2021 Recommended SFF List

Because it's never too early to pick out the good stuff, right?

Best Novel

A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is a dense, deliberately paced narrative of alien invaders with superior technology bumping up against the existing horror of a colonizing, culture-destroying Empire, and the Ambassador caught in the middle. A worthy follow-up to last year's Hugo-winning Best Novel.)

Day Zero, C. Robert Cargill (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is a prequel to 2017's Sea of Rust, but it's not necessary to have read the previous book to understand this one. This is a lean, efficient piece of storytelling, a rocket ride of a robopocalypse told from the point of view of one of the robots. I tore through this in a couple of days, and put it down most reluctantly to go to sleep and work.)

Dead Space, Kali Wallace (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is a fine SF mystery/thriller set aboard an asteroid. The eeeevil corporation antagonist is on its way to becoming a cliche, but the author does some interesting things with the concept here.)

A Master of Djinn, P. Djeli Clark (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (P. Djeli Clark is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors. This is a follow-up to his novella of a couple of years ago, "The Haunting of Tram Car 015." This a fascinating, well-constructed world, a steampunk alternate history of an Egypt and Cairo with magic and djinn.)

Shards of Earth, Adrian Tchaikovsky (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (I've read this author before, and previous to this, my impression was the same: the ideas are big and bold, the worldbuilding intricate, but the characterization was lacking. This book remedies that. It's an epic space opera that has propelled itself to one of the best SF books I've read this year.)

The Fallen, Ada Hoffman (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is the sequel to The Outside, portraying a far future where humanity has been conquered by their own quantum supercomputers, which have made themselves into the human race's saviors, protectors and gods. I downgraded it a bit only because it has multiple POVs, a narrative form I'm not fond of. In this case, though, that was necessary to the story. I particularly liked the fact that the stakes here were smaller. Instead of overthrowing the Gods [though that will probably happen in the next book], we have a focused tale of a fractured community coming together and struggling to survive.)

The Echo Wife, Sarah Gailey (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is a dark, twisty tale of cloning, infidelity and toxic masculinity, with an unlikable but compelling protagonist.)

The Second Rebel, Linden A. Lewis (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This second book in the First Sister trilogy is a satisfying improvement on the first, showcasing a tighter, more focused story, deeper characterizations, and a confident writer. This space opera has a bit of an Expanse feel to it.)

Best Short Story

"Your Own Undoing," P H Lee, Apex Magazine January 2021. (This is a fantasy of a master sorcerer overcome, twisted and enslaved by her own student. But it's also a story about stories, the power a good story has over us, and how to both use the story and escape from its trap--by writing your own ending.)

"Mr. Death," Alix E. Harrow, Apex Magazine January 2021. (Alix E. Harrow is one of my favorite authors, and she knocks it out of the park here, with this beautiful story of a soul reaper who meets the one soul he can't bear to ferry across the river.) 

"The Harmonia," Angela Teagardner, Daily Science Fiction 3/12/21. (A tight, self-contained flash story that is a surprising combination of SF and noir, in this tale of a luxury airship sailing the upper levels of Venus and what happened before it fell.)

"Pop and the Pirates," Floris M. Kleijne, Daily Science Fiction 3/17/21. (It takes a lot of skill to pack an action sequence into a flash story without sacrificing the characters. This story succeeds.)

"Pilgrim Problems," Rich Larson, Daily Science Fiction 3/22/21. (Rich Larson is one of the best short story writers working today, and this is a razor-sharp slice-of-life tale that has the perfect kicker at the end.)

"The Mirrors of Her Eyes," Lise Fracalossi, Daily Science Fiction 3/26/21. (A different take on The Picture of Dorian Grey, with added fae.)

“Tyrannosaurus Hex,” Sam J. Miller, Uncanny Magazine Jan/Feb 2021. (One sentence in this story reads, “Weaponized intrusion software given reptilian form,” and that’s exactly what this story is. Short but disturbing as heck.)

"The Book of the Kraken," Carrie Vaughn, Uncanny Magazine March/April 2021. (The crew of the HMS Selene has an encounter with a young girl and her oceanic steed.)

