For the past sixty-five years, ever since the debut of The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949, edited by E. F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, the quickest and most assured way to take the pulse of any year just passed in the field of fantastika is to scope out the various best-of-the-year volumes, starting with the acknowledged extant king of that realm, Gardner Dozois’s annual selection, which is now entering its thirty-third incarnation. When that volume appears in July 2016, suddenly shape and meaning will cohere out of the otherwise confusing mists of day-to-day, hyperbolic genre publishing. When you add in such other stellar assemblages as Jonathan Strahan’s selection and Ellen Datlow’s horror volume, as well as some niche collections like The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF 2015: Volume 2, edited by David Afsharirad, you have an comprehensive look back at the past twelve months.
But looking ahead into a new, unsorted year is always more dicey and problematic. Anticipated books by famous names might fall flat, while first novels by unknown writers could surge out of the gate to take all the prizes.
With that caveat in mind, here are twenty titles that look particularly promising and whose arrival can be regarded with high anticipation.
What can such a tiny cross-section of a field that sees well over one thousand new releases annually tell us about fantastika? Only perhaps the most general vital signs.
The field seems extremely healthy. Established writers continue to find a loyal audience, while astonishingly capable and enthusiastic newcomers range across a wide spectrum of styles and voices. There is currently no controversial, headline-grabbing, revolutionary movement such as New Wave or cyberpunk once constituted, and it seems hard to imagine any one school or trend holding sway over such a vast, heterogeneous territory. Those days might well be over for good, as a thousand flowers bloom. Writers of mimetic fiction continue to dip their toes into speculative fiction, sometimes nimbly, sometimes not, thus further blurring the boundaries between the genres and mainstream realism. The single-author short story collection, perpetually in danger of being swamped by bugcrusher novels, seems to be holding its head high. And franchise fiction caters to a happy subset of media- and game-centric readers.
All in all, 2016 is shaping up to be a typically entertaining and adventurous year for fantastika.
Stepping aside from her editorial role at io9, after publishing a number of short stories to much acclaim, Charlie Jane Anders brings forth her first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, which sounds like a blend of Lev Grossman and Will McCarthy, centering on two longtime friends, Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead, who individually embrace magic and science and must contend with a world going to hell in a handcart. With its wacky West Coast vibe, it could very well resemble Tom Robbins narrating the apocalypse.
In her third novel, Samantha Hunt reinvigorates the gothic tradition with a tale of spiritualism, ghosts, madness, and the allure of the open road, centering on two young people dabbling in diabolism. “Far from here, there’s a church. In the church, there’s a box. Inside the box is Judas’s hand.” That’s an opening hook sure to propel readers deeper into a tale where eccentricity shades into insanity. Early comparisons to the work of Kelly Link lend the book an imprimatur of hipster weirdness.
Although not yet officially accorded Grandmaster status by the Science Fiction Writers of America, Ben Bova and his exemplary career of nearly sixty years certainly rank high in the genre pantheon — and that’s not even counting his record as editor of Analog. Although he has published a number of story collections in the past, a best-of volume was long overdue, and it offers a great entry point for readers new and old. The second volume in the set arrives in July.
With installment seventeen in her widely beloved Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold seems as fresh and excited about her future history as in the first volume. She maintains her interest, and ours, by shifting focus from the predominant hero, Miles Vorkosigan, to his mother, Cordelia, who is just emerging from mourning for her departed husband. What better way to start life over than to raise a new family, with stored genetic material! Is Miles ready for new siblings? Is romance in the cards for Mom? Despite space-opera trappings, these essentially human questions remain intriguingly central.
With a respectable but less than Jovian total of five books since his first in 1988, Matt Ruff has nonetheless established a reputation as the deliverer of unique masterpieces every time out. After his last, Mirage, which gave us an alternate history where Western-Arab relations were ironically inverted, Ruff takes us back to the USA of the 1950s, when racism reigned almost unquestioned, and conflates Lovecraftian tropes with piercing dissections of ethics and morals and inequality, thereby confronting Lovecraft’s now well-known prejudices through the lens of Ruff’s own brilliant imagination and artistry.
