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.