Books that made me happy 2018
Well, I failed in my plan to get this out by the end of January, but here are the books I liked in 2018. Unlike past years, here they all are in one post, I think it’s about 25. I tried, with mixed success to not write six gazillion words about each book.
My favorite book of the year
The Calculating Stars / The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal— if you have ever liked anything I’ve recommended ever, there’s a good chance you’ll like this. After a meteor wipes out the Eastern seaboard in 1952, the space race becomes a race against climate change, and humanity goes to the moon, and then Mars. These are books with lots of smart people solving hard problems under pressure. It’s like The Martian but with fewer potatoes, and more punch cards and representation. It’s amazing. It’s exciting, it’s sad, it’s fun, it’s well written. It’s basically everything.
My second favorite books of the year
The Murderbot Diaries books 2, 3, and 4: Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy by Martha Wells. An author I’ve rooted for for years, coming through with this amazing series of novellas about an AI that is supposed to be a security bot, but really just wants to be left alone to watch TV. It’s all in the voice, Murderbot is like Marvin The Paranoid Android with social anxiety and guns. Start with the first one, “All Systems Red”, and wait for the next standalone novel coming out sometime soon.
The sort-of genre book I’ve recommended to a jillion people this year
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory. It’s hard to summarize in a sentence, but this sprawling book of three generations of psychics and con artists is funny, plotted to within an inch of its life, and suggests that in Chicago, meat is a condiment. Also, a Nebula award nominee.
The non-fiction book I’ve recommended to a jillion people this year
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. The story of the Tharanos startup/scam is basically every terrible thing you’ve imagined about Silicon Valley plus every terrible thing you’ve ever imagined about rich old-boy networks.
The Westing Game memorial award for exemplary service in YA mysteries
Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson. Okay, it’s weird to have a mystery trilogy, and this book doesn’t actually resolve anything, but it’s so, so great. The setting is an offbeat private school in Vermont that was the home of a famous kidnapping and murder in the 1930s. Now, a teenager obsessed with true crime and mysteries is headed there to finally solve the case once and for all. It’s got the wordplay and charm of the Westing Game, pointed at a slightly darker story.
The Douglas Adams memorial award for best channeling of Douglas Adams
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente. This was allegedly sold on the pitch “Eurovision in Space”. And then it gets silly. Earth is contacted by aliens. The aliens insist we perform a song in a galactic song competition on threat of wiping out humanity if we don’t do a good enough job. That description almost — almost — makes it sound not silly. Rest assured it is both silly and funny.
The John Scalzi award for books by John Scalzi
The Consuming Fire. Head On by John Scalzi. When Scalzi first became popular, I said that not everybody should re-define a genre, some people need to define it. And here we are with two great, straight-up SF novels, both the second book in their series, one near-future, one far-future. Both well structured and great. Consuming Fire has one of the most satisfying “hero pulls it off” climactic scenes you’ll ever see. Head On is a solid SF mystery.
Then Randall Munroe Award for I can’t believe this book was not written by Randall Munroe
How To Invent Everything by Ryan North. I love Ryan North (check out the Squirrel Girl comics he writes…). This book posits that you are a stranded time traveller that needs to reinvent civilization. The overwhelming theme is of inventions that were feasible long before everybody came up with the idea, making it kind of a monument to the rarity of human creativity.
The Sherlock Holmes pastiche award for exemplary achievement in Holmesness
A Study In Scarlet Women, A Conspiracy in Belgravia and The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas. This series reinvents Sherlock as the invention of a brilliant, but down-on-her luck Victorian woman named Charlotte Holmes. You are rolling your eyes already. Don’t. These books make so many smart choices, and upend the “genius sociopath” trope, and examine Victorian culture in a way that Doyle couldn’t possibly have. Plus they are good mysteries, and it took me three books to get the joke of the policeman’s name. Seriously, there’s a secondary character in these books whose marriage may have been my favorite relationship I read in 2018, outside of Kowal’s books.
The Terry Pratchett Award for being just really goddamn human about your characters
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Champers. I didn’t like this quite as much as it’s predecessor, A Close and Common Orbit, but it’s still pretty great. The previous books in this series have alluded to the fleet of humans that had escaped Earth. This book shows what their non-violent, collectivist society is like, with people who love it, people who hate it, and people who are just trying to figure it out. I had the mantra of the fleet going through my head for days.
The Max Gladstone Award for mixing SF tropes and fantasy
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett. Gladstone didn’t put a book out in his Craft sequence this year, but Foundryside is pretty close. The magic system here is basically programming, with analogues to compilers and programming languages and databases and the whole ball of wax. And I may or may not have 200 pages of partial novel on a completely different programming-as-magic idea. Foundryside is better, though, again, book 1 of a longer series.
The Seanan McGuire Award for exemplary achievement in being Seanan McGuire
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire. So, McGuire is like, ridiculously prolific. She published her first novel in 2009, and per Wikipedia, has published, in those 10 years, 39 books (admittedly not all novels). That’s insane. And she also writes a Patreon short story a month, and she currently writes an ongoing Marvel comic, and will have at least four more books released in 2019. I like nearly all of them. This series — focusing on a group of kids who have been kicked out of their portal fantasy worlds is the best, and this entry is great.
The Not-Sherlock Holmes Award for Other Exemplary Achievements In Pastiche
The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross
Pastiche is probably unfair to all of these books — Stross, in book 9 of the Laundry series, has way outgrown the original “Lovecraft with Computers” premise and now gleefully uses anything in sight, including, in this book UK politics that somehow, despite eldritch horrors, wind up as slightly less weird than the real thing.
The Goss books are Victorian and star the women experimented on or left behind by the mad scientists of Victorian literature. Sort of a “League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen”. Plus Holmes and Watson, of course. The conceit is that the book is being written by one of the characters, with other characters commenting on the manuscript as they take issue with how they are being portrayed.
Meanwhile, Amberlough feels like “Cabaret: the Secondary World”, taking place in a fantasy world without magic that is basically 30s Berlin. It’s about people having to make hard choices in difficult situations. It’s not fun, but it’s really good.
The Not-Prometheus Award for Achievement in Non-Libertarian Political SF
Book 2 and 3 of a political thriller trilogy set against an Earth split into governmental units of 100,000 people, various political parties vie to be the elected government of as many of those Centenals as they can. The villains here are trying to game the system, the heroes trying to keep it fair. It’s about government, and people who care about good government, while still being really interesting and exciting. It’s also got a very refreshing non-US centered viewpoint.
The We Don’t Wear Masks Award for Kind-of-Superhero Fiction
Zero Sum Game by S. L. Huang
An action novel with a lead character who both has amazing intuitive sense of math and control of her body, so she can, for example, throw a stick 30 yards and knock out two people with one throw. Fast-paced and exciting, though it does have kind of a high body count.
The American Vandal Award For Achievement in True Crime or False Crime
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Dead Air by Gwenda Bond, Rachel Caine, and Carrie Ryan (Author)
You may know the story behind I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and in any case it’s easy to look up. It’s an exceptionally creepy true crime book, I’m usually pretty good at leaving books between the covers, but I did find this one kind of unnerving.
Dead Air isn’t the only fictional true-crime podcast out there, I’m sure. I really liked the way the text and fake podcast worked together to tell the story. The text gets most of the story, but there are some key emotional beats that are more fully expressed in the podcast. The interaction between the show’s host and her growing audience is also well done, and it eventually questions the whole idea of opening up cold cases for podcasts, though the ending turns out well enough for most of the people involved.
The It Must Be the 2010s, here are the Eco-Dystopia Awards
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Impostors by Scott Westerfeld
Semiosis by Sue Burke
Lotta eco-dystopias this year…
Trail of Lightning focuses the Navajo Nation (Dinétah) holding on to civilization with the help of their ancient gods. And monsters. I’m a big fan of books that mix SF and Fantasy tropes, as in “gods walk the earth” + “post-apocalyptic wasteland”, but it can be a mess if not done well. These books do it pretty well. Plus, there’s Coyote the trickster god trickstering it up all over the place.
Impostors is a bit of a reach here, but it takes place 20-some-odd years after the end of the Uglies series, which is post-environmental collapse. Anyway, the world is a bunch of petty-warlord city-states. In one of them, the leader is so paranoid that he keeps his daughter’s twin’s existence secret so as to act as a bodyguard for his daughter. It continues Westerfeld’s skill in making the world intertwine with the book’s themes about body image, identity, and growing up. He does that again here. The book is well-paced, exciting, and sadly, ends on a cliffhanger.
The Bannerless books are post-collapse, but aren’t really dystopian. They take place in a perfectly well-ordered society that takes care of the people inside it. Murder is almost unheard of. (It is true, though, that in the hands of another writer, merely regulating births would be considered dystopian). Anyway. These are good SF mysteries and you’ll probably like them.
Semiosis has a slightly odd structure — it’s a series of basically novellas that each take place about a generation apart, until the last three or so all take place in short succession. The characters here are fleeing an eco-collapse, and they land on a planet where they are befriended by a sentient plant. The alien plant life is kind of neat, especially in that different kinds of plants have different levels of intelligence. (Though I kind of wish the main plant was a little more… alien? That said, the fact that the people are changing the way the plant thinks is kind of the point.) A very strong entry in your “sense of wonder” SF.
They just don’t write them like that anymore award…
Astounding is pretty much what it says in the title. It’s a biography of the golden age of Astounding magazine, and how Campbell (as editor) intertwined with his three most famous authors. This is a pop-culture time and place that I’ve always been interested in, so I’m glad somebody went to the trouble of writing a book about it. The book does a great job describing how World War Two affected all four of them — not just how it disrupted their lives, but also how it changed the way all of them looked at the world. It’s also pretty interesting on how Hubbard came to create Scientology and how Campbell helped. (Hubbard does not come off well in this book.) I knew more about Asimov and Heinlein going in, so those parts were less compelling, though there were a couple of interesting differences between events here and in their various autobiographical material…