Shadow Clarke 2017 – Nix Pix: a personal shortlist by Nick Hubble

Shadow Clarke 2017 – Nix Pix: a personal shortlist by Nick Hubble

By Nick Hubble

My six novels are based on my reading and what I have heard but also, to some extent, what I want to write about. I will try and explain these choices as I go through my selection. Obviously, this hasn’t resulted from full knowledge of all the works on the submission list. The nine books I have read so far reflect my taste and what I have been reviewing. Two of these that I haven’t chosen are also extremely good and I intend to write about them at some point. Then there are the books which I haven’t read yet but have heard about via word of mouth or from blogs and reviews. I’m hoping to read as many as possible of these and write about them as well. Finally, there are all the books which haven’t registered on my consciousness in any way before appearing on the list. I’m hoping that some of these books will emerge into the light as the discussion around the Clarke develops this year. Already, there are a couple I want to read that I hadn’t heard of before Valentine’s Day. Again, I hope to write about some of these in due course. But first, my six in alphabetical order by author surname:

 

The Power — Naomi Alderman (Penguin Viking)

I hummed and hawed the most about including this book on the list. It seems to be another example of one type of book that has done well in the Clarke during recent years; the kind of novel that features one or more young female protagonists and reflects on aspects of a patriarchal society in a manner that can be compared with the work of the Award’s first winner, Margaret Atwood. Indeed, Alderman was actually mentored by Atwood during the writing of the novel. Moreover, it might be argued that The Power is simply a provocative what-if story that turns on a gimmick. However, any such reading would miss the book’s capacity to mix raw excitement with complexity and subtlety. The combination of the framing narrative and the unforgettable illustrations is worth the price of admission alone.

 

The Fifth Season — N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

The Fifth Season deservedly won the Hugo last year from a shortlist that was arguably stronger than the Clarke’s. While even I might reluctantly concede that Jemison’s closest rival for that award, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, is probably too much the fantasy novel to fit the Clarke’s SFnal rubric, The Fifth Season provides an intriguing test of the borders between those rapidly mutating and merging genres. Choosing it gives me the opportunity to write about modern SFF and the politics of awards but the novel is much more than an interesting case study. It is the power and the literary sophistication of Jemison’s narrative that places it right at the centre of the debate about the standing of science fiction today.

 

The Gradual — Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

As I wrote in my introductory piece for the shadow jury, Priest is an author whom I have read and reread and it was his victory with The Separation in 2003 that led to my becoming interested in the Clarke Award. I’ve also taught his fiction on various university English literature courses. Indeed, this year, we are actually teaching three of his novels on three different modules at Brunel. The Gradual is set in the Dream Archipelago, an intermittently recurring feature of Priest’s fiction since the mid-1970s. However, while it reworks some old themes, it is also very much a novel of the present understood from a perspective outside linear time. A history, which we are forever being told has stopped, not only starts but also takes us with it along the spiralling gradients at the edge of consensus reality.

 

Occupy Me — Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)

Like Priest, Sullivan is a former Clarke winner – in 1999 for Dreaming in Smoke – and she is also an author who I have taught on university modules. Maul – which was shortlisted for the Clarke in 2004 – is a brilliant novel which riffs razor-sharply on the relationship between second and third wave feminism. She has gone in and out of contract, written books on spec, and published YA and fantasy, but nobody should be mistaken about the fact that she is one of the major writers of our time. To say that Occupy Me is an uncompromising tour-de-force doesn’t really do it justice. Where another novel might cover the same terrain by switching effortlessly between outrageous screwball comedy and high-concept SF, Occupy Me does this while registering the material resistances of capitalism and even reality, itself.

 

Fair Rebel — Steph Swainston (Gollancz)

I read Swainston’s first novel, The Year of Our War, on the back of a short but enticing review by Farah Mendlesohn in Vector and was immediately beguiled by the wit and ready charm of her protagonist, Jant; genuinely one of those characters of whom it is difficult to decide if one wants to be them or to be with them.

I’ve always thought that the third instalment of the Castle Sequence, The Modern World, would have been a worthy inclusion in the – already controversial – 2008 Clarke shortlist. It marked the point when what had seemed like exquisite fantasy suddenly burst through into a world of social concerns similar to those of twenty-first-century British society, thus forcing readers to think about the series anew. Fair Rebel is set only fifteen years further on than The Modern World, but depicts a feudal society in freefall and riven by social convulsion. It is more relevant to Brexit Britain than just about anything else you might read.

 

The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

I haven’t read this yet but I have been hearing a lot about it. It was first recommended to me by an American academic at the 2016 Modernist Studies Association Conference – which included a session on speculative fiction and rather more discussion of Clarke’s Childhood’s End than you might expect – and subsequently it was in a lot of year’s best lists. Whether it ultimately makes the shortlist or not, it is going to play a major role in the discussion around this year’s Clarke and that is why I am going to read and write about it as soon as possible.

*

Nick Hubble is an academic working in the English department at Brunel University London, where they teach modern and contemporary literature, including Science Fiction and Fantasy. In addition, they have reviewed SFF for journals including Strange HorizonsLos Angeles Review of BooksFoundation and Vector.

19 Comments

  1. Niall 3 months ago

    In this timeline, the Clarke Award is a counterweight to the rampant (and publisher-inflated) neophilia of the SF field. It’s an award for established writers more than new writers; those who are nominated are often blurbed as being “at the height of their powers”. And although the award does look outside genre imprints for the works it recognises, by and large it affirms the skill of the top tier of writers within the genre. It’s a heavyweight marque — Clarke winners can be expected to appear in Gollancz’s “Masterworks” line in a decade or two — and if there are occasional whispers about its predictability, or about it following the field more than leading it, well, those usually come from neophiles.

  2. Nick Hubble 3 months ago

    Sounds like a dystopian future… but possibly also actually a version of the past and the first decade of the 21st century when the award tended to function a bit as you describe, Niall. And ultimately, I think it was good that it changed but has it changed a bit too far…?

    I think identifying a dichotomy between the heavyweight marque and the neophiles highlights a kind of disconnect, that this shadow jury is hopefully working to address, where we tend to stop reading all writers as contributing to the now. The flipside of that is that we also tend to read certain writers as though we are already cementing them in posterity. And possibly I am tending towards being guilty of that – it is one aspect of being an academic, that I tend to look for ‘significance’ and a body of work that will stand across time. But I am also approaching this as an opening marker of where I am at the beginning of this process, which I want to test by looking at other books from the submission list; particularly those which are highlighted by this shadow process and the discussion that emerges around it. I’m sure where we collectively end up – and where the actual shortlist ends up – is not going to be in this timeline. Part of the fun, though, is the opportunity to try out different timelines for size.

    I’m not sure that the award, itself, on its own, can either lead or follow the field. What it might do is get completely separated from the field and that would be a disaster.

    • Niall 3 months ago

      Yeah, my alternate take for this one was “a shortlist that fell through a time warp from 2002”. 🙂

      “we tend to stop reading all writers as contributing to the now […] we also tend to read certain writers as though we are already cementing them in posterity”

      I think there are shifts in how we perceive individual writers, and shifts in how we perceive the character of the award, and it’s hard to disentangle the two — and it’s all incredibly subjective. Shortlists are tools for exposing the assumptions we make about what counts as “central” to the field. I think, for instance, that you’re right to highlight the centrality, or the weightiness, of The Fifth Season — placed in this company, it feels like the benchmark against which the other books on your shortlist need to be measured. But not only do I not expect everyone to share that perception, I wouldn’t even have that perception myself given a different set of six — it doesn’t loom so large for me in Vicky’s list, for instance.

  3. Paul Kincaid 3 months ago

    Niall, an “award for established writers”? Like Jeff Noon or Mary Doria Russell, both of whom won with their first novel? Or Ken MacLeod who was runner-up with his first novel? There are an awful lot of writers who have been shortlisted with their first or second novel (Adam Roberts, James Lovegrove). And one of the consistent complaints I face when I was administering the award was that it tended to ignore established writers. Since your perception of the award is diametrically opposite to that, I can only assume that the award is doing something right.

