2022 has been my year for 1990s television: I’ve been tearing through a rewatch of Cheers and my very first watch of Deep Space Nine and The X-Files, all of which I’m finding curiously comforting for their tropeyness, despite the often cringey politics. Ted Danson can get it, Gillian Anderson’s freckles are quite, quite devastating, and Sisko is the best TV dad in the history of TV dads (yes I do include Rupert Giles and Keith Mars in that list).
It’s been a slightly quieter year for books—maybe the pandemic chickens coming home to roost?—but there have still been a few standouts. Elaine Castillo’s How to Read Now is a blisteringly smart collection of essays on contemporary literature. Grace Li's Portrait of a Thief was one of several books I read this year about folks from Asian diasporas confronting empire and doing crimes stylishly (a few other similar-themed books would have made, and did make, terrific companion reads to this one, but as they are HarperCollins books, I'm not able to promote them here until HC management gives their striking workers a fair contract). The Remixed Classics series from Feiwel & Friends has been knocking ’em dead with Aminah Mae Safi’s Travelers Along the Way (a Muslim remix of Robin Hood) and Tasha Suri’s What Souls Are Made Of (a Desi reimagining of Wuthering Heights that almost made me not loathe the original Wuthering Heights). I also absolutely loved Margaret Owen’s latest, Little Thieves, which riffs on my beloved Leverage (an Eat the Rich procedural y’all should all watch if you haven’t yet) in a retelling of “The Goose Girl” from the vengeful maid’s perspective.
From the perch of having edited my share of this year’s reviews at SH, I can see how excited our reviewers have been about so many books this year—it’s felt like a year in which, for all the challenges that have beset us, fiction has provided not just mere refuge but also at least some renewal. The genre has felt in rude health—a surge of inspiration that has been with us for a few years now and which yet betrays little sign of exhaustion—and even the Booker Prize could not afford to ignore this: in 2022 it shortlisted Alan Garner and gave its gong to Shehan Karunatilaka, whose novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, was fizzing over with generic motifs and concepts. This year, SFF’s renaissance could not be contained.
My novel of the year was Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go In the Dark, that rarest of fictions which allies high concept, grand scope, beautiful prose, and affecting characterisation in perfect balance. The story of how a deadly pandemic transforms society might feel like a dreary busman’s holiday after the last few years, and it is certainly true that Nagamatsu does not spare his reader tears. But there is also—as the title suggests—something luminous about the transformative hope he recovers from destructive loss. This is a novel irrefutably about grief which somehow does not get lost in the sorrow of everything we must leave behind. Its poetic clarity of vision offers some of the finest passages of thrilling science fiction since Ted Chiang, but also some of the most intellectually satisfying outside of Ursula Le Guin—who grants her name to the prize for which the novel was named a finalist, falling short only against the ultimate winner, Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s The House Of Rust, amid a shortlist that captured just how good a year this has been for SFF.
Elsewhere, I’d direct readers of SH towards D. D. Johnston’s Disnaeland—a Scottish post-apocalypse which insists that, in the direst circumstances, people will come together in mutual aid even if their governments refuse to abandon their will to power—and Emmi Itäranta’s The Moonday Letters, a novel of ecological shift in which we visit a colonised solar system not unlike that in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, except that in this one utopia has not, indeed cannot, be achieved. For me, neither novel matched the full-spectrum achievement of Nagamatsu’s, but good, thought-provoking novels aren’t always perfect, and both of these left me thinking in new directions. (On which note, I’ll pause to be among the many to note my progress from mild disinterest to strong scepticism to absolute evangelism for Tony Gilroy’s remarkable achievement in the Star Wars universe with Andor. If one work of SFF this year really did take its inheritance in directions we might barely have imagined possible, it was this one. Star Wars as incisive critique of colonialism? Who’d have thought it.)
