The latest Genre Dust-up: Christopher Priest versus the Clarke Awards

While I was away, the nominations for the Clarke Award have been announced.

I’m very pleased to see Jane Rogers, whom I ferried around in my ancient Volkswagen Jetta during a visit to Bremen a couple of year ago, on that list. China Mieville was pretty much a no-brainer, though I haven’t read Embassytown. I like Sherri Tepper, though again I haven’t read the nominated book. Charles Stross has legions of fans, even though I am not one of them. Greg Bear regularly gets nominated for major genre awards. The only headscratcher for me was Drew Margary, whom I must admit I’ve never heard of.

In short, it’s a pretty regular SFF awards shortlist – and mind you that I rarely agree with more than one or two of the nominations anyway.

Nonetheless, this particular awards shortlist seems to have kicked off a minor internet war, since Christopher Priest quite vehemently disagrees with most of the nominations (and also manages to insult crime writer Mark Billingham while he’s at it, since Billingham apparently had the gall to share a panel on genre fiction with Mr Priest). Interestingly, he does agree with me on Jane Rogers, even though I doubt he ever ferried her around town in an ancient Volkswagen Jetta. Otherwise, he is disappointed with the China Mieville novel, really dislikes Sherri Tepper’s book for being a quest fantasy with a talking horse and finds the Drew Margary book competent but derivative in a version of the “But author X did this first in 1954” curse that hampers the SF genre. He also calls Charles Stross an energetic internet puppy and has obvious issues with his writing, though his are different from mine.

Of the Greg Bear novel, he has the following to say:

Of Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three (Gollancz) there is little to say, except that it is capable in its own way, and hard in the way that some people want SF to be hard, and it keeps alive the great tradition of the SF of the 1940s and 1950s where people get in spaceships to go somewhere to do something.

As someone who is not a big fan of what passes for hard SF these days, this paragraph did make me smile. Interestingly, Christopher Priest’s description of Greg Bear’s novel as being about people getting into spaceships to go somewhere to do something would also apply equally well to the two Charles Stross novels (Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise for the curious) I read way back when.

With a rant like this, it’s rather obvious that there would be responses and indeed there are. Damien Walter attempts to psychoanalyze Christopher Priest and comes to the conclusion that he’s basically just jealous at J.G. Ballard and the rest of the world. Interestingly, what Damien Walter has to say of Christopher Priest (of whose works I have only read The Prestige), namely:

His writing is extremely clever, but even in the ‘literature of ideas’ that is SF, “extremely clever” is really a way of saying rather unemotional, dry, and hard to love. It has all the qualities of someone who has spent decades studying, learning, dedicating every fraction of a considerable intellect to learning the rules and structures of fiction, but never quite managed to get his own soul on the page.

would also describe my issues with the two Charles Stross novels I read ages ago.

John Scalzi also weighs in and says that it all comes down to differing tastes.

Meanwhile, Nina Allan largely agrees with Christopher Priest in considering the shortlist a poor selection. She also likes the Jane Rogers novel, by the way.

Neil Williamson wonders what the hell is wrong with books that are merely entertaining, partly in response to the Clarke awards uproar and partly in response to this recent Guardian article by Damien Walter.

At the Guardian, Alison Flood has a round-up of the reactions and responses.

Meanwhile, Charles Stross offers a classy response to having been called a yapping and peeing internet puppy by Christopher Priest and has created some internet puppy t-shirts. Which reminds me that I do like Charles Stross as a person and read his blog on occasion – I simply don’t care for his fiction.

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18 Responses to The latest Genre Dust-up: Christopher Priest versus the Clarke Awards

  1. Kaz Augustin says:

    Wasn’t Priest’s diatribe hilarious? (And poor Mark Billingham.) By the end, I was thinking to myself, “oh dear, just as well he’s never heard of me or he’d be advocating a lynching!”. LOL I love these wacky sf writers…they’re really so Out There (I include the writers who are part of the Sigma forum) that they can’t help but be entertaining while trying not to be.

    Agree on Stross. Everything that happens in his books seems rather…mechanical to me. Clever (gads, I wish I’d thought up HALF of what he has) but lacking much-needed empathy. Or maybe I’m just consoling myself with petty digs…..

    • Cora says:

      Well, you dilute proper SF with those icky emotions and even write about – gasp – same sex relationships. Of course, he’d be advocating a lynching. He’d probably have issues with your wordchoice and sense of humour, too. I’m not sure what poor Mark Billingham has done to deserve that outpouring of Priest’s fury either, except ending up on the same panel at the same festival (which is hardly Mark Billingham’s fault). I have never actually read Billingham, so I cannot comment on his novels, but I saw the BBC adaption of one of his novels and liked it.

      But yeah, those wacky SF fans can be incredibly entertaining and their debating culture is… well, not too highly developed. That’s probably why the SF community has flame wars every couple of months, while e.g. the romance community has one every couple of years. Coincidentally, it’s also why I hang out on the fringes of the SF community but don’t venture in deeper, because I got sick of being insulted for my supposedly bad taste in TV or movies or literature by some second-rate media tie-in writers.

      As for Charles Stross, his ideas are great, but his characterisation and the chemistry between characters is severely lacking (at least in the two novels I read – he may have improved since then) to the point that I wondered whether he had ever observed any real people at all. At around the time I read Singularity Sky, I also read a so-called “futuristic romance” which had good characterisation and chemistry between the leads and barely any worldbuilding at all. And I thought that if you could somehow combine the ideas and worldbuilding skills of Charles Stross and the characterisation skills of that futuristic romance author, you’d get a fabulous SF novel.

      • PG says:

        What Stross is writing now is very different from the two books you’ve read. I don’t know if you would like it, but it’s worth taking another look.

        • Cora says:

          Thanks for the hint. At least subject wise, Rule 34 is very different from Singularity Sky, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Stross’ style had changed as well. Maybe I’ll give him another chance some day.

  2. Estara says:

    Oooh, Scalzi linked to this article, Cora, ^^ – sexy! Also, I hope you enjoyed Yorkshire a whole lot, but from your updates I think you did. Will we get pictures?

    • Cora says:

      Yup, I noticed that my stats suddenly took off and that I got a whole lot of visitors from Scalzi’s Whatever.

      And yes, I enjoyed Yorkshire. Photos will be coming soon, but I have to survive a family function this weekend first.

  3. Priest is one of many who considered this year’s Clarke nominations subpar. I share his opinion of Miéville and Stross (and of Bear’s recent efforts, as well as Roberts). It’s indicative of the sad state of affairs that the nominations are so tame and repetitive.

    • Cora says:

      I very rarely agree with the shortlists for the major genre awards anyway, though the Clarke award has a better track record than most others. The Hugo nominations are usually awful and the Nebulas have the tendency to nominate interesting books and then award repetitive ones.

    • green_knight says:

      I didn’t feel that Rule 34 was tame and repetitive, and I equally love the blend of Fantasy and SF in the laundry novels – I’m hard pressed to find other authors to compare these to, and I consider it a novel that _ought_ to be on the shortlist. (Cora: I bounced off Singularity Sky, hard, but I loved Charlie’s recent writing.)

      I haven’t read any of the others, though I gave up reading Sherry Tepper for the sheer repetitiveness – but overall I am a little bit concerned because sixty novels don’t seem to be a big enough pool to take six outstanding novels from, and I can only say that my own reading taste and most books that are on the shelves don’t have a great overlap – too grimdark, too self-centered, too imperialistic.

      • Cora says:

        I’m thinking I ought to give the Laundry novels a try, particularly since I like urban fantasy and the Laundry novels have been compared to that. I’m also glad to hear that other people had issues with Singularity Sky, cause I read that book, was completely underwhelmed and wondered if I was missing something, considering how many people like Charles Stross’ work.

        I haven’t read this Sherri Tepper novel either and it might well be subpar. However, Christopher Priest seemed to hate it mainly because it featured a talking horse, which sounds very much like the sort of “It’s fantasy with castles and horses and girls like horses, therefore this novel has girl cooties” complaints we hear from male critics and writers all too often.

        I rarely agree with awards shortlists anyway, since my reading tastes run counter to what is trendy among the SFF readership at the moment (not a fan of grimdark, imperialism and clever but soulless hard SF either). After all, it is rather depressing if Blackout/All Clear, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards last year, were really the best SF novel of the year.

        But the Clarke award usually had good shortlists. Even if I don’t like individual books myself, they usually deserve to be there. This year’s shortlist does seem uncommonly weak, though, and makes you wonder whether they couldn’t find six better books out of the sixty submitted.

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