Where is the Booker winning SF?

The Man Booker prize longlist was announced yesterday. It’s a subject I haven’t been shy coming forward about in the past, having previously stated my hatred for the prize and accusing it of ignorance and bigotry. And this years longlist does nothing to raise my opinion of the award. Narrow and elitist are about the politest terms I can find for it.

I’m willing to admit my dislike of the award is not entirely fair. It is, ultimately, an award for the genre of literary fiction. It only considers literary fiction, and draws a narrow definition even within that narrow genre. It does publicise some well written books and talented authors, who are generally lucky to sell a few hundred copies of their books. Given the very small readership for most literary fiction, it’s not surprising that the genre jealously guards an award like The Booker, to the exclusion of all other genres of fiction. But it does call in to question the disproportionate attention paid to the award in the media and elsewhere. It’s a great shame, because The Booker could so easily be a much more valuable award, if it only looked broadly across contemporary fiction to find the most intelligent writing, regardless of genre.

But my argument with The Booker has hit a stumbling point this year. In previous years there were clear books and authors within the SF genre that would deserve a place on The Booker longlist, or even the prize itself. Books that crossed the divide between SF and Lit.Fic, combining the best values of both. Last year China Mieville’s The City and The City was a clear contender. Titles that spring to mind in the last few decades include M John Harrison’s Light, Look to Windward (in my opinion the best of Iain M Banks Culture novels), Neuromancer by William Gibson (qualifying I think as a commonwealth writer), Accelerando by Charlie Stross, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

But this year, I don’t see a stand-out candidate for the prize within the SF genre. Perhaps my reading has missed the really great SF books this year. Or perhaps the current conservatism in publishing has pushed SF that experiments with literary values off the shelves. Where are the SF books that could take this years Booker prize?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

19 thoughts on “Where is the Booker winning SF?

  1. I reckon that you won’t agree with this, having read your review of the book, but I think that Kraken, by China Mieville, would be a worthy contender.
    Also The Gaslight Dogs, by Karin Lowachee, it’s a truly amazing novel on its own.


      1. Canadian writer, but not published in the UK, so I don’t think she’d be eligible. Gaslight Dogs is an alternate-history fantasy that’s getting some good notices.

        Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Adam Roberts’ New Model Army and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven would all have been respectable longlistees. Based on what I’ve heard I suspect Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, too, though I haven’t read it yet myself.


      2. The Gaslight Dogs is this book. It’s the fourth novel of Karin Lowachee and the first in a planned trilogy (as usual, though I wasn’t aware of that when I picked it up) and it’s a strange mix of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Philip Pullman’s Norhthern Lights (that’s my impression, anyway). Beautifully written, if somewhat opaque (hence McCarthy’s reference) and quite dark. It combines western and eskimo references. Great characters, a great story. Seriously, it’s been a discovery for me… well, not really, actually I found it in a post from Jeff Vandermeer, here. I would like to post here the review I did for this book, but it’s written in catalan. Anyway, links are cheap.
        I think that you would really like this book (booker worthy or not booker worthy)


      3. Ok, canadian writer. Sorry then, but it’s still a good book. I’m from Spain, I think I didn’t pay attentino to the nationality of the writer, just to the language.


  2. I think it’s the nature of the prize that sf gets shortlisted, so long as the judges can pretend it’s not really sf (i.e. writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Attwood – in other words the one who doesn’t write very much and the one who denies writing it). There was damn-near controversy last year when a genre-type book actually won! (Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – historical fiction).

    I’m not sure why this should be. But look over on this forum… there’s talk of ‘old school hitters’, and people guessing on books that they haven’t read but that they have heard have won prizes elsewhere.

    The consensus seems to be, if you want to bet on it, you play safe. Perhaps the judges play safe too.



  3. (1) Would you argue that, say, The God of Small Things should be a contender for the Hugo? If no, then why argue that books come from, are written for, intended for, and marketed to science fiction audiences should be contenders for a prize for another genre? I don’t understand the rage. The rage seems to be about something else, like class or ego or the need for acceptance. And also,

    (2) The Famished Road (Booker Prize winner 1991) is start-to-finish magical realism fantasy. The Bone People (Booker Prize winner 1985), Life of Pi (Booker Prize winner 2002) and The Blind Assassin (Booker Prize winner 2002) all have major non-realist elements. None of them are marketed as science fiction or fantasy, but that doesn’t make them any less so, technically.


    1. 1) No, I don’t. The Hugo is acknowledged as a genre award. And as I’ve said, the Booker is also a genre award, but is prioritised in the media the premiere award for literature, despite drawing the narrowest possible definition of literature. And of course it has to do with class…the Bookers definition of literature is rooted in class. You wouldn’t accept an award that discriminated against a race would would you? So why accept one that so blatantly discriminates on the basis of class?

      2) It’s not about whether books containing fantastical elements or considered or not. It is about whether books that originate outside the narrow literary community the Booker represents are considered, an the social and class barriers that literary community represents.


  4. First of all, the Booker list hardly represents the “narrowest definition of literature.” Have you read any of the books on the list? Or any of the past winners? They’re incredibly different from each other, with vastly different styles, voices, techniques, subject matters, settings and time periods.

    Secondly, there are tons of awards that discriminate against (or rather, select for) race and other non-negotiable characteristics. That’s because the awards are designed to serve and illuminate their specific communities. The Booker is no different.

    I hear you saying that the media is designating the Booker as the be-all and end-all of literature. (The British media, seems like, because I’ve hardly read anything about it over here.) But in my own heart, I know that there’s nothing inherently “better” about literary fiction, and I know there’s nothing inherently “worse” about science fiction and fantasy. And because I feel secure about that, I don’t feel threatened by the Booker Prize list, the community it represents, or the attention it receives. So why do you?


    1. It isn’t a matter of feeling threatened, and I would ask you to avoid taking the conversation in what is a frankly patronising direction or I’l stop engaging with it. I stated my concern with The Booker quite directly in the post. It fails as a real award for literature, because it is in reality only an award for the lit.fic genre. But because it is acclaimed as the countries highest award for literature, it reinforces a deep class bigotry, so deep that the people involved can’t even see that’s what they are practicing. The Booker organisers, its judges, the authors it rewards and their publishers are overwhelmingly drawn from a painfully narrow and privileged section of British society, and however broad their work might seem to you on the cosmetic level, thematically and ideologically it reflects the very narrow concerns of that section of society.

      Perhaps it would help to consider that class struggle is as ingrained and contentious an issue in the UK as civil rights in the US. Would you seriously be leaping to defend a literary prize that reinforced tacit racist behaviour? Then why so keen to defend class discrimination?


  5. Have you read Jonathan Lethem’s essay, “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction”? It contemplates how different the genre divide might be if Pynchon had won the Nebula in 1973 rather than Clarke (Gravity’s Rainbow was nominated; Rendezvous With Rama won). Anyway, the essay is particularly interesting because Lethem himself (like Chabon, Atwood, Saramago, etc. etc.) plays freely with genre conventions and still wields literary clout.

    This is where I read it:

    And the SF-ish novel that I’m looking forward to reading is Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story.” Hm. I wonder if he’d be insulted that I just called it SF-ish. I read an excerpt in the New Yorker and I would definitely call it SF-ish. Futuristic setting, pre-apocalyptic atmosphere, technology blinging and pinging and beeping everywhere… And yet, Michiko Kakutani totally gave it her stamp of approval. Bang.


  6. Hi Kegan,

    I suppose what you are getting at is what David Barnett wrote in this article:

    And I’d agree.

    Hi Damien,

    I get your point. It’s about perception and PR rather than the particular worthiness of this Lit Fic over other genre awards (e.g. Hugos or Daggers). Acceptance isn’t going to happen until a particular generation die out or some sort of cultural seismic shift – if ever. And I do wonder if it actually matters?
    I am reminded of a couple of awards that are not mainstream but have become more so recently: Kerrang (I should note that I really hate Kerrang…) and Empire. Neither of these were given much attention until quite recently. They were considered populist representations of particular pop-culture ghettos, they were over looked, yet they get coverage now. And I am not convinced that it has done them any good. Their meaning has become more dilute.
    Other than that I do agree with your essential point about class struggle. I’ll have to dig out an article I read somewhere. I can’t remember the author (which will make it difficult to find…) but he actually goes into this in quite a lot of detail. Amongst other things he mentions how much he hates Newsnight Review because it represents that stereotypically Middle Class English attitude towards culture. I remember watching Review once and Germaine Greer dismissed LotR because, “It’s just fantasy.” thus completely missing the point. I’m also about to do a literature course and I’ve been given a reading list most of which is dull to the point I actually started asking myself if I had lost the will to read. So it’s something that’s ingrained even in academia.
    Part of the problem is the genre’s popular emergence in the pulps – even though it did exist well before then.
    But then think about this. Some of the great, critically acclaimed, novels are a type of SF: A Clockwork Orange, 1984 and even Hithchikers. So it’s not like SF can’t achieve mainstream and critical acclaim. As such I dismiss the Booker because it’s essentially meaningless and (I think) anachronistic.


  7. I hear you, Damien. I don’t know much about the cultural context and background of this award. And I was being needlessly provocative.

    I made the points I wanted to make, so, stepping down now :)


    1. All your points are good Monica, and in all honesty I think they’re things I could consider more. The Booker just gets me so riled up, I find hard to even think!

      Megan – I am going to have to check these books out.



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