The Clarke Award and posterity

Last Friday, Adam Roberts posted a thought-provoking blog piece on literary awards, taking in the Man Booker Prize, the British Fantasy Awards, and more besides (do check it out if you’ve not read it). One of Adam’s key points is that it’s important for the selections made by awards to be able to stand the test of time; I was interested to see how successfully that happens, so I’m going to look at some award-winners and see how posterity has treated them. I’ll be concentrating on the Arthur C. Clarke Award, as that’s the one I feel in the best position to consider.

This is not about whether the books are good so much as how history seems to have judged them from the viewpoint of me as someone with a reasonably good knowledge (though not an expert knowledge) of fantastic fiction. I’ll be rating each Clarke winner for posterity using the following scale:

5 stars – an acknowledged and enduring classic, or the pinnacle of a distinguished career.

4 stars – a very important book, or a likely classic-in-the-making.

3 stars – a moderately significant novel, or a newer work whose long-term importance is still unclear.

2 stars – a book which has evidently not been treated well by posterity.

1 star – a work which has largely been forgotten.

I’ll try to be as objective as I can (but of course that is not going to be entirely possible). Here goes…

1987: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Well, the Clarke could hardly have got off to a better start in terms of selecting an enduring novel. The Handmaid’s Tale is now on A Level syllabi and a key text in many a university science fiction course. Clearly a book which posterity has endorsed.

Posterity rating: *****

1988: The Sea and Summer by George Turner

Quite a contrast with the previous winner in terms of its treatment by posterity, I think. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes George Turner as “perhaps [Australia]’s most distinguished sf writer”, and speaks very highly of The Sea and Summer; but Turner was the only author on the list of Clarke winners whose name was unfamiliar to me, and this novel looks at this remove like a work which has largely fallen through the cracks.

Posterity rating: **

1989: Unquenchable Fire by Rachel Pollack

Like Turner, Rachel Pollack seems an author whose name has now fallen into relative obscurity (for her fiction, at least). Unquenchable Fire looks rather to have done the same.

Posterity rating: **

1990: The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman

After a couple of winners which have not been treated quite so well by posterity, here’s one which has fared better. Geoff Ryman’s reputation as an important figure in sf is firmly established, and The Child Garden has a reputation as one of his major works.

Posterity rating: *****

1991: Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland

A firmly-established classic, not just in terms of its (very high) quality as an exuberant adventure story, but also for its position in sf history as one of the key texts which revitalised British space opera in the 1990s.

Posterity rating: *****

1992: Synners by Pat Cadigan

As with Greenland, it is many years since Pat Cadigan last published a novel; but, also like Greenland, she cemented her reputation with works from the early 1990s. Synners looks to be the most highly-regarded of those; I remember very much enjoying ‘Rock On’, the story which prefigured it, and really ought to check out the novel/

Posterity rating: *****

1993: He, She and It / Body of Glass by Marge Piercy

Hmm. This is the first Clarke winner about which the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is somewhat critical; but the broad consensus (as far as I can see) is that Body of Glass is held in high regard, and Piercy’s reputation is strong. Looks like a lasting work to me.

Posterity rating: ****

1994: Vurt by Jeff Noon

Noon may not be as high-profile a figure now as he was ten-or-so years ago, but from this distance his debut seems to have earned its place as a significant novel.

Posterity rating: ****

1995: Fools by Pat Cadigan

Cadigan becomes the first author to win the Clarke twice, and with her second consecutive novel. My (entirely subjective) impression is that Fools is not quite as highly regarded as Synners; but is very nearly so, and still an important work in its own right.

Posterity rating: ****

1996: Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley

Paul McAuley has had a very distinguished career over the last 25 years, his reputation built on numerous works. But it’s Fairyland which seems to be considered his greatest individual novel.

Posterity rating: *****

1997: The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh has a strong reputation, and The Calcutta Chromosome pretty much likewise. Compared to some of the other works on this list, however, it’s starting to look more like a by-way in the  modern sf landscape than a major hub.

Posterity rating: ***

1998: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Russell has moved away from sf in her more recent novels, but her place in genre history is assured with The Sparrow, which might well come to be seen as one of the key sf texts of its period to be concerned with religion.

Posterity rating: ****

1999: Dreaming in Smoke by Tricia Sullivan

Though Tricia Sullivan’s status as a significant writer seems assured, I’m less certain how her individual books will be judged relative to one another. I have the impression, though, that 2003’s Maul is more likely to be seen as her key work than Dreaming in Smoke.

Posterity rating: ***

2000: Distraction by Bruce Sterling

I find this a difficult call to make, because, on the one hand, Distraction is pretty clearly one of Bruce Sterling’s most highly-regarded works – it gained the most award nods of any of his novels, and is described by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as “perhaps his most successful (certainly his most complex] novel” – but it also seems likely that Sterling may be remembered most for his work associated with cyberpunk in the 1980s. In terms of a posterity rating, I will err on the side of caution.

Posterity rating: ****

2001: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

The first of Miéville’s three wins, for what is arguably the single most important work of British speculative fiction from the early 2000s. Certainly, Perdido Street Station shook the field up, became highly influential, established its author as a key figure in the genre, and was an excellent book to boot. Absolutely a classic.

Posterity rating: *****

2002: Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones

Gwyneth Jones is undoubtedly an important author in the field, and Bold as Love was reviewed very positively at the time. I’m unsure at this remove whether the five-volume sequence which this novel begins will be judged by posterity as Jones’s major work, as opposed to (say) her Aleutian Trilogy; but I think Bold as Love itself will have staying power.

Posterity rating: ***

2003: The Separation by Christopher Priest

As with Jones, Christopher Priest’s significance to sf cannot be in doubt, and The Separation is an excellent book. But I suspect that The Affirmation and The Prestige may in time be seen as his most important works.

Posterity rating: ***

2004: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Judging the significance of Quicksilver as an individual book is tricky, partly because it’s only the beginning of the Baroque Cycle, and partly because the string of long, immensely detailed novels that Neal Stephenson has produced from Cryptonomicon onwards, all seem to me to be part of a broader aesthetic project. But the Baroque Cycle itself seems pretty certain to endure as an important work.

Posterity rating: ****

2005: Iron Council by China Miéville

It seems fair to observe that Iron Council is one of the lesser entries in Miéville’s oeuvre, especially when compared to Perdido Street Station. It will endure, to the extent that all of its author’s works will endure; but this is clearly the least significant of Miéville’s three Clarke wins.

Posterity rating: ***

2006: Air by Geoff Ryman

We’ve now reached the point where I feel it’s too recent to judge a book to be a certain classic, otherwise I’d have given Air a 5-star posterity rating. Ryman’s second Clarke-winner seems to be generally regarded as his best work, and is likely on its way to classic status.

Posterity rating: ****

2007: Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

Many of M. John Harrison’s novels are firmly established as classics – including, I think, 2002’s Light, to which Nova Swing is a loose sequel. The later novel is surely a work of some significance, though it is probably too early to say how much.

Posterity rating: ***

2008: Black Man by Richard Morgan

Near-future thrillers became a fairly common trend in British sf during the 2000s; there is a good chance that Richard Morgan will come to be seen as the most important writer to emerge from that trend, and Black Man as the best work from that early part of his career. Widely praised at the time for its sharp dissection of masculinity, seems set on course to be a future classic.

Posterity rating: ****

2009: Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod

It’s difficult to assess how likely Song of Time is to endure without acknowledging that it has never been available in a mass-market edition, and so has a naturally limited readership. It is, however, a great book by a highly regarded author.

Posterity rating: ***

2010: The City & the City by China Miéville

The City & the City caught the imagination of the sf field like no other book of its year (only Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl came anywhere close); it also arguably increased Miéville’s profile outside the genre more than any of his previous works had. If the reaction to it in the last couple of years is anything to go by, The City & the City will be up there with Perdido Street Station in considerations of Miéville’s bibliography.

Posterity rating: ****

2011: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

We reach the present, and of course it’s impossible to say how posterity will treat Zoo City, for all that it’s a good book. However, I am almost certain that Lauren Beukes will come to be seen as one of the most significant sf writers of her time.

Posterity rating: ***

===

Overall, then, the Clarke Award seems to have been a very successful judge of novels with staying power. Aside from a couple of early winners which have not been treated so well by posterity, and a few later ones which may ultimately meet the same fate, the Clarke’s selections have stood up rather well to the passing of time – some obvious classics, a good number of strong and important works, and some very promising recent titles. One hopes to see this success continue into the future.

4 Comments

  1. It might be worth considering that both Turner’s and Pollack’s careers didn’t last much longer after their wins. Pollack stopped writing sf, and Turner had only one more novel published in the UK (though he continued to be published in the US).

    Also, I suspect you may have over-stated Take Back Plenty’s credentials. Yes, it’s an excellent novel – one of my favourites, in fact – but it’s not all that well-known these days. Having said that, I hope the planned SF Masterwork edition does give it the readership it deserves.

  2. David Hebblethwaite

    24th October 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks, Ian – all valid points, though I’m not sure that knowing more about Turner’s and Pollack’s subsequent careers really changes my view, because a relatively short career doesn’t necessarily mean that a book can’t endure; take Ken Grimwood’s Replay, for example.

    You may well be right about Take Back Plenty, and indeed I did consider rating it 4 stars; but then I thought that considering only how widely known the books were was just too blunt an instrument for my purpose (under that view, I think only The Handmaid’s Tale and Perdido Street Station would be well-enough known to merit 5 stars, but there are other Clarke winners which I think have the reputation of classics). So I also tried to take critical reputation into account, and I think Take Back Plenty has enough historical importance to edge it into the 5-star range – but it is a borderline case.

  3. How much of Replay’s popularity is down to Rog Peyton, though? He spent a couple of decades pushing that novel – it was the only title to appear in every Andromeda Bookshop catalogue from the year of its publication until the year Andromeda closed down. And, to be honest, George Turner is generally considered a much better writer than Grimwood, and I’ve never understood why he seemed to do so badly in the UK. All of his books are worth seeking out and reading.

  4. It’s an impressive list, but then there’s a reason the Clarke is one of the few literary prizes I pay attention to (and I say that as someone who doesn’t predominantly read SF).

    I own some Turner but haven’t read him. My impression was that he was now obscure but actually a very good writer. Unfairly overlooked, which can of course happen. iansales confirms that.

    But then I have a great love of Wilson Tucker, and he seems almost completely forgotten. So it goes.

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