Wednesday 30th April sees the presentation ceremony for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel published in 2007. Never short on controversy, this year’s shortlist has generated plenty of discussion and debate – no less for the novels that are missing from it than for those that are present.
It’s Futurismic‘s great privilege to feature this round-up review of the Clarke Award shortlist by noted science fiction novelist, critic and academic Adam Roberts. So settle down with a good big cup of coffee, let Professor Roberts walk you through the shortlist … and then place your bets on the winner in the comments!
- Stephen Baxter, The H-Bomb Girl (Faber 2007)
- Matthew De Abaitua, The Red Men (Octopus 2007)
- Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army (Faber 2007)
- Stephen Hall, The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate 2007)
- Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel (2007)
- Richard Morgan, Black Man (Gollancz, 2007)
There’s been a deal of pother about this year’s Clarke shortlist, more even than this often-controversial event usually generates. Surprise at the omission of a number of highly regarded titles – we might mention, say, McDonald’s Brasyl and Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union – fuelled bloggish mutterings about hidden agendas, panderings to Evil Mainstream Lit and a desire to generate Turner Award-style notoriety rather than simply to choose last year’s best SF novel.
The muttering boiled down to a sense that the Clarke judges were liable to corrupt the nation’s youth and ought all to drink hemlock without ado. The question, though. is a simple one: do these six titles constitute a list of the best sf novels published in the UK last year?
Speaking as a writer myself, the shortlist I was expecting was Land of the Headless, Land of the Headless, Land of the Headless, Splinter, Splinter, and finally, as a wild card, Splinter. But stepping outside my ego for a moment (bear with me: it’s a long way to the exit) let’s play an alt-historical game.
Few, I think, would argue that Morgan’s thumping Black Man, MacLeod’s widely-liked The Execution Channel, and Hall’s flawed but notable Carhullan Army deserve their places on the list. Baxter deserves his place as well, and if I seem to hesitate about the shortlisting of H Bomb Girl it’s not because I think the book inferior (it may well be the best title listed, actually) but because Baxter published four novels last year, and I wonder as to whether one of the others mightn’t been more deserving. It was either four, or fourteen. I forget. It certainly had a four in it.
My point is this: had the list been Baxter, Chabon, Sarah Hall, MacLeod, McDonald and Morgan, would anybody have complained? I don’t think so. Indeed, I’d suggest that a shortlist of Baxter, Hall, Hall, MacLeod, McDonald and Morgan wouldn’t, I think, have generated the outrage that the present list has. So we could say that the shortlist is mostly right.
I don’t envy the lot of the Clarke judges, actually. I remember (pardon my name-dropping) chatting with Geoff Ryman a few years ago about his stint on the panel. He said he’d taken the gig expecting that it would involve a great deal of labour and little-or-no reward; but what he hadn’t expected was just how cross authors would be at not being shortlisted – how they, or some of them, would take their non-inclusion as a personal slight, or evidence of hostility, bias or conspiracy.
Of course, choosing six authors to recognise necessarily means omitting a dozen or so who might realistically have hoped for a place on the list: that’s simple maths. But wounded egos don’t necessary see things so straightforwardly. I daresay it’s been the same for this year’s judging panel, except that the pool of people outraged at the decision had been larger than usual. On the other hand, I bumped into Ian McDonald at Eastercon and he seemed sanguine about his Clarke omission, a state of mind perhaps supported by his well-deserved BSFA best novel prize.
Yes, I know I’m bragging: for I have met both Geoff Ryman and Ian McDonald. It’s a starry life I lead and that’s for sure. And what’s more, I can tell you this: Ryman is taller than McDonald. [And by no small degree, either. – Ed.]
All this is by way of prelude to my round-up review, in order to make one point. My initial sense of what was wrong with the shortlist was that it was too samey: that all the titles are recent or near-future alt-historical, alt-now or near-future thrillers/adventure stories. This, I thought, was a poor map of contemporary SF: not that thrillers don’t have their place in the genre, but that a genre that was nothing but high-tech thrillers would be an impoverished thing.
But then I bethought myself that, had I been a Clarke judge (supping my cup of general thanklessness), I would have probably been happy to sign off on a shortlist that read: Morgan, MacLeod, Hall, Baxter, Chabon and McDonald. That in other words, the obvious missing titles – Brasyl and Yiddish Policemen’s Union – are also alt-historical now-ish thrillers. Maybe this just is the shape of the genre at the moment.
Reading, and in some cases re-reading, the titles to review them has been a process of slowly overcoming my initial hostility to the shortlist. I’d still say it was a mistake not to include Chabon and McDonald, but I’d reluctantly concede that this is a shortlist with more to recommend it than some commentators, myself initially included, allowed.
