2016 Hugos

As usual, my list of the Hugo eligible books for this year (as well as short story collections), meant less as a form of canvassing (especially given that nominations are about to close) than of solving the commitment problem of getting me off my arse to talk about books that I liked and didn’t like. Necessary qualification – the very best novel that I read last year isn’t available yet – Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning – a book that has the potential to remake the genre. It’ll be out in a couple of months, at which point I’ll have more to say.

Best novels

  • Paul McAuley – Something Coming Through. Didn’t get nearly the attention that it deserved on this side of the Atlantic, but really very good. In theme, it’s a little like the science fiction bits of M. John Harrison’s Light books, but it worked much better for me (although there’s nothing quite as good as Harrison’s not-really science-fictional portrait of Anna Kearney, which may be the best thing that he’s written). Humanity in a universe which is a midden-heap of dead civilizations, trying to figure out what the story is, and bringing all of its old problems and pre-conceptions with it. This year’s follow-up, Into Everywhere, is even better.
  • Leena Krohn – Collected Fiction. I’m putting it here rather than under short stories since it contains several novels that are both good and strikingly odd. More modernist than genre, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. It’s a bit lazy to say that if you liked Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath you will likely like this too, but you will.
  • Robert Charles Wilson – The Affinities. Not one of his very best novels, but very good. Think of it as a science fictional version of Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree, describing and parodizing in a Canadian pince-sans-rire voice, how social networking technologies might intersect with the desire of elite organizations to recruit people who are just like the people they’ve recruited already.
  • Michael Swanwick – Chasing the Phoenix. Without spoiling it too much, it starts off looking like a very well written chinoiserie a la Ernest Bramah, and ends up being a novel about chinoiserie, without losing the fun.
  • Edward Carey – Foulsham. The second in a series of three and the best. Imagine a young adult narrative by Samuel Beckett that somehow managed to work as both Beckett and YA, with a Marxist account of alienation (there’s a wonderful scene in which the protagonist literally becomes money) worked in too.

Best collections

  • Mary Rickert – You Have Never Been Here. My favorite collection of the year – a voice that is chilly, sharply intelligent and quite unique.
  • China Mieville – Three Moments of an Explosion. Some excellent stories. My favorite was “Sacken,” a kind of Kafka’s “Before the Law” reversed and written as a horror story.

Also read and enjoyed. Max Gladstone’s Last First Snow – political fantasy which riffs very deliberately and explicitly on the work of James Scott. Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves was sharp and very nicely done. Naomi Novik’s Uprooted could have been cut a little, but moves along very nicely (Patricia McKillip, if Patricia McKillip were more caustic). Greg van Eekhout’s Dragon Coast is also a lot of fun – I most liked the tangled and poisonous family interaction that kept trying to break out of the heist narrative, and would love to see more of it. Charlie Fletcher’s The Paradox and The Oversight have a little too much stage Irish dialogue in places but are very reliably entertaining.

Read and found disappointing – Zen Cho’s Sorceror to the Crown, Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings and Aliette de Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings. All three of these tried to bring non-Western perspectives to the standard genre; all of them seemed to me to be overpowered by the genre they were trying to transform. Cho’s book tries to weave serious themes of race into a Regency comedy, but has a hard time balancing the seriousness of underlying theme and the frivolity of treatment (she’s clearly a very good writer though, and I’ll buy her next book). The Grace of Kings just seemed stolid epic fantasy, drawing on a different cultural base of stock tropes which were still stock tropes, while de Bodard’s book was too in love with its goth and grand guignol (by far the best characters were the peripheral ones who were damaged without being especially romantic). I liked Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Sorceror of the Wildeeps much more – it seemed more comfortable in its own skin, challenging the reader to adapt to its expectations rather than trying to adapt to the expectations of the reader.

Also disappointing – Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. The good bit – that it gets the importance of fiscal and monetary policy to statecraft. The bad bit – that the rest of its theory of statecraft is a kind of cod-Machiavellian superheroism of cunningly laid and staggeringly complex and subtle plans coming to fruit. Lois Bujold, via Jo Walton has a riff about f/sf being a fantasy of political agency. Dickinson’s book takes this to an extreme.

So those are the books I liked, as well as a couple that I wanted to like more than I did. What about you?

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.