Duncan Lawie: The highlight of my reading year was M. John Harrison's The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It is subtle and rich but could also just be the stories of two middle aged people failing to cope with their lives. The intent to remain uncategorised is core to the pleasure—and discomfort—of reading and thinking about the book. Indeed, an interview with the author at the release of his 2020 collection Settling the World was equally fascinating, with his own perspectives on his long career in fiction. Another complex delight was War of the Maps by Paul McAuley, which uses a Dyson sphere for a fantastical planetary romance reminiscent of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and, indeed, of McAuley’s own Confluence trilogy. The story gradually emerges from incident and event and manages to remain a quiet presence through the book in a masterpiece of calm understatement.
Elsewhere, I found a couple of mermaid stories most enjoyable for comfort reading. Ken MacLeod's Selkie Summer is a novella where Faerie is a visible, if unusual, aspect of life and which MacLeod combines with the Isle of Skye, nuclear submarines, and summer romance in a delightful way. David Gullen's The Girl From A Thousand Fathoms contains multiple forms of magic conflicting in a way that seems unlikely to gel, but his affection for all his characters, including antagonists, keeps the pages turning until the threads pull together to form an effective climax and a satisfying conclusion.
Kate Macdonald: For the Year of Lockdown the two online board game sites Board Game Arena and Boite à Jeux helped to break down the tedium of lockdown. Discovering that we could now play online with friends and family made weekends different from the rest of the week. While I still find Race for the Galaxy inexplicable, we’ve bought new games for home use after trying them out online (e.g. Concordia, a terrific trading and colonising game set in that brief moment in the Roman Empire when no one was conquering anyone else), and have got seriously better at Alhambra, Seven Wonders, Carcassonne, and Potions. Our regular online games sessions with friends in different parts of the U.K. and across the pond, destroying and pirating each other’s cities and settlements, have become a weekly delight. I’m giving my parents in Scotland Lost Cities for Christmas so they can learn it to play on BGA with my brother in NYC and sister in Australia.
In print, I reread Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor with huge enjoyment and feel sure this will become an annual pleasure, as its quality, heart, and ingenuity are unmatched. I’m hoping very much that she will feel moved to write another novel in the glorious world and etiquette of Edrehasivar VII. I discovered two Connie Willis novels I hadn’t read before, Bellwether and Uncharted Territory, which were storytelling masterclasses: dense and impeccably structured (also laugh out loud funny). Liz Williams’ Miracles of Our Own Making: A History of Paganism was an erudite treat, a sound work of historical synthesis examining the evolution of pagan beliefs in the British Isles. Ben Aaronovitch gave us two—two!—new Rivers of London treats, The October Man and False Value, which I gobbled with delight. Max Porter’s Lanny was a dark surprise of nature possession in a small commuter village. But my highlight of the year was Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which I’ve now read twice for reviewing here, and will go back into soon. Its labyrinths are gleaming and pure, and the story is hopeful and secret, an absolute joy. Piranesi himself is shiningly, endearingly good, a character to lead us through darkness and fear no evil.
Caroline Mersey: My 2020 obsession has been a Chinese wuxia costume drama (available to stream on Netflix). Based on a popular novel, and featuring a cast of Chinese pop idols, the story focuses on two brilliant—but very different—young men. Wei Wuxian is a charming, mischievous trickster with a skill for invention. Lan Wangji is controlled and reserved but an avenging angel on the battlefield. The series opens with Wei Wuxian plummeting to his death from a cliff, apparently killed by his own brother in the midst of a battle. Sixteen years later he is reincarnated in the body of another man but learns that in the intervening time he has become reviled. Including a lengthy flashback sequence (which takes up around thirty of the fifty episodes), we learn how the open-hearted, clever Wei Wuxian became traduced as a mass-murdering necromancer. And how—with the help of Lan Wangji—he clears his name and brings to justice those responsible for framing him. At its heart, this is a show about trust and how well you know someone, exploring the Chinese concept that soulmates are people with profound levels of mutual understanding and knowledge.
