THE ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARD: PAST WINNERS ON THEIR AWARD NIGHTS
30 April 2013
By Bella Pagan
The Arthur C. Clarke Award ceremony takes place tomorrow, and we're all looking forward to the big night! You can see the full shortlist here and a full list of past winners here. And, before the latest winning author is added to the Clarke Award hall of fame, we wanted to look back on previous years and see what the award meant for previous winners. There's some fascinating insights here from some top science fiction talent and hope you enjoy these various retrospectives as much as I did ...
Winning the award was like being side-swiped by a train. I really wasn't expecting it, had, in fact, just given myself the pep talk about how it's an honour just to be nominated when China Miéville ripped open the envelope and read Zoo City... It didn't register. My brother, who was my plus one for the evening, leapt to his feet, roaring like a football hooligan and shoved me at the stage without my notes. I had to ad-lib my acceptance speech about how science-fictional Johannesburg is with its mix of technology and magic and the culture-clash of the city, and managed to forget to thank my editor. My hands shook for half an hour, I was totally shell-shocked, and the rush of it lasted for weeks. It's amazing and crazily humbling to be recognized for your work by your peers, especially against such a ridiculously strong short-list, and to be ranked along with some of my favourite writers including Margaret Atwood, Paul McAuley, Jeff Noon, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville and Tricia Sullivan.
I love that it's a juried award, that it's driven by passion for finding the best smart, inventive, entertaining stories that interrogate who we are in the world right now in wildly imaginative ways. It changed my career overnight. Zoo City had some lovely reviews and had built up a small cult following, but it was about to go out of print in South Africa, when I won. Now its in its fourth of fifth printing. And it lead to me landing an awesome agent and a big book deal on my next novel. It also added intense pressure. I had this image of the ghost of Sir Arthur standing behind my desk with his arms folded, watching me type, saying, 'Hope it's gooo-oood', but I realized the most unrealistic expectations are always mine and I can only write the best possible book I can.
I've been nominated for every genre award at one time or another but the Arthur C. Clarke Award was the one I wanted the most. To me, Clarke represented 'grown-up' science fiction–sf that could not be disparaged by lit snobs contemptuous of 'that Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers bug-eyed-monsters, ray-gun stuff.' This was stuff you had to be intelligent to enjoy. Plus, Clarke had dreamed up the communications satellite long before there were any. He was BIG to me.
In my first Locus interview, I mentioned Clarke inventing the theoretical communications satellite, but I got some of the details wrong. Not long after the interview appeared, I received a large brown envelope from Sri Lanka–inside was a copy of Clarke's original magazine article inscribed to me, and a personal note gently correcting my misinformation. I went *nuts* with joy. What a gent. I replied thanking him for sending me something that had become a prized possession and for taking notice of me. I had one novel out (Mindplayers) and had yet to conceive of Synners, which would be my first novel to win the Clarke. I didn't even know I had been nominated until David Garnett called me from the UK (I was still living in Kansas) to ask me if I knew. I hadn't known and I was overjoyed. So I sat down to read some of my competition. My kid was in grade school then and I was insanely busy but I remember thinking that I didn't have a chance on a list that included Steve Baxter's Raft. But son of a gun.
I couldn't get to the UK to accept at the ceremony, which would have been my only chance of meeting Sir Arthur in person (they were holding the ceremony at his birthplace). I wished like anything I could have been there. Two years later, I was back on the ballot with Fools. Again, I figured I didn't have a chance. I also didn't have the airfare to get there and my designated accepter, the Original Chris Fowler, was delayed flying back to the UK by stormy weather so he couldn't be there either. John Clute called to tell me I had won; I thought he was kidding. Later, I got an incredibly gracious call from Paul McAuley, who had also been on the ballot. Paul is another gent.
In 2001, after I had been living in the UK for five years, I decided the date for that year's Arthur C. Clarke Award should be something special. The ceremony was being held at the Science Museum. With a little help from publishers and editors, I managed to get Octavia Estelle Butler over to be there for the ceremony and it was the first time all six nominees had been on hand for the Clarke. I set up a program during afternoon that included readings from the nominees and panel discussions. It all went beautifully and there was a recorded message from Sir Arthur before I announced the winner--Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. The Arthur C. Clarke has always been special to me. Not because I was the first person to win it twice but because it represents what is best about science fiction–intelligent entertainment. (Some may feel that the nominees and/or winner do not always live up to that but that's a different issue altogether.) I am enormously pleased and proud to be a Clarke winner.
Vurt was written for a tiny independent publisher called Ringpull Press, started by a friend of mine at Waterstone’s Bookshop in Manchester, where we both worked at the time. Vurt was one of the very first books on the list. It’s different now, with the internet, but back in 1993 it was very difficult to get any kind of notice for books released by small publishers. Vurt picked up a few reviews here and there, but nothing major, so I was fully expecting the book to become just another novel on the bookshop shelf. I was just glad to have finally written a novel and to have gotten it published.
But then somebody told us about the Arthur C. Clarke Award and recommended that we enter Vurt. So we did. And it won. I can remember a somewhat drunken speech from myself that might well have included the line 'The Mancs are coming!' Yikes. Those were the days. Anyway, the award helped Vurt on its way and I’ll be eternally thankful to the judges for that. Science Fiction very often operates in the shadows of mainstream culture. The Arthur C. Clarke Award shines a flashlight into those shadows and points out a few of the rather strangely beautiful creatures that live there. I hope it keeps on shining for many years to come.
When Dreaming in Smoke won the Clarke in 1999, I nearly didn’t attend the award ceremony. The novel had received so very little attention on release that I kept thinking its inclusion on the shortlist had been some sort of freakish error. I was hard at work on something else and didn’t want to come up for air, but my agent informed me in wintry tones that when one was shortlisted for the Clarke, one showed up on the night! So I did. I remember sitting in the back of the auditorium between my agent and Tim Holman, convinced that Ken MacLeod would win for The Cassini Division or maybe Christopher Priest for The Extremes. I wasn’t remotely nervous because I knew I had no chance. That’s why what passed for my acceptance speech was a stammering series of non-sequiturs. The whole thing was surreal.
For years afterward I had a sort of inferiority complex about having won with a book no one had heard of, and it wasn’t until I had been shortlisted again for Maul that I began to relax. Now, having been around a while, I know that it’s the nature of the Clarke to pull surprises—to celebrate the unexpected. Every year I enjoy the spectacle.
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As someone who has attended many previous Clarke Award ceremonies, it was wonderful to get an idea of what it's like to be in the hot-seat on the night. Some interesting thoughts on the Clarke Award and its long history. For more on the award you can visit its Facebook page or website for more. Plus, for a round up of some of the articles and commentary on this year's shortlist, we've done a summary here.