Twenty Years After
The Clarke Award so far, by Paul Kincaid
We didn't know what we were doing.
Or, to be fair, we knew what we wanted to do. We just weren't too clear about how to go about achieving it.
The goal was to promote British science fiction. That was the aim laid down by Arthur C. Clarke when Maurice Goldsmith approached him for funds. What that might entail was less clear. A new magazine? But there was already Interzone. So, an award? But there was already the BSFA Award. Would a juried award be different enough? But if we are promoting British science fiction, should this be an award for British sf only? At the time that was unrealistic. Besides, how do you promote British science fiction by fencing it off from the whole of the rest of the world?
So we ended up with a cash prize (to make sure it was worth winning) for the best science fiction novel receiving its first British publication during the calendar year. We were very careful not to define 'best' or 'science fiction' or 'novel', which has led to a number of fairly intense jury discussions in the years since then, though I think it has also led to the variety and the vitality of the award. (More recently, in these days of print-on-demand, internet publication and e-books, 'first British publication' has also become a problematic term in ways we certainly didn't anticipate back in the mid-1980s — but that is an issue for the future.)
If the Arthur C. Clarke Award began in uncertainty, hesitation and ill-definition, however, what it has achieved in the twenty years of its life is clear and beyond question.
For a start, the award has indeed managed to promote British science fiction. I first became aware of this not long after I took over as administrator, when I started getting contacts from a number of agents who specialise in selling books into overseas markets. It seems that winning the Clarke Award was already invaluable when it came to selling translation rights. Then came the so-called 'British renaissance', and suddenly the whole world was taking notice of British science fiction. There were far too many causes for this upswelling of quality, involvement and excitement to enumerate here, but the Clarke Award was undoubtedly one of them. Whatever the cause, the end result has been that this year we could have had two totally different high-quality shortlists made up entirely of British authors.
That, however, is to take a rather parochial view of things. The Arthur C. Clarke Award is now recognised as one of the most prestigious awards in the world of science fiction. The first time I ever saw a bookshop display of the Clarke Award shortlist was at a university bookstore in Seattle. The American Library Association recently compiled a list of recommended science fiction by the simple expedient of bringing together the winners of the major sf awards, Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree, etc. The only award on the list that is not based in America is the Clarke Award.
Above all, the Clarke Award has compiled a list of winners that stand out as among the most significant works of science fiction of the last 20 years. Add in the shortlists, and anyone who read all 127 titles would have received a superb introduction to the key developments in science fiction during that time.
As I write this, there is a little over a month to go before the 20th winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award is to be decided and announced. Whichever of the six shortlisted authors carries away the engraved bookend and the cheque for £2,006, they will be joining an exclusive and very prestigious club. Membership of that club has not always come without controversy, the choice of the jury has been met with dismay and on at least one occasion with cat-calls from sf circles. It's easy to understand: the heated jury debates and even the make-up of the juries (which have nearly always included at least one person from outside the usual science fiction world) have encouraged bold and distinctive choices. Clarke Award juries have never settled for a safe, traditional, comfortable view of what science fiction is, or could be. They have always pushed at the envelope, which has meant that popular favourites have often lost out to work that is more challenging, more unconventional, or simply different. But looking back with the benefits of 20-20 hindsight, it is amazing how significant those unconventional, unexpected winners have been in shaping our ever-changing views of what science fiction can do.
The very first book to win the Clarke Award, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, set the tone for what was to come, though not in ways that critics have assumed. Those who have simply remarked upon the 'controversial' decision have presented it as the Clarke jury turning its back upon traditional science fiction, a stance that they see replicated throughout the Award's history in the crowning of Marge Piercy and Amitav Ghosh, or more recently in the shortlisting of works by David Mitchell and, this year, Kazuo Ishiguro. That couldn't be further from what actually goes on in jury meetings. The judges have always been eager to applaud good, traditional science fiction, and you can see that reflected in every shortlist. But time and again, as the arguments turn about the fine distinctions which separate the books, the question is raised: is doing well what science fiction has always done enough to carry off the prize? Once or twice the answer might well be yes, but more often it is no, more often some extra ambition or daring in the work, something novel or unexpected, will make the difference when it comes to the final vote.
After twenty years my memories of that first judging meeting are somewhat hazy. I would, however, be surprised if, at some point during the day, we did not discuss how the shortlisted titles might be presented to a non-sf reading audience. That would be a dreadful reason to award a prize, but an awful lot of ideas and comments go into the melting pot that is the jury system. And looking at the books from outside the genre can be a useful way of deciding what the book is doing with genre, how it is using the devices of science fiction. I've deliberately used such strategies in the judging meetings I've chaired since then, not because I think the winner should serve as an ambassador for the genre to those who know little and care less about science fiction (if that happens, it's a bonus not an intent of the award), but because it highlights whether faster than light travel appears in the book simply for the sort of gosh-wow effect we expect of science fiction, or for some other and perhaps more interesting reason.
