Fiction » Science Fiction

Summer Reading 2019: The Best Sci Fi Books

recommended by Tom Hunter

Interview by Cal Flyn

If you're hoping to travel to a galaxy far, far away this summer, these six excellent sci fi novels will help you on your way. Tom Hunter, the director of the Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction books, discusses the 2019 prize shortlist.

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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.

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As the director of the annual Arthur C Clarke Award, you are in a good place to say: sci fi books 2019, has it been a good year?

It’s a very good year, a record year for us in terms of submissions – 124 books were received by our judges from 46 imprints and independent authors – and this is part of a broadening trend.

We opened to submissions from indie authors a few years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the award. But the majority of these submissions are from UK publishing imprints, some science-fiction-specific ones, like Gollancz and Orbit but also a huge number from other non-genre specific publishing imprints that put out only one or two science fictional books a year.

Submissions have gone up from around 33 books, when I was first involved with the award thirteen years ago, and the main reason for that increase is that there’s been a step-change in terms of how the publishing industry views science fiction commercially, artistically, creatively. Science fictional work is increasingly being published outside of those core imprints, and publishers are becoming increasingly keen to put those books forward for contention in a science fiction prize. It tells you a lot about how a publisher might choose to categorise their works today versus even just ten years ago.

Categorisation was something I wanted to touch on. Looking at the list of your previous finalists, I was interested to see books that I wouldn’t initially have considered to be sci fi. For example: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which won in 2017. So I wonder if you might say a bit more about the definition of ‘science fiction’ and what you consider it to encompass.

Yes. Going right back to the beginning, to the award’s creation: one of Arthur’s stipulations was that it wasn’t to be an award for the best book-that-was-a-bit-like-an-Arthur-C-Clarke-book. He wanted it to be very broad in its definition. And science fiction is a phenomenally hard thing to define anyway. It’s one of those things, like: I know it when I see it. And it changes – going back to my previous point about how publishing’s view has changed.

But how we do it, very specifically, is that our judges are nominated every year, and come from our three supporting organisations – the Science Fiction Foundation and the British Science Fiction Association, who have both been involved since the creation of the award, and now the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival. They put forward people who have particular expertise, whether it’s they are active in fandom, they’re critics, they’re academics … not necessarily a professional, PhD-in-science-fiction-studies expert, but knowledgeable in the field. And it’s through them that we define and indeed re-refine science fiction every year. They’re aware of the arguments, the debates. They might have a particular take on what is or isn’t science fiction. The judging process begins with that conversation.

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Because science fiction is just so many things … alternate history, near future, far future, space opera, planetary romance, dystopia, cyberpunk – the list goes on.

When I first got involved with the award, there was a lot of discussion around this question of categorisation. For instance we saw people were saying the judges were deliberately picking books that were more Booker Prize-like than science fictional, with the assumption being they wanted to move science fiction away from its roots and towards a more literary territory. But, we’re not trying to be the Booker. If anything, we’re more like the Turner Prize, although I say that with a wink and pinch of salt. I mean that in the sense that every year the Turner Prize asks: What is art? What is good art?

It’s kind of the same with science fiction, which you could think of as the art form, with art movements lying within it: cyberpunk, space opera, those kind of things. It’s not a direct analogy, but that the kind of question we’re asking.

Let’s look at the shortlisted science fiction books 2019, beginning with Sue Burke’s Semiosis. This an account of several generations of settlers on a new planet, who encounter intelligent life, including intelligent plant life.

Yes. This is a ‘first contact’ novel. An absolute classic of the science fiction genre: it’s humanity encountering a sentient life-form, one that kind of contacts back, basically. It’s also Burke’s first novel. That’s always a very exciting thing for us to have on the shortlist. Something fresh and new, a new voice.

Our winner a couple of years ago, Ancillary Justice – which was much more of a space opera – was also a first novel. And in terms of the buzz that I heard about Ancillary Justice, I was hearing the phrase from lots of different corners of the science fiction community, which tells you that something is ticking a lot of different boxes with different kinds of readers. So, it wasn’t really a surprise that it went on to be very successful, because it was resonating. And with Semiosis, I’m picking up those sort of antenna signals, if you like.

