An origin story: it all started when…

Paul Raven @ 24-01-2011

I’ve been a bit lax in not mentioning this before (blame the January churn, if you like), but better late than never, eh? Over at Locus Online, Karen Burnham’s busy rebooting the Locus Roundtable blog; one presumes they decided on including some fringe amateurs to balance out the heavy hitters, because yours truly has been invited to contribute. By way of introduction, Karen’s been posting the origin stories of the contributors – how we got our start in genre fiction, basically – and my little potted history appeared there just last night. So if you’re curious as to how I ended up reviewing science fiction novels and blogging about the shape of the imminent future, by all means go and find out!

Alternatively, check out the more interesting and erudite histories of such notables as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Gary K Wolfe, Adrienne Martini, Paul DiFilippo, Charles Tan, and many more yet to come. (I figure if one is going to indulge in a bit of Imposter Syndrome, then it might as well be generated by the company of genuinely interesting and smart people.)

There are many more conversations and debates on the cards for the months ahead, so if you’d like a side-serving of meta-discussion with your usual science fiction diet, you could do far worse than clip that RSS feed into your reader…


Heads up, Chicago people: a panel about the science in science fiction cinema

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2010

Just a quickie from the Futurismic postbag, courtesy Chris Davila at WBEZ, Chicago:

Where: Northwestern University

When: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 @ 7:00 p.m., doors at 6:00 p.m.

What: Mutants, Androids, and Cyborgs: The Science of Pop Culture Films

Ever wonder about the line between science and science fiction? Could we ever selectively erase experiences from our memories?  Control robotic limbs with our minds? Join WBEZ’s Gabriel Spitzer on stage with four of Northwestern’s leading scientists to discuss their fields as seen on the big screen.

Should be an interesting evening if you’re in the area. 🙂


The spoiler-police: spoiling it for the rest of us?

Paul Raven @ 21-05-2010

Mary Elizabeth Williams takes to the pages of Salon.com to decry one of my own pet hates: the spoiler-police, those people who get angry at you for discussing a book, film or TV show that they haven’t seen yet [via Martin Lewis].

As a reviewer and critic, this is a particular bugbear for me. First and foremost, I believe that stories that can truly be spoiled by having major plot points revealed before reading and/or watching it are rarely stories worth bothering with. This is why The Sixth Sense wasn’t really a very good movie, for example; watch it a second time, and it’s just ninety-odd minutes of narrative prestidigitation. That said, there are exceptions (it’s very hard to discuss Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World without talking about the pivot point twist at the middle of it, but knowing that twist actually makes a second reading a different and equally enjoyable experience), and it’s the mark of a good – or at least responsible – critic to be able to know the difference and act accordingly.

But secondly, it’s always baffled me that people bothered by spoilers couldn’t simply self-police the problem and, y’know, avoid reading reviews and discussions of the story in question before they get to it. Williams agrees:

… for the love of God, if you really don’t want to know about a book/movie/television show, do the rest of the world a favor and stop hanging out in the online discussion groups about it. Sure, if you live in a time zone where your favorite show has not yet aired, you could go on any of the many websites devoted to it and rage about the injustice of it all, like the poster in a “24” thread who complained, “Your East Coast arrogance that once it airs on the East Coast, it’s fair game to blog about — and ruin for us on the West Coast — is beyond stunning.” Or you maybe could restrain yourself from joining the discussion for three measly hours.

[…]

Do these die-hards ever consider that maybe they’re the ones spoiling things — for the rest of us? I promise I won’t blurt the ending of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” when you’re behind me in the ticket line. If, in fact, you tell me directly you’ve never seen “The Third Man,” I will simply say you’re in for a treat. But how about you assume if you’re in an online discussion about the film, maybe that’s a space for people who’ve seen it and want to discuss it? Or the fact that you’re just now getting hip to “The Wire” doesn’t impose a cone of silence on it for anybody else?

Testify, sister!


