Two Mini-Roundtables: Award Jinxes and “The Future of the Mind”

1) Award Jinxes

The 2014 Academy Awards made me think of various “curses” that have become associated with the Oscars over the years—the “F. Murray Abraham syndrome,” for example, named after the actor, on failing to develop a high-profile career after winning the award, or the “Oscar love curse,” a superstition regarding the Best Actress categories that foretells an imminent divorce after receiving the statuette. Are there any such jinxes associated with sf/f/h accolades? Are writers’ or artists’ creativity impaired after winning a Hugo or Nebula? Any negative effects of awards in sf at all? 

John Clute

Except for a couple of lifetime awards, and the SFWA’s “Emeritus” award—the word “emeritus” does not mean “worthy”; it means “past it”—awards are so obviously double-edged it need not be said: but hey. 1) They instill mystificatory numen into something written or done, so that what is given an award to is hinged with some small (or large-ish) magic, which sounds fine, but 2) can maggot into writers’s heads when they’re at the raw keyboard, because the magic of the awarded work was not intrinsic to the task of writing but extrinsic, bestowed, delphic. So the writer is cursed by the god.
Gosh we suffer so much…

Elizabeth Hand

That’s a funny idea and worthy of a Connie Willis story. I can’t think of any particular awards jinxes, though for some years any magazine I wrote for seemed doomed to go under. Now of course ALL magazines are going under, so probably there was no causal relationship.

James Patrick Kelly

I wonder if the deafening silence on this question isn’t because we writers know that meditating on the whys and wherefores of awards is an invitation to madness. A couple of months ago, while casting around for a topic for my Asimov’s column, I decided to type 1700 words about the Nebulas. I can’t say that I am a better person—or writer—for it. There can be no question that Nebula Awards have gone to some fine and important work, but I think that it is all that can be reasonably said about them. Consider that Avram Davidson and Bruce Sterling are currently tied for the most nominations without a Nebula Award with ten, followed by Thomas M. Disch with nine and R. A. Lafferty and Maureen McHugh with seven. Or that Iain Banks, Elizabeth Bear, Jonathan Carroll, Kit Reed and Greg Egan have never been nominated. When the Nebula—or any award—purports to honor the best, might some not want to query the FCC with regards to a truth-in-advertising complaint?

I think the ever-insightful John Clute has it right about the real curse: awards awareness can easily become a maggot in a writer’s imagination. Making, or failing to make, a ballot is an arbitrary function of who published what excellent work, where and when in any given year. Nothing any of us can do about that. And winning can have its own pitfalls by creating an illusory standard for subsequent work. Fear the dreaded reviews: “Not the equal of his acclaimed.…” or “Best known for her 1994 award winning novella….” And of course there will be the self-proclaimed fan who sidles up to you at a con and asks, “When are you going to write another like… ?”

Of course, it is unseemly for those who have been showered by the pixie dust of a nomination—and especially a win—to whine about it. So I will stop.

Nancy Kress

What Jim said is exactly right, on every single count. You nailed it, Jim.

Russell Letson

Not about jinxes or the effects of awards on artists:

I’m a civilian in these matters, having never won so much as a raffle, but the whole awards game reminds me of the ten-best/must-read-list game: It’s an almost-inevitable human activity that nevertheless strikes me as somewhere between inadequate and irrelevant as a way of mapping or evaluating something as complex and various as the state of an art. This year’s acting Oscars were a pretty clear example of trying to choose a “best” from a field of excellent but not necessarily comparable performances. The stronger the field, the less sense it makes to single out just one—so in a way, a “recommended” list is a notch or two better as a way of recognizing quality. But the more interesting conversation is a conversation (my bias as a reviewer and critic is showing here) in which something more substantial than the toting-up of thumbs or stars or statuettes occurs.


2) “The Future of the Mind”

I’ve been reading Michio Kaku’s latest popular science book, The Future of the Mind, and in the first section, which focuses on the way the human brain works, he presents a working definition of human consciousness and relates it back to the way we use our prefrontal cortex.

