By Paul Kincaid
I have been associated with science fiction awards ever since I was approached to administer the Hugo Awards for the 1987 Worldcon. In the years since then I have won and lost awards, I have administered them, judged them, handed them out, written about them, and even (in the case of the Clarke Award) helped to create them. Now, another first, I have taken part in a shadow jury. And the result of all that: I probably know less now about the purpose and function and value of awards than I ever did.
Well that’s not quite true. There are some awards, like the Tiptree which I helped to judge in 2009, that have a very specific remit: in the case of the Tiptree it is the exploration of issues of gender. I find it instructive that the Tiptree Award often identifies novels and stories that I, personally, consider to be among the best in the year; but choosing the best, as such, is not what the Tiptree Award is about.
For the vast majority of awards, however, that one word, “best”, explains all and explains nothing. “Best” is the prison cell that most awards have entered knowingly and from which they cannot escape.
When we set up the Clarke Award we decided that it should be for the best science fiction novel receiving its first British publication during the year in question. Repeatedly since then we have made a virtue of the fact that we did not define “best”, “science fiction”, or “novel”, allowing the judges to respond with maximum flexibility to something whose character and form are ever changing. In fact we were merely making a virtue out of necessity, since none of us had any idea how to define any of those terms. In particular, we had no conception of what “best” might entail.
Of course, I have my own personal sense of what I like best, which I employ whenever I vote in the BSFA or the Hugo awards, or when I take part in jury discussions for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. But I know from the results of those votes and from the nature of those discussions that my notion of best is often not shared by others. Can “best” ever be anything more than idiosyncratic individual taste? And if it is not, what can be the point of an award to celebrate the best?
Years ago there was a consensus that the Hugo, for instance, was really identifying a canon of work that was broadly accepted as the best of the genre. At the time the body of people involved in voting for the award was relatively small and cohesive, and nobody particularly noticed or cared that their canon was overwhelmingly white, male and American. As the universe of Hugo voters has grown, so the results have become progressively less white, less male, less American, but they have similarly become less canonical, less accepted as the best. The emergence of groups like the sad and rabid puppies is at least an indication of the non-consensual character of the modern Hugo Awards. Whether or not you agree with the puppies, and I profoundly disagree with them, the debates they have engendered over the last few years have left one important question unanswered by either side: what are the Hugo Awards for?
If the febrile state of the Hugos makes that precise question particularly relevant, it can be extended readily to all other awards.
Awards recognise the best. That, at least, is the unconsidered mantra, usually trotted out in response to such a question. But we don’t know what best might be, and we certainly can’t agree on what counts as the best. Science fiction supports an ever-increasing number of anthologies proclaiming that they represent the best of the year, yet their contents differ wildly (if they did not there would be little commercial sense in publishing so many volumes); can they all be the best? Similarly, there is an ever-growing number of awards, which somehow always seem to pick different works. Again, can these all really be the best?
It seems to me that best has become a debased term, a meaningless term.
And this year my involvement in the Shadow Clarke jury has forced me to examine my own understanding of the word “best” particularly closely.
This examination came in three phases. First, and easiest, came the selection of my own personal shortlist; next came the selection of the Sharke Six; and finally, and for me the most problematic, there was the engagement with the actual shortlist chosen by this year’s jury. (Parenthetically, I should note that much of this process overlapped with my involvement in judging the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, in which I took part in discussions about some of the same books, with a very different jury. In fact, the Sharkes and the Campbell jury were pretty much in agreement on many of the books involved, though there were significant differences in the books submitted for the two awards. I was particularly sad that the Clarke Award was not able to consider Rosewater by Tade Thompson, which was not published in the UK, and which I consider to have been easily one of the best novels of the year … for values of best, of course.)
The first part of this examination in fact did not challenge my notion of best at all. I needed to pick six books as a starting point for the shadow Clarke exercise. There were already four books I had read that had caught my eye and that I was pretty confident would feature among my favourites for the year. These were Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson (who did indeed win the BSFA Award), The Gradual by Christopher Priest, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood. The more I considered these four books, the more convinced I was that they conformed to the qualities I expected of the best science fiction. In other words, I thought they were best without having to ask myself what I meant by best.
For the remaining two, I paid attention to reviews, noted what other people were talking about, and read opening pages on Amazon. I thought of picking Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, but I knew other shadow jurors were picking that book, and besides I already had four male authors on the list so I wanted to balance that with two women for my final choices. In the end I went with Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan and Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. But I wasn’t picking either of these with any expectation that they counted as best. I had chosen them for fairly tenebrous reasons; whether they were to be considered best or not was something that would only come further down the line when I had a chance to read them carefully. As it happened, when I did read them I realised there were egregious faults with both books that meant I could not include them among the year’s best, but then, one of the most interesting parts of the whole Sharke experience was the chance it gave all of the judges to consider, reconsider, change their minds, and argue themselves into and out of different conclusions.
That process, of analysing my own initial choices, was where the question of what exactly I deemed “best” to be started to emerge. But it was still not a very deep analysis, in that deciding why book X does not make the grade is very different from deciding why book Y does.
Then came the selection of the Sharke Six. I have served on or chaired award juries; I know how these things work. I know there will always be a couple of works that most people agree on, and I know about the horse trading that will decide the other works on the shortlist. No shortlist chosen by a jury will ever consist of works that every jury member agrees with. That is the reason why you have a jury in the first place. But the Sharkes proved more consensual than most, which suggests that we have very similar tastes and approaches when it comes to science fiction. Not that I was in total agreement with everything that was decided: I still profoundly regret that Priest did not make our list, though I understand that this was not a judgement of quality but a way of avoiding any perception of nepotism; and I remain unconvinced that The Power by Naomi Alderman should have been included. On the other hand, I could understand why some of my choices did not make the list, just as I could understand why some of the books I did not champion were included. At the end of the process we had six novels that I would happily defend as being among the best science fiction of the year. (A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna made me examine my understanding of what constitutes science fiction, but not of what is best.) In other words, since the shadow jury had all arrived at similar conclusions as to what constituted the best, there was little need to ponder too deeply my own notions of best.
To this point, therefore, I saw nothing problematic in saying that the purpose of the award was to honour the best, without having to worry too much about what might be meant by best.
Then came the announcement of the official shortlist. The list had two titles in common with the Sharke Six (the Tidhar and the Whitehead), and two other titles that had made the initial lists of some of the Sharkes but had then been dismissed (the Sullivan and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee); but the overall affect of the shortlist was completely at odds with our unquestioned assumptions about what was meant by best.
More and more, as I carefully read each of the six shortlisted novels, I found myself coming back to the same issues. I could not, I cannot, perceive any standard, whether literary quality or science-fictional invention, that applies across all of the books. This is not comparing apples and oranges, it is comparing apples and shoes. The six books do not seem to me to actually belong together in the sense of offering a coherent view of what science fiction should aspire towards. If these six books collectively represent the best of science fiction, then either “best” means something different from how I have normally used the word, or “science fiction” does.
This, of course, makes me question what I do mean by best. Before now it has tended to be a case of “I know it when I see it.” I haven’t needed to analyse what I meant too closely because when the matter has been relevant, I have generally been working with people whose own instinctual notion of best is close enough to my own as to cause no perceptible friction. But this is no longer the case. I might, for instance, applaud the shortlisting of the Whitehead; but did the shortlisting of A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers imply that they were measuring the Whitehead by a completely different set of criteria to those I would apply? So the first thing I needed to do was reconsider what exactly I understood best to mean.
Obviously, best is at the pinnacle of a sequence of comparisons: A is better than B, C is better than A, so C is best. So what comparisons do I make to arrive at the best? What subtle difference makes C outshine the rest?
Science fiction is a hubbub of familiar tropes. It is not too difficult to take a handful of these tropes and craft something that is reasonably competent, reasonably entertaining. The problem, what I had hitherto considered the entire purpose of award juries, lies in discerning those few works that rise above mere competence and entertainment. For me, what makes the difference is something to do with innovation, challenge and daring. Familiarity is all very well, safety is all very well, but any work that restricts itself to the safe and familiar can only repeat what has gone before. Science fiction is about novelty, about encountering the new, moving towards the unknown immensities of time, space, the other. If science fiction offers us nothing more than we have seen before, then it is failing; indeed, I would argue it is dying.
Hence, it seems to me that the best science fiction must make us pause and think: that’s new, that takes me into territory I’ve not explored before, at least not from this angle.
But newness is always disturbing, it upsets our sense of how things should be, how the world works and where we belong in it. The best science fiction, therefore, must be disturbing, must make the reader work to get their head around the different perspective on the world that is being presented. It follows that the best science fiction cannot be an easy read, and indeed should make us feel changed by the experience.
