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Alexis Ong

Crafting Cultural Historiographies in Walk the Vanished Earth by Erin Swan

There’s a certain strain of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction that gives off a curious prairiecore vibe. I don’t mean full-skirted dresses and basket weaving, but dreamlike journeys through a semi-rural American landscape that take subdued, earthtoned approaches to science fiction. Station Eleven is probably the best-known example of this trend that I literally just made up (full disclosure, I’ve only seen the show)—and at times, a little bit of Sweet Tooth and some of the Westworld HBO series.

This subgenre (I hesitate to use prairiepunk, which has apparently been claimed by a specific fandom—I’m hesitant to use “-punk” appellations at all) is filled with visually-driven explorations of our relationship with the natural environment on the cusp of revival. This is fertile ground for obsolete or hidden technologies that are romanticized and mythologized by various characters. There’s a feeling of movement, drifting, and even a bit of the surreal midwestern mood that Samuel R. Delany captured so freakishly well in Dhalgren—a literary oddity that lesser science fiction writers still aspire (and fail) to replicate. And as with life on the prairie, there’s also that central pillar of family—biological or otherwise—and the ways in which people cling to ideas of each other.

Walk the Vanished Earth follows the same paths with compelling, sometimes perplexing results.

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A Needed Twist on Cyberpunk: The City Inside by Samit Basu

The best spec fic/cyberpunk writing is often less wikipedian and more of a wave—an artful sprinkling of jargon and worldbuilding that’s just familiar enough for a reader to recognize the near-future rhythm of a different reality. It’s less about constant, flat exposition and more about the right vibes to hint at what flavor of -topia we’re dealing with. In the case of The City Inside, it’s everything everywhere all at once, treading both familiar speculative ground, yet somehow making the topics that fuel our present-day paranoia—omniscient apps, social media as a service, the disintegrating borders between flesh and digital—fresh and new.

Samit Basu’s latest novel is a masterclass in smart, human-driven science fiction, told with delectable wit and gorgeous, visually-driven prose. He does an effortless job at leading the reader by the nose through an extrapolated, tech-gilded version of New Delhi—one based from existing social and political forces that endanger India’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations including dalits and Muslims.

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Vivid and Erratic Storytelling: All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay

My first foray into Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing has been one of the most artful instances of unintentional edging I’ve had in a long time. In theory, All the Seas of the World is an easy sell, with real-world historical inspirations, and an elaborate pirate setting (I do love Black Sails) done in what the publisher describes as his signature “quarter turn to the fantastic” style. Kay is best known for these types of historical fantasies—dramatic fiction that draws from defining eras of past centuries, encompassing everything from a reimagined Tang Dynasty to a range of alternate medieval Europes. All the Seas of the World follows the same formula against a backdrop of religious war and seafaring corsair culture with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors.

Actually getting through Seas was, at turns, gripping and frustrating. For historical fantasies of this scope—the kind of far-reaching stories that flit across oceans and kingdoms and mention ten names in one breath—the first few chapters are often a rude baptism of worldbuilding, jargon, and geography that really takes time to sink in. Generally speaking, getting accustomed to this particular kind of historical genre is an acquired taste, as well as an acquired skill in learning to move along without getting overwhelmed by the frequency and volume of details and stylistic shifts.

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The Path to Witchhood: Marlon James’ Moon Witch, Spider King

It was only a third of the way into Marlon James’ latest novel that I remembered it was part of a trilogy—from my understanding, a Rashomon-style saga told in three parts from a different character’s perspective. The first was Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a fascinating tale that revolved around a highly unreliable narrator, Tracker, and an epic fantasy world filled with James’ own permutations of gods, creatures and folklore from myriad African cultures. Moon Witch, Spider King is the second installment, and while tonally different, is as consistently gripping as the first.

Moon Witch, Spider King spins a rich narrative web around Sogolon—the titular Moon Witch who appears in the previous book. It’s structured much more conventionally: a linear examination of young Sogolon’s miserable beginnings, miserable adolescence, and miserable awakening; Sogolon’s journey ultimately grows into a much greater existential conflict as she finds purpose in obliterating her nemesis.

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Big Ideas and Intimate Portraits in Liu Cixin’s The Wandering Earth

Cixin Liu is an ideas guy—a Big Ideas guy. Much of his writing, notably the epic Three-Body Problem saga, spans thousands and even millions of years. Even if you’re not a fan of technical hard sci-fi that leans on the dry side of storytelling, you have to give it up for the scope of his ideas as he marries the mundane human world with far-reaching cosmic changes that take place over millennia.

A typical Liu story often follows a familiar path: dispassionate alien civilization comes to Earth with technology beyond our ken, humanity bands together in the face of potential disaster, usually with a clinical resolution that hammers home our insignificance in the universe. By the time you get there, though, it’s usually after a marathon through talking-head dialogue and looming walls of exposition that reinforce the impossible galactic scale and scope of the problems at hand. The titular story in The Wandering Earth anthology is no different, and probably the most forgettable of them all (it’s also nothing like the Netflix film adaptation of the same name, which is more of an action blockbuster focused on a pair of sibling protagonists).

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A Murder Mystery in Space: Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson

There’s nothing I love more than a good locked-room murder mystery, an eternally beloved subgenre of crime writing that embodies humanity’s dogged need to know. But these can also be, more often than not, one-dimensional narrative dioramas that stick to the basic formula without distinction. This is, unsurprisingly, not the case with Far From the Light of Heaven, Tade Thompson’s newest novel which marries shades of gothic horror with a sleuthing mystery and hard sci-fi rooted in real astronauts’ accounts of living in space.

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Writing the Unknowable in Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, Translated by Jeremy Tiang

As a diaspora Chinese reader, plumbing the depths of Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China, translated to English by Jeremy Tiang, is at once warmly familiar and exhilaratingly alien. Set in a fictionalized version of Yong’an city (or perhaps, it seems a pseudonym for an archetypal anycity), somewhere in an alternate dimension, it tells a beautifully-threaded story of Yong’an’s titular beasts through the eyes of a zoologist-turned-novelist with a penchant for booze and impulsive decisions.

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Rogue A.I.s and Pharma Tycoons in S.B. Divya’s Machinehood

S.B. Divya’s Machinehood brims with equally familiar and foreign concepts—predatory mega-corporations, and public performativity, and the fear of rogue AI are widespread parts of our present and so much of our near future; at the same time, Divya offers an earnest look at one person’s path to radical change, and perhaps the biggest fiction of all: humanity’s ability to accept the need for change. So much of its narrative journey hinges on its reader’s own biases around ambient Islamophobia and American exceptionalism, almost to the point where digesting the novel’s first few acts feels like taking in a bizarro Tom Clancy storyline.

In Divya’s future, the world relies on WAIs (weak artificial intelligence), public tip jars that function like existential Patreons, smart self-configuring material called “blox,” and a massive mass-produced pill industry to stay mentally and physiologically on par with robots. Everyone has a personal agent—a WAI implant that functions as a 24/7 networked concierge; Welga’s is named Por Qué, which she got when she was just seventeen. We’re introduced to protagonist Olga “Welga” Ramirez as a private security guard (or “shield”) with a decorated military past, but she’s more interested in good coffee, slow food, and carving out a stable existence with her partner, Connor. Naturally, this doesn’t last for long—it turns out that Welga has to save the world.

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Life, Death, and Coming of Age in Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control

This is the story of Sankofa and how she came to be—an icon, a feared pseudo-spirit, and a many-faceted metaphor. Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novella, Remote Control, is the melancholy tale of Sankofa’s search for peace and closure as she evolves into something far beyond an adolescent girl. Set in a futuristic Africa, autonomous machines, drones, and robots exist side by side with long-held cultural and spiritual beliefs—witchcraft is alive and well in the future, as it will be as long as the human imagination endures. It’s a classic coming-of-age story where a young protagonist endures personal devastation, only to adapt and grow into her own skin.

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Trauma and Imagination in Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata’s new novel is a methodical descent into a very special, almost rational kind of madness. Like much of her previous work, Earthlings starts off as a bleak examination of conformity, reproduction, and sexuality in Japanese culture. Pain and otherness are the wretched heart of Murata’s oeuvre, laced with the weary practicality that comes with enduring such a hostile reality. It is, after all, exhausting to be yourself, especially in a society that judges and punishes any and all transgressions.

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The Unsung Muse of Speculative Fiction Is a Wikipedia Community

The universe of speculative fiction is an ever-expanding monstrosity, often merging with horror, science fiction, fantasy, and similar realms of weirdness. These genres can cover everything from full metal gore and peculiar truths to hidden monsters and secret conspiracies.

But whether they’re dry and deadpan or gloriously maximalist, many of these stories are often born from small inspirations. Some of the most unnerving narratives are anchored in the familiar—ideas and objects that we’re comfortable with in day-to-day life. Some of the most unsettling books, films, and games share roots with one of the most fascinating fictional worlds on the internet—one that uses the mundane form of a wikipedia community to draw readers into the fold.

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A Guide to Condor Heroes: The Martial Arts Epic That Influenced All Your Faves

Flitting effortlessly between treetops, a young man faces off against a nefarious opponent as others—including his beloved—watch with concern. The two fighters defy terrestrial physics, flying from branch to branch in an exhilarating display of combat mastery. This is the sort of scene I grew up watching on screens both small and large—a deadly dance that could be plucked from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, or really, any martial arts film where two rivals are determined to destroy each other in mid-air while also having a sharp exchange of words.

In the same way that Star Wars defined a generation of Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters, there’s a common ancestor in the world of martial arts pop culture. The cinematic qualities of the iconic “flying while fighting” trope were popularized by Jin Yong—the pen name of Chinese author, journalist, screenwriter, and film director Louis Cha—who passed away in 2018. Through his fiction, he left a literary legacy that combined film techniques like flashbacks, fast cuts, and bold changes in perspective, creating a new visual foundation for martial arts today. Many of his scenes have become familiar visual flourishes in kung fu movies, and a distinctive way of telling stories in an age-old Chinese genre: wuxia, the realm of martial heroes.

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