Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What Is The Clarke Award For?

It seems quite simple. It is, according to its simple self-description, an award for ‘the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year’. A measure and celebration of achievement in science-fiction writing that isn't limited to novels published within the science-fiction genre. But what is meant by 'best'? and what is meant by 'science fiction'?

When I was a judge for the Clarke Awards, back in 2003, defining 'science fiction' turned out to be mostly a practical matter. We were presented with around fifty novels submitted by publishers, and as far as we were concerned, any novel that had been submitted should be considered, whether or not it had been published as science fiction. So we read everything we'd been sent, agreed that one or two were so obviously fantasy novels that they could be excluded, and then got down to the business of deciding which were the best.

And that, of course, is where the trouble starts. What do we mean be 'best'? What defines an exceptional science-fiction novel?

It's one of the topics that Nina Allan discusses in a long and interesting essay about the merits and relevance of the Clarke Award. Is the award still worthwhile? Does it stimulate critical discourse? Does it reflect the increasing diversity of the genre? Is it being given to the right kind of novels? What are the right kind of novels?

It's that last question I'd like to discuss here. Allan believes that what she calls 'core SF tropes' are only of interest if they are somehow subverted, and that 'if a work of science fiction cannot [her italics] stand next to works drawn from the mainstream and hold its own in terms of literary values, we need to be asking ourselves if it is truly great.' In other words, a good science fiction novel should not be measured in terms of whatever it is that defines the science-fiction genre, but by the standards of literary fiction.

What are those standards? Most agree that literary fiction is in part defined by fine or beautiful prose, that it gives preference to theme over plot, and explores the psychology of the individual in particular and the human condition in general. It's concerned with analysing reality, while other kinds of fiction (genre fiction, commercial fiction, paraliterary fiction) are concerned with escaping reality. Some might also say, not entirely inaccurately, that literary writers are expected to write a different novel every time, while genre writers are expected to write the same novel every time.

Science fiction, perhaps the most protean of genre fictions, is somewhat harder to define. We know it when we see it, but it includes a vast variety of different kinds of fiction; its borders are vague; it overlaps other genres, including literary fiction. But in all of those different kinds of science-fiction works, there's perhaps one unifying factor: rather than exploring reality, science fiction is interested in exploring the limits of reality. Rather than analysing and universalising individual human experience, it's interested in analysing the reality of the universe and measuring it against human values. It's about change and difference, and the consequences of change and difference.

In short, the values of science fiction are not identical to those of literary fiction (or any other genre), for otherwise we wouldn't need to distinguish it from other varieties of fiction. Sure, good writing and fine characterisation should be celebrated, and bad writing and flat characterisation shouldn't be excused because of other qualities. To paraphrase Samuel R. Delany, fleas are fleas, no matter where or how you catch them. A badly written science-fiction novel is badly written even its ideas are novel and excitingly executed. Even so, and this is where I have a problem with Allan's argument, there are good reasons why great works of science fiction, works worthy of the Clarke Award, shouldn't be judged by the same standards as literary fiction.

Allan anticipates this, saying that she is aware that her view is contentious, and that some would 'disagree with it violently, attesting that it is attitudes and tastes like mine that are destroying science fiction, stripping the field of what makes it unique and worthy of specialist discussion in the first place.' I wouldn't go that far, but I do think that claiming that the standards of literary fiction are a universal yardstick is reminiscent of the kind of snobbery that asserts that literary fiction is the good stuff, created out of noble artistic aims, and all other kinds of fiction are bad, written for baseless commercial motives. It's also an instance of a kind of cultural cringe peculiar to the science-fiction field. Judges of crime, horror, fantasy and romance novels give awards to works that epitomise the best of their genre, not to those which best approximate 'literary values.' Only in science fiction are we so uncertain of what the values of the genre are, and whether they are worthwhile, that we seek to outsource them.

