Blackwell’s review: Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers

This review was written by Lat Lea, a Blackwell’s bookseller in Oxford

Record of a Space Born Few – This novel by Becky Chambers is the third of three novels (the first is the Kitschies Golden Tentacle-shortlisted A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and the second is A Closed and Common Orbit)  set in the future, in a fictional universe  that Chambers calls the “Galactic Commons”, i.e. our galaxy and the name of the vast alliance that loosely governs the known intell1gent species in the galaxy.  There are 10 of those, including human beings. Most are technically more advanced, more populous and more powerful than humans.   These other species are a range of physical types, roughly corresponding to various “lower” species on earth, molluscs, crustaceans, insects, birds, apes and so on.   The history of the Solar System is gradually gleaned from the three novels:  as the ecology on Earth declined, wealthy people colonized Mars and partly terra-formed it, whereas those remaining on the home planet eventually built a fleet of spaceships, the Exodus Fleet, and set forth for parts unknown.   At the beginning of the series, humans have been accepted into the Galactic Commons and are gradually spreading out into the galaxy, integrating themselves into the diverse worlds and societies that comprise the “Commons”.

Becky Chambers is astonishingly inventive and more than any other science fiction novelist that I have read, she manages to address the physical, cultural and social implications of her universe.  Plus she has written three novels with quite different plots and themes that nevertheless develop her main idea:  what it means to be tolerant and coexist with other species.  All that could be read as a blue print for future co-existence and tolerance of different races and religions in our current situation.  She considers the technical challenges of communicating across species as well as cultural challenges and she even considers the implications of inter-species sex and love.  That can be seen as an analogy to contemporary concerns about non-gendered sexuality and LBGT issues.  (One glib reviewer called the first novel “science fiction for the Tindr generation”.)   On top of that, one of the other themes is whether AIs are human. In the GC (although they are illegal) it’s possible for an AI to obtain a body.   Can one love an AI especially after it’s in a body, and what is its gender?  

In addition, Becky Chambers explains plausibly and in practical terms a range of technical and scientific questions that any future technology will have addressed.   There are many invented basic technologies, “dent bots” as well as more complex ones, e.g. various forms of interstellar travel and types of spaceships.   All of these are carefully thought through.  Thank goodness:  no fantasy mumbo jumbo in these novels.

This particular novel is set on one ship in the Exodus fleet and is probably the most domestic novel of the three.  It opens with a large explosion on one of the ships in the fleet and then describes the period leading up to the explosion. There’s a family, mother, Tessa, mostly off-ship father, George two boys and small girl. Plus, grandad AKA Pop.  The eldest boy, Kip, is on the cusp of adolescence and accordingly rebellious.  He’s unsure of his future, like anyone his age, but also because the “traditional” society of the Exodus fleet is no longer the only option available to people on the fleet.  They can leave and the fleet is no longer going anywhere; it’s a habitat in space circling around.   Another character, Eyas, is a caretaker, who manages funerals and the disposal of dead bodies, a significant issue on a spaceship.  Plus, there’s Isabel, an elderly archivist on board the ship who is tasked with hosting a Harmagian scholar (a slug like species) who is researching life on the Exodus fleet as a sociologist or anthropologist.  There is also Sawyer, a young man trapped in a dead-end job on a multi-cultural planet who tries to join the fleet, because his family came from it a generation previously, and he believes it will offer him a better, more complete life.

Thus, Record of a Sapce Born Few is about a range of characters, grappling with family life, job responsibilities, aging, living in the same space for generation in a static society, ambition, education and how best to live a good life.  It’s a gentle novel, but then, all three novels are suffused with kindness and sensitivity.

Read it for those qualities but also for the exceptional imagination of Becky Chambers, who uses her Galactic Commons to create an intensely plausible but different future.

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Blackwell’s cover review: “The Book of Joan” by Lidia Yuknavitch


This book was reviewed (for the Inky Tentacle) by Blackwell’s bookseller Aleida Gómez de Caso in Oxford

When I first saw The Book of Joan in the shop I had to pick it up. It was by the till, marked as a recommendation by a fellow bookseller, who pointed out that I was not the only buyer struck by the cover. They say ¨you should never judge a book by its cover,¨ but this one is not just a stunning piece of art, it also represents the book well.

The actual Book of Joan in this book is written on human flesh, the last expression of the self that humans can resort to in this dystopian future where the story is set. After abusing the planet and its resources, humans find the Earth inhospitable and it can no longer be “home” for our species anymore. What´s left of humanity suffers from devolution and, as in Margaret Atwood´s famous dystopia, human´s reproductive systems deteriorate, in this occasion to the extreme point of losing our organs and not being able to procreate at all. Part of what remains of our species follows a totalitarian leader into space whilst the rest try to survive on the decaying planet.

The book is an ode to nature and art. In a world where there the wonders of nature do not exist, and the design of the new world makes other forms of art such as architecture or painting impossible, humans turn to their own bodies to express themselves and create entertainment.

Through skin extension and tattooing, they narrate entire stories on their bodies as well as graphs and symbols. They get rid of clothes and these tattoos cover their decaying bodies, replacing both fashion and social status.

For this reason, I found “The Book of Joan” has a cover that you appreciate twice, for you´ll understand more to it after reading the book. When I first saw it the famous image of the German sci-fi movie Metropolis came to me, and I wondered if the book would also be set in a scarily technological dystopian future. It was, and furthermore I enjoyed the idea of that perfect world living above and slaving the resources of the one underneath, used in Metropolisand so many other fearful projections of the human future.

I also enjoyed the patterns around the V shape of the cover, which after reading the book evoke the almost alien graphs that humans tattoo on their bodies in the story, and reminded me of matter and biological composition as well, for they follow a pattern or structure like chemical elements do. I also appreciate how the typography manages to be at the same time trendy and “alien” looking, effect achieved by changing the shape of the letter “A”.

The colour, not so commonly used in book covers, is striking and modern like the story. The Book of Joan is not only a science fiction book, it tackles gender, sexuality, the human condition and makes relevant reference to climate change, human cruelty or animal experimentation. So this is very much a book of our times and the coming generation, that represents the troubles and ideas that are currently being discussed.

Whether intended by the artist or not, I also associate the cover with totalitarianism, so present in the story. Partly because of the god like look of the one figure at the centre, with its hands shaping a crown; and the Earth and stars above her are shaped into a military style hat. The piece is in line with other Florian Schommer works, like the designs for Mantar and Henfen, beer brands that also benefit from his pattern-like graphs and iconography.

The Book of Joan is a stunning and thought provoking piece of work both outside and inside, worth reading, if possible next to a green area to remind you we are still in time to fight for our planet.

The Book of Joan was Designed by Rafaela Romaya and Illustrated by Florian Schommer

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Blackwell’s review: Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers

This review was written by Blackwell’s Bookseller Eris Young at Blackwell’s Edinburgh

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the latest (but not the last!) in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series. It follows a handful of humans as they struggle with questions of mortality, community, relationships, home and life beyond the horizons of what we call home.
The lives of the characters interweave loosely in this one, and only touch on the events of the previous two novels, such that initially I found myself hoping characters from the previous books would show up in this new context. But it wasn’t long until I fell in love with the new characters as well: as multilayered, flawed and vulnerable as any of Chambers’ protagonists.
The story, too, takes place largely on a single space station – a tiny geographic area considering the previous two books literally spanned planets. And it’s this limited scale that ironically brings brings home just how expansive and intricate the world of Wayfarers really is. As loosely as the stories told in this book lace into the previous ones, this is unequivocally a Wayfarers novel: it’s told in Chambers’ earnest, “up-lit” style storytelling that is uplifting but never saccharine, and the scale of the story feels utterly organic.
This scale was one of my favourite things about the book. Rather than culminate in a giant dramatic space gunfight, as is the wont of so many books these days, the conclusion to Record of a Spaceborn Few is much more introspective. The biggest, most violent event in the book occurs in the prologue, and sets in motion expanding ripples of internal development for each of the point of view characters. The individual plot arcs are all internal, and the conflicts grow out of what the characters themselves find important and difficult: human connection, community, home, individual fears rooted in past trauma.
This may be a different kind of storytelling than today’s readers are used to, recalling the stories of Ursula le Guin more than, say, Star Wars or Star Trek, but it is, I think, a necessary one. So often the sci fi stories we are told are so wrapped up in large-scale conflicts, wars, ecological disasters, planetary destruction, and so obsessed with glorifying imaginative technology and flashy effects, that we lose sight of the human struggle, the everyday detail and collateral damage of the progress humanity has made in these tales. But these stories, for me, are the more interesting ones.
Record of a Spaceborn Few tells a small story rooted indelibly in a larger world and a collective invented history spanning generations. Chambers once again proves herself a keen student of language and culture, deftly and tenderly portraying the complex and often fraught relationships between her characters, in a book that left me feeling deeply contemplative and ultimately hopeful.

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Blackwell’s review: Tade Thompson – Rosewater


This review is from Euan Hirst, Chief online bookseller for our lovely sponsor Blackwell’s.

Rosewater takes place in Nigeria in the middle of this century. Written in the first person, it jumps back and forth between the childhood, early adult years and maturity, (2032-2066), of the main character, Kaaro. He is a sensitive and able to track people and read minds, due to his interaction with xenomorphs (Greek/Latin neoplasm) that emanate from an alien who first lands in Hyde Park in London and is attacked by the locals. For that read “little Englanders” in a nice topical reference. The alien gets the message and moves himself on to Nigeria.

Rosewater is a settlement in Nigeria that grows up around the alien’s spaceship/dwelling because of the healing properities of xenomorphs that are dispersed once a year in a great outpouring from the alien’s spaceship dwelling, and also dispersed more generally. It is firstly a shanty town and eventually a developed city. The plot revolves around the Kaaro’s early life and then the work he does for a secret police/intelligence agency of the Nigerian government, especially his and the agency’s interaction with the alien.

Although the novel is not in the same realistic science fiction tradition as, for example, the Galactic Commons trilogy by Becky Chambers, it does have many traditional science fiction tropes, e.g. shape-shifting aliens, presumed interstellar travel, and alien invasion. Unlike science fiction in the realistic tradition, it makes little effort to make the science sound plausible.

Rosewater also includes a number of tropes from from crime and thriller fiction: paranoid governments concerned to maintain their own authority, clandestine government agencies with their own agendas, rogue agents within those agencies, plus supra legal behaviour, occasional violence, and universal corruption among regular departments of the government, the ordinary police, the army, elected politicians, members of the business community (Kaaro’s father), gangsters, common thieves and so on. There is even a friendly dog and a salt-of-the earth snack bar owner.

Kaaro is a wise-cracking protagonist, an anti-hero, who claims to be out for himself, but somehow always ends up loosely allied with the good guys, usually, although not always non-governmental characters, and in conflict with the obvious bad guys, usually governmental. His characterisation is also in a crime and thriller tradition of the lone agent, the private eye, cynical and appalled by human behaviour, but nevertheless compelled by an innate morality to act more or less decently.

Kaaro’s banter and jokes are funny and that humour helps enrich the novel and separate it from many thrillers and much science fiction. The author Tade Thompson is of mainly Yoruba descent and so is Kaaro. The context of the novel is almost entirely Nigerian and there are numerous references to tribal affiliation and also jokes and generalizations about some of the other better known ethnic groups in Nigera, for instance Hausa and Igbos. These all seem to presume a local knowledge and a culture that Nigerians will understand and enjoy more than others, but they are non-specific enough that they will be appreciated by any reader. This is the most original aspect of Rosewater. It’s set in Nigeria; it’s about Nigeria and it’s about Nigeria’s future. Except for some popular music, it doesn’t make much of an attempt to include references from Western culture. Aside from the episode in London, it only mentions one other country, the United States, which has built a very high wall around its entire border to exclude the alien and its xenomorphs. Another nicely topical reference.

Rosewater is the first part of a trilogy that is a well nurtured commercial project. Nevertheless setting it in Nigeria, creating a smart aleck protagonist from a different type of genre fiction, and its general witty tone mark it as exceptionally original, and separate from the pack of much other science fiction.

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Submissions for 2018 are now OPEN!

The Kitschies, sponsored by Blackwell’s, literature’s most tentacular prize, are pleased to announce the 2018 judging panel and the opening of submissions for books published in the UK in 2018.

These five individuals will be tasked with finding the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining books that contain elements of the speculative and fantastic. Winners receive a total of £2,500 in prize money, as well as one of the prize’s iconic hand-crafted Tentacle trophies.

The 2018 Red and Gold Tentacle judging panel comprises of Adam Roberts, Lucy Smee, Matt Webb, Sharan Dhaliwal and Daniel Carpenter.

The 2018 judging panel for the Inky Tentacle will be announced soon.

The prize is now in its seventh year, with previous winners including Nina Allan, Ruth Ozeki, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville, Karen Lord, Nick Harkaway, Kameron Hurley and Patrick Ness.

Last year’s winners were Nina Allan’s The Rift (Red Tentacle) and Alex Wells’ Hunger Makes The Wolf (Golden Tentacle), selected from a shortlist that included works by Jess Richards, RJ Barker, JY Yang, and Michelle Tea..

The judges for the Red and Golden Tentacles, for novels and debut novels, are Lucy Smee, Matt Webb, Sharan Dhaliwal, Daniel Carpenter, and Adam Roberts.

Adam Roberts said:

“This is my second stint as a Kitschies Judge and I can only hope that this round is as stimulating and edifying as it was the first time. It’s a real privilege to be able to read so widely in contemporary SF, and hopefully we judges can do our bit to bring the most exciting and progressive SF and Fantasy to a wider audience.”

Last year, The Kitschies received 137 submissions from over 50 publishers and imprints, including self-published books. The prize is open to both digital and physical submissions.

Please see the sumissions and judges pages at http://www.thekitschies.com. for more information about the judges and the prize as well as to get submissions instructions.

Contact:

Glen Mehn & Leila Abu el Hawa
submissions@thekitschies.com

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Winners 2017

The year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining speculative fiction, sponsored by Blackwell’s who have set up a dedicated page full of tentacles just for us.

 

 

In a ceremony at the Star of Kings pub in London the winners of the 2017 Kitschies tentacles were announced. The judges commented on the state of genre, the pleasureable tactility of the books, the wonderful and difficult job of judging, and the pleasure of working with the genre community.

2017’s shortlisted books were narrowed down from 142 submissions, coming from over 48 publishers. The shortlists come from the largest literary and genre names in publishing to the smallest of independents.

The Red Tentacle (Novel) winner:

The Rift

Nina Allan

(Titan)

 

 

The rest of the shortlist

 

Black Wave

Michelle Tea

(& Other Stories)

 

 

We See Everything

William Sutcliffe

(Bloomsbury)

 

 

Fever

Deon Meyer, translated by L. Seegers

(Hodder)

 

 

City of Circles

Jess Richards

(Hodder)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut) winner:

Hunger Makes the Wolf

Alex “Acks” Wells

(Angry Robot)

 

 

The rest of the shortlist

How Saints Die

Carmen Marcus

(Harville Secker)

 

 

 

Age of Assassins

RJ Barker

(Orbit)

 

 

The Black Tides of Heaven

JY Yang

(Tor.com)

 

 

Mandlebrot the Magnificent

Liz Ziemska

(Tor.com)

 

 

The Red and Gold tentacle judges were Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Leila Abu El Hawa, Joshua Idehen, Ewa Scibor-Rylska, and Alasdair Stuart

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art) winner:

The History of Bees

Maja Lunde

Design by Jack Smyth and the S&S Art Department

(Scribner)

 

The rest of the shortlist included

The Land of Neverendings

Kate Saunders

Illustrated by David Dean

(Faber and Faber)

 

Black Wave

Michelle Tea

llustrated by Rose Stafford at Print Club, design by Hannah Naughton

(& Other Stories)

 

 

The Real-Town Murders

Adam Roberts

Jacket design and illustration by Black Sheep

(Gollancz)

 

Our Memory Like Dust

Gavin Chait

Design by Richard Shailer

(Transworld)

 

The Inky Tentacle judges are Dapo Adeola, Sharan Dhaliwal, Jet Purdie, and Stuart Taylor

Blackwell

The winners can be easily found and purchased at any Blackwell’s shop or online. Details can be found on the Blackwell’s dedicated Kitschies website.

 

About Blackwell’s

Blackwell’s began 139 years ago in Oxford and has a worldwide reputation for unrivalled customer service, specialist knowledge and passion for bookselling.  We continue to be a values led business where putting our customers first, taking personal ownership, being professional and having integrity are part of who we are.

We have 32 shops including Flagship shops in Oxford, Cambridge, London and Edinburgh. There are 23 academic and campus shops with strong partnerships with their host universities. We have pop-up bookshops (called Connects) in many other HE UK institutions.

Blackwells.co.uk is growing rapidly in UK and international markets. The platform is designed and managed in-house from a London development office

About The Kitschies

The Kitschies are a not-for-profit association dedicated to promote the discussion of genre literature in all its many forms. To that end it hosts a range of events and runs an eponymous award each year to a range of books, celebrating progressive, intelligent, and entertaining literature with an element of the speculative or fantastic. Previous winners include Margaret Atwood, Karen Lord, Patrick Ness, Becky Chambers, Lauren Beukes, Ruth Ozeki and China Miéville.

 

 

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The Kitschies’ 2017 Shortlists Revealed

The year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining science fiction, sponsored by Blackwell’s who have set up a dedicated page full of tentacles just for us.

 

 

 

Every year brings challenges, excitement, and something new: this year was no different. We’re thrilled to see the return of some old favourites as well as voices that mightn’t be considered speculative fiction. The breadth of all three lists is stunning.

–  Award Directors Glen Mehn and Leila Abu El Hawa

London — The Kitschies, the prize for “novels containing elements of the speculative and fantastic” have revealed their shortlists for the most “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” books of 2017.

This year’s shortlisted books are narrowed down from 142 submissions, coming from over 48 publishers. The shortlists come from the largest literary and genre names in publishing to the smallest of independents.

The Red Tentacle (Novel)

 

Black Wave

Michelle Tea

(& Other Stories)

 

 

The Rift

Nina Allan

(Titan)

 

 

We See Everything

William Sutcliffe

(Bloomsbury)

 

 

Fever

Deon Meyer, translated by L. Seegers

(Hodder)

 

 

City of Circles

Jess Richards

(Hodder)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut)

How Saints Die

Carmen Marcus

(Harville Secker)

 

 

Hunger Makes the Wolf

Alex “Acks” Wells

(Angry Robot)

 

 

Age of Assassins

RJ Barker

(Orbit)

 

 

The Black Tides of Heaven

JY Yang

(Tor.com)

 

 

Mandlebrot the Magnificent

Liz Ziemska

(Tor.com)

 

 

The Red and Gold tentacle judges are Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Leila Abu El Hawa, Joshua Idehen, Ewa Scibor-Rylska, and Alasdair Stuart

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Red/Gold judge, said of the shortlists, “The sheer range and quality of the books submitted for both the gold and red award was dazzling. It was hard enough to pick five and reducing the shortlists to a single winner in each category is going to be near impossible.”

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art)

The Land of Neverendings

Kate Saunders

Illustrated by David Dean

(Faber and Faber)

 

Black Wave

Michelle Tea

llustrated by Rose Stafford at Print Club, design by Hannah Naughton

(& Other Stories)

 

The History of Bees

Maja Lunde

Design by Jack Smyth and the S&S Art Department

(Scribner)

 

The Real-Town Murders

Adam Roberts

Jacket design and illustration by Black Sheep

(Gollancz)

 

Our Memory Like Dust

Gavin Chait

Design by Richard Shailer

(Transworld)

 

The Inky Tentacle judges are Dapo Adeola, Sharan Dhaliwal, Jet Purdie, and Stuart Taylor

Jet Purdie, winner of the 2015 Inky Tentacle, and Inky Tentacle judge, said “There were loads of gorgeous entries but I felt the selected finalists took the biggest risks, working extra hard to create something original that caught the eye and drew the reader into the story.”

Blackwell’s Blogging

The wonderful Blackwell’s booksellers will be blogging about the shortlist and promoting the books in their shops and social channels. Details can be found on the Blackwell’s dedicated Kitschies website.

The winners

The winners will be announced in a ceremony at The Star of Kings on 9th April, and receive a total of £2,000 in prize money, as well as one of the prize’s iconic Tentacle trophies.

 

The prize, sponsored by Blackwell’s, is now in its eighth year, with previous winners including Margaret Atwood, Tade Thompson, Hermione Eyre, Nick Harkaway, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville, and Patrick Ness.

About Blackwell’s

Blackwell’s began 139 years ago in Oxford and has a worldwide reputation for unrivalled customer service, specialist knowledge and passion for bookselling.  We continue to be a values led business where putting our customers first, taking personal ownership, being professional and having integrity are part of who we are.

We have 32 shops including Flagship shops in Oxford, Cambridge, London and Edinburgh. There are 23 academic and campus shops with strong partnerships with their host universities. We have pop-up bookshops (called Connects) in many other HE UK institutions.

Blackwells.co.uk is growing rapidly in UK and international markets. The platform is designed and managed in-house from a London development office

About The Kitschies

The Kitschies are a not-for-profit association dedicated to promote the discussion of genre literature in all its many forms. To that end it hosts a range of events and runs an eponymous award each year to a range of books, celebrating progressive, intelligent, and entertaining literature with an element of the speculative or fantastic. Previous winners include Margaret Atwood, Karen Lord, Patrick Ness, Becky Chambers, Lauren Beukes, Ruth Ozeki and China Miéville.

 

 

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Become a Tentacle

The Kitschies is seeking help.

Currently, we’re pretty much a one-person-band, and that person has a very full-time day job and theoretically writes in the evenings.

Seeking people who want to spend their time promoting the discussion of genre literature that is progressive, intelligent, and entertaining. Must love some of: dinosaurs, dragons, space pirates, monkeys, explosions, maths, sarcasm, neuroscience, ideas.

Must love tentacles.

You may have a passion and a skill for some or all of the following:

  • Event organising
  • Social media, including picking up the pieces of a flamewar after the awards director has tweeted from the wrong account again
  • Blog writing
  • PR
  • Organising things and people
  • Herding cats AKA judges
  • Other things that you think the Kitschies should be doing

We’re looking for fairly active self-starters who want to get their hands dirty and have fun.

This is a part-time job. This is a volunteer job. This isn’t really a job.

Rewards: meeting nice people, meeting rude people, books.

Email admin@thekitschies.com and let us know who you are and how you’d like to help.

Adam Roberts Phantom Kitschies 2016

 

Adam Roberts, in typical overachieving fashion, managed to read enough books to populate a full and complete shortlist. 

Adam Roberts

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.

 

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Not the Kitschies 2016, by Cat Webb

Cat Webb AKA Kate Griffin AKA Claire North has been a judge for the Kitschies twice, for her sins.
Behind the Throne – K.B.Wagers

The story of green-haired gun-runner who wakes up one day to discover that she’s ruler of an interplanetary empire despite herself, there’s a lot here to like. K.B.Wagers isn’t doing anything astoundingly new with her political-intrigue/assassination-filled space opera… but she is doing some very nice things that would definitely make a Kitschies judge keep reading.

For a start, the empire that our heroine has to rule is matriarchal, and deliberately moulded on Indian mythology and culture. A men’s resistance movement is fighting back against the entrenched female monarchy, and as much time is spent attending temple and offering incense to Ganesh, as it is reminiscing on days with smugglers from other Chinese or more European-styled empires. It’s a nice take on familiar political themes, and a pleasant inversion on some very basic gender stereotypes.

Would it win? Alas, probably not. There is some dubious editing, and a large cast of characters blur into each other fairly easily, not to mention an impressive amount of time spent on remorseful tears and descriptions of saris. The plot, when you stop to think about it, is light around the edges – however it’s still a headlong rush of Stuff Happening In A Funky Place, and even if you put it aside after with a cry of ‘ah well next!’ you won’t have regretted the time spent reading at all.

The Space Between the Stars – Anne Corlett

I can see this being submitted to the Kitschies with a cry of ‘hell yes’. Its premise – what happens when 99.9999% of humanity is wiped out – isn’t new, but has the addition that it’s set in a future in which humanity has colonized the stars. Consequently, this isn’t your usual shuffle across a desolate Earth, but can be the story of what happens to the one person left alive when a whole colony goes dark, or the few survivors stranded in a hostile corner of the universe when it all collapses. It is also a story about going home, and what home is in a space this big, weaving in religion, sexuality, authoritarianism and loss.

While both the book and the writing hold huge promise, it suffers from a supporting cast of two-dimensional characters, who sometimes feel as if they are ticking off a wish-list of narrative viewpoints. Quietly-tortured sort-of-priest? Yeap. Prostitute with a heart of gold? Tick. Swaggering space Captain with a hidden gem of conscience who we all learn to love? Boom. For all of the book’s many charms, the SF-geek in my soul still feels that Firefly did this better.

It’s also worth noting that the book does an important thing well, and then gets hobbled by it. It talks about miscarriage, from a mother’s perspective, and how that has changed her life. Tackling this in life and fiction is an excellent thing, and huge cheers to Anne Corlett for going at it. However, when most of humanity has been wiped out from the universe and survivors are struggling to survive violence, oppression and probable death, you begin to ask whether the scale of the narrative premise set before this characters, doesn’t begin to outweigh the topic that is being put at the heart of the book. To my shame, as one who’s all down with talking about things that matter more, I found a moment arriving fairly soon where I just didn’t care about the main character’s history or anxieties… because the unexplored dangers of the situation and the unknown future were just more damn interesting.

Poison City – Paul Crilley

Hell no it wouldn’t win a Kitschie. But hell yes, we’d have had fun reading it, and at the shortlist meeting Glen would have broken out a Tupperware box full of wine and at least a couple of minutes would have been spent celebrating how much fun we had reading this book, and but how there were too many other books that are just pushing harder, more at the boundaries of fiction for us to give it a prize.

And yes – a brief flurry of discussion would have arisen about how nice it is to read urban fantasy both set in South Africa, and which draws so refreshingly on South African mythology and folklore. There almost certainly would have been a moment of tense discussion over how ethnicity is written about in the book, because these things do matter, followed fairly quickly by the conclusion that hey, this isn’t a tome setting out to tear anything down or build anything new – it’s just dead fun urban fantasy doing a funky thing in a groovy place, and it does that well.

It does it very well, and it’s hugely entertaining, and sometimes, amid the earnest contemplation of what the hell a progressive book prize even is, we’d all just breathe a sigh of relief that we get to rejoice in pure fun and fantasy too.

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

I was a judge the year A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet got shortlisted, and it was a damn good book. As well as being beautifully written, it was a picture of a universe in which humanity was, for once, fully embracing what it meant to be humane. Aliens fell in love across the boundaries of species… sentience was celebrated as a beautiful gift, everyone was accepted for who they were and judgements were rarely levelled by characters against each other, and never by the writer. It felt like a universe I wanted to live in.

Plot? Heh. They go a place, and at the end, some stuff happens. But that is more or less the be-all and end-all of the book, and afterwards you’re left wondering just what it was that drew you along.

A Closed and Common Orbit is in many ways much the same… and it still works. Even though the plot is fairly light, even on the flashback sections which help build the characters more, and what action there is almost happens off-page in a sorta shrug at the end… I kept on turning pages and damnit, I kept on really, really caring. I cared for every single character, for their hopes and their dreams, and I loved them all not for the conflict they were experiencing, but for the compassion they showed each other, and how that drove them on. At the end there was a cry of ‘but what even happened really?’ and every now and then, when feeling vulnerable, I might just hug the book like a childhood teddy bear, and be in my happy place.

 

Tomorrow Adam Roberts will give us his inimitable taste.

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