Category Archives: awards

Afterwards: thinking about the Sharke

It always happens to me: just when I think I’m done with science fiction, I find myself falling in love with it all over again.

This recurrence of enthusiasm is often the by-product of annoyance at the continuing snobbism shown by the literary world towards SF – that radio interview of Zachary Mason’s was a classic case in point – but there’s more to it than that. I look at the deluge of ‘astonishing’ literary debuts and I feel fatigued. Fatigued by so much competent averageness. I find myself thinking that no matter how short of its own ambitions SF falls sometimes, at least it’s trying to do something.

On one of my Fantasticon panels in Copenhagen I found myself talking once more about ‘the conversation’ and how important it was to me when I first became involved with the SF community. Even as I was speaking I realised how much this is still the case. I’m damned if I’ll concede the field, even when the field and I seem to be going about our business from opposite standpoints. At its core, science fiction is a political literature, a literature that engages with the world in a way that seems not just apposite but necessary, especially now. How many more luminous coming of age novels does the world really need?

I returned from Copenhagen to find three insightful, reflective, hopeful posts from fellow Sharkes Megan AM, Jonathan McCalmont and Paul Kincaid, looking back on our project as it unfolded and expressing some possible new directions for its future. It was great to read their thoughts, and the comments on them, not least because they gave me a sense of how much we accomplished in generating conversation, not only around the Clarke Award but around SF in general, which of course was the reason we decided to convene the shadow jury in the first place.

I do my best not to be irritable as a person, but I know I can be irritable intellectually. I get cross easily. I have snap reactions. I demand things to be better without examining my own assumptions and prejudices in sufficient depth. Megan insists that the Sharke did not fatigue her, that she was SFatigued even before we started. If anything, I was the opposite: I went into the Sharke determined that we could change things, that we could identify what was ‘wrong’ with the direction the Clarke seemed to be taking and suggest an alternative. I ended up feeling demoralised, mainly I suspect because of the sheer volume of words and self-motivation necessary to guide the project through to its conclusion, which is fair enough. At the same time though I felt profoundly irritated by much of what I’d read, irritated by a science fiction that seemed on the point of running aground in shallow waters and with no hope of refloating itself. I was, in a very real sense, exhausted.

It is surprising what a couple of weeks’ rest and a temporary change of scene can do to get the heart and mind and brain back into gear. In Copenhagen, I found myself wondering if I’d been playing devil’s advocate against myself, waving a flag for something I didn’t actually believe in, much less want. A science fiction that reads like Jonathan Franzen? Regardless of whether such an outcome might be possible, is it even desirable? I cannot count the number of times I have found myself feeling disappointed – irritated – with mainstream literary works that employ science fictional conceits as an exotic backdrop for more conventional concerns. Such a use hints at closure, at circumscribing an idea, at presenting it in terms that will further enhance an already established concept. Such a use would seem to be the opposite of science fiction.

And yet it would be equally disingenuous to suggest that ‘real’ science fiction is the sole prerogative of works published as genre, and by genre imprints. A derivative genre work – a work that lazily recycles old tropes, a work that uses the trappings of science fiction to perpetuate a retrograde worldview – is as unsatisfying in science fictional terms as a bland mainstream offering such as Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles or Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. On the other hand, we see so-called literary works by writers such as Michel Faber, Nicola Barker, Joanna Kavenna and Dexter Palmer coming at science fiction head on and with a sense of excitement. Works such as these, replete with living ideas, should be considered equally as SF and without the ‘literary’ tag clipped on as some sort of disclaimer. If I have come to any conclusions during the time since we hung up our Sharke fins, it is that the ‘literary SF’ label should be dispensed with entirely. It is divisive, ultimately meaningless and unfit for purpose. It seems to me that what distinguishes science fiction from other modes of literature is its vitality, the sense it gives of being in the presence of an idea that is still evolving. If such vitality is present, then whether a work is published by Voyager or by Vintage is of little account. That years of discussion and controversy have been predicated on industry window dressing seems ludicrous and destructive, just a backhand way of perpetrating stereotypes on both sides of the publishing divide. Such arbitrary distinctions hamper the conversation and I intend to avoid them entirely from now on.

The Sharke has changed me in multiple ways, most obviously as a critic and as a reader. Looking back on the self that first conceived the project, I now believe I had become as entrenched within a certain comfort zone as any hardcore space opera fan, accustomed to looking in the same places for what I deemed noteworthy, places that accorded comfortably with my expectations, which in their turn had mostly to do with style. How much more interesting to strip away one’s assumptions and see what happens. To come at things from a different angle. To stop feeling the need to fight a particular corner in terms of what is good and what is best. Personally, I’m still not a fan of The Underground Railroad. To my mind, it is possibly the most ‘commercial’ novel on the Clarke Award shortlist and its bland surface texture renders it ultimately forgettable to me as a reading experience. I find some of the sentence structure, not to mention the use of science fiction in Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me to be far more interesting. I have found the abstruse weirdness and raw vitality of Ninefox Gambit hanging around in my mind far longer than, for example, the sensitively rendered but ultimately predictable dystopian role-playing of Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came. Viewed from this new perspective, the landscape of science fiction looks much more exciting to me than it did even before the Sharke was launched.

Part of the problem I have found not just in reviewing science fiction but in thinking about it too is the pressure to come to a conclusion, to pick a side. The journalistic format one so easily falls into for so much reviewing favours tidy summaries and directed arguments, the need to dismiss or approve a work, style, or line of reasoning quickly and concisely and then move on. To paraphrase W. H. Davies, there seems to be less and less time for literary critics to stop and stare, to present their thoughts as a series of questions rather than striving towards an answer that is ultimately trite. This is a matter I would like to address in future by steering myself towards a different kind of criticism, a criticism that is thoughtfully expansive rather than reductive.

I would also like to address the issue of diversity. I think the best thing I can do here is to refer you back to Gareth Beniston’s Clarke Thoughts post, in which he raises the question of continuing systemic bias within publishing and its inevitable knock-on effect on literary awards, including the Clarke. Gareth’s guest essay was one of the Sharke’s most commented-upon posts – a positive development indeed in that it shows how people are finally becoming engaged with this discussion, negative in that no constructive conclusions were reached, in spite of a general agreement that ‘something must be done’.

Our current situation is a disaster. Only last week another article was published, reporting the findings of a recent survey: that the British publishing industry remains 90% white. It is imperative that this state of affairs is made to change, not just on account of those talented individuals whose pathway into the creative industries is effectively being blocked, but especially because of what it says about where we are as a society. British cultural institutions are atrophying under the weight of reaction. British political culture is more toxic than it was in the days of Enoch Powell. We have somehow created a climate where thousands of people think Jacob Rees Mogg would be a reasonable choice to be our next prime minister, for fuck’s sake. We are a dead country walking. This is urgent, and it is urgent now. After a considerable amount of post-Sharke soul searching, I have come to the conclusion that positive action is more important than obeisance to a brand of objectivity that is specious in any case. At the very least, the Clarke Award should begin admitting entry to works not published in the UK. The current rules have meant that some of the most interesting and important SF by minority and marginalised writers has been ineligible for the Clarke because it happens to have been published in the USA. An award for best science fiction novel that does not take account of the work published by Aqueduct Press, just for example, is setting itself up to be parochial and restrictive. Most works by established writers are published simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic in any case – with the result that the only works being blocked are precisely those works that we need to see more of.

We also urgently need our Clarke jurors to be drawn from a larger, more diverse pool. And as for Niall Harrison’s suggestion in the comments on Gareth’s piece that we conduct a one-year experiment in which only novels by black and ethnic minority writers would be eligible? Why on Earth not? Such an experiment would, as Niall suggests, be bound to draw attention to publishing disparities. It would also give rise to one hell of an interesting discussion. We desperately need change. At some point, someone needs to take the lead in promoting change. What better institution than the Clarke?

Much of what I’m saying here is simply a longer reflection on that Mackenzie Wark essay I mentioned in an earlier post, a more sustained amen. I am so horrified by the current political impasse that I cannot, at the present moment, see how the bourgeois novel, as Wark described it, can be anything other than an obsolescence, an inappropriate reassurance, if not a defence than a passive reflection of the status quo.

