Clarke Award 1: The Strange and The New

I’m mak­ing myself a host­age to for­tune by imply­ing, in the title, that I’ll review each of the Clarke Award final­ists, but that’s what I’m intend­ing to do.

First, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

What fas­cin­ates me about Strange New Things is the con­trast between the lav­ish treat­ment by the crit­ical estab­lish­ment and my own reac­tion to it, which is much cooler. M John Harrison (whose work I’ve always found self-consciously unortho­dox but in a good way), writes that the novel is ‘deeply affecting’.

David Mitchell, another writer I admire, has blurbed:

Michel Faber’s second mas­ter­piece, quite dif­fer­ent to The Crimson Petal and The White but every bit as lumin­es­cent and mem­or­able. It is a por­trait of a liv­ing, breath­ing rela­tion­ship, frayed by dis­tance. It is an enquiry into the moun­tains faith can move and the moun­tains faith can’t move. It is mani­ac­ally gripping.

Before I set down my thoughts, here’s a thumb­nail of the story: a young, evan­gel­ical priest called Peter is selec­ted to bring Christianity to ali­ens on the planet Oasis. He does so, while his mar­ital rela­tion­ship deteri­or­ates over email.

One dif­fi­culty I had with Strange New Things con­cerns the ‘strange’. The ali­ens are not very. Strange, that is. They are, indeed, start­lingly famil­iar, and so is their planet, in as much as it is human-habitable atmosphere-, gravity-, and nutrition-wise. Nothing wrong with that (Star Trek gets away with it, as did Iain Banks), but it jars against the groun­ded, real­istic England Faber describes at the begin­ning of the story—if we take the rep­res­ent­a­tion of Earth ser­i­ously, why not the planet Oasis?

And then there’s the banal­ity of the human out­post. It has all the char­ac­ter of pro­vin­cial air­port. Again, noth­ing wrong with that in itself, but banal­ity and bore­dom are toxic ele­ments to stir into your fic­tion; you need to be care­ful mak­ing the reader under­stand that a char­ac­ter is feel­ing bored, or that a place is banal, by mak­ing the reader feel the same way. I don’t want to be bored.

Speaking as what reli­gious people term an ‘athe­ist’, I found it refresh­ing to read a book from the per­spect­ive of a Christian, par­tic­u­larly in a sci­ence fic­tion con­text. It was a real shame that oppor­tun­it­ies for fric­tion between his beliefs and his experiences—particularly the tech­no­lo­gical ones—remained unex­plored, basic­ally because the char­ac­ter, as writ­ten, is unin­ter­ested in how the world works. He’s only inter­ested in propagat­ing Christian beliefs, and the Oasans make this easy for him.

M John Harrison again:

This is a big novel – partly because it has to con­struct and explain its unhomely set­ting, partly because it has such a lot of reli­gious, lin­guistic, philo­soph­ical and polit­ical freight to deliver – but the reader is pulled through it at some pace by the gothic sense of anxi­ety that per­vades and taints every element.

Without wish­ing to make an unfair com­par­ison, check out Tolstoy’s Ana Karenina if you want a novel truly freighted with ideas. Two of his char­ac­ters can dis­cuss psy­cho­logy in the con­text of the philo­sophy of mind and cover just as much ground, and more effect­ively, as schol­arly works on the sub­ject. En passant, Tolstoy theory-checks pretty much most of the mod­ern psy­cho­lo­gical lit­er­at­ure, blaz­ing well ahead of Freud. And he tells a story at the same time. Much of the word­count of Strange New Things can be attrib­uted to char­ac­ters mov­ing from A to B, and hav­ing mean­der­ing conversations—which some­times hap­pen while they’re mov­ing from A to B.

There is one com­pel­ling idea in the novel, but I can’t tell you what it is without ruin­ing the story. It comes too late, how­ever, for Faber to pay expli­cit atten­tion to it. A re-read might bring up inter­est­ing foreshadows.

Overall, it’s a novel with a sale­able premise—‘missionary in space’—but an exe­cu­tion that con­sciously sands-down the ‘new’ and bases the ‘strange’ on what is, essen­tially, the familiar.

A Solitude of Space

On Saturday morn­ing I received a second story rejec­tion from a big-name sci­ence fic­tion magazine, and thought, screw it, I’ll just pub­lish the thing as a Kindle ebook. I present ‘A Solitude of Space’. It’s a hard SF short story of the kind I like to read. I’m really pleased with the way this one turned out.

In it, Commander Harald Sternberg of the space­craft ‘Beautiful Not’ is thirty-thousand light years from Earth when his life is threatened by a burst of mat­ter from a nearby star. Soon enough, it becomes clear that the threat is to human­ity itself.

A Solitude of Space [235345]

It’s Proper Job All Over Again

Proper Job is a book what I wrote based, indir­ectly, on my exper­i­ences of sur­viv­ing (more or less) my stu­dent days when I was an ice-cream man. The book was great fun to write. Finishing it, I thought I’d dis­covered my nat­ural genre–comedy–and I was prob­ably cor­rect, though most of my pub­lished out­put since then has been sci­ence fic­tion. The book didn’t get unfair treat­ment from pub­lish­ers; sev­eral said they’d love to pub­lish it but there was no chance of it selling because of the small humour mar­ket. To shift suf­fi­cient quant­it­ies, I’d need to be a fam­ous stand up comedian and, given that my pub­lic speak­ing focuses on cog­ni­tion, this is not the case.

I have made vali­ant attempts to start follow-up com­edy books, but writ­ing (and some­times re-writing) the Saskia Brandt series is slow going at the best of times. Comedy has taken a back seat.

Audiobooks! I’ve always loved audiobooks. Ever since get­ting an iPod Touch back in the day, I’ve thought it a priv­ilege to have someone read to me while doing the dishes, run­ning, or cyc­ling to work. Audiobooks also turned me on to poetry, which, with a few excep­tions, I’d never really appre­ci­ated; turns out poetry is a phon­o­lo­gical business.

Having been down the Kindle self-publishing route with Déjà Vu and gained so much sat­is­fac­tion from it, I was excited to read a couple of years back that Audible were launch­ing some­thing called ACX, or the Audiobook Creation Exchange, where self-publishers and audiobook pro­du­cers can get together to make audiobooks. I was frus­trated to see that it was US-only, and kept check­ing month after month to see when it would be launched in the UK. I chanced across ACX again a few weeks back, hunted around once more for the ‘US only’ text, and couldn’t find it.

Bingo, my droogies.

I signed up and pos­ted a descrip­tion of Proper Job. I had about ten audtions–all of which were very good, though some American efforts at the British accent didn’t quite do it for me–and whittled them down to one.

Once again, my mem­ber­ship of the Society of Authors came in very handy. They checked over the con­tract and trans­lated some of the more arcane bits into plain English.

This week­end, I fin­ished ‘audio-ising’ the Proper Job manu­script to make it clearer to a listener when the nar­rator is think­ing, speak­ing, and so on, and I hope to have the fin­ished audiobook by January. The plan is for the book to come out exclus­ively on Audible, which is really only game in town as far as audiobooks go.

Very, very excited.