by Alison Flood)
From Kameron Hurley's story of a womb-selling bisexual bounty hunter to Ann Leckie's starship AI downloaded into the corpse of a soldier, the shortlists for this year's British Science Fiction Association's awards have gone beyond "the usual roll call of white middle-aged men".
Announced on Wednesday morning, the BSFA best novel prize pits Hurley's God's War – which opens with the attention-grabbing line, "Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert" – against Leckie's debut Ancillary Justice, in which a hive-mind artifical intelligence must animate her one remaining "corpse soldier" to take revenge against her enemies. The line-up – which is voted for by the BSFA's membership of fans, authors and publishers – also features Evening's Empires by Paul McAuley, Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell and The Adjacent by Christopher Priest.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, and the Booker-shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, just failed to make the final shortlist, according to awards chief Donna Scott.
Last year both the BSFA and the Arthur C Clarke shortlists were entirely made up of male writers, a gender disparity that prompted calls to increase the visibility of women in science fiction.
"Let's be real. We're two out of five on the best novel shortlist, which isn't even parity," said Hurley of this year's selection. "So I'm not going to hop up and down like 'rah-rah no more sexism!' But it's better than we've seen in a while, and in no small part because both God's War and Ancillary Justice are core genre novels that earned a lot of love and support from the science fiction community. Every inch was earned."
A review in the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons said God's War arrived into the debate around sexism in science fiction "like a live grenade, lobbed with abandon and not a little mischief". Nyx, found the reviewer, is "a thoroughly unlikeable, but wholly independent, female Conan. Actually, that's wrong: Nyxnissa would quite clearly kick Conan's ass. In her own words, 'Women can fight as well as fuck, you know'. Coarse and inelegant, but bold and pungent: Nyx's retort might be this punchy, refreshing, and imperfect novel's grating, gutsy epigram. Just what the genre ordered."
Ancillary Justice, meanwhile, is "hugely ambitious", found the Guardian, tackling " gender identity, imperialism, war crimes and more", and succeeding "brilliantly in telling a fast-paced, moving and intellectually satisfying story of love and vengeance".
Beukes said it was "fantastic to see so many women writers on the major genre award shortlists announced so far … particularly writing the kind of hard SF that is traditionally (wrongly) perceived as being a bit of a boy's club". Last week, the Kitschies shortlisted both Ozeki and Anne Carson for the Red Tentacle award.
"What does make me happy is that it seems that all the debate on blogs and social media about how women writers are perceived, reviewed, published and nominated for awards seems to have actually had an effect in the real world," said Beukes. "Or maybe we've just had a bumper crop of awesome this year. I'd like to think that the way we talk about this stuff matters and I'm thrilled to see such talented female writers getting recognition alongside their equally talented male peers."
The short fiction shortlist for the BSFAs was entirely made up of women writers, it was also revealed, with Spin by Nina Allan, Selkie Stories Are For Losers by Sofia Samatar, Saga's Children by EJ Swift and Boat in the Shadows Crossing by Tori Truslow all competing for the prize.
Donna Scott said it was "brilliant to see some exciting new names make the shortlist", particularly following controversy last year over nominations which "looked very white and middle-aged". "This year's shortlist for best novel for example allows us to focus on a few names from outside the usual roll call of white middle-aged men whose names continue to dominate the field," she said. "Science fiction as a genre is still a little skewed towards male writers in terms of the numbers of submissions to publishers, but the women are there. Just a few years ago, I could think of only one female science fiction writer who had a UK novel publishing deal, but there are more now, and there is a clamouring among fans to read something new. We want different voices and perspectives. But the writing must also be excellent. The short fiction category (this year, all female) shows women are there, and more independent publishing outlets are also key to allowing fans exposure to their work."
The winners, voted for by members, will be announced at the Satellite4 Eastercon convention in Glasgow, on 20 April.