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The Arthur C Clarke Award is given annually to the best science fiction novel first published in the UK in the previous year. The first recipient of the award, in 1987, was The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. At the time, I didn't pay much attention; I was six.

I'm not sure exactly when I did start conciously following the Clarke. As I was growing up and discovering SF it was just there, in the background. Sometimes I was vaguely aware that my Baxter-fandom could be justified by the Clarke nominations picked up by books like The Time Ships and Voyage. Sometimes well-meaning relatives used it as a guide: for my sixteenth birthday one of my uncles bought me a copy of The Star Fraction on the basis of the 'runner-up for the Arthur C Clarke award' tagline. At the time, when I tried to get into it I bounced straight off again, but I appreciated the thought. But still, most of the time it was just there - just One Of Those Awards, like the Nebula or the Hugo.

I think it was probably The Sparrow that finally did it. In the autumn of 1998 I went to university and joined OUSFG, whereupon I was promptly informed that I could choose a book for the society to buy and add to the library. Mary Doria Russell's exploration of religion and morality had won the Clarke award earlier that year, and had sufficiently intrigued me to be my first choice.

The book blew me away.

At the time, I was even more narrowly-read than I am now, sticking fairly closely to a diet of authors like Baxter, Hamilton and (by that point) Macleod. The Sparrow came from a completely different branch of the genre; I'd never read anything like it. I wanted to read more.

I didn't immediately rush out and read all the previous award winners, though; nor have I read every winner since then (in fact, to my continuing shame, I still haven't gotten around to Perdido Street Station. This year, for sure!). But I think it was from that point on that the Clarke list became something to be noticed; something credible. It was a guide to good books. It was something I could trust.

Now, I find that it's the Clarke list that, for me, defines the year's best science fiction. It's more relevant to me than the Nebula, and it's more reliable than the Hugo. It's usually bolder and more interesting than either. And I think this is because, crucially, it's not an award open to voting; the shortlist, and the eventual winner, are picked by a jury.

As a result, when snowking picked up a couple of tickets to this year's award ceremony in an auction at plokta.con, I got a bit excited.

When an actual invitation addressed to me dropped through my letterbox a few days later, there may even have been slight squeeing.

And when I was on the train on the way to the ceremony last night, I was all kinds of nervous. Oh, intellectually I could argue it was just a bunch of people in a room, but deep down I knew the truth: I was going to the Clarke Award ceremony!

The venue for the award was the English Heritage Lecture Theatre. In previous years it has been at the Science Museum, but for various funding-related reasons that's no longer viable; in fact, all told the award has had a rough year, and peake and brisingamen deserve recognition and appreciation for Getting It Sorted Out. There were a couple of hundred guests, all helpfully name-badged up. I mingled some, but spent much more of my time being overawed by the company: look! There's Stephen Baxter! And Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and Christopher Priest, and Paul McAuley, and China Mieville, and Geoff Ryman...

After about an hour of this (and, for those that wanted it, free wine), we were ushered into the theatre proper for the ceremony. peake gave a short speech praising each of the nominees, then handed over to Chris Priest (last year's winner) to make the announcement. And this year's winner (instantly blogged by Andrew, of course) is:

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

...Nope. Didn't see that coming. I'm not sure that anybody else did, either. And inevitably, of course, it's one of the two shortlisted titles that I haven't actually read (it's sitting on my shelf, along with its sequel, waiting for October, when the concluding volume of the trilogy is published and I shall read all three straight through).

In some ways, I wonder whether the result was about passion. There seemed to be a lot of intellectual excitement about Pattern Recognition and Maul, and some for Coalescent [1], but curiously little in the way of emotion. They are all books - at least, this is my experience - that speak to your mind, not your heart; and I didn't hear anyone seriously arguing for Darwin's Children or Midnight Lamp.

Quicksilver, on the other hand, inspires passion. Reviewers have tended either to love it or to hate it; I haven't come across many who are ambivalent (cue people on my friends list speaking up...). You could probably also argue that it was the most ambitious novel on the short list. For those who may not know, it's a vast sprawl of a story, set against the Enlightenment: the time of Newton and Leibniz and Hook and Locke when so many of the intellectual foundations of the current world were laid. It is, I'm told, an attempt to capture that moment; to understand the history of Western science. It is so big, and so complex, that there is an ongoing online project to fully annotate the text.

I loved Stephenson's last book, Cryptonomicon. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into Quicksilver, and into the other two volumes of the Baroque Cycle. It's not the book I expected to win (I guessed either Pattern Recognition or Maul), and for those of us with that particular geek-kink, the debate about whether or not it is science fiction has the potential to run and run. But unlike Pattern Recognition, where I have a clear opinion (it's not SF, though I wouldn't object to anyone nominating it in the Best Related Book category at the Hugos), with Quicksilver I get the impression that there is a real debate to be had - and in the end, I think that's one of the reasons why I like the Clarke.

[1] A brief historical note: I chose this journal name in February 2003, months before the book was published. Yes, I chose it because I'm a Baxter fanboy and wanted a Baxter-referencing name, but more than that I chose it because I like the word itself. In point of fact I do like the book, but I don't think it's his best. Really, you should count yourselves lucky; I was almost omegatropic
Does Jon Courtenay Grimwood go anywhere without China Meiville to hold his hand?

I'd echo your comments about the ACCA being the most relevent and like you I would put it down to the fact it is juried. I've read precisely none of the books on the shortlist though so I can't actually say anything about this year's award.
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Maybe he was in disguise. In a really really good disguise.
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Passion is part of it, it always is. But it was more than that. Without revealing the secrets of the judging meeting, it was the book the judges consistently rated highest in terms of daring and ambition, novelty, relevance (everyone who simply dismisses the book as a historical romp is missing an awful lot of references that link the book directly to our modern information age). And as science fiction, yes it tests the limits of the term, but in important ways that make us question what we really mean when we talk about sf. It was a fascinating debate, and I think a worthy winner.
And inevitably, of course, it's one of the two shortlisted titles that I haven't actually read

Inevitably of course? Tsk, Mr Harrison. Tsk.
I should point out that I wrote most of the above in a burst of enthusiasm when I got home at 12:30am last night. :-p
Yes. Yes, you should.
Playing a guessing game based on how I thought the jury might go, rather than on actually what I thought of the books (not having read Bear or Stephenson, or quite finished Baxter), I wasn't too surprised at the result. I didn't think Darwin's Children would get it (there's always one book on the shortlist that you just know won't get the award, and this year it was Greg Bear). I also though Midnight Lamp was unlikely - not, perhaps, different enough from, or as good as, Bold As Love. After that, I found it very difficult to guess which out of Pattern Recognition, Maul and Quicksilver would win, with Coalescent having an outside, but definitely not negligible, chance. Maul was what I wanted to win, Pattern Recognition what I thought might just edge it, regardless of my own agreement with you that it's not sf.

I find it interesting to note (and this is meant as comment, not negative criticism) that, since Quicksilver is, AFAIK, part one of a novel spread over three volumes, not even the first in a loosely-connected series, previous juries might not even have allowed it onto the shortlist.
The two I hadn't read were Quicksilver and Midnight Lamp. My thought process went something like this:

Darwin's Children won't win because I know it's rubbish. Midnight Lamp won't win because I haven't heard anyone say anything good about it. Coalescent won't win because it's not as good as Pattern Recognition or Maul. I'd prefer Maul, but I think there's a better vibe about Pattern Recognition; still, could go either way. Quicksilver I had down as a wild card, but then completely forgot about it when it came to the actual ceremony. :)

part one of a novel spread over three volumes, not even the first in a loosely-connected series, previous juries might not even have allowed it onto the shortlist.

Well, four out of the six were part of a series in some way, so this jury clearly had a more flexible interpretation of the guidelines! I think in general I'm more comfortable when fully standalone novels win (and I think 2004 is shaping up to be a strong year for standalone novels, so yay for that), but I can accept books that are the start of a sequence, like Quicksilver.
There are no guidelines. We don't even define 'science fiction'. It is up to each individual jury to decide what counts as sf, what counts as a novel, etc. If we ignored parts of series, in today's publishing climate, we would be hard put to find a short list each year. As it is books that are part of a series have frequently been shortlisted for the Award - and have won in the past (witness Bold As Love for example).
I appreciate that there's nothing set in stone, or even ink. Nevertheless, at least one former Clarke judge has said in a public forum that there's often a notion that to make the shortlist a book should, in some ill-defined sense, 'stand alone'. My impression is that first books in a series, such as Bold As Love, tend to make the shortlists more so than later ones. And certainly, when I was discussing possible shortlist contenders with various fans towards the end of last year, the opinion was expressed that Quicksilver was unlikely to make the Clarke shortlist, because it didn't sufficiently stand alone.

I'm not saying that it was wrong for Quicksilver to be on the shortlist and win, nor am I suggesting that it would have been wrong for a differently-constituted jury to have excluded it. As you say, each individual jury has the right to determine its own terms of reference. As I say, I'm merely offering this up as interesting (to me, at any rate) cultural comment.
The only reason (or at least the main reason by a significant margin) that I prefer the idea of a standalone winning is that it's easier to point my friends at it and say 'look! This is good sf!'
...(witness Bold As Love for example)

Although I think it's the only example -- at least of a winner which was avowedly part of a series rather than a book that subsequently spawned sequels.

While not disputing the general point about series works, my sense is that series books are relatively under-represented, and that second-and-subsequent volumes especially so. In that respect, this year's list with two book-ones, one book-two and one book-three is I think notable.
to my continuing shame, I still haven't gotten around to Perdido Street Station.

Me too. Bad SF reader, no biscuit!

They are all books ... that speak to your mind, not your heart

Interesting. For me (and for most mainstream reviews of it that I saw) Pattern Recognition was Gibson's "warmest," most emotionally involving book in a long time.
They are all books ... that speak to your mind, not your heart

It's my guess that this might be an essential difference between genre sf & 'non-genre sf', such as The Handmaid's Tale.
Ah, well, you see, I haven't read any og Gibson's other books. For all I know, it may be hugs and puppies compared ot Neuromancer.

Yes, I haven't even read Neuromancer. I'm actually just a big fraud.
No accusations of fraud here (see previous admission re: Mieville).

Neuromancer is a very cool - in both senses of the word - novel, and worth reading if only because of its huge influence on the genre.
And absolutely unbearable to non-sf fans... :(
It's not particularly bearable for those of us who do consider ourselves to be fans. But agreed, it's not something I'd want to point at as a good introduction for getting someone into SF.
Sorry, that should read "some of us..." (well, me).
Neuromancer isn't the best intro.
I'm in the last 100 pages or so, so will be posting my review in coming weeks ... the short version review:

it's really really good! Nothing at all like 'King Rat.'