In 1987, the first winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced. Margaret Atwood won with the sublime A Handmaid’s Tale. In 2016, the 30th award will be handed out in August. The shortlist of 6 titles, announced at SCI-FI LONDON on 27 April, has been whittled down from 113 submissions. That’s a lot of books!
We know about the 30 great and well-deserved winners, but what about the others? The one’s that didn’t quite make it. There are some terrific books in the shortlists each year and this is a perfect opportunity to look at some of the best of the runners-up. Having not read all of the short-listed books over the past 30 years (I have a bit of a life) these are my favourites. These are the one’s I’d should about to those who haven’t read them. These are the ones that have great characters, complex plots, interesting sub-texts and just plain awesome science fiction [note, some spoilers ahead].
2006 Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go
My favourite of all those runners-up is without doubt Ishiguro’s classic dystopian novel. It’s an examination of class via the premise of organ-farming with a difference. The book is a study in childhood friendship in an oddly sinister boarding school, the discovery of love in young adults and how we care for each other as a society, when illness strikes. Ishiguro’s prose is hauntingly beautiful yet bleak; full of ominous doom. Society has rarely been as heartless, while characters so full of heart.
(2006 winner Air by Geoff Ryman – I’ve read and while excellent, not as good as Ishiguro)
1996 Christopher Priest The Prestige
If you’ve seen the film directed by Christopher Nolan, you might already know the plot, but not necessarily the source novel’s narrative. This is the best way to experience Priest’s wonderful tale of magic and science. I’m not usually a fan of epistolary novels, but the diary format works well here. We only know what is written by the protagonists, highlighting both the mystery and the illusions. There is genuine antagonism between the magicians and not just based on their stage show. The very real Nikola Tesla invents something not so real, which takes this brilliant book into the realms of science fiction.
(1996 winner Fairyland by Paul J McAuley – not read)
1994 Nicola Griffith Ammonite
Ammonite is a wonderful book, in a wonderful year for science fiction (see below). Set on a distant planet, it is the story of women (men are all killed by a virus), of myth, of tribes and family and what home means. It is an excellent relationship drama. It hits all the science fiction notes perfectly (planet, space ships, mysterious virus, what it means to be a human) but it is the characters’ motivations and the magnificent magical prose by Griffith that elevates this above many of its contemporaries. As the books says, “What’s life without magic?”
1994 Neal Stephenson Snow Crash
Stephenson’s 3rd book is as textually complex as all his novels, but I submit that this one is the most fun to read. Set in an ‘independent’ 21st century Los Angeles, Hiro Protagonist (deliberately named) learns that the new titular drug is being sold in nightclubs. So he seeks it out. Hiro can now experience the metaverse (next-level internet) and the real world simultaneously. Featuring hacking, sword-fighting, anarcho-capitalists, class-war, the power of information, religion and the Sumerian language. What’s not to love!
(1994 winner Vurt by Jeff Noon – one of my all time favourite books and more deserving than Ammonite, just)
2015 Claire North The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The complexity and imagination of North’s debut (but not from her other selves, Catherine Webb and Kate Griffin) is mind-blowing. It’s not that Harry keeps dying and being reborn, but it’s in the lives he leads and how they interconnect with all those around him. When a message comes from the future the plot, delightfully, thickens. Webb’s talent is immense and as North, her prose is eminently readable. While not a page-turner in the classic sense, you simply want to keep on reading to find out how the final web (pun intended) will be revealed.
(2015 winner Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – just about deserved)
1988 Ken Grimwood Replay
Proper classic science fiction from Grimwood, and similar on the surface to North’s recent novel. Our protagonist is a 43-year-old man who dies and is reborn in 1963 in his 18-year-old body, memories intact. This rebirth happens again and again, with different outcomes. It has more of the time-loop premise than North’s as he always dies the same way at the same age, on cue. The best science fiction addresses life and death and Replay is no exception. Thoughtful and appealing writing makes this a terrific read and well worth digging out.
(1988 winner George Turner The Sea and Summer – not read)
2011 Ian McDonald The Dervish House
Set in the near future, McDonald’s story is an engaging book about how disparate characters’ lives can affect each other, often without them ever meeting each other. Our world and McDonald’s is an interconnected and complex one. In 2027, a bomb goes off during a heatwave. Ordinary people are drawn into extraordinary events. The world is seen through the perspective of 6 main characters, all richly drawn and complex. This is thoughtful science fiction, but also dips into mythology and cultural identity in a region that has always been a melting-pot.
(2011 winner Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – a clear and deserved winner)
1993 Connie Willis Doomsday Book
Named after the actual 1086 book, Willis engages in a time-travel MacGuffin in order to take us back to middle ages. Most of this book is set there so feels less like a science fiction novel than a historical story of the coming of the Black Death. Only as it is seen through the eyes of the late-21st Century traveller, Kirvin, does Willis’ tale fall in the realms of speculative fiction. There are some lovely ideas in this book (a machine refusing to send someone back in time if it thinks the past will be altered) but it is the bleak history (the sense of dread is palpable) and personal tragedies the Kirvin witnesses that fascinates.
(1993 winner Body of Glass by Marge Piercy – not read)
Honourable mentions: 2008 Sarah Hall The Carhullan Army; 2008 Ken MacLeod The Execution Channel; 2010 Adam Roberts Yellow Blue Tibia; 2013 Ken McLeod Intrusion; 2003 David Brin Kiln People; 1987 Greg Bear Eon; 2011 Richard Powers Generosity; 2010 Marcel Theroux Far North; 2014 Christopher Priest The Adjacent.