Generation ships, sentient forests, exploding moons — there has been no shortage of action, speculation, and mystery in the year’s best sci-fi and fantasy novels. These books are remarkable, too, for the way they brazenly combine tropes from many different genres. In several of these novels, for example, mythological, intellectual, and literary history combine in unfamiliar and enlightening ways. In others, the uncanny reigns and the human is decentered — whether we’re talking about a disturbing imaginary friend or a weaponized cat. Here are the best sci-fi and fantasy novels of the year so far.
Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson
Call it an ark, a generation ship — whatever. The trope is arguably the most agile in all of recent narrative art. From Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men to Wall-E, the ark is ubiquitous in the cinema of the last 15 years, serving mostly to rescue humanity from imaginative deadlock as well as the material constraints of life on Earth. Until recently, the image of the ark has been less persuasive in the novel, but that all changed last month with the publication of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, which is by some measure the greatest of all 21st century ark narratives. You can read an excerpt from Aurora at The Baffler, where Robinson is the fiction editor, here.
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
Another fiction that considers an uninhabitable Earth, Stephenson’s meganovel sets itself apart by virtue of its microscopically detailed realism. What it lacks in character and imagination — it falls short of Robinson’s Aurora in this regard — it recovers with a speculative exactness. You’ll find out, in other words, exactly what would happen if the moon suddenly exploded.
The Whispering Swarm, Michael Moorcock
Moorcock is among the most influential of all genre writers, and he returns here with his first novel in nine years — and readers will be happy to learn that it launches a trilogy. Even though much of this first installment is given over to scene setting — it takes place in a hidden London enclave where historical figures mix with literary creations — it’s still a pleasure to read. Also, it may well inaugurate the autofictional fantasy subgenre.
Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Society now spans several worlds in oft-nominated Gilman’s new novel, which easily avoids the clichés of the “team of scientists go to explore a new planet” sci-fi trope by virtue of its epistemological weirdness and pacing. It reminds me of a speedier Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.
Mort(e), Robert Repino
Is it the coming singularity? The imaginative limits of life in the Anthropocene? When, in a year or two, internet writers devote think pieces to the growing number of books with animal protagonists, we will all look back and wonder whether Repino’s Mort(e), a novel about a weaponized cat, is the best of them all.
The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis
Tregillis comes with the endorsement of George R. R. Martin, but The Mechanical, which looks to be the first of a trilogy, lives in a world of its own. Specifically, it takes place in an alternate history where robots ponder Cartesian philosophy and the Dutch Empire more or less rules the world.
Chocky, John Wyndham
Of all the books on this list, Chocky most deserves to be (re)made as a film. Wyndham’s final book — here reissued with an afterword by Margaret Atwood (who suspects it influenced Spielberg’s E.T.) — melds the sinister with the humorous in a story that asks what would happen if a child’s imaginary friend turned out to be a gender-warping know-it-all alien.
The Vorrh, Brian Catling
Like Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm, Catling’s The Vorrh unites historical and literary personages — but the similarities end there. Catling’s book may not yet have the U.S. following that it deserves, but it soon will. Arguably the greatest fantasy book so far this decade, it tells the story of a forest called the Vorrh, which, like Lem’s Solaris (see Dark Orbit above), may also be sentient.
Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace
More than a little drunk on Greek mythology, Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp tells the story of an “archivist” and ghost-hunter who learns to communicate with the specter of a supersoldier and (in the process) unlearns what she knows about her own horrorscape of a world. Smart, risk-taking, and weird as hell.
The Just City / The Philosopher Kings, Jo Walton
What begins as a heterotopic experiment by the goddess Pallas Athene — to build a city of children and teachers modeled on Plato’s Republic — eventually (and predictably) goes wrong in this series of novels, which bring together mythological and philosophical characters.