2020: the year in science fiction

The big events, stories, and people that shaped the year

We’ve reached the end of another year. 2020 always held something of a science fictional promise — as any round-numbered year seems to — and the last 12 months outdid themselves.

It’s been a challenging year for everyone, and I wanted to take a look back at the biggest events and figures that shaped the year in science fiction. (My rough model here is io9’s long-defunct Power List — a great recap that’s sorely missed.)

What defined science fiction and fantasy in 2020? In no particular order, here’s what my picks are:


COVID-19

Let’s get this out of the way, shall we?

I can’t think of anything that’s shaped a year’s events quick like the COVID-19 pandemic that’s swept across the globe, upending our daily lives, killing millions of us humans, and upending entire industries and businesses. Plenty of films, novels, and TV shows have used a civilization-ending plague as a plot device — including books that’ve come out this year, like Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song — and now, we’ve gotten to live through one.

2020 has been a year of pretty constant horror, ever since those first cases began popping up in December and January around the world. Just about every aspect of life that I can think of has been impacted in some way, from going to the grocery or bookstore, to schooling, to the entertainment we consume.

For the world of science fiction itself, the biggest impact that I’ve seen is in the connective tissue that holds Fandom together: conventions. Way back in March, I began keeping an eye on conventions as it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going away. Convention after convention in the first couple of months began to close their doors as soon as they were able to enact their force majeure clauses with their host hotels. I’ve coordinated events (my wife does it for a living), and I know straight up that cons are a prime vector for spreading a deadly illness. Regular con-goers often complain about getting “con-flu” after attending a big one, the result of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people showing up in the same place with lack-lusted hygiene.

After the initial shock, congoers began to think creatively: if you can’t show up in person, how do you hold a convention online with tools like Zoom or Google Meet, or live video on YouTube? SFWA’s President, Mary Robinette Kowal began working to switch over the Nebula Awards Weekend early on, and deserves a lot of credit for putting together an excellent slate of events in a structure that worked — something that a lot of conventions ended up replicating over the course of the summer.

The bigger, multimedia conventions quickly figured things out as well: panel discussions could easily be recorded with the casts, crews, and other panel members for audiences to watch. We saw major conventions like San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con adopt that model, while studios like DC launched their own, standalone cons for their fans.

That didn’t always work: CoNZealand notably fell down on some of their programming and technical performance, as did some others, but the general groundwork has been laid for what we’ll likely see as a major component for cons moving forward: some segment will likely always be online, rather than a straight-up in-person event once things get back to some semblance of normalcy.

Moreover, it wasn’t just cons that ran into issues: bookstores and authors who were about to go out on tour faced similar problems, and ended up moving online, something that will likely stick with the industry for the foreseeable future. Movie theaters were also hit hard — some simply won’t recover from the year of lost revenue, and they’ll be hit doubly hard as studios double down on streaming strategies to release their films to the public. We saw movies like Onward, Mulan, Soul, and Wonder Woman 1984 go straight to streaming services, either as debuts or quickly after their theatrical window was cut short.


Streaming’s Original Films

For a while, it seemed as though studios like Netflix wouldn’t really be able to compete with the major studios when it came to genre films. While Netflix has established a solid track record for big shows like Stranger Things, its attempts at big-budget films resulted in really terrible films like Bright, Mute, or high-profile rejects from major studios like Extinction.

This year seemed to turn that around a bit. We saw the streaming service release a handful of fairly popular and generally well-received films like superhero flicks The Old Guard and Project Power, science fiction dramas The Midnight Sky, thrillers such as Extraction and 6 Underground, and prestige dramas like Da 5 Bloods. Hulu had the fantastic Palm Springs. Years ago, any one of those projects might have ended up in theaters to considerable acclaim and box office returns. It’s a trend that I suspect will likely continue — Netflix will continue to get its creative bearings and will continue to improve its films, and we’ll see more and better releases from them. This year, with everyone stuck at home helped to amplify that, giving us some good things to watch while theaters were closed.



Creative COVID Approaches

COVID-19 didn’t just have an impact on the way that fans gather: it had a huge impact on the way we produce and consume the content that we love. Streaming services shined this year, loaded down with huge catalogs of material were perfect for a huge swath of a population that has been staying home in light of local lockdowns. Disney+ and Netflix certainly benefited from the new attention.

Bans on large gatherings applied to more than just business meetings, family gatherings, or workplaces: film productions went on hiatus as it became clear that they wouldn’t be able to operate safely. The lack of a summer production season meant that many of the shows that would have debuted later in the fall were pushed back. CBS resorted to airing the first season of Star Trek: Discovery on its network, and other shows, like ABC’s Stumptown ended up getting canceled after it was renewed because it couldn’t enter production. (RIP) In other cases, we saw plenty of films get bumped back to avoid the pandemic, or because their productions were impacted — Dune, for example, will be released a year after it was scheduled, along with plenty of others. Marvel’s entire Phase 4 is essentially pushed back a full year. Should the pandemic come down to manageable levels, late 2021 and 2022 will have a ton of things to watch in theaters.

Mid-pandemic, we’ve seen some really interesting experiments as idle crews, actors, and writers play with the cards they’ve been given. Netflix released a "third” sequel to Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride, while Apple put together a quarantine episode of its series Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.

This is a bright spot, and if you haven’t watched the Father of the Bride episode, I really recommend it: it’s a really wonderful short, one that uses a Zoom-like interface to convey a moving story. Hopefully, we’ll see some more experiments like this from other productions, or at least the creative thinking that led to them to play with form and style.


Black Lives Matter and Social Justice

COVID wasn’t the only terrible point this year: a series of high-profile police killings of Black people led to widespread protests over the course of this summer, like Beonna Taylor and George Floyd. Their deaths prompted a renewed movement against police violence, and fueled anti-racism efforts that have long since gotten their start.

Within the science fiction and larger entertainment world, there’s been a bigger push against racism, sexism, and harassment within the field. A tipping point came when a number of people launched accusations of toxic behavior from authors like Myke Cole, Paul Kreuger, and Sam Sykes, and has been leading to continued reexaminations of the legacies of folks like Isaac Asimov, whose well-documented behavior was largely ignored or accepted as a reality. We saw actors like Johnny Depp depart from major roles because of his history of abusive behavior as well.

Well-regarded publications like Fireside Fiction weren’t immune to criticism either, as some unforced errors on their part highlighted how easy it was for publications and editors to stumble and make some really terrible lapses in judgement.

There were bright points, however. Jeannette Ng earned the Hugo Award for Best Related World for her 2019 John W. Campbell — now Astounding — Award speech speech, in which she decried the terrible, racist attitude of the award’s namesake. She was joined by other authors, like R.F. Kuang, who noted during her own acceptance speech that she likely wouldn’t have continued writing if she’d known about the behavior that persisted in the field.


N.K. Jemisin, P. Djèlí Clark, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia turn horror on its head

2020 brought some excellent reads from Black and POC authors: Silvia Moreno-Garcia hit the bestseller list for weeks for her book Mexican Gothic, P. Djèlí Clark (Ring Shout) and Tochi Onyebuchi (Riot Baby) earned considerable acclaim for their novels, and N.K. Jemisin not only released a fantastic novel (The City We Became), she was also was named a MacArthur Fellow.

This, more than anything, I hope is a sign that the field is changing and recognizing new voices. Each of these works were brilliant and gripping reads, but they also were close examinations of the pressing issues that we’ve been facing as a society.

The last decade has brought considerable attention to who H.P. Lovecraft was and what his attitudes towards African Americans, immigrants, Jews, and just about everyone else, but it’s equally impossible to dismiss his contributions to the genre. What these authors have done have repurposed his (and others) brand of horror, using it to tell contemporary, relevant stories that add to the field.


Persistant Toxicity

While we’ve seen some — sometimes considerable — efforts on the part of creators and fans, 2020 marked a couple of instances that show just how far the fields have to go. Notably, authors like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin made headlines for their out-of-touch attitudes towards race and gender.

Rowling notably took the side of anti-trans activists this summer, after mounting speculation speculation about her attitude towards trans people. Over the last couple of years, she was called out for liking anti-trans sentiments on Twitter (initially chalked up as mistakes), which escalated to a lengthy essay shot through with bad-faith arguments justifying her views. She’s not alone in the field: authors like Richard K. Morgan have also jumped on that particular bandwagon, using the misguided argument that they’re standing up for women’s rights against men who are lurking in the shadows of bathrooms, waiting for their next victim.

(I highly recommend checking out The Cut’s in-depth report on her.)

Later that summer, Martin, who was the toastmaster for this year’s WorldCon, caused problems of his own during a bloated, rambling performance that stood in marked contrast to the winners who were speaking out against the systematic racism and harassment in the field.

Martin came off as dismissive and condescending to those fields, mispronouncing the names of winners, and lionizing past giants of the field like H.P. Lovecraft, John W. Campbell Jr., and Robert Silverberg, all of whom have extremely tarnished reputations, despite their long history of contributions to the field.

Both instances are notable: Rowling and Martin are extremely well-known figures, and their attitudes carry weight. Rowling hasn’t been cowed by the backlash that she’s brought against herself, and indeed, seems to have doubled down on the snarky and provocative behavior, amplifying her really terrible message. Her words haven’t come without some impact: mid-summer, it looked as though sales of her books were lagging, a result, according to analysts, of her behavior.

In Martin’s case, his words and actions demonstrate a sort of generational gap within fandom: an long-lasting association of fans who have been carried these attitudes with them for decades, and who are now running into a wall as the field diversifies with new voices and stories. Like Rowling, he doesn’t seem to have entirely understood the nature of the backlash, which is unfortunate: these are two authors who have considerable voices, and who could do so much more to help build fandom into a more inclusive, welcoming place.


Kathleen Kennedy

If you believed certain segments of the internet, you might have believed that Disney was about to fire Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy over the direction of the studio’s Star Wars franchise. YouTubers and internet trolls spouted off endless videos and conspiracy theories about the flaws of the last couple of films, how George Lucas or Jon Favreau were about to be brought in to replace her, or that Pedro Pascal had quit the Mandalorian franchise over his lack of face time on screen.

None of those things happened, and Kennedy seems poised to not only remain at the studio, but build it up with plenty of new projects. As Disney moves to take advantage of its streaming service, the studio is poised to not only keep going with The Mandalorian, but add to it with a whole slate of new shows and movies. Moreover, Lucasfilm is building out its offerings beyond Star Wars: Indiana Jones will get a final movie, Willow is getting a series, and they’re adapting Tomi Adeyemi’s YA novel Children of Blood and Bone. It’s safe to say that Kennedy is steering a huge expansion for the studio, both in content and production capacity, one that’ll keep the studio going for years.


2020 was an interesting — largely terrible — year, and I suspect that it’ll have long-term ramifications on the science fiction field. How will 2021 turn out? Hopefully better, and I hope that we’ll learn from the lessons that this year brought and use them to improve how we tell good stories in the years to come.