2018 has been a good year for the offbeat in speculative fiction. In fact, one of my top books of the year was released as a mainstream literary novel, even though the speculative element is central and necessary: Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation has to contain imaginary pharmacology in order for the protagonist to black out for the lengths of time she considers desirable, without having real-life medical consequences come into play. Scabrous, vicious, so ironic it loops around into sincere, and obscurely soothing, the quest of its central character to sleep for an entire year creates the sort of book whose mood re-occurs in the mind like a repeating dream.
Equally as odd in a different set of directions, the Cuban author (and heavy metal musician) Yoss’s Condomnauts follows a man whose job is first contact with aliens, in a universe in which all first contacts between sentient species must begin with a sexual encounter. In some ways this plays as a fairly straightforward space opera full of baroque and quirky detail, in some ways as social commentary, and in some ways the entire book can be read as an extended dirty joke… which, luckily, pulls off the punchline.
It’s also been a good year for fiction released, or re-released, into English: the Chicago Review Press has continued their vital run of the works of Arkady & Boris Strugatsky with The Snail on the Slope, a novel with a tangled history in Russian, whose present English edition may as well be dealing with a different text than the original mid-seventies translation. The novel teeters on the edge of incomprehensibility, but also teems with interesting images and insider views of Soviet-style bureaucracy.
In addition, the University of Minnesota Press has published a glorious translation from the Japanese of Mariko Ohara’s seminal Hybrid Child, which won the Seiun (Japan’s highest SF honor) in 1991. A piece of feminist cyberpunk heavily influenced by both anime and Philip K. Dick, the book centers around an entity created to protect humanity from destructive, self-replicating robot aliens, and handles questions of AI sentience, free will, and ethical action completely differently than English-language SF was doing at the time, or, for that matter, is doing now.
Sequels can be a chancy bet, but Becky Chambers’s Record of a Spaceborn Few lives up to the preceding two books, using unexpected tragedies to study multiple families, ways of life, and ways of interacting with history in a gentle and multivalent glide from viewpoint to viewpoint that somehow never feels unfocused. Chambers’s habit of moving sideways in her universe, so that her books aren’t direct sequels to one another but are connected by, say, various characters being cousins, produces a marvelous parallax view of her alien-crowded galaxy.
Josiah Bancroft’s The Arm of the Sphinx piles yet more fascinating worldbuilding into his Books of Babel, as Thomas Senlin, the protagonist, now with airship and associated crew, climbs ever higher up the tower whose top has never been seen. The sheer diversity of cultures and ideas on display here could serve many writers for a much longer series, but the novel never feels overstuffed, and continues to deliver plenty of swashbuckling action amid its shattering plot revelations.
The Monster Baru Cormorant is, of course, the next logical step after Baru was so good at being a traitor last book, and Seth Dickinson continues an ice-cold, incisive saga of the pernicious effects of colonialism. There’s a great deal of black humor on display, as well as the ongoing questions of who Baru will hurt next, and why, and whether that tally will ever stop including herself at the top.
And Marina J. Lostetter’s Noumenon Infinity ably continues the deep-time generation-ship Big Idea-fest of Noumenon; here, the generation ship has to figure out what to do with the alien structure they’ve spent so long trying to get to and understand, and the answers are compelling as well as unpredictable.
In the more classic mode of stand-alone high fantasy, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver integrates Judaism into the subgenre in a way so thoroughly refreshing that it would be marvelous to read, even if the plotting weren’t tight and the characters enjoyable. This is the book where the protagonist has to use magic when kidnapped into fairyland so she can figure out when it’s Shabbat, and it’s also a pretty good reworking of Rumpelstiltskin.
Finally, reaching into graphica, Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam is a prettily illustrated tale of adolescent romance, derring-do, and spaceships shaped like fish, which also happens to be a feminist utopia quietly set in a single-sex universe. The stunning stellar landscapes and the genuine care the characters have for one another and for their world contribute to a stunningly emotional climax.
It’s been a great year for strange books, for rediscovered books, for books everyone has been hoping would be good; a year for broadening horizons and making room for new authors as well as for watching established ones really hit their stride. Let’s hope these trends continue into 2019.
This and more like it in the February 2019 issue of Locus.
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