I am reviewing the shortlist for the BSFA Award for Best Novel published in 2022 in two parts. In this post, I include some preliminary remarks before discussing two of the novels here. The other three will be discussed in Part Two, which will also include some afterthoughts on the shortlist. As per my usual practice, I won’t provide my personal ranking of the novels (partly because I don’t have one) but I will reveal which one I voted for first. I previously reviewed the shortlist (for best novel published in 2019) in 2020 in two parts, here and here (I didn’t review it in the two intervening years because I was on the jury for the Clarke Award during that period and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to make a public comparison of novels which might also be in contention for that award).
Earlier this year, I wrote about the longlist and by the cunning ruse of listing no less than 17 authors who might be in contention according to various criteria, I did manage to mention all five who were successful. When I reviewed the BSFA shortlist (for Best Novel published in 2019) three years ago, I noted that it was ‘the first time (I think) all five short-listed novels are sequels’ (or, at least, additions to ongoing series), which is still the case. However, in contrast to the shortlists for novels published in 2020 and 2021, this year’s list are all standalone novels (albeit Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake shares the Xuya universe setting of The Tea Master and the Detective and other novella and stories). Therefore, my particular predictions concerning series instalments turned out to be totally erroneous. I was on more solid ground when I started looking at previous winners, four of whom have made the shortlist. Apart from anything else, winning indicates popularity with the electorate. People are more likely to have read the works of popular writers and therefore they will pick up votes over other contenders from people who haven’t necessarily read the entire shortlist. In other words, something of a virtuous cycle can develop for those writers who produce consistently popular work. Looking at their past records of being shortlisted and winning, it is not surprising that Gareth Powell and Adrian Tchaikovsky are on this year’s list. I think we can see their work as setting some of the current benchmarks for popularity within British fandom. If I was running a book on the award, I would probably make them the favourites, but that doesn’t mean that one of the other writers won’t win because both SF and its fandom are complex ecosystems. I’m going to elaborate on this further while discussing each book in turn, and then try and sum up in my conclusion to Part Two.
Adrian Tchaikovsky, City of Last Chances (Head of Zeus, 498pp.)
I might have mooted that Tchaikovsky would be in contention in my write-up of the longlist, but my parenthetical aside proved to be entirely wrong: ‘(although I suspect that Tchaikovsky’s other two books [i.e. Eyes of the Void and Children of Memory] are more likely to be shortlisted than City of Last Chances, which is fantasy and only came out very late in 2022)’. But then it’s always difficult to pick between his novels from any particular year. For example, of his 2019 output, I preferred Cage of Souls, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Clarke Award, to Children of Ruin, which won the 2020 BSFA Award. For 2021, I preferred Bear Head to Shards of Earth, which won last year’s BSFA Award. Maybe I’m leaning towards the novels published by Head of Zeus rather than those by Tor? Although I really enjoyed 2020’s The Doors of Eden too. Which ever way you look at it, Tchaikovsky is taking the field by storm (and this is not even to mention several well-received novellas in recent years). So, given that this is the fourth year in succession that he has been shortlisted and that he has won two of the last three awards, he is probably in with a good chance of winning again irrespective of the fact that this is a fantasy novel and fantasy novels only tend to win this award on rare occasions. It is, after all, a very good fantasy novel. The following paragraphs are excerpted from my review of it for ParSec #6 (Winter 2023)
City of Last Chances is a multi-perspectival account of a series of events that upset the fragile social balance of the decaying, conquered city of Ilmar with interesting and sometimes unexpected consequences for its inhabitants, a seemingly infinite number of whom appear as named characters. Ok, I’m exaggerating the size of the cast who in fact fit quite comfortably into a two-page list of ‘Dramatis Personae’, which is helpfully provided at the beginning of the volume, immediately before the rather fine map. There is also a useful list of the various factions within both Ilmar, itself, and the occupying forces of the fanatically ideological Palleseen, which I’ll return to further below. I don’t think this is simply a case of the novel coming with all the trappings of epic fantasy, but rather that Tchaikovsky is at some level commenting on the components of the genre and providing a kind of cynical and darkly comic but also potentially transformative ‘guide to fantasyland’.
Indeed, at times, the worldbuilding almost strays into sociological or anthropological territory. When the vain self-serving academic, Ivarn Ostravar, ponders at one point whether he ‘could write a paper’ on illegal Allorwen Circle Houses, I found myself slightly upset that Tchaikovsky didn’t take the novel into full documentary mode and include extracts of such academic writing – but that’s probably just me! Instead, Tchaikovsky prefers the implicit social critique of having someone as flawed as Ostravar point out the limitations of the Palleseen’s pursuit of utopian perfection, which leaves them dependent on turning to the demonic services offered by Allorwen exiles to meet their flawed human needs. As mentioned, the Palleseen are fanatical ideologues, organised into orders with ominous-sounding titles such as the School of Correct Speech and the School of Correct Appreciation. Once upon a time, such an obvious depiction of totalitarian zealots would be interpreted as an attack on the political left in general or Soviet-style communism in particular. However, in today’s mad world, the Palleseen’s desire to follow the correct path to perfection might just as easily be seen as a dig at extreme right-wing longtermism. Against such ideologies, Tchaikovsky positions not liberal humanism or some sort of moral resistance but rather the idea of fantasy as a worldview in its own right, as can be seen from the trajectories of the various main characters.
Normally in a review, I might begin by talking about the protagonists of the novel but in the case of City of Lost Chances there are no major character arcs. It is true that the priest, Yasnic, who we are introduced to in the opening chapter, eventually loses God and the street thug, Ruslav, goes on to find God but there is none of the spiritual dimension to this exchange that one might find in a Dostoyevsky story or a Scorsese film; the process is rather more literal than that. On the whole, rather than slowly emerging from fantasy archetypes into the rounded human beings beloved of liberal criticism, Tchaikovsky’s characters find themselves by more fully taking on the roles afforded them within the structures of story. So, for example, Lemya, the student radical, who lives in the same boarding house as Yasnic, becomes more not less stereotypical as the novel progresses, before eventually disappearing fully into the heart of fantasy, possibly never to emerge again. These atypical personal trajectories have led some readers to speculate that the real protagonist of the novel is actually the city of Ilmar itself. However, rather than Ilmar having the specificity of an historic city such as London or Berlin, it seems more the material embodiment of a generic fantasy map, which is another way of saying that if we lived in fantasy, then Ilmar is what it would look like.
In other words, the novel is quite cynical and anti-humanist (I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing). It therefore provides an interesting contrast with Joe Abercrombie’s recent Age of Madness trilogy (2019-2021), which covers a similar theme of revolution – both social and industrial – cynically but is still more recognisably humanist. Of course, in today’s UK, where Machiavellian cutthroat world politics play out within a decaying ancien régime on a daily basis, this sort of stuff is pretty much social realism and the question really is what kind of way do we find to live with these times. In such circumstances, maybe it really is only possible to live at the interface between chaos and order, as a handful of the characters in City of Last Chances manage.
Writing this reminded me of how much I enjoyed the novel. (I’ve always fancied my chances in one of those fantasy-universe universities – after all, they can’t really be any worse than the current UK HE sector). It also must be said that the physical book itself has a very attractive dust cover. All in all, it’s a formidable package but what has the opposition got to offer?
Adam Roberts, The This (Gollancz, 294pp.)
Roberts won this award ten years ago for Jack Glass (2012) but despite having written some excellent novels since, such as Bête(2014) and The Thing Itself (2015), he seemed to have dropped out of award contention. Therefore, I must admit that I was surprised last year by the shortlisting of Purgatory Mount even though it was a novel I enjoyed. Especially since Purgatory Mount was not a straightforward read; not as completely far out as Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014) maybe but certainly not putting its meaning on a plate for the readers. Therefore, even before it became clear that The This was attracting a very positive reception there were signs that Roberts might be coming back into fashion.
Haha: while setting out a framework of this shortlist review, I left a note in yellow highlighter here to *summarise novel* and now I’m wondering exactly how to do this because it is pretty bonkers; probably more difficult to summarise than Purgatory Mount which at least had a clear three-part structure. Robert’s word in advance was this is a Hegel-novel in the same manner that The Thing Itself is a Kant-novel. The first sentence of the novel is ‘In the Bardo subject and object are the same’, a statement that gets regularly repeated at regular intervals throughout Chapter 1 ‘In the Bardo’, which is narrated in the second person. There is also a mysterious character that the ‘you’ of the chapter at first thinks is called Abby Normal but then realises is in fact Abby Solute. So, we’re in the world of Hegelian idealism – look up ‘Subject (philosophy)’ and ‘Absolute Idealism’ on Wikipedia for very short summaries if you feel you need to, but you are probably better off just trying to pick up the idea as you read through the novel. (Ok, I must admit that the novel has caused me to pull my copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit off the shelf, where it was quite happily minding its own business, and decide against my better judgement that I should probably read through from the Preface to the end of the section on Self-Consciousness … but that is just because I’m a masochist and I’ve been meaning to reread the section on Lordship and Bondage again but I digress…). We come back to this point of the relationship between subject and object further on in the novel.
Chapter 2 begins ‘You are Rich’, Rich, real name Alan, being a 39-year-old bachelor living in a flat in Putney, he inherited from his parents, collecting banknotes and writing an ever-growing epic fantasy novel. With most online content machine-written, he relies on niche gigs ‘via Difference Work, the Uber-style app for writers’ for food money. The novel begins with D-work pinging because he is the geographically nearest person (‘690 metres away’) to conduct a ten-minute interview required for a piece (that will be ‘machine polished’) on ‘The This’, a hands-free form of twitter (because the interface is embedded in the roof of the mouth), which he is told by someone who rings him up and calls him ‘Adam’, is not best thought of as a cult. So we are in some sort of (post) postmodern scenario, which is emphasized for the reader by the fact that the bottom quarter of each page of this first chapter is covered in a dense continuous social media feed including all sorts of bad puns, stream of consciousness etc, references to Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Some of these do introduce themes from later on in the novel: ‘@xxxxxxxxxxxx Apr 7 It’s Jekyll and Hyde. Old-school humans are Hyde, the This are Jekyll. Or is it the other way around?’. This question of whether The This is good or bad is central to the book, which could be read as a satire on social media. However, the interview which Adam, er, Rich conducts with Aella Hamilton in the Putney offices of The This, transcends mere satire, as he realises that he is not just ‘speaking to singular-you am I?’. Aella is connected to fellow members of The This in a kind of hivemind, who to counteract ‘the factitious moral burden of solitude’ want ‘to lose the sheet anchor of our individual selves’. But, it transpires, the ultimate success of this project relies on them recruiting Rich.
Chapter 3 is set in the far future; in this respect The This is yet another iteration of an overshoot novel in temporal terms even if not directly linked to climate change. This includes a fantastic articulation of the credo of The This:
We are inevitable […] We live forever […] We are the graveyard in which humanity is buried […] We have erected the mighty pleasure dome and it is us. We are the wind on the sea. We are the stag of seven tines. We are the shining tear of the sun – your kind wrote many stories about such spacecraft and without realising it they were writing about us. Our ships are spears that roar for blood. We are a lure from paradise, we are the tide that drags to death, we are the infant that is reborn, we are the blaze on every hill. We are the queen of every hive.
All I can say is count me in! #teamhivemind
But, of course, Roberts is on the other side (and I guess the whole point of having this chapter here is to make it clear to the reader who the goodies and baddies are supposed to be). So, we go back to Rich and follow his increasingly frantic attempts to avoid absorption by The This. A lot of this is great fun to read and whole sections, such as when Rich goes out for a walk and is accosted by a woman called Emma who is also Aella, are as good as anything Roberts has written (i.e. they’re very very good). Although, having said that, I wanted him to join Rich with Emma and Aella and write the story from within The This: that’s the novel I would really like to read rather than the one we have got. Of course, part of the logic of Robert’s position is that it would be impossible to write the novel from that position because we would lose what makes Rich a self-conscious individual.
And then, just to complicate matters, Rich does join The This after all due to complex plot logic, but at this exact point the story then switches forward a few generations to a future in which ‘Adan’ is at the ‘iPhene emporium’ explaining the trouble with his phene, ‘Elegy’ or ‘Gee’ (she/her): ‘One time I was having sex with my Phene and her face swapped out to Joseph Stalin. She extruded the moustache and everything.’ (Although the novel was published last year, the whole Adan/Gee storyline forms an interesting commentary on the Replika controversy of earlier this year, when hundreds of users were cut off from the ‘erotic role play’ function of their AI companions, see e.g. here and here but also relevant reddit forums). And, from here onwards (i.e. midway through the novel) the real craziness starts. And goes on and on until at last the Owl of Minerva takes flight (another Hegel reference), Abby reappears, and an ingenious time-loop resolution to all the ongoing mysteries is effected, allowing the novel to close on an epiphanic moment of loving this this this this this, which reminded in spirit if not particularity of the ending to Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual (2021).
I think it is fair to say that the novel is a tour de force and it sticks in the mind. No one else would or could have written this ‘this’ and I was variously provoked, teased, amused and entertained throughout. The message is that: ‘You cannot truly love yourself, you can only love another and through that encounter with difference you come to love yourself’. Normally, though, you do find out a bit more about that other than is on offer here. There is lots of Rich/Alan/Adam/Adan and I can’t even remember the name of the other (Caroline, on riffling through the book). Aside from her, Aella and Emma, I’d also like to hear more from Elegy’s point of view – although maybe all 8 of these named characters are part of the same ‘whole new man, or of a whole new woman’ and Roberts is in fact correct to say that in the end life all boils down to ‘everything and infinitude’. But I’m not really sure that they are included. Nor do I buy the cod-contrarian-style disquisition we are subjected to at one point, that we have entered ‘the iron law of the Toycene that kids want their toys to be their friends and adults want to fuck their toys’. Personally, I’d rather get away from nineteenth-century idealism, collapse the subject-object divide, and cut to ‘the queen of every hive’ stage.
As referred to earlier, in his Acknowledgments, Roberts notes that ‘this Hegel-novel follows, and is in some respects a dialogue with, an earlier Kant-novel of mine called The Thing Itself’. While that’s true in many respects, I must confess that the earlier novel I was reminded of while reading it was in fact Jack Glass and this is because while I don’t think The This is his best novel since then (which for me would probably be Bête), I do think it is the first time he has been completely successful again in hitting the sweet spot between high concept and leftfield mystery which won that novel the BSFA Award ten years ago. Thinking about this comparison, led to me taking Jack Glass (which also has a beautiful dust cover) down from the shelf. Opening it, I found a clipping I’d obviously saved of Christopher Priest’s review of the novel for the Guardian (11.08.12). It’s quite fun to reread this after all those years and I think perfectly fair given that the Priest quote ‘a smart and ingenious writer’, which is (the sole endorsement) on the back of the dust jacket of the hardback edition of The This, is taken from this review:
Adam Roberts’s books are highly intelligent, ambitiously written and deal in what Hollywood and the SF world call “high concept” material. His ideas are big and bold and usually quite striking. But the way he tackles this material is in general rather odd […]
The oddness here is the fact that locked-room mysteries, whodunits and so on have already been done to death. So, come to think of it, has that terrible old space fiction stuff. What is a smart and ingenious writer like Roberts up to now?
The answer Priest gives is ‘a lightweight but enjoyable read, commendably different from anything else’. In passing, he compares one of Roberts’s characters to Kryten from Red Dwarf, which is quite an astute judgement on the cultural context of the time. Priest also pulls up Roberts for italicising words, which Roberts has since taken to doing himself when reviewing other writers. I don’t know about lightweight, but Jack Glass was certainly a very entertaining novel. The This is equally entertaining, and I think most would consider it to be very stimulating and thought provoking as well.
One final point concerning Jack Glass is that the choice of back cover quotes is perhaps revealing on how Roberts/Gollancz were positioning his work at the time:
‘Would that half the supposed “literary” novels on the shelves today were as well written, thoughtful and intelligent’ Independent
‘Buy it now before the mainstream literary establishment sweeps Roberts under its wing and tell us he’s not allowed to play out with the nerds any more’ SFX
‘Our most intellectually engaged and literary SF author, crafting sentences the equal of any by Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro’ Financial Times
If there was such a thing as ‘the mainstream literary establishment’, you would have thought, if it stood for anything at all, that it would surely have embraced Bête and The Thing Itself, which are as good as anything published in the UK in the last decade. The fact that it didn’t tells us at least two things. First, that there really isn’t a ‘mainstream literary establishment’ anymore; those hierarchies are gone and they’re not coming back (short of some sort of reactionary dictatorship taking power over cultural production). Second, that Roberts writes in a way that requires an SFnal readership (in the broadest sense). He uses SF conventions, concepts and plotlines in his books and therefore they’re unlikely to work for a readership not attuned in any way to the field (e.g. to get Bête you’ve really got to love the talking cows).
Nevertheless, though, perhaps Roberts went too mainstream with those novels to carry on surfing the wave of SF popularity. They both had unsympathetic middle-aged male protagonists who were perhaps a tad too complain-y for some tastes. Roberts’s work since that point might be seen as an attempt to regain his SF popularity by writing novels with younger and/or female protagonists and working his way back to the high-concept/mystery mix of Jack Glass. It is possible to see The Real-Town Murders (2017), By the Pricking of Her Thumb (2018) and Purgatory Mount as all leading up to The This. In this respect, Roberts has built up his popularity by the sustained output of good work (meaning of course that future scholars will be confronted by The Roberts Authorship Question). Therefore, I would argue that The This is no outsider in the race to win this award and I wouldn’t be too surprised if it came through the middle to win by a head. However, there are other runners and riders in contention, as we shall see in Part Two of this review (which will go up later in the week).
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