Prashanth Gopalan: As though to demonstrate that time is an arbitrary concept conceived to give order and meaning to an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable world, the broad themes of 2021 felt like a continuation of those of 2020: more economic uncertainty, more political turbulence, more teetering on the edge of a slow-motion ecological collapse. My response was to seek refuge in other worlds—contemporary, historical, real, fantastical—that I cannot (yet) travel to.
I started off with Julia von Lucadou’s The High-Rise Diver, a novel set in a dreary, corporate, digital surveillance society remarkably like our own, where a star psychiatrist and a celebrity athlete square off in a battle of wills. With its enticing setting and exploration of life in an atomizing and overly digitized panopticon, the novel ended up whetting my appetite for insightful critiques of dystopia.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited (a follow-on essay to his iconic 1932 work), I discovered a wellspring of ideas that could serve as a framework for making sense of our world today. Timeless and prophetic, Huxley’s essay explores human frailty, democracy, tyranny, propaganda and the forces “historical, economic, demographic and technological” that impede our ability to exercise reason “and act justly within a democratically organized society.” Deftly weaving together insights into science, politics, and art interacting against a backdrop of population resource pressure, cultural decay, technological disruption, and social change, it presents a startling vision for humanity. I figured our species would do well to make this essay required reading for all students, innovators, and public figures who have the power to influence our future as a society.
After Huxley, I moved on to Becky Bronson’s When North Becomes South, a novel in which solar flares cause worldwide power outages that make most electronic technology useless, and generate fatal levels of solar radiation that make large swathes of the planet uninhabitable. Entire countries empty out as millions cross borders to migrate towards the equator, where the last human settlements cluster—but there isn’t room for everyone. A novel of planetary scope and deep reflection, Bronson presents an intriguing meditation on borders, climate change, and the perils of technology over-reliance, while exploring the idea that our perceived strengths today could turn out to be disadvantages tomorrow should our environmental circumstances deviate even slightly from the norm. It made me wonder just how many of our leaders are aware of the great displacements of history, and of the need to think tragically when future-proofing their policymaking.
Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan was this year’s hidden gem from the 1990s, where chain-smoking, drug-addled, and rage-fueled gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem (a cross between Christopher Hitchens and Ozzy Osbourne) and his picaresque sidekicks take on the corruption of those in power to protect the meek and the downtrodden (though not always). A mixture of cyberpunk, science fiction, and dark comedy, the originality of the series made me appreciate that a) it was twenty years ahead of its time and b) a person doesn’t need to be good to do good. Shrewdly predicting a world of digital saturation and media-centricity, it made me reflect on the role the media plays in utilizing our limited attention spans to shape our values as a society.
Lastly, in Dilman Dila’s The Future God of Love, a romantic fantasy set in a mythologized Africa where spirits and demons live alongside humans, stories are a form of nutrition required to keep towns alive and prosperous. Jamaaro, an exceptionally gifted bard whose stories can make entire societies change overnight, is considered the living embodiment of a god of love, and finds himself torn between his love for a beautiful spirit and his devotion to his craft and identity as a god. With its exploration of love, imagination, and the power of myth-making, Dilman’s novel suggests that we live in imagined realities, and that everything we know or believe to be true is actually malleable, and can be reinvented with a willingness to tell ourselves new stories.
Suffice to say, despite many of these works touching on the themes of media-saturated life and malleable realities, I’ve realized that no matter how digitized or technologically supple our societies become to bring everything within reach, ultimately what we all long for are good stories that deliver a human touch—a sense of human connection in a world that no longer feels familiar, which reassures us that despite our troubles, we are not alone. May we continue discovering great stories as we head into 2022.
Dan Hartland: A lot of SFF this year—perhaps like much of popular culture in general—was interested in adaptation. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Apple TV’s Foundation, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop. Then there were the sequels or new entries in ongoing series: Disney+’s various Marvel Cinematic Universe series—perhaps best amongst them The Falcon and the Winter Soldier—or Sony’s latest Spiderverse movies, perhaps; the final season of The Expanse, the latest of Star Trek: Discovery. In games we saw Halo Infinite and Everspace 2, while with Mass Effect Legendary Edition Electronic Arts simply remastered three releases that have surely already been played (and adapted by Hollywood) near to death. Even literary authors seemed primarily interested in remixing their greatest hits: neither Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun nor Richard Powers’s Bewilderment hit the heights of their respective author’s best works, despite retreading well-worn themes.
The genre is not, however, stuck in neutral—indeed, in print it may be in the most creative health it has been for some years. It finds itself in the hands of fresh new voices which are bringing a host of new perspectives to the materials and modes that would otherwise by now be dried out. S. Qiouyi Lu’s In The Watchful City stood out to this reader as a properly estranging novella which built a unique world with economy but also a bold sense of mystery; as a profound meditation on embodiment, too, it was everything SFF at this stage in the twenty-first century should be. In an entirely different way, Harry Josephine Giles’s Deep Wheel Orcadia—a verse novel in the Orkney dialect, printed alongside a deliberately inadequate and unwieldy “standard”-English prose translation—retooled the staples of space opera (interstellar travel, first contact, space stations) in important ways, both in terms of form and theme.
In other words, the SFF novel not just persisted by was revivified as a space in which radically new kinds of writing and thinking can take place. Equally—and hear me out here—the first idiosyncratic season of Amazon’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books held out imperfect hope that all those trips back to the well might yet also return with something new and refreshing. Onwards …
Aaron Heil: For me, 2021 has largely been a return to the historical periods that inspire lots of classic speculative fiction: the Middle Ages and late antiquity. This was spurred on by devouring K. J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, where a dry-witted army engineer organizes the defense of a thinly disguised version of Constantinople. The black humor contained, along with a realistic look at the logistics of epic battles, reminded me of Joe Abercrombie and inspired a revisit to his first trilogy, the First Law series. Both works downplay the magical side of speculative fiction in favor of a world more focused on weapons, battle, and gore. However, I turned to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales for some less violent reading about countries that don’t exist. Orsinian Tales proved harder for me to find than some other more famous Le Guin works, because of its focus on human relationships and geography rather than meditating on the laws of science.
In order to give myself some actual historical context, I read The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, host of Netflix’s Great British Castles, which went into surprising detail for such readable prose about the family of King Henry II. Feeling curious about what was happening in the 1200–1300s in a non-Western setting, I greatly enjoyed Jack Weatherford’s books about the Mongol civilization, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World and Genghis Khan and the Quest for God. Weatherford’s books go into detail as well, and more importantly are drawing on sources that English-language scholars have either not had access to or have ignored, to present an intricate, highly organized view of the Mongol empire. Other media has presented some insights for my little research project as well, especially The History of Rome, The History of Byzantium, and The History of the Germans podcasts, by Mike Duncan, Robin Pierson, and Dirk Hoffmann-Becking respectively. These three podcasts stand out by looking at historical characters in context and their willingness to engage in debates about how events are interpreted. Hoffmann-Becking, especially, who starts at Henry the Fowler and moves forward, finds himself separating myth from history with great care since he deals frequently with saints, bishops, and figures still venerated in the Roman Catholic Church. All three routinely cite or interview experts on the histories and provide an easy gateway for interested audiences.
Matt Hilliard: For me the genre highlight of 2021 was Ada Palmer’s Perhaps the Stars. I already wrote quite a bit about it in my review but suffice to say, it’s a great capstone to a fascinating and thought-provoking series. From flying cars and an innocent boy bringing toys to life, the four books take us through politics, intrigue, assassination, war, and suffering as its characters ask (and the reader should ask with them) what kind of future we should want for humanity.
