BSFA Awards Best Non-Fiction of 2020 Shortlist

Last year I reviewed the BSFA Award shortlists for Best Novel, Best Shorter Fiction and Best Non-Fiction (index here). This year I’ve been fitted with a limiter by the Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award that prohibits me from discussing any novels that are even vaguely SFF (or indeed any SFF works that are even vaguely novels) in public. I don’t have time to look at the shorter fiction (but will go to back to it because there is some interesting stuff there) and therefore I’m just going to look at the Best Non-Fiction Shortlist (all this year’s shortlists can be found here). I’m continuing my policy from last year of not ranking BSFA texts (I did rank the Clarke shortlist last year) but I will reveal which one I put in first place on the ballot.

Once again, the shortlisted works vary considerably in form. In this case between, on the one hand, Jo Walton’s short piece for Tor.Com and, on the other hand, Andrew Milner’s and J.R. Burgmann’s academic book with Liverpool University Press. While part of me would like to expand award categories to distinguish between books and shorter pieces, I realise that this isn’t a viable option for the BSFA, who are operating on limited resources. In any case, as with the Hugo Award for Best-Related Work, part of the fun is trying to guess what type of work will have caught the public mood in any particular year. I apologise in advance for the disparity in length of these reviews but there are always some topics I find I have more to say about (although in the event, I found I had a fair amount to say about all of them).

Jo Lindsay Walton, ‘Estranged Entrepreneurs and the Meaning of Money in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’ (Foundation 137, Winter 2020)

Walton was also short-listed last year for an essay, ‘Away Day: Star Trek and the Utopia of Merit’, which analysed work in the world of the Star Trek franchise, considered as a critical utopia, in order to think about the relationship between the slightly-jarring ideas of meritocracy and post-scarcity egalitarianism that both operate in that world. The conclusion of that essay is that ‘the Federation shows greater resemblance to some kind of techno-meritocracy, than to a system of egalitarian reciprocity’ and therefore although it represents some sort of utopia of merit, this seems to be directed towards a project of making hierarchy habitable. Therefore, the idea of a utopia of merit is a dangerous one: ‘Meritocracy is quite obviously an ideological instrument of the worst kinds of capitalism, and to attempt to make a space to think through a radical and redeemed version might just be totally naïve.’ I mention this because similar ideas are developed in ‘Estranged Entrepreuneurs and the Meaning of Money’ and readers might like to study both essays.

Walton focuses on Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003) (it is not necessary to have read the novel to appreciate the argument but you will want to read it by the time you have finished the essay), which postulates a mostly post-scarcity society in which money has been replaced by a ‘reputation currency’ called Whuffie, as described in the section of the essay extracted in the Awards booklet. Whuffie, Walton tells us, is not really that similar to the reputation metrics of social media; it can’t be simply stated as a score in the same way as one can enumerate their instagram followers. He cites Doctorow to the effect that Whuffie is ‘a score that a never-explained set of network services calculate by directly polling the minds of the people who know about you and your works, reducing their private views to a number’ (67). Furthermore, Whuffie varies according to how respected person B is by the people that person A respects, so any one individual will have different Whuffie scores from different people. The analysis here is partly directed at the idea of merit and Doctorow’s changing attitude to the possible redeemability of any idea of meritocracy (as evidenced by a comparison with the loose prequel Walkaway [2017]) but Walton’s fundamental concern is with money and what exactly it is.

