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The Arthur C. Clarke Award is presented each year for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in the previous year. That's the nub of the problem, really. There is no sensible criterion for defining "best"; some years the five judges seem even to have had problems defining "science fiction"; no doubt in the (near) future there will be arguments over what constitutes a "book". The judges, whose decision this year is announced on April 29, will be certain only that many people will regard their decision as wrong-headed, and that the more critical will note that the shortlist from which they made their final choice was selected in some strangely arcane manner. Few of the critics, of course, will have read as many new books in the year as the Clarke judges have, and almost none of them will have read each of the short-listed books twice, as the Clarke judges normally do (and several have commented that a second reading changed their impression of one or more of the books on their shortlist).

This year forty-six books were submitted by publishers for consideration by the jury: a lower number than usual, I think. And inevitably there are books some might have expected to see on the shortlist which did not end up there. One would not have been surprised to see any of the following on the shortlist, for instance: Matter by Iain M. Banks (Orbit); Flood by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz); Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (HarperCollins); Incandescence by Greg Egan (Gollancz); The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann); The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod (Orbit); or Saturn's Children by Charles Stross (Orbit). The MacLeod, after all, won the BSFA Award; the Doctorow and the Stross are on the Hugo shortlist.

Martin Martin's On the Other Side cover

The actual shortlist contained more than one surprise. Anathem by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic) was very predictable; so, perhaps, were The Quiet War by Paul McAuley (Gollancz) and House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz). Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod (PS Publishing) was perhaps a surprise: it is certainly not so obviously award-worthy as his last two or three books. But the real surprises were The Margarets by Sheri S. Tepper (Gollancz) and Martin Martin's on the Other Side by Mark Wernham (Jonathan Cape). Tepper is one of my favourite SF authors, but The Margarets is not up to the standards of Grass or Raising the Stones, let alone Gibbon's Decline and Fall and The Family Tree, which were shortlisted for the Clarke in 1997 and 1998. And Mark Wernham's book—the author's first—came out of the blue.

There is frequently a lot of pointless speculation about why a Clarke shortlist includes such an apparent non-starter. Perhaps the judges discovered that they were so divided between Little Brother and The Gone-Away World (let us say) that they picked Wernham's novel as a compromise candidate. Perhaps they thought this was a good way of bringing forward a book that had hardly been noticed by the science fiction readership, even though they might acknowledge to themselves that there was little chance of it winning. But, then, Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome won in 1997; and maybe the judges actually did think that Mark Wernham's book was a plausible winner . . .

Martin Martin's on the Other Side is the title that appears on the title page, although bibliographers may note that perhaps it should be Martin Martin's On The Other Side, since the last four words are the name of a TV show whose star is the psychic Martin Martin. (Doing this little adjustment, of course, makes one realize that we don't know if the apostrophe-s is a contracted verb or a possessive, and presumably the ambiguity is deliberate.) The action takes place in a very recognizable London, some decades into the future, in which something like New Labour seems to have evolved into something approaching a fascist dictatorship. (Not such an implausible future, then.) Reviewers have noted the similarities to Nineteen Eighty-Four; the vaguely futuristic slang has evoked for some Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (though much of the slang is actually not that far removed from the present, and the use of the f-word is still so ubiquitous in the future, it seems, that its removal could have reduced the length of the book by a dozen pages). Just as appropriate a comparison, however, would be with Brave New World, although the masses—or at least the affluent middle classes—are addicted to sex at Starfucks as much as to the book's equivalent of soma (boris, the dresdens). Like the three potential sources of inspiration, there is a good deal of satire here, aimed at very obvious and very contemporary targets; unlike them, there is not very much subtlety or profundity.

This world is mostly viewed through the eyes of an immoral misogynist called Jensen Interceptor, who is easily the most unpleasant person we meet in the Clarke shortlist: even the Quaatar, the dreadful alien race in The Margarets (the head of whose pantheon is called Dweller in Pain), would have given this man a miss. And he is part of the problem with this novel. Saxon Bullock (in SFX) described the first hundred pages of the book as "like being trapped in a lift with a drunken, foul-mouthed bore who won't stop talking". Even more irritating, perhaps, is that most of his associates seem as moronic as he is.

It is not clear what we are supposed to make of Martin Martin, the apparently successful psychic, whose world comes into collision with Jensen Interceptor. Martin has been killed by the government because his psychic revelations are far too embarrassingly accurate; but he returns from the dead (apparently) and invades Jensen's personality. But these experiences have little effect on Jensen's worldview or his rampant consumerism. At the end he returns to himself and to his new seater, which totally fucking matches his new suit, which itself is fucking well cool. Martin Martin is still hammering at the doors of Jensen's brain, but, in the final sentence, sleep takes him over instead, as he puts it "like a big black fucking wave out of a big black fucking ocean". Science fiction, it has been said, is about consequences; but there seem to be no consequences here.

The back of the book quotes Max Davidson saying, in The Mail on Sunday, that the book is "a cut above the average". Yes, that is probably true; but the Clarke shortlist should be identifying the best six of the submitted books, and not one that simply managed to get into the top 50 per cent of all those published, whether submitted or not.

The Margarets, US cover

The Margarets, UK cover

I was pleased to be given the excuse to read a new Sheri S. Tepper novel, but it seemed very familiar. As in most of her significant novels we have men, who have ruined things; and we meet a woman who perhaps has a chance to save the world, or indeed the whole of humanity, by bringing some great biological or ecological change. In a paper at a conference a few years ago (so far unpublished), I called Tepper's most typical/characteristic books "instauration fantasies", borrowing the term from John Clute (in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy). The term "instauration", "restoration after decay, lapse or dilapidation", is most famously associated with Sir Francis Bacon's "Great Instauration", an intellectual project intended to make a fundamental renewal and transformation of the world. Instauration fantasies usually relate to this world, says Clute; and thus differ from the comparable theme of "healing" which is frequently found in fantasy—the bringing back into balance of a world which is out of kilter in some way. Instauration operates not through magic, but through a process of learning how the world works; it usually results not in a conservative restoration of the status quo ante, but in a radical recreation and transformation. "Instauration" is thus inherently more science fictional than fantastic; and yet with Sheri Tepper there are almost always reminders that this is not real science fiction. Hence the difficulties which Gregory Feeley and John C. Bunnell, who wrote the entry on Tepper for the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, had when they tried to categorise her work. The "True Game" series is "dramatized in terms of fantasy yet technically SF"; The Awakeners is "written in the manner of fantasy yet set on another planet"; and there is Grass, which "though set on an exotic planet settled by a galactic civilization, possesses various scene-setting elements from 'medieval fantasy'", and its two sequels Raising the Stones and Sideshow, which "though they cannot be classified as pure fantasy, [are] very hard to regard [ . . . ] as pure SF". The Margarets too is a book that readers will have trouble categorizing: it moves from decent science fiction at the beginning to little more than fairy story or fable towards the end, with the result that one cannot believe, as one should be able to persuade oneself to do with science fiction. One cannot believe, in particular, in nice gentle catlike aliens (cats? gentle?!) who help save humanity from its own self-destructive tendencies.

Margaret is a child living in a colony on Phobos, from which scientists and engineers are trying hard to terraform Mars. She invents various imaginary versions of herself to occupy her mind. "All my people were on the side of good, always. As warrior, shaman, telepath, healer, spy, linguist, and queen, we lived each day among wonders and marvels and were for the most part contented with our lives" (p. 16). One day, however, she is called inside a helicopter by an unknown woman. "I felt my legs pounding, I saw the back of myself running away, not wearing a helmet or suit, just as free as air" (p. 20). Science fiction has often played with the idea of choice creating new and different timelines or universes. Margaret can unwittingly create new Margarets: she sees one version of herself flee, while her "original" is captured by the woman. After a series of similar bifurcations, eventually we have seven different Margarets, living in seven very different societies, and developing into seven recognizably different versions of Margaret, but each of them based on the imaginary friends of her childhood. (The warrior is a man, who at one point finds himself falling for another man, although "he" realised that this was wrong: as Farah Mendlesohn has pointed out, none of these six Clarke books deal sympathetically or imaginatively with same sex relationships.)

