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Reading diary 2020, #8

I was briefly tempted to review all six books on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, as announced in mid-June, given there’s been a tradition of commentary throughout the award’s history. Of course, there is no guarantee I’d finish reading the books by the time the winner is announced in September. Once upon a time, the Clarke Award used to generate interesting, if occasionally controversial, shortlists. While you might not have agreed with every book nominated, the shortlist generally included books otherwise unknown that were worth reading. But things seem to have slipped these last few years. Not just the presence of Sea of Rust on the shortlist in 2018, which was quite frankly hackwork… I mean, when you remember bad nominees of the past, such as Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three in 2012, it was at least a novel in conversation with the genre, and Bear is an accomplished craftsman… Some of the more recent nominees, unfortunately, can claim neither.

The Clarke commentary no longer takes place. An attempt to reinvigorate it several years ago with a shadow jury was loudly condemned by US fans who plainly didn’t understand what a shadow jury is and equally plainly hadn’t bothered to find out. Despite all claims to the contrary, fandom is not a community. Once upon a time, it was an emergent phenomenon of the stories’ existence. Now it’s just a part of the marketing machine, and, happily for the publishers, it costs them nothing. Five stars means less than one star. Giving a book five stars just makes you a fucking mug. And everything is dominated by the US, a nation which seems congenitally incapable of recognising that other countries exist and they do things differently there (yes, I know, that’s a time-based reference, not geographic one; but never mind). True, science fiction is an American mode of fiction, and the single largest market for its creations, so its dominance is hardly surprising. But us non-USians, while we may appreciate the genre output of the US – the stories, the novels, the films, the TV series – we don’t actually give a shit about what US fans think. Science fiction fandom is not one giant global family. It never has been. And it never should be. Vive la différence.

All but one of the books below were nominated for genre awards. One won. Deservedly, I must admit. ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ was on the Nebula novella shortlist in 1966 (the award’s first shortlist), but lost to joint winners ‘He Who Shapes’ and ‘The Saliva Tree’. Space Opera was nominated for the Hugo in 2019. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein won the BSFA Award in 2020. The Last Astronaut has been nominated for the 2020 Clarke Award shortlist. And Borne was on the 2018 Clarke Award shortlist. Strandloper is non-genre, and was not, as far as I can discover, nominated for any awards. You’d expect some top-drawer reading out of that bunch of accolades. A shame, then, to find it wasn’t the case.

The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1965/1966, USA). I’m pretty sure I first read this on a family holiday in Paris in the early 1980s. I have a memory of buying Delany’s collection, Driftglass (the Panther/Granada paperback edition), from an English-language bookshop in Paris, chiefly because I’d taken the 1977 Sphere paperback of The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star with me to read during the holiday. While both ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ and ‘Empire Star’ had stayed with me during the nearly forty years since, ‘Empire Star’ more than ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’, it must be said, I’d never bothered to reread them. Until now. And this despite being a big fan of Delany’s fiction and non-fiction. True, some of his output is hugely dated. But some of his output is brilliant precisely because it is dated. The two novellas here have aged extremely well, and while the clever Moebius-strip narrative of ‘Empire Star’ I’d remembered pretty much accurately over the last four decades, I’d forgotten how good was ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’. An anthropology student is sent to study the eponymous song, the only original piece of art created by the Star Folk, the degenerate survivors of a convoy of generation starships, who were beaten to the rest of the galaxy by progress. The story behind the song is pretty much handed to the student on a plate, but it’s an interesting story, and not at all what the reader would have expected. ‘Empire Star’ has a simple plot: Comet Jo, a plyasil farmhand in a “simplex” asteroid-based community finds a crystallised Tritovian and is told to take it to Empire Star to deliver a message. And that’s what he does. Along the way he meets people who have previously interacted with him at different points in their lives, and learns about the Lll, the only enslaved people in the galaxy and the galaxy’s greatest builders, and the war fought over them and their emancipation. I’ve long considered ‘Empire Star’ one of my favourite novellas – I reread it early this century, I seem to remember – and on this reread, my admiration of it remains undiminished. Read both of these novellas, they’re worth it. But definitely read ‘Empire Star’.

Strandloper Alan Garner (1996, UK). This was inspired by the real life story of William Buckley, a giant of a man – between 6ft 5 inches and 6ft 7 inches, apparently – and an ex-soldier, who at the turn of the nineteenth century was transported to Australia for 14 years for carrying a bolt of cloth he maintained he had not known was stolen (British justice – the envy of the world, eh?). Shortly after arrival in what is now Australia, he learnt the penal colony was being moved to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and escaped. He was taken in by the Wathaurong People and spent thirty years living among them. The protagonist of Strandloper – also called William Buckley – is transported for “lopping” the local squire’s oaks, and sedition – the latter based on a piece of paper, a “tract”, containing passages from the Bible, chosen by the squire’s son, the semi-literate Buckley had been using to practice his writing. Buckley survives passage to Australia and, like his namesake, escapes and lives among one of the local peoples. Strandloper is a disconcerting read. There is no clear sense of time running through the narrative. The dialogue is given in local dialect, and for the first section consists mostly of local nonsense words used in songs and pagan practices. The end result is a short book, only 200 pages, which packs quite a punch. I’m reminded of Golding’s Rites of Passage, although that may simply be because they share an historical period. Yet now I think about it, both novels have an impressive immediacy, in Golding’s case generated by the use of journal entries as the narrative… and the fact Garner manages it using a (relatively) straightforward omniscient POV narrative is probably the greater achievement. Previously, I had only read Garner’s children books, and enjoyed them, and a Young Adult I found less satisfying. But Strandloper is good, and persuades me to hunt down more of his adult fiction.

Space Opera, Cathrynne M Valente (2018, USA). This was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2019. Its genesis is simple, and explained by the author in an afterword. A US genre author discovered the Eurovision Song Contest and was much taken with it. A fellow author persuaded them to use it in a science fiction novel. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea. The US does not compete in Eurovision. People in the US have no idea what Eurovision means… and it means different things to different countries. In the UK, it is considered somewhat risible, with a side-order of resentment. In Sweden, there is a month-long televised Melodifest merely to pick the song to represent the country. Valente decided to appropriate Eurovision for a US audience and base it all on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She failed. Not only are the references a weird mishmash of UK and US that make no sense, embedding UK cultural elements in US cultural movements, but the whole thing is a litany of megaviolence and genocide from start to finish… While Eurovision was indeed created to help rebuild links between the war-torn nations of Europe after WWII, it does not celebrate the death and destruction which occurred between 1939 and 1945. Nor does it boast of the weaponry, tactics or bodycounts of the various competing nations. Valente also chose to model her prose on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I am not, I admit, a great fan of Adams’s novels, although I’ve read them and, when I was young, enjoyed them. But Adam’s books at least contained ideas and riffed off them. Valente’s does not. Adams’s jokes were carefully set up, and then left quickly behind, to crop up again when least expected. Valente belabours her jokes, sometimes with almost Fanthorpe levels of repetition. You end up skipping pages, trying to find the narrative. To be fair, I tried reading a Valente novel once before, Palimpsest, and ended up throwing it against the wall because it was so overwritten. And I admire Lawrence Durrell’s prose! I managed to finish Space Opera, but it was a slog. I can only recommend people avoid it. Especially if they’re fans of Eurovision.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (2019, UK). Reading this proved interesting after reading Gwyneth Jones’s Joanna Russ a couple of months ago. Chiefly because I have read many of the books written by both subjects. However, where Jones’s Joanna Russ persuaded me to reread Russ’s oeuvre, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein does not do the same for Heinlein. But for a different reason. When I read Joanna Russ, I felt as though I’d missed important points in in Russ’s fiction. When I read The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Mendlesohn’s criticism opened up his books for me in interesting ways but didn’t substantially change what I remembered of them from my own readings. Admittedly, I read the books several decades ago, but Mendlesohn’s argument didn’t strike me as sufficient grounds to track down copies of the books and reread them (I binned most of my Heinlein paperbacks years ago). Don’t get me wrong, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein is a fascinating read in its own right, and an informative study of Heinlein’s fiction. It is a worthy winner of the BSFA Award (even though one of the other nominees contains a critical essay on my Apollo Quartet…). I’m not entirely convinced by some elements of Mendlesohn’s analysis – for example, Mendlesohn fails to point out that Wyoming pretty much vanishes from the narrative of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress once she’s married (she becomes a hairdresser); I also thought the novel’s code-switching was cack-handed at best. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I read a few years ago for the first time, so it’s relatively fresh for me. Other books, as mentioned above, I read back in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think the only one I’ve subsequently reread was Stranger in a Strange Land ten years ago. And now I’m starting to persuade myself perhaps I should try rereading them… Perhaps that’s the difference between The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein and Joanna Russ. The latter inspired me to read and reread Russ more urgently than the former did for Heinlein. Nevertheless, both critical works are definitely worth reading.

The Last Astronaut, David Wellington (2019, USA). Hmm, near-future novel about a mission to an asteroid that has just entered the Solar System. But this is several decades from now and the US space programme is dead, so they have to drag an astronaut out of retirement. This sounds right up my street… There’s a follow-up to Oumuamua thirty-five years from now, but this one is considerably bigger. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have a space programme after their Mars mission ended in tragedy. But they cobble together a mission, crewed by 1) the geek who discovered the asteroid and realised it as was decelerating, b) a young xenobiologist, c) a Space Force pilot of the X-37 drone (that’s the same one being flown now, by the way), and d) the ex-astronaut captain of the Mars mission with all her baggage. But they’re overtaken en route by a corporate mission – who describe NASA as “the enemy” – and then spend very little time analysing the asteroid before following the corporate team inside. In a tweet, I characterised this book as being “a mashup of Rendezvous with Rama and Prometheus, with none of the sense of wonder of the first and all of the baffling stupidity of the second.” To be honest, I was being generous. The central premise of The Last Astronaut is that the asteroid is a space-based life-form, whose life-cycle requires it to crash on habitable planets in order to breed. Which makes not the slightest bit of sense. How did they evolve if they required Earth-like worlds in order to reproduce? And, apparently, the asteroid creature rapidly generates interior flora in order to feed its rapacious young… except, where does it get the energy from to grow that flora? Not to mention the asteroid creature’s ability to accelerate rapidly using solar sails. This is a sf novel written by someone who has done a little bit of research but not actually applied any intelligence to their premise. It doesn’t help the prose is the sort of bland simplistic prose of techno-thrillers, the characterisation is single-note throughout, and the Mars mission commander is repeatedly labelled a murderer throughout the book despite doing the only thing possible to save the Mars mission. Wellington has tried to update his presentation by including “interview” excerpts of the main cast (although some, I think, seem to have taken place after their deaths), and adding an “excerpt from author’s foreword to the 2057 edition” by David Wellington. I read The Last Astronaut in mounting disbelief – its complete failure to present a believable near-future, its reliance on present-day tech, its pantomime corporate villains, its hokey premise, its weirdly small cast for the story it told, its complete lack of originality… How it ended up on the shortlist of a major genre award is a fucking mystery.

