Updates: My 2019 in Review (Best SF Novels, Best SF Short Fiction, and Bonus Categories)

(Chis Foss’ cover for the 1976 French edition of The Inverted World (1974), Christopher Priest)

2019, the tenth year of my site, proved to be a renaissance of sorts. While I managed to read a lot in 2018, I wrote few posts—mostly acquisition and art posts (which take the least effort and time). I have returned, almost, to my earlier levels of productivity and I hope that continues into 2020. Thank you all for reading and commenting be it on the site or on twitter.  It’s greatly appreciated.

And here are my favorite novels and short stories I read in 2019!

And please list your favorite vintage (or non-vintage) SF reads of the year. I look forward to reading your comments.

My Top Eight Science Fiction Novels

1. The Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1972) (unreviewed) 5/5 (Masterpiece): It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t review my absolute favorite novel of 2019. I selected it for my SF reading group I’ve started in my current home city (Indianapolis, IN). Hopefully a reread and discussion will spur a review.

Priest’s mind-expanding vision of a city that inches across the horizon transfixes from the first sentence. Not only does Priest construct a fascinating world within the city but suggests, in a series of seemingly disconnected vignettes, an external existence far different from what those inside perceive. This juxtaposition highlights Priest’s pet theme: a data-driven “scientific” viewpoint is still open to interpretation and is no more trustworthy than another viewpoint. Context must anchor experience. In a more preliminary manner, he explored these interpretive axes in his novelette “Real-Time World” (1971).

Track this one down. Even if you’ve learned accidentally the general narrative, it is worth the read! 100%

In the meantime, check out Megan AM’s brilliant review of the book: here.

2. Seconds, David Ely (1962) 5/5 (Masterpiece): Midlife crisis. Alternate identities. Sinister schemes. Ely’s masterpiece is a disquieting and sparse thriller that posits a near future where a shadow organization can grant the wealthy new identities via plastic surgery and staged deaths.  It is a careful novel. A well-crafted nightmare….

3. Secret Rendezvous (1977, trans. 1979), Kobe Abe 5/5 (Masterpiece): Japanese SF in translation. A harrowing, existential, and surreal Freudian mystery unfolds within an architecturally undefined hospital. A man sets off to find his wife, taken into its depths in the middle of the night. Check out my review—it might be among best I’ve written.

4. The Alien Light, (1987), Nancy Kress 4.5/5 (Very Good): A bleak and powerful rumination on violence. She explores, in unrelenting fashion, how miscommunication and inability to understand “the other” leads to violence. How our passions lead to violence. How rigid social structures lead to violence. How our quest to understand the unknown leads to violence.

An new alien architectures stretches across the horizon on a lost human colony. As humans voluntarily enter its perimeters, they are participating in an experiment run by the Ged. The Ged cannot comprehend why humans fight each other. They have no intra-species conflict. As a human armada approaches their home fleet, the answer to the human enigma might be their salvation.

5. The Word for World is Forest (1972), Ursula Le Guin 4.5/5 (Very Good): Le Guin’s Vietnam War novel!  Le Guin’s novella tells the harrowing tale of the native inhabitants of planet Athshe (“New Tahiti”), derisively called “creechie” by their human occupiers.  As the novella shifts between both human and humanoid alien perspectives, the full effects of contact are revealed.

Short, direct, powerful. Worth the read.

6. Moonstar Odyssey, David Gerrold (1977) 4.5/5 (Very Good) is a careful and introspective reflection on identity and gender set in a fascinating world made habitable by terraforming. The novel is a bildungsroman that follows the self-realization of a precocious child named Jobe.  The dominate struggle that forms the core of the novel is “The Choice”–the moment in a young person’s life when they chose to move from their androgynous state to either to either male or female.

A quiet yet radical vision. I’m shocked it isn’t better known.

7. Freezing Down, Anders Bodelsen (1969, trans. 1971) 4.5/5 (Very Good) is a harrowing collision of SF tropes and the emotional landscape of Scandinavian noir. I’m all for icy and complex speculations on the promise of immortality.

The find of the year. I knew about the other authors. Unfortunately, this was Bodelsen’s only SF novel.

