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Eat My Hat

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It’s been a while since I’ve offered odds on the Arthur C Clarke Award (and what a good shortlist that was) but today seem like a good opportunity to start again.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – 1/2
The Machine by James Smythe – 2/1
God’s War by Kameron Hurley – 3/1
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest – 6/1
Nexus by Ramez Naam – 12/1
The Disestablishment Of Paradise by Phillip Mann – 12/1

I guessed three of the six so egotistically I’ve made these the favourites. You probably can’t discount Priest’s greatest hits album but the Naam and the Mann are surely rank outsiders.

Written by Martin

19 March 2014 at 09:20

Posted in awards, sf

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What I Want, Exactly

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In a post entitled ‘The Hugos, The Clarke Awards And What Do You Want, Exactly?’, Cora Buhlert writes:

“The Hugos are broken” posts came mainly from (male) British critics this year, and not against international fans and writers in general… Indeed, the one thing I don’t see on the list are British nominees, at least not in the fiction categories, which probably explains the dissatisfied grumblings of British fans and critics right there.

I’m not sure that first point is borne out by her own round-up post which links to not a single male British critic. Given this, her explanation for these grumblings is even less plausible than it would ordinarily be. She then goes on to discuss the Arthur C Clarke Award:

Indeed, my main reaction to the Clarke shortlist in comparison to this year’s Hugo controversy is the question to all the Hugo critics, “Is this really what you want?” An award shortlist chosen by a jury of qualified experts, which nonetheless winds up consisting entirely of white men and books which are far less diverse in theme and style (several of the nominees are basically reimaginings of hoary old SF tropes) than those on the Hugo shortlist, for all their flaws. One thing that all of these discussions and their recurrence show is that the SFF community is changing. However, it’s not necessarily changing into the direction that the brigade of young male British critics would prefer.

I don’t know who this brigade is but – speaking as a young(ish) male British critic – I certainly prefer this year’s Clarke shortlist to that of the Best Novel Hugo (and I prefer the BSFA Award shortlist to both). I base this on my previous experience of the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, Mira Grant, Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, Chris Beckett, Nick Harkaway and Ken MacLeod (and M John Harrison and Adam Roberts). That is not to say that I’ve read the majority of the work on the shortlists but I do think it allows me to make a relatively informed comparison. However, what I find interesting about Buhlert’s post is not these specific points but the fact she links criticism of the Hugos with criticism of the Clarke, particularly with respect to diversity. I think this is unsuccessful because of a failure to discussion the ways in which the awards are fundamentally different, a difference that is, I think, how they are decided (five judges versus any interested member of Worldcon) than what they decide. By discussing that issue, I aim to answer Buhlert’s rhetorical question more fully.

The Clarke Award is for best science fiction novel published in the UK; the Best Novel Hugo is for best speculative fiction novel published in the US. The Clarke Award has a pool of eligible work pre-selected by UK publishers; the Best Novel Hugo has no pre-selection of its eligible pool. We know that this year, that means that the judges of the Clarke Award had 82 works to select their shortlist from (substantially higher than in previous years). But the Best Novel Hugo pool is vastly bigger than this – at a conservative guess I’d say at least four times the size. We also know from Niall Harrison’s count that ratio of speculative fiction books published by men and women is very different between the two countries. For example, using books received by Locus in 2011 as a proxy, he found:

Overall, 47% of titles listed were written or edited by women, 53% by men; that’s closer to parity than last year. It also obscures a large difference between the US and the UK. In the US, last year, Locus received very nearly equal numbers of books written/edited by men and women. In contrast, only 1 in 3 books received from the UK was written or edited by a woman.

Which brings us to the fact that this year, for only the second time in its 27 year history, there are no novels by women on the Clarke Award shortlist. I mentioned this briefly the other day when I talked about the existing data on women and the Clarke but it is perhaps worth unpacking a bit more. It is my belief that the lack of women on the shortlist can only be explained by individual sexism, institutional sexism or some combination of the two. A good example of the former theory can be found in this post by James Nicoll:

Congratulations to the Clarkes for resisting the deadly temptation to produce a more diverse nominee list, especially given the outrageous – by what appear to the current standards of British SF – presence of women, persons of colour and Muslims on the submissions list. In particular I’d like to praise you for snubbing Alif the Unseen, which could have only embolden those people into further creativity in the field of SF.

