If there’s an (unintentional) theme for the best speculative fiction I read this year, it’s Africa. Two South Africans, Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz, each had a bestselling novel hit the shelves, and two Nigerian-American authors, Nnedi Okorafor and Deji Bryce Olukotun, expanded the horizons of literary science fiction. Meanwhile, two speculative novels were nominated for major literary awards: the Man Booker Prize for David Mitchell, and the National Book Award for Emily St. John Mandel.
So, in no particular order, I give you my top ten speculative novels of 2014. And except for Michel Faber, you can follow all of the authors on Twitter.
(I’ve also added my three biggest “duds” of the year at the end of the post, the books that were the most promising, but ultimately, the most disappointing).
VanderMeer’s groundbreaking trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, now available in a gorgeous omnibus volume) was the touchstone of my reading life in 2014. In three vastly different, wildly imaginative books, VanderMeer explores the alien-ness of the natural world and the slippery essence of what it means to be human. For my series of posts on what writers can learn from each volume in the trilogy, head here, here, and here.
I love fictional cities with detailed histories, and Bulikov has joined Gotham, New Crobuzon, Nessus, and Ae’gura as one of my all-time favorites. Once the site of countless architectural miracles powered by the Continental Divinities, the capital city is now ruined under the occupation of the Saypuri, a warring nation-state responsible for the death of the Divinities. When the world’s foremost scholar on the (forbidden) history of Bulikov is murdered, a young Saypuri intelligence officer named Shara finds herself at the center of a mythical crisis. Worldbuilding at its finest.
If Neil Gaiman designed a MYST age, it would probably resemble the labyrinthine mansion in Cantero’s rollicking epistolary, neo-gothic novel. When a European man known only as “A.” inherits a long-lost relative’s estate in the Virginia countryside, he discovers that the previous two owners committed suicide in the exact same way, decades apart. There’s also a mysterious gathering of distinguished gentlemen at the house every winter solstice, a litany of secret passageways, coded letters, and hidden knowledge. Puzzles abound, both physical and narrative, and the mute teenage girl named Niamh–the Watson to A.’s Sherlock–steals the show.
The author of Cloud Atlas is back with another dizzying novel that bends genres while spanning centuries and continents. Teenage runaway Holly Sykes finds herself in the middle of two warring groups of immortals and the battle for human souls. Sounds trippy, I know, but Mitchell’s story is well-grounded in emotion and place-based detail.
On a cool November night in Detroit, Detective Gabriella Versado comes across the strangest crime scene of her career: a dead 11-year-old boy whose lower half has been replaced by that of a deer. Their bodies have been fused together into a macabre human-animal hybrid straight out of “True Detective” or NBC’s “Hannibal,” and Versado believes the killer will strike again. Head over to Bookpage for my full review of Beukes’ masterwork. Basically, what if True Detective got even weirder and moved to Detroit?
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Post-apocalyptic literature has caught a lot of flack recently for being a bit of a dead horse, but St. John Mandel’s National Book Award-nominated novel is a beautiful, fresh take on the genre. After 99% of humanity is wiped out by a superflu, a small Shakespearean theatre company called the Traveling Symphony tours the remnants of civilization. The prose is quiet, sharp, and often achieves the textural density of poetry.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
In Mary Dora Russell’s The Sparrow, one of my favorite novels of all time, the first expedition to an alien planet is lead by Jesuit missionaries. Faber’s latest book is about one such interstellar missionary, a man named Peter, brought to the planet of Oasis by a massive corporation in hopes of appeasing the natives, who are clamoring for someone to explain the “book of strange new things” (i.e., the book we call Bible). Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter’s wife may not survive a series of natural and social disasters brought about by climate change. As in all of his previous work (particularly Under the Skin), Faber proves there is no line separating “literary” from “genre” fiction. The Book of Strange New Things isn’t just one of the best pieces of speculative fiction, but one of the best pieces of fiction, period, published in 2014.
With a title like “Nigerians in Space”, do you really need any other reasons to read this thing? Fine. In mid-90’s Houston, Dr. Wale Olufunmi is tasked with stealing a piece of the moon from the United States and returning it to Nigeria. In addition to being a slick, weird little SF/espionage thriller, the novel also gives you an authentic taste of life in both Nigeria and South Africa, from the 90’s to the present-day.
Aliens in Nigeria. Need I say more? An unknown object crashes into the ocean just off the coast of Lagos. Okorafor expertly combines science fiction with magical realism and Nigerian mythology in the story that follows, particularly the lives of three strangers on the beach that day: a solider, a celebrity rapper, and a marine biologist.
Four planes crash for unknown reasons on the same day, “Black Thursday,” in Japan, South Africa, Florida, and off the coast of Portugal. The only survivors are three children, all on different flights. And they seem a bit…different when they return home. A bit…not themselves. A bit horrifying.
I couldn’t put this one down, and I can’t wait for the sequel. Here’s my take on what fiction writers can learn from it.
Duds of 2014:
California by Edan Lepucki. Instead of a sudden apocalypse, the world is suffering a slow, gradual collapse in Lepucki’s glacial debut novel, the vaguely titled CALIFORNIA (is it a travel guide? a state history?). It’s ambitious, intriguing, but all-too-frequently maddening in its dedication to interpersonal minutiae and marital bickering.
The Martian by Andy Weir. What a concept! An astronaut is stranded alone on the red planet, and forced to use his smarts as a botanist/mechanical engineer to survive. Sounds thrilling, if only the novel was as concerned with character and story as it is with math and logistics. Ridley Scott and Matt Damon are adapting it for the big screen, and judging solely from the cast listing, they realized the story needed some more fleshing out.
Half a King by Joe Abercrombie. Joe Abercrombie’s new Shattered Sea fantasy series has been lauded as “A Game of Thrones for Young Adults.” Narratively, the setup is wonderful, the prose is clean and accessible, and the remarkable twists toward the end are pretty shocking. But the greater world and the greater story behind Yarvi’s adventure is only grazed tangentially, and don’t really impact the present-day story. The worldbuilding is extremely shallow for a fantasy series: the cities have no distinctive sense of place, the geography’s history is only occasionally hinted at, and the mythology is mostly implied. So while the characters jump off the page, the world they occupy is–at least in book one–a fairly generic series of unremarkable set dressings.