After his amusing but relatively lightweight Red Planet Blues — an SF-noir pastiche — in 2013, Sawyer dips again into the fraught realm he inhabits so viscerally, where science interacts with some of humanity’s most primal instincts, threatening to redefine the legacy of Homo sapiens. Having developed a working predictive theory of sociopathy, our hero, Jim Marchuk, finds that his discovery hits much closer to home than he once thought. Only the assistance of quantum physicist Kayla Huron can solve Jim’s personal dilemmas and possibly help to stem a global midnight of feral insanity.
Almost coincidental with his ninety-third birthday, Grandmaster James Gunn, still working at the top of his game, brings us a sequel to his masterful, utterly au courant metaphysical space opera from 2013, Transcendental. Sharing its title with a book by A. E. van Vogt, the new novel seems to mirror a few of van Vogt’s core mind-blowing tropes as well. Our adventurers, Riley and Asha, having stumbled into the secret machinery underpinning the universe, now find themselves possessed of superhuman powers. But even their titanic new abilities might not be enough to deal with all the cosmic pitfalls they face.
Like Bujold, C. J. Cherryh is also gifting us with the seventeenth outing in her own universe, the Foreigner series. Since her first book, Cherryh has been concerned with the various ways humanity can interact with aliens, from diplomacy to warfare, from love to hate. This series has moved at a magisterial pace through the life of a human named Bren Cameron, chief diplomat to the mentally abstruse and at times unfathomable atevi aliens. In a minority role, the humans are always at the point of being wiped out, and only Bren’s interventions can save the day. Filled with almost Vancian levels of politesse, this installment rings in regime change as well.
Known primarily for his award-winning novels, Greg Bear has published a generous amount of short fiction as well, an accomplishment finally supported by this three-volume assemblage of his entire canon. Readers will discover here not only the Hard SF Bear is known for, but fantasies and near-mimetic tales. A rarity in Volume One is “Genius,” the script commissioned but never filmed for the TV show The Outer Limits. Introductory and afterword material new to Volumes One, Two, and Three provides further delights.
Justin Cronin’s first SF horror novel, The Passage, caused quite a splash, blending literary ambitions with sophisticated shocks. The second volume, The Twelve, like many middle books in a trilogy, seems to have caused less of a ruckus, though it featured plenty of startling developments in this plague-poxed hell. But with the arrival of the conclusion, with its quasi−Lord of the Rings affect (a battle between evil overlord The One, Father of the Twelve, and Frodo-like Amy the Girl from Nowhere, humanity’s savior), readers who set off on the journey should expect a grand climax to his suspenseful post-collapse fable.
Explicitly seeking to honor his father, Stephen King’s, classic The Stand, as well as to pay tribute to the early SF thrillers of Michael Crichton, Joe Hill’s massive fourth novel looks to be a ramping-up of the plague motif common to twenty-first-century literary Armageddons. An infection known as Dragonscale promotes death by spontaneous combustion, and, unlike in Bradbury’s classic, a character named “the Fireman” is the good guy. If an average couple, beset by all the angst and insecurities that such a scenario breeds, can enlist his help, their unborn baby will survive. But even larger stakes might be in play.
Prolific UK author Catherine Webb — she needs two pseudonyms, Claire North and Kate Griffin, to parcel out her largesse — has been reaching new heights recently, especially under the North byline. Her 2014 novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, won several major prizes for its audacious telling of a man reborn in a loop time after time. Her new book postulates an allied existential crisis. A teenage girl named Hope finds herself being gradually erased from the consensus memory of her social circle and society at large. She has literally become an invisible un-person, and now has to navigate like a wraith through a world that has disinherited her from history.
This is roughly the fortieth short story collection from Oates since the first in 1963. And yet she continues to pull fresh startlements out of her magician’s sleeves. Her recent open embrace of formerly déclassé writers such as Lovecraft seems to have liberated her own pulp virtues. The subtlety of the opening of the title story reveals Oates’s sly, cold hand. “We were often at my aunt’s house, and while my mother and aunt were crying together I went to Amy’s room and lifted Baby Emily from my cousin’s bed, where the doll was lying with other less interesting dolls and stuffed toys, as if someone had flung them all down . . . ”
Working the same mystico-psychical Mother London vein as Christopher Fowler, Michael Moorcock, Paul Cornell, Neil Gaiman, and Iain Sinclair, Ben Aaronovitch has sustained a bestselling series that derives its overarching moniker from the first book in the saga, Rivers of London. Constable Peter Grant’s specialty is the nasty things that go bump in the night, and in this investigation, his sixth, among the super-rich of Mayfair, demons and ghouls are sure not to practice “infernal inequality.”
Another instance of bureaucracy meeting monsters is Charles Stross’s The Laundry Files, which reaches its seventh iteration with this new book. A droll, madcap, mordant blend of Mike Mignola and Ian Fleming, this series chronicles the affairs of the eponymous, anti-occult government organization where one “Bob Howard” labors both to save the planet from soul-sucking abominations — and also to file his expense report on time. In this volume, a new protagonist, Alex Schwartz, banker-turned-vampire, is dispatched to Leeds to whomp up some boring construction estimates, and finds his life complicated by the mysterious Cassie Brewer.
Bringing a gritty, Richard Stark attitude to the old-time trope of the Legion of Time, those chrononauts who patrol the millennia for continuity and profit, Wesley Chu made a hit with Time Salvager, the paradox-filled misadventures of James Griffin-Mars. In this sequel, Chu revels in his cyberpunk scenario — wasted planet, cruel corporations, punky rebels — who are intent on rescuing humanity despite its own worst vices.
Jeffrey Ford is certainly one of the top ten masters of the fantastical short story, and this new collection, his first in four years, reaffirms that status. Thirteen stories, some with publication as recent as 2015, reveal such wonders as the time Emily Dickinson indeed stepped into Death’s Carriage; a witch whose prize possession is a glass globe filled with a living mariner’s head; and exorcism as suburban recreational activity.
This conclusion to Jo Walton’s current trilogy must surely continue the ambiance of the earlier books: wacked, sophomore stoner philosophizing combined with an elegance of prose and a depth of cool emotion that might befit some Georgian classic. The premise of the series should alert readers to the oddity of the books. A group of rogue philosophers time-travel back to ancient Greece under the guidance of the literal goddess Pallas Athene in order to establish a utopia, with the aid of robot manservants, along the lines given in Plato’s Republic. Their manipulation of some helpless infants in ways that would shock B. F. Skinner might underlie the eventual tragedies, melodrama, and mixed success of their venture, whose full lineaments will surely be unpredictable until the close of the last pages of Necessity.
Despite their dissimilarity each to each, fans of China Miéville can still count on many things when one of his unpredictable new books arrives. Grace of language; boldness of conceptualization; clarity of vision; sharpness of themes; a partiality towards mystery and ambiguity. His new novel, on its surface part of the counterfactual genre, surely will not disappoint. Paris has fallen permanently to the Germans, and now a small cadre of dissidents seeks to create a counterforce. Their plotting involves an occult Surrealist Bomb — shades of Captain America’s famous Mad Bomb — which proves to be a weapon not subject to total control.
Ramsey Campbell’s career, which began with teenage-prodigy publications, recently attained a new plateau with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Fantasy convention during 2015. And he has arguably not yet hit his peak. The new book concerns a stand-up comedian, Luke, who finds his shows intersecting with audience attendance by a tribe of the Fey, a corrupt generation of the “kind folk” who once were. And these unnerving inhumans seem to have their eyes perversely fixed on Sophie, Luke’s pregnant girlfriend.
Although they are not cemented firmly online yet, reliable sources hold out further wonders for the last third of 2016, among them being Cloudbound by Fran Wilde; Luna: Volume 2 by Ian McDonald; Crosstalk by Connie Willis; Normal by Warren Ellis; and Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston.
Readers had better start blocking out time on the calendar (or working on their own time machines). There’s nary a moment to waste.