Adam Roberts, Anne Charnock, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Christopher Brown, James Bradley, Jaroslav Kalfar, Jeff Vandermeer, John Dos Passos, John Kessel, John W. Campbell Memorial Award, Kim Stanley Robinson, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Mohsin Hamid, Nick Harkaway, Nick Hubble, Nicola Barker, nina allan, Omar El Akkad, Paul McAuley
This time last year, I was engaged in the struggle to compile my personal shortlist for the first Arthur C. Clarke Award Shadow Jury. It was an interesting and revealing exercise. I was glad to step down from the Shadow Jury this year only because it is a time-consuming process and time is something I don’t have right now. But in every other respect, I was sorry to go and a part of me is itching to put together a personal shortlist again this year.
So why the hell not?
There are a lot of different approaches to something like this. I am not a member of the Shadow Jury, so I am not going to engage in the discussions about the lists or contribute to the ongoing process that is a Shadow Jury. So I am not tied to the sorts of approaches taken by the shadow jurors: this is not a choice deliberately designed to widen the discussion, nor is it a list designed to stretch and test my own views of what is science fiction and what is award-worthy. Nor am I trying for balance; the Shadow Jury is mostly doing that, and the actual jury may well do so, but I won’t. (It may well be, for instance, that there is only one book by a woman on my shortlist – there are a couple of others that are vying for a place, and the list is subject to change even as I write it; though as it happens that one woman is the one I firmly believe should win the award.) The Shadow Clarke Jury is doing all of that perfectly well without me sticking my oar in, as you can see from the excellent and intriguing choices so far announced by Nick Hubble and Maureen Kincaid Speller.
On the other hand, I am not in the business of trying to predict what the actual Clarke Award jury is going to do. I will applaud and/or bewail their choice when the time comes, but I’m not interested in pre-empting that choice. Rather, these are the books (some I’ve read, some I want to read), that form what I consider to be an interesting perspective on the state of science fiction today.
The Rift by Nina Allan
This is, so far as I am concerned, the one essential book that should appear on the shortlist, because as far as I am concerned this is the best book of the year. This may be because it appeals so precisely to so many of my own personal interests and tastes. I love books that do not fit conveniently into genre categories; I love books that do not spoonfeed the reader, that do not lead to easy conclusions, to neat or sentimentally satisfying tying off of plot lines. And The Rift does none of this. It offers solutions then snatches them away, it seems to set out in one direction then suddenly you find yourself going in a completely different direction, and then it shifts direction yet again. It may be science fiction, but then again it may not. And it is all the better for that hesitation, for that movement that makes the reader constantly rethink what it is they are reading. I am intrigued by Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy for much the same reason, but in the end it has to be The Rift that gets the nod.
Gnomon by Nick Harkaway
I have always felt that awards serve no purpose unless they are rewarding ambition. That is: a book may take the familiar and expected tropes of science fiction and deal with them brilliantly, but I would still prefer to give the award to something that may be less successful in pure genre terms but that is attempting to push things in a new direction. There are few writers who have been as consistently adventurous in their work as Nick Harkaway, ever since his first novel. There are risks in this: in a book as big as Gnomon there are going to be moments when either the reader’s or the writer’s energy flags, when the attention slips, and there are always questions along the lines of does it really need to be that long. But risk is part of the game, and the ambition of Gnomon is something I feel should be recognized.
A Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
In this choice I am swayed by the opinions of others. I love the fact that those of us safe within the Anglophone world are at last beginning to see how extensive and how adventurous science fiction can be from non-Anglophone perspectives. This year that aspect of science fiction seems to be best exemplified by the Pakistani writer, Mohsin Hamid (Exit West which has already been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the BSFA Best Novel Award) and the Czech writer, Jaroslav Kalfar. I find both books tempting and intriguing, and at another time, on another day, I might well pick Hamid, but for the moment I’m going with Kalfar.
Austral by Paul McAuley
This is another book I’ve not yet read, because this year Gollancz didn’t see fit to submit any books for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and rather too much of my reading has been associated with that award over the last few months. But McAuley is consistently one of the most engaging and thoughtful writers in science fiction, and from all accounts this new novel sees him on top form. It is interesting that as the Trump administration’s EPA is deliberately rolling back environmental protections, so climate change is becoming the dominant theme in the most thoughtful near-future science fiction (James Bradley’s Clade is another book vying for inclusion on this list), so much so, indeed, that any novel that doesn’t address the issue appears to have something missing.
The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts
As far as I am concerned, the biggest scandal in the entire history of the Arthur C. Clarke Award is the fact that The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts didn’t even make the shortlist. Part of me thinks that every novel by Roberts should now be automatically included on the shortlist as public penance for that incomprehensible oversight. But then, a lot of the time he should be there on merit anyway. It took me a long time to come round to liking his work, but what I have now come to appreciate is his light touch with genre. Nina Allan leaves you unsure what genre you are reading; Roberts leaves you in no doubt on that score, but usually at least two different genres are included in the mix, and by bringing them together he makes both do things you never expected. So even the most hackneyed elements (the locked-room mystery in Jack Glass, for instance) is made fresh and invigorating.
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
I went through a lot of soul searching before including this on the list, and even now I may decide to drop it at a moment’s notice. This may be surprising to some people; there’s a large body of opinion out there that probably sees this as the closest thing to a shoo-in for the actual shortlist. But I have a problem with Robinson’s work, and it is one that has become more pronounced over the years. All writers have their own particular tics and tricks, but Robinson’s irritate me, perhaps because they are so blatant. As I read each new book I find myself ticking them off: the long walkabout that is more about showing off the scenery than advancing the story; the even-handed debate which the liberal voices tend to win because the conservative voices are liberally rational in their own way; the stylistic trick, the Dos Passos rip-off in 2312, the computer narrator in Aurora, the city as narrator here; and so on. The end result is that no matter how much I enjoy the book as I’m reading it, the moment I turn the last page it starts to diminish in my memory. Yet Robinson is clearly one of the most significant sf writers of the moment, and this is perhaps his best novel for some years, and for the moment it makes my list, but … Let’s just say, if something like John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other had been published in the UK and so been eligible for the Clarke, I wouldn’t be having this debate with myself about whether to include Robinson.
Frankly, at the moment, the only certain work on my list is The Rift, all of the others may come and go, replaced, perhaps, by Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy, or James Bradley’s Clade, or Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time (I just wish I found Charnock’s prose as immediately engaging as everyone else seems to do), or Omar El Akkad’s American War (and I’m sorry that Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas didn’t see a UK edition), or Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, or perhaps even Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. But the list will stand, at least for now. The actual shortlist won’t be anything like this, of course, and neither will the list the Shadow Jury arrive at; but that’s part of the game, isn’t it.