Bow ties at the ready…

Named for the cre­ator of 2001, it’s more than just an­other SF lit­er­ary award. Jonathan Wright ex­plores why the Clarke mat­ters...

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To quote critic Paul Kin­caid, one of the judges of the in­au­gu­ral Arthur C Clarke Award, “We didn’t know what we were do­ing.” Writ­ing a decade ago in Vec­tor, when the Clarke had just turned 20, Kin­caid was look­ing back at the mo­ment when lead­ing lights in the lit­er­ary sci­ence fic­tion com­mu­nity de­cided that award­ing a jury prize to hon­our the year’s best SF novel could be a way to help “pro­mote Bri­tish sci­ence fic­tion”.

It may, if we’re to be­lieve Kin­caid, have started as a bit of a punt, al­beit one made with the in­volve­ment of the Bri­tish Sci­ence Fic­tion As­so­ci­a­tion (BSFA), the Sci­ence Fic­tion Foun­da­tion and, putting up prize money, Un­cle Arthur him­self, but the Clarke has sub­se­quently be­come – and let’s keep the Bri­tish end up here – the world’s most im­por­tant sci­ence fic­tion lit­er­a­ture prize. As the Clarke ap­proaches its 30th an­niver­sary, it seems an ap­pro­pri­ate mo­ment to ask both how did that hap­pen and why does it mat­ter?

To be­gin to an­swer th­ese ques­tions, it’s nec­es­sary to go back to 1987 and an Easter­con that, ac­cord­ing to Dave Lang­ford’s write-up in

An­si­ble, di­vided opin­ions be­tween those who

thought it “un­ut­ter­ably bor­ing, dull and bad” and those who found it “won­drous and bril­liant be­yond com­pare”. It was here Kin­caid an­nounced the first win­ner of the Clarke: Mar­garet At­wood for The Hand­maid’s Tale, a novel by a main­stream nov­el­ist.

“The im­por­tance of At­wood win­ning was that it marked it as a lit­er­ary award,” says Dr Mark Bould, reader in film and lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of the West of Eng­land (UWE). In con­trast to the Hu­gos, which Bould jokes are “a semi-reg­u­lated pop­u­lar­ity poll”, here was a prize that had both crit­i­cal rigour and a re­fresh­ingly broad take on what con­sti­tuted sci­ence fic­tion.

As the cur­rent Clarke di­rec­tor Tom Hunter points out, that doesn’t mean there haven’t sub­se­quently been “win­ners with space­ships” but At­wood’s tri­umph was still an im­por­tant marker. The Clarke im­me­di­ately cap­tured a zeit­geist it was help­ing to cre­ate in the mid­dle of the 1980s, a time when lit­er­ary SF was re­new­ing and re­defin­ing it­self. In 1982, the same year Blade

Run­ner was re­leased, In­ter­zone was launched, an im­por­tant pre­cur­sor to the Bri­tish space opera boom. In 1984, Wil­liam Gib­son’s Neu­ro­mancer in­jected cy­ber­punk’s dark en­ergy into the genre. In 1987, Iain M Banks outed him­self as an SF nov­el­ist with

Con­sider Ph­le­bas. In 1989, Bruce Sterling coined the phrase slip­stream fic­tion to de­scribe “a kind of writ­ing which sim­ply makes you feel very strange; the way that liv­ing in the 20th cen­tury makes you feel”. All of this, says Mark Bould, led to “the cre­ation of an au­di­ence who wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily think of them­selves as sci­ence fic­tion read­ers”.

Sam Jordi­son, Guardian jour­nal­ist and di­rec­tor of award-win­ning lit­er­ary pub­lisher Beg­gar Galley Press, is an ex­am­ple of the kind of reader Bould means. When SFX asks him whether the Clarke’s his­tory mir­rors a greater ac­cep­tance of genre fic­tion in the main­stream, he replies: “It’s prob­a­bly telling that by this stage I find it quite hard to think about this ques­tion clearly. Most of my ex­pe­ri­ence at

The Guardian now is that SF is thought just as valid and in­ter­est­ing and im­por­tant as other gen­res, and it’s hard to re­mem­ber that it wasn’t al­ways thus.” The Clarke, he adds, “formed a good part of my jour­ney to en­light­en­ment and opened up some great doors into worlds I didn’t know about”.

mis­sion state­ment

None of this, in­ci­den­tally, should be read as in­tended to sug­gest that SF should some­how have a mis­sion to go main­stream, but it’s im­por­tant be­cause its orig­i­nal mis­sion, to pro­mote Bri­tish SF, has never changed. In this con­text, the way its judges’ choices have pro­voked, in dif­fer­ent years, de­light, in­credulity and even anger is one of the Clarke’s great­est as­sets. It prob­a­bly helps too that only a brave gam­bler would bet on which short­listed book might win the prize.

