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The Clarke Award, Genre, and My Arrogance

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Clarke Award, Genre, and My Arrogance

When the Arthur C. Clarke Award released its shortlist yesterday, it result in the standard push back on how the judges got it wrong. The largest objections seemed to come from those who believed By Light Alone by Adam Roberts and The Islanders by Christopher Priest should have made the list, generally in place of The End Specialist by Drew Magary and The Water's Rising by Sheri S. Tepper. I can't really comment since the only novel I've actually read on the short list is The End Specialist and the two suggested replacements haven't been released in the U.S. yet (at least I don't think they have).

Anytime a shortlist comes out, that someone might impugn, the first question should always be, what was submitted? Thankfully the Clarkes came prepared with a list. Looking at the list I see several novels I would happily swap with Magary's and one major oversight (one every award committee seems to be making in my estimation) in T.C. McCarthy's Germline. Interestingly, several overt fantasy novels were submitted in The Straight Razor Cure (Polansky), The Last Werewolf (Duncan), The Fallen Blade (Grimwood), The Last Four Things (Hoffman), and several others that straddle the line. I say interesting because after all:
The Arthur C. Clarke Award is given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year.
Whether these novels were discarded for not meeting the criteria of the award, I can't speculate, but given that Lauren Beukes's Zoo City won the award a year ago (another novel I consider fantasy, not science fiction), I suspect they were.

Regardless, all this speculation sparked a brief exchange between myself and Jared Shurin (Pornokitsch editor and Overlord of the Kitschies) related to God's War by Kameron Hurley. It should be noted that God's War isn't on the Clarke's submission list, which seemed perfectly normal to me as I don't consider it science fiction. Jared was flabbergasted that I wouldn't put a science fiction label on God's War, just as I'm sure he'd be surprised to see me withhold it from Beukes's award winning novel. Zoo City is clearly set in the future and Hurley mentions space ships with some advanced technology. Both seem science fictional.

They aren't. To explain why, let me first ask what the difference is between a Western and Historical Fiction set in 1840's America? The answer is theme. The fundamental theme of a Western is man versus nature, and the subordination of it by 'civilization'. There's also the idea of personal justice and a code that supersedes the law of the land. Those are themes that can be played out in space (Firefly) or in cyberpunk tales (Cowboy Bebop) or in post-apocalyptic America (The Stand). A story that doesn't have those themes, set in the Wild West, isn't a Western. It's just historical fiction.

In the same way, science fiction means more than 'set in the future'. It means more than just having some level of technology that's deemed arbitrarily science fictional. For me, science fiction has themes that make it so, particularly a discussion of how technology alters, retards, or advances humanity. The relationship to technology is what makes a novel science fiction. God's War, for all its technology, isn't about that relationship. It's a story of war and faith. Technology changed the human population when (if) it dropped them on the planet, but that has nothing to do with the story Hurley is telling. Hurley's story doesn't engage technology or science at all. To me, that makes it 'future fiction' at best, and given the existence of magic and few cues that code for planetary expansion, my money is on pure fantasy.

By the same argument, let me throw out Prince of Thorns. Mark Lawrence hasn't hidden from the fact that his novel is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, much like Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun. I haven't heard anyone call Lawrence's debut science fiction, but it's easily as science fiction as God's War. Just because it has swords and horses it's fantasy? That doesn't wash for me.

I'm sure someone reading this is thinking, what about Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land? It's a reasonable point as Heinlein's classic is clearly social science fiction. Technology is only tangentially related, but the fundamental point is that Smith is only introduced to society through technology. Humanity's expansion into space made contact with extraterrestrial life possible. Everything that comes after, while not a direct discussion of technology, is the fall out of that basic paradigm.

But Justin, genre is arbitrary. Of course it is! This isn't a criticism of the Clarke Award. It's a round of applause because here I am talking about this stuff. I hope they continue to recognize novels that aren't just science fiction. Recognize the best novels! Zoo City was certainly one of the best novels in genre in 2011 (2012 in the States!). In a world of semantics though, calling it science fiction is a stretch. Maybe 'future fantasy' makes more sense. Or 'futuristic fiction'. Or 'Ask Justin And He'll Tell You What Genre This Is'. I'm going with the last one. What do you think?



At March 27, 2012 at 6:57 AM , Anonymous Jared said...

I don't agree.

(I was tempted just to leave it there, but that'd be too much fun.)

