When the Arthur C. Clarke Award released its shortlist yesterday, it result in the standard push back on how the judges got it wrong. The largest objections seemed to come from those who believed By Light Alone by Adam Roberts and The Islanders by Christopher Priest should have made the list, generally in place of The End Specialist by Drew Magary and The Water’s Rising by Sheri S. Tepper. I can’t really comment since the only novel I’ve actually read on the short list is The End Specialist and the two suggested replacements haven’t been released in the U.S. yet (at least I don’t think they have).
Anytime a shortlist comes out, that someone might impugn, the first question should always be, what was submitted? Thankfully the Clarkes came prepared with a list. Looking at the list I see several novels I would happily swap with Magary’s and one major oversight (one every award committee seems to be making in my estimation) in T.C. McCarthy’s Germline. Interestingly, several overt fantasy novels were submitted in The Straight Razor Cure (Polansky), The Last Werewolf (Duncan), The Fallen Blade (Grimwood), The Last Four Things (Hoffman), and several others that straddle the line. I say interesting because after all:
The Arthur C. Clarke Award is given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year.
Whether these novels were discarded for not meeting the criteria of the award, I can’t speculate, but given that Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City won the award a year ago (another novel I consider fantasy, not science fiction), I suspect they were.
Regardless, all this speculation sparked a brief exchange between myself and Jared Shurin (Pornokitsch editor and Overlord of the Kitschies) related to God’s War by Kameron Hurley. It should be noted that God’s War isn’t on the Clarke’s submission list, which seemed perfectly normal to me as I don’t consider it science fiction. Jared was flabbergasted that I wouldn’t put a science fiction label on God’s War, just as I’m sure he’d be surprised to see me withhold it from Beukes’s award winning novel. Zoo City is clearly set in the future and Hurley mentions space ships with some advanced technology. Both seem science fictional.
They aren’t. To explain why, let me first ask what the difference is between a Western and Historical Fiction set in 1840′s America? The answer is theme. The fundamental theme of a Western is man versus nature, and the subordination of it by ‘civilization’. There’s also the idea of personal justice and a code that supersedes the law of the land. Those are themes that can be played out in space (Firefly) or in cyberpunk tales (Cowboy Bebop) or in post-apocalyptic America (The Stand). A story that doesn’t have those themes, set in the Wild West, isn’t a Western. It’s just historical fiction.
In the same way, science fiction means more than ‘set in the future’. It means more than just having some level of technology that’s deemed arbitrarily science fictional. For me, science fiction has themes that make it so, particularly a discussion of how technology alters, retards, or advances humanity. The relationship to technology is what makes a novel science fiction. God’s War, for all its technology, isn’t about that relationship. It’s a story of war and faith. Technology changed the human population when (if) it dropped them on the planet, but that has nothing to do with the story Hurley is telling. Hurley’s story doesn’t engage technology or science at all. To me, that makes it ‘future fiction’ at best, and given the existence of magic and few cues that code for planetary expansion, my money is on pure fantasy.
By the same argument, let me throw out Prince of Thorns. Mark Lawrence hasn’t hidden from the fact that his novel is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, much like Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. I haven’t heard anyone call Lawrence’s debut science fiction, but it’s easily as science fiction as God’s War. Just because it has swords and horses it’s fantasy? That doesn’t wash for me.
I’m sure someone reading this is thinking, what about Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land? It’s a reasonable point as Heinlein’s classic is clearly social science fiction. Technology is only tangentially related, but the fundamental point is that Smith is only introduced to society through technology. Humanity’s expansion into space made contact with extraterrestrial life possible. Everything that comes after, while not a direct discussion of technology, is the fall out of that basic paradigm.
But Justin, genre is arbitrary. Of course it is! This isn’t a criticism of the Clarke Award. It’s a round of applause because here I am talking about this stuff. I hope they continue to recognize novels that aren’t just science fiction. Recognize the best novels! Zoo City was certainly one of the best novels in genre in 2011 (2012 in the States!). In a world of semantics though, calling it science fiction is a stretch. Maybe ‘future fantasy’ makes more sense. Or ‘futuristic fiction’. Or ‘Ask Justin And He’ll Tell You What Genre This Is’. I’m going with the last one. What do you think?