I am not the ideal reader. I confess that I found the narrative confusing, as it constantly shifted from one Margaret to the next. I should have made much more use of the four-page list of names and venues at the beginning of the book, and the diagram which expressed the relationship between the seven Margarets and the seven planets in which they found themselves living, a diagram in the form of a seven-pointed star. But I can't help feeling that a book which needs a long dramatis personae and a diagram in order to keep track of the narrative has a basic flaw embedded in it. Although each of the Margarets except for the original is saddled with a new name (M'urgi and Gretamara, for instance, and Queen Wilvia—derived from Margaret's childhood thought that she "will be a" queen, and her next thought that Wilvia sounded nicer than Wilbia), the characters and their actions became inextricably confused for me. The expected Tepperian deus ex machine brought them all together again for the unalloyed (and therefore quite implausible) happy ending.

There is much in the book I really enjoyed. Some of the little vignettes of life in the various worlds inhabited by the Margarets are well done. The picture of Earth in a state of ecological collapse is powerful, and the intervention of aliens into this scenario an old story quite well retold. But there is also much that is stale. The aliens are mostly caricatures, and are either Very Bad (the "vile races"), or else Very Good. Indeed, we slip into the realm of fantasy and fable as soon as the aliens appear: there are no shades of moral grey with aliens, and no complexity. They are each characterised by a single trait. Humans are complex, however (John W. Campbell Jr would have loved this confirmation of his idea that no aliens could be superior to humans); all humans lack—and they are the only race in the known galaxy of which this is true—is a built-in sense of racial memory (and therefore racial conscience). With a sense of racial memory they could stand alongside the other galactic races; they could gain that sense of unity which they lack. Even one instant of such a memory would be enough: "That instant when the whole being that is you is aware of itself as a whole and dances together upon the green meadows of eternity in a dance that is endless" (p. 494). There is utopian yearning in most of Tepper's books, which is why I value her work so highly; but sometimes, I cannot help wincing. Tepper's book is sadly flawed, but some of the flaws at least are buried deep, not so much in racial memory as in the history of science fiction.

House of Suns, UK cover

House of Suns, US cover

If we are to look for books that offer true tribute to decades of science fictional thinking, however, we need look no further than House of Suns and The Quiet War. Alastair Reynolds's and Paul McAuley's short-listed books are both unabashed space opera. Both have plentiful spaceships, without which space opera is impossible; both of them have clones. There the similarities end. The books are very different in scope. McAuley confines himself to this solar system; Reynolds doesn't even bother to confine himself to this galaxy. McAuley's story is set in the twenty-third century, and involves some careful extrapolation from the present; Reynolds’s tale is set several millions of years in the future.

House of Suns first of all, then. Reynolds is, alongside Banks, the best-known proponent of the New Space Opera, which has been spearheaded by the Brits; he is, according to the cover, an author all of whose works have been read with eagerness by the historical novelist Bernard Cornwell—a reminder that Reynolds, like Banks, is read far beyond the confines of SF fandom (and a spur to wondering whether Cornwell is coming out with his own space opera one of these days). There are three narrators in the book: Abigail Gentian, Campion, and Purslane. Abigail we see as a small girl, living on an asteroid along with her mad mother, in a wondrous Gormenghast of a house. Every now and then an unnamed boy comes to play with her in a virtual reality medievalist role playing game. The connections between this narrative and the main narrative of the book are not fully worked out, but we soon realise that Abigail Gentian became the founder of the Gentian Line, also known as the House of Flowers. Abigail Gentian's thousand clones (known as shatterlings) have botanical names, and the other two narrative voices are two of those shatterlings: most of the chapters are alternately narrated by Campion and Purslane. Reviewers have speculated on the question of whether these narrators are portrayed as almost identical to each other to underline that they are clones; however, most have concluded that, since there are other Gentian clones who are very much individuals, that this is a failing in characterization on Reynolds's part. It turns out to be a serious problem.

There is no denying that there is much in the book to satisfy the science fiction reader in search of some of science fiction's central pleasures. The scale is gigantic. The clones are almost immortal (apart from murder and accident), and spend much of their time travelling at below light speed (Reynolds, a former astronomer, has no truck with those who believe in faster-than-light drives). They outlive whole civilisations; as Campion, a perennial procrastinator, was accustomed to say, why do today what you can still do in a quarter of a million years' time? They have time to plan and execute gigantic engineering projects. The House of Moths is good at moving stars; the House of Flowers builds stardams. They collect up some of the millions of ringworlds left behind by the Priors (an extinct and seemingly godlike species), and move them across the galaxy of at a fraction of light speed (they are fragile). By surrounding an unstable star with thousands of these super-reflective structures, they can contain its explosive energy, protect all the neighbouring civilizations, and increase their already enormous wealth. There is much large-scale Sense of Wonder like this. My own favourite is the Spirit of the Air. He was once a human, Abraham Valmik, who transferred his consciousness into a myriad artificial parts, and expanded into interstellar space. He grew so large that he could engulf whole systems. By the time of the action of this book, however, this being has decided to become planetary again, and Campion encounters "him" as a dense cloud of metallic bird- and insect-like machines that swirl him up into the air.

Campion and Purslane (who are having an affair, against the usual rules of the Line) are slightly late—around fifty years—for a major reunion of the Gentians. They arrive, to discover that an unknown enemy has wiped out most of their fellow shatterlings during the reunion. The rest of the book is devoted to seeking out the enemy and, in the process, to discovering some of the secrets of the galaxy, about the mysterious Vigilance, and the equally mysterious Absence: the total disappearance of the Andromeda Galaxy.

Most of the trouble with the book comes via Campion and Purslane. Many of the people, or entities, whom they meet are intriguing; they themselves have little personality. Some readers, who are used to minimum characterization in space opera, perhaps won't care, but it left me feeling, rather, that I did not care about the characters, and hence about their actions. The eventual solution (leaving plenty of room for a sequel) also left me cold. At times I was reminded of the latter Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov; and this is not intended as a compliment. There are grand ideas, but the plot is slow, there is far too much empty dialogue that does not progress the plot at all, and I never had the feeling that I was getting to experience or understand their world. Apart from a small number of very fine set pieces (in which I would include the detailed and horribly imaginative torture sequence), House of Suns is almost as unvisual as one of those Asimovs. The result is a curious lifelessness, a cerebral game rather than a satisfying novel.

The Quiet War cover

The other space opera, Paul McAuley's The Quiet War, is quite different. Pacy rather than slow-moving; sparkling with ideas yet not short on vivid characters as well; and featuring a well-visualized series of environments. Paul McAuley's rendering of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn is more vivid than Ian MacLeod's rendering of Birmingham (see below), yet presumably MacLeod has visited his subject and McAuley hasn't.

The Quiet War of the title is a violent skirmish in the long-running antagonism between Earth's governments, desperate to survive in its ruined environment, and the Outers, the genetically altered inhabitants of the moons of the giant planets. It's quiet because it takes place in vacuum; it's quiet because it is a long way away, far from the concerns of most of the inhabitants of the solar system; it's quiet because much of it takes place long before the actual fighting, in the underground manoeuvres of spies and agents.

This is military SF, then, but very different from the books usually published with that label. We have characters like Dave #8, a cloned warrior for the superpower Greater Brazil, and Cash Baker, spliced into his Greater Brazilian fighter ship. But the main characters are in fact three women, two of whom at least are interested in peace, and all of whom are interested in survival as much as warfare. The main character is Macy Minnot, a bioengineer, relocated from Earth, where she has been engaged in the cleaning up of a toxic Lake Champlain, to be put in charge of a project to construct a lake in the city of Rainbow Bridge on Callisto. The two women who lurk behind the action are also scientists: Sri Hong-Owen, the genius behind the Greater Brazilian war effort, and the genetic engineer Avernus, whose work has enabled the Outers to adapt to their adopted surroundings, and who is regarded by them as almost godlike. But it is Macy on whom the attention is most of the time: not as a major player, but as a victim, caught up in the quiet undercover work of the agents of both Earth and the Outers as they prepare for war. Dave #8 and Cash Baker are more obvious victims of the war, but at least they have been trained for it, and are eager for it. Dave #8, incidentally, a relatively minor character, is beautifully and imaginatively created by McAuley, and offers more of an idea of the internal life of a clone that do Reynolds’s Purslane and Campion (though admittedly their fictional circumstances are hardly comparable).

McAuley's book is quiet in all kinds of ways. He does not offer us a clash of futuristic technology, but extrapolates carefully and conservatively into the future. He does not present his war through the eyes of its generals, but through those of its victims. He does not see the war from one side, but gives us a reasonably neutral view of a conflict, through which the fears and ambitions of both sides can be appreciated, and the flaws of both political groups observed. But it is a vivid book, well-paced, coming to a well-imagined conclusion (and leaving room for a sequel). It reminded me more than anything else of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books: a cast of well-imagined characters, a mixture of political and scientific speculation, and a complete ease with the occasional infodump. This was one of the most traditionally science fictional of the six books under review. It was also the most readable, and the most thoroughly enjoyable. For me it's a very welcome return by McAuley to the roots of SF, after wandering in the technothriller wastes for rather too long.

Song of Time cover

Another quiet book, and as far removed from space opera as it could be, is Ian R. Macleod's Song of Time. Helena Bowles, in an appreciation of the novel, concludes that "This is the point at which Science Fiction left adolescence behind and grew up." I know what she means, even though we have actually been at this point a number of times before over the last few decades. This feels like a Real Novel. It is not an adventure story, or the working out of a far-fetched "what if?" It is the life story of a woman who lived through the twenty-first century. It explores her life as she tries to put her own memories in order: she is not writing an autobiography, but preparing for her memories to be uploaded into an advanced computer system that will provide her with some kind of afterlife. But, as in autobiography, she is editing her life and shaping it as she wishes.

In many ways the experiences of Roushana Maitland, as a concert violinist very much focused on her career, may not be that different from those of professional musicians today. Her career is described with a good deal of insight, and captures some of the joy that music can provide the performer; Macleod's attempt to describe the classical compositions of the future, however, are much less convincing. More generally the classical music world is shown as surviving and developing, almost without reference to a world which is changing and to some extent crumbling around it; and perhaps that is indeed how the future will happen. The science fictional elements are not thrust in front of the reader; they merely form a part of Roushana's life, impacting upon it where they intersect with her own experience. The best example, perhaps, is that of Roushana's elder brother Leo, an even greater musical prodigy than her, who dies of one of the new twenty-first-century plagues, the white plague, or WRFI, Wide Range Food Intolerance, like coeliac disease only more so. Macleod must know a coeliac sufferer: he describes some of the reactions of observers—"oh, he's just a faddy eater"—all too well. Leo himself describes dope as the best thing for WRFI sufferers: "The best thing since sliced bread. Not that they can have sliced bread" (p. 36).

Roushana Maitland recalls her life from the security of her house (a semi-sentient house, though that too is only touched on lightly), on the coast of Cornwall. And what brings disruption to her life, and focus to her memories, is the discovery on the beach of a naked young man, with amnesia, and injuries. She calls him Adam, after she hears him try to utter his first word: "It sounds, though, like it begins with an a. Aaddduubbnmmm. Adam? Is he telling me his name?" (p. 45) The appearance of Adam is an intriguing mystery, established near the beginning of the book; but the reader who expects the mystery to be unfolded and resolved is going to be frustrated. No doubt this was intentional on the part of the author, but I found it to be one of the unsatisfactory elements in the book. The back cover blurb announces: "And who is this strange man she's found—is he a figure returned from her past, a new messiah, or an empty vessel? Is he God, or the Devil?" But the book does not tell us. He is perhaps related to Christ in some way (though his wound is not on the correct side of his body, Roushana notes), or perhaps to Christos, a twenty-first-century religious leader. I may well be missing something. Adam obviously performs a useful narrative function, and a symbolic one, as a man empty of memories living with a woman filled with them, and he helps her release the memories she doesn't want to recall, such as how exactly her husband Claude died. But he himself seems a strange anomaly in the twenty-first century, and in the context of the book itself. For me he represented an intrusion that destroyed the intense realism which most of the rest of the book is at pains to establish.

Song of Time is a book I am going to go back to, however. It contains some very fine writing (and some resolutely clunky writing too, as Adam Roberts pointed out in his Strange Horizons review). And it does elaborate a way of viewing the future which is all too rare in the science fiction field. I am very glad that the Clarke judges' shortlisting of this book—which is not from one of the mainstream science fiction publishers although it certainly ought to be—brought it to my attention.

Anathem, UK cover

Anathem, US cover

And then, at last, drawn to the bottom of my list not so much by its weight (937 chunky pages) as by the weight of expectation placed on it over the last year, Neal Stephenson's Anathem. So much has been said about it already that it is difficult to find something new, and it is easy to see why it has caused a stir. It speaks to us, as science fiction readers. There is a new language to puzzle out (the glossary at end is almost a cheat; we could work it all out for ourselves if we concentrated). There is a new society, and a new world, to learn about and to familiarize ourselves with. There are science fictional in-jokes to spot. This is a book written for us (unlike, say, Martin Martin's On the Other Side).

The scenario is very familiar in its skeleton. There is a naïve young man in whom great potentiality can be discerned. We are with him as he learns about his little enclosed world (as it might be, the Shire); then inevitably he moves out of this world, and we find out about the planet, and other planets, and the threat that faces his entire world, and all of a sudden he becomes one of its saviours. He discovers some great secrets. He returns, and he marries his sweetheart. "Well, I'm back," Sam said.

The plot outline is simple enough, therefore; it needs to be, to carry the weight, of the book, of the world-building, of the playing with philosophical and scientific ideas. The world seems simple too, at the beginning, and we are as shocked as our friend Erasmas is when we learn its complexities. Stephenson plays with us, setting up expectations, knocking them down, and then replacing them with new ones.

Erasmas seems, at first, to be living in a monastery, which the people of Arbre call a concent. In the first pages his superior is interviewing someone from outside the concent, and it quickly emerges people on the other side of the walls have more advanced technology, and that the avout inside the concent are living a simple life, remembering and honouring their saunts (or saints). But the concents are not monasteries in our sense at all; indeed, most avout are atheists, who rather despise the minority of Deolaters ("god-worshippers"). Nor are the saunts saints: their name arises from an ancient misspelling of "savant". The avout are, in fact, academics, doing research in mathematics, philosophy and science, and engaging in all the little squabbles and faction-forming that we academics indulge in, convincing themselves all the while that the world revolves around them. Even the most physical of them, like the rumbunctious Lio, are formidably bright. It takes a long time, however, before we realize that the walls of the concent which surround them are not so much keeping the world out, as protecting the world from them, as in a concent-ration camp. Nor does the significance of the very long back history become apparent until quite late in the book. And by then our avouts have met the aliens, and have, it seems, saved the planet. Except that, in some timelines, they have not.

The plot, however, is not really the point, it seems; indeed it is rather basic, and the final action scenes (we deserved some action after over 800 pages of chat and infodump) are rather silly. The point of the book is the world, and the ability it gives Stephenson to comment and joke about our own world, and to rethink it in terms of ideas. The book does not seem nearly so bloated as Cryptonomicon, let alone so super-bloated as the Baroque Trilogy. There are nevertheless some pages of longueur in the middle, conversations that seem to go nowhere, and action that might appear to be padding. But, then, unlike the Clarke judges, I have only read the book one and a half times.

Adam Roberts, in his review, makes fun of the many neologisms in the book by inventing many of his own, of which one struck me as particularly apt: "YAWNGASM. A strange circumstance whereby prolonged boredom leads to a state of near ecstasy." This, bizarrely, does capture some of the delight and genuine excitement of the book. Anathem provides many of the traditional thrills of science fiction—the sense of wonder, the conceptual breakthrough, puzzling to decode a strange new world—but all this at a much slower and more contemplative pace than we are accustomed to. It will take several readings, if any of us have time, to unravel the jokes, the allusions, and the philosophical and mathematical ideas with which it is peppered. Stephenson assumes that we will have the time and the patience, which makes this a bold and ambitious book, as well as a challenging one. I do not think that this can be said of any of the other books on the shortlist.

I started off this piece by raising the question of what is "best": is it the most science fictional, the most original, the most suitable to be put in the hands of a general reader saying "This is good science fiction: try it"? In answering that question, at least the judges have steered well clear of fantasy; even the Tepper novel has genuine and interesting science fictional moments. The winning book, whatever it is, may not be representative of science fiction as a whole: how can it be, when science fiction is so varied? But the short-list, whether deliberately or not, does actually showcase some of the this great variety of science fiction. Wernham gives us SF as satire, Tepper SF as allegory, Stephenson SF as speculation about the world, MacLeod SF as meditation on the future, Reynolds SF as wild imagination about the distant future, and McAuley SF as a playful mix of extrapolation and adventure.

I would not be at all surprised if Anathem won the Clarke Award this year, and I rather think it should; I would not be surprised to find Ian MacLeod's book a winner either, and it would be a worthy one. I would however be rather pleased if The Quiet War won: it provided me with the most thoroughly enjoyable read of them all. And I would probably be anything from puzzled to annoyed if the winner was any of the other three. But the end of the Clarke Award ceremony has often, in the past, left me either puzzled or annoyed, and sometimes both at the same time.

Edward James is Professor of Medieval History at University College Dublin. In 2009 he was alarmed to find himself President of the Irish Historical Society, Chair-Elect of the School of History at UCD, and Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation all at the same time. He was editor of Foundation for sixteen years; his co-edited Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction won a Hugo in 2005. He was on the Clarke juries responsible for picking The Handmaid's Tale and The Sea and Summer in 1987 and 1988.

Edward James is Professor of Medieval History at University College Dublin. In 2009 he was alarmed to find himself President of the Irish Historical Society, Chair-Elect of the School of History at UCD, and Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation all at the same time. He was editor of Foundation for sixteen years; his co-edited Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction won a Hugo in 2005. He was on the Clarke juries responsible for picking The Handmaid's Tale and The Sea and Summer in 1987 and 1988.
Current Issue
18 Jan 2021

Splinters, old and new. How else can the skin remember the tree? If it hurts, that is the point.
Soft Shoulder speaking softly / quick-stop-tongued lanky cur dog / lisping languid in jeans
By: Zach Ozma
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Zach Ozma
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents Zach Ozma's “Soft Shoulder (Excerpt)” with a reading by the poet.
The way I see it, this story is full of symbolic touchstones, visual elements with layers of meaning that are not always obvious, or even accessible, to the reader.
Monday: Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell 
Wednesday: Bulbbul 
Friday: The Hierarchies by Ros Anderson 
Issue 11 Jan 2021
By: Ryu Ando
Podcast read by: Kat Kourbeti
By: Nikki Caffier Smith
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 4 Jan 2021
By: Maya Beck
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Stephanie Burt
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Stephanie Burt
Issue 21 Dec 2020
By: Octavia Cade
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Meep Matsushima
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Meep Matsushima
Issue 14 Dec 2020
By: ML Kejera
Podcast read by: Kat Kourbeti
By: Brigid Nemeton
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Brigid Nemeton
7 Dec 2020
Strange Horizons is now accepting fiction submissions for the Palestinian Special issue! The issue, edited by Rasha Abdulhadi and Basma Ghalayini will be published at the end of March 2021. We are open for submissions from now until January 31, 2021. Don't wait till the end to send your work!
7 Dec 2020
تقديم الطلبات مفتوح من الان و حتى تاريخ 31 يناير 2021. قدم/ قدمي عملك عاجلا و ليس آجلا!
Issue 7 Dec 2020
By: Toby MacNutt
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Anna Cates
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 1 Dec 2020
By: Ateri Miyawatl
Translated by: Ateri Miyawatl
By: Ateri Miyawatl
Translated by: Adam Coon
By: Vraiux Dorós
Translated by: Toshiya Kamei
By: Luz Rosales
Translated by: Andrea Chapela
By: Libia Brenda
Translated by: Allana C. Noyes
By: Ateri Miyawatl
Podcast read by: Ateri Miyawatl
Podcast: Bromelia (English) 
Podcast: Bromelia (Español) 
Issue 23 Nov 2020
By: Michael Bazzett
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Michael Bazzett
Issue 16 Nov 2020
By: Cat Aquino
Podcast read by: Kat Kourbeti
By: Michael Chang
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
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