One of the reasons that literary fiction champions beautiful prose is that it seeks to make the familiar fresh and new, and that's hard to do in what's somewhat disparagingly called workmanlike prose. Science fiction, on the other hand, seeks to make the unfamilar familiar, and that can sometimes be hard to do if you adhere to what Martin Amis has called the war against cliche. Instead, science fiction has developed a huge common toolkit that enables writers to anatomise the unfamiliar and make it vivid to the mind's eye, to merge human stories with things slant to ordinary human experience or processes vaster and more ancient than anything in human history. And it turns out, here in the twenty-first century, in which our common reality is fractured by the consequences, good and bad, of scientific and technological advances, that the science-fiction toolkit is becoming ever more useful in grappling with weirdness of the happening world.

This is one reason why writers of literary fiction are increasing producing novels that overlap with the concerns of the science-fiction genre; why, from its inception, the Clarke Award has often included literary novels on its shortlist, or awarded prizes to them. This infusion is welcome, maybe even vitally necessary. But those novels should be judged by the same measure as novels written in the so-called 'core' of the genre, not by standards outwith it. They should be judged by how well they work as science-fiction novels, within the generously wide definitions of science fiction. From Allan's preference for 'a mixture of literary postmodernism, subjective hyperrealism, advanced and/or experimental structure bound together with speculative elements' to new varieties of the old kinds of science fiction, they should engage the heart and the mind, and deliver something fresh and startling and fully rounded. And we should be alert to the possibility that something fresh and startling can as easily come from inside the field as outside it, just as literary excursions in science fiction can sometimes be as trite and unoriginal as anything written inside the field that doesn't examine its assumptions and tropes.

I'm aware that's both vague and hopelessly idealistic. As Allan points out, awards decided by a jury or panel can be weakened by a variety of all-too-human failings, from compromise and favouritism, to prejudice and stubbornness. The short list of any award usually contains at least one oddity, and omits at least one title which, according to almost everyone else, should have been included. That's why the critical discussion that Allan rightly champions is so important, even though we should remember that critics are as prone to the same all-too-human-failings are the judges. But in the end, 'best' is not a value that can be defined by measurement against some external standard. As when I was a judge, as is hopefully the case this year, it's recognisable only by comparison with its peers.

19 Comments:

Anonymous Nina Allan said...

"This infusion is welcome, maybe even vitally necessary. But those novels should be judged by the same measure as novels written in the so-called 'core' of the genre, not by standards outwith it. They should be judged by how well they work as science-fiction novels, within the generously wide definitions of science fiction."

Yes!

"Rather than analysing and universalising individual human experience, it's interested in analysing the reality of the universe and measuring it against human values. It's about change and difference, and the consequences of change and difference."

And this is an articulate and thought-provoking definition of science fiction.

Thanks for a fascinating post, Paul, and one that edges into areas I'm hoping to write about myself at some point in the future. The question that nags at me most after reading your essay is the matter of 'beautiful prose' as a defining characteristic of 'literary fiction'. How would we define the rather plain, unadorned prose of Tom McCarthy's Satin Island, for example, or Will Wiles's The Way Inn? I've heard the prose of Richard House's The Kills described as 'grey'. These are all novels that, arguably, sit right on the dividing line between literary fiction and science fiction. Rather than talking of 'literary' and 'genre', might it not be more useful for our purposes to talk of 'mimetic' and 'speculative'?

All questions worth exploring, I think!

May 18, 2016 10:43 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Re 'beautiful prose' - I'd like to know too. It's a cliche that pops up over and again in discussion and critique of li-fi, useful in rhetoric but never especially defined. And I agree, there are plenty of examples that aren't traditionally 'beautiful', which is to say, maybe, lyrical, uplifting, approaching poetry.

I think it has something to do with voice. The voice of the characters woven into the narrative. Perhaps it could be better defined along the lines of 'a sustained, appropriate aesthetic'. Much genre fiction, of course, defaults to close third person, because that's what is taught as standard in many writing workshops. Which is why any prose that deviates from it, in genre, too often attracts bilious comments dripping with comic-book-guy disdain.

I'm thinking of expanding on this, and the constraints the publishing industry puts on genre fiction w/regard to readers' expectations and the editing process.

As to mimetic v. speculative, I'm dubious of hard and fast divisions. There's plenty of mimesis in all kinds of science fiction, and isn't serious speculation, unless it's in the absurdist, parodic or comic mode, often imitative of mimesis?

May 19, 2016 1:04 pm  
Anonymous Nina Allan said...


