Speech for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, 18 July 2018

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

We come to honour the modern Prometheans.

We come to honour those who steal fire.

We come to honour those chained to rocks.

We come to honour those whose livers are plucked out by eagles.

Well, maybe not the last, but do keep drinking.

Two hundred years ago, the teenaged daughter of two radicals, who had run away to Europe, published a novel in which a scientist brings dead matter to life and then abandons his offspring. We can read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in many ways, but in part it’s about technology and reproduction, about parenting and responsibility and about what it is to be human.

Those are some good themes.

Our authors are still exploring them, two centuries on. There were four debut sf novels on the shortlist this year and the other two authors are new to the Clarke Award.

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time is set in a near future where people can have babies by donation or redesign their babies or even have be both parents. In a series of vignettes, intersecting in subtle ways, Charnock explores some of the social implications and some of the emotions of children and parents. It’s a book that demands rereading, our judges finding it subtle and “a quiet, unshowy book” that lingers for a long time.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne is set after apocalyptic events, with the few survivors scavenging in the bad lands in fear of the dreadful Company, in fear of the awful Magician and in fear of the bearful Mord, a huge, aggressive, flying bear. One survivor is Rachel, living in an uneasy relationship with a scavenger named Wick, who find a strange object she takes at first to be a plant, but turns out to be an animal and indeed sentient. They call it – him – Borne and Rachel raises him like a child, until Borne starts having ideas of his own. Our judges called it “absolutely bonkers” with “batshit crazy technology” – but, obviously, batshit in a good way.

Children, daughters, with ideas of their own are at the heart of Jennie Melamed’s debut Gather the Daughters, a postapocalyptic island community where daughters are very definitely property of their fathers and are abused in all kinds of ways. Whilst the society’s set up brings its own crises, the thrust of the novel is the young women’s attempt to assert agency. Our judges said this is “An important book which places the experiences of the abused and their testimony at the centre” and it offers us “Unspoken stories of the unheard”. It’s clearly in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that seems more relevant today than thirty years ago.

Revolution features in Omar El Akkad’s American War, another debut, where we follow the actions of a child and then woman Sarat in the Second American Civil War after the death of her father. She is radicalized by a father figure and we see how she is driven to terrible acts. It is a tale of American politics told from the outside, which our judges felt “Turns sf’s power structures upside down” and marks “The end of the American century.”

Jaroslav Kalfař’s debut Spaceman of Bohemia straddles a historic revolution from the perspective of a lone astronaut on a Czech space mission to investigate a strange cloud which may threaten Earth. Not only do we get the story of his travels – and his encounter with an alien spider-like creature – but we delve into his past and the actions of his father and grandfather before the Velvet Revolution. The sins of the fathers may yet be visited on the sons. It is Swiftian and Kafka-esque, and Hasek-esque and our judges loved its “Sf exploration of recent Czech political history”

C. Robert Cargill has written in other modes and genres, but Sea of Rust is his first sf novel. It’s told from the point of a sentient robot, after an AI created apocalypse in the wake of a movement for robot rights. Humans have refused to acknowledge their artificial offspring and are usurped by their creation. Robots get finally to be human, with all their resourceful, wisdom, skills and their foibles, jealousies, politics and aggression. It has element of westerns – The Dirty Dozen, perhaps, with raids and sawbones doctors and ambushes and shootouts. Our judges found it “an unexpected pleasure” and “An effortless read”, and it, like Borne, is a whole lot of fun.

I think our judges had fun whittling down the submissions to six, and I thank them for their good humour and patience in the heart breaking process of agreeing which of the half dozen were dispensable and which we wished to choose as the latest winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The other five books will take on lives of their own and be read and I think we have a snapshot of the modern Prometheus and what science fiction can do in these dark and uncertain times. Words and stories remain important.

But one of the books had to win, as the eagles circled, eyeing our livers.

It’s time to discover the latest Titan.

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.
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Speech for Arthur C. Clarke Award, 24 August 2016

My speech as Non-voting Chair of JudgesTM at Foyles, 24 August 2016. Gratifyingly well received.
 

Novels with spaceships and novels with spiders,
near future Europe with parallels beside her,
a modified woman – flying with wings,
these are a few of my favourite things.

You’d think after thirty years it’d be easy to choose the Clarke winner – we’d turn up and all know that that novel is the one.

But this year we had a tough time getting to a short list and a tough time agreeing on a winner.

All of the books play with and reinvigorate the sandbox of science fiction – generation starships, ill-matched crews, AIs, parallel universes, mutants and have one or more moments of conceptual breakthrough, when you realise that the fictional universe is more complicated than you think.

It was suggested to me by Ian Whates, Leila Abu El Hawa, Andrew McKie, Liz Bourke and David Gullen that in a sense all the books on the short list were winners

But I pointed to the rule that There Can Be Only One.

Might it be Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight, follow-up to his Clarke shortlisted Europe in Autumn, with the Balkanised Europe now neighboured by a pocket universe consisting of a university, a pocket university, if you will? Of course, this is a very timely book, a very important book, said one of the judges, and we were deciding on a winner just over a week after the Brexit vote. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

There’s a pocket world in Iain Pears’s Arcadia, which laminates together a Tolkien-esque author and their fantasy world, and time travel from the near future to a parallel world. Pears nods, of course, to Tolkien and Lewis, to Sir Philip Sidney and to As You Like It, as well as many other references. Pears’s app add to the reading experience, challenges the linearity of reading and adds to the pleasure of the novel. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

Or might it be, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Kitshchie award-winning, originally self-published, lazily comparable to Firefly, but it does diversity and explores identity so much better than Whedon and almost effortlessly. Great fun, this is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

