beckham this way, and he looks at Beckham that way; he looks at Beckham every way, like he’s looking at a car, and then he makes a sign and in comes this guy with a big sack. Beckham thinks, Jesus and Mary, what’s going on here? Then Bem-Te-Vi stands beside him and they pull out the World Cup, the original Jules Rimet, solid gold and everything, right Out of the sack. Bem-Te-Vi takes one side, Beckham takes the other, and this guy gets out a digital camera, says, ‘Smile, Mr. Beckham.’ Click! Flash! And then Bem-Te-Vi tutns to Becks and shakes his hand and says, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Beckham, it’s been a real honor… Oh, by the way… if anyone ever finds out about this…’’’

When I first read it in 2008, I wrote:

Ian McDonald’s latest. The setting of Brazil fits his lush, dense writing style so well that it is remarkable that he’s never set a novel in real South America before (his two books set on Mars portray a rather Patagonian version of the planet, but it’s not quite the same). We have three interleaving narratives, from the mid-18th century, the present day, and the near future (2030); we have peculiar variations of reality; and we have the jungle, both urban and literal, with its various hostile inhabitants. In some ways it’s deliberately less ambitious than River of Gods, which juggled ten different viewpoint characters against the background of India forty years hence, but the intermeshing of the different characters from their different time periods in the end comes across rather pleasingly.

I wasn’t quite as blown away on re-reading. The three different timeline settings are superbly realised, but I was not as convinced about the link between them. Still very enjoyable. You can get it here.

Brasyl won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. I’ve read all but one of the other finalists: Alice in Sunderland, Black Man aka Thirteen (see below), The Execution Channel, and Hugo and Nebula winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the other being The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds. I didn’t vote that year, but I’d probably have gone along with the majority. Alice in Sunderland is a great book, but it’s only tenuously sf. Brasyl was also on the final ballot for both Hugo and Nebula, unlike The Carhullan Army or Black Man / Thirteen.

I had not previously read Black Man, published as Thirteen in the USA. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The siren hit, upward-winding like the threat of a gigantic dentist’s drill.

I’ve read a couple of other books by Richard Morgan, and this seemed to me in character with them and perhaps a little more under control. The viewpoint character is a genetically engineered “Thirteen” in a near-future (early 22nd century) world where people like him are regarded with suspicion by society and mostly exiled to Mars. There is a murder mystery with explosive political ramifications, some nasty violence (this is the bit of Morgan’s expertise that I don’t especially appreciate), some desperate sex and a very well-written death scene. Like all murder mysteries, the point is to get the reader from A to B while admiring the scenery and wondering how the route will twist next, and it certainly succeeds very well in that. You can get it here.

Black Man won the Arthur C. Clarke Award under that title. The other finalists included two books that I have read and already referred to above, The Carhullan Army and The Execution Channel, and three that I haven’t: The H-Bomb Girl, by Stephen Baxter; The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall; and The Red Men, by Matthew de Abaitua. I think if I had been a Clarke judge that year, I’d probably have argued strongly for The Carhullan Army.

Next up are the 2010 winners for books published in 2009: Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod (Clarke winner), Filter House by Nisi Shawl (joint Tiptree winner), The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod (BSFA winner) and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (joint Tiptree winner).

Half Life, Shelley Jackson; End of the World Blues, Jon Courtenay Grimwood; Nova Swing, M. John Harrison; The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, Catherynne M. Valente

These were the four novels that won the BSFA, Clarke and Tiptree Awards in 2007 for work of 2006. I should say also that the Tiptree jury gave a special citation to James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, which I too found an excellent book. When I read it in 2007, I wrote:

This is surely a model of how to write a biography. Although her subject died in 1987, Julie Phillips has been through all her private papers, done the necessary bureaucratic sleuthing through her career, dug into her parents’ background, interviewed the elderly first husband and many other relatives and friends, reflected on the wider social and literary currents of the time illustrated by the main narrative, and supported it all with extensive notes.

But that’s not enough to make a successful biography. To do that you have to not only know your subject; you have to have chosen someone who is in some way fascinating in their own right, and be able to communicate that fascination to your readers. Phillips has done that admirably. I haven’t read a lot of Tiptree’s work (having said which, there isn’t so very much to read), but I think you could safely give this book to someone who had never heard of her, even someone who never reads science fiction, and sill expect them to enjoy it.

Most readers, however, will have bought this book largely to find out more about Tiptree/Sheldon’s writing; we don’t get anything about that until halfway through, but I don’t think anyone will be bored by the first fifty years of Sheldon’s life – privileged Chicago upbringing, childhood safaris to Africa, a Christmas elopement and disastrous first marriage, World War II and the CIA, psychological research, a better choice of second husband.

And then the decade of fame as SF writer James Tiptree, Jr, producing strange, memorable stories, winning Hugos and Nebulas for them, engaging in intimate correspondence with the luminaries of the genre, but all under a pseudonym which was eventually exposed. I had not realised, however, that the Hugo and nebula for “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” both came after the revelation of her true identity.

The one weak point in Phillips’ analysis has been well illuminated by Farah Mendlesohn: she doesn’t convincingly explain Sheldon’s attitude to sexuality – in fairness, a complex question, and one to which we will probably never know the real answer (although Farah’s answer is more convincing than Phillips’).

I am in a rush this morning in Georgetown, just a few miles from where Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree lived and died, so don’t have time to write more about this brilliant book. But we are promised that the paperback will include more photographs, and more of Sheldon’s own art, so I may find myself buying it all over again. [So far, I haven’t.]

You can get it here. It won the relevant Hugo and Locus Awards as well, and got a citation from the BSFA (who did not make a Non-Fiction award that year).

The four novels were all new to me. I read these in reverse order of popularity on LibraryThing, so the first up is the second of three Tiptree books in this post, Half Life, by Shelley Jackson. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The fact was conceived on the bus from Hollywood, where Mama’s big break had just fallen through. She had fired her agent in a fit of pique and was going back to New York, where they loved her. They being the regulars at a bohemian nightclub where she did a theatrical number that combined song and dance with dramatic monologue. Men wet their hankies when she did the sad song, and ladies in top hats licked their lips and sent her flowers. Mama peevishly plucked greasy bits out of a bag of doughnuts. Across the aisle sat my father, with sandwiches and soda and a dollhouse on his lap.

I really enjoyed this, and am somewhat stunned to find a host of much more negative online reviews. I’m used to not liking things that everyone else likes (for an example, see below), but it’s unusual for me to like something that a lot of people don’t. It’s a story about a conjoined twin in a world which is like ours except that, due to more nuclear testing, there are a lot more conjoined twins, giving rise to a whole subculture and liberation movement, and it gives Jackson the excuse to explore the politics of selfhood and medical intervention in a firm but ludic way. The sort of book that the Tiptree/Otherwise Award should be honouring. You can get it here.

The BSFA Award for Best Novel went to End of the World Blues, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Elegant, middle-aged, and happily naked, the Japanese woman lifted herself onto one elbow, revealing a heavy breast. “He’s busy.”

I enjoyed this one too. There are two intertwined plots: an Englishman in Tokyo trying to find out who killed his wife, and a girl from a far future dying earth who has ended up in our time. I got slightly lost in places but I really enjoyed the ride. Jesse Hudson suggests that Grimwood is the 21st century Zelazny; I take the point. You can get it here.

The Clarke Award went to Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Vic’s home was a coldwater walk-up in South End which he inherited, along with his entree into the business, from a retired entradista and tour guide called Bonaventure. He had two rooms and a shower. He never cooked or ate there, though there was an induction stove and the place always smelled of old food. It smelled of old clothes, too, old tenancies, years of dust; but it was close enough to the event aureole, which was his professional requirement. Vic slept on a bed, he sat in a chair, he shaved in a mirror; like anyone else he bought all those things at a repro franchise at the end of the road, the day he moved in. He kept his zip-up gabardine jackets and Inga Malink artisan shirts in a wardrobe from Earth, rose veneer over boxwood circa 1932AD, that far away, that long ago. Out one window he had a good view of a bridge; out the other it was a segment of the noncorporate spaceport, primarily weeds and chainlink fence.

I disliked Light, the first volume of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and didn’t much enjoy Empty Space, the third volume. True to form, I found Nova Swing unmemorable and uninteresting. A lot of people rave about Harrison’s work, but I find him pretty unreadable. You can get it here.

End of the World Blues and Nova Swing were both on both the BSFA and Clarke ballots, but the other nominees were all different and I have not read any of them. The BSFA for Short Fiction went to “The Djinn’s Wife”, by Ian McDonald.

