Award director Tom Hunter talks to SFX in depth about this year's shortlist and the future of the much-discussed award
With such literary heavyweights as Margaret Atwood, Jeff Noon and of course China Miéville on the list of previous recipients, the Arthur C Clarke Award is the most prestigious award for science fiction in Britain. Established in 1987 with a grant from the celebrated writer Clarke himself, the annual award is presented for the best science fiction novel of the year. The Award is no stranger to controversy and this year, with an all male shortlist, there is once again much to discuss. Ahead of the winner's announcement on Wednesday 1 May, we spoke to the Award's organiser Tom Hunter...
SFX : In a panel debate last year you compared the Arthur C Clarke Award to Apple, taking on the Microsoft of big international awards like the Hugo. In what way do you think the Clarke Award is able to "think different"?
Tom Hunter: Good question, and just to add a little context that comment was delivered as a humorous aside on a fun and friendly panel on genre awards, and equally is slightly historic in the sense that Apple these days is very much a dominant player, not a rebellious underdog.
That said, the Clarke Award does seem to have something a little different about it when compared to other genre awards. For instance it's always had a very loyal (and, yes, critical) fan-base of followers, just like Apple, and similarly it's always been very focused on single products - for instance, just the one award category for best novel of the year, where other awards are most diversely spread over multiple categories. I think the singular nature of the Clarke Award does give it a certain uniqueness and helps it stand out in a crowded award space, and this definitely helps us with our broader mission to promote science fiction.
SFX : You had a record 82 books submitted this year. Is this a sign of the Award's increasing significance for publishers and authors?
Hunter: I'd definitely have to say yes, and the reason for that is it's not just a record year for the total number of submissions, but also for the number of different publishing imprints submitting novels for consideration.
What I'm seeing is a definite willingness from mainstream publishers to submit works that are clearly of genre interest, but where there might not previously have been such a desire to put forward certain works.
We've always worked hard to try and call in as many eligible works as possible for consideration, but what I'm increasingly seeing now are publishers actively getting touch to ask how to put books forward rather than us having to try and ask for them to be submitted. This is definitely a good thing.
SFX : When he wrote his critique of the Arthur C Clarke Award last year, Christopher Priest said that "2011 was a poor year for science fiction." Was 2012 a good year for science fiction?
Hunter: I'm not sure I agree with the whole notion of good years and poor years for science fiction to be honest. The idea of a vintage year works fine for wine, but when it comes to literature, especially science fiction, I'm not so sure the concept really holds.
This isn't really about Chris Priest's critique, but I have noted a worrying trend in modern SF criticism where there seems to a be a strange and rather negatively framed argument that SF is failing, dying, or in some undefined way not living up to the expectations of some critics who almost seem to want each work to perform a series of contortions in order to offer something new but familiar, experimental but still within gene definitions and epically widescreen while also being introspective and character driven.
Then again, I suspect if we went back even just a few years we'd see the same arguments playing out in slightly different guises, so I'm not so worried. For me the Clarke Award had always been about the celebration of science fiction in all its forms. Sir Arthur was always very clear that, even though he was known for a particular style of SF, the Clarke Award would always be far more wide-ranging and inclusive in its definitions of science fiction, and keeping the award as a positive voice in the genre is something I'm very passionate about.
SFX : Is your personal favourite novel of last year on the shortlist? As the organiser of the Award but also a lover of SF, is it hard to remain neutral when the shortlist is announced?
Hunter: Without wanting to dodge the question, I was reading a lot of non-fiction in 2012, so my favourite book of the year was without a doubt Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard , who is one of my favourite SF writers, and indeed writers of any genre.
There have definitely been years when one of my favourite novels of the year has not only made the shortlist but actually gone ahead and won the prize. For instance, I remember reading China Miéville's The City & The City way before submissions started coming in and casually noting, "Oh, this is great. It'll probably win."
Normally though it's very hard to guess the shortlist, and that's one of the reasons why we release the full submissions list first – so everyone can see just how many different options there are for the judges every year.
It's pretty easy to remain neutral to be honest though. I'm always excited by each year's shortlist, and whereas it's true many people will instantly start analyzing a shortlist based on what's missing and what they think should be nominated instead, I really do like being presented with something new.
The thing about anything new is you shouldn't be able to decide whether you like something or not right away, it's whether it works or not that's the crucial element. And I'm still thinking through how some shortlists work (or not) years later. Maybe there is such a thing as vintage years for science fiction after all!
Click through to the second and final page to read Tom Hunter's view on the all-male shortlist, the Write The Future festival and more...
Continued: our interview with Arthur C Clarke Award director Tom Hunter about the 2013 Award, to be presented on Wednesday 1 May...
SFX : There's been some online commentary about how the shortlist is all male. Do you think this reflects the proportion of books which were submitted? The personal preferences of the judging panel? The state of modern SF?
Hunter: Yep, there's been a lot of commentary, and I've been doing my best to follow it all. I've also collected links to a lot of the coverage here .
There's a lot to unpack and different points of view, but I think the main thing I want to say here is that I think the judges did a fantastic job selecting this year's shortlist, and there's lots to be celebrated in each of the books they chose.
There's a definite issue with the current number of female writers of the science fiction, and thus books being submitted, and a lot of people have already been aware of and actively discussing the problem. One of the things I hope is that the conversation around this year's shortlist will act as a spur for change in the future. In the meantime the judges did exactly what they were supposed to do, work together to select what they see as the best six science fiction novels of the past year.
SFX : How pleased are you with the Kickstarter response to Write The Future's announcement?
Hunter: The Write The Future micro-conference is a complete experiment for us, which is why we were on Kickstarter in the first place, so I was delighted by the positive response of course.
The idea is to keep building on the award's broader purpose to promote science fiction, and when the Royal Society came to us about hosting the ceremony it seemed the perfect time to try and see if we could make something happen that combined all of my favourite bits from other events – cool author talks, publishing industry and marketing insights, cutting edge science and sexy new tech basically.
Naturally no one believes me that the WTF acronym was entirely accidental!
SFX : Although still part of the SCI-FI-LONDON week, for the first time in years the Arthur C Clarke Award is at a separate venue. Does this mark the start of a big new direction for the Award?
Hunter: We're definitely still very close to SCI-FI-LONDON, and indeed it was them who first introduced me to the team at the Royal Society when I chaired one of their Lab events there a couple of years ago.
Louis Savy and the SCI-FI-LONDON team have been massively supportive of both the award and me personally, and I owe them a huge amount. While we're both trying out new venues and new ideas now, I strongly suspect you'll see be seeing more, not less, shared events coming from us in the future.
In many ways we're trying to follow the festival's lead now by keeping on trying more and more new things. I'm really interested in the question of what it is that an award does for all those months of the year when it's not promoting a shortlist? Write The Future is part of exploring that.
The long-term goal is to keep building on the both the profile of the main award while also considering our broader missions to promote the best of everything in science fiction. A few years ago the future of the award was a bit shaky as we lost our main prize funding after Sir Arthur passed away. Now though, we've passed through that and we're aiming at the future full speed ahead!
SFX : Thanks Tom!
To find out more, visit the official website of the Arthur C Clarke Award . Follow the Twitter feed here and visit SCI-FI-LONDON and the Royal Society online too. SFX is proud to be the Award's media partner again this year. Look out for news and updates on www.sfx.co.uk .