Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by Megan AM

Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by Megan AM

By Megan AM

If you base the current state of SF on the 86 publisher blurbs for books on the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke award submissions list, you’d think SF ended with Iain M. Banks, Michael Crichton, and Cormac McCarthy, and would have to assume current writers have nothing else to do but rehash the old tried-and-true formulas. Fortunately, some fresh, exciting stuff exists on the submissions list, which suggests this assumption isn’t true; certainly enough a make a reliable longlist to share with readers who would be grateful for a little editing. I hope this shadow jury project can help other readers parse out an interesting longlist.

My shortlist is primarily based on optimism– being impressed by the multiple things these novels are attempting to do– and, to quote Nina Allan’s recent introduction, “to pay sufficient attention to the ‘novel’ part of the equation.” It includes books I might not love, but I would like to see discussed in relation to more popular books that have a better chance of landing on the official shortlist. I have followed only one firm rule: I will not include any previous Clarke award winners. This omits Chris Beckett, Paul McAuley, China Miéville, Claire North, Christopher Priest, and Tricia Sullivan. In a couple of cases, this rule made my shortlist picks more difficult, but I’m a big proponent of the one-and-done rule (or won-and-done, rather) because it’s only too obvious SF awards culture likes to chase its tail.

In that same spirit, I have also chosen to set aside the celebrated The Underground Railroad  by Colson Whitehead, a novel I have read and been intrigued by its SF context, and which might have otherwise earned a position on my shortlist if it had been less famous.

After 86 books, including 23-ish space operas; 23-ish action-y thrillers of some YA/dystopia/hist-fic/cli-fi blend; a handful of SF-realism; a steampunk caper; a 1980’s reprint; and three books written by the same guy (all with “The Girl” in the titles); here are what I think are the six most interesting and promising choices on the 2017 Clarke award submissions list:

 

The Destructives — Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot)

Good Morning, Midnight— Lily Brooks-Dalton (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson)

A Field Guide to Reality — Joanna Kavenna (riverrun)

The Core of the Sun — Johanna Sinisalo (Grove Press UK)

Central Station— Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

The Lost Time Accidents — John Wray (Canongate)

 

(To be clear: This is not a prediction of the eventual, official shortlist.)

 

De Abaitua is one of the most interesting SF writers I have encountered recently, and this loose series of novels is cutting and complex. Brooks-Dalton seeks to blend Station Eleven style with a Kim Stanley Robinson focus; an approach I hope might provide an interesting comparison to whichever space story might end up on the official shortlist. Kavenna is a Granta award-winning author who toys with reality while remaining darkly ironic and humanist. Sinisalo, a star of the short fiction world, has produced a politically terrifying novel, reminiscent of John Brunner and Margaret Atwood, but with the creativity of the “Finnish weird.” Tidhar’s loosely-constructed novel about community at the base of a space station is bewildering and inventive. Wray’s ambitious take on time travel is literary and genre-bending, and has won praise from Marlon James and Jonathan Lethem.

It is my hope that my focus on these six novels will bring attention to good writing and depth of thought, while widening the conversation surrounding the Clarke award, the definition of science fiction, and what is actually ‘novel’ in this genre.

*

Megan AM is a lifetime SF fan, but a longtime sufferer of bland SF. She realizes now that this is the fault of the commercially-hyped SF publishing industry and spoonfed awards machine that insists on promoting cheesy, regurgitated SF, and she’s pissed off about all the good books she’s missed as a consequence. She blogs about her reading experiences at From couch to moon but she’s kind of bitter about it because it shouldn’t take this much work for a layreader like her to find inventive and well-written SF. She writes for no one.

21 Comments

  1. Niall 1 month ago

    I think it’s good that this is not a prediction, because I don’t think it’s a particularly likely shortlist — but in an odd way, it does feel realistically incoherent. It feels like the product of competing aesthetics rather than one aesthetic (would the person who championed Central Station really be the same person who championed A Field Guide to Reality?) — despite the 50% overlap with Nina’s shortlist. It’s fascinating how changing only half the titles changes the feel of the list.