The Untamed is most famous for the way it has pushed boundaries in portraying queer relationships on Chinese television. In the original novel Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are in an explicitly romantic and sexual relationship. The cast and production team go as far as they can to show that on screen, within what is allowed by the Chinese censors. And it turns out that they can go extremely far indeed, with imagery (rabbits), symbolism (ancient Chinese wedding customs), classical allusion (grinding ink), and ridiculous amounts of flirting. Forget Destiel—if you want a slow-burning queer love story that delivers the happy ending we deserve, then The Untamed is for you. The queer coding isn’t confined to the main characters, either. Most of the characters are implicitly gay or bisexual, and the one heterosexual romance in the show features the same yearning and miscommunication as the relationship between the two leads.
What’s more astonishing is that the Chinese censors allowed a television show to be quite so on the nose in its criticisms of people in power. A corrupt regime gets overthrown, but the masses are quick to support a charismatic leader who offers easy answers and a cause to get behind. There are internment camps and the mistreatment and mass murder of an entire group of people.
The Untamed has been an unexpected crossover hit, particularly in the west. It is China’s most successful exported drama production. It will be fascinating to see the impact its success has on the Chinese film and television industry in the longer term. Will it lead to more queer story-telling on Chinese screens? Will C-Drama become a new vector for Chinese soft power?
In the meantime, watch The Untamed. Conspiracy. War. Politics. Wirework stunts. Beautiful costumes. Heroic idiot husbands.
Archita Mittra: 2020 hasn’t been kind to most of us—losing jobs, battling illnesses, and coming face-to-face with uncertainty and chaos. The unexpected free time that I was suddenly bestowed came at the cost of other things, including the crippling anxiety that I wasn’t being “productive” enough. Thus, all the movies/shows I saw or the books I read fed into this general and urgent desire to escape reality, or, at least, to escape myself. As a child, a reason why I was particularly drawn to high fantasy literature, as opposed to other genres, was a desire to inhabit other worlds for a little while, thereby escaping the reality of middle-school bullying and other trauma.
The media that I found most meaningful this year were the ones that helped bring back that feeling of childhood “escapism,” albeit temporarily. Patrick Rothfuss’s high-fantasy novel, The Name of the Wind, with its lucid and accessible prose, an engaging protagonist, and a lush, medievalesque magical world, has been one of my favorites. In a series of flashbacks, it recounts a mostly linear coming-of-age narrative of the hero, Kvothe, that brought to mind the same sense of awe and “epicness” that I first felt when I sneakily read Lord of the Rings under the desk in class. Another fantasy novel I greatly enjoyed was R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, with its unique magic system, influenced by mixed martial arts techniques as well as the effects of narcotics. I also adored Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, which heavily reworks Russian folklore, which also reminded me of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted—both feature strong female protagonists, rework traditional/folkloric tropes, and include romance as a side-plot.
Although a passionate lover of indie games, I haven’t been able to play as much as I’d have liked to this year (despite getting a new laptop), but among the ones that I did, this wholesome management platformer called Spiritfarer really struck a chord. In it, you play Stella, and your job is to ferry dead souls to the afterlife. You start out with a small ship that you can later upgrade and build rooms onto in order to house your passengers. Much of your average day involves fishing, talking to your passengers, helping them feel at home, cooking their favorite meals, travelling from island to island to fulfill their last requests and so on. The more you talk to them, the more you discover their backstories—the tiny details and foibles that make these anthropomorphic characters seem “human”—and the game has a really adorable mechanism where, if the characters are having a bad day, you can cheer them up with a hug. This becomes doubly meaningful when you realize how the isolation and the physical and social distancing that the pandemic has forced upon us has left so many of us starved for physical affection. Thus, despite the premise of death, Spiritfarer is more concerned with the power of platonic love, care, and kindness to heal even the most deep-seated of traumas, and it warmed my heart in a way that precious little did, this year.
Samira Nadkarni: For all that 2020 has been a terrible trash fire, I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy nearly every book I’ve picked up. I fell back in love with historical accounts and raced my way through Omar H. Ali’s biography of Malik Ambar and Ruby Lal’s biography of Nur Jahan. I read and reviewed Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf: A New Translation (2020), which was definitely a bro-telling but wasn’t quite the Dirtbag Catullus version that I was expecting. For my birthday I finally bought myself copies of The Black Tides of Heaven (2017) and The Red Threads of Fortune (2017) from Neon Yang’s frankly outstanding Tensorate series and promptly wept my way through them.
Oddly enough, a lot of the books I’ve been reading over the latter half of the year ended up sitting in conversation with each other in different ways as I think through the ideas of “stories that we need to hear,” and the complexities of queer public archiving, and who even gets space in what is perceived as the queer public archive. Somewhere in the midst of thinking about trying to preserve the self from violence, unpacking and discarding internalised structural violence, and building communities of hope, I read Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen (2019), Jay Hulme’s collection of poetry Clouds Cannot Cover Us (2019), Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (2014), Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (2018), and Jhilmil Breckenridge and Namarita Kathait’s Side Effects of Living: An Anthology of Voices on Mental Health (2019). Not all of these books are about the queer self, but queerness exists in all of these spaces and many of these books think about harm reduction and trying to find ways back to care and that’s been valuable to me.
Abigail Nussbaum: 2020 was, first and foremost, the year of Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s transcendent, exhilarating second novel. Following its addled yet wise narrator as he explores an endless house, it’s a perfect novel for a year when so many of us feel trapped. But its message feels timeless, a reminder to carry a capacity for wonder and an appreciation for our surroundings with us wherever we go.
Other standout reads of the year include: Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds, a lyrical space adventure with a sharp anti-capitalist message; Gautam Bhatia’s The Wall, intriguing social SF about a city constructed as a walled experiment and the iconoclasts who try to get out; Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, a tightly-crafted time travel novel that both pays homage to and dismantles the classics of MilSF; and Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits, thrilling neo-cyberpunk that explores a near-future India that is at once dystopian and the best of all possible worlds.
In film and TV, DC’s Harley Quinn reigned supreme. Both Birds of Prey and HBO Max’s cartoon series allowed the Batman villainess to take center stage, abandon toxic relationships, and find solace in female friendships (and in the show, romance), without ever losing sight of her irreverence and capacity for violence. Funny, dark, and entirely lovable, Harley was just what I needed this year.
Finally, one entirely unexpected pleasure: the Cartoon Network animated series Infinity Train is both a throwback to the child-gets-psychological-help-from-magical-creatures shows of my youth, and a canny examination of these stories and their pitfalls. With gorgeous animation, strong writing, and an unflinching honesty about the darkness at the core of its story, this is not just an excellent children’s show, but one of the top genre entertainments of the year.
The book that broke me out of my quarantine reading slump was Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun, a space opera about a gender-flipped Alexander the Great which is unputdownable, richly imagined, and deeply fun. Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune punches far above its weight as a novella and was a similarly unputdownable read. Though not quite as epic, Zen Cho’s novella The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water was deeply enjoyable, a sly revision of wuxia tropes mixed with fantasy goodness. Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth is better, darker, and sadder than Gideon the Ninth, and I can’t wait for the final book. Megan Whalen Turner stuck the landing on Return of the Thief, bringing her Queen’s Thief series to a satisfying ending twenty years in the making. Jeff VanderMeer’s strange, epic YA novel A Peculiar Peril was a weird delight, and Garth Nix’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London was a sneakily subversive magical caper. P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout and Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby examine the Black experience in America past and present in a searing counter to Lovecraft and a raw tale of Afrofuturism, respectively. Susanna Clarke’s unexpected and lovely Piranesi is wonderfully otherworldly. Kathleen Jennings’ Australian Gothic novella Flyaway is dark and compelling, with illustrations by the author. Martha Wells’ Murderbot novel Network Effect continues the series in fine form.
