Ten Years, Ten Books

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.

2019

By Ian R. MacLeod

It was a pleasure and a privilege to attend this year’s Worldcon in Dublin, and find myself surrounded by friendly, intelligent and well-informed people from across the globe, and in a European city which has clearly risen far above the sour heritage of its theocratic and colonial past. It was also great to meet the many Americans wearing I’m From The USA But I Didn’t Vote For Trump ribbons on their lanyards. What a shame so much of the rest of humanity doesn’t seem to be heading along the same path!

SF for me has always had its heart in the liberal values of the enlightenment, but perhaps right now, with truth seemingly regarded as a mere matter of opinion, and science as just another way of looking at the world, and with our planet heading toward ecological catastrophe as us humans stand passively by in a way which would never convince in any self-respecting novel or disaster movie, it’s time to speak to the future and the things that should matter with an even stronger and angrier voice. If this isn’t the signal for a new New Wave or Golden Age in the genre, I don’t know when we’ll ever get one.

Vector 290

Vector 290 is out:

Vector 290 version 8M

The last two issues of Vector had themes — #288’s ‘Future Economics’ and #289’s ‘African and Afrodiasporic SF’ — but this issue is once more a Deck of Many Things. Andrew Wallace reveals all about judging the Clarke Award. Christina Scholz recounts linguistic revolutions in Milton and Miéville. Stephen Baxter reflects on AI and Thunderbirds and Paul Kincaid discusses the late great Iain [M.] Banks. Katie Stone reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now, while Vector Recommends brings you Paul Graham Raven on Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon and Nick Hubble on Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. We’ve got interviews with Emma Newman and Yoon Ha Lee, and glimpses from SF fandom around the world with reports from WorldCon 2019 and IceCon 2018. We hope you enjoy. 

Cover by Andrea Morreau.

A personal perspective on South African Comics: From Superheroes to Ordinary heroes

By Nick Wood 

The sun darkened and the sky burned. 

Sirens and smoke filled the air. 

I stood in my family’s garden in Pinelands, Cape Town, watching the red horizon blaze and shift, as the neighbouring black townships of Athlone, Langa, and Nyanga were consumed by bullets, tear-gas, and flames. The Soweto Uprising had swept down from Jo’burg in 1976, from a nationwide youth protest opposing the teaching of Afrikaans in schools – which had been met with brutal police killings.

To me, then, as a young white teenage male, facing military conscription, it was as if the whole world could go up in flames.

Not known to me at the time, though, was that the destruction in Soweto included the burning down of the publishing house Africomic. Africomic was the home of South Africa’s first black comics superhero, Mighty Man. 

The Mighty Man stories unravelled over seventeen issues, featuring the exploits of a policeman called Danny Ndhlomo, who was injected with a secret alien serum. The serum gave him superhuman strength and speed … and he became Mighty Man. 

Superheroes often have secret identities. In the case of Mighty Man, there was a lot more than met the eye. Mighty Man was funded by the Apartheid government, with money shifted from the Defence budget [1].

Continue reading “A personal perspective on South African Comics: From Superheroes to Ordinary heroes”

BSFA Awards Winners

The British Science Fiction Association is delighted to announce the winners of the BSFA Awards for works published in 2018.

embers

Best Novel  Gareth L Powell – Embers of War (Titan Books)

Best Shorter Fiction  Ian McDonald – Time Was (Tor.com)

Best Non-Fiction Aliette de Bodard – ‘On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures’ (Intellectus Speculativus blog)

Best Artwork Likhain – In the Vanishers’ Palace: Dragon I and II (Inprnt)

In the Vanisher's Palace: Dragon II by Likhain
 

An Interview with Sandra Newman

Sandra PictureSandra Newman’s fourth novel, The Heavens, is just out from Granta and Grove Atlantic. We think it’s a remarkable book, and we’re not alone. The New York Times has called The Heavens “heady and elegant … a chameleon, a strange and beautiful hybrid.” Tor.com says, “How rare and wonderful it is to find a book that surpasses already high expectations.” The Washington Independent Review of Books praises the book for its humour and style, but above all for its knack for portraying the unstable reality of its two central characters. Vector recently got the chance to chat to Sandra about her writing …

Continue reading “An Interview with Sandra Newman”

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.

