Now that it’s official, I can finally talk about this! Being on the Philip K Dick jury last year, for paperback original works, was a terrific experience for me, enabling me to discover numerous talented writers whose books I would otherwise not have read. And the ballot this year, in my opinion, was exceptional. I’ve been wanting to talk about the great books we read for ages. Once we had settled on the final ballot, even before our final deliberations, I knew I could feel confident that we had done our job well, if any one of the candidates had won.
Here are some brief reviews of the winner and the special citation, but you should definitely also read the other books that were nominated. It was a really tough call this year, to settle on just one.
WINNER: THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by Meg Elison
From the Amazon book page:
The apocalypse will be asymmetrical. In the aftermath of a plague that has decimated the world population, the unnamed midwife confronts a new reality in which there may be no place for her. Indeed, there may be no place for any woman except at the end of a chain. A radical rearrangement is underway. With one woman left for every ten men, the landscape that the midwife travels is fraught with danger. She must reach safety— but is it safer to go it alone or take a chance on humanity? The friends she makes along the way will force her to choose what’s more important. Civilization stirs from the ruins, taking new and experimental forms. The midwife must help a new world come into being, but birth is always dangerous… and what comes of it is beyond anyone’s control.
A brilliant book. I found myself sucked into this book right away and it pulled me all the way through… dare I say by the short hairs??? I loved Elison’s unflinching look at what the world might look like, in a world traumatized by mass deaths–one starved of women and of new life.
This book begins as a plague ravages the world in a matter of weeks–and women are ten times more likely to die. And it renders surviving women sterile. I loved the idea of the Unnamed Midwife helping give birth to the new civilization to replace the old. I found the protagonist’s resourcefulness, vulnerability, and mental toughness convincing and ultimately very moving. The author’s reflections on loneliness, loss, and sexuality, and on the multitude of ways sexualized violence might erupt–not only into slavery, horrific abuses, and the like–but also into creative recombinations like the Hives, that enabled people to find a way to bond and connect when there are 10 men for every woman, were gut-wrenching. I enjoyed how she used a multitude of journals and the varying of voices to give a broader perspective on events. The ending delivers a hopeful and powerful closure that left me satisfied and wanting to see more from this writer.
SPECIAL CITATION: ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett
From the Amazon book page:
A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.
This book was my personal favorite. I LOVE this book. Brissett presents a disturbing, powerful story of love, loss, and a slow and inexorable genocide. Impressively, she uses a complex spiral format and does it so seamlessly that she makes it look easy. This book evoked strong resonances for me of Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt and Crowley’s Engine Summer, with a side order of Catch-22. Beautifully crafted and powerful.
Here are the other nominees. All really wonderful books–go and read them as well.
THE BULLET-CATCHER’S DAUGHTER by Rod Duncan (Angry Robot): A Steampunk mystery. Elizabeth is clever, slippery, a total illusionist, and at heart, deeply honorable. The book’s settings felt very real to me–from the greasepaint to the lion’s cages, to the dirty crowded colorful streets of London. I also loved the caper/ cloak-and-dagger plot, the circuses and gypsies, and the big reveal at the end, which I did NOT see coming and which really delivered. Lots of lovely stuff in this book. Good commentary on the human condition, and some nice touches on how power differentials across class, gender, and race both constrain people and can be subverted.
MEMORY OF WATER by Emmi Itäranta (Harper Voyager); This is a haunting post-apocalyptic tale of a world in which fresh running water is scarce, and a dictatorship that controls access to it. In our climate-change-threatened world, this book is very timely. The writer’s focus on the young women caught in a web of political powers far beyond their control, and their struggles to retain their dignity and to fight back was a unique take, and her prose is powerful and evocative.
MAPLECROFT: THE BORDEN DISPATCHES by Cherie Priest (Roc): Great trans-dimensional SF horror inspired by Lovecraft, the second in a trilogy. In book one, Lizzie Borden managed to singlehandedly save her town (and the world), by killing her father and stepmother with an axe. But that was only a temporary fix, and the monsters are finding their way back into our dimension. Yikes!
REACH FOR INFINITY edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris): It’s hard to weigh an anthology against a novel, but this is a stand-out space-faring anthology, chock full of original stories of the future by both well-known pros and newer voices. Writers featured include Ian McDonald, Ken Macleod, Pat Cadigan, Aliette de Bodard, Karl Schroeder, Hannu Rajaniemi, Karen Lord, Adam Roberts, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Alastair Reynolds, and Peter Watts, among others. Pick it up.