Science fiction’s future: where next for the Arthur C Clarke award?

As the prize celebrates its 30th anniversary, its director looks forward to fresh challenges and opportunities in an ever-changing genre

I have always said that, first and foremost, the Arthur C Clarke award should be about celebration. As we reveal our 30th anniversary shortlist, I find we have a few good reasons of our own to be celebrating.

In three decades, the award has established itself as the UK’s premier juried prize for science fiction, and one of the big genre awards to watch across the world. Our prize has been won by authors spanning the SF field and beyond, including Margaret Atwood, Jeff Noon, Lauren Beukes, Amitav Ghosh and China Miéville (three times!).

An award shortlist is always going to create debate and discussion – it’s a big part of why we do it, after all – and it’s all part of our mission to encourage the positive promotion of science fiction. Personally, I’m thrilled by the positive reaction to this year’s shortlist. As someone who has had longer to sit and reflect on it than most, I find it is the kind of shortlist that definitely rewards repeated viewing. So far, it seems that a lot of other people are equally passionate about the choices our judges made this year – I’m hugely grateful for that and their hard work.

I’m also doubly thrilled to be working for the prize on its 30th anniversary, knowing that only a few years ago there was a very real chance the prize wouldn’t make it past 25. With the death of Sir Arthur, our benefactor, and a subsequent lack of funds to support the award’s administration and prize money, we began serious discussions about whether it might make more sense to end on both a big round number of years and a real high note – the win of Lauren Beukes’s fantastic Zoo City – rather than slowly fade away.

Instead, we’ve spent the last five years doubling our efforts, getting creative and even a little entrepreneurial. We’ve staged conferences and author events, more than doubled our yearly submissions, launched a serious commercial research project into the current and growing cultural influence of our audiences (codename: the Geek Pound) and now as we look beyond our third decade we’re also reflecting on the ways we might change the award in years to come.

Where to start? Well, where other science fiction and fantasy awards often offer multiple categories and cover many different media, the Clarke award has always thrived on the simplicity of its proposition: one category, one shortlist, one best science fiction novel of the year. We now receive more submissions than ever before, from something like 40 books a year when I first joined, to more than 100 today.

It’s a formula that continues to work, but we’re not unaware of the changes afoot across the publishing industry and the science fiction community. The big question for us is how do we best play our part?

As an award established 30 years ago, our rules were set before things like ebooks came to prominence. Should we open ourselves up to ebook-only submissions? Probably yes. But, then, what about self-published titles? This year’s nomination of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder but originally released as a crowdfunded ebook, is one of those watershed moments we’ve been waiting for to inform that decision.

There have also been many calls for us to introduce an annual longlist, in addition to our shortlist. There are good arguments for and against this, but it’s definitely worth the conversation if it will help highlight the increasing diversity of our genre. If a longlist proves impractical, we’re also discussing the idea of increasing the number of titles on our shortlists as a route to highlighting more titles.

As an award director, I can’t help but look to what is happening with other awards in our field, especially the current issues haunting the Hugo Award. I have a huge amount of sympathy for the fans, writers and publishers caught up in that struggle. But this only strengthens our ambition to be open about our own ideas for change to and to continue looking at new ways to support both new and established writers in creating and promoting their work across the year. If we can get that right, I think the decade to come has the potential to be the Clarke award’s most exciting yet.


Tom Hunter

The GuardianTramp

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