After discussing what the sf awards say were the best novels of 2015, this is our take.
The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
I wrote about this here, so it probably comes as no surprise that I rate this the best book of the year. The big surprise for me is that nobody else did. It appeared on only 1 award shortlist (2= for the Campbell Award), but it was the most intelligent, the most intellectually engaging, the most literarily adventurous, and the most satisfying novel of the year. So everyone else is wrong and I’m right, okay!
Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman
Another book I’ve written about here, and this one did win the Campbell Award. But it is one of those books that seemed to creep out with hardly anyone in the sf world noticing it. Which is a great shame, because it is a wonderfully engaging story, a vicious satire on Scientology, and it has one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve encountered for a long time. Honestly, if you still haven’t read it, you’re doing yourself a great disservice.
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
And again a book I have written about here, so it really can’t come as a surprise that it is up here on my list. It is the sequel to Europe in Autumn, or perhaps it would be better to say the companion volume since there are no continuing characters and only on the last page do we get a clue that it is chronologically sequential. But it is a further exploration of the fascinating disintegrating Europe that Hutchinson has extrapolated from today’s headlines, and it opens the story out in extraordinary new directions.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
This was the Hugo Award winner; it was hardly the most sparkling of shortlists, but it still produced a worthy winner. It is generally described as a fantasy, because that is what Jemisin is known for writing, but it’s a dystopian story on an alien planet so I see no reason why we shouldn’t consider it sf. The world is prone to apocalypses, brought on by the unstable geology, and when a great chasm opens across the continent it looks like another apocalypse has arrived. Meanwhile, the civilisation that rules the continent proves to be as unstable as the geology and starts to fall apart bloodily. And in the midst of all of this, a woman finds that her husband has murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter, so she sets out for revenge through a world tearing itself apart, literally and politically.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Okay, I don’t think this is Robinson at his absolute best, but even on an off-day he is better than most other sf writers going. It starts off wonderfully with a portrait of life aboard a generation starship where people are only just holding it together. This is grittily realistic, the sort of thing that holds a mirror up to that familiar sf conceit of the generation starship and finds it wanting. But then the ship arrives at its destination to find a planet that is inimical to human life, and the crew find they have no alternative but to turn around and return to Earth. As a picture of the disappointed dream of space travel this is exquisite, though I did find the second part of the novel somewhat less convincing than the first part.
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
This is the prequel to her novel Who Fears Death, which I haven’t read, but I don’t think you need to have read the other book to appreciate what an exhilarating piece of storytelling The Book of Phoenix is. It is the story of a girl who has been raised within a tower block in post-global warming New York. It is only slowly that she comes to realise she is a scientific experiment, that she has been created and genetically manipulated to serve as a living weapon. This discovery leads to a spectacular escape, but the corporation that made her and owns her isn’t going to let her go that easily. What follows is a contest between Phoenix and the corporation in which she gradually learns the extent of her powers. In crude terms, this is a superhero story, but the distinctive narrative voice and the engaging character of Phoenix, and the light cast upon the world around her, makes this so much more than that.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Yet again, I’ve written about this novel here. As in his earlier novel, The Windup Girl, it is a story about the political and human fall-out from climate change, but here his focus is upon the arid states of the southern United States, when a battle for water rights could spell death for millions. It’s a harsh, gritty, brutal story, and in its physical descriptions of the effects of drought it is probably more powerful than that first novel, though the characterisation and the plotting are rather less subtle. Even so, it’s a novel that will grip you from the start, and won’t let go long after you’ve closed the book.
Where by Kit Reed
And still another book I’ve written about here. Kit Reed is one of those brilliant but idiosyncratic writers who gets huge respect from other authors but seems to be perennially overlooked by the awards. She is impossible to categorise; she writes mainstream and horror, science fiction and fantasy, with equal ease, often in the same book. And that’s the case with Where, in which an entire community on a North Carolina island disappears early one morning. While the people left behind try to work out what happened, the members of the community wake up to find themselves in a strange desert township with no clue as to where they are or how they got there. Read it, you owe it to yourself to discover Kit Reed.
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
In recent years, in novels like River of Gods and The Dervish House, Ian McDonald has done an extraordinary job of imagining India or Istanbul in the near future, still shaped by the beliefs and practices of the past, but changed by new technologies and politics. They are urban novels that positively fizz with the bustle and pace and noise of the city. Now he has done something similar with the Moon. Of course there is no past to serve as the canvas upon which the image of the future is painted, so he makes up for that with the retro fashions that are sported throughout the enclosed communities. But as a picture of the ruthless, cutthroat business world in a landscape where even the air we breathe has to be paid for, this is extraordinarily convincing.
Going Dark by Linda Nagata
A few years ago, Linda Nagata had to self-publish the first volume of the trilogy of which this is the final part; fortunately, it was picked up by a publisher. Because this is an exemplary work of military sf for those of us who hate the formulaic nature of most military sf. It’s the story of a group of soldiers, aided by advanced but convincing new technology, who are never entirely sure whether they are fighting on the side of the angels or not. All sorts of issues, from the clash of loyalty and duty to the experience of conflict on the ground, are examined during the course of a story that questions and undermines what they are fighting for, and makes us and them query whether they are the heroes they think they are.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.