Borne, Jeff VanderMeer (2018, USA). I don’t get it. I read Annihilation and, okay, Ballard did it first and Ballard did it better, but I thought Annihilation quite good, and VanderMeer is one of the good guys and his Wonderbook is a damn sight more useful as a writing tool than 99% of the how-to-write books out there. But reading Borne, I’m reminded of The Book of Phoenix and the Binti novellas by Nnedi Okorafor, both of which read like they were written by a teenager, but Okorafor has a PhD in English, and if you know that much about writing fiction, why would you deliberately write something bad? And Borne – which, it must be said, has been highly praised – did not seem to me to be very good at all. There’s this post-apocalyptic city, and a five-storey flying bear, yes, really, and a woman called Rachel who finds some sort of biotech creature which grows and grows and can imitate all manner of things. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, nor gives you any reason to continue reading. It doesn’t help that the prose is so lazily written, such as the narrator witnessing an invisible person make a gesture, or crashed helicopters having “wings crumpled”. I read Borne and I didn’t see any reason to get invested in the story. It felt like a half-a-dozen pet images on endless recycle. I thought Annihilation was good but didn’t bother with the sequels. Borne is apparently the first in a trilogy but I definitely won’t be bothering with the sequels.


Reading diary 2018, Clarke Award special

Last year’s Clarke Award shortlist was a bit pants, to be honest, and I’ve yet to even read the winner, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book whose reputation seems to have waned somewhat in the year since it won. I suspected this year might prove a bit more interesting as there were several novels published last year that I thought worthy of the award. Happily, one of them did make the shortlist. But a lot of expected titles did not – such as Nina Allan’s BSFA Award-winning The Rift (see here).

For the record, the shortlist is as below. I was more than happy to see Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time on it as I’ve been championing the book since I read it late last year (see here).

I’ve now read five of the novels. I’m not bothering with Borne – although I’ve heard good things about it – because I didn’t take to Vandermeer’s Annihilation and life’s too short and all that. The Charnock, of course, I’ve already read and rate highly. The other authors were completely new to me – and at least three of them are, I believe, debuts. Anyway, I ordered me some copies, and read them, and… Oh dear. That shortlist looked good on first impression, but it really didn’t survive scrutiny…

Gather the Daughters, Jennie Melamed (2017, USA). This has been described a post-apocalyptic dystopia but it’s nothing of the kind. A small religious community ekes out an existence on an island off the coast of the “wastelands”. The novel is told through the narrative of several girls in the community – all aged about twelve or thirteen, and yet to go through puberty. Once they have done so, they will be married off and bear children. A fair few of which may prove to be “defectives” and killed at birth, if they survive it. Melamed tries hard to suggest this is a consequence of whatever apocalypse it was, epidemic or nuclear war, which turned the rest of the world into a wasteland. But it quickly becomes apparent that the girls are being abused nightly by their fathers, and that the community was set up specifically for that end. It also becomes patently obvious that there is no “wastelands” – the world outside has not changed. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the premise of M Night Shyamalan’s film The Village. So, a group of religious nutjobs founded a community which would allow them to abuse their daughters and treat their wives as chattel. Oh, and euthanise their old people when they no longer proved useful – and they’re not all that old, to be honest, late thirties, perhaps. I don’t know what world Melamed lives in, but these are all illegal and hugely immoral in the real world. I know the US loves its nutjob religious communities and let’s them get away with, well, murder… but the island in Gather the Daughters is only plausible if there really had been an apocalypse. To make matters worse, Melamed completely fails to comment on the world she has built. In crime fiction, the reader witnesses a murder, but then the murderer is brought to justice. The moral consequences of murder are shown. Melamed doesn’t bother. She normalises child abuse and misogyny. She treats the monsters she writes about with total seriousness but makes zero reference to its morality. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the writing is terrible, the worst kind of creative writing programme prose. You know the phrase, “kill your darlings” that writer instructors like to parrot? If Melamed had done that, Gather the Daughters would have been a third its size. When I saw Gather the Daughters on the shortlist, I thought it looked interesting (after I’d thought, “shouldn’t it be Gather Your Daughters?”). Having now read it, I have to wonder why it was shortlisted.

