Sunday, January 29, 2017

Most Interesting SF/F Novels of 2016

Some of the books on the list

Last year I wrote about my favorite books of 2015.  In 2016 I read a lot of interesting books, but nothing I loved quite as much as my favorite book of 2015: Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora.  So this year I've decided to forego a "Best of" list in favor of a "Most Interesting" list.  Maybe this will be more interesting, too!

The following list is limited to science fiction and fantasy novels published in 2016.  I read a lot of other interesting stuff in 2016 that doesn't fit those parameters. Some notable fiction I read included: Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem, Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, Nnedi Okorafor's Binti, Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bearand C. S. Friedman's This Alien Shore.   Some interesting philosophy books I read last year were Mary Midley's Utopias, Dolphins, and Computers and B. K. Matilal's The Character of Logic in India.  If you want a more comprehensive list, see my Year in Books from Goodreads.

In any case, here's my list of most interesting science fiction and fantasy novels of 2016!

1. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

This novel is at times confusing and occasionally annoying, but overall it's an intensely interesting book about a 25th century world that looks to the 18th century European Enlightenment for inspiration.  From my review:
Despite the fact that a lot of science fiction takes place in the future, few science fiction writers have much of a historical consciousness, a sense of how historical eras are both continuous with and disjointed from the eras before and after them.  Frank Herbert's Dune series has historical consciousness in an especially vast sense, but a lot of science fiction seems to basically transplant the people and ideas of the 20th and 21st centuries into some other century ... 
Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning isn't quite working on Herbert's scale, but her historical consciousness is something unique.  The fact that she's a history professor probably doesn't hurt either (and gives hope to this SF-loving philosophy professor!).

2.  The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

To be honest, if I were more of a fantasy fan, this may have been #1.  But this is the type of fantasy that might appeal more to science fiction fans, especially given the centrality of earth sciences to the fantastic world of the ironically-named continent, the Stillness.  From my review:
The Obelisk Gate is a sequel as complex and interesting as its predecessor, the Hugo-winning The Fifth Season.
First, the relatively minor issues.  There's a bit of second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome here.  That new universe smell has worn off to some extent.  The pace is a bit slow for much of the first half of the book.  As with the first book, occasionally all that complexity and subtlety made it difficult to follow.
Despite these issues, there's a lot to love about this book on account of the world building, characters, and all-too-timely expansion of the social themes of the first book.

3.  Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer

Sawyer has been one of my favorite philosophical science fiction authors for a long time.  I especially enjoyed his Neanderthal Parallax, and his novel Mindscan was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog.  One of the highlights of attending Worldcon last year was having a chance to chat with Sawyer for a couple minutes.  He recommended that I read this one next.  And, despite a few reservations, I was glad I did.  From my review:
As is usually the case with Robert J. Sawyer's work, this novel mostly takes place in Canada, involves a middle-aged scientist falling in love, and it's impossible to fully separate the scientific and philosophical material from the plot.  ...
Jim Marchuk is a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba who has developed a method to test people for psychopathy.  ... His investigations lead him to talk to his old professor, become reacquainted with an ex-girlfriend he doesn't remember, and eventually discover that the vast majority of the human population are either psychopaths or philosophical zombies ...
Along the way there's a lot about utilitarian ethics and the nature of consciousness.  ...  

 4. Necessity by Jo Walton

Walton is another author I met at Worldcon.   I was excited to talk to her about this series about a time traveling goddess setting up Plato's Republic with the help of robots.  I particularly enjoyed it as a science fiction fan and philosophy professor who regularly teaches Plato.   Necessity, the third and final book in the series, didn't excite me as much as the first two, but it was still an interesting read, especially for the robot philosophers!  From my review:
The philosophical questions here come up around Crocus the robot philosopher and around concepts of time and determinism (or Necessity as the case may be).  The latter questions are interesting enough (although they are elaborated a bit too mythologically and hazily for my tastes).  The questions surrounding Crocus are most interesting. 
These mostly come up in Crocus's excellent POV chapters, which totally made the book for me.  Can a robot be a philosopher?  Do robots have souls? ... Would Plato's Republic work as a city if all the citizens were robots?  Is it our human emotions and sexual desires that make Plato's perfectly rational city elusive for us?

