I tried an experiment in 2014. I sought to read enough of speculative fiction published this year (as opposed to three decades ago as was my habit) that I would be able to understand it for myself rather than be told about it at the end of the year. This post is an effort to summarize what I found in short and long fiction in 2014, the themes that I saw repeated and the trends I saw embraced. I’ll start with a topic that seemed to echo from one end of speculative fiction to the other: Lovecraft.
H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy is a complicated subject in speculative fiction. Like many others, I owe a tremendous debt to Lovecraft’s legacy, one that I’m often flummoxed how to acknowledge. I have enjoyed his works, drawn inspiration from his mythologies, and been influenced by his vision of a vast and indifferent universe. The problem is Lovecraft, even in terms of his contemporaries, was an unreformed, unrepentant bigot. What’s worse, his personal biases seeped into his writing in obvious and frankly embarrassing ways. This is unfortunate because the value of his work is nearing a kind of event horizon where little of it can escape the crushing gravity of his own inadequacies as a writer and a human being.
Yet there is still a risk in pointing that out, in challenging the status quo. Even with work widely acknowledged as flawed, Lovecraft still maintains a formidable grip upon the imaginations of the 21st century. When Daniel José Older questioned the appropriateness of receiving a bust of Lovecraft as an award, a firestorm of controversy erupted lasting right to the end of the year. Although careful to distance themselves from Lovecraft's racism, his defenders acted as though the effort to address his well-documented beliefs is somehow akin to throwing paint on the Mona Lisa.
Personally, I think Lovecraft deserves to be challenged. Although the universe Lovecraft described was indifferent to human existence, we cannot profess ignorance of the flaws in his. Several of the works I most enjoyed this year took H.P on, both as a person, and as an enduring influence within our genre as a whole. For example, Helen Bell’s “Lovecraft” (Clarkesworld) explored the eponymous author as an awkward and alienated suitor. In particular I liked how Bell paid coy homage to Lovecraft’s discomfort with the female body, to carve a more subtle and personal sort of body horror. This wasn’t a rejection so much as a very elegant literary hijacking. In a similar fashion, Ruthanna Emyrs’ “Litany of the Earth” (TOR) embraces an alternate perspective on the denizens of the notorious fishing village of Innsmouth. In Emyrs' telling, Dagon worshippers were one more misunderstood ethnic group swept up as possible subversives during World War II, now reluctant to help the government that did so little for them. Into this stew, I’d also mention Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent Southern Reach trilogy, which hot-wired the wonder and alienation of weird fiction and drove it off in a new direction.
There is plenty of room for something new in speculative fiction. In a year that finally saw the thudding and empty conclusion to the Hobbit Trilogy, and the increased popularity of the Game of Thrones series (which although nuanced is still essentially a Euro-centric fantasy) and innumerable urban zombie nightmares, there is a small but growing audience for wider perspectives on the world. Rather than portraying the constant grim struggle between different ideologies or the clash of cultures there are works that serve a project physicist Michio Kaku termed "building a truly global society," the idea that the insights of science and the valued perspectives of peoples across the planet could be brought together into one common space. Science Fiction, and by extension speculative fiction as a whole, would continue to have relevance if they can add to this project. There are any number of works this year that show how science fiction, fantasy, and weird fiction could remain relevant in a world slowly growing more interconnected. One such work was the Crossed Genres’ “Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History,” edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older. The litanies of African Ogres and enchanted ouds showed how even the rusty and hermetically sealed world of fantasy literature is beginning to stretch out, embracing a vision of the world where the traditions of many cultures can be discussed and revered. I will also point to Chinese Speculative Fiction such as the “Three Body Problem,” by Liu Cixin now available in English translations. These are all great, titanic efforts to narrow the distance between the people of this planet eager to dream of other possibilities.
Within Speculative Fiction itself, the ongoing struggle is between utopian and dystopian visions of the future. Because as much as that vision beckons, what our culture seems increasingly swept into is a dystopian mindset. I think this country and much of the Western world seems trapped in a constant habit of flinching from change that should be welcome. The world continues to grow painfully, fitfully but steadily less violent, more open, and better accessible to the very poorest. These trends should be the source of a renewed sense of optimism. Instead, we are focused on the wars and invasions, epidemics and migrations. There is a cost to this. If the only vision we rely on are those of the most pessimistic, then we run the risk of falling into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would point to works as divergent as William Gibson’s “The Peripheral,” Claire North’s “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” and the excellent Hieroglyph anthology as stories intent on looking at the complexities of a better future.
One encouraging aspect of this look at a new optimism is a turn away from the “Singularity-will-fix-all-of-this,” conceit of many recent novels, to a more honest appraisal of where the world is right now. Many of the works I read this year were written from the near future perspective. To me, living in a time where the future threatens to erupt at any moment, this seems a natural choice. Smart phones and tablets have become ubiquitous. The more outrageous iterations of the nostalgic heroic future have been cast aside. Rather than grinding out more tales with sci fi tropes like faster-than-life travel, time travel, and rampant nano-magic, many have focused on what is possible within the next hundred years. Kim Stanley Robinson, one of my own inspirations, expressed this vision in the beautifully realized Mars Trilogy and 2312, but many others have either explicitly written in the style of “Mundane Science Fiction,” after a manifesto written by Geoff Ryman or been inspired by it. Part of William Gibson’s "The Peripheral" looked at this aspect of low-rent futures. I’d also suggest that Andy Weir’s "The Martian,” with its relentless adherence to physics, chemistry, and the cold calculations of human survival is an example of science fiction brought back down to, well, Mars at the very least.
Update: Various stylistic corrections.