Me, talking, again


When does the future begin, when did it end?


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This is a placeholder for something I really don’t have the time to pursue right now.

If you argue, as I have done, that the nature of science fiction can best be understood in terms of family resemblances, when we identify something as science fiction because it resembles something else we have already called science fiction, then popular vote awards can be interesting studies. They provide a snapshot of what is broadly identified as science fiction at any one moment. They can also provide a glimpse of the edge, the disputed territory.

For some reason the Hugo dramatic presentation category, or as it is now called, dramatic presentation, long form, is a particularly interesting case study in this respect. Right from the start the shortlisted works have been an extraordinarily wide-ranging melange of sf, fantasy, horror, non-fiction (Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was shortlisted in 1981), satire, comedy, postmodernism (Being John Malkovich in 2000) and on and on. Even so, I always considered the shortlisting of Apollo 13 in 1996 something of an anomaly.

But now there is a pretty much identical anomaly in the shortlisting of Hidden Figures.

Before I go any further, I must insist that both Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures are excellent films. Nothing I say here should be construed as a criticism of the films, I am only interested in trying to puzzle out their place on the respective Hugo shortlists.

Both films are historical dramas based on real events. Like all dramas there are moments when events are elided, when one character represents several real historical figures, or when a character is a fictional construct meant to represent the norms of the period or to fill in a gap in the historical record. Such invention is common to all historical fiction. Were such invention enough to identify the films as science fiction, then we would have to call every work of fiction science fiction. And while there is a certain interest in such a position, it wouldn’t really be very helpful to anyone; and since sf fans and critics have always been particularly keen on marking their territory, I don’t really think it would be a welcome position within the sf community.

So what is it that does make the films science fiction? Or at least: what is it that makes the films worthy of a science fiction award?

Ah, of course, they both have rockets, they both have space. Isn’t that the archetypal sf setting? Don’t they therefore have family resemblances to everything we recognise as science fiction?

But this is, in neither case, our future in space. It is our past; it is that very brief period in the 1960s when America looked upward and outward. Whatever our space ambitions nowadays, that sense of necessity, of inevitability, of excitement, that sense in John F. Kennedy’s famous words, that “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” – all of that is missing. Indeed, Apollo 13 captures the moment it ended, (and, not entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, Hidden Figures captured the moment it began, including incorporating part of Kennedy’s speech at Rice Stadium). For Apollo 13, the film represented America rising to and overcoming a technological challenge that was all neatly encompassed within one dramatic incident. For Hidden Figures, the challenges of space were a dramatic exemplar for the challenges of racial prejudice that was the film’s core subject. Both films are about a specific time, and in both cases it is important that that time is in the past. Indeed, the most recent events covered in either film, Apollo 13, are getting on for 50 years ago. I would lay odds that a significant percentage of the voters who put both these films on the Hugo ballot were not yet born at the time of the events shown.

And yet, both films are considered, by a not inconsiderable number of core science fiction fans, to be worthy of a science fiction award.

I wonder whether what this means is that, within the science fiction world at least, we can only think in terms of our future in space, not our past in space. Any film that takes us into space is automatically about the future, even if it is set in the past. Is that so? Why? That is the thought I want to muse upon, the thought that prompted this placeholder post.

Shadow Clarke: Occupy Me


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Discussions of the Shadow Clarke choices continue apace. Since my last piece here, several more reviews have appeared.

Jonathan McCalmont on A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna

Nina Allan on Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston

David Hebblethwaite on The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen

Megan AM on Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton and The Destructives by Matthew de Abaitua

Victoria Hoyle on Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Nick Hubble on The Power by Naomi Alderman

Maureen Kincaid Speller on The Trees by Ali Shaw

and me on Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

I’ve included my review below the fold, but you really should go and take part in the discussions. Continue reading

Shadow Clarke: Azanian Bridges


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My reviews for the Shadow Clarke jury are coming just a little too thick and fast right now. There’s only been time for one other review since my last one: this very interesting piece on Christopher Priest’s The Gradual by David Hebblethwaite.

