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The Best Science Fiction: The 2024 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist

recommended by Andrew M. Butler

Every year, the judges for the Arthur C. Clarke Award highlight the best of the latest batch of science fiction books. In 2024, the six-strong shortlist includes an exploration of octopus intelligence, a queer space opera, and a dystopian novel hailed as the new Hunger GamesAndrew M. Butler, academic and chair of the judges, talks us through the finalists for the title of sci fi novel of the year.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

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Thanks for joining us again to discuss the shortlist for the 2024 Arthur C. Clarke Award for the science fiction book of the year. Might you remind our readers what your judges are looking for?

The five judges – two from the Science Fiction Foundation, two from the British Science Fiction Association and one from Sci-Fi London – must choose the best science fiction novel published in Britain over the previous year. Each of these aspects are decided by each judge for themselves – it’s not that we say that it has to be science fiction like Arthur C. Clarke would have written or it has to be cognitive estrangement, or ‘hubris clobbered by nemesis,’ or whatever the latest definition of the genre is.

We’ve had books which have won the Clarke which some people consider fantasy. This year there were long discussions of whether alternate history is science fiction or not. We’ve previously shortlisted Simon Stålenhag’s The Electric State, which has pictures, and Harry Josephine Giles’s Deep Wheel Orcadia won two years ago, which is two poems, one in Orcadian Scots and the other an English translation. I suspect we may even need to squint occasionally to check whether a book was published in Britain or the United Kingdom… Whittling down more than hundred books to half a dozen is inevitably going to mean some compromises. Finding the final winner involves a lot of intense argument.

Let’s step through the six science fiction books shortlisted for the 2024 prize one by one, starting with Nana Kwame Adjei-Benyah’s Chain-Gang All Stars. This is a dystopian novel that some have likened to The Hunger Games. What did the judges like about it?

Speaking for myself, it’s the footnotes which makes the novel – and I know the judges discussed these. The set-up is that criminals are made to fight each other, with the possibility that the eventual winner will be freed. In the notes, Adjei-Benyah gives more details about some of the minor characters, but more importantly discusses and provides statistics about the racism of the American ‘justice’ system and miscarriages of justice. It works as a gripping thriller, but it educates us or reminds us of the inequalities in society; it’s at times harrowing. It’s a reminder that Black Lives Matter.

Next up we have The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan. Why is it one of the best sci-fi books of 2024?

This is a mosaic novel, which I suspect is a specialism of science fiction and fantasy – think of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

Yes. I can also think of Jennifer Egan’s incredible, semi-speculative A Visit from the Goon Squadand – more recently – Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark. Or even World War Z.

Lakshminarayan’s narrative is set in a dystopia centred on Big Data and algorithms and is effectively laid out in short stories, with characters rarely recurring between chapters. There’s no Winston Smith or D-503 for us to identify with or root for; we have to adjust or question our allegiances every few pages. The novel trusts us to do part of the world-building and yet it can wrong-foot us.

Intriguing. The third book on the 2024 shortlist is Martin MacInnes’s In Ascension. It falls on the more literary end of the sci-fi spectrum and was previously longlisted for the Booker Prize. Tell us more.

It was also named the Blackwell’s Book of the Year. One of their judges called it “a science fiction novel fit for the 21st century.”

I think it’s the most Clarkeian book on the shortlist, with adventures deep under the sea and ventures into outer space. It’s also got a bit of a Gravity vibe at times, although one of the judges would like to see Denis Villeneuve adapt it for the big screen after Dune.

Sounds epic.

If memory serves, MacInnes has come close to being shortlisted before, but like all this year’s shortlistees is new to the Clarke. This is a page turner, but it doesn’t sacrifice characterisation or big ideas.

Let’s turn our attention to Ray Naylor’s The Mountain in the Sea. Jeff VanderMeer called it “a first-rate speculative thriller.” Might you introduce us, and explain why it is one of the science fiction books of 2024?

