The Sharke Six

Summary of discussions by Nina Allan

Well, here we are – three months into the shadow Clarke project and we reach what might be called the halfway mark, and the end of phase one. We’ve read and (mostly) reviewed our personal shortlists, we await the announcement of the official Clarke shortlist with bated breath. Those who keep tabs on such things will have noticed that there are a few reviews outstanding from this stage of the process – these are still being worked on, and will be posted as and when they become available.

In the meantime, we have something even more exciting to share with Sharke-watchers: the Sharke Six.

Early on in the process we decided amongst ourselves that in addition to reviewing our personal shortlists, we would like also to present an overall joint shortlist – the shortlist we would have chosen together, in other words, had we been the official jury. We agreed that the Sharke Six should be selected as close to the end of our reading period as possible, so as to give us time to get to grips not only with the books on our own personal shortlists, but with as many of the other submissions as we could possibly fit in. We also wanted, as much as possible, to show our working: to allow those reading along with us to gain some insight into the discussion and rationale behind our choices, to have a greater degree of transparency than is generally possible for official prize juries. Not because there is anything wrong with the way official juries work, but because we thought it would be interesting for Clarke-watchers and Sharke-watchers alike.

We covered a large number of texts between the eight of us*, a process that has been rewarding, surprising, and occasionally frustrating. As the final weekend of reading neared its close, we felt more than ready to discuss our findings and to reach some conclusions. The jury was in.

Our jury meeting took place online, on the afternoon of Sunday April 30th, and lasted three hours. As we all agreed though, the meeting felt very much like the continuation of a process that had been going on for weeks. We had already been discussing the books and reading each others’ reviews. The jury meeting was not so much a formalisation of that discussion as its logical extension, and the group dynamic could not have been better.

Probably the most surprising aspect of this first phase of the Sharke was how greatly our feelings about our personal shortlists had shifted and changed. Not one of us felt moved to advocate for every book on our shortlist – indeed, I would say that most of us ended up taking strongly against at least one of the titles we had originally selected. Speaking for myself, I know that the personal shortlist I would select from the submissions today would look rather different from the six I chose back in February. Which just goes to show that no matter how well you think you know your own mind, no matter how much SF you’ve read before or who by, the proof of the shortlist is in the reading. Heightened expectations can occasionally be their own worst enemy.

One decision we had to make before we even began discussing individual books was what kind of shortlist we wanted to present. Should it be a groupthink shortlist, a joint statement on what we believed SF to be or where it was going? Was such a thing even possible? Or should we simply award points out of five to the books we’d read and tot up the totals? In the end it was Nick Hubble who came up with what we unanimously declared to be the most pleasing solution: our shortlist should consist of six plausible winners. Too often in the past, we agreed, Clarke shortlists had tended to feel weighted towards two or at the most three contenders that immediately looked stronger than the others, with the remainder simply making up the numbers. We wanted to avoid that scenario if we could, to present a genuine six-horse race.

And so the discussion proper was soon underway. The first two slots were filled very quickly – indeed, I think we all came to the meeting in the knowledge that Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station  were scoring high marks with just about every juror. Paul Kincaid called The Underground Railroad ‘essential’, and even went so far as to say he would judge this year’s Clarke Award on whether or not the official shortlist included it. Those who read the comments on the Sharke reviews here will know that I am not The Underground Railroad’s strongest advocate myself – and if the book makes it through to the official shortlist I will do my best to write in greater detail about why that is – but as I said to my fellow Sharkes I wasn’t about to step in front of a juggernaut. And as for Central Station, I was only too happy to see this very special book go through, especially since if the Clarke made any sense Tidhar would have been shortlisted twice already in previous years, for Osama and for A Man Lies Dreaming.

With two down and four to go, the question was then asked of each Sharke: of all the novels on your personal shortlist, are there any that you would say, absolutely, should be in the Sharke Six? This question threw up a number of interesting responses, with Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me, Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katherine North, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit , Cixin Liu’s Death’s End , Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground , Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges , N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Naomi Alderman’s The Power all bobbing about in the mix. Fascinatingly, the first book to emerge from this grouping as a clear favourite was Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives . On the question of whether Missives qualified as a novel, Victoria Hoyle was able to confirm that the work’s publisher had been assured that ‘any unified and substantive work’ would be fully eligible, even if the word length came out a little under what would normally be acceptable for a novel. Victoria also went on to argue that ‘measured against its own ambition, Missives is probably the most successful of all the submitted books I’ve read’. It punches well above its weight, in other words. With this in mind, and with the rest of us in alignment over the novel’s originality, literary quality and narrative drive, we found no problem at all in agreeing that Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives should take the third spot in our Sharke Six lineup.
Fairly hot on its heels and into the fourth slot came Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality
When we began this process I never imagined that this book – so different in many ways from any of the other entries, so resolutely itself and with only tenuous connections to more obviously and traditionally science fictional works – would gain such a popular following amongst the Sharkes, but with Megan declaring it ‘an absolute’ in her persona
l rankings, with Maureen declaring that she was ‘very keen on the Kavenna’, that having read it twice she would ‘happily argue until the day [she] died that it was SF’, and with Paul adding that ‘it would be a daring winner, but a strong one’, we all felt pleased and rather excited to be adding it to our shortlist.

And with only two slots left, this is where the discussion really began to open up. With the first four books agreed on in a little over an hour, we needed more than ninety minutes to arrive at a decision on the final two. I made an early pitch for Matt Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors, a novel whose formal ingenuity and delight in language, not to mention a wicked sense of humour, for me at least more than made up for what it lacked in depth. I was swiftly voted down, with Vajra summing up people’s objections to the book as deftly and imaginatively as only he could: ‘Hunters & Collectors  rubbed me the wrong way altogether – I really wanted to like it, and I did like a lot of things about it, but I found it difficult to get past all the penis-waving’. Even as the novel’s main supporter, I could not deny that there was a lot of penis-waving. Meanwhile, Vajra continued to advocate strongly for Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, a novel that failed to find purchase among the other Sharkes. Some felt it pandered too strongly towards values of nostalgia in SF, others pointed to problems in its gender politics, while above and beyond all this there was concern about its status as an indivisible part of a series. It was the series issue, too, that spelled the final decision against two otherwise popular choices, N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season – ‘I like the Jemisin a lot,’ Nick said, ‘but it ends like the first volume of a sequence. It doesn’t have a proper end for a novel’ – and Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter . The general consensus here seemed to be that the first book in the series, Europe in Autumn, was the book that should have won in its year, though Nick declared Winter ‘a great book’, and ‘still didn’t understand’ how Midnight failed to win last year. Paul was happy to agree on the merits of the first, groundbreaking instalment of the Europe series, but remained nonetheless a strong advocate for Winter: ‘Autumn did deserve to win. It was the most innovative of the three. But Winter is solid, intelligent, and actually better constructed than the others’.

With Hutchinson still very much in the frame, we returned to discussing the shortlist as a whole and the nature of Clarke shortlists more generally. It was felt very strongly that the Sharke Six should represent something of a statement, in that ‘these are the books we think that a serious, intelligent, jury should be considering, books that say that science fiction is still an open and experimental literature’ as Paul Kincaid succinctly put it. Jonathan noted how, as genre culture becomes increasingly polarised, the variations in aesthetic have tended to become more pronounced, with the particular brand of shortlist becoming ever more dependent on who gets elected to the official jury. ‘Everyone reads within a narrow subset of SF,’ Paul agreed. ‘The genre has become so damned big that no one can see its edges any more’. ‘My mileage probably varies more core genre than some of you,’ Nick declared, ‘but for me it is more important to come up with a good position for the sake of SF itself’.

Amen to that.

Another book that excited a lot of discussion and came very close to making the Six was Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges. Everyone seemed to agree that Wood is one of the most interesting of the new writers currently on the scene, and that Azanian Bridges was ‘a brave book’, that showed huge promise and a great deal of literary ingenuity. I think for me personally this was the book I felt most regretful in saying goodbye to, but we eventually agreed that the rawness of the prose, together with a certain lack of sophistication – an approach to political and social issues that, though committed and sincere, felt a little too broad-brush on occasion – put it out of the running.

It was a big surprise for me and maybe for others too that the novel that finally emerged from this stage of the discussion to take the fifth spot turned out to be Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground. Those who read my Dispatches from the Sofa essay will already know that of the submissions I’ve read, Infinite Ground is my own personal favourite by quite some distance. Maureen readily agreed that ‘the MacInnes takes us out to a very interesting place in terms of genre’ and others came in to support the idea that the very weirdness of the book put it in a position to say something new about what SF could do and be. I think it was this boldness, in the end, the novel’s edge-of-genre status and the way it pushes the Clarke-Sharke envelope – that won Infinite Ground its place among the six, and I couldn’t be more delighted to see it there.

The final place turned out to be the most hotly debated of all, and the most difficult to fill. Christopher Priest’s The Gradual came high in the rankings of at least four of our jurors, which would easily have been enough to secure its position on the shortlist had it not been for the clear conflict of interest that exists with regard to this novel, a conflict that has been present from the start. Chris is my partner, and although I have deliberately abstained from discussing or reviewing The Gradual during this first phase of our project, and similarly kept a low profile during the relevant portion of our shortlist debate, it was felt that the kind of discussion that might ensue if we did select it could only be negative. ‘This is a clear-cut ethics case, honestly,’ Megan noted. ‘In any other venue, the Priest would be set aside’.

We agreed at that point that The Gradual would have to be excluded from the shortlist, though we were all keen to make interested onlookers aware of how difficult it had been for us to arrive at this decision. At one point, we were even considering putting up a five-strong or seven-strong shortlist. ‘It would be good to have some dissenting opinions in other posts following the shortlist announcement’ Victoria said. ‘It would be good to be transparent about the difficulty of making this sixth choice’.

Now in the final furlong, we went back to look again at those books that had most impressed us in earlier rounds of discussion, with Azanian Bridges and The Fifth Season once again making strong showings. A couple of outsiders also came forward at this point, Catherynne Valente’s Radiance, and John Wray’s The Lost Time Accidents . In the end though, Valente’s very richly textured style was off-putting for some – too particular, too much of an acquired taste to stake its claim – and Megan, as sole reader to date of The Lost Time Accidents, did not finally feel passionate enough about the novel to push for its inclusion: ‘The Wray just hasn’t caught fire with anyone. It’s fun, but it is ‘preppy, self-absorbed white guy absorbs himself with himself’ the more I think about it. I don’t think it has a chance, and I think it would bore most people’.

The novel we had kept returning to again and again throughout the course of the afternoon’s discussion was Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Everyone, even those who had reservations about the book in terms of its characterisation or its premise generally, agreed that The Power would be a good and valid choice for sixth place in terms of its potential for discussion alone. ‘For me there are some interesting parallels of ambition between Azanian Bridges and The Power’, Victoria stated. ‘They both are interested in how unequal societies might be disrupted by abrupt narrative interventions’. And when it came down to which of these two was the better book in terms of its literary execution, for Victoria there was ‘no question’ that it was The Power. ‘It is a plausible winner’, said Nick Hubble. ‘In fact it may well win. I would bet on it being on the actual shortlist’. Referring back to a discussion in the comments on Nick’s review of the Alderman, Vajra told us that he ‘started off agreeing with what Martin [Petto] was saying but Nick’s comments were very persuasive and now I feel like I need to read it again’.

After three hours of fascinating, engaged, passionate and one-hundred percent good-humoured discussion, we were agreed on our Sharke Six:

The Power— Naomi Alderman (Penguin Viking)

A Field Guide to Reality — Joanna Kavenna (Riverrun)

Infinite Ground— Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books)

Central Station— Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

The Underground Railroad— Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

The Arrival of Missives — Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

That the decision had taken so long came as both a surprise and a delight to us, and we feel unanimous in being thrilled at the result. I think Megan summed up our feelings best when she said: ‘I kind of wish I weren’t on this jury because this is the first shortlist I’ve seen in a long time that would make me flip with ecstatic joy at the prospect of reading along’.

Amen to that, too.

We are now waiting, as eagerly as anyone, to see which six books make up the official Clarke shortlist and to discover how much they overlap – if at all – with our own choices. The announcement of the official shortlist will see the beginning of the second phase of the shadow Clarke, in which we will post our reactions to that shortlist and then review the individual books before – eventually – having a second Sharke jury meeting to decide upon our preferred Sharke winners, both from the shadow shortlist and the official shortlist. Maybe they’ll be one and the same. Who knows!

In the meantime, don’t forget that there’s still time to post your own shortlist guesses here at the ARU shadow Clarke hub. Anyone who guesses correctly – and I am given to believe that no one has ever managed this to date – will win a set of all six shortlisted novels.


*It is with regret that we announce David Hebblethwaite’s departure from the shadow jury. David has been troubled by health issues for the first quarter of this year. This, together with his prior commitment to the Man Booker International shadow jury, has made it both impractical and too stressful for him to continue. We wish him a speedy recovery, and trust that he’ll be reading along with our future deliberations.


  1. Tom Hunter 3 weeks ago

    “On the question of whether Missives qualified as a novel, Victoria Hoyle was able to confirm that the work’s publisher had been assured that ‘any unified and substantive work’ would be fully eligible, even if the word length came out a little under what would normally be acceptable for a novel.”

    Just wanted to confirm this is absolutely correct. The published submission list we put out is made up exclusively of books that are actively submitted and in contention e.g. will be read by the judges as an eligible title. I don’t include works that would be considered immediately ineligible in that list.

  2. Mark 3 weeks ago

    I’ve very much enjoyed following this process so far and I’m grateful to everyone who has contributed. What I’ve found particularly interesting is hearing about how the actual process of a jury has worked and getting more insight into the thought process than a “real” award jury is allowed to give.

    I’m interested by the comments about those books that were part of a series. Taking The Fifth Season as an example, it’s certainly true that the final chapter sets up an expectation of more story, but I would argue that the penultimate chapter provides as much resolution to the main storylines of the book as, say, the end of Underground Railroad does. Likewise Central Station with its loose intertwining narratives doesn’t so much conclude as come to some sensible end points. I wonder whether it would be as easy to come to the conclusion that something lacks a “proper end” without “Book X of Y” written prominently on the cover?

    • Nina Allan 3 weeks ago

      Very happy to hear that this format has worked for you, Mark, and that you’ve enjoyed hearing more about our process. One of the things we most wanted to achieve with this project was to give those people reading along some sense of participation through being invited into the jury room, as it were.

      There will certainly be more of that in the coming weeks!

  3. Niall 3 weeks ago

    So: I’ve read four of the books, plus about two-thirds of the Tidhar in its pre-book form, and much as I hate to say it, for me at least I’m not sure you’ve succeeded in your goal of putting forward six plausible winners. It’s a list of books that make for an interesting read, for certain, but as an outside observer: the Whiteley looks like one of those nominations where the award is recognising an author for their previous excellent book (The Beauty) rather than their current just-fine book; the Kavenna, for me, never really steps out of the shadow of Scarlett Thomas’s similar-but-more-entertaining The End of Mr Y (which I realise is over a decade old now, and I hate it when people bring up old books to devalue new books like that, but it was my reaction); none of you has said anything to convince me The Underground Railroad is meaningfully science fiction; and The Power, while good to argue about, feels to me more like a solid shortlist pick than a potential winner. Tidhar, for me, is head-and-shoulders above those four, though I am looking forward to reading MacInnes. Omissions? The glaring one, for me — I feel about it much as Paul feels about The Underground Railroad — is The Fifth Season, where I agree with Mark that your reasons for excluding it seem a little thin.

    • Nina Allan 3 weeks ago

      Hi Niall,

      It’s certainly not the case that we decided to ‘reward’ The Beauty by shortlisting The Arrival of Missives. Missives was indeed discussed in the context of The Beauty, and it was roundly agreed that Missives was ‘even better’, a genuine step forward in terms of craft and all round literary achievement. For me personally, The Arrival of Missives is as fine a short English novel as one would hope to find anywhere, and if we had more writers as good as Whiteley the genre would be massively the better for it.

      Interesting that you should bring up The End of Mr Y, because we were all talking about that very book a number of weeks ago, albeit in a different context. I can still remember the bitterness of my disappointment with it: thoroughly excellent first half, such that it felt as if something genuinely new was happening in SFF. But that cop-out ‘Adam ‘n’ Eve it’ ending alone would have to disqualify it from any theoretical award shortlist. It’s all rather cod, undergraduate philosophy in any case, and it seems to me that Kavenna’s superbly achieved novel is of another order of being entirely.

      Strangest of all seems this continuing preoccupation with whether The Underground Railroad is science fiction or fantasy. Strange because, as we all know, this question can only ever be a matter of personal taste, opinion or prejudice, and is not empirically provable either way. In the end it is a waste of time. Far more useful and interesting to discuss what The Underground Railroad is like as a novel: how well does it convey its intent, what is the writing like, how does it compare with other literary allegories, why has Whitehead choose to use speculative materials in the first place, why has this novel proved so overwhelmingly popular with readers in both the mainstream and SFF spheres?

