2013 in Science/ Speculative Fiction

Top 5 Novels

I can’t pick an overall favourite because I loved them all for different reasons.

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992)
Despite the objections of her supervisor, Mr Dunworthy, a postgraduate history student called  Kivrin insists on travelling back in time to the fourteenth century. I don’t know how a Medievalist would respond to Willis’s depiction of the period, but not being a Medievalist myself I just enjoyed it as a great story about death which managed to be entertaining and profound at the same time.

Nancy Kress, Steal across the Sky (2009)
Aliens set up a base on the moon and state their intention to atone for a crime committed against humanity by their ancestors.  This is a lovely little novel which takes the question of belief in the afterlife as its starting point. If we could prove the existence of an afterlife, how would this knowledge change us and our world?  I enjoyed it enough to forgive the ‘dead gay best-friend’, even though that’s a trope I particularly loathe.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999)
More time-travelling historians in this charming, delightful, fluffy romance. I would definitely recommend reading Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) beforehand and you’ll have to leave your feminism at the front cover if you want to enjoy it fully.

Nicola Griffiths, Ammonite (1993)
But if you do want some feminist science fiction, look no further than Ammonite. A researcher travels to the mysterious planet called Jeep where a virus wiped out all the male colonists hundreds of years ago.  Somehow the remaining women have found a way to survive and reproduce. This is an intense and profound book about self-discovery.

Kage Baker, In the Garden of Iden (1997)
This is the first in Baker’s popular ‘Company’ series about cyborgs who are employed by a mysterious company to manipulate the past. It’s very funny and deadly serious at the same time.  I can’t wait to read the next one.

The Rest of the Novels 

China Mieville, The City & The City (2009)
This is not really science fiction, but it’s certainly not realism either; it’s sort of a speculative noir detective fiction! I really enjoyed it anyway.

Alastair Reynolds, Revelation Space (2000)
I found this a little slow, especially in the action scenes, but it was an interesting space opera and two out of three of the female characters were well done, so I expect I’ll read on with the series.

Arthur C Clarke. The City and the Stars (1956)
I thought this was worth reading for the imagination, but it wasn’t at all emotionally engaging.

Kevin J Anderson, The Saga of the Seven Suns, Book 1 (2002)
I read this because I was looking for something light to read before going to sleep and in that sense it didn’t disappoint. It’s just a fun space opera with lots of things blowing up and a vast array of characters, most of whom are probably going to be killed off.  Oh, but if any of you want to find out how NOT to write a young female character, check out Tasia Tamblyn *shudders*.

Re-reads – it was all about Ursula  Le Guin’s Hainish novels this year

Planet of Exile (1966)
You can really see Le Guin’s potential in this early novel about two species of humanoid trying to work together on a lonely planet where the seasons last for a generation.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
This is possibly my favourite book

The Telling (2000)
An envoy of the Ekumen tries to investigate a forbidden belief system on a rapidly modernizing world. This is a meditative novel with a well-written lesbian protagonist.

2. Novellas

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest (1976)
Le Guin addresses the Vietnam War. This one is not an easy read at all, but it’s very, very good.

Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain (1991)
Beggars in Spain won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards and I did find it a compelling read, but I also had a lot of problems with this novella which I’m still trying to figure out.

3. Single Author Collections

Best single-author collections

Greg Egan, Luminous (1998)
Egan is a new author to me and I absolutely loved these thoughtful, absorbing stories about science and the way it shapes us. A longer post is coming imminently.

Candas Jane Dorsey, Machine Sex and Other Stories (1988)
Dorsey is another wonderful new find. There are some gorgeous, evocative and moving stories in this collection. I can’t wait to read her novels.

The rest of the single-author collections 

Pat Cadigan, Patterns (1989)
I’ve never really managed to get into cyberpunk, but I like Cadigan’s stories about the relationship between humans and technology. Nice vampire story in ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ too.

Ursula K Le Guin, The Compass Rose and Other Stories (1982)
It breaks my heart to say it, but my beloved Ursula was responsible for my least favourite collection this year. I liked a handful of the stories, but I didn’t think the selection worked and it was all a bit messy, like reading the ‘B-Sides’. A couple were great though (see short stories below.

4. Anthologies

These Dozois collections are always high quality as far as I can tell – see the list of short stories for my favourites.

Gardner Dozois (ed), Best New SF7 (1993)

Gardner Dozois (ed), The Mammoth Book of SF 25 (2011)

5. The Short Stories

The Top 10 – by year of publication

Ursula Le Guin, ‘The Pathways of Desire‘ (1979)
I thought this was the best story in the collection The Compass Rose. A group of researchers study the people of a distant world. They find the alien culture strangely bland and repetitive, but all is not as it appears. What I liked about this story was the way it seemed kind of bog-standard at the beginning and then turned into something else entirely.

Greg Egan, ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ (1998)
A beautiful and humane story about a man’s recovery from the brain damage that caused him to lose the ability to experience happiness

Candas Jane Dorsey, ‘Willows’ (1988)
The cosmic wanderer comes home, albeit briefly. She doesn’t know it, but the future of the Earth is hanging in the balance.

Ian McLeod, ‘Grownups’ (1992)
This is a horrible, disturbing story, but I’m still thinking about it months later.

Ted Kosmatka, ‘N-Words’ (2008)
Somebody cloned Neanderthals.

Robert Charles Wilson, ‘Ultriusque Cosmi’ (2009)
The ambition here is stunning, a story that takes you from the destruction of Earth to the end of the Universe and beyond.

Karl Bunker, ‘Under the Shouting Sky’ (2009)
Apparently this story is written in the spirit of Robert Heinlem who I’ve never read. It’s great anyway.

Yoon Ha Lee, ‘Ghostweight’ (2011)
This is such an eerie story about a girl taking revenge with the help of a “ghost”

Alec Nevala-Lee, ‘The Boneless One’ (2011)
Any story that can make me feel this fucking terrified of an octopus has got to go on the list.

David Kletcha and Tobias S Buckell, ‘A Militant Peace’ (2011)
The corporate sponsored invasion of North Korea results in a story that has no easy answers

The Best of the rest – again by year of publication

Ursula Le Guin, ‘SQ’ (1978)
Everyone has to pass a mental health test. Excellent social satire from Le Guin here

Pat Cadigan, ‘Eenie, Meenie, Ipsateenie’ (1983) 
“Childhood is a time of unrelenting terror” says Cadigan in her introduction to this story. Slow-burning horror.

Nancy Kress, ‘The Mountain to Mohammed’ (1992)
In the future no one gets a decent job or access medical care life unless they can pass a genetic test. One doctor breaks the rules.

Kate Wilhelm, ‘Naming the Flowers’ (1992)
A man buys a little girl an ice-cream. His life is changed forever.  This story made me feel uncomfortable, but it’s quite brilliant.

Maureen F. McHugh, ‘Protection’ (1992)
A love story set in a dystopian future concentration camp. Utterly desolate

Kathe Koja, ‘By the Mirror of my Youth’ (1992)
A man orders up a clone to replace his ailing wife. The clone has her own ideas.

Greg Egan, ‘Cocoon’ (1998)
Why are terrorists targeting the lab used by scientists trying to develop a barrier to protect the foetus from disease in the womb? Are they trying to prevent something else from happening? This is the best LGBT-themed science fiction story I read this year.

Benjamin Rosenbaum, ‘Start the Clock’ (2004)
What if you never had to grow up? Would you create an eternal playground or would you choose to ‘start the clock’?

Michael Swanwick, ‘Triceratops Summer’ (2005)
This made the list partly because it’s the first story by Michael Swanwick that I’ve enjoyed. Also dinosaurs!

Alastair Reynolds, ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’ (2005)
Would you be able to cope if you woke up in the far distant future millions of light years from earth?

Daryl Gregory, ‘Second Person, Present Tense’ (2005)
A girl takes an overdose of a drug that creates a new personality in her old body. She and her old family find it difficult to adjust. This is a philosophical story about how we construct a sense of self.

Maureen F McHugh, ‘Useless Things’ (2009)
God, McHugh is good. Nothing really happens in this story about people trying to survive in an age of economic collapse and environmental disaster, but it’s absolutely compelling and has a tremendous sense of menace.

Elizabeth Bear, ‘Dolly’ (2011)
Could a man’s robot companion be responsible for his murder? Good feminist science fiction detective story.

Dave Hutchinson, ‘The Incredible Exploding Man’ (2011)
I loved this fresh take on the old ‘superhero created by a disaster’ story

Maureen F. McHugh, ‘After the Apocalypse’ (2011)
A woman and her daughter try to survive after the apocalypse of the title. This is a superbly nasty little story.

Robert Reed, ‘The Ants of Flanders’ (2011)
Vastly powerful aliens decide to use a small planet in an uninteresting part of the galaxy as a battleground. The local “bags of water” object, but what can they do? Not much really.

Chris Lawson, ‘Canterbury Hollow’ (2011)
Two young people on an overcrowded planet find themselves “balloted”. They spend their last few weeks together. If you don’t cry at the end, I have no time for you.

Carolyn Ives Gilman, ‘The Ice Owl’ (2011)
A girl and her rather feckless mother live on a colony world dominated by religious fundamentalists. She meets a man who might or might not be a war criminal. The bit about the Ice Owl of the title is unforgettable and still makes me shudder with horror.

6. The Films

Top Film

Gravity (2013)
A woman’s psychological and spiritual journey is facilitated by a disaster in space. I loved it.

And the Rest

The Invisible Man (1933)
The acting and script don’t quite live up to the groundbreaking special effects, but Claude Raines is memorable.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
This is a far more chilling and serious film than I expected, with a pervasive sense of despair about human nature.  Wonderful performance from Michael Rennie as the visitor from outer space.

Gattaca (1997)
Interesting, cerebral film looking at the direction genetic engineering might take. Ultimately disappointing, though, and doesn’t go anywhere with the issues it raises beyond saying that the situation kind of sucks.

Dark City (1998)
This is imaginatively very striking, but the leads are horribly miscast. Richard O’ Brien just about holds things together.

Minority Report (2002)
A heavy, humourless film, but it’s an interesting story and has a great turn from Samantha Morton.

Pandorum (2009)
This is an enjoyable if unnambitious little science fiction horror film based on a similar theme to the more superior Cargo.

Cargo (2010)
Slow and possibly overlong, but I liked Cargo. It was full of ideas and had a decent enough female protagonist to keep me interested.

X-Men First Class (2011)
I enjoyed this more than the other X-Men films, but what were they thinking casting James McEvoy against Michael Fassbinder? He didn’t have a chance. And I’m not sure what the implication that Magneto was right all along does to the overall story.

Looper (2012)
Everyone else hated this. I quite enjoyed it. Sorry.

Oblivion (2012)
I brought no expectations to this film and quite liked it. It takes itself too seriously though.

Frankenweenie (2012)
Cried all the way through it. Wonderful.

4 thoughts on “2013 in Science/ Speculative Fiction

    • I saw a lot of people saying they hated it on twitter. This may be because I follow a lot of feminists and they had problems with the film’s gender politics.

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