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Archive for March 2nd, 2011

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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