Nina Allan: Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore and Wyl Menmuir’s Booker-longlisted The Many, both from UK independent press Salt Publishing, are two books that have not received as much attention in genre circles as they should have done. While neither book is overtly fantastical, both stray deep within the borders of the weird, playing with the concept of unreliable narrators and eerie, almost sentient landscapes that pose an actual physical threat to those that inhabit them. Both novels share a speculative sensibility, a "weird West Country" setting, and their concise length and pared down, deceptively simple style makes for an intense and deeply thought-provoking reading experience. Matt Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors might be these books’ polar opposite—a wild-goose chase across an unpredictably science-fictional universe in the company of an insane food critic in a search for a hotel that might not exist (and even if it does, you don’t want to find it, believe me)—but it is equally memorable; The Way Inn on speed. Suddain is a true wordsmith—he bends words to his will with carefree abandon—with his dialogue a riotous high point in a novel that many more people should be reading. My top pick though must go jointly to Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Border of Paradise, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons earlier in the year, and William Gay’s posthumously published Southern gothic Little Sister Death. Both novels examine the duplicitous nature of memory and the many and disturbing ways in which the present is shaped by the past. The first chapter of Gay’s Little Sister Death provides one of the most darkly compelling openings to a horror novel I have ever read, while Wang’s dissection of family relationships under intolerable pressure leaves an indelible impression. Six months after reading it, this book and its unforgettable characters remain an indisputable high point of my literary 2016.
In film, whilst I enjoyed Ben Wheatley’s hallucinatory adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High Rise and Brady Corbet’s eerily original Childhood of a Leader (complete with a superb score by Scott Walker) the hands-down triumph of the year for me has to be Matteo Garrone’s opulent and scintillating fairy tale fantasy Tale of Tales. Intelligent, ironic, disturbing, and ravishingly beautiful, it is everything SFF cinema should be (yet so seldom is) and should win all the awards.
Redfern Jon Barrett: More than anything I want to talk about Westworld, the recent sci-fi western thriller from HBO. I’m hesitant to do so because A: westerns never really grabbed me by the holster and B: I am far from the only person ranting about this show. It isn’t exceptional in terms of storytelling or characterisation—despite my watching the entire series in two days—yet it is remarkable in its depiction of human sexuality. Far too many works of science and speculative fiction depict futures which are as heterosexually bound as our world today. Not so Westworld. The sexual fluidity which is a growing feature of our culture is ever-present, presenting us with a future in which gender proves little barrier to pleasure. It’s realistic, subtle, and engrossingly speculative. We need to see much, much more of this.
Book-wise, I’ve been delving deeper into David Mitchell’s wonderful works, which never fail to grasp me both heart and mind. In terms of nonfiction I cannot stop recommending Paul Mason’s speculative vision Postcapitalism, and I was lucky enough to attend his German-language launch in Berlin—it’s a desperately inspiring book, and all the more so following the events of 2016. Lastly, I have yet to forget certain intense and wonderful tales from Matthew Cheney’s collection Blood: Stories, which I reviewed earlier this year. Though not all were favourites, Cheney has a talent for the bleak and the beautiful, and it’s well worth losing yourself within.
Gautam Bhatia: My genre-related high point of the year is discovering the Cuban biologist punk-rocker SF writer Yoss, courtesy of Strange Horizons reviews. Planet for Rent and Super Extra Grande are two of his books that are brimming with wit, dark humour, interspecies sex, political engagement, and underlying all of it, a certain empathy and wisdom that is impossible to put into words. I’d urge everyone to find him, and read him.
Martin Cahill: In a year that has been so dark, and so tumultuous, there’s a certain comfort that comes with knowing we were so lucky to get so much Steven Universe this year. The wonderful show created by Rebecca Sugar can often be aired sporadically, but this summer we were lucky to get the bomb of all "Steven Bombs," as they call them. Almost a full month of Steven Universe, episode after episode of wonderful content, as we followed Steven and the Crystal Gems through the trials of the dangerous Cluster at the Earth’s core, and even further, spinning out to encompass new members of the team, Peridot and Lapis, their growing relationships together, and with the Gems themselves. During this four-week span, Steven Universe showed us as always that the programme was unafraid to go to some dark, very real places, exploring grief, abusive relationships, betrayal, weakness, and more, as Steven himself began to learn uncomfortable truths about his mother and her legacy, and began to figure out how he himself will chart a path forward. But more often than not, just when things seemed darkest, Sugar and co. always circle back to the things that make Steven Universe a cut above the rest: families, both born and found; love, friendship, forgiveness, trust, and compassion in a sometimes dark world. It may seem as though the light is little this winter, as we head into an uncertain year ahead, but if Steven Universe can teach us anything, it’s that light can be found in those around us, whom we love and cherish, and who love and cherish us. Those bonds, that specific love, can only inspire and protect us in the year to come.
