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Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014)
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
There is a powerful spell of which many of those active in online criticism have for some time been aware. SUMMON VANDERMEER is best effected simply by referring to one of the eponymous scribbler’s works in a published review, blog post or comment; upon conjuring, VanderMeer will manifest, most often offering a faintly under-written defence of even the smallest gripe or criticism, occasionally doing so in a way which leaves the readers of this digital ectoplasm less than confident that the summoned sprite meant to do that.
VanderMeer’s occasionally less than happy history of engaging with his readers makes the rapturous response to his Southern Reach trilogy all the more remarkable. Coming as it does after something of a break from fiction – VanderMeer has in recent years made most (and significant) impact in editorial conjunction with his wife, Ann – the trilogy is as heavy and serious a statement as a returning writer could possibly wish to make. It is a distillation of the genre in which he is now widely regarded as an expert, the Weird; it is an act of astonishingly wide-ranging pop-culture criticism; and it is a furiously well-written, sometimes shockingly evocative story of ecological disaster, adaptation and accommodation.
Set in a world in which a tranche of land known only as Area X has been given over entirely to a weird physics with no identifiable origin or cause, the novel centres on the invisible but impermeable border with few know egresses which separates Area X from all but the ill-fated expeditions sent by the government agency set the task of investigating it, the Southern Reach. In this scenario, VanderMeer plays with issues of perception and penetration: how Area X can and can’t be measured or understood; how it may or may not interact with the world beyond it; and what its creeping weirdness, its inhospitability and indifference to human beings might mean or portend.
The first volume of the trilogy, the quite unusually discomfiting Annihilation, follows the group of women who enter Area X as the Southern Reach’s twelfth expedition (but who are in fact much further along a hidden sequence of secret visits that that). We never learn the names of any of the expedition’s members but instead come to know them by their function: the viewpoint character, for instance, is identified as the biologist and her desire to observe and understand proves ill-suited to the impossibilities of Area X. Most obviously, this includes the subterranean structure on the walls of which is written a recursive prayer-like koan in iridescent script. Counter-intuitively known by the biologist knows as the Tower, it houses the Crawler, a fractal, shifting being which appears to contain the essence of Area X and yet is utterly ineffable. “The longer I stared at it,” bemoans the expedition’s supposed expert on unusual organisms, “the less comprehensible it became.”
VanderMeer is quite brilliant in this first volume at instilling in the reader the disorientation and terror which Area X inspires in the expedition. To read Annihilation is to interface with the inaccessible. VanderMeer’s spare prose presents the illusion of transparency, the suggestion of clarity, but the subjects of his sentences are something other, crafted to be just beyond the extent of his diction: “I was no longer a biologist but somehow the crest of a wave building and building but never crashing to shore”. This is crystalline writing, cut and polished to gleam, but what it quite means is unclear. Only by accretion and exposure does the reader begin to piece together a working understanding of events and it is a real achievement of VanderMeer’s that unlike many lesser writers of the Weird he does not revel in incomprehension. He rewards his reader.
He also tests them. In the second volume, Authority, VanderMeer leaves Area X entirely for the confines of the Southern Reach’s headquarters. Here, the protagonist is John Rodriguez, a disgraced former counter-terrorism field agent who prefers the nickname Control. This, of course, echoes Le Carré and, where Annihilation distilled the Weird, at times Authority seems to refract spy fiction and thrillers. This second book may test the patience of some. It feels in many ways less urgent and less alarming than the first, yet I think in its uncanny depiction of office politics it sounds a satirical note which adds a new voicing to the trilogy’s overall euphony.
One of Control’s most creative staff scientists, Whitby, develops a terroir theory of Area X: that, as with wine, “environmental varietals” have conspired to produce specific and unrepeatable effects within its weird boundaries. But the palimpsests of agendas and personalities at the failing Southern Reach lead Control to another conclusion, “finding now in Whitby’s terroir theory something that might apply more to the Southern Reach than to Area X”. That is, Control (again denied a real name) is out of control, both of a territory which systematically and entirely erases all trace of human activity (reshaping it as weird doubles or fatal cancers) and also of the agency designed to contain it. “Topological anomaly?” Control imagines his grandfather scoffing at the term used by his staff to describe the Tower. “Don’t you mean some kind of spooky thing that we know nothing, absolutely fucking nothing about, to go with everything else we don’t know?”
