Speech for Arthur C. Clarke Award, 27 July 2017

My speech as Non-voting Chair of JudgesTM at Foyles, 27 July 2017.

I’m not sure that it is smart or wise to say this.

I am feeling haunted.

There are voices in my head and I’m not sure whose head it is.

There is the voice in my head of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who would have been a hundred in December. Without him, we wouldn’t be here today, and as we look at the short list for the 31st Clarke Award, I wonder what he would say.

Meanwhile we’ll find out at the conference I’m coorganising.

We know what the Sharkes have said, that group of critics and authors who, under the umbrella of Anglia Ruskin University have been reading and debating the submitted books and the short list and came up with their shadow short list. I have felt haunted by them — just out of the corner of my eye.

When I think of sharks, I think of Jaws and John Williams’s score, and then I think of Stravinsky.

It’s ghosts all the way down.

I’m gonna need a bigger brain. I need a back-up.

Someone once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Science fiction is a medium that allows us to talk with ghosts. And those ghosts to talk to us. Nonhumans who seem more human than human.

I digress.

But Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me has an angel as its protagonist even though this is science fiction, not fantasy. Pearl, sometimes in capital letters, and tucked away is the detail that this stands for Post-Event Adjustment Reality Launcher works for a shadowy resistance. She is on the trail of a murderer who wears another man’s body. The judges declare that it is “full of fireworks”, and noted that at its heart are people who care for others.

After Atlas, by Emma Newman, has another protagonist in search of a murderer, aided by a personal AI that — who? — whispers information and details in his ear. There is a back story that slowly comes to the fore — this is a standalone sequel to Newman’s Planetfall — and takes the book in a more Clarkean direction. The judges agreed that the book was very well told and economical, and the author knew exactly what she was doing.

Becky Chambers’s A Closed and Common Orbit is another standalone sequel, what twenty years ago I called a timeslip ping pong narrative, two interconnected stories of an AI that was and a girl who escapes a nightmarish society and is raised by an AI. One of the judges called it “a book about people who found that institutions cannot encompass their identity.” It is very much about how we draw the boundaries of personhood. One judge added, “Small lives matter.”

That also becomes central to Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, where millions of small lives don’t matter, at least not to many of the characters. One judge suggests the novel explores the “relentless tunnel vision” of war fare, and we debated if genocide is fine, as long as it is done artistically. The protagonist, Kel Cheris, a captain, uses the ghost of a former military commander, Shuos Jedao, in her latest campaign — but he is just as likely to be using her and she has a split identity throughout the novel. The book is haunted, inevitably, by earlier space opera, such as the works of Ann Leckie and Iain M. Banks, but finds an original route.

Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, arguably a mosaic novel, is haunted by C.L. Moore and Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury and Clifford D. Simak and no doubt many more.

Oh yes, “Nine Billion Names of God.”

Stories across years interconnect in a spaceport at Tel Aviv, with robot soldiers and religious robots and data vampires. The judges said it was “beautifully written, beautifully imagined, beautifully realised.” It is stuffed full of good ideas. One of the judges observed it was “a doily, not a hat”.

In a good way.

And finally, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which takes literally Samuel Delany’s notion about sf literalising the metaphors. If you look at the Wikipedia entry on the system that helped slaves, you’ll find the statement that “The escape network was not literally underground nor a railroad.” Here it resolutely is, and we follow one slave’s attempt to get to safety, as well as some of those on her trail. It is, the judges say, “a deeply subversive alternate history” and personally I was left wondering if this novel is set just before the civil war or closer to our present time. One judge noted how the novel argues “even before oppression exists, resistance exists.”

The first novel to win the Clarke Award, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was also about an individual in an oppressive society asserting their humanity and agency. It has spoken to us and haunted us for over three decades now. It became a film and now a television series, and protestors have been dressing up as handmaids in America.

Our past futures continue to haunt us, to speak to us, make us question our humanity and our care for others. I wonder which book will now join our list of winners and add to the conversation?

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