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Eat My Hat

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It’s been a while since I’ve offered odds on the Arthur C Clarke Award (and what a good shortlist that was) but today seem like a good opportunity to start again.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – 1/2
The Machine by James Smythe – 2/1
God’s War by Kameron Hurley – 3/1
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest – 6/1
Nexus by Ramez Naam – 12/1
The Disestablishment Of Paradise by Phillip Mann – 12/1

I guessed three of the six so egotistically I’ve made these the favourites. You probably can’t discount Priest’s greatest hits album but the Naam and the Mann are surely rank outsiders.

Written by Martin

19 March 2014 at 09:20

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Arthur C Clarke Award Data

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Including this year, 48 out of 169 nominees (28.4%) and 10 out of 27 winners (37%) have been women. This compares pretty favourably to the level of submissions by women this year: 21%. We also know that the level has been around 20% since the submissions list was first published.

But the submissions list has only been published for less than a decade and there is a persistent feeling that number of science fiction novels being published by women in the UK has decreased since the Arthur C Clarke Award was established in 1986.

Unfortunately, we can’t compare submissions historically but we can compare with the shortlists. So, in the first 10 years of the award 30% of nominees were female, 50% of winners were female and there were three years when there were as many women as men on the shortlist. Whereas in the last 10 years 22% of nominees were female, 20% of winners were female and men made up the majority of the shortlist every years.

So the record of the Arthur C Clarke Award is getting worse. I think this has to reflect the worsening situation for women in British science fiction publishing over this period. The fact that this year’s shortlist is made up entirely of men is a symptom of this and we need to address the root cause.

Written by Martin

5 April 2013 at 11:26

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Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion

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The sixty submissions were read, the shortlist was agreed, the six shortlisted novels were re-read, the winner was agreed and, finally, The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rodgers was announced as the winner of the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award last week. I missed the ceremony last year because I was on holiday so I made sure I did it properly this year. This involved lining my stomach over the road from the Apollo at the Japan Centre’s newish restaurant Toku in order to take advantage of the free bar (this being central London, a bottle of Peroni was £5.05 at the afterparty). Inside the venue I was impressed to find awards director Tom Hunter wearing a tie (for the first time?) and that I was not the only one dressed to impressed (photos forthcoming in SFX, I believe). It isn’t the easiest to mingle but it was nice to chat to old friends. I also finally met Claire Brialey (despite working not just in fandom but the same building our paths had never crossed), got Simon Ings to confirm that Dead Water isn’t SF (although he pointed out that the author is dead) and fanboyed Jeff Noon about Vurt changing my life (unlike Paul Graham Raven I waited until he’d left the urinal) and got talking to a random Canadian who turned out to be Jim Munroe, author of the excellent Everyone In Silico (he was in town promoting Ghosts With Shit Jobs at Sci-FiLondon). All in all, a good evening out and I only managed to spill a small amount of red wine on myself.

It was an immense privilege to be a Clarke judge. After two years, it is also a pleasure to hand the responsibility on to the next set of judges. It also means I am free to indulge in prolifigate book buying:

  • My Dirty Little Book Of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen – I reviewed The Rapture for Strange Horizons so when I saw this for a quid in Whitstable I snapped it up.
  • The Illywhacker by Peter Carey – From the same shop. Carey must be one of the top five living authors and this is the only one of his novels I didn’t own.
  • The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett – Mysteriously not submitted for the Clarke Award, Bennett is getting a reputation for doing interesting interstitial things within commercial fiction.
  • The Oxford History Of Britain, edited Kenneth O Morgan – Partly inspired by Mark Newton’s posts about Roman history and partly inspired by my huge ignorance of anything that happened before World War II.
  • Dark Matter by Juli Zeh – Her latest novel, The Method, was brought to my attention by Niall Harrison but it isn’t out in paperback yet so I thought I’d try this.
  • Dark Matter by Michelle Paver – A coincidental title and a random punt in that Whitstable bookshop.
  • Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – I’m not sure how this first came to my attention but liminal zones float my boat.
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – Called in for the Clarke but not submitted, this debut SF novel received pretty good reviews.
  • Beechcombings by Richard Mabey – Having exhausted Roger Deakin and in need of the nature cure, I turn to Mabey.
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – Purchased and already read. Well done me! FT puff says “Cormac McCarthy with a sense of humour” which is good shorthand but overselling an extremely readable but relatively lightweight novel.
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell – Pretty much ubiquitous last year. It was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize which demonstrated that the Clarke isn’t the only award to attract controversy.
  • Wildwood by Colin Meloy – A rare hardback purchase (it costs less than most paperbacks), this is the first novel from the bloke behind The Decemberists. I love his lyrics, will I love his prose?

Trying to muscle in on the photo is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. I have spent pretty much the whole of 2012 listening to Watch The Throne by him and Jay-Z and, if you want to know why, you should check out this brilliant profile-cum-tour diary by David Samuels in the Atlantic. Or just buy it.

Written by Martin

10 May 2012 at 10:14

The Appliance Of Science

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Lots of people tried to guess this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. The shortlist has now been announced and it is interesting to compare the guesses to the actual list. Quite a few people got three of the six book correct but only a few got four and no one got five. Nicholas Whyte went one step further than just guessing though, he ranked the submissions according to Goodreads and Librarything and then applied several steps:

  • Removed all the books that weren’t science fiction (quite a few this year)
  • Removed the two Connie Willis books since they formed the two halves of a single novel
  • Removed the books with very low Goodreads averages
  • Removed the books with a high ratio of Goodreads users to Librarything users
  • Removed the Robert J Sawyer book because it was written by Robert J Sawyer

This produced the following list:

  • Reamde by Neal Stephenson
  • Embassytown by China Miéville
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross
  • The End Specialist by Drew Magary
  • Equations of Life by Simon Morden
  • The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Not bad at all: four out of six. But Whyte was slightly wrong footed by the fact Readme isn’t a science fiction novel and should have been struck off under his first step. The novel under The Testament of Jessie Lamb was The Waters Rising by Sheri S Tepper which would have given him five out of six. It is also interesting to note that Whyte could have got two thirds of the shortlist just by applying his first two step:

  • Embassytown by China Miéville
  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  • Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
  • The End Specialist by Drew Magary

When I started reading Whyte’s methodology, I thought it was just going to produce a popularist list since, as he acknowledges, the BSFA Award shortlisted novels were down the bottom. But it worked. I hope it doesn’t work every year though, it would take all the fun out of it!

Written by Martin

26 March 2012 at 08:50

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Your Chance To Second Guess Me

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The list of submissions for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award have just been published at Torque Control. As with last year, there is a prize for guessing the shortlist of six novels (due to be announced at the end of March). No one managed to guess all six last year – in fact, four out of six was the best – so will the judges be able to completely confound fans again this time?

Of course, the guessing already started a while ago. Last week I put Lavie Tidhar on the spot on Twitter and asked him to predict the shortlist. He came up with the following six: Embassytown, The Islanders, Ready Player One, By Light Alone, The Company Man and Wake Up And Dream. He added that he’d be glad with hitting three out of six. Well, as it turns out, he can only have guessed a maximum of four of the shortlist since Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett weren’t submitted. It is possible that other novels which people might have thought were contenders weren’t submitted either; having heard Martin McGrath advocate for it, I would certainly have liked to have seen City Of Bohane by Kevin Barry. Fans of children’s literature will also notice that not much was submitted. No Blood Red Road by Moira Young, for example.

But there you go: the field is big, it isn’t neatly distributed and the very concept of science fiction is often in the eye of the beholder. There were sixty novels submitted this year which is huge amount to read and covers the vast majority of the field. It is also more than enough to produce an excellent shortlist (go on, I dare you to guess it). However, one of the big strengths of the Arthur C Clarke Award is the fact it aspires to be completely comprehensive, to cover as much of the UK science fiction field as humanly possible, so I hope all publishers will continue to take a broad view of what constitutes science fiction in the future.

Written by Martin

27 February 2012 at 14:36

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Lewis’s Revelation

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Today I saw someone on the internet say that 90% of everything is crud. Now, I have complained about Sturgeon’s Revelation before. It is, in a word, balls. I know, I know, someone is wrong on the internet, so what? But the thoughtlessness of the statement still offends me and its persistence depresses me.

Then I remembered that I love evidence. I could, in fact, test Sturgeon’s Revelation against the 54 novels submitted for the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award, a selection of novels that we’ve agreed form a pretty good proxy for British science fiction as a whole. So, was 90% of everything crud?

Taking a liberal approach to the word “crud”, you could perhaps claim that 72% of science fiction published in Britain in 2010 was crud. So now we can obviously extrapolate from this that 72% of everything is crud. I call this Lewis’s Revelation. But wait! What if I asked one of my fellow judges to provide their own percentages? Or I repeated this exercise again for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award? Or I took it upon myself to read every science fiction novel published in the US in 2010? Or every thriller? Wouldn’t the percentages change? Why, it is almost as if Lewis’s Revelation is meaningless. Funny that.

Written by Martin

17 March 2011 at 20:44

2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics

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Very often I will discuss specific novels on the internet. Very often this discussion will turn to wider trends. What such discussion almost always lacks is any evidence base. If you think that fantasy is becoming more popular whilst science fiction is becoming less popular then you might have some joy with the Locus year in review issue which track headline figures like these. Unfortunately they don’t publish them online. For a whole host of other questions – Are female writers are less common than in the recent past? Is everything part of a series these days? Has science fiction retreated from space? Is it true that sex is rare but violence is endemic? – you are unlikely to find evidence anywhere.

This was at the back of my mind when I started reading submissions for the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award. The Clarke Award is for the best science fiction published in Britain and being a judge gives you a fairly comprehensive overview of British science fiction. Not entirely comprehensive – some novels will always slip through the cracks – but non-genre publishers actively submit their work and the judges deliberately seek out other eligible work so it covers a large percentage of the territory. This struck me as an opportunity to gather evidence. As I was reading, I started to make notes about the novels and I’ve now published these in five posts:

My methodology probably wouldn’t pass muster is a social research organisation. Some of my categories might be poorly worded or thought through. I may have missed things, I may have mis-recorded things. Nonetheless, I think (I certainly hope) that this is still useful evidence in the ongoing conversation about what science fiction is and what we want it to be.

This information only refers to books published in 2010 so it doesn’t tell us anything about trends. However, I hope that it will inspire some additional evidence gathering. For example, very basic information like number of books submitted by individual publishers should be easily available. Some of the information about the authors (nationality and sex) and the books (type and maybe length) shouldn’t be hard to find either. And then there is looking forward. I am a judge again this year and I will be keeping my notes again but there is no reason why this couldn’t be formalised.

I have found this process fascinating. Of course, I am primarily interested in the individual novels themselves; it has been a privilege to be a judge and I think we have a cracker of a shortlist. But I am also interested in the big picture and hopefully this makes that picture a little clearer.

Written by Martin

2 March 2011 at 15:41

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2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics: Sex And Violence

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The last post talked about the general characteristics of contemporary science fiction. Now I want to talk about a specific pair of issues.

In the real world, sex is a good thing and violence is a bad thing. Yet there is a feeling – one I share – that science fiction is overly bloodthirsty whilst simultaneously too childishly squeamish about sex. And the stats reflect this. In the real world, a single murder would be extremely notable; in science fiction, this is small beer:

What goes around, comes around:

Don’t worry though, death is not the end!

I also looked at rape since its depiction in fiction is so controversial and it is often not felt to be well handled in genre fiction.

