Tag Archives: clarke award

Nod – Adrian Barnes

As with Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (and indeed, Drew Margary’s The End Specialist last year), it is difficult to account for the presence of Adrian Barnes’ Nod on the Clarke Award shortlist. Is it there because it looks like left field science fiction? A concession to the litfic tendency? Because it is an excellent piece of fiction in some way that currently eludes my critical faculties? Nod - Barnes

We may never know what was on the judges’ minds, but having already taken down The Dog Stars on the straightforward basis of its not being science fiction, I didn’t want to simply carry out a similar process with Nod. Sniping at shortlist choices is easy, can sometimes be fun, but in the case of things like The Dog Stars, or The End Specialist, or Nod, I’ve begun to feel that it’s ultimately neither satisfying or productive, not least because I think there is frequently a false comparison being made; i.e. as an apple, this makes a really crap orange, when no one actually intended that I should consider it as an orange.

To develop that point a little more, all three of these titles are novels that so far as I can tell were not deliberately written as sf, nor in two instances even marketed as such. Two out of the three may be characterised as dystopian, if one defines ‘dystopian’ as ‘oh my god, the world as we know it is falling apart’; it may just be the scholar in me but I think that is a definition that is very unhelpful, although it does seem to have become the default description for anything in which the world we’re familiar with is a teeny bit threatened by something or other.

All three novels utilise a scenario that might be characterised as catastrophic, apocalyptic even if you must (though again, I’d argue that the two are not entirely the same), though in The Dog Stars we are clearly dealing with a post-scenario, whereas with The End Specialist it’s never-ending, and in Nod, we’re in at the beginning. What does mark all three novels, however, is that these are writers using tropes of science fiction without necessarily seeking to write science fiction

In the case of The Dog Stars the catastrophe is clearly nothing more than a way of getting rid of most of the people and infrastructure, to facilitate the protagonist’s desire to bunker down on an airfield with his dog and grow vegetables in solitude. If anything, it reminds me most of children’s books of the 1950s and ’60s, where the author’s first job was to safely dispose of the parents for the novel’s duration. As I said when I reviewed the novel, the catastrophe is nothing more than window dressing. In which case, to co-opt the novel as science fiction by placing it on the Clarke Award shortlist, particularly when it isn’t very good science fiction, or for that matter very good fiction, is to ask far more of it than it was ever capable of giving.

In The End Specialist it was evident that Margary knew what a certain kind of science fiction looked like and he worked its motifs and metaphors as hard as he could. Yet I never had the sense that he was using them to tell a story. The novel was all surface and effect; somehow the idea of a narrative had got lost along the way. And yes, I don’t doubt that Margary was making a Big Point about Society, but that should by no means be antithetical to telling a story as well.

Nod falls into different territory again. We have what might be some sort of catastrophe and resulting associated rapid disintegration of society, and zombies, but we might also be invited to read the science-fictional trappings as nothing more than an extremely extended metaphor for the condition of late capitalist society. In which case, we shouldn’t be reading it as a novel of catastrophe at all, because … metaphor trumps ‘realism’. This is a view that one or two people have expressed to me but while I understand what they’re saying, I remain sceptical as whether, assuming this is what Barnes is doing, he has been successful.

At this point, I need to introduce yet another novel into the equation, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, one of the most fascinating novels published so far this year. To all intents and purposes, it behaves like a realist novel, and a beautifully made one at that, set mostly in England in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s a familiar world, politically and domestically. Atkinson has really caught the feel of the middle-class house, with a couple of servants, a slight roughness in the domestic arrangements. It is pleasantly reminiscent of E.M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady taken seriously. Alongside this, two world wars take place, women struggle for emancipation on so many levels as well as demanding universal suffrage. Attitudes change as men go off to war and return. Atkinson observes the effects of war with great compassion and understanding.

Ursula, the ‘little bear’, the novel’s pivotal character, struggles to make a life for herself beyond her rather narrow-minded mother’s rather dismal expectations for her. This may all sound rather conventional, except for one thing: the baby Ursula dies in the opening moments of the novel. Except that a chapter later she is born again, and this time she survives. Later, she drowns, but another time she survives. And so it goes on.

Anyone familiar with J.B. Priestley’s time plays will already have some inkling of what’s going on here, and I’m guessing that Atkinson is also very familiar with J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment in Time. Ursula’s many lives ripple out from the novel’s opening. Some Ursulas are aware to a greater or lesser degree that theirs is not the only life; others are blissfully unaware or else vaguely troubled by visions and presentiments. Through this skilful layering of stories, Atkinson also presents a fantastic mosaic portrait of a woman’s life in Britain up to the 1960s.

Critical reaction has, needless to say, been mixed. Three critics on Radio 4’s Saturday night arts discussion programme tied themselves in knots, trying to figure out what was going on, and were generally very unhappy with the novel’s structure. Yet every genre-savvy reader I’ve seen commenting on the novel seems to immediately grasp that Atkinson is in some way working with alternative time streams, quantum universes, call them what you will, using them to construct this composite portrait of Ursula’s lives.

This is where it gets complicated. What I want to argue here is that Heller, Margary, Barnes and Atkinson – and we could throw in novels like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and P.D James’ infamous The Children of Men – are all attempting to Speak Trope, that is, to use ideas that might be classed as science-fictional but not in ways that are necessarily immediately identifiable as ‘genre’.

I’ve likened the process to using another language very deliberately because, in many ways it seems to me to be like, say, understanding music or mathematics, or being able to speak a foreign language sufficiently well to be able to use it idiomatically.

Let us consider these novels in the light of this idea. The Children of Mendidn’t speak Trope at all, insofar as James kept telling us she was using ‘real science’, though all this demonstrated in the end was that she understood neither Trope nor science fiction. In fact, to judge from the relative success of the film, she intuitively knew what Trope looked like but couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate this.

The Dog Stars< learned a word or two of Trope, perhaps because someone taught it to say a few useful phrases phonetically. I might learn to ask ‘where is the concierge?’ but, critically, will I understand the answer? The answer was not, I think, what Heller wanted to write about. Having invoked Trope with a little mystical hand-waving, Heller fells silent and swiftly moved on to the rest of the story, about love and loneliness and a blessedly empty landscape.

The End Specialist might seem to speak Trope reasonably fluently until you actually tried to make sense of what it was saying, at which point it turned out to be saying little more than ‘shiny shit’ over and over again, VERY LOUDLY, with slight variations and increasing frustration that people didn’t understand. It’s not that they didn’t understand, more that they understood only too well that while The End Specialist had the accent, it had only a fairly rudimentary vocabulary, one that ran to ‘electronic device’, ‘drugs’, ‘violence’, ‘kill’, and ‘shiny shit’.

