Amitav Ghosh, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan McCalmont, Kim Stanley Robinson, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Megan AM, Nick Hubble, Thomas Pynchon, Vajra Chandrasekera
This is the introductory piece I wrote for the Clarke Award Shadow Jury:
I’ve written about all of this before, how I was there when the Arthur C. Clarke Award was created, how I’ve judged it and administered it, and edited the anthology. There’s nothing new to add, except for one memory: the first time I ever saw a bookshop display devoted to the Clarke shortlist, it was in Seattle.
That is how I want to see the Clarke award continue: that international status, that sense of being central to the entire conversation about contemporary science fiction.
I believe, devoutly, that the award should be controversial, that it should engender debate. In the early years, the Award got a lot of flack for shortlisting mainstream writers rather than the familiar genre names. Giving the first award to Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale was dismissed as pretentious, as the judges sucking up to the literary establishment; though we see now that it is a novel that has endured. At the time when Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass won the award over Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, I heard people complain that there wasn’t even a rocket ship on the cover (in fact, none of the books on that year’s shortlist had a rocket ship on the cover). After that, the proudest moment in my engagement with the Clarke Award came in the year that Amitav Ghosh won for The Calcutta Chromosome. After the announcement of the award, I had people come up to me and say: “I thought that was just the Clarke Award being pretentious again. Then I read the book and … you were right!” Not long after I finally stood down from the Clarke Award I was amused that the judges were being criticised not for including mainstream fiction, but for omitting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
That is what makes the Clarke Award great. The fact that it doesn’t conform to genre stereotypes, the fact that it bucks the trend, the fact that it regards science fiction as the broadest of broad churches, and will look anywhere within that spectrum for the best. And that restless, wide-ranging aspect of the award is what gets people arguing about it. And that argument is good, not just for the award itself (though it does keep the award alive in people’s minds), but for science fiction as a whole. Because the more the Clarke Award challenges our expectations, the more it opens us up to an ever wider, ever changing sense of what science fiction is and can be.
Let’s face it, the biggest debate within science fiction at the moment is the debate surrounding the Sad and Rabid Puppies, and that debate is all about narrowing science fiction. The Puppies want to enclose and limit the genre, restrict it to a narrow spectrum that resembles the science fiction they remember from the 1950s: overwhelmingly masculine, almost entirely American, distinctly technophiliac, and ignoring the literary changes that have occurred within the genre over the last half century. This is science fiction that repeats what has gone before, that depends upon its familiarity; this is science fiction that is not going anywhere new. Okay, some work that fits within this spectrum can be interesting and important, but it cannot be, it should not be, the whole of science fiction. The best way to counter the Puppies’ argument is with the sort of expansionist, innovative, challenging argument about science fiction that has traditionally been associated with the Clarke Award.
The way I see it, a lively debate is essential for the health of the Clarke Award, for science fiction in Britain, for science fiction throughout the world. I want to encourage that debate and to be a part of it. It is time to demonstrate once again that the very best science fiction, the science fiction that is worthy of a place on the Clarke Award shortlist, is the sort of science fiction that shocks us with its novelty. And if that shock doesn’t generate argument, then the Clarke Award is failing, and science fiction is failing.
We’re all written similar pieces. So far you can find pieces by Megan AM; Maureen Kincaid Speller; Jonathan McCalmont; Nick Hubble and Vajra Chandrasekera, with the rest to come over the next few days. There was no collusion in any of this, but there is an awful lot of overlap in our thinking about the award. Believe me, it is making the Shadow Jury a very interesting experience.
Okay, 2016 was a bad year, in many more ways than I would care to enumerate. But on a personal level, it was a year in which silence seemed to fall, as if I became both deaf and mute. Not literally, I hasten to add, but metaphorically: I seemed to lose the ability to read and to write.
There is an excellent article by Neal Ascherson in the current issue of The London Review of Books (17 November 2016) which chimes with some of the ideas I started to put down in my last post here. “England prepares to leave the world” (such an apposite title) reminds me of something I’ve been thinking, in a rather inchoate way, over the last few months: all of the current shenanigans over Brexit are the result of weakness, not strength. The government is weak, and all of the political parties in Britain are weak, and everything that is happening in British politics at the moment is the result of a desperate effort to hold on rather than anything serious, thought-through and controlled. Continue reading
In the deep dark hours of the morning, in despair at the results coming out of America, I began to think that democracy is broken. Then I thought again. No, democracy isn’t broken, it worked perfectly over Brexit and over Trump. We may not like the results, but the machinery (and that’s all that democracy is, a machine) worked exactly as it was intended to.
But what is broken is the system powered by that machine. And that system is politics; not government, not the will of the people, nothing like that, just politicians. Voters are the motive force that turns the machine, and politicians are what is spewed out at the end of the process. When commentators talk blandly about the Whitehall bubble or the Washington bubble, as they do with ever greater frequency, what they are saying, without ever examining it, is that there is a growing disconnect between the two ends of the process. Continue reading
‘Let’s go left,’ Cadogan suggested. ‘After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.’
I knew about this novel long before I read it, or indeed anything by Edmund Crispin. Maureen kept quoting the line about turning left at a junction because Gollancz was publishing the book. It was a knowingness that amused me. But not enough to make me pick up any of his novels and read them.
Then Maureen re-read this book, and said it might amuse me. So I read it, and there was the famous scene. But by then the self-referentiality of the book was well established. Not long before, when Fen and Cadogan had been locked inside a cupboard, Fen spends the time loudly proposing titles that Crispin might use for his next novel. Indeed, before the story even starts, there’s a note:
None but the most blindly credulous will imagine the characters and events in this story to be anything but fictitious.
Of that generation of mainstream writers who were brought to prominence by the first of Granta‘s Best Young Writers promotions, I steadily lost interest in most of them over the years. Amis fils fell away after just a couple of books, I managed four by Pat Barker before losing interest, it was pretty much the same with Julian Barnes, and the last few novels by Ian McEwan were so dull that the most recent has been sitting on my to-be-read pile for a couple of years without me ever feeling like opening it. Only William Boyd and Graham Swift have, for rather different reasons, stayed the course: I enjoy the historical sweep of Boyd’s novels at his best, and the narrow focus of Swift’s at his best. Continue reading