China Miéville excepted, the finalists for this year’s best SF novel have one thing in common: mainstream invisibility

In case you haven’t spotted it so far, here’s the shortlist for this year’s Hugo Award for best novel: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest; The City & The City by China Miéville; Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson; Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente; Wake by Robert J Sawyer; and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Last year’s shortlist saw a dust-up led by SF writer Adam Roberts, who didn’t think the books were good enough. It remains to be seen how this one goes down, but from the viewpoint of the more casual SF reader like me, the list has done its job. It has brought some otherwise hidden books into the limelight.

A quick Google search shows that only The City & The City has received plentiful mainstream review coverage, along with a few mentions of Canadian Robert J Sawyer’s book in Canada. (Significantly, none have been mentioned in the New York Times.) As usual, this lack of coverage says more about the mainstream press than the books in question. Why Jonathan Safran Foer’s decision to eat no meat or Ian McEwan’s discovery that global warming may not be to the universal benefit of mankind should merit so many more column inches than these intriguing books is a question I can’t answer …

What I can say is that – at first glance, at least – all the books seem interesting enough to merit more attention.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker is not the only steampunk book on the list. Although I can’t help wondering how long before the boiler blows on the overheated sub-genre, there’s no denying it provides some fine conceits. How’s the following for a publisher’s description? “At the start of the Civil War, a Russian mining company commissions a great machine to pave the way from Seattle to Alaska and speed up the gold rush that is beating a path to the frozen north. Inventor Leviticus Blue creates the machine, but on its first test run it malfunctions, decimating Seattle’s banking district and uncovering a vein of Blight Gas that turns everyone who breathes it into the living dead.” Yes! It’s “pure mad adventure” according to boing boing and that sounds good to me.

The City & The City by China Miéville

If the quality of the one book that I’ve read from the shortlist is anything to go by, this should be a vintage year. China Miéville has set a hard-boiled detective thriller in a city called Beszel that has the strange distinction of being in the same place as another city called Ul Qoma. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is, but wrapping your brain around the strangeness is all part of the pleasure and challenge of the book. Imagine The Wire with added weirdness and less over-acting. It pushes up against the boundaries of possibility to provoke reassessment of our own reality. It has a few rough edges – but only as a result of flinging itself so hard at the doors of perception.

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson

Previous Hugo winner Robert Charles Wilson’s 13th novel has the steampunk-inspired setting of a world after peak oil, where technology has retreated to pre-20th century levels and the United States is dominated by the Dominion Of Jesus Christ on Earth (think the Catholic church, only even worse). It features the deliberately florid narration of the titular hero’s adventures in a war against the Dutch (of all people). It’s a 22nd-century novel, written in 19th-century style that has direct bearing on the present day, and Cory Doctorow says it’s: “politically astute, romantic, philosophical, compassionate and often uproariously funny.”

Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente

Palimpsest is “a sexually transmitted city”. Bits of its map are transferred from lover to lover in the form of tattoos – and people are only able to enter those parts that appear on their body. Those that want to get around Palimpsest properly have to find “sequential lovers” who link up to their map. It’s a setting that might out-weird even China Miéville and it’s undeniably ingenious – although first glimpses suggest an over-use of adjectives: “They wear extraordinary uniforms: white and green scales laid one over the other, clinging obscenely to the skin, glittering in the spirelight.” Yet, the online reviews I’ve read suggest that this clotted-cream approach just adds to the richness in the long run.

Wake by Robert J Sawyer

A blind teenage maths genius undergoes an operation to recover her sight – and when she wakes up discovers that she can also see the electronic signals of the World Wide Web. She does so just in time to help her perceive a new consciousness, the world’s first digital intelligence – as it comes to life on the internet. This is supposedly a return to the hard science fiction of the old school, blending theories from pure science with imaginative speculation. The Canadian National Post says that Sawyer has put together: “a daunting quantity of fact and theory from across scientific disciplines and applied them to a contemporary landscape… He paints a complete portrait of a blind teenage girl, and imagines in detail – from scratch – the inside of a new being.” You can read a big chunk of it here.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi  

The Windup Girl is a “New Person” – a being engineered to service the pleasures of sex tourists in a future version of Bangkok where bio-terrorism has become a tool for corporate profit – and wealth is measured in calories. The extracts here suggest that Bacigalupi doesn’t flinch from the brutal implications of either side of this premise. It sounds disturbing and profound.

Details about voting can be found here along with information on nominations in all the other award categories. Voting ends midnight on 31 July. I’m all agog. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds