In November 2003, Science Fiction Studies published Andrew M. Butler’s essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the British Boom,” as part of a special issue on the topic. Butler—at that time editor of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association—set out to define the extent and nature of the Boom, and provides a remarkable snapshot of a moment in British genre history. If there are omissions, they can be attributed to the lag time of academic publishing: nowhere in Butler’s essay does the term “New Weird” appear, though the infamous Night Shade bulletin board discussions instigated by M. John Harrison and China Mieville took place at the start of the same year; and nowhere in his essay does the term “New Space Opera” appear, though Locus had devoted a special issue to the topic in August, featuring interviews with Charles Stross and Alastair Reynolds. Yet if anything these additions serve only to reinforce the sense that the Boom was real. Indeed, two years later at the 2005 Worldcon in Glasgow, every nominee for that year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel was British, an unprecedented occurrence, and a marker of the perceived strength of UK SF at that time.
The Worldcon returns to the UK this year, with Loncon 3 taking up residence in the Docklands ExCel centre from 14 to 18 August. It seems an apt moment, therefore, to ask: what has changed in the years since 2005, and what is happening in British SF today?
We asked British writers and critics to consider a number of different topics in pursuit of answering these questions; their essays can be found below. There are questions of business and community: Juliet McKenna provides an overview of the state of British genre publishing and bookselling, while Kari Sperring looks at the evolution of conventions and fandom. Nina Allan discusses trends in British genre short fiction (in a piece whose notable omission is her own contribution of recent years). Dan Hartland considers UK genre awards, established and new, and the strengths and weaknesses of the narratives they create, while Martin Petto identifies the increasing breadth and quality of “non-genre,” “mainstream-published” SF—choose your awkward term—as an important recent trend. And Maureen Kincaid Speller asks perhaps the crucial question: what, if anything, are British SF and fantasy doing right now, in 2014, that makes them distinctive?
These answers, inevitably, only scratch the surface of the topic—and in fact a different group will discuss similar questions in a “State of British SF” panel at Loncon 3, scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and could easily come to different conclusions. That may, of course, be a telling observation in itself.
- The Market and the Trade by Juliet E. McKenna
- Fandom and Conventions by Kari Sperring
- The Art and Business of Short Fiction by Nina Allan
- Awards Foreign and Domestic by Dan Hartland
- The Non-Genre Boom by Martin Petto
- After the Boom? by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Contributor biographies
The Market and the Trade, by Juliet E. McKenna [contents]
There’s much that’s positive. The mainstays of British genre publishing remain robust, thanks to the editorial and marketing teams at Orbit, Gollancz, Voyager (Harper Collins), and Tor UK (Pan MacMillan) balancing their passion for SFF with professional acumen. While supporting their best sellers, they continue to look out for new talent and sustain their midlist as best they can in a challenging commercial landscape. Transworld (Penguin Random House) publish selected SFF titles alongside their other books, adding breadth and depth to the genre overall.
According to Locus magazine (April 2014), in 2013 the annual total of UK books including reprints and paperback editions was 1,034, a 25-year high, with new books up 15% to 627 titles. This breaks down as follows: Orion/Gollancz, 73; Little Brown UK, 72; Random House UK, 53; Titan, 44; HarperCollins UK, 31; Pan Macmillan, 28; Angry Robot, 24; Transworld/Bantam, 22; Hodder & Stoughton, 21; PS Publishing, 21; Quercus/Jo Fletcher, 18; Penguin UK, 16; Simon & Schuster, 12; Atlantic/Corvus, 5; and a few others. By subject, of the 627 new books, 184 were fantasy, 127 were young adult, 105 were SF, 56 were media-related, 41 were horror, 32 were anthologies, 31 were collections, 16 were paranormal romance, and 11 were reference, history, or criticism, with the remainder accounted for by omnibus editions, art books, and humour titles.
Alongside core genre favourites such as space opera and epic fantasy, these publishers encourage writing exploring new areas. Urban fantasy began with contemporary stories closely tied either to horror or romance. Now it extends into both police procedural and historical fiction. The Scientific Romance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is reborn as Steampunk. Books featuring elements like time travel stand a better chance than ever of crossing over into mainstream sales now that SF and fantasy narratives are so popular in film and TV.
As publishing becomes increasingly global, ties with corporate colleagues or like-minded imprints overseas expand publishers’ scope, bringing authors in translation to English-reading audiences. The association between Gollancz and French publisher Bragelonne is a case in point. SFF publishers are also open to new possibilities in digital publishing. Simon & Schuster launched a digital-first imprint in January 2014 while Tor.com announced a novella imprint in May. These offer opportunities to new and established writers, to the benefit of readers eager for novelty and variation. Tor.com is of course US based, though now with an English editor living in the UK. It seems likely we’ll see more such initiatives as digital publishing need not be limited by the geographical constraints historically imposed by publishing physical books. Hopefully the opportunities for UK authors to be published abroad will outweigh their losses in income traditionally earned by selling the same book individually to multiple markets.
The past decade has seen the rise of smaller genre imprints as publishers diversify their brands to extend their reach within the overall book market. Atlantic Books set up Corvus as a home for all its genre titles: crime, fantasy, historical, and women’s fiction. Others specifically focused on SFF as Harper Collins set up Angry Robot and Games Workshop established Solaris. Quercus brought us Jo Fletcher Books while Titan, an established graphic novel publisher, added prose fiction to their output. Most recently, Ebury Publishing (Penguin Random House) established Del Rey UK, and Hodder (Hachette) have launched Hodderscape explicitly centred around an online hub. In many cases arms-length relationships with their corporate overlords have enabled editors to take chances on a more diverse selection of books and authors. Several of these lists are notable for their range of women and ethnic and other minority authors. All this helps keep SFF relevant to the modern audience and moving forward as a literary form.
Publishers have recognised SFF’s appeal to younger readers, publishing such titles within their main lists or through imprints such as Atom (Orbit) and Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot). These books also sell well to adult readers who want vivid characters and enthralling plots without necessarily “adult themes” of sex and violence.
Where other literary genres bemoan the short story’s death, SF and Fantasy writers still have a range of options for publishing work in shorter forms. Constable & Robinson’s “Mammoth Book of . . . ” range continues to be published. Small presses such as Newcon Press, Fox Spirit Books, Jurassic London, and Snow Books offer anthologies with increasingly wide and innovative themes, publishing new and experienced authors alike. SFF magazines still publish short stories, notably Interzone and Black Static (TTA Press) and Albedo One. This remains a valuable market for aspiring authors hoping to attract an agent or an editor’s notice.
Independents like PS Publishing publish works with more specialist appeal than the major players can accommodate. Small presses with a primarily online focus such as Wizards Tower Press, Clarion Publishing and Jurassic London collaborate with writers to bring out-of-print and other works to new audiences. UK authors can now consider taking the initiative themselves with crowd-funding through Kickstarter and Patreon, informed by the successes and failures of their US colleagues. (Though at the moment it seems that everyone is waiting for someone else to make the first move there.) While Amazon’s wider business strategies look increasingly problematic, the 47 North and Kindle Singles programmes are valid routes to publication.
Will the current situation last? Who can say? Genre imprints are vulnerable to corporate reorganisations driven by wider economic stress, with ominous implications for authors and editors alike. Games Workshop sold Solaris to Rebellion. Quercus and thus Jo Fletcher Books were up for sale this year. Harper Collins sold Angry Robot to Osprey who have now decided to focus on their non-fiction core business. The Strange Chemistry and Exhibit A imprints have closed and a buyer for Angry Robot is sought.
