Where’s the sf?

Well, this is fun. Kim Stanley Robinson sayeth of sf:

The result is the best British literature of our time. Oh, I know there is a Booker prize, I’ve heard of it even in California – supposedly given to the best fiction published in the Commonwealth every year – but there are no Woolves on those juries, and so they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels.

Sometimes these are fine historical novels, written by tremendous writers; I particularly like Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, and my favorite was Penelope Fitzgerald. But working, like all of us, in the rain shadow of the great modernists, they tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways. A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is. Thus it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn’t read. Should I name names? Why not: Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, Life by Gwyneth Jones in 2004, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison in 1997. Indeed this year the prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.

I note (a) that Life could not have won, alas, since it has not yet been published in the UK; and (b) that I really should get around to reading Yellow Blue Tibia. More usefully and proactively, the Guardian has put the issue to this year’s Booker judges. Quoth the chair of judges:

James Naughtie admitted that Robinson “may well have a point”, but suggested that “perhaps his arrows could be directed even more towards publishers than to judges”.

“There has always been a debate about whether the prize is sufficiently sensitive to all the forms of contemporary writing. He may well have a point,” he said. “We judge books that are submitted. The fact is that the science fiction component this year was very, very thin. If it is the best contemporary fiction in this country then most publishers haven’t yet tumbled to the fact.”

He said that judges had, collectively, been “disappointed at the way ‘the new’ was represented” in this year’s submissions, but said that “the idea that historical fiction is fusty is absurd”. “Our shortlist speaks to us about things around us, from whenever and wherever the books are set,” he said.

And John Mullan:

According to Mullan there was “essentially no” science fiction submitted for this year’s Booker prize, apart from Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, set in a dystopian future, which failed to make the longlist. “We as judges depend a great deal on what publishers submit,” he said. “There are certain kinds of genre fiction which get submitted – thrillers and detective books – which publishers think have literary quality, but this year I find it hard to think of any science fiction which was submitted.”

Around 40 years ago, it was historical fiction which was overlooked, he said. “Thirty to 40 years ago there was Georgette Heyer and it was generally speaking a fairly derided genre, whose standing was rather lower than science fiction where you had John Wyndham. Yet historical fiction has escaped the bodice ripper, so everyone does it,” he said, rejecting Robinson’s claim that historical novels “tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways” and “are not about now”.

“That’s absolute bullshit,” he said. “Of course historical novels can be like that, but really it is not to do with being a historical novel.”

To be pedantic, Robinson didn’t say historical novels aren’t about now, he said they aren’t about now in the way science fiction is. Though of course whether you apply a value judgement to that difference, and if so what judgement you apply, will differ from person to person.

But I have wondered, before, whether sf writers get submitted for the Booker. If I understand the rules correctly, publishers get two titles per imprint, so it doesn’t seem like (in most cases) they’d be using up slots by submitting sf; just getting extra slots, in effect. Of course, I may not understand the rules correctly. Ultimately, this is just one more reason why it would be nice to see a list of what’s submitted for the Booker prize in any given year.

33 thoughts on “Where’s the sf?

  1. Past experience (and John Mullan’s attitude towards current SF readers expressed above only reinforces this whatever else he says about genre books not being submitted) has suggested that there hasn’t been a whole lot of point sending in SF (or fantasy!) novels for the Booker.

    Now it may be that, John Mullan notwithstanding, we’re behind a new curve in judges attitudesand have bitterly argued ourselves out of an opportunity.

    Suffice it to say I suspect the judges will now have a fair few SF novels to read next year . . .

  2. It’s interesting; when I had a brief chat with Mullan after a panel at the Oxford Literary Festival, he seemed much better disposed towards sf — to the point where I almost thought I’d persuaded him to do an sf novel for his Guardian Book Club — even if he hadn’t actually read any for some years. The quote is disappointing.

    Clearly what we need to hope is that they invite Ken Livingstone to be a judge, one of these years…

  3. “When I was 18 [sf] 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.”