"For Lack of a Bed," John Wiswell, Diabolical Plots 4/16/21. (This author's "Open House on Haunted Hill" is a Hugo and Nebula finalist [and Nebula winner!], and this delightful story of a succubus sofa that relieves the protagonist's chronic pain carries on in a similar tradition.)

"Blood in the Thread," Cheri Kamei, Tor.com 5/12/21. (A dark, lovely retelling of "The Crane Wife.")

"Homecoming is Just Another Word for the Sublimation of the Self," Isabel J. Kim, Clarkesworld Magazine March 2021. (This thought-provoking story uses the SF conceit of "instances"--"a duplicate self-cleaved mitosis-like from the original"--to explore issues of identity, immigration, and just what being an American means.)

"Pining For My Demons," Floris M. Kleijne, Daily Science Fiction 5/31/21. (This is a tale of demon possession, and what that power and the lack of it might truly mean.)

"Shadows On a Brick Wall," Tais Teng, Daily Science Fiction 4/23/21. (A clever twist on elves and Faerie on a modern polluted Earth.)

"Best-Laid Plans," David D. Levine, Clarkesworld Magazine May 2021. (This is a delightful story of genetically engineered mice on a space station.)

"The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century," A.C. Wise, Apex Magazine March 2021. (This is a story of casting off the shackles society tries to put on you and claiming your power.)

"When You Came Back," Lynette Mejia, Daily Science Fiction 7/14/21. (This razor-sharp flash story constructs a tense, brooding atmosphere and packs a helluva punch in just 800 words.)

"The Dragon Hunter's Daughter," Gabrielle Roselynn Dina, Luna Station Quarterly March 2021. (I love this magazine. I wish more people knew about it. This story is a beautifully written examination of a father-daughter relationship, dragon hunter--though that's not quite what it seems--and dragon hunter's child.)

"A Test of Trouble," Catherine George, Luna Station Quarterly March 2021. (This story has a great first line: "When the baby is nine weeks old, Bree begins to suspect she is a time machine." It's a complicated, nested story of time unwinding, and the slow choking hooks of domestic abuse and how to escape.)

"Mother Haskell," Maeghan Klinker, Luna Station Quarterly June 2021. (This flash story has a poetic, mythic feel to it, about an old woman tending an apple orchard and baking pies for her friend Death, who drops by on his way to take a soul.)

"Moose Trap," Rich Larson, Daily Science Fiction 9/14/21. (Rich Larson yet again, with this chilling climate change flash story.)

"Full Metal Grandma," Paul Alex Gray, Mythaxis Magazine Issue #27 Autumn 2021. (This is a new magazine to me, but it's got some interesting stories in it. This one combines social media, cryptocurrency and alien invasion in the story of the older woman who is the title character, fighting the aliens and trying to milk as many Ryftcoins as she can from her online followers. Unfortunately, I can easily picture Twitter, Bitcoin and other knockoffs doing something like this.)

"It Is a Pleasure To Receive You," Ziggy Schultz, Clarkesworld Magazine September 2021. (Simon is aboard a communications satellite, and this is the story of how he connects with [and falls for] two strangers sending messages.)

Best Novelette

“Sarcophagus,” Ray Nayler, Clarkesworld Magazine April 2021. (A first contact story on a frozen planet that doesn’t go the way you would expect.)

"Bots of the Lost Ark," Suzanne Palmer, Clarkesworld Magazine June 2021. (This is a funny, poignant entry in the author's series of stories about intelligent bots aboard a creaky, outdated spaceship, trying to keep their human crew alive and return to Earth.)

"When the Sheaves Are Gathered," Nick Wolven, Clarkesworld Magazine July 2021. (This is a creepy story of age, identity and memory, and people slowly vanishing from the protagonist's life. There's a reason for it, but the gradual tightening noose of paranoia and dread is well done.)

"Preserved in Amber," Samantha Murray, Clarkesworld Magazine July 2021. (This is a beautifully written contemplation on death, immortality and the end of the world, set against the backdrop of an alien ship set to take eight thousand people to the stars.)

"The Future Library," Peng Shepherd, Tor.com 8/18/21. (This is a beautiful, heartbreaking story of trees, climate change, words and love.)

"The Clock, Having Seen Its Face in the Mirror, Still Knows Not the Hour," Adam Stemple, Clarkesworld Magazine August 2021. (This could be summed up as "robot has a spiritual awakening." If you're not fond of that idea, it's a fine, non-linear story of a clockwork person's life, and how an inorganic being develops friendships and gains wisdom.)

"Small Monsters," E. Lily Yu, Tor.com 10/20/21.  (This is a dark but ultimately hopeful fable of familial abuse and how the titular character learns to rise above it and create its own family and future.)

Best Novella

Fugitive Telemetry, Martha Wells (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (Another winning entry in the Murderbot series, the tale of a cranky, anxious, depressed cyborg who only wants to be left alone to watch its media, but keeps getting dragged into the thing it hates most: interacting with humans. In this case, solving a murder.)

A Spindle Splintered, Alix E. Harrow (5 of 5 stars, full review here).  (This is a fierce, feminist, gorgeous re-imagining of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, set in the multiverse.)

"Ouroboros," Dean-Paul Stephens, Clarkesworld Magazine April 2021. (This is a far-future rich stew of first contact, godlike AI, the passage of thousands of years, and philosophical discussions of ethics and sapience vs. sentience. You wouldn’t think that would work, but it absolutely does.)

"Submergence," Arula Ratkanar, Clarkesworld Magazine March 2021. (This is a hard-SF tale of memory, sentient deep-sea sponges that cure human diseases, the corporation that makes a choice to exploit them, and the woman who brings it all to light.)

“Philia, Eros, Storge, Agape, Pragma,” R.S.A. Garcia, Clarkesworld Magazine January 2021. (This story has a complex structure–the author is juggling three separate storylines that eventually braid together towards the end. They’re clearly marked [in “Before,” “Then” and “Now” headings], but I had to read the story twice before I understood and appreciated what the author was doing. This is a tale of family, loyalty, and love, with the refreshing setting of a culture where humans are bonded to AIs at birth, with the protagonist’s “Sister” playing a major role.)

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers (4 of 5 stars; full review here). (Becky Chambers' full-length novels are just so-so to me, but I really liked this novella. It's a quite, calm, soothing story about a traveling tea monk--which sounds like the coolest job ever--and the "wild-built" robot they run across. No escalating or life-altering stakes here, just an existential crisis or two and some philosophical conversations. Nevertheless, it works.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

(I'm irritated as heck that Amazon split the fifth season of The Expanse over 2020 and 2021. This is the best season yet, and if it had dropped all at once I would have nominated the whole thing. As it is, of the five episodes shown in January, "Oyedeng" , "Hard Vacuum" and and "Winnepesaukee" are outstanding. "Nemesis Games," the finale, set everything in motion for the final season, bringing the protomolecule back in a big way [and dammit, that ass Marco Inaros isn't dead yet]. Dominique Tipper, Cara Gee and Wes Chatham are turning in stellar performances. If there was any justice, at least one of them would be nominated for an Emmy.)

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Disney Plus, Season 1, Episode 4, "The Whole World is Watching," and episode 5, "Truth." (Unfortunately, the season as a whole varied too widely in quality, coherence and characterization--with Karli Morgenthau and the Flag Smashers suffering most of all, written as righteous freedom fighters with a point one minute and murderous terrorists the next--to recommend it as a whole. It also had an absolute stinker of an episode, no. 3, "Power Broker," which dragged the whole thing down. Still, these two episodes stood above the rest. At the moment, I'm leaning towards the quiet reflection and emotional truths of, well, "Truth.")

Loki, Disney Plus, Season 1, Episodes 1, 2, 4, and 5: "Glorious Purpose," "The Variant," "The Nexus Event," and "Journey Into Mystery," respectively. (I can't quite recommend the season as a whole, because at the end it became clear the show was a bit of a cheat: it was more of a setup for Marvel Phase 4 than an examination of its titular character. WandaVision still holds the title of the best Marvel series to date, hands down. Having said that, if I had to pick one, I would go with episode 5, "Journey Into Mystery," where Loki and Sylvie confront the final obstacle to their reaching the end of time, Alioth the purple cloud monster, and Loki runs up against various absurd versions of himself, including the played-perfectly-straight and delightful Alligator Loki.)

Lucifer, Netflix, Season 5, Episode 10, "Bloody Celestial Karaoke Jam." (I think this show is underrated, not without reason--it's often campy and silly. But it's improved greatly since moving to Netflix and condensing the storyline down to 10 episodes [or 15, for Season 5, split into two batches]. This episode is a musical, and while I'm sure they paid a pretty penny for music rights, in this case the songs work for the characters and their storylines. And there is a reason, and a concerning one, given at the end for the characters suddenly bursting into song.)

What If? Disney Plus, Season 1, Episode 2, "What If...T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?" (Marvel's animated series utilizing the multiverse and what would happen to their characters if one incident or decision was changed has been uneven so far. I particularly disliked episode 4--I didn't need to see Christine Palmer dying over and over again to know that Stephen Strange is an arrogant, narcissistic, self-absorbed ass who would destroy his entire universe over his selfish "love". But episode 2, despite the sadness of knowing it was Chadwick Boseman's final work, gave a delightful new dimension to the character of T'Challa, and several other seminal Marvel characters as well. It also, unfortunately for Guardians of the Galaxy, I guess, showed that this story could survive quite well without Peter Quill.)

What We Do In the Shadows, FX/Hulu, Season 3, Episode 3, "Gail" (This hilarious show about a vampire coven in Staten Island has hit the ground running in its third season. The humor is based not on pratfalls or insults, but rather the characters and leaning into the absurdity of the premise. The third episode, "Gail," sees not only Nandor proposing to his wacky werewolf girlfriend, but Laszlo and Colin bonding over taking apart and old car and putting it back together again, and the vampire gang solving a fight with Gail's pack by....playing kickball! Meanwhile, Nadja is nagging Nandor about putting together a website for the Vampiric Council--on Geocities. Just delightful.)

Star Trek: Lower Decks, Paramount Plus, Season 2, episode 9, "wej Duj" ("Three Ships," translated from the Klingon) and episode 8, "I, Excretus." (This series has improved tremendously this season, now that the powers-that-be have decided that Mariner doesn't have to do and solve everything. The other characters are being fleshed out and the ensemble is gelling. These last two episodes have been delightful.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

WandaVision Season 1, Disney Plus (Technically, this is the proper description, but as far as I know this is a one-off, with no plans for further seasons.)

(I had put one of the episodes in the Short Form category above, but after thinking about it I decided to delete that and recommend the entire thing here. The reason being this is a four and a half hour movie, broken into 30- to 40-minute digestible chunks and dropped weekly to raise anticipation, internet chatter and [presumably] subscribers. Some of the episodes were better than others--personally, I was a bit disappointed by the finale--but you really can't separate episode 4 from episode 8 from any other episode. This is the age of serialized TV, but this is even more so: the first three episodes set the stage for what follows, and you can't make any sense of the final three episodes, where most of the reveals are, without the hints and context of everything that came before. Having said that, 2021 is shaping up to be a year of stiff competition, with almost everything delayed from last year dropping over the upcoming months. Still, this show should end up in the upper echelons.)

Oxygen, Netflix, directed by Alexander Aja. (This is a taut, suspenseful puzzle box of a mystery about a woman who awakens in a cryogenic pod and has to figure out who she is and why she’s there before her oxygen runs out. Helluva performance by the lead actress. No spoilers, not the least little bit, because you should go into this absolutely cold. Just one thing: this film definitely needs a content warning for the claustrophobic.)

A Quiet Place Part II, written/directed by John Krasinski (seen in an actual theater! This is an excellent sequel with a few caveats, such as the cringing refrigeration of the only two Black characters shortly after their introduction. But Millicent Simmonds gets an expanded role as Regan and does a great job with it.)