Or might it be a book that has to overcome a phobia of many of its readers and at least one of our judges, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time. This is an epic tale, told across generations, as the last of humanity think they have found a terraformed planet to settle, only it is defended by an AI who is protecting the dominant species of the planet, which has been uplifted (and the novel has at least one nod to David Brin). Defying disbelief, that species turns out to be able to defend itself more than adequately. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

Alternatively, J.P. Smythe’s Way Down Dark is also set on a ship that has a voyage which will last generations –but here the passengers are awake, but society is falling apart. Chan has tried to maintain the Arboretum against the attacks of a savage gang. When her mother dies, Chan has to become leader in her place and save the ship. But nothing is quite as it seems and we are taken on quite a journey in the first of a trilogy. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

Finally, Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, a prequel to Who Fears Death, forces the reader to confront some interested moral questions in the choice of protagonist – in some ways it’s a superhero origin story, but in truth it is more complex. Phoenix Okore is a modified, accelerated woman, imprisoned in a skyscraper in New York. When she breaks out in search of the truth, it starts a bloody chain of events in Ghana and the U.S. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

You can see our problem. What do you mean by favourite?

Each year, for thirty years, the judges have to decide that for themselves. A different set of judges every year and a different favourite. How did they decide this year?

Novels with spaceships and novels with spiders,
near future Europe with parallels beside her,
a modified woman – flying with wings,
these are a few of my favourite things.

Speech for Arthur C. Clarke Award, 6 May 2015

There was a moment in the final judging meeting for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award when we invoked W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

It was something about the ordinariness of suffering and disaster, its everydayness. Because we’d realised that each of the books we had chosen, in quite different ways, was about the end of the world.

I’d also been rereading one of Freud’s case studies, in which the patient – not, in fact one of Freud’s patients – imagined that he was living after the end of the world:

At the climax of his illness, […] Schreber became convinced of the imminence of a great catastrophe, of the end of the world. Voices told him that the work of the past 14,000 years had now come to nothing, and that the earth’s allotted span was only 212 years more; and […] he believed that that period had already elapsed. He himself was ‘the only real man left alive’, and the few human shapes that he still saw – the doctor, the attendants, the other patients – he explained as being ‘miracled up, cursorily improvised men’. […] He had various theories of the cause of the catastrophe. At one time he had in mind a process of glaciation owing to the withdrawal of the sun; at another it was to be destruction by an earthquake

Disasters are not new, of course; taking a middle ground definition of science fiction we can see the end of the world in Mary Shelley’s other sf novel, The Last Man, and come close to it in H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. We have the so-called cosy catastrophes of Wyndham and Christopher, Ballard’s ecological psychological disasters. They are perhaps innoculations of fear of the real world ending in disaster – whether it is the ongoing fall out from the economic crash of 2008 with default always just round the corner or the latest salvo in the ongoing culture wars.

Six visions of the end of the world – three women, three men, a range of nationalities, a variety of publishers and a work – sort of – in translation. My thanks to the judges who chose the books and discussed them so passionately at four epic meetings.

Our judges found Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August to be “An unusual take on time travel with communication across generations [and] a metaphor for our lives”. Harry August lives his life over and over again, each time with his memories of the last life intact, trying to get things right. But the end of the world is coming, he is told, and the apocalypse seems to be getting closer all the time. One judge found it “Incredibly immersive” and “didn’t want it to finish”.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn is a “soft apocalypse”, a vision of a near-future Europe, Balkanising. Estonian chef Rudi is drawn into a shadowy organisation, whether he likes it or not, and there seems no way out. One judge called it “A novel about fragmentation – [with Europe] both becoming more localised and globalised.” We noted a minor character shared the name and some of the interests of one of our judges – coincidence we hope – and felt that it avoided “a lot of the probable pitfalls” of the near-future, international thriller.

Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things the judges found “Very Ken MacLeod but not MacLeod”, it was “Understated and unsettling and absolutely absorbing”. Christian pastor Peter Leigh is sent on a secretive mission to an alien planet where the indigenous species want to hear the gospel; he is not the first priest to do so, but no one will tell him what went wrong last time. Meanwhile, back on Earth, things are falling apart. We can’t help but read this with memories of Mary Dorian Russell’s The Sparrow, of course, and before that James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven straddles the apocalypse, both the Georgia flu that begins to wipe out 99% of humanity and the survivors twenty years later. The judges noted that it is “A feel good post apocalypse” and, while many post-apocalypse novels focus on the survival of humanity, this focuses on the survival of culture. According to Auden, “We must love one another or die.” Later he rewrote the line “We must love one another and die.” This novel for the judges, was “An elegy for the hyperglobalised present“.

M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts is in the early days of the postapocalypse, some kind of zombie plague where our protagonist or antagonist – the eponymous girl – is among a group of child zombies being experimented on by uninfected survivors. She might hold the answer to humanity’s plight. The judges found it “Very emotional and suspenseful, truly horrifying” and note its move “from humanity to posthumanity” and how it “Worked through its sfnal premise logically”.

And finally, Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water takes us to several generations after some kind of disaster, where water has become scarce, and the protagonist’s father is a tea master, gifted with extra water, but under the constant suspicious eyes of an occupying force. Noria Kaitio looks likely to succeed her father, despite being a woman, but secrets, both of her parents and the half-forgotten pre-apocalypse put her at risk. The judges praised the “Beautiful writing” and “The strength of the relationship” at the heart of the novel. It is “intensely focused, narrow-ranging, almost flawless on its own terms.”

My job here, of course, is to draw connections, but we do have six very different apocalypses, sometimes quite mundane apocalypses, lived apocalypses. I’ll quote Auden again. The Old Masters:

never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

And then, of course, we have something amazing – not thankfully a boy falling out of the sky, but a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.