State of the Nation: the Sharkes discuss

State of the Nation: the Sharkes discuss

Collated and edited by Victoria Hoyle

[Editor’s note: this discussion, which took place over several days and is still going on, ran to some 30,000 words of text originally, What you see here is by necessity a partial and edited version of that conversation. Inevitably, during that editing process, some of the nuance of individual strands of the conversation has become lost, and whilst we believe this transcript represents an accurate record, we do not in any way wish to suggest that we, as eight highly opinionated individuals, were always in anything like unanimous agreement. It would have been useful to include more comment from Nick Hubble, for example, whose view of the shortlist and of genre culture generally presents a markedly different picture, but unfortunately he was unable to be present throughout much of our discussion, for family reasons. As with our shadow shortlist jury meeting, this transcript is an attempt to give greater transparency, to allow those reading along to gain an insight into our process of reasoning. All Sharkes are not the same! Please also note that we will be reviewing and discussing the shortlisted books in much greater detail throughout the second phase of our project, and, as in the first phase, there is every chance that we’ll find our views shifting and changing as we go along. As noted above, expansion, comment and further discussion are all very welcome.]

Since the Clarke shortlist was announced on May 3rd,  the shadow Clarke panel have been debating the jury’s selection via Slack, an online discussion channel that we have used for our deliberations since January.  The conversation ranged far and wide in the 48 hours following the announcement, from our initial raw responses to the shortlist to an evolving debate about genre award culture and SF criticism.  Rather than write individual response posts we have decided to share an edited version of this conversation, as an insight into this discussion as it developed.  It is, of course, still ongoing and by sharing it here we hope to broaden and stimulate it further.

Reactions, Predictions, Omissions

Our immediate reaction to the list was decidedly mixed. Although two of our shadow shortlist were in the mix (The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Central Station by Lavie Tidhar), some of the other choices proved less palatable.  Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee and Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan had some advocates amongst us, but Becky Chambers’s A Closed and Common Orbit and Emma Newman’s After Atlas were not favourites with those who had already read them.  The gulf in ambition, thematic reach and literary quality between the six shortlistees seemed significant. Paul thought the list came across ‘as two completely different shortlists stuck together. How can the Tidhar and Whitehead belong in the same universe as Chambers and Newman? Chambers, Lee and Newman have been popular successes, but hardly critical successes. This is another safe and populist list.’

Jonathan agreed, adding that he suspected ‘a tension between those who want the Clarke to be like the Hugo and those who want to retain that connection to the more literary tradition. The Clarke’s slide into hyper-commerciality continues.’  Megan shared Jonathan’s perspective. ‘What we’re getting from this list is a commercially-packaged view of science fiction. And I feel the Colson Whitehead this year is last year’s Iain Pears, just a literary toss-in to shut up people like us.’

Nina also felt the list represented ‘a split in the values of criticism’, while Vajra agreed with Megan that the Whitehead was the anomaly on this list rather than vice-versa. ‘This is a “we included Whitehead because everybody would shout at us if we didn’t” kind of shortlist’.  Maureen summarised this set of opinions most succinctly: ‘This really is a cut-and-shut shortlist. Something to offend everyone. The more I look at the shortlist the more it looks like something assembled to nod at various constituencies without satisfying any.’

Nick, however, felt more positive about the shortlist as a whole, finding some definite points to admire in the jury’s selection: ‘I don’t see the list as quite that bad. It includes two we picked and the Yoon Ha Lee which we considered for the sixth spot; also Occupy Me which would be on my list. I haven’t read anything by Emma Newman. The Becky Chambers I have read – in fact I had read it before I made my Sharke shortlist – but I wouldn’t include in the six best of the year or indeed in a longlist. I suppose – to paraphrase Niall’s comment on the shortlist announcement post – it is a rather too space-y perhaps. But to my mind it has four plausible winners (& no judgement by me as yet on Newman) and therefore I don’t see it as awful. I definitely think it is an improvement on last year’s list. Had the actual list included Kavenna or MacInnes or Whiteley or Priest instead of Chambers or Newman, it would feel very different.’

‘Different in a good way, I take it?’ Megan asked. ‘Do you think a list like that would be appropriate for the Clarke?’ ‘Well, I think five plausible winners (with one a bit genre-y) and a genre crowd-pleaser (the year Chris Wooding was shortlisted springs to mind – 2010?) would be liveable with.’ Nick confirmed. ‘But the old Not-the-Clarke panel would throw out the crowd-pleaser first, as happened at 2010 Eastercon.’

There was some question as to whether coherence was a necessary quality of a Clarke shortlist. ‘If a shortlist is incoherent,’ Paul began, ‘it probably indicates some discord among the jury: they are not all working towards the same definition of what the award should recognise. Which is not to say that a shortlist should be entirely coherent. But if the jury is not working towards some unified sense of what the award is about, then the result is more likely to demonstrate which judge has the stronger presence than which work is most worthy.’

Maureen concurred that she would ‘like to think that a shortlist would offer a sense that the jury had worked together in constructing it.’  She also expected ‘the individual entries to riff off one another in some way rather than jostling one another. I don’t want to look at a shortlist and have to wonder why this title or that is present. That is, I don’t mind surprises, but I do want to be able to find some sort of justification for surprises rather than be left with the feeling that a shortlist has arisen from disagreement rather than agreement.’

There was genuine surprise at the omission of two books that we had considered dead certainties in our shortlisting meeting, Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter.  The former had been the Sharkes’ hot tip to win but as things now stood the contest seemed to be between Whitehead and Tidhar, with Tidhar considered the most likely contender by most of the shadow jury.  Megan and Maureen disagreed, predicting Lee and Newman respectively.  Megan argued: ‘I see the same conventional definition of science fiction that drove last year’s list, the same commercially-approved message, which tells me Ninefox is leading this thing. If spiders won last year, equation battles will win this year.’

Innovation or Commercial Craft?

This last comment prompted us to ask whether an award like the Clarke should favour innovation over excellent crafting of identifiable tropes.  Paul was quick to question the question: ‘innovation tends to go with excellent crafting.’ But, then again, ‘all things being equal, if it comes to a choice between two works of the same quality of crafting, then my choice would go to the one which also displayed formal innovation.’  Maureen added that ‘for a juried award like the Clarke, it depends on what the award has been set up to honour or reward. I’m not sure innovation should be the be-all and end-all but I’d like to think it played some part in the decision. If one is making a choice between two novels doing pretty much the same thing and both well written, I’m always going to lean to the book that pushes the idea that little bit further. All of which serves to demonstrate how complicated a choice it can be.’

Nina admitted to a kneejerk reaction for ‘innovation, innovation, innovation’ but that ‘the problem with my answer is that I make it in accordance with personal preference. For me, a novel that pushes boundaries in some way is almost always going to be more interesting than a novel that is well executed but “just a story”. On the other hand, as a fiction writer I understand that “mere” narrative skill is actually anything but. A good story, well told, can be a beautiful thing, an artefact that may actually outlast more modishly “experimental” texts. With this in mind, what I value most in an award – or to put it more accurately in an award jury – is the sense that this matter, among others, has been properly debated, that the jury are, if not always in agreement (how dull that would be) arguing their cases from a similarly engaged, similarly knowledgeable intellectual standpoint. I don’t mind being outvoted on a novel I cherish and having another novel – to me less innovative, less essential – go through in its stead if the people who are outvoting me are able to argue their corner with ingenuity and aplomb. In short, for an award to have value for me I need to be able to see where the jury are coming from, as a group of thinkers.’

Given the panel’s preference for innovation, the debate turned to the extent to which the Clarke should represent the field as it currently stands as opposed to possible future developments in the field.

Nina’s feeling was that ‘with a good jury in place, a good shortlist will probably end up doing both. When you look back at previous Clarke shortlists, this has certainly proved to be the case, with the ‘what were they thinking?’ novels tending to reflect the prevailing trends of the field at the time, and the outliers – by no means always the winners – representing the vanguard. Looking back on old shortlists can be very instructive as even those you remember as dyed-in-the-wool excellent usually turn out to have at least one bad book on them and usually more. As before, the most important thing is that a jury is able to adequately defend its choices, at least among themselves.’

Paul put it more simply: ‘If an award reflects the field as it stands, then the field is standing still. I believe that science fiction has to continually change in order to survive, and awards should therefore reflect such change.’

Fascinatingly diverse?

As we watched the Twitter feeds and press responses, we were struck by the rhetoric being used to describe the shortlist, in particular a quote from award Director Tom Hunter in Starburst:

“Where we’ve end up this year is ultimately for the fans to decide, but speaking as a fan myself I can’t help but think this is one of our all-time best shortlists. It’s fascinatingly diverse, deeply imaginative and a great tribute to the memory of Sir Arthur himself as we celebrate the centenary year of his birth in 2017.”

Paul responded that it was ‘fascinating as in familiar, diverse as in all the same. The article is right about it being a diverse list in terms of the race and gender of the shortlisted authors. But it is not a diverse list in terms of the work itself.’

Diversity was also the main theme of the Guardian’s response to the shortlist, which focussed on representation of race and gender but without addressing the nature of the works themselves.  Megan found the article’s emphasis on ethnicity and sexual identity to be problematic in that it tended to simplify the very issue of diversity, to tidy it away. Jonathan expanded to express broader discomfort with the simplistic diversity rhetoric in genre culture: ‘My problem with the discourse about diversity is that it’s untethered from form at novel or feature film length. I don’t want to watch Charles Burnett directing Iron Man, I want to watch personal films like Killer of Sheep. Similarly, I don’t want to watch Ava Duvernay directing Black Panther, I want her directing a film about *the* Black Panthers. I understand that in a commercial genre you have to earn your stripes but the way things are going, authors from more diverse backgrounds are never going to be allowed equal freedom to explore their visions and will continue to be held back by those with a vested interest in formula.’

Nina argued that this was because ‘so much of the discourse around diversity is lazy, a form of name-checking as opposed to talking about the actual books. Meanwhile works of real quality by non-white authors are being sidelined, simply because those authors are not among those names that tend to be repeated every time someone creates a new twitter hashtag to ‘encourage diversity’.  It really upsets me because it is essential that we move towards a properly diverse literary culture in this country – and yet the values and the arguments are being cheapened and diluted by this bandwagon rhetoric.’

Vajra felt strongly that the problem was more complex: ‘It’s entirely true that there is a lot of structural and formal uniformity in popular science fiction and fantasy, and this is something that needs to change, but framing this within the “diversity of content as well as diversity of authors” argument comes dangerously close to the “all lives matter” strand of diversity conversations in publishing – that is, it’s a derail wrapped in a category error. It confuses the issue because there is a real criticism here – about how the ways in which stories are constructed and language is used are rendered and reinforced into a homogeneity acceptable to a dominant culture, but it has to be a criticism distinct from the issue of demographic representation in the industry, which is very visibly abysmal. That there were only two black authors, and both established names, in the long submissions list of eighty-odd books actually is a problem at several levels: I think it plays directly into some of the other issues that we’ve talked about. The disproportionate underrepresentation of black and non-white authors in SFF can’t be separated from how those stories and those books often end up being published as something else – magic realism or mainstream literature with fantastical elements.’

The value of criticism

As the public congratulations and praise for the balance and quality of the list rolled in, Paul and Maureen also noted how little critical engagement there was with the relative quality of the novels. As Paul said: ‘I’m noticing the number of responses along the lines of: I liked X, X is on the list, therefore it’s a good list. In the age of instant internet responses, liking a book is the same as it being a good, award-worthy book. That’s a distinction people no longer seem to make.  I keep looking at the responses to the shortlist, and I think: how can so many people be so easily satisfied? But then I think: that’s the only way you’re allowed to respond to things these days.  Part of the problem is surely the culture of squee. People have been trained to react with extravagant enthusiasm to everything; so if you don’t do that you are automatically looked on as someone outside the clan. And it’s pervasive.’

Jonathan suggested this ‘bunker mentality’ was partly a response to the Sad/Rabid Puppies and their Hugo campaigns but Paul suspected that ‘the Puppies are an outgrowth from the bunker mentality that already existed.’ Victoria observed ‘that SFF creative culture, at least at the popular end, is like a snake swallowing its own tail right now. Deeply self-referential, keen to join the in-crowd, be published by the it-publisher, self-congratulatory. Success in this system is only in reference to this closed world and so reading or thinking outside it seems unnecessary. As if the whole heritage of world literature is irrelevant because a handful of influential writers have determined the epitome of what is important.’

Jonathan added that the lack of serious critical engagement was a problem not just for the Clarke, but was becoming absent from genre spaces more generally. ‘I think the recent savagery of genre spaces has made it very difficult to object. The level of hostility with which any and all forms of critical engagement tend to be met has rather taken me by surprise though.’

