The Best Fiction Books » Science Fiction

The Best Science Fiction of 2023: The Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist

recommended by Tom Hunter

Venomous Lumpsucker: A Novel by Ned Beauman


Venomous Lumpsucker: A Novel
by Ned Beauman


Every year, the judges of the Arthur C Clarke Award select the best sci-fi novels of the previous twelve months. We asked prize director Tom Hunter to talk us through the six science fiction books that made the 2023 shortlist—including a space opera romance and a high-concept action thriller that has already won the most prestigious award in Francophone literature.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Venomous Lumpsucker: A Novel by Ned Beauman


Venomous Lumpsucker: A Novel
by Ned Beauman

Buy all books

Has 2023 been a good year for science fiction?

I think it has. In fact, I might go further and suggest that it has been a good few years for science fiction literature, both from a Clarke Award perspective and more broadly. Using the range of science fiction awards as a measure, we can see a strong current of diversity running across the genre, and a range and scope of storytelling that is truly inspiring; and, of course, you only have to look back to our winning novel of 2022, Deep Wheel Orcadia, a verse-novel written in English and the Orkney dialect, to see precisely how original and creative contemporary science fiction can be.

Looking specifically at our own shortlist for 2023, all six of our nominated authors are new to our lists. Two of them, Lucy Kissick and Tom Watson, are debut novelists, and books have been submitted to our judging panel from across the publishing industry. I think this last point is especially important for measuring the health of the field as more imprints bring their own specialisms and interests into the mix. Editors have more comparisons for the purposes of pitching new books and authors to their own sales teams and book buyers, and the opportunity for readers to find great science fiction expands from a specific section of a bookstore to literature at large.

If you’re reading this article as someone new to science fiction I don’t think you could have timed your arrival any better than right now!

Did the judges notice any trends among this year’s submissions? What’s fashionable in science fiction in 2023?

We’re always cautious about talking about trends for several reasons. First, our judging panel is different every year, so not only are we receiving a lot of very different books every year, they are also being reviewed and discussed by a different cohort of award judges. That said, I think this year’s shortlist is a good introduction to some of the bigger themes and conversations underway within the science fiction space, and I’ll aim to talk to some of those points as we discuss each book.

More broadly, though, one major project we have is the public release of all of our submissions data every year, so people can get a full sense of the year in UK science fiction publishing for themselves. This is all available online via our Medium blog. We can use the diversity of authors being submitted as a lens to look at equity, diversity and inclusion issues within the publishing industry, and reflect that in our own efforts to call in books from across the full spectrum of the field.

“This year’s shortlist is a good introduction to some of the bigger themes and conversations underway within the science fiction space”

You’ll also be able to get a sense of the challenge our judges face from these submission lists. This year for example, with just under 100 books received, there were over 988 million possible different combinations of titles that could have come together to make our final shortlist.

It always makes me smile when commentators talk about such-and-such a shortlist decision being ‘obvious’ or ‘crowd-pleasing’ or deliberately aiming for controversy to gain publicity (not something we’ve ever done and also very, very hard to do anyway, by the way) when I know that even I have rarely been right in my predictions for the final shortlist, and I get to sit in the room where it happens!

Walk us through the books shortlisted for the 2023 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction, starting with Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman. What is it about, and why do you admire it?

So, this is where I can start talking about trends in depth. This book is set in a near future where human-led environmental degradation and climate catastrophe are the central focus of the plot, and the eponymous lumpsucker is just one of the many critically endangered species being ruthlessly traded for extinction credits (a tradable stock-like asset companies acquire specifically in order to legally cover themselves should their resource extraction terminate a species).

If that brief description sounds brutal, I can only agree. This is a dark, satirical, deeply angry book about our species. This is a book where the characters are deliciously unlikeable, the contempt for our powers-that-be is palpable, and the prospects for the future of our planet negligible; at least in terms of that narrow goldilocks zone required for sustaining the civilisations of carbon-based bipeds like ourselves.

It’s also eminently readable, oddly hopeful at times, and very, very funny. I’d be tempted to compare Ned Beauman’s humour here to our sci-fi satirist grandmaster Douglas Adams, or maybe his evil twin.

Beauman was longlisted for the Booker Prize for an earlier novel, The Teleportation Accident, and was picked out as one of Granta’s best young British novelists in 2013. Is Venomous Lumpsucker a work of literary fiction as well as science fiction?