For example, here’s Stephen Baxter’s The H-Bomb Girl, and an excellent novel it is. It tells the story of Laura, a young girl moved to Liverpool in the early sixties because her parent’s marriage is disintegrating. Her father, an RAF officer, is convinced nuclear war is coming, and gives his daughter the key to a Vulcan bomber, so that the military would take her into protection should the balloon go up. As the Cuban missile crisis looms larger, various figures from (it transpires) different time-lines converge on Laura, hoping to get hold of the key for their own wrongheaded purposes.
The H-Bomb Girl is a YA novel, and about such writing I would say this: YA is a mode of writing ferociously difficult to do well. A good YA title must have all the virtues of a good adult novel in terms of topic, development, character, narrative, mood, theme and worldbuilding; but it must be much more efficiently worked. Younger readers are less forgiving of writerly self-indulgence, padding and pretension. They read sentence by sentence, and every sentence they read must move them forward in some way, or they tend to give up. The H-Bomb Girl succeeds brilliantly. It is a gripping, informative, extremely likeable little novel.
The worst that can be said of it is that it’s, perhaps, slight. To say so is not to rubbish children’s literature as such: many children’s novels are far from slight (the Alice books; Wizard of Earthsea; Philip Pullman). Yet I finished reading The H-Bomb Girl with a sense of it as a minor addition to the Baxter canon. It treats the same topics as most of his recent fiction has done: a number of alternate history timelines parsing the same ethical dilemmas of how individual choice creates our mature selves, how much agency we possess in the face of larger historical forces, what possibilities for escape and for atonement are at our disposal.
These are the themes of the Time’s Tapestry books; the Manifold novels and, to an extent, the Destiny’s Children books as well. I don’t think it’s just the larger canvas, and greater scope, that these novels provide that is responsible for their greater sense of heft and sway. But perhaps Baxter’s current Big Theme just needs more space in which to be developed than a novella-length YA title allows.
The H-Bomb Girl reads like a CBBC drama one-off, especially in its denouement where the British army bazookas its way through the wall of Liverpool’s famous rock-venue The Cavern (whilst The Beatles are playing) and into the high-tech Dr-Evil-style lair the Hegemony have constructed beneath the city. This is lightly handled and fun: Henry Cooper is the soldier aiming the bazooka; John Winston Lennon is wisecracking in the background; the kids get to swarm in and defeat ultimate evil in a playground bundle. The downside is that so happy an ending feels a little safe, given how uncompromising the rest of the novel is.
That said, the happy ending is perhaps necessary in structural terms, following as it does the novel’s tour-de-force account, via Laura’s diary, of the alt-1960s in which the Cuba crisis led to nuclear catastrophe. This embedded narrative of a late twentieth-century Britain ruined by atomic war is excellent, harrowing stuff; strong meat for a child audience encompassing as it does mass death, vividly rendered physical suffering, the exploitation and rape of the heroine, and a vertiginously depressing glimpse down a time line in which life is close to unbearable. Harrowing, but well judged, and the heart of the book; but without the cheerier pay-off it might have been too much.
The alternative timelines don’t devalue the central worldbuilding exercise of the novel, which is an thoroughly believable and immersive recreation of early 1960s Liverpool. The closest The H-Bomb Girl comes to anachronism is the very twenty-first century valorization of ethnic, sexual and cultural diversity it retcons into the early 1960s: Laura’s friends are a Catholic pregnant schoolgirl and single-mum-to-be, a young black guy called Joel; a gay rock singer called Nick; amongst her opponents is a disabled man in a wheelchair, so all the equal opportunity boxes are ticked. Baxter does not soft-pedal either the racism or the homophobia of the period, although of course and creditably enough he ensures that examples of bigotry are rebuked (A biker in the Cavern racially abuses Joel. ‘Bernadette moved in, tall, commanding. “Hey face ache. Leave him alone.”’ )
The only danger—and I’d say it’s a danger Baxter just about avoids—is that of a certain right-on-ness. But that’s by no means a bad thing. Baxter also confronts the inevitable intertextuality:
‘Time travel’s perfectly sensible,’ Joel said. ‘The BBC are making a show about it, that will be on the telly in the autumn.’ Joel always knew about that kind of thing. ‘Called Dr Who. There will be this old man and his grand-daughter, and a time machine.’ 
A little hard to believe that a kid in the pre-internet pre-fanzine early 1960s would be so clued-up on a BBC show that hadn’t even been filmed yet, but we can let that go. Overall The H-Bomb Girl is a marvel: splendidly evocative of a place and a time, it manages to be morally serious without ever losing its playfulness, its charm or its Scouse nous.
