I’m not sure what I can add about the general sentiment of 2020. It was awful in every way. Here’s to a better 2021.
Reading and writing for the site—and participating in all the SF discussions it’s generated over the year—was a necessary and greatly appreciated salve. Thank you everyone!
I also have one (hopefully more) review coming out in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the Curiosities column) in the spring. I’ve not included my reviews of those esoteric SF novels in this particular post.
Without further ado, here are my favorite novels and short stories I read in 2020 (with bonus categories). Tempted to track any of them down?
And feel free to list your favorite vintage (or non-vintage) SF reads of the year. As always, I look forward to reading your comments.
My Top 10 Science Fiction Novels (click titles for my review)
1. Electric Forest, Tanith Lee (1979), 5/5 (Masterpiece): Tanith Lee spins a gauzy, sinister, and terrifying tale of manipulative resurrection. A brilliant inventor projects the mind of a grotesque social outcast into a new transcendent body—but this isn’t an altruistic act. There’s a plot afoot. Electric Forest (1979), a shimmery nightmare of psycho-sexual manipulation, enters my pantheon of favorite 70s SF visions.
2. Dance the Eagle to Sleep, Marge Piercy (1970), 4.5/5 (Very Good): Piercy’s novel can be read as the rise and fall—intense, ecstatic, meaningful, tempestuous—of an Students for a Democratic Society-esque student-driven movement (The Indians) in a near-future totalitarian America. Piercy follows a cast of characters whose paths, visions, and routes to revolutionary activity differ. As the movement is beset by external and internal forces, what remains when the fragmentation sets in, and the end comes over all, is a resounding nostalgia of what could have been.
3. A Storm of Wings, M. John Harrison (1980), 4.5/5 (Very Good): Highly recommended for fans of convention-breaking fantasy/SF more focused on disquieting scene and metaphor. But be prepared for a moody inundation… let yourself sink in, float across its waters as the moon dims, and beware the severed insect heads!
4. The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955), 4.5/5 (Very Good) not only clocks in as the best of her work I’ve read so far but also joins my pantheon of favorite post-apocalyptical 50s SF visions. At first glance Brackett’s novel appears to traverse standard SF juvenile territory where a teenage boy, in a religiously and socially oppressive society, encounters an object and memories of the past that opens up a path to self-discovery. But memories are memories. And dreams are dreams. The world is a far more violent and rocky place.
5.Termush, Sven Holm (1967, trans. 1969), 4.5/5 (Very Good) depicts, with stark minimalism, the psychological state of wealthy survivors holed up in a hotel shelter after an apocalyptic nuclear event. The novel delves into the psyche of the survivors, their isolation and inability to grasp the immensity of the changes beyond their walls, and their internal transformation as the rituals of “civilization” are maintained while the “reality” of external world infringes upon their oasis.
6. Twilight Country, Knut Faldbakken (1974, trans. 1993), 4.5/5 (Very Good): Review forthcoming! SF in translation from Norway. I accidentally deleted my extensive notes which pushed back my review writing. This is an unsettling tale of the inhabitants of a future city dump.
I am reminded of the lyrics of The Poppy Family’s “Of Cities and Escapes” — “I’m caught in the grip of the city, madness and smog.” Sampled by Dan the Automator and Del the Funky Homosapien in the song “Madness” on Deltron 3030 (2000).
7. Hyacinths, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1983), 4.25/5 (Very Good) is an unsettling dystopian tale of a future where even the unregulated creative world of Dreams is harnessed and controlled. On another level, Hyacinths lays bare the dangers of unregulated industry and the ingrained sexism within western capitalism. There’s a deep sadness within these pages, a sadness at the lack of progress for equal rights in the workplace, a sadness at our collective inability to help those who need it most.
