posted Wednesday 13 April 2011 @ 7:38 pm PST
compiled by Jeff VanderMeer
Although my year’s best selections included some international fiction, I thought it would be of use to compile a few “core samples” of work, mostly in other languages, that my contacts found of particular interest in 2010. This year I decided to exclude Australia and New Zealand because writers from those countries have received extensive coverage in SF/Fantasy media. It’s worth noting, too, that the term “International Fiction” or “World SF” requires further specificity of detail, in the sense that some countries have a stronger tradition of supporting non-realistic fiction than others. In addition, some countries have a stronger tradition of supporting their own authors than others. (For example, the Russian books noted represent just a fraction of Russian authors published there.)
I would also note that this is of necessity a haphazard sample — several of my queries went unanswered and some people did not have time to compile lists. Still, an incomplete overview is better than no overview at all. I would welcome any additional recommendations in the comments, and next year we will spread our net much, much wider.
Finally, my heartfelt thanks to the respondents, and to S. Boyd Taylor, who was invaluable in compiling and editing this list.
Brazil, recommended by translator/writer Fábio Fernandes
Paraíso Líquido (Liquid Paradise), by Luiz Bras, pub. Editora Terracota
— Published as a free edition under the auspices of the government of the State of São Paulo, Paraíso Liquido is the latest collection of short stories by Luiz Bras. The curious fact about this book is that Luiz Bras doesn’t exist. It’s the pseudonym of Nelson de Oliveira, a well-known, award-winning Brazilian writer in his forties who suddenly decided, like the Japanese writers of the Edo period, to change his name when he decided to change his narrative style and genre approach. Two and a half years in the making, Paraíso Líquido presents thirteen stories, ranging from a very unusual first contact (Primeiro Contato) to a fantastic tale during the Crusades (Cruzada), and what is maybe the best story in the collection, Aço Contra Osso (Bone Against Steel). It’s also one of the shortest stories in the book, and one of the most intricate. Thirty-one clones play a deadly game inside a mathematical cathedral (a “gigantic system of equations”, as the protagonist says in the beginning of the story) reminiscent of Greg Egan or Hannu Rajaniemi. The cathedral is in fact a Guantánamo of the mind, a simulation created for torturing mentally and physically not only those guilty of terrorism but those even slightly suspected of it. Paraíso Liquido has been considered by fans and critics one of the best Brazilian SF collections of the year.
Guerra Justa, by Carlos Orsi, pub. Editora Draco
— A post-cyberpunk conspiracy set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, Guerra Justa studies the consequences of religious manipulation and the nature of reality. Two siblings, Sister Rebeca and scientist Rafaela, are caught in opposite sides of the conspiracy, and must overcome their personal issues to solve together the mysteries behind the Pontifical Cult who rules the world through benevolence but at the same time wages war and ignorance. Orsi, a science journalist and sturdy atheist, is definitely against all religions, but in Guerra Justa he makes a valorous effort to bring the reader a good, entertaining story without proselytism.
Cyber Brasiliana, by Richard Diegues, pub. Tarja Editorial
— In the future, the decadent corporations of the Northern Hemisphere fight for control of the spoils of the old countries, while in the Southern Hemisphere a new utopia is founded. This utopia is composed of three great powers: the Union of the República Brasiliana, the Africanisia, and the Euronova. They have created the Hiperworld: a supernetwork giving people a complex form of augmented reality that affects their entire lives. But is it good? Is this technology alienating humankind from the spiritual realm and turning men into machines?
Bulgaria, recommended by astronomer/writer Valentin D. Ivanov
— This is the third volume of an annual anthology launched in 2008. The title is an intentional mix of Cyrillic and Latin letters, forming the Bulgarian generic term for speculative fiction. This volume contains an extended profile of the Bulgarian SF writer Angelina Ilieva and stories by the Bulgarian SF writers Georgi Hristov, Gergana Veleva, Maria Belcheva, and Anton Fotev. Translated stories by John Varley, the Strugatsky brothers, and Dmitry Bilenkin are also included. The book contains a lot of non-fiction — speculative essays about the future, reviews of genre books, and summary of the genre events in Bulgaria for the previous year, as well as lavish illustrations by the Bulgarian SFF painters Stefan Lefterov and Atanas P. Slavov, among others. Over the years, the anthology has become for Bulgarian speculative fiction what the Year’s Best anthologies edited by Garner Dozois are for the English language genre scene.