Not so good is Matthew De Abaitua’s The Red Men: a messily put together near-future sort-of thriller in which the two-dimensional Nelson Millar and his consistently grating and annoying friend Raymond Chase (hyperactive and self-consciously wacky poet) get tangled up with ‘Monad’, an organisation that provides ‘consumer modelling in virtual environments’ and ‘artificial intelligence in marketing scenarios’ .
There are explosions and fires, secret plots, robots called ‘Dr Easy’ that work as psychologists aiding the police (they have spherical suede faces and mournful eyes, which would surely spook the jism out of anybody with whom they tried to interact), and the titular ‘red men’, virtual simulations of people who as-it-were haunt reality. Apart from that, and other occasional gestures in the direction of imagined technology (celluloid screens, a man with surgically attached porcine testicles and so on) the novel is set in a recognisable present-day North London.
The blurb promises a thriller salted with ‘the imminent technologies of tomorrow’, but the novel delivers a very yesterday set of sf tropes: a pinch of Dick, a scattering of Gibson. Most notably. the central topic of the novel, the establishment of an entire virtual town of Red Men upon which marketing and other ideas can be tested, is a tired and belated retread of Fred Pohl’s 1955 story ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ (from the collection Alternating Currents).
The rest of the book reads like a sub-par episode of Nathan Barley, which is very far from being a recommendation: the protagonist works on a magazine called Drug Porn and mixes with people called things like ‘Alex Drown’, ‘Harry Bravado’ and ‘Mr Blasebalk’. Some characters chatter in poorly satirised marketing talk (‘Me2. Me Too. Yeah. There you go…’ ‘I’m not sure about the logo’ ). The women talk like this: ‘I’ve got a fantastic pair of tits, and sometimes men take them the wrong way’ .
There are too many adolescent and wincingly bad patches of writing. One character is lying on the beach ‘naked … mildly aroused, his cock acted as the gnomon of a sundial, its shadow marking time on his belly’ . (Um…) An opium plant is described as possessing ‘the provocative bulbous tip of a Martian phallus’ , but the provocation is all in the writer’s mind, and not in the least on the page. The whole is often clumsy and lumbering stuff, trying for shock and falling short. Here’s an example of would-be-comic writing.
It all started when Florence the poet asked if I wanted to come over for cunnilingus and pasta. I said ‘what type of pasta?’ She said ‘fusilli’. I said ‘I don’t mind if I do.’ 
It’s almost as if the writer is willing his readership to mutter ‘ho ho’ in a deadpan voice. There is also some superweak satire of the corporate world.
The leaflets in the front desk in plastic holders with their inspiring verbs — devise, pitch, propose — he satirised thus; ‘Nelson, let us imaginate together. Shall we join our colleagues and visionise the future?’ 
The semicolon there is the author’s own solecism. And can a near-future thriller really manage no better satirical bite than Dead Ringers‘ George W. impersonator?
There are moments here and there of more promising writing; and some interesting thematic stuff about fire, conflagration, flames, redness and the like. De Abaitua also synthesises a great chunk of Gnostic stuff, which might interest you, or then again, might not; and there’s a quantity of running about, if you like that sort of thing in a novel.
But it all comes over as flabby and underwhelming. When near the end one character declares ‘what a long, strange trip this has been!’  it does not feel like a sentiment that has been earned. ‘What’s the Latin for “unreal man”?’ one character asks at once point: ‘homo non verus? Homo Falsus? Homo Fictus?’  That last should perhaps be homo ficticius, ‘artificial, feigned, non-genuine man'; although since it appears in a liber ficticius perhaps I shouldn’t pick nits. What’s the Latin for swine’s-snout?
Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army is very far from sloppy. It reworks some of the material from her first novel, the drowned-pastoral Haweswater (2002), relocating its clash of modern and traditional, town and country, male and female from the 1930s into the near-future, grimly run-down and ruled by an oppressive Authority.
Hall’s narrator (‘Sister’ is the only name she gives us) runs away from her grim factory job and unsatisfying relationship in the town to make a new life at Carhullan, a farm in the Cumbrian hills that is both a radical female collective and a seedbed for resistance to the centralized evils of the State. Carhullan is run by the charismatic, slightly insane ex-commando Jackie Nixon. Over the course of this relatively short novel Sister becomes in effect a terrorist, a member of the titular army.
The Carhullan Army is a markedly, almost stubbornly old-fashioned dystopia that plays its premise entirely straight. In many ways it’s a strange work. That’s not intended dismissively, by the way. I like strange, and to a degree I liked this novel: I liked its single-mindedness, and its moral seriousness. I liked the way it construes both the strengths and weaknesses, or rather the freedoms and the limitations, of its rural gynocracy. I liked its attentiveness to the natural world, something too rarely found in novels, and in sf novels found more rarely still.