Atkinson speaks Trope confidently, and uses it without needing to draw attention to what’s she’s doing. If you’re familiar with the tropes of sf, when you read her novel what she does simply feels … right. Of course this does in part depend on how you view sf but I am quite prepared to argue that Life After Life is part of an ongoing discussion about the nature of time, and that seems to me to be a part of sf. Atkinson’s is a natural, unforced use of Trope; indeed, I cannot see how she could otherwise tell the story. She understands the idiom and as a result it enriches the novel, not least because she does it in a way that also resonates with how writers of the period might have used it.

Which brings us back to Nod, though here the question might be not how well does Barnes speak trope, but why does he need to speak it in the first place? The tendency seems to have been for critics to read Nod as an apocalyptic or catastrophe novel, and as such to read it unfavourably, as a failed example of the genre. Here, I put up my hand and say that was my initial response. On the other hand, it has also been suggested that the apocalypse and accompanying zombies should be read in more metaphorical terms, mainly as a commentary on late capitalism and the way in which ‘we’ sleepwalked our way into the mess we now find ourselves in. That might also have a certain plausibility, though I would suggest that the zombie/sleepwalking metaphor is already more than a little well-worn, and anyway, I do believe Colson Whitehead covered that topic with Zone One which I believe to be a much more successful novel than Nod.

The problem for me is that I have begun to suspect that Barnes’s use of trope is not actually based on speaking trope, but for whatever reason on having run it through some literary equivalent of Google Translate. Some chapters into Nod, it began to occur to me that there was something very familiar about this novel and I eventually realised that in many respects it resembled John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (which happens to be one of my all-time favourite sf novels, cosy catastrophe novel, call it what you will); or rather, it was a kind of Triffids de nos jour. The incidents were often similar but the outcomes were frequently very different. The Day of the Triffids famously begins with much of the world’s population waking up blind one morning, after observing a meteor shower the night before. Bill Masen, the novel’s first-person narrator, did not see the lightshow because he was in hospital, in a darkened room, his eyes bandaged, recovering from the effects of a triffid sting. As a consequence, the following morning he finds himself in the position of being one of comparatively few people who can see.

In the novel, Masen is positioned as something of a loner. He’s unmarried, an only child of parents who are now dead, a man of some means, solidly lower middle-class. He works for a company that farms triffids for oil and other by-products, and is something of a field expert on their habits and behaviour. As a result, he is quicker than most to realise the threat posed by walking stinging plants to a mostly blind population.

In London, where the novel begins, Masen finds himself witness to the rapid disintegration of civilisation. Those of the blind who have not already fallen victim to the triffids are starving. Some, the strongest and most violent, attempt to imprison sighted people to act as guards. Those who are sighted gradually find one another and begin to make tentative plans for the future, though these vary from setting up new colonies intended to replenish the population as fast as possible to setting up strict religious groups to care for the blind. In particular, a political agitator, Wilf Coker, kidnaps a number of sighted people, including Masen and his companion, Josella Playton, and assigns each sighted person to a group of blind people, a plan which fails as disease begins to set in.

When Masen’s group finally dies off he sets off in search of Josella, picking up Coker again along the way. Their journey across southern England is, as I’ve argued before, effectively a testing of a series of alternative approaches for coping with catastrophe. The monastic no-sex approach directly offsets the farming babies for the future model; Coker’s altruistic-cum-socialist approach is admirable but, as he admits, more difficult to execute than he thought as it does rely on getting others on board with the idea. Masen’s approach is more individualistic without being rabidly every man for himself, and works because Masen is already accustomed to taking care of himself, is resourceful but also not afraid of either hard work or to address the gaps in his knowledge. Also, critically, he is aware of the fact that this is going to be a long haul. His accidental model involves a group bound together by ties of family, friendship and filiation, and a willingness to see blind people as being adaptable human beings. Throughout there are hints of other responses to the crisis – towns barricaded off, gunfire when Masen attempts to scavenge – it is only at the very end of the novel that alternative political models intrude. The group that originally advocated polygamy makes contact, having set up home on the Isle of Wight, and admit that maybe … Significantly, Coker has found his way to them and we infer that there will always be someone to challenge and test their ideas. Another group, setting itself up arbitrarily as a new English government, proposes a much more totalitarian approach, not the least of which involves treating the blind as little short of animals, and it is this that prompts the group to escape and head for the Isle of Wight, recognising that there now needs to be safety in greater numbers.

Wyndham’s novel was published in 1951, and brings with it powerful resonances of World War Two, austerity, National Socialism, death camps, and the post-war drive to build a new and better world. While Masen himself is pragmatic rather than optimistic, he allows himself hope and the conviction that things can and will improve, slowly, gradually but in different ways to what went before. I’d also suggest that Masen fits squarely in the mould of the competent hero so beloved of science fiction (and for that matter, given the period in which the novel was written, Josella is very much his equal throughout the novel) but his is a more domestic competence than that found in much American sf of the time. He is not out on the hostile surface of an asteroid, saving himself from the burning rays of the sun; he’s in Pulborough, Sussex, saving himself from walking plants and worrying about milking the cows. It is, or was at the time, something much more realistic, easy to latch onto. As a young adult, at a time when the possibility of nuclear war was still a very real thing, I don’t mind admitting that The Day of the Triffids shaped my thoughts on survival (at least, until Raymond Briggs brought out When The Wind Blows)

Now let us turn to Nod. Barnes offers us a world in which, suddenly, almost no one can sleep. No one knows why but, given this is the 21st century, the media is pouring out speculation, and most people are already aware that unless a solution can be found, after thiry-two days they will die, though they will almost certainly have gone mad long before that. Paul, the novel’s narrator, is one of the few who can sleep – from an artistic point of view, this is very convenient as it means he will be able to continue documenting society as it, inevitably, falls apart.

What is immediately striking is how vulnerable the sleepers are. They are easily identifiable because they are clearly better rested and, unless they can keep their condition secret, they are of course very vulnerable when they sleep. Whereas the blind need the sighted, the presence of the sleepers merely enrages the insomniacs, who are already driven half mad by sleep deprivation and fear of what is to come. Many people in Triffids realised early on what was going to happen, faced the inevitable and committed suicide, in Nod the crisis comes with a built-in cut-off date, pre-planned obsolescence.

Paul himself is not that interested in finding out what’s going on, beyond sitting in front of the tv, at least until that goes off. Whereas Bill Masen’s impulse is to get out of the hospital as soon as he can, to witness for himself, Paul shows a marked reluctance to do anything. Until the crisis comes, he was a writer, working on obscure books about etymology that don’t, so far as we can gather, sell very well. His partner Tanya goes out to work while Paul hides away at home, in his high-rise apartment, crouched over his laptop, taking his view of the world from the internet, or more often ignoring everyone and everything. He appears to have few friends, his relationship with Tanya seems to an outsider to be unrewarding for both of them, and crucially, he seems to have no real interest in anything but himself.

