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Best science fiction, fantasy and horror of 2021

Silvia Moreno-Garcia & Lavie Tidhar

THE WASHINGTON POST – It’s the season for “best” lists, a time that inspires terror in our hearts: Should we focus on the major hits, such as Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, and Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate, or highlight more obscure works? We’ll try a bit of both.

Silvia: I veer toward horror and fantasy in my reading, so I was surprised when I realised I had read so many science fiction novels this year. Many had an ecological bent, such as Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer. Interestingly enough, I ended the year with a science fiction novel published in 1940s Mexico that seemed to have a great deal in common with VanderMeer’s novel. His Name Was Death, by Rafael Bernal (translated by Kit Schluter in 2021), is the story of a man who flees civilisation in favour of the jungles of Chiapas and learns to communicate with mosquitoes, intent on triggering an apocalypse. Not without its flaws, but interesting as an example of Latin American literature outside of the box of magic realism.

But my favourite science fiction book of the year was Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker, a melancholic tale about a near-future in which a corporation gives a couple a very special creature to raise. The perfect comparative title is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Another favourite was How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters, a strong collection by Erica L Satifka, one of the brightest science fiction writers today who should be getting more attention.

Lavie: Weirdly, I’ve dipped into horror this year – maybe we’re trading places! I love American gothics, and Walter Goodwater’s The Liar of Red Valley has everything – a little town hiding secrets, an exciting story and creepy creatures galore. Then I went straight to Daryl Gregory’s Revelator, a tale about a strange creature in the Smoky Mountains and the equally weird family of women who serve it. I also liked Gregory’s The Album of Dr Moreau, about a boy band made up of animal-human hybrids.

My top title for science fiction this year has to be Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The story of an android servant to a sick girl is surprising and tender, and I never knew where it was going. I came away with a sense that Ishiguro was channelling older science fiction master Clifford Simak, whose robots seem like the spiritual progenitors of Klara in the novel.

And Claire North’s excellent Notes From The Burning Age put me in mind of another classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M Miller Jr.

But there’s been plenty more science fiction worth noting this year. Cassandra Khaw’s debut novel, The All-Consuming World, was ambitious. Stark Holborn hit home with science-fiction western Ten Low. Louise Carey’s debut Inscape is a high octane, cyberpunk-flavoured adventure. Elly Bangs’ Unity will also remind you of classic cyberpunk. Aliya Whiteley, whose collection impressed me earlier this year, continues to dazzle with Skyward Inn. The Cabinet by Un-su Kim is surprising and enchanting. The anthology Sinopticon, edited by Xueting Christine Ni, is superb, and worth it for Han Song’s story, Tombs of the Universe, alone.

Meanwhile Chen Qiufan’s latest project is a big collaboration with computer scientist Kai-Fu Lee called AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, a melding of fiction and fact about our coming artificial intelligence (AI) overlords.

Another hybrid worth noting is Bloomsbury’s Philosophy Through Science Fiction, which collects stories by authors such as Aliette de Bodard and Ken Liu and matches them with essays on philosophy. And my coffee table book of the year has to be the gorgeously illustrated Dangerous Visions and New Worlds, edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre. It’s the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls of science fiction, about the science fiction of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In fantasy, I liked Sword Stone Table, which collects new Arthurian stories, edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington. But my fantasy book of the year has to be Karin Tidbeck’s weird and magical The Memory Theater, which came out earlier this year to little fanfare.

Silvia: When it comes to fantasy, I’m usually not inclined toward epic narratives, but Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s Son of the Storm, with its intricate African-inspired world-building and lush descriptions, is a delightful addition to this genre. But by far my favourite fantasy book of the year is Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang. It’s a beautiful mosaic novel, composed of different entries in a quasi-bestiary.

For horror, aside from Stephen Graham Jones and Grady Hendrix’s latest novels (My Heart is a Chainsaw and The Final Girl Support Group, respectively), there are several smaller press titles worth hunting down: V Castro’s Goddess of Filth (for fans of possession stories), ST Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood (for fans of vampires), Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (for fans of psychological suspense) and Wendy Wagner’s The Secret Skin (for fans of Gothic tales).

What about you, reader? What did you love this year?

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