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The Importance of Science Fiction Awards in Elevating Geek Culture

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I have a professional obsession with science fiction awards, developed out of the simple fact that I run one myself, the Arthur C. Clarke, and wanting to keep a friendly eye on what the competition is getting up to.

Some people think science fiction spawns awards with the frequency that wookies have temper tantrums - new awards spontaneously erupting whenever a new niche is uncovered or the pressure of fans reaches a certain critical mass - and while many will say there already too many awards out there, I typically don't agree, and I'm only joking about the competition.

I've talked in public before about how I see a useful comparison between science fiction and contemporary art, and it's certainly a framework I find useful for viewing the whole gamut of science fictional prizes and the loyal camps/vocal detractors that tend to aggregate around both.

When I first became involved with the Clarke Award there was a vociferous little meme knocking about that the people behind the award were somehow deliberately selecting shortlist nominations with an eye for the literary crossovers over the core genre as part of some tacit / cunning / evil plan to position the award nearer the Booker Prize or equivalent. The thinking being that this would, somehow, deliver a respectability the poor organizers might otherwise feel they lacked due to the winner inevitably having a rocket ship on the cover or something. Not so much elevating geek culture as attempting to abandon ship.

Typically books by people like Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro or David Mitchell would be loudly pointed at as evidence for the prosecution, even if the real numbers didn't stack up when you delved deeper into the shortlist statistics.

Personally, if I were to choose a prize I think the Clarke Award is closest to modeling, I'd probably look beyond the immediate literary scene and point at something like the Turner Prize.

Both science fiction and contemporary art enjoy both a surfeit of movements and a plethora of willing detractors. Where Art has Pop and Modernism and Futurism, Science Fiction gatecrashes the movement party with an equally impressive roster of New Wave, Cyberpunk, Mundanistas and the New Weird.

Both the Clarke and the Turner are involved not just with choosing the best of a specific genre, but in defining the criteria for that genre in the first place. Is it Art? Is it Science Fiction? These are the first questions a judge needs to ask before they're allowed to start pondering on whether a particular work is any good?

All of this was on my mind when the latest shortlist for The Kitschies was announced recently.

Now in their third year, and scaling fast with the addition of new sponsors Kraken Rum, the Kitschies are a relative new kid on the awards block, and everything a gleefully geeky, upstart, web-savvy modern genre prize should be, so it's no surprise I've been paying them particular attention.

There's also the small matter of how their winners for the previous two years, The City & The City by China MiƩville and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, have managed to predict the winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Clearly this prize is on to something, and other than their impeccable taste in winners, one of the elements I like best about this new award is their emphasis on selecting works that best elevate the tone of genre literature.

As Award Director and Editor of the geek culture website Pornokitsch Anne C. Perry explains it:

"Our goal in creating this award was not just to bridge the gap between genre and literature but to prove that there's no gap at all."

That's a goal I'm happy to side with, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the organizers of this award will get their tentacles into next.

In the meantime I'll have to wait and see whether the Kitschie judges can make it three for three and call the winner of the Clarke again this year while last year's winner, this year's judge, Lauren Beukes, makes it clear that the future is anything but set:

"It's been a fraught and bloody process winnowing the nominees down to shortlists of just five, involving passionate fan-rants, general geekery, some very silly jokes and occasional outbreaks of threatened violence between the judges.

I suspect getting consensus on the ultimate winners is going to turn into even more of a knife-fight. A battle to which I fully intend to bring a mecha armed with autocannons."

The winners will be announced on 3 February at an award ceremony to be held at the SFX Weekender, and you can see the full list of shortlisted works on the Kitschies website here.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award will be announced on 2 May as part of the SCI-FI-LONDON film festival.