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Lessons of Sharke

September 5, 2017

Megan has put up an excellent post about her experiences as a Shadow Clarke Award juror and, seeing as a couple of other things I’ve been working on appear to have stalled, I thought I’d add my own short rejoinder.





Firstly, my time as a Sharke juror included some of the best experiences that I have ever had writing about science fiction…

Over the years, I’ve written quite a few pieces about the state of online conversation about SF and while they’ve mostly been resoundingly downbeat, my experience as a Shadow Clarke juror gave lie to all of them. Suddenly, after years of intellectual isolation came a momentary outbreak of solidarity, comradeship, and the ability to have a meaningful conversation about books.

My only regret is that my regrettable lack of interest in the back end of the official Clarke shortlist meant that I couldn’t really maintain the level of output that I felt the project deserved.  I write about science fiction on a fairly regular basis but it had been a long time since I’d been a staff reviewer committed not only to finishing but also to reviewing a series of books. Evidently, my methods and tastes have now shifted to the point where I can no longer force myself to either read or write at the kind of length I felt the project required. To this day, I regret being unable to contribute more to the project and feel that I rather let the side down for not doing so.

There are some ongoing discussions about the possibility of another flotilla of Sharkes and I certainly hope that comes to pass as everyone who writes about science fiction online deserves to have the kinds of experiences I had as a Sharke. Thank you not only to Nina Allan but also to my fellow Sharkes for allowing me to have the kind of experience that I have always wanted from writing about stuff on the internet.


Secondly, while I revelled in the sense of shared purpose and togetherness I experienced during the project, I do wonder if the process might not be improved…

For starters, I think that writing an essay about each book on both the personal and official shortlists is a bit much. Aside from putting quite a lot of pressure on the jury to deliver content, it can also get a bit repetitive for readers who can wind up being subjected not only to endless essays about the same books, but also to endless essays about the same books making almost the exact same points over and over again. At best, this kind of repetition will result in readers ‘tuning out’. At worse, it will feel like some kind of weird conspiracy.

I think the roundtable format took some of the weight out of the repetition but I am worried about that format resulting in group-think as people with unpopular opinions will inevitably wind up self-censoring and even if we people don’t actively self-censor, the format does rather tend to narrow the focus of discussion to the point where you naturally end up talking within quite a limited cultural space. Experienced moderators and editors might be able to stop that happening but I wonder if a tweak in the format might not minimise the risk of group-think.

Rather than having people write individual essays about the books on the shortlist, might it not be better to adhere to the traditional method of shortlist reviewing, namely writing one long piece about all the books at the same time? If everyone were to write one long piece about the official shortlist and then move on to more in-depth roundtable discussions of individual books, people might feel more inclined to defend the line they took in their longer pieces. This would also give people the chance to go long or short on books and subjects that left them unevenly inspired. It would also set up the possibility of people changing their minds in discussion, which always makes for an entertaining read as far as I’m concerned.


Thirdly, I was encouraged by the nature of the pushback.

One of the reasons why I decided to take part in the project was that I believed – and still believe – that genre publishing is going through a period of aesthetic retrenchment. Look at the way that even established and award-winning authors are manacled to conventional forms and you’ll find an industry that is desperately trying to consolidate existing readerships while desperately trying to make inroads into the profitable but aesthetically conservative YA and YA-adjacent markets. As a result of this period of retrenchment, genre publishing is producing less aesthetically ambitious works than it was five, ten, or fifteen years ago.

This period of aesthetic retrenchment has coincided with a catastrophic collapse in the range of tolerated discourse with regards to genre literature. Ten years ago, genre culture was home to a thriving blogosphere that encouraged a broad range of attitudes towards science fiction literature. Since then, that blogosphere has largely collapsed and a fan-centric ethic of honest self-expression has been replaced with an industry-centric ethic of enforced positivity.

I was happy to get involved in the Shadow Clarke project because I wanted to a) help challenge the presumed supremacy of genre publishing by broadening the discourse to include science fiction novels from outside that cultural sphere and b) show that it was possible for regular readers to engage with the literature of science fiction in public using not only the full range of their emotions but also their own ideas about what constitutes good writing and good science fiction.

Regardless of whether you want to provoke change in existing social structures or create new social spaces embodying different principles, you need to be able to show what you’re about… if only to prove that alternatives to the status quo can exist. The Shadow Clarke project was by no means a flawless undertaking but I think it was successful not only in broadening the scope of genre discourse but also in demonstrating that ordinary readers can contribute more than simply hitting retweet and dutifully nominating their faves.

I expected both hostility and opposition because the Shadow Clarke project embodies a very different set of ideas about how we ought to engage with science fiction on the internet. Some might argue that those ideas and methods have always been present in genre culture but times change and cases must always be made anew. Looking back over the months I spent as a Sharke, I am proud of the writing we produced as a group; I think we championed books that would otherwise have been completely overlooked in genre circles and I think we provided dozens of articles that interrogate science fiction from a variety of nuanced and personal positions.

Hopefully, next year will bring another group of Sharkes… Ideally, every major award in the field will start casting its own shadow. Even if this was nothing more than the last gasp of a critical tradition that no longer has much of a place in genre culture, every fresh beginning requires a proof of concept and I think the Shadow Clarke jury provided exactly that.

I don’t know where we’re going tomorrow but today I stand, like Megan, SFatisfied at what I helped to produce.




10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2017 3:46 pm

    As I said on twitter, I did follow the various reviews and shortlists and so on and there was an awful lot of content – too much for me so I had to skim in the end. I picked up some good books through it but a more streamlined approach would have been welcome for me at least.

    I thought the discussions around TUR showed that you largely avoided groupthink, plus the apparent running argument with Niall over The Fifth something-or-other which I got the impression several people liked but none loved quite enough to push over the top.

    Is the intent to generally refresh next year’s shadow jury? There does seem some sense in some continuity, even if individual members have to be slotted in or out from time to time.


  2. September 7, 2017 6:04 pm

    Thanks Max :-)

    The Fifth Season stuff was weird… I don’t think it’s possible to have a meaningful boundary dispute over a piece of terminology that has never been used with any consistency.

    We’re in very early stages of discussion regarding next year. Nina has a book out so won’t be doing it and I think we’ll have to see how everyone feels.


  3. September 8, 2017 4:59 pm

    Yes, my impression was that Fifth’s real issue was that nobody cared enough to champion it. If someone had I imagine they’d have made the genre case and generally I didn’t get the sense there was a lot of dogma as to what actually counts as SF (a generally arid debate).


  4. September 8, 2017 5:05 pm

    I’ve not seen the case for it being SF and not Fantasy articulated anywhere.

    Nor have I seen the case for Underground Railroad being Fantasy actually articulated.

    I’ve seen both of these acts of categorisation asserted as though self-evident but never unpacked or argued for. That’s fine… Cultivate whichever taxonomic head-canon you prefer but if you’re going to insist that other people adhere to your system then at least go to the bother of articulating why.


  5. September 9, 2017 9:32 am



  6. PhilRM permalink
    September 12, 2017 10:12 pm

    I found the whole Sharke project fascinating and I’m grateful to all of you for the time and effort you put into it. I didn’t really find the multiple reviews to be off-putting; perhaps that’s in part because I was so grateful for actual critical engagement with the books in question. I hope this kind of critical discussion around the Clarke Award will become the norm again, and that there will be many more years of Sharke discussions.


  7. PhilRM permalink
    September 13, 2017 12:30 am

    P.S. Forgot to say, I think those are very worthwhile suggestions as to how the Sharke jury might function a bit differently next time; I did find the couple of round-table discussions to be among the most interesting posts.


  8. September 13, 2017 7:01 am

    Thanls Phil :-) I’m very glad you enjoyed our output. I definitely think the round-table pieces were a good idea, if only because they cut out a lot of the descriptive throat-clearing that the reviewing format demands. In a context like the Sharke, you really don’t need to keep stating and re-stating what a book is about.


  9. z_boson permalink
    September 13, 2017 6:29 pm

    You could consider having a single page per book, with the reviews taking place via long-form comments, blurring the boundary between reviews and discussion. Kind of an asynchronous round-table…


  10. September 13, 2017 6:45 pm

    That’s a nice format. There’s a bloke who does as-he-goes reviews and it works quite nicely if you have the right blogging platform.


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