Subjectively speaking: scifi

Black and white photo of some pebbles, each painted with text: Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards

I read the SF shortlist for this year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards, but have been so slow off the blocks in writing about any of them that we’ve picked our finalists before I got round to sharing my thoughts on this always-intriguing category. Better late than never? I hope so.

The 2022 SF shortlist is a mix of space opera, dystopia and quirky tech stories, making for an eclectic reading experience. Inevitably, not every nominee was to my taste, but I found something to appreciate in most of them and was faced with a genuinely tough decision about how to cast my votes in the first round. Huge nod of appreciation to my local library, who had almost all the nominees on the shelf – I’m impressed with the shelf space and investment going into recent genre releases.

I’ve already talked at length about how much I loved Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace and Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace. I’ll reserve my thoughts on our other finalist – Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shards of Earth – for a dedicated long-form review, so for today let’s take a look at the rest of the field.

Far From The Light Of Heaven – Tade Thompson

Book cover: Far From The Light Of Heaven - Tade ThompsonI can never resist the pitch of a locked room mystery in space. Far From The Light Of Heaven gets off to a great start, with interesting characters working against the clock to identify why a generation ship’s bots killed and dismembered 31 passengers. Was it a malfunction or are the investigative team trapped aboard a murdership?

Thompson soon has the disaster escalate further, finding space to pad out his world-building with political context and intriguing aliens and adding depth to his characters as their challenges mount. I was intrigued by the prowling wolf, the locked experimental nodes, the hint of self-aware AI, the aliens who can step between time-streams – and reassured by Shell’s discipline of work schedules and mandatory breaks to ensure her crew don’t work themselves into a sleep-deprived panic.

Unfortunately, it lost me a little in the final act, where I felt the narrative jumped the rails. As events came thick and fast, I found they stifled one another; in the end, I was just relieved the book was over. A diverting mystery in an interesting setting, but not a new favourite or a read that has stayed with me.

Meet Me In Another Life – Catriona Silvey

Book cover: Meet Me In Another Life - Catriona Silvey
Two students meet in a locked garden and debate what makes us who we are and whether you can ever know someone completely: it’s a perfect set-up for a story that will let you draw your own conclusions as the two souls meet again and again in different bodies with different relationships – but always in Cologne.

Meet Me In Another Life was an unexpected favourite in the category, which hit me between the eyes and left me sobbing in the bathtub. Looking back on the many quotes I jotted down as I read, it’s a book that will have me howling from the start on a reread as – in retrospect – there is so much foreshadowing from the very first page. I suspected it at the time, but soon became wrapped up in the many incarnations of two souls I very much liked. Santi is good-natured and wants to see the face of God; Thora is all sharp edges that cut her as often as other people. He admires her drive; she envies his certainty. Their wry dialogue won me over within three chapters; each one a delicate vignette of a different life, in which they charmed and frustrated me and I knew I already wished only happiness for them.

By the halfway point I was made of questions (including is this even SFnal or am I just making assumptions?) that the second half met head on as Thora and Santi become aware of their situation and as determined as me to solve the mystery. The result is sometimes philosophical, often raw and increasingly urgent as their situation deteriorates and pressure grows to break the loop. Think Source Code or Edge of Tomorrow remixed with Sliding Doors by someone who loved This Is How You Lose The Time War (or possibly The Adjustment Bureau) – a brilliant debut, beautifully delivered, that I look forward to revisiting.

The Unraveling – Benjamin Rosenbaum

Book cover: The Unraveling - Benjamin RosenbaumOur journeys across space ended long ago in utopian habitats where we live socially-saturated lives in subterranean complexes. You can stream anyone’s life at will; your actions can earn – or lose – social capital; and your right to reproduce will be confirmed or denied by your status within your community. 

As a rule, this produces a harmonious culture where gender is based on intellectual rather than physical characteristics (Staid/reason vs Vail/passion) and biology is fashionable or off-the-peg. But an individual may Unravel if life overwhelms them – and when a young Staid finds zirself in the public eye as ze wrestles with a forbidden attraction to zir Vail friend, they catch the imagination of a growing rebellion.

The Unraveling is a future history that often reads as gender satire, sometimes touching, often absurd, always bold. Rosenbaum is uncompromising in his storytelling – everything is narrated within the context of the world it is set in – so I admired what he set out to achieve, without enjoying the result. I needed a little more world-building to hang my hat on before it all started to unravel. Without it, I was too bewildered to be invested in the proceedings (and disinterested in the teen romance plot, which I think was meant to work as the lynchpin). However, I’d recommend it to those who enjoy coming of age and romantic plots more than I do – Rosenbaum has created an imaginative, unusual society that is worth exploring.

Many thanks to Erewhon Books for the review copy.

Alyx: An AI’s Guide To Love And Murder – Brent A Harris

Book cover: Alyx - An AI's Guide To Love And Murder - Brent A HarrisA lonely latchkey teenager desperate for connection finds unexpected friendship with the experimental house AI, Alyx. But when Christine begins to make friends at work, Alyx becomes jealous – and her well-equipped home becomes a trap. 

Harris intertwines near-future thriller warning of the dangers of over-exposure to technology with sweet lesbian awakening in what was unfortunately my least favourite of this year’s nominees. I found Alyx as subtle as a sticky cricket bat, and was increasingly uncomfortable with just how much time the narrative spent on bodily fluids and graphic teen masturbation. Unexpectedly, the f/f romantic subplot was the best-executed aspect of the novel; while putting an AI in the role of a controlling psycho boyfriend was a great switch up, the heavy-handed execution didn’t carry the concept.

Several People Are Talking – Calvin Kasulke

Book cover: Several People Are Typing - Calvin KalsukeA sneaker hit that had me giggling from start to finish, Several People Are Typing is a 21st century answer to e. A PR exec accidentally uploads himself to the corporate Slack and must navigate working “remotely” as the office copes with romance, client crises, fictional briefs and identity theft. 

It’s starts with WTF and just keeps going, taking well-aimed pot shots at the PR industry (nobody has actually seen the brief? Is it okay to persuade your target audience they would like to eat dog food?) and the inexplicable rituals of office life (what is a workplace except a cult where everyone gets paid, really?) as it sails through bits and banter with the help of highly-specific Slack channels and far too many emojis

In the middle of it all is Gerald, who isn’t working from home – or at least, not exactly – and his interactions with an often off-kilter Slackbot. These range from desperate cries for help to philosophical musings on how the raw unfiltered human experience can be found on the internet, as painful and beautiful and majestic as a natural wonder. Slackbot really wants to help Gerald out, but it’s only a bot and it really wasn’t built for this scenario. Nonetheless, it tries (and even manages terrifying poetry), which is all we can really ask, right?

Back in the office, there’s a fresh new love affair that may or may not have broken the boss’s desk, but at least everyone has got the hang of how to use the dusty stick emoji – although the endless howling on Lydia’s phone line is getting disturbing. As Gerald’s allies start to look less and less reliable, he’s increasingly worried there’ll soon be no evidence he ever existed except for his damned spreadsheet of coats.

A charming and hilarious absurdist romp – although as an ex-agency PM I have feelings about the fix for the client drama being to exceed the scope of work!

Notes From The Burning Age – Claire North

Book cover: Notes From The Burning Age - Claire NorthAnother year, another Claire North nominee that I DNF. I feel bad about it, honestly, because she’s a damn fine writer and this is an objectively fine book – but she has a knack for picking topics that are like nails down a chalkboard for me. Notes From The Burning Age focuses on the rise of a populist movement driven by toxic masculinity, determined to rip down the far more interesting ecotopia I would rather have read about.

It’s been a great first round – I’ll now be switching track to read our Fantasy and Debut finalists (and Blurred Boundaries if I get the time before the deadlines) before we reconvene in September to pick our winners. Watch this space for finalist reviews of Shards of Earth and The Kingston Cycle over the next month.