Looking Backward, with Corrective Lenses by Gary K. Wolfe

Gary K. Wolfe (2019) Photo by Francesca Myman

I confess to once having been one of those annoying calendar geeks who would point out at parties that the new century actually began in 2001, not 2000, and that a year like 2010 or 2020 actually represents the end of the decade, not the beginning of a new one. It was about as useful, and about as welcome, as pointing out to someone turning 40 that it’s actually the end of their fourth decade – the sort of thing that doesn’t make anyone feel any better, and likely gets a question mark penciled in after your name on the Evite lists. I am pleased to report that I no longer care, and that as far as I’m concerned, the year 2020 is just fine for reflecting a bit on the changes the field has seen during the past decade. Don’t panic; I’m not about to start reciting ten years’ worth of favorite books, but I do have a secondary motive. By my count, this is the 28th time I’ve written these wrap-up columns trying to identify trends and movements in the previous year, and I’d guess in at least a third of them I’ve made the same complaint: namely, that a single calendar year is a pretty arbitrary measure of how change occurs, and a pretty narrow window.

So I decided to try an experiment. I looked back at the books I reviewed in 2009 to see if there were significant differences from the kinds of books I re­viewed in 2019. Some things looked pretty familiar: there was an active interchange going on back then between genre and “literary” or historical fiction, there were experiments in what we were then call­ing New Space Opera, and there were, as always, promising revisionist new fantasy series. Many of the novels from that year, such as China Mieville’s The City & The City or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl, still hold up as pretty innovative today. For short fiction, print still seemed fairly dominant, but with online venues rapidly gaining.

Then I asked a different question: who were we reviewing a decade ago, or at least who was I review­ing? The past couple of years has seen a lot of heated discussion about privilege and genre, in the last few months much of it centered around Jeanette Ng’s Campbell acceptance speech which characterized the legacy of Campbell as “Sterile. Male. White. Exalt­ing in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.” I’d never really counted up how many white males I’ve reviewed compared to other groups, but maybe it’s worth paying attention to. So I totted up some numbers. In both 2009 and 2019, I reviewed about 50 books for Locus, and this is what I found: in 2009, some 86% of those books were written or edited by white males, 12% by women, and about 2% by people of color.

In 2019, the figures looked like this: 28% white males, 48% women, 27% people of color. This was not the result of any plan on my part, or of any policy shift that I’m aware of at Locus (although editorial interests do change over time). No one suddenly got woke. We did make an effort to cover more interna­tional SF this past year, but neither my predilections nor those of Locus‘s editors would be quite enough to account for this fairly dramatic shift. The point is that those books had to be available: they had to have gotten written, published, promoted, and review copies sent out, with some of those making their way into my hands. Between what Locus sends along, what arrives directly from publishers, and what I just buy, I can review far less than half the books that pile up, and there are many excellent books that I don’t see at all, or at least not in time to cover them. So, sure, there’s some selectivity going on. But it would have taken a pretty concerted, and pretty cynical, effort in 2019 to get back to anything like those 2009 figures. It’s not just Locus: in 2009, 15 of the 20 Hugo nominations for fiction were by white males; in 2019, it was just one out of 24 (congrats, Daryl Gregory!).

It’s possible – in fact evident – that some folks feel left behind by these changes, but as I mentioned earlier, the forms of SF and fantasy haven’t changed all that much. There are still alien invasion stories, but they might take place mostly in Nigeria, as in Tade Thompson’s excellent Rosewater trilogy. There are still tales of pissed-off gods on road trips, but this time they might be traveling through 1920s Mexico, as in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s delightful Gods of Jade and Shadow. There are still interplanetary war stories, but some might be sharply critical of the past assumptions of that subgenre, like Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. There are still grim, regressive dystopias, and some of them are still by Margaret Atwood, whose Booker-winning The Testaments was, like the movie sequel to Downton Ab­bey, thoroughly rewarding to fans of the original and just as unnecessary. The issue isn’t who gets a seat at the table, but just that there are a lot more tables.

Of the SF novels I reviewed, a few remain particu­larly vivid in memory, and seem likely to show up on award nomination lists. Several made use of some very familiar SF conceits. Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night appeared toward the beginning of the year, and featured what remains one of the most fascinating settings: a tidelocked colony planet which evokes some classic SF about Mercury, with its boil-or-freeze landscapes and narrow survivability zone, but the novel succeeds because of Anders’s thoughtfully worked-out portrait of what sort of society might evolve there, her ap­pealing characters, and some enigmatic but smartly imagined aliens. The aliens in Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy, which concluded with Rosewater Insurrection and Rosewater Redemption, were equally interesting in an invasion-of-Earth scenario, but the humans surviving in a transformed, information-drenched environment and the Nigerian setting are what really set the novels apart from SF tradition. Speaking of trilogies, the award for most rewarding-but-badly-overdue conclusion was Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother, the third of his sharp-eyed, acerbic, and thoroughly original negotiations between SF, fantasy, and consumer-culture satire that began 25 years earlier with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. The most striking environmental novel was Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, skillfully trans­lated by Ken Liu, which for all its immediacy and grimness ended up weirdly entertaining. There is also a sense of slow-apocalypse immediacy to the setting of Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day, but what really distinguished the novel was its focus on the possible future of the performing arts – a significant addition to SF’s too-small shelf of novels concerning art. Helen Marshall’s debut The Migration combined a realistic climate-change scenario with what seemed to be a sort of zombie tale, but ended up more as a Ballardian vision of transformation. The most enjoyable emergent-AI novel I read was also the best YA (though I only saw a handful in 2019): Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet featured as appealing a cast of youthful outsiders I’ve seen in some time, while the voice of the AI was equally well thought-out. Equally thoughtful and provocative was Neal Stephenson’s minutely detailed account of what it might be like to experience uploading in Fall, although three or four other novels ended up jostling for space in that rather unwieldy amalgam.

Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Time­line drew on traditions of time travel and alternate history, but the mechanism of time travel – some sort of ancient, resonant geological formations – was a thoroughly original contribution to this tradition, while Newitz’s well-researched portrayals of 1990s southern California and 1890s Chicago provide fascinating backgrounds for a cast of complex and sometimes brittle characters. The idea of a battle to control historical timelines seemed to be trending in 2019, with Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War casting it in the unlikely but appealing form of an epistolary romance and Alix E. Harrow developing it as one of several interlocking themes in The Ten Thousand Doors of January. But Harrow’s novel, which impressed me as the most outstanding first fantasy novel I read in 2019, is equally an almost joyful celebration of the power of story, despite its grim Dickensian moments and its classically nefarious villain. Other novels that celebrated the power of stories included the always-intelligent Lisa Gold­stein’s Ivory Apples, with its reclusive writer of a beloved fantasy coming to terms with the power of her creation, and Nina Allan’s characteristically metafictional The Dollmaker, a quirky not-quite-fantasy of obsession which incorporates several fairytale like stories beloved by both of the protago­nists. One of the most overlooked debut novels of the year was Trapped in the R.A.W., A Journal of My Experiences during the Great Invasion by Kaylee Bearovna, Kate Boyes’s awkwardly titled alien invasion story, which is really a celebration of libraries and tales as much as an apocalyptic dystopia. Elizabeth Hand’s Curious Toys, set in a convincingly rendered 1915 Chicago, isn’t fantasy at all, but features provocative speculation about the origins of one of the great obsessive fantasy epics of outsider art, Henry Darger’s massive illustrated tale of vast wars drawn from his personal mythology.

Hand, Newitz, and Harrow aren’t the only ones to make use of historical settings. The old dance between SF/F and historical fiction (all are versions of speculative fiction, aren’t they?) was as lively as ever in 2019. Jo Walton continued her philosophi­cal explorations of European history with Lent, a novel of Savanarola that eventually turns into an impressive tale of alternate timelines as they might have been imagined in the early Re­naissance. Sarah Tolmie’s The Little Animals is nearly a straight historical novel about Leeuwenhoek and his microscopic discoveries, except for the present of a magical goose girl – but as much of the wonder derives from Tolmie’s reconstruction of what sci­ence must have felt like in the age of discovery. On the fantasy side of the ledger, the gold standard for imagi­natively reinventing the past remains Guy Gavriel Kay, whose A Brightness Long Ago returned us to his version of Renaissance Italy with a rich cast of characters who remind us again how history is shaped by individual choices made by all of us. Zen Cho returned us to her magical feminist version of Regency England in The True Queen, the second volume in her Sorcerer to the Crown series, while both Walter Jon Williams in Quillifer the Knight and Joe Abercrombie in A Little Hatred revisited their own versions of faux-European history in novels which challenged the sometimes static worlds of fantasy by introducing seismic technological and social shifts to their worlds. Along with K.J. Parker, in his novella My Beautiful Life, they reminded us once again that history is made of rascals, but rascals that can do real damage.

No longer is all historical fantasy preoccupied with dominant European culture, however. One of the year’s most ambitious literary fantasies was Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, set in a violent, sexy medieval Africa that drew more on Yoruba tradition than traditional colonialist ap­proaches. G. Willow Wilson’s powerful second novel The Bird King, set in the waning days of Muslim Spain, counted among its sources the 12th-century Persian poem “The Conference of the Birds”, and offered a radically different perspective on this part of European history while maintaining a fast-moving pursuit-and-escape adventure. The House of Sun­dering Flames, the final volume of Aliette de Bo­dard’s lushly imagined series set in a ruined alternate Paris populated by cranky fallen angels, continued to draw upon Vietnamese history as a crucial subtext of the main narrative. The Deep, Rivers Solomon’s fantasia of an underwater utopia, based on a song by Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes, took as its starting point the African slave trade. Slavery was also the topic of another novel widely, and deservedly, praised by mainstream readers: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer, which added a bold fantasy twist to the his­tory of the Underground Railway and Harriet Tubman. The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, Saad Z. Hossain’s inventive novella mixing nanotech and djinn mythology, is set in a futuristic Kathmandu hilariously disrupted by the ancient Lord and his Nepalese sidekick.

2019 seemed a strong year for collections, of which the most celebrated was Ted Chiang’s much-anticipated second collection, Exhalation, which de­servedly showed up on several general-fiction year’s best lists. In addition to stories that already seem classics, like “Exhalation” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, it featured two new stories, each of which demonstrated a characteristic Chiang technique. “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”, the more impressive of the two, imagined a new technology and then traced its social, psychologi­cal, and even commercial ramifications in far more detail than most of us would have thought of, while “Omphalos” was yet another experiment in building a story-world from an archaic or eccentric cosmol­ogy, in this case the notion that the world is only a few thousand years old. Other collections that drew attention from the general-fiction crowd were John Crowley’s And Go Like This, his first in 15 years, which included some of Crowley’s elegant fantastic and nonfantastic recent tales, as well as a new one, “Anosognosia”, which is a stunning example of his deeply personal deployment of fantasy ideas (Crowley also had one of the year’s major nonfiction titles in Reading Backwards: Essays & Reviews, 2005-2018); and Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World: Stories. Evenson’s ap­proach to genre materials is about as idiosyncratic as Crowley’s (if in a radically different way), and his obsessive characters and bleak landscapes might lead in the direction of SF, horror, or surreal fantasy, but seldom resolve into anything so simple. The year also saw impressive first story collections from Kameron Hurley and Sarah Pinsker (who had a terrific year with a first novel and a first collection), solid collections from the always underappreciated Gwyneth Jones and Susan Palwick, and important retrospective collections including the massive The Best of Greg Egan, which reminded us just how profound Egan’s influence has been over the past three decades, and the inimitable Caitlín R. Kier­nan’s The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan. A few smaller chapbook-size collections included the very short prose-poem-like pieces by Margo Lanagan as­sembled in Stray Bats, while PM Press continued its very useful “Outspoken Authors” series with volumes from Paul Park and Nisi Shawl.

In retrospect, I’m surprised at how few antholo­gies I had a chance to review, although a couple seemed especially ambitious. Despite its almost generic story-prompt (essentially, “do something with a myth”), Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe’s The Mythic Dream contained a higher proportion of first-rate stories than either of their two previous anthologies from Saga Press, while Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams’s A Peoples Future of the United States offered multiple assessments of Amer­ica’s future from more or less populist perspectives, with many of them turning out a bit darker than the title might have implied. Both of these anthologies made laudable efforts to include new perspectives from underrepresented groups, and that leads me to what was my most exciting discovery adventure of 2019 – learning more about the SF from Korea, China, and South Asia. We’ve gained some familiarity with Chi­nese SF thanks largely to Ken Liu’s efforts over the last decade or so, but his Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation was fascinating precisely because it wasnt designed as a representative or historical anthology, but simply Liu’s choices of some of the most interesting tales from the last decade or two, including some haunting pieces by Baoshu, Cixin Liu, Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, and others. Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction, edited by Sunyoung Park & Sang Joon Park, included a couple of older novel excerpts to provide historical context and generally did aim to represent an SF tradition with few names familiar to English-language readers, although the stories by Kim Changgyu, Pak Min-gyu, Jeong Soyeon, Djuna, and Kim Jung-hyuk wouldn’t be out of place in any contemporary SF anthology. The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, edited by Tarun K. Saint, included only stories from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, again with few names likely to be familiar to Western readers other than Vandana Singh (whose story is, not surprisingly, among the best in the collection) and Mimi Mondal. All three anthologies remind us that not all cultures have exactly the same problems or the same histories of colonialism, and that in some parts of the world, issues like pollution, population pressure, gender equity, class oppression, and global warming aren’t really SF themes at all. Each anthol­ogy also includes useful essays to provide cultural and historical context for English-language readers.

As usual, I should end with my disclaimer that some of the year’s most lauded books – Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, Elizabeth Bear’s An­cestral Night, Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower, Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail, Theodora Goss’s The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Jonathan Strahan’s Mission Critical, and many others – are still in the to-be-read pile. In general, 2019 was a solid if not spectacular year for the field, with many established writers continuing what they do well and some important new voices emerging, with a sense of steady evolution rather than game-changing revolution. That, however, comes from looking at the year in its immediate context. If, as I did back at the start of this essay, we look at 2019 in the context of 2009, maybe it almost does begin to look like a revolution.

Of course, a year which saw the deaths of Gene Wolfe, Betty Ballantine, Vonda N. McIntyre, Gahan Wilson, Michael Blumlein, Katherine MacLean, Barry Hughart, Dennis Etchison, Carol Emshwiller, and many others, has to be remembered in terms of losses as well as gains. If any of the emerging writers whose voices seem so distinctive manage to forge careers even half as impressive as those folks, the field is in good hands for some time to come.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.

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