2020 was the year of Murderbot. I actually read Martha Wells’s delightful series about a grumpy, rogue cyborg and its (not) friends twice during the course of this year. I particularly enjoyed the new novel-length installment, Network Effect, which begins with our hero on the planet of Preservation working for its favourite human, Dr Mensah. Tasked with protecting members of her family while on a research expedition, Murderbot is reunited with its old (not) friend, a ship A.I. known as ART (Asshole Research Transport) and encounters a range of threats, including alien remnants and the usual corporate baddies, all the while trying to stop the stupid humans from getting themselves killed. Wonderful, heartwarming and exactly what I needed to read this year. Book six, Fugitive Telemetry will be published in April.
However, the prize for the best work of SFF that I read this year has to go to My Real Children (2014) by Jo Walton. I suppose the book could be categorised more as speculative fiction, or alternative history, than strictly science fiction. It has elements of fantasy too. This story about an elderly woman with dementia who realises that she can remember two different lives is so rich, powerful and multilayered. I loved it and I don’t generally like alternative histories. It’s just a brilliant novel about women’s lives. This was my first book by Jo Walton and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.
My other favourite this year was Semiosis (2018) by Sue Burke. This is straight up science fiction which takes the classic and well-worn trope of humans trying to establish a colony on a hostile alien world and does something really fresh with it. The story is told over multiple generations of characters resulting in the feel of linked stories that are held together by the colony’s relationship with a sentient plant called Stevland. Great characters and worldbuilding and a narrative that enables Burke to tell different kinds of story. There’s even a murder mystery. I loved it.
I also re-read one of my old favourites A Closed and Common Orbit, the second in Becky Chamber’s Wayfarers series.
Another really good read was Nalo Hopkinson’s short story collection Falling in Love with Hominids (2015). Some of the stories are a little closer to horror than I tend to like these days, but I really enjoyed them. The stories, which bring together the modern world with Afro Caribbean folklore, are thought provoking and powerfully imaginative. Some of them have really stayed with me since reading the collection. Check her out if you like short stories by Neil Gaimen, Kelly Link and even Stephen King.
The only anthology I read this year was The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF (2013) edited by Mike Ashley. I love a time travel story and most of the ones collected here are good, so I enjoyed it, although I did notice the lack of authorial diversity on offer. However, a few of the stories are absolutely superb and ‘Red Letter Day’ by Kathryn Kristine Rusch will haunt me forever!
I also read and enjoyed two works of high fantasy, although its very far from being my favourite genre. I found Babara Hambly’s Dragonsbane (1985) hugely enjoyable. Set in an alternative medieval Scotland, a witch called Jenny Waynest and her partner, John Avesin, a noted dragonslayer, are persuaded by a young man to go back to his kingdom and kill a dragon. Of course they find that there are far worse things than dragons! A cracking fantasy adventure with a middle-aged couple at its heart which manages to say something quite profound about women and power.
The other work of high fantasy (and the oldest book I read in this genre) was The Dancers of Arun (1979) which is the second in Elizabeth A Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor trilogy. I didn’t like it as much as the first one, Watchtower. The characters weren’t as interesting to me and the protagonist has a relationship which is, how shall I put it? … extremely slashy! But like all Lynn’s work it’s so beautifully written that it just carries you along. I probably will read the third book.
Moving on to books that didn’t work so well for me, there was the final installment in Theodora Goss’s Athena Club trilogy, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (2019). I loved the first book and liked the second but I’m not sure how I feel about the third. I quite enjoyed reading it and, in a way, I think it’s the tightest of the trilogy. Alice is a delight of a character. However, there were issues, including an evil ancient Egyptian woman (did we need this really?), a weird valorisation of the British empire (why?) and a painfully clunky romance between the protagonist and Sherlock Holmes. I’m sorry, but if you want to involve Sherlock Holmes in a heterosexual romance you need to do a LOT of work to develop that and make it work, not just throw it in with hardly a conversation between the characters and hope for the best. Overall, I found it a rather disappointing end to a trilogy that started out with a lot of potential.
Then there were two books which might have disappointed me more because they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype than anything else! I found Sandra Newman’s The Heavens (2019) enjoyable to read in the sense that it was very clever and had glittering prose, but it felt like more style than substance to me. Although the modern part of the story had some moving and powerful moments, the Tudor bits never really worked for me and got increasingly messy as it went on. Melmoth (2018) by Sarah Perry also rather disappointed me. It’s very well-written, but it just had this tone of “I am using genre fiction in a clever way to convey very imporant points about history”. I felt like I was being thumped around the head. Both left me rather cold. It seems odd to be putting such lauded books on my ‘disappointing’ pile but there you go.
Finally, I’m sad to say that I did not enjoy Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire (2019). I was looking forward to this book. An ambassador getting involved in intrigue on an alien world sounds like just my kind of thing. Great ideas, but personally I found the characters and the world increasingly dull as it progressed.The only character I liked was dead for most of the story. I slogged all the way to the end and it felt like a very long haul for not much reward. Everyone else seemed to LOVE it though, so don’t let me put you off. Perhaps I’m just missing something with this one.
So overall, a mixed bag for science fiction and fantasy in 2020. Looking forward to more dragons, space ships, aliens and rogue cyborgs in 2021.