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Science Fiction and the Booker Prize

By / August 2, 2016 / no comments

The longlist for the 2016 Booker Prize has just been released, and there’s a science fiction novel on it.

hystopiaHystopia by David Means is an alternate history, set during President John F. Kennedy’s third term in office. And with the Vietnam War still raging, a new federal office is using drugs and therapy to wipe out the memories and traumas of the returning soldiers. Except that there are some who are beyond help, and they are wandering the country, re-enacting their atrocities on America’s civilians.

It still feels odd to see an sf novel featuring in the Booker Prize; it is, after all, one of the world’s leading prizes for mainstream fiction. But actually, looking back through the shortlists, science fiction does keep cropping up.

The 1971 shortlist included Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing, set inside the mind of a psychiatric patient who imagines himself surrounded by strange creatures on a remote island, and later aboard a journey into space.

midnight's childrenThe 1981 winner was Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, not exactly science fiction but there is certainly an element of magical realism in the story of a child with telepathic powers born at the exact moment of the partition between India and Pakistan. But to win the prize it had to beat off a shortlist that included another work of magic realism, The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas, in which the erotic fantasies of Freud’s female patients become tied up with the atrocities of the twentieth century. And also the outright “space fiction” of The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing, the middle volume in her Canopus in Argos sequence in which various galactic empires battle for control of earth. (I wonder if it is any coincidence that Brian Aldiss was one of the judges that year?)

The 1984 shortlist included Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard, not science fiction, of course, but a novel that acts as a key to many of his sf novels, because here we find all the familiar tropes such as empty swimming pools.

The very next year was another big year for the fantastic in the Booker Prize. The winner was The Bone People by Keri Hulme, a violent story of damaged people seeking love, but their story is mixed up with aspects of Maori legends. Also on the shortlist that year were Illywhacker by Peter Carey, the story of the the Australian century seen through the eyes of a liar and confidence trickster which was also shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award; and Last Letters from Hav by Jan Morris, in which the travel writer writes a travel book about an extraordinary and fictional country.

handmaid's taleThen in 1986, the shortlist included The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a novel which also won the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke Award, a chilling dystopian tale of a near-future America that has been taken over by the Christian right.

In 1991, the winner was another fantasy, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, told by a spirit child in a modern African city in which the spiritual and the material worlds intermingle. Also on the shortlist that year was Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, in which the story of the post-war life of a Nazi doctor who experimented on inmates of a concentration camp is told backwards.

The 2000 winner was The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which incorporates a pulp sf novel. And two years later, in 2002, the winner was another fantasy adventure, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, about a child stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

cloud atlasIn 2003, Margaret Atwood again made the shortlist with Oryx and Crake, the first volume in her post-apocalyptic Maddaddam trilogy; and in 2004 the shortlist included Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, the two central pivotal sections of which consist of a dystopian future and an even more distant post-apocalyptic future; and in 2005 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was on the shortlist, the story of clones raised to provide body parts for others. Both of these last two were also shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Then in 2014, both We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, the story of an ape brought up as a human child, and J by Howard Jacobson, an account of a frightening near-future in which racial discrimination is officially ordained, both made the shortlist.

Looking at it, science fiction or at least the fantastic has been remarkably well represented by the Booker Prize. But we’ll have to wait until September to see if an sf novel will again make the shortlist.


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