Dan Hartland: I’m sure I’m not alone in having found it difficult to settle down with fiction this year—or, in all honesty, to settle down at all. It is equally and perhaps consequently true that some of my fondest memories of 2020 are of reading, but it may nevertheless be a function of my relative focus on non-fiction, TV and doom-scrolling this year that my SFF highlights of 2020 all relate to awards.
I might also hope, however, that—after some seriously fallow years for literary SFF gongs (don’t @ me)—2020’s range of heartening prize-related news suggests both a shift within the field and in how those outside view it.
Most obviously, M. John Harrison’s much deserved win of the Goldsmiths Prize for The Sunken World Begins to Rise Again offers mainstream recognition for not just one of SFF’s finest stylists, but one of its finest writers full stop. His win came close on the heels of Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This latter novel does not approach Harrison’s in quality, but it is an avowedly SFnal piece—albeit with a modish screenplay-ish voice—and it reaching the Booker shortlist is a quietly huge moment for genre writing’s relationship to the literary mainstream.
One last highlight to note: the Ignyte Awards, the winners of which were announced in October at the inaugural Fiyahcon. Not only were these the most perfect antidote to the tone-deafness of this year’s Hugo Awards ceremony, and not only did Strange Horizons win, with some humility and much gratitude, the Community Award; they were in and of themselves properly inspiring, refreshing and important. That SFF now has awards—and a set of organised communities—like these augurs extremely well for the writing of SFF in whatever future awaits us.
Aaron Heil: My year-in-reading for 2020 saw a lot of intersection of the mystery and thriller genres with speculative fiction. I began the year by finishing Blake Crouch’s Recursion, which I’d been smack in the middle of at the end of 2019. Recursion, on the surface, looks like little more than another time travel action story, but Crouch has a way of presenting the best possible versions of any genre tropes he uses. Crouch’s hero is a jaded New York cop and his heroine a beautiful and conveniently single scientist (both default white), but despite the predictability of those two characters and the tired genre of time travel, I was hooked on his taut pacing and edge-of-your-seat chase scenes. Thrillers, and the related mystery genre, have a way of exploiting the same instincts in readers’ brain over and over again, much like a favorite dessert. Mystery writers hold their rumpled raincoats, flasks of bourbon, and femme fatales sacred, making it easy for other writers to pick up a pen and join in the fun. Mexican author Silvia Moreno-Garcia, normally a fantasy writer, pleasantly surprised me with her novel Untamed Shore, a thriller set in Baja California about the allure of shady American tourists. Moreno-Garcia’s heroine isn’t a detective, though, but a teenage girl who takes refuge from the predatory nature not only of her hometown, but of also an American conman, in her total devotion to her silver screen idols. This story proved to be one of the most unpredictable books I read all year, and all around one of my favorites. Sir Terry Pratchett had a thing or two to say about tropes, of course, and he began skewering the bumbling constable as well as the jaded gumshoe in the Discworld entry Guards! Guards!. Few were better than Pratchett at simultaneously loving and roasting a book genre, and what else can be said about Discworld other than to comment on its impressive longevity? Thirty years after publication, the Discworld series continues to read as a side splitting take not only on the fantasy genre, but wherever Pratchett points his focus, and mystery’s repeated usage of techniques and stock character made it ripe for the picking.
And yet, despite its staunch adherence to the tradition, I read a lot of innovative mystery books this year as well. Tana French gives a bleak and rather hardcore look crime in her Dublin Murder Squad books. This year, I read the first two entries, In the Woods and The Likeness, which present an emotional odyssey for the detectives involved, who ultimately end up finding new work at the conclusion of these books. The allure that French present for police work, despite the toll it takes on French’s detectives will certainly bring me back to finish out the other six going forward. I’m not entirely sure that I would classify Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel as a mystery, but it’s certainly a crime novel and a delightfully odd duck. Mendel explores the story of Vincent, a woman who marries an older investor running a Ponzi scheme and the spreading cracks that it makes within their families and friends. Mendel is a beautiful writer. Her novel travels from the mists hanging over the coast of British Columbia to the bright lights of Manhattan to foggy Edinburgh painting a striking and lovely portrait of each as we follow the consequences of a nonviolent, but still traumatic crime. However, the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the year came from Ottessa Moshfegh. Moshfegh chooses to examine not only the toll on the dectetive, but the utter absurdity of the mysteries, especially cozy mysteries, in Death in Her Hands, which follows Vesta, a lonely old woman, who retreats with her dog to a remote cabin in a small town after the death of her husband. Moshfegh’s heroine finds a scrap of paper in the road and from this invents an entire murder, complete with suspect, to solve in the absence of real human interaction. Especially poignant in a solitary year like 2020, Moshfegh examines how isolation drives a little old lady to pry around and “solve mysteries.” Vesta’s actions soon prove to be completely invasive, crazy, and take a toll on her psyche. Instead of transforming her life in a Murder She Wrote novel, Vesta grows paranoid to the point where she cannot rest and even begins to doubt her trusted dog. Moshfegh has become one of the my favorite authors over the last couple of years, precisely because of her twisted views on character, and adding yet another one of her strange creations to the pantheon of mystery novels was improvement on the whole genre.