And finally. I never choose Strange Horizons pieces when writing for our Year in Review, but this year I hope you’ll forgive me for making an exception—for Maureen Kincaid Speller’s “The Critic and the Clue: Tracking Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker.” Not only did it foreshadow Garner’s shortlisting for the self-avowed most prestigious prize in English letters; this essay was an object lesson in how to engage constructively, passionately, gently and—yes!—critically with a text and with an author. If it’s a lasting testament to a great critic, a fitting final word, how bitter it still is that 2022 saw the last of Maureen’s essays. There should have been more to come—she would have found 2022 to offer ample, encouraging material.
The novel I found endlessly fascinating in 2022 was Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. It’s masterfully plotted out. The prose draws readers in, just as “Piranesi” is sucked into the pocket dimension, in part because she’s so disciplined in the way she sets the scope of her work. Clarke gives us just enough of a taste to have a million questions. For me, it’s the best answer to a question I’ve had since childhood—“What if adults, besides the four in The Magician’s Nephew, went to Narnia?”—especially as I read some of C. S. Lewis’s more philosophical and academic writings, The Abolition of Man and A Preface to Paradise Lost. Abolition displays a sentimental insistence on human individuality, but also an encouraging and genuine assertion that humanity, even in the face of scientific progress, possesses agency and virtue. A Preface to Paradise Lost, a prime example of Lewis the scholar rather than fiction writer, was fundamental in reworking the way I think about John Milton. Lewis is highly critical of the view that Milton takes Satan’s part, and makes a compelling case for more of an antihero approach to Satan.
The line between antihero and hero blurred further for me as I read G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday for the first time. While the plot can be easily guessed, Syme and every secret agent he runs into are so comically tied up by their own egos that they don’t have a clue what they’ve stumbled into. This kind of “hoisted-on-your-own-petard” theme makes for the best fiction broadly, with speculative fiction providing some of the most vivid examples that I read this year. On an institutional level, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly depicts the paranoia of undercover policeman Bob Arctor tracking the source of a potent narcotic only to discover that his own government willingly lets him get addicted to it, even as they are punished for the same crime in a vicious cycle. But on a much more individual scale, horror writer Stephen Graham Jones presents the idea that murderers cannot live with their own responsibility in Night of the Mannequins, a terrifying but exceptional novella about a teenage serial killer who believes he is being compelled by a demonic mannequin and not his own fears about adulthood.
The most lighthearted example of this motif I read comes from Sign Here by Claudia Lux, an office comedy novel about demons stuck in their cubicles in Hell, trying to tempt human souls down below forever. The antihero, named Peyote Trip, exploits the ultimate loophole by getting enough family members to be cursed forever so he can relive his life on Earth. Before getting back, however, Peyote Trip decides to never escape responsibility, so he has another demon wipe his memory before he goes, virtually assuring that he’ll return. While Lux and Lewis may disagree on the nature of the demonic hero, Peyote Trip provides that necessary optimism that comes with a new start.
My most anticipated book release this year, the first time in years that I actually went to a brick-and-mortar store to pick the thing up on day one, was Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger. I know, I know, it’s not exactly SFF, but I’m a huge McCarthy fanboy, and this might be the last novel we get from him. The novel is about grief and trauma, inherited guilt, and love, all told through characters that are as idiosyncratic and as interesting as McCarthy’s Judge Holden or John Grady Cole. Oh! There’s a chapter where McCarthy gives you the whole history of theoretical physics and its relationship to epistemology, so there is some science in there.
Other highlights for this year included Alan Moore’s short story collection Illuminations. Moore’s work has always fascinated and challenged, and this book is no different. While each of the stories is an expression of virtuoso-level skill and imagination, the real standout (and most talked about) is the novella-length story “What We Can Know About Thunderman.” The piece is a passion-fueled screed against the comics industry writ large, but Moore still manages to humanize the whole endeavor with his characteristic attention to those Freudian motivations that we might find both recognizable and repulsive.
