By Nina Allan
(originally published in the May edition of Interzone)
Although it is the controversies that tend to draw attention at the time, book awards are usually more interesting in retrospect, when the fuss has died down. It is only with hindsight that we begin to see if the outrage over the shortlist was in fact worth the word-count expended upon it, whether, in the broader sweep of history, the winning novel was actually anything more than a flash in the pan.
The Arthur C. Clarke Award is no exception to this rule, particularly since science fiction readers tend to have long memories. The Clarke Award is thirty-one years old this year, and people are still talking about whether Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was the most sensible choice for a winner back in 1987. The fallout from the notorious ‘lit-fic’ shortlist of 2008 is still drifting about the blogosphere, pulsing radiation. Looking back at that shortlist now, it is difficult to see what all the fuss was about, especially since it was a work of hard SF from a core genre imprint – Richard Morgan’s Black Man, published by Gollancz – that won through in the end.
Organising and participating in this year’s shadow Clarke jury is turning out to be a pleasure on multiple levels, not least exchanging thoughts and opinions and discoveries with my fellow Sharkes. Speaking purely for myself though, the most significant effect of this experiment has been to make me question the very validity of ‘science fiction’ as a literary genre. In a literary landscape where everything is up for grabs, and where the tropes of science fiction – time travel, genetic and social engineering, apocalypse scenarios of every variety, artificial intelligence and mass surveillance – are increasingly becoming both core subject matter and metaphorical framing device for novelists of every nation and literary inheritance, can we usefully continue to argue for science fiction as a literature apart, worthy not just of separate study but of special pleading?
From the dawn of science fiction – and I’ll leave the Shelleyites and the Gernsbackians to argue that one out for themselves – both readers and critics of science fiction have passionately maintained that science fiction is different, that it should not be forced to comply with the literary values of mainstream literature because as a so-called literature of ideas, its power and central purpose lie elsewhere. You would not expect a science fiction writer to concern themselves with the minute dissection of a cosmonaut’s personal relationships and childhood trauma when their primary interest is focussed upon the possibilities and moral conundrums thrown up by the logistics, mechanics and – possibly – the wider philosophy of firing human beings into space. Readers of science fiction are drawn to it precisely because of its willingness to grapple with ‘the big questions’. No one asked for a side-serving of existential angst to go with that, thank you very much.
In other words, and to stick a pin in the literary timeline just for a moment, why should Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, be held to the same mainstream literary standards as John Fowles’s The Magus – also published in 1966 – when the aims and purpose of science fiction as literature are entirely different?
Are they, though? Or to rephrase the question slightly, are they now?
For many years, the argument for special pleading might have held good. Throughout the decades when the literary establishment concerned itself almost entirely with mimesis, and where the mere suggestion that ‘sci-fi’ could be a valid, much less valuable tool for creative expression was enough to send a writer or critic to literary Coventry, the conversation around science fiction as a distinct and separate mode of literature formed a radical and vibrant alternative to the consensus. Science fiction was doing something important, bringing to the fore not just a set of ideas but an imaginative, speculative approach that was simply not attempted or talked about in canonical circles.
The same arguments do not hold true today, and have not held true for more than a decade. The high priests of SF, anxious to maintain the genre’s privileged status, often decry writers of literary fiction who experiment with science fictional devices as ‘tourists’ – interlopers and carpetbaggers, fair-weather friends who are not interested in SF so much as stealing its cool and who in any case are ‘doing it wrong’. They’re doing it wrong, these doyens insist, because the ideas they are hijacking are familiar and outmoded in science fictional terms. They waste too much time talking about the astronaut’s mother and not enough speculating over whether potatoes really can be grown in human excrement.
In trotting out these arguments, how many science fiction commentators stop to ask themselves – in a genre landscape almost wholly consumed by pumping out copycat series fiction, grimdark fantasy and endlessly repetitive YA dystopia – how many truly innovative, truly radical works of echt science fiction are actually now being published in any given year?
What the shadow Clarke project has led me to ask most of all is whether the precepts of SF special pleading are now simply being used to lend critical weight to works that could not otherwise sustain it. Or, to put it another way, to excuse bad writing.
In looking back over past Clarke Award shortlists, and in the arbitrary manner demanded by such pronouncements, I have come to see 2005 as a landmark year – a jonbar hinge, if you will – and possibly as the moment where science fiction as a meaningfully separated mode of literature ceased to exist. This was the year David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas appeared on the Clarke Award shortlist, a novel that had already won the British Book Awards literary fiction award, had been shortlisted for the Booker and, moreover, appealed to book-lovers and critics across the literary/SF divide. Readers who previously believed they ‘didn’t like science fiction’ found themselves intrigued and energised by the interweaving timelines and diverse cast of characters. Science fiction fans who wouldn’t normally let themselves be seen anywhere near the literary fiction shelves could not help but be blown off their feet by the scope of the novel, by its seemingly effortless assimilation of SF tropes, by its author’s cunning ability to pass himself off as a science fiction native speaker.
It does not seem like a coincidence that 2005 was also the year in which another landmark genre-bender, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. That the prize was eventually won by China Miéville for Iron Council seems of lesser importance. The die had been cast, all the more decisively when we consider that Miéville was rapidly becoming established as the acceptable face of genre literature among mainstream literary critics anyway.
Looking at Clarke shortlists prior to 2005, novels from mainstream imprints are notable by their scarcity and when they do appear – The Handmaid’s Tale, Body of Glass – their presence is marked by an accompanying and predictable ruction in science fiction circles. After 2005, things look very different. With an upsurge in mainstream publishers willing and eager to submit their novels to be considered for the award, conversation among SF commentators saw a corresponding upsurge in discussion of which mainstream literary novels might yet pass muster as science fiction. Clarke shortlists regularly began to include two or even three novels from mainstream imprints in any given year.
The 2017 Clarke Award shortlist includes just one novel from a mainstream imprint, but that should not prevent us from asking if any justification remains for continuing to consider and criticise science fiction under a separate heading. I was struck by a comment left on a previous thread by Jesse, who writes elegant and excellent commentary on science fiction and other literatures at the blog Speculiction. ‘Apologies, but I get really frustrated reading criticisms like literary author A carpet-bagged genre trope X,’ Jesse writes. ‘It’s so us vs. them, so juvenile. Who cares who uses what? Fiction is fiction. We should be looking at how the qualities of the novel fit together to form its image or message, regardless of where it is shelved, not how trope X or Y has been described in better detail by genre author B’.
As part of a longer and more detailed comment, Jesse’s argument seemed to nail it for me. Who cares who uses what, indeed. The concept of space travel no more ‘belongs’ to science fiction writers than the theme of the nervous breakdown belongs to the Hampstead literary elite, whoever they are, and if a novel that uses science fiction interestingly and well doesn’t also satisfy as a decently executed work of literature, it’s not much of a novel.
Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her second novel The Rift will be published by Titan Books in July 2017. She enjoys arguing about books in general and science fiction literature in particular, and makes these arguments public from time to time at her blog, The Spider’s House. Nina lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.