Chair of Judges speech for the 34th presentation of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Arthur C. Clarke Award
5 min readSep 23, 2020
The Clarke Award shortlist six

When a judging meeting that you happen to know is for the Clarke Award starts off by sounding like it is for a Wyndham Award, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

I’m not entirely sure if this has been a cosy catastrophe — I don’t remember Wyndham predicting the Toilet Paper Dearth or the flour shortage — but then his novels are much darker than we thought they were fifty years ago.

The judging this year mostly took place from our individual bunkers via the media of Zoom rather than face to face.

We’ve seen Alien, we know the quarantine procedure.

Any joking aside, I’d like to thank the judges — Farah Mendlesohn and Chris Pak for the Science Fiction Foundation, Alasdair Stuart and Stewart Hotston for the BSFA and Rhian Drinkwater for Sci Fi London — for keeping the award discussion going in very difficult circumstances. I was rather relieved that at the final, lengthy, meeting we were able to choose a winner for the Clarke Award — a winner, not two, and we certainly weren’t going to decide that the prize should be split six ways. As always, none of us was clear which book that winner would be even after a couple of hours of discussion.

It might be David Wellington’s The Last Astronaut, the most Clarkean of the shortlist, in which an object which appears to be artificial rather than natural has entered the solar system. A space mission is scrambled to investigate, captained by Sally Jansen, whose previous flight ended in disaster and whose need for redemption may not help her team. The novel nods to Rendezvous with Rama and 2010: Odyssey Two. Here we have an encounter with the truly alien, firmly in the sfnal tradition of First Contact.

Or it might be Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, which is in conversation with Heinlein rather than Clarke — most obviously Starship Troopers, but also “All You Zombies”. Dietz joins the military in a war against the Martians and is teleported into various war zones. Except Dietz does not experience the war in the same way as the other soldiers — something odd is going on. Our judges felt it was a novel which subverts everything, but especially military sf, labelling it as extraordinarily clever and hopeful and kind.

Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night takes another traditional story from the sf playbox — although this is perhaps more Asimov than Clarke or Heinlein. This is set on a tidal-locked planet, January, colonised by descendants of a generation starship, where Sophie finds herself exiled from her home city and left to die when she takes the blame for someone else’s crime. But the monstrous inhabitants of the planet, known by humans as crocodiles, are actually an intelligent species. Our judges were fascinated by the representation of reverse colonisation, by the complex politics of the book and its characters, and by the processes of negotiating between the people, the aliens and the planet.

A history of colonisation and independence is outlined in Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, a family saga set in Zambia from the time of it being called Rhodesia to the post-colonial era of Rhodes Must Fall and beyond. It is stealth science fiction, as we follow the parallel lives of successive generations of an extended family. Our judges loved the way the novel draws attention to the science fictionality of everyday events and the complex shades of grey characters — not to mention the remarkable set of female characters.

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire also explores imperialism, as Mahit Dzmare. Mahit, ambassador for Lsel Station, takes up her position at the court of empire of Teixcalaan. We are, perhaps, in Le Guin territory. Mahit wants the best for her people and doesn’t want them to be absorbed by the empire. This is Mahit’s first posting, and her predecessor has been murdered; her own political interests are almost inevitably going to by mixed up with Teixcalaan’s court intrigues. Our judges found it to be a dazzling and intense creation of an alien culture which was incredibly well-written.

And, finally, it might be Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls, where revolutionary Stefan Advani has been arrested in the city of Shadrapar and has been exiled to a hellish prison island. It’s a close-run thing as to whether the guards, the other prisoners or the inhabitants of the planet will kill him first, but it might be that Advani’s literacy will give him a means of escape, in addition to his strange mental powers. This is a Dying Earth novel, with echoes of Jack Vance and M. John Harrison, and our judges loved the epic landscape and immersive environment. They suggested that it was also a novel about blindness, about what isn’t seen.

As I hope I have made clear, each of the novels, in its own way, engages with the history of science fiction and rewrites that history. Almost all of the novels featured viruses, diseases or plagues, but we’ve perhaps had enough of thinking about that. These books make us think again about the colonisers and the colonised, about forms of power, about gender roles and racial identities, about us and our environment.

We have six very different novels, but only one winner, and this year I’ll have to imagine the sense of anticipation you are feeling.

I hope you love the winning novel as much as we did.

Andrew M. Butler is a British academic who teaches film, media and cultural studies at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is a former editor of the BSFA’s magazine Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association and was membership secretary of the Science Fiction Foundation. A judge on the juries that gave the award to The Sparrow and Calcutta Chromosome, he is currently the non-voting Chair of Judges.



The Arthur C. Clarke Award

Stories, interviews and news from the Arthur C. Clarke Award science fiction book of the year.