by Dr. Helen Marshall
I attended my first Arthur C. Clarke Award evening in 2015 when I was still a relative newcomer to the British science fiction scene. The award, it was explained to me, was the most prestigious on offer for a science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year.
As an academic and writer I prepared for this the best way I knew how: I got myself copies of that year’s short list and raced through them in the space of about a week. At the time I was impressed with both the quality of the titles listed, which spoke to the strength of British science fiction, and the diversity of the styles and subject matters tackled, ranging from Dave Hutchinson’s clever (and frightfully prescient) spy novel Europe in Autumn to Emily St John Mandel’s distinctly literary approach to post-plague North America. British science fiction, it seemed to me, was intelligent, varied, and outward looking, eager to embrace and experiment with new styles while still retaining its traditional focus on the exploration of new concepts. I was impressed by the fact that the award looked beyond the works traditionally considered to be part of the marketing category of science fiction. The juries were willing—perhaps more so than for other awards in the field—to embrace mainstream works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in its inaugural year and Station Eleven, the winner in 2015.
Awards such as the Clarke are important. Not only do they bestow prestige upon the lucky winner but, more importantly, their shortlists tend to encapsulate the breadth of the field, crystallising the debates, discussions and anxieties that most energise its writers. The awards do this, of course, by pointing out good work—but no less important is the metacommentary surrounding the decisions of the jurors, conducted by the reviewers, critics and fans most invested in the field. While the readership of science fiction in general is quite large, the core of the genre—the loose network of professionals and fans who tend to be the most enthusiastic and devoted commentators—is surprisingly small. Its conversations take place across a range of venues: trade magazines, fanzines, conventions, blogs and message boards in the past and now increasingly across social media.
This is not without problems. The publishing industry, in the words of Claire Squires, is a “garrulous” one (3)—and certainly the recent metacommentary surrounding science fiction awards such as the Hugos (given out by a membership vote of the World Science Fiction Convention) has been garrulous to say the least. At its best these conversations have been passionate and thoughtful but at their worst they have been coercive and destructive. One only need look at the “sad puppy” controversy of the last several years to see how bitterly an award shortlist and the procedures which generate it can be contested.
The Arthur C. Clarke awards are different from the Hugos in that shortlist and eventual winner are determined solely by a juror, thus, in many respects, bypassing the contentious process of lobbying and promotion that has accompanied voted awards. And yet the award has been no less controversial. Paul Kincaid, in his introduction to The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, writes that the original organisers at no point set out firm criteria for what was meant by “best”, by “science fiction”, or even by “novel” (12). In consequence, the earnest debates—of individual juries as well was the broader community of reviewers and critics—have both through their agreement and their opposition sketched out a fascinating survey of what science fiction might have meant in any given year.
After the Clarke award celebration in 2016, when Nina Allan first approached me about arranging a shadow jury of the Clarke Awards, I could see the value of the suggestion. Similar experiments have been illuminating in respect to mainstreams awards such as the prestigious Man Booker Prize, but no such experiment, to my knowledge, has been undertaken for a science fiction award. 2017 seems a particularly auspicious year to begin particularly because it is a time in which many in the community feel the need for an outlet for reasoned debate and discussion. Of course it isn’t our intention that the shadow jury will challenge the decision of the conventional jury; rather the value of the experiment comes, I think, in expanding the commentary. Questions about the state of the field and the underlying definitions of “best” and “science fiction” continue to be meaningful, particularly in an industry that is increasingly dominated by marketing categories and sales figures rather than criticism. What science fiction is and what it ought to be doing should continue to be debated if the field is going to evolve beyond the commercial pressures that inevitably influence the decision to publish.
But that is not to say that a shadow jury should have no value to publishers. In fact Stevie Marsden’s doctoral research at the University of Stirling has demonstrated that “prize culture” is very much fuelled by the debates—even the controversial ones—which surround an award and bring it into the public’s attention. A prize is only valuable to a publisher if it increases the elusive word-of-mouth buzz. As a result the shadow jury stands to serve not only the critical community but also the publishing community, by drawing attention to worthy books that might otherwise be missed.
The Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy at Anglia Ruskin University is an ideal place to host this conversation. Our University has a long history of supporting the Arthur C. Clarke awards. Past and present members of our staff have stood and continue to stand as members of the jury. More than this, the Department of English and Media—and the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy particularly—brings together these interlinked but occasionally oppositional disciplines: creative writing, literary criticism, and publishing. It is our hope that all three disciplines will be served by this exercise.
Dr. Helen Marshall is a Lecturer of Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University and the General Director for the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her first collection of fiction Hair Side, Flesh Side won the Sydney J Bounds Award in 2013, and Gifts for the One Who Comes After, her second collection, won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. She is currently editing The Year’s Best Weird Fiction to be released in 2017, and her debut novel Everything that is Born will be published by Random House Canada in 2018.