I’ve written about the fact people aren’t reviewing the Arthur C Clarke Award so it is only fair that I write about the fact people are reviewing the Arthur C Clarke Award. I’m going to use this post to collect links to reviews of the shortlist, whether individually or the whole thing. These links will be updated and please do let me know of any omissions.
Books And Pieces (extreme caution: vlog)
- In discussion with Maureen Kincaid Speller and Megan (From Couch To Moon) (caution: podcast)
- Tweeted thoughts
Tomcat In The Red Room
In the blue corner, Tom Hunter #TeamShortlist:
Now with us regularly receiving over 100 books a year, the question we’re asking is, rather than mess around longlists why not just get straight to the point with a bigger shortlist that would allow the judges to highlight more books in one larger shortlist to rule them all?
Eight books might work well again, or even twelve which is the number some people have suggested as a longlist figure, so again why bother calling it a longlist, let’s just have more people actually shortlisted — it looks better on the cover of a book for a start
Would a larger shortlist be more of a focal point for both debate and promotion than the staggered and potentially fatiguing extra step of a longlist? I’ll leave that idea hanging for now, but for me this feels like more of a new move than the idea of copying a longlist format from another award, and feels somehow more in the spirit of Sir Arthur to me.
In the red corner, Niall Harrison #TeamLonglist:
I still think a larger shortlist is a really bad idea. I’m particularly alarmed that it might be done because it is “new” (or, I guess, “distinctive”). Obviously six books is an arbitrary number, but there are good reasons why you very rarely see shortlists — for any award, in or out of genre — of more than six. I’d say the two main ones are:
1) The more books you add, the more of a commitment reading the shortlist becomes. That means fewer people will want to do it; more people will be likely to pick and choose, or just wait for the winner and only read that.
2) I don’t believe adding more books will extend the same amount of prestige to those books. I think the same amount of prestige will be divided up into smaller portions. It will be perceived as “easier” to make the shortlist, and doing so will be valued less.
In contrast, when thinking about a longlist:
1) Not many people will read a longlist. But there will be a hard-core of people invested in the award who will look at it, and start to create some discussion. A longlist feels to me like a participatory gesture: I’m not necessarily part of the process, but I’m reading along with the process. Moreover, as Nick H said in one of these threads, it puts the industry on notice and gives them time to prepare for a shortlist.
2) A longlist creates an interim level of prestige. It helps to mark out “writers to watch”, it gives you that tool to bring more books into the Clarke discussion. If anything it increases the value of shortlisting, because (hopefully) it makes clear how hard-won a shortlist place really is.
Context is for the weak but here you go.
It goes without saying that I’m #TeamLonglist.
I am writing this – my last editorial – in the aftermath of Mancunicon, the 67th British national science fiction convention. As usual, there was a strong BSFA presence, including (obviously) at the BSFA Awards which were announced on Saturday. The Best Artwork award went to Jim Burns for his cover for Pelquin’s Comet by Ian Whates. I think this was all Ian’s fault. As chair of the BSFA, he challenged me to put up or shut up and get involved with the organisation. The result was a special BSFA booklet, SF Writers On SF Films: From Akira To Zardoz (remember that?). The experience was obviously a good one as I came back for more when the role of reviews editor was advertised.
I wasn’t sure how long I would be doing to job for when I started but it turned out to be almost six years. At Eastercon I managed to catch up with three of the four Vector editors I served under during that period: Niall Harrison, Shana Worthen and Glyn Morgan. Glyn was actually on a panel with me, Book Reviews In The Age Of Amazon: “In place of relatively few “gatekeeper” reviewers in relatively few venues, we have a commons where anyone can review if they choose.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion and it is positive thing that the internet has provided a democratic platform for everyone. But it isn’t either/or; there is still a space for informed, considered and – crucially – edited opinions.
So perhaps it was fitting that straight after that panel I met my successor as reviews editor, Susan Oke, for the first time (in the slightly unexpected location of the Strange Horizons tea party in the Deansgate Hilton’s Presidential Suite up on the 22nd floor). My aim was to leave the reviews section in better shape than I found it and I think I’ve achieved this. I’m sure Sue will improve further on what I’ve done and I look forward to watching that journey as a member. And also contributing since I will be experiencing life on the other side of a table as a reviewer, rather than an editor. Go easy on me, Sue, I’m a bit rusty!
- Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (Fixi Novo, 2014) – Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian
- Sorcerer To The Crown by Zen Cho (Macmillan, 2015) -Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- IF THEN by Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot, 2015) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
- The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K Le Guin (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- The Night Clock by Paul Meloy (Solaris Books, 2015) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Tor, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (Corsair, 2016) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
- The Last Witness by KJ Parker (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- What if I got down on my knees? by T Rauch (Whistling Shade Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Having discussed the administration and structure or the Arthur C Clarke Award, I’m now going to move onto the composition and reception of its shortlists.
What is the best Clarke shortlist? Okay, too hard. There are shortlisted books I’ve never heard of by authors who don’t even have Wikipedia pages. So what is the best shortlist of the last fifteen years (ie half the life of the award)? My personal picks would be 2010 and 2008. But, as Nina Allan noted in the piece that inspired my blog posts, John Jarrold hated the 2008 shortlist to the extent he felt the need to invoke Hiroshima. So, obviously, opinions differ. And the opinions of the judges themselves differ: some novels will be unanimously shortlisted and some will come down to a vote and we have no way of knowing which are which.
Instead of getting too much into good or bad, I’m going to talk more broadly about the composition of recent shortlists, their reception and our expectation. At the back of my mind will be the repeated suggestion that the award is not as exciting/radical/interesting/useful as it used to be.
2001, the first year of the period I’m looking at, was an all genre shortlist. In fact for the six year block between 1999 and 2004, every shortlist was entirely genre. The only time this has happened since was in 2014. This is worth bearing in mind when recent shortlists have sometimes been described as disappointingly core genre.
The only all British shortlist was in 2008, although we could probably also include 2006 as the eventual winner Geoff Ryman is a long term UK resident. In contrast, there have been non-majority British shortlists for the four years 2011 to 2014 as well as in 2003 and 2004.
This suggests a bit of a recent Golden Age for the award between 2005 and 2010 when the award produced strong British-dominated shortlists of high quality genre and non-genre science fiction. (Which is not to say they are all great – 2007, in particularly, continues to look a bit baffling.) My unsupported guess is that a lot of current Clarke commentators became involved with the award during this period.
Following the Genre Age and the Golden Age, we then have a third age from 2012. Yes, I jumped over 2011 as it seems to me to be a strong, radical and anomalous shortlist. I would also describe it – along with 2008 and 2013, the two year’s Allan identifies – as a split genre/non-genre shortlist. Patrick Ness had not (and has not since) published an adult science fiction novel and whilst Tim Powers clear had, this wasn’t readily apparent to anyone of my generation in Britain until Corvus belatedly picked him up here.
Anyway, back to 2012 and Allan’s description of the shortlist:
The 2012 shortlist, more now even than then, looks like a classic botch job: a set of random compromises, the result inevitably arrived at when five individuals of differing tastes and mixed critical abilities fail to form a coherent vision and resort instead to horse-trading,
Perhaps that lack of coherence is the defining feature of this Third Age. And perhaps that lack of coherence is understandable when the number of submissions to the award has radically increased from 41 in 2010 at the end of the Golden Age to 60 in 2012 and 113 this year.
Moving from the shortlists themselves to their reception, the single most important thing for the Arthur C Clarke Award in recent memory was when Adam Roberts published this review of the 2002 shortlist at Infinity Plus. He repeated this in 2003 and 2004 before moving to Strange Horizons. The second most important thing was when Niall Harrison at both Torque Control and Strange Horizons gave a home for discussion of the award.
Although I don’t believe Christopher Priest had read the 2012 shortlist when he published “Hull 0: Scunthorpe 3”, I do think it was a positive intervention for the award. We all need to have our feet held to the fire occasionally. However, it is ludicrously self-aggrandising to claim any more for it than that. The most important critical interventions of that year were from Dan Hartland, David Hebblethwaite, Maureen Kincaid Speller and Adam Roberts.
Yet Allan suggests: “In the four years since Priestgate, rigorous online discussion of the shortlists seems to have nosedived and atrophied.” If so, why? The criteria that allowed those reviews from Hartland, Hebblethwaite, Kincaid Speller and Roberts to arise were:
- A vibrant online scene
- Sufficient time to read the books
- Sufficient interest in the shortlist
Well, we’ve heard a lot about about the death of SF blogging recently (here is a good post on the subject) but the blogs that are dying are not the sort of blogs that would ever have reviewed the Clarke shortlist. Time might be an issue and, as discussed, it might be helpful to standardise the announcement of the award. Which leaves interest.
Perhaps it isn’t that surprising that people are less engaged with the award now than they were at the beginning of the Third Age in 2012, particularly if they became most interested during the Golden Age. There is also the elephant in the room of the Kitschies. I think these awards could accurately be described as the worst thing that happened to the Clarke Award since the only game in town suddenly had a competitor and a competitor with a rather broader remit. I am more interested in this year’s Red Tentacle shortlist than I am in this year’s Clarke shortlist.
I think a longlist for the Clarke Award would be nice but I don’t think it will change this. But I’m not sure how much needs to change. The amount of critical coverage at the end of the Golden Age was probably abnormally high and even then the number of people involved was actually pretty low. For the same people to stay engaged, year after year, is a huge investment of time. Even the indefatigable Adam Roberts said today that “The days when I’d review the entire Clarke shortlist are behind me now”.
But what goes around, comes around and I’m sure that new critical voices will rise to engage (and old ones to re-engage). If that all sounds complacent then I’m not sure what the alternative is. The award will continue and the conversation will continue but it will ebb and flow. It is entirely possible that someone entering the genre now will not have the same relationship with the award that we do but I doubt our relationship is the same as those who established it.
Inspired by Nina Allan’s recent post, I’d like to say a few things about the Arthur C Clarke Award. In particular, I’d like to discuss:
- The structure and administration of the award
- The composition and reception of its shortlists
- The award as barometer of British SF publishing
In the olden days, I’d have bunged this all into a single post but if I don’t chunk it up, I fear it won’t get written. This post will focus on 1) and hopefully I will return to the other two later. (I’d also like to return to another issue Allan raised – the concept of a British SF ‘hub’ – but don’t hold your breath.)
Let me preface these remarks with a bit of context. I have been interested and engaged with the award since Jeff Noon won for Vurt in 1994. I feel hugely proud and privileged to have been a judge in 2011 and 2012. Funding was abruptly withdrawn during this period and without current director Tom Hunter, the award could well have died on its arse. So this is not about criticism, this is about potential ways to strengthen the award for the future. I think this could easily be done in two ways:
- Introducing a longlist
- Standardising the timetable for the award
Hunter is to be congratulated for many of the innovations during his tenure and one of the big ones is releasing the submissions list. As I understand it, the submissions list prior to Hunter have been destroyed which is a real shame as they are very valuable before for understanding where the shortlists come from but also for giving an insight into SF publishing more broadly (see 3) above). But a submissions list is not a longlist, although authors occasionally try to misrepresent it as such. A longlist gives another opportunity for publicity but also, crucially, debate.
Every year there are unaccountable omissions from the shortlist. Allan’s post refers to Priestgate during which Christopher Priest identified Wake Up And Dream by Ian R MacLeod, Dead Water by Simon Ings, By Light Alone by Adam Roberts and Osama by Lavie Tidhar as essential for the shortlist. Would any, all or none of those have made a longlist? We will never know but it seems to me that it would have enriched the conversation. So I’m pleased that in his latest piece for the Guardian, Hunter has softened his line a bit on this: “There have also been many calls for us to introduce an annual longlist, in addition to our shortlist. There are good arguments for and against this, but it’s definitely worth the conversation if it will help highlight the increasing diversity of our genre.” Although worryingly, he continues: “If a longlist proves impractical, we’re also discussing the idea of increasing the number of titles on our shortlists as a route to highlighting more titles.” Don’t do it, Tom!
A longlist would also help with my second way of strengthening the award. Currently Hunter has control over publishing the submissions list and the awards ceremony itself but not the shortlist announcement as this tied to sponsors Sci-Fi London. The result has been the timing of the award has been a bit of a moveable feast. As Allan puts it: “Last year, for the first time in a long time, there was no comprehensive critical review of the Clarke Award shortlist at Strange Horizons and, because of inept programming and yet another shift in the timing of the award, no discussion of the shortlist at Eastercon either.” A longlist would be in Hunter’s control and could be made available at the same time every year, in advance of Eastercon. This isn’t quite the same as having the shortlist as reading a whole longlist is a pretty big ask but it would allow a bigger window of engagement.
The only barrier to both is a finite resource: the time of the judges. Since they have to produce what is essentially an internal longlist anyway in order to guide the shortlist discussion, I don’t think it is any extra effort for them. But with the ever expanding submissions list and the tendency of publishers to backload their submissions, there is a question about how long it takes them just to read all the books. I don’t think that is insurmountable though.
So yeah, I can see lots of benefits to those two proposals and no downsides. Who’s with me?
A sequel to that other post:
- Jonathan McCalmont has started reviewing the stories making up Sisters Of The Revolution, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. This makes me want to return (in a much more rigourous way) to my own read through of The Space Opera Renaissance. But it hasn’t happened yet.
- McCalmont also appears, as usual, in the latest Interzone which didn’t have a great issue for fiction. I don’t think Rich Larson has ever written a bad story but ‘Lotto’ was too abbreviated to be great. My favourite story probably wasn’t as good as ‘Lotto’ though. ‘Spine’ by Christopher Fowler is a Seventies throwback to the age of Peter Benchley which is a pure nostalgia rush.
- You might also remember I picked up Interzone’s sister magazine, The Third Alternative, in actual paper at Mancunicon. Turns out, if its not on my Kindle, I don’t read it (and if it is on my Kindle, I usually still don’t read it).
- My discovery of the month has been Kelly Robson (I know, I know, I’m late). ‘Two-Year Man’ reminds me a bit of A Day In The Deep Freeze – a crushing dystopia made all the more horrific for being so modest and the story made all the bleaker by the inextinguishable spark of humanity still present. ‘The Three Resurrections Of Jessica Churchill’ is equally well-written but a lot blunter.
- I also enjoyed ‘Between Dragons and Their Wrath‘ by An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky which pulls off the trick of being Weird but not arbitrary and ‘The Sincerity Game’ by Brit Mandelo is one of those stories that doesn’t need the SF element (it is an acutely observed relationship story with some fiercely brilliant writing) yet it isn’t superfluous and adds an extra bit of flavour. Not as good as those but worth a read is ‘The Plague Givers’ by Kameron Hurley, published on her Patreon. It also makes me a bit sad as Hurley could’ve been the saviour of epic fantasy but modern publishing has made that impossible by pushing her into a succession of unnecessary trilogies.
- ‘The Plague Givers’ will be reprinted in Uncanny #10 which will also contain stories by JY Yang and Alyssa Wong so that looks like it will be pretty good. And Uncanny and Wong are up for Hugos (well, the Campbell in Wong’s case) so that is pretty good too.
- The Hugo short fiction categories are not pretty good because once again they’ve been hijacked by the Puppies. In Best Short Story, the most interesting looking title is Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle which tells you everything you need to know. I’ve no intention of reading the shortlist (as I did last year) but I have read ‘Asymmetrical Warfare’ by SR Algernon, a terrible bit of flash fiction which is still too long and essentially retreads Terry Bisson’s ‘They’re Made Out Of Meat’, and ‘If You Were An Award, My Love’ by Juan Tabo and S. Harris. I won’t like to the latter both because it is on Vox Day’s website and because it has no redeeming features whatsoever. It is essentially an offensively personal attack on John Scalzi which is dressed up as ‘If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love’ by two people who don’t understand what that story was about, don’t understand what a parody is, don’t understand what a pastiche is and basically don’t understand anything at all about writing. It is purely an attempt to poison the well and confirms that any higher motives the Puppies claimed to have were all lies.
- I thought at first I might read some of the Best Novelette shortlist because ‘And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead’ by Brooke Bolander and ‘Folding Beijing’ by Hao Jingfang, translated Ken Liu, are both published in real venues. However, the Bolander is just a written version of this song so I’ve lost interest. It was also nominated for the Nebula, a reminder that not everything bad in SF can be laid at the door of the Puppies.
- The Best Novella shortlist only contains one joke entry and two stories that I’d actually like to read: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor and Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (although vexingly the latter isn’t published in the UK for another year). And – shock, horror – I’ve already read one of the nominees! As the author readily admits, it is a joke premise (what if an anthropomorphic animal story was written for adult SF fans?) and the problem with a joke premise is that it rapidly becomes tiresome over this length, particularly since there is a real sense that Polansky is doing a lot of padding.
My first Eastercon was in 2010, a time when I was feeling particularly anti-social, and was held at Heathrow, a particularly anti-social location. I didn’t have a great time but both those limiting factors had changed by this year’s Eastercon. I thoroughly enjoyed myself this year and must concede, once and for all, that I am part of fandom.
