Vector’s Best of 2018 in SFF

This year, Vector have decided to take our annual SFF round-up online. It’s all here on the website under the tag 2018 Round-Up: reflections and highlights from Nina Allan, Cheryl Morgan, So Mayer, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Nick Lowe, Alison Baker, Tony Jones, Gary Couzens, Dev AgarwalAndrew Wallace and Molly Cobb on the year gone by.

Speaking of 2018, it’s also BSFA Awards time: we’ve recently announced a splendid longlist of SFF novels, short fiction, non-fiction, artwork, voted on by BSFA members. Voting is now open for the shortlist.

 

Cheryl’s 2018 in Feminist Speculative Fiction

A Year In Feminist Speculative Fiction

By Cheryl Morgan

9780374208431 fcTop of the list for anyone’s feminist reading from 2018 must be Maria Dahvana Headley’s amazing re-telling of Beowulf, The Mere Wife. Set in contemporary America, with a gated community taking the place of Heorot Hall, and a policeman called Ben Wolfe in the title role, it uses the poem’s story to tackle a variety of issues. Chief among them is one of translation. Why is it that Beowulf is always described as a hero, whereas Grendel’s Mother is a hag or a wretch? In the original Anglo-Saxon, the same word is used to describe both of them. And why do white women vote for Trump? The book tackles both of those questions, and more. I expect to see it scooping awards.

Space OperaA personal favourite of mine, though possibly a little too off-the-wall for some tastes, is Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera. The usual pyrotechnic prose we have come to expect from Valente is augmented by delightful comedy and an all-encompassing queerness. Valente’s time in the UK as a student has helped her to set a book here without any of the embarrassing Theme Park Britain we sometimes see from American authors. Amidst the insanity of Brexit, it seems entirely appropriate that Earth’s admission to the Interstellar Community will depend on our performance in a galaxy-wide version of the Eurovision Song Contest. The Keshet, beings who look like overly excited red pandas, are now officially my favourite alien species.

European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanHumour also pervades the Athena Club novels of Theodora Goss. The second book in the series is European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. It takes our heroines from London to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue a Miss Lucinda Van Helsing from an awful doom. They also discover that foreigners make remarkably good cake. Goss has assembled a fascinating team of characters, from the prim Mary Jekyll to the incorrigible Diana Hyde. I am particularly fond of Catherine Moreau who used to be a puma and who finds humans rather too complicated. Reading the Athena Club mysteries is very like reading Kim Newman’s books; I always come away convinced that I have missed half of the references to other stories that the author has sprinkled liberally throughout the text.

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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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So’s 2018 Round-Up

By So Mayer, part of our ongoing look back at 2018

Image result for yasmin ryan tardisSo that was the year that Yaz (and Ryan) jumped in the TARDIS.

And Meg Murry (and Charles Wallace) found A Wrinkle in Time. Simone took The Good Place (and Chidi, Tehani and Jason) into an MRI chamber. Plus Shuri (and T’Challa, Killmonger, Nakia, Okoye, Ramonda, Ayo, M’Baku, and many more) made Black Panther – and she had a whole lot more to say and do, on Earth and in space, in Nnedi Okorafor’s playful and powerful comic series (up to issue 3 so far). Let’s not forget foresighted Rosalind Walker (and Susie Putnam, and the brilliantly louche Ambrose Spellman) in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Foyles made Tomi Adeyemi’s ambitious Children of Blood and Bone their Children’s Book of the Year 2018, a story of Orisha magic led by Zélie. N.K. Jemisin completed an unprecedented Hugo Award trifecta – three Best Novel awards over three years – with the third volume of the Broken Earth series, The Stone Sky, a mother-daughter-mineral tale resonant with contemporary apocalyptic concerns, which also won the Nebula and Locus awards for best novel.

