BSFA Awards Best Novel Shortlist Reviews Postscript

Part One of this review is here.

Part Two of this review is here.

And the winner was City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky, who takes his third BSFA Best Novel Award in four years. At the Awards Ceremony, which can be viewed here (Best Novel at 20.30), Tchaikovsky gave the following speech:

This was very unexpected. I’ve said before that we are in something of a golden age of genre fiction and I think all the shortlists we’ve seen are a stellar cross section of just why science fiction and fantasy is so alive even as one feels the world is turning a vice on all of us. City of Last Chances is a book about inequality and exploitation and corruption and so is unpleasantly relevant to the real world. It’s also a book I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I’ve put a lot of myself into it. It has some of my best characters and scenes and gets its fingernails dirty in a way that my previous work hasn’t. Most of all, I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun writing a book as I have with City of Last Chances. I’ve already handed in a sequel. And I would like to thank everyone for their votes and for giving new books in this setting a shot at a future. Thank you!

So, congratulations to Adrian on the Award!

The speech was quite illuminating. I think he was probably the favourite to win given his showing over recent years. However, I am sure that when the novel came out late in 2022, he wasn’t expecting it to win the BSFA Best Novel Award or even necessarily that it be shortlisted. I certainly didn’t, as I noted in Part One of my review round-up, because it is a fantasy. Well, now it is a worthy addition to a very select handful of fantasy winners of this award. Tchaikovsky also confirmed the book’s relevance to the contemporary world, which presumably drives the harder-edge feel he acknowledges. It obviously has a personal meaning for him. In the original review of the novel that I wrote for ParSec, I commented that one of the characters appears to be a representation of the author himself (but resisted the temptation to describe it as a mediated autofiction or autobiografiction). Furthermore, we have confirmation that City of Last Chances is no longer a standalone. Although I wonder how much of a direct sequel the new book will be, as opposed to a linked work using the same setting and sharing some of the same characters. It also seems as though Tchaikovsky would like to write even more books in this same setting. All of which sounds good to me because I enjoyed City of Last Chances. Maybe there is still a chance that extracts of Ilmari academic writing will appear as found text in some of these? Maybe I should just generate my own anthropological account based on participant observation (i.e. reading) and produce some sort of hybrid fanfic-review? We’ll see … but either way I’m keen on reading an extended series in this setting.

Among the panels I was on at Conversation 2023 (I am writing a con report/reflection), was ‘Who, Why and What do We Award’ at 3pm on Sunday (9 April) with Cheryl Morgan, Nicholas Whyte, Niall Harrison and Gareth Worthington moderating. Among the wide-ranging discussion, we did talk a bit about the relationship between the BSFA Best Novel Award and Clarke Award shortlists, which, as Nicholas pointed out, often overlap to the extent of a book or two. One of the reasons I am writing in depth about the BSFA Best Novel Award this year is in order to use it for a point of comparison to help understand the specific role of the Clarke. The obvious difference, of course, is that the BSFA is voted for by members of the BSFA and of the relevant year’s Eastercon, whereas as the Clarke is juried (with two judges nominated from each of the BSFA and the Science Fiction Foundation, and one from the Sci-Fi London Film Festival). However, the difference in terms of outcome, is that it is difficult for a writer who is not already popular with the electorate to win the BSFA, even if shortlisted, because of the large number of eligible voters involved. This year the electorate was comprised of c.750 BSFA members and 939 con members of whom it is thought just under 800 attended in person (con figures taken from a reply to a post by Caroline Mullan on the Eastercon FB page, 13 April 2023; obviously there is quite a bit of overlap between the two memberships). Whereas once a book is shortlisted for the Clarke, its chance of success is entirely dependent on the deliberations of five people who will all have read it twice by the time the decision was made, thus allowing for a very different dynamic.

