Every year around this time I have a debate with myself about whether I should retire as a juror on the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. I’ve been doing it for ten years now, which is long enough. It’s a time-consuming job (we’ve had over 100 books submitted this year, and there are a few more I’m hoping to see come in, and I am not a very fast reader), and when I’m supposed to be working on something, like the Priest book that I should be researching, it can be very difficult to find that time. It is also a dispiriting job; there are so many bad books out there, there are times ploughing through another pile of submissions when I wonder what is the point of science fiction any more. Yet it can also be exhilarating, when you happen upon a book that really is fresh and intelligent and exciting that you otherwise would probably not have encountered. A couple of years ago, when the prize went to Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman, was like that, and a couple of years before that when we gave the award to Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux. These few gems really are wonderful compensation, and I am grateful to have encountered them, but do they make up for everything else? That is what I find myself trying to decide.
The problem is sorting out the ones that deserve attention from the rest. The first submissions tend to arrive early in January (I’m sure it used to be earlier, but that’s what it has been for the last couple of years at least) and we need to have made our decision by the beginning of May. This means that the judging process is largely squeezed into a three-month period from mid-January to mid-April. Anyone who sees my annual account of the year’s reading that I post around New Year on this blog will know that I struggle to read 60 or 70 books per year, so how do I cope with reading 100 books in a quarter of that time? The answer is: I don’t.
Time for some cold hard facts about the judging process. This is not some romantic enterprise in which we’re all setting out to find good in everything, we’re not giving books the benefit of the doubt until we come across that aside half-way down page 265 that makes the heart sing. If the heart hasn’t been singing long before then, it’s already out of the reckoning. We’re not looking to find the good in the book; we’re expecting the book to tell us how exceptional it is. We know we’ll be lucky if we find two or three books out of the hundred we receive that truly are exceptional, and with each book we’re saying: prove to me that you are worth my time. And if the book can’t prove it, well, sorry, but there’s another book waiting for my attention. If you’ve ever seen M*A*S*H, then you know that scene where new wounded arrive and the surgeons descend on the bodies like carrion crows. In seconds they are making decisions: prep this one for surgery, this one can wait, this one’s too far gone already. That is rather how judging a literary award feels to me from the inside. It’s not exactly life or death decisions that we’re making, but we are using our experience and our judgement to make snap decisions about which books are going to be worth our attention.
How do we make that decision? The first thing to realise is that it is never one thing. For a start there are seven of us on the jury, we all have different approaches to the task, we are all looking for different things, we all have different responses to what does or doesn’t make a book work. The particulars that will inform my decision may well seem irrelevant to the other judges, and vice versa. That’s part of the strength of the system; if a book comes through all of that and still wins the approval of the jury as a whole, it’s going to have something going for it. On the other hand …
Judging is a collegiate business. During the months we are engaged in this process, we are frantically exchanging emails: what do you make of this, has anyone else read that, this is my take on such-and-such. If a couple of my fellow jurors say X is a bad book, then X is going to slip down your reading list because it’s unlikely it will garner the strength of support needed to put it in contention for the prize. Similarly, if a couple of my fellow jurors say Y is surprisingly good, then I’m likely to pay it more careful attention because it could be a contender. That’s what happened with Lerman’s Radiomen, which I initially thought didn’t look too promising until another juror said how good it was and it made me look again.
Sometimes, eliminating books from consideration can be quite easy. The Campbell is an award for Best Novel, so the three collections of short stories that were submitted this year were never seriously in contention.
The Campbell is also an award for science fiction. Now my definition of science fiction tends to be catholic and fluid, but for the sake of the award I tend to work to a narrower definition in line with the views of some of my fellow jurors. Suffice it to say that if we are presented with magic, dragons, and quests among pseudo-medieval kingdoms, the author is going to have to work hard to convince me that it is not fantasy. There were quite a few books this year that really didn’t work that hard.
