It's something of a truism that there is no such thing as a "typical" winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Since 1987, the award has been presented annually to the best SF novel published in Britain for the first time in the previous calendar year. It is judged by a panel drawn from the British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation, and, usually, a partner organisation—originally the International Science Policy Foundation, and most recently the Science Museum. The results have sometimes been surprising. They have sometimes been controversial. But they have always been interesting. Or, as Neil Gaiman contends in his preface to this volume, the Clarke Award has always been weird. The diversity of approaches taken in this anthology of critical essays to examining the winning books from the first 18 years of the award helps to demonstrate the diversity of the winners themselves.
First, some background. The anthology is edited by Paul Kincaid with Andrew M. Butler. Kincaid was a member of the first two juries but is rather better known, now, for his eleven-year stint as administrator of the award (the 2007 shortlist is the first under his successor in the role of chairman of the judges, Paul Billinger—also a former judge and a contributor to this volume). Butler is also a former judge of the award, and a full-time academic and critic. Both were among the founding members of the Serendip Foundation, the organisation established in 2003 to raise funds for and awareness of the award, of which this publication is one endeavour. (The award was originally established with a grant from Arthur C. Clarke, and the prize money is still provided by Rocket Publishing, the Clarke family business.)
Sir Arthur's intention in establishing the award is said to be the promotion of science fiction in Britain. But another common perception about the Clarke Award is that juries tend to favour novels which can pass as proper books for grown-ups, rather than that crazy Buck Rogers stuff—particularly those published as mainstream by nongenre writers—and, indeed, that the award has an underlying agenda to do so. In part this shows how the award has been dogged by the initial decision to honour The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood rather than Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts. Yet, looking again at the shortlists helpfully appended in this anthology, the perception is not borne out by the evidence. Although nearly half the shortlists have featured at least one such novel (including the shortlist for the 2006 award, which is not covered in this volume), most of the time they have not won.
Nicholas Ruddick's opening essay takes the opportunity to explore The Handmaid's Tale two decades on, taking in the 1990 film version of the story as well as the original novel to examine the book's now established status as a classic, its themes and strengths, and its contribution to the genre of which it has been argued it is not fully a part. This retrospective view claims The Handmaid's Tale persuasively for science fiction and demonstrates the value of its status as the first recipient of the award.
Whether it's a sign of editorial and authorial strategy or simply (if you can forgive the pun) serendipity, the order of the early winners and the styles in which it seemed appropriate to the relevant critics to reconsider them provide an engaging array of connections and contrasts and builds to an early crescendo in the anthology. Thus Edward James follows Ruddick's 360-degree reexamination of The Handmaid's Tale with an equally thorough exploration of The Sea and Summer by George Turner, placed in the context of science fictional dystopias and other cautionary tales but taking time to shed light on the internal themes, stories, and messages of the novel. Elizabeth A. Billinger then focuses directly on the theme of story in Rachel Pollack's Unquenchable Fire. Her essay is a critical teasing-out of truths and contradictions embedded within an overarching fiction, which both captures the essence of the novel and demonstrates how the questions it poses spill out beyond this particular story. Joan Gordon's essay on The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman advances another step into critical process, first setting up a thesis of utopia to test the novel against, and then exploring how the novel tests and extends the idea of utopia itself.
The crescendo is Justina Robson's piece on Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty. This anthology has quickly attracted a truism of its own, that the Robson essay is awesome, and I'm not here to challenge that view. The energy of Robson's essay conveys brilliantly what it felt like to read this novel at the right time; more objectively, she also puts down a firm marker for its influence on the field, charting a trajectory from the New Space Opera to the British Boom. But the novel, and its unconventional heroine Tabitha Jute, is demonstrably a joy in itself as much as a prophecy of science fiction yet to come; and thus Robson also goes a long way towards convincing the reader that the right time to read Take Back Plenty is always now. After this, the pace resets, and the book takes a more leisurely journey through the 1990s into the British resurgence of the twenty-first century. In that context, there is a second peak at L. J. Hurst's brilliantly contextualised discussion of The Separation, Christopher Priest's elaborate construction of reality and duality in the strands of history, which won the award in 2003.
Like the award and its shortlists, this anthology provides scope for discussion and debate—not, generally, with the quality of the analysis or its expression, but in what the critics writing here have chosen to explore in each of these novels compared with what individual readers may have found in them. Farah Mendlesohn's piece on Dreaming in Smoke by Tricia Sullivan (the winner in 1999) strikes me as an excellent example of a reading in science fiction; there are undoubtedly many ways to read this novel, but Mendlesohn's identification of a key science fictional theme, colonisation, as a specific key to its ideas and messages is richly rewarding.
