2012 in Review
Reviewed by Our Reviewers
02 January 2013
Niall Alexander: Never mind my grand designs, most of the reviews I've been lucky enough to have published here on Strange Horizons—and all of the three I've submitted this year—are of horror novels, and I'll come right out and admit to having a special place in my heart for all things creepy and/or crawly. So when I came to consider my contribution to this article, I hardly had to think long or hard.
The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, a career-best for Caitlín R. Kiernan, came to mind immediately. If indeed it marks the end of an era for the author—who begins a series of standard urban fantasies in 2013 as her alter ego Kathleen Tierney—then I can't conceive of a better way to bid farewell to the two worlds she straddled than Imp's darkling descent from one to the other.
If the truth be told, though, no book published in 2012 moved me the way the video game based on The Walking Dead did. The Walking Dead's ties to Robert Kirkman’s comic book in season one are tertiary at best, but Telltale's developers needed no such crutch: they created an array of original characters that put Rick and his motley lot to pasture, frankly, then oriented around them a harrowing narrative experience which pivots on player choice. Some of the game's most memorable moments turned out to be smoke and mirrors, admittedly, but for me at least, Lee and Clementine are this year's heroes of horror.
Nina Allan: My novel of the year across all genres is M. John Harrison's rapturously virtuosic Empty Space, the third and culminating book in Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. Following closely along behind it is Keith Ridgway's frankly superb Hawthorn & Child, a "fractured novel" that acts both as a deconstruction of the London police procedural and a darkly cheeky sideswipe at urban fantasy. Sam Thompson's Communion Town is a similarly unconventional examination of genre tropes—it's also a scintillatingly executed sequence of stories about an imaginary city. In 2012 I also caught up with a couple of important debuts from 2011: Livia Llewellyn's collection Engines of Desire, which is quite possibly the best set of modern dark fantasy stories I’ve read since Clive Barker's The Books of Blood, and Genevieve Valentine's poetically mesmeric Mechanique, packed with wonderful writing and compelling story.
In film, 2012 was the year of Prometheus, Looper, and Skyfall—least said about any of these the better. My film of the year was Todd Solondz's quirky and magnificently scripted semi-fantasy Dark Horse, in which Jordan Gelber plays a socially challenged collector of action figures trying to win the affections of Selma Blair. Jean-Marc Vallée's Café de Flore, starring Kevin Parent and Vanessa Paradis in a timeshift narrative that switches between contemporary Toronto and 1960s Paris, is not wholly successful, but it's a brave attempt at pushing the boundaries and I've been unable to expel it from my mind. I also caught up with David Mackenzie's "soft apocalypse" from 2011, Perfect Sense. Starring Eva Green and Ewan McGregor in a near-future Glasgow, this is the perfect antidote to disappointingly predictable Hollywood "pandemic thrillers" such as Soderbergh's Contagion.
In the arena of nonfiction, top honors have to go to "Hull 0: Scunthorpe 3" by Christopher Priest and "The Widening Gyre" by Paul Kincaid, two rigorously argued and outspoken essays that questioned the quality of much recent SF and raised the quality of debate surrounding it in the process. Maureen Kincaid Speller's own heroic coverage of the Clarke Award at her blog Paper Knife also deserves a more than honorable mention.
Marina Berlin: 2012 has been a year of surprises for me. I was extremely looking forward to Kameron Hurley's third and final book in her Bel Dame Apocrypha series, Rapture, but ended up liking it only about a quarter as much as I liked her first two books (which I listed among my highlights for 2011 in last year's roundup). The book felt less like a satisfying finale and more like a middle-of-the-road filler book, with a host of new characters I didn’t care for and a plot that avoided dealing with the conflicts Hurley had set up earlier in the series.
On the other hand, the year's biggest SFF blockbuster, The Hobbit, was a movie I expected to dislike intensely. Even though I was a hardcore Tolkien fan as a child his work stopped speaking to me when I became an adolescent and I didn't much enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies. But, to my surprise, The Hobbit turned out to be one of the year's most enjoyable movies, despite its overly long running time.