Sea of Rust, C Robert Cargill (2017, USA). Some time in the near-future, robots became commonplace, and then somehow developed sentience. But then the owner of a robot died with no heirs, so the robot, now ownerless, argued for its emancipation. And succeeded. But then it, and thousands of other robots, were destroyed by an EMP set off by a nutjob church. The robots responded by somehow overcoming their “Robotic Kill Switch” – yes, it’s really called that; and don’t get me started on the hash Cargill makes of Asimov’s Three Laws, or the stupid random number generator – and slaughtering the church members. So kicking off a genocidal war. Sea of Rust opens decades after that war, after all the humans have been slaughtered and only robots remain, and two AI “mainframes” – yes, they’re really called that; and they fill entire skyscrapers! – are fighting each other and trying to assimilate all the free robots. The narrator of Sea of Rust is Brittle, a female robot, although not really gendered at all, who scavenges for parts in the Rust Belt in order to trade for parts specific to her model so she can keep on running. I really don’t know where to start with this book. The characters are all robots yet behave like human beings, even using expressions like “I knew it by heart” or “anger left his face”. They’re gendered but there’s no reason for that given in the text. The computing seems to be based on 1990s PC technology, except for mention of a “core”, which is something they all have but the book does not bother to explain (probably because it’s made-up bollocks). And they use “wi-fi”. But not to talk to each other. For that, they use speech, you know, actual sound waves. And how the wi-fi works without routers, satellites, or even an internet, is left unexplained. The plot pretty much rips off Mad Max, with a few bits from The Matrix thrown in; and the whole thing reads like Cargill couldn’t be bothered to research any of the details of his world. Every other chapter, pretty much, for the first third of the book is a history lesson – and they’re just as unconvincing as his robot characters. I have no idea why this was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. This is a book that wouldn’t have looked out of place 35 years ago (mentions of wi-fi aside), but I refuse to believe it was the best category sf novel published last year (it’s the only book on the shortlist from a British genre imprint).

American War, Omar El Akkad ( 2017, USA). It is the late twenty-first century and three of the US’s Southern states have seceded from the Union. A low-grade war now rumbles between them and the rest of the country. Rising sea levels have already drowned most of the coastal areas, and what remains of California and Texas are now part of Mexico. Sarat Chestnut was born in Louisiana, but when a suicide bomber kills her father, she, her twin sister, older brother and mother move to a refugee camp near the border with the North. All the time I was reading American War, I had trouble getting my head round it. It paints the secessionist states as the good guys – and the invective against the North in the book is really quite nasty – and yet not once does it mention the South’s racial history. The secessionists have also committed terrorist attacks against the Northerners – and yet are still painted as the side of good. The reason for their secession is their insistence on using fossil fuels after a total ban. It seems such a feeble excuse for a war – especially given the importance of Southern character, and how it relates to the war, in the narrative. It’s like El Akkad wanted the US as it now exists to be the bad guys – incarceration without due process, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, all of which the North uses routinely in the novel – but because it was a civil war, he had to make the South the good guys. Despite the fact the last war the South fought was to keep the right to own slaves, despite the fact they were forced to stop segregation only some two generations ago, despite the fact their racist mindset is seeing a resurgence since Trump took power… Anway, Sarat survives a massacre at the refugee camp by Northerner militia, and so is recruited into an underground southern army. She becomes a sniper, and is responsible for the death of the general leading the Northern army (it’s not an “assassination” when you’re at war, incidentally). She is later captured and incarcerated at a Guantanamo-like facility, and tortured, for seven years, although her jailers clearly don’t know what she’s done. When she is eventually released, she is desperate for revenge, so desperate she does the unthinkable… which is pretty much explained in the prologue. And yet… and yet… it works. The excess of detail in the prose is annoying at first, but soon drops away as the story picks up. Perhaps Sarat reminded me over much of Radix from AA Attanasio’s novel of that title, but El Akkad has done his homework and invented a mostly credible world for his story. And, to be honest, the novel improved as it progressed. It did feel like it wasn’t sure of its targets – and a story such as American War definitely has targets – so much so it actually rendered its commentary mostly toothless. Perhaps it was just because I read American War after Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust, but I thought it deserving of its place on the Clarke Award shortlist. I don’t think it deserves to win, but it at least deserves a chance at winning.

Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfař (2017, USA). If there’s one thing I hate it’s books which feature space exploration where the author can’t be arsed to get the details right. There is a vast amount of documentation out there, in books and on the internet, on the subject. How fucking difficult is it to get it right? It is, for example, “space” and not “Space”. FFS. A spacecraft shot into space on top of a rocket is not necessarily a “space shuttle” and, in fact, especially not if it’s not reusable. And if a comet enters the Milky Way eighteen months ago, then it actually entered it 29,998.5 years ago as the Sun is 30,000 light-years from the edge of the galaxy. And to reach Earth in 18 months, that comet would have to be travelling at 2.3 light years an hour, or 13,521,700,000,000 mph. It’s not fucking rocket science. Well, you know what I mean. In fact, the novel drops clangers throughout its space-set narrative: describing vacuum as tightening around the narrator “like bathwater”, confusing vacuum and zero gravity, seeming to think spacesuits only use pure oxygen on EVA and then to prevent decompression sickness… Fortunately, the novel’s other narrative is far better. Jakub Procházka has been selected as the first Czech astronaut. The aforementioned comet has left a cloud, named Chopra, “between Earth and Venus” – well no, between the orbits of Earth and Venus, since the distance between the two planets changes as they orbit the Sun. Anyway, the Czechs have decided to send the first crewed spacecraft to Chopra. Procházka is an astrophysicist and the person chosen for the mission – it seems stupid to send one person, especially given the size of the spacecraft, JanHus1, as it is described. En route an alien appears in the spacecraft and tells Procházka it wishes to study “humanry”. It’s not certain whether the alien is real or an hallucination, but given that so much of the space-set narrative is complete bollocks I’m inclined to go for hallucination. (At one point, Procházka sees a frozen Laika float past – which would be difficult as Sputnik 2 disintegrated on re-entry in 1958, five months after Laika’s death.) Interwoven with the JanHus1 mission are chapters on Procházka’s childhood and life and marriage. The son of a secret policeman, who died shortly after the Velvet Revolution, he and his grandparents, who raised him, were shunned by their neighbours. They moved to Prague, Procházka went to university, and became a world expert on cosmic dust – hence his selection for the mission to the cloud. These chapters are interesting and, I assume, much better researched than the other narrative. However, they do make you wonder what the point of Spaceman of Bohemia is. Why not write a novel about growing up in post-Revolution Czechia? Why all the guff about the cloud and the alien and the space mission? Which ends with Procházka being implausibly rescued by a space shuttle from a secret decades-long Russian space programme. Which he causes to crash on re-entry but he manages to survive… before returning home incognito to exorcise some ghosts from his past, which, er, had bugger-all to do with the space mission. The earth-bound narrative is good, a novel in its own right. The space mission is complete bollocks – badly-researched, pointless and dull. If it had not been for that – and given it’s so badly done, how the hell did the book make the shortlist for a science fiction award? – Spaceman of Bohemia would be a bloody good book.

It’s probably also worth noting that this year’s shortlist is one UK author and five US authors (both El Akkad and Kalfař moved to North America as teenagers and are resident in the US). This is not unusual – science fiction has been dominated by the US since the genre’s beginnings, and the Clarke Award shortlists have, since the award’s inception in 1987, mostly reflected this: it was last entirely British in 2008, and has included non-British authors in its shortlists for most years (although some non-British finalists have been resident in the UK).

I suspect I’m now going to have to read Borne, given how disappointed I was with three of the above. I think Dreams Before the Start of Time should win, as it’s a thousand times better than the Melamed, Cargill or Kalfař, and though it’s much better than American War I would not be overly disappointed if El Akkad won. I’ll reserve judgement on the Vandermeer until I’ve read it. Who do I think will actually win? I suspect the Kalfař is a good bet. It’s very literary and, despite the complete fucking hash it makes of its space mission, stylistically the best-written of the lot. But the Clarke tends to have a love-hate relationship with literary sf, lionising it one year and then giving the award to a hackneyed piece of pulp sf the next. Sadly, I don’t think Charnock will win, because I think the book is really good and I’m usually completely out of step with these things. The El Akkad would be my next guess, even if its attempts at relevance are badly mangled. The Cargill and Melamed should not stand a chance. But I’ll probably be wrong on that. Out of step, you see.

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All the awards that’s fit to print

I found myself completely uninterested in genre awards this year, despite being nominated for two last year (and it’s not like I had anything eligible for any of this year’s awards anyway – well, my one published piece was a spoof coda to the Apollo Quartet, but it was probably unreadable unless you’d actually read the quartet). I suppose my indifference is partly a result of the lacklustre shortlists generated by the various awards last year. But there’s also the increasing disconnect between what the awards mean and the works they’re rewarding. Yes, yes, popular choice wins popularity contest, news at ten and all that. And, true, there’s always been a bit of personality cult about the popular vote awards, which is why so few people keep on winning so many awards, and currently it’s a different set of faces to those of ten or even twenty years ago. A more diverse set of faces, which is good, but given the size of the field these days it would not be unreasonable to expect more variety.

And then there’s the way social media has completely fucked up awards, not to mention the cutting back on promotion by publishers which has normalised the sort of grasping self-promotion bullshit, as epitomised by elegibility posts, that is now common. There may have been an element of awards going to people not to works in the past, but now it’s pretty much nakedly out there.

I suspect I’m not alone in my apathy. I saw almost no conversation about the BSFA Award longlist, and last year’s Clarke Award was notable for its lack of commentary…

Which neatly leads into a recent development which plans to address that last: the Clarke Award Shadow Jury, put together by Nina Allan and hosted online by the Anglia Rusking University’s Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Shadow juries are nothing new – hell, we even have a Shadow Cabinet in our government – although I think this is the first time it’s been done for a genre award. And it’s a really strong shadow jury – I actually know more people on it than I do on the actual Clarke Award jury – and I’m looking forward to seeing their thoughts on the books that have been submitted (there’s a list of submissions here).

A quick scan down that submission list, and I can see a number of interesting books… but I can also see a lot of commercial crap that I hope gets nowhere near the shortlist.

And speaking of shortlists… the BSFA Award shortlist has now been announced. And there are some… odd choices. (And they still haven’t sorted out whether it’s named for the year of elegibility or the year the award ceremony takes place. It’s fucked up at least two year’s worth of trophies in the past. It’s not difficult. Fix it.) I understand the BSFA has around 800 members (yes, I’m one of them), and few of them actually bother nominating or voting. I mean, I’m sure Adam Roberts: Critical Essays is an excellent book, but I doubt more than a handful of people have read it – and yet two of the essays in it have made the non-fiction shortlist. And I count six appearances of NewCon Press across the four shortlists.

