BOOK REVIEW / Sharp to the touch: David V Barrett on the Arthur C Clarke award and this year's winner, Jeff Noon's hard-edged Vurt (Ringpull)

IN comparision with the Booker and the Whitbread, the Arthur C Clarke Award certainly doesn't bring much wealth ( pounds 1,000). But it is still the biggest award in the world for a science fiction novel. The cash and the trophy, an engraved bookend, are donated annually by Arthur C Clarke, and were presented last Wednesday by Helen Sharman OBE, Britain's only astronaut, to the author of the best new science fiction novel published in the UK last year.

The six judges were Catie Cary and Chris Amies, representing the British Science Fiction Association; Maureen Speller and Mark Plummer for the Science Fiction Foundation, whose huge library was recently resited at Liverpool University; and Dr Jeff Kipling and Dr John Gribbin, for the International Science Policy Foundation, a body of scientists who study the effects of science on society. My job, as non-voting chairman, was to help these six opinionated experts to agree.

It was a very diverse shortlist. Three of the novels are set on other planets. A Million Open Doors by John Barnes (Millennium) is a stylish novel about the social and economic consequences of travelling faster than light. Ammonite, a first novel by British author Nicola Griffith (HarperCollins), shows how women manage perfectly well on a planet with no men. The Broken God by David Zindell (HarperCollins) is a study of philosophy and religion on a beautiful ice- bound planet.

The other three were set on Earth, but on three quite different Earths. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (Roc / Penguin) is both a cyberpunk adventure and an intriguing study of the vital importance of language. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick (Millennium) is a fantastical tale of alchemy in action, on a version of Earth where magic is studied as a science.

The winner is set on the Earth that most closely resembles our own. Vurt, a startling first novel by Jeff Noon, has become the flagship book from the new Manchester publisher Ringpull (a company run almost entirely by ex- Waterstone's staff). A psychedelic romp through a grittily convincing near-future Manchester, Vurt mixes a virtual reality of shared dreams with a painful personal quest, a youth searching for his younger sister-lover, lost in the virtual world. It's a hard-edged book, with moments of pure poetry. Imagine a housing estate with unemptied bottle banks:

'When the banks were full, and overflowing, still they came, breaking bottles on the pavements and the stairs and the landings. This is how the world fills up. Shard by shard, jag by jag, until the whole place is some kind of glitter palace, sharp and painful to the touch.'

The complexity of plotting, the deep characterisation, and the range of emotions were impressive in each of the shortlisted books. There are bound to be some critics who will say (as they've said in several of the last eight years) that the judges have chosen the wrong book. Without in any way diminishing the other five, I don't think so. I must stress that I'm not speaking for the judges; this is not a policy statement, just my own personal view.

Each of the others is a good, sound SF novel, with many virtues. (So were several other books which didn't make it onto the shortlist.) But Vurt is a bold choice. It's refreshing, disturbing and original - 'sharp and painful to the touch.' It's risky, and the novel itself is about taking risks. All fiction should take risks - especially science fiction. But as more and more of the major publishing conglomerates' lists are effectively selected by accountants rather than by editors, more and more safe books are being published. I applaud the author and the publisher, of course, but also the judges.