In new discoveries, I was introduced to Malaysian SFF author Zen Cho via her short story "Prudence and the Dragon," and, being utterly charmed by it, went on a spree of reading everything of Cho's I could get my hands on. I'd say discovering Cho's work has definitely been the SFF highlight of the year for me.
Liz Bourke: As I write this, I haven't yet seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and thus far the year's SFF cinema hasn't impressed me—bar the smart and eye-catching Hunger Games adaptation, and the hilarious pulp comedy Iron Sky. But I'm always behindhand when it comes to visual media, and want to give a shoutout to a couple of DVDs I've just caught up with: Australian film Tomorrow, When The War Began, an excellent adaptation of a mediocre YA novel by John Marsden, and Claymore, an anime series about women who kill bloodthirsty monsters.
2012 saw me read over 230 books, the majority of them recently published novels. How to pick out my most notable, with Elizabeth Bear kicking off an excellent epic fantasy in Range of Ghosts, Charlie Stross racking up the stakes in The Apocalypse Codex, outstanding debuts from Leah Bobet (Above), Max Gladstone (Three Parts Dead) and Deborah Coates (Wide Open)? And I haven't yet mentioned Indian author Samit Basu's brilliant superhero novel Turbulence, Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo, Kari Sperring's The Grass-King's Concubine, Kameron Hurley's fantastic Rapture (the concluding volume in her science fiction Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy), Ben Aaronovitch's Whispers Under Ground, Michelle Sagara's Silence, or Sarah Rees Brennan's gothic-esque YA Unspoken. Nor yet Brit Mandelo's We Wuz Pushed.
2012 also impressed me with Mass Effect 3. Well, at least until I played through the ending. That's what you call a letdown.
Jesse Bullington: Quite unexpectedly, this turned out to be the year of the Bizarro for me. I tend to be pretty oblivious to things like literary movements, but looking back over my favorite reads of the year, many of my very favorites are Bizarro titles. Maybe my favorite of these was A Pretty Mouth, the alternately funny, racy, and creepy debut of my good friend and sometime-collaborator, Molly Tanzer. It's a series of interconnected short stories and novellas that tell the history of a debauched English family in reverse chronological order, sort of a Mythos Blackadder with pitch-perfect pastiches of sundry literary styles.
Then there was Stephen Graham Jones's most recent novel, The Last Final Girl, which is brilliant, a sort-of self-referential postmodern slasher film adapted to the page, and Riley Michael Parker's A Plague of Wolves and Women, which reads like a grungy, visceral fairy tale, as told by Shirley Jackson. Kirsten Alene's Unicorn Battle Squad was maybe the biggest surprise of the Bizarro lot—rather than being a trashy version of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, as one might expect from the title, it's a smart, dark, and, sure, bizarre work that is balanced somewhere between Kafka and Terry Gilliam. I've got a few more books from Lazy Fascist Press and Eraserhead on my to-read stack, and I'd highly recommend these fine books to all fans of smart genre fiction, in particular those who may have dismissed the Bizarro movement as being mere shock value titles.
It wasn't all Bizarro for me, though: Laird Barron's The Croning and Orrin Grey's Never Bet the Devil hit very different horror sweet spots for me, and Nick Mamatas's Bullettime was one of the best works to take on parallel universes/realities that I've ever read. Alex Jeffers's You Will Meet a Stranger Far From Home is a marvelous collection that balances the fantastic with the down and dirty, and ranges from the sexy to the romantic to the haunting. Jason Heller's Taft 2012 was a great tonic to the inevitable US presidential election malaise, and is strong enough that it's well worth a read even now that the wonk season is over. J.M. McDermott followed up his trilogy opener with the worthy sequel, When We Were Executioners.
The best books I read this year which had been published prior to 2012 were Tristan Egolf's Kornwolf, Lauren Beukes's Zoo City, and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast (still reading the third in the trilogy). The books that came out this year which I’m most excited about but are still in the to-read stack are Ekaterina Sedia’s Moscow But Dreaming, Paul Tremblay's Swallowing the Donkey's Eye, Berit Ellingsen's Beneath the Liquid Skin, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's The Weird (I read sloooow so this behemoth is especially daunting), and a wealth of Cheeky Frawg titles (I'm an ebook Luddite, so most of these are hovering beyond my reach at present, save Karin Tidbeck's Jagannath, which has obviously been getting great press). All in all, 2012 was another great year for this reader.
