Raz Greenberg: The best genre book I have read this year was Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez, a collection of short stories that bring together supernatural horror, political violence and domestic violence throughout Argentina’s present and recent past. I also enjoyed Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik’s Jewish take on the Rumpelstiltskin tale. Andy Weir’s novel Artemis provided all the excitement of a major summer blockbuster, and did so better than any major summer blockbuster I watched this year. In the older books’ department, I have read Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon after the TV adaptation sparked my curiosity, and was very impressed; I was less impressed with Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life. On the media front, I appreciated Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, but other releases this year had a harder time winning me over. Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, The Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet were pleasant but forgettable diversions; outside Hollywood, the low-budget Prospect and the anime film Mirai left a much deeper impression. I didn’t have much time for television or gaming. As noted above, the adaptation of Altered Carbon did grab my attention, but I am yet to conclude the season. The same is true for the George R. R. Martin adaptation Nightflyers and the anime show Megalobox. The game Hero-U: Rouge to Redemption was a fun, if not perfect throwback to the adventure games that I used to play a lot as a kid.
Dan Hartland: In a year in which much has been bad—and in which I spent, as I did in 2017, much of my year reading non-fiction in a (mostly vain) attempt to make sense of it all—there was much that was good. M’learned colleagues cover much of this, of course, right here. For my part, I’d like to mention two books which have seemed to get a little more lost than they might deserve within genre criticism. The first has had a nevertheless decent profile as a result of its appearance on the Booker shortlist: Richard Powers’s The Overstory is an astonishing act of literary discipline, in both its writing and its reading. Sam Jordison at the Guardian found it ponderous and over-insistent, and it can certainly be that; but in the tradition of much didactic SF—and, given its systemic viewpoints and addiction to data, it is indubitably a work in this mode, despite being primarily set in the past—it is also a clear-sighted, refreshingly angry, and properly discombobulating work of literature. The novel tells a set of stories you might see in any other work of literary fiction—a romance and a bildungsroman, a corporate thriller and a family epic—but it does so from an entirely new angle, a plane of perception that is avowedly science fictional even where, in its unshifting quality, it might also perhaps be accused of myopia.
Much shorter and sharper in every way was Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, which has received bafflingly scant notice. Another work of so-called literary fiction—but, really, the wall between “genre” and “literary” broke down long ago, and on both sides—it is, like The Overstory, entirely disconcerting. But it is so in a more familiarly space-operatic manner: the novel is set on a space station in the not terrifically distant future, after war and pestilence has made the Earth uninhabitable for the descendants of a rich elite, who now spend their days transforming, desexing, and textualising their bodies. A story of semiotics as much as space, The Book of Joan’s approach to eroticism, ecology, and story itself gets more—not less—weird as the novel proceeds, with medieval history and literature penetrating the futurology in unexpected and multiply refracted ways. The novel is avowedly fresh and proudly confounding, the reader tethered only by a vague familiarity with its post-apocalyptic overtones and literary antecedents—and, ultimately, by a sense that Yuknavitch’s novel offers an urgent-because-expansive perspective on more than fifteenth-century saints or twenty-first-century inequalities.
Spend a part of 2019 catching up on both these novels, if you haven’t already—so much is happening around us that books like these, which perhaps optimistically ask us to see past the immediate and the urgent, can slip by in the noise.
Matt Hilliard: For me the standout genre experience of 2018 was Supergiant Games’ Pyre, which was released in 2017 but which I played right at the beginning of the year. Like their previous games Bastion and Transistor, Pyre builds a fascinating fantasy world through colorful artwork, a wonderful soundtrack, and very economical use of dialogue (I see I mentioned Bastion in Strange Horizons’ Best of 2011 … time flies).
But Pyre distinguishes itself from past Supergiant games, and from any other game I’ve played, with the mechanism by which the player influences the story. The game is a hybrid of sports and visual novel, and while there have been many complex branching visual novels, Pyre offers the player choices centered around characters, not plot. Having surrounded you with well-drawn, sympathetic ally characters struggling to escape to a better life, when all goes well the player must make difficult choices, for not everyone can escape. And when things don’t go well, there’s no reloading from a checkpoint. Instead, everyone—characters and player alike—is disappointed but must try to move forward. It’s the only sports game I’ve played where the outcomes feel like they have real consequences. None of this would work if the art, music, and writing weren’t good enough to make the player buy into the experience. But they are, and the result is incredible.
Erin Horáková: This has been a cool year in genre for me personally, as I got my first SF non-fiction book contract (on the complex exchanges between the Dickens canon and Doctor Who as national epics and, more specifically, the episode “Unquiet Dead”, from the Black Archive) and wrote my first SF radio play at Auntie’s pleasure, which I can’t say more about yet, but which is being recorded in something like February.
I also published academic work on English domestic magical traditions, on Star Trek and Jewish Studies, and on Diana Wynne Jones. And some historical fiction where Richard not-yet-III and Henry VI get married. Also some vampire porn, and some other stuff. ¯\_(?)_/¯
I saw another great Beowulf at the Edinburgh Fringe, this time from Take Thou That. There was also a fun, very new-to-me wuxia production of Wu Song—The Tiger Warrior, presented by Taiwanese company Hsing Legend Theatre. Board game designers Red Raven produced their Amber Mines expansion for Near and Far, and new quests for partner-game Above and Below. I really like this company for both their well-crafted games and their thoughtful customer service. Everdell, Root and Scythe’s new campaign mode, The Rise of Fenris, were also new this year and enjoyable. Worst Witch, Paddington 2 and Ronja the Robber’s Daughter were thoroughly pleasing, as was Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse. I finally read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken and the first Moomin books, which were great to get around to.
Academically, though I found both tough going I really profited from Aisling Byrne’s Otherworlds, which is new, and Geraldine Heng’s Empire of Magic, which is a little older. And, as regular SH readers may know, this was the year I at last read that Gormenghast stuff, watched every adaptation thereof, and indelibly seared a text I both love and hate into my brain. I don’t know if I recommend it, but that definitely happened to me.
Adrienne Joy: I’ve been on a few different journeys this year, and I’ve been lucky to have a ton of great books to accompany me along the way. But Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman—which I came to soon after my intercontinental move in May—stands out as my defining book of 2018. This is a follow-up to Hartman’s Seraphina duology, a secondary world where dragons and other sentient dragon-like species, with convincingly alien mindsets and cultures, exist uneasily alongside human nations.
Tess Dombegh, the younger half-sister of Seraphina from the original books, is a smart, independent, thoughtful woman who has been brought up in a constricted environment, whose first attempts to escape end in some deeply traumatic events. In desperation, she runs away from the non-existent options her family and social standing leave her; what follows is a beautifully crafted story of her journey, the people she meets, and the steps she takes to process her trauma and accept herself regardless. It’s a coming of age story where the milestones aren’t so much about the experiences themselves, but instead about gaining the maturity to contextualise, learn from, and sometimes let go of those experiences. It also has wonderful things to say about forgiveness and generosity, and how to offer them to others without giving away too much of yourself. And it’s once again told with Hartman’s eye for giving every character their own story worth telling, even those who only briefly intersect with Tess’s own journey.
Paul Kincaid: It’s a year in which I’ve been immersed in the work of Christopher Priest, so I was delighted by the way his latest novel, An American Story, plays with his familiar obsessions with memory and reality. And Dave Hutchinson continues to impress me as one of the very best writers we’ve got in the field at the moment, not just for his triumphal conclusion to the Fractured Europe sequence, Europe at Dawn, but also for his reimagining of the catastrophe story, Shelter. A first novel I’d heartily recommend is Arkady by Patrick Langley, even though I’m still trying to work out what I made of it: a dystopia without the false heroics we’ve come to expect of the form, and a startlingly real sense of the way the world already is running down. But the one book that really knocked me for six this year was The Black Prince by Adam Roberts. A masterclass in literary ventriloquism (Roberts takes on Anthony Burgess taking on John Dos Passos); an exquisitely vivid piece of historical fiction; a stunning reminder that high modernism is not dead; an invigorating ahistorical mash-up (cameras and news headlines in the fourteenth century); and surprising and often very moving moments of fantasy: what’s not to like!
Christina Ladd: Every year, I make a piece of pottery and paint all the things that sucked about the year on to it. Then on New Year’s Eve, I smash it. It’s very cathartic and I recommend it to everyone. This year, the plate’s just going to read “2018,” because I don’t even have the energy to enumerate the specifics. 2018 sucked.
My reading fell into two basic categories this year: books to distract from the tire fire, and books to face it head-on.
The distractions—which, by the way, is not a pejorative—I loved best were from Martin Millar and T. Kingfisher. Millar was a delightful new discovery for me, especially Lonely Werewolf Girl and the wacky-wonderful Supercute Futures. T. Kingfisher has a heart of gold, and it shines through her stories along with her humor.
But ultimately, the only way out is through. Foundryside had plenty of humor, too, but it offered a very hard look at capitalism and how we value human life. (It was also the most badass book I read.) Plum Rains was a lyrical exploration of personhood and trauma. The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky offered a critique of Lovecraft’s xenophobia by setting multidimensional horrors in South America. Empire of Sand was a complex narrative of colonialism and resistance.
I bid a fond farewell to Lila Bowen's The Shadow series, which wrapped up this year with Treason of Hawks. This Weird Western was all kinds of deep, and I am as sorry to see it end as I am glad to see it ended so magnificently.
Finally, The Wanderers by Meg Howrey is uncategorizable. It’s about astronauts who don’t actually go to Mars, but also they kind of go to Mars? Anyway, it’s stellar.
Ian Mond: This year it’s a toss-up between Ling Ma’s Severance and Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards as to which was my favourite novel for 2018. I’m leaning toward the Schulman, partly because it’s an astute, propulsive novel that tackles climate change, society’s reliance on technology (the novel is set in the not too distant future) and the medical profession’s blinkered view of chronic pain, especially regarding women. But mostly because it features a clan of bonobos whose mating rituals and sense of family allow Schulman to make profound observations about sex, attraction and the importance of community. Severance lacks bonobos, but it does feature a plague that wipes out most of humanity. I know, I know, another post-apocalyptic killer flu novel. But Ling Ma takes a well-worn idea and uses it to dissect late-stage capitalism and, with a great deal of honesty and authenticity, provides a moving portrayal of the immigrant experience.
Others books I enjoyed in 2018 included Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, a gender-fluid and lush retelling of Oedipus set on the canals of Oxford that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land, a playful and provocative counterfactual that imagines a Jewish Nation established in North Africa, rather than the Middle East; the incredible Murmur by Will Eaves (shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize) which involves Alan Turing, and the tangibility of memory, identity and dreams, and the perfect nugget of joy that is Stephen Moffatt’s The Day of the Doctor, an adaptation of his own fiftieth anniversary Doctor Who script.