INTERVIEW The Arthur C Clarke Award 2013

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…

Tom HunterSFX: 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?
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?
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?
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…