After the debate, the shortlist for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2012:
Nod by Adrian Barnes (Bluemoose)
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Headline)
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
Yep, that's a Clarke shortlist, all right.
I've read four, and we've reviewed all six, so: what have this year's judges set in front of us? David Hebblethwaite has been singing the praises of Adrian Barnes' Nod all year, including in his review for us: an apocalypse of sleep deprivation, it sounds like a grimmer spin on some of the ideas in Beggars in Spain, with "the constant sense that what we're reading is not the whole story of this world, played against the knowledge that Paul's experience is all we have" -- although also, as he notes in the review, some shortcomings. Chris Beckett's lost colony story Dark Eden was for Rahul Kanakia a striking but perhaps insufficiently nuanced story: for my part, I agree it is vividly and distinctively imagined, but I think there's some uncomfortable grinding of gears in the interplay between myth, prehistory and sfnal extrapolation. Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker is, as Martin Lewis didn't quite put it, a big lolloping puppy of a novel, secret history and utopian apocalypse mashed together in a manner that is immensely enthusiastic and engaging -- although that does to my mind undersell how fluent a writer Harkaway is when he's on, and how deftly he slips in a sharply political subtext. The post-pandemic The Dog Stars by Peter Heller I have not read, but Nina Allan found it unconvincing: "unmistakably that kind of novel where SF is merely a stage dressing." Ken MacLeod's democratic dystopia Intrusion was brought up in our speculation as a novel we shouldn't overlook, rightly so as it turns out. Dan Hartland praised it as "far more troubling than many more uncomfortable an apocalypse", and for me it is one of MacLeod's most accomplished books, up there with The Execution Channel. Finally, of course, Kim Stanley Robinson's sprawling grand tour romance 2312, reviewed here by Earnest Yanarella and L. Timmel Duchamp, and recently revisited by me in the light of Vandana Singh's critique. I said then that how 2312 stacks up in an awards context will depend on its competition; I think, it stands head and shoulders ahead on the Hugo ballot, for instance, but is in a tighter race here.
So we have four novels that are various flavours of near-future dystopia or apocalypse, one medium-future solar system, and one further-future properly alien world. We also have three Brits (two Englishmen and one Scot), two Americans and one Canadian; we have four first-time nominees (Barnes, Beckett, Harkaway and Heller), compared with two that have made multiple appearances (this is the sixth nomination each for MacLeod and Robinson). We have no books from Gollancz, and nothing from Tor; indeed the only established UK sf imprint present is Orbit (MacLeod and Robinson again), beyond that we have newcomer Corvus, one small press (Bluemoose), and two mainstream imprints (Heinemann and Headline). Compared to other UK genre awards, we have an overlap of three novels with the BSFA shortlist (Beckett, MacLeod, Robinson) and one with the Kitschies (Harkaway -- leaving the door open for the Kitschies to anticipate the Clarke winner for the third time in four years).
What don't we have? We have no previous winners, Jeff Noon having not been submitted, and China Mieville and M John Harrison falling by the wayside in the shortlisting process -- the omission of Empty Space is going to provoke some disappointment, I suspect, although I still haven't read it. We also don't have the recent winner of this year's BSFA Award, Adam Roberts' Jack Glass. The combined omission of Harrison and Roberts means, I think, that there are no nominees who are really sceptical of the tropes and tics of sf; this is a shortlist that trusts the genre. But compared to last year I don't think critics can say these omissions cripple the quality of the shortlists; the four books I've read, at least, are ambitious and skillful work.
And of course the other thing we very conspicuously don't have this year is any women -- only the second time in the history of the Clarke Award this has happened, the other being way back in 1988. It is, sadly, not a surprise. A few years ago Tricia Sullivan sparked off a long discussion about the relative absence of science fiction by women in the UK; the proportion of submissions to the Clarke that are by women has been hovering around the 20% mark since the middle of the decade (I don't have numbers for earlier than that), so it was only a matter of time before an all-male shortlist arrived, and following this year's all-male BSFA list it was always on the cards for 2013. Were there credible candidate works by women? Yes, but not many of them. In our speculations, Juli Zeh's The Method, Juliana Baggott's Pure and G Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen were perhaps most mentioned as possible contenders -- the latter of course is currently on the longlist for this year's Women's Prize for Fiction, but I wouldn't have included it here on its merits myself. I might have included The Method (which was on the Kitschies list); I haven't read Pure but have seen a number of positive mentions. None of these three, however, are genre science fiction novels -- that was left to books like Madeline Ashby's vN, which is promising but which I'm in the end glad has not been shortlisted, or less centrally sciencefictional works like Cherie Priest's Boneshaker. And this year's judges -- mostly women, as it happens; Juliet McKenna and Ruth O'Reilly for the BSFA, Nickianne Moody and Liz Williams for the SFF, and Robert Grant for Sci-Fi London -- seem to have preferred unambiguously sciencefictional work in their selections.
To end on a slightly ironic but hopeful note, however, I don't think this is a situation likely to repeat, because it does seem that at least some UK publishers have started to notice the gap in the market. In particular, Del Rey Books are bringing E.J. Swift and Kameron Hurley's books to the UK this year; and Jo Fletcher Books has Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds, as well as debuts by Naomi Foyle and Stephanie Saulter. We also have Lauren Beukes' third novel to look forward to in a couple of months, and I can easily believe that Madeline Ashby's second will be an improvement on her first. In all, we probably already have twice as many adult genre science fiction novels by women in the running for 2013's awards as was the case for 2012 (and it's an Atwood year to boot), which is a very welcome development. We do still have an embarrassingly large number of women writers who have proved their talent yet appear to lack contracts: it's not great to be starting more or less from scratch. But it's not nothing.
In the meantime: what does everyone else make of this year's list?