It seems quite simple. It is, according to its simple self-description, an award for ‘the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year’. A measure and celebration of achievement in science-fiction writing that isn't limited to novels published within the science-fiction genre. But what is meant by 'best'? and what is meant by 'science fiction'?
When I was a judge for the Clarke Awards, back in 2003, defining 'science fiction' turned out to be mostly a practical matter. We were presented with around fifty novels submitted by publishers, and as far as we were concerned, any novel that had been submitted should be considered, whether or not it had been published as science fiction. So we read everything we'd been sent, agreed that one or two were so obviously fantasy novels that they could be excluded, and then got down to the business of deciding which were the best.
And that, of course, is where the trouble starts. What do we mean be 'best'? What defines an exceptional science-fiction novel?
It's one of the topics that Nina Allan discusses in a long and interesting essay
about the merits and relevance of the Clarke Award. Is the award still worthwhile? Does it stimulate critical discourse? Does it reflect the increasing diversity of the genre? Is it being given to the right kind of novels? What are the right kind of novels?
It's that last question I'd like to discuss here. Allan believes that what she calls 'core SF tropes' are only of interest if they are somehow subverted, and that 'if a work of science fiction cannot
[her italics] stand next to works
drawn from the mainstream and hold its own in terms of literary values,
we need to be asking ourselves if it is truly great.' In other words, a good science fiction novel should not be measured in terms of whatever it is that defines the science-fiction genre, but by the standards of literary fiction.
What are those standards? Most agree that literary fiction is in part defined by fine or beautiful prose, that it gives preference to theme over plot, and explores the psychology of the individual in particular and the human condition in general. It's concerned with analysing reality, while other kinds of fiction (genre fiction, commercial fiction, paraliterary fiction) are concerned with escaping reality. Some might also say, not entirely inaccurately, that literary writers are expected to write a different novel every time, while genre writers are expected to write the same novel every time.
Science fiction, perhaps the most protean of genre fictions, is somewhat harder to define. We know it when we see it, but it includes a vast variety of different kinds of fiction; its borders are vague; it overlaps other genres, including literary fiction. But in all of those different kinds of science-fiction works, there's
perhaps one unifying factor: rather than exploring reality, science
fiction is interested in exploring the limits of reality. Rather than
analysing and universalising individual human experience,
it's interested in analysing the reality of the universe and measuring it against human values. It's about
change and difference, and the consequences of change and difference.
In short, the values of science fiction are not identical to those of literary fiction (or any other genre), for otherwise we wouldn't need to distinguish it from other varieties of fiction. Sure, good writing and fine characterisation should be celebrated, and bad writing and flat characterisation shouldn't be excused because of other qualities. To paraphrase Samuel R. Delany, fleas are fleas, no matter where or how you catch them. A badly written science-fiction novel is badly written even its ideas are novel and excitingly executed. Even so, and this is where I have a problem with Allan's argument, there are good reasons why great works of science fiction, works worthy of the Clarke Award, shouldn't be judged by the same standards as literary fiction.
Allan anticipates this, saying that she is aware that her view is contentious, and that some would 'disagree with it violently, attesting that it is attitudes and tastes
like mine that are destroying science fiction, stripping the field of
what makes it unique and worthy of specialist discussion in the first
place.' I wouldn't go that far, but I do think that claiming that the standards of literary fiction are a universal yardstick is reminiscent of the kind of snobbery that asserts that literary fiction is the good stuff, created out of noble artistic aims, and all other kinds of fiction are bad, written for baseless commercial motives. It's also an instance of a kind of cultural cringe peculiar to the science-fiction field. Judges of crime, horror, fantasy and romance novels give awards to works that epitomise the best of their
genre, not to those which best approximate 'literary values.' Only in science fiction are we so uncertain of what the values of the genre are, and whether they are worthwhile, that we seek to outsource them.
One of the reasons that literary fiction champions beautiful prose is that it seeks to make the familiar fresh and new, and that's hard to do in what's somewhat disparagingly called workmanlike prose. Science fiction, on the other hand, seeks to make the unfamilar familiar, and that can sometimes be hard to do if you adhere to what Martin Amis has called the war against cliche. Instead, science fiction has developed a huge common toolkit that enables writers to anatomise the unfamiliar and make it vivid to the mind's eye, to merge
human stories with things slant to ordinary human experience or processes vaster and more ancient than anything in human history.
And it turns out, here in the twenty-first century, in which our common
reality is fractured by the consequences, good and bad, of scientific
and technological advances, that the science-fiction toolkit is becoming
ever more useful in grappling with weirdness of the happening world.
This is one
reason why writers of literary fiction are increasing producing novels
that overlap with the concerns of the science-fiction genre; why, from
its inception, the Clarke Award has often included literary novels on
its shortlist, or awarded prizes to them. This infusion is welcome, maybe even vitally necessary. But those novels should be judged by the same measure as novels written in the so-called 'core' of the genre, not by standards outwith it. They should be judged by how well they work as science-fiction novels, within the generously wide definitions of science fiction. From Allan's preference for 'a mixture of literary postmodernism, subjective hyperrealism, advanced
and/or experimental structure bound together with speculative elements' to new varieties of the old kinds of science fiction, they should engage the heart and the mind, and deliver something fresh and startling and fully rounded. And we should be alert to the possibility that something fresh and startling can as easily come from inside the field as outside it, just as literary excursions in science fiction can sometimes be as trite and unoriginal as anything written inside the field that doesn't examine its assumptions and tropes.
I'm aware that's both vague and hopelessly idealistic. As Allan points out, awards decided by a jury or panel can be weakened by a variety of all-too-human failings, from compromise and favouritism, to prejudice and stubbornness. The short list of any award usually contains at least one oddity, and omits at least one title which, according to almost everyone else, should have been included. That's why the critical discussion that Allan rightly champions is so important, even though we should remember that critics are as prone to the same all-too-human-failings are the judges. But in the end, 'best' is not a value that can be defined by measurement against some external standard. As when I was a judge, as is hopefully the case this year, it's recognisable only by comparison with its peers.