Clarke Award administrator Tom Hunter on the trouble with shortlists

Paul Raven @ 26-04-2010

As mentioned a while ago, this Wednesday sees the Sci-Fi London film festival playing host to the Arthur C Clarke Award winner announcement ceremony. It’s my great pleasure to turn the Futurismic microphone over to the award’s administrator, Tom Hunter, and give him a chance to talk about the award (and sf awards in general), what they mean, and what they’re good for. Take it away, Tom…

***

Running a science fiction award is a strange old business.

Awards are by their very nature supposed to be somewhat controversial, or at least openly conversational. Well, they are if they’re doing their job well and intelligently, and if there’s people out there who care enough to get caught up in them, anyway.

Awards live and die by the art of conversation, after all, and I’ve yet to decide which I prefer least – those years when the internet seemingly catches fire in outrage at the latest Clarke Award shortlist announcement, or the ones where we singularly fail to ignite even the meekest spark of protest in the dustier corners of the blogosphere.

Google alerts are double-edged swords for us award administrators. They’re very handy for finding out what people are saying about you, but equally good at highlighting that vast echo chamber of nothingness where all of your hard-earned flame wars ought to be busily erupting.

Lucky for me, then, that the Clarke Award has always generated a high level (and equally high standard) of debate.

I don’t enjoy arguments much, but I know that one of the things I enjoy very much about the reaction to other people’s awards – the Hugos, the Nebulas, the Gemmells, the BSFA awards etc. – are the unfiltered and honest reactions that can be found gathering across the internet.

Which is better? Knowing that there are so many people out there passionate about books and science fiction and science fiction books to the point that they’ll spend many free hours discussing them online, or the fact that so many people brought together by this shared passion seem able to agree on so little?

For example, for the last couple of years I’ve taken to releasing the full eligible submissions list of books received for the Clarke Award in advance of our announcing the six shortlisted titles.

Mostly it’s a bit of a fun, and an extra chance to have a talk about which ones we think will make the cut – who are the dead certs, the outsiders, the literary interlopers guaranteed to enrage the genre faithful for daring to play tourist in our little corner of the bookish ghetto, etc. etc. – but what’s interested me most about this so far is the fact I’ve not seen anyone publicly calling all six shortlisted books correctly.

Certainly I’ve never managed to do it, so it’s clearly harder than it looks… which is interesting given the amount of commentary that hints at a certain inevitability around shortlist decisions. For instance: the judges always get it wrong; they don’t pick the books I like; they’re clearly under orders to make safe choices, popular choices, literary choices or deliberately wilful and controversial choices in order to generate a little extra press coverage; and so on and on.

Maybe award season would be a little more exciting if any of the above were actually true… but I doubt it, and unfortunately things rarely work out as well as us Machiavellian behind-the-scenes manipulators might hope anyway.

So, in lieu of spending time manipulating things behind the scenes, I figured the next best thing to do would be to use the invitation to contribute something on science fiction awards to Futurismic as an opportunity to discuss some of the more popular misconceptions that can beset even awards like the Arthur C. Clarke, starting with pretensions of literature. You don’t get this one much with the Hugos or the Gemmells, because their shortlists are drawn from crowd-sourced votes and hence victim to cries of populism rather than pretension.

Over on the side of a juried prize like the Clarke, though, this idea was one that I encountered fairly frequently back when I first took on the role of administrator four years ago. Thankfully it seems to have faded away somewhat, or at least mutated into a playful criticism with a knowing wink. For example, see the running joke that no shortlist would be complete without at least one outlier from the more ‘literary’ end of the submissions stack.

Somewhere along the line, though, a meme was spawned that claimed the Award was secretly striving to break free of the shackles of genre and sf fandom and escape into the glamorous and in-crowd world of the Booker or the Orange prize. You know, the sexy awards with the beautiful media friends, the acres of mainstream press coverage and the deliciously low-calorie canapés.

(BTW, Booker Prize, thanks to the Sci-Fi-London film festival we had Imperial Stormtroopers at the last ceremony. Top that, eh.)

More seriously, I don’t agree with this idea for a lot of reasons (not least because it’s just plain wrongheaded), but I can see how it could have got started.

The thing to understand first is that there’s a big difference between the Clarke Award as an administered entity and the Clarke Award as represented by its shortlists and winning titles, and the key bit to remember is that the people like me involved in the first bit have no say whatsoever on the decisions of the judging panel who get to decide the second bit.