Reminiscence, written/directed by Lisa Joy. (I wasn't going to list this, but this movie has unexpectedly stayed with me. Primarily because of its fascinating setting: Miami, Florida in the full throes of climate change, which means the city is reduced to half-drowned skyscrapers, islands, and seawalls surrounding rich people's estates, and people use boats instead of cars to get around. The plot is a standard noir, with Hugh Jackman's Nick Bannister meeting Rebecca Ferguson's femme fatale Mae one night when she walks into his memory-machine facility; romance, deception and a twisty plot follows. Unfortunately, Jackman has little chemistry with Ferguson despite the film's best efforts [and the fact that she's about twenty-five years younger than him is irritating as heck]. It would have been a much better story if Thandiwe Newton had been the female lead instead of the sidekick.)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. (Yes, this is a big-budget Marvel blockbuster with the requisite action-packed, overly-CGI'd third act [if a bit different in the fact that it's two dragons fighting]. Having said that, this is in my top 5 Marvel movies, maybe #3 or #4 after Black Panther. The reasons for this are: 1) Tony Leung, who turns in a magnificent performance as a complex villain and steals every scene he's in. The only other actor in the entire cast who can go toe-to-toe with him is Michelle Yeoh, whose role is unfortunately small; 2) the fight scenes, which are stunningly choreographed with inventive and sparing use of slo-mo; and 3) the stakes in this movie, even though a by-product is the aforementioned dragon battle and the necessity of stopping an extradimensional invasion, come down to Wenwu [Leung] wanting to rescue his wife. That's a helluva lot more relatable, to me, than un-Snapping half the universe.)

Best Related Work

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, Abraham Riesman (4 of 5 stars; full review here). (The Hugo definition of Related Work is somewhat in flux, but I believe scholarly nonfiction books such as this should be the focus. This is a meticulous, well written and exhaustively researched biography of the Marvel legend.)

Best Young Adult Book

Chaos on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This sequel to last year's award-winning Catfishing on CatNet introduces some new characters and takes the story in an interesting new direction. It has socially relevant things to say about religion, cults, queer people, artificial intelligences' choices and development of ethics, and the way the internet, apps and social media can be used to mislead and manipulate people.)

Siege of Rage and Ruin, Django Wexler (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (This concluding volume in the Wells of Sorcery trilogy is a satisfying, well-executed ending.)

The Last Graduate, Naomi Novik (4 of 5 stars; full review here). (And speaking of cliffhanger endings....[see the entry for Monstress, below]. I'm sure some people will throw this book against the wall when they reach the end. I almost did. But when I thought about it, I realized it couldn't have ended any other way.)

Best Series

Web Shifter's Library, Julie E. Czerneda (I'm not listing this year's entry in this series, Spectrum, in the Best Novel section. I liked it but it didn't knock my socks off, mainly because of the less-than-stellar pacing. However, overall the series is a fine exploration of its alien protagonist and the relationships she has with other beings, primarily with more or less her adopted father, the Human Paul Ragem.)

The Wells of Sorcery, Django Wexler (See above. This young-adult fantasy trilogy has a well-thought-out magic system and interesting characters.)

Best Graphic Novel

Once & Future, Vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies, BOOM! Comics, Kieron Gillen (writer); Dan Mora (artist); Tamra Bonvillain (colorist) (5 of 5 stars; full review here). (After a brief detour into Beowulf in the overly action-packed Volume 2, this volume returns to the Arthurian mythos of the excellent vol. 1 and expands the story. As always, the art is bright, bold and gorgeous, and the cliffhanger ending promises a major shakeup going forward.)

Monstress Vol. 6: The Vow, Image Comics, Marjorie Liu (writer), Sana Takeda (artist) (4 of 5 stars; full review here). (This long-running, grimdark epic fantasy comic is at time not for the squeamish. This volume is not quite as gory as the one previous, and delves into our protagonist a little more. My only complaints are that there isn't enough Kippa, and the cliffhanger ending.) 

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