Clarke Comment

Rounding up the reactions to the shortlist (aside from those in the comments to that post): first, there’s been plenty of chatter on Twitter; second, Alison Flood in the Guardian has comment from Chair of Judges Paul Billinger and Gwyneth Jones:

The full panoply of science fiction – from space opera to parallel worlds to dystopian futures – is represented on the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke awards for the best SF novel of the year, announced this morning.
[...]
“It’s a very strong selection and quite varied, reflecting science fiction publishing in this country,” said chair of judges Paul Billinger. “There are novels from people well-known in the genre – Miéville, Robinson and Roberts – but what they have written is not perhaps standard SF; they don’t have space ships, but these books are clearly SF.”
[...]
[Jones] decided to write the novel, she said, because she’s loved Alexandre Dumas’s original since she was a child. “It’s definitely not the first time this has been done in SF, but I felt there was room for a 21st century version, with a female ‘Count'; and I had a lot of fun with that idea,” she said. “Space opera is also, ironically, a great place to showcase the big, strange things that are going on in real-world science. In Spirit that means the concept of information space, and the really ‘out there’ idea that you can get one set of information to end up somewhere else, somehow without traversing the space/time between. Admittedly, so far this has only been done in the lab with a photon or two at a time, but I did not make it up.”

The award was originally set up after a grant from Clarke himself, with the aim of promoting British science fiction. “It’s good to have a judged award,” said Jones. “It gives unlikely candidates, and outstanding works from small presses, a chance to shine, which otherwise they might not get. And it’s good, particularly for an inward-turned genre like SF, to have an award that brings in a breath of fresh air. When a highly regarded mainstream writer is ‘up for the Clarke’ (such as Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Amitav Ghosh, and this year Marcel Theroux) hopefully that inspires SF fans to take the bold step of reading something different.”

And there’s a guest blog from Award Administrator Tom Hunter on the SFX blog:

But how to know why particular books are chosen when the deliberations are kept secret and the shortlist left to float alone like an alien monolith awaiting the attention of SF fandom?

Well, the short answer is that the silent monolith is a deliberate big what if?

It’s a precursor to debate and an invitation to speculation. In other words, it’s the beginning of a shared conversation about our genre.

The conversation starts right here at SFX by the way, and thanks to the team for being our media partners and helping to spread the word.

If you’re lucky enough to be at Eastercon this weekend, then I also recommend checking out the infamous Not The Clarke Award panel where a team of pundits attempt to unravel the judges’ decisions and have a punt on the potential winner.

I can’t underline the recommendation of the Not the Clarke Award panel strongly enough, by the way; it’s always an Eastercon highlight. And if you’re wondering who the judges are, there’s a photo at SF Crowsnest: excellent pose from Francis Spufford.

Joe Gordon comments at the Forbidden Planet blog:

Theroux and Wooding are authors I’ve not had the pleasure of reading yet, but China, Gwyneth, Adam and Stan are all exceptionally fine authors who I’ve recommended many times to readers searching for quality SF. Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville, Adam Roberts and Kim Stanley Robinson have all been nominated for previous Clarkes, with Gwyneth and China having won (Gwyneth in 2002 for Bold as Love, China twice, for Perdido Street Station in 2001 and Iron Council in 2005). I must say though that as with the BSFA shortlist I’m really surprised not to see a single author from Orbit (one of the biggest SF publishers) making the final list, but it isn’t an SF&F awards list until we have something to start debating, is it?

Orbit may be one of the biggest genre publishers, but I have to say I perceive them as stronger on the fantasy side than than the sf side. Checking the submissions, there were three Orbit titles in the running this year: Red Claw by Philip Palmer, Seeds of Earth by Mike Cobley, and This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams. Going purely by reviews (I’ve read none of them), I can’t say I’m hugely surprised none of them are on the shortlist. Meanwhile, as the Bookseller points out, Gollancz (not for the first time) nabbed half the shortlist slots.

Martin Lewis offers his odds:

The City & The City by China Mieville – 2/1
Spirit by Gwyneth Jones – 4/1
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts – 6/1
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson – 9/1
Far North by Marcel Theroux – 9/1
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding – 12/1

As I commented on the shortlist post, I think almost any of the books could win it (Wooding does strike me as the outside bet). Which means I think Martin underestimates the chances of Galileo’s Dream and Far North, in particular. Still, he’s not the only one to think Mieville the favourite.

Ex-judge Graham Sleight’s thoughts can be found at the Locus blog:

1) This is not one of the Clarke shortlists that occasionally emerges and prompts everyone to question the sanity of the judges. Though there are books I’d personally have argued should go on the list – most obviously Paul McAuley’s Gardens of the Sun – there’s no question that this is a pretty good representation of the best sf published in the UK.

2) The list does, however, underline the degree to which the sf published in the UK and the US has diverged. Unless I’m missing a trick, only three of these books (the Mieville, Robinson, and Theroux) are seeing US publication. And hardly any of the US-written books perceived as being the best of 2009 (eg Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Priest’s Boneshaker, Marusek’s Mind Over Ship – just for a start) are getting UK editions.

Both good observations (there are several more, if you click through).

Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books is planning to read the shortlist, as is James at Big Dumb Object, and David Hebblethwaite:

This is an interesting miz of books. I plan to read and review the entire shortlist (I’ve read three already; reviews are linked above, as will the others be), so I’ll have more to say as time goes on, but here’s an initial reaction:

The book I’m most pleased to see on there is Yellow Blue Tibia. It has met with mixed reactions, but I found it a stunning read. The City & the City is a novel which has generated much debate, and is very much open to interpretation (perhaps more so than any of Miéville’s previous works); I like it, but I don’t think it quite works. I didn’t like Galileo’s Dream as much, but I know there’s more to it than I was able to see.

And Nic Clarke, at Eve’s Alexandria:

The general feeling seems to be that this is a solid shortlist; I agree. It’s not the most adventurous list the Clarke has ever produced – but, on the plus side, there’s no obvious candidate for this year’s What Were They Thinking prize (see, previously: this, this, or – ack – this).

I’ve read three already: the Jones, the Mieville and the Theroux. All are strong contenders. I reviewed Spirit last year – a feminist The Count of Monte Cristo in space! – and longer considerations of the other two will follow in the next week or so. Post-apocalyptic loner-in-the-landscape tale Far North I liked a lot, once I got over the comparions with The Road; The City & the City, meanwhile, has a brilliant central conceit and provides much food for thought (and debate), but is let down by being hitched to an unremarkable thriller novel.

Of the rest – which, again, I’ll review here once I’ve read them – I’m most looking forward to Yellow Blue Tibia, which has had generally excellent reviews. Galileo’s Dream is a doorstep about intellectual history, although it sounds less of a slog than Anathem was last year; I’ve read two of Robinson’s previous novels (one rather good – review in the works – and one rather annoying), and I live with a die-hard Robinson fan, so that should be interesting, one way or another! The Wooding is apparently a fun romp with more than a passing resemblence to Firefly, which sounds like a perfectly acceptable way to round out a shortlist.

So it does indeed seem to be the case that the main Clarke Award controversy so far is an absence of controversy. We’ll have to see if that holds up once people have actually read the books.

EDIT: at Omnivoracious, Jeff VanderMeer has rounded up comments from Mieville, Roberts and Robinson:

Asked about the general response to The City & the City, also a Nebula finalist, Mieville said, “I’ve been incredibly happy about the response to the book for a bunch of reasons. It’s very different from my other stuff and one of the things, like loads of writers, that I’d like to do, is try writing in different styles and voices, traditions and forms, so to get good responses to something quite different, that there’s no reason my existing readers should have liked, feels like a real vote of trust in me, which I find moving. It makes me fired up to try all kinds of different things. I am increasingly excited by trying to write all kinds of different stuff in different voices, and hope readers have the patience to stick with me. Also because the book was a present to my mother, which makes it personally important to me, it’s affecting to have it received well.”

And some out-takes on his blog.

The 2010 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

So. This year’s judges — for the British Science Fiction Association, Chris Hill and Jon Courtenay Grimwood; for the Science Fiction Foundation, Rhiannon Lassiter and Francis Spufford; and for SF Crowsnest.com Paul Skevington — have deliberated and decided. Forty-one titles have become six. Among the six nominees for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award there are two previous winners, and two first-timers; five Brits and five men. Two of the novels also appear on this year’s BSFA Best Novel Award shortlist. Settings range from seventeenth-century Italy to twentieth-century Russia to worlds distant in time and space: which is the sort of variety you want from a science fiction award, isn’t it?

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 28th April, at a ceremony held on the opening night of the Sci-Fi London film festival. Get reading!

Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Paul Kincaid, for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Karen Joy Fowler, for The Guardian
Reviewed by Nic Clarke, for SFX
Reviewed by Lisa Tuttle, for The Times
Reviewed by Duncan Lawie, for The Zone
Reviewed by Cheryl Morgan
Reviewed by Ian Sales
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books

The City & The City by China Mieville (Macmillan)

Reviewed by Michael Moorcock for The Guardian
Reviewed by Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Robert Hanks for The Telegraph
Reviewed by Andrew McKie for The Spectator
Reviewed by Martin Lewis for The SF Site
Reviewed by Thomas M Wagner for SF Reviews.net
Reviewed by Helen Zaltzman for The Observer
Revieed by Eric Gregory for IROSF
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books
Discussion between Dan Hartland and Niall Harrison

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Reviewed by John Clute for Sci-Fi Wire
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum and Michael Froggatt for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Adrienne Martini for Locus
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
Reviewed by Lisa Tuttle for The Times
Reviewed by Adam Whitehead
Reviewed by Catherynne M Valente
Reviewed by Rich Puchalsky
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Cheryl Morgan
Reviewed by Shigekuni
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books
Reviewed by Niall Harrison

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperVoyager)

Reviewed by John Clute for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Adam Roberts for The Guardian
Reviewed by Roz Kaveney for The Independent
Reviewed by Robin Durie for ReadySteadyBook
Reviewed by Paul di Filippo for Barnes & Noble review
Reviewed by Greg L Johnson for the SF Site
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling Books

Far North by Marcel Theroux (Faber & Faber)

Reviewed by M John Harrison for The Guardian
Reviewed by Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Lydia Millet for the Washington Post
Reviewed by Brandon Robshaw for The Independent
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont for The Zone
Reviewed by Tim Martin for The Telegraph
Reviewed by Jeff VanderMeer for The New York Times
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Niall Harrison for IROSF
Reviewed by Shigekuni
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Michael Levy for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Alice at Sandstorm Reviews
Reviewed by Adam Whitehead at The Wertzone
Reviewed by Simon Appleby at the Bookgeeks
Reviewed by Joe Abercrombie
Reviewed by Tamaranth
Reviewed by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling books
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Reviewed by Niall Harrison

Miscellany
Initial reactions
The trouble with shortlists by Tom Hunter
What do we mean by “best”?
Shortlist overview by David Hebblethwaite
Shortlist overview by Amanda at Floor-to-Ceiling Books
Shortlist overview by Niall Harrison
A poll

Previous shortlist roundups
2009
2008
2007

A Matter of Links

Posted in SF Links. Tags: . 4 Comments »

One More Survey Post

Survey coverFor now, at least. This is just a quick note to say three things. First, all BSFA members should now have received their copy of the survey; if you’re a member and you haven’t, please let us know. Second, in addition to the five survey responses I’ve posted here this week, you can also read Tony Ballantyne’s responses, which he’s posted on his blog, here. And third, I’ve created a blog page with details about the survey, including links to the available author responses, the panel discussion from last year’s AGM event, and the text of both my introduction to this book, and Paul Kincaid’s introduction to the original survey. As and when any discussions or reviews of the book pop up, I’ll probably add links to them, as well, but more importantly: do send your comments and disagreements; I’m aiming to run all such in the summer Vector, along with (if all goes well) a transcript of the panel at Eastercon.

BSFA Survey Response: Richard Morgan

Survey coverRichard Morgan is the author of six novels: the cyberpunkish Takeshi Kovacs trilogy beginning with the Philip K Dick Award-winning Altered Carbon (2002); standalone near-future satire Market Forces (2004), which won the John W Campbell Memorial Award; Black Man (2007), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award, and fantasy The Steel Remains (2008). All are notable for their engagement with masculinity, and with forms of oppression; also for being violent, action-driven thrillers. He has also written two volumes of Black Widow for Marvel Comics. Morgan was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and his responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

Yes, I do. I can rattle on about noir crossover and slipstream with the best of them, but in the end, what I’m writing is quite recognizably SF (and more recently Sword and Sorcery), and pretending otherwise would just be deeply sad!

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

Well, take your pick – space travel, alien worlds, dystopian futures, jacked up gene engineered super-soldiers, exotic weaponry and tech … It’s all in there somewhere.

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

It’s funny because I don’t remember ever actually making that choice at a conscious level. I think it was simply a case of writing the kind of books I wanted to read. At the time I took my first tottering steps towards writing publishable material, I was also wedded well and truly to the SF&F genre. I just never thought to change. And to be honest, SF&F is still my first love, even now. There’s really no other type of fiction out there that gives you the same latitudes of discretion with regard to the reality you’re creating.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

A pervasive sense of cynicism and despair, maybe?