The Unknown Strugacky Brothers, ed. Yuri Ilkov, Aleksander Karapanchev and Vladimir Borisov, pub. ERNOR
— This anthology celebrates the 35th anniversary of the speculative fiction fan club Arcady and Boris Strugatsky, named after the venerable brothers who — together with Stanislaw Lem — still dominate the landscape of the modern Slavic SF. The book is a collection of some fifty short contributions, organized into three sections. The first is a history of the club, the second talks about the connection between the Strugatsky brothers and the cultural life in Bulgaria, and the third is a collection of mini-memoirs and essay about the brothers and their work by people from all over the world.
— This novel is a Science Fiction time-travel tale where the future needs help from the past. It is also a political thriller and a love story. Last but not least, it’s a book about a writer — which allows every aspiring writer to identify with the characters.
The Warm Key of Life, by Aleksander Karapanchev, pub. e-Books
— Few people read science fiction. Few people read poetry. The cross section of these two small groups — on a small national book market — is even smaller. Collections of fantastic poetry are rare, and this book appeared only because of the minimal production costs of modern day electronic publishing. It offers tender and lyrical poetry, reminiscent of the early Bradbury stories.
Czech Republic, recommended by editor Martin Šust
— A very impressive novel, maybe the best of the decade. A dark view of society after Germany wins World War Two, but not the stereotypical tale from that type of alternative world.
Vládcové vesmíru (The Masters of the Universe), ed. Ivan Adamovič
— A great anthology with long forgotten stories from the dawn of Czech science fiction literature.
Labyrint (Labyrinth), by Pavel Renčín
— An interesting project, first published online as a serial novel. Later, it became a magazine serial novel and later still was traditionally-published. The story is about the dungeons under Prague city.
Holomráz (Black Frost), by Štěpán Kopřiva
— A very entertaining collection that features a wizard who pretends to be powerful, but in fact is a charlatan. A masterpiece of sarcastic parody.
Denmark, recommended by bloggers/reviewers/librarians Zenia Johnsen and Janus Andersen
Mount København (Mount Copenhagen), by Kaspar Colling Nielsen, pub. Gyldendal
— Kaspar Colling Nielsen’s debut shows that even people in little countries can think big. The creation of an artificial mountain south of Denmark’s capital city is the starting point for the book — and from that, Colling Nielsen weaves 17 stories that range from science fiction to magical realism and contain both their own stories and a tale of Denmark transformed. The author won the prize for Best Debut in 2010, and Mount Copenhagen has been optioned for a TV series.
Marskens konge, by Alex Uth, pub. People’s Press, jr
— Marskens konge is Uth’s second book and a sequel — but it is one of the very few fantasy sequels that manages to become a book all of its own. The girl, Fanke, returns from the realm of the Quiet People, the fishlike creatures that are a dark fact of life in the marsh. But everyone seems to agree that Fanke should have stayed to become a bride to the King of the marsh. Society comes together against her while dark forces rise from the waters. A tight, original, and atmospheric mix of horror and fantasy.
De underjordiske, by Thomas Strømsholt, pub. H. Harksen Productions
— After having appeared in several anthologies, fanzines and other places, Thomas Strømsholt finally got a book all to himself — and it is very difficult to compare it to anything else published in Danish in the last century. Thomas Strømsholt writes horror — but in a way that you suspect that he has just returned from dinner with Arthur Machen and M. R. James. De underjordiske contains 19 short stories and is bound to transport you somewhere else entirely.
Drømmetid, by Richard Ipsen, pub. Science Fiction Cirklen
— Longtime fan writer Ipsen has proved his worth as a writer of science fiction years ago with both nerve and style. He may not be the most prolific writer, but stylistically he is often miles ahead of the competition. Drømmetid is mostly science fiction but weaves in into fantasy at times (and sometimes out of it). The string that ties Drømmetid together is Ipsen’s beautiful language and imagery.
Diget, by Teddy Vork, pub. Tellerup
— Vork’s second book and a shorter piece of historical horror. Diget takes place in the western part of Denmark in the Middle Ages, where every seven years a boy would be buried in the dykes to strengthen them against the sea. Knud is one of those boys and — as he is locked in the darkness — the story shifts between his encounters there and his flashbacks to what happened before. The power of Diget comes from its use of old Danish myths and legends and its refusal to tell us what is waiting there in the dark, just outside Knud’s touch.
Finland, recommended by editor/writer Jukka Halme
En tunne sinua vierelläni (I Don’t Feel You Beside Me), by Tiina Raevaara
— This Runeberg prize winning short story collection plays with various genre conventions. Stylistically strong stories mix surrealism, the fantastical, expressionism, and science fiction into a mycelium-like subconsciousness that verbalizes the silenced.
Unenpäästäjä Florian (Dream Releaser Florian), by Jani Saxell
— Part mystery, part love story, but all magical realism. While Europe is losing its dreams, Florian (a Romanian Roma living in Finland) has the ability to see into other peoples’ dreams — and lead them into those dreams. This near-future thriller also highlights the current plight of European internal refugees and beggars.
Kirkkaan selkeää (Bright and Clear), by Maarit Verronen
— Gripping near-future dystopia on environmental disaster and social inequalities, from the POV of a societal drop-out. Sharp, almost clinical writing from Finland’s keenest critic of modern society. Plenty of questions, yet very few answers.
France, recommended by writers Gio Clairval and Edward Gauvin
Rue Farfadet (Sprite Street), by Raphaël Albert, pub. Editions Mnémos
— Panam (slang for “Paris”), 1880: Humans have known and controlled the Old People for a long time. Sylvo, an Elvish private detective in bowler hat, takes pictures of adulterous spouses and deals with cuckolded husbands and jealous wives. Our hero prefers cafés, maisons closes, and cancan dancers to his lackluster job — until, one day, a duke of Panam hires him to disentangle a diabolical plot. Surprising for a first novel, the tone proves both mischievous and profound, swerving between centaur taxis, steam-bikes, and magic.
Plaguers, by Jeanne A. Debats, pub. L’Atalante
— On near-future Earth, all resources are depleted, and all flora and fauna are destroyed. A few adolescents develop “plagues” — abilities to create water, fire, and extinct species — until the plaguers mature and merge to become gigantic creatures with multiple limbs and manifold powers. Mutant adolescents are parked in reservations from which they can escape only when the “externals” request their abilities. But the plaguers are needed when an untested energy source threatens to destroy the planet. This YA novel captures the reader thanks to the well-penned personalities of the protagonists, teenagers who discover love and sexuality in a tragic and disturbing setting.
Druide (Druid), by Olivier Peru, pub. Éclipse
— 1123: Druids rule the Forest, a domain that conceals dark secrets. Obrigan, investigating a strange massacre, faces a power of the blackest kind, poised to cause a fratricidal war. The protagonist eventually discovers that his life is built on lies. This debut novel is a dark tale rich in suspense and action, where ethically ambiguous characters cross the blurred boundaries between good and evil.
Forêts noires, by Romain Verger, pub. Quidam Editeur
Rosée de feu, by Xavier Mauméjean, pub. Du Belial
— Both from small presses (the latter a spec-specific press), both involving Japan.
Germany, recommended by writer Jakob Schmidt
Schaumschwester, by Thor Kunkel, pub. Matthes & Seitz Berlin
— Kunkel’s novel is based on the notion that in the near future, humanity is threatened by extinction because people have begun to prefer advanced sex puppets to human partners. To be honest, I dislike the philosophy put forth in this book so much that I did not finish reading it. But I can appreciate that it is among the most relevant German SF novels of 2010. Therefore, with kind permission, I’m borrowing Frank Böhmert’s words of praise: “Kunkel is taking us on a tour-de-force through the cultural history of the puppet, always keeping a close eye on his protagonists. His love of the crime pulps and William S. Burroughs is obvious. (…) Finally, a German SF novel that reminds the reader of the great iconoclastic tradition of British SF from the 60s and 70s.”
