Clarke Award administrator Tom Hunter on the trouble with shortlists

Paul Raven @ 26-04-2010

As mentioned a while ago, this Wednesday sees the Sci-Fi London film festival playing host to the Arthur C Clarke Award winner announcement ceremony. It’s my great pleasure to turn the Futurismic microphone over to the award’s administrator, Tom Hunter, and give him a chance to talk about the award (and sf awards in general), what they mean, and what they’re good for. Take it away, Tom…

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Running a science fiction award is a strange old business.

Awards are by their very nature supposed to be somewhat controversial, or at least openly conversational. Well, they are if they’re doing their job well and intelligently, and if there’s people out there who care enough to get caught up in them, anyway.

Awards live and die by the art of conversation, after all, and I’ve yet to decide which I prefer least – those years when the internet seemingly catches fire in outrage at the latest Clarke Award shortlist announcement, or the ones where we singularly fail to ignite even the meekest spark of protest in the dustier corners of the blogosphere.

Google alerts are double-edged swords for us award administrators. They’re very handy for finding out what people are saying about you, but equally good at highlighting that vast echo chamber of nothingness where all of your hard-earned flame wars ought to be busily erupting.

Lucky for me, then, that the Clarke Award has always generated a high level (and equally high standard) of debate.

I don’t enjoy arguments much, but I know that one of the things I enjoy very much about the reaction to other people’s awards – the Hugos, the Nebulas, the Gemmells, the BSFA awards etc. – are the unfiltered and honest reactions that can be found gathering across the internet.

Which is better? Knowing that there are so many people out there passionate about books and science fiction and science fiction books to the point that they’ll spend many free hours discussing them online, or the fact that so many people brought together by this shared passion seem able to agree on so little?

For example, for the last couple of years I’ve taken to releasing the full eligible submissions list of books received for the Clarke Award in advance of our announcing the six shortlisted titles.

Mostly it’s a bit of a fun, and an extra chance to have a talk about which ones we think will make the cut – who are the dead certs, the outsiders, the literary interlopers guaranteed to enrage the genre faithful for daring to play tourist in our little corner of the bookish ghetto, etc. etc. – but what’s interested me most about this so far is the fact I’ve not seen anyone publicly calling all six shortlisted books correctly.

Certainly I’ve never managed to do it, so it’s clearly harder than it looks… which is interesting given the amount of commentary that hints at a certain inevitability around shortlist decisions. For instance: the judges always get it wrong; they don’t pick the books I like; they’re clearly under orders to make safe choices, popular choices, literary choices or deliberately wilful and controversial choices in order to generate a little extra press coverage; and so on and on.

Maybe award season would be a little more exciting if any of the above were actually true… but I doubt it, and unfortunately things rarely work out as well as us Machiavellian behind-the-scenes manipulators might hope anyway.

So, in lieu of spending time manipulating things behind the scenes, I figured the next best thing to do would be to use the invitation to contribute something on science fiction awards to Futurismic as an opportunity to discuss some of the more popular misconceptions that can beset even awards like the Arthur C. Clarke, starting with pretensions of literature. You don’t get this one much with the Hugos or the Gemmells, because their shortlists are drawn from crowd-sourced votes and hence victim to cries of populism rather than pretension.

Over on the side of a juried prize like the Clarke, though, this idea was one that I encountered fairly frequently back when I first took on the role of administrator four years ago. Thankfully it seems to have faded away somewhat, or at least mutated into a playful criticism with a knowing wink. For example, see the running joke that no shortlist would be complete without at least one outlier from the more ‘literary’ end of the submissions stack.

Somewhere along the line, though, a meme was spawned that claimed the Award was secretly striving to break free of the shackles of genre and sf fandom and escape into the glamorous and in-crowd world of the Booker or the Orange prize. You know, the sexy awards with the beautiful media friends, the acres of mainstream press coverage and the deliciously low-calorie canapés.

(BTW, Booker Prize, thanks to the Sci-Fi-London film festival we had Imperial Stormtroopers at the last ceremony. Top that, eh.)

More seriously, I don’t agree with this idea for a lot of reasons (not least because it’s just plain wrongheaded), but I can see how it could have got started.

The thing to understand first is that there’s a big difference between the Clarke Award as an administered entity and the Clarke Award as represented by its shortlists and winning titles, and the key bit to remember is that the people like me involved in the first bit have no say whatsoever on the decisions of the judging panel who get to decide the second bit.

The members of the judging panel aren’t even selected by the award administrators — rather, they’re nominated by our supporting organisations, currently the Science Fiction Foundation, British Science Fiction Association and the SF Crowsnest website. In other words, all organisations with very science fiction-friendly and -focused members, so the idea that this changing roster of sci-fi folk might suddenly transform into a collective hungry for the mainstream is rather absurd. Especially when any true fan (or watcher of Hollywood box office figures) knows that the Geeks inherited the Earth ages ago anyway…

It follows too that this motley collection of independent and free-thinking fans, academics and writers would be rather unlikely to pick up on my hints to steer their shortlist selections towards more PR-friendly titles or certain publishing houses… even if I was actually allowed into the judging room to make them.

When you get down to it, PR doesn’t really work that way anyway. You can’t engineer a real controversy in advance, in the same way that you can’t have a real conversation if only one person is allowed to do all of the talking.

At the end of the day, I just don’t buy into this idea of the Clarke Award secretly coveting some kind of mainstream literary endorsement. It’s simply not what we’re here to do – our mission is to promote awareness of science fiction publishing in the UK for a start – and, despite being simultaneously amused and appalled by Dave Langford’ As Others See Us round-up in Ansible, lazy journalistic shortcuts are hardly the place I’d start if I wanted to check under the hood and measure the rude health of our favourite genre.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the occasional trip outside of the usual genre haunts, of course, and I’m often very pleasantly surprised when I take them. I think there’s often a (unintentional) tendency to view the boundaries of science fiction only as far as one can personally see them reaching, and I’ve certainly been guilty of that in the past.

However, the walls of the sf ghetto are clearly becoming increasingly porous, and leakage is occurring from both sides. I see this in the across-the-desks conversations about movies at work, and in the number of people I meet outside of the genre faithful who excitedly tell me about their favourite sf novel when they find out what I do (glad at last perhaps to find someone else they can share with who ‘gets’ it?). And, of course, I greatly enjoy the way science fiction thrives in both the heartlands of popular culture and its experimental edges.

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of there being a toolkit for science fiction rather than a manual, but even more than this I’m drawn to the idea that, these days, the science fictional element is simply part of a much larger toolkit for the work of making art and unpacking meaning from our world.

Speaking of art, if there’s one award it might be worth comparing the Clarke too, it’s not the Booker but the Turner Prize that most interests me.

This isn’t just because the Turner Prize has had its own fair share of controversy over the years, by the way, but rather because I can see interesting similarities in the way that each year the Turner and the Clarke Award are required to continually redefine their notion of what art or science fiction actually are before making any kind of value judgement about any ‘best’ example of that form.

A lot is made of this notion of best and how it’s defined, especially when the collective wisdom of the jury doesn’t deliver a result that chimes with our own favourite choices. I get that, I really do, but for me a good shortlist isn’t necessarily one that matches up to my own preferences and tastes.

What if we all agreed to say that the judges got it different (rather than got it wrong) if we don’t agree with the line-up in any particular year?

Ok, so maybe that’s a bit idealistic… and equally I’m as happy as anyone with a good shout-down sometimes. That said, I can’t help think that you can’t enjoy the benefits of those times when a panel nominates your favourite book – hey, look, I clearly have superior taste! – if you’re not prepared to also take on board the idea that other decisions by the same judges are potentially as valid, even if you don’t agree with them and, especially, if you haven’t previously heard of the book that ended up shortlisted over your personal favourite.

In fact, for me a sign of a good shortlist isn’t that I agree with it or have read all of the books already, but rather that it spurs me to hop right over to Amazon so I can start wishlisting brand new titles.

For me, ‘best’ is another way of saying recommended. You’ve got to read this, watch this, taste this, right away: it’s the best.

I don’t think anything beats that feeling of discovering something amazing and new for yourself before anyone else you know has heard of it, but the urge to share surely comes a close second, and that for me is the underlying value in awards like the Clarke.

I’m writing this in advance of the prize ceremony for the Clarke Award 2010, and I am looking forward to the conversation that will follow the winning result as much as I am the announcement itself (and the chance for a big party of course). Whoever the winner, I’m pretty confident that the night will be one of my best. Good luck to everyone shortlisted this year!


IBM cat-brain sim actually a scam?

Paul Raven @ 24-11-2009

Branding the work of other scientists as fraudulent scams seems to be the flavour of the week. Remember IBM’s cat-sized brain simulation as mentioned last week? Well, it was pointed out by calmer minds than my own that I overstated the significance of the announcement… but Henry Markham, another scientist who’s also affiliated with IBM, has delivered a hearty broadside in the form of an open letter to IBM’s CTO:

… what IBM reported is a scam — no where near a cat-scale brain simulation […] I am absolutely shocked at this announcement. Not because it is any kind of technical feat, but because of the mass deception of the public.

1. These are point neurons (missing 99.999% of the brain; no branches; no detailed ion channels; the simplest possible equation you can imagine to simulate a neuron, totally trivial synapses; and using the STDP learning rule I discovered in this way is also is a joke).

2. All these kinds of simulations are trivial and have been around for decades – simply called artificial neural network (ANN) simulations. We even stooped to doing these kinds of simulations as bench mark tests 4 years ago with 10’s of millions of such points before we bought the Blue Gene/L. If we (or anyone else) wanted to we could easily do this for a billion “points”, but we would certainly not call it a cat-scale simulation. It is really no big deal to simulate a billion points interacting if you have a big enough computer. The only step here is that they have at their disposal a big computer. For a grown up “researcher” to get excited because one can simulate billions of points interacting is ludicrous…

There’s more where that came from, too. As Wired points out, though, Markham isn’t exactly an innocent bystander in this matter, as he has his own high-level brain simulation project being run under the same company aegis


Where are the sexy computer games?

Paul Raven @ 25-06-2009

Keeping to the gaming theme, here’s Aleks Krotoski at The Guardian asking a very valid question: where are all the sex-based computer games?

It’s not for want of trying. Brathwaite says that when she landed a job as producer on Playboy: The Mansion, in 2005, she found there were countless games developers building titles around love, intimacy and, well, hanky-panky, but they were lost in an ocean of family values propriety, wandering souls buried under regulations and smothered by distributor blacklists, treated as “specialists” whose products only saw the light in extremely independent competitions. And so, with only the odd interruption of a virtual carnal nature, game controversies are dominated by violence. Depravity just isn’t on the regulator’s radar.

And can you imagine what would happen if it were? Just look at the furore over the scenes uncovered in the code of GTA: San Andreas. For heaven’s sake, they were two consenting (digital) adults in an 18-rated game: why did it end up such an issue that the then senator Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to get it banned? Such top-down puritanism forces creative conformity in games for fear that explicitly including sex scenes would lead to a loss of filthy lucre – when on earth has that been the case?

It does seem odd, but then computer games are a comparatively young medium by comparison to film or literature – perhaps the form just isn’t mature enough to carry it off? If that’s the case, though, developments like the interactive software/hardware combinations that run Lionhead’s virtual boy Milo suggest that the technical capability to make a sex-based game that’s going to inspire more than adolescent sniggering may finally be here. How long it will take someone to think of a genuinely engaging set of game mechanics to go with it is anyone’s guess… but I doubt it’ll be too long, despite the puritanical hand-wringing of career demagogues.