Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Best of 2020's Books

I would definitely stop short of calling 2020 a landslide or watershed year. Those types of changes are perhaps possible to identify only in the context of history. But I would definitely say it was a good year from a speculative fiction perspective, at least of the fourteen books I read published in the year. Most interesting perhaps, is that it was a good year despite the utter dilution and saturation of the market. (Question to self: does this only mean I’m getting better at filtering the fluff?)

Where in years past I’ve struggled to find a book that could qualify for “best of”, in 2020 I read several contenders throughout the year. Cutting a fiery line through much of the contemporary feminist fog (i.e. lack of global, cohesive vision) is Lauren Beukes’ Afterland. The setting a post-apocalyptic, all-female society, the book tells of a woman and her “daughter” looking to escape personal troubles in a world reeling from the loss of men. M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is a subtly phenomenal novel. Ostensibly the personal stories of a couple with subconscious, existential issues, slowly the landscape around them shifts and trembles in delicate ways, buoying them to new places. Harrison’s prose is sublime. 

And while Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell and Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling were both solid novels, the best book I read published in 2020 is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. Transcendent, Piranesi is a perfect combination of authorial voice, tale, imagination, and allegory. What the allegory is, is largely up to the reader. Suffice to say there are a handful of rich directions to interpret this tale of a man whose job is to catalog the statue-strewn halls and corridors of a tide-soaked, abandoned city. The point at which his story arrives is both incredibly personal and yet indicative of things beyond—in a word, transcendent.

I don’t typically, consciously try to balance my reading of long-form with short-form fiction. It just happens. In years past, I’ve always managed to read a good handful of collections and anthologies, and been able to at least comment, if not “award” what was the best of that selection. This year, for whatever reason, I read one—repeat, one—anthology and zero collections, and thus will not be awarding anything. Pondering this, my fear is that short fiction has polarized itself along the same political lines as society, making the rational/transcendent line more difficult to find. I don’t know. Thought in progress…

As always, there are books on my hope-to-find-list that I didn’t find, books I didn’t have time for (e.g. Christopher Priest's The Evidence, Ken Macleod's Selkie Summer, Yoon Ha Lee's Phoenix Extravagant, and Gardner Dozois & Michael Swanwick's City Under the Stars among others), and books that aren’t on my radar today which I will discover at some time later. But of the books I did read, here is a breakdown of 2020:

5 Stars

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – To add to the comments above about Piranesi, I have rarely given 5 stars to a novel I read the year it was published. In fact, I think this may be the first since starting the blog. Time needed for such lofty kudos to settle properly into proverbial place, with Piranesi, however, quality and substance are apparent. This is ostensibly a timeless novel. Read it.

4.5 Stars

Afterland by Lauren Beukes – Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean is sometimes mentioned in tones of wonder regarding the fictional representation of an all-female society. In Afterland, Lauren Beukes pulls the rug out from under that book’s feet by showing women are not entirely different than the men who are taken from them in this near-future, post-apocalyptic setting. Both sexes’ tendencies toward benevolence and malevolence similar, it’s a gritty story following a mother and “daughter” on a cross-country journey of evasion and escape. I have read some on the left critiquing the novel for ‘not digging deep enough’ into the book’s feminist possibilities, something which I take to mean ‘the book should not have portrayed an all-female society as it does’. While I risk getting too syrupy, Afterland is beyond good and evil from a gender perspective, telling an entertaining story in the process.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison – While Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is the best novel I read published in 2020, Harrison’s mega-minimalist Lovecraft is so delicate as to be a close second. Any other year it would have been #1—and I dislike Lovecraft. Something of the Sartrian distance from existence permeating each and every page, story evolution does occur, its portents subtle and enticing, and other-worldly in this tale of an on-again, off-again couple’s personal lives and relationship. If only H.P. himself could have been as literary in technique, as human in character presentation, and as subtle with theme...

