War of the worlds: sci fi vs the Man Booker

Tomorrow sees the release of the longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize for fiction, and, forgive me for jumping the gun, but I wanted to explore why science fiction and fantasy books rarely get the gold.

In fact, I wanted to start by exploring why sf and fantasy books are not included on the longlists at all, but I quickly realised what nonsense that was – sf and fantasy books have been nominated: Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is about cloning, David Mitchell’s books often include elements of what many would call genre, Margaret Atwood is the reluctant fundamentalist when it comes to science fiction, Salman Rushdie’s magical realist tales are occasionally more fantastical than many fantasy novels.

However, despite a huge literary heritage of sf and fantasy books in the UK, very rarely do clearly marked "genre" titles make the longlists, let alone win. Some argue that there is, as sf writer Adam Roberts put it: "[a] literary apartheid keeping genre science fiction away from the respectable literary establishment” but I think the reasons are simpler than this.

Perhaps it’s down to marketing. The book industry depends upon categorisation and compartmentalisation to best reach particular readers – crime, horror, romance and so on – and each compartment possesses its own circles, its own readership, its own awards. If the Man Booker is of the compartment of mainstream fiction and the literary genre, then it goes without saying that sf and fantasy books that are labelled in the wrong way will simply go unnoticed. In its crudest form, it can be about the cover that is put on the book, and whereabouts in the bookshop it sits.

But there are benefits to being sold in the sf and fantasy section. No other genre possesses such consistent and passionate debate among readers and authors. I’d dare say the average literary author would kill for the readership of the average sf and fantasy author.

Two novels which should most definitely be on the radar of literary judges this year are China Miéville’s Embassytown and Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. Embassytown is a masterful novel, full of intellectual  and imaginative challenges, which tells us more about ourselves than the alien worlds it explores; while Zoo City is a dazzling mishmash of styles and substances, a combination of post-globalisation noir set in a future Johannesburg.

But looking back in time, there also some absolutely essential books that really ought to have been considered on shortlists in the past:

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (1974) – a superb exploration of anarchism and of the consequences when ideals meet head-to-head. It’s a hugely political novel without sentiment or agenda; a triumph of storytelling.

(actual winner: shared between Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday)

The Glamour by Christopher Priest (1984) – Priest is the great trickster of the genre, an author who hides the most complex of twists in plain sight, and one of the few who has been accepted by both mainstream and genre critics. My favourite of his novels is this wonderful account of the recovery of a car bomb victim.

(actual winner: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner)

The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (1993) – set in a dystopian America, here, a young woman suffers from a syndrome where she feels the pain of others as if her own, and her efforts to build a community of her own. It’s powerful stuff.

(actual winner: Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha)

Light by M.John Harrison (2002) – knocks the socks off most literary novels – a phenomenal display of intelligence and mind-boggling concepts, paired with hands-down some of the best prose in any kind of fiction; this is the genre at its pyrotechnic best.

(actual winner: Life of Pi by Yann Martel)

Let's hope Mieville and Beukes get a chance to buck the trend this year.

Mark Charan Newton is the author of the Legends of the Red Sun series, published by Tor.