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Paddington cover

Samira Nadkarni: 2018 was when all my on-and-off reading of Donna Haraway and posthumanism collided with the vast variety of erotic shapeshifter and general anthropomorphised humanimal ebooks and manga I tend to be reading at any given point in time (of which Chuck Tingle’s Bigfoot Pirates Haunt My Balls remains my absolute favourite). I found myself making entirely too serious notes about otherness, eroticism, and SFF, and reading Dagmar Van Engen’s “How to Fuck a Kraken: Cephalopod Sexualities and Nonbinary Genders in EBook Erotica” which is so compelling in its premise on how to think through the ways in which we construct and inhabit our imaginative worlds:

At the risk of being accused of anthropomorphization, I want to go there: not to straightforward identification with invertebrates, as Hayward words it, but to a deep working-through of the imaginative frameworks through which humans engage and imagine animals in order to reimagine ourselves, especially in terms of gender, sexuality, and race. In other words, I want to draw attention to the cultural politics of human-animal imaginations in literary texts, with particular attention to nonbinary genders … which is to say, in my terms, humans are related to tentacled creatures, and those relations are always entangled in speculation and political imagination. The ways in which we speculate about invertebrates matter and have deep ethical stakes precisely because they are always imaginative in some way.

The thing I like most about this set of reading is that I get the best of all worlds—I get to cackle at some of the erotic descriptions in my shapeshifter ebooks and read them for largely perverse reasons, and I get to think about what they mean and how that relates to popular conceptions of intimacy and how we inhabit our world with human and non-human others.

Maybe this was still at the forefront of my mind when I recently watched Paddington (2014) for the first time because what struck me most about the film was the ways in which we construct the non-human other as other/companion/scientific object/object d’art. After, I found myself optimistically creating a folder on my desktop titled “Paddington’s British Post-Colonial Ethics, Animalism, and Evolutions of Taxidermy.” Because why not turn watching a beloved children’s movie over Christmas into the possibility of an article or group discussion project with planned reading; it just makes sense!

Aside from these things, 2018 found me being tricked by Erin Horáková into watching BBC’s Gormenghast (2000). I read a book I disliked immensely for its ableism that went on to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Molly Katz introduced me to Toni Morrison’s Desdemona (2012) after a conversation we had about Wesley Enoch’s Black Medea (2006), both of which are so complex that months later I am still processing them. I found Petra Kuppers’ Disability Culture and Community Performance (2011) and The Scar of Visibility (2006) extremely valuable for thinking through embodied community relationships. I’m slowly making my way through K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu’s Steel Nibs Are Sprouting (2013), and I’ve only just begun to read Nanjala Nyabola’s beautifully crafted Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics (2018) which I hope to mentally put in conversation with something like Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas (2017).

In lighter things, I watched The New Legends of Monkey (2018-) early in the year, and only just finished reading F.C. Yee’s The Epic Crush of Genie Lo (2017), both of which adapt aspects of The Journey to the West into new diasporic spaces. I cried a bit at Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer (2018) because it was just that good. I watched the anti-hero superhero film Venom (2018) which I thought was bland but interesting, the Hindi horror-comedy Stree (2018) which manipulates a ghost folk narrative, and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse (2018) which I really enjoyed while having complicated feelings about in its choice to emphasise father-son relationships while sidelining different types of maternities.

Atlanta season 2 cover

Abigail Nussbaum: The best genre-related thing in 2018 was the second season of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which fused Get Out and Twin Peaks to create a modern horror story about being poor and black in America. Other TV highlights include Legends of Tomorrow finding its gonzo groove and defeating a demon by becoming a Voltron-esque giant plush toy, the voodoo-inflected weirdness of Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, and the delightful reinvention of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

In film, the MCU completed its embrace of the worst traits of superhero comics with Avengers: Infinity War. Seemingly infinite in all the wrong ways, this film existed only to cancel itself out, and focused on a villain whose idiocy the writers seemed genuinely not to notice. Never mind: we had Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to compensate us. Two films that between them work hard to reinvent their genre and give space to marginalized groups within it.

In books, my highlights are an eclectic bunch: Ruth Franklin’s essential biography of Shirley Jackson, and Paul Kincaid’s no-less-essential monograph on Iain M. Banks. Vandana Singh’s masterful short story collection Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories. Handheld Press’s reissue of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin. Eugene Lim’s psychedelic novella Dear Cyborgs, which fuses superheroes and anti-establishment protest. Rachel Fellman’s uncategorizable mountain climbing fantasy The Breath of the Sun. Margaret Killjoy’s twin novellas The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion and The Barrow Will Send What It May, about a group of itinerant, demon-slaying anarchists. Victor LaValle’s pitch-perfect urban fantasy The Changeling. My top selection, however, is Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a fundamentally SFnal story about the world that exists beside and above us, an alien life-form that shares the planet with us and on whom we depend for our survival—trees. Not just a vital environmental novel, but a vital reminder of how wide-ranging science fiction can be.

A Quiet Place cover

Kevin Power: A Quiet Place (Paramount, dir. John Krasinski) showed us a world in which, if you said anything at all, you were immediately attacked by blind, remorseless monsters. In other words, it was a film about being on the internet. By the Pricking of Her Thumb was Adam Roberts’ sequel to 2017’s The Real-Town Murders. Where the first book riffed on Hitchcock, the new one ostensibly performed the same service for Stanley Kubrick. But while the apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey do make a cameo appearance By the Pricking of Her Thumb turned out, beneath its carapace of allusions, to be a novel about pain and loss. It contains one of the best descriptions of shocked grief you’ll ever read, and confirms Roberts as the best writer of literary SF we have. Darryl Jones’s Sleeping with the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror condensed a lifetime of thought into two hundred sparkling pages, and should be issued to academics everywhere as a model of what good nonfiction writing can do.

Space Opera cover

Electra Pritchett: How time flies, or doesn’t, when everything is terrible. I inhaled Martha Wells’ Murderbot and JY Yang’s Tensorate series, and I devoured the first two volumes of Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough trilogy; its pitch-perfect fantasy take on the Weimar era’s slide into fascism was just close enough to the current moment. Revenant Gun ended Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy with the best book yet. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning kicked off a compelling Indigenous climate fantasy series, and Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach offered a take on generational conflict and climate change that I’m still thinking about. Cat Valente’s Space Opera is the best post-2016 novel I’ve read, a brilliant tribute to Douglas Adams and Eurovision. Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time was a delightful middle grade adventure, particularly for Sailor Moon fans.

I wound up enjoying Star Trek: Discovery, though we’ll see how the second season goes. I finally started Steven Universe, and it’s as good as everyone says; if you’re a fan and you haven’t seen Revolutionary Girl Utena, you’re missing out. I adored the final season of Star Wars Rebels, and Solo was criminally underrated. Black Panther was amazing, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best American animated film of the century. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a heart-warmingly inclusive, pastel celebration of girl power. The Banana Fish anime proved that sometimes classic manga adaptations are worth the 25-year wait.

In comics, I belatedly read and loved Brenden Fletcher and Annie Wu’s Black Canary; Motor Crush, his current series with Babs Tarr and Cameron Stewart, is a lot of fun. X-Men: Grand Design is an achievement, and The Umbrella Academy continues to be stylish and great.

May 2019 be a better year for all of us.

Artificial Condition cover

Nicasio Reed: 2018 was the year of Murderbot for me. Three Murderbot novellas (Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy) came out this year, and Martha Wells made each of them delightful, inventive, and compulsively readable. What a gift to get all these episodes from Murderbot’s life in a big, beautiful pile.

For television: I’m that guy on your Twitter timeline who keeps begging everyone to watch The Terror. Based on the Dan Simmons novel of the same name, this slow-burn horror series is ten episodes long. It opens by stating that the Arctic expedition you’re about to watch was lost with no survivors, so you go in knowing that nobody is making it out of this show alive. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I could handle that sort of narrative this year. 2018 has been a tough one, on a number of levels. But where The Terror surprised me, impressed me, and uplifted me was in the complete and layered compassion for each of its characters. They’re afraid, and they’re angry, and they do horrible things, as well as unbelievably noble things. They love each other completely. As they die, each death comes as an act of love. It’s a story as beautiful and terrible as the human heart.

We got Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, and Annihilation in theaters this year. I loved them all in their different ways. But the late contender Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse straight-up blew my mind.