My other most notable read was Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun, the start of a sprawling new space opera series following a female main character who’s loosely based on Alexander the Great. Elliott’s Crown of Stars series was one of the few works of medieval fantasy that simultaneously made its characters feel both thoroughly premodern but still recognizably human, and it’s really interesting to see how this sensibility transfers to a space opera. Space opera almost always takes lots of cues from the past, and Elliott incorporates a lot that I think comes from our understanding of how power was held and contested in ancient Macedonia, but it’s intermixed with space battles and mass media in a narrative that isn’t afraid to wonder if its central character’s apparent destiny is actually a good thing.
Matt Holder: While I review a lot of novels, teach a lot of novels, and am currently dissertating on a lot of novels, my first real reading love was comics. This year, I found myself returning to that medium more than any other, with rereads of favorites like Frank Miller’s Ronin, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But without a doubt the best comic I read this year, published in April 2021, was Barry Windsor-Smith’s Monsters. Working at the absolute top of his game, Windsor-Smith delivers a text dripping with nuance, depth, and emotional heartbreak that was so visceral at times, so painful and disquieting, I found it hard to actually read the thing. His art is some of the finest the medium has ever seen, with every line (all six billion of them) communicating story, character, and affect. Go pick this up.
This year in my college lit class I taught portions of the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program. You can read it here. Teaching the report brought me to Daniel Kraus’s Bent Heavens, which came out in 2020. Kraus cites the report as a key influence on his text, which basically imagines: what if ET happened but with torture? The book is disturbing in all the right ways and remains depressingly urgent. We should probably stop funding the instruments of war.
Some other books published in 2021: On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal by Rachel Greenwald Smith is an excellent book of nonfiction essays that interrogates how our notions of compromise play themselves out not only politically but also aesthetically, told through personal reflection, memoir, and an intellectual rigor that is always accessible. The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy is his ultimate comic book playground told in prose, and it’s the most fun I’ve had reading a novel this year. Other 2021 gems: The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell by Brian Evenson (reviewed here) and Confessions of a Puppetmaster: A Hollywood Memoir of Ghouls, Guts, and Gonzo Filmmaking by Charles Band, because I adore Full Moon.
Things I read that were new to me this year and would highly recommend: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (the way Robinson talks about faith, spirituality, and difference in this text has stayed with me since I read this back in March); The Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita (a wild, crazy ride of postcolonial science fiction); A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (this book has a whole chapter told in PowerPoint slides that will make you crumble and cry); and, finally, the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, a work from an absolutely brilliant storyteller and cartoonist whose work inspired me in elementary school and continues to do so for millions of young readers. You need more Dog Man in your life.
Nick Hubble: As the times we live in get weirder and weirder, I am receding further and further into foundational myths. Or to put it another way, it has taken a global pandemic and the total collapse into farce of British political and public life to overcome a lifetime’s resistance and finally force me to engage with the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth, the late Christopher Tolkien’s annotated collection of his father’s drafts. Specifically, I have been ploughing through the four volumes (VI–IX) concerning the writing of The Lord of the Rings. While the more striking revelations of this material, such as Aragorn/Strider originally being a hobbit called Trotter, are now public knowledge, there are still many character evolutions to wonder at. For example, Treebeard was initially an evil giant who imprisons Gandalf and then subsequently the breaker of the siege of Minas Tirith before finally settling into the role he takes in the published version. In finally surrendering to the nerdish desire for completion, I now fully understand the derivation of Bilbo’s song at Rivendell, the importance of the 5 August 1940 examination scripts from Oxford University to dating the drafts which were written on the unused pages, and the endless struggle to align the internal chronology of the plot (although this has merely served to reinforce my existing sense that Tolkien never really succeeded in squaring this).
