Speech for Arthur C. Clarke Award, 27 July 2017

My speech as Non-voting Chair of JudgesTM at Foyles, 27 July 2017.

I’m not sure that it is smart or wise to say this.

I am feeling haunted.

There are voices in my head and I’m not sure whose head it is.

There is the voice in my head of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who would have been a hundred in December. Without him, we wouldn’t be here today, and as we look at the short list for the 31st Clarke Award, I wonder what he would say.

Meanwhile we’ll find out at the conference I’m coorganising.
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Speech for Arthur C. Clarke Award, 24 August 2016

My speech as Non-voting Chair of JudgesTM at Foyles, 24 August 2016. Gratifyingly well received.
 

Novels with spaceships and novels with spiders,
near future Europe with parallels beside her,
a modified woman – flying with wings,
these are a few of my favourite things.

You’d think after thirty years it’d be easy to choose the Clarke winner – we’d turn up and all know that that novel is the one.

But this year we had a tough time getting to a short list and a tough time agreeing on a winner.

All of the books play with and reinvigorate the sandbox of science fiction – generation starships, ill-matched crews, AIs, parallel universes, mutants and have one or more moments of conceptual breakthrough, when you realise that the fictional universe is more complicated than you think.

It was suggested to me by Ian Whates, Leila Abu El Hawa, Andrew McKie, Liz Bourke and David Gullen that in a sense all the books on the short list were winners

But I pointed to the rule that There Can Be Only One.

Might it be Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight, follow-up to his Clarke shortlisted Europe in Autumn, with the Balkanised Europe now neighboured by a pocket universe consisting of a university, a pocket university, if you will? Of course, this is a very timely book, a very important book, said one of the judges, and we were deciding on a winner just over a week after the Brexit vote. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

There’s a pocket world in Iain Pears’s Arcadia, which laminates together a Tolkien-esque author and their fantasy world, and time travel from the near future to a parallel world. Pears nods, of course, to Tolkien and Lewis, to Sir Philip Sidney and to As You Like It, as well as many other references. Pears’s app add to the reading experience, challenges the linearity of reading and adds to the pleasure of the novel. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

Or might it be, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Kitshchie award-winning, originally self-published, lazily comparable to Firefly, but it does diversity and explores identity so much better than Whedon and almost effortlessly. Great fun, this is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

Or might it be a book that has to overcome a phobia of many of its readers and at least one of our judges, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time. This is an epic tale, told across generations, as the last of humanity think they have found a terraformed planet to settle, only it is defended by an AI who is protecting the dominant species of the planet, which has been uplifted (and the novel has at least one nod to David Brin). Defying disbelief, that species turns out to be able to defend itself more than adequately. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

Alternatively, J.P. Smythe’s Way Down Dark is also set on a ship that has a voyage which will last generations –but here the passengers are awake, but society is falling apart. Chan has tried to maintain the Arboretum against the attacks of a savage gang. When her mother dies, Chan has to become leader in her place and save the ship. But nothing is quite as it seems and we are taken on quite a journey in the first of a trilogy. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

Finally, Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, a prequel to Who Fears Death, forces the reader to confront some interested moral questions in the choice of protagonist – in some ways it’s a superhero origin story, but in truth it is more complex. Phoenix Okore is a modified, accelerated woman, imprisoned in a skyscraper in New York. When she breaks out in search of the truth, it starts a bloody chain of events in Ghana and the U.S. This is my favourite book, said one of the judges.

You can see our problem. What do you mean by favourite?

Each year, for thirty years, the judges have to decide that for themselves. A different set of judges every year and a different favourite. How did they decide this year?

Novels with spaceships and novels with spiders,
near future Europe with parallels beside her,
a modified woman – flying with wings,
these are a few of my favourite things.

Not the Town in Surrey

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher (Modern Two, Edinburgh, 27 June-27 September 2015, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 14 October 2015-17 January 2016)

I have three memories.

Viewing an Escher exhibition in Manchester in the mid-1980s.

A family holiday in the Lake District, after the best part of a year spent in Hull, clinging onto the side of a hill with vertigo.

A colleague showing us paintings at the National Gallery and pointing out the Dutch interest in squares.

The first memory is almost certainly false – I suspect the only previous Escher show in the UK I could have seen was at Croydon in the 1990s and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see that, nor when it moved north.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland, in 1898, son of a civil engineer, and went to school in Arnhem, which was a dreadful experience. He was a good drawer, but he was initially expected to train as an architect. However, it was speedily agreed that his talents lay in the visual arts. He travelled around Western Europe and, whilst in Italy, met and fell in love with Jetta Umiker. Their parents agreed an allowance for the couple, whilst Escher began a career as an artist specialising in woodcuts.

In 1922 he designed a grouping of eight heads, “Eight Heads”, which cut be fitted together indefinitely and seems to have been the earlier example of an interest in tessellations. When he was to come to the Alhambra in Granada later that year and admire the Moorish tiles there, it was already part of his set of interests. Over the next five decades he was to play with birds, fish, lizards and all kinds of animals in a series of tessellations.

But before he developed that theme, he was to work on landscapes, especially those seen on his travels. The Tower of Babel (1928) is a nod to Brueghel, but generates a vertiginous sense in us by depicting it from above. Castrovalva (1930) – a name familiar to me from Doctor Who — depicts a series of buildings, a monastery perhaps, high on a hill, with a village deep below. I suspect that there is a play with vanishing points here, as there is so often, so that the distance is increased in several directions. I cannot help but feel that Escher, as someone from a flat country, would have felt the hills and cliffs of Europe to be steeper than they really are. Indeed, the landscapes that have a real-world counterpart are apparently exaggerated.

He was to move from the possible to impossible – the fantastical Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (1935) has an ambiguity over whether it is a bishop dreaming he is a praying mantis or a praying mantis dreaming she is a bishop, with an Alhambra palace architecture behind. In a street scene he balances rows of books against buildings, as it transforms into a bedside table. In a mirror, the street outside the room is reflected, but not the room. All of this is rendered in wood cut, occasionally wood print or lithograph, rarely mezzotint.

His work came to the attention of two mathematicians, Coxeter and Penrose. H. S. M. Coxeter, a British-born Canadian, was an expert in geometry and tessellations and was impressed with Escher’s apparently instinctive approach. In correspondence with Escher, he came up with a better way to represent infinitely tessellating fish in a circle – the way you do. Meanwhile Roger Penrose and his father Lionel Penrose were inspired to devise an impossible triangle – which Escher was to use in his endless Waterfall (1961) – and endless stairs – which Escher used in Ascending and Descending (1960). (Penrose’s uncle was Roland Penrose who was husband to photographer Lee Miller and whose library is in Modern Two.)

His work continued to play with perspective, some of it incorporating the staircases and halls from his hated school. A final piece of work was a tangle of snakes and chain, based around the circle motif. By then he was already being subsumed into popular culture – although he said no to Jagger and Kubrick who wanted his services.

I was suddenly reminded on seeing relatively straightforward work such as Three Worlds (1955), with fish in the water reflecting the sky and trees, how far his play with the play has influenced my own photographic aesthetic. I am a sucker for reflected surfaces.

Elements
Apparently there is only one Escher work in a British collection, Night and Day (1938) in the Hunterian, Glasgow, and that only because it interested a geographer. He would seem to be just too popular – and also, one suspects, there is a bias toward oils and watercolours over prints.

So go see Escher in Edinburgh if you can – it may be more convenient for the metropolitans in Dulwich, but I’m not sure they can fit in all the work and Modern Two has a rather more generous scale. I fear it will be heaving.

Speech for Arthur C. Clarke Award, 6 May 2015

There was a moment in the final judging meeting for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award when we invoked W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

It was something about the ordinariness of suffering and disaster, its everydayness. Because we’d realised that each of the books we had chosen, in quite different ways, was about the end of the world.

