A Sure Bet for This Year’s Philip K. Dick Awards

Pick a nominee, any nominee

How do you choose a winner for a broad-based prize?

For a specific example, how do you compare all the “distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States” in a single year?

I’m not saying the Philip K. Dick Awards are a bad idea, I’m just saying that even the six examples on the shortlist give you no idea of which will be announced the winner on April 15. It’s like asking which fruit in the fruitbowl is the best.

The six—Defekt Nino Cipri (Tordotcom), Plague Birds by Jason Sanford (Apex), Bug by Giacomo Sartori, translated by Frederika Randall (Restless), Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson (Orbit US), The Escapement by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon) and Dead Space by Kali Wallace (Berkley) have almost nothing in common except that two of them feature AIs with the nickname “Bug.”

Dick Awards
‘Plague Birds’ by Jason Sanford.

Generically, narratively and in terms of scope they are quite distinct. There’s a swashbuckling whodunnit with plenty of F- words and a severely damaged protagonist (Dead Space), a space opera inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (Far from the Light of Heaven) a chthonic phantasmagoria based on alternative worlds propelled by grief for a dead child (The Escapement), a satirical novella about working in a futuristic dystopian Ikea (Defekt), a post-dystopian Earth populated by human hybrids (Plague Birds) and an Italian YA story told by a partially deaf-mute educationally-challenged young teen (Bug).

I would personally be tempted to give the prize to Plague Birds for telling a gripping story while world-building and mostly fulfilling its ambitious promises to explain thousands of years of history, decades of conspiracy, and a year of adventure. But, while I felt it was less fully successful, The Escapement is more ambitious in terms of its narrative project and literary practice. And Bug, set in the almost-present Italian countryside, narrated by an entirely untrustworthy protagonist, is wonderfully bizarre. So will the judges give marks for difficulty?

If it’s just a question of following through an idea, then the novella Defekt is a hilarious and beautifully realized indictment. The premise: What if an Ikea of the future were able to source its products—and its staff—from clone-growth in alternate worlds? The consistency: every item has realistically daft faux-Scandinavian names. But it’s the second in a series, so how does that affect its prize-worthiness?

Dead Space and Far from the Light of Heaven are both, if you squint a little, whodunnits in remote, isolated settings. Tade Thompson writes in the latter’s Afterword that he thinks it is not space opera. But Far from the Light of Heaven is at least space opera-adjacent, with a whole slew of Afro-futurist aspects in it, not to mention ghosts and crazy miners.

Dead Space, by Kali Wallace.

The former features a reluctant protagonist struggling against the chains of a mega space corporation. Hester Marley is an AI programmer that the corporation has pieced together with help from many artificial prosthetics after a near fatal accident. The novel contains some lovely musings about the natures of humans, AIs and cyborgs. Along with portraying central characters who don’t fall into binary categories of gender or sexuality, Dead Space doesn’t glorify violence which is a relief in a form that historically valued masculine strength. This would be my second choice for a prize.

I’ve taken pains not to spoil these books for you, but I hope you have a good idea of what they are like. Comparing these apples and oranges is a thankless task, so I’d say your only sure bet for the Philip K. Dick awards is just to read any of the finalists that take your fancy!

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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

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