I’m reading this book presently, and have made is at far as the third generation so far. What strikes me is that this is a huge, mind-expanding idea – these unsettlingly intelligent plants – which pushes us to ask interesting questions about colonialism, utopianism, domestication… And I think good sci fi often does this: pose thought experiments.

Absolutely.

Which is why I was surprised by Ian McEwan’s recent comments about science fiction; he suggested that its writers are too focussed on “traveling at 10 times the speed of light in antigravity boots,” and not enough on the “human dilemmas” that new technology poses.

I tweeted a response, actually. Very, very politely. I basically said, ‘We hope that his book is submitted, and we look forward to considering it as science fiction.’ And we would be delighted if he was shortlisted; that would be a great way to introduce him to lots of other fantastic work that’s already answering the point he made.

There was a lot of outrage. This kind of thing comes up from time to time, and it kind of goes back to that issue of literary snobbery. It also speaks to the divide, in terms of how people view science fiction literature; it is crumbling, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t hold-outs who will see the whole of science fiction as something to be very carefully avoided if you are a writer of ‘proper’ books.

“Some people see the whole of science fiction as something to be carefully avoided if you are a writer of ‘proper’ books”

Similarly, Margaret Atwood, she won the first ever Clarke Award. She’s been criticised in the past for making the distinction that her work was ‘speculative’ rather than science fictional. That was viewed by many people as an attempt not to be smeared with the genre. But I’ve chatted to Margaret about it, and she is a huge science fiction fan, which makes a difference, I think. And she’s mellowed on the opinion that she was trying to make.

Whereas I think Ian McEwan is new to an argument that’s been raging for years. Well done, Ian. You’ve invented robots, alternate history. Good on you. But, quite genuinely, I want his book to be submitted. We’ll see what the judges make of it. It’s had mixed reviews.

Let’s move on the Yoon Ha Lee, and his Revenant Gun. This is the conclusion to his Machineries of Empire trilogy.

This is classic space opera, with a mathematical twist. It is hard to describe, but the premise of the entire sequence is underpinned by what’s called ‘calendrical mathematics.’ So: a universe-spanning calendar that is never really explained, but basically allows the ships to work, allows all kinds of exotic weapon effects to be put into place. It’s a universe run by different factions that are always fighting amongst each other: the military, the departments that are looking after the mathematics and the calendars, and the secret service that seems to be behind everything.

And, how do I say this? It’s not a difficult read, but it throws you in at the deep end. You have to navigate your way through a very bizarre but fascinating concept that leaves a huge amount to your imagination about how it actually works. (Although Yoon is a mathematician, so you assume it might work.) He wrote a lot of short stories based in this universe, before moving to the full novel sequence. As a sequence, it’s been multi-award-nominated.

It is a revelatory space opera. People think that space opera is a tired part of the genre, but it continually reinvents itself. There’s the Machineries of Empire trilogy, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice sequence a couple of years ago. These are prime examples of just how innovative science fiction can be, even when it’s using the very familiar tools from the science fiction writer’s toolkit.

I wanted to pick up on your usage of ‘space opera.’ I had understood it as being a slightly pejorative term. So has it been reclaimed by the sci fi community?

Space opera for me is like rock music. It’s an attitude, a pose, a style, a set of chords, instantly recognisable yet always morphing and reinventing itself, and also entirely possible to be sneered at from both inside and outside the circle.

You say ‘rock’n’roll’ and everyone knows instantly what you mean, and with luck you’ve found your tribe, but actually one rock fan might take pains to never see bands anyone else has ever heard of while another might never be happy unless they’re centre front in a stadium beneath the kind of light show that makes you think an alien mothership is touching down while a bunch of pensioners play hits from a time before they were born.

Rock is dead, long live rock’n’roll, and so it goes with space opera.

Ha, thanks. Lastly, can Revenant Gun be read as a stand-alone book? Or should readers start from Ninefox Gambit? That’s the first of the trilogy, which itself was shortlisted for the 2017 award.

You should definitely start from Ninefox Gambit. It is very much the story of the central characters Cheris and Jedao, and it follows that narrative through. ‘Calendrical heresy’ is very hard to understand when you start from the beginning, so coming in at the end would be like doing it with half the equations on the blackboard.

Noted! Let’s move on. Let’s talk about Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi. It transplants Mary Shelley’s monster into US-occupied Iraq.

Yes, so, having already mentioned the Booker, this one was also actually nominated for the Booker International Prize. It is a novel in translation, which we haven’t had many of on the shortlists, and actually, it is one of three books on the shortlist this year by a writer of colour. So that’s 50% of our short list, versus 7% in the overall submissions list. Only nine authors in total were writers of colour in our submission list, and I’ve also written about that. That’s not something that we actively … we don’t use quotas or anything like that. But obviously, our judges are very aware of all of the issues around diversity in science fiction. It’s a huge ongoing conversation.

The book itself is riffing off one of the progenitor novels of science fiction as a genre, Frankenstein, and some people will say that is the touchstone book, the one that launched it all. Others argue it goes back far further. But, whichever argument you pick, Frankenstein is one of the core early texts of what became science fiction, I think that’s inarguable. And it’s great to see that myth form being re-used in a setting that speaks so immediately about conflict in Baghdad. What a great way to take Shelley’s original tale of hubris and invention and to transform that and refresh it in that setting.

“Our judges collectively redefine science fiction every year”

It’s fantastic to see all of the shortlist in play against each other, the themes that emerge, the echoing concerns. It’s weird to compare Frankenstein of Baghdad with Revenant Gun, but actually Revenant Gun is all about conflict – a huge galactic empire that rules with its calendars, and the oppression of its entire population – similar themes to Frankenstein of Baghdad in many ways. Not galactic-spanning ones, of course. It’s also a book that’s more on the fantastical side, Frankenstein of Baghdad. So, it’s shared territory with books that have won in the past, like Zoo City, or the books by China Miéville, City & the City, or Perdido Street Station, which a lot of people view as fantasy rather than science fiction.

Again, this comes back to our judges and how they collectively define science fiction every year, and what its purpose is. So, this is a book for me that actually has a special place on the list, because it enables us to look so much more broadly at the genre.

Speaking of fantasy, often when I see sci fi discussed, it’s often as a conjoined genre: science fiction and fantasy, or SFF.

Yes.

Was there a purposeful decision not to explicitly include fantasy under the Clarke Award’s remit?

Yes. I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you exactly what was said, but it is the Arthur C Clarke Award and he is a science fiction writer. It was decided to make it an award for science fiction, rather than science fiction and fantasy. Now that obviously that does get very slippery, but the view of it is not to go towards the absolutely fantastical, if you like – the high fantasy, something like Game of Thrones, as a really obvious example. But Star Wars is technically fantasy. There’s no science in Star Wars whatsoever.

Oh! But it’s in space.

Well, people argue that point. Technically, people say that’s ‘science fantasy’ if you want to get really taxonomical about it. Many people do. But a lot of people don’t. If you were doing a PhD, you might say, ‘technically, that’s past historical romance, with a soupçon of alternative history, and a dash of contemporary fantasy, as seen through the lens of … blah.’

I’ve mentioned this ‘toolkit’ several times, and that is actually a well-used metaphor in the community: the idea that science fiction as a toolkit. You can take different parts of it, and build different things. So, The Underground Railroad, for example, is built with a very particular element, which is the literalising of a metaphor. So, the underground railway is a railway that goes underground. Through that one move, Colson Whitehead is then able to write a novel about slavery, one step removed. He can talk about all the horror of slavery, in a story that people will find absolutely compelling, rather than worthy, if that makes sense. A novel you’ll actually read, rather than pretend you’ve read.

Star Wars is technically fantasy. There’s no science in Star Wars whatsoever”

And it means he can make the point that he wants to make much more strongly because he controls the world, and it’s just that one side step that he’s done that enables him to write something that doesn’t lessen the message. As Neil Gaiman said, “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” That’s one element of the toolkit.

So Frankenstein in Baghdad is taking that classic science fictional story, making that move, and using it to talk about a very contemporary issue.

Thank you. Let’s move on to The Electric State, by Simon Stålenhag as the next in the list for 2019 sci fi books.

Stålenhag is fantastically well-known as an illustrator. An eight-episode series starring Rebecca Hall is in the works right now, I believe, based on one of his earlier book projects. But this a major work for him. There are over 100 illustrations in it, and he wrote the whole thing.

It’s an absolute first for us: the first illustrated novel that the Clarke has nominated in all of its history. We have received a couple in the past, but we’ve not nominated them. I ought to be clear here that we spent a lot of time talking about this book from the very beginning when it arrived in an envelope. Critically: is it long enough to be a novel? Is it reliant on the imagery? Does the story stand up? The Clarke Award is the prize for the best science fiction novel, so we consider each element of that: we define ‘science fiction,’ we define ‘best’ and we define ‘novel.’ There is not a minimum word count, but we do say it has to be a substantial work. So, we tend to preclude novellas. But to take Ian McEwan, again – he has famously won literary prizes with very slim volumes. It’s a very hard one to define. So we don’t.

Certainly Electric State is substantial in the sense that it’s a big. It’s a coffee table book, almost. A different size from all the other stuff that we get. It’s normally sold in the art section. But the judges have clearly felt that it’s substantial in the sense that its story has weight, and that’s why it’s been shortlisted. It’s really exciting to have it on the list. It’s a beautiful book, and I think really points to what science fiction publishing could be doing, I think.

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It’s a shame not every author can illustrate their own work. But look at the fantastic works that somewhere like The Folio Society puts out now. They’ve really gone for science fiction in a major way in the last few years. I think of The Folio Society taking very old books – out of print books – and publishing them in beautiful editions. You’ve got Homer, and Marcus Aurelius, the Shakespeare collection. I’m only naming the ones that are on my book shelf. But recently they’ve put out 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’ve done Stephen King, they’ve done a lot of Neil Gaiman, they’ve got Game of Thrones coming out…

The point I’m making is that all of those works are illustrated. Think back to the days of pulp science fiction magazines – the space man shooting the monster-looking alien whilst the girl in the not-very-there silver dress is carried … You know the image I’m talking about. That kind of connection between the art and the story. This is very much a refreshing of that, and it would be so great to see more of those kind of works just being published.

This book originated as a Kickstarter-funded project, and met its initial funding goal in half an hour. I wonder if that tells us something about the science fiction community, how strong it is and how willing it is to throw its weight behind new work.

Yes. It does. Certainly, there are a lot of successful Kickstarter projects out there for science fiction. Another collection of essays and short stories, called Women Destroy Science Fiction was hugely successful a few years ago. Obviously it was not putting forward the argument that women are terrible and destroy science fiction. It was an ironic title.

Becky Chambers, who has been nominated for the Clarke Award a couple of times, originally launched her first novel via a crowdfunding campaign. They are great ways for a canny editor to be able to say, ‘Look what the market’s already wanting to buy.’ They’re pre-tested.

Let’s look at Rosewater, by Tade Thompson.

This is a book with a huge amount of buzz around it, and it’s first in a series of three. It’s the winner of the inaugural Noma Award for the best African science fiction novel, and it’s been multi-nominated across other awards. It is a cyberpunk novel set in a near-future Africa. Cyberpunk is a very clichéd term these days, but it has that kind of flavour to it. It’s also got an alien presence, a mysterious presence that has crashed, landed, or maybe even invaded in Africa, and the town of Rosewater that has grown up around it. It’s just fantastic.

There are a lot of trilogies in science fiction. We talked about Yoon Ha Lee, we talked about Ancilliary Justice. To some, the literary ones are the single ones, if that makes sense. Trilogies, ongoing sequences, are usually a different kind of beast. But this was definitely one all of our judges were convinced to shortlist quite quickly.

“Fans are actively saying: ‘we want more stuff written by new voices, who sound like us and look like us’”

We talked a little bit earlier about voices of colour earlier, and you know, I don’t want to talk about it in the context of that too much, because it’s diminishing, to say ‘this is a great book by a writer of colour.’ But it’s introducing us to a new world, and a new voice. The African setting it is exactly what science fiction fans are calling for at the moment. Fans are actively saying: ‘we want more stuff written by new voices, who sound like us and look like us and understand our culture and our heritage.’ Equally – no matter our ethnicity we want to be diverse in our reading

Also, Tade is really worth following on Twitter. He’s not shy in his opinions, let’s say. He has said on panels before that he prefers arguing to anything else. But you almost feel he’s written this book to make a point. I recommend it to absolutely anyone who’s got any interest at all in what great science fiction looks like today.

Great.

That’s quite blurby, isn’t it? But I mean it.

Oh, no, no. That’s great. So perhaps that brings us to our final 2019 science fiction book title: Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin. It’s set in a world where humans shed their skin every seven years, and with it emotions and identity.

Exactly, yeah. It’s so bizarre. It’s a great example of how science fiction often makes just one change in the world, and then the entire plot revolves from that. In this book, humans shed their skin, like snakes, and you shed other parts of yourself as well. How do we use that to talk about humanity? Because technically, we do shed our skins all the time. And the brains that we have now are not in fact the brains that we were born with. We are completely new. We change all the time, so, our cells are replaced. We think is ourselves as quite fixed beings, but we are impermanent continually while alive and even more obviously at the end of that.

But what an amazing concept. Fantastically written as well. It’s a small press publication. I think they’ve got about 10 books out there.

Aliya is one of those writers that writers recommend to each other. That’s the easiest way to put it. So, whilst she’s at a smaller press, and is maybe a name not familiar to so many people, Aliya is the word-of-mouth author on this list. Absolutely. She is the one that people who know what they’re talking about, talk about. She’s becoming more and more known to the the science fiction community, and she has been nominated for more awards, but I think this is really the breakthrough novel for her.

“Aliya is one of those writers that writers recommend to each other”

For me, this one, the concept, coupled with the plot dynamic – which is investigation-led. A detective story, basically. That’s always a great way of tying an amazing science fictional concept to a plot engine that keeps you reading. So many science fictional works, think Blade Runner for example, have an investigative element of them. So that sort of genre awareness of plot mechanics, coupled with an absolutely out-there concept is what’s going to make this novel a real success for everyone.

It really reminds me of Vurt, a book by Jeff Noon back in the 1990s. His first novel, a very psychedelic novel, very cyberpunky, set in Manchester, rather than America. People would enter the Vurt – the virtual world –by putting a feather in their mouth. It had a really surrealistic take. I think Aria’s done something similar with the Loosening Skin concept. So, it’s always a pleasure when an award can shine a light on an author that is deserving of much wider attention, especially outside of the UK sci fi scene. Because while the Clarke is a UK award, we are watched from much further afield.

That’s why we like discussing literary prizes here on Five Books. You know you are speaking to people who have taken the time to take the temperature of a whole literary field, and can flag up books that otherwise we might never hear of, and therefore might not read.

Yes. So we had 124 books submitted. We conducted a survey within our base – so it’s quite biased, because it’s fans – and we found that many people were reading 50 or more books a year. But of those 50-plus books, only five or so would be read within the year of them being published. Obviously, these books all came out last year.

Unless you are a judge, you’re unlikely to read 124 new science fiction books in a year. It’s impossible for anyone to really claim to be an expert in the entire field these days. Which I think is a good thing, because there’s always something new out there to be discovered, however informed you are of the genre.

Well, I guess that brings us to the end. I mean, of all the 2019 sci fi books, maybe this one proves the point best that the sci fi field is already engaging with the “human dilemmas” that Ian McEwan was worrying about.

Yes. Aliya is a very literary voice. Her book, I think, is the book that’s doing what Ian McEwan thinks he’s doing.

 

The winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award will be announced on 17th July 2019, in association with Foyles Book Store. Tickets will be available at clarkeaward.com

See all the recommendations in our summer reading series.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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 editor@fivebooks.com

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.