In general, he lacks curiosity; in particular he seems unable to look into the future in any meaningful way other than to sit it out for the requisite number of days and then see what happens. It certainly hasn’t occurred to him that it might be a good plan to immediately get in some food and water, rather than waiting several days, only to find himself confronted by long queues, hyperinflation and a lack of commodities. Instead, Paul and Tanya go out for brunch.

A day or so later, when Paul is beaten up, though not particularly seriously, he and Tanya nonetheless decide that the sensible thing to do is to cross Vancouver in the dark, to visit the emergency room. The emergency room provides the first set-piece demonstration of how awful things actually are out there but one is left with a sense that Paul still doesn’t quite grasp what is going on around him. This feeling persists as he finds himself caught up in the cult of the Awakened and then, in a recapitulation of Masen’s journey with Coker, to find Miss Durrant’s community, when he makes the journey across Vancouver to visit the Cat Sleepers. Paul, one can’t help noticing, leads an oddly charmed life whenever he does venture outside. Despite his lack of awareness of what’s going on about him and his unerring ability to get into difficult situations from which he nonetheless always manages to escape; one is forced to the conclusion that this results from authorial fiat rather than arising naturally from the situation.

Masen’s narrative of his journeys provides a vivid account of the infrastructure of civilisation gradually crumbling, and owes a fair amount to earlier narratives such as Richard Jeffries’ After London, Paul’s narrative of his journeys through Vancouver and what he finds owes rather more to the likes of J.G. Ballard; a gazetteer of bizarre behaviour, brought on by lack of sleep, occasionally coloured by Paul’s own experience of being under intense mental pressure. Yet, while Ballard unerringly pinpoints the strange beauty embedded in collapse, and his portrayal of mental collapse is imbued with a sense of the humanity still lurking in the madness, Barnes’ portrayal of Vancouver on the brink of madness feels very superficial by comparison, as if, once again, he is dealing with the ‘look’ of sf.

Yet, tempting as it might be to simply dismiss Paul as a disorganised loser, the point here is surely that this is how most people are likely to react in such a situation. Indeed, Barnes could be read as going for the realist option – people are inevitably unprepared – but in doing so, he places himself in opposition to the most common sf model, that of curiosity, competence and resolution of a sort. One might then suggest that Barnes is deliberately writing antithetical science fiction, maybe even providing a critique of more conventional sf. Paul’s one piece of hypothetical strategising consists of taking over a millionaire’s mansion and holing up until it’s all over, as so often seems to be the case in a certain kind of sf novel, though here Paul has no particular mansion in mind, and one suspects he is just parroting things he has read.

But if Barnes is deliberately interrogating the nature of sf, he does so on the basis of a series of very crude dichotomies. Quite apart from the many differences between the protagonists, in terms of outlook and occupation, while Masen roams across south-east England, documenting the effects of the disaster, Paul is apparently trapped in Vancouver, unable to get through the streets or over the bridge, into the wilderness. Masen rarely encounters other people aggressively fighting for their lives whereas Paul simply can’t get away from them. Masen gets the girl and a ready-made daughter while Paul loses his partner – to be precise, in a rare moment of what might be called compassion he murders her to spare her what is likely to come – and later … I can only call it ‘sets free’ the child that Tanya had almost forcibly adopted at the beginning of the crisis. (The surviving children have become mute and have vanished into Vancouver’s parks to live.)

By the same token, we might read the novel as a critique of late capitalism, in the sense of it demonstrating how quickly the familiar structure of our lives can now collapse if an unconsidered variable suddenly arises, be it sudden endemic insomnia, or a Chancellor of the Exchequer accidentally creating a non-existent petrol shortage, particularly as it possesses that infallible marker of late capitalism, the zombie. The apocalyptic scenario might suggest that but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is actually a distraction, a canard. Which is itself problematic in that the reader has already been invited to address the book in a certain way, and a reader familiar with Trope is most likely to read the novel in the light of Trope. What I do not see are any indications that I am being intentionally encouraged to read against Trope.

What I think I do see, however, is a more subtle novel about manifestations of belief, buried inside a farrago of science-fictional notions that actually make little sense. The key to this novel is Charles, ‘an outsider always looking for a way in. But no one would let him in.’ Instead, according to Paul, everyone treats Charles ‘as though he were fictional.’ More to the point, Charles is clearly acutely aware of this. When sleeplessness suddenly impinges, Charles seizes the opportunity to begin to promulgate a new philosophy that he has developed, drawing on the manuscript of Paul’s book, Nod, which as luck (and again authorial fiat) would have it, Charles found when Paul accidentally left it in the café. Whatever Charles’ social failings, he appears to be an attentive reader, possibly Paul’s only reader, to judge from sales, and he quickly latches onto the portrayal of Nod, the empty land, east of Eden, site of Cain’s exile after his murder of Abel, and Paul’s linking the orphan words he’s writing about with ‘old unmanned realities’, to create a philosophy in which the sleepless are in fact the Awakened. Paul’s manuscript literally becomes his bible, while Paul himself, despite the complication of being a sleeper, is elevated to role of prophet or front-man for Charles in his moment of glory.

The question, though, is whether the novel needs an apocalypse in order to facilitate Charles’ brief moment in the sun, as leader of a rag-tag group of insane people, about to die from lack of sleep. The argument might be that it is only when society has reached a suitable state of collapse that the Charleses of this world can find their way to the front, but does it need a huge, inexplicable and indeed unnecessary worldwide event for Charles to seize his moment? I remain unconvinced that it does. Indeed, what strikes me most about this novel is that all the various groups come into being so very quickly, to such a degree that one suspects that many of them already existed. Why should it take a huge event like worldwide sleeplessness to trigger their takeover? Why not something like a large American city which has lost its manufacturing base, and much of its population, is now part deserted and on the verge of bankruptcy? No need for sleeplessness, nuclear strikes or any of the other ideas Barnes comes up with.

But what, then, is Nod trying to do? It is difficult to find any sympathy for Paul. He’s not even a particularly interesting misanthrope so much as a whiny, needy man-child who likes to show off the fact that he knows lots of unusual words. One might admire his candid disavowal of humanity but in order to disavow it one needs to engage with it in the first place and know it before writing it off, whereas Paul seems to have conscientiously spent as much of his life as he can simply hiding away from it. In his writing, he performs in a way he seems unable to do in person, even by his own admission. His ‘diary’ insofar as it is a diary and not a reconstruction made a couple of weeks into the crisis, is written with an awareness of audience that is quite stomach-curdling in its archness.

This, of course, is character performing as character, but quite apart from considering this novel to be poor science fiction, I think it is also rather poor fiction generally. Bear in mind that Paul is an etymologist, a man who thinks about words and their meanings. In his journal, he writes ‘Everything’s akimbo: heads flop, tongues loll, and mouths are corkscrewed holes’. The alert reader knows that ‘akimbo’ means to stand with your hands on your hips. The alert etymologist would surely also know this. Granted, meaning may drift, but less orthodox use of akimbo generally still invokes limbs at angles, not the floppiness suggested here. Can it really be that we have an etymologist with a tin ear? Or is the author overdoing things a little?

I did at one point try to argue myself into believing that Barnes was trying to show that Paul is indeed a poor writer but this overlooks various other things, such as those moments when authorial fiat allows Paul to wriggle out of a tight creative space, enabling him to conveniently leave the manuscript in the café or allows him to lower the child Zoe in a basket he’s conveniently found, on a rope he’s conveniently got, from a fourth-floor balcony without the slightest mishap, not even rope burn, given that Zoe is supposedly about four years old and presumably a reasonable weight. Now this may just be the sf reader in me monitoring for plausibility, but even so …

But mostly, I find myself thinking about the novel’s ending. The first-person narrative, the diary format, the hinted decision to die (through starvation? Or has he found some drugs he’s not mentioned?), the touching description of lying down on his bed, on his back. The list of things he must now say goodbye to … have you ever tried lying on your back and writing fifteen lines of prose?

So, Nod fails as science fiction so far as I’m concerned but even if one reads beyond that it still fails. It’s a literary salmagundi, a grab-bag of fictional bits and pieces but there is nothing to bind it together to make a coherent whole.

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Bridging the Gaps II

More things I found on the internet

Animated Short Film about the History of Typography

John H. Stevens follows up on Paul Kincaid’s near-legendary article on the ‘exhaustion of sf’, discusses ‘exhaustion as an ever-present part of the artistic process’ and speculates on what happens next.

Worlds Without Ends has a nifty compilation of all the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlists.

And while we’re about the Clarke Award, Tom Hunter, the Award’s director, has gathered together most of the coverage of this year’s award, won by Chris Beckett for Dark Edens here.

Jess Nevins in the LARB on a new edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s Classic Stories, ed. by Roger Luckhurst. I’ve not yet seen the edition but Luckhurst apparently situates Lovecraft as part of the Weird. Nevins disagrees. I’m agnostic until I see the introduction.

And Roger Luckhurst himself on ‘H.P. Lovecraft and the Northern Gothic Tongue’

A short story by Karin Tidbeck, Sing, available at the Tor website, and well worth reading. The below-the-line comments, not so much.

Thought-provoking article at Strange Horizonsfrom Rochita Loenen-Ruiz: So what do you think of my story where I made use of another person’s culture?

Peter Heller – The Dog Stars

Those of us who were children during the 1960s and 1970s will undoubtedly remember Robinson Crusoe, a French-made serial dubbed into English, and accompanied by a haunting signature tune. While Crusoe’s self-excoriation about his sinful past sailed straight over my head I was fascinated by the way he set about making a life for himself on the island, using whatever he could salvage from the shipwreck and what he found on the island itself. It was, I suppose, an early lesson in self-sufficiency, reinforced in part by the endless reshowings of the series.

Ever since, I’ve been particularly drawn to sf stories about people surviving some sort of catastrophe and building new lives for themselves, scavenging, growing food, and so on, the so-called Robinsonades. It is no coincidence that John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids has long been one of my favourite novels, particularly the portions when he describes going back into a mostly empty London to scavenge, though I also have a soft spot for Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Forgotten Enemy’, with its protagonist holed up in a library: this always seemed like the perfect notion to me. Insofar as I ever had a survival plan when I was young, it always involved a library.

But I grew older and began to realise, as if Wyndham hadn’t already made this plain, that survival was a dangerous business. Indeed, it became clear, too, that survival was a man’s game (though Wyndham was very clear that women needed to learn skills as well, if they didn’t already have them). The role of women was going to be to keep house and restart civilisation by having more babies, because of course there is nothing more sensible when in the middle of a catastrophe, with limited resources, than to start planning for the resurgence of the very political systems that got one into trouble in the first place (and Wyndham had one or two things to say about that as well).

This in turn led me to suppose that carving out a life in the wilderness, going it alone with a few chickens, a dog, a cat and a garden, was probably a better way forward than being part of a group that wanted to annex my body for its own grubby imperialistic reasons. And yes, I’d probably die of starvation in a couple of years but what the hell … it would be on my terms (and I hadn’t even read Thoreau at that point). Obviously, my attitudes have shifted as I’ve grown older and had more time to think about it. I understand now why so many people kill themselves at the beginning of The Day of the Triffids, faced with the realisation that there is no way they will be able to cope. The way forward becomes less clear-cut as the possibilities for social annihilation multiply. It was always going to be a nuclear strike, simple, sudden, but with devastating consequences but nowadays it seems more as though we will be undermined by a mix of illness and infrastructure collapse. Though the great swine flu epidemic of 2009 turned out to be anything but, speaking as one of those who did catch it, was incapacitated for a fortnight and has never felt 100% well since, it was brought home to me then just how quickly things can fall apart. Couple an epidemic with fuel shortages brought on by a lack of tanker drivers, and before you know where you are, chaos and collapse. Think about a unvaccinated generation with no immunity to, oh, how about measles?Peter Heller – The Dog Stars

All of which is a long preamble to thinking about Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, shortlisted for this year’s Clarke Award. This is set in the near future, a future so very close it might as well be today as everything looks pretty much as we might expect. Some sort of flu epidemic has wiped out most of the population of North America, and probably beyond as well. Many of those who did not die of influenza died subsequently of other diseases, less easily identified. It’s not clear what happened to the rest of the world as communications failed generally as people succumbed to the epidemic. To all intents and purposes North America is cut off from the rest of the world.

Hig, the novel’s first-person narrator, lost his wife and unborn child to the epidemic – in fact, it will turn out, at the end his wife asked him to smother her rather than prolong her suffering – and as the world descended into chaos, he and his dog, Jasper, took refuge at the airfield where he kept his small plane, and stayed. Over the years since the epidemic – now about seven or eight years ago – he has established a life of sorts, defending his patch from marauders, maintaining a few crops, supplementing vegetables with what he catches by hunting and fishing and what he manages to scavenge. He flies regular patrols to maintain the perimeters of his world and keeps an eye on a struggling Mennonite community nearby, helping out when their technology fails. The community isolated itself after it became clear they all had a mysterious blood disease, as a result of which other hunters and scavengers, fearful of contagion, have left them alone.

There is distinctly something of the Thoreauvian about Hig, with his house, his bean rows and his dog, a little social commerce with the neighbours, and the journal, though this is balanced by an acute sense of territory rather than place. While Thoreau welcomed visitors, for the most part, and at worst was irritated when they interrupted him, for Hig, visitors represent danger. We’re in a world where good fences emphatically make good neighbours; people want to live with a lot of space around them, so they can see the scavengers and marauders coming. Bangley, who arrived on the scene, bringing with him a small arsenal and a keen appreciation of military tactics, is constantly trying to teach Hig to think more strategically, to plan ahead, to look for weaknesses, whereas Hig is shown as being purely reactive.

