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Archive for May 2016

The Clarke Award: Shortlists Vs Longlists

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In the blue corner, Tom Hunter #TeamShortlist:

Now with us regularly receiving over 100 books a year, the question we’re asking is, rather than mess around longlists why not just get straight to the point with a bigger shortlist that would allow the judges to highlight more books in one larger shortlist to rule them all?

Eight books might work well again, or even twelve which is the number some people have suggested as a longlist figure, so again why bother calling it a longlist, let’s just have more people actually shortlisted — it looks better on the cover of a book for a start

[…]

Would a larger shortlist be more of a focal point for both debate and promotion than the staggered and potentially fatiguing extra step of a longlist? I’ll leave that idea hanging for now, but for me this feels like more of a new move than the idea of copying a longlist format from another award, and feels somehow more in the spirit of Sir Arthur to me.

In the red corner, Niall Harrison #TeamLonglist:

I still think a larger shortlist is a really bad idea. I’m particularly alarmed that it might be done because it is “new” (or, I guess, “distinctive”). Obviously six books is an arbitrary number, but there are good reasons why you very rarely see shortlists — for any award, in or out of genre — of more than six. I’d say the two main ones are:

1) The more books you add, the more of a commitment reading the shortlist becomes. That means fewer people will want to do it; more people will be likely to pick and choose, or just wait for the winner and only read that.

2) I don’t believe adding more books will extend the same amount of prestige to those books. I think the same amount of prestige will be divided up into smaller portions. It will be perceived as “easier” to make the shortlist, and doing so will be valued less.

In contrast, when thinking about a longlist:

1) Not many people will read a longlist. But there will be a hard-core of people invested in the award who will look at it, and start to create some discussion. A longlist feels to me like a participatory gesture: I’m not necessarily part of the process, but I’m reading along with the process. Moreover, as Nick H said in one of these threads, it puts the industry on notice and gives them time to prepare for a shortlist.

2) A longlist creates an interim level of prestige. It helps to mark out “writers to watch”, it gives you that tool to bring more books into the Clarke discussion. If anything it increases the value of shortlisting, because (hopefully) it makes clear how hard-won a shortlist place really is.

Context is for the weak but here you go.

It goes without saying that I’m #TeamLonglist.

 

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Written by Martin

19 May 2016 at 17:03

Posted in awards, sf

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BSFA Review – Vector #283

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I am writing this – my last editorial – in the aftermath of Mancunicon, the 67th British national science fiction convention. As usual, there was a strong BSFA presence, including (obviously) at the BSFA Awards which were announced on Saturday. The Best Artwork award went to Jim Burns for his cover for Pelquin’s Comet by Ian Whates. I think this was all Ian’s fault. As chair of the BSFA, he challenged me to put up or shut up and get involved with the organisation. The result was a special BSFA booklet, SF Writers On SF Films: From Akira To Zardoz (remember that?). The experience was obviously a good one as I came back for more when the role of reviews editor was advertised.

I wasn’t sure how long I would be doing to job for when I started but it turned out to be almost six years. At Eastercon I managed to catch up with three of the four Vector editors I served under during that period: Niall Harrison, Shana Worthen and Glyn Morgan. Glyn was actually on a panel with me, Book Reviews In The Age Of Amazon: “In place of relatively few “gatekeeper” reviewers in relatively few venues, we have a commons where anyone can review if they choose.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion and it is positive thing that the internet has provided a democratic platform for everyone. But it isn’t either/or; there is still a space for informed, considered and – crucially – edited opinions.

So perhaps it was fitting that straight after that panel I met my successor as reviews editor, Susan Oke, for the first time (in the slightly unexpected location of the Strange Horizons tea party in the Deansgate Hilton’s Presidential Suite up on the 22nd floor). My aim was to leave the reviews section in better shape than I found it and I think I’ve achieved this. I’m sure Sue will improve further on what I’ve done and I look forward to watching that journey as a member. And also contributing since I will be experiencing life on the other side of a table as a reviewer, rather than an editor. Go easy on me, Sue, I’m a bit rusty!

Reviews

  • Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (Fixi Novo, 2014) – Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian
  • Sorcerer To The Crown by Zen Cho (Macmillan, 2015) -Reviewed by  Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • IF THEN by Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot, 2015) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
  • The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K Le Guin (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
  • The Night Clock by Paul Meloy (Solaris Books, 2015) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Tor, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (Corsair, 2016) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
  • The Last Witness by KJ Parker (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • What if I got down on my knees? by T Rauch (Whistling Shade Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Written by Martin

19 May 2016 at 14:00

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The Shortlists Of The Arthur C Clarke: What Goes Around, Comes Around

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Having discussed the administration and structure or the Arthur C Clarke Award, I’m now going to move onto the composition and reception of its shortlists.

What is the best Clarke shortlist? Okay, too hard. There are shortlisted books I’ve never heard of by authors who don’t even have Wikipedia pages. So what is the best shortlist of the last fifteen years (ie half the life of the award)? My personal picks would be 2010 and 2008. But, as Nina Allan noted in the piece that inspired my blog posts, John Jarrold hated the 2008 shortlist to the extent he felt the need to invoke Hiroshima. So, obviously, opinions differ. And the opinions of the judges themselves differ: some novels will be unanimously shortlisted and some will come down to a vote and we have no way of knowing which are which.

Instead of getting too much into good or bad, I’m going to talk more broadly about the composition of recent shortlists, their reception and our expectation. At the back of my mind will be the repeated suggestion that the award is not as exciting/radical/interesting/useful as it used to be.

2001, the first year of the period I’m looking at, was an all genre shortlist. In fact for the six year block between 1999 and 2004, every shortlist was entirely genre. The only time this has happened since was in 2014. This is worth bearing in mind when recent shortlists have sometimes been described as disappointingly core genre.

The only all British shortlist was in 2008, although we could probably also include 2006 as the eventual winner Geoff Ryman is a long term UK resident. In contrast, there have been non-majority British shortlists for the four years 2011 to 2014 as well as in 2003 and 2004.

This suggests a bit of a recent Golden Age for the award between 2005 and 2010 when the award produced strong British-dominated shortlists of high quality genre and non-genre science fiction. (Which is not to say they are all great – 2007, in particularly, continues to look a bit baffling.) My unsupported guess is that a lot of current Clarke commentators became involved with the award during this period.

Following the Genre Age and the Golden Age, we then have a third age from 2012. Yes, I jumped over 2011 as it seems to me to be a strong, radical and anomalous shortlist. I would also describe it – along with 2008 and 2013, the two year’s Allan identifies – as a split genre/non-genre shortlist. Patrick Ness had not (and has not since) published an adult science fiction novel and whilst Tim Powers clear had, this wasn’t readily apparent to anyone of my generation in Britain until Corvus belatedly picked him up here.

Anyway, back to 2012 and Allan’s description of the shortlist:

The 2012 shortlist, more now even than then, looks like a classic botch job: a set of random compromises, the result inevitably arrived at when five individuals of differing tastes and mixed critical abilities fail to form a coherent vision and resort instead to horse-trading,

Perhaps that lack of coherence is the defining feature of this Third Age. And perhaps that lack of coherence is understandable when the number of submissions to the award has radically increased from 41 in 2010 at the end of the Golden Age to 60 in 2012 and 113 this year.

Moving from the shortlists themselves to their reception, the single most important thing for the Arthur C Clarke Award in recent memory was when Adam Roberts published this review of the 2002 shortlist at Infinity Plus. He repeated this in 2003 and 2004 before moving to Strange Horizons. The second most important thing was when Niall Harrison at both Torque Control and Strange Horizons gave a home for discussion of the award.

Although I don’t believe Christopher Priest had read the 2012 shortlist when he published “Hull 0: Scunthorpe 3”, I do think it was a positive intervention for the award. We all need to have our feet held to the fire occasionally. However, it is ludicrously self-aggrandising to claim any more for it than that. The most important critical interventions of that year were from Dan Hartland, David Hebblethwaite, Maureen Kincaid Speller and Adam Roberts.

Yet Allan suggests: “In the four years since Priestgate, rigorous online discussion of the shortlists seems to have nosedived and atrophied.” If so, why? The criteria that allowed those reviews from Hartland, Hebblethwaite, Kincaid Speller and Roberts to arise were:

  1. A vibrant online scene
  2. Sufficient time to read the books
  3. Sufficient interest in the shortlist

Well, we’ve heard a lot about about the death of SF blogging recently (here is a good post on the subject) but the blogs that are dying are not the sort of blogs that would ever have reviewed the Clarke shortlist. Time might be an issue and, as discussed, it might be helpful to standardise the announcement of the award. Which leaves interest.

Perhaps it isn’t that surprising that people are less engaged with the award now than they were at the beginning of the Third Age in 2012, particularly if they became most interested during the Golden Age. There is also the elephant in the room of the Kitschies. I think these awards could accurately be described as the worst thing that happened to the Clarke Award since the only game in town suddenly had a competitor and a competitor with a rather broader remit. I am more interested in this year’s Red Tentacle shortlist than I am in this year’s Clarke shortlist.

I think a longlist for the Clarke Award would be nice but I don’t think it will change this. But I’m not sure how much needs to change. The amount of critical coverage at the end of the Golden Age was probably abnormally high and even then the number of people involved was actually pretty low. For the same people to stay engaged, year after year, is a huge investment of time. Even the indefatigable Adam Roberts said today that “The days when I’d review the entire Clarke shortlist are behind me now”.

But what goes around, comes around and I’m sure that new critical voices will rise to engage (and old ones to re-engage). If that all sounds complacent then I’m not sure what the alternative is. The award will continue and the conversation will continue but it will ebb and flow. It is entirely possible that someone entering the genre now will not have the same relationship with the award that we do but I doubt our relationship is the same as those who established it.

Written by Martin

8 May 2016 at 13:08

Posted in awards, sf

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Two Proposals For The Structure And Administration Of The Arthur C Clarke Award

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Inspired by Nina Allan’s recent post, I’d like to say a few things about the Arthur C Clarke Award. In particular, I’d like to discuss:

  1. The structure and administration of the award
  2. The composition and reception of its shortlists
  3. The award as barometer of British SF publishing

In the olden days, I’d have bunged this all into a single post but if I don’t chunk it up, I fear it won’t get written. This post will focus on 1) and hopefully I will return to the other two later. (I’d also like to return to another issue Allan raised – the concept of a British SF ‘hub’ – but don’t hold your breath.)

Let me preface these remarks with a bit of context. I have been interested and engaged with the award since Jeff Noon won for Vurt in 1994. I feel hugely proud and privileged to have been a judge in 2011 and 2012. Funding was abruptly withdrawn during this period and without current director Tom Hunter, the award could well have died on its arse. So this is not about criticism, this is about potential ways to strengthen the award for the future. I think this could easily be done in two ways:

  1. Introducing a longlist
  2. Standardising the timetable for the award

Hunter is to be congratulated for many of the innovations during his tenure and one of the big ones is releasing the submissions list. As I understand it, the submissions list prior to Hunter have been destroyed which is a real shame as they are very valuable before for understanding where the shortlists come from but also for giving an insight into SF publishing more broadly (see 3) above). But a submissions list is not a longlist, although authors occasionally try to misrepresent it as such. A longlist gives another opportunity for publicity but also, crucially, debate.

Every year there are unaccountable omissions from the shortlist. Allan’s post refers to Priestgate during which Christopher Priest identified Wake Up And Dream by Ian R MacLeod, Dead Water by Simon Ings, By Light Alone by Adam Roberts and Osama by Lavie Tidhar as essential for the shortlist. Would any, all or none of those have made a longlist? We will never know but it seems to me that it would have enriched the conversation. So I’m pleased that in his latest piece for the Guardian, Hunter has softened his line a bit on this: “There have also been many calls for us to introduce an annual longlist, in addition to our shortlist. There are good arguments for and against this, but it’s definitely worth the conversation if it will help highlight the increasing diversity of our genre.” Although worryingly, he continues: “If a longlist proves impractical, we’re also discussing the idea of increasing the number of titles on our shortlists as a route to highlighting more titles.” Don’t do it, Tom!

A longlist would also help with my second way of strengthening the award. Currently Hunter has control over publishing the submissions list and the awards ceremony itself but not the shortlist announcement as this tied to sponsors Sci-Fi London. The result has been the timing of the award has been a bit of a moveable feast. As Allan puts it: “Last year, for the first time in a long time, there was no comprehensive critical review of the Clarke Award shortlist at Strange Horizons and, because of inept programming and yet another shift in the timing of the award, no discussion of the shortlist at Eastercon either.” A longlist would be in Hunter’s control and could be made available at the same time every year, in advance of Eastercon. This isn’t quite the same as having the shortlist as reading a whole longlist is a pretty big ask but it would allow a bigger window of engagement.

The only barrier to both is a finite resource: the time of the judges. Since they have to produce what is essentially an internal longlist anyway in order to guide the shortlist discussion, I don’t think it is any extra effort for them. But with the ever expanding submissions list and the tendency of publishers to backload their submissions, there is a question about how long it takes them just to read all the books. I don’t think that is insurmountable though.

So yeah, I can see lots of benefits to those two proposals and no downsides. Who’s with me?

Written by Martin

3 May 2016 at 07:54

Posted in awards, sf

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