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The Best Science Fiction of 2020

recommended by Tom Hunter

The Old Drift: A Novel by Namwali Serpell

Winner of the 2020 Arthur C Clarke Award

The Old Drift: A Novel
by Namwali Serpell


Sci fi is booming, says Tom Hunter, the director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction, as he discusses their 2020 shortlist: six novels that embrace classic sci fi narratives, while subverting or reimagining them for a contemporary audience.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

The Old Drift: A Novel by Namwali Serpell

Winner of the 2020 Arthur C Clarke Award

The Old Drift: A Novel
by Namwali Serpell

Buy all books

We’re here to discuss the 2020 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best new work of sci fi. Is it a vintage year for science fiction?

Yes, is the short answer. This year, we had 121 submissions from 45 different imprints and independent authors. Last year we had 124. So while we’ve just missed our record, that’s actually not the worst thing that can happen. It’d be awful to have a record breaking year, every year, on an endless curve upwards.

When I first got involved with the award 14 years ago we were receiving something like 45 submissions a year. So, from a straight numbers point of view, yes, it’s been a good year, and let’s not forget while we’ve shortlisted to six books, there’s plenty in that full list I would call mighty fine and even potential winners in other years.

When you say imprints—just to clarify for our readers—you are talking about the brands that publish the books.

Yes. The number of imprints submitting is as important as the total number of received books, in our view—as that points towards the overall health of science fiction publishing in the UK. Looking at this year’s submitting publishers, we have imprints that focus on science fiction and fantasy—such as Gollancz, Orbit, Titan and Solaris, who are all consistently submitting books every year in large numbers—but one of the most important factors for me in past years has been those titles coming from more mainstream imprints within larger publishers like Penguin, Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, and so on. That’s lots of imprints that are publishing one or two science fiction books every year. And, crucially, acknowledging them as science fictional works that they actively want to submit to an award like the Clarke.

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The other point I want to make is that we had the highest percentage ever of women authors being submitted this year: 40%, versus 29% last year, which is a welcome jump up—especially when you consider that the lowest ever number we’ve recorded since we started collating and publishing this data was 13%. It’s an issue we’ve actively talked about in the press and on our own channels for several years now, and you can see how, as we climb towards a sort of parity, that this is naturally being reflected in our shortlisting. For example, this year we have four female and two male authors on the shortlist, which is the first time that’s ever happened in the 30-plus years history of the award. It’s a step forward, and underlines why we’ve considered it so important to release this type of raw data along with our juried shortlists every year.

Do you think these shifting demographics in terms of authors tells us something else—about how the genre is perceived, and what its core audience is, or is becoming?

Yes, absolutely, although I should be clear that we don’t task our judges to select a shortlist based on any one single criteria, but our judges are selected based on their experience and knowledge of both science fiction literature and the broader conversations that surround it, so we fully expect discussion to arise around issues of representation, inclusivity, parity and so forth as they start narrowing down towards their final shortlist selection.

For example, this year you could argue that our shortlist is very much weighted towards what I would call ‘core’ science fiction. There are classic science fiction narratives that we could recognise running across all six of the books. And a lot of that is about going back to that core heritage, but reimagining it within a 21st century context. It’s important to remember, though, that the judges are selecting each book individually, rather than trying to select a shortlist with a built-in meta-narrative or similar. You can look for patterns and make comparisons to previous years once the list is selected, but it’s an organic process, not a manufactured one.

“You can trace the books’ lineage through the different eras of science fiction as it has evolved as a genre”

In terms of who the audiences are for these books, on the one hand, if you like science fiction, you’ll find much to enjoy here but if you haven’t really tried the genre before, or if you might have been put off, I’d stress that these are all books published in 2019, for a 2020 prize, so they’re very contemporary-feeling in terms of their characterisation, quality of prose, plotting and so forth. You can definitely trace their lineage through the different eras of science fiction as it has evolved as a genre, and all of these books interrogate and tease and play with that tradition in different ways, but are also respectful of it. That’s the difference between, say—insert name of mainstream author—who has discovered a science fiction concept and written a book about it, then does a press tour where they try and convince you they’ve somehow invented robots, or space travel or parallel universes, or whatever. You know: ‘Before me science fiction was just cowboys in space, but my book is about real futures…’

Ha. Not to name names.

Well, I couldn’t possibly comment. However, if you look at all of our shortlisted authors this year, in terms of the readership they have, it’s potentially a very diverse readership and, while there’s undoubtedly crossover, I suspect it’s entirely likely that each author might have distinct reader/fan bases who would only be encountering the rest of our list precisely because they’ve been shortlisted together. Perhaps that was different back in the early days of the Clarke Award, with lower publishing and submission numbers, where it might have been conceivable to have read the entirety of any given year’s science fiction publishing output.

From a fan’s perspective—even someone very invested specifically in just science fiction rather than science fiction, fantasy and horror etc —121 books… I don’t know how fast you read, but I would find it a challenge to read 121 books in a year, any books. I don’t think anyone can read all of science fiction these days, and—you know what?—I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless it is for some specific reason, like judging a book prize, and then you have to remember that, when you read as a judge, you read differently, not for pure enjoyment. You’re actively looking for that special shortlist-able something, and you’re also reading as part of a group.

“Sometimes guides can be hugely useful in helping us discover new things, but its equally fine to go off-map”

My point, I guess, is that there are so many different elements of science fiction now across so many media; it’s entirely possible to be fully immersed, and not to have touched anything that other, equally immersed people are reading. I think that, again, that’s indicative of a healthy genre in many ways, and it also means award shortlists are really becoming guides to one possible timeline of the best of contemporary science fiction. Sometimes guides can be hugely useful in helping us discover new things, but its equally fine to go off-map, as it were, and I’ve always said that an award’s selection of best books doesn’t undermine our own personal favourite choices. It’s not like there’s a sci fi Santa who sneaks into your house at night and replaces all of your favourite books with our shortlist every year!

Well, talking about the shortlist, let’s get onto the books in the running for the 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best work of science fiction.

My pleasure, and first I should make the point that as I discuss each book I don’t know who’s going to win yet. We’ve not had that final meeting. That said, looking at all the books, I think there’s an argument for why each one might be the standout that’s going to win, if that makes sense.

Understood. In that case, shall we move through the shortlist alphabetically, starting with Charlie Jane Anders and The City in the Middle of the Night?

This is Charlie’s first time on the Clarke Award shortlist, but she’s already very well known within the science fiction community and has had multiple other award nods for both her fiction and nonfiction, for example a Hugo Award nomination for the podcast she runs with the science fiction author Annalee Newitz. They were also both involved with the io9 website, which has been a touchstone for science fiction fandom over the years, and while they’re not connected with it now, how I first came to know Charlie was through her massively enthusiastic coverage—and sometimes provocative argument and debate—of the Clarke Award back in the day. Is she a frontrunner for this year’s prize? I think there are a lot of people who would love to see her win, for sure.

“An alien world gives you the opportunity to explore both this strange new planet and, also, humanity”

I said earlier that each of the books on this year’s shortlist features a classic science-fiction trope, and this book is what we might call a ‘planetary romance’ in that it’s set on a single alien planet rather than within, say, a galaxy-spanning empire. An alien world gives you the opportunity to explore both this strange new planet and, also, humanity. From that point of view, it’s absolutely harking back to the classics of science fiction.

It’s also playing with a younger cast in terms of its characters, which is very important for what you were saying about the new science fiction fandoms. This is not a YA book, but YA is a category that could be applied. If you read it as a younger teenager, I suspect you could identify with it hugely, in the same way you might identify with the young central character of a classic science fiction novel like Dune, which is not YA either, but we could argue it’s much easier to identify with a protagonist closer to your own age rather than another square-jawed hero.

One thing that strikes me about this book—and the books on the shortlist more generally—is the effort that has been put into what fans call ‘world building’. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of world building in science fiction in particular?

Okay, let’s talk about literally the world of Charlie’s book: it’s a planet called January that’s tidally locked to its star.

Tidally locked, meaning that one half of the planet is always facing the sun, and the other perpetually dark and cold. 

Exactly. In this way you could say it’s similar to a previous Clarke Award winner called Dark Eden, which was set on a planet that had come untethered from its sun—it still maintained atmosphere and rotated, but it was lit entirely by bioluminescence.

The minute you start playing with something that’s not exactly Earth-like in that kind of big way, that’s going to have ripple effects across every single thing you write and here a big plot point is that our human protagonists are living by necessity in the thin zone between the two states, the habitable line between burning and freezing.

You establish this one plot point, and immediately you have to start playing the big science fictional game of ‘what if?’ Why are humans on this planet? How might societal rules and structures change to cope with this environment? Can the planet support non-human live in the extreme areas? If so, how would it have evolved to survive? What does it look like?

Similarly, Kameron Hurley’s book The Light Brigade is a take on the trope of military science fiction, and is set in a world in which armed forces can be transported instantaneously across vast distances to different intergalactic battlefields, and here the ‘what ifs?’ of world building are constructed from the rules of this instantaneous transport—the science of faster-than-light travel, time dilation and, crucially, what happens if the technology starts seeming to break down?

“Immediately you have to start playing the big science fictional game of ‘what if?’ How might societal rules and structures change to cope with this environment?”

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls is what we call the ‘dying Earth’ trope. It’s set at the end of our world: the sun is dying, the Earth is dying. So in many ways it’s not so much world building as much as world dismantling. He’s playing with the idea of a society that’s forgotten more than it ever knew—it’s a technology-based world, but it’s riffing off of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

And with A Memory Called Empire, we might call that an exploration of the ‘intergalactic empire’ trope; a story that encompasses the broad sweep of the universe rather than a single planet or solar system, and with those you’re not building a world, you’re building worlds, which is actually very tricky to do. The classic cliché here is the one-thing-all-planet world which Star Wars is famous for: the desert planet, the city planet, the forest planet, and so on, and so on.

Right. They’re pretty one dimensional.

You could argue a book like Dune is just as guilty, except the environment of the planet is essential to the narrative of the book. It’s the entire point, not just a backdrop setting. Whereas Star Wars is just like: oh, yeah, desert planet, right! chase scene! lightsaber fight! And so on. If you’re going to build something that’s believable, you might only see bits of world, but you need to feel that the author knows what would happen if a character walked out of the city and kept going. Presumably you’d find cities with different languages, different money, different cultures. Rather than: ‘this is the planet of the engineers!’ You know what I mean. Like: ‘oh, hi, we’re all warriors on this planet!’

How could they possibly have a working economy?

You know, sometimes that’s absolutely fine and even to be encouraged, depending on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, but I would stress that the construction of a convincingly science fictional world is both a definite skill and also one of the real pleasures that keeps readers coming back to the genre.

Like the culture shock of travelling to a very different country—so many things are different, even things that you didn’t anticipate would change.

Actually, that’s the first time I thought about it specifically in terms of culture shock. World building can come in for quite a bad rap sometimes—like, an author can be all world building, no plot. Even just that name ‘world building’ sounds like you spent all your time assembling and drawing the map and working out the local economy. You’ve got spreadsheets about, you know, exchange rates for continents that the characters never go to. Some people love that kind of nuance and detail, but other people are just like, ‘get to the point.’

But the idea of culture shock is perhaps more interesting. The way that, if you are going abroad you’re going to notice the familiar in new ways—you know, suddenly becoming attached to brands we recognise, because you want to go somewhere where you don’t have to figure out the menu, you know. But also, you’re looking for the new: actively stepping away from the tourist map and down a different street to find out what’s there. So maybe culture shock is an important part of world building. But, you know, as a writer you might want to throw people in at the deep end, but it probably helps if you give them at least a backpack full of supplies and some clues back to where their hotel is. As an author you need to work out whether you are taking people on a tour, or robbing them as they get off the bus and leaving them to make some kind of sense of things on their own.

That really reminds me of a very funny scene in Rick and Morty: Jerry is left at a ‘daycare’ on an alien planet. He escapes only to find the outside so frightening and strange that he runs back to what’s safe and familiar: “It’s a hassle out there.”

Whatever we call it, though, I think the whole point of why so many people find science fiction such an appealing genre is what we might as well call ‘world building’; that sense that, actually, you can really sense the place that you’re in. That’s going to be true, even in the one that’s primarily set on Earth.

Alright. Let’s talk about the next work of science fiction shortlisted for the 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award: this is Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. We touched on this a minute ago. This is military science fiction, with a time travel twist. It’s about a futuristic war.

Kameron is an author that has been previously nominated for the Clarke Award. She was one of the favourites for the year she was last nominated, for her novel God’s War, but the book that ultimately won that year was Ancillary Justice, which pretty much won every award going. A lot of people have said to me that, in another year with the same book, Kameron could have won the award very easily, so I’d definitely recommend checking that title out, too. Military science fiction is a hugely popular genre trope—the war with the evil empire, the machines, the bugs, et cetera et cetera—so on the one hand this book is absolutely embedded within the heartlands of the genre but, I can tell you now, Kameron has tricks aplenty up her authorial sleeve.

The central science fictional concept here isn’t a new super-weapon, spaceship, super-soldier, implacable alien race or similar, but rather the means of delivering soldiers to the battlefield near-instantaneously as light transmissions, which is a fascinating twist of the ‘damn I wish I’d thought of that’ variety. It’s a fiendishly clever concept because it opens up all kinds of plotlines simply by following the logic of the technology embedded at its centre. What does it do to your humanity to be embedded suddenly into new warzones again and again? What if you’re transported to the wrong place, or you suspect you’re being sent to places other than the one detailed in your mission? People are talking about this book in the same way they do about absolute classic works of science fiction like Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein or The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and like both those books the freedom of science fiction proves to be a very powerful tool for talking about contemporary issues around duty, patriotism and the dehumanising effects of conflict.

Okay. Next up on our 2020 shortlist of the best recent science fiction we have A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, a book about a new ambassador investigating the murder of her predecessor. A murder mystery set in space! What’s not to like?

In terms of science fiction tropes, the ‘intergalactic empire’ is what we’re dealing with here. Once you’ve got a canvas as wide as the universe, anything goes—so what’s interesting about this, then, is that zero-ing in on the political detail, the protocol, and so on, rather than the intergalactic war. There’s nothing better in science fiction than that cosmic sweep with the idea that actually one person in the right place at the right time can make a difference.

Harking back to what we were saying about world building: the twin conceits of a new arrival in a strange land and the mystery with the predecessor are both plot devices designed to drag you in as a reader, and help you explore the setting, especially its politics in this case, at the same time as the central protagonist. The mystery is the engine that keeps driving it forward; that investigative plot and science fiction go very well hand in hand. It’s a great way for actually being able to explore the universe that you’ve created. Plus, the idea our central protagonist is a new arrival means that, no matter how skilled or special they might in their own right, they’re starting at a disadvantage, which also helps drive plot and avoids that cliché of science fiction, the super-competent indomitable hero. Personally I like my heroes to know what they’re doing—you wouldn’t want Luke always picking up his lightsaber by the wrong end after all—but at the same time not so improbable that suspension of disbelief goes out the airlock.

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As a debut, we might draw comparisons with previous winner Ancillary Justice, both because it’s another intergalactic empire type of story and also because this is another book that’s picked up a lot of advance buzz in the industry and across the spectrum of the science fiction readership. In fact one of the reasons I suspected Ancillary Justice might be our winner that year long before the judges even held their first meeting is because of the number of people who recommended the book to me from across all different spectrums of science fictional tastes and interests. I’m hearing something similar now with A Memory Called Empire, and it’s these little trends and signs you learn to look out for when you’ve been an award director for a while.

I’m really fascinated by her story. Before she became a novelist, she was a historian of the Byzantine empire, and an urban planner. So that’s a lot of expertise to draw from, in terms of world building. I know she’s published some of her working in terms of how her naming practices work, and how society functions in that world. There must be a lot of joy immersing yourself in a world entirely of your own devising like that.

There are two classic schools of writing of all kinds: some just sit down and do it—pantsters, as in ‘seat of your pants’—while at the other end of the spectrum you have immaculate planners; the people who know how every chapter interlinks before they ever start writing, and who are definitely the people with that spreadsheet on alien exchange rates or vocabulary all worked out.

Personally, I love it when authors show their reasoning and behind-the-scenes workings like this, it’s like DVD extras, and everyone knows that sci fi movies have the best extra features, right? With other types of movies, you might get a ‘making of’ style feature or two if you’re lucky, whereas with science fiction the extra features can run longer than the film.

I think fans really respond to that. Not just in science fiction; I’m thinking of Tolkien’s legendarium and languages, and even things like James Joyce calculating the time it would take for his characters to walk down the Dublin streets in Ulysses so that they cross paths at exactly the right moment. That passion the author has for his or her own creation really shines through.

Yes, it’s definitely not something that’s singular to science fiction. I think for a new writer, the idea that you need to build a world can be quite intimidating. Or, you can get so lost in it that you never get around to getting the book out. But I think it’s a good exercise to look at, because it’s the kind of space where you’re creating material that doesn’t need to be seen by anyone else; it’s a way to chip away at a project, you know? There are natural writers who will sit down and write, just find a way through to the end, and there are world builders. If you’re not too certain which one you are, I would always suggest that you should look to be a world builder first, even if only in private. You don’t need to show your working to anyone and it can be far easier to write 500 words explaining your world to yourself in the first instance than it can be to get 500 words of great plot, dialogue and description all assembled on the page first time out. That’s for anyone reading this feature who might be thinking of starting their own first science fiction novel. I think it’s a really useful exercise.

Let’s move on to The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, which is the fourth book on the 2020 shortlist of the best of science fiction. There was a great deal of buzz about this book when it came out, but in a different context—I hadn’t really thought of it as science fiction per se. This is a multi-generational tale set in Zambia, and it has elements of magical realism, elements of fantasy, elements of science fiction. Is that a fair characterisation?

Spoiler alert: It gets distinctly science fictional at the end. This book does raise an interesting question: how much science fiction does a book need contain to actually be considered science fiction? You know, a book can be entirely set in space and be almost entirely not science fiction if that makes sense. Take the film Alien, that could almost as easily be set in a ship in the ocean that finds a deep sea creature that sticks to your face—or whatever—or it could all be set in a galaxy far, far away, but really have no science in it whatsoever.

On the other hand a book might have an almost entirely modern-day setting with just one tiny element of science fiction; alternative history, for example, is a big science fiction trope, where you change one thing and a different timeline branches off.

“This book does raise an interesting question: how much science fiction does a book need contain to actually be considered science fiction?”

Some people might prefer to call this type of book speculative fiction rather than science fiction. I’m not really here to have those kinds of arguments, but it’s brilliant to have this book on a science fiction list, because that means that we’re going to find a lot of new audiences for this book and we’re also pushing at the boundaries of what people (and publishers!) might consider to be science fictional. And it’s certainly a book that was being talked about within science fiction circles, even if it wasn’t necessarily branded that way. A lot of the people I saw enthusing about the book publicly before we shortlisted it were other science fiction writers!

Again, if there’s one thing a good award shortlist can do, it’s point readers towards things that they might not have automatically considered their kind of thing, and encourage people to stretch the edges of their reading lists from time to time.

You spoke of her being a writer’s writer. Well, this book is narrated in part by a cloud of—or a chorus of—mosquitoes. That shows incredible literary flair, don’t you think? So I think the point you’ve made, about one purpose of the shortlist being to broaden people’s reading horizons, cuts both ways. I’d describe myself as primarily a reader of literary fiction, and a dabbler in science fiction, and I find that the Arthur C. Clarke shortlists very effectively flag up books with that sort of crossover appeal. Then, likewise, those who are very into ‘pure’ science fiction are also directed to those books within the genre that have explicit literary ambitions. Is that one of your intentions?

Yes. No. Sort of. Maybe! I mean, we don’t have a particular mission, except to pick the best science fiction book of the year. We don’t predefine ‘best,’ we don’t predefine ‘science fiction,’ even, and we don’t even necessarily define ‘book,’ at least in terms of word count in the way some other awards might—usually those with multiple categories, for example, for novels, novellas, short stories, and so on.

One of the reasons for not having those rules defined in that way is that Sir Arthur was always adamant that he didn’t want an award named after him that only recognised books that looked like his books. We don’t have those definitions precisely so that we can play across lots of different areas based on what the judges that year are looking for within their particular collective definition of ‘best science fiction novel of the year.’ What you’ve said about flagging up books with crossover appeal is precisely why a lot of people like the Clarke Award, and I love that that’s why they like it, but that’s different from being the central reason behind our judging decisions. Let’s not forget that the line up of judges changes every year, and those definitions of science fiction will keep changing with them.

“People like me—white males—should definitely be making efforts to read outside our own cultures and comfort zones”

And, you know, I’m hoping we’re going to bring The Old Drift to a lot of different readers. And in the light of conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement, people like me—white males—should definitely be making efforts to read outside our own cultures and comfort zones: to read more books by women, books by writers of colour—so you would want to start with some really good recommendations, I would hope!

That makes sense. Let’s move onto Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. He’s a very established author, who previously won the Arthur C. Clarke Award with his book Children of Time. Tell me about this new work.

You said he’s a very established author; I’d go further, and say he’s phenomenally prolific. He wrote a massive fantasy sequence before moving into science fiction with Children of Time, and since then he’s been almost unstoppable to the point in the last couple of years where I suspect he can write novels almost as fast as people like me can read them!

Cage of Souls is a big book too, so if you like big science fiction, this one is definitely for you. It uses the ‘dying Earth’ trope that I talked about earlier: we are in the final city on Earth, during what we might term as a slow apocalypse. Everything is dying, everything is running down. There’s still a lot of technology that we would all consider hugely advanced, but he doesn’t explain how any of it works; in fact, the characters don’t know, and that sense of decline is what informs the book. Humanity is dying out. The rest of the planet, however, may not be, not just yet anyhow.

Is Adrian a front runner for this year’s prize because he’s won before? Well, right now it’s a one in six chance, but I can say that this book is every bit as good as Children of Time, if not better.

In many ways the book is almost fantasy, not because the science is implausible but because it’s set so far in the future and because it doesn’t try to explain everything. The book’s written in the first person so our narrator is either taking things we find amazing for granted and so not bothering to explain how things might work or, in many cases, he doesn’t know either and so can’t tell us. You’ve heard of the unreliable narrator, well this time around we get the unknowledgeable narrator. It’s refreshing to read something that feels both old—there’s something distinctly 19th century in the style of the first person telling—and far-future at the same time. From a technique point of view that juxtaposition is fascinating.

That sounds great. It also brings us to the last book on the shortlist, which is The Last Astronaut by David Wellington.

This is a ‘first contact’ novel, and notable for being set purely within our solar system rather than having an intergalactic span. It’s actually quite rare to see a book that’s solar system-set. Charlie’s planet is a long way away, we have to have got there, and that brings certain presumptions around the mechanism for travel. A Memory Called Empire is an empire; the getting from planet to planet thing is not a major concern of the book, because it has clearly already happened. So there’s something very interesting about books that limit themselves to our own solar system. You can’t get away from the mechanics of space flight—you can’t use made up technological shortcuts to wave away the fact that there is no gravity in space, you can’t sidestep the fact that your mode of transport is very vulnerable out there, a tiny air bubble wrapped in metal that could pop very easily. This book is playing with that.

“Are we seeing here the end of our love affair with space?”

There’s also a definite nod to books like Sir Arthur’s own Rendezvous with Rama (I think David would be happy to acknowledge that as a source), which again is actually quite rare on a Clarke list, as I noted earlier. But while readers might well recognise echoes of writers like Clarke, this is still a very modernised update, I would say. Even just looking at the title, ‘The Last Astronaut’… science fiction is more usually concerned with firsts—a new planet or emerging technology for example—so are we seeing here the end of our love affair with space? You know, we don’t really go to space any more, not like we thought we would be anyway, so there’s a sort of melancholy that hangs over that idea of a last astronaut rather than the sense of adventure we might have seen in past decades.

It’s also hopefully not a spoiler to note that many people find this book has a distinct horror flavour to it, along with the science fictional plot. I’ve already talked about the story mechanics that can come into play when you limit yourself to a closer solar system story built upon day-after-tomorrow rather than far-future technologies, but this book also reminds us that space itself is an utterly alien environment for humans. Coming full circle, in a sense, all life on Earth is living in that thin habitable line on Charlie’s planet, January, and it’s entirely possible to view space as both the future for our race and also a source of imaginably powerful existential dread. Maybe there’s a last astronaut for very good reasons…

One more question, to close. We spoke a little earlier about how science fiction is often a sort of Trojan horse for interrogating big societal questions: The Light Brigade as an examination of war and propaganda, for example. I wonder: is science fiction, as a movement, inherently progressive?

Science fiction is not a movement, but there are movements within science fiction—if that makes sense. I often draw parallels with art movements, and there have certainly been manifestos for science fiction movements in the past. Cyberpunk, for example, was very much a kind of natural uprising of a very particular attitude within early 1980s science fiction writing, and same with what was referred to as the New Wave in the late Sixties. The word ‘punk’ now seems to be bolted onto any kind of movement: we’ve got solarpunk, ecopunk, dieselpunk… Steampunk is another obvious one that really took hold, but is steampunk a progressive movement? Quite literally not, in the sense that it’s actively looking backwards in terms of the timeframe, but it certainly has its set of ideals and rules that it plays by. People talked a lot about ‘the New Weird,’ which was a definite trend even if it wasn’t a movement, and similarly with what’s been referred to as ‘the New Space Opera.’

So there are official or unofficial movements within science fiction. And I think one of those approaches to the genre has always been about turning back on the things that have gone before and reframing them, which is the kind of progression you would see within art movements, as each step moves forward.

When you look at this year’s shortlist, some people will say that our shortlist is very much centred on one thing—if we took an art parallel, people might be saying, ‘this is the year that the award is shortlisting all paintings,’ for instance. Next year might be all strange and wonderful installations, and then they’d say, ‘they’re trying to be deliberately weird now.’ So of course an award can never win. But then we are not trying to win. We’re more interested in asking questions like: What can we do with science fiction tools that are very well developed? How can those be refreshed again? How do I re-explore, as a writer, the books that I loved as a younger reader? I know this is explicit in Charlie’s writing, and similarly in The Last Astronaut, which is, perhaps, the most Clarke-y book on the shortlist that we’ve ever had. They’re taking those recognisable elements and moving them forward. It’s not a mission that science fiction has set itself in the last couple of years, but certainly all the conversations are there, and it’s a trend you can see through the lens of this shortlist very easily. People who are very familiar with science fiction as a genre are saying: how can we move it to the next level, keep it fresh, be critical when we need to be, but also acknowledge the ideas and writers of the past.

For me I think that says a lot about the level of confidence in what we might call the collective science fiction project right now.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

July 23, 2020

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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.