Kim Stanley Robinson asks why science fiction isn’t winning awards; I ask why we should care

Paul Raven @ 17-09-2009

Science fiction heavyweight Kim Stanley Robinson crops up in the current edition of New Scientist to sing the praises of British sf… and of sf in general. In addition to presenting flash-length pieces by a handful of big names – Ken MacLeod, Geoff Ryman, Justina Robson and more – he has a lengthy article decrying the blinkered tastes of the juries for awards like the Booker Prize:

… it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn’t read. Should I name names? Why not: Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, Life by Gwyneth Jones in 2004, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison in 1997. Indeed this year the prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.

This is hardly a new complaint – fandom has always muttered darkly into its real ale about the shunning of science fiction by the literary establishment, and this year saw some Guardian book bloggers attempt to redress the imbalance by running an open-nomination “Not The Booker” Prize (only to see all the genre titles swiftly voted out of the running, natch) – but to have it appear on the pages of New Scientist is an interesting development. Indeed, NS seems to be quite deliberately aligning itself with a science fictional/futurist mindset of late; perhaps the editorial team are equally convinced of sf’s didactic and educational powers as Robinson is?

Personally, I’ve always felt that prizes and public acceptance are overrated, and that science fiction does itself a disservice by chasing after them; Robinson appears to me to be taking a similar stance. I’ve never picked books because they won awards; personal recommendation has always carried far more weight, ever since I was quite young.

And if we truly believe that science fiction has the power and potential to open minds (and change them), isn’t the sincere recommendation of a book from friend to friend the best form of evangelism? To use an analogy with science itself: many of the greatest scientific innovators achieved their leaps of progress in spite of great public opposition and the opprobrium of the establishment; rather than kowtow and beg for crumbs of approval, they just knuckled down and got on with it, fueled by their own defiance, converting their few faithful supporters through their unflappable loyalty to their own ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, here: I’d love to see the authors I admire being paid more, or being interviewed as insightful pundits rather than geeky fringe artists who are good for ridiculous out-of-context quotations. I’d love to see science fiction as a powerful and accepted part of modern cultural discourse… but I don’t think it’ll ever achieve that through us pleading for legitimacy on its behalf.

As recent events have shown, hearts and minds aren’t won with shock and awe; they’re won with honesty and sincerity. If you care enough about science fiction that you want to see it read more widely and appreciated as something more than simple escapist entertainment, don’t waste your time storming the ramparts of the crumbling ivory tower of literature, or decrying the inevitably populist results of fan-voted awards. Instead, try to convert one other book-lover. If all of us managed to do that, we’d double the power of the genre almost overnight, and weaken the factional schisms within it at the same time.

Rant over. 😉

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3 Responses to “Kim Stanley Robinson asks why science fiction isn’t winning awards; I ask why we should care”

  1. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    It seems to be only authors who openly acknowledge that they write science fiction who are ignored by both the large awards and big time reviews. I note that Margaret Atwood’s latest book, The Year of the Flood, was reviewed in the NY Times by none other than their lead (though frequently annoying and rude) reviewer, Michiko Kakutani. Atwood is published by mainstream/literary publishers and is notorious for denying that she writes SF, but even a cursory scan of the review will tell you that The Year of the Flood is definite SF.

    Atwood is a fine writer and I don’t begrudge her success, but there are many other writers publishing under SF imprints that are in her league but ignored.

  2. Sumit Paul-Choudhury says:

    Hi Paul – Interesting that it seems to you as though New Scientist is “aligning itself with a science fictional/futurist mindset of late” – for the record, we have no explicit agenda to that effect.

    I also thought it worth pointing out that Stan’s essay also includes this: “It [the lack of Booker recognition] is a minor injustice, which can be ameliorated by the readers of New Scientist: simply buy the book and read it. Be the jury yourself. Read like Woolf, widely and without preconceptions. Read science fiction, read historical fiction, make your own judgement, and then talk about it. Try this as a kind of experiment: read 30 writers new to you. It’s a big project, but what a lot of good reading would come of it.”

  3. Paul Raven says:

    Hi Sumit; I wasn’t implying there was any explicit agenda at NS; my apologies if it seemed that way. My point was that recent NS content is coming closer to the sort of topics that are covered here on Futurismic, and on the blogs and sites of futurist/speculative thinkers… and (in case it’s not clear) I think that’s a good thing, though others might disagree. 🙂