Category Archives: awards

Gotta read ’em all!

The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced this morning, and what a strong shortlist it is. I’ve already written about Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which remains potent in the memory as much for what it does with form as for its urgent storyline. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is the book I most want to read next. I adore Batuman’s essays, and her memoir about Russian literature, The Possessed, is a thing of rapturous beauty. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight is also high on my list, not least because of the contradictory reactions it’s been garnering. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and Sing, Unburied, Sing have been outliers for me up till now, but I’m planning to read both before the winner is announced, if I possibly can.

The novel I want to comment on today though is Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. If I read a more important book this year, I will be surprised. People have been describing this novel as a memoir of domestic abuse, which it is, but such a bald description fails to convey the majesty of all that is in it. If I were forced to use one word to describe When I Hit You it would be triumphant. It is a triumph not just in terms of victory of the spirit, but in terms of the writing art. The very act of writing – the act that most enrages the narrator’s solipsistic, jealous, controlling, abusive and above all selfish, selfish, selfish husband – is celebrated in these pages to the absolute utmost. Indeed, I cannot think of a better riposte, a sweeter revenge for the violence the narrator has suffered than this excoriating, empowering book about womanhood and violence, art, the practice of sanity, language and freedom of expression. I cannot think of a book that would be a more worthy winner of the Women’s Prize than this vital, supremely intelligent text, superbly realised. Angry but never embittered, I would come forward and say that this is a novel every woman – and for fuck’s sake, every man – needs to read as soon as they can.

The thing that strikes me – and pleases me – most forcefully about this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist is its seriousness. These are books that are not afraid to take the personal and make it political. These are books that are not afraid of going in hard on big questions. These are authors that are unapologetic about their love of language, their joy in experimentation, their determination to be heard, their willingness to be difficult. It will be very interesting to see if any of these turn up on the Booker longlist, announced in July. Congratulations to all the writers, and also to the judges on the boldness and brilliance of their choices, on showing us why and how the Women’s Prize continues to be so important.

Tentacles!

As I’m still more or less dumbstruck by the news, earlier this evening, that The Rift has been awarded The Kitschies coveted Red Tentacle for Best Novel, I’m just going to post the words read out on my behalf at the ceremony by Cath Trechman, my editor at Titan Books:

“Even in a calendar overflowing with exciting and thought-provoking literary awards, The Kitschies are special. They’re special because of their particular approach to genre fiction, which has from the beginning been innovative and fearless, and also because of the ubiquitously high quality of their shortlists, which year after year have presented readers with books that challenge and broaden their perceptions of what speculative fiction can be and do. It is an honour and a privilege for The Rift to be counted among their number. For it to win is a joy, not to mention an enormous surprise! 

I would like to thank the judges for furthering and cementing The Kitschies’ tradition of radical innovation. I would like to thank the marvellous team at Titan Books for their enthusiasm and professionalism in bringing the book to market and championing its cause. I would like particularly to thank Cath Trechman, who has been such a staunch support throughout. Thank you, Cath, for your insight and determination – none of this would have happened without you. 

I’m so sorry not to be with you all this evening. Hope you’re having a great night!”

I am indeed honoured and thrilled. Because seriously, what could be more beautiful than a tentacle?

Massive, massive thanks to everyone involved, and congratulations to my fellow tentaculans. Do check out the full list of nominees and winners here.

Follycon 2018, Harrogate

As part of a lively and highly enjoyable Eastercon weekend, I’m delighted to report that my second novel The Rift won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel, an achievement made all the more memorable for being awarded alongside Anne Charnock’s win for Best Shorter Fiction. We won’t be forgetting Harrogate in a hurry!

Photo by Glyn Morgan

See the full list of winners and nominees here.

 

Now that’s tentacular!

Utterly delighted to hear that my novel The Rift has been shortlisted for The Kitschies Red Tentacle!

