Wasn’t yesterday fun? The Clarke Award shortlist is announced on Tuesday to muted cries of disbelief: what, no By Light Alone? No Osama? No The Islanders? Sheri S Tepper? Are you serious? This is neither unusual nor unexpected. But then Christopher Priest comes crashing into the debate with a long and (mostly) well-argued rant that teeters throughout on the edge of madness and then at the end finally topples into lunacy. Kill the jury! They are incompetent! They didn’t pick the best books!
And now the Clarke Award is all over the newspapers, and even people in the US have actually heard of it.
I remember back in the early 1990s when one publisher was so pissed off at the Clarke shortlist they boycotted the awards ceremony. Another year – it may even have been the same year – the “wrong” book won, and a publisher threatened to never submit any books ever again. It happens, it passes. We talk about it, we move on.
Which is not to say that sometimes awards do royally fuck up. Blackout / All Clear*, for instance. And many people, including myself, are somewhat disappointed with the 2012 Clarke Award shortlist. I didn’t think Embassytown belonged on it. Hull Zero Three I’ve heard mixed reports about. I’ve not heard anything good about The Waters Rising. Rule 34 is a loose sequel to Halting State, which has been sat unread on my book-shelves since I was given a free ARC of it at alt.fiction in 2008 (see here). Besides, I’ve worked in IT for twenty years, I’m a geek – and I hate geek fiction. I know nothing about The End Specialist, though the general consensus seems to be it’s pretty good and shows promise but isn’t exactly award-worthy. The Testament of Jessie Lamb I’ve read and it was the one title I guessed would be – and wanted to be – on the shortlist, so I’m pleased I got that right.
Of course, when teacup tempests like this occur, something is needed to calm the troubled, er, beverage. “It wasn’t a failure of process” is one. “The committee did exactly what they were charged with doing” is another. Both are valid. “It’s entirely subjective” is a third. It’s also complete bollocks. As Adam Roberts put it “aesthetic judgment is not an exact science”. But it’s certainly not an “entirely subjective” process. Otherwise we wouldn’t have literary sf vs every other type of sf. We wouldn’t even have classics of literature. Some books are objectively better than others. FACT.
The Clarke is a juried award, so it’s not a popularity contest. It doesn’t matter how nice the author of a book is; it should not influence the judges’ decision (see Cheryl Morgan here for mention of the different ways in which juried awards can work). Books don’t get on juried shortlists as rewards for long and well-regarded careers. Having said that, the Clarke is not just about the best science fiction novels published during the preceding year. It also tries to say something about the state of the genre in the UK. It’s a bloody great loud announcement in the genre conversation. (Which does make you wonder why they shortlisted a ten-year-old Tim Powers novel last year…) The Clarke shortlist does not just say, “here are the six best sf novels published last year” – because they are patently not. The shortlist also says something about what British science fiction is and should be. Whether we want to hear, or understand, that message is another matter entirely.
I certainly think that British science fiction appears to have smeared out into a spectrum with two extremes, at one end China Miéville and at the other Neal Asher. We have “literary” sf on the one side – Adam Roberts, Christopher Priest, Gwyneth Jones, etc. On the other, the giant splodey spaceships school of sf – Gary Gibson, Michael Cobley, Stephen Baxter (mostly), Gavin Smith, Charles Stross, Paul McAuley, Al Reynolds… And everything spread out on a line in between. The more literary end has dominated the Clarke Award in recent years. The current shortlist shifts the balance a little back towards the core genre end.
It’s an argument worth making. I can’t claim to know what was going through the heads of the judges, I can only speculate given the six books they chose for the shortlist. Some of them are acquaintances, and I’m aware of their opinions on certain genre-related matters. But even then, I wouldn’t dream of speaking for them as I’m as likely to be completely wrong as I am anywhere near the truth. However, if their intention was to get people talking, then in that respect they have succeeded admirably.
One such conversation took place yesterday on Twitter between myself and Neil Williamson. He argued that entertainment was often under-valued when determining the quality of a book. I pointed out that good books should do more than just entertain – “a book that aims for a low target should not be praised for hitting it”. Bad books can also prove entertaining – the example I gave was the works of AE van Vogt, which are abysmal but I enjoy reading them. Neil responded that writers should be praised if their books are entertaining, and skilfully and deliberately so. And so forth. We agreed to agree. I don’t doubt that over the next few weeks – and especially in the bar at the Eastercon next weekend – the Clarke shortlist will spark off further discussions. Some of them may even reach a conclusion or two.
