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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

Best Related Work

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

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