Science fiction in the mainstream: Clarke Award contenders

Two things struck me during a recent Twitter discussion on favourites for next year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. The first was that relatively few genre names came to mind; a few Clarke stalwarts were mentioned — China Miéville, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Neal Stephenson — but only enough to be a very small proportion of the 50-60 books which make up a typical list of submissions for the award (and it’s not even certain that the relevant books by all the writers I’ve named above will qualify as sf).

The second thing that struck me was that the number of mainstream-published novels which could be read as science fiction is rather high this year. ‘You should do a blog post!’ said Martin Lewis; so here is a list of those titles I know about (note that I haven’t read them all, so I’m going purely on the synopsis in some cases).

David Almond, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean

The first adult novel by children’s author Almond (Skellig) is a dystopian story narrated by young Billy in his own vernacular. With its manner of telling, comparisons with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy may well ensue.

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

A near-future tale of gangsters, set in a fictitious part of Ireland. Seems to be gaining acclaim for its prose style in particular.

Marius Brill, How to Forget

A magician with a murky past becomes involved in an experiment on memory which may allow him to forget the things he can’t help but remember. The potential is there for this to be reminiscent of Richard Powers’ Generosity from last year’s Clarke shortlist (albeit of course with different subject matter).

[EDIT: I’m wrong! How to Forget isn’t actually science-fictional at all.]

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Probably the best-known book on this list. I felt the novel was good, but no more than that; and only tenuously justifiable as science fiction — but, then again, I did find its sf content rather effective. My instinct is that Goon Squad is not a likely Clarke nominee, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Benjamin Hale, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

The memoir of a chimpanzee who acquires human language and intelligence. A very long book which seems to have attracted relatively little attention, but I’ve seen some very positive commentary.

Sam Leith, The Coincidence Engine

Interesting developments come to the attention of the ‘Directorate of the Extremely Improbable’, beginning with the spontaneous assemblage of an aircraft during a hurricane. Leith’s novel may or may not fall under the heading of Barleypunk, but it would seem to have a similarly self-aware approach to that of Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, the Mark Wernham title that was shortlisted in 2009.

Simon Lelic, The Facility

A near-future political thriller revolving around a secret detention centre. I think the novel takes an interesting approach to its form, but in doing so becomes less successful as sf, which might weaken its chances of being a real Clarke contender.

Anna North, America Pacifica

In search of her mother, a seventeen-year-old girl heads towards the only temperate land in a frozen world. From recent Clarke shortlists, this brings to mind Marcel Theroux’s excellent Far North; one can only hope it’s as good.

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The science fiction novel that made it on to the Booker longlist. May make an interesting point of comparison with the David Almond title above, as both seem to focus on young narrators who are key to their worlds’ survival.

Jonathan Trigell, Genus

A tale of life among the have-nots in a near future where complete genetic selection is available to the haves. I think the evocation of the setting is the greatest strength of this novel; whether that’s enough to make it a likely Clarke contender, I’m undecided.

Katie Ward, Girl Reading

Of all the novels I’m listing here, this is probably the one that looks least like science fiction at first sight, as it comprises a sequence of historical novellas on portraits and their subjects. But the final chapter is set in the future and makes sf out of the rest. I rather liked this book, and Adam Roberts really liked it; instinct says it may be too obliquely sf-nal to be shortlisted for the Clarke — but then, Cloud Atlas was shortlisted, so that instinct may be wrong (and I’d have no problem if that turned out to be the case).

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

The last on my alphabetical list and, conveniently, the one I’ve read which I like the most. Set in an alternate England where those of religious faith were exiled to an island off the north-east coast, Wood’s novel has a great sense of place and is a fine portrait of its world. I would certainly be happy to see this on next year’s Clarke shortlist.


There we have a dozen non-genre sf novels receiving their first UK publication this year, though I doubt very much that my list is comprehensive (for a start, it doesn’t include YA, which is not a field I know much about); I’d welcome any suggestions of books that I’ve missed.

What I don’t doubt is that mainstream-published work is a key part of the UK science fiction landscape at the moment, and it would not surprise me to see that reflected in the next Clarke Award shortlist. The Clarke hasn’t gone to a non-genre title since The Calcutta Chromosome in 1997 — will that change next year? Of course, until we see the shortlist and read the books, it’s impossible to say; but I suspect the genre titles will have a run for their money.


  1. Good post! I can think of a couple more:

    Then by Julie Myerson

    The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung

    Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (another one of those where reviews are ambiguous about how sfnal it actually is; on balance I suspect it’s not, but I also think the judges should probably look at it if they can)

    I’ve read Rogers (still mulling, but increasingly inclined to think it really quite good) and Egan (not so convinced), and have Barry, North, Ward, Wood, and Kunzru. (And Koonchung on order from Amazon.) Particularly looking forward to the Wood, I think.

  2. Great list, David. I’ve got 2 on the list on my shelf but am tempted to read more!

  3. David Hebblethwaite

    18th August 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Niall: I hadn’t heard of the Myerson or Chan — thanks! I left the Kunzru off because I was unsure whether it would qualify as sf. I’ve got copies of all the books I’ve listed, bar North and Rogers; should really get on and read more of them…

    Sakura: Which ones have you got?

  4. Another one, if you’re being inclusive with your definitions: The Submission by Amy Waldman.

  5. David Hebblethwaite

    24th August 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Thanks, Niall. At this rate, a follow-up post may soon be in order…

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