My favourite SFF of the Year 2019

I’ve seen a lot of posts remarking on how good this year was for science fiction and fantasy. For me it wasn’t, overall, anywhere near as good as 2018, but this may be because I mainly read SF and not so much fantasy and there does seem to have been a lot of new fantasy published this year – most of which passed me by. I also tend to read on the edge of ‘genre SF’ and read as much slipstream, ‘speculative fiction’ and ‘non-genre SF’ – i.e. fiction that is classified as mainstream or literary fiction but is actually science fiction pretending not to be.

On to the list. Accidentally in common with all the best awards this season, I have a tie at the top. Two very different books that I loved for very different reasons, although perhaps they are both about what the point of life is, when it comes down to it.

1= Infinite Detail – Tim Maughan.

1= Lent – Jo Walton.

Tim Maughan’s is a debut novel, but it’s not some ingenue production. Maughan has been writing memorable, biting short stories for some time now, and his work as a technology reporter for the BBC and Motherboard has been important. So a lot of people have been waiting for this debut with some anticipation. And it doesn’t disappoint. Set in Bristol, UK and New York, Infinite Detail is about the the world before and after the Internet, about what holds us together and the damage done by corporate network capitalism. It would be dystopian if it wasn’t ultimately hopeful about humanity, albeit in twisted ways. Oh, and there’s jungle. Back in the 1990s in the UK, jungle music sounded like the future. It still does because the world hasn’t caught up with it. Maughan, who amongst his many talents is also a DJ, understands music (as well as technology) more than most SF writers, and if you’re wondering, ‘why Bristol?’, well music has a lot to do with it.

Jo Walton’s Lent is not set in Bristol, nor in the future. There is certainly no jungle. Instead we are transported (and we really are) to the Italian city-state of Firenze at the end of the Middle Ages. In what is clearly a labour of love for Walton, we are inside the life of the historically real, Girolamo Savonarola, a monk, a visionary and a trouble-maker, who briefly ruled the city as a kind of Christian utopian republic before being condemned for heresy by the Pope and burned at the stake. We meet him expelling demons, which seem to be real and everywhere… to him. His life passes normally, as in our world, and then it gets suddenly darker and stranger and more mediaeval. This is a novel and a world that is not just inspired by but infused with the cosmology and theology of mediaeval European Christianity. Demons are real. Hell is real. Very real. We see Savonarola cast back into life again and again, trying to work out what he did wrong, what he could do differently, if there is any escape for such as him. Along the way we get to know the lovingly-drawn characters of those who play a part in his life, notably Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and she brings the city, its politics and its people to colourful life. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like Lent. It defies genre labels.

The rest of my Top 10:

3. This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Brilliantly written two-handed novel that charts the growing fascination and utlimately love between two transhuman female protagonists in an eon-spanning war to redefine the social, political and physical structure of the galaxy. I was somewhat uneasy about the whole ‘two people find true love over the bodies of millions dead’ plot but it’s so well done that it’s hard not to be pulled along.

4. Rosewater Redemption – Tade Thompson

The finale of a the Wormwood Trilogy that follows the impact of an alien technology / biology on Nigeria. The whole sequence is such an original fusion of cyberpunk, first contact novel and Afrofuturism, and it has great characters and the writing enables you to see, feel, smell both Nigeria in transformation and the alien virtual reality of the ‘xenosphere.’ Some final novels disappoint; this one does not.

5. Escaping Exodus – Nicky Dryden

An author that was new to me this year, although this is not their first novel. I also read it right at the end of the year so it sneaked on to my list at the last minute. Escaping Exodus is an extravagant, bold science fantasy, set in an ark-like deep space ‘ship’ that is actually a massive living being, being gradually consumed from the inside by its human residents / parasites. Aside from the obvious environmental metaphor, the novel is also the personal and political story of two young women from either side of the tracks, in a matriarchal, highly class-divided African-descended society. Really quite extraordinary.

