2019 Recommended SFF List

Best Novel

The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is a pretty thorough answer to and refutation of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, combined with Hurley's unique spin on war and time travel. It is, if I may be rude, crude and socially unacceptable for a moment, an ambitious, memorable mindfuck of a book.)

Ancestral Night, Elizabeth Bear (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is a dense, chewy space opera with excellent characterization, particularly of the main character, and a thoughtful exploration of the  issues posed by the multispecies empire she belongs to. Also with sapient space whales/seahorses, and a journey from the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's core to the furthest reaches of the Milky Way's spiral arms! It's fun, but deliberate and intelligent, and I think it would reward multiple reads.)

The Winter of the Witch, Katherine Arden (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (The last volume of the Winternight Trilogy is a fine book in its own right, and wraps up the storylines in a most satisfying manner. The author's writing has matured beautifully, and she tells her story with an assured hand.)

Fleet of Knives, Gareth L. Powell (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This sequel to last year's Embers of War deals with the fallout from that story and ups the stakes exponentially. There are also some meaty discussions of morals and ethics amidst the relentless action, in a way that is naturally derived from the characters, not shoehorned in. This series has taken its place among my favorite space operas ever.)

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (In a year that has so far seen some great space operas, this is one of the best. It's deliberately paced and thoughtful, with themes of colonization and trying to retain one's culture in the face of a genteel empire that is nevertheless doing its best to swallow you up, with layered nuances of worldbuilding, characterization, language and culture.)

Salvation Day, Kali Wallace (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is a locked spaceship/murder mystery/monster story, a bit reminiscent of the movie Alien, but it's very much its own thing. It has excellent pacing, good character development, and a thoughtful backstory and worldbuilding.)

The Dragon Republic, R.F. Kuang (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is the sequel to last year's The Poppy War, which got Kuang nominated for the Campbell [now Astounding] Award for Best New Writer. This book is just as good as the first, despite it being the second in a trilogy. It's a bit slower-paced and more contemplative, and it tears apart its protagonist and rebuilds her as it deals with the consequences of the first book. You must have a full complement of spoons to read this, but it is worth it.)

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (A lovely, beautifully written book about the power of words, the power of stories, and the power of love.)

The Outside, Ada Hoffman (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (Outstanding worldbuilding and a combination of quantum supercomputers and Lovecraftian mythos makes for an original, absorbing story.)

Magic For Liars, Sarah Gailey (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is a combination magical murder mystery and character study, and succeeds admirably at both.)

Storm of Locusts (The Sixth World #2), Rebecca Roanhorse (4 of 5 stars, review here). (This book, the author's second, shows a notable improvement in her craft: smoother prose, better pacing, and sharper characterizations, particularly of the protagonist. She also opens up her world, which is a post-climate-change apocalypse a bit reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Best Short Story

"Do Not Look Back, My Lion," Alix E. Harrow, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2019. (Day-um. This is a brutal, beautiful gut-punch of a story, about the cost of endless war.)

"That Our Flag Was Still There," Sarah Pinsker, from the anthology If This Goes On, edited by Cat Rambo, Parvus Press (This might be a little under the radar, as it comes from a Kickstarted anthology [and one I supported]. It's an overtly political anthology and does not hide this fact, so it might not be for everyone. But this story was definitely the highlight, for me, with its themes of the price of patriotism and the choice to speak out.)

"The Art of Reproduction," Meagan Noel Hart, Daily Science Fiction 4/5/19. (This was a little creepy at the beginning, and when you realize what inspired the story and where it's going, but it's surprisingly emotional and poignant by the end.)

"Painless," Rich Larson, Tor.com 4/10/19. (I think Rich Larson is one of the best short story writers working today. The worldbuilding in this one is subtle and intriguing, without a single infodumping sentence. This story has a stinger you won't see coming [or at least I didn't], and has themes of wanting to belong, of refusing to let yourself be manipulated or taken advantage of any longer. For my money, it packs quite a punch.)

"A Wedding Gown of Autumn Leaves," Caroline M. Yoachim, Daily Science Fiction 4/18/19. (This is a lovely little story of subverting expectations and embracing imperfection.)

"Echo," Veronica Roth, and "Polly Wanna Cracker?", Greg Van Eekhout, from the anthology Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams. (To my mind the standouts from this anthology, "Echo" is the tale of Synthetic Intelligent Life Forms versus humans, and a young woman whose life was saved by those same "sylphs" deciding where her true loyalties lie. "Polly Wanna Cracker?" is a sly subversion of the apocalyptic-survivor-mutant cliche, told from the point of view of a flock of parrots [probably African grays, I would imagine] generations after the nuclear war. It's also a reminder that large flightless birds are badass mofos.)

