We’re living in a world that looks increasingly like science fiction, so I find myself looking to the genre not for predictions of what the future holds but for some guidance for dealing with this strange and changing world. 2016 was a difficult year, but a bounty of fantastic science fiction and fantasy novels were helpful in not simply escaping the present, but confronting it.
Here’s the best of what the year had to offer.
ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY BY CHARLIE JANE ANDERS
All the Birds in the Sky is as witty as it is smart. I used to work with Charlie Jane Anders when she was the editor-in-chief of Gawker’s io9. The novel affords her a length and creative freedom so different from the blog, and yet with both she deftly explored the murky boundaries between fantasy and science fiction, and how the world has evolved.
The book follows a pair of childhood friends, Patrica and Laurence, who hadn’t expected to reunite as adults. After growing up together, Patricia went on to study magic, while Laurence turned into a mad scientist. As the end of the world begins, they both find that they have their own roles to play, and will either save or doom the planet.
A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT BY BECKY CHAMBERS
Becky Chamber’s A Closed and Common Orbit is set in the same world as her debut novel, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It follows two protagonists: a genetically modified orphan struggling to survive, and a ship’s artificial intelligence, dumped into a humanoid body, trying to learn how to pass for a human.
Both clever and heartbreaking, Chambers story focus on the journeys and growth of her two characters rather than a traditional struggle with a malevolent antagonist. The result is a powerful novel about acceptance, disability, and making one’s way in a difficult world.
THE OBELISK GATE BY N.K. JEMISIN
The Fifth Season elevated the fantasy genre by upending tropes about the portrayal of magic, relationships, and the end of the world. The Obelisk Gate continues to build on its predecessor’s brilliance. The basics are, admittedly, a little daunting to the newcomer: an orogene (read: magician) named Essun has found refuge from the world’s disasters, and her former mentor and lover, Alabaster, is slowly turning to stone as a result of drawing power from strange constructs known as Obelisks, as he tries to stop the world’s cycles of destruction.
Jemisin won this year’s Hugo Award for best novel for The Fifth Season, and in these two novels she used her brilliant characters, vivid world, and pacing to examine the use of power in all of its facets. The Obelisk Gate is an incredibly ambitious and important novel, one that has us eager for the final installment of the trilogy.
THE WALL OF STORMS BY KEN LIU
N.K. Jemisin wasn’t the only author to pen a standout middle installment in a trilogy. Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms is the sequel to his fantasy epic The Grace of Kings. In the first installment, protagonist Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu helped overthrow an empire and install another in its place. The Wall of Storms takes place years later, when a new generation of characters rise up to contend with an invading force that threatens everything their parents fought for.
Liu is one of the best authors writing at the moment, and he was particularly busy this year with publishing an anthology of Chinese science fiction, translating a major novel, and releasing his own collection of short fiction. The Grace of Kings looked at how an empire is overthrown and rebuilt; The Wall of Storms is about how one holds everything together.
I AM PROVIDENCE BY NICK MAMATAS
In his latest novel, I Am Providence, Nick Mamatas takes a shot at sci-fi and horror fandom, creating Lovecraftian murder mystery that’s set during a Lovecraft convention.
Lovecraft’s writing has been examined more critically in recent years, and the arguments over his legacy have been a sort of microcosm for the larger conversations about race and representation in sci-fi and horror. Mamatas is sharp but fair, never mocking Lovecraft fans, but pulling the veil reveal the complexities of fandom for the late writer.
INFOMOCRACY BY MALKA OLDER
In a year with a contentious election, it would seem that reading a book about a futuristic election might be a bit much. That’s not the case with Malka Older’s Infomocracy. Set in the indeterminate future, the world is divided into small districts, and the party that controls the most districts controls policy for the entire planet.
Infomocracy is a intellectually stimulating thriller that follows a handful of characters who work for various political parties and election systems. The story hinges on how a voting public receives and interprets information — and how parties manipulate that perception. It’s a book that’s all too relevant in 2016.
THE LAST MORTAL BOND BY BRIAN STAVELEY
Sticking a landing is difficult for long fantasy novels. In 2014, Brian Staveley burst onto the scene with The Emperor’s Blades, an excellent start to a fantasy epic. He extended his engrossing, complicated world and cast of amazing characters in 2015’s The Providence of Fire. In The Last Mortal Bond, which concludes the trilogy, an ancient race called the csestriim have returned to destroy humanity. Three siblings — Valyn, Adare, and Kaden — each have their own conflicting roles to play as they work to save the Annurian Empire.
In some fantasy epics, you’ll see a creator build a world and let the story play out. What makes The Last Mortal Bond such a delight to read is Staveley’s knack for invention: his world grows and grows, only wrap up in an unexpected (but no less satisfying) end.
ARKWRIGHT BY ALLEN M. STEELE
In 1972, a famous science fiction author decided he had done enough writing about the future — he would bring it to life. The fictional author put into motion a plan that would consume his family for generations: bringing interstellar travel from science fiction to reality. Allen Steele’s Arkwright charts those generations as they work to turn his vision into reality by bringing humanity to the stars.
What’s astonishing to me about this novel is that, weeks after it was published, Stephen Hawking announced project Starshot, which is essentially a version of the interstellar travel that Arkwright depicts. Steele’s approach fixates on realism, and so this one of those few science fiction novels that could, in time, look similar to fact.
UNITED STATES OF JAPAN BY PETER TIERYAS
Here are a few things we like: giant robots, alternate history, and the 1980s. Mash all of those together, and you get Peter Tieryas’s novel United States of Japan, a “spiritual sequel” to Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle. The novel uses a similar premise: the US lost the Second World War, and is occupied by Japan and Germany. But Tieryas puts a cyberpunk twist on the story, involving subversive video games and giant mecha.
The characters in United States of Japan are obsessed with the goal of creating a better world, but they quickly realize that it’s difficult for the leaders of a revolution or war to keep their ideological crusade alive once they gain power.
UNDERGROUND AIRLINES BY BEN WINTERS
In the alternate world of Underground Airlines, the Civil War never occurred. The world is like ours, but for one major difference: slavery exists in a handful of states in the USA. A young bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service, Victor, is tasked with tracking down runaway slaves and returning them to the businesses that claim ownership of them. But Victor, his next target, and the titular underground airlines are not as they seem.
This is an incredible, tense thriller, and one that shows the danger of societal complacency, especially when it comes to the plight of minorities and the oppressed. It’s a quick but gripping read, one that leaves an enormous and lasting impression.
BIG BOOK OF SCIENCE FICTION BY ANN AND JEFF VANDERMEER
Anthologies are hit or miss. Sometimes you’ll like half of the book, and every so often you’ll be blown away by every story. Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s doorstop of a science fiction anthology goes beyond just entertaining the reader: it looks to show off a representative slice of the history of science fiction from across the world.
This is a massive book, and an incredibly thorough examination of the genre. There are other survey anthologies out there — books that seek to cover the width and breadth of a topic — but none are as complete or interesting.
Other sci-fi and fantasy books from 2016 that we recommend:
Company Town by Madeline Ashby; Borderline by Mishell Baker; Iraq + 100: Stories from a Century After the Invasion edited by Hassan Blasim; The Cold Between and The Remnants of Trust by Elizabeth Bonesteel; Dark Run by Mike Brooks; Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton; Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey; Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone; The Regional Office is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzalez; Supernova by CA. Higgins; The Fireman by Joe Hill; Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee; Death’s End by Cixin Liu; Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction edited by Ken Liu; Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia; Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer; Cumulus by Eliot Peper; A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl; Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff; Everfair by Nisi Shawl; Central Station by Lavie Tidhar; Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay; Cloudbound by Fran Wilde