Best Books of 2017 – SFF
I read a lot of science fiction/fantasy in 2017 – as I do in every year, even though, as a devoted fan of square-bound SFF magazines, I increasingly find SFF novels to be basically bloated short stories, long on page-count but comparatively short on actual imaginative content. 2017’s SFF mostly disappointed me on exactly those grounds: no fault of execution, just a certain thinness, an over-reliance on gimmick and circumstance. These ten titles were the opposite: they’re all firmly grounded in the character-writing that’s always been at the heart of this genre:
10 Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer (Tor) – Our list kicks off this year with an enormously impressive debut novel about a world of towering trees overseen by living gods. Thoraiya Dyer gives readers the overly-familiar staple (seen in nearly half the novels on this list, for instance) of a plucky young heroine plunged into events beyond her knowledge and steadily deepens it into a very satisfying story about the people who inhabit this strange world.
9 The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (Putnam) – The stress that Meg Howrey puts on simulation in her story of three astronauts training in Earth for their upcoming mission to Mars creates a wonderfully-exploited level of narrative dislocation throughout this terrific novel, which is full of shrewd character studies done with a light touch and never forgets that all first-rate science fiction is about characters rather than science fiction.
8 Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel (Del Rey) – This sequel to Neuvel’s much-touted debut, Sleeping Giants, takes the action of that earlier installment to daring new levels, all while maintaining the addictive narrative tension of the original, a tension that elevates this whole story above its attractively humble ‘giant robot’ base materials. It’s true that Waking Gods is more dependent on Sleeping Giants than it should have been – but it was also a stronger book, so I didn’t much mind.
7 Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino, translated by Charles De Wolf (Akashic) – The premise of this funny and ultimately disturbing novel hinges on a telephone scam rife in Japan: someone – typically elderly and ill-accustomed to cellphones – gets a call from somebody saying only “it’s me” and frantically pleading for help, usually in the form of wired cash. But when the novel’s main character tries the scam, he’s drawn into a bizarrely warped reality in which the scam itself seems to be cloning and scrambling the identities of the scammers – a reality in which it really is “me.” I was quietly thrilled throughout.
6 Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Tor) – Ada Palmer’s superb “Terra Ignota” series started with Too Like the Lightning and continues with this second story set in an unfoldingly weird future in which collectivist evils lurk just underneath a seemingly idyllic surface. I went into this second book intentionally stubborn, wanting it to earn its dramatic freight without relying on its much-praised predecessor – and it completely did, drawing me in again with an unforgettable cast of characters.
5 Borne by Jeff Vandermeer (FSG) – Jeff Vandermeer won a great many fans with his “Southern Reach” trilogy, and I wasn’t one of them – so I was wary in approaching this story of a young scavenger in a dystopian future who salvages a strange blob of protoplasmic bio-mass, dubs it Borne, and gradually comes to like its company. But the book is wonderful, always pushing itself past the genre’s easy answers and, despite its bizarre setting and cast, reaching its best registers by dramatizing the growth of a friendship.
4 The Waking Land by Callie Bates (Random House) – Again, I won’t use this year-end list as an opportunity to argue with the publisher’s decision to more or less market this fantastic debut novel by Callie Bates as adult fiction when it’s clearly YA; the book is outstanding in either category, the lushly-imagined story of a young woman accused of murder who must flee her adopted homeland and return to her own people, who are hated for the very magical abilities that are beginning to awaken inside her. As far as I can tell, this is Bates’ debut, and it’s a very impressive one.
3 After On by Rob Reid (Del Rey) – The conceit at the heart of this joyfully readable novel is so tired it should by rights doom the whole enterprise: Phluttr, an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-data-mining social media network plugged into hundreds of millions of lives and operating with an agenda of its own. But Reid’s inventiveness and sheer storytelling energy save his book from its own plot at every turn and make mankind’s haphazard struggle against the network’s allure totally involving.
2 Tomorrow’s Kin by Nancy Kress (Tor) – The great Nancy Kress here returns to the world of her Nebula Award-winning 2014 novella “Yesterday’s Kin” with a taut and marvelously controlled story – the first in a projected series – about an Earth on the doorstep of first contact, in this case with an alien species parked in their spaceship in New York Harbor. Like all Kress aliens, these are being worryingly enigmatic, and Kress unfolds the story perfectly.
1 Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill (Harper Voyager) – There’s surely some deeper irony in the fact that the best SFF novel of a year’s worth of SFF novels specializing in showcasing their human characters contains no human characters, but even so, that’s the opening plot of Cargill’s fantastic novel set on a future Earth in which humans are extinct and only robots remain – some few independent, most co-opted by massive (and of course malevolent) AI conglomerates. It shouldn’t be possible for Toaster V.S. Toaster to elicit interest, much less empathy, but this slam-bang novel pulls it off right from the first chapter.