by Paul Kincaid
[first published in Kincaid, P., ed. with Andrew Butler. 2006. The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology. Daventry, Northants: Serendip Foundation.]
It was, as I recall, a damp, gloomy evening when Mike Moir and I turned up for a meeting organised by the Foundation. We knew it was something to do with awards – at the time, Mike was heading up the BSFA Awards, while I was running the organisation, which was why we had been invited – but beyond that we had no clear idea what was in store.
The meeting was chaired by Professor John Radford of what was then the North East London Polytechnic, quondam home of the Science Fiction Foundation. We knew, of course, John Clute and Edward James, and also George Hay. The stranger was introduced as Maurice Goldsmith of the International Science Policy Foundation, a lobbying organisation on behalf of science whose function was never exactly clear to me. It was Maurice who had started this whole ball rolling.
He explained that he had approached Arthur C. Clarke with the idea that Clarke might fund a British science fiction magazine on the model of Isaac Asimov’s Magazine. But there is already a British science fiction magazine, Interzone, Clarke argued; how about an award instead. So Goldsmith approached the Foundation, and the Foundation said: but there’s already an award, run by the BSFA. Hence this meeting.
For a while we debated whether there was room for another science fiction award, but decided that since the BSFA Award was popular vote, if we made this a juried award it would be sufficiently different. Since Clarke wanted to use the award to encourage British science fiction, our second topic for debate was whether the award should be limited to British writers. In the end we all felt that there were just too few British writers to make that sustainable, so we decided that the award would be for the best science fiction novel receiving its first British publication in the year.
And that was where we left it. We had our first jury – those of us in that meeting, with the exception of Professor Radford, who happened to provide two representatives of each of the three organisations. The award was up and running, and everything else was left to the jury.
It is what was left to the jury that has made the Arthur C Clarke Award both idiosyncratic and controversial, often at the same time. At no point did we decide what was meant by ‘best’, by ‘science fiction’, or even by ‘novel’. Consequently, the jury meetings I’ve taken part in have featured some very lively debates on each of these topics – and no two juries have ever arrived at precisely the same definitions.
It is, however, the very nature of those debates, the fact that what is considered ‘best’ or ‘science fiction’ is going to be different every year, that has made the Arthur C Clarke Award such a lively and essential survey of the year in science fiction. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by Peter Nicholls and founding judge John Clute is at pains to point out, the award was controversial from its very first year. When Margaret Atwood received the first Arthur C Clarke Award for The Handmaid’s Tale, it seemed that the Award was deliberately turning its back on the core of the genre (particularly given that the runner-up that year was Bob Shaw’s The Ragged Astronauts – not, as Edward James has suggested, Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand). In fact what I think that first jury was doing, after what I recall as very close debate, is something that has been a surprisingly recurrent practice of juries since then: they were not looking in towards the heart of the genre, but outwards from the genre. As Nicholas Ruddick points out, The Handmaid’s Tale has had such resonance, both within and outwith the genre, that it is hard to think why it might ever have been considered a controversial choice.
Of course, that was far from the only time that the Award has skirted controversy. If stimulating debate, not to say heated argument, is one way of raising awareness of science fiction, then we have to admit that the Award has been a rousing success since the start. Tempers have tended to fray most when the Award is imagined to be flirting with the mainstream. There was even jeering at the presentation of the Award to Marge Piercy for Body of Glass (again, I suspect, this was at least in part because the runner up was another popular genre favourite, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson). But, as Maureen Kincaid Speller shows, you don’t need a rocket ship on the cover to raise exactly the problematic issues of who we are and what we might become which are supposedly central to everything we understand about science fiction.
I think, also, that part of the problem was that, at the time, it was still a young Award. It hadn’t yet established its credentials, and a sceptical audience imagined that the jury was inflating the Award by playing to the mainstream rather than recognising genuine genre worth. It is significant, therefore, that when, a few years later, another overtly mainstream novel won the Award, The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, the reaction was not opprobrium. People read the book as a result of the Award, and a number of them sought me out later to say that they thought the jury was right. Paul Billinger points out the genre complexities of the novel, but I think there is also a sense of the Award reaching a level of maturity where people now recognise what it is doing. Of course the job of the Award is to raise awareness of science fiction, not just inside the genre but more generally, but that is not achieved by saying science fiction and the mainstream are the same. Rather, the Award points out how many interesting, exciting, challenging and innovative things there are to be done with genre materials, some of those things speak to the core of the genre and some bring a freshness and vitality to mainstream, and some do both. One of the things which makes this collection of essays such a fascinating companion to the Award is that it points up how the Award winners have expanded genre materials to create a literature that is perennially fresh and engaging.
If the examples I have given so far suggest that such innovation is best achieved by openness to the sensibilities and mores of the mainstream, then it is worth remembering that the Arthur C. Clarke Award has also celebrated works that plunge straight into the heart of the genre. Colin Greenland’s exhilarating reinvention of the most traditional genre tropes in Take Back Plenty generates an exuberant espousal of ‘spangliciousness’ from Justina Robson; while Adam Roberts enthuses over the rich imagining of our near future that is at the core of Paul McAuley’s Fairyland. Another complex and convincing portrait of the day after tomorrow – a ‘doable’ future, in Graham Sleight’s memorable phrase – is vividly painted in Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, an ambiguous comedy that seems to form a strange parallel with Paul McAuley’s ambiguous tragedy. Sterling, of course, was one of the leading cyberpunks, but in his dazzlingly allusive essay Pawel Frelik demonstrates how Synners by Pat Cadigan is central to the whole imaginative enterprise of cyberpunk. Since Cadigan was the first author to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award twice, we turn our attention to her once more with Fools, with Penny Hill pointing that serious issues of identity are treated in a way that would have been impossible in the mainstream … which seems to bring us back to where we started.
In fact, although these and other books seem to occupy the heartland of science fiction, none of them do so straightforwardly or unquestioningly. The books that innovate and excite enough to capture our attention and win the Award generally have an edgy, uncomfortable undertone. Joan Gordon shows this very clearly in her contribution to the utopian debate that runs through Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden. This refusal to accept easy answers, a refusal indeed to refrain from asking awkward questions, is perhaps why so many of the winners occupy a borderland, where the certainties of the heartland are less secure and the influence of other edgy works bleeds over from just across the border in the mainstream or horror or fantasy or wherever. In recent years, indeed, the internal boundaries of fantastic literature seem to have become progressively less stable, more permeable, so that a succession of recent winners have made us question what we actually mean when we talk about science fiction. Tanya Brown looks at how issues of governance are shaped by both ancient and modern mythologies in Bold As Love by Gwyneth Jones; while Cheryl Morgan looks at the way issues of governance are shaped by our conception of the monstrous (which takes us right back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) in Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. If these two books serve as exemplars of the way fantasy and science fiction have merged, two other winners have merged science fiction with historical fiction. Economics is the unconsidered science that has not so much shaped as created the modern world, as Iain Emsley argues in his essay on Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. Meanwhile, in The Separation, Christopher Priest uses the supposed certainties of the past to destroy our confidence in ourselves and our place in the world, a confidence further undermined by L.J. Hurst’s unsettling and imaginative take on the novel.
The Arthur C. Clarke Award was, of course, set up to encourage British science fiction, but right from the start it has been an international Award. The early prizes went to a Canadian, Margaret Atwood; an Australian, George Turner (and Edward James makes a persuasive case for considering The Sea and Summer as the finest of Australian sf novels); and a restless American currently living in Europe, Rachel Pollack (Elizabeth Billinger’s essay probably counts as the first serious critical attention that Unquenchable Fire has received, hopefully it will not be the last). We also seem to have lauded more than our fair share of ex-patriots now resident in the UK, with Geoff Ryman, Pat Cadigan and Tricia Sullivan (Dreaming In Smoke is another example of uncomfortable reading, but as Farah Mendlesohn shows, it reflects the grim reality of colonising a new world with more vivacity and accuracy than science fiction usually achieves). But it is only by being measured against the best in the world that the genuine and lasting quality of British science fiction can be seen, and steadily over the years we have seen more and more top class British writers stepping forward to take the Award – Greenland, McAuley, Miéville, Jones, Priest – as a renaissance has been taking place in British sf writing. The Arthur C. Clarke Award has surely had some influence upon that renaissance.
One of the ways that an Award can encourage science fiction writing (from anywhere, not just from Britain) is by recognising the exciting new voices as they emerge. One of the things that makes me proud to be associated with the Arthur C. Clarke Award is the way it has paid attention to new writers. Outstanding debut novels by writers as varied as Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds and Adam Roberts have all made the shortlist, and twice the Award has gone to a first book. It always makes me laugh when the judges for the Booker Prize talk about a long and intensive one-hour meeting to decide the winner. Practically all the judging meeting for the Arthur C. Clarke Award that I have known have lasted at least two hours, and many a fair bit longer than that. The exception was when Mary Doria Russell won for The Sparrow, and Andrew M. Butler does an excellent job of explaining why this book struck so notable a nerve in the sf world. The other debut to carry off the prize was Vurt by Jeff Noon, which went from being a little-known novel from a small press to an international sensation, and no small part in that success came from winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Tony Keen does an excellent job of capturing some of the excitement Vurt generated in its extraordinary overlaying of Lewis Carroll imagery upon grim Manchester reality.
Is it overstating the case to say that the Arthur C. Clarke Award now has an important place in the world of science fiction? Neil Gaiman certainly doesn’t think so, and when you look back over the years at the winners and the shortlists you have an extraordinary roll-call of some of the finest and most important works in science fiction from the last twenty years. I want too thank all of the people who have contributed towards this critical anthology, because they have contributed freely to this attempt to show how fresh, exciting, and important the Arthur C. Clarke Award truly is.
Every year, when I stand up to announce the winner, a large percentage of my speech seems to be taken up with thanking people. Something like the Arthur C. Clarke Award cannot exist without the effort and goodwill of a large number of people. And this book is no exception. Alongside the contributors I want to thank my co-editors, and my colleagues on the Serendip Foundation, and everyone who has judged the Award. But above all I want to thank – we all should thank – the authors who have given us so much to think about, so much to enjoy.
Paul Kincaid was one of the founders of the Arthur C. Clarke Award; he served as a judge for its first two years, and administered the Award from 1996 to 2006. He co-edited The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology with Andrew M. Butler. He has contributed to numerous books and journals, and is the author of two collections of essays and reviews: What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and Call And Response. His book on Iain M. Banks is forthcoming from University of Illinois Press. He has received the Thomas Clareson Award from the SFRA, and the Best Non-Fiction Award from the BSFA.