By Nick Hubble
These are my personal thoughts on the process and not in any way a collective position.
So, what did we achieve here?
If nothing else – apart from a few good jokes floating around the web about who has read which Iain Banks novels – we have demonstrated why the actual Clarke Award juries don’t make their deliberations public. Nevertheless, I do think the level of discussion and analysis we have provided has been a positive feature even when this has provoked a certain amount of pushback. There hasn’t been a hidden agenda and the motivations and various criteria used by members of the shadow jury have become reasonably clear across the process. Anyone looking at the project from the outside is in a position to weigh up the assumptions and judgements made and to criticise these for deficiencies; and, of course, a number of people have done this. I have found it interesting to read the discussion on File770 and twitter as well as on the comment boxes on the Sharke posts themselves. Some of this seems fair and some seems unfair; but that is often the way of things.
The criticism that threw me the most was the suggestion that the shadow jury project was reminiscent of the Sad/Rabid Puppies. I just didn’t see this at all at first and if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the people saying this kind of thing were respected progressive voices in SFF circles, I would have simply dismissed it as malicious trolling. I remained puzzled for some time and was trying to construct a narrative in my mind that this was about the term ‘literary’ – which is historically problematic as a scale for measuring quality – and that the Sharkes were being suspected of pushing an elitist, nostalgic and narrowly prescriptive view of SF. This would be a mirror-version of the Puppies, in which rather than the desired aim being a return to the ‘good old-fashioned adventure yarns’ of the Golden Age, the sought-after outcome would be perhaps the most intransigently-experimental literary avant-garde post-New-Wave anti-SF imaginable, with lashings of smug British irony. The very act of writing that sentence makes me realise that there is perhaps a smidgeon of truth in the allegation because I’m suddenly filled with a momentary desire to read exactly such a text! Is there some way we could, I don’t know, set up a publishing house and produce a raft of such works with the aim of rigging the submission process for the Clarke? No, is the short answer. Unlike the puppies, who did successfully rig the Hugo nomination process, there is no way the Sharkes could rig the Clarke. I think when this is looked at rationally, once the dust has settled, nobody is going to seriously argue that the Sharkes are structurally comparable to the Puppies. Having said that, though, I think the discussion of this possibility was perfectly valid. The public political climate of both the UK and the US is now such that there can be no easy assumptions and every cultural proposition has to be examined and questioned very closely indeed.
There is a genuine variety of opinion over the ‘genre-literary’ spectrum of SF. As I’ve written before in this project, I think accentuating the divisions between these two categories is unnecessarily divisive as SF has always incorporated works from across this spectrum and indeed the mutual relationship between the two is arguably what constitutes SF. The Shadow Clarke Jury have been perceived, with some justification, as pushing the more ‘literary’ end of this spectrum. The justification for this (I would argue) is the idea that the shortlists should be more representative of the range of works on the submission list as a whole than perhaps they have been in recent years. The Sharke list was published before this year’s official shortlist and therefore not intended as a corrective to that in particular, but as an example of a consensual way of generating a shortlist (as opposed to deriving a list by ‘horse trading’ between individual jurors championing different works). The Sharke list was never intended as a prescriptive list of what good SF should look like and I think just about every member of the shadow jury has now changed their mind on the exact composition of that list anyway. In any case, however, I don’t think that the value of this project resides in the alternative shortlist but rather in the fact that it (and the process of producing it) has widened the number of books read in connection with the award. The pleasure in reading I derived from the project was not directly related to particular novels but more generally from reading texts alongside each other such as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Aliya Whitely’s The Arrival of Missives, Emma Newman’s After Atlas, Martin McInnes’s Infinite Ground, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, and Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality. Sure, you can divide these up into different categories but you can also read across them, looking for points of comparison and divergence, and thinking more generally about the range and possibilities of imaginative writing.
The context of the project
I see the origins of this project as lying in the 30th anniversary of the Clarke Award in 2016. I started thinking about this when I wrote one of two ‘Thirty Years On’ pieces (the other being by the chair of the Clarke Award judges, Andrew M. Butler) that were published in Foundation 123. Subsequently I was on a panel discussing ‘30 Years of the Arthur C. Clarke Award’ with Nina Allan, Claire Brialey, Edward James and Niall Harrison moderating at Eastercon 2016, a transcript of which is due to be published in Vector at some point. A lot was discussed but two points seem especially relevant to the Shadow Clarke project in retrospect. The first is that from its inception, the Clarke Award has been dogged by controversy concerning the boundaries of what is considered SF to the point where that very discussion might be considered an integral part of the Award (i.e. it is not a hostile incursion led by the Sharkes). The second, as raised by both Nina and myself, was the importance that critical discussion and argument surrounding the Award during the first decade of this century in the comments section of the Vector editorial blog, Torque Control (run by Niall Harrison during most of this period) had been for our respective personal engagement with the Award. The upshot of the discussion was a tentative agreement that it would be good if a critical public sphere surrounding the Award could be rebooted. It should be noted that this activity predated the announcement of the 2016 Clarke shortlist (let alone the announcement of the 2016 winner which wasn’t until after the Hugos in late August).
