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Thursday 21 March 2002

The Clarke Award 2002

By Adam Roberts

  • Paul McAuley, The Secret of Life (HarperCollins 2001)
  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade: the First Arabesk (Simon & Schuster: Earthlight 2001
  • Connie Willis, Passage (HarperCollins 2001)
  • Justina Robson, Mappa Mundi (Macmillan 2001)
  • Peter F Hamilton, Fallen Dragon (Macmillan 2001)
  • Gwyneth Jones, Bold as Love (Orion: Gollancz 2001)

This year’s Clarke shortlist names six excellent novels. Whichever titles wins the prize — and I have heard people argue cogently for all of them — will deserve the accolades, the publicity and the cheque for £2002 drawn on Sir Arthur Clarke’s own bank account. But reading the shortlist this year makes me think that there is something wrong somewhere in the world of SF. If this shortlist is indicative of a drift in contemporary attitudes to ‘what is best in SF’ then it seems to me a drift with alarming implications.

This commentary, in other words, is by way of polemic rather than conventional review. My worry, prompted by reading the Clarke panel’s choice of last year’s best six, is that SF is becoming almost ashamed of itself. Or to put it another way: is an SF novel most likely to be lauded, praised by critics and prize-awarding bodies if it resembles classic SF in as few points as possible?

It has been remarked before that the Clarke judges often award the prize to very un-Clarke like books. It’s true that Sir Arthur himself never did and probably never could write a novel like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Bruce Sterling’s Distraction or China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (superb novels though those were). It’s also fair to say that no novel like Clarke’s The City and the Stars, Childhood’s End or 2001 has ever won the prize. Of course it may be that no such novel has triumphed because the judges have never found a book of this sort that had the aesthetic and literary merit to win the prize. But it’s hard to shake the anxiety that it is just much harder for a book of this sort, however well done, to impress the judges — that it is easier for a novelist to shine if she or he hugs the shore of the mainstream.

The fact that Clarke sponsors the prize does not mean, of course, that only books written in the Clarke-idiom should be considered for it. After John Campbell’s death, and the inauguration of the John Campbell Award, there was a mighty pother in the SF community when Barry Malzberg won the first of the prizes. Many complained Malzberg’s avant-garde, tangily pessimistic, iconoclastic fictions were located at the aesthetic antipode of Campbell’s can-do hard-SF tech-fantasies. Defenders of the decision asserted that the prize ought to go to the ‘best book’, not be limited to titles on an ideologically determined list — a very reasonably position, but fully commutable. It would be exactly as bad to find ourselves bound by the ideological position that no book written in the Clarke idiom could ever win named for Clarke.

Saying this casts no aspersions on the quality of fiction on the Clarke shortlist itself. There is nothing wrong with mainstream fiction, nothing wrong with technothrillers, with alt-history and magic-realist fantasies, nothing wrong (even) with that restrictive little genre called ‘mainstream/literary fiction’. But I hope we can agree that there is, by the same token, nothing wrong with Science Fiction itself. My fear is that many of the things that are right about it — including its imaginative possibilities, its poetics of strangeness and difference, its mind-expanding, galaxy-spanning, blood-pumping excitement — seem to have become unwelcome visitors to the feast. The irony is that people may be turning their backs on these things in an effort to save the genre.

Classic SF is neglected, and is forced to live in its own self-regarding ghetto (runs one argument) because it is seen as being adolescent and escapist. ‘Real’ literature is the antithesis of this; it is grown-up and engaged with the concerns of ‘real life’. Therefore we must laud — and we must write — that sort of fiction that deals with ‘adult’ concerns: grown-ups, the school run, the price of fish, extra-marital affairs. London not Mars; Muslims not aliens; Ian McEwan not Jack Vance. A few token SF twists may be inserted, but the overall mix ought to be ‘serious’, ‘adult’, ‘proper’, in a word ‘mainstream’.

On this year’s Clarke list only two books are unambiguously in the SF bracket, and one of those two is nevertheless symptomatic of its talented author’s drift towards the mainstream. Only Peter Hamilton’s novel, Fallen Dragon, is SF with all its heart and all its mind, a novel not ashamed of the heritage of the genre. It ranges boldly and colourfully from star to star, from human to alien adventure, war and excitement. Interstellar corporations attempt to retrieve their investment and profits by raiding settled worlds with tech-ed up mercenaries; the inhabitants of one planet resist, aided by a mysterious alien entity, in a bright space-operetta meld. Hamilton’s book is not only the most Clarke-like of the list; it is the only Clarke-like title.

