Recent years have seen the rise of feminist dystopias - stories focusing on societies in which women are an oppressed underclass. Building on and examining the actual sexism in our real, contemporary world, these works represent a significant trend in social science fiction. It has been suggested that the uptick in this genre has coincided with specific real-world developments, especially in the United States - notably the Trump presidency and the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Probably the best-known feminist dystopia, however, is much older - Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The book was a major success at the time, and was popularised again by the TV adaptation which premiered in 2017. But The Handmaid’s Tale was not the first book of its kind. Published in 1984, Native Tongue is a science fiction novel by Suzette Haden Elgin which also takes the form of a feminist dystopia. It uses a different approach to Atwood’s work, partly because it fuses its feminist message with discussion of a particular science, and Elgin’s profession: linguistics.
Between 1969 and 1975, American author Roger Zelazny (1937 - 1995) wrote three stories featuring a nameless trouble-shooting protagonist in a highly computerised future. The book My Name Is Legion collects all three of these tales, the third of which won both the Hugo and Locus awards for Best Novella in 1976.
Today, Zelazny is best known for his Chronicles of Amber fantasy series, published between 1970 and 1991, and to a certain extent for his influential post-apocalyptic science fiction novel Damnation Alley (1969). The stories collected in My Name Is Legion are an interesting, if uneven, window into Zelazny’s short fiction.
This entry in “what I played” straddles, Janus-like, both 2022 and 2023. I kick off with the main game I played in December, which was the surprisingly excellent racer Need for Speed Unbound, which has hopefully injected new life into EA’s long-running series.
Next, it’s time to cover what I played in January. As ever, the first month of the year has been very light on new releases but I did play three older games which are all brilliant in their own way. Metro Exodus (2019) impressed me with its expansive settings and stellar ray-traced visuals, Company of Heroes 2 (2013) proves to be just as brilliant as I hoped, having finally got around to it ten years late. And finally, A Plague Tale: Innocence (2019) is also visually stunning and a major breakthrough for its journeymen French developers.
For scientists of the Humanx Commonwealth, the planet Horseye is the site of many unexamined wonders. Its unique and dramatic topography has given rise to three distinctive sentient species, who each occupy a specific ecological niche. When a pair of bickering, married human scientists set out on an epic journey of exploration, what they find could make their careers - if they survive.
Voyage to the City of the Dead is the fourth standalone novel in the Humanx Commonwealth series by Alan Dean Foster. It combines some aspects of the previous three books; the deadly fauna of Midworld (1975), the aquatic settings of Cachalot (1980), and the interspecies relationships of Nor Crystal Tears (1982). While on one level the book is a relatively straightforward science fiction adventure, it also features interesting speculations about geology, ecology, and alien cultures. What initially seems like a minor side-story in Foster’s fictional universe ultimately ends with some major revelations of galactic significance.
The idea of humans mastering spaceflight, venturing out into the stars, and encountering alien species is one of the most commonly recurring concepts in science fiction. Often, humankind is presented as a latecomer to galactic affairs, and stories often feature numerous more advanced species. But what if humans were instead the first to explore the galaxy? Might some people become convinced of the innate superiority of the human species, and use violence to keep humankind on top?
This is the premise of The Long Result, a 1965 novel by British author John Brunner. Written between his earlier space operas and his later, more ambitious books, this novel can be thought of as a transitional work for Brunner. While it by no means reaches the heights of his best work, it does deal thoughtfully with some intriguing ideas.
It’s that time again - my annual roundup of the best books I read during the year. Once again in 2022, I aimed to read 50 books and successfully hit the target; over 11,000 pages in all. This year, almost everything I read was fiction. As usual, science fiction was my main focus but I also read more fantasy than normal and a few crime novels and thrillers.
Before we get to the good stuff, what was the worst book I read in 2022? Well, I read very little that I didn’t enjoy but I was very disappointed by Forever and a Death by Donald E. Westlake. This is a novel which the revered crime author built up for a concept he had for a James Bond movie in the mid-’90s - ultimately, it was Tomorrow Never Dies which was made. Westlake’s book is overlong, drags horribly, has a ludicrous central concept and doesn’t deliver any of the necessary thrills - it’s a far cry from his best work.
With that bit of business dealt with, here are the ten best books that I read in 2022.
November was a month mostly dominated by retro games, as I played a mix of old favourites and titles from yesteryear that I missed at the time. I caught up with the classic stealth game Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2005), revisited forgotten strategy Rise of Legends (2006), and the flawed tactics of Star Trek: Away Team (2001). On the more recent side, I also continued my exploration of a long-running series, filling in a gap with Sniper Elite 4 (2017).
Despite this retro focus, I also covered some new games - including the excellent third-person action game Evil West, another product of the busy team at Flying Wild Hog. And following on from my review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, I also braved the battle royale battlefield of its free-to-play spinoff Warzone 2.0.
In Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth series of science fiction novels, a unique union between humans and the insectoid Thranx race becomes a major power in the galaxy. Two species that are so different in appearance and mentality seem destined to mistrust and fear one another - so how could they overcome these differences?
Originally published in 1982, Nor Crystal Tears is the third standalone entry in Foster’s series, and begins to answer exactly that question. Set earlier in his fictional chronology than any other story, the novel focuses on the very first contact between humans and Thranx. Unusually for a story of this type, it explores not the human perspective, but instead the alien one. The protagonist is Ryozenzuzex, a Thranx agricultural expert living on the peripheral world of Willow-Wane. While he initially seems an unlikely hero, Nor Crystal Tears explores how Ryo’s actions change the course of history.
“Science Fiction Classics” is a series of anthologies and books of republished fiction produced by the British Library and edited by Mike Ashley. Each of the anthologies focuses on a specific recurrent topic in science fiction and includes a mix of well-known and rediscovered stories.
Published in 2021, Spaceworlds collects fiction dealing with life inside space habitats of various kinds: starships, stations, generation ships, and even a “space shield”. The nine stories cover a relatively short period of science fiction history, from 1940 to 1967. Note that I have omitted one of the stories, “The Ship Who Sang” by Anne McCaffrey, because I have read it previously and did not re-read it.
October has been a huge month in the world of games, with a bevy of significant releases. The record five games I reviewed for Entertainium encompass all possible levels of budget and scale. At the indie end of the spectrum, I covered Dome Keeper and the superb retro-style shooter Cultic, which recaptures the grisly glory of Blood (1997).
At the mega-budget, tentpole release side of things, I reviewed the troubled open-world superheroism of Gotham Knights and the solid-as-ever gunplay of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II. In between these two extremes, I also played action-RPG Asterigos: Curse of the Stars, which is what some would term a “AA” game. For some reason, almost every big outlet declined to evaluate this intriguing Taiwanese Soulslike, so I was glad to give it some degree of exposure.
Finally, I found time for just a couple of older games during October. I jumped on the bandwagon of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, which is almost ten years old but became very high-profile in 2022 because of memes - or what the game itself calls “the DNA of the soul”. I also had a great time with the single player campaign of Titanfall 2, which has also won itself cult status due to the quality of its innovative level design.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.