And then, of course, there is the awards ceremony, when the winner of the Clarke will be announced. They will, of course, pick the wrong book. That’s how it works. And then we can argue about it all over again…
Until next year.
(* Completely unrelated, but has no one noticed that choosing Blackout and All Clear as titles links them incorrectly? During WWII, the blackout was permanent, it did not signal the start of an air-raid. The “all clear” was sounded after an air raid had finished.)
March 30, 2012 at 9:37 am
Having said that, the Clarke is not just about the best science fiction novels published during the preceding year. It also tries to say something about the state of the genre in the UK. It’s a bloody great loud announcement in the genre conversation. (Which does make you wonder why they shortlisted a ten-year-old Tim Powers novel last year…)
I don’t think there is any mystery to that last point. The answer is because your premise is false.
March 30, 2012 at 9:43 am
Well, no. I didn’t say “a book published ten years earlier”. The age of a book is determined by its year of copyright. Declare may have been first published in the UK in 2010, but it was first published in the US by Subterranean Press in June 2000 and is copyrighted that year.
March 30, 2012 at 9:58 am
Your premise is that the Clarke is not just about the best science fiction novels published during the preceding year, it also tries to say something about the state of the genre in the UK. This isn’t true. In fact, the Clarke is only about the best science fiction published in the UK in the preceding year. Hence there is no reason to be surprised by the appearance of Declare on the shortlist.
March 30, 2012 at 10:00 am
March 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm
But Tom Hunter has said that he sees the Clarke award as having a role in expanding the conversation about SF, about challenging preconceptions, about expanding the envelope of what is considered SF and what is not. That sounds very much like an enterprise with a somewhat wider remit than merely choosing the best SF novel published in the UK during the preceeding year. It is not just about saying something about the state of genre, it is also shaping the terms of that conversation.
Ian: I don’t much agree with your bipolar characterisation of British SF; it’s far too nuanced and complex for that. Writers are multivalent, they’re capable of inhabiting more than one pole at the same time. Position China at the literary end, and Asher at the other: how do you reconcile the fact that both are fascinated with the creation and depiction of monsters? I do “splodey spaceships”. So does M John Harrison.
Sorry, far too simplistic.
March 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm
Yeah, I was trying to make a point with it, but kept on thinking of exceptions. But I decided to go with it because it’s simplistic and broad-brushstrokes but it does sort of characterise the literary sf vs heartland sf debate which has sprung up a lot in recent years.
March 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm
But Tom is talking about the outcome of the process, not the aim of the process, and I think that is an important distinction. As director of the award, he is responsible for promoting it but he isn’t involved in the process itself at all.
I do very much agree that it doesn’t make much sense to bundle you and, say, Stross and Smith together though.
March 30, 2012 at 9:57 am
“I pointed out that good books should do more than just entertain – “a book that aims for a low target should not be praised for hitting it”.”
There’s nothing wrong with doing that, as long as everyone knows that that is what the specific award is for. The BSFA Award fills that niche perfectly (except that the voting base is probably fairly small). But I agree that the Clarke ought to be about the best that the genre in the UK has to offer, according to all criteria – literary merit as well as readability and entertainment value.
March 30, 2012 at 11:45 am
There’s a ’40’s film called Sullivan’s Travels about a director who wants to make the great Depression Era movie, called O Brother, Where Art Thou? because he’s tired of making cheesy comedy flicks that appeal to a mass audience. So he goes down amongst the common people to find that story, but has an epiphany when he realises it’s his cheap comedies that are giving them genuine respite from their otherwise grim circumstances. He wants to create high art, but discovers that ‘low’ art also has social value.
Both arguments are in fact correct. Works that push the envelope and pump new blood and ideas into the genre and that innovate should be celebrated. But so should works of mass entertainment. All of it has value, for different reasons, sometimes to different people, but often to the same people. My Neal Stephenson books sit side by side with my Wild Cards composite novels.
March 30, 2012 at 11:49 am
I’m not saying low art has no place. But I don’t believe works of low art should be held up as models of what art is capable of achieving in terms of excellence. Low art is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator and, let’s be frank, that doesn’t take as much skill, craft, talent or art as high art.