I also sunk many an hour into FromSoftware’s masterpiece Elden Ring, which led me to try and track down reading experiences that replicate the unique, ethereal, and oblique fantasy storytelling that the studio is known for. Such ventures led me to three books that, I feel, really capture that melancholic, world-shattering tone: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (2015), B. Catling’s Hollow (2021), and Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight (2004). The real standout here was Catling’s novel, a story about a group of mercenaries traveling to a monastery to deliver the newest oracle so that the monks can continue to keep the evil at bay. Catling, a noted sculptor who died in September, and came to fiction late in his life, brings those decades of fine-arts training and imagination to his worlds, basically taking the oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch and spinning a world from it, full of weird little demons and a liminal approach to faith, sacrality, and desolation. Hollow is incredible, and you should read it.
This year I also took a deep dive into one of my favorite fantasy subgenres, sword and sorcery, which led to some gems. To start, if you’re a fan of the genre, check out Brian Murphy’s Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery. Murphy traces the origins and influences of the subgenre from Robert E. Howard to Michael Moorcock to grimdark, and he will increase your TBR pile by tenfold. This year also saw the publication of two new sword and sorcery magazines that I enjoyed immensely: New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine and Old Moon Quarterly. Both of these publications put out cutting-edge fiction that will make you rethink what we talk about when we talk about the subgenre, and they deserve your support!
Probably the best book I read this year is R. F. Kuang’s Babel. If you haven’t gotten around to this one yet, spoiler, it’s excellent. Set mostly in an alternative England, it takes on colonialism and its effects on the colonized, as well as academic life in general. Plus, it’s a ripping yarn. The other best book I read is Natasha Pulley’s The Half Life of Valery K, which is about historical events in the Soviet Union from the 1930s through the 1960s, and the fictional characters who deal with them (some of them scientists, and some of the events having to do with science, which is how this qualifies as science fiction). Since this is Pulley, there are charming sociopaths as well as a lot of M/M attraction. Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light came out at the end of 2021, but I read it in 2022. It’s set in an Edwardian England where magic is real. Hot sex and interesting worldbuilding; and I see the sequel, a A Restless Truth, has just come out.
In June of 2022, Kit Whitfield released her first book in over a decade, a fat novel called In the Heart of Hidden Things. The novel centers around a “fairy-smith” and his son and grandson, who has been “touched” by a fey event. This grandson is coded autistic, a conceit which works really well in the novel. I love Whitfield’s work in general, and this one a lot. I also love A Half-Built Garden, by Ruth Emrys, which is a different kind of first contact novel, and also amazing. A. M. Tuomala writes a different kind of travel book in The Map and the Territory, one with gay wizards and magic mirrors and several different flavors of apocalypse. I loved this one too. Finally, I read the Library of America’s re-release of Octavia Butler’s work, Octavia Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, and Collected Stories. From talking to my students, I fear that Butler’s work is lapsing into obscurity. If you’re not familiar with her, please do yourself a favor and pick up this volume.
2022 is over, and once again we had one of those eternal years whose beginning is completely lost to the mists of time, and which also felt about eight hours long. In 2022, I made the utterly regrettable decision to jettison all forms of media tracking in favour of just, like, existing in the moment or something, and now that it’s reflection time that’s worked out exactly as well as you’d expect. Cherish your spreadsheets, friends, for they will serve you well when people expect you to have opinions.
Luckily, I can still find some thoughts in here somewhere, and there certainly were some excellent things this year. I was drawn in by Pentiment, a point-and-click adventure game set in a late medieval Bavarian town in which a travelling artist working in an abbey scriptorium is drawn into a series of strange deaths and their underlying mystery. Pentiment’s approach to murder mystery is deliberately quite unsatisfying—there’s never enough time to pursue all your leads and many answers are left to the player’s interpretation—but the wider arc of the story is exceptionally well realised and the attention to historical detail is wonderful. I also played both Horizon: Zero Dawn and its 2022 sequel Horizon: Forbidden West this year, and my time in the post-postapocalyptic machine wilds was very rewarding.
