Twenty years before Margaret Atwood won the inaugural Arthur C Clarke award for her seminal novel The Handmaid’s Tale, she published a poem entitled The animals in that country. Now Laura Jean McKay, who borrowed the title of Atwood’s poem for her debut novel, has gone on to win the prestigious prize, with judges praising her story of a pandemic that enables humans to understand the language of animals for “reposition[ing] the boundaries of science fiction once again”.
The Arthur C Clarke award was originally established through a grant from Clarke, and goes to the best science fiction novel of the year. Previous winners include some of the biggest names in the genre, from China Miéville to Christopher Priest, but this year, six debut writers were shortlisted. Australian novelist McKay won for The Animals in That Country, a depiction of a world where a “zooflu” epidemic allows “enhanced communication between humans and nonhuman animals”, sending many people mad. When wildlife park guide Jean’s son loses his mind and sets out with his daughter Kimberly to find out what whale song really means, she follows him, along with Sue the dingo.
“In many ways Laura’s book could be considered as a first contact novel, only the multiple alien species that humanity encounters have been sharing the Earth with us all along,” said the award’s director, Tom Hunter. “In this way the novel speaks for the silent victims of our real-world climate crises, but while the environmental and social themes are deeply serious, our judges also praised the book’s dark humour, sense of character and place, and its active opposition to easy genre tropes.”
McKay said it was a “momentous honour” to win the Clarke award alongside former winner Atwood, after borrowing her poem title.
“This is an award for readers and writers who share a love of literature that dares to imagine sideways, backwards and future worlds to try to make sense of the world that we live in now. Speculative fiction – the sort of sci fi that I adore – is particularly reflective of our times because it’s often set realistically, with extraordinary events (pandemics! extinction! talking animals!),” she said.
“That the Arthur C Clarke judges would recognise a novel that depicts how we as humans relate to other animals and environments is such an exciting outcome – for me (of course) but also for the many people who care about the state of the planet. And to win on such an extraordinary shortlist this year is gobsmacking.”
McKay, who previously won Australia’s richest literary prize, the $100,000 Victorian prize for literature, for her novel, said when she started writing, she was looking to recreate the “moment of wonder” that can come in the wilderness.
“When I’m off on a bush walk in New Zealand or Australia, I’m always looking out for that moment of wild encounter – where you see a kererū bird or an echidna and just gape in wonder,” she said. “But that moment changes a lot if the animals start communicating. As well as curiosity, our contact with other animals is often fraught, violent and deeply unequal. In The Animals in That Country I wanted the humans characters to step aside and let the animals do the talking. What would they have to say? I bet it isn’t what we want to hear ... I thought maybe if I could write a book that did that, I (and other readers) might stop and listen to the animals in our lives, too.”
McKay was chosen as winner by a judging panel headed by Dr Andrew Butler from a shortlist that also included Patience Agbabi’s The Infinite and Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds, translated by Ken Liu.
“For 35 years the Clarke award has promoted not only the best of science fiction but also new ways of defining and exploring it,” said Hunter. “Laura’s win repositions the boundaries of science fiction once again, and we’re delighted to welcome her to the genre.”
McKay wins prize money of £2021, as part of a tradition that sees the annual award money rise incrementally by year from the year 2001 in memory of Clarke, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey was published in 1968.