The Torture of the Shadower, part 2: My shortlist, plus meta-list!

The Shadow Clarke project is going strong, and the shortlists are rolling in. Here’s mine, which posted last week:


I did not expect to feel as comfortable with this list as I do. I wanted my list to represent the best of science fiction–what it should be trying to do– and many will say I have failed, but what most strikes me as I look at this list and read through the books is how much it represents who I am as a reader and a person. Incredibly biased and irrelevant and perhaps off-Sharke-message, sure, but there you go. I didn’t mean to. My list has been called ‘incoherent’ a couple of times in comments, which, in context, I don’t think was intended as criticism or insult, but, the truth is, I have never felt so coherent about a set of books I’ve put together. This list feels elegant to me.

For reasons of the shadowing, I’ll be holding off my monthly reading reviews until this project is over. (I have a feeling I’ll be jonesing for older stuff by then. Batting around the idea of a Harrison month in the autumn, maybe?)


The process, so far

The most uncomfortable part of this experience, so far, has been the judging and dismissing of submissions books based on a few pages or chapters of reading. It’s not my usual M.O., as I’ve only ditched three books in the time of this blog (hiya, Time Enough for Love, The Computer Connection, and Warrior’s Apprentice…okay, go away now), and it feels so very wrong to me. Some of my favorite novels never started as my favorites. Sometimes a book doesn’t become itself until the very end.

That said, once I started the process of read-and-dismiss, it was very easy to do! (And I still ended up with too many good choices. There are actually writers out there who are not just wedging movie scripts into book jackets. It’s amazing!)

As I said at the CSFF Anglia site, I am mostly looking for books that do more than one thing. As an ordinary reader who has read a lot of the same things from different decades, I am always on the lookout for novels that aren’t just about plot, and that aren’t just refurbishing something I’ve already read or seen.


Addressing status quo defensiveness that may or may not exist

The way I see it, the Shadow Clarke is not an attack on the Clarke award. Not that anyone is saying that, but I’ve picked up on a creepy air of defensiveness about it in some places.

This is an opportunity to play out publicly what happens in secret. It’s providing transparent dialogue to a process that, for legislated reasons, can’t be transparent.

A side effect of this: it’s also dragging into the light very good novels that will inevitably be ignored in all arenas, simply for not being marketed a certain way or being from certain publishers. The good novels might even be recognized by the jury behind closed doors, but we never get to see them because so many people believe a shortlist should be a record of current pop history (rather than a promise of what’s to come, as I think shortlists should). Therefore, these other, possibly misclassified good books go on ignored.

Thus they go, treading water. The genre that claims innovation resists change. How conservative. Most people, fans included–fans especially–only read what’s put in front of them. It’s naïve to think only the best books magically rise to the top; someone puts them there.

Of course, I’m excited about this project. As a reader who is genuinely in love with the potential that only SF can provide, the system as it stands has let me down. I have to dig to find stuff. I don’t think my reading preferences are all that unusual when I see writers like Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez and Han Kang held up as gold standards in other literary discourse. People crave the strange and well-written. (“But that’s not sci-fi, Megan!” GTFOOMH.) (I like sci-fi too, ffs, and you know it, and you know it can do this.)

Part of me wishes I was not on the jury–there are other people who should be in my spot, anyway–just so I could, as a reader, benefit from the product of this process.


The Shortlist tally so far

Something I think many of us are more interested in, rather than the individual shortlists, is the cumulative result of our work. The Shadow Clarke meta-longlist, with tallies, so far:

The Power by Naomi Alderman  II

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton  I

The Destructives by Matthew de Abaitua  II

Zero K by Don DeLillo I

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin  II

A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna  II

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee  I

Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes  I

The Gradual by Christopher Priest  I

Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo  II

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan  I

Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston  II

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar  II

Radiance by Catherine M. Valente  I

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead  II

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray  I

Four of us have posted. Five more lists to come. I will update this list, just as I’m sure other people, on and off jury, will be putting out their own variations and analyses over the next few weeks.


31 thoughts on “The Torture of the Shadower, part 2: My shortlist, plus meta-list!

  1. hutch0 says:

    I think the Shadow Clarke is a fantastic idea, fwiw. It’ll be interesting to watch the process and the discussion it will hopefully spark off. Some interesting nominees starting to emerge, although I’ve only read Central Station, which I loved.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t follow the awards, so the whole process is mystifying to me, but I appreciate the perspective you bring to SFF, so I’m finding this interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. JJ says:

    This is an opportunity to play out publicly what happens in secret. It’s providing transparent dialogue to a process that, for legislated reasons, can’t be transparent. A side effect of this: it’s also dragging into the light very good novels that will inevitably be ignored in all arenas, simply for not being marketed a certain way or being from certain publishers.

    Couldn’t agree more — and, hell, the Clarke lists have been disappointing enough in recent years that some organised discussion around the books involved can only be a good thing (the submissions list, for one, could provoke a lot of conversation). Don’t most people look at the Best Picture Oscar shortlist every year and go “Aw, why isn’t [insert non Adam-Sandler movie] on there?”. The fact that you guys are going about this in such a broad an inclusive way is brilliant, and I for one have hugely enjoyed the lists and thinking thus far posted. More power to you!

    And, yeah, Time Enough for Love is bloody awful. But then I’ve never got Heinlein — my father assured me he was a genius for his time, but it’s difficult not to feel like that time has decidedly past…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you like the idea! And glad to hear to you also despised Time Enough for Love. I know people from his time and they would’ve clocked him in the noggin for being such a dickhole. He was arrogant and people bought it. Worked then and works today, unfortunately.


  4. I have no attachment to the Clarke myself at all, but on the “creepy defensiveness” front, I think that’s inevitable when your event is effectively aimed directly at the Clarke. It’s called the “Shadow Clarke”, and the objective seems to be to specifically avoid the sort of works that are likely to be nominated for the Clarke. So it’s probably inevitable that you’ll be seen as attacking the Clarke. When you both single out the Clarke by name and effectively try to do the opposite of whatever the Clarke does, that looks like you’re criticising what it does!

    Whereas if this were just set up as its own juried award – or even juried symposium, for want of a better word, without any final award – I think that would be interpreted very differently, and probably more positively (while, of course, getting less attention, which is an understandable reason for the more provocative marketing approach you’ve (plural! I know it wasn’t your (singular) idea) adopted).

    Likewise, if you set up a shop called McOppositeDonalds with the slogan “we sell you all the great, healthy food that McDonalds would never think of offering you!”, it’s inevitable that you’ll be seen as criticising McDonalds. Whereas if you just called your place Couchies, there wouldn’t be that response.

    Again, I’ve no attachment to the Clarke, and I don’t care if you criticise it, so I’m absolutely not criticising you for it. Indeed, if you think it needs to be criticised, then it’s good that you’re doing so. [I don’t read enough to be able to tell]. It just seems a little disingenous to try to do a better job than the Clarkes and then act surprised that other people might think you think the Clarkes have a problem!

    …and that’s before you do so while using phrases like “mostly baffling”, “surface. contrivance”, “an ouroborosian redundancy that does little to enlighten”, “the shortlist wins my utter regret for reading this entire shortlist. I’ve experienced more excitement reading shitty Retro Hugo lists because at least that’s funny,” and “I also feel like I should have been in the jury room in order to teach the jury how to read [a particular book]”. Let alone (and this is from one of your colleagues rather than you) “the same old rubbish”. And repeated discussion of “the problem”. This is all surely bound to make people feel defensive, if they disagree with it and attach a higher value to the Clarkes than you (or I) do.


    • Have you never heard of a shadow jury before? This isn’t an uncommon thing in literary awards and it’s good PR for the award programs. It keeps them relevant and interesting and (hopefully) generates more money for the program if they are floundering (which, I hear, has always been difficult for the Clarke award since Clarke’s passing).

      The Clarke Award is behind this. They partnered with Anglia Ruskin University when they approached the director with the idea. One of the shadow jurors was one of the three main people involved to set up the award for Clarke himself. It also involves a past judge and longtime fans of the award. It also involves people who have been longtime shadow jurors for other awards.

      Rigorous and sharp criticism of the Clarke shortlists has always existed as a tradition. It’s always been a controversial award. Unfortunately, people, like you, don’t care about the award and its existence has sometimes been considered irrelevant. I disagree and would like to help keep the award alive that first honored Margaret Atwood over traditional, repetitive scifi.

      As I said, shadow juries are a way to keep discussion alive, to keep things controversial and interesting, so people will keep talking about it. I know I’m partaking in it to have fun, and I will still be scathingly honest about my opinions, just as I am about everything I read. That’s interesting, and an exercise in not accepting everything that’s put in front of me as the ‘best, amazing thing.” Even knowing that, the people behind the Clarke still approve of the project (which they didn’t have to because the jury could do this on our own, but collaboration seemed more beneficial to the award program).

      Many people are defensive about criticism. I was trained in university programs that made me accustomed to it and certainly a better person for it. A lot of people don’t get that, which is sad to me, because they see it as an attack, but I look at the past work of some of my favorites: Clute, Russ, Harrison, (Wollstencraft and Sontag outside of SF) and they were so brilliant and funny and irreverent and pointed out new ways of thinking that people are still benefiting from today. I’m in no way comparing myself to them, but they were equally harsh and unforgiving, and it was worth it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I will add, regarding your comments about marketing, again, “shadow jury” is not a new concept, and definitely not a marketing term. If it appears like it’s being used as an unexplained marketing tactic, that’s probably coming from the Clarke award program itself, which does resort to those techniques (for bad or for good, whatever, but definitely not my style!).

        My use of the word ‘creepy defensiveness’ comes from a number of things, but it’s partly referring to this kind of unread suspicion. Seriously the whole point of this is to be transparent, and we’re writing about the purpose and the process all along the way. Sure, we’re critical of past winners, but we’re also proud of past winners, and there is often some interesting things on the shortlist that would never be recognized in other SF venues. As a group, I think we all want to keep that possibility alive, before it gets sucked into the promo-sphere of the most monied publishers. Also, I think our shadow jury is made up of a wide sample of people with different tastes, as the first four shortlists indicate.

        Liked by 1 person

      • As I say, I wasn’t criticising you. But you just said yourself that you’re doing this to “keep things controversial” – and by definition, they wouldn’t BE controversial if people WEREN’T moved to offer defenses to your criticisms. So I’m just a bit puzzled how you can with the one hand say “let’s have more controversy!” and with the other hand say “I’m shocked, shocked I say, that I’ve provoked a controversy!” – the one thing is just the other seen from the other side. And that’s fine – like you say, some controversy can be good (though it’s not like SF&F awards have been lacking controversy lately). But when you set out to provoke controversy, it seems strange to protest when people are “defensive” in response (i.e. when they take the bait).

        [I have only the faintest concept of shadow juries (not that I see how that’s relevent), it’s true. I’m an ill-read simpleton at the best of times, and I’ve never been part of that literary awards culture.]


        • I knew controversy would hapoen, but controversy should center on the book discussion, not on the existence of a shadow jury. All we’re doing is just reading the subs list and discussing the books publicly. It’s neat.

          I never followed shadow juries closely–don’t follow lit awards closely– but I knew shadow juries existed. My undergrad is in poli sci, and the concept was practiced in my classes.


          • Ah, sorry, I didn’t remember (if I knew) that you were a politics graduate too; apologies if I was saying things you already knew. As I said, I’ll shut up now.

            [although, if you were to elucidate on how literary-award shadow juries were employed in your poli-sci classes, I’d certainly be interested! That’s not something that would have occurred to me – although I’ve no doubt that’s a result of my own ignorance.]


          • We shadow juried cases. The lit world adopted the concept from the legal world, is my understanding.

            Yeah, I don’t have a single degree in literature or anything related, hence my usual social science frame-of-ref. My resume isn’t on here, so I don’t expect people to know that.

            I’ve just seen the Booker shadow jury headlines in the past (The Guardian, maybe?) and they’ve given me chuckle, (even though I might have beem clueless about the books) so I didn’t realize it was such a unknown concept, which it obviously is now I know.


          • Reading my comments back, I’m only more embarrassed and regretful, and truly apologetic to have pestered you, and on ground where I’m aware I don’t belong. Please disregard my last semi-question there; it was a curiosity in the moment, and I’m not trying to prolong the unpleasantness for you any longer.


          • And I don’t agree that you don’t belong on these grounds. The idea is to open up the process. If people feel chased away, then we’re not doin it rite.


  5. More seriously, though: I think the “problem” with any such award is probably threefold:

    – the jurors tend to be selected from a specific closed pool. They know each other, they’ve worked with each other, they’ve read each other’s things, they’ve deliberated as part of the same subset of fandom and come to a broad sort of consensus. Which is great! That’s what people do – they form consensus with those around them. But it means that they stop being independent data points when it comes to gathering their views. It also means that they have reputations to uphold. I doubt they often think “I mustn’t like this, or dislike that, because my friends will look at me oddly!” – but that is one of our strongest subconscious influences. It’s hard to go against your tribe.

    – there are too many nominations to fully consider in the time available. That doesn’t just yield ‘bad’ decision, in terms of missing out on some books that might, say, have a great last third. More importantly it forces judges to rely more on second-hand opinions when deciding where to focus – and makes them more easily influenced by marketing budgets. Books from small presses that have no strong word of mouth may get a cursory glance before being discarded; “it” books by Major Authors will get more of the benefit of the doubt. When you’re groping in the dark, you grab hold of what comes most easily to hand.

    To rectify this issue, there either needs to be a longer period of deliberation to enable more thorough examination, or there need to be more jurors. Or a more efficient use of jurors, at least. [give each juror a subset of the whole to examine more thoroughly in an initial round, then consider the ‘winners’ of that round in a final round of all the jurors. for instance. But this has the downside of reducing the freedom of the jurors, and making it easier for a great book to slip through the cracks entiely]

    – electoral systems! electoral systems can be chosen that yield maximally diverse shortlists (given the constraints of the juror’s tastes). But frequently, for both juried and popular awards, the system is chosen naively, without serious consideration of its effects (as seen the puppies debacle at the hugo).

    Addressing these three problems would probably go a considerable distance toward improving the reputation of the awards – though of course what some will like, others will dislike.

    Incidentally, I think I missed it: how is your Shadow Jury going to reduce the individual shortlists to a collective shortlist, by the way?

    [trust a politics student – more excited by the process than by the results!]


    • I’m not one of those people who chides people for not reading before asking (because who has the time?), but seriously, most of your concerns and questions have already been addressed by the already growing body of information on the CSFF Anglia website, and I don’t really have the time to rehash what’s already been explained. Paul Kincaid was one of those three critics who founded the award and he is currently on the shadow jury and reprinted this piece specifically to address some of these questions:

      Regarding the flaws of various types of award programs: the Clarke award’s setup isn’t really arguable. It was set up by three critics, with the backing of Arthur C. Clarke, to establish a critical, literary SF award, juried by critics and active, critical readers in the SF community. The BSFA is the fan award, the Clarke is the critics’ award (as I see it).

      Literary shadow juries over time have done different things, I think, but our shadow veterans can probably explain that better. The original intention of this shadow jury was not to put forth a cohesive shortlist, but to present a variety of interesting shortlists, in order to put more books out there for discussion. That said, I’m already seeing a natural shortlist form from our cumulative shortlists (see the books above with 2 tally marks) and I expect that will continue over the next week. I also wonder if we might, after we’ve done our reading, generate a new set of lists or list. It’s still early days.


      • Err… well, I can only apologise, although I’m not sure what for exactly. I only asked one small procedural question (which isn’t answered in that link you provide, though it is by your own response, thank you), and I’m not sure exactly what you’re replying to as “my concerns and questions”. My own comments on the potential problems faced by juried awards were only meant to be a contribution to the discussion that I thought your project was trying to invite, and certainly weren’t meant to be seen as hostile – indeed, one of the ‘problems’, at least, is something you yourself have raised, so I thought I was agreeing with you.

        I must disagree, however, when you say that Clarke’s setup “isn’t arguable”. Everything is arguable, even if it comes with the imprimatur of someone like Clarke (again, I’m not really from within this culture, so while I respect Clarke, I don’t feel that his support for something renders it beyond argument). And I come from the perspective of someone whose degree was (at least partly) in politics (including the mechanics of electoral systems) rather than literature, so for me, when there’s an electoral system set up (which is what an award is, a way of electing one or more ‘winners’ from a range of candidate on the basis of an electorate’s preferences), and there are questions whether the election fulfills its stated purpose, the electoral system is often the first place to look for an answer/solution, as it has such an effect on the outcome – and an electoral system should always be ‘arguable’ [there is no perfect electoral system, nor even any adequate one]

        In any case, I know I’m not really the sort of person you’re trying to reach out to here, and I certainly didn’t intend my posts to touch a nerve with you, so I’ll surrender and retreat with as much dignity as may be left me, and leave you to it. My best wishes for the remainder of the project.


        • Sorry, I became involved in a rather labor-intensive veggie shepherd’s pie. (Totally worth it, btw.)

          None of this has pestered me in the slightest, and I don’t think any of my responses come off that way. If you truly do feel embarrassed–which I don’t think you should–I’ll offer to delete this whole thread, but I think this conversation is helpful to anyone who might come by. It’s informed me of some things, including that shadow juries are not (def not common knowledge, but) peripheral knowledge in the book community. I value your comments here, vacuouswastrel, as I always do. I have no idea who you are, but you always bring rigorous discussion, which I enjoy.

          Regarding your qualms about the whole process: you bring up points that I think are MUCH more controversial regarding how the Clarke is ran, exactly the kind of talk that IS threatening to some people, and have been discussed publicly at different times before. The Clarke process is definitely lacking a kind of due process, but I’m an outsider, and not even British, and I’m definitely not out to undo things I don’t know about, so I’ll leave that conversation for the people who have a real stake in it.

          I’m just here to read and talk about some books, which, as you point out about subs lists being too big, involves an intentional side effect of publicizing other books and drawing attention to their merits, in order to widen general knowledge about them. To avoid rubbish lists 😝


  6. Well, I for one am very, very excited about all this. It makes the award fun to follow. Well, it makes the award something that *can* be followed. Just a list with no context about the process is far less interesting. I was reading something the other day where the blogger was like, something something shadow jury, some people were upset, and I was so confused as to why shadowing an award to get conversation going could possibly be a bad thing. But. Well. *shrugs* I’ll be over here with popcorn watching this unfold.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you approve, Nikki! Yeah, if it’s the same blog I think you’re talking about, none of those people responding even care about the Clarke award in the first place, or know much about it, so this protectiveness of SF institutions is a strange thing anyway.

      I also have this suspicion that it’s off-putting to people because it involves mouthy women with opinions, and, much as SF culture likes mouthy women in their books and movies, its still something they don’t want to listen to in real life.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Four of the books you picked already had my attention, so I’ll give them a deeper look now that they’ve received the patented Couch Bump (especially since three of them were called out on other lists). Kavenna in particular sounds fascinating. And that is why I really dig the #ShadowJury, because it’s bringing more viewpoints to the table and a huge degree of transparency to the shortlist process.

    Central Station is one of only three submission list titles I read, but I had a feeling it would show up on a lot of shortlists (shadow jury or otherwise). Not only is it really, really good, it’s a unique combination of “traditional” SF (for Tidhar at least), “literary” fiction, and pulp SF homage. So just about every group has something to be interested in (or be repelled by, who knows). I could make a good case for the other two I read (Europe in Winter and This Census Taker), except I agree with your one-and-done policy as I find it particularly annoying when lists consist of nothing but the same series/authors over and over again. (Cough.)

    And I want to voice my agreement with Nina, the lack of Rosewater is criminal even though it does not yet fit the criteria. I’m afraid it won’t get the recognition it deserves, award-wise or sales-wise, as a brilliant top-shelf novel from a smaller indie publisher.

    On the ones I own but haven’t read. A relative loved Dark Matter and loaned me their copy, but regardless of its quality my hunch is it’s too far out of the genre mainstream to get much attention for SF awards. And I bought a copy of Ninefox because it was on sale for a buck, even though it’s probably not my cuppa. Of all the titles on the submission list, I would be least surprised to see it on the official Clarke list or generating buzz for the Hugo scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your support, Chris.

      The Kavenna still has not arrived. I’m hoping it will arrive this week. I’m very interested in it.

      Central Station is a book that I’m surprised to have on my list, not because I didn’t want to read it, but because I figured I would read it anyway, and figured it would show up on other people’s lists, and I had planned to base my list solely on stuff I wasn’t sure about. The strength of CS’ opening pages grabbed me, and just for the reasons you say: it’s a good mix of everything I love.

      I’m also surprised Europe in Winter and This Census Taker haven’t appeared on a shortlist yet. I expected EiW would get more love, although I do think Mieville burnout is a real thing. They could still show up, however!

      Rosewater I must read anyway. Tade Thompson is doing interesting things and he approaches them in exciting ways. Nina also listed a number of books I’m interested in that didn’t make it on the list, but it’s hard to keep track of that from the US. Many of the books I thought were missing just aren’t published in the UK yet. (The UK/US publishing obstacles are a real point of contention for me. And both governments want MORE borders!)

      Dark Matter didn’t quite pull me in, I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised to hear, but I do remember the title coming up in jury convos and it sounded more appealing than I thought. I’m with you about Ninefox Gambit– not my cuppa, either, but I don’t think it’s a book we’ll be able to avoid this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the Clarke list. We’ll see…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Joachim Boaz says:

    Megan, thanks again for doing this project! I think it’s fascinating looking behind the scenes at what goes on in deciding a juried award. And of course, despite knowing generally what a shadow award was, seeing how it plays out is fun!

    As we’ve discussed, Tidhar continues to intrigue…. he seems to be putting together a real corpus of solid novels + short stories that deserve wider readership.

    Thanks again!


  9. Jesse says:

    Am I the only one who sees Tidhar as something just above average? Osama is great, don’t get me wrong. But so little else by him has amazed. Central Station is almost as vanilla as sf gets. Mediocre characterization, hints of good prose mixed with the spotty, genre contrivances galore… There is something “human” to the whole, but nothing that isn’t done much better by other writers. Speaking of which, just finished Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight based on your recommendation. Wow. Really, really enjoyed it (and indeed Tidhar should take a few notes on how to humanize a character). Heavy but good stuff. I hope it ends up on the ballot of the Clarke. I also read a few sample chapters of Aldeman’s The Power… I hope it doesn’t end up on the ballot. I’ll take Tipree Jr. over Aldeman any day…


    • Tidhar’s prominent place on this list is interesting, mainly because he’s not really a front-runner, but someone who’s written a novel that’s not been over-hyped, yet people continue to be curious about. It’s that curiosity that’s driving my interest, that’s for sure.

      So surprised to hear about your feelings on Good Morning, Midnight. My review should post this week, and then you can see for yourself…

      There is nothing about The Power that appeals to me, but I guess I’ll be reading it anyway with so many people supporting it. Maybe it’s just my oversensitivity from working with teenagers all day every day, but it sounds very young to me. I hope I’m pleasantly surprised.


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