Subsequent discussion of the Clarke rumbled on over the summer of 2016, in particular via Martin Petto’s blog, and included debate over whether a longlist might be one way of promoting interest in a wider range of novels than only those which make the final shortlist. While the Clarke Award administration clearly doesn’t want to do that, they were considering the possibility of simply having a longer shortlist if submission levels remained at the levels of recent years. As we now know, though, there was a drop in submissions this year and so the shortlist has stayed at six books. At some point late in 2016, Nina emailed me about this project and asked me if I wanted to take part. I explained where I was coming from at the beginning of the project but you never know until you do something neither how it is going to work out nor how it is going to affect you? Simplifying a bit, the trajectory has been one of initial enthusiasm, then a bit of a slump in morale when the going gets difficult and finally a more nuanced and cautious belief in, and optimism, for the project. On one level, this is the trajectory of most projects that don’t completely fall to pieces. It was also conditioned by external events – the political horror show that is the UK at the moment, the death of a relative, the academic unit I work in being placed ‘at risk’ by university management (which subsequently turned out to be a ‘mistake’) – and, of course, reaction within the SFF community to the Sharkes. As I have said above, I do believe that it was right for people to assess the project critically – we can’t, after all, call for a more critical public sphere and then complain when people subject the project to some scrutiny and even directly challenge it – even if I think some of those responses were disproportionate. Thinking about in retrospect, my personal opinion is that the project should function differently in the future if it is to continue running.
What could be done in the future?
I think the initial phase of the project, in which a range of books from the submission list were looked at in depth, was particularly successful. I felt that this process did give a much reliable snapshot of the current state of the field than any shortlist could ever do and it brought some attention to novels which otherwise would not have got that attention. It seems to me that this phase could usefully be extended by involving more reviewers – or linking to reviews on people’s blogs – in an attempt to bring together a review for everything on the submission list, or at least as many as possible. Then everyone involved could draw up their own shortlists and perhaps use a range of criteria to do so. I think this would generate diversity and a dynamic sense of engagement with the field. To enter into the spirit, rather than running their annual competition to predict the actual shortlist, the Clarke Award could run a competition for people’s individual shortlists with rationale, and publish the best ones. All of this would function to help build up a critical public sphere around the Award.
In contrast, I found the actual ‘shadow jury’ aspect of being part of the shadow jury the most problematic. At times, there was a danger of the project becoming repetitive by publishing endless reviews of the same finite group of books. In fact, I personally failed fairly spectacularly with respect to this part of the project, as the only two novels from the actual shortlist I have written about at all are The Underground Railroad and Ninefox Gambit. (For the record, the former would get my vote for the award but I could also live with the latter winning, although I’m sure Lee will go on to write many better novels). My failure to write about Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me is perhaps my worst omission because it was on my own list as well as the actual shortlist. I liked this rather more than my fellow Sharkes (enough to be happy if it turns out to be the winner) because I felt the experimental aspect worked. The principal difficulty I had writing about it was that I had already reviewed it at length for Foundation 125 – I think there is some prospect that this along with other Foundation reviews might find its way online in the not too distant future. So, to summarise, I don’t think I really contributed too well to this part of the project but even if I had it would have only added to the danger of the whole thing sliding into overkill. For this reason, I think I wouldn’t choose to be involved in this element of a future shadow jury project, as opposed to writing about books from the submission list.
There is another future possibility – indeed I’m sure there are many and hopefully people will propose some – that excites me and this is the prospect of building on this project to produce a wider critical engagement with the political and cultural values of contemporary SFF in the second decade of the twenty-first century. One of the things I have come to think while working on this project is that while the discussion around the Clarke Award is the obvious place to nurture a wider critical public sphere around SFF in the UK, it is probably not sufficient in itself to sustain that entirely. In the final analysis, debating which is the ‘best’ book out of six has its limitations. As has become apparent to me partly through writing my contributions to this project, I would like to see a wider critical debate around SFF as the literature of the twenty-first century, as a unique blend of genre and literary devices, with the potential to interrogate and change consensus reality. People make comparisons between today’s politics and those of the 1930s but one thing that characterised the 1930s and contributed to the ultimate defeat of totalitarianism was the strong literary and critical culture of the left. At that time, imaginative literature and a critical public sphere were supported by a network of small magazines, journals and book club meetings. We need a twenty-first-century version of these structures for SFF and I intend to direct my energies in that direction.
Nick Hubble is an academic working in the English department at Brunel University London, where they teach modern and contemporary literature, including Science Fiction and Fantasy. In addition, they have reviewed SFF for journals including Strange Horizons, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foundation and Vector.