But there have been a number of exceptional, powerful and enduring literary dystopias recently: Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Jim Crace’s Pesthouse, McCarthy’s The Road. The Carhullan Army is by no means a bad novel, but it isn’t in the same class as these others; and being published as it is in the wash made by their passage it can hardly help seeming a little belated.
More, its single-mindedness becomes a little tiresome before the end. It is relentless and rather spiritless, a book whose watchwords are seriousness and honesty: Jackie Nixon ‘did not try to describe Carhullan as any kind of Utopia , we’re told. ‘It was a serious and honest existence at the farm’ . This is perhaps too worthy to work as organising principles for Hall’s fiction.
Indeed, her dystopian England, despite the role Global Warming has evidently played in its creation, could have been written in the 1960s. Life is sliding towards a miserable subsistence level under a Soviet-style tyrannous ‘Authority’; a regime that deploys ‘ten year recovery plans’, runs ‘detention centres’, nationalizes land ownership and pursues what one character calls ‘all that centralization nonsense’ . It’s a crude-enough caricature of Bad Government: a straw dictatorship against which Hall’s odd combination of radical rural conservatism and radical 1970s feminism can offset itself.
So on the one hand there’s a Dave Spart feel to much of the rhetoric (‘Women were treated like cunts back down there. Like second-class citizens and sex-objects. They were underpaid and underappreciated’ ) and a shall-we-say lack of nuance to the book’s ideological bias:
She [Nixon] did not make monsters of us. She simply gave us the power to remake ourselves into those inviolable creatures the God of Equality had intended us to be. We knew she was deconstructing the old disabled version of our sex. 
That women not be treated like cunts, sex-objects and second-class citizens is something on which we can all agree. But threading through these mainstream opinions (offered as if revolutionary) is a much more dubious essentialism and a celebration of dogged passivity associated with the enduring if dour landscape Hall loves. Towards the end of the novel we are told: ‘it is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most that will conquer’ —one of the most monstrously wrongheaded things I have read in a novel for a long time. And then there’s this romanticized, slightly sap-headed peroration, right near the end of the book:
Revolutions always begin in mountainous regions. It’s the fate of such places. Look around you … these are the disputed lands. They have never been settled. And those of us who live in them have never surrendered to anyone’s control. Nor will we ever. [195-6]
Revolutions always begin in mountainous regions? That would be news to Wat Tyler, Cromwell, George Washington, Robespierre, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh – wait up. Actually, let’s rephrase: ‘Revolutions rarely begin in mountainous regions’. Or indeed: ‘I’m Cumbrian and I don’t like people telling me what to do.’ That would be less starry-eyed and less grimly self-romanticising. ‘We have never surrendered to anyone’s control. Nor will we ever’. Grand. Although, didn’t Hadrian build a big fuck-you wall right through the middle of Cumbria?
Ach, I’m nitpicking … except I’m not, really: this is a novel that needs to build more than a series of minute poetic observations of landscape. It needs to understand how politics actually work; how history actually moves; how tyranny actualizes itself in the world. It doesn’t. 1970s Feminism taught us that the personal is political; but this novel can only encompass the first, and not the second, half of the equivalence.
One of Hall’s unquestioned strengths, though, is her command of style; and if that is sometimes uneven here, it also provides many moments of beauty. There’s a certain amount of infodumping (‘we seemed united by our disappointment, our anger, our distrust of the reinvented Forward Party, who had taken office under the banner of reform, and had then signed the Coalition Oil Treaty … [led by] Powell, one of the old guard … a bigot’ and so on [24-5]) and occasional wobbles in the control of some sentences.
But there is also a wealth of lovely writing, especially about the natural world: some beautiful images (‘the November sky was ash-blue and the clouds moved fast above us’ ), some more grim (‘the white smear of moon, a ridged and filmy ulcer in the lining of cloud’ ), and some very good minute observation—felled by the Carhullan guards, Sister sees wildlife in amongst the grass: ‘an inch from my eye a spider was belaying down one of the stems on a pale rope. Its legs pedalled precisely on the descent’ .
The other S. Hall on the shortlist could take lessons in prose from Carhullan. This is Stephen, not Sarah, and his book is The Raw Shark Texts. And is it raw? Actually, no: it’s very cooked indeed. It’s the fictive equivalent of a microwaveable meal. Everything in this novel has been boiled and boiled until a great cap of foam crowns the pan and all the goodness has leeched out of the vegetables. This is not to say it’s no fun—actually it’s a novel with a considerable fizz; an enjoyably quick read. But, oh my, it is boneless stuff.
The protagonist, Eric Sanderson, wakes up at the beginning of chapter one with total amnesia. He sees a therapist who informs him that he’s had a personality breakdown (and not for the first time) following the death of his girlfriend on holiday the previous year. She warns him not to open any letters he may have posted to himself from before the breakdown. He does open the letters: they tell him not to trust the therapist.
