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My favourite SFF of the Year 2019

December 12, 2019

I’ve seen a lot of posts remarking on how good this year was for science fiction and fantasy. For me it wasn’t, overall, anywhere near as good as 2018, but this may be because I mainly read SF and not so much fantasy and there does seem to have been a lot of new fantasy published this year – most of which passed me by. I also tend to read on the edge of ‘genre SF’ and read as much slipstream, ‘speculative fiction’ and ‘non-genre SF’ – i.e. fiction that is classified as mainstream or literary fiction but is actually science fiction pretending not to be.

On to the list. Accidentally in common with all the best awards this season, I have a tie at the top. Two very different books that I loved for very different reasons, although perhaps they are both about what the point of life is, when it comes down to it.

1= Infinite Detail – Tim Maughan.

1= Lent – Jo Walton.

Tim Maughan’s is a debut novel, but it’s not some ingenue production. Maughan has been writing memorable, biting short stories for some time now, and his work as a technology reporter for the BBC and Motherboard has been important. So a lot of people have been waiting for this debut with some anticipation. And it doesn’t disappoint. Set in Bristol, UK and New York, Infinite Detail is about the the world before and after the Internet, about what holds us together and the damage done by corporate network capitalism. It would be dystopian if it wasn’t ultimately hopeful about humanity, albeit in twisted ways. Oh, and there’s jungle. Back in the 1990s in the UK, jungle music sounded like the future. It still does because the world hasn’t caught up with it. Maughan, who amongst his many talents is also a DJ, understands music (as well as technology) more than most SF writers, and if you’re wondering, ‘why Bristol?’, well music has a lot to do with it.

Jo Walton’s Lent is not set in Bristol, nor in the future. There is certainly no jungle. Instead we are transported (and we really are) to the Italian city-state of Firenze at the end of the Middle Ages. In what is clearly a labour of love for Walton, we are inside the life of the historically real, Girolamo Savonarola, a monk, a visionary and a trouble-maker, who briefly ruled the city as a kind of Christian utopian republic before being condemned for heresy by the Pope and burned at the stake. We meet him expelling demons, which seem to be real and everywhere… to him. His life passes normally, as in our world, and then it gets suddenly darker and stranger and more mediaeval. This is a novel and a world that is not just inspired by but infused with the cosmology and theology of mediaeval European Christianity. Demons are real. Hell is real. Very real. We see Savonarola cast back into life again and again, trying to work out what he did wrong, what he could do differently, if there is any escape for such as him. Along the way we get to know the lovingly-drawn characters of those who play a part in his life, notably Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and she brings the city, its politics and its people to colourful life. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like Lent. It defies genre labels.

The rest of my Top 10:

3. This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Brilliantly written two-handed novel that charts the growing fascination and utlimately love between two transhuman female protagonists in an eon-spanning war to redefine the social, political and physical structure of the galaxy. I was somewhat uneasy about the whole ‘two people find true love over the bodies of millions dead’ plot but it’s so well done that it’s hard not to be pulled along.

4. Rosewater Redemption – Tade Thompson

The finale of a the Wormwood Trilogy that follows the impact of an alien technology / biology on Nigeria. The whole sequence is such an original fusion of cyberpunk, first contact novel and Afrofuturism, and it has great characters and the writing enables you to see, feel, smell both Nigeria in transformation and the alien virtual reality of the ‘xenosphere.’ Some final novels disappoint; this one does not.

5. Escaping Exodus – Nicky Dryden

An author that was new to me this year, although this is not their first novel. I also read it right at the end of the year so it sneaked on to my list at the last minute. Escaping Exodus is an extravagant, bold science fantasy, set in an ark-like deep space ‘ship’ that is actually a massive living being, being gradually consumed from the inside by its human residents / parasites. Aside from the obvious environmental metaphor, the novel is also the personal and political story of two young women from either side of the tracks, in a matriarchal, highly class-divided African-descended society. Really quite extraordinary.

6. The Memory Police – Yuko Ogawa

In complete contrast to many other novels on this list, the mood of Ogawa’s novel is gentle and quiet but at the same time menacing and sinister. It is set on an island, on which things are gradually disappearing and are (intentionally?) wiped from memories of the inhabitants. The losses are enforced by the Memory Police, who arrest and disappear people who refuse to forget and those who help them. The end is inevitable and reminds us how much we must not be passive in the face of fascism, however quietly it comes.

7. The Future of Another Timeline – Annalee Newitz

Another feminist SF novel that plays with time – is that the third one on the list already? I didn’t like Autonomous, Newitz’s first novel, as much as some people, but this one is very strong. It moves from teen riot-grrl subculture to an ongoing fight through timelines over women’s rights. The only beef I had with it was why it was that American concerns, history and politics seemed to determine the timeline for the entire world – surely the struggles of women are global and other worlds are possible…

8. Atlas Alone – Emma Newman

Also set on an ark of sorts, Atlas Alone is the latest in a series of connected but not sequential novels that began with Planetfall. In this one, we focus on a character who was a bit-part player in previous novels, Dee, a gamer, who finds that she is the one being played, and with devastating consequences.

9. Kingdom of Copper – S.A Chakraborty

This big, sweeping, romantic fantasy set in and round the kingdom of the djinn continues to be everything it sets out to be. Stuff like this isn’t usually my cup of tea, but it is all done so well in these books, you just have to let yourself go.

10 Luna: Moon Rising – Ian McDonald

Northern Ireland’s answer to Kim Stanley Robinson finishes off his Luna sequence featuring warring corporations on the near-future moon. The plot is too complicated to summarize but basically follows the remaining members of the Brazilian Corta family as they try to recover from the loss of everything they had and to transform Luna society for good.

 

Other good things I read this year: Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse is the second in this indigenous American author’s Sixth World series and I like Maggie, the protagonist, and the characters of the gods, but it was a bit too Mad Max-esque to be entirely satisfying; The Haunting of Tram Car 015, another fun novella in P. Djéli Clarke’s Egyptian steampunk with djinn world; Interference by Sue Burke, the sequel to Semiosis, which was not quite as startling as the first; To be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers, which was good, but the problem when you’ve just finished a sequence as good as the one she previously wrote, is that nothing seems as good in comparison; Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, was okay but it didn’t seem a very necessary addition to the Tensorate world; and A Memory called Empire by Arkady Martine, which a lot of other people raved about but which I thought it was merely quite good.

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