The Apocalypse, and What Happens Next (No Spoilers)

The Arthur C. Clarke Award
5 min readSep 25, 2021

Introducing the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2021 shortlist by Andrew M. Butler, Chair of Judges

2021 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award science fiction book of the year

A few years ago, I was asked to write about the future.

Or, rather, future studies and futurology.

In a lot of futurology there is the sense of a coming apocalypse that would destroy everything. And, after that, life would get really interesting.

Of course, this year’s Clarke Award was judged during an apocalypse and it’s probably unwise to say whether we’re yet at the everything-has-been-destroyed stage or whether we are rebuilding from scratch.

I suspect our judges, Alasdair Stuart and Stewart Hotston for the BSFA, Phoenix Alexander and Nicole Devarenne for the SFF and Nick Hubble for Sci-Fi London, have coped rather better with the online nature of our judging than I did. And I thank them for their diligence and patience and mostly working WiFi. Passions were high, emotions were rich and opinions candid.

Which is how it should be in meatspace, too.

Science fiction has had its own moments of apocalypse — the eras of the New Wave and Mirrorshades cyberpunk most prominently — when the new gang ride into town and overturn the rule of the old guard. Sf keeps declaring itself dead. I’m not sure that our choosing six debut sf novels marks another one of these moments and it was only when we looked at the short list that we even noticed. There were a lot of good novels by veterans, early career novelists and whatever comes between, but these are the six that stuck with our judges. They don’t form a movement but, as one judge observed, “This is a shortlist that looks forward.”

I’ve often talked about the sf toolbox over the years of chairing the judges, and these newbie authors are remarkably good at finding ways of using these tools in new and interesting ways. There is also a range of identities on display — different ethnicities, sexualities and so on — and this was quite subtly dealt with, rather than the novels being driven by issues. The judges were all struck by the age range of the characters being represented.

Patience Agbabi’s The Infinite features a teen protagonist, Elle, who can jaunt through time and finds herself at the heart of a conspiracy which might destroy everything. Her powers might save everyone or make things worse. The judges praised it as fun and vibrant, whilst noticing it was “deeply serious” and displayed sheer philosophical brilliance; they also appreciated the agency given to characters who in real life are people all too likely to be side-lined.

Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds, translated by Ken Liu, is a trilogy that acts as a single novel, featuring a group of Martian students returning to Mars and getting to grips with adult life in an ambiguously utopian society which has previously broken with Earth. Can Mars still learn from Earth? Will Earth exploit or benefit Mars? Personally, I found myself reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and the judges called it “a tremendously important contemporary tome”, incredibly erudite and poignant.

Edge of Heaven, by R.B. Kelly, features a future city on the edge of apocalypse and facing an epidemic, with the middle-aged waitress Danae Grant staring personal ruin in the face. She meets a janitor, Boston Turrow, who is desperately searching for drugs for a family member, and they fall in love. But she has a secret that might destroy everything and certainly puts both their lives at risk. The judges appreciated its “large scale worldbuilding with its close up on the relationship.”

Valerie Valdes’s Chilling Effect is a space opera caper, where Captain Eva Innocente is forced to carry out a series of missions to pay the ransom of her kidnapped sister, but, of course, these missions go wrong. Meanwhile, a wealthy emperor is determined she will join his harem. Innocente has to rescue her sister and try and work out who she can trust. This book, the judges feel, “has a tremendous willingness to stand tropes on their heads” and is “deftly crafted”. It also has cats.

Superficially, Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds covers similar territory, with Captain Nia Imani protecting a mysterious young boy for space habitat designer Fumiko Nakajima. Meanwhile, she undertakes a series of missions with a crew she is keeping in the dark as to what is really going on. Thanks to time dilation effects, Imani has already had a relationship at fifteen-year intervals with someone who has grown from teen to old man and Nakajima has lived for hundreds of years. Can the boy be protected? Who is he? And what will he be used for? The answers to these questions are heart-breaking, and the judges found it “incredibly ambitious”, and thought the book “rewrites the sf canon for the twenty-first century.

Finally, we have a grandmother in a pandemic, in Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country. The symptoms are an ability to communicate with animals, from mammals to birds to reptiles to insects. And you really don’t want to know what they say about us. The heroine has to head south from a wildlife sanctuary to rescue her kidnapped granddaughter, with only a dingo for company. The judges praised the novel’s compelling voice and exquisite prose, whilst finding it terrifying. “It changed the way I look at the world,” said one of them.

In all these novels, we see worlds in flux, heading for destruction, uncertain futures. In several of them, there are viruses, but presumably these manuscripts were all headed for print before the real world changed.

And we glimpse new worlds on the other side of these apocalypses, even if we don’t like what we see.

I think that’s the job of the best science fiction: to show us how the world could be. How we could live. How we can relate to other people and other species and the environments we live in. It shouldn’t always be consoling; it shouldn’t always be pretty. But it should always make us think.

Andrew M. Butler is a British academic who teaches film, media and cultural studies at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is a former editor of the BSFA’s magazine Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association and was membership secretary of the Science Fiction Foundation. A judge on the juries that gave the award to The Sparrow and Calcutta Chromosome, he is currently the non-voting Chair of Judges.



The Arthur C. Clarke Award

Stories, interviews and news from the Arthur C. Clarke Award science fiction book of the year.