Inevitably, this cannot be easy for the author either. It entails stretching their skills, their imagination, their ideas to the limit. So, once again, when reading something that is being touted as the best, I expect to detect some level of daring in the work. If an author is content to plough a familiar furrow, to work some small variation on themes and ideas we’ve encountered a thousand times before, then that author is daring nothing, is challenging nothing, is not trying to take us anywhere new. For me, therefore, such a work is automatically ruled out of consideration for the best book of the year.
All else being equal, if there were two books that did display such innovation, challenge and daring, I would incline towards the one that, for me, had the greater literary quality. In all of this, I am conscious of the fact that I generally do like fiction that engages me intellectually and that gives me aesthetic literary pleasures, so it feels like I am equating best with the stuff I like most. And of course there is always an element of personal taste that intrudes in any judgement of the best no matter how objective one might strive to be. But at the same time I think there has to be a distinction between best and favourite. In truth, when voting for awards or taking part in jury discussions, I do often advocate for books that are not the one I enjoyed most, because like anyone else I can enjoy books that don’t demand so much of me, but that very lack of demand gets in the way of me considering them the best. Popularity simply cannot be a guide to quality, lots of thumbs up on social media does not make a book worthy of an award.
Am I demanding too much? Perhaps, but we are talking about the very best science fiction of the year here, and that should surely be a small and exclusive club.
I do not imagine that these particular and austere criteria are shared by every other Sharke, or by the other judges on the various award juries I’ve taken part in. But our views have been congruent enough for us to work together, reach agreement, and feel that we share a similar view of what awards are for.
I do not detect any such congruence when I consider the current Clarke shortlist. I can find nothing innovative, challenging or daring in the Chambers, let alone literary quality. In fact it seems to directly contradict everything that I believe we should hold up as worthy of admiration and emulation in science fiction. It is trite, unimaginative, uninventive, safe; I find it impossible to regard this book as the best of anything. After Atlas by Emma Newman is two-thirds of a decent crime thriller that falls apart spectacularly at the end when she remembers she is supposed to be writing science fiction and setting up the next book in the series. It is not an embarrassingly bad book in the way that the Chambers is, but it is not a book that would normally trouble an award shortlist. The Lee may stand out as an innovative work when compared to the conservative and surprisingly unadventurous fiction that is most contemporary military sf, but when compared to science fiction as a whole? The sensation I had while reading it was that the book was familiar, I kept thinking I had read something similar before, I kept anticipating each turn of the plot, and then being disappointed that it went exactly the way I had predicted. The novel may be pretty good of its kind, but the fact that it runs on such predictable lines hardly marks it out as a work of revolutionary innovation, as a novel to open up entire new vistas for our literature. And the Sullivan may be daring, may be trying to do something new, but it is not a success. The book is a holy, if at times invigorating, mess. If the Clarke was an award for ambition, I think the Sullivan would fully deserve a place on the shortlist; but it should be an award for achievement, and by that measure, the book fails.
Frankly, I see no excuse for including either the Chambers or the Newman on any award shortlist. If I squint at them in the right light and at just the right angle I can sort of explain away the presence of the Lee and the Sullivan, but it is a stretch. And how can they earn their place at the expense of the Hutchinson, the Priest, the Wood, or any of a bunch of far better written, far more exciting, challenging, engaging novels?
But that is the shortlist we have. Four of the six chosen titles do not fit with any measure I am comfortable with for judging the best science fiction. Last year I was uncomfortable with what I perceived to be a very weak Clarke shortlist, particularly given that the novel which was far and away the most innovative, challenging and daring book of the year, The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts, was not even included on the shortlist. I hoped it was a one-off, an aberration, but my discomfort was such that I was easily persuaded to join the shadow jury this year. But this year’s shortlist seems to me to be similarly ill-constituted. So I am left wondering: are they operating by some different definition of “best”? Or even, by a different definition of “science fiction”?
If that is so, I no longer know what the award is honouring, I no longer know what the award is for.
And this year’s winner? My heart says it should go to Colson Whitehead, for what is simply the most beautiful, harrowing and satisfying novel of the year. My head says Lavie Tidhar, for a work that cleverly and effectively opens up exciting new vistas amid the most familiar tropes of science fiction. My gut says Yoon Ha Lee, because that would gather a lot of Likes on Facebook and popularity seems to count for more than intellectual rigour these days. But somewhere deep inside a demon voice is whispering insidiously that it will be Becky Chambers. At which point I will no longer ask what is the point of the Clarke Award, because I will know it has no point.