The members of the judging panel aren’t even selected by the award administrators — rather, they’re nominated by our supporting organisations, currently the Science Fiction Foundation, British Science Fiction Association and the SF Crowsnest website. In other words, all organisations with very science fiction-friendly and -focused members, so the idea that this changing roster of sci-fi folk might suddenly transform into a collective hungry for the mainstream is rather absurd. Especially when any true fan (or watcher of Hollywood box office figures) knows that the Geeks inherited the Earth ages ago anyway…

It follows too that this motley collection of independent and free-thinking fans, academics and writers would be rather unlikely to pick up on my hints to steer their shortlist selections towards more PR-friendly titles or certain publishing houses… even if I was actually allowed into the judging room to make them.

When you get down to it, PR doesn’t really work that way anyway. You can’t engineer a real controversy in advance, in the same way that you can’t have a real conversation if only one person is allowed to do all of the talking.

At the end of the day, I just don’t buy into this idea of the Clarke Award secretly coveting some kind of mainstream literary endorsement. It’s simply not what we’re here to do – our mission is to promote awareness of science fiction publishing in the UK for a start – and, despite being simultaneously amused and appalled by Dave Langford’ As Others See Us round-up in Ansible, lazy journalistic shortcuts are hardly the place I’d start if I wanted to check under the hood and measure the rude health of our favourite genre.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the occasional trip outside of the usual genre haunts, of course, and I’m often very pleasantly surprised when I take them. I think there’s often a (unintentional) tendency to view the boundaries of science fiction only as far as one can personally see them reaching, and I’ve certainly been guilty of that in the past.

However, the walls of the sf ghetto are clearly becoming increasingly porous, and leakage is occurring from both sides. I see this in the across-the-desks conversations about movies at work, and in the number of people I meet outside of the genre faithful who excitedly tell me about their favourite sf novel when they find out what I do (glad at last perhaps to find someone else they can share with who ‘gets’ it?). And, of course, I greatly enjoy the way science fiction thrives in both the heartlands of popular culture and its experimental edges.

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of there being a toolkit for science fiction rather than a manual, but even more than this I’m drawn to the idea that, these days, the science fictional element is simply part of a much larger toolkit for the work of making art and unpacking meaning from our world.

Speaking of art, if there’s one award it might be worth comparing the Clarke too, it’s not the Booker but the Turner Prize that most interests me.

This isn’t just because the Turner Prize has had its own fair share of controversy over the years, by the way, but rather because I can see interesting similarities in the way that each year the Turner and the Clarke Award are required to continually redefine their notion of what art or science fiction actually are before making any kind of value judgement about any ‘best’ example of that form.

A lot is made of this notion of best and how it’s defined, especially when the collective wisdom of the jury doesn’t deliver a result that chimes with our own favourite choices. I get that, I really do, but for me a good shortlist isn’t necessarily one that matches up to my own preferences and tastes.

What if we all agreed to say that the judges got it different (rather than got it wrong) if we don’t agree with the line-up in any particular year?

Ok, so maybe that’s a bit idealistic… and equally I’m as happy as anyone with a good shout-down sometimes. That said, I can’t help think that you can’t enjoy the benefits of those times when a panel nominates your favourite book – hey, look, I clearly have superior taste! – if you’re not prepared to also take on board the idea that other decisions by the same judges are potentially as valid, even if you don’t agree with them and, especially, if you haven’t previously heard of the book that ended up shortlisted over your personal favourite.

In fact, for me a sign of a good shortlist isn’t that I agree with it or have read all of the books already, but rather that it spurs me to hop right over to Amazon so I can start wishlisting brand new titles.

For me, ‘best’ is another way of saying recommended. You’ve got to read this, watch this, taste this, right away: it’s the best.

I don’t think anything beats that feeling of discovering something amazing and new for yourself before anyone else you know has heard of it, but the urge to share surely comes a close second, and that for me is the underlying value in awards like the Clarke.

