By Megan AM
I’m reading a book right now that no one would ever call science fiction, even though it teems with cyborgs, aliens, and multiverse theory, and salutes longtime SF inspirations like Borges, Blade Runner, and Greek mythology. The author’s interest in robotics, genetics, and oneirology should satisfy the SF old guard while the SF new guard should be tantalized by its playful dance between language and culture, its shapeless narrative, and its nonfictional ambiguity. It’s like nothing I have read before, one of the most fun and interesting things I’ve read this year, and it satisfies my SF tooth, but it won’t be recognized by any SF award shortlists this year because it’s so unusual and nontraditional, and it will dissipate into the ether of the unnodded.
On the other hand, I just finished reading a more mainstream book that includes a minor SFnal detail, is built on well-researched storytelling, and, while it’s a good book– a suspenseful, interesting, well-written book that genre and non-genre fans have good reasons to be excited about– it’s that minor SFnal detail that has captured my imagination and sets it apart from the many other similar books on the topic (SF and non-SF) that have already populated the bookshelves. Unfortunately, that minor SFnal detail is so minor, so brief, so inconsequential to the story, that I’m disappointed by its apparent gimmickry. Even so, it’s that minor SFnal detail that makes it feel like it’s mine to absorb and digest, to plant in my mental garden, to question, to wonder at, and to perhaps invent some sort of metaphorical elaboration in order to excuse the author from what feels like a sneaky public relations bait-and-switch.
Then there’s this other book I just read that’s clearly marked SF–science fiction, for that matter–that looks and feels like all other SF, that is modeled off every SF thing that has come before it. It puts amped-up gadgets, magicks, and jargon ahead of depth and thought; confuses character consistency with character complexity; promotes improbable and irrelevant heroics; ignores a century of literary advancement; and relies on soap opera dialogue to say the important things. Most would say it’s the most SF of the three books I’ve mentioned, but can it really be called SF–or speculative fiction, or science fiction, or even fantasy–if it only does the same old thing? I should hope our individual and cultural speculations, sciences, fantasies, and fictions are more original than that.
Prior to that, over the holidays, I stumbled upon a different kind of SF book: one that breaks all those SF molds by insinuating itself into them and then disrupting them. It had a point to prove, not much different from what I said in the paragraph above, and it was cathartic to see SF criticized by one of its own. However, it’s an insider’s tale: so reliant on megatext, it denies entry to other readers. Guilty as I may be for appreciating its commentary, the commentary won’t go far if no one on the outside understands. After all, one needs to know the megatext in order to recognize the megatext.
All of this is to say that I don’t particularly like SF, which is also to say that I am very particular about SF. My relationship to SF has been long, unbidden, unlabeled, and mostly uninformed, and I suspect this is the case for the majority of human beings who are not in fandom, but who have, at some point, been drawn to a kind of storytelling that presents the world in a way that’s different from our reality. Those same folks who are non-fans might not want to read books because they think books are boring (they often are), they don’t read SF because they think it’s dorky (it often is), and they’re not involved in fandom because there’s life to live (though perhaps not for very much longer). I completely get this. Even the term “SF” is relatively new to me: I doubt I’ve ever said “SF” in public, much less “SFnal”; in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve never said “SFnal” out loud. SFnal. I said it. It echoed off the kitchen walls and it sounded unfamiliar and now I feel weird.
So you don’t have to tell me there’s a problem in SF. There are a number of problems, not the least of which are its fannish exclusiveness and its inability to properly recognize itself, its shortcomings, and its potential.
(You also don’t have to tell me that how over-dramatic that sounds in relation to real world current events.)
The problem of shortlists
Shortlists are the interstates and highways on the SF roadmap, and like many serious newbies to SF fandom, I began my journey by sticking to well-trafficked roads: the Hugos, the Nebulas, the Locusts. During my trips of time zone hopping and monument visiting, I’ve become aware of several shortlist tics that need to be addressed, the most annoying being related to voter and juror preoccupation with certain authors and certain publishers. These preoccupations, when seen so often, throw the claim of “the best” into suspicion. They also reduce the historical significance of these lists into an ouroborosian redundancy that does little to enlighten serious newbies like me on the huge world of SF.
Then there’s the Arthur C. Clarke Award, an award I should be attracted to given my own preoccupation with the tastes of British fandom, but, from afar, the Clarke shortlists have always struck me as uneven: fuddy-duddies standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the mainstream and the avant-garde, the only thing in common being an underlayer of progressive politics. This was especially confusing to me at first, because I had assumed that the Clarke Award was quite literally looking for the most Clarke-like books, which would be great in 1953, but, again, is an unnecessary redundancy today. I mean, Clarke did good, but there’s got to be more out there. I have since been schooled on the initial idea and purpose of Clarke Award by people I respect who have been there since its inception, who see literary figures like Atwood and Ghosh and Ryman as representatives of the Clarke Award’s original intent, but I find that even more confusing because the most genre-like, Clarkian book won just last year. There’s a disconnect somewhere.
That disconnect is even more jarring when you realize the Arthur C. Clarke Award is a juried award, not subject to commercial advantages (one should hope), or the passions and tumults of fannish loyalty that we see in fan awards. A jury can be both focused and far-sighted, not just representatives of their own, personal tastes–and not just temperature-takers for a given year. A juror, when well-read across and beyond SF’s fault lines, can act as a prime conductor for a literary movement, the movement’s latest message blinking into comprehension when combined with other juror’s selections. A jury should answer, “How far has science fiction come?”
Getting my jurying on
To my knowledge, I’m the only American participating on the Arthur C. Clarke Award Shadow Jury, but this isn’t so strange considering I have a vested interest in the British SF scene, having always felt more at home in this literary landscape than I do on my own home turf. I’m also the only juror with zero writing credits, though that probably has more to do with “can’t be bothered to submit things to places” than being unpublishable, though, if you’ve seen my blog, you might disagree. Although I’ve earned a couple of advanced degrees, none of them are to do with fiction, and most of my adult life has been heavily informed in the other, nonfictional direction. So, no, I don’t know why I’m here either, but as long as I’m here, let’s try to do something different.
Megan AM is a lifetime SF fan, but a longtime sufferer of bland SF. She realizes now that this is the fault of the commercially-hyped SF publishing industry and spoonfed awards machine that insists on promoting cheesy, regurgitated SF, and she’s pissed off about all the good books she’s missed as a consequence. She blogs about her reading experiences at From couch to moon but she’s kind of bitter about it because it shouldn’t take this much work for a layreader like her to find inventive and well-written SF. She writes for no one.