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What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in June

What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in June

Han Smith, author

The main book I’ve been reading this month is I Love Russia by Elena Kostyuchenko, translated by Bela Shayevich and Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse. The exiled activist and journalist explains the “love” in the title as being like the love she has for her leg or arm: she has to care about it and react when it hurts, whether she wants to or not. And so the book, now the winner of this year’s Pushkin House book prize, collects Kostyuchenko’s reporting from around Russia in the years of its leadership’s dark and merciless commitment to retaining power at every cost, via media domination, disregard for rule of law, exploitative ultrapatriotism and territorial aggression. But the focus here is on the periphery rather than the centre: on life far from Moscow and St Petersburg.

There are encounters with Indigenous communities, environmental activists, queer people in remote villages and towns, sex workers, and inmates in closed psychiatric institutions, whose treatment Kostyuchenko characterises as “the real face of my state” and an early indication of fascist intolerance. The book can’t provide any sudden magic answer to the questions of why Russia has become what it is or how it could foreseeably change, because no one, as far as I know, can do that fully, but its accuracy, honesty and wide-reaching scope certainly make for a significant contribution. These are spaces and lives seemingly cut off from central power and decisions, but their neglect is telling in itself, and their powerlessness is clearly useful.

I’ve also just finished and been stunned by Isabella Hammad’s Enter Ghost: so artful, political, delicate and bold. And, not unlike Kostyuchenko’s book, an extraordinary interknitting of individual experience and the wider context.

Portraits at the Palace of Creativity and Wrecking by Han Smith is published by John Murray (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Richard, Guardian reader

After watching the TV adaptation of The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, I didn’t want to just wait around for season two, so I picked up copies of the book and its sequels. I was hooked from the start: the pacing and detailed explanations and world building once again prove that the book is always better than the show. I’m just starting The Dark Forest, the second in the trilogy, and I can already see I’m going to miss many more hours of sleep reading.

Lisa Tuttle, Guardian science fiction and fantasy critic

Dystopian sci-fi has long been recognised as being more about the writer’s view of the present than a vision of the future. Advance reviews of Kaliane Bradley’s debut The Ministry of Time suggested a romantic comedy – which it is, but with a much grimmer subtext, as it becomes more murky spy thriller than romcom. A secret experiment with time travel has brought half a dozen people from earlier centuries to 21st-century London where they are taught about modern life and kept under surveillance by government agents: comparisons with the experiences of immigrants and refugees cannot be avoided.

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I’ve been thinking for some time that science fiction, as a genre, is finished. The world it once imagined has arrived, and interest in the future and new technologies is widespread. Instead of appealing only to a niche audience, sci-fi has been absorbed into the mainstream of fiction. And as fantasy enjoys a boom in popularity – the “romantasy” subgenre in particular – much of what is now published as science fiction has a fantasy element to it: space opera, alternate histories, sagas set on alien worlds.

Cyberpunk was perhaps the most important trend in science fiction in the 1980s and 90s, but since then it’s often reduced in memory to a particular aesthetic of future-noir thriller represented by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. So The Big Book of Cyberpunk, edited by Jared Shurin is a huge, eye-opening, mind-blowing surprise. Two fat volumes with more than 100 stories, by authors from at least two dozen different countries (some published here in English for the first time), ranging from proto-cyberpunk stories from the 1950s and 60s through genre-defining tales by William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Neal Stephenson and many newer names, right up to 2021 with a post-cyberpunk story written in collaboration with AI.

Diane Shearer, Guardian reader

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck is built around the individual lives of 12 people in East Germany who at some point in their lives have an association with a particular house and lake. The novel goes back and forth in time and place and gives numerous insights as to how personal choices and historic events affect the characters. At only 150 pages, it’s a gem of style and content.

Source: theguardian.com