Wed
Jun 11 2014 6:30am

Science Fiction Falling

Hannu Rajaniemi The Casual Angel

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus, Tor.com’s regular round-up of book news from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

Someone on the internet thinks that “contemporary SF published in the UK is punching well below its weight.” Someone else agrees. Me? So moved am I by the arguments advanced that I set about planning a not-for-profit publisher to fund the future of science fiction.

This edition of the Focus also features the announcement of the nominees for the British Fantasy Awards, PS Publishing’s celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Best New Horror books, Richard Dawkins’ fight against the fairytale, and finally, something happy happening at Hachette.

The Fall of Science Fiction

Having shadowed “a lot of award lists” lately, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Man Booker and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Follow the Thread’s David Hebblethwaite went out on a limb last week to take science fiction to task:

Science fiction and fantasy are where I started as a reader, and I still believe that the fantastic as a whole has a vital contribution to make to literature. So it gave me no pleasure to see the Clarke lagging behind those other awards; but it bore out a trend that I see elsewhere in my reading.

In short, Hebblethwaite believes that “contemporary SF published in the UK is punching well below its weight.” He went on to evidence incredulity at the supposition that SF is, in fact, “leading the pack”:

I think that, ten or fifteen years ago, it was certainly keeping pace: writers like China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer were emerging at the same time as (say) Sarah Waters and Michel Faber. These days, however, it seems to me that SF is struggling to keep up.

It’s not that SF is lacking books at the top end of the scale; the likes of James Smythe can hold their own. It’s that, generally, it has fewer of them than the literary ‘mainstream,’ and that the average seems to be lower down the scale. If I take writing quality (the backbone of any piece of fiction) as an example, even when I look at my least favourite titles from some of the award lists—such as D.W. Wilson's Ballistics or Emma Donoghue’s Astray—they’re at worst OK; but, from the Clarke shortlist, there’s stuff in Ramez Naam's Nexus and Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise that makes me cringe.

The British critic concluded:

I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream—and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre SF published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that SF has a lot of catching up to do.

At The Spider’s House, short fiction aficionado Nina Allan—also the author of The Race, a promising novel out of NewCon Press this August—added to Hebblethwaite’s argument:

David argues that SF has become increasingly conservative, not only in terms of textual form, but also in its willingness to actively engage with contemporary political and social issues—the arena where SF is naturally constituted to excel, in other words. I’m afraid I would tend to agree with him, and would probably go on to add evocative and original use of language to the charter of lack.

Allan elaborated, using Gollancz’s back catalogue as an example:

With M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Ian McDonald and Simon Ings on their roster, Gollancz still surely boasts some of the finest writers in the business. But we’d do well to remember that authors with decades-long careers behind them will always constitute less of a financial risk for the publisher. When it comes to new blood—where the risk lies, in other words—aside from Hannu Rajaniemi I couldn’t think of one new-generation writer Gollancz publish who is actively innovative, who comes anywhere even close to doing what Delany was doing in 1971. That was a scary, scary thought. And if Gollancz, with their venerable back catalogue of masterworks and estimable track record in promoting fresh talent, isn’t actively seeking out newer writers who want to do more than write commercial core genre, who the hell is?

The Apollo Quartet’s Ian Sales took issue with some of Allan’s suppositions:

I think Nina makes some interesting points, but her comment about language seems to me to forget that science fiction is chiefly a genre of commercial fiction, with much of its DNA provided by pulp fiction. The current economic climate [...] means publishers prize commercial science fiction more than they do literary science fiction. The small presses—and self-published authors, to some extent—have picked up the latter baton, but they are still small fry in a large profit-driven ocean. When writing commercial fiction in any genre, there’s a tendency to stick to tried and tested—and familiar and lucrative—patterns. So it doesn’t really surprise me that prose in SF novels is blanding out, or even that ideas and the presentation of those ideas is tending to more... comfortable forms. I can rue this, I can compare it unfavourably with the situation thirty or forty years ago... but there are too many things that need to change, many of which the publishing industry has no control over, before it can be resolved. Plus, there are other issues which need to be addressed first—notably the lack of diversity, and the preponderance of sexism and racism—and it’s good that the SF conversation keeps on talking about these topics and is making progress at combatting them.

Indeed it is. But that isn’t to say this is a debate for another day:

The point I’m trying to make [...] is that the science-fictionalness, to coin a phrase, of a text, particularly hard SF, has not appreciably progressed for decades. I don’t doubt that the bulk of SF authors in years past never really bothered to interrogate or deconstruct the tropes they used—although some did, Samuel R. Delany certainly did—and likewise very little present-day science fiction makes a serious attempt at examining the science-fictional assumptions, the tropes and genre furniture, of which it makes use. Nor do they explore the psychology of their protagonists. These, I think, are not only a missed opportunities, but also make SF, for me, a less interesting genre than it could be in the twenty-first century.

So let’s add these things together—from David, the lack of experimentation in form; from Nina, the lack of contemporary commentary; and from myself, the failure to examine what science fiction actually does and why it does it... surely there’s something in among that lot worth exploring?

I think there is.

My perspective: publishers are profit driven businesses, thus they can hardly be faulted for seeking out potential commercial successes rather than literary experiments that are apt to do poorly in a marketplace dominated by the behemoths of the genre. Examples of exceptional contemporary SF are out there—behold Hannu Rajaniemi, Dave Hutchinson, Patrick Ness, etc.—but so few and far between are these that they practically prove the rule.

And if the rule of SF is that if a book doesn’t have the potential to sell phenomenally well, it’s unlikely to be published, then the genre as a whole is going nowhere, slowly. And we don’t want that, do we?

You ask me, what we need is a number of not-for-profit publishers dedicated not to commercial success but to pushing genre fiction forward. They could work on subscription-based models, maybe. I’m a bad businessman, but I can see that working.

I mean, imagine if you could fund the future of SF. Wouldn’t that be something?

 

Awards Watch: British Fantasy Awards

Leaving SF to the side for a second, the authors up for a British Fantasy Award were named the other day.

Here are the nominees for the Robert Holdstock Award, a celebration of the finest in fantasy, which is obviously going to go to Neil Gaiman—though I for one would love to see Sofia Samatar or Tom Pollock take it:

  • Between Two Thorns, Emma Newman (Angry Robot)
  • Blood and Feathers: Rebellion, Lou Morgan (Solaris)
  • The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock (Jo Fletcher Books)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (Headline)
  • A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press)

Meanwhile, the August Derleth Award is given to the year’s best horror novel:

  • House of Small Shadows, Adam Nevill (Pan)
  • Mayhem, Sarah Pinborough (Jo Fletcher Books)
  • NOS4R2, Joe Hill (Gollancz)
  • Path of Needles, Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)
  • The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins)
  • The Year of the Ladybird, Graham Joyce (Gollancz)

I don’t know what The Shining Girls is doing in here, really. A brilliant book, but horror? How?

My money’s on Graham Joyce taking the trophy home when the winners are announced at a ceremony at FantasyCon 2014 in early September—though NOS4R2 was also awesome.

I’m tempted to Mystic Meg my way through the other categories as well, but we’ve run short on space and time today, and there are a load of odds and sods to talk about. I implore you to check out the rest of the nominees here, however.

 

Odds & Sods

  • Tom Lloyd Moon's ArtificeGollancz revealed a new cover for the mass market paperback of Moon’s Artifice by Tom Lloyd, with art by Krzysztof Domaradzki. Much nicer than the old one, isn’t it?
  • Last we heard, Ian Sales’ hard SF anthology was in danger of disappearing due to too few submissions. Well I’ve got good news: the project is proceeding apace. “Unfortunately, in putting together Aphrodite Terra I appear to have done something wrong. It has been repeatedly asserted in the last week or so that women do not write or read science fiction, and it seems I failed to take note of that. Aphrodite Terra has five female contributors, and one male.” Oh well. Can’t get it right every time!
  • Skin Game, the new Jim Butcher book, is a number one Sunday Times bestseller. “Huge congratulations to Jim from all at Orbit for this well-deserved success,” and from all at Tor.com, too. Nice to see something happy happen at Hachette, isn’t it?
  • Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, AKA the enemy of all things bright and beautiful, has renewed his farcical assault on the fairytale.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.

7 comments
Colin Bell
1. SchuylerH
@Niall: An interesting business idea there: I also think that mass-market publishers aren't putting out enough single-author collections these days, despite authors such as Kij Johnson and Aliette de Bodard doing their best work at shorter lengths.

The Dawkins thing is overstated: there's a partial retraction in the YA Roundup column. However, he has always been like this about most SF & fantasy with a few exceptions (including Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud and Daniel F. Galouye's Dark Universe). This is part of my problem with him: I'm an atheist myself (thank God), so I'm wary of people who get into a position of authority and start giving out commandments...

Will there be a review of The Causal Angel forthcoming?
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
I'm not certain the new cover for Moon's Artifice is *better*. It's certainly a major redesign
Niall Alexander
3. niallalot
@SchuylerH: Absolutely. Matter of fact, the honour of reviewing The Causal Angel has fallen to me. I have a couple of other books to get to first, but there should be something on the site soon, sir.

@PrinceJvstin: If not better, necessarily, then different enough that it's apt to appeal to a whole other segment of the market—a segment I fall into, for one. Beforehand, I couldn't have given a hoot. Now I'd at least like to take a look...
Booksnhorses
4. Booksnhorses
Ha ha, Mystic Meg. Is she still going? Does it mean anything to our friends in the US?
Booksnhorses
5. Nick H.
"I don’t know what The Shining Girls is doing in here, really. A brilliant book, but horror? How?"

Um. It's pretty easy to defend Shining Girls as horror. If the author was "Stephen King" you wouldn't even need to think about it. Indeed, when my reading group discussed the Shining Girls, many compared it to 11.22.63. Not only that, it was further compared to Joe Hill's NOS4R2 - both books feature a physical location that enables travel by special means, have a twisted killer, and generate fear through first anticipation and then enaction of deaths.

I apologise if I'm wrong, but when I see comments like that, it sounds like what's actually being said is "Lauren Beukes doesn't write horror, so this can't be right." But if you look at the book, if you look at what it does, it's impossible to argue that it's not horror.


To end on a lighter note - on another subject, I'm going to have terrific trouble with that Hannu Rajeniemi book. Every time I see it I keep wanting to call it "The Casual Angel."
Booksnhorses
6. evilsoup
You know, the one convincing argument I've seen for the value of publishers to society is that they can cross-subsidise more literary works with the profits they make from populist books. If the publishers aren't doing that in sci-fi, then I can only say that I won't be crying any tears for them over their business model collapsing under attack from the self-publishing side of the industry (which will only increase over time, and which I would expect sci-fi writers to be ahead of the curve on).
Niall Alexander
7. niallalot
@Booksnhorses: To answer your questions, yes... and no, I don't think so. But I figure that's half the fun of the Focus. :)

@Nick H.: Point well taken, mate. Though I wouldn't call 11.22.63 a horror novel either, I admit I'd be more likely to consider it a part of that category than The Shining Girls, and on reflection, you're right—that's a ridiculous distinction.

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