Throughout the year, we’ve been taking turns with the Under the Radar column—looking at recent works that, despite being awesome, may have gone unnoticed by many Tor.com readers (including us!). As we’re at the end of the year—and the end of our first year (woohoo!)—this seems the perfect occasion to kick back and think about what we’ve learned.
The three of us have already had a few opportunities to shout about our 2014 favourites—including a recent chat on the Rocket Talk podcast, as well as the annual Tor.com Reviewers’ Choice round-up. Not to draw a sweeping conclusion from a handful of picks, but we didn’t say too much about the super-huge, super-hyped blockbuster titles. Was it an off-year for the giants of genre? Or is this a sign of a changing of the guard? Or are we just insufferably pretentious?
Justin: Honestly, I don’t know. I think part of it is I am no longer remotely invested in blockbuster titles. I don’t like Stephen King, or Joe Hill, or Neal Stephenson. Those just aren’t my cup of tea. They are the Tupac to my Biggie. They are the Starbucks to my Stumptown. They are the… you get my point.
I would have read Margaret Atwood, but I wasn’t caught up with her. I would have read William Gibson, but I didn’t. Was it an off year for these folks? Maybe. But, David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks would disagree. For me, it’s probably because I’m just not reading the so-called ‘giants’. One reason for that is I committed to reading a lot of women this year and, well, unfortunately when we talk about the ‘giants’ of the field we’re talking about dudes. So, there’s that.
Probably, mostly though it’s because there’s just a ton of choice right now. There’s a lot being published and I find myself a lot more attracted to something new and fresh than another Brandon Sanderson book.
Mahvesh: I admit, the only reason I didn’t bring up the new Stephen King or the new William Gibson or the new Margaret Atwood (yes, I’m counting her as a giant of genre, sorry Ms Atwood, I apologise a trillion times) was because I hadn’t been able to get ahold of them at that point. From all reports, Revival, The Peripheral, and Stone Mattress are great examples of each writer’s craft. SF award queen Ann Leckie’s 2013 Ancillary Justice won everything and the kitchen sink and Ancillary Sword was a much-lauded follow up this year. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy has been called a contemporary masterpiece (by Adam Roberts, I believe). The one book that I personally haven’t understood the success of is Andy Weir’s The Martian, which has been immensely popular since its self published beginnings, though the hardcover was published in 2014.
I don’t know about a changing of the guard. I think, perhaps, it’s an expansion of the guard. And that can never be a bad thing.
And, yeah, we’re probably pretentious. But we read a lot, so maybe that makes it okay.
Jared:I’m also lagging behind on the blockbusters. What’s with us? But as much as I genuinely worship writers like William Gibson, I know the books aren’t going anywhere. There’s an advantage that comes with waiting until after the hurricane of press dies down, so I know I’m forming my own, reasonably uninfluenced opinion.
We’ve all interpreted ‘Under the Radar’ in different ways, including as ‘books that were originally published outside the US and the UK’. Again thinking of this past year, did you read any recent books (in translation or otherwise) that really stood out for you?
Mahvesh:From what everyone is saying, The Three Body Problem is the best book I haven’t read in 2014! I’m excited to read that.
Justin:It is really very good. It’s like old school science fiction looked at through a funhouse mirror. To me I feel like translated fiction is the next great ‘movement’ or ‘style shift’ that we’re going to see. Bye bye grimdark, hello er… non-western-punk.
Mahvesh: I’m really hoping we get more translations of speculative fiction from all over the world. The Apex Book of World SF 3 had a couple of translated stories in it and I’m very much hoping there’s more where those came from.
Justin: Personally, Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water is a good example of it. I’m not sure if it was published in English first or Finish first, but it was written in both (not translated). I would also chime in with All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, which didn’t come out in 2014, but rose to prominence with its theatrical release as The Edge of Tomorrow. Again, it’s totally like Starship Troopers or The Forever War, but tonally shifted. It’s wonderful.
Jared: I may be the only person who didn’t love Memory of Water (sorry, Justin), but I do appreciate how good it was. It just wasn’t my personal cup of tea (see what I did there?).
We’re really fortunate to be in the midst of the South African SF/F boom—from Lauren Beukes, we’ve also got like Louis Greenberg, Sarah Lotz, Charlie Human, Henrietta Rose-Innes, S A Partridge… all authors now (or soon to be) available in the US and UK. With the rise of magazines like Jungle Jim and Omenana, and organisations like Short Story Day Africa, I’m hoping the great SF/F from the rest of Africa becomes more available to us as well.
Another way of looking at ‘Under the Radar’ is as books that get hidden away in other genres. Did you make any speculative fiction discoveries hiding outside of the ‘Science Fiction & Fantasy’ section? What books did you almost miss out on because they weren’t shelved in the right place?
Mahvesh: I’ve mentioned Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road before—this was published by a mainstream press though all the blurbs are from highly regarded SF writers. It makes no difference to me who published it, though I do wonder if it would have been talked about more had it been published by a dedicated genre publisher? Regardless, I almost missed it but I’m really relieved I didn’t (thanks Twitter). I should also mention Laline Paull’s The Bees, which was a great story and very much genre, even if it wasn’t promoted just as such.
Jared: One that’s not a genre book at all, but definitely genre-relevant was Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke. I spotted it on the Goodreads Choice list. It is, as you can tell from the name, an historical romance. But as well as being witty and… uh… saucy, Romancing is about fandom—and the impact that novels (specifically fantasy ones) can have on the lives of authors and readers. Sort of Unwritten meets Desperate Duchesses.
Justin: There’s books like Lauren Owen’s The Quick which is a vampire novel, but needed to not be marketed to genre. To a genre reader it was just too obvious. It didn’t have the right beats for a genre novel, but probably worked great for a literary reader. That’s why it’s always a land mine.
I saw The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman in ‘literature’ but his brother’s You shelved in ‘science fiction’. I saw Queen of the Tearling in ‘literature’ too. I’ll never understand the game that’s played here, but it can be frustrating.
The best book I read in 2014 that was probably misshelved was Space Case by Stuart Gibbs. It’s a middle grade book about a base on the moon. It’s total science fiction and tons of fun. Being middle grade it has no genre other than its reading level. Young adult and below have that figured out a hell of a lot better than adult. Right?
Yet another way of interpreting ‘Under the Radar’—were there any terrific books from small presses or self-published authors?
Mahvesh: Indian publisher Blaft are a small, indie press from Chennai and their back catalogue of Urdu and Hindi translations of pulp is fantastic—Ibne Safi’s Imran novels, Tamil pulp fiction and Tamil folk tales too. This year they published Kuzhali Manickavel’s shorts collected as Things We Found During the Autopsy, which is this great little collection of weird fiction (though not a translation, it’s written in English). It’s dark and visceral and just really, really, intriguing. (There will be an Under the Radar inter-review up for that soon!)
Twelfth Plant Press published a brilliant anthology of diverse YA SF/F stories this year too, called Kaleidoscope. It’s smart and a lot of fun, with stories from Sofia Samatar, Garth Nix and Amal el-Mohtar amongst others. (You can read Ken Liu’s “Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon” here on Tor.com!)
Jared: I’ve put them on every list so far, but Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space (Unnamed Press) and Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Kickstarter!) were two of my absolute favourites.
I only learned about them through word of mouth—almost randomly, even. Which is scary—I almost didn’t, and then I’d be out two books that I’m going to read over and over again. Compare that to the blockbusters we were talking about earlier, there’s a sense of urgency that comes with reading titles from smaller presses or self-published authors. Atwood and Stephenson’s books aren’t going anywhere.
Justin: You were both a lot better at this than I was in 2014. I didn’t get off the major publishers too often. I will say that Irregularity from Jurassic London was one of the best short story anthologies I’ve ever read, executed with an incredible amount of cleverness. It’s one of those rare books that ties together all of the different stories and authors into something that actually make sense as a complete thing. Huge achievement in my opinion. The editor is a hack though.
Jared: He really is.
And one last way of thinking what ‘Under the Radar’ means, especially in regards to this past year. 2014 was full of authors doing the new and different. Kameron Hurley, for example, swapped from hard SF to epic fantasy. “Claire North” and “MR Carey” were both known for long-running urban fantasy series, but took a break to write stand-alones in completely different styles. Even Patrick Rothfuss stopped climbing the epic mountain long enough to publish a prose-poetry-novella-character-study-thing.
Did any of these changes in form impress you?
Mavhesh: I really enjoyed The Girl With All The Gifts—I’m so glad Mike Carey broke away to write it! I’m not especially a fan of zombie novels and this one tricked me into enjoying it before I even figured out it was going to be a sort-of zombie novel. I didn’t mind. It’s a good story, it’s really well written and it all ties up so neatly, so satisfyingly. I hope he writes more standalones and I hope they trick me the same great way this book did.
Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair was another book that was different from the writer’s previous repertoire, and a move that served her well. I love the idea of a mashup between epic fantasy and …well, carny lit, really! The travelling carnival, the worlds that turn, the heroes who don’t yet know all they can be… here’s an epic that still has a lot to give. Oh and look, people are…people—all sorts of colours, cultures, sexualities, it’s all a great big mix of stuff we call life. No Hollywood versions of people here.
Another non-Hollywood-esque fantasy is Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire and while she did move from hard SF to epic fantasy, I think Kameron’s greatest strength and most defining characteristics remain the same—a strong push to shift the status quo and explore new ground.
Justin: Certainly Abercrombie’s Half a King falls into this category and while I really enjoyed it, I can’t help but call it a bit of a false start in terms of its bonafides as a ‘young adult’ book. It didn’t quite get there for me in that regard. Bang up job as epic fantasy though!
Robert Jackson Bennett made quite a leap with City of Stairs, leaving behind the Stephen King style horror stuff for more recognizable epic fantasy. He’s even writing a sequel!
I’d echo Smiler’s Fair as a great outcome for a writer doing something new. The same is true of Erin Lindsey’s The Bloodbound, which is a second world fantasy from an urban fantasy writer (as EL Tennisor).
And, finally—what books from big publishers are you worried might slip under the radar?
Justin: To be honest, I don’t stress about this too much. I mean, let’s be honest here, you’re under contract with the big five. You’re in stores. You’ve got a shot at least. Mind you we all know there’s no guarantees in publishing and even the big books get totally forgotten and overlooked, but I worry a lot more for the small press stuff. That said… there was one book this year called Child of a Hidden Sea by AM Dellamonica.
Mahvesh: Other than the few I’ve mentioned earlier, Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club really is much too good to be left off any 2014 lists. It’s not ‘genre’ and hasn’t been marketed as such, but it’s really quite magical. Karen Russell’s novella Sleep Donation rides that strange division between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ (to me, that basically means SF with lyrical, pretty writing) and may not make be picked up by a lot of genre fans but I’d say it’s worth the read.
Of all these ‘Under the Radar’ type books above, do you think any of the ones we discussed above—or throughout the year—are going to make the leap and start pinging the screens of the mass market?
Mahvesh: Nnedi Okorafor, for sure. Perhaps not with Lagoon, but with her books for younger readers, I can’t see why she wouldn’t start coming up more and more in the mainstream.
Younger readers are often so much less concerned with genre and where books are shelved anyway. Some genre books that have done really well in the mainstream have been The Girl With All The Gifts and I think perhaps Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, that’s been lauded by the SF community too. Again—pretty, lyrical writing, and an SF/F premise or story. On the other hand, I think Karen Russell may just jump the other way, come out of the literary mainstream and become a total SF writer. She just might.
Justin:I think Nnedi Okorafor always has a shot. Lagoon has been bought by Saga Press for publication in the US, so it’ll get another widespread release. The trick with “crossing over” is that it’s almost impossible to predict.
And on that note, we’ve picked apart both 2014 and our year in Under the Radar fairly thoroughly. We’ve also had a few recurring themes—including the fact that one genre’s ‘under the radar’ is another’s mainstream and one person’s ‘science fiction’ is another’s ‘literature’. Also? That discovery is fun—all three of us have enjoyed reading more broadly in 2014. It all adds up to the simple truth that great books can be found anywhere.
Please let us know your 2014 discoveries in the comments—the ambitious, translated, unusual, small press or just unfairly-neglected books of your year!
Jared Shurin is an editor for Pornokitsch and the non-profit publisher Jurassic London. He helps look after The Kitschies, the prize for progressive, intelligent and entertaining fiction with elements of the speculative or fantastic.