In Defense of Christopher Priest

This week’s genrefluffle is apparently Christopher Priest’s scathing condemnation of the 2012 Clarke Award shortlist. At first I was planning to stay out of this one, on account of I don’t care. Also, others have already responded, including folks like John Scalzi, Cat Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, and Charlie Stross. Stross is particularly wonderful here, by the way, and I hereby vow to respond to all my future haters in T-shirt form.

Hating on awards is nothing new, nor is mocking those who get a little too carried away with their hating. And Priest’s post went up on the 28th. In Internet time, it’s ancient history. What possible reason could I have to jump in and help beat this particular dead horse?

Well that’s the difference between you and me, my friend. When I look at this, I don’t see a dead horse. I see a delightful horse-shaped pinata full of– Well, it would probably be full of maggots and bloated organs, which is … yeah, that’s just gross. Okay, I didn’t really think this metaphor through.

But I’m gonna jump in anyway, and just to make it a challenge, I’m going to do my best to defend Mister Priest. And I’m doing this despite the fact that I’ve read ALMOST NONE OF THE BOOKS ON THE SHORTLIST!

First and foremost, “Have we lived and fought in vain?” is awesome. I love this rhetorical flourish, and I do think he makes a good point about some science fiction being stuck in the past. I’ve been to conventions obsessed with old dead white men, and I’ve hung out with the fans who don’t seem to recognize that there exist books published after 1960. So he’s got a point here. But even if you disagree, let’s still show some respect for the flourish, people!

Of Charles Stross, Priest writes:

Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long. You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet.

Little known fact: When I first met Charlie Stross, he licked my hand, humped my leg, then ran off to chew on my jacket. So I find this characterization utterly appropriate. Unless that leg-humping thing was all part of a sugar-induced hallucination… I remember Cory Doctorow being there too. He was dressed up like Catwoman and screaming, “Copyright stole my girlfriend in 6th grade! I swore I would have my revenge!” Then he swelled up like a blueberry.

Upon further consideration, strike that last paragraph. Let’s move on to the fact that China Mieville has won the award three years running, and could now win it for a fourth time.

I do think there comes a time when, if you keep giving an award to the same person year after year, it starts to lose meaning. Unfortunately, I see no way of remedying this problem, because China Mieville is TOO DAMN SEXY. Imagine those poor judges, trying so hard to select books based on merit, all the while imagining Mieville’s smoldering good looks…

In all seriousness, two of Priest’s complaints appear to boil down to the fact that the works on this year’s shortlist are rooted in the past and/or are simply competent, but not excellent.

In general, I think these are great guidelines for an award. I enjoy “comfort books,” lighter, plot-driven stories with plenty of action and fun and rompiness, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider them award-worthy. When I think of stories that deserve special recognition, I think of stories that bring something new, that go beyond what’s been done before, and do so with excellence.

Now you could argue that “excellence” is all subjective, and that it’s all just a matter of taste. You could do that, but it would be dumb. If you think quality is purely subjective, go read slush for any magazine or publisher, and do not return until you’ve seen the error of your ways.

Also, one book apparently has horse puns. To hell with that crap!

Now like I said, I haven’t read most of these books, but when has lack of information ever stopped someone from talking on the internet? But the fact is, Priest is well-read, and lays out some arguments as for why other books were more worthy of recognition. That alone puts him ahead of a lot of internet rants, and while you might disagree with him, I don’t see a problem with having the argument.

Of course, he goes on to say the awards should be cancelled this year, and that they should FIRE ALL THE JUDGES! He also wants the award renamed The Christopher Priest Award for Books that Don’t Suck.[1. Not intended to be a factual statement.]

Some people might say this is where Priest crosses the line from cranky rant to cartoonish supervillainy, but I disagree. Lots of people complain on the internet; far fewer offer concrete suggestions. You’ve got to give him props for offering an action plan.

My only complaint is that he didn’t go far enough. Priest should have made an excellence-themed costume and kidnapped the Clarke judges, along with the prize money and trophy. (I’m assuming there’s a trophy? I told you, I’m utterly ignorant here.) Then, from the security of his underwater volcano base, he could have broadcast his ultimatum to the SF/F world! SFWA would dispatch the crack team of Seanan McGuire and Mary Robinette Kowal to rescue the judges. Seanan’s trained scuba-diving ninja velociraptors would take out Priest’s laser-wielding team of squid, while Mary incapacitated the human guards using her extreme puppetry skills, all leading to a final confrontation involving a malfunctioning cyborg Stephenie Meyer.

And if that’s not deserving of an award, I don’t know what is.

In conclusion, I probably shouldn’t write blog posts while overtired.