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The Best Science Fiction of 2021: The Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

recommended by Tom Hunter

Every year, the director of the Arthur C Clarke Award talks us through their six book shortlist. The 2021 crop of the best science fiction books features a "deliciously pulpy" space opera, a time travel story for young adults, and a cacophonous tale of talking animals. What they all have in common is that they are by debut authors, says Tom Hunter: they represent a new generation of sci fi writing.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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We’re here to discuss the 2021 Arthur C Clarke Award, which seeks to highlight the best new science fiction books. This is the third year in a row we’ve discussed your shortlists, but perhaps you could start by telling us a bit about the prize for late joiners.

The Arthur C Clarke Award is a UK-based prize for the best science fiction book of the year. 2021 marks our 35th presentation. It was originally launched in partnership with the Science Fiction Foundation, which operates the excellent science fiction library at Liverpool University, and the British Science Fiction Association, the main fan organisation in the UK. They contribute judges to us every year. We also currently work with the Sci-Fi London Film Festival.

This anniversary is a big one for us. Ten years ago, at our 25th anniversary, we might have shut the award down. Sir Arthur passed away, and the money coming from him towards our prize money stopped. So our bank account was empty, and we considered getting smaller and carrying on with no prize money or stopping altogether, but instead we completely changed the business model and have continued to get stronger every year. So this is a huge celebration for us internally: ten years of growth and success.

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You can see that in the number of books being submitted to us now, which is over 100 each year since 2013. This reflects the recognition of the award both publicly and within the publishing space. More publishers and imprints want to put their books forward, and there is wider consideration and willingness to push the barriers of what we might consider a science fiction title. One of the thing that defines our award very clearly, going right back to the establishment of the award, is that we don’t have a single definition of ‘science fiction’; we don’t have a single definition of ‘best’; and we don’t even have a definition of ‘novel’—there’s no particular word count.

We think about length, but think of novels like The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It’s only about 30,000 words, I think. So we look at the whole of the book, rather than judging the word count, imprint, anything like that. And we wouldn’t have the numbers of entries we do if the divide between science fiction and literary fiction wasn’t breaking down. A classic example is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. That won a National Book Award in America, and was praised by Barack Obama as well as winning the Clarke Award.

Talk me through this year’s shortlist.

I say this every year, but this is definitely my favourite shortlist. It’s a shortlist that I’m extra delighted to have on this 35th anniversary. And it’s particularly cheering to see such a diverse shortlist full of fantastic new authors.

That’s right—it’s impossible not to mention that these are all debut novels.

Yes. The award is well-known for recognising debut authors. But this is the first time all six nominated books are by first-time authors. The stars have aligned.

It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t something the judges intended when they made their decision. They weren’t looking to hit particular quotas around equity, diversity or identity, although it is something we consider. And we were not setting out to say that we should be supporting first-time authors over and above established authors.

“This is the first time all six nominated books are by first-time authors”

We cut the books down from 104 to around 20 or 25 books that were under serious consideration, then to a shorter list again of 13. The discussion was still raging at that point. Then you hone in and hone in, and start to see, you know, are we talking about fresh voices? Is that what’s exciting to the judges? Do they speak to a contemporary issue, or are they timeless? All these things are weighed and balanced.

We always say to our judges that we are coming to them for their expertise. We have academics, we have authors, but we also have fans. We want those judges to find the books that appeal to them, those books that they are deeply passionate about, that they resonate with on a number of levels.

Our first book shortlisted for the 2021 award for the best new science fiction novel is The Infinite by Patience Agbabi.

Okay. Patience Agbabi is a debut author, and she’s very well regarded in spoken word and poetry circles. This is also one of only a few times we’ve shortlisted a novel for younger readers; I think Stephen Baxter’s H-Bomb Girl was the first example of a YA novel to be shortlisted, in 2008. Patrick Ness, who is very well known, was also shortlisted for Monsters of Men in 2011. But both of those authors are known within the science fiction space. Patience has just leapt right to the front with her first book.

And this is a great book for us to start with if we’re talking about what the award is trying to show in terms of the breadth of science fiction. We’ve got here a young heroine. She’s Afro-Caribbean, she’s autistic. She’s at high school, but this high school is very special in that she attends a school in the future, because she is a time traveler, born on February 29, during which a certain percentage of people are gifted with time traveling powers. But things are going wrong in the future. That’s the crux of the plot. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but it’s worth saying that the book opens with a quote from Greta Thunberg, which will perhaps give you a nod towards the direction of travel.

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Of course, there are some very recognisable tropes here: you’ve got the school. This is a great way to engage with younger readers, by setting things in environments that they’re familiar with. But while it is aimed at younger readers, that doesn’t mean the writing is any less mature. It’s an absolute page turner.

And as you might imagine, it’s a very particular first person voice. You could talk about some comparable titles like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, with the autistic protagonist. But Agbabi’s spoken word background brings a freshness.

Yes. And YA can play such an important role in getting people into reading as young people, or getting them into science fiction in particular. I remember reading Interstellar Pig by William Sleater as a teenager, having picked it at random in the library, and it blew my mind. I think it introduced me to the concept of mathematics in base twelve. So YA sci fi can also be a good introduction to complex concepts you later meet in school. Time travel novels, like The Infinite, are full of interesting paradoxes to make you think.

Definitely. Most science fiction readers become fans young, then seek out the stuff that interests them. You know: I liked spaceships the way some kids like football, so now I Iike real spaceships, lego spaceships… it also led to other interests in robotics, cybernetics, digital culture and the environment as well. And it’s exciting to have this book on the shortlist because I know a lot of our fans have kids of their own and are looking for good books to give them.

Our award doesn’t have set criteria, as I said. But any award will naturally accrue a kind of understanding of what people think it is. If you’re named after the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as we are, I think people are going to think of stark interiors, homicidal AI… anything in the same kind of style. But although I don’t want to speak for Clarke, I think this is one of the books he would fight for if he were on our judging panel.

Well, speaking of futurism and artificial intelligence, does that bring us to the second book on your 2021 shortlist of the best new science fiction books? Please tell us about Edge of Heaven by R.B. Kelly.

Absolutely. So this is set in 2119, around 100 years ahead. And as you can imagine, things are not going well on the near future Earth. I don’t usually like to make these sorts of comparisons, but if you liked Blade Runner, that noir flavour of science fiction, then this is probably the one our shortlist for you. Think crumbling societies, dispossessed populations, outlawed technologies and a (very on trend) deadly plague to name just a few of the challenges our protagonists will be facing here.

If The Infinite exemplified what the Clarke Award can do in terms of recognising the wealth of science fiction for younger readers, another area that’s always welcome to us is the opportunity to help promote small presses. And this book comes to us via a long and winding road. So, R. B. Kelly won the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition, which is a small award specifically for first time writers. The winner has their book published by a small press, and Edge of Heaven was first published in the Republic of Ireland in 2016—so, not eligible for our award. But it was then subsequently picked up by another small press in the UK—NewCon Press, which has a very strong track record in UK science fiction having made its name publishing anthologies before moving into novels and novellas.

I should quickly declare an interest here: NewCon Press worked with us directly on a collection of 2001-word long short stories to honour Sir Arthur C Clarke’s 100th birthday. But let me be clear: I as the prize director have nothing to do with the judging, so there’s no bias whatsoever. But I have been expecting to see this publisher arrive on our shortlists for a while—and it’s extra special I think that it’s this particular book. We know from past experience that we are good at finding authors at the beginning of their career; they might go on to write for twenty, thirty years. But this award can create a lot of exposure that can make all the difference for a new writer just starting out.

Next on your 2021 shortlist of the best new science fiction is Chilling Effect by  Valerie Valdes.

Yes. Valdes is a Cuban-American author. A debut author, too, of course. This is an exciting, fun book. We love serious, literary books—The Handmaid’s Tale was our first ever winner—but not all books that we like must be set in patriarchal, oppressive, near-future dystopias. We like fun books! And, actually, one of the biggest conversations between our judges this year was around a number of different titles that were just great fun and whether this was important to reflect in an award like the Clarke.

Locus magazine called this “delightfully pulpy”, which I love. Sometimes you do want pulp—but very good comfort reading is hard to find.

It’s not like we don’t have form here. It reminds me of our 1991 winner, Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland which was also a hugely fun spare opera romp, and Neil Gaiman was one of our judges that year, so you can’t get a higher endorsement for the value of fun in science fiction than that.

So yes, Chilling Effect is delightfully pulpy. You know, it’s got psychic cats. It’s got a mismatched crew on a spaceship. People will say ‘we’ve seen that before,’ but as with all our shortlisted books there’s something that makes this distinct and original. We’ve got near-future noir, time travel, solar system colonisation, dystopic pandemic-based stuff… these tropes do have a lot of life in them when they are found by new writers. And seeing something familiar in a new way is going to be exciting for the judges.