Writers earning a living wage from their fiction and giving up the day job is an increasingly unlikely prospect. Advances for novels continue to fall and the contractual rights surrendered become ever more all-encompassing, giving publishers first call on income from foreign translation and other formats. Backlist sales once sustained writers but with bookshops no longer holding such stock, that revenue has shrunk for most but the top sellers. Short story and small press deals cannot offer enough money to make up such shortfalls. Direct sales through ebooks may bring writers a higher return in percentage terms but those authors who make significant sums remain newsworthy precisely because they are the “man bites dog” stories of publishing.
Writing becomes much harder work if a full-time author has to massively increase their output to meet their bills. Some can sustain quality alongside quantity but others find doing this impossible. An author writing at evenings and weekends must of necessity put their publisher’s needs second if the employer paying their salary calls on their time in the current harsh climate. Where a publishing schedule is still structured around a book a year or every nine months from a full-time novelist, that will cause tensions. Similar stresses apply where magazines and small presses rely on small teams or individuals dedicating their own time and money.
Online retailers, dominated by Amazon, are now invaluable for sourcing an author’s backlist, obtaining works only published abroad or out of print and more besides. SF and Fantasy readers wishing to broaden and deepen their knowledge of the genre and its history have more resources to call on than ever before. However all that relies on the buyer knowing what they are looking for. Algorithms geared to offering more of the same can never replace the unexpected discovery stumbled upon while browsing. Physical discoverability of books remains vital.
Unfortunately lack of visibility in the UK’s only remaining national bookshop chain is a significant limitation on discoverability and sales for the majority of genre authors. For obvious commercial reasons Waterstones focuses on best-sellers within all genres and mostly promotes books that resemble them. Fans of A Game of Thrones are assuredly offered similar fare. Readers wanting a broader choice within SFF will only find it if local staff are genre fans. In SF and Fantasy this also favours books by men over books by women. Of 21 promotional tables recently surveyed in stores, on 17 the range of books on offer was 75% male authored. Of those 17 tables, five offered a 95% or more male authored selection. Alongside the well-established skew against female writers in genre reviewing and other issues around inequalities of visibility, this should be serious cause for concern.
Supermarkets now take a significant chunk of books sales revenue but only ever offer a limited range of titles. SFF writers within that selection are generally authors with long-standing reputations which should guarantee sales. Opportunities for other writers to benefit from such visibility are few and far between.
How are Young Adult readers to continue on to a lifetime of genre reading if they simply don’t find the adventurous innovation they’re used to when they wander from “Children’s” into the wider shelves of a bookshop? How many of those will lose the book habit as they go elsewhere for the narratives they want, to film, TV, and computer games?
Fortunately SFF publishers, readers, and writers were early adopters of online resources such as blogs and websites sharing news and reviews. The relaunch of Hodderscape is a case in point. Many now make significant and productive use of social media. Conventions still facilitate invaluable face-to-face communication and introductions. Genre awards increasingly attract press coverage in the mainstream media. In 2014, the Nebula and BSFA Awards as well as the Hugo and BFS shortlists and the last few years of the Arthur C. Clarke Award have flagged up just how broad the range of contemporary SFF writers has become.
However this high level of engagement and high volume readership remains limited to a comparatively small percentage of the total potential book market. Can this devoted customer base sustain the SFF genre, when a successful writing career always used to depend on reaching further to the half-a-dozen books a year reader as well? Will sufficient authors be willing and, more pertinently, able to persevere with their writing more for love than money? All this remains to be seen.
Fandom and Conventions by Kari Sperring [contents]
“So, how do you think UK con-going fandom has changed since the last British worldcon, in 2005?”
This is going to be wrong. Of course it is. Fans don’t like to agree, and I’m only one fan, and I’m the wrong kind of fan and, well, this is going to be wrong. But . . .
For the last month or so, I’ve been asking that question above of almost every friend or acquaintance I’ve met. And I’ve been getting a whole range of answers, from “Not at all,” to “A lot,” and everything in between. I should, I suppose, have expected this. The collective noun for SFF fans is, after all, a disputation. The most common answer, however, has been, “We’re getting older.”
That one makes me smile. I’ve been hearing it, in one form or another, since at least 1988. At every time, in every place, fandom is ageing, and we see it because when we think about such things, we think first of ourselves and our more immediate fannish social circle. I was first warned of the imminent demise of fandom through age and a lack of new blood when I was 25. I expect to be hearing it when I’m 90 (should I live that long). Historians say it, too, looking around at conferences, seeing the greying hair of their contemporaries, looking past or through the younger, newer people present. We are all getting older, from the minute we are born. If I look around at an Eastercon and make the effort to see beyond the people I know, the people I am used to seeing, fandom looks much the same age to me as it always has done. It’s just that I’m further up the age demographic than I was. If I stop and think, or review the information from EightSquared (2013), the last Eastercon at which I was involved on a major level, I can think of active fans from their teens to their late sixties. I can’t put my hand on my heart and swear that the age profile is exactly the same as in 1985, or 1995 or 2005. But it isn’t as dramatically different as we sometimes like to tell ourselves it is.
This is not to say that nothing has changed. There are many things that are different, on a variety of levels. One of the most obvious to me is the presence and involvement of women. I came into a fandom that was overwhelmingly male. I’m now in one that certainly is not. This predates 2005 by some time, but more and more conventions are chaired by women and have a strong female presence at committee level. This began in the 1990s and at the time was remarkable. It’s now normal. To the best of my knowledge, all the Eastercons since 2008 have had women as chairs or co-chairs. And all of them have focused to an increasing degree on issues around harassment, safety, representation and appropriate behaviour. I no longer see a single “Women in SF” panel as a sop to feminist and supposed female interests. It’s been a long and sometimes discouraging fight, but several more recent conventions have committed to panel parity, to harassment policies and to listening with respect and attention to women’s anxieties about safety. One convention series, Nine Worlds, has a designated feminist programme stream, and feminist programming is now common at almost every UK based con. We are not perfect: we probably can never be perfect as long as we exist embedded in an institutionally sexist culture, but for women, things are better. In terms of 2005-2014, the increment is small. (It’s much bigger in terms of 1979, when I went to my first mainstream con.) But those two items I just mentioned—harassment policies and panel parity—are new since 2005 and I welcome them. Eastercons now all routinely provide professional daytime childcare, which is priced as low as possible: this is a gift and a support to fans of all genders with children and a considerable step forward in terms of access for families. Changes in UK legislation have meant that more venues are accessible to fans with disabilities, and Eastercon in particular is much more aware of the importance of accessibility and inclusivity. There is still room for improvement on this latter, and some venues remain problematic, but most committees and their staff take accessibility seriously and as a priority. Cons are increasingly internet-savvy, too, with many programme items being recorded to be podcast or live-streamed, and many fans live-tweeting what they do.
The early part of the twenty-first century saw a drop-off in the number of smaller conventions. Unicons have been struggling since the mid-1990s, but increasingly they have been run by the same few people, and usually in tandem with the UK Roleplaying conventions (themselves an innovation of the early ’90s). The two small literary conventions—Wincon and Mexicon—had both fallen into abeyance well before 2005 and one-off events had become rarer. And Novacon, while still going strong, is shrinking in attendance. Some of this is due to committee attrition, as people who were involved in earlier cons move on. In the case of Unicons, it’s partly down to the shrinking of UK university SF societies and to social fannish groups becoming more geographically dispersed and more likely to be interacting on line than face to face. A lot of it, though, is down to money. It’s getting harder to find suitable sites and these sites are tending to cost more. For a new committee, especially one whose members are younger or from lower economic groups, the financial risks involved in conrunning are daunting, and with many fans apparently waiting longer to join new cons, finding deposits for sites can be all but impossible. The economic downturn and changes in public funding have meant that many venues are charging much higher rates or are less welcoming to SF conventions, which, from outside, may well appear odd and risky. This increase in cost has affected bigger conventions, too: hotels and transport simply cost more these days, and this is a deterrent to a considerable number of people.
At the same time, while Unicons struggle, at least three new convention series have appeared since 2005. Glasgow-based Satellite has a strong focus on science, a commitment to Scottish SF in particular, and a lively, engaged, and enthusiastic catchment. Having started as a one-day event in 2007, with Ken MacLeod as Guest of Honour, they ran Satellite 2 and 3 as weekend conventions in 2009 and 2012 (guests being Iain Banks and Charles Stross), and this year Satellite 4 was the Eastercon, with guests Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Juliet E. McKenna, John Meaney, and Steve and Alice Lawson. Bristolcon was started in 2009 by the Bristol Fantasy and SF society as a one-day event and has run pretty much annually since. With an emphasis on written SF, it is in the tradition of Wincon and Mexicon and like Satellite has a local flavour and strong local roots.
But perhaps the most innovative of the new conventions is Nine Worlds. Described as a Geekfest, it has a lot in common with media and comic cons in terms of its range of programme and interests, and its programme streams are devised around specific topics, rather than thematically. It’s great strength lies in its strong commitment to diversity and equality, with LGBTQAI and Feminist Tracks alongside gaming, books, crafts, fanfic, and others. Based in London, it has had great success in attracting new attendees, many of whom have never attended any convention and are rooted in online and geek culture. 2014 marks their second year and I hope they continue to flourish.
Having said which . . . there are areas that remain problematic. The first UK con to offer a designated LGBT track (described as such) was Intersection, the 1995 Glasgow Worldcon. But few conventions since have done this, and representation for QUILTBAG fans remains patchy. Myths of fannish tolerance, which long operated to disguise the very real difficulties faced by women at cons, remain a barrier and a hindrance in terms of sexuality and gender for many. And we remain overwhelmingly white. Community outreach by some Eastercons, mostly those based in London and Bradford, have attracted some fans of colour to individual cons, but institutional racism is under-addressed and the yearly “Race in SFF” panel is not a solution. We need to find new routes to inclusivity, to remake ourselves to increase safety, to look outside the obvious names and places in terms of guests and panelists and participants, and to address our own prejudices a lot more directly and actively.
And then there’s money. As I mentioned earlier, venues and transport—and everything else—are getting more costly. The venues which can fit an Eastercon are few, and many of them are in expensive areas (especially in and around London). Since 2005, cons have been getting more and more London-centric, usually on the grounds of sites and sometimes on the grounds of being easy to get to. They attract large numbers, including lots of newer, younger fans, and that’s good. But they also shut out poorer fans who come from further away and don’t have local friends they can stay with. Fans from further away have to arrive late and leave early or use annual leave to get there. And transport to and from London is expensive. As a non-London fan myself—and someone who has never lived or worked there—I find this regrettable and worrying. There have been some excellent London cons, but they have priced out a number of working-class fans from outside Greater London and many poorer fans. London costs more, and some public-transport providers charge more for return tickets from outside London to it and back than they do for the same journey going the other way.
I’m a historian by training, and I’ve been around long enough to see that many things go in cycles. The early 1990s saw a flurry of new, specialised cons (notably for filk and role-playing) which are still going strong. I hope the same proves true of the new post-2005 conventions. It also saw a lot of anxiety over the greying of fandom and the perception that newer fans were all consumers, there to enjoy the entertainment and unwilling to engage at any other level. I’m hearing that complaint again, from people who were, in the ’90s, part of that new “consumer” group busy finding out about this new experience. I’m seeing fans who were new in the early 2000s running conventions and working in various places. We’re not dying out, not yet. We’re not perfect, we’re not in the best shape, we don’t behave as well as we should all the time, we have feet made solidly of clay. But we’re not moribund, I think. We’re still evolving. In another decade, Eastercons may be smaller, spinning off into regional events and specialty cons. They may be bigger. I don’t know (though I hope they aren’t all in London). We may have one con a year. We may have three or five. We will all be older, even those of us who have yet to enter fandom. We may be doing more and more of our joint activities on-line. Already, at least some items at conventions are recorded for pod- and video-casting, or, finances permitting, are live-streamed on the internet. In-con Twitter discussions and commentaries are frequent, with non-attendees able to pose questions and make points. Convention fora of various kinds often host lively debates about policies, guests, food, drink, cats, and most everything else. As with everything within UK fandom, none of this is without controversy. For every fan who loves to read updates by panelists about items as they happen, another finds this off-putting, distracting or irritating. Twitter provides a useful and rapid means of transmitting important information but, to quote Sir Terry Pratchett, “a lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on” and mis-information can create at- and post-con problems. The last three Eastercons have provided con apps that allow attendees to keep track of events and programme items. The problem is, again, finance: live-streaming and app-design and licensing can be expensive and very time-consuming for the con organisers; the increased reliance on smart devices again is a barrier to fans on lower incomes (and the number of working class and retired fans who can attend cons has dropped noticeably since the 2007 crash). Hopefully costs of this kind will come down, and on-line access and interaction by non-attendees will become more frequent and easier to organise in future years. We may even see virtual cons running full-time alongside the regular ones. We will change. We have always changed. If someone writes a version of this article in 2025, they may well have all kinds of new things to report. Or not.
The Art and Business of Short Fiction by Nina Allan [contents]
As a form, the short story is arguably the most versatile and adaptable literary mode available to a writer. A short story is usually quicker to write than a novel, and its distilled format encourages a more radical, punchier approach to the subject matter, Short stories—which can be consumed and enjoyed in a single sitting—are excellent vehicles for the conveyance of new ideas. For science fiction, traditionally the genre of new ideas, the short story would seem particularly appropriate as a medium of expression, especially since the proliferation of online venues has made more stories more widely available to more readers. Yet commentators talk increasingly of a crisis in SF short fiction. The critic Paul Kincaid, in his 2012 essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Widening Gyre,” uses short fiction in particular to support his argument that the genre of science fiction—always in crisis—is currently even more exhausted than usual.
Has SF short fiction fallen into a rut? As this symposium is concerned with British SF, I might start by pointing out that in the three 2012 Year’s Bests (Dozois, Horton, and the Nebula Awards Showcase edited by James Patrick Kelly) analysed by Kincaid for his essay, out of almost eighty stories in total, significantly less than one quarter were by British authors. Given that all three publications are American, edited by Americans and with stories curated primarily from American sources, this statistic is unsurprising. Nonetheless, it does seem significant to me that most of the British stories that did appear were by established names rather than newcomers (McAuley, Macleod, Baxter, Gaiman, Pratchett) and that only two British women plus one long-time UK-based American woman were represented. This alone suggests that the science fiction short story in Britain is facing something of an exhaustion crisis all by itself.