5.  Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

With this one my proviso of listing the most interesting books comes into play.  I was excited to read this new space opera that had gotten a lot of good reviews, but I honestly didn't particularly enjoy most of it.  It's one of the reasons I'm just putting my 2016 list together at the end of January 2017: it took me awhile to muddle through it.  Nonetheless, there are things to like and I can say that it was interesting.  From my Goodreads review:
My favorite part of the book was the relationship between Cheris, an oddly promoted general, and Jedao, a sort of digital "ghost" of a long dead general who shares Cheris's body (apparently the only way to "resurrect" people is to download them into some living person's body).
I sometimes have trouble conceptualizing battles and strategies, which is probably why I'm not a huge military science fiction fan.  The battles in this book seem especially confusing to me.  There's a sort of dream-like quality to a lot of the book.
This quality is continued in the central concept of the calendrical systems, which are... well, what, exactly?  They seem to literally be calendars.  But they're also, I guess, computer programming languages, social codes, mathematical systems, and maybe other things (?).

6.  The Race by Nina Allan

While I enjoyed reading The Race more than some of the books higher on the list, I have to judge it slightly less interesting, at least if you judge interestingness based on how long I kept thinking about it after finishing it.  It's not a bad book by any means.  In fact, it's delightfully weird, beautifully written, and would probably reward multiple readings.  From my review:
Nina Allan's The Race is an unexpectedly weird book.  If you were to pick it up and read a randomly selected page, you might think it's near-future dystopian science fiction about genetically modified greyhounds, standard literary fiction about the pain and promise of family and romantic relationships, or a fantasy-tinged science fictional tale in the style of Ursula Le Guin. ...
...  I'm giving it high marks for the quality of the writing, somewhat lower marks for being audacious but not ground breaking, and middling marks for the feeling that everything might only come together for me on a second or third reading -- if at all.

7.  Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Alternate history can be both fun and interesting.  This book is no exception; it imagines a present day USA in which the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal in four states.  This might score higher on the interesting matrix if the alternate world were more different than our own, but on the other hand maybe this was Winters's point all along.  From my review:
The main character is known by many names while none of them seem to be his real name, somewhat like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (this is no surprise as Ellison is mentioned in the book, or at least an alternate history version of Ellison).
It's hard to say much about this book without spoilers, but I will say that it involves US Marshals who search for escaped slaves in non-slave states (most of the book takes place in Indianapolis), a daring mission to an Alabama slave-holding company, and enough plans within plans that you need to pay attention to catch them all.

8.  The Devourers by Indra Das

I was keen to read this as a big fan of incorporating non-Western elements into speculative fiction and as someone with deep interests in South Asian history and culture.  I would've liked to rate this one higher on the interesting spectrum, but something just didn't click for me.  Maybe it's just that I've never been a big fan of werewolves or other shape shifters.  Maybe it was all the piss.  From my Goodreads review:
Is this a book about werewolves in India?  The confusion and heartbreak of navigating complex identities?  The longings of the human heart?  It's not exactly any of those things, but partly all of them.  ...
... I particularly enjoyed the parts set in Mughal India, which is a period of history I've always found interesting.  Das creates some interesting mythologies of his own involving the basically immortal shape shifters, their societies, and their fantastical biological properties ...
The writing is often quite beautiful, which is surprising as it's also quite raw.  There's a lot of piss and blood and shit ... and did I mention the piss?  There's a lot of piss, streaming and steaming everywhere.

9.  Altered Starscape by Ian Douglas

There were a lot of interesting parts of this new space opera from a popular military SF writer, but these parts never quite came together for me.  From my review:
I picked this up because the basic premise sounded cool: due to traveling near a super massive black hole, a group of humans are thrown four billion years into the future, a time when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are merging.  There are galactic civilizations, vast megastructures (aka "Big Dumb Objects"), god-like artificial intelligences, post-humans adapted for life in space, and much more that I don't want to spoil.  ...
I really wanted to like Altered Starscape.  I love vast, mind-bending space operas.  But this one has neither the intellectual depth of Iain M. Banks and Joe Haldeman nor the intricate world-building of Peter F. Hamilton, neither the humor of John Scalzi nor the engaging characters of Lois McMaster Bujold.  Maybe none of that is what this space opera was trying to be, but the problem was that I felt like the book couldn't decide what it was trying to be, either. 


  1. Which ones are you nominating for the Hugo Award?

    1. I was thinking probably Too Like the Lightning and The Obelisk Gate. Maybe one or more of the others just to add some variety. I'm not sure yet. Have you decided yet?

    2. Nope. Have not read anything published in 2016. So I'm visiting various recommendation sites.