      To exclude The Underground Railroad from the Clarke or the Sharke shortlist on grounds of ‘not being science fiction’ would be pedantry to the point of madness. I honestly thought the genre had moved past such arguments.

      The key aim for our Sharke Six was to illuminate the possibilities of SFF as a progressive, radical, multifaceted literature. If you imagine for a moment the critical landscape that would need to exist for such a shortlist to emerge for real, I think we more than proved our point.

      • Niall 3 weeks ago

        If I thought you had presented a radical, multifaceted shortlist, I’d agree with your last point — but I don’t. As I said, it seems to me a shortlist composed largely of interesting but flawed books. I am baffled by the extent of the praise for Whiteley and Kavenna, in particular, both of whom have written, in my view, much better books.

        Kavenna vs Thomas: “undergraduate” is in the eye of the beholder, clearly!

        As for definitions: it’s an award that is specific to science fiction. The books that are shortlisted should reflect a considered understanding of science fiction; “how it is science fiction” or “what it adds to science fiction” should be, for this discussion, an integral part of “what the novel is doing”. And I don’t say that it’s impossible to make a convincing case for The Underground Railroad being read as science fiction, only that none of the reviews so far have convinced me. Vicky leaned on the worldbuilding relationship between historical fiction and science fiction, which exists, but I think is actually weakened by the dreamlike nature of Whitehead’s histories, rather than strengthened; Jonathan argued that political counterfactuals are science fictional, which they can be, but says nothing about why Whitehead’s counterfactuals are science fictional rather than (as seems a much less tortuous reading to me) fantastical; Paul used the words “science fiction” more than everyone else put together but only to assert that the novel is science fiction, never to explain why the characteristics he points to confer science fictionality on a text; and Nick just took it for granted that it is science fiction, without engaging with the question at all.

        (Someone write a review putting it in dialogue with Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, then you might be able to convince me.)

        • PhilRM 3 weeks ago

          Niall, I’m somewhat confused by your argument. You are clearly making a distinction between science fiction and fantasy, and (since the Clarke Award is specifically for science fiction) arguing that The Underground Railroad is not a good choice for the Clarke Award (or the Shadow Clarke Award), because you think that it’s fantasy, not science fiction. But the Fifth Season, which you are championing, is unequivocally fantasy. So on what grounds should it be considered for the Clarke? You’re arguing that TUR is fantasy – what is the case for considering The Fifth Season as science fiction? (For the record, I roughly split the difference between Paul and Nina in my opinion of TUR; while I agree with Nina that Whitehead didn’t really do anything original with the genre machinery he adopted, I’m probably somewhat closer to Paul in my overall opinion of the novel.) I was amazed by Infinite Ground, but I can’t really argue with the Clarke jury for not selecting it, because at the end of the day I don’t think it’s science fiction (although I would be very surprised if MacInnes is not familiar with SF).

          I am baffled by the extent of the praise for Whiteley and Kavenna, in particular, both of whom have written, in my view, much better books. I have repeatedly been baffled by the praise heaped on Hugo Award winners, Nebula Award winners, World Fantasy Award winners, sometimes even Clarke Award winners. And the converse: currently I am at a loss to understand why there hasn’t been more attention paid to Sofia Samatar’s Winged Histories, which I thought was an even better book than her multiple award-winning A Stranger in Olondria.

        • Megan 3 weeks ago

          Hi Niall,

          I’d like to finally add my two bits to some of the things you’ve brought up so far.

          “As I said, it seems to me a shortlist composed largely of interesting but flawed books.” I totally agree. There is not a single masterpiece on the submissions list, which I didn’t expect in the first place, since masterpieces are so rare, and genre culture isn’t asking for them. Every book on our list is flawed, some to a greater extent than others. That you recognize that we provided a shortlist of interesting books is a success, because so few of the subs felt interesting enough to even discuss rigorously. So many of the ‘novels’ I encountered on the subs list were spinning their wheels in the same old territory.

          Having followed your commentary so far, I recognize that you keep circling back to one central point, which is to recognize the absence of The Fifth Season, and I get the sense that you won’t be happy with any shortlist that does not include this book. I agree with you that the Shadow Jury’s joint justification for leaving off The Fifth Season–that it is has the feeling of unfinishedness as part of a greater series– is unsatisfying. It is not the reason I would give, and, frankly, despite my usual annoyance with series works, I would welcome unfinishedness on a shortlist (Europe in Autumn being a brilliant example), but I held back from this part of the discussion because I am not the person to champion TFS.

          While I find The Fifth Season interesting on an intellectual level, it is a dull read, the kind of thing I outgrew long ago, although I often wish Jemisin had been writing around the time I was going through my Marion Zimmer Bradley and Terry Brooks phase. While I find TFS to be an improvement on those works (and on her previous work, as she has grown as a writer), it still utilizes that ground floor writing and overdramatic emoting that (now) does not impress me in MZB, TB, or even Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. TFS, in its simplicity and unambiguity, is clearly designed for screen, not page–which, more power to her, I think her future is in screen/VG writing and that’s where the money is and I would cheer her on and might even want to see it–but the conventionalism of the narrative (people walking, talking, superpowering, drama-ing) did not hold my interest because I have already seen and read the same thing so many times before. Still, there is enough intellectual, symbolic, and philosophical commentary to make it interesting and earn a place on the shortlist, so I regret that I could not be the person to champion it. BUT, I could hardly bear to read it without rolling my eyes and saying, “I have outgrown this stuff” and “I need more.”

          In that light, I feel like I have to come to the defense of A Field Guide to Reality, a book which you call ‘limp,’ which is something I might have agreed with at an earlier stage. We were already well underway into the final stages of reviewing, so I don’t think I shared this observation with the jury, but I think I emailed Nina and said something about the ending being too twee and simplistic for me. (Not that endings hold much sway in my overall experience, mind you.) Then, when I started pawing through it again for my review, my mind was completely changed: What Kavenna does with the reality of the narrative is nothing short of brilliant. She literally opens up the multiverse in each chapter, paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence. I was not exaggerating in my review when I said Eliade doesn’t just pick a fork in the road, she drags them all with her. It’s rather amazing, really (and I hate that I used the ‘A’ word), and now I’m with Maureen in that I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of that book.

          So what I’m seeing in your interpretations of these two books is that you found the surface plot of TFS completely satisfying, and the surface plot of AFGTR unsatisfying, and I would agree with both of these assessments. I would also recommend you look harder at them as novels and the way they are designed. While both novels are ambitious, one only looks ambitious, but stays fairly conventional (with the exception of some fantastic symbolism), while the other’s ambition shines through in the sneakiest ways.

          And this all brings me back to what is the other central theme of your commentary: the taxonomic merits of each novel. To me, it seems like such a small thing to obsess over, the last thing to obsess over, and your commentary has stunned me with its air of conservativism and adherence to commercial constraints. The Clarke Award made its position on the SFF spectrum clear when it named The Handmaid’s Tale the Best Science Fiction Novel in its first year, and has repeated that kind of thinking in other years. The case is closed. The Underground Railroad, which is more about alternate universes (science), psychological trauma (science), sociological extrapolation (science), and depersonalization (science) than it is about an impossible underground railroad (as impossible as FTL technology!), absolutely qualifies for this award. If Iron Council can win this award, if The Separation can win this award, then Whitehead deserves a break from nitpicking disguised as rigid genre nomenclature (flaws and all, because it is a flawed novel).

          What our disagreement comes down to is this: Which part of the ‘Best’ ‘Science Fiction’ ‘Novel’ phrase do we most want to obsess over? My obsession is on ‘Best’ because that’s what history will really judge. I also want to add that I disagreed with the Shadow Jury’s decision to frame our shortlist as ‘plausible winners,’ and I made my disagreement known, although I probably didn’t articulate it very well in the rapid conversation. I’m not interested in ‘plausible winners,’ I’m interested in the ‘The Best,’ which I perceive as two very different things, especially because ‘plausible winners’ can be interpreted in so many ways depending on the context and the crowd, which probably explains your confusion. ‘The Best’ is also subjective, but is much easier to break down and discuss each novel into their objective, literary merits.

          Now, no more about this science fiction vs fantasy business. History has already decided. It’s at least one part of our lives where we have the power to keep the borders open.