It’s got octopus, so what more does anyone need to know?

In fact, speaking of Denis Villeneuve, there’s a hint of the film Arrival in the depiction of the attempts to make first contact with a very alien species – octopus anatomy and psychology is so aliens to ours and there’s been some speculation that they come from a very different origin to us. They are incredibly talented at escaping from captivity and seeking revenge on their human keepers.

Absolutely. I read a fascinating nonfiction book about octopus and cuttlefish intelligence, Other Minds. I can see why they might inspire speculative fiction.

The book encourages us to see humanity through their eyes and this isn’t always pretty. Meanwhile, we’ve got side-plots with robotic monks and assassination attempts, and it all comes together in a satisfying way.

Sounds great. That brings us to Some Desperate Glory, a queer space opera by Emily Tesh. What should readers expect?

There’s a slightly daunting trigger warning at the start, which I took as a bit of a hint not to take the main protagonist at face value.

Much of humanity has been wiped out by an alien species, with a surviving rump of humanity divided into the military and ‘breeders.’ Seventeen-year-old Kyr learns that she has been assigned to reproduction, whilst her brother has been given a suicide mission – but may have defected. She sets off to track him down, and in the process discovers that the situation isn’t quite as she’s been led to believe.

Tesh’s novel takes a sharp left turn a couple of times, which is brave, but I think she pulls it off.

The final science fiction book on the 2024 Clarke Award shortlist is Corey Fah Does Social Mobility by Isabel Waidner. The Guardian described it as an “energetic inquiry into class politics and cultural capital.” In a science fiction context, I presume! Can you talk us through it?

This is perhaps this year’s wild card and I think it may have been one the judges called in.

Waidner won the Goldsmiths prize for Sterling Karat Gold, their third novel, but theirs was a new name to me and I want to work my way through their back catalogue. The eponymous protagonist has won a prize in a city that seems to be a surreal version of Prague, but there’s a complication when they try to collect it. They enlist the help of a chat show host to track it down, but they seem as busy dealing with an eight-legged version of Bambi…

There are nods to a real murdered playwright, to Franz Kafka, to Disney and to the American artist Nicole Eisenman, alongside time travel and paradoxes. In the meantime, the novel raises questions about gender, sexuality, class, intersectionality and creativity, in a short but densely constructed narrative. Of course, if they win, we need to send them to Hyde Park so they can fail to pick up the trophy!

Has it been a good year for science fiction? Are you left feeling optimistic about the state of the genre in 2024?

We have a shortlist with six authors new to the award, although only a couple are debuts. Which is not to say that there weren’t great books by previous winners or shortlistees – but none of them cut through. One of the jobs of the award is to promote writers that not everyone has heard of, and each of these novels stand alone, rather than being parts of long series. I like series fiction, but it’s sometimes hard to find the entry point.

There are a lot of publishers that are still committed to print fiction, including some ambitious small presses and some people who have chosen the self-publication route. I’m optimistic because publishers are taking chances.

I haven’t crunched the numbers on demographics on the submissions list, but I don’t think we were in danger of an all-male shortlist. On the other hand, I think writers of colour are still underrepresented by British publishers. I hasten to say, there’s nothing inherently wrong with novels by cis, straight, white men – and the judges definitely don’t pick books to meet any kind of quotas – but it’s great to get perspectives that are different from the majority of the last century of science fiction writers.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

June 4, 2024

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Andrew M. Butler

Andrew M. Butler

Andrew M. Butler is a British academic who teaches film, media and communications at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is a former editor of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association and was membership secretary of the Science Fiction Foundation. He is the non-voting chair of the judges for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction.

Andrew M. Butler

Andrew M. Butler

Andrew M. Butler is a British academic who teaches film, media and communications at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is a former editor of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association and was membership secretary of the Science Fiction Foundation. He is the non-voting chair of the judges for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction.