Well, that was a year.
Personally, bookishly, it was pretty good. I’ve still been reviewing for the Chicago Review of Books, and started writing for Locus towards the end of the year. I attended quite a few clubs—Think Galactic, Chicago Nerds, and a handful of Weird & Wonderful meetings—and organized and ran a staggering number of Hugo clubs for Chicon.
Spoil the Conference was one of the best academic conferences I’ve been to in ages, transformative and enriching. The Depaul Pop Culture Conference, as usual, was energetic and delightful—on Sherlock Holmes this last year. It was great to be back at Wiscon in person; had some great panels and conversations. And I caught a lot of great events and readings around Chicago, including some great panels at the American Writers Festival and Printers Row Lit Fest.
Chicon (which was last year’s World Science Fiction Convention) was a massive amount of work; I worked on the Outreach team, became the Literature Area Head for programming, kinda sorta mostly took over Fringe, and did a lot of triage/troubleshooting for Program Ops through the con itself, as well as appearing on a few panels. It was rewarding and interesting and I don’t think the con-running bug has exactly bitten me. We’ll see.
I sold a lot of books at City Lit (I mean, not to brag, but: a lot of books), did a lot of work for events there, and contributed a lot of staff picks to their 2022 picks, speculative and otherwise.
I didn’t write anything of note for the Ancillary Review of Books this year, but I clicked “publish” about 100 times—I’m immensely glad we’ve kept it going after near-total editorial turnover, with a lot of great folks contributing this year. I have some hopes and ideas for Ancillary in 2023 that I hope pan out. And, although it’s pretty much just the calendar these days, I’ve kept Positron Chicago updated with clubs & literary events.
I have a lot of reading and writing plans for this year, some of them more choate than others. But, without further ado, my reading list from 2022, probably missing a few somehow:
- Devil House, John Darnielle
First novel I read this year, a heck of a bar to set. This book is monumental, gets better the more you think about it—argumentative, conversational, thorny and thoughtful and deep. Reviewed for the CHIRB.
- Last Exit, Max Gladstone
This was a little disappointing, but in interesting ways. Gladstone’s an excellent writer, and that is true here, but this felt like it was struggling with where to go—doesn’t quite know the change it wants to see. Reviewed for the CHIRB.
- No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
A perfect novel, a bleak reactionary poem of a book.
- Far From the Light of Heaven, Tade Thompson
A surprisingly unpredictable book, very inventive, and went off at angles I didn’t expect. Highly recommended. Chicago Nerds read.
- These Prisoning Hills, Christopher Rowe
I really like Rowe’s biopunk Appalachian post-singularity-war stuff, and this did not disappoint. Very good.
- Dark Eden, Chris Beckett
A really fascinating and fantastic book; I’m shocked I haven’t heard more about it. Very “classic, big idea” kind of SF: fascinating world, doing a lot with language, and very adventure-y and plot-driven.
- Dark Matter, Blake Crouch
Gosh this is bad. Lots to ding here (Chicago geography fails for one lol), but it’s how deeply unimaginative it is that really killed it for me. Weird & Wonderful read.
- Manhunt, Gretchen Felker-Martin
Riotous, gory, disturbing and triumphant.
- Dead Collections, Isaac Fellman
Wow this is good: great premise, extremely effective and playful style, doing some really potent shit with vampirism and transitioning, remarkably concise character work, and great meditations on media and identity construction. Think Galactic read.
- A Country of Ghosts, Margaret Killjoy
Worth the ticket—pretty thin on plot and character, but fascinating and recommended for its anarchic utopia, anyway. Brought up a lot of comparisons to The Dispossessed and Iron Council. TG read.
- All Systems Red, Martha Wells
Murderbot is such fun, a lot of simple, well-known ingredients combining in surprising and delightful ways. CNSC read.
- The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway
Superb, a riot, daring and outrageous. I often say of Harkaway that his books feel like he fought off an editor who wanted (reasonably) to cut 200 pages or so, but his books are better for the sprawl.
- Woman, Eating, Claire Kohda
Interesting, well-done, unusual vampire novel; extremely contemporary and finding some unexpected resonance between vampire tropes and millennial malaise, and tapping into some pretty heavy themes.
- Spear, Nicola Griffith
An instant classic, one of the absolutely most perfect books I’ve read in years. A joy to read—lyrical, effortless, wild and transportive. Reviewed for the CHIRB, and a CNSC read.
- The Awoken, Katelyn Howe
Easily the worst novel I read this year: excellent example of “novelization style” (written as though a novelization of a film or TV work), jaw-dropping plot/logic/science fails, unable to get a handle on what it’s doing metaphorically (disability rights? Reproductive rights?), all patched over with the most melodramatic of hackneyed tropes.
- Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Adore this novel, big sprawling spider civilization plus generation ship troubles. CNSC read.
- Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
Still knocks my socks off, just a brilliant perfect novel. TG read.
- Anathem, Neal Stephenson
Head and shoulders above…most things, really. A perennial re-read for me, suggested for all science/philosophy types.
- The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
Really gets better on re-reading, there’s a lot going on here. TG read.
- Light from Uncommon Stars, Ryka Aoki
Mixed on this one: aspects of it were really raw and potent and unexpectedly triumphant, yet the mixing of speculative elements felt pretty goofy to me, and some parts of the ethical schema re: souls were distracting. Overall, still recommend. CNSC read.
- Acadie, David Hutchinson
Weird fun “gotcha” novella, felt like an homage to Watts’ or Sterling’s biopunky space stuff.
- Siren Queen, Nghi Vo
Extremely well done, great voice & world. I wasn’t quite as bowled over with this as with some of Vo’s other work, but I think only because I’m not terribly interested in fame & celebrity as phenomena, and those are tied to the silver screen magic of the novel.
- How To Blow Up A Pipeline, Andreas Malm
Good, affirming, very usefully walks through a complete takedown of “nonviolence is good for its own sake”. Felt a little too context-free—core points stand, but wasn’t grappling enough with the fact that in many countries (including America) you’ll get straight up state-murdered for these kinds of hijinks.
- Embassytown, China Miéville
Just felt like a re-read. One of the greatest SF novels of all time; a must for language lovers.
- The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke Emezi
Jaw-dropping, sad, insightful, charged with psycho-socio-sexual energy. Was thinking a lot about Jane’s Meander, Spiral, Explode reading this—has an unusual but highly effective structure.
- You Made A Fool of Death with Your Beauty, Akwaeke Emezi
Felt weird about this one—a genuinely good romance, v. steamy, with some heavier bits about grief and bigotry; but it also felt like a name-droppy ode to classist success in ways that rubbed me weird after the clear-eyed compassion of Freshwater and Vivek Oji. Reviewed for CHIRB.
- Invisible Things, Mat Johnson
Fun, punchy, the kind of pointed allegorical SF I don’t seem to see much of anymore. Reviewed for CHIRB.
- Nona the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
Well, it’s great, but I think I need some time to digest before I can say much more about it. The purposeful shifting to yet another narrator with highly-incomplete information about the world is an interesting one, but I hope that doesn’t hold; the use of what felt like consciously uwu-soft-child POV in this world also interesting. I do not love [spoiler].
- Across the Green Grass Fields, Seanan McGuire
Eh, don’t need to get into it but didn’t love this. Felt real slapdash.
- Zodiac, Neal Stephenson
I’m still kicking around an essay I want to write about climate change and techno-optimism (and -pessimism), made me come back to this. It’s real good, honestly, and doesn’t suffer for being such a clear Monkey Wrench Gang analog. Interesting to see some of the impulses that go in different directions later in Stephenson’s career.
- Endless Endless by Adam Clair
Delightful book about the Elephant 6, and the style and structure match the subject. Powerfully, strangely nostalgic, and reminded me of the potency and, for lack of a better world, spirituality of music (and art generally) that I still believe in, but was closer to my surface when I discovered Neutral Milk Hotel when I was 18 or whatever.
- She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan
Fantastically written and compelling; left me feeling a little strange because I fundamentally can’t get behind the protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, this book is really good, but I think that quality helped me identify an issue I have with books about the power-hungry.
- Drunk On All Your Strange New Words, Eddie Robson
This was a blast; I’ve been watching for new work for Robson since the wild ride of Hearts of Oak. Inventive set-up that spirals into and out of ever-stranger conspiracy theories. Highly recommended.
- The Grief of Stones, Katherine Addison
Pretty good—kind of “more of the same” but of a world I quite like. Left me wanting some progress in a few different ways, but I’ll wait and see what’s next.
- The Spear Cuts Through Water, Simon Jimenez
Holy heck, what an achievement. Feels important, on a craft level, as few other things I read this year do. Immensely readable despite its deep and thorough stylistic experiments. Reviewed for CHIRB.
- The Mountain in the Sea, Ray Nayler
Tons of fun, artificial intelligence and octopuses. Very Gibson-y on some levels, very Crichton-y on others. It’s quite talky—tell vs show a bit imbalanced—but a delightful read.
- The Past is Red, Catherynne M. Valente
Loved this. Playful and creative and ominous, great voice.
- Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir
Entertainingly awful. The science is not actually good, please stop saying that.
- Into the Riverlands, Nghi Vo
If you’ve liked the Singing Hills books, don’t miss this! If you don’t know them, go back and start, they’re great! Vaguely Le Guin-esque, and apparently taking a tour of slightly different fantasy structures, this one veering into wuxia territory.
- A Half-Built Garden, Ruthanna Emrys
Per everything on the tin, I should have loved this—eco-sff, first contact, anarchic social structures. It didn’t quite work for me, something about the stakes & alien-ness felt off.
- Venomous Lumpsucker, Ned Beauman
Screamingly good, one of the best things I read this year. Jaggedly sharp and darkly funny. Reviewed for CHIRB.
- An Immense World, Ed Yong
This is such a treat. Yong’s a great and approachable writer, the subject matter here is “stick it in my veins” nature doc stuff, and this should honestly be on any potential SF writer’s shelf just for “non-human sensoria” reasons.
- TITAN, Mado Nozaki, translated by Evan Ward
Interesting strange book; as sometimes the case with translated fiction, I’m worried I’m missing context, but the mecha roots here are pretty clear. I felt that this completely biffed its central question (“what is work?” in the context of a post-scarcity society), but still kind of fascinating. Reviewed for Locus.
- Neom, Lavie Tidhar
This is great! Like Central Station, a fascinating blend of huge and tiny ideas; quiet and believable, shot through with vivid oddness, and chock-full of allusion to other works. Highly recommended.
- Legends & Lattes, Travis Baldree
Like my distaste for Chambers, this isn’t really the author’s fault, there’s just this type of “low-or-no-stakes” SFF that really doesn’t do it for me (and contrasts pretty sharply with the kind of plotless stuff I do love). This felt done quite well for what it is, even if very obviously a D&D outgrowth; unfortunately I have also spent too much time in coffee for unrealistic coffee shop AUs to go down very well.
- The Two Doctors Gorski, Isaac Fellman
Fellman, what the hell. This is really good, and different from his previous outings. Bitter and distilled, like an endorheic lake. Reviewed for Locus.
- Under Fortunate Stars, Ren Hutchings
Didn’t like this, don’t get it. Wildly predictable, bland Trek fic. CNSC read.
- The Tiger Flu, Larissa Lai
Fascinating and occasionally beautiful, but really hard to read, felt like a real slog to get through.
- Depart, Depart, Sim Kern
Wow, great little book. Remarkable authorial balance, this is getting a lot done in very few pages, without any element overpowering the others or feeling unnecessary. Top notch. Anthropocene Book Club read.
- The End of the World Might Not Have Taken Place, Patrik Ourednik
Delightful, weird, Vonnegut-esque, occasionally on the edge of cringe. Enjoyed quite a bit.
- The Galaxy and the Ground Within, Becky Chambers
Meh. I disliked this less than any of the other Wayfarer books; Chambers works better for me the more the novels know there’s no real plot. Still not a huge fan.
- Elder Race, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Superb novella, really rich with ideas and subtlety, at the intersection of classic fantasy and classic SF. CNSC read.
- 40, Alan Heathcock
Interesting weird climate novel that doesn’t quite know what to do with its own striking imagery; it was cool to see apocalyptic American Christianity put central in a cli-fi novel.
- Fireheart Tiger, Aliette de Bodard
Nice novella; felt like I lacked some of the cultural context to figure out emotional/social stakes, and there wasn’t quite enough space for worldbuilding. But, to be honest, I’ve always enjoyed every de Bodard story I’ve encountered, and this was no exception.
- The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
Yeah, it’s great. I think this year the thing jumping out at me a lot was the sense of humor throughout this. Also made me briefly get up in arms about Gimli reclamation—Jackson movies made him into something quite different than in the text.
- A Spindle Splintered, Alix E. Harrow
Eh, not for me, a bit too by the numbers, and the writers who can pull off “meme references that don’t make me want to autodefenestrate” are very few.
- The Sleepless, Victor Manibo
Cool setup that didn’t quite land for me. Little touches about the premise were nice. I think part of my ambivalence is familiarity with Kress’s Beggars in Spain, a troublesome but massively more ambitious novel about the same central idea.
- The Library of the Sapphire Wind, Jane Lindskold
Drove me right up the wall. Fascinatingly a throw-back to a kind of SFF I don’t feel like I’ve seen since the 80s/90s but not, you know, in a way I personally liked. Actually went over fairly okay at club—CNSC read.
- The Cartographers, Peng Shepherd
Not great in somewhat interesting ways; doing the same kind of thing that irks me in a lot of “literary” spec fic, where it’s not really thinking through the mechanics & ramifications of its own speculative elements. Also had some more mundane character/motivation issues that tossed me out even harder.
- The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Limp and toothless and not very interesting, sad to say; seemed like there was potential here (Wells’ original is haunting), but things didn’t quite come together for this one.
- Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence, R.F. Kuang
Didn’t think I was going to love this—period English fantasy & rigorous magic systems are decidedly not my thing. But this novel is just perfect and a treat top to bottom, I ate it right up. Angry and right. CNSC read.
- Self-Portrait with Nothing, Aimee Pokwatka
A fun, strange debut novel that I quite enjoyed. Felt like Gibson mixed with, I dunno, Link or Saunders maybe? Reviewed for the CHIRB.
- Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
Just wanted some centipede protagonists, you know? Still loads of fun and weird.
- The White Mosque, Sofia Samatar
Gorgeous, insightful memoir/travelog, proof positive that “more specific=more universal”. If you’ve read any Samatar and liked it, read this. Lots here about warped but potent utopianizing, about living with feet in multiple cultures, about the way the past percolates through everything.
- The Stars Undying, Emery Robin
Space opera very much in the vein of Martine & Elliott; this was extremely well done but still left me asking “why tho” a little. Review forthcoming.
- The Hero of This Book, Elizabeth McCracken
Easily among the top of my reads this year. Just a masterclass in writing, in character and memory.
- Feed Them Silence, Lee Mandelo
A carefully bleak and measured novella; fascinating approach to a flawed character, and kind of haunting. Review forthcoming.
- Vacuum Flowers, Michael Swanwick
Don’t remember exactly why I came back to this, but it’s still a treat. Fun reminder of the “cyberpunks go to space, too” phenomena, with lots of vivid bits. Potentially in the same world as the inimitable Stations of the Tide, and rhymes oddly with lots of other unusual space opera stuff.
- The Mimicking of Known Successes, Malka Older
Pretty fun, simple, Sherlock riff, more interesting for the setting than anything else—post-Earth-catastrophe civilization set on Jupiter.
- The Terraformers, Annalee Newitz
Definitely the most I’ve enjoyed a Newitz novel thus far, and there’s some fun stuff here; there’s also some strange assumptions or blindspots that kept throwing me out of it.
- No Gods No Monsters, Cadwell Turnbull
Lots of kind-of interesting stuff here that doesn’t quite shape up into enough of a story, and I felt it suffered from some metaphor problems. Cast was so large, and the plot so incomplete, that it felt very pilot-y. TG read.
- The Sentence, Louis Erdrich
Most “interrupted by the pandemic and I’m just gonna roll with it” novel I’ve yet encountered. This is pretty writerly, and the ghost element is fairly minimal, but I genuinely liked it quite a bit. The book lists at the back are nice, too. CNSC read.
- Station 6, S.J. Klapecki
Love the setup—unionizing action on a space station. Execution fairly weak.
- Extended Stay, Juan Martinez
Whew, this is REAL GOOD. Haunted house with extreme body horror that gets way more speculative/extreme than I was anticipating. Good catharsis, memorable scenes, solid body hits of socially relevant critique without feeling preachy. All the content warnings, but don’t miss this if you like weird horror.
- The Genesis of Misery, Neon Yang
Mixed feelings at best! Part of this were pretty rad, many more parts of this made me want to chuck the book out the window. Attempted a lot of diction shifts in a way that really didn’t work for me, had some editing fails, and enough about the structure/setup made me mad that I kinda want to drag it at length, but no reason to for this list! CNSC read.
- Wave Without A Shore, C.J. Cherryh
Simply the best; has structured my entire intellectual life since before my frontal cortex jelled. This time through, thinking a lot about how totalitarian apparatuses (apparati?) get those policemen in your head, so you do most of their work for them.
- Pew, Catherine Lacey
Very weird! But good! Weird & Wonderful read.
- How Far the Light Reaches, Sabrina Imbler
Holy chao is this good—memoir and science writing, both a metaphor for the other.
- What If? 2, Randall Munroe
It’s a treat, you know what you’re in for if you know XKCD.
- Reconstruction, Alaya Dawn Johnson.
Fantastic collection from a master stylist, with a couple of just top-tier stories. I reviewed for the CHIRB back when it came out, and this was a TG read.
- Cursed Bunny, Bora Chung
Weird and delightful fantasy/horror stories, lots of body stuff. Review forthcoming.
- Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis
Some of that longtermism/effective altruism bullshit reminded me so strongly of the villain’s final speech in this that I had to come back and read. Dang, this is good. I got beef with Lewis but the first two entries in the Space Trilogy are really fantastic. There are aspects of these that I would love to see in more SF.