The UK’s primary venue for SF short fiction continues to be the bi-monthly print magazine Interzone, edited since 2004 by Andy Cox and Andrew Hedgecock. From its inception in the 1980s, Interzone has focused primarily on character-led, soft SF shading towards slipstream and science fantasy rather than core genre or conceptual hard SF, and the Cox/Hedgecock editorship has consolidated this approach. Whilst the 1990s saw Interzone promoting the emergence of then up-and-coming British writers such as Alastair Reynolds, Eric Brown, Paul McAuley, Charles Stross, and Stephen Baxter, it is interesting to note that in recent years the magazine has tended towards a more international remit—notable new voices who have found early publication through Interzone over the past decade include Lavie Tidhar, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Jason Sanford, Mercurio D. Rivera, and Aliette de Bodard. Whilst the development of greater diversity is to be applauded, the increasing scarcity of identifiably home-grown voices raises further questions about what exactly is or is not happening in British SF itself. By contrast, in Interzone‘s sister publication, the horror and dark fantasy magazine Black Static, British voices predominate, with writers like James Cooper, Carole Johnstone, Alison Littlewood, Ray Cluley, Priya Sharma, Victoria Leslie, Conrad Williams, Simon Bestwick, Graham Joyce, and most notably the late Joel Lane largely determining the magazine’s overall flavour and direction.
In the past couple of years, Interzone has faced some competition from Arc. This bi-monthly electronic magazine, a subsidiary of New Scientist magazine and under the editorship of Simon Ings, was set up in 2012 with the specific remit of publishing “fiction about the future” and has regularly featured works by writers from both genre and mainstream backgrounds. Arc is the only current British science fiction magazine that pays its authors a professional rate, and in so doing has attracted a high-calibre list of contributors including M. John Harrison, Alastair Reynolds, Jane Rogers, Joanna Kavenna, Tricia Sullivan, Liz Jensen, Paul McAuley, and China Miéville. Arc has taken a proactive stance in asking its writers to contemplate future technologies, how these might be applied and how they might subsequently affect society. To what extent the magazine has penetrated the wider consciousness and conversation of the UK science fiction scene is still up for debate, but there is no doubting the value of Arc as one of the most promising new markets for SF short fiction that Britain has produced in recent years. Given the quality and innovation of its concept, one would hope that its impact and its influence are on the rise.
Yet with this notable exception, no professional or semi-pro UK-based online venues have yet emerged. Moreover, British writers have not thus far made any great inroads into the predominantly US-based online publishing scene. Markets such as Tor.com, Subterranean Online, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Weird Fiction Review, and Lightspeed have published some excellent fiction in recent years, and decent pay rates coupled with ease of access to an international audience should make them venues of choice for any writer of significant ambition. While established names such as Paul McAuley and Alastair Reynolds have made appearances from time to time, aside from a scattering of authors such as Tori Truslow and Alex Dally MacFarlane—also the editor of the forthcoming Mammoth Book of SF by Women for Constable and Robinson—surprisingly few of the upcoming generation of British SF writers have penetrated the online markets. While it could be argued that US editors tend towards a US-first selection policy, simply because the US names are the names the majority of their readers will recognise and gravitate towards, we should also be studying the question of whether there is an innate British conservatism at work here, both in the matter of the choices made by British writers in submitting their stories, and in the ambitions of British editors to reach out to more diverse audiences through the medium of online publishing.
As a third alternative, it could simply be that there are currently not enough newer British writers reaching the standard required for publication in the professional venues.
PS Publishing, admired for its high quality limited edition hardcover editions, have published a considerable amount of SF short fiction in their decade and a half of life—indeed they began their run with a distinctive series of novellas that included original works by notable British science fiction writers Adam Roberts, Paul McAuley, Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, and Ian McDonald. Since the mid 2000s though, PS have become more noticeably slanted in the direction of dark fantasy, and although they have recently put out new collections by Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Ian Watson, and—importantly—Gwyneth Jones, their publishing slate now includes an increasing number of limited edition reprints by well known horror writers such as Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. PS’s in-house short fiction publication, Postscripts, has followed a similar trajectory. Starting life as a magazine featuring authors across the SFF spectrum and including core SF writers such as Adam Roberts, Peter F. Hamilton, and Eric Brown, the publication has since morphed into a biannual hardcover anthology, heavily weighted towards horror and dark fantasy.
Perhaps PS’s most significant contributions to science fiction in recent years have been their patronage of works by London-based Lavie Tidhar, including the novella Cloud Permutations, Tidhar’s breakout novel Osama, and most recently Martian Sands.
Jurassic London, founded in 2011 by Anne Perry and Jared Shurin, is a not-for-profit imprint dedicated to publishing an international slate of new genre fiction in collaboration with British museums and galleries. Jurassic, in line with other Perry/Shurin enterprises such as the online fanzine Pornokitsch and the annual genre awards The Kitschies, has tended towards a broader and more permeable approach to genre, although the well received 2013 anthology The Lowest Heaven, containing stories based around the planets of the solar system, demonstrated an enthusiastically science fictional aesthetic, and featured stories by newer writers such as E. J. Swift, Sophia MacDougall, Esther Saxey, and James Smythe.
NewCon Press, under the editorship of science fiction writer Ian Whates, was set up in 2006 with the primary object of producing a charity anthology, Time Pieces, but quickly went on to publish short fiction collections and anthologies specifically featuring the work of new and upcoming writers alongside more established names. So far NewCon have produced collections by a spread of British science fiction authors including Liz Williams, Chris Beckett, Stephen Baxter, and Ian Watson. A new collection by UK-domiciled Pat Cadigan is also rumoured to be in the works as part of NewCon’s limited edition Imaginings imprint. NewCon Press anthologies, which in most cases are invitation-only, have featured plenty of new voices alongside established writers from the NewCon “stable,” and it is worth noting that NewCon have taken the step of publishing several anthologies highlighting the work of women writers, including Myth-Understandings (2010) and La Femme (2014).
Whether the small press themed anthology, with its low pay rate and artificial agenda, has any far-reaching value as a literary innovator is a question that merits examination in greater detail. It is difficult to assess the overall impact of the so-called indie presses, precisely because of the copious amount of material they increasingly produce. As the number of online venues has multiplied, so have the small presses, to a point where the limited-run or print-on-demand publications produced by these micro-imprints have taken the place of magazines in offering beginning writers a way into print. The results are a mixed bag. There is no doubt that the radical underground tradition of the small presses still holds good in parts—writers such as Anna Tambour (Chomu Press), Rhys Hughes (Eibonvale Press) and Rachel Kendall (Dog Horn Publishing) are all small press authors whose originality and talent surely deserve wider acknowledgement. Another example is Paul Meloy, author of one of the best British short story collections not to win an award in recent years. Islington Crocodiles (2008) was published alongside Interzone by TTA Press and showcases Meloy’s original and evocative blend of science fiction and horror. Meloy’s stories are most notable for what Graham Joyce dubbed “fractured realism,” the intrusion of hostile alternate environments into a starkly evoked quotidian reality. A recent novella by Meloy, Dogs with their Eyes Shut, was published in 2013 as a standalone hardcover by PS Publishing, with TTA Press continuing their enthusiastic support of Meloy’s work with his latest story, “Reclamation Yard,” featuring as the lead work in the May/June 2014 issue of Black Static. Although his stories have featured in several pro anthologies, Meloy works slowly, and his relatively small output is probably the principal reason why he has not yet become better known outside the closely knit British horror community.
However, the sheer profusion of small press titles, many of which are poorly edited and lacking in overall distinction, has created something of a ghetto in recent years—books sold largely via the convention circuit, with a readership numbering perhaps a few dozen. The potential for innovation in the independent sector is pretty much infinite, but whether more than a tiny handful of venues are living up to that potential is very much a vexed question. While indifferent production standards and scattershot copyediting test the reader’s patience, there also comes a point in every new writer’s career when they have to ask themselves whether they are prepared to continue working for nothing. Given that most writers would rather be paid than not, it is safe to assume that those with the skills and tenacity to make a significant contribution will gravitate away from the small presses and towards paid markets as soon as their work begins to attract wider attention.
