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My favourite fiction of the year, 2020

December 30, 2020

I read a lot this year: over 100 novels and many novellas, in addition to my academic reading.

This was not a vintage year for science fiction. Of course I haven’t read everything, but it seemed to me that some great writers produced merely good books, some good writers released mediocre ones, and there were no startling new discoveries. I was given many recommendations and few of them turned out to be as strong as I had hoped. I did not seem to love the things that other SFF fans loved, and I loved a few things that most seemed to ignore or by writers they have forgotten. Most of what I liked best was on the fringes, what critics call ‘non-genre’ SFF – that is mainstream literary fiction with science fiction and or fantasy elements, and a lot of my favourite fiction wasn’t SFF at all.

So instead of my best SFF of the year here’s an (*edited to add a novel I inexplicably missed) top 15 of my favourite fiction of the year, with some thoughts on almost favourites, things I’m still reading, and one book I hated, just afterwards. I have brief notes about each here: full reviews you can find on StoryGraph, the growing independent alternative to the Amazon-owned Goodreads.

  1. My number 1, was the long overdue return of the author of the enormous Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clark, with a much slighter but every bit as compelling volume, Piranesi, a surrealist fantasy, set in an world composed of seemingly infinite palatial rooms filled lined with statues that contain worlds, oceans, clouds… but no people, other than the protaganist and ‘the other’, a researcher who seems to come from elsewhere. With its off-centre but very European magical anthropology, it has things in common with someone like Italo Calvino, or John Crowley’s Aegypt series or even M. John’s Harrison’s sensibility, but is also wonderfully fresh. Definitely one of the best things I’ve read in, as Piranesi might term it, “the year the plague came to the world.”
  2. *War of the Maps – Paul J. McAuley. Still so underrated, perhaps Britain’s finest science fiction writer, Paul McAuley produced one of his most intriguing novels this year, and one which I somehow missed when I first drafted this list. It’s a combination of ‘lone gunslinger’ novel with a really weird ultra-far-future posthuman setting, set on a decaying civilization on a Dyson sphere around a star, a world where so much has been lost that history has become myth and technology has become magic. There are shades of Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance here but the themes and the writing are uniquely McAuley.
  3. Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, is an excellent two-part novel by this Japanese feminist writer, focusing initially on a trio of women: two sisters and the daughter of one of the pair. One sister is an ageing bar hostess and wants breast implants. The other wants a child but hates the idea of sex. In exploring their characters, relationships and dilemmas, the novel opens up multiple questions about what it means to be a woman in contemporary Japanese society. It’s probably the best recent novel I’ve read from Japan and the writing is very strong and individual, something that’s helped by a translation which stays away from the bland and tries to lighlight the regional dialect used by some of the characters – something you rarely see in translations from Japanese.
  4. Creeping Jenny – Jeff Noon. 3rd in a sequence of weird detective novels, featuring John Nyquist, who stumbles around through metaphors and allusions not knowing what he is investigating or even who or where he is half the time. The first novel, A Man of Shadows, was set in a city made up of three areas: the artificially bright Dayzone, the dark Nightzone and the mysterious and dangerous, Dusk. The second, The Body Library, saw Nyquist living in Storyville, a city made up of words and letters and encountering horror within. The third, Creeping Jenny, is like something that mixes up Calvino, Burroughs and The Wicker Man. Nyquist has turned up in the mysterious English village of Hoxley, a place dominated by a never-ending parade of randomly selected local saints’ days, each of which imposes bizarre restrictions on the residents. Creepy, weird, disorienting, superbly written and a lot of fun all round.
  5. The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read for a long time. There are sentences that make you stop in your tracks and read them again. At its heart it’s the story of two ageing British drifters, Shaw and Victoria, neither of whom really know what they are doing with their lives. They come together and they drift apart, with Victoria inheriting her late mother’s house in a small castle town in the Welsh borders. Water is everywhere. Shaw’s life is governed by the Thames, by canals, London ponds and his boss’s obsession with a conspiracy theory about the aquatic origins of humanity; Victoria’s by the River Seven which curves around her new home town, by saturated fields, by rain, endless rain and by visions of her new friends disappearing into strange lakes. Nothing much happens until near the end of the book and when you’ve finished, you won’t know exactly what you’ve just read or whether it was worth it, you will just feel damp and uneasy.
  6. Hari Kunzru is one of my favourite contemporary writers and his last novel, White Tears, was the Get Out of literary fiction. Red Pill deals with similarly contemporary issues, but it’s set very specifically in 2016 in the run-up to the election of Donald Trump. The protagonist is an aimless British-Indian writer, Gary Bridgeman, who is offered a 3-month residency by an eccentric German oganisation, the Deuter Foundation, located in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, just across the lake from the house where the Nazis developed the Final Solution. Gary reacts badly to the transparency doctrines of the foundation, and tries to escape. He encounters Syrian refugees and ex-Stasi informers, but most fatefully of all, Anton, a mephistophelean white supremacist who happens to write a TV show Gary is obsessed with, a truly horrific police drama called Blue Lives (and yes, you can’t help adding the ‘Matter’ at the end). From here things go very badly wrong. Red Pill is superbly written and genuinely disturbing but there is a lot going on and some of it feels a little forced.
  7. I’ve enjoyed the other fictions I’ve read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and, at least when I was younger, I was partial to a bit of gothic horror, so I was looking forward to Mexican Gothic. And it didn’t disappoint. If you want a tl;dr pitch, this is Rebecca meets Crimson Peaks in post-colonial Mexico. Noemí Taboada is a young, beautiful wealthy socialite in Mexico City in the 1950s who is sent by her father to inquire into the health and wellbeing of her slightly older cousin, Catalina, who got married very suddenly into an eccentric and racist English silver-mine owning family, the Doyles, who live in a remote mansion in the interior of the country near their abandoned mines, ruled over by the dying patriarch, Howard, a very old, tremendously creepy, loathsome, foul-smelling creature, who inabits the bedroom at the top of the house. Colonialism and race and their legacies in Mexico play a large part, which adds a seriousness to the usual gothic tropes, This is a really strong book with a sympathetic heroine and well-drawn characters.
  8. Trouble is What I Do by Walter Mosley, is a reliably hardboiled crime story featuring his New York-based Black private eye, Leonid McGill. If you know what Mosley does, then you’ll love the latest in this sequence that started with The Long Fall, and which features a both a New York underworld and an overworld of the rich, with a protagonist who’s talents allow him to pass through both. Mosley is never going to better his Easy Rawlins novels, but these do their job well.
  9. Network Effect is the first full length novel in Martha Wells’s extraordinarily popular and award-winning Murderbot Diaries sequence that started with the novella, All Systems Red, which feature the eopnymous lead character, “Murderbot,” the secret name that the protagonist calls itself. It’s known to others as “SecUnit”, a massively augmented, armed and very dangerous partially-human-looking cyborg or construct designed to provide security in a far-future dominated by corrupt, amoral, plundering corporations. Except that this SecUnit would rather be left alone to watch soap operas and make cynical and darkly amusing observations about the way the galaxy works. Network Effect also brings back another memorable nonhuman character from an earlier novella, the robot-pilot of the research ship, Perihelion, otherwise known (to Murderbot) as ART (for “Asshole Research Transport”). ART, for reasons that unfold during the novel, kidnaps Murderbot and his colleagues, and we off on a very bumpy ride. This book is a fine addition to the sequence which advances Murderbot as a character, while adding many potential further developments; it’s just not quite as sharp and impactful as the novellas.
  10. N.K. Jemisin is probably the single most successful and talented fantasy writer out there at the moment, and The City We Became is the first in a new sequence, the Great Cities Trilogy. This is a love story to New York, every bit as devoted as the Beastie Boys’ ‘To The Five Boroughs’. This is its strength but also its weakness, if you’re not a New Yorker. What opens the book up, and promises more from future volumes is two things. The first is the premise which isthat at some point in their lifespan, cities are fully ‘born’ and generate an avatar that will speak for them to other cities, but also that this transformation, this birth, causes a rupture in the smoothness of the multiverse, a rupture that powerful, incomprehensible and seemingly malevolent Lovecraftian entities hate and want to close. The second is the characters: while her protagonists have to (by their nature) be avatars, personifications of place, they remain distinct individual people, all different components of the melting pot of New York immigration. There is a lot of potential here but this novel didn’t move me like her early works, or amaze me like her most recent multi-award wining Broken Earth trilogy.
  11. Anne Charnock’s latest, Bridge 108, is set in the same climate breakdown-altered world as her earlier novel A Calculated Life. The story focuses mostly on Caleb, an immigrant from Spain (perhaps), who is trafficked to the vastly unequal future Britain and who we first meet working for a gang of recyclers in an enclave reserved for the unaugmented who constitute the lowest level of society. I don’t think this is as good as A Calculated Life; largely because of the lack of focus on Caleb’s point of view we never get to know him, feel with him, in the same way as the protagonist of that previous work. But it’s still worth reading for its portrayal of a very depressingly realistic near-future Britain.
  12. Cars on Fire: Be warned, the thematically-linked stories in this fresh, experimental collection by this young Chilean author, Mónica Ramón Ríos, are frequently difficult. Sometimes what’s going on is completely unclear, sometimes the protagonist is vague and only half there, almost all the time, everrything is haunted by absent parents, unfulfilled desires, and the everpresence of systems of oppression and violence, whether it’s dictatorship or capitalism, universties or psychiatry. People are shiftless, bitter, stupid. They try to resist, or to turn the bad into something beautiful, but nothing happens, they don’t go anywhere, cars catch fire. Some people seem to hate this book. And sure, not all the stories work as well as the best ones like The Student and the eponymous Cars on Fire. But in this case, the polarized reactions only go to show Riós has done something right.
  13. After only 3 novels, Charles Yu has already developed a certain style. His tales tend to be quite simple stories of love and family when all the frills are cut away, and set in very contained settings, pocket universes either literally or figuratively. In Interior Chinatown, he’s expanding on his personal personal very much to the political: this is a story about being Asian in America (any kind of Asian – doesn’t matter because they all look the same, right?). But rather like How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the America in which the protagonist, Willis Wu lives is strangely small and circumsribed by almost game-like rules, here forced to play generic Asian background parts in a stereotyped police procedural, ‘Black and White’, the names reflecting not only those of the real stars, but also the identities which an Asian can never achieve. Interior Chinatown is very, very clever. It plays this all straight but mixes in chunks of real history arrive unepectedly, lifestories, and scripts in progress from Black and White. Erving Goffman’s famous research on the performance of everyday life is quoted. It has the same sort of weaknesses that How To Live Safely… had, which is that the emotionality can seem at once overdone and rather flat and facile. But this is still a throught-provoking, powerful, very sarcastic book.
  14. A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin. Even though Rankin’s irrascible, dogged detective is supposedly now several years into retirement, Rebus is called to help out his estranged daughter, Samantha, who lives on the bleak and windswept north coast of Scotland, to find Sam’s partner, Keith, who as gone missing. Meanwhile back in Edinburgh, a wealthy Saudi student, who mixed with the cream of Scottish society, has been found murdered in a decidedly unpreposessing carpark near a municipal golf course. Rebus’s former protégé, Siobhan Clarke, is on the case, helped none too willingly by another member of the old team, the ambitious Malcolm Fox, seconded by Headquarters to keep on the eye on the investigation because of the Saudi student’s important political connections. Surely these two cases can’t be linked? This is a very satisfying story, which gets the balance of criminal and domestic detail right, with enough red herrings and blind alleys to keep you guessing. And, in particular, while Rankin has always been a master at capturing Edinburgh high and low, the physical and social atmosphere of the remote villages along the North Sutherland coastline is portrayed perfectly here too.
  15. The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem. In early 2019, my friend, Tim Maughan published his excellent novel of the end of the internet / technology, Infinite Detail. It got some attention, even appearing on a few book of the year shortlists. At the back end of 2020, almost 2 years on, we had two novels with a similar premise, one, The Silence, by increasingly pretentious twerp, Don DeLillo, and the other, The Arrrest, by the former bright young hope of American literature, Jonathan Lethem. Both were being praised as unprecedented and ‘original’. They clearly aren’t either – even Tim’s novel wasn’t that original in the sense that the end of technology dystopia goes back at least as far as E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, published more than a century ago, in 1909. But are either any good? I didn’t even get as far as buying the DeLillo because on looking at it in the bookshop, I burst out laughing. The ‘novel’ looked suspiciously small and thin to begin with even in hardback, and on opening it, you can see that they’ve used a very spacious font in a massive point size and huge margins. In other words this may not even be a novella. DeLillo apparently couldn’t quite deliver on his promises, and I’m not paying novel price for an extended short story – I’ll get it out of the library or wait until it inevitably appeats for 0.99 on Kindle… The Arrest too is a short novel, in bite-size chapters, some no more than a page. The protagonist, Sandy Duplessis AKA Journeyman, is a superannuated delivery boy in a post-technology society, which is maybe a reference to Fry from Futurama – it wouldn’t surprise me, because as with all Lethem novels, The Arrest is stacked with pop culture and sceince fiction references. But this isn’t hard science-fiction: the way in which the end of the internet and fossil fuels and everything has came about is vague and magical  in a ‘just don’t ask’ sort of way. Instead the novel plays with being a meta-dystopia, which might or might not be the product of a film script that Journeyman had been writing off-and-on for years with his college buddy, later employer and highly irritating Hollywood somebody, Peter Todbaum, from an idea at least partly suggested by Journeyman’s sister, Maddy. Now after the Arrest, Maddy, and in his lesser, ineffectual way, Journeyman, are both part of self-sustaining organic cooperative township way up on the Maine coast, away from all the turmoil that is apparently going on elsewhere. And then suddenly Todbaum turns up… in a nuclear-powered chrome supercar-cum-tunnelling machine that looks like something straight out of a 1950s Popular Mechanics fever dream. And guess what? He’s still a major asshole. Is it any good? I don’t know. While if flirts with various SF tropes of alternate worlds and so on, it doens’t actually go there, and the story is actually quite linear and while somewhat unlikely in the specifics of its denouement, it won’t come as much of a surprise in any general sense. It’s okay.

I’m also only just starting Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston, and it’s already clear that this African fantasy, or what Nnedi Okorafor would call ‘African Juju’ novel, is something special. It’s brilliant, inventive, written with verve and often very tricky to follow, and I am loving it. Quotients by Tracey O’Neill is another novel I haven’t finished yet, but I am still recommending because it may be the best big data surveillance novel I’ve ever read. In case you wondering whcih other big data surveillance novels there are, I also read the highly praised German satire, Qualityland this year, and quite frankly the farce in that comedy was a little too broad and unsubtle for my tastes.

If there is a ‘No!’, this year, it’s Earthlings by Sayaka Murata. I challenge anyone who has read this book not to come to the conclusion that it is an utterly repulsive novel, as disgusting as it’s possible to be by the end, and worse because whatever has come before you were still rooting for the protagonist, Natsuki, until the last chapter. After Convenience Store Woman, I had Murata pegged as a champion of neurodivergent feminism, and this books seems to be along the same lines until the protagonists, Natsuki and Tomoya and Yuu, decide to leave the world they call “the factory”, and make a genuine break from all social conventions and indeed from humanity itself, and from then things just get extreme. Really extreme. In fact so extreme, that it leads me to question my previous assessment of Murata’s politics and commitments.

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