Science fiction is often called the literature of ideas, so yes absolutely I think we can make that claim. That said, however, I also think the conversation or clash between what is ‘literary’ and what is ‘science fiction’ is an argument that has raged as long as our genre has existed, and is perhaps one we should strive to evolve beyond wherever we can. When I first became involved with the Clarke Award, a big part of the conversation around our shortlists every year was precisely located in that tension between the literary and the core of the genre. While that conversation is likely to keep going in various human outposts until some point around the heat-death of the universe, I also genuinely think it has moved on.

One sign of that is the publishing industry’s own willingness to cross-categorise books more—a decision that is doubtless as commercial as it is editorial if it means more book sales!—which is one of the reasons we’ve seen our submissions double in the past ten years or so. Put simply, more publishers are happy for their books to be considered science fiction, and you can see that in those shortlisted and winning titles from recent years proudly displaying the Clarke Award sigil on their covers and in their marketing blurbs.

And coming back to trends again for a moment, I think that convergence is only going to continue and that the global challenges of human-led climate crisis, viral pandemics, resource scarcity, migration, and so forth are all topics we’re increasingly seeing explored by authors of every kind. They say write what you know, and so much of what we know now is on this—hopefully reversible—trend.

And, of course, the minute you set your work even a few moments into the future, you are writing a form of science fiction!

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard is the next science fiction book that made the 2023 shortlist; it sounds like a lot of fun. Space pirates, a marriage of convenience, interstellar war—there’s a lot going on. Tell us more.

So, first I wanted to go back to an earlier point I made about this being the first time all six of these authors have been shortlisted for the Clarke Award, which is true but doesn’t mean that they are new to science fiction, or indeed other awards. Aliette is a fantastic author, and one I have long expected to see shortlisted here by the Clarke Award, and the fact she hasn’t been already perhaps speaks more to how much she moves across the breadth of science fiction and fantasy in her work.

This book though, as you say, is absolutely all-caps SCIENCE FICTION. It is space opera, with an emphasis on the operatic although it has a very human centre.

What do you mean by that?

A convenient criticism of science fiction is that it often sacrifices the human in favour of the grand sweep of ‘big events’ or long explanations of warp drives, worm holes, parallel universes, and the like. I’m not sure those criticisms are based on any science fiction actually being written or read these days, but what a book like The Red Scholar’s Wake tells us more than anything is that science fiction can be fun and thematically serious and well-crafted while easy to lose yourself in all at the same time.

If there’s one book on this year’s list that really speaks to the joy of contemporary science fiction, and remind us why we first fell in love with the genre and all its most popular tropes while still being highly original and distinctly voiced, this is that book.

Is it unusual to combine sci-fi with romance?

This is a great question, and an important one as well, I think, as we consider all of the different modes that science fiction can potentially take.

It’s worth noting that before the term science fiction became the popular way to define our field, a previous term was ‘science-‘ or ‘scientific romance’. It’s also worth noting that the term romance had different contextual meanings then as well, so I don’t want to overlabour this point to the err of real sci-fi historians, but no I don’t think it is unusual to see science fiction combining with romance or other genre tropes at all. Science fiction is a vigorously hybrid genre, which perhaps explains its continued success, and is very capable of having its tropes adapt and merge with other narrative approaches. Just think of how many of our classic science fiction narratives are built upon the plots of other genres—for example, detective fiction.

Ah yes, I love China Miéville’s The City and the City. That’s a proper noir, a moody murder investigation in a strange world.

Jumping forward to present day, I also think we are seeing something of a trend towards more science fiction books wearing their romance elements on their sleeves (and their cover jackets). For me, this connects with the ongoing diversification of voices writing science fiction and the call from readers, echoed by editors, for stories where they can see themselves represented. This goes beyond romance, of course, but I might suggest a growing interest from readers in stories that are set on the intergalactic stage but where plots are driven by interpersonal considerations and relationships rather than the machinations of evil empires or invading aliens. The message really is that good science fiction is always more than the sum of its component parts!

Great, yes. Let’s talk about Plutoshine by Lucy Kissick, the third book on your 2023 science fiction shortlist. 

So, when we’re in the call for submissions phase of the award asking publishers for books, we pay a lot of attention to what’s out there, who’s talking about what, to make sure we get every book we possibly can for our judges. One thing I’ve learnt is that the more people from different parts of the science fiction community enthuse about a book to me, the more likely it is to also appeal to our judges. I saw this in the early days of publication for Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which of course went on to win not only the Clarke Award but a whole slew of other major science fiction prizes as well.