To be honest, I think the overall flavour of my work probably owes far more to American templates than it does British. Noir is largely a US invention (with a little focal help from the French), violent anti-heroes have had their modern testing bed in American fiction since at least the thirties, and so really has science fiction as a mass market dynamic. And what’s often forgotten these days is how dynamically subversive all of that stuff was. Currently, we have this perception of American SF as a bit staid and conformist/conservative, while the UK is the powerhouse of brutal malcontent genre work full of edgy political and cultural content. But most of us included in that stable are actually mining the rich seams of style and subject matter laid down by former practitioners on the other side of the Atlantic – guys like Sheckley, Heinlein, Bradbury, Bester, Pohl and Kornbluth, and of course the whole cyberpunk crew, who in turn owe a huge debt to old style American noir. I don’t think there’s anything specifically British in my influences that can stack up against all that.

5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

No – though British protagonists have, a couple of times. I think my problem with British settings is that I find most of the UK just too comfy to be useful as landscape. An American once said to me, on the subject of wilderness, Yeah, you guys don’t really have any of that, do you. The whole country is just like this big park owned by the Queen. A little harsh, maybe, but I know what he means. Give me the deserts of Arizona, the mountains of the north Norwegian coast, Istanbul and the Bosphorus, the Peruvian altiplano or western Australia’s coral coast; there’s an exotic appeal to these places, a drama of place even before you start to tell a story located there. And then, of course, there’s off-world, which is even better because it can be anything you want it to be. What I’m interested in exploring in my fiction is human intensity, whether that be via a dynamic plot or desperate characters or both. And I find that intense landscapes or exotic cities work best as backdrop to that kind of story-telling. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t tell an intense, dynamic tale in a British setting – many authors do, and I’ve even done it once myself – but for me the inspiration of place just doesn’t hit as often or as hard on my home turf.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

In genre, William Gibson, Poul Anderson, Bob Shaw, M. John Harrison and Robert Sheckley, probably in about that order. Out of genre, the whole of the American hard-boiled crime writing tradition right back to Chandler and Hammett, but most notably Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet and American Tabloid, and James Lee Burke’s early Dave Robicheaux novels. To that you’d also have to add the influence of cinema, but that covers everything from Bladerunner to Jesus of Montreal, and it’s very hard to play favourites.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Not really – I’ve been lucky in both cases to get publishing houses and editors who are quite content to let me do my own thing and apply only the necessary minimum of professional oversight when the manuscript comes in. I keep hearing horror stories out of the US about massive editorial pressure to mutilate manuscripts so that they fit better into this or that template or demographic appeal, but I have to say from a personal point of view I’ve never suffered even the hint of that. Both Gollancz and Del Rey have always been behind me a hundred percent.

There was of course the briefly (internet) famous Black Man/Thirteen controversy, but what got lost in the flurry there was the fact that – though I was, and remain, somewhat bemused about the why of it – I really wasn’t bothered about changing the name; my books, after all, are often re-titled in European translation, and even the original UK name sometimes changes from the working title (Altered Carbon was originally called Download Blues, Black Man started life as Normal Parameters, and so forth…) so bitching about the US change would have seemed a little hypocritical. Thirteen was my own idea as an alternative title, and the conversations I had with my New York editor about it were very much along the same lines as the ones I had with my London editor about dumping Normal Parameters in favour of Black Man. My only real concern when my books are published is that the content should remain unadulterated, and in that, I’ve detected no measurable difference in attitude anywhere I’m published.

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Well, yes and no. You do see some minor cultural hiccups sometimes when my work crosses the Atlantic – for instance, there were a number of comments criticising the amount of foul language used by the characters in my last novel, and these complaints were almost exclusively American in origin. The British (and Australians and Norwegians and French and Italians and just about everybody else) just took it in their stride. Ditto complaints about the explicit sex in my books, and bad reactions to the explicit political commentary in a couple of my nearer future scenarios. So it would certainly appear that, in general terms, there is within the US SF&F readership a group of people who are far more uptight and tender in their expectations than any you’d find on this side of the Atlantic. Sort of controversy virgins, I guess you could call them, going to the literary marriage bed in the expectation that it’s all going to be dewy-eyed candle-lit, air-brushed cuddles.

That said, I think my books have found a readership in the US which is very much at ease with the kind of fiction I’m writing and relates to it every bit as enthusiastically as my British readers. And it has to be said that it was the Americans who started garlanding me with awards first. I picked up the Philip K Dick and John W Campbell awards a long time before I got the Clarke. So clearly I was speaking at least as effectively to the American readership (or at least a portion thereof) as I was to anyone in the UK. And there is maybe a more whole-hearted, passionate enthusiasm in play across the Atlantic, which embraces new things in a way the rather more conservative British literati take longer to do. Maybe. Truth is, in the end, I think it doesn’t do to make too much of this cross-Atlantic cultural divide – there are, of course, substantial cultural differences between the UK and the US, and I think anyone who’s been paying attention is probably aware of them; but within both populations, there is also quite sufficient variance of taste and mindset for a writer to find his or her audience and flourish in both countries.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

That’s a bit of a minefield question, to be honest. I’m extremely wary of making prescriptive templates for literature, cinema, drama, genre, what have you, not least because hard on the heels of prescriptive comes proscriptive, and after that we’re all just down to tribal fucking squabbling and beating our sad little chests for attention in our particular corner. I have an instinctive dislike of the kind of person who can turn on a dime and give you a cut-and-dried answer to questions of this sort – science fiction should do X, good fantasy is Y, literature must be Z, and so forth.

That said, the project of creating fiction requires a skill set, like any other activity, and like any other activity, you can do it better or worse. So it’s not unreasonable to lay out some broad guidelines for best practice, and I don’t believe in special dispensations for genre here. A good SF or fantasy novel must be, first and foremost, a good novel full stop. That means engaging characterization, convincing sense of milieu, compelling story – in short, the salients of any good fiction. I have no sympathy for (or, really, understanding of) the mindset that says sure, the writing style is for shit, the characters cardboard, the settings unconvincing, but hey it’s a cool concept or a good fast moving story, so who cares? To me that’s like ordering a meal and saying you don’t mind the fact the steak is burnt to a crisp, the sauce cold, and the salad unwashed, because, hey, the chips are good. I mean, come on, people.

As to what all this adds up to in terms of effect upon the reader, I quite like Kafka’s “a book must be an ice axe to break the seas frozen inside our souls”. Good fiction moves you, I think, forces you to feel something when the storm of experience and day to day existence very often dulls that ability in us, especially as we grow older. And then there’s Bradbury’s argument for “telling detail”, as specified in Faber’s speech in Fahrenheit 451: “The good writers touch life often….[books] show the pores in the face of life.” Those two quotes balance out quite nicely, I think – you’re looking for something that provokes emotional responses and engagement, but from a basis that’s anchored enough in reality to convince. Without the latter, you’re just not going to buy into the fiction enough to care, but without the former you’re not going to care enough to buy in. So, as regards genre writing, I’d say that if your imagined future or fantasy landscape and the characters that inhabit it feel real and emotionally engaging enough to care about, then you’ve done your job well.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

A preparedness to accept very poor levels of quality in fiction (as discussed above) so long as the gosh-wow factor is cranked up sufficiently high. Recently I was asked in an interview if I watched much TV and in response I cited The Wire as the finest TV drama around. This wasn’t what the interviewer was after, so he rephrased the question and asked me if I watched much SF&F TV. But the way he prefaced the remark was, I think, very telling. Of course they’re not in the same class as The Wire, he said, but have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica or Heroes?

Now my question is why isn’t there any SF&F TV drama in the same class as The Wire? There could be – look at movies like Bladerunner or Alien, novels like Geoff Ryman’s Air or Peter Watts’ Blindsight, comic-book work like Alan Moore’s From Hell or Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s not that the talent isn’t out there – it’s that the genre as a consumer demographic assigns negligible value to that talent. We would rather wallow in threadbare franchise mediocrity and clichéd visions thirty years past their sell-by date. So sure, Watts and Ryman are in print – but set their sales against those of the latest interchangeable pastel-shaded elf or magician-in-training brick or the interminable Halo/Star Wars-type franchises. There’s just no comparison. Moore, on his own admission, can’t make a living out of stuff like From Hell – he’s forced back time and again to the superhero template. There never has been another SF movie to touch Bladerunner, and the Alien franchise has degenerated, god help us, into Alien vs Predator Requiem. People would – apparently – rather watch the same old same old: Spider-man 5, Iron Man 3, Batman Again, and yet more bloody Star Trek and Star Wars. And the sci-fi channel can get away with cranking out product that HBO would blush to be associated with. To briefly paraphrase the movie Trainspotting it’s a shite state of affairs, Tommy, and all the CGI in the world won’t make any fucking difference.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

Hmm – tough one. Would depend a lot on your defining parameters. In purely demographic terms, of course, you’re talking about the re-launch of Doctor Who and the advent of Harry Potter. Both of those have unquestionably sown the seeds for a massive influx of fresh, young readers and viewers into the genre, and we should all be very grateful for that. But taking a more quality-based and adult approach, I suppose I’d prefer to cite Iain M Banks’ re-invention of space opera in his Culture novels and China Mieville’s paradigm-shifting Bas-Lag fantasy trilogy – both those sequences have been a huge tonic for the genre in terms of imaginative power and reach; in many ways you could say that they were the base building blocks for the so-called British SF&F Renaissance.

