What is the Clarke Award For?

One of the interesting aspects I have noticed about the current Clarke Award furor is the sense betrayal being expressed in parts of UK fandom. What people seem to be saying is that Their Award, that could be relied upon to reward books that They Like, has suddenly taken to rewarding The Wrong Sort of Book instead. There appears to be an idea that the Clarke has a mission to undertake, and it has failed in its duty.

Here’s Ian Sales:

The Clarke shortlist does not just say, “here are the six best sf novels published last year” — because they are patently not. The shortlist also says something about what British science fiction is and should be.

And here’s Nina Allan:

When I look at this year’s shortlist, what I see is not an honest selection of the best SF novels of 2011, but a political decision to promote what is known as core or heartland SF at any cost, regardless of literary quality, regardless of how far the work goes to promoting speculative fiction as a credible artistic movement.

(My emphasis in both cases.)

Allen, indeed, is upset that only two of her picks made it to the short list. Apparently the Clarke jury has a duty to get all five right.

Really?

When I look at award short lists I’m generally very pleased if they include two of my picks. I’m usually happy with one. An aspect of the Clarke that I rather like is that it often comes up with a really good book that I’ve never heard of before. That’s less likely now that the submission list is published, but the jury still reads the unfamiliar books and tells me which ones I should look at. If the price of that is that there are usually one books on the list that have me rolling my eyes in despair, well, that’s a small price to pay.

I like to see diversity on award short lists. Sure I’m all in favor of voters and jurors widening the net, but if the Hugo list this year is all books by disabled trans lesbian non-English-speaking people of color I’ll be thinking that something has gone wrong. It is better than an all able-cis-straight-white-Anglo-male list, because we’ve had those before, but a mono-culture is still a mono-culture.

Given the opinions I’m seeing expressed, I was curious to see that the Clarke Award web site said about the mission of the Award. Here it is:

The Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction is awarded to the author who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length science fiction novel in English.

The prize is open to any full-length novel, written in English by an author of any nationality, provided that the novel is published for the first time in the United Kingdom between 1 January and 31 December of the year before the prize is awarded. Although the novel’s first UK publication must fall within these dates, it’s still eligible if it was previously published elsewhere or is translated into English for the first time in the judging year.

As you’ll see, there’s nothing about a mission or a political duty to a particular faction of the British SF community, no matter how worthwhile the goals of such a faction might be. All that the judges are asked to do is pick the books they think are the best from those submitted. If there is any control over the mission of the award, then it is in the selection of the jurors, and in any instructions given to the Chair of the jury as to what the award management is looking for. (And, unlike the Hugos, the Clarke does have a management that could set policy.)

Nevertheless, even when an award has a mission — for example the Tiptree — the way that the mission is interpreted from year to year can change radically if you change the jury. As I understand it, the Tiptree Mother Board revels in the confusion that this unpredictability sows.

However, if you really want a specific result, there are ways of achieving it. So, if you are listening, Tom Hunter, here’s what you might consider doing to make British fandom happy.

Firstly there’s that thorny question of “British SF”. Your award doesn’t use that term, but I see people using it a lot in reference to the Clarke. Your rules simply state that the books must have been published in the UK. That could be about British publishers, but all of the big ones are foreign-owned now so I’m not sure about the utility of such a definition. The Sunburst Award, which is very like the Clarke, has a clear mission to spotlight Canadian SF. The award is open to books by Canadian writers no matter where they are published, but not to foreign nationals even if they are published in Canada, unless they actually live there. You could adopt something similar.

Such a change might, of course, exclude Lavie Tidhar, who is an Israeli with a far more impressive record of living in a variety of countries than I have. Also his current book riffs off two very famous American writers. On the other hand, the change would exclude American writers, which might make some UK fans happier. If you want to be imperialist about it you can follow the Booker and go for current and former members of the Commonwealth as well (but not rebellious former colonies). And Tidhar is currently living in the UK, so maybe you could add a residency clause too.

As to the mission, the example to follow would be the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. The clever thing about this one is that it has kept more or less the same jury year after year. I guess some of them must be very tired by now, but also they will know exactly what they all like, and what is expected of them, so they can probably ditch a lot of submissions without reading the whole book.

With the same jury every year, you can encourage a consistency of taste. And if you pick the jurors carefully then you have a reasonable chance that they’ll all like the Right Sort of Book and will pick such books year after year after year.

And you know what fandom will say to that, don’t you.

Boooooooring!

5 thoughts on “What is the Clarke Award For?

  1. Politics, to what purpose?
    I love the picture on your blog, it evokes powerful memories of my birth land, a land no more. Makes me miss Africa, the place, not the politics.
    You seem to enjoy speculative fiction. How about something I might describe as “Philosophy couched as Fantasy”?
    If I’ve tempted your interest you can read a generous sample at:-

    [Rest of comment deleted to remove spammy link to commenter’s apparently self-published novel. If you want me to read your book, Mr. Ayling, can I suggest being somewhat less condescending? – Cheryl]

  2. If you want to be imperialist about it you can follow the Booker and go for current and former members of the Commonwealth as well (but not rebellious former colonies).

    Aw, Cheryl. I was hoping to submit for next year. 🙁

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