March 30, 2012 at 1:30 pm
Now you’re making me angry. Seriously. And I’m not really comfortable with this high art/low art thing, but be that as it may, I believe creating–no, *crafting*–a really affecting, immersive piece of entertainment takes every bit as much skill, craft and talent as it takes to create a piece of ‘high art’. It’s just focusing on a different subset of the tools that every writer has to employ in the creation of a novel length work. What the ‘low art’ example *may* lack is exceptional insight or inspiration. That’s the difference–not the skill, talent or indeed hard work of the writer involved.
March 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm
It’s Gary’s fault. He used the phrase “low art”. And I suspect we may be using the term to mean different things.
March 30, 2012 at 1:41 pm
Okay, let’s agree to blame Gary. 😀
March 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm
Works for me. Besides, what do you expect of someone who puts giant space fish in his novels? 🙂
March 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm
I don’t know that I can answer that: I put a giant allegorical moonfish in mine…
March 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm
Art works on many levels, but one thing is clear to me. Low or high, it is still subject to critical standards. A clumsily written story is a bad story whether it is a action-packed adventure or an existential meditation on grief. I am entertained by lots of things but bad writing is never one of them.
March 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm
No argument, there, Kev. But whatever their intention, no writer sets out to write badly. And bad writing occurs equally in the ambitious writing as it does in novels written for entertainment (for me, for all your allegory and art, a failure to tell the story adequately equates to bad writing).
Ah, fuck it. I really need to do a blog of my own on this to get it straight.
March 30, 2012 at 11:48 am
I’m trying to work up my argument into more of a thing cos I’m convinced you’re wilfully refusing to get it. If we do this right it’ll last us the whole Easter weekend!
March 30, 2012 at 11:49 am
# Otherwise we wouldn’t have literary
# sf vs every other type of sf. We
# wouldn’t even have classics of
# literature. Some books are
# objectively better than others. FACT.
FALSE. For every one of those classics, you can find large numbers of people who think they’re utter rubbish. They are only classics because a larger number of people, or a collection of more important/influential people, thought they were better.
As for most of the works put forward as ‘should have been included in the shortlist’, they will be massively outsold by YA and “‘splody spaceships'” SF. The most objective measure we have for quality is the market, and on that basis I suspect that the Clarke’s will not be as wrong as everyone says (I bet Embassytown sells like hot cakes).
I’m not saying that the market tells us what’s “the best” (if I were making that case I’d have to claim that ‘football anthem’ singles and ‘the birdy song’ were good music), but the claim that any group of like-thinking intellectuals can is just as suspect. Indeed, the whole idea of ‘literature’ is suspect.
‘Literature’ is a class phenomenon, where the class that holds power selects works that address its interests and concerns, and declares them to be the only works of value.
Consider the ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition of works that the Nazis considered ‘Degenerate’. This exhibition included people like Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian and Ernst, who are now held in high regard. Had the nazis won, we would all probably consider this art to be the worst rubbish, we like to tell ourselves that we wouldn’t, that the eternal quality of the piece would sing out to us and we’d recognize it, but it’s probably not true. Had they won the thinking of every one of us would be shaped by the dominant orthodoxy, and anyone who said “But I like that stuff!” would come under terrific peer pressure from learned friends explaining to them in great detail why they shouldn’t.
There was a similar control of artistic opinion in the Soviet Union, and in the modern age I’ve seen that the counterveiling power dynamic exists. The Soviets did produce some cool stuff, some crazy buildings and what-have-you, but these are sneered at now. I’ve met people who in the same breath run down some of the remaining soviet era buildings in Berlin as ‘inhuman’, while praising the appallingly inhuman (but capitalist) Sony Center.
In colonial times the dominant orthodoxy looked down on the artworks of other peoples and nations, and the majority of the populace agreed with them. It’s only in recent times that artworks from other cultures get hung in our galleries and performed in our music-halls.
Art is not objectively ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in any sense, in fact we cannot look at it in any objective way at all. The message that a viewer or reader takes from a piece is something personal to them, I’ve known people who’ve found deeper truths (for them) in the Clangers (admittedly a spec-fic classic) than in the entire canon of Shakespere (admittedly old-skool pulp).
