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.)