My speech as Non-voting Chair of JudgesTM at Foyles, 27 July 2017.
We come to honour the modern Prometheans.
We come to honour those who steal fire.
We come to honour those chained to rocks.
We come to honour those whose livers are plucked out by eagles.
Well, maybe not the last, but do keep drinking.
Two hundred years ago, the teenaged daughter of two radicals, who had run away to Europe, published a novel in which a scientist brings dead matter to life and then abandons his offspring. We can read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in many ways, but in part it’s about technology and reproduction, about parenting and responsibility and about what it is to be human.
Those are some good themes.
Our authors are still exploring them, two centuries on. There were four debut sf novels on the shortlist this year and the other two authors are new to the Clarke Award.
Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time is set in a near future where people can have babies by donation or redesign their babies or even have be both parents. In a series of vignettes, intersecting in subtle ways, Charnock explores some of the social implications and some of the emotions of children and parents. It’s a book that demands rereading, our judges finding it subtle and “a quiet, unshowy book” that lingers for a long time.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne is set after apocalyptic events, with the few survivors scavenging in the bad lands in fear of the dreadful Company, in fear of the awful Magician and in fear of the bearful Mord, a huge, aggressive, flying bear. One survivor is Rachel, living in an uneasy relationship with a scavenger named Wick, who find a strange object she takes at first to be a plant, but turns out to be an animal and indeed sentient. They call it – him – Borne and Rachel raises him like a child, until Borne starts having ideas of his own. Our judges called it “absolutely bonkers” with “batshit crazy technology” – but, obviously, batshit in a good way.
Children, daughters, with ideas of their own are at the heart of Jennie Melamed’s debut Gather the Daughters, a postapocalyptic island community where daughters are very definitely property of their fathers and are abused in all kinds of ways. Whilst the society’s set up brings its own crises, the thrust of the novel is the young women’s attempt to assert agency. Our judges said this is “An important book which places the experiences of the abused and their testimony at the centre” and it offers us “Unspoken stories of the unheard”. It’s clearly in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that seems more relevant today than thirty years ago.
Revolution features in Omar El Akkad’s American War, another debut, where we follow the actions of a child and then woman Sarat in the Second American Civil War after the death of her father. She is radicalized by a father figure and we see how she is driven to terrible acts. It is a tale of American politics told from the outside, which our judges felt “Turns sf’s power structures upside down” and marks “The end of the American century.”
Jaroslav Kalfař’s debut Spaceman of Bohemia straddles a historic revolution from the perspective of a lone astronaut on a Czech space mission to investigate a strange cloud which may threaten Earth. Not only do we get the story of his travels – and his encounter with an alien spider-like creature – but we delve into his past and the actions of his father and grandfather before the Velvet Revolution. The sins of the fathers may yet be visited on the sons. It is Swiftian and Kafka-esque, and Hasek-esque and our judges loved its “Sf exploration of recent Czech political history”
C. Robert Cargill has written in other modes and genres, but Sea of Rust is his first sf novel. It’s told from the point of a sentient robot, after an AI created apocalypse in the wake of a movement for robot rights. Humans have refused to acknowledge their artificial offspring and are usurped by their creation. Robots get finally to be human, with all their resourceful, wisdom, skills and their foibles, jealousies, politics and aggression. It has element of westerns – The Dirty Dozen, perhaps, with raids and sawbones doctors and ambushes and shootouts. Our judges found it “an unexpected pleasure” and “An effortless read”, and it, like Borne, is a whole lot of fun.
I think our judges had fun whittling down the submissions to six, and I thank them for their good humour and patience in the heart breaking process of agreeing which of the half dozen were dispensable and which we wished to choose as the latest winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The other five books will take on lives of their own and be read and I think we have a snapshot of the modern Prometheus and what science fiction can do in these dark and uncertain times. Words and stories remain important.
But one of the books had to win, as the eagles circled, eyeing our livers.
It’s time to discover the latest Titan.