Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by David Hebblethwaite

Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by David Hebblethwaite

By David Hebblethwaite

Ever since the Clarke Award began publishing its list of submitted titles, it has been fun to try to guess what the shortlist might be. Of course, this is an almost impossible task, not just because there are so many options, but also because the judges will, most likely, be working from a deeper base of knowledge – they’ve read all the books; you or I almost certainly have not.

The task of compiling a shortlist is slightly different for the shadow Clarke juror, because there is more scope to set a personal agenda. What do I want my shortlist to be? This question came into sharp focus when I looked at the list of submissions, and realised that I wouldn’t want to shortlist any of the books that I’d already read.

So I have had to fall back on books that I would like to read. On that basis, I decided to orient my shortlist around the idea of discovery, focusing primarily on authors I hadn’t read much before, and taking note of a few strong recommendations from trusted sources.

In alphabetical order of author surname, my six titles are:

The Power — Naomi Alderman. This is the one title that, before submissions were revealed, I was certain I would shortlist (if submitted, which I expected it to be). Set in a future where women have gained the ability to discharge bolts of electricity, there was praise for it all over my Twitter feed around publication time. The only work of Alderman’s that I’ve read previously is her story in Granta Best of Young British Writers 4. I enjoyed it and was keen to try one of her novels. She’s a writer with feet in both ‘genre’ and ‘mainstream’ literary cultures, and I’ll be interested to see how that plays out in The Power.

The Many Selves of Katherine North — Emma Geen. I was first pointed towards this debut novel when I saw my fellow shadow juror Jonathan McCalmont praising it. It’s the story of a young woman tr who works projecting her consciousness into the bodies of animals for research purposes, and begins to suspect the motives of her employer. Would I have chosen to read this book on the synopsis alone? I honestly don’t know, but that’s where recommendations become so powerful.

Graft — Matt Hill. This selection is also based on a recommendation, this time from Nina Allan, and admittedly in respect of Hill’s first novel, The Folded Man. Still, this was enough to make me pay attention. when Graft appeared on the Clarke submissions list. The book promises to be a near-future thriller taking in themes of human trafficking and genetic enhancement. Well, there are a lot of near-future thrillers in contemporary science fiction, and they don’t always cut the mustard. I hope this one does.

The Gradual — Christopher Priest. I’m allowing myself one familiar author on my shortlist. I am a long-time admirer of Priest’s work, and have been excited at how his most recent books have pushed the novel form and drawn on themes from across his career. On the face of it, The Gradual sounds more conventional: a composer grows up in a fascist state that is constantly at war, and finds his perceptions of the world changed when he is sent on a cultural tour. But the novel is set in Priest’s mysterious Dream Archipelago, where reality is never certain; and I also hear that time travel is at play in these pages. I think this is going to be another singular work from Priest.

The Core of the Sun — Johanna Sinisalo (tr. Lola Rogers). I am the link between the shadow Clarke jury and that of the Man Booker International Prize, and I was hoping to include a title in translation here. Sinisalo has been on my to-read list for some time, so this is a perfect opportunity. Beside all of that, I just love the premise of a novel revolving around illegal chilli peppers in a state where personal welfare is the law. The Core of the Sun was an easy selection for my list.

The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead. I heard a lot of praise for Whitehead’s previous novel, Zone One, but never got around to reading it myself. I’ve heard a lot of praise for Whitehead’s new novel, and this time I’m going for it. The book is an alternate history in which the ‘Underground Railroad’ of escape routes used by African American slaves is not just a network of routes and safe houses, but an actual railroad. Sounds intriguing: on to my list it goes.

What will I be looking for in these books? I hope to be surprised, challenged, made to think again about important questions. I’ll be looking for books that pay attention to their writing, and find ways to embody in language the story they want to tell.

But if I don’t get any of that, and there’s a book here that makes me wonder what I was thinking in selecting it… Well, that’s all part of the Clarke experience too. Bring it on!

9 Comments

  1. PhilRM 8 months ago

    Now that everyone has posted their lists I took a look at some of the results. I also made what I think is an informative plot of how the jurors overlapped in their selections (in an earlier thread Nina had mentioned that she’d like to see a Venn diagram of the Sharke selections), but I don’t have any way of posting it here.

    No pair of Sharkes broke 50% overlap. Sharkes mostly had at least one book in common with most of the other jurors’ shortlists. The one person who really stands out is Vajra, but that’s more or less by construction, since he deliberately picked books that hadn’t been chosen by anyone else. (The Core of the Sun was his one exception.) Other than that, the one Sharke who is a bit unusual is Nick, who had 50% overlap with three Sharkes and zero overlap with three others.

    I also note that out of the total of 86 Clarke-eligible books, the 9 Sharkes collectively picked 27, so just about 30%. 13 out of those 27 came from non-genre publishers (I think). Out of all the Sharke lists, there was 1 book that appeared on 5 shortlists (The Underground Railroad), 3 that appeared on 4 (The Core of the Sun, A Field Guide to Reality, Central Station), 3 that appeared on 3 (The Power, The Gradual, The Many Selves of Katherine North), and 8 that appeared on 2 (The Destructives, Fair Rebel, Infinite Ground, Good Morning, Midnight, The Fifth Season, Occupy Me, Azanian Bridges, The Arrival of Missives). Thus a little less than half the total (12/27) were picked only by a single Sharke.

    The top-rated books (in terms of number of shortlists they appear on) skew a little bit more to non-genre publishers, but the numbers are small, so it’s pretty much a 50-50 split. In any case, it looks like some interesting reading ahead. (Perhaps a little too interesting: I already have three books on order. You folks are killing me.)

  2. Paul Kincaid 8 months ago

    If you saw some of the discussion we had prior to publishing the shortlists, there’d be even more overlap. Most of us had several books that nearly made our final list that anyway were picked by someone else. The thing I find interesting is that if we’d all picked a shortlist of, say, 9 books the final list wouldn’t be much longer than the 27 books we’ve got. Certainly all of my runners-up appeared on someone else’s list.

  3. PhilRM 8 months ago

    I forgot to mention that 3 of the 5 BSFA Best Novel finalists were picked by at least one Sharke (Occupy Me, Azanian Bridges, Europe in Winter.

    • Paul Kincaid 8 months ago

      By “one Sharke” you mean me: I picked all those three. Which rather surprised me, since I really did not like the other two BSFA finalists.

      • PhilRM 8 months ago

        Both Occupy Me and Azanian Bridges were also picked by another Sharke (Nick and Maureen, respectively), but fair point: you did single-handedly achieve maximum overlap with the BSFA list.

  4. Nick Hubble 8 months ago

    I’m going to be thinking about my unusualness now 🙂

    • PhilRM 8 months ago

      A number of very bad astronomically-themed ‘Hubble’ jokes crossed my mind, but to everyone’s benefit I didn’t post any of them. 😉

  5. Niall 8 months ago

    In this timeline … well, I think it’s probably another dispatch from the same timeline as Maureen’s shortlist, albeit with an almost entirely different set of books. Sorry, David. 🙁

    • David H 8 months ago

      *goes to remind self what Niall said about Maureen’s list*
      That’s interesting, seeing as I’ve never really followed the Kitschies.

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