Due to a variety of issues, 2018 was odd. But I still managed to read twenty books published in the year, and as always missed a number that I wanted to read but for one reason or another, didn’t. Overall in terms of fiction (I mostly read speculative fiction), 2018 was a solid year. Beyond, well... and sigh...
Choosing a best novel up until December was a highly equivocal affair. There were several good, intelligent books to choose from. But none stood out as ‘best’, I am novel, hear me roar. None said “Hey, look at me!” like Exit West last year, or Version Control the previous. I even flirted with the idea of No Award. But again, like 2017, it was the final month which delivered the year’s best.
Having to cheat a little (the book was first published in 2017 in the UK), I nevertheless do not feel guilty putting Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon up on the podium (it was published in 2018 in the US). Despite its flaws, it is a major novel. Akin to David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks in terms of ambition and diction, Gnomon nevertheless generates its own path down the byways of genre, literature, and literary genre through the force of sheer will. Seemingly a digital successor to Huxley’s Brave New World, Gnomon shakes its fist at the increasing strictures technology places on modern Western existence, while offering a platter of fruits and cheeses for the salty, unknowable, perhaps even fantastical aspects of human existence, all through a plot device that blurs the line between metaphor and reality in fine fashion. It’s at times wordy, it’s at times preachy, it’s at times unnecessarily convoluted, yes. But reading most any other cyberpunk dystopia after renders the experience banal given gut-punchy dynamism Harkaway invests in his novel. I read Claire North’s 84k nearly at the same time, and for as good or politically angry it may be, it still wholly pales by comparison. Gnomon, as it would have itself be, is a shark—snapping jaw and thousands of teeth—of a book.
For best collection/anthology of the year, the problem was the opposite: too many contenders. I was truly torn, even thinking about awarding one to each type given the qualities of the two top contenders while “disqualifying” another so I didn’t have to think about it. But I forced myself to decide, and ended up going with Julie Day’s Uncommon Miracles over 2001: An Odyssey in Words edited by Ian Whates and Tom Hunter and Andy Duncan’s An Agent of Utopia. I truly enjoyed 2001 and Agent, but Day brings to the table a dynamically consistent (not a paradox!) literary sensibility that not every story in 2001 delivers, not to mention the majority of Agent was previously collected (hence the “disqualification”). Day regularly slipping the knife of her imagination into chinks and cracks that expose humanity in both fantastical and unswervingly realistic form, each story was a surprising, poignant, and incisive look into the heart of different people’s existences. In short, it’s difficult to ask for more from short fiction. So while I highly recommend you read 2001: An Odyssey in Words and An Agent of Utopia, I recommend you read Uncommon Miracles, first.
Books I didn’t get around to in 2018 which could have swayed matters include: Christopher Priest’s An American Story, Elizabeth Hand’s Fire, M. John Harrison’s You Should Come with Me Now, Michael Bishop’s The Sacerdotal Owl and Three Other Long Tales of Calamity, Pilgrimage, and Atonement, Paul Di Filippo's Aeota, John Kessell’s Pride and Prometheus, Murakami's Killing Commandatore, and James Patrick Kelly’s The Promise of Space and Other Stories. And most certainly there are others that my radar missed due to the massive flood of books on the market these days. (Thus, a big thank you to other bloggers who take greater chances than me on debut authors and highlight them in their own year’s best lists.)
Divided between novels/novellas and anthologies/collections, the following is a round up of the books published I read and reviewed in 2018 by rating:
Gnomon by Nick Harkaway – For all the reasons stated above, this is my novel of the year. Yes, Harkaway commits sins of writing. Yes, he sometimes cannot control the fount of words bubbling inside of him. And yes the novel is likely longer than it should be. But there is a power and passion for writing and human existence at work here that is worth the time of readers interested in intelligent, wildly prosaic fiction addressing the creep and spread of technology. If you liked Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, this is absolutely for you.
The Stone Tide by Gareth Rees - One of if not the heaviest book I read all year, Rees puts his heart and life on the page in this semi-autobiographical tale of a man dealing with the loss of a close friend and the downward spiral of his marriage, all while trying to write a book. Cathartic in both dark and playful ways, the reader comes to feel the weight of the man’s life, but gains layered knowledge of the city of Cornwall and the eccentricities of Aleister Crowley’s life there. Until reading Harkaway’s Gnomon, I was going to put this as my best of for 2018.
Ahab's Return by Jeffrey Ford – A riff on Moby Dick, Ford takes the famous whaling boat captain, raises him from the foamy waters of the sea, and turns him loose on an 18th century NYC on a quest to find his son. Member of a gang of malcontents led by the blanche Mr. Potato Head, the novel's politics parallel contemporary America's, while the story escalates nicely along the lines of pulp fiction. After last year's blasé The Twilight Pariah, Ford has returned with a unique idea having a shade or two of relevancy.
Time Was by Ian McDonald – Simply a gorgeous story, McDonald proves why he is one of the best stylists writing today in this love story through time. Tone, pace, structure, prose—everything pitch perfect, McDonald tells an emotionally poignant tale in a paucity of pages most writers today only dream of. It’s also worth pointing out that where most authors have trouble disguising the fact they are writing to task by Tor.com, this novella only bolsters and expands McDonald’s oeuvre.
Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood (aka Jon Courtenay Grimwood) – The spy thriller has been around for decades and decades, and in Nightfall Berlin Grimwood breathes fresh life into the genre through sheer suave and sophistication. Though the pieces familiar—double bluffs, government secrets, violent interrogations, drop boxes, hidden messages, etc., Grimwood nevertheless uses his scalpel of prose to define a stark, intense story of espionage and skeletons in the closet behind the Berlin Wall in the 80s. If I had to award the perfect beach read for 2018, this would be it.
Space Opera by Catherynne Valente – Certainly the most intelligently funny book I read in the year, Space Opera is a cosmo-comedic tour de force. Valente cutting her lexical self loose more than normal, this wildly stylish story of one man’s attempt to redeem Earth via a cosmic talent show is a fireworks show of dialogue and social situations, but with layers of political and cultural relevancy most books of such import do not possess.
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson – Robinson pumping out one lengthy novel per year for the past six years, this year’s production Red Moon attempts to capitalize on the market’s return to lunar settings and the seemingly imminent Chinese return to global power. Deploying Robinson’s trademark focus on the impact of economic, political, and environmental paradigms on human life, its interest in social change and Chinese history is loosely tied to a spy “thriller” plot (emphasis on the quotation marks). The title easily lost among his other titles (Blue Mars, Green Earth, Red Mars, etc.), Red Moon attempts to distinguish itself by utilizing (believable) AI and a (believable) near-future vision of mankind, led by China, setting up infrastructure and purpose for humanity on the moon.
Ravencry by Ed McDonald – Second book in the Raven’s Mark trilogy, McDonald answers the call of epic fantasy’s biggest problem: how to follow up on a successful opening volume with an equally successful if not better sequel? Carrying over relevant characters and set pieces, McDonald builds a new story that extends the first in organic, entertaining, and successful fashion. If I hadn’t read Gimwood’s Nightfall Berlin, this novel would have won the Beach Read of the Year award. (Maybe it’s time to start having awards for categories?)
Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio – A cross between Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest and Star Wars, Empire of Silence delivers a lot of the space opera stage props and pyrotechnics fans of the genre are looking for, all the while having a sensitivity to language, diplomacy, and culture one doesn't often find in such material. A lengthy read (700+ pages), Ruocchio nevertheless manages to keep the ball rolling throughout.
The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts – This novelette stretched to novella length is based on a simple premise: how to overthrow the AI who controls a generational starship when you are in cryogenic sleep most of the time and awoken only at random? Decades or millennia possible between wakings, such is the dilemma the crew of the Eriphoria face. Watts resolving the quandary in classic Watts’ style (read: hardline realism), the question remains, how much of the first half of the story was truly necessary or even engaging?
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller – A novel that continues to oscillate in my brain, its highs and lows competing fiercely, Sam Miller’s socially aware version of Waterworld ultimately finds itself stuck on middle ground. Written in graphic novel style, complete with complementary 2D characters, the novel’s inclusive nature and stabs at fostering diverse community are to be recommended, while its literary qualities come less so given the poorly developed characters and dependence on contrived drama to motivate certain sections of the novel. A quandary, yes…
Haven by Adam Roberts – A commissioned novel that doesn’t find Roberts in top form, this post-apocalyptic tale of rural England years after a major asteroid strike builds interest and excitement in scattered moments, but has trouble focusing on a centerpoint that transcends standard post-apocalyptic fiction. Entertaining enough, just incomprehensive, unmemorable…
84K by Claire North – As of 2018, dystopia is a difficult thing to pull off without stepping on the toes of hundreds of ancestors. In 84K North attempts to plow fresh ground with the idea of crime being an economically punitive affair (versus incarceration), but due to an incongruent choice in plot and style, leaves her premise hanging without any foundation. The story all Hollywood and the tone floaty and abstract, the harshness and stark realities of her scenario don't have the impact they should. Rendering the novel in pure satire would have done wonders to complement the angry politics at the premise's core.
Uncommon Miracles by Julie C. Day – As stated, this is a phenomenal collection of short stories from an up and coming writer. One polished, focused story following another, each captures vivid, ethereal element of the fantastic but plays them out in relatable and relevant human terms. The characters and their situations the focus, the uniquely imagined stories cover loss, personal paradigm shifts, and other themes, and as collected, are wholly deserving of being nominated for a World Fantasy Award next year…
An Agent of Utopia by Andy Duncan – The amount of praise I heap upon Duncan on this blog logically leads to questions: how is this collection not best of the year? The answer is simple: it doesn’t contain enough original/previously uncollected material. No slight on the quality (which is stupendous), it’s just that roughly three-quarters of the stories were published in Duncan’s previous two collections. (How his novella “Wakulla Springs” is missing must be a copyright issue…) Immensely singular, imaginative, literary, refined, substantive, and all other manner of praise I have for Agent, I just don’t feel right putting it as number one. Maybe I should put an asterisk?
2001: An Odyssey in Words ed. by Ian Whates & Tom Hunter – My favorite collection/anthology of 2018 until reading Uncommon Miracles late in the year, this uniquely premised anthology of originals asked its writers to produce science fiction of any variety as long as story length was 2,001 words—no more, no less. Far more than a gimmick, the stories the writers produced are tightly packaged sachets of science fiction goodness, many of which have the power to induce a spiritual or philosophical awe greater than peers of longer length. Overall, a major surprise that I think should be on more people’s radar than currently is.
The Future is Blue by Catherynne Valente – A collection that confirms Valente as one of the greatest talents of the contemporary era, The Future Is Blue shows the author in full bloom. From piss taking on Lovecraft to tributes to Stanislaw Lem, mythpunk (Valente’s tongue in cheek) to twisted fairy tales, allegories on drug use to the simply indescribable, it’s a rich, varied collection full of vividness, humor, fun, undisguised rhetoric, humanity, and above all, style and approach you cannot find anywhere else on the market. Say what you want, but Valente is her own creation, and beneath the tsunami of mediocrity on the market these days, she certainly leaves something to be said for originality.
The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas – A cynical peanut gallery of stories, Mamatas’ third collection brings together a wild array of ideas (dieselpunk, Lovecraftania, dark psychology, political satire, internet commentary, etc.), all written in the author’s ascetic, clipped prose. But for as bare as the lexicon is, the stories retain a political and social savviness worth seeking out for the informed and more sophisticated genre reader.
The Final Frontier ed. by Neil Clarke – A reprint anthology, Clarke gleaned the past decade or so of short science fiction, seeking Star Trek-esque stories which push at the boundaries of the unknown. Largely avoiding award winners, Clarke brings to light a collection of stories which indeed seek out and find the limits of human experience and understanding—both externally in the wider universe and internally within our own minds. More mainstream sf than literary, there are nevertheless a number of good, quality stories.
Infinity’s End ed. by Jonathan Strahan – Purportedly the last Infinity anthology from Strahan, this lackluster anthology of originals brings the series to a close with a whimper. Style a wash (i.e. it’s difficult to distinguish the stories due to similarities in prose and approach), ideas that do not feel truly singular or original, and an overall liveliness a blip or two above flatline, it’s not the flagship anthology of the Infinity series. There has been little discussion for a reason.