Posts Tagged ‘nina allan’
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 Funding was abruptly withdrawn during this period and without current director Tom Hunter, the award could well have died on its arse.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?
David Hebblethwaite says “contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight”. He is right.
I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream – and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.
Nina Allan says there is “a serious problem with the way the larger publishing imprints view SF in the current market”. She is right.
With M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Ian McDonald and Simon Ings on their roster, Gollancz still surely boasts some of the finest writers in the business. But we’d do well to remember that authors with decades-long careers behind them will always constitute less of a financial risk for the publisher. When it comes to new blood – where the risk lies, in other words – aside from Hannu Rajaniemi I couldn’t think of one new-generation writer Gollancz publish who is actively innovative, who comes anywhere even close to doing what Delany was doing in 1971. That was a scary, scary thought. And if Gollancz, with their venerable back catalogue of masterworks and estimable track record in promoting fresh talent, isn’t actively seeking out newer writers who want to do more than write commercial core genre, who the hell is?
A double apology. Firstly, I should have congratulated Nina Allan for winning the BSFA Award for Short Fiction with Spin when the awards were announced. Secondly, I should have reviewed the novella but – as with Ian Sales’s BSFA Award-winning novella last year – I failed to get round to it. I was reminded of this by Daniel Libris’s recent review so go and read that then go and buy Allan’s book.
Congratulations to all the other winners and commisserations to the others on the short fiction award shortlist:
‘The Silver Wind’ was originally published in Interzone #233
I reviewed Nina Allan’s first short story collection, A Thread Of Truth for Strange Horizons in 2009. In the course of doing so, I identified some of the characteristics of an archetypal Allan story: “It focuses on failed, grudging and inexplicable relationships. It takes a keen interest in geography (rural, urban, and liminal). Observations are often precise and clinical. Above all it is a story that suggests rather than insists… the ineffable burns throughout the collection.” I’ve not read any of her work since so I wondered how much ‘The Silver Wind’ would continue this pattern. Well, the geography is certainly there in the opening paragraph:
Shooter’s Hill had a rough reputation. The reforestation policy had returned the place to its original state, and the tract of woodland between Blackheath and Woolwich was now as dense and extensive as it had once been in the years and centuries before the first industrial revolution. The woods were rife with carjackers and highwaymen, and scarcely a week went by without reports of some new atrocity. The situation had become so serious that there were moves in parliament to reinstate the death penalty for highway robbery as it had already been reinstated for high treason. During the course of certain conversations I noticed that local people had taken to calling Oxleas Woods by its old name, the Hanging Wood, although no hangings had occurred there as yet. At least not oﬃcially.
Otherwise this seems more like traditional science fiction than I’ve come expect from Allan. We are in the future, society has presumably undergone some form of collapse and we are soon told that this is linked to the election of a government of British Nationalists. The fascist near-future dystopia is familiar territory so I was interested to see what Allan would do with it. The answer is to confuse it with a typical and dilute it with a detached protagonist:
It sounds insane to say it, but I had never really questioned the world I lived in. I remembered the hung parliaments, the power shortages, the forced deportations of the millions of blacks and Asians from the city ghettos to the vast factory ships built to transport them to the so-called ‘home-states’ of Nigeria, Botswana and the near-uninhabitable wastelands of the exhausted Niger delta.
Martin, an estate agent, has withdraw from the world following the death of his wife but as that quote shows, he was never particularly engaged to begin with. A chance encounter in the course of a sale leads him to become obsessed with Owen Andrews, the inventor of the Silver Wind of the title, a “mechanical time-stabliser” that acts as a tourbillion for reality. The introduction of this fantastic device reveals Allan’s focus and sidelines the SF setting.
The concept, as with the rest of the story, is laid out methodically by our extremely dull narrator. Unfortunately, for the majority of ‘The Silver Wind’ I was bored and unengaged, it large part because we receive the story through the filter of a boring and unengaged narrator. For example, when Martin meets Andrews for the first time he reports that: “His force of personality was tangible. I thought he was probably the most extraordinary man I had ever met.” It isn’t at all tangible to the reader. This is one of several points where our narrator directly informs us of feelings that we are unable to intuit from the text itself. The prose is similarly blank. In previous stories, Allan’s writing has been clinical but forensically incisive; here it is merely prosaic. This is one of the most descriptive passages in the novel:
He took me through to a room at the back. The room was steeped in books, so many of them that the ochre-coloured wallpaper that lined the room showed though only in oddly-spaced random patches. Glazed double doors overlooked a narrow strip of garden. A set of library steps on castors stood close to one wall.
Now, there is nothing wrong with it but it hardly sparks the imagination. Martin is a grey man in a colourless world and I found little intellectually to hold my interest in the absence of anything more visceral. It is only after much treading of water that the story bows to the inevitable and Martin utilises the Silver Wind. When this happens, he slides into another timestream, chaotic and troubled but no longer fascis. “What I saw and felt and observed was a change not in substance but in emphasis.” He effortlessly integrates himself into this new world which already contains a hole for him (his Oyster and bank cards both work). The ease of this transition becomes faintly ludicrous when he decides on a whim to set himself up as a clock salesman and soon has a “lucrative little business”. Martin simply glides through life.
And there the story ends, as always, without insistence. Is the reader supposed to compare the two timestreams? To contemplate the concept? To empathise with Martin’s personal journey? Allan – through Martin – has given me little to gain any purchase on.
The story was collected in a book of the same title with four linked “stories of time disrupted”. In her review of The Silver Wind for Strange Horizons, Sofia Samatar suggests that the story is best read in the context of the collection:
This means that The Silver Wind as a whole is quite different from the sum of its parts. The first three stories were published previously, but they cannot have been read separately in the same way that they are read together, with their uncanny resonances. It would be like reading a single one of the twelve novels that make up Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: you might enjoy the story, but without reading more of the books you wouldn’t understand Powell’s use of repetition, coincidence, and change.
This was echoed by Niall Harrison on the Strange Horizons blog:
The only one of the five that I’d previously read was “The Silver Wind” — the most overtly and conventionally fantastic, in that it starts in an alternate universe and features a protagonist who learns to cross to another timestream, and published in Interzone earlier this year — and it gains immensely from its context in this book.
Does it work on its own? What do you think?