2017 Faves: Sci-Fi Novels

As my Scottish Hogmanay vacation comes to an end, it seems like a good time to make another list of my favorite reads of 2017.  This time it’s science fiction novels.  Remember, these are books I actually read in 2017, not necessarily published in that year, but I’ll try to include publication information for each.

  1. Planetfall, by Emma Newman (Nov 2015)


Though this came out in late 2015, it took me till December of 2016 to pick it up, and was one of my first reads of 2017.  It took my by surprise, really, as I knew little about it except the title and that I’d been hearing about it for a while.  The level of Newman’s writing is equaled by few in this milieu; the suspense wasn’t contrived and the science fictional elements really evoked a lot of classic science fiction while not feeling outdated. It was, in fact, a very sensitively written book, and the motivations of the main character in particular were a visceral gut-punch as they unfolded throughout the story.  It’s a very forward-looking novel with both hope and despair, and that’s the kind of science fiction I like.

2. The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee (June 2017)


I love science fiction that challenges me, and Lee’s work always does.  This is the second in The machineries of Empire and it had just as many twists and turns, just as many hints and secrets as the first.  I’ve always felt that much of good world building is in deciding what not to explain, and this series really satisfies in that way.  I want to wonder, I want to use my imagination–as in horror, sometimes what gets left unsaid is the best catalyst for creativity–and The Raven Strategem really pushed me to engage with the world and the story it was telling.

3. The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey (March 2017)


This novel sort of came out of nowhere for me.  It requested it through NetGalley, probably forgot about it for a while, then picked it up one day when I was looking for something to read.  It really reads as more of a thought experiment, or series of short story sketches all woven together into a big I Wonder.  As much as it is interested in the science of space travel, it really probes the psychology of space travel and how we engage with something so completely alien to us–namely the vacuum itself.

4. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon (October 2017)


I’m always fascinated by fiction that explores what it’s like to live on a ship traveling through space, rather than just telling an adventure story that happens to happen in space, so this novel really grabbed me right from the first page.  It took me two or three tries before I checked it out of the library, but I’m glad I did.  It’s in many ways an own-voices story of the people often forgotten in mainstream science fiction–those who are not white, hetero, cis, male–and proof, if it were ever needed, that all stories can be compelling, complete, and contain multitudes with which to identify.  Again, in addition to being beautifully written it challenges with all that’s left untold.

5. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie (October 2014)


A person that’s a ship, a ship that’s a person.  A person who’s a mind graft of a thousand-times cloned person hundreds of years old.  An old menace, a new threat, connections made and broken.  Sometimes it seems that Ann Leckie’s fiction was made just for me.  I’ll never tire of a universe in which male isn’t the default, in which the definition of human is more than just meat and emotion.  This time it’s not a story of revenge, but one of putting things back together, looking for a way to move on, and it’s just as compelling as Ancillary Justice.

The Tuesday List: Time for a Change

This list is about regime change in sff.  Not rebels running around torching things, or dreaming of a better day, but fiction that actually deals with what happens when the ruling order forcibly changes.  It was a hard list to compile, because most people want aspirational stories, not hard truths, even authors, it seems.

  1. Crossroads (trilogy), by Kate Elliott

Elliott is one of the best world builders in fantasy, and Crossroads does  not disappoint.  These novels deal with not only the clash of worlds, but what it means when a foreign army marches into another nation and forcibly changes the way things are done, with only the brutal efficiency that can be managed by religious zeal and desperate fear.  And also there are giant eagles.

2. Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson


In this case, the humans start out on top, until some computers achieve ascendancy and decide the humans are too dangerous to keep around.  This is the story of the survivors of the original blow out, and how they adapt to a world where every machine is a potential murderer.

3. Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2), by Ann Leckie


In the fallout of Breq’s mission to kill Anaander Mianaai for her role in the destruction of Breq’s ship Justice of Toren, Breq must travel to a distant system where possible rebellion brews.  A sort of peace may now exist, but ripples of Mianaai’s duplicity are sparking all sorts of problems across Radch space and Breq must find the problems and quell them–in her own, not necessarily imperial, ways–before the empire falls apart.

4. The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard


Selene is doing her best to hold House Silverspires together after the mysterious disappearance of Morningstar, the most powerful of all the angels who fell from Heaven, but despite her best efforts, things are falling apart.  A series of mysterious deaths and magical failures make Silverspires ripe for plucking by the likes of House Hawthorn or even houses not controlled by Fallen.  This is the aftermath of regime change in one house, but the loss of Morningstar may mean the loss of ascendancy for all Fallen in Paris if the mystery is not solved.

5. Cloudbound(Bone Universe #2), by Fran Wilde


In this second of a trilogy, Kirit and Nat must contend with the consequences of their actions from Updraft, in which they revealed how the Spire and its Singers have been hiding the truth of the city from its inhabitants.  Although these secrets may have provided some safety and kept order–important for a populace who lives in the sky and for whom any large-scale disruption to trade could prove disastrous–it may also have led to the imminent collapse of the city structure and understanding of the city’s history.  Kirit and Nat are not welcomed as heroes, but looked upon with suspicion, forced out of the society they’d hoped to save, existing on the edges of the city and down in the damp cloudbound layers from which citizens usually never returned.

The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Reviewing the second book in a series is sometimes the most difficult kind of blog post.  The Raven Stratagem, book two in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of War series, is a lot of what one might expect after book one, and yet also plenty more.  The draw is the system of calendrical warfare and control  utilized by the hexarchate in order to maintain the system that has kept its leaders in power for centuries, but what keeps one reading is the intense focus on personal motivation and the overpowering humanity of the characters, even those who veer far outside the scale of normal social behavior and even sanity.

This novel picks up where Ninefox Gambit left off, with Kel Cheris a lifeless husk controlled by the terrifying revenant Shuos Jedao after the hexarchate attempted to take Jedao out following his successful quelling of rebellion at the Fortress of Scattered Needles.  Jedao knows he will always be too dangerous to remain alive, and yet he is determined to follow through with the mission of eliminating all threats to the hexarchate, and not just the original rebellion.  Meanwhile, at Shuos headquarters–at all hexarch headquarters, leaders are scrambling not only to figure out what Jedao is up to, but to maintain their own grasps of power and outmaneuver each other.

The driving motivations for most of the characters profiled in this novel, though we see the action from their points of view, are difficult to parse.  It is a given in the hexarchate that anyone with any bit of power has something to hide, and Lee sketches each character’s life as if it is a straight line leading up to the very moment of challenge or conflict they face in the novel, and yet every person’s life is far from a straight, intelligible progression of cause and effect.  Like the storms of war that plague the hexarchate, every person’s life is bound up with the cause and effect actions of others, and few can see to the roots of the struggle.

Cheris was originally chosen for her task of carrying Jedao because of her ability to think outside the Kel box she chose for herself, Brezan rises to astonishing heights for being a crashhawk–one who can resist Kel formation instinct, essentially military brainwashing–and Khiruev, whose fleet is appropriated by Jedao in Cheris’ body, can only succeed at failure.  Lee has taken all the complicated and frustrating aspects of humanity and painted them across the universe, greed, hatred, love, loyalty all fighting it out among the swarms and formations and exotic weapons and phantom terrain.

It’s a beautiful, fascinating, utterly confusing novel, and I look forward to book three with great anticipation.

The Poison Eater, by Shanna Germain

In an isolated city in the middle of a vast desert, Talia waits, scraping together the vestiges of a normal life, friends, loved ones, knowing every day that it could be her last. When the moon comes, Talia must take the poison, and hope she survives.  But survival, sometimes, is the worst thing a person could experience. Especially when no one else does.

