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.