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.

Dave Hutchinson interview

In August we caught up with Dave Hutchinson at Nine Worlds in London. 

Image result for dave hutchinson

Are you enjoying the con so far?

I always enjoy Nine Worlds. It’s different to Eastercon of course. The emphasis isn’t quite so much on fiction – it’s more multimedia and general culture. Just saw a panel about villains, which was good … that was Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jeannette Ng, Anna Stephens and Mike Brooks.

Oh yeah, I saw that. That was good.

There was some conversation there about the Bond franchise, and the way the villains are frequently ‘othered,’ whether that’s a racialized other, or what-have-you. It struck me that it’s always been that way. Bond was always fighting the Russians, it was always the West versus the East. The Russians disappeared as the geopolitical other, although perhaps that dynamic has returned to some extent. But we are sort of looking for different ‘others.’

And meanwhile, there are increasingly plausible rumours about getting our first Black Bond.

Idris Elba? He’s a terrific actor. He’d be really good. One of the many reasons I hated Prometheus is that it totally wasted him.

I’ll watch anything that’s got him in it.

Y-y-yeah …

Haven’t seen Prometheus though! Maybe that’s …

You may want to draw the line with Prometheus. [Laughs]. It really is a terrible film.

What else do you plan to see at Nine Worlds? Continue reading “Dave Hutchinson interview”

January BSFA London Meeting: Dave Hutchinson interviewed by Ian Whates

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Location: The Cellar Bar, The Argyle Public House, 1 Greville Street (off Leather Lane), London EC1N 8PQ

On Wednesday 30th January 2013Dave Hutchinson (writer, editor and journalist; author of The Villages, 2001, and The Push, 2009) will be interviewed by Ian Whates (chair of the BSFA).

Please note the change of date – this meeting is taking place on the fifth Wednesday.

ALL WELCOME – FREE ENTRY (Non-members welcome)

The interview will start at 7 pm. We have the room from 6 pm (and if early, fans are in the ground floor bar from 5ish).

There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

Map is here. Nearest Tube: Chancery Lane (Central Line).

FUTURE EVENTS:
27th February 2013 – Elizabeth Hand, interviewed by Farah Mendlesohn
20th March 2013** – BSFA Awards discussion
24th April 2013 – Lavie Tidhar; interviewer TBC

* Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.
** Note that due to the proximity of Easter to the fourth Wednesday of the month, this meeting will be held on the third Wednesday.

2009 BSFA Awards Shortlists

Best Novel

Ark cover Lavinia cover
The City & The City cover Yellow Blue Tibia cover

Ark by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)
Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin (Gollancz)
The City & The City by China Mieville (Macmillan)
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Best Short Fiction
Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster (Interzone 220)
The Push by Dave Hutchinson (Newcon Press)
Johnnie and Emmie-Lou Get Married” by Kim Lakin-Smith (Interzone 222)
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald (in Cyberabad Days, Gollancz)
The Beloved Time of Their Lives” [pdf link] by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia (in The Beloved of My Beloved, Newcon Press)
The Assistant” by Ian Whates (in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 3, ed. George Mann)

Best Artwork
Alternate cover art for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (art project), Nitzan Klamer
Emerald” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Cover of Desolation Road by Ian McDonald, by Stephan Martinière, jacket design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke
Cover of Interzone 220, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 224, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 225, Adam Tredowski

Best Non-Fiction
Canary Fever by John Clute (Beccon)
I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” by Deepa D
Ethics and Enthusiasm” by Hal Duncan [Note: withdrawn from consideration]
“Mutant Popcorn” by Nick Lowe (Interzone)
A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James (Middlesex University Press)

Congratulations to all the nominees! Note that there are only four nominees in the Best Novel category, and six nominees in the Best Short Fiction and Best Artwork categories due to ties for fifth place. The Awards will be presented at this year’s Eastercon, Odyssey.