I think I can also safely say that I’m coming out of my Sharke-fatigue. I find myself feeling compelled to read science fiction again. For better or worse, it seems I’m stuck with it. I’m going in.

Free Willy!

Delighted to announce that my weird cosmic London story, Maggots, has been nominated in the novella category of this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards. This is hugely exciting for me, firstly because I’m very fond of this story (published as part of the Solaris haunted house anthology Five Stories High) and secondly because, as always, the Shirley Jackson shortlists form a veritable showcase of what is new, interesting and excellent in dark and weird fiction. I am especially pleased to see stories by Irenosen Okojie and Camilla Grudova nominated, and the novel shortlist – including works by Emma Cline, Eleanor Wasserberg and Iain Reid – is particularly strong and imaginative this year. Well done, judges!

You can see the full line-up of nominees here – do yourself a favour and order something from it this weekend.

Well, that was weird…

It is with some pride and considerably greater astonishment that I can now confirm that my story ‘The Art of Space Travel‘ has been nominated for a Hugo. (Nope, still doesn’t sound real.) This is something I never expected to happen for a work of mine in a million years, so seriously, a huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone who voted for the story, and thereby contributed to giving me one of my most surreal email inbox moments to date.

‘The Art of Space Travel’ was inspired, believe it or not, by one of the Heathrow Eastercons. Over the course of the weekend and walking to and fro between the con hotel and the pub and restaurant in the nearby village of Sipson, it struck me again and again how peculiar it was, this juxtaposition of a centuries-old community with the artificial and constantly fluctuating landscape of the airport, its buildings and the dividing perimeter road. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to write a story set amidst the contradictions and unique challenges of that landscape, and, a year or so later, ‘The Art of Space Travel’ was the result. With the destruction of Sipson to make way for a third airport runway a real possibility, the story feels still more urgent and closer to home.

Emily, Benny and Moolie remain favourite characters of mine, and the knowledge that others have felt touched by them too – enough to nominate their story for a Hugo Award – is the most massive compliment.

Thanks also of course to Ellen Datlow for buying and editing the story, to tor.com for publishing it, and to Linda Yan for her gorgeous cover art.

You can check out the full list of Hugo nominees at tor.com here.

Simple twist of fate

I’ve always credited T. S. Eliot with opening my eyes to the possibilities of pure language, but really it was Bob Dylan.

I’ve always been obsessed by song lyrics, in that they have always mattered to me, as much as the music itself. Many a superb melody has been ruined for me – for good – on my becoming aware of the banal or derivative nature of the words that have been set to it. Whereas few things are as spontaneously thrilling as a poem of powerful originality and linguistic invention that happens to have musical notes of equal intelligence and loveliness attached.

When I first read T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at age 14, it felt and sounded like music to me, and that was how I understood it, that was how I began to learn that words could exist outside of their literal meaning. Being driven from one place to another in the back of my father’s car – we did a lot of driving as a family – and hearing Bob Dylan (though I didn’t know who he was at the time, not at the beginning) on home-recorded cassette tapes had a similar effect. Though I wasn’t able to analyse it like that, I just knew his words obsessed me. Frightened me even – some of the stuff he was singing about seemed pretty dark. When I didn’t perfectly understand what he was singing about – which was most of the time back then – I made up my own interior movies to run alongside the lyrics.

I made sense of his stories by creating stories of my own.

Bob Dylan is a poet and he defines our century. I remember back when I was an undergraduate, there was a big debate raging in academe about whether the lyrics of Bob Dylan should have a place on the ‘A’ Level English syllabus. I remember feeling doubtful – could Dylan stand with Eliot, with Pound, with Plath? Should he be allowed to? How foolish was I.

Dylan is our conscience, our fire, our life-changing road trip. No one puts words together and breaks them apart quite like he does, and most likely never will again. He understands the raw stuff of words as well as he understands what words can say. Dylan also has the distinction of being the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who has most likely touched more people, in more countries of the world, than any other recipient of that honour to date.

Good call.

The Clarke Award, the Spiders, and The Thing Itself

dingansich.robertsOf all the novels on this year’s Clarke submissions list, one of the most thought-provoking, intellectually ambitious and brilliantly executed must surely be Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself. I hadn’t read this the last time I posted here about the Clarke Award, but I did shortly afterwards, and it seemed to me that here was everything British SF excels at. In its disgruntled, vaguely loser-ish protagonist seeking answers to dangerous questions, I couldn’t help but be reminded in a roundabout way of Rudi, the reluctant hero of Dave Hutchinson’s Clarke-shortlisted Europe In Autumn from the year before. A similarly distinctive, dare I say British irony was present, too, a shit-what-now?? tone of voice that works as the British answer to the slacker narrative, only with added fuck-you. Like Europe in Autumn, The Thing Itself is a very funny book, equally because of and in spite of its serious subject matter – once again, an approach that British writers seem to excel at.

And yet Roberts goes further. Here is a novel that starts out riffing heavily off John Carpenter’s landmark movie The Thing but with a Red Dwarf vibe (there is a hilarious sequence concerning the bartering of a letter that is worth the cover price in and of itself, and recalls the dysfunctional relationship between Lister and Rimmer to the life) that morphs into a sinister techno-thriller and ends up as a scholarly meditation on life, the universe and everything. The thing itself, in fact. Interspersed with this twistiest of ongoing narratives, we have historical vignettes showcasing descriptive writing of a power and beauty Roberts only rarely allows himself to indulge in but clearly excels at. These stories within stories are rich in detail, evocative of time and period, and without exception deeply moving. That they turn out to be anything but tangential to the central storyline is just one of the joys awaiting the reader who lets this extraordinary book into their life. I’m not going to do the boring thing here, i.e fold my arms huffily and mutter questions to the house about why the hell was this novel not at the very least shortlisted for this year’s Clarke Award, because that would seem like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. But its omission does beggar the imagination, nonetheless.

Shortly after this year’s shortlist was announced, Roberts made a comment on one of Martin Petto’s interesting and highly relevant series of blog posts on the subject of the Clarke Award, in which he put forward a personal vision of what, in fact, the Clarke should be ‘for’:

“Namely I do think SF should be doing philosophy, and metaphysics…and indeed that the genre should be doing other things too: theology, for instance (though that probably is just me); law; economics: by ‘doing’ I mean extrapolating and dramatising and thought-experimenting and playing with… So, for example Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty was a book about ‘doing’ economics as SF which was really interesting, and promising, and thought-provoking. But nobody seems to be following it up.

People say that awards should be jumping off points for genre ‘conversation’, and so they should. But that conversation needs to be about more than just ‘meat-and-potatoes SF versus literary SF’, and it should definitely be about more than prize committee procedure. If, that is, and as people are saying in this thread, we want the genre to remain vital.”

That The Thing Itself more than amply fulfils its author’s own vision for science fiction goes without saying – to paraphrase, Roberts takes one of the most famous dictums in Western philosophy and makes a speculative novel out of it, a novel that gives us adventure and relatable characters, even a frisson of terror, AND writing that could stand beside anything submitted for this year’s Booker, AND a philosophical underpinning genetically merged, Brundlefly-like, with an original and ingenious science fictional conceit. Which makes it all the more concerning to read what Roberts has to say about his own perceived lack of recognition in a piece at his blog, posted the day after the announcement of this year’s Clarke Award at a ceremony last Wednesday:

“In the larger sense of ‘SF’ in the round, my failure is a non-event, the very definition of a self-correcting issue—for if what I do mattered to SF then it wouldn’t fail, QED. The genre is currently in a place of rude strength and promise, and whether I personally succeed or fail is a perfect irrelevance to that. The only way in which it might be relevant is as an object lesson for other writers, and especially up-and-coming or would-be writers. A small constituency, but not an unimportant one. And as far as that goes, the moral is presumably: don’t do as I do. I’d boil this down to: don’t write novels that stray too far from the median of SF-Fan interest: don’t be too pretentious or clever-clever, don’t try to be too ostentatiously experimental or oddball. Of course, by the same token, I urge you: don’t be too middle-of-the-road or bland, don’t set out to write sell-out commercial pap. It’s a balance, as in so many things. Try to orient yourself—as I have, frankly, failed to do—in terms of where the genre is, and where it’s going.”