Vajra also had some interesting insights on the increasing hostility of genre spaces. ‘I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who in their obituaries are described as “writer, critic, and editor” so clearly I don’t think criticism is a dying concept. It’s more that the landscape has changed around it so much that people who don’t already know how to relate to it are a bit lost. Partly a combination of late capitalism and social media, and how there is not, I think, a widespread acceptance that a book review is fundamentally different from, say, a smartphone review. Everything is a product which can have a star rating, with some words optionally attached as emphasis, the purpose of which is to assist the consumer in making a decision whether to buy or not. So people are sometimes just confused when you write some kind of essay-type thing that is clearly about a particular book in some way but does not seem to clearly signal what buying decision is being recommended.’ He then went on to address the recent tendency in some spaces to equate robust criticism with harassment or bullying. ‘There is definitely confusion here, sometimes justified, though usually not. I say “sometimes justified” because our poorly-designed social media systems do exacerbate internet pile-ons: nobody needs to even intend a bad outcome, because a thousand people casually signal-boosting a mildly negative review can feel like a mob with pitchforks shrieking at the top of their lungs. But even with that aside, I think a lot of newer authors walk on eggshells around criticism because (a) they haven’t actually been engaged in a literary culture and don’t know what that is or how it works – many of these authors don’t seem to read much, or care about books, as opposed to sales – which means (b) they seem to often confuse it with a call-out, which they probably also don’t understand except as a thing that Angry Young People do for mysterious reasons. And either way, (c) they think it’s a form of harassment because a “bad review” is one that explicitly or implicitly tells people not to buy your toaster, which is an attack on their livelihood, and possibly their personhood too if the criticism cut too deep. After the cultural appropriation wars and Racefail and whatnot, even people who do know what criticism is seem to have trouble dealing with it as a normal thing. As others have said, to a lot of people it seems that anything short of squee is seen as an attack, or a potential opening to an attack. I don’t think this should be cause for despair though. Something like the Sharke project is a great example of normalizing criticism by doing it, rather than defending it in the abstract. I think that works better.’

This hostility towards criticism was a point of particular concern for us as a shadow panel, as it goes to the heart of our ambitions for the Sharke project, which was set up specifically to try and redress this balance. Jonathan noted his earlier intention to keep his head down ‘by avoiding the stuff that everyone seems to love but which I find tedious’ but admitted that this would now be difficult in light of the shortlist decision. ‘I think the time is coming for some public discussion about what criticism is and does, what it should do, why it’s not a bad thing, and so forth,’ Maureen argued. ‘But someone needs to find a way to “sell” it as the productive thing it is, and I’m not yet sure how to do that. I’ve never not thought of criticism, or good reviewing, as anything other than a fascinating thing.  I find it hard to imagine how, on the whole, people see it as a bad thing – usual bruised egos apart – but clearly we’ve reached a point where the literary ecosystem has become distorted, if not significantly damaged.’

Paul suggested that ‘the problem is that tricky word, “criticism”. I have lost count of the times that people assume that it must be entirely negative, that criticism serves no other purpose than to attack and tear down, and that critics set out to hate the books everyone else loves. That sort of attitude is behind the squee culture, the idea that the louder you say you love a book, the better that book is.’  Megan admitted that she has ‘a hard time comprehending this fear of criticism in genre culture. Criticism is what pushed me forward in my education, so I learned to embrace it even when I disagree with it. I’ve always been interested in finding out what people really think. Criticism is part of this. It’s a sharing and finding new angles in things. It’s also a political act, something we must do to avoid becoming passive receptacles for whatever drivel the corporate world wants us to ingest.’

The instantaneous feedback made possible by social media was identified as a game-changing factor in the reception of criticism. As a critic, Maureen has found herself increasingly concerned by the changing dynamics of the publishing world. With industry connections between authors, publishers and book bloggers becoming ever closer, she observed that ‘an ability for book bloggers to connect directly with authors has helped create a more difficult climate for the kind of commentary that aims to go beyond saying “isn’t it wonderful”’. She went on: ‘I guess the more people are sucked into this adulterated form of criticism, the more it encourages people to join in by also being enthusiastic. And even the slightest demurring from that becomes outright hostility. As all this piles up, it seems as though the dynamic between writer, reader, and commentator has become horribly skewed.’

Reflecting on this dynamic in the context of the British SF community Nina observed: ‘When I first became aware of the SFF community, I saw the level playing field between authors and critics as a good thing and somewhat revolutionary, with the way the two groups mixed and talked at conventions, for example, as being markedly different from the way of things within lit-fic circles. I saw it as mutually beneficial because it strengthened the conversation. But with the steady erosion of critical values, and the very idea of robust critical engagement often viewed as antagonistic, this closeness – most especially among the new generation – is becoming a disaster.’

Genre Imprint or Mainstream?

These observations led naturally to a discussion of the state of SF publishing in the UK. Nina stated: ‘I seriously think we are edging towards a situation where most of the interesting work will be published – and eventually prize-rewarded – in the mainstream, with genre imprints becoming ever more commercial and critically irrelevant.’  Victoria agreed: ‘Anything emerging outside the commercial bubble struggles for air, and so I imagine a lot is being picked up by the mainstream. I was struck by a recent review of the Granta Best Young American Novelists volume. It sounds as though fifty percent of the work in there is science fictional to a degree, with most of these authors being discussed completely outside the sphere of genre conversation.’

To some extent Paul felt this was how things should be: ‘In a sense that is what postmodernism was all about – absorbing science fiction into the mainstream. I cannot mourn for the genre imprints as long as they keep producing the Becky Chambers-type stuff, while the mainstream forges ahead with the Whiteheads and Kavennas of this world.’  Jonathan identified an alignment between genre and Young Adult publishing, saying: ‘I think genre publishing has positioned itself really close to YA and so we’ve moved to a more diverse (good) but also more commercial centre ground.’  Paul reminded us that ‘it’s not that long since the literary establishment seemed to treat all of science fiction as though it were children’s fiction’. He went on to argue that ‘now it seems as if a large part of the genre has absorbed that notion and is literally identifying YA with SF, or vice versa. So that it often seems today as if the only people who treat science fiction as a serious adult literature are those who come to it from the mainstream.’ ‘I noticed a long time ago that, for me, the most interesting new stuff was coming from the edges, the places where SF got new names – weird, slipstream, literary,’ Maureen admitted, ‘and early to middle Clarke really responded to that. I never thought of the Clarke as market-driven, and I doubt anyone else did.’

Jonathan felt that the Clarke’s recent bias towards marketable books published by genre imprints was aligning the Clarke too closely with other awards. ‘Personally, I think the current swing towards genre imprints is going to be the death of the Clarke. Putting it on similar ground to the Hugo will inevitably mean that it is swamped by the Hugo. The best way to avoid that is to put some distance between the two.’  He suggested that an award like the Clarke should be nurturing higher ambitions: events at prestigious literary venues such as the Hay Festival, the ICA and the London Review Bookshop, as well as slots on programmes like Today or Front Row on Radio 4.  Even though it is a fan-voted award Paul felt that ‘the BSFA novel category has, in recent years, sometimes proved more radical and interesting than the Clarke.’

To further this point, Nina shared a conversation she had recently with her partner Christopher Priest: ‘Chris says that when he was starting out, he had a strong sense of being part of a larger group of writers who were all trying new things – and that it was this group of writers he would have described as “core SF”. The sense of core SF as a reactionary force was not true then in the same way. The idea that Chris, and writers like Mike Harrison and even Adam Roberts are now seen as fringe figures writing “difficult” stuff (it is precisely novels like The Thing Itself and de Abaitua’s If Then that should, in Chris’s view, be seen as core SF, rather than commercial genre titles like Children of Time) seems to suggest that SFF as a distinct, progressive literature is in real danger of ceasing to exist.’