    (There is an aesthetic obviously missing, though, which is the more conventional genre represented by, say, this year’s BSFA shortlist. I hope other jurors will cover those books…)

  2. Tom Hunter 1 month ago

    Just wanted to note that Claire North was only shortlisted for the award, she hasn’t (as yet) won the prize.

    Also, with reference to the ‘three books written by the same guy (all with “The Girl” in the titles)’ line I should point out that in some senses this is just one book. Small Press publishing being an exciting but often very budget conscious kind of a place, the book was published in print form in 2016 as three titles mostly because it’s quite long and the types of printers used by smaller presses can’t always handle single volume printings of that size. This put the publisher in something of a bind (sorry) so they opted to go three volumes for print but digital version being published in 2017 and thus a different year in Clarke submissions terms, will be as a single volume.

    We’ve opted to include 3 separate submissions in our lists because under these circumstances the judges have the option to consider it one book or three parts.

    • Megan 1 month ago

      Tom,

      My apologies to Claire North. She won the Campbell Memorial award that year, and I enjoyed the book very much. That was a good longlist. They always do good longlists. (Still, it wouldn’t have impacted my shortlist. Only the Sullivan and the Priest might have had a chance to make it on my list if not for my “won-and-done” rule.)

      Re: the guy with three books on the list (all with “The Girl” in the title”): Interesting story, but the frankness of my statement stands, and has nothing to do with the egos of anyone involved.

    • Kev mcveigh 4 weeks ago

      Hi Tom,
      Am I misreading you here? The three print volumes are eligible singly or collectively this year, but the digital version is eligible next year?

      Does this raise the spectre of the same work being shortlisted twice? Forgive me if I missed something but that seems potentially problematic.

  3. Nina Allan 1 month ago

    Not that I’m in any way forestalling what other shadow jurors might or might not pick, but would anyone argue that it is the job of the shadow jury to ‘cover the more conventional genre represented by, say, this year’s BSFA shortlist’? The Sharke remit lies precisely in opening up the genre to more scrutiny, which would (I would have thought) involve widening the conversation to include books that have not been discussed as much as they might have been within genre circles. To be more adventurous than the average fan award, in other words. And yes, I can definitely see the person who championed Central Station also being the person who championed A Field Guide to Reality. Tidhar and Kavenna are both innovative, adventurous, genre-literate writers with sound literary values. I don’t see a contradiction there at all. (And I think Joanna would really enjoy reading Central Station!)

    • Niall 1 month ago

      Obviously it’s your project, so what it stands for is up to you; but I’d suggest that there is value in aspiring to breadth of coverage. A big reason I would suggest that is because I would want to forestall any association of “conventional genre aesthetic” with a lack of ambition; unless you want to assert that, say, Occupy Me or Azanian Bridges lack ambition, which I doubt you do. Ambition could inhere in many aspects of a work, and one of the valuable things about a jury (for me) should be to bring competing definitions of “ambitious” — or “good”, more broadly” — into dialogue with one another.

  4. Megan 1 month ago

    Hi Niall!

    I’m thrilled you see what I’m aiming for: not only to list six books that most appeal to me, or sound like the best, but to also represent a wide scope of what’s possible in the SF field. No, it’s not a realistic list, which is a reality I find disappointing, short-sighted, and unimaginative. It may not be realistic, but I do think it’s a valid list.

    The “conventional genre aesthetic,” as you call it, is missing, and I swear I tried, oh how I tried, but, in the end… let’s just say there were too many good books calling my name, and the conventional genre aesthetic will undoubtedly get love in more visible places.

    The overlap with Nina’s list is interesting, partly because, as the other jurors could probably tell you, I was aiming for minimal overlap. I happened to be reading and loving the Sinisalo just before the subs list came out, but the Kavenna is a particularly serendipitous overlap because it was the first one on the entire subs list that jumped out at me as a promising unknown. It’s not available here in the US, so I ordered it having heard nothing about it, THEN I started researching it for my longlist. (It’s still making it’s long, sad trek from the UK to Texas.)

    “Would the person who championed Central Station really be the same person who championed A Field Guide to Reality?” I would! I hope people like me aren’t all that rare! 😀

    • Niall 1 month ago

      So far as Kavenna and Tidhar goes, my point is: Tidhar is published by a genre press (a genre small press, no less, the hardest of the core); the component stories were published in genre venues; the book is on the Locus Recommended Reading list; it fits into both a recognisable modern genre tradition (near-future post-cyberpunk) and a recognisable older genre tradition (the fix-up); it is right in the heartland. And people who like the book, like it for its science fiction virtues, its crammed and referential style and so on. None of those things are true of Kavenna’s book. That doesn’t mean that the same reader won’t like both, but to be a juror you need to rank the books you like, and I suspect most of those who put Tidhar in their top six will fill out their list with books like Ninefox Gambit, Occupy Me, Azanian Bridges; and most of those who put Kavenna in their top six will end up with a list more like Nina’s. They represent two different kinds of ambition and quality, and I think most people, when it comes down to it, will have a preference for one or the other. Which is why seeing them on the same list makes that list feel more like a real shortlist to me.

      • Megan 1 month ago

        Niall,

        I think it’s fair to say that you and I classify books very differently. We’ll have to revisit this when I’m more familiar with the books I’ve selected.

        • Niall 1 month ago

          I don’t necessarily think you and I classify things all that differently, but I think Tidhar and Kavenna are in general received and classified very differently, yes.

  5. PhilRM 1 month ago

    “They represent two different kinds of ambition and quality, and I think most people, when it comes down to it, will have a preference for one or the other.”

    See, Niall, I don’t get this. What attracts me to fiction is ambition and quality, independent of ‘kind’. And why shouldn’t it? I think very highly of Central Station, but although I hadn’t heard of the MacInnes prior to Nina’s posting (there’s no US version), having read the description there’s no power on Earth that will keep me from reading Infinite Ground. This strikes me as saying that the same reader is unlikely to appreciate both Peter Watts and Jeff VanderMeer, which: Hello! I’m currently in the middle of (and really enjoying) McCauley’s Into Everywhere, I thought de Abaitua’s If Then was brilliant and astonishing, and the best SF novel of 2015, hands down, was Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island.

    • Niall 1 month ago

      I have to say that I feel the fact that you perceive a wide variation in kind between the books you’ve just listed sort of makes my point for me.

      • PhilRM 1 month ago

        Since your point was “I think most people, when it comes down to it, will have a preference for one or the other”, I really don’t understand that reply.

        • Niall 1 month ago

          Right, sorry. What I mean is that I don’t think your list represents one thing and the other, it represents mostly one thing to a greater degree than you are recognising: literary sf by white men with a debt to the Ballardian strand of the field. In particular, if someone told me “I liked If Then, Satin Island and Annihilation, what should I read from the submissions list?”, then Infinite Ground would almost certainly be the first book I would press into your hands (give or take de Abaitua’s own novel) — it is the definition of “if you liked X, then read this” for that corner of the field. Nor do I think Peter Watts is as much of an outlier to your list as you seem to think he is: he may write with harder science, but he writes with a similarly chilly literary affect to most of the writers on your list.

          • PhilRM 1 month ago

            Niall: Thanks, now I understand. I’m not sure I quite agree that all of those authors are equally chilly (I wouldn’t classify McAuley as remotely Ballardian, and Watts would need to be warmed up by a couple of hundred Kelvin to *reach* chilly), but – “In particular, if someone told me “I liked If Then, Satin Island and Annihilation, what should I read from the submissions list?”, then Infinite Ground would almost certainly be the first book I would press into your hands (give or take de Abaitua’s own novel)” – guilty as charged. However, I think that’s equally true of the Kavenna, which, although I mentioned the MacInnes instead, is a novel that I find just about equally intriguing. And although you’re in no way responsible for the list of books I mentioned above – and the inference you’ve drawn from it is completely fair, I do have a taste for ‘literary SF… with a debt to the Ballardian strand of the field” – at the risk of dragging us further afield from Clarke-eligible novels, allow me to point out that, in addition to raving about Tade Thompson’s Rosewater in the thread on Nina’s shortlist, other recent SFF novels that have hugely impressed me are Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria (which I just caught up to last year – it deserved all the accolades it received, and her Winged Histories is in my TBR pile), Catriona Ward’s Rawblood, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, Nina’s The Race, and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, and although mil-SF is not really to my tastes, I did enjoy Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit – I don’t think I’d consider it award-worthy, but it’s so conceptually weird that it kept my interest.

            “I think Tidhar and Kavenna are in general received and classified very differently, yes.” Sure, but how much of that is just because they’re marketed very differently? One is from an SF imprint, the other is not. Dexter Palmer’s Version Control (sorry, I know this is another Clarke-ineligible book), which is also near the top of my TBR pile, is unequivocally SF and yet, because it comes from a mainstream publisher, it has also been received and classified very differently than it would have been if it came from a genre publisher. But why should the Clarke jury care about marketing? I also have to say that, even if I weren’t familiar with Palmer from his The Dream of Perpetual Motion, I would have snapped this book up immediately anyway because of its obvious debt to the Ballardian strand of SF. (Not having read it yet, I can’t say whether it’s chilly.)

            And I don’t think Tidhar’s Central Station is quite as ‘heartland SF’ as you do. “…people who like the book, like it for its science fiction virtues, its crammed and referential style and so on.” Yes, I completely agree with that. However, it also has very little in the way of conventional plot, and I think it is as much (or more) about its milieu as it is about its characters. And although it is technically a ‘fix-up’ novel, in the sense that most of its pieces were published individually, a number of those pieces were essentially incomprehensible fragments if you hadn’t read all the previous ones. (And he didn’t even publish them all in Interzone, so there were parts that I was missing! I was really starting to get kind of annoyed with him for publishing it that way.) In its completed form, I thought that the mosaic-novel whole was more than the sum of its parts, and was really impressed by it, but I think it’s pretty far afield from a conventional SF novel.

          • PhilRM 1 month ago

            I almost put Caitlin R Kiernan on that list instead of Jeff VanderMeer – but even though her output is almost entirely horror, she’s *much* closer in sensibility to Watts than VanderMeer is (only she’s chillier). I think you could quite reasonably describe Watt’s last couple of novel in particular as ‘Lovecraftian SF’ – just as bleak, only without supernatural elements.

          • PhilRM 1 month ago

            On further reflection, it seems to me that not only is Rosewater unquestionably Ballard-influenced, but in sensibility it’s not that far from Watts – not as overtly bleak, but in the long view… let’s just say that it’s not an optimistic novel. So that book may have to move into Column A. Hmm.

          • Niall 1 month ago

            “But why should the Clarke jury care about marketing? ”

            Obviously, the Clarke jury should try to ignore marketing (and reputation in general) as completely as they can.

            My argument in this thread is that I don’t really think it’s possible for an individual’s taste to be unresponsive to marketing and reputation, but that I think that a jury-gestalt’s taste stands a better chance of being independent of it than an individual does.

            The game I’m playing with my alternate-Clarke-timelines is because it’s hard for any individual to propose a shortlist that feels “real” to me, because an individual’s choices almost always have a coherence that a debated shortlist will lack. Megan’s list is so intriguing because for me, her methodology managed to reduce the coherence of her choices.

            (And do read the Palmer, it’s great.)

  6. PhilRM 1 month ago

    Megan, I should have said this earlier, but this is another really interesting list!
    I looked at but passed over ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ for reasons of personal bias: as an astronomer, I generally find that portrayals of astronomers and astronomy in fiction are jaw-clenchingly wrong, and just kick me out of the story entirely. (I imagine that biologists, historians, archaeologists, etc have exactly the same problem when it comes to portrayals of their fields.) But I would be happy to be wrong in this case, so I’m very interested to hear what you have to say about the novel.

    • Megan 1 month ago

      Phil,

      First of all, I like your username style. Second, I guess it’s reasonable to assume that there is more than one astronomer named Phil, and you aren’t the bad one. 🙂

      Glad you find my list interesting! I have my own concerns about ‘Good Morning, Midnight,’ which I will probably explore in my review. I can’t say I’ll be much good for reporting authentic astronomer characterization, but I’ll try my best. I’m usually more impressed when the characters come off as actual human beings, regardless of occupational profile, but, while I would normally, happily exchange authenticity for good writing, I do understand it can be particularly vexing when it affects your own area of expertise.

      After looking over your contributions to the discussions so far, I want to say that I appreciate that you seem to understand what this project is about, or are at least open to seeing the big picture.

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