2019 has seen an absolutely bumper crop of dystopian, post-apocalyptic and other speculative fiction stories which don’t fit neatly into either category.
With the real world as tumultuous as it is, I can’t help but wonder if it’s making science fiction authors’ jobs that bit harder to imagine a dark and scary “other” world. With bookshop memes announcing the move of post-apocalyptic fiction into the current affairs section, it does feel a little like life imitating art, and not in a good way.
The great thing about fiction is that, in large part, the stories still end on a high note. You still get that happy ending after a cathartic journey. And isn’t that what we read books for?
I’ve put together a list of spec fic novels for you which I’ve read and loved this year. Some of the books were published in 2019, while others I’ve had on my radar for a couple of years and finally got around to picking up. I hope you find something that piques your interest here. It might help to lose yourself in a good book from time to time while the real world (hopefully) sorts itself out.
1. The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood
I’m not sure this even needs an introduction, does it? Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I loved it. Yes, it’s every bit as good as you hoped. Yes, you should read it. No, it’s not a difficult read. No, it won’t leave you feeling horribly depressed (unlike The Handmaid’s Tale television series). In fact, it’s actually quite enjoyable.
Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story 15 years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.
‘Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.’ Margaret Atwood
2. Girls With Sharp Sticks, by Suzanne Young
It took me a few shots to get into this novel by New York Times bestselling author, Suzanne Young. I’m really glad I stuck with it, though. It’s a brilliantly conceived premise which sits well in the #metoo era and the general backlash against progressive values, including feminism.
I highly recommend it and am looking forward to the sequel, which is due out in March 2020. It’s the kind of book that you’ll chew over well after you turn the last page.
The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardian, they receive a well-rounded education that promises to make them better. Obedient girls, free from arrogance or defiance. Free from troublesome opinions or individual interests.
But the girls’ carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears. As Mena and her friends uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations Academy will learn to fight back.
3. The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal
What if a meteor crashed off the coast of New York and caused a catastrophic climate event in the post-World War 2 era? What if that accelerated the space race because Earth was predicted to become uninhabitable within the coming decades?
This brilliant alternative history book explores what that would look like, in a world where women were still expected to stay home, cook and have babies. What would it take to convince men that women needed to be trained as astronauts if they were planning to colonise other planets in order to save the human race?
Author Mary Robinette Kowal went to amazing lengths to research this novel, going behind the scenes at NASA, hanging out with astronauts and enlisting aviation specialists to make sure the flying scenes are realistic.
I’m very much looking forward to reading the next in the Lady Astronaut series – The Fated Sky.
One of these new entrants in the space race is Elma York, whose experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too – aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.
4. Watershed, by Jane Abbott
I’ve had this on my ‘to be read’ list for a couple of years and was very glad I made time to read it this year. Published in 2016, it feels more relevant than ever as we’re surrounded in Australia by massive bushfires following severe drought.
Set in a future Australia, Watershed is a dark and gripping tale. It imagines what society might look like if it simply stopped raining one day. A dual timeline narrative, one thread follows a couple who leave the city – where law and order disintegrated into panic and mayhem when the water ran out – and start on a migration to find safe haven.
The second timeline follows Jem, a Watchman in a walled city where, a generation later, water is the currency of exchange and order has been violently restored. Citizens still live under the cruel system which was imposed upon them by the elusive Council in exchange for survival. But dissidents in near settlements are threatening to revolt.
Commanded by the cruel Garrick, Jem is a Watchman and hunter of Disses- rebels who dare to challenge the Tower and its ruling Council. Loner by design and killer by nature, he’s unapologetically part of a cruel regime until a new assignment exposes a web of deceit, and past sins demand their reckoning. When a young boy elicits his sympathy, and an enigmatic woman his interest, Jem is made to question everything he believes before undertaking one last terrifying mission. Now he must do unto others if he’s to take care of his own.
In this dark and compelling first novel from a stunning new voice in fiction, it is impossible to know who is friend or foe, hero or villain.
5. The Shining Wall, by Melissa Ferguson
Melissa Ferguson is a Geelong-based cancer-fighting scientist who loves to explore scientific possibilities through fiction. In her novel, The Shining Wall, she has created a post-apocalyptic world where the fortunate live behind the shining wall.
The rest of the human population lives in abject poverty as best they can in camps all around the wall.
Cloned Neandertals, resurrected through the wonders of genetic engineering, serve the humans.
I really enjoyed The Shining Wall. It’s a great story and a fascinating exploration of the grim future which might await us.
This is the frightening yet moving story of orphaned Alida and her younger sister Graycie, and their struggle for survival in the Demi-Settlements outside the wall. When the sisters are forced to enter the City by very different means they risk being separated forever.
Cloned Neandertal officer, Shuqba is exiled to a security outpost in the Demi-Settlements when she fails to adhere to the impossible standards set for her species within the City. Will she offer a lifeline to Alida or betray her?
6. Vox, by Christina Dalcher
Vox is very similar in concept to The Handmaid’s Tale, where women’s rights are stripped away almost overnight by extremists.
The particular premise in Vox is that all women and girls are fitted with counters which prevent them from speaking more than 100 words every day. Speaking more than the allotted number results in the wearer being punished by electric shock.
It’s a fabulous exploration on the power of language, and the disempowerment of those who have no voice.
This is an easy, gripping read, with memorable characters.
7. The Warming, by Craig Ensor
The premise of The Warming is familiar to anyone reading climate fiction – decades from now, the planet has warmed up. Humans are forced to live closer to the poles to escape unbearably high temperatures.
In a significant departure from most climate fiction, The Warming imagines a world where the migration of people and abandonment of major cities happens in a relatively ordered, peaceful and democratic fashion.
I had to try hard to suspend disbelief for this one, such is my apparent lack of faith in the human race to act in a rational manner in the face of climate change. It was, however, very refreshing to immerse myself in a positive story about our future.
The year is 2221 and the world is dying. Temperatures soar as high as fifty degrees every day. Sea levels are rising year by year. The population has fallen to below 2 billion people. The ruined cities of the north – Sydney, Brisbane and beyond – were abandoned as the rising sea and the sun’s intensity turned them to wastelands.
Hauntingly beautiful, The Warming depicts a nomadic existence, where love and hope are the only means of enduring a world that has turned against humanity.
8. Eve of Eridu, by Alanah Andrews
I bought a copy of Eve of Eridu directly from Melbourne author, Alanah Andrews, at the Clunes Booktown Festival this year. It’s even signed by the author!
I then went and hunted down everything Alanah has ever written because I love her writing so much. Fortunately there’s a prequel to Eve of Eridu (Harvest), a short story collection (Beyond) and a new novel just out – which I haven’t actually read yet – Prototype Alpha-3.
Eve of Eridu is a post-apocalyptic novel where the surviving humans have been forced to live underground to escape the wastelands on the surface. Their society teaches children to repress their emotions as they believe that excessive emotions – fear, greed, jealousy – led to the wars which decimated Earth.
In a world where emotions are forbidden, what happens when you start to feel?
The harvest separates the worthy from the unworthy. Those who pass are destined to continue the human race, and the unworthy are culled.
For years, Eve has been the poster girl for emotional control. But ever since her brother was culled, Eve is finding it difficult to keep the monitor on her wrist an acceptable blue.
The next harvest ceremony is approaching and Eve will do whatever it takes to avoid the same fate as her brother.
Gripping and intriguing, Eve of Eridu explores the lengths that humans will go to in their quest for survival.
9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
I’d never read a book by Neil Gaiman before. I keep hearing about him, and what an incredible storyteller he is. So when I had a few dollars left on a gift voucher I decided to pick up one of his novels – The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
I discovered that Gaiman’s writing is everything people say it is. Original, spellbinding, lyrical yet wonderfully accessible.
Unfortunately the element I missed in all this is that Neil Gaiman writes primarily stories that are VERY SCARY.
And I am a total wuss when it comes to scary stories.
Fortunately The Ocean at the End of the Lane was bearably scary, even for a chicken like me. And it was worth the 1 or 2 nightmares I had as a result.
It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive. There is primal horror here, and menace unleashed – within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it.
His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is an ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.
10. Maternal Instinct, by Rebecca Bowyer
Yes, I thought I’d sneak in my own book at the end of this article! I’m going to use Belinda Brady’s kind words from her review of Maternal Instinct, which appeared in Aurealis Magazine last month:
“Maternal Instinct is an engrossing read. Monica is engaging and real in her struggle with motherhood, and her growing love for the baby she can’t keep. Alice is admirable as the strong, smart career woman, but one marred by personal tragedy. Oliver, Alice’s husband, is sweet as the supportive, caring husband. Pete, Alice’s brother, is likeable yet mysterious.
“Bowyer’s flawless writing layers these and other characters into an incredible plot. Her writing is smooth, her scenes descriptive, but refreshingly simple, and her dialogue believable.
“Maternal Instinct is a thought-provoking read that’s also engrossing. Bowyer adds very real human reactions and emotions into a weird new world. This book is right up any dystopian-fan’s alley and will convert others.
“A story that will stay with you long after you’ve read it, Maternal Instinct is a must read.”
19-year-old Monica never wanted a baby but the laws require her to give birth twice before she can move on with her life.
When Monica turns to her birth mother, Alice, for help, she triggers a series of events that force Alice to confront her own dark past. Alice must decide – help her daughter break the law, or persuade her to accept her fate and do what’s best for the nation’s children?