This point inspired Paul to identify and develop a theory of SF as broadly divided between the impulses to adventure and philosophy. ‘For a long time philosophy reigned, the idea of SF as a literature of ideas. That approach prompts the exploration of new ideas, or new ways to express ideas, new ways to frame what the story is about. That is the sort of SF that Chris Priest and Mike Harrison and Adam Roberts do. This kind of science fiction is risky, because you’re as likely to fail as to succeed. But when you do succeed, it is that much more rewarding for both writer and reader. But the Young Adult-isation of SF has made adventure predominant. That might do radical things with the content of the story; but the structure, the framework, the ideas need to be familiar because that is how such literature works. What we are seeing, therefore, is the triumph of a literature that by its very nature cannot take risks. And that means that it cannot progress, it cannot change. The more the YA/adventure model takes over science fiction, the more SF is going to be frozen in some image of the past.  When the philosophical mode predominated, then the core of the genre was inevitably about the new, the different. Now that the adventure mode predominates, then the core of the genre has to be about the old, the familiar. But such literature cannot avoid becoming, over time, tired, overly-familiar, re-runs of re-runs. And that, surely, cannot be good for the health of science fiction.’

On the question of adventure versus philosophy, Vajra felt bound to admit that he did not agree. ‘I don’t think the adventure and philosophy strands are separable. I see them both as inextricable aspects of western SFF as an imperial literature: adventure is how to code exploration/conquest, and philosophy is its ideological justification. The problem with cosy SF is not, I think, that it sacrifices ideas for adventure, but that its adventure is formulaic because its ideas are stale, and those two things have no independent existence. I don’t have a problem with the existence of cosy SF as such (I do read it sometimes and I don’t think it represents an existential threat to the genre) except that it makes no sense for it to show up in conversations about pushing the boundaries of the form, which by definition it can’t do. So the real sticking point seems to be whether “pushing the boundaries” is what the Clarke is even about. Logically, the current shortlist seems to be an argument that it isn’t.’

Megan suggested that another of the problems haunting genre culture ‘is this rigid and dated definition of “science fiction” which seems to waft off the Clarke list like a bad smell. I suspect the “is it SF?” question forms a disproportionate percentage of the shortlist discussion. What recent juries really seem to be looking for is “widget-fiction”, not science fiction, because science can be anything. I can’t wrap my mind around these debates because it’s all just made up bullshit in the end. I just happen to prefer made up bullshit that’s good and interesting and different, and maybe does more than one thing.’

Paul maintained that the Clarke award’s original definition of science fiction was not at all rigid. ‘The matter of not defining science fiction was pretty much an accident, but a very happy one, because it allowed for the idea that SF is constantly changing, constantly growing. The more prescriptive people are about what constitutes SF, the poorer SF is.’

Maureen then noted the final irony of the fact that ‘the Clarke Award originally set out to stretch the definition of SF, to the point where it often offended people with its choices. These days, it is as though it’s taken on the mantle of defending, defining and maintaining science fiction’s status quo.’



  1. Nick Hubble 7 years ago

    To clarify, by saying that one substitution would make the list feel ‘very different’, I meant that I think the shadow jury as a whole would have felt rather more positive about it. I do think, though, that it is unlikely that the actual shortlist would have been the same as the shadow jury list (and that would also have been a somewhat comical outcome). The list was bound to be different; but it could have been more different. I don’t feel that I can infer the motivations of the jury from the degree of difference from the shadow list. For me, the point of this exercise is to increase critical debate, make sure genre texts are read alongside non-genre texts, and hope that this serves to shift the centre of gravity of the SF conversation. The mark of success, will be if we see consistently better shortlists and critical discussion in several years’ time. Part of this might also result in a shift of what is happening in genre itself – a loosening of the straitjackets and a return of a freer vibe which might accommodate younger less-established writers and enable them to do something different even for a genre publisher. Historically, these things do tend to go in cycles. I guess I think that there is mileage in not being totally anti-genre because I think there is more chance of changing the parameters that way. The positive thing about both the 2017 shortlist and our shadow list is that we can review a lot of books alongside each other – and maybe even incorporate other kinds of discussions (roundtables etc) and therefore show what is at stake in real terms in these kinds of critical arguments. That is what is motivating me to do this.

  2. Mark 7 years ago

    I’m not sure I’ve really learned anything about the shadows jury’s position on the Clarke shortlist that I couldn’t have predicted from having read your opening statements. Really this is more of a clear restatement of the Sharke position(s) than an actual response to the Clarke. I would be more interested to know which books on their shortlist have the flaws you ascribe, and why are the ones you have chosen better? What’s your case for *why* the Clarke should be following your path rather than their current one?
    Just to pick out one particular point from the many: I find the use of ‘commercial’ as a critical term to be fatally imprecise. If it is meant as a catch-all, to cover a lack of innovation, adherence to sub-genre and tropes, and the apparently deadly sin of intending to make its author some money, then why not actually call out those faults specifically and distinctly, and give your criticism some focus? As it is, criticising a list of works as ‘commercial’ when one of your choices (The Underground Railroad) probably outsold the rest of the Clarke shortlist seems an incoherent argument.

    • Nina Allan 7 years ago

      Hi Mark,

      This post, like our post about our shadow jury meeting, was intended as a bridge piece between phase one and phase two of this project: a summing up of our thoughts and ideas for further discussion at the time of writing, a first, raw reaction to the official shortlist as it was announced. As noted in the Editor’s Note, this piece was never meant to be an in-depth discussion of the books themselves – this is the process we will enter into now, as we begin reading or rereading the officially shortlisted texts, reviewing them individually and/or in smaller groups and then finally coming together again near the end of the process to assess our findings.

      There are bound to be some surprises along the way. I know we all changed our minds about books on our personal shortlists during the course of reading – some of us emerged wishing we had chosen entirely different shortlists, so it would not surprise me at all if we were to see something of the same process happening with regard to the official shortlist.

      As for putting the case ‘that the Clarke should be following our path rather than the current one’, that is never what this project has been about. As I think I noted in another comment as part of another thread, we are but one group of critics voicing a variety of opinions in one moment of time. The aim of the project has always been about broadening and deepening discussion. We want to see more critical appraisal of the books, both in and out of contention. More opinions, not fewer, as part of a literary debate. Of course we all have our own personal biases and preferences, which we will no doubt fight for – but that again is normal. The defence of counter-preferences is more than welcome!

