BLOG Picking The Winner Of The Arthur C Clarke Award Isn't Easy

The Arthur C Clarke Award is science fiction’s prize for the best of the best of the best, but what exactly does that mean, and with 121 titles to choose from, where do the judges even start?

This is a guest blog by the director of the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction, Tom Hunter…

Today is a day I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

It is, of course, the day that the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2014 is decided, and indeed that decision is being made right now while I’m sat typing this.

Here’s the story so far:

The year’s submissions have been read, all 121 of them .

The judges are prepped for the big debate, and by the sounds of what I’m seeing on Twitter, at least one of them has gone to the meeting suited up in the debating equivalent of full Mecha battle armour!

And just in case that debate does get a little bit too heated we’ve locked them away in a special room deep inside our secret Clarke Award HQ so they’re no danger to the general public.

I’m not in that room obviously, and so have no idea of the decisions being made inside. Partly this is because it wouldn’t really do for the award’s director to be inside risking influencing the decision-making, but mostly because SFX editor-in-chief Dave Bradley has me on a tight deadline to get this blog submitted, and as HAL 9000 will testify, you should never mess with a bloke called Dave.

So, who are the judges this year? Well, we have Duncan Lawie and Ian Whates for the British Science Fiction Association , Sarah Brown and Lesley Hall for the Science Fiction Foundation and Georgie Knight for the Sci-Fi-London film festival.

This is a completely new crew, as it were, and while pundits will no doubt try and draw parallels between their decisions today and those of judging panels from previous years, this can be a fun exercise but ultimately leads nowhere as the one thing our judges don’t factor into their deliberations is a response to any previous shortlists or the critical feedback they received.

No, our judges have quite enough opinions in the room to contend with, thank you, without trying to second-guess the press or public response, and instead they direct their focus on two main points of attack:

Is this a science fictional book, and if so is it a possible “best science fiction book of the year” and Arthur C Clarke Award winner?

Defining science fiction is a slippery notion at the best of times, and it’s a task the judges repeat anew every year. The Clarke doesn’t maintain a single definition of what should or shouldn’t be considered science fiction, even though one would be very handy at times (and would look really cool etched into a massive black monolith) and rather it is the task of the judges to collective decide, define or actively disagree on this definition as part of their selection process.

A lot of people will look at books on a shortlist through their own good/bad spectrum – I like this book, but this one doesn’t work for me at all – whereas I think a Clarke Award judging panel, nominated precisely because of their knowledge of the genre, are likely looking at titles not as good or bad but more along the lines of what kind of best a book might possibly be. And believe me, there are plenty of different kinds of best.

The idea of different kinds of best seems like it should be obvious, but I think it’s a spectrum that belongs more to professional publishing than the critical fraternity. If you’ve ever wondered why publishers don’t publish more good books you’d want to buy rather than so much bad stuff you don’t, you might want to try thinking instead about what those books are best at doing rather than whether they meet your particular taste criteria. Can a book be best at action and character development? Is this plot original and complex or just highly convoluted? Should a new idea or concept be given preference over the creative reworking of a classic SF trope? What percentage of science/future/technology/space/alien stuff etc does a book have to contain to make it properly science fictional?

This is only the beginning of the judges’ long quest to turn one hundred and twenty one books into a shortlist of only six. Along the way they’ll argue, vote (there’s a very good reason the award always has an uneven number of judges) and find themselves faced with the twin Herculean tasks of first whittling down the submissions to six books they personally would like to see shortlisted and then comparing that list to the other ones in the room!

And then, suddenly, it’s done. A shortlist is created, forged in the heat of debate and ready to go out into the world and discover for itself what kind of list it is: good, bad or its own special kind of best.

Check out the shortlist for this year's Arthur C Clarke Award.