The Baillie Gifford Prize 2018 Winner:
Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

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From an outstanding shortlist, Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy has emerged as the winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2018, Britain’s most prestigious literary award of its type. With the prize now almost into its second decade, and carrying a purse of £30,000, Serhii Plokhy joins a select list of former prize luminaries including Antony Beevor, Helen Macdonald and Philippe Sands.

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy is a lucid, chillingly stark unspooling of the day in 1986 when Europe was very nearly rendered uninhabitable. In Serhii Plokhy’s riveting account, the tragedy becomes emblematic of the decline of the Soviet state itself, from the complacency that led to the disaster, to the massive underestimation of its political and human fallout. Sobering and gripping, Plokhy’s account is a powerful synthesis of individual experience and historical analysis, a book that stands as a testimony to the terrible consequences of national hubris.

 

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The Shortlist

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Algorithms: the hidden computational processes that, from the stock market to driverless cars, underpin every aspect of our society. But as algorithms shift toward even moral choices (where one life may be weighted algorithmically over another), mathematician and expert in human behaviour Hannah Fry seeks to establish the true influence, current and future, of the code that dominates and shapes our lives.

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‘It’s a tough call,’ said the Evening Standard, ‘but The Spy and the Traitor may be his best book yet.’ The author of Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat turns in a tale of courage and treachery so compelling it almost reads as an exemplary fiction. The story however of MI6 superspy Oleg Gordievsky is anything but, deceiving his KGB superiors for over a decade and rising to become perhaps the West’s most important intelligence asset.

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What makes a man want to punch another man? This is the question that lies at the heart of Thomas Page McBee’s distangling of masculinity, violence and society, built around the framework of his own transition from woman to man and his training to fight a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden. ‘He resolves his own masculinity crisis by doing the things men often think they’re doing, but so often are not,’ noted the Guardian, ‘listening, asking questions, seeking help, being vulnerable.’

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The British launch of its first war on China in 1839 marked a turning point in the country’s history, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Qing dynasty and laying the groundwork for the nationalism and communism which so dominated the 20th century. As Stephen R. Platt reveals, the background to China’s undoing was just as internal as it was provoked by external forces, helping to undo a warm, long-lasting and lucrative trade relationship between China and the West.

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A lucid, matter-of-fact unspooling of the day in 1986 when Europe was very nearly rendered uninhabitable. In Serhii Plokhy’s account, Chernobyl becomes emblematic of the corrosion and decline of the Soviet state itself, from the cutting of corners that led to the disaster to the massive underestimation of its impact. Soberingly, Plokhy is clear in his exhaustive post-mortem that another Chernobyl is inevitable.

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The definition of hereditary has shifted over the ages, from ancient concepts of passing heirlooms on to our contemporary and highly controversial understandings of genetics. As Carl Zimmer establishes, the reality may be ever yet stranger, a world where genetic information is actually swapped between mother and child and where microbes may play a hidden hand. As gene testing an editing become increasingly off-the-shelf, Zimmer offers an insightful manual to our understanding.

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