Thoughts on science fiction and the 30th year of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

I’m writing this on Sunday morning, a few days before we reveal the winner of the 30th Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature, and a time when my mind is so full up of all things science fictional it’s hard to think about anything else.

I should really be using this quiet time to focus on writing my own speech for the award ceremony, but then the Geek Syndicate team called and asked me the big question — what are your feelings about the current state of Sci-Fi fiction? — and there’s a certain appeal to taking a step back from the to-do lists of RSVP confirmations, wine orders and the like to think about the big picture, so here I am.

But what, exactly, are my feelings about SF in 2016?

Let’s start with the fact that this is a double anniversary year for me: The 30th presentation of the Clarke Award and also, more personally, my 10th year as the award’s director.

Any answers I hope to give will necessarily have to be filtered through that lens, and being responsible for running an award like the Clarke does create a particular way of looking at things that’s somewhat distinct from many others in the SF community.

I work closely with publishers, for example, but I am not a publisher, and neither am I part of the community of writers. We are a volunteer committee who run the award, so in that way we are like other fans who donate their time and passion to run conventions and websites and book clubs, but the reason I was first asked to get involved with the Clarke wasn’t my passion for science fiction but a particular PR and promotions skill set that came from my day job career in arts & cultural marketing.

Arts and cultural organisations have a very similar challenge to the publishing industry which can be boiled down to ‘we have all this amazing content but very little budget to tell people about it.’

In the same way a museum marketing department will rarely choose the content of an exhibition, I am also not responsible for the selection of our shortlists and winners. My job is to get out there in public once our judges have made their decisions and to make sure as many people as possible know about us; both within the community of science fiction readers and, crucially, as far outside it as I can reach as well.

That’s the lens, so what am I seeing through it? What’s the view like if you take enough steps back to really see something from a new perspective?

Well, I sometimes like to imagine that Clarke Award HQ is located in a secret satellite base, floating in a geo-synchronous orbit far above the Earth. The more mundane truth is that our base of operations is usually an iPad and wherever I happen to be sitting at the time, but if science fiction fans can’t imagine bigger then really why are we even here at all?

I haven’t been to space, but I’m a big fan of a man who has. Commander Chris Hadfield, the astronaut who sang Bowie’s Space Oddity on the International Space Station, has a quote I love rather a lot:

“You should really lower your threshold of amazement,” he says. “I try and let myself be amazed as often as possible.”

This isn’t Chris talking about the moment he first got to look down on the Earth from the perspective of 350km up, but rather his philosophy for all those years beforehand. A philosophy that got him through all the training, all the set backs and all the hope they might pick you to ride the rocket ship when the competition is so fierce and it takes you a good part of your lifespan to even get close to the launch pad.

You can’t put your life on hold for ten years or more just for one big moment, he says, you have to find a way to let life amaze you every day.

Ten years on from first joining the Clarke Award team, I think I know the one thing that has amazed me more than anything else on this journey.

The answer is simple, what amazes me in 2016 is the same thing that amazes me every year: our writers.

Writers. Those people who, as Neil Gaiman (one of our more well known Clarke Award judges) memorably puts it, make things up and write them down. The act of putting words on paper is both mundane and utterly transcendent, and when we look at a new author or a new shortlist or click to another blog post bemoaning the general state of something or other, we would do well to remember the worlds that are made by these artists whose medium is simply marks on paper and the alchemy of other people’s imaginations.

There will always be another controversial award shortlist to discuss, new battles over diversity and representation to muster to, another technological disruption to the business end of the storytelling machine.

These things are important, but they are not always amazing.

There are now over one hundred science fiction books submitted to the Arthur C. Clarke Award every year. Easily double the number being submitted when I first joined ten years ago which is the result of more SF&F imprints, more mainstream imprints experimenting willingly with genre works and more editors and authors willing to have their titles considered as such.

More amazing writers than you could easily hope to read in a year.

At the Arthur C. Clarke Award we take those one hundred plus books and reduce them to a shortlist of six. On Wednesday night we’ll do that again and six books will become one winner.

We’ll call that novel the best science fiction novel of the year, and we’ll give that writer a trophy and a cheque and tell you their book is amazing, and we’ll be right, but that’s not the whole point of why we do this, not really.

For me an award shortlist or winner provides a counterbalance to our innate human tendency to adhere to the familiar and instead gives us permission to encounter something new.

In other words, awards are an invitation to lower our thresholds and be amazed again, and as long as we can retain that ability to let ourselves be amazed from time to time, to see stories the way they appear through other people’s eyes, I think the state of science fiction literature will be just fine for a long while to come.

Tom Hunter
 @ClarkeAward
 Some secret distance above the Earth, 2016

This article was originally published on GeekSyndicate.co.uk in advance of the 30th anniversary Arthur C. Clarke Award ceremony on Wednesday 24th August, 2016

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