I didn’t really care much for science fiction/fantasy until a ‘holy shit, this is so good moment’ when finishing the Three Body Problem series last year. That’s when the reading binge started. Science Fiction & Fantasy still gets a bit of a bad reputation of being made for young adults – but I believe the reverse. I appreciate them now much more than I did as a teen.
Science Fiction is beautiful because it is set in a world we don’t know – a world that only comes alive from an author’s humongous effort of internally consistent world building. They are designing a world that doesn’t exist yet, with rules humanity hasn’t quite figured out. Often times truth becomes stranger than fiction, but their imaginations help us prepare for a changing world.
Fantasy is no longer just about the dragons and mages and dwarves and elves (though those elements don’t necessarily take away from a great book). It explores the how humans would behave when approached with higher powers and unknown truths. It tells the story of individual doggedness or cowardice, treachery or integrity, all simply in a new world.
For all its philosophical and sociological merits, Science Fiction & Fantasy (SFF) are also simply fun. Stories include space travel, AI, gravity manipulation, catapulting rocks from moon to earth, talking to gods, killing gods, and much more. That we can live vicariously through the imaginations of so many authors is a real luxury in this prolific era.
I’d happily recommend nearly all of the ~30 or so books I’ve read this year. I’ll start with the top 5, and move on to the rest below:
My Top 5 in 2018
Entertainment quality is always a function of when you consume it, and in 2018 these are my reads that stood out to me the most:
1. The Divine Cities (City of Stairs, City of Blades, City of Miracles)
Robert Jackson Bennett
I really don’t know how to explain the book so here’s a list of thoughts:
Murder mystery. Religious insurgency. Fantasy with a democratic political system for once. Huge nordic killer secretary. Main character is diplomat and her ex-boyfriend is now a gay millionaire with hip problems. City built on magic but the magic disappears… or is the magic actually there? And that’s just book one. Book 2 is even better as it stars a grumpy old woman who’s also a retired general grappling with atrocities she committed back in the day. Book 3 features the killer secretary.
Each book in the series has its own endings, and the books are several years apart. But Book 3 really closes out the whole thing in a way you can’t miss.
2. Stories of Your Life and Others
Ted Chiang’s collection of short stories are sharp, imaginative, and just well written across a variety of styles. I had to re-read the entire collection one week after finishing because it was just that good. From the beautiful flagship story “Story of your Life” (source for the 2016 movie Arrival) to a world where people consider equalizing society’s perception of beauty in “Liking What you See”, Chiang’s short stories are a great way to plug into a world of imagination. Full review here.
3. World of Five Gods #1 & 2 (The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls)
Lois McMaster Bujold
If you had told me a god-fearing feudalistic fantasy society sounds lame, I would have agreed. The Curse of Chalion proved me wrong.
It all starts with a broken man (don’t they all, these days?). It is about a broken man slowly gaining his voice against the powerful lords that had left him to the enemy. He’s terrified of meeting his betrayers in a social setting, but builds this voice through a desire to protect his new princess/queen as her secretary. Oh and there’s this gravitational curse that makes things difficult for everybody.
The sequel, Paladin of Souls has its own pacing that is equally thrilling, and totally weird. This involves a middle-aged empty woman going on a pilgrimage, getting the hots for a sexy zombie soldier, and proceeding to unravel all sorts of weird stuff. You must read the first to even remotely enjoy the second, but I think they are both worth a solid read.
4. Star Wars: Thrawn
Star Wars can get whatever childish reputation it wants, but the stories of Thrawn and Arhinda Pryce are intriguing, satisfying, and foreboding. Zahn tells us two stories of imperial newbies making their way up the political ranks of the empire through diplomacy and war strategy. Arhinda begins her descent into a brutal mindset and the willing betrayal of loved ones to do the Empire’s dirty work. Thrawn, on the other hand, taps into his genius and military experience in the previous war to realize his potential as straight-shooting Admiral. Both are great human stories. Full review here.
5. Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur C. Clarke
If you are only going to read one scifi book – don’t read this one. There are much funner ones out there. But if you want to take a break from political drama or epic adventures, Rendezvous with Rama gives us the nature documentary with just a dab of mystery and suspense to keep the pages turning. As a set of astronauts explore a mysterious country-sized object, they discover a land that is beautifully elegant but deceptively treacherous. This has the #5 spot because there is simply nothing else like it.
The “Really Good” books
I don’t know how to rank these, so I’ll categorize them instead. I think all of these were enjoyable and expanding in their own way. A lot of the science fiction here is written in the “golden age of science fiction” between ~1935 to ~1970 with the big three: Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Looking past the way society is portrayed, they all had rightfully great ideas. Then came Gibson with Neuromancer and Stephenson with some crazy ideas.
The industry feels like it had a bit of a lull with all its dystopias, but it is now gearing up faster than ever. (I have no evidence that this isn’t biased by the recency of my interests, but I *think* it’s true). With GRRM, Sanderson, RJB, Jemisin, the modern wave of books are relatable, gritty, and ultimately enable us to expand our imaginations. Here are the other books I read this year that I really do like.
Fantasy World Building
- Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson) – You really can’t go wrong with Sanderson. And you can eat color in this one.
- Foundryside (RJB) – new book was a solid story. Thievery and objects that have coding and coding abstractions all stemming from some crazy old magic.
- Mistborn: The Final Empire (Series, all 3) (Brandon Sanderson) – Perennial ending world, social classes, cool magic system, brainless zombies, tall nerd great stuff from Sanderson. (full review)
- The Way of Shadows (Brent Weeks) – Magical Assassins and an unstable assassin teacher.
- The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) – Nanotech 3D printers gone wild.
- The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein) – AI-assisted moon revolution.
- All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1) (Martha Wells) – Awkward rogue robot who hacked himself “off the grid” decides whether to stay awkward save his human “friends”.
- The Caves of Steel (Robot, #1) (Issac Asimov) – AI taking our (detective) jobs.
This is a very different Asimov compared to when when he wrote his famous Foundation series. The Caves of Steel doesn’t have the sheer scale of his older books, but makes it up in a creative plot and much more developed characters.
- The Ghost Brigades (John Scalzi) – Brain-accelerated special forces with infant minds in adult bodies. In space. Second book in “Old Man’s War”
- Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein) – Blasting bugs as part of a militaristic society. Also Mobile Infantry mech suits jumping one mile at a time blasting bugs. Sounds cliche now but this was the first of its kind in 1959.
- The Forever War (Joe Haldeman) – Time relativity creates a defensive technological advantage and forgotten soldiers for civilizations lightyears apart. Similar scene as Starship Troopers but it’s lesson is the opposite, published in 1974.
The OK Books
I wouldn’t not recommend these books, but I think they disappointed a little bit.
- American Gods (Neil Gaiman) – This book is expansive, well-researched, and uniquely American. Something about it felt weird – maybe it felt more like a TV series than a fantasy novel.
- Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (Multiple authors) – Chinese science fiction short stories. Great ideas from promising Chinese authors. (full review)
- Sabriel (Abhorsen, #1) (Garth Nix) – A young girl suddenly inherits her father’s responsibility of navigating and banishing monsters to the underworld. Great worldbuilding, relatively basic plot – good YA fiction.
- Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1) (Iain Banks) – a great adventure & worldbuilding but feels like a Han Solo running around, messing stuff up, and walking away as everything explodes behind them.
- Second Foundation(Foundation #3) (Issac Asimov) – Just like the rest of his foundation series. ultra-intellectual characters duking it out in a psychic chess match. (full review)
- The Poppy War (R. F. Kuang) – Chinese post-war history piece where psychedelics help you summon gods. Decent idea but is a bit *too* trope-y and takes too much from high school history books.
What’s on the docket?
There are so many books out there that building a repertoire of Scifi/Fantasy is a multi-year effort. Reddit has a solid poll of top series here that serves as a solid guidepost. So far sitting in my Kindle are…
- Seveneves – Neal Stephenson’s book about new life – this has been highly rated by some people and finally got around to buying it! Then there’s Anathem, Crpytonmicon, etc. but I’m going to pace out my Stephenson.
- The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula le Guin is a genius and now that I write this, I should read this.
- Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb’s series apparently is a great adventure.
- The Wheel of Time – a 14 book epic that might be tough to get started.
- The Player of Games – Apparently better than the first in the series. We shall see.
- Permutation City/Diaspora – Apparently Greg Egan books are extremely technical and well-researched.
- Red Mars – DNF 50% – Brilliant book, brilliantly researched and imagined but ultimately aimless.
- Red Rising – DNF 10% – Hear great things about it
- Stranger in a Strange Land – DNF 60%
“I don’t read fantasy/scifi. But if I had only one book to read…”
For Fantasy, it would be either the Stormlight Archives, the Divine Cities, or a shorter book Hyperion. For science fiction, I think it is increasingly tough to get into the classics. I would start with Chiang’s Stories of your Life and Others (which is more fantasy), the Three Body Problem (whole series or bust!). The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a fun starter as well for an older one.
Thanks for reading and hope you all have a great 2019!