Compass Bearings: Alasdair Stuart’s Picks

Compass Bearings: Alasdair Stuart’s Picks

I really liked the thought process Nick talked about in his Reading List piece, and how the books he’s chosen are intended to serve as a cross section of SF as it currently stands. That helped crystallize my thinking on the subject, as did dispatching my duties as a Kitschies judge this week.

That was a really fun job, and one that contained substantially more hope than a lot of people tend to see in genre fiction. Both short lists were crammed full of books that had unique voices, did unique things and drove the field, and the conversation around it, forward. It also helped me give a very clear shape to the sort of things I’m looking for in the initial Shadow Clarke read. And that shape is a compass.

I’ve got a working familiarity with a lot of these books following the Kitschies and, if I wanted to, I could focus entirely on that. But what really excites me about this list is the opportunity it presents to push outside my boundaries. In addition, given how much I often rail against SF culture’s tendency to enthusiastically face backwards on the rocket, it would be completely remiss of me to just hug some books I already know a little bit tighter.

So, that’s my critical North in this situation. My critical South is to not overlook books that deserve to be talked about. Sometimes those will come from big names. Chances are, more likely, they’ll come from newcomers.

The third compass point is the obligation I have as a cultural analyst to examine as many viewpoints as I can. That means the widest possible authorial range in terms of ethnicity, gender and nationality needs to be taken into account because that way I get the widest possible idea of what I don’t know. New perspectives are great because, well, they’re new. They force us to examine our own position. And that leads to my last compass point.

There are some amazing books on this list by established figures. They’ll read brilliantly, they’ll do well, I’ll talk about some of them but if that was all we focused on they would absolutely eclipse newer voices that deserve attention. This is what I mean when I say SF culture tends to face backwards on the rocket. Why pay attention to debut novelists when there’s some Heinlein minutiae to debate? Why talk about a breakout new movie from a new writer and director when Neil Gaiman’s going to be on The Big Bang Theory?

Focusing on what we love, especially in a culture where escapism is often a viable defensive tactic, is understandable. But it can’t, and shouldn’t, ever be compulsory. So, wherever possible I’ll prioritize new authors over old hands. The old hands who are here are authors who are new to me, so even if their presence doesn’t mark new ground being broken, it still brings new things to my perspective.

So there you go, that’s my compass. Now let’s take a look at my list.

American War by Omar El Akkad

A new one for me, a debut and one that’s starting to get some serious critical attention. Like I talk about elsewhere, the side eye that always leads to in some parts of genre more than justifies talking about the book all by itself. Plus the premise sounds great, both as a novel and as a means of exploring and updating the pre-apocalyptic and dystopian fields. Both of which could do with it.

Defender by GX Todd

GX Todd’s debut flew under the radar a little last year and that’s a real shame. Todd’s an exceptional author who, like several other people on this list, has done an excellent job of taking old toys and breaking them in new and interesting ways. This is absolutely a post-apocalyptic novel. It’s absolutely redolent of Cormac McCarthy, or Justin Cronin or any one of a half-dozen authors.

None of them do what’s done here.

Placing the usual excesses of the field in a foundation of fundamental humanity and exploring something truly otherworldly, Todd creates something shot through with very human compassion and a sense of quiet that’s almost cinematic in its execution. It reads like European science fiction comics and it deserves to be read more than it has been. Those are all reasons it makes this list.

Hunger Makes The Wolf by Alex Wells

The Gold Kitschies winner also makes my list for similar reasons to several other books here, as well as because it’s Alex’s first time out of the gate. A space western that’s its own thing rather than a Firefly cover version, it’s a pared back, character heavy book that refuses to explain or give easy answers. I loved it, and I think, as a new voice in the field, it deserves an in-depth look here.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

VanderMeer’s fiction is one of those blind spots I have and, especially in the wake of Annihilation, I want to change that. Borne, with its biotech nightmares and colossal flying sort-of bear, seems like the best place to start.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Another author who I’ve never previously read. I’m aware of Hamid’s work though and I’m interested to see his exploration of a pretty traditional SF story through a very different cultural lens. Plus, again this is a book with serious crossover, given its shortlisting for the 2017 Man Booker. That makes it an outer boundary of SF and there’s always some interesting stuff out on those edges.

Water & Glass by Abi Curtis

Another debut (And one from my old University no less!) this sounds fantastic, following the hastily assembled crew of a submarine ark. The fact Professor Curtis is an academic and a poet makes me very interested to see how those two polar opposites are expressed in genre fiction so I’m looking forward to this.

So that’s my list. I’m hoping to do some comparative pieces too, as a few of these novels pair up very well. But for now, I’ve got my compass, and I’ve got my bearings. Time to get going.


When Alasdair Stuart isn’t hosting PseudoPod or running Escape Artists Inc., he’s professionally enthusiastic about genre fiction at places like, Barnes & Noble, The Guardian, Uncanny Magazine, SciFi Now and MyMBuzz. He’s an ENie-nominated writer for his work on Doctor Who: Adventures In Time And Space, and has written for the Star Trek and The Laundry Files RPGs, among others. Alasdair’s first collection of expanded podcast essays, PseudoPod Tapes, is available from Fox Spirit Books with volume 2, Approach With Caution, out later this year. His short stories can also be found at Fox Spirit, among other places. He lives in the UK with the love of his life and their expanding herd of microphones. Follow him on Twitter as @AlasdairStuart or on his blog, The Man of Words.




  1. PhilRM 4 years ago

    …SF culture’s tendency to enthusiastically face backwards on the rocket…
    Fortunately I’d already finished my coffee before reading that! A couple of these were not on my radar at all, so really looking forward to the reviews.


  1. […] (4) ALASDAIR STUART. A Shadow Clarke juror tells how he’s going to do it: “Compass Bearings: Alasdair Stuart’s Picks”. […]

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