Nick’s 2018 in SFF Cinema

By Nick Lowe, part of our ongoing look back at 2018.

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Del Toro with a Best Picture Oscar for The Shape of Water. Photo credit: Chris Pizzello

It’s been quite a wait, but the fiftieth anniversary of 2001 – an event exhilaratingly marked by the theatrically-released “unrestoration” and Michael Benson’s ample new making-of book – was also the year that finally saw an sf film take the Oscar for Best Picture. And as it turned out, The Shape of Water was about as 2018 as a film could get: an unrepentant genre nerd-out with a sincere and completely unapologetic passion for the history of sf cinema and its transgressive political power to represent transhuman desires, give voices to the silenced, and enlarge humanity by embracing monstrosity. The making of monsters was a preoccupation of films as different as Sorry to Bother You, Wildling, Smallfoot, The Titan, Overlord, and The Cured, while the unjust monstering of non-human others played out in films as different as Bumblebee, Rampage, Isle of Dogs, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Luis and the Aliens, with full-on alien romances in How to Talk to Girls at Parties and Russian extravaganza Attraction, and in the other direction Beethoven thwarting interstellar genocide in weirdo British two-hander Native.

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A Quiet Place

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Gary’s 2018 Picks in SFF Movies and TV

As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Gary Couzens takes a look at some screen highlights.

As with last year, this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the SF and fantasy films of 2018,  but a highlighting of some titles worth seeking out, leaving out the obvious ones. Everything here, however, received a commercial release or a festival premiere in the the UK in 2018.

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Ali’s 2018 Pick: The Tea Master and the Detective

Aliette de Bodard, The Tea Master and the Detective (Subterranean Press)

Reviewed by Ali Baker as part of our 2018 Round-Up.

Image result for tea master and the detectiveI have admired Aliette de Bodard’s writing since I was given a copy of Servant of the Underworld close to nine years ago. That novel and its sequels are fantasy mysteries featuring Aztec high priest of the dead Acatl, as he solves crimes that affect the balance between the mortal realm and the supernatural realm. De Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series is urban Gothic fantasy set in Paris after a magical war. Both of these series feature both full-length novels and shorter works. Her Xuya fiction, however, is all shorter works, including The Tea Master and the Detective, a stand-alone novella set in a far future world (Xuya) where China and Vietnam are global powers.

This novella is an ideal starting point for new readers, as it does not need a great deal of knowledge about the Xuya universe. It is another mystery story, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, where Holmes is the scholar and scientist Long Chau, and Watson is the sentient mindship The Shadow’s Child. Like Watson, The Shadow’s Child is a military veteran, surviving the aftermath of a harrowing conflict. She barely makes a living blending brews to help people cope with the pain of existing in deep space. Into her shop comes Long Chau with a proposition: she needs to collect a corpse floating in space, for research purposes. Reluctantly The Shadow’s Child agrees to help Long Chau — after all, the rent is due — and the two travel to deep space, both facing their traumatic pasts.

De Bodard’s worldbuilding is beautifully rendered, from the ingredients of the brews that The Shadow’s Child creates to the technology of the Xuya universe. This novella is a wonderful jumping off point for readers new to De Bodard’s science fiction, who have some treasures ahead.

Ali Baker is a lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of East London and a researcher in children’s fantasy literature. She is the Programme Chair of Eastercon 2019, Ytterbiumcon.

Maureen’s 2018 Round-Up

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.

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Dev’s Best of 2018

By Dev Agarwal, part of our ongoing look back at 2018.

2018 feels like it was almost too busy to keep on top of, both inside and outside of the genre.  I’m far from the only commentator to say I’ve got sensory overload as we limp into 2019. My reading often lags behind the current zeitgeist but last year I caught a number of new books, or book-length projects, of genre note.

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Andrew’s 2018 Pick: 2001: An Odyssey in Words

As part of our 2018 round-up, Andrew Wallace embarks on an odyssey of words …

An Alien Optic

2001: An Odyssey in Words, ed. Ian Whates & Tom Hunter (NewCon Press 2018)

2001: An Odyssey in Words was published to commemorate the centenary of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s birth. It includes new stories and features of exactly 2001 words by twenty-seven leading SF writers, all winners or shortlistees of the Clarke Award. At a scant 2001 words, the easy gag would be to say if you don’t like the piece you’re reading, there will be another one along soon. But really, this is an extraordinary collection, and there isn’t a duff piece in the lot.

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Ali’s 2018 Pick: The Dragon Prince

As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Ali Baker shines a light on The Dragon Prince.

Dragon Princes 0The Dragon Prince (Netflix Original, 2018), Dir: Villads Spangsberg, Giancarlo Volpe

The Dragon Prince – written by Avatar: The Last Airbender head writer and executive producer Aaron Erhatz and co-director of computer game Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception Justin Richards – is a high-fantasy animated Netflix series about step-brother princes Callum and Ezran, who team up with a would-be assassin, the moon elf Rayla, after the three of them discover that the last dragon egg, believed to have been destroyed, has in fact been hidden away as a dangerous weapon by their father’s adviser, the power-hungry mage Viren.

Callum, Ezran, and Rayla escape from the castle just before the other moon-elves attack and King Harrow is killed. Viren attempts to declare the princes dead and seize the throne, but is stopped after their aunt, General Amaya, reports seeing the princes alive. Viren’s children, Claudia the Mage and Crown Guard Soren, are sent to follow them, but each is given a secret mission on top of returning with the princes and the egg. Rayla, Callum and Ezran encounter other characters along the way, some helpful and some hindering, and they develop skills, talents and inner strength as they overcome dangers and difficulties.

The story is an exciting adventure with a fantasy setting written for pre-teen children. In the land of Xadia, where the elves and dragons reside, magic comes from natural sources. However, humans have been driven from Xadia to the Human Kingdoms after a Mage discovered Dark Magic, which exploits the powers of magical creatures, leading humans to enslave them. The war between the two countries has been going on since that time, although the egg could end it, as it would provide a guarantee of ongoing magical powers. It is clear that Viren has his own reasons for not wanting magic to continue.

This is not a perfect show by a long way. At nine episodes it rushes through the story, and Callum and Ezran’s characters are not given much chance to develop and remain rather stereotypical. Callum is the artistic older brother, who is not much good at princely arts of swordplay and horse-riding, but discovers he is a mage. Ezran is the fun-loving, rather greedy younger brother, who has a humorous pet, the glow-toad Bait. However, the conflicted elf assassin Rayla is a truly intriguing character, and I hope that we learn more about her in the next series.

I did particularly enjoy the very visible inclusion in the series. In an era where only 1% of children’s books published in Britain in 2017 had a protagonist of colour, according to research carried out for the Centre for Primary Literacy, it is wonderful to see a Black King, a mixed-race child protagonist, a stepchild who is not neglected and abused; the children’s aunt, their late mother’s sister Amalya, is a general in the King’s army who uses American Sign Language and has a translator. Giancarlo Volpe has said that the girl Ellis who joins the dragon’s egg protectors with her wolf Ava is based on Tibetan heritage. None of these inclusive depictions are plot points: they are just there for children to notice, or not. My stepson and I look forward to the second series.

Dragon Princes 2

Ali Baker is a lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of East London and a researcher in children’s fantasy literature. She is the Programme Chair of Eastercon 2019, Ytterbiumcon.