Relatively few are making the leap at the moment, however. Whilst some new writers with a distinctly British aesthetic have published in Interzone and gone on to write novels—Chris Beckett is the obvious example here, but Neil Williamson, Al Robertson, and Gareth L. Powell also spring to mind—there does seem to be something of a shortage of innovation and radicalism at the entrance level. Tellingly, much of the more interesting new SF short fiction published in the past couple of years has come from outside of the UK. Writers such as Ted Chiang, Yoon Ha Lee, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Ken Liu, and Karin Tidbeck have been decisively more innovative in formal, stylistic, and thematic terms than many of their British counterparts. One cannot help feeling that since the turn of the millennium, British SF short fiction has demonstrated an increasing tendency towards parochialism that is in urgent need of reversal.
The experimental short fiction of the New Wave was both a reaction against the high conservatism of the American golden age, and a response to the rapidly evolving societal conditions of post-austerity Britain. The emphasis was on change, novelty and radical approaches to both form and subject matter, with British science fiction leading the field. In post-Blair, Coalition Britain, the sense of optimism and widening opportunity that characterised the 1960s—in the workplace, in social relations, in gender equality—has largely been replaced with an atmosphere of constraint, of increasing social conservatism and dangerous levels of political apathy. It would hardly seem surprising then that the key attribute of the British science fiction short story in 2014 would appear to be its hesitancy. A sizeable number of SF writers seem reluctant to express anger at the current state of our political culture or to interrogate contemporary realities in the way that J. G. Ballard might have done, or Brian Aldiss, or even Kingsley Amis or Anthony Burgess. There is a fear of gut reaction, of urgency. Much of what we are offered instead is a dilute solution of generic archetypes and undirected ruminations written in a sub-Carver “show not tell” aesthetic—stories that reflect reality as a backdrop rather than integrating it as a subject matter and without any readily identifiable sense of personal mission.
It is perhaps significant that arguably the finest British science fiction short stories of 2013 were written by M. John Harrison (“Cave & Julia,” “Getting Out of There”) and China Miéville (“The 9th Technique”)—both experienced literary protestors who have been speaking out for years. Of those upcoming voices that do demonstrate serious purpose, one might single out Tim Maughan, who finds his chief subject matter in the ongoing class conflicts and destructively exploitative nature of late-stage capitalism; Robert Shearman, whose powerfully eccentric social comedies are not properly science fiction but make liberal and original use of speculative materials; and Ian Sales, a passionate advocate of the kind of science fiction that draws its inspirations, storylines, and internal dynamic from the proven possibilities of actual science. All three of these writers are short fiction specialists who have mostly eschewed the traditional magazine venues in favour of the self-published chapbook (Sales), the small independent imprint (Maughan), or the single-author collection (Shearman).
Whilst the relative paucity of ground-breaking British SF short fiction might be seen as grounds for pessimism, it is important to note that markets for it, though notoriously non-lucrative for the most part, do nonetheless still exist. Science fiction remains unique within literature in offering writers a viable and accessible point of entry to the profession. A lot of noise is made about the increasing conservatism and risk-averse behaviour of the larger publishing houses, and while much of this talk is undoubtedly true, the solution to the stalemate, in the end, must lie with the writers. Within the pages of the science fiction magazines and anthologies, a new voice can still hope to be given an equal hearing alongside the voices of established authors, a situation you are never going to see repeated in Granta or The New Yorker. This democratic and inclusive attitude has always been one of the genre’s key strengths and should be roundly celebrated. It is surely up to writers to make best use of the opportunities that are out there, to extend their imaginative reach, to write stories that demand to be heard. Until they do, much of what they produce is likely to go on being unread by anyone except other, beginning writers nurturing the ambition to be published in similar venues.
Awards Foreign and Domestic by Dan Hartland [contents]
Humanity has asked itself the same questions for centuries, revolving endlessly around the central issues of being. Why are we here? What principles govern our universe? Who, in the yearning words of the Stonecutters, made Steve Guttenberg a star? But most importantly, most urgently and above all most consistently, we must ask: what are literary awards for?
Let us avoid, dear reader, yet another navel-gaze at the purpose of shortlists and what they should measure. The fact that we can predict with some certainty that some such blog post will be written soon and with some venom is evidence enough that awards have currency. They form and inform opinion; they offer signposts and milestones; they record and they reward. Let us take all this as read, and save the effort of another debate about the necessity or desirability of awards. They exist. Let’s, briefly, roll with that.
In some ways, awards loom larger in the British science fiction scene as a function of its size: just large enough to offer a pleasant environment for a number of different awards, yet small enough to ensure that essentially everyone knows each other and more or less are judging the same books, the awards ecosystem of British science fiction has always been febrile. There has, for instance, been for years a kind of rivalry between the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association‘s shortlists, with spectators characterising the latter as stolid and traditional and the former as forward-looking and more literary-leaning (whether or not each year’s shortlists particularly embody the false distinction). The British Fantasy Awards, meanwhile, have somehow managed to contain within their own confines enough rivalries and internecine squabbles that no analogue of the Clarke has been necessary to inspire debate.
In recent years, however, both the David Gemmell Legend Award and The Kitschies have been established with a view to filling perceived gaps in the conventional coverage. In the Gemmell’s case the skew has been towards commercial epic fantasy, whilst the Kitschies have wended in a more left-field direction with a peripatetic understanding of genre. Again, it is not as if these competing awards aren’t often considering similar novels: last year, for example, the shortlists of the Clarke Award for Best Novel shared no fewer than three titles; in 2010, China Mieville’s The City and the City won the Clarke, the BSFA, and Kitschie Red Tentacle Awards alike. All of this is without mentioning the Hugo Awards (whose best novel award was won in 2010 by, er, The City and the City), or indeed other international awards which—particularly in this year of Loncon 3—also occasion considerable discussion within British fandom, even when they largely ignore its existence.
That wider obsolescence is, if not quite a problem, then certainly an irritation to the British field. As good as it is to see Charlie Stross rewarded yet again for tickling Hugo voters’ fancy, there is a great deal more to this year’s WorldCon host country than that. It is nothing new that the Hugo, whilst posing as an international award, has in truth a deeply American sensibility; nor should authors beat themselves up about not being shortlisted for an award which so resolutely and increasingly self-parodically rewards only a tiny subset of the literature that might be termed speculative. But are British novels being recognised by others? The James Tipree Jr. Award, has also been relatively free of British influence in recent years (if we omit the welcome and deserving usual suspects of Gwyneth Jones or Roz Kaveney). The story is a little better in fantasy and horror—in the last five years, five British-authored novels have appeared on World Fantasy Award shortlists; and seven novels have graced Shirley Jackson Awards shortlists, although in that latter case none have translated to wins, despite some reliance on regular nominees such as Graham Joyce, China Mieville and Neil Gaiman. Overall there is a sense that British recognition overseas is at a low ebb, which is in part what makes the profusion of British Awards so interesting: is there an element of over-compensation at work?
In fairness, this sectarian proliferation is not limited to science fiction. Indeed, “mainstream” or “literary” fiction might in recent years have won, should it have existed, the award for Best Spat. When Chris Mullin, a hapless judge for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, suggested that—gasp!—readability was one of his primary indicators of quality, eyebrows were raised with knee-jerk alacrity. Further whiplash was rapidly incurred by the sudden inauguration of the Folio Prize, an avowedly high-brow award for fiction in any form. In the award’s defence, its first and so far only shortlist was commendably different to that year’s Booker—but its existence is another instance of that familiar phenomenon, the literary awards turf war. If there isn’t an award out there for the particular book you think deserves a gong, it doesn’t seem so very unusual to establish one yourself.