Yet, to be blunt, Hig and Bangley, the Apocalyptic Odd Couple, are living in what might charitably be called the world’s biggest man-cave, with enough solar-driven bits and bobs to keep them self-sufficient for as long as they want. Hig may mutter about fuel going off (and actually, I was glad to see a certain amount of practicality seeping in) but he’s pretty much got enough to keep him flying for as long as he wants, while Bangley, the surrogate father and protector polices the boundaries of their world. All of this enables Hig to get on with his main task in life, which seems to be to mourn the loss of his wife and the world as it once was. Again, this is where the Thoreauvian ideal stumbles. While Thoreau was acutely aware of the way in which the modern world was intruding on the old ways, and was not necessarily happy about it (though he did admit that the coming of the railway made it a good deal easier to visit further-flung libraries), neither did he indulge in a pityfest. Thoreau had an acute understanding of what he needed to do in order to survive and did it. Hig, on the other hand, seems to be constantly on the brink of a sighing complaint about how difficult it all is, even though he is clearly a competent man. Hig’s argument might be, I suppose, that he has nothing to live for, whereas for Thoreau, the living itself is the thing.

Which is perhaps a good moment to stop and think about this account that Hig is keeping. Before the epidemic he was a building contractor in the summer, a writer in the winter. It’s not clear what Hig wrote or how much was published, though we do learn that he loves poetry, which he still reads and quotes in his journal. Yet, when I started the novel, the story felt to all intents and purposes as though it was being told by someone who had, for whatever reason, decided they must keep an account of their experiences for posterity, but for whom writing didn’t come easily. Which seems odd if Hig is supposed to be a writer. How much more wish-fulfilment is at play here, we might wonder, alongside the Robinsonade. Even Hig’s nature writing seems to be a little … wonky, maybe, as if he looks but doesn’t really see.

But perhaps that is the point about Hig; nothing really comes naturally to him, as he notes later, when talking about learning to fly. He’s had to work for everything, and that includes the writing. Yet, given how much he has presumably written already, one might assume that, as with the flying, as with the hunting and the fishing, he’d have it figured out by now. But Hig is no Thoreau, nor indeed is he Saint-Exupery, for all he tries to describe what it means to fly, “freed from the sticky details” of daily life. And yet, given Heller’s own track record of adventure writing – he has several works of “literary non-fiction” to his name – and given the fact that Hig is clearly intended to be an expert hunter and fisherman, one might have expected something a little less … trite, perhaps.

This does, however, point towards a more significant problem with this novel, its narrative structure. When writing an account of an expedition, one is inevitably writing after the event, aware of what happened, and in what order. The story has, in effect, written itself as the participants went along. As a way of writing a novel, however, this is an approach that is apt to create problems rather than solve them. As a consequence, the reader is almost halfway through the novel before the first heavily signalled significant event finally occurs, precipitating Hig into something that might be a midlife crisis, requiring him to fly off into the blue, leaving Bangley behind to mind the shop on his own, thus heavily signalling another significant event.

It is the death of Jasper, Hig’s elderly dog, that prompts him to go in search of the airfield from which he once heard a call sign, just to see if anyone has survived, although three years as elapsed since he last heard it. Why now, so far into the novel, when this would have been a wonderful hook for an adventure. As it is, Hig merely exchanges a stale idyll, with Bangley, for a new and exciting one, involving another old man, Pops, and his daughter, Cima, with whom, perhaps inevitably, Hig falls in love, because without someone to love, he is nothing, and this is really what it’s been about all along. Stripped first of his attachment to his wife, Melissa, and then his dog, Hig is one big emotional hole, looking to be filled, and this occurs at length. It’s hard to overlook the desperate convenience of meeting the perfect woman in the middle of nowhere, with her ornery but fundamentally decent father, who just coincidentally also has a military background, taking up the slack while Bangley’s absent.

It’s not too long before it’s decided that they will all return to Hig’s airfield, going via that mysterious airport he was originally heading for, to pick up fuel and just check what was going on. This short section turns out to be the most compelling and yet most infuriating portion of the book. We can never know for sure what motivated the old couple who have booby-trapped the airfield but it’s pretty much academic once Pops has blown them both away. For someone who is apparently rather squeamish about killing people, Hig is very apt at aligning himself with people who have no compunction in doing so whatsoever, and indeed is perfectly capable of doing so himself, but requires that slight hesitation to show he’s essentially decent, that he worries before he shoots.

It’s not too difficult to guess what the second significant event will be, given that Bangley has been left on his own for several months, and that Cima turns out to be a doctor. In fact, the only real surprise, given Pops is pretty much Bangley all over again, is that Bangley in fact survives to tell the tale and everyone lives happily ever after, freed of their ghosts, with Hig having acquired himself a wife and two surrogate fathers into the bargain.

But what to make of this novel as a whole? In terms of structure, it’s not a terribly good or interesting novel, unless you have a taste for the maudlin and underplotted; it’s the kind of novel you might hunker down with if you were feeling miserable too but the life-affirming portions of it read like the fantasies of a self-diagnosed sensitive adolescent boy rather than the supposed  thoughts of a man who has, allegedly, turned dead human beings into jerky for his dog.

As science fiction? It isn’t, not according to any criteria I’d care to exercise, and as long-time readers of this blog will know, I have a very flexible definition of science fiction. On the other hand, the mere fact of its appearing on the Clarke Award shortlist has effectively made it into science fiction, at least in the short term, which I find mildly alarming.

What we have here is nothing more than a guess at a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a flu epidemic and subsequent disease mutations, with a bit of climate change thrown in for good measure, all of it really little more than vague hand-waving that might have been culled from the headlines of a broadsheet newspaper. I have little sense of the author having seriously thought through what this world might look like. It just is, because he needed it to be. As so often in these situations science-fictional tropes provide a spot of window-dressing for something else the author wants to say; so long as you don’t look too closely, it might just about pass muster, but all it takes is a mild breeze of scepticism to set the scenery swaying.

In the end, the science-fictional elements in this novel exist simply to strip the landscape of people so that a favoured few survivors can play out a fantasy version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with a better outcome – apocalypse-lite. As to how it came to be on the Clarke Award shortlist, I wouldn’t like to speculate, but I’m having trouble seeing anything in it that suggests “best”, “radical”, “innovative” or any of the other assorted criteria that have attached themselves to the Clarke Award. On the other hand, even if it is as various people have suggested, this year’s ‘what were they thinking?’ candidate, it is better than Sheri Tepper’s The Waters Rising or even Drew Magary’s The End Specialist, which seemed to occupy a similar ‘this needs an sf backdrop to make the point” niche. Where it really belongs is on a shelf alongside Jonathan Livingston Seagull, fiction to make you feel good, assuming you can survive the associated dental caries from the sweetness of it all.

Nina Allan reviewed The Dog Stars, at Strange Horizons. She was also unimpressed..

Bridging the Gap

Time for another round-up of interesting things on the internet and elsewhere.