We can only hope that Roberts’s words here are front-loaded with at least a modicum of the irony that must count as one of his defining literary characteristics, because taken as it stands his advice is, to put no finer point on it, cobblers. Indeed I can think of no better advice to the ambitious writer of speculative fiction than to simply take Roberts’s words above and reverse their meaning: do do as Roberts does. Do write novels that stray far (very far) from the median of SF-fan interest: do dare to be pretentious and clever, do please for God’s sake try to be ostentatiously experimental or oddball. One of the joys of being involved in science fiction is ‘the conversation’, that thing that happens between writers, critics and fans when they discuss how science fiction’s past impacts (or not) on its future, how a new work may be a direct commentary on an older work, what the SF project ‘means’. A lot of the stuff that has a lasting impact though? Stuff that makes a kerfuffle. Writers who are perfectly aware of what’s gone before but who choose actively to give it the finger. It’s called evolutionary mutation, and it’s what keeps all art forms – not just science fiction – alive and relevant.

What Roberts goes on to say about the need for writers to promote themselves by showing up at cons and ‘pressing the flesh’, as he puts it, is also misguided. By all means, go to conventions if you enjoy them, they can be a lot of fun and there’s no doubt that they can be a useful way of making contacts. But we should never forget that for some writers, conventions are the very devil: exhausting, ephemeral, and most of all a distraction from the thing that matters most in being a writer, that is, an intense and sustained focus on one’s own work. In the end, it doesn’t actually matter two hoots what anyone else is doing. The thing itself is to articulate one’s own ambition, one’s own literary aims and subjective concerns – through writing. If the writing is the best you can make it, the rest will follow. That the timescale of success is often unfairly protracted is a pain in the arse, and occasionally dispiriting, but ultimately – insofar as literature is concerned – irrelevant.

None of this is to brush Roberts’s sense of disappointment aside. It is a matter of mystery and consternation to me that Roberts’s last three novels in particular, which are so clearly at the vanguard of the British SF project, have not been recognised by Clarke juries, especially when a more than comfortable number of those books that have been recognised in their stead have been so derivative. That Adam has not been invited as Guest of Honour to any of our conventions is not just a mystery, it is a ludicrous oversight and should be a matter of acute embarrassment for the entire SF community. One can only hope that this situation will be set to rights at the earliest opportunity.

Is science fiction, as Roberts contends, in a state of rude health? I would say yes. Never has science fiction been so pervasive, so present in popular culture and across all media. In the past decade especially we have seen science fiction exert a zeitgeist-defining impact on all branches and sects of literature, bringing to the forefront of public consciousness ideas, concepts, fears, hopes and concerns – not to mention forms of expression both digital and analogue – that were previously barely admissible as subject matter for serious fiction. Whether our science fiction awards adequately reflect that rude health is more open to question. Of course, we should never forget the sheer arbitrariness of awards, and I’m not just talking about fan awards. When it comes down to it, what is a juried award but five people in a room, arguing the case for their favourite books according to their own personal taste. Those people are not infallible, they’re not gods, and should therefore not themselves be judged too harshly for the decisions they happen to make in any given year.

What we all can affect though is the climate around an award. It seems to me that the climate around the Clarke has begun to shift, not towards ‘bad books’ but towards a centrist, conservative (not in the political sense but in the literary sense), broadly commercial view of science fiction: familiar tropes, satisfactory plots, median, unfrightening writing. Works that would not have looked out of place on a shortlist from twenty years ago, in other words. Much of the most interesting and progressive work is being ignored.

Is this shift towards the bland, towards the unprovoking at least partly down to the increasingly close, not to say incestuous association between reviewers and publishers, writers and fans, science fiction literature and its media counterparts? If I were to say yes, that would be an assertion made out of gut feeling rather than as the result of any concrete, gathered evidence. What I do know though is that a climate in which the directorship of a literary award does not seem to understand the value of literary criticism and intellectually engaged discussion around that award – to find it threatening, even – a climate in which certain online factions seriously put forward the argument that rigorous examination of a text might be seen as ‘unconstructive’ or even bullying is at best laughable, at worst severely damaging for our critical hinterland. Does this climate of wholesale, unexamined approbation eventually boil down to bland shortlists? I couldn’t possibly comment, but it does seem to me that any jury whose main criterion for selection would appear to be ‘did I enjoy reading this book?’ is unlikely to give us a shortlist to shake the firmament.

For a more succinct appraisal of the overall tenor of this year’s award, I children.of.timemight point you towards From Couch to Moon’s excellent and insightful Clarke summary post, Surface, Contrivance, & Salience, in which she suggests that ‘perhaps most indicative of the mood surrounding the 2016 Clarke Award shortlist is that most of the discussion is about the Clarke Award itself, rather than the mostly baffling list of novels the jury selected this year’. One of the most heart-warming sights you can hope to see in SFF is that of a genuine and warm-hearted writer in full-on gobsmacked mode as they step forward to receive an award they clearly did not expect to win. I have not read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, but the commentary around it suggests that it is flawed but interesting, an exploration of some fascinating ideas within a context that, while largely familiar in terms of its science fiction, is distinct unto itself and seriously intended. There is nothing remotely to disqualify a book like Children of Time from winning the Clarke Award – indeed, there will be many who will argue that Tchaikovsky’s novel is the most overtly ‘Clarkeian’ winner in some years. Great – and I say that entirely without irony. But I would be even happier for Adrian if his novel had been forced to argue its position, its interpretation of the SF project against some more aggressively dissimilar standpoints, if it had arisen from a shortlist offering more robust competition.

If it had been up against The Thing Itself, for example, or Matthew de Abaitua’s equally achieved If Then, Anne Charnock’s needle-fine and determinedly questing Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind.  You will notice that all three of the novels I’ve cited here are what would be broadly defined as being ‘of SF’, i.e they are written unironically as science fiction novels, not as metaphorical ‘pirating’ of science fictional concepts to illustrate mainstream literary ends. Earlier in the season, Paul McAuley posted an interesting essay at his blog in which he explored the meaning and merit of these opposing constructs, but his veering towards a bipartite ‘literary versus genre’ model runs the risk of driving the argument into a cul-de-sac. As Adam Roberts insists above, the conversation needs to be about more than meat-and-potatoes SF versus literary SF. We already know that beautiful prose is not the sole prerogative of so-called ‘literary’ writers – writers such as Sofia Samatar, Lucius Shepard, Chip Delany, Michael Swanwick, Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller all sit firmly within the genre and have given us some of the most poetically stylish prose around. We already know that beautiful prose is not the point – because articulacy, originality, seriousness and literary daring can be clothed in whatever kind of language the writer wants to use. And because beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. To insist, as McAuley seems to, that ‘great works of science fiction, works worthy of the Clarke Award, shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as literary fiction’ equally begs the question: by which standards then should they be judged? I’m intrigued by McAuley’s definition of science fiction as a literature that, ‘rather than exploring reality…is interested in exploring the limits of reality. Rather than analysing and universalising individual human experience, it’s interested in analysing the reality of the universe and measuring it against human values. It’s about change and difference, and the consequences of change and difference’. As a starting point for discussion, this analysis is valid and useful. But when it comes to arriving at a consensus as to how well a particular text has fulfilled its brief not simply as science fiction but as a novel, then surely we must judge it by the same standards as we might judge, say, Eleanor Catton’s Booker-prizewinning novel The Luminaries. We would be letting it off the hook otherwise, making allowances. I would argue that the greatest science fiction needs no allowances made.