I belatedly watched some very good TV from previous years: Chernobyl, Watchmen, and Stranger Things. The DuckTales reboot, too excellent for this cruel world, will end after this season, but Star Trek: Lower Decks turned in the strongest first season of any Trek in history and it was hilarious. Discovery is even better in its third season, while The Mandalorian and His Dark Materials have also improved. Star Wars: The Clone Wars came back for the final time and destroyed us emotionally, as expected. I saw Birds of Prey twice in theaters before the pandemic took them away, and I’m glad I did—it’s the best DC movie since Wonder Woman.
Based on the Hugo graphic novel results, SFF people only read the excellent Monstress, but let me also recommend Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora’s Once & Future, a contemporary horror take on King Arthur for the Brexit era. Carmen Maria Machado and Dani’s The Low, Low Woods is equally dark, a feminist horror story of truth-telling and revenge. Lumberjanes, which finished this year, is a sweet, queer fantastical take on Scouting and summer camp.
Everyone else was playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons; I stuck to Paper Mario: The Origami King, which was almost as good as the originals. Both Kentucky Route Zero and Hades do interesting things with classic gaming mechanics and have great stories. Death Stranding is superb, but it hit a little too close to home during the pandemic. In 2021, may we see each other face-to-face.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It is so hard to write about 2020. I had so many plans for this year, few of which came to fruition. Instead, I arrive at the year’s end simply grateful to be alive, grateful too that my partner, Paul Kincaid, is alive, for all our world has been upended. But surviving is perhaps a thing we do rather than articulate.
Reading has not been easy. I don’t do comfort reading, as such, so I have no old favourites to retreat to (except, possibly, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, neither of which is ideal in the middle of a catastrophe, but they remain fine novels both). Instead, Paul and I began reading Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels, in order, which quickly turned into Paul reading each slim volume to me out loud. They’re about 150 pages/eleven chapters long, and lend themselves very well to this. One must inevitably acknowledge the incredibly dated attitudes (the earliest titles come from the 1930s), but in many other ways, they’ve suited the year. With surprisingly complex plotting, gorgeous and evocative scene-setting (Simenon writes beautifully about rivers and canals, and the people using them), and Maigret himself providing the certainty that has been lacking elsewhere in the world, they’ve provided us with a thread to follow. Fourteen down, sixty-odd to go.
I read Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads and David Abdulafia’s The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans one after the other, and between them they present an extraordinary, mind-blowing picture of the interconnectedness of the world throughout history, by land and more particularly by sea. I know aspects of this from past reading, but to see bits of story linked together like this was amazing. Add to that Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, about the world and fungi, and Barry Lopez’s magisterial swansong, Horizon, meditating on many years’ experiences in nature, and connectivity has been a big theme all year.
But the one work of SF or fantasy that really caught my attention was Alex Pheby’s Mordew. When I was a teenager, I loved Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, although I also had my reservations about the social claustrophobia they engendered in my mind. Was it possible to care in any way for people so remote from everyday life? Mordew in part stands as a riposte to that enclosed world, focused as it is, for much of the novel, on much more ordinary people struggling to make their way, and to rise above the strictures of life at the bottom of the (literal) heap. Pheby creates a world as rich and as dense as Peake’s, but it’s much more sensitive to class issues and to the assumed economy of a fantasy world in a way that appeals to me in 2020. I’ve reread it several times this year and it holds good, while revealing more of itself each time. It is the absorbing reading I needed. I am suspecting (hoping) I will feel the same about Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which I am just about to read, thanks to the Christmas book fairy.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Probably the best thing I read this year was Akwaeke Emezi's YA novel Pet. There are lots of reasons to make that claim—it's sharply political, kind, good at imagining the sorts of worlds and communities that we need imagined—but really I say this because something about Emezi's writing fills me with joyous energy. In a year when of necessity a lot of things just slipped into sameness, reading Pet I could feel myself alive and fully present. I'm starting 2021 with their latest book, The Death of Vivek Oji, in the hope that I can carry some of that energy into the new year. I didn't read much that was new this year. Of the few things that I did, I'd recommend Samit Basu's Chosen Spirits, a terrifying near-future "best case scenario" set in my own city. Also possibly of relevance to SFF readers (and great either way) was S. Hareesh's novel Moustache (or Meesha; I read it in Jayasree Kalathil's English translation). A complex interweaving of stories, some more fantastical than others, it's also a sharp political and social commentary, and a real joy to read.
In definitely-not-SF reading, Here to Stay, Here to Fight, an anthology collected from the Race Today archives and edited by Robin Bunce, Paul Field, Leila Hassan, and Margaret Peacock, is a real gift. Both an echo of current struggles and a reminder of how those struggles have evolved, it's something I've been dipping in and out of for the last several months.
Finally, as a writer and editor of SFF criticism, one of the most exciting developments this year has been the founding of Ancillary Review of Books. More of this sort of thing, please.
Lesley Wheeler: My first response to being asked to write a year in review piece was eagerness to celebrate recent books, since 2020 was a tough year to publish in. My second thought was oh, no, I haven’t read enough yet! Some weeks, I needed books direly. Others, it was beyond me to concentrate on anything.
Novels that riveted me despite the temptation to doomscroll include Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women, a historical novel brewed with Weird ingredients; a dark take on the school-of-magic genre, Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House; Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild, a lean and chilling Rougarou tale; Edward Austin Hall’s Dread Isle, a SF adventure full of twists and tricks; Sharon Harrigan’s Half, an uncanny first-person-plural history of twin girls; Stephen Graham Jones’ awe-inspiring meta-slasher The Only Good Indians; Nova Ren Suma’s haunted The Walls Around Us; and Sarah Tolmie’s The Little Animals, which is historical, scientific, and fantastic all at once. Among 2020’s many great poetry books, Wicked Enchantment, a selection of poems by Wanda Coleman, is astonishing, as is Anna Maria Hong’s Fablesque, reviewed here. On the SF side, T. D. Walker’s Maps of a Hollowed World imagines the trajectory of a generation ship. For a free poetry chapbook with serious chemistry, try Rosebud Ben-Oni’s 20 Atomic Sonnets. Two nonfiction books I loved, both with a biological bent, were Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders and Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life.
As I write in mid-December, trying to make up for lost reading time, it strikes me that multiple books in my pile concern healing or conjure, such as Pat Valdata’s mythic Eve’s Daughters and Andrea Hairston’s Master of Poisons. This is also at least partly true of Gordon B. White’s beautiful debut story collection, As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions, which begins with a genderfluid medicine-worker blasting the bejesus out of the Southern Gothic mode. I discovered his work, by the way, at the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird. The symposium’s related podcast features a wonderful range of Weird authors. Give it a listen. Literature can be good medicine, and we need all the help we can get.
Linda Wilson: I’ve read dozens of novels this year, including many sci-fi and fantasy but have generally avoided apocalyptic pandemic tales as being too close to the bone. However, I did discover, and love, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, five years after it first came out. It was a kind of revelation. I had glanced at it before, and, disappointed to see that it wasn’t, as I had imagined, set on a space station, I left it. But returning to it this year turned out to be most timely. So, although I’m late to the party, here are a few comments on the book.
The novel is about a pandemic much worse than the one we are experiencing. There is a total breakdown of society, with lawlessness, and at least one place where there is an imposed, unpleasant local theocracy. Yet it manages to be a book about hope and the importance of culture. At the heart of the story is a travelling troupe acting Shakespeare plays in the different places they visit, interspersed with earlier episodes set in the heart of the pandemic, and some of people stranded in an airport. As in other novels by Mandel, people are linked in delightfully unexpected ways, and here the connection is, in several instances, a carefully crafted comic called Station Eleven, of which only a handful of copies exist. Characters are strong and thoughtful, the violent and difficult nature of such a society is confronted, not avoided, and yet we are left with the sense that, above all, love, and a love of culture—in this case Shakespearian plays—do endure. Despite violence, and catastrophe, there is sometimes kindness and love. There is hope beyond disaster. I found this a cheering book in this most difficult of years and have given it as a present, hoping others will share my appreciation for it.