Monthly Archives: March 2017

2084

Trying to come up with something good to say about today, I note with some excitement the launch of Unsung Stories’s new Kickstarter project, set up with the aim of helping the launch of their first ever anthology. 2084 is a celebration – if that’s the right word – of George Orwell’s great novel 1984, in which we see eleven science fiction writers grappling with his themes and coming up with new interpretations and meditations on what Orwell was writing about back in 1948.

As George Sandison suggests in his introduction to the Kickstarter, far from being last-century, the themes of 1984 have never felt more urgent, more relevant, and the act of writing science fiction has itself never felt more political. With new stories by Aliya Whiteley, Anne Charnock, Christopher Priest and Dave Hutchinson to name just four, 2084 looks like being a landmark anthology and I’d urge everyone to support it. (The artwork is amazing, too.)

And while we’re on the subject of Kickstarters, I backed Influx Press’s latest earlier in the week. I’m choosing Eley Williams’s collection Attrib as my reward – from the samples I’ve read it seems an extraordinary book – but more than that I want to support what they do, because in the current climate especially, publishers that support writing that is as political as it is personal are more important than ever.

On an allied subject, I was reading Iain Sinclair’s essay ‘The Last London‘ in the London Review of Books yesterday. Discursive and clearly targeted at the same time, Sinclair’s ruminations about what is happening not just to London but to our corner of the world struck more than a few chords.

There are so many good people, fighting for good things. It’s good, especially today, to try and remember that.

The Sharkes are biting

I’m now at the half way stage with my personal shortlist for the shadow Clarke – three reviews down, three to go. I went into the process expecting it to be fascinating and I’ve not been disappointed. It’s not just my own selections, you see – at least half the pleasure to be had from this project comes from learning what my fellow Sharkes are thinking about theirs. Already there are several books I’m thinking I should definitely read before trying to come to any overall conclusions about what this year’s submissions might have to say about the state of science fiction. And that’s before we even start trying to second-guess what the official Clarke Award shortlist might contain.

I’m not normally in the habit of reading nothing but science fiction, and doing so now feels both exhilarating and strange. Exhilarating, because immersing oneself in a particular subject matter – deeply enough to acquire new knowledge – will always feel exhilarating. Strange because it forces one to focus upon just how artificial the idea of SF as a separate branch of literature actually is. Curiously, the act of concentrating solely upon science fiction has made me feel more or less indifferent to ‘SF’ as such. What it has done has forced me up against the writing, more than ever. Not: is this a good science fiction novel or is this science fiction even but is this novel actually any good?

Maybe not the result I was expecting but I’m going with it.

In my own reading of my personal shortlist, I’ve been deliberately alternating between genre and non-genre imprints, which again has been interesting, not least because the divide – certainly as regards the novels I’ve chosen – hasn’t been nearly as stark as I might have expected. I’m taking this as further evidence of the way the boundaries between genre SF and literary SF are increasingly becoming fuzzy to non-existent.

Have I found my personal winner yet? I don’t think so, and already I’m beginning to wonder if I might end up ‘no award’-ing my own list and poking around in the leftovers of someone else’s. If I have time, that is. There’s still a pile of reading and reviewing to get through before the official shortlist is announced on May 6th. One thing I do know: as our overall stock of reviews mounts up and more books are covered, the discussion can only become more complex and more surprising.

You can keep up with all our reading and reviewing at the ARU SFF Centre website. And don’t forget to enter the official Clarke Award ‘guess the shortlist’ competition here!

Where we are

It is difficult to keep finding new words for the political catastrophe that is engulfing the UK: the disingenuousness with which the Brexit government conducts itself, the wimpishness with which the majority of sitting MPs go along with it all, the – well, the non-existence of any opposition. Although Ian McEwan did a swift back-pedal on remarks made in interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais (no, they weren’t ‘garbled in translation’, Ian, it was you being spineless: how pathetic, to try and make out that ‘Nazi’ was substituted for ‘nasty’ – did it never occur to you the two words only sound alike in English?) he was perfectly right, and there was no need for him to hand out any mollifying ‘clarification’. The people of the UK are not Nazis (although a vocal minority are doing a damn good impression) but the democratic underpinnings of our parliamentary system have been subject to exactly the kind of depredations that laid the foundations for Nazi dictatorship in Germany in the 1930s.

A plebiscite – that’s a referendum to you and me – might look like democracy but more often than not it’s a power-grab by a government or section of government bent on weaponising the general populace towards its own ends. And talk about the Big Lie. Again, the people of the UK are not stupid, but they have been urged towards a certain viewpoint based on unsound principles, evident falsehoods, and the poisonous drip-drip of tabloid sensationalism. That blatant lies went virtually unchallenged as part of the pre-referendum Brexit ‘debate’ is not just a scandal, it has morphed into the biggest threat to our parliamentary democracy in living memory. That the sitting government now seems bent on pursuing the wages of these falsehoods – diving after them like lemmings over a cliff, in fact – is like watching an experiment in mass hypnosis run fatally out of control. That we as an electorate are effectively without an opposition – well, those ‘nasty’ comparisons just get bigger and bigger.

In a UK where government ministers can push ahead with an insane and retrograde agenda – an agenda that will set the social and political agenda for decades to come – without due parliamentary process (what sop to process we’ve been offered has been nothing more than a charade), and where the Lord Chancellor can stand by while the most scurrilous of our national newspapers labels our judiciary enemies of the people, it feels as if literally anything could happen here and there’d be fuck all we could do about it.

Remind you of anywhere, Mr McEwan?

A speech to Scottish Labour in which London’s mayor Sadiq Khan drew parallels between those in favour of a second Scottish independence referendum and those voting for Trump or Brexit kickstarted some heated debate last month about the nature of Scottish nationalism. I can see why Mr Khan might feel worried: he has had to face down the most appalling racism and the very word ‘nationalist’ must set off about a hundred warning bells. But while the frenzied backlash against Claire Heuchan for her timely and thought-provoking piece supporting Khan’s view is an unfortunate example of exactly what Khan was talking about (although I disagreed with Heuchan’s essay on several points, it seems to me that she is precisely the kind of thinker we need more of) I still think Khan got it wrong. Not about nationalism – he’s dead right about that – but about what the SNP stands for.

When talking about Scottish nationalism, we would do well to remember that the ‘N’ in SNP does not stand for ‘nationalist’, but for ‘national’. The SNP is the party for Scotland, in other words – not the party that promotes ‘Scottish nationalism’ in the sense Khan was getting at.

That kind of nationalism is old – so old – and invariably toxic. Not just in Scotland, but everywhere. As a planet, we are facing unprecedented challenges from disease, from poverty, from educational inequality and above all from climate change (which, if ignored, will exacerbate all the above a millionfold), In the face of such challenges, many of which are threatening to become crises even as we speak, the idea of something as thoroughly nineteenth-century as ‘nationalism’ is almost indecently parochial, destructive, and above all useless.

For Theresa May to claim that Nicola Sturgeon has ‘seized upon’ Brexit as an excuse to drive forward her own political agenda is just another piece of gross misinformation – all the more gross because everyone who peddles it knows it is untrue. The material change in political circumstances since the 2014 independence referendum could not be more seismic. Anyone who has followed Sturgeon’s numerous attempts these past six months to liaise with Westminster, to talk through options, to come to a reasonable compromise can see clearly that her announcement yesterday that she will be seeking consent from the Scottish parliament to call a second independence referendum was made because Sturgeon felt she would be failing in her responsibility not to do so. On the eve of May’s triggering of Article 50 and still with nothing but icy contempt shown for her efforts, there was finally no alternative.

As she made her announcement to the press yesterday, Sturgeon made it very clear that ‘it is not just our relationship with Europe that is at stake. What is at stake is the kind of country we will become’.  As journalist and commentator Robert Somynne so beautifully put it in his piece contesting Khan’s view of Scottish nationalism, ‘the ambition is not being “better than England”, but aspiring to just be better in an age in which progressivism is under threat‘.

I think Nicola Sturgeon is brave and I believe she is honest. As First Minister for Scotland she has my full support. My dream is to see an independent, diverse, progressive Scotland at the heart of a stronger European Union and that is what I’ll be voting for when the time comes. Whatever happens, I am proud and very happy to call Scotland my home.

End of round one

Well, all nine shadow jurors have now revealed their personal Sharke shortlists – you can have a look at them here at the Anglia Ruskin Centre for SF and Fantasy website. Each post includes a personal reflection on this year’s submissions list, together with the how and why behind their own selection. They make for fascinating reading. Do feel free to join in the discussion in the comments, or post your own Clarke predictions at the ‘guess the shortlist’ page – remember you could win all six books if you turn out to be right.

There are some interesting points to note here, even before the main business of the shadow jury – reading and reviewing the books, that is – gets underway. Between the nine of us, we’ve chosen twenty-seven different novels, which is quite a spread, given that the usual number of serious Clarke contenders in any one year usually ends up being around the thirty mark. The divide between genre and non-genre imprints is also an even heat – I make it thirteen from genre imprints, thirteen from mainstream imprints, and one self-published – so in spite of some early anxieties in certain quarters that our picks might end up being rather light on heartland science fiction, the final list turns out to be a pretty decent survey of the different styles of SF in contention, which seems all the more remarkable given that there was no pre-planning or deliberate engineering involved.

And this is where the fun truly begins. We’ll each now read all our picks – rereading any we’ve previously read – posting detailed reviews of each at the ARU website as we go along. We’re all keen to read as many of each other’s picks as we have time for, too, in order that the discussion between us and our eventual conclusions be as wide-ranging and informed as possible. You can expect supplementary posts – on shortlists-that-might-have-been, books read but not selected, general ruminations on the state of the genre – as and when individual jurors feel moved to write them.

All in all, there should be plenty to keep everyone interested until the official Clarke Award shortlist is announced at the beginning of May and the third stage of our project begins.  Do please read along with us! You’ll find the complete list of books selected by the shadow jurors – think of it as the Sharke longlist – below:

Naomi Alderman – The Power

Chris Bell – Songshifting

Lily Brooks-Dalton – Good Morning, Midnight

Matthew De Abaitua – The Destructives

Don Delillo – Zero K

Emma Geen – The Many Selves of Katherine North

Matt Hill – Graft

Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Winter

Nora Jemisin –The Fifth Season

Joanna Kavenna – A Field Guide to Reality

Andrus Kiviruhk – The Man Who Spoke Snakish

Yoon Ha Lee – Ninefox Gambit

Cixin Liu – Death’s End

Andrei Pelevin – Empire V

Martin MacInnes – Infinite Ground

Christopher Priest – The Gradual

Ali Shaw – The Trees

Johanna Sinisalo – The Core of the Sun

Matt Suddain – Hunters & Collectors

Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me

Steph Swainston – Fair Rebel

Lavie Tidhar – Central Station

Catherynne Valente – Radiance

Colson Whitehead –The Underground Railroad

Aliya Whiteley – The Arrival of Missives

Nick Woods – Azanian Bridges

John Wray – The Lost Time Accidents