Paul McAuley’s The Secret of Life is also recognisably SF. A virus from Mars is infecting Earth’s oceans; McAuley’s research-biologist heroine travels to and from the Red planet searching for the secret of this virus life, and on her return is forced to go on the run through Mexico and the USA, staying one step ahead of various shadowy organisations. But this is a near-future tale, and much of it is rooted in subtle variations of present-day life: present-day biological research, present-day political machinations, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it occupies a place on the McAuley career trajectory that sees him moving away from the weird far-future of his superb “Confluence” trilogy to his most recent book, Whole Wide World, another near-future technothriller which was reviewed in the UK as a straight crime novel.

McAuley is perfectly entitled to take his career wherever he chooses of course, and he wouldn’t be the first highly talented British SF writer to defect to the mainstream (J G Ballard and Michael Moorcock have beaten a path before him). The point is not the books McAuley is interested in writing now; it is in the fact that none of his three “Confluence” books merited a Clarke nomination, where Secret of Life — good, but not as good — does. The point is the logic shaping the panel’s choice, and that logic is significant, I think, because it is also the background assumption of a wide swathe of SF readers.

The other four books on the shortlist are similarly near-future or present-day; each of them could be mistaken for, or could (if the publishers so chose) be marketed as a mainstream novel, a technothriller, or a crime book. Connie Willis’s excellent Passage lacks SF elements altogether; the book’s hero and heroine are researching Near Death Experiences in a modern-day hospital, just like researchers do in the real world. Their intriguing discoveries are related in a fiction part hospital-procedural, part meditation on the sinking of the Titanic. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Pashazade is set in an alternate-history Alexandria, in a world in which Germany and the Ottoman Empire won the First World War. But this particular alternate-world does not stray far from present-day realities, and the cyber-enhancements his protagonist uses to work through the book’s exciting whodunit plotline are tomorrow’s news, plausible technothriller gadgets. Similarly Justina Robson’s superb Mappa Mundi, another novel set in the very near future in which most of the gadgets on offer are already available in your local electronics superstore, and only the central mcguffin (a machine for altering subjectivity, in development as the novel proceeds) functions as a ‘novum’. Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love also has, at its margins, SF-style gadgets, but the bulk of this extraordinary, beautiful near-future fantasy has to do with the actualities of contemporary English politics, mixed strikingly with the world of popular music. The vibe of this novel is of a 1960s music scene, mixed with a 1980s passion for open-air music festivals and a 1990s concern with ethnic diversity. The total makes for a beautiful, challenging novel; but very much at the ‘now’ edge of the SF bracket.

This near-mainstream shortlist might have seemed less anomalous in a year in which good SF was thin on the ground, but it so happens that 2001 was an exceptionally strong year for SF published in Britain. Several of the list’s absentees positively shout out for recognition. I say this not to bicker with the Clarke judges, who are as entitled to pick their favourite six as any of us; the point, to reiterate, is to interrogate the sort of SF gaining critical and prize-panel credence these days.

So, for example, Ian McDonald’s bizarrely beautiful Ares Express is, for my money, the best book of the year, SF or other category. McDonald writes so well, and his angle on the interactions between normality and strangeness is endlessly fertile, comic and poetic by turns. But nobody would mistake Ares Express for a mainstream novel; it is set on a lushly bizarre future Mars and is populated with a fantastical array of strange characters and features. John Clute’s long-awaited novel Appleseed put some people off with its sheer difficulty, but for those who persevered it revealed depths and beauties beneath the fireworks of its prose. Again, it was a novel wholeheartedly SF. Al Reynold’s Chasm City is a better book than his (last year shortlisted) Revelation Space; a wonderful space opera of Clarkean scope and imaginative range. Gene Wolfe’s In Green’s Jungles is the second volume of a major work that will, surely, be read and discussed for years to come; another far-future novel, literate and allusive but with a continuing sense of the fantastic and the sublime. Wil McCarthy’s The Collapsium (like Wolfe’s novel, published in 2000 in the USA but 2001 in Britain) is a sparkling, mind-expanding far-future space adventure, a book that reawakens the sense-of-wonder in the most jaded SF palate. Steve Baxter’s Origin, the conclusion to his “Manifold” trilogy, was the most Clarkean book published last year: a genuinely mind-expanding, thought-provoking Galactic-scale exploration of the implication of Fermi’s paradox (if aliens exist, why aren’t they here yet?).

