A novel set in a world where infertility has been eradicated and artificial wombs have become the preferred method of gestation has won this year’s Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction.
Beginning in London in 2034, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time examines the reproductive decisions of several characters in the same group of families, over multiple generations. Two friends, Millie and Toni, bear children who will in turn experience very different methods of birth over the following decades – in one case, adopting an orphan who was left to gestate in an artificial womb; in another, a man who creates a daughter using only his DNA.
Looking at the ethics of genetic screening and the science of prenatal genetic engineering, Charnock won out over more than 100 novels submitted for the prize.
A science writer for publications including the Hlcarpenter.com and New Scientist, Charnock began to write fiction after working as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and India. She self-published her debut A Calculated Life in 2013. It was picked up by Amazon imprint 47 North, which has also published her Arthur C Clarke-winning third novel. Chair of judges Andrew M Butler called it “a delightfully rich but unshowy intergenerational novel that demands rereading”, while award director Tom Hunter said Charnock’s victory was “a much deserved win for a writer whose time has definitely come”.
He added: “Charnock’s multi-generational vision of expanding human reproductive technologies is smart, science-literate fiction that embraces the challenge of humanising big ethical questions, and succeeds by exploring possible future scenarios that feel utterly real.”
Though the judges spent five hours deliberating this year, Hunter said the decision was, eventually, unanimous. “While the books were very topical and hugely powerful, her book felt like a classic of all time, not just 2018. Where the others were sometimes powerful in their anger, this was quiet and all the more powerful for it.”
Charnock saw off competition from Jeff VanderMeer, shortlisted for his novel about biotech, Borne; Omar El Akkad’s American War, set in a future US that has been ravaged by climate change; Spaceman of Bohemia, a satirical novel about space exploration by Jaroslav Kalfar; C Robert Cargill’s apocalyptic robot thriller Sea of Rust; and Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed, which explores gender dynamics in an isolated island cult.
Charnock received the £2,018 prize – the winnings are adjusted annually to match the year – at a ceremony on Wednesday night in Foyles bookshop in central London.