Fired Up: The Year's Best Science Fiction, Fantasy

Illustration: A dragon protects her books.
Priscilla Nielsen for NPR

2011 was a good year to be a reader of science fiction and fantasy, although lately every year has been a good year: Not only are the books getting more popular — thank you, Game of Thrones — they're getting more interesting, evolving and morphing in weird, fascinating ways.

They're also interbreeding with other genres to produce wild new hybrid forms, like historical science fiction romances and hard-boiled fantasy detective novels. They're commenting on current events and swapping DNA with literary novels.

Brilliant writers like China Mieville and Catherynne Valente are rethinking the basic rules of the game, telling stories that look like fantasy and science fiction, but which make us feel things that those kinds of books aren't supposed to be able to make us feel.

Here are five of the best, most interesting, most mutated science fiction and fantasy novels published this year.

A Dance With Dragons

by George R.R. Martin

Hardcover, 1016 pages, Random House Inc, $35, published July 12 2011 | purchase

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Just because he's a superstar now doesn't mean that Martin is getting soft. Fans waited six years for A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series (better known as A Game of Thrones — the title of the HBO show based on them), and the wait was completely worth it. Martin writes epic fantasy, but not the way JRR Tolkien did: his world is dark and gritty and morally confused, and his characters are venal, petty, lusty, angry, greedy and often very funny. And yes, every once in a while, someone does something noble and selfless ... but don't get too attached. Martin has a reputation for killing off beloved characters when you least expect it, and he's had six years to sharpen his blade.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

by Catherynne M. Valente

Paperback, 272 pages, Feiwel & Friends, $6.99, published May 8 2012 | purchase

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
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Catherynne M. Valente

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If you haven't heard of Catherynne Valente, give it time. She's only 32, and she's writing at a furious pace — she published six books in 2011, all brilliant — without even breathing hard. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is the playful, erudite story of a little girl named September who is invited by a Green Wind to visit a place called Fairyland. There she meets and befriends some rather startling creatures, including a wyvern named A-through-L; if I tell you that the wyvern is named that because his father was a library, it should give you a sense of the fathomless inventiveness that Valente brings to her fiction. This is nominally a book for young adults, but it's definitely rich and strange enough for grown-ups, too. Neil Gaiman called it "a glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian Fairy Tale." As usual, Gaiman is right.

Rule 34

by Charles Stross

Hardcover, 358 pages, Penguin Group USA, $25.95, published July 5 2011 | purchase

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Rule 34
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Stross belongs to that subcategory of science fiction writers who actually know a hell of a lot about how computers work. This technological authenticity adds an extra edge of gritty reality to Stross' already thoroughly hard-boiled story about a detective in near-future Edinburgh who stumbles onto a series of linked murders. The victims are all Internet scammers, who died in a variety of elaborate and gruesome ways. It's a wildly entertaining mystery that slips you, under the table, a blisteringly intelligent analysis of our rapidly devolving Internet culture, as well as the social repercussions of disruptive innovations like social media, data mining, and 3-D printing.

The Heroes

by Joe Abercrombie

Paperback, 559 pages, Little Brown & Co, $14.99, published October 21 2011 | purchase

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The Heroes
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Abercrombie is a Brit who's not nearly as well-known in the U.S. as he should be. Like George R.R. Martin, he writes dark, morally dodgy fantasy about large men with large swords, but he works at closer range and in something more like real time. The Heroes takes place during one massive, grinding battle — two enormous armies contesting a scrap of random, worthless land. Abercrombie moves from one warrior to another, showing us the strange paths that brought them to this bloodbath, and the different emotional stakes that each one carries with him. It's as if Tolkien cared about the back story of every individual orc: Each soldier is one among thousands, floundering in the fog of war, but each feels like he's living out a tragedy or a triumph with himself as the hero. There's no right side and wrong side — even the warriors aren't sure which is which — and in the end the question of who's the real hero comes down to who survives to tell the story.

Delirium

by Lauren Oliver

Hardcover, 480 pages, Harpercollins Childrens Books, $17.99, published August 2 2011 | purchase

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Delirium
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Lauren Oliver

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In the world of the future, love is considered a disease, amor deliria nervosa, that corrupts the mind and leads to destructive, irrational behavior. Fortunately, when you turn 18, you can be cured by a treatment that frees you from love forever, so you can lead a calm, placid, productive existence alongside your government-assigned spouse. Lena is a good girl who's just out of high school and can't wait to be made safe from love — until she meets Alex, a boy from the wild lands outside the city. It's a place that's been disavowed by the government, where people aren't cured, and can live and love freely. The future of Delirium isn't as violent and thrilling as that of The Hunger Games, but the emotions are just as raw and real, and the romance at the heart of the book is even more convincing.

Caution: Be careful with these books. Wear protective clothing at all times. Science fiction and fantasy are changing, developing superabilities they never had before, and they may behave unpredictably. They're not going to take over the world — but they just might take over your bookshelf.

Lev Grossman is the author of, most recently, The Magician King. He is the book reviewer for Time magazine, and, as his website states, shows up on NPR "once in a while."

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