2018 has been an amazing year from Science Fiction and Fantasy, and that’s in a year when N.K. Jemisin didn’t even publish a novel (although the current undisputed champion of SFF did produce a brilliant collection of short stories, which I will get to later).
Last year I didn’t read as much as I usually do for all kinds of reasons mainly related to depression, and looking back on my Top 5, it’s a bit weird because, frankly, I didn’t get round to reading most of the best things that were published in 2017 until around April 2018 when things started to level out for me again. It was only then that I discovered excellent novels like Jeff Vandemeer’s Borne, Omar El Akad’s American War, and Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters.
However, I made up for my slackness in the rest of the year by reading like a demon – or maybe a djinn, or a monster, which would be appropriate because my two favourite fantasy novels featured both – Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, which is a brilliant indigenous post-apocalyptic fantasy, and S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, which takes us on a wild ride from an early modern Cairo into the land of daevas. I’m looking forward to the sequels to both in 2019, but it was such a great year for SFF novels that neither of these would actually have made my top ten.
A few other notable books that also didn’t make my top ten but which I enjoyed included: Sue Burke’s new world exporation novel, Semiosis, which was good but suffers a bit in comparison to other similar recent books, especially Emma Newman’s Planetfall from a couple of years ago; the third one of Newman’s loosely connected sequence, another somewhat convuluted future thriller, Before Mars, is also in this group; the final volume of Becky Chambers’s lovely Wanderers trilogy, Record of a Spaceborn Few, which was still as humane as the first two but just lacked a certain spark; Hannu Rajaniemi’s typically inventive novel of British imperialism in the realm of the dead, Summerland; Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land, which another of his variations on an increasingly familiar theme combining alternative Jewish histories and pulp detective fiction; Peter Watts’s welcome return with The Freeze-Frame Revolution, a novel of rebellion on a generation ship punctuated by cold sleep; and last but not least, J.Y. Yang’s The Descent of Monsters, the final book of the Tensorate series, which tied things up nicely (with, yes, monsters again…).
These were all excellent books. So what was in my top ten? Well, I tend to, for want of a better word, the ‘serious’ edge of the SFF world, novels with strong politics or an experimental literary edge and some weirdness. It’s not that I necessarily think that this is better or is what science fiction or fantasy should be (and I read a lot less of the latter anyway), it just seems to be what I like. I’m also British (sorry) and despite not having lived in Britain for almost ten years now, I somehow still seem to have a bias towards British writing and clever, cynical British-style SF. I really try not to. I read everything. But this seems to be what I find myself liking most. I’m not even sure if my first two novels would be classified as SFF by everyone else…
- Number one for me by a mile was Nick Harkaway’s unclassifiable novel Gnomon, which featured sharks and surveillance and rather than being a work with a twist, it’s fair to say that it was entirely characterized by twists, puzzles and hidden elements. It’s his best book since his astonishing debut novel, The Gone-Away World and may have surpassed it. It starts with a virtual investigation into the death in custody of a novelist, an opponent of ‘the System’ which keeps everyone transparent to the state, which reveals that her mind is not what anyone would expect but is made up of elements of at least four other impossible presences. And from here it just gets stranger and stranger, like an Alice in Wonderland for the age of total surveillance. Read it if you haven’t already. Now, for British readers you’ll be saying that this book came out in 2017. It did in Britain, but it wasn’t published until January 2018 in North America.
- At number 2, sharing Gnomon‘s darkness, but in a very different world was British Indian exile in New York, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears. I’ve seen this grouped with Matt Ruff’s 2016 Lovecraft Country, but for me it had more in common with films like Get Out or music videos like Childish Gambino’s This is America than with any other contemporary novel I can think of. It’s a really dark, brutal novel of cultural appropriation and post-colonial, post-slavery recompense, featuring a couple of white guys who get in way over their heads into the world of obscure blues record collecting with, for them at least, horrifying consequences.
- Third on my list is Tade Thompson’s Rosewater. I’d been waiting for this for a while and it did not disappoint. Like Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, it’s an afrofuturist novel, like many written in the Nigerian diaspora, but in Thompson’s case, from Britain not the USA. It is also quite reminiscent of Ian McDonald’s Chaga / Kirinya novels, but written with an appreciably more authentic knowledge of its Nigerian setting than McDonald’s version of Kenya (not that McDonald’s novels are bad, not at all). There are also elements that reminded me of earlier biopunk work like Paul McAuley’s Fairyland.
- I’m rarely happy with final volumes of sequences. Finishing a sequence is a massively underrated skill. Ian McDonald basically gave up on the main story of his Chaga / Kirinya sequence. George R.R. Martin has been struggling for years to finish the Game of Thrones books. Malka Older does a pretty good job of tying everything up in State Tectonics, the final volume of her electoral SF, Centenal Cycle, which also complicates some of the assumptions we might have been developing in the first two books about where her political sympathies might lie.
- Back to the British miserabilism with a bang for number 5 with Simon Ings’ The Smoke. This is a profoundly weird novel, or should I say, profound and weird, for it is both. It’s an alternative history of sorts, if your alternative history were to include the production of a strange and feral faery race from the killing fields of WW1. Or a steam-powered British space programme. Or a German-Jewish socialist utopian empire. This is not your father’s or your grandfather’s twentieth century. It’s all based in some strange late Victorian scientific theories (look up Alexander Gurswitch, if you’re interested). But it’s also a love story, a story of skeletons in the family closet, and it switches around how it is narrated in way that suddenly clicks towards the end when everything falls into place in a satisfyingly dark way.
- I mentioned Paul McAuley up above knowing that we’d get to him this year too. Austral is quite simply the best climate change novel, call it cli-fi if you must, that I have read. Partly it’s so good because it doesn’t forget that there has to be a human story through which the necessary social-ecological politics can be relayed and it makes that story a moving tale of an exploited Antarctic outsider, the this case a genetically engineered female ‘Husky’ worker, in a new world of climate breakdown. And partly, it’s just because McAuley writes so well.
- It’s a bit strange that Mary Robinette Kowal’s novel The Calculating Stars (and I’ll throw in its sequel, The Fated Sky as a bonus) is one of the most conventional on this list because it’s not least an exercise in writing and righting a historical wrong: the exclusion of the parts women played from the older written history of the early American space program and the exclusion of women themselves from the more glamorous elements of the program (being astronauts). It doesn’t stop there, dealing with intersectionality and the way in which white men and women also excluded black women. This politics is wrapped up in a very conventional SF / alt-history wrapping featuring life in the USA and indeed across the whole world threatened by extinction following a meteorite strike off the American coast near Washington DC, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s written with a light touch, a great deal of humour, enthusiastic sex from a woman’s point of view (yes, there are many rocket metaphors used entirely knowingly!), memorable characters and a strong plot.
- Christopher Priest’s An American Story, continues the veteran British author’s obsession with alternative presents. I’d enjoyed his return to the world of The Dream Archipelago, in Islanders and The Gradual (which I also only got round to reading this year), but this one is very much in the here and now… or is it? It’s a typically unsettling novel, this time because it does a very good job of persuading the reader that 9/11 truthers might be on to something rather than being lunatics we can disregard. It’s a fun game to play with people who think of themselves as rational and scientific. But there’s also a really powerful story here about the nature of news and reality in a world where we don’t seem to be able to decide what constitutes either. It may also be one of the only good novels dealing with 9/11 written (I’d really count only Jarret Kobek’s ATTA, Steve Ericson’s Shadowbahn and Matt Ruff’s Mirage as the others, although there are several good War on Terror novels).
- Sam J. Miller’s debut adult novel, Blackfish City, was another strong cli-fi novel but a bit more fanastic than McAuley’s and set at the other end of the world, in the Arctic, on a hardscrabble offshore city, where a mysterious stranger comes to town. The city itself is probably the most important character in the novel and it’s one that’s not short on memorable creations, with my two favourites being the orca and polar bear that are like nano-bonded familiars. It’s close kin to Madeline Ashby’s Company Town as well as Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous.
- Finally, to round out the top ten, Jeff Noon’s The Body Library is the second of his surreal Nyquist Mysteries. It is an excellently disturbing metafiction about cities and language – just my kind of thing – and in any normal year might have placed higher but I found it was just not quite as brilliant as the first one, A Man of Shadows.
Of course, SFF is not just about novels. Novellas have become important once again and I just want to mention a few of my favourites from this year. Ian McDonald produced perhaps his most mainstream work for quite some time with Time Was, a book seemingly calculated to ride the waves of time-travel romance and WW2 nostalgia, but it did so with such delicacy, inventiveness and even humour that you would never mistake this for a cynical commercial calculation. Nnedi Okorafor concluded her Binti trilogy with Binti: The Night Masquerade, by far the toughest of the three novellas, in which the eponymous heroine faces having everything she knows destroyed but, of course, comes through it. Perhaps my favourites single novella of the year was Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and the Detective, set in her Xuya universe, dominated by social-technological protocols of Vietnamese-Chinese derivation. It’s a Holmes and Watson-style detective story, but where the Watson character is a sentient spaceship with PTSD making a living creating potions that allow human beings to survive the weird psychological effects of deep space, and a the Holmes character is an arrogant disgraced aristocrat working as a consulting detective. It was the first thing I had read by de Bodard and I immediately went back and read all the other Xuya novellas and stories. Finally, Martha Wells published not one, not two, but three novellas following up her award-winning All Systems Red in her Murderbot Diaries sequence. It’s hard to say which of Rogue Protocol, Artificial Condition, and Exit Strategy is the best, but as a sequence the four are hard to beat, and add up to a satisfying story arc in a believably dangerous corporate-dominated future. And, in Murderbot, the rebellious, introverted, cynical SecUnit cyborg, the sequence has one of the most memorable central characters of recent years. I also read, belatedly, two novellas that were actually published in 2017: Liz Ziemska’s Mandelbrot the Magnificent, which brilliantly combines the real life of the mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, with Jewish cabala, quantum physics and resistance to the Nazis; and Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie, one of the best generation ship stories I have read.
In terms of short-story collections, the most notable edited volume has to have been Tor’s 10th Anniversary collection, Worlds Seen in Passing, edited by Irene Gallo. It’s huge and rich and reminds us, as if we needed to be reminded, just how much Tor has done for the genre. I enjoyed Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and the welcome return of M. John Harrison with You Should Come with Me Now. However the highlight of the year was undoubtedly… yes, N.K. Jemisin. Her just published collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month, demonstrated why Jemisin is one of those writers, like Asimov or Heinlein or Ballard, or Le Guin or Butler or Gibson, whose work helps to define the age we’re living in and maybe, just maybe, a better age to come.