The Best Science Fiction Novels of 2012, According to the Clarke AwardsS

I have to admit to mixed feelings about this year's Clarke Award shortlist. On the one hand, it includes some of my favorite authors, including Kim Stanley Robinson, Nick Harkaway and Ken MacLeod. On the other hand, the Clarke Awards have been criticized in the past for honoring only male authors — and this helps fuel the perception that science fiction is by men and for men, and that the only books worth reading are by male authors.

Still, this list does include some of my favorite reads of last year, plus two I've never heard of, which is always a good thing:

Nod by Adrian Barnes (Bluemoose)

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Headline)

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)

It's just a bit sad that when the Hugo Awards are making huge strides towards inclusivity, the Clarke Awards, which are juried and thus less subject to popular sentiment, are still so slanted towards male authors. One notable omission: vN by Madeline Ashby is a fine, challenging science fiction book — but maybe it wasn't published in the UK last year?

Yes, awards have a duty to reward the best books, regardless of the author's gender — but they also have a duty to reach far and to draw from lots of different places. Awards are partly about making a statement about the state of the genre — and having been on a few awards juries in my time, I know that jurors tend to talk about that sort of thing, especially in crafting a shortlist. What an all-male shortlist says about science fiction is, "it's an insular genre aimed at a monolithic audience." Which is not what I believe, or would like to hear.

One of the Clarke jurors, Liz Williams, defends the choice of an all-male shortlist over in the Guardian, in a piece that only leaves me more depressed:

As a feminist, I am opposed to including women writers in shortlists just because they are female: the work has got to hold its own in its field: we can discuss whether that field is a level one or not, but when you're judging a work, you're obliged to deal with what you've got, and to me, that means regardless of any ideological criteria.

This leads us into the wider conversation as to why, despite having a significantly enlarged entry this year (a 36 per cent increase on the 60 books submitted in 2012) we received disproportionately fewer from women, of which many were technically fantasy. We do not have to go far to look for the answer: over the last few years, the publishing industry in both Britain and the US (but particularly in the former) has been commissioning fewer and fewer SF novels by women. The running gag for some years now has been that the industry has had a Highlander approach to women who write SF: there can be only one, at least on contract.

So maybe it is the publishing industry's fault, and not the jurors' — it's still not a thrilling prospect, either way.

Top image: Cover detail of Dark Eden by Chris Beckett.