Sunday, January 29, 2006

Thoughts on the Clarke Nominees

There isn't an official online announcement yet, but the shortlist was announced yesterday and is already floating around the net:
I've only read two of the nominated books (although I'm looking forward to learning more about the other four nominees when Adam Roberts writes his yearly Clarke roundup for Infinity Plus), so feel free to discount my opinion, but Air. Air all the way. Whether or not it wins, however, I think the fact that Ryman's superb novel has made it on the Clarke, BSFA, and (in all likelihood) Nebula shortlists should be an occasion for a bit of soul-searching on the part of last year's Hugo voters. It is nothing short of embarrassing that they should have ignored this remarkable work as they did.

The nomination I'm more interested in, however, is Ishiguro's. I've expressed my dissatisfaction with the novel already and I realize that I'm in the minority for feeling so, but I had been under the impression that even among those genre reviewers who lauded Never Let Me Go, there was an understanding that as a work of science fiction, the novel failed. As Matt Cheney puts it:
If you expect Never Let Me Go to be about cloning, you will be disappointed. If you expect to be able to read it as a logical science fiction novel, one that extrapolates an alternate world that makes sense, you will find much to grumble about. You will not be satisfied. You will be annoyed, even bored.
Even accepting, as I do not, that once we learn to look past its failures as a work of science fiction, Never Let Me Go is a work of genius, does it really make sense to then turn around and hand it a major science fiction award? I suppose I'm actually trying to puzzle out the purpose of the Clarke and other genre awards--are they meant to encourage excellence within the genre, or simply to glom onto successful mainstream works with tenuous genre connections?

8 comments:

niall said...

A couple of points.

Firstly, Air got screwed. It got 24 Hugo nominations, with the threshold to make the ballot 33 (The Algebraist's score), but it was only available in the US. As the current BSFA list shows, Ryman is a popular author in the UK, and given the large constituency of British Hugo voters last year, had Air actually been readily available, I have very little doubt it would have made the ballot. Of course, this year, now that Brits have had a chance to see it, it's not eligible for a Hugo, because the extended eligibility due to out-of-synch publication only goes one way.

Secondly, the purpose of the Clarke is to identify the best science fiction novel published in the UK in a given year. The definition of 'science fiction' and 'novel' (and indeed 'best') is always open for debate. That Never Let Me Go made the ballot is an indication that the judges felt it was one of the best six sf novels published in the UK in 2005. Although it's also true the award has a history of roping in books published outside the genre, I do believe the judges do so when they perceive merit. I don't think they do it to score points.

My thoughts on the book, which contain an outline of why I agree with the judges on this, plus bonus argument with Dan, are here. I don't think being published as a mainstream book should make it ineligible, and I don't think that not being a rigorous scenario should make it ineligible. (After all, internet-in-your-head isn't terribly plausible, either, especially in the way Ryman uses it.) I think that for me, the key point is that the impact of the book is contingent on the fact that the characters are clones, and that clones are a science fiction conceit. Sure, you can write about alienation in a hundred ways; but this book, this way, depends on an sf scenario. Never Let Me Go is not about cloning, but the characters are vividly imagined clones. Their psychology is shaped by that fact and it's enough, for me, to make it sf.

(I will also be particularly interested to see your thoughts on Accelerando.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't think being published as a mainstream book should make it ineligible, and I don't think that not being a rigorous scenario should make it ineligible.

I probably should have phrased that last sentence a little better, because I do agree with your first statement. It's the second one that's giving me pause - which is not to say that I completely disagree with it. My post was intended to ask the question - should we demand rigorous, or at the very least competent, SF from nominees for SF awards?

(And it's probably worth pointing out that 'not a rigorous scenario' is, in my opinion, an almost unbearably generous description of Ishiguro's failure to create a believable world. And yes, I understand that the believability of his world wasn't the point, just as I understand that he deliberately made his characters as dull as possible. The result, as far as I was concerned, was to make it impossible for me to care for these cardboard characters and their senseless existence - in much the same way that Ronald D. Moore's shoddy worldbuilding is beginning to undermine the believability of his otherwise excellent Battlestar Galactica.)

To put it another way, I had no problems with Mitchell's Cloud Atlas being nominated for last year's Clarke (well, I did actually, but they had more to do with being uncertain about whether the book could actually be defined as SF. If we're assuming that any work with the tinge of SF-nal tropes automatically becomes eligible, then my objection melts away) because it dealt so intelligently and beautifully with its SF-nal elements. I thought The Time Traveler's Wife should have been struck off the list, and not just because it's a lousy book. Niffenegger's novel was only barely science fiction, and treated its SF-nal trope in the unthinking, unsophisticated manner that I've become accustomed to seeing when mainstream writers dabble in SF.

So, to put my question in slightly less inflamatory terms, is the purpose of the Clarke (and other genre awards) to reward any good novel that happens to use SF tropes, or is it to reward good science fiction?

niall said...

I think the Clarke shortlists, more than most other sf awards, often end up testing the limits of our definitions of 'science fiction'. Hence the Niffenegger, and the Mitchell, and the Ishiguro, and Quicksilver winning and Pattern Recognition being nominated. All of those, to one degree or another, force us to ask the exact question you're asking, about whether a book containing sf tropes is science fiction.

My suspicion is that most Clarke judges would say that they are rewarding good science fiction, it's just that they have a different definition of 'good science fiction' than the one you're using here. My definitions also tend towards the generous side. I don't think Pattern Recognition is science fiction, but I think it uses enough sfnal writing techniques to justify its place on the shortlist. I do think it's meaningful to include Cloud Atlas on the shortlist for a science fiction award, although it's obviously not the only way the book can be described. Similarly The Time-Traveler's Wife, though I like it only moderately overall, struck me as being aware of other time travel stories in a way that you'd expect from a genre book, just not particularly interested in them.