I think most people would agree that when it comes to likely reasons why the judges did not put Alif The Unseen on the shortlist, naked anti-Muslim hatred is pretty far down the list. When it comes to women, however, there is a much stronger case. This is based on the demographic argument that women make up more than half of the world’s population so we should expect them to be represented in those proportions. Given the distance between the 50% we should expect and the 0% we got – the argument goes – it is just not plausible that the four women and one man who judged the award this could not select a book by a woman on merit. As someone puts it in the comments on Nicoll’s post: “An all-male list shows that they’re already judging by something other than quality.” Now, this is a very handy rule of thumb but one that is predicated on supply of eligible work matching those demographics. For the Hugos, it does; for the Clarke, it doesn’t come anywhere close.

To take an example from another area where women remain disadvantaged, a lot of the actively bad practice has disappeared from recruitment and promotion over recent decades but it doesn’t matter if you have impartial criteria and a representative and independent interview panel if only men apply for the job. In this way, a fair selection process can still produce a disproportionate outcome. This counter-argument has been put forward by Liz Williams, one of this year’s judges, and I think it is a compelling reason to believe that the sexism here is institutional rather than individual.

In this respect, I was struck by something that Paul Kincaid said before the award: “If, for instance, Empty Space, Jack Glass, Angelmaker and Alif the Unseen are all excluded from the list, we will have very legitimate cause for concern.” Angelmaker did make the shortlist so hopefully he didn’t find cause for concern with the award this year (Kincaid has written his own dyspeptic piece on the Hugos and the Clarke). What struck me, however, was that you would be hard-pressed to change the ratio of authors and make this core proposition 75% women. If the judges don’t like a highly-rated novel by a man then there are plenty of other highly-rated options by men. If they don’t like a highly-rated novel by a woman then that can wipe out a lot of the available pool. Niall Harrison suggested in his excellent piece on the shortlist that the most plausible other contenders by women were The Method by Juli Zeh (which was shortlisted for a Kitschie) and Pure by Juliana Baggott. There is also vN by Madeline Ashby, a book that had much more mixed reviews but represents pretty much the only core science fiction contender by a woman). I am looking forward to reading these novels but I wish there were many, many more of them; as with the employment example above, I think the focus of fixing the problem needs to be on removing barriers for people who aren’t white men.

You’ll also notice that Empty Space, Jack Glass and Angelmaker are all most readily identified as science fiction whereas Alif The Unseen is most readily identified as fantasy. No one knows whether the judges liked it but didn’t think it was eligible or thought it was eligible but didn’t like it (or, indeed, didn’t like it or think it was eligible). These edge cases offer an additional opportunity for elimination and, if they are not eliminated, they always prove contentious. For example, this comment by Jonathan McCalmont in the context of a very interesting article about how to fix discussion of the Hugo Awards: “An interesting example of this type of thing in practice is the Clarke award which, despite being an SF award, has recently been nominating works of urban fantasy and novels containing talking horses.” Both Zoo City (a primarily fantasy novel by a woman that can be read as science fiction) and The Waters Rising (a primarily science fiction novel by a woman that can be read as fantasy) are dismissed. (McCalmont goes on to echo Cheryl Morgan’s suggestion that this year the judges have directly responded to this reaction: “But then you look at this year’s shortlist and you see nothing but core genre. Something happened. People talked about it. Something else happened.” I find this theory unlikely.)

So, what do I want from the Arthur C Clarke Award, exactly? I want knowledgeable judges to read the submitted work, think carefully about which of these novels truly constitute the best science fiction published that year and advocate passionately for these books to their fellow judges. I want them to be open-minded about what constitutes science fiction and I don’t want them to try and second guess the response their shortlist. I’m lucky because this is exactly how I believe the award already operates. But I also want the judges to be able to draw on a broad, bold and diverse pool of high-quality submissions and sadly that isn’t the case.

The Hugos, however, do not have such a problem so what do I want from them? I want the voters to act as if they were judges, to treat the process of voting as a privilege and a responsibility. I want them to read the material made available to them in the voter pack and cast an informed ballot based on this, meaning categories such as Best Fan Artist to receive as many votes as categories such as Best Novel. I want everyone who can vote to actually vote, meaning more people voted than nominated. But I also want everyone who votes to nominate next year and make use of what the Clarke doesn’t have: a pool of potential nominees constrained only by the imagination of the people who decided the shortlist. Being an informed nominator is a tough job – it is much harder than being an informed voter – but it is only way to make an informed vote truly meaningful. To make this process easier, we all need to help each other by posting our draft ballots, engaging with low nomination categories and just generally talking about what really is the best that speculative fiction has to offer.

