Monday, March 10, 2008

Arthur C Clarke Award 2008

This is off my usual topic, but I feel entitled sometimes to talk about sf criticism here.

The shortlist for the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke shortlist is out. This is usually a sign for collective knicker-twisting by the British sf community, and this year is no exception.

What is interesting is that this year, the controversy is as much about the Administrator's statements to the press as about the choice of novels. Here are a couple of statements from the Awards website that haven't gone down well:

Featuring visions as diverse as a dystopian Cumbria and a future Hackney, time-travel adventures in 1960’s Liverpool and an alternate world British Isles in the throes of terrorist attack, through to tech-noir thrillers and a trawl through subconscious worlds where memories fall prey to metaphysical sharks, the Clarke Award has never been so close to home and relevant to the British literary scene.


The Clarke Award has always been about pushing at the speculative edges of its genre. It’s one possible map amongst many, never the whole territory, and this year’s shortlist stands as both the perfect introduction to the state of modern science fiction writing as well as a first tantalising glimpse of possible futures to come.

Over on SF Crowsnest, he says:

In many ways the Award isn't so much about picking the 'best' book of the year (although we are still very good at that too) and is more about pushing at the edges of our genre.

Taken together, this has generated a lot of comments, complaining about the rejection of looking for the 'best' sf novel (though the front page of the website still said until this morning that it was for the best book, and I don't think the jury have turned their back on that), that pushing the boundaries of the genre wasn't what was understood to be part of their remit, that the emphasis on Britishness is insular.

The thing is, I think there's confusion here. It's easy to assume, that because Hunter is the Administrator of the Award, that these are the criteria that have been set for the jury, or that the jury have set for themselves. I don't think that's the case. As I understand it, the Administrator's job is to handle the paperwork for the award, including press releases. I don't think it's part of the role to set narrow criteria for the jury, beyond the obvious (published in Britain in the preceding calendar year, submitted by the publisher for the award). And what the jury decide amongst themselves is meant to be confidential - so I don't think we can assume that Hunter is passing such information on. In the end, I read Hunter's comments as his personal views, rather than official ACCA policy - they are a reaction to the shortlist, not an explanation for it.

So, the comment on the Britishness of the novels should not be taken as meaning that novels not set in the UK were automatically rejected. Rather, it's Hunter trying to find something that ties the novels together in order to make them an attractive package.

And the remarks about genre-pushing are merely putting into words what everyone has always assumed was the Hidden Agenda of the Clarke Award anyway. It is true that the juries have never felt themselves constrained by what is published as science fiction (though that they deliberately avoid works that are published as sf is a canard disproved by study of the shortlists over the years). And it is also true that members of the sf community have been complaining about this since the Award began (except last year, when people complained about mainstream books that were left off).

And there's another point. People always talk about the Clarke juries as if they are somehow Outside the Community, as if people that we otherwise consider sensible upstanding sf fans degenerate into demented maniacs the moment that they go into that jury room. I think they deserve a bit more respect than that.

As for the shortlist itself, I've known (but have had to keep secret) what was on the list for a few weeks now, as I'm on this year's Not the Clarke Award panel at Eastercon, so maybe I've had a bit more time to consider the whole thing. Certainly, when I saw the list, I was gobsmacked by the absence of Ian McDonald's Brasyl. And there are three novels there which I simply hadn't heard of. But such is always the way with the Clarke. And I assume that the jury had their reasons.

Oh, and of the two novels I've read so far, the MacLeod is glorious, constantly reinventing itself as it goes on. And whilst there has been a bit of fuss about the YA label applied to the Baxter, this seems to be obscuring the fact that it's better than anything else I've read of his since Voyage.

I'll have more to say about this at Eastercon.

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