I’m writing this in advance of the prize ceremony for the Clarke Award 2010, and I am looking forward to the conversation that will follow the winning result as much as I am the announcement itself (and the chance for a big party of course). Whoever the winner, I’m pretty confident that the night will be one of my best. Good luck to everyone shortlisted this year!


Sci-Fi London 2010: much more than just a sci-fi film festival

Paul Raven @ 13-04-2010

This year’s Sci-Fi London film festival is the ninth event to bear the name. Running from Wednesday 28th April through Monday 3rd May 2010, and themed around the concept of “life in 2050”, it promises an even bigger line-up of world premieres and screenings of new, rare and obscure science fiction cinema from around the world than ever before. But in addition to all that celluloid goodness, there’s lots of other stuff going on, giving Sci-Fi London something of the feel of a more traditional science fiction convention (if that’s not a complete oxymoron).

Sci-Fi London 2010

For instance, the Arthur C Clarke Award ceremony is held early in the week of the festival, and this year (should you be lucky enough to get an invite) you’ll get to find out whether China Mieville gets to take home the prize a second time. But there are also numerous workshops and discussion panels going on over the course of the week, and I’m very proud to be able to say that yours truly has been invited to take part in some of them.

The full programme can be found on the Sci-Fi London website, of course, but in the interests of mild self-aggrandizement, here are the four panels I’m involved with:

  • Saturday 1st May 2010, 1pm: FUTURE PUBLISHING? – The publishing industry is coming under assault from all sides. Are Kindles, iPads and smartphones signalling the end of traditional paper publishing? Customers no longer believe publishers can justify the prices they charge, not just for books, newspapers, magazines and periodicals are also suffering. How will the publishing industry re-shape itself for 2050? Will Apple and Google become the new big publishing houses? And if ubiquitous digital delivery means anyone can be a publisher, will we even need the big guns anymore? (PGR as panellist)
  • Saturday 1st May 2010, 2:15pm: THE 30-SECOND COMMUTE – 3D printing, rapid prototyping, offshore outsourcing, automation, evolutionary design software, expert systems, voice processing and synthesis… technologies, network economies and geopolitical shifts are currently making mincemeat out of many careers and jobs that have lasted for centuries. What will we be doing to earn a living in 2050; what will seem as archaic as a thatcher or fletcher does today? And what will fill the days (and pockets and bellies) of the unemployed? (PGR as moderator)
  • Saturday 1st May 2010, 5:45pm: MY FRIEND WENT TO 2050 AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS INDECIPHERABLE MIXED-MEDIA POST-POSTMODERNIST METAPHOR – What will the arts scene look like in 2050? What new (or old!) forms and mediums will be grabbing the headlines, filling our homes and galleries and concert venues and mobile devices? And how will their creators be making a living from it? (PGR as moderator)
  • Sunday 2nd May 2010, 5:15pm: THE FAITH WARS – The ideological square-off between religion and science is here to stay… or is it? Perhaps the dichotomy is a falsehood, and everyone will learn to live and let live. Or perhaps faith will become the fracture point of an energy-hungry civilization, a warring sphere of philosophies. What will we believe in 2050? Is believing that others should act according to our beliefs the fault that unites the two sides of the argument? (PGR as moderator)

If the topics for discussion look familiar, well, there’s a reason for that: I sent the Sci-Fi London organisers a bunch of ideas based on discussions we’ve had here at Futurismic, and they liked some of them so much that they decided to saddle me with steering the conversations in question… how’s that for karma, eh?

In fact, I’m rather awed by some of the pundits and thinkers I’ll be appearing with – that Faith Wars panel features not only the afore-mentioned China Mieville, but also Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondant for The Times; Steve Fuller, Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick; and Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association. It promises to be a lively (if not outright contentious) debate, that’s for certain, and I’m really looking forward to it.

(Although, to be honest, I’m also bricking it somewhat; one opinionated and scruffy webzine publisher attempting to ride herd on four super-sharp intellectuals should be a sight worth seeing, if only for the LULZ. Maybe they’ll video it, then screen it at next year’s festival? Be sure to bring popcorn!)

So, if you’re in or around London at the turn of the month, there’s no shortage of interesting diversions for the science fiction aficionado over the weekend – it’d be excellent to see some of you there. 🙂


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