Four of the best science fiction books from 34 years of the Arthur C. Clarke Awards
Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel, takes us on a journey into the impossible through four winning SF titles.
If you’re reading this, that means we successfully announced the 34th winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature last night, Wednesday 23 September, and things went more or less to plan.
It also means we are now into our planning for the mini anniversary that will be the 35th award presentation in 2021 – a year that also marks my own 15th anniversary as the award’s director.
I could now dive into a drawn-out explanation of the Clarke Award and what it’s like to read fantastic science fiction for a living, but I thought it might be more interesting (for you and I) to do this through a shortlist of my own books.
These four books – two fewer than the official Clarke Award shortlist of six – for me illustrate some of the key ideas and preconceptions around how a book award works and what, and who, they should be for.
This isn’t a list of my personal favourite Clarke Award winners, nor of the best science fiction books all-time, but rather some of those books that have most informed my own insights into the inner workings of literary prizes, from my first close encounter with the Clarke through to our most recent winner.
They’ll appeal to lovers of science fiction movies and newcomers to the genre alike.
So, ‘open the pod bay doors, please, HAL’ and let’s dock the first title:
The Handmaid's Tale
Clarke Award winner, 1987
It was the first ever winner of the Clarke Award, and the shadow of Atwood’s seminal creation, the state of Gilead, still casts its dystopic shadow across both the award and the wider world today.
For a fledging award, it immediately crystallised opinions around what exactly a science fiction award could, and should, be.
Atwood famously disavowed herself from the science fiction canon, locating the SF genre firmly in 'squids in space' territory, and noting that the power of her novel came not from the ‘what if?’ of imagination so much as a combination of real world examples.
Every element of female oppression in the novel has a real world cultural precedent, and Gilead is pure synthesis, not invention or prediction – the popular supposed cornerstones of science fictional concern.
Hope lies, perhaps, in the idea that, lacking or even denying imagination, authoritarian regimes also lack the capacity to evolve and thus ultimately contain the seeds of their own eventual disintegration.
- Listen to Andy Weir, author of the best-selling novel and film The Martian, talk about his new creation Artemis and how he crafts believable sci-fi worlds
- Subscribe to the Science Focus Podcast on these services: Acast, iTunes, Stitcher, RSS, Over
Atwood’s own public stance towards science fiction would soften considerably over the years (and indeed may have originated more from enthused PRs keen to avoid a shelving in the disreputable corner of the bookstore) and indeed she would later reveal herself as a life-long squid fan after all in her collection of essays, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.
Still, the tensions over defining a genre as slippery and speculative as science fiction continue, especially within the domain of literary gatekeepers. We are a prize for the best science fiction novel of the year. But what actually is science fiction, what is best, what is a novel for that matter?
In my humble opinion, some of the gates are still standing strong, but the surrounding walls have long since crumbled and the citizens of Literaryland and Futureville now enjoy a lively two-way trade in ideas, concerns and techniques. A buzzing dialogue that for the most part drowns out the distant sound of tutting from the ivory towers and occasional orbiting rocket ships of yore.
Clarke Award winner, 1994
My first encounter with the Arthur C. Clarke Award took place in a small branch of WH Smith’s in Lancaster when I picked up a copy of Jeff Noon’s Vurt.
Reviewed by the New Statesman as ‘Too beautiful for bikers, too harsh for hippies’, Vurt is part low-res street-smart Cyberpunk, part Alice Through The Mirrorshades, and remains one of the key texts of the virtual world by virtue of its emphasis on the individual's experience over the enabling technology.
At the time the award was perhaps not important enough to merit a mention on the front cover, but turning the book over to read the blurb there it was, ‘Winner of the 1994 Arthur C. Clarke Award,’ in small black type, bottom left just above the bar code.
That copy is on my shelf still (naturally now personalised with a signature from Jeff) and it’s a reminder for me of the power of awards outside of the circles of those who know and talk books all the time, and into that wider world of general readers.
The book was already on my cultural radar thanks to word of mouth recommendations from trusted friends, but it was these seven words and one crucial initial C. that tipped me over from curious yellow browser to confirmed solid green-for-go book buyer.
I still remember picturing what a Clarke Award ceremony night might be like – an unlikely version of swooping spotlights, glittering silvery dresses and a musical interlude performed by a glowing red light bulb – but what struck me more then, and stays with me now, was the recommending power of awards.
A lot is made of that moment when a collective cultural consciousness decides an award has somehow got it wrong, but less is made of that subtle power to encourage readers to try something new: a good award is foremost a counterbalance to the tendency of people to adhere to familiar habits.
There will always be a Vurt sized space on my bookshelves regardless of its award-winning status, and it remains a go-to favourite re-read of mine. More than that though, it’s a reminder that awards shouldn’t aspire to replace personal favourites with a slate of their own (no one sneaks into your home sci-fi Santa style to swap out all your signed first editions with a new set of Clarke Award shortlists every year after all) but rather to offer different perspectives and, crucially, an open invitation to explore.
