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BSFA Award for Best Novel

I've been blogging my reaction to the BSFA shortlists for about a decade now, and this is the first time I can remember feeling that all the shortlisted novels were books I would like to see winning - it's been a very difficult choice. Also worth noting that this is the first time ever that the shortlist for Best Novel does not include a single book by a white man - this for an award whose first 43 winners included only two women - though three of the last five awards have been to women, two to Ann Leckie and one to Aliette de Bodard, who I think was only the second non-white writer to be shortlisted after Nnedi Okorafor the previous year.

One of these stories is about parallel universes, one is about instant transportation across the Earth, one is about future fertility and sexuality, and one is space opera, and all four are about families. These are all tropes I enjoy. There are no cute robots. (Provenance has robots that are definitely not cute at all.) Combined, they are only 1300 pages - Exit West and Dreams Before the Start of Time are particularly short. With deep reluctance, and with the proviso that I might yet change my mind, I guess I will have to rank them. As I said, I really liked them all and will probably nominate all four for the Hugo.

4) Dreams Before the Start of Time, by Anne Charnock

Second paragraph of third chapter:
She switches on the shower, and while the water is warming, she cleans her teeth. Another midweek drinking session. What was she thinking? At thirty-two years of age, she’s getting too old for this. And she has two major deadlines this afternoon. At least she can work in her pyjamas. Eyes down, she avoids seeing the fallout from last night’s excesses at the Hermit’s Cave — bloaty eyelids, sagging cheeks. She won’t look so bad after a shower.
I don't think I had read anything by Charnock before. This story is told through a series of closely linked vignettes, following the two main characters, Millie and Toni, from their discovery that they are pregnant in 2034 to their old age, exploring how technology changes their relationships to their parents, lovers, children and grandchildren. I guess I rate it just a little lower because the ending is rather abrupt, but in other ways it's a book very much for the present day, when we are on the cusp of redefining a lot of these concepts.

3) The Rift, by Nina Allan

Second paragraph of third chapter:
You got out when things started to get serious though, didn’t you? she thought. Easier to shoo him halfway around the world than to let him into your life on a permanent basis.
Selena's sister disappeared twenty years ago from their family home in Manchester, when they were teenagers. Their father broke down, moved out, and recently died. And now, just after Selena and her boyfriend have broken up, Julie is back, or someone who says she is Julie, and claims she was somehow transported into another world; and tells stories of what happened to her there. Again, we have an interesting narrative format, with flashbacks and parts of the parallel world story interjected into the core frame of Selena's experience; and newspaper reports, handwritten notes and other material are brought in to support the story. There are some gloriously drawn supporting characters, most notably Selena's boss, and the family dynamic - dysfunctional and yet normal? - is gradually revealed and well depicted.

2) Provenance, by Ann Leckie

Second paragraph of third chapter:
E looked over Captain Uisine’s shoulder, to where Ingray and Garal approached. A quick flash of some expression when e realized Garal was wearing nothing but a blanket, quickly gone. Tyr officials were famously uninquisitive about anything that wasn’t a potential breach of Tyr law. “These are your passengers?”
I have to be honest: this is less hard work than any of the other three. It's a straightforward space opera, set in the same universe as Leckie's previous trilogy but distant from it, with our heroine Ingray Aughskold competing within her world's own dynastic politics and becoming involved with aliens and clashing codes of behaviour, not to mention the question of how much of her own culture's most treasured historical facts are actually fake. There's lots of fun stuff here, and lots of hints at the broader context of the interstellar culture of Leckie's universe. What I particularly liked was Ingray's political awakening, as she gains awareness of her own situation and works through her own priorities. As well as being the only space opera, this is the only one of the four shortlisted novels where the central character does not have sex.

1) Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Saeed partly resisted the pull of his phone. He found the antenna too powerful, the magic it summoned too mesmerizing, as though he were eating a banquet of limitless food, stuffing himself, stuffing himself, until he felt dazed and sick, and so he had removed or hidden or restricted all but a few applications. His phone could make calls. His phone could send messages. His phone could take pictures, identify celestial bodies, transform the city into a map while he drove. But that was it. Mostly. Except for the hour each evening that he enabled the browser on his phone and disappeared down the byways of the internet. But this hour was tightly regulated, and when it ended, a timer would set off an alarm, a gentle, windy chime, as though from the breezy planet of some blue-shimmering science fiction priestess, and he would electronically lock away his browser and not browse again on his phone until the following day.
When I read this last year, I wrote:
very interesting - in a world similar to ours, portals begin to open which allow people to travel instantly from one country to another; at first there are only a few, and access to them is tightly controlled, but as the story continues they become more common and eventually the whole world is interconnected. For Saeed and Nadia, this becomes first a means of escape from their home city, which is consumed in a Syria-style civil war, and then a way of encountering different parts of the world, where migrants are (mis)treated in various different ways - a Greek refugee camp, a neighbourhood of squatters in London, and finally California. This is leavened with vignettes showing how the changed world affects the lives of other people who we aren't otherwise involved in the narrative. It's a very convincing portrayal of a world which is both integrating and disintegrating, not so very far from our own.
I still think this is very much a story of our time, with a decent romance backbone to the plot. It ticks a lot of my own boxes, so I shall tick its box on the ballot paper.

Probably.

Based on my analysis of the Goodreads/LibraryThing stats, Provenance and Exit West are better placed than the other two. Cast your mind back to 2014, and imagine how strange it is that Ann Leckie is the safer choice.

Best Novel | Best Short Fiction | Best Non-Fiction | Best Artwork


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