To this end, he begins the essay by discussing three major ways of thinking about money – chartalism (aka the state theory of money), the commodity theory of money, and the credit theory of money – and then (after an initial discussion of Whuffie) goes on to explain in more detail the ‘credit theory of money, the practicalities of money creation in the modern world, and the role entrepreneurship plays’ (68) by reference to an episode from Terry Pratchett’s Making Money (2007). This is great and works really well even if, like me, you are not entirely at home with economic and monetary theory. However, this analysis is also crucial to Walton’s argument that most of us are like Pratchett’s Moist van Lipwig in that when thinking about money we draw on ‘certain common-sense or folk-theoretic assumptions about what money is’ (70). One subset of these assumptions is concerned with the figure of the entrepreneur and our sense that they somehow make money. Returning to Whuffie, which clearly functions as something like money, Walton then analyses how it turns everybody into entrepreneurs and thereby ‘threatens the figure of the entrepreneur with obsolescence’ (75). In conclusion, he argues that speculative fiction (in this case by Doctorow and Pratchett) reveals how a folk-theoretic credit theory of money exists and operates:

Folk theories such as these, far more than their formal theoretic extrusions, or any vague notion of ‘trust’, are humming in the background when we use money. It is such folk theory that makes the use of money feel possible and even natural, and which may play some part in enabling money to ‘function’ and exercise its manifold agency. (77)

If it is not clear how can we understand money except through mediating figures, such as the entrepreneur, then the question we are left with is whether by multiplying and diversifying folk understandings ‘of what it means to be a human that uses money (or something like it) and perhaps can even create it’ we can move beyond our folk reverence for them (in effect, materially abolish the entrepreneur) and ‘significantly evolve our understanding of the nature of money’ (77).

This is a really first-rate essay, one that I will want to go back to after reading Doctorow’s novels. It’s also one I want to go forward with in the sense of helping generate new understandings (or, as Walton suggests, enriching existing marginalised undestandings) of making and using something like money. (Just to be clear, I have had no irreverent thoughts about REF scores and other metrics used in academia while reading this essay).

Jo Walton, ‘Books in Which No Bad Things Happen’ (Tor.Com, 20.03.20)

This article is available here. I can see why it has struck a chord because it is at once a musing on what ‘nothing bad’ means in the context of novels, which generally turn on plots, which generally turn on the resolution of conflicts of some sort, which means that ‘there’s almost certain to be something bad’; but it also opens up several ideas and invites readers to think about pretty much everything they’ve ever read  and what they were looking for when they read it. Therefore, although it is a short article, it may well have catalysed hours of thought for many readers. There is also some very smart analysis here, such as the discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge as an example of how a utopia can be utopian without being naïve by having ‘the actual story be sad – the softball team loses, the boy doesn’t get the girl, the old man dies in a storm.’ This is a great example of how criticism doesn’t need to involve a lengthy theoretical thesis in order to make an insightful point (memo to self).

I particularly enjoyed this article because I read many of the texts/authors discussed, ranging from Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer to Martin Waddell and Barbara Frith’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? (aloud). Yes, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea is the scariest (too realistic!) of the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series and therefore it was far and away my least favourite and I’m not even sure I even read it more than once; in contrast to multiple readings of my favourites such as Peter Duck, Missie Lee, and Great Northern?, which while ostensibly more eventful and violent were not scary to me because they were so evidently fantasies (or, indeed, as Wikipedia suggests, because they are all metafictional – only writing this do I realise that this is where that lifelong interest began).

Obviously, people will best know for themselves what levels of badness they wish to avoid, and the takeaway for me was thinking about exactly where those boundaries lie for myself. We live in a society where ‘comfort reading’ is a term that is most often used as a put down (I’ve done it myself – I’ll think twice about doing that going forward) but I can remember being really upset by a counsellor once suggesting that I read SFF as a form of escapism. To paraphrase Tolkien, why wouldn’t you want to escape? At my lowest point last year, ill and fatigued and not knowing if I’d ever not be fatigued, I re-read part of The Fellowship of the Ring, just the first Book, and concentrated on the hobbits’ journey across the Shire and then on to Bree, via Tom Bombadil’s house. Those are the bits I used to skip read as a teenager (when I read LOTR two or three times a year every year) but now they are my favourite parts of the story. Ok, some bad stuff happens – there is more than ‘mild peril’, as the film warnings used to say – but, like Walton, I’ll settle for ‘everything all right at the end’. In other words, I can’t imagine ever wanting comfort enough that I’d just stay in the Shire but travelling to Bree and then waiting things out in the pub sounds like just the right level of adventure.

