The recent past of future reading
While writing about Neal Stephenson’s amazing Termination Shock last month, I realized that it was time for a roundup of the best science fiction of 2021. But writing a “best” didn’t feel quite right. My reviews barely do justice to the breadth of ambition, the spectrum of literary experimentation and the scope of imagination of the SF I write about (check out here and here, for example). So, I thought that, rather than reducing it to “best” — hey, books are just better or worse, on a simple linear axis—I’d go diverse and superlative.
So here are the superlative SF books of 2021.
The award for the most high-quality books published in 2021 goes to Nnedi Okorafor who published two: “Remote Control” —a novella/fable, and “Noor” a cyberpunk novel. Okorafor will be rightly recognized next year by prize committees for these books that have the happy knack of making Africa, women, desert life and Islam normal and highly readable subjects of science fiction and fantasy.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Running and motorbiking are processes of constant falling but are no less fun for that. Andy Weir’s novelistic style is comparable to those other methods of speeding in that his characters are always in the process of failing — having to solve constant urgent and emergent technical problems to reach an otherwise clear goal. Aliens, existential human threat, confusion, it’s all gripping stuff.
Most Impressively Literariest
Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles
First, it’s difficult to write novels in verse. Alexander Pushkin did a good job on Eugene Onegin but few others have made it to sustained public notice. Second, science fiction can be a tricky master. Third, there are basically no novels written in the Orcadian dialect — the language spoken in Orkney, islands north of Scotland. So, for Harry Josephine Giles, an Orkney poet living in Edinburgh to succeed at all three — a science-fiction verse novel written in the Orcadian dialect (the first full-length work of adult fiction in the Orkney language for over 50 years) is testament to their bloody-mindedness and skill.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Rivers Solomon has written two great novels in the past few years, their astonishing 2017 debut An Unkindness of Ghosts and the excellent The Deep, that won the 2020 Lambda Literary Award. But this year’s Sorrowland just didn’t quite deliver on its ambitious premise. Feel free to read them all and prove me wrong (you could even try The Deep in French, Les abysses).
Most Surprisingly SF-est
Yes Ishiguro did write “Never Let Me Go,” set in a parallel world, but that’s easy to forget given his pedigree for “An Artist of the Floating World” and, of course, “Remains of the Day.” But with “Klara and the Sun,” Ishiguro celebrates his first novel since his 2017 Nobel Prize by writing a future world from the point of view of an “Artificial Friend.” This is more “Blade Runner” than you would expect from Ishiguro and still good enough to get on the Booker long list.
Most Longest (and most Varied-est)
The Best of World SF: Volume 1 edited by Lavie Tidhar
Every year sees a variety of anthologies published. Few of them as handsome inside and out as this book edited by Lavie Tidhar. The diversity of subject, provenance, attitude and style is breathtaking. I loved the hardback but, at 608 pages, your back will thank you to nab the e-book.
Most Science Fiction-y
Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The books in the first six categories above all push the envelope, in their own ways — Giles through form and language, Okorafor through subject and location, Weir through writing novels by compiling “How To” scenarios and Tidhar by making a book that’s literally too big for most envelopes.
But if you want new-style old-school, science fiction-y science fiction without the excess sexist douchebaggery that comes inside covers of scantily clad and hugely well-endowed aliens, try “Shards of Earth” (cover is a burning Earth). The war is over, the battle for humanity begins! This is the first instalment of a new space opera, more than ably conducted by Tchaikovsky.
Most Likely to Read Nextest
While I was researching this list to see what I had missed and what I should read next, I bumped into the Pan Macmillan list which looks robust. So, while I haven’t read any of these yet, I’ll probably read one of them next. If you beat me to it, feel free to let me know which one is superlative in its own right.
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine
Rabbits by Terry Miles