The Clarke Award is turning 25, and science fiction is as slippery a genre as ever, says Award Director Tom Hunter. And both of these are very good things indeed
While we haven't jumped over the holiday season hurdle quite yet, from a Clarke Award perspective my attention is well and truly focused on the New Year (and beyond). In 2011 we'll be presenting the 25th Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature, and there's a lot to do before we get there.
Twenty-five years! A quarter century under the belt, and my thoughts are already turning to how do we can keep recognition of the Award growing ever upwards, and ensure we reach the prestigious heights of a half-century with consummate style. I suspect I may have handed over at least a few of my directorial responsibilities by 2036, but I wouldn't be a proper science fiction fan if I didn't keep at least one eye locked permanently on the future, right?
First though, I think we need to have a big party and, looking at the genre trends across the last year, I think we'll have a lot to celebrate.
Conversation around the Clarke Award naturally focuses on the period between February and April every year when we make our submissions and shortlist announcements and start gearing up properly to our big ceremony night at the SCI-FI-LONDON film festival (for those who like to plan ahead for our announcements, it looks like we'll be announcing the 2011 winner on Wednesday 27 April by the way). However, that’s just our public face, and organizing the Award is very much a year round operation.
So, with SFX again supporting the Award as our official media partner, we thought it would be a nice idea to try and share some of the behind-the-scenes planning that happens before the all important opening of the winner’s envelope.
One of the most common questions we get asked i how do we choose the books we shortlist each year? There’s a simple enough answer to that – we ask publishers to send us books – but the process is somewhat more involved, both in terms of securing submissions and indeed in identifying what constitutes a science fictional novel.
Let’s deal with the easier bit first: In order to be considered for the Award, a book needs to fulfill three main criteria. First it needs to be published by a UK Publishing House (being available on Amazon.co.uk doesn’t count), after that it also needs to have had its first publication date in the year being considered. So The City & The City , which won in 2010, had its first publication in 2009 and so on.
After that, the book also needs to be actively submitted for consideration to the judging panel by the publisher, it’s not enough to simply be out there on the shelves. From time to time this does mean we might miss out on being able to consider certain books because they haven’t been put forward, and there are still some authors out there who aren’t happy having their work considered within a science fictional frame of reference, but while we do everything we can to convince them otherwise, ultimately we want to respect that choice and make sure those books that have been put forward get their proper priority.
The other thing to understand here is that we don’t simply pop a few call for entry letters in the post then sit back and wait to see what drops through the mailbox. Rather there’s an ongoing conversation between the Chair of our Judging Panel (currently Paul Billinger) who’s responsible for securing submissions, and each of the publishing houses.
In some larger publishing companies there’s often a person directly responsible for submitting books to all the different awards out there, in others it’s the editorial team themselves who handle the box stuffing, but regardless of that we’re always careful to make sure that we’re talking to lots of different people in each company, and the quality and variety of submissions from all the different companies suggests we’ve been doing something right.
It’s also follows that publishers are going to have their own questions about the Award and whether a particular title might be eligible, which is why we always want to make ourselves as available as possible.
If a book is sent in it’s automatically eligible for consideration providing it meets our core criteria (those listed above and obvious things like being a novel rather than a short story collection and so on). This doesn’t mean it’ll get shortlisted, of course, or even that the book is necessarily science fiction. It’s the role of the judging panel to make those kind of calls, but from a practical point of view, if a book is sent in it will be considered.
The other way this works is that our panel of judges are all actively tasked to be on the look out for titles that might be eligible. Often these are the more borderline works that you wouldn’t automatically find shelved in the science fiction section, and one of the reasons why we make sure our judges are recruited from within the science fiction community is so that they have a thorough knowledge of the genre, both current and historical.
If a book looks like it could be eligible we get in touch with the publisher directly and ask them to consider submitting. At that point it’s still their call, but my experience is that the vast majority of publishers (and authors) are more than happy to be put forward when asked.
Of course, none of the above really gets to grips with whether an eligible book is science fiction or not, and there’s probably enough to unpack on that topic that it deserves a blog post all of its own. Suffice to say, it’s been my experience that the science fiction genre has, to mix the science analogies, something of the quantum in its DNA - kind of like the alien creature in The Thing , making it a fast-moving target that mutates every time you think it’s cornered.
Awards like the Clarke can help offer a possible answer, but personally I’m as big a fan of the conversation and debate as I am of the results, and the difficulty of agreeing even a single definitive interpretation of what constitute a science fictional work is surely one of the signs that, as a genre, SF is still an evolving form, and reassuringly resilient.