Friday, 30 January 2009

SF Awards: Long Views Or Short

I came across a recent post by Adam Roberts, arguing that SF Awards Are Rubbish. Roberts arguing boils down to two main points. First, by the time a jury has finished wading through one hundred books in a fortnight or whatever it takes to work through the short list their critical faculties ares so shot that they are incapable of telling Jackie Collins from Julian Barnes. This does not sound implausible on the face of it. His second argument, I feel, is more contentious.

Roberts argues that such lists are no good because they are constructed without the benefit of historical hindsight.

"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. [...]. 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 [...] We should, at a pinch, be compiling a best of 1998; or (better) a best-of 1988"

Leaving aside the fact that Gibson's Neuromancer picked up the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Dick, suggesting that the award process can get it right at least some of the time, I take issue with the notion that the long view is necessarily any better than the short one.

For fifty years after his death in 1750 J S Bach was regarded as old-fashioned, difficult, better as a performer than a composer. The Nineteenth Century was well advanced before his reputation had reached the preeminent position it enjoys today. Shakespeare's reputation, I believe, underwent simialr transformations in the centuries after his death. Are assessments of a work made two hundred years after a work's first publication inherently any "better" than those made twenty years? Does the question even have any meaning?

Aesthetic or cultural judgments made at a given moment are always a combination of the merits of the thing being judged and the mood and values prevalent at the time. Unless we seriously want to argue that our collective judgment will be better in twenty years time than it is today then there is very little merit in not making some kind of assessment in the heat of immediate experience.

Sure, from time to time a bad or undeserving may get more recognition than it merits and some more deserving writer may lose out as a consequence. But that seems like a reasonable price to pay for the way that the awards and their associated lists serve as markers for what is good and original and new in the genre. Years ago now, I picked up a copy of Neuromancer in W H Smiths. I had never heard of Gibson or the novel, but the fact that it had won those three awards was plastered over the cover and that persuaded me to part with my £2.95 (God, those were the days.) Years later, in a different Smiths, I spotted a copy of Perdito Street Station and brought it (in part) because it had won the Clarke. Probably I would have discovered Gibson and Mieville eventually, but the awards got me there faster. That seems like a good thing.

If the passing of years even suggests that the books were not that great, that judgment which was passed upon them was naïve, flaky or just plan wrong then does it matter all that much? Those stories which endure and resonate down the years will have their own reward bestowed on them by that very longevity. What this year's awards provide is a sense of what is important now, that these are the things which capture the heart or resonate in the soul of readers now. That seems to me to be at least as worthy of reward and recognition as the (still capricious, still contentious) evaluation of "what mattered" twenty years after the event.