"Clouds Gleam Across Her Eyes," Beth Cato, Daily Science Fiction 5/31/19. (This is a lovely little story, told from the point of view of the mothers of children who fall through portals to other worlds.)

"Our Aim is Not To Die," A. Merc Rustad; "Read After Burning," Maria Dahvana Headley; and "Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death," N.K. Jemisin, all from the anthology A People's Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams. (This is an excellent anthology, and these three stories seem to me to be the standouts. The first is the story of trans and other oppressed people starting a revolution against their repressive society, and stumbling across an unusual ally that turns a common SF trope inside out; the second is a surreal fantasy of an unusual secret library after the apocalypse; and the third is a dark, absurd and delightful tale of a band of rebels riding genetically engineered dragons who eat troughs of cooked vegetables laced with hot sauce. This last sounds impossibly over the top, but just go with it.)

“Biologist Naming Privileges Revoked,” Chloe Woods, from Daily Science Fiction 9/23/19. (A lovely, sad little flash story about a baby mammoth in a bathtub.)

"Rabbit," Jeff Reynolds, Daily Science Fiction 11/1/19. (This is not a feel-good story, but it is a memorable one.)

"Sunlight-Golden Treason, by the Candle's Waning Light," Aimee Ogden, Daily Science Fiction 12/4/19. (A lovely, absorbing little story about a royal assassin whose final victim changes their mind.)

"Eater of Worlds," Jamie Wahls, Clarkesworld January 2019. (A comment from the website sums up this story as "Von Neumann probes with a conscience," which strikes me as on target. It's also not a coincidence that the probe's name is Kali.)

"Treasure Diving," Kai Hudson, Clarkesworld March 2019. (This story packs a lot of worldbuilding into 3200 words. This is perhaps a future Earth after climate catastrophe, perhaps not; the protagonists are maybe evolved humans, maybe not. Either way, it's utterly absorbing.)

"The Painter of Trees," Suzanne Palmer, Clarkesworld June 2019. (Suzanne Palmer won last year's novelette Hugo for "The Secret Life of Bots." This story is, I think--though of course there can be multiple interpretations--an indictment of capitalism, as the terraforming humans are locked into their forward-thinking mindset despite the horror and genocide it causes, for the native species and ecosystem that dies.)

"Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart," Sam J. Miller, Clarkesworld July 2019. (This is a wonderful story, a slightly sideways alternate history where King Kong really existed and died as he did in the movie, and a New York cabbie picks up Ann Darrow in his cab one night–set against the backdrop of Germany invading Poland in 1939. It's sad and bleak, with a shiver of horror at the ending.)

"Malinche," Gabriela Santiago, Clarkesworld September 2019. (An alt-history of the invasion of the Aztec empire by Hernan Cortez, this wildly inventive tale takes the real-life indigenous woman called La Malinche and reverses her story: here, she is an inventor who harnesses electricity and uses it to power "clay-slaves," or robots. She uses this to defeat Cortez and drive the invaders out of her country.)

"The Blanched Bones, the Tyrant Wind," Karen Osborne, Fireside Fiction March 2019. (This story packs quite a lot into its short length, turning the trope of the maiden sacrificed to the dragon on its head.)

"The Boy on the Roof," Francesca Forrest, Fireside Fiction November 2019. (A short, poignant little fantasy about climate change and people trying to draw the rain.)

"I Send My Tower Walking," Amanda Helms, Fireside Fiction December 2019. (This is a clever, empowering inversion of the story of Rapunzel.)

"Recovery," Kate Sheeran Swed, Luna Station Quarterly September 2019. (A clever little story with an eighty-six-year-old protagonist, dealing with the theft of her four-minute time travel card.)

"Tell Me Something Good," Nicole Lungerhausen, Luna Station Quarterly December 2019. (This is the tale of coming to terms with one's past and overcoming fears for the future, via VR nanotech.)

Best Novelette

"Dave's Head," Suzanne Palmer, Clarkesworld September 2019. (This story is fresh and funny and has unforgettable characters, including a giant anamatronic dinosaur head that talks.)

Best Novella

"Glass Cannon," Yoon Ha Lee, from the collection Hexarchate Stories. (This is a sequel/continuation of sorts to the Machineries of Empire trilogy, dealing with the reveals and fallout from those books and throwing a strategically placed bomb into the status quo. If the author ever wants to write more books in his universe, this would provide a fascinating springboard.)

"Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You," Scotto Moore (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (A taut, well-written horror story blending Lovecraft and rock and roll.)

"Waterlines," Suzanne Palmer, Asimov's Science Fiction July/August 2019. (I'm not currently subscribing to Asimov's, but a friend sent me a copy of this story, and I'm so glad she did. This is a marvelous blend of murder mystery, first contact story, and thriller, with some salient points about different species--who turn out to be not so different after all--learning to work together and help each other.)