And now here’s my review of Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood, which I very carefully position in relation to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

My review is below the fold, but as ever you should go to the Shadow Clarke hub to join the conversation. Continue reading

Shadow Clarke: The Underground Railroad


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The work of the Clarke Award Shadow Jury continues apace. The jurors are now taking turns to review the books they chose for their personal shortlists. So far you can find:

Nina Allan on The Destructives by Matthew de Abaitua and A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna

Jonathan McCalmont on The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

Victoria Hoyle on The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Megan AM on The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo

Maureen Kincaid Speller on Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

And now there’s my review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

I’m reproducing my review under the fold, but you really should head over to read the other reviews, and keep up with the Shadow Clarke hub, because that’s where the conversation is taking place. Continue reading

Equivalence for the Landscape


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He discovered the Hardy novels, and in time the painter Nash; the hills and trees and standing stones, flowers that broke from their moorings to sail the sky, fossils that reared in ghostly anger from the rocks. Suns rolling their millstones of golden grain; and it seemed he heard, far off and far too late, the shock of distant armies.
Keith Roberts, The Chalk Giants, Hutchinson, 1974, p21

Coming across that passage in the mid-1970s would have been the first time I came across the name Nash. Much later, I added a forename, Paul (later still I discovered there was another Nash, John, his brother and also a painter, though I am embarrassingly unfamiliar with his work). But even with a name, I wasn’t sure which Paul Nash I knew about. There were two that seemed to appear, work occasionally glimpsed in magazines or on the television: the weird, surreal artist, and the one who did all those pictures from the First World War. It would be some time before I realised they were the same; it would be even longer before I saw that they were the same. Continue reading

Post Haste



Patrick Leigh Fermor is rapidly turning into the sort of writer who is more prolific in death than in life. Between his first book, The Traveller’s Tree in 1950 and his death in 2011 he produced ten books, four of them in the first decade. But after Roumeli in the mid-60s the gaps between books grew ever longer, and there are numerous reports of publishers and commissioning editors tearing their hair out trying to extract something, anything from him. It is notable that the last three books published in his lifetime were all at least partly the work of someone else. Three Letters from the Andes (1991) was precisely that, three long letters that he had written during a visit to South America some years before and that someone else shaped into a book. Words of Mercury (2003) was a collection of previously published pieces edited by Artemis Cooper. And In Tearing Haste (2008) is a collection of the letters PLF and Deborah Devonshire exchanged throughout their long friendship, again put together by someone else. Continue reading

The Clarke Award and Me


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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.

From the Shadows


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You may have seen that a Shadow Jury has been announced for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, (follow that link to keep up with announcements and other stuff about the Shadow Jury).

I am pleased, if somewhat daunted, to say that I am on the jury, along with David Hebblethwaite, Vajra Chandrasekera, Nick Hubble, Megan AM, Victoria Hoyle, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jonathan McCalmont, and of course Nina Allan whose idea this was.

I have never been involved with a shadow jury before, so I’m probably going to be making it up as we go along. But my take on it is that the Clarke Award has become central to the way we see science fiction in Britain, so the shadow jury will use it as a jumping off point from which to expand the discussion of science fiction.

We’ll be starting with the submissions list, which is due to be published shortly and which is probably the best and most convenient way to discover what science fiction has been published in Britain during any particular year. From this we will each, individually, draw up our own preferred shortlists, based on what we’ve read and what we want to read. (No plan survives an encounter with the enemy, so I assume that as we read through our chosen books our views about what should or should not be on the shortlist will change. In many ways, I suspect that will be the most interesting part of the exercise.) We will also, of course, be reading the actual shortlist when that is announced, so the whole exercise will be a scaled-up version of Maureen Kincaid Speller’s wonderful Shortlist Project from a few years back.

All of these readings and discussions will of course be online, thanks to Helen Marshall and the Anglia Ruskin Centre, and I suspect I’ll be reprinting some at least of my contributions here.

And at the end of the day: I suspect and hope that we will have a spectacular multivalent view of the state of science fiction in 2016, and we will be seeing the Clarke Award winner and the shortlist in the wider context of what they emerged from. More important, I hope we will have had an informative and enjoyable conversation that changes the way all of us look at contemporary science fiction.