Paul McAuley, Beyond the Burn Line (2022)

My new year’s resolution to blog more regularly lasted until mid-February when my postviral fatigue condition decided to kick in full-bore once again. So, while I’m recovering from that, here’s a review of Paul McAuley’s Beyond the Burn Line, which I wrote earlier in the year. I really enjoyed this novel. There are a number of interesting resonances which could be elaborated on but didn’t really fit the review. One I might want to come back to is that the way in which the novel combines a fantasy-style quest narrative with post-singularity interventionist AI, is structurally reminiscent of some of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, such as Inversions and Matter. I’m not saying there is a stylistic similarity, and the kind of fantasy McAuley is drawing on is very different to the epic fantasy Banks satirises in Matter, but there was a point in Part Two in the novel when I suddenly thought to myself, ‘hey, its Special Circumstances!’, and that made me very happy. So, down the line, I might try and explore why this specific kind of fantasy and SF blend works for me. In part, I’m thinking, because there is an implicit temporal dimension (stretching back into the past and forward into the future) that perhaps functions to a similar effect as Niall Harrison ascribes to an overshoot novel. In the meantime:

This review first appeared in BSFA Review 20 (Spring 2023).

Beyond the Burn Line by Paul McAuley (Gollancz, 2022)

Reviewed byNick Hubble

Beyond the Burn Line defies easy categorisation. It is simultaneously the tale of a far-future post-Anthropocene Earth and a first-contact novel. The first half is a somewhat leftfield quest adventure set in a just-about preindustrial society. The second half is a high-tech thriller, complete with unreliable AIs and action scenes in exotic locations. If this sounds potentially bewildering, have no fear because the novel is such a beautifully written, character-driven and enchanting narrative, that it is a delight to immerse oneself within. I think a key reason for the intense readerly pleasure I experienced lay precisely in the way that Beyond the Burn Line combines so many types of stories that I like and does something meaningful with them.

The titular ‘Burn Line’ is a layer of ash ‘laid down by the eruption of the Yellowstone volcanic field and the global convulsion of endtime wars’, which happened two hundred thousand years before the novel’s opening. However, the extent to which we go beyond it is more metaphorical than literal, as we find ourselves transported outside conventional social norms in the company of people who do not come in conventional human forms and rejoice in monikers such as Foeless Landwalker, Noble Seatree and Joyous Hightower. While not all of these characters live up to their names, the protagonist of Part One of the novel, Pilgrim Saltmire, certainly does as he undertakes a journey – in the full sense of the word – to complete his recently deceased master’s unfinished work. The problem is that while his master was an undisputed genius and the originator of a Darwinian-style theory of natural selection, his final work is concerned with reports of the ‘visitors’, the far-future equivalent of UFO sightings, a topic which no respectable people want to be associated with.

Pilgrim’s attempt to fulfil this self-appointed task, including efforts to secure funding for the necessary travel and research, lead him further and further towards the margins of society. Eventually he discovers a map that appears to record appearances of the visitors to the civilisation of intelligent bears that had previously enslaved his people, before collapsing to a mind-wrecking plague hundreds of years earlier. The map, which is stolen before Pilgrim can unravel its mystery, remains significant even after he, with the help of ‘the invisible college’, discovers the truth of the visitations and his world is entirely changed. It is the fate of the map which provides the link to Part Two of the novel, set forty years later, in which Ysabel Moonsdaughter of the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs finds herself working alongside Pilgrim’s nephew, Goodwill Saltmire, to unravel the twisted thread of what is actually going on. This turns out to be more complicated than either reader or characters expected. Rather than neat solutions, the reward for our characters is to undergo a continual process of widening awareness, painful though that sometimes is, and this is what allows the novel to work so effectively. 

When asked in a recent interview for Clarkesworld what it takes to remain relevant, McAuley answered, ‘Staying alert to the happening world helps rather more, I guess, than trying to follow trends and fashions in fiction that aren’t a good fit for what you are interested in’. This is certainly true of Beyond the Burn Line which is not following any specific current trend but nonetheless captures the dynamic instability of the contemporary zeitgeist with the overdetermined intensity of a lucid dream. Reading this novel doesn’t provide all the answers but it does allow a relatively safe space for the mind to work through some of the sharp issues arising from the clash of tradition with acute social and technological change. It’s almost as though the synthesis of well-written storytelling and speculative science (in this case, the evolution of intelligence and sentience), which characterises McAuley’s brand of SF, has been adaptively selected for this purpose.


Glyn Morgan (ed.) Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of the Imagination (2022)

This is the book accompanying the current Science Fiction exhibition at the Science Museum, which I visited while attending the Clarke Award ceremony on 26 October 2022 (leading to some reflections on my two years as a judge). Like Rox Samer’s Lesbian Potentiality & Feminist Media in the 1970s, which I recently wrote about here, Science Fiction is on the longlist for the BSFA Award for Best Non Fiction of 2022. As with Samer’s book, I’ve given this one of my votes for inclusion on the shortlist (voting remains open until 19 February for BSFA members), which I will be reviewing later in the year. This category is always difficult to select for because of the variety of works competing against each other, which range from short online articles to academic monographs and all forms in between. Science Fiction earned my vote because it’s at least two books in one: both an immensely browsable volume of pictures and illustrations, many of them worthy of extended contemplation, and a strong set of essays divided into five themed sections (as described below) – each also including an author interview. It’s a book that various earlier incarnations of me would have loved and repeatedly read, before going on to track down some of the stories, novels and films discussed (and, in fact, despite now being relatively knowledgeable concerning the field, it has still set me on the trail of various texts and ideas). Hopefully, it – and the exhibition itself – will inspire new generations to embrace science fiction (in the widest, intersectional, sense), which, for all its occasional flaws, probably offers humanity the best chance to achieve the kind of social paradigm shift necessary to save itself. In this respect, I think the very existence of the exhibition at such an iconic institution in London, following the 2011 ‘Out of this World’ exhibition at the British Library and the city’s hosting of the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention in 2014, is indicative of an ongoing cultural shift. My only quibble would be that we also need explicitly to include a broader approach to all of fantastika and its associated values within this ‘movement’ in order to offset those aspects of SFnal instrumental rationality which appeal to the billionaire tech bros and their admirers. But that’s a different argument for a different day. In the meantime, I don’t think you could imagine a better exhibition book than this.

This review is a slightly revised version of one which first appeared in BSFA Review 19 (Winter 2022).

Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of the Imagination edited by Glyn Morgan (Science Museum/Thames & Hudson, 2022)

Reviewed by Nick Hubble

Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of the Imagination is the companion book to the exhibition of the same name that opened at the Science Museum on 6 October and continues until (of course) 4 May 2023. There is also a programme of accompanying events, which included hosting the ceremony for the 36th annual edition of the Arthur C. Clarke Award on 26 October. That particular event, which saw copies of the shortlist on sale in the exhibition shop alongside a pretty decent range of fiction from across the field, complemented the exhibition’s understandable visual focus on juxtaposing iconic material from SF film and television, such as Iron Man’s armour suit and Hal 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with space and cybernetic technology. This book, however, manages to combine fully the visual impact of the exhibition (by including over 200 colour illustrations) with an impressive survey of both media and books. Aside from the excellent design standards, the extent and quality of the analysis suggest that Science Fiction should appeal to an audience beyond those who’ve been to the exhibition and remain of value for the foreseeable future.

As editor Glyn Morgan notes at the beginning of his introduction, ‘Science fiction is a near-boundless enterprise. It cannot be contained between the covers of a single book.’ This is, of course, very true and it is interesting to see how this book works its way round this problem. A few years ago, the companion book to the British Library’s SF exhibition took the form of a literary history, covering speculative writing from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. In this case, the key context is science rather than fiction (although there is some overlap of contributors with that earlier volume). The preface to the book by Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, answers the question of why a science museum would focus on SF by arguing that SF is ‘so much more than fiction’. He goes on to suggest that in the same way climate modellers explore different possible future scenarios, SF helps us imagine and deal with what is to come. In other words, as Nalo Hopkinson puts it in a second preface, SF is ‘the literature of social and technological change’. Therefore, as Morgan explains, ‘Science, society and [SF] are in constant conversation, trading ideas and hypotheticals, making suggestions and corrections’ and the chapters in the book are consequently organised in five sections which chart such ‘feedback loops, conversations and collaborations’. The potential range of such ‘conversations’ is illustrated by the double spread on which this passage is written, including pictures of the cover and disc of ‘The Sounds of Earth’ Golden Record attached to the Voyager space probes and a collage by Pamela Zoline, which was originally published in the July 1967 issue of New Worlds as part of her story, ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’.

The five sections, each of which contains two chapters, are ‘People and Machines’, ‘Travelling the Cosmos’, ‘Communications and Language’, ‘Aliens and Alienation’ and ‘Anxieties and Hopes’. There isn’t space in this review to discuss these in detail and so I will here briefly discuss the first section to give some idea of how it thematically coheres. Sherryl Vint’s ‘People as Machines/Machine People’ begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), often called the first SF novel, linking the ethical questions raised by the Creature – including the challenge to class-based inequality – to representations of the android/robot in texts ranging from Janelle Monáe’s 2018 album Dirty Computer back to Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1921) and forward again to Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein: A Love Story (2019). An extracted quote from Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985) proclaims: ‘The boundary between [SF] and social reality is an illusion.’ As if to prove this point, Colin Milburn’s ‘In the Loop’, the next chapter, begins with a discussion of how the developer of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, took inspiration from the 1965 short story ‘Dial “F” For Frankenstein’ by Arthur C. Clarke, who was himself the originator of the concept of geosynchronous communications satellites. Similar connections throughout the rest of the book really do deliver on Morgan’s promise of ‘feedback loops’ between science, society and SF, and allow readers to form their own chains of association.

Each section also includes an author interview. In order, Chen Qiufan talks about AI, ecology, and the limits of ‘Chinese SF’ as a label; Charlie Jane Anders discusses tidally locked planets, why SF engages queer communities, and how it has the potential to help people deal with the rapid and bewildering change that is coming; Vandana Singh speaks eloquently about feeling like an alien after coming from India to the US as a graduate student and how the transdisciplinary lens of SF is a great tool for reconceptualising climate change; Tade Thompson is wonderfully blunt about the shortcomings of the term ‘hard SF’, how medicine is handled poorly in SF, and white Western culture’s ‘selective amnesia’ with respect to African SF; Kim Stanley Robinson describes ‘the kitchen sink approach’ to writing about climate change, how ‘future history’ exists between near-future extrapolation and far-future speculation, and instances of SF changing the culture, such as the post-apocalyptic novels of the 1950s helping create the climate for the nuclear test ban treaty. This is a great set of writers to highlight to new, or, indeed, old readerships. Overall, far from just a glossy tie-in to the exhibition, this book is a hugely ambitious attempt to show SF for what it is in 2022: the culturally dominant global literary and media form for an age of unprecedented social and scientific change.

Christopher Priest, Expect Me Tomorrow (2002) and Some Thoughts on Temporal Structure and Whether It is an ‘Overshoot Novel’

One of the thoughts I had while reading Niall Harrison’s very recent, excellent article for Strange Horizons, ‘In Search of Green Overshoots’ – in which he discusses multistranded time-hopping novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and defines a particular category of these as ‘overshoot novels’ because their trajectory takes us from the past, through the present, and into the future – is how does Expect Me Tomorrow fit into this typology. Having looked at the novel again carefully, I’d say more awkwardly than I first thought for a couple of reasons.

First, it doesn’t follow a regular structure in the same way as Cloud Atlas does. As Harrison explains:

A simple notation [demonstrates the] structure … of Cloud Atlas: if we use [P] to indicate the present, or the strand set closest to when the novel was published, and the letters A to O to indicate strands set before the present (with A being the earliest), we can reserve the letters Q to Z to indicate strands set after the present (with Z being the latest)—and Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA.

In particular, what Harrison defines as an ‘overshoot novel’ has a linear structure which extends into the future. For example, another novel by Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014), has a structure which he represents using the same notation as ABC[P]YZ. However, the category doesn’t always have to be so clear cut, as is demonstrated by the structure of a 1998 novel by Mona Clee with the actual title of Overshoot, which Harrison came across while researching uses of ‘overshoot’ in literary contexts and notates as: YAYBYCYDYEYEYEYE[P]YZ. This variation is due to the novel being narrated in retrospect through a framing narrative, but, despite this, we can still see that the underlying temporal progression of the novel is linear.

This cannot really be said of Expect Me Tomorrow, which I tentatively translate into Harrison’s notation as DJBC[X]EHF[X]GHI[X/I/X]J[X/A/X]K/X (!). This is obviously much more messy and fluid, although I think we can see that there is at least some sort of broad linear progression. I haven’t used [P] to indicate the present because ‘the strand set closest to when the novel was published’ is set in 2050 and the novel does not extend any further into the future. If I labelled the scenes set in 2050 as [P] – the future represented in them is a recognisable extrapolation of current trends – then the novel wouldn’t be an ‘overshoot’ novel at all. However, I think there is a future implied beyond the scenes set in 2050. Furthermore, I had the feeling at times that the narration of the novel was from the vantage point of our present. By this, I mean more than the fact that Priest wrote the novel during the pandemic year of 2020 (see below). In places, such as the first chapter describing a court case from 1877 (and the eighth, tenth and twelfth chapters describing court cases from 1896 and 1904), the implied narration could be taken as coming from our present. Priest might have presented these chapters as extracts of a specific source from 2050 but he doesn’t; it reads like authorial narration: ‘In May 1877 a trial took place at the Central Criminal Court in London, and became the first act in the story that follows.’ The second chapter is narrated from the first-person viewpoint of Adler Beck writing in 1904 (J in the above notation), which I take as the present for his sections of the novel, which, run from B to K (so, you can see that there is an ‘overshoot’ to the Beck arc of the overall narrative). The 2050 scenes, which mostly centre on Chad Ramsey, are written in the third person, but we might choose to understand these as a story being told to us by the narrator of the opening sentence of the book and, therefore, it is not correct to label 2050 as [P].

The other reason Expect Me Tomorrow is perhaps an awkward fit as an ‘overshoot novel’ is that some of the time hopping is due to a sort of time travel, enabled by use of the below-mentioned ‘IMC’ device in conjunction with another gadget. I’ve indicated this in the notation through the use of the diagonal slash: X/I/X. I don’t think having an explicit time-travel device necessarily disqualifies a novel from being considered according to overshoot criteria. It would depend on how the story is narrated, but there is the issue that once you have some kind of time-travel device then it is possible to short circuit the basic linearity which underpins the category. So, it’s another complicating factor. Of course, such devices come in a number of forms and Priest uses more than one in the novel. Perhaps the most commonplace piece of time-travel technology in general use in our world is the book, which allows one-way communication between the past and future. The final chapter of Expect Me Tomorrow, which is dated both 1905 and 2050 (K/X in my notation), ends with Chad reading the postscript of Adler Beck’s book, published in the earlier year. The other time-travel, or perhaps time-condensation, moment occurs when a receding glacier in 2050 reveals material from 1853, the earliest point in the novel (a section of the narrative I have designated as X/A/X).

So, I have explained in some detail why Expect Me Tomorrow is, at best, an awkward fit for the overshoot paradigm. Why then discuss it in these terms? Because as Harrison notes: ‘The majority of overshoot novels which I have encountered or been able to research are, like Overshoot, focused on environmental, anthropocene-era concerns’. Such novels are, of course, ‘green overshoot’ novels, hence the title of Harrison’s article. In developing this argument, he quotes Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions to the effect that ‘climate change is not just a “theme” in fiction. It remakes basic narrative operations’. On this point, I would direct you to Harrison’s discussion in the article and the various critics he refers to. However, I couldn’t help wondering whether there are actually two parallel processes going on here: one being how the need to make sense of climate change drives a shift in how narrative functions and the other being how the sustained commitment to rework narrative (such as demonstrated over Priest’s career) itself drives a paradigm change, with the potential of opening the doors of human perception, and thus releasing us from the consensus reality of industrial modernity, so that we can actually change our ways. In other words, Expect Me Tomorrow continues the overshoot trajectory of Priest’s own oeuvre, which I have described as ‘a persistence of the New Wave’ that refuses to collapse into the imposed coherence of consensual capitalist realism. At which point, let me insert this slightly revised version of my review of Expect Me Tomorrow which first appeared in BSFA Review 19 (Winter 2022).

Expect Me Tomorrow by Christopher Priest (Gollancz, 2022)

Reviewed by Nick Hubble

As reported on his blog, Christopher Priest wrote Expect Me Tomorrow, his seventeenth novel, over the course of the 2020 pandemic period, submitting the manuscript at the end of October of that year at more-or-less the same time as his previous novel, The Evidence, was published. It has therefore taken nearly two years to come out in English, although a French edition, Rendez-vous demain, has already been published in April 2022. In the meantime, Priest has written another ‘new book’, which is due out next year [i.e. 2023]. It’s not clear, but I presume this will also be a novel [it will indeed be a novel, with the title Airside]; at which point Priest will have published seven novels and a substantial collection of short stories since 2011. In other words, he has produced a major body of internationally respected work in the twenty-first century proper (understood as beginning after the financial crash of 2008) that deserves to be considered highly significant in terms of both artistic creation and (admittedly sometimes oblique) social commentary. In Expect Me Tomorrow, decades of writerly craft are honed to produce not the great British novel, but a deadpan, darkly comic anti-novel charting the attenuated social life of the island we live on against the backdrop of radical climate change across a period of nearly 200 years.

The novel begins with a third-person omniscient (possibly authorial) discussion of the 1877 trial of ‘John Smith’, a petty con man preying on women, before skipping forward briefly to 1904, to the first-person account of glaciologist and climate scholar Professor Adler J. Beck, who is completing the proofing of his forthcoming book, Take Heed! – A Scientist Warns of the Terror to Come. Beck looks back at his career over the previous decades and also ponders the relationship with his bohemian twin brother, Adolf, which is mainly conducted via the letters that ‘Dolf’ dictates to passing acquaintances found during the course of his travels. Meanwhile, in 2050, Adler’s descendant Chad Ramsey lives in an increasingly heatwave- and sea-ravaged Hastings, where he works as a profiler for the police, and occasionally communicates with his twin brother, Greg, a freelance political journalist. The set-up sounds familiar, but Priest has teased on his blog, ‘To anyone who has read some of my past books I should mention that this time there are two sets of identical twins, but no one muddles them up and none of them is a magician.’ This is also misdirection because despite the 19C sections, Expect Me Tomorrow bears far less resemblance to The Prestige than to the counterfactual alternate history of The Separation; indeed, at one point we are told that ‘Chad and Greg Ramsey were born in 2002’, which was the year of publication of that latter novel.

Chad, who allows an ‘instant mental communication’ (‘IMC’) device to be inserted into his brain while away on a training course, which turns out to be shortly followed by his redundancy, is possibly the most extreme example of distracted detachment in (in)action within the entire Priest canon. At some level, he embodies what we all, by falling for misdirection, have allowed to be done to us by climate change, which is a man-made artefact of capitalism. However, there is a lot else going on in this novel, which in an unexpected parallel with Kim Stanley Robinson’s equally climate-centred The Ministry for the Future, led me to look up a fair amount of science, not to mention British legal history and even the changing name of Norway’s capital city, on Wikipedia (there is also a useful bibliography at the end of Expect Me Tomorrow). To be sure, Priest is not as didactic as Robinson, although he might be read as strongly suggesting it would be a good idea to move away from the South-East coast and possibly go as far as Scotland or Norway. Indeed, the title of this novel might best be understood as a warning.

Afterword: Or a promise. We usually talk about ‘tomorrow’ in the present tense as though it is in fact part of the present and will be a straightforward continuation of today; we go to bed and then we wake up and we’re already there in tomorrow. The vast majority of people never experience the alarm clock’s call as presenting a Sartrean existential choice. But that’s misdirection. Tomorrow isn’t part of the present and as Priest’s novel demonstrates, the promise of tomorrow can be redeemed from even more than 150 years in the future. Or, rather, we are still awaiting, as we have been for more than 150 years, for the arrival of the ‘tomorrow’ to the Age of Industrial Modernity…but it will come. As Harrison writes, ‘It’s that tipping-over [into the future] that gives [overshoot] novels with this structure, for me at least, a distinctive affect: the compelling sense that, for one reason or another, they cannot be fully resolved without extrapolation’. That’s the feeling that Priest’s novels have always given me and why I continually go back to them (and forward to each new one). Not always in relation to climate change to be sure, but definitely in this case. So, my conclusion is that Expect Me Tomorrow is not a typical green overshoot novel but exactly what you would expect to result from Priest setting out to write a green overshoot novel.

Some Thoughts on the Longlist for BSFA Best Novel Award

The longlist (i.e. list of those works nominated) for the BSFA Best Novel Award for works published in 2022 contains no less than 68 novels. BSFA members are currently voting (until 19 February) to whittle this down to a shortlist of around 6 (it was 6 last year, 10 the year before, 5 the year before that), before another round of voting will result in the winner, which will be announced at this year’s Eastercon, Conversation 2023. However, what the longlist offers is a snapshot of the field that is different to, but will be interesting to compare with, the Clarke Award submission list. As a quick aside at this point, earlier in the year Adam Roberts blogged on the 2022 Clarke-Award shortlist  and, amongst other thoughts, complained that the Clarke has never considered a franchise tie-in novel (which its guidelines preclude), specifically referencing the excellence of Una McCormack, amongst others, in this respect. Well, Una McCormack’s Picard: Second Self is on this BSFA longlist, as indeed is Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Echoes of Eternity, a Horus Heresy Siege of Terra novel (from the Warhammer 40,000 setting). It’s good to see these aspects of genre writing reflected in a list such as this. However, the main difference between the submission/nomination lists of the (juried) Clarke and (member-voted) BSFA awards stems from the fact that this longlist is compiled according to member nominations, while the Clarke list consists of those works submitted for the award by the publishers. There haven’t always been longlists for the BSFA awards (this year’s are here) but my impression is that they are getting longer and this is due to the membership getting bigger or, leastways, more members nominating – Allen Stroud, the BSFA chair, estimates that there was about a 8% increase in the number nominating this year. Furthermore, digital membership of the BSFA means that members can be found around the World, thus diversifying the range of books being nominated. Publishing a longlist serves the function of providing a suggestion list for members that enables them to ‘find’ new authors and also mitigates the issue of people perhaps only remembering the more well-known writers when it comes to the shortlisting process. However, the field is also clearly wider than it was, say, twenty years ago. Looking at the longlist is a way of charting these changes (having said that, I didn’t particularly examine the longlist last year and so trends are more likely to become apparent to me over the years ahead).

Turning to the list itself, which can be found at the bottom of this post, there are some general points that can be made. (N.B. obviously, I haven’t read all of these books and so I’m drawing here on information gleaned from a fairly rapid trawl through publisher and author webpages – what follows is not intended as a rigorous, comprehensive analysis). At least a quarter of these books, if not more, are fantasy, whether that is epic fantasy, science fantasy, urban fantasy or gothic horror or whatever. This is not surprising: genre boundaries have dissolved and in any case fans read across boundaries as they please. However, looking through the past winners and shortlists on the Wikipedia page for the BSFA Award for Best Novel, it is readily apparent that with a few notable exceptions – e.g. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was shortlisted for the 2004 award, Robert Holdstock won with both Mythago Wood and Lavondyss in 1984 and 1988 respectively – the award has almost exclusively featured works of SF until the last three years. A recent post on the Brittle Paper website draws attention to The African Writers and Artists Longlisted for the 2022 British Science Fiction Awards, citing the inclusion of Tendai Huchu, Tade Thompson, Eugene Bacon, Adam Oyebanji, and Alistair Mackay on the longlist for Best Novel. More than 10% of the longlist are by US writers based in the US (as opposed to US-born writers based in the UK of whom there are also a few). A number of US writers have won in the past – including N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie (twice), Kim Stanley Robinson, Gregory Benford, Dan Simmons and Gene Wolfe – and, unsurprisingly given the centrality of the US market to the field, at least one book by a US writer has appeared on most recent shortlists. Last year this was Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace, which was perhaps possible to predict (and, of course, went on to with the Hugo for Best Novel) but I can’t at the moment foresee an American novel on the shortlist this year. 

The shortlist last year, apart from Martine, included Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shards of Earth (which won), Aliya Whiteley’s Skyward Inn (also shortlisted for the Clarke Award), Adam Roberts’s Purgatory Mount, Liz Williams’s Blackthorn Winter, and Juliet E. McKenna’s The Green Man’s Challenge – the last two of which are in ongoing (very enjoyable) fantasy series, with in both cases an earlier volume in the series having already been shortlisted. One would imagine that Tchaikovsky, with the sequels to both Shards of Earth and Children of Ruin (which won BSFA Best Novel for 2019) in play, Williams and McKenna, both with the succeeding volumes in their respective series on this year’s longlist, and Roberts (a former winner), whose The This is perhaps generating even more favourable word-of-mouth than Purgatory Mount, are all in contention to be shortlisted again this year. However, there are also new books from other recent winners, such as Aliette de Bodard, Gareth Powell, and Dave Hutchinson; not to mention the latest (very good) works of longer-established writers, such as four-times winner Christopher Priest, 2001 winner Alistair Reynolds, and the four-times-shortlisted Paul McAuley. There are also novels by the former Clarke-Award winners Emily St John Mandel and Tade Thompson (Priest and McAuley have also won the Clarke), and former Clarke-Award shortlistees such as Emmi Itaranta, R.B. Kelly and Simon Jiminez amongst others. There are also other books that I just found very good such as E.J. Swift’s The Coral Bones and Lorraine Wilson’s The Way the Light Bends. One firm conclusion is that there is lot of good stuff out there to be read and hopefully this longlist will introduce some of it to people who might not otherwise find it so quickly.

On the other hand, the field is now so big that it’s not really possible to read it all. I have so far read nine of these books: apart from the Swift and the Wilson, these are Christopher Priest’s Expect Me Tomorrow, Alistair Reynold’s Eversion, Paul McAuley’s Beyond the Burn Line, R.B Kelly’s On the Brink, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s City of Last Chances, Liz Williams’s Embertide and Adam Roberts’s The This. Apart from the last two mentioned, I read these in order to write reviews (variously for the BSFA Review and ParSec). I’d be happy to see any of these do well (although I suspect that Tchaikovsky’s other two books are more likely to be shortlisted than City of Last Chances, which is fantasy and only came out very late in 2022). I have three further books from the longlist sitting on the TBR pile: Emmi Itaranta’s The Moonday Letters, Sandra Newman’s The Men, and Allen Stroud’s Resilient. I definitely will get Juliet E. McKenna’s The Green Man’s Gift because I like the series. Other than that, books by the following were on my radar before the longlist came out and I would hope to get around to most of these over the course of time: Bacon, de Bodard, Hutchinson, Jiminez, Kuang, Mandel, Maxwell, Thompson, and the other two Tchaikovsky novels. Clicking through the links for the longlist has drawn my attention towards another six books: Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise, Tendai Huchu’s Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments, Hoa Pham’s Empathy, Ned Beauman’s Venomous Lumpsucker, Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter, and Lucy Kissick’s Plutoshine. Hopefully, I can report back on those at some point. No doubt, there will be gems on this long list that I have not yet mentioned and maybe those too will come to light. As in past years, I will be looking to review the BSFA shortlists (at least, the ones for Best Novel and Best Nonfiction) before Eastercon.

The Longlist in Full:

Ben Aaronovitch, Amongst Our Weapons

Katherine Addison, The Grief of Stones   

Eugen Bacon, Mage of Fools

Ned Beauman, Venomous Lumpsucker

E. D. E. Bell, Night Ivy     

Aliette de Bodard, The Red Scholar’s Wake

Mike Chen, Light Years From Home

Chele Cook, From Death to Dawn

Blake Crouch, Upgrade

Sunyi Dean, The Book Eaters

Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Echoes of Eternity

John Dodd, Ocean of Stars                         

Ever Dundas, HellSans   

Ruthanna Emrys, A Half-Built Garden

Hiron Ennes, Leech

Zoe Gilbert, Mischief Acts

Georgi Gospodinov, Time Shelter

Nicola Griffith, Spear

Frances Hardinge, Unraveller

Natalie Haynes, Stone Blind

Cat Hellisen, Cast Long Shadows

Tendai Huchu, Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments                               

Taran Hunt, The Immortality Thief

Ren Hutchings, Under Fortunate Stars                   

Dave Hutchinson, Cold Water     

Emma Itaranta, The Moonday Letters     

Terry Jackman, Harpan’s Worlds

Simon Jimenez, The Spear Cuts Through Water

R. B. Kelly, On the Brink 

T Kingfisher, Nettle & Bone         

T. Kingfisher, What Moves the Dead                       

Lucy Kissick, Plutoshine

R. F. Kuang, Babel           

M. D. Lachlan, Celestial 

Oliver K. Langmead, Glitterati     

Paul McAuley, Beyond the Burn Line       

Una McCormack, Picard: Second Self                     

Alistair Mackay, It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way                 

Juliet E. Mckenna, The Green Man’s Gift

Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility              

Everina Maxwell, Ocean’s Echo

Simon Morden, Flight of the Aphrodite   

Otessa Moshfegh, Lapvona                        

Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go in the Dark

Sandra Newman, The Men

Tochi Onyebuchi, Goliath

Adam Oyebanji, Braking Day

Gareth Powell, Stars and Bones 

Hoa Pham, Empathy                      

Christopher Priest, Expect Me Tomorrow

Alistair Reynolds, Eversion

Adam Roberts,   The This

Peng Shepherd, The Cartographers

Angela Slatter, The Path of Thorns

Allen Stroud, Resilient                  

EJ Swift, The Coral Bones             

Sue Lynn Tan, Daughter of the Moon Goddess

Nathan Tavares, A Fractured Infinity       

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Memory

Adrian Tchaikovsky, City of Last Chances

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Eyes of the Void       

Tade Thompson, Jackdaw                          

Catriona Ward, Sundial

Kit Whitfield, In the Heart of Hidden Things                         

Liz Williams, Embertide 

Lorraine Wilson, The Way the Light Bends            

Khan Wong, The Circus Infinite  

Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise

New Publication: ‘Thirty Years is Ample Time: The Clarke Award and Literary Science Fiction’ in Andrew M. Butler and Paul March-Russell, eds, Rendezvous with Arthur C. Clarke: Centenary Essays

I recently noted while ‘Looking Back on the 2022 Clarke Award’ that the collection containing this chapter would be out shortly. And here it is …

Copy of Andrew M Butler and Paul March-Russell, eds, Rendezvous with Arthur C. Clarke: Centenary Essays

The table of contents are as pictured below:

Contents page
Second contents page

As you can see, it’s chock-full of good stuff but what particularly leapt out at me was the opening of Andrew M. Butler and Paul March-Russell’s ‘Introduction’:

Writing in The Village Voice in 1998, Jonathem Lethem offered a day-dream of science fiction’s ‘squandered promise’, an alternative history in which Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow rather than Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, won the Nebula Award in 1973. Sf, liberated from its genre ghetto by the experiments of the New Wave, re-joined the literary mainstream. Lethem’s essay, even as it desires the dissolution of generic boundaries, insists upon them… (1)

If Lethem had been able to see further than the conventionality of Clarke’s prose, they argue, he might have been able to see in ‘the peculiarities of Clarke’s narrative’ – which include not just the sublime, but also queerness, weirdness and the decentring of the classical liberal human subject – a writer who deserves re-evaluation. This set-up works nicely for me because it eventually pays off in Butler and March-Russell’s description of my chapter:

Nick Hubble turns to the history of the Clarke Award, and assesses both the extent to which the prize has sustained Clarke’s legacy and the degree to which the annual shortlists have blurred the boundaries between sf and mainstream fiction, perhaps in ways that simultaneously disprove Lethem’s thesis and vindicate his former hopes for the genre. (10)

I particularly like the apparent paradox highlighted here by the editors concerning the relationship between SF and mainstream fiction: the boundaries have blurred precisely because SF didn’t follow the apparent trajectory of the New Wave and merge fully into avant-garde literature. I’m tempted to write a cautionary alternate history in which the 1973 Nebula is the Jonbar point and the counterfactual victory of Gravity’s Rainbow leads to a present in which the high literary canon reigns supreme and SF is found only in grubby paperbacks with lurid covers, read by men in anoraks. The reality, of course, is that categories such as ‘mainstream fiction’ – and even ‘English Literature’ itself – are maintained by exclusion of genres that are considered irredeemably beneath them. (For that matter, Golden Age SF was generated and maintained by excluding the more heterogenous blend of fantasy, horror and adventure that previously characterised genre magazines in favour of a science/engineering focus). The ongoing collapse of all these boundaries just leaves us with fiction – a field in which SF (&F &H etc) is as good as any other bookshop category with the added bonus that it speaks to the accelerated social and technological changes we are living through.

In this respect, Clarke is one of the key cultural figures of our time. This was really brought home to me by Butler and March-Russell’s introduction, in which they argue that the disparity between Clarke’s continued popular influence, over everything from science communication to tech utopianism and environmentalism, and his critical status demands reassessment of his standing. They then launch this reassessment through a biographical account. What struck me in reading this are the parallels between Clarke and H.G. Wells, who was one of his literary heroes. Like Wells, from a very modest family background, Clarke first established himself as a popular science writer, he went on advocate world government and he ended up with a similar international status – mixing with political leaders and Nobel-Prize-winning scientists. There is a case to be made that they are the writers who frame the twentieth century. Wells’s status within English Literature has shifted over the last decade or so: where once he was framed as the straw man in relation to writers such as Henry James or Virginia Woolf, he has gained more prominence recently. Clarke has been largely ignored but, at the very least, he clearly should be included in even very traditional academic Eng Lit history – I do manage a brief discussion, alongside lengthier analyses of Tolkien and Wyndham, in my (literary history of the decade) chapter in The 1950s: A Decade of Modern British Fiction (in the Bloomsbury ‘Decades Series’, which I co-edit). However, with the gradual but consistent decline of ‘English Literature’ as an academic discipline (in terms of the numbers studying at A level and BA level), the opportunity has arisen to break with the canonical conceptions that have held sway since the Second World War. Clarke, with his legacy enshrined in the US-based Arthur C. Clarke Foundation for science education, the Sir Arthur C. Clarke Awards for space exploration and, of course, the Clarke Award, does offer a useful peg for supporting the kind of new cultural paradigm that is so desperately required as we go further into the twenty-first century.

This brings me back to my chapter on the Clarke Award. The title, ‘Thirty Years is Ample Time’, is a play on Clarke’s provocative statement in Childhood’s End (1953) that ‘Fifty years is ample time in which to change a world and its people almost beyond recognition’ (75). As I conclude in the chapter:

In fact, thirty years has proved ample time enough for the Award bearing his name to change completely how we think about the relationship between sf and literature. By being the bridge, as [Neil] Gaiman suggests, between the world of sf and the world outside, the Clarke has not just showcased the full range of possibilities of sf but also enticed mainstream literature within its portals. While some mainstream authors have been awarded for employing sf devices to illuminate their concerns, the net result has been as [China] Miéville implies, to make sufficiently advanced forms of sf and literature indistinguishable. (250)

This last claim derives from Miéville’s play on Clarke’s ‘Third Law’ (‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’): ‘More and more readers can now agree, as Clarke Award-watchers have long known, that any sufficiently advanced science fiction is indistinguishable from literature’ (Miéville 2018: 189). But, less this be seen as a one-sided statement of values, Miéville goes on to confirm that, for him, the really exciting idea implicit to the Clarke Award is ‘that any sufficiently advanced literature must be indistinguishable from science fiction’ (Miéville 2018: 192). Clearly, ‘advanced’ here is not a reference to literary technique so much (although it still helps of course) as a measurement of sensitivity to social and technological change.

The time has come to set out in more detail the parameters of this ongoing paradigmatic cultural shift. Hence, I will be following up this chapter with project analysing the full history of the Clarke Award and what it reveals about the changing status of SF over the (now) thirty-five years of its existence. The idea is that this will eventually result in a book but in the first instance will consist of further posts here and elsewhere.

Works Cited

Andrew M. Butler and Paul March-Russell, eds, Rendezvous with Arthur C. Clarke: Centenary Essays. Canterbury: Gylphi

Arthur C. Clarke (2010) [1953] Childhood’s End. London: Tor

Neil Gaiman (2018) ‘On Judging the Clarke Award’, in Ian Whates and Tom Hunter (eds) 2001: An Odyssey in Words, pp. 185–6. Alconbury Weston: NewCon Press.

China Miéville (2018) ‘Once More on the 3rd Law’, in Ian Whates and Tom Hunter (eds) 2001: An Odyssey in Words, pp. 187–92. Alconbury Weston: NewCon Press.

Rox Samer, Lesbian Potentiality & Feminist Media in the 1970s (2022)

Lesbian Potentiality & Feminist Media in the 1970s is on the recently announced longlist for the BSFA Award for Best Non Fiction of 2022, so it seems like a good time to post my review of it. I’m certainly going to vote for its inclusion on the shortlist (which, as I have done for the last three years on this blog, I will review in its entirety later in the year). Furthermore, as I noted in the preamble to the text of my paper, ‘“And I didn’t sign up for a war, I thought I signed up for a revolution”: Jones/Russ’, for the ‘When it Changed: Women in SF/F since 1972’ conference held at the beginning of last December, I want to work in some of Samer’s analysis in to the longer piece that I will be writing about Jones and Russ. So, I probably will write more about Lesbian Potentiality here in due course.

This review is a slightly revised version of one which first appeared in BSFA Review 19 (Winter 2022).

Lesbian Potentiality & Feminist Media in the 1970s by Rox Samer (Duke University Press, 2022)

Reviewed by Nick Hubble

The central argument of Samer’s excellent book is that ‘more than a simple identity category’ (1), ‘lesbian’ in the 1970s signified ‘the potential that gendered and sexual life could and would someday be substantially different, the heteropatriarchy may topple, and that women would be the ones to topple it’ (4). The way to reconfigure society would be by erasing compulsory heterosexuality and in such a ‘lesbian future’, ‘the meaning of lesbian existence would not cease but would look, sound, and feel entirely different than it did in the 1970s present’ (4). On one level, therefore, Lesbian Potentiality & Feminist Media in the 1970sis relevant to contemporary 21C debates on who may and who may not claim to be a lesbian but, more significantly, the range of its scope, imagination, and ambition far exceeds the narrow and prescriptive terms in which such debates are framed by the British media.

Importantly, this book is not predominantly theoretical in orientation but mostly concerned with the 1970s praxis of feminist film making, covered in the first two chapters, and feminist SF fandom, covered in the third chapter. The fourth chapter, ‘Tip/Alli. Cutting a Transfeminist Genealogy of Siblinghood’, examines the life, work, and influence of SF author James Tiptree, Jr/ Alice B. Sheldon. An epilogue brings the two strands of film and SF together in a discussion of Lizzie Borden’s 1983 SF indie feature film, Born in Flames. In the remainder of this review, I am going to focus on the SF content, but I very much recommend the book as a whole.

Samer draws their concept of ‘lesbian potentiality’ from Giorgio Agamben’s essay ‘On Potentiality’, which argues that potentiality is central to human struggles for survival and expression. They explain it is a faculty for doing something, that is mostly fleetingly sensed in the very fact of its not being done; an awareness that something can be done without being either sure of having the capacity to do it or certain of the outcome. Potentiality is inherently political because it raises a constant threat to the status quo, which is dependent on everyone following narrowly prescribed lines of action. Becoming aware of this potentiality creates a painful experience of acute existential demand that is simultaneously the possibility of agency and social change. Samer argues that the 1970s feminist media they discuss didn’t only offer representations of lesbian potentiality but actually facilitated experiences of it. The example they give is the scene from Joanna Russ’s The Female Man in which Joanna kisses Laur in the knowledge that Laur will rebuke her and ‘the world will be itself again’, only for Laur to kiss her back, tearing reality for Joanna wide open and allowing her to see that anything was possible; this crucial moment is described in the novel as ‘that first, awful wrench of the mind’.

This wrench of potentiality is not just felt in The Female Man but across a wide range of futures depicted in 1970s lesbian feminist SF literature, including Russ’s ‘When it Changed’, Tiptree’s ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’, Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines, and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground; all of which feature women’s societies, or worlds in which the men have died either as a result of what have since become called Y plagues or (possibly) even as the result of losing a war of the sexes. Such texts sometimes seem biologically essentialist from a 21C perspective but, as Samer argues, what they actually do is play with SF’s capacity for temporal flexibility in order to contrast their imagined societies with heteropatriarchal pasts. This allows the stories to ‘work backward’ by exploring ‘lesbian potentiality in actuality, otherwise impossible, and lesbian potentiality gets extended in multiple directions against time’ (18-9). In this way, the old binary gender divide is rejected so that what it means to be a woman, or a human, is radically altered and new senses of self are created. A close reading shows how Tiptree’s ‘Houston, Houston’ ‘reveals that the creative exercise of envisioning a world without twentieth-century men facilitated the imagination of more genders, not fewer, and opened the potential for more to come’ (22).

In Chapter 3, ‘Raising Fannish Consciousness’, Samer describes how, unable to find a home at the time in either the wider feminist culture or SF fandom, 1970s feminist SF authors and their early readers set up their own ‘counterpublic’ of feminist SF fandom around fanzines such as Khatru, The Witch and the Chameleon, and Janus. Leading to the foundation in 1977 of the first feminist SF convention, WisCon. Samer notes that their own first WisCon (35, in 2011) modelled for them ‘what intergenerational comradery might look like’ (176). Their analysis differs from that of Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal (2009) in that rather than function as a history, it focuses ‘on the self-activity of a counterpublic still very much underway’ (178) and involved in renegotiating and renewing the idea of what form a future beyond compulsory heterosexuality will take, even as it moves increasing beyond its 1970s origins. Chapter 4 on Tip/Alli provides a case study illustrating how the 1970s feminist SF counterpublic was able to adapt and grow into the 21C by showing how lesbian potentiality included the exploration of gender in ways that look nonbinary or transmasculine today. Samer discusses the legacy of Tip/Alli through insightful analysis of the history of the Tiptree/Otherwise award and the 2015 Letters to Tiptree collection. Overall, Lesbian Potentiality & Feminist Media in the 1970s makes a convincing and necessary case for the argument that ‘feminist SF authors and fans claimed the genre for 1970s women but also for those folks of future genders who would continue to reconfigure social life’ (33).

Unreal Sex: An Anthology of Queer Erotic Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror (2021)

At the beginning of a year like this, when everyone is finally going to have to take sides, it’s comforting to think that in our future, machines will remember us from stories like these.

This review is a slightly revised version of one which first appeared in BSFA Review 19 (Winter 2022).

Unreal Sex: An Anthology of Queer Erotic Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror edited by So Mayer & Adam Zmith (Cipher Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Nick Hubble

‘I’ve always thought of sexual and textual as basically the same word’, confesses So Mayer in the dialogic introduction to this anthology. Some of the most influential approaches to literary criticism over the last thirty to forty years are rooted in this premise and often revolve around a teased-out analysis that enables a playful, extended deferral of meaning. However, when the texts under consideration are not just metaphorically sexual but directly concerned with sex acts, as the stories collected in this anthology are, that rather short-circuits the process. There is no hiding behind academic or any other readerly protocols when holding Unreal Sex in your hands: you either open it, and thereby open yourself to it, or you don’t. Not that there is really any choice because everyone is at least going to want to have a look at the contents page.

A quick perusal of the titles demonstrates that these stories, like other potential encounters, come in both types: those where you know what you’re getting into at the outset and those where you don’t. The former category includes the first and last stories in this collection. Gracie Beswick’s ‘Swipe Right for Non-Humans’ works beautifully both as an opening story and a recognisable slice of SF. It draws us in with the promise of cute aliens and delightfully introduces us to an NSFW version of Becky Chambers. In contrast, at the other end of the anthology, Alison Rumfitt’s ‘Boy in Maid Outfit Found Dead Handcuffed to Radiator in Girlboss’ Basement 11/08/2024’, has a title that is a mini flash fiction in its own right, and which tells us exactly what is going to happen. The proof of the anthology will be if we follow this story as willingly as Beswick’s and allow ourselves – in the terminology of the above-mentioned literary critics – to be interpellated into the subject position of the first-person narrator by going along with the ride even though we know the inevitable outcome. And, of course, I did.

However, perhaps at this point it would be best if we leave our critic chained to the radiator and forego the traditional platitudes suggesting that writing about sex ‘necessarily defaults to a realist mode, like porn, which is boring because of the flattened affect of exhaustively having to deal with all those specific body parts …’ blah, blah, blah. Realism be fucked! As Adam Zmith points out, ‘both poetry and porn thrive on repetition’ and these stories would make a supercomputer experience! Mayer concurs that they ‘engage the parts and feelings that the Western canon suppresses’. For example, the knowledge that ‘Beauty needs other people. Beauty is the flail of the orc in the throes of orgasm’ – my favourite line from Vivien Holmes’s ‘Circuit Jam’ – implies an entirely different, and oppositional, set of values to those of classical bourgeois individualism.

Among the stories in which the direction of travel isn’t signposted in the title, we find ourselves quickly transported into various regions of the queer fantastic, in which sex becomes a means of reconfiguring our relationship with the universe. These experiences can be supernatural as in Anna Walsh’s story of a retired teacher’s session with a medium, ‘Her Hands Moved Shimmering Across Me’. Likewise, despite her earnest assurance that ‘I was never one of those dykes occupied with crystals and horoscopes’, the protagonist of Rachel Dawson’s ‘The Ghostly Cruiser’ has an unforgettable roadside experience with a ghost while driving home one February after a late performance of Blithe Spirit in Machynlleth. In a nice touch, the atmospheric depiction of snow-covered wilderness is enhanced by the magical suggestion that ‘there are still women’s communes hidden in deepest Wales’. [It transpires from the 2021 census, that quite a few trans and nonbinary folk are also hidden away in deepest Wales]. In contrast, the protagonist of Swithun Cooper’s ‘The Neckinger Line’ is a ghost, or undying person, taking part in a ‘QUEER WALKING TOUR WITH ALL-GENDER IMMERSIVE CRUISING!’ The cutting motif of the story reveals an historical cross section of South London’s former docklands.

‘Lipophilic, malleable solids near ambient temperatures’ by Nicks Walker takes us into the realm of the occult as, lured by the promise of animist rituals, an artist tracks down the collection of the Society of the Eternal Wax to a remote castle on the western edge of the Scottish Highlands. To paraphrase the story’s title, wax, like body parts, melts and moulds into new configurations, dislocating time and rendering eternity somehow tangible. Like the artist’s own works, this story functions as ‘both self-satire and a kind of queer transcendence’. Diriye Osman’s ‘Anima Kingdom’, which takes its title from the fantastical club night for ‘femme black blokes’ which its narrator hosts in Peckham, is a warm, witty and weed-laced tale of two Somali neighbours getting together against a Brexit-era backdrop of gentrification and social change.

The other two stories in the volume, Rien Gray’s ‘Synchronicity’ and ‘Personal Time’ by Jem Nash, both play on classic SF storylines. The latter, despite it’s protestations to be ‘smarter than that’, is an enjoyable variation on the ‘Grandfather Paradox’. It reads like a stripped-down version of Robert Heinlein’s ‘“—All You Zombies—”’ (1959) with the memorable addition of a strap-on and the deceptively simple explanation that ‘the rest was kind of just advanced masturbation’. ‘Synchronicity’ is the tale of Kell, an expendable space scrapper making a hand-to-mouth living from deep space salvage, who passes up on the opportunity to make a fortune in order to travel the stars for free with a ‘hot alien symbiote’.

As Mayer argues in the introduction, ‘everything becomes possible because everything becomes sex’. All of the stories in Unreal Sex – especially the SF ones – remind us that our utopian future is not going to be heteronormative.

2022 Round-Up

Just another one of ‘those’ years. In a replay of 2021, I found myself returning to work in January after an extended spell of ‘Post-Exertional Malaise’ (PEM). I struggled through to Easter, started to feel better in May and June. Got Covid in July. Hence more post-viral fatigue. Recovered gradually until by the end of November, I was feeling as good as I have done since originally contracting Covid in March 2020. Then had two viruses in succession, including another ‘cold from hell’, which led to costochondritis, and a spell on strong painkillers/anti-inflammatories. Then, I just about recovered enough from that to do some shopping in the week before Christmas. So, overall, somewhat better than the previous two years but still wildly uneven and punctuated by periods of being unable to do pretty much anything (other than read and fulfil minor household duties). The whole unpredictability of all this makes it difficult to plan or carry out any bigger projects because I can’t produce the same sustained periods of work as I used to take for granted. Every time I feel good and dare to give someone a time for when I’ll have something done, something goes wrong and throws me off the schedule (e.g. I react badly to the flu vaccine and lose a week or something similar). Therefore, I’m having to find a new way to work and plan and, while I’m making some progress in this direction, it is difficult because it’s like trying to become a different person in some respects. On the other hand, despite having Covid yet again, at least I haven’t experienced a lengthy bout of PEM this year. So, the trajectory overall is upwards from last year.

My highlight of the year was completing my second year in succession as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and attending the ceremony at the Science Museum on Wednesday 26 October, which I reflected on here. I also have a chapter on the Clarke, ‘Thirty Years is Ample Time: The Clarke Award and Literary Science Fiction’ in Andrew M. Butler and Paul March-Russell’s edited collection, Rendezvous with Arthur C. Clarke: Centenary Essays, which has just been published by Gylphi, and is available to buy here and no doubt elsewhere. I am hoping to write more on the Clarke during 2023. I have had several other academic publications this year: a chapter on 2000AD for The Routledge Companion to the British and North American Literary Magazine, edited by Tim Lanzendörfer, and a chapter, ‘“Class Lives”: Spatial Awareness and Political Consciousness in British Mining Novels of the 1930s’, in Simon Lee’s edited collection, Locating Classed Subjectivities: Intersections of Space and Working-Class Life in 19th, 20th, and 21st-century British Writing (Routledge). Best of all of these was my article, ‘The Woolfian Century: Modernism as Science Fiction, 1929-2029’, which was published on Modernism/Modernity’s online open access ‘print plus’ platform in May as part of a special cluster on ‘Modernism and Science Fiction’. This is one of the surviving traces of a book project, The Science Fiction Futures of Modernism: From Virginia Woolf to Feminist Speculative Fiction of the 21st Century, which I had to abandon because of my long covid/postviral fatigue problems; other remnants are floating around in ongoing work on Gwyneth Jones and a chapter on Naomi Mitchison which is coming out in 2023. If at all possible, I would have completed the book, but I also lost faith in the premise. I no longer think I can bring myself to privilege modernism in that way even though my intention with the title was to be provocative (in the way that the title of my 2017 book, The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question, was provocative and clearly needled some people). There is also the problem that there is no such thing as Modernism or Science Fiction or (even) English Literature.

In terms of events, I attended Eastercon in person, where I spoke on the panel ‘Where are the Workers: Class and Caste in SFF’, which I wrote about here, and taught a Science Fiction Foundation ‘mini-masterclass’ on Joanna Russ’s ‘When It Changed’, which I discussed here. I spoke on two online panels at the Chicago Worldcon, which I reflected on in this post, ‘Notes from Chicon8’. Finally, at the beginning of December, I gave a paper, ‘And I didn’t sign up for a war, I thought I signed up for a revolution’: Jones/Russ’, at the online conference ‘When it Changed: Women in SF/F since 1972’, organised by the Science Fiction Foundation in conjunction with the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. I was fortunate with the latter that I gave the paper early in the conference because by the Sunday I was really ill with the cold that led to the costochondritis. Although, this has prevented me from writing some follow-up posts that I have in mind, which will now appear in the new year.

In both my 2021 and 2020 roundups, I expressed the resolution to see more films and watch more TV. This year I managed two films at the cinema: Emily, which I enjoyed despite it being a highly fictionalised life, and the new Avatar film, which confirmed my impressions of how American patriarchy causes unnecessary problems for father-son relations. I did slightly better with TV and really enjoyed both The House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, without feeling any need to write anything about either. I’m really not sure why so many felt obliged to vent critical opprobrium over the latter (although, who knows, maybe it’s another patriarchy thing). I loved Kleo, but far and away the best series I watched was The English. I saw the Science Fiction exhibition at the Science Museum while attending the Clarke ceremony. It was good but I think the accompanying book was even better – I’ve reviewed it for the current issue of BSFA Review and will probably post that review on here in due course. I’ve also seen a couple of really great exhibitions at Aberystwyth Arts centre: ‘We’re not just passing through …’, an exhibition on African and Caribbean communities in the UK, featuring photos by Vanley Burke and Glenn Edwards and ‘Refugees from National Socialism in Wales: Learning from the Past for the Future’, which was co-curated by my partner, Andrea Hammel, and Morris Brodie, together with refugees (see the excellent project website here). Andrea’s book, Finding Refuge: Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Fled to Wales to Escape the Nazis, was published by Honno in November – launched at the opening night of the exhibition – and selected as one of the Welsh Books Council Books of the Month for December, which was very exciting. So, all in all, not such a bad year despite the long covid.

‘And I didn’t sign up for a war, I thought I signed up for a revolution’: Jones/Russ

‘And I didn’t sign up for a war, I thought I signed up for a revolution’:


1988/ 2022/ 1993/ 1974-75/ 1993/ 2022/ 1972/ 22 January 1973/ 24 June 2022/ 22 March 1972/ 27 January 2020/ 26 August 2020/ 1972/ 1988/ 1974-75/ 1995/ 2004/ 2022/ 2028/ 1988


1972 to 2022 is a less linear period than you might think!

Paper presented to ‘When it Changed: Women in SF/F since 1972’, organised by the Science Fiction Foundation in partnership with the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic and the Games and Gaming Lab, online, 3-4 December 2022.

(Note: My aim is to extend this into a longer discussion of Gwyneth Jones’s extended engagement with the work of Joanna Russ, which culminates – for the time being, at least – in Jones’s 2019 critical monograph on Russ. To complicate this interaction, I also want to bring in Tiptree and refer to some of the analysis in Rox Samer’s excellent Lesbian Potentiality & Feminist Media in the 1970s (2022) – see my review here – but there wasn’t room to fit discussion of these texts into the paper. I will come back and add in the missing page refs at some point. Related discussions can be found at my index of posts on feminist SF)

In June 1988, speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, at the presentation of the Arthur C Clarke Award, Gwyneth Jones noted that such icons of la nouvelle critique as ‘plurality of meaning, fluidity and process: an understanding of language as contingent, unfixed; the product and definition of a particular social formation’ were the tools of SF and hence adventurous writers of non-genre fiction, such as Margaret Atwood, who had won the previous year’s inaugural Clarke award for The Handmaid’s Tale, were turning to SFnal ‘tropes and conventions’ in their search for ‘a writing that expresses the current state of the science of fiction’ (Jones 1999: 3). Her argument can be characterised as suggesting that in SF there has never been anything outside the text. Therefore, the barrier to SF for mainstream audiences was not achieving suspension of disbelief but recognising the depiction of constructed worlds that imply the world we live in is also a construct. This potentiality was always in SF, ready for the emergence of writers who were able to make use of it. For Jones, it was

Joanna Russ, in her mid-1970s feminist sf, and especially in The Female Man, who first recognised and demonstrated the power of a specifically science fictional text to deconstruct itself, to lay itself open to radical and mutually contradictory plurality of meaning. In The Female Man, Russ takes an idea that could come from nowhere but science fiction – an exploration in story of that theory in space/time which posits an infinitely branching universe. She turns the idea back on herself, the author: becomes explicitly the divided self that this view of space/time implies.Russ’s exploration of the fluid and contingent nature of language and selfhood, expressed here in terms of probability time travel, arose out of her feminism and the social relativism feminism demands. But you don’t have to be a feminist, and maybe not even a student of science fiction, to understand that this text points, far more than any realist fiction, towards a full expression of the working of the human imagination.  (Jones 1999: 6).

Jones concluded the talk – ‘Deconstructing the Starships’, which became the title essay of her first critical collection – by predicting that, by the twenty-first century, the line between mainstream fiction and SF would be so blurred that SF would become respectable ‘literature’ and act as a vector for spreading the relativism of both Einstein and Saussure through popular consciousness. This is a prediction that has been proved broadly correct with SF arguably now the culturally dominant global literary and media form for an age of unprecedented social and technological change. Moreover, Russ’s feminist ‘exploration of the fluid and contingent nature of language and selfhood’ has opened the way to the current situation in which women writers are setting the markers of prestige in the field in terms of winning awards: both for the Hugos and the award at which Jones was speaking 34 years ago, the Clarke, the last three winners of which have been Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in that Country, and Josie Giles’s Deep Wheel Orcadia – all novels which turn on questions of self in relation to space/time and/or language.

So, that is one example of change led by women in SF.

But …

However, only a few years after giving the ‘Deconstructing the Starships’ talk, Jones was among those invited to add their comments to the 1993 reprint of the Khatru Symposium on Women in Science Fiction, and questioned how much had changed since the original publication:

Since 1975 SF has become far more of a product. Women have had a share in this commercial expansion, as characters and as writers and as readers. But […] I believe that the overall picture is still the same. As (Jeff Smith) says: the numbers change, the ratio stays the same. (Jones 1993: 127)

In any case, she goes on to argue that although a commercial foothold in SF has been gained by women, it is as women rather than as people:

That’s the dream that died, And the debate on women in SF cannot be sustained […] What you’re talking about, immediately, is the position of women, the effects of gender-role, in the real world. (Jones 1993: 127)

Jones’s argument is that some of the 1970s discussions of Russ, Tiptree, Le Guin, McIntyre, Delany et al were only scratching the surface because, in retrospect, ‘we know’ they were not enough – the gender-role conditioning state didn’t ‘wither away’. This is because the problem of men remained as a relatively impenetrable real-world barrier. In particular, she highlights how ‘the notion of man as “unconditioned human” was still hanging around’ in 1975 rather than a notion of gender-role-conditioned man as frightened of, and angry at, women. Commenting on the propensity of male SF writers at the time, such as Geoff Ryman and Colin Greenland, to use young women as their preferred point-of-view characters, she wonders if this is an attempt to get away from the ugliness of the male gender role or just a ploy to get attention and suggests instead that they write about ‘how it feels to be a man who is trying to be human. Now that’s feminism in SF, for 1993’ (Jones 1993: 129). Therefore, her biggest criticism of the Symposium – echoing Le Guin’s position in both 1975 and 1993 – is that they never properly explored the question of ‘mothering’ raised by Tiptree [‘How soon, O Lord, can men learn to be mothers?’ (Smith 2009: 16)]: ‘why did no one (why didn’t Delany?) explain what makes people do it?’ (Jones 1993: 128). Consequently, Russ judges the increased commercial success of women in SF over that 18-year period as ‘a tainted victory’: ‘It seems that the women have stopped asking for the rules of the game to be changed, they’re happy so long as they have a bigger piece of the action’ (Jones 1993: 127). She outlines the pros and cons of what she sees as post-feminist behaviour of the early 90s before lamenting that while women might be said to be taking over the means of production (i.e. their own bodies and domestic services) in classic Marxist fashion and fighting back with legitimate tactics and weaponry, ‘this is the battle of the sexes, same old battle of the sexes. And I didn’t sign up for a war, I thought I signed up for a revolution’ (Jones 1993: 128).

So, on this count there was no change from 1972 by 1993 or, really, by today. Disparities in pay and social roles are no longer as universally rigid as the 70s, perhaps, but the same kind of phenomena discussed in the Symposium are still very much with us.

What, then, happened to the revolution?

To think about this, let’s return to 1972, the year of publication of Russ’s ‘When it Changed’. This was itself a year of change, especially if we run it on into January 1973 when the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision effectively legalised abortion by preventing states from banning it. However, due to the fact that Roe v Wade was overturned in June this year, we won’t be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Earlier this year, we might have been celebrating 50 years of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, which was approved by the US Senate on 22 March 1972. But alas it didn’t receive ratification by the required three quarters of the states (well, it did eventually on 27 January 2020, but the US national archivist is refusing to certify it) and therefore there is no Equal Rights Amendment. However, at the time Russ was writing ‘When it Changed’, she was probably expecting that there would be one at some point relatively soon. Therefore, the second man in the story – ‘the real one’ – says, ‘calmly in excellent Russian, “Did you know that sexual equality has been reestablished on Earth?”’ (Russ XXX; my emphasis). It’s a textual trace of a real-world possibility that never came to pass. Viewed from another angle, we might even have recently been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Equal Rights Amendment because the campaign for it began immediately following the certification of the 19th Amendment, ensuring the right of women to vote, on 26 August 1920. In other words, equality and reproductive rights are subject to an SFnal temporal instability, in that they shimmer in and out of view without ever becoming permanently realised. This is exactly the point that Russ’s story makes by first outlining a world of post patriarchal possibility and then bringing it crashing down by the restatement of the impenetrable real-world barrier to its realisation; namely, ‘Men’. As Jones commented in 1988:

The women of Whileaway – the people of Whileaway, I should say, are bemused, amused, and finally, as the truth sinks home, despairing. Their situation is tragic. It doesn’t matter what they do now. The very existence of the male-dominated world, once it has been reasserted, robs them of their autonomy. They may resist this rescue, they may survive as an enclave of weird extremists, but they will never again be the people. They will be inadequate, incompetent, mere women. And there the story ends. (Jones 1999: 125)

Because the problem (of ‘Men’) won’t budge, argues Jones, there is no place to go other than ‘an ever deeper, ever more intricate mapping of the problem’s boundary’ (Jones 1999: 127).

Or, as Russ asked in the Symposium, ‘are we all going to be sitting around in [2022] still’ discussing what women in SF can do to change things? (Smith 2009: 67). Because, as she pointed out, they were clearly not within twenty years of envisioning alternatives to sexism and, although she does make the pragmatic and prescient point that one thing that needed to happen over that intervening period was the development of a ‘middle class’ of economically independent women, this would not be a solution in itself:

If you will remember, Marx’s class struggle abolishes class; I indeed hate Men and would like to abolish them forever, in the sense that George Bernard Shaw wished to abolish the poor ‘and make their restoration forever impossible.’ While Men exist, male people cannot exist; while Women exist, I cannot exist as a female person. (Smith 2009: 97)

This, of course, is the position that Jones was picking up on in her reading of the Symposium: the analysis that calls for a revolution. She came to this understanding through bringing her reading of The Female Man (1999:126) to the Symposium: ‘By the mid-nineties the idea of the female man – the proposition that our treasured difference, the moral identity of women, cannot survive the success of feminism – had brought my fiction to a gender-neutral space that many sf feminists considered positively hostile’ (Jones 2009: 144). Deciding that the goals of feminism (i.e. moving beyond gender) were incompatible with maintaining the great divide between ‘men’ and ‘women’, she chose the former and went on to write Life as her ‘so long and thanks for all the fish’ (Jones 2009: 61). In other words, a final farewell to the battle of the sexes but this time with no alien invasion, no single-sex colony on distant planet, no matriarchy, no sex-linked plague (paraphrasing Jones 2009: 144). Instead, Life turns on the discovery of a phenomenon called ‘Transferred Y’ or ‘TY’: the tendency of sections of the Y chromosome to crossover to the X chromosome which might potentially mean the redundancy of the former. This is only an ‘End of Men’ story in that it would be the end of Men like the second one in ‘When it Changed’; rather the novel points to a future in which ‘in time, TY may create a situation where there are no genetic traits exclusive to “men” or “women”’ (Jones 2022: ref). But far from walking away from the problem, this turns out to be the revolution:

The whole idea that humanity is divided into two halves could be a chimera. One day it might vanish, like the Cold War, like the crystal spheres, like canals on Mars and jungles on Venus. People born with currently recognised X/Y pair problems would be treated only for the medical ill-effects. Parents and doctors would be less concerned to have babies with ‘indeterminate’ genitals corrected by surgery. There’d be people who felt themselves to be men getting pregnant; people who felt themselves to be women at ease with their penises. People who just couldn’t see the problem, letting their ‘sexual identity’ go into free fall. And then everyone would—

    Be happy?

    Better than that. Everyone would be the same as before, or that’s what they’d tell you. Successful revolutions vanish, nobody realizes they happened. (Jones 2009: 158-9)

The only snag was that she couldn’t get Life published in the UK or anywhere until Aqueduct brought it out in 2004 and it is only in 2022 that it has finally been mass-market published as a Gollancz SF masterwork.

To conclude, it has changed but it hasn’t changed.

Or, rather, the point is that the question is unanswerable in linear terms, and we shouldn’t invest too much effort in trying to do so. Temporal paradox has always been one of the themes of SFF but one of the ways this has been changed – principally by feminist women writers from Russ to Jones – is to move beyond the linear morality and prohibitions, which tended to characterise even the transgressive work of the New Wave. After all, to paraphrase the key (Gramscian) question raised in Jones’s 1988 novel Kairos, ‘are you sure you can tell the difference between something dying and something being born?’ (ref). The logic of Russ’s ‘When it Changed’ is not that we should orientate our actions in defence of the equal rights which seemed to be on the threshold of being achieved in 1972 or 2020 or 1920, but that we should orientate our actions around defence of the postheteropatriarchal Whileaway that we hope to achieve in the future. Therefore, at any particular point in time it is not always easy to judge whether we are in retreat or advance.

In her introduction to the 2021 Gollancz SF Masterworks reissue of Kairos, Jones suggests that one way this novel can be read is as ‘SF as allegory, suggested by the proposal that “It’ll never change unless you change the whole world” (ref), which is a quote from Tiptree’s ‘The Women Men Don’t See’. This quote could be taken as a straightforward answer to the question ‘when it changed?’ But, as the proto-nonbinary character Sandy points out in Kairos, ‘the future can change the past’, suggesting that revolution in our time is still all to play for: if the whole world can be changed then it will also change our retrospective view of history.

Works Cited

Jones, Gwyneth, Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction and Reality, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999.

Jones, Gwyneth, Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2009.

Jones, Gwyneth, Joanna Russ [‘Modern Masters of Science Fiction’ series], Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2019.

Jones, Gwyneth, Kairos [1988], ‘Science Fiction Masterworks’ ed., London: Gollancz: 2021.

Jones, Gwyneth, ‘Khatru Sex Symposium Revisited, 1993’ [1993] in Smith, Jeffrey D., ed. Symposium: Women in Science Fiction, Khatru 3 and 4, 3d ed., Oakland, CA: James Tiptree Award, 2009: 126-129.

Jones, Gwyneth, Life [2004], ‘Science Fiction Masterworks’ ed., London: Gollancz: 2022.

Russ, Joanna, ‘When it Changed’ [1972]

Samer, Rox, Lesbian Potentiality & Feminist Media in the 1970s, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022.

Smith, Jeffrey D., ed. Symposium: Women in Science Fiction, Khatru 3 and 4, 3d ed., Oakland, CA: James Tiptree Award, 2009.

‘Index’ of Posts on Feminist Science Fiction

Feminist broadly understood, including post. Unless otherwise specified in one way or another, these were originally reviews published in the BSFA Review. This list will be updated as relevant new posts appear.


Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969/2017)

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)

Vonda N. McIntyre, The Exile Waiting (1975/2019)

Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978/2016)Vector

Joanna Russ, ‘When it Changed’ (1972) – discussion and reflection on teaching it

Post 70s

Alice Albinia, Cwen (2021)

Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam (2013) – LARB

Monica Byrne, The Girl in the Road (2014) – LARB

Kameron Hurley, The Stars are Legion (2016)

Gwyneth Jones, Kairos (1988/1995/2021)

Gwyneth Jones, Life (2004)conference paper

Gwyneth Jones, The Grasshopper’s Child (2014) – Foundation

Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth (2019) – Foundation

Laurie Penny, Everything Belongs to the Future (2016) – Strange Horizons

Tricia Sullivan, Occupy Me (2016) – Foundation

Tricia Sullivan, Sweet Dreams (2017)

Izumi Suzuki, Terminal Boredom (2021)  

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kingdoms of Elfin (1977/2018)

Aliya Whiteley, Skein Island (2015/2019)

Pre 70s

Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1933) as SF Textpart of an ongoing series

Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936) as SF Textongoing series

Rose Macaulay, What Not (1918/2019)

Naomi Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) as SFF Textongoing series

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own(1929) as SF Textongoing series

Non-fiction Reviews

Gwyneth Jones, Joanna Russ (2019) – Strange Horizons

Jude Roberts and Esther MacCallum-Stewart (eds), Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy (2016) – Strange Horizons


Gender Diversity and ‘Literary SF’ in the run-up to the 30th Anniversary of the Clarke Award (2016).Foundation

Switching Between the Binaries – conference paper

‘The Radical Utopias of Ursula K. Le Guin’Tribune

‘The Woolfian Century: Modernism as Science Fiction, 1929–2029’Modernism/modernity print plus