So that was the year that Yaz (and Ryan) jumped in the TARDIS.
And Meg Murry (and Charles Wallace) found A Wrinkle in Time. Simone took The Good Place (and Chidi, Tehani and Jason) into an MRI chamber. Plus Shuri (and T’Challa, Killmonger, Nakia, Okoye, Ramonda, Ayo, M’Baku, and many more) made Black Panther – and she had a whole lot more to say and do, on Earth and in space, in Nnedi Okorafor’s playful and powerful comic series (up to issue 3 so far). Let’s not forget foresighted Rosalind Walker (and Susie Putnam, and the brilliantly louche Ambrose Spellman) in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Foyles made Tomi Adeyemi’s ambitious Children of Blood and Bone their Children’s Book of the Year 2018, a story of Orisha magic led by Zélie. N.K. Jemisin completed an unprecedented Hugo Award trifecta – three Best Novel awards over three years – with the third volume of the Broken Earth series, The Stone Sky, a mother-daughter-mineral tale resonant with contemporary apocalyptic concerns, which also won the Nebula and Locus awards for best novel.
It seems reductive to label this transformation of the field with the hashtag #blackgirlmagic, but it is equally undeniable that the black girl nerd community online has driven the passionate uptake of Meg, Shuri, and Ros, and of writers such as Okorafor, Adeyemi, Jemisin, and Malorie Blackman, who, with ‘Rosa,’ became the first non-white writer to contribute a script for televised Doctor Who, the new series’ highest-rated episode. A BBC adaptation of Blackman’s ground-breaking alternative history novel Noughts and Crosses, co-produced by Jay Z’s Roc Nation company, has started filming, two years after the project was first announced: a strong sign, perhaps, that at the high-profile conjunction of screen media and SFF literature, change is in motion.
Heart is also to be taken from the fact that women of colour protagonists are defying the Strong (Broken and Lonely) model that has dominated the development of white female heroines in major franchises. Complex familial relationships, friendships, and working relationships abound, with particularly powerful matrilineages in Black Panther and the Broken Earth series. Who’s ‘Demons of the Punjab’ (written by Vinay Patel) introduced Yaz’s parents and her grandmother (Nani) Umbreen in contemporary Sheffield, whom we then meet as a young woman in the Punjab in 1947. Leena Dhingra and Amita Suman, as older and younger Umbreen respectively, stole the show; Nani deserved a turn in the TARDIS – as did Ryan’s nan Grace, played by the luminous Sharon D. Clarke, and a sore loss from the first episode onwards. #blackgranmagic (led by Oprah as Mrs. Which, and Angela Bassett as the grey-dreaded Ramonda) is surely a coming trend.
A caveat: oddly, the impact of these mainstream developments is yet to be felt fully in British science fiction publishing. Bated breath barely describes my wait for the next two novels by British weird fictioneer Irenosen Okojie, who should be far more widely known and read: Nudibranch (short stories) and Curandera (novel) will both be published (soon, please) by Sharmaine Lovegrove’s brand-new Dialogue Books, whose first list included Cygnet, a deep and strange coming-of-age novel by UK-based American writer Season Butler. Sharing themes of isolation, alienated youth and ritualistic contained worlds with two of the year’s more widely-recognised literary novels, Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure and Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, Cygnet is pervaded by a signifying queerness – both melancholy and resistant – absent from those titles. Dialogue’s commitment to both BAME and LGBTQ+ voices, and also genre fiction (publishing Angela Chadwick’s lesbian parthenogenesis thriller XX this year as well), is the most exciting development in British fiction publishing for me.
It’s closely followed by seeing Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, the Canadian novelist’s second nomination (she won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in Canada for the novel). While most reviewers considered the novel strictly as historical fiction following a young enslaved man who is emancipated and travels the world after his master’s brother involves him in a terrible, disfiguring accident, Amanda Craig at The Telegraph spots hints of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy, and ‘many echoes of Frankenstein,’ in the Arctic section of Wash’s journey. I’d argue further that the novel is a careful, comprehensive and exact rewriting (in the spirit) of Mary Shelley’s novel (and a far greater tribute, sadly, than Haifaa al-Mansour’s wan, miscast biopic), which treats it as a serious political and scientific work, and unpacks the metaphor of the monster in line with the Shelleys’ commitment to abolitionism and universal emancipation.
Wash’s scientific picaresque, hinging on the value of a liberal education (and finding a lover who is also an equal), fuses the story of Shelley’s monster with that of her doctor, and many of the book’s most startling set pieces – the flight from the plantation in a hot-air balloon; the Arctic expedition; Wash’s diving-suited confrontation with an octopus – play steampunk conceits straight and serious (and seriously beautiful). Everything is possible, the novel suggests, following from freedom; but the consequences of enslavement remain, not least for the enslaving culture that also dictated the terms of the novel (and of science) as forms. It’s a work of expansive intelligence and austere compassion, and SFF readers should attend to it for its possibilities for the genre. Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu and Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed (both Arsenal Pulp) show Canadian writers of colour further leading the way in global Anglophone queer SFF: with starfish sisters and Indigiqueer cybersex dreams, both novels deal with the current apocalypse of climate change and colonialism through their own fusions of technology and ceremony that feel genuinely new (and genuinely old), and with brilliant irreverence.
Both also point to a trend for next year: genderqueer and trans speculative fictions, following on more from Virginia Woolf’s whimsical cultural whirlwind Orlando (which just marked its 90th birthday) than from the continuing excellence of Ann Leckie’s spacefaring diplomacy in the Imperial Radch books. Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, already published to acclaim in the US, arrives here next spring with its direct references to Woolf’s novel – as well as to the dirty magic realism of John Waters and Gus Van Sant, and a central conceit (laid out in the title) that hazes the mid-90s and its post-gendered cyborg theory with a fantastical aspect. The novel ends with Paul watching a colleague read A Wizard of Earthsea, a suitably left-handed acknowledgement that its plasticity of self and sex is indebted to The Left Hand of Darkness (and even more to Le Guin’s subsequent Gethenian erotica, ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’).
It follows on from another American transfer to the UK, Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, which came out (in many senses) in November but whose impact will be felt this year. Igbo-Tamil protagonist Ada, raised in Nigeria and studying in the US, shares her background with Emezi, who channels her heritage – spiritual, intellectual and literary – from multiple cultures into a startling story. Ada is an ọgbanje (Igbo spirit being) who also takes the form (initially) of a mortal girl, confronting sexual violence and respectability politics with the ambiguous assistance of her immortal inner selves, Asghara and Saint Vincent. Unlike Lawlor’s novel, Emezi’s explores medical as well as magical transitioning, and the politics of gender in contemporary America, but it’s the transitions in narrative voice and perspective that are the most striking, in a true exploration of inner space.
And Other Stories, purveyors of the finest in Latinx literature to the British reading public, published Tentacle, written by Rita Indiana and translated by Achy Obejas, very late in 2018: it’s a punky, protean paean to the malleability of bodies and temporalities, in the best tradition of the Latin American fiction described by translator Suzanne Jill Levine in The Subversive Scribe. The first Spanish-language novel to win the Grand Prize of the Association of Caribbean Writers, Tentacle (La mucama de Omicunlé) reads like El ministerio del tiempo getting high with Michelle Tea, and it ends with one of the greatest explorations of the grandfather paradox I’ve ever read. It narrowly beats Yoss’ hysterical Condomnauts (translated by David Frye) as my favourite sex-positive Spanish-language Caribbean queer SFF (just) of 2018.
‘Yeah, that’s right,’ Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor said in ‘Demons of the Punjab,’ in medias henna ceremony. ‘My references to body and gender regeneration are all in jest. I’m such a comedian.’ As 2018 tips into 2019 (always such a speculative sensation), it seems like many new writers, characters and readers are now in on that jest, revelling in the (often dark) comedy that arises in (creating) a gender-diverse and decolonial genre world. As ever, the Doctor is there ahead of us all.
So Mayer is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2015) and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009). So works with queer feminist film curators Club des Femmes and campaigners Raising Films. Their poetry collection jacked a kaddish is just out from Litmus.