Rumour? Controversy? Twitter storms? An Arthur C Clarke Award judge craves not these things, says Tom Hunter
This is a guest blog by the director of the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction, Tom Hunter...(opens in new tab)
Look back over the winners of the last 27 years of the Arthur C Clarke Award and you’ll see an amazing range of authors and some truly epic science fiction.
We’ve got genre favourites like Richard Morgan, literary titans like Margaret Atwood, career breakthroughs like Lauren Beukes and small press triumphs like Jane Rogers all in one space. And of course there’s our three-times winning champion of the weird, China Miéville and his ever-growing collection of trophy bookends.
Luminous, diverse, inspiring and definitely all great reads, this is a science fiction collection to be proud of, and when you just look back at the winning titles it all seems so easy and obvious and somehow meant to be that they should win, and yet…
Being a Clarke Award judge is nothing like easy at all, and with this blog I wanted to invite you a little way behind the scenes of Clarke HQ to experience just what it’s like to be on the panel for the UK’s most prestigious science fiction prize or, to put it another way… Rumours lay to rest, I will, yes?
So, who are these mysterious judges anyway?
One of the unique features of the Arthur C Clarke Award is that the award doesn’t select its own judging panel every year, but rather they are nominated by supporting organisations.
Right now the judges are nominated by the British Science Fiction Association , the Science Fiction Foundation and the SCI-FI-LONDON film festival, with five judges in total forming the panel alongside a non-voting chair person – a handy feature that makes voting much easier.
Many people look back over previous shortlists and winners for signs of what a current judging panel might do, but in reality the judging panel changes every year. Each judge will typically serve for no more than two years (not always consecutively) and its usual for different judges to be rotating in and out every year, so some will be completing their time and others just beginning.
While there’s no such thing as a typical judge, we’d expect them to be well read, aware of broader issues in the science fiction community, passionate about the genre and equally willing to look beyond their own personal tastes while also resisting the urge to play to shifting trends in popularity.
Authors, editors, critics, academics and fans have all served on the award’s judging panels, including the occasional genre superstar (“cough” Neil Gaiman “cough”).
But do they really read all of the books? Really?
Yes they do. Really. Even this year when we received a record-breaking 121 submissions, the judges still make sure that every book put forward is given due attention.
The thing to remember here is that reading as part of a judging panel is more akin to the kind of professional reading done by editors and agents at work than you might do on a lazy Sunday morning or in the bath. Professional reading is fast and focused, and as mentioned above judges are put forward to the award based on their already existing knowledge and experience of the genre.
In other words they’re skilled, and looking for something that really shines out to them. Of course, reading tastes do vary, and that’s where the other crucial part of the judging process comes in: conversation.
While the real shortlisting still gets done in person around the table, these days the debating starts right away via email, and goes back and forward between the judges as new books come in and each individual offers up their own thoughts, preferences and, yes, the occasional non PG statement or unfiltered critical flensing of a book, which makes for great if sadly Top Secret reading.
By the time we finally choose the winner, there’s been almost a year’s worth of reading, discussing, arguing, and reading all over again happening behind the scenes to deliver a final result.
And finally, does the Clarke Award have a secret agenda when picking winners? Go, on you can tell me…
It’s a strange but oft repeated phenomenon of awards that people always think they know the minds of the judges and what really lay behind a shortlisting decision or, more usually, why a particular decision was so clearly wrong, wrong, wrong in every way.
Sometimes when you watch the fallout over an award announcement (not just the Clarke) the strength of reaction can seem more like the judges actually broke into people’s homes overnight and swapped all the books they found for copies of the shortlist rather than sending out a press release, but there’s nothing in the rules of any award that says people can’t stop loving their own favourite books of the year more than those chosen by a judging panel.
People often presume it’s easy to second guess the reasoning behind a judging decision – oh, that thing happened last year so they’ll be thinking more this sort of stuff next year etc – but the truth is the interpretation comes from the outside, not a judging panel looking to impose a particular top-down narrative on the year’s submissions.
Yes, a particular year might look like a move closer to heartland science fiction or seem to favour newer authors over established ones, but the simple principle of selecting for the best books of the year remains the same.
Science fiction is simply too big and fast-moving a target to be narrowed down into one easy definition, as the record-breaking size of this year’s submissions list makes clear. How many of us will have read so many science fiction books in a year, let alone only those books published within the same year?
Above all else the Arthur C Clarke Award is an opportunity to celebrate everything we love about science fiction, and it’s this more than anything that unites the judges in their decision-making every year.
The shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award will be announced on the evening of Tuesday 18 March. Follow award director Tom Hunter on Twitter at @ClarkeAward