4 Stars

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell – As stated in my review, David Mitchell is an author whose books I will buy review unread. The voice, oh, the voice. Like Terry Pratchett, Nick Harkaway, Paul Di Filippo, Catherynne Valente, and other writers who understand prose is a thing unto itself, the delight is in the wordplay as much as the story. But it’s at a risk. Not every type of story needs gung ho diction, and Mitchell, seeming to be aware of this, tried to tread the line in Utopia Avenue, the story of a fictional pop band in the counter-culture 60s of the UK. A partial success, the characters do become more 3D, but at the cost of visible effort. One can almost see Mitchell reining himself in, and not always successfully. But even with the prose as much a sell as story, the novel is a sight better than the majority of books on the market, all the while it lies in the shadows of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.

King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats by James Patrick Kelly– Almost the opposite of Utopia Avenue, the dichotomy of James Patrick Kelly’s novella King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats is found in the juxtaposition of setting and theme. Outwardly about uplifted dogs and cats (animals capable of sentience), inwardly it’s a poised, delicate story of evolution and revolution whose subtlety is wonderfully surprising. Get over the talking cats and dogs and one finds the representation of something fully formed yet never directly stated—a real talent that, hence the high rating.

Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling – How this novel has not received more attention is beyond me (or maybe it has and I don’t know, the byways of the internet so diverse). The light-hearted, absurdist, satirical novel you are looking for to encapsulate all that is happening in the West from a political and social media/consumerism point of view in 2020, Qualityland delivers—a pink dolphin dildo you didn’t want but which cookies and shopping algorithms say you do. Tight, clever, relevant, and often humorous, this is Black Mirror-type material with more laughs. If there is a book to help you get over the blues of 2020, this is it. 

3.5 Stars

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem –Somehow managing to combine Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley with Drop City by T.C. Boyle, this tame post-apocalyptic narrative also manages to squeeze in satirical meta-commentary on science fiction itself. If you’re not a major fan of Lethem, be aware The Arrest is a niche novel that core-genre readers may not find interest in. For readers who enjoy liminal genre experiences, this story of hippy communes, sf film, and super land cruisers may be worth checking out; Lethem is clever in deadpan fashion.

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez – Simon Jimenez’s debut novel is largely a visually arresting experience. Like much of the writing of Ian McDonald, Jimenez’s exposition finds a delicate balance between description and evocation without being overwrought, offering the reader a strong helping hand imagining the intergalactic setting. But while space opera is the playground, the focus is on the apparatuses—the crew of the central ship and their struggles with relationships and identity. The only thing really hurting the novel is its unwillingness to commit to a certain “universe”. The “everything is possible therefore little is interesting approach” is applied, meaning the futuristic, character-and-plot informing devices are occasionally scattershot and counter-productive. 

Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio – I have described Ruocchio’s ongoing science fiction series as Star Wars flavored by Ursula Le Guin, and in Demon in White, third book in the series, Ruocchio continues to prove the statement true. A mix of action and adventure alongside a deeper (not deep) look at identity, language, culture, and Otherness, Ruochio writes what is the best novel in the series to date, the story arc becoming more entertaining and engaging with each book.

The Agency by William Gibson – Where I felt Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy to be his most socially, politically, and technologically relevant novels/series to date, I had to take a step back with The Peripheral. With the introduction of a parallel timeline and seemingly (seemingly) no intention of making that device relevant to contemporary real-world concerns, I dismissed it as more middle-of-the-road genre—well enough written, good story, etc., but lacking depth. In The Agency, Gibson returns to the setting, and again in well enough written form with a faster-paced plot line than the Blue Ant trilogy. I gave it three-and-a-half stars, but will I need to revise this upon the publishing of the next novel in this series due to some bit of overlooked relevancy?

The Glass Hotel by Hilary St. John Mandel – Follow ups to hugely successful novels are not always an easy thing, as Hilary St. John Mandel was tasked with doing after Station Eleven. Taking one of the more tried and true routes, she chose to wait years to let the hype die down. The Glass Hotel is said follow up, and is a solid novel that follows the life of a Canadian woman who finds herself in a variety of life situations, rags to riches and beyond. Married to a wealthy CEO, she is forced to deal with the consequences of his illegal behavior in this nicely edited though perhaps only 2.5D representation of humanity. It was aiming for 3D…

3 Stars

Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford – Classic horror, Out of Body tells of a small-town librarian and the supernatural adventure kicked off one day after witnessing a murder in a local coffee shop. Things go the standard horror route with out of body experiences for the first half of the story, then suddenly take a major twist—the most recommendable aspect of the novella. Beyond this, Ford’s prose is tired, and at times lazy—like he rushed this out to meet a deadline. Point blank: this novella does not possess the deeper substance much of his short fiction does. Read only if horror is your wheelhouse (or you are a Ford completionist).

The Lesser Devil by Christopher Ruocchio – A spin-off novella/short novel in the Sun Eater series universe, The Lesser Devil abandons Hadrian Marlowe to follow a mission his brother Crispin is sent on by their authoritarian father back on their home world. As stated in the review, this book is for readers looking to have the universe fleshed out a little more (somehow than I already is). Otherwise, if Hadrian is your main draw you will not find anything relating to him beyond elements of his past. What remains is a well enough written, straight-forward sf tale of revolution and personal transformation the genre has seen done better but more often worse.

Re-Coil by J.T. Nicholas - Altered Carbon with zombies, Nicholas' space mystery/horror is a relaxing read.  Whatever the story is lacking in theme or underlying substance, Nicholas crosses his t's and dots his i's in terms of straight-forward prose and solid plotting, producing an entertaining novel that would be at home in Hollywood.  Substance beyond popcorn crunch, well, not much...

2.5 Stars

Made to Order: Robots & Revolutions ed. by Jonathan Strahan – The one anthology/collection I read published in 2020, it was enjoyable enough, just perhaps not memorable. There are a couple of good stories (Daryl Gregory, Sofia Samatar, and Brooke Bolander’s entries), but overall this is very light fare that didn’t seem to have a lot of meat on the bone. Most stories are readable, but after, expendable. I’m aware this applies to a lot of short fiction, and likely more personal than global, so take my commentary with a grain of salt. If you like robots, read some other reviews and decide for yourself.


  1. Interesting list. I agree on Piranesi, and liked Sunken Land a lot as well.

    No interest in the new KSR?

    1. Interest, yes. Hesitancy and concern, also yes. The (admitted) pair of reviews I've read of Ministry didn't spark anything more than: Uh oh, is this another Red Moon - a novel with interesting ideas that lack synergy? As such, I've put Ministry off until I have a more comprehensive view of the feedback. Have you read it? Am I missing out on something?

      I don't expect every KSR novel to be Aurora or Blue Mars, but his exposition-heavy style is one which requires all cylinders to be firing to be be fully engaged with. I am interested in Ministry's cylnders, just concerned they may not be all firing in rhythm. :)

      And lastly, a happy new year to you!

    2. I didn't like Red Moon or NY2140 myself, and I do think this is a return to form somewhat. No Aurora, no, but enough coherence for me. I also think he solved the essay problem more or less. There's infodumps aplenty obviously, but for me it worked like Stand On Zanzibar worked. Maybe Green Earth is the best comparison, but there's less focus on character. The book surprised me a few times formally, and that alone is remarkable. On the other hand, it's pretty transparent in its objectives, that might bug some, it clearly is a call to arms.

      My full review is here, if you're interested:

    3. As I commented on your site, thanks again for pointing out the review and your blog. Great! Looking over all of that, it seems KSR has made a strong impression on you, and that you've read a number of his books. Do finish his California series. Though they are among the very first novels he wrote, they hold up well in both style and relevancy. I didn't catch the exact reason you haven't finished the Mars trilogy, but again, do finish someday. To date it's his magnum opus - though I haven't read Ministry. ;) I will. :)