Tom Atherton

Tom Atherton

26-09-2021

19:53

Right, it’s time to get started with the (increasingly prestigious) Tomcat Award. This is where I read the entire Clarke Award shortlist, and then crown my own winner. Tomorrow we’ll see if the “official” Award guessed right or not. (They usually do not).

The returning judging panel consist of myself, Alien, Cadye-6, and Aloy:

And, and always, the winner will get the much sought-after goblet of plastic astronauts.

Here are this year’s nominees. I’m going to be discussing them in the order in which I read them:

First up is The Infinite by Patience Agbabi. This was controversial from the off, because it’s very much so a children’s book. I went in with an open-mind, perfectly happy to accept that a children’s book could also be a progressive, lyrical, and original piece of SF writing.

Unfortunately, The Infinite just isn’t any of those things. It’s very good on neurodiversity, especially in its representation of autism in childhood, which is tender, sometimes funny, and super informative.

But its science-fictional elements are lacking. The plotting is paper thin and highly derivative (a common problem with this year’s shortlist in general). The narrative itself is pretty muddled and disorienting, and large chunks of it defy logic.

Important plot elements are introduced, then suddenly resolved, very late in the book. Why don’t any of the adults seem concerned about missing children? The character Millenia is declared a “criminal”, but this is never explained.

In short: the central character is strong, the rest is unoriginal, confusing, illogical.

Next: The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay.

This is an incredible book. I loved the complexity of the easy-to-hate alcoholic narrator, Jean. I loved the abstract, quasi-poetic language used to represent animal “dialogue”, which converges a sort of othered intelligence with a beautiful expression of pure animal instinct.

But mostly I loved the book’s ambiguity and allegorical potential. The zooflu functions as a wonderful metaphor for the simultaneous human closeness with- and distance from- animal minds.

It’s very contemporary in its scientistic presentation, but the relationship between Jean and the dingo (Sue) calls to mind more traditional folk narratives around, for example, witches’ familiars.

And yet the entire talking-animal saga could be entirely psychosomatic to the narrator. There are textual justifications for all manner of interpretive readings, so it’s down to the caprice of the individual to decide exactly what the subtext of the zooflu is:

whether that’s climate change, man’s other-ness to nature, the destructive potential of alcoholism, or something I didn’t even pick up. It’s just brilliant.

Book 3: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez. This one is… fine. The first 50 pages are very strong, and could even be isolated as a beautiful short story.

Likewise I enjoyed the ending, which deracinates the narrative from the hard(ish) SF genre roots of the book, and places them firmly in the realm of something much more abstract and emotion-dependent.

There’s also some good stuff in here about capitalism’s exploitation of both individual and societal humanity: anything is profit-potential.

But huge chunks of the book a very middle-of-the-road genre. The aloof/gruff adult who has to escort a gifted, ethereal child of importance to safety – a child with whom they slowly develop a strong parental relationship – is a genre trope I’m just absolutely sick of.

(whoops. Ended a sentence with a preposition. Ahem. A genre trope of which I am absolutely sick).

(I was going to make a big list of all recent culture I’ve encountered this trope in, but that would be boring. And I’m too lazy. Fuck you).

It was derivative in other ways, too: the misfit band of space faring oddballs having to form a working crew as they slowly become each other’s chosen family is another genre cliché I’m tired of

Of which I am tired.

Book 4: Edge of Heaven by RB Kelly. Another odd choice. My research tells me this was first published in 2016, but it seems to have been picked up by a new publisher, so it’s now eligible again? (I might have gotten this very wrong).

EoH’s biggest problem is that it’s profoundly unoriginal. It wishes it was Blade Runner. And while I’d like to give it props for its atmospheric presentation of an impoverished, down-trodden and permanently rain-soaked noir city setting, I feel like this has been done to death.

Stylistically the book is weak, too. Cliched phrases are repeated ad nauseam: characters are constantly making smiles that don’t “reach their eyes”, and the phrase “a beat” to indicate a pause in dialogue is used so much I just wanted to scream at it by the end.

This unoriginality results in Edge of Heaven also being very predictable. It’s too long, and some of the characters’ emotional reactions to major revelations are bafflingly understated.

I didn’t hate it: it’s a fine piece of atmospheric SF, but it does nothing new, it needs some stylistic tidying, and it doesn’t contribute anything to the genre.

Book 5: Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes. Absolutely awful; immature, unoriginal (I REALLY want to use the p word but don’t wanna get into anything), badly-written garbage that spends 90% of its words treading water and doing nothing.

There’s a hideous MCU-esque type of joke-ism that acts as a patina over every character interaction, and reduces everything to the same emotional level: the quip. Has there been a tragedy? Quippy banter. A new discovery? Quippy Banter. Happiness? Sadness? Longing? Conflict? etc..

But the jokes are completely devoid of wit and intelligence. The book’s style is embarrassing. It’s full of action movie cliches, nonsensical science, teenage will-they-won’t-they sexual tension, and it’s HIGHLY derivative.

I mean, HOW DID THIS GET ONTO THE SHORTLIST?

There’s even a criminal organization called The Fridge, named, it seems, solely so the writer could use this terrible not-funny pop-culture theory pun as a chapter title:

I’d love to know in what way the Clarke judges think this merits being on the shortlist. It isn’t funny. It isn’t original, it isn’t progressive, or stylish, or insightful.

Hell, the final pages of the book hinge upon a weapon which is a one-to-one (I’m gonna say it…) plagiarism of the Portal gun from the video game of the same name.

ALSO: more smiles not reaching eyes:

It wishes it was Mass Effect (God, even the title contains the word ‘Effect’ – for no reason I can figure). It wishes it was Firefly. It wishes it was the MCU. I like all those things well enough, but I don’t want to read the novel of them.

Baffling

Finally: Book 6: Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang.

This seems like a Clarkey winner, to me, so I think it probably *will* win. But it’s really bad, so I hope it doesn’t.

Firstly, there’s something going on with this book’s language. Huge chunks of it are total gibberish that don’t make any sense whatsoever. The only explanation is that such passages are too-literal translations of more idiomatic language:

I can’t parse these bits at all. It’s really hard to figure where the language-translation barrier is, but it’s definitely there, and it RUINS the book. How this got through editing is beyond me. So much of this book makes no sense. Literally.

I've read this passage tens of times, and it's still just a jumble...

There’s unintentionally comic sentence construction:

Odd phrasings:

And the ship that travels between Mars and Earth is called.. Maerth. I shit you not.

Outside of comprehensibility, the prose is completely turgid and lifeless. Dialogue is unnatural, and the presentation of the super-capitalist Earth (to contrast the “socialist" Mars) is so OTT as to strip the notion of any critical bite it may have had.

It’s like a bloated, less intelligent, more teenage version of The Dispossessed. How is her grandfather a “dictator” in any reasonable sense of the word? Why, on a planet with such (and often referenced) scarce resources, are people working as dancers and costume designers???

Why are all 18-year-old characters super-genii capable of engineering feats beyond any of the adult characters:

The whole things is just a too-long, messy, amateurish, badly translated blob of nothing, with simplistic politics and paper thin characterization. Awful.

So… that’s the Tomcat-Clarke Award shortlist. Thank you so much if you’ve read this far down the thread. Sorry for any errors. It was another weak year, I think, with one exception.... And now all that’s left is to announce…

The Winner of the Tomcat Award 2021 is The Animals in That Country by @laurajeanmckay A beautiful, stylish, metaphor-rich and deeply human examination of our relationship to wilderness, history, science, and one another. “And my bones waste away, my bones waste away”. Beautiful.



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