    It could be meant as a compliment, I suppose, but it seems unlikely.

  4. It’s obviously not a compliment but it doesn’t seem particularly worth worrying about, it is a standard outsider view that I wouldn’t imagine colours his actual reading of SF. Mullan is also presumably of the generation which thought the New Wave would win so you can imagine why the current situation would disappoint him.

  5. It’s too bad Robinson put in that dig on historical fiction. It’s especially perplexing because his argument is so similar to what some people use to dismiss science fiction. A lot of the literary establishment thinks modern SF, which they of course have not read, is nothing that Real Writers like Wells and Orwell haven’t already done better in the books they actually have read.

  6. I like what Kim Stanley Robinson said. He stirred where some stirring ought to be done. Besides, California is safely remote from the literati who may wish to smite him.

    I must wonder aloud, though … if those novels he mentions didn’t win the major SF awards, why should they win the Booker? With the exception of Geoff Ryman’s Air, none of the works mentioned ever won a Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell or BSFA award.

  7. It’s worth remembering that Brian Aldiss has been a Booker judge, and that didn’t result in any sf on the shortlist. The thing is, when we look at an sf novel and they look at a Booker novel, then we’re looking at totally different things. The absence of sf on the Booker doesn’t bother me in the slightest, it is no reflection whatsoever on the quality of sf or the inclusiveness of the mainstream. Any sf novel that made the Booker list (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for instance) is being judged by a very different set of criteria than a mainstream novel that makes the Clarke list (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for instance).

    Incidentally, while we’re bellyaching about how the nasty mainstream is being awful to poor little sf, what about crime fiction. Crime and thrillers have a much closer tie to the mainstream, but when was the last time a crime novel won the prize?

  8. Signs of Life has been published in the UK by Gollanzc, in 2005, as an omnibus together with The Course of the Heart. But it’s not science fiction. It’s good, but not science fiction.

  9. I nominated Signs of Life for the Hugo back in 1997. (In fact there were two good novels named Signs of Life that year, the other by Cherry Wilder, though Harrison’s was a lot better.)

    It may not be strictly speaking Science Fiction, but it is certainly a work of the Fantastic.

    At any rate wasn’t Niall referring to Gwyneth Jones’s Life?

  10. when was the last time a crime novel won the prize?

    Huh..last year?

    The White Tiger? Not a crime novel, no.

  11. The White Tiger is as much a crime novel as Cloud Atlas is a SF one. A crime novel needs not to be about a mystery or an investigation, just like Sf doesn’t mean squids in outer space.

    Saviano’s Gomorra is clearly, among other things, a crime novel, and accepted as such by its author. So is the White Tiger.

  12. Two (three) things:

    As much as I loved Yellow Blue Tibia, it’s obviously silly to say it should win the Booker this year (mostly for reasons Paul states – it simply does not (perhaps cannot) try to compete with the shortlisted novels on their own ground). He has more of a case with Air, though – but then that year saw Never Let Me Go on the shortlist, anyway.

    Secondly – if a crime novel is ‘a novel with a crime in it’, then – sure – The White Tiger is a crime novel. I think that’s an unworkable and unhelpful definition, though.

  13. Brian Moore’s The Colour of Blood and Lies of Silence work very well as thrillers (set in Communist Poland and Belfast respectively) and both were Booker shortlisted. But then you could argue that Moore is a literary novelist who worked in many genres, including the thriller. (And SF – Catholics was also Booker-nominated.)

    Incidentally, Mullan is a little young for the SF New Wave. I went to his Q & A with Roddy Doyle last month and Mullan made a point of saying that of all the novelists he’d interviewed for the Guardian Book Club, Doyle was the first one who was the same age as him – so that would mean he was born in 1958.

  14. Oh, and wasn’t at least one Christopher Priest novel submitted to the Booker? I have a feeling The Prestige was – it did win a non-genre prize (James Tait Black Memorial Award) as well as the World Fantasy Award.

  15. Being submitted for the award doesn’t mean a thing, it’s just that publishers automatically put in their top titles. And from my time on the Clarkes, publishers are singularly unable to recognise what actually qualifies for an award (I lost count of the number of non-fiction titles that were blithely submitted for a fiction award), doesn’t even mean that the publisher thinks it would make a reasonable Booker winner.

    I don’t think the long list was announced at the time The Prestige came out, and it certainly didn’t make the shortlist.

  16. So Mullan’s a year older than me. I still think he could be in the camp that “thinks the New Wave ought to have won” — granted, I missed all the fuss but still saw the backwash as it were, reading fanzines and book reviews and anthology introductions in the early and mid 70s. (I wouldn’t myself say “the New Wave should have won” but I would say “I’m glad we had a “New Wave”, it did lots of good.)

  17. Secondly – if a crime novel is ‘a novel with a crime in it’, then – sure – The White Tiger is a crime novel. I think that’s an unworkable and unhelpful definition, though.

    Helpful definitions:

    science fiction: something in the story requires for it to be set in a (quasi) scientifically plausible variation of our world. The future, a divergent past, a present with scientific advancements, a distant planet.

    horror: explores emotions like fear,dread, disgust, sometimes in order to provoke them, sometimes in order to exorcise or domesticate them through a cathartic process.

    crime: crime is the main organizing principle or driving metaphor of the text.

    These are the only definitions broad enough to comprehend every work published in these genres, even intending genre in the most commercial sense. The story at the root of the White Tiger (murderer as social climber) has been done many times, most famously by Patricia Highsmith.

    In my country, from Sciascia to Saviano, passing through Loriano Macchiavelli, Carlo Lucarelli’s De Luca trilogy and De Cataldo’s “Romanzo Criminale”, a lot of autochthonous crime fiction has expressly and deliberately been social fiction first and foremost – it was “really” about Italy during Fascism, Sicily under the Mafia, the far-reaching societal changes during the economic boom in the 50s and the 60s, the Years of Lead. The idea that The White Tiger is not a crime novel because is “really about something else” doesn’t make sense to me. It has much more in common with some of the novels by the authors I’ve mentioned than with any other “literary” novel you can think of.

    The problem is that when you talk of genres you describe them through their successful forms and not their generative principles. What’s more, while arguably everywhere the most successful forms are those which have been codified in the Angloamerican sphere, other traditions have had alternative interpretations, with different interests or focus. It’s like talking of poetry in terms of syllables, alliteration, rhymes, stanzas. But a haiku is poetry as well, and poetry is ultimately only defined by the use of language in order to continuously evoke aesthetic impressions independently of the literal meaning.

    Now, Science-Fiction and Crime, unlike Historical Fiction, Memoir or Bildungsroman, have evolved into self-sustaining commercial genres; this means that they have produced sets of preferred combinations of form and content, and selected particular audiences and communities. Formulaic aspects (spaceships, zombies, amateur detectives) are merely successful survival traits. A crime or science-fiction novel may be judged primarily on its own terms, that is, on the basis of how it satisfies some genre expectations (is the plot gripping/the mystery clever – are the ideas engaging/the space adventure exciting ) and there’s nothing wrong with that.


    1) Writers/readers may be drawn to a particular genre simply because it interests them or suits well their particular vision. Shirley Jackson didn’t write horror for commercial reasons, because she liked a few simple tropes or in order to be part of some “horror community”, but because it was the natural way in which to express what she wanted to say.

    2) “Literary” works which come to the genres from outside their elected communities evoke contradictory reactions: sometimes enthusiastic embrace, more often antagonism from both sides, refutation of the genre label, accusations of appropriation in order to gain credibility.

    3) Works like “Air” “The Speed of Dark” and “Signs of Life”, with clear literary ambitions and very little interest in the more conventional elements of genre are routinely ignored by the “literary minded” public while considered unsatisfying by large parts of their supposed audience.