BSFA Survey Response: Nina Allan

Survey coverNina Allan’s speculative short stories have been published in Interzone and The Third Alternative, and collected in A Thread of Truth (2007). Her story “Bird Songs at Eventide” was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2006. Allan was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and her responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

If you were to ask me what I am I’d say a writer, and if you were to ask me what I write I’d say speculative fiction. I grew up with sf – as a child and young adult I was a massive fan of writers like Wells and Wyndham and then later Keith Roberts and JG Ballard and the Strugatsky brothers. I loved the dystopian novels of Orwell and Huxley, Zamyatin and Kafka. All the stories I tried to write in my teens involved aliens or monsters or penal colonies in harsh environments. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me to write stories that did not include some element of the mystical or fantastic. I read widely in what you might call the mainstream, but mainstream literature seemed to me then – and still does – to be missing some vital element, some extra layer, to be concerned more with the surface of the world rather than its murky interior.

I often feel my stories are not organized enough to count as ‘proper’ sf – so if I am a science fiction writer I am a very wayward one. On the whole I am wary of genre labelling, because too often people either have preconceived ideas about what sf is or what it should be, which can lead to them either dismissing your work out of hand or else having false expectations of it. I understand that genre labelling can be useful and is often necessary, as a means for facilitating discussion, and as a guide for readers and publishers. I just don’t like it when these boundaries become too rigid.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

All my work involves some element of the fantastic. Sometimes that element is very slight, and is more a shift of emphasis, a tampering with reality rather than any easily definable objective change in it. I like the term hyper-reality, because this seems to suggest a deepening rather than a broadening of the fantastic element, that it has to do with the particular visions and insights of the narrator and/or character.

I have also produced work where the external characteristics of our own world remain largely intact, but where there has been some political, social or environmental change that either affects the way people carry on with their lives in a practical sense, or else affects their belief systems, their sense of the possible. I suppose the shorthand for that is that I write near-future sf.

Not that I have anything against monsters. I would like to write a great big gothic monster novel one day!

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

Because I love it, and because it is an inalienable part of me and my world view. I can’t ever imagine not writing it, watching it, reading it, thinking about it. It has always struck me as peculiar and a little arrogant that so many ‘mainstreamers’ – both writers and readers – dismiss sf as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘impossible.’ Today’s sf has always been tomorrow’s reality. If you were to take a Victorian scientist along to PC World he’d think he’d travelled forward a thousand years instead of a mere hundred or so. We have only been here a short time and have barely scratched the surface of our universe. It seems to me that sf has more to say about the world we live in than any other kind of literature, both in terms of what goes on inside our heads and what might go on out among the stars. sf is not just the true literature of the twentieth century but of every century.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

It makes sense for me to group these two questions together. The answer is a big resounding yes, although I suppose it might be more accurate to say that my work is distinctively English rather than distinctively British as such. I didn’t realise how important England – and my own Englishness – was to me until I started writing seriously, and then it became obvious almost at once that I am a distinctively English writer. I think the thing people have most often commented on in my work is its English ambience, that ‘it’s so English,’ or ‘it reminds me of how England was when I was growing up.’ Even my future Englands seem to remind people of their childhood! This is something I am truly proud of, that my work has this kind of resonance with my readers.

I have a very intense sense of recall – I prefer to call it recall rather than nostalgia, because I’m not saying ‘this was better’ but ‘this is how I remember it – and I think it is this fondness and concern for detail that gives my work this quintessentially English flavour. I am English, I grew up in England, it’s where I live now, so it’s not surprising if the things I dwell on and choose to describe are influenced by that. I would even go further in stating that I believe that one of my main ‘jobs’ as a writer is to try and capture the image and essence of England as I have known it and to preserve that the best I can. The world I grew up in is changing – you could almost say it is disappearing – and my work at least in part is gradually becoming an elegy for a lost kingdom.