There is something more than a little clichéd about starting a tale with an amnesiac hero, and Hall addresses himself to that fact by flashing his intertexts at us: Jaws! Memento! The Matrix! But this doesn’t freshen the staleness of his premise; and there’s an illogicality to his central conceit.
What conceit is that? Well, Sanderson soon realizes that he’s in danger (here in the actual world) of being eaten alive by a ‘Ludovician’, a shark-shaped notional entity (‘one of the many species of purely conceptual fish’ 64). Just to run that past you again: Sanderson, who lives in the real world, is really menaced by a purely conceptual shark. How? Well, there’s some handwaving about ‘the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect’, and some more about the physical interstices of the world, crawlspaces, empty carparks, unused alleys and so on. But, no, it makes no sense; and its senselessness robs the book of force.
Sanderson goes on the run; hooks up with the sexy, smart, high-kicking heroine ‘Scout’ (with whom of course he becomes romantically entangled) and tracks down the evil Mr Smith ripoff, who is named, via Sherlock Holmes and Bill Gates, ‘Mycroft Ward’. He runs about, solves a couple of Dan-Browny codes, has various hairsbreadth escapes, and ultimately builds a conceptual boat to chase the shark in exactly the way the characters in Spielberg’s Jaws did, except that they were (according to the logic of the movie) in a real boat chasing a real shark, and Sanderson is in a notional boat chasing a notional shark that is also somehow a real shark in the real world. By some means.
This is crucial, I think. Sf is often at its best as an explicitly metaphorical literature. The Matrix itself is an eloquently metaphorical text. That film’s central metaphor articulates the experience of living in our alienating, high-tech world. Hall’s sharky central metaphor doesn’t really articulate anything, beyond the most generic premise of the thriller (‘the bad guys are chasing you’); and, worse, it never escapes muddle in its understanding of how metaphor works.
Although the romantic sections between the hero and the heroine are poorly written, the mystery of ‘what’s going on?’ at the beginning and the thriller elements of chase-and-search in the middle, are well-plotted enough to keep you turning the pages. Also there are various typographical tricks and embellishments: pictures of the shark made out of characters and so on. This sort of thing:
But the shine goes off these sorts of typsettery fun and games quickly enough, and the overall conception of the book is too friable, flawed and illogical to leave a solid sense of Good Fiction in the head once the final page has been reached. It’s fun. It’s not the postmodern intertextual intervention it tries to be. It’s just a bit rubbish.
One of the senses of ‘rubbish’ I’m invoking here concerns prose style. Hall doesn’t put his words together very well. In particular he overwrites; both in the sense that he is unnecessarily prolix and in the sense that his prose is too-too purple. It goes beyond purple, often, into a sort of stylistic shocking-pink. So, this is how Sanderson wakes up:
My eyes slammed themselves capital O open and my neck and shoulders arched back in a huge inward heave, a single world-swallowing lung-gulp of air. 
Pretty much everything that happens in the book happens in those terms. People don’t breath in this book, they suck lungfuls of air (‘I sucked a lungful of air’ ; ‘I … sucked air through my fingers’ ; ‘my lungs [were] pulling and heaving under my ribs’ ). TVs don’t fall over; rather ‘the screen threw itself forward with a screaming electric flash … I tried for silent breaths but my breathing and my thinking were all ripped, chopped, torn-up, ragged.’  Hall is aiming for intensity, but he is trying too hard. Less is more.
That’s such an important principle of writing that I’m going to put it down here a second time. Less is more. It is more effective to write ‘Increasingly vehement bangs were coming from behind the locked door. They stopped suddenly…’ than it is to write:
The banging and slamming, clattering and rattling sounds were coming from behind the locked door, and they were building up, growing more and more aggressive … [Then] deep thick silence thundered from behind the closed door. Pure. Heavy. Pregnant. The sound of being stared at. 
This sort of writing is the prose-style equivalent of adding multiple exclamations marks and underlining a dozen times in different coloured pens. It does not make me like the book. Sometimes his desire for intensity leads him into patches impossible to visualize (‘Dr Randle was more like an electrical storm or some complicated particle reaction than a person’ ). Very often it leads him into the Valley of Dreadful Pretensiousness:
God my lips said. The word was stillborn and tiny and bundled away in a sweep of the gale. 
‘A dramatic wet sheet broke against the window followed by a haiku of fat rain taps as the wind took a breath.’ 
And there are many other passages that reek of student creative-writing and trying-too-hard. Maybe the movie will be better.
