Recently there’s been a bit of a discussion about why no SF writer has won the Booker prize. As far as I know, it was begun by Kim Stanley Robinson in a piece for New Scientist. After quoting Virginia Woolf’s complimentary letter to SF great Olaf Stapleton, he wrote:
Oh, I know there is a Booker prize, I’ve heard of it even in California – supposedly given to the best fiction published in the Commonwealth every year – but there are no Woolves on those juries, and so they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels.
Sometimes these are fine historical novels, written by tremendous writers; I particularly like Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, and my favorite was Penelope Fitzgerald. But working, like all of us, in the rain shadow of the great modernists, they tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways. A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is. Thus it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn’t read. Should I name names? Why not: Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, Life by Gwyneth Jones in 2004, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison in 1997. Indeed this year the prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.
This is not going to happen. But it is a minor injustice, which can be ameliorated by the readers of New Scientist: simply buy the book and read it. Be the jury yourself. Read like Woolf, widely and without preconceptions. Read science fiction, read historical fiction, make your own judgement, and then talk about it. Try this as a kind of experiment: read 30 writers new to you. It’s a big project, but what a lot of good reading would come of it. And New Scientist readers will be quickest of all to see that the literature that best expresses our time, that speaks to our time, is science fiction. How could it be otherwise? Our world is a science fiction.
Adam Roberts, who Robinson mentioned, responded in the Guardian with this:
I found myself noticing how much of this year’s shortlist is built around essentially science fiction conceits, although mostly in slightly stifled ways: Coetzee’s Summertime is, among other things, about uncertainty in the face of versions of reality – the topic that Philip K Dick made so brilliantly his own. Byatt’s absorbing The Children’s Book, though rooted in a detailed Edwardianism, is in part about fantasy, and is structured around entry into and expulsion from Narnia-like paradises, or anti-Narnia hells. Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze, set in the 1840s, is about transcending reality and distils moments of intensity that gesture towards SF’s sense of wonder. They’re all good novels. But how much better they could have been if their authors had allowed themselves to play with the complete paint-box of SF and fantasy.