Dereliction of Duty, Ctd.
Posted by Niall Harrison
30 March 2012
Or "reax", as I believe the cool kids say. I'm currently on holiday in Italy with this view, so I'm trying not to spend too much time online and have probably missed some; but here's some of the discussion following Christopher Priest's intervention into this year's Clarke, which has made it to the Guardian and the four corners of the sf blogosphere.
What I am getting worked up about is that we now have – in 2011 Booker Prize parlance – a Julian Barnes Situation. In other words, the shortlist as a whole is so weak that the reasonable stuff that is on it is forced to assume an importance that is wholly out of keeping with its genuine stature. Julian Barnes almost had to win last year’s Booker, because any other result would have been ludicrous, a situation as unfortunate for Barnes himself as for everyone else.
Personally, I find it interesting that the reactions find themselves in one of two camps: those that focus on Priest's criticisms, and those that focus on Priest's attacks. Not that it is a binary choice. It's possible to like one and dislike the other aspect, but most of the people I've chatted tend to feel strongly about one or the other, and excuse—or omit—the other aspect.
Well, it looks like Priest has taken up the leather for us this year. And I’m fine with that because someone has to do it. Someone has to move the Overton Window ever so slightly toward high art. High art gets crapped on all the time, and even the phrase is basically a self-reflexive accusation/admission of elitism. But things get shitty, Sturgeon’s Law applies, the center cannot hold, and very occasionally, as high-maintenance lunch-to-literature conversion machines, we need Mommy and Daddy to not be proud of us to spur us on to write better books, to synthesize the high and the popular a little better every time. You will find a thousand authors arguing that what is popular is ipso facto good and anyone who says otherwise is a pseudo-intellectual heel. One guy should be able to say the opposite.
(I have to confess to being utterly baffled at Valente's characterisation of the Clarke as being "for the type of person who goes on the Internet to weep about the death of hard science fiction".)
At the end of his rant, Mr. Priest inevitably does what it seems most people who write these sorts of things inevitably do, which is to blame other people for not having their personal tastes. This is where he loses the plot. As I’ve noted before, there’s a difference between saying “This is not what I would have done” and “Why did you do this? You suck.” The first is a perfectly valid thing to say; the second assumes the primacy of one’s personal opinion over everyone else’s. Mr. Priest may feel well qualified to assert such a thing, but no one else is obliged to agree with him. “Incompetent” does not actually mean “valuing the works I do not.”
What should Mr. Priest’s punishment be? Quite obviously, to head up next year’s Clarke Award jury. I would wish him joy in the task.
Whatever his reasons, however, he sounds angry. He sounds like a man who thinks some great crime has been committed against the spirit of science fiction. He sounds like someone who is taking it all way too seriously. And by doing so he is encouraging everyone else who disagrees with the results of an award to follow suit and demand the jury’s heads be put on spikes and paraded around Eastercon as a warning to others. Well I exaggerate a little, but you get the point (pun intended). He’s given legitimacy to Mr. Angry and his mob of pitchfork-wielding complainers. And that, I venture to submit, is far more of a crime against science fiction than picking a short list that I might not agree with.
I certainly think that British science fiction appears to have smeared out into a spectrum with two extremes, at one end China Miéville and at the other Neal Asher. We have “literary” sf on the one side – Adam Roberts, Christopher Priest, Gwyneth Jones, etc. On the other, the giant splodey spaceships school of sf – Gary Gibson, Michael Cobley, Stephen Baxter (mostly), Gavin Smith, Charles Stross, Paul McAuley, Al Reynolds… And everything spread out on a line in between. The more literary end has dominated the Clarke Award in recent years. The current shortlist shifts the balance a little back towards the core genre end.
First the New Wave, then wave after wave of SF writers have swept past Christopher Priest. Many of them far less intelligent. Most of them far less educated in the field of SF. And now, just when Priest might have expected to be acclaimed as an elder statesman of the genre, another wave of writers have taken the limelight instead. The bulk of the criticisms Priest lays at the feet of the current generation of SF writers including Charles Stross and China Mieville are products of his own swollen, bruised and delusional ego, but a few are true. All artists are imperfect, all fail in many, many ways. But then don’t we always in the end love the people we love as much for their imperfections? The rhetorical framework of Christopher Priest’s screed, a rhetoric shared by some other extremely clever writers, seems to pose a kind of Platonic ideal work of fiction, for which they are always striving, and which gives them cause to hurl abuse at those weak, frail, all too human writers who fail to reach it.
On Mieville's Embassytown, Priest simply reveals that he doesn't understand how first-person narratives, especially memoiristic ones, work. China Miéville’s fiction lacks a sense of place: this is not the same as a lack of description, as there is a lot of that, but a way of using a physical environment as something the characters notice, respond to, feel themselves to be a part of, so that the reader can also sense and respond to it. Yes, very interesting, except that the book is a memoir after all—ultimately Avice can only talk about and is only interested in talking about her own experiences in a place she clearly considers to be a colonial periphery—she's also fairly fundamentally self-involved. So no, she won't be spending a lot of time discussing how other characters fit into their apartments and catering halls, and nor will she stop to define endless gadgets and terms that are as unusual to her as teakettles are to Priest. "Floaking" is a clever exception—it's a term used by immersers but not by others in the implied contemporary audience for her memoir, so Avice does define that term. The implied contemporary audience always knows was a miab* is, on the other hand, so of course she would not stop to explain that, not any more than Snooki would stop to describe what a "juicehead"** is in hers.
Pat Cadigan's letter to The Guardian:
I understand how Christopher Priest feels. This is nothing I haven't said myself every time various award shortlists have come up missing one of my deathless masterpieces. However, I have said it alone, to my duvet or to my cat, or if I'm feeling particularly bad, to one of my long-suffering best friends who can be trusted never to tell anyone what a child I am. Then I dry my tears, put on my big girl pants, and go out among the rest of the adults.
I am sorry that a writer of Mr. Priest's standing and ability chose to expose his personal frustration so publicly. I am sorry for the Clarke chair and jury, whose reward for what I know has been months of hard work is to be called incompetent in print. I am embarrassed for Mr. Priest.