By Paul Kincaid
I’ve written about all of this before, how I was there when the Arthur C. Clarke Award was created, how I’ve judged it and administered it, and edited the anthology. There’s nothing new to add, except for one memory: the first time I ever saw a bookshop display devoted to the Clarke shortlist, it was in Seattle.
That is how I want to see the Clarke award continue: that international status, that sense of being central to the entire conversation about contemporary science fiction.
I believe, devoutly, that the award should be controversial, that it should engender debate. In the early years, the Award got a lot of flack for shortlisting mainstream writers rather than the familiar genre names. Giving the first award to Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale was dismissed as pretentious, as the judges sucking up to the literary establishment; though we see now that it is a novel that has endured. At the time when Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass won the award over Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, I heard people complain that there wasn’t even a rocket ship on the cover (in fact, none of the books on that year’s shortlist had a rocket ship on the cover). After that, the proudest moment in my engagement with the Clarke Award came in the year that Amitav Ghosh won for The Calcutta Chromosome. After the announcement of the award, I had people come up to me and say: “I thought that was just the Clarke Award being pretentious again. Then I read the book and … you were right!” Not long after I finally stood down from the Clarke Award I was amused that the judges were being criticised not for including mainstream fiction, but for omitting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
That is what makes the Clarke Award great. The fact that it doesn’t conform to genre stereotypes, the fact that it bucks the trend, the fact that it regards science fiction as the broadest of broad churches, and will look anywhere within that spectrum for the best. And that restless, wide-ranging aspect of the award is what gets people arguing about it. And that argument is good, not just for the award itself (though it does keep the award alive in people’s minds), but for science fiction as a whole. Because the more the Clarke Award challenges our expectations, the more it opens us up to an ever wider, ever changing sense of what science fiction is and can be.
Let’s face it, the biggest debate within science fiction at the moment is the debate surrounding the Sad and Rabid Puppies, and that debate is all about narrowing science fiction. The Puppies want to enclose and limit the genre, restrict it to a narrow spectrum that resembles the science fiction they remember from the 1950s: overwhelmingly masculine, almost entirely American, distinctly technophiliac, and ignoring the literary changes that have occurred within the genre over the last half century. This is science fiction that repeats what has gone before, that depends upon its familiarity; this is science fiction that is not going anywhere new. Okay, some work that fits within this spectrum can be interesting and important, but it cannot be, it should not be, the whole of science fiction. The best way to counter the Puppies’ argument is with the sort of expansionist, innovative, challenging argument about science fiction that has traditionally been associated with the Clarke Award.
The way I see it, a lively debate is essential for the health of the Clarke Award, for science fiction in Britain, for science fiction throughout the world. I want to encourage that debate and to be a part of it. It is time to demonstrate once again that the very best science fiction, the science fiction that is worthy of a place on the Clarke Award shortlist, is the sort of science fiction that shocks us with its novelty. And if that shock doesn’t generate argument, then the Clarke Award is failing, and science fiction is failing.
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.