M. John Harrison
Clarke Award winner, 2007
Nova Swing was the winning novel in my first year as award director; not that I knew this as I took to the stage in front of a ceremony audience of expectant publishers, authors and science fiction fans.
Back in 2007 the final judging decisions were made on the day of the presentation, and the envelope tucked discreetly next to our trophy on the lectern in front of me was, in my reality at least, a seething bundle of quantum potentials and chaotic uncertainty.
This was only fitting given that the novel itself concerned a space/time anomaly known as the Kefahuchi Tract crash-landing into the alien city of Saudade. A place that mixed the slow-burn echoes of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (based on the novel Roadside Picnic) with flavours of urban future noir, and where the subsequent crashed ‘event zone’ of the novel becomes a focal point for both unstable realities and unreliable narratives.
- Listen to theoretical physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili talk about his first novel, Sunfall, a science fiction thriller set in the year 2041
- Subscribe to the Science Focus Podcast on these services: Acast, iTunes, Stitcher, RSS, Over
This moment stays with me, not only because I was as eager as the audience to get through my welcome speech and find out the winner, but also because of the way it spoke to the uncanny power of awards to accumulate multiple meanings and interpretations themselves.
For every shortlist, there’s a confident reviewer willing to speculate on ‘what the judges must have been thinking, and why they were wrong,’ and what in an ideal alternate timeline would have been the correct book to have scooped the prize that year.
Speculation was rife back in 2003 – well before I first joined its organising committee – when the prize was taken by Christopher Priest’s The Separation. The scuttlebutt I remember from the after party was all about how M. John Harrison’s Light (a book set in the same universe as Nova Swing) was the obvious real winner.
While Priest has famously disagreed with the Clarke judges in different years, you would hardly expect a winner to agree with scurrilous rumour and hand back their trophy and prize money, and I have no doubt the judges made a great decision.
A lot of award conversation is really all about speculating on what was said in, to quote Hamilton, ‘the room where it happens’.
I was lucky to get a last minute invite to that afterparty, so at the time I hadn’t read either of the two books. But I did know that Priest’s masterwork was most definitely The Prestige, now also an excellent film by Christopher Nolan, a book that was on the Clarke Award shortlist in 1996.
If Priest was the wrong winner in 2003, then The Prestige was surely the deserved winner of 1996. But, no – instead the prize that year went to Paul McAuley’s Fairyland.
So, clearly we need to go back in time and adjust that wrong too, yes?
More book recommendations:
- The Science Focus Book Club: September 2020
- Natural Selection: 5 of the best books on evolution
- AI: 5 of the best must-read artificial intelligence books
My point here isn’t to challenge judging decisions but rather to address the pulled thread that is speculating on what might have been in awards lore and trying to somehow correct ‘mistakes’ made in past years. I often see reviews that refer to how because the judges made decision X one year, the following cohort will naturally seek to course-correct and make decision Y this year.
The truth however is both simpler and less predictable. With new judges every year comes a new set of priorities and, given the Clarke Award quite rightly declines to specify any single definition of science fiction, the responsibility to collectively decide what science fiction means falls to them today rather than relying on past precedent.
“May the best book win!” Sir Arthur messaged me as a welcome in my first year.
His only real request was that, just because the award trophy bore his name, there should be no compulsion that the winning books bear any resemblance to his own.
The Old Drift
Clarke Award winner, 2020
A new winner and a new book for me to recommend!
It’s traditional for us to invite our previous year’s winning author back to open the golden envelope and announce our new best science fiction novel and, while 2020 has been a most unpredictable year, there was no exception on that point at least.
Revealing the winning title via Twitter rather than on stage, Tade Thompson, author of 2019 winner Rosewater, said:
"The Old Drift is, to me, the great African novel of the twenty-first century. The scale, the characters, the polish and lyricism of the passages all conspire to tell an unforgettable tale.
“At last, a book that acknowledges that the African lives with the fantastic and mundane. At last, an African book of unarguable universality. Namwali Serpell has created something specifically Zambian and generally African at the same time. The Old Drift is everything fiction should be, and everything those of us who write should aspire to."
Echoing Tade’s introduction, Dr Andrew M. Butler, Chair of Judges, added:
“Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift is, as one of our judges put it, “stealth SF”, with inheritance and infection at its heart. She has created an extraordinary family saga which spans eras from Cecil Rhodes to Rhodes Must Fall, and beyond.
“It is a timely novel which interrogates colonialism from within and points to the science fictionality of everyday events. Our pandemic-ravaged world reminds us how connected our world has been for the last century or more – and this book points to the global nature of science fiction.”
While the judges began their deliberations back in 2019, as the globe discovers its interconnectedness in profoundly new ways in 2020, a book that speaks to the global nature of science fiction, past, present, and future, feels like a title for our times and perhaps a hopeful note for the year to come.
The judging debate on our 35th shortlist has yet to begin, but I hope we’ll present something more inspirational than six slices of dystopian pandemic when the time comes to make our announcements.
That might sound impossible right now, but as Sir Arthur himself famously said:
“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.”
In the meantime, if you need a good sci-fi book recommendation to keep you going, we’re here for you.