Pilgrim Award acceptance speech

Back at the start of July, I was awarded the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Lifetime Achievement Award for Critical Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy (which is its full title, I think). Here is the text of what I said, or what I meant to say, or something like that – it was all a bit blurry. (Also available in the the SFRA Review 317.)

IMG_3301Thank[1] you. I’m astonished, humbled and honoured and, to be honest, a little freaked out.

Cory McAbee is currently touring a show, Small Star Seminar, in which he plays a singing motivational speaker who encourages us to recognise and embrace our limitations.[2] Occasionally, he breaks character to talk about the ‘romantic sciences’,[3] especially transdimensionality, which is concerned with the way we often slip between multiple parallel dimensions without necessarily realising it. He introduces it by asking three simple questions. Have you ever lost something and then later found it in a place where you’ve already looked? Have you ever continued an argument after the other person has left? Have you ever fallen in love with a cartoon character?

Despite answering in the affirmative to all three, I remained sceptical. Until, well, have you ever had an email from Craig Jacobsen saying you’re being given the Pilgrim Award?

When that happens, you become aware of transdimensional slippage, and it is profoundly disorientating, and now I seem to be stuck over here in this weird place with you guys… Don’t get me wrong, y’all are lovely people, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but as I said in my beautifully crafted reply to Craig, it was really quite gracious and elegant: ‘Fuck. Are you sure?’[4]

There are so many people I need to thank who I’ve worked with, and by whom I’ve been influenced, guided, helped and tolerated. So many people, from Patrick Parrinder, who taught me as an undergraduate and then invited me back to do a PhD with him, and foolishly one day entrusted to my care a visiting scholar called Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., through to Gerry Canavan, who recently joined us as an editor of Science Fiction Film and Television, or to Rhys Williams, back then a cocky young postgrad who asked if he could borrow my name to help get funding for a symposium on M. John Harrison symposium – and then discovered large pots of money he could apply for at his university, which enabled us to do the SF/F Now conference, the SF Now issue of Paradoxa, the MJH collection that is currently behind schedule but we’re getting there, honest…

But there are three people, for various reasons not here tonight, who I want to thank in particular – they have been absolutely central to my life and work since that first article fifteen years ago – and then later a fourth person, who is here tonight.

Kathrina Glitre, my friend and colleague in Film Studies at UWE. We’ve worked together for about fifteen years; sometimes I’ve been her boss, sometimes she’s been mine, currently we’re both each others, depending on what we’re doing. Our research is mostly in different fields – she wrote the single best book on classical Hollywood romantic comedy you will ever read[5] – but without her constancy and genuinely terrifying organisational abilities, I would not have survived the day job this long, let alone had time to research or write or edit.

China Miéville, who was my first article editor (narrowly beating my good friend Andrew M Butler to that dubious distinction), and thus the first editor to remonstrate with me over my inability to write conclusions (and thus, albeit inadvertently, the author of the most quoted passage I’ve ever ‘written’). He’s also the first person to recruit me to an editorial board, my first co-editor, my first fiction editor, my mate, my comrade, a constant inspiration, a huge political and critical influence – plus a handy source of the occasional paying gig. He is currently engaged in a nautical adventure so secret that now I’ve told you about it I will have to kill you.

Sherryl Vint, my main collaborator over the years, with whom I’ve co-written and co-edited so much. It’s not all been plain sailing. For example, she led the revolt among my co-editors against the suggestion that we dedicate Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction to ‘all the reviewers incapable of spotting the title doesn’t contain a definite article’. She may have been helping me be my better self, but as anyone who’s read the reviews will agree, I’m the one vindicated by history. None of the work we’ve done together could I have done on my own, and that’s not just about productivity. I have learned so much from her about science studies, animal studies, biopolitics – work that is genuinely reshaping our field. Mostly I think what she has learned from me is to let Mark do the proof-reading, ’cos he gets cranky about that shit. A huge piece of this award really belongs to her.

Just three people out of so many.

But realising that helped me to figure out why this award is freaking me out so much. It’s not about getting old.[6] It’s because the award is presented to an individual.

