Friday, 30 April 2010

A Hat Trick for Mr Mieville

Day before yesterday, The City and the City, that exquisite hybrid of crime fiction and conceptual speculation, became only the fifth novel - after Take Back Plenty, The Sparrow, Christopher Priest's The Separation and Air by Geoff Ryman - to win both the BSFA and the Arthur C. Clarke award.

Not only that: China Mieville became the very first author to have won that latter acclaim three times. They honoured him in 2001 for Perdido Street Station, the beginning of the Bas-Lag trilogy, then again in 2005 for its rather underrated conclusion, Iron Council. And now, well... the gent's gone and done it again.

Three cheers are in order, I think. One for each of his Clarke trophies! Wait, is there even a trophy? Never mind. As Niall Harrison observes over on Torque Control, it's a judgment "which instantly looks like one of those decisions that couldn't have gone any other way," though let's be honest here: the six novels on the 2010 shortlist represented an incredible and diverse collection of speculative fiction, each and every one of which was in its own way award-caliber fodder.

But there's no questioning the wisdom of the Clarke panel's decision. Not to toot my own horn here, but as I Tweeted shortly before the ceremonies began, The City and the City is a book deserving of every inch of the praise and acclaim that's been heaped on it, and of all the candidates - of the four I've read, I should say - far and away the most extraordinary. Would that I had a review to link to, but I'm the blog wasn't even a wicked twinkle in my eye when Mieville's last novel hit bookstore shelves, so let's just say it was my favourite book of 2009 and leave it at that.

So. Huge congrats to China, first and foremost, but also to Julie Crisp, Chloe Healy, and all at Macmillan and Tor UK for their well deserved triumph.

But I'm not just posting to pat everyone involved on the back. Some kind soul thought to record the author's short acceptance speech, and as per usual, China, in the space of three mere minutes, manages to be illuminating, funny and touching. Here:

I very nearly teared up there at the end. Would that China's dear mum, for whom he wrote The City and the City - and indeed the novel is dedicated to her memory - had been around to see her son so honoured. I've no doubt she'd have been the proudest parent in all of London. And as those of us who've had the pleasure of China's latest novel know, London is the world.

But transcripted for your convenience, here are a few of the most prescient points China raised in his speech:

"Earlier this year, in response to a critique of the Booker prize, for ignoring some of the most exceptional literature out there - by one of the shortlistees; by Kim Stanley Robinson - the judge, the academic and writer John Mullan explained that the reason he didn't consider science fiction was because science fiction is bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.

"He totally means us! I know it's very very cheap to rally the crown against a pantomime villain - but I never said I was expensive...

"One of the many reasons - I know we whine about this incessantly - one of the many reasons that I think that this is such a shame, this kind of contumely, is because as anyone who's been online knows and has looked around at the debate around this prize and science fiction prizes in general knows that by contrast science fiction readers are among the most critical, the most - they combine an extraordinary generosity with an extraordinarily rigorous critique in a way that I never see among many other readers. You know, the seriousness, the systemacicity, the fascination, the rigour with which the readers of this extraordinary field read is a constant amazement to me, and constantly something I'm very proud of.

"I think, at its best, they are the greatest readers and the greatest fiction out there, and I'm very very grateful to those readers for being open to a little bit of crime in their speculation. And just to conclude, I'd also say I'm extremely grateful to readers of crime for being open to a little speculation with their murder. It's meant a great deal to me to be read outside those traditional areas."

You've got to love a guy who can slip "contumely" into everyday speech with a perfectly straight face. I'm exactly the type to pride myself on knowing the meaning of all sorts of obscure words, and even I had to look that one up!

But to my point. I wonder, are we really "the greatest readers" of fiction? No man's above lip-service, I suppose, especially when honoured as China was on Wednesday night, but he honestly doesn't seem the type to be stroking our egos just because we really rather like his books. Certainly we are critical; sometimes overly so, I'd say. And speaking for myself, I know I'm capable of very generous praise when a book truly calls out to me - as Kraken did last week, for instance (review here).

And yet, China had barely finished giving his very gracious acceptance speech, calling us all lovely things, thanking us for our acceptance of him, in turn, for "being open to a little bit of crime in [our] speculation" and lo and behold, a debate calling into question the very openness China was speaking of was raging across the blogosphere. Was The City and the City really science fiction anyway, the instigators asked?

To which question I would answer, after a not inconsiderable amount of thought: pshaw. I don't often take idle talk personally, but this particular thing, this bothered me. How incredibly discriminatory, to consider - even for a moment - the dismissal out of hand of a novel that unquestionably does touch on speculative concepts simply because it also incorporates elements of another genre. Not only that; it's a slippery slope. Should science fiction that has within its pages allusions of intimacy be thus deigned romance? I mean, really.

It's time likes these that I'm reminded of how utterly reductive the notion of genre is.

More on which subject soon...

In the meantime, let this be an open forum for celebration of China's landmark triumph, and perhaps further discussion of the notion of our worth as critics of speculative fiction. Lest we forget the question on everyone's lips: to those of you who've read the Clarke award-winner, do you think its incorporation of tropes more typical of other genres should somehow have excluded it from consideration?

I'll totally fight anyone who says so... ;)


  1. How incredibly discriminatory, to consider - even for a moment - the dismissal out of hand of a novel that unquestionably does touch on speculative concepts simply because it also incorporates elements of another genre.

    I don't really understand this, are you saying that there are people who think it shouldn't have won the Clarke because it is a crime novel? I haven't seen any of them. I have seen a few people saying that it is speculative fiction rather than science fiction but that is a fair enough comment since the Clarke is for science fiction, not speculative fiction. Personally, I do think it is science fiction and a worthy winner. PSS and The Iron Council, on the other hand...

  2. Thanks for posting up the speech and transcript. And 'contumely' - wow, what a word. Always good to learn a new one!

    I don't have much to say about genre, other than I basically agree with you. It's a necessary evil I guess - the way our brains are built (and the way things are bought and sold) means we need classifications - but do they really exist?

    I can't remember who it was who said it (Google suggests Gene Wolfe) - but all writers of fiction write fantasy, some are just more honest about it than others.

  3. @Rachel - Gotta love Gene Wolfe. The grand poo-bah of all things speculative, if you ask me. Come to think of it, there's a review coming up shortly of The Sorcerer's House, which rather boggled my mind, let me tell you.

    @Martin - No. The latter. Although I would say that I think the elements of crime The City and the City incorporated into its narrative have been grist for the mill for those readers who'd happily dismiss it out of hand as as science fiction novel.

    Anyway. More in-depth genre discussion to come on Tuesday.