My favourite fiction of the year, 2020

I read a lot this year: over 100 novels and many novellas, in addition to my academic reading.

This was not a vintage year for science fiction. Of course I haven’t read everything, but it seemed to me that some great writers produced merely good books, some good writers released mediocre ones, and there were no startling new discoveries. I was given many recommendations and few of them turned out to be as strong as I had hoped. I did not seem to love the things that other SFF fans loved, and I loved a few things that most seemed to ignore or by writers they have forgotten. Most of what I liked best was on the fringes, what critics call ‘non-genre’ SFF – that is mainstream literary fiction with science fiction and or fantasy elements, and a lot of my favourite fiction wasn’t SFF at all.

So instead of my best SFF of the year here’s an (*edited to add a novel I inexplicably missed) top 15 of my favourite fiction of the year, with some thoughts on almost favourites, things I’m still reading, and one book I hated, just afterwards. I have brief notes about each here: full reviews you can find on StoryGraph, the growing independent alternative to the Amazon-owned Goodreads.

  1. My number 1, was the long overdue return of the author of the enormous Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clark, with a much slighter but every bit as compelling volume, Piranesi, a surrealist fantasy, set in an world composed of seemingly infinite palatial rooms filled lined with statues that contain worlds, oceans, clouds… but no people, other than the protaganist and ‘the other’, a researcher who seems to come from elsewhere. With its off-centre but very European magical anthropology, it has things in common with someone like Italo Calvino, or John Crowley’s Aegypt series or even M. John’s Harrison’s sensibility, but is also wonderfully fresh. Definitely one of the best things I’ve read in, as Piranesi might term it, “the year the plague came to the world.”
  2. *War of the Maps – Paul J. McAuley. Still so underrated, perhaps Britain’s finest science fiction writer, Paul McAuley produced one of his most intriguing novels this year, and one which I somehow missed when I first drafted this list. It’s a combination of ‘lone gunslinger’ novel with a really weird ultra-far-future posthuman setting, set on a decaying civilization on a Dyson sphere around a star, a world where so much has been lost that history has become myth and technology has become magic. There are shades of Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance here but the themes and the writing are uniquely McAuley.
  3. Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, is an excellent two-part novel by this Japanese feminist writer, focusing initially on a trio of women: two sisters and the daughter of one of the pair. One sister is an ageing bar hostess and wants breast implants. The other wants a child but hates the idea of sex. In exploring their characters, relationships and dilemmas, the novel opens up multiple questions about what it means to be a woman in contemporary Japanese society. It’s probably the best recent novel I’ve read from Japan and the writing is very strong and individual, something that’s helped by a translation which stays away from the bland and tries to lighlight the regional dialect used by some of the characters – something you rarely see in translations from Japanese.
  4. Creeping Jenny – Jeff Noon. 3rd in a sequence of weird detective novels, featuring John Nyquist, who stumbles around through metaphors and allusions not knowing what he is investigating or even who or where he is half the time. The first novel, A Man of Shadows, was set in a city made up of three areas: the artificially bright Dayzone, the dark Nightzone and the mysterious and dangerous, Dusk. The second, The Body Library, saw Nyquist living in Storyville, a city made up of words and letters and encountering horror within. The third, Creeping Jenny, is like something that mixes up Calvino, Burroughs and The Wicker Man. Nyquist has turned up in the mysterious English village of Hoxley, a place dominated by a never-ending parade of randomly selected local saints’ days, each of which imposes bizarre restrictions on the residents. Creepy, weird, disorienting, superbly written and a lot of fun all round.
  5. The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read for a long time. There are sentences that make you stop in your tracks and read them again. At its heart it’s the story of two ageing British drifters, Shaw and Victoria, neither of whom really know what they are doing with their lives. They come together and they drift apart, with Victoria inheriting her late mother’s house in a small castle town in the Welsh borders. Water is everywhere. Shaw’s life is governed by the Thames, by canals, London ponds and his boss’s obsession with a conspiracy theory about the aquatic origins of humanity; Victoria’s by the River Seven which curves around her new home town, by saturated fields, by rain, endless rain and by visions of her new friends disappearing into strange lakes. Nothing much happens until near the end of the book and when you’ve finished, you won’t know exactly what you’ve just read or whether it was worth it, you will just feel damp and uneasy.
  6. Hari Kunzru is one of my favourite contemporary writers and his last novel, White Tears, was the Get Out of literary fiction. Red Pill deals with similarly contemporary issues, but it’s set very specifically in 2016 in the run-up to the election of Donald Trump. The protagonist is an aimless British-Indian writer, Gary Bridgeman, who is offered a 3-month residency by an eccentric German oganisation, the Deuter Foundation, located in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, just across the lake from the house where the Nazis developed the Final Solution. Gary reacts badly to the transparency doctrines of the foundation, and tries to escape. He encounters Syrian refugees and ex-Stasi informers, but most fatefully of all, Anton, a mephistophelean white supremacist who happens to write a TV show Gary is obsessed with, a truly horrific police drama called Blue Lives (and yes, you can’t help adding the ‘Matter’ at the end). From here things go very badly wrong. Red Pill is superbly written and genuinely disturbing but there is a lot going on and some of it feels a little forced.
  7. I’ve enjoyed the other fictions I’ve read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and, at least when I was younger, I was partial to a bit of gothic horror, so I was looking forward to Mexican Gothic. And it didn’t disappoint. If you want a tl;dr pitch, this is Rebecca meets Crimson Peaks in post-colonial Mexico. Noemí Taboada is a young, beautiful wealthy socialite in Mexico City in the 1950s who is sent by her father to inquire into the health and wellbeing of her slightly older cousin, Catalina, who got married very suddenly into an eccentric and racist English silver-mine owning family, the Doyles, who live in a remote mansion in the interior of the country near their abandoned mines, ruled over by the dying patriarch, Howard, a very old, tremendously creepy, loathsome, foul-smelling creature, who inabits the bedroom at the top of the house. Colonialism and race and their legacies in Mexico play a large part, which adds a seriousness to the usual gothic tropes, This is a really strong book with a sympathetic heroine and well-drawn characters.
  8. Trouble is What I Do by Walter Mosley, is a reliably hardboiled crime story featuring his New York-based Black private eye, Leonid McGill. If you know what Mosley does, then you’ll love the latest in this sequence that started with The Long Fall, and which features a both a New York underworld and an overworld of the rich, with a protagonist who’s talents allow him to pass through both. Mosley is never going to better his Easy Rawlins novels, but these do their job well.
  9. Network Effect is the first full length novel in Martha Wells’s extraordinarily popular and award-winning Murderbot Diaries sequence that started with the novella, All Systems Red, which feature the eopnymous lead character, “Murderbot,” the secret name that the protagonist calls itself. It’s known to others as “SecUnit”, a massively augmented, armed and very dangerous partially-human-looking cyborg or construct designed to provide security in a far-future dominated by corrupt, amoral, plundering corporations. Except that this SecUnit would rather be left alone to watch soap operas and make cynical and darkly amusing observations about the way the galaxy works. Network Effect also brings back another memorable nonhuman character from an earlier novella, the robot-pilot of the research ship, Perihelion, otherwise known (to Murderbot) as ART (for “Asshole Research Transport”). ART, for reasons that unfold during the novel, kidnaps Murderbot and his colleagues, and we off on a very bumpy ride. This book is a fine addition to the sequence which advances Murderbot as a character, while adding many potential further developments; it’s just not quite as sharp and impactful as the novellas.
  10. N.K. Jemisin is probably the single most successful and talented fantasy writer out there at the moment, and The City We Became is the first in a new sequence, the Great Cities Trilogy. This is a love story to New York, every bit as devoted as the Beastie Boys’ ‘To The Five Boroughs’. This is its strength but also its weakness, if you’re not a New Yorker. What opens the book up, and promises more from future volumes is two things. The first is the premise which isthat at some point in their lifespan, cities are fully ‘born’ and generate an avatar that will speak for them to other cities, but also that this transformation, this birth, causes a rupture in the smoothness of the multiverse, a rupture that powerful, incomprehensible and seemingly malevolent Lovecraftian entities hate and want to close. The second is the characters: while her protagonists have to (by their nature) be avatars, personifications of place, they remain distinct individual people, all different components of the melting pot of New York immigration. There is a lot of potential here but this novel didn’t move me like her early works, or amaze me like her most recent multi-award wining Broken Earth trilogy.
  11. Anne Charnock’s latest, Bridge 108, is set in the same climate breakdown-altered world as her earlier novel A Calculated Life. The story focuses mostly on Caleb, an immigrant from Spain (perhaps), who is trafficked to the vastly unequal future Britain and who we first meet working for a gang of recyclers in an enclave reserved for the unaugmented who constitute the lowest level of society. I don’t think this is as good as A Calculated Life; largely because of the lack of focus on Caleb’s point of view we never get to know him, feel with him, in the same way as the protagonist of that previous work. But it’s still worth reading for its portrayal of a very depressingly realistic near-future Britain.
  12. Cars on Fire: Be warned, the thematically-linked stories in this fresh, experimental collection by this young Chilean author, Mónica Ramón Ríos, are frequently difficult. Sometimes what’s going on is completely unclear, sometimes the protagonist is vague and only half there, almost all the time, everrything is haunted by absent parents, unfulfilled desires, and the everpresence of systems of oppression and violence, whether it’s dictatorship or capitalism, universties or psychiatry. People are shiftless, bitter, stupid. They try to resist, or to turn the bad into something beautiful, but nothing happens, they don’t go anywhere, cars catch fire. Some people seem to hate this book. And sure, not all the stories work as well as the best ones like The Student and the eponymous Cars on Fire. But in this case, the polarized reactions only go to show Riós has done something right.
  13. After only 3 novels, Charles Yu has already developed a certain style. His tales tend to be quite simple stories of love and family when all the frills are cut away, and set in very contained settings, pocket universes either literally or figuratively. In Interior Chinatown, he’s expanding on his personal personal very much to the political: this is a story about being Asian in America (any kind of Asian – doesn’t matter because they all look the same, right?). But rather like How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the America in which the protagonist, Willis Wu lives is strangely small and circumsribed by almost game-like rules, here forced to play generic Asian background parts in a stereotyped police procedural, ‘Black and White’, the names reflecting not only those of the real stars, but also the identities which an Asian can never achieve. Interior Chinatown is very, very clever. It plays this all straight but mixes in chunks of real history arrive unepectedly, lifestories, and scripts in progress from Black and White. Erving Goffman’s famous research on the performance of everyday life is quoted. It has the same sort of weaknesses that How To Live Safely… had, which is that the emotionality can seem at once overdone and rather flat and facile. But this is still a throught-provoking, powerful, very sarcastic book.
  14. A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin. Even though Rankin’s irrascible, dogged detective is supposedly now several years into retirement, Rebus is called to help out his estranged daughter, Samantha, who lives on the bleak and windswept north coast of Scotland, to find Sam’s partner, Keith, who as gone missing. Meanwhile back in Edinburgh, a wealthy Saudi student, who mixed with the cream of Scottish society, has been found murdered in a decidedly unpreposessing carpark near a municipal golf course. Rebus’s former protégé, Siobhan Clarke, is on the case, helped none too willingly by another member of the old team, the ambitious Malcolm Fox, seconded by Headquarters to keep on the eye on the investigation because of the Saudi student’s important political connections. Surely these two cases can’t be linked? This is a very satisfying story, which gets the balance of criminal and domestic detail right, with enough red herrings and blind alleys to keep you guessing. And, in particular, while Rankin has always been a master at capturing Edinburgh high and low, the physical and social atmosphere of the remote villages along the North Sutherland coastline is portrayed perfectly here too.
  15. The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem. In early 2019, my friend, Tim Maughan published his excellent novel of the end of the internet / technology, Infinite Detail. It got some attention, even appearing on a few book of the year shortlists. At the back end of 2020, almost 2 years on, we had two novels with a similar premise, one, The Silence, by increasingly pretentious twerp, Don DeLillo, and the other, The Arrrest, by the former bright young hope of American literature, Jonathan Lethem. Both were being praised as unprecedented and ‘original’. They clearly aren’t either – even Tim’s novel wasn’t that original in the sense that the end of technology dystopia goes back at least as far as E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, published more than a century ago, in 1909. But are either any good? I didn’t even get as far as buying the DeLillo because on looking at it in the bookshop, I burst out laughing. The ‘novel’ looked suspiciously small and thin to begin with even in hardback, and on opening it, you can see that they’ve used a very spacious font in a massive point size and huge margins. In other words this may not even be a novella. DeLillo apparently couldn’t quite deliver on his promises, and I’m not paying novel price for an extended short story – I’ll get it out of the library or wait until it inevitably appeats for 0.99 on Kindle… The Arrest too is a short novel, in bite-size chapters, some no more than a page. The protagonist, Sandy Duplessis AKA Journeyman, is a superannuated delivery boy in a post-technology society, which is maybe a reference to Fry from Futurama – it wouldn’t surprise me, because as with all Lethem novels, The Arrest is stacked with pop culture and sceince fiction references. But this isn’t hard science-fiction: the way in which the end of the internet and fossil fuels and everything has came about is vague and magical  in a ‘just don’t ask’ sort of way. Instead the novel plays with being a meta-dystopia, which might or might not be the product of a film script that Journeyman had been writing off-and-on for years with his college buddy, later employer and highly irritating Hollywood somebody, Peter Todbaum, from an idea at least partly suggested by Journeyman’s sister, Maddy. Now after the Arrest, Maddy, and in his lesser, ineffectual way, Journeyman, are both part of self-sustaining organic cooperative township way up on the Maine coast, away from all the turmoil that is apparently going on elsewhere. And then suddenly Todbaum turns up… in a nuclear-powered chrome supercar-cum-tunnelling machine that looks like something straight out of a 1950s Popular Mechanics fever dream. And guess what? He’s still a major asshole. Is it any good? I don’t know. While if flirts with various SF tropes of alternate worlds and so on, it doens’t actually go there, and the story is actually quite linear and while somewhat unlikely in the specifics of its denouement, it won’t come as much of a surprise in any general sense. It’s okay.

I’m also only just starting Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston, and it’s already clear that this African fantasy, or what Nnedi Okorafor would call ‘African Juju’ novel, is something special. It’s brilliant, inventive, written with verve and often very tricky to follow, and I am loving it. Quotients by Tracey O’Neill is another novel I haven’t finished yet, but I am still recommending because it may be the best big data surveillance novel I’ve ever read. In case you wondering whcih other big data surveillance novels there are, I also read the highly praised German satire, Qualityland this year, and quite frankly the farce in that comedy was a little too broad and unsubtle for my tastes.

If there is a ‘No!’, this year, it’s Earthlings by Sayaka Murata. I challenge anyone who has read this book not to come to the conclusion that it is an utterly repulsive novel, as disgusting as it’s possible to be by the end, and worse because whatever has come before you were still rooting for the protagonist, Natsuki, until the last chapter. After Convenience Store Woman, I had Murata pegged as a champion of neurodivergent feminism, and this books seems to be along the same lines until the protagonists, Natsuki and Tomoya and Yuu, decide to leave the world they call “the factory”, and make a genuine break from all social conventions and indeed from humanity itself, and from then things just get extreme. Really extreme. In fact so extreme, that it leads me to question my previous assessment of Murata’s politics and commitments.

Favourite SFF of the Year 2018

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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. 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 ProtocolArtificial 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.

The Top 5 Science Fiction novels I read in 2017

  1. Kim Stanley Robinson – New York 2140
  2. Charles Stross – Empire Games
  3. Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home
  4. Taiyo Fuji – Orbital Cloud
  5. Gergory Benford – The Berlin Project

KSR’s latest social-ecological science fiction novel moves further backwards in the same timeline as 2312 and Aurora, to examine a rather nearer-future New York struggling to deal with the ongoing reality of rising sea-levels. A large cast of diverse characters centred around a common connection to one particular appartment block lends the book a real humanity and, despite everything, a sense of optimism that we can overcome the worst if we all begin to realise and work with that common humanity.

While Charles Stross shares KSR’s broadly leftist politics, his work has always exhibited a far more British cynicism. I never really got into the earlier volumes of the timeline-hopping multiversal Merchant Princes sequence of which this latest book, Empire Games, is nominally a sequel, however you don’t even need to have read any of those books to enjoy this very timely SF thriller, which deals effectively with auhoritarianism, imperialism, capitalism and surveillance without laboring any of its political points. I will definitely be reading the next book in the sequence.

Nnedi Okorafor is perhaps the most exciting young SF writer around. Home is a black, African, feminist SF novella, the middle volume of the Binti Trilogy. It deals with the experience of a brilliant young Himba woman, who gains a place at the best university in the galaxy, overcomes the most violent adversity and is herself transformed in the process, and in this volume returns home, both alien and alienated and seeking deeper roots. It is really quite marvellous but written with an incredibly light touch that makes is suitable for all ages.

Taiyo Fuji is an emerging Japanese SF writer, whose 2014 novel, Genehacker, was a really prescient biotechnothriller dealing with the corporate commercial dominance of genetic modification. Orbital Cloud deals with more conventional hacking, along with Bourne-style espionage and surveillance satellites and features all kinds of political and personal machinations between the USA, Japan, North Korea and Iran.

Gregory Benford’s The Berlin Project, is a rather more subtle alternative history than most until around halfway through. Like Katherine Ann Goonen’s In War Times from a few years back, Benford uses the technique of mixing the author’s family history with alterations to what actually happened in quite an effective way. However, also like Goonan’s book, it starts to make rather implausible demands of its characters to get some of its plot twists to work.

I could write a lot more about all the books I didn’t enjoy quite so much this year that everyone else seemed to, but I won’t!

The Top 5 Academic / Non-fiction books I read in 2017

  1. Shannon Mattern – Code and Clay; Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media
  2. Achille Mbembé –  Critique of Black Reason
  3. Stuart Elden – Foucault: The Birth of Power
  4. Adam Greenfield – Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life
  5. McKenzie Wark – General Intellects: Twenty-Five Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century

I’ve only just started Shannon Mattern’s Code and Clay; Data and Dirt, but it’s already my #1 non-fiction read of the year. It’s just my kind of thing: enormous ambition, a sweeping historical scope and an infectious brillance that makes you see new things in and about cities.

Achille Mbembé’s Critique of Black Reason has finally been translated into English. It’s an extraordinary book that place the project of creating ‘blackness’ as a nonhuman category through centuries of colonial dominance, capitalist exploitation and oppression. It builds on Mbembé’s earlier development of the concept of ‘necropolitics’, transforming this from a critique of Foucauldian biopolitics into something far more central to the expansion of European power, and its current decline.

Speaking of Foucault, in a year when there has been even more intense efforts to disparage and discredit the greatest thinker of the second half of the twentieth century and even to portray him as a neoliberal fellow-traveller, it was refreshing to read the latest installment of Stuart Elden’s painstakingly researched and evidenced account of Foucault’s middle years, The Birth of Power. Elden is working backwards, the first volume having been on Foucault’s Last Decade, and he makes a convincing case for a consistent project throughout Foucault’s life, but also, in this volume, for a much more Marxist Foucault than his (frankly, much less well-read) critics often realise.

Adam Greenfield continues to produce excellent polemical but well-argued work on urban technologies. In Radical Technologies, he dispatches everything from the Internet of Things to Blockchain. Although sometimes the relentless negativity can get wearing, it’s a welcome corrective to the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley.

Finally, I used McKenzie Wark’s edited collection of his essays for Public Seminar, General Intellects, for my graduate theory class this year, and therefore read it and discussed its themes in far greater detail than I would normally do. It made for a very provocative course, and the students and I were at times infuriated with and delighted by the threads that Wark weaves through this work. At its worst, it seems like really there is only one ‘general intellect’ for Wark, and that’s Wark. But, at its best, the book asks all the right questions of those approaching social theory in this new century. It really needed a bit more a global scope – Wark considers Chinese and African thinkers elsewhere on the website but not in the book itself, which isn’t great especially when the book does find space for crap like vacuous hippy ‘philosopher’, Timothy Morton.

What I’m reading (Autumn 2017)

Adam Greenfield (2017) Radical Technologies: the Design of Everyday Life. A sceptical take on the promise(s) of utopian technologies.

Achille Mbembe (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Esssential theoretical reading from this boundary-pushing post-colonial thinker.

Nicole Starosielski (2015) The Undersea Network. Fascinating account of (mainly) Pacific undersea communications networks.

Jocelyn Wills (2017) Tug of War: Surveillance Capitalism, Military Contracting and the Rise of the Security State. A history of the Canadian satellite communications firm, MacDonald Dettwiller & Associates (MDA).