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 Horizons, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foundation and Vector.