Some essays consider novels as a whole, sometimes with the perspective described by Paul Kincaid in his introduction to the volume as a tendency of Clarke Award juries: "not looking in towards the heart of the genre, but outwards from the genre." Some essays examine key themes, either setting out the novel's particular contribution to SF or—looking outwards again—reexamining the novel as SF. Some consider the novels in the context of the author's wider work, some within the wider genre. What none of them do, rightly, is to attempt to refight the judging meeting. None of the essays are considered in the context of their shortlists, which makes the editorial decision to allow five contributors to write about books in whose win they were complicit—including, indeed, one of the editors—less problematic. However, it does mean that an opportunity is lost to share one valuable element of the judging experience with the anthology's readers: none of the pieces consider the novel within the detailed context of its publishing history. Reading a year's output of science fiction, particularly when it's fresh, provides a fascinating insight into the common concerns of SF writers of the time. Social, economic, and environmental events and trends—scientific research, popular culture, scandals, disasters, mass movements—emerge as themes in science fiction and become the business of the genre.
Some essays nonetheless go part of the way by recognising and exploring a novel as a product of its time. Graham Sleight's perceptive piece on Bruce Sterling's Distraction (the winner in 2000) considers the story and its characters in the context of late 1990s US politics, which proved to be a path not taken. Edward James and Joan Gordon both note the political context in which their subjects were shaped. Tony Keen successfully locates Vurt, Jeff Noon's first novel, not only in time but also in space: the Manchester of the early 1990s.
There are plenty more common perceptions about the Arthur C. Clarke Award: for instance, that it's easy—especially for former judges—to decode the shortlist, but it's virtually impossible to predict the decision. Cynics mutter darkly, having denounced a particular ornament of the shortlist, that it will probably win; those of us who prefer to hedge our bets have in some years resorted to a sealed-envelope prediction of what we think deserves to win, what we would nonetheless like to win, and what we expect will win—often three different books. Moreover, there is a general belief that juries usually produce a pretty good shortlist—usually with a right of reserve for the world outside the jury on one title—and then get the final decision wrong. Only in two cases I can remember—The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (the 1998 winner, here considered as a story of the senses and emotions by Andrew M. Butler) and the 2006 winner, Geoff Ryman's Air, which is not featured in the book—did the judges' decision seem to chime with the broad consensus of the wider SF community. (Another measure is that only four Clarke Award winners—Air and The Sparrow again, together with Take Back Plenty and The Separation—also won the popular-vote annual novel award from the British Science Fiction Association.)
All that said, within our community there are always determined mavericks who make it a point of principle to sidestep any consensus they see heading their way. More often than not such free-thinking individuals end up involved with the Clarke Award, but this is by no means the only reason for the perennial surprise of the outcome. By tradition, judges aim for reasoned consensus, although on numerous occasions juries have agreed to reach at least part of their decision on both the shortlist and the winner through a majority vote. Books that arouse strong emotions, and which therefore seem to some readers outside the jury as well as to some of the judges to be obvious and incontestable winners, are as likely to provoke at least one judge's determination that this novel should not win.
Such novels find their way onto the shortlist partly because even judges who wouldn't want to see them win can agree that they are interesting and challenging and should be part of a shortlist which seeks to showcase the best of the year. Partly, however, it comes down to the special treatment usually allotted to the shortlisted novels by the judges and by very few other readers: a second critical reading shortly before the final judging meeting. Novels that win the Clarke Award are ones which all the judges can agree are both deserving and, in effect, inoffensive. They are ones which can withstand a process that argues in favour of books to compose a shortlist, but against them to pick a winner. And they are ones whose quality is sustained, or enhanced, by a second reading.
This can lead to some genuine surprises: for instance, when The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh won in 1997, there was unusually little argument or affirmation since few members of the SF community at the presentation had yet read the novel. Yet Paul N. Billinger, writing about it here, takes issue at the outset with the author he quotes at the end; whatever Ghosh's qualms that it's not really a genre novel, Billinger is in no doubt that it is science fiction and goes on—with a demonstration of the story's ambiguity, mutations, and journeys towards questions that may never be answered—to prove it.