8. The Black Corridor, Michael Moorcock and Hilary Bailey (1969), 4.25/5 (Very Good) explores the effects of physical (a spaceship with a lone awake crewman hurtling across space) and societal ( a near-future world plunging into fascism) isolation. Highly recommended for fans of New Wave SF for the crystalline rendering of the narrative, sustained and intense exploration of “inner space,” and its inventive typographical art.
9. City Come A-Walkin’, John Shirley (1980), 4/5 (Good), an early cyberpunk novel, succeeds as a surreal and earthy paean to diverse urban community and punk rebellion. A club owner and angst rocker join forces with a physical manifestation of San Francisco to fight the forces of technological change. I wasn’t convinced by the plot but the images and tone transfixed.
10. The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969), 4/5 (Good): Cyborgs. Grand adventure. Space plagues. Theater performances for aliens. Trauma and recovery. The stories follow the space opera adventures and emotional development of the cyborg Helva, a “shell-person” implanted into a scout ship, and her various operators. I am not convinced by McCaffrey’s discussion of the moral implications of the world she’s created. That said, I was pulled into the individual adventures and felt deeply for Helva.
My Top 10 Science Fiction Short Stories
1. “Death of a Spaceman” (variant title: “Memento Homo”), Walter M. Miller, Jr. 5/5 (Masterpiece): Retired spacer Old Donegal (“Donny”) lies in his bed dying of cancer: his family “had all known it was coming, and they had watched it come” (7). In his rundown house with his long-suffering wife Martha at his side, he waits for the inevitable release with his magnasoles on his shriveled feet propped up on his bedframe. A remarkably engaging story that unveils the complexities of thinking through death.
2. “What’s It Like Out There?” (1952) Edmond Hamilton, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Edmond Hamilton argues that returning spacemen will experience similar trauma to that of war veterans. And just like we glamorize war in media, the dangers of space travel (both physical and mental) are sanitized by gaudy pulp adventures. The story succeeds as a complex analysis of the tales we tell each other to obfuscate traumatic experiences and give comfort to those suffering loss.
3. “The Dead Astronaut” (1968), J. G. Ballard, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Ballard at the height of his powers… With NASA’s program long discontinued, Cape Kennedy is now a wasteland of swamps and stark “gantries rising from the deserted dunes” (11). In this decayed near future, Judith and Philip, married ex-NASA employees, await the descent of a dead astronaut.
4. “The Killing Ground” (1969), J. G. Ballard, 5/5 (Masterpiece) postulates a near future U.K. occupied by a technologically advanced America. Like the French holed up at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954), a group of Americans are surrounded by British revolutionaries revolting against the English puppet government in London. Major Pearson interacts with three nameless American prisoners, a wounded African American soldier, a young soldier with a bag filled with books, and their captain who tries to clean the Kennedy Memorial near where the prisoners are held. Beautiful. Stark. Intense.
5. “Thus Love Betrays Us” (1972), Phyllis MacLennan, 4.5/5 (Very Good). Deirdre, a nightless and oppressive world filled with thick mists and layers of moss, had only just been charted and described. To finish the survey, the ship Magus leaves Alex Barthold behind to catalogue its biological features. At first Alex craves the freedom an empty planet promises after the personal friction, lack of privacy, and constant noise on an interstellar ship. Soon after its departure, an accident destroys the Magus leaving Barthold alone in his research tent…. and the nightmare that unfolds chills to the bone.
6. “Nine Lives” (1969), Ursula K. Le Guin, 4.5/5 (Very Good) explores mental ramifications of cloning. A group of ten clones are assigned to a remote mining planet, manned by a skeleton crew. Reflective and powerful. A disaster tale done right!
7. “And Read the Flesh Between the Lines” (1974), R. A. Lafferty, 4.5/5 (Very Good): First, imagine history as one would a memory–compressed, selective, porous, constantly rewiring itself. Now imagine a physical manifestation of memory—a throbbing room filled with ephemera of youth and the items of nostalgia and the language of comic books… This proximity of images collides with what could be an alternate-history, as a man ruminates out loud with his Australopithecus servant serving drinks. Memory as a passive myth-generating process? I want to reread this one and re-uncover its threads! Lafferty at his best (and most oblique).
8. “When They Find You” (1977), Craig Strete, 4.75/5 (Very Good): a disquieting allegory of colonization on an alien world. A deliberate and haunting story that explicitly parallels the effects of colonization on an alien world with the western encounter with Native Americans.
9. “Baa Baa Blocksheep” (1968), M. John Harrison, 4.5/5 (Very Good): I enjoyed this enigmatic early Harrison story! It contains the same oppressive melancholy as his better known works. A urban manifestation, as “physically real” as cardboard cutouts on a set, plays out an oppressive emptiness in which our characters attempt to interact and parse out.
10. “The Statue” (1953), Mari Wolf, 4.5/5 (Very Good) is devilishly simple and deeply affective. Martha and Lewis Farewell, the last survivors of the first Mars colonization mission 65 years earlier, desire to return to Earth before they die. But the elderly cannot make the three-month trip due to medical risks without a special dispensation. On a Mars redolent with Ray Bradbury-esque frontier feel, Martha and Lewis ponder their pasts, their shared love, their accomplishments, their last desires, and the pull of home, wherever that might be.
I’ve started a fun (mostly read-along) series on SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them. Stay tuned for future installments! And thanks for all the great conversation.
Short Stories Covered
1. “Death of a Spaceman” (variant title: “Memento Homo”), Walter M. Miller, Jr. 5/5 (Masterpiece)
2. “What’s It Like Out There?” Edmond Hamilton, 5/5 (Masterpiece):
3. “The Dead Astronaut” (1968), J. G. Ballard, 5/5 (Masterpiece). I read this before I started my series but it fits! (see above for the brief rundown).
My Top 5 Academic History Reads
In a given year, I tend to read far more history than science fiction. Here are some gems worth tracking down.
1. A Generation Divided: The New Left, The New Right, and the 1960s, Rebecca E. Klatch (1999): A brilliant comparison of both liberal and conservative youth organizations in the 60s — SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and YAF (Young Americans for Freedom). Klatch suggests that we cannot view the 60s without looking at both. If anything, YAF had a greater impact by creating an entire generation of conservative politicians and leaders and set the stage for the 70s and 80s conservative backlash while SDS imploded.
2. Gods in Dwellings: Temples and Divine Presence in the Ancient Near East, Michael B. Hundley (2013): This is the first book devoted to perceptions of the divine presence within the temple in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Hittite Anatolia, and Syria-Palestine. What relationship between deity and image does a temple convey? How does this relate to the divine presence outside of the sacred environs?
3. The Early History of Heaven, J. Edward Wright (2000): I’m a sucker for comparative historical texts. Wright traces ideas of Heaven from the Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideas world where Heaven was a liminal netherworld to Jewish and early Christian conceptions of Heaven as an abode of God influenced heavily by Greek thought. Christianity was in a complex dialogue with its predecessors and contemporaries.
4. The Cults of the Roman Empire, Robert Turcan (1992, trans. 1996): The Roman World contained a marketplace of religions (of which Christianity was but one). Turcan’s monograph explores this religious landscape–from the cult of the Great Mother and her Eunuchs to Isis of the Many Names, or Our Lady of the Waves. Highly recommended.
5. The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern India 994-1040, C. E. Bosworth (1963): Explores the origins and early history of a Turkish slave dynasty in Afghanistan and India in the political landscape of the disintegrating Abbasid Caliphate. Keep in mind the publication date on this one! But there are no other monographs on the topic… I also read the later companion volume.
Goals for 2020
These are the same as my goals for 2020.
1. Keep reading and writing.
2. Perhaps start a podcast? (there are plans brewing)
3. Perhaps start a Patreon? I have made an account but haven’t set it up. (Many conflicting thoughts here. We shall see).
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For book reviews consult the INDEX
For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX