Niall Harrison: From a dislocated year, two dislocated novels stand out. In Sandra Newman’s The Heavens, the dreams of a woman living in a better Y2K NY—which may or may not be a kind of projection into actual history—gradually ruin her world into our own. Each time she wakes, she finds things a little less clean, a little less moral. The fable-like tone reminded me a little of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017), but Newman’s construct is less stable, and less optimistic. Laura Beatty’s Lost Property is similarly concise, but more dense. A middle-aged woman, in despair at the modern world and modern Britain in particular, sets out with her partner on a road trip across Europe. From this spine hangs glorious and thought-provoking writing that by turns reminded me of Sarah Moss (specifically of The Tidal Zone , with its anatomisation of the modern self), of Olga Tokarczuk (in its sometimes fragmented, fanciful nature) and of Jan Morris (in its richly authoritative and contextualised sketches of places and people). Of course it can’t resolve all the questions about nationalism, capitalism, art, and life that have been opened along the way: but it’s about thinking through the journey.
Other than that, Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail and Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day seemed to explore two sides of a coin: the former explores community in the absence of internet, the latter in its presence. Both take a street-level view. Both include evocative writing about music, how it moves and inspires and captures a moment in time. Maughan is better at systems; Pinsker is better at psychology. Another duet formed in my mind between Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire (a postcolonial space opera with a lot to say about identity, memory, and how narratives shape us) and Frances Hardinge’s Deeplight (an extravagant deep-sea monster fantasy with a lot to say about the stories that reify fear into power, and the uses and abuses of change). Both are good, clever, fast fun.
A handful more: Ted Chiang had his most prolific year, with a couple of spiky short-shorts as well as the collection Exhalation, most of which is as crushingly elegant as ever; Cynan Jones’s novel-in-stories Stillicide was the best pure climate SF I read in 2019 (the Radio 4 audio version is pretty good, too); and for the year of the first Dublin Worldcon, Jack Fennell’s anthology A Brilliant Void was a welcome, thoughtfully presented and organised historical anthology. My favourite inclusion was the extract from Frances Power Cobbe’s satiric feminist SF, “The Age of Science” (1877), which purports to be a selection of extracts from new articles in the far-off future year of 1977, in which rationality reigns supreme and the proper places of men and women have been definitively established. The fictional book reviews are a particularly horrific delight.
Dan Hartland: Much of the last decade has been characterised by the march of SF culture—perhaps more accurately, or perhaps more malignly, referred to in the mainstream it has colonised as “nerd culture.” But 2019 may yet prove to have broken this spell: the widespread dismay at how HBO’s Game of Thrones fell at its finish line, or how The Rise of Skywalker sold out the last of any currency that series may have retained (even as The Mandalorian tried to steal it back), might leave lasting implications for the kind of SFnal meganarratives that have dominated our discourse. Newer banner series —The Witcher, Carnival Row, the cancelled Man in the High Castle—also underwhelmed. The development hell in which HBO’s GoT prequel, or Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series, is stuck might augur similarly badly.
All of which could leave SF back where it started—in text. The good news is that, while the mainstream has been elsewhere, written SF has been left free to reinvent itself. From Wole Talabi’s debut collection, Incomplete Solutions, to Agnes Gomillion’s first novel, The Record Keeper, SF is being used in a range of works to imagine new kinds of realities, to conceptualise different futures and fantasies—indeed, its very modal characteristics are being shifted and retrofitted to allow for these radical new directions. I reviewed Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater for these pages, and there is a book that is entirely speculative whilst being entirely new.
This formal shift—also on show in Marlon James’s tilt at epic fantasy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf—is quite the most exciting development the genre has seen for some years. When even the SF shortlisted for the Booker—in Quichotte, by the himself-pretty-venerable Salman Rushdie—is generically disjointed and aimed at a sort of structural-philosophical reconstruction of the novel, it’s clear that something is up. In other words, 2019 might have been the year that SF rebooted itself—and just at the point we need its sense of the something-else.
Aaron Heil: 2019 was a funny year for books and I mean that literally. I’ve been reading not only a larger amount of cheap humor books recently, but also serious works that handle humor skillfully. Memorable entries include Scotto Moore’s dark send-up of internet culture, Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You; the brainy, Joycean wordplay in Lucy Ellmann’s’s Ducks, Newburyport; and Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s misfit short story collection, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory. All of these have made me laugh aloud with their quirks and grotesques. The 2019 sense of humor relies on two common factors: randomness and anxiety. For a generation coming of age when information can be received or transmitted faster than ever, the future is uncertain and that’s terrifying. While certainly not a new phenomenon, the uncontrollable quality of the future frustrates a culture that insists on customizing everything. However, the queen of humor writing in 2019 is Bunny. Mona Awad’s satire of modern literature will cut deep to the funny bone of anyone who’s picked up a lit mag recently. Bunny knows no bounds, cares little for the physics of reality, its plot cannot be anticipated, and it blows logic the biggest raspberry this side of Monty Python. But despite all that, it presents a touching portrait of social isolation, friendship, and loneliness. It’s the story of mentally unsound MFA candidate Samantha, who is stuck in a cohort with four other women whose juvenile habits prompt her to label them as the “Bunnies.” The Bunnies themselves even use “Bunny” as a collective nickname. The Bunnies want to initiate Samantha into their social circle, which involves transforming feral rabbits into ideal young men with the force of their minds. But the Bunnies cannot seem to perfect a boy, fudging details like hands or a functional vocabulary. Every time one of their creations comes out wrong, one of the Bunnies dispatches him with an ax. However, when Samantha attempts the same experiment, she summons an uncontrollable entity that pits their coven against one another. The humor is gory and off-the-wall, but non-stop. This riddle of a book seemed to come out of nowhere and I am so glad that it did.
Matt Hilliard: The 2019 standout for me—so far—has been Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, a follow-up to his excellent 2015 novel Children of Time. In the sequel, Tchaikovsky continues to explore other modes of intelligence based on animal models. His portrait of an uplifted octopus intelligence that inverts the human pattern of conscious reason and subconscious emotion makes for thought-provoking reading. I also really appreciate the way he weaves a hardish SF story that dramatizes conflict between characters and factions but glorifies cooperation and empathy instead of violence.
I say “so far” because as I write this I’m wrapping up Sue Burke’s 2018 novel Semiosis and it has been a great companion read to the Tchaikovsky books, taking a long lens to show not just humanity’s first contact but also how a society can change across generations in response to the pressures of its environment and communication with alien species. It’s going to be a tough act for her 2019 sequel Interference to follow, but I’m looking forward to seeing how she does it before we reach the new year.
Erin Horáková: For over a decade, the landmark anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion had been totally commercially unavailable in English due to licensing issues. No actual obstacle existed—two complete dubbed versions were even released on VHS in the ’90s. Western fan communities were very interested in another opportunity to see the damn thing. But, as always happens in global late capitalism, someone somewhere had decided a good deal of money might be made from this totally neglected property. Until they could sort out how to do that, they’d rather make no money at all, crack down on sharing, and let no one access the art, for Law Reasons.
At last the invisible hand job managed to bring off a Netflix release. There were a few weirdly conservative new translation choices, but at least I could actually finish the show I’d started watching in junior high. There’s a lot to admire about NGE’s deconstruction of mecha anime and “child warrior” narratives, but a small point I’ve not seen mentioned much is the show’s almost unparalleled depiction of labour and mechanical processes. That’s not just a matter of aesthetics: the EVA power supply is the lynchpin of several plots, and the amniotic fluid EVAs employ is thematically potent.
We segued to Cowboy Bebop, which enabled my partner to finally open her heart to subtitles. At last I could watch anime again, without having to squirrel away time to myself in which I also wasn’t working and could read subtitles. This year we deeply enjoyed The Cat Returns, Your Name, and four 2019 series: Mob Psycho 100, One-Punch Man, My Hero Academia, and the French anime Miraculous Ladybug (produced in collaboration with the Japanese company Toei).
In terms of English-language media, the Christmas movie Klaus was lovely, and the What We Do In The Shadows TV series enjoyable. Kill the Beast’s comedy horror play Director’s Cut wasn’t my favourite of their works, but it was nonetheless strong, as was the spin-off company Spit Lip’s non-SF musical Operation Mincemeat. Worst Witch’s serious problems this season were balanced by the West End debut of a very good play version. We watched all of StarKid’s filmed musicals. Twisted (an Aladdin parody), The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals (well-executed B-movie SF-horror), and A Very Potter Senior Year (a Harry Potter parody that manages to insightfully reckon with aging and fandom) range from good to incredible (except for the extended bit about Voldemort’s grandparents, which can fuck off).
In new SFF Eurogames, all three Everdell expansions are rewarding in different ways. This year we picked up the Terraforming Mars expansions. Their variability can’t detract from what a solid play-experience the base game itself offers. I’m intrigued by the new Underwater Cities and the older Star Trek: Fleet Captains, both of which I received for Christmas from my now subtitle-enabled fiancé, whom I also received for Christmas. [Congratulations to you both from the Reviews department—MKS]
Nick Hubble: The handsome volumes of Handheld Press have provided some of the few rays of light in this latest of a succession of depressing years. Their eclectic selection of reprints has created arresting temporal conjunctions that have made me think about the present differently. Rose Macaulay’s speculative satire, What Not: A Prophetic Comedy, originally published in 1918, extrapolates from the British State’s unprecedented intrusion into private life during the First World War to imagine a Ministry of Brains committed to raising public intelligence through various measures such as the “Mental Progress Act.” While the novel satirises social engineering, anticipating Huxley’s Brave New World, it also introduces us to Macaulay’s iconoclastic heroine, Kitty Grammont, who reads both the New Statesman and the Tatler, and is determined to take on rural England’s “regrettably eastern, or German” antipathy to feminism. In 2019, she would be derided as part of the metropolitan elite, but reading this wryly sardonic novel reminds us that there is a long history of that argument being deployed against progressive social change. Written in the very different context of 1970s America, the late Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting is predicated on values of individual agency, responsibility,and consent that speak directly to the intersectional politics of the twenty-first century. What the publication of both of these novels in 2019 illustrates is that the various historical backlashes against feminism have not punctured a deeper movement of ideas across the last hundred years. Fortunately, we only have to wait until January 20, for Handheld’s next offering: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies, a companion to her exquisitely sharp-edged Kingdoms of Elfin, which they published in 2018.
Turning from the past, the book I read this year that made me speculate most about the future was Alex Niven’s non-fictional New Model Island from Repeater Books, which might be described as the home of the new new left. At less than 150 pages, this is a taut but impressively wide-ranging and engagingly personal meditation on the author’s opening gambit that “we need to abandon England and start looking for a replacement.” As the results of the recent General Election have highlighted, the inevitable consequence of Brexit will be the breakup of Britain and Niven suggests this will be the perfect opportunity to also effect the breakup of England so that it is no longer unbalanced by the wealth and power of London and the south east. However, what really distinguishes his argument is that he draws on the fiction of Christopher Priest to imagine the British Isles as an archipelago, while referring to those of us who are its inhabitants as “islanders.” He proposes drawing on the legacies of modernism and SF to develop a new cultural model for our archipelago in which “fluid and variously connected” regions interact with the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish nations to countervail the English nationalism currently propagated from Westminster. Speculating about the future reminds us that the present won’t last forever.
Julian K. Jarboe: I’m thinking a lot this year about “worldbuilding,” literally. The world we choose to build and rebuild every day in our lives, just as much as we do in fiction and storytelling. The romantic ideals of change but the baseline unwillingness to do so, personally or communally, and the structural obstacles against doing so. The things I saw, heard, read, played, and thought about most circled this theme. I would just echo what Scott Benson wrote about the game Disco Elysium.
I’m also reading and rereading Moby Dick this year, and listening to the Big Read audio version of it, which I’ve decided is the best way to experience it off the page. There’s no single-narrator audiobook of it that makes sense. All the fancy versions sound much too sane and too masculine and, weirdly, too British for Melville’s rambling self-insert. I agree with this tweet about it. I’m only really interested in indigenous and post-colonial scholarship about it. I think every single speculative fiction person should at least consider it as a fantastic text? I don’t actually know if I think that, but I can’t help but approach and appreciate it as a work of psychological, spiritual, and social SFF.
Adri Joy: It’s been an outstanding year for genre novels: the inescapable and justified hype for Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir; the take-no-prisoners heartbreak of Emma Newman’s Atlas Alone; Zen Cho’s delightfully eviscerating The True Queen, and awe-inspiring, exquisitely human space opera from Elizabeth Bear (Ancestral Night) and Arkady Martine (A Memory Called Empire). But for me, the book that delighted most was Fonda Lee’s Jade War. This sequel to Jade City takes the story of the Kauls, a politically connected crime family on the island of Kekon, and expands the stakes until we are watching the action on an international scale, complete with all the intricacies of global trade, migration and identity, and questions about when power is legitimate, and what can simply be achieved with brute force. The compelling characterisation of the Kaul family only adds to the excellence of an outstanding trilogy midpoint. Meanwhile, my novella heart remains with This Is How You Lose the Time War, an epistolary romance that I hope we’ll be talking about for decades to come, while the experience of watching The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance had me gasping with wonder and tension in all the places the directors must have hoped for: a complex, twisty narrative about good, evil, and indifference that couldn’t get enough of.
Paul Kincaid: A year in which I’ve not been able to keep up with as many new books as I would like. But from what I’ve read, three books stand out. Best novel: Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein, who continues to work wonders with contemporary fantasy that looks as if it is pursuing a familiar path until she takes a wild and unexpected detour. Best collection: Episodes by Christopher Priest, which brings together some previously collected stories (though from books now long out of print; wonderful to see “An Infinite Summer” and “Palely Loitering” back in print) and some that have long deserved collection (great that “I, Haruspex” is now readily available). Each story is wrapped around with fascinating “Before” and “After” commentary that is almost worth the price of the book alone. Best non-fiction: The Cambridge History of Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link. With eight hundred large pages of small type there are bound to be things I disagree with, but all in all this is the first and most comprehensive history that treats science fiction as a truly global rather than an American or anglophone phenomenon. It deserves to change the way we think about science fiction.
Christina Ladd: 2019 was my Marvelous Year of Queer. Almost half the books I read this year had queer main or major characters, and I couldn’t be happier. Obviously I loved Gideon the Ninth [Tamsyn Muir], and The Deep [Rivers Solomon] was incredible. Breath of the Sun [Isaac Fellman] deservedly won a Lambda this year for its beauty and profundity. Armed in Her Fashion [Kate Heartfield], The Name of All Things [Jenn Lyons], and Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir [Kai Cheng Thom] all knocked my socks off in different ways. In other media, I was most surprised and pleased to see the wonderfully inclusive She-Ra and the Princesses of Power delivered some of the year’s best episodes of TV; I was not at all surprised but equally pleased that Steven Universe: The Movie was likewise excellent. All these LGBTQIA+ characters aren’t just there, they’re thriving. There are happy endings! Mostly.
Gideon the Ninth didn’t have a totally happy ending, but that brings me to my other favorite trend of 2019: Murder Goth. Necromancy and hauntings and black leather! My teenage wardrobe is relevant again! (NB: no, it’s not.) But this isn’t grimdark or even gothic lit. Goth lit is all about examining the depressing realities of death without conceding that life must also therefore be depressing. There are assassins and swordfights and magic! Teenage girls routinely destroy gods! The hyperbolic take on reality is a way of acknowledging that there are some horrible things out there, but these books also believe that motivated people can do something about it. Some of my favorites were Darkdawn [Jay Kristoff], Five Dark Fates [Kendare Blake], and Gods of Jade and Shadow [Silvia Garcia-Moreno]. I’d even include the stunning Sorrow’s Knot [Erin Bow], although it’s not traditionally gothic even though it’s focused on necromancy.
Whether you like your hope in every color of the rainbow or dark as black pleather platform boots, I’m glad the consensus is that humanity isn’t doomed quite yet.
Ian Mond: Last year it was a toss-up when it came to choosing my favourite novel (between Ling Ma’s Severance and Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards; I went with the latter). This year there’s a clear winner; Max Porter’s Lanny, the follow-up to his extraordinary and award-winning debut, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. Lanny merges together an experimental aesthetic and the mythic qualities of the Green Man (called Dead Papa Toothwort) to tell a post-Brexit story of an English village where a boy—the eponymous Lanny—has gone missing. For all the novel’s stylistic theatrics, and surreal, nightmarish imagery, it’s a humane work that, without prejudice or judgement, lays bare our capacity for hatred, our capacity for love.
On the subject of experimental novels, Jeff VanderMeer’s brilliant Dead Astronauts recalled memories of the New Wave, a time when genre writers were willing to play with structure and form. The novel is a Faulkneresque return to the Borne universe, a mosaic of shifting perspectives, nightmarish mutations, and devastated landscapes that never loses sight of its ecological themes. By far the best debut of the year, Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan, toggles between two time periods, portraying a near-future dystopia in thrall to predictive algorithms and a civilisation brought to its knees by an act of cyber-terrorism that shuts down the internet. Maughan’s take on Surveillance Capitalism—the commodification of personal data—is as terrifying as it is fascinating, especially given the recent practices of Facebook.
There were other books I loved. In an attempt to expand my reading, I picked up translated works, like terrific collections Mars by Asja Bakic, Everything Is Made of Letters by Sofia Rhei, and the befuddling but fascinating Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac. Three series I’ve been following came to satisfying conclusions in 2019, specifically Meg Elison’s Road to Nowhere trilogy, Tade Thompson’s The Wormwood trilogy, and Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy. I also enjoyed several debuts, including The Migration by Helen Marshall (a stunning mix of the mythic and the post-apocalyptic), We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin (a stunning satire on a post-racial America), Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff (bringing life back to zombies), and Odsburg by Matt Tompkins (surreal, funny, dark, and yet genuinely moving). And just as the Strange Horizons conductor plays me off the stage, I’ll throw in a clutch of other great books that I heartily recommend: The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager, Golden State by Ben H. Winters, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Sabbath by Nick Mamatas, Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, and the hilarious novella The Man Who Would be Kling by Adam Roberts. Roll on 2020.
Abigal Nussbaum: I watched, read, and experienced a lot of good genre-related things in 2019, but the ones that linger when I come to sum up the year have a certain bleak quality to them. Jordan Peele’s Us was a heavily symbolic fantasy of the underclass rising up to avenge themselves on a too-comfortable elite (in which preoccupation it was joined by non-genre films like Parasite and Knives Out). Sandra Newman’s The Heavens combined a twee, fairytale-of-New York romance among the hip creative classes with a time travel plot that slowly doomed the world even as its lovers made their way back to each other. HBO’s Chernobyl, in the guise of a historical drama, took a decidedly SFnal attitude towards our capacity—when enabled by incompetent, indifferent governments—to render our own home alien and hostile. Most of all, Russell T. Davies’s stunning miniseries, Years and Years, offered up a distressingly plausible vision of the future, while urging the comfortable people watching at home to get up and do something to prevent it.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. Tom King’s Mister Miracle, finally out in paperback, offered the promise of healing and growth after trauma and abuse. Tade Thompson concluded his Rosewater trilogy with the suggestion that the twice-colonized might triumph over at least one oppressor. James Gray’s Ad Astra offered hope to a hero cut off from the rest of humanity by helping him to find his own. The unexpectedly sweet DC series Doom Patrol took its characters through self-hatred and into acceptance. That’s the sort of optimism I find myself drawn to at the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century—realistic, but heartfelt.
Electra Pritchett: 2019—a cursed year. Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail updates Gibson for the Anthropocene; you’ll never think about the internet the same way again. Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House dissects the power and privilege of Yale with magic; Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame turns math, language, and alchemy inside out. Michelle West finished The House War in style with Firstborn and War; now’s the perfect time to read all her Essalieyan novels. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth marries Gormenghast and Gene Wolfe with interstellar necromancers, lesbians, and meme jokes, and it’s brilliant. Max Gladstone and Amal el-Mohtar’s This Is How You Lose the Time War is as short and sharp as it is romantic; Laurie Marks’s Air Logic was worth the very long wait. Frances Hardinge returned in Cthulhuesque style with Deeplight, while Garth Nix’s Angel Mage was an intriguing Three Musketeers homage with gender equality, queerness, and angelic magic.
Speaking of angels, the Good Omens TV show gave me life over the summer; like Nanny Ashtoreth, it’s practically perfect in every way. Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery was great, and though they’re more uneven I’ve been enjoying His Dark Materials and The Mandalorian. Dickinson is the weirdest show about young gay goth literary genius Emily Dickinson that you’re not watching and should be. Speaking of the gays, Kunihiko Ikuhara’s new anime Sarazanmai is deeply weird and excellent, and Studio Trigger’s movie Promare is a mind-blowing spectacle with some gentle but apposite commentary on the folly of moving to space to escape the climate crisis—with mechas, of course. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is slow-paced and strange, breaking new ground in puppetry while telling a painful story about climate denialism.
I can’t believe Captain Marvel was this year, but it was satisfying. Fast Color, a tiny indie film about a family of black women with powers, that I was lucky to see in theaters, was even better, and Terminator: Dark Fate rightly refocused the franchise around Sarah Connor and the horrors of the US-Mexico border. The documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin is trenchant and moving, while the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine documentary What We Left Behind makes a strong case for the best but least-loved entry in the franchise.
In comics, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie stuck the landing on The Wicked + the Divine, and Gillen’s comic with Stephanie Hans dissecting TRPGs and nerd culture, DIE, may be even better. Jonathan Hickman’s House of X/Powers of X-led revolution has made X-Men exciting again, and Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s Paper Girls won the “80s nostalgia with teeth media” category handily, partly thanks to Matt Wilson’s amazing coloring. In video games, Kingdom Hearts 3 concluded the saga very fittingly, while Untitled Goose Game showed it’s always a good day to be a horrible goose. Honk!