Late Tuesday I got sick. Like, really sick. I’m thinking it’s the flu but, honestly, I’m barely thinking right now. The fever-induced headache appears to be a barrier to writing, analyzing…living. Next week’s post might be about how to function when your body gives up on you. This week’s is a testament to the Maybe You Shouldn’t Do This school of running a writing career. Christopher Priest blogged about the shortlist for the 2012 Clarke Award and, to put it mildly, Priest is not impressed.
As background, I reviewed before sold. I stopped because it was too hard to juggle telling my opinion with my feelings of discomfort about publicly telling my opinion. I upset some authors when I didn’t love their books. I got some angry emails. Really, it was best for my peace of mind that I stopped. But I’m hoping I never went this far:
It seems to me that 2011 was a poor year for science fiction. Of the sixty books submitted by publishers, only a tiny handful were suitable for awards. In my view, candidly, there were fewer than the six needed for the Clarke shortlist. Many of the submissions were fantasy of the least ambitious type, and many of the science fiction titles were almost as firmly embedded in genre orthodoxies, to their own huge disadvantage (and discredit), as the plodding, laddish works of Mr Mark Billingham. Discounting all those submissions did not leave many competitors at the top.
That made me wince. It’s not awful – up until the point where he takes at shot at Billingham – but it’s uncomfortable. I had a uh-oh feeling as I read along. Then the author turned to China Miéville, a three-time winner of this award. I’ve read several of Miéville’s books. Didn’t love all of them but I did appreciate the work and had the impression he was a superstar.
Let me now turn to the most highly argued novel, for and against, on the list: Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan). For reasons some people might readily understand, I have not until now had anything to say about this novel, but events have freed me. I like China as a person, and in his unsought role of media-friendly spokesperson for the SF world he has done well and has not aroused controversy. He is obviously serious about writing, believes in the weird or the speculative novel as a genuine force in literature, and aims high. He is an enterprising writer who comes up with some excellent ideas, and many of his images are memorable and effective.
But wait for it…
However, a fourth award to this writer would send out a misleading and damaging message to the world at large: it suggests that not only is Mr Miéville the best the SF world can offer at the moment, he is shown to be more or less the only writer worth reading. Worse even than this, it would send a misleading message to China Miéville himself.
Although Miéville is clearly talented, he does not work hard enough. For a novel about language, Embassytown contains many careless solecisms, which either Mr Miéville or his editor should have dealt with. This isn’t the place to go into a long textual analysis, but (for example) a writer at his level should never use ‘alright’ so often or so unembarrassedly. He also uses far too many neologisms or SF nonce-words, which drive home the fact that he is defined and limited by the expectations of a genre audience. On the first few pages, alone, he uses the words ‘shiftparents’, ‘voidcraft’, ‘yearsends’, ‘trid’, ‘vespcams’, ‘miab’, ‘plastone’, ‘hostnest’, ‘altoysterman’ … Yes, of course, it’s possible to work out what most of these might mean (or to wait until another context makes them clearer), but it is exactly this use of made-up nouns that makes many people find science fiction arcane or excluding. A better writer would find a more effective way of suggesting strangeness or an alien environment than by just ramming words together. It’s lazy writing.
This is not to say that Embassytown is a bad novel. It is not, but neither is it a good one. It has too many common flaws that could have been eradicated by a more ruthless editorial process in the writing, or even more simply by an extra draft of the manuscript. Nor does it suggest that Miéville is a poor or failing writer: he is obviously not, but unless he is told in clear terms that he is under-achieving, that he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces, he will never write the great novels that many people say he is capable of. In the short term, to imply by giving it a prize, or even shortlisting it for one, that this is the best science fiction novel of the current year is just plain wrong.
He doesn’t work hard enough? Is an underachiever? See, that strikes me as too far. Too personal. It also suggests the author knows something about Miéville’s writing and personal life that is doesn’t really know. I hate when people do that, so spending my three minutes sitting upright and being online all day yesterday reading this was probably not a good use of my time.
Back to my sick bed.