    4) There’s a strong prejudice that a work cannot satisfy “genre” audiences and literary audiences at the same time, which is simply not true. Even among those readers for whom genre is the equivalent of comfort food there are many who don’t mind good prose,characterization and a bit of relevance.

    Any sf novel that made the Booker list is being judged by a very different set of criteria

    Sure. But Peter Temple’s “The Broken Shore” is arguably better written than “The White Tiger”. “Laidlaw” and “He Died with his Eyes Open” are more relevant, influential and significative than “Life of Pi”. I’m not interested in saying this or that novel should have won the Booker Prize, nor that Crime or Sci-fi are treasure troves of hidden masterpieces, but while Genre Awards may consider literary merit secundary to adherence to genre expectations, Literary Awards quite simply do not consider works which come with a genre label.

    This comment by one of the Judges of the Edge Hill Prize is very telling:

    “I suspect Chris Beckett winning the Edge Hill Prize will be seen as a surprise in the world of books. In fact, though, it was also a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand. Yet, once the judging process started, it soon became clear that The Turing Test was the book that we’d all been impressed by, and enjoyed, the most – and one by one we admitted it.

    This was a very strong shortlist, including one Booker Prize winner in Anne Enright, and two authors who’ve been Booker shortlisted in Ali Smith and Shena Mackay. Even so, it was Beckett who seemed to us to have written the most imaginative and endlessly inventive stories, fizzing with ideas and complete with strong characters and big contemporary themes. We also appreciated the sheer zest of his story-telling and the obvious pleasure he had taken in creating his fiction.”

  18. Marco: I agree that a crime novel can be about something else entirely. The Italian examples you cite are spot on, and of course James Ellroy is notorious for using crime as the organising principle of deeply political narratives. But ‘murderer as social climber’ feels to me a description of the narrative of The White Tiger, not its central metaphor; Adiga’s novel – in comparison to, for instance, American Tabloid – doesn’t use crime so much as a metaphor for the debasement of a society, but as one particular symptom of it. So, yes, Balram is brutalised into a murderer; but many other characters in the novel are brutalised in other ways. To boil the book down to a crime novel, then, rather reduces the expansiveness of its treatment of theme.

    Adam: Hey, I said I loved it. It’s like the crumbs from my table aren’t enough for you!

  19. Horace McCoy “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and David Goodis “The Moon in the Gutter” are considered crime (noir) novels, yet in both cases the murder happens outside the narration proper, and it is definitely symptom/consequence of society’s illnesses. And in McCoy’s case, it’s not even murder, but mercy killing.
    A lot of European noir is interested in the depiction of social milieu- murder is often an useful way to synthesize larger issues, but at times it may even be absent. The contrast between poverty and wealth, the widespread and systemic corruption, the coexistence of legal and illegal economies already account for the “crime” aspect in crime novel.

    To boil the book down to a crime novel, then, rather reduces the expansiveness of its treatment of theme.

    And saying Cloud Atlas is a science fiction novel doesn’t?
    Genre categorizations are neither exclusive nor really indicative.

  20. And saying Cloud Atlas is a science fiction novel doesn’t?

    Ah, but I wouldn’t say it was. You suggest that genre categorizations are neither exlusive nor indicative – I’d suggest this is the different between saying a work ‘draws on’ the crime novel and saying a work is a crime novel.

  21. Neither Cloud Atlas nor The Yiddish Policemen Union are primarily SF, but they made the shortlist in SF Awards nevertheless.

    Is The Demolished Man science-fiction or mystery? Is Alien horror or science-fiction?

    The larger problem with the is/draws argument is that the decision about which elements are dominant is subjective and arbitrary – based on personal ideas about what the defining aspects of the various genres should be .
    A lot of novels published under a genre banner could be argued to only “draw on” some conventions of the genre, but at their core to be something else entirely.
    On the other hand, if you have a history of publishing in a genre, your works will be filed under that label no matter what.
    “Signs of Life” is a good example. I have no problem considering it SF – it is, under my definition – but it is also a literary novel with a single sf element. Has it been read/reviewed outside of sf circles, like it happened for Never Let Me Go or Oryx and Crake?

