What makes for a good shadow history? There’s a fine line between this and an alternate history, after all—in the latter, historical events themselves are altered, while in the former, the events take place as-is but the motivations behind them are different. A History of What Comes Next is Sylvain Neuvel’s own take on the sub-genre; that its subtitle is “A Take Them to the Stars Novel” suggests that more are on their way. Based on this introduction to the premise and setting, Neuvel is off to a good start, with a compelling setup during a fascinating moment in history—and plenty of questions to answer along the way.
There’s plenty of compelling science fiction, fantasy, and genre-defying fiction being written and published in English; of that there is no doubt. But there’s even more work being written in these genres in other languages that isn’t necessarily appearing in English translation; a quick look at the overall numbers on translation bears that out. There are people and institutions pushing back against this—Ken Liu’s work as an editor and translator comes to mind, as does Restless Books’ commitment to releasing an array of Cuban science fiction.
They aren’t the only ones working to increase the amount of translated work out there, however. What follows is a look at six books that recently appeared in translation. Some are distinctly fantastical, science fictional, or horrific; others blend elements of all three genres. They’re all compelling reads in their own right; they’re also a very small fraction of the genre work being written in other languages.
Two things you should know about Stephen Graham Jones and his work: he is prolific, and his work covers a lot of ground. His debut novel, The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, was a surreal road novel like no other, and it also gave the best sense of what you could expect in one of Jones’s books: literally anything. Night of the Mannequins is Jones’ second book to be published this year; it follows the excellent The Only Good Indians, a tale of supernatural vengeance that haunts a group of Blackfeet men.
Taken together with Jones’s earlier novella Mapping the Interior, these works suggest that Jones has found an unsettling register for a kind of North American folk horror. How does one follows those up? Well, if you search a little further back in in Jones’s bibliography, you’ll find the memorably-titled The Last Final Girl. Jones is an acutely talented practitioner of horror fiction, but he’s also a student of its tropes, its formations, and its endless variations. And while there are certain things about Night of the Mannequins that are best left unspoiled, the title makes one thing pretty clear: this one’s tapping into a strain of horror direct from the grindhouse.
The great thing about a high-profile debut novel is its ability to serve as currency going forward. Jeff Noon’s 1993 novel Vurt is the kind of novel that prompts impressed reactions from a host of readers well-versed in the science fiction and fantasy worlds—but it’s also picked up enthusiastic endorsements from friends of mine whose tastes head in more esoteric and psychedelic directions. Over the years, Vurt has prompted comparisons to a host of cyberpunk novels—largely because its plot involves using a kind of techno-organic substance to move between the physical world and a more layered, internal one.
But just as that isn’t quite the cyberspace of William Gibson, neither is Noon precisely a cyberpunk author—the portrait that he paints of England seems to be less of a near future vision and more one of a slightly altered reality, period. It would make for an excellent double bill with Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet—both are books set in a skewed world where all things mythical take on a heightened position, and the delirious manifestations of art resonate on unexpected frequencies. In the case of Vurt, that comes through the dreamlike realm that its characters enter, populated by beings from fiction, mythology, and the collective unconscious.
In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novella Finalists, and what makes each of them great.
What makes Ted Chiang’s fiction so memorable—and so resonant—is his ability to take two seemingly disparate concepts and turn them into something altogether new. By and large, Chiang’s concepts elude elevator-pitch dryness and head into uncharted territory. In a world of builders and technicians—both entirely solid professions—Chiang is a kind of alchemist, transforming the familiar and the profound.
His novella “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” (collected in Exhalation) offers ample evidence of this. From one perspective, it’s the kind of working-class crime story that the likes of George Pelecanos specialize in: a story of people working dead-end jobs for which they’re underpaid, and the unnerving turns their lives take when they opt to engage in some low-level criminal activity.
At first glance, the setting of Adam Wilson’s new novel Sensation Machines is a familiar-looking New York City. Everyone who’s not supremely wealthy feels some sense of economic uncertainty, writers process the pop culture of their youth into sprawling critical works, and finance bros debate the merits of cryptocurrency. But the near-future setting of Wilson’s novel offers some stark differences as well. Bird-shaped drones now populate the skies and have taken most retail and food service jobs. A Cuban lung cancer vaccine has made smoking popular again. The hotly debated political issue of the moment is a Universal Basic Income for the nation, hinging on the vote of a centrist New York Senator. And—perhaps most shockingly—the Knicks have gotten so bad that Spike Lee has abandoned them.
It would have been easy for Max Brooks’s World War Z to feel gimmicky. An oral history of a worldwide zombie apocalypse? There are many, many places where that could have gone wrong. Instead, what Brooks created succeeded on a host of levels, from the geopolitical to the horrific. It balanced big-picture momentum with a few fantastic setpieces; via its framing device, it also allowed Brooks to present a bold vision of what the world might look like after such an outbreak was contained.
On paper, Brooks’s followup has more than a few things in common with World War Z. Like its predecessor, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre is presented as a found document. Like its predecessor, it involves humans coming into conflict with something uncanny. And, like its predecessor, its structure offers plenty of foreshadowing of discomfiting events. But Devolution differs from World War Z in a few substantial ways as well, which ultimately make it a more intimate book than its predecessor—and a far stranger one.
Trying to come up with a point of comparison for Tracy O’Neill’s new novel Quotients isn’t easy. Though it—broadly speaking—shares some themes with her debut novel The Hopeful, such as questions of family and identity, the novel takes these in a very different direction. Quotients occupies a similar stylistic place to William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy—fiction that skirts the boundaries of science fiction in its handling of technology.
JD Scott’s new collection Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day is a surreal and poetically-written foray into the familiar and the weird. It’s the kind of book that can make the quotidian seem fantastical and can evoke the banality of living in a world that might look wondrous on paper. This is a book that abounds with unlikely miracles and strange damnations; even so, Scott’s fiction is also about such resonant themes as ritual, grief, and the unknown.
What happens when nation-states have expanded to a planetary scale? For a particular corner of science fiction, this question is a monumentally gripping one. James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, with its vision of a futuristic Earth and Mars perennially on the verge of war, is one high-profile example of this; Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which embodies some elements of Cold War conflicts on a planetary level, is another.
Marian Womack’s fiction finds the middle ground between haunting landscapes and the surreal. She’s edited an anthology in collaboration with Gary Budden, whose work occupies a subgenre known as “landscape punk.” And a review of her 2018 collection Lost Objects in Weird Fiction Review cited the story “Kingfisher,” and highlighted “a blurred boundary between an initially recognizable world and a later turn toward something much weirder.”
While much of Womack’s work to date has been set around the present or in a possible future, her new novel The Golden Key opts for a very different locale: England in 1901.
One of the most difficult tasks for any fiction writer telling a story about the life of a fictional writer is coming up with believable fictional stories to fit within the larger work. If the plot of a book involves a critically acclaimed novel and the summary of that novel doesn’t ring true, the whole structure of the work begins to collapse. Some authors have taken this to its logical extension and published books nominally written by fictional characters they’ve created. It’s an expansive club, ranging from Rainbow Rowell to Antoine Volodine.
Readers familiar with Nick Mamatas’s work will know that he’s more than capable of finding a comfortable place between genres—and is more than willing to use that position to make his readers deeply uncomfortable. His 2016 novel I Am Providence riffed on toxic fandom and horror fiction, even as it kept readers guessing as to whether its central mystery would end up having a supernatural solution. The stories in his collection The People’s Republic of Everything offer a good overview of his strengths as a writer: sharp characterization, a terrific sense of place, and a willingness to change things up among them.
In the acknowledgements for his new novel Sabbath, Mamatas alludes to growing up near L’Amour, a storied Brooklyn venue referred to in one article as “a CBGB’s of metal.” Mamatas is making this allusion for a reason: as you might be able to tell from the cover design—including a sword, gothic lettering, and plenty of fire—Sabbath might as well have a blistering guitar solo play as you begin reading. But when I say “Sabbath is a very metal novel,” that’s not to imply that its tone is monolithic. And the impressive trick that Mamatas pulls off here is how he pivots this novel from one style of supernatural fiction to another.
Johannes Anyuru’s novel They Will Drown in Their Mother’s Tears (translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel) begins with a scene that seems all too familiar. An artist being interviewed at a comic book store finds himself under attack. His name is Göran Loberg, and his aesthetic is one of provocation—specifically, provocation of conservative Muslims. (There are echoes here of 2010’s “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in 2015.) One of the extremists involved with the attack, a young woman, is periodically overtaken by the sense that something is fundamentally wrong, that events are not playing out the way they should.
What a difference a decade makes. 2010 saw the release of Benjamin Percy’s novel The Wilding, a novel with a subplot about a man who finds release wearing a suit made from animal pelts. Percy had, initially, written fiction with a sense of horror lurking just below the surface, but from there, he embraced genre elements more fully. His later novel Red Moon focused on werewolves; and now, one of the stories in his new collection Suicide Woods focuses on a bear who, after a harrowing encounter with hunters, begins to have a go at emulating the life of a human.
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