Adam Roberts Says SF Awards Are Rubbish

Author of Splinter, Adam Roberts, has written a fascinating article stating that SF Awards are rubbish.

But awards lists and best-ofs are rubbish, for all that. The problem is timescale.

It is a convention, no less foolish for being deeply rooted, that the proper prominence from which to pause, look back and make value judgments, is at the end of the year in question. This is wrongheaded in a number of reasons. One has to do with the brittleness of snap-judgments (why else do you think they’re called snap?). Take those fans and awards-panellists of the 1960s and 1970s who really really thought that the crucial figures of the genre were the often-garlanded Spider Robinson or Mack Reynolds rather than the rarely noticed Philip K Dick. They weren’t corrupt; they just spoke too soon. In the 1980s we went crazy for Julian May and John Varley and Vonda Mcintyre; but the truly significant figures from that decade turned out to be Alan Moore and Octavia Butler and William Gibson. SF academics who championed Jack Womack and Rachel Pollack 90s were right that they are interesting writers, but wrong that they’d prove the most enduring figures of 90s SF. (Does it seem right, in retrospect, that Iain M Banks never won a novel Hugo or a Clarke award?)

Indeed, awards themselves are sometimes motivated by a sense of this very belatedness: Green Mars wins the Hugo that, really, should have gone to Red Mars, a much better novel. Awards, conscious that they overlooked Important Figure’s masterwork a few years back (hindsight being 20:20) sometimes scrabble to make amends by giving the prize to Important Figure’s recent makeweight cash-in. That’s human. I’d guess Ben Bova’s Titan won the 2007 Campbell not because it was the best novel on the shortlist–’best’ comes nowhere near describing it; indeed it hardly deserves even ‘novel’–but because Bova himself is widely known and widely liked as a human and as a heart-in-the-right-place member of the SF community.

But there’s something even more corrosive at work. The particular requirement of awards-that the judges read a whole heap of novels-is, more than anything, the things that makes awards screwy. Properly to claim ‘X is the year’s best SF novel’ one would have to try and read the complete fictional output of one year in one year. Anybody who has tried this-even tried a shrunken, within-reason version of it (not thousands of novels; simply the 80 or 100 that are realistically award contenders)-will tell you it is more than a chore. It is a chore, but it is more. It is a distorting and hallucinatory experience.

1 comment:

James Maxey said...

I think this is a valid criticism, though I'd like to point out that it really isn't a problem exclusive to SF awards or lists. Oscars and Grammies and other awards have exactly the same problem.

On the other hand, while the current award systems are flawed, I can't think of any perfect system. Wait five years then vote? It seems like the clutter and noise of intervening years could interfere with our ability to judge things the way they were. For instance, when the Matrix came out, I thought it was one of the best SF movies of all time. Then the two lousy sequels came out, and dozens of knock offs and parodies, and now when I watch it it just seems like a lot of flash and noise over a relatively old premise. Does that mean I shouldn't have enjoyed the movie as much as I did when it came out?

Is judging popular culture by immediate gut reaction inherently inferior to judging it by long and deliberate contemplation?