Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by Maureen Kincaid Speller

Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by Maureen Kincaid Speller

By Maureen Kincaid Speller

I’ve thought a lot about the different ways I might approach this shortlist. Mostly, I have been guided by two things – does the novel offer me something fresh, and does it look like it might actually be science fiction? The second criterion is much easier to fulfil – the submissions list is awash with narratives about loners, dropouts and mercenaries making their living in the space lanes. And sometimes, as an added bonus they’re women, too, which means they also have to be kickass, because apparently, there is no room in space for ordinary women going about their business, in space, etc. I’ve always disliked ‘feisty’ as an adjective for a woman who gets on with her life. I’m now adding ‘kickass’ to that list. I’m also struck by how there seems now to be an entire sub-genre of what I can only describe as ‘blokey’ sf novels. Sometimes they also have kickass heroines, which tends to go about as well as one would expect.

Too much of this seems to me to be little more than rehashing very old ideas about how one might live in space, with extra added ‘omigod, there are women in space now, too’, just to make it relevant. In which case you’d perhaps expect me to be drawn to something like Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit, which I might be if I hadn’t felt that The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet read mostly like a ‘careers in space for girls’ novel, which had inexplicably dropped through a wormhole from the 1960s. I ought to have liked it – admin clerks do not as a rule feature in sf novels – but I’m done with ‘charming’. It was warm, cosy, and very typical of a certain kind of novel which taps into the zeitgeist and then five years later we’ll be looking at ourselves, wondering what on earth we saw in it. (I give you Exhibit A, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which drew plaudits in 1998 but seems utterly ordinary now.) This does, though, flag up an issue that I may want to address in the broader discussions around the submissions/shortlists, and that is how we address the future in terms other than the post-apocalyptic or ‘lads in space’ while not heading straight for the polemical. Because as it stands, I do not see myself in many of these futures.

Other novels I discarded included the middle volumes of series, novels that looked remarkably like fantasy novels (I’m fully intending to read N.K. Jemisin’s new series, as I’ve heard good things about it, and I love her earlier work, but the opening pages of The Fifth Season  spoke to me of fantasy world-building), new books by familiar authors – I’ve ignored novels by former winners as a matter of course. And I dropped a surprising number of novels because the sample pages on Amazon just didn’t capture my interest as I might have expected them to. Sometimes the writing was just bad, and other times it was so achingly beautiful I had the strongest suspicion it was aiming rather too deliberately for a particular effect: science fiction for those who don’t want to admit they read science fiction. Clarkebait, perhaps, but in this instance not sharkbait. Having said that, along the way I did find a few more traditional novels that I do want to read for their own sake, and reviews may pop up on my own blog later in the year, but they’re not what I’m interested in here.

I finally whittled the eighty-six down to a list of about a dozen books that were especially piquing my curiosity for various reasons, and last night went through the painful business of cutting that list in half. So, this is my shortlist.

 

The Many Selves of Katherine North — Emma Geen (Bloomsbury)

A Field Guide to Reality — Joanna Kavenna (riverrun)

Infinite Ground — Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books)

The Trees — Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury)

Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Azanian Bridges — Nick Wood (NewCon Press)

 

And this is my reasoning for my choices. The Geen attracts me in part because I’ve a soft spot for ‘woman into fox’ stories – it’s a niche market, but it definitely exists – but more seriously because I’m interested in what science fiction can tell us about identify, but also about our relationships with animal consciousness. Charles Foster’s rather strange attempts to live as various animals, Being a Beast may appear superficially jokey but The Many Selves of Katherine North seems to me to offer another way to address this intense curiosity we have.

Joanna Kavenna’s novel attracts me partly because it’s set in a version of Oxford, my home city, and I’m a sucker for anything about my home city; partly because it seems to be illustrated and I’m also curious about attempts to bring together text and art, especially as they are often so horribly unsuccessful and I want to see if this wins rather than loses; and mainly, because I like the sound of a novel that partakes of quantum theory and metaphysics, and I want to find out if a novel that might be about science might be science fiction too. And it has to be said that if one is going to read a novel about alternative or imbricated realities, it is interesting to begin from a place one knows well.

I chose Martin MacInnes’ Infinite Ground for the simple reason that I started reading the sample online and was utterly gripped by it. It’s literally the only novel on the shortlist by an author previously unknown to me that did this. It seemed worth following up for that alone, because it happens to me so rarely these days.

I’ve chosen Ali Shaw’s The Trees because the opening sequence reminds me a little of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, not literally but in terms of the way in which the ordinary is suddenly ripped wide open by nature intruding, finding its moment, and I want to see if that persists throughout the novel. Wyndham was pretty much the first sf writer whose work I read and enjoyed as a teenager, and that’s stayed with me through the years. Triffids is still one of my favourite novels and I’m curious to see if The Trees is in dialogue with it. I’ve read Shaw’s The Man Who Rained, which I rather enjoyed.

I’m curious about Central Station because I want to see what Lavie Tidhar, a boundlessly inventive writer, might do with a seemingly more traditional sf setting. I’m hoping he won’t disappoint me.

And finally, I’ve been reading Nick Wood’s short stories and liking what I read, so it is quite natural that I’d be interested in his novel too. I want to read more science fiction that is not set in the usual places and I’m interested to see what Wood is doing. If Tade Thompson’s Rosewater had been released in the UK in 2016, it would also have been on my shortlist.

Like Nina Allan, I’m intending, later in the year, to write about titles on the submissions list that didn’t quite make my shortlist, but for now, there is plenty to get on with reading. I’m very conscious that this is probably a very perverse shortlist, but I know also that my natural territory as a reader of sf is out in the debateable lands of genre, and that is reflected here.

*

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and reviewer. She is Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons, and Assistant Editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. She also reviews for Interzone and Vector. She is a former Arthur C. Clarke Award judge, and a former James Tiptree Jr. Award judge. She also blogs at Paper Knife.

11 Comments

  1. PhilRM 8 months ago

    A test to see if html tags work in the comments.

  2. PhilRM 8 months ago

    It will surprise no one who’s been reading the comments that I thoroughly approve this shortlist. What I wanted to comment on, however, was this part of your post:

    …very typical of a certain kind of novel which taps into the zeitgeist and then five years later we’ll be looking at ourselves, wondering what on earth we saw in it. (I give you Exhibit A, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which drew plaudits in 1998 but seems utterly ordinary now.) This does, though, flag up an issue that I may want to address in the broader discussions around the submissions/shortlists, and that is how we address the future in terms other than the post-apocalyptic or ‘lads in space’ while not heading straight for the polemical. Because as it stands, I do not see myself in many of these futures.

    Novels get acclaimed for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes, looking back, we wonder why. Others stand the test of time, but they are so sui generis that they don’t exert a very wide influence on the direction of the field. I would put former Clarke winner Vurt in this category, for example: a novel that I loved, but it’s so singular that even its more or less direct sequel, Pollen, is a very different and in many ways much more conventional SF novel.

    Then there are those that are acclaimed – possibly even zeitgeist-tapping – and enormously influential. I’d put Neuromancer into (possibly even at the head of) this category. But the reason it was so influential was not because he got the details right – cyberspace is nothing like Gibson imagined, we don’t have anything yet like the kind of immersive VR that’s so pervasive in the novel, there aren’t macho cowboy hackers roaming the streets (for which we should undoubtedly all be grateful) but because the things that concerned him – the distribution of technology and its social influence, the nexus of corporate and government power, the undermining of the latter by the former – proved to be so prescient. We didn’t get a future with the surface sheen that he pictured, but it is one in which the issues that he raised have only become more important, and that is why the impact of that novel extended beyond genre into the literary mainstream. (I also think this is why, until his recent return to unequivocal SF with The Peripheral, the tropes of SF gradually all but disappeared from GIbson’s novels – he no longer really needed them to talk about the things that interested him.)

    Which was probably a very needlessly roundabout way of getting to the point I want to make: I think some SF novels strike very hard at the field because they evoke futures that we can picture ourselves in**. This isn’t remotely the only reason for considering a novel award-worthy, of course, nor am I suggesting that this is the only reason why my example of Neuromancer won such widespread acclaim, but for SF in particular, which as a literature frequently prides itself on its ability to foresee the future, I think it’s a non-trivial component. (Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn – which I loved – is a much more recent example of a novel that I think evokes the same sense of utter plausibility.) And this is why I found your (completely understandable) I do not see myself in many of these futures statement to be very disquieting: what does that say about the kind of futures SF is envisioning?

    **This isn’t to suggest that you should have seen yourself in Neuromancer either, but that novel is more than 30 years old. I’d hope that by this point we could do better.

    • Late to my own shortlist party, first of all, thank you for your response, Phil. I’d rather thought my shortlist would appeal to you. I’m hoping it will appeal to me when I’ve finished reading through it.

      “I think some SF novels strike very hard at the field because they evoke futures that we can picture ourselves in.”

      I seem to have struck a chord of sorts with my comment about not seeing myself in so many of the futures I read. And as you say, it is disquieting, particularly when there is a tendency in some quarters to see sf as a boy’s game, or a man’s game, with a sense that many male writers find it very difficult to envisage female characters who don’t fit within a very narrow range of types and/or behaviours. It certainly reinforces a feeling I often have, that sf is much more conservative than it cares to admit to being, and part of that conservatism is expressed through either confining women to subordinate roles, or else imagining them as impossible, unreal beings. Which suggests that many of its futures are not at all healthy.

      (I loved Neuromancer when I first read it. Still do, though maybe always not for the reasons I loved it then. But when I think back, the way I mentally wrote myself into it was much more similar to how I wrote myself into Lord of the Rings as an adolescent, not as a female character but in disguise.)

  3. Megan 8 months ago

    Maureen,

    It seems Tidhar and Kavenna are pulling ahead with the most appearances on the shadow shortlists.

    I’m glad you decided to go with the Kavenna, as your Oxford expertise will undoubtedly inform my own reading. I’m also happy to see The Trees show up somewhere because it was a close call for me, and I’d regret not finding out more about it. Also, the MacInnes may have to be one of my extras, especially now that you and Nina have me interested and I can find little about it since there is not even digital version to sample here in the US.

    • I’m hoping my Oxford expertise doesn’t get in the way, to be honest. I have to remind myself whenever I watch/read something about Oxford that I’m reading/watching a fiction and ‘it’s not like that’ is not valid criticism.

  4. Nina Allan 8 months ago

    Something I’m finding increasingly interesting in these personal shortlists is the degree and nature of overlap. Victoria noted in the Booktube video ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uy3jtrl5zk8&feature=youtu.be&a ) she made about her shortlist that it was equally split between genre and non-genre imprints, for example. Here we have Maureen’s list, which is also split equally between genre and non-genre, yet it feels very different as a whole AND the two lists share only one book in common. Someone really ought to create a Venn diagram detailing all this!

    • Niall 8 months ago

      Including Paul’s shortlist, you’re now up to three books with three votes: Kavenna, Tidhar, and Whitehead. Per earlier threads, I’m actually more interested in who has the least overlap with their fellow jurors in total — which is currently Maureen and Victoria, each of whom have two books that nobody else picked.

  5. Niall 8 months ago

    (With apologies for the delay, and reminder that this is a thought-experiment alternate history rather than commentary on the actually existing award…)

    This is the timeline in which the Clarke shares less turf with the BSFA, and more with The Kitschies. The turning point was the infamous (i.e. mentioned by Nick in a previous thread) 2008 shortlist: since then, the shortlist has always featured genre nominees, but fewer than people expect, and usually not the ones they expect, either. There’s the sense that this Clarke is at the heart of the genre’s aesthetic tug-of-war, and although there’s a voluble readership delighted with the recent direction the award has taken — so exciting, so unpredictable, so fresh! — it’s not always clear whether the old readership is along for the ride, or even the established genre publishers, who have occasionally been heard muttering darkly in the afterparty about not bothering to submit the next year. (They always have, though. So far.) Is the Clarke actually changing the field it was born in, or is it drifting in the direction of a more loosely-affiliated readership? Does that matter? That’s the debate.

    • Nina Allan 8 months ago

      Interesting to consider this particular counterfactual in the context of a piece one of the other Sharkes brought up in conversation the other day (and that I’m sure you know about) in which Jonathan Lethem posits a similar timeline with Gravity’s Rainbow winning the Nebula in 1973 (http://hipsterbookclub.livejournal.com/1147850.html ) instead of Rendezvous with Rama. How long can the ‘project’ of science fiction survive when the genre seems hopelessly divided between defunct tropes (generation starships) and lived realities that are slowly becoming the preserve of mainstream fiction?

  6. Niall 8 months ago

    Also, so far as the books themselves go, this seems to me to be a shortlist that is centrally about perception and the subjectivity of reality. Which is an interesting thing for an SF award shortlist to be about in 2017.

    • That wasn’t the thought uppermost in my mind when I made my choices, I must admit, but yes, when I look at my shortlist in more detail, yes, I think you’re probably correct. I’m curious to see where that will lead me. I wonder if it is simply a reaction to my distaste for the defunct tropes.

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