Nina’s Best of the Year 2018

Helping to kick off Vector’s 2018 Round-UpNina Allan takes a look back at the year …

As genre imprints become ever more conservatively focused upon tried-and-tested formulas, so the more interesting speculative fiction gets pushed increasingly towards mainstream imprints. 2018 saw no diminution in this trend, and with Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, Lidia Yuknavich’s The Book of Joan, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, Sam Byers’s Perfidious Albion, Kate Mascerenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel, Patrick Langley’s Arkady and Ling Ma’s Severence to name but a scattering all being published by literary presses, if anything it is the opposite. Some hardy souls do continue to soldier on in the genre heartlands though, and my vote for best science fiction novel of the year would have to go to The Smoke, by Simon Ings, published by Gollancz. I’m a huge Ings fan in any case – both his 2014 Wolves and his 2011 Dead Water were egregious omissions from the Clarke Award shortlist – but The Smoke hits a new high water mark of excellence and should be read by everyone with an interest in what British science fiction is still capable of.

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Best of 2018

In a change from recent custom, this year Vector will be holding our annual round-up right here online. So keep your eyes peeled, your noses twitching, and your statoliths shoogling for a series of posts throughout December and January. They’re going to be packed with all the highlights (and maybe a few lowlights) of 2018 in science fiction. We’ll kick off next week with Nina Allan‘s pick of 2018.

And — while we’re talking about SF that amazed and inspired in 2018 — don’t forget that nominations are now open for the BSFA Awards! As usual, there are four categories: novel, short fiction, non-fiction, and artwork. Anyone can suggest works on this eligibility spreadsheet. To nominate and vote in the awards you must be a BSFA member (join here). If you’ve recently joined and don’t yet have a membership number, don’t worry! You’re still eligible to nominate and to vote.

Economic Science Fictions reviewed: Speculate to innovate

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

econSF

Reviewed by Madeleine Chalmers

Fantasies are things that can’t happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen.

Ray Bradbury, interview with Joshua Klein for The Onion (1999)

If self-proclaimed ‘not a science fiction writer’ Ray Bradbury ever needed an academic publication to bolster his sprightly quip, then Economic Science Fictions is it. In this bold and exciting collection, William Davies and his contributors offer us an unapologetic manifesto for the power of ‘can’, pushing Bradbury’s statement to its limit to issue a call to arms: economic science fictions are not just ‘about things’, they do things – and so can we.

Taking a firm stance amid the contemporary swirl of fake news and financial, political, and ecological hyperobjects, this major interdisciplinary contribution confronts the porosity between fiction and reality head-on, to interrogate the rigid boundaries we often impose, the assumptions we make, and the mental and social habits we forget to question.

As such, Davies’s collection is a welcome addition to a growing canon of post-2008 crash literature which seeks to combine critique and clear political statements with intellectual rigour, reconnecting academia with ‘the real world’. It takes its place alongside such titles as the late Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009) and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future (2015). From Fisher’s luminous foreword, in which he posits economic science fictions as ‘effective virtualities’ (xiii), onwards, this collection aims to counter the fiction that is capitalism. It invites readers to turn from speculative finance and its logic of accumulation (with the permanent risk of catastrophe), to speculative fiction and its potential to write – and set right – the world. 

This title forms part of Goldsmiths’s PERC (Political Economy Research Centre) series, which defines itself as a ‘pluralist and critical approach to the study of capitalism’. This commitment to interdisciplinarity and dialogue between the academic and non-academic spheres is made absolutely manifest in the collection’s diversity. It has an echo of the democratic ecumenism of the underground 1990s zines, as theory-fictions intermingle with more canonical forms of academic writing. Indeed, the title of Judy Thorne’s ‘Speculative Hyperstition at a Northern Further Education College’ raises the spectre of that mid-1990s phenomenon, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Today, in 2018, writers, artists, architects and musicians mingle polyphonically with founders of think tanks and consultancies, as well as journalists, early career researchers, and established academics. 

William Davies’s shrewd editing allows these very different contributions to speak to one another and shine. His opening ‘Introduction to Economic Science Fictions’ grounds the discussion in classic liberal economic theories of value. Taking as his sparring partners Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, Davies teases out how capitalism is constructed around the flexible ‘division between “real” and “imaginary” value”’ which, as he points out, ‘is how financial bubbles occur: when collective imagination starts to become mistaken for an empirical reality’ (23). Lucidly and compellingly, Davies reconfigures this instability as an opportunity, positing politically progressive economic science fictions as a means to engage with capitalism on its own oscillating ground, poised between the fictional and the non-fictional.

The four sections which follow – each with a clear and concise introductory overview – develop this core thesis. The texts within them move fluidly from theory to practice and back again, with examples which will be familiar (or at least not wholly alien) to non-academic and academic readers alike. While it is only possible to pick out highlights here, what consistently impresses is the interweaving of analyses of science fictions, evocations of personal practice, theories of global megastructures, and creative riffs. Interlocking in surprising yet harmonious ways, within and across the various essays, these texts probe disciplinary boundaries in provocative and illuminating ways.

The collection’s first section – ‘The Science and Fictions of the Economy’ – grounds us in the nuts and bolts of the dream-mechanics of economics, with contributions from distinguished academics on the corporate imaginary (Laura Horn), the anthropology of money (Sherryl Vint) and automation (Brian Willems). Alongside these, Ha-Joon Chang’s contribution (‘Economics, Science Fiction, History and Comparative Studies’) stands out – as much for its laudable inclusion in a collection overwhelmingly dominated by ‘non-economists’, as for its content. A second section on ‘Capitalist Dystopias’ gives us a whistlestop tour of different dystopias in which capitalism is pushed to its limits. Here, accelerationist nightmares rub shoulders with the more ambiguous vision of Dan Gavshon Brady and James Pockson’s gloriously-titled ‘Fatberg and the Sinkholes: A Report on the Findings of a Journey into the United Regions of England by PostRational’. Readers wary of discourse about discourse will find the ‘Design for a Different Future’ section refreshing, for its pragmatic yet playful turn towards architecture, urban planning, and design.

But it is perhaps in the final section, ‘Fumbling for Utopia’, that Economic Science Fictions offers the ideal meta-reflection on the collection as a whole. Featuring four economic science (theory-)fictions, it closes with Jo Lindsay Walton’s ‘Public Money and Democracy’ – a fiction with footnotes, which perfectly encapsulates the collection’s aspiration to break down the barriers between the real and the imagined.

This collection makes no secret of its political stance. Readers looking for neutrality, dry objectivity, or dissent from the valorisation of science fiction and its role in building a post capitalist future will not find it here. The voices of economists who – unlike Ha-Joon Chang – are not avowed SF fans, sceptical SF writers, or interviews between converts and sceptics might have helped to redress this balance, and add a new dynamism to what remains an invigorating discussion – but not really a debate. Greater granularity in the definition of capitalism as it manifests itself in different national contexts (including non-European and non-US contexts) would also have added even greater bite to a collection that seeks to cross wires between the abstract and the pragmatic.

Quibbles aside, this collection is stimulating for believers and dreamers, but also provides ample material to dig into and with which to productively disagree for those who are not quite converts. Its return to political and social commitment represents a passionate and urgent response to our contemporary situation, and an astute and convincing argument for – and illustration of – interdisciplinarity and the interweaving of theory and practice, inside and outside the academy. It is a collection which empowers us to speculate – to invest in fiction not just as a means to provoke but as a means to intervene in our confused and confusing world.

Madeleine Chalmers is studying for a DPhil in French at the University of Oxford, funded by the Oxford University AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership – Sir Ivor Roberts Graduate Scholarship at Trinity College. Her research project on ‘unruly technics’ explores how avant-garde French literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries negotiate the increasingly tight imbrication of technology into human life, and the challenge it poses to how we think about ourselves, our relationship to others and to our world. It seeks to place these texts of the past in dialogue with current philosophical reflections on technology, to explore how this encounter can help us to think about our technological present, and future.