    Had Kim Stanley Robinson written Cloud Atlas instead of Years of Rice and Salt, noone would have noticed it wasn’t “primarily” a science fiction novel.

  22. There’s an interesting discussion of this over at the Guardian books blog, here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/sep/24/science-fiction-adam-roberts-booker. It’s worth also taking a look at, if you’ve not seen it.

    On an aside, Marco, excellent points on European noir, all of which I agree with. Laidlaw, He Died with His Eyes Open and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They are all masterpieces (Jonathan, should you read this, I recommend Laidlaw to you to complement your readings of the other two).

    Have you read any Massimo Carlotti or Jean-Patrick Manchette? I wrote up the latter over at mine recently and Macnhette’s also written up over at the excellent His Futile Occupations blog (if you know that one), the whole point of that is the examination of crime as a manifestation of social environment.

  23. Glad you’ve got it.

    Admittedly not in the same league, but you might find the Manchette very interesting, though since you speak French I’d suggest trying the original rather than the translation as I did.

    Both look to the crime as product of the society that produced the criminal, with McIllvanney there’s an extent to which either we’re all guilty or none of us are. Challenging stuff (not that trite summary, the full novel).

  24. Heh. Well, I disagree with his disagreement…

    Besides, the Guardian’s the only mainstream literary outlet I can think of that treats SF with any respect at all. At the other extreme, have any of you ever read a Spectator SF review? Painful. They’d give the book either to a CofE priest, or to a chap who’d read some Asimov in the 1950s and had quite liked it then but wasn’t so sure about this new stuff.

  25. I reviewed a Chabrol adaptation of a Manchette parody of some Dostoevsky earlier this week and was impressed, so I might well look into him.

    To be fair though, aren’t ALL Spectator articles written either by members of the establishment or people who are rather old and aren’t too sure about this new stuff?

  26. Back when I read it, admittedly a few years ago now, they went out of their way with certain review topics to ensure a lack of suitability of reviewer. It was at its worst with popular science books or any work of science fiction, the contrast with reviews of literary fiction was quite striking.

    It wasn’t an out of touch thing, it was a pandering to the prejudices of the readership thing, a trend that eventually became so marked in other areas of the magazine I stopped reading it entirely.

    But the SF and science coverage was notably worse than the coverage of say history, lit fic or crime (including contemporary crime). They took pleasure in not taking it seriously.

    Odd magazine the Spectator, perhaps past it’s time.

  27. On an aside, Marco, excellent points on European noir, all of which I agree with.

    Thanks. Funnily I did discover the Guardian discussion independently, responded to you there and bookmarked your blog. We seem to be very much on the same wavelength, and it’s very rare to find someone interested and knowledgeable in BOTH crime and science-fiction.

    Carlotto is probably my favourite noir writer, with the caveat that I much prefer his standalones to the Alligator series, and that I’ve heard the quality of the English translations varies widely.
    As I’ve said on the Guardian Blog L’Oscura Immensità della Morte/Death’s Dark Abyss is his best novel.
    I’ve read and enjoyed some Manchette, but not the most famous ones.

  28. I didn’t recognise you Marco. I’ve read The Goodbye Kiss, Arrividerci Amore, Ciao I believe in the Italian (though please feel free to correct me). Tremendous, and I thought a good translation, though my Italian’s not presently up to reading the original sadly. A Europa edition, they’re often very good.

    Agreed on Izzo by the way, tremendous writer again.

    I fear though I drift off topic… To return to it, I’m fine with SF not being eligible for the Booker, I’d just like to see historical fiction ineligible too. All genres or none. If historical fiction’s allowed, so should be crime, sf, fantasy, romance, whatever.

    Either it’s about the best book (and how do I compare Manifold Space with The Reluctant Fundamentalist exactly? On what criteria?) or it’s about the best work of literary fiction. Currently, it’s not quite either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s