What I Did in 2020: A Brief Cultural Review

On the one hand, it seems a bit perverse to write a review of my cultural activities and output for this plague year, but, on the other hand, the necessarily finite nature of the proceedings lends itself more readily to summary than a ‘normal’ year would. For example, I went to the theatre once – to see the panto at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in January – and to the cinema once – to see The Lighthouse (a weird and wonderful premonition of going bonkers in isolation) – at the beginning of February. So there is no real scope for a list of the best things I’ve seen. Bizarrely, though, I went to four exhibitions by the beginning of March which is rather above my usual annual average. These were ‘Africa State of Mind’ and ‘Refuge and Renewal: Migration and British Art’ (I particularly liked Edith Tudor-Hart’s ‘Demonstration in the Rhondda’ (1934)), on simultaneously at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, in early February. We were intending to go and see the latter again when it moved on to MOMA Machynlleth but of course that wasn’t to be. I also absolutely loved both ‘Genders: Shaping and Breaking the Binary’ at Science Gallery London, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons, and ‘Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography’ at the Barbican, which I was intending to write about but never got around to (but here is Samuel Fishwick’s review in the Evening Standard). I don’t watch much TV but under the circumstances I did manage the first season of The Witcher, pretty much all of The Crown, season three of Babylon Berlin, and we’ve just started Dark. I have watched a few films at home (including some of the offerings available at this year’s Sci-Fi London, which took place online) and a few past performances streamed by the National Theatre, such as Frankenstein and a very good A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

I read a lot despite being ill (see below) and I included some of the books I enjoyed most in this end-of-year tweet thread (repeated with more text on instagram). Back in February, in an attempt to combat the alienation induced by the prospect of another night in the Uxbridge Travelodge, I recklessly embarked on a twitter read-through of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991), since which I have been haunted by the disappearance of history and my possible complicity with this crime committed by the suburban middle classes (further reflections will follow at some point in the future). I’m going to find something else to tweet-read in 2021. In another project, I reviewed various shortlists for SF awards this year: the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards for Best Novel, here and here, for Best Shorter Fiction, here, and Best Non Fiction, here; the three novels on both the Hugo and Clarke shortlist, here, the other Hugo novels, here, and the other Clarke novels, here. Since the Autumn I have been reading SF novels written in 2020 as a member of the jury for next year’s Clarke Award; so I can’t really comment about those too much, except to say that there are a lot of them and they have continued to arrive in just about every delivery over this holiday period.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to read during a year in which I know so many people have had difficulty concentrating and in which it eventually transpired that I was suffering from post-viral syndrome. I was unwell in March – it didn’t seem to be Covid as I didn’t have the right symptoms and I didn’t seem to be ill enough (an antibody test in August was negative) – and then I felt all right until the end of April but from that point on I have felt out of sorts (see, for example, the day-diary I wrote for Mass Observation on 12 May 2020) and been subject to recurring bouts of what I now know to be post-exertional malaise. I could read but often I had difficulty with actually writing anything more complex than a brief review or a diary entry. Then, from late September I was completely laid out for a while with extreme fatigue, which led to the diagnosis. It’s been a long and very gradual process of recovery since then – involving trying to increase exercise but also pacing myself. So I’ve had months of thinking that maybe I’m suffering from a spell of lockdown anxiety and that I’d be fine in a week or two, followed by a period of worrying that I’m never going to be fine again, followed by a more recent period of knowing that I’m getting better but that it is a protracted process. I’ve given up worrying whether or not I had Covid and I’m trying not to get lost down the rabbit hole of wondering if I’ve had post-viral fatigue for longer (e.g. I was unwell in November and December 2019) and trying to remember when I last felt really good etc. As I wrote for Tribune in ‘How Sci-Fi Shaped Socialism’ – a piece I wasn’t entirely confident that I was going to be able to write when I took it on at the beginning of December – it’s time to stop comparing life today with the past and instead orientate towards the future.

In fact, one of the things I’m going to be writing about in 2021 is futurology and, in the first instance, the Futures series from Unbound. I also going to be writing more about gender and SF, including an essay on Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) as a companion piece to my recently republished review of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

One thought on “What I Did in 2020: A Brief Cultural Review”

  1. Pingback: Vector in 2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s