The 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist: An Imaginary Judgement
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
There are lots of great pieces already about the Clarke Award. Strange Horizons has done a round-up or two that highlights some of this year's discussion. I think Chris Gerwel's piece comparing the Clarke discussion to the Hugo discussion is particularly interesting. To brutally summarise what I took out of it: for the Hugo awards, people blame the award. For the Clarke, people blame everything else.
I've already written about the Hugo awards, my imaginary ballot and why I, as a non-voter, need to shoulder a share of the 'blame' - although I do generally sympathise with the conclusion that there are some greater issues with the award as well.
For the Clarke, although I do agree that the world (that is, the universe of UK publishing) is badly flawed - and, for this discussion that means, "not publishing enough books by female authors" - I simply don't see how that excuses the judges from somehow generating an all-male shortlist.
Before I get further in, please understand that I think the Arthur C. Clarke Award is the most prestigious prize in science fiction and, without a doubt, it does an amazing job of promoting science fiction to genre and non-genre readers. I like the fact that, not only does it provoke conversations like this, but it also encourages them. If I come across as more critical of the Clarke than I am of other awards, it is because I hold it to a higher standard.
I have read - and appreciated - many of the arguments that have been presented. That is: publishers, agents, readers, reviewers, authors, editors and retailers are all to blame for the lack of a single female author on the shortlist.
Yet... I still hold the judges responsible.
Here's my reasoning:
1) The judges are "free to call in novels which they consider eligible for submission" (Clarke Award). At any point during the year, any judge could have asked any publisher to submit any book by any female author - or simply put out a blanket request for more titles from female authors. Waiting until the list is announced and then pointing the finger at the rest of the publishing industry is a missed opportunity.
2) The number of books by female authors submitted wasn't great, but it was more than zero. Yet some were excluded because they were "quite some way into fantasy" (Liz Williams). Indeed, a lot of the 'blame the system' responses have been focusing on the fact that most female authors are simply writing 'too fantasy'.
"Science fiction" isn't defined by the award itself and the border between science fiction and fantasy (if it even exists) has always been murky. The Clarke has previously recognised Zoo City, Declare, The Waters Rising, Monsters of Men, Retribution Falls, The City & The City, The Separation, Perdido Street Station, etc. etc.
Taking a rigid view of what constitutes 'sf', a definition that conflicts earlier itirations of the prize, at the exclusion of female authors, is a troubling prioritisation. The judges are free to define the genre as they see fit each year, but ultimately they're still accountable for what they exclude.
3) Setting aside my own personal likes or dislikes, other awards have recognised several of the books that were submitted: Alif the Unseen (The Women's Prize), Blackout (Hugo Award), The Method and vN (The Kitschies), Pure (Alex; New York Times' Notable Book) and Boneshaker (Hugo again, Locus Best Novel). (And, circling back to the first point, the submissions list didn't include award-winning or nominated books like The Panopticon or Maggot Moon.)
This is a slightly dodgy point to make, as it certainly isn't the responsibility of the Clarke to reflect (or even consider) the decisions of any other award. Still, and this is simply a statement of fact, other prizes - some with very similar remits - have found science fiction books by female authors to be worthy of shortlisting. Or better.
So... without a doubt, yes... absolutely the system is hosing female authors from start to finish, and this should be a rallying cry for everyone involved to shape up and do their bit, from readers to publishers. But, however much I appreciate and sympathise with the difficulty of the judges' decision... they're still the ones who made it. I have great faith in the Clarke Award, to the point where I now expect it to provide leadership to the rest of the genre. In this respect, however, I can't help but be a little disappointed.
And that's what I think about that.
Now, as a newly-appointed imaginary judge, I need to evaluate the shortlist that I have in front of me.
First - I like all of these books - hell, I own all of these books. But at this stage in the process, I've got to find reasons why five of them aren't going to win, which necessitates some nit-picking and flaw-finding.
Nod by Adrian Barnes. A debut, from a tiny press, and, annoyingly, the only book that wasn't also submitted to The Kitschies. I say 'annoyingly' as Nod is a corker, and, win or not, the Clarke judges did everyone a favour by bringing it to readers' attention.
Why win: It is Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet with more plot, Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain with better prose, James Smythe's The Testimony with tighter focus, Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital with, er, brevity. Nod is about the big, inexplicable collapse, but oriented solely on one pair of fascinating characters.
Why not: It is meandering, and I'm still not wholly sure what I've just read. The prose can veer into pretention - I almost dropped it after the first three pages, although I'm glad I stuck it out.
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. Also on the BSFA shortlist. Dark Eden is a story about abandoned, inbred colonists on an alien planet. Although overtly young adult, with the teen protagonists, it doesn't shy from tackling adult themes.
Why win: Exceptional world-building and, more importantly, Dark Eden has a fascinating focus on group dynamics - think Lord of the Flies on a frosty alien world. Well-composed as well, with continuous, page-turning tension. Explores the concept of the 'chosen one', as well as ideas of leadership. Political, daring and extremely good at creating a completely 'alien' atmosphere.
Why not: Despite many opportunities, I'm not sure Dark Eden ever does the surprising. Characters secretly question the 'chosen one', but then follow along anyway. The supporting characters - including the 'love interest' - are just that. Moreover, decisions are always difficult, always agonised over... and invariably turn out to be right. I wanted more frailty out of this book - too often it would feint towards the unexpected then return to the more conventional narrative resolution.
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. Also won The Kitschies' Red Tentacle, so it should come as no surprise that I'm a little fond of this book.
Why win: Great characters, utterly fascinating world, sprawling, wildly ambitious narrative that spans genres, conventions and narrative tropes. A book with everything thrown at it and, somehow, it all sticks. About everyday heroism and wild flights of fancy; beautiful language, hilariously funny, brilliantly rewarding. Discusses the relationships between technology and society and craft and art. Respects the reader's intelligence and never predictable. Inspiring - the sort of book that makes you love the world around you and go searching for secrets and wonders. I, uh, like this book a lot.
Why not: The ending is a little too neat. The 'arch' prose isn't for everyone. One of the female characters isn't well-developed (although the other is probably the best on all the shortlist).
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Another apocalypse - but this time a disease has wiped out everyone, and our protagonist (plus plane plus dog) makes a life for himself in an empty world. Heller's written non-fiction (unsurprisingly with an outdoorsy, ecological focus), but this is his first foray into SF.
Why win: Big science fictional idea is mere backdrop - all about the central character. Beautiful, beautiful nature writing, with a landscape that comes to life and a lot of thoughtful contemplation of how humanity/nature interact (or, more precisely, briefly intersect). A poetic sort of prose that doesn't go over the top. Has a dog (who isn't a sucker for that?). LikeThe Road, which doesn't hurt.
Why not: A bit old-fashioned. Ultimately, this is a cosy catastrophe about a man becoming a Man, making do after the end of the world and learning to defend hearth and home. Without getting spoilery, this contains perhaps the worst gender relationship of all the shortlists - really not pleased by that. Like The Road, but not quite in the same league.
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. Hope Morrison is faced with the choice of taking The Fix or not - a cure that genetically 'perfects' her unborn child. Her refusal, initially on impulse, escalates, and Hope battles social and political pressure to do the 'right' thing.
Why win: The first half is exceptional. It is packed with mounting tension as Hope is in a situation that grows increasingly Kafkaesque. Mr. MacLeod takes the reader on every step of the journey, making each scenario horrifyingly believable. The sort of book that makes you re-read the newspaper and get twitchy. Extremely contemporary and very brave, tackles issues head on, and uses fiction to express them in a way that non-fiction couldn't. All the minor characters are brilliant.
Why not: The second half is bonkers. In order to make the character objectively right – which is arguably unnecessary – there's some pseudoscientific, quasi-fantastic goofiness. The tension dissipates, to be replaced by nostalgic scenery and an action-packed conclusion that's the yomping equivalent of a car chase.
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I feel like I'm writing or talking about this a lot recently - the only book on the BSFA, Clarke and Hugo shortlists.
Why win: "Sensawunda" (incidentally, I loathe that word) spectactular that flings itself across worlds. Occasionally astounding prose and correctly-left-thinking progressive idealism. Inspiring and detailed future-building. String-of-pearls narrative with one breathtaking scenario after the next.
Why not: I cannot, for the life of me, ever remember the name of a character in this book. Not sure it has depth as much as breadth - scale as a substitute for intimate focus. My interpretation is that the discussion surrounding it stems not from it being deliberately problematic but from the fact that characters aren't well-developed and some scenarios are ill-considered: a microcosm for the book as a whole. Too epic for its own good?
So where have I come out?
Angelmaker would be my pick (quelle surprise!), but also by a healthy margin. My second choice would be Nod and, following that, Intrusion. After that - well, they are all very good books. Generally speaking, it says a lot about my relative respect for the two awards that my runaway Hugo pick, 2312, would barely crack my top five for the Clarke.
I'm not going to argue the shortlist selection any more than I have already. I've just come in as an imaginary judge at this stage, after all. But... is this list so strong? Is it exceptional? Or is it merely solid?
It seems an understandable result after the flaying the judges took last year, but this list feels safe. The only two 'risks' are the two that are furthest from 'core SF' - and, for me, those are the best on the list by leaps (Nod) and bounds (Angelmaker).
I hesitate to say this, but some part of me misses last year's wackiness. Certainly on a book-by-book basis, only Embassytown and Jessie Lamb hold their own, but, as a list, the prize felt more like it was trying to broaden the definition of science fiction, not defend it. This is a list of six good books - I wouldn't begrudge any one of them walking away with the prize - but I can't help thinking that, as a reflection of science fiction's potential, this could've been even better.