Matthew Cheney: Novels from 2011 that stuck with me through 2012: The Great Lover by Michael Cisco and Zone One by Colson Whitehead.
Novel that seems to have captured me in a Zeno's Paradox of reading and rereading, and which I am confident of declaring a unique masterpiece, though I don't yet know how to say anything else about it: Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel Delany.
Novel that I really need to get around to writing about because it is sad and beautiful and evocative and beautiful and unique and beautiful and old and beautiful and sad: Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery.
Excellent story collections of 2012: Birds and Birthdays by Christopher Barzak, An A-Z of Fantastic Cities by Hal Duncan (illustrated by Eric Schaller), Windeye by Brian Evenson, Crackpot Palace by Jeffrey Ford, Errantry by Elizabeth Hand, The Unreal and the Real by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard, Jagganath by Karin Tidbeck.
Essential anthologies from 2012: Beyond Binary edited by Brit Mandelo, The Apex Book of World SF 2 edited by Lavie Tidhar, Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution edited by Ann VanderMeer.
Best works of nonfiction that have something to do with reality, unreality, irreality, and/or surreality published and read in 2012: Magic Hours by Tom Bissell, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts by Mark Dery, Life Sentences by William H. Gass, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present by Eric Kandel.
Favorite fabulist films seen in 2012 and released somewhere around then: The Amazing Spider-Man, Melancholia, Moonrise Kingdom.
Least favorite fabulist films seen in 2012 and released somewhere around then: The Cabin in the Woods, Midnight's Children, Prometheus.
Indrapramit Das: Though I spent much of 2012 reading books and stories from other years, there are easy recommendations to make across mediums. In film, we got Rian Johnson's instant cult-classic sci-fi/time-travel noir Looper; Leos Carax's ode to the inherently fantastical nature of cinema in Holy Motors; two appropriately pop-mythic superhero movies on both sides of the self-serious spectrum in The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. On TV, the team behind Game of Thrones continued to show us perhaps the best recent on-screen treatment of epic fantasy, in the year Peter Jackson failed to live up to the legacy of his own Lord of the Rings trilogy with the first of the meticulously crafted but over-branded and bloated The Hobbit. In comics, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill ended the Century cycle of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with the elegiac, didactic, still-brilliant, and dependably insane volume 2009. Charles Burns continued his unnamed psychosexual horror trilogy, following X'ed Out with The Hive, evoking Lynch, Cronenberg, Hergé, and the best of his own work. Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke & Key continued to be one of the best comics out. In prose, Karin Tidbeck made herself known beyond her native Sweden with her striking debut English collection Jagannath, a melancholy treasure. Less noticed was the husband, wife, and daughter team of Mike (Lucifer, The Unwritten), Linda, and Louise Carey, co-writing an astonishingly entertaining, smart Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy novel about the history of a city of women, The Steel Seraglio.
Lots more, too. Go forth and explore.
L. Timmel Duchamp: I loved Kim Stanley Robinson's innovative 2312, which masterfully meshes political and hard SF with breathtaking beauty and, against all odds, holds out the hope that humans can learn and change—not only their physical environment, but their social organization as well. Barbara Kingsolver's immersive Flight Behavior, though not properly science fiction, also merits mention; this novel unfolds a speculative science story that mourns on the one side the death of "the old earth" (the natural world, before global warming) and on the other side the death of a marriage, serving up appealing images that dazzle and fascinate us in the moment despite their actually being the index of catastrophe: holding up to us a mirror reflecting the apparent inability of human society to respond realistically and constructively to global warming. Other striking novels of 2012 are Samuel R. Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and Lavie Tildhar's Osama. Also recommended, though published in 2011 and 2010 respectively: Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, a narrative that plays with the conventions of fairy tales, and Katharine Beutner's Alcestis, a magnificent retelling of a woman's trip to the Greek underworld, which I read in 2012. The most impressive anthology I saw this year was Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's marvelous globe- and century-spanning The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. I also salute the new two-volume selection of stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Unreal and the Real, and the debut collection of Kiini Ibura Salaam, Ancient, Ancient.
Benjamin Gabriel: Though I never got around to reading their "compendium," the VanderMeers' The Weird ended up shaping my 2012, as I found out that neat bits of genre history like William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland and Fritz Leiber's The Big Time, along with all those Lovecraft stories I had meant to read but never got around to, were in the public domain. 2012 was a big year for free fiction online, in my eyes and ears at least.
When I wasn't navigating the ship of the old weird online I was probably reading Nightmare Magazine's incredible first issue, or The Big Click's equally ace November issue. Or watching Gravity Falls on Lila Garrott's recommendation, or Adventure Time's often-great fourth season. Or in a theater with my 3D glasses on, checking out a much-maligned sequel like Silent Hill: Revelation 3D or Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and adoring it.
For specific fiction published this year, the only novel I read was Miéville's Railsea, which is now one of my favorites of his. And I do like him quite a lot. Stand-outs among short fiction included Kat Howard's "Breaking the Frame" and Alex Dally MacFarlane's "The 17th Contest of Body Artistry" for their elegance, as well as Yukimi Ogawa's "The Earth of Ashes" for its beautiful, despairing scale.
In criticism, Requires Only That You Hate is still where you need to be.
Lila Garrott: The most entertaining book I read in 2012 is China Miéville's Railsea, a mélange of incredibly strange worldbuilding and an entertaining action plot, in which Melville's Moby Dick is clearly taking place offstage somewhere slightly to the left.
The best book of the year, however, is Samuel R. Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. One of the genres this ambitious novel is working with is explicit pornography, which may put some readers off; the remainder will find that Delany is a better SF writer than he's ever been. He draws a sensitive and desperately kind portrait of characters who are not people who would usually wind up in any novel, even as victims or villains.
In Books Mistakenly Called YA, the clear standout is Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, a wrenching piece about female friendship and competency during World War II with an impressively unreliable narrator.
And in Books Correctly Designated For Their Age Brackets, Anne Ursu's heartbreaking middle-grade Breadcrumbs is the only fairytale retelling I have seen address the fact that nowadays people don't usually marry the next-door neighbors they grow up with, and the person you save from the Snow Queen now might not be your friend in five years.
In webcomics, Tom Siddell's Gunnerkrigg Court continues to have both striking images and a plot which maintains its interest and excitement. And Andrew Hussie's Homestuck continues to break the boundaries of the concept of webcomic while blending great worldbuilding, animation, soundtracks, and an abundance of snark.
Niall Harrison: Based on my novel reading, 2012 has been more about established authors than new kids. Book of the year by a comfortable margin is Kim Stanley Robinson's sprawling, dazzling social science fiction panorama, 2312, a novel that does just about everything I want SF to do, including remaining admirably open to argument, and contains the most memorable odd couple of the year. Crowded behind it on the podium are Margo Lanagan's gorgeously harrowing The Brides of Rollrock Island, Nick Harkaway's extravagant and sly Angelmaker, Kameron Hurley's tough-minded and eminently satisfying Rapture, and Lauren Groff's Arcadia, a forensic dissection of idealism that never descends into cynicism. (And an honourable mention tie for Ken MacLeod's Intrusion and Julie Zeh's The Method, two provocative consensual dystopias.)
Two YA debuts with roots in familiar subgenres impressed me: Tom Pollock's The City's Son is an ambitious and fun entry into the magical-London market, while Rachel Hartman's Seraphina is a dragon fantasy that reminded me of Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters in the sophistication with which it explores the challenges of living as half-human, half-other.
On the small screen, SF continued to limp along, with the best of the current crop probably being Continuum: not yet a fully realized work, it's developing some thorny relationships, and is prepared to work against audience sympathies to a pleasing extent. On the big screen, Rian Johnson's Looper was this year's Source Code—which is to say, offering plenty to chew over, but not quite up there with its director's previous work—but the standout speculative film of the year was Benh Zeitlin's vibrant and engrossing Beasts of the Southern Wild.
(And two non-SF books that nevertheless will probably be of interest to anyone reading this. Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior is a masterclass in linking the planetary—in this case, climate crisis—to the individual and specific; and Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple's Discordia combines essential on-the-ground reportage from Greece with vivid political polemic.)
Dan Hartland: 2012 offered yet more evidence of a vast, sinister conspiracy involving an army of clones working somewhere in England to a curious literary purpose. That is, this year, like each before it for some time now, saw the publication of yet another remarkable novel from the impossibly prolific "Adam Roberts." Jack Glass was an audacious, interrogative splicing of Golden Age SF and mystery fiction, and with its robust characterization and zippy dialogue demonstrated a continuing maturation of style more than capable of answering those critics who still refuse to bend the knee to our future clone overlords.
The individual known as M. John Harrison, meanwhile, crafted in this year's Empty Space a novel deserving of citation in "year's best" lists far beyond the walls of genre. Visionary prose, intellectual seriousness lightly worn, and a superhuman containment of all these in compelling plot, structure, and character make the third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy also by far the best. It is, to risk hyperbole, a unique work of absolute importance.
Outside of the genre, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder was shortlisted for the last Orange Prize. Let down by a problematic approach to indigenous cultures, Patchett's speculations nevertheless achieved an exciting, convincing portrait of scientists at work. With Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident and Sam Thompson's Communion Town longlisted for the usually sniffy Booker Prize, Harrison's radical literary mash-ups are not the only means by which SF's resonances are increasingly felt outside its own backyard.
David Hebblethwaite: At the 2012 Eastercon, I moderated a discussion on mainstream-published SF, and took part in the Fantasy Clarke Award panel—both aimed at considering different types of fiction on a level playing field. Then came Paul Kincaid's superb review-essay "The Widening Gyre" (the critical highlight of the year for me, along with Kincaid's follow-up pieces), which helped cement my increasing belief that the key opposition in the field right now is not between genre and mainstream, but between texts that play into genre conventions and those that go their own way.
My favorite speculative reads of 2012 all went their own way. Novel of the year for me was Redemption in Indigo, where Karen Lord combines Senegalese folklore, quantum physics, and a glorious narrative voice, to examine choice and consequence in a deceptively simple story. Collection of the year was Lucy Wood's Diving Belles, a charming set of contemporary Cornish fantasy tales that bodes well for its author’s career.
Bubbling under these was Jack Glass, another fascinating novel from Adam Roberts, which tests the limitations of golden age detective and science fiction. And Adrian Barnes created an interesting spin on the dystopian novel in Nod, where everything is provisional and words are the real weapons. One final mention should go to Keith Ridgway's anti-detection Hawthorn & Child. This can be considered speculative fiction on only the smallest of technicalities—but it does many of the things SF can do well, and ought to be on your radar.
Matt Hilliard: For me, the most memorable genre works in 2012 were the two trilogies that bookended my year. At the beginning of January I was reading David Anthony Durham's Acacia trilogy (I went on to review the final volume, The Sacred Band, for Strange Horizons), which effectively told a long story without succumbing to the loss of focus that plagues epic fantasy while also demonstrating that the realistic mode need not be accompanied by soul-crushing pessimism. Now, at year's end, I've recently finished Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha, a science fiction trilogy whose first two books, God's War and Infidel, attracted much praise for their handling of religion and gender. I am happy to report that Rapture, the final book, builds on those strengths and also continues the trilogy's examination of the effects of war on soldiers, civilians, and society as a whole without ever showing (and therefore without glorifying) the war itself.
Erin Horáková: More than anything, for me 2012 marks the death of LiveJournal as a "media"-fannish space. While some people continue to produce content on the platform, the critical mass is gone—and with it, most of my interaction with fandom. LJ was admittedly hella-dated, and in need of some form of revamp, but Tumblr, AO3, and individual blogs can't really match it for community-building, comment functionality, and convenience for hosting and receiving long or complex projects. It feels like a lot of these valuable networks and modes of productivity are dead or dying. I find this profoundly sad.
Doctor Who continues to be a weeping ulcer on my fannish heart. Big Finish even managed to give the eighth Doctor a blindingly stupid, macho costume change in audio. (In brighter news, lovely Bernice Summerfield turned 20.) Over the year I read some really terrible books the Internet had told me were masterworks, and then I wondered if I had truly unreasonable expectations. Legend of Korra and The Dark Knight Rises were awful. Sword Art Online S2 went all rapey and dim. While I did have fun last time, I don't have high hopes for the new Star Trek. In a genre/art sense, I am not very hopeful about 2013. But in an resigned, post-hope sort of way.
It wasn't all bad. I gave panels at my first con, and had a lovely time. My PhD program is allowing me to read some really great classic genre work that I look forward to writing about. I'm rewatching Blake's 7 with my partner, with whom I also watched atmospheric and entertaining Sapphire & Steel. DBZ Abridged was fun. In books, I enjoyed Alif the Unseen, Krabat, The Killing Moon, and Red Moon, Black Mountain.
Chris Kammerud: Storytelling, like magic, involves a great deal of passion, study, and, one might hope, a dash of derring-do. While 2012 included a great many wonderful, fantastic, important things—such as me crying, once again, at a Batman movie, my getting lost in the winding sentences of Brian Francis Slattery's Lost Everything, or the joy of seeing The Hobbit with my very excited sister—it will remain in my memory, most of all, as the year I attended the Clarion Writers' Workshop in San Diego. I had the privilege of studying the craft of writing, and of life, with some of the very best writers, some of the very best people, in the world. We had coffee beneath stone giants. Swam in oceans full of old gods and sexy, sexy sea monsters. Took long walks, finding our way through all manner of riddles and labyrinths. Every weekday, for six weeks, we met and discussed character arcs, numinous worlds, and the precise manner in which lies might best be made to tell the truth. Every week, we had a new instructor with whom to explore the machinery of our dreams, the nuts and bolts of our own particular magic. And, all the while, through the window of our classroom, I could see across the way, on the roof of a very tall building, a blue house perched precariously on the ledge, tilted at such an angle as to suggest its imminent plummet to the earth below. Its very existence seemed to defy the laws of physics. It was impossible. It was really real. It was, in miniature, the way I felt about the workshop as a whole. Sometimes it seemed impossible. Sometimes it seemed destined to crash under the weight of the work and emotions wrought. But, somehow, it continued to exist. And continues to exist, year after year, with not a little amount of derring-do. If any of you reading this have ever thought of applying, do so. You won't regret it.
Nathaniel Katz: I spent most of 2012 reading older works by writers like Robert Aickman, Poppy Z. Brite, William Hope Hodgson, and Vernor Vinge. When bored and in the mood for pure fun, I explored the forty-first century with some Warhammer novels. I also reread Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, confirming its spot among my favorite novels.
That isn't to say that I read nothing released this year. Much of what I did read was enjoyable but not stunning. John Scalzi's Redshirts made me laugh, Daniel Abraham’s The King's Blood expanded the groundwork he laid in The Dragon's Path and had some very well done characters, and Ian C. Esslemont's Orb Sceptre Throne delivered widescreen action and an absurd number of characters.
Both Caitlín R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl: A Memoir and K.J. Parker's Sharps were a cut above. Both were a debilitating and brilliant mixture of depressing and profound. The latter achieved that with wit and violence, the former through overwhelming atmosphere and masterful prose.
The author that surprised me most in 2012, however, was Félix J. Palma. I rather detested The Map of Time. If I hadn't received a review copy months before, I would never have proceeded to its sequel. But The Map of the Sky shared none of its predecessor's faults, and, against my expectations and even will, I ended up loving it.
Paul Kincaid: As someone known not to get on with the fiction of Adam Roberts, it perhaps comes as a surprise to both of us how much I enjoyed Jack Glass, a very clever, knowing blending of two very conventional genre forms, golden age SF and golden age crime. It would, indeed, have been my book of the year if not for Empty Space by M. John Harrison, but that is as damned near perfect a novel as I have read and should, if there is any justice, reap a whole crop of awards.
Two short fiction collections stand out for the year, Angels and You Dogs by Kathleen Ann Goonan and At the Mouth of the River Of Bees by Kij Johnson. Both contain some stories that are, at best, so-so, but both contain far more stories that are breathtakingly good.