A sense of place is fundamental to my work. I am proud to be a Londoner. It’s where I was born, and I have recently returned to it as a smelly foot returns to a well-worn shoe. The city is a daily inspiration to me, especially the less-known and under-appreciated corners of South East London, where I live. The coastal towns of South East England, which formed the backdrop to much of my childhood, also feature frequently in my stories. I love discovering new parts of England – I feel it would be quite possible to spend the whole of one’s life in this country and never get to the end of it – and England’s natural history, its invertebrate life in particular, has always been an obsessive interest of mine.

I have spent quite a bit of time in Wales, and feel almost ready to attempt my first Welsh story. I haven’t spent nearly enough time in Scotland – I hope that this lack will be remedied in the years to come.

So yes, British, and proud – though having said all that the story I am currently writing is set mostly in Germany…..

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

In terms of abstracts, I would say that my country of origin, the vital role that memory has always served in my life, and the huge love of the written word – understanding a thing or a feeling not just in physical or visual terms but in terms of written letters – have been my main influences. I understood from about the age of four that a thing – a butterfly, a spider, a mallard duck – could somehow be ‘kept’ if you wrote about it. Once I discovered that, writing became for me the most natural and essential of human activities.

Becoming acquainted with other European languages and literatures has been of incalculable value to me as a writer. Whereas you might argue that many English novelists have tended to become fascinated with manners, class and social mores, in European fiction the emphasis has always been on ideas. Discussions of philosophy, religion and politics have always been central to European literature, together with often more advanced notions of sexuality and the role of art. sf and fantasy have always been welcomed into the European mainstream with open arms, whereas in England they have all too often been condemned as the black sheep of the family. It was a Russian writer – Vladimir Nabokov – who first made me want to be a writer, and a German novel – Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus – that first revealed to me just how far the boundaries of speculative fiction could be stretched. All European writers are resistance fighters at heart, and do much to remind us that a little more intellectual anarchy in the UK would not go amiss.

In terms of specific writers, I would prefer to say inspirations rather than influences because I am not a person or a writer who is easily influenced. The works of M.John Harrison and Christopher Priest are a constant and ongoing inspiration. MJH’s A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium makes me weak with envy every time I read it, while Priest’s novel The Affirmation is probably the most important work of speculative fiction to be written in the last fifty years. Priest’s work has redefined what sf can do and what it can be, and the poetic integrity and technical virtuosity of his novels makes them some of the finest examples of contemporary English literature as a whole. I keep coming back to Ballard, his solitary doctor-antiheroes, his visionary landscapes, his cruel poetry, his sparse yet still scintillating use of language. For me, novels like The Drought and The Crystal World contain both everything that first drew me to sf and everything that keeps me reading and writing it. The single novel that has probably influenced me most in terms of its metaphors and symbols (and here I think I probably do mean influenced) is Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, an influence extrapolated and enlarged upon in the radiant, visionary cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky.

On my bedside table at the moment: Bruno Schulz, Thomas Ligotti, Paul Bowles. The list goes on.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Again, I shall answer these two questions together. Short answer is that it is too early in my career to tell! I’ve not sold to America yet, and I am guessing that the defining Englishness of my writing might have something to do with this. I did have an interesting experience recently when I noticed that an American reader of my story “Microcosmos” (Interzone 222) thought it was set in America. I didn’t mind this at all – in fact I enjoyed it, because it made me see the story in a new way. I’m very much of the opinion that once a story is written the writer should give it its freedom. It’s up to the readers then to see what they make of it.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

Ideally it should make them ask questions. It should make them re-examine and re-imagine their view of the world, of themselves, of particular historical or political events. It should thrill and excite. On occasion it should terrify. (Go and read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road if you don’t believe me.) Personally the thing that would please me most would be for a story of mine to inspire a reader to write a story of his own.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

It doesn’t have a weakness. Weaknesses may be present in particular works or the works of particular writers, but the genre itself must be just about the most exciting and inclusive and flexible on the planet. It used to be a commonly held belief that sf novels were strong on ideas but weak on character, but I would argue that a novel that doesn’t pay proper attention to characterisation or language or style is simply a bad novel – it is not made bad by being sf. If I had any criticism at all to make it would be that there are some writers who don’t read widely enough outside the genre. As sf writers we should be aiming for the highest standards of literary excellence – and this means drawing our inspiration from diverse sources.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

Without question the broadening of the genre. We have thrown away the rule book, thank goodness, and a sf novel can now just as easily be set in a mental asylum or a court house as on board a spaceship. You can begin your story twenty thousand years into the future, or right now. There are always going to be ‘sf purists’ who will insist that Russell Hoban’s The Bat Tattoo isn’t really fantasy, just as there will always be mainstream bigots who believe that anything that trespasses on the quotidian is somehow a degradation of literary standards. But on the whole such limited insight is a thing of the past.

On the whole I believe that the ‘incursion’ of broadly mainstream writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Toby Litt and David Mitchell into the field of sf and fantasy has to be a good thing. Not only does it precipitate the blurring of genre boundaries – always a good thing, in my book – but it also promotes discussion and argument and brings some welcome public attention to the subject of sf. While mainstream writers may not be in the forefront of innovation when it comes to science fictional ideas their presence in the field can help us avoid complacency, and so raise our game.

BSFA Survey Response: Paul Cornell

Survey coverPaul Cornell is a writer of novels, comics and television episodes. He is probably best-known for his work on Doctor Who; his notable novels in that franchise include Love and War (1992), the first appearance of the companion Bernice Summerfield, and Human Nature (1995), and his TV episodes include “Father’s Day” (2005) and a two-part adaptation of Human Nature: “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” (2007). He has also written for Casualty, Robin Hood and Primeval, and is currently the writer for the Marvel comic Captain Britain and MI-13 (2008–present). His two original sf novels are Something More (2001) and British Summertime (2002). Cornell was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and his responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

Yes. Although I also write other genres.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

I think I look at ‘realism’, especially the representation of modern British life you see on television and in literary novels, and find it staggeringly wide of the mark when it comes to depicting reality. It’s almost as if it’s felt that that’s not actually what realism is meant to do. So I like to pick up on one particular thread of the many failings that encompasses, the lack of a presence of what might be called the numinous, the fantastic, from dreams to religion to the actual situation of human beings as standing on a planet in a spiral galaxy, and pick at that, and find all the ways that talks about the human condition.

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

I think it was chosen for me at the moment I opened a crate in my parents’ loft, and found my older brother’s books, which included runs of Galaxy and Worlds of If, Eagle Annuals and the sf of Captain W.E. Johns. When I felt that I had to be brave enough to watch Doctor Who, something that led between the playground, the social world, and that very solitary experience of reading books that even smelt different to everyone else’s books connected.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

Hugely. The exasperating nature of the British, and the problems of Britishness, and indeed the nature of all nation states, leading on from that, is almost all I write about. I’m frustrated with what are these days taken to be inherent characteristics of Britishness (being uncomfortable with success, preferring a hard fought loss to a win, a general pessimism and cynicism) in the way only someone who thinks of themselves as very British can be. Of course, this means I want to go off and live in America, where I can be much happier watching Britishness from a distance. But at least I own up to that.

5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

There’s something awesome about following the path that leads from Keble College, Oxford, to the Mariner Valley on Mars. It’s a true experience as well, British people heading out to do extraordinary things in terrible new places, and then coming back to places that have stayed the same for centuries.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

R.F. Delderfield, A.J. Cronin, Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, Dorothy L. Sayers, Stephen Baxter, Arthur Clarke, John Scalzi, Geoff Ryman, Terrance Dicks, Steven Moffat, Ian Fleming.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Not at all, really. I’m also vastly keen on America, so it’s not as if I’m setting up an opposition.

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Again, not at all.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

I like the moment, and I think this defines sf, where, as the song goes, one feels that ‘oh my God, I can’t believe it, I’ve never been this far away from home’. That moment of complete plunge into unknown stuff, where it’s up to the reader to find the one or two carefully placed footholds that the writer has put there for them, while carefully denying them anything else. It’s why I loved Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “True Names” so much recently: no footholds!

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

The way it looks in on itself. Only our crowd allowed, outsiders stay away, you’re only allowed in if you say you write sf, rather than if you just do. That’s what’s led to an almost medieval worship of the coming apocalypse, because we’ve been bad people and deserve global warming. Which is kind of the opposite of what the initial sf project was. An invasion of young faces and their authors would help. But we’re going to have to be the ones to open the gates, they’re having enough fun for themselves over there in their camp. (And other strained metaphors.) This insularity means you still get the odd Stalinist review that regards a book as ‘politically suspect’. That is, literally, that the reviewer didn’t like it because they didn’t agree with it. (It was Churchill who said something about loving Liberalism and hating Liberals, wasn’t it? Instead of ‘Liberal’, insert any description of anything I am. I’m vastly suspicious of any club that even sends me the forms.)

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

The return of Doctor Who. Seriously. There’s no better influence on young sf minds. The rise of Neil Gaiman to stardom has been a good thing all round. Ian McDonald carving out a new niche right at the border of sf and the mainstream novel. I’m missing something huge, aren’t I?

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