What have famous SF works had to say about the nature of human consciousness, if anything? What visionary or mundane extrapolations about our minds and awareness has SF graced us with? Is the nature of the human mind a core SF preoccupation, a fringe one, or perhaps something in which SF isn’t interested at all? Are there specific subgenres that deal with it more than others?

Siobhan Carroll

To some extent an interest in human consciousness underlies much of SF. For example, if we follow Brian Aldiss’s lead and identify Frankenstein as the first sci-fi novel, we can see this issue explored in its descriptions of the Creature’s awakening (which were informed by the psychological theories of Shelley’s day).

In granting the Creature consciousness, Shelley is also interrogating the relationship between consciousness and identity. Is character the product of biological accident combined with experience, or does something invisible, like a soul, play an essential role? If you can prove a being has consciousness, should it be accorded the same rights and status as a human being? Fear of the “Singularity” arguably gets its first airing in Frankenstein‘s tale of the creation and possible propagation of an artificial being.

Lately I think we’ve seen texts interested in exploring more fluid versions of consciousness and identity. Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, in which an embodied AI used to being a hive-mind struggles to navigate cultures as a singular “human” is a perfect example of this kind of play.

Russell Letson

Just a few semi-random neuron-firings on a somewhat crowded day:

This is one of Greg Egan’s central interests—the opening section of Diaspora is probably his most detailed take on the making of a conscious entity, but his work is full of examinations of the nature of knowing and/or belief and other epistemological matters (my personal favorites are “Reasons to Be Cheerful” and the rather scary “Chaff”, “Mister Volition”, and “Appropriate Love”). While Stapledon is not generally cited as focusing on the psychological/epistemological, I sense Eganish tendrils reaching back in that direction.

Seems to me that consideration of various what/how/how-constructed questions about consciousness arise as soon as we get beyond the scary-metal-man stage of robot stories and/or the scary-monster stage of depictions of aliens. In the latter tradition in particular, writers have long considered what a non-human mode of awareness, shaped by different material conditions and evolutionary paths might be like—which is, of course, a way of thinking about how humans think and why.

Paul Graham Raven

Unusually quiet for a Roundtable ~20 hours in! Possibly because the question is huger than it initially appears… in that I think you can argue successfully for the nature of consciousness as being an important thematic thread in sf since the late Sixties, at least, not to mention a thread which has been tugged in a number of different directions. No such discussion would be complete, f’rex, without mention of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (on which Anaea Lay wrote a rather good overview essay for Clarkesworld last year: <>).

Further than that, though, I’d argue the nature of consciousness is one of the dominant threads in literature, period. Of all the artforms, literature arguably does interiority best, which has led to it being a domain where theories and deconstructions of consciousness can be played out with minimal consequences to anyone beyond the confines of the narrative. The whole High Modernist project—Woolf, Eliot, Joyce, and all that came after—were totally obsessed with consciousness, at least in terms of how it affected perception, shaped experience and so forth.

Sf may have been first genre to really go after the scientific underpinnings of consciousness as raw material, but I’m not sure that necessarily speaks in its favour. Pop-sci writers and talking-head futurologists like Kaku tend to fall prey to sfnal writing strategies, because sf is still an influential precedent in how we talk about science, technology and innovation, but this is profoundly problematic when the sciences in question are themselves new, controversial and politicised. You don’t have to look far these days to see an article—usually somewhere like Wired, or perhaps from the transhumanoid entryists lurking on the io9 editorial team—that refers to a new paper around fMRI brain imaging or something similar that “proves” how “humans are hardwired to do [x]”, where [x] has a tendency to confirm some lingering stereotype of (often gendered) behaviour. Same goes for evo-devo and evo-psych which, while they are legitimate and fascinating sciences, produce the sort of results which are easily twisted by partisan journalism; these are our generation’s Social Darwinisms, controversial discursive spaces around determinism in which the tricky transition from scientific knowledge to public knowledge is played out (for incredibly high stakes, and not simply financial ones).