"I'm thinking of expanding on this, and the constraints the publishing industry puts on genre fiction w/regard to readers' expectations and the editing process."

I think this is a really important point. I hope you do decide to expand on it in a future post as the subject certainly merits further discussion and your insights would be hugely valuable.

I'm still thinking about the 'beautiful prose' thing, and feeling uncertain whether, in fact, these distinctions have anything to do with the type of prose at all, so much as the focus of the narrative, as outlined in your own working definition of SF, above. I think we'd both agree that Mike Harrison, just for example, writes beautiful prose. I think we'd also agree that his work is definitively 'of science fiction' as opposed to being 'of the literary mainstream'. So where does that leave us?

With further essays to write, perhaps...

May 19, 2016 9:54 pm  
OpenID philrm said...

First of all, I just want to say this is a great discussion!

I actually interpreted Nina's 'if a work of science fiction cannot stand next to works drawn from the mainstream and hold its own in terms of literary values, we need to be asking ourselves if it is truly great' slightly differently than you did (and perhaps differently than Nina intended). Although it's hard not to sound tautological when 'literary fiction' has come to mean 'mimetic fiction', I took 'literary values' to mean 'avails itself of the full set of techniques used by the genre of literary fiction', (e.g., psychological realism, more-than-competent prose, structure that is deeper than merely the plot) without implying that it also has to restrict itself to the concerns of literary fiction. SF has famously (and sometimes even accurately) described itself as the literature of ideas, but at least for my tastes, if your characters and prose are uninteresting, your ideas had better be pretty spectacular, and I think examples of that are pretty thin on the ground these days.

I could go on and on about prose, but I'll just say that I think you've hit something key in your remark about voice. For example, while most people (including me) would agree that Roberto Bolano (hmm - how do I get a tilde?) was a great prose stylist, in much of his work (sometimes entire novels) on the sentence level he writes short, declarative sentences almost exclusively. And yet there is a sustained, propulsive rhythm to it that is utterly compelling. I really wish that I read Spanish, as I would love to be able to read him in the original.

May 20, 2016 1:23 am  
OpenID philrm said...

Forgot to add: There's a reason why so much of Bolano's fiction is narrated.

May 20, 2016 1:42 am  
Anonymous Nina Allan said...

"Although it's hard not to sound tautological when 'literary fiction' has come to mean 'mimetic fiction', I took 'literary values' to mean 'avails itself of the full set of techniques used by the genre of literary fiction', (e.g., psychological realism, more-than-competent prose, structure that is deeper than merely the plot) without implying that it also has to restrict itself to the concerns of literary fiction."

Phil, this is exactly what I meant - and thanks for summing it up so adroitly! For me, the most exciting works of SF (and arguably of literature as a whole) are those that are indisputably 'of science fiction' and yet have been written with a full awareness of the text as a literary entity. The fun part starts when we begin trying to articulate what it is that makes a novel 'indisputably of science fiction'. Something to do with the writer being confident in their handling of the materials of science fiction, to be sure. But is it possible to talk about a novel having a 'science fictional sensibility'? I think it is - though I haven't yet hit upon a satisfactory way of defining this.

I do not think it would be a vain endeavour to learn Spanish with the sole aim of reading Bolano in the original! (Interesting to note here that Bolano was a science fiction fan, and attended SF conventions.)

May 20, 2016 9:29 am  
OpenID philrm said...

Nina - I do not think it would be a vain endeavour to learn Spanish with the sole aim of reading Bolano in the original! Off the top of my head, I can't think of a better reason for doing so!

Paul - I've been brooding over your very interesting definition of science
fiction. It seems to me that, by this definition, a novel such as Emma Newman's
Planetfall is not science fiction: its fundamental concern is with the
experience of its narrator, not with reality. (For a while I did convince myself
that it's not science fiction, despite its SF trappings.) You could almost call
it 'subjective science fiction': the narrator's psychology and perceptions lie
so far from the human norm that her fellow colonists could practically be aliens
- a point that is brought home by the novel's ending: when she finally does
attain a measure of understanding, it's not with her fellow humans.* Newman
could almost have stripped all of the SF aspects from the novel without
impacting its central concerns.