Hence the argument over the Clarke awards really comes down to a club of people who know what they like, and consider that to be ‘quality’. Other people think differently, and maybe this year those people held sway. Christopher Priest’s rant was full of statements about how people should write, that they should avoid ‘careless solecisms’ and ‘neologisms or SF nonce-words’. Presumably he would take a hatchet to most of the works of Lewis Caroll, who made up new words all the time, many of which subsequently entered the english language. Frankly I like neologisms, and I don’t give a hoot if mr Priest doesn’t.
Mr Priest has no more right to impose his opinion of ‘good writing’ on others than have I. Writers should write what they want. People should like what they like.
At the end of the day Mr Priest’s claim that the jury were ‘incompetent’ because they didn’t pick his favorite books for the shortlist is no different from any other fan wailing “They didn’t pick it’s a fix!” The jury picked what they liked, what spoke to them. They can’t be incompentent at that, claiming they are is as rational as claiming that someone is incompetent because they like oranges, when they *should* like apples. No doubt Mr Priest would like to pack out a jury with his mates who’ll vote for the kind of books he likes. We’d all like to do that, but most of us accept that we’ve no right to do so.
March 30, 2012 at 11:59 am
The most objective measure we have for quality is the market
This is categorically untrue. I’m surprised you even bother mentioning it. For one thing, there is no such thing as a perfect consumer, so the market is open to all sorts of influence – cf John Carter. Second, see my comment above re low v high art.
Consider the ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition of works that the Nazis considered ‘Degenerate’.
Straw man. That’s a political distinction, not an artistic one. (And I bet Goering was happy to have them hanging on the walls of his study.)
The Soviets did produce some cool stuff, some crazy buildings and what-have-you, but these are sneered at now.
Not true. Several books – such as CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed – are showcases of Soviet Modernist architecture. Modernism and Brutalism are widely respected as architectural movements.
Frankly I like neologisms, and I don’t give a hoot if mr Priest doesn’t.
I suspect Priest is referencing “calling a rabbit a smeerp”. If a word exists for something, why coin a new one? And Miéville does it far too often in Embassytown.
Finally, “like” is not a critical judgment. Clarke jurors don’t shortlist books because they “like” them. See earlier – they pick them because (they believe) they are the best books published during the year in question. Again, “aesthetic judgment is not an exact science”. But neither is it a subjective process. The fact that someone thinks Pride and Prejudice, for example, is “rubbish” only reveals their ignorance in the subject.
March 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm
##The most objective measure we have for quality is the market
# This is categorically untrue. I’m surprised you even
#bother mentioning it.
If this is untrue, then what are you claiming is a more objective measure? You are right that the market is open to all kinds of influence, I didn’t say it was a perfectly objective measure, but that it’s the *most* objective measure we have, and it is. A very wide range of people can take part in the market (though obviously, not everyone, and some people can afford to ‘vote’ multiple times). More ‘voters’ are present in the market than in any other system you care to choose, it has a bigger mandate than say, the hugos. What are you proposing as a more objective system?
Note, I’m taking ‘objective’ here to mean something that can be agreed by the widest range of people, as the ‘true’ meaning of objective, something that is true without people even being involved (like the laws of physics) clearly doesn’t apply.
## Consider the ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition of works
## that the Nazis considered ‘Degenerate’.
# Straw man. That’s a political distinction, not an artistic one.
I don’t think you can claim this is a ‘straw man’ either, though we might be talking at cross-purposes on this one. I was using the example to illustrate that there have been periods of history when the dominant standard of artistic value was different, and that therefore it could be different today. If this isn’t true then how come some works go in and out of fashion? Can we really believe that there is some underlying and eternal standard of quality across all human cultures? I don’t think we can.
You say the nazi exhibition was a political phenomenon, not an artistic one, but the two are inseparable. When making statements of value, people do it from the position of their politics. When people say, for instance, that a work ‘makes important statements about the human condition’, they are operating from a viewpoint of what the ‘human condition’ is, and that will be a political viewpoint.
If you have a society that values war (nazis, klingons, british empire, whatever you like) and which praises works because they illustrate and inform the ‘warrior spirit’, are they making a political statement, or an artistic one? I think they are making both, they are saying they are a certain type of person who likes a certain type of thing.
In all societies there is normally a dominant group who define what is the ‘best’ art. This is a political situation, and this is the case even when people talk about the Clarke awards. You cannot escape from it.
## The Soviets did produce some cool stuff, some crazy
## buildings and what-have-you, but these are sneered
## at now.
# Not true. Several books – such as CCCP: Cosmic
# Communist Constructions Photographed – are
# showcases of Soviet Modernist architecture.
All you are saying there is that these forms have their fans. Everything has its fans. If you are saying that the majority of people and commentators praise soviet art, then you live in a different universe to me (this is not impossible, I have encountered many people who’ve had life experiences starkly at odds with mine. For instance, they’ve owned compaq computers that were reliable. Which of us is right in these scenarios?)
# I suspect Priest is referencing “calling a rabbit a
# smeerp”. If a word exists for something, why coin a
# new one?
Hmm… okay, that’s different, I thought he was talking about neologisms for new things (you’d expect a work of SF to have new things requiring new names in it). But still, I might like words for existing things, I might consider the invention of ever wilder words for existing things to be a form of art, and if so, and if I get on a book panel and vote accordingly, who are you, or Mr Priest, or anyone to say I shouldn’t do that?
# Finally, “like” is not a critical judgment.
Yes, it is.
# Clarke jurors don’t shortlist books because they “like”
# them. See earlier – they pick them because (they
# believe) they are the best books published during the
# year in question.
Ian, what do you think ‘like’ means? If you say you like something, you are expressing a value judgment. After all, the next question after ‘what do you like?’ is ‘why do you like it?’, and at that point the answerer starts listing all the reasons why they value the thing. The thing they value most is what they consider to be the ‘best’. So, when you say that jurors pick a work because they consider it the best, I can’t see that that’s any other than saying they like it most.
What I think you’re saying (and admittedly I might misunderstand, but it’s how I read what you’ve said here) is that they shouldn’t use their own reasons and standards to define value (i.e. what they ‘like’) they should use someone else’s (the ‘best’). Why should they do this?
# Again, “aesthetic judgment is not an exact science”.
# But neither is it a subjective process.
If it is not a subjective process, then it must exist without a subject to judge it. Even a statement like “It’s hot” is subjective, as anyone who has ever fought over control of a central-heating remote knows. If there are objective rules for artistic value, then we should be able to set them down here and now. This would be very dangerous, because we would be forced to declare that any cultures we encounter in future whose art does not fit the rules has poor-quality art, and this would be both dangerous and nonsensical.
# The fact that someone thinks Pride and Prejudice,
# for example, is “rubbish” only reveals their ignorance
# in the subject.
But then, when you yourself say that Transformers 3 is:
“More coherent than earlier Transformers films, but just as offensive. Irritating, stupid, and wrong, wrong, wrong.”
You must except that this reveals your ignorance on the subject of giant robots hitting each other. There are people who love that movie, and would list it as one of the best of the past year. I agree with you, this confounds me, and I’ve not even seen it, but I’m pretty confident my reaction will be akin to yours. However, I have to recognize that my reaction is just my reaction, perhaps if I knew the entire transformers backstory, grew up watching the tv cartoons, or was myself a shape-changing robot, I might be moved to tears.
There is no objective standard of artistic merit, if there were then it would exist in all times and places and cultures, indeed it would exist independent of any culture. This is clearly not the case. Even if we look to what artforms are popular within modern human cultures, we see that ‘low art’ tends to win out every time. ‘High art’ is the result of value judgments by an empowered clique of people, and has no greater ‘validity’ or value than anything else.
People who say that the ‘wrong books won’ are saying they liked a certain book, for certain reasons. The judges on the day liked other books for other reasons. I grant you that the reasons for liking the work should be artistic (not, for instance, that the author is a nice person or looks hot in their book-cover photo) but it is entirely possible for people to disagree about the artistic merits of things, and those who claim that any who disagree with them are ‘incompetent’ are not making any statement of real value.
March 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm
I suspect this is a discussion for the bar at a con. So just a couple of points for now, as I’ll no doubt run into you at some point over one or the other of the next two weekends.
Saying the market is the most objective measure we have means that the Harry Potter books are objectively better than, say, Midnight’s Children (which won the Booker of Bookers). That’s nonsensical. Pride and Prejudice is still read 200 years later, The Black Dwarf is not.
Granted that there have been periods in history when different artistic standards held sway. I’m currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which illustrates exactly that point. But you chose your example badly, because the Nazis were pretty much motivated entirely by politics.
Finally, “like” is not a critical judgment. You can admire a book, and appreciate the skill and/or talent which has gone into making it, without actually liking or enjoying the book. If someone has written bad code, for instance, but the app works as specified, that doesn’t make the code magically good. I’ve seen countless number of database designs that do what they’re intended but break just about every rule of good database design.
March 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm
# Saying the market is the most
# objective measure we have means that
# the Harry Potter books are objectively
# better than, say, Midnight’s Children
# (which won the Booker of Bookers).
# That’s nonsensical.
Not it’s not. More people liked it, so it’s better. What other measure is there?
Of course, it is nonsensical, but only because there’s no such thing as an objective measure of artistic quality.
I tried to read ‘Midnight’s Children’ once, and it didn’t hold me for more than a few pages, so on that measure it wasn’t very good (I will probably give it a second chance sometime). The thing is, that most people will say that’s a flaw with *me*, not the work. I’ve been through these arguments, and they always come down to ‘Lots of people think it’s great, so you must be wrong’. However, if I failed to finish ‘Twilight’, then those same people would probably agree that this was due to flaws in the work, even though far more people like ‘Twilight’ than ‘Midnight’s Children’.
It all comes down to an empowered elite who define quality. If you dislike what they like, then you are ignorant or stupid, if you like what they like, then you are an informed person of taste. They prefer Midnight’s Children to Harry Potter, and they are quite entitled to that, but the majority prefer Harry Potter, and their viewpoint is just as valid.
The argument that one type of writing is better than another type of writing is as valid as arguments over which is the ‘better’ flavor of crisps. If I’m the only person on the planet who likes a particular writer, but I genuniely find greater meaning and pleasure in their work than anyone else’s, then is their work ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Is it the best, or not?
For me it’s the best, for someone else it’s not. The only way to make it ‘objective’ is to count votes, but then as you point out Harry Potter wins. In the end there is no rock for us to base our opinions on.
Pride and Prejudice is still read 200 years later, The Black Dwarf is not.
March 30, 2012 at 8:17 pm
# I suspect this is a discussion
# for the bar at a con.
Oh, by then I will have lost all interest, something else will have happened and pushed all this stuff out of my brain.
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March 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm
Christopher Priest’s rant was full of statements about how people should write, that they should avoid ‘careless solecisms’ and ‘neologisms or SF nonce-words’. Presumably he would take a hatchet to most of the works of Lewis Caroll, who made up new words all the time, many of which subsequently entered the english language. Frankly I like neologisms, and I don’t give a hoot if mr Priest doesn’t.
It was a polemical essay, not a “rant”. People who use the second word should look it up in the dictionary.
The essay was not “full of statements about how people should write”. It was about the concern we should all have for good or effective writing. That was a central concern I felt was culpably absent in the deliberations of the judging panel.
My only reference to neologisms is in the passage about Embassytown. I argued that China Miéville’s use of them was a lazy way of trying to create a sense of strangeness or alienness, while better writers go for more subtle methods, harder to do than just sticking “void” and “craft” together. This was the sort of shorthand you found in the pulps, in the old Ace Doubles. We’ve moved on from those days. China is being acclaimed at the highest level, and it’s about time he stopped using lazy tricks and rose to the challenges of that level. We can all recognize that he is a gifted and interesting writer, but he should be using his talent more.
Finally, the main point of the essay, which everyone seems to miss (perhaps my fault for not emphasizing it enough), is the importance of a strong shortlist. No good writer wants to win an award against secondrate competitors. (Note what happened with last year’s Booker Prize shortlist: an open goal for Julian Barnes, which must have left him with a feeling that Manchester United had whipped Chipping Sodbury Rangers.) So the four omitted novels I mentioned (none of which is an obvious outright winner) would have made up a strong and diverse shortlist. Any of them might have won, but even if they did not the eventual winner would feel a battle had been bravely won. Hence my rude dismissal of the talking horse, the stage Scotsmen, the spaceship travellers, etc. I still find those choices incomprehensible.
March 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm
As someone who dislikes the word “spaceship” (they’re spacecraft, dammit), my thoughts on neologisms like “voidcraft” are probably unprintable. There were also, I seem to recall, some similarly inelegant coinings associated with the AI character in Embassytown.
There’s no doubt, I think, in anyone’s mind that a strong shortlist is good for the Clarke and good for British sf. The general consensus also seems to be that this year’s features some weak novels. I certainly found it disappointing. Typically, there’s usually one or two that I want to read after learning of them from the shortlist. That’s not the case this year. But then it seems there’s always one or two or more inexplicable choices made by the Clarke judges every year. It’s almost de rigeur. Which is not to say that the award is deliberately perverse as matter of a policy. That would be silly and self-defeating. But it is the nature of the beast. And I suspect that actually makes it good for the British sf.
March 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm
Please note there is no team called Chipping Sodbury Rangers.
March 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm
I suspect, and may be wrong, that people would be more inclined to consider the first part of your post a polemical essay rather than a rant, if it hadn’t veered towards the latter when you introduced your ‘modest proposal’ about sacking the jury and never letting them near the award again. That, in many eyes, was a step too far.
To look at your content regarding the books themselves, one comment in particular stood out as being hard to understand. It is a line you repeat above in effect, in dismissing Greg Bear’s novel as ‘spaceship travellers’ and ‘people get in space ships to go somewhere to do something’. This is a glib dismissal of a sizable chunk of genre history, and a description that seems to equally cover excellent novels by Samuel R Delany, M John Harrison, Gwyneth Jones, Joanna Russ, Liz Williams, Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod,and kim Stanley robinson as much as it does the pulps of the 50s. In other words a meaningless comment, unless you truly believe SF should stay Earthbound. Hull Zero Three has faults, but being set on a spaceship is not automatically one.
March 30, 2012 at 5:46 pm
Although I wasn’t the first to use the term rant, I’d like to point out that I had it down as a rant much earlier than the ‘modest’ proposal, I think it was comparing Charles Stross to an ‘internet puppy’ about to wet the carpet that tipped things over the edge for me.
I have, as suggested looked up the terms ‘rant’ and ‘polemic’. I do know what a rant is, I do it often enough myself to be sure, but I thought I’d check the ‘official’ line.
Merriam Webster says:
1: to talk in a noisy, excited, or declamatory manner
2: to scold vehemently
3: transitive verb : to utter in a bombastic declamatory fashion
I further see that ‘polemic’ is, according to wikipedia:
A polemic ( /p@*lEmIk/) is a disputed argument attacking a point of view, the polemic is mostly seen in argument about controversial topics; it can be used of a person who is given to aggressively controversial argument though polemist is also used. The word is derived from the Greek polemiko%*s (polemikos), meaning “warlike, hostile”
Hence the two things are not mutually contradictory, it is entirely possible for a polemic to also be a rant. Polemic is content, rant is a delivery system.
The prosecution rests.
March 30, 2012 at 9:07 pm
# The essay was not “full of
# statements about how people
# should write”.
Yes it was. Consider:
“Many of the submissions were fantasy of the least ambitious type, and many of the science fiction titles were almost as firmly embedded in genre orthodoxies, to their own huge disadvantage (and discredit), as the plodding, laddish works of Mr Mark Billingham.”
This is a statement as to how people should write, you are saying they should avoid ‘genre orthodoxies’. If you don’t like genre orthodoxies, then you should avoid them, I’m sure you do. Others might like to play in that particular sandpit, and they are entitled to.
You then go on to praise various books for “excellent, evocative and atmospheric description” and “wicked satirical moments” while damning other works for “neologisms”, or “depending too heavily on genre commonplaces” or for starting with “interstellar ships arriving somewhere”. In all of this you are making statements about how people should write.
This accusation would not stick if you were merely saying “I didn’t like Stross’s literary style” or “I’m sick of interstellar spaceships”, but that’s not what you have said. You have said that the books listed for the Clarke award are objectively worse than others, to the point that the judges of the award are ‘incompetant’. You cannot say this without turning all your previous statements from being statements of taste to being objective recomendations.
If you argue that certain styles and approaches disqualify one from consideration for award recognition then you are making statements about how people should write, or at least about how they should write if their works are to be considered of any value.
If you are saying “This is how I say they should write if their works are to be considered as having value BY ME”, well, that’s fair enough, but then you can’t call for the public execution of the judges, or for them to be put in the stocks, or for them to resign.
March 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm
# My only reference to neologisms is
# in the passage about Embassytown.
Once is enough, Mr Priest, if you eat one baby then you are a baby eater, I’m afraid.
# I argued that China Mieville’s use
# of them was a lazy way of trying to
# create a sense of strangeness or
Hmm… I admit that I thought you were just objecting to the coining of new words at all. But still…
# while better writers go for more
# subtle methods, harder to do than
# just sticking “void” and “craft”
Subtle is not always better, these ‘subtle methods’ are likely to burn words, I think. Sometimes brevity is the soul of creating a sense of strangeness.
# This was the sort of shorthand you
# found in the pulps, in the old Ace
It may have been, but that doesn’t make it wrong per se. I normally invoke “The argument for burning witches” when people claim that something is good because it has a long history, but here the opposite rule applies, just because something has a long history doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing either. I don’t have a snappy name for that one. Yet.
As you say, neologisms are a short-hand, and sometimes a short-hand is exactly what’s needed.
You may be right that China is using them poorly here, but this doesn’t change the fact that they can be used well. You just said “He also uses far too many neologisms”, which to me sounded like you were saying they’re a bad thing per se.
# China is being acclaimed at the
# highest level, and it’s about time
# he stopped using lazy tricks and
# rose to the challenges of that level.
I feel assured that China will continue to use whatever tricks he likes, whether you think they’re lazy or not, and that history will be the judge of whether he rose to the challenges of ‘the highest level’.
# We can all recognize that he is
# a gifted and interesting writer, but
# he should be using his talent more.
He’s using his talent as he sees fit. If he gets a kick out of sticking two words together to make a new one, that’s up to him. If other people, even judges of award panels, also get a kick from his tricks, that’s up to them. If you don’t like it, that’s up to you. You can say you don’t like it, but you can’t all for:
‘The present panel of judges should be fired, or forced to resign, immediately.’
That’s not up to you.
March 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm
>the stage Scotsmen,
Believe it or not, people really do talk like that in Edinburgh…
March 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm
You’re kidding me?
Guys frae the Weej ar lambastin their betters.
March 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm
I actually might be joking, a little bit, yes.
Charlie’s local dialogue is sometimes quite accurate, but sometimes he just uses a phrase a bit wrongly it rings false.Can’t remember what it was now, but there was one phrase used in Rule 34 that was consistently off the mark.
I don’t mind it though–at least he’s trying, and his Edinburgh characters don’t sound like they’re from England. (I mean, *imagine* that such a thing could happen!)
March 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm
I say, that would be jolly infra-dig, rather.
March 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm
I’m joking too.
If I have a complaint about dialect Halting State (and any similar usage in Stross’s other work) it’s that – to my ear – he often gets it wrong enough that it’s feels like finger nails down a blackboard. I confess this might be to do with my own proximity to it.
Dialect is tricky and we Scots are easy to annoy because of our giant (bag of?) chips. He’s from Yorkshire and I certainly wouldn’t attempt any ee bah gum stuff… It’s true – he does try – and I think he’s good enough I can give him a pass most of the time.
March 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm
One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to encourage a flexibility of mind.
March 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm
Arthur? Is that you?
Step away from the light Arthur, come back to us!
Yes, the stars are right and the time has come when Arthur shall return to Albion once more, to defend the award from neferious detractors and turburlent Priests!
March 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm
Books don’t get on juried shortlists as rewards for long and well-regarded careers.
Not sure that’s true, Ian. Juried shortlists are by definition creatures of compromises and consensus. I can certainly see a jury deciding to reward a writer’s work with a slot on that basis.
March 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm
If that happens, then they’re doing it wrong. And I don’t think the Clarke judges did it wrong – see Martin’s comment earlier.
March 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm
It’s interesting to compare the Clarke shortlist to the BSFA Best Novel shortlist: http://www.bsfa.co.uk/bsfa-awards/ for this year.
The British Fantasy Society must be sweating now after switching to a jury to avoid the rumpus that their popular vote caused last year. It was started by one of their previous winners who happened to miss out on that occasion, if I recall correctly.
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