2019, 2019, 2019, and the onslaught of fiction continues as never before in the history of mankind. The tide of books on the market somehow rises higher, such that it is impossible for any reader to take in even the majority, and evaluate the scene. This is all a long way of saying, despite the eighteen books I did read published in 2019, predominantly in the area of fantastika, I do not feel anywhere near spitting distance to pronounce “the best”. Thus, what follows must be taken as: “the best of what I read”. (For the best of what I read in 2019, regardless of year of publishing, see here.)
As always, there were books I wanted to get to, which may in turn have influenced the titles below, including Paul Kearney’s The Windscale Incident, Tim Powers’ More Walls Broken, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts, Neal Stephenson’s Atmosphera Incognita, Lewis Shiner’s Outside the Gates of Eden, Ian McDonald’s Menace from Farside, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate Stories. More importantly, due to the flood on the market there inevitably a number of books that should have been on my radar but weren’t, and will come to light once I start reading trusted reviewers and critics’ lists from 2019.
So let’s kick things off with best novel/novella. Unlike the past couple years, there was no piece of fiction that arrived at the end of the year to emerge as a clear choice. There was more muddling and waffling this year. I gave thought to Robert Jackson Bennett’s Vigilance, which is a socially and culturally important piece of writing about guns in society, but was hurt by a plot twist that undermined its intentions. Margaret Atwood's The Testaments was an enjoyable novel, and does an excellent job of bearing out the social narrative surrounding the current political times, but overall lacked the impact of The Handmaid's Tale. And thus the award falls to Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Mother. In the two iron dragon novels to date, the setting and concept have brought out the best in Swanwick, and the third is no different. Superficially a madcap genre mashup—flitting between fantasy, science fiction, slipstream, magic realism, realism, and others, at heart it is a very personal story of two women coming to better understanding of their lives. One in retrospect and the other in future scope, Swanwick does a masterful job presenting their dilemmas, emotions, and socio-political scene in anything but standard fashion yet in a way that remains wholly relatable. While my instinct tells me there were better books published in the year, The Iron Dragon's Mother was the best for me.
For collection/anthology, I read four such hunks of paper—not a huge number to select from. Of those, the winner was clear: Ted Chiang’s Exhalation: Stories. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” and “The Merchant and Alchemist’s Gate” are great stories, and the title story, “Exhalation”, is one of the greatest short stories ever written. Exhalation: Stories is not as good as Chiang’s one-and-only-other collection The Stories of Your Life and Others, but still possesses the care and attention to detail that Chiang is renowned for, and should be considered by any serious reader of science fiction for their collection. Now for another ten year wait for the next Chiang collection.
Here is the full breakdown, by rating, of all the books published in 2019 I read, starting with novels/novellas, then moving to anthologies/collections:
Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett – A scathing satire on the state of the 2nd Amendment in the USA, Bennett escalates the current situation to a frighteningly plausible state of absurdity: guns and reality television. As mentioned, Bennett partially undercuts his effort with a poor plot choice, but the underlying message is one of the most important possible in the current state of cultural, social, and political affairs in the US.
The Iron Dragon’s Mother by Michael Swanwick – A bold choice to return to a world that seemed complete, Swanwick makes the return worthwhile, writing a book that plays to his strengths as a rebel against anything resembling formulaic fantastika, all the while developing and retaining the human qualities of his characters in a setting that is impossible to put your finger on taxonomically. About a young woman on the run from her oppressive cult of mech-dragon pilots (yes, you read that correctly), Swanwick blends realism, fantasy, science fiction, and everything between in creating his wonderfully human story. (The reader need not have read either The Iron Dragon’s Daughter or The Dragons of Babel. Mother can be appreciated as is.)
The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman – Wonderfully good storytelling, this book, second in The Book of Dust trilogy, tells the story of Lyra as a young woman. Dealing with relationship troubles with her daemon as a result of their experiences in His Dark Materials…, Lyra finds new threats from the Magisterium abound, even as her own life falls in danger. Perfect beach read (as long as you read La Belle Sauvage).
The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft – Unless Bancroft entirely drops the ball with the fourth and final book in the Tower of Babel series, I think it’s fair to say The Hod King (third book) solidifies the series place as best of the 21st century. Part surreal, part fantastical, and all enjoyment, Thomas' quest to reunite with his lost wife in the Dali-meets-steampunk Tower of Babel represents everything that is a joy to imagine and read. If you haven’t read any of these books, go out and get Senlin Ascends and see for yourself that in 2019 it’s still possible for authors to be wholly, magically, romantically original. (I’m leaning toward the Tolkien of the 21st century, but we’ll see how the fourth book turns out…)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – It’s always a risk for a writer to return, years later, to a world they seemed to have finished with. With A Handmaid’s Tale, there didn’t seem anything else to say: the message was loud and clear, making for one of the greatest dystopian novels ever written. Seeming to want to jump into the contemporary cultural fray, with The Testaments Atwood returns to the world of Gilead with a story that doesn’t add anything new to A Handmaid’s Tale thematically, but it likewise doesn’t do it any disservices, shoring up the ideas with a brilliant story that will have the reader turning pages well into the night, even as they reflect on the current state of Western affairs
The Million Mile Road Trip by Rudy Rucker – It’s been a while since we’ve seen Rucker in novel form, and in The Million Mile Road Trip the author returns in classic form, i.e. science fiction wackiness abounds in this quasi-YA, trans-dimensional travel, gloopy-blorping adventure as only Rucker can write. It’s not the strongest effort in his large oeuvre, but for any reader looking for something unique in the waves of vanilla lapping at genre’s shores on today’s market, this is one place to look.
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald – Ian McDonald is likely the most versatile writer in science fiction today. Capable of any style, with Luna: New Moon McDonald focuses on closing out his moon opera trilogy dubbed “Game of Domes”. Having a lot of plot to develop and threads to tie off, McDonald rushes to a fitting, satisfying conclusion, likely at the expense of the sharp edge the first two books in the trilogy.
Crowfall by Ed McDonald – Another conclusion to an exciting core-genre trilogy, Crowfall concludes the story of Ryalt Galharrow in exciting, if not dragged out, fashion. Taking its time, perhaps too much time, building to its climax, the book nevertheless pays off, keeping the narrative personal (when it easily could have gone epic), while delivering one last, very nice plot twist in what is one of the better written fantasy trilogies on the market today.
Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand – A nicely escalating serial killer mystery set in an amusement park in early-20th century Chicago, Hand blends in realistic elements of race and gender to make the story relevant to the modern era. The scene and mystery compellingly delivered, Hand remains wonderfully readable without beating the reader over the head with cultural ideals.
The Wall by John Lanchester - An atypical narrative arc—and enjoyable and surprising for it, The Wall is the story of a young man beginning mandatory military service along the massive wall stretching around the island formerly known as Great Britain. The parallel to contemporary politics clear, the novel nevertheless struggles to identify itself as either: A) an abstract dystopia like 1984, Brave New World, etc., or B) a novel directly relevant to ongoing political concerns. By playing both sides against the middle, the novel is uncertain of its soul, and thus not able to deliver the incisive message it so desired. But again, a very engaging plot with sincere intent.
The Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio - Second entry in the Sun Eater series, Howling Dark continues Ruochchio’s quest to combine a personal narrative affected by language and culture (a la Ursula Le Guin) with some of the standard elements of space opera—galactic conflict, aliens, blasters, et al (a la George Lucas). Star Wars meets Left Hand of Darkness, it makes for solid reading.
Mothlight by Adam Scovell - A novel I didn’t fully review, and thus feel bad commenting only here about it. Nevertheless Mothlight was read. About a young man coming to terms with place and family, the book has artistic intent, and succeeds, but at the expense of an escalation of substance that is so subtle as to almost be repetitive. I would be remiss not to mention the book includes, in compelling fashion, the use of photographs as complementary to narrative.
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay - Kay in auto-pilot, this story of... I struggle to remember several months after reading the novel. Hazy memories of Aegan court drama with assassins, romance, etc. It is is well enough written; Kay is looping and floral, effortlessly capturing an age-old, mythopoeic tone. But damn, strip away the quality diction and you’ve got As the World Turns, or some other soap opera.
The Waste Tide by Chen Quifan - When I think of mainstream science fiction, I think of books like Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide. 2D characters propelling an epic storyline rooted in some futuristic, scientific conception. In the case of The Waste Tide, it's about e-waste in a small Chinese village where gangsters ensure money flows while the environment degrades. Yes, reminiscent of Paolo Bacigalupi, but likewise a Jackie Chan film with an environmental message.
2.5 - 0 stars
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang - Bringing together the last decade of Chiang’s published work, plus a couple back-of-the-drawer unpublished works, I daresay the collection is worth it for the title story alone, but is bolstered by a handful of other strong efforts, ensuring Chiang remains on the list of writers who simply must be read, regardless of its place on the shelf in a bookstore.
The Very Best of the Best: Thirty-Five Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction ed. by Gardner Dozois - Though falsely advertised, this anthology of reprints brings into one place a huge number of Dozois’ favorite stories from the 21st century. Not a best of the best of the best of Dozois‘ past best of the bests, fresh ground is plowed for the series—just as Dozois so unfortunately left us.
Broken Stars ed. by Ken Liu - Following upon the success of Liu’s previous anthology of Chinese short science fiction Invisible Planets, Broken Stars steps forward with the same foot, but changes the shoe so the footprint looks a little different. Bringing in a new selection of authors, covering a spectrum of Chinese sf in short form, and tying things off with a bow of three essays commenting on science fiction in China, the stories in this entry are, however, more diverse in substance than Invisible Planets.
Biohacked and Begging by Stephen Oram - If you like flash science fiction, then by all means check out Biohacked and Begging. The collection is like a box of such chocolates. If, however, you get easily nauseated trying to digest a box of chocolates in a couple of sittings, then either skip this, or pace it out. I guess I’d rather have a nice piece of cake, complete with layers, frosting, crunchy bits, etc...
2.5 - 0 stars