All, then, is in rude health, and a profusion of awards and shortlists indicates a science fiction and fantasy conversation both rich and varied (if not always internationally viable). Move along, sir: there is nothing for you to bemoan here.
Alas, this is not quite right. From the inward-looking BFS to the unadventurous Gemmell, fantasy seems particularly poorly served by its awards: the same author, Adam Nevill, has made the BFS’s horror category’s shortlist five years in a row—and won twice. Whatever the virtues of his fiction this is not a sign of good health either in the award or the genre it presumes to police. Likewise, of the three Gemmell awards in 2014, two were won by the author and cover artist of a single novel, Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. Given this conservatism, it’s no surprise, of course, that women fare badly on its shortlists: the Gemmell has had just three female nominees in its six-year history. Nor should science fiction feel too smug on this front: in 2012, the BSFA offered us a lamentably all-male shortlist; in 2013, the Clarke Award did likewise. Cool heads suggested that this reflected the poor work done by British publishers in signing women authors, and no doubt that was fair comment; it still left a bad taste, and indicated something of a narrowing of perspective, particularly in the heretofore inclusive Clarke. That the absence of women authors is so obvious a problem across the British awards landscape is a matter of considerable concern. Were I to adopt the DIY ethos of these multiple pop-up shortlists, I might propose yet another award could in this environment be viable: the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize) has enjoyed considerable success in drawing up women-only shortlists and promoting excellent titles—often by established writers—which were otherwise ignored by judges elsewhere. Such an award might even, by confounding assumptions and challenging the increasingly narrow canon of contemporary British SFF, contribute positively to that international profile issue.
After all, if an interested outsider cared to look, it is hardly as if recent British shortlists have made much of a case for the diversity of the field. If the Gemmell might be accused of garlanding fiction already pretty well rewarded by high sales figures (not, briefly to enter yet another perennial awards debate, that best-sellers should be disqualified from winning awards), then the Clarke might in recent years reasonably be described as playing the awards game both more safely and, perversely, with considerably less dexterity. The Clarke has always featured wild cards, but in recent years there has also been an “unmitigated disaster” slot: 2011’s Declare and 2012’s The Waters Rising were, like 2014’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, to one extent or another bloated and feeble efforts (in 2013, we were simply met with the poor taste of Nod). These clangers sat side by side with some competently drab titles, like Drew Magary’s The End Specialist or Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, which felt—in the fashion of almost the entirety of 2014’s shortlist—like a reiteration of novels we had read before. These more recent shortlists don’t feel like those of 2002 or 2005, when exciting and diverse novels genuinely seemed to compete for a narrow margin of victory.
Certainly, when you compare recent BSFA and Clarke shortlists, the former don’t seem to be any more or less traditional or stolid: one of 2013’s joint winners was Ancillary Justice, which also took the Clarke. Indeed the two awards seem more and more similar. In part this perhaps reflects the twilight of the “British boom,” that remarkable period in the early-to-mid 2000s when British science fiction was producing works of excellence in profusion (this, too, may in part account for the under-representation of British nominees on this year’s Hugo shortlists). I think, though, that there is a second and a more systemic issue with both awards for fantasy and awards for science fiction, which in the main seem increasingly focused on “core” works and the usual suspects (and here, too, is a peculiarly British development which might, if acknowledged, enhance the field’s international reputation): the dominance of the mainstream.
This is most evident in the shortlists for the Kitschies, an award established in 2009 tacitly to fill the gaps created by the shrinking of other awards into niches, comfort zones, and safe spaces. It has grown into an eccentric award that looks outwards from genre, shortlisting Thomas Pynchon and Frances Hardinge, rewarding writers of-but-not-in the genre such as Lauren Beukes and Nick Harkaway. In defense of the Clarke, it, too, has shortlisted some of the Kitschies picks: 2011’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb actually won the Clarke (though it was hardly the most exciting of literary speculative fictions). But only the Kitschie has bestowed its award on a Booker shortlistee (this year’s winner of the Red Tentacle, Ruth Ozecki); only the Kitschies have accepted that much of the most creative speculative work is currently undertaken in “Young Adult” fiction, giving Patrick Ness the nod in 2011. In this way, it is bucking a disturbing trend of generic retreat.
Alas, just as awards can only consider what is published, so they can only shortlist what is submitted, either by conservative voters or hesitant publishers: this last year, for example, the Clarke couldn’t recognise Kate Atkinson’s superlative Life after Life for the simple reason that its publisher sniffily refused to offer it for consideration; likewise, both the BFS and BSFA awards rely on members to select shortlists, and it can be no surprise in these circumstances that certain kinds of work are neglected. This continued cleavage is a problem for the genres when the most exciting work has moved towards the mainstream: for example, many of Granta’s much-heralded “best of British novelists under 40″ list are playing both more creatively and more lyrically with speculative ideas than those writers still ensconced in genre.
This is in one sense a more promising state of affairs than that represented by the first Granta crop of 1983, amongst whose number SFF could lay reasonable claim only to Christopher Priest. But whilst this emergence of the speculative into mainstream writing is exciting for authors, readers and publishers, for the traditional awards it poses a problem of coverage. Of the Granta class of 2013, two—Sarah Hall, shortlisted for the Clarke and Tiptree, and Helen Oyeyemi, a Shirley Jackson finalist—have been recognised by science fiction or fantasy. But many others—most obviously Ned Beauman and Xiaolu Guo—have still to be acknowledged, and risk, like Atkinson, either slipping past the community’s awards or choosing to avoid them. I’m not the first to make this argument—the indefatigable David Hebblethwaite is required reading on this topic—but as yet the shortlists themselves have remained unmoved. Alas, until genre shortlists work out how best to acknowledge this literary drift (and, indeed, to notice its movement in the other direction, in the shapes of M. John Harrison or Simon Ings), they will, alas, continue to struggle to maintain both their quality and their currency—and who knows, that might help get British SFF noticed by the global awards that have so visibly passed it over.
Does any of this matter? Well, it does if awards do. And if they don’t . . . why, you fool, are you still reading? Go write a blog post already.
The Non-Genre Boom by Martin Petto [contents]
A couple of years ago, Iain M. Banks published an editorial in The Guardian bemoaning the “dabblers”; bloody literary foreigners, coming over here, stealing our jobs and using the protocols of science fiction in a slightly different way to us right thinking folk. This was disappointing for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a squandered opportunity: give the most important British SF writer of the last couple of decades a national platform and he uses it to piss and moan. And what a tired moan: the stale chip on SF’s shoulder. Banks of all people should have been wary of Us versus Them stereotyping since he had a foot resolutely in both camps for his whole career. But what particularly struck me was how dated, almost anachronistic, this view has become.
This is because the last decade or so has seen an acceleration of what can uglily but accurately be described as non-genre SF. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this trend has occurred in parallel with the emergence of the New Weird since it points to a generation shift. Just as contemporary genre authors are writing in the context of several mature subgenres and so are influenced by all of them, so too contemporary literary authors have increasingly been immersed in science fiction through their formative years. (Equally, you could probably say the same about non-genre fantasy but that has always been a less rigidly demarcated and fractious boundary.)
This is perhaps best summed up by the career of an ex-British Science Fiction Association member born in 1969. His first novels were tinged with supernatural fantasy and cyberpunk and showed huge promise. In 2004 he published a science fiction novel which went on to be shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. But it was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize and, like all his novels, was published by Sceptre, the literary imprint of Hodder & Stoughton. Is David Mitchell a dabbler? The question seems absurd. If anything, like Banks himself, he is a straddler.
Alongside Mitchell, three other significant straddlers published important novels in 2004: Scarlett Thomas, Andrew Crumey, and Liz Jensen. Thomas is both poacher and gamekeeper. On the one hand, she reviews titles from genre sympathisers such as Glen Duncan, Kevin Barry, Karen Russell, and Ned Beauman for the Guardian; on the other hand, she publishes novels like PopCo (2004) that occupy the same territory as late William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. The End Of Mr Y (2006) and Our Tragic Universe (2010) move off into a more meta space, however.
Crumey completed a PhD in integrable dynamical systems associated with Kac-Moody algebras in 1998 and half of his novels sound like Ken MacLeod chapter titles: Mobius Dick (2004), Sputnik Caledonia (2008), and The Secret Knowledge (2014). I have never really clicked with his work but he is undoubtedly an important link between the two cultures.
Jensen’s novel that year, The Nine Lives 0f Louis Drax, is not SF but it is strongly gothic and of all the straddlers, she is the novelist most lost to the community. She has published half a dozen novels of highly varied genre interest over her career—Ark Baby (1997), Paper Eater (2000), My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (2006), The Rapture (2009), The Uninvited (2012)—and consistently deploys a wit, sliding from light to dark, that is missing from most science fiction.
In a more obviously satirical vein, Will Self has trod a similar path, for example with The Book of Dave (2006), but the key straddler who unaccountably missed 2004 is Marcel Theroux. Far North (2009) was deservedly shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke but Strange Bodies (2013) is a far less conventional work of non-genre SF, a rare example of an outsider approach to an insider topic.
Then there are a couple of authors a bit closer to the genre community, the sort of writers who turn up at BSFA events: Nick Harkaway and Sophia McDougall. Harkaway is a second generation straddle (although his father crossed different lines). In another world, he might be a genre SF writer—he even flirted with the orthodoxy apprenticeship by publishing a story in Interzone—but he is not published as such. Sophia McDougall’s career has taken the opposite trajectory. The first volume of her alt history Romanitas trilogy—guess—was published to attract crossover appeal but she has moved increasingly close to the core, as signalled by the title of her most recent novel, Mars Evacuees (2014). Kit Whitfield, author of novels that look a bit like fantasy and a bit like SF but were published as neither, is also a candidate but it is hard to tell after only two books. Please write some more novels, Kit!
Alongside these two established fronts of non-genre SF, there is an alt history of what might have been. Here we find the lost generation of Barleypunk authors from the middle of the last decade: Will Ashon, Matthew De Abaitua, Mark Wernham, and perhaps David Llewellyn. They were critically acclaimed, they coulda been contenders, but they have almost all fallen foul of the publishing industry in one way or another.
Ashon was first out the blocks with Clear Water (2006), an apparent consumer satire that is soon revealed to be something altogether stranger. The Heritage (2008) was a step beyond this but the paperback was cancelled, he was dropped by Faber & Faber, and an extremely promising career was cut prematurely short. The same year Wernham’s Martin Martin’s on the Other Side (2008) was Clarke shortlisted but the author has comprehensively disappeared into darkest East Anglia. De Abaitua’s The Red Men (2007) was also nominated for the Clarke Award and it seemed for a while that he was heading in the same direction since the author unaccountably followed it up with a book about camping. However, The Red Men has been recently re-published by none-more-genre Gollancz and de Abaitua is currently finishing another SF novel, If Then. Equally absent is Jim Younger whose High John the Conqueror (2006) was something of an outlier, further over into the Self spectrum. The one who has fared best is the one closed to the genre establishment: Llewellyn has alternated between literary fiction for Welsh publisher Seren (notably Everything Is Sinister) and Doctor Who commissions for the BBC.
I was tempted to call this piece a secret history of British SF but, looking over the list, it is remarkable how many of them made the Clarke shortlist. The peak year was 2008 where alongside The Red Men, Sarah Hall’s The Cahullan Army and Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts were both shortlisted. (Remarkably, this also marked the third consecutive year a novel from Faber made the list.) The presence of such outsiders on the shortlist prompted agent John Jarrold to declare it the most insular ever: “So, farewell, Arthur C Clarke Award.” In the event, a core genre novel, Richard Morgan’s Black Man, won the award but Hall and Hall had the consolation prize of being named Best of Young British Novelists by Granta. Owen Sheers was also tipped for this list and also had an SF novel out in 2007, the Second World War alt history Resistance, but was overlooked for both.
In fact, if you want proof of the non-genre SF boom, the Granta list is the place to go. Naomi Alderman, Ned Beauman, Xiaolu Guo, Joanna Kavenna, Helen Oyeyemi: they are all potential straddlers. Even Zadie Smith has published SF, in the form of a 2013 New Yorker short story, and if Jenni Fagan hasn’t, she still managed to pick up a nomination for the Kitschies with her superb The Panopticon (2012). There is a bit of a sense that it was ever thus—the 1983 list contained Martin Amis, Maggie Gee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, and one Christopher Priest, all partial to a bit of science fiction—but the sheer scale does seem different this time round.
But what, I hear you cry, about spaceships? A persistent criticism of non-genre SF is that it is limited in scope, that it is interested only in dystopia and apocalypse. That isn’t true of the above novels but they remain stubbornly Earthbound—although hats off to Michel Faber for including aliens in Under the Skin (2000) and The Book of Strange New Things (2014). Well, Jed Mercurio’s excellent Ascent (2007) is partially set in space but it is firmly alt history, the final respectable subgenre of the trad triumvirate (though he does have some form: he wrote the unloved 1998 British SF miniseries Invasion: Earth). For honest to God interstellar travel, you have to turn to Toby Litt’s Lost in Space (2009) Or, if you’ve got a strong stomach, Jeanette Winterson’s three-book experiment in speculative fiction: her adult SF novel The Stone Gods (2007), bracketed on either side by two atrocious genre-hopping children’s novels, Tanglewreck (2005) and The Battle of the Sun (2009).
This takes us perilously close to dabbler territory. Because yes, they do exist. For me, that would include Jim Crace, whose The Pesthouse (2007) is another one of those bloody post-apocalyptic novels that says nothing new and, perhaps controversially, Ishiguro, whose Never Let Me Go (2005) is the weakest of his novels, hamstrung by its own contrivance.
But perhaps the 2010 film adaptation of Ishiguro’s novel points to the future of non-genre science fiction literature. No one considers its director, Mark Romanek, to be a dabbler. Indeed, the fact his background is in directing music videos is not deemed worthy of comment whereas in any equivalent situation with SF it would be greeted with scorn. Or to bring us full circle, think of the 2012 adaptation of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski. With The Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta and Speed Racer under their belts, the Wachowskis are perhaps the closest thing cinema has to core genre directors but the term seems silly. As it should.
So my hope is the non-genre boom simply becomes the start of a new wave of British science fiction without boundaries and that the next time the broadsheets come calling we have some better broadsides. For now though, I hope this very brief guide stimulates people to seek out SF that is shelved elsewhere and to explore further since this has been a whirlwind tour of a subject that could—and should—have much more space devoted to it. I mean, I’ve not even mentioned children’s SF. But that is a story for another day.
After the Boom? by Maureen Kincaid Speller [contents]
A few years ago, we had what was known as the “British Renaissance,” a period in which writers like Stephen Baxter and Paul McAuley reinvented the more traditional forms of science fiction, while a host of new British writers appeared on the scene. Baxter and McAuley are still producing innovative variations on traditional themes and new writers are continuing to emerge, but the Renaissance is clearly over.