The best thing? The shortlist itself, which includes books that are entirely new to me. Michelle’s Tea’s Black Wave I know about and love – I included it on my own preferred shortlist for this year’s Clarke – and Jess Richards is familiar to me from her amazing Cooking with Bones but I didn’t know she had a new novel out. Deon Meyer and William Sutcliffe sound fantastic and go straight on my Kindle.

As always with The Kitschies, the joy lies in being excited, challenged, surprised. This year I’m honoured to be part of that surprise myself.

Do please go and check out the full and marvellous shortlists right here and right now! Hearty congratulations to all my fellow nominees.

The starting gun

[Disclaimer: for the purposes of this essay, I am writing as if my own novel, The Rift, were not on the list.]

The 2018 Clarke Award submissions list is finally here! The number of books is slightly up on last year, with non-genre imprints – I’m delighted to see – making a particularly good showing. As always, there are any number of fascinating shortlists lurking amongst those 108 titles, with each combination highlighting a different and specific approach to genre. What such selections might theoretically reveal about individual critical standpoints – what constitutes science fiction and its current direction of travel – is what makes submissions list time so exciting and intriguing for me. While we must assume that the Clarke jury have already decided upon the six novels that will make up the official Clarke Award shortlist, for the Shadow Clarke jury, today is just the beginning. Even as I write this, they will be scanning the list intently, trying to decide which titles they hope will appear on the official shortlist, which they would most like to see discussed within the context of science fiction now.

I’m strictly an onlooker in the Sharke process this year – but of course that doesn’t stop me from wondering what I would pick! I’ve actually read more of the submitted titles in advance this time around, and there are even more on the list that I want to read. It’s interesting what hindsight will do. Looking at my choices from last year, it is clear to see that I made a conscious decision to go for a personal shortlist made up of titles from genre and mainstream literary imprints in equal proportions – in an attempt to curb my own biases, no doubt. If I had the choice again, and since having read the entire Sharke preference pool and then some, I would pick Don DeLillo’s Zero K, M. Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors, Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, Catherynne Valente’s Radiance, and Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives – all books that live in the memory in spite of any imperfections they may carry. My personal winner would still be Infinite Ground, a novel that even now is influencing my thinking, not just about science fiction but about the project and purpose of fiction in general.

In this revisionist state of mind, I’m going to play devil’s advocate this year and pick the shortlist I most want to see, a shortlist I know doesn’t stand a hope of actually happening – in fact I’d go so far as to say I’d be surprised if even one of these titles ended up on the official shortlist – but that best expresses my own current hopes and desires for science fiction literature. The reader might infer from this list that I have come to not give a damn about genre and they might well be correct, which is not to say that I don’t continue to believe that speculation in literature –  whether that be in the matter of subject, form or language – is its most radical expression.

My personal preferred shortlist is as follows:

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker. This choice won’t come as any surprise to anyone who reads my blog. I have long believed that Barker is one of Britain’s most interesting and important writers. For me, H(A)PPY was a magical and deeply unsettling reading experience, a book that will last and – most crucially – would deliver an even richer experience on rereading. As science fiction it is provocative and new, making use of established concepts to create a narrative whose originality lies not so much in its synopsis as in its execution.

Sealed by Naomi Booth. I’ve been hearing such great things about this and Booth’s novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, was excellent, beautifully written and tautly imagined. Going by the online preview, Sealed is even better, playing with themes similar to those that appear in Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From but with a harder edge. I liked the Hunter and it has stayed with me but I think I’m going to admire Sealed even more.

Memory and Straw by Angus Peter Campbell. ‘I know now that my ancestors had other means of moving through time and space, and the more I visit them the simpler it becomes. For who would not want to fly across the world on a wisp of straw, and make love to a fairy woman with hair as red as the sunset?’ I will be writing in greater detail about this book in due course. Angus Peter Campbell is a poet as well as a prose writer, as every page of this short novel about time, place and memory amply demonstrates. Campbell’s writing is pure imagination, made word.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway. The big beast on this list in more ways than one! At more than 700 pages in length, Gnomon requires some commitment, but the reader will find that commitment amply rewarded. Freedom, information, truth – Harkaway paints big themes across a sprawling canvas in what is without doubt his most strongly achieved and important novel to date. The truly odd thing about Gnomon is how much in common it has with H(A)PPY in terms of its subject matter and what it chooses to do with it, though comparing the two might prove as difficult, if I may continue with the art analogy for just a moment, as comparing Vermeer’s The Lacemaker with Delacroix’s The Raft of the Medusa. My outright preferred Clarke winner this year would be either H(A)PPY or Gnomon, and I can see arguments for choosing either. To ignore them both would be a serious failure of nerve and imagination.

Euphoria by Heinz Helle. As far from Gnomon in terms of scope as it is possible to get, Helle’s novel focuses closely on a small group of friends at the dawn of an unexplained apocalypse. The language is terse, fractured, a shattered mirror to what is going on within the narrative. With a distinctly European accent on existential crisis, Euphoria was one of my favourite books of 2017 and one I will definitely be revisiting.

Black Wave by Michelle Tea. Billed as a ‘countercultural apocalypse’, this was on my list of books to read with the Clarke in mind in the immediate aftermath of last year’s award. I have only just got round to it, but I am loving it so far and it seems like exactly the kind of novel – existential, metafictional – the Clarke should be taking notice of, not to mention the Goldsmiths. The language alone – direct, abrasive, provocative – qualifies it for a place on my preferred shortlist in and of itself.

Very narrowly missing my cut are The White City by Roma Tearne – the writing is so wonderful that if I’d actually read the whole of this book at this stage then I might well have found it edging out one of the others – and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which is a vitally important text right now and a strong novel. Ask me tomorrow and you might find either or both of these on my list, and I’d be more than delighted to see the jury select them.

In my column for this month’s Interzone, I examined the reasons why science fiction might have found itself considerably better off had Hugo Gernsback never ‘invented’ the science fiction genre. Before Gernsback, speculative conceits floated freely in the mainstream of literature alongside every other kind of idea: political, social, metaphysical, confessional. Now more than ever, the ideas that for decades found themselves confined to the science fiction ghetto have been leaking out into the broader river of world literature, which – now more than ever – is where they belong. For proof of my thesis – that there is no such thing as ‘science fiction’, only books that make use of speculative ideas – look no further than the six (or indeed eight!) very different, challenging and original books above. If science fiction is truly to have a future, then this is it.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I remember reading a slightly strange article a couple of years ago about how in times of crisis or political turmoil, the act of reading or writing fiction could begin to seem irrelevant, a sideshow. We should be reaching for deeper truths, more urgent subject matter. This argument would appear to be more persuasive now even than when the essay was written, and there is a part of me that identifies with the sentiment behind it. I examine my motives in writing fiction much more closely now than I did when I started out, interrogate myself constantly about what kind of fiction I want and need to be writing. I believe that these are healthy and valid questions for any writer. But think about it for more than five minutes and you’ll see that questioning the validity of fiction as a means of understanding the world is to ask the wrong question. The greatest fiction has always been more than an escape or a solace – see the hundreds of novelists incarcerated in gaols across the world as political prisoners who stand witness to that fact.  In Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie, we see how powerful a tool the novel can still be in highlighting the most urgent political questions of our generation, how directly and how boldly fiction can speak. That Shamsie has chosen to use mythic archetypes in telling her story only adds to its strengths, showing how even such a seemingly abstruse concept as literary form can have a pivotal role to play in the construction of a political argument.

In Sophocles’s Antigone, the titular character petitions King Creon of Thebes for permission to bring home the body of her disgraced brother Polyneices for a proper burial. King Creon refuses, and when Antigone carries out funeral rites for Polyneices in direct contravention of his orders, he demands that she be captured and executed. Antigone’s sister Ismene tries to remonstrate with the king, offering to die in her place. Antigone’s fiance Haemon – Creon’s son – though initially shocked by his beloved’s transgression, attempts to placate his father, begging him to spare Antigone and allow her to return home. Creon wavers, eventually acquiescing to his wife’s entreaties, that mercy be shown towards the young people as the gods would wish. In the manner of classical tragedy, his decision comes too late: Antigone has hanged herself, Haemon likewise commits suicide when confronted with her loss. Creon has saved his throne, but lost everything that mattered most to him in the process.

Home Fire begins with a sleight of hand, a deft and understated precis of what is to follow. Isma is at the airport. The eldest of three siblings, she has spent the past six years caring for twins Aneeka and Parvais, following the deaths of their grandmother and mother in quick succession. The twins are now nineteen, on the brink of going their own way in the world. Isma can return to the life she was expecting to live, fulfilling her cherished ambition to take up a research scholarship in the US. Though her paperwork is in order, Isma is detained at passport control, interrogated at such length about her purpose of travel that she misses her flight. On arrival in Boston, she tries to put the incident behind her, but the forces of politics and circumstance are already moving against her. The siblings’ father was a known jihadi who died while being transported to Guantanamo Bay. Their father was never around much – the twins have no real memories of him – but still, his outlaw status has been enough to keep the family on MI5’s radar. More devastatingly still, Aneeka’s twin brother Parvais has fallen under the influence of ISIS supporters and been persuaded that his place is in Raqqa, fighting the fight in honour of the hero father he never knew. Isma is furious – she blames Parvais for putting the whole family’s security at risk through his selfishness. Meanwhile Aneeka, desperate to be reunited with her brother, begins a relationship with Eamonn Lone, the son of ‘Lone Wolf’ Tory Home Secretary Karamat Lone, the one man who has it within his power to grant permission for Parvais to return home.

The airport detainment scenes aside, the opening chapters of Home Fire are deceptively bland. We see a young woman embarking on the next stage of her life, making new friendships, falling in love. It is only gradually, as parallel plot lines draw inexorably together, that the narrative begins to take on the characteristics of Greek tragedy.  Shamsie’s novel makes for an extraordinary reading experience, both at the level of story and in terms of its formal execution. Home Fire‘s relationship with its legendary precursor is subtle, striking, brilliantly clever, the extent of the narrative’s involvement with its source material only becoming fully apparent as the novel nears its conclusion. It could be argued that Shamsie’s characterisation is a little flat, that the characters’ identification with mythic archetypes renders them prisoners of the plot – but this also works in the novel’s favour, strengthening the bond with Antigone and revealing how myths are made. Personally, I found the characters managing to break free of their preordained roles just sufficiently to make them compelling in their own right, Aneeka and Parvais particularly, with Shamsie’s use of language – never less than excellent in terms of its craft – attaining a special resonance and beauty throughout those passages.

For me, this was a heart-pounding, heart-breaking narrative of great power and importance, the kind of novel you want to press into people’s hands. Ideally, Home Fire would be read by everyone in Britain, right now. That’s how relevant it felt to me as fiction.

After finishing Home Fire, I remembered an article Shamsie wrote for the Guardian in 2014, detailing her own experience of applying for British citizenship, Ideally, everyone should read this too, and ask themselves what it means for Britain when even an artist who continues to make an incalculable contribution to the cultural life of both her countries can be made to feel despair and panic in the face of this bureaucracy, a political culture that directly opposes every ideal it is said to espouse. As a writer, Shamsie was deemed ineligible to apply for leave to remain, because that category of application was abolished – writers, artists and composers are no longer of material value to British society, it seems. If she’d been trying to apply now, she would have found the goalposts moved again – she would been deemed ineligible on grounds of not having a big enough bank balance.

Britain is a poor sort of place right now, frankly. Home Fire shows us some of the ways we are being made poorer.

Women’s Prize for Fiction

International Women’s Day, and the announcement of the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve been looking forward to this, and I wasn’t disappointed. One of the things I like about longlists is that the perspective they offer on a literary moment is deeper and wider than any six-book shortlist can hope to be. Here we have sixteen books. Those who enjoy such exercises can get stuck into what those books are saying about women writing now, and the societies they find themselves writing in. Aside from that, this is a fascinating selection of novels to read and enjoy,

The thing that stands out about this list for me personally is that it includes a satisfying number of titles I am genuinely excited about! Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve already read and adored Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY. In her first reaction to the longlist, writer Naomi Frisby, who has shadowed the Women’s Prize five years running, notes that this is Barker’s first ever shortlisting, which seems preposterous when you think about it, but makes Barker’s inclusion here particularly welcome and timely. I am also especially eager to read Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done and Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time.  I’ll plan to read as many of these longlisted titles as I can before the shortlist is announced on April 23rd, and with any luck I’ll be blogging about some of them here as I go along.  Here’s the full line-up:

H(A)PPY – Nicola Barker (Heinemann)

The Idiot – Elif Batuman (Cape)

Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon (Borough)

Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig (Grove)

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan (Corsair)

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower (Harvill Secker)

Sight – Jessie Greengrass (John Murray)

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman (Harper Collins)

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic)

Elmet – Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton)

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt (Tinder)

A Boy in Winter – Rachel Seiffert (Virago)

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal (Viking)

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward (Bloonsbury)

On a not entirely unrelated note, Anne Charnock and I made the front page of our local paper The Buteman this week, with a story about us both being shortlisted for the BSFA Awards. Great photo by Chris, and especially great to see it making the news on International Women’s Day!

Shortlisted!

Pleased to announce that The Rift has made the shortlist for the British Science Fiction Awards in the Best Novel category.

With Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Ann Leckie’s Provenance also making the cut, that makes it a fascinating list to be on and hopefully one that will encourage discussion.

I’m especially delighted to report though that the Shadow Clarke project also made the shortlist, in the Non-Fiction category. This means a huge amount to me, not least because the individual Sharkes were so energetically committed to making this project a success and so clearly deserve this nomination, but also for what it means for science fiction criticism generally. This project truly has opened a new round of the conversation – we need only look at the wonderful personal intros from this year’s Sharkes to see how the project is evolving and opening out – and I’m thrilled to have been a part of that. Congratulations, Sharkes!

It should also be noted that, what with Anne Charnock hitting the shortlists again in the Shorter Fiction category for her beautifully crafted novella The Enclave, the west coast of Scotland isn’t making too bad a showing, either. Could the Isle of Bute be the most speculative spot in the UK right now? Voters, it’s over to you.

Many congratulations to everyone who made the shortlists. You can find the full line-ups here.

Guérillères

“He has enslaved you by trickery, you who were great strong valiant. He has stolen your wisdom from you, he has closed your memory to what you were, he has made of you that which is not, which does not speak, which does not possess, which does not write. He has made you a vile and fallen creature. He has gagged abused and betrayed you by means of stratagems, he has stultified your understanding, he has woven around you a long list of defects that he declared essential to your well being, to your nature.”

(Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères 1969)

This week saw the launch of the Staunch book prize, an award for the best crime novel or thriller ‘in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. Its founder, the screenwriter Bridget Lawless, has stated that the idea for the prize was born out of her increasing discomfort with the level of violence – and routine violence at that – meted out to women in crime thrillers, be they on TV, in film or in novels. ‘[Books] are a source for so much material,’ Lawless says, ‘and if I can have a tiny bit of influence there, it will help’.

In the kingdom of crime fiction there are many mansions, and plenty worth exploring. Personally, I enjoy crime fiction because I enjoy mysteries, and the description of painstaking forensic work that is frequently involved in solving those mysteries. I enjoy the close focus on particular individuals, their histories and motivations. I enjoy the way such close focus can often be used to reveal wider truths about our society and ways of seeing. All of this and more is the stuff of crime fiction, which is why I read a lot of it. It would be wrong of me not to concede also that crime stories can be thrilling, that the adversarial nature of the set-up, that ancient and timeless conflict between protagonist and antagonist – however you may wish to cast them – provides a story scenario so compelling it is hard to resist, no matter how many times you might have encountered it before.

One subgenre of crime fiction I tend to avoid, however, is the serial killer thriller. There will be notable exceptions of course, but most serial killer thrillers are for me the novelistic equivalent of the slasher film in horror: formulaic and unutterably pointless. these films and books are not so much frightening as tedious, the product of dull imaginations and brain-wearying in the extreme. In recent years, I have started to find these kind of crime novels not just boring but actively offensive. As Lawless suggests in her rationale for the Staunch prize, women in serial killer thrillers are all too often simply cannon fodder, not so much characters as tropes, an excuse for the depiction of, well, more violence against women. Now, whenever I see a book blurb describe ‘a series of brutal murders, all young women’, I know that nine times out of ten the book in question will be a lazy book, a book whose hackneyed plot I have encountered too many times before, a book that will waste my time and test my patience.

Perhaps the worst aspect of such ‘thrillers’ is how often they try and masquerade as paeans to social justice: ‘Gee, we’ve got to catch this monster before he kills again!’

On the other hand, when confronted with something like the Staunch prize, I find myself instinctively reacting against any kind of prescription for what writers should or should not be choosing as their subject matter. For me, Lawless’s contention that ‘how we see women depicted and treated in fiction does spread out to the wider world and how women are treated there’ treads perilously close to Mary Whitehouse territory, the scares about what video nasties were supposedly doing to youth in the 1970s, the City of Westminster banning Cronenberg’s innocuous adaptation of Ballard’s Crash back in 1996.

Fiction is surely a reflection of what is going on in the real world, not the other way around, and the point with subject matter is not what that subject matter is, but how it is used. When asked her opinion of the Staunch prize, the crime writer Val McDermid maintained that it is ‘entirely possible to write about [violence against women] without being exploitative or gratuitous… My take on writing [about this] is that it’s my anger at that very thing that fires much of my work. As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed’.

The announcement of the Staunch prize this week happened to coincide with my reading of Cara Hoffman’s astounding 2011 debut So Much Pretty. Someone recommended Hoffman to me a couple of years ago, and now I’ve finally got round to reading her, my main feeling is one of frustration that she’s not better known. Hoffman based So Much Pretty on a real-life abduction case that she investigated while working as a journalist. The resulting novel is one of the most compelling and best executed crime novels I have read in recent years. It is also one of the most chilling. So Much Pretty is essentially the story of three women – a journalist, a gifted high school student, a waitress in a local diner – and the way their histories interweave. The novel is set in upstate New York, in a small and supposedly close-knit farming community that hides bitter social division and personal tensions. As much as anything, So Much Pretty is a characterisation of that community. Hoffman tells her story through a series of interviews, essays and personal accounts that build a detailed and intimate portrait of small town life and politics, the often arbitrary nature of the most horrific crimes, the habits of denial that allow such crimes to be perpetrated, the way such denial continues to shape and to define the social milieu in which we exist.

Although Hoffman chooses to depict very little violence on the page, the violence we glimpse between the lines is devastating. That anyone could come away from this book without sensing Hoffman’s anger at the violence – daily, routinely – done to women would beggar belief. As a polemic, So Much Pretty is excoriating. As a book – as a way of telling a story – it is brilliant. As a crime novel it is important. This is a book that needed to be written, a book people – and I’ll go one further here and say men especially – need to read. I would also say we need more novels of this calibre, that show this level of skill and bravery in tackling their difficult subject matter, not fewer.

I am not ‘against’ the Staunch prize, quite the opposite. As a book prize, it’s not trying to ban anything, but to draw attention to something. If it can draw attention to books that find new ways of telling crime stories – new ways of seeing, as Lawless hopes – then the endeavour will have been worthwhile.

For the writer though, the only duty is to tell the story they are drawn to telling as well as they can. To think about the subject matter they have chosen, and before they take that leap, to perhaps ask themselves why exactly they have chosen it.

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.