Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by Jonathan McCalmont

Shadow Clarke 2017 – a personal shortlist by Jonathan McCalmont

By Jonathan McCalmont

So, it turns out that the whole ‘coming up with an award shortlist’ thing is a lot harder than it looks…

The culture surrounding literary science fiction tends to view award shortlists in quite a binary fashion: We scan down the list of books, mentally compare them to books we like, and conclude whether or not the shortlist is any good. This assumption that all awards pursue the same form of literary excellence impoverishes the discussion surrounding genre literature and harms the development of literary science fiction. I would like to believe that genre culture could reach a point at which different awards were understood to pursue different models of literary excellence but I’m not sure we’re quite there yet.

One of the things I wanted to do with my shortlist was to explore the idea of the Arthur C. Clarke Award as an institution that challenges the near-monopoly that genre publishing has over not only the field’s annual hype cycle but also over the construction of literary excellence. Traditionally, the Clarke Award has filled this role by smuggling a few choice mainstream titles over the ghetto walls but what if those disruptive tendencies were allowed to manifest themselves more fully? What if the Clarke Award came to represent genre publishing industry’s systematic failure to drive the genre forwards?

In order to come up with a deliberately counter-cultural shortlist, I made several passes through the submissions list in order to rule things out before making more positive choices about the things I wanted to read and write about:

First pass: Genre publishing has become wedded to the idea that genre stories come in literary units no smaller than trilogies. I understand the economics and why both publishers and writers would rather work in series but I think that encouraging authors to develop single ideas over multiple books not only slows the progress of the field, it also encourages readers to stay within their comfort zones and ask endlessly for more of the same. As a result, I made a conscious decision to ignore anything that was either part of a series or looked like it might become part of a series.

Second pass: Genre publishing has slowly developed a near-monopoly on the means through which individual works acquire a word-of-mouth buzz. This monopoly is partly a result of publishers and authors developing direct relationships with reviewers and partly a result of critics and reviewers losing influence in the age of Goodreads and Amazon reviews. With most of genre culture’s systems of recommendation skewed in favour of genre imprints and established genre authors, I chose to prioritise works that were either produced outside of conventional genre culture or which have been marginalised by genre publishing and forced towards smaller publishing venues.

Third pass: One of the side-effects of the ‘professionalization’ of genre discourse and the marginalisation of independent critics and commentators is that genre publishing has been protected from a lot of the discussions surrounding the field’s ongoing issues with both institutional sexism and racism. Simply stated, when you narrow the range of views to people with a professional interest in the field then you are not going to get views that are critical of the people with the money. This is why discussions of sexism and racism in genre culture have tended to focus upon the reading habits of individual fans rather than the companies who rarely publish anyone other than middle-class white men.

To its eternal credit, the Clarke has been part of an exception to this rule: Back in 2013, the Clarke came in for a lot of criticism for its failure to shortlist a single woman. One of that year’s jurors, the author Liz Williams, wrote a piece explaining that while the jury wanted to pick books by women, their hands were tied by the failure of British imprints to either publish female authors or submit their works for award consideration. Four years later and absolutely nothing appears to have changed: Not only did the men on the submissions list outnumber women by close to two-to-one, but most of the women on the submissions list were not published by traditional genre imprints. The sad fact of the matter is that if you are a woman who writes science fiction in 2017 then you are probably better off submitting your novel to mainstream publishers than you are to genre imprints. As a result, I wanted my shortlist to reflect a broader range of voices expressing themselves in a wider range of styles than those championed by traditional genre imprints.

The field of submissions narrowed by these protocols of principled exclusion, I was rather surprised to find myself with quite a large pool of potentials and yet, I could not help but think of the conspicuous absences… Like Nina, I regret that Carl Neville’s brilliant and politically-engaged debut Resolution Way was not submitted for consideration as I struggle to think of a book that better exemplifies what I’d like to see from contemporary British science fiction. I also regret that Claire Vaye Watkins’ first novel Gold Fame Citrus did not manage to get a UK release in time to make this year’s submission pool as its elegant characterisation, evocative landscapes and restrained use of genre tropes strike me as a perfect example of what some people have started referring to as ‘Clarkebait’.

For a long time, I had four novels. Then I had ten. Then I had five. Now I have six:

 

Winner of a national book award and selected for the financial horn of plenty that is Oprah’s Book Club, Whitehead’s sixth novel is not only a well-observed and intelligently conceived exploration of American attitudes to race, it is also deeply science-fictional for reasons that have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the deployment of moral fantasies to make a political point. Arguably the single most important science fiction novel to be published in 2016, no 2017 award shortlist will be complete without it.

 

While it may present itself as a literary thriller set in a near-future Bath, Geen’s debut novel is actually about the great distances between human minds. Built around a series of exercises in literary empathy, the book drags both its protagonist and its readers from one inhuman mindscape to another as a means of exploring not only the limitations of human empathy but also the barriers we erect in order to keep ourselves separate from those around us. Utterly alien and yet profoundly humane, The Many Selves of Katherine North is the kind of book that reminds you quite how much science fiction can achieve when it ventures beyond the twin moons of epic fantasy and space opera.

 

As far as I am concerned, rules and procedures are important but so too is recognising the brilliance of a book like Central Station. On paper, Central Station should be the kind of book that is pointedly absent from my shortlist given that it not only features space stations and vampires but also started life as a series of short stories published in genre magazines. What drew me to Central Station – aside from its multicultural and unequivocally pro-immigrant themes – was its mosaic-like structure. As markets for adult genre literature contract, genre imprints have grown ever-more cautious and that caution often manifests itself as a reluctance to indulge in anything more exotic than character-based narratives written with either close first-person or omniscient third-person narration. Central Station not only challenges the formal conservatism of genre writing, it challenges the idea that we are ever anything more than parts of a broader whole called place. A strong contender for this year’s Clarke Award, I will be outraged if Central Station does not land Tidhar his first ever Clarke nomination.

 

The history of genre is a history of aesthetic crusades; Just as today’s field obsesses over the need to be more diverse and inclusive, yesterday’s commentators prized the blurring of genre boundaries, the exploration of Feminist themes, and the pursuit of technical sophistication. Contemporary genre culture likes to believe that all of these values are somehow equally important and complementary but the history of science fiction shows that it has been many different things to many different people. One of the least fashionable ways in which to judge a work of science fiction is in terms of its ability to engage with scientific and philosophical thought. Product of a time when science fiction was marketed almost exclusively to people with an interest in popular science and engineering, this vision of science fiction lives on in the form of pedants complaining when authors failed to understand the correct functioning of a space elevator but science fiction’s unique link to the world of non-fiction can be so much more. Much like the novels of Jostein Gaarder (and virtually everything published under the rubric of science fiction prior to 1960), Kavenna uses fictional conceits like plot and character as an excuse to explore abstract ideas and all the feelings of wonder and mystery that an abstract idea can evoke.

 

Having previously read and enjoyed Whiteley’s Tiptree-honoured novella The Beauty, I was delighted to discover that her short novel The Arrival of Missives had been submitted to the Clarke Award judges. Aside from wanting an excuse to read and write about Whiteley’s work, what drew me to The Arrival of Missives was the fact that, like a number of works on the submissions list, it uses apocalyptic imagery and genre tropes as a means of exploring not only moments of intense personal crisis but also the inevitable urge to rebuild oneself, one’s communities, and make the world anew. Another thing that drew me to this novel was its transgressive brevity: While some might mutter that The Arrival of Missives is technically a novella, I choose to view it as a reminder that science fiction need not come in the form of thousand-page volumes and sprawling series that outlive their bearded creators. Science fiction used to be both concise and precise… let us remember and celebrate that.

 

People of an uncharitable mind-set might choose to summarise my position as being that genre imprints are rubbish because they insist upon publishing hyper-commercial escapist fluff while I insist upon reading nothing but sadistically high-brow novels about death and communism. While I’d like to think that my actual position is rather more nuanced, I must admit that the work of M. Suddain does pose something of a challenge to my understanding of the genre/mainstream split. Indeed, while everything from that enigmatic first initial to that minimalist cover may scream cultural sophistication, Suddain’s style is actually quite light and fluffy. Hunters & Collectors is an impressive novel that plays all sorts of visual and typographical games but its most transgressive characteristic may well prove to be a level of science-fictional silliness rarely seen this side of the Brentford triangle.

Those are my six. I sincerely hope that you take the time to disagree.

*

Jonathan McCalmont is a film critic, fan writer, and columnist for Interzone magazine. One-time Londoner and low-level academic drone, he has now surrendered to the forces of entropy and taken up residence in a wood

13 Comments

  1. Niall 8 months ago

    In this timeline, the Clarke is the trickster of SF awards. It struggles with straight faces: it needs the in-jokey metafiction of a Tidhar (who in this timeline has already won one Clarke this decade, and may be picking up his second soon: as central to the UK field in the 2010s as Mieville was in the 2000s, some say), or the gonzo satire of a Suddain, to feel really comfortable. Nominees in this timeline tend to contain commentary and cautions galore — they are often described as “incendiary” — but perhaps not much sense of wonder, which leads some to read the award’s shift in taste as a loss of confidence. This is the award for a field that has internalised Gibson’s assertion that all we have is “the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios”, and that any attempt to write coherently about the future is inevitably going to be outpaced and rendered obsolete by political reality, so you might as well write metafiction and parallel worlds from the start. When it does shortlist something more sincere, this Clarke tends to pick books that take place within or close to a recognisable here-and-now.

    • PhilRM 8 months ago

      NIall, I’m slightly confused by one thing here: you earlier described Tidhar’s Central Station as “right in the heartland” of genre (in the comments on Megan’s shortlist). And while I didn’t quite agree with that, I don’t think I’d call it metafictional, either.

  2. Will Ellwood 8 months ago

    I am horribly behind reading the comments and engaging with the discussion in the shadows of the Clarke, but this is probably the timeline I feel comfortable in.

    As a stray observation on the Joanna Kavenna nomination, she spoke as the guest speaker when I attended Arvon’s SF course a few years back. If I recall correctly she spoke a about Borges and the edges of modernism and disenchantment with the world. This shortlist feels to me like the distilled SF. A harsh gin with novums in place of juniper and delicate words providing the florid botanicals to ease the sharpness of the commentary.

    Should I review these shortlists as beverages?

    • Author
      admin 8 months ago

      You absolutely should.

    • Niall 8 months ago

      I second that!

    • Nina Allan 8 months ago

      Absolutely should happen.

  3. Jonathan McCalmont 8 months ago

    Niall — You know me far too well! 🙂

    In pre-empting you I got as far as imagining a future in which some catastrophe had befallen the London Worldcon and decimated the ranks of British SF. This forced British genre institutions to scrabble for outliers by drawing on mainstream carpet-baggers, clever ironists, and fledgling experimentalists.

    I accept your view that this list is born of a profound loss of confidence in the methods of conventional SF and I think that loss of confidence is a result of how I think the New Weird has played itself out commercially — namely that large sections of SF have been sucked into fantasy making me more attentive to alternative methods and abandoned literary futures. I still believe in writing about the future but I think the event horizon is amazingly close on that type of stuff.

    Al Reynolds wrote about SF having developed a default medium-term future in which climate change undermines everything and sets the stage for post-climate change futures that look a lot like those of traditional SF. I think that this yearning to get back to traditional futures with space empires and FTL is a nostalgic and intellectually coeardly flinch. Might as well be writing about hobbits for all the plausibility those futures contain.

    Will — Thanks, but I was aiming for tequila slammers ;-p

    • PhilRM 8 months ago

      Al Reynolds wrote about SF having developed a default medium-term future in which climate change undermines everything and sets the stage for post-climate change futures that look a lot like those of traditional SF. I think that this yearning to get back to traditional futures with space empires and FTL is a nostalgic and intellectually cowardly flinch.
      Jonathan – I disagree here only in that I don’t think the first necessarily implies the second. As an example, in Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War/The Gardens of the Sun duology (which, to be fair, contains neither space empires not FTL) humanity has come out the far side of climate change and expanded out into the Solar System – but that survival required enormous political and social changes whose ramifications are still playing out in the course of the novels. In fact, it is that playing out that largely concerns them. Yet these novels still manage to convey a sense of wonder; offhand I can’t think of anything that matches them for their “you are there” descriptions of the outer Solar System.

      I must admit that the work of M. Suddain does pose something of a challenge to my understanding of the genre/mainstream split. On both Amazon (US and UK) and the Book Depository, the novels listed under “People who bought this also bought” for Hunters & Collectors are split about 50-50 between genre and non-genre publishers. (While I’m not privy to Amazon’s algorithms, I get the same results using different IP addresses and without being logged in.) So perhaps you’re not alone in that!

  4. Nina Allan 8 months ago

    Yes, the counterfactual shortlist from 2012 consisted of Ings, Mieville, Roberts, Rogers, Tidhar, Wood, with Tidhar taking the prize, though it’s only when you look back on it now that you see clearly what a weird/weak subs list it was that particular year.

    ‘This is the award for a field that has internalised Gibson’s assertion that all we have is “the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios”, and that any attempt to write coherently about the future is inevitably going to be outpaced and rendered obsolete by political reality, so you might as well write metafiction and parallel worlds from the start.’

    I like this analysis very much – I’m thinking of it as post-SF SF, a trend which I expect to see becoming more entrenched at the sharp end of the genre.

    • Niall 8 months ago

      I should perhaps note that I am deeply unconvinced by the “made obsolete by political reality” argument. It strikes me as defeatist. But it seems to clearly be a strand of thinking that’s out there at the moment.

      • Nina Allan 8 months ago

        It’s definitely out there. Speaking for myself, it feels increasingly difficult to write science fiction at the moment, precisely because of the political reality. It feels like a time for reassessing just about everything, including what science fiction actually is or how it might differ from contemporary mainstream literature that happens to adopt some speculative tropes. Perhaps (as Chris is wont to insist) SF really did die with Star Wars. Perhaps everything will look different again in twelve months’ time.

        I must look up what Al Reynolds wrote about the default medium term future – sounds interesting.

        And I’m afraid I tend to agree with Jonathan about the intellectually cowardly flinch that is inherent in a lot of widescreen heartland SF.

  5. Alastair Reynolds 7 months ago

    I have only just seen this discussion, so excuses for the late reply, but I’m struggling to remember where I made the observation about default near-term futures that Jonathan mentions. I did make this remark in the context of my reviewing of Asimov’s SF in 2015:

    “Reading this piece (an Elizabeth Bear story – AR), I was struck by the sense – which I think has also been articulated by Gardner Dozois – that we’re starting to see the emergence of what you might call the “New Default Future”. Bear’s world is one of vanishing privacy, information for all, continued social inequality, climate change as a given, radical lifestyle changes effected by new biotechnology. You can tweak the parameters a bit, but it does seem as if writers are once again beginning to converge on a shared sense of the future. No, it doesn’t necessarily involve space colonies or rolling roads or flying cars, but it’s no less valid, no less fascinating.”

    (the quote is from this longer review, here: http://approachingpavonis.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/asimovs-science-fiction-february-2015.html)

    I certainly don’t recollect myself arguing that we end up with “post-climate change futures that look a lot like those of traditional SF”, in fact my quote above would suggest something markedly different.

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