By Victoria Hoyle
I sat at my computer last Tuesday morning, flicking between my work and the Clarke Award twitter feed, waiting for the submissions list to drop. When it finally did and I clicked through, with trepidation and a flicker of excitement, my first thought was: there are fewer eye-catching features in the Award’s 2016 landscape than I was hoping for. By which I mean, the list felt very flat.
As I scrolled down the 86 submitted books the wildcard submissions seemed fewer and further between than in recent years. The avalanche of self-published works that some anticipated didn’t materialise – submissions were actually down this year overall – but it looked as though a lot of other submissions hadn’t materialised either. A brief and unscientific comparison between 2016 and 2017 lists for example, seems to suggest a decrease in submissions from ‘mainstream’ or non-genre imprints – 36 in 2016, 28 in 2017 (with 20 imprints and 17 imprints submitting respectively). There were some books in this category notably absent. The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (William Heinemann) for one, Hystopia by David Means (Faber & Faber) for another. I’d also hoped that Salt might take a punt on Wyl Menmuir’s uncanny dystopian fable The Many; and Galley Beggar Press on Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge. The fact that the ratio of books by women has fallen this year (from 33% of the total to 28%) may be attributable to the drop in submissions from non-specialist imprints who, as a fellow shadow juror pointed out to me, are far more likely to publish female writers of SF. Putting aside any arguments as to whether or not the books I’ve cited are SF, and without reading too much into a two-year sample, the 2017 submissions list certainly has a narrower focus than I’d been led to hope. The options it leaves me with are more conventional than I’d hoped. Which is not to say that there aren’t challenging provocative books on the list; more that they stick out to me like skyscrapers in suburbia.
After the launch of the shadow jury there was a flurry of tweets and blog post comments about the idea – some quite negative or dismissive, others positive – that situated the Clarke Award in a historical context that I hadn’t fully appreciated and reinforced battle lines that I was only peripherally aware of. One of those battle lines, as satirically expressed by the @ShadowClarke Twitter feed, is between ‘fans’ and ‘academic’ commentators. The Shadow Jury has been positioned on the ‘academic’ side of this debate, which also pits certain ways of reading and relating to things against one another. I was reminded that, quite apart from being an exercise in critical judgement, a prize also has emotional and personal significance. It resonates deeply and broadly, beyond the single year in which it takes place; the debate around each incarnation goes well beyond the question of ‘which book is best’ to ‘which book most represents the community I belong to’.
In my introductory post I confessed that I was a genre outsider, a ‘dipper of toes’, and this week has taught me that the Clarke Award has a genealogy of debate, controversy and triumph that I have no connection to and little knowledge of. It made me more cautious than I would otherwise have been when confronted with the 86 book list in the privacy of my own thoughts. While outsiders have a right to speak and to voice an opinion, they also have a responsibility to recognise different perspectives. The Clarke Award, in a sense, belongs to other people, whose lives are bound up with it through passion, long term friendships and love. I don’t want to appropriate anyone else’s past or present space. So I’m aware that this is a potentially controversial thing to say but my modus operandi going into this project was honesty and so: in my opinion SF imprints in the UK aren’t publishing the most exciting books or are publishing them less frequently than they should. This has had an impact on the breadth of the Clarke Award submissions in a year when fewer non-specialists have thrown a hat in the ring. It begins to limit the debate that’s central to the Clarke Award – about what science fiction is – before it’s even got started.
The first question for me in pulling together my own personal shortlist was how to engage with what I perceived to be a limitation, how to shape a list that allowed me to explore my own perspective in conversation with other people’s. Since I couldn’t read all 86 entries prior to my decision I didn’t feel comfortable using ‘best’ or most worthy as criteria. I also didn’t want to head straight to the skyscrapers because, comfortable as I would be with that, those books didn’t give me an opportunity to engage with the fan vs. academy discourse. What I wanted then was a shortlist that took into account my own interests while including popular much-discussed titles, titles that had genre stamped all over them. In other words, a shortlist that mixed challenge with comfort zone to make a critical unit through which I can explore the SF zeitgeist of 2016.
With that in mind, this is the shortlist I settled on:
- The Power — Naomi Alderman (Penguin Viking)
- Ninefox Gambit — Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
- The Fifth Season — N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
- Radiance — Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair)
- Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
- The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead (Fleet)
Now for the nitty gritty part. What was my step-by-step decision-making process? In the first place I did the thing I’m sure everyone does when confronted with a list of books. I checked to see how many I had already read. In this case, just four – The Power by Naomi Alderman, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen and The Arrival of the Missives by Aliya Whiteley. I discounted All the Birds in the Sky instantly because, while I enjoyed its playfulness (and the geek sex), I thought it was frantic and thematically confused. The Many Selves of Katherine North was also out for me. It was a promising debut but didn’t go anywhere with its central conceit or fully engage with the moral issues it raised; instead it puttered out with a lacklustre romance of an ending. In contrast The Arrival of Missives was one of my favourite pieces of fiction from 2016 but to my mind it’s a novella with novella length ambitions and doesn’t truly fit the criteria of the award. Which left me with The Power, a book that split me down the middle when I read it: half sucked into its gutsy premise, half turned off by its mannered prose and chummy dialogue. It’s a bold book though, built around an idea worthy of extended debate, and in a tradition of feminist SF by women that I’d like to explore further during this project. It has also gained traction outside of genre, proving popular with readers of literary fiction, a dynamic I always find interesting. It went straight on my list.