Control’s family have more purchase on this bureaucratic farce than his mere imaginings. Control is Acting Director of the Southern Reach at the behest of his powerful spymaster mother, following the disappearance on an expedition of the previous incumbent. The drifting of the trilogy into the family saga genre can feel like a bridge too far. Control’s mother proves to be an important character and his relationship with her is therefore rather more significant than the queasy attenuation VanderMeer sketches with notable facility for unease. At first they read as another iteration of the trilogy’s over-arching theme that most people want “to be close to but not part of”]; their rapidly apparent plot importance makes the story oddly local for a trilogy constantly skirting the cosmic.
Perhaps, though, we require an anchor: Authority ends with Control and the returned double of the biologist (now referred to as Ghost Bird) finding a fresh entrance into an expanding Area X, which seems if anything more rather than less strange on second encounter. Indeed, the third and final volume of the trilogy, Acceptance, proves both its most ineffable and its most up-front. Told from a range of perspectives – Control, Ghost Bird, the former Director and, most disturbingly of all, the lighthouse keeper in the region that becomes in the course of his story Area X – connections begin to be made. The trilogy rejects the idea that any single one of us can perceive completely and its multi-voice finale attempts to show why.
“There’s nothing to this world but what our senses tell us about it,” insists Control, “and all I can do is the best I can based on that information.”. Control is repeatedly undone by this inflexibility and he passes through these novels rather lost and buffeted; his opposite number is the twin-face of the biologist and Ghost Bird, who seek to inhabit a space as natively as possible. “Area X was all around them; Area X was contained in no one place or figure. It was the dysfunction in the sky […] the heavens and earth. It could interrogate you from any position or no position at all, and you might not even recognise its actions as a form of questioning.”
In the online magazine Strange Horizons, Adam Roberts has written better than anyone about the ways in which the Southern Reach trilogy in this way reimagines nature writing for our troubled times. What does it mean that our environment is altering in ways we don’t understand, into shapes for which we are not necessarily suited and in a manner that emphasises its indifference to our presence? The expeditions of the Southern Reach are forays fated to doom because they seek human-sized solutions to these questions; VanderMeer’s inexplicable clarity is an idiom suited to disputing this.
But in its lovers and families, its terrorists and spies, its intimate villages and expansive governments, the world of the Southern Reach is also more widely about connection and motivation. In fact, I’d suggest that to read the richness of the trilogy through a purely ecological lens is to deny the potency of its effect. In the lighthouse keeper’s tale there are moments of pure horror – “Sadi spun and twitched and twisted on the floor, slamming into chairs and table legs, beginning to come to pieces” – but it is impossible to challenge Ghost Bird’s welcoming of the inevitable accommodation to come. The simultaneity of the horror and beauty of Area X – that the individual cannot prevail against the universal – is the terror and redemption at the heart of our every interaction.
All of which is to say that the Southern Reach is preternaturally fertile, the sort of layered and constructed fiction that readers pine for and so rarely receive. We will all in future SUMMON VANDERMEER with markedly less trepidation.
Due to production deadlines, space and my own laziness, this issue of the BSFA Review contains no editorial from me. Instead, here is the lead review.
Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
Gemsigns and Binary by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013 & 2014) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
Get Katja by Simon Logan (ChiZine Publications, 2014) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
City Of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
The Just City by Jo Walton (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
City Of Endless Night by Milo M. Hastings (Hesperus Press, 2014) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
Terror And Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, exhibition (British Library, 5 October 2014 to 20 January 2015) and book, edited by Dale Townshend (British Library, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Complete Uncle by JP Martin, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Matador, 2013) – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
Half A King by Joe Abercrombie, (Orbit, 2014) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
I’m writing this a few weeks after Loncon 3 and though – with the aid of green vegetables and a few early nights – I’ve kicked the con crud, I still can’t shake the Hugos hangover. This year’s awards were a pretty poor showing for British SF that reflected a mediocre 2013 in terms of what was published. Not so 2014: Wolves by Simon Ings and The Race by Nina Allan are both works of British SF as well as being simply SF by British authors and are two of the best examples in recent years. Allan, in particular, seems like she is hitting the peak of her career, a deepening and coalescing even of the obvious talent on display in last year’s BSFA Award-winning Spin. Of course, neither have a hope in hell of getting anywhere near the Hugos but I’m hoping the Clarke Award judges and BSFA members may look more favourably on them.
Being less parochial for minute, I’m going to cheat and cast a pre-emptive vote for work that hasn’t actually finished being published yet. However, on the strengths of the first two volumes, Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is already a clear award contender. Dan Hartland will be reviewing the series for Vector as soon as the final book is out (although he may have to wait for me to read it first).
Short fiction is always harder for me than novels and I need to do much more reading around (or, even, better, I need more people to perform triage for me). I do have one early contender for Best Novella though: ‘Trading Rosemary’ by OJ Cade. A web of memories strung together into a surprisingly satisfying story, it is made b its atmosphere and the steel of its protagonist. I’m really looking forward to reading her latest novella, ‘The Don’t Girls’.
In his review of Noir and La Femme, both edited by Ian Whates, Martin McGrath points readers towards some other potential candidates come awards time, including my own favourite stories in the anthology courtesy of Frances Hardinge and Vector’s own Paul Graham Raven. We have quite a few more anthology reviews forthcoming and my own resolution is to check out the online magazines more often.
But if I could compel you to go out and read one piece of fiction it would be Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. Best Graphic Story is always a bit of a weak category because the Worldcon membership simply don’t know enough about comics (me included) but this is the real deal. Suzie can make time stop every time she has an orgasm. She thinks she is alone until she meets Jon who has the same ‘gift’. Obviously, they decide to rob a bank. There was so much potential for this to go wrong but Fraction and Zdarsky get it deliriously right. One for your Christmas list.
Oh, and if you were at Loncon, I really hope you saw Tessa Farmer’s extraordinary realisation of a wasp factory, one of several tributes to the late Iain Banks. I’ll certainly be nominating it for the BSFA Award for Best Artwork.
- Noir and La Femme, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2014) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- Astra by Naomi Foyle (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Aliens: Recent Encounters, edited by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Prime, 2013) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- Glaze by Kim Curran (Jurassic London, 2014) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall (Egmont 2014) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- Lupus Rex by John Carter Cash (Ravenstone Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
- Martian Sands (PS Publishing, 2013) and The Violent Century (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013) by Lavie Tidhar – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- The Brick Moon & Another Brick In The Moon by Edward Everett Hale and Adam Roberts (Jurassic London, 2014) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- Call And Response (Beccon Publications, 2014) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- The Moon King by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2014) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
- The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2012) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
- The Leopard by KV Johansen (Pyr, 2014) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
Like many of the people reading this, I own hundreds of books I haven’t read. It seems likely that I will die with some of these books unread – and I’m not planning to die for quite a while. However, as you may remember, I recently moved house so the majority of my library is still entombed in boxes. This means that when I fail to keep myself sufficiently supplied with new fiction, I am reliant on the lottery of the charity shop pile containing books rejected by our reviewers. Such was the predicament I found myself in last month.
It didn’t help that the book I had just finished was Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, a thrillingly cryptic reincarnation of New Wave SF with a thoroughly modern sensibility. You need something decent after a book like that. So my eye was drawn to his quote on the back cover of The Barrow by Mark Smylie. In hindsight, the warning signs where all there. For starters, Vandermeer’s praise – “this fresh take on highly recommended heroic fantasy” – doesn’t even make sense. Then there is the usual fat fantasy cholesterol: it is 700 pages long, preceded by half a dozen maps and rounded out with two epilogues and a glossary. But the real problem, as soon becomes evident, is that Smylie writes comics for a living and hasn’t quite figured out the transition to prose. This means that when he introduces characters, he is thinking not of his reader but of his illustrator.
Here he is introducing the first character in the novel: “He was dressed in a dark brown high-collared long coat of stiff leather, tight blue-black cloth breeches, and black leather boots, all splattered with mud and dirt… A point dagger and heavy-bladed falchion were strapped to his side by a broad black leather baldric.” And the next one: “His fine travel coat and breeches were woven of good dark wool with silk trim…” The clomping foot of nerdism is alive and well; no wonder the book is so bloody long.
I do wonder if its relative brevity is part of the appeal to adults of teen orientated fiction. So the next book I plucked off the shelf was Arclight by Josin L McQuein from Egmont’s new Young Adult imprint, Electric Monkey. It has an enjoyably prickly female protagonist and a weirder setting than the zombie apocalypse it initially resembles but it also has this:
“Move, or I’ll move you.” Tobin shifts his position for better leverage.
Desperation and lack of ideas make me stupid. I grab Tobin’s face with both hands, close my eyes, and kiss him on the mouth.
It is astonishing that such a laughable and regressive cliché can be published in 2014. It killed the book for me – I don’t want to read this rubbish and I don’t want another generation to be taught that female sexuality is a tool for averting male violence. Another of Electric Monkey’s launch titles, Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, will be reviewed in the next issue and sounds a hell of a lot better.
At this point, I moved to my son’s shelves and from books notionally written for children to books actually written for children. The first of these was an intriguing small press book, London Deep by Robin Price and Paul McGrory, where each page is split equally between prose and illustration with the narrative flipping seamlessly between the two mediums. It is an interesting concept and the stylised black and white art by McGrory is effective. Unfortunately this is not matched by Price’s writing which marries perhaps the most preposterous plot I’ve ever read with relentlessly clumsy prose. I had to stop after a dozen pages.
In contrast, I read dozens and dozens of pages of Zita The Space Girl, Beth Hatke’s SF graphic novel for kids, and could presumably have gone on doing so indefinitely since absolutely nothing happened. In despair, I turned to my local Oxfam where I found a copy of Stonemouth by the late, great Iain Banks for a quid. I overpaid: it is the latest and last iteration of a story he’s told before and told better, a book that makes you gag on its nostalgia. Oh, Banksy.
Luckily, at that point The Method by Juli Zeh – which I longed for in my editorial for Vector #274 – finally dropped through my letterbox. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped.
- We See A Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad (Futurefire.net Publishing, 2013) and Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall (Rosarium Publising, 2013) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Sunshine Patriots by Bill Campbell (Rosarium Publishing, 2013) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Your Brother’s Blood by David Towsey (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- Looking Landwards, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
- The Lego Movie (2014) – Reviewed by Leimar Garcia-Siino
- Ender’s Game And Philosophy: The Logic Gate Is Down, edited by Kevin S. Decker (John Wiley & Sons, 2013) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
- A Brief Guide To CS Lewis: From Mere Christianity To Narnia by Paul Simpson (Robinson, 2013) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- Proxima by Stephen Baxter and On A Steel Breeze by Alistair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- The Age Of Scorpio by Gavin Smith (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
- Plastic by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
- The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Tor, 2014) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- The Many-Coloured Land by Julian May (Tor, 2013) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- The City by Stella Gemmell (Corgi, 2013) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- Naomi’s Room and The Silence of Ghosts by Jonathan Aycliffe (Corsair, 2013) – Review by Gary Dalkin
- Dreams And Shadows by C Robert Cargill (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston (Thomas Dunne Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
- Legends, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Tony Jones
- End Of The Road, edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- A Gentle Flow of Ink by Graham Andrews (FeedARead Publishing, 2013) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
- How To Be Dead by Dave Turner (Aim For The Head Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
In last issue’s editorial, I wondered if 2014 would be a year for award-winning women. Since then, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – one of the books I singled out – won the Golden Tentacle for best debut at the Kitschies and has been shortlisted for both the BSFA and Philip K Dick awards. Meanwhile, A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – a book that wasn’t on my radar, despite having been shortlisted for the Booker – won the Red Tentacle for best novel. I should have been paying attention but obviously others were since Ozeki takes joint first place in our poll of reviews, alongside Kate Atkinson for Life After Life.
They are a thematically fitting pair, although I think their merits are less matched. If I was being cynical, I’d say Ozeki’s novel appeals to SF readers because it consists of page after page of tedious exposition. It is the dullest sort of literary meta-fiction aligned to a self-help primer on Buddhism with a bit of pop science thrown in for good measure. Life After Life, on the other hand, is sublime. Atkinson tells a very different tale of time which encompasses the best of historical fiction, family saga and romance but amplifies these through a palimpsest fantasy narrative. A worthy winner of the Costa Award.
As you might expect, there is a lot of cross-over between our poll and the BSFA awards and the next spot goes to Christopher Priest who won the award in 2011 with his previous novel, The Islanders. In Vector #274, Paul Kincaid said of The Adjacent: “It is as complex and rewarding as any of his novels, and it repays re-reading, but above all it is a novel that is as enthralling, as mystifying and as satisfying as any other you are likely to encounter this year.”
Just outside the medal positions is Nina Allan with Spin, shortlisted for the BSFA Award for short fiction but eligible here as this beguiling novella was published in book format by TTA Press. And, of course, there is Leckie herself. (I do wonder if, despite the hype, her middling position here is an indicator of her chances for the award itself).
A Stranger In Olondria by Sofia Samatar and What Lot’s Wife Saw by Ioanna Bourazopoulou were books that I’d hoped to get to before nominations closed for awards season. Alas it was not to be but their appearance here makes me even more determined to read them in 2014. In a crowded reading schedule, I will always make time for Lauren Beukes though. The Shining Girls is substantially less interesting than her previous work but nonetheless evidence of a formidably talented writer.
Finally, we have two male British science fiction writers at opposite ends of their careers. The Machine is James Smythe’s third novel since his debut in 2012 (it was also shortlisted for the Red Tentacle); Evening’s Empires marks Paul McAuley’s fourth appearance on the shortlist of the BSFA Award since 1991. (The two BSFA shortlist novels missing here are Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell and God’s War by Kameron Hurley but the later came third in the poll back when it was originally came out in 2010. Such are the vagaries of Transatlantic publishing.)
So that was 2013. My own start to 2014 has involved moving house so if you are a publisher, please check the new address for review copies at the front of the magazine. The wealth of paperwork that has accompanied this move also means that I have finally updated various accounts and pieces of identification with my married name. Which means it is time for me to do the same for Vector too.
BSFA Review Poll
=1) Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
=1) A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
3) The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
4) Spin by Nina Allan
5) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
6) A Stranger In Olondria by Sofia Samatar
7) What Lot’s Wife Saw by Ioanna Bourazopoulou
8) The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
9) The Machine by James Smythe
10) Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley
- Silent Land (Gollancz, 2010), Some Kind Of Fairy Tale (Gollancz, 2012) and The Year Of The Ladybird (Gollancz, 2013) by Graham Joyce – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Phoenicia’s Worlds by Ben Jeapes (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
- Crash by Guy Haley (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- Close Encounters of the Invasive Kind by Sarah Seymore (LIT Verlag, 2012) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey by Neal Tringham (Pseudonymz, 2013) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
- Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright (Adventure Rocketship!, 2013) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- The Eidolon by Libby McGugan (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson (2000 AD Graphic Novels, 2013) – Reviewed by Tony Jones
- Terra by Mitch Benn (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Alison Page
- The Testimony by James Smythe (Blue Door, 2012) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- The Lowest Heaven, edited by Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2013) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- A History Of The Future In 100 Objects by Adrian Hon (Skyhook, 2013) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
- The Dedalus Book Of Modern Greek Fantasy, edited and translated by David Connolly (Dedalus, 2004) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
- Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits (Abaddon Books, 2013) and The Blue Blazes (Angry Robot, 2013) by Chuck Wendig – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
- Dream London by Tony Ballantyne (Solaris Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (Head of Zeus, 2013) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
When the shortlist of the Arthur C Clarke Award was announced earlier this year, most of the discussion was about what wasn’t on the list: namely, women. This is the first time we’ve had an all male shortlist since 1988 and the situation has arisen from a situation where only 17 of 82 submitted novels were by women. Of these, only four books were seen as potential contenders in the inevitable pre-award crystal ball-gazing.
The first was the dire Pure by Julianna Baggott. The sooner the axle snaps on the Young Adult dystopia bandwagon, the better. The second was Alif The Unseen by G Willow Wilson, which Nic Clarke reviews on page 40 and suggests it is “in reality about as science fictional in aims and spirit as Harry Potter.” That isn’t the only reason why the judges might not have considered it: “a marvellous idea let down by [Wilson’s] determination to use her characters as vehicles for her argument and her apparent unwillingness to just let her protagonist be the immature idiot his actions would tend to suggest, rather than the saviour she would like him to be.”
The third was The Method by Juli Zeh but, unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the novel as the paperback edition isn’t released until May 2014, two years after it was originally published. Come on, Vintage, sort it out. I can tell you it was shortlisted for a British genre award though: the Red Tentacle at the Kitschies. In fact, six out of the ten shortlisted titles for the Kitschies were by women, although they have the benefit of being able to include excellent fantasy novels (such as A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge) and excellent mainstream novels (such as The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan).
The fourth contender, vN by Madeline Ashby, was also shortlisted for the Kitschies and guess what? It is great. Not everyone was of this view, however; Andy Sawyer reviewed the novel in issue #271 and said: “The novel only takes us so far and like many SF futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus… some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.” But I am an unabashed fan and could easily see it on the Clarke shortlist. In fact, it would make quite a nice companion piece to eventual winner Dark Eden by Chris Beckett; both novels provide interesting, accessible spins on long-standing science fiction tropes through coming of age stories that blessedly aren’t aimed at Young Adults (although they may be aimed at young adults).
The sequel, iD, is out now and whilst it seems unlikely to appear on this year’s Clarke shortlist, it is certainly strong enough. But she will have a lot more competition because, looking forward, one thing seems certain: the field of science fiction written by women and published in Britain is both broader and deeper than it was last year.
Some of these books are corrections of an unaccountable publishing asymmetry where both British and American authors (such as EJ Swift’s Osiris and Kameron Hurley’s Kitschie-shortlisted God’s War) cannot find a home in this country. Some are the product of the cycle of publishing and the return of big beasts, young and old (such as Mira Grant’s Parasite and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam). Some of them are from genre-hoppers and dilettantes (such as Karen Lord’s The Best Of All Possible Worlds and Susan Greenfield’s 2121) and many of them are part of the continued Young Adult boom, again young and old (such as Cassandra Clarke’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter and Malorie Blackman’s Noble Conflict – and yes, Baggott is back again too). And some of them represent the emergence of a new generation of female SF writers (such as Naomi Foyle’s Seoul Survivors and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice).
It is that last novel that has captured the imagination of a huge chunk of the SF commentariat. I can’t remember such enormous hype for a debut novel since Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan and, unlike in that case, most of it seems to be word of mouth. When it came through my letterbox, word hadn’t reached me yet and it didn’t seem particularly special: just another space opera novel. Sad to say, the only thing that made it stand out was the fact it had a woman’s name on the cover. In some ways, my first impressions were right – it is the sort of accessible core SF you would expect from a book with a John Scalzi quote on the front – but it’s not just a “well-crafted crowd pleaser”, as Gwyneth Jones explains in her barnstorming review of the novel over the page. Ancillary Justice seems sure to appear on award shortlists in 2014.
- Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Gwyneth Jones
- Throne Of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (Gollancz, 2012) and Alif The Unseen by G Willow Wilson (Corvus, 2012) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
- The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- The Green Man and The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (New York Review of Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- Benchmarks Continued, edited by David Langford and Greg Pickersgill (Ansible Editions, 2012) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America by John Cheng (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- Science Fiction by Mark Bould (Routledge, 2012) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
- Vurt and Pollen (Tor UK, 2013) by Jeff Noon – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Mindjammer by Sarah Newton (Mindjammer Press, 2012) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
- Down To The Bone by Justina Robson (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
- Starship Seasons by Eric Brown (Drugstore Indian Press, 2013) – Review by Ian Sales
- The Devil’s Nebula (Abaddon, 2012) and Helix Wars (Rebellion, 2012) by Eric Brown – Reviewed by Tony Jones
- The Mammoth Book Of Time Travel SF, edited by Mike Ashley (Robinson, 2013) and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins, 2013) – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
- Harvest Of Time by Alastair Reynolds (BBC Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
- 11.22.63 by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- The Fictional Man by Al Ewing (Solaris, 2013) – Review by Gary Dalkin
- Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot, 2012) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Across The Event Horizons by Mercurio D Rivera (Newcon Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
- After the End: Recent Apocalypses, edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
- Nebula Awards Showcase 2013, edited by Catherine Asaro (Pyr, 2013) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
- Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
- Magic: an Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane, edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris, 2012) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- Tales Of Majipoor by Robert Silverberg (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
- Savage City by Sophia McDougall (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Sharps by KJ Parker (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- Fade To Black by Francis Knight (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- The Heretic Land by Tim Lebbon (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente (Constable & Robinson, 2012) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
- The Devil’s Apprentice by Jan Siegel (Ravenstone, 2013) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- Rebellion by Lou Morgan (Solaris Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
- Angelfall by Susan Ee (Hodder, 2013) – Reviewed by Tony Jones
Like many people of my generation, any return to the parental home is accompanied not only by love and over-feeding but by entreaties to go into the loft and get rid of some of the crap up there. I am typing this having just returned from one such excursion where I was charmed to find a box my mother had labelled “Martin’s graphic booklets”. Thankfully, rather than self-published pornography, this contained a grab-bag of comics; random issues of Spiderman, Superman, Mask, Zoids and The Eagle that were testament to my erratic history as a child reader of the form.
The only comic I read consistently was “AD 2000″ (as another labelled box puts it) and I gave that up in the mid-Nineties. So reading the latest Judge Dredd collection, Day Of Chaos: The Fourth Faction, was an exercise both in nostalgia and time-slip. There he is on the cover: helmet and eagle, scowl and lawgiver. It is like turning on Eastenders to find that the Mitchell brothers still rule the roost. Unlike his rival for title of most significant figure in British science fiction, Mega City One’s judge, jury and executioner has never needed to regenerate. However, whilst I can think of few things worse than Dredd’s granite jaw being replaced by a floppy fringe, he could stand to move with the times a bit.
The Fourth Faction is written by his co-creator John Wagner and is a sort of sequel to The Apocalypse War, a cold war era story by Wagner and Alan Grant in which the dirty Sovs invade Mega City One only for Dredd to turn the tables on them by committing thermonuclear genocide against the motherland. Thirty years later, what is more striking than its lack of moral scruples is its obsolesce; the idea of Russian invasion seems quaint and even nuclear war is a dead nightmare.
The gist of the new story is that the fourth faction are Sov fifth columnists who have infiltrated the city bent on revenge. However, this is obscured by a load of old flannel about serial killers, some unintelligible internal politics and a tone that is every bit as redundant as the story line. This means heavy-handed satire on those opposed to gun control voiced by a character called Jerker McKnee; the use of obesity as joke with projectile vomiting as the punchline; corny puns and references like a tower block named after Ed Gein or a film poster featuring ‘Urb Karlan’.
This is a reference to the star of the 2012 film Dredd which both eradicated memories of the 1995 turkey starring Sylvester Stallone and showed that the iconic character was still relevant. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of this collection, something made starkly clear by its treatment of women. Early on, when a female judge goes on her own to investigate a suspicion, she is striped naked and tied up. The film cleverly subverted the possibility of sexual assault; here it is framed as titillation and it is sadly no surprise that later the main female character answers the phone in just her pants for no reason. With both this collection and Savage: The Guv’nor, reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont, highly respected 2000AD writers look backwards on several levels; the results are ugly and they won’t entice this reader back.
- Savage: The Guv’nor by Pat Mills and Patrick Godard (Titan Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
- Stone Spring, Bronze Summer and Iron Winter by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz, 2010, 2011 and 2012) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
- Adam Robots by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Dave M. Roberts
- The Soddit by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2003) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- Among Others by Jo Walton (Corsair, 2013) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
- Communion Town by Sam Thompson (HarperCollins, 2012) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett (NewCon Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- Solaris Rising 2, edited by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- Existence by David Brin (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2012) – Review by Gary Dalkin
- Redshirts by John Scalzi (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- The Curve Of The Earth by Simon Morden (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
- The Water Sign by CS Samulski (Booktrope, 2013) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
- Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies by Juliet E McKenna (Solaris, 2011, 2012) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
- The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by AP Canavan
- The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
- Hell Train by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2012) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
- Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch (Orion, 2012) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (Headline, 2011) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
- Railsea by China Miéville (Pan Macmillan, 2013) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- Dark Peak by JG Parker (Stonewood Press, 2012) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
- Sea Change by SM Wheeler (Tor, 2013) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon (Strange Chemistry, May 2013) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
- The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke (Angry Robot, 2013) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Tor UK, 2012) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
- Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele (Pyr, 2012) – Reviewed by Ian Sales
The winner of this year’s BSFA Review poll of reviewers was also my favourite science fiction of 2012: Empty Space by M John Harrison, the concluding volume of the Kelfuchi Tract trilogy. This truly remarkable novel is reviewed by Dan Hartland over the page: “The boldness of Empty Space, then, is in positing a physical source of the metaphorical, allegorical and symbolic currency of the literary novel. Like the Tract itself, the trilogy which bears its name permits two-way traffic: from the literary to the science fictional, Harrison carries artful prose and intense human sympathy; in the other direction, he drags substance and even rigour.” All three novels have been nominated for the BSFA Award and, if there is any justice, this will be Harrison’s year.
Then again, I wouldn’t bet against Jack Glass either. Adam Roberts is a bit of a marmite author: he is critically acclaimed and widely admired but his books have a tendency to rub people up the wrong way. I’m inclined to think that is a good thing but Jack Glass has undoubtedly proved less divisive than most of his work – in a forthcoming review, Dave Roberts describes it as his “most entertaining to date”. It has already appeared on the shortlist for the Kitschies (losing to Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist after a much-remarked upon absence for the last couple of years.
Our third place novel is also a BSFA Award nominee: 2313 by Kim Stanley Robinson. As you’d expect from a KSR novel, it is hugely ambitious but even Ian Sales, who chose it earlier in the magazine as his book of the year, notes: “The future Robinson describes is a work of art, though it’s a pity he couldn’t give us a plot to match.” It is for this reason that Gary Dalkin’s forthcoming review describes the novel as a “thudding bore” but Robinson remains well loved.
What both the BSFA Award shortlist and our top five lacked this year were any novels by women. This is at least partially a reflection of the membership’s preference for science fiction over fantasy and the lack of much of a pool to draw from given the parlous state of British SF publishing when it comes to women. Hopefully the arrival of Del Rey Books in the UK this year, bringing with them Kameron Hurley and EJ Swift, will improve this situation. Still, it is worth noting that only two women have won the award in its 43 year history.
Despite the impediment of being a female fantasy writer – and a children’s fantasy writer to boot – Frances Hardinge makes our sixth place. Hardinge is simply one of Britain’s best fantasy authors, I am very pleased to see her appear on this list and I can’t wait to read A Face Like Glass. In contrast, Railsea, a children’s fantasy by perennial awards-magnet China Mieville, seems to have found little favour anywhere (although his story ‘Three Moments Of An Explosion’ did make the BSFA Award shortlist).
Just behind her in seventh is Boneland by Alan Garner, “a summation of Garner’s understanding of the impulses that shape and drive us as human beings, reaching far back into the mythic past”, as Maureen Kincaid Speller put it earlier. This book completes the immensely influential children’s fantasy trilogy he began over fifty years ago with The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, testament to the rich history of British children’s literature. It remains remarkably fecund today: a new children’s genre imprint, Strange Chemistry, appeared in 2012 and Mark Connorton and Cherith Baldry review its four launch titles on page 42.
Garner shares the seventh spot with Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. It goes without saying that it also makes the BSFA Award shortlist – this is his ninth appearance. No one else writes anything like MacLeod and the membership have embraced him for that. The final novel on the shortlist, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, didn’t place – I voted for it, Chris.
Perhaps appropriately the final slot on our list is shared by two entirely different novels; one from the very heart of British science fiction (Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds) and one from the slippery fringes (Hawthorn And Child by Keith Ridgway). This is a reminder of the depth and richness of speculative fiction, as is the fact that in all 51 titles received votes. That’s a year’s worth of reading for me, although much less for some of you!
BSFA Review Poll
1) Empty Space by M John Harrison
2) Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
3) 2313 by Kim Stanley Robinson
4) Communion Town by Sam Thompson
5) Extreme Metaphors, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara
6) A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
=7) Boneland by Alan Garner
=7) Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
9) Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord
=10) Hawthorn And Child by Keith Ridgway
=10) Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds
- The Angel Of Revolution by George Griffith and The Purple Cloud by MP Shiel – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
- Empty Space by M John Harrison (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
- Osiris by EJ Swift (Night Shade Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
- Shift by Kim Curran and Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard (Strange Chemistry, 2012) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- Blackwood by Gwenda Bond and The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke (Strange Chemistry 2012) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- Dust by Joan Frances Turner (Penguin, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
- Timeless by Gail Carriger (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Staunton, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- The Devil’s Diadem by Sara Douglass (Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
- The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann 2012) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- Kultus by Richard Ford (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- The Ritual by Adam Nevill (Pan MacMillan, 2011) – Reviewed by Stephen Deas
- The Mall by SL Grey (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- The Greyfriar and The Rift Walker by Clay and Susan Griffith (Pyr, 2010, 2011) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
- To Indigo by Tanith Lee (Immanion Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
- Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord (Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- The Minority Council by Kate Griffin, (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- This Is The Quickest Way Down by Charles Christian (Proxima, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- Take No Prisoners by John Grant (Infinity Plus, 2011) – Reviewed by Tony Keen
- Mythanimus by Storm Constantine (Immanion Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
- Words Of Re-enchantment by Anthony Nanson (Awen, 2011) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham