The Year in Review 2022 by Gary K. Wolfe

Gary K. Wolfe (2022)

As I write this, the Locus Recommended Reading list for 2022 is still being finalized, but I can already attest that, as in past years, it contains both too many books and stories, and not enough. Not enough, because there inev­itably worthwhile works that fell through the cracks despite our best efforts, and too many because anyone attempting even a sem­blance of a normal life would find it impos­sible to keep up with more than a fraction of what’s available. That’s a roundaboway of of­fering up my annual disclaimer that I also saw only a fraction of what I might have, and a reminder that books not seen are not neces­sarily books excluded. Most of the SFF books I read these days are new books for review, and the rest have to compete, as I assume they do for most readers, with old favorites I want to reread, books that other reviewers have convinced me I should check out, and the occasional mystery or mainstream or nonfiction title – not to mention the endless stream of passionate commentary that is my phone. Nor, for that matter, The New Yorker (yes, I’ve read The New Yorker ever since I was in college), whose readers this year were rather amazingly exposed to the imagination of R.A. Lafferty, thanks to Jonathan Lethem’s story “Narrowing Valley”. I count that as some sort of progress.

The main advantages of being a reviewer, and the main reasons I continue doing it far longer than seems prudent, are that (a) I get to work with delightful colleagues at Lo­cus, (b) I regularly get pleasantly surprised at books I might not otherwise have known about, and (c) I often get pleasantly not sur­prised by old favorites with new works that more than fulfill my expectations. A good example of (b) is what I regard as the most delightful surprise of the year, Kelly Barnhill’s When Women Were Dragons. It’s entirely my fault that I was unfamil­iar with Barnhill’s children’s and YA books, but this wildly inventive fan­tasy, set in an alternate 1950s during which thousands of women sponta­neously transformed into dragons, combines a genuinely moving femi­nist coming-of-age tale with fantasy premise bordering on the absurd, but which becomes increasingly central to the story. An equally good exam­ple of (c) is Guy Gavriel Kay’s All the Seas of the World, returning us to his alt-historical Europe in a deeply humane fantasy that is as moving on the character level as it is provoca­tive in its presentation of the unsung personal decisions that make up vast historical shifts.

Both of these are examples of what seemed an impressive revival of historical fantasy dur­ing 2022 (assuming that Barnhill’s version of the 1950s is far enough removed to count as historical). Another pleasant surprise was Kate Heartfield’s The Embroidered Book, imagining an 18th-century Habsburg Europe in which sorcerers and spellbooks compete with court politics to determine crucial mo­ments in the invention of modern history. Both Heartfield and Kay draw on the tradi­tional (and apparently limitless) capacity for European history to provide a springboard for fantasy, and sometimes that fantasy can pro­vide hilarious commentary on the processes, and occasional delusions, of such history. My favorite examples were two more novellas in K.J. Parker’s ongoing series of tales about the scoundrels and grifters who often turn out to be the secret masters of his demented ver­sion of early Renaissance Europe, The Long Game and Pulling the Wings Off Angels. The latter, one of Parker’s best so far, even added a theological dimension to his acerbic comedy, al­most as though Charles Williams had decided to start writing Monty Python sketches. Another favorite was Kelly Robson’s High Times in the Low Par­liament, in which a chaotically disor­ganized government in what looks like an alternate 18th-century London is overseen by some decidedly exasperated fairies.

But if European history is still a source for much fantasy and alternate history, it’s no longer the only one. Early in the year, we saw Marlon James’s Moon Witch, Spider King, the sequel (or more properly, parallel narra­tive) to his 2019 Black Leopard, Red Wolf, both set in an alternate medieval Africa. I liked it even better than the first novel, largely because the central figure, the Moon Witch Sogolon. Nghi Vo returned to her kingdom of Anh in Into the Riverlands, the third of her lushly written “Singing Hills” novellas in­spired by imperial Chinese history and clas­sic wuxia tales. Sarah Tolmie’s elegant All the Horses of Iceland features a Norse trader, but it’s hardly a Viking saga: much of the ac­tion takes place throughout Central Asia, all the way to Mongolia, as we follow him on a quest to bring back the legendary horses of the title. Similarly, Nicola Griffith’s Spear may draw on familiar material from Arthu­rian legend, particular the tale of Per­ceval, but its meticulously researched and gorgeously rendered 6th-century Wales and Griffith’s characteristically complex and intelligent characters pro­vide convincing evidence that these old tales are still ripe for reinvention in the hands of a master. It may be the fantasy of the year.

Even dusty corners of American his­tory, more often associated with nonfantastic genres, provided some vivid new settings. Nghi Vo, who seems to be dividing her time between her magical Asia (see above) and American celebrity culture, gave us The Si­ren Queen, which touches base with the classic 1930s Hollywood novel, but her tale of a young Chinese-American actress using various forms of folk magic to negotiate her way through a studio system dominated by dark forces is very much her own, touching upon themes of racism, exclusion, compro­mise, and survival. Robert Freeman Wexler’s The Silverberg Business, set in 1888 Texas, draws on elements of the Western and the private-eye yarn, but then twists them into a truly weird tale of transformations involv­ing ominous totems, crypto-aviation, and skull-faced poker players. For his part, Sam J. Miller channels elements of both boxing and gangster stories (not all that far apart to begin with) in Kid Wolf and Kraken Boy, set in a 1920s New York in which the fight game is, not surprisingly, controlled by the mob. The chief mobster is something of a surprise, and the tale – which involves magical tattoos and other bits of sorcery – eventually resolves into a heartfelt romance between the honest box­er and the struggling tattooist.

Speaking of heartfelt love stories, the one novel I read this year that struck closest to home, for a variety of reasons, was Emma Straub’s This Time Tomorrow, which appeared in May (the timing is significant). It con­cerns a 40-year-old New Yorker who wakes up one morning to find herself back in her 16-year-old body in 1996, reconnecting with her father in ways that only the insights of her older self make possible. I sort of consulted with Emma about the time travel aspect of the novel, and I am happy to report that she worked out some in­genious transformations of her own. But I also know that she’d written much of the novel during an extended hospitalization of her fa­ther, Peter Straub. It’s an unabashed love let­ter to an unabashedly great guy, and I’m de­lighted that he got to read it before his death during another hospitalization in September.

Other fantasies I enjoyed include a few follow-ups to favorites from past years. Alix E. Harrow’s A Mirror Mended is a worthy successor to A Spindle Splintered, this time taking on Snow White. Harrow deepens her own themes while continuing to extend her ingenious dual perspective on fairy tales, by having her characters rather acerbically cri­tique the very tales they are trapped inside. Similarly, Saad Z. Hossain’s Kundu Wakes Up returns us to the environmentally devas­tated and nanotech- and-AI drenched south Asia of earlier stories, but with a more coher­ent and linear plot and some intriguing new characters. Liz Williams continued her ongo­ing tale of the magic- and ghost-haunted but thoroughly ingratiating Fallow sisters with a third volume, Embertide, while R.B. Lem­berg returned us to their evocative, lyrical Birdverse with its first full-length novel, The Unbalancing, featuring a decidedly complex, conflicted, and neuroatypical central charac­ter with a truly distinctive and poetic narrative voice. N.K. Jemisin continued and concluded her fantasy love letter to New York with The World We Make, which ramps up a multi­verse theme and dials back the Lovecraft themes that seemed prominent in The City We Became, but retains its tone of tribute to the toughness and resourcefulness of New Yorkers – while offering a familiar-looking political demagogue as the chief human an­tagonist.

I should also mention some compelling fantasy settings I hadn’t seen before, like the magical Philadelphia of Stephanie Feldman’s Saturnalia, with its rival cults, dedicated to various ancient gods, celebrating the an­nual holiday debauch of the title. The me­ticulously developed setting borrows some notes from near-future postapocalyptic SF, as this Philadelphia is crowded with climate refugees. Naseem Jamnia’s distinctively titled The Bruising of Qilwa, which also is one of the two most interesting first novels I read this year (see below for the other), with its nonbinary healer as protagonist, its powerfully-developed themes of colonialism, marginalization, and oppression, and its sys­tems of blood magic worked out with such consistency that they begin to look like actual hematology. Since I don’t have much to say about horror fiction during the year – I saw hardly any – I’ll also men­tion the one example that sticks with me, M. Rickert’s Lucky Girl: How I Became a Horror Writer: A Krampus Tale, which despite its complex title is a tightly wound account of a small group of friends who gather for the holidays over a number of years, but each of whom has disturbing tales-within-a-tale that eventually get woven to­gether in elegantly classical form.

That other interesting first novel is also for my money the outstanding SF debut of the year, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea, which combines themes of corporate greed, environmental depredation, and personal re­sponsibility with a remarkably astute critique of both AI stories and first-contact tales – though the aliens in this case are already with us, in the form of octopuses. One of the most purely idea-driven SF novels I’ve seen in re­cent years, it also offers memorably ambiva­lent characters, both human and not. This, of course, leads us into SF, which I seem to have read less of than fantasy, though certainly not by intent. Still, there were some very memo­rable novels. Lavie Tidhar’s Neom, set in a fu­turistic city which is actually being built now (I even saw a TV ad for it during the World Cup), is also a continuation of his Central Station stories, which are both a homage to classic SF (as the names of his robots in this novel attest) and a thoroughly original vision of a tech-urban future with social problems that range from radical inequality to hazards of abandoned technology to terrorist artists. Another thoroughly original series – and one which largely forgoes the notion of a fully urbanized future in favor of a distinctive re­gionalism – is Christopher Rowe’s Athena War tales, which began appearing several years ago with “The Voluntary State” and “The Border State”. Rowe imagines a deeply transformed mid-South following a war with a rogue AI, and which we learn a good deal more about in These Prisoning Hills, which balances the moving tale of a battle-scarred veteran with her memories of the war itself and some nifty classic SF machinery, includ­ing spectacular giant battle robots.

Hazards of the Anthropocene were ex­plored in very different ways by two veteran British masters. Christopher Priest’s Expect Me Tomorrow splits its narrative between the tale of Victorian-era twins, one of whom becomes a glaciologist convinced of a com­ing Ice Age, and another set of near-future twins trying to survive a climate catastrophe that is already underway, devastating Eng­land and much of the world. In Paul J. McAu­ley’s Beyond the Burn Line, the Anthropo­cene era has long disappeared – as have humans – and the novel opens with a cozy, almost Victorian-style tale of a clerk trying to pursue his late master’s research against all odds. Who these characters turn out to be is something of a surprise, as is the entire sec­ond half of the novel.

Space opera, which arguably combines the choreography of fantasy with the at least nominal grounding of SF, contin­ued its latest revival with a number of titles (what do we call it this time? New-new Space Opera? Post-New Space Opera? Space Broadway Mu­sical?). I had a chance to review only a couple of them, but they represent two very different vectors. Aliette de Bodard’s space-pirate romance The Red Scholar’s Wake is one of the ma­jor works set in her ongoing Xuya Uni­verse, whose prehistory involves ascendant Vietnamese and Chinese cultures, and which represents one of the most convincing efforts to reclaim the subgenre from the all-white rocket boys of the 1930s. But de Bodard’s mindships, space battles, and evil empires still deliver those old thrills. So does the slam-bang universe of Charlie Jane Anders’s YA “Unstoppable” series, which saw its second volume with Dreams Bigger Than Heart­break. Not only do its young heroes, caught up in increasingly large-scale galactic wars, represent a variety of cultures, genders, and personality types, but each is finding agency – and in a few cases, love – while escaping not only from galactic threats, but from their outsider status back home.

Collections of short fiction are always fa­vorites, partly because they can fill so many different purposes – all of which were on dis­play last year. For one thing, they can intro­duce you to a writer almost unknown to you, but who turns out to have a brilliantly original voice – like Richard Butner, the highly re­spected director of the Sycamore Hill writing workshop, whose stories in The Adventur­ists – most original to the collection – range from ingenious timeslips and haunted hous­es to Kafkaesque corporations and surreal Playboy-era fantasias. Collections can also feel like catching up with old friends, either extensively as with Sam J. Miller’s Boys, Beasts, and Men, or in a kind of informal lit­erary parlor setting, as with the ongoing PM Press series of chapbooks, which this year featured fine contributions from Vandana Singh (Utopias of the Third Kind) and the al­ways surprising Eileen Gunn (Night Shift). Or they can be valuable career retrospectives, as with John Kessel’s The Dark Ride: The Best Short Fiction of John Kessel, which not only reminds us of his versatility, ranging from screwball comedy to literary homages involving everyone from Melville to Shelley and Austen, but which also shows off recent work, like the title story, a historical fantasia involving socialist movements, assassina­tions, and H.G. Wells. Another important compendium was the Library of America’s two-volume The Ray Bradbury Collection. The first volume, appearing in 2021, featured his best-known works like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, but the sec­ond volume, Ray Bradbury: The Illustrated Man, The October Country, Other Stories appeared late last year, reminding us of the versatility and often dark vision of his most iconic short stories.

I didn’t see a lot of original-fiction antholo­gies, and the two most important ones I re­viewed were both edited by my colleague, dear friend, and Locus editor Jonathan Strah­an, so take this as a disclaimer. But Someone in Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance is almost a textbook demonstration of why the time-shifting romance has long had such ap­peal both in and out of SFF, with outstanding stories by a broadly diverse group of writers, including what might be Catherynne M. Va­lente’s strongest piece of short fiction to date, “The Difference Between Love and Time”. Strahan’s Tomorrow’s Parties: Life in the Anthropocene, his contribution to the MIT Press’s ongoing “Twelve Tomor­rows” anthology series, may have been more modest in scope, but featured often grim but disturb­ingly credible scenarios of climate futures from authors as varied as Chen Qiufan, Tade Thompson, Sarah Gailey, and James Bradley.

Nor did I see a lot of non-fiction, although some of the field’s most distinguished critics offered significant work. John Clute’s Sticking to the End is the fifth of his collections of essays and reviews from the tiny Beccon Press, featuring not only many of his Strange Horizons reviews, but essays that extend his notion of fantastika and, unusually for Clute, lots of short pieces on SFF movies and TV shows. Mike Ash­ley’s The Rise of the Cyberzines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1991 to 2020: The History of the Science- Fiction Magazines Volume V brought his long-running and often magisterial history up to the present, focusing largely on online publications, though any history addressing currently active publications is leaving itself open to disagreements and occasional errors. On the more academic side, Brian Attebery’s Fantasy: How It Works con­sisted of essays not only on traditional favorites like Le Guin, but on much more contemporary work from Nike Sulway, Nnedi Okorafor, G. Willow Wilson, Aliette de Bodard, and others, and featuring an intriguing essay on intertextuality and what he calls the “mitochondrial theory of literature.” Darko Suvin, whose notion of cognitive estrangement remains one of the most commonly cited efforts at defining SF in terms of theory, produced a collection of 24 essays and interviews (edited by Hugh C. O’Connell), all dating from 2000 or later and covering everything from military SF to 1984 to our current fascination with dystopia, often considered from Suvin’s familiar Marx­ist perspective. Paul Kincaid’s Brian W. Al­diss, part of the University of Illinois Press’s “Modern Masters of Science Fiction” series, was among the most important single-author studies, arguing persuasively for Aldiss’s last­ing significance while acknowledging prob­lematical issues and late-career difficulties. Finally, David and Daniel Ritter’s lavish cof­fee-table volume The Visual History of Sci­ence Fiction Fandom: Volume Two: 1940, which followed their decade-long history of 1930s fandom with a volume that covered only a single year. Again, it’s packed with full-color reproductions of ancient fanzines, car­toons, even Wilson Tucker’s draft card, the whole largely focused on the 1940 Worldcon in Chicago. It was a reminder of the passion­ate, provincial, and proudly geeky roots of SF fandom, and, perhaps inadvertently, a mea­sure of how far we’ve come in terms of inclu­sion, diversity, and global reach. It’s not just a club anymore, but a nation. Maybe several nations.

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 review and more like it in the February 2023 issue of Locus.

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