Reading Tolkien in the midst of crisis accentuates the question of in what ways The Lord of the Rings is an escapist fantasy. Is it simply an immersive distraction or is it a more profound response to what John Clute has described as the “wrongness” of the twentieth century (the remains of which are falling down around our ears)? It’s worth remembering that it is very much a millenarian text in which a new age is born. The published novel ends with Sam sitting down holding his baby daughter, Elanor. The draft epilogue (included in volume IX, Sauron Defeated) has Sam telling a nearly grown-up Elanor that there will be things for her to do and choices for her to make, suggesting a different trajectory to the conservative politics often ascribed to the novel. In this respect, The Lord of the Rings is about how to break through to a different configuration of reality and Samwise (the Old English for “halfwit”) is the unlikely hero who rises to the occasion and makes this possible. It’s a bit disconcerting, therefore, to find that Sam is not even in the earliest drafts written in late 1937 and early 1938, but the real story of the evolution of The Lord of the Rings is his emergence and gradual elevation to central importance in the plot. While I still have much to ponder concerning these books, such as the enigmatic question of exactly how “dark” Galadriel might have been or the momentary timeline in which Bilbo has a wife, reading them reminds me that other worlds are possible even if it seems a fool’s errand to set out in search of them.
Paul Kincaid: Beside all the psychological and emotional stresses and strains of the year, I also had problems with my eyes (though they’re fine now). So I read less than half of what I would usually get through in a year, and the amount of that reading with even a nodding acquaintance with SF was vanishingly small. But one book made me think about science fiction, even though the words “science fiction” appear nowhere in it (despite a chapter largely devoted to George Orwell’s 1984). That book is The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand (4th Estate), though by “free world” it means primarily America and France, by “cold war” it means the time period from 1945 to 1970, and within that timeframe the Second World War would appear to have a far more profound and lasting effect upon art than the Cold War itself actually did. But as Menand deftly weaves together a complexly interconnected story that takes in Jackson Pollock and Merce Cunningham, Isaiah Berlin and Susan Sontag, Claude Levi-Strauss and James Baldwin, Pauline Kael and the Beatles, I found myself wondering: how did SF respond to all this; could this book or that film be read as responding to the same issues; how come such a metaphor that was everywhere in the SF of the period hardly featured outside the genre? Don’t get me wrong: the book I was reading was wonderfully engaging and enthralling; but the parallel book I wasn’t reading feels like it would be every bit as fascinating.
Christina Ladd: When I was growing up, there were people who didn’t want me to read books. No, really! I did not have a particularly easy childhood, and the books I chose to read reflected that childhood: I liked dark stories, ones with teeth. But that’s only because horror can be the most compassionate genre. It refuses to look away from bad things, reassuring us that it is the world and not our perceptions that are out of whack. Bad things are real. Bad things happen to good people. It’s enough, sometimes, to know we’re not alone, but even better is when horror tells us that bad things be can endured, or even overcome.
In that vein, one of the best books of the year was The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward’s deeply compassionate look at the reverberations of what seems to be a single crime, followed closely by Sara A. Mueller’s The Bone Orchard, a political fantasy-horror. Both of these examine complex trauma with a profound understanding of the human capacity to inflict suffering, but also the capacity to endure and thrive despite it. Similarly, Near the Bone by Christina Henry is a horror adventure that never flinches, and Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca is a brilliant exploration of the dark side of queer desire.
I know I’m not alone in loving Squid Game, so I’ll instead gush a bit about Kill 6 Billion Demons, a webcomic (and now also softcover comic) with unbelievably epic proportions. Tom Parkinson-Morgan absolutely nails the strangeness and sweep of cosmic mythology, borrowing from what seems like every religion and culture under the sun, and yet it’s so completely his own, and so completely fresh.
But if 2021 was the Year of Embracing the Void, then I must also confess that the Void can occasionally be cozy. (It does, after all, have infinite space for blankets and snacks.) The most exquisitely comforting book I read was definitely Light from Uncommon Stars. Ryka Aoki asked the question “why is life worth living?” and then wrote an entire symphony in answer. Genres are her instruments, and she plays science fiction, horror, and fantasy together so seamlessly, so tenderly, and so exuberantly that I wanted to applaud.
And then there’s the Paladin series by the inimitable T. Kingfisher (Paladin’s Grace, Paladin’s Strength, and Paladin’s Hope). Somehow the serial killers, murder-labyrinths, and horrifying battle royale arenas … enhance the romances? I can’t explain it. No—I won’t explain it. I refuse to interrogate one of the few pure delights of 2021.