6. The Memory Police – Yuko Ogawa

In complete contrast to many other novels on this list, the mood of Ogawa’s novel is gentle and quiet but at the same time menacing and sinister. It is set on an island, on which things are gradually disappearing and are (intentionally?) wiped from memories of the inhabitants. The losses are enforced by the Memory Police, who arrest and disappear people who refuse to forget and those who help them. The end is inevitable and reminds us how much we must not be passive in the face of fascism, however quietly it comes.

7. The Future of Another Timeline – Annalee Newitz

Another feminist SF novel that plays with time – is that the third one on the list already? I didn’t like Autonomous, Newitz’s first novel, as much as some people, but this one is very strong. It moves from teen riot-grrl subculture to an ongoing fight through timelines over women’s rights. The only beef I had with it was why it was that American concerns, history and politics seemed to determine the timeline for the entire world – surely the struggles of women are global and other worlds are possible…

8. Atlas Alone – Emma Newman

Also set on an ark of sorts, Atlas Alone is the latest in a series of connected but not sequential novels that began with Planetfall. In this one, we focus on a character who was a bit-part player in previous novels, Dee, a gamer, who finds that she is the one being played, and with devastating consequences.

9. Kingdom of Copper – S.A Chakraborty

This big, sweeping, romantic fantasy set in and round the kingdom of the djinn continues to be everything it sets out to be. Stuff like this isn’t usually my cup of tea, but it is all done so well in these books, you just have to let yourself go.

10 Luna: Moon Rising – Ian McDonald

Northern Ireland’s answer to Kim Stanley Robinson finishes off his Luna sequence featuring warring corporations on the near-future moon. The plot is too complicated to summarize but basically follows the remaining members of the Brazilian Corta family as they try to recover from the loss of everything they had and to transform Luna society for good.

 

Other good things I read this year: Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse is the second in this indigenous American author’s Sixth World series and I like Maggie, the protagonist, and the characters of the gods, but it was a bit too Mad Max-esque to be entirely satisfying; The Haunting of Tram Car 015, another fun novella in P. Djéli Clarke’s Egyptian steampunk with djinn world; Interference by Sue Burke, the sequel to Semiosis, which was not quite as startling as the first; To be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers, which was good, but the problem when you’ve just finished a sequence as good as the one she previously wrote, is that nothing seems as good in comparison; Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, was okay but it didn’t seem a very necessary addition to the Tensorate world; and A Memory called Empire by Arkady Martine, which a lot of other people raved about but which I thought it was merely quite good.

Science Fiction post-9/11 (Part 2)

This combined social science / literary analysis lark is harder than it looks! Frequently asked questions of scholars who look at books or films at conferences always include one or more of the following: ‘why these books?’, ‘how did you sample?’, ‘what makes these films significant?’ and so on – indeed I had a bit of a go at an unfortunate PhD researcher at a conference last year on exactly this basis (sorry, Michael Krause, your paper was actually really interesting). So I have been trying to be systematic. So the first thing I did was to compile a longlist of English-language SF since 9/11.  Basically, I went through all the major US and British SF award shortlists for novels from 2002 onwards. The awards I covered were: the Hugo, the Nebula, the John W. Campbell Memorial award, Locus, the Philip K. Dick, the Arthur C. Clarke, the British Science Fiction Association award and the James Tiptree Jr.

The reason for using awards was to address the ‘importance question’. I could also have used ‘best of year’ lists from a number of online publications and bloggers but where would you stop? In any case, many of these awards are already crowdsourced and fan-based, at least in their nomination procedures. Inevitably, some smart alec will say ‘but you didn’t include ‘award X’. Again, there’s a limit. So although the PKD (which only covers new paperback fiction) and the Tiptree (focused on gender) are relatively minor, they are well-regarded and expand the ground to include a lot more edgy and innovative work, whereas the Lambda award (LGBT sf) is pretty small. Likewise I did not include Canadian and Australian association awards because they tend to have a very restricted pool to draw on and the best authors from those countries are published internationally anyway and, in the case of Canada at least, are very influential in the international associations.