First of all, I must draw your attention to Speculative Fiction 2012, edited by Justin Landon, of Staffer’s Book Reviews and Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch. It’s the first of what many of us fervently hope will become a regular annual collection of online essays and reviews about sf, the fantastic, and other genre material, all conveniently collected in one place. It is a fantastic anthology of articles and reviews, some by people whose work I already admire intensely, some by people whose work I’m reading for the first time and already looking forward to reading more. And if it seems that I am being just a little bit circumspect in discussing the collection, that would be because I’ve got a couple of pieces in it myself and I must recuse myself from reviewing something I’m part of (though Niall Harrison offers us a hypothetical not-review here– the real problem is that most of the people who would normally review a volume like this are actually in it). I am though immensely proud that my work has been included in this inaugural volume.

My criticism appears in print as well as online but I’m very conscious of the fact that, for example, newspaper-based literary critics regularly bash blog-based critics, implying that their work is less worthy of consideration because it’s published online. Equally, I’m well aware that some book bloggers work with a set of critical criteria that seems to begin with gushing and end with squeeing and in between offers little but uncritical adoration of each and every volume the blogger lays eyes on. More than all of that, I know that there are so many book blogs out there it’s almost impossible to keep up with what’s going on. Speculative Fiction 2012 reminds us that there’s a lot of good-quality critical writing happening online and provides pointers to where it’s happening.

Nominations are already open for the 2013 volume, to be edited by the Booksmugglers, Ana Grilo and Thea James, who discuss the terms of their editorship here and provide a nomination form. Nominate early, nominate often, nominate diversely.

One of the pieces chosen for Speculative Fiction 2012 was my review of the New Yorker sf issue, published in June 2012. Laura Miller’s article from that issue, ‘The Cosmic Menagerie: What did the first fictional aliens look like’, is currently available and well worth a read.

In other news, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour will feature an article asking what’s happened to the tough women in sf. I confess I feel a certain trepidation about this, but we’ll see.

I won’t get my Clarke shortlist reading done before the announcement on Wednesday but Pornokitsch offers an imaginary judgement.

Twelve of the Best

So far, the sf blogging community has refrained from commenting on John Mullan’s article in yesterday’s Guardian Review (entitled ‘Twelve of the Best New Novelists’ on the website, headed ‘Midnight’s Children’ in the paper version) perhaps because his pop at the genre reader is a bit half-hearted, perhaps because it seems pointless to keep arguing with someone who is so resolutely determined to ignore what people keep pointing out to him. [28/2/11 – It turns out I was entirely wrong about this as, while I was busy pounding the keys rather than catching up on my blog reading, others had got there before me. Thanks to Martin Lewis for flagging up great posts by Sam Kelly  and M John Harrison. I have a suspicion they make much of what follows here entirely redundant, but what the hell … ] On the other hand, I don’t think Mullan should be allowed to get away with continually flaunting his ignorance as he does here, so I’m happy to take up the slack this time around. And actually, I’m pursuing this less because Mullan is making an idiot of himself over genre fiction, more because he is now making an equal idiot of himself over literary fiction.

The article concerns a forthcoming Culture Show special about new novelists. Mullan was the chair of a panel of five judges which reviewed the submissions from publishers asked to send in their best debut novels from ‘the past couple of years’ in order to choose the twelve ‘best’. I’ve no particular complaint about the exercise as such, insofar as I don’t really have a major complaint about any similar exercise, up to and including the Booker, the Clarke and the BSFA Awards. Nothing that encourages people to talk about books and read a few more is ever entirely bad. On the other hand, I am by turns fascinated and disturbed by the claims Mullan makes in this article, particularly in the light of various encounters between him and the sf community in the last year or so.

Mullan’s main point in the opening paragraph of this article is that ‘[t]he growth of British literary fiction has been one of the most extraordinary publishing phenomena of recent decades.’ He goes on to comment that the label ‘literary fiction’ has often been used in a disparaging manner, suggesting that it is synonymous with ‘pretentious’ or ‘plot-free’. I’ve certainly queried the use of the term, on the grounds that it is functionally meaningless, because is not all fiction in some way or other ‘literary’? But really, has literary fiction, insofar as I am assuming Mullan means ‘contemporary literature that has not been published under a particular genre label’ been savaged in quite the way that Mullan seems to imply? The acres of often favourable coverage in review columns and in the broadcast media suggest not, so why this defensiveness?

Indeed, as Mullan himself notes, having put out the call to publishers, ‘[w]hat we got were examples of what we have come to call “literary” fiction.’ What he does not say is how many publishers were contacted, what constraints if any were placed upon them in submitting titles, whether the original intent of the exercise was to simply examine literary fiction, or whether it was the publishers who, through their submissions, shaped the nature of this list.

Finally, in the third paragraph, Mullan poses an important question – ‘What is literary fiction?’ and offers a definition: ‘It is not genre fiction.’ Glad that’s cleared up then. My university tutors would never have allowed me to get away with this sort of nonsense, defining something by saying what it is not, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and only then with an extensive back-up apparatus of argument and citation. As if recognising that he is on slightly unstable ground here, Mullan pursues his definition as follows:

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a historical novel. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the leading British prize for science fiction. Yet you only have to think about these two examples to see how they escape their genres.

And that would be how, precisely? Back to Mullan:

Mantel’s novel revisits the favourite stamping ground of historical fiction – Henry VIII and his wives – in order to rethink what it might be to see events filtered through the consciousness of a person from a distant age.

Which is obviously something no other historical novelist has ever done before. On Ishiguro, Mullan goes on to say:

[He] takes a dystopian hypothesis – human clones being bred for their organs – and then declines to put in place any of the sci-fi framework that would allow us to understand how this could be. Indeed, the whole interest of his story is in the limits placed on its narrator.

Say what? Mullan does not indicate what this missing ‘sci-fi framework’ is; he’s too busy moving on rapidly to his great point about these two novels: ‘[t]hese are both “literary” novels because they ask us to attend to the manner of their telling.’ This is another opaque comment, one that I’ll explore in more detail shortly.

First, let us go back in time a little, in a way that Mullan believes sf cannot do, to a discussion at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival between Mullan and China Mieville, this in turn arising from a Booker-related fracas in 2009. The most striking thing about Mullan’s comments in 2009 is how they suggested that he really didn’t know that much about sf, other than that:

When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres,” he said, but now “it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.

One assumes he would feel similarly about crime and romantic fiction, both of which tend to have special sections in shops and, indeed, conventions of their own for people to go do. Having said that, one almost senses a kind of envy in his comments. In 2010, as Niall Harrison reports, during the debate with Mieville, Mullan again contended that the borders have hardened since he was younger, though as Harrison points out, ‘the hardening doesn’t seem to be coming from the sf side’ and I would dispute whether they were initially as porous as Mullan seems to suggest.

Also telling, I think, is Harrison’s account of Mullan talking about Ishiguro’s novel:

Mullan […] mentioned his surprise at being informed that Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to his mind the greatest English novel of the last ten years, could have been nominated for a science fiction award; and confessed that although his first thought on hearing that it had lost the Arthur C Clarke Award to Ryman’s Air was to be intrigued, his second was to assume that it must have lost not because Air was a better novel, but because Never Let Me Go failed to meet the rules of science fiction (specifically, he suggested, in focusing on the characters instead of explaining its world).

Perhaps this is the mysterious sci-fi framework to which Mullan alludes in the Guardian article. Harrison noted how, during the Cheltenham discussion, Mullan constantly referred to crime fiction, describing a template detective story. There was no indication as to what a template science-fiction story might involve, but clearly in Mullan’s mind it is all about world-building.

And most revealing of all, to my mind, is this last comment from Harrison:

The clearest demonstration of Mullan’s inability to consider that the characteristics of literary fiction Mieville was pointing at might be, in their way, as much generic markers as anything in a science fiction novel was highlighted by his description of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — which he’d read as background for a documentary on first novels — as “a send-up of science fiction”, when in fact — with its solipsistic, sadsack narrator obsessed with his relationship with his father — it plays with the conventions of “literary fiction” at least as thoroughly.

Note that comment about ‘a documentary on first novels’ – I wonder if that refers to the Culture Show special. If it does, it would seem that at least one genre novel made it over the first hurdle, if only to crash against the barrier of Mullan’s incomprehension and indifference. And at the end of all this, even an intensive exchange of opinions with China Mieville on the differences between and comparative merits of genre and literary fiction has apparently not prompted to Mullan to re-examine his attitudes towards genre fiction in any way whatsoever. This is of course his prerogative but it makes me wish Mieville had been chairing the panel selecting these novels.

But back to establishing the credentials of the literary novel, which is really what this article is about. Mullan positions it first in the 1960s, claims John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman as a progenitor, before settling on 1981 as the key date for literary fiction’s coming into being. Nineteen eighty-one is, of course, the year that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won the Booker. Mullan quotes Ishiguro, interviewed for the programme, as saying that this was an ‘absolutely pivotal’ moment. Mullan himself goes on to say that not only was the novel ‘unparochial’ because of its subject matter, but ‘it owed more to Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez than to the modern masters of English fiction.’ That is an interesting juxtapositioning of authors, particularly if, like me, you’ve just finished thinking rather a lot about modern magical realism, as introduced into Europe by García Márquez with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s a label often applied to Midnight’s Children and, as it happens, to Grass’s The Tin Drum. I’m not sure what Mullan is suggesting here but it seems too coincidental to my mind. Does this mean that literary fiction can be fantastic so long as you don’t actually say so?

Equally interesting is the way in which Mullan is here setting out a history for literary fiction. It reminds me of nothing so much as the way in which we sf readers have been accused of bolstering the credentials of our genre by incorporating ‘respectable’ works of literature into a spurious literary history, not to mention his recruiting contemporary examples – let’s say, for the sake of argument, novels by Mantel and Ishiguro – to his cause. Which is not to say that Mullan is doing the same for ‘literary’ fiction as we have supposedly done for genre but I raise an eyebrow when, in response to Ian Jack’s comment, that ‘[l]iterary novels really depend on prizes, and they depend on lists’, he says ‘[p]artly it is just a matter of needing maps’, suggesting this is a terrain that isn’t as clear as his article would have us believe.

However, it is when Mullan returns to the idea that literary fiction calls attention to form, I begin to wonder why he hasn’t realised that what he is calling into being is as much a genre as crime or science fiction, with a template that focuses on structure and narrative experiment. Having said that, what is equally interesting is his cursory summary of the 57 submissions, and how they pass, or mostly fail, his criteria for good literary fiction. In fact, it turns out that characterisation and consistent plotting are as important to Mullan as anything else. So, after all, it’s not just about narrative tricks like experimental form, which suggests in turn that ‘literary’ fiction isn’t quite so different as Mullan would wish it to be. It is perhaps just as well, then, that ‘[l]iterary fiction invites discrimination’; presumably other forms of fiction don’t.

In fact, I think this delicacy, this nicety, this ‘discrimination’ – dare I even say ‘literary snobbishness’? – may be at the heart of Mullan’s funny little love affair with this genre that isn’t a genre, that helps novels to escape from other genres and find a haven with him. It starts with his almost marvelling at the fact that readers are so sophisticated these days they happily take in their stride novels that would not so long ago have been considered part of the avant-garde. Here his examples are David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), with its six nested narratives, and Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (2006), with its reverse chronology, and also Ian McEwan’s Atonement with its mock ending, which reveals, shock, horror, that it wasn’t Ian McEwan who was telling the story but Bryony Tallis. This suggests that Mullan has a pretty low opinion of the general reader. Or rather, I think he has very little understanding of what the ‘general’ reader is capable of.

It is only at the end of the article that I think we get to the nub of the matter. Mullan notes that a third of the 57 novels submitted were from creative writing graduates and that some of the novels he most admired were written by creative writing graduates. ‘I wonder,’ Mullan says, ‘if the growth of creative writing is a symptom as much as cause, profiting from an increased interest among readers – as well as writers – in formal experiment in narrative.’ Mullan’s argument is that this increased interest in writing literary fiction is fuelled by, first, the perceived retreat of academic literary critics to the seminar room during the 1980s (I suspect he is really talking about the rise of Theory), where they taught the next generation of would-be novelists, inculcating them with an enthusiasm for form, which now appears in their writing.

It might be my imagination but Mullan seems to be suggesting, then, that a degree, a postgraduate degree even, is or will be required for producing ‘literary’ fiction, and that ‘literary’ fiction can be properly appreciated only by the ‘educated’ reader. The word ‘highbrow’ remains unuttered but it’s surely floating there unvoiced. Which leaves genre fiction in an interesting position, with its readers and its writers presumably consigned to some outer lowbrow darkness once again.

As Damien G Walter noted on Twitter, ‘Literary fiction continues the process of making itself the most narrow and irrelevant genre in fiction’. On the basis of this article it would be difficult not to agree with him. Mullan’s muddled distinctions make little sense though clearly, they offer him a measure of security. For my own part, I shall continue to cheerfully trample through them.

I await The Culture Show special (5th March, 2011) with the greatest of interest.

Contesting the canon

picture by nikkorsnapper

In the Guardian last Wednesday, Damien G. Walter posed a question: Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon? The article’s subtitle wondered whether 2011 would be the year the Booker Prize judges ‘acknowledge the flowering of British SF and fantasy’. Given the fact they’ve shown scant interest in it up until now, let me speculate a little in turn and suggest that, in 2011, the Booker judges will pay as much attention to sf and fantasy (and here I am eschewing Walter’s apparently preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ – all fiction is speculative, mainly because it is fiction, and I like to be clear what I’m talking about) as they ever have done before. They might put an identifiably sf or fantasy novel on the long list or the shortlist, or they might not. Most likely, they won’t. Will sf and fantasy publishing collapse in a heap as a result? I doubt it. Does it honestly and truly matter if the Booker doesn’t acknowledge the existence of sf and fantasy? I don’t think so.

Walter comments on the “narrowness of the award’s perspective” but this is hardly surprising. As Adam Roberts concluded recently, in Crunching the Booker Numbers, an elegant piece of analysis, “The Booker is not hospitable to genre – or to put it another way: the Booker is a genre prize – the genre in question being ‘twentieth-century/contemporary literary fiction’.” The Booker Prize has been inhospitable to genre for forty years, so there is very little likelihood that the 2011 judges will experience a collective rush of blood to the head and see the error of their predecessors’ ways. As Adam shows, it’s just not that kind of award. And it is not as though the sf/fantasy world is short of awards, from the popular votes of the Hugos and BSFA Awards to the juried Clarke Award, the Philip K Dick Award and so on, awards which derive from the community itself, and which are surely more informed as a result.

Given there are so few articles in which ‘literary’ commentators worry about whether borderline genre works might make the breakthrough this year and get a stab at the Hugos or the Clarke, one wonders why it is so imperative that genre novels need to be recognised by the Booker. Or, indeed, by the ‘literary’ world, as personified by the Booker. I think ‘recognised’ is a significant word here. I’ve been involved in the SF community one way or another for something over thirty years and it feels as though there has always been some sort of tussle going on between those who think that sf and fantasy should remain outside the mainstream literary community (or as Brian Aldiss so memorably put it, “Let’s get sf back in the gutter where it belongs”) and those who demand recognition from the mainstream, like needy children desperately seeking attention from unheeding parents. This article feels like yet one more expression of the latter.

What sort of recognition is Walter seeking? A Booker Prize-winner, obviously, but what will that do for science fiction and fantasy? There will be acclamation from within the community, naturally, and doubtless bafflement expressed by the ‘literary’ community, probably accompanied by yet more foolish and ignorant comments along the lines of “it can’t be sf/fantasy, it’s good”. More perceptive commentators, probably someone like Michael Dirda, will doubtless observe that it is perfectly possible to produce well-written narratives within a genre framework, and there will be a lot of foot-shuffling and throat-clearing as other commentators set out to show how the winning novel is not really that much of a genre piece and how, in the right light, it looks almost literary.

Let us be clear about one thing: it will be the novel that has won the Booker, not the genre. The author will become a Booker-winning author and may experience more interest from publishers as a result, and possibly a certain amount of pressure to produce more books of a kind likely to appeal to people who buy Booker Prize-winning novels. I do not believe there will be a rush to the genre shelves as the scales fall from people’s eyes and they embrace science fiction and fantasy as long-lost prodigal children. The winning novel will probably remain as one of the more wilful jury choices, to be joked over in future years or discussed by people who actually take an interest in the history of the Booker but I do not think science fiction and fantasy will be taken into the bosom of the literary mainstream as a result.

Something else that struck me about this article was its confusion over what this much-craved recognition ought to look like. Alongside the desire for a Booker Prize there is a lot of talk about the literary canon and “SF’s canonical works”. Indeed, Walter himself admits that “the number of SF authors being retrospectively rolled in to the literary canon seems to grow exponentially year on year”. If that were so, I can’t see the problem, but putting aside the misuse of “exponentially”, let us instead address this idea of sf being brought into the canon “retrospectively”. Because, after all, isn’t the inclusion of any author in a canon retrospective, the point being that they have to earn the right to their place by demonstrating the enduring qualities that distinguish them as being in some way “good” literature.

For my own part, I have little patience with the concept of “the literary canon”. At its dubious best, it’s little more than a convenience for teachers, a gathering together of titles which someone somewhere thought that everyone ought to have read (and the canon arose, as much as anything, as a way of providing a blueprint for literary self-improvement), a list from which to compile a syllabus. At worst, it has represented, and to some extent I think it still does, a spurious privileging and legitimising of certain texts, almost invariably those written by dead white males. We can attempt to update the canon or even construct counter-canons, but the canon itself continues to sit there obstinately, accusingly, defying us to mess around with the literary status quo, a reminder that someone somewhere once compiled a list by which people’s reading choices are still being judged.

How exactly are sf and fantasy to break into the canon if, on the one hand, they are already there anyway (not forgetting that many of the ur-texts of fantasy and sf already appear on university syllabuses, beginning with various Gothic romances and Frankenstein, there is at least one MA in Science Fiction Studies in the UK, and goodness knows how many academics writing about science fiction and fantasy in academic journals) and, on the other, canon-building is perforce a retrospective pastime? Or is Walter perhaps proposing something slightly different, namely a shortening of the period required to become canon-fodder in order to get more recent sf and fantasy onto the golden list and lend them some of this spurious authority. Because, brutally, the authority of the canon is spurious, and constraining too. A few authors and titles will be singled out for greater attention, as with the Booker, but again, it will do nothing for the genre as a whole, and possibly not even for an individual author’s complete oeuvre.

As I said earlier, I’ve seen various iterations of this tussle being fought over thirty years. It’s not new. Indeed, at various times I’ve fought on each side of the argument. However, the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realise that the whole idea of science fiction and fantasy needing the imprimatur of the “literary” mainstream is a load of rubbish. Are we honestly so insecure about sf and fantasy that we need the blessing of another genre’s prize in order to feel that we have somehow arrived? Do we really need to participate in a flawed academic exercise in order to convince ourselves of our own worth?

What this demand for ‘recognition’ suggests, in fact, is that we don’t trust the genre to stand or fall according to its innate qualities. We know there is well-written material and poorly crafted hackwork within the genre, but it’s not a situation unique to fantasy or sf. All areas of literary production suffer from it but I don’t recall any of the others demanding greater recognition from the Booker for the “good” stuff.

This is not to say that I am in any way advocating a rejection of the mainstream and a retreat to the teenage bedroom of the genre heartland, accompanied by a fading wail of “you just don’t understand”. Genre has its uses as a down-and-dirty taxonomic shorthand on occasion but I don’t believe these terms and definitions should be used to construct barriers, especially not in order to provide a platform from which to complain that people aren’t willing to make the journey through the barricade. It’s ridiculous and, dare I say, just a little childish.

For my own part, I read “genre” fiction, I read “contemporary” fiction, I read “canonical” fiction, interchangeably and with equal pleasure. I do not need the approval of the academy, the Booker Prize judges or the sf and fantasy community when I make my choices about the books I am going to read. With everything I read, I read critically, and am happy to defend my opinions as required. Awards shortlists can be a talking-point, the canon is a useful jumping-off point and I value the cut and thrust of discussion with my fellow reading fans, but in the end I honestly don’t care a jot whether anyone else approves of what I read, and I certainly don’t feel I need to have my choices sanctioned by the awarding of a Booker Prize.