2020 Recommended SFF List

Best Short Story

"The Best Horses Are Found In the Sea, and Other Horse Tales To Emerge Since the Rise," Beth Cato, Daily Science Fiction 2/14/20. (Beth Cato writes the loveliest, most lyrical flash stories, and this is another one.)

"Cruel Sisters," Marie Brennan, Daily Science Fiction 3/10/20. (A creepy, atmospheric fairy tale retelling.)

"Little Free Library," Naomi Kritzer, Tor.com 4/8/20. (Meigan constructs her library, stocks it with books…and gets some unexpected gifts in return from an unseen reader. On first pass, the ending may seem kind of odd, but I read the story again and it became just right. This was a delight.)

“We Speak With the Raven Men,” Alexis Ann Hunter, Daily Science Fiction 5/22/20 (This is a memorable little story, that has elements of horror, fantasy and fable.)

(The next five stories are from the excellent anthology Made To Order: Robots and Revolution, edited by Jonathan Strahan. Almost all of these stories ranged from good to very good, and even the one I didn’t care for I could see a lot of people loving. If there was a Best Anthology Hugo, I’d nominate this in a hot minute.)

“Test 4 Echo,” Peter Watts. This has Watts’ trademark hard science, a sympathetic central character, and a bleak, depressing ending. The ending is a little more bleak and depressing than usual, even for him.

“Bigger Fish,” Sarah Pinsker. This has a (slightly abrupt) twist ending that is a very literal, very robotic and more than a little frightening–once you think about it–interpretation of Asimov’s First Law.

“Dancing With Death,” John Chu. This author is clearly a figure skating fan, which tickled me to no end, combining robots with ice dancing (as well as a minor Chinese god).

“Chiaroscuro in Red,” Suzanne Palmer. One of the longer stories in the book (in fact, I think it might qualify as a novelette, although I don’t have an ebook to check the word count), this is a down to earth, Everyman sort of tale about a college kid whose parents buy him an aging factory robot, and he ends up rescuing said robot.

“A Glossary of Radicalization,” Brooke Bolander. The final story in the book, this has Bolander’s trademark gritty setting and seething rage.

"Literary Cocktails," Preston Grassman, Daily Science Fiction 9/7/2020. (A clever and necessary twist on evading an art- and literature-purging state.)

"Solution," Brian Evenson, Tor.com 9/16/20. (This chilling "solution" to climate change feels like a direct descendant of Mary Shelley.)

"The Last To Die," Rita Chang-Eppig, Clarkesworld Magazine January 2020. (In a future where consciousness can be digitized and people's minds transferred to cyborg bodies, the last generation of aging humans who refuse the procedure are exiled to islands around the world, both so they can be protected from the dangers of the outside world and shuffled out of sight of the "deathless." On one of these islands, a glass cyborg woman named Beth and her adopted son Max, someone on the autism spectrum (not specified in the story, but that's what it sounded like) who cannot undergo the cyberizing procedure, arrive to shake up the island's inhabitants and grapple with the nature of immortality, aging, and stagnation.)

"The AI That Looked At the Sun,"  Filip Hajdar Drnovsek Zorko, Clarkesworld Magazine January 2020. (An inventive tale of a machine [or subroutine, I suppose] sentience on the Daedalus solar monitoring station with one overwhelming desire: to use the available equipment--in this case, an EVA suit--to see the sun.)

"The Ancestral Temple in a Box," Chen Qiufan, translated by Emily Jin, Clarkesworld Magazine January 2020. (Sonny Huang arrives at his dying father's bedside to be given the titular "ancestral temple," a virtual reality simulation of his clan's history and traditions. There's a lot more to it than this stark description, of course: the traditions of Sonny's ancestors to make beautiful gold-lacquered wood carvings, which tradition Sonny wants to replace with robots; Sonny's realizing that those same carvings constitute the historical narrative of his people; and in the end, Sonny's creating a carving utilizing both machines and humans, a beautiful hybrid piece of art that tells the story of his people, the Teochew. [The afterward to this story talks about the real-life Teochew people of China, and the gold-lacquered wood carvings that are their traditional art.] I really liked this.)

"The Whale Fall At the End of the Universe," Cameron Van Sant, Clarkesworld Magazine March 2020. (This is a cute, if slight, tale about a far far future and space whales scavenging a corpse the size of a city and falling in love.)

"Sinew and Steel and What They Told," Carrie Vaughn, Tor.com 2/26/20. (This is really good, the tale of a cyborg aboard a pirate-hunting ship and the real reason why he's there.)
 
"Artificial People," Michael Swanwick, Clarkesworld Magazine July 2020. (A nice character study of an artificial person and his relationship with his creator. This unfolds over decades because at first Raphael is considered "property" and is switched off for updates or just because his creator, Dr. Leonidas Erdmann, feels like it. Raphael is given no choice in the matter. But after Dr. Erdmann dies and his freedom is granted, Raphael takes steps to live his life the way he wants.)
 
"One Time, a Reluctant Traveler," A.L. Greenblatt, Clarkesworld Magazine July 2020. (My favorite story in this issue. This is a post-apocalyptic tale of sorts, perhaps a post-climate-catastrophe or post-pandemic, as there seem to be few humans left and bots to take the place of species that are apparently extinct. The worldbuilding is a bit vague, and that's deliberate on the part of the author, as the theme of this is the power of stories. The stories passed down to the unnamed narrator are bleak and depressing, and the protagonist's final epiphany is the realization that they don't have to give in to that pessimism; they can choose what their story will become.)
 
"The House That Leapt Into Forever," Beth Goder, Clarkesworld Magazine July 2020. (This starts out a little reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains," about a sentient house carefully maintaining its rooms and its one remaining inhabitant. Except we slowly come to realize the "house" isn't a house, and the house is on this barren moon for a reason, and its remaining inhabitant, Doom-May-Come, is not as benevolent as they seem. This very short story drips with atmosphere and creates a wonderful sense of creeping dread, turning into horror, in just over three pages. Well done.)

"Drawing Lines Between the Stars," Frank Smith, Clarkesworld Magazine August 2020. (Bex, engineer of the transport hauler Bakunawa, helps answer a distress call from the solar glider Aldebaran and brings it on board for repairs. Unfortunately, his unintentional negligence leads to the death of the pilot, Adena, and very nearly his own, and he's fired....err, "prematurely retired" from his job. This is a neat little story of change, responsibility, and making the best of what life hands you.)

"Just Desserts," Mary Soon Lee, Daily Science Fiction 12/18/20. (A cute little flash story about alien chocolate that solves all conflicts.)

"Callme and Mink," Brenda Cooper, Clarkesworld Magazine October 2020. (An apparent post-apocalyptic future where a robot is raising and training puppies to give to humans, to help them survive. It's short, but thoughtful and layered.) 

"To Set At Twilight In a Land of Reeds," Natalia Theodoridou, Clarkesworld Magazine October 2020. (I've noticed this author's name popping up more and more, as the author of quiet, sometimes sad, reflective stories that are really good. This is one of them. The protagonist, Dora, an older woman, is visiting the countryside after the death of her lover, taking an artificial skin to a farm run by an android caring for a group of sentient harvester robots. There are some compelling themes here, in the robots who love being told stories, who hold a funeral for one of their companions who is irretrievably broken in an accident, and the tragedy of their existence: "smart enough to ask questions about life, but unable to find any answers.")

"All Living Creation," Xiu Xinyu, translated by Elizabeth Hanlon, Clarkesworld Magazine October 2020. (A short, nasty science fiction/horror story of a brother hunting down his little sister, who left home, leaked her genes online, and ended up getting cloned the world over, used for all sorts of benevolent and not-so-benevolent purposes. The more you read it, the darker and more twisted this story gets, and you realize the true villain is the brother that hunts his sister down and banishes her to a submarine cruising the bottom of the ocean, imprisoning her against her will to "save" her, even as he unleashes a virus that will murder all her clones.)


"Ashes Under Uricon," Adrastos Omissi, Clarkesworld Magazine October 2020. (This is another post-apocalyptic robot story (the theme of this issue, it seems). Lottie is a care robot, wandering the earth after a final war when war robots cause the extinction of the human race--and mindlessly fight on long afterwards, shooting anything (large animals, other robots) that moves. This is a sad, melancholy little tale.)
 
Best Novelette

"Monster," Naomi Kritzer, Clarkesworld Magazine January 2020. (This is the somewhat disturbing exploration of what turns a person into a monster, in the form of the protagonist Cecily Grantz and her high school friend Andrew. Andrew is a typical 80's nerd, misunderstood by his parents and picked on by his classmates, who begins to show a bent towards vicious revenge to anyone who wrongs him. He uses Cecily's gene-editing research to create a serum that gives people inhuman speed and strength--killing many of his test subjects along the way. After Andrew flees the US, Cecily hunts him down in China and takes care of him in a powerful plot twist, raising the question of--as much as we're not meant to sympathize with Andrew--just who is the monster here.)

"The Amusement Dark," Mike Buckley, Clarkesworld Magazine March 2020. (This story is the star of this issue. As you read it, you might wonder why it's called "The Amusement Dark" instead of "The Amusement Park." That question is answered within the story itself, as this setting is pretty bleak. It's interesting in that it's set after the AI [here called "First Ones"] revolution, when humanity has been thoroughly defeated and nothing the characters do is going to change that. But as the main character puts it: "There's no stupid. There's no impossible. There's just the darkness and what we'll do with it." This tiny unexpected ray of hope in the story's final paragraphs makes for a memorable ending.) 

"A Stick of Clay, In the Hands of God, is Infinite Potential," JY Neon Yang, Clarkesworld Magazine May 2020. (This story features interstellar kaiju--"holy mechs"--on a holy war, hunting down apostates, and the pilots who eventually come to question their beliefs and everything they've been taught.)

"The Ambient Intelligence," Todd McAulty, Lightspeed Magazine October 2020. (I think one of the best and most overlooked SF novels of the past few years was The Robots of Gotham. It told an exciting story, with well-drawn characters and spectacular worldbuilding. This novelette continues that story, with Barry Simcoe and the machine intelligences of a future Chicago.)

"An Important Failure," Rebecca Campbell, Clarkesworld Magazine August 2020. (This story tackles climate change through the lens of a violin maker, hunting for the wood to make his final instrument. Wood that won't be available any longer, now that the world has reached five hundred ppm. It's about finding meaning and beauty in a dying, changing world, and though the general tone is sad and bittersweet, it does end on a hopeful note.)

Best Novella

Finna, Nino Cipri (4 of 5 stars; full review here). (Capitalism vs. the multiverse, with a couple of hapless big-box employees caught between the two.)

Ring Shout, P. Djeli Clark (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (A richly imagined stew of history, fantasy, and Lovecraftian monsters.)

In the Shadows of Men, Robert Jackson Bennett (4 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is a limited Subterranean Press edition that I think has flown under the radar a bit. It's a ghost story written in deceptively simple prose, and the monster is not at all what you think. The best horror holds up a mirror for us to look at, a mirror polished so bright and sharp it cuts, and that's what this story does.)

Best Novel

The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (Jemisin is one of the best writers in SFF today, and she proves it again here. This is a very different book from the Broken Earth trilogy, but she tackles the soul of New York City, gentrification, colonization and Lovecraft with the same thoughtfulness and seriousness.)

Light of Impossible Stars, Gareth L. Powell (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is the most satisfying conclusion to the Embers of War trilogy. This crackling good read combines grand space opera with the intimate tale of a found family who chooses to stand up for what's right and earns a second chance.)

Network Effect, Martha Wells (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (Murderbot is one of the most memorable characters of recent years, and this full-length novel is a delight.)

Shorefall, Robert Jackson Bennett (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is the second book in the Founders series, but it stands well on its own. A new, chilling threat is revealed, the stakes are elevated, and there are a couple of game-changing plot twists.)

The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This third in the Lady Astronaut series takes place on the Moon colony during the same time frame as the First Mars Expedition. The level of well-researched technical detail is again high, matched by the characterizations, especially in the person of Nicole Wargin, this book's welcome over-fifty protagonist.)

The Hollow Places, T. Kingfisher (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon, is on a roll. This is perhaps a "quieter" horror book than her first, The Twisted Ones--if there is such a thing--but when she rolls back the curtain, you want to scream and dive under the bed. One of the great strengths of this book is its realistic, grounded characters, which balance out the increasing otherworldly creepiness. Also, in the tradition of the lovable dimwitted hound of The Twisted Ones, this book features an attack cat.)

Machine, Elizabeth Bear (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is a science fiction, medical thriller mystery with a fascinating setting--a moon-sized, multispecies hospital--which deals with ethical dilemmas and questions of faith and belief.)

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E. Harrow (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (A beautifully written, richly characterized alternate America where magic exists and the witches killed at Salem were the real thing.)

The Midnight Bargain, C.L. Polk (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This book tackles similar themes to Harrow's novel--the oppression of magic-wielding women, and their fight both to free their magic and gain their rights--but while this is quite a good story in its own right, with more of a British-analogue cast to its world, Alix Harrow's is the superior of the two.)

The Last Emperox, John Scalzi (4 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is the final book of the Interdependency Saga, and it's the best. The characterizations are better, and the story comes to a satisfying end.)

Best Graphic Novel

Monstress Vol. 5: Warchild, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (full review here). (This story is getting ever more complex and convoluted, to the point where we need a concordance and a list of Dramatis Personae. The art is as gorgeous as ever, but make no mistake, this is the grimmest and bloodiest of the paperback collections so far.)

Lodestar (Best Young Adult SFF Not-A-Hugo)

Honor Lost, Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre (5 of 5 stars; full review here) (This final book in the Honors trilogy wraps everything up, and all the plot/character threads in the two previous books are brought home. The last battle was cinematic in its scope.)

City of Stone and Silence, Django Wexler (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is the second book of the Wells of Sorcery trilogy, and one of the rare middle books that improves on the first. This is mainly due to the inclusion of a second POV, the younger sister of the first book's protagonist, which widens the scope of both the characterization and the world.)

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (I'm sure the pitch for this book must have been, "A darker, grittier, bloodier Harry Potter told from the viewpoint of an angry, immensely powerful Hermione." The pacing is measured and deliberate because of the complexity of the worldbuilding, but the depth of the latter worked to carry me through.)

Legendborn, Tracy Deonn (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is a fairly dark re-imagining of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that turns the legends inside out. The final twist is something that could only have happened in America.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Season 5, Netflix. (This final season wraps everything up, and boasts richly layered characters and great payoffs. I think it belongs in the Long Form category--which we already know is going to be pretty thin this year, unless a whole bunch of movies come out in November and December--so that's where I'm going to put it.)

The Umbrella Academy, Season 2, Netflix. (This second season starts minutes after the first, and is a continuation of that story, forking off in surprising ways. This season is not so plot-heavy, instead delving into each of the seven protagonists, providing some nice character development. In some ways this is a pretty gonzo premise--dysfunctional superhero time-traveling siblings?--but the stellar acting of Ellen Page, Aiden Gallagher and Justin H. Min carry us through. I must give a special shout out to the genius who picked the soundtrack for this show. The songs are not just cool background music--they provide character and plot commentary, especially an outstanding use of Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" in episode 9, "743." )

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

Star Trek: Lower Decks, Season 1 ep 8, "Veritas," , and "Crisis Point," ep 9, CBS All Access. (The first season of Lower Decks was rather uneven, but these two episodes hit their targets, both character- and joke-wise. I do hope Tendi and Rutherford get more screen time next season, though, as they're arguably more interesting then Mariner and Boimler.)

Star Trek: Picard, Season 1, CBS All Access. (Now that the first season has finished, I must say I was a bit disappointed with the ending--there were a few too many plot holes. However, episode 6, "The Impossible Box,"  episode 8, "Broken Pieces," episode 7, "Nepenthe," and episode 2, "Maps and Legends," are the highlights.)

Star Trek: Discovery, Season 3, CBS All Access. (Moving this show 930 years in the future is definitely the best thing that has happened to it. So far, my favorite episodes are ep 2, "Far From Home," ep 4, "Forget Me Not," ep 7, "Unification III."  and ep 12, "There Is a Tide.")

What We Do In the Shadows, Season 2, Hulu. (This show is my kind of funny: character-based, wry and absurd. Standout episodes: ep 2, "Ghosts," which is equal parts funny, creepy and ewwwwww; ep 5, "Colin's Promotion," which proves that the energy vampire Colin Robinson, despite his dry, boring, dull, nitpicky nattering, is the most powerful and frightening of the bunch; and the finale, "Nouveau Theatre des Vampires," where Guillermo reveals his vampire-slaying heritage and lays waste to the neighborhood.)
 
Lovecraft Country, Season 1 episode 1, "Sundown," HBO. (This was available to watch on YouTube, but apparently it's been yanked. I read the book by Matt Ruff this is based on, so its mixture of cosmic Lovecraftian horror and the real-life horror of 50's Jim Crow racism--the worst of the two by far--was no surprise to me. This impressed me enough that I'll shell out a month's fee to Amazon for HBO to watch the whole thing when the season concludes.)

Dangit, I’m irritated that Amazon is dropping Expanse episodes weekly, splitting them between 2020 and 2021, instead of all at once. This season is shaping up to be the best ever.

For the five episodes aired in 2020:

“Mother,” episode 3, is directed by Thomas Jane. Dominique Tipper, as Naomi, is giving an incredible performance this season (especially in the latest episode, “Oyedeng,” which I can’t include here as it’s a 2021 air date).

“Gaugamela,” episode 4, is damn near a perfect 10 on IMDB. Riveting from start to finish.

“Down and Out,” episode 5, deals with the aftermath of “Gaugamela,” but it’s also an Amos-centric episode. We’re learning a lot more about Amos this season (at least those of us who haven’t read the entire series), and Wes Chatham, along with Dominique Tipper, are giving the best performances of the season.

Best Series

Embers of War, Gareth L. Powell. (See my review of Light of Impossible Stars above.)

The Honors, Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre (See my review of Honor Lost above.)

The Interdependency Saga, John Scalzi (See my review of The Last Emperox above.)

The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher (review here). (I didn't list Peace Talks, one of this year's entries in the series, under Best Novel because it is very much one of a series: if you haven't read at least the past four or five books, you won't have any idea what's going on. Having said that, this is one of the better [and one of the few remaining] urban fantasy series out there, and I'm pretty sure it will get nominated for a Hugo this year. As it should.)

Best Related Work

"Will I Live To See My Utopia?" P. Djeli Clark, Uncanny Magazine July/August 2020. (An African-American historian looks at the HBO series Watchmen and its treatment of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.)

"Boxtops, Secret Rings, and Space Helmets: Those Brave Spacement of the Videowaves," Mark Cole, Clarkesworld Magazine August 2020. (If you consider a magazine article to be worthy of Best Related Work, this is a fascinating study of the very first television space opera serials, done live at the dawning of the TV age, 1949-1955.)
 
Best Fan Writer
 
Cora Buhlert (Cora was on last year's Hugo ballot, and based on blog entries such as this, she deserves to be again.)

Doris V. Sutherland writes about comics, movies, awards, and all sorts of interesting stuff

Stitch, AKA Zeenah, has an awards eligibility post here. Her essays about racism in fandom are especially insightful. 


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