But the big one is the novel shortlist, and it looks like this:

The Beckett is the third book of a trilogy, the first of which won the Clarke Award in 2013, and both books one and two were also shortlisted for the BSFA Award. The Chambers is also a sequel, and the first book seemed to make every English-language genre award shortlist in existence… except the BSFA Award. Europe in Winter is the third book of a trilogy, and both books one and two were previously shortlisted for the BSFA Award (and the Clarke Award). Sullivan has made the BSFA Award twice previously, in 2004 and 2011, and Occupy Me is her first sf novel since that 2011 nomination. Azanian Bridges is Wood’s first novel.

Quality of the various books aside, that’s an unadventurous shortlist. Seriously, two book threes from trilogies, of which all the previous installments were also shortlisted? True, some of those earlier volumes have also been picked by Clarke Award juries. Yes, I know, small pool of voters, large field, familiar names – and even faces, as half of the shortlist regularly attend the Eastercon (members of the convention also get to vote on the shortlist). And yes, the nominees are good people (and some of them are friends of mine). But I’m not voting for them, I’m voting for the work.


The BSFA Award is a popular vote award, so I shouldn’t be all that surprised that the same old names keep on cropping up. I look to juried awards to give a better indication of what’s good in the genre in a particular year. But I also remember when the BSFA Award actually used to be a pretty good barometer of what was good in the British sf field in a year. Not so much for the short fiction category, that was always a bit of a crapshoot, but certainly the novel category. And now I find myself wondering: when did that stop being true? I don’t doubt the books shortlisted this year are good books – well, except for the Chambers, as I wasn’t at all impressed by A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – since I’ve read and enjoyed those earlier installments by Beckett and Hutchinson, and have heard good things about the Sullivan and Wood. But I can also see several novels on the longlist (see here) that were more than good enough to make the shortlist. Even then, only thirty-five novels were longlisted. Thirty-five! The Clarke Award submission list is eighty-six novels. (And only twenty-seven nominations in the BSFA Award short fiction category!).

I honestly don’t see the point of awards for short fiction anymore – I wrote as much in an editorial for Interzone back in 2015. I get that awards are a celebration, but what exactly are we celebrating? Back in the day, sf was a ghetto, and it was all reverse snobbery elitism. Awards were an affirmation of that. But it’s been open season on sf tropes now for several decades, and science fiction is still playing the same old game. And this during a period when the field has exploded, not only all over the internet, with way more fiction venues out there now than there were twenty or thirty years ago, but also serious efforts to bring non-Anglophone sf to Anglophone audiences. It’s almost becoming axiomatic that the only people reading genre short fiction these days are other writers of genre short fiction. Sf has always been self-fertilising, it’s one of the genre’s strengths, but that’s ridiculous.

They’ve tried revamping the BSFA Award a couple of times over the last few years, but I’m not convinced their changes have had much impact. For what it’s worth, I think they should drop the short fiction and non-fiction categories, institute a new award for non-fiction/criticism separate from the BSFA Awards, and limit the BSFA Award to best sf novel published in print in the UK and best piece of sf artwork to appear in print in the UK. But leave the definitions of genre up to the voters. No longlist or two-stage nomination process. Just keep it simple. December and the following January each year to nominate five novels and five pieces of artwork each. Top five in either category makes it to the shortlist. Then it’s business as usual: voting and an awards ceremony at the Eastercon. Let’s not just celebrate science fiction, let’s celebrate science fiction in the UK. And with the most visible forms of it – novels, which appear in book shops; and art, which can be plastered all over the internet. That sounds horribly Brexit-ish, which is not my intention at all – I voted Remain, and am hugely pissed off by all this Brexit shit – but the fact remains that when you’re addressing a parochial electorate it’s best to keep it parochial. And let’s not forget that authors from many other nations get published in the UK (although perhaps not as many non-Anglophone ones as we’d like).

I started out this post documenting my apathy toward genre awards, and ended up getting a bit excited about what they could be. And I guess it’s that disconnect, that sense of disillusionment, that fuels my annual awards annoyance. But in the world we have today, and all the shit that’s going to go down in 2017, praying for an asteroid strike is too much of a long shot. And, short of causing every Nazi newsaper in the UK to spontaneously combust, or Corbett and May to give the finger to the Nazi cabal pulling all the strings, we can at least do something positive in the world of science fiction and make a proper job of this celebration-type thing we call an award.


