Apr. 28th, 2013

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I left this book until last because commenting is dead awkward: I read the rough draft for this as I have for Ken's books for a decade now, and I had more to do with it than I have with some of the others. Many of the arguments in the book about the oppressive potential of protectionist liberal feminism were grounded in ferocious discussions we've had over the years.

Having re read it this morning, I still think it's the best book Ken has written since Learning the World

Hope lives in a very near future Islington, where ante-natal care has become a reason to deprive women of a lot of freedom. Next on the list is a pill which protects children from lots of mild illnesses. There is a religious exemption but Hope doesn't qualify and has no intention of faking it. It doesn't help that her objections are nebulous and much more focussed on the issue of coercion than the pill itself. But when Hope resists in the face of increasing pressure, she finds she's become an "easy case to make an example of" and that she is now the focus of social workers, police, and professional resisters. It's a classic story of "little man encounters authority" and discovers the world does't work the way he thought it did. Except it's a woman. Of which more in a moment.

The book is set in one of the few future visions of Britain that I can recognise from where we are now: it's thoroughly multicultural, in a Haggis Pakora way*, in that this is no blended utopia, there is plenty of racism, institutional racism is rife and white folk can easily remain cheerfully oblivious of the experiences of their non-white friends.

The book passes the Bechdel test effortlessly: women have conversations with each other and they aren't about men or shoe shopping; it passes whatever the race version of this one is, in that non white people have conversations with each other about science and politics rather than about white people or about racism (tho there are a few of those).

It pays enormous attention to landscape, both physical and social, and it has a sly humour that keeps catching me off guard.

It has a few of Ken's trademark twitches, and a classic "huh?" kind of ending, but as he manages not to send cities into space, it's quite moderate by Ken's standards.

I like it a very great deal, in case that isn't clear.

*see Iain Banks, Whit
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This is not a guess who is going to win, because it's the Clarke Award. The only time I ever managed to guess in advance I was a judge.

But my opinion and preference, for what's worth:

Read more... )
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This is probably the most mentioned title from the submissions from women to the Clarke Award.

It's a lot of fun and had it been short listed it would have been a worthy nominee that would have led to even more discussion. It's set somewhere in Arabia*, and tells the story of a young hacker who accidentally develops a programme that can identify any user from the content, pattern and signature of their work; stories of djinn rescuing young men, subverting authority and making females pregnant come in to the book as well; and finally it's a fairy tale in which the boy rescues the princess but marries the girl next door. Along the way we get a quote from The Return of the Jedi and a cameo appearance from Aladdin's genie.

The problem is that it really does lurch from sf to fantasy and back: one minute we are developing computer code, the next we are in a moving alley way with lots of markets and shops (Diagon Alley anyone?) inhabited by Djinn. The sf sections feel very Jon Courtenay Grimwood (that's a good thing), the fantasy sections feel rather Holly Black (also a good thing). All of this is supposed to be connected by a very important and very old book that can be connected by some sort of coding exercise, but it never quite hangs together. The book is quite consciously an attempt to link two traditions (and both Eastern and Western characters indulge in crass generalisations about each other in an attempt to do this by both being wrong) and yet....

The book on the short list that Alif the Unseen is most like, is Harkaway's Angelmaker: both try to merge magic with science, but, although as a reader I actively prefer Alif, it is Harkaway who does a better job of subverting this particular genre borderland.

*With quite a lot of the orientalism that this implies, even while it tries to go beyond that.


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