On the other hand, I do agree there is a distinction between works that use sf tropes and works that are science fiction. I wasn't a fan of Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days, which has some very shoddy science fiction in its last third, for that reason. I also agree that sf writers need to be careful that the worlds they set up don't undermine their characters or their stories.

So given a straight choice between something like Cloud Atlas and something more full-blooded (for want of a better phrase) like River of Gods, I will usually come down on the River of Gods side of the equation. Part of the value of the Clarke, I think, is in asking people to make that choice. And I think most other genre shortlists come from people who have already made it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

All of those, to one degree or another, force us to ask the exact question you're asking, about whether a book containing sf tropes is science fiction.

I'm not sure that is the question I've been asking. I also have a fairly wide personal definition of science fiction, which tends to ignore issues of style and trope. I define science fiction as literature that concerns itself with two questions: how will technology alter our lives? And how will we use technology to do the same things that human beings have been doing for millennia--love, hate, start families, and dream of the future? Which is why I had no problem with the Clarke judges' decision to define Quicksilver and Pattern Recognition as SF. Similarly, I'm not questioning the assertion that Never Let Me Go is science fiction. I just think - and I don't think I'm alone in this - that it's bad science fiction.

You're probably right when you say that the Clarke judges and I have different definitions of 'good science fiction'. I think it's possible for a book to be good literature and at the same time bad science fiction - a good recent example is Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground (although VanderMeer has said that he didn't intend the book as SF, its setting is unquestionably SF-nal and his treatment of it doesn't quite work) - and I'm wondering whether the Clarke judges aren't ignoring that aspect of the question. Never Let Me Go is a good book (well, not as far as I'm concerned, but as I said I'm in the minority). Never Let Me Go is science fiction. Therefore it belongs on an SF award list. I've been asking whether we shouldn't expect the Clarke judges to give some consideration to the fact that Never Let Me Go is bad SF. And, again, I'm asking this question - I'm not at all certain what the answer should be.

Part of the value of the Clarke, I think, is in asking people to make that choice. And I think most other genre shortlists come from people who have already made it.

Very true.

niall said...

Similarly, I'm not questioning the assertion that Never Let Me Go is science fiction. I just think - and I don't think I'm alone in this - that it's bad science fiction.

Ah, right. I understand where you're coming from a bit better now. I can't read the judges' minds, but personally speaking I'd give consideration to the good book/bad sf problem were I in their shoes.

On the other hand, I'm also more confused than I thought I was about where your objection to NLMG is coming from. There's a phrase in one of Matt Cheney's Strange Horizons columns that's always seemed to fit the book well: a postmodern fable of alienated identity. Which is to say that surely the point of the book is that it's about extremely familiar--you could almost say universal--human situations and emotions, but ones that in this instance are caused by technology?

I think I can see your argument, in that if I didn't believe in the book's world I would find it hard to believe in the characters. In fact, that's pretty much what happens at the end; I think too much is revealed. When Ishiguro keeps things vague I can handwave it all, but when he explains How Things Work, his characters start feeling like actors on a rickety stage. But there's enough that I like elsewhere in the book for it to seem forgiveable.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm afraid I've twisted us both about ridiculously (and, in the process, so thoroughly compartmentalized my feelings about this book that even I'm not entirely certain what they are). Let me try to start over:

1. I accept that Never Let Me Go is SF, although I don't think it works as a piece of science fiction because of Ishiguro's lousy worldbuilding and his carelessness with detail.

2. My reasons for disliking the book have less to do with my perception of it as bad SF - I pretty much realized what I was dealing with a few pages in and steeled myself accordingly - and more to do with my perception of it as a bad book.

3. That said, I'm not at all certain that the one didn't affect the other. As I said in an earlier comment, Ishiguro's inattention to detail was a major factor in my inability to connect with the characters - in an unbelievable setting, it's harder to find believable people. However, I'm fairly certain that I would have had trouble connecting with Kathy, Ruth, and Michael even if NLMG's premise had been handled better. It certainly didn't help that, while I was zoning out over yet another stultifying story from Kathy's tedious childhood, my mind would wander over to 'wait a minute, is it actually possible to harvest three major organs from a person and still have them wandering around?', but I think the deal-breaker was the stultification and the tedium, not the bad worldbuilding.

4. Which, as I understand it, is so wildly divergent from many (or even most) people's reaction to the book as to potentially make further discussion pointless (not that I don't want further discussion, quite the contrary). Honestly, I read reviews like yours and Matt Cheney's, or even the reactions to my first critique of NLMG, and I wonder if we're talking about the same book - people who found the main characters heartbreakingly human, who were enchanted by their bucolic existence at Hailsham and crushed by their attempts to recreate that haven of safety and security in the real world. I just didn't care.

niall said...

I'm pretty sure any confusion comes from me misreading you as much as anything else, so no apologies necessary, but thanks for the clarifications. The whole question of the merits of a book as sf--how far such merit is contingent on other literary qualities, or can be independent of it--is something I find endlessly fascinating. (And don't have an absolutely firm position on, either.)

Just as a footnote to the whole discussion, the amount I cared for the characters crept up on me and caught me by surprise. It was when Kathy was looking through the magazines and saw her own face; that hurt. At this point I'd have to go back and read the book again to work out a detailed argument for why the characterisation worked for me, but I wonder whether it has to do with the cultural cues. There was a lot about Ishiguro's England and the lives of the Hailsham students that I recognised, in a softly sad way.

Of course, maybe I was just in a particularly sappy mood when I read it.

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