Having escaped the mire of the Blackweave, Talia has come to Enthait seeking a new life, or simply to die in another place, one not so full of memories.  What she didn’t expect was to find life, not simply a place to live, and people about whom she cared more than her own life.  It is a familiar story with a new ring to it, thanks to the steady hand of Germain, who imagines a fantastic city full of half-forgotten lore and amazing techanical creations, created by humans and creatures alike who have made Enthait their home.

Germain’s realization of Enthait is vivid, to the point that the reader can taste the dust in the air and murmurs of a living city like bees buzzing around the hive, and her ability to twist a story round history and half-dreamed memories builds the kind of novel that is tantalizingly missing just the right pieces to pull the reader in until the end.  The Poison Eater is written in third person limited, clinging close to Talia’s thoughts and feelings in a way that compliments the bleak and beautiful aspects of Enthait and Talia’s new life.

Readers who enjoy their fantasy and science fiction together need look no further than the mech-enhanced cast of characters in this alt-world fantasy story.  Like the work of Kameron Hurley, this novel is bleak, full of tough-as-nails women willing to do what they must to survive, yet tells a universal story that many fantasy fans will relate to.  Anyone who likes fantasy that hides far more than it tells will be intrigued by the mythology of Enthait and the mysterious and terrible Vordcha from which Talia is running.

On SF and Genrefication

You read that right.  It doesn’t say genre fiction, it says genrefication.  Kinda like when Hugo Gernsback started publishing fiction that had a large scientific or technology component and called it Scientifiction.  Dumb name, right?  He probably felt terribly witty when he first came up with it, kinda like whoever first said steampunk, or cyberpunk, or maybe like Hero Protagonist crashing through suburban yards, thinking he was going to beat the pizza delivery countdown only to go splashing straight into someone’s in-ground pool.  It happens.

I have, probably to my ultimate emotional detriment, been doing some reading into the “history” of Science Fiction (SF).  I finally know how the Hugo Award got its name (or at least from whom).  I’ve read all about how witty Brian Aldiss is, and all those other white dudes–American and British–who liked to trash other writers, and SF itself for a while, for not conforming to one tradition or another.  I read literary critics who traced various periods of SF and how it conformed to/participated in/influenced one SF period or other.  And what I can say, without knowing the entire history, without having read all of–or indeed, really, any–of the Golden Age SF space operas and genre dialectics disguised as fiction, what has really defined SF is simple: the belief of one or another faction in their right to define or to be emblematic of a genre.

Various sources place Mary Shelley as the beginning of SF, but while many point to how Frankenstein included scientific speculation or aspects of gothic horror which led to explorations of the fantastic and so on and so on, few bother to talk about the fact that Shelley wanted to do something new.  She was constrained by her life and wanted to tell a story that was different.  Of course she drew on the Gothic, the Romantic, and other influences.  She was living at the height of Romanticism.  And the idea that 1960′s space opera was not part of the same Romantic continuum is just blind stupidity, if you ask me.  How would we ever have got to Kvothe’s love affair with himself if not for the incredible self-regard of those writing in the 1970′s, dreaming of all the futures that would contain only themselves?  It’s pretty much War of the Worlds all over again.  The British colonizing themselves.  Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov fellating themselves.  Same thing.

Of course, these men were products of their generations, the worlds in which they lived.  Heinlein is known for having included non-white characters in his stories–even going so far as to put great effort into making them likable and then revealing that they were black or latino–but would he ever have considered making space in his genre for a black or latino writer to create their own stories?  Hugo thought he was doing great things for a genre, and is recognized for that, but plenty of critics assert that Hugo Gernsback ruined whatever chance American SF had for becoming a fully developed literary genre.  That is, had Hugo not created Scientifiction, the SF revolution that has been taking place over the past 5-10 years (and which is, coincidentally, represented by the Hugo Awards crisis of every year from now to Earth-Death) might have happened in the 1920′s. 

