This was a good year for cross-genre pollination. It was packed with brilliant books that stretched the boundaries of what counts as science fiction and fantasy — and even what counts as fiction itself. Authors like Ken MacLeod and G. Willow Wilson spun tales that begin as near-future dystopian science fiction, only to turn abruptly into fantastical tales of supernatural creatures. Call it magical cyberpunk realism.
We also witnessed a strong resurgence of political themes in genre fiction, as Maureen McHugh and Kim Stanley Robinson explored what it means to be part of a civilization on the brink of transformation or collapse.
Here are six of the year's best works of science fiction and fantasy — two of which were favorites from our summer list, too.
A sweeping space opera, 2312 is about what happens to humanity once we've truly conquered the solar system. Humans have colonized most of the planets and moons in our local volume of space, and it's the end of an interplanetary age of exploration. Political powers are consolidating their territories — China and India are vying to control Venus, while a host of newer states from Mercury and the outer planets are in conflict over who controls access to powerful mirrors that beam solar energy out to Saturn and beyond. Thanks to advances in biological and geological engineering, humans are reshaping their bodies and remolding entire planets to be more hospitable for our kind of life. Meanwhile, a performance artist, a diplomat, a detective and a scientist are trying to figure out who — or what — destroyed Mercury's biggest city by hurling millions of tiny micro-meteorites at it with seemingly inhuman precision. 2312 is a kind of murder mystery, wrapped in a gorgeous astropolitical epic — that is also a love story. Unashamedly utopian, yet scientifically plausible, 2312 explores what it means to be human, even as our species transforms itself into an entirely new kind of animal.
After the Apocalypse
This collection of short stories by Hugo Award-winning author Maureen McHugh is also about humanity on the brink of massive change — but not the kind of epic, transcendent one that Kim Stanley Robinson imagines in 2312. These near-future stories imagine a future where the U.S. economy has tanked and dirty bombs are a regular feature of the urban landscape. As the world careens dangerously close to complete ruin, McHugh trains her unflinching eye on psychological catastrophes far more devastating than any prion disease pandemic. Her careful, small character studies take place against the dramatic backdrop of mutating national borders, and the rapid decay of American democracy into totalitarianism — or Chinese communism into crazy entrepreneurialism. Nevertheless, McHugh reminds us that human beings, no matter how changed their social circumstances, will always be riven by neurosis, greed and the kind of moral emptiness that can only be achieved by a species that claims to be otherwise. Disturbing but mesmerizing, the stories in After the Apocalypse will creep into your unconscious and haunt you for weeks.
Brilliant Scottish writer Ken MacLeod brings the U.K. into a near future that echoes McHugh's in many ways — the economy is sagging, and previously democratic societies are closing up into police states. In London, where Hope and Hugh are raising a family, women are being bullied by the medico-surveillance state into taking "the Fix." This is a pill that corrects a number of genetic abnormalities in children, and the newly pregnant Hope doesn't want to take it — for reasons that bring her and Hugh under government suspicion. When a news story about Hope's choice grabs the attention of a politically minded graduate student, we are plunged into a tale of biotech intrigue and — surprisingly — supernatural barbarians. Their whole lives, Hugh and his son have had visions of another world. This may be the "Bright Land" of Scottish lore, or it may be something related to an odd genetic mutation that both of them share. It's testimony to MacLeod's power as a storyteller that he's able to juggle themes as disparate as state oppression, biotech intrigue and epic fantasy. Ultimately, it's a story of the many phases our civilizations pass through as they rise and fall, making the same old mistakes but occasionally making brand-new ones. Right now, Intrusion is only available in the U.K., but you can order it online from many U.K. booksellers.
Alif the Unseen
Like Intrusion, Alif the Unseen is a novel that straddles the line between high-tech political thriller and epic fantasy. Alif is a hacker in a near-future Middle Eastern city that looks and sounds very much like Cairo — a city where G. Willow Wilson has lived for much of the past decade. There, Alif works as a hacker for hire, helping pornographers and subversive bloggers alike maintain their anonymity in a world of futuristic cyber-surveillance and closed regimes locked in ancient political struggles. While dodging the authorities, Alif comes across a book that could be a magical text of great power, or could be the key to building a quantum computer. Either way, the government wants it. After he's detained and tortured by state police, Alif escapes — only to be trapped in the world of the magical djinn. It turns out that the spirit world has Wi-Fi, and some of the local demons need tech support for their crummy Dell computers. Trapped between two authoritarian regimes — one in the spirit world and one in his home city — Alif must cook up his greatest hack yet. Wilson's work blends magic realism and cyberpunk to explore a region of the world that is far more diverse and complex than any nonfiction book about "the clash of civilizations" could ever admit.
Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals
This is a book unlike any other you've read. Written as a collaboration between paleontologist Darren Naish and the incredible artists C.M. Koseman and John Conway, it's half art book, half speculative paleontology, and half pure science fiction. That's right, it's 150 percent of a book. All Yesterdays is about how wrong our visions of dinosaurs have been, based on new evidence from the fossil record — as well as common sense gleaned from looking at how little an animal's skeleton really tells us about how that animal looks and behaves. We're treated to a skeptical engagement with typical depictions of dinosaurs — Why do we assume they had spines rather than humps? Why do we always depict them as lean and muscular rather than immensely fat? Why don't we ever imagine Tyrannosaurus rex resting or having sex? — that help us realize how poorly we've imagined the incredible weirdness and diversity of life on Earth during the Cretaceous Period. Plus, the final section of the book is devoted to imagining how a dinosaur paleontologist would depict us and our animal companions, based entirely on our skeletons. Funny, gorgeously illustrated and daringly speculative, this is the kind of book that comes along only once in a generation. Of course, All Yesterdays will teach you something new about dinosaurs — but more importantly, it's a reminder that imagination may be the most important ingredient in scientific and historical discovery.
The Cold Commands
Normally we wouldn't include the second book in a series in a best-of list, but we're making an exception. Picking up right after its predecessor, The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands is an epic fantasy for the 21st century. Protagonist Ringil is a gay warrior whose swordsmanship is legendary — when he's not struggling with PTSD from the biotech dragon wars, or having sex with a magical alien from another dimension. In The Cold Commands, we realize that all the enchanted creatures and objects on Ringil's world are, in fact, remnants of an interstellar civilization that has fallen into medieval feudalism and superstition. For those who like their fantasy served raw, this provides terrifically fast-paced, extremely smart escapism.
Annalee Newitz writes about the intersection of science and culture. She's the editor-in-chief of io9.com, and the author of a forthcoming book about how humans will survive a mass extinction.