          • Niall 3 weeks ago

            Hi, Megan — thanks for such a thoughtful comment. You’ve given me a lot to respond to, so apologies if this runs a bit long.

            First, clarifying some positions. I won’t claim to live by a perfectly logical and rigorously applied definition of science fiction; I’m not sure anyone, apart from perhaps Darko Suvin, could make that claim. I think if we’re honest, when it comes to edge cases there is always an element of, “I liked this enough to want to justify claiming it”; I see that in some of the sharke responses to The Underground Railroad, and I’ll admit that it’s there in my response to The Fifth Season. So I’m not arguing that The Fifth Season is definitively science fiction and The Underground Railroad is definitively not. But nor am I saying this is entirely subjective: I am arguing that I think adding The Fifth Season to a discussion of science fiction does more than adding The Underground Railroad does. And, relatedly, I don’t think reading a novel in one genre precludes reading it in another; that The Fifth Season can be read as science fiction doesn’t mean it’s not also interesting as fantasy. In fact, I’d say my stance on the two is that The Fifth Season is interesting whichever genre you use to look at it, but The Underground Railroad is more compelling as fantasy.

            Second, arguments that I don’t think work. I don’t think the argument from precedent is very strong. The Clarke (at least in my understanding of it) is explicitly not bound by precedent: each jury gets to define what it means by “science fiction”. And I think that’s what we should all want — I wouldn’t want judges now to be bound by how the genre was considered in the 1980s. But it means that “but Iron Council!” doesn’t carry very much weight with me; I’m looking for justifications based on the specifics of the books at hand each year. Similarly, I don’t think “but it includes [this scientific discipline!]” is particularly strong, either; I mean, The Fifth Season contains at least as much psychological trauma and sociological extrapolation as The Underground Railroad, with added geology and genetics. I don’t think the presence of those per se says anything about whether a novel is interesting as science fiction.

            All of which is the long way around to the question I probably should have addressed several comments ago, which is: what do I mean by science fiction? As I say above, I don’t pretend to be a model of perfect consistency here. But while I’m a long way from a strict Suvinian, I do have a bias for works that build a consistent cognition effect, by which I mean (paraphrasing Carl Freedman, hopefully accurately) that it’s not the rationality or irrationality of something judged from outside the text that matters to me, it’s the attitude of the text itself. So dreams and surrealism are always a harder sell to me as science fiction (even while some science fiction is, for sure, dreamlike and surreal), but a putatively “fantastic” element that is rigorously extrapolated hits my science fiction buttons. A good example of this from 2017 is Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, which features, essentially, magic portals, but thinks-through the social implications of their appearance for global society in a way that I find satisfying. I also have a bias for works set in the future rather than the past, and works that have a historical continuity with our present rather than works that rupture from it.

            That may start to explain why I am reluctant to see The Underground Railroad as science fiction. The work I kept comparing it to as I read — and which, correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t think has come up in the sharke public discussions yet — is Priest’s Dream Archipelago. I don’t see the different states in Underground Railroad as alternate universes; both people and information move easily between them, which to me makes them operate as a single universe. But like the Dream Archipelago, it’s not a universe that connects cleanly to our own, or one that is completely internally self-consistent. That, to me, is something that moves the novel more towards fantasy than science fiction — and not to lean heavily on argument from precedent (!), but although Priest is a multiple-time Clarke nominee, and indeed a winner, I think it’s noticeable that the Dream Archipelago is the strand of his work that the Clarke has consistently not recognised. Moreover, I would actually say that sense of connection between the different “islands” in Underground Railroad — ie the fantastical quality of the setting — is central to its effect, the juxtaposition of different moments in the historical oppression of black Americans, all of which happened, but which did not happen in the always-already fashion they happen in The Underground Railroad. For me, treating the different states as separate / more isolated / more science-fictional alternatives diminishes that effect.

            Moving on to The Fifth Season, my position is that nothing in the book falsifies a science fictional reading. There are signposts that make it easy to read it as a far-future earth if you choose to: substances like asphalt which don’t turn up in conventional secondary-world fantasies (although of course they could), the map and the nature of the world’s geology, the way the obelisks are described, the absence of various common markers of fantasy such as non-human humanoid races, and of course the last line. It sits very comfortably in (that is, generates a similar cognitive effect to) the Vance / Wolfe / etc tradition. Why do I *want* to put it in that tradition? Because of how many of-the-moment narratives it engages (apocalypse, superheroes!) and because of the gaps it addresses in historical science-fictional treatments of those narratives. I think its apocalypse — and the space it opens for alternate social organisations to form — sits neatly with the tradition of political SF that Jonathan outlined in his piece on The Underground Railroad, but that it is utterly contemporary in its discussion of systemic oppression, anger, privilege, complicity, and related topics in a way that I don’t see in any of the books on the shadow list — The Power comes closest, but has obvious limitations on the topic of race. (On the official list, Ninefox Gambit also does some of this work.) So far as the aesthetic quality of the novel goes, I think we simply have to chalk some of that up to taste; but I do think you underestimate the difficulty and the effectiveness of the way Jemisin sustains the second-person portion of the narrative, and I don’t think it’s an effect that would be easy to replicate in film or TV. (Games, perhaps.)

            I’m not sure there’s much to say to bridge the gap between us on Kavenna’s novel; suffice it to say that when one character near the end (p237 of my ARC) sums up Solete’s work as “The more he discovered about reality, the more he understood that he could never define it, absolutely” I rolled *my* eyes; that’s the sort of sentiment that is so obviously true and yet so obviously inadequate that it fulfils my definition of “undergraduate”. Some of the individual chapters on the way to that ending were engaging, but others felt similarly superficial, and the whole thing was wrapped in a layer of Oxford woo that (as someone who lived in Oxford for a number of years, although I recognise that Maureen can pull rank on me here) just constantly irritated me. I certainly can’t imagine reading it a second time, whereas I expect to return to both The Fifth Season and The Underground Railroad at some point.

      • Bormgans 3 weeks ago

        In what way van one call Central Station radical? It was an okay read, but to call it radical seems a giant overstatement to me.

  4. Paul Kincaid 3 weeks ago

    Niall, so The Underground Railroad is too fantasy to qualify, but the epic fantasy of The Fifth Season is too science fiction not to include? And the “similar-but-more-entertaining” End of Mr Y? Were we reading totally different books which happened to have the same title?

    • Niall 3 weeks ago

      The Fifth Season has a stronger claim science fictional reading than The Underground Railroad in my view, yes. It’s also an excellent novel that is (again, in my view) as central to what science fiction (and fantasy) are doing this decade as, say, Red Mars was in the 1990s; I think the fact that the Clarke has failed to recognise The Fifth Season will look distinctly odd in fifteen years’ time.

      As for The End of Mr Y, well, clearly. As academic-philosophical satires go, I thought it had much more energy and interest than the Kavenna, which I found a bit limp.

  5. Nick Hubble 3 weeks ago

    Mark, Niall – I think the ending of The Fifth Season and The Underground Railroad are different in that TFS does not conclude with an open ending but rather the mention of the Moon, which is the point of entry to The Obelisk Gate (nor does TFS tie up all its plot strands as Essun has not caught up with her partner and daughter; whereas TUR does tie up what happened to Cora’s mother, for example). I think you could make the distinction between the two without the aid of the ‘Book X of Y’ on the cover. Having said that, I don’t think too much should be freighted on that particular distinction – that’s just the way it looks in Nina’s write-up perhaps. There was a broader discussion and TFS was one of the half dozen or so books that was seriously considered alongside the final shadow list. For me, personally, a book being part of a series is not a problem – I like reading good sequences – and TFS was on my personal shortlist (as was TUR) but in the end, the way we were working to derive a list on the basis of what we could all agree (rather than on horse trading), led to TFS not making it.

    I have still got TFS to review in order to complete my reviewing of my personal shortlist (and Occupy Me – but I will just review that as part of the actual shortlist now) and so I want to address a lot of these issues re Fantasy, sequences, the Hugo lists etc. But briefly, while I agree with Niall that TFS is an important book and will probably be seen as such for years to come, that doesn’t mean that it not being on the Clarke shortlist (or our shadow list) is necessarily going to look odd. I think it is evident that no one single award can represent the field. In 2016 (as I said to Niall at the Clarke award ceremony). I thought the Hugo shortlist was stronger as a Hugo shortlist than the Clarke shortlist was as a Clarke shortlist (if that makes sense). Four of the books on the Hugo list were strong books (I didn’t read the other one) and (much as I loved Uprooted) TFS was the strongest of those and had it been on the 2016 Clarke shortlist, it would have been a clear contender for that too. But TFS wasn’t released in the UK until 2016 and so was only eligible for this 2017 shortlist. I know that the ‘problem’ caused by divergent UK and US publication is old hat, but that doesn’t make it less of a ‘problem’. In many ways, the initial discussion about TFS took place last year and it’s The Obelisk Gate which is surfing the wave front of the now. All of this is perhaps slightly unfair towards considering TFS for the 2017 Clarke but I don’t think it is entirely avoidable either.

    Anyway, I hope my review of TFS when it is finished will be some compensation for its omission from the shadow list. In particular, I’m interested in what connects SFF and not the definitions of genre or publisher which divides it (although simultaneously I don’t think we can simply ignore those distinctions either).

  6. Mark 3 weeks ago

    Nick, I think I could stretch things a bit and try to make a case that the final line of TFS is more of a hook than an incomplete point (and its existence as a hook is as much a commercial publishing decision as writing Book X of Y on the cover is), and that TUR has a not dissimilar hook with Cora heading off for a new phase of her life that could fuel a sequel, but you are right that it leaves some strands incomplete and so TUR is more “complete” than TFS. My concern was that the issue of “a proper end” is more of a continuum – there are series books which properly conclude at least some internal story, and others which gleefully leave all threads hanging – but as you say it wasn’t as much of a strike against the self-declared series as the write-up suggested to me I won’t belabour it.
    I look forward to the remaining reviews, and I’m also interested to hear what the shadow jury make of the actual shortlist – you overlapped by two books, which perhaps doesn’t signify much given the breadth of the field, but do the shadow jury think you overlapped in theme to any real extent?

    • Nina Allan 3 weeks ago

      Just to say that we hope to be posting some discussion of the official shortlist in due course!

  7. Tom Hunter 3 weeks ago

    Hi everyone,

    Well obviously you’ve all seen the official shortlist now and, to steal a line from Nick above, I think our own judges have definitely ‘come up with a good position for the sake of SF itself’. Amen.

    Of course I would say that, and I’m not posting this to talk about that shortlist, but rather the Shadow one you’ve all created, thank you.

    All great books, I’d say, and turns out we here at Clarke Award HQ managed to predict you’d choose precisely those six!

    Okay, that’s a big old lie, but there is a grain of truth there that I wanted to pick at to make a distinction about the difference between the award as administered and the shortlists we put forward.

    As you know, Bob (but I’ll repeat anyway for other readers) the Clarke Award judging panel is made up of a rotating team of jurists nominated by our three supporting organisations, the Science Fiction Foundation, the British Science Fiction Association and the SCI-FI-LONDON film festival. Their job is to read the books, discuss them and create us a shortlist and an eventual winner.

    The actual organisers of the award have no sway on those decisions, we merely facilitate the conversation.

    One way we can have indirect influence though is in making sure that the range of titles available to the judges is as good as we can get it, and this is why I say we predicted your six choices – Each of these books was not an immediate submission and each needed to be actively worked on in some way.

    For example if you’re a small press responsible for a limited print run of a title in the UK, thus making it eligible for the Clarke as a side effect of publication, you need to carefully consider submitting when you don’t stand to benefit directly because you’ve already sold all your copies before the shortlists are announced. Likewise if you’re a publisher focusing on shorter works. The Clarke doesn’t have a fixed definition of novel length in the way, say, the Hugo does, but its something to consider when putting a work forward. As noted above, there was quite a lot of conversation around that question this year.

    With other four titles, it’s interesting, although not exactly unsurprising given much of the interest / cognitive bias (small ‘b’) of the Shadow Clarke panel, that each title is from a non-genre imprint that might not automatically think to put a title forward to a prize like the Clarke Award. There are lots of awards out there after all, and many charging fees and so forth, so these days a publisher may well weigh up the practicality of submitting to everything and err for a strategic deployment instead.

    I have to say I find publishers to be very welcoming when the Clarke comes knocking on the door, but that doesn’t mean we don’t often have to go knocking on occasion. There are several reasons why the Clarke submissions list has grown in recent years, but one of them is our tracking across the full gamut of published books combined with an active campaign of what we may as well term soft cold-calling.

    We do this because all of the different arguments about the Clarke Award and what’s meant to be for are important to us, the same as the ‘is it really sf?’ debate and so on. It’s why we decided to release our submissions list every year and it’s the reason we make it clear in our call for submissions that the only way to know if a book might be considered SF or not, or to have a chance of winning, is to actively submit it.

    When I say we accurately guessed the Shadow shortlist, what I really mean is that we knew very well that it’s important to actively seek as many different books as we can to create what we hope will be the best possible shortlist.

    Now, I fully expect there will dissenting voices here and elsewhere on whether we achieved that this year in our own choice of books (I think we did, and in ways that reflects lots of the most vibrant areas of sf writing right now) and for me it feels important to demonstrate as clearly as I am allowed that the award as an organisation works very hard to create the groundwork for as many different ‘potential’ shortlists as we can.

    The Shadow Clarke (phase one) has been a fascinating version of that potential in action, and one of the outcomes we might hope for in releasing our submission list every year.

    Thank you to everyone for the work so far and the work to come.

    • Megan 3 weeks ago

      Hi Tom,

      Can you please clarify your use of the word ‘we’? That third-from-last paragraph gives the impression you are a jury member who decided on the shortlist, but as the administrator of the award, it seems like you would probably take a hands-off, leave-the-room-and-let-the-Chair-facilitate approach. As you are now becoming the face of the award, as in The Guardian comments and such, and it might give people (who skim articles, and aren’t as knowledgeable about the award as we are) the impression that you are actually part of the decision-making process year after year.

      • Chris Priest 3 weeks ago

        I assumed it was the royal ‘we’.

        • Megan 3 weeks ago

          Oh dear.

          • Chris Priest 3 weeks ago

            “Royal” as in an assumed prerogative in everything, “royal” as in a belief that everywhere you go people will cheer you on, “royal” as in a general uselessness except at ceremonial occasions.

  8. Must admit that I’m finding it rather difficult to reconcile my taxonomical headcanon with the discussion above.

    I detected no trace if the fantastical at all in Underground Railroad. I mean… If anything, the book’s economics are *more realistic* than anything in a Clarke novel as Whitehead makes it clear that the railroad was dug by slaves (either freed or not) whereas it’s never made clear what the business case for Rama might have been.

    If anything, I come at the question from the opposite side: I think the Kavenna and Whitehead are firmly science-fictional in terms of the techniques they use and their use of fictionalised worlds to comment on our world. Conversely, some of the more commercial works on the official shortlist strike me as fantastical not just because FTL is magic but also because of their thematic distance from the real world. Part of what makes 9FG so interesting is that it foregrounds this very issue and comnents on it in quite a knowing way.

    I would never argue that it’s my way or the highway on this issue, but one if the things the Clarke has historically done is prompted discussion of how we construct and re-construct genre boundaries. This being said, I can’t wrap my head around a conception of science fiction that doesn’t include Underground Railroad.

    • Niall 3 weeks ago

      Hmm. I feel like you’re treating “fantasy””science fiction” and “distant””engaged” as parallel and indeed linked metrics, when I would say they have no necessary connection to one another. You can have fantasy which is directly politically engaged with and a commentary on our world, and science fiction which is removed from and only indirectly commenting on our world.

      Possible test case: Greg Egan’s recent novels. By your metric, it sounds like The Clockwork Rocket is fantasy, which — while I actually can see the argument — I suspect would surprise most people.

  9. Tom Hunter 3 weeks ago

    Hi Megan, happy to clarify that and, sorry Chris, nothing royal in there, assumed or otherwise. I could equally have said ‘the judges’ or something similar I guess, but this is the Clarke Award’s shortlist as much as it is that of the individual judges from this year, and with that in mind I think ‘we’ as in ‘the Clarke Award organisers and judges’ is appropriate. Apologies though if that was confusing to anyone browsing by, I readily admit in hindsight I had assumed a certain level of familiarity with award operations here, which on reflection is perhaps a mistake

    To clarify further just in case, I’m not a judge. I do occasionally sit in the room when our meetings happen, but not always. Andrew M. Butler, one of the award’s co-directors and our Chair of Judges, does always sit in obviously, but likewise his is a non-voting roll. My roll is everything administration, promotion and organisational.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve never been a Clarke judge, and missed my opportunity to step up for the BSFA the same year I was asked to take on this role with the award. While I regretted that a little at the time, over the subsequent years I’ve definitely come to appreciate the unique position of being gifted a new shortlist every year, and I do definitely think of them all as gifts, and now shadow gifts included.

    Reading my previous post back to answer your question, I think the gist of what I’m trying to say there (and noting that maybe the Shadow team aren’t as familiar with award procedures as I might assume) is that there is a lot of work across the year put into researching titles and getting books in, which is distinct from the judging process. As I noted previously, we can’t consider it if it’s not sent in. It’s great to see many of those where we worked especially hard for being picked up in conversations here.

    I hope that helps

    • Megan 3 weeks ago


      Thank you for that clarification, although I’m not entirely satisfied with your answer. The role of an administrator and the role of the jury are two separate things that should be clearly delineated and divorced from one another. Your presence during jury meetings strikes me as inappropriate, especially when the predominate aspect of your role is to court publishers and corporate partners, establishing relationships that should be absent from the jury room. I’m not saying you would ever actively use your influence and connections to sway discussion in one direction or another, but you know as a PR guy that the appearance of the possibility of something like that is just as damaging as the reality, which is why I’m surprised this hasn’t been nipped in the bud already. Besides, even if you aren’t intentionally swaying things–and this is not an accusation that you are, just an acknowledgment of the potential of such a thing and how weird it looks to an outsider– I can see from the charisma and savvy that you exude in social media that your presence is probably more influential that you realize. This is the thing about power, which I’m sure you feel you don’t have or abuse, but you say fly-on-the-wall, I say Hawthorne effect. In the least.

      I want to make it clear that I’m not speaking for the Shadow Jury when I say these things. I’ve gone rogue on this issue. Overall, I’m critical of the small, entangled networks I’ve observed throughout the entire British SF scene (it’s just as bad in the US, though comparatively larger, but I can’t be doing with all that emo and cheeze and ass-kissing and blind loyalty, so I couldn’t even begin to engage). It doesn’t take much examination of awards culture to see how these networks can undermine the validity of the award. I have no solutions for this bigger problem, since that would require trampling all over everyone’s much needed social and professional networks, but jesus christ, it makes the entire scene look naïve and meaningless.

      I don’t have solutions for the bigger problem of social enmeshment in genre culture, but I do have some solutions to improve the credibility of the Clarke Award. I advise that you stay out of the jury room. You have no business there. I also advise that you pull back on the”we’s” and the “our’s” because your job as publicist, hand-shaker, fund-finder, and relationship-builder should force you into a position of being neutral and distant regarding the jury, which is thrown into doubt when you use language and behaviors that suggest an active role in the process.

      And since you brought up your previous post about seeking out books, are you saying that you only sought out small publishers and unusual books because of the presence of the Shadow Jury? You couldn’t predict our Sharke Six because you didn’t know we would do a Sharke Six because we didn’t know we would do a Sharke Six, but it sounds as if you felt pressured to seek out a wider range of styles of submissions because of our project. Frankly, and this is intended as a compliment, though a not very well-researched one because I’m not going to bother going through the previous years’ subs lists that you’ve released, but I thought you had been doing that all along. (And I’m not asking you to answer again for the marked difference in number of submissions between this year and last year because I can’t even begin to understand the nuances of publishing and the reasoning for the (relatively) short submissions list this year. I’m just taking your word for it.)

      • Tom Hunter 2 weeks ago

        Hi Megan, I’m sorry I missed your reply in this thread, so just catching up to it now.

        I fully understand where you’re coming from, and I hope you’ll appreciate this is something that we have discussed prior to your raising it. In fact, prior to my taking on the role, the functions of administrator and chair of judges were the same person and one of the first moves we made was to separate that out, although I should be very clear this was for practical division of tasks reasons rather than concern over influence.

        As the award’s director it’s important for me to know how the judging decisions are made and I do that in a variety of different ways. It’s also important for our judges to know that I will be supporting and promoting their choices regardless of what titles they actually pick or the implications those choices might have (all male shortlist in 2013 is a good example). Sometimes I am in the room for that.

        We do have a variety of checks in place and I’ll give you a couple of examples. The first is that, whether I’m in it or not, our Chair of Judges rules the room, including me. The second is that our judges are volunteers nominated by different supporting organisations, not direct Clarke Award appointments, and I can assure you they are independent in every sense of the word.

        I could go on about things I know as a PR guy and about shortlists, but actually I believe now that our shortlist is out in the world the way I’ll be contributing to this project here is an article of my own talking about the award, so I might save that for now.

        I can however quickly answer your questions about the submissions and confirm I felt under no pressure at all from the Shadow Clarke to seek out more/different books. Submissions opened mid-last year and I only knew about this project around the end of the year when we were closing submissions. I make sure we are actively seeking books simply so we have the fullest range available to judge from. Making that list public is also a great way to show the current state of the industry and a further motivation.

        The drop in submissions from previous years is not unexpected or overly concerning at this point as the number of different submitting publishers is still high, and that’s the number I look to more. For what it’s worth the last time we had 80+ submissions it was our highest ever year at the time, and that was only a few years ago. 10 years ago when I first joined we were receiving more like 45 titles a year, so the overall trend is still positive.

  10. Niall — Engagement isn’t the only metric I’d use (particularly as you can set something in the real world and say nothing and set it in a secondary world and engage quite powerfullywith the real world on a metaphorical level) and I don’t think that there is a correct definition (meaning of terms fixed by use + ‘science fiction’ has never been used in a systematic fashion) anyway.

    I can see why you’d suggest Egan’s more recent forays into secondary-world creation would be fantasy under ny conception and yeah… I’m happy with that actually 🙂

  11. Mark 3 weeks ago

    A quick question, as some people are using “commercial” as a distinction between different types of books: what do you actually mean by that? I’m assuming you don’t intend the most straightforward meaning, as all the books under discussion are being made available for sale by people who would, I assume, quite like to get paid for them.

    • Megan 3 weeks ago


      While I can’t speak for others, I use ‘commercial’ when I mean, ‘designed to sell.’ Meaning it fits into a simple category that the public will instantly recognize and know what to expect if they purchase it. Meaning it can be easily condensed into an understandable cover, blurbs and buzzwords, and positive but empty reviews, but is broad enough that it will capture enough purchasers (note: I didn’t say readers) to earn a profit. Something that fits perfectly into the buzzstream of now.

      So, not art. Not something that will be remembered in the future. Not something that changes the way we view the world. Not something complicated.

      • PhilRM 3 weeks ago

        ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’ – Samuel Johnson. 😉

      • Mark 3 weeks ago

        Megan, thank you for the reply. Could you say which of the books under discussion weren’t ‘designed to sell’?

        • Megan 3 weeks ago


          I already expanded on my definition of ‘designed to sell.’ I didn’t know what I was getting with the Kavenna or the Whiteley, for example. Not easily buzzed-about books. I don’t think the uninformed book-buyer, which I usually was until these more recent years, would be able to pick up those books off the bookshelf and know exactly what they’re getting.

    • PhilRM 3 weeks ago

      Mark – In SF, John Scalzi would be a good example of commercial fiction. (I’m not trying to pick on Scalzi here; from things he’s written on his blog, he would be the first one to describe his work that way.) It’s not intended as a synonym for ‘bad’, but is usually meant to imply not ambitious or difficult. It should also not be confused with successful, e.g., my copy of ‘The Underground Railroad’ may say ‘First Edition’, but it’s also the twentieth printing, which I would guess means there have been something like 100,000 copies printed. Of course, Whitehead is a critically acclaimed novelist with a major marketing push behind this novel, but that doesn’t make TUR commercial fiction in the usual sense of the term. Iain Banks would be another example (both inside and outside of SF) who became commercially successful without writing commercial fiction.

      • Mark 3 weeks ago

        Phil, I agree with you that Scalzi is commercially-minded and deliberately so. I believe I’ve seen him write something to the effect that as he has more ideas than he can write in his lifetime, all other things being equal he’s quite happy to tend towards those he thinks will sell.
        As the word “commercial” isn’t actually a synonym for unambitious I would be rather disappointed if anyone was actually using it that way.
        As you suggest, I would suspect that The Underground Railroad is the highest selling book out of both this list and the actual Clarke, and as far as I can tell Whitehead is a full-time writer signed to a for-profit publisher, so it’s hard to see in what way it wasn’t intended to try to make money for everyone involved.