I can’t guarantee that we’ll see the same for Plutoshine, of course, but I would say that the enthusiasm for Lucy’s book that I’ve seen took me right back to that moment with Ann in 2013 and 2014, and I’m already looking forward to her future books!

The New Scientist said that it was “worth the admission fee for the fantastical depictions of Pluto alone.” Is there a lot of rich, descriptive writing?

And now we get to the ‘why’ of why this book has some great buzz about it! It’s surprising, given science fiction’s identification with space, that more of it isn’t set within our home solar system. Or maybe it isn’t as the pace of scientific discovery around those worlds most immediately beyond our own is now so advanced it’s a brave author who is going to hinge their plot on a world that might be redefined in real life before their book even hits the shelves.

Either way, when a book like Plutoshine does comes out I think people automatically notice it more both because of that relative difference to so much intergalactic science fiction and also because our human curiosity about our solar system remains even if outside of the realms of fiction its more usually the robots who get to do all the actual space exploring right now!

I think Pluto has also held a unique place in our planetary—or dwarf planetary—fascination precisely because of its distance from us and its unstable categorisation as a celestial body. For writers, I can only imagine how much resonance there must be with it being the namesake of the Roman god of the underworld.

So, you have here a twin challenge of a world that exists and we are learning more about all the time alongside a readership who is not only keen to read solar system-based science fiction and is, in all likelihood, going to be just as up on the research as you are. What to do?

Science fiction historically has often been criticised for its cardboard characters and emphasis on technical plotting—the infodump—versus other modes of fiction. Now, we might say that’s unfair, but as creators, editors and fans we also learn from that conversation, and just as with any Earth-bound literary work, the world we create and the characters we populate it with hinges on the connection a writer can make to the imagination of their readers. The spell that makes it real, as it were. Here Lucy makes her Pluto every bit as much a rich and evocative character as Dickens’ London, Atwood’s Gilead or, looking beyond our own planet once again, Herbert’s Arrakis.

Next, let’s turn to The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter. This book has quite the reputation; it won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2020, and has since sold over a million copies on the continent. I just read it myself during a summer holiday—it unfolds like a Hollywood action movie.

Right, so I’ve tried to talk about all of our shortlisted books in ways that will give readers an insight into the kinds of books they are and what made them appealing to our judges without moving into spoiler territory, and I’m going to have to be extra careful with these next three books!

There’s a high-concept plot trigger here which I can talk about: the ‘anomaly’ of the title relates to an inexplicable event whereby a plane and all onboard are duplicated. One plane lands as normal, the other three months later, but other than that small fact they are identical. The repercussions from this, told across a multi-viewpoint narrative, the attempts to understand what happened and to uncover if indeed such an anomaly may have occurred before, are what drives this book, and indeed its million-plus readers to find out what happened.

To say more would be to say too much, but I can say this is a book that garnered a lot of discussion from our judging panel just as it has driven conversations all around the world.

How often have you seen translated fiction on your shortlists? Is it common for sci-fi to find foreign-language audiences?

There is a huge global appetite for science fiction and whole scenes we are barely aware of here in the English-speaking parts of the world, although I am glad that this is another trend that is definitely shifting. Shout out to all those editors, anthologists, translators, and authors working to make that happen. Another recent work in translation from our own shortlists I would wholeheartedly recommend is Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, and I’d also encourage readers to seek out an increasing range of short fiction anthologies focusing on either works in translation or original works in English from international authors in China, the African continent and elsewhere on Planet Earth.

The Coral Bones by E. J. Swift, the next book on the shortlist for the 2023 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction, is also an environmental book about extinction. This one is set around the Great Barrier Reef, over three distinct time periods. 

This might sound strange, but I had a feeling this book might be shortlisted even before it was written or I’d ever heard of it. Let me explain: E.J. Swift is a UK author who has been on the Clarke Award radar since she first began her career, and her books have been discussed and praised by many of our previous judging panels.

Now, the members of our judging panel change every year so you can never predict exactly how they might make their decisions from one year to the next, but when you’ve been doing this award thing as long as I have, you can sometimes make good on the odd prediction or two. To that end, I’ve long suspected it was only a matter of time until E.J graced our shortlists. When you combine that with this novel being such a powerful evocation of our current global climate crisis, you can see why I might have been on the money just this once.

If that’s not enough of a personal recommendation for you, the multiple time periods aspect of this novel you mentioned is one that many people have spoken about in the same way they did with novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (itself a Clarke Award shortlist alum) and I can’t wait to see where E.J. takes us next.

