What you won't read
It all depends what you mean by ‘best’
It’s that time of the year again. The award shortlists are coming out accompanied, as ever, by a general wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Look, my own book, What it is we do when we read science fiction (Beccon Publications, go buy it now, you won’t regret it, would I lie to you, etc) has made the shortlist for both the Hugo Award for Best Related Book and the BSFA Award for Best Non-Fiction, so I am not going to diss the awards. I know the odds are against me winning either award, but I am genuinely pleased and excited to be shortlisted, and I imagine most of the other shortlisted authors feel the same way. Besides, my publisher tells me that the shortlists have resulted in another little bump in orders, so I can’t complain whatever happens.
Besides, a little wailing and gnashing of teeth is part of the point of awards. When you announce a shortlist you expect a raggedy chorus of ‘How could you include X?’ ‘How dare you exclude Y?’ Apart from the fact that I don’t really feel that awards merit the expenditure of so much splenetic energy, surely it is a good thing that so many people have so much invested in what is reckoned best about the genre.
Nevertheless, just possibly because of my own slight interest in the outcome, I have been following the responses to this year’s shortlists rather more intently than I might otherwise. And I have been struck by a number of observations. Nothing earth shattering about them, they are the sorts of observations that occur year in year out, which is itself sadly interesting; but unavoidable observations for all that.
The first thing you notice is that this year Hugo awards will be presented in 15 different categories (16 if you include the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer) and yet there is more discussion of the novel than practically all the other categories put together. It doesn’t seem to matter how excited we get by new writers, by sort fiction, by the latest big budget drama or quirky TV series, our default standard for the state of the genre would still appear to be the novel.
But it is the way that people have been talking about the novel shortlists that intrigued me. Basically, two themes emerge again and again. One welcomes the list: ‘Oh, wow, all my favourite authors!’ There is a somewhat more disenchanted variation on this: ‘Well, that was predictable enough.’ If these responses are more common and generally positive, the alternative is almost as common and entirely negative: ‘None of these books conforms to my view of science fiction’, which is sometimes parlayed into the assertion that ‘All awards are rubbish’.
This last is the sort of charge that used to be laid against the Arthur C. Clarke Award, because of a perceived prejudice towards more literary novels. But we don’t hear those complaints so much these days, indeed there is more likely to be complaint if an overtly mainstream novel does not get onto the shortlist. So now the attack is being redeployed against the Hugo Award.
There are specific reasons for this (there will always be specific reasons for such assertions, no matter how tenuous). This year, for example, three of the five shortlisted novels were marketed as YA (Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale), which presumably compromises the essential grown-up seriousness of the genre. This, of course, ignores the fact that YA novels have won the Hugo before, and I don’t just mean J.K. Rowling in 2005, Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was written as a juvenile. And again, the rather more serious Clarke Award shortlisted Stephen Baxter’s YA novel, The H-Bomb Girl, a couple of years ago without anything like this fuss. I’m still waiting for the genre to crumble into childishness.
Another complaint is that all five of the shortlisted authors (the others are Neal Stephenson for Anathem and Charles Stross for Saturn’s Children) have a significant internet presence. So this, it is feared, is nothing more than mobilising blog readers. Well, if that’s all it takes – GO VOTE FOR ME! VOTE NOW! VOTE OFTEN – okay, let’s see if that works.
Let’s be honest, all of this is just flannel intended to disguise the fact that what people really want to say is: the voters got it wrong. They picked books I wouldn’t have chosen for an award.
Well yes, of course, if the various awards had only had the good sense to follow my advice, year on year, we’d have a much better record of award winners. After all, if it had been left to me every award winner would have been a great work of literature that clearly defined what was best in science fiction. Except, I doubt whether many other people would have agreed. Their loss, of course, but still …
If we can’t even agree how to define science fiction, how can we possibly agree what represents the very best of the genre? That’s why we have so many awards, each with its own different constituency. There are juried awards and popular vote awards, awards chosen mostly by fans and awards chosen mostly by professionals, and each is going to choose a different shortlist based on very different tastes and ideas.
Looking back, I have to say that 2008 did not seem like a particularly inspiring year for the sf novel, and the book that stood out as the best novel of the year for me (The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs) did not come within spitting distance of any shortlist or, so far as I can tell, of any long list. But if the Hugo shortlist isn’t what I would have chosen (there are other shortlists that come closer to my taste) that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t represent my idea of science fiction.
An award shortlist is a snapshot of a curious conflation of tastes at one specific moment. It doesn’t define what’s best in a genre, only points towards what one particular constituency thinks should be best. The fact that this year three YA novels came to the fore isn’t going to shape the future course of sf, any more than J.K. Rowling’s win in 2005 has shaped science fiction since then. All the list does is represent what people think stands out in this year, and taken year on year the various award shortlists do have a strange facility for picking books that go on to stand out in our collective memory. (And the fact that Anathem has made every shortlist so far announced, for such very different constituencies, gives it a very good claim to be the novel of the year even if it goes on to win none of the awards.)
In other words, those who welcomed the shortlist (‘it’s all my favourites’) and those who attacked it (‘it doesn’t represent my view of science fiction’) were saying the same thing. Whatever they may think, they are not commenting on the nature or character of science fiction at the moment. All my favourites doesn’t equate with the best science fiction; rather it suggests that these works point towards what a certain constituency of which I am a self-selected member consider the best. Not my view of sf doesn’t mean that these books signify a downfall in the racial purity of the genre; only that I am not a self-selected member that considers these point towards the best.
Of course, these five books are the best in science fiction, as are the books that make up all the other shortlists. But that’s only because science fiction is so varied it has many different types of best.