I cannot begin to calculate how many people have edited my work or written reader’s reports on it or responded to it in some way, or the amount of people I’ve edited, reported on or responded to in some way, let alone identify them. It’s even more impossible to count the work I’ve read or heard delivered, the conversations I’ve had, let alone the acts, large and small, of kindness, generosity, critique, support, care, compassion. Yet all of these things are collaborations. Whatever’s been achieved in the work that has my name on it is a product of these co-operative, collective efforts, of this mutual aid.

So this award is not just for me but for all of us (and that is not the lame platitude it sounds like now I’ve said it aloud).

The neoliberal agenda is destroying universities and learning, turning higher education into a machine for making profit. The UK now has the most costly public universities in the world, funded through a fees system that is more expensive to the tax-payer than free education would be, and that is deliberately creating indebtedness among students, graduates and their families on an industrial – and thus profitable – scale. Academic salaries are worth roughly sixty percent of what they were back when I started, with probably 25,000 academics on zero hours contracts. At the same time, workloads have increased to such an extent that we work on average two extra, unpaid days a week, and there is a massive increase in stress, anxiety, depression and other work-related health problems. There are universities whose workload model assigns a mere handful of weeks for research activity, never mind that it is often impossible actually to find those weeks among increasing teaching and administrative loads; and there are managers who would respond to one of their managees receiving an accolade such as this not with congratulations but with, ‘does it bring any funding with it?’

This is why this award is not for me, but for us.

Not just for the people with whom I’ve worked directly or indirectly, one way or another, but for all of us.

For most of us, most of the time, just as the calculation of labour-power does not care about actual labourers, so the job does not care about the work – whether that work is our students or our research. But here, at moments like this, and whenever our community or parts of it gather together, the job takes the backseat. This is about the work, about our art – about the thing we build together.

And we must make that work count.

It has to matter.

In this field, we know other worlds are possible.

We also know that some worlds are more likely than others: worlds of unchecked anthropogenic climate change; worlds in which a global economic system impoverishes, immiserates and kills people in vast numbers every day; worlds in which new forms of bloody imperialism reign, and in which the right, misogyny, homophobia and racism are resurgent. Unless we work to build better worlds – in our imaginations and our art and our work, and in this our community, and in our jobs, and through our shoddy excuses for democracy, and in the streets, and by whatever means necessary.

China ends his essay in the latest issue of Salvage with these words:

Is it better to hope or to despair? Do you want to create better art, or do you want a better world in which to create? Are you an artist or an activist?

Yes.

[Pause for an even more abrupt change of direction than those which have thus far characterised this speech.]

Finally, I want to thank Andrea Gibbons, author of the best book you will ever read on the ways in which race and segregation continue to shape the ways our cities are developed.[7] For her uncanny knack of picking up books I am trying to work on, thus relieving me of the burden of precise detail. For always being there to point out that once more I forgot to do a conclusion. For persuading me that this is not the place to tear off my short and claim I am Chuck Tingle and crowdsurf a Spartacus-like wave of No, I am Chuck Tingles as it sweeps the room.

But mostly for reminding me that there is life outside of the job and even, sometimes, outside of the work, for making me take days off and go out and enjoy the world. And for repeatedly telling me that, as well as being astonished, humbled and honoured to receive the Pilgrim, I should also be happy about it rather than just freaked out.

Which I am.

Finally.

Sort of.

Thank you.

Notes
[1] It was around this point that the recipient began to speak through choked back emotion. [Ed.]
[2] All 17 songs are available at here
[3] He also mentions deep astronomy, emotional mathematics and blink time, but you can invent your own romantic sciences. For example, psychogeology, which is a lot like psychogeography, but slower and, well, deeper; or mountain-nearing, which is about getting up real close to sublime objects in order to discover their mundanity, but that’s probably one to talk to M John Harrison about.
[4] At this juncture, the recipient made what was widely considered the best, and certainly the last, of the many Brexit jokes at SFRA 2016. It addressed the insensitivity of serving as dessert another Eton Mess. This joke has proven sufficiently popular to appear in a meme in everyone’s FB feed. But the recipient made it first. [Ed.]
[5] Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union, 1934–1965. Manchester University Press, 2006.
[6] The recipient is, after all, among the youngest twenty per cent of Pilgrim winners. He should know. He did the maths. Twice, just to make sure. [Ed.]
[7] Land, Privilege, Race: something something something. Available from Verso in 2017.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s