Awards, rewards and self-publishing

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time won the Clarke Award, which was a surprise – but a pleasant one. At least the book I’d expected to win didn’t take the prize; but, sadly, neither did the book I wanted to win. I had Children of Time pegged more as a BSFA Award book than a Clarke Award, but when I wrote about it in August last year I predicted good things would happen to it. And I’m happy for Adrian, who is a thoroughly good bloke (and scarily prolific). Children of Time is one of the very few books I started reading on the day of purchase – and it was completely by accident. I’d bought the book at Edge-Lit 4, but during the journey home I finished the novel I’d brought to read on the train and so turned to Children of Time. I wonder if it’s repeatable…

I’ve written about the Clarke Award shortlist elsewhere, and about the individual books on it in scattered Reading diary posts on this blog. It was – and I’m not the only person to use this word – a lacklustre shortlist. The Clarke has always been a boundary-pushing sort of literary award, but the last few years it seems to have been circling its metaphorical wagons. There has been surprisingly little commentary about the books on the shortlist this year, despite it being the award’s thirtieth anniversary, despite the extended period between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. But when most commentary on sf these days seems to consist of brainless hyperbole on social media, having all the criticial insight of marketing copy, it’s plainly a problem much wider than an award shortlist. In today’s genre conversation, books receive either five stars or one star. It’s a piss-poor excuse for a conversation, and it’s poisoning the genre. Not only is sf blanding out, we seem to be actively encouraging it to do so…


Which makes the award’s decision to allow self-published works to submit baffling. The vast majority of self-published books are derivative commercial sf, space opera or military science fiction. It’s precisely the sort of sf you’d hope the Clarke Award would avoid. Of course, there are also self-published works which are anything but commercial – and may well have been self-published for that very reason. But the award director cites the examples of Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Jeff Noon’s Channel Skin (which I’ve not read) as good reasons for including self-published works. Of course, the Chambers was already eligible because it had been picked up and published by Hodder. I’m a bit annoyed the award bent the rules to allow me to submit All That Outer Space Allows – which was also selected for the Tiptree Award’s honour list – but then hasn’t seen fit to hold it up as an example of a self-published novel that was worthy of submission.

I deliberately set out when writing each book of the Apollo Quartet to upset the expectations of readers, something I had the freedom to do because I was self-publishing. And while that has seen the books win one award, be nominated for a further two, and appear on the honour list of another… I’ve sold only 3700 copies since April 2012. And Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories set in the same, er, space as the Apollo Quartet, published in April of this year… well, I can barely give them way – 86 copies sold since its launch. However, I don’t have the marketing clout or the distribution channels of a major publishing imprint, so this was hardly unexpected. To be honest, I’d actually expected Adrift on the Sea of Rains to sink without trace.

Because I self-published, because I had no expectations of commercial success, so I was free to write something challenging. The fact that some people appreciated that enough to nominate the books for awards was a huge surprise. And I saw that as grounds to write even more challenging sf. Which at least might have stood me in good stead for some awards. Except now the Clarke Award appears to prefer more commercial works, and by opening itself up to self-published books, is likely to become yet more commercial. I’m guessing, of course; but you can’t get more commercial than the Firefly fanfic that is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

It’s an inevitable conclusion, and one that has plainly occurred to Adam Roberts, who has gone on record as saying he will no longer write challenging science fiction novels as he would sooner not have his books ignored. And I think to myself I would sooner write more difficult sf. On the other hand, success brings its own acclaim, and it’s astonishing how popular books become “awesome” and “amazeballs” and “the best book ever written”. Which is not to say challenging works can never be popular, nor commercial works possess literary quality, nor literary works enjoy commercial success… But we’re in danger of losing what’s best about science fiction if the only game in town is “most popular kid in the playground”… And I was going to write something about lone voices in the wilderness being the only ones to carry the flame, but that really is a mixed metaphor too far… But it’s not unrealistic to expect, to hope, that the Clarke Award is skewed toward challenging science fiction novels, and not the dull, and often juvenile, meat-and-potatoes/bread-and-butter sf which sells by the yard (and is likely written by the yard too), and which appears to comprise the vast undifferentiated mass of self-published science fiction.

But I’m speculating – and we shall see next year how the Clarke Award implements its expanded remit. A juried award at least has the advantage of not being bent out of shape by eligibility posts, or fan and tribe affiliations; and for that reason I look to the Clarke as a truer picture of what the word “best” means in science fiction in any given year. I would hate to lose that…



Awards frenzy!

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.


This is a photo of China Miéville - because every piece on the Clarke Award or the state of British sf should be accompanied by a photo of China Miéville (source: guardian)

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.)


Clarkes announced

Yesterday, the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist was announced. And it goes like this:

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
Sheri S Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

Well, I didn’t see that coming. I was expecting a more literary shortlist, but this one is definitely more core genre. So much so, in fact, that at least half of the books harken back to much older sf. Hull Zero Three is a generation starship story (with, apparently, a resemblance to Pandorum), and The Waters Rising is a sequel to a book published in 1993. Embassytown I’ve read (my review here), and thought it somewhat 1970s in story and style.

The remaining three at least appear to be more relevant. I’ve read The Testament of Jessie Lamb and thought it very good – well, I thought the first half excellent, and the second half less good. Rule 34 I may try reading, but The End Specialist doesn’t appeal at all.

Anyway, once again the Clarke Award has confounded expectation, something it has done since it was first inaugurated. I am, perhaps, a little disappointed in the shortlist – there were, I thought, better books than some of the ones chosen. Interestingly, Nicholas Whyte guessed four of the six, and could have guessed five of them, simply from their popularity on and Does this mean the Clarke was looking for “readability”, just as the Booker judges foolishly claimed to be last year? I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, but I do think there was an attempt at narrowing the definition of science fiction after previous years’ occasionallly bizarre flexibility over the term.

And no, I’m not going to predict the winner. I just hope it’s not Miéville.


Guessing the Clarke

It’s that time of year again, when the books submitted for the Arthur C Clarke Award have been revealed – see here – and we get the opportunity to second-guess the judges. Sixty books were submitted, not all of which appear to be science fiction. Many are literary, rather than heartland sf. Some are even fantasy. In fact, looking at the heartland sf titles, I don’t think they don’t make an especially good showing – Leviathan Wakes is regressive, Neal Asher has never been favoured by the Clarke, Steve Baxter may be the most short-listed author but Bronze Summer is the middle of a trilogy, Bringer of Light is the fourth in a series, The Recollection is a little too generic, and I’ve heard mixed reports about Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three. Some of the others are simply not award-worthy.

So this year, I’ll not be surprised if we see more of a literary list. On my first pass, I ended up with ten books, but the short-list is six and six only. I thought Eric Brown’s The Kings of Eternity was good, but it failed to make the BSFA Award short-list. Embassytown should be a dead cert, but from what I’ve heard it’s not as successful a novel as The City & The City. Reamde I’ve been told is a bloated techno-thriller, and no one has a good word to say about Blackout / All Clear on this side of the Atlantic. Which leaves three genre novels people have been talking about: The Islanders, By Light Alone and Osama. All three of which are also on the BSFA Award short-list.

I am also not expecting an all-male short-list. Given the discussion on women sf writers over the past year, I don’t think the judges would be so foolish. And since women literary writers who write sf seem to be more successful with the Clarke than women category sf writers… Both The Testament of Jessie Lamb and The Godless Boys have been highly praised. Random Walk is my left-field guess, because there’s always a left-field candidate on the Clarke short-list.

So I think the short-list will look like this:

Random Walk by Alexandra Claire (Gomer)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS)
The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood (Picador)

And I think The Islanders will take the gong.

Of course, I could be completely wrong, and the short-list will be entirely space opera…

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Support your local sf award

An open letter from Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C Clarke Award, has been posted on the Torque Control blog here. In the letter, Tom writes, “the Award is now faced with an immediate and pressing need to change, adapt and re-evaluate its role and function as it moves into 2012 and its next quarter century”, and has asked for people’s thoughts on the Award and how it should change.

The questions Tom asks are:

What value does the Award bring to the SF community and what role should it play in its future?
A great deal of value, especially to UK sf. I’m not sure it needs to expand its current role, however.

How important is a UK focused prize in an increasingly international and digital marketplace?
Increasingly important – there is a vibrant sf community in the UK, and it would be a shame to see the genre homogenised as the larger US market comes to dominate both print and digital sectors.

What more could the Award do as part of its broader advocacy remit to promote science fiction?
Persuade publishers to add “shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award”, or “winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award” onto the covers of relevant books – even if they are not marketted as science fiction. Persuade publishers to pay for in-store Clarke Award promotions for relevant novels after the shortlist has been announced (some publishers, I believe, already do this). Add more dynamic content to the Clarke Award website – i.e., a bigger online presence: a forum, critical articles, etc.

How much does the success and the credibility of the Award depend on it having a cash prize?
A cash prize means it is more likely to be taken seriously.

What new partnerships and opportunities could we create to generate seed funding for the future?
The UK Space Agency, perhaps? University science and literature departments? Genre small press publishers? Online and high street booksellers? National newspapers? Genre book bloggers? A cable television channel / production company? I’m not entirely sure what partnerships currently exist.

What do you think? What does the Arthur C. Clarke Award mean to you, how important a part of the SF landscape is it, and where would you like it to go from here?
I have a lot more respect for the Clarke Award than I do the Hugo. I may not have agreed with every book the Clarke juries over the years have shortlisted, or chose as winner, but they’ve consistently picked interesting novels – or novels which generate interesting discussions. The Clarke has done more to foster debate within the UK sf community than I suspect the Hugo has done in US fandom. I especially like the fact that the juries look outside the sf marketing category, and as a result have identified novels which have been enthusiastically adopted by sf readers. That policy, I think, should certainly continue.

Each year, I have made an effort – not always successfully, I must admit – to read the novels shortlisted by the Clarke Award. I do the same for the BSFA Award (for which I can vote), but the Clarke generally picks a more varied and interesting shortlist. I especially appreciate being able to look at the Clarke Award shortlist in any year and know that the books on it are among the best sf novels published in the UK that year.

That’s not something you can say of many other genre awards.

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Clarke Award Shortlist Posted

Oh well. It doesn’t much resemble the shortlist I predicted in this post – I guessed The Quiet War and Anathem, but not the others. The shortlist goes like this:

The Quiet War, Paul J McAuley
Anathem, Neal Stephenson
Song of Time, Ian R MacLeod
House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds
The Margarets, Sherri S Tepper
Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, Mark Wernham

It’s not a list that makes me want to dash out and read the books. I’ve already read – and enjoyed – House of Suns, but I didn’t think it was good enough for the shortlist. (But then, I predicted Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-away World would be on the shortlist, but I’m currently reading it and not enjoying it at all….) I’ve only read MacLeod’s short fiction. Perhaps I should rectify that. I’ve read a few of Tepper’s novels, and they were all very much of a muchness – solid mid-list fare with a slight undercurrent of umbrage.

I’m not going to try and predict the winner. I think most expect Anathem to take the prize. I’ve yet to read it – I probably never will, since I disliked Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle so much.