Ambiguity Machine Singh cover

Catherine Rockwood: One book that really lifted the top of my head in 2018 was Iain M. Banks’s 1995 novel Whit. It begins with the quietest of impossible acts—the resurrection, perhaps, of a wild fox—and proceeds from there to explore backwater religious cults; the complicated nature of being declared a Chosen One while female; anti-fascism; sex-work as a decent profession it’s hard to explain to your family; and the wild, faith-filled persistent effort it takes to uncover and use true secrets. The magic in this remarkable book is mostly comprised of ethical and emotional intelligence, though the possibility of miracles endures.

I also loved Vandana Singh’s 2018 collection of short stories, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories. Singh’s detailed explorations of far- and near-future tech are grounded in a feeling and therefore messy human quotidian. In “Peripeteia,” for example, we learn that the physicist-narrator Sujata can see through matter, and perceive the flow of time, but her own understanding of these abilities is shaped by two recent experiences of personal loss. In “Indra’s Web,” new technology brings hope, and is shown to depend entirely on vital, communal working relationships. It’s a wonderful collection, contemporary and clear-eyed.

Finally: The Little Snake, by A.L. Kennedy, begins with the nameless golden snake from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Kennedy insists we should know what a creature of such importance calls itself; and how it would comport itself toward actual people it came to care about; and then she, and the book, bloody well break your heart, because let’s face it people are dangerous entities to vest any sort of long-term hope in. But this book makes you believe that even a glittering, clever and professionally remorseless reptilian Power could at times, and to its own gain and cost, do so.

Grief Feathers cover

Maureen Kincaid Speller: What should be said of 2018? In many respects it turned into the year in which I didn’t do very much except survive. Between planning and carrying out a massive house renovation project, watching my government endlessly inventing new ways to justify its ideological need to throw the country off a cliff, and checking each morning to see if Donald Trump had started World War Three yet, it was hard to find joy in life.

Film is always the first casualty in such situations, so while I saw and loved Black Panther, I just didn’t have the heart to see Avengers: Infinity War (I’ll catch it when the next one comes out), and I missed a lot of other things too, so there are many DVDs in my future. On the plus side, I did finally catch Song of the Sea on tv over Christmas, and that was as delightful as I’d hoped it would be (interesting too to see a portrayal of a selkie that doesn’t involve a toxic male presence). Also, apropos of nothing in particular, I saw Hamilton last year, which made me feel a lot better. Someone gave me the Hamilton soundtrack for Christmas and I would envisage the neighbourhood becoming sick of it except that I have headphones.

Novels? I read a lot of non-fiction in 2018, most of it resolutely not about science fiction or fantasy, and I also read some very trashy science fiction and fantasy I really don’t want to talk about. However, I also read a few novels I enjoyed. Richard Powers’ The Overstory was undoubtedly flawed but I’d rather tackle a novel that’s ambitious even if it is flawed, and it cannot be denied that The Overstory really does not stick its ending. Indeed, it was not easy to determine where it should end, which possibly didn’t help, but there were some exquisitely lyrical moments along the way, in this complex exploration of the place of trees in our lives.

I’m currently part way through Sjön’s CoDex 1962, which is an extraordinary novel, playing as it does with ideas about the golem, genetics, storytelling. I think I’m going to have to reread it the moment I finish it, in order to pull the whole thing together in my head. Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne was stunning, and oddly comforting too. The compassion extended to all the characters in their predicament transformed it into a surprisingly life-affirming read.

And a late shoo-in: right at the end of the year I finally read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015), having resisted the hype for a long time, and dear me, this book turned out to be the thing I really needed to read. It’s a prose-poem about a man whose wife dies in a tragic accident, leaving him to bring up his two young sons alone. Until, that is, a strange bird-creature, Crow, arrives to “help.” It’s worth noting that “Dad” is an academic, with a particular interest in Ted Hughes, so if you know Hughes’s work, it’s not too difficult to see where Crow has come from. I like it partly for the ambiguity of the situation—I am never not drawn to that sort of ambiguity in fiction—but also because it is another life-affirming narrative, filled with textual experiment, exciting language, and plain, simple joy. It jump-started my brain again, just as I left 2018 and moved into 2019. So, with my mood lightened, I’m currently looking forward to seeing Mary Poppins Returns and I have a huge pile of reading to get on with, which can’t be bad.

Time To Be cover

Aishwarya Subramanian: Much of this year in reading felt like playing catch-up with the books I should have read in the couple of years before. I’ve finally read Nisi Shawl’s Everfair and Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories, both polyphonous histories of revolution and nation building that I loved for very different reasons.

I spent a lot of time with Kate Schapira’s “Time to Be Something Other than Human,” an extended work of criticism/engagement with Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy and how it and we exist in the world. The world has made despair easy lately (I also spent a lot of the year listening to Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet’s brilliant Landfall, which honestly didn’t help with this) and Schapira’s work has given me ways not to be immobilised by what we face.

Gabrielle Kent and Rex Crowle’s Knights and Bikes is a loving tribute to the children’s culture I grew up with which is also deeply hilarious, deeply ethical, and features an excellent goose. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer isn’t even my favourite thing by Monae, but it’s the joyful, defiant album I needed this year.

Finally, my year began and ended with two books that reenergised me, and reminded me that I really do like to read. Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People and Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater are both great; fractured, though in very different ways; fantastic, though in very different ways; and expanding outwards from themselves in ways that are exhilarating. May 2019 bring more of this sort of work, along with the energy to keep up with it.

Kings Dragon Elliott cover

Jonah Sutton-Morse: 2018 was the year I finally read Kate Elliott’s masterpiece: the Crown of Stars Heptalogy. This fantasy series, begun in the same year as A Song of Ice and Fire, is both complete and Epic, spanning dynastic succession in medieval Europe, raids from eastern plains, and the machinations of papal succession and Greek imperial machinations.  Layered upon a few key years are the generational concerns of a royal family, and thousands of years of planning and rivalry as more ancient magic and exiled peoples return. Among other elements, The Crown of Stars contains some of the most compelling characters I have read - the charming and villainous Hugh, fragile and broken Liath and Sanglant, the learned nun Rosvita: wise and perhaps overly involved in the machinations of the world.  Around them, truly alien peoples, an author not afraid to explore her characters’ traumas, and a series that moves across space and time in telling a story about worlds lost and remade, and the individuals who make a life while the world they have known ends. I’m sure I read other things this year, but Crown Of Stars is quite enough to recommend.

Taste of Honey Wilson cover

Sessily Watt: 2018 was an unsettled year. Life teetered on possible changes that never quite occurred, depositing me back where I started, caught in the anticipation of yet another change that probably wouldn’t occur either. In this liminal space, Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey was the book I needed, so much so that I read it twice. In gorgeous, lyric prose and an ambitious story structure that he lands with aplomb, Wilson makes the story of Aqib and Lucrio both tragedy and romance, rooted in a swirling fantasy that hints at worlds beyond the page. True to my tendency to be several years behind, A Taste of Honey was published in 2016, but arrived in my life at just the right time. Other favorites from my genre reading this year were Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts and R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War. I read one at the beginning of the year and one at the end, and both have left flashes of scenes in their wake, moments of darkness and brightness that rise up like my own memories, catching me unaware.

Sing Unburied Ward cover

Lesley Wheeler: When poetry time-travels, it almost always turns the dial backwards. Poetry is an art of memory. Yet the two collections that awed me most this year were speculative in the sense of being conditional, concerned with how history frames our possible futures: If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar and American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins by Terrance Hayes. I wouldn’t call either sf, however, unlike Sally Rosen Kindred’s Says the Forest to the Girl, which was my favorite epistle from fairy tale territory.

Among this year’s novels, memory was also a powerful theme: Tana French’s amnesiac mystery The Witch Elm was riveting, and I adored Jesmyn Ward’s literary ghost story Sing Unburied Sing. Other compelling originals were Maria Hummel’s art-world mystery Still Lives, with its sharp critique of fetishistic portrayals of violence against women; the Jules Verne-like travelogue of Washington Black, a young scientist escaping slavery, by Esi Edugyan; and Tananarive Due’s The Good House, which has the propulsive force of Stephen King’s horror but is focused on violence in an African American family, with a strong female lead character. The narrative that had the most lasting effect on my way of thinking, however, was Richard Powers’ The Overstory. Like much great speculative fiction, it recenters a reader’s focus on the more-than-human world: in this case, trees. Ward’s novel was more beautiful, richer in human ways, but Powers literally shifted my vision.

 



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