By Jean Asselin
According to David Hartwell, the literary World Fantasy Awards exist because the genre needed its specificity recognized, mostly as separate from that of Science Fiction (SF.)
Full disclosure: I do not read Fantasy.
To be exact, I only read Fantasy like I cook, or do sports: by accident. Sometimes, the result is unforgettable, like Lucius Shepard’s haunting short story “Only Partly Here.” Understand that I don’t have anything in particular against Fantasy: I simply choose to ignore it.
Unfortunately, Fantasy does not respond in kind.
In bookstores, SF is relegated to the back corner formally assigned to Fantasy. (By the way, SF is restricted herein to mean Science Fiction, not Streamlined Fantasm or other tongue-twisters that really signal “anything goes.”) On cable, Sci-Fi Channel was renamed Syfy, officially because the managers thought the old moniker too restrictive. It is hard to imagine any additional license the new name could afford them, given how loose Sci-Fi was programmed ten years going, with a slew of ghosts, psychics and Nostradamus. Next time the need to Latinate the name arises, I’d suggest Vampyre Channel.
They did refresh Battlestar Galaxative—to borrow Harlan Ellison’s pun. And the new show takes its refreshment after the classic Heineken ad: it insults parts of you other series cannot reach. At least vintage Galaxative did not claim to revolutionize TV SF, only to weasel out of answering its own SF questions. This series finale attitude of “It was Fantasy all along” insults Fantasy as well, as the sudden crossover undercuts any claim to good drama in either genre.
I’ve taken to asking people at random if they read SF. My surprise—“Love it!”—usually turns to dismay—“I watched Lord of the Rings three times.” Ouch. To the public at large, SF means Stories Farfetched, and to add insult to injury is limited to Impossible Stories found onscreen, not even in print. (Thanks for the confusion, Vampyre Channel.)
“We live in a Science Fiction world,” wrote James Gunn in Alternate Worlds. Perhaps people can only handle so much change, that its dizzying pace leaves no inclination to seek more of it in fiction, that a satisfactory escape from the drudgery of this world requires total discontinuity with it. Whatever the cause, it now appears that in order to save the world through Science Fiction, we are first required to save Science Fiction.
By what means? There are endless possibilities. How about a formal recognition of the best written SF through annual literary awards from the fans and writers? Oh, wait…
Don’t we have that already? Not anymore. Between 2001 and 2010, four out of ten Nebula Awards for best novel, voted by professional writers, went to Fantasy. Of course no one is disputing their value as novels. Two were penned by Neil Gaiman, who also wrote a most memorable—and sole Fantasy—Babylon 5 screenplay, “Day of the Dead.” We simply know that within the same ten years, the number of World Fantasy winning novels that were Fantasy was ten out of ten.
Surely SF fared better with the Hugo Awards? After all, the fan-given trophy is shaped like a finned rocket (unlike the Nebulas’ galaxy, which is apparently ambiguous.) In actual fact, no: five out of ten Hugo-winning novels were Fantasy. In one instance, recipient Neil Gaiman apologized for his lack of acceptance speech, as he had fully expected the SF novel Anathem to win. In another, frankly bizarre instance the winning nod went to a Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I’m told is not about a particularly powerful rocket nozzle.
This 21st Century trend is alarming. In a world that needs the perspective of SF more than ever, Hugo and Nebula winners are awarded via “anything goes.” Again, no offense intended to Fantasy, but having their own awards apparently proved insufficient, now they need ours, too!
We need to put SF back into its own awards. We need to ensure the continued recognition of excellence in Science Fiction. This should be achieved in a manner not detrimental to Fantasy, either. (Not that I’m above that, but I’m advised a constructive solution will get better traction.)
Therefore, I hereby submit the following: that each fiction category of the Hugo and Nebula awards be doubled up, one distinct series for Science Fiction, and another for Fantasy. Rationale: the SF genre needs its specificity recognized, separately from that of Fantasy.
Authors would win more—awards, if not money—and marketing departments play with more exclamatory blurbs. Readers would watch more of their favourite SF authors get well-earned recognition. (The only losers are unpaid critics, with more winners to read. You can’t please everybody.)
Impossible, I hear, who will decide which genre a given story belongs to? Imagine the conversations, heated arguments, bar fights…
In fact, this does not require to boldly go where no one has gone before, as they say. Locus Magazine has awarded separate prizes for SF and Fantasy, walking that fine line every year since 1980, no less. Which means their rationale for doing so, 30-year running, has to be an improvement over mine. Let’s ask them, shall we?
Let’s put SF back into its own Hugo and Nebula Awards.