As noted above, there seems little point in rehashing what might have been, but surely we must seriously ask ourselves where to now? What can be done to drive the Clarke Award in a more challenging and innovative direction? One could argue nothing – when all is said and done, it’s just five people in a room picking their favourite books. One could equally argue that it’s not just up to the judges, it’s up to everyone who cares about science fiction and the science fiction conversation to ensure that the climate around the award is not just roundly, blandly enthusiastic but also knowledgeable, questioning, engaged, and yes, argumentative and occasionally contentious, a climate in which debate is not just grudgingly tolerated but warmly encouraged and even (gasp) promoted.

Would it help if the jury had a more precise remit, something along the lines of the Kitschies’ ‘most entertaining, progressive and intelligent’ as opposed to the diffuse and catch-all ‘best’ that currently heads the Clarke’s submissions guidelines? It’s an idea.

Would it be useful if jury members could – again, like the Kitschies judges – be selected from across a wider demographic instead of just the BSFA, SciFi London and SF Foundation memberships, many of whose most experienced critics have already served their maximum two terms? It’s an idea.

Would it perhaps also be an idea to have a division of labour between the person responsible for the commercial directorship of the award – I don’t think anyone would deny that the current incumbent, Tom Hunter, has been highly motivated and successful in this role – and an appointed ‘artistic director’, a science fiction ambassador who could be responsible for blogging the award, commissioning articles, collating reviews and commentary, liaising with convention committees to promote discussion around the award in general and the shortlisted books in particular? Again, it’s something worth thinking about.

2016 has been hailed as the year that the Clarke Award committed itself to opening up the award to self-published writers. This has been couched in such a way as to make it appear as a radical and dynamic step towards making the Clarke Award more diverse and inclusive. To my mind, it’s a bit of a sideshow, a move that at best achieves precisely nothing, and at worst bulks up an already hefty submissions list with substandard work. It is interesting to note that the two works put forward as justification for this new policy, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Jeff Noon’s Channel Skin, both provide deft examples of precisely these two scenarios. The Chambers book was picked up by a commercial imprint (Hodder) less than twelve months after its original appearance as a self-published work, thus making it eligible within the normal remit the following year anyway (when, as we all know, it made its way directly to the shortlist). The Noon book, whilst demonstrating a wealth of original ideas and imagery, did not read like a fully worked out novel – more like notes for a novel – and one can easily understand how, even with Noon’s name attached, it would have struggled to find a publisher willing to go in to bat for it.  Jeff Noon exudes ideas like perspiration (not the most glamorous of images, but given Noon’s fondness for bio-SF I’m sticking with it) and it’s fantastic to see him back in contract again with Angry Robot – I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see A Man of Shadows in hot contention for the 2018 Clarke. But Channel Skin? Noon is a one-off case anyway. The truer fact remains that any self-published novel worthy of consideration is going to get picked up for wider distribution sooner or later (Chambers, Weir, Howey, Charnock), and whilst the independent press is becoming an ever-more-valuable proving ground for emerging writers, I really cannot see the value in opening the Clarke to self-published works that have been subject to little if any objective scrutiny en route to ‘publication’, where for the vast majority of novels that fall into this category, publication = printing but nothing more.

A move that’s good for grabbing the headlines then, but of little practical value beyond that moment.

The greatest thing about this year’s Clarke Award has been the debate it has engendered, and at this point I would like to express my appreciation of From Couch to Moon, Tomcat in the Red Room, Gareth Beniston, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jonah Sutton-Morse, Paul McAuley and most especially Abigail Nussbaum for their marvellous and inspiring contributions to those discussions. You can find links to all their reviews and summations at the (equally brilliant) Martin Petto’s blog, here. It is writing like this, thinking like this, that will continue to ensure not just the longevity of the award but its literary relevance. Without the people who argue the toss, an award is nothing, just one more cocktail party in the publishing calendar. Let’s keep it coming.

Hardy of the Highlands

his bloody project gmbCrime blog: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Anyone who’s read a Hardy novel will know how his stories pan out: a fundamentally decent human being makes a mistake. This error might be rooted in a secret past, it might be an action forced upon them by adverse circumstance. Whatever it is, it snowballs. Far from being allowed to forget their youthful transgressions, our unfortunate protagonist sees their life sliding further and further beyond their control, resulting finally in a tragic denouement which, for Hardy fans, is all part of the painful pleasure of reading him. We know, almost from the first page, that things will not end well. What draws us on is Hardy’s evident sympathy for his characters, his passionate involvement in the human condition. He’s a good plotter, too – a characteristic of his fiction that isn’t mentioned enough.

And it was Thomas Hardy that kept coming to mind as I read Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker-longlisted novel His Bloody Project. Hardy’s first extant novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, was published in 1872, just a couple of years after the action of Macrae’s novel ostensibly takes place, but it’s not the books’ historical cousinage that draws the comparison so much as the doomed nature of things.

Macrae presents his narrative as a series of documents pertaining to a crime carried out in the Highland settlement of Culduie. The bulk of the text consists of a testament, written from prison by seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae, charged with the murder of Lachlan ‘Broad’ Mackenzie, the town constable, along with two other members of his family. Roddy does not deny his crimes – indeed, he turns himself in almost as soon as the butchery is over – but he has agreed, at his advocate’s suggestion, to put his case in writing: how did he come to commit these murders, and why?

Over the course of some hundred and fifty pages, Roddy Macrae tells the story of how his family fell deeper into debt and near destitution, small misunderstandings leading to grievous misfortune, all presided over by the hulking figure of Lachlan Broad, a man who seems bent on the destruction of the Macrae clan, and all for reasons unknown. What else is Roddy to do to save his father and siblings? What else can he do? As in all of Hardy’s great novels, the outcome seems inevitable, inexorable. But where Hardy chooses to tie up his narratives pretty firmly, securing his loose ends in traditional nineteenth century fashion, Macrae Burnet seats us, as readers, on the bench alongside the jury at Roddy’s trial. Just how accurate, how truthful, is the murderer’s testimony? The end of Roddy’s story is plain to see, yet the impulse that brought him to that end is not so certain.

Nature, or nurture? Choice, or circumstance? Was Roddy mad, or simply bad, and dangerous to know?

His Bloody Project is a tightly worked novel, beautifully crafted and compulsively readable. The language – understated, idiomatic, stark and elegant – is one-hundred percent fit for purpose. As well as the mystery surrounding the murders, the novel also has much to say about the social inequalities and class divides that characterised life in the Highlands at the time, many of them stemming directly from the Highland Clearances. The very real poverty and hardship sustained by ordinary crofters and working people is portrayed in a forthright, unsentimental manner that imparts a wealth of information without ever becoming overtly didactic, revealing great skill on the part of the author in and of itself.

All that being said, I have to admit to not fully understanding the novel’s selection for the Booker longlist. When I compare it with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, for example, shortlisted for the Booker in 1996 and with a narrative roughly equatable with His Bloody Project, I would be forced to conclude that in terms of its depth, breadth and stylistic innovation, Alias Grace far outdoes His Bloody Project in terms of its reach and literary ambition. Whilst Macrae Burnet does provide us with a measure of dramatic irony, contemporary metafictionality and a fascinatingly unreliable narrator, I would ideally have liked to see all these aspects writ larger, deeper. Whilst wishing Macrae Burnet all the luck in the world – it’s fantastic to see a relatively new author published by a Scottish independent press making his mark in this way – I would have liked His Bloody Project to be bolder and more out there in its commitment to postmodernity.

Saying these things makes me feel somewhat churlish, however, because they are somehow beside the point. What gets on any award long- or shortlist is down to the judges, and should not take away from the fact that what Macrae Burnet has produced here is a good novel, sound in wind and limb, a shifting-sands kind of narrative that is never quite what you think it is. For anyone interested in crime writing, in Scottish writing, in a damn fine story, I would recommend His Bloody Project unreservedly.

Edge-Lit 5

I’m a guest at Edge-Lit 5 in Derby this coming weekend. I’m delighted to be attending this mini-convention, and with guests like Alastair Reynolds and M. John Harrison in the line-up, it promises to be a great day all round.

