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.