Leading Critics Form Clarke Award “Shadow” Jury

Nina Allan has announced a “shadow” jury will critique the Clarke Award this year, composed of Megan AM (“The AM stands for Anti-Matter”), Vajra Chandrasekera, David Hebblethwaite, Victoria Hoyle, Nick Hubble, Paul Kincaid, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and Jonathan McCalmont.

Allan explains in her introduction:

The idea is not to ‘challenge’ the official jury in any way, but to bring more to the party: more readers, more critics, more books, more discussion. And the beauty of a shadow jury is that everything can be out in the open. Over the following weeks and months, you’ll be able to read along with us, find out which books we love and which we’re not so wild about – and more to the point, why. I’d bet there isn’t a single Clarke-watcher out there who hasn’t at some point found themselves completely at a loss over some jury decision or other.

THROWING SHADE. Will fans feel a thrill of controversy because the group is taking the form of a jury, and reminding people about occasions when they were “completely at a loss” at a Clarke jury decision? (No one will soon forget Christopher Priest’s rant about the 2012 shortlist.) Will the prestigious critics on the shadow jury – some of them among the best-known working today – end up overshadowing the official jury? Is there any reason to mind if they do?

STATEMENTS AND MANIFESTOS. The Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy, hosting the jury online, has launched its activities with lengthy justifications. And as an added resource, they have posted Paul Kincaid’s introduction to a 2006 essay collection about the award-winners.

ANNOUNCING THE SHADOW CLARKE 2017: a note from the Centre by Helen Marshall

The Arthur C. Clarke awards are different from the Hugos in that shortlist and eventual winner are determined solely by a juror, thus, in many respects, bypassing the contentious process of lobbying and promotion that has accompanied voted awards. And yet the award has been no less controversial. Paul Kincaid, in his introduction to The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, writes that the original organisers at no point set out firm criteria for what was meant by “best”, by “science fiction”, or even by “novel” (12). In consequence, the earnest debates—of individual juries as well was the broader community of reviewers and critics—have both through their agreement and their opposition sketched out a fascinating survey of what science fiction might have meant in any given year.

After the Clarke award celebration in 2016, when Nina Allan first approached me about arranging a shadow jury of the Clarke Awards, I could see the value of the suggestion. Similar experiments have been illuminating in respect to mainstreams awards such as the prestigious Man Booker Prize, but no such experiment, to my knowledge, has been undertaken for a science fiction award. 2017 seems a particularly auspicious year to begin particularly because it is a time in which many in the community feel the need for an outlet for reasoned debate and discussion. Of course it isn’t our intention that the shadow jury will challenge the decision of the conventional jury; rather the value of the experiment comes, I think, in expanding the commentary. Questions about the state of the field and the underlying definitions of “best” and “science fiction” continue to be meaningful, particularly in an industry that is increasingly dominated by marketing categories and sales figures rather than criticism. What science fiction is and what it ought to be doing should continue to be debated if the field is going to evolve beyond the commercial pressures that inevitably influence the decision to publish.

ANNOUNCING THE SHADOW CLARKE 2017: an introduction and a manifesto by Nina Allan

It goes without saying that the overall health of a literary award is determined by the quality of the debate surrounding it. No matter how lucrative the prize or how glossy the promotion, no award can remain relevant or even survive unless people – readers, critics and fans alike – are actively talking about the books in contention. For readers, fans and critics to remain engaged, an award must aspire to foster an intellectual climate in which rigorous and impassioned debate is seen as an important and significant aspect of the award itself. Such a climate will by definition ensure that an award can not only survive, but flourish.

Inspired by the shadow juries that have worked wonders in enlivening the climate of debate around mainstream literary awards over the past few years, we thought it would be a fantastic idea to harness some of the considerable critical talent that exists within the SFF community in similarly enlivening the climate of debate and critical engagement around the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

The normal process by which shadow juries operate involves a panel of shadow jurors – usually drawn from those readers, critics and book bloggers who habitually follow the award – reading the official longlist of their chosen award when it is released, reviewing the books individually and then coming together as a jury to decide on a shadow shortlist: that is, the shortlist they would have chosen had they been the official jury. When the official shortlist for the prize is announced, the shadow jury would then critique that shortlist, before once again convening to vote on their shadow winner. In the case of the shadow juries for awards such as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now the Man Booker International) and the Baileys Prize, the shadow winner has normally been unveiled on the evening before the announcement of the official prize. One need only cast a casual glance around the literary blogosphere to see how the presence of shadow juries within the literary landscape has increased the feeling of excitement and personal involvement on the part of readers, armchair critics and students of literature.

Because the Arthur C. Clarke Award does not at present implement a longlist stage, the formula we have agreed upon is a little different, but will hopefully prove at least as effective in fostering debate, if not more so.

Our panel of shadow jurors will convene when the submissions list for the Arthur C. Clarke Award is made public. From the list of these submissions, each shadow juror will then select their own personal, preferred shortlist of six books – these could be books they have already read, books they are keen to read, or a mixture of the two. Having chosen their shortlist, each juror will commit to reading and reviewing their six books before eventually declaring the ‘winner’ they would have chosen, had their shortlist been the official one. We believe that by giving each shadow juror the opportunity to select and discuss what they believe was ‘best’ in ‘science fiction’ in 2016, the Shadow Clarke will be able to showcase a wider variety of books, writers and styles of science fiction, thus generating a sense of involvement and inclusion across the entire length and breadth of science fiction fandom. It goes without saying that we would encourage fans and readers beyond the shadow jury to read along with us, to posit their own guesses and above all to disagree with our choices! That is what critical engagement is all about.

INTRODUCTION from The Arthur C. Clarke Award: a critical anthology by Paul Kincaid

[[Paul Kincaid has been on over a dozen Clarke Award juries, many times serving as the chair. He co-edited The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology (2006) with Andrew Butler, another frequent juror and chair. This is an excerpt from his introduction.]]

…Since Clarke wanted to use the award to encourage British science fiction, our second topic for debate was whether the award should be limited to British writers. In the end we all felt that there were just too few British writers to make that sustainable, so we decided that the award would be for the best science fiction novel receiving its first British publication in the year.

…It is what was left to the jury that has made the Arthur C Clarke Award both idiosyncratic and controversial, often at the same time. At no point did we decide what was meant by ‘best’, by ‘science fiction’, or even by ‘novel’. Consequently, the jury meetings I’ve taken part in have featured some very lively debates on each of these topics – and no two juries have ever arrived at precisely the same definitions.

It is, however, the very nature of those debates, the fact that what is considered ‘best’ or ‘science fiction’ is going to be different every year, that has made the Arthur C Clarke Award such a lively and essential survey of the year in science fiction. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by Peter Nicholls and founding judge John Clute is at pains to point out, the award was controversial from its very first year. When Margaret Atwood received the first Arthur C Clarke Award for The Handmaid’s Tale, it seemed that the Award was deliberately turning its back on the core of the genre (particularly given that the runner-up that year was Bob Shaw’s The Ragged Astronauts – not, as Edward James has suggested, Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand). In fact what I think that first jury was doing, after what I recall as very close debate, is something that has been a surprisingly recurrent practice of juries since then: they were not looking in towards the heart of the genre, but outwards from the genre. As Nicholas Ruddick points out, The Handmaid’s Tale has had such resonance, both within and outwith the genre, that it is hard to think why it might ever have been considered a controversial choice.

Of course, that was far from the only time that the Award has skirted controversy. If stimulating debate, not to say heated argument, is one way of raising awareness of science fiction, then we have to admit that the Award has been a rousing success since the start. Tempers have tended to fray most when the Award is imagined to be flirting with the mainstream. There was even jeering at the presentation of the Award to Marge Piercy for Body of Glass (again, I suspect, this was at least in part because the runner up was another popular genre favourite, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson). But, as Maureen Kincaid Speller shows, you don’t need a rocket ship on the cover to raise exactly the problematic issues of who we are and what we might become which are supposedly central to everything we understand about science fiction.