However, rather than not-science-fiction, I think Planetfall is actually
an extremely close-focused example of a long-established form of science fiction: SF
that is actually about today. Rather than 'analysing the reality of the universe
and measuring it against human values', I think you could describe this as
'analysing human values and comparing them to the matrix of all possible human
values'. It may be about difference, but it's not about change.


*Although I had a few minor quibbles with the novel, as a portrait of mental
illness from the inside - Newman suffers from severe anxiety disorder - it's
absolutely riveting, and emotionally devastating.

May 21, 2016 1:27 am  
OpenID philrm said...

Sorry about the weird formatting in the above - I cut and pasted and evidently it kept the original line breaks.

May 21, 2016 1:30 am  
OpenID philrm said...

Nina - But is it possible to talk about a novel having a 'science fictional sensibility'? I think it is - though I haven't yet hit upon a satisfactory way of defining this.

This is why I would unhesitatingly class Satin Island as science fiction, despite the almost complete absence of SF tropes: the fundamental concern of the novel is how the future is being shaped by forces we don't control or understand, and may not even recognize.

May 21, 2016 5:24 pm  
Anonymous Nina Allan said...

A novel like Satin Island is important to science fiction because it comments simultaneously upon the way we live now AND change as it is being enacted upon us - the theatre of action (if we can call it that) is the right angle between the present and the future.

There is and always has been a third alternative for science fiction, a radical space between decadence (a falling-back on devalued, generic, mostly media-derived tropes) and sell-out (fundamentally mainstream novels with a bit of post-apocalypse as background). If we look at novels like Matthew de Abaitua's IF THEN and Adam Roberts's THE THING ITSELF just for example and just from last year, we will find work that is conceptually original, artistically ambitious and still wholly 'of science fiction'.

This is the kind of work, in my opinion, that the Clarke Award was set up to take account of.

May 21, 2016 8:33 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Phil - my definition, such as it is, isn't meant to be in any way definitive. Any definition that pretends to be is almost at once undermined by some example or other that's clearly outside the scope of the definition yet is clearly science fiction. (Or science fictional, whatever that means.) As per your example, maybe. Everything bleeds into everything else, yet there are clearly things which are inside the genre, and other things clearly outside it.

Hard to disagree with yr last remark, Nina, re the kind of novel that the Clarke Award should pay attention to. Would say, though, w/regard to Satin Island, that while it may be important to science fiction, maybe science fiction has some importance to Satin Island? Or if not that novel specifically, then to other novels like it. (I'm refuting hierarchy again.) Sell-out -- you mean commercial? Which is, after all, what most genre fiction of any kind happens to be. And isn't necessarily decadent, or unoriginal etc. Elmore Leonard, Stephen King... Maybe it's about the degree of revelation, mystery etc

May 22, 2016 3:52 pm  
OpenID philrm said...

Paul - I didn't intend to imply that you meant that to be definitive (although, erm, I'm not sure how else you could be expected to interpret my comment).

w/regard to Satin Island, that while it may be important to science fiction, maybe science fiction has some importance to Satin Island? I think the answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. If there were a Ballard Award for SF - and I can't think of a better definition for Ballardian SF than Nina's "fiction that occupies the right angle between the present and the future" - Satin Island would be an exemplary nominee. I find it impossible to believe that McCarthy is not conversant, at minimum, with that particular strain of SF.

I haven't read Roberts' latest (I've had decidedly mixed reactions to his fiction), but I was also disappointed that If Then didn't make the shortlist - I thought it was a remarkable novel.

May 22, 2016 8:49 pm  
Anonymous Nina Allan said...

Paul - maybe I should have said 'cop-out' rather than 'sell-out'. I wasn't talking about commercial fiction, so much as mainstream fiction that uses familiar science fictional tropes but without any kind of deep engagement with science fictional ideas (back to your earlier statement about it being necessary, in the context of the Clarke Award anyway, to judge novels by how well they succeed as SF).

I think there is a whole sub-category of fiction - novels such as McCarthy's Satin Island, Tobias Hill's The Cryptographer, Will Wiles's The Way Inn, stuff I like to think of as post-Ballardian - that owe their entire existence to science fiction. I don't think that's at issue here!

May 22, 2016 9:52 pm  
OpenID philrm said...

Nina - I absolutely loved The Way Inn; it was the most sheerly entertaining novel I'd read in quite some time. It's also interesting how for about its first third or so it reads as Ballardian SF, before revealing its SF/horror core.

May 23, 2016 12:23 am  
Blogger Tom Hunter said...

"This is the kind of work, in my opinion, that the Clarke Award was set up to take account of."

And indeed the award does take account of this kind of work, increasing so in fact given that one major contributing factor to the rising number of submissions we receive every year is due precisely to calling works from outside expected SF publisher lists (Gollancz, Orbit etc).

Taking account of, of course, does not necessarily mean kind of work the Clarke should be shortlisting as a priority above other types of novel.

Back in 2008 I said this about our shortlist: "The Clarke Award has always been about pushing at the speculative edges of its genre. It's one possible map amongst many, never the whole territory, and this year's shortlist stands as both the perfect introduction to the state of modern science fiction writing as well as a first tantalising glimpse of possible futures to come."

Only my second year on the job but that wasn't enough to get cut a break or tame uproar in certain parts of the internet. What is Hunter suggesting here, eh? The Clarke is for best science fiction novel, nothing else. Clearly he has an agenda and must be summoned to a tribunal panel at Eastercon to answer for his crimes etc etc.

Reading this back now, to me it still seems like exactly the bit of positive press release focused hyperbole it was then, not a mission statement, with a little bit of obviously as award director I think this is a cool shortlist with a note to critics that yes of course there are other good shortlist combos that could have been created as well.

I was reminded of it reading Nina's original blog piece and comments here.

(I was also reminded that I must have had a copy of the William Gibson documentary No Maps For These Territories on my desk when writing that press release, as the quote is clearly a direct lift of that title!)

May 23, 2016 2:57 pm  
Anonymous Nina Allan said...

Not to forget though, Tom, that the two works I mention specifically in the comment you quote from are both published by SF imprints, Angry Robot and Gollancz respectively :-)

Phil - You may like to know that Adam Roberts's The Thing Itself contains a (fully acknowledged) reference to the Way Inn hotel chain. Nice to see it becoming a part of the SF toolkit!

May 23, 2016 9:36 pm  
Blogger Tom Hunter said...

Hi again Nina, I'm very aware of the provenance of both those titles, just as I am with the conversation around Satin Island not being submitted.

My point is entirely about your idea that the award was set up (or should have been set up perhaps) to consider a particular kind of work over another. It wasn't, and that's not how we work today. My own brief foray into accidently implying that in 2008,and the response I received, made that preference quite clear.

The only guide to the kind of work that should be considered for the Clarke was that Arthur wanted there to be as broad a range of submissions as possible and that the award not be one for the 'best book of the year that feels a bit Clarkian.'

That's why also resist the pressure to make some broad statement on what we mean by SF, but instead create that definition anew every year with our new judging panel.

May 24, 2016 4:58 pm  
Blogger M said...

What a fantastic discussion.

Two recent reads of mine that I would define as 'genre-fluid' are Michel Faber's Book of Strange New Things and David Mitchell's Bone Clocks. Both to be found in the literary fiction section of Waterstones, of course. The former I found particularly interesting - although the story is heavily clothed in SF, it always felt 'literary' in the reading. The science fictional setting is necessary to supply sufficient distance for the extreme long distance relationship that's the heart and soul of the novel I think, rather than for anything else. Although Faber takes full advantage of having an alien world to deploy some beautiful descriptive prose.

May 27, 2016 12:01 am  
Anonymous Nina Allan said...

The Faber is especially interesting, I agree. I disliked the novel intensely when I read it - way too long, ultra-annoying protagonist, clunky use of SF materials, some uncomfortable blind spots in its socio-political awareness - but I find myself looking back on it now with a measure of affection and even admiration, mainly I think because of its seriousness of intent. In his recent blog post on the Clarke Award, Adam Roberts speaks of the need for more science fiction that grapples with metaphysical and philosophical conceits. The Book of Strange New Things ventures boldly into both these territories. Moreover, it carries an aura of genuine strangeness, surely a core attribute of great SF. Above all, Faber's novel is ambitious, which is to be applauded. I may even make the time to read it again...

May 27, 2016 8:32 pm  

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