So while I’ve wandered rather away from your original questions, Alvaro, I think I’d like to finish by talking not about what sf has done with the topic of human consciousness in the past, but what it might do with human consciousness, and similarly contentious scientific domains, in the future. My proposition is that sf, especially the more “lab-lit” end thereof—think Gwyneth Jones’s Life, for instance, my copy of which is currently rocketing its way around the UoS sociology department to cries of joy and wonder, or Stan Robinson’s more close-future work—is the only literary genre that has already developed the tools to enable it to discuss not just the products of science and technological innovation, but the social and political processes that make innovation possible. By way of example: Ramez Naam’s Nexus; leaving aside its literary merits and internal morality (which are separate subjects on which I hold some rather forthright opinions), it does a fair job of both putting radical scientific R&D into a (sort of) plausible framework of economic and political forces (which is to say it deals with the product and the process equally), and of not just introducing the idea of a consciousness-altering technology but interrogating what we think consciousness means.

I’m ever more hesitant to make sweeping normalising statements about what “sf should do,” not least because “sf” is a slippery moving target with fuzzy edges, but I’m very interested in what sf might do, beyond pure entertainment*—and acting as a space within which these sort of debates can be played out at low cost and for low stakes, in a manner which brings the abstractions of research into concrete life within contexts that the average reader can relate to from experience, is (to my mind) the sharpest arrow the written genre has in its quiver at the present time; it’s the one thing that genre cinema and television can never hope to come close to, because of their structural/narrative limitations.

[* My lawyer insists that, given this will probably be posted on The Internets where anyone might read it, I make it very clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with sf—or any other art form, for that matter—being made purely for the purpose of entertainment; I have no desire to pry ray-guns from anyone’s cold dead fingers. Just quit pointing that thing at me, OK? ]

Russell Letson

Playing off Paul’s post, I’d make a distinction between the modernist (or post-Henry-Jamesian) interest in portraying the mind in action (I suppose Molly Bloom’s soliloquy would be one of the defining examples*) and the science-fictional interest in unpicking the nature and composition of what all those interior-monologue/stream-of-consciousness texts are attempting to represent. While Jamesian-Joycean-Woolfian-Faulknerian treatments offer a sense of the texture and content of a mind in motion and perhaps imply something of the processes at work, they don’t necessarily take on questions of, say, what the substrate of consciousness might be or how it might be manipulated or rearranged or recorded or simulated in some other substrate. I recall being struck, 30-some years back, by Peter Alterman’s “Binding Energy” (New Dimensions 9), which took on the challenge of giving a first-person account of an artificial intelligence capable of understanding its own structure. The story depends on mapping then-current computer architectures onto a human-like awareness, but it was one of the few examples I had encountered up to that time in which the AI was more than a metaphor, a monster, or a black box.**

* Well, there’s “My Mother is a Fish”, but that one probably depends on a readership already trained on all its predecessors.

** Full disclosure: Peter’s story was one of the exhibits supporting the thesis of an essay I wrote back then, “Portraits of Machine Consciousness”, arguing that most such portraits amounted to monsters, metaphors, or black boxes. (At least, I think that’s what I argued–my copy is buried somewhere.) Things have changed a lot in SF since 1980.

Rachel Swirsky

It feels like a very broad question, maybe?

I think consciousness is a central question in any fiction that involves uploading people… Greg Egan’s Permutations comes to mind as being a pretty explicit thought experiment that poses lots of answers to the questions of human consciousness.

I think Robert Sawyer is interested in it, with an implausible but interesting turn at the end of his Neanderthal trilogy, and his upload book, too.

I really like the ones that go all out with the far future fantastical, of what we can do with brains when we can manipulate how they perceive time, and what they can do. Charles Stross stuff, “Flowers from Alice” by him and Cory Doctorow. A story I reread recently, “The Philosophy of Ships”, by Caroline Yoachim, where consciousnesses can be blended.

I think these concepts are one reason why people are grooving on Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which considers consciousness and identity and how they collide with artificial intelligence on the one hand, and collective/individualistic notions of self on the other.

There are uplift stories that use animals as a way to consider the boundary of consciousness.

I think it’s a central preoccupation of our genre.

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