From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2020

By Dev Agarwal, Focus editor

As 2020 recedes from us, we look forward to the world opening up and restarting from lockdown safely. While 2020 was obviously the year of Covid-19, it was also a year of community and solidarity. I hope that readers had those experiences as well.

Friend to Focus and writer, Leigh Kennedy, described the grip of Covid-19 as eerie and familiar, like “being in a science fiction novel we all read long ago.”

On top of the pandemic, 2020 was a year packed with political drama. The year started a month after a significant general election in December 2019 in the UK. By the end of 2020, the US had had one of its most important and defining presidential elections ever (where the election of a Black and Asian American woman as Vice President was one of many significant moments). And that’s without us even commenting on the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, the drone assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, major conflicts in Armenia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia and elsewhere, wildfires across Australia, the attempted violent overthrow in the US on 6 January 2021, and the ongoing fight to vaccinate the planet.

That’s a lot to process and a tough year for writers and artists to make their voices heard and their work noticed. For readers, the challenge was possibly to concentrate long enough to fully enjoy the fiction and art available. A further struggle for writers and artists was to create art in the first place. Despite these challenges there were many successes to celebrate.

Last year, I read for review two sizable genre novels. Those were Tim Major‘s Hope Island (Titan Books) and Allen Stroud‘s Fearless (Flame Tree Press).  These novels have their similarities: strong female protagonists, careful plotting and a vivid sense of place, but otherwise they could not be more dissimilar. Taken together, they are both solidly genre works: Major’s book is a dense psychological horror novel in a claustrophobic island setting, while Stroud’s is a widescreen solar system-traversing space opera. Yet both authors are united in writing with passion and purpose and are invested emotionally in their characters. 

Major was also busy in 2020 with short fiction. Most notable perhaps was his story ‘The Slow King’ in The Fiends in the Furrows II from Nosetouch Press. This story also went out in audio format on Pseudopod.

The prolific David Gullen self-published a new novel, The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. The titular character is a memorably-drawn mermaid, suffering from both feet and car trouble. Throw in a cop turned private eye who uses the occult and divination to solve crimes, Brighton, missing cats, millionaires and Babylonian maths and you’ve got a screwball comedy-mystery not to be missed.

Raven Dane‘s novella House of Wrax (Demain Press) came out in paperback in 2020. House of Wrax is described as both “post-chaos” and “post-disaster-struck Earth,” as it features the world extrapolated from our current Anthropocene era. Tonally, House of Wrax manages to meld fantasy and science fiction, diversely inflected with William Hope Hodgson and Mad Max, as the remnants of humanity move between massive fortresses and across an apocalyptic wasteland. 

2020 also saw a new Xuya universe novella from multi-award winner Aliette De Bodard. De Bodard is already a hugely prominent name in the genre and a candidate to cross over into wider mainstream success. Her novella Seven of Infinities (Subterranean Press) features a retired sentient spaceship/thief who teams up with a poor scholar to solve a murder. De Bodard continues to forge a strong line in non-Western takes on worldbuilding. As we’ve come to expect from De Bodard, the strong narrative pacing of Seven of Infinities also makes for a fantastically entertaining ride. 

De Bodard’s Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders (JABberwocky)is a new novella set in her separate series, the Dominion of the Fallen. It’s described as a queer comedy of manners where a Fallen angel and a dragon go back to the dragon’s family for New Year and find themselves trying to stop a coup. The novella reflects the versatility of De Bodard’s range both in tackling diverse characters and in working comedic themes into science fiction. (And it is also, of course, funny). 

Penny Jones, who also joined us in Focus in 2020, published “Our Little Secret” in Corona-Nation Street by Burdizzo Books, “The Deer” in Voices by Sinister Horror Company and “The Lepidopterist” in Emerge by Green Ink Writers (a charity-sponsored ebook). All are recommended to readers.

Rosanne Rabinowitz published both non-fiction and fiction of genre interest. This included an introduction to Swan River Press’s reprint of a lost classic of supernatural fiction, Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin. In a case of non-fiction evolving from fiction (a reversal on the norm) Rabinowitz wrote this introduction following her research on Ethel Mannin for a story published in a Swan River Press anthology, The Far Tower, where Mannin appears as a character. 

Rabinowitz also published “The Poison Girls” in Bitter Distillations: An Anthology of Poisonous Tales from Egaeus Press. The story features a poison garden, funny honey and restless genius loci. Which should be enough to entice any reader. 

Allen Ashley will be known to Focus readers in 2020 for both his non-fiction writing and his poetry. He published a book of his poetry, Echoes from an Expired Earth (Demain Press) which allows the reader to enjoy the breadth and depth of his work in one edition. The collection also contains poetry that will appeal specifically to SF readers. 

Another two writers who will need little introduction to BSFA members are Laura Mauro and Priya Sharma. Mauro published “The Pain-Eater’s Daughter” (Undertow) and the collection Sing Your Sadness Deep (also Undertow). Both these works won British Fantasy Society Awards in 2020 and “The Pain-Eater’s Daughter” rightly went on to be reprinted in Best Horror of the Year volume 12.

Priya Sharma also won a BFS award for her novella Ormeshadow (Tor.com). The novella additionally won the Shirley Jackson award in 2019 and is described as richly atmospheric and brooding as it combines rural life with inner pain in a stultifying Georgian England. The plot concerns a family story about a buried dragon. Described by one reviewer as “a chain reaction of events that quickly spirals into wonder and terror,” the novella is lyrical, evocative and characterful. Sharma is the type of writer whose prose lingers in the mind long after the story has ended.

Genre fiction has a long history of successfully breaking conventions in storytelling. Paul Graham Raven does so with his editorial work on Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam 2045 (Climaginaries). Raven, who is both an SF writer and a critic, summed up the end product as “kinda science fictional, in that it’s an imagined future, but it’s told through the formal rhetorics of a travel guide (with some design fiction tricks thrown in) rather than using traditional narrative techniques.” 

Notterdam 2045 manages to be both “non-fiction” and fiction at the same time. Anyone familiar with stories told through entries in encyclopaedias or as faux science reports will know that constructing a narrative in this form is a difficult trick to pull off but also very rewarding when done well — as is the case here. 

Non-fiction

Turning to actual non-fiction, the best of the year in 2020 includes Beachcombing (Ansible Editions) by David Langford (another prominent name who needs no introduction here). This was Langford’s first collection of “fanzine-published essays, speeches and silliness” since the memorable and wide-ranging The Silence of the Langford (Ansible Editions) in 1996. 

Langford was also busy as a publisher. Beyond the Outposts: Essays on SF and Fantasy 1955-1996 (Ansible Editions) brings together Algis Budrys’s essays, reviews and personal memoirs. Covering forty years of his writing career, this collection contains many reflections on the mechanics of writing (which is always grist to the Focus mill).

Ansible Editions also published The Jonbar Point by Brian Aldiss, which includes two major Aldiss essays. The first is “Judgement at Jonbar” (1964), where Aldiss scrutinizes Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time, and its “jonbar point” (where alternative timelines diverge), while Aldiss’s “British Science Fiction Now: Studies of Three Writers” (1965) examines the work of Aldiss’s contemporaries Lan Wright, Donald Malcolm and J.G. Ballard. Christopher Priest wrote an introduction for this edition. 

Staying with Priest brings us to another long-time member of the BSFA and regular contributor to Vector, Paul Kincaid. His latest book is the award-nominated The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest (Gylphi Press). In this book, Kincaid explores Christopher Priest’s work with both chronological and thematic analyses. Priest’s work is often described as deliberately ambivalent and operating in the confluence of the overt and the hidden.  Those familiar with his fiction will find that Kincaid has explored the key Priestian motifs of islands, reality, doubles and the nature of art and artistic endeavour.  

I’m also pleased to report that Paul Kincaid will be back writing in Focus later this year. 

Moving yet further outside genre boundaries is the fanzine writing of David Hodson. In 2020, Hodson contributed to Nic Farey’s fanzine This Here (available through efanzines.com). This Here won a Fanzine Activity Achievement Award in 2020, for the category of Best Personal Zine. Hodson’s latest writing has been about football — which may not have an immediate crossover appeal to genre consumers. However, this column is about the best of the year, and great writing is a “victimless crime.” Anyone who enjoys vivid discussion from an informed and opinionated source will find something to enjoy in Hodson’s columns. Also, they’re an opportunity to unpick the resonant phrase that “the Premier League is a masonic public relations machine.” David Hodson will hopefully be appearing in Focus in future.

Art

Turning to art, I want to mention the artists Chris Moore, Jim Burns and Julian Quaye, all of whom met the pandemic challenge by continuing to work and produce art throughout 2020. 

Moore and Burns are likely to be very familiar to anyone reading any science fiction in the UK and US, as their artwork is synonymous with genre fiction. (Chris Moore has also featured on two previous covers for Focus, after generously donating his work to us). Looking at a Chris Moore cover is to enter a fully realised world before you’ve even reached the text itself. Jim Burns similarly has the power to immerse the viewer by generating a visceral reaction. Both artists create whole worlds within their paintings and Moore and Burns can be said to have illustrated the future for many readers through their careers. 

Burns was busy during lockdown, producing new digital art, ‘Dark Angels Rising,’ for the cover of the third and final part in Ian Whates’ The Dark Angels trilogy. He also worked in acrylics and in pencil for private collections and his own personal work (which may develop into projects for the public to see in future).

Other digital art that Burns produced includes the cover art for the limited collectors’ edition of short stories from Centipede Press, Weird Tales. The stories are all from the ‘golden age’ of weird and horror fiction — the 1920s and 30s. Burns also designed as digital art a separate frontispiece for the book as well.

Burns designed cover art for Where the Stars be Still as Bright (Austin Macauley Publishers) the new collection of short stories by the Northern Irish writer, Jonathan Fisher. (Burns also designed the lettering for this piece). 

Weird Tales, frontispiece by Jim Burns
Weird Tales, cover art by Jim Burns

Jim Burns’ Facebook page offers readers and viewers an extra dimension with his discussion of his works in progress and his reflections on the evolution and background of both his current and historic works. 

Cover art by Jim Burns

Julian Quaye produces striking anthropomorphic pieces featuring animals in reimaged human worlds. A particular pleasure in viewing Quaye’s work is that his portraits are both humorous but also packed with story. Each individual work stands alone while also feeding into a wider narrative arc of a shared and complex world. He added to this ongoing story in 2020.

Julian Quaye, work in progress

A notable feature of Quaye’s work, for me, is his ability to reproduce textures. Even in electronic reproductions the suppleness of fabrics like rubber and leather is always clear. Like Moore and Burns, Quaye works to an exacting standard that makes his paintings vivid and immediate to the viewer.

Media

Priya Sharma gets another mention, in our multimedia section, as she was interviewed as part of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series, hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matthew Kressel. Sharma and Justin C. Key’s interviews are available on YouTube where they explore the inner life and working processes of writers.

San Francisco-based writer and actor DW Draffin offers a weekly podcast filled with literary escapism. ALAXSXAQ is a villain’s tale.  It’s  a chase story told from the point of view of Apsim Totapas Gryl, the Lord of Chaos. Draffin’s performance of his own writing is a growling screech of protest against sanity and reason. In non-fiction media, his I AM series, hosted by The Study of Antiquity and the Middle Ages on YouTube, is an informative series on historical figures who introduce themselves in their own words.

Brandon Cronenberg (son of David Cronenberg) has directed two full length films, with Possessor released in 2020. Possessor tells the story of an assassin, played by Andrea Riseborough, who inhabits other people’s bodies to commit corporate murders. Her life is a series of destructive acts that leave her mentally fragile and disassociated from her own husband and son. 

The film’s milieu is the collision between toneless executive interiors and the homes of the vastly wealthy juxtaposed with suburban family settings. In terms of themes, Cronenberg taps into the bloodiness and body horror of invasive technology and murder for hire that are staples of his father’s work. Possessor’s central tenet is a meditation on disconnection, corporate greed, and interpersonal relationships reaching breaking point. This is unfortunately timely in our current situation. 

While Brandon Cronenberg has presumably enjoyed a considerable leg up by being David Cronenberg’s son, and his films seem to centre in familiar Cronenbergian territory, this film is entirely his own. It was fresh and distinct enough that I sought out his earlier work, the equally memorable and challenging Antiviral (2012).

On television, I can recommend the science fiction drama, Raised by Wolves (HBO Max), produced and partly directed by Ridley Scott.      

Raised by Wolves had the feel of Alien (1979) in that it was a deeply familiar melange of tropes. In Wolves’ case these included a devastating ecological disaster on Earth that leads to a desperate bid to colonise a distant world, androids called “Mother” and “Father” raising orphaned children, religious warfare, fanaticism and planetary mysteries. Long ago, Mad Magazine parodied Alien as Alias, as it combined many genre staples, and Raised by Wolves could have succumbed to the fate of genericism and unoriginality. What made it new and refreshing was what it did with its ingredients and also its careful plotting, vivid set pieces and well-developed dialogue. Rather than derivative, the series felt like a return to form for Scott, whose eye for striking details had been sadly absent in his Prometheus (2012) series to date. But the eyeball kicks returned with a vengeance in Amanda Collin’s android Mother, a flying cruciform destroying everything before it with its sonic scream. 

And I end a “best of” list of a truly difficult year by hoping that 2021 is treating all readers, writers and artists better than in 2020, and that everyone is able to remain safe this year.

Dev Agarwal

Editor, Focus

Footnote: Julian Quaye’s image is a work in progress. Quaye describes the story behind his recent work: “Marine biologist Jack Irwin Coaster, captain Joe Conrad and helmsman Jonas McKay are engaged by Alexander Keras, of the East Albion Company to take command of the steam-powered ice breaker Nostromo. Their mission, to capture and bring back one of the mythical beasts of Thule, which legend has it, arrived in the frozen northern wastes upon the back of a falling star, bringing life and death in equal measure. Within the beast’s lifeblood exists the cure for a feverish malady laying waste to the citizens of Albion.’


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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