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 Funding was abruptly withdrawn during this period and without current director Tom Hunter, the award could well have died on its arse.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.
John Self recently wrote a post on reading and specifically his relationship with reading at different points in his life. This includes a stage of life I’ve just reached myself:
A parent is a willing player in the project of being pushed into a corner of their own life… As it happens, I managed pretty well to keep my reading up after our first son was born. The thing about two parents and one child is that you outnumber them: you can give your partner a break, and vice versa… With two children, the first thing you realise is how easy it was with one. Now there are no hiding places, no spare hands. Once they’re both sleeping through the night (and with our second, currently 16 months old, we’re still waiting for that), you have the evening free; but you’re too tired to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet. Most of all, with two young children, you’re never really alone…
Deeds of possession for property speak of the tenant or owner having “quiet enjoyment” of the premises. Those two words placed together will have most parents scratching their heads with quizzical eyebrows. Quiet enjoyment is not part of the deal. But it is essential if you want to read, or write, or write about reading. It is essential if you want to engage with a book that can’t be fully absorbed with Octonauts playing in the background.
Whilst my short fiction reading has increased, I haven’t opened a novel for three months. And if reading is hard, writing is harder. Two years ago I published my 50th review for Strange Horizons, a figure achieved over nine years. My 52nd review, Railhead by Philip Reeve, has just gone live. I describe the novel as “the first New Weird children’s space opera” which probably oversells it. Reeve couldn’t write a bad book but this is not a particularly memorable one:
Does this mean that Reeve’s proud demi-gods will persist in the imagination as long as Awdry’s squabbling schoolboys? I doubt it. Though thrilling and humane, Railhead ultimately feels transitory—more style than substance.
Yes, that is a Thomas The Tank Engine reference. Not only have my reviews slowed done substantially, their frame of reference has shrunk dramatically. This is not something that can be said of other recent Strange Horizons reviews. So I’d like to write to more reviews in 2016 but I’d also like to write different reviews. I’m just not sure where I’ll find the time.
I’ve done surprisingly well at reading short fiction this year but unsurprisingly badly at writing about it. I am also currently on paternity leave which means I have very little free time and I’m also in withdrawal from my day job which mostly consists of writing bulletpoint lists. So here is a very quick summary of my reading:
- Last year I reviewed the Puppy-stuffed Hugo shortlist for Strange Horizons. It is very bad. Last month I read the Nebula short story shortlist. It is also pretty bad (with the honorable exception of ‘Hungry Daughters Of Starving Mothers’ by Alyssa Wong). Reading both it is clear that despite the chaff, the difference between the two is purely political. In particular, ‘Damage’ by David D. Levine (acquired and edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden and published by Tor.com) is basically the same story as ‘Turncoat’ by Steve Rzasa (acquired and edited by Vox Day who views PNH and Tor.com as the Antichrist).
- If I was writing about that shortlist, I’d probably want to link it to this Ethan Robinson review of The Weave by Nancy Jane Moore. Robinson also has some more direct thoughts here.
- I have also started reading Interzone for the first time in a decade. Somethings don’t change; Nick Lowe is great on The Force Awakens in the latest issue. As always, the fiction is a mixed bag but the stand out story is ‘Empty Planets’ by Rahul Kanakia who I wasn’t previously aware of.
- Also new to me are JY Yang (‘Song Of The Krakenmaid’ and ‘Secondhand Bodies’) and Kelly Robson (‘Two-Year Man’) who I have discovered through a secrit short fiction pusher who has got me hooked. The latter reminds me a bit of A Day In The Deep Freeze by Lisa Shapter which I’d love to write a bit more about.
BSFA members will have noticed that there was no editorial in this issue’s BSFA Review. This was because once again I ran out of time which, in turn, is one of the reasons I am standing down as reviews editor. It has been a great couple of years and I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved but it is time for a change. So I’m very pleased to announce that Susan Oke will be taking over from me from Vector #283.
- Modernism And Science Fiction by Paul March-Russell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
- Europe At Midnight by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris, 2015) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- Memory Of Water by Emmi Itäranta (HarperCollins, 2014) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- Mother Of Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus, 2015) – Reviewed by Dave M Roberts
- The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
- The Fifth Dimension by Martin Vopěnka, translated by Hana Sklenkova (Barbican Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- Barricade by Jon Wallace (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Pelquin’s Comet by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
- The House Of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
- Signal To Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris, 2015) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, translated by Lola M Rogers (Pushkin Press, 2014) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
- Deep Time by Anthony Nanson (Hawthorn Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
- Ashamet, Desert Born by Terry Jackman (Dragonwell Publishing, 2015) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- Fencing Academy by AW Freyr (Uruk Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
Every year I have good intentions of reading lots of short stories, identifying some real gems and then nominating them for the BSFA Awards. Most years I fail. So I am very pleased that the BSFA have now introduced a two-stage voting process where members can vote on a longlist of nominations. Given the size of the field and the difficulty of achieving blind consensus on the best short fiction published through nominations (witness the 2013 Hugo short story shortlist only having 3 nominees that had the minimum of 5% of nominations) this is a sensible change but on a personal level, it is hugely welcome because it allows me to re-engage with the field.
There are 41 stories on the longlist and I’ve read 34 of them. On that basis, my votes are:
- ‘A Day In The Deep Freeze’ by Lisa Shapter – Set in an anonymous mid-Twentieth Century America that hides something truly horrific, this is a remorseless novella that is completely unique and penetrates bone deep. This is the only one of my selections that isn’t available for free but you should buy it now.
- ‘The Game of Smash and Recovery by Kelly Link – It is a Link story and it is a very good Link story and it is science fiction. What more do you want?
- ‘Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Outer Space’ by Sam Kriss – Combatative, creative non-fiction that is like nothing else on the longlist.
- ‘Elephants and Corpses’ by Kameron Hurley – One of only two secondary world fantasy stories, this is typical exuberant, inventive Hurley which is something this rather mannered longlist needed.
If I had four more votes, they would be for:
- ‘Fabulous Beasts’ by Priya Sharma – There are quite a few stories on the longlist that are essentially family sagas sharpened by the intrusion of the fantastic and this is the pick of the bunch.
- ‘Wooden Feathers’ by T Kingfisher – Like ‘Fabulous Beasts’, this does something relatively simple but does very economically and effectively.
- ‘Liminal’ Grid by Jaymee Goh – Most of the family sagas are fantasy but this story gains a lot more purpose by moving into the future.
- Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers’ by Alyssa Wong – Raw and a bit clumsy but also quite powerful.
My votes sort of accord with those of Nicholas Whyte but I’m looking forward to seeing what stories other people are going for. And I’m hoping to write more about the stories on the shortlist itself once it is announced.