Regrettably, my best book list is affected by the ongoing refusal of HarperCollins publishers to respond to the request of their union for a fair deal: with apologies to the affected authors, this recommendation list will not be crossing their picket line. Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi came out in January, which may as well have been last century as far as my perception of time is concerned, but it remains one of the best science-fiction novels I’ve ever read, a study on the dynamics of a post-climate-catastrophe Connecticut whose permanent residents are being pushed out as those who escaped into space return to their former home planet. Then there’s In The Serpent’s Wake by Rachel Hartman, the sequel to Tess of the Road, which takes its protagonist into uncharted-for-her waters, then asks difficult but important questions about her role in another culture’s struggle. Tess of the Road is the book of my heart and this is a very worthy continuation.
Finally, it’s not a 2022 release, but the Clarke Awards jury did the genre community a huge favour by shining a light on Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles, a novel in verse written in Orkney Scots about two young folk—one returning home, one escaping family—who arrive at a remote space station whose way of life is under threat from changing galactic economics. It’s hugely accessible despite the unusual form, and I enjoyed savouring every minute of it.
While the pandemic and political climate of 2020 made it impossible for me to read dystopian fiction, the surreality of 2022—the pandemic is over but not over? Things are better-ish in American politics but I have fewer rights?—has made it feel nearly imperative to read horror. I’ve never been particularly interested in it before, but lately I’ve devoured everything from extreme body horror to gothic to cosmic, with my favorite, Helpmeet by Naben Ruthnum, being a bit of all three. It was a particularly good year for queer horror, with Eric LaRocca giving us three new novellas (We Can Never Leave This Place, You’ve Lost a Lot of Blood, and They Were Here Before Us) plus a few bonus stories (in the re-released Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke); then there’s the spooky-sweet Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste, and the desperately good Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield. The latter shares an eerie, effervescent quality with Peter Rock’s Passersthrough, a book that deserved more attention for its softly elegiac prose, but was, I suspect, too hard to categorize for many.
Even things not strictly shelved as horror were great reliefs to read when they emphasized dark or unconventional themes: I adored the gritty heist fantasy Book of Night (Holly Black) and the unintentional heist fantasy Self-Portrait with Nothing (Aimee Pokwatka). (Theme of 2022: liberate art from capitalism?)
A lot of my favorites embraced humor and absurdity right alongside the horror. Indie release Little Bird by Tiffany Meuret was just so odd and so enjoyable because of it, and Rosebud by Paul Cornell was similarly wacky; it also has my vote for this year’s best opening line. The pinnacle was, of course, Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, which had me laugh-crying and cry-laughing, as did parts of Nettle and Bone. T. Kingfisher always does a magnificent job blending horror and humor, because she knows if you can’t laugh, you’ll just scream forever and ever.
Here’s hoping 2023 involves less screaming.
Once upon a time, there was the fix-up. In the easy case, authors drew together their stories “set in the same universe” into a more coherent narrative. As early as 1937, Olaf Stapledon wrapped Star Maker around his earlier book, Last and First Men (both books I strongly recommend). In the more complicated case, they jammed material together to create a larger narrative. 1980s Isaac Asimov was very keen on putting all his earlier work into a single timeline (less encouragement to reread these). Today, beyond the fix-up, we have the mega text, which extends to many media narratives—quite often a major element of larger franchises. One of the joys of the Big Finish series of Doctor Who audios is that it fills in parts of the history of that show which we never got to see. Equally, no stone is left unturned; no mystery can be allowed to remain unexplored. And so, with the TV series, ever bigger narratives are wrapped around what we already know, in the hope of creating fresh mystery. Yes, I have just caught up with Doctor Who: Flux from 2021. Yes, I am baffled. I wonder whether we can ever have a Bobby Ewing Shower Dream moment that cuts away mythic overload—or at least hide it in another magical fob-watch?
Elsewhere, the franchise nature of The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon are all the more apparent. They felt like fan fiction to me, or maybe fan service (yes, I know HoD comes from GRRM’s own story). I gave up on the Star Wars franchise precisely because I could feel them yanking my fannish chain and I didn’t like it, even whilst I loved it. Perhaps these 2022 franchise entries are more intriguing, more interesting, because they are less perfect creations. I expect I will be back for more, despite my own mistrust—I can’t resist the possibility of seeing the Two Trees of Valinor again.
Meanwhile, the written word offers me truer delight. An author can be a favourite precisely because I don’t know what to expect a book to contain. Perhaps that is overloading—I return to authors like Frances Hardinge, Paul McAuley, or Adam Roberts because I can expect excellent writing, interesting ideas, and fascinating plots. Roberts’ The This is a brilliant example of what this great field of ours can do. The book uses and reinvents tropes freely, speaks directly to our moment and, somehow, magically, provides a solid understanding of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. This last might seem deeply unlikely; that any novel attempting such a thing would choke, that the awkward object would squirm within; but it has been dissolved into the structure. When I subsequently read a summary of the Hegel from an Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I recognised the plot and themes of The This. Remarkable!
Awaeke Emezi’s Bitter was a prequel to their 2019 novel Pet, and continued to build the world that prior novel was set in. It can also be read as a standalone, though. Bitter addresses current issues, such as resisting amoral people in power. Emezi writes the world as visceral and beautiful. Protests, injustice, friendship and hope are real, painful, and magical. The story’s tone of wonder fits in with YA classics, like the memory of reading the Narnia books as a kid. Among other things, I loved the depictions of what socially responsible, caring masculinity could be like, and the rare black queer man love interest of the main woman character. I also enjoyed Bahni Turpin‘s beautiful narration of the audiobook.
Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith, meanwhile, was a fun novel about a nonbinary kid who wants to be a knight squire. Along with supportive-if-imperfect queer dads, a gender nonconforming royal, and a powerful teenage witch, Callie fights against the city’s imposed gender roles—as well as other frightening powers. Extra points for including a content warning in the novel itself, though please be aware it doesn’t cover all of the warnings required.
A few briefer mentions, for good measure: in a very good way, Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree was a low-stakes story about a Sapphic orc who opens a coffee place and creates a small community. There are no endless epic battles, no blowing off people’s ears to prove one is a serious author, no gratuitous killing off the cast to prove the author masculine. If you need more cosy fantasy in your life, Rebecca Thorne’s Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea is exactly the book to call off plans for so you can read it in bed.
Elsewhere, it may only be me, but outside of fan fiction, I have trouble finding romance stories in which I like the characters—and Seducing the Sorcerer by Lee Welch proved to be one of the rare ones; The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas is reminiscent of Percy Jackson, but make it own voice Latinx trans queer romance with a cute sword Sapphic best friend; In the Serpent’s Wake by Rachel Hartman is the latest installment in the fantastic Seraphina series, and has beautiful writing, social justice issues, and dragons; and So This is Ever After by F. T. Lukens is a fun, queer love story. Because of reasons involving magic and politics, a young adventurer is suddenly forced to rule a kingdom and get married, on pain of death. He tries to date different members of his party, to varying degrees of success.
Now, I have tried to stick to novels for this review, but the Team-Up Moves Podcast is delightful enough to get anyone sidetracked. Fiona Hopkins and Stephanie Burt, as well as many fun guests, try out different systems of superhero TTRPG. Every system has an episode or two of gameplay, then an episode about the system itself. The episodes discussing the structural aspects are interesting and thought-provoking. But for me, I am there for the engaging characters, earnest moments, and charming, hilarious improv. I am also there for trans people playing trans characters, because it’s our lives and not as an educational spectacle. It is silly and clever with heart. I love it.
Una McCormack’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (2018) is one of a trilogy of novels from NewCon Press of novels about a populated Mars. McCormack’s story is about a household slave who takes the long way back after an errand in the town to find herself in the middle of an insurrection. The bonded dance-fighters training at the house have decided to rebel and strike out for freedom, and they’re taking any of the hands with them who want to come. The rebellion swells, but it wasn’t until the description of crucifixion as a punishment that I realised that this is Spartacus retold. McCormack also slips a radical setting past our notice: this is an all-woman society, and what a difference this makes. Noone is raped, for a start. An excellent SF novella, compulsive to read.
