What do we want out of speculative fiction? In her introduction to The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2022, Rebecca Roanhorse states that, “My childhood was defined by a mighty need to escape.” She describes finding solace in science fiction and fantasy books, “worlds of magic, heroes and villains, wonder and possibility.” As she matured, she discovered that “these imaginary worlds I so loved were not so different from my own after all,” as she found new and more complex works of literature, “powerful and radical and revolutionary.” It’s easy to read this as a simple description of growing up. But the idea of escape, or escapism, is not uncontroversial in SFF fandom. Calls for a more hopeful, escapist aesthetic frequently come from high-profile voices. Yet it’s hard to square this desire with SFF’s supposed status as the Literature of Ideas. If the value of speculative fiction is its ability to comment on society, why should it sequester itself from the hurly-burly of contemporary politics, hopeful or otherwise?
It’s a tension that Roanhorse’s introduction seems to be aware of. Of the twenty stories presented in the book, she argues that “Some are escapes into other worlds (as if escape were simple),” while others “simmer with radical revolution quite loudly,” and still others “subvert our cultural mores more quietly.” But even here, there is a kind of sublimated escapism, for apparently, “they all—no matter how dark they might twist and turn—offer a glimmer of hope within.” Reading through the assembled pieces, it’s easy to see how most of them appeal to SFF readers, but in some cases the proffered glimmer of hope feels very dim indeed.
It is perhaps unsurprising that, for a set of stories published in 2021, grief should figure so prominently. In José Pablo Iriarte’s “Proof by Induction,” Paulie, a young mathematician, rushes to the bedside of his dying father, a “professor emeritus at his same university.” The hospital staff inform him of his father’s death, but also of a new technology called a Coda, which will allow him “to interact with a simulacrum of [his] father, with his memories and personality at the end of his life.” Paulie, affected by his father’s death but also battling for tenure, decides to use the simulated personality to help him tackle a hitherto unsolved proof. It’s a pleasingly old school idea of science fiction, with its scenario of two men trying to solve a problem used as a metaphor for the grieving process and the stresses of living in a parent’s shadow. The story shows an interesting ambivalence about the situation, and smoothly transitions between broad philosophical discussions and smaller, more painful moments:
Paulie dropped into the bedside chair. “What’s it like?”
“Being dead but being conscious. Does it make you upset?”
His father shrugged. “It is what it is.”
“You had plans,” Paulie said. “You were going to remodel the house.”
“Guess now I’m not.”
Paulie gripped the bed’s footboard. “Don’t you feel anything at all?” He couldn’t remember if his father had ever had a feeling in his damned life.
“Would it change anything?”
A more expansive vision of personal sorrow appears in “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” by Maria Dong. The story concerns the fallout from a brilliant scientist creating a machine to produce “exact copies of anything it scans”—including his own grief at his wife’s death. The story unfolds into a surreal panorama as the world is seized by han, a Korean word that means “grudge and pain, anger and sorrow,” and can be transmitted “from person to person like a virus.” The most intriguing passages concern the virus’s “stranger symptoms”:
Reddit threads that explode with mentions of odd dreams, radios that bloom with the voices of recently dead loved ones, animals that stare at the clouds and whine. A particularly entertaining creepypasta about angels takes off like wildfire, its origins impossible to discern.
A similar broadening of personal grief can be found in “The Future Library” by Peng Shepherd. Inspired by the real life Framtidsbiblioteket project in Norway, the story is narrated by Ingrid Hagen, an out-of-work arborist in a climate-change-ravaged future. Ingrid falls in love with Claire Nakamura, a novelist charged with managing the last real forest on Earth, a few of whose trees will eventually be cut down to make paper for a hundred books collected over a century. Ingrid is devastated when Claire dies of “the Crackles,” a new and ubiquitous form of lung cancer. But a bigger shock comes when the first tree is finally cut down, and inside are found not rings, but words; “impossibly small yet somehow still legible, in one long, spiraling trail from the center out to the very edge where the bark began.” Shepherd’s story offers a canny braiding of climate grief and personal loss, in a narrative as inventive in its twists as it is devastating in its depiction of human love.
While great things are achieved in all three of these stories, it is hard to call any of them escapist as such. Indeed, the anthology is generally at its weakest when trying to be straightforwardly, capital-H Hopeful. Aimee Ogden’s “The Cold Calculations” is a well-executed but ultimately rather pat piece of metafiction about the importance of battling impossible odds. A response to “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, the story starts with the attention-grabbing statement: “Once upon a time, a little girl had to die. It’s just math,” an argument which the story goes on to reject.
Ogden’s narrator confronts the reader directly with depictions of injustice. “Some man at a desk, totting up columns in his ledger: profit on this side, little girls’ lives on the other. Who gave them the right?” While it’s easy to agree with the story’s conclusion—that we ought to be suspicious of zero-sum formulations of human suffering—the piece overall has a certain hollowness. When Ogden’s narrator declares that, “You’re stronger than you think. There are some desks that need to be flipped, and they need you to flip them,” the story starts to feel less like a meditation on systemic injustice than a piece of trite motivational speaking. Similarly disappointing is “Let All the Children Boogie” by Sam J. Miller, a cloying YA romance that leans just a little too heavily on its nostalgic references.
Other stories fail for more banal reasons. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Red Mother” is a bog-standard fantasy in which a sorcerer plays a game of riddles with a dragon, but only after a very long and uninvolving journey from A to B. Nalo Hopkinson’s “Broad Dutty Water: A Sunken Story” offers a lively, Waterworld-esque setting and a few visceral thrills, but the story’s most interesting idea takes forever to arrive before being unsatisfyingly shunted aside. And Justin C. Key’s “The Algorithm Will See You Now” offers a timely examination of mental health in a highly automated medical setting, but ends up feeling both overly complicated and disappointingly simplistic.
There are some stories that deal with hope in a more satisfying way. “Delete Your First Memory for Free” by Kel Coleman ends on a touching and intimate scene of human bonding, which is all the more effective for the unflinching treatment of the narrator’s anxiety up to that point. “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” by Karen Russell offers an endearingly quirky depiction of a woman’s unexpected yet welcome pregnancy, marked by visitations from a scavenging unicorn whom the narrator belatedly realises is pregnant as well:
“Oh!” I shouted like a Jeopardy! contestant, startling us both with my eureka! syntax, having recognized her uncanny condition. How had I missed it? “Are you pregnant?” I hadn’t guessed that an immortal could get knocked up. I wondered what the gestation time for a unicorn might be: hours, centuries? Now I guessed the reason she’d come bounding out of the mists to nose at Anja’s pizza boxes.
Cravings are ephemeral, but also undeniable.
Even when the thematic statements on the nature of hope arrive, it’s with the wry amusement of experience rather than flat aspiration. “Hoping was nothing to romanticize. It was a necessary, excruciating activity.” Even so, the book’s most compelling pieces feel distinctly removed from the concept of hope: darker, knottier, less easily summarised. Kelly Link’s contribution is typically brilliant and long on subtly disturbing details. In her “Skinder’s Veil,” a house-sitting gig proves a conduit for metaphysical horror, sexual misadventure, and a creeping sense of the uncanny within.
But the single best piece on offer is undoubtedly “Root Rot” by Fargo Tbakhi. A brutal, uncompromising story about a suicidal alcoholic living in a Martian colony, the opening paragraph creates a sense of wretched hopelessness with merciless efficiency:
By the time I hear that my brother is looking for me, and has somehow scraped together enough credit to get on a commercial flight to New Tel Aviv, and that he’s also brought his three-year-old daughter on her first interplanet trip, my insides are already rotten. Can’t get to the doctor without citizen papers, but I know. I can feel it. Lungs, liver, stomach, whatever—they’re done for. Most days I wake up, bleed, drink, bleed, and pass out. I am fucked beyond any reasonable doubt.
In his contributor’s note, Tbakhi describes the story as being partly about “the entrenchment and extension of colonial technologies.” The story’s most disturbing details are the depredations of the Martian regime on Palestinian settlers like the narrator. At one point he needs to travel “to the other side of the Arab Quarter,” which means “going through the New Tel Aviv settlement civic center” and surrendering a litre of his blood for a fifteen-minute pass. Later we learn that his brain has literally been altered by the system of apartheid:
Some days I’m sad about losing the language, but most days I don’t mind it. Ansar policy is to reprogram prisoner consciousness with Hebrew once they wipe the Arabic, which serves me fine. I like not understanding things.
When the narrator’s brother finally catches up with him and offers to take him home to “Reunified Palestine,” he promises to raise the money for his fare by selling his most prized possession, “the last real poppy on Mars,” brought with him from Earth when he still believed in the possibility of a better life. But in a cruel twist, he simply takes the money to pay off his bar tab, telling the barman (who happens to be his ex), “I’m going to sit here and drink and I don’t want you to ever try and stop me.” It is a devastating climax, and it helps make “Root Rot” a haunting and challenging piece of science fiction, one which deserves to be remembered among the very best of 2021.
“Root Rot” is a story about declining to escape. Tbakhi himself calls it “a story about failure and loss and giving up.” It’s hard to disagree, and even harder to deny its raw, hypnotic power. To judge the anthology as a whole, while the subject of hope certainly has its charms, it feels like the most compelling work in SFF lies far afield from it.