It wasn’t a dream
Two days after the announcement of the shortlist for last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel, Christopher Priest wrote on his blog that part of the award’s purpose is to prove to ‘the larger world’ that science fiction ‘is a progressive, modern literature, with diversity and ambition and ability, and not the pool of generic rehashing that the many outside detractors of science fiction are so quick to assume it is’. But the shortlist, he argued, did exactly the opposite. Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, for instance,
keeps alive the great tradition of the SF of the 1940s and 1950s where people get in spaceships to go somewhere to do something. In this case, the unlikely story begins as the interstellar spaceship arrives somewhere. The paragraphs are short, to suit the expected attention span of the reader. The important words are in italics. Have we lived and fought in vain?
Priest concluded that the judges should be sacked, the ceremony cancelled and the prize suspended for a year.
The essay was a polemic by a writer with a stake in the debate. Predictably, it didn’t go down well with the tiny fraction of online readers who comment on this sort of thing. After all, it wasn’t only a transgression against the pervasive politeness of book culture; it was also a wholesale attack on the current state of the genre. Priest’s charge was that contemporary science fiction sets its own low standards, meets them, reaffirms them with awards, and then wonders why mainstream respectability eludes it. The winner of this year’s Clarke Award was Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, a novel about the descendants of two marooned astronauts, reduced by inbreeding and privation to, in the words of the back cover blurb, ‘an infantile stew of half-remembered fact and devolved ritual that stifles innovation and punishes independent thought’. It’s a convenient metaphor for Priest since it makes it clear that Dark Eden is yet another retread of one of science fiction’s most timeworn premises. An analogous complaint is often made about the insularity of the Booker Prize, which ignores both science fiction and experimental fiction. But partisans of these genres complain because they feel excluded. Priest, who’s been nominated three times for the Clarke Award and won it once, complains for the opposite reason: he feels included to the point of immurement. He sees the Clarke Award as a distress flare which must be kept in working order if the colony is to have any hope of rescue by ‘the larger world’. Until then, he’s stranded.
It wasn’t always so. In 1983, at the age of 39, Priest was included in Granta’s first ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ anthology alongside Amis, McEwan, Rushdie and Ishiguro. That he had already published novels called Inverted World (1974) and The Space Machine (1976) wasn’t then considered the literary equivalent of a criminal record. But it wasn’t the shape of things to come, either for the Granta list – no author known mostly for science fiction has appeared on it since – or for Priest himself. By 2002 the Observer was asking: ‘Whatever happened to Christopher Priest?’ In fact, he’d published eight more novels, and since then he’s published another two; a film adaptation of The Prestige (1995) by Christopher Nolan, director of the recent Batman trilogy, grossed $100 million in 2006. Priest remains, however, the model of a cult author.