Written by Martin

8 April 2013 at 18:08

Arthur C Clarke Award Data

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Including this year, 48 out of 169 nominees (28.4%) and 10 out of 27 winners (37%) have been women. This compares pretty favourably to the level of submissions by women this year: 21%. We also know that the level has been around 20% since the submissions list was first published.

But the submissions list has only been published for less than a decade and there is a persistent feeling that number of science fiction novels being published by women in the UK has decreased since the Arthur C Clarke Award was established in 1986.

Unfortunately, we can’t compare submissions historically but we can compare with the shortlists. So, in the first 10 years of the award 30% of nominees were female, 50% of winners were female and there were three years when there were as many women as men on the shortlist. Whereas in the last 10 years 22% of nominees were female, 20% of winners were female and men made up the majority of the shortlist every years.

So the record of the Arthur C Clarke Award is getting worse. I think this has to reflect the worsening situation for women in British science fiction publishing over this period. The fact that this year’s shortlist is made up entirely of men is a symptom of this and we need to address the root cause.

Written by Martin

5 April 2013 at 11:26

Posted in awards, sf

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Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion

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The sixty submissions were read, the shortlist was agreed, the six shortlisted novels were re-read, the winner was agreed and, finally, The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rodgers was announced as the winner of the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award last week. I missed the ceremony last year because I was on holiday so I made sure I did it properly this year. This involved lining my stomach over the road from the Apollo at the Japan Centre’s newish restaurant Toku in order to take advantage of the free bar (this being central London, a bottle of Peroni was £5.05 at the afterparty). Inside the venue I was impressed to find awards director Tom Hunter wearing a tie (for the first time?) and that I was not the only one dressed to impressed (photos forthcoming in SFX, I believe). It isn’t the easiest to mingle but it was nice to chat to old friends. I also finally met Claire Brialey (despite working not just in fandom but the same building our paths had never crossed), got Simon Ings to confirm that Dead Water isn’t SF (although he pointed out that the author is dead) and fanboyed Jeff Noon about Vurt changing my life (unlike Paul Graham Raven I waited until he’d left the urinal) and got talking to a random Canadian who turned out to be Jim Munroe, author of the excellent Everyone In Silico (he was in town promoting Ghosts With Shit Jobs at Sci-FiLondon). All in all, a good evening out and I only managed to spill a small amount of red wine on myself.

It was an immense privilege to be a Clarke judge. After two years, it is also a pleasure to hand the responsibility on to the next set of judges. It also means I am free to indulge in prolifigate book buying:

  • My Dirty Little Book Of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen – I reviewed The Rapture for Strange Horizons so when I saw this for a quid in Whitstable I snapped it up.
  • The Illywhacker by Peter Carey – From the same shop. Carey must be one of the top five living authors and this is the only one of his novels I didn’t own.
  • The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett – Mysteriously not submitted for the Clarke Award, Bennett is getting a reputation for doing interesting interstitial things within commercial fiction.
  • The Oxford History Of Britain, edited Kenneth O Morgan – Partly inspired by Mark Newton’s posts about Roman history and partly inspired by my huge ignorance of anything that happened before World War II.
  • Dark Matter by Juli Zeh – Her latest novel, The Method, was brought to my attention by Niall Harrison but it isn’t out in paperback yet so I thought I’d try this.
  • Dark Matter by Michelle Paver – A coincidental title and a random punt in that Whitstable bookshop.
  • Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – I’m not sure how this first came to my attention but liminal zones float my boat.
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – Called in for the Clarke but not submitted, this debut SF novel received pretty good reviews.
  • Beechcombings by Richard Mabey – Having exhausted Roger Deakin and in need of the nature cure, I turn to Mabey.
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – Purchased and already read. Well done me! FT puff says “Cormac McCarthy with a sense of humour” which is good shorthand but overselling an extremely readable but relatively lightweight novel.
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell – Pretty much ubiquitous last year. It was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize which demonstrated that the Clarke isn’t the only award to attract controversy.
  • Wildwood by Colin Meloy – A rare hardback purchase (it costs less than most paperbacks), this is the first novel from the bloke behind The Decemberists. I love his lyrics, will I love his prose?

Trying to muscle in on the photo is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. I have spent pretty much the whole of 2012 listening to Watch The Throne by him and Jay-Z and, if you want to know why, you should check out this brilliant profile-cum-tour diary by David Samuels in the Atlantic. Or just buy it.

Written by Martin

10 May 2012 at 10:14

The Appliance Of Science

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Lots of people tried to guess this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. The shortlist has now been announced and it is interesting to compare the guesses to the actual list. Quite a few people got three of the six book correct but only a few got four and no one got five. Nicholas Whyte went one step further than just guessing though, he ranked the submissions according to Goodreads and Librarything and then applied several steps:

  • Removed all the books that weren’t science fiction (quite a few this year)
  • Removed the two Connie Willis books since they formed the two halves of a single novel
  • Removed the books with very low Goodreads averages
  • Removed the books with a high ratio of Goodreads users to Librarything users
  • Removed the Robert J Sawyer book because it was written by Robert J Sawyer

This produced the following list:

  • Reamde by Neal Stephenson
  • Embassytown by China Miéville
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross
  • The End Specialist by Drew Magary
  • Equations of Life by Simon Morden
  • The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Not bad at all: four out of six. But Whyte was slightly wrong footed by the fact Readme isn’t a science fiction novel and should have been struck off under his first step. The novel under The Testament of Jessie Lamb was The Waters Rising by Sheri S Tepper which would have given him five out of six. It is also interesting to note that Whyte could have got two thirds of the shortlist just by applying his first two step:

  • Embassytown by China Miéville
  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  • Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
  • The End Specialist by Drew Magary

When I started reading Whyte’s methodology, I thought it was just going to produce a popularist list since, as he acknowledges, the BSFA Award shortlisted novels were down the bottom. But it worked. I hope it doesn’t work every year though, it would take all the fun out of it!

Written by Martin

26 March 2012 at 08:50

Posted in awards, sf

Tagged with ,

Your Chance To Second Guess Me

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The list of submissions for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award have just been published at Torque Control. As with last year, there is a prize for guessing the shortlist of six novels (due to be announced at the end of March). No one managed to guess all six last year – in fact, four out of six was the best – so will the judges be able to completely confound fans again this time?

Of course, the guessing already started a while ago. Last week I put Lavie Tidhar on the spot on Twitter and asked him to predict the shortlist. He came up with the following six: Embassytown, The Islanders, Ready Player One, By Light Alone, The Company Man and Wake Up And Dream. He added that he’d be glad with hitting three out of six. Well, as it turns out, he can only have guessed a maximum of four of the shortlist since Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett weren’t submitted. It is possible that other novels which people might have thought were contenders weren’t submitted either; having heard Martin McGrath advocate for it, I would certainly have liked to have seen City Of Bohane by Kevin Barry. Fans of children’s literature will also notice that not much was submitted. No Blood Red Road by Moira Young, for example.

But there you go: the field is big, it isn’t neatly distributed and the very concept of science fiction is often in the eye of the beholder. There were sixty novels submitted this year which is huge amount to read and covers the vast majority of the field. It is also more than enough to produce an excellent shortlist (go on, I dare you to guess it). However, one of the big strengths of the Arthur C Clarke Award is the fact it aspires to be completely comprehensive, to cover as much of the UK science fiction field as humanly possible, so I hope all publishers will continue to take a broad view of what constitutes science fiction in the future.

Written by Martin

27 February 2012 at 14:36

Posted in awards, sf

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Lewis’s Revelation

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Today I saw someone on the internet say that 90% of everything is crud. Now, I have complained about Sturgeon’s Revelation before. It is, in a word, balls. I know, I know, someone is wrong on the internet, so what? But the thoughtlessness of the statement still offends me and its persistence depresses me.

Then I remembered that I love evidence. I could, in fact, test Sturgeon’s Revelation against the 54 novels submitted for the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award, a selection of novels that we’ve agreed form a pretty good proxy for British science fiction as a whole. So, was 90% of everything crud?

Taking a liberal approach to the word “crud”, you could perhaps claim that 72% of science fiction published in Britain in 2010 was crud. So now we can obviously extrapolate from this that 72% of everything is crud. I call this Lewis’s Revelation. But wait! What if I asked one of my fellow judges to provide their own percentages? Or I repeated this exercise again for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award? Or I took it upon myself to read every science fiction novel published in the US in 2010? Or every thriller? Wouldn’t the percentages change? Why, it is almost as if Lewis’s Revelation is meaningless. Funny that.

Written by Martin

17 March 2011 at 20:44

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