Catherine Rockwood: 2019 was the year I finally realized I should start looking for good graphic novels for my daughter (8) to read. As a result, and 100% thanks to knowledgeable comics-store staff, it’s also the year I discovered and loved Faith Erin Hicks’s Nameless City trilogy: after it had been read—fast, and delightedly—by its intended recipient. I certainly hope my daughter grows up to expect protagonists as excellent and companionable as Hicks’s early-teen “Rat” and Kaidu, and plotlines as elegantly spare, ambitious, and exciting as those offered in The Nameless City. I wish her, too, a world that assumes its best warriors are not solitary “punishers” but collaborative martial diplomats like Kaidu’s mother, Kata of the Liuyedao.
Elsewhere and purely for myself, I snapped up Kathleen Jamie’s new collection of essays, Surfacing. One of the pleasures of reading is that occasionally you get better at it; this in turn means sometimes you can catch up with a writer who’s at a particular point of skill, just in time to have the wind knocked out of you by what they’re doing. Jamie’s brief, ruthless essay on the death of her father, “Elders,” left me doubled over and thoughtful. Her speculative examination of Orkney’s Neolithic past, in the three-part essay “Links of Noltland,” asks if Stone Age sites can help direct our attention to the coming world altered by climate change. I finished the book not reassured, but steadied. At the turn of this particular decade, that seems like an experience to recommend.
Nicholas Russell: I think if you’re going to do any end-of-blah list, especially for 2019, better off a hodgepodge than a ranking. These last twelve months were rich with material that felt exciting, felt fun, felt substantial in their breadth and variety.
I tend towards the short story form and Brian Evenson’s new collection Song for the Unraveling of the World, while a little repetitive in places, was an easy recommendation to make as a bookseller. Dark, gnarly without being tasteless, reminds you that truly far-out ideas can be worth exploring when handled deftly. The same goes for Ted Chiang’s second phenomenal collection Exhalation, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons in May. Wondrous, thought-provoking, sometimes clinical in its language, always fascinating. I spent the better part of the year reading as much Ursula K. Le Guin as possible and while I wholeheartedly recommend everyone do the same, her novels The Lathe of Heaven and The Dispossessed, plus stories “Coming of Age in Karhide” and “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” were my highlights.
I was intrigued and surprised by the fiction of Ambrose Bierce, a journalist and Civil War veteran who wrote some truly weird, prescient stories, not only in terms of theme but style. Foremost among them, “The Damned Thing,” an eerie tale about an unseen forest monster; “Moxon’s Master,” Frankenstein about robots and artificial intelligence with a strikingly modern perspective for a piece written in 1899; and “The Moonlit Road,” a beautiful, melancholic familial ghost story that reminded me of The Others. The omnibus editions of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and Baltimore graphic novels, which I tore through in about three days, make great companions to Bierce’s period-rich, delightfully off-kilter imagination.
Let’s talk about movies. Ari Aster’s Scandinavian break-up romp Midsommar, which will continue to be on my mind well into 2020. Ditto for Christian Petzold’s Transit, where WWII and the Holocaust are transported into contemporary Paris. Claire Denis’s English-language debut High Life: if not everyone’s cup of tea, was still a worthwhile, challenging film. I liked Ad Astra more than I anticipated, another feather in Brad Pitt’s cap, visually stunning, pleasingly contemplative. Ditto for Doctor Sleep, which won’t make any Best Of lists but was one of my theatrical highlights from this year. The Guillermo del Toro-produced Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the kind of horror movie I wish I’d had as a pre-teen, one that admirably wears its heart on its sleeve. Mati Diop’s feature debut Atlantics charts the lives of several people in Dakar as they become entangled in an unprecedented supernatural plot that spans time, love, and death. One of my favorite movies this year, one of the most original movies I’ve ever seen. Praise I enthusiastically extend to Bong Joon-ho’s class thriller, Parasite.
On the television front, I watched a very small amount of it when it wasn’t The Great British Baking Show but I will steer anyone towards Natasha Lyonne’s hilarious, emotional live-die-live-again miniseries Russian Doll, along with Barry and Chernobyl.
