Some People Obsessively Follow the Oscars...

...and some people obsess over genre literary awards. The shortlist for the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke award has been announced (Niall Harrison, one of the Clarke judges, has a comprehensive list of reviews here):
Which just goes to show that you can know and frequently correspond with two of the judges for this award and still have only the faintest hope of guessing the nominees (which is not to say that either of these judges have spoken out of turn--merely that I think I've developed a sense of their taste in books). I'd guessed that both Sarah Hall and Richard Morgan's novels would be nominated, because both have received a great deal of praise in the circles whose tastes the Clarke tends to mirror (not coincidentally, these are the two nominees which I had already been planning to read). The other four nominees are a surprise, but not nearly so much as the absence of Ian McDonald's Brasyl, which I had been thinking of as a mortal lock for a nomination ever since its publication last spring. In fact, what's most striking about this shortlist is the absence of big names (MacLeod and Baxter are big names in the UK, but the latter, at least, is somewhat undercut by H-Bomb's being a YA book). Just off the top of my head, 2007 saw the publication of novels by Michael Chabon, William Gibson, Paul J. McAuley, and Adam Roberts, and I had expected at least some of them to get Clarke nods.

That the Clarke award is esoteric and unpredictable is one of its charms. As its administrator, Tom Hunter, wrote in the press release announcing the shortlist, it "has always been about pushing at the speculative edges of its genre." It shouldn't come as a surprise that its nominees are not just the usual suspects, and yet I found myself oddly disappointed by those names' absence. When I asked myself why this was, I realized that I've reached the point where the Clarke is not just the only SFnal award I actually care about, but the only award which I believe still holds any relevance to the field. The Nebula long ago slid into irrelevance. The Hugo has come to be associated with the not-too-elevated tastes of an increasingly graying fan in-group. If you're looking for an award that has its finger on the pulse of what science fiction is today, and that seeks to recognize more than just entertainment and more than just cool ideas, the Clarke is pretty much it. Which is an odd position in which to place an award which was almost certainly envisioned, and has been functioning as, an alternative to mainstream SFnal awards (now there's an oxymoron for you).

With the Clarke holding on to the respectability that the Nebula, and to a lesser extent the Hugo, have lost, I automatically expected it to shoulder some of their responsibilities and move closer to the core of the field. This is unfair to the award's organizers and judges. It's not their fault that the other major awards in the field have become debased. It shouldn't be their job to take up the slack. And yet someone should.


Tony Keen said…
What about the BSFA Award?
It's never been on my radar in the same way that the Hugo, Nebula, and in recent years the Clarke have been. I think it's got a lower profile for readers outside the UK. You may be right, though, that it performs the function I'm looking for - the current shortlist is certainly closer to what I was expecting from the Clarke.

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