One of the really valuable contributions this anthology makes to the Arthur C. Clarke Award is to demonstrate repeatedly that winners agreed to by consensus are neither bland nor undeserving novels. Most of these essays provoke a desire to reread the primary text. Many—although some, being critical pieces rather than reviews, reveal key plot points—provide an equal stimulus to read for the first time those novels which have so far eluded the science fiction enthusiast. (The book also, of course, supports one of my own ongoing projects: to read all of the novels shortlisted for the Clarke Award. Currently standing at 133 titles including the 2007 shortlist, of which the 121 from the first 19 years are listed in this volume, it represents a formidable canon for the last two decades.)
I've mentioned several times what's missing from this anthology. Inevitably, with the award still going strong, this had to be a snapshot—but in the age of digital images on demand, the time lag in this book's production seems anachronistic. In some ways this is an unfair criticism of a worthwhile and useful publication, and my awareness of the reasons for the delays also make me feel churlish for dwelling on it. But the high quality of the book in other respects, from the criticism and background data through to the cover image by Elizabeth A. Billinger, is also why the absence of the most recent chapters of the Clarke Award story is particularly to be regretted.
Originally intended for publication in 2005, the book was commissioned after the presentation of the 2004 award and thus features essays on the first eighteen winners. Following various delays, it eventually appeared in autumn 2006, by which time two more presentations had been made (the winner, shortlist, and judges for the 2005 award are included in the anthology's appendix). And although it would be foolhardy to look for meaningful trends in the decisions of juries which change annually, the winners often do convey something of the field as a whole. Both the 2005 and 2006 winners (China Miéville and Geoff Ryman) had won the award before—a distinction previously held only by Pat Cadigan, although with the additionally intriguing distinction that Cadigan's wins came two years apart, Miéville's three, and Ryman's fifteen. As mentioned, Air achieved that rare consensus of popular and critical opinion. Both Air and Iron Council won out over the stereotypically "inevitable" mainstream novels which joined them on the shortlist. You may draw your own conclusions.
Instead the story pauses, in this book, in a different place. Another occasional perception about the Clarke Award is that, as well as favouring novels not published as science fiction, juries wilfully shortlist books they like which aren't SF at all. And this is one view of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, of which the third volume was shortlisted in 2006 and the first part, Quicksilver, won the award in 2004. A casual commentator might think this indicative of the end of the British Boom—assuming they believe in the British Boom. Miéville's win the next year could be taken either to belie this or to provide a much more conclusive headstone.
What is, in the event, Iain Emsley's concluding essay on Quicksilver instead identifies it as a diffferent milestone, if not a turning point: "a book that challenges how we think of SF and its future." Emsley argues quite persuasively that Quicksilver is a novel set in the past which is really about the present and where we go from here, in much the same way that much science fiction set in the future is these days also focused on the contemporary reader. And there is a narrative neatness in concluding this volume with a winner seen to be dancing as much around the margins of genre boundaries as the first, begging the question of how this, too, will seem from the vantage point of twenty years in the future. It is probably not serendipity but the critic's own awareness of his place in time—and thus in this volume—that enables the last words of this anthology to stand not only for the novel under discussion but the whole award: "it should make the reader think about the very genre which they are reading."
So, does this anthology now help us to draw out any universal tendencies in a Clarke Award winner? Gaiman asserts in the preface that "The perfect Arthur C. Clarke Award winner has little in common with any of the other winners except, perhaps, that in the places where people gather to argue, a Clarke shortlist and a Clarke winner will give them plenty to talk about." It's possible, of course, to pick out subsets within these novels: stories about what it takes to be a person and stories about what it takes to become the machine; stories of social progress and its cost; stories of social oppression; stories of colonisation; stories with spaceships (no squid, although Justina Robson reminds us that Colin Greenland got to play with alien caterpillars and stick insects); and many, many dystopias. Many of the contributors to this volume demonstrate an inherent unreliability in the novels they are examining: unreliable narrators, unreliable environments, deceptions and false perceptions, and the instability of what anyone, including the reader, may choose to believe. But all of those things are arguably common to modern science fiction, not only to this highly regarded set within—or around—the genre. In that context Gaiman was arguably right all along—although, given the nature of opinions about the Clarke Award, it remains important that it remains arguable.
I'm certainly not going to extrapolate future trends, not with the shortlist for the 2007 award imminent as I write. All I will predict is that this year's judges are bound to surprise and inspire and, if they're really trying, at least temporarily outrage me. Arthur C. Clarke's aim of promoting SF in Britain seems to be going strong. And I still strongly recommend that you read the novels on this year's shortlist. And that you read all the previous winners. And, to explain why in both cases, that you read this book.
Claire Brialey was a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the awards presented in 1999 and 2000 (Dreaming in Smoke and Distraction, since you ask), and administered the BSFA Awards from 2003 to 2006.