        • Megan 3 weeks ago

          Niall, (and everybody, since I’m responding out of timeline and this convo has branched all over the place),

          You don’t need to continue defending The Fifth Season as science fiction. I’m with you. Completely convinced.

          I simply don’t think the question of whether it’s science fiction is important or productive, especially in the context of the Clarke. In fact, I think this kind of talk detracts from the novel’s literary qualities, which I wish more people would talk about.

          The use of second-person is a literary gimmick that reminds me of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories. Even so, you’d be surprised to know that I think Jemisin’s use of it in TFS is appropriate and intriguing (whereas Sullivan’s use of it in Occupy me has me in all kinds of defensive, “take my name out of your mouth” postures… for some reason… still examining that), but it’s an affectation that’s not so embedded into the narrative that it couldn’t easily be removed for screenplay adaptation… not like subtle, ambiguous interiority, or a taciturn cast of characters, or philosophical navel-gazing, all of which do not translate well to film.

          It’s interesting that you keep bringing up Suvin, because I’ve been wondering during the past few months if British readers are simply not familiar enough with the aesthetics of US historical eras to experience the utter cognitive dissonance I experienced reading about Whitehead’s wonky America. (And now, looking at a few Goodreads reviews, it’s clear that this is lost on quite a few Americans as well, who seem to be taking his version of warped American history as straight historical fiction. Eesh!) It’s so tricky and warped, Cora’s trip involves back-and-forth time travel, she crosses into new universes of dystopias, she experiences the realities of nightmares only proposed by white supremacists in our own universe– and what’s so brilliant about it is I couldn’t trust my own judgment about what is real and irreal, even to the point where, at times, I thought I had been reading it wrong, and I’m still coming to terms with it.

          Distilled into science fictional language: The Underground Railroad is about mind-bendy, multiverse dystopias that we can only experience through the use of machine. It is a blend of Inverted World, Fritz Leiber, and PKD. There.

          This won’t convince you that TUR is science fiction, but I think everyone should read this review:

          Arguments about precedents: In the context of the Clarke, where the first Clarke jury was acting from a broader and more progressive definition of science fiction from the get-go, I absolutely think that should always be considered and honored. This is purely a political stance on my part. Had the jury had started out more regressive, I would argue the other way and say ‘screw precedents!’. But the Arthur C. Clarke Award set an important precedent from day one: that science fiction does not always have to have spaceships on the cover, it can, instead, be vaguely speculative, disorienting, and/or alarming, and I intend to defend this belief because it opens up the award to more legitimate “Bests”.

          • Nina Allan 3 weeks ago

            Thanks for signposting that LARB review, Megan – that’s a remarkable piece of work (although I don’t agree that Tarantino’s music fetish is ‘pointless’ – I adore his soundtracks!)

          • Niall 3 weeks ago

            Obviously my previous comment wasn’t as clear as I hoped: for me, whether or not something is science fiction is a “literary quality”, or rather, it’s a shorthand for whether or not (or to what extent) a given text engages in certain literary strategies and effects.

            I would certainly hope that Americans have a more visceral appreciation of the The Underground Railroad’s effect than me! But I was familiar with most of the scenarios visited (with the partial exception of Tennessee, which took me a little while to figure out), and I appreciated that, as you say, Cora’s progression is back-and-forth, not linear. (I would have actually liked the novel to bring in more recent history as well, and have a state exemplifying the racism of, say, post-war US housing policy or mass incarceration, but you can’t have everything.) I think the difference between us is that while I think you have accurately described Cora’s subjective experience — she is whisked between scenarios and they appear to be discrete worlds to her — I think the novel’s world has its own broader reality. The people who live in the states do not experience them as discrete worlds. They are aware of the other states, they travel between them, they comment on them. And therefore I think the intention is that we as readers should recognise that this is precisely not a multiverse or time travel, that what is being described is a larger whole, time reimagined as geography. I found that extremely powerful. But it brings together moments that, although they exist together morally, sociologically, historically, did not and could not exist together as a stable single reality — the states would influence each other more than they do, for one thing. And as a result I think it is a fantastical strategy, not a science fictional one. Again, to be clear: describing what The Underground Railroad shows us as a multiverse or as time travel diminishes the book’s power for me, because it encourages readers to treat the states as separate case studies, rather than to see their continuity. Claiming this book as science fiction wounds it.

            (Nobody has taken me up on my challenge to discuss Blonde Roots, but although that takes place in an equally impossible alternate world — it moves continents around on its map, but only some of them, it also conflates different historical moments into one — it does so in a way that works through the contradictions and extrapolates some of their implications, and so I think bringing that book into a science fiction conversation is valuable. Anyway, I recommend it.)

            All I will say about the use of second-person in The Fifth Season is that I don’t think Jemisin deploys it lightly and that in the context of a novel about power dynamics, privilege, oppression and complicity, for me it is very far from being a gimmick.

          • Megan 3 weeks ago


            I did say that I appreciated Jemisin’s use of second-person.

            I very much disagree that discussing The Underground Railroad as a science fiction novel diminishes its power (and even if it did, that still wouldn’t mean we can pretend away the science fictional elements simply because it wasn’t marketed that way). The opposite is so: the science fictional elements make it even more powerful, which is Whitehead chose to employ those techniques, and it’s even more important to point out now that I see that half of the Goodreads reviews don’t seem to recognize the warpedness of his history. Readers aren’t seeing the hyperbolic techniques he’s employing to insert the consequences of the horrors of the past to force us to recognize the horrors of our present.

            I think we’re at an impasse and it’s going to take a mysterious underground railroad to transport myself into your universe if I’m ever going to understand your stance. And likewise for you, I’m sure.

          • Niall 3 weeks ago

            Yeah, I think we are reaching the point of diminishing returns. But to be clear, if you’d written, “The fantastic elements make it even more powerful …” I’d agree with every word of your paragraph there. If anyone has followed the conversation this far, I encourage them to read The Underground Railroad, if they haven’t already.

        • Megan 3 weeks ago


          The Underground Railroad was definitely ‘designed to sell.’

        • PhilRM 3 weeks ago

          Mark – ‘Unambitious’ is probably not the best word choice, as it comes across as needlessly derogatory. How about ‘mainstream’? Maybe a clearer way to put it is that there are books written with the desires of the audience in mind (or at least the writer’s perceptions of those desires), and those that are not, with a whole spectrum in between. Would you agree that, e.g, Peter Watts’ Blindsight is intellectually demanding in a way that Old Man’s War is not?

          And of course you’re right, no publisher anywhere releases a book that they think will lose money, but there is again a huge spectrum in how wide the appeal of a given book is expected to be, which determines the size of advances, print runs, etc. (And publishers get this wrong all the time. As the screenwriter William Goldman said about hit movies, ‘Nobody knows anything’.)

          • Mark 2 weeks ago

            Phil – sorry, I forgot to check back for responses! I don’t see the need for a dichotomy between ambition, writing what an audience wants, wideness of appeal, etc. Whitehead has clearly managed to write an ambitious book that told a story a lot of people wanted to read. This isn’t to say that popular should equal good – it obviously doesn’t – but it seems that at times the opposite is assumed, with the corollary that good books should expect to sell badly.

          • PhilRM 2 weeks ago

            Hi Mark – we seem to have hit maximum thread depth, so I’m replying to my comment rather than yours. I would argue that one of those things you list is not like the others. There are all kinds of ways for books to be great; that greatness may go unrecognized for decades, or result in immediate, widespread acclaim and popular success. Books can be great in ways that are so singular and difficult that there is virtually no chance of them finding more than a tiny audience (and the uninterested majority of readers are under no obligation whatsoever to appreciate such books), but being singular and difficult is no guarantee of greatness**, and such a book is not in any sense ‘better’ than one that finds a wide audience. But I would be extremely surprised if there have been many great novels written where at key points the author stopped and asked “What would readers most like to happen here?” rather than “What has to happen here?” I think most great works of fiction have come from people who write with only one reader in mind: the one in their head.

            **For a truly bizarre example, look up the history of James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed, which was (briefly) both critically-acclaimed and a bestseller in 1957, despite the fact that it’s pretty much completely unreadable. Cozzens (who by all accounts was a really terrible person) seems to have written it entirely as a giant F-U to the American reading public.

          • Mark 2 weeks ago

            Phil, “hitting maximum thread depth” sounds suitably SFnal, doesn’t it? (I’m now imagining it as dialogue from a bad movie!)