At the moment, there seems to be no one significant style or movement that one can point to in order to sum up contemporary British science fiction. No one is getting excited about any one thing in particular: there’s no new space opera, no widescreen baroque. Instead, British SF seems to be in a state of flux, searching once again for something that is distinctively British (and here I am making a deliberate choice to talk about “British” SF, for the sake of brevity and convenience). I see few signs that British SF is presently concerned about establishing or maintaining a discrete identity but neither do I see it consciously throwing in its lot with US SF in the way it might once have done. Do we take this as a reflection of contemporary political uncertainty? I’m not sure, although the rise of right-wing political parties, with a strong emphasis on a notion of British identity, English even, inevitably gives one pause for thought when trying to define anything as “British.”
One thing that does seem to be happening, however, is that science fiction is hybridising with other genres. A good deal of what is labelled as science fiction seems now to be closer to horror or fantasy, while the ongoing crossovers between crime and SF seem now to be weighted more towards the crime element. The most obvious example would be China Miéville blending SF, horror, weird fiction, and crime, but among others we might note Nina Allan, who writes science fiction and horror with equal fluidity, or M. John Harrison, whose Kefahutchi Tract trilogy merges psychological realism with space opera. However, a number of authors are producing what I’m going to call “meta-science fiction,” which utilises recognisable genre frameworks without necessarily foregrounding them in the way longtime SF readers might be accustomed to.
I find the rise of meta-SF fascinating, not least because it seems to involve a simultaneous movement outward from the so-called “genre heartland” and inward from “literary fiction.” (Again, I use these terms as a convenience as I am increasingly losing patience with this taxonomic “them” and “us” approach.) Recent examples of what I mean are Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone (2011), Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (2013), and Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies (2013). As Paul Kincaid has so aptly noted, Adam Roberts doesn’t so much write science fiction as produce fiction that is in dialogue with SF. Much of his writing uses SF tropes but twists them into strange and unexpected shapes. By Light Alone includes global warming and consequent flooding and people who photosynthesise through their hair, yet the narrative itself is mainly concerned with a child going missing and then, apparently, being returned, and the consequences for the already dysfunctional parents, who seem to have walked straight out of the pages of middle period Ballard. The science-fictional setting magnifies the terrible nature of their behaviour in ways that a straightforwardly realist novel simply could not.
Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life is an equally fascinating blend of the realist and the science-fictional. Atkinson has flirted with science-fictional devices before, most notably in Human Croquet, in which Isobel Fairfax appears at moments to travel through time. However, Life after Life is an overt engagement with J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment in Time (1927), examining various iterations of the life of Ursula Todd, born in 1910. It is possible to see the device as nothing more than a rather ornate form of social documentary, showing the possibilities open to girls of Ursula’s class at that time. However, the fact that Ursula becomes aware that she has lived other lives, prompting her to attempt to kill Adolf Hitler, moves this novel into science-fictional territory.
Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies begins with what is either the discovery of a lifetime or a remarkable act of forgery, when previously unknown letters by Samuel Johnson are shown to Nicholas Slopen, a moderately successful academic. The letters themselves are almost incidental. Only gradually does it dawn on Slopen that he has stumbled into a bizarre situation in which Johnson’s consciousness temporarily resides in the body of a Russian illiterate, opening up a far-ranging discussion on the nature of identity.
Other writers have been less successful in their attempts to create meta-SF. Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys (2011) is an alternative history, set in a Britain which saw an upswelling of religious fervour somewhere in the 1940s, leading to sharp divisions between Christians and the non-affiliated, and increasing persecution of the latter. The novel fails mainly because Wood is too conscious of the historical framework she has created and spends more time trying to secure it than she does in using it as a background for the story she really wants to tell. Naomi Foyle’s Seoul Survivors (2013) and Astra (2014) go too far in the other direction; science-fictional devices and settings act as supports for well-written moments of drama but the overall narrative stumbles badly. It is authors like Theroux, Atkinson, and Roberts, who clearly have a deeper understanding of narrative structure, who are creating the most satisfying meta-SF.
One of the very few British SF writers to have turned to Europe rather than the USA for inspiration is Dave Hutchinson, whose Europe in Autumn (2014) is a fascinating examination of issues surrounding territory and sovereignty as a near-future Europe gradually collapses into a mess of smaller and smaller polities. Hutchinson’s protagonist, a chef, witnesses this decline from his own small kingdom, the kitchen, before finding himself participating in a European equivalent of the Great Game. It is undoubtedly a hybrid novel, part fantasy, part SF, part spy novel, yet I cannot think of another British SF writer producing anything quite like this in terms of its elegaic quality.
Having said that, Nick Harkaway perhaps comes closest with his most recent novel, Tigerman (2014). I loved Harkaway’s two previous novels, the gloriously anarchic The Gone-Away World (2009), set in a world so post-apocalyptic it’s almost fantastical, and Angelmaker (2013), a contemporary thriller-cum-comedy with Dickensian undertones. Tigerman might best be described as a postcolonial eco-thriller with superheroes. Harkaway tackles enviromental and climate matters, along with issues of territory and sovereignty, but as ever, his work is primarily about the characters struggling to make sense of it all, and permeated even at the darkest moments by an irrepressible joy. It’s very different from Hutchinson’s mordant humour and yet there is something remarkably life-affirming about the work of both writers.
What does all this mean for the genre? Is there even a distinctively British SF genre any more? The dissolution of genre boundaries, and the move towards closer ties with fantasy, horror, and mainstream realist fiction, might seem to be a dilution of what many people recognise as science fiction. For those authors who are happy to continue as part of the Anglo-American SF hegemony, producing traditional and, to my eye, rather dated SF, such meta-SF might pose some sort of threat. Having said that, there seems to be as strong a demand as ever for the more traditional forms of SF, so they hardly need worry.
For my own part, I prefer to see this shift in emphasis, this relaxation of border controls, as British SF, or one segment of it at least, becoming more comfortable with itself and with its relationships with the rest of the literary world. As well it might be given that our culture is permeated with science fictional imagery. Some writers at least see less need to be defensive about the genre and the way they use it. More interesting still is to couple this new openness with the increasing attention now being paid to non-Anglo American SF and fantasy, and an influx into the British market of foreign novels in translation that we might label as SF or fantasy but which exist within their own countries as part of a generally more heterogeneous publishing culture. If, as I am suggesting, the most innovative British science fiction writing now occurs at the points where science fiction meets other publishing genres, then the way is open for a lot more creativity and cross-fertilisation.
Contributor biographies [contents]
Juliet E. McKenna is a British fantasy author. Her debut novel, The Thief’s Gamble, appeared in 1999, and most recently her fifteenth book, Defiant Peaks, concluded The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. She writes diverse shorter fiction, regularly attends fantasy conventions, reviews for Interzone and Albedo One, and comments on book trade issues.
Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (2009) and The Grass King’s Concubine (2012). As Kari Maund, she is an historian of Britain in the early Middle Ages and has published five books and many articles in that field. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos. She lives and works in Cambridge, England, and her website is at www.karisperring.com.
Nina Allan‘s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year’s Best SF #28, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her books include The Silver Wind (2011), Stardust (2013), and Microcosmos (2013); her novel The Race is forthcoming from NewCon Press. Nina’s website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk.
Dan Hartland’s reviews and criticism have appeared in Strange Horizons, Vector, Foundation and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has never written a novel or sat on a judging panel.
Martin Petto has reviewed for Strange Horizons, Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He was an Arthur C. Clarke Award judge for 2011 and 2012. As Martin Petto, he edits the BSFA Review, blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and freelance copyeditor. She is also working on a PhD focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, Foundation, and Weird Fiction Review, and is now an assistant editor of Foundation. She blogs at Paper Knife.