My Top (not just Science-) Fiction of the Year 2021

I read a lot of fiction this year, as usual, and most of it wasn’t SFF at all! If that’s what you’re interested in, you can skip the first three paragraphs here and scroll straight down…

In more mainstream writing, my favourite thing was undoubtedly The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen, consisisting of Childhood, Youth, and Dependency, this is a sparse but evocative, no-holds-barred and banally shocking series of creative non-fiction about growing up poor but with ambitions to be a writer in the 1930s: although it’s memoir, it’s written in highly fictionalized manner, in terms of technique and editing choices. Published in Danish from 1967-71, but only translated into English in 2019, it is brilliant and clearly the precursor to a lot of intimate and exploratory feminist confessional works that have come after.

In crime, I worked my way through the entirety of the mostly very strong, Sicily-set, Montalbano series by the late Andrea Camilieri, and all of Ellis Peters’ atmospheric, mediaeval Cadfael books. But quite the best thing I read this year in this genre was The Stockholm Trilogy (Clinch, Down for the Count, and Slugger) by Martin Holmén. Published in English from 2015 to 2017, this trilogy is one of the most bleak crime series I’ve read. Also set in the 1930s, this is a Stockholm that is as far from contemporary wealthy, socially democratic Sweden as you can imagine, the protagonist Harry Kvist, is a brutal, permanently broke, none-too-bright, could-have-been-a-contender ex-boxer, who makes a living as a second-rate debt collector and accidental, third-rate private eye. He’s also queer and likes it rough. He’s hardly sympathetic, but the only thing in his favour is that most of the people he encounters are worse than him.

My Top 5 favourites in crime, published in 2021, were:

  1. Tokyo Redux, by the consistently excellent David Peace. Published this year, this is the long-awaited final book in The Tokyo Trilogy (the first two being Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City) of meandering fictional investigations of real crimes that took place in the aftermath of WW2 in the US-occupied Japanese capital. This is far more than a crime novel, and has nothing to do with any of the usual formulas. The characters are all horribly flawed and the racism and casual brutality of the occupiers, the police and criminal gangs is seedy, sweaty and right in your face. The language is also stunning, making superlative use of repetition, although it is not quite as incantatory and magical as in Occupied City. Now resident in Japan, I think Peace may be one of Britain’s greatest living novelists
  2. The Assistant, by Kjell Ola Dahl. Like his previous standalone novel, The Courier, this one is a hisorical crime novel set in 1920s and 30s Oslo (that’s the complete set of Scandanavian capitals in the 1930s!), with the threat of the Nazis hanging over Europe. It’s highly influenced by Raymond Chandler in terms of tone and the convoluted plot, but for once, unlike so many others that stray into pastiche, Chandler’s influence a good thing.
  3. Fallen Angels, by Gunnar Staelsen. Varg Veum, Staelsen’s Bergen-based, social worker-turned PI is not always a pleasant character, and in this one, the latest to be translated but actually a late 1980s entry in the series, we get a load of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but of the grimy, small town, provincial kind. As usual it’s also personal, involving an ex-wife and so-called friends from his past, who were all once involved in a ‘legendary’ local band, The Harpers. There are the usual reflective moments when Veum wonders what he was thinking / what he is doing – and it’s these as much as the investigation that makes this series so strong.
  4. Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino. Number 4 in the Detective Galileo series, in which DCI Kusanaga of the Tokyo police is leant a hand, once again, by Professor Yukawa (who the media has decided should be called ‘Detective Galileo’, because he’s a physics professor). This one deals with crimes old and new that may or may not be linked and it’s enjoyably twisty with a great cast of characters. However, I really do want Higashino to get back to his Detective Kaga series, which I think I prefer to this one.
  5. Walter Mosley’s Blood Grove didn’t quite live up to the very high standards I expect from this author. It is a fun read with plenty of action, and the usual insightful historical-sociological observations, but come the early 70s, Mosley’s Easy Rawlins seems to be increasingly living in some kind of hallucinatory fantasy version of Los Angeles, rather than (just) the real place. Maybe if you can remember it, you weren’t there, man…

Okay, so here is the SFF list that most of you will have been waiting for! I read a lot of older SF this year: interesting finds included D.G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, in which a dying woman in a world that largely does not know death, is placed under continuous surveillance for public entertainment. It did drag for a while but picked up in the final sequences: it is an essential surveillance novel. I also (re-)read several Robert Silverberg novels, and I enjoyed Poul Anderson’s time-travel classic, There Will Be Time, although I found the treatment of young female characters a bit creepy.