Francesca T Barbini, ed., Ties that Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction (Luna Press, kindle edition)

The first year that I went to Eastercon, I unwisely signed up to some sort of group email list and then watched in horror as it became utterly consumed by an extremely acrimonious ‘debate’ as to the suitability of the scheduling time for a session demonstrating bondage knots, which rapidly turned into an acrimonious ‘debate’ into the suitability of having a session demonstrating bondage knots. It nearly put me off completely. I didn’t realise people were going to be quite so Disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells and illiberal about such things. To be honest, I can’t even tie my own shoelaces so that they stay done up and therefore attendance would probably have done me some good and I’m always open to new things … at least, in theory. In the event, however, the only vaguely disturbing thing I encountered during the whole con was Graham Sleight gleefully tossing books aside as the ‘Not the Clarke Award’ panel ripped through the cream of British SF … but, I digress. The point is that both criticism and fandom – with exceptions of course – have often despite good intentions ended up reflecting the small ‘c’ conservative heteronormative social values that have dominated and continue to dominate (despite contestation) Britain. In this context, the advent of Luna Press (founded in 2015) and their ‘Academia Lunare’ series in particular – as with other instances of the blurring of fandom and academia – is a welcome development. Luna’s first call for papers in 2016 resulted in a great volume, Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I strongly recommend. Since then, there has been an annual volume in the series, the most recent of which is Ties that Bind.

It is very difficult to provide a fair review of a multi-authored essay collection without devoting at least a paragraph to each chapter and also discussing how these chapters speak to each other. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space or time to do this here. So therefore I’m going to make a few general comments and refer briefly to a couple of specific chapters just to give a flavour. Essays in the volume cover topics ranging from polyamory and queer robot love to asexuality and unrequited love – in fact, the extract in the Awards booklet includes the abstracts for all the chapters in the collection. This wide range is part of the attraction of the book and it’s also important to its implied overall position that SFF enables the exploration of variously new sexualities, genders and forms of relationship. For example, Josephine Maria Yanasak-Leszcynnski’s ‘Polyamory in Space: New Frontiers of Romantic Relationship in Science Fiction’ explores the importance of polyamory relationships to a range of texts – including Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Embassytown and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – almost as a means of discussing the future evolution of human sexuality as the species spreads through the galaxy. Therefore, the focus is different than if the texts were being read in terms of estranging their contexts of production (which for example certainly counts for some of Le Guin’s choices); but the overall effect is also to make us look at these books again in a new context.

Not all chapters function like this however. Christina Lake’s ‘Banners and Baby Factories: The Romantic Cost of Better Breeding’ brings Rose Macaulay’s What Not (1918, but recently reissued by Handheld Press) and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) into conjunction with Anne Charnock’s Clarke-Award-winning Dreams Before the Start of Time (2017), in order to show love as a form of individual resistance to programmes of rational reproduction designed to function for the good of the collective. This seems to be bringing the original context of writing forward into the twenty-first century and raises the question as to whether this debate has simply failed to move on since the interwar period. To be clear, I don’t think it is an either/or issue favouring the state on one hand and the individual or the individual couple on the other. But read in the context of this collection as a whole, it make me think that the various polyamory and in some cases queer modes of relationship, as discussed in Yanasak-Leszcynnski’s chapter (which also notes how such nonnormative societies often are represented as having various collective forms of childcare) present a way of moving beyond that apparent individual/collective opposition. Rather than set out some sort of blueprint here – feel free to imagine your own – I’ll just conclude this discussion by noting that the value of this collection (as with most good collections) lies in bringing these arguments and texts together so that the reader can find productive dissonances and creative synergies that would not otherwise occur to them. I’m a fan of essay collections. Long may the Academia Lunare series continue!

Paul Kincaid, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest (Gylphi, 235pp.)

(In the interests of full disclosure I should note that I read and commented on an early draft of this book).

There is a perception that Priest has been treading the same ground for a while. ‘Not another effing magician’ is one colourful expression of this view that sticks in my mind. Kincaid addresses this claim in his penultimate chapter, ‘Revisiting’, which deals mainly with The Islanders (2011) and subsequent works, but indirectly his entire book amounts to an elegant refutation of this suggestion that ‘in the end, [the various novels and stories] are really all the same’ (221). More specifically, he argues that despite recurring settings and thematic repetitions, ‘[Priest] has written no sequels, no series’ (221). Even so, and despite agreeing with Kincaid that Priest is very much not treading the same ground, I do think it makes sense to regard the Dream Archipelago fictions, which I have discussed in a review of The Gradual, as a sequence. In this respect, The Islanders is a key text that opened up a space for subsequent works such as The Gradual (2016) and The Evidence (2020) to constellate within. Although all of these novels can be read independently and in any order, there is undoubtedly much pleasure to be had from being receptive to the shared resonances and making cross-comparisons between them. Rather as appreciation of an artist’s work is enhanced by viewing their major works together in an exhibition, Priest’s oeuvre benefits from being examined collectively; and that is especially true of the Dream Archipelago sequence.

Showcasing Priest’s fiction in the manner of a ground-breaking, paradigm-setting exhibition is what Kincaid’s book does so successfully. Key to this success is his adoption of an innovative structure designed to unlock the ambivalences and ambiguities of Priest’s writing:

Even-number chapters will provide a more or less chronological account of his life and work, with readings of his novels and stories that, in the main, set them within the context of their times. Odd-numbered chapters, on the other hand, pursue a more thematic approach, exploring tropes that have a consistent and revealing place within Priest’s work, for example, islands, reality, doubles, and the arts [but not, alas, effing magicians]. (10)

The result of this relatively simple but very effective approach is that we encounter most of Priest’s works more than once in a variety of contexts, which reveal different and sometimes contradictory aspects of each text. Kincaid’s careful but uncluttered critical approach allows him to blend concise analysis with imaginative interpretation throughout; it would be invidious to pick out any one section as especially good. The sum of the whole is far more than just a set of good readings but, nonetheless, these are good readings and they provide their own pleasure to the reader on top of that gained from being reminded of Priest’s superb body of work. I’m going to shelve this book alongside Priest’s own novels.

In his conclusion – although tellingly the concluding chapter is not labelled as such but titled ‘Stories’ – Kincaid notes that the unstable realities explored in Priest’s work, which rely ‘heavily on issues of memory, amnesia and perception’ (208), can be related in part to ‘the defining event of his life … when, as a child, he was knocked off his bike and consequently suffered amnesia’ (207) and the subsequent realisation that both the world itself and our perception of it are unreliable. This makes me think that my own borderline obsession with Priest’s work in part stems from the fact that I too was knocked out as a child; in my case in my primary school playground. I didn’t suffer from amnesia but the shock of dislocation – coming to on the floor of the headmistress’s office floor (these days teachers wouldn’t take it upon themselves to move someone in that situation) – is embedded deeply in my memory, as was the subsequent ongoing sense that everything following this event was a dream from which I would subsequently awake (a constant perception persisting into early adulthood, which I wisely kept to myself). From my perspective, writers like Kafka and Dick are the true social realists and Priest, when I discovered his writing in my early 30s, was not only an immediate addition to this personal canon but also a potential key to unlocking the schizophrenic experience of postwar British history (an ‘unstable reality’ we all remain locked within as self-appointed Churchill avatar, Boris Johnson, enacts the ultimate island separation). Not a key in the sense that Priest’s metaphors can be read off literally, as though from the maps and glossaries which he disdains, but more through the subtle ways he attunes us to the malleability of the world.

The moral lesson of Priest’s fiction is not so much that there are dreams we need to beware of and reject (although this is always an important consideration) but that there is no alternative to working through dreams: there is no safety in embracing the ‘real world’ or ‘consensus reality’ and therefore we all need to take responsibility for finding our own way through the landscapes of the imaginary. For this reason, Kincaid is right to insist that Priest’s novels are not all the same: ‘There are repeated images – islands, twins, artists, [to which I can’t resist adding effing magicians] – and there are topics he returns to again and again – memory, reality, the way we make out own private world – but these are never the same twice’ (221). Every time we read Priest’s works, they are different, and every new Priest novel we read, reconfigures all the coordinates. Kincaid is not being falsely modest when he acknowledges that the world of Priest’s fiction is ‘unlikely to be exhausted by this study’ (222); but there is no question in my mind that The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest is and will remain the benchmark for critical engagement with this complex and uncanny world.

Adam Roberts, It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? (Elliott & Thompson, 202pp.)

As I’ve noted before, Roberts is so prolific that critics of the future will be asking questions. His excellent book on H.G. Wells, shortlisted last year, was part of a long-running academic series, It’s the End of the World – with its striking danger-coloured yellow and black cover design – seems very much angled at the general reader interested in something ‘thought-provoking’. I must admit I did initially feel sceptical when I read the contents page. Not because I had any doubts whatsoever as to Roberts’s ability to write intelligently and engagingly, but because I couldn’t see what he would have to add to such well-mined areas of debate as the threat of plagues and climate change etc. In fact, they are not even ‘debates’ because no body is ‘for’ the end of the world surely? But that turns out to be exactly Roberts’s point because surely if everyone really were against the end of the world, we’d have climate change under control, worldwide universal healthcare and not take quite so much aesthetic pleasure in representations of our own destruction at the hands of zombies, vampires and the four horsemen of the apocalypse? In fact, according to Roberts, it turns out that not only are we completely down with impending catastrophes, such as the inevitable heat death of the universe, but we’d like to get to them a bit sooner because we need to experience these things for ourselves in order to feel complete. We are, as the poet and critic William Empson once put it, ‘waiting for the end, boys’. This isn’t really a spoiler because Roberts’s position is implicit in his title’s allusion to a well-known REM song.

OK, I’m being a tad unfair here; the book did turn out to be an entertaining and, indeed, thought-provoking read even, or perhaps especially, when I profoundly disagreed with its points. In the end – which I didn’t actually have to wait all that long for because this is a fairly quickly-read 200 pages – I found Roberts’s conclusion to be surprisingly moving and elegiac even though it’s not a position I share. Well, perhaps it’s not so much that I’m entirely opposed but more that there are a few qualifications I wish to raise. The first of which is probably due to my own misplaced expectation that we would see some analysis of Fredric Jameson’s comment that ‘it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism’. Because my own answer to Roberts’s title question would be that it is the end of capitalism which we are really afraid of. It’s a system which governs and organises every phase of our lives: could there be anything more scary that it just grinding to a halt? How would we know the value of anything? I’m not just indulging in Marxist irony here. This is an actual problem for me as much as anyone else. My immediate reaction to the 2008 financial crisis was to think that of course Gordon Brown must save the economy or where will we be? It was only much later that it occurred to me that this was Labour falling into pretty much the same trap as they did in 1929 and that we should have taken the opportunity thrown up by the crisis of organising society completely differently. The Covid-19 pandemic has now thrown up another opportunity for us to introduce radical change but once again the entire resources of the British State have been thrown into keeping the current system running at all costs (and similar interventions are happening around the world).

This is not the analysis we get in the book. Instead, Roberts tells us that ‘in a way the greatest damage capitalism does, as a system, is to prioritise one thing – wealth – over everything else. The pursuit of money supersedes all the values we might say make us human, such as compassion, justice, empathy, honour.’ (69). From reading Jo Lindsay Walton’s essay on the ‘Meaning of Money’, we know it’s a bit more complicated than that and, in any case, this also misses the point that capitalism is a system of expropriation which operates by taking away the fruit of the labour of the majority and giving it to a minority; it can’t be made more just because it is based on a structural injustice. It’s not a system that everyone is directly complicit in; although we may well all be complicit with the folk theories humming in the background that enable money to function and be pursued. Furthermore, the ‘real issue’ with climate change is absolutely not that ‘people are no longer content to live primitive, subsistence-level lives’ (162). Climate change engineering is not controversial ‘because it suggests that we don’t need to engage in a systematic overhaul of our lives to address the underlying problem’ (164). (In fact, straining against the restrictions put on my mind, I seem to remember recently having read some sort of work of fiction that postulates making climate change engineering work precisely by systematically overhauling our lives and committing them to the end of overthrowing capitalism). Yes ‘what we should really be afraid of is our own apathy and inaction’ (167) but the problem of framing climate change as something ‘we’ are doing to ourselves that only ‘we’ can change is that it suggests our political system and the ruling interests that govern it are somehow not responsible. The reason we have bad government is not because we are lazy and selfish but a consequence of the reality that liberal democracy is dominated by powerful and vested capitalist interests which continually seek to undermine the collective good for their own ends. We don’t need to engage more in the system but to engage more against the system.

So those are a few qualifications I would make but some of Roberts’s arguments are also just a bit, well, off beam shall we say. For example, you’d think that the idea that videogames are the root of all evil has only ever had any currency in the pages of the Daily Mail. But according to Roberts:

The core logic of these games is that the world and everything in it is a means to an end, and you should always treat it like that. And it is this attitude, reified into a system of real-world belief, that is fuelling the ongoing climate catastrophe through which we are living. (175)

And there was me thinking that climate change was the product of more than two centuries of industrialisation. But the argument gets even weirder at this point as it draws on an anecdote told by Will Self about playing Skyrim with his teenage son, in which it transpires that the son has acquired an in-game wife who accumulates resources by running a store but he doesn’t know her name. Roberts comments: ‘video games are based on the idea that everything and everybody is a resource for you to exploit in the furtherance of your gameplay. It is good to have a wife, insofar as it leads to gameplay advantage’ (176). He then goes on to invoke both Immanuel Kant and Terry Pratchett as authorities for the moral point that people should always treat other people as ends in themselves. But surely the uncomfortable truth revealed by the anecdote (and here I will invoke the authority of Jane Austen on my side) is that marriage is a transactional relationship. To be sure, hopefully it is transacted for the mutual benefit of both parties but transactional it is nonetheless. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely through gameplay and education in game theory, gamification and – drawing on the types of discussions in Ties that Bind – different models of love and relationships, such as polyamory and asexuality, and concepts such as power exchange and consent, that there is some hope for the civilised development of human relations over the course of this century; because Kantian ethics, classical liberalism, liberal humanism and other such bourgeois constructs have probably taken us as far as they are going to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m eternally grateful for having grown up in a society shaped by the liberal reforms (rooted in such philosophical positions) of the Labour Government of my early years in the 1960s. But now that we find ourselves mired in the brutal end games of rapacious capitalism, white supremacy, toxic masculinity and other social pathologies, we need additional tools that respond to twenty-first century concerns.

The message I take from Roberts’s book is that what we really are afraid of is the death of the bourgeois, liberal subject. We don’t want it ‘to end in the chaotic, unresolved way the universe might impose upon us. And so we continue … [to search] … for a way to transform its finality into an experience we can finally comprehend’ (193). In other words, according to Roberts, better an end in horror (that we can comprehend as an end and therefore experience as meaningful) than horror without end, which would be like an endless video game or … the romcom, Groundhog Day: ‘Perhaps you think it is a charming and funny romantic comedy? You are wrong’ (154n). It is apparently ‘a masterpiece of supreme existential terror’ (154) because nothing could be worse than having to live the same day over and over again tens of thousands of times while learning to master jazz piano, ice sculpture and French. To which I say that Roberts is wrong on this point: most people do actually slog through more-or-less the same day tens of thousands of times for marginal gains. It’s not a matter of ‘existential revulsion’: rather it is a matter of taking on the existential challenge of ‘remembering, repeating and working-through’ until you come out the other side.

However, I’m still very grateful for having read It’s the End of the World because what it has made clear to me is that there is only one way to halt this whole anxiety fantasy about not being around for the end in order ‘to transform its finality into an experience we can finally comprehend’ (193). Why don’t we just pre-emptively short circuit the whole circular thought process by simply ending it right now? The bourgeois subject, I mean, and its related world view and ideological positions. As they say, there’s no time like the present and I think 2021 would make an excellent end date on the obituaries. Some sort of ceremony or performance would perhaps be appropriate; let no one say that I’m not prepared to mark the end of the bourgeois world with appropriate solemnity. But let’s do it soon because, I’m telling you, we have nothing to be afraid of … but everything to gain.  

Andrew Milner and J.R. Burgmann, Science Fiction and Climate Change: A Sociological Approach (Liverpool University Press, 248pp.)

I’m a fan of the ‘Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies’ series and own a number of volumes in the series in paperback editions. However, this one hasn’t come out in paperback yet (nor have I been to any libraries lately) and therefore I must admit that I haven’t read all of this – only the extract in the BSFA Awards 2020 booklet. From the extract, I know it’s a book I want to consult further and I also learnt of a number of texts that I want to read (or listen to) such as Brian Wood’s The Massive and Anohni’s 2016 album Hopelessness (I’m really not sure how I missed this!). This extract, from Chapter 8, and the book as a whole, as far as I can gather, is set out as a critical survey and takes a ‘sociology of literature’ approach that I am sympathetic to. Interestingly, in the context of this shortlist, Milner and Burgmann discuss some of the same works as Roberts does, such as the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Their discussion of videogames echoes some of Roberts’s points, albeit in a more dispassionate register:

many entertainment games […] have made use of extreme environments as mise en scène, but these rarely connect to any explicitly Anthropocene narrative context: and even when they do, this is generally of little consequence to narrative or gameplay progression, which simply occurs in a climate-changed environment available for exploration and play.

They go on to suggest that publishers, as opposed to game developers, have tended to tread cautiously in introducing ‘cli-fi’ themes because of ‘how aggressively far-right subcultures have attempted to co-opt and influence the gaming communities’. It’s true that gaming has been one of the fronts in the culture war but I suspect this reluctance on the part of publishers is not entirely down to fear of the right (who as far as I know are not completely dominant in this field) but also connected to the interests of capital. Drawing on the arguments of Alfie Brown in The Playstation Dreamworld (see an article in wrote for the Guardian here), Milner and Burgmann conclude that ‘gaming is now in desperate need of formal innovations analogous to those of literary modernism in the early twentieth century’. This is an interesting argument that, on the one hand, is more productive than simply criticising gaming for fostering an extractive mindset, but, otoh, raises questions as to whether modernism – which after all was nothing if not entrepreneurial in the way that it established itself – is still the answer (hmmm, I kind of feel that I’ve read something fictional that touches on this recently but something prevents me from remembering what it is). My qualification to this argument would be to say that the place to look for the twenty-first century equivalent of the literary modernism of the early twentieth century is in feminist SFF … but that is a whole other argument that I will return to at some point in the future.

Thoughts: Last year I seem to have confidently opined that the list told us something significant about a shift in critical consciousness within our current historical juncture. Last year was a long time ago. This year I’m just happy to still be here and type whatever comes into my head. Hopefully, a few connections have emerged between the lines. This is a good list; I have enjoyed reading all the shortlisted works (which do an excellent job of showcasing the various merits of the formats that they are produced in). I won’t be unhappy if any of them win but, not unsurprisingly to those who know my interests, I have given my first preference to The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest because, as John Paul-Sartre would say were he still with us, ‘the alarm clock rings for you’ and Priest is one of out best guides as to how ‘remember, repeat and work-through’ the existential terror forced upon us by the need to choose our course of action every morning when that bell tolls; and Kincaid is an excellent guide to Priest’s work.

[Edit: And the winner is … Adam Roberts, It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of?]

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