Ken MacLeod’s Execution Channel is altogether a more maturely, professionally put together piece of work. Yes, it’s another near-future, alt-now thriller, but it’s an expertly put-together one. The novel starts with what appears to be a rogue atomic explosion in a Scottish airbase, and then rifles efficiently through the silverware in the Thriller drawer: threats, paranoia, running-about, chases, guns, spies, secrets, the whole kit and kaboodle. It is well handled, very readable and the raisins in its pudding batter are various canny and thought-provoking political observations about the grim state of the world today generally and the War on Terror in particular.
‘In the long run,’ we’re told, ‘it is impossible to live in peace on the same planet as a rogue superpower.’  I’m prepared to believe it. But then at the last minutes the novel goes all Tales of the Unexpected on our asses, and the reader puts the book down with an ‘er…?’ Or else, judging by some blogly and reviewerish reactions, with a whoop of joy. Personally I was on the ‘er’ side, but I can understand why others delighted in it. Graham Sleight has called it ‘the Marmite ending’. That’s about right. Indeed, it would be rather difficult to discuss the novel without discussing the ending, so beware: spoilers below.
Roisin Travis, protesting outside a USAF base in Scotland, sees a strange object (bomb, she thinks) being loaded onto a plane. She gets away before it explodes, or is exploded, although she has to go on the run from the British and American secret services. Her Dad, James Travis, is a computer bod and French double-agent, and circumstances also force him out on the run. Through the windows of this narrative car-in-motion Macleod shows us blipping cameos of a society straining under the burden of hate, religion, economic strain and imperialism. The plot shifts along at a fair old lick.
But well-handled though the novel is many ways, there are I think problems with it. In the main body of the work the outrage (justifiable of course) at the human abuses of the present Western hegemony rather distorts, or nullifies, the novel’s occasional lighter moments. I found the humour forced, for instance. So, Alexander MacIntyre’s code name is SCRAP, and we are told: ‘Scotland had long since run out of dignified cryptonyms like SCEPTRE and SCIENCE for its agents. It was an exhausted running joke that they would soon have to draw the line at SCUM’ . But exhausted is about right for the humour here (other agents have the code names SCRUB and SCROTE). The book is much better when MacLeod plays it straight, as in the chillily understated account of an interrogation midway through the novel:
Paulson asked the questions. Walker indicated the stress methods. The soldiers applied them. Afterwards they stripped the prisoner naked. One of the soldiers washed him down, and bathed his cuts and bruises, with a high-pressure hose. They placed him in one of the two unoccupied cells and left him there. 
That the novel is set in an alternate timeline in which Gore won the US Presidential election is revealed a little way in, and makes the point that it is not an individual (George W.) or a party (the Republicans) who are responsible for the War on Terror, but rather a system; and that it is the system that needs to be reformed.
But it has the unintended consequence of diluting the force of the political polemic—since, after all, the political scene being attacked here belongs to a different timeline than the one in which we presently live. This would matter less if the novel’s ending didn’t force the narrative through a knight’s-move out of thriller-territory and into space opera. The novel we have been reading, that we thought was John Le Cliché turns out to be Blish-ish instead: Euro-Syriana bursts its chrysalis and flies away as the City and the Stars.
The twist-in-the-tail ending is certainly prepared-for in the novel—perhaps, indeed, it is overprepared. Not only are Heim Theory Ships discussed, and James Blish specifically referenced (‘“Seulement les étoiles, yes,” she sighed. “It is science fiction, but I wish …”’ ); but the whole book ties together a bundle of sf in-jokes: ‘Matrix’-style agents called Smith; characters declaring ‘We are now Battlestar America. Watch the skies’  and so on. But the combination of its twist-ending and gratuitous alt-historical contextualising robs the novel of élan vital.
The thing about twist-endings, I’d say, is that howsoever well-handled they are they inevitably say something about the work they bookend. They say, in effect: see? you couldn’t trust what I was saying. And by extension they say: you really shouldn’t trust first impressions, you know. That ought to be a good moral for a novel about the New World Order in which we live, except that MacLeod’s novel does not present the propagandized surface of the current global situation (or more precisely, it presents it only to highlight how risible it is).
The bulk of the novel is a polemic about the way the world actually is. To cap this representation with a twist-ending is in effect to say: you thought the world was a bad place? Well, voilà! it’s not so bad as you thought …! That tugs awkwardly against the grain of the novel as a whole. So for me not a marmite ending (since I like Marmite): rather a cat ending, a slinky feline up-yours of an ending. Others disagree, and perhaps they’re right.
I have another issue with the ending, although this one is more tangential and harder to sustain argumentatively. But, having finished the novel, I find that the ending lives disproportionately in my mind as I look back over what I have just read. Endings shouldn’t do that.
And there’s a particular mismatch where the subject of this novel is concerned. Endings get too much weight in contemporary practical-political discourse. It is the ideological underpinning of the belief that the end (let’s say, a western-style bourgeois democracy in Iraq) can ever justify the means (let’s say, the death of up to a million Iraqis and many years of human misery). I don’t mean this to be a cheap shot, and I appreciate it is not a criticism that many would share; but the ending of The Execution Channel is a little too ‘Mission Accomplished’ for my tastes.
Finally there’s Morgan’s Black Man, the most thrillery of this year’s shortlisted thrillers, and a book that earns its thrillerishness (its, dare-I-say, thrillerocity) not just by providing actual readerly thrills but by making a formal and aesthetic virtue out of its generic necessities. This is a book that works as thriller and simultaneously as a deconstruction of the logic of the thriller. It provides excitement, and levers open the disconcerting space between our enjoyment of that excitement and our unease at the being-in-the-world that generates it. Clever, that.
Morgan’s titular protagonist, Carl Marsalis, is a former ‘genetic infantryman’ (known in Morgan’s universe as a ‘thirteen’, or more derogatively as a ‘twist’) now working as a deromanticised James Bond. To be more precise he’s a James Bladerunner, for his job is hunting down other rogue thirteens. Supercompetent, intelligent and good at his violent job, Marsalis is sometimes physically shaken but never emotionally stirred–until, that is, he teams up with sexy hardboiled Turkish-American cop Sevgi Ertekin. Together they cross continents to track down a rogue thirteen serial killer.
They chase clues, gets into fights and have a quantity of squelchily described sexual intercourse, until she suffers the generic fate of the love-interest in this sort of story, and Marsalis is given sufficient if not necessary cause for his big finale. This perhaps makes the books sound formulaic; but at every point in this familiar narrative trajectory the writing is canny enough to excavate what lies beneath his popular narrative conventions, and to consider what made it popular in the first place.
The deal with Marsalis, and with his kind, is that they are genengineered throwbacks to an earlier, tougher, less sociable model of homo sapiens: an individualistic human type effectively bred out of the gene pool twenty-thousand years ago because they didn’t fit the new logic of social civilization. ‘It’s only once humans settle down in agricultural communities that these guys start to be a problem,’ one character notes. ‘Why? Because they won’t fucking do as they’re told. They won’t work in the fields and bring in the harvest for some kleptocratic old bastard with a beard. That’s when they start to get bred out, because the rest of us, the wimps and the conformists, band together under that selfsame kleptocratic bastard’s paternal holy authority, and we go out with our torches and our farming implements and exterminate those poor fuckers’ .
Most hard-man thrillers and adventures simply take their premise—the valorization of the self-sufficient individual male hero—for granted. Morgan doesn’t. The point of his novel is to unpack what being that sort of person actually entails: Natty Bumppo, John Carter, James Bond, the Man with No Name, Jason Bourne. This goes beyond making plain that violence does damage to the perpetrator as well as victim. It becomes a critique of masculinity itself, a dramatization of the notion that contemporary society has committed ‘virilicide’ by purging itself of the hypertrophic vir in favour of more socially skilled individuals.
Ours, as one of the novel’s character notes, is ‘a world in which manhood’s going out of style. Advancing wave of the feminised society, the alpha males culling themselves through suicide and … drugs’ . These ideas aren’t original to Morgan—he cites Richard Wrangham and Matt Ridley in his acknowledgements—and Black Man isn’t the first novel to dramatise them: it was also the theme of, for example, Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Indeed, in a broader sense, this conflict between these two modes of life, solitary man or social animal, is behind Scott’s Waverly novels, and goes back at least to Homer—whose Achilles is one prototype for Morgan’s Marsalis.
Morgan does a thoroughgoing and rather brilliant job on this idea. Testosterone, he tells us, is a dangerous and even malicious chemical. Undeniably it provides us with thrills and a vicarious sense of kicking against the pricks, but this book never lets us forget the malice. Pride, sex, patriotism (one memorable aperçu: ‘anyone who’s proud of their country is either a thug or just hasn’t read enough history yet’ 299), alpha-male social rituals.
In the more race-sensitive US Black Man has been retitled Thirteen. Some critics have derided this, but in some ways I prefer the American title. It is more evasive than the UK title, and in that sense it doesn’t fit a book that is one of the least evasive, one of the most fist-in-the-reader’s-face, I have ever read. (It’s one of the joys of Morgan’s writing that he always turns it up to eleven all the time. In the hands of a less skilful writer that would lead to gush, sprawl or pseudo-Tarantino excess; but Morgan’s broader theme is precisely excess, and he knows how to operate the heavy machinery of his own fiction).
But one thing the US title does is highlight just how North American a book this is. Marsalis himself is British, and the novel flaps its wings from Turkey to Latin America via Mars, but its soul is America: a future Disunited States that has broken into two chunks: the Rim States on the western coast and the northeast and the unpleasant, fundamentalist Red-State ‘Jesusland’ in the middle. Thirteen is an unlucky number (another slang term for the likes of Marsalis is ‘unluck’); but thirteen is also the number of original American colonies, and one of the more subtly woven threads running through the book is the notion of the Thirteens as a new human endeavour, a sort of genetic new found land.
The old world views them with hostility, yet women (it seems) find them irresistible; and to a certain extent the book itself, and many of its readers, follow the women in this–a minor flaw in the overall pattern of the book is the way almost all the characters are revealed to be genetic variations on the baseline human model by the end. But otherwise, as with Dick’s original androids, it’s hard to shake a sense that violence notwithstanding these people are better than old humans.
Yes? Maybe not. Thirteens tend toward the sociopathic, it is true, and leave a trail of injury and death in their wakes; but then again in Morgan’s universe pretty much everybody is like that. As a South American gangster points out to Marsalis, when the Conquistadors swarmed over the Aztec empire they slaughtered so many ‘the ground was carpeted with corpses and the condors fed for weeks on the remains … soldiers tore nursing infants from the breast and tossed them still living to their attack dogs, or swung them by the heels against rocks to smash their skulls… These were not demons, and they were not genetically engineered abominations like you. These were men.’ . Well, quite. And the 23rd century seems no better: crammed with the criminal, the violent, the exploitative, the religiously-bonkers, the psychotically unhinged. In such a world, Marsalis (as the conventions of this mode of writing require) is more likeable and less violent than the various horrid people up against which he comes.
There are some problems with Black Man/Thirteen as a novel. For one thing it is too long: 647 pages in the bound proof I read (the mass-market paperback runs to 546 pages). It starts with a ‘before the Bond film credits sequence’, in which Marsalis assassinates a rogue thirteen and ends up in a Jesusland jail, that, whilst perfectly efficiently done, doesn’t really grip. Only when its Roy-Batty-a-like villain hijacks a Mars-Earth spaceship (eating the passengers en route) and begins a north-American killing spree, and Marsalis is recruited by the authorities to track him down, does the book really get its hold on a the reader’s throat.
Even then, the denouement is dragged out a little two long, through nearly two hundred pages of twist, counter-twist and final wham-bang. The relentlessly technicolor kiss-kiss bang-bang sometimes loses, or perhaps overloads, our attention. That said, the writing is of a very high calibre. Morgan is as good a stylist as anybody on the Clarke 08 list (Sarah Hall perhaps excepted; although he’s more consistent than her, and knows better how to subordinate style to overall project): the action is efficiently and viscerally described; description is evocative; explication is always to the point and never infodumpy; the dialogue is good (people don’t actually talk that way in, like, real-life; but then again people don’t actually talk that way in Dickens, Proust or Beckett: what I mean is that Morgan’s dialogue is perfectly fitted to its various roles: plot motion, character, flavour and atmosphere).
On the other hand, the fact that Morgan writes as well as he does perhaps disguises how thoroughly cinematic an author he is. He structures his books like a film: a sequence of visual-setups and visual payoffs, paragraph breaks used to punctuate the narrative in a way suggestive of panning and cutting, dialogue written to be spoken: it’s all rapidly kinetic, picturing motion. But this is a mixed blessing: the overall trajectory of the book would work more effectively as a hundred minutes of cinema than it does as several days of reading, something that has to do with the beat and pace of its story. Of course, the danger then is that the story becomes Transporter II instead of the punchily intelligent ideas-driven novel that Morgan has written. Ideas don’t usually play well on the big screen.
It is probably true to say that Morgan’s ideas occupy a different strata of the novel than his action-adventure spectacles. Emotionally, from its Blade Runner opening to its Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ending, the book marks out one path; intellectually it is pulling, creatively but slightly awkwardly, in another. Many of the action-sequences are extremely and viscerally effective (one in particular, where Marsalis is ambushed at night in the middle of South American nowhere by dozens of armed men, and disposes of them all with a shovel is especially well done). But the novel is what we have; and what’s most interesting about the novel is its ideas. These are wrapped in a tooled and polished thriller shell, but live with you after the temporary excitements of that sort of things has faded. Black Man is black gold.
So: who ought to win this year’s Clarke? Brasyl, I’d say.
Oh: you mean who ought to win out of this shortlist? Hmm, hoom, hoom, as Treebeard would say. Morgan might win, and there would certainly be no injustice in that; and Sarah Hall has generated a deal of very interesting discussion and persuasive praise. If it were my call and nobody else’s Baxter would take the prize. (Full disclosure: my high opinion of Baxter and Morgan’s fiction is not, I hope, compromised by the fact that both are friends of mine)
But as to who will actually win … well, who would be so foolish as to pretend to fathom the mystery wrapped inside an enigma that is the Clarke judging panel?