It's the night of the Arthur C Clarke Awards, and those of us with an interest in such things now face the Ultimate Decision: what to wear?
My tweedy-jacket-and-bowtie look is very dapper but has been colonised by the eleventh Dr Who. Still good look for me, by and large, all avuncular, donnish umbers and earth-toned checks, but I don't wish to be mistaken as a cosplayer at an event like this. Not that anyone could possibly mistake my distinguished (shall we say) phiz for the young and handsome Mr Smith; that would make it worse, in many ways - not just a cosplayer, but a remarkably rubbish one.
New suit? Well, new suit also equals cheap suit. Not bad, but after a drink or two the posture slumps and the Designers At Debenhams structure doesn't have the wherewithal to provide back up.
So, good suit then, even though I appear to have had a very well-catered Christmas between when I bought it and today.
Next - shirt and tie. I mean the next thing to consider, not that I bought my shirt and tie at Next! Just what do you think I am?
The good suit's a little too structured to rock the bow tie look, and I'd ironed a couple of good shirts in preparation. I lost my nerve over the John Francombe liquorice all sort strips, and the Duffer of St George is good for job interviews but a bit business bland. Despite the cuffs beginning to show its age, I opted for my black and white Reiss shirt and black silk tie.
Combined with my silver converse, the whole ensemble has a pleasing unity of colour (grays, blacks, silver with a hint of blue) and if I keep my shoulders back and button done up, no one will even notice the alpha male belly poking out over the waist band.
Ah, well, I suppose I should say something about the books, too.
Let's start out in the territory of the unknown - I haven't read Gallileo's Dream. Only available in hardback and what with all those bills to pay... So, that one might win, might be the best of all but I can't comment.
Moving up, we come to Retribution Falls, which would not be my pick and will not, I think, be the pick of the committee. It's a fine adventure story, but I felt it was pretty thin, thematically, and I wasn't as swept away with it as I might have hoped. The bar to meet here, to my mind, is Jack Vance stuff like Big Planet and The Demon Princes, and this felt half-hearted in comparison, with a rather linear plot and no real gut punches, IMO.
Next, Yellow Blue Tibia, which is delightfully wry and has a lot of well-turned farce, but once again I felt the thematic material was a bit unsatisfying. It seemed to exist independent of the comic elements and the finale felt shoe-horned in. Aside from Konstantin, none of the other characters was especially believable or sympathetic (although the Asperger's guy was excellent comic material). I also had my doubts about the setting - particularly the way that some of the gags could only possibly work in English, that were articulated nicely in this blog post from Rules for Anchorites. I wouldn't choose this one, but my reservations appear to put me at odds with the critical consensus, so the committee may go for it, who knows? It seems kind of unlikely to me, though.
That's half the list disposed of. Next up, Spirit. I read this one about this time last year, and hadn't started blogging back then, but I discuss it in passing in my post of the year from January. This kind of big space opera isn't really my bag, and I struggled somewhat with the political machinations of the setting. With benefit of many months hindsight, however, the middle section where Bibi is imprisoned still haunts me. The scene where the little baby alien thing dies was like a kick in the guts to me (reminded me a little of the death of Grofinet in Vance's Lyonesse in that regard) and I'm thus inclined to feel that there was definitely some very strong writing here. I wouldn't pick this one, but there's big dollop of prejudice in that opinion. I suspect, though, that I'm not the only one that scratched their head of the setting, and the climax did not quite pay off, so Im don't think it's going to be Spirit.
We come now to the final two books, and this is where I really think the competition is. I have been confidently predicting a win for The City & The City, which I enjoyed a great deal both as a reader and in a more detached critical way. I vacilate on whether the split is a psychological or a supernatural effect, and have recently decided that Miéville leaves it deliberately - and deliciously - ambiguous, a move I admire and applaud. It's let down by the flaccid thriller plot, but the central metaphor is so compelling and beautifully achieved that all other considerations seem like grousing. This one seemed like a shoe in.
However, I am now a third of the the way through Far North and my socks have been knocked entirely off (black, NB, to co-ordinate with the rest of the outfit). Here is a novel firing on all cylinders. The effortless prose is laded with nuggets of insight that shoot from the setting like sparks. The central voice is steady and consistent, believable, likable and wise. Already we've had heartbreak and breath-taking danger. Already we've been moved and unsettled. I'm a long way from the end, so it's a bit early to say whether it will all come together, but right now, I'm just loving this book!
So, I think it's a toss up between those two. If it was me I'd go for Far North, assuming it continues as it's begun. I feel that Méiville is a very fine writer in the SF/F context, but I'm less convinced by his chops in the wider literary scene. Theroux, on the evidence so far, seems like the real thing - intelligent, careful, wise, spurning gimmicks while unafraid of the new. It could be that the sublimity of Méiville's broken city will win through, but it could equally be Far North.