Two hundred years before this year’s shortlisted books were released, Frankenstein was published. Among many other candidates, it marked the emergence of a new genre – science fiction – which we are here to mark tonight.
Mary Shelley taught us many things about science fiction.
It doesn’t have to be written by white men.
It doesn’t have to be told in a linear order.
It can be – perhaps always is – political.
It confronts the notion of the Other and what it is to be human.
It seems logical to begin with Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, which transposes the pattern to a worn-torn Baghdad and is a mosaic of different viewpoints and voices. One of our judges said “It’s an adventure, it’s a meditation on the nature of humanity.” It also explores the notion of the urban myth, in which ideas take on a life of their own, much as Shelley’s novel did. It shows the way science fiction can be used to satirise and critique the contemporary world and global politics. The judges also praised Jonathan Wright’s immaculate translation.
Simon Stålenhag’s The Electric State is not a translation, but perhaps we should note his first language is not English. I suspect it isn’t Swedish, either – because the novel is dominated by stunning, full-colour pictures. Here we have an apocalypse where humans are addicted to wearing VR headsets. Michelle sets off across the US with her robot Skip, searching for her missing brother. Her narrative intersects with another viewpoint and with the pictures’ own stories. The judges found it “an immersive book” and hailed it “an emotional triumph.”
Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin takes literally the idea that our bodies replace themselves every seven years – here humans shed their skin. We are all attached to our skins. We wouldn’t want someone else to have it or to wear it. The world is different because of this one change. The judges called it “a beautiful book, uncanny” and felt it was “like reading silk.”
Sue Burke’s debut, Semiosis, tells a story across several generations of a colony trying to survive on the wrong alien planet. “You can smell that world,” said one of the judges. But there’s a real alienness here. A couple of years ago we had a novel about intelligent spiders – here we have intelligent bamboo, or something sort of like bamboo, able to communicate with and manipulate the humans and the various other species on the planet, described by one judge as “enigmatic and yet familiar.”
Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is also a debut novel, the first of a trilogy, which like Nnedi Okorafar’s Lagoon is an angry riposte to District 9. We’re in alien invasion territory, and at least as early as Wells’s War of the Worlds, we know that such narratives are political and are also about imperialism and colonialism.
The area of West Africa we call Nigeria was in our world invaded by aliens in the nineteenth century, if not earlier.
Thompson’s aliens have landed in near future Nigeria, as well as swallowing London and seemingly knocking America off the map. Through fungal spores they have modified some humans into telepaths and once a year heal the people in the vicinity of their dome, even raising the dead. Our judges praised its intricacy and the non-linear storytelling, feeling they knew the central character inside out. Whilst it reminded them of Roadside Picnic and it is cyberpunk-flavoured, they declared it fantastically original.
If Rosewater opens a trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant gun closes one. This is a universe ruled by its calendar, where physics and people can be rewritten by new mathematics. Shuos Jedeo has been brought back from the dead to maintain the hegemony, but is increasingly uncertain that he wants to do so. He becomes less and less clear who he actually is – although he has been told he is the most reviled man in the universe. Our judges were “blown away by the sustaining of the central conceit” – and some of them came to it without reading the two earlier volumes. It’s a morally complicated novel, offering a kind of closure.
So, six books, six descendants of Shelley’s monster.
These novels are suffused with the sense of the alien and the other, yet insist that we identify with or empathise with the alien.
This is a political notion, as we all know that we should make our countries great again or take back control and that is all about demonising the other. As a result, we see different ways of living, countercultures imagined fifty years after the summer of love. And different ways of living need different ways of thinking and even different ways of storytelling – indeed some if not all of these novels are about storytelling. The classical unities of time, place and action won’t wash it in our mosaic, stitched together, out of control world.
After hours of discussion, our judges agonised over which would pip the other five to be our winner. I had a good idea when I started the meeting, but the judges kept me guessing until the last few seconds.
We found a winner which all the judges loved – and I think Mary would have too.
I know that Sir Arthur would have.