Well, this is fun. Kim Stanley Robinson sayeth of sf:
The result is the best British literature of our time. Oh, I know there is a Booker prize, I’ve heard of it even in California – supposedly given to the best fiction published in the Commonwealth every year – but there are no Woolves on those juries, and so they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels.
Sometimes these are fine historical novels, written by tremendous writers; I particularly like Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, and my favorite was Penelope Fitzgerald. But working, like all of us, in the rain shadow of the great modernists, they tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways. A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is. Thus it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn’t read. Should I name names? Why not: Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, Life by Gwyneth Jones in 2004, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison in 1997. Indeed this year the prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.
I note (a) that Life could not have won, alas, since it has not yet been published in the UK; and (b) that I really should get around to reading Yellow Blue Tibia. More usefully and proactively, the Guardian has put the issue to this year’s Booker judges. Quoth the chair of judges:
James Naughtie admitted that Robinson “may well have a point”, but suggested that “perhaps his arrows could be directed even more towards publishers than to judges”.
“There has always been a debate about whether the prize is sufficiently sensitive to all the forms of contemporary writing. He may well have a point,” he said. “We judge books that are submitted. The fact is that the science fiction component this year was very, very thin. If it is the best contemporary fiction in this country then most publishers haven’t yet tumbled to the fact.”
He said that judges had, collectively, been “disappointed at the way ‘the new’ was represented” in this year’s submissions, but said that “the idea that historical fiction is fusty is absurd”. “Our shortlist speaks to us about things around us, from whenever and wherever the books are set,” he said.
And John Mullan:
According to Mullan there was “essentially no” science fiction submitted for this year’s Booker prize, apart from Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, set in a dystopian future, which failed to make the longlist. “We as judges depend a great deal on what publishers submit,” he said. “There are certain kinds of genre fiction which get submitted – thrillers and detective books – which publishers think have literary quality, but this year I find it hard to think of any science fiction which was submitted.”
Around 40 years ago, it was historical fiction which was overlooked, he said. “Thirty to 40 years ago there was Georgette Heyer and it was generally speaking a fairly derided genre, whose standing was rather lower than science fiction where you had John Wyndham. Yet historical fiction has escaped the bodice ripper, so everyone does it,” he said, rejecting Robinson’s claim that historical novels “tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways” and “are not about now”.
“That’s absolute bullshit,” he said. “Of course historical novels can be like that, but really it is not to do with being a historical novel.”
To be pedantic, Robinson didn’t say historical novels aren’t about now, he said they aren’t about now in the way science fiction is. Though of course whether you apply a value judgement to that difference, and if so what judgement you apply, will differ from person to person.
But I have wondered, before, whether sf writers get submitted for the Booker. If I understand the rules correctly, publishers get two titles per imprint, so it doesn’t seem like (in most cases) they’d be using up slots by submitting sf; just getting extra slots, in effect. Of course, I may not understand the rules correctly. Ultimately, this is just one more reason why it would be nice to see a list of what’s submitted for the Booker prize in any given year.