Did the 1999 Arthur C. Clarke Award judges go stark raving bonkers and select the wrong winner? This question may or may not have been on everyone's lips after the presentation ceremony in the Science Museum, but the general reaction was slightly blank. Hardly anyone seemed to have read the winning novel, Dreaming in Smoke ...
Even its author, Tricia Sullivan, seemed unprepared for glory as she emerged from the extreme rear of the room. Her acceptance speech conveyed that she'd hated writing the book which had just bagged Sir Arthur's £1,000 cheque and ornamental bookend, and she thought it was her worst. Ah, modesty.
Dreaming in Smoke is an OK book, though some readers puked at the determinedly weird opening description of a computer disaster perceived by the wired-in heroine: 'The night Kalypso Deed vowed to stop Dreaming was the night a four-dimensional snake with a Canadian accent, eleven heads and attitude employed a Diriangen function to rip out all her veins, then swiftly crocheted them into a harp that could only play a medley of Miles Davis tunes transposed (to their detriment) into the key of G.' Gulp.
Indeed all six shortlisted books were pretty good. SF buffs reckoned the real contest would be between those with the most visible star quality: Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division and Christopher Priest's The Extremes. There was also some disappointment that the shortlist hadn't included Iain M. Banks's Inversions or John Meaney's nifty debut novel To Hold Infinity – both finalists for the BSFA Award, which is chosen by popular vote and rightly (according to me) went to The Extremes. But, but, but ... the point of a juried award is to get the experts' choice, not to rubber-stamp public opinion.
So was Dreaming in Smoke the unanimous choice of all four Clarke judges? The traditional code of omerta applies, but hints usually emerge. One current judge let it be known that the final debate had taken three gruelling hours – often it's settled in minutes. Another, John Clute, said flatly that it hadn't been an unanimous decision. Clute is no stranger to Clarke controversy. In 1993 he published a polemical attack on the jury for honouring Marge Piercy's enjoyable but unremarkable Body of Glass rather than the clear front-runner, Kim Stanley Robinson's blockbuster Red Mars.
It's no fault of Tricia Sullivan's that her victory seemingly emerged as a last-ditch compromise between deadlocked judges who may all have started with completely different winners in mind. I've been on the Clarke panel twice myself – never again! – and each time my own first favourite was immediately nobbled by someone perverse and insane enough to disagree with me. One year, a judge who shall be nameless didn't even bother to turn up for the final selection meeting ... just sent a note threatening to make a huge public stink if finalist X won. (It didn't, but for other reasons.)
Another theory beloved of sf fans is that besides these mere differences of judicial opinion, juries are influenced by a snobbish fear of being obvious. On this basis, Christopher Priest predicted beforehand that his 1999 BSFA Award win had probably killed his chances of Clarke's thousand quid – the panel would want to make a subtle, clever, different choice rather than endorse the popular vote of a lot of ordinary sf fans. A fiendishly plausible notion, but I don't really believe it ...
'Thank god that's over, never again,' said another 1999 judge, Tanya Brown, adding a few carefully chosen but entirely unprintable remarks about a certain fellow-jurist. She also urged your columnist to write about 'Mr Priest's charming offer to take me outside and give me a good kicking.' (Priest: 'She deserved it and I felt like it.') But this is a family magazine.
Poor Chris Priest had a hard time all round. His sf editor at Earthlight, John Jarrold, is another vociferous critic of the Clarke awards and – rather than rally round to support his author – boycotted the ceremony after predicting that neither MacLeod nor Priest, the only candidates he considered worthy, would win. Next day Jarrold sent me e-mail full of gloomy triumph: 'Told you so!'
Meanwhile the new judging panel is swotting up 1999 sf in readiness for the 2000 Clarke presentation – my own hot tip for eventual winner being Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. Unless the judges go stark raving bonkers again ...
Whenever David Langford remembers his Clarke judging stint, he suffers hallucinations of mice in tartan overcoats and yellow gasworks with bristles all over them.