Looking Back: 2010-2020

By Maureen Kincaid Speller.

To be honest, the last ten years have been such a blur I’d barely registered the fact that we have arrived at the threshold of a new decade. But here we are (or not, depending how pedantic you’re feeling – I’m happy to be guided by common usage), and it’s a useful moment for thinking about what I’ve read in that time. Or not, because, along with time passing at a speed that seems indecent, it turns out that this last decade was one in which I either didn’t read much (being a recovering postgraduate will do that to a person) or else a lot of what I did read somehow didn’t find its way into my long-term memory. 

Except that, once I looked at a few lists, I realised that, actually, I had read quite a lot during that period but the effort of moving forward had somehow subsumed it into an amorphous space called ‘the recent past’. Also, I am hopeless at remembering dates of publication: last week, last month, last year, some time ago, whenever. 

But I can tell you that in 2010 I was very excited about Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. I was and am a huge admirer of McDonald’s work, and at that point also deeply preoccupied with Orhan Pamuk’s writing (still am), so the Turkish setting intrigued me, as did the presence (or indeed, mostly, absence) of a mellified man, reflecting my interest in the strange, the offbeat, the peculiar. But I also appreciated the novel’s densely layered portrayal of a near-future society with a very complex cultural identity. Looking back I can see now that The Dervish House has set the tone for a lot of my reading since then. 

In 2011, I was failing to raise any enthusiasm whatsoever for Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (a novel I have signally failed to finish despite several attempts) but was delighted with Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s massive collection, The Weird. The anthology itself was amazing, and introduced me to a lot of new-old writers, working in a literary idiom adjacent to but not quite science fiction or fantasy, a place where then, as now, I’ve often felt most comfortable as a reader. It seemed also to reinvigorate interest in weirdness as a literary and commercial artefact, not always to the good. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of rebranding of works by some authors who shall remain nameless, and yet another skirmish in the ongoing taxonomy wars, the repercussions of which are with us even now. 

By 2012 I was delighting in Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway’s latest novel, with its gleeful portrayal of a group of oddball characters, led by a clockmaker, attempting to stop a Cold War doomsday weapon being deployed. I am not, for reasons, going to describe it as Smiley on crack, but it could well have been. I remember reading this in a garden in North Wales, where the following year I would read Sofia Samatar’s hallucinatory A Stranger in Olondria, and the year after that, 2014, Harkaway’s Tigerman. So often, it seems a sense of displacement features in the fiction I most enjoy, and Samatar’s extraordinary novel of a traveller journeying to a land where books are a commonplace is no exception. Here there is a perhaps inevitable clash between oral and literate cultures. Tigerman in its turn would reflect, among other things, on how we engage with genre, as well as the effects of colonialism. 

2014 also gave us Jeff VanderMeer’s deeply unsettling Southern Reach trilogy, and Dave Hutchinson’s equally disturbing Europe in Autumn, both in their various ways foreshadowing the uncertainty to come although back then it seemed like there was still time to try to put things right, environmentally and politically. And in the midst of this the Worldcon circus came to London. Loncon 3 felt much more like a homecoming than I’d ever imagined it might be as the sff community settled itself into the Excel Conference Centre for a week of activity. Now it seems like a last moment of comparative innocence before the world beyond the conference centre went mad. Then, it felt like everything I’d ever wanted the sf fan community to be come to pass. Awesome programme, a chance to meet people I’d only known online, and to catch up with people I’d not seen in years, surrounded by multiple generations of fans, all doing their thing. My abiding memory is of a cosplayer, sitting quietly on the concourse, knitting, in between delighting hordes of children by being Thor. Still no idea who he was but he made me smile every time I saw him. And I hadn’t even discovered the Marvel Cinematic Universe at that point. 

In 2015 N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Kai Ashante Wilson’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps caught my attention with their intense storytelling. The following year, Jemisin caught everyone’s attention by winning the Hugo for Best Novel, while Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti won the award for Best Novella. While this didn’t entirely extinguish the Sad Puppies’ activities it more or less brought to an end their attempt to game the Hugos; however, I’d rather remember both novel and novella as the brilliant fictions they are than view them just as a thumbing of the nose to the Tragic Canines. 

The rise and fall of the Puppies prompted some more general soul-searching about awards and their purpose, and their names. I had already spent a lot of the decade wondering about the value of awards; as early as 2010 I was lamenting the fact that The Dervish House had been beaten to the Clarke Award by Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City (a novel I thoroughly enjoyed for its verve, and its portrayal of a futuristic South Africa, but, well, it wasn’t The Dervish House). I’ve come to the conclusion that shortlists are probably where the real action is in any award, but that submission lists are also worth combing. Which is how I came to be acquainted with Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (2016), a wonderful engagement with classic genre tropes. This is Tidhar’s favourite modus operandi anyway but with Central Station he really seemed to create something new and fresh out of familiar stories. 

Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives seemed, by contrast, to tap into a burgeoning fascination with what we now know as ‘folk horror’, though I still have my doubts about that as a literary rather than cinematic concept. Nonetheless, the relentless mundanity of rural life at the turn of the twentieth century and the irruption into it of something utterly unaccountable spoke to me of the fantastic, and I wasn’t disappointed. 2016 was a good year in many ways, not least the publication of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a testing novel in terms of subject matter and formal experiment, and a worthy winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2017. It is not easy to read but well worth the effort. 

2017 also gave us Nina Allan’s The Rift, my personal favourite of those of her novels I’ve read so far, for its curiously elusive story, and Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, a delightfully mysterious riff on Borges’ writing. Oddly enough, Jeff Noon’s The Body Library strayed into similar territory in 2018. What can I say – I like really intelligent novels about books. I really like Jeff Noon’s writing. He’s always engaged with the literary touchstones of our culture in new and surprising ways, ever since Vurt

In 2018, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater provided a new angle on that beloved trope, the alien invasion. This is a very nuanced study of first contact, and the relationship between local people and the alien biodome that exists in their midst, Utopicity. It can be the source of remarkable healing powers but also cause immense problems. Most people have no idea what it contains but its presence is nonetheless vital to their economy. Kaaro and his fellow sensitives rely on its presence to do their jobs, but Kaaro also knows what’s inside the dome, and rather wishes he didn’t. But without him, his fellow sensitives may die. It’s very gritty and all that but for me the greatest fascination of this novel is how everything is connected, whether or not you want it to be. 

This is a theme that surfaced again in 2019, in Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail, although here the emphasis shifts from the global to the local, and the effect on one community of the loss of the internet. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, but spelled out very precisely, to ensure there is no doubt. Having said which, in his future, in the midst of the struggle to survive, Maughan nonetheless finds space for people to continue making art, which seems to me a fundamental part of any future. And last but not least, Arkady Martine’s A Memory of Empire again engages with the theme of a small country, in this case a mining station, about to be annexed by a burgeoning empire, indeed the Empire. It is on one level perhaps predictable, but as Martine shows, such political actions are always incredibly complex, and avoiding disaster is as much about who you know as the power you possess. 

And it has most certainly been a political decade, within the genre and without. And still it goes on. As I write this I can hear a helicopter flying along the Channel coast. I can call up its flight path on an app, and see that it is probably flying a search pattern, looking for possible boatloads of refugees crossing from France. I live close to the Channel Tunnel and the Kentish ferry ports. In ten days’ time, we officially exit the European Union, and I have no idea what is going to happen, though we will theoretically now avoid chaotic scenes on the motorways and at the ports as we’ve dodged a no-deal Brexit. Theoretically. The political nature of our daily lives is inescapable, and I can see that over the last ten years the tenor of my reading has shifted in that alongside the strange and the wonderful I need to also meet what I see around me in science fiction. Brexit, the climate crisis, the resurgence of fascism and Nazism – I need to know that people are writing about this as well as about the wonder and strangeness in the world. They go hand in hand. To deny one is to deny the other too, because you cannot have one without the other. Yet, only this week I saw a call for submissions from a magazine that shall remain nameless, stating among other things that it did not want political themes. But if not that, what on earth is left? 

And that’s where I find myself in 2020, on the brink of a new decade that I hope I shall survive to see the end of. I don’t mind admitting I’m scared of what’s to come. In some ways I feel I have read it already. And yet, strangely, almost perversely, I feel hopeful too, in small ways, because I’ve read that too. We can’t fix everything at once but we can fix it one thing at a time, everyone in whatever way they can, like pieces in a mosaic. Perhaps I’m a ridiculous idealist but right now we need good stories, and we need people to identify those good stories and write about them, and to call bullshit over the bad stories.

All of which is what I plan to do. 

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and editor, who has written extensively for SFF journals such as Vector, Interzone, and Foundation,  and who is currently Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons.

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