And I suppose there are those who will ask, hands to their breasts in expectation of imminent fainting, that if SF’s development in the early 20th century hadn’t happened, if maybe Heinlein et al hadn’t had such time and space to speculate, we might never have waterbeds or cell phones or geostationary satellites or Grok.  Well, it’s true we might not have Grok.  But the rest?  Who’s to say a woman might not have invented those things?  Who’s to say others who did not have the chance to write in a world full of Hugo and Heinlein, might not have created all the worlds we now know, and more, had they been given their own space?

Because this is the crux.  Those who only want to see space opera SF written by and for white guys, only believe that white guys can come up with all those ideas.  That allowing someone else who isn’t a white guy to write their (and our) stories, would be allowing the possibility for sub-par production to sneak in.  People who only want white guy SF already believe everyone else is an alien.  No wonder it was so easy for so many guys to write Africans and minorities as aliens (looking at you Resnick).  However much Heinlein fought for racial equality, if he only ever saw himself as qualified to write minorities, he’s just a gatekeeper, not a visionary.  

SF is a million worlds and billions and billions of words and is infinitely more rich when everyone has a chance to participate.  What really defines SF is not trends and influences and tropes, it is the efforts of a few to draw a line around their playground and keep everyone out.  And this great club to which we all belong in our own ways–as readers, writers, critics, media consumers–is so much weaker for it.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is downright confusing
to read for the first hundred or so pages.  And that’s entirely the point.  In a universe-spanning tale of action and intrigue, Leckie
confronts—and forces the reader to confront—the idea of knowledge, particularly
self-knowledge, and how we can truly know anything, particularly ourselves.

as she refers to herself, is a person trekking across the universe on a
personal quest.  She is also a
ship, the Justice of Toren, in the
imperial fleet, watching everything her crew does.  She is the mind not only of the ship itself, but also of a
thousand bodies who assist her officers in their duties, maintain order, and
above all serve Anaander Mianaai.           

straight over the how of creating
real artificial intelligence and giving it emotion to boot, Leckie takes up the
ethics of the act.  In putting a
ship’s ancillaries—those human bodies who have been refitted to and connected
to the greater mind of the ship—in direct opposition to the ship itself, its
officers, ad the people of annexed worlds, Leckie explores how self-knowledge
is truly created and understood. 
Do we as contemporary humans understand ourselves wholly from a
subjective viewpoint, or only as separate and opposite from those around us, be
they  either sentient or
non-sentient?  She obliquely, and
then directly through one of the characters Breq encounters, asks whether
creating intelligence also creates a soul, and a separate will.

a story in which half the characters are different iterations of the same
person, Leckie does an outstanding job at characterization, imbuing her main
characters with that something that
makes a character unique and alive. 
Other than Breq, who is the point-of-view, Leckie doesn’t attempt to get
into the heads of her characters, letting their actions and interactions tell
their stories.  As in life, what is
assumed, what is said about someone, often tells just as much as the truth.

who enjoy modern space opera and military science fiction will enjoy Leckie’s
vision of a far-future inter-galactic empire, particularly those who enjoy the
vision and knowledge that Alistair Reynolds puts into his novels but want a
little more introspection in terms of character and motivation.  Those who love the exacting
anthropology of Ursula K. Le Guin or Elizabeth Bear’s science fiction will love
the long step into a new future that Leckie takes with her work.  Readers who enjoy explorations of self,
such as those created by Toni Morrison will surely find much to love in the
more cerebral aspects of Leckie’s work.

All Award Winners (SFF) via @WWEnd

Many of these awards are at least partially based on popular vote.  Unfortunately, this site doesn’t have a schedule of awards, but does have a lot of great information about past winners, as well as a neat BookTrackr app thingy that lets you track and rate the books you’ve read (not just award-winners).  Give it a look!

All Award Winners (SFF) via @WWEnd