Or imagine that Merlin the magician decided to retire to northern Spain and found the climate so pleasant that he invited the Lady Guinevere to join him and share the villa. Together they conduct their social lives, talk to the neighbours, receive visitors, and smile at the earnest attempts of the servants to not be amazed at any of the wonders that turn up on the doorstep. Alvaro Cunqueiro was a magical realist in the tradition of Borges and T. H. White, and his Merlin and Company (1955) is thoroughly entertaining. Merlin’s servant and narrator is a wide-eyed witness more concerned with the charming maidservant than with the bishops, princes and soothsayers turning up for advice and assistance. He doesn’t understand that every myth and story in western Europe and the Sultan’s Empire is connected to Merlin’s affairs by the most intangible of webs.
Becky Chambers’s The Galaxy, And The Ground Within is a completely delightful novel and the fourth of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels. Three travellers are grounded on the hub planet Gora after a freak accident crashes its entire satellite network, making all ship-to-planet communication and off-planet travel impossible until the Transit Authority fixes the damage. Trouble is, these three travellers are desperate to get on with their journeys. Speaker is panic-stricken because she has left her twin sister Tracker alone in their ship orbiting the planet, with a heart condition that needs regular medicine. Roveg is returning to his home world for the first time since his exile and cannot miss a very important appointment. Pei is now on her way to meet Ashby, the captain of the Wayfarer with whom she has been having a secret long-distance affair. And then another, very personal complication emerges.
Chambers has a sure vision of living in space, interacting with AIs, the classification of aliens and intergalactic conflict. Her focus on character and peoples is crucial for her bottom-up democratic vision of how peoples can live together harmoniously. There is no galactic military force to support and act for the politicians. This is top-quality hope-punk with powerful emotional force.
2022 was a particularly difficult year, no doubt, but even if stories and art cannot save us, they can still offer comfort and wisdom, solace and hope. One of my most memorable reads this year was Caroline O’Donoghue’s YA debut, All Our Hidden Gifts, which is infused with Tarot symbology and brilliantly explores how magic realism/folk magic can be used to heal personal wounds (as opposed to the more popular, tried-and-tested trope of saving the world), while also smartly tackling queerphobia, dysphoria, and other relevant themes. Another great book was Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant (a rec from Gautam Bhatia), which packs in some dense secondary worldbuilding and a very subtle slow-burn romance in a stunning meditation on imperialism. I returned to wonderland in Marissa Meyer’s Heartless that retells the tragic story of the infamous Queen of Hearts, and greatly enjoyed Pegasus by Robin McKinley that convincingly paints a picture of a society where humans and pegasi live in relative harmony (it’s a perfect book for animal lovers, although the cliff-hanger ending—with no signs of a sequel—can be a downer).
In nonfiction, I particularly loved Kathryn Harkup’s Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which provides a short and engagingly written biography of Shelley’s infamously eventful youth, while also probing into popular scientific and medical debates of her time. Two standalone graphic novels also deserve a special mention—The Well by Jake Wyatt, which is a lovely, heart-warming and utterly incandescent fable about wishes and sacrifices, accompanied by Choo’s beautiful, stylistic art, and the much-talked-about and very hilarious Nimona by Noelle Stevenson.
On screen, we got several much-awaited adaptations (most of which managed to live up to their hype) such as The Sandman (which remains mostly faithful to Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series), Interview with the Vampire (which reinvents Anne Rice’s source material to center discussions on race, queerness, and domestic violence) and House of the Dragon (a worthier and more nuanced successor to Game of Thrones). The third season of The Umbrella Academy also continued its unique brand of irreverent, whimsical fun, and the supernatural/mystery/comedy Wednesday offered light-hearted escapism with some deliciously Gothic aesthetics. And although I didn’t get to play many games this year, I did like Silicon Dreams (published by Clockwork Bird)—a thoughtful cyberpunk interrogation game where you play as an android tasked with identifying deviant robots and ordering them to be released or destroyed—that depending on your choices, builds up to a thrilling conclusion.
Finally, on long subway rides and in between mundane housekeeping tasks, I did manage to read a fair amount of speculative short fiction this year (alas, this would be an even longer piece if I listed them all). I’ll finish with three of my favourites: “Christopher Mills, Return to Sender,” a very messed-up, macabre, and deadpan tale by Isabel J. Kim; “Butirub” by Samit Basu, which is a rip-roaringly funny story about Bollywood, vampires and a mysterious ointment; and the devastatingly beautiful “Of All the New Yorks in All the Worlds” by Indrapramit Das, which delves into heartbreak and healing and is easily my most cherished multiverse story of the year.
James K. Moran
Due to a death in my family, I was months late filing an SH review of Charles Payseur’s astonishing Lethe Press collection The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, finally doing so in early 2022. Senior reviews editor Maureen K. Speller was more than sympathetic. Thank you, Maureen. You’re missed.
Payseur’s The Burning Day left a mark. Its front-and-centre LGBTQI+ characters, impressive interlocking scope, and cleverness, such as sentient star characters, wooed me. Likewise, Alex Smith’s Afrofuturist collection Arkdust, a mixed collection so vibrant you feel the prose humming, also topples established protagonist tropes with everyperson queer characters and blows readers’ hair back with imaginative riffs.
As for more SFF in 2022, there was an embarrassment of riches, particularly in comics. My hands-down favourite? Tom King and Bilquis Evely’s Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow (DC Comics). Between Evely’s luscious pencils, most recently known for their gobsmacking Sandman: Universe work, and King’s novelistic sensibilities, Supergirl soars as a sort of an interstellar True Grit: an alien girl enlists a de-powered Kara Zor-El’s help to seek vengeance, and the duo make an odyssey from one end of the galaxy to the other, hitting epic story beats, with Supergirl taking more than few digs at her smug cousin Kal-El.
Christopher Cantwell and Adam Gorham’s ten-issue The Blue Flame (Vault Comics) should also get a worthy mention. In this Milwaukee-set story, a misguided superfan’s mass shooting rips apart the lives of a team of working-class heroes. Somehow, Cantwell mines new deconstructionist superhero material, even weaving through an ambiguous cosmic angle. Down-on-his luck Sam Brausam, formerly the Blue Flame, better hit rehab instead of the bottle if he is going to be there to support his pregnant sister; but is his alter-ego, the Blue Flame, really standing trial for Earth in a cosmic kangaroo court? Or is Sam deluded? Gorham’s pencils alternate seamlessly between the gritty mundane and the fantastical.
The Most Bizarre Premise prize certainly belongs to Jonathan Thompson and Jorge Luis Gabotto’s Tales from the Dead Astronaut (Source Point Press) for loosely connecting stories of organic space monks, ultraviolent mech tech, and a fallen futuristic rock icon. And in Al Ewing and Javier Rodríguez’s phantasmagoric Defenders (Marvel), Doctor Strange assembles a ragtag crew consisting of the Masked Rider, the Silver Surfer, Harpy (the gamma-irradiated Betty Ross from Ewing’s provocative and pastiche-laden The Immortal Hulk), Cloud, and Taaia. How trippy is it, you ask? They travel through time and space to try and stop rogue scientist Carlo Zota, who sent himself back in time to fix his mistakes, and who is threatening the Eighth Cosmos. (There were seven versions of the cosmos before the current one, of course.) Ewing’s scripting is fun, zany, and pithy, granting Rodriguez license to thrill with a kaleidoscopic color palette and mind-bending pencils emulating Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Jim Steranko.
In television, Archive 81 straddles sci-fi and horror, due to time-jumping elements amid an underlying deep dread. In all, Archive was a dark little number with surprisingly endearing protagonists Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) and Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie). Andor, set about five years before Star Wars: Episode IV, proved surprising and revealing, examining what makes people either become rebels or Imperialists under the ever-looming shadow of the Empire. It earned my vote for the best Star Wars in years.
For animation, Arcane, the show, which purportedly succeeded where the video game did not, was beautiful. The horror-rich Love, Death + Robots remains reliable spec-fic variety fare, from militarized rats to lovably cynical robots describing the apocalyptic downfalls of the mega-rich. In film, the new Matrix Resurrections built on the one truly good Matrix film, the original, while also managing to be some fine legacy sci-fi fantasy franchise follow-up.
The Sandman, though, remains a standout for extraordinary recasting of characters’ ethnicities, and fidelity to source material. I am unsure how neophytes liked the show, but as an early reader of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic book, I was more than pleased with the adaptation, not the least because of the phenomenal casting. And of course, Everything Everywhere All At Once did not disappoint, even though in one universe people have sausages for fingers.
2022 in SFF entertainment was, for me, much like the year itself: a few high notes, but for the most part staying the course with run-of-the mill offerings not worth sharing. I’ll attempt to follow Hitchcock’s advice and cut out the boring bits.
The first standout book of the year was Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace, the intricate and wrenching follow-up to 2019’s A Memory Called Empire. Martine takes space opera to new heights with the intricate sociology of C. J. Cherryh and the high-stakes drama of the best page-turner, adding her own unique take on identity, gender, and memory. It’s no surprise both books won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Becky Chamber’s second book in the Monk and Robot</strong series, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, was another beautifully intricate exploration of identity, albeit shorter and slower than Martine’s. As with the Wayfarers series, the Monk and Robot books take a deep dive into disparate cultures to get at the root of personhood and finding purpose and meaning in a universe that all too often feels tilted toward chaos and entropy. I could read the travels of Monk and Robot for years, and hope to be able to do so.
On a different track (yay puns), I encountered China Miéville’s Railsea at a state park lending library, and promptly eschewed hiking and paddle boarding to sit around the campsite getting lost with Sham. Miéville is one of the very best at lampooning capitalist excess, and Railsea runs with this: millions of miles of crisscrossing tracks prowled by automaton trains serve no purpose, like Ireland’s Famine Roads, other than being built to keep the government money flowing. The story is filled with danger and suspense, but lurking underneath is a keen and cutting examination of capitalism’s hollow heart and its impact upon the environment and its human and nonhuman denizens.
Turning to video, Wakanda Forever was a good movie, but suffered from unfair comparisons to its predecessor. Chadwick Boseman was a terrible loss, and he casts a long shadow. Credit to Ryan Coogler for tackling that shadow head-on within the film, but otherwise I left the theater feeling like my anticipation had not been quite fulfilled. And the same is true for House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, the two shows I was most excited to see; I didn’t even finish HotD. They were fine, but each found it impossible to find the spotlight in the shadow of their IP.
I haven’t seen Andor, and remain apprehensively hopeful (Rogue One is the darkest and most daring Star Wars film, and my favorite), but I haven’t quite made it through Obi-Wan Kenobi, and feel less desire to see each successive episode, which is puzzling: McGregor’s portrayal of the doubt-plagued, traumatized Kenobi is excellent, and Vivien Lyra Blair’s young Leia Organa captures her wit, intelligence, and fire. Plus we see the rise of Vader. And yet … meh. Similarly, The Book of Boba Fett had excellent casting, star cameos, and a rich backstory to draw on, but in the end was only good.
In theaters we had Black Adam, Lightyear, The Secrets of Dumbledore, Jurassic World Dominion, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Thor: Love and Thunder (sorry Hemsworth stans, but Bale’s Gorr was the only interesting part of the film): all big budget films set in successful franchises, and all mediocre. To paraphrase the opening number from Muppets Most Wanted: that’s what they do in Hollywood, even though everyone knows that the sequel’s never quite as good. So what did work? Everything Everywhere All at Once, Turning Red, and Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Only Dr. Strange drew on preexisting IP, and I have a soft spot for Cumberbatch’s Strange and Olsen’s Maximoff. More notably, all three films are about identity: confronting the versions of ourselves we might have been, and choosing who we want to become, which was also the case for my favorite books of the year.
This is my hope for writers and filmmakers in the upcoming year: give us less flash and more character, fewer reboots and more original content. Audiences want stories that explore what it means to be alive at a time when we feel so powerless, to be ourselves at a time when identity is being explored more fluidly while also increasingly under attack, to be unwilling yet unstoppable agents of our own ecotastrophe. We are complex, contradictory things, and we deserve stories that dwell on those complexities and contradictions.