    • Niall 3 months ago

      Paul, I’m not talking about reality. On the assumption that a shortlist tells a story about the field/the year, I am imagining timelines based on the shortlists you all post. Nick’s shortlist felt establishment to me.

      • PhilRM 3 months ago

        I initially interpreted that comment in the same way as Paul (“this timeline” meaning “the timeline we are living in”) and thought “Wait, what?” As Tom said, a suitably SFnal approach.

        • Niall 3 months ago

          Right, well, sorry about the confusion everyone!

  4. Tom Hunter 3 months ago

    I, for one, am loving Niall’s reading of these lists as counterfactual / alternate timeline / wormhole related etc .

    For me it seems a great, and appropriately SFnal way, of reading these submissions list speculations in a hugely positive way.

  5. Nick Hubble 3 months ago

    Absolutely. In fact, Niall’s approach is so good that I am going to pretend that I *was* doing the timeline thing all along. (And why not even 2002 because that was a good shortlist and won by another extremely significant and leading writer in the field). Hopefully this is going to be one of those timelines in which subtle differences appear. Now you mention it, Niall, I can see that you are right about how my list is centred because I could write the extended arguments for the other books now (apart from the Whitehead which I haven’t read) but the Jemison will require more work because it is central in a way that wasn’t entirely obvious to me until looking at the discussion here. But I have no doubts or second thoughts about putting it there.

    • Niall 3 months ago

      I’m mostly doing it to be playful, but a slightly more serious level is: the final shortlist will probably be storyable in some way. It will make a statement about the year just gone, it won’t just be “six books”. And the story will to a certain extent be made true, willed into existence by the shortlist and by the process of debate that has gone into it. A big value of the sharke, for me, is the concrete demonstration that other stories exist — not that the real shortlist’s story is wrong (again, by definition it will be true), but that it exists in a wider context.

  6. Helen Marshall 3 months ago

    This seems to me like a hugely productive way of thinking about what awards are and what they do in the field. My personal interest stems from ideas of canonicity and how a text enters the canon. There are always other possibilities for what that story could have looked like, that moment of choosing. I mean, it’s interesting to look at the Oscars: for two minutes, La La Land seemed to have won, and with it, a sense of what Hollywood valorises and favours. But then the awards process was disrupted, Moonlight took the prize, and we had the replacement of one narrative about the award with another.

  7. Nina Allan 3 months ago

    I think what Helen says about the Oscars is interesting and relevant – a real and direct clash between two opposing alternative timelines. I agree that it’s fascinating to consider the role ‘canon’ plays in naming and describing the field, how texts enter the canon in the first place. I do think we need to exercise some caution when describing works and or writers as ‘establishment’, though. Here in Nick’s list we have Swainston, whose political engagement in one of the central tenets of her work, Priest, who has always been an iconoclast in terms of his attitude and writerly approach to science fiction. Occupy Me is arguably Sullivan’s most advanced, achieved and formally daring work to date. To assume that ‘established’ equates with ‘establishment’ can be a mistake, and even ‘established’ as a term can be misleading. Swainston’s industry experience has been so negative she almost stopped writing, ditto Sullivan.

    Still thinking about this. In the meantime, looking forward to Niall’s counterfactual assessment of Maureen’s shortlist in due course!

    • Niall 3 months ago

      I agree that there’s a distinction, but I think I’d put it the other way around: Sullivan (say) is establishment without having had the stability of being established. When I say establishment, I mean UK genre establishment: the people whose books have cropped up on awards shortlist regularly, who have a track record of work that is both technically and conceptually ambitious, who have been recognised as such by “the elites” of genre readership, and whose books will always be on any list of “award contenders” that people like you and I will filter out of a submissions list. They may or may not be commercially popular in addition to being part of this establishment. Note that people who have the standing to intervene in or commentate on the award’s proceedings and have their opinions noticed and widely discussed fit this definition of establishment, regardless of the iconoclasticity of said opinion…

  8. Nina Allan 3 months ago

    I totally get what you’re saying, but I think we may need a different word for what we’re talking about 🙂

    “…the people whose books have cropped up on awards shortlist regularly, who have a track record of work that is both technically and conceptually ambitious, who have been recognised as such by “the elites” of genre readership.”

