Michel Faber's space missionary joins MR Carey's zombies on Arthur C Clarke shortlist

The Book of Strange New Things and The Girl With All the Gifts lead contenders for UK’s top SF prize

Michel Faber.
New Things appeal ... Michel Faber. Photograph: David Rose/REX
New Things appeal ... Michel Faber. Photograph: David Rose/REX

Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 08.00 EST

Michel Faber’s haunting tale of a missionary who travels to a strange planet trillions of miles away, The Book of Strange New Things, has been shortlisted for the UK’s top science fiction prize, the Arthur C Clarke award.

The prize-winning novelist, who was previously shortlisted for the Whitbread for his story of an alien who preys on men, Under the Skin, will compete with five other writers for the prestigious award set up by Clarke almost 30 years ago. This year’s line-up runs the gamut from more literary works by Faber and Canadian writer Emily St John Mandel, picked for her vision of a world decimated by a flu pandemic Station Eleven, to MR Carey’s zombie novel The Girl With All the Gifts, called “as original, thrilling and powerful a novel as anything I’ve read in a long time” by James Smythe in the Hlcarpenter.com.

Finnish writer Emmi Itäranta makes the cut for her debut, Memory of Water, in which a girl is given the secret of the spring hidden near her village on her 17th birthday. Originally published in Finnish, the novel was translated by the author herself into English. The shortlist, chosen from 107 submissions by judges, is completed with Claire North’s story of a man who lives his life again and again, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, described as “the love child of John le Carré and Franz Kafka” by its tiny publisher Solaris. Set in a future Europe which has divided into myriad tiny states, novelist Adam Roberts called it “one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time” in his Hlcarpenter.com review.

Award director Tom Hunter described the line-up as a “quintessentially Clarke award kind of a shortlist”, featuring six writers who have never been nominated before. “While the subject matter may often be dark, when we think about what this list says about the strength of science fiction literature itself, I see a future that’s full of confidence, creativity and diversity of imagination,” he said.

The announcement comes just days after major US science fiction awards the Hugos unveiled their own shortlist. Voted for by fans, rather than selected by judges, the line-up has stirred controversy after a block-voting campaign by a group of writers set out to halt what they described as the awards’ growing tendency to “skew more and more toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) works”, and to “skew ideological … giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters”.

Addressing the issue, Hunter said that diversity in science fiction was “the big topic” for the genre today. “Diversity for us means starting with as broad a range of voices and books as possible so we can pick a shortlist that we think really is the best of science fiction literature,” he said, adding that “an award actively seeking controversy is really missing the point and that goes double for any group seeking to artificially create controversy around an award for its own ends”.

“In other words, it’s not a battle of competing ideologies – left versus right – it’s a simpler matter of constructive versus destructive attitudes,” said Hunter, pointing to Clarke’s own remark that “the only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible”.

“It’s interesting that the only kind of book Sir Arthur never wanted to see shortlisted for this award was a book with his name on it. After that, he wanted to be surprised, he wanted to be challenged and, above all, he wanted to experience the impossible in the way only the best science fiction can deliver,” said the award director. “A good shortlist isn’t a statement about what you should like, it’s an invitation to go beyond the limits of what you already know so you can experience and enjoy something new. Why limit an appreciation of a literature that’s built on the power of human imagination?”

The judges for this year’s Clarke prize, which comes with a cheque for £2,015 and entry on 6 May into a hall of fame that ranges from inaugural winner Margaret Atwood to China Miéville and Lauren Beukes, are Duncan Lawie and Nicholas Whyte from the British Science Fiction Association, Sarah Brown and Lesley Hall from the Science Fiction Foundation and Leila Abu El Hawa from the Sci-Fi-London film festival, with Andrew M Butler as chair.

The shortlist:

The Girl With All the Gifts by MR Carey (Orbit)
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (Canongate)
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Memory Of Water by Emmi Itäranta (HarperVoyager)
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (Orbit)
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

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