Sunday 18 April 2010

Arthur C Clarke - The 'best' science fiction novel

Having now read the first three books of six shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke award, what springs out immediately is how very diverse they are - from meta concepts, to fun pirate yarns, to hard sci fi and alien species. It made me wonder how on earth the judges decide on which novel from the Arthur Clarke shortlist should be named the overall winner - what criteria is used.

So I headed over to the Arthur C Clarke award website to check out what the submission guidelines are for novels.

I found this: The Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction is awarded to the author who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length science fiction novel in English.

And that is it. The only criteria. The book that the judges feel is the "best".

In the case of this award, what constitutes best?

Best use of science fiction concepts? Best novel in terms of readability? Best novel because the judges had the most fun reading it?

If you take a dictionary definition of 'best' it states:

–adjective, superl. of good with better as compar.
of the highest quality, excellence, or standing: the best work; the best students.
most advantageous, suitable, or desirable: the best way.
largest; most: the best part of a day.

Does this help to define which of the books shortlisted should take the award? Not really. Are the judges analysing the writing, the story, the science fiction elements?

I have enjoyed the first three books for very different reasons. The City and The City, I felt, showed superlative writing and a fabulous concept that left me thinking hard about the book long after I closed the last page. Spirit embodied the sense of a science fiction novel for me, opening our horizons to show how the universe might evolve with the introduction of inter-stellar travel - and, although I didn't enjoy the prose, I know other people who would have lapped it up. Retribution Falls was the best novel in terms of fun and readability. So I have three winners - depending on how 'best' defines which novel should actually win!

My post (on a read back) sounds a little confused - but I shall let it stand, since this is the state of my thinking on this award right now! I would be very interested to hear from anyone associated with the award - now or in the past - who can shed a little light onto how 'best' is defined when picking the winner of the Arthur C Clarke award...


  1. You've essentially struck the basic problem of all award programs: what is quality? And who decides it?

    A judge panel has its problems: it's just however many people deciding what's best, whether or not the majority of the people agree with it. It reinforces this idea of genre-snobbery (ie: only certain books are "real" books because these guys say so) and has the issue of alienating potential readers from the books themselves.

    Meanwhile, an online vote (as we discussed in the recent David Gemmel Award debate) has its own set of problems. One of the biggest being that it can be a potentially unfair fight, since a lot of it will be based on recognition and thusly, whoever could afford the biggest marketing budget has the advantage. Further, popularity has its own issues. TWILIGHT and THE DA VINCI CODE might be popular, but see if anyone stays silent if they should win an award.

    So, what is best? I don't know. You don't know. The commenter after me doesn't know. And yet, we all know what we like. We'll all say that Book A was best because of this, but book B was terrible because of that. And the next person will say that Book B was a work of genius and anyone who likes Book A is privately the reincarnation of Genghis Khan and is out to destroy all literature under his mighty, bearded chin.

    We may never know. But so long as we're talking about it, we'll get a little closer each time we do.

    You may be noticing that this is something of a trend in literature.

  2. I do too know.

    No, I kid; of course I don't know. But I judge the books I read with certain criteria, and so too, I imagine, do judges for the likes of the Clarke awards. You read a book. You feel certain things. You think back on those feelings, that experience - when it's done - and you deem it either bad, average, good or great according to your own measures. Sit ten people down in a room, make them each read these six books, assign numerical values to each of the general feelings if you please, and collate the responses. The highest scores = the best.

    Endlessly subjective, but of course it's going to be. There are no hard and fast ways to say this intangible thing is better than that intangible thing... just collective, subjective judgement.

  3. I always have so many thoughts about these sorts of discussions but they are too disorganised right now. Might come back to this later.

  4. I imagine its what the judge's consider "the best" from their own standpoint. Out of all the sci-fi books that got published, which ones jumped out and made them think, I enjoyed or got the most out of this one above the others.

  5. Please excuse the terrible usage of the apostrophe in my post. *it's and *judges.

  6. Defining science fiction, yet alone the *best* thereof, is a task I'm very glad falls to the judging panel each year rather than me, but that said here's a little on how the Clarke Award approaches it. How closely this resembles other juried prizes though, I'm not sure.

    The first thing to say is that, yes, the judging guidelines you mentioned on our site are pretty open to interpretation, and this is a deliberate decision on our part.

    I'll unpack that a bit as good and knowledgeable people have suggested in the past that some kind of definition would be a useful thing, and I can see where they're coming from. That said, other similar commentary has had more of a them and us flavour from time to time, and seems to stem from the misapprehension that one of the secret objectives of the Award's dark governing body is to break down the walls of genre and flee towards the allegedly more glamorous world of literature. It's a good story that one, but doesn't really hold up when you look at it closely, and especially if you consider some of the personalities who've manned the judging panel in years gone by.

    Anyway, the members of the judging panel are appointed by our supporting organisations rather than by us the organisers in order to both maintain independence and also to make sure we draw judges from a rich base of fans, academics and professionals.

    As such it's pretty much a given that everyone will come to the panel with rich and various experiences and understandings of the genre, its lineage and history.

    From this starting point it's up to them to discuss the merits of each individual submission and to come to a collective decision on the six shortlistees and then final winner.

    Along the way they'll even be debating whether indeed a submitted work is indeed science fiction at all. I often use William Gibson's Pattern Recognition as a good example of this (not just because it's a favourite book of mine) which was shortlisted in 2004. At the time there was lots of debate over whether this work was in fact science fiction at all, and I can see the argument against very clearly even while knowing that this is precisely the type of work I would consider quintessentially science fictional and exactly the type of book that draws me to the genre.

    One of the things we do to help the judges is place a clear call for submissions to all of the UK publishers. While judges are free to suggest books they'd like to see, and we'll do about best to get them. its the publishers who hold ultimate responsibility for submitting a novel.

    Submission by the way doesn't automatically make a work science fiction, it just means its being considered within that context, and that's one of the reasons why we've recently begun releasing the full submissions list so people can see just how much variety, and how many potential shortlist combinations, there are in any one year.

    After that it's a lot of talking, debating and voting and if they don't pick a winner by a certain deadline then I get to choose (joke!).

    One thing I think we're definitely not about though is genre snobbery. The ultimate purpose of the award is to promote UK science fiction publishing. We do that via a juried prize and by positioning ourselves as part of the discussion, but we know that there's plenty of other valid opinion out there and too many good books to include them all on the shortlist everytime. Every year so far I've had a personal favourite that hasn't made the cut.

    For me this is a good thing though, as I've never viewed a prize shortlist as a means to reaffirm my own opinion of books or authors (I'll still love Pattern Recognition no matter where it gets shelved) but it does unfailingly introduce me to entirely new perspectives, opinions and exciting new authors to try, and for me this can only be a very good thing indeed.

  7. Wow, some great comments from everyone - thanks for stopping by.

    @Sam - you're right. The essence of my post was that I didn't know how the winner could be picked based on the criteria of being the best sci fi novel. And your reply was that, yep, no one really knows what makes any novel the best. I have been enjoying the comparative discussions concerning panelled vs. voted-for awards. I can see pros and cons of each, but both definitely have a place as far as I am concerned. And this is because, ultimately, they provide the opportunity for discussion and debate on not only the short-listed titles, but those that didn't make the list for whatever reason.

    @Niall - It seems as though subjectivity is all we're going to get in the field of judging literature. There is no way that objective measurements can be applied, for sure! And I think a sample of ten people to find the best novel is far too small to get a consensus!

    @Locksley - But that is almost my point! If all the judges come to the table looking to promote the best book using their own personal criteria, then how can they ever get to the point where they all agree on just one book. Would love to be a fly on the wall as they discussed it anyway.

    @Tom - thanks for the carefully considered post. It has definitely helped shed some light on the process. The Arthur C Clarke award this time round is the first time that I've delved so thoroughly into trying to judge the best book from a short-list and it has been illuminating. I look forward to reading the other three books, since the first three have provided me so much food for thought.

  8. Your response to Tom Hunter gets at the crux of the matter. The value of such a short-list, indeed of such a prize, is that it encourages and excites one to read the books.

    While it is impossible for ten people to provide any definitive assurance of "best", it is possible for ten people to make the attempt. A much larger sample would likely devolve into recognition off popularity and marketing, but a small jury panel can read, talk, bounce ideas off each other, re-read, and come to some conclusion. For the same reason that a "jury of one's peers" can provide some assurance of justice in a court of law, a jury of impassioned, dedicated people can provide some indication of the relative quality of a set of books. The jury is large enough not to be a single person's opinion. It is small enough to be presented the evidence and deliberate over it.

    But most of all, people like you or me will read some of the best science fiction and deliberate for ourselves. For that, the short-list is even more valuable than the eventual prize.

  9. It's symptomatic that the only objective definition of best that the dictionary gives is:
    largest; most: the best part of a day."

    Using that definition the best Science Fiction author would be the one that has written the most Science Fiction. -Cue arguing about if number of books or word-count is the way to define most...

    Or we could use the way they learn to plot a graph of literature at the beginning of "Dead Poet's Society". -The argument over how to plot the graph should be finished a century after we've colonised the Milky Way...

    What I'm trying to say is that there can never be, or at least shouldn't be, an objective way of defining what is a good story, whether it is a novel or in any other form.

    Each and every one of us will bring our own ideas, experiences and expectations to any story we digest. And from that starting point every one will form their own opinion of what is the best story.

    And there's absolutely nothing wrong with everyone having their own opinion of what constitutes best. -Although I obviously have the only correct answer...-For me that is :-)

    When it comes to awards, I don't think many people see them as an objective truth about what is the best, but I think most would agree that they're a good starting point for a discussion.

    And I think that in itself should be what an award should set out to be. -The opinion of a group of people that is a starting point for a discussion.
    And in that way bring attention to the subject the award wishes to celebrate.

  10. It is a very difficult sitaution.

    As Sam rightly points out, popularity is never a good measure of intrinsic value. The Davinci Code has sold more copies than The Sound and the Fury, hell, it has probably sold more copies than every book by every Nobel Prize for Literature winner put together.

    The best you can hope for is to put together a jury who understand that while enjoyment is a factor (an important one, I'm not saying it isn't) there are also other criteria by which a book should be judged. There are plenty of books (and other works of art) that I don't like, but I understand that they are important because of technique, style, etc. A good jury can do what is difficult to most, seperate opinion from fact, and make the best decision that they can on that basis. You'll always have people who disagree, but that is just the nature of the game.

    For me the best books have something more, they speak to you on a level that others don't. For me, they are books like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, La Peste and Nausea. It is hard to put it in tangible terms, and it feels poor to leave it as some abstanct concept, but when a book is special you just know, you can feel there is something more. I suspect from reading the few that is how you felt when you finished The City & The City. If none of the other books make you feel that way, I guess you have your answer.

  11. Maybe they should judge the books on good taste. Now that's food for thought. (Sorry, couldn't help it.)

  12. I just wanted to add a quick note of thanks to Amanda for the passion she's shown for the award, and to everyone for the thoughts and comments here and on other posts.

    Starting points for discussion indeed, and indeed one of the parts I enjoy the most about being involved with the award.

    Thank you all, and hope you all enjoy checking out whichever nominee takes your fancy, no matter the final result next week!