Dark Fairytales: “Greenhouse with Cyclamens”/The Neverending Story
Rebecca West’s report on the Nuremberg Trials is as clear-sighted about the necessity, frustration, and failure of post-war justice as it is about the gruelling boredom of the prosecutors and the macabre melodrama of the defendants. During the trials, she was housed with fellow reporters in a mansion whose architecture was so archly gothic it would’ve been better suited to a fairy-tale castle. For her, this German over-fascination with the fantasia of childhood signalled psychic immaturity—the kind that’d fed the country’s Nazi Walpurgisnacht. Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story is an inadvertent response to West, though more synthesis than counterpoint. For Ende—an adolescent in Germany during the Second World War—it’s the rejection of fantasy that corrupts humans. This is the power behind “The Nothing” that is deleting all beings from the world of Fantastica and transmuting them into mere lies in the real world. (These beings include the rock giants and snail-jockeys from the film, but also vampire doctors, djinns—the book’s broad church of the fantastical is proto-Adventure Time.) The fantastical-turned-lies are what give disenchanted humans the power to manipulate, defame, and control. The child reader Bastian, and the culture at large, must neither succumb to, nor reject, but give fantasy its proper place, so that a healthier distinction and connection between the two worlds can return.
(Also wait: Why does The Neverending Story have an ending?)
Controversial takes: Gretchen Felker-Martin on Game of Thrones/Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The final series of GoT wasn’t going to please everyone. At times it felt like it didn’t please anyone. So why did you hate it? Because ever since those cucks Benioff and Weiss bent the knee to Disney, they turned the show into the “Stark sisters doing it for themselves,” all part of the global plot to ruin pop culture with Girl Power? Or because those bros Benioff and Weiss let their misogyny hang out with how they dealt Daenerys Targareyan her fate—as if a beloved progressive leader could just turn war criminal! (If only there wasn’t such a void of examples in our very recent history of exactly that!) Bucking the binary, Gretchen Felker-Martin’s sensitive, attentive, and moving episode recaps make the case for the series, and the show, dealing with violence as honestly and responsibly as we’ve seen in the genre.
Those expecting Tarantino’s fairytale, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, to be an irresponsible exploitation of Sharon Tate’s violent end instead got a film as smart and warm as anything he’s made. But even geniuses like Chris Morris thought most of the film was an aimless ramble, telling the Adam Buxton Podcast how he laughed at the title card “Six Months Later,” as if the film expected the audience still to care. Well, it expected them not to miss the obvious. The film is beautifully and—short of Tarantino captioning each scene with the beats it contains—pretty obviously structured from the get-go.
The Polanskis and Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) are not arbitrarily neighbours. One household is the topsy-turvy mirror of the other. We start with the Polanskis’ triumphant return home to LA from work abroad, intercut with the Dalton household leaving dejectedly for work to salvage Rick’s acting career. One household’s European filmmaker has recently taken an American actor wife; the other’s American actor will go work abroad, returning with a European wife. Even Polanski’s crimes are alluded to but inverted: Cliff is propositioned by an underage Manson groupie (Margaret Qualley). All to what end? If Brad Pitt is the body double and bodyguard of Leonardo DiCaprio, then their household is also the double and, as it turns out, inadvertent bodyguard of the Polanskis’.
Through that fairy-tale ending, Tarantino has given Sharon Tate back to the culture as more than “Manson Family victim.” We see her as the happy new wife, a gregarious friend, a charming actor, expectant mother, and—what could’ve been—a kind neighbour. No wonder he rejected that hypothesis.
Colonialism: All SF allegories for colonialism/The Other Side of the Frontier
Why read another YA novel about the Metaphor Empire’s oppression of the peaceable Otherings when you can go straight to the source? Written by Henry Reynolds, but comprising Aboriginal testimonies, The Other Side of the Frontier recounts the colonisation of the Australian continent, from first contact with Europeans onwards—marvellous, hideous, genuinely “estranging.”
How terrifying it was for an experienced bushman to follow alien tracks and hear the alien sounds of a beast no one in living memory had ever seen in the outback before: the Europeans’ horse. The advent of Europeans was so otherworldly that some Aborigines tried to incorporate them into their existing beliefs, declaring the white people as the ashen corpses of their own returned dead. Whereas Europeans discovered that the news of themselves, and even their own artefacts, travelled to the other side of the continent via the tribal communication network at near magical speeds.
In their own voices, these Aborigines were light-years from the benighted savages the Europeans caricatured them as, but neither were they sainted by their suffering. Intelligent, adaptive, resourceful, fallible, they were agents in their own fates. Wily male elders would send their young rivals to infiltrate or assimilate the white man as a way to fend off competition for wives. Meanwhile, some wives got out of the frying pan of patriarchal tribal structure only by sneaking off to the European fire.
Still, the book is righteous about the suffering of the Aborigines—so many more died during colonial times than in ANZAC operations, but where’s their statue?—but without taking away the curious and at times even mind-blowing reality of their experience, too:
I must not omit mentioning a very singular Curiosity among the Men here, arising from a Doubt of what Sex we are, from our not having, like themselves long Beards, and not seeing when they open our Shirt-Bosoms (which they do very roughly and without any Ceremony) the usual distinguishing Characteristics of Women, they start Back with Amazement, and give a Hum! with a significant look, implying: What kind of Creatures are these?!—As it was not possible for Us to satisfy their Inquisitiveness in this Particular, by the simple Words Yes or No, we had Recourse to the Evidence of Ocular Demonstration, which made them laugh, jump and Skip in an Extravagant Manner.
G B Morgan—Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon, as quoted in The Other Side of the Frontier
Christina Scholz: One of the best books I read this year was Simon Ings’ The Smoke, and it was … definitely different. Ings’s style is enjoyable to read, and/but his books are always devastating to some degree. This is why so far they have never really been books that I feel like rereading. In this one I was especially impressed by the best shift in narrative perspective I’ve ever come across (right as you turn from page 63 to page 64) and a long passage that reminded me of M. John Harrison’s alien event site in the Empty Space trilogy (p. 145/146). I also really liked the final juxtaposition/metamorphosis, which transforms your whole reading experience in retrospect. And finally, this book also contains the ultimate sublime moment of confrontation and—without posting spoilers—salvation. I’m in awe.
The other book that I recommend wholeheartedly for being such a positive surprise is Early Riser by Jasper Fforde. It was nothing less than spectacular. I love this book so much. The story—if you can call it that, especially at this early point—starts off more than slow and with a lot of very British humour (most of which might even be specifically Welsh). And for the longest time our protagonist (Charlie) seems to be intent on avoiding any plot development at all. Which only made the reading process more intriguing for me. In the second half of the book a lot of things seem to happen very fast. But aside from that: somewhere around the exact middle of the book I realised that apart from a couple of sentences that mention “all genders” (rather than two), somebody had just referred to Charlie (a beautifully gender-neutral name) as “they” in their presence. And then I realised that there had never been any other pronoun used for them—and that every reference and description I’d come across had been quite gender-neutral as well. And a part of me hoped that the author would keep this up until the very end, never giving us any big “gender reveal,” just a general notion that you don’t have to be male or female in order to be a protagonist (or, you know, a person). Because why make a big deal out of something that’s a normal, everyday thing? (But then again: how many readers would notice?) There are one or two very subtle hints at Charlie’s anatomy—but there’s also an unambiguous scene pointing out that anatomy doesn’t matter when it comes to gender. And at the end of the book, all in all, I’m closing it with a feeling that both the plot and the characters have been handled exactly the way I feel comfortable with—apart from one unintentionally transphobic comment (or rather: question) aimed at a character who probably forgave it immediately (judging by their reply and overall personality). I really, really enjoyed reading this. More books should be like it.
This year, we saw the publication of The Best of Greg Egan from Subterranean Press. Egan’s oeuvre is becoming extremely relevant today. His short stories “Lost Continent” and “Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies” (1992) seem to make perfect sense to me right now. “Unstable Orbits …” shows us “how” ideologies and religions take hold of us, and why some of us will always reject them all. “Lost Continent,” on the other hand, shows how states imprison those who don’t “belong” or qualify for citizenship for a number of reasons—especially fascist and majoritarian lawmaking that enshrines racism, fear, and bigotry in the laws of both “democratic” and authoritarian regimes.
Nancy Kress’s forthcoming novella Sea Change from Tachyon Publications is a realistic climate fiction with superb plot and memorable characters. It actually reads like a Hollywood thriller! I look forward to reviewing it along with After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall and Yesterday’s Kin.
Mary Soon Lee’s science fiction or chemistry poetry collection Elemental Haiku from PRH is an excellent introduction to the elements of the periodic table. Lee’s fantasy in verse is equally noteworthy. Crowned, the first book of fantastic verse in The Sign of the Dragon series from Dark Renaissance Books, is deeply absorbing and profound. My review of Elemental Haiku is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, while I am planning to write a review of Crowned soon.
I am also considering working on a series of in-depth reviews/articles and interviews with South Asian authors for what I plan to combine into a book. I’m currently going through Sukanya Datta’s brilliant short story collections: Once Upon a Blue Moon (2006), Beyond the Blue (2008), Worlds Apart (2012), and Other Skies (2017). Datta’s short stories make you think hard and pay attention to both plot and science. Datta’s doctorate in zoology gives her the necessary scientific edge as she weaves grand worlds in each story.
Indian publishers like Hachette India, Zubaan Books and Niyogi Books, among others, are publishing speculative fiction of note. From Zubaan, Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Clone (2018) is elegant, poetic and dense, while Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018) is a significant body of speculative fiction that echoes many of the concerns and themes of my generation.
Apart from these, I also managed to read Gene Wolfe’s tetralogy The Book of the New Sun (Orb Books), and Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief (Tor Books).
In non-fiction, Benjamin H. Bratton’s The Terraforming (Strelka Press, 2019) is a short but noteworthy collection of articles and ideas.
The year would have been lackluster without good television: the latest season of Lost in Space, The Expanse, and Dark are mind-blowing. The Witcher is okay, but Watchmen is clearly one of the best series of the last decade with a masterpiece of an episode like “This Extraordinary Being.”
Maureen Kincaid Speller: And so 2019 ends. The world is burning, literally; the UK is leaving the European Union because a past leader was too weak to shut down agitators in his government, and threw them what turned out to be the bone of bones in the form of a non-binding referendum; and of all the things I anticipated seeing in my lifetime, a massive resurgence of the far right would probably have been reasonably low on the list, yet here we are. I note also the demonstrations in Hong Kong, and more recently, those in India involving citizenship and religious discrimination, and the actions being taken about climate change, and the fires in Australia. I salute everyone fighting for a better and more just world. I fervently hope they succeed.
Unsurprisingly, 2019 has not been a year particularly conducive to reading and writing. They too often feel like a frivolous distraction. But there have been moments of goodness. Of books I read for the first time this year, Jeannette Ng’s Under The Pendulum Sun was rapidly bumped up the to-read pile following her speech at the Hugos during the summer. Accepting the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Ng denounced Campbell for the racist he undoubtedly was, and that is not to forget his homophobia, his misogyny, his exceedingly sharp business practices … (I could go on but instead I recommend Alec Nevala-Lee’s excellent Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction if you want a more detailed picture of just how unspeakable a human being Campbell actually was, and his malign influence on the genre).
Under The Pendulum Sun is a gothic delight, but so much more than that. Ostensibly, it concerns Catherine Helstone’s journey to the mysterious land of Arcadia, and her efforts to discover what happened to her brother, Laon, a missionary attempting to convert the Fae to Christianity. As such it is an enthralling novel. But whole new layers of meaning begin to open if you’re aware of the nineteenth-century English novelists it is in dialogue with. Which might lead to a lot of rereading, and no harm in that. No piece of writing stands in isolation, no matter what people try to tell you, and it’s always fascinating when authors directly engage with other, earlier novelists. I’m looking forward to reading Pendulum Sun again and teasing out the intricate web of references.
I’ve been waiting a long time for Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail. I loved his collection of short stories, Paintwork, so much and was eager for more. Since Paintwork, Maughan has established himself as a fierce commentator on late capitalism, and the networked world in particular. I’m still haunted by his article “Yiwu: The Chinese City Where Christmas is Made and Sold” (alas, no longer available online, but searching for Yiwu brings up other articles—you’ll get the idea soon enough), describing the conditions under which cheap Christmas trinkets are made. I doubt I’ll ever buy another Christmas ornament as a result of reading it. Unsurprisingly, now it’s finally arrived, Infinite Detail is a deeply uncompromising piece of fiction. Set mainly in Stokes Croft, an area within the city of Bristol under constant threat of “improvement,” or gentrification, the novel uses a dual timeline to tell the story of an experiment to create a more secure alternative to the internet we know and constantly worry about, and the aftermath of a massive cyber attack which wipes out the internet, etc. It’s a gnarly book, harrowing but “real” too. And in among the dystopic elements, there is still hope. Not glorious all-encompassing hope but small moments, as new communities emerge and work together. It’s all we can ask for.
At the moment, watching films requires mental energy I can’t always spare. Instead, let me draw your attention to a quiet gem on the BBC over Christmas: a two-part adaptation and updating of Barbara Euphan Todd’s Worzel Gummidge stories. I vaguely remember these stories being read to me at school and enjoying them but I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this version except that it was written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, who also produced Detectorists, one of the best shows on the BBC in the last twenty-five years. And this adaptation did not disappoint. One of the joys of Detectorists was the quietly understated appreciation of the countryside. In some respects, adapting Worzel Gummidge was a logical step, though Crook also foregrounds environmental concerns. Crook’s writing is as sharp and funny as ever, and as usual he surrounds himself with great talent. I would not have thought to cast Michael Palin as the Green Man but it’s so obvious I can’t think how I didn’t see this. I want more. I shall have to be patient.
Also, a shout-out to my favourite podcast of 2020, 13 Minutes to the Moon, in which Kevin Fong examines, in forensic detail, the last thirteen minutes of the first moon landing. I’ve been banging on about this ever since it came out, because it is so damn perfect, a model of how to do a factual podcast. This is complemented by British Public Broadcasting’s 2019 Proms performance of The Race for Space which I enjoyed immensely, prompting me to go through their entire back catalogue (also awesome).
Who knows what 2020 will bring (apart from Sarah Tolmie’s Little Animals, which I am partway through), but I keep coming back to something that Alasdair Gray (who died in late December) was fond of saying: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” It was not, he said, original to him—he found it in the work of a Canadian poet, Dennis Leigh—but it was a notion he returned to often. It appears to be my mantra for 2020.
Aishwarya Subramanian: 2019 was a good year for nonfiction, or at least for nonfiction about my own very particular interests. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic and Maria Sachiko Cecire’s Re-Enchanted, coming out within a few months of one another, framed a lot of my thinking about fantasy, race, children’s literature, and history, and work together in what feel like important ways. Alex Niven’s New Model Island, with its reimagining of British space, was, again, relevant (to me, to SH, to 2019) as well as genuinely enjoyable to read.
Fictionwise, I liked Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread and Aditi Krishnakumar’s The Magicians of Madh, as well as the parts of Karen Russell’s Orange World that I was able to read before I sent this in. But the best things I read this year were not SFFnal at all (though I read them alongside Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borrible trilogy, and so in my mind they are)—Farrukh Dhondy’s two collections of short stories from the 1970s, East End at Your Feet and Come to Mecca. Wonderfully written and far too resonant with our present moment, they deserve to be revisited.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: In 2019 I read The Bible (highly nationalistic, and with even more repetitive plot than you think. Not recommended), Kate Elliott’s A Passage of Stars and Jaran (I remain emotionally attached to the latter), and Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. This year was also the year Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January came out, and while I kept waiting for the premise to become overly precious it never did, and so instead we got a story about our world, doors to others, and glimpses of the imperial project and its cracks, which I quite enjoyed. Confessions of the Fox was a revelation I highly recommend, and I’m still unpacking my feelings about Rion Amilcar Scott’s The World Doesn’t Require You (in general the stories were quite good). I also reread A Stranger in Olondria, and much as last year I found myself wishing for the alternate world where Elliott’s Crown of Stars series took off instead of ASoIaF, this year I wished for more reactions to Tolkien like this: beautifully written, thoroughly immersive, and convinced of the power of language to transform individuals, societies, and worlds.
Lesley Wheeler: I have already described in these pages how much I love Franny Choi’s Soft Science, but 2019 brought many strong poetry collections: some mythic, others science-inspired, and a few casting spells for the future (my newest poetic obsession). On the mythic end, Paisley Rekdal’s brilliant Nightingale juxtaposes Ovid with contemporary accounts of sexual assault. The Boy in the Labyrinth by Oliver de la Paz springs from parenting neurodiverse children; myth powerfully reframes a search for understanding and connection. What Penelope Chooses by Jeanne Larsen views Homer through a kaleidoscope, inventively rereading gender in those epics. Just as propulsive are Martha Silano’s songs of physics, geology, and biology in Gravity Assist. In 3 Nights of the Perseids, Ned Balbo takes on not just the stars but time itself; Jason Gray’s Radiation King finds room in the lyric for relativity, cold fusion, and all the visible spectra. If you’re drawn to supernatural forces permeating the mundane, Amy Lemmon’s The Miracles is movingly haunted. I haven’t read Joy Harjo’s new book yet, but I spent time with Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015) this year and it’s full of the kinds of poems that transform you. Finally, it’s aimed at children but this middle-aged reader loved Robert Macfarlane’s charms for preservation in The Lost Words: A Spell Book, produced in collaboration with the artist Jackie Morris.
On the prose side, I devoured new books by Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman, and Stephen King with pleasure, and I loved catching up on slightly older novels by Madeleine Miller, Helen Oyeyemi, and Holly Black. I also belatedly found and adored The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar. The Dreamers, a 2019 sf novel by Karen Thompson Walker, was riveting.