By Nina Allan
I can’t rightly say what first drew me to science fiction, because it is something – a way of thinking, a mode of literature, a set of ideas – I was drawn to instinctively, long before I knew there was such a thing as science fiction and even longer before I realised that the kinds of stories I would later learn to refer to as SF might be considered different from or even inferior to those stories commonly accepted as valid within mainstream literature.
I became unconsciously aware of science fiction – that is, stories that bent reality in some way or that forced their audience to question the consensus version of reality they happened to be familiar with – at the age of five or six. It never occurred to me that these stories were odd, or unrealistic. To me, the idea that humans might learn to travel in time, or that the Earth might suddenly be invaded by aliens, or that the sewers of London might be teeming with monsters seemed to perfectly reflect my own intense and idiosyncratic way of experiencing reality, of seeing the extraordinary in the most ordinary situations.
Even as I grew to recognise science fiction as a specific branch of literature, I remained wholly ignorant, for a long time, of the culture surrounding it. I had no idea there was such a thing as SF fandom and, most likely because I knew no one else who read SF or even knew about it beyond the Doctor Who or Star Wars level, I rather think I cherished the idea that novels like The Time Machine and The Day of the Triffids had been written especially for me. How could it be otherwise, when these books contained everything I might hope to find in a story: mystery, adventure, that fabled sense of wonder and that secret silver seam of something else, something that tastes like fear but is closer to awe. Above all, it is the sense of possibility in science fiction that set it apart from other kinds of literature, that kept me returning to it and committed to it even after I learned by cultural osmosis that SF tends to be frowned upon in certain quarters. When I was ten years old, the possibility in science fiction expressed itself to me mainly as a series of thrilling what ifs: what if aliens are watching us, what if someone managed to clone dinosaurs and they got loose in the Cairngorms, what if a dangerous impostor took over the White House and installed a team of zombies to rule the world (no, hang on, that already happened). The lure of what if did not fade, but as I grew as both reader and writer, science fiction began to reveal a deeper layer of possibility: ideas about how the science fiction novel might be different from other modes of literature and how those differences also might be subverted. Ideas about why science fiction is not just entertaining but increasingly important. Ideas about why we need fiction anyway and how fiction meshes inextricably with our changing reality. The frowning from certain quarters seems less confident these days, too. Science fiction is – as it always has been – the literature of now, speaking to readers across divides in ways that were never previously imagined. Frown away, Messrs Amis and McEwan. Bring it on.
I wrote my first science fiction story – about a bunch of kids who stumble upon an alien spacecraft hidden in a sand quarry – when I was twelve years old, but it wasn’t until I began writing for publication that I myself stumbled into what we call the conversation, the century-old discourse among science fiction fans – be they readers, writers, philosophers or critics – about what constitutes SF, what SF might tell us about the state of the world, what direction SF ought to be taking. The conversation was a thing of wonder to me, because it seemed so different from the strict hierarchy of opinion that is the norm in academe and within the mainstream literary establishment. At a science fiction convention, you might find – indeed you are likely to find – a writer of forty years’ experience talking with a new writer talking with fans attending their first convention, discussing science fiction in all its permutations with equal engagement and no sense of anyone having to wait in line to voice their view. It was this kind of interaction – readers and writers talking to each other – that seemed unique to me and still does. This is the spirit in which the Clarke Award was conceived. This is the spirit – engaged, critical, intellectually proactive – that I believe the Clarke Award ought to reflect.
When Arthur C. Clarke first donated the grant that would fund the award back in 1986, he spoke of the Clarke as a prize that should be awarded to the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year. In an essay timed to coincide with the announcement of the Clarke submissions list in 2016, the award’s current director, Tom Hunter, wrote further about Arthur C. Clarke’s personal vision for the award, and the ways in which, in spite of the change in management occasioned when the original grant fund for the award ran out, this vision continues to be the guiding philosophy behind the award today:
Sir Arthur himself was always very clear that he wanted the award to be about the positive promotion of science fiction and part of that was having as broad a definition of what actually constitutes a science fiction novel as possible.
As such, the award has no single definition of what a science fiction novel should read like, but rather remakes that definition anew every year via its judging panel, who are themselves changing every year.
The positive promotion of a diverse and wide-ranging science fiction, then. A laudable aim, and as a guiding principle it is difficult to imagine anyone disagreeing with it. As to what constitutes ‘positive promotion’, others may disagree with me, but personally I would see the most positive act of promotion to be the adoption of a mindset that takes science fiction seriously for the radical, combative and infinitely flexible mode of literature that it is. For the writer and the critic alike, positive promotion should be about much more than the uncritical endorsement of whatever novels and whichever writers happen to be competing for the award in any given year. Positive promotion should be about rigorous intellectual engagement with the books and themes in question. Part of the joy in reading and writing science fiction lies in accommodating and responding to SF’s hunger for ideas. Equally, anyone seeking to put forward contenders for the title of ‘best science fiction novel’ would need to pay sufficient attention to the ‘novel’ part of that equation: does this work demonstrate excellence in literary terms? Is it aesthetically satisfying? Is it new?
For me – as writer, critic and science fiction fan – the value of the Clarke Award goes way beyond the announcement of one particular winner and has nothing whatsoever to do with the debased kind of ‘positive promotion’ that is undertaken with the core aim of selling more copies. As with any literary award but especially this one, the true value of the Clarke Award should lie in the conversation it generates, in the discussion of science fiction literature and in the snapshot a good shortlist should provide of the state of SF in Britain in any given year: what science fiction is doing, where it is going and who is writing it. I first began following the Clarke Award systematically in the early 2000s, when a new young writer named China Miéville set the science fiction world ablaze with a humungous doorstop of a novel entitled Perdido Street Station. Was Miéville’s work science fiction or fantasy? No one seemed to have a definitive answer and seeing Miéville go up against hard-SF stalwarts like Alastair Reynolds and Ken MacLeod was all part of the excitement. Diehard Clarke followers still talk about how the landscape of British SF might have been affected if Mary Gentle had won the award that year instead of Miéville. The debates – and the controversies – rumble on, and that is all part of the positive promotion of British SF.
The potential of an award like the Clarke – properly juried, long established and with increasing support from publishers and the books media – to positively promote science fiction in the UK is virtually limitless, and the more robust the discussion, the more wide-ranging the conversation, the better. As a fandom we would do well to remember that a well argued negative review may prove far more valuable in promoting science fiction as a living literature than any number of bland marketing endorsements.
For any literature to properly flourish, the existence of a critical hinterland is crucial. For the Arthur C. Clarke Award to fully realise its potential for the positive promotion of science fiction literature, it is essential that the award maintain its position as a key component of that critical landscape. In drawing more writers, critics and fans to the conversation, my hope for the shadow jury in 2017 is that we will help to enliven and broaden the discussion around the award, thus promoting science fiction literature in Britain as the vigorous, diverse and unpredictable entity we know it to be.
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.