This is my Top 10 best SFF books of the year. Bear in mind that there are still many things I haven’t read yet, so if there’s something not here that you think should be, chances are I just haven’t got around to it yet

  1. The Actual Star by Monica Byrne. In many ways, I felt the spirit of Ursula Le Guin hovering over many of the things I read this year, this one included. Weaving together three stories set in 1012, 2012 and 3012 (in the western calendar), this superb novel deals with themes of environmental collapse, gender and sexuality, utopia, and indigeneity, amongst other things, with the stories united by Mayan cosmology and characters, and the significance of a small area of Belize (which I happen to have visited a long time ago).
  2. Notes from a Burning Age by Claire North. Another post-environmental collapse novel, this one by the pseudononymous author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (which I loved). This deals with the challenges that any stable, post-climate change society will inevitably face from fascists and expansionists who have chosen to forget why there are limits. The main character is a spy who gets incredibly badly-treated for most of the novel and it can be hard-going at times, although it is also redemptive.
  3. Like her earlier work, Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor’s typically powerful Remote Control can also be hard-going, not for the writing which is as skillful as ever, or the setting in a alt / near-future Nigeria, but simply for the difficulty of being in the skin / head of the protaganist, a young girl who has, through an encounter with some kind of alien technology, acquired the power of death. Her journey is marked, as a result, by almost continuous destruction and suffering, which even when it is ‘deserved’ is deeply troubling. Okorafor never lets you turn away and this is an unflinching short novel that should make you think a lot about technology, capitalism and colonialism, and which will haunt you long after you have finished it.
  4. Jeff Noon continued on his idiosyncratic way this year with Within Without. The latest of his existential SF detective series featuring John Nyquist takes place in the city of Delerium, which is fractured by a thousand borders, all of which have to be traversed in different ways and whose thousands of micro-states all have different qualities and rules. It is somewhat reminscent of China Miéville’s The City and The City, but like Creeping Jenny, the previous novel in the Nyquist series, this one has a retro-British feel. Howecer, rather than Wicker Man-type rural horror, this one has the specifically tired, postwar ambience of 1950s London, centred around the lost (sentient!) image of rock’n’roll star, Vince Craven, and the gritty world of popular entertainment.
  5. Klara and the Sun, by (we have to say this now) the Nobel-Prize-winning, Kazuo Ishiguro, is about robots. Klara, Ishiguro’s robot, is also sentient, but in the limited way of a prodigious 5-year-old child. ‘She’ is bought by a family to be a companion to their daughter, who grows up with her then away from her. Klara’s consciousness is centred around a solar mythology, a useful mythology because she is powered by the sun. Like many of Ishiguro’s works, this book is suffused by sadness and things are never quite as the protagonists’ believe. It’s not his best, but that’s relative!
  6. A Master of Djinn by P. Djélì Clark is a rip-roaring steampunk-meets-Arabic mythology adventure, the first full length novel (after two excellent novellas) featuring the estimable, Fatma el-Sha’award, investigator for the Cairo division of Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, lover of finely tailored suits, and fine women. It’s this latter quality plus the defiant anti-colonialism of the plot which presumably caused one dim reviewer to claim the book was ruined by “woke virtue signalling” – ha ha! Well, if you like your “woke virtue signalling” with added angels, djinn, secret societies, over-elaborate weapons and threats to the world as we (don’t) know it, then you’ll love this. I did.
  7. Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild Built, is also about robots, the first of a new series (Monk and Robot), and is SF balm for the soul. It is a beautiful, meandering, throughtful novel which follows an errant monk in a utopian world, where robots long ago disappeared into the wilderness promising to ‘check in’ some time, who discovers his new mission in an encounter with a ‘wild-built’ robot. Nothing much happens, but it happens wonderfully (but see also my Disappointments of the Year, below).
  8. Tade Thompson’s Far from the Light of Heaven is a really strong locked room murder-mystery set on a supposedly infallible AI-driven spaceship. Among other things, it features a selfish tech multi-billionaire (take your pick of who they could be modelled on…), a troubled investigator, a Nigerian-run space-station… oh, and a wolf. I couldn’t help comparing this to Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes, and it stands the comparison very well, although perhaps it isn’t such a virtuoso effort as Thompson’s Wormwood Trilogy (Rosewater et al.). But, if you will go setting such high standards…
  9. Finally, two sequels. The first was Invisible Sun, by Charles Stross, which wrapped up his dimension-skipping Merchant Princes sequence nicely (for now), but with maybe a little too much backgrounding / info-dumping for my tastes. Still, I liked this recent trilogy enough that I went back and read the whole sequence from the start, and it hangs together like almost no other decades-spanning project in SFF. As a complete work, it is an amazing achievement.
  10. Finally, there was Nicky Drayden’s Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis. Nicky Drayden appears to be a bit of niche author, but she should be much more widely read. This novel tied up the themes developed in Escaping Exodus very well, with a satisfying resolution to the question of whether our protagonists can live sustainably, and without cruelty and destruction, inside the gigantic spacefaring beetles which they have colonized / infested. The parallels with our dilemmas on Earth are obvious, are here we back with same themes as Monica Byrne and Claire North (and Le Guin) in all ways, with fluid gender and sexual identities and the difficulties of building utopia.

Finally, I have to say there were some disappointments this year. In crime, I had been really looking forward to Andrea Camilleri’s Riccardino, the final Montalbano novel. But it turned out that it wasn’t really the final novel sequentially, it was a manuscript from a while back that Camilleri had written, it seems, as a bit of an experiment and to express some frustrations, and then put aside. Now published post-mortem, it uses the gimmick which Camilleri had already played with in a short-story of having the detective realise he’s in a story and able to communicate with the author. This is just tiresome and undermines the story, which itself isn’t up to much anyway and is mostly a kind of broad religious farce, far more like Camilleri’s historical writing than the rest of the sequence. This isn’t the only bad Montalbano novel, but it is a unworthy memorial to a fine writer.

In SFF, I was highly recommded to read S.B. Divya’s Machinehood. The author is someone I admire as an editor and the themes seemed interesting, but I just couldn’t get very far into it due to the unengaging writing and what seemed to be a story that consisted mostly of people running and shooting. This isn’t any kind of definitive view because I not only did I not finish it (very unusual for me), I barely started it, so maybe I’ll try again sometime.

And then there was Becky Chambers. She’s on my Top 10 (see above), but she also wrote another novel, The Galaxy and the Ground Within, which is set in the Wayfarers universe and to which I had a very different reaction. I have loved all of the previous novels in this sequence, but here Chambers seems to be pushing the envelope of her general inclination to produce ‘nice’, positive, relationship-centred SF, with a novel that has no plot of speak of, characters who have quirks rather than qualities, and where everything is solved by cake (no, I mean this quite literally). It’s so sugar-sweet that it should come with a health warning, and so twee that it makes me cringe just thinking about it. Nothing much happens, but you really start to wish for a comet to come, or an intergalactic war, or even just some mild peril. It’s one thing to want to provide a counterbalance to all that dark and dystopian SF, but utopianism still needs intelligence and interest and, not to mention, drama: see Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, or yes, Becky Chambers’ other work. There’s a line somewhere between the optimistic and wholesome vibe of the rest of the Wayfarers sequence, or indeed the gentle thoughtfulness of A Psalm for the Wild Built, and the relentless, insufferable kitsch of The Galaxy and the Ground Within. No more cake for me, thank-you.

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

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