After that, it becomes more of a judgement call; but that, after all, is what this is all about. I tend to read the first chapter or so, then flick ahead to read a few pages around the middle of the book. What I’m looking for is something that engages my attention, that makes me want to read the whole book. So far this year, and I still have a fair bit of reading ahead of me, I’ve read eight of the submissions through from beginning to end. That is actually a much higher total than usual, because it means that eight books are in contention so far as I am concerned. There are others where I read maybe half way through before deciding it wasn’t working as well as I would like. But the majority of the submissions don’t get that far, inevitably so, because judging is, after all, a process of elimination. (In my more fanciful moments, I think the term is not elimination but sculpting: you are presented with a block of literature, and your job is to chip away until you get at the wonderful figure within the heart of the block.)
What is it that makes me put a book down, that makes me decide I don’t see this as a contender for the award? Put simply: I am reading for pleasure, and therefore I am looking for a book that gives me pleasure; and I am reading science fiction, therefore I am looking for a book that does what I think the best science fiction should do. For the record, I think the best science fiction should make us see the world anew, should challenge our preconceptions, should encourage us to think afresh.
So, if the book I pick up has dull, pedestrian prose, it will not give me pleasure, and so is put aside.
If a book I am reading fails to excite me with a new vision of what science fiction can achieve, I put it aside. This can take many forms. If a book is volume umpteen in a series, the chances are that any novelty would have come in the first volume or two, and by now the best we can expect is that it features a moderately fresh exploration of a basic scenario that is already very familiar. This is part of the nature of series: if fans want to keep reading volume after volume, it is likely because they want to reacquaint themselves with familiar characters and return to a familiar world. It is not impossible for later volumes in a series to catch our eye, Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, the second volume in his Fractured Europe sequence, and Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley, the fourth book in his Quiet War sequence, both made our shortlist precisely because we felt they had moved things in a new direction. But this is not common, in general the greatest innovation comes at the start of the sequence.
Then there is a trend that seems to be becoming more common in sf, by which modern writers revisit and try to recreate the worlds of sf from a previous generation. Technically, I find this an interesting exercise, but I am very unlikely to consider such works as contenders for the prize. Their whole raison d’etre is to turn back to an older form of science fiction, so they are, almost by definition, not innovating.
Of course, it’s not necessary to try to relive the Golden Age or write an endless series to avoid innovation. Science fiction is full of cliches, and they crop up with alarming regularity. Frankly, when I’m reading for the Campbell Award, the moment I start thinking I’ve read this before, I close the book, unless the author has somehow already convinced me that they are capable of subverting or reinventing the familiar. Few of them are, because, to be honest, that’s not where the money is. It is easier to pick up sales by promising more of what we know you already like than it is to offer something you’ve never read before. But it is the outliers, the ones who do carve out a new territory, that I am most interested in. Again, it is not impossible to catch my attention with work that occupies familiar territory. This year, for instance, I was engaged enough to read all the way through The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt because I felt he was at least trying to edge away from the cliches of space opera, and while the surface plot of Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas was the sort of extended chase-capture-escape sequence we’ve all seen far too many times before, the complex underlying political character of the world felt distinctive and interesting.
There are, inevitably, prejudices involved here. How could there not be; we all have prejudices, we all have things we like and things we don’t like. For my part, I do not particularly like military sf or steampunk, so those types of book have to work extra hard to hold my attention. As I say, not impossible (Linda Nagata’s The Red, for instance), but vanishingly rare. And I have started to develop an intense dislike of any book in which the heroine is described as “kickass”. What this tends to mean is that the only thing to distinguish the heroine from a brutish, heavy-drinking, hard fighting male is the pronoun used, as if this were some gigantic victory for feminism. Prejudice, I know, though I have yet to read any novel with the word “kickass” emblazoned somewhere on the cover in which I could not substitute the word “he” for “she” throughout and notice no significant difference. But that, of course, is why we have a panel of jurors; they hopefully compensate for my prejudices as I compensate for theirs.
The thing is, we are not reading to hate books. We are genuinely searching for the book that stands out above all others. But that can only be one book out of the hundred or so we receive, so a large part of the task is finding reasons to eliminate books along the way.
The trouble is that with too many of the books, that elimination is too easy. When you spend your days picking up and discarding, picking up and discarding, books that are dull, repetitive, uninventive, the whole exercise becomes dispiriting. Has science fiction really come to this? Alas, for too many people too much of the time, the answer is yes. And so I start to ask myself: do I really want to keep on doing this? Is it time to call it a day?
I must go on. I can’t go on. I go on.