I read Christopher Priest’s now infamous essay on the Clarke Award shortlist, though like many commentators I have not read any of the books on the list. Priest’s work is also unknown to me; I’ve seen the movie of The Prestige, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen his work in a Canadian bookshop. So I feel more or less qualified to throw in my two cents.
First, Priest’s piece itself. Others have noted that Christopher Priest is a prose stylist, and his priorities in criticism reflect that. This is pretty clear from a casual look through his site. There’s not a bumpy sentence to be found in any of his published articles or blog posts, and he gives more attention to pretty language in his one-off piece on independent movie theatres than many authors do in their main work.
He devotes six paragraphs to China Mieville and Embassytown. I can’t speak to this work in particular, but I have read novels by Mieville, and it seems to me that Priest’s criticisms are astute. Mieville’s books are marked by an odd linguistic whiplash between his eloquent descriptions and his characters’…less-than-eloquent speech, and I don’t think it’s entirely intentional.
He does seem pretty much uninterested in his characters: Billy Harrow of Kraken is a cipher, and while Isaac from Perdido Street Station at least has a personality, Mieville is careful not to let it get in the way of the rest of the book. In fact, as has been noted by many others, the main plot is often the least interesting thing about Mieville’s novels.
Whether or not Mieville is “under-achieving” in Embassytown, it’s always suspicious when the same person is nominated year after year for an award, especially after multiple wins. It’s unlikely that between 2001 and 2011, Mieville wrote one of the top six books of the year four times, and vanishingly unlikely that three of those times, he was number one. Compare this with Meryl Streep’s frankly shameful Oscar win this year, her seventeenth acting nomination and third win. Does anyone honestly think her role in The Iron Lady was worth even a nomination, let alone a win?
Streep is nominated for just about every role she has, whether it’s worthy of an award or not. The result for the Oscars is that a Streep nomination no longer means anything. The result for Streep is the kind of artistic complacency that leads one to star in movies like The Iron Lady. By putting Mieville on the Clarke shortlist five times since 2001, the Clarke people are turning him into science fiction’s Meryl Streep.
Again, I haven’t read Embassytown, so I honestly don’t know if it deserves to be on the shortlist. But there’s always more to an award than the merits of the individual work in question. Read the rest of this entry »