Lodestar (Not-A-Hugo) for Best Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

Honor Bound, Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (The only real knock against this book is the massive cliffhanger ending and the fact that it's the second volume of a trilogy and the authors do little recapping. That said, this is a fantastic space opera with great action and incredibly high stakes.)

Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (A near future young adult thriller that asks some interesting questions about ethics and artificial intelligence.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

"An Obol for Charon" and "If Memory Serves," Star Trek: Discovery, episodes 4 and 8, CBS All Access

(I think Discovery is improving this season, but it still has a way to go. That said, these two episodes have been the highlights.)

"Three Robots," Love, Death, and Robots, Netflix. (This animated anthology series varies widely in quality, from the good to the gory and senseless. This episode is based on a short story by John Scalzi, and has his trademark snark and whimsy.)

"Liars," The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 Ep 11, Hulu. (This season has been uneven in its pacing, but in this episode we get the payoff, when the Waterfords [or rather Fred, since it's hinted that Serena set the whole thing up] are arrested in Canada for war crimes, and June kills the scumbag DC commander Winslow. Of course, with two episodes left, this relentlessly grimdark series could still find a way to reverse those gains. We shall see.)

"Household," The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 Ep 6. (This episode takes place in Gilead's version of Washington DC, and there are so many horrifying images here, including the Washington Monument turned into a giant cross, Lincoln's statue at the Lincoln Memorial nearly destroyed, and the rows of Handmaids lined up in front of those iconic steps. This episode's cinematographer should get an Emmy nomination.)

"Useful," The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 Ep 3, Hulu. (I've started the third season of The Handmaid's Tale. A revolution is brewing in Gilead, and June is leading it. I know a lot of people were disconcerted, to put it mildly, by the ending of Season 2, but this season seems to be establishing exactly why June did what she did. This is a series that does not rush, that lets the episodes breathe, and demands the viewer pay attention not only to what's said, but the silences in between. Usually I don't care for voiceovers--the Voice of God in Good Omens, for example, didn't work for me at all--but in this case, June's voiceover works. Her final monologue is, as she says, meant to cause nightmares in her enemies, and the last close-up shot of her face inspires exactly that.)

"Hard Times," and "The Very Last Day of the Rest of Their Lives," Good Omens Episodes 3 and 6, Amazon Prime. (I thought the overall season was a bit uneven--the side characters were not as interesting as Crowley and Aziraphale--and I didn't care for the Voice of God voiceovers. That said, these two episodes were the highlights.)

"Mauvaise Foi," The Man in the High Castle Season 4 Ep 5, Amazon Prime. (The final season of The Man in the High Castle has dropped, and this is the pivotal episode so far. Our Reichsmarschall John Smith, in this alternate reality where the Nazis won World War II, travels to "our" world in the multiverse and runs head-on into the consequences of the choices he made. Rufus Sewell, as John Smith, and Chelah Horsdal, as Helen Smith, knock it out of the park.)(Edit: After viewing the entire season, I have to say I was damned disappointed. I don't know what the hell the showrunners were thinking. But to give credit where credit is due, this is the sole episode this year that reaches the previous seasons' heights.)

"Princess Scorpia," "Mer-Mysteries," "Hero," "Destiny Pt. 1" and "Destiny Pt. 2," She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Season 4, eps 6, 7, 9, 12 and 13 respectively, Netflix.  (This season of the kids' cartoon features impressive character work and a finale that vaults Etheria into a wider, more SF universe.)

"Chapter 3: The Sin," The Mandalorian, Disney Plus. (Well, of course something from the Universal Movie/Streaming Juggernaut would end up here. But this episode, which involves Mando delivering our precious baby to its captors and changing his mind, does very well at depicting the inner life of a character whose face we never [at least so far] see. A great deal of credit goes to the director of this episode, Deborah Chow, who just did a fantastic job.)

"Chapter 7: The Reckoning," and "Chapter 8: Redemption," The Mandalorian, Disney Plus. (Deborah Chow directed another very good episode in "The Reckoning," but Taika Waititi closed out the season with "Redemption," the best of the eight episodes. This had his trademark wacky sense of humor, but the action was sizzling and wonderfully choreographed. This was also the longest episode of the season, but it needed to be, as it filled in a lot of background and answered a lot of questions. We also had our first glimpse of Pedro Pascal's face! "Redemption" set up Season 2 beautifully, and I can't wait.)

"Displacement," "The One-Eyed Man," and "Saeculum," The Expanse Season 4 eps 6, 8 and 9 respectively, Amazon Studios. (This season was pretty complex, as it juggled four storylines from the fourth book as well as a bit of the fifth book, and setting up for Season 5 in the last episode, "Cibola Burn," which I didn't like quite as much. Season 4 wasn't as good as Season 3, which was as about as perfect a season of television I've seen in a long time, but this show has consistently been so excellent that its lesser seasons are far better than most.)

"Rare Species," The Witcher Season 1 ep 6, Netflix. (This show's first season was a bit murky and uneven, but this was the highlight for me. Some good character development for both Yennefer and Geralt, and---Dragons! CGI of course, but a rather interesting twist. Also, the dumb, annoying "For the Glory!" knight gets his while he's taking a dump, which is some delicious karma.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Captain Marvel, Marvel Studios. (Well, of course you probably figured this would be here. It is, naturally, a big-budget , fairly standard Marvel origin story, and with the mass billion-dollar-grossing audience in mind, the studio didn't let the filmmakers stretch out like they could have done with the character. Still, Carol Danvers' friendship with Maria Rambeau was the heart of the story, and her embracing her power during her fight with the Kree Supreme Intelligence--those images of that little girl being knocked down and getting back up again, over and over--gave the film some much-needed soul. And the film's unforgettable line, after Carol smashes the preening Yon-Rogg across the desert like the toxic little prick he was: "I have nothing to prove to you." Hopefully, now that the character's bankability is established, Marvel can relax its iron grip a bit in her second movie, similar to what they did with Thor: Ragnarok.)

Us, written/directed by Jordan Peele. (This is a combination body horror/psychological horror story, and if it didn't have the pointed racial subtexts of Get Out, it was still an exercise in metaphor [with a lot of imagery that could be taken many different ways] that will have its viewers arguing what it means and thinking about it for quite a while afterwards. And it features a ferocious, stunning performance by Lupita Nyong'o. If there's any justice, she'll get some award nominations from this.)

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Netflix. (I think this is best nominated in its entire 10-hour epic sweep; your mileage may vary, of course. This is an entire fantasy world, the prequel to the 80's groundbreaking movie, constructed of handcrafted and handheld puppets on handbuilt sets, with CGI in the background for the most part. For me, it overcame the "I know I'm watching a puppet show" problem, as I held my suspension of disbelief and was increasingly drawn in by the characters and story as it progressed. The depth and thought that went into the worldbuilding is incredible.)

Terminator: Dark Fate, Paramount, 20th Century Fox. (I know this has mixed critical reception and seems to be failing at the box office, but I loved it. It made abundantly clear, as if we didn't already know, that the Terminator films are not about John Connor or Ah-nuld--they are Sarah Connor's story. This [probably] final chapter gave her the send-off and resolution she deserved.)

Best Related Work

"Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin," part of the PBS American Masters series. (Technically, I guess this could land under Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, but it'll have a better chance here. The video is from my local PBS station, and it'll only be posted until the end of August. This is a lovely exploration of Ursula's life and work.)

Becoming Superman: A Writer's Journey From Poverty To Hollywood, J. Michael Straczynski (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This book is the harrowing tale of domestic violence and abuse in Straczynski's childhood--make sure your spoon drawer is well stocked when you read it--but it's also an inspiring tale of triumph, as the author details how he succeeds in his chosen field despite those horrible beginnings. It's also a testimony to the love of storytelling, and just an all-around terrific read.)

The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, Mallory O'Meara (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is the story of Milicent Patrick, the woman who created Hollywood's last great monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It's a contrast of past and present, viewed through the lens of the modern woman writing the story who discovered that, sadly, not all that much has changed in Hollywood. It is sad and infuriating, but also hopeful.)

"The Disappearance of John M. Ford," Slate Magazine 11/15/19, Isaac Butler. (This is the true story of a SFF mystery solved, a lost author found, and misconceptions corrected. It also has a most wonderful ending, as said author's long out-of-print books are now going to be republished.)

The Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the Campbell)

R.F. Kuang, for The Dragon Republic, review above. (2nd year of eligibility)

Best Series

The Winternight Trilogy, Katherine Arden (See review of The Winter of the Witch, above. I was thinking about nominating the final book for Best Novel, but a couple of other books have probably squeaked past it. Still, the trilogy as a whole is an excellent achievement that should be recognized.)

Jane Yellowrock, Faith Hunter (review for this year's novel, Shattered Bonds). (This is one of a few long-running urban fantasy series still around. I read this after skipping some of the middle books, and was pleasantly surprised by the added layers of worldbuilding and Jane's character growth.)

Best Fan Writer

Cora Buhlert (link to her last year's body of SFF-related work). (I like her analyses, and that's an impressive output by any standard.)

Best Semiprozine

Luna Station Quarterly (I'm a patron, so I may be a bit biased, but this magazine has been around since 2009, publishing women and woman-identified authors. I think it's time to give it some love.)




No comments: