In theory, I should have read & written a lot more in 2020 than usual for me; but, as so many of us are acknowledging, it turns out that free time that’s directly connected to global pandemics, in the shadow of fascism and climate apocalypse, is not actually the best, most productive kind of free time. It took me until the early part of the fall to recover something like some good reading patterns—even though I wasn’t working an often emotionally/physically draining 50ish hours a week, I also didn’t have the rigorous schedules and windows of reading opportunities that enforced.
But! Still a great year for books, a great year for reading. Some really quick thoughts on my list this year:
- Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway.
Superb; Harkaway seems criminally off-radar in most of my circles. Steampunk, gangster noir, and supernatural illuminati, paced like a thriller. Surprisingly effective at nailing very different tones. “It just seems like that to you because you were on the outside” is going to stick with me.
- Agency, William Gibson.
Kinda meh. Probably this will grow on me in time; seems to suffer from the same malady that affects a lot of his sequels. I found Gibson’s dealing with 9/11 in Pattern Recognition quite good; the HRC alternate history here was a little one-note. I still think The Peripheral is superb and so was not to disappointed with seeing a bit more of that world.
- The Seep, Chana Porter.
Nice weird quasi-utopia, thinking through trans identity and personal responsibility in a world of posthuman possibility. May feel more fresh to you if you’ve attended a party in the last decade; what has happened to me.
- Hearts of Oak, Eddie Robson.
Delightfully weird, mixes kind of magical realism stylings with Twilight Zone SF. Aliens, possession, wooden robots, talking cats. Shifts tones and gears dramatically more than once. Felt a lot like a modern fantasy writer was tasked with re-writing a Golden Age short.
- Prosper’s Demon, K.J. Parker.
Banging. Sharp, snarky. Exorcist in an alternate fantasy Renaissance, doing some things with an ethically questionable if not exactly unreliable narrator.
- C.J. Cherryh re-reads
Started doing a catalog read, taking notes for a project.
- Morgaine trilogy: huh there’s a lot of bondage and queer coding in here.
- Brothers of Earth: holy confusing race messages, Batman!
- Hunter of Worlds: god this is so good, it’s weird in this way that only a certain era of SF can be, it’s also surpassingly good sexy bad-boy Vulcan fanfic.
- Hestia: whoof this is bad, I mean, “meow, this is bad”; did make me think a lot about the influence of genre Westerns on her work.
- The Faded Sun trilogy: I will always love these; there is an awful lot of painful sand-journeys, and the Mri sit perilously between cultural inspiration and caricature, but as a whole still quite good; the regul are maybe the most interesting thing here and probably need some fatphobic/disability lens turned on them.
- Oh and Wave Without a Shore, because I read that like constantly because it’s literally the best.
- The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, Nghi Vo
Truly superb. Le Guin-level. Quiet and contemplative, alternate fantasy China, smart and careful stories about gender and empire and power. Review of Empress on Positron and Tiger at the Chicago Review of Books.
- This Is How You Lose the Time War, Max Gladstone & Amal El-Mohtar
Re-read. A favorite. Wrote an essay about this for Ancillary.
- The City & the City, China Miéville
Re-reading for a project. Top-tier, my usual first Miéville rec.
- The Future of Another Timeline, Annalee Newitz
Re-read for club. Still don’t like it, much as I love the premise.
- A Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinsker
Very good, and “most weirdly prescient” for the pandemic & lockdown dynamics (although the illicit gatherings aspect hit differently as the year went on). Made me miss going to shows a lot.
- The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
Did a very slow re-read of LOTR this year, rarely more than a chapter a day, in between other things. Was soothing in a stressful time. Thoughts here.
- Summerland, Hannu Rajaniemi
Picked this up somewhere and finally got around to it. Pretty good! WWI-era intrigues where “spiritualism” is real and science takes note. Kind of shocked that this never came up in discussions of Kowal’s Ghost Talkers; I found this quite a bit stronger.
- The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, Michael Zapata
Excellent, touching, one of the best I read in 2020. Multi-generational story set mostly in Chicago and New Orleans. File next to Kavalier & Clay. I was *slightly* bummed that the SF aspect stayed within the frame, but loved this.
- Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi
Every time a new superhero property comes out, I think “imagine having those powers and not going after the system itself.” This novella does that. An angry, incisive superhero story about racism and the police & carceral state.
- The Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski
Deeply mediocre, but I also think this should not have been the first Witcher title I read; it’s in-universe chronologically first but not published first, and more of a fix-up novel. The Magician’s Nephew curse. Wasn’t inspired to read or watch on.
- A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine
Re-read for club. Still extremely good (though still a bit long, and I wish it explored some of the weirder SF elements more). Excellent political/diplomatic space opera. Review from my first read on Positron.
- The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton
Early in the pandemic I comfort-read a bunch of disaster novels. Have to say it: Crichton sucks, although admittedly in a well-paced and highly-filmable way. Such a weird misanthrope; uses scientism so disingenuously. The really out-there SF aspects of this novel are the most interesting.
- The Black Cloud, Fred Hoyle
Faced with disaster, intelligent competent people handle it intelligently/competently! What outlandish fantasy. This holds up fairly well as a novel, less abrasively “white guy in the 50s” than many others of its time.
- Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
Competence porn redux. If you want something like The Martian or Interstellar but actually good, I’d point you to this. The moon blows up in the first sentence, and humanity must race to get off the planet. Second half of the book is five thousand years later and with a very different, somewhat lighter tone.
- Japan Sinks, Sakyo Komatso
More disaster reads. This one a bit odd—felt more like a passive list of disasters, not a lot of agency—but still quite readable. Sexy bits were a little disturbing. Review on Positron.
- Leaf by Niggle, J.R.R. Tolkien
Eat your heart out, Lewis. I love this story, manages to be an encapsulation of the artist’s struggle, a dystopian critique, and a theological treatise all at once. And with a happy ending! Puts the “eu” in eucatastrophe, that guy.
- The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected In Water, Zen Cho
I’m not super familiar-with/enamored-of wuxia (genre about historical martial heroes), so this was fine but not much more for me; characters and concepts were well-executed but didn’t grab me.
- The Forge of God, Greg Bear
Yes, I have the infamous “Forge of Goo” cover. Alien menace threatening to blow up the earth. Scientists react intelligently, politicians poorly. What else to say? When I read this as a kid, this was really emotionally affecting. Less so on re-read, and the dude-centrism of it was more glaring; it really wants to be more about male friendship than it lets itself be. Remarkably passive novel given the subject matter.
- Earth, David Brin
File this mentally pretty close to Forge of God, though this one is a lot more complex & active. Environmentalism, AI, Earth-threatening micro black holes. Pretty good, although a few bits are problematic, and the tech bits are extremely early 90s.
- Witchmark, C.L. Polk
Fun, light, strongest in its romantic elements. Kind of alt-history fantasy, slightly steampunky, kind of oscillating levels of realism.
- Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse
Re-read for club. It’s fun, love the world, a little light in execution with some plot/character porosity.
- Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Re-read for escapism. It’s really two separate novels at once, a fairly dystopian generation ship novel running in parallel with an INTELLIGENT SPIDERS DEVELOP CIVILIZATION AND SCIENCE novel, and then they collide. Much fun.
- Network Effect, Martha Wells
Someone really needs to write a theme song for Murderbot so we can all just sing it, joyously, on repeat, as we read the Murderbot books, joyously, on repeat. Gloriously fun, well-executed, quietly deep. Cyberpunky space opera with a robot (cyborg?) protagonist who is really trying even though they really don’t want to.
- Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
Re-read Gideon for when Harrow came out. Hands-down, no question, the most enjoyable new novels out there, and also—kind of outrageously—Muir might be the master stylist of the moment. These are simultaneously light/schlocky/fanficcy and deeply, cleverly structured, pulling off tricks of tone and meaning and plot that are adrenaline-pumping in the way that watching a gymnast land something you thought was going to break their neck is. “Lesbian Necromancers in Space,” if you somehow missed the buzz about these. I reviewed both Gideon and Harrow for the CHIRB.
- Under the Pendulum Sun, Jeannette Ng
Quite underwhelmed by this; missionaries and incest in Fairyland. Just didn’t grab me, didn’t do enough with its fantastic setting or colonial critiques. Also was setting up some potentially heavy (and delightfully heretical) theological ideas, that didn’t really develop.
- The Angel of the Crows, Katherine Addison
Sherlock Holmes adaptation where Holmes is an angel and Watson is a trans werewolf. Enjoyable but I thought it oddly torn between originality and over-faithfulness to the source text; wants to be structured around a “Holmes catches Jack the Ripper” plotline but that felt weak. Still quite good, but odd. Reviewed for the Chicago Review of Books.
- We Cast a Shadow, Maurice Carols Ruffin
Brutal, satirical racial dystopia. Swung between “darkly funny” and “plain old horrific, because it’s only barely fictional”.
- Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer
Re-read for club. I still think this is a brilliant book and a brilliant series; on re-reads, maybe suffering a bit for keeping too much too close to the vest in this first novel. As Chicago Nerds folks pointed out, reads as too uncritically laudatory of the Enlightenment, with all the colonialism/racism that implies. I did a long review of this when it first came out, on Positron.
- Red Sister, Mark Lawrence
Warrior nuns. Enjoyable enough if you don’t think about it for even a second, the plot and worldbuilding are membranous at best.
- The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin
Underwhelmed, which I feel terrible saying about a Jemisin novel. It was fine, but—without wanting to launch into a deep critique—the magic system and some of the underlying assumptions about cities just didn’t work for me.
- The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
Whew, been waiting for this one. And it’s good, wraps things up, but really feels like it doesn’t match Traitor; too much of the resolution is about besting one person, when it’s been incredibly loud about needing to address the whole system all along. Also made some weird choices with some POVs that I think weakened it. Do love to see Baru again, and love the exploration of some of the more fantastic elements of the world.
- Deal with the Devil, Kit Rocha
Dystopian-setting urban fantasy about “mercenary librarians”; sex and violence. Weak on plot.
- This Alien Shore and This Virtual Night, C.S. Friedman
Re-read This Alien Shore, which is a strangely persistent, haunting novel, in preparation for This Virtual Night, which was kind of disappointing: weirdly dated and not very adventurous, side-stepping all the neurodiversity/disability rights angles that made This Alien Shore so fascinating. Review at the CHIRB.
- Bannerless, Carrie Vaughn
Interesting but kind of underwhelming, low-stakes murder-mystery in a semi-utopian permaculture that has arisen after massive crisis. Just didn’t ask enough questions about its setting, and was weirdly race-blind; but it also felt like it might have been a story that took place within a world of Ursula Le Guin or Kim Stanley Robinson, so: mixed.
- Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark
Superb, serious, swashbuckling, alt-history romp with Black women fighting literal demons in the Klan. Review on Positron.
- Dispersion, Greg Egan
I am quick to get in line for any Egan novella. This one felt kinda midlevel for him. As usual, high concept—a world where several distinct kinds of matter exist, many that don’t interact normally, so there’s entire populations that exist as imperceptible “ghosts” to each other, and a where a disease is ramping up to potentially catastrophic levels. Is mostly about characters hashing out the scientific method, and felt really pessimistic about society’s chances to use rationality to escape impending doom.
- The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
Gah, this book. I will need to be writing/reading/talking a lot about this novel, just to process it. Near-future, essentially optimistic/utopian, about a successful response to climate change using the Paris Agreement as a structure. Book responsible for like 92% of my weeping this year. I’m not without critique, but it feels like the magnum opus of one of our most prominent climate-aware novelists, and I kind of want everyone, especially non-SF readers, to read it.
- Waste Tide, Chen Qiufan
Contemporary Chinese Cyberpunk. Good, not entirely sure how I feel about it. Review on Positron.
- The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones
Horror, really good horror. Structured more like sequential novellas, if that makes sense.
- Night Roll, Michael J. Deluca
Simultaneously solarpunk and urban fantasy, with lots of bicycles and urban gardens. Fun if not particularly plotty.
- Beowulf, Maria Dahvana Headley translation
No question the most fun I had reading this year. It helps if you’re a bit of a Beowulf fan to begin with, but it’s by no means necessary—I would have zero guilt suggesting this for the first translation you encounter. An incredibly lively, engaging translation, maintaining lots of fun rhythms, sounds, and devices, while deploying modern lingo in ways that are grabbing, compelling, entertaining, and deepen and reveal themes I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Highly, highly recommended.
- The Future Earth, Eric Holthaus
Okay cheating a bit, this is non-fiction, but I’m including it because it was…trying to be somewhat fictional? I follow Holthaus on twitter; his climate work has been inspiring/informative for years, and I was excited to read this. The Future Earth is kind of a dud precisely because it’s caught in this dead zone between non-fiction and speculative fiction. It’s imagining the kinds of things we can and should do to have a nice planet in a couple decades, but the way it’s written is pretty uninspiring: it very ineptly switches back and forth between actual reporting and speculation, without marking those differences very well. The “fictional” parts thus feel weak, and the unclear boundary means that the fictionality contaminates the factual parts, lessening their impact. A shame, because the goal of this book is great; I would point people to The Ministry for the Future instead.
- The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson
Much-hyped debut novel; multiverse where one can only travel to worlds where your doppelganger is dead. Has some cool stuff going on and I’ll be watching Johnson for future work, but this didn’t quite grab me. A really fantastic premise that it doesn’t much explore.
- Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi
Holy hell, this novel. It’s on another level. Mental health, gender & cultural identity, gods and other supernatural forces. The writing on this just slew me, put this on your lists of Classic Great Books that expand on consciousness and how the mind works.
- Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
Three cheers for One Book One Chicago, as usual. An excellent novel; I loved the realism of its core relationship, rarely portrayed. To be honest I would have loved the fantastic element to be either stronger or absent; it mainly seemed like a pragmatic way to get around writing the realities of border-crossing, without doing anything else.
- Finna, Nino Cipri
Fun fun fun. Queer Ikea employees navigate Sliders-esque wormholes.
- Magic for Liars, Sarah Gailey
PI solves a murder mystery at a wizard school. Fun and quietly deft at avoiding “Hogwarts in Reality” traps; far more interested in family dynamics and impostor syndrome than the actual magic school, or the murder.
- A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe, Alex White
I should be fair to this book, it’s good at what it’s doing, I’ve just had it up to here with “Star Wars/Firefly with the serial numbers filed off” type story. Plot/world is not to be thought deeply about.
- Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse
Enjoyable, felt a lot more solid than Trail of Lightning. “Serial Pacing” still kinda bums me out—entire book leads up dramatically to “wait for the next book!” Good, though. Fantasy in Meso-american inspired world, faction politics, ancient prophecies, magic & shapeshifters and giant creatures.
- Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country, Emily Tesh
Ah, these are great! They were pitched to me as “Sad Gay Ents”, which is really not it exactly but kind of…spiritually true. Remarkably compelling characters in a well-visualized and grounded fairy-tale-ish setting. Think Uprooted but in tightly-constructed novella form. Highly recommended.
Definitely didn’t read as many books as I planned in 2020, but some really good ones in there. Picking up steam for 2021.