clarke award

    Dreams Before the Start of Time, by Anne Charnock (Books 2018, 20)

    I posted about Anne Charnock’s Clarke win a few weeks back, and I’m pleased for her. But when I was about a third through this, I had a dawning realisation: this appeared not to be science fiction. The Clarke Award being for the best SF novel of the year, of course.

    At that point there were, to my reckoning, two things that don’t quite exist in the real world today: a self-driving car, and a kind of personal health sensor that can tell how much you drank last night, and if you’re pregnant. Neither is key to the plot or anything else, though.

    There was also a hint that global warming has taken a turn for the worse. But it could just be a year with a bad crop, and anyway, that’s hardly fiction, never mind SF.

    But then I hit part two, and it jumped forward 50 years, with corresponding technological advances. Part three takes us forward another fifty or so years.

    So what we have is a series of vignettes about the experiences of several interlinked families, over a hundred or so years. It’s interesting enough, but it’s limited. It’s about families and the future of how humans conceive, bear (or not), and raise children. Which is fine. But there’s very little about what else is going on in the world, in society. Or even much about the societal effects of the technologies we are looking at. Yes, by the end there are reports of a visibly-pregnant woman being abused in public for giving her baby a bad start in life (by not using the artificial uterus technology and associated genetic cleansing). But that’s it.

    It’s interesting enough, as far as it goes, but I’ve got to admit I’m surprised the judges considered it the best SF novel published in Britain in 2017.

    Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Books 2015, 7)

    I read this under false pretences. Self-inflicted false pretences, to be sure, but nonetheless.

    It won the Clarke Award, as I’m sure you know. All I knew about it when I heard the result, when I saw Mandel’s acceptance video at the ceremony, was the title. But it’s a badge of recognition, if nothing else; a clear signal that a group of people, of our peers, perhaps, think it’s one of the best books – maybe the best – released in the last year.

    I downloaded it on Kindle (I think there was a special offer). I hadn’t read any reviews, not even the blurb. But it’s called Station Eleven: it’s got to be about a space station, right?

    Well, “Station Eleven” is a space station of sorts. But this isn’t a story set on it, or in space at all. Well, except inasmuch as Earth is in space, which of course is totally.

    Thing is, if I’d known this was actually set mainly in a post-end-of-civilisation dystopia, I probably wouldn’t have read it it at all. Such scenarios really don’t appeal to me much, at face value at least. I’m always reminded of a call for stories in Interzone many years ago, which asked for “radical, hard SF”; but which specifically said they didn’t want the kind of post-holocaust story where the hero gazes wistfully at a can of baked beans.

    It’s an image which has stuck with me, but this is not that kind of story (though there are elements of scavenging among the ruins).

    It’s also not set entirely after the fall of civilisation. In part it tells the life story of a successful actor (who dies on stage while playing Lear right at the start of the first chapter).

    I note that Mandel herself seems to reject the SF label, and my thoughts on it – while loving it to bits – centred around wondering why she chose to tell the story of a present-day actor framed or intertwined within the death of civilisation. Looking at some reviews now I see that people treat the central theme as being the attempt to keep culture alive. And while that is an important aspect, I don’t really see it as being what the book is about.

    Particularly if we are to consider it as literary fiction1 wherein characters are usually the main focus. As such it’s mainly the stories of the actor and of the young woman who started out as a child actor who was onstage when he died, but who survived the plague.

    The conclusion of this review at the New York Times sums it up well:

    If “Station Eleven” reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.

    SF or not, it’s well worth reading.

    1. Why not li-fi, I often wonder? ↩︎