Finally, as already discussed, the Tiptree Award went jointly to Half Life and to The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente. The second paragraph of the third chapter of the latter is:

Instead, he glanced awkwardly at the steaming food. On the little square of silk lay a glistening roasted dove, fat peaches and cold pears, a half loaf of buttery bread covered in jam, broiled turnips and potatoes, a lump of hard cheese, and several sugared violets whisked away from the table garnish. He drew from his pocket a flask of pale watered wine, the great prize of his kitchen adventures.

I enjoyed this a lot. It’s a revision of the Arabian Nights, in a fantasy world of many kingdoms and races, with a much more gender-balanced set of narratives than the original (which was itself not all that bad). Lots of nesting of narrative within narrative; lots of old orders ripe for subversion or overthrow; some witty moments as well. Half Life is still my favourite of these four, but In the Night Garden is close. You can get it here.

Apart from two winners and a Special Mention for the Phillips biography, the Tiptree Award had a relatively restrained honor roll of seven novels, none of which I have read; one, The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow, was also on the BSFA ballot. The Hugo and Nebula that year both went to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. None of the Hugo or Nebula finalists was on the BSFA, Clarke or Tiptree lists.

Next in this sequence: The Carhullan Army, by Sarah Hall; Brasyl, by Ian McDonald; and Black Man, by Richard Morgan.

Air, by Geoff Ryman

First book review I have posted here for ages – usually I write them for the week ahead at the weekend, and at Eastercon there was no chance of that happening. Also because it’s Hugo season and I’m involved this year, I can’t do reviews for the finalists. Anyway, here we go with Air by Geoff Ryman, who I bumped into several times last weekend.

Second paragraph of third chapter:

She lay in bed, pushing herself into the corner of the alcove, her face stretched into a grin she could not explain. Her family and friends were crowded around. They knew Mae had been inside Mrs Tung when she died.

When I first read it in 2006, I wrote:

I mostly agree with Gene Melzack and Iain Emsley, and where I differ from them I agree with Claude Lalumière [link dead]. This is a great novel about the changes wrought in our world by the new communications technology. Unlike most such novels, rather than fixating on the technology itself, Ryman looks at what the coming information revolution will mean to ordinary people living ordinary lives. Unlike any other such story I have read, his characters are not teenagers living in Western affluence, but villagers in a fictional Central Asian country, at the intersection of the Turkic and Chinese cultural spheres, in other words about as far from the West as you can culturally get in today’s world. I thought it was fascinating and compassionate.

However. Ryman is a proponent of the “mundane science fiction” school and oddly enough the two most problematic elements for me in the book for me were the two most fantastic ones. The physical flood threatening to overwhelm the village threatened to be a rather overstated echo of the metaphorical deluge of the new technology, but I think Ryman just about got away with it in the end. The heroine’s bizarre pregnancy, however, just did not work for me.

Sixteen years on, I stand by both limbs of that judgement. It’s a great book about the impact of technology on a previously isolated culture, and in a lot of respects feels a lot more prophetic now than it did then – the concept of Air is pretty close to how Facebook developed in our timeline. But I still find it hard to swallow (if you see what I mean) the heroine’s pregnancy, and that kills my suspension of disbelief, however much I liked the rest of it.

Air won all three of the BSFA, Tiptree and Clarke Awards presented in 2006, only the second novel (so far) to have got the treble after Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. I think Air has stood the passage of time better. You can get it here.

Both Accelerando, by Charles Stross, and Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod, were also on the BSFA and Clarke shortlists. Also on the BSFA list were 9tail Fox, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and Living Next Door to the God of Love, by Justina Robson. I felt that all of these books had flaws, but would probably have voted for Ken MacLeod. The BSFA Short Fiction award went to “Magic for Beginners”, by Kelly Link, which also won the Nebula and which I loved.

The other three books on the Clarke shortlist were Banner of Souls, by Liz Williams, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds, which I have not read. I’m surprised that Ishiguro did not win; as a judge I think I’d have been torn between MacLeod and Williams.

I have not read any of the novels on the Tiptree Honor List apart from the winner. The others were A Brother’s Price, by Wen Spencer; Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; Remains, by Mark W. Tiedemann; and Willful Creatures, by Aimee Bender. The shortlist also included short stories by Vonda N. McIntyre and Margo Lanagan, the latter of which I have read but cannot now remember much about. The long list included another twelve novels, four short stories, a website and a non-fiction piece, none of which rings a bell.

The following year, the three awards went to four book, the Tiptree being shared by Shelley Jackson’s Half Life and Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden, the BSFA going to End of the World Blues, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and the Clarke to Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison.

Air