It seems reductive to label this transformation of the field with the hashtag #blackgirlmagic, but it is equally undeniable that the black girl nerd community online has driven the passionate uptake of Meg, Shuri, and Ros, and of writers such as Okorafor, Adeyemi, Jemisin, and Malorie Blackman, who, with ‘Rosa,’ became the first non-white writer to contribute a script for televised Doctor Who, the new series’ highest-rated episode. A BBC adaptation of Blackman’s ground-breaking alternative history novel Noughts and Crosses, co-produced by Jay Z’s Roc Nation company, has started filming, two years after the project was first announced: a strong sign, perhaps, that at the high-profile conjunction of screen media and SFF literature, change is in motion.

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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.

As the title suggests, many contributions riff on aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick’s classic adaptation of Clarke’s work. The truth is, this kind of reinvention goes right back to the film’s inception. Clarke and Kubrick spent four years cultivating the kernel Clarke supplied with his 1951 short story ‘The Sentinel.’ One aspect of the preparation was the 2001: A Space Odyssey novel. Written alongside the film’s development, the novel takes several different narrative directions from the screenplay. For example, Kubrick couldn’t get the rings of Saturn exactly as he wanted them, so opted for Jupiter instead, which is why Discovery heads for the ringed planet in the book and the gas giant in the film.

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2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, a year before the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. However, the peace and love generation found these greater visions impossible to sustain, bequeathing to the twenty-first century not a moon base nor mission to Jupiter, but the kind of fascistic gangster capitalism Clarke and his co-author Gentry Lee skewered so accurately in the later Rama novels. 2001: A Space Odyssey, then, is very much an alternative history, although in the years leading up to it the date held a talismanic significance; maybe we wouldn’t get a moon base, but… something would happen.

2001: An Odyssey in Words is a good indicator of why the film retains such a hold on our collective imagination despite being so wide off the mark historically, and so narratively unconventional (what the hell are those monkeys doing? When is someone going to actually say something? Why am I more upset about the computer dying than the astronauts?). For all its strangeness, however, the film remains so familiar that its eerie visions can be successfully reimagined throughout An Odyssey in Words in a variety of inspired ways.

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Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

What, for example, did the Star Child whose rebirth ends the movie do next? What would the early thought processes of an AI like HAL 9000 look and sound like? If humans intervene in an alien species’ development a la the famous monolith, would the results be benign? You can probably guess the answer to that last question, and there is a suitable bleakness to some of the conclusions in this collection. We learn, for example, that a prototype of HAL did malfunction before the Discovery mission but that the error was covered up, for all-too-human reasons; that if aliens do visit, we will misunderstand them with catastrophic results; that a future religion may well grow up around the monoliths, albeit human-manufactured ones based on those in the film.

Other stories explore the impressionistic impact of 2001 on our cultural DNA in more subversive ways: a Trumpish patriarch at the end of his days awaits a Bowman-like epiphany, but it doesn’t go quite as he expects, while another story blends near-future space exploration, nascent artificial intelligence and the death of David Bowie, whose Space Oddity was probably the earliest riff on the movie of all.

Indeed, time and its manipulation is a key theme in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The unknown aliens either operate on millennial timescales or can control time itself, although even Bowman’s final metamorphosis doesn’t make clear which of these abilities applies. The stories in the collection utilise this theme, as an experimental AI (probably HAL again) models the effects of establishing a burger franchise at the dawn of time, a table holds within its molecular indices a memory the aging protagonist is desperate to retrieve, and a hacker finds the identity of the ancient monk employing him may be more familiar than he thought.

While 2001: A Space Odyssey is the launch pad, so to speak, some stories in 2001: An Odyssey in Words respond to other classic Arthur C. Clarke works, such as Rendezvous With Rama. There is, for example, a riposte to an observation about the effects of zero gravity on the female anatomy in the novel that is all the more gratifying for being made with love; while one of the critical pieces included in the collection analyses how quotable Sir Arthur is, from the terrifying last line of ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ to that famous Third Law.

Given that Sir Arthur didn’t have children of his own, it’s extraordinary that he wrote one of the great books about parenthood: Childhood’s End. Whether it’s to the Galactic Overmind or just down the road, your kids always leave, one way or another. Two stories in the collection come at that novel from different angles: one is from the point of view of the children, altered not by alien intervention but human agency, while the other is a ‘missing chapter’ from the original novel itself.

The 2001 film and Sir Arthur’s other stories depict a human response to the unknowable, and 2001: An Odyssey in Words explores that quintessentially science fictional conundrum further. The result is a vision that has been refracted multiple times, first through the vitality of Sir Arthur’s own work, and then through the imaginations of the many people he has inspired.

Andrew Wallace is the author of the far-future SF thrillers Sons of the Crystal Mind and The Outer Spheres, and his new novella Celebrity Werewolf is out soon. He also blogs about SFF and the creative process.

Tony’s 2018 Pick: Lost in Space

As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Tony Jones gets just a little misplaced in space …

Fans of a certain vintage will have grown up following the adventures of the Space Family Robinson who were very much Lost in Space … though this involved being (mostly) trapped on a strange alien world, which happened to be prone to eccentric visitors. Child prodigy Will Robinson often took centre stage, trying to find the best in the conflicted villain Dr Zachary Smith, and often relying on the protection of The Robot.

Lost in Space Original 2

The original Lost in Space was first aired between 1965 and 1968. If we skip quickly past the 1998 film, in 2018 it was the turn of the Netflix behemoth to reboot the show over ten expensively made episodes. Is it worth a watch, and – perhaps more importantly – is it still really Lost in Space?

The Robinson family persist, though it’s a more complex setup with Maureen and John now somewhat estranged and Judy being Maureen’s daughter by an earlier relationship. Maureen is very much a central heroic figure, scientist and leader, but she also has flaws – as shown by how far she is prepared to go to ensure Will can accompany the family into space.

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If the family are updated, so too is the character of Don West, now a smuggling engineer rather than a Major who pilots the Jupiter 2. We still have the Jupiter 2, but now it’s a very well-equipped ship carried aboard a huge colony ship, The Resolute. As the show opens it’s not long before alien robots attack and the colonists must flee The Resolute to an unknown planet.

So far, so similar, and there’s even a Dr Smith – though this is a female psychopath played with dark chill by Parker Posey, and she’s really June Harris, who has taken Dr Smith’s identity for her own reasons. If that wasn’t enough to follow, the real Dr Smith is played by Bull Mumy, who played Will Robinson in the original TV series.

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Once on the planet Will finds and befriends an all-powerful Robot who is a great piece of CGI but not quite in the spirit of the original. Will himself though is very well written and performed, and very much a real Will Robinson, if that means anything.

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So, this reboot has the main ingredients, and sets them on a threatening alien world with a problem – it isn’t viable in the long term. There’s lots of shenanigans about fuel supplies, treachery and angst and one major difference from the original: the Robinsons aren’t alone!

Yes, the planet is temporary home to dozens of other Jupiter ships and their crews. This gives the central cast plenty of other characters to interact with, without resorting to the original show’s device of random aliens just arriving every week. There’s also a bigger story hidden in the background as we slowly learn why The Resolute was attacked, who the Robot is, and how far Dr Smith will go in her deceptions and her lust for power. Her character is consistently well written, and is one of the show’s real strengths.

The Robinsons’ interactions drive a lot of the episodes, either reacting to Dr Smith’s machinations, or attempting to escape from the planet, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore backstory, and for Maureen and John to build some bridges. If some of the main characters are updated, this feels less of a departure from the spirit of the original than the failure to leave the Robinsons isolated. But. Yes, there’s a but in the form of a (spoilers) new attack by super alien robots, some narrow escapes and – just as a happy ending looks possible – a surprise turn of events which does indeed leave the Robinsons and the Jupiter 2 truly lost in space.

Tony Jones has dined with royalty, supped slings in Singapore and been taught by several Nobel prize winners (though he could have paid more attention). He is a writer and blogger based in the early 21st century.