On the 30th April the winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best SF novel published last year will be announced, at a ceremony held in tandem with the London Science Fiction Festival.
This year’s shortlist has attracted some controversy, since, as well as works by established masters like Ken McLeod and Richard Morgan, it includes a number of book which aren’t obviously SF at all. Some in the biz have argued that the judges have passed over some excellent candidates for the shortlist in favour of more ‘literary’ fare. (My own agent, John Jarrold, has argued this pithily, and with his usual authority - he’s read every book on the shortlist, plus every single SF novel that he feels should have been on the shortlist.
I’m not so well read, so I’m attempting to educate myself by reading some of the novels on the shortlist that might otherwise have passed me by. I have Sarah Hall’s The Carullan Army on my shelf; and I’ve just finished reading Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, which I thought was delightful and funny and often very moving.
But is it SF? Hall himself argues, very sweetly, that he’s happy for it to be called SF, because it’s not for him to tell the reader how to read it. That’s a devastatingly good and wise argument.
Being a genre nerd, however, I love to have things more firmly pigeonholed than that. Dammit, Steven, stop being so fair-minded!
And for my money, though I loved it, I don’t think of Hall’s book as an SF novel. Because I didn’t, ultimately, believe a word of it, and I don’t think I was meant to.
And what I mean by saying this is that for me SF is a genre that demands total suspension of disbelief. However silly the story elements may be (dilithium crystals, Barsoom, Stargazer aliens, variant 13s, um, flame beasts, etc) we, the SF readers, like to believe it might all be true. We will forgive occasional science cheats, and plot cheats, and even moments of utter absurdity; we’ll forgive almost anything really, if we’re enjoying the read. But when I journey into outer space, or inner space, I want to believe I’m really going there…
Hall’s novel, however, is much more postmodern than that. It’s a book which requires to believe its story; and also to disbelieve it. It’s overtly metatextual, as some literary theorists might say. And it’s very much in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges – the writer of wonderful metaphysical conceits – and Paul Auster, the postmodern crime novelists who is referenced several times, rather than the tradition of Heinlein and Asimov and Reynolds and Grimwood and Macleod and Hamilton and Macdonald, who all wrote about or write about worlds they believe in.
To explain what I mean, I have to talk about the plot of Hall’s book so
BEWARE!!! PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!
The Raw Shark Texts is about a man called Eric Sanderson who wakes up and doesn’t know who he is. A psychologist explains he is suffering from amnesia, induced by pscyhic trauma after the tragic death of his girlfriend Clio. But then Eric gets a note from his former self (the First Eric Sanderson) explaining that he, Eric Two, is being stalked by an actual monster called a Ludovician Shark, which is a creature that exists in the n-dimensional realm of ideas.
There’s some science to justify this – on the basis that life is a hardy little bugger and can evolve in the strangest of places. So why can’t it evolve in the realm of ideas???? As Eric 1 explains to his later self:
The animal hunting you is a Ludovican. It is an example of one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect….The Ludovician is a predator, a shark. It feeds on human memories and the instrinsic sense of self.
This is superb; but for me, it’s also knowing, defiantly metaphorical, and not intended to be believed literally. And I like that aspect of the storytelling. The hero travels through a tunnel made of books – well which of us hasn’t, metaphorically? And he is almost killed by a conceptual fish – as his personality is unpicked because of his deep grief at the tragic death of the woman he loved. And again, the postmodern strings are showing, as the novel reveals itself to be ‘really’ about something other than what it seems to be about.
But, by contrast, a similiar but totally science fictional piece would be Eric Brown’s masterful short story The Time-Lapsed Man. I won’t plot-spoil this one, but I would just say that, though the premise is utterly absurd, just as absurd as the notion of the Ludovician shark, the writer made me believe it was true for the duration of my reading. And of course, because I believe the story is true, I care.
Having said all this, I have to quickly add that if anyone wants to argue that Hall’s book genuinely is science fiction, I’d be happy to give that view credence, and shelf-room, and indeed to argue the point over a pint or two, since that’s always a good way of enlivening a pint or two. It’s not for me to be the Ferryman on the River Charon, deciding who and who shouldn’t get across.
But my only anxiety is that any lover of SF who reads this book expecting to have a science fictional experience might be disappointed. It doesn’t, in my view, deliver as SF; but it does deliver as what it is, a tour de force piece of lunatic idea-spinning which is full of gags and has some of the most tender love scenes I’ve read in a long time.
I guess the judges’ aim is to challenge our preconceptions about what is and isn’t modern SF. I argued in another blog that Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods isn’t, in fact, an SF novel, though some claim it is. (On this score, I’m as one with Winterson, who witheringly refuses the SF label.)
But my point really is to passionately stress and affirm the common purpose of pretty much all the SF that I’ve ever enjoyed – namely, an underlying respect for rationality and of the ideas and sense of wonder which underly the scientific enterprise.
I may be wrong, however, in my opinions on this book. I may in fact be destined to become the next victim of a conceptual shark that swallows up all my ideas and memories and leaves me gibbering, and indeed, in much the state I was in on the morning after the last Eastercon.
But I would strongly recommend The Raw Shark Texts to anyone who wants a rollercoaster ride through the realm of ideas. (And I hope my plot spoilers don’t give away too much – it’s no more than is explained on the back cover.)
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