“There’s a big movement in science fiction towards books that are fun”

This is really good, fun, brilliantly well written, and the characters stay with you. One of our judges said that they went back and immediately started reading this one again—this, out of hundreds of books. So that’s praise.

If we’re looking at trends, I think there’s a big movement in science fiction towards books that are fun. We ran a survey on people’s reading habits in 2020 and asked ‘has Covid affected your reading?’56 percent of respondents said ‘yes, absolutely.’ Many are looking for comfort reads, lots of people are reading more. Although of course, everyone’s experience of Covid has been very different. So I do want to thank all our judges who have been reading all the submissions under those same conditions.

But I also think this is part of a bigger trend, which we have seen for several years now. We’ve seen writers like Becky Chambers winning the Hugo Award—

For her much loved Wayfarers series.

—so I think there is a strong upswelling of fun books.

Another key issue that people are looking at is how science fiction is engaging with issues of, for example, diversity. And here we have a very diverse ship crew. In science fiction, there might be alien ethnicities… all these kinds of things that can be a mechanism for exploration against an interstellar backdrop. Back on Earth we are arguing about LGBTQI+ issues, and then suddenly in sci fi we have a protagonist that changes sex.

Right. I was talking about exactly this with Sherryl Vint recently, in the context of Ursula Le Guin’s best books.

There are a lot of precedents. So what writers like Valerie are doing is taking these great big issues and having fun with it, not feeling the pressure of science fiction as a predictive literature. Which it isn’t anyway—as so many scifi writers will tell you, we’re not trying to literally guess the future, we’re talking about now. Books like Chilling Effect are very much about the now.

I like books that satisfy on multiple levels, but they are not always dark and gritty. So this is one for people who want quality, but also need to relax. It’s called Chilling Effect for a reason!

Shall we talk about The Animals in that Country? I’ve just finished it, and loved it. It’s clever and a little bit experimental, without taking itself too seriously. It’s also one of two books on the shortlist that deal with pandemics. Is that just a coincidence?

We get pandemic books every year. Station Eleven, our 2015 winner, was a pandemic book.

And one of my favourite books of all time.

If you add zombie pandemics… we get more than enough of those.

So, the premise of The Animals in that Country is that there is a pandemic, but it’s a virus that enables humans to start to understand the speech of animals. But not in a Doctor Dolittle way, when we can just chat to them. It’s more like the Wittgenstein idea that ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.’

Right, that’s the epigraph, so it’s very explicitly an exploration of that idea.

So the characters can hear them, but they don’t always know what they are saying. And of course you don’t want to hear everything. It will drive you mad.

People look at the Clarke Award shortlist every year and try to guess what the judges were thinking. They automatically think: that’s the space one, that’s the fun one, that’s the literary one. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that this is the literary one, at least in terms of its origins, not as a statement of relative quality versus our other contenders.

It’s coming from a publisher, Scribe (part of the Penguin Random House family), which doesn’t traditionally do a lot in the speculative fiction market. This is the first time they were submitting to us, and obviously they are thrilled this book was shortlisted.

“If you’re going to travel via an Einstein-Rosen bridge, it can take a chapter of explanatory text or you can just say ‘the wormhole opened…’”

The book has elements of pandemic, elements of the road trip—the need to get across country to find family members, other survivors who are accommodating the breakdown of society. We kind of know how societies are supposed to breakdown in zombie apocalypses or in environmental crises. We’ve seen it a million times before. But this one stood out because it’s nothing like those at all, and all the familiar tropes are up in the air.

I think it was that breath of imagination that really appealed to the judges. How would you imagine animal speech? They also talked about the joy of the writing in this book. The imaginative feat of trying to understand how an animal might communicate, and what that communication might be. It’s the literary equivalent of imagining how a hyperdrive works; if you’re going to travel via an Einstein-Rosen bridge, it can take a chapter of explanatory text or you can just say ‘the wormhole opened…’. If you can take the reader on that journey and make it believable… well, that is what this book does. If you wish that animals really would speak to us, this is the guidebook for you.

Okay. Next on our shortlist of the best science fiction of 2021 is another book by first time author: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez.