And there are two books that lie somewhere between the novel and the collection without quite being either. Communion Town by Sam Thompson reminds me most of the later Viriconium stories in the way it builds up the character of the city as an active participant in the stories, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway looks like a crime story, except that every time you think you're getting a handle on what is going on it breaks the bounds in new and very interesting ways.
Worst thing: I had the misfortune of reading Leon Stover's nine-volume Annotated Wells, the grossest, most perverse reading of Wells I have ever encountered. Just don't go there.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: For me, 2012 has seemed to be the year of "genre, what is it good for?" Christopher Priest forced the discussion into the open in April, with a withering attack on the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist, while Paul Kincaid more recently discussed what he perceived as the "exhaustion" of SF at the Los Angeles Review of Books. I was struck by how often, too often indeed, people responded by trying to defend the familiar rather than speaking out in favor of something new and challenging.
The literary highlight of my year was of course the publication of Alan Garner's Boneland, which turned out to be the completion of the Brisingamen trilogy. One might feel irritated that Garner of all people had succumbed to trilogyitis but Boneland is not a conventional third volume by any means, though it seems to resonate powerfully and deliberately with each of Garner's earlier novels. I am still making my mind up about it; as is customary with Garner, this may take some time.
I was delighted by Sam Thompson's Communion Town, a mosaic history of a very fragmentary place, and similarly pleased with Andres Neuman's Traveler of the Century, which compresses a vast cultural history into the container of a topographically elusive European town. Keith Ridgway's Hawthorn & Child is a peculiarly episodic investigation of a death that gradually overflows the genre borders of the police procedural while Christopher Priest's The Islanders is a novel in the form of a gazetteer.
Fragmentation seems to have been the theme of the year. I haven't yet decided if I wish this to persist into 2013. I think, though, that in my reading I will continue to pursue the new and challenging as much as I possibly can.
Richard Larson: The book of the year for me was Colson Whitehead's Zone One, a zombie novel which is also, I would argue, already one of the great novels about the New York City experience. This is a story about what we really see when we finally get to the places we've dreamed about, and as someone who came to New York from elsewhere, I can certainly relate to Whitehead's vision of "those seekers powerless before the seduction of the . . . dazzling stock footage of the city avenues at teeming evening." Now, those seekers have become zombies and are being ushered out of a Manhattan that was once theirs by "sweepers," people employed in the task of purging the island of its rotting inhabitants and making room for "the new residents of the island, bellies up to the boat rail, gaping as expectantly as those other immigrants." I know, zombie novel as social commentary is the new pink, but this particular shade is worth wearing. And also worth checking out, in the "fantastically weird and awesome movies" category: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin's hauntingly magical realist exploration of one little girl’s experience during Hurricane Katrina, and Holy Motors, Léos Carax's wonderfully surreal ode to the power of filmmaking. But my most startling cinematic find of the year was Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, a film which completely debunks any preconceptions you might have about the "kids with magical powers" story and makes something new out of ingredients already in the cupboard, which is always a magical accomplishment.
Duncan Lawie: It has been an intense year for discussion of the field. Paul Kincaid's "The Widening Gyre" sparked significant discussion from every quarter of the SF world. I am tempted to agree with his conclusion of exhaustion as Doctor Who becomes more soap than SF although I'm not sure I can bemoan a generation being lost to fantasy when it is as good as the televised version of Game of Thrones. However, the contrasting view of a vital field is present in many of the novels I read this year.
Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 is my book of the year. It is filled with a warmth for humanity and a hope for the future, whilst recognizing—chiding—the present and the awful mess we are making of the world in 2012. With Intrusion, Ken MacLeod picked at the same sores, with his vision of how Britain is pushing itself into a future grimmer, yet more duplicitous, than Orwell's 1984. Still, a completely different, possibly more swashbuckling, novel lay within the shell of his satire. Jack Glass is, by contrast, less harsh on humanity and its protagonists than I have come to expect from its author, Adam Roberts. The astonishing prison escape at the end of the first section sears a whole new SF image into the canon.
Martin Lewis: In 2002, M. John Harrison published Light, his first science fiction novel in thirty years. Bloody hell, I thought, this is the stuff. Here was a true future classic, a book that showed that a genre that so often limited itself had the potential to be unbounded. In 2006, he published the sequel, Nova Swing, and I was left scratching my head. It was a novel I was unable to get any intellectual or emotional purchase on, although it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award so not everyone felt the same. This year, Harrison concluded the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy with Empty Space, which synthesizes and remixes the previous novels whilst being entirely its own beast. It had a profound effect on my mental state when I read it and continues to haunt me. Whether it will receive another Clarke Award remains to be seen (I suspect not) but it confirms Harrison's place as the most important British writer of the fantastic. It also offers an opportunity to re-evaluate the trilogy as a whole, one of the landmark achievements of twenty-first Century SF—this is a project my friend and colleague Dan Hartland has already undertaken and which intimidates and entices me in equal measures.
William Mingin: With books I've come to take an attitude impossible with people: be fun or be gone. This year in genre I read more than usual in the roughly contemporary, picking some low-hanging fruit—books from the last few years that attracted plenty of attention, but which I hadn't tried. I found lots to enjoy in my preferred range of reading, which I'll call "upper middlebrow": well-written and intelligent with a high level of readability and entertainment value, but neither pretentious, messagey, arty, obscure, or intentionally puzzling; I’ve mostly lost patience with all that.
I enjoyed Lev Grossman's The Magician King (which I reviewed here) and its predecessor, The Magicians; His Majesty's Dragon, the first of Naomi Novik's charming (if sometimes unintentionally "girly") "Hornblower with dragons" series, which gets the nineteenth century right enough for its purposes, and much better than many others that try; The Blade Itself, the first of Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy, an eminently readable fantasy, intelligent, with lots of narrative drive (reinforcing my idea of what the Pyr imprint stands for); Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, unconvincing in plot, but a joy of language and fancy; Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, less than the sum of its parts, but with some very nice parts; and in young adult, Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy, the last two thirds of which, Lirael and Abhorsen, I read this year; the coming of age sections of Lirael were a particular delight. To paraphrase the cliché, a good time was had by me.
Gabriel Murray: This year in movies was chock full of blockbuster titles and high hopes. The results were a little more underwhelming. Joss Whedon's much-anticipated The Avengers was fun, upbeat, and serviceable, but no Iron Man; Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises was widely criticized as melodramatic and reactionary, flaws which somehow only became apparent to critics in the last installment of Nolan's trilogy; Skyfall, the latest entry in the rebooted Bond franchise, was a good turn for Judi Dench and a bad turn for just about everything else, especially logic. My favorite film of 2012 was Pixar's flawed but wholehearted Brave, which suffered from serious weaknesses in screenplay but made me about as misty-eyed as Up was supposed to.
I cannot in good conscience pretend that I paid enough attention to television in 2012 to review it, aside from this year's season of Game of Thrones, which departed significantly from George R.R. Martin's A Clash of Kings with mixed-to-positive results (a highlight of the season being the episode "Blackwater," written by Martin himself). The newest series of Doctor Who showed a slight improvement on the nonsense of series six, but Amy Pond and Rory Williams's send-off "The Angels Take Manhattan" was an embarrassingly typical piece of Steven Moffat screenwriting.
My favorite book release of the year was Elizabeth E. Wein's Code Name Verity, a harrowing piece of YA historical fiction that deserves a place next to M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing books for emotional punch, as well as a beautiful story of female comradeship-in-arms during the Second World War.
The 2012 Interactive Fiction Competition produced some very interesting pieces of speculative IF, particularly porpentine's howling dogs (a non-linear, non-literal Twine-based Choose Your Own Adventure of imprisonment and women's narratives). Meanwhile, Andrew Hussie and Homestuck have been continuing to throw everyone for a few billion loops over in the quasi-interactive-web-serial corner of the Internet.
Abigail Nussbaum: 2012 was a slow year for me, pop culture-wise. In books, the year's standout is the deserving winner of the Clarke award, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, the terrifying account of a teenager's irrevocable reaction to a world-changing SFnal event. Bubbling just under that are Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts and Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass, which, if not quite up to the level of Hardinