Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by Nina Allan

Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by Nina Allan

By Nina Allan

[Before I start, I would like to state for the record that for the purposes of the shadow jury I am pretending that The Gradual – written by my partner Christopher Priest – does not exist. As such I will not be considering it for inclusion in my personal shortlist, or talking about it in this post.] 

So here we are again – the submissions list for the 2017 Clarke Award has just been posted, and the speculation about the runners and riders can officially begin. I’ve been playing this game by myself for a number of years now, poring over the list, winnowing the wheat from the chaff, trying to arrive at a list of six books that I would consider my ‘ideal’ shortlist. It’s never easy. Out of the thirty to forty novels I would personally consider as genuine contenders – and for me that would be books that aren’t zombie/vampire/horror/fantasy novels with no science fictional sensibility or run-of-the-mill commercial SF – there are always around eight to ten I could pick quite happily, with the result that I usually end up feeling I’ve short-changed one book or another by not including it in my reckoning. This year, things are complicated and enhanced by the fact that I’m performing this hugely enjoyable exercise as part of the shadow Clarke jury. We’re all considering the submissions list and documenting our findings more or less in isolation, so it is perhaps inevitable that a multiplicity of tantalising questions arise: can I afford to leave book x off my shortlist in the sure and certain knowledge that at least one of my fellow jurors will pick it up? Is anyone else perplexed by the absence of y? What if we all pick the same six books??

Clearly the last is not going to happen, the second is inevitable and it’s dangerous to assume the first. But let’s start with what this year’s submissions list looks like overall. The first thing to notice is that the number of submissions is down from 113 in 2016 to just 86 this year. I say ‘just’ 86 – clearly that’s still a huge pile of reading matter. But can we draw any conclusions from this diminution of subs? I’m not sure that we can, and it may even be a good thing – by my (unscientific) estimate there are fewer superfluous submissions (those zombie novels I mentioned earlier) than there have been in previous years, which means less time-wasting. There are some notable omissions, though: where is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, arguably one of the more ambitious essays in science fiction in this or any year? Where is David Means’s Hystopia, a novel I felt so certain would be submitted I’ve already made copious notes about it in preparation? Ditto Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus. Where is Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims, a much more openly SFnal offering than her Kitschies-nominated The Panopticon?  There are a cluster of more outlier-y outliers that I’m personally sorry not to be able to consider on the grounds of their not being submitted – Carl Neville’s Resolution Way (possibly the most incisive imagining of Britain-tomorrow on this or any list), Matthew Hughes’s multi-stranded The Countenance Divine, Helen Sedgwick’s intriguing-sounding The Comet Seekers – as well as a similar cluster of those that can’t be considered because they’re not yet published in the UK: Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, Indra Das’s The Devourers, Mark de Silva’s Square Wave, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater (as sorry a miss from this year’s overview as Jennifer Brissett’s Elysium a couple of years ago).  Whilst we’re never going to know exactly why the missing eligible titles weren’t submitted – whether the author or publisher actively declined to send them in, or whether it was simply a case of their not knowing about the award (or indeed vice versa) it’s interesting to note that including this little list of omissions would bring the overall submissions back up around the hundred mark. What we’re not seeing, in other words, is any catastrophic decline in the numbers of science fiction novels being published generally.

Do I detect any grand, overarching themes among the submissions, an overall tone? Not really, not with eighty-six books in contention. But I couldn’t help noticing the continuing popularity of the post-apocalypse. In describing their authors’ work, a significant number of publishers’ blurbs and pre-press reviews make comparisons with Cormac McCarthy’s landmark post-apocalypse novel The Road. There are a disconcertingly large number of Station Eleven-style pandemics spreading through the submissions list, a liberal scattering of eco-catastrophes. These – refreshingly – do not include zombies. Could it be that the zombie novel’s festering pus-bubble has finally burst?

Something that becomes immediately apparent as I begin to try and narrow down my choices is how different my task is, in reality, from that of the official jury. By the time they go into their first judging meeting, the official Clarke jurors will have read all eighty-six submissions. They will be making their decisions from a position of total knowledge, as it were. They will have had to spend time on books that they knew from the outset were never going to make the cut, yes, but they will also have had the opportunity to make that rare discovery: a book they’d never heard of before or thought they wouldn’t like, only to fall passionately in love with it, insisting to the others that the shortlist wouldn’t be complete without its inclusion. This is the experience we long for above all as readers. As shadow jurors, our reading load is lighter – indeed, the majority of our personal shortlists will include books we haven’t even read yet – and our choices are, in a sense, going to be more predictable as a direct result of that. In compiling our personal shortlists, we are going to be more susceptible to our own internal biases, our previous reading knowledge, our preferred go-to style and type of science fiction. This is something we should at least be aware of, even if we can’t necessarily change it. The upside is that there are enough of us on the shadow jury to guarantee an excellent spread of titles, and interests for consideration and debate, which has of course been the primary motivator behind this project. With all of this in mind, here is my own shadow shortlist for the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award:

  • Matthew de Abaitua – The Destructives. Abaitua’s If Then was one of my books of the year in 2016, and initial reports suggest that The Destructives is even better. This was always going to be on my list.
  • Steph Swainston – Fair Rebel. I recently read and loved Swainston’s debut, The Year of Our War. I found Swainston’s thorny, forthright approach to speculative fiction to be thoroughly refreshing, her use and subversion of tropes original and brave. I’m delighted to see Swainston back in the game, and Fair Rebel is a book I’d be reading regardless of the shadow Clarke. Naturally it makes its way on to my list.
  • Johanna Sinisalo – The Core of the Sun. I reviewed Sinisalo’s previous novel, The Blood of Angels, for Strange Horizons back in 2014, and in spite of some caveats I’ve found the book has not only remained with me but gained strength in the memory. Sinisalo has never been afraid to write seriously about serious issues, and The Core of the Sun looks set to follow in that tradition. The premise of this novel – chillies as illegal drugs?? – is as weird as anything Sinisalo has come up with and might not have attracted me, had I not read the Amazon preview and found her writing and treatment of form as compelling and irresistible as ever. I’m seriously looking forward to this one.
  • Don DeLillo – Zero K. I talked earlier about internal biases, and anyone who knows me at all will know I tend to lean heavily towards the literary/experimental end of SF, and that by the same token I’m unlikely to waste time on a book I consider to be poorly written, no matter how intriguing the concept. As with the Sinisalo, the premise of Zero K – cryogenics this time – isn’t something I’d naturally gravitate towards, but just two pages into the preview I knew I’d have to include Delillo on my shortlist for the strength of his writing alone. Like stepping into a warm bath, the relief of pure excellence. If the substance lives up to the style, this could be something special. It’s also fantastic for the Clarke that the publisher – Picador – decided to submit it.
  • Joanna Kavenna – A Field Guide to Reality. I’ve been looking forward to reading this since its release – in fact I already own a copy – and so it was a pleasure as well as a surprise to see it turn up on the submissions list. I love Kavenna’s writing, and I greatly admired her previous Clarke-submitted novel, The Birth of Love (2010). The setting of A Field Guide to Reality – a parallel Oxford – is also irresistible. Bring it on.
  • Martin MacInnes – Infinite Ground. This is the only book on my shortlist that I’ve previously read and what a book it is, one of those rare texts you cannot believe is a debut and one I’d kill to have written. It starts out as what looks like a police procedural but rapidly morphs into something much weirder and almost demands a reread, if only to make proper sense of its final third. I’m already looking forward to seeing what MacInnes writes next and rereading Infinite Ground for the purposes of the shadow jury won’t be so much an imposition as an urgent necessity.

So – that’s my six. There are at least six more I could happily have included, a couple of which it’s been a real wrench to leave off. It wouldn’t be fair for me to talk about those at this stage, although I’m hoping to write a piece later on in the process about those books that would at least have been on my longlist, were the Clarke to institute such a thing. I will add that I’m fervently hoping that some or all of my near-misses will be picked up by my fellow Sharkes. And that Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives would definitely have been on my list, were it a novel and not a novella. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t hope other people will talk about it, or indeed pick it for their own shortlists…)

Lastly, there’s a part of this annual guessing game that normally consists in trying to predict which books the official Clarke jury will put on their shortlist. The great news is that this year I genuinely have no idea. There are no clear favourites, no shoo-in ‘big beasts’. Many of the entries from previous winners and nominees are mid-series books, and therefore – theoretically at least – less likely to make the cut. The field seems open, in every possible sense, which is the most exciting state of affairs that can prevail in an award like the Clarke. I’m looking forward to seeing what the official jury pick every bit as much as I’m looking forward to discovering the final selections of my fellow shadow jurors. Fortunately for me, I now have a stack of reading and writing to get through, which will undoubtedly make the time between now and the official shortlist announcement pass more quickly.

*

Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her second novel The Riftwill be published by Titan Books in July 2017. She enjoys arguing about books in general and science fiction literature in particular, and makes these arguments public from time to time at her blog, The Spider’s House. Nina lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.

21 Comments

  1. Niall 6 months ago

    I think one reason I like the shadow jury concept is that it stretches the alternate-history muscles you mentioned in your introductory post (Ash vs Perdido). Of your six, I’ve read and enjoyed two, and own three of the other four (the exception being DeLillo, who doesn’t really appeal); yet as you say, they are almost too-obviously coherent as a group to be believable as a real shortlist. Were it to become real, the framing would surely be the names snubbed: it’s not that it’s implausible to have a shortlist in which 5 of 6 are first-time nominees (all 6 were, a couple of years ago), but none of the books here has been widely-discussed by SF readers over the last year, it would seem to come out of the blue. So then the challenge is, imagine what a field in which this shortlist is the expected one would have to look like.

    (So far as overlap goes, I think that each of you should be obliged to include one book not covered by anyone else…)

    Thanks, also, for the list of omissions. I can add a couple more. Two are not particularly surprising, being mainstream-y edge cases that could easily have slipped under the radar: The Lamentations by Ilja Trojanow (modernist ecoterrorism, I think) and Versailles by Yannick Hill (surreal mega-mansion/VR, I seem to recall from Mr Hebblethwaite’s mention of it). One that very much surprises me, though, is The City of Woven Streets by Emmi Itaranta, given that her previous novel was shortlisted! I’m very surprised that didn’t make it into the submissions pile.

    • Nina Allan 5 months ago

      “(So far as overlap goes, I think that each of you should be obliged to include one book not covered by anyone else…)”

      Interestingly, this happened by accident anyway.

  2. I’m looking forward to reading this more carefully later on.
    Many thanks to the Shadow Jurors for sharing all this with us.

    Gerard
    Your Glorious Leader ®
    https://www.ScienceFictionBookClub.org

  3. Nina Allan 6 months ago

    Hi Niall,

    I really like your suggestion that each juror should be obliged to include one book not covered by anyone else. Too late for that this year, but definitely something that could be added to the playbook in the future 🙂

    I had vaguely heard of the Trojanow but the Yannick Hill is completely new to me – both interesting omissions, to be sure. I cannot imagine why Voyager didn’t submit the Itaranta – in fact the book seems to have had remarkably little coverage generally.

    I am sure I do get hung up on coherence when it comes to making these kind of selections, though I was very aware even as I made my choices how contrary they might seem when viewed in relation to the conversation generally. I could just as easily have picked a shortlist to include de Abaitua, Hill, Hutchinson, Sullivan, Swainston, Tidhar, which would have placed the emphasis entirely elsewhere. If I were to pick an ‘ideal’ SF writer from among my six, it would undoubtedly be de Abaitua, whose novels balance literary values with true science fictional sensibility to a degree rarely seen. I wish there were more like him!

  4. Niall 6 months ago

    We could have a shadow-shadow-shortlist of someone reviewing six books that weren’t even submitted. Fagan, Hill, Itaranta, Means, Trojanow, Watkins would be an interesting read.

    (Just to be clear, I didn’t mean to suggest that coherence is necessarily a vice: I’m hoping the other shadow shortlists tell their own different-but-clear stories about the year just gone.)

    • Author
      admin 6 months ago

      What a fantastic idea!

    • Victoria Hoyle 6 months ago

      That sounds like an offer to me Niall… 😉

      • Niall 6 months ago

        It’s fine, Maureen has it covered!

        (Although having seen Megan’s list, I’m starting to twitch in the opposite direction. I’m sure between you you will manage to cover, e.g., the books that have already been shortlisted for the BSFA award, right?)

        • Victoria Hoyle 6 months ago

          I don’t want to give too much away (suspense, suspense!) but I wouldn’t worry. We’ve each approached the shortlisting with different agendas in mind, so we’ve got a pretty good spread of titles from the unlikely to the likelier. Plus I think some of us are planning to write about books that didn’t make our shortlists, either because they interest us for different reasons or because we’ve already read them and have thoughts but haven’t chosen them.

        • That doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t try it, too. (Copious free time and all that!)

  5. Nina Allan 6 months ago

    I had more or less written a review of the David Means, in preparation 🙂

    I think you’re going to enjoy seeing what the others come up with.

  6. Oddly enough, Niall, I also have a side plan to write about some of the things that hadn’t been submitted.

  7. PhilRM 6 months ago

    I think this is a great shortlist. It’s not quite what I think my shortlist would be – mine would include The Gradual, which Nina left out for obvious reasons, and probably McAuley’s Into Everywhere – but I would be delighted if the actual Clarke shortlist was close to this. I’d not heard of the MacInnes; having read the description, I ordered a copy immediately.

    I was also disappointed in some of the books that were not submitted, especially Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, which is superb.

    Niall: ‘ …but none of the books here has been widely-discussed by SF readers over the last year, it would seem to come out of the blue. So then the challenge is, imagine what a field in which this shortlist is the expected one would have to look like.’ But isn’t one of the great things about a juried award that the shortlist doesn’t have to be the expected one?

    • It’s a source of great frustration to me that Rosewater is not eligible for the Clarke Award – it would definitely have been one of my shortlist contenders had it been available to us.

  8. Niall 6 months ago

    Maureen: I salute your ambition.

    PhilRM: yes, of course. But although they often include one or two unexpected titles, I think they are rarely unexpected in totality. More commonly I think they are barometers of the culture around them – the BSFA shortlist tells you something about the BSFA, the Nebula shortlist tells you something about SFWA, in concert they start to tell you about the wider field. The existence of a Clarke shortlist like the one above would imply things about the UK genre culture around it. Put another way: the Clarke has never in its life produced a shortlist like the one above. If it did, I would have to re-evaluate my assumptions about the genre culture I inhabit (in a good way!). But the subtext of my comment was that if I’m right that shadow-shortlists like this help me/us do the mental work of that re-evaluation now, perhaps they also start to make it more plausible that such a shortlist could one day exist in the world.

  9. andyl 6 months ago

    PhilRM: Yes Rosewater is a big omission, it would have made my list. Maybe the lack of submission was because Apex is a US company and so more disconnected from UK science fiction culture.

    • Niall 6 months ago

      Not just disconnected, actually not eligible; the criterion is publication on the UK, not that it’s by a British author.

      • PhilRM 6 months ago

        Niall: Well, that will do it.
        Sadly, Rosewater doesn’t seem to be getting much attention in the US, either. As far as I can tell, Apex has zero bookstore distribution, and the book doesn’t seem to be getting any publicity. Which is a terrible shame, because it’s an absolutely brilliant, original work of SF.

        • Niall 6 months ago

          I have got a copy, haven’t read it yet. I have read the story of his that was just shortlisted for a BSFA award, which is pretty interesting.

  10. Tom Hunter 6 months ago

    While there’s a part of me that always regrets the way a conversation about award lists seems to inevitably turn rather quickly to what’s not there rather than books in competition, here’s a few words on missing books – and yes, I know, I know, there’s no way this will ever stop being part of the conversation, I’m just obviously vastly biased on this.

    Moving on…

    The first thing to note is that, as others have pointed out, some books mentioned are not there because they are not eligible under our current criteria for the award. Those criteria can get blurry at times as publishing becomes ever more international and entwined, but we do work more or less to the original premise of the award as a UK prize that was established 30 years ago (and we do a version of that for indie authors too btw, who in a simplified way might be considered as businesses of one) .

    The call for submissions is a huge part of the behind the scenes organisation of the award every year, and involves an official call out to a huge list of publishers when we open for submissions as well as a lot of tracking of potential titles and a lot of one-to-one conversations with editorial and pr teams about particular books. Then there’s the chasing up when things don’t actually arrive and the hours trying to find the right person to speak to on the phone and the nightmare that is the merger of Penguin Random House into one giant switchboard from hell etc etc

    Anyway, even with all of this there are always books that don’t come in. The reasons for this are hugely varied, but most often we have had some kind of conversation on titles, been politely declined on the grounds of we’re not positioning the book that way, the author says no, or nowadays on the grounds of us having a submissions fee to name three, although we don’t always get a reason.

    For what it’s worth the list of non-submitted books above isn’t even complete, and there were others that I didn’t manage to get that we were keen on. It’s a shame when this happens, and I’d love to share them with you or to give details on individual decisions but I do make a commitment to privacy in those conversations I’m afraid.

    What I did want to say is that, while the answer from publishers may be no from time to time, the encouraging thing for me is that the conversations themselves have always been very friendly and receptive to the award in principle.

    One of the main reasons I chose to start releasing the submissions list was to showcase a snapshot of at least part of the SF scene in any given year and to show all the books being considered in the year so that when shortlist choices from outside the immediate genre were made, people would not be so surprised by them suddenly popping up as did often happen before we did this.

    While I welcome the highlighting of the books beyond the submissions list in one sense, I do hope the Shadow Clarke conversations doesn’t spin too far into a shortlist of non-submitted books territory for too long. It’s one thing for a shortlist, but when simply looking at books actively put forward I’m not sure how much it can add to that conversation unless I also publish a list of books we asked for but didn’t get and here’s the reason why (and, sorry, not going to happen).

    What this discussion definitely does show though is the huge porousness of the definition of SF when even one of its major awards is missing titles that some people would love to see discussed.

    Onwards!

  11. Laura Friis 6 months ago

    Steph Swainston! Yes! she does not get nearly enough attention for her gorgeous, strange, complex worlds and characters.

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