All the shortlisted novels for all the awards added up to about 350 novels: too many to do any kind of useful analysis of any more than the most superficial kind with the time I have – although I may come back to this longer longlist later. So I tightened my criteria to novels that had either won any of the major award or been shortlisted for at least two. This leaves me with 117 novels, about half of which I have already read. I am now in a dilemma. This is still too many to deal with. I did produce a shortlist of just award-winners, 68 novels (there were a few ties in some years for some awards), but can you consider a novel that won the only award for which it was shortlisted to be more ‘significant’ than a novel that was shortlisted for 2, 3, 4 or 5 awards but didn’t win any? And here I also got into questions of personal preference: with this selection, and this is even more the case if I reduce the list further to only novels that won an award and were also shortlisted for at least one other (38), a lot of the novels that I find most interesting and which I would like to discuss because 1. they are good; and 2. they actually make some interesting post-9/11 points, for example, Lavie Tidhar‘s Osama (nominated for the BSFA 2011 and the JWCM 2012 but not a winner) and Kathleen Ann Goonan‘s In War Times (the 2008 JWCM winner, but not shortlisted for any of the other major awards) drop off. So, somehow I am going to have to do make some broad considerations of the 117, and select within these on the basis of either representativeness with regard to some particular themes I identify from the broad survey, or just because I think they are worth discussing in more depth.

Science Fiction post-9/11

I’m writing a piece right now on Science Fiction since 9/11, based around, but not entirely limited to, the themes of security and surveillance. I’ll be giving this as keynote at the Images of Terror, Narratives of (In)security conference in Lisbon on the 23rd and 24th of April this year – I am not sure where I will send it for publication yet. Because of this, I have been reading and rereading a lot of SF, but I thought I’d mention two recent works that have most impressed me. I will probably add more thoughts in the weeks to come on this topic.

intrusion-ken-macleodThe first is Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion (Orbit, 2012).  Ken MacLeod was a welcome participant at Mike Nellis’s excellent split location Glasgow / Jura workshop that marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four back in 2009, and many of his books have dealt overtly with security and surveillance themes, notably his near-future / alternative world novel, The Execution Channel (Orbit, 2007). Coming out of a period spent not only engaging with surveillance scholars, but more importantly being a Writer in Residence of the UK Research Councils’ Genomics Network, Intrusion takes place in a subtly nightmarish near-future Britain of oppressively caring forced medical intervention (in the form of a compulsory pill to cure genetic illnesses) and ongoing but nebulous terror threats, where even being seen to look too long at a piece of pro-terrorist graffiti is grounds for arrest and ‘torture-lite’ interrogation over where your loyalties lie. For a writer who has a well-deserved reputation as a pretty hardcore materialist and socialist, there are also unexplained hints of myth and magic at the edges of this work, and there is also a strong sense of what architects would call genius loci, the spirit of place, in both its London and Scottish island settings, which make the book all the richer and more satisfying as a piece of fiction. I think it’s his best novel ever, and that is coming from someone who was already a big admirer of MacLeod’s work – all of which is well worth reading.

osama_dj_final1

In contrast, Lavie Tidhar’s Osama (PS, 2011) is all edge. It is slippery, slipstreamy and dreamy and reading it generally makes you feel like you’ve been drugged or waterboarded. This novel is dominated by the image of Osama Bin Laden, but not the ‘real’ Bin Laden, for this is a world separate but somehow connected to our own in which 9/11 (and subsequent attacks) never happened. As the novel progresses one realises its alternative earth is profoundly anachronistic, even non-modern: trains still seem to be steam-powered and there is no Internet. In that world, ‘Osama’ is the vigilante protagonist of a series of hard-t0-find cult pulp novels which detail Al-Qaeda’s fictional exploits, but which fill their most fanatical readers in this other world with the belief that somehow the events of the novels are more real than their own. There is a divergence point where everything changed, but it isn’t actually 9/11 at all, it’s much further back and has to do with the Sykes-Pichot agreement which formalized the settlement of the ‘Middle-East question’ in WW1. And Osama Bin Laden, it hints, is inseperable from the history of our own world, inevitable even. Osama is reminiscent of writers like Philip K. Dick, in particular, The Man in the High Castle, and much more so, the surrealism-influenced writers who came out of the 1960s British ‘New Wave’ of SF like J.G. Ballard and Brain Aldiss (I was reminded of that very underrated post-9/11 Aldiss novel, H.A.R.M) and particularly Chistopher Priest, both in terms of his slippy alt-history, The Separation, but also the atmosphere of earlier works like A Dream of Wessex and his ‘Dream Archipelago’ sequence of stories, which he recently added to with The Islanders. But at the same time, Osama is something quite unique, rich with pop cultural allusion, irony and bathos, and frequently seems to invert or counteract its own apparent intentions.

Surveillance in Science Fiction

There have been waves of interest in surveillance in fiction, and we are going through another one now, and not just in SF – I am currently writing a piece now on surveillance in post-9/11 fiction (which includes Doctorow, Stross, Macleod and other SF writers), and a discussion of this recently started on a listserv. I posted a quick message, which I will reprint here, as the first part of a catalogue of relevant novels in the genre.

Here’s my incomplete list of essentials in surveillance SF in roughly chronological order, which will be added to in future. The problem here is that SF abounds with dystopias of social control, and separating out the ones which say something interesting about surveillance is difficult…

Yevgeny Zamyatin – We which is pretty much the basis for George Lucas’s film THX-1138, so far as I can see, although it is not acknowledged. It was also read by Orwell, although for a long time he claimed not to have read it!
Aldous Huxley – Brave New World. Seems far more pertinent than Orwell in many ways, especially in terms of how control is best achieved by giving people what they want…
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course as chilling and brilliantly-written as ever…
Philip K. Dick – A Scanner Darkly (and indeed most of PKD’s fiction – he is perhaps the best writer ever on paranoia and surveillance from the pulp of Eye in the Sky to more developed works like Ubik – I have a piece out this year in the Review of International American Studies on Dick and surveillance)
Bob Shaw – Other Days, Other Eyes – a superbly poetic technology called ‘slow glass’ forms the basis of this fix-up novel (made from three short stories with a cliched plot spun around it – the original stories are better and more suggestive)
John Brunner – Not just the proto-cyberpunk, The Shockwave Rider, it’s very worth reading the other three of his amazing four dystopic novels of the early 70s Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit and The Sheep Look Up
David Brin – Earth. A quite frankly ludicrous pulp plot and Brin can’t write dialogue or characters, but a lot of great surveillance stuff in it that forms the background to his non-fiction, Transparent Society – his other novels have a similar interest in surveillance, if you can put up with his writing!
Paul J. McAuley – Whole Wide World – so far as I know, still the only SF novel to engage successfully with the UK’s CCTV system. It is also beautifully written and a cracking crime novel too. He is perhaps Britain’s most underrated writer… I have a partly-piece written about this, which I have never published!
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter – The Light of Other Days. Clarke’s idea written up by the much younger Baxter, this steals a short-story title from Bob Shaw and much of the plot from Isaac Asimov (see below), but then takes it a bit further. Still utter pulp though…
Charles Stross – Glasshouse. This is set on what is supposedly a ‘panoptic’ prison in space, except it turns out it isn’t as panoptic as it is supposed to be…
Cory Doctorow – Little Brother. A teen novel, but the only deliberately written fictional manual for resistance to contemporary surveillance.

Surveillance is also pretty much omnipresent in cyberpunk novels (Gibson, Sterling et al.) but it is not really foregrounded in any of them, although one could mention Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling as being a good example.

It’s also worth remembering that SF is and has been since the 1930s, a genre that is based primarily in the short-story, not the novel, and there are hundreds of interesting short stories on this theme, of hugely varying quality. Some are classics, like Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Dead Past’ or Bob Shaw’s ‘The Light of Other Days’ (see above – there is an interesting sub-genre of works in which surveillance tech emerges out of efforts to see into the past) or Frederik Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World’ or Damon Knight’s ‘I See You.’