How many books do you read? One a month? One a week? One a day? Honestly, you could get through one an hour, and you’d probably still not keep up with every single science fiction book published during the year. So when we say these are our best novels of 2016, bear that in mind. We’ve not been able to read everything, any more than the people who vote for awards or sit on award juries have done. So we may well have missed your favourites. But we’re pretty informed readers, we’re pretty widely read, and we can’t think of any novel that people have made a fuss about that we haven’t at least tried to read. So we stand by this list. Your tastes may vary, but as far as we are concerned these are the books that really stood out from last year.
1: Rosewater by Tade Thompson
Sometimes you can understand why a book doesn’t get as much attention as you think it deserves. This is Thompson’s second novel, and it came out from a fairly small publisher. Easy to overlook, I suppose. But it’s criminal that this novel didn’t attract much more attention than it did. As we said in our review, it is “assured, detailed, compelling”, the sort of book that grabs hold of you on the first page and just won’t let go. From the moment we first read it, Rosewater was guaranteed to be at the top of our books of the year.
2: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This was the only challenger to Rosewater at the top of our list; and indeed the two books have swapped places a few times. Ask me again in an hour and I might have The Underground Railroad at number one, with Rosewater hot on its heels at two.But if Rosewater has missed out on the attention it deserves, that isn’t the case with The Underground Railroad, which has already won the Arthur C. Clarke Award along with a bunch of major mainstream awards as well. In our review we called it “profound and moving, a haunting account of the pervasiveness of injustice”. It’s all of that and more, a book you won’t forget in a hurry.
3: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
This novel has already won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and I’ve heard rumours that the reason it didn’t do better in some other awards was that people weren’t sure whether it was a novel or a collection of stories. To which, all I can say is that if Pavane by Keith Roberts is a novel, if City by Clifford Simak is a novel, if The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is a novel, then Central Station is inescapably a novel also. Yes it is a mosaic of stories, but the stories interconnect, characters recur, a chronological sequence of events leads us directly from the opening story to the last. It’s an account of a future we’ve encountered in a myriad of other science fiction stories (and there are sly references to a host of other works), but this time we’re seeing it from the underneath. This is the future of those left behind by the rocket ships, those trying to hold on to the past, where the chrome is tarnished and the benefits haven’t fully trickled down to the dusty streets. It’s a novel that makes the most familiar science fiction fresh again.
4: The Gradual by Christopher Priest
Frankly, this is mystifying. Even Rosewater made it on to at least one award shortlist, but The Gradual hasn’t received the nod from a single award. The only explanation I can offer for this oversight is the fact that, like so many of Priest’s novels, The Gradual unfolds its mysteries and rewards most when you re-read the novel. On first reading, for instance, you are unlikely to spot that references on the very first page of the novel set the scene for revelations that come only a hundred pages or more later. With Priest you need to be a slow, careful and patient reader, but, as we said in our review, the complexity that you’ll uncover is well worth the effort.
5: Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
In each of the past two years we’ve included the previous volumes in Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence in our top ten, so it can hardly be any surprise that the third volume makes our list also. Particularly when you realise, as we said in our review, that this is probably the best of the series so far. As with the first two books, Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight, this is a deft combination of science fiction and spy novel, but what really captures the imagination is the setting, a near-future Europe that has fragmented into a host of tiny independent statelets, some no bigger than a city block, one, the Line, is thousands of miles long but only a few yards wide, a transcontinental railway that links Portugal with Siberia. But in among these minute polities, there are other realities butting in to the picture, and old enemies we might have thought had long since grown dormant and toothless suddenly begin to reveal their savage side. This is a complex and absorbing novel that well deserves its BSFA Award.
6: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin really owes her place on this list to her achievement in winning back-to-back Hugo Awards, never an easy task at the best of times. There is a debate over whether the Broken Earth trilogy, consisting of The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate and most recently The Stone Sky, is science fiction or fantasy. Mostly the books seem to be regarded as epic fantasy, but there is an underpinning of science fiction in the geological ruptures that provide the backdrop to the story, and given those two Hugo Awards it seems reasonable to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, there’s some vivid worldbuilding going on here, the solid sense of reality that we expect from the best sf.
7: Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood
I read this right at the beginning of 2016, and it has held its place in my top 10 ever since. It’s the sort of debut novel that should be hailed from the rooftops. A little rough around the edges, maybe, but full of invention and pathos, chilling action and convincing characters, and the insights into a world that is, thankfully, alien to the majority of us that makes you convinced that here is an author destined for great things. It is set in a South Africa where apartheid never ended, and where the brutal white state has become ever more repressive, as a result it is a land that is, economically, socially and technologically, decades behind the rest of the world. But when a psychologist invents a machine intended to help him with his patients, the unintended consequences could be shattering for both the black underclass and the white police state. It’s a book that makes you impatient for Wood’s next novel.
8: A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna
If our response to The Obelisk Gate is to weigh up how much is fantasy and how much is science fiction, our immediate response to A Field Guide to Reality is to wonder whether it is science fiction at all. But if it’s not science fiction, what is it? It is set in an Oxford that is sort of like the one we know, but not exactly. And though it is set in the present, it drifts back and forth to different periods in history. And at the heart of the novel is a quest to find a book, the eponymous Field Guide to Reality, that in all probability does not exist. Along the way we meet philosophers and scientists and modern-day hippies and various other oddballs and eccentrics and outcasts, each of whom has very different views on what reality might be. The novel is beautifully produced, handsomely illustrated, and completely indefinable, so calling it science fiction is probably as good as any other name.
9: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
If A Field Guide to Reality, The Underground Railroad and, in a different way, The Obelisk Gate make us question our understanding of what constitutes science fiction, then here is a reminder that straight down the line, hard sf is still being written. It may remind you of a lot of other space adventures, but it has a verve and an excitement that keeps you reading. The final section of the novel is particularly good, but all the way through you keep wanting to find out more about this peculiar system that has caused such a spectacular war.
10: Zero K by Don DeLillo
Finally, after the richness and colour of the worlds we have found in Rosewater and The Obelisk Gate, among others, we end this list with a chillily austere novel largely set in the undecorated corridors of an establishment amid the bleak terrain of a remote part of Central Asia. Here rich people approaching death prepare to be cryogenically frozen. Here, the disaffected son of a megarich father is reunited with his family as his terminally ill stepmother prepares for her icy preservation. The cold of distance and wealth and arrogance permeates the novel, giving a sense that avoiding death is not necessarily the best option available to us. It is, as we said in our review, “an extraordinary and revealing work that builds upon a fascinating science fictional idea”.
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.