      • Mark 7 years ago

        Nina, it seemed pretty clear to me from the piece that members of the shadow jury want to see the Clarke do something different – for example you “ask whether an award like the Clarke should favour innovation over excellent crafting of identifiable tropes” and criticise the Clarke for having “taken on the mantle of defending, defining and maintaining science fiction’s status quo” and being a “safe and populist list.” You can’t really hold the opinion that their approach is wrong without also having at least some opinion on what approach would have been right.
        Anyway, it will be interesting to hear the further reviews, because this piece doesn’t really give much reasoning about the specifics of why the Clarke shortlist is safe, populist, trope-y, status quo, etc etc, and so it’s not really very easy to engage with it.

        • Nina Allan 7 years ago

          ‘….for example you “ask whether an award like the Clarke should favour innovation over excellent crafting of identifiable tropes”?’

          Interestingly, that was actually a question put to us by someone not on the shadow jury 🙂 It was a question that engaged us all though, and I think we all came up with different answers.

          Speaking for myself, I would love to see a Clarke Award that actively favoured literary innovation over familiar tropes – a Goldsmiths Clarke as opposed to a Booker Clarke, if you like – firstly because that is the kind of science fiction I am most interested in reading, and secondly because I think we have a multiplicity of SFF awards that already cater to a more popular conception of science fiction. I believe that the Clarke has the potential to become one of the most exciting literary awards out there, not just in SFF, but generally. I also believe the Clarke’s role as the hub of debate within the UK SFF scene has been vastly under-utilised in recent years, and my personal ambition for the Sharke has been for it to redress that balance, however slightly.

          Those are my personal views, and anyone who has read any of my previous articles on the subject will be familiar with them. As stated elsewhere, I’m sure the other Sharkes will have their own thoughts and insights to add! My key priority for this project though lies not in promoting any one view or set of views, but in stimulating debate.

          • Mark 7 years ago

            Nina, I certainly agree that an award in that direction would be interesting, for the exact same reasons that I’m finding the shadow Clarke interesting. My question would be why do you feel the Clarke ought to be that award?

          • Nina Allan 7 years ago

            (NB – Having to reply to my own comment as the thread appears to have ‘timed out’, so hope this appears in the right place.) As a juried award, the Clarke is pretty much the only award that could stand a hope of fulfilling such ambitions. A fan-voted award can never be anything more than a fan-voted award. Not to dismiss the importance of fan awards, but they are what they are.

      • Martin 7 years ago

        As I think I noted in another comment as part of another thread, we are but one group of critics voicing a variety of opinions in one moment of time.

        Not unlike the juries for the Clarke itself. So it is slightly surprising that the Sharkes should so often lapse into refering to the Clarke as an entity. The final comments all suggest ‘the Clarke’ has a specific and limited definition of SF. This seems very odd in a year in which a) the Clarke jury has shortlisted The Underground Railway and b) half the Sharkes think shortlisting it is a sop to… someone and half the Sharkes think it is the second favourite to win.

        Equally there is a sense that the Sharkes want the award to do something rather than be something, to strive for a cohesive, unified shortlist, rather than allowing individual personalities to come into play. Again, this seems odd in an article that starts with the disclaimer “we do not in any way wish to suggest that we, as eight highly opinionated individuals, were always in anything like unanimous agreement.”

        On both the above points, I’d be curious to hear the Sharkes’ views on the last non-widget shortlist and the last cohesive shortlist.

        • Nina Allan 7 years ago

          Hi Martin,

          I always find it interesting looking at these shortlists in retrospect. What tends to leap out most is that there was no golden age in which the Clarke was boldly going where no award had gone before – there are merely interesting years and interesting books, occasionally both at the same time.

          I would say that the 2015 shortlist roughly qualifies in both categories. I’ve never been a fan of Memory of Water, and although it’s easy to see why The Girl with All the Gifts proved so popular with readers, it’s still a zombie novel (not my favourite subgenre) albeit an above average one. The remaining four books do make up an interesting group though, and a cohesive one. As makeweights, MoW and TGWATG offer more to talk about than books occupying a similar position on the shortlist in many other years. So yes, I’ll pick 2015 for best recent shortlist.

          Looking further back, I’m going to plump for 2001 and 1990.

          • Mark 7 years ago

            Nina, The Girl with All the Gifts isn’t a zombie novel, it’s a John Wyndham story doing an zombie shuffle to throw you off the scent.

          • Nina Allan 7 years ago

            Yes, and as such it follows a tried-and-tested formula – small band of survivors heading off into the badlands – without bringing anything new to the format except the cordyceps fungus, which wasn’t new even then (see The Last of Us) and certainly isn’t now. And I still prefer Wyndham in any case 🙂

          • Nick Hubble 7 years ago

            I would also go for 2015 as recent shortlist – and I liked Memory of Water (a novel that grew on me as I read it apart from the tacked-on postscript). Also TGWATG (Wyndham – via 28 Days Later) had some interesting bits, such as when they are all stuck in the house in the town – as well as being fun. So while I think the other 4 were stronger – those 2 both complemented more than detracted from overall list and it was a good shortlist to read along to.

            I also like the 2001 list. One of my favourite sf counterfactuals (recently aired at Fantastika 2017) is what if Ash won. But the truth of that decade is that not many women writers were shortlisted and only Gwyneth Jones won. 2004 had 4 good books on though. And I also thought 2010 was a ‘coherent’ list bar the Wooding, which was a lively read.

            ‘Coherent’ in the sense that the selections all looked possible winners and summed up the range of where sf writing was then. I don’t tbh expect to agree with the whole shortlist or that all the books should be of the same ambition type or whatever. Nor do I think it is a disaster if book x is neglected but overall I do want to look at the lists and see something like a (not necessarily the) history of ambitious sf which is stretching the genre. I don’the see how this can happen if the list were to become just a random collection of 6 people’s favourites. I’m not saying it is or ever has been. Because in practice there is always some level of critical agreement. Without it no one would care. So I think it is disingenuous to say that ‘coherence’ irrelevant to Clarke.

          • Martin 7 years ago

            2015 is a good comparison to this year. I’d say having to strip two books off a six list to make it cohesive. You only have to strip one book off this year’s shortlist (the Whitehead) to make it cohesive. But is coherent being used as a shorthand for “could all win”? You hint at it and Nick makes it in his definition. Or is “coherent” being used more like “representative”?

            Interesting you and Nick mentioned 2001. Surely the Sharkes of 2001 would have compared Perdido Street Station to Terry Brooks, dismissed Revelation Space out of hand and decried the commercialisation of a list which was 50% Gollancz…

          • Nina Allan 7 years ago

            In this context, ‘coherent’ would make no sense at all to me unless considered alongside ‘best’.

