It's been a good couple of weeks of reading as I've sought to catch up on all the speculative fiction from 2015 that I hadn't already tackled for the Kitschies and the BSFA. In addition to many of the books below I also reread Jackie Kay's Trumpet and finally got round to Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. Both are glorious and highly recommended.
113 novels were submitted for the Clarke but I've only managed a handful (17) even though it feels like I've been reading nonstop for most of the year! I tend to go for the ones that have good reviews at Strange Horizons or by people like Adam Roberts and Nina Allan. The 17 are by: Atwood, Charnock, de Abaitua, de Bodard, Hutchinson, McDonald, Ness, North, Pinborough, Roberts, Robinson, Robson, Smythe, Taylor, van den Berg, Walton, Wright.
Then there are excellent novels that I've read and aren't on the Clarke list at all: Clade, Elysium, Dark Orbit, The Fifth Season, Making Wolf and of course A God In Ruins. This is a great shame as there seem to me to be some important novels here. Why isn't everyone talking about Jennifer Marie Brissett for example? If any of those were in contention I'd have to seriously reconsider my list!
Anyway my shortlist would be:
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
The Shore by Sara Taylor
The Swan Book by Alexis Wright
If Then by Matthew De Abaitua
Glorious Angels by Justina Robson
Three of the books are relatively easy and pleasurable to read despite all their challenges. Otherwise Robson requires patience in the first half whilst De Abaitua requires patience in its second half. Wright is extraordinarily pleasurable throughout but perhaps, not easy. All of them are accomplished and ambitious, full of ideas and great writing. I don't believe for a minute that either Taylor or Wright will get on the shortlist unfortunately - too close to literary fiction - but I'd love to be proven wrong. I read Roberts and Taylor at the start of the year and I still find myself thinking about them. I would have reread them already if I had the time.
However I wish they'd go totes crazy this year and have a shortlist of eight as it would be good to see two other novels get some limelight. I'm not sure they have the same kind of complexity as those six above but they are perfectly formed. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock made me feel a little like I do when I've read an Ali Smith novel (or story) - like I've had a conversation with a very clever, very imaginative, very kind human being and I feel better about the world and more open to its mysteries. That's a rare and lovely thing. I'm not sure whether Sarah Pinborough's The Death House is a YA novel or not but it really doesn't matter. I've seen comparisons made with Never Let Me Go, The Fault in Our Stars and The Girl with all the Gifts - novels I like and recommend to our students all the time - and seen criticisms too, mainly that it is too predictable. I think it's own thing though: the characterisation of its young protagonists is brilliant and throughout it feels as compelling as a Shakespearean tragedy. [sorry if you think that's hyperbole, but I don't care!] It doesn't matter that you guess what will happen because it's really not the point. Pinborough's novel is pitch perfect and I loved it. I'll be ordering copies of this (plus James Smythe's Way Down Dark and Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown; we already have The Rest of Us Just Live Here obviously) for the school library immediately.
Either way that's an extraordinarily entertaining and intellectually challenging - not giving in to any kind of populism - shortlist. They are excellent novels and I'd happily read them all again immediately and discuss them. If I had to choose a winner? Aurora - it blew my mind in many, many ways. If not I'd like to see it go to Wright or Roberts.
I'm missing out some good novels of course. I admire those by Dave Hutchinson, Laura Van den Berg, Ian McDonald, and Margaret Atwood especially.
And still on my list of the novels I really want to read soon: Speak, The Galaxy Game, The Three Body Problem AND Ancillary Mercy. I'm sure there are others I'd enjoy. Alas never enough time.
More thoughts on individual books to come.