“It has be­come a real fo­cal point for talk­ing about the whole of the genre,” says Tom Hunter. “It’s al­ways hugely an­tic­i­pated, it gets a lot of chat­ter, a lot of con­ver­sa­tion about why it’s right or wrong, of course. But what re­ally seems to have hap­pened is there’s a lot of pos­i­tiv­ity about the award, even in years when peo­ple are not en­thused by the choices, we’ve man­aged to cre­ate a thing where peo­ple are in­ter­ested in

why the choices were made by our judges.”

Con­sider Neal Stephen­son’s 2004 Clarke win­ner Quick­sil­ver, es­sen­tially a his­tor­i­cal novel, al­beit one writ­ten with an SF sen­si­bil­ity. “There were re­ally, re­ally long de­ci­sions about whether

Quick­sil­ver could be con­sid­ered sci­ence fic­tion,” says Mark Bould, a judge that year, “and my ar­gu­ment was that ab­so­lutely it is be­cause it’s about begin­ning to per­ceive the uni­verse in terms of in­for­ma­tion.”

If the award to Stephen­son was largely greeted warmly, there have been mo­ments too when the Clarke has come in for sharp

We did have the de­bate: should we shut down af­ter our quar­ter­century? We were broke

crit­i­cism. In 2012, for­mer Clarke win­ner Christo­pher Priest, in a blog en­try widely re­ported out­side genre cir­cles, de­scribed that year’s short­list as “dread­ful”, ex­plained in un­flat­ter­ing de­tail pre­cisely why he thought this, and called on the Clarke’s “in­com­pe­tent” judges to re­sign. “It meant the award meant some­thing to peo­ple, and peo­ple who had plat­forms could an­nounce it meant some­thing to them,” says Mark Bould.

The fuss was all the more re­mark­able be­cause, just a year be­fore, there was se­ri­ous de­bate about whether the prize should con­tinue. With Clarke’s death in 2008, the award had lost not just its fig­ure­head, but its fi­nan­cial pa­tron. Money was tight. “We did have the de­bate: should we shut down af­ter our quar­ter-cen­tury?” re­calls Hunter. Not only was the prize “com­pletely broke, tech­ni­cally”, but there was a fear it would “go back­wards”.

to the res­cue

In th­ese dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, it was an op­por­tune mo­ment for such a charis­matic writer as Lau­ren Beukes to win. In 2011, SFX in­ter­viewed Beukes within min­utes of her re­ceiv­ing the award. Hav­ing been con­vinced she didn’t stand a chance of tak­ing the prize, she looked shell­shocked.

“I’d been strug­gling, fiercely,” she re­calls. “Zoo City was about to go out of print in South Africa and I was super-broke. I’d re­cently lost my job when the an­i­ma­tion com­pany where I was head writer shut down and my friends had to or­gan­ise a fundraiser to pay for my plane ticket from Cape Town to at­tend the cer­e­mony in Lon­don. We were pay­ing our mort­gage out of the mort­gage.”

In short, the award re­ally meant some­thing to its win­ner – and the mod­est cash prize was wel­come too. Bet­ter still, Beukes joy­fully ran with her suc­cess and, in keep­ing with the Clarke’s ethos, even helped to bring about a mini-boom in African SF. Once again, the Clarke had caught a zeit­geist it was help­ing to cre­ate.

The fact that this time the wider world was far more aware of this hap­pen­ing than back in 1987 tells you all you need to know about why the Clarke mat­ters.

The man who gave his name to the award.

What it’s all about. Lau­ren Beukes and China Miéville smile like the win­ners they are. Sarah Pin­bor­ough and Kim New­man en­joy the hos­pi­tal­ity. Dou­ble win­ner Ge­off Ry­man and Clarke di­rec­tor Tom Hunter.

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