            I’m sure you can only be playing devil’s advocate with regard to what you say about the 2001 shortlist, but whatever. There is simply no equivalency between China Mieville and Terry Brooks. One could argue that Revelation Space and Chasm City have been two of Al Reynolds’s more ambitious books to date, and I literally couldn’t care less about what imprint publishes what – it’s the quality of what is being published that is in dispute. There is very little comparison to be drawn between how Gollancz positioned themselves within SF in 2001 and the majority of the books they put out today. This indeed is part of the problem, part of what some Sharkes (including myself) have been characterising as the decline of genre SF and the shift of radical science fiction towards the mainstream.

          • Nick Hubble 7 years ago

            I don’t define ‘coherent’ as just possible winners – I said possible winners and summarising where SF is at the time list made. I also made it clear that I was treating that as an ideal unlikely to be reached in practice. I don’t criticise short lists for not meeting that ideal.

            On the above definition, The Underground Railroad is not an outlier because part of where SF is now is in the mainstream. Pointing that out shouldn’t be controversial.

        • Mark 7 years ago

          Martin, I also wondered about the call for more coherence. I think the shadow jury have the real one at a disadvantage here, as the real jury can’t write an essay explaining their position. I do wonder whether someone coming to the Shadow Six without the benefit of commentary would understand why, for example, Central Station and The Arrival of Missives were on the same list?
          I’m also not sure that the real jury have any particular obligation to have a coherent theme, as opposed to picking the 6 ‘best’ novels (for whatever values of ‘best’ they wish to apply) as far as they can.

          • Tom Hunter 7 years ago

            Mark, you are absolutely correct, the Clarke jury have no obligation to coherence, theme, experimentation, boundary pushing, commercial interests, defending the status quo, new authors over established names or even maintaining a single definition of sf within the same same shortlist.

            With this, it is entirely possible for a shortlist to have six ‘best’ novels for six entirely different and even contradictory reasons.

            I’m particularly fascinated by the frequent statement that our shortlists often have three potential winners and three ‘fillers’ as it were, and I’ve seen that come up repeated here at Shadow HQ.

            I actually agree that this is entirely possible for most of our shortlists, and I base this on 11 years of watching the response to our lists across all the different areas of the internet.

            The problem is that, while lots of people will agree with a statement like ‘three of these six are winners’ when you add it all up you realise everyone is talking about a different three, and so the conversation continues!

    • Martin 7 years ago

      I too found a lot of repetition and waffle here and would have liked to have seen more of a focussed reaction to the shortlist itself. And the use of “commercial” is really unhelpful and leads in some unfortunate directions.

      Kincaid says: “How can the Tidhar and Whitehead belong in the same universe as Chambers and Newman? Chambers, Lee and Newman have been popular successes, but hardly critical successes.” Lee appears from nowhere in the second sentence but I have no idea why Tidhar and Lee come from different universes.

      Later, McCalmont says: “I understand that in a commercial genre you have to earn your stripes but the way things are going, authors from more diverse backgrounds are never going to be allowed equal freedom to explore their visions and will continue to be held back by those with a vested interest in formula.” So Lee’s book is dismissed as commercial and Lee is dismissed as a slave to vested interests. (“Vajra felt strongly that the problem was more complex” – funny that.)

  3. Abigail Nussbaum 7 years ago

    I feel like the jury is shooting itself in the foot by continuing to focus on “commercial” as a description for the problems with the Clarke. I completely agree that the Clarke shouldn’t be yet another Hugo award, and that it’s part of the award’s remit and purpose to explore the outer limits of what science fiction can be, and to recognize authors who are pushing against those limits (something that recent shortlists have failed to do). But focusing on commercialism as the defining trait of works that don’t belong on the Clarke shortlist would be a limited and limiting approach even if I thought this panel had a strong sense of what “commercial” actually means. For one thing, I hope it’s clear to everyone here that the most commercial work on both the Clarke and Sharke ballots, by quite a long stretch, is The Underground Railroad, a NYT bestseller that was selected for Oprah’s book club (and before we get into a debate about “written to sell”, it’s worth nothing that TUR is very straightforward and accessible in its style, and far more so than Whitehead’s previous genre-mixing work The Intuitionist). On the other hand, I’d be willing to bet quite a lot that a math-heavy, at points downright uncommunicative debut novel by an author with an Asian name represents far more of a gamble, for its publisher, than the latest Kim Stanley Robinson, but I’m guessing that no one here would accuse the Clarke jury of pandering to the mainstream if they shortlist New York 2140 next year. (This, by the way, gets at the point that what gets classed as “commercial” has a great deal to do with the gender and race of both the author and the main characters.)

    As I said in my comment on the Sharke shortlist, the continued insistence on lumping together very different works just because they answer a rather poorly-defined idea of commercial reflects badly on the jury. Worse, it makes it look as if the jury might be too blinded by things like a book’s publisher or jacket design to evaluate it on its own merits (and, on a personal note, it doesn’t help when what I thought was a serious attempt to explain why a certain commercial work actually does many of the things the Clarke should be looking for is dismissed as “squeeing”). Yoon Ha Lee is not Becky Chambers, and they shouldn’t be treated as the same thing just because their books both have spaceships on the cover. I was not a huge fan of Ninefox Gambit, and a lot of that has to do with its fairly conventional plot structure. But to suggest that it isn’t doing a lot of the things that the jury claim to be looking for in a Clarke nominee is, quite frankly, a very shallow reading. Lee’s use of genre, combining fantasy elements and mysticism with the more rote conventions of space opera and military SF is a direct challenge to how we define these genres. More importantly, the way he detaches familiar terms from their familiar meanings, forcing the reader to rebuild their mental image of the book’s world from first principles, is decidedly Banksian (in fact, if there’s an author working today who is the heir to Banks, it is clearly Lee). If this is commercial fiction – and I’m comfortable with classing it as such – then it is exactly the sort of commercial fiction we should be encouraging, and which the Clarke should be taking a serious look at.

    On a separate note, I’d like to strongly support Vajra’s contention that the complicated issue of diversity in genre publishing and awards shortlists can’t be boiled down to “diversity of authors vs. diversity of content”. Opposing the two feels dangerously close to the box-checking accusations that Puppies like to hurl at the Hugos, and more importantly, it ignores the fact that creators from marginalized groups have traditionally been shunted into, and found avenues for free expression in, the more degraded, “trashy” genres and artforms. It surely hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that all of the authors mentioned in the list of “Core SF” writers who are now being dismissed as too difficult or experimental are white men, and I think the truth is that there are very complicated currents, of respectability, market forces, and critical prejudice, that tend to enforce stark yet ultimately meaningless divisions of diverse-but-unambitious, not-diverse-but-artful. It should be our job as critics to both examine those forces, and push against them.

    • Megan 7 years ago


      When I said that I can’t squee about the book, it did not mean that I think you are squeeing about the book. It just meant that I can’t squee about the book. I don’t think anyone would ever describe your style of criticism in that way.

    • Megan 7 years ago

      And I completely agree with your last paragraph. It serves as an important alert to our collective blindness… although collective is a tough word because not everyone mentioned those difficult and experimental white male writers. This post reflects only pieces of broken conversations, not a collective opinion.

