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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

"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.)

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, Season 1, Disney Plus, 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.")

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. (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.)

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.)

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