By Paul Kincaid.
What a long strange decade it has been. Ten years ago it looked as if social democracy was in the ascendant around the world; today, populist, nationalist, right-wing governments are in power in Britain, the USA, Australia, Israel, India, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. The world has become a scary, unwelcoming, unpleasant place to live. Politicians took the voters for granted, and voters became tired and disdainful of the politicians, so real life is coming more and more to resemble the dystopias we used to read. Which may be why there are no dystopias on my list of the ten books that I have chosen as representative of the last ten years in science fiction.
Which is not to suggest that politics is absent from the list. Far from it, in fact I begin with what is, I think, the most politically acute novel science fiction has produced this decade: Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (2014). Published two years before the Brexit referendum, it captures with uncanny prescience the mood of fragmentation and disintegration that Brexit embodies. Startlingly, the three subsequent volumes, which I don’t think Hutchinson had even conceived at the time he wrote the first book, maintain the awareness and the quality of the first. And in the final volume, Europe at Dawn (2018), there is a passage set among refugees on a Greek island that perfectly encapsulates the damage that fear of the other has done to Europe.
If the political reality of contemporary Europe is the fracturing of the body politic (as Brexit marks the detachment of Britain from Europe and threatens the detachment of Scotland and, perhaps, Northern Ireland from the disunited Kingdom); so the political reality of the USA seems to be the fracturing of the body, period. The resurgence of white supremacism and the growing attacks on America’s non-white citizens and communities (black, Hispanic, Jewish and Islamic) is the painful reality that lies behind The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). After a bravura account of the realities of slavery, that festering sore on the soul of America, the novel takes us on an almost hallucinogenic tour of the various battlegrounds between white and black America. It is a disturbing book, but one it is impossible to look away from.
The Whitehead novel represents another feature of the past decade: the way that writers within the mainstream have become adept at using themes and motifs drawn from the fantastic. Examples include Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (2012), The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014), and my particular favourite, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013). The way this novel has lodged immovably in my memory since I first encountered it means that it is a serious contender to be my book of the decade. The way the protagonist lives her life over and over again, struggling to survive and at the same time struggling to remake her world is extraordinarily powerful and moving. It was one of a number of novels around the middle of the decade, all by women, in which alternate history is made personal rather than political, about the way the individual encounters, changes and is changed by the world.
The fact that the Whitehead and the Atkinson were not published as science fiction, were perhaps not even perceived as science fiction by either author or publisher, is an indication that we need to keep our eyes on the margins to spot some of the more innovative and engaging works out there. One such, for me, was Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman (2016), a first novel from an American poet not previously notable for any engagement with genre. Set amid the grimy apartments, the unsocial hours, and the crackpot late-night radio shows of the New York working class, it is a story of tentative first contact with aliens as afraid, as uncertain, as downtrodden as the humans who learn of them.
Lerman’s book is beautifully written and emotionally moving, but it is very straightforward in structure and voice. But I also take great pleasure in books that play with our expectations of structure and voice. Two very different works from the very beginning of the decade serve, for me, as an object lesson in how this can be done. The first is a slim volume called Kentauros by Gregory Feeley (2010), which is a collection of three short stories and three essays which are thematically linked around the legendary figure of the centaur. The staccato alternation between fiction and non-fiction demands a constant re-examination of what it is we are being told.
Another way of undermining our expectations, and forcing a constant critical re-examination of what we are reading, is on display in The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011). The novel presents itself as a gazetteer of the islands of the Dream Archipelago, but the more we trace echoes between the different entries the more impossible the book we are reading becomes. Characters are seen to be alive after they have reportedly died, others apparently fived 250 years in the past and in the present, add to this more jokes that we have previously encountered in any of Priest’s novels and it becomes a book that constantly catches us out.
The Islanders marked a late flowering that has seen more works from Priest than any decade since the 1970s; his contemporary, M. John Harrison, has been slightly less productive, but the decade did see the conclusion of his extraordinary Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy. Empty Space: A Haunting by M. John Harrison (2012) is an astonishing work that ties the three novels together while at the same time making us question everything we have previously been told. It takes the traditional form of a space opera, yet may have nothing to do with space at all. Like The Islanders and like Radiomen, it has the appearance of science fiction while jarring us out of the comfortable familiarity of science fiction.
Much the same can be said for The Rift by Nina Allan (2017), a novel that offers a series of explanations for the mysterious disappearance and reappearance at its heart, and then systematically undermines every one of them. Whether this is science fiction or crime or a story of psychological damage is entirely in the eye of the reader. At the heart of the novel, for instance, is a wonderful account of mundane, everyday life on an alien world that is utterly convincing and may not have a shred of truth.
It is probably obvious by now that I have a particular taste for novels that make the reader work, that force us to question our assumptions, that lie somewhere in an ambivalent hinterland away from the safe familiarities of genre or mainstream. These are novels that do not take the expected turn, and that therefore are constantly fresh and new. I have re-read The Islanders several times in the decade since it appeared, and each time there is some novelty that takes me by surprise. For that reason, I was sorely tempted to include in this list The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts (2016), though I realised that I would probably end up saying exactly the same things that I said about Nina Allan or Gregory Feeley. Instead I turn to The Black Prince by Adam Roberts (2018), based on a script by Anthony Burgess, it is a curious vivid, bloody and exhilarating mix of historical novel and high modernism, filled with a sense that the boundaries of the real world are being breached at every turn.
Finally, we mustn’t forget that this has been a memorable decade for non-fiction about science fiction, from Pardon This Intrusion by John Clute (2011), perhaps his most essential collection of essays, to The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts (2nd edition, 2016), but the one I want to pick out is The Cambridge History of Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link (2019). It has its flaws (with 46 essays in 800 pages, that is perhaps inevitable), there are errors of fact and what I would consider errors of interpretation, yet it is the most comprehensive history yet that treats science fiction as a truly global, multilingual literature. This is an important first step towards a very necessary reinterpretation of science fiction, and it is pointing the direction that the literature needs to take.
Paul Kincaid is a widely published critic, author, and editor. His recent books include Iain M. Banks (University of Illinois Press, 2017), and a collection of essays and reviews, Call and Response (Beacon, 2014). His next book, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, will be published by Gylphi in Spring 2020.