Djinn & Tronic – An aside to the Clarke Award Shortlist Debate

 

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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.

 

UPDATE:

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.

15 thoughts on “Djinn & Tronic – An aside to the Clarke Award Shortlist Debate

  1. Excellent points! TBH, “fantasy” and “SF” are as much marketing labels as anything. Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains is generally regarded as fantasy, but it’s pretty damned SFnal when you get down to it. My own novels feature naturally-evolved non-humans with chemoluminescent technology, but because they are set in the historical past and the hero wields a sword, it’s marketed as fantasy.

    I think it’s particularly ironic in the case of this award – after all, it was Clarke himself who famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” QED.

    1. Hey Anne,

      Yep, and at a broader level all fiction is fantasy, as it’s all positing ways the world *isn’t.* In a funny way, Futuristic SF is more realistic than litfic. A t least the events in the SF novel still have a tiny chance of happening, the events of a litfic novel have none, otherwise it would be biography. 😀

  2. Is fantasy really defined by setting? It can be in the past, present or fiction, this world or another. I otherwise agree with what you’re saying, so many books bridge several genres (I’m currently reading Mayhem which is historical fantasy crime). I’d like to see a focus more on the science side of sci-fi rather than the setting. I don’t think the setting really matters (alternative histories for instance).

    1. Hi Ellie! Personally I think it’s elements of the setting that tend to flag the fantastic, even if it’s set in this world it tends to be a version of this world where odd things can happen, where the rules are different. I like very scientific SF too, and I’d love to see more of it. The only issue with using scientific rigour as part of the genre definition however is that so much of SF’s classic furniture is more Scientifically implausible than dragons. (EG FTL violates relativity.)

  3. Yes, it would probably be easier if they just made it a SFF award. Although now I’m thinking someone needs to write some dragon sci-fi, someone can discover fossil evidence and bring them back Jurassic Park style.

  4. >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/

    In fact, this was pretty much the case. I’m trying to avoid getting into very detailed public discussions as to our precise reasons for the choice (Clarke judges traditionally do not comment); Tom felt that the gender issue needed some unpacking, however, and I think your points are fair ones, hence my clarification here. I’d add that the reasons for an all-white list are much the same as the ones for an all-male list.

  5. As an addendum, I would add that some of the work which did fall entirely into the fantasy bracket, by general agreement, was outstanding, and I would love to see some of it featuring on any fantasy award lists this year.

    1. Hi Liz, thanks for stopping by and clearing that up. FWIW I do think it looks like a really interesting list, I’m particularly intrigued, in a year full of apocalypse a and dystopias, what set Nod and Dog Stars above others (eg Pure, The Testimony etc)

  6. I’ve only read one book on the list, Angelmaker, and it would really be stretching a point to call it SF. It’s more of an adventure/thriller with a healthy dose of steampunk than anything else. The villain in the story controls a piece of armageddon-capable technology, but by that reckoning you could call James Bond stories SF. Perhaps the Clarke judges should just use the term Alternate Reality fiction.

  7. On the general point: yes, but in the context of an award for science fiction I think there’s an additional requirement (this is my opinion and was my practice as a judge), that the science fiction content should be used interestingly. Your sexy space opera may be very good erotica and very bad science fiction; or vice versa, or both, or neither. I wouldn’t object to anyone calling any of those novels science fiction, but I’d only think the second and third might deserve nomination for a science fiction award. Correspondingly with other crossings of the streams.

    In the case of Alif, I think it’s quite an imaginative and conceptually interesting novel, but I think that in a number of ways it ultimately doesn’t work that well, and the ways in which it is most successful are as a fantasy. Put another way, while I can construct a reading of it as sf — which has more to do with how it interrogates different knowledge paradigms as ways of approaching the world than the inclusion of a speculative widget — I don’t, in the end, think that it’s particularly interesting or successful as sf. Though I would be very interested to hear arguments to the contrary!

    1. Hi Niall,

      Agreed, up to a point, and you’re absolutely right to bring us back to the award. The philosophy undergrad in me is tempted to say however, that shifting one’s definition of what ought to be eligible from ‘SF’ to ‘Doing interesting things with SF’ is, if not quite circular, at least question-begging. Now we need to define ‘Interesting’ as well as ‘SF’ and that’s well before we get to ‘Good’.

      For me, I suppose that just as I like a broad understanding of SF, I’d argue for a broad understanding of ‘interesting’. One that looks at the way different genre tropes can work together, and where that integration and Hybridisation could itself be read as a creative act, rather than (and I’m sure this isn’t what you’d favour, but it is an approach I’ve seen taken) analysing the work as SF and then as crime, and then as Fantasy,without taking account of how the elements interrelate.

      On the subject of Alif, I’m only a quarter in, but I’d love to chat when I’m done. (So far it reads v. SF, with it’s interrogation of information, tech and identity, so I’m intrigued to go on!)

      1. I don’t disagree with any of that; the process of defining and answering those sorts of questions is what awards judging is all about. And certainly I agree that different generic elements can interact or overlap in very interesting ways. One of the books shortlisted in my first year, for instance, was Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which some people certainly felt was in the end a fantasy — but which is also a time travel story about scientists understanding and coming to terms with the impact of their research on the world. Or Geoff Ryman’s Air, a science fiction novel which moves towards fantasy in its closing pages to make a point (I would argue) about how we perceive the future. Even on this year’s shortlist, actually — I’ve just read Nod, and the insomnia apocalypse is never explained or rationalised; it is a purely fantastical event, and arguably Nod is only read as science fiction because it can fit within an existing tradition of science fiction horror apocalypses.

        And yes, let me know when you’re done with Alif!

  8. I don’t want to get into the minutiae of the judging process on individual books, and I think Tom would prefer it if we did not, but if I can take off my judge’s hat for a moment, I would highly recommend that everyone goes out and reads ‘Alif’.

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