By Nina Allan
[Before I start, I would like to state for the record that for the purposes of the shadow jury I am pretending that The Gradual – written by my partner Christopher Priest – does not exist. As such I will not be considering it for inclusion in my personal shortlist, or talking about it in this post.]
So here we are again – the submissions list for the 2017 Clarke Award has just been posted, and the speculation about the runners and riders can officially begin. I’ve been playing this game by myself for a number of years now, poring over the list, winnowing the wheat from the chaff, trying to arrive at a list of six books that I would consider my ‘ideal’ shortlist. It’s never easy. Out of the thirty to forty novels I would personally consider as genuine contenders – and for me that would be books that aren’t zombie/vampire/horror/fantasy novels with no science fictional sensibility or run-of-the-mill commercial SF – there are always around eight to ten I could pick quite happily, with the result that I usually end up feeling I’ve short-changed one book or another by not including it in my reckoning. This year, things are complicated and enhanced by the fact that I’m performing this hugely enjoyable exercise as part of the shadow Clarke jury. We’re all considering the submissions list and documenting our findings more or less in isolation, so it is perhaps inevitable that a multiplicity of tantalising questions arise: can I afford to leave book x off my shortlist in the sure and certain knowledge that at least one of my fellow jurors will pick it up? Is anyone else perplexed by the absence of y? What if we all pick the same six books??
Clearly the last is not going to happen, the second is inevitable and it’s dangerous to assume the first. But let’s start with what this year’s submissions list looks like overall. The first thing to notice is that the number of submissions is down from 113 in 2016 to just 86 this year. I say ‘just’ 86 – clearly that’s still a huge pile of reading matter. But can we draw any conclusions from this diminution of subs? I’m not sure that we can, and it may even be a good thing – by my (unscientific) estimate there are fewer superfluous submissions (those zombie novels I mentioned earlier) than there have been in previous years, which means less time-wasting. There are some notable omissions, though: where is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, arguably one of the more ambitious essays in science fiction in this or any year? Where is David Means’s Hystopia, a novel I felt so certain would be submitted I’ve already made copious notes about it in preparation? Ditto Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus. Where is Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims, a much more openly SFnal offering than her Kitschies-nominated The Panopticon? There are a cluster of more outlier-y outliers that I’m personally sorry not to be able to consider on the grounds of their not being submitted – Carl Neville’s Resolution Way (possibly the most incisive imagining of Britain-tomorrow on this or any list), Matthew Hughes’s multi-stranded The Countenance Divine, Helen Sedgwick’s intriguing-sounding The Comet Seekers – as well as a similar cluster of those that can’t be considered because they’re not yet published in the UK: Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, Indra Das’s The Devourers, Mark de Silva’s Square Wave, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater (as sorry a miss from this year’s overview as Jennifer Brissett’s Elysium a couple of years ago). Whilst we’re never going to know exactly why the missing eligible titles weren’t submitted – whether the author or publisher actively declined to send them in, or whether it was simply a case of their not knowing about the award (or indeed vice versa) it’s interesting to note that including this little list of omissions would bring the overall submissions back up around the hundred mark. What we’re not seeing, in other words, is any catastrophic decline in the numbers of science fiction novels being published generally.
Do I detect any grand, overarching themes among the submissions, an overall tone? Not really, not with eighty-six books in contention. But I couldn’t help noticing the continuing popularity of the post-apocalypse. In describing their authors’ work, a significant number of publishers’ blurbs and pre-press reviews make comparisons with Cormac McCarthy’s landmark post-apocalypse novel The Road. There are a disconcertingly large number of Station Eleven-style pandemics spreading through the submissions list, a liberal scattering of eco-catastrophes. These – refreshingly – do not include zombies. Could it be that the zombie novel’s festering pus-bubble has finally burst?
Something that becomes immediately apparent as I begin to try and narrow down my choices is how different my task is, in reality, from that of the official jury. By the time they go into their first judging meeting, the official Clarke jurors will have read all eighty-six submissions. They will be making their decisions from a position of total knowledge, as it were. They will have had to spend time on books that they knew from the outset were never going to make the cut, yes, but they will also have had the opportunity to make that rare discovery: a book they’d never heard of before or thought they wouldn’t like, only to fall passionately in love with it, insisting to the others that the shortlist wouldn’t be complete without its inclusion. This is the experience we long for above all as readers. As shadow jurors, our reading load is lighter – indeed, the majority of our personal shortlists will include books we haven’t even read yet – and our choices are, in a sense, going to be more predictable as a direct result of that. In compiling our personal shortlists, we are going to be more susceptible to our own internal biases, our previous reading knowledge, our preferred go-to style and type of science fiction. This is something we should at least be aware of, even if we can’t necessarily change it. The upside is that there are enough of us on the shadow jury to guarantee an excellent spread of titles, and interests for consideration and debate, which has of course been the primary motivator behind this project. With all of this in mind, here is my own shadow shortlist for the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award:
- Matthew de Abaitua – The Destructives. Abaitua’s If Then was one of my books of the year in 2016, and initial reports suggest that The Destructives is even better. This was always going to be on my list.
- Steph Swainston – Fair Rebel. I recently read and loved Swainston’s debut, The Year of Our War. I found Swainston’s thorny, forthright approach to speculative fiction to be thoroughly refreshing, her use and subversion of tropes original and brave. I’m delighted to see Swainston back in the game, and Fair Rebel is a book I’d be reading regardless of the shadow Clarke. Naturally it makes its way on to my list.
- Johanna Sinisalo – The Core of the Sun. I reviewed Sinisalo’s previous novel, The Blood of Angels, for Strange Horizons back in 2014, and in spite of some caveats I’ve found the book has not only remained with me but gained strength in the memory. Sinisalo has never been afraid to write seriously about serious issues, and The Core of the Sun looks set to follow in that tradition. The premise of this novel – chillies as illegal drugs?? – is as weird as anything Sinisalo has come up with and might not have attracted me, had I not read the Amazon preview and found her writing and treatment of form as compelling and irresistible as ever. I’m seriously looking forward to this one.
- Don DeLillo – Zero K. I talked earlier about internal biases, and anyone who knows me at all will know I tend to lean heavily towards the literary/experimental end of SF, and that by the same token I’m unlikely to waste time on a book I consider to be poorly written, no matter how intriguing the concept. As with the Sinisalo, the premise of Zero K – cryogenics this time – isn’t something I’d naturally gravitate towards, but just two pages into the preview I knew I’d have to include Delillo on my shortlist for the strength of his writing alone. Like stepping into a warm bath, the relief of pure excellence. If the substance lives up to the style, this could be something special. It’s also fantastic for the Clarke that the publisher – Picador – decided to submit it.
- Joanna Kavenna – A Field Guide to Reality. I’ve been looking forward to reading this since its release – in fact I already own a copy – and so it was a pleasure as well as a surprise to see it turn up on the submissions list. I love Kavenna’s writing, and I greatly admired her previous Clarke-submitted novel, The Birth of Love (2010). The setting of A Field Guide to Reality – a parallel Oxford – is also irresistible. Bring it on.
- Martin MacInnes – Infinite Ground. This is the only book on my shortlist that I’ve previously read and what a book it is, one of those rare texts you cannot believe is a debut and one I’d kill to have written. It starts out as what looks like a police procedural but rapidly morphs into something much weirder and almost demands a reread, if only to make proper sense of its final third. I’m already looking forward to seeing what MacInnes writes next and rereading Infinite Ground for the purposes of the shadow jury won’t be so much an imposition as an urgent necessity.
So – that’s my six. There are at least six more I could happily have included, a couple of which it’s been a real wrench to leave off. It wouldn’t be fair for me to talk about those at this stage, although I’m hoping to write a piece later on in the process about those books that would at least have been on my longlist, were the Clarke to institute such a thing. I will add that I’m fervently hoping that some or all of my near-misses will be picked up by my fellow Sharkes. And that Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives would definitely have been on my list, were it a novel and not a novella. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t hope other people will talk about it, or indeed pick it for their own shortlists…)
Lastly, there’s a part of this annual guessing game that normally consists in trying to predict which books the official Clarke jury will put on their shortlist. The great news is that this year I genuinely have no idea. There are no clear favourites, no shoo-in ‘big beasts’. Many of the entries from previous winners and nominees are mid-series books, and therefore – theoretically at least – less likely to make the cut. The field seems open, in every possible sense, which is the most exciting state of affairs that can prevail in an award like the Clarke. I’m looking forward to seeing what the official jury pick every bit as much as I’m looking forward to discovering the final selections of my fellow shadow jurors. Fortunately for me, I now have a stack of reading and writing to get through, which will undoubtedly make the time between now and the official shortlist announcement pass more quickly.
Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her second novel The Riftwill be published by Titan Books in July 2017. She enjoys arguing about books in general and science fiction literature in particular, and makes these arguments public from time to time at her blog, The Spider’s House. Nina lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.