In the end, then, that first jury awarded the prize to Margaret Atwood not because we were trying to ingratiate ourselves with the mainstream, but because we felt that the mainstream sensibilities informing the book brought something new to science fiction. Since then, of course, Atwood has used sf devices in several of her novels and stories and, fatuous remarks about 'squids in space' aside, has often written in an informed and intelligent way about science fiction. And The Handmaid's Tale has gone on to be acclaimed as one of the finest science fiction novels to come out of Canada, has become the subject of endless critical studies, and has become so significant a part of the history of science fiction that it's difficult to see what all the fuss was about twenty years ago.
For the last several months I've been busy editing an anthology of critical essays on the first 18 Clarke Award winners. It is an experience that has forced me to look again at each of these books. Some seem destined to remain high profile, books such as Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow or China Miéville's Perdido Street Station which still keep being mentioned in serious essays and passing conversation. Others seem to have slipped from our consciousness (I strongly suspect that Elizabeth Billinger's essay in the anthology is the first critical attention Rachel Pollack's Unquenchable Fire has received since it was published). But all excite an interesting response, and all are very different from each other. When you actually look at the books which have won the prize you realise that it is impossible to identify a typical Clarke Award winner.
It used to be said that the award went to science fiction books with mainstream pretensions, a statement that doesn't hold up even when you look at those books to which it was especially applied, Marge Piercy's Body of Glass, say, or The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh. But it is even less true of such exuberant and overtly science fictional works as Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty (a novel which dug back into science fiction's hoariest past in order to reinvent the genre — I am on record as saying that I believe the so-called British renaissance began with this book) or Jeff Noon's Vurt (which finds an unlikely home for the tropes of cyberpunk in the grittiest streets of Manchester).
Even when books have taken similar topics or ideas there is no uniformity in the result. Can you imagine two more different ways of examining the impact of the past than Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver or Christopher Priest's The Separation? (I recall one judge remarking of The Separation that where a good book can be read differently every time you approach it, with The Separation every time you approach it you approach a different book. True, I think, but true of many of the winners, it is one of the qualities that make them stand out to the jury.) And the political novel finds radically different expression in, say, Bold As Love by Gwyneth Jones and Iron Council by China Miéville.
This difference is something that the judges have to confront every year. How do you compare books that are as contrasting as those on any of the Clarke Award shortlists? Even more difficult, how do you then decide that one is best, whatever we might mean by 'best'? Certain things are a given, of course; you look for writerly skills, interesting prose, vivid characterisation and so forth; and you look for fluency in handling the devices of science fiction. But by the time a book has made the shortlist, we can pretty much take those for granted. What then makes the difference, as often as not, is 'difference'. Something bold and new in the novel, a sense that the writer is stretching after something fresh, interesting, exciting. That, of course, is exactly how we would describe those key works which shape the course of a literature, which stand out as the books anyone should read for a basic understanding of what a literature is about and how it has changed over time. In other words, though it is a concept I dislike: the canon.
It's not so easy to spot, year in, year out. Though I would hesitate to suggest that any jury got it wrong, I suspect that several could have made other choices and got it just as right. But on the whole, and in retrospect, the list of Clarke winners provides a pretty canonical list of the key works of science fiction over the past twenty years.
But that raises one final question: of these twenty books which one stands out as the Clarke of Clarkes? We have a shortlist of twenty titles. You are the jury. Which are you going to pick as the most significant work of science fiction in the last twenty years?
The winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award:
1987: The Handmaid's Tale — Margaret Atwood
1988: The Sea And Summer — George Turner
1989: Unquenchable Fire — Rachel Pollack
1990: The Child Garden — Geoff Ryman
1991: Take Back Plenty — Colin Greenland
1992: Synners — Pat Cadigan
1993: Body of Glass — Marge Piercy
1994: Vurt — Jeff Noon
1995: Fools — Pat Cadigan
1996: Fairyland — Paul J. McAuley
1997: The Calcutta Chromosome — Amitav Ghosh
1998: The Sparrow — Mary Doria Russell
1999: Dreaming in Smoke — Tricia Sullivan
2000: Distraction — Bruce Sterling
2001: Perdido Street Station — China Miéville
2002: Bold as Love — Gwyneth Jones
2003: The Separation — Christopher Priest
2004: Quicksilver — Neal Stephenson
2005: Iron Council — China Miéville
2006: Air — Geoff Ryman
This article first appeared in Vector 248. Back issues of Vector are available from