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Posts Tagged ‘arthur c clarke award

Reviewing The 2016 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

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Written by Martin

6 June 2016 at 21:19

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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.


Written by Martin

19 May 2016 at 17:03

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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

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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

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Okay, It Wasn’t That Hard Last Year

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The Clarke Award shortlist is out so I am going to try and repeat my trick of predicting the winner.

  • Europe In Autumn by Dave Hutchinson – 1/2
  • Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel – 3/1
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North – 3/1
  • Memory Of Water by Emmi Itäranta – 6/1
  • The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey – 9/1
  • The Book Of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – 18/1

Incidentally, I reckon this is the best shortlist since 2011.

Written by Martin

8 April 2015 at 13:25

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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

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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