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Dr Nick Hubble (Brunel University London) “The Clarke Award, ‘Literary SF’ and the Role of Criticism: Cultural Value in the 21st Century”

According to its website, the Arthur C. Clarke Award “is given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year” but it has come to be identified in particular with the cause of “literary SF”, a category central to the cultural division currently dividing fandom and which has led in recent years to a bitter contestation of the Hugo Awards, which are voted for by the membership of each annual Worldcon. Adam Roberts satirically classifies the division as such:

The Hard, politically conservative “SF is about learning and respecting the inviolable laws of physics”, masculinist, macho kill-and- rape video game, neo-Fascist Hugo ballot-stuffing crowd in one corner; and the Literary SF, “science fiction is about the encounter with otherness”, lovin-the- alien, polymorphous, feminist, queer, coloured, trans and politically liberal crowd in the other. (Roberts 2015: 9)

In contrast to the Hugos decided by popular vote, the jury-judged Clarke, although frequently characterised by mild controversy and bickering, has been less openly divisive. Recent “Literary” winners have included Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven in 2015 and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad in 2017. However, in 2016 the award was won by a more unapologetic example of genre SF in the mould of Clarke himself, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time. The contrast provided by these recent choices provides part of the context for the recent attempt to renew a critical public sphere surrounding the Clarke Award by setting up a shadow jury. On the one hand, the divide between genre and literary SF in the Clarke context does not map onto the one outlined by Roberts above (Tchaikovsky’s novel very much displays the characteristics that Roberts associates with literary SF). On the other hand, the parallax effect generated by these supposed binary oppositions opens up new perspectives on how cultural value is changing in this century and, in particular, following the 2007-8 global financial crash. This paper seeks to set out some of the parameters of this change at a time when “speculative fiction” has become mainstream and when Clarke’s Childhood’s End can be the topic of papers and seminars at the annual Modernist Studies Association Conference.

Nick Hubble is Reader in English at Brunel University London.

Dr Joe Norman (Brunel University London) “‘call me highway call me conduit call me lightning rod’: ‘Big Dumb Objects’ in Selected Works by Arthur C. Clarke and Iain M. Banks”

As a young man Iain M. Banks read Arthur C. Clarke’s work in the Gollancz classics range; and Banks’s Culture series continues Clarke’s Golden Age optimism for humankind’s technoscientific, utopian future. Clarke’s classics “The Sentinel” (1951), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendezvous with Rama (1973) feature the trope of the so-called “Big Dumb Object” (BDO), which also appears in Banks”s Excession (1996). Clarke’s Monolith, the Rama spacecraft, and Banks”s Excession, all evidence the existence of “a mysterious, now-disappeared race of Alien intellectual giants”, potentially bringing humans “much closer to a Conceptual Breakthrough into a more transcendent state of intellectual awareness.”

Clarke’s Monolith enables humankind to travel beyond our solar system, providing the potential for utopian colonization of space – exactly the eventuality realized through Banks’s Culture, an interstellar confederation of artificial habitats, overseen by benevolent AIs, comparable to Clarke’s alien Overlords in Childhood’s End (1953). Excession explores different species” reactions to the titular entity, which threatens utopia with war. The Excession itself – named for its capacity to exceed all known levels of power, size, and technoscientific development – surpasses almost all of humankind’s capacity to comprehend it in any meaningful fashion, even amongst the Culture’s elite AIs and posthumans. The continually deferred explanation for its exact nature becomes a mystery of near-Gothic proportions.

Peter Nicholls places the BDO “at the heart” of what attracts many people to SF, arguing for its primary role as conveying “something rather unscientific, be it called the sense of wonder, the sublime, the transcendent or the romantic.” Frequently those who encounter the BDO feel “vulnerable and threatened and lost like “the explorers of Clarke’s spacecraft Rama”. Christopher Palmer also affirms the sublime properties of the BDO, which activates “a complex of opposed qualities or possibilities […] the comic and the domestic, the heroic and the bureaucratic,” which “exhibit features of SF’s dealings with modernity.”

My paper will explore BDOs in both authors’ works through the lens of Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.’s technologiade, demonstrating the latter’s “two dialectically related forms”: Rendezvous with Rama as quintessential technoRobinsonade and Excession as subversion of space opera. In the hands of SF’s best, the BDO becomes much more than a cheap plot device, and instead a sophisticated tool for political and philosophical explorations.

Dr. Joseph Norman completed his PhD research into Banks’s Culture series at Brunel University London where he teaches English and Creative Writing. His research interests include: genre fiction, The Weird, heavy metal, utopianism, national identity. Recent publications include The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks (co-editor; Gylphi press, forthcoming 2017), and “Weirdrone Tales: The Weird, Drone Music, Sonic Ecstasy”, in Sustain/Decay Owen Coggins, James Harris, eds (Void Front Press, 2017).

Professor Patrick Parrinder (University of Reading) “Clarkaeology: Arthur C. Clarke’s Time Capsules”

Clarke’s universes are grandly four-dimensional but he is a novelist of space travel, not time travel, and his deepest imaginative visions convey not anticipation so much as a sense of belatedness. Often his protagonists are amateur or professional archaeologists. The principal themes of “Clarkaeology” are all present in his 1953 story “Jupiter Five”, where Professor Forster and his graduate students land on the fifth moon of Jupiter and make “the greatest archaeological find in all history”. Not only is this story the acknowledged precursor of the Rama series, but Forster’s “diffusion theory of extraterrestrial culture” is reflected in the monoliths of 2001 (later to be spoofed by K. S. Robinson in Icehenge) and also in The City and the Stars, where Edward James”s observation that Alvin “uncovers the truth of Earth’s history” is quite literally accurate. But Clarke is also constrained to specify that Alvin and his companion “were trying to contact intelligence, not to carry out archaeological research”.

Clarke’s aliens (unlike, say, Wells’s Martians) are never really alien. Whether reptilians (as in Childhood’s End and “Jupiter Five”) or tripeds, they are, as Prof. Forster says, “Not human – but humane”. And yet Clarke’s universe is genuinely unfathomable and strange, since, as Norton and his crew find in Rendezvous with Rama, “the more they discovered about it, the less they understood”. Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars, and 2001 all end with journeys to an unknown and (by implication) unknowable future, but in Clarke what links the future to archaeology and the recovery of the past is the device of the time capsule. Rama, the 2001 monoliths, and the artificial moon known as Jupiter Five are all time capsules, though their messages remain largely hidden. They are not buildings but machines that remain in perfect working order after millions of years, their mechanisms apparently waiting to be triggered by human explorers. Within Jupiter Five, for example, the archaeologists find a lifelike reptilian statue which they see as carrying the Clarkeian message “Greetings, carbon-based bipeds!” Yet in Clarke the promise of a second coming, of a once and future galactic empire, is repeatedly thwarted.

SF for Clarke, as Brian Aldiss once wrote, is “the literature of the gods”, but these gods have long disappeared from the universe, leaving only their time capsules behind. Far from “discovering the future”, Clarke’s characters tend to live in the future, with a strong and melancholy sense of their own belatedness. At most, they might hope to have left a sufficient impression on the universe for others to one day read the signs they have left behind.

Patrick Parrinder is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Reading and President of the H. G. Wells Society. His most recent book is Utopian Literature and Science (2015); among its many predecessors are Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching (1980) and Shadows of the Future which won the 1995 Eaton Award. He met Arthur C. Clarke at the International H. G. Wells Symposium in London in 1986.

 

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