I’ll be taking part in three panels, discussing subjects as diverse as the indie press revolution, the future of science fiction and the writing life. I’ll also be chairing a workshop in which I’m looking forward to having some good conversations about how we write – military campaign or abject chaos. You tell me!

Edge-Lit 5 will be taking place on Saturday from 10 am at Derby Quad. You will find the full line-up of amazing guests and programme items here. Please do come along if you can.

51pauAPtSYL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In another piece of good news, I was thrilled to see Aickman’s Heirs taking the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology over the weekend. It really is a special book, highlighting the continuing influence and importance of Robert Aickman as a writer, whilst simultaneously showcasing new and emerging trends in horror and weird fiction on both sides of the Atlantic. Full kudos to editor Simon Strantzas for dreaming up this project and bringing it to life, and particular congratulations to Lynda Rucker, whose story ‘The Dying Season’ deservedly carried home the individual award for Best Short Story.

Clarke discussions ongoing

“Once upon a time, the space between authors and readers was large enough to support robust critical discussion of the books that publishers were trying to sell. However, since publishing companies were bought out by multinational corporations demanding greater returns on their investments, genre publishers have started putting more pressure on authors and encouraging them to act as their own publicists. Authors have responded to this pressure by using social media to develop a more intimate relationship with their readers meaning that a space once devoted to critical discourse has now become a space devoted to a combination of direct marketing and self-promotion. Any attempt to address these structural changes in genre culture is immediately shut down in the name of inclusivity and any attempt by fans to defend their own spaces is treated as a grotesque imposition on humble professionals merely trying to do their jobs.” 

This from Jonathan McCalmont’s Thought Projections 2, which (scroll towards the bottom of the page) includes a substantial rumination on the current state of the critical hinterland of genre literature. A more robust and well articulated grasp of the situation would be hard to imagine, and I would recommend anyone with even a passing interest in these matters to read McCalmont’s piece in its entirety.

Meanwhile,  critic and former Clarke juror Martin Petto has been gathering his own thoughts in a series of posts on the structure and administration of the award, the composition and reception of its shortlists, and how the Clarke functions as a barometer of British SF publishing. Parts 1 and 2 are already up and well worth your time.

EDIT: Add to the above this wonderful post by Gareth Beniston at Dancing on Glass. Almost gives you hope for the future, doesn’t it..?

The Last Hurrah?

clarke20I first became aware of the Arthur C. Clarke Award at the beginning of the 2000s, when I was starting to take a professional interest in what we like to call the field. Prior to that, I was vaguely aware that there was such a thing as the Clarke Award – I knew Margaret Atwood had won it, for example – but not of how it related to other awards and to critical discourse. I remember the announcement of the winner – Perdido Street Station – in 2001, largely because of the gathering interest around a certain up-and-coming young writer named China Mieville, but the first year I can recall taking an active interest in the award at the shortlist stage was 2003. Two of the novels on that shortlist – Christopher Priest’s The Separation (Chris and I didn’t meet in person until 2004 but I’d been an admirer of his writing for years) and M. John Harrison’s Light – were key works for me, novels from what I might loosely have termed ‘my’ science fiction. I was interested to see how the battle between them would play out. Also on that shortlist was The Scar, which I still consider to be Mieville’s finest novel to date. These were big hitters, big books. The Clarke was clearly an award to take note of and I was officially hooked.

One of the central reasons the Clarke became so interesting to me is that it is a juried award. Nothing involving human beings can ever be entirely objective, but the presence of a jury – a panel of persons selected for their ability to be impartial and for their knowledge of the field – does at least suggest a level of discipline, critical acumen and meaningful debate that should but rarely does pertain to fan awards. At the simplest level, only a vanishingly small number of fans – now so more than ever – can ever hope to come close to reading all the books – or even all the critically relevant books – in contention for an award, which means that very nearly everyone voting, and this includes you and me, will be voting from a position of partiality right from the start. Add to this the ease with which fan-voted awards can be gamed – the Sad and Rabid Puppies being merely the most recent perpetrators of such shenanigans – and you end up with something that is practically worthless in critical terms, and only rarely approaches a broad consensus of what ‘most’ fans ‘like’. Add to that the sheer tininess of some of the committed voting pools – the BSFA Award for example often has fewer than 150 people voting – and the picture looks even bleaker.

The critical discourse around fan awards also tends to be lacklustre. In 2015, for example, it centred almost entirely around the Sad and Rabid Puppies campaign, and not in a good way. Instead of focussing on the terrifyingly poor quality of many of the shortlisted works – which would at least have provided some amusement, not to mention more than sufficient reason to prompt those blanket No Award votes in and of itself – criticism rapidly polarised into mostly unexamined, gloves-off prejudice on one hand, self-righteous faux-indignation on the other. Such polemic quickly becomes repetitive and predictable and is ultimately meaningless. It is as morally easy to be outraged by the bigoted (and ludicrous) pronouncements of Vox Day as it is to despise the buffoonery (and bigotry) of Donald Trump. It is not so easy, apparently, for us to have a conversation about the greyer areas of SF politics: the ostracism of individuals for expressing contentious views, the log-rolling openly engaged in by writers you like and whose work you admire, the cliques and hierarchies that do exist, in publishing as well as fandom, the edging aside of rigorous critical discourse in favour of mutual back-scratching and social approbium.

As a juried award, the Clarke Award is not subject to such indignities. As a juried award for the ‘best science fiction novel’ of the given year, it should have critical value, not simply in selecting a single title but in generating conversation and debate among readers and critics: what constitutes science fiction, what are the issues currently at stake, what is ‘best’? A literature exists in symbiosis with its critical hinterland, and, it seemed to me when I began taking notice in 2003, the Clarke Award was well placed to form a kind of central axis around which British science fiction might revolve, a critical hub, if you like. Added to that, it was ours – named for a British writer and indisputably British in tone, even as it opened its borders to books from all nations. This is why I became interested in it, and why, sometimes against my better judgement, I remain interested in it still. I care much less about which book actually wins than the critical process by which the selection is arrived at. I like the talk.

The Clarke Award is thirty this year, and when I was invited to be on a panel at Eastercon to commemorate and discuss this anniversary, I was happy to accept. In the brief for the panel, we were encouraged to consider ‘the influence of the award, the story the list of previous winners has to tell about SF in the UK, and how the award’s place in the field has changed over time’. A lot to think about then, and in making my own mental preparations for the panel I began by asking myself, prior to examining the documentary evidence in any way, how I thought the Clarke had evolved over time, what kind of changes I thought I’d see reflected, were I to look at the figures.

The biggest change I thought I was going to see was an increasing representation of so-called literary SF – that is, science fiction written by writers normally considered to be part of the literary mainstream, or published by non-genre imprints – among the shortlists as we approached the present day. When Margaret Atwood first won the Clarke Award back in 1987, her publisher, Faber & Faber, weren’t at all keen to have The Handmaid’s Tale entered for the award in the first place. Atwood herself seemed conflicted about what SF actually was and whether or not she wrote it, and there was a more than minor backlash against Atwood’s win amongst critics, fans, and even some of the judges. Compare that with this year, when Margaret Atwood attends the awards ceremony for The Kitschies wearing a tentacle-themed hair ornament, when more mainstream writers than ever before are experimenting with science fictional tropes and ideas they wouldn’t have been seen dead near thirty years ago, when science fiction has burst out of the geek ghetto to become mainstream entertainment. Last year’s Clarke Award was won by Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an almost universally popular novel from a devoutly literary imprint (Picador) and that was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Such a seismic shift in attitudes would surely be backed up by statistics.

As regards the question of gender and ethnic diversity, I felt less sure. Memory alone was telling me that the number of shortlistees from minority and non-Anglophone backgrounds has been vanishingly few. As for gender parity, I had the feeling that in spite of much talk and bluster on the subject, things hadn’t changed all that much on the ground. I had the idea in my mind that in terms of more diverse representation, the Clarke was lagging far behind mainstream literary prizes such as the Booker and the Costa, which had, I felt, begun to be more inclusive from way back.