I was sad to see that the small press that published this book will shortly be closing down. I suppose that indicates one value of a shortlist like this—to give extra airtime to books that might otherwise have flown under the radar, for one reason or another.

Small presses are a vital part of the science fiction ecosystem, and we’re always the poorer for their absence. It’s always a pleasure to see a small press title make the shortlists, and we always work hard to make sure this kind of title is submitted. Unsung Stories exemplified the best of the small press world. Utterly professional, a delight to work with and have brought us not one but two shortlisted authors in recent years: the other being Aliya Whiteley.

Cheerleading for small presses is one thing, but of course what they really need is our book-buying. Our shortlists work as recommendations, not definitive statements—no matter how much we believe in them ourselves. Reading is a pleasure, so I would much rather people came to one of two of our shortlisted titles rather than read all six out of a sense of obligation.

How then to square the circle of buying books to support the publishing ecosystem and boost more diverse authors, while also pursuing our own individual passions and tastes?

First, I’d suggest making a point to seek out new voices as part of your reading diet is only going to lead to more enjoyment and discovery in the long term. One thing I often do is ask for new voices as gifts—I am notorious hard to buy for, so wilfully opening myself up to something new is fun and I’d also suggest that gifting works to others is a great way of spreading the love (and the cash) as part of a bigger signal boost to new writers and imprints. After all, a gift will often be more treasured than something you picked up yourself and just plopped down in your to-be-read pile for ‘later.’

That’s a nice way to think about it. That brings us to Metronome by Tom Watson—might you call this a ‘feminist dystopia’, in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, Blue Ticket, and the like? Tell us about it.

I think it’s fair to say that, ever since Margaret Atwood won our inaugural prize for The Handmaid’s Tale, that dystopian fiction has loomed darkly over the Clarke Award—although I for one always welcome a good dystopia to our shortlists!

As well as the books you’ve mentioned above, I would also point to recent Clarke titles such as Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed. That’s also set on an island. There is something distinctly dystopic about island settings I feel. I’m sure there’s a PhD thesis in there somewhere for someone, if indeed this topic hasn’t already been explored by brighter minds than mine already. I’m also hearing lots of people use Emily St. John Mandel’s name in comparison to this book as well.

Tom Watson is one of our other shortlisted debut novelists, and to find yourself in the kind of comparative company of Atwood or Mandel must be hugely inspiring for him and hopefully recommendation enough to have people adding this book to their shopping carts now. But for those craving more, here’s a little extra, spoiler-free, flavour:

This is a tight, intimate, book, focusing primarily on just two characters exiled to the aforementioned island and surviving well enough, at least until we move past page one. It’s not a lockdown book, but the recent experience of that that so many of us shared will doubtless inform many a reading. We follow lead character Alina’s increasing conviction that she is trapped, not all is as it seems and that escape is the only solution—but how, and to where?

You might think you know where this is heading, but it’s surprisingly difficult to second-guess. Our judges this year found themselves compelled by this novel, and inflict it on you all in turn, dear readers. Enjoy!

Did you come away from the judging process optimistic about the state of science fiction in 2023?

One of the joys of being an organiser for the Clarke Award is getting to sit like a fly on the wall and listen in as our judges deliberate.
What makes me optimistic more than anything is that, after reading 100 or more books, our judges are still finding new ideas and themes and authors to enthuse about. It’s always my pleasure to receive a new shortlist and have the opportunity to recommend new books to people.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

I would love for everyone to go out and read all six of our shortlisted titles immediately so you can get your own sense of just how vibrant and diverse contemporary science fiction can be.

I’d also like to thank all of your judges for this year, and our supporting organisations, The British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation, and the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, who nominate them to us each year. These organisations are three more reasons to be optimistic about science fiction today, and I recommend them all to you as well.

Whoever our winner is this year, I wanted to offer my personal congratulations once again to all of our shortlisted authors. It’s been a pleasure to welcome six new authors to the Clarke Award, and I look forward to all of their future works with monolith-sized anticipation.

Part of our best books of 2023 series.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

August 6, 2023

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter is the current Director of the Arthur C Clarke Award, an annual award given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. The award was established with a generous grant given by Sir Arthur C Clarke and the first prize was awarded in 1987 to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter is the current Director of the Arthur C Clarke Award, an annual award given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. The award was established with a generous grant given by Sir Arthur C Clarke and the first prize was awarded in 1987 to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.