    I would suggest that there is often less correlation between these TWO groups – 1) those writers who crop up on awards shortlists regularly, and 2) those with a track record of being technically and conceptually ambitious – than one might hope, and indeed the tendency for one not to automatically include the other is becoming more prevalent. (Just look at last year’s Clarke shortlist, as much for what was left off as for what was selected…)

    To put it another way, are William Gaddis or Helen DeWitt ‘establishment’ in the same way as Jonathan Franzen or Ian McEwan? I would suggest not, even though all four are ‘recognised by the elites of [literary] readership’?

    I guess it’s just that I tend to associate the word ‘establishment’ with political or stylistic conservatism, and as such I don’t think writers such as Priest and Sullivan are of the establishment.

    • Niall 3 months ago

      “and indeed the tendency for one not to automatically include the other is becoming more prevalent.”

      I certainly agree there’s an increasing tendency for the writers I am describing as “establishment” to not be recognised by the Clarke. I also tend to agree that one reason for that is a shift in the type of work being recognised. I do also think that there is simply an element of generational shift, however. As you (I think?) noted at Eastercon last year, one of the remarkable things about the last couple of years is how many first-time nominees there have been — 4 last year, 6 in 2015, 5 in 2014 (and the two repeat nominees last year, Hutchinson and Smythe, were among the first-time nominees in 2015 and 2014, respectively). So there’s clearly a taste for newness in some sense.

      • Nina Allan 3 months ago

        “I also tend to agree that one reason for that is a shift in the type of work being recognised.”

        Which ties in nicely with the ‘is SF doomed?’ question you brought up earlier in the comments on Maureen’s shortlist!

        Absolutely nothing wrong with a first-time nominee, or indeed a debut novel from a first-time nominee, or – more simply and broadly – nothing wrong with newness. But – just for argument’s sake – if you compare the Smythe book nominated in 2014 (The Machine) with the Smythe book nominated last year (Way Down Dark) I think that provides an interesting illustration of a deeper malaise in terms of the level of criticism being applied.

  9. Nick Hubble 3 months ago

    I have been musing on the term ‘establishment’ for a few days … A similarly thing has happened to ‘elite’, which now seems to function in some discourses as a term for anybody with a degree basically – certainly for teachers, lecturers and journalists. The discussion of establishment here is not quite running on the same lines but there are parallels. The problem is that apparently similar desires in structural terms equate to very different ends. It is not clear what it is the best way to free ourselves from the convention and orthodoxy that we might want to free ourselves from.

    To put it another way, I might think I am democratising culture by trying to get certain texts serious studied at university level. But person B thinks that I am trying to take cultural authority over their books which were doing fine as they well, thanks. Person C argues that because these books are published by commercial genre publishers then I am just buying into a narrow conformity. Person D argues that universities are mass corporate industrial processes that should be avoided. And >50% of literary academia simply won’t notice anyway (in the same way they still think Modernism is Eliot and Pound).

    Personally, I can’t see any reason to favour debut novels, first-time nominees or to exclude previous winners for the Clarke (which is not to say that any of these are invalid for producing alternative lists – this shadow process is clearly benefiting from some of the jurors using various criteria to broaden the books listed). Newness is not inherently valuable and it only works to a limited extent as a narrative. Unless the new amounts to something, it just ends up looking random in retrospect. At least that is how I see it. But maybe there isn’t anything wrong with the Clarke. In terms of attention and promotion etc, it is going from strength to strength. Maybe the problem is with the purpose of criticism in a context where we are redefining establishments/elites. I think we need criticism but I suspect it is going to have to change to function in the future. Maybe part of the point of doing this is to reinvigorate criticism rather than have a direct impact on the field or the Clarke itself (although it is going to be interesting trying to figure out if the shadow jury has any impact on the actual jury).

    • Nina Allan 3 months ago

      “Newness is not inherently valuable and it only works to a limited extent as a narrative. Unless the new amounts to something, it just ends up looking random in retrospect.”

      Amen!

      “Maybe part of the point of doing this is to reinvigorate criticism rather than have a direct impact on the field or the Clarke itself.”

      That is certainly how I see it.

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