By Nick Hubble
I’m an academic working in the English department at Brunel University London, where I teach modern and contemporary literature, including Science Fiction and Fantasy. In addition, I have reviewed SFF for journals including Strange Horizons, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foundation and Vector. One of the undergraduate modules I run at Brunel requires students to write a 2000-word review of an SFF novel as an assignment. A selection of these will be published later this spring in an anthology also including short SFF/ Horror fiction from Creative Writing students.
I think I first became aware of the Clarke Award when Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass won in 1993. Having read and enjoyed Woman on the Edge of Time, this seemed unsurprising to me, and so I went out and bought Body of Glass, which I also enjoyed. It was only many years later that I realised that this award had been controversial because Piercy was not considered to be a Science Fiction writer and led to a heated debate which eventually dragged in Clarke himself. At the time, however, despite being an English graduate, I considered reading to be a personal, individual activity for which I didn’t require any form of ‘official’ approval.
It wasn’t until I had finished my PhD in the early 2000s that I became interested in the Clarke as an annual event. While the completion of an academic thesis does result in official recognition, it is equally a personal quest that is achieved largely by one’s own efforts. As a result of passing that milestone – as well as gaining some self-confidence from getting older and parenting my children – I no longer felt the same intense need to be quite so defensively personal about what I read. Or, to put it another way, I began to pay attention to what other people thought about books. So when Christopher Priest, who was an author that I obsessively read and re-read, won the 2003 Clarke Award for The Separation, I suddenly found that I was interested in why other people liked this book too. This led to me reading other books from that year’s shortlist and henceforth following the process closely every year.
Part of me is always going to remain resistant to the notion of saying that one novel is categorically better than another because I will always remember how that felt to my younger, insecure, reading self as a dismissal of my personal taste. However, I have come to see that the prize culture in SF – as part of its wider fan, convention and reviewing culture – does not function simply to serve hierarchy and canon formation, but also tends towards the promotion of a diverse spectrum of books and, thereby, a diverse readership. Of course, the outcomes of SF’s processes are not always as utopian as this suggests but the terrain is certainly worth struggling over.
I have written about the Clarke Award in Foundation and I was also part of the panel which discussed ’30 Years of the Arthur C. Clarke Award’ at the 2016 Eastercon (an edited transcript of which is due to appear in Vector this year). I see participation in this shadow jury as offering the possibility of connecting such kinds of critical activity with my typical informal approach to the Clarke of inaccurately predicting the shortlist, reading it, arguing about it, guessing the winner and attending the ceremony to find out how wrong I was. All in all, this is an unmissable opportunity to expose simultaneously the idiosyncrasies of my personal taste and the foundations of my critical thought. Additional updates, equivocations and the inevitable expressions of embarrassment will be available via twitter (@Contempislesfic) and the facebook page, ‘Contemporary British Fiction’.
Nick Hubble is an academic working in the English department at Brunel University London, where they teach modern and contemporary literature, including Science Fiction and Fantasy. In addition, they have reviewed SFF for journals including Strange Horizons, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foundation and Vector.