      The authors I have in mind to replace those examples of difficult and experimental white men in SF that our joint response leans on, unfortunately or fortunately (can’t decide at the moment), are being published outside of the SF realm. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking Yuri Herrera, Hiromi Goto, Han Kang, Sun Yung Shin, and, now, Colson Whitehead. (I agree with you: UR is a fairly straightforward novel, although the more I’m having to argue for its place on the shortlist, the more I’m discovering how wonderfully difficult and SF it is). These are all favorites of mine, writers who have done or are doing things that annihilate current and past SF writers. I dread bringing up these novelists because I’m afraid the conversation will devolve into “but that’s not SF” (when they clearly are to me), but that’s an easy out when your original point is a good one that needs to be noted.

      Your point does lead me to ask what I always ask myself when I see SF lists (submissions or otherwise): Where is everyone? Who is being ignored? (Still an easy out, but still.)

      On the topic of ‘commercial fiction,’ I’m not prepared to dig my heels into the language at this point. If people are complaining, then it’s clearly imprecise, but I’m heartened to see that our biggest controversy (aside from the Jemisin snub) is our use of the word ‘commercial,’ because the tugging over definitions will get us closer to the truth about what is really happening… or not happening. It appears to me that when each of us uses the term ‘commercial’ (or push back on the use of ‘commercial’) we–including, possibly, individuals on the shadow jury–are talking about different things,. I know what I mean when I say it, but now I’m watching the debate and noticing new problems. I need to refine my position before I continue.

      On Ninefox Gambit: I’m saddened that you semi-accuse the entire jury, some of us you have publicly supported even recently, of judging these books by their covers. Don’t you know who we are? I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure at least the majority of us have, in the least, attempted to read it. Personally, I have tried reading it, listening to it, even doing both at the same time, and I’m struggling to find anything interesting to say about it. I wanted to read it all before the shortlist announcement because I was certain it would be on the list (the other shadowers can confirm this) but I couldn’t make myself finish it in time. I’m still creeping my way through it, and I am giving it my all to be open-minded, with awareness of my own bias against milSF (my biggest hangup) and conventional plot structures. (I can’t get on with Banks, either.) (Jonathan has done a pretty good job of advocating for this book, and his work on the novel has convinced me there’s more to it and to keep pressing on. I’ll get there.)

      And, Abigail, I absolutely would accuse the jury for pandering to the mainstream if they list 2140 next year, and while I can’t speak for others, I’m pretty sure other individuals on the jury would, too. Perhaps all. Probably all. Again: Don’t you know who we are? Unless KSR manages to achieve the narrative powers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, he does not need to be on another SF shortlist for the thousandth time. I enjoy KSR, but he has been recognized enough. And hot damn is he commercial. Whatever that means.

    • PhilRM 7 years ago

      Abigail: Speaking as someone who is a great admirer of Lee’s short fiction, while I enjoyed Ninefox Gambit, and there are many things that I admire about it (I will certainly read the next volume to see what he does with it), I found the novel ultimately disappointing, because its enticing conceptual weirdness is wrapped around a very conventional mil-SF/rebellion against the Evil Empire plot. (It also comes perilously close to asking the reader to sympathize with the figure who kicks off that rebellion by murdering one million people.)

      And for what it’s worth (not being a Sharke) I would consider the listing of New York 2140 as an utterly predictable, boring choice by the Clarke.

  4. Liz Batty 7 years ago

    I feel there’s an interesting contrast between Paul’s comment ‘I believe that science fiction has to continually change in order to survive, and awards should therefore reflect such change’, and a sense of nostalgia in this piece for what the Clarke shortlist used to represent. And I do think the Clarke has shifted – the shortlists of the early years have Delany and Butler and Barnes, and also books like Unquenchable Fire and Ammonite and Body of Glass, more overlap with a Tiptree or Carl Brandon award shortlist than the Hugos or the BSFA – and I can see why we might want to shift it back towards that and away from the ‘core SF’ ground of recent years, to get away from the Clarke being “market-driven”. But in the meantime I think the market has shifted, and what is pushing at the boundaries of SF is not necessarily where it was twenty years ago – nominating The Power in 2017 is a different prospect than nominating The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017. I think there are as many definitions of commercial SF in this piece as there are authors, but it feels like there is a value judgement which put the books which push at boundaries by way of the style and form (the more literary end of the genre) ahead of those which push at boundaries by taking a conventional plot or tropes and upending the ways they are used, which are the ‘commercial’ works of Lee, Chambers, and Jemisin – and who gets to write which book, and who gets published, is complicated by issues of race and gender as Abigail suggests above.

    • Nina Allan 7 years ago

      I honestly think this argument is flawed. We have seen the same immense social changes sweeping through mainstream literary culture, and yet we do not have awards and debate being dominated by a slew of nineteenth-century-style social realist novels (or even kitchen sink dramas). If mainstream literary culture can accommodate experimentalism in terms of form, style, and use of language, AND begin to open itself up to a greater diversity in terms of ‘who gets to write what book’, then why should SFF be any different? In the past few years alone we have seen scintillating work emerging in the mainstream from writers like Teju Cole, Helen Oyeyemi, Esme Weijun Wang, Nikesh Shukla, Sun Yung Shin and Paul Beatty to name but a tiny few. I don’t want to see any kind of ‘return to the good old days’ – what I want to see instead is the SFF equivalent of what is happening in the mainstream. And the work is out there! Kai Ashante Wilson has written some of the most linguistically inventive and stylistically demanding work in SFF of the past decade, for example, so has Indra Das. Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is one of the most interesting and well achieved SFF novels of last year but its near-invisible presence on the scene has left it largely uncommented upon (and sadly ineligible for the Clarke, as there is no UK edition to date). I want to see a diverse, challenging, contemporary SF that is levelling up, not down. Nostalgia has nothing to do with it. And progressive should mean progressive, in every sense.

      • Abigail Nussbaum 7 years ago

        I liked Rosewater a great deal, and I agree that it would have been a good nominee on either the Clarke or Sharke shortlists, but it’s not entirely clear to me what makes it experimental or boundary-pushing. It takes a very familiar plot structure – a ne’er-do-well cog in a cyberpunk-ish police state ends up rediscovering his integrity when he’s sucked into a story much bigger than him – and revitalizes it by recasting the story from a non-Western, post-colonial perspective. You could, I suppose, argue that that very melding of familiar and unfamiliar represents pushing the boundaries of SF. But that is precisely the argument I and others have made for The Fifth Season and Ninefox Gambit, and which has been roundly dismissed by the Sharkes.

        It really feels as if you’re saying that a work in certain subgenres, such as space opera or secondary world science-fantasy, is inherently incapable of being experimental or boundary-pushing in the way the Clarke or Sharke should be looking for. To be clear, I strongly disagree with that approach, but I would still consider it a much more coherent argument for what you think the Clarke should be than anything you have so far been able to articulate. That said, I also think that if you make that choice, you need to own up to its consequences in terms of how the demographics of the resulting shortlists shake out. Pointing to a long list of authors who have never, and probably will never, write anything Clarke-eligible, or implying that the authors who have written Clarke-eligible work are suffering from some sort of false consciousness, is not in any way a solution to a very real problem.

        • Nina Allan 7 years ago

          As regards Rosewater, I happen to love the way it is written – Thompson’s use of language and clever interweaving of narrative timelines, for me, raises the novel far above the usual run of near-future thriller. In addition, although you’re right to mention that in some ways the story it follows is not exactly brand new, I for one found it to be a lot less predictable-seeming than many, much better characterised and therefore more involving. I felt similarly about Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix last year, incidentally. I know there were some who felt it didn’t push the boundaries that far in the story it was telling, but I love the way Okorafor puts words together, so I was personally less bothered by that than I might otherwise have been.

          I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing Ninefox Gambit. I’ve really enjoyed Lee’s short fiction, and I’m hoping I might see at least some of that originality replicated in his first novel. If I like Ninefox, that might end up ‘reweighting’ the official shortlist for me, which is – as individual Sharkes have noted numerous times – part of the interest and fun of what we’re attempting here.

          As for certain subgenres being inherently incapable of being experimental, I couldn’t disagree more. One could immediately point to M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy – easily among the finest accomplishments of 21st century SF to date – as being pure space opera. M. Suddain published a brilliantly experimental space opera in 2013, Theatre of the Gods, which I need not add was passed over by all the awards and barely mentioned within SFF circles. I think the classic subgenres have huge potential for being subverted, re-imagined and experimented upon, and I would love to see more of this potential being realised.

  5. Megan 7 years ago

    This thread doesn’t go my way half of the time, but I find it much more productive and instructive than what I see going on here:

    Bad writing, indeed!

    • Chris Priest 7 years ago

      As this thread mentions the conversation I had with Nina (in reality, a condensation of many conversations over the months and years) I’d like to clarify what I really meant about the “core” of SF, and other matters. It also has a general bearing I think on the conversation about commercialism and non-commercialism.

      We are all the product of our past, especially if you are a writer. You start and grow in a particular culture. In my case we are talking about the early 1960s. The SF genre as it then existed was heavily dominated and led by American writers (mostly male, many of them descended from European immigrants … all those Germano-Slavic names like Simak, Pohl, Heinlein, Budrys, Asimov). By 1965, when I was in my early 20s and when I wrote my first publishable stories, I had enjoyed reading traditional science fiction, and felt informed and thoroughly grounded in it.

      However, almost as soon I started writing I discovered that that tradition simply didn’t inspire me creatively. The Americans seemed obsessed with power, engineering, politics, empires, wars. This sort of thing meant nothing to me and I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm to write it. It was dad-rock! I was listening to the Stones and the Beatles, I was watching movies by Jancso, Marker, Godard. I was interested in sex, cinema, literature, travel, art, the countryside. (Did I mention sex?) All these subjects were practically nonexistent in American-dominated SF, but they were my life.

      Naturally, I began to take note of the SF writers who did interest me, many of them Americans, most of them close to me in age: Tom Disch, Chip Delany, John Sladek, Phil Dick, and in the UK J. G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss. Also, when I started to meet other writers I discovered I was not the only young writer who felt dissatisfied with the trad stuff. Writers work alone and only get together occasionally, so this awareness was a fairly remote one. But we were lumped together as the ‘new wave’ … that’s another story. Always fear and resist those who will try to label you.

      As I grew as a writer, had my first two novels published, I began to realize that traditional SF was just one kind of SF. Writers were still working within it (as they still are), but the orthodoxy that contained it, and the limitations of its imaginative range, meant that it would always be confined to those limits. It would be restricted to genre, in other words. I wanted to be free of that (as I still want). I felt that fantastic literature should not be defined by stuff about spaceships and galactic empires and robots with rules. I remember reading stories like Aldiss’s “Man in His Time” and “The Moment of Eclipse”, or Ballard’s “The Garden of Time” and the Vermilion Sands stories, and feeling the same kind of soaring excitement as I was getting from “Paint it Black” or “A Day in the Life” (my own dad-rock?). These stories, and many more from that era, were examples of what I began to see was the heart of real fantastic writing. And that was where I wanted to be.

      Now when I see that there are still writers prepared to put in the hours and go the length, and slog through planet adventures, or yet another multi-generation starship story, however tarted up they might be by nods to social mores, I feel a kind of nostalgia. But also a regret. These are the dying embers of a genre whose fire started to go out fifty years ago.

      On the subject of commercialism. I don’t see what this has to do with writers (and by extension events like the Clarke Award). Commercial success is a result, not a motive. What the conversation should really be about is the way some publishers are marketing books, the unreliable qualities on which those decisions are made, and the false pressures they then try to exert. Writers should spurn this, concentrate on what they do and not listen to appeals to make a book or a story more “sellable” or “likely to appeal to a bigger audience”, or to be more closely in touch with what is perceived to be the social awareness of that time. Write the book, get it as good as you can, and you have done your job.

      There are only two people who matter in the world of books: the writer and the reader. Everything and everybody else stand as a barrier between them while pretending (or believing) that they represent a portal. Literary agents, editors, publicists, marketing managers, salesmen, booksellers, internet retailers, literary editors, bloggers, critics, award givers – they all have a role to play, and some of it is irreplaceable and important, but in the end only a writer can make a good book, and only a reader can enjoy one.

      No writer writes with awards in mind. Most of us say that, most of us mean it – but few non-writers seem to believe it. For me, the daily problems of overcoming inertia, of trying to concentrate, of struggling to get a sentence or a paragraph right, of having to maintain a life of ordinary concerns, errands and relaxation, put thoughts of some kind of award close to the bottom of my interests and priorities. Also, there’s a practical thing. It can take up to a year to write and complete a novel. When you finally send it in there is a delay of anything between six weeks and three months before the publisher gets around to reading it. A publication date is eventually decided upon (the author has little or no influence on this, but it can be between a few months and a few years in the future). The weeks and months drag by. Even when published the book is a hardcover (most likely in my case), so the average book buyer won’t even look at it. It then falls into a qualification period for some award or other, it might or might not be selected as a shortlisted title, and anyway the award itself is not made until well into the following year. In most cases when one of my novels has managed to get into the finals I have usually written a lot of other stuff in the interim, and in several cases have been well into a new novel. As a rule of thumb, a period of about three years lies between the major work of writing a book, and an award coming along. Few people will plan their lives around something that might or might not happen in three years’ time, and any writer who obsesses over some award or other is seriously getting priorities wrong.


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