Social work lecturer claims literary prize

The Turing Test cover
The Turing Test cover

Social work lecturer Chris Beckett has won a prestigious literary award for his science fiction writing.

Beckett’s collection of short stories, The Turing Test, was handed first place in the 2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize after beating off stiff competition from more established authors, such as the Booker shortlisted Ali Smith.

Beckett, principal lecturer in social work at Anglia Ruskin University, was presented with a £5,000 cheque and a specially commissioned painting at a ceremony held in Liverpool on 4 July.

The judges commended Beckett for his “endlessly inventive stories” and contemporary themes.

Former children and families team leader

Beckett, who began writing science fiction short stories in 1990, became a university lecturer after managing a children and families social work team in Cambridge.

In addition to a series of stories published in sci-fi magazines such as Interzone, he has produced three full-length novels.

His latest, Marcher, includes a social worker as a central character and describes a dystopian future where welfare benefit claimants are denied full citizenship and separated from mainstream society.

Child protection academic

He has also published a number of academic text books on social work covering theory, ethics and child protection.

He said: “I was very pleased to be shortlisted because it’s published by a very small press and I’m not a well-known writer. Also, people who are interested in literary fiction tend not to pay much attention to science fiction.”

Beckett said that his experiences in social work had helped him with the themes for his stories, which commonly tackle abuse of power, alienation and exclusion.

Identification with ‘outsiders’

“People often go into social work because we do in some way identify with outsiders,” he continued. “Perhaps we feel like an outsider in some way and we can identify with people who are outsiders in other ways.

“It’s an important area of life and it’s not much written about in a fictional way. Also probably all thoughtful social workers are aware, although obviously they want to be helpful, that they very often find themselves in the business of controlling people and there’s potentially a dark side to our work.

‘Proud of social work background’

“I’m proud of my social work background and I’m proud of the books I’ve written about social work as well. I think some of the things people like about my fiction writing they also like about my social work writing – expressing complex ideas in a way people find accessible.”

As well as the main Edge Hill prize, Beckett also won the £1,000 Readers’ Choice award from the Liverpool-based charity Get Into Reading for his story We Could Be Sisters, which deals with identity and social exclusion.

Beckett’s latest short story, Johnny’s New Job, is a satirical exploration of the way social workers are demonised following a child death and will appear soon in Interzone.

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