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...
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”.
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.