8. Mindbridge, Joe Haldeman (1976), 4.5/5 (Very Good):  Instantaneous travel. Telepathic aliens. CONFLICT! Yet Haldeman weaves a Dos Passos inspired tapestry of a novel that incorporates an immense range of textual fragments. All the while, the novel maintains a readable and engaging narrative. I found Mindbridge a compelling example of New Wave experimentation at its most approachable.

(Tadanori Yokoo’s cover for the 1979 edition of Secret Rendezvous (1977), Kobo Abe)

(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1972 edition of Freezing Down (1971), Anders Bodelsen)

~

My Top Eight Science Fiction Short Stories

1. “Appearance of Life” (1977), Brian Aldiss, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Strange alien architectures. Society losing the ability to connect. Memories of estranged lovers in a forgotten war on loop. Aldiss at the height of his powers!

2. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1977), James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), 5/5 (Masterpiece): An uncomfortable and hallucinatory condemnation of male impulses  and misogyny…. Despite the controversy surrounding the story, it’s a hypnotic and fevered reworking of standard SF tropes to devastating effect.

3. “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1961), J. G. Ballard, 5/5 (Masterpiece): A dark meta-commentary on generation ships, Ballard highlights the ethical implications of both the generation ship as a thought experiment and a reality. Who is manipulating who?

4. “The Bicentennial Man” (1977), Isaac Asimov, 5/5 (Masterpiece) chronicles the quest for android rights over the  longue durée. A call to action—even symbolic victories are important. They can lead to greater change.

5. “Fin de siècle” (1971), Jacques Sternberg, 5/5 (Masterpiece). Prepare yourself for a journey into a nightmare, a dystopia where all the places (real and imaginary) the we can attach anchors to conceive of ourselves as individuals with desires and pasts are shorn away…. In a vast metropolis, where the features of the buildings are erased by layers of pollution (a product of a deliberately encouraged cult of the automobile), the “year” 2000 approaches.

6. “Lungfish” (1957), John Brunner, 4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece): Brunner spins a psychology-inspired take on the generation ship theme. Shockingly radical in its depiction of future gender roles, “Lungfish” explores why later generations might not want to leave at trip’s end.

7. “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” (1977), John Varley, 4.75/5 (Very Good): Weird environments proliferate, and proliferate…. Fingal, fresh off a vacation at the Kenya disneyland underneath the surface of Mars—where he hunted prey and got his food stolen as a female lion low on the lion hierarchy—accidentally gets his mind stuck in computer after the vacation company loses his body.

Varley’s mind-stuck-in-a-computer premise is not the most original scenario—but he tells it with such vigor, off-handed horror, and touches of comedy that I couldn’t help but be pulled in. Highly recommended.

8.  “My Boat” (1977) Joanna Russ, 4.5/5 (Very Good): “My Boat” is a dreamlike tale, reworking elements from H. P. Lovecraft’s novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, of a cynical Hollywood agent telling the story of his youth–desegregation in an all-white high school theater department. The placement of Lovecraftian dreams into the realm of America’s racial tensions is genius.

Mysterious. Distant. Restrained.

(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1977 edition)

~

Reading Initiatives

I’ve had immense fun overseeing a vintage generation ship short story read-through. All the short stories are available online (see each post below for a link). The level of discussion and interaction between reviewers really inspires me to keep reading and writing. Feel free to join at any stage in this ongoing series.

Up next: A. E. van Vogt’s “Centaurus II” in the June 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (story link).

I won’t provide story blurbs here but feel free to explore the posts below. This project will continue into 2020. Join the fun and discussion!

Short Stories Stories Covered 

1. “The Wind Blows Free,” Chad Oliver (1957) 4.5/5 (Very Good)

2. “Spacebred Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation”) Clifford D. Simak (1953) 3.5/5 (Good)

3. “Wish Upon a Star,” Judith Merril (1958) 4.25/5 (Good)

4. “Lungfish,” John Brunner (1957) 4.75/5 (Very Good)

5. “Thirteen to Centaurus,” J. G. Ballard (1962) 5/5 (Masterpiece)

Bonus Generation Ship Novels

1. The Space-Born, E. C. Tubb (1956) 2.5/5 (Bad)

2. Captive Universe, Harry Harrison (1969) 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

(Tom O’Reilly’s interior art for the Science-Fiction Plus, August 1953)

~

Goals for 2020

1. Keep reading and writing.

2. Perhaps start a podcast?

3. Perhaps start a patreon? (many conflicting thoughts here. We shall see).

~

For SF art posts consult the INDEX

For SF book reviews consult the INDEX

35 thoughts on “Updates: My 2019 in Review (Best SF Novels, Best SF Short Fiction, and Bonus Categories)”

  1. Back in the early ’70s, I briefly belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club. I probably joined when there was one of those 3-for-1¢ or 10-for-$1 deals. Some months, I selected titles, others I just accepted whatever the editors were ushing.

    I assume that INVERTED WORLD was one of the Selections of the Month because I certainly didn’t know who Christopher Priest was at the time. I don’t remember the story but I do remember being fascinated by it. Thanks for reminding me; I will keep my eyes open for a copy when I visit my local used book store on Saturday.

  2. One of my reading goals for 2020 is to read more classic SF, including Ursula Le Guin, (who I have never read). There are a few titles listed here that sound very interesting indeed.

    I’ll certainly be on the look out for Priest’s Inverted World.

    1. That’s a nice goal!

      Not sure I’d start with this particular Le Guin. My personal favorite is The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

      Yeah, Priest’s novel is mind-bending in the craziest way possible — he’s definitely more on the experimental/surreal end of SF.

  3. Le Guin is a fine writer. TWFWIF has been sitting on my shelf for some time. In fact, I almost reached for it last week but decided on Nicola Griffith’s Slow River instead. I’ll definitely read next. I also have Inverted World. Thoroughly enjoyed The Affirmation, which I believe is the only novel I’ve read by him. Great post.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Yup, Le Guin is a favorite. Have you explored much of her short fiction? She’s spectacular in the shorter form as well — for example “The New Atlantis” (1975): https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2017/01/22/book-review-the-new-atlantis-and-other-novellas-of-science-fiction-ed-robert-silverberg-1975-le-guin-wolfe-tiptree-jr/

      I read, and adored, The Affirmation years ago — and it appeared on the best of the year list I made for 2016: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2016/06/30/short-book-reviews-theodore-sturgeons-venus-plus-x-1960-christopher-priests-the-affirmation-1981-and-barry-n-malzbergs-screen-1968/

  4. I’m pleased you included “Inverted World” in your best novels of the year list.My memories of it, are of a sombre novel of existential politics, sombre meaning that the narrative was dark but fascinating.”The Affirmation” was my favourite of his, but I think I can agree that it’s a masterpiece.

    I said before that I couldn’t read or get into “The Word for World is Forest”.It’s the only one of her novels and pieces I couldn’t read or finish.

    I’ve read a lot of Tiptree’s[Sheldon] fiction, including this one, but as with most of them, I don’t recall what it was about.Her icy style has never impressed me nearly as much as Ursula LeGuin.Ballard’s short story is a unusual one for him, as his strange fiction rarely strays from less obvious SF tropes.I have read it,as I have all of his short fiction, and intend reading it again soon though.

      1. It took stamina to read, but I was compelled to read it as it was very well sustained in the complexity of It’s mysteries,Yes, I read and commented on your “Affirmation” review,and I agree that it’s a masterpiece.The only other novel of his I’ve read, is “A Dream of Wessex”.

  5. So glad I stumbled onto your review blog, it’s excellent work. My to be read pile just keeps growing! Thanks.

    Jack

    Sent from another dimension

    >

  6. I greatly admire all your favorite short stories from the year except “My Boat” which I haven’t read. I’ll have to read it now for sure.

    Did you know that there was a Rock Hudson movie version of Seconds? I didn’t know about the book, so I’ll have to track down a copy. I was quite impressed with the movie back in the 1960s. The cinematography is quite quirky.

  7. I also read Inverted World this year (as well as The Affirmation). Both are definitely among my favorite reads this year – I’m not quite sure which I prefer. It occurs to me that Inverted World shares a lot generation ship elements, despite the very different setting – would you agree, given you great interest in generation ship stories?

    Some other favorite SF-books (among many others) I’ve read this year:

    Karin Boye: Kallocain (a kind of lost dystopian classic, somewhere between We and 1984 (chronologically as well as in content)).
    Hieros Gamos by Josephine Saxton – my favorite Saxton so far.
    Mark Adlard: Hver Dal Skal Fyldes (Danish translation of – I think – Volteface).
    Norman Spinrad: The Iron Dream
    The Final Circle of Paradise, The Ugly Swans and The Snail on the Slope, all by the Strugatsky brothers. The super surreal and dreamlike Snail on the Slope is one of their very best in my opinion, but the other too had great elements too.
    Anders Bodelsen: Frysepunktet (which I read about here first – otherwise Bodelsen is part of the kind of Danish mainstream litterature that I don’t pay any attention to at all, but your review intrigued me, and it was indeed very good).

    1. Thank you for visiting and for commenting! It’s greatly appreciated.

      I am very intrigued by Karin Boye’s Kallocain — still do not have a copy but I’ll procure one soon.

      Glad you loved The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969) — one of my favorite SF allegories. I need to read more of her work.

      I reviewed Mark Adlard’s Interface (1971). It’s in a trilogy so if you read Volteface it is the second volume. Was it a stand alone novel? Or, did you feel like elements were missing? I must confess, I did’t really care for Interface (the first in the sequence). I gave my copy away. Although, Volteface sits on the shelf unread. My review: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2015/11/29/book-review-interface-mark-adlard-1971/

      Spinrad’s The Iron Dream is fantastic.

      Glad you enjoyed the Bodelsen novel! I love the structural touches of Freezing Down. As the main character goes further into the future the scope of the world he is exposed to becomes more restricted. This adds to the paranoia as we know less and less about the larger world — and his interactions grow more unusual.

      1. I am very intrigued by Karin Boye’s Kallocain — still do not have a copy but I’ll procure one soon.<<

        I think it should be right up your alley. The truth-drug premise is brilliantly used to examine a bunch of psychological and sociological questions.

        Glad you loved The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969) — one of my favorite SF allegories. I need to read more of her work.<<

        So far I’ve also read the “Queen of the States” and the “Power of Time” collection. They both have a lot of stuff I really liked, but also some parts that annoy me. I’ve also read the not-SF “Little Tours of Hell”. “Vector of Seven” waiting in the pile.

        I reviewed Mark Adlard’s Interface (1971). It’s in a trilogy so if you read Volteface it is the second volume. Was it a stand alone novel? Or, did you feel like elements were missing?<<

        Well, I can deduct that it must refer to the first one to some degree – some of the characters seem to reappear, and settings and elements are taken for granted, but not to a degree where it couldn’t just as well be a stylistic choice, or the book slowly letting you figure its world out. So yes, I would say it works as a standalone. I think you should give it a try (though, to be fair, I often disagree quite a lot with your ratings) – compared to you review, the focus seems to be very different here. Dark satire, funny and disturbing in equal measures.

        I love the structural touches of Freezing Down. As the main character goes further into the future the scope of the world he is exposed to becomes more restricted. This adds to the paranoia as we know less and less about the larger world — and his interactions grow more unusual.<<

        Yes, the third part is straight up surreal and nightmare-ish.

  8. Cool list. I copied the novels and will start gnawing away at them, except for the Le Guin which I read when it came out. I read basically all her works back when, and her SF was of extraordinary quality, but none of them quite spoke to me. A Wizard of Earthsea did. As I say too often in my own blog, it is my favorite SF/F of all time.
    I don’t read many short stories any more, but Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (no “s”) was one of the many Varley’s I read, also back when. It was typical of him and typically good. He also had a fine ear for titles. My favorite piece of vintage short fiction would be Hunter, Come Home by Richard McKenna.
    I appreciate how you and Thomas Anderson (Schlock Value) are always finding vintage fiction I missed when it wasn’t vintage.

          1. Wow, I didn’t know that. Everyone means what it seems to mean — every time I turn around another twit is calling Earthsea a YA and making me angry. I figure they can’t spell bildungsroman.

            1. Why does it make you angry? The label “YA” doesn’t indicate a lack of quality…. And many of the themes can overlap! I would also suggest that the maturity level of the content also informs the label assigned to it.

              “The subject matter and genres of YA correlate with the age and experience of the protagonist. The genres available in YA are expansive and include most of those found in adult fiction. Common themes related to YA include friendship, first love, relationships, and identity.[4] Stories that focus on the specific challenges of youth are sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.”

            2. The vast majority of pulp SF, Heinlein, etc. is YA by today’s standards. Hence why I enjoy the New Wave movement so much — it was a concerted attempt to add a level of maturity and literary way of tell not found in a lot of earlier SF.

            3. I was just read On SF by Thomas M. Disch and he made a great case that science fiction is a children’s literature. Joachim, I can understand why you like New Wave and later work, because it is more adult.

  9. “Inverted World” might well be my favorite SF novel. I should reread it again, since it has been a few years. I like Priest’s later work, but he went in a different direction than this novel might have indicated.

    I’d say my two favorite older SF novels I read in 2019 were “On Wheels” by John Jakes and “The Lincoln Hunters” by Wilson Tucker.

  10. Back to the thread above . . . Angry? Lots of things make me angry; I live at a simmer waiting to break into a boil. However, the YA category wouldn’t make me as angry as the juvenile category, which was used disparagingly. I mainly don’t like Wizard of Earthsea being skipped by adults because the category makes it seem beneath them.

    When I was a middle school teacher we had a reading program whose algorithm placed The Old Man and the Sea as a fifth grade book because it had short words and sentences. That made me boil.

    I got a copy of Mindbridge by inter-library loan and liked it very much, although it wouldn’t go on my best of list. I loved it’s non-linearity. That is one of the things I’ve liked about science fiction from the beginning. In the early Andre Nortons, which were about the first things I read, there was often an entry from the Galactic Encyclopedia as a prolog to set the stage, and I was always a sucker for the newscast excerpts Heinlein used to pepper his short stories.

    1. Um, it was a figure of speech — I know you are not actually “angry”….

      I get the argument that the YA label often makes adults dismiss worthy works. I probably have in the past as well.

      Yeah, the way in which novels are categorized based on their prose often ignores the presence of deeper meanings and allegories.

      Mindbridge is such a smooth read. While I wasn’t a big fan of the actual plot, the way it was told elevated it onto the list.

      What would go on your best vintage SF reads of 2019 list? (this list had a very limited sample size so it’s not my best SF of the 1970s or anything along those lines).

  11. Looks like you had a varied and interesting reading year simply based on your favorites. I’ve not read any of the novels or short stories with the exception of the Asimov…and I’m not 100% sure on that or if I’ve just read the Asimov/Silverberg novel The Positronic Man, which I genuinely enjoyed and found emotional and thought-provoking. I’ve read work by Kress and Haldeman and Tiptree and Gerrold for certain.

    Seconds by Ely sounds like something I would really enjoy.

    SF in my favorite reads of 2019 included the four Murderbot novellas by Martha Wells, Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, and How to Stop Time by Matt Haig, all fairly recent releases at the time. I also enjoyed classic short stories from the World Turned Upside Down anthology, including Code Three by Rick Raphael and Rescue Party by Arthur C. Clarke, The Aliens by Murray Leinster and Trigger Tide by Wyman Guin.

    Thanks for pointing me back to this post!

    1. Hello Carl,

      I suspect you’ve come across the Asimov somewhere — it’s among his most famous. I was not expecting to like it as much as I did!

      Definitely track down the Ely.

      I reviewed Rick Raphael’s novelization of Code Three a while back here: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2016/02/02/book-review-code-three-rick-raphael-1963-and-1964-novelization-1967/

      And his short story collection The Thirst Quenchers: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2017/06/06/book-review-the-thirst-quenchers-rick-raphael-1965/

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