Today’s science fiction, the cliche runs, is tomorrow’s science fact. Considering how SF tends towards the pessimistic, from cyberpunk’s urban cynicism in the 80s to today’s glut of post-apocalyptic dystopias, that’s a worrying thought. Still, we can’t ignore geopolitics, or the planet’s climate emergency. SF is the literature most attuned to contemporaneity’s harsh music and so remains the best predictor of our collective future.
In 2019, authors turned a clear eye on these dark possibilities. My pick for the book of the year, Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail (MCD x FSG Originals), is a before-and-after tale of near-future social collapse after a coordinated attack takes the internet down. It’s hard to believe it is a debut, so assured and evocative is Maughan’s writing. As a portrait of the fragility of our current status quo it is as thought-provoking as it is terrifying; you won’t ever take your wifi for granted again. Running it a close second is Vicki Jarrett’s Always North (Unsung), another before-and-after-the-disaster novel, about climate collapse. Protagonist Isobel is on an Arctic mapping expedition for an oil-surveying company when she encounters something strange: though there are echoes of Ballard and Joanna Russ here, Jarrett is very much her own writer, with a talent for extraordinary images.
If I say The Migration by Helen Marshall (Titan) is about a plague called Juvenile Idiopathic Immunodeficiency Syndrome, whose fatalities don’t stay dead, you might think it yet another zombie story. But this emotionally resonant, cleverly creepy novel has much to say about climate change.
Ben Smith’s Doggerland (4th Estate), another debut, is also set in a climate-collapsed near future. An old man and a boy inhabit a North Sea wind-turbine, no longer within sight of the shore. This vision of a flooded world possesses a pared-down, Beckettian plangency.
In Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers (Del Rey), a new plague sends crowds of people sleepwalking around the globe. This slow shuffle through a world coming to an end takes a while to build momentum, but by its conclusion the book parses societal and climate change via a satisfying SF twist. Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide (Head of Zeus) is set on Silicon Isle, a dumping ground for the world’s discarded computers and tech trash. There’s an old school cyberpunk quality to the book, and though its plotting is a touch choppy, it’s a compelling reflection on a world defined by its waste.
Post-apocalypse wasn’t the only flavour in 2019: in Claire North’s The Pursuit of William Abbey (Orbit) a witness to a racial murder becomes literally haunted by the crime, but in a way that grants him the ability to “see” the truth of people’s motivations. As ever with North’s work, it’s a clever and thought-provoking conceit. Arkady Martine’s excellent debut A Memory Called Empire (Tor) is proper space opera, with lots of hi-tech, juicy political intrigues spread across a baroque interplanetary empire. Charlie Jane Anders’s City in the Middle of the Night (Titan) has a classic Le Guinian vibe: culture clash and community on an unforgiving distant planet. Joe Abercrombie’s first volume in a new fantasy trilogy, A Little Hatred (Gollancz), gives us incipient industrialisation, a refugee crisis, violence, politics and magic, all handled with darkly funny aplomb.
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War (Jo Fletcher) is hard to categorise: we might call it an “epistolary time-travel spy love story”, but that doesn’t really convey the book’s poetic quality – it’s one of a kind. Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline (Orbit) is the sharply plotted story of a murder and the spiralling consequences of trying to undo it. Ted Chiang’s Exhalation (Picador) is only the short-story master’s second collection, while the connected tales of Lindsey Drager’s The Archive of Alternate Endings (Dzanc), each set roughly 75 years apart to coincide with the appearance of Halley’s Comet, are eloquent on the centrality of storytelling to who we are. Beginning with “Hansel and Gretel” as the prototype tale, the narrative spins forward into the future of space exploration, and the whole is quietly brilliant. The Rosewater Redemption (Orbit) brings Tade Thompson’s award-winning Nigerian alien-encounter trilogy to an end.
Some of 2019’s releases find magic in the darkness. The Starless Sea (Harvill Secker) by Erin Morgenstern features an ancient subterranean library whose books about pirates, spies and lovers bleed into reality. Booker-winner Marlon James’s venture into fantasy, Black Leopard Red Wolf(Hamish Hamilton), is a dense, multi-stranded novel about (among many other things) a mercenary searching for a lost child through a fantastical Africa: stylistically ambitious, full of arresting images, and crammed with the myriad ways humans can be ghastly to one another.