I’d also been rereading one of Freud’s case studies, in which the patient – not, in fact one of Freud’s patients – imagined that he was living after the end of the world:

At the climax of his illness, […] Schreber became convinced of the imminence of a great catastrophe, of the end of the world. Voices told him that the work of the past 14,000 years had now come to nothing, and that the earth’s allotted span was only 212 years more; and […] he believed that that period had already elapsed. He himself was ‘the only real man left alive’, and the few human shapes that he still saw – the doctor, the attendants, the other patients – he explained as being ‘miracled up, cursorily improvised men’. […] He had various theories of the cause of the catastrophe. At one time he had in mind a process of glaciation owing to the withdrawal of the sun; at another it was to be destruction by an earthquake

Disasters are not new, of course; taking a middle ground definition of science fiction we can see the end of the world in Mary Shelley’s other sf novel, The Last Man, and come close to it in H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. We have the so-called cosy catastrophes of Wyndham and Christopher, Ballard’s ecological psychological disasters. They are perhaps innoculations of fear of the real world ending in disaster – whether it is the ongoing fall out from the economic crash of 2008 with default always just round the corner or the latest salvo in the ongoing culture wars.

Six visions of the end of the world – three women, three men, a range of nationalities, a variety of publishers and a work – sort of – in translation. My thanks to the judges who chose the books and discussed them so passionately at four epic meetings.

Our judges found Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August to be “An unusual take on time travel with communication across generations [and] a metaphor for our lives”. Harry August lives his life over and over again, each time with his memories of the last life intact, trying to get things right. But the end of the world is coming, he is told, and the apocalypse seems to be getting closer all the time. One judge found it “Incredibly immersive” and “didn’t want it to finish”.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn is a “soft apocalypse”, a vision of a near-future Europe, Balkanising. Estonian chef Rudi is drawn into a shadowy organisation, whether he likes it or not, and there seems no way out. One judge called it “A novel about fragmentation – [with Europe] both becoming more localised and globalised.” We noted a minor character shared the name and some of the interests of one of our judges – coincidence we hope – and felt that it avoided “a lot of the probable pitfalls” of the near-future, international thriller.

Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things the judges found “Very Ken MacLeod but not MacLeod”, it was “Understated and unsettling and absolutely absorbing”. Christian pastor Peter Leigh is sent on a secretive mission to an alien planet where the indigenous species want to hear the gospel; he is not the first priest to do so, but no one will tell him what went wrong last time. Meanwhile, back on Earth, things are falling apart. We can’t help but read this with memories of Mary Dorian Russell’s The Sparrow, of course, and before that James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven straddles the apocalypse, both the Georgia flu that begins to wipe out 99% of humanity and the survivors twenty years later. The judges noted that it is “A feel good post apocalypse” and, while many post-apocalypse novels focus on the survival of humanity, this focuses on the survival of culture. According to Auden, “We must love one another or die.” Later he rewrote the line “We must love one another and die.” This novel for the judges, was “An elegy for the hyperglobalised present“.

M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts is in the early days of the postapocalypse, some kind of zombie plague where our protagonist or antagonist – the eponymous girl – is among a group of child zombies being experimented on by uninfected survivors. She might hold the answer to humanity’s plight. The judges found it “Very emotional and suspenseful, truly horrifying” and note its move “from humanity to posthumanity” and how it “Worked through its sfnal premise logically”.

And finally, Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water takes us to several generations after some kind of disaster, where water has become scarce, and the protagonist’s father is a tea master, gifted with extra water, but under the constant suspicious eyes of an occupying force. Noria Kaitio looks likely to succeed her father, despite being a woman, but secrets, both of her parents and the half-forgotten pre-apocalypse put her at risk. The judges praised the “Beautiful writing” and “The strength of the relationship” at the heart of the novel. It is “intensely focused, narrow-ranging, almost flawless on its own terms.”

My job here, of course, is to draw connections, but we do have six very different apocalypses, sometimes quite mundane apocalypses, lived apocalypses. I’ll quote Auden again. The Old Masters:

never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

And then, of course, we have something amazing – not thankfully a boy falling out of the sky, but a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.