Updates: My 2021 in Review (Best SF Novels, Best SF Short Fiction, and Bonus Categories)

2021 was the best year in the history of my site for visits and unique viewers! I suspect this increasingly has to do with my twitter account where I actively promote my site vs. a growing interest in vintage SF. I also hit my 1000th post–on Melisa Michaels’ first three published SF short stories–in December.

As I mention year after year, I find reading and writing for the site—and participating in all the SF discussions it’s generated over the year—a necessary and greatly appreciated salve. Thank you everyone!

I read very few novels this year. Instead, I devoted my attention to various science short story reviews series and anthologies. Without further ado, here are my favorite novels and short stories I read in 2021 (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. I look forward to reading your comments.

My Top 7 Science Fiction Novels of 2021 (click titles for my review)

1. Where Time Winds Blow (1981), Robert Holdstock, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Holdstock’s vision is a well-wrought cavalcade of my favorite SF themes–the shifting sands of time, the pernicious maw of trauma that threatens to bite down, unreliable narrators trying to trek their own paths, a profoundly alien planet that compels humanity to construct an entirely distinct society… It’s a slow novel that initially masquerades as something entirely different. Just like the planet itself.

2. Twilight Country (1974, trans. 1993), Knut Faldbakken, 4.75/5 (Very Good): I read this novel in 2020 but didn’t review it until 2021–hence why it’s on this year’s list!

I am fascinated by densely metaphoric SF “survival” stories within the urban expanse. And Twilight Country‘s decaying metropolis of Sweetwater is one of the best. The masterstroke of Faldbakken’s novel is the portrayal of the Dump, a border zone containing the cast off fragments of human existence, as a generative locus. Our characters run to the Dump to escape, to make their lives anew. There’s a tangible sense of organic transformation within the characters who inhabit this liminal zone. Sweetwater and The Dump act as a closed system. One decays into the other. One creates the other.

3. In Watermelon Sugar (1968), Richard Brautigan, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Desperate for something unlike any other New Wave SF experiment, I came across Richard Brautigan’s surreal post-catastrophe novel In Watermelon Sugar (1968). Brautigan, best known as a Counterculture poet and the author of Trout Fishing in America (1967), spins a poetic thread simultaneously elegiac and nightmarish. More a sequence of short linked scenes, In Watermelon Sugar charts the memories of a nameless narrator (N) attempting to write a book about the community and inhabitants of iDEATH. 

In Watermelon Sugar is a successful experiment. Brautigan’s deceptively simple prose creates a surreal landscape redolent with haunting imagery and emotion. N’s narration reaffirms the importance of making meaningful connections in the present and the dangerous pull of nostalgia that ties us forever in the past. There’s horror in these pages. There’s love in these pages.

4. Dawn (1987), Octavia E. Butler, 4/5 (Good): The premise: Lilith Iyapo awakes on aboard a huge alien spaceship. The Oankali saved the human survivors from Earth. They repair the earth and healed many human ailments. In return they expect to collect humanity’s genetic material–and to take their humanity.

The background themes Butler’s novel explores–the disturbing alien view that the value of humanity is tied entirely up in the genetics and the ability to reproduce–resonate. I found myself deeply invested in the travails and agonies of the survivors trying to chart their paths in the bizarre new world they find themselves in. I enjoyed the novel enough to pick up a copy of the sequel–Adulthood Rites (1988)

5. Captain Blackman (1972), John A. Williams, 4/5 (Good): John A. Williams spins a fever dream of an injured black Vietnam War soldier hurled via hallucinatory time-travel into all of America’s conflicts. While hospitalized, Abraham Blackman, who teaches a military seminar to his troops, plays the archetypal role of black soldier from the Revolutionary War to a near-future Cold War conflict. In each conflict, white men preach the promise of freedom. And when black soldiers join up, they are subjected to racism, violence, and the promises are forgotten in the battlefields—from skirmishes in the Buffalo War to The Battle of the Crater–along with their countless shattered bodies.

6. Only Lovers Left Alive (1964), Dave Wallis, 4/5 (Good): The scene: Early 60s London. Conjure displays of cool style at local discothèques. Youthful insolence and wit. Frivolous consumerism. Into this swirling myth/reality of the “Swinging” city in the early 60s, Dave Wallis’ Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) weaves its own petulant “image making.” The youth attempt to create a world in the ashes of their forefathers who commit suicide in droves.

Unlike John Christopher’s Pendulum (1968), that drips with sullen rants about England’s “traditions crumbling under the assault of the new Hedonism,” Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) uncovers a beating heart behind the experience-driven youth forced to confront a world without parents and other “squares” (14). Swinging London, despite all its youthful insolence and frivolous consumerism, will birth something new and lasting.

7. The Descent (1960), Gina Berriault, 3.75/5 (Good): The year is 1964. The Cold War rages. In a world terrified by massive retaliation, the American populace finds solace in dreams of the descent into the fallout shelter and nebulous concepts of rebirth. Written just before JFK’s push (1961) for personal family fallout shelters, Berriault envisages vast communal warrens. The president appoints Arnold T. Elkins, a history professor at DeVelbiss College Iowa, to the newly created Secretary for Humanity position. Supposedly the position will “assure humanity that the first missile may never be fired, that the bombs may never fall” and the benefits of a Nuclear Age will be reaped by all (6-7).

Berriault positions Cold War terror as self-generating and self-perpetuating. Disarmament cannot be an option when the nuclear bomb as necessity has infiltrated all elements of our existence. And of course, the fallout shelters proliferating like boils, become symbolic of America’s destructive tendencies and perverse desire to press the button.

My Top 15 Science Fiction Short Stories Reads of 2021

1. “Pelt” (1958), Carol Emshwiller, 5/5 (Masterpiece): “Pelt” is all about the inability to communicate. The dog can only interact with its unique honed faculties and knowledge–smells, the feel of the ground, the emotional signs of her master. As we are viewing all from the dog’s perspective, an icy distance intrudes. Oblique action and implication must be divined through a non-human eye. We hunt for clues and sounds. Do the aliens want the hunter to live with the full knowledge of his crime? But why does the hunter place the head among his trophies? Is it a way to forget? Or a way to remember? The dog, of course, does not understand freedom and follows the hunter to another world.

2. “Down Among the Dead Men” (1954), William Tenn, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Tenn’s narrators are entirely caught up in the propaganda of their moment. And of course, far deeper traumas and memories bubble beneath the surface. This is terrifying world that the narrator inhabits–children learn war strategy from birth, women are perpetually pregnant with new soldiers, waves and waves of men are sent out to the insectoid grinder, and simulacra of men do odd jobs oblivious to the terror of battle.

Tenn places the light-hearted triumphant pulp conflict with aliens into a wrecked landscape of reclaimed bodies and traumatized veterans that still spin the same “official” narratives of chauvinistic glory. Highly recommended.

3. “Hunter, Come Home” (1963), Richard McKenna, 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): creates richly realized world in which the men of Mordin must prove themselves by fighting a beast called the Great Russel. Each man who successfully defeats the creature receives a tattoo on their forehead indicating their status. I found “Hunter, Come Home” an incisive allegory of the corrosive nature of the homosocial world of the military where rank trumps everything else.

4. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959), Theodore Sturgeon, 5/5 (Masterpiece) thrusts the reader into a seemingly delusional landscape, generated by extreme trauma, of narrative fragments. One thread follows a child as he presents increasingly complex toy spacecraft to a sick man trapped in the sand. In another instance, an accident at sea becomes a transformative realization that fear can be overcome.  All the threads coalesce into a remarkable distillation of post-Sputnik (1957) triumph and clarity.

5. “The Liberation of Earth” (1953), William Tenn, 5/5 (Masterpiece):  A Korean War parable, “The Liberation of Earth” tells of two alien powers (the Dendi and the Troxxt) engaged in an interstellar war. Earth, a cosmic backwater, is repeatedly “liberated” and simultaneously destroyed by repeated waves of occupation and the scars of alien weapons. The tale is told as if we, the readers, are learning an oral history from one of Earth’s few survivors–who spend their time munching succulent roots (57) and fighting giant rabbits in order to consume each other’s dead (75). Tenn’s best when his tales involve far future locals. A must read for fans of anti-war SF and the intersection of orality and collective memory….

6. “The Cage of Sand” (1962), J. G. Ballard, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Amidst the wreckage of Cape Canaveral, with its “old launch-gantries and landing ramps [..] like derelict pieces of giant sculpture” (140), three souls attempt to find meaning in the buried hotels and relics of a rapidly disappearing past. Ballard at his best.

7. “Casey Agonistes” (1958), Richard McKenna, 4.5/5 (Very Good): In a hospital tuberculous ward during an undefined military conflict (WWII?), a group of soldiers wait for the inevitable in a purgatorial landscape that most will not escape. A powerful and harrowing fable populated with characters that seem like army friends McKenna might have interacted with in his long military career. The tale also introduces themes that reappear in other stories in the collection: military companionship through trauma and despair and metaphysical/fantastical intrusions into hyper-realistic gritty worlds.

8. “Day at the Beach” (1959), Carol Emshwiller, 4.5/5 (Very Good): At first glance “Day at the Beach” reaffirms the power of family in the face of a cataclysmic event as a mother and father slowly accept changes brought on by atomic mutation. Or, there’s a more sinister reading where the family unit creates a delusional bubble that obfuscates the real horror outside (and inside) their home.

9. “The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts From the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics” (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Oh yes, this one presses all my buttons! Le Guin’s delightful exploration of the nature of language vibrates with a overwhelming love of the natural world and all its wonders. At turns a light jest at the nature of academic writing and argument, Le Guin presents a series of fragments of unusual languages found in nature. Le Guin presents the natural world as a SFictional landscape of hidden languages and mysteries beneath the surface.

10. “The Shrine of Temptation” (1962), Judith Merril, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Academic anthropologists observe an island community on an alien planet. Lallalyall, aka Lucky, approaches the anthropologists and becomes their liaison to the community and its fascinating cyclical formulations. I found the world immersive and the mystery compelling. Perhaps a Cold War allegory of how the American people rationalized “security” and “conformity” in an era of oppression?

11. “Pigeon City” (1972), Jesse Miller, 4.5/5 (Very Good): In the 1950s and 1960s, white Americans propelled by racism and economic reasons fled the urban centers for the suburbs. Jesse Miller’s disquieting “Pigeon City” imagines a Harlem of the future where similar trends continue—racial enclaves become utterly isolated from the exterior world. The “city machine” (88), now controlled by computers, provides food, supplies, and retribution to the increasingly dilapidated and forlorn “ghettos” (94). There are no jobs as basic necessities are provided by the city. Curtiss and his fellow black denizens of Harlem while away their time absorbed in their hobbies.

“Pigeon City” puts a distinct twist on common SF themes of automation and urban decay. This is a surreal nightmare of segregation pushed to the extremes.

12. “The Pleasure of Our Company” (variant title: “The Pleasure of Their Company” (1970), Robert Silverberg, 4.25/5 (Good):  Fleeing a military junta that deposed him, Thomas Voightland, Former President of the Citizens’ Council on Bradley’s World, contemplates exile. Without his family and long-time political allies, he sets off alone with only the programmed cubes of famous people and his family members to keep him company–their speaking visages projected on the screens of the spacecraft. The man in exile is fascinating perspective for a narrator—and a narrator who only tells half the truth.

13. “The Packerhaus Method” (1970), Gene Wolfe, 4.25/5 (Good): Embalming technology. An increasingly unnerving narrative rhythm punctuated by “‘Meow,’ said the cat’” (113). And Old Woman gathering “friends” as she approaches her own death. Gene Wolf spins a sinister tale of “The Packerhaus Method” where the bodies of the dead are animated by electrical impulses. Are the embalmed sentient? 

14. “The Last Crusade” (1955), George H. Smith, 4/5 (Good): Confused soldiers for the Peoples Federal Democratic Western Republics in mecho-armor suits ramble across the ruins of Paris speculating about the nature of their conflict with the Peoples Federal Democratic Eastern Republics. The seductive voices of the enemy interrupt their sad ruminations promising rewards if they cross enemy lines and turn over their armor. “The Last Crusade” narrows in on the emptiness of American commercial “freedom” as a reason for conflict and a representation of American superiority.

15. “Baby” (1958), Carol Emshwiller, 4/5 (Good): Raised by a robotic nurse, Baby, “six feet tall, lean, [with] the look of a hungry hunting animal,” encounters a slowly decaying world unable to provide his needs (115). Baby’s simulacra parent, and to a lesser degree Rob the repair robot, parrot the language, actions, and intentions of humans. He detects an emptiness to the space behind their words and increasing inability to explain the mechanical breakdowns that are never fixed.

Reading Initiatives

I have continued, resurrected, and created new science fiction short story reading series. All the stories I’ve picked for the series are available in some fashion online. I’ve included posts from 2021 in each series below. Feel free to read along with us! Stay tuned for future installments and a new series in Jan. 22! And thanks for all the great conversation.

Carol Emshwiller’s Short Fiction (1954-1980) (started in 2021)

The Search for the Depressed Astronaut (continued from 2020)

Generation Ship Short Fiction (continued from 2019)

My Top 5 Academic History Reads of 2021

In a given year, I tend to read far more history than science fiction. Here are some gems worth tracking down. Note: I’m a PhD-wielding historian and have a high tolerance for academic texts. Dry writing, theory, constant references to other scholars, lots and lots of evidence, etc. do not bother me. Slipping into a dense monograph is like returning to a comforting home. I’m not judging them on lay “readability.”

1. Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization, Arthur Demarest (2004): Want to know more about the Ancient Maya from one of the foremost scholars on the topic? This is for you. That is all.

2. Swinging City: A Cultural Geography of London 1950-1974, Simon Rycroft (2011): I blame Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) for this purchase! I realized I knew little historical context to understand the commentary in Wallis’ novel and procured this delightful monograph on Swinging London’s “radical and experimental cultural politics generated by the city’s counterculture” and conceptions of material excess and “comic vacuousness.” Highly recommended!

3. Every Home a Fortress: Cold War Fatherhood and The Family Fallout Shelter, Thomas Bishop (2021): The University of Massachusetts Press’ series “Culture and Politics in the Cold War and Beyond” puts out some of the most engaging analyses American society I’ve ever read. This one is no exception. Bishop analyzes the rhetoric used to sell the fallout shelter to Americans–of course, the marketing campaign was mostly a failure as few Americans procured them. Bishop argues that the “fallout shelter father” who, with “spade in hand and the canned goods he has amassed,” was pivotal in the social histories of “white middle class” Americans. Fallout shelters weren’t even marketed to those who lived in densely populated cities of non-white Americans… The suburban family was the target audience. I loved this one.

4. Alexander the Great: The Story of An Ancient Life, Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell (2012): How does one write an biography about an ancient figure with limited sources that traditionally would be used? Can one write a “biography” at all? This is a fascinating text that attempts to place Alexander the Great’s choices and drives firmly within the world in which he lived and the society which he knew. Perhaps worthwhile more as a brilliant methodological exercise…

5. Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s, Andrew M. Butler (2014): I have an ambivalent relationship with this monograph on 70s science fiction but understand its value. I recommend the book due to the fascinating divergences that occur between science fictional film and text in the era and for readers who might not know the major authors of the period and their primary themes (feminism, post-colonial fatigue, etc.). Authors that Butler has previously published on receive far more focus than others–this is not surprising. As a result, the monograph lurches between frustrating summary of texts that Butler doesn’t know what to say about and intriguing analysis. There’s far too much summary… Chapters end mid-analysis and rarely pull together the threads. As someone increasingly interested in science fiction scholarship, I now know where my site might be able to add to the larger quilt.

Goals for 2022

These similar to my 2021 goals.

1. Keep reading and writing.

2. Perhaps start a Patreon? I have made an account but haven’t set it up. (I am immobilized by conflicting thoughts).

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

46 thoughts on “Updates: My 2021 in Review (Best SF Novels, Best SF Short Fiction, and Bonus Categories)

  1. Well, I’m cross because you may have made me break my 2022 resolution to buy no more books on the first day of the year with your review of the Robert Holdstock novel. It sounds really good. Still, what would a world with no books to discover be like?

    • It’s a good kind of cross I hope!

      I’s really good. Worth the purchase — and I can’t imagine used copies cost that much.

      Did you make a best reads of 2021 list? If so, feel free to link it. I love perusing them.

    • I prefer discussion on the site as there’s a chance it relates to the topic. Twitter is a wasteland I generally dislike… but have to navigate as it does bring new readers to my site and has allowed some genuine friendships to come about across the SF world. You’re welcome to browse around a bit if you’re curious. https://twitter.com/SFRuminations

      I 100% prefer discussion to take place on my site.

      As for Patreon, I’ve had some ideas for a while… I would not post less on the site but rather have an extra element on Patreon. We shall see.

      • I asked about twitter because from everything I’ve observed it’s the utter wastelands of the socialmedia world, filled with horrors beyond mortal ken. So I was just wondering if you’d experienced first hand some of the horrors I’ve heard about. I’ve no interest in checking out the site myself 😀
        because I too like discussions on a blog, where I’m not limited to 140 characters.

        • Well, I use the block and mute function liberally. And keep whom I follow small and controlled… I guess the primary extra stuff I tweet include daily pre-1955 birthdays of people involved in some way with SF (editors, authors, artists) and random interior art and covers I come across while I research and write for the site.

        • I might add that I finished “Inverted World” just before New Year. A compelling read, even if I wasn’t as “blown away” by the reveal as some. Perhaps too jaded by too much SF?! Or maybe just too aware of the work in the first place–damn the spoilers! Still, a great work. I am very keen to hunt down more of Priest’s works.
          I am also going to track down Holdstock’s “Where Time Winds Blow”. Thanks for the pointer. I’m very excited. After all, amidst our own shifting reality I need more fictional shifts…

          • The most interesting element of the end of The Inverted World is the refusal of the main character to believe it. I rarely encounter a sympathetic narrator who refuses to believe the conceptual breakthrough.

            Definitely track down “The Real-Time World.” As I said before, it pairs nicely (but distinctly) with The Inverted World.

            • Perhaps Priest wrote it to refute the likes of Non-Stop or Orphans of the Sky? Or at least problematise their representations of conceptual breakthroughs. I feel that I blinded myself to this insight—much like Helward!
              I’ve checked my collection and sure enough I have a copy of the collection Real-Time World.

            • Helward believes the empiricism of his senses — even if his senses are shaped by the world he has lived in. I love the clash of empirical systems that Priest creates with the premise.

            • This is all to say I am most intrigued by the end of Inverted World as a refutation of the conceptual breakthrough/critique of the heroic male who finds his way and wins the war. Helward seems to fit the template — but he cannot break free the world that has created him.

            • The other worthwhile stories in there are “The Head and the Hand” (1972) (which I liked the most in the collection), “Double Consummation” (1970), “A Woman Naked” (1974), and “Sentence in Binary Code” (1971). There are some average to poor ones as well — the mundane “The Perihelion Man” (1969), etc.

            • I’m actually reading Real-Time World even as we speak! Tho stupidly checking twitter during the breaks…

            • The idea of Helward being caught in the bind if his positivist empiricism is something I’m still ruminating upon. Thanks for bringing this up. I feel Priest’s ideas are somewhere between Kant’s and Hegel’s. Helward’s perception is not merely shaped by his sensory apparatus, but also and especially his “world”. Somewhere amongst this is a fruitful philosophical conversation that hopefully I’m stumbling toward.

            • Nice. Obviously, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I wish I had written a review of The Inverted World. It would be far easier for me to discuss it with you if I remembered more than the general ark of the story and individual powerful scenes.

  2. Happy 2022, Dr. B. I think you should do the Patreon…then you will have a slush fund to go after those triple-digit unicorn books that won’t get reprinted before the Bookpocalypse coming this decade.

  3. I will keep an eye out for In Watermelon Sugar, very intrigued by that.

    That Maya book looks interesting too, but I’m reading that new book by David Graeber & David Wengrow at the moment, so I probably got my dose of books on archeology covered for the foreseeable future.

  4. I’ll definitely try to track down a copy of Where Time Winds Blow at some point, sounds like it should be something for me (I allready have a copy of In Watermelon Sugar, but haven’t read it yet).

    In 2021 I also read Moorcocks Black Corridor and Sven Holms Termush based on your recommendations from last year, and liked both of them a lot.

    Other SF highlights for me this year include:
    Wisniewski-Snerg: Robot
    Bioy Casares: Morels Invention
    Barrington Bayley: The Zen Gun
    Jon Bing: The Soft Landscape
    Strugatsky Brothers: One Billion Years to the End of the World
    Angla Carter: The Passion of New Eve
    Kobo Abe: Box Man and Ark Sakura (but perhaps they don’t really count as SF)

    • I’m glad you enjoyed The Black Corridor and Termush! I should read more of Abe’s SF. I adored (and reviewed) Secret Rendezvous. I have The Face of Another and Inter Ice-Age 4 on the shelf.

      Let me know what you think of In Watermelon Sugar whenever you get to it.

      I saw that Wisniewski-Snerg’s Robot was recently translated. I need to add it to my list.

      I went through a HUGE Barrington Bayley binge when I started my site. My pseudonym is partially derived from his novel Pillars of Eternity — a character, after a traumatic experience, names himself Joachim Boaz. I think my favorite novels of his are The Fall of Chronopolis (1974) and The Garments of Caean (1976). I haven’t read The Zen Gun yet.

      Carter is another favorite of mine. I never managed to review The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. I was overwhelmed by her vision. It would appear on my favorite SF novels of the 70s list if I were to put them together.

      Morel’s Invention is great!

      We seem to have similar tastes 🙂

  5. Thanks for the reference to Swinging City, reading the first chapter on Amazon it’s decidedly in my ambit and I hadn’t seen it. Damn, Routledge books are spendy.

    I recently finished Patterson’s bio of Heinlein and the stuff about building the fallout shelter, debating which neighbors would get to join them when the time came, etc., seems so objectively mad, now. Not that we don’t have parts of the population with equivalent levels of mass madness now, alas.

    • Hello Jim,

      Yeah, academic books have outrageous prices. While I am affiliated with two universities, I am not physically close to their libraries which means I buy far more academic books than before… with every book I wanted at my fingertips.

      The best survey of the fallout shelter era is Kenneth D. Rose’s brilliant One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. Highly recommended!

  6. Just going through Time Winds now, and loving it. After I read your review I decided to start with Mythago Wood as I hadn’t read anything by Holdstock before, and was impressed enough to want to read another. I see what you mean about the pace of Time Winds – it starts by dropping us into the action, but at the same time it’s a slow and slightly confusing build to what seems to be the real crux of the novel: the layering of the mysteries of the planet with the mysteries of the relationships of the main characters. Quality stuff, but not immediately obviously so.

    • Glad you’re enjoying it! When you’re finished, let me know how it compares to Mythago Wood. I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading some of his short stories and Earthwind (1977) first before his supposed magnum opus.

      I am curious about what you think of the “twist” ending of Where Time Winds Blow. I think it matches the shifting feel that not is all as it seems.

  7. You got me to try the Holdstock story, which is what I love about your site. I’d have never gone toward it otherwise. That’s worth a buck or two a month on Patreon; to me anyway.

  8. Because of your reviews in 2021, I bought physical copies of the following for my to-be-read bookcase: Twilight Country, and two by Carol Emshwiller. It may take a while to get to them, but I’ll post when I do!

      • The Emshwiller books I purchased are later ones: Report to the Men’s Club, 2002 (includes science fiction and fantasy) and Leaping Man Hill, 1998 (Western). They’re outside your wheelhouse, but they’re the ones that caught my eye, and I did get interested in her because of your write-ups. I still haven’t read them — so much to read, so little time!

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