By Jonathan McCalmont
Whenever I think about how people first acquire an interest in science fiction, I am reminded of two very different data points:
The first comes from an essay by the American academic and reviewer Gary K. Wolfe in which he observes that virtually all science-fictional biographies contain scenes in which the lives of their protagonists are transformed either by a kindly librarian inviting them to take home books from the ‘grown up’ section or by someone handing them a copy of Lord of the Rings.
The second is that the author Madeline Ashby once observed that different people often have radically different paths into science fiction and that while others were reading Tolkien, she was watching the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. The author Adam Rakunas was so taken by the simplicity and power of Ashby’s observation that he turned her words into a badge that was put on sale just long enough for it catch the attention of the Tolkien Estate who allegedly threatened legal action over what was nothing more than a passing reference to their intellectual property.
The point here is not only that one person’s transformational experience is another person’s tired biographical trope, but also that there are countless paths into science fiction.
My personal journey is probably a lot closer to Ashby’s than to that of Wolfe’s literary grandees. My only childhood memories of librarians involve being repeatedly told to shut up and my first attempt to read Lord of the Rings ended with my abandoning the book in an airport lounge as a childhood spent watching poorly-edited Japanese cartoons and age-inappropriate Italian exploitation films had left me psychologically unprepared for the yellow-trousered wazzockry of Tom Bombadil.
Regardless of whether they are conventional, idiosyncratic, or simply products of distracted parenting, our paths into science fiction cannot help but shape our understanding and expectations of the field. Unfortunately, where there is difference there is bound to be misunderstanding and where there is misunderstanding there must inevitably be conflict.
The problem is that while the walls of science fiction may be infinitely porous and allow for inspiration from different cultures and artistic forms, the cultural institutions surrounding science fiction have shown themselves to be remarkably inflexible when it comes to making allowances for other people’s genre origin stories.
The roots of the problem are as old as genre fandom itself. In fact, the very first Worldcon saw the members of one science fiction club deny entry to the membership of another on the grounds that the interlopers were socialists whose politicised understanding of speculative fiction posed an existential threat to the genre’s continued existence. A similar conflict erupted when the unexpected success of Star Wars turned a niche literary genre into a mass market phenomenon. Faced with the prospect of making allowances for legions of new fans with radically different ideas as to what constituted good science fiction, the institutions of genre fandom responded with sluggishness indistinguishable from hostility. Media fandom was born when traditional fandom refused to expand its horizons and the same thing happened again in the early 1990s when fans of anime decided that it was better to build their own institutions than to fight street-by-street for the right to be hidden away in the smallest and hottest rooms that science fiction conventions had to offer.
The institutions of genre culture may pride themselves on their inclusiveness and forward-thinking but this is largely a product of the excluded not sticking around long enough to give their own side of the story. Time and again, the institutions of genre culture have been offered the chance to get in on the ground floor when genre ideas began to manifest themselves in different ways. Time and again, the institutions of genre culture have chosen to protect the primacy of the familiar over the vibrancy of the new and the different.
The conservative nature of genre institutions is particularly evident in the convulsions of American genre culture over the actions of the Sad and Rabid Puppies. Often framed as a battle between either racism and diversity or literary elites and real fans, the Sad Puppies were initially fuelled solely by resentment at being passed over for awards. Indeed, the earliest expressions of the Sad Puppy formation were less concerned with racial purity than with genre institutions’ historic reluctance to honour the field’s most commercially-successful forms including epic fantasy and military science fiction. It was only when the successes of anti-sexism and anti-racism campaigns within fandom began to translate into more award nominations for women and non-whites that the Sad Puppies’ resentment and cultural conservatism allowed them to make common cause with the emergent fascism of the Alt-Right.
While the furore surrounding the actions of the Sad and Rabid Puppies appears to be fading year-on-year, it is interesting to note that the Puppies were not so much defeated as brought to heel by the institutional conservatism of genre culture. Opposition to the Puppies may have focused on their right-wing politics but concern over the presence of the Puppies appears to have diminished just as they have shifted away from voting themselves onto award shortlists and towards campaigning for existing authors with large followings in fandom.
Cultural commentators may choose to characterise 2015 as the year in which genre culture rejected the misogynistic white supremacy of the American right but the real message is far more nuanced. Though the institutions of genre culture have undoubtedly improved when it comes to reflecting the diversity not only of the field but also of society at large, this movement towards ethnic and sexual diversification has coincided with a broader movement of aesthetic conservatism as voices young and old find themselves corralled into a narrowing range of hyper-commercial forms.
In today’s diverse genre culture you can engage with the voices of people from all over the world as long as you are content to read multi-volume epic fantasy and military science fiction series. In today’s diverse genre culture, authors whose ideas and experiences demand that they write in unconventional or experimental ways are both ignored by the larger genre imprints and overlooked by popular awards. In today’s diverse genre culture you will write the same old rubbish as George R. R. Martin and John Scalzi or you will wind up getting paid six cents a word for stories that nobody will ever read.
I value the Arthur C. Clarke Award in so far as it challenges the assumption that the best genre fiction comes from genre culture. Right from the moment of its inception in 1987, the Clarke has dared to look beyond the confines of genre culture and seek out works that approached science-fictional ideas in radically different ways. Sure… the Clarke may have helped to nurture some of the greatest talents that genre culture has ever produced but then so has every other award in the field’s history. The value of the Arthur C. Clarke award lies not in its ability to pick the right books or celebrate the right authors but in its history of challenging the innate conservatism of genre culture by selecting works by people working outside of that culture’s mainstream; people whose journey to science fiction took them via paths so bizarre and circuitous that they feel like a provocation merely by virtue of existing.
Science fiction is a genre that must never be allowed to sit still. The future is forever in a state of flux and the genre must reflect this by existing in a state of perpetual experimentation. I value the Arthur C. Clarke Award when it broadens the conversation and challenges conventional thinking about science fiction, the works I most enjoy and intend to celebrate are those that reflect the genre’s protean and transgressive nature.
Jonathan McCalmont is a film critic, fan writer, and columnist for Interzone magazine. One-time Londoner and low-level academic drone, he has now surrendered to the forces of entropy and taken up residence in a wood