Wenn das der Führer wüsste, by Otto Basil, pub. Pabel-Moewig Verlag Kg
— This alternate history novel about a victorious Nazi Germany was first published in 1966, but has been out of print most years since. In 2010, Austrian publisher Milena finally reissued the book, which represents a fundamentally different take on the well-worn topic. Wenn das der Führer wüsste shows the absurdity of Nazi ideology by further exaggerating all its contradictory elements and letting them clash: it is a surrealistic road trip, with a despicable and pathetic Nazi protagonist wandering through a German Reich that is rapidly falling to pieces after Hitler’s death, until finally Germany engages the Japanese in a third world war. An English translation of Basil’s novel has been published in 1968 under the title The Twilight Men.
Hinterland, Karla Schmidt (ed.), pub. Wurdack
— This anthology collects 20 SF/slipstream short stories by a broad range of authors, among them well-known mainstream writers like Dietmar Dath, newcomers like Dirk Röse and Jasper Nicolaisen, and writers who are well-known in their community like Heidrun Jänchen, Karsten Kruschel, and Nadine Boos. The common element is that each of the 20 stories is inspired by a song by David Bowie. What makes this anthology special is not only the high overall quality of the stories, but also that it ventures further out into slipstream territory than anything published by a German SF small press in the last few years. Standout stories are Markolf Hoffmann’s disturbing Triptychon about a future society where murder is not a crime if the deed is considered to be of artistic value, Pepe Metropolis’ Lovecraftian steampunk-story Hinterland, and Erlösungsdeadline by editor Karla Schmidt, a restrained but powerful piece of social fiction.
Ende der Nacht, by Ralph Doege, pub. Deltus Media
— Doege’s short fiction has been published in various SF magazines and anthologies over the past few years. Ende der Nacht (End of Night) is his first collection. Most of Doege’s stories feature fantasy and/or SF elements, but the focus is always on psychological dilemmas. This in itself is pretty unusual for German science fiction and fantasy, and Doege takes it a step further by repeatedly confronting his characters with virtually unsolvable philosophical problems. Standout stories are Karmamaschine, about a machine that determines if someone is bound to become a criminal one day, Wunden, a frightening and sexual werewolf fantasy, and Im Sog, which contains no fantasy elements, but presents a haunting metaphor for the erosion of childhood memories. While Doege’s stories have a tendency to be flawed in one way or the other and are sometimes stylistically overwrought, he is a truly unique and highly recommended voice in German speculative fiction.
Israel, recommended by publisher/editor Rani Graff and writer Lavie Tidhar
Nuntia (Frost), by Shimon Adaf, pub. Zmora Bitan Publishing
— Set 500 years in the future, the Tel Aviv depicted in this novel is a very different place from the vibrant seaside city we know today. In fact, it might be a different city altogether. Strange genetic alterations are discovered in the bodies of some yeshiva students, and a Torah scholar, who might be a scientific genius, is called to solve the mystery. This fantastic futuristic thriller walks on the border of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is a demanding, not easy, read — but a very rewarding one.
Sequoia Children, by Gon Ben-Ari, pub. Zmora Bitan Publishing
— Nikolina is a sequoia child, which means that when she was born she received, like all other sequoia children, a revolutionary injection that will prolong her life to a thousand years. She is 16 years old and her grandfather, the last holocaust survivor, is about to pass away — but before he does, he leaves her a coded letter that she must solve. But to Nikolina the whole world is one giant code that awaits a solution. Sequoia Children examines myths at large and tells a new one while doing so. This one of the most fascinating novels published in Israel in 2010.
The Day the Music Died, by Ofir Touche Gafla, pub. Keter Publishing
— This modern tale is set in the imaginary town of Innoville, which was an ordinary town until June 26th, 1984. That day a mysterious boy came to town and wrote in a group of files the exact date of each resident’s death. Once a resident of Innoville turned 18, he or she was allowed to open the file. From that day on, Innoville became known to everyone as the town where people know when they will die. A few years after the mysterious visit, on her 18th birthday, Dora Matter opens her file — and her life, plans, and everything else becomes overshadowed by the grim news. But, unlike other people, she refuses to let her knowledge change her life, and she seems to be the only one in town who acts that way. In her unique voice, Dora tells a moving and intimate story of growing up and self discovery. Unlike its dire topic, The Day the Music Died is a funny, entertaining story that celebrates life rather than death.
Japan, recommended by translator/publisher/editor Yoshio Kobayashi
First of all, thank you for your concern over our recent tragedy, but most of us in Japanese speculative fiction community are alive and well. Although our publishing industry is based on paper books and is suffering very badly in many aspects — from editing to distributing to the bookstore shelves — our major concerns are the economy itself. Many readers likely won’t be able afford to buy books for quite a while. Yet for some people, book reading is still cheap and convenient pleasure under the controlled blackout situation, so we have to keep on.
Last year, 2010, was regarded as a bad year for our SF community as well. We lost major figures in translation. Takumi SHIBANO, the founding father of SF community in Japan passed away in January. Hisashi ASAKURA (nee Zenji OTANI), one of our best translators followed in February. Both of them helped shape our idea of SF and had great influence over our writers, including Haruki MURAKAMI. Death took a heavy toll again following 2009 when Kaoru KURIMOTO and Project ITOH died in the middle of their growing popularity.
Yet, I read a decent share of good novels and my favorite three of 2010 were:
Pistils, by Kazushige ABE
— The Tohoku area, ravaged by the recent earthquakes and tsunami, is the home of an excellent novelist. You might call Tohoku the Japanese south because, although it stands in the northern part of Honshu island, it was defeated in our civil war in the early 19th century. Since then has become a neglected and underdeveloped agricultural outland, rich with legends and myths. Kazushige ABE hails from this part of Japan and is regarded as one of the most ambitious novelists of mainstream literature today — especially after winning Akutagawa prize, equivalent of National Book Award for first fiction. The novel describes the rise and fall of Findhorn — a hippie-like commune in rural Tohoku village where a family with Psi power has been secretly residing for a millennium. It’s kind of a Magic realism novel with a small scale hippie dream (our heroine literally uses flower power by tapping into their aroma) and is reminiscent of The Children of Atom by William H Shiras.
Koroyoshi! (Commence!), by Aki MISAKI
— Mainstream writers in Japan have begun to employ fantastic elements more and more in their stories, and the most eminent young writer is Aki MISAKI. In his recent Koroyoshi!, he dovetails into another big trend: sports fiction. In an alternate Japan, people of the defeated Western Regions camouflage their martial arts and simultaneously keep them alive by creating the sport of brooming. In this sport, a player swings a broom-like stick to sweep confetti into the air and gather it swiftly and beautifully into a pile, while dancing. This book reminds me of another hippie-flavored SF novel from the 80s, The Gameplayers of Zan by M. A. Foster. Sports fiction tends to be a coming of age story, but this one is also an alternate history novel without describing the world. It’s a refreshing way to write an alternate history novel. I’ve been one of Aki MISAKI’s most devoted readers, but think this is his best so far.
The Ocean Chronicles (Karyu no Miya), by Sayuri UEDA
— I’m happy to introduce you a genuine genre novel by a very young author, Sayuri UEDA. Due to the plume tectonics collapse (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plume_tectonics), most of the land masses of the world have sunk beneath the ocean. There is a big conflict between the ocean people — who genetically modify themselves to live in the ocean — and the land people — who control the power and resources in the former highlands. The major theme is ecology, but it is also about one renegade diplomat’s struggle to save mankind from the next tectonic collapse. The novel reminds me of Frank Herbert and Roger Zelazny, rather than Hilbert Schenk. It’s also a bit like Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick, because the author uses telepresence AI technology.
Yoreiden (Tale of Yan Ling), by Kenzo KITAKATA
— A fifteen volume alternate history saga, a sequel to the author’s Suikoden (Water Margin), was completed in 2010. This is the tale of rebels who build an independent state in 12th century China, using international trade as their primary weapon.
Fukkatsu no Chi (The Land of Restoration), by Issui Ogawa (2004)
— Though it is not a 2010 novel, I recommend this book for those who might be interested in how Japanese speculative fiction treats a massive earthquake and the restoration afterward. The author describes a scene like today’s Japan, where ordinary people perform heroic deeds to revitalize a ravaged planet.
Philippines, recommended by writer/blogger Charles Tan
Neil Gaiman Presents The Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards: Prose Anthology, pub. Sketchbooks Inc.
— This anthology compiles all the winning prose entries of the previous three competitions in the Neil Gaiman-sponsored Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards. There are over 20 stories, including both veteran and new voices, from the likes of Michael A.R. Co, Ian Casocot, Yvette Natalie Tan, Joseph Frederic Nacino, and Dean Francis Alfar. Covers fantasy, science fiction, and horror.
Poland, recommended by editor/writer Jan Żerański
Chocholy (The Chochols), by Wit Szostak, pub. Lampa & Iskra Boża
— A tenement in the city of Cracow. A family, the Chochols, restore an old building and soon create The House — a kind of a living organism, full of hidden tombs, secret passages, and unknown corridors. Here, every recess has its own history, and soon we discover that the outside world is also changing. Wit Szostak’s latest novel is a family saga written in magical realism tradition, but it is also a portrait of Polish society after the 1989 transformation. Szostak, the winner of the 2008 Janusz A. Zajdel Award for a short story about Cracow, The City of Tombs, has written his best novel to date.
Wieczny Grunwald (The Eternal Tannenberg), by Szczepan Twardoch, pub. National Culture Centre
— Six hundred years ago, on the field of Grunwald/Tannenberg, Polish and German knights fought in one of the largest battles in Medieval Europe. Paszko, a Polish king’s bastard, dies on the battlefield, but death is only the beginning of his odyssey through space and time. As Paszko tries to understand why he cannot die, it seems that the key lies in complicated Polish-German relations. The Eternal Tannenberg, ordered by National Culture Centre as part of the publishing series Shifts of Time (focusing on alternate histories of Poland), may be seen either as a science fiction novel or a metaphysical treatise about two struggling nations. In my opinion it is one of the most significant genre novels of the last decade.
Eremanta, by Joanna Skalska, pub. Powergraph
— Our friends at Powergraph work hard on debuts. In 2009 Robert M. Wegner, whom I wrote about last year, won the Polish Hugo — the Janusz A. Zajdel Award — and I am pretty sure that Skalska is also an author to keep an eye on. Her debut novel, Eremanta, tells the story of Magda — who finds a mysterious book about people living in a hidden Spanish village called Eremanta. The Eremantians do not speak to each other, and, as in Marquezian Macondo, the air around them is filled with magic. When Magda translates the book from Spanish, fiction and reality merge. Of course, Skalska is not Marquez, but her language is very good and her imagination vivid. I am looking forward to read her second book.
Russia, recommended by translator Nikolai Karayev
Dom, v kotorom… (The House Where…), by Mariam Petrosyan, pub. LiveBook
— This thick, almost 1000-page, debut novel narrates the lives of the disabled children in The House, located on the outskirts of the unnamed city. But the children are entities that only look like disabled children — in actuality they are psychics or superhumans or gods. This is the story of a strange, highly mythologized, seemingly immortal society of boys and girls that has no beginning and no end. The House turns out to be continuum in itself, its story is singular. There is no confluence, only flow and rhythm.
Ostromov, ili Uchenik charodeya (Ostromov or The Magician’s Apprentice), by Dmitry Bykov pub. PROZAiK
— Based on the real criminal case of the Leningrad Freemasons and set against a backdrop the Soviet mid-1920s, this novel revolves around Ostromov, a swindler who pretends to be an omniscient and omnipotent wizard, and one of his pupils, young naïve Daniil, who is trying to learn the art of levitation. Ostromov is actually an informant for the secret police, who eventually arrest all the members of his lodge. Daniil is the only one left outside the prison walls. That’s when the metamorphosis of man into overman begins.
Migrant (The Migrant), by Marina Dyachenko and Sergey Dyachenko, pub. EKSMO
— Our protagonist, nicknamed Crocodile, is captured by the Bureau of Universal Migration Services and carried (allegedly by the consent of his future self) through space and time on the planet Raa. In order to earn citizenship, Crocodile passes an examination called Probe, becoming transformed in the process, and is pulled into a game where the prize is the stability of reality itself. An elaborate adventure SF story, by turns political, ethical, and metaphysical.
Simbionty (The Symbionts), by Oleg Divov, pub. EKSMO
— The ambitious head of the Nanotechnology Institute wants to become President by (literally) making all Russian citizens happy. The key is the teenager, whose body (unbeknownst to him) contains the unique microbots invented by his grandfather, the previous director of the Institute. This Bildungsroman-cum-technothriller earnestly resuscitates “close-range SF”, the forgotten genre that flourished in the Soviet literature and dealt with the slightly more sophisticated technology of the near-future.
S.S.S.M. (The Happiest Country in the World), by Maria Chepurina, pub. Krylov
— Partly an ironic fairytale, partly an alternative history, this book is about the USSR of the 1930s that never was: the Utopian country where the happy proletarians fly in the sky, Teslenergo factories transmit electricity across vast distances, food and clothes are free, and so forth. The worker Kraslen becomes a spy in bourgeois Angelica (i.e. UK), contributes to the world revolution, and reanimates the dead Leader. Interestingly, the eponymous country has two symbols, Red Star and Black Square.
Padeniye Sofii (The Fall of Sophia), by Yelena Hayetskaya, pub. Shiko
— Set in the would-be Russian Empire with the values and attitudes of the 19th century and the realities of some distant future, this novel combines a plot in the vein of The Midsomer Murders (or perhaps Twin Peaks) with the Golden Age of Russian literature from Gogol to Chekhov. A young man unexpectedly inherits the estate of his late uncle and soon finds himself entangled with odd neighbors, alien brigands, and enigmatic murders. Past mysteries and present crimes abound.
South Africa, recommended by writers Nick Wood and Sarah Lotz
— Zoo City is a densely energetic and engaging story, complex in its structure and narrative, melding and breaking genres with great skill. It is both riveted together and pulled along by a strong but flawed young amaZulu woman called Zinzi December, who has a ‘gift’ for ‘finding things’ — and many things she does indeed find, both internal and external to herself. Due to her prior criminal history, she is supernaturally connected to an animal (an ‘aposymbiote’) — which varies across individuals — and for Zinzi, her animal is a beautifully characterized sloth. Unlike Philip Pullman’s daemons from His Dark Materials however, these animals appear to reflect less inherent personality characteristics than act as companions and stigmatizing social markers. The ambivalence in such markers is that they provide comfort, as well as peril and power, reflecting an enforced attachment to the animal world in the otherwise stark urban ghetto environment of Jo’burg. The novel compellingly knits together Zinzi’s central detective noir ‘missing persons’ quest against a background of scientific and traditional African ‘supernatural’ discourses — historically divided discourses now integrated within a strange — but resonant — South Africa indeed. Although classified as ‘urban fantasy’ this book sprawls across genre and literary boundaries in a way that will appeal to readers from any literary or genre background. Zoo City is deservedly already starting to pick up nominations for major SF/F prizes, such as the Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA Awards. Beukes has indeed burst prominently onto the international SF/F scene and looks likely to set as many powerful trends as she breaks. She is a creative force of nature – and a truly South African one at that!
Sidekick, by Adeline Radloff, pub.Tafelberg Publishers Ltd
— Sidekick, a YA debut by Adeline Radloff is a witty, twisted, slightly subversive teen novel centering around an unfortunately named teen — Katie Holmes — who is the sidekick to Finn, a flawed ‘superhero’ who can stop time. Katie shares Finn’s talent to inhabit ‘untime’ — a frozen landscape where only they can move and everyone else remains absolutely still. Katie has to battle with Finn’s drug abuse and self-destructive tendencies, her own high school hell, and get to the bottom of the disappearance of several Cape Town school children. It’s packed with laugh-out-loud one-liners, and is an original, quirky, and at times shocking novel that has undeservedly slipped under the radar. I recommend it unreservedly.
Deadlands, by Lily Herne, pub. Penguin Books
— Deadlands is a recently published YA South African zombie novel, set in a post-soccer World Cup ravaged Cape Town. In this inventive and gripping book, the World Cup went off a little less smoothly than the real event, being set ten years after a zombie invasion and war that spiked the mid World Cup celebrations. The outcome of this apocalypse is that people are living in segregated enclaves run with dictatorial certitude and power by a priestly caste who call themselves ‘Resurrectionists’. The lead protagonist is Lele de la Fontein, trapped between her step-mother’s Resurrectionist beliefs, school and a small, underground anarchic anti-Zombie league. Lele learns to take control of her own fate through her alliance with an outlawed splinter group — ‘the Mall Rats’ — and the novel moves swiftly towards a clever and powerful resolution. It is an assured and engaging story, its subtext perhaps challenging conformity and the deadening power of political oppression, but never losing its inherent sparkle and energetic drive that should make it a hit with teenagers from South Africa and beyond.
Sweden, recommended by bookseller Karin Waller
Lilla stjärna (Little Star), by John Ajvide Lindqvist, pub. Ordfront
— The latest novel by Sweden’s foremost horror writer (known internationally for Let the Right One In) is a story about two girls, Theres and Teresa. Theres is thought a miracle by the man who finds her as a newborn baby, left in the woods: she has the purest singing voice he has ever heard. He and his wife raise her in secret, until that arrangement comes to a nightmarish end. Teresa grows up as a “normal” girl, not one of the popular crowd, but with a secret life online and in the library’s poetry shelf. Theres becomes famous through a reality/talent TV show and Teresa sets out to find her — and when these two girls meet it’s the beginning of a series of events leading to a horror perhaps even more disturbing than any of Ajvide’s previous books.
Udda verklighet (Odd Reality), by Nene Ormes, pub. Styxx Fantasy
— Sweden’s first real urban fantasy novel is set in Malmö, 3rd largest city and hometown of debut author Ormes. The protagonist is a young woman named Udda whose very vivid dreams turn out to be glimpses of reality — but a strange reality, populated by people other than human. When her best friend Daniel follows the clues of one of these dreams he goes missing, and Udda’s quest to find and save him shows her more of the strange and dangerous things existing in the middle of her everyday city: shapeshifters, oracles, vampires who feed off memories, “pilots” who guide not through water but through layers of time, and much more. Well-written, entertaining and a fresh and welcome take on the genre.
Vem är Arvid Pekon? (Who Is Arvid Pekon?), by Karin Tidbeck, pub. Man Av Skugga
— This first book by Clarion Writers Workshop alumnus Tidbeck is a weird short story collection. In the title story, a telephone operator makes some very strange connections and ends up being switched out of existence. In Beatrice, a woman falls in love with a steam engine and bears its child, who is raised by a man in love with an airship. In Mister Cederberg, a rotund gentleman tired of being compared to a bumble-bee decides that well, if bumble-bees can fly when they shouldn’t be able to, he should be able to as well. There are lyrically absurd stories, creepy ones, and ones that shift perspectives and realism to make the reader blink and reappraise reality.
Vännerna (The Friends), by Lars Jakobson, pub. Albert Bonniers
— A science fiction novel set in a uchronic contemporary Sweden with an alternate history. From the 1940s onward, the development of modern Sweden has been defined by the industrial magnate Janis Rokka, who in this reality is the architect of “Folkhemmet”, a society which in the real world was formed by the Social Democratic Party. Rokka’s corporation is high tech, dealing with artificial intelligences and hologram servants/accessories known as “Friends”, but it also has a military branch and has practically as much power as the government. The resulting contemporary society is similar in many ways to the one we have, but perhaps more paranoid, more suspicious, and less safe despite all the rhetoric about security.