            I quite like the distinction between “What would readers most like to happen here?” and “What has to happen here?” as a guide to..something. “What would readers like” probably leads you down the road to what gets described as ‘cosy’, and I’d happily link that to ‘unambitious’ as a valid criticism of why a book isn’t great. However, I don’t think that writing what an audience wants necessarily means pandering to their expectations within the text – I was thinking more along the lines of writing a story with a subject matter that the audience wants. I think that one of the clever things that TUR does is to start with a recognisable narrative hook that readers can accept – the very title is emblematic of the era – and then take them somewhere else, to confront the fact that the racism persisted even as you left the plantations behind both in distance and in time. Equally, The Fifth Season does a good job of looking like a more standard secondary world fantasy with various exciting and apocalyptic events promised, before building in themes of power structures and oppression.
            In short, you can get a wide audience in while still having plenty of ambition about what you’re going to give them.

          • PhilRM 2 weeks ago

            Mark – I’m now imagining it as dialogue from a bad movie! Preferably bellowed in a bad Scottish accent!
            However, I don’t think that writing what an audience wants necessarily means pandering to their expectations within the text – I was thinking more along the lines of writing a story with a subject matter that the audience wants. I disagree only in that I think the second of these is rather far afield from the first, and it was the first that I was criticizing. But “What would readers like” probably leads you down the road to what gets described as ‘cosy’, and I’d happily link that to ‘unambitious’ as a valid criticism of why a book isn’t great. sums my position up very succinctly, so I think we’re pretty much in agreement.

          • PhilRM 2 weeks ago

            Ack, messed up my html: Obviously, ‘I disagree only in that I think the second of these is rather far afield from the first, and it was the first that I was criticizing.’ is my response, not part of the quote.

  12. Abigail Nussbaum 2 weeks ago

    I have to say, the consideration that The Fifth Season seems to have received feels disappointingly shallow. Like Niall, I consider TFS to be one of the finest and most important genre works of the last few years, and its absence from both the Clarke and Sharke shortlists has dismayed me greatly. Unlike him, I have no problem squaring the argument for its presence on the shortlist with The Underground Railroad, which I will happily class as SF (though I might argue that it would have fit better on the shortlists of awards with looser genre definitions, such as the Hugo and the Nebula). It is, however, clear to me that TFS’s SF credentials are far stronger than TUR’s. As Niall notes, it operates squarely in the tradition of Dying Earth SF, as well as corresponding with, deepening, and complicating the tropes of superhero stories, particularly the X-Men concept. Its worldbuilding is deliberately couched in concrete, even mundane terms, stressing issues like economics, civic planning, and disaster preparedness. Its post-apocalyptic world is presented primarily through the mechanisms established to survive this apocalypse, and the depiction of their failure. None of these are things that can’t be done in fantasy, of course, but the way in which Jemisin presents them feels SFnal, focused on process, organization, and institutions. It’s reminiscent of the way that China Miéville built his fantasy world in Perdido Street Station, a book that the Clarke, quite rightly, recognized as eligible despite being so obviously fantastical.

    I mention all of this not because I think TFS’s genre is important – I agree with Megan that this kind of taxonomic discussion can quickly grow tedious – but as a way of illustrating how its games with genre make it so much more complex – and relevant to the Clarke’s concerns – than many of the judges here have given it credit for. Last year, Jonathan published a very long essay about the New Weird and its disappearance, finally concluding that it burned away in the fires of RaceFail and an increased focus on diversity and representation. But Jemisin, with her mingling of genres, and her use of that mingling to approach highly fraught issues of prejudice and oppression, represents the New Weird’s second coming (so, by the way, does Ninefox Gambit, a book I liked less than TFS, but which does many similar things). As a political work, TFS is more adroit and wide-ranging than The Power (which I otherwise admired very much, and am surprised not to see on this year’s Clarke shortlist), and more relevant than the Broken Europe books (in fairness, I haven’t read this year’s Clarke-eligible Europe in Winter, but the first two books in the series are very well done spy thrillers that don’t really have anything to say about the real political problems plaguing Europe today – things like the rise of the far-right, economic inequality, or the refugee crisis).

    Obviously, no one is obliged to share my assessment of the book, and I can even see persuasive arguments for keeping TFS off the Sharke shortlist. The fact that it’s the first volume in a trilogy works against it more than in the case of Europe in Autumn, because unlike Hutchinson, Jemisin is working within a trilogy structure that can leave the book feeling a little programmatic (again, I think that Ninefox Gambit suffers from this a lot more, but it’s a problem that afflicts TFS as well). Nick is right that submitting the book in 2016 can make it seem that its moment has passed, especially since The Obelisk Gate is a great deal more conventional in its use of genre, which can end up reflecting back on the previous volume. What startles me is how little consideration TFS seems to have received from the jury – it surely deserved to be looked at in length by more than one juror – and how easily it has been dismissed as a purely commercial work. It’s a choice that, quite frankly, casts a pall on the entire Shadow Clarke project. I understood the purpose of this project as an attempt to remind the Clarke of its roots as an award that explores the full range of what science fiction can be and is becoming, something that recent shortlists have struggled to do. That this inevitably involves rejecting a lot of commercial work is understandable. But there is a wide gulf between N.K. Jemisin and Becky Chambers, and what Jemisin is doing in TFS is exactly what the Clarke should be recognizing. Again, you didn’t have to put it on your shortlist, but it absolutely deserved more of a discussion than it seems to have gotten.

    • Nina Allan 2 weeks ago

      Hi Abigail,

      Some eminently discussion-worthy comments here – I’m especially interested in your conflation of TFS with the New Weird – and I’m sure that other Sharkes will have more to add. I just wanted to note that we have plans for more extended commentary during this second, post-official-shortlist phase of our project, and I think you may well see TFS being discussed at greater length in the weeks to come.

    • Megan 2 weeks ago

      Hi Abigail,

      While The Fifth Season is not a book I’m comfortable praising and squeeing, I agree that the Clarke snub is unforgivable when weaker works like Occupy Me and Closed and Common Orbit are sitting on that list. I also think I will probably come around to your way of thinking about the Shadow list, but I’m holding back for the time being. The Power isn’t out in the US yet, so I’ve only read a brief online excerpt, but I have a feeling, after I am able to give it a proper read, I will consider it our weakest decision as a jury, and I may have to air my dissent accordingly.

    • Nick Hubble 2 weeks ago

      Hi Abigail,

      TFS will get some more discussion because I will be writing a review of it as an outstanding volume from my personal sharkelist. And there is now a huge amount of material on this comments page, that I want to try and respond to as well. I don’t think we ‘re just going to cut to the actual shortlist from here on in (although there is a collective response coming in a few hours). I suspect we will be circling around and trying to come at a variety of discussions surrounding the whole process over the coming weeks. I hope the discussion is just beginning to gather pace. .. (and I suspect the term ‘genre’ itself – in its various meanings – will come under some pressure).

  13. Tom Hunter 2 weeks ago

    With reference to Abigail’s comment above, I am myself convinced that the Shadow Clarke team would have given more consideration to the ‘almost made it’ titles listed in Nina’s post than is indicated in the short amount of space given to those discussions, rightly because Nina is naturally focusing on those books which were selected.

    For what it’s worth and in my (so-called) professional opinion, it is a very strong list that fits within the objectives the Shadow Clarke jury set out for themselves.

    The Clarke Award jury naturally set their own priorities, and within that it’s worth noting that we deliberately have no fixed definition of science fiction or even what constitutes ‘best’ quite deliberately as that is reset every year by our new judges. Naturally every past year creates precedents that can be considered, but we deliberately don’t ask our jury to work within past contexts. Perdido Street Station is a great case study for that, and while the majority opinion here seems to be that it definitely ought to have been shortlisted, I’ve had many a conversation in other corners of the internet, cons etc where a rather different opinion has been equally eloquently expressed.

    Having spent 11 years watching reactions to shortlists, I’m aware it’s a fairly typical reaction to look immediately for the books that didn’t make it and then to look for reasons (or just call out the judges etc) but what I always hope for is that, regardless of which books you might personally feel needed to be included, readers will look with fresh eyes at t hose books the judges have selected and consider why they might have thought them the best title to shortlist.

    Certainly, I have enjoyed doing that with both the Shadow and the actual Clarke shortlist selections this year, and as I’ve noted above I’m particularly pleased with some of the Shadow selections (not just those eventually shortlisted) on the basis of knowing the work we put in to make sure titles we submitted.

    Finally, Abigail, if you haven’t done so already I do hope you will write a big piece celebrating the Fifth Season sequence sometime soon. I would love to read it.


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