British Fiction Focus

2016: An Arthur C. Clarke Award Odyssey

The thirtieth anniversary of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the most prestigious prize for science fiction in Britain, is unquestionably an occasion for celebration, but just five years ago, “funding was abruptly withdrawn [and] the award could well have died on its arse,” as Martin Lewis, one of the judges during that painful period, puts it.

Now that the Clarke Award is presumably out of the woods, Tom Hunter, who came on board as Award Director in the wake of that scare, has kicked off a conversation about “the ways we might change the award in years to come,” and let me be clear: the “we” is operative here. Hunter wants as many interested parties as possible to play a part in the resulting discussion.

Where to start? Well, where other science fiction and fantasy awards often offer multiple categories and cover many different media, the Clarke award has always thrived on the simplicity of its proposition: one category, one shortlist, one best science fiction novel of the year. We now receive more submissions than ever before, from something like 40 books a year when I first joined, to more than 100 today.

It’s a formula that continues to work, but we’re not unaware of the changes afoot across the publishing industry and the science fiction community. The big question for us is how do we best play our part?

As an award established 30 years ago, our rules were set before things like ebooks came to prominence. Should we open ourselves up to ebook-only submissions? Probably yes. But, then, what about self-published titles? This year’s nomination of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder but originally released as a crowdfunded ebook, is one of those watershed moments we’ve been waiting for to inform that decision.

There have also been many calls for us to introduce an annual longlist, in addition to our shortlist. There are good arguments for and against this, but it’s definitely worth the conversation if it will help highlight the increasing diversity of our genre. If a longlist proves impractical, we’re also discussing the idea of increasing the number of titles on our shortlists as a route to highlighting more titles.

In short, it sounds like the addition of extra categories is off the table, and that ebook-only submissions will be welcomed going forward, leaving us with a pair of propositions to ponder: should the submissions also be expanded to include self-published science fiction? And should a longlist be introduced in addition to the shortlist and the complete list of submissions Hunter has been releasing in recent years?

Nina Allan, author of The Race—itself a multiple award-nominated novel which, incidentally, Titan Books will be reissuing as a revised and expanded paperback in July—put forth her answer to that latter in an involved essay entitled ‘The Last Hurrah?

There can be absolutely no doubt that the decision taken in 2001 by the organisers of the Booker Prize to start publishing a longlist has been of immense value in extending and intensifying the discussion around both the prize itself and literary fiction in general. The reasons for this—more books to discuss over a longer time period—should be obvious to anyone. To my mind at least it would seem equally obvious that the idea of introducing a longlist to the Clarke Award calendar is pretty much a no-brainer.

Tom Hunter’s principle issue with Nina Allan’s rather strenuous assertion is uncertainty that a longlist really does broaden the debate. “Does it, or will we just see a call a couple of years down the line for the list that became the long list and then the minutes of that meeting? I can’t help thinking that if the Clarke Award has the opportunity to do more in a year [then] a long list is really not the best use of that time and resource.”

Whether a longlist does or does not extend the visibility and thus the viability of the Clarke Award going forward, I’m with Christopher Priest here. That’s the same Christopher Priest whose 2012 teardown ‘Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3’ has been variously hailed as a hateful excoriation of the Clarkes and the best thing to have happened to said since Tom Hunter—who, to be clear, isn’t “arguing for any one position so much as seeking the best road forward.”

“Surely,” Christopher Priest comments, “as they approach the need to compile a shortlist, the judges will have a rough-and-ready list, if only in mind, of the titles that have most interested them to that point? From such preliminary notes, it should not take either a genius or a workaholic to produce a list of the twelve titles mentioned most often.”

On the subject of accepting submissions of self-published science fiction, substantially less has been said, but as much as I’d like to nod my head yes, I tend to think it’d be a risky business. In the second of his several posts partly inspired by Nina Allan’s, Martin Lewis posits three ages of Arthur C. Clarke Awards: the Genre Age, running from 1999 to 2004, during which every shortlisted novel was very much of the genre; then, between 2005 and 2010, there was the Golden Age, “when the award produced strong British-dominated shortlists of high quality genre and non-genre science fiction”; and now there’s this Third Age, which has, he believes—as indeed does Nina Allan—a “lack of coherence” as its defining feature. Understandable, perhaps, “when the number of submissions to the award has radically increased from 41 in 2010 at the end of the Golden Age to 60 in 2012 and 113 this year.”

If we’re to accept, as I’m inclined to, that there is a correlation of sorts between the number of submissions that must be considered and the… let’s call it the consistency of the eventual shortlist, then opening the doors to self-published science fiction is likely to lead to a spiralling number of submissions and, it follows, an even more marked disconnect in this sense—never mind, for the moment, how much more time (not to mention money) it’d take for the administrators to square away the additional effort an even larger list of submissions would require to read through and respond to.

But hey. Maybe that’s just what it’s going to take to keep the Clarke Award current.

So much more has been said about this subject, and so much more is still to come—for starters, Tom Hunter has promised to devil’s advocate these arguments in a forthcoming post of his own—that I can only conclude by noting that the conversation is far from over.

For the time being, let me leave you with the last lines of Nina Allan’s piece:

For the Arthur C. Clarke Award to survive as the beloved and respected and valuable institution it avowedly is, we need passionate critical engagement, we need personal involvement over a wide demographic. We need readers to feel excited by the idea of discovering new books, excited enough to want to talk about them afterwards. To argue about what is best and what is science fiction.

Shall we do that, then?

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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