What I actually discovered when I looked at the statistics was that of the twenty-nine winners to date, just six (Margaret Atwood, George Turner, Marge Piercy, Amitav Ghosh, Jane Rogers and Emily St John Mandel) have been drawn from the literary mainstream. Perhaps even more surprising is the spread. I set out thinking the number of shortlisted books from mainstream imprints would have increased particularly during the past decade – the decade of popular genre-busting novels like Cloud Atlas, The Time Traveller’s Wife and Never Let Me Go, all of which were shortlisted for the Clarke. Whereas in fact the number of non-genre SF shortlistees has remained pretty consistent and pretty low, with no more than one or at the most two mainstream titles making it to the shortlist in any given year (a bias strikingly reaffirmed in this year’s selection, possibly the most disappointingly core genre shortlist of the decade so far and certainly since 2012). The two exceptions to this rule came in 2008 and 2013, when a fifty-fifty split between genre and mainstream imprints brought forth a predictable spate of discontented rumblings from the genre heartlands. (Just to be clear: of course Ian McDonald’s Brasyl was an egregious omission. Personally I think it’s egregious and downright weird that, as one of the most technically adroit and imaginatively fecund SF writers currently working, McDonald hasn’t so far won the Clarke. But that doesn’t mean that Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army voted best science fiction novel by a woman of its decade by readers of Torque Control – should be looked at askance as some kind of dangerous infiltrator just because it happens to be published by Faber & Faber.)

So while the boundaries are pushed just about far enough to satisfy the iconoclasts, the Clarke remains determinedly an award of the genre heartlands, often drawing again and again from the same smallish pool of well established writers (of all the writers ever shortlisted for the Clarke, 29 have placed twice or more). This could in its turn have some bearing on the issue of gender parity, which has remained decidedly skewed in favour of men. While 11 out of 29 winners have been women (12 if you count Pat Cadigan’s double), from a total of 181 possible shortlist places over the 29 years, just 51 have been occupied by women. In only 5 years (1993, 1995, 1998, 2002 and 2015) was gender parity achieved on the shortlist, and I was particularly shocked by the number of years – 10 – in which only one woman was shortlisted.

There has never been a year when the number of women on the Clarke Award shortlist has exceeded the number of men.

Turning to the issue of ethnic diversity, the statistics are predictably embarrassing. Out of 181 shortlist places, just 7 have been filled by writers who are black, Asian, minority ethnic or from non-Anglophone backgrounds. This figure speaks for itself: the Clarke Award’s demographic continues to be mostly white and mostly male.

Following up on my theory that the Booker Prize would show greater diversity in terms of race and gender, I was neither wholly right nor completely wrong. In terms of ethnic spread, the Booker does a little better than the Clarke in that of the 171 shortlist places available between 1987 and 2015 (the same period as the Clarke Award’s existence, in other words) 33 were filled by black, Asian and other minority writers, more if you count multiple nominations for Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and Rohinton Mistry. It’s worth bearing in mind that as a fraction of the whole this is only about one fifth, and when it comes to gender parity the results are hardly inspiring. Out of 29 winners, just nine have been women (10 if you count Hilary Mantel’s two wins), and as with the Clarke, the spread of shortlistees displays a wide disparity. Of the 171 shortlist places, just sixty were filled by women. While gender parity on the Booker shortlist has been achieved six times (in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2009, 2012) and with women even exceeding the number of men on three subsequent occasions (2003, 2006 and 2013) this is counterbalanced by the eight years (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2004, 2008 and 2011) in which only one woman appeared on the shortlist.

It would appear that the Booker Prize is almost equally conservative in terms of diversity as the Clarke. This doesn’t reflect well on either, but it does at least prove, in a backhanded way, that the Clarke isn’t as hidebound as it could have been.

This is not to level accusations of bias at the Clarke as an institution or at its jurors. The problems of systemic bias begin much further back, at the point of entry to the industry and even before that. The Clarke submissions list is the end point, the point at which we see the results of such bias at work, and of course the judges can only judge the books that are submitted – for a further example, see the recent controversy surrounding the all-white line-up for World Book Night. The problems experienced by women, people from working class backgrounds, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and other marginalised communities attempting to enter the literary field will come from above and from below and work in circular motion. For anyone still unsure of why this matters, I would advise them to begin by reading a recent piece by the translator and publisher Deborah Smith. Her insights into how diversity actively promotes literary excellence are astute, timely, and succinctly worded and I cannot recommend her article highly enough. For science fiction readers, writers, critics and Clarke jurors on the ground, I would suggest the main task currently is to make ourselves aware of the situation and to take notice of what writers from disadvantaged communities are saying. For British science fiction, a more diverse landscape of literary works is pretty much essential for the evolution and continuing health and relevance of the genre. The Britain we inhabit now is not the Britain of the 1950s, nor even the Britain of the 1970s New Wave. We need to see the changes that are happening in reality reflected in the literature we produce and consume, which means hearing voices and opinions from all sections of our society. A retrospective SF is a fossilized genre is a dead literature. If I am excited by writers such as Helen Oyeyemi and Sunjeev Sahota and Xiaolu Guo within the literary mainstream, I desperately want to see their equivalents in British science fiction, and by extension on the Clarke Award shortlist.

Which then brings us on to the question: what is the Clarke Award for and who is it aimed at? On the face of it, the answer is simple: the rules of the Clarke as laid down by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the Award’s founder, and the committee that originally set up the award stated that the ACCA should be awarded to ‘the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year’, the aim being to promote science fiction to a wider public, and to reward excellence within its remit. So far, so uncontroversial. But anyone who has had anything to do with the science fiction community will know that science fiction fans – not to mention writers and critics – thrive on controversy (some might call it nit-picking) and habitually find it more or less impossible to agree amongst themselves on what constitutes science fiction, let alone best.

From the moment the award was inducted, there was in-fighting between various sections of the community as to which novels and which writers should be voted on to the shortlist. In the run-up to our Eastercon panel, the critic Edward James shared with us a highly informative essay he wrote as a contribution to the volume Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization and the Academy (eds Gary Westfahl/George Slusser Greenwood Press 2002), ‘The Arthur C. Clarke Award and its Reception in Britain’, describing, amongst other things, his experiences as the Award’s first administrator:

“Should the Award go to a work which the judges recognise to be solidly within the science fiction tradition, which would no doubt be applauded by SF fans, but received blankly by an uninterested world? Or should the Award associate itself with a work that the outside world would actually recognise, to increase the standing of science fiction by hanging on the coat-tails of recognised Literature?”

James writes, thus posing the question that has divided juries and characterised the discussion around the award for the whole of its run. In 1987 the battle seems to have been between those rooting for Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and those insisting that Samuel R. Delany should take the award for Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a ‘proper’ science fiction work from an acknowledged master of the genre. “It was not an auspicious start to the Award,” James continues. “In retrospect, The Handmaid’s Tale was the wrong book.” This written in 2002, before Atwood wrote her Maddadam trilogy and long before she turned up in London wearing a tentacle on her head. Whilst admitting that The Handmaid’s Tale was ‘a very good book’, James positioned himself firmly in the Delany camp at the time and seems not to have substantially changed his opinion by the time he wrote his article fifteen years later.

A similar scandal rocked the Clarke just six years later in 1993, when the judges decided to exclude Karen Joy Fowler’s now classic Sarah Canary from the shortlist on the grounds that it was ‘not science fiction’, then went on to compound the controversy still further by eventually awarding the prize to Marge Piercy for Body of Glass, another work from a literary publisher that was deemed unworthy of the award by some sections of the SF community: Piercy was not British, and moreover she was already a successful mainstream writer who did not need the prize money or the publicity. The critic and former Clarke judge (part of the jury that awarded the prize to Atwood, in fact) John Clute threw himself into the fray, declaring that ‘the decision was so bad my ears must have deceived me’:

Body of Glass fatally gives off that gingerly feel one often detects when a mainstream author is manipulating SF devices and scenarios to illuminate her own concerns.”

Boo, hiss. Emotion, subjective viewpoint and personal odyssey in science fiction, whatever next?? I don’t think Clute would mind me having a bit of a dig here, most especially since he has recanted these vows more or less completely in the meantime, becoming as he is now a veritable mainstay of the inclusive camp. But the above quote is inestimably useful as an illustration of core science fiction ideology, which persists in this exact formulation to this day and to this hour. If Clute has moderated his approach, there are plenty who haven’t, and so the war rages on.

The most notable Clarke meltdown of the current decade must belong to 2012, remembered in some quarters as Priestgate. The most immediate and lasting effect of Priest’s polemic – something that was often overlooked in the welter of counter-rhetoric surrounding it – was that it attracted a huge amount of attention for the award. Indeed it could be argued that Christopher Priest’s essay ‘Hull 0: Scunthorpe 3’, bemoaning the quality of the 2012 shortlist in general and the alleged incompetence of the jury in particular was largely responsible for the wave of interest and popularity the Clarke began to enjoy in the mainstream press. The forthrightness of Priest’s pronouncement was treated as shocking in some quarters, and came in for considerable criticism as a result. Nonetheless, anyone reading his essay today will see that his analysis of the books remains astutely on point, and whilst no blame should be attached to individual judges – the idea of a word as strong as ‘blame’ being associated with something as ephemeral and subjective as the shortlist for a literary prize is faintly ridiculous in any case – the fact remains that the 2012 Clarke shortlist could be held up as one of the most potent examples of what can happen when the judging panel has no clear or united vision of what they are looking for – of what is ‘best’ in ‘science fiction’. The 2012 shortlist, more now even than then, looks like a classic botch job: a set of random compromises, the result inevitably arrived at when five individuals of differing tastes and mixed critical abilities fail to form a coherent vision and resort instead to horse-trading, and it was hardly an act of literary terrorism for Priest to point that out. I might add that if only all Clarke shortlists generated polemic this sophisticated, this concerned with literary values and the inherent potential of science fiction to be radical and progressive (as opposed to retrograde and derivative) our awareness of what the field is doing, not to mention the field itself, would be mightily the better for it.

In all fairness to the jury, it would not be difficult to mount a similar tale of woe for any year – there’s not a single literary award shortlist that doesn’t sport at least one glaring omission or freakish inclusion. The judges are only human, after all, and each will come to the table replete with their own prejudices, preconceptions, and hard-wired preferences. Take a look at this fascinating retrospective by Booker Prize jurors, and you’ll quickly see that the chances of any of them being persuaded out of their pre-formed opinions is questionable, to say the least. Unless judges are lucky enough to find themselves sitting on a jury of uncannily like minds, the shortlist for any prize, not to mention the winning entry, will continue to be something of a lottery, the hard-won result of in-fighting, barely suppressed professional rivalries, occasionally pure cussedness. Speaking for myself, the science fiction I admire most could be categorised as a mixture of literary postmodernism, subjective hyperrealism, advanced and/or experimental structure bound together with speculative elements. I am the kind of reader and writer who believes that the old kind of space fiction – intergalactic empires and people setting off in rockets to conquer the stars with no more than a tangential connection to lived or indeed scientific reality – is usually not worth bothering with in critical terms, that the core SF tropes are only interesting as literature if they are subverted to such an extent as to make something entirely different. I happen to believe that when placed next to the linguistic and metaphysical glory that is M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, something like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, though competently executed and entertaining on its own terms is revealed starkly for what it is: linguistically unspectacular, thematically redundant and completely lacking in literary irony.

When Edward James says in his paper that he considers Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand to be one of the greatest works of science fiction so far written, I would agree with him heartily. When he insists that Delany’s work would be ‘largely impenetrable to outsiders’ – outsiders who have not been ‘initiated’ into the shorthand, language and conceptual frameworks of science fiction, I would beg to differ. For me, Delany is not just a great science fiction writer, he is a great writer full stop, and SIMPLGOS would be no more difficult for the general reader than any other work of modernist or postmodernist literature. It is – like Woolf or Beckett or Foster Wallace – simply a text that requires a modicum of concentration. Truly great science fiction – that is, science fiction that pays attention to itself in terms of literary values – needs no special pleading. Indeed I would go a lot further than this. I would suggest that if a work of science fiction cannot stand next to works drawn from the mainstream and hold its own in terms of literary values, we need to be asking ourselves if it is truly great.

I am aware that this view is contentious. I know there will be many who disagree with it violently, attesting that it is attitudes and tastes like mine that are destroying science fiction, stripping the field of what makes it unique and worthy of specialist discussion in the first place, and I respect that. I am even prepared to admit they may have a point. I want the old guard to go on fighting because debate is the lifeblood of culture and because it is vitally important that the critical conversation around the Clarke Award be revitalised and strengthened. For if there is a threat to the continuing success and popularity of the Clarke Award, it seems to me that the danger lies in critical apathy. In the four years since Priestgate, rigorous online discussion of the shortlists seems to have nosedived and atrophied, culminating in a situation where last year, for the first time in a long time, there was no comprehensive critical review of the Clarke Award shortlist at Strange Horizons and, because of inept programming and yet another shift in the timing of the award, no discussion of the shortlist at Eastercon either.

At least a part of the problem resides in the fact that there is no recognised online ‘hub’ for British SF. For a number of years (from 2009 when the submissions list first started to be released), the submissions list was announced via the BSFA/Vector blog, Torque Control, where lively, informed discussions of many critical and ideological aspects of SF took place under the dedicated, engaged stewardship of Niall Harrison. In 2009, the post announcing the Clarke submissions list generated 112 comments, mainly debating the eventual shortlist and offering guesses. The following year saw an almost equal number of comments and shortlist guesses, surely a sign that interest surrounding the award was in rude health.

With the departure of Niall Harrison to take up the post of editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, the Torque Control blog became a graveyard almost overnight. Since 2013, the submissions list has been put out to tender, firstly at SFX, which has always been a media rather than a literary publication, and this year at Medium, a major online publishing platform to be sure but one that has little to no direct connection with the British science fiction community. To date, the Clarke submissions post has generated precisely three comments, only one of which could be counted as discussion of the books or possible shortlist.

When you compare this lacklustre response with the proliferation of enthusiastic and knowledgeable blogs, shadow-panels and discussion forums associated with mainstream literary prizes such as the Man Booker International, the Baileys or the Booker itself it looks pretty pathetic, especially given that it always used to be the other way around.

One of the issues that was discussed on the Clarke anniversary panel was the absence – for two years in a row now – of the traditional ‘Not the Clarke Award’ discussion from the Eastercon programme. This lively and popular item in which panellists discuss the shortlisted books in the manner of a shadow award jury has always been a crowd-puller, and in the past the announcement of the Clarke Award shortlist has always been timed to allow for it to take place. In 2015 and 2016 the date set for the announcement of the shortlist has taken no account of Eastercon. Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that the Eastercon membership represents anything approaching the whole of the British science fiction constituency, this decision to discount it entirely does appear to be yet another missed opportunity for informed critical appreciation of the Clarke Award, as well as showing a general lack of consideration for the fanbase. Even if it does not represent the whole of the constituency, Eastercon probably does qualify as the largest gathering of BSFA members in one place during any given year. With the BSFA as one of the three organisations at the constitutional heart of the Clarke Award this surely has to count for something. Such a slap in the face for fandom might be easier to tolerate were there a genuine reason for the change. With the lack of transparency around this question currently in force, these decisions – like the earlier decision to take the submissions announcement away from Torque Control – appear completely random and pointless, not to say actively deleterious.

Another issue raised by the panel was the question of a longlist. There can be absolutely no doubt that the decision taken in 2001 by the organisers of the Booker Prize to start publishing a longlist has been of immense value in extending and intensifying the discussion around both the prize itself and literary fiction in general. The reasons for this – more books to discuss over a longer time period – should be obvious to anyone. To my mind at least it would seem equally obvious that the idea of introducing a longlist to the Clarke Award calendar is pretty much a no-brainer. In the brief discussion on Twitter (March 27th) that followed this year’s Eastercon panel, the award’s director Tom Hunter had this to say on the subject of introducing a longlist stage to the award:

I prefer our full submissions list to a longlist. If we had more time/resource I would personally prefer to do more of something else than just more lists. For me a longlist doesn’t really create anything new, just an interim list, and it’s a big extra task to create for little return.

When asked by SF critic, blogger and previous Clarke Award juror Martin Petto why we can’t have both – it having been made clear during the panel by the current chairman of the Clarke jury Andrew M. Butler that far from it being a ‘big extra task to create’, the judges are already in the habit of drawing up their own unofficial longlist for the purposes of discussion in any case – Hunter responded:

But it’s not a longlist, it’s a discussion list. Longlist implies these are best not the ones we’re still talking about.

Quite apart from the problem presented by Hunter’s apparent underestimation of a longlist’s potential in terms of the discussion and promotion of a wider pool of books and writers, it would seem logical to argue that ‘these are [the books] we’re still talking about’ precisely because these are the ones we think are ‘best’ (by whatever definition arrived at by individual jurors) at that stage. Why else would be jury be discussing them? Hunter’s argument, such that it is, seems like something of a double negative.

On the demise of Torque Control as a forum for discussion, Tom Hunter had this to add (March 29th):

[The BSFA site] is a hub I’d say, but no matter how many there are people always seem to want more. Was Torque Control ever really main BSFA product? More good initiative by a member [Niall Harrison] now doing great stuff for Strange Horizons. It was a product formed around a person thus hard to replicate even if you wanted to. And thus BSFA shouldn’t try to replicate that old energy even if people miss Torque Control as a hub. It was what, eight years ago it was in its prime? Can’t help think things change.

Things change, indeed. And I would venture that it is exactly this kind of complacency (not to mention the inappropriate use of the word ‘product’) that makes them change for the worse. More proactive ways of harnessing greater critical involvement in the award might include instituting a discussion page at the Arthur C. Clarke Award website as a host platform for commissioned reviews and critical articles, roundtable debates of science fiction and its evolution as a literature, interviews with nominees and even – gasp – the initial announcement of the submissions list. At least then people would have a logical place to congregate. (Who knows – we might even decide to call it a hub…)

The current management of the Arthur C. Clarke Award appears to have forgotten that mere publicity is not the same as having a critical hinterland, that bland puff pieces and tick-box number-crunching are not the same as a discussion about literary values, that claiming any given shortlist as ‘great’, ‘exciting’ or even ‘diverse’ is shallow and pointless when that claim is not backed up with more rigorous discourse about the merits of the novels shortlisted and what exactly constitutes ‘great’ or ‘exciting’ or ‘diverse’. For the Arthur C. Clarke Award to survive as the beloved and respected and valuable institution it avowedly is, we need passionate critical engagement, we need personal involvement over a wide demographic. We need readers to feel excited by the idea of discovering new books, excited enough to want to talk about them afterwards. To argue about what is best and what is science fiction.

(NB: A significant portion of this essay was drafted prior to Eastercon. Any statistics quoted or referred to therefore do not include this year’s recently announced Clarke Award shortlist.)

#weird2016: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

loney.hurleyOnly a few weeks ago he had watched them all coming out of the Curzon at midnight from some horror film that the paper said involved jack hammers and acid. They were laughing. The girls with their hands in the back pockets of the men. 

It had been the same night a homeless lady had been kicked to death under Waterloo Bridge. And while the two things weren’t connected in any literal sense, he felt certain that they occupied the same pool that had formed when the wall between sick imagination and the real world came down. (p 229-30)

This is the novel that lost out to Nick Cutter’s bracingly competent but predictable Cabin-Fever-boy-scout-shocker The Troop in the inaugural James Herbert Awards, then deservedly went on to be named best debut novel in the annual Costa Prize. And perhaps that was the best result all round: of all the novels on that Herbert shortlist, James Herbert would have loved The Troop best I’m sure – if you were to apply any epithet to this style of horror novel it would have to be Herbertian – whereas winning the Costa Prize has introduced Hurley’s more subtly unnerving, deeply personal work of the uncanny to a much wider audience than it would otherwise have enjoyed had it remained crammed up next to Herbert on the shelf marked Horror Fiction.

The Loney is flawed, but I don’t really care. There is something, as I say, so personal about it – the very outlandishness of some of the subject matter leaves you with the indelible feeling that this is a book Hurley desperately wanted to write. I’m delighted by the novel’s mainstream success, that it’s been optioned for film. I think it will adapt wonderfully to the screen, and in so doing will open up the novel to a still wider audience.

Take note of the book’s title, for The Loney is above all a novel about a place, a particular landscape, a stretch of coastline somewhere to the north of Lancaster and a part of Morecambe Bay, where the tides are well known to be treacherous and the weather unpredictable. The narrator is looking back on his adolescence, to the Easter of his sixteenth year, when he travelled on an annual church retreat to the eponymous Loney, together with his parents and his eighteen-year-old brother Andrew, known as Hanny. Hanny has been mute since birth. His mother is convinced that it is at the shrine to St Anne, located close to the house where they hold their retreats, that Hanny will find the grace of God, and finally speak. But there are other forces at work on the Loney, forces that have little to do with God, and everything to do with the clouded history of the place. With the former priest of St Jude’s, Father Wilfred, recently dead in an unexplained accident, the little community are accompanied on their mission by a new man, Father Bernard, whose more pragmatic approach in matters of life and faith proves unsettling for some and most especially for Hanny’s mother. As Easter Monday approaches, a chain of coincidences and eerie occurrences seem to point towards a tragic denouement. Looking back on these events from a distance of twenty years, our narrator still struggles to come to terms with the truth of what actually happened.

The Loney is a novel of opposing forces: man and nature, secular and sacred, pagan and Christian, outsiders and locals, past and present. Even the names of the two houses – Moorings, where the pilgrims stay, and Thessaly, where they are warned against going – are resonant in this respect. Moorings is a part of the mainland, a place of refuge. Thessaly is located on a narrow spit of land known as Coldbarrow, cut off from the mainland at every high tide. The house is supposed to be haunted, and its name, suggestive of Ancient Greece and the gods, monsters and pagan rites – frequently referenced in the text – which form a direct refutation of everything the Christian community of St Jude’s holds as sacred.

Never forgetting that St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Somewhat unexpectedly, the strongest piece of characterisation in the novel belongs to Father Bernard, a forward-thinking priest dissatisfied with the entrenched, backward-looking attitude of the church he serves and determined to make his Christian faith more active and more relevant to the world around him. The mostly unspoken battle of wills between Father Bernard and Hanny’s mother, who yearns for the old certainties embodied in the person of Father Wilfred, is brilliantly handled, and forms the central argument of the novel as a whole.

The Loney contains an abundance of intriguing sub-plots – a heavily pregnant adolescent girl named Else, a previously undiscovered secret chamber behind the study at Moorlands, a rifle found beneath the floorboards in Hanny’s room, the aggressive, shifty locals, Parkinson and Collier – and for a while I felt worried that Hurley was just spinning these threads out there to add to the atmosphere, that he wasn’t going to make anything of them. He does bring everything together, just, and by the time the book ends you have all the pieces you need to make a complete picture of the Loney and exactly what happened there, although there were one or two storylines – the secret room and the anti-witch bottle especially – that I wish had been given a bit more welly. The sequence with the Pace Eggers was all a bit Wicker Man, and I think we could have done without the stuffed animals. I would also question Hurley’s decision to have his forty-year-old narrator continue to refer to his parents as ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’. This is what he would have called them when he was eight, names he might perhaps have clung to if he had never grown emotionally beyond the circumstances and limitations of the time before Father Wilfred’s death. But he has grown beyond them, he knows full well what happened out there on the Loney, and the infantile cadences of Mummer and Farther sit somewhat oddly within the emotional and literary sophistication of the narrative at large because of that.

These are small gripes, though, gripes the strength and clarity of Hurley’s writing makes short work of. The Loney, with its tenacious grounding in landscape, its evocation of a lost time, its insistence on hugging at least some of its secrets tightly to itself, is a beautifully bleak, intellectually rich and hauntingly memorable addition to the canon of English Weird.