From these statistics I have excluded Blood And Iron by Tony Ballantyne which includes robot “rape”. Whilst it is stated in the novel to be directly analoguous to human rape I am not comfortable grouping the two together. However, I have included Sylvow by Douglas Thompson which features rape by an intelligent tree.

Science fiction is happy to deal in extremes like this but I wondered how it fared on a more domestic level. As well as looking at sex itself, I also looked at whether any protagonists started the novel in a relationship.

So a protagonist in a science fiction novel is more likely to kill someone than have sex and yes, it does seem authors are much more squeamish about depicting sex than violence.

Written by Martin

2 March 2011 at 14:07

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2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics: The State Of The Art #2

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It is usually pretty clear if your narrator is an alien but we are heading into more subjective territory now. We can still be relatively certain about setting though. I say “relatively” because, for example, when and where is Above The Snowline by Steph Swainston set? Anyway:

I think there is plenty of ammunition for those who think that science fiction has turned its back on space. Perhaps more surprising is that it appears to be turning its back on the future; fully a third of submissions were set either in the past or the present. Of course, just because something is submitted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, that doesn’t necessarily make it science fiction.

Again, that is third of all submission, a frankly huge proportion. But just because a story contains a fantasy element doesn’t mean it isn’t science fiction. The boundary between the fantastic and the mimetic is pretty clear but within speculative fiction borders are blurred and, it would seem, becoming more so. Where, for example, do zombies and vampires fall? Purists will be pleased to know that such creatures remain a minority though. The good old spaceship continues to be the core trope of the genre (with their steampunk brethren still some way behind).

Which brings us to the hardest quality to assess: subgenre. As I was making notes, only a couple of obvious subgenres emerged. At the end of the process, I tried to grouped together further but the books collected under the same umbrella are pretty disparate. This speaks to the fragmentation of the genre. It also means I will be usually tags next year and giving up on the idea that most SF novels are primarily of a single subgenre.

As you would expect, space opera is popular. But whilst it still makes up only 15% of submissions and post-collapse (where civilisation has been destroyed thanks to zombies, climate change, capitalism or the actual apocalypse) make up the same percent. This is the dual nature of science fiction: space opera written within the genre, post-collapse written without. Singularity SF continues to have its own coherent identity but after that cross-genre characteristics become much more important.

Written by Martin

2 March 2011 at 08:03

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2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics: The State Of The Art #1

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Having dispensed with the state of the industry, let’s actually look inside the books.

A fairly predictable split between first and third person. A handful of authors wrote in both but no one was brave or mad enough to go for second person. Charles Stross is one author who has previously risked the second person; in The Fuller Memorandum, he cunningly deploys what we might call the hypothetical third person but I’ve put it down as first person. Similarly, Generosity is actually narrated by its author, Richard Powers, but I’ve put it down as the third person it more usually resembles.

So the good news is that women are well represented and only two novels have multiple male narrators but no female counterpoint: Black Hand Gang by Pat Kelleher (which focusses on a bunch of First World War soldiers) and Guardians Of Paradise by Jainne Fenn (which focusses on the male sides of a love triangle). However, male viewpoint characters still clearly outweigh female viewpoint characters and multiple female viewpoints simply don’t exist.

More troubling is what these statistics might mask. As I was noting down the stats for this I soon realised I should have been recording the number of viewpoint characters. For example, how often is that “Multiple Mixed” four men and one woman? It is clear that most authors believe a story with mulitple protagonists must feature a woman but it is less clear from these stats whether this is simply a tokenistic response. I do have another proxy measure though:

Whilst it is pleasing to see a majority of novels passing the Bechdel Test that is a pretty narrow margin. If the diversity of the characters is greater than the diversity of theirauthors then it still isn’t much to shout about. For example, the narrator of a science fiction novel is more likely to be an alien or a robot than gay or bisexual:

I would caution that all these stats should be taken with a pinch of salt because my primary purpose in reading these books was artistic rather than scientific. I may have missed things. However, I am confident that they are relatively robust.

Written by Martin

1 March 2011 at 15:25

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