Vajra Chandrasekera: Books that I feel deep in my intestines and cannot dislodge; books that are objects which are not foreign: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette)and Age of Blight by Kristine Ong Muslim. One makes me happy and the other unhappy, but should I even tell you which, and how could I explain why?
Books that when bitten are smoky and pungent in the mouth: Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw; When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Díaz ("three-piece skeleton suit, cummerbund of ribs").
Books that are metal and noise: Elizabeth Hand’s Hard Light.
Books that attempt to throttle you in the dark: Michael Koryta’s Last Words; Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh.
Books about books, worlds, fucked-up superheroes, robots, and monsters: The Sellout, Paul Beatty; The Race, Nina Allan; The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts (also his collection of essays, Sibilant Fricative); The Regional Office Is Under Attack, Manuel Gonzales; Plastic Smile, SL Huang; United States of Japan, Peter Tieryas; The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle.
Books about imprisonment or interrogation: Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech; Ambelin Kwaymullina’s The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf; Concrete Park by Erika Alexander and Tony Puryear.
Collections from which I am compelled to name at least one story each: Style of Attack Report by the Metropolarity collective, for "grl.suicide.holiday" by Ras Mashramani; and Octavia’s Brood, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, for "Evidence" by Alexis Pauline Gumbs—who will, incidentally, have brand-new work in Strange Horizons in January!
Alasdair Czyrnyj: 2016 was, quite frankly, an abysmal year for me. I won’t get into the specifics here, but one of the knock-on effects was that I didn’t feel much of a desire to explore new areas of genre. The majority of my reading was non-fiction, and even my film-watching was mostly more mainstream fare.
Still, I did have a few pleasant surprises. In books, I finally read Silk, Caìtlin R. Kiernan’s first novel, which was a beautifully written and deeply honest work. While Silk was my favorite novel of 2016, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades was my runner-up; a more conventional modern fantasy novel, but a definite evolution from its predecessor. In comics, my standout title was Gordon Rennie’s Jaegir, a spinoff of 2000AD’s Rogue Trooper line that puts all other "life in the Evil Empire" stories to shame, focusing on one woman’s struggle to pay the wages demanded by war, empire, and the state as a security agent.
In other media, I’ve been phasing out television in favor of film, but even here most of my favorite films were outside of genre (except maybe Shadow of the Vampire which always deserves a rewatch). In video games it’s a toss-up between Dishonored 2 and Kittyhorrorshow’s suburban horror piece Anatomy. For criticism, my vote goes to Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topology of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, a superlative work of film criticism, feminist criticism, and a probing autobiographical study to boot.
Dan Hartland: I’ve read rather less than I might have wished this year—a symptom, perhaps, of art erroneously seeming, in the weaker moments afforded by them, a feeble thing in the wake of 2016’s assaults . . . and because of which I owe my thanks to this magazine’s reviewers, who have kept me inspired and engaged with their writing and enthusiasm throughout the year.
I doubt, then, that my limited forays will lead to my selections surprising anyone: within genre, it seems unlikely that anyone needs my recommendation to realise they should read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and Christopher Priest’s The Gradual. Both take their overpopulated subgenres—space opera and time travel respectively—and do something interesting, fresh, and vital with the conceits. In a year in which much that was new seemed usually bad and at the very least frightening, happy innovations were a welcome thing.
Outside of the core genre, meanwhile, I’d like to argue for the speculative content of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. Of the two, Perry’s novel is the one most likely to find a natural home in the hearts of Strange Horizons readers . . . but in truth neither are quite the sort of novel we’d usually review. That said, where Beatty’s novel offers an absurdist parable of what might happen if segregation and slavery were reintroduced by and within an African-American community, and Perry’s dangles the ghost of a sea monster over a diverting cast of Victorian truth-seekers, both books use the tools of speculative fiction to great effect—and are therefore well worth your attention, should you have missed them.
Here, indeed, is to more reading in 2017.
David Hebblethwaite: My favourite SF experience of 2016 was the second season of Humans, Channel 4’s drama set in an alternate present where synthetic humanoids are commonplace, and consciousness is spreading among them. This season walked a tricky tightrope of expanding Humans’ canvas while maintaining its intimate, personal focus. Thanks to some deft scripting and excellent performances, the show explored issues of what it is to be human, with a wonderful lightness of touch.
Turning to books, 2016 was the year I discovered the work of the Finnish writer Leena Krohn. I read her 1985 novel Tainaron: Mail from Another City (translated by Hildi Hawkins), which is told in a series of letters sent home from someone living in a city of giant insects—a city that might be more a state of mind than an actual place. For me, Tainaron is on a par with M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence (1971–85) in terms of dismantling the certainties of story.
I also enjoyed The Queue by Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz. In this novel, life in a Middle Eastern city has been reoriented around a bureaucracy that forces people to queue for days on end in order to obtain authorisation for the smallest things. Though The Queue may appear quiet and abstract on the surface, there is an urgent precision underneath—and always a chill at the back of the reader’s neck.
Matt Hilliard: For me the standout event of 2016 was unquestionably Ada Palmer’s novel Too Like the Lightning. Well, that and Hamilton. But you don’t need me to tell you about Hamilton. As for Palmer’s novel, everyone reading this should read it. I won’t say everyone will like it, because many won’t. It’s a risk-tasking novel that doesn’t compromise in its unusual aesthetic choices. But if you like what it’s doing, as I did, then no one else is doing anything like this. When you decide not to read the average novel, genre or otherwise, you can read a different novel and get similar pleasures. If you would have liked what Too Like the Lightning is doing but you don’t read it, your life will be poorer as a result.
I have said and will continue to say similar things about Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, cited by critics and Palmer alike as one of her key influences. Since some reading this will have bounced off Wolfe’s masterpiece, I want to mention that I think they shouldn’t let that scare them off, because Too Like the Lightning is using some of the same tools but toward different objectives. It also has a much more likeable narrator, a more effective surface story, and most importantly it allows more of what it’s doing to be understood on first read (at least I think so; we’ll see when I reread it!).
Erin Horáková: I don’t rec a goddamn thing from mass media franchises this year. I think we collectively need to stop riffling through these properties for hope, for queer representation, for any slightly left idea or any slightly competent storytelling. I want it understood how weird it is for me, long and deep in the media fandom trenches, to think there’s nothing much salvageable there now. The conditions of production have changed such that it is almost impossible to generate a decent script or to express any cogent (let alone subversive, challenging) idea in these fields. I’ve long championed transformative fandom as a vexed but ultimately populist, feminist, queer way of appropriating storytelling mechanisms controlled and interpolated by capital at a massive scale, but as the stratification between audience and maker/capital has grown, fandom has had to shift to using texts as raw materials rather than as the basis for creative and productive readings. The fanwork generated thus is largely uninteresting: how can it be otherwise? Try making a beef wellington out of "re-formed" grade-D chuck. What interest does lie in it comes from the richer collective fandom traditions the work derives from and interacts with. We are wasting our love, our brilliance, our fucking time. Do what you like, but I’m moving the hell on from fannish interaction with any new franchise output. I can’t stand this shit any more.
The Yonderland Christmas special was well good. I read a lot of Dickens and was briefly happy, which is really something in this awful year (which, ironically enough, we may well remember as the last good one). Ayyy.
Nick Hubble: One way of trying to digest the series of shocks that will be forever summed up as 2016 is by trying to think through whether the dominant movement has been towards social change or the restoration of traditional order. Of course, these trends are all mixed in together but trying to tease them apart at least offers the consolation of not being a purely passive defensive response. Twenty-first century SFF has become a key medium for this kind of nuanced engagement with our troubled times. The books I read this year which gave me most hope in this respect all feature angels: Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings (2015), Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels (2015), Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix (2015) and Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me (2016). These angels are not simply being blown backwards from paradise like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history but are defiantly fighting to free a space for the future in complex societies burdened under the weight of the past. In their negotiation of imaginary landscapes ranging from a decadent absinthe-laced Paris to the quantum indeterminacy of higher dimensional space, these novels share a feminist rejection of patriarchal orders in favour of a more receptive stance to the materiality of the world. Above all, they suggest an alternative mode of being to the traditional (male) critical subject-object relationship that postulates a binary opposition between consciousness and things. From this perspective, 2016 may yet come to look less one-directional than it does at the moment.
Kelsey Tait Jarboe: 2016 was a huge year for me personally and professionally. In the spring I received notice that I’d been accepted into a "Science Fiction and the Human Condition" themed residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska, and that shaped the vast remainder of my year. I left my full-time job at the start of the summer before the residency to have the first of several transition-related surgeries and take the time to recover and freelance before shipping off to the Great Plains. Summer was mostly ice packs and relearning to move, having raised thousands of dollars—much donated by mere acquaintances, strangers, and people within the wider genre literature community—towards the cost of reshaping my hips ("masculine contouring"). The material support of so many people for something which is still largely considered delusion, fantasy—a science fiction of the self if you will—affirmed a sense of belonging and responsibility to others in me that had until then been pretty tenuous.
Many admirable, creative famous people died this year, but so did many friends and family members who didn’t get front-page write-ups. It was a challenging year to adjust and sometimes it felt like lowing my expectations was the only way to endure. But I also got to meet and work with dozens of people I admire (all of whom are still alive, thankfully) and share an intimate understanding of the countless ways other creative people visualise our world in their practice. I watched my best friend from childhood get married. I marched with native leaders in the fight for clean water. I watched two stags galloping across the prairie at sunrise. I got to eat a flavour of ice cream called "Stranger Things" with little bits of Eggo waffle in it. I wrote a novella. I read a lot of small press books and independent magazines. I sharpened my scepticism and softened my self-seriousness. I got better at apologising, and also at asking. I’m very grateful to Strange Horizons for what they do and while I’m really, really not sure what art can actually effect in bigger reality, I’m more committed than ever to envisioning it together.
Chris Kammerud: Some glimmers of light from a year bound by darkness.
On television, I caught on, but not quite up, with Black Mirror, a British sci-fi series (in the mould of The Twilight Zone) blessed with a biting wonder. In film, I adored the violent hope and beauty of Rogue One, and I adored even more the brilliant Arrival, a film excited by hope of a different kind, with much to say about how hard, and how important, it is to truly understand one other. On the page, I finally got around to reading the wonderful story collection Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho and the elegiac and ethereal post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. And, in a year defined in the end, at least in part, by leaks, hacks, and bubbles, there was back near the beginning, What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, a collection of glorious short stories about many things, but mostly, perhaps, about the importance of boundaries and secrets. I’m not sure I loved any book more in 2016.
I haven’t loved Doctor Who nearly as much these past few years, but there’s this one line which I came across again this Christmas. In the episode, "The Christmas Carol," Matt Smith’s Doctor refers to the celebration of the winter solstice as a moment of recognition that, however bleak midwinter may get, we are, in fact, "halfway out of the dark." I love this line. I’m not sure, though, that our lives, however cosmic they might seem, run according to the same clockwork as the solar system. Still, I hope.
Paul Kincaid: It was one of those years when I really couldn’t decide which book was best. There were books I admired. Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood, a disturbing portrait of a South Africa in which Mandela wasn’t released and apartheid wasn’t ended, has to be the debut of the year. And there were books I couldn’t get out of my mind. The Gradual by Christopher Priest, a twisting and unsettling variation on time travel, is a book that continued to grow more complex and more rewarding long after I had finished reading it. And there were books that were just too big and comprehensive to ignore. The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, has to be the anthology of the year, if not of the decade, and if you’ve not yet read it you’re missing out on a startling bird’s eye view of the genre.
But the best book of the year? Then, as the year wound down, I happened upon the book that settled the matter decisively. The best book of 2016 is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. The opening scenes provide an astonishing view of slavery from the inside, with a constant underlying sense of horror that rarely bursts into actual nastiness. But then, as 15-year-old Cora escapes, the novel suddenly takes a surreal turn into a survey of the black experience in America since slavery, but with slavery itself acting as the deep, dark threnody underpinning it all. In a year in which race has again become the open wound of American life, this is a truly astonishing and timely book.