So the Clarke Award shortlist is out and everyone is, understandably, talking about how there aren’t any women on it. (There aren’t any non-white people on it either, but people seem to be discussing this less.)
Having sussed out beforehand this might prove an issue, Liz Williams, one of this year’s judges, was prepared, and immediately took to the Guardian to explain why. One of the phrases she used particularly struck me:
“This leads us into the wider conversation as to why, despite having a significantly enlarged entry this year (a 36 per cent increase on the 60 books submitted in 2012) we received disproportionately fewer from women, of which many were technically fantasy.” (My emphasis)
To which I’m inclined to respond: ‘So…?’
And rather less flippantly, so what if they’re fantasy, why should that stop them from being SF as well?
Genres are versatile things. But it makes very little sense to think of them as mutually exclusive. For starters, a lot of the time the things which mark them out belong to completely different parts of the story: romance and crime tend to be indicated by plot, SF and Fantasy and historical by setting, Litfic by style and so on. Take SF and erotica for example – no amount of bonking is going change the fact a book’s set on a ship with an FTL drive, so in what sense isn’t it in both genres?
And if SF and erotica can co-exist, why not SF and fantasy? Aha! I hear you cry (Yes, you may be in Aberdeen, but I have very good hearing). But SF and Fantasy are both setting driven genres, so maybe there they are mutually exclusive? To which argument I’m afraid I blow a big fat raspberry. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a Fantasy Novel (it has magic in it) but it’s also a Historical novel (Set during the Napoleonic wars). If instead of being set 300 years in the past it were set 300 years in the future, and still had magic in it, wouldn’t it neatly straddle both sides of the SF/F slash?
One of the books that’s being much discussed as having been overlooked on this year’s Clarke list is G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. Now, merits of the book aside (and I’ve heard both positive and negative) the main reason people are positing for its exclusion from the list is that it’s Fantasy. Indeed, Alif does include Djinn and such, but (and I’m only a quarter of the way in) it also seems to display a distinctly SFnal central concern about our relationship to technology, and indeed has already included one classic piece of SF furniture – advanced tech we don’t yet possess (in this case an algorithm that can recognize a person from the way they use their computer). Prima Facie, there’s more than enough SF content in Alif to warrant its inclusion. Sadly, it seems the Djinn are getting in the way, but they shouldn’t.
As I’ve said, genres are versatile. The potato waffles of the conceptual world, they’re quick, convenient and full of holes. Of all of the many uses of them, con-convening, subculture-spawning, and yes, award nominating, there’s probably only one where it might make sense to think of them as mutually exclusive, and that’s book shelving. Yes, that noble and vital art. After all, one physical book can’t very well be in two places at once, can it? (Unless you had two copies, but that’s outrageously radical thinking.) But the even the Clarke judges seem not to have any problem including books that aren’t shelved under SF in bookstores in the award, as both Angelmaker and The Dog Stars are sold as general lit. Odd that.
I’m not saying the Clarke list is a bad list, I’ve seen good cases made for every book on there. What I do think is that it would make much more sense, when selecting eligibility for an SF award, to judge the books on the presence of SF, rather than the absence of Fantasy, YA tropes or whatever other genre markers you might like to flag up. It would still be an SF award, in spirit as well as name, and you might even get a more diverse shortlist*. Just an idea.
*Or at the very least, you’d get rid of the ‘all the women write fantasy’ excuse, and force the conversation into different, possibly more uncomfortable, but probably more productive territory.
One thing to be clear on, I don’t know the judges’ reasons for choosing or not choosing individual titles yet. As far as I know, neither does anyone but the judges themselves. It’s entirely possible that all of the titles Ms Williams appeared to dismiss as ‘technically fantasy’ lacked any SF content at all, ans as such weren’t elligible and that Alif and titles like it just weren’t in that bracket, and were considered and passed over for other reasons. I still think the language around the debate serves to reinforce a mutual exclusivity that doesn’t exist though.