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We’ve reached that time of year when everyone is posting their best-of-year lists. I feel a bit ambivalent about doing this in 2014, because although I’ve read plenty of interesting stuff, no one book seemed to proclaim itself ‘overall winner’ for me. So I thought I’d do something a bit different, and post a summary of all the SFF novels I’ve read over the past 12 months that will be eligible for awards in 2015. This should hopefully get me in the mood to start thinking about my nominations ballots. So in the order of reading:

1) Wolves by Simon Ings

I wrote a bit about Wolves here at my blog. I loved this novel. Even if I can see objectively that the plot is a bit woolly in parts (could a teenage boy really get an adult dead body into the boot of a car unaided and unobserved?) I didn’t honestly care, because the style and ambience of the novel, together with what it had to say about unsustainable development and the destructive power of future-consumerism for its own sake, resonated so deeply with me that I was won over more or less from page one. If Wolves doesn’t make it on to a shortlist or two, I’d be severely disappointed.  And a shout-out to Jeffrey Alan Love for the cover also, which has to be the best of the year bar none.

2) The Moon King by Neil Williamson

I’ve known Neil practically from the first con I ever went to, and so I felt particularly eager to see what he’d come up with for this, his first novel. I actually read The Moon King at the back end of last year, in ARC format, and was pleased to provide a blurb for it just prior to publication.

“Part dream, part nightmare, part memory, Neil Williamson’s Glassholm is a city that hovers on the brink of violent change. Through the intertwined stories of a cop fleeing his dark past, a young artist in rebellion against the social order, and an engineer who would most certainly not be king, Williamson has woven a story that teems with ideas and imaginative power. There is beauty in it, and strangeness, and page-turning adventure. The marvellous conceit at The Moon King’s core also conveys a powerful message about man’s relationship with nature and with his environment. The commitment shown to the characters by their creator is intense, and palpable. An intricately constructed, heartfelt novel that does its author proud.”

This feels like a worthy British Fantasy Award shortlistee to me.

3) Wake by Elizabeth Knox

I reviewed Wake for Strange Horizons back in February, and what an intriguing, original horror novel it is. I would love to see it on some shortlists, because it’s different, because it’s thought-provoking, because it stays with you. This is a book that still hasn’t had anywhere near enough exposure.

4) Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

I wrote about Shadowboxer at my blog here. This novel presents as cogent an argument as any for why we need separate award categories in SFF for YA novels. As a subgenre, YA is important, increasing and with its own unique dynamic, and it’s high time it was granted this distinction at award level. Shadowboxer is a little too sparsely plotted in the final third, and it could have done with a bit more fleshing out in the sections set in Thailand, but as a portrait of a young woman in search of her destiny this is an engaging, emotional read for all ages. The material about women martial artists, and the martial arts writing in general, is superb.

And just to add that I’ve read a draft of Tricia’s forthcoming (adult) SF novel from Gollancz, Occupy Me, and it is amazing…

5) Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

I reviewed Cataveiro at my blog here. The thing that delighted me most about this novel – and there is plenty to delight – was the clear progress, in terms of narrative structure, in terms of emotional engagement, in terms of a maturing approach to the genre, that Swift has made since writing the first part of her trilogy, Osiris. If she’s made a similar leap forward in the third part, Tamaruq, to be published in January, then watch out, everyone, we have a major talent on our hands. Actually, I think we know that already. Cataveiro is skilfully written, energetically plotted and is a compelling reading experience. It will be fascinating to see where Swift goes next as a writer. I have the feeling she can achieve anything she wants to.

6) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I wrote a little about Annihilation here, but not nearly enough. For something approaching a proper appreciation of the Southern Reach trilogy, go read Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons. This is a landmark work, and if it wins all the awards next year you won’t find any complaints here. None at all.

7) Maze by J. M. McDermott

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I found this novel really hard going at first. Indeed, if I hadn’t been commissioned to review it, I might well have abandoned it. I am so glad I was reviewing it, and that I didn’t, because Maze is seriously good shit. For a good half of the novel you won’t have any idea what you’re reading – science fiction, fantasy, horror, new weird, wtf? But keep going and you’ll find that this is one of the most original and most daring novels of science fiction you’ll have read in months, if not years. It has things in common with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but if anything it’s even weirder than that. The writing, the execution, is flawless. We seriously need more writers with this kind of creative and intellectual audacity. I would love to see it get something approaching proper recognition.

8) Descent by Ken MacLeod

This is an odd novel, but I have a sneaking fondness for it and wish there were more writers willing to employ this kind of thoughtful ambiguity and quietness in their approach to SF. It’s the story of two childhood friends who may or may not have experienced a first contact with aliens. The moment has far-reaching effects on both their lives, but in differing ways. Set in a deftly, minimally realised future Scotland, Descent is the story of one man’s tortured search for the truth, with added Men in Black. It’s very much worth noting that no unknown first novelist would be able to get away with such meandering almost-plotlessness these days and still land a book deal, which, given the very real and very solid intellectual and political value of this novel should be a matter of keen regret and self-questioning within the publishing industry. Read it – we need more like it.

9) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

With its flavour of weak tea, this YA-ish debut just wasn’t for me. I reviewed it for Arc here.

10) The Way Inn by Will Wiles

I reviewed The Way Inn for Strange Horizons and found it good. Very good, in fact.  It’s cosmic horror, but that part of it doesn’t become apparent until near the end. For the most part, it’s a blisteringly deadpan (if that makes sense) unmasking of the horror we’re letting into our lives on a daily and increasing basis, the horror of corporate enterprise, of limitless car parks, of infinite Ballardian motorways. I would love to see The Way Inn on the World Fantasy Award shortlist, not least because it’s such a magnificent illustration of the versatility of the fantastic genres. Recommended.

11) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I wrote something about The Bone Clocks here. I was very disappointed by this novel, which might best be summed up as kind of like Cloud Atlas, only not nearly as good.

12) J by Howard Jacobson

I wrote a bit about J here, too. If The Bone Clocks was my disappointment of the season, J was my unexpected find. One of those books that resoundingly repays the effort you (have to) put into it. It’s not science fiction though, not really. I’d be amazed to see this making it on to any awards shortlists, not least because Jacobson himself is so problematic. Do read it, though. There are so many interesting ideas here. And the way the novel actually manages to become involving and – nay! – emotional defies all logic.

13) All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I love this book very much, and if it doesn’t sound contradictory I’d say I admire it even more than I love it. I also can’t help feeling an odd kind of affinity with ATVE, because it seems to me that Park was playing a similar game here to the game I tried to play in The Race, only playing it harder and fast enough to leave me puffing in his wake.  I would hazard that ATVE is in fact harder to read – tough by virtue of its ironclad commitment to its own cause, sparing in its use of actual story, dense with allusion to the point of opacity. But God, it’s just so good. Seamless in its fusing of the real and the unreal, playful and knowing, yet absolutely serious in its use of science fiction, flawless in its construction, which is unassailably superb.

I guess it’s here that I do that thing they do at Wimbledon, where the loser shakes hands with the winner across the net. Park wins, three sets to one. Allan outclassed and outplayed.

14) The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

I reviewed this book for Strange Horizons here. Falls very definitely into the interesting but flawed category. For me, the interesting quotient far outweighed the flaws, but sadly I think this novel will divide opinion too severely to end up on many awards shortlists. I would love to be proved wrong.

15) The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

I’ve written an article about this book which should hopefully be appearing in the next issue of Interzone. I found it to be far more a novel set in the future rather than a novel of science fiction, but there’s no crime in that, and I would recommend this original, beautiful and superbly executed novel to anyone and everyone. Even though I feel it dodges the issue science fictionally speaking, I still wouldn’t mind seeing it on some awards shortlists, for the outstanding quality of the writing and for the heartfelt honesty of its expression. I loved reading it. I still can’t help regretting that Byrne didn’t make more of the actual science fiction though, because the stuff that’s there – her vision of the future – is compelling, convincing and so economically conveyed there’s a lesson in there for all of us. For more on this outstanding debut, read Richard Larson’s insightful review at Strange Horizons here.

16) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

‘Friends’ did not mean what it meant between adults, a balance of selves and strengths. It meant setting standards your children could not maintain, because if they could you wouldn’t need to set standards for them. It meant child-rearing by remote and by phone. It was an abdication, for parents who never wanted to admit they were grown-ups, who dressed from shops which were too young for them and listened to the new music to stay in the swim.

To do the job right was something else, older and different and patient and endlessly enduring, something which got stronger the more it was clawed and scratched, which bounded and uplifted and waited delightedly to be surpassed. Which knew and understood and did not shy away from the understanding that there would be pain. Which could accept shattering, could reassemble itself, could stand taller than before.

Tigerman isn’t a science fiction novel at all, but it is about genre, and it does use the materials of fantastika to tell its story. That story takes on the nature of heroism, fatherhood, and more specifically the dilemma of an ordinary man forced into being a hero for the sake of his son. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films attempted to show the man behind the mask, the truth of what being a superhero might actually involve. For me at least, they fail in this objective – they remain stolidly what they are, which is Batman movies. Tigerman, fascinatingly, moves one hell of a lot closer to Nolan’s objective. Sergeant Lester Ferris has seen service in Helmand and Baghdad, but he talks and thinks more like a wistful Colonial retainer from the late 1940s (and perhaps unsurprisingly displays a similarly casual, similarly unintended sexism). There is a lot about tea, and past mistakes, and muddling through. This book is so British it’s almost a parody, but it is saved from being that – just – by the author’s clear commitment to and passion for what he’s set out to do. The glacial pacing over the first third of the book is a real problem – I can imagine a casual reader giving up out of sheer boredom – but as the novel reveals more of its cards even that begins to make sense. I kept wanting to groan ‘oh no!’ at the novel’s Bond-film structure and plot arc, but of course that structure has been worked at and put in place, quite consciously, by the writer, and so I found myself grunting ‘hmm, clever’ instead. There’s not enough here about what must surely be the historical inspiration for the core story – the catastrophic desecration of Bikini Atoll through US nuclear testing and the forced resettlement of its inhabitants – and if I’d been writing the book myself I would probably have been more interested in the xenobiologist Kaiko Inoue than doughty Lester Ferris. But no novel can contain everything, and what Tigerman does contain is interesting enough on its own merits. I salute the author’s bravery in giving the reader only one half of the ending they might have wanted, and in writing a novel which is so clearly an expression of what he wanted to say at this point in his career. Tigerman is trying to do something, which is really one of the highest compliments a novel can be paid.

For a more in-depth and articulate discussion of Tigerman, see the recent book club roundtable at Strange Horizons. At a tangent from that, I might mention Harkaway’s own recent article for the Independent, in which he expresses gratitude and relief that Tigerman landed itself a shortlist place in the ‘Fiction’ category of the 2014 Goodreads Readers’ Choice awards rather than the ‘Science Fiction’ category:

“Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll be on stage at the British Film Institute this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter at the words. Science fiction wasn’t properly serious to him.”

Writer, beware! If I’d been having that conversation with someone, and their eyes didn’t light up in a blaze of hero-worship at the very mention of the name William Gibson, it would be their taste and judgement I’d be questioning, not my own, and no matter what their establishment clout. I might add that the establishment mainstream is a very fickle and – more importantly – often a very blinkered and conservative arena to be fencing in. You won’t find many people in the mainstream discussing Tigerman with the insight, knowledge and enthusiasm of these SH guys. The so-called wider literary world won’t get half your references and will miss quite a bit of what you were trying to do with Tigerman. The science fiction community will get it, and they will see why it matters. They will be actively looking forward to reading what you write next. Think on that, is all I’m saying.

Books I very much intend to have finished by the end of January in time for my BSFA nominations include Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (I’ve just started this), A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (up next), and Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson,  Further reading to be completed by the time the Clarke starts flexing its muscles in March will include The Peripheral by William Gibson and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. I’m also intrigued by Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle and I really do need to read Bete by Adam Roberts, too.

This has been fun. Should I stick to a ‘genre only’ reading policy in 2015, or would that drive me nuts..?

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Mircon memories

Chris and I have just returned from Barcelona, where we spent the weekend as guests of Mircon, the 2014 Hispacon, which was held in the district of Montcada i Reixac, a short distance to the north of the city centre.

We had an amazing time. As with our trip to Aviles in 2013, we were made to feel incredibly welcome. The passion and commitment of the Spanish SF community is remarkable and inspiring. It was fantastic to see again some of the people we’d met on our previous visit, and we equally loved spending time with our fabulous fellow guests Karin Tidbeck and Aliette de Bodard. A highlight of the weekend for me was the panel I shared with Karin on New SF and New Weird. Another highlight was exploring the city of Barcelona itself – a stunning place, and instantly captivating, as all great cities are.

There are so many people to thank – Miguel and Gemma for taking care of the practicalities, Ian and Cristina for their conversation and comradeship as always, Angel Luis Sucasas for asking the questions (Angel interviewed me for El Pais back in July and it was wonderful to meet and talk with him in person), Carmen Torres and Laura Naranjo for their work in translating Maquinas del Tiempo (again, it was so lovely to meet them in person) and Sofia Rhei, for being there and for being amazing, and for making all this happen in the first place. I would like above all to thank Susana Arroyo and Silvia Schettin of Fata Libelli, and James and Marian Womack of Nevsky Prospects – you are fantastic people, and it is a privilege and a delight to work with you.

With Silvia Schettin (left) and Sofia Rhei

With Silvia Schettin (left) and Sofia Rhei

Anybody home..?

Anybody home..?

 

With James Womack on the New Weird panel

With James Womack on the New Weird panel

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women: wrap-up

One of the problems with many anthologies – and the reason, I guess, why people often admit to only dipping into them rather than reading them through from cover to cover as unified texts – is that of unevenness. You get a couple of truly standout stories, a turkey or two maybe, and a whole bunch of what you might call so-so stories, enjoyable enough at the time of reading but not all that memorable. My own pet peeve with anthologies is that they often lack cohesion. What you get is a kind of grab-bag of odds and ends, with no real sense that the stories belong together, or make a coherent statement as a group. For me, an anthology should say something – about the theme or title of the book, about the writers who’ve been gathered together. The individual pieces should be strong in themselves, but they should also add up to something. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women does all these things.

In her introduction to the anthology, editor Alex Dally MacFarlane states that she wanted to take a snapshot of where science fiction – and by implication, science fiction written by women – is at at the present moment, the multiplicity and variety of worlds it seeks to inhabit. For me, she has succeeded admirably. She has succeeded not only in reflecting the breadth and excellence of the work that is being done, but also in gathering together a group of stories that, through the interplay of their themes and internal resonances, form a statement that is striking in its coherence.

In terms of the individual stories, the anthology has an amazingly high strike rate. Of the thirty-three stories included, only one flat-out didn’t work for me, with very few weak spots amongst the others. As for standouts, there are so many memorable stories here that I’m having trouble picking my favourites, but just for the record and in no particular order, here they are:

1) ‘The Science of Herself’ by Karen Joy Fowler

2) ‘Spider the Artist’ by Nnedi Okorafor

3) ‘The Other Graces’ by Alice Sola Kim

4) ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ by Toiya Kristen Finley

5) ‘Enyo-Enyo’ by Kameron Hurley

6) ‘Valentines’ by Shira Lipkin

7) ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angelica Gorodischer

8) ‘The Radiant Car thy Sparrows Drew’ by Catherynne M. Valente

This list could easily have been twice as long. Many of these stories will remain with me for a long time. As well as presenting me with work by writers I already know and admire, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women has highlighted the names of writers previously unknown to me whose work I shall definitely be seeking out in the future.  That is a marker of success all by itself.

Was there anything missing? Well, no anthology can contain everything, and every anthology must of necessity be shaped by the knowledge, ambition and personal taste of its editor – indeed that’s sort of the point. Given these caveats, I found the Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women to be remarkably well balanced, containing, as per the old adage, something for everyone, pretty much. Looking back down the table of contents, it occurs to me that the anthology is a little short on hard SF. The single hard SF story contained here – Natalia Theodoridou’s ‘The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul’ – is admittedly excellent, and highly original, but I do feel the anthology could have benefited from a little more hard SF input – off the top of my head, Linda Nagata, Madeleine Ashby and Tricia Sullivan spring instantly to mind as writers working in this particular area. Something else that strikes me is the shortage of British contributions. Of thirty-three writers, we have only one British (Tori Truslow) and one British-based (Zen Cho) writer on the slate. Given the high proportion of American and US-based writers represented, it would not have hurt to have a story by Gwyneth Jones, say, or Mary Gentle in the mix.  But these are minor quibbles.

As well as fulfilling its editor’s own mission statement, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women is an important book for other reasons, too. Firstly, it tackles the whole ‘women don’t write science fiction’ bollocks head on, and wins by a knockout. I would lay money on the fact that anyone picking up this book – out of curiosity perhaps, or as a learning experience, or just looking for something new to read – would forget all about the ‘by women’ epithet within the space of a couple of stories. They’d be too busy enjoying the wide range of material on offer, and wondering where they could get more stuff by these writers. To anyone – male, female, publisher, reader, writer – stuck with that sneaking feeling that science fiction written by women ‘just isn’t their thing’, I would say get yourself a copy of this anthology and prepare to have all your assumptions blown out of the water.

The anthology also does great work in debunking the currently fashionable complaint that SF is exhausted. Compiling a Year’s Best must be the devil’s own job, and clearly it’s physically impossible these days to even hope to read every piece of SF short fiction published in a given year. But one of the issues I’ve seen aired about Year’s Bests in recent years is that the large majority of stories selected are culled from relatively few venues, and always the same venues, an editorial choice that is bound to result in a degree of sameness and even blandness, however honourable the intention otherwise. Hence the impression of science fictional exhaustion.  The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women isn’t a Year’s Best, of course – these works have been chosen from stories published over the past two decades – but it is noticeable and commendable to see twenty-five separate venues listed in the publication permissions credits. I would perhaps have liked to see a story or two coming from places outside the genre – but again, this is a small quibble, and overall the diversity of source venues is reflected in the stimulating diversity of the stories on offer here.

And almost as a bonus, we have the sheer quality of the writing. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who carps on about science fiction not being capable of the heights of literary expression and formal innovation reached in the sphere of mainstream literary fiction needs to read this book and then revise that opinion. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women offers abundant proof, if any were needed, that science fiction can do anything mainstream fiction can do and then some.

I’ve been on a wonderful journey with these stories. I recommend this book unreservedly, and I hope that once you have read it you will do the same.

 

 

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #19

31) ‘Vector’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Out through the school gate, part of a crowd pouring out, you hope for familiar smells of roast pork and sticky rice, for colours you recognise: an old tree with a pink sash around it to mark the spirit within. Tiny plates of food at the base of a utility pole, to curry favour with any small god that might live in the wires or the concrete. It does no harm to put such things out. But they are superstitions and the farangs passing by smirk. A tourist more freckles than skin pauses to blink at it; her spectacles give off a flicker. Photo snapped and uploading, to be laughed at and rendered into a joke. Who believes in divinities so diminutive? 

In the near future, a young woman sacrifices her life to be turned into a computer virus, the ultimate post-human condition. Her country’s cultural landscape has been overwritten, used as a strategic stepping stone by a dominant power. As she readies herself to complete her mission, memories of her human life struggle to rise above the surface of an imposed reality:

She ascertains that she’s in a ruined hospital in Palangkaraya, basement level, far from home. It chills her until she remembers the distance is irrelevant, that come success or failure she will never leave this place. What remains of her will not survive being disconnected from the tank. 

All is anatta. Sangkarn is transient. She needs to let go. Panic rises anyway, even though she’s so detached from flesh that she should be beyond this choking terror, above this mindless fear of the grave.

This is impassioned, driven writing, with not a word wasted. The science fictional conceits merge seamlessly with the shifting layers of images worked from two opposing realities. ‘Vector’ constitutes a powerful fusion between feeling and meaning, thought and word, image and idea. I admire the strength of purpose in this narrative, which serves as a darker, angrier counterpart to de Bodard’s Immersion. This story has weight. It’s even better on a second reading.

 

32) ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angelica Gorodischer

I loved this piece – for me it had the feel of a novel in miniature – so much I was moved immediately to search for more information about it. Angelica Gorodischer is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for some time now, and ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ felt like the perfect introduction to her work. If it reminded me of anything it’s Jan Morris’s Hav, or even some of Roberto Bolano’s more discursive factioneering. The story is actually a single chapter from a longer work, Kalpa Imperial (go to this page and you’ll find some links to extracts from the book, also an interview with Gorodischer), a novel detailing the rise and fall and rise again of ‘the greatest empire that never was’. The ‘mountain city’ at the centre of this particular story is described – or more accurately word-painted – as a microcosm of history in flux. Kings, empresses, wars, artists, hucksters, armies – they all pass through the city and they all leave their mark, some more indelibly than others. Always, at the centre, the city herself, warping and changing but never quite laid low, inimitably herself in spite of the erosions wrought upon her by an unruly populace:

The mountains are buried under walls, balconies, terraces, parks; a square slants down, separated from a steep drop by stone arcades; the third floor of a house is the basement of another that fronts on the street above; the west wall of a government building adjoins the ironwork of a courtyard of a school for deaf girls; the cellars of a functionary’s grand mansion become the attics of a deserted building, while a cat flap, crowned with an architrave added 200 years later, serves as a tunnel into a coal hole, and a shelf has become the transept for a window with golden shields in the panes, and the skylight doesn’t open on the sky, but on a gallery of waterwheels made of earthenware.

The city as organism is a beloved theme among readers and writers of speculative fiction alike. Gorodischer’s work here is a fabulous addition to this particular canon. It’s a privilege to see a master at work.

 

33) ‘The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew’ by Catherynne M. Valente

…and my Beast came up to me one night and said: “Oh please, oh please, can you write me a story where Venus is like it was in old SF books, all waterworldy and with big fish and stuff?” (While I was writing Golubash, he said “oh, please, oh please, can I have a pony in it?” You can’t blame him, he’s been waiting for me to write SF for four years–exactly, in fact, as today is our anniversary–so it is a bit like getting a vending machine suddenly stocked with your favorite stuff. He just keeps mashing the buttons to see what will come out.)

(Catherynne M. Valente – extract from a post at Rules for Anchorites)

This is the story of the documentary film maker Bysshe, who goes to film the legendary callowhales of Venus. Lovely links and resonances with both Gorodischer’s story and Truslow’s. There’s as much New Weird here as there is science fiction – the story’s aesthetic brought Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film The City of Lost Children instantly to mind – but who cares about categorisation when the writing is this good? I love Valente’s work. Her imagination is so fluid, so fearless, and her command of language feels completely effortless, even though I know that isn’t the case, that prose like this has to be crafted and fought for every word of the way.

The levitator told her of a town called Adonis, a whole colony on Venus that vanished in the space of a night. Divers they were, mostly, subject both to the great callowhales with their translucent skin and the tourists who came to watch and shiver in cathartic delight as the divers risked their lives to milk the recalcitrant mothers in their hibernation. They built a sweet village on the shores of the Qadesh, plaiting their roofs with grease-weed and hammering doors from the chunks of raw copper which comprised the ersatz Venusian beach. They lived; they ate the thready local cacao and shot, once or twice a year a leathery ‘Tryx from the sky, enough to keep them all in fat and protein for months. 

I think I mentioned before how much I enjoy stories that contain found documents or pose as secret histories, fictitious biographies. This is one of those, and it is a beauty.

 

Well, that’s the last of our 33 stories. It’s been an amazing journey. Stay tuned for a wrap-up post, coming soon!

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #18

27) ‘Sing’ by Karin Tidbeck

On the off-world colony of Kiruna, a tailor, Aino, comes into contact with a scientist, Petr, who is visiting the colony in a research capacity. Petr finds himself increasingly drawn to what he sees as the honest simplicity of life on Kiruna, and enchanted by the seemingly miraculous singing abilities of the colonists. He is determined to discover their secret. Aino fears that such a discovery will destroy the growing bond between them.

He reached into the back pocket of his trousers and drew out something like a very small and thin book. He did something with a quick movement – shook it out, somehow – and it unfolded into a large square that he put down on the counter. It had the outlines of letters at the bottom, and his fingers flew over them. WHAT HAPPENED WITH SOUND?

I recognised the layout of keys. I could type. SAARAKKA, I wrote.  WHEN SAARAKKA IS UP, WE CAN’T HEAR SPEECH. WE SING INSTEAD. 

WHY HAS NOBODY TOLD ME ABOUT THIS? He replied.

I shrugged.

He typed with annoyed, jerky movements. HOW LONG DOES IT LAST?

UNTIL IT SETS, I told him. 

This is a classic ‘curiosity killed the cat’ story. It’s also a story about acceptance, and difference, and coming to terms with who you are and where you fit in. The worldbuilding in ‘Sing’ is charming, and skilfully wrought, but in many ways the science fictional elements are incidental – this story could be set in any small community, anywhere. It’s the way people relate to one another here that make the story what it is: odd, with a quiet beauty, and just a little unnerving.

 

28) ‘Good Boy’ by Nisi Shawl

The invitation is entirely legitimate. Those who find the language in which it’s couched to be odd should refer to the available historical data on mid-twentieth century black musicians, specifically Sun Ra, Parliament, Funkadelic, and Earth, Wind & Fire. A notable space travel mystique developed around their work, and it is to honour its creative impetus that I’ve arranged for y’all to party up! Everybody party up! Come fly with me! I am the Mothership Connection. You have overcome, for I am here! 

On the planet of Renaissance, the City’s colonists are falling prey to a mysterious infirmity. The doctors are stumped. Ivorene McKenna has her own ideas about how to effect a cure, though there are those who disapprove, to put it mildly. When chaos breaks loose in the City, Ivorene is absent – but who’s that wearing her body? Her daughter Kressi is caught in the crossfire between the old and the new. The funk is risin.

Oh, this story! How it sneaks up on you. There’s no way it should work, but it so does. There’s everything in here from pulp to cyberpunk and seventies funkadelic. Fundamentally, this is a story about how the values and accumulated wisdom of the past have to be carried with us into the future, lest we forget who we are and undermine our spiritual foundations as a result. ‘Good Boy’ is tremendous fun – I was completely swept along by it. But it turns out to be genuinely interesting as science fiction, too, seizing upon tropes and reshaping them to create something entirely original, a law unto itself. Also, there’s music and dancing. Go party!

 

29) ‘The Second Card of the Major Arcana’ by Thoraiya Dyer

Some lovely resonances here with Elizabeth Vonarburg’s ‘Stay Thy Flight’, and also with Nisi Shawl’s ‘Good Boy’, although the tone of this story could not be more different. The main character is a sphinx, but she’s definitely not chained to a pedestal. She’s stalking the world and she’s angry. She kills people who can’t answer her riddles, just by thinking at them. But who is she really, and what is her mission? As with the Nisi Shawl, ‘The Second Card of the Major Arcana’ is a story about how we accommodate the past within our vision of the future.

We descend into Beirut, a capital mismatched as an unsolved Rubik’s cube, so often wrenched apart and poorly put back together. No two pockets of any single alliance are placed handily together but instead separated suburb from suburb, street from street. Like the national draft, the strategy of melding disparate peoples is designed to create unity. 

Instead, it creates paralytic indecision.

The language of this story is rich and dense with imagery and symbol. My grasp of Middle Eastern history is scattershot, to say the least, so I know there will be plenty of references here that will have slipped by me. As a reading experience though, I found this work hugely satisfying. A thought provoking story, with prose to slay for. The ending, where fantasy morphs into science fiction, is brilliant.

 

30) ‘A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas’ by Ekaterina Sedia

The Sea of Clouds is entirely contained by mountains, so high above the blue moon surface that the clouds fill the basin. Mermaids from all over the world make their yearly pilgrimage to this sea – they crawl over land, their tails trailing furrows in the blue dust, their breasts and elbows scuffed on the flat lunar stones. They leave traces of pale mermaid blood, its smell tinged with copper. 

So we’re back with mermaids on the moon, a nice echo here of Tori Truslow’s ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ and at this point in the anthology I’m really liking the way these resonances between the stories have been set up. ‘A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas’ is what’s known as a list story – the narrative taking the form of a series of shorter mini-stories that together form an over-arching whole. Sedia’s tales of the lunar seas run parallel in some ways with Hao Jingfang’s invisible planets, and thence with Marco Polo’s journey through the invisible cities. Sedia’s magical realism is nuanced, wry and charming, thrumming with beautiful images and engaging ideas. Yet I cannot help wanting a little more from my ideal list story than this. There is no story here, not really, and these twenty sparkling parts do not exactly add up to a whole. Still lovely to read, though.

 

 

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #17

25) ‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard

You hear them negotiating, in the background – it’s tough going, because the Rong man sticks to his guns stubbornly, refusing to give ground to Galen’s onslaught. It’s all very distant, a subject of intellectual study; the immerser reminds you from time to time, interpreting this and that body cue, nudging you this way and that – you must sit straight and silent, and support your husband – and so you smile through a mouth that feels gummed together. 

You feel, all the while, the Rong girl’s gaze on you, burning like ice water, like the gaze of a dragon. She won’t move away from you, and her hand rests on you, gripping your arm with a strength you didn’t think she had in her body. Her avatar is but a thin layer, and you can see her beneath it: a round, moon-shaped face with skin the colour of cinnamon – no, not spices, not chocolate, but simply a colour you’ve seen all your life. 

‘You have to take it off,’ she says. You don’t move, but you wonder what she’s talking about.

‘Immersion’ is the other of the two stories in this volume that I’ve read before, when it first came out.  Reading it again now, it comes across even more powerfully. As an example of a particular kind of science fiction – the social allegory – it is pretty much perfect.

There are strong resonances here with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s story ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’. The immersers in de Bodard’s story work similarly to the augmentations in Loenen-Ruiz’s, only in the opposite direction, interpreting and normalising a culture that is foreign to the wearer, rather than acting as a conduit for suppressed memories. Both stories though speak of oppression, of the devastating impact on individuals and on a whole people when one culture imposes itself upon another, no matter how beneficently.

De Bodard evokes her world with skill and although one could not describe this story as action-packed, plenty happens nonetheless. I especially loved Tam. I think she should have a whole book to herself…

 

26) ‘Down the Wall’ by Greer Gilman

They’ve come into a wide square, set with shattered baulks of stone: a great cat with a muffled head, a riven owl, a witch in flinders. There are fires here and there, some leaping and some embers, ashes. Some long cold. And some a-building: leaves and boxes, doors and drawers and random trash. Children heap frail crazy towers: sticks stacks crows’ nests, all to burn. Some run with brands, they leap and whirl them in a swarm of sparks. They write great fading loops of spells. Three drag a gnarled branch to the fires, its dry and leafy fingers clagged with tins, as many as the rings on a witch’s hand. And still it scrabbles, rakes for more. 

This is a night-fantasia, Mervyn Peake on speed, Gustav Dore drawn in words. You could quote from anywhere in this story and it would be uniformly exquisite, universally sublime. ‘Down the Wall’ is a work of poetry, really – its connection with any usual style of prose narrative is tendentious at best. If I were to compare it with music (which I feel driven to, inevitably), which work would it remind me of most? ‘A Night on the Bald Mountain’ by Modest Mussorgsky, of course. Dance, witch, dance.

Greer Gilman is a magician. Her use and love of language is as ferociously advanced as anything in mainstream literary fiction, and then some. What a voice. I was lucky enough to hear her talking on a panel at this year’s Worldcon. The discussion was about favourite sentences. Gilman chose a line from Andrew Marvell. Way to go. I am lost in awe.

 

Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #16

24) ‘Semiramis’ by Genevieve Valentine

A climate change story. Global warming has precipitated a catastrophic rise in sea level. Many major cities and some whole countries are already underwater, and the disaster is still in motion. Some things remain the same, however, and the greed and short-termism of business corporations is one of them. Two workers at the the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway plan a minor insurrection.

i pick some seeds that will grow in any soil (as dumb as it is, I still want to plant something, once, and watch it grow). I pick some seeds because they’re rare enough to make a decent bribe if things go south.

I pick a bird of paradise, a seed with a sharp red tuft, for no reason except that it’s been ten years since I’ve seen something red; the Aurora is yellow and green, and the rest of the world is the tight dark of seeds, and the envelopes paler than skin.

A fascinating story,  and Valentine’s writing is watertight as always. But something was lacking here, for me.  The overall tone of the narrative is rather cold, rather blank, and whilst I’m sure the writer did not take this decision lightly, for me at least the urgency of the theme seemed diminished by it. Also, this was one of those occasions where I would have greatly welcomed some more background detail – for a story where theme is key, this was all too elliptical. ‘Semiramis’ is a good story, but the diffidence of the (mysteriously annoying) protagonist left me feeling lukewarm about it.

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #15

23) ‘£nyo-Enyo’ by Kameron Hurley

I fell in love with Hurley’s writing when I read God’s War, and this nasty, brutish and regrettably short story reminds me in every which way of why. Enyo is a – well, what is she? Terrorist, murderer, mercenary, escaped prisoner, fugitive, just desperate to get away? Anyway, she’s in charge of an organic satellite-thing stuffed with illegal alien biotech, employed by a dubious outfit to map the outlying and probably dangerous areas of a neighbouring system. It’s one dodgy gig. Plus the satellite needs regular feeding. This cannot end well.

She had stopped worrying where the body had come from, or who it had been. Her interest was in pondering what it would become when they reached its destination. She lost track of time in these intimate reveries, often. After half a rotation of contemplation, Reeb would do a sweep of the satellite. He would find her alive and intact, and perhaps he would go back to playing screes or fucking one of the engineers or concocting a vile hallucinogen the gelatinous consistency of aloe. They were a pair of two, a crew of three, picking up rim trash and memories in the seams between the stars during the long night of their orbit around the galactic core. 

This story has the festering, Gigerish outlines of what might be termed Alien-punk: corrupt organisations and lethal technology,  hardened professionals of dubious reputation, outcasts and stowaways gone to the bad, or sold to the worse. It’s stunningly written. It’s sad and frightening all at once. It’s everything I enjoy. More set in this world, please!

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #14

22) ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ by Toiya Kristen Finley

I really loved this one, mainly because of its powerful narrative voice. Keisha lives in Nashville, out by the interstate. She tells us about her neighbours and her cousins, the kids down the street she likes to hang out with. But something odd is happening to her neighbourhood. There’s talk of a death. Strangers drive by in a silver Buick, asking for directions to a beauty parlor that doesn’t exist. Keisha is curious about that. She feels drawn to these people in ways she can’t explain:

Actually, I could sympathise. Sorta. Not that Momma’d ever let me get my hair done in a beauty salon at my age, but one of my grandfathers used to own a barber shop. I couldn’t remember which grandfather, though. Grandmommy never talked about her ex-husband, and I’d only met him once when me and Daddy ran into him at Farmer’s Market. Nobody really discussed Daddy’s family either. All I knew about his father was that he had water-wave hair, and that he didn’t have no grays when he died. One of my grandfathers was a postman, and one owned the barber shop. I got them mixed up. Actually, I’m not sure about the postman thing, neither. I think I remembered hearin it one time.

As history becomes more insistent, Keisha becomes more distressed. Pieces of the world are going missing and she is desperate to recover them before any more people or streets or buildings disappear. ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ is a perfect piece of slipstream: lyrical, intense and persuasive. It’s about the importance of history and finding your place in it. It’s about identity and how the forces of history can conspire to take it away from you.  I turned the last page, hoping for more, but I’d reached the end. This is a story to carry with you, a story to keep.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #13

20) ‘Ej-Es’ by Nancy Kress

The story is told from the point of view of Mia, a doctor in the space corps, well past the age of retirement and worn out from long service. We join her as she and her colleagues are about to touch down on the planet named Good Fortune, where an established colony has suddenly ceased communicating. The reasons for this are soon established: the colonists have fallen prey to a new virus. They’re all dead. ‘Rec’ cubes left behind by the final victims tell their own story. Mia and her colleagues get to work isolating the pathogens and, from them, creating an antidote:

The colonists had had interment practices, they had had time to bury some of their dead in strong, water-tight coffins before everyone else died, and their customs didn’t include embalming. Much more than Mia had dared hope for. Good Fortune, indeed. 

In five days of tireless work they had the micro isolated, sequenced, and analysed. It was a virus, or a virus analogue, that had somehow gained access to the brain and lodged near the limbic system, creating destruction and death. Like rabies, Mia thought, and hoped this virus hadn’t caused the terror and madness of that stubborn disease. Not even Earth had been able to eradicate rabies. 

These brave pioneers of the space corps are clearly accustomed to measuring time in E years, travelling at speeds ‘just under c’ and solving complex bio-medical problems within five days. It all seems so, so easy. The skeletons of the dead colonists have been picked clean of muck, so there aren’t even any rotting corpses to dispose of. The reconnaissance team later run into some ‘natives’ who seem to be affected by a condition that causes delusions and hallucinations. Mia, worried by their plight, voluntarily maroons herself on Good Fortune so she can spend the time left to her saving their civilisation.

There’s a moral at the end, about not meddling in things or people you don’t properly understand, but by this stage in the story the whole thing had become too Star Trek for me to care.  I’ll happily spend an evening watching DS9 or Voyager, but as it appears on the page, I lost my taste for this post-Golden-Age kind of science fiction many years ago. The workmanlike prose, the little mystery that needs solving, the by-the-numbers characterisation? Just not for me.

 

21) ‘The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees’ by E. Lily Yu

I’m not always a fan of stories that make use of animals to tell a human story, but when they are invested with this amount of wit and invention they can be powerful and strange. Bees seem to be in vogue at the moment, science fictionally, which is no bad thing at all. Not only are they vital to our survival as a species, but with their complex and often untranslatable social systems and modes of being they provide a potent source of metaphor and imagery for any writer.

I was aware of ‘The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees’ the year it was published. I know this story was nominated for a fair few awards – I just never got around to reading it. I’m very pleased to have made good that gap, because it’s a wonderful piece of writing: amusing, cautionary, excellently crafted. In essence, it’s a war story, a story of brutal invasion and counter-revolution, the struggle for power:

Whereas the hive before the wasp infestation had been busy but content, the bees now lived in desperation. The natural terms of their lives were cut short by the need to gather enough honey for both the hive and the wasp nest. As they travelled farther and farther afield in search of nectar, they stopped singing. They danced their findings grimly, without joy. The queen herself grew gaunt and thin from breeding replacements, and certain ministers who understood such matters began feeding royal jelly to the strongest larvae.

Meanwhile, the wasps grew sleek and strong.

In spite of the elegance and beauty of its language, there is nothing even remotely soft-centred about this story. I only wish it could have gone on for longer.

 

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