With Alderman in my back pocket, I embarked on long hours of blurb and summary reading for the 82 books that I didn’t know, progressing to the early pages of titles that particularly caught my interest. For purely practical reasons I took out of consideration any books that were instalments of series that I hadn’t read yet, which meant the early loss of several titles that have received significant critical attention including Death’s End by Cixin Liu, After Atlas by Emma Newman and Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston. It also meant the merciful removal of popular books by Pierce Brown and Chris Beckett. In this way I narrowed the field down to 18 titles, a longlist of sorts:
Good Morning, Midnight — Lily Brooks-Dalton (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson)
Zero K — Don DeLillo (Picador)
Europe in Winter — Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Ninefox Gambit — Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
The Fifth Season — N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
A Field Guide to Reality — Joanna Kavenna (riverrun)
The Wolf Road — Beth Lewis (Borough)
Infinite Ground — Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books)
When the Floods Came — Clare Morrall (riverun)
The Sudden Appearance of Hope — Claire North (Orbit)
Empire V — Victor Pelevin (Gollancz)
The Core of the Sun — Johanna Sinisalo (Grove Press UK)
Hunters & Collectors — M. Suddain (Jonathan Cape)
Occupy Me — Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)
Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
Radiance — Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair)
The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead (Fleet)
Underground Airlines — Ben Winters (Century)
Choosing from this list wasn’t an exact science by any means. Reading the Kindle sample of each is not equivalent to full engagement with the work. I was simply looking for a fizz of excitement, a quality of prose, the pin prick of the unfamiliar, an engagement of my senses, a book that made me want to read on. Not all the titles were equal going into this stage. Two immediately stood out from my little crowd: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead is the winner of the National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence; his is a book that people I trust have admired and praised. Jemisin’s novel is similarly lauded, winner of last year’s Hugo for best novel, nominated for every other genre prize under the sun. They are both clear contenders for any shortlist and although my aim as a shadow juror isn’t to second guess the final outcome (and I don’t want to be obvious either) it’s impossible to ignore their stature. They finally won their place on my list with the sucker punch of their opening passages, and the opportunity they present to discuss definitions of SF. These two couldn’t be more different subjects for that debate, one an established fantasy writer, the other a visitor from the lit-fic heartlands.
I chose the second half of my shortlist with more difficulty. I opted for Valente because I’ve read her before and am keen to see how she applies her mytho-poetic style to a type of story with very different antecedents. I chose Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station because of his reputation as a writer of bold incendiary novels, and because I think his book will speak to the overtly political cast of my other shortlistees. And finally I chose Ninefox Gambit because I have read and greatly admired Lee’s short fiction, and because this is probably the 2016 title I’ve seen most frequently recommended online. I’ve heard decidedly mixed things about it but it seems to tick a lot of my favourite thematic boxes: byzantine cultures, agency within heavily structured societies, individuality in extremis. I’m intrigued also by the comparisons to Ann Leckie’s Clarke Award winning Ancillary Justice, a novel that I loved in spite of its flaws.
Of the books that didn’t make it I’m particularly sorry over Hunters & Collectors, A Field Guide to Reality and Empire V. Both Kavenna and Pelevin are writers that I have read and admired in the past, and Suddain’s novel sounds so delightfully unlikely that I’m keen to experiment with it. It’s also published by Jonathan Cape, probably my favourite and most trusted literary imprint. I shuffled all three on and off the shortlist several times before I fixed on the final six. The particular challenge of drawing up this list in isolation and for myself alone was that I had no one to argue with, nothing to push me into opposition or advocacy of a title, and so instead I went round in circles for a bit. In the end though I’m quite pleased with the shape and balance of my list. I’ve chosen three titles by women and three by men; half of the books on my shortlist are by people of colour; and the split between genre publishers and mainstream imprints is even. Quite unintentionally it’s a paragon of parity. Whether it lives up to its promise is another thing entirely.
 If any of these are shortlisted by the actual jury of course then I shall have to put my back into it and catch up!
Victoria Hoyle is an archivist, blogger and part-time PhD student. She lives with her partner and a dog called Juno in rural North Yorkshire in the UK.