I think you're limiting science fiction to the relationship between people and technology, which is a cruel thing to do. And enables you to poach anything imaginative for "fantasy", which is, frankly, a little unfair. And something that happens on both sides - folks scream for "hard SF" and/or then they declare something to be "not SF" because it talks about, ya know, people n' stuff (Jessie Lamb is a good example of the latter).

The straight answer, of course, is that the social sciences are sciences too - Embassytown is about linguistics, Zoo City is about anthropology, The City and The City is about urban development (I dunno) and God's War is, to some degree, about all of those things.

Where we do agree is that a genre shouldn't be defined by its aesthetics. Just because God's War is in distant space with bug-guns doesn't mean it HAS to be SF... it just happens to be anyway.

Incidentally, as co-overlord of The Kitschies, this is exactly why we use the language we do: "novels with elements of the speculative or fantastic". The definition debate is fascinating, but we didn't want to have it with every set of judges, every single year.

At March 27, 2012 at 7:07 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Oh snap, you used social sciences on me. We all know Political Science in a Bachelor of Arts, not a REAL science!

Good arguments. Do you suppose you can have a science fiction novel set in a second world setting? I mean IF God's War is a second world (not our universe), can it still be science fiction?

At March 27, 2012 at 7:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's a mistake to think of genres or sub-genres as mutually exclusive. Rather, they should be thought of in terms of Venn diagrams. God's War would fall into the overlapping portion between fantasy and science fiction. Of course you may want to get more exact for an award and they probably were right to exclude God's War.

At March 27, 2012 at 7:14 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I don't believe God's War was submitted by the publisher for consideration as opposed to excluded.

At March 27, 2012 at 7:47 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Prince of Thorns is fantasy because there are some minor elements of magic in it. At best, I think you could call it science fantasy. Plenty of post apocalyptic tropes and hardware (including a certain spoilery plot element) that make it mostly science fiction, but some magic as well.

Do you listen to the Coode Street Podcast, Justin? They've often talked about the boundaries of genre.

At March 27, 2012 at 8:05 AM , Anonymous Mark Lawrence said...

Were it my choice I would not have my work submitted for any awards. Putting that to one side. Magic & science are often interchangeable. Particularly when science is perceived by a less technically advanced society. For all you know, Paul, King of Thorns may offer a scientific explanation for the 'magic' :) ... you never know!

At March 27, 2012 at 9:00 AM , Anonymous Martin said...

It doesn't have a UK publisher so was ineligible for the award.

At March 27, 2012 at 9:03 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Thanks Martin.

At March 27, 2012 at 9:49 AM , Anonymous Jared said...


*But seriously, if someone held a toaster over my fishbowl and said "DEFINE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SF AND FANTASY", I'd be short two goldfish.

At March 27, 2012 at 10:51 AM , Blogger Mad Hatter Review said...

I'm in the camp that thinks God's War is a cross genre novel with lots of Science Fictional elements so I do see it more in that vein. Just because a story doesn't hinge on the science doesn't mean it is Science Fiction of some sort.

In regards to the Clarke Awards I've only read one from the short list, which was Embassytown that I found to be Mieville's weakest novel to date.

At March 27, 2012 at 10:59 AM , Anonymous Bob said...

I was struggling with this issue yesterday while writing my review fo Alan Lightman's Mr g. The novel is about God, which makes it a Fantasy, but the parts that really stood out to me were about Physics. So, for me, it felt like science fiction.

I think that any attempts to define genres will be unsuccessful. I tend to go with the arbitrary, unscientific and often deplorable measuring stick of feel.

There is so much interplay between genres that coming up with any specific definition will lead to way too much confusion. Take Peter V. Brett's Demon Cycle. Despite is being a Post Apocalyptic setting, it's Fantasy. Heck, it's about fighting Demons with magic. Yet, if in Book 5 Brett reveals that the Demons are actually genetically altered creatures of war that have it encoded in their genomes to be repelled by war. Do we then redefine the series as science fiction?

How would we define cyberpunk and steampunk? Does the technology have to be futuristic? What about techno-thriller? I find myself repeatedly banging my head against my desk when I try to come up with genre labels. That's wny I just go with the feel of the novel and revel in the hate mail I receive when I "mislabel" someones favorite novel as a genre novel when in reality it's actually literary fiction with elements of magical realism.

At March 27, 2012 at 2:20 PM , Blogger Joshua Lowe said...

I always thought (from childhood so correct me if I'm wrong) that the defining feature of science fiction was that it could potentially happen in our world/existence as we know it. Which is why anything 'technological' is usually in the realm of SF, but as soon as anything magic happens, it becomes fantasy. It's never been about aesthetics for me.

At March 27, 2012 at 5:41 PM , Blogger Elfy said...

These days there seems to be so much genre overlap and crossing that it's harder and harder to classify things, and possibly the awards that do so are limiting themselves unnecessarily, not to mention opening this particular can of worms.

At March 28, 2012 at 12:34 AM , Anonymous Ian Sales said...

Science fiction is more than just fiction that features science or technology. It is a mode of fiction, and it operates under the assumption that the world, or universe, is fractal and open to explanation at all levels. Fantasy assumes that the world is mysterious. It applies agency to natural phenomena - gods, magic, etc. - because its world view requires that such things are consciously directed.

Everything else - spaceships, swords, themes, settings - is just window-dressing.

At March 28, 2012 at 2:41 AM , Anonymous Martin said...

For me, science fiction has themes that make it so, particularly a discussion of how technology alters, retards, or advances humanity.

I was thinking about this last night and this morning I had a look at those 60 nominally science fiction novels that were submitted for the Clarke Award. I could only see one - Random Walk by Alexandra Claire - that was really about "the relationship to technology" rather than things like war and faith. I mean even Germline by TC McCarthy which you'd have liked to have seen on the shortlist doesn't meet your definition. So perhaps I've misunderstood - could you point to the novels on the submissions list that you think should be considered science fiction?

At March 28, 2012 at 5:57 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I like that definition. I'm not sure it convinces me that say God's War is SF, but it's much more articulate than the definition I came up with.

At March 28, 2012 at 6:19 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Germline is totally about technology. The advent of plasma drives war far under ground. The horrors of tunnel combat. The use of a power suit that dehumanizes the combatant. The development of genetic super soldiers that defy humanity. You may disagree, but I see those technologies reflected in the experiences that Oscar Wendell goes through. There's no doubt McCarthy is exploring human themes, but technological advancement is how he does that.

I think most of the novels on the long list use technology in that way (that I've read). Echoing what I posted above though, I think Ian's definition is quite a bit smarter. Although I would be curious as to how that definition would apply to say Zoo City or God's War.

At March 28, 2012 at 8:39 AM , Anonymous Martin said...

I don't see how Germline is any different to God's War in that respect though. In one, plasma drives war far under ground; in the other, interstellar travel leads to new societies on other planets that come into conflict. In both you've got humanity changed by genetic engineering. They are both underwritten by technology but, to quote from your post, Germline "isn't about that relationship. It's a story of war." What is the difference between the two?

I guess I was treating the definition too narrowly and what was meant was something like fiction that focuses on the impact of techology on society. But that still doesn't really include Germline and I'd say it probably excludes two thirds of the novels shortlisted for the Clarke Award: Hull Zero Three, Embassytown, The Testament of Jessie Lamb and The Waters Rising.

Towards the end of the post you offer a much broader definition of science fiction: "Everything that comes after, while not a direct discussion of technology, is the fall out of that basic paradigm." There is nothing controversial about that definition, it is the one everyone uses, but it covers not just God's War but Prince of Thorns too. And why shouldn't it? The former is primarily a work SF but can be read as fantasy whereas the latter is primarily a work of fantasy but can be read as SF. Isn't it better to be inclusive than exclusive?

At March 28, 2012 at 8:59 AM , Blogger Justin said...

"The former is primarily a work SF but can be read as fantasy whereas the latter is primarily a work of fantasy but can be read as SF. Isn't it better to be inclusive than exclusive?"

Yes. It's better to be inclusive.

Labels are a bitch though. They exist mostly to help us parse what we read. If you had a buddy who said, man I love science fiction! What should I read next? I don't think God's War or Prince of Thorns would be on that list. They don't bear a strong resemblance to what SF means culturally (GW does more than PoT, obviously). Where Embassytown and Hull Zero Three do.

The whole post-apocalypse thing seems to be a category in and of itself too. Maybe I'll start an award called The Walter M. Miller Award for Post Apocalyptic Fiction ;)

At March 28, 2012 at 12:35 PM , Blogger Bastard said...

Is this the part of the discussion where I bring up urban fantasy? Or should I keep quiet?

At March 29, 2012 at 3:19 AM , Anonymous Martin said...

Well, I only read God's War because someone said I should because it was the best science fiction novel they'd read all year. If someone asked me what the best science fiction novels I read last year were, I'd include it. It just doesn't seem that out there to me.

I can see that its got fantasy elements elements so if someone said they were a SF purist and hated fantasy I probably wouldn't recommend it to them. But that's no basis for a definition.


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