Maureen Kincaid Speller for our 2018 Round-Up feature.
In 2018 I forgot for a while how to read fiction. Or, to be more precise, I forgot how to find pleasure in reading fiction. For someone whose daily existence has been defined by the written word since she was five, this was devastating, to put it mildly. While I carried on trying to read, it was as though my brain could no longer accept the existence of fiction in a world that was on a daily basis so bizarre no editor would believe it. Eventually, and I know I’m not the only person who did this, I settled for reading non-fiction and biding my time until the desire to read fiction returned of its own accord. Which, eventually, it did.
I’m not here to offer a redemptive story about the novel that saved me, because there was no one novel. Instead, I want to talk a little about what I learned from my year of not quite reading. I am, I discovered, done with genteel dystopias. I keep seeing them described as ‘feminist dystopias’, perhaps because they’re mostly written by women, but I find very little about them that is ‘feminist’ in the ways I understand the word, and too often the dystopic element is a performative means to an entirely different, generally stylistic end. In the past, I never really thought of myself as needing plot, but it turns out that fine writing – oh-so-very-fine writing, in some instances – is not sufficient in and of itself if the plot is practically invisible.
So, the fiction that really captured my attention in 2018 wasn’t generally daintily watercolour-perfect in stylistic terms. Instead, I found myself attracted to what you might call more muscular prose; sometimes a little workmanlike in places but language that said ‘hey, come with me, now, and I’ll show you something interesting’. Alongside that I wanted absorbing stories, plots that were involving without unnecessarily complex. I’m not talking about escapism – that ship has long since sailed so far as I’m concerned – but I nonetheless sought fiction that made a distinction between this moment, now, and somewhere else. Again, I’m not currently that interested in fiction set in futures allegedly only a few years from now but otherwise so abstract as to be allegorical. Neither am I that interested in how we get to ‘there’ from ‘here’, except insofar as I can easily accept that ‘there’ is a logical extension of here.
And above all, and I’m not sure I realised it until I sat down to write this, I was looking for storytelling that felt genuine, that came from the heart. It’s not a thing I ever thought about before but in 2018 I was looking for writers who meant it rather than writers who ‘performed’ literature at me.
So, here’s a couple of novels that carried me along in 2018. Sam Miller’s Blackfish City brightened the early part of my year. The setting is the floating city of Qaanaaq, based somewhere in the north Atlantic, and attached to a geothermal vent that supplies it with heat and power. The creation of a mess of corporations and governments, it has somehow survived geopolitical catastrophe and in the meantime become a beacon of hope for refugees from other parts of the world. There’s no room for them, and their presence is overwhelming the city’s infrastructure in every possible way. As I said in my review for Interzone, while Qaanaaq is geographically anchored, ‘it is politically and morally adrift … threatened by its own complexity’ and yet somehow, ‘it is too complicated to fail’. Miller adopts a modernist approach, skipping from one narrative viewpoint to another among a group of people who have no obvious connection with one another yet who hold fragments of one another’s stories. And stories, as one character notes, ‘are valuable here … they are what cannot be taken from us’. It is the arrival of Masaaraq, an indigenous woman accompanied by an orca and a polar bear, that changes the course of the story, as she spurs those she meets to finally act.
I admired this novel for its messy reality. Miller touches on so many issues, reminding us that daily life isn’t about simple solutions; instead, solving one thing all too often leads to something else collapsing. His characters are exhausted with the struggle of surviving, but they persist, and like Miller, and the mysterious author of City Without a Map, a podcast which runs like a guiding thread through the novel, we want them to find ‘happiness, joy, bliss, community’, the things we all deserve.
I came back to this theme much later in the year when I read Alex Wells’ Hunger Makes the Wolf and its 2018 sequel, Blood Binds the Pack. I enjoyed Hunger well enough, though I felt it was perhaps a little … well, restrained, and followed the trajectory of the Colorado Coalfield War, the Ludlow Massacre in particular, a little too slavishly, the story transferred more or less wholesale to the mining planet of Tanegawa’s World. Yet, having said all that, Hunger was clearly a strongly-felt novel – Wells’ own ancestors took part in the war so it was close to home – especially in its portrayal of the miners gradually coming to understand that they needed to organise if they were to resist Transrifts Inc. Where it became particularly interesting to me was when Hob Ravani and her mercenary biker gang became involved with the cause, aiding the miners rather than simply looking after themselves, and gradually becoming an important part of the resistance.
Transrifts, as we come to realise, is looking for something which seems to be unique to Tanegawa’s World, and tied up with the fact that some of its inhabitants, Hob included, exhibit strange powers, generally called ‘witchiness’. Their use is frowned on and those who have the power have in the past been murdered. Transrifts, it turns out, have their own use for the mineral that causes these powers, and want to secure it, no matter the cost.
That’s the plot, and it’s a strong and interesting story, but again, to me the most interesting element of both novels is the exploration of community and empowerment as the various towns realise that there is indeed power in a union, and that they are stronger together. How this translates into action is not for me to say at this point, but the coming together of disparate groups, all working for more or less the same end, creates a genuinely compelling story, inspiring but not sentimental, which is what, it seems, I was looking for all along.
Well, that and fiction that recognises that the personal is political, and the political is immediate. I’ve been writing this with breaks to read summaries of today’s parliamentary debate at Westminster. As I put down these last few words, we’re a couple of hours away from the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit plans. In some ways I feel I’ve trained all my sf-reading life for this moment. I’ve read about doom and disaster, over and over, and it’s made me both cynical and fearful. Fiction shows us what humanity is capable of, the good and the bad. I’m suspicious of fiction that reassures us that all will be well, and all manner of things will be well, because, on the whole, it helps to be rich if you’re embracing that kind of scenario, or so staggeringly ignorant or naïve you have absolutely no idea what you’re getting into. On the other hand, I’m no longer up for being crushed entirely by the pessimism of some science fiction, not because I doubt the scenario, but because I don’t, and if I embrace that wholesale, there is no point in going on.
When Pandora’s box was emptied of all its ills, the one thing left was hope. And by hope, I don’t mean this peppy ‘hopepunk’ nonsense that has lately been doing the rounds online. I’m thinking more of hope as characterised by the likes of Rebecca Solnit, in Hope in the Dark. The changes are there, just not always immediately visible; sometimes it’s a matter of two steps forward, one step back, and the progress is not evenly distributed. It seems to me that the novels I’ve talked about here reflect that, which is why, earlier, I described them as honest. We’ve been taught to regard science fiction as the literary form that warns us of humanity’s hubris, or else as some sort of showcase for the shiny wonders to come. whereas right now, I think the best science fiction is that which addresses that day-to-day urge to keep on surviving, somehow or other, while accepting that life is teetering on the edge of destruction, and each day is a victory.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and freelance editor. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, is assistant editor of Foundation and Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons.