British Fiction Focus

Analysing the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Submissions List

The shortlist for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award won’t be announced till late April, but last week Award Director Tom Hunter detailed the bucket list of books this year’s judges are currently considering—and the devil is in the details, isn’t he?

At 113 books strong—“the second highest count for submissions after the record-breaking high of 121 submissions received for our 2014 prize”— the list is long, but it isn’t a longlist. Instead, it’s a complete accounting of “eligible titles received from publishers who must actively submit titles to our judging panel for consideration. In other words, this is where our judges start from every year.”

And they clearly have their work cut out for them in 2016, the 30th anniversary of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Hunter has been publishing lists of submissions since 2009, in part “to demonstrate the complexity of the task our judging panel undertake when choosing their shortlists and a final winner,” but also “to show the full breadth and current state of play within science fiction publishing in the UK.” As such, in addition to releasing this raw data, he undertook some interesting analysis of it.

“One the big issues in the science fiction community right now concerns the visibility and numbers of women writers in the field,” Hunter quite rightly reasoned. “This year 37 of the submitted titles are by women, or approximately 33%” which, “while notably low in terms of direct parity of submissions by gender […] is actually the highest percentage received since we started tracking and releasing this data back in 2009, when the balance was just 13% submissions by women, and from a much smaller total pool of 46 submitted books.”

Hunter also made the following related observation:

Comparison against submissions lists from previous years makes it clear that a notable number of women writers do not publish titles every year for various reasons, so while the UK field as a whole is perhaps bigger, at the same time those absences from year to year after [are] often the result of authors being without a publishing contract or at least moving publishing house more often than many male writers, which can also affect the cycle of when books appear.

The aforementioned Award Director also considered this year’s list with respect to “a question that comes up every year,” which is whether or not all of the books submitted are actually science fiction:

Sir Arthur himself was always very clear that he wanted the award to be about the positive promotion of science fiction and part of that was having as broad a definition of what actually constitutes a science fiction novel as possible.

As such, the award has no single definition of what a science fiction novel should read like, but rather remakes that definition anew every year via its judging panel, who are themselves changing every year.

That isn’t to say anything goes. Oh no. “Basically submitting a title to the Clarke Award doesn’t automatically mean a book is science fiction, it merely means that the judges are asked to consider it within that context. On some occasions they may well view it as worthy of nomination, on others they may very quickly collectively agree that actually, no, it’s not really a science fiction work after all,” and exclude it accordingly.

Hunter has promised to follow up the release of this list with “a more detailed analysis of both submissions and other data going back over the last 30 years of the award” at a later date, and I’d be very keen indeed for him to utilise that information to tackle another of this year’s most talked-about topics: the relative representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) authors in the British publishing industry.

In the interim, as the Award Director suggests, “why not have some fun trying to guess which books the judges might pick? A typical Clarke Award shortlist is comprised of 6 books, so you’ve got lots of potential permutations to choose from.”

I’ll start:

  • Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett (Head of Zeus)
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Hodder)
  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Tor)
  • The Chimes by Anna Smaill (Sceptre)
  • The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner (Gollancz)

Bloody hell, that was hard! Which I guess goes to show what a brilliant year it’s been for science fiction in Britain.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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