Matt Hilliard: I spent a fair amount of time in 2020 going back to old series I hadn’t finished, rereading what I had read, and then forging ahead. That included Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, which became more warm and comforting as I went, and Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, which ... did not.
But the books I enjoyed the most, and which coincidentally seem the most well-matched to 2020 as a year, were Seth Dickinson’s second and third books, The Monster Baru Cormorant and The Tyrant Baru Cormorant. These books feature a pandemic, a poorly functioning democracy, and a lot of bad things happening to good people, or at least people who deserve better than they get. But along with it is a lot of colorful worldbuilding, swashbuckling adventure, and plenty of thought-provoking questions about the contradictions of modernity.
It came out last year, but this was the year I played Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds and that was by far the genre highlight of video gaming for me. The game manages to simultaneously make the player feel like an explorer, an astronomer, and a historian in an elegantly crafted fifteen-hour experience. There’s no better time to enjoy the compact artistry of indie games than seemingly never-ending days cooped up inside during a pandemic and Outer Wilds ranks up there with the best of recent years.
Matt Holder: Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians is my favorite book of 2020. Jones writes like his back is up against the wall and the only way out is to craft another sentence that’s better than the last. And not only does the writing crackle with an unhinged-yet-still-perfectly-calibrated-and-controlled energy, but his characters are each wonderfully drawn, aching and tragic in their intimacy. It’s a story about indigenous culture in the twenty-first century, about the entangled relationship between justice, history, and ecology, and it’s all filtered through Jones’s incredibly idiosyncratic, compelling voice.
Another big win for Jones in 2020 was his novella “The Night of the Mannequins,” a slasher with a twist that kept me engaged from page one. Adam Cesare’s Clown in a Cornfield is another slasher that I thoroughly enjoyed, an almost perfect distillation of the ’80s slasher aesthetic that still feels fresh and urgent. And then there’s Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. It’s a gothic tale, sure, with all of the appropriate accoutrement, but this book is way weirder than you think it is. Comparisons to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the Victorian gothic writ large are certainly on point, but Moreno-Garcia’s novel reminded me even more of the new weird and Clive Barker; the horror here becomes embodied in an intriguing way that recalls more recent work by Jeff VanderMeer.
Speaking of, I also read Dead Astronauts this year. Perhaps more than any other writer, I think VanderMeer’s work allows us an insight into and interrogation of our ongoing ecological crisis in a way that is attuned to not only its material horrors but also its psychological impact. Dead Astronauts gives us the totality of ecological collapse in both its story and its form, with VanderMeer playing around with his trademark strange sensuality that he’s so good at, and the novel starts to feel increasingly unhinged and alien, titanic yet intimate. I don’t understand everything I read, but it was worth it.
This year I also took a deep dive into the vibrant indie/small press horror scene and discovered some gems, including: Reception by Kenzie Jennings (Death’s Head Press), Touch the Night by Max Booth III (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing), and Children of the Fang by John Langan (Word Horde—everyone should also read Langan’s The Fisherman). With the collapse of the 2020 convention scene, where many small presses and indie authors would have made their sales, these publishers deserve our support now more than ever. So buy their books!
Other 2020 faves: Gold Cure by Ted Mathys (poetry), Lent by Jo Walton (monks and demons!), Tales of Neveryon by Samuel R. Delany (imagine fantasy but queer and super Marxist, and Foucauldian—I don’t know if my students loved it, but I was geeking out), and Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, because Nicolas Cage.
Ten other people have probably told you that The Untamed is great by now; I’ll be mad if they haven’t. But let me add that as far as gay ancient China social justice wizards go, it sure is the stuff. From the very end of October 2015 until March 2016, anonymous female author MXTX published the original story (“Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation,” in English) as a web novel. Its live-action adaptation ran from the very end of 2019 and through the start of 2020 (percolating more gradually through English publics during, and perhaps in part because of, Netflix-binge time afforded by the pandemic). This marks one of China’s first major live-action drama adaptations of a queer text. (Arguably its way was paved by Nirvana in Fire, which has its roots very much in the same community.) There’s also a donghua adaptation that handles the characters in a far less interesting way, but which incorporates spectacular visuals and horror elements. The same original author’s first book, Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, also has a donghua (the first season of her third book’s donghua adaptation will finish inside a fortnight). While the SVSSS donghua’s been made in low-budget conditions that render the animation deeply uneven, the central conceit and its execution are so funny that one quickly forgives it this.
If you want to read any of these insanely popular books: basically, you cannot. You can barely even read the genre’s decades-old, straight Lord of the Rings equivalent, Jin Yong’s 1957-9 Legend of the Condor Heroes —there’s one translation option, recent, which makes translation choices so awkward you’re reduced to referring to a character as Charity Bing, like this is Ancient China Guys and Dolls. There are fan translations of the newer web novels! The level of work that’s gone into these is astounding, and the footnotes are so appreciated. Yet I struggle with even the best of these. Where there are teams at work, these seem to largely consist of people splitting the first stage work of raw translation rather than any member saying, “ok, so how does this read to a person who speaks no Chinese?” Without fresh pairs of eyes, collaboration from people with different strengths, oversight and editorial assistance, these translations are sometimes not even as clear as a random badly written English-first book. This is truly a shame, given how much volunteer labour the translators have obviously offered up, and how much attention they’ve given to some truly difficult translation issues (for example, SVSSS involves rendering millennial Chinese internet slang, historical/literary Chinese and Pratchettesque jokes about the cliches of high-fantasy). It’s really typical of Anglo-publishing’s disinterest in the rest of the world that these wildly popular texts have received no interest or support from the industry, and that there’s almost nothing in English on the basic mechanics of an entire ludicrously successful publishing model. There is nothing Big Six publishing wants more than to die, while sucking the lifeblood of fifty replaceable young female interns and whiiiiining through its blood-gummed mouth about how mean everyone is to it, omg!! Tried nothing, all out of ideas.
This year’s somewhat genre-adjacent Hikaru No Go cdrama adaptation of the popular late ’90s animanga was also a damn delight. Speaking of anime, at the end of 2019 the really well-executed Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba came out. It draws on the visuals and themes of samurai cinema in effective ways. However it’s more popular in Japan itself than I can really understand, given that for me, it feels like a very good roast chicken: a lovely execution of a familiar, somewhat simple thing. My Hero Academia’s new film was exceptionally good, and its series wrapped just as lockdown began, though I have an increasingly weird ACAB relationship with the text. In English-language television, the end of She Ra sucked, and Steven Universe Future largely also sucked. These are personal takes, but then, aren’t they all? We tried watching Voltron, which we’d heard much of. It did not suck, it simply blew—a cold wind whistling through the hollow bones of a barely-articulated world and cast of characters that no one but unduly generous ATG shippers could possibly care about. Only What We Do in the Shadows, Series 2 stood out in this blighted landscape, like the last gas station on the interstate for 100 miles.
Simon Guerrier’s book on the lost Doctor Who serial “The Evil of the Daleks” does a good job reconstructing the plot and production of a story we’ll likely never see, and of discussing the role of Victoriana in Doctor Who, while showing his interesting research path. My Doctor Who play Blue Boxes came out the day after the U.S. election, when votes were still being counted, which was roughly the emotional equivalent of getting hit on at the funeral of a parent you ultimately didn’t really like.
The pandemic particularly changed the Eurogame world, because boardgaming is such an inherently physical, social activity. Board Game Arena, Boiteajeux and platforms like them became important to our family and many others in a whole new way. We also played some new physical games. I enjoyed the new Tapestry expansion. For all it hasn’t been as well received as its older sister Scythe, I might like Tapestry even better than that modern classic. We’re still feeling out Red Raven’s Empires of the Void II, but Ryan Laukat is always a compelling designer.
We used legacy games to make celebrations special during a year in which we couldn’t go outside. For my birthday we played Queensdale, which has much to recommend it (not really the ending “plot twist,” but up until that point). Forgotten Watters is also engaging, though I feel its difficult combat is more annoying than challenging and rewarding. For Christmas, I got my fianceé the new A Midsummer Night Time Stories “episode” (part of their core-boardless reboot) and Shadowrun: Crossfire. We’ll see how it goes!
Nick Hubble: The book which most profoundly affected me in 2020 was Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991), which I reread for the first time in over twenty years. Like Coupland’s protagonists—Andy, Dag and Claire—I grew up with a completely different worldview to my parents and did my share of McJobs in the 1980s. By the point in the late 1990s that I got around to reading the novel, I had become a homeowner, which, Andy tells us, “has to be the kiss of death, personality wise.” I enjoyed the novel but it seemed to relate to a period of life I’d moved on from. However, in 2020 it all suddenly made more sense.
One of the neologisms coined within the novel is “Survivulousness,” defined as “the tendency to visualize oneself enjoying being the last remaining person on Earth: ‘I’d take a helicopter up and throw microwave ovens down on the Taco Bell’.” My own survivulousness, imbibed from cosy catastrophes such as John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), shaped my response to the early-mid 1980s intensification of the Cold War surrounding the deployment of cruise missiles. The seeming imminence of apocalypse temporarily rendered obsolete postwar values of steady work for growing reward, leaving Gen Xers hanging around the mall waiting for the world to end. This feeling of being a survivor living parasitically off the dwindling resources of a dying culture made a dramatic reappearance at the height of this year’s lockdown, as I sat around watching box sets and playing board games with my family while the hospitals became overwhelmed.
The key question raised by Generation X is whatever happened to “capital H history”? Andy goes home to Portland for Christmas and describes a family photo from fifteen years ago in which his parents and siblings are all looking “off toward what seems to be the future;” one that never actually arrived. Andy’s parents’ house remains a museum to this marooned past but the deeper point is that their middle-class lifestyle was always an evasion of history:
You see when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied. (p. 171)
The alienation and rootlessness of Gen Xers in the 1980s and early 1990s was a manifestation of the return of the emotional truth repressed by their parents’ generation, who chose sterility and comfort over the messiness of participating in history. But awareness of that hasn’t stopped a similar dynamic from developing between the Xers and their own children even as the state and economic structures which supported middle-class life collapse under the pressure of repressive politics and the pandemic. Now would be a good time to finally free ourselves of these generational cycles.
Kelly Jennings: Like many people, I suspect, I spent a lot of 2020 isolated in my house reading books. So I have a long, long list of books I read and liked this year; these are the ones I loved best. Lina Rather, Sisters of the Vast Black. This is a novella, about a community of nuns who travel through space to perform religious rites (marriages, baptism, all that), and the ship is alive. Does a living ship have a soul, and if so, what do the Sisters owe to their ship? Wonderful characters in this one.
Martha Wells (of course) put out a new Murderbot novel, Network Effect. I’ll read anything about Murderbot. A.J. Lancaster has been writing a series of fantasy novels, which are sort of Sherlock Holmes combined with Downton Abbey, but also wizards. These aren’t new, but I just discovered them this year. Start with The Lord of Stariel. Another Sherlock Holmesian book is Katherine Addison’s Angel of the Crows, with not just wizards and vampires, but also trans characters: the main characters are wonderful, and as always with Addison, we have great worldbuilding.
Leigh Bardugo’s The Ninth House is very dark, but my favorite book by her so far. In an AU where Yale recruits wizards, a young homeless girl is given a large scholarship, even though she has yet to graduate from high school. Some excellent social commentary in this one. T. Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon brought out The Hollow Places, which was almost too scary for me, except I couldn’t stop reading. Sandra Newman, who you may know from The Country of the Ice-Cream Star, put out a new novel, The Heavens, which was both strange and disquieting and wonderful. A modern woman, Kate, is linked to the Dark Woman in Shakespeare’s sonnets, and she keeps jumping back and forth through time, except that each time she jumps forward the world is different, and a little worse. This one is depressing, but worth reading nonetheless.
Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous is one I’ve read twice since it was published, and still can’t stop thinking about. It’s about robots and biochemistry and a dystopian near future which feels all too real. The robots are the best ones I’ve ever read. Read it for the robots alone. And finally, Tillie Walden’s graphic novel, Are You Listening? has wonderful and eerie art and a wonderful eerie story about traveling between dimensions, and also a great cat.
Adri Joy: The media that has stuck with me in 2020 has mostly been the things that have helped me escape, and when my reading speed started to suffer thanks to pandemic anxiety, it was video games that swept in to pick up the slack. I spent much of the first half of the year immersed in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the latest in a series of tactical Japanese RPGs that offers branching paths for a conflict that threatens to engulf a whole continent. Towards the middle of the year, there was Spiritfarer, a gentle nautical resource management and exploration game where your character takes on the role of afterlife carer to a group of anthropomorphic animal misfits. As a narrative centred around death, it deals with heavy emotions around grief, regret and loss, but it does so in a way that centres the simple joy of existing, and I enjoyed every moment. And then there was Hades! Like many, I fell head over heels for Supergiant Games' Greek mythology post-canon fix-it: a game set in the underworld where every death simply opens up more opportunities to grow closer to the many colourful characters living in the House of Hades. The common thread across all of those games is that they centre connections and relationships between characters, and a belief that even in difficult circumstances or in the face of past wrongs, we can still do right by each other and perhaps even build something better.
Of course, there were also books in 2020. Elatsoe, by Darcie Little Badger and illustrated by Rovina Cai, wins the prize for being the first book which has made me cry based on its chapter header illustrations: set in a world like our own but with a little more magic, the title character sets out to solve the mystery of her cousin's murder, tracing it to a creepy, secretive nearby town with the help of her friends and a very good ghost dog. Elatsoe's story is interwoven with the story of her six-great Grandmother, from whom her ability to speak to ghosts originates, and the way those stories come together is beautifully done. I also very much enjoyed The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk, for its smart, charming fantasy-regency romance; Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel by Julian K. Jarboe for its explorations of what it means to be queer under capitalism; The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg for its complex, gentle story of homecoming; and both instalments of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez for showing how silly, colourful middle grade comedy can also be full of love and respect.
Finally, I am very grateful for all the authors who released books that I haven't yet read, and everyone stepping up to the plate next year, because I have a feeling I'm going to need a TBR full of pandemic-busting reads for quite some time yet ...
Not all fairy tales begin with the same words, but no matter the language, we generally recognize their start by a turn of phrase, as Angela Carter once put it, both “utterly precise and absolutely mysterious.”
In this year in which so much of the world fell apart, in which sometimes I found myself lost in a wilderness of numbers both precise and mysterious, I turned often to those authors and stories who have helped in the past to shape the compass of my heart. I read for the first time both The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, and I found among their pages different shades of wisdom and joy. I read for the first time in decades Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and I discovered anew the balm of their humor and prayer for times of madness and loss.
And there were entirely new things, as well, this year. There was the uncanny resonance of the film Vivarium. Repeated listenings to the haunted apocalypse that is Phoebe Bridgers’ album, Punisher. I said goodbye to The Good Place and hello to a brilliant new writer: Genevieve Hudson and their book, Boys of Alabama. I read books new to me by Tillie Walden, Are you Listening? and On a Sunbeam. Also, story collections by Amelia Gray (Museum of the Weird), Amanda Sparks (The Unfinished World), and Hiromi Kawakami (Record of a Night Too Brief).
There was, though, for me no story—‑no fairy tale—‑that quite summed up the madness and hope of this year more than HBO’s, Lovecraft Country, a show dedicated to using every bit of speculative sorcery at hand to refashion old tropes into vehicles of enlightenment. Time and again it dismantled and cobbled together the sound and fury of American dreams, and if, at times, the engine sputtered or the side mirror fell off, in the end it got where it needed to go and the experience of getting there was one I loved more than any other this year because it made true this promise: Nothing is inevitable. Not even the past.
My favorite fairy tale opening, as it happens, comes from the Armenian.
This is how those stories begin.
“There was a time and no time.”
I can think of no better epitaph for this year that was and was not, for all that was lost and gained and forgotten and remembered and tried and failed and tried again.
Until we meet again.
Here’s to you, 2020.
Paul Kincaid: A mad world, my masters. And madder this year even than the lunacies of recent years. And it is surely a sign of that madness that as we lock ourselves away in our own homes, as we give ourselves more time than ever to read, there is less and less reading that really satisfies. I have started and discarded any number of highly praised books, finding them dull, familiar, unadventurous. Just holding my attention long enough to finish the book has been an achievement in this year of years. Enthusing me with the excitements and possibilities of reading has been virtually unknown. But one book achieved that. The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison (Gollancz) is, to some extent, everything we have been reading in Harrison for the last fifty years. It fits precisely with what we know from “The Incalling” and “Egnaro,” The Course of the Heart and “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,” yet at the same time it is fresh and invigorating, unsettling and exciting. It is the world we know, the everyday, what we see around us on the most ordinary of days; yet there is nothing ordinary about it, it is everything that we have never seen before. It is a shadow glimpsed in the corner of the eye, like and unlike what we believe the world to be, most disturbing where it is most familiar, most rational where it gives in to madness. Without masks and lockdowns and pandemics, it is still precisely the novel that this year, this moment, this mad world needs.