My BSFA votes: Best Novel, part 1

This year's long list of novels for the BSFA Award was very long, comprising 56 books (I actually wrote to the award administrators to query the eligibility of two of them; they replied defending their decision; neither appears on the short list; let's leave it at that). The "short" list is also very long, with ten novels – which appears to be the longest ever for any BSFA Award category (the 2014 Best Novel and 2018 Best Art ballots both had eight nominees). Of course there are often problems with splitting ties, but I wonder how many (or how few) nominating votes there actually were?

(The E Pluribus Hugo system used for counting Hugo nominations makes ties at nominations stage vanishingly unlikely, but I do not recommend that the BSFA adopts it.)

Just to emphasise again that (as with my posts for the Best Art and Best Short Fiction categories, less so for Best Non-Fiction) these posts are generally confessions of my own quirks rather than firm recommendations – though I must admit there are two novels of the ten that I could not vote for, and I would find it incomprehensible if either won the award. The others are all OK, some OKer than others

Here goes.

10) Club Ded, by Nikhil Singh. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Of course, the magic castle is just a facade. Once viewed from the side or back, its majestic battlements reduce—to a cable-ridden sideshow. In relation to the rest of the picture (and its overinflated budget), the castle is a minor location. Demanding only a few key days out of the schedule. Shooting had commenced on time and wrapped early. Dismantling is underway. The property is owned and maintained by Oracle Inc. When Anita originally caught wind of the leasing enquiry, she positioned herself carefully. She made sure to negotiate the tenancy agreements personally. Oracle real-estate had been her division once. So, it was nothing for her to assume control of the deal. Anita went to great lengths for the production house. She cushioned the contracts, bent over backward. All with the precise intention of seducing the famous director. She was mortified when Jennifer informed her that the ‘3rd girl’ had ended up on his arm.

I bounced off this quite hard, and did not even make it 40 pages in. I found the writing style downright annoying and did not care about any of the characters. I note also that it had fewest owners on both Goodreads and LibraryThing of any of the longlisted books, never mind the short list. Clearly its few dedicated readers are all BSFA voters.

9) The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Second paragraph of third chapter:

That first global stocktake didn’t go well. Reporting was inconsistent and incomplete, and yet still it was very clear that carbon emissions were far higher than the Parties to the Agreement had promised each other they would be, despite the 2020 dip. Very few nations had hit the targets they had set for themselves, even though they had set soft targets. Aware of the shortfall even before the 2023 stocktake, 108 countries had promised to strengthen their pledges; but these were smaller countries, amounting together to about 15 percent of global total emissions.

The world narrowly avoids climate disaster thanks to eco-terrorism clandestinely funded by a UN body whose head is blissfully unaware of what it is really doing. So many annoying things about this book. Characters deliver economic and political lectures to each other by way of conversation. Totally unrealistic portrayal of how global politics works in practice. Lots of countries have lovely peaceful revolutions which bring only nice people to power and never descend into repression of counter-revolutionary forces. (Also utterly improbable that the Swiss would ever allow an international body to be set up in Zürich rather than Geneva.) Heart in the right place, of course, but just awful execution.

I should say once more that none of the other eight novels on the shortlist actually struck me as bad in the same way that those two did. However, you have to start pruning somewhere, so next up on my ballot will be:

8) The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, by M. John Harrison. Second paragraph of Part Three:

His contemporaries at nursery school, by contrast, were primed to act. They were already impatient to do things. Agency was their goal. But where, for instance, the end of each day brought for them the chance to fasten their own coats, Shaw encouraged his mother to fasten his, so that he could remain hypnotised by the shine and colour of someone else’s buttons. Later, this would lead him to a metamorphic theory of personal development. Age ten or eleven, watching his cohort take control of its own destiny, he could easily imagine himself grown up: but less as the agent of self-change than as an organism which – having reached some gate level he couldn’t yet be expected to recognise – would flip automatically into a thoroughly novel state. By then a voracious reader, he was still failing seven times out of ten to correctly recite the alphabet.

The shortest book on the ballot, and one that is liked a lot by several people who I respect. Like other Harrison that I have read, it didn't really work for me. There's an intricate narrative set in contemporary England, the same people turn up in your life over and over, and some green people are emerging from the rivers (the only non-white people mentioned in the book). I'm afraid it left me rather cold – obviously I am missing something, as it has already won one prize.

7) Light of Impossible Stars, by Gareth L. Powell. Second paragraph of third chapter:

I was sitting on the edge of my bunk with my baseball cap in my hands. I had been sitting there for some time, listening to the familiar creaks of the hull as the ship nosed its way through the misty curtains of the hypervoid.

Final book in the Embers of War trilogy, crunchy space opera with lots of characters and action, and a couple of cosmic ideas; maybe I was just tired when reading (I often am tired when reading, these days) but didn't quite hang together enough for me.

6) Water Must Fall, by Nick Wood. Second paragraph of third chapter:

I breathe, but it's cold and burning wet and I choke and sink, scrabbling at nothing.

These choices get more and more difficult. I really did like Water Must Fall, I just liked the other five books on the list more. Like The Ministry for the Future, it's a climate change story, set a couple of decades from now in South Africa and the USA, with political intrigues and violence and a dismally failing marriage involving two of the protagonists. I have to fault a couple of technical points where the writing unexpectedly jarred – for instance, there is a wedding scene where the author confuses the names of the bride and her daughter; and the means and motivation of the bad guys was not completely clear. But again, its heart is in the right place.

That's enough for tonight; more tomorrow.

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My tweets

  • Wed, 11:12: RT @AmIRightSir: The 1966 general election took place on this day – result: – Labour 364 (48.0%) – Conservatives 253 (41.9%) – Liberals 1…

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Whoniversaries 31 March

Three quarters of the way through the year now, and past the January-March hump; April-June will be less intense. Nine of the 26 seasons of Old Who ended in the first quarter of the year – six of them in March, including the two-episode-per week seasons of the 1980s. In celebration, we're doing two photographs per episode today.

i) births and deaths

31 March 1930: birth of Michael Hart, who directed The Space Pirates (Second Doctor, 1969).

ii) broadcast anniversaries

31 March 1973: broadcast of sixth episode of Frontier in Space

31 March 2007: broadcast of Smith and Jones, starting Series Three of New Who; first appearance of Freeman Agyeman as Martha Jones. Martha's hospital is abruptly transported to the Moon, where the Judoon are tracking down a criminal.

iii) date partially specified almost in-universe

The opening scenes of the second Cushing film, Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., take place on 31 March; at least that's what Tom Campbell, played by Bernard Cribbins, thinks the date is when he wakes up after being bashed on the head.