I’d like here, rather clumsily (but I can’t think of a more elegant way of doing it) to insert a personal note. My own novel On is, similarly, a non-realist out-and-out SF book that didn’t make the shortlist; but by way of keeping my own grapes from souring I will concede, gladly and openly, that it is neither as good as the shortlisted novels, nor as good as the novels I’ve just mentioned (a judgment confirmed by various reviewers). My gripe here isn’t personal, except insofar as I am personally interested in where SF goes in the next few years.

The argument does not pitch its tent on the field of ‘personal taste’, concerning which non disputandum est as the poet once said. My argument may look like it amounts to nothing more than ‘personally I prefer these books to those’, to which the judges might reply ‘but we prefer those books to these, and moreover we are on the panel and you’re not’. That’s fair enough, although I think I’m suggesting something different. I don’t doubt but the Clarke panel genuinely think their six books better books, and better SF, than the six titles I mentioned. That is their prerogative. But if that is indeed what they thought then it gives us a sense of what in their opinion constitutes ‘better SF’. Better SF, it implies, is closer to mainstream fiction; it is present-day or near-future; it concerns adults doing adult things. It is Gravity’s Rainbow not Robert Heinlein, Solaris rather than Star Wars.

There is an unspoken anxiety behind this debate, I suspect: the fear that SF is infantile. This is the old worry that the genre manifests the wish-fulfilment fantasies of insecure adolescent (boys especially); the significance of those standard props of rocket-ships and enormous guns, of lantern-jawed space captains defeating repulsive aliens in glorious battle — you know the caricature. But we need be in thrall to this exploded stereotype no longer. We don’t write SF like this any more. It is true that the weirder branches of New Wave SF were superseded in the 1970s by a more child-friendly mass-culture variety: Spielberg’s E.T. and Lucas’s Star Wars inaugurating a new phase in mass SF culture. And it is true that for many people those two films are the villains of the piece, often accused of single- (or double-)handedly dumbing-down the genre and turning it into a puerile popcorn frippery.

Writers worried by this development sometimes overcompensate. In an effort to make their books unambiguously adult, dammit, adult-I-tell-you they pile on the sex, the violent death, the profanity, all those cyberpunk R-rating conventions (I’m not talking about the Clarke list when I say this, but you recognise the type). But this is self-defeating. There’s nothing wrong with childishness, in its proper aesthetic balance. Gulliver’s Travels, Dickens novels, Tolkien’s fantasies, Le Guin’s Earthsea, all these masterpieces achieve greatness by embracing their childish side. Children have a more intense and purer imaginative capacity than we jaded adults; read Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ if you’ve forgotten this essential truth. The problem with George Lucas is not that he is puerile, but that he is aesthetically really quite limited. Spielberg, on the other hand, is a genius (I wouldn’t really trust anybody who thought otherwise) because of, not despite, the depth of his attachment to his inner child.

I think SF should be judged by the best standards of fiction more generally conceived; that we shouldn’t ‘make allowances’ for the genre, we shouldn’t let inferior style, structure, character, dialogue, theme or effect go by on the nod just because a book is SF. The future of SF depends upon SF novels being written to the very highest standard. But I also think better SF is more science-fictiony SF. I think the mainstream novel is by and large an exhausted, backward-looking, unimaginative mode of art. I think that SF makes for the greatest art if it is uninhibited in its imaginative scope. I think what gives SF its greatest aesthetic and ideological bite is the encounter with difference, and that this encounter is best dramatised in a thoroughly different idiom, not a pseudo-realist present-day London, New York or Tokyo — the limited but popular sub-genre ‘realist fiction’ covers those sorts of representation perfectly well. Above all I think SF writers have a duty, if I can put it in so pompous a way, to inhabit SF idioms fully, in an unembarrassed and envelope-pushing manner. I think we want more Jack Vance and less Ian McEwan.

These thoughts take their start from the Clarke shortlist, but, clearly, range beyond it. And prizes should stir up a little controversy, or they’re not doing their job properly. The prize itself is less important than the fact that people should be talking about, and most of all buying and reading, the titles in contention. Indeed, one of the disappointments of the Clarke is that, though prestigious, it does not enhance sales of the winning title in the way a Pulitzer, Prix Goncourt, or Booker Prize does. Maybe a little Clarke-centred controversy would be a good thing; and most assuredly the Clarke Award deserves a prestige and a recognition on par with those other three prizes. The questions are: how do we achieve that aim? And what sort of SF do we want to position at the vanguard of the genre?

Adam Roberts is the author of two SF novels, Salt (2000) and On (2001), and of Science Fiction (2000), a volume in the New Critical Idiom series published by Routledge. He is a lecturer in English at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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