Con Report: Octocon

Ian Moore reports back on Octocon, Ireland’s national science fiction convention, which this year ran in the Blanchardstown Crowne Plaza hotel from 19 to 20 October. This write-up originally appeared at Secret Panda.

I recently attended Octocon, the exciting Irish national science fiction convention. Octocon is the other extreme to huge conventions like Worldcon, being an intimate affair taking place over a weekend rather than a five-day event involving thousands of attendees. If you have been to more than one Octocon you will recognise a lot of the attendees and panellists, with there being considerably more overlap between these two categories than might be the case elsewhere. The programme is multi-tracked but not massively multi-tracked. So Octocon is basically a boutique convention and would suit people who like neither crowds nor a surfeit of choice in the programming.

Due to unpleasantness Octocon this year has moved to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, just beside the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The location suits it as Blanchardstown Shopping Centre is itself a strangely artificial place, like something out of a JG Ballard novel; in the near future, we will all live in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The hotel meanwhile felt like a pretty swish spot, with well-appointed function rooms and a large open space that served as a light and airy dealers’ room. I don’t know what the two birds in the lobby made of the Octocon attendees but they probably see all sorts.

Day 1

A cat issue meant that I was late out on the Friday and missed the opening ceremony. I did however catch The Trance Mission Diaries, which was a performance piece by O.R. Melling with electronic music by Cha Krka. This was something of a work in progress as the goal is for it ultimately to include considerably more advanced elements like holograms and singing as well as the projected visuals and electronic music accompanying Melling’s narration. I enjoyed it but found the narrative difficult to follow, which I think was as much down to my own tiredness and it being the first thing I encountered at the con. Nevertheless, the narration and music worked well together and I look forward to seeing how this work develops.

Following that I attended a film-related panel featuring John Vaughan and Robert JE Simpson comparing and contrasting the 1960s gothic horror films of Hammer with the contemporary oeuvre of Blumhouse. The contention was that the business model of the two companies is similar: spewing out somewhat trashy films made on relatively modest budgets but hoping for at least some mainstream success, perhaps throwing in an occasional more serious film to gather some critical respectability. I was at something of a disadvantage here being almost entirely unfamiliar with the works of Blumhouse, and the big unanswered question for me was whether that studio has developed any kind of consistent aesthetic in the way that Hammer did. I was also left reeling by the panellists’ anti-Hereditary comments, which did remind me of some reviews that suggested it was a horror film for people who are not true horror fans.

For me Friday ended with a panel on how we as fans deal with things we like that have changed, particularly when the change moves things on from what we liked about them in the first place. This kind of thing is sometimes framed negatively (i.e. discussions of butt-hurt racists saying that they will never watch a Star Wars film again now that an Asian actor has appeared in one or people moaning about the Doctor becoming female). However, I think that there are times when fans are right to abandon a property (while obviously being wrong to harass persons involved in its production); e.g. two of the three Star Wars prequels were completely terrible and anyone who saw them and decided that they were done with Star Wars was making a reasonable decision, while no true Trek fan should waste their time with the recent Star Trek films. Also, people do just grow out of things sometimes.

Star_Trek_William_ShatnerThe changing canon panel also had me thinking about how much a thing has to change before it is no longer the same thing. The panel discussed whether the character of Iron Fist should have been portrayed by a white or Asian character in the recent adaptation of the comics (in which Iron Fist is white but playing a character that in our enlightened times might perhaps be more appropriately presented as Asian). I have no familiarity with Mr Iron Fist but I was reminded of the periodic discussion of whether James Bond could be played by a black or female actor; my own view on this matter is that in this case such changes would so far deviate from the core of the character as to essentially make it an entirely different one with the same name (though I must add that I do not give a shit about James Bond and his misogynist antics and would be happy for the character to be played by Leslie Jones, edgily re-imagined as an American ophthalmologist).

For me though the most fascinating thing that came out of the canon panel was C.E. Murphy mentioning the Kirk-Drift theory, this being the idea that the popular conception of original series Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk as an alpha male dipshit shagger is essentially a mass delusion. Further investigation brought me subsequently to Erin Horáková’s development of this idea and its consequences in a piece she wrote for Strange Horizons, which I encourage all readers to investigate.

Day 2

octocon-pandas
New friends

Saturday morning saw me first of all working on the Octocon reception desk, where we dealt with registering convention attendees as they arrived. If you arrived at Octocon on Saturday morning then maybe mine was the friendly face that greeted you (or the surly jobsworth who couldn’t find your reservation). I made friends with some pandas who had come to the convention to examine Octocon’s Hugo trophy.

Shady customers

The morning also saw me make my debut as an Octocon panellist. As part of my efforts to promote the World Science Fiction Convention that is coming to Dublin next year I took part in a panel intended to drum up enthusiasm for volunteering at Worldcon. It turned out we were rather talking to the converted as almost everyone present was already volunteering for Worldcon, but this did allow us to gang up on the others. If anyone reading this is not a Worldcon volunteer then I encourage you to get involved, as volunteering is fun, a way of meeting people, a way of giving something back to science fiction and a way of seeing the inside of what will be the biggest science fiction event to ever come to Ireland.

More time on the reception desk and then my own interest in lunch meant that the next event I attended was the guest of honour interview by Octocon chair Janet O’Sullivan with Pat Cadigan, an American science fiction writer who now lives in England. I was not previously familiar with her work (which is more a reflection on me than on her as I am a slow reader and am unfamiliar with most writers). I found the interview fascinating, as any question would set Cadigan off on a stream of anecdote that would lead very far from the initial starting point. I particularly liked her favourable recollection of Robert Heinlein, someone who now is perhaps unfairly and simplistically pigeon-holed as a right-wing ultra, but whom she recalls as a very generous character. I was also touched by the particularly star-struck question from a member of the audience and Cadigan’s gracious response.

Cadigan also mentioned having previously attended some class of event called a relaxacon. I don’t know what these are but I want to go to one.

Not the Monster panel

As you know, this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and with it the birth of science fiction. Octocon had an entire programming strand engaging with Frankenstein’s legacy and I now found myself attending a panel discussion on the Monster’s perspective. This got a bit “could it be that we are the real monster?” but I was struck by the discussion of consent issues (e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster badgering him to create a Lady Monster for him, taking for granted that she will want to be his mate). More general discussion of how a simple shift of perspective can make monsters appear like victims led to an interesting recollection by one panellist of a story they read once about people in the remote past fighting Trolls, where the reader realises that the Trolls are the last Neanderthals being hunted to extinction; it occurs to me now that another work of this kind is I Am Legend, the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, where the book ends with the protagonist’s realisation that he is a monster to the vampiric new humans (I wish I had thought of this at the panel and established my remembering-things-about-books-I-have-read credentials by mentioning it). I was also reminded of various works in 2000 AD by Pat Mills, where his writing was very evocative of the non-human mindset of dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures.

Of the panellists’ own works, Sarah Maria Griffin’s take on Frankenstein, in which a brainy teenage girl attempts to build herself a boyfriend, sounds like it might have a Christmas present date with my niece.

The last programme item I made it to on the Saturday was the Vault of Horror. This is always a highlight of Octocon but it is also an event that is hard to describe in a way that does not make it sound a bit rubbish if you have never experienced it. The Vault sees John Vaughan playing snippets from a terrible film and drawing attention to the film’s awfulness. He does this in a way that is actually funny rather than being some smug guy making fun of other people’s attempts at making films. This year he reported that he has almost run out of terrible films but then he had found a terrible Gerard Butler vehicle called Geostorm with which to delight us. He also provided us with the sad news that due to a progressive illness he will not be in a position to continue serving up the Vault indefinitely into the future, but he will next year be bringing the Vault to Worldcon and presenting one of the most terrible of the films with which he has previously charmed Octocon. Are you coming to Worldcon? Then you will come to the Vault, you will.

I sadly ate so much food for dinner at this point (a recurring theme for me at Science Fiction conventions) that I was too disgustingly full to enjoy the Monsters Ball and left early, thinking that next year is definitely the one where I find some kind of easy cosplay outfit to wear.

Octocon day 3 report coming soon.

Putting the ‘Irish’ into An Irish Worldcon panel image source (@jc_ie on Twitter)

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Focus

The BSFA is looking for a new team member to work on Focus, especially handling the layout. Someone with experience of InDesign or Publisher would be ideal, but we can help you to learn the ropes. It’s a great opportunity to gain some entry level editorial experience, and to be part of a future-facing fan association, encouraging and promoting SF in all its forms. For more information, contact Donna at chair@bsfa.co.uk.