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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.