This book’s publisher, Titan, will be very well known to a lot of readers for the excellent nonfiction work they do with big coffee table film books and similar, but over recent years have been very active in publishing their own lists of science fiction, fantasy and horror. They’ve picked up a lot of great authors, and Simon Jimenez is no exception. If the following book, Vagabonds, is near-space, our own solar system, then The Vanished Birds is very definitively space opera.

Sorry to interrupt, but do you mind explaining what you mean by that?

Of course. Space opera is always so difficult to define, but I’ll give it a go. I would suggest that if a story allows for the possibility of intergalactic travel without the several thousand years wait it should take to get to the nearest star, you’re probably in space opera territory. It doesn’t have to be a Star Wars style evil galactic empire but we’re definitely talking about spacefaring civilisation or civilisations, where the actual collapse of the journey required has been solved by means that might be called hand waving…. Or it might be very well worked out!

One of my favourite examples of solving the faster than light trick is a book called Light by M. John Harrison—which was nominated for the Clarke Award; he won it in 2007 with the sequel, Nova Swing—where basically every civilisation in the universe will evolve very different mathematics and philosophical concepts of how the universe works, and because that’s how they model the universe all the methods work even if they work on contradictory physics… It plays very cleverly with quantum uncertainty principles so civilisations ends up with something like a sort of Schrodinger’s drive; if you don’t believe it, you can’t get the engine to start.

Ha!

Hopefully that’s not too off the cuff a sense of what space opera is, and to get more specific this next book, The Vanished Birds, opens with an absolute classic of that intergalactic perspective—picture a very distant planet, a very low tech planet that was colonised in some distant past and is now home to generations of farmers. Every 15 years, the skies open and a fleet of ships descend upon the fields. The ships are described as being made of metal and cloth—and we don’t know whether we’re seeing this through the eyes of somebody who just doesn’t know what they’re seeing or if it’s a literal description—but it’s a very beautiful image that remind me of Sir Arthur’s famous line that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

These spaceships sail in to collect the harvests and the people on the ships are travelling at post-relativity speeds, so they are ageing at a very different speed. A character on the planet would see the same spaceship crew member as having aged perhaps a year in the time they have aged 15 themselves. The planet’s farmers might not see it, but as readers suddenly we’re exposed to this vast gulf of relative time and the number of generations that might have lived and died, cut off on their planet while working to supply an intergalactic marketplace they never see for themselves.

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And it’s a beautifully written book. It doesn’t spend too much time explaining these technologies. This ‘ship of cloth’ and so on. One of the joys of space opera, of course, is that because we’re far future (or perhaps a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) the need to explain these magical technologies is lessened and you can just give yourself to the dream.

It’s interesting to discuss this book and the collapsing of intergalactic space travel into something entirely non-magic, almost mundane, in the lives of a spacefaring civilisation (especially perhaps in those moments where characters don’t know they are part of this much larger world beyond their own). It references back to many other classics of science fiction as well—so for those who like to see lineage in their science fiction, you’ll definitely have fun tracing back all of the different links in this book. However, as a first time author, Simon is exploring this from a very different cultural background, even if he’s picking up on ideas that have been part of the science fiction toolkit forever, basically. When our judges come to their deliberations, they might look at a book where the fictional far future has some familiar touchpoints but be drawn in by an author’s new direction of travel. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but that spirit of continual reinvention is what’s powered science fiction all these years.

Great. I think that brings us to our final book: Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang.

I think this is the first time a book in translation has been nominated for the prize, so it’s very exciting. It’s published by Head of Zeus, a publisher that is leading the field right now in terms of bringing works in translation into the mainstream.

But let’s talk about the book. It’s near space—that is, our solar system—set in the future on a colonised Mars. So it couldn’t be more topical. Settlement has been achieved, and indeed Mars would like to separate from the Earth. I say that science fiction isn’t predictive, but a quick glance over our own contemporary politics and you can see that this is definitely well within the limits of plausibility.

Hao Jingfang is a Chinese author, and science fiction is often discussed as a way artists and writers can use fictions as a way to write if there are issues around state censorship; the Strugatsky brothers in Russia would be another great example here.  You can imagine that science fiction is a form that might even be encouraged by the state, especially if your own country seems to be doing very well in a particular imagined future, and the more subtle critiques might slide past the censor as long as they see the right flag on the right planet.

“Science fiction is a way writers can write if there are issues around state censorship”

All that makes the story sound very political, but the book itself is very lyrical and reflective right from its beautifully evocative opening line: Once, a group of children was born on one world and grew up on another. It’s almost a fairy tale opening… once upon a future time.

It’s a thoughtful book, in the very best way. Some science fiction books spend their time talking about technology and what that means; this is more about the philosophies of that cultural change—what it means to have two planets now separated, rather than one ruled over by the other, and the tensions between two very different cultural backgrounds. The book follows characters born on Mars, sent to Earth, and then come back again. So it’s very much an ambassador-type story, or one where the cultures are literally worlds apart.

We talked about the ‘literary’ book on the shortlist earlier and perhaps this is actually the literary one, in the way people often think of ‘literary’ as meaning a book that’s very focused on a character’s interiority. If your perceptions of what science fiction is comes more from popular culture, by which I guess we’re really talking about cinema and videogames, you might think that the key to a good sf story is a good mix of action and imaginary technologies I hope many readers here who are less familiar with the written part of the genre might be tempted to start with this book in which case they’ll find something fresher and more intellectually invigorating than your regular franchise fare (fun as that can be).

So that brings us to the end of our shortlist of six. All of these books are imaginative and very different, but still very much within the heart of what we call science fiction, even if they are all pushing in different directions—taking tropes and reimagining them afresh. And we have entirely new voices, coming from translation.

We can review our submissions data to see trends in science fiction publishing; we know that this year, our gender breakdown was 39% female, down from last year’s 40% but ten points on the median from where its been just five years prior, and feels like a small but positive change worth noting.

Obviously it takes a long time to produce books—for publishers to find new voices, for writers to be commissioned. We know that among publishers there is active outreach to make their lists more diverse, partly due to demand from readers. And we’re starting to see the results of that demand being met now in our more recent submissions.

We’re also seeing larger numbers of female writers coming to the fore consistently in our shortlists, and more writers of colour. We’re glad to see the raw data pointing towards larger diversity of authors and readers. But the point I want to make is that these are fantastic books that deserve to be read precisely because they are fantastic books.

Just as a final question: why is it important for readers to find new writers, or new books at all, rather than simply working through the extensive back catalogue of sci fi classics?

Firstly, I should say that it’s great when the Arthur C Clarke Award showcases new writers, but that’s not one of our mission statements. Our judges form their own opinion of what they are looking for every year. But I do think it’s brilliant when we are able to spotlight something new.

We’ve done some surveys around reading habits within our fan base: active sci fi fans, rather than the general populace. So we know that they will read about 50 books a year—a book a week, basically. Not as many as our judges have to read, but much wider in terms of the range of books. For example, when we dug into the data, we found that of those 50 books, maybe only five or six of those books being read will be books published in that same year. The vast majority of books people are reading are already from past years, whether they’re considered classics or not.

Think of it this way: just as the light we see in the night sky is from distant stars and thousands or millions of years old by the time it arrives on our planet, what we are looking at now with today’s shortlist and submissions is really the science fiction of several years ago. All these books have taken time to write, maybe sometimes years before they’re ready to be submitted to agents, been rejected, kept going, submitted again, found a publisher and so on…

That’s a great way to think about it.

Science fiction might be the literature of the future, but it’s a genre that continues to reinvent itself by standing on the shoulders of its own heritage. Personally I’ve often found the best way to engage with the legacy of our genre is precisely by following personal line of interest back from books that inspired me back to books that inspired their authors and so on and on. For me this feels like a more natural way to trace back through the history of science fiction rather than jumping to some pre-set list of classics. Science fiction isn’t a curriculum to be completed, there’s no test at the end and reading an award shortlist should be for pleasure, not homework.

Award shortlists are perhaps at their best when they serve as an encouragement to break out of a pattern of familiar reading and try something new, and perhaps at their worst when taken as a dictate that in some way replaces our own sense of what ‘best’ might mean.

I’ve always said if you find one book in our shortlist of six that’s love at first sight, the chances are you’ll find one that doesn’t work for you as well because a good shortlist should be six different interpretations of ‘best,’ not the same formula repeated six times over.

So, if you find one book on the shortlist that jumps out at you, I say pick it up—it might just be tomorrow’s classic in your hands today!—but pick it up because it was recommended to you in the way you might pay attention to a friend enthusing about their new favourite author or novel.

With science fiction publishing in the UK thriving and over 100 increasingly diverse titles currently being published every year, a single definition of science fiction in the 2020s will always be a challenge. We’ve put forward our best answer, but it’s ultimately the readers who will decide how close we came to getting it right.

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

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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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.