By Nina Allan
The Arthur C. Clarke Award was established in 1987 with the twin aims of highlighting the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year, and introducing science fiction literature to a wider public. What set the Clarke Award apart from the start was its status as a juried award. Unlike the Hugo or the BSFA, the award would not be decided by fan votes, but judged according to literary criteria by a panel of jurors selected for their passion for the field and their expertise within it.
The award’s prestige seemed guaranteed to earn the Clarke Award a key position in the SFF calendar and so it has proved. Fans and critics alike have taken the award to their hearts, stimulating a vigorous annual debate around which novels might be in contention and who the eventual winner is likely to be. The wide and varying interpretation by juries of what is ‘best’ and what is ‘science fiction’ has also encouraged discussion of what constitutes SF literature, what that literature does, how far it can go. The Clarke Award has now been a staple of the British SF scene for thirty years. Looking down the roster of past winners and seeing novels that are already considered classics of the genre – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden, Jeff Noon’s Vurt, China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, Christopher Priest’s The Separation, Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven to name just a few – one is left in no doubt that the Clarke Award has been successful, both in highlighting individual talent and in showcasing what the genre is capable of and where it is at.
It is not just the winners that are important though. Indeed insofar as the health of the genre as a whole is concerned, it could be argued that the novel that takes the prize is less important than the shortlist of six novels from which it emerges. In his widely circulated essay about the 2012 Clarke Award, ‘Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3’, the winner of the 2003 Clarke Award Christopher Priest stressed the importance of the shortlist in guaranteeing the ongoing quality of the award as a whole:
We want the best writer to win every year, but we also want to have a showcase to demonstrate that he or she is the best of an exciting bunch, that the overall activity is a progressive, modern literature, with diversity and ambition and ability, and not the pool of generic rehashing that the many outside detractors of science fiction are so quick to assume it is.
In short, the winner of the award must be found within an excellent shortlist, that the win must seem to have been hard-won, and that the choice was the result of reasoned argument and intelligent debate amongst the judges.
It is most likely in acknowledgement of this that the debate around the Clarke is usually seen to intensify around shortlist announcement time, with fans and awards-watchers often putting forward their own predictions and preferences for what might constitute the ideal shortlist. We can only assume that a similar debate occurs in camera, among the Clarke Award judges themselves. With the make-up of the jury changing each year, it is entirely normal and reasonable to see the overall flavour and emphasis of the shortlist shifting each year also, as individual jurors bring their personal biases, enthusiasms and knowledge to the judging table. That this process is rendered more fascinating to onlookers by being carried out in secret – what were they thinking?? – is also entirely reasonable and entirely normal. As award-watchers, part of the fun lies in asserting how we might have chosen differently – or how we might not.
It goes without saying that the overall health of a literary award is determined by the quality of the debate surrounding it. No matter how lucrative the prize or how glossy the promotion, no award can remain relevant or even survive unless people – readers, critics and fans alike – are actively talking about the books in contention. For readers, fans and critics to remain engaged, an award must aspire to foster an intellectual climate in which rigorous and impassioned debate is seen as an important and significant aspect of the award itself. Such a climate will by definition ensure that an award can not only survive, but flourish.
Inspired by the shadow juries that have worked wonders in enlivening the climate of debate around mainstream literary awards over the past few years, we thought it would be a fantastic idea to harness some of the considerable critical talent that exists within the SFF community in similarly enlivening the climate of debate and critical engagement around the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
The normal process by which shadow juries operate involves a panel of shadow jurors – usually drawn from those readers, critics and book bloggers who habitually follow the award – reading the official longlist of their chosen award when it is released, reviewing the books individually and then coming together as a jury to decide on a shadow shortlist: that is, the shortlist they would have chosen had they been the official jury. When the official shortlist for the prize is announced, the shadow jury would then critique that shortlist, before once again convening to vote on their shadow winner. In the case of the shadow juries for awards such as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now the Man Booker International) and the Baileys Prize, the shadow winner has normally been unveiled on the evening before the announcement of the official prize. One need only cast a casual glance around the literary blogosphere to see how the presence of shadow juries within the literary landscape has increased the feeling of excitement and personal involvement on the part of readers, armchair critics and students of literature.
Because the Arthur C. Clarke Award does not at present implement a longlist stage, the formula we have agreed upon is a little different, but will hopefully prove at least as effective in fostering debate, if not more so.
Our panel of shadow jurors will convene when the submissions list for the Arthur C. Clarke Award is made public. From the list of these submissions, each shadow juror will then select their own personal, preferred shortlist of six books – these could be books they have already read, books they are keen to read, or a mixture of the two. Having chosen their shortlist, each juror will commit to reading and reviewing their six books before eventually declaring the ‘winner’ they would have chosen, had their shortlist been the official one. We believe that by giving each shadow juror the opportunity to select and discuss what they believe was ‘best’ in ‘science fiction’ in 2016, the Shadow Clarke will be able to showcase a wider variety of books, writers and styles of science fiction, thus generating a sense of involvement and inclusion across the entire length and breadth of science fiction fandom. It goes without saying that we would encourage fans and readers beyond the shadow jury to read along with us, to posit their own guesses and above all to disagree with our choices! That is what critical engagement is all about.
At the same time as selecting their personal shortlists, the shadow jury would then go on to read and critique the official Clarke shortlist when it is announced, before coming together as a jury to vote upon the shadow winner. In accordance with shadow jury tradition, the winner of the Shadow Clarke would be announced on the day before the announcement of the official winner.
We are extremely lucky to have the support of the SFF Centre at Anglia Ruskin University, whose website will serve as the repository for shadow jury reviews, essays and commentary over the course of the award’s calendar. Helen Marshall and her colleagues at ARU are especially keen to promote student involvement around the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and we will hope to see student discussion groups, reading nights and other campus-based events running alongside the online activities of the shadow jury itself. We offer our delighted thanks to the ARU SFF Centre for what we hope will be a creative and inspiring partnership.
Science fiction is one of the most radical, innovative and wide-ranging modes of literature on the planet, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award is widely recognised as one of its most prestigious awards. We believe that the Clarke Award is of central importance in promoting, encouraging and furthering the debate around science fiction literature, and that the Shadow Clarke can only be of benefit in broadening and enriching the conversation still further.
Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her second novel The Rift will be published by Titan Books in July 2017. She enjoys arguing about books in general and science fiction literature in particular, and makes these arguments public from time to time at her blog, The Spider’s House. Nina lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.