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After the speculation, the shortlist:

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz) (review by Finn Dempster)

Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)

China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan) (review by John Clute)

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press) (review by Niall Harrison)

Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit) (review by Alexandra Pierce)

Sheri S.Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

I've only read Mieville and Rogers, which you would think might not leave me with much to say, but let's see how we go. What sort of list do we have? Four men, two women (but I think four female protagonists, two male); three Americans, three Brits; four genre-published (five if you count Magary, which I've seen shelved all over the place); one small press-published; two set out in space, four on Earth; two newcomers (Magary and Rogers) with four previous nominees.

One overlap with the BSFA shortlist (Mieville) and two with the Kitschies (Mieville and Rogers), which raises the question of omissions. I imagine most people will point first to the exclusion of Christopher Priest's The Islanders, which I still haven't read; for me the disappointment centres around Lavie Tidhar's Osama and Adam Roberts' By Light Alone, the absence of which strikes me as rather wrongheaded. Martin Lewis notes that Nicholas Whyte correctly predicted four of the novels based on the popularity of the novels as ranked by Goodreads and Librarything, and it has the feel of a playing-to-the-heartland shortlist. My own guess only picked out two of the eventual shortlist (Stross and Mieville) despite guessing that this was the direction this year's list would go; my wishful thinking shortlist didn't hit any.

Prejudicially, this makes it a disappointing shortlist for me, which may seem like I'm trying to have it both ways. I asked for the award to tell me a different story about last year than the one I'd already heard, and it has; but at the same time, this doesn't look like a list that captures what I think is interesting about where sf is now, it doesn't feel essential. (David Hebblethwaite is similarly underwhelmed.) I'm trying hard to reserve judgement, but I was distinctly unimpressed by the last Tepper to be listed, I've only heard mixed things about Bear, Magary and Stross, and though I enjoyed both the Mieville and the Rogers, after the fact I don't admire either so much that I would find their omission inexplicable. And while SFX has installed Mieville as the front runner, and he does look like the heavyweight in the room, I'd feel uneasy if Embassytown took the prize, both for reasons of merit -- it may or may not be the best book on this list, but it's quite a long way from being the best sf novel I read last year -- and for reasons of perception. If the award goes to the same writer for a fourth time in just over a decade, that makes the field look thin, except to those who know the field, who might start to think the award is becoming myopic.

(This is of course a year to year judgement: Zoo City's win last year felt like a choice that refreshed the award; to an extent a win for Rogers this year could have the same effect, proving that the Clarke is actually still willing to look outside the confines of genre for its winners. At the moment I think that's the outcome I hope for. But on with the reading!)

Niall Harrison is a reader and fan.
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21 Jun 2021

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