Adam Roberts, in typical overachieving fashion, managed to read enough books to populate a full and complete shortlist.
No Kitschies were awarded last year. 2016 was a Kitschless year—for one year only it was Nitch on the Kitsch. Which was a shame, since 2016 saw a wealth of (to quote the Kitschies’ remit) ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining works containing elements of the speculative or fantastic’. So, [*clears throat*] in my capacity a former judge, I thought I’d post some speculative short-lists for the year the prize didn’t happen.
A disclaimer is needful: I didn’t do last year, what I did in my judging year—that is, read a metric tonne of hard-copy and e-books, the better to be able to narrow down our shortlists. But I read a fair few and some of the books I read were really excellent. So here, for the sake of argument (and please: argue with what I list here) are my Phantom Kitschies shortlists for 2016.
Red Tentacle for the best novel
Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a brilliant jolt of a read, a book happy to inhabit blockbuster conventions in order to suborn them to some powerfully subversive ends. Teenage girls across the world suddenly discover they have the ability electrically to shock others—to burn them, cause them intense pain, even to kill them. The narrative rattles through the immediate implications of this: girls taking revenge on violent or raping men, girls simply being mean, girls collectively coming to a sense of their new power. But the strength of the novel is the way it follows-through its premise, into a world in which men are segregated for their own protection and women, for good and ill and with quite an emphasis on the latter, take control. I particularly liked the way this new society retcons its sense of the world—it becomes seen as ‘natural’ and a product of ‘evolutionary psychology’ for women to be aggressive and violent, since they have babies to protect; if men ever ruled the world their patriarchy would be nurturing and gentle. It’s a raw novel, more than a little jagged—though that also suits its theme—but sparky and engaging throughout. A lightning bolt of a read.
Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter is the third of his ‘fractured Europe’ novels, set in bivalve European set-up—one a tessellation of myriad tiny statelets and ruritaniae, the other, ‘The Community’ a calm but stifling version of 1950s Britain rolled out across the whole continent. The two versions of European reality are linked via a complex of strange portals. Each of the Europe books has a subtly different emphasis and tone, although all provide the pleasures of alt-spy adventures, a cosmopolitan richness of interlocking storylines and slowly unfurling mystery; but arguably this is the best of the three, from its bang-bang opening act of intercontinental railway terrorism through to its big finale. A modern classic.
Lavie Tidhar’s sprawling masterpiece Central Station, set in a future spaceport Tel Aviv, is easily his best book yet (and that’s saying something). What I particularly loved about this is the way it manages to be both gloriously old-fashioned in its SF—an actual fix-up novel set in a space-port in which a colourful variety of humans robots and aliens intermingle—and a distinctively twenty-first century novel about the complex but sustaining inter-relationship between culture and place and memory and technology and change. Most of all it’s about the centrality of stories to who we are, and about the way those stories are always collective and heterogeneous. It’s a marvel.
Christopher Priest’s The Gradual works a simple-enough sciencefictional version of time-zone differences into a haunting exploration of travel, aging and loss. Set like many of Priest’s best novels in his ‘Dream Archipelago’ of endless islands, it is the first-person narrative of composer Sandro Sussken, a citizen of the Glaund Republic on the Northern mainland (a downbeat, authoritarian society locked in an Orwellian permanent war with the Faianland Alliance). The success of his music means that, unlike most Glaundians, Sussken gets to travel from island to island, but in doing so he discovers the titular ‘gradual’, a kind of complex time-slip, or time-stall, that dislocates him from his origins, his family and in the end from the world as a whole. Priest uses his speculative conceit brilliantly to explore what it means to age. It makes me think how rarely the old figure, and how much more they ought to, in progressive narratives of equality and diversity.
Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories is a remarkable epic Fantasy, the follow-up to her debut A Stranger in Olondria (2013) and an even stronger novel. It gives us many of the satisfactions of this over-populated mode, as four women—an aristocrat, a military officer, a priestess and a nomadic poet—are caught up in the events leading to an empire-shaking war. But Samatar has the confidence, and the skill, to downplay the conventional satisfactions of narrative. The result is a gorgeous labyrinth of a text that circles through the permutations of its characters, plot, and the history of her world, richly written and formally involuted.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad deploys its fantastical conceit—the literalisation of the celebrated 19th-century US ‘railroad’ along which slaves would try to pass to freedom as a network of actual excavated tunnels, railways and stations—with commendable restraint. He is not interested in the worldbuilding mechanics of his idea so much as in the imaginative freedom it gives him to send his heroine, Cora, on a journey encompassing the different violences slavery has manifested over the centuries. It is a novel that renders slave society as vividly and memorably brutal without, at any point, reverting to the pieties of hindsight or historical cliché. An unforgettable piece of fiction.
Golden Tentacle for best debut novel
Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit recasts Korean legend in a densely rendered high-tech future universe governed by ‘calendars’, sort-of computer programmes that determine the nature of reality itself. It’s a book that boldly drops its reader into its properly futuristic and alien cosmos—an interstellar empire called the Hexarchate in which six factions each with unique skills are competing for power. Though it might put some readers off, the advantage of this approach is that when the book clicks fully into focus it does so with kaleidoscopic brilliance and coherence. The game theory and maths, all the politics and military tactics, neatly offset some nicely written central relationships.
David Means’s Hystopia is a brilliant, baffling and expertly fractured novel set in an alt-1970s America in which Kennedy wasn’t assassinated, and Vietnam veterans are being treated for PTSD with psychedelics. It is steeped in the flavour of its era, and manages to be simultaneously weirdly familiar and intensely strange—quite the combo, that. I have to concede it’s a little distorting describing this as a ‘first novel’ (even though that’s what it is) because Means has been honing his craft writing short stories for decades. The technical skill shows: Means’s multi-viewpoint and deracinated approach could easily have slid into mere messiness; but though the novel is often violent it is also potent and, in its way, coherent.
Wyl Menmuir’s superbly eerie The Many is, though short, a tricky book to summarise. Suffice to say that as an exercise in unnerving the reader, this cryptic, powerful novella is remarkable. Its seemingly simple plot, about a young man coming to a Cornish seaside village to live in an abandoned cottage whose previous owner had drowned, invokes a sort-of ghost story, or perhaps hallucination, or perhaps dreamtime, to render its poisoned near-future world more obliquely vivid that any straightforward account ever could.
Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear wonderfully resuscitates a form—magic realism—I had thought dead and buried. A famous Brazilian writer, Beatriz Yagoda, up to her neck in gambling debt, goes missing; her American translator Emma flies down to South America to try and make sense of things. The characters she meets are colourful and varied (indeed, perhaps, their colourful variety is a little by rote), and the tone is lightly comic, but as the story goes on it becomes stranger and more beautiful, and Novey’s background as a lyric poet increasingly comes to dominate the telling. A short novel that leaves rich and strange residue in the imagination.
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning boldly mashes together eighteenth-century manners and 25th-century adventure in a post-scarcity utopia where which gender-distinctions are taboo and large-scale affinity-groups are carefully manipulated and managed by behind-the-scenes forces to maintain broader social balance. Readers are liable to find the richly mannered idiom in which Palmer tells her story either beguiling—as I did—or, perhaps, archly offputting. But it is worth persevering with the narrative: there’s a piercing political intelligence at work here, of the sort that would surely have delighted the Enlightenment philosophes that inspired it. Intricately worked, and, I’m pleased to say, the first of a very promising series.
Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges is set in a modern day South Africa still under the sway of Apartheid, and expertly uses this alt-historical premise to estrange and refresh the way racism violates social and human contexts, without abandoning the possibility of bridging this chasm. Sibusiso Mchunu, traumatised by seeing his friend killed at a demonstration, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital where White doctor Martin test him on his new invented, an ‘empathy machine’. The potential of this device, and its dangers, power a compact but very effective thriller. A thought-provoking and promising debut.