2023 Recommended SFF List

And it's time for a new page for the new year! 

 


Novel

Starling House, Alix E. Harrow (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is a beautifully written Southern gothic haunted-house ghost story, as well as a treatise on the power of stories, as is the author's wont; and the families we find and the homes we make. It's the best book I've read this year.)

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, Shannon Chakraborty (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is a marvelous tale of pirating, motherhood, estranged demon husbands, and the price of dreams, with top-notch worldbuilding and characterization.)

Some Desperate Glory, Emily Tesh (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is my first 5-star read this year. This is a character-driven space opera that tackles some pretty heavy themes--fascism and genocide, among others--with excellent characterization.)

Lords of Uncreation, Adrian Tchaikovsky (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (The last book in the Final Architecture space opera series expertly wraps up the story. All these books are doorstopper-sized, but don't let that put you off. This is some serious space opera with universe-level stakes, engaging characters and creepy aliens.)

He Who Drowned the World, Shelley Parker-Chan (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This sequel to She Who Became the Sun, the gender-flipped fantasy retelling of the founder of China's Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, is a fascinating exploration of ambition, rage, and revenge.)

The Blighted Stars, Megan E. O'Keefe (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is somewhat of a takeoff of the recent fungal-zombie-invasion trend, but the depth of characterization and meticulous worldbuilding set it apart.)

The Reformatory, Tananarive Due (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is ostensibly a horror novel, as it has supernatural elements [ghosts, here called “haints”]. I don’t care. This is one of the best books I have read from 2023. It tells the story of a “Reformatory” for boys in Florida during the height of the Jim Crow era [one of Due’s relatives was sent to the real-life school the Reformatory is based on, and died there]. The “haints” are alien and scary, but the real horror is the school and the white supremacist system that enables it. Due does not pull her punches telling this story, so be aware. But this is one powerful book.)

Godkiller, Hannah Kaner (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This book tackles some interesting questions about gods and the nature of worship, bracketed by four well-written and interesting characters.)

Translation State, Ann Leckie (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This story taking place in the Imperial Radch universe concentrates on different characters. We find out a lot more about the somewhat horrific Presger Translators. It is a quieter, more personal story than the Imperial Radch trilogy, but the characters grew on me.)

The Infinite, Ada Hoffman (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This complex book wraps up the many plot and character threads in the Outside trilogy, bringing one of the most innovative science fiction series of recent years to a satisfying conclusion.)

The Strange, Nathan Ballingrud (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is billed as The Martian Chronicles meets True Grit, and that’s exactly right. It has an old-fashioned pulp feel to it, a Martian adventure story invoking memories of Arthur C. Clarke and Edgar Rice Burroughs [although thankfully lacking the racism and Confederate-veteran-protagonist of the latter]. It’s a fast-paced page-turner that I didn’t expect to like, but ended up enjoying quite a bit.)

Meru, S.B. Divya (4 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is a deep and thoughtful story about the future of mankind and the clash between humans and the genetically engineered post human Alloys. There is also an engaging love story between the human protagonist and her Alloy. There are quite a few ethical and philosophical conundrums explored in this book, and it's worth reading slowly to absorb it all.)

Rubicon, J.S. Dewes (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This story owes a lot to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, with the twist that the human combatants are the ones dying and being resurrected into new bodies instead of the Cylons. Or maybe they are the Cylons, since "all of this has happened before and will happen again." Regardless, this is well-paced military science fiction with a sad, infuriating ending that will definitely whet your appetite for the second book.)

System Collapse, Martha Wells (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is the seventh book in the Murderbot Diaries series about an anxious, neurotic cyborg who just wants to be left alone to watch its shows. It's not the best book in the series, and you really shouldn't start here, but it's worth reading.)

All the Hidden Paths, Foz Meadows (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (The second book of the Tithenai Chronicles is a romance/political fantasy with some lovely writing and good character work.)

Short Stories

"Here All Week," Natasha King, Strange Horizons April 2023. (This is a bit creepy but ultimately heartwarming tale of a worm-god in human form and her love and loyalty to her human best friend.)

"Hers," Fernanda Coutinho Teixeira, Strange Horizons February 2023. (Stories about women and bodily autonomy are a lot more common in America after the fall of Roe. This horror story in one way enacts the ultimate revenge--the protagonist says, if you're going to take my body--by denying me the right to make decisions about it--I'm going to take yours.)

"A Piece of the Continent," Marissa Lingen, Uncanny Magazine November/December 2023. (This is a story of loss and friendship, on a road trip with the protagonists' grandfather's ashes.)

"The Coffin Maker," Anamaria Curtis, Uncanny Magazine September/October 2023. (This is a sad, lovely story about an outfitter aboard a ship looking for a planet to settle, and the guilt she feels about her cobbled-together suits failing and her crewmates dying.) 

"The Fall of Esther Park," Lynn D. Jung, Apparition Lit Magazine July 2023. (This story comes from a magazine I hadn't heard of before, but I hopped right over to its Patreon and subscribed once I'd read this. This is a beautifully told and constructed story where every word counts, about a young girl falling in love with and becoming a god.)

"The Job at the End of the World," Ray Nayler, Reactor (formerly Tor.com) 8/30/23. (This is a bittersweet story of climate change and the costs thereof.)

"Origin Story," Tochi Onyebuchi, from the anthology Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror, edited by Jordan Peele and John Joseph Adams. (The anthology as a whole is a bit uneven, but this story should not be missed. It's written as a short play, with four speaking White Boy characters that will run through a scary, disgusting litany of racism and white entitlement. It will hit you like a gut punch.)

From the February issue of Clarkesworld:

"Somewhere, It's About To Be Spring" by Samantha Murray and "Silo, Sweet Silo" by James Castles

These stories have a bit of a similar premise--an artificial intelligence awakening to sentience--but diffferent executions. The former is a lovely story about a ship's "multicore computer" losing her crew but gaining a new family, and the latter is the story of a war machine who learns it doesn't have to fight and die. This last is the author's first published story, and holy crap if he turns out work like that, he's going to have a bright future. 

The below are from the May issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, a stellar issue. 

Short Stories: 


Kritzer tends to use AI as a character in her stories; two of her books, Catfishing on CatNet and Chaos on CatNet, feature an artificial intelligence front and center. This story delves into an app, Abelique, that purports to be "for better living." And it seems to do just that--for a while, until its users start to get suspicious of it. It puts a bit of a twist on the author's standard formula, emphasizing the power of human connection.


This story is one of two hard-SF stories in the issue (depending on your definition of hard SF, I suppose) about a race of intelligent blind nautilus-like creatures in the oceans of Europa, and what they do when an Earth probe drills through the nine-mile-thick layer of ice to discover a thriving ecosystem. I thought it had a rather abrupt ending, but it just shows the skill of the author in that you want the story to continue.

"Action At a Distance," An Hao, translated by Andy Dudak

This story, originally published in the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World last year, is the second hard-SF story in the issue. It's dense and complex, and will probably take more than one reading (at least it did me) to understand the concepts about consciousness and matter discussed. Some Chinese SF I've read suffers from having thin cardboardy characters, but this story has much better characterization.

"The Fall," Jordan Chase-Young

This is an SF horror story, featuring a genetically engineered forest and creatures on the moon and what happens when a photographer discovers a discarded doll from the Prefall inhabitants.

From the June issue of Clarkesworld (if I'm hitting Clarkesworld Magazine pretty heavy, it's because I've subscribed to it for years--and you should too! especially with Amazon's fuckery over ending their Kindle subscription program--and editor Neil Clarke generally picks outstanding stories): 

"Day Ten Thousand," Isabel J. Kim (This is a twisty, intricate and meta tale bouncing back and forth between different time periods and the same [cloned] characters. This author has made her name with her short fiction, and this is a sterling example.)

"The Moon Rabbi," David Edenbach (This is an absorbing little story examining the nexus of science and religion, with the titular rabbi traveling to the Moon to set up Seder.)

"...Your Little Light," Jana Bianchi (This is a sad, somber, but ultimately uplifting tale about a human and alien mother. You might steer clear of it if you're sensitive to child death.)

"Vast and Trunkless Legs of Stone," Carrie Vaughn (This is a thought-provoking first contact story with a twist.)

"Death and Redemption, Somewhere Near Tuba City," Lou J. Berger, Clarkesworld Magazine July 2023. (This is a future of sentient self-driving cars that are now outlawed, and the dying tow truck operator/bounty hunter going after the last free group of vehicles. [These smart cars must be solar or nuclear powered, because they sure aren't going to get any gas in the middle of the Arizona desert.]  Our crusty, cranky protagonist comes to the realization that the vehicles she's been hunting are people after all, and she ends up catching and then freeing Big Bertha, the sentient tow truck and leader of the group. All this may sound like a familiar plot, and it is, but the characters are well-drawn and the worldbuilding inventive.) 

"What Remains, The Echoes of a Flute Song," Alexandra Seidel, Clarkesworld Magazine July 2023. (This is a bittersweet tale of a post-apocalyptic city and an alien flutist who stumbles across what may be the last remaining human.)

From Interzone Magazine Issue 294 January 2023:

Novelette (there are no word counts in the magazine, or on the website that I can find, but I think that's what this is):

"Murder by Proxy" by Philip Fracassi. This is a long story with a noir/horror edge. The tone is set immediately, with the protagonist's cynical, world-weary voice. Granted, this is bordering on cliche and nothing we haven't heard countless times before. Still, as the story goes along it gets more interesting and gradually sets itself apart, especially with the introduction of the AI antagonist and the touch of the supernatural in the protagonist's phobia of puppets. The author does a very good job of describing how creepy toys can be. 

"The Coming of the Extroverts" by Daniel Bennett. This is a shorter, cyberpunkish story with a protagonist (amusingly) named Moog. (Somebody remembers the Moog synthesizer, eh?) It has a nice twist to it, and it's all there in the opening sentences. The ending is also a clever little tip to UFO buffs and X-Files fans. 

"The Building Across the Street" by R.T. Ester. This is an absorbing little onion of a story. It gradually peels the layers back on an interstellar mystery, with the setting serving up a side of dystopia.

"Last Act of the Revolution" by Louise Hughes. This is a quiet character study asking an interesting question: what happens to the fiery revolutionary when she can't let go of all the years of fighting, now that she has attained her goal? I think this is my favorite story in the issue. 

Novelette

"SuperMAX," Daniel H. Wilson, Uncanny Magazine July/August 2023. (This story of a future prison run by AI is also the tale of a father coming to terms with his choices and demons.)

"Detonation Boulevard," Alastair Reynolds, Reactor Mag (formerly Tor.com). (Monster truck racing on the surface of Io, one of Jupiter's moons! Thankfully, this story is a little deeper than that.)

"Love at the Event Horizon," Natalia Theodoridou, Uncanny Magazine July/August 2023. (This is a sad, bittersweet tale of filmmaking, love, black holes and ghosts.)

"The Year Without Sunshine," Naomi Kritzer, Uncanny Magazine November/December 2023. (If you're like me, you've read more than your share of post-apocalyptic stories where people rob and rape and society breaks down. This story is the exact opposite of that, a post-disaster tale [disaster not specified, but it sounds like an enormous volcanic eruption that spews ash into the sky] where everyone in the neighborhood pulls together and helps each other through.)

Novella

The Keeper's Six, Kate Elliott (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (Combine excellent worldbuilding with a sixty-year-old female protagonist who goes on a quest to protect her son and grandchildren, squaring off against a dragon in the process, and you have a winner.)

The Salt Grows Heavy, Cassandra Khaw (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is a beautifully written if extremely gory fairy tale retelling/sequel to The Little Mermaid. This fierce, beautiful story has blood, guts, fury and teeth.)

"To Sail Beyond the Botnet," Suzanne Palmer (This is the latest in a delightful series of stories featuring Bot 9, a small repair bot who has a habit of improvising its way out of all sorts of problems and saving its ship and crew along the way. This novella introduces a fascinating alien race and shakes up Bot 9's world, laying the foundation for more interesting adventures going forward. Also note the title, a takeoff of a Robert A. Heinlein novel.)

Lodestar (Young Adult/Middle Grade)

To Shape a Dragon's Breath, Moniquill Blackgoose (5 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is a fascinating alternate history with dragons that examines colonization, discrimination, and the erasure of Native culture.)

The Spirit Bares Its Teeth, Andrew Joseph White (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This has a fair amount of medical/surgical/supernatural gore, so if you're sensitive to that you should steer clear. But the themes of accepting oneself and fighting for one's right to exist are just as important today.)

Series

The Outside trilogy, Ada Hoffman (see review of the final book above). 

The Final Architecture trilogy, Adrian Tchaikovsky (see review of final book above).

Related Work

The Spice Must Flow: The Story of Dune, From Cult Novels to Visionary Sci-Fi Movies, Ryan Britt (4 of 5 stars, full review here). (This is not a biography of Frank Herbert or an in-depth discussion of Dune's themes and philosophies, though it does touch on some of that; rather, it covers the publishing and filming history, concentrating on the latter.)

Graphic Novel

Why Don't You Love Me? Paul B. Rainey (4 of 5 stars; full review here). (This is the first really good graphic novel of the year. It has a classic SFnal twist halfway through, but before and after it tackles issues of identity, free will, family ties, and roads not taken. I'm being vague because you don't want to be spoiled for this one; going into it cold has the greatest impact. Trust me, it's worth it.)







Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Marvel Studios, written/directed by James Gunn. (Yeah, Marvel's phase 4 [I think that's the number they're in; there's too many to keep track] has taken a definite slide in quality, but this one harks back to the better movies of phases past. It does this by concentrating on the characters, specifically Rocket, and giving them all closures to their stories.)

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Columbia-Sony, written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Dave Callaham; directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson. (Some of the action in this seemed a little frantic to me at times, but there's no denying the sheer beautiful breathtaking look of the film. The character development is also outstanding.)

Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig (I went into this expecting it to be a light and fluffy story about a doll....and it wasn't. It had some interesting things to say about men, women, female empowerment, and the patriarchy, and was a bit more sympathetic to Ken than he deserved, since he essentially tried to tear Barbie's world apart. Ryan Gosling, however, was terrific in the role, and Kate McKinnon, as Weird Barbie, almost stole the show out from under everybody. The sets and look of the movie was fantastic.)

Silo, Apple TV, ep 3, "Machines,". (I have the books this show is based on. I haven't read them yet, but the series is drawing me in. Ep 3 apparently had some engineering and technical errors, but as an episode it was tight and tense. The central mysteries--who built the silo and why, and why are all these people confined in what is essentially an underground skyscraper--remain to be answered, but the setting and characters are making it worth the wait. The subsequent outstanding episodes "The Flamekeepers" and "Hanna" are building the mystery and deepening the characters, and the season as a whole got better as it goes along. The final episode, "Outside," was the best, answering some questions while opening up the world and asking even bigger ones. Can't wait for season 2.)

The Last of Us, HBO, ep 3, "Long Long Time." and ep 5, "Endure and Survive."  (If you aren't crying your eyes out at the end of ep 3, I don't know what to tell you. This beautiful, heartbreaking love story in the midst of a fungal zombie apocalypse sets the bar for good TV for the rest of the year.) (Ep 5 is another stunner, possibly more heartwrenching than ep 3, with an amazing action set piece that shows how horrifying and unstoppable the fungal zombies in this world are.)

Star Trek: Picard, Paramount Plus, Season 3 Ep 4, "No Win Scenario."  and Ep 5, "Imposters." (I wasn't sure if I would watch this season of Picard at all, but it's so far proven to be stronger than the misbegotten Season 2, in spite of the showrunner's wallowing in nostalgia by bringing back nearly everyone from The Next Generation. This episode, directed by Jonathan Frakes, is a taut action story that also makes time for several important character moments.) (The season appears to be getting better as it goes along. Episode 5 features the return of a character from the final season of The Next Generation, and two incredible performances from Patrick Stewart and the actor in question [to avoid spoilers]. The two storylines of the season are also merged at the end of the episode. It's a better story and scripting, and it's surprising the heck out of me.)

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Paramount Plus, Season 2 Episode 2, "Ad Astra Per Aspera." (The Season 2 opener was just okay, but this episode sings. It's a courtroom drama following up on Commander Una Chin-Riley's arrest at the end of last season for being an illegal genetic augment. I don't know if it's quite as stellar as "The Measure of a Man" or "The Drumhead," but it's damn good. Episode 3, "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," is an alternate timeline time travel story that focuses on Paul Wesley's James T. Kirk--which is not up to William Shatner's portrayal yet, but which is beginning to grow on me--and Christina Chong's La'an Noonien Singh. Chong, in particular, does excellent work here. Ep 6, "Lost in Translation," has a pretty standard ST plot, but the episode's excellent character moments make up for it. Ep 7, "Those Old Scientists," is a delightful crossover between the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks and Strange New Worlds, with the actors portraying Boimler and Mariner bringing their characters to live-action in a time-travel story. I guffawed throughout--the jokes are perfectly on target for the most part--but there were also some good character moments, and an acknowledgement that often one's heroes are nothing at all like what you have imagined them to be. Ep 9, "Subspace Rhapsody," is, of all things, a musical, but there are some good songs--particularly Uhura's "Keep Us Connected," sung magnificently by Celia Rose Gooding, and great character work.)

Star Wars: Ahsoka, Disney Plus, Season 1 Episode 5, "Shadow Warrior," and Episode 6, "Far Far Away." (As the season progresses, this show is hitting its stride after a bit of a long setup. Episode 5 features Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, revisiting his early training and battles with his Padawan Ahsoka, and Ahsoka's choice to move past their history and live; and Episode 6 finally meets up with Grand Admiral Thrawn and Ezra Bridger.)

Loki, Disney Plus, Season 2 Ep 6, "Glorious Purpose." (If Marvel has any sense, it will end the saga of Loki, the God of Mischief and now the God of Stories, here. To bring him back would only cheapen the excellence of this finale.)

The Fall of the House of Usher, Netflix, Episode 5, "The Tell-Tale Heart." (This limited series based on Edgar Allan Poe's short stories isn't as good as director/writer Mike Flanagan's previous Midnight Mass, but this episode has an unsettling edge of paranoia and supernatural horror.)




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