So, for example, while I ranked E.J. Swift’s The Coral Bones in first on my ballot, I didn’t expect it to win. There were several factors which meant that, although not impossible, this was always going to be an unlikely outcome. Unless a novel wins outright on first preferences, second and maybe third or even fourth preferences will come into play. While some voters will have read all the novels on the shortlist, there will be plenty who haven’t and they are therefore likely to vote for whatever they have read, which is probably going to be something by one of their favourite authors, or indeed they might just vote by a novel by a favourite writer that they are going to read (but haven’t yet), or indeed a few might just vote for someone they have heard of. So, which of the books on this year’s shortlist have been read the most? I don’t have sales figures, but I did have a look at the average rating and the number of ratings for each book on Goodreads and Amazon (these figures compiled on 31 March 2023):

Goodreads Average Rating:

City of Last Chances: 4.04; 735 ratings (228 reviews)

The Coral Bones: 4.56; 16 ratings (4 reviews)

The Red Scholar’s Wake: 3.34; 954 ratings (305 reviews)

Stars and Bones: 3.68 1,088 ratings (176 reviews)

The This: 3.90; 311 ratings (52 reviews)


City of Last Chances:  4.5; 382 ratings

The Coral Bones: 4.7; 15 ratings  

The Red Scholar’s Wake: 4.3; 62 ratings

Stars and Bones: 4.0; 613 ratings           

The This: 4.1; 196 ratings                       

These figures (number of ratings) are only indicative of relative readership size and probably don’t directly relate to the reading of the BSFA membership and the members of the con. But I think they show us that there were three tiers in play here with City of Last Chances, The Red Scholar’s Wake and Stars and Bones having the biggest readerships, The This sitting in the middle, and The Coral Bones (not surprisingly because Unsung Stories is an independent press) reaching a much smaller audience to date. Of course, these differences will be offset and compensated to some extent by the well-read nature of the electorate from British fandom. However, once we consider that Swift was also the odd one out in not yet having won the award, then we can see that the odds were against The Coral Bones winning. Having said that, the exposure from being shortlisted increases her chances of future success, especially if published by a mainstream press (and we won’t get into the question of ‘what were they thinking?’ in passing up on this novel). It’s also worth noting, in respect of the figures above, the strong ratings for City of Last Chances, which in hindsight represent a good indicator of its success. 

Four former winners out of six shortlisted writers were on the 2004 shortlist but this is the first time that four former winners have made the final five on the shortlist. Is this the sign of a consensus being consolidated? As Nicholas Whyte pointed out on the panel, Tchaikovsky and Powell together represent 50% of all the winners of the award over the past ten years. But this repeated success is not unusual: Ian McDonald won the award three times over the previous decade. I think what this shows us is that the canon of popularity remains rather more stable than that of critical opinion. Indeed, the furore surrounding the failure of McDonald’s Brasyl (unlike his other two BSFA Award winning novels) to be shortlisted for the Clarke Award might be seen as an early indicator of this disparity between the relative stability of popular judgement and critical taste (rather than between popular and critical opinion per se). The purpose of these blog posts is in part to dig into exactly this disparity.

Personally, I am happy that there is no longer any stable hierarchy of critical value because I think that historically it is rooted in universalist assumptions rooted in bourgeois individualism and patriarchal structures. Obviously, that is a large generalisation, which is neither intended to invalidate the work of all past critics nor the practice of criticism itself, which at its best often functions to overcome its underlying assumptions. Rather, the eclipse of the old hierarchies should be taken as an opportunity to enable more liberated and liberating reading practices. The practical defence for having a ‘Canon’ is that it allows readers to find works of value from among the dizzying totality of published material, which is impossible to keep up with or even readily comprehend, let alone read all of. However, in a contained field such as British SFF, there is a space for more plural reading and critical practices to flourish because while the field might be beyond the scope of a single reader, it is at least made collectively comprehensible by reviewers, bloggers, award submission lists and shortlists. As I’ve suggested, this year’s BSFA Best Novel shortlist provides an exhilarating read across a good representation of the range of the contemporary SFF field and my goal is to explore to what extent this product of fandom structures such as the BSFA and Eastercon (which together form what might be thought of as a ‘counter public sphere’), forms the basis for a reading-positive form of criticism which seeks to open rather than close possibilities. This doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting that the BSFA lists should be the soul arbiter of critical value in the field henceforth. For a start, there is an existing crossover relationship with the Clarke Award (in terms of both jury membership and people invested in the award), which means the two awards have the potential for being compared (in terms of submission lists and shortlists) and contrasted (in terms of outcomes), while together providing a means for bringing readers and writers together. And then of course there are all the other awards to be taken into account, some of which I will come back to later in the year…


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