First order of the day – after registration and buying the 50th issue of Black Static for a quid – was lunch with what once upon a time would have been called Third Row fandom. Is that still a thing? We couldn’t make it over to dim sum and they wouldn’t let us in for tapas so we had Greek. There was meat and beer. It was good.
Back inside, my first panel of the con was Catastrophe And Salvage. It very nearly wasn’t my first panel since it was held in Room 7 which had capacity for about 30 and was fully twenty minutes before the panel started. I just got in, many others didn’t and this was a bit of a pattern for the weekend.
The panel itself was okay but I found that they just stopped short of making progress before switching onto the next thread. I’d not seen Mathew de Abaitua speak before and he was very interesting. Tricia Sullivan still seems to be (understandably) burnt out on SF which is a shame because she is so smart and had lots to contribute but I just didn’t feel she wanted to be there.
Due to a large number of interruptions from the floor, there wasn’t time for any questions. If there had been, I would have asked: “We’ve talked a lot about the lack of agency in the 21st Centure and disaster fiction as fantasies of agency. That is external change, what about internal change? Why are revolutions so under-represented in SF compared to disasters?”
I wanted to get into The Stars Are Your Canvas and The Female Gaze but they were both in Room 7 (all the best programming was) so I didn’t risk it. Elsewhere the BSFA Awards were announced. Things I didn’t want to win won – c’est la vie. However, my choice for Best Non-Fiction – Rave And Let Die by Adam Roberts – did win so that was nice. I think Nick Hubble’s review of the book is worth reading alongside this win:
There is something discordant, too, about the proximity of Roberts’s contention that “whatever else reviews are ‘for,’ they ought to be entertaining” (p. 14) to his discussion of why he doesn’t particularly value entertainment as a criterion of a book’s worth. One of the least entertaining reviews in his collection, of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, is one of the most incisive in critical terms. Roberts is, amongst his many other distinctions, a significant Tolkien scholar and his 2013 study, The Riddles of the Hobbit, is a model for how good an accessible academic book can be. In some ways, of course, it is the contradiction between being a top-level academic and an entertainer that can make Roberts such an interesting and unpredictable critic to read.
I made my dinner plans based on a quick Google of Time Out just as my phone was dying. It recommended Tattu, gave it five stars and two out of four for affordability so I took a punt. It turned out to be located in the huge new Spinningfields development with its diamond-like Armani building and Australiasia. Once this would have been described as noveau riche but it is more like credit riche or Premier League Aspiration and Tattu turned out to be a very hollow experience.
I ordered an Orchid Blush to drink which tasted of tequila and mouthwash and arrived after the starter. Said starter of scallop with Iberico xo sausage, brown shrimp and pumpkin was fine and for £14 I wanted more than “fine”. I could just about taste the pumpkin but nothing made the dish come alive. It was an example of expensive ingredients and pretty presentation being used as substitute for flavour. This was even more the case for the black pepper and honey ribs which had no heat, spice or really any flavour at all. I’ve never had a Chinese meal with so little seasoning. I ordered a side of rice with this which boasted of duck egg and Chinese sausage but again, you’d be hard pressed to actually find them.
This came to just over £50 for one which I’m not sure is two out of four for affordability and I’m definitely sure is very poor value for money. I ate a much better meal at Jitrada in Sale the night before for half the price.
Back at the con in the morning and I was working. Or, at least, I was on the Book Reviews in the Age of Amazon panel. This went well with a nicely balanced, interesting panel, a great moderator and an audience of a hundred odd people. Still, I couldn’t help reflecting that it was a bit of a well worn topic and I’d have liked to have seen some of the other panels having that much space.
For example, the 30 Years Of The Arthur C Clarke Award panel immediately afterwards in yes, Room 7. It was an interesting discussion of the history of the award but two particular things stood out for me. Firstly, the interest in the Award putting out a longlist. This is something I’d like to see too but isn’t a direction the award will be going in. Secondly, both Nina Allan and Nick Hubble mentioned Torque Control as the place that facillitated the best discussion of the award as well as being a hub for British science fiction in general.
Torque Control was established by Niall Harrison when he was editor of Vector, the magazine of the BSFA. Although the subsequent editor Shana Worthen continued the blog, it no longer functioned in the same way and for the last five years there hasn’t been a UK hub of the type Nina and Nick (and me) found so productive. Several times I’ve begged Niall to blog again (although he does a bit with a different hat on) and, indeed, I buttonholed him straight after the panel too. The age of blogging has passed and the age of Twitter has many benefits but still, you can dream.