… Of course the job of the Award is to raise awareness of science fiction, not just inside the genre but more generally, but that is not achieved by saying science fiction and the mainstream are the same. Rather, the Award points out how many interesting, exciting, challenging and innovative things there are to be done with genre materials, some of those things speak to the core of the genre and some bring a freshness and vitality to mainstream, and some do both….

[Thanks to Mark-kitteh for the story.]

Mummies and Mars at the KGB Bar

By Mark L. Blackman: On the evening of Wednesday, July 20 — the 47th anniversary of the first Moon Landing – the monthly Fantastic Fiction Readings Series hosted authors David D. Levine and Helen Marshall at the 2nd floor KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. The Bar is known for its red walls and Soviet era-themed décor, and the Series for the excellence of its readers; readings are always free.

Series co-host Matthew Kressel welcomed the capacity crowd, exhorted us to buy drinks (generously, there is no cover charge), and reported on upcoming events in the Series. Next month’s readers, on August 17, are Leanna Renee Hieber and Theodora Goss. Reading on September 21 will be Laird Barron and Alyssa Wong; on October 19 Jack Ketchum and Caitlìn R. Kiernan; and on November 16 John Langan and Kressel himself. (Details are available at http://www.kgbfantasticfiction.org/.) Concluding, he introduced the evening’s first reader.

David D. Levine is the author of the novel Arabella of Mars and over fifty sf and fantasy stories, one of which “Tk’tk’tk,” won the Hugo Award.  Some of his stories have been anthologized in the Endeavour Award-winning collection Space Magic.  (Full disclosure:  years ago, we were in an apa, or fannish amateur press association, together.  He is, of course, not the New York gamer of that name – though, to their mutual consternation, that distinction was lost by one Worldcon’s “Voodoo Message Board” – nor the caricaturist at the New York Review of Books.)

Levine began with a well-received rap (“Ey girl, what’s your name?,” complete with background music) summarizing the plot of Arabella of Mars, then read from the Prologue, “The Last Straw.” The novel is set in an alternate cosmology (or alternate astrophysics) previously described as “Mars the way it used to be before science ruined it,” with canals, Martians and breathable atmosphere (Venus, of course, has swamps), a reality – a term here used loosely – in which further there is interplanetary atmosphere and airships voyage between worlds.  The heroine, Arabella Ashby, an 18th-century English colonist on Mars (the use of “Marsman,” to distinguish from Martians, was employed as well in a similarly titled novel about a girl named Podkayne), we learn, has been hauled off to Earth and urgently must return to Mars to save her family fortune.  In the final part of his presentation, Arabella is attempting to do just that, disguised as a boy among an airship’s crew as it lifts from London.  Venerable literary devices blend imaginatively and charmingly.

Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall

After a break, Series co-host much-honored editor Ellen Datlow introduced the second reader of the night. Helen Marshall’s first collection of fiction, Hair Side, Flesh Side, won the Sydney J. Bounds Award in 2013, and her second, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award.  The story that she read, “The Embalmer,” appears in The Mammoth Book of the Mummy, though, as she described it, it’s “the least mummy-like” story that she could write.  It was nonetheless quirky and amusing.  The boy Henry has a penchant and talent for digging up and mummifying neighbors’ dead and buried pets, including the girl next door’s (Dalia), late Labradane, which he’s anonymously gifted to her and which she smuggles to school.  (We must count it as fortunate that her little brother was not buried in the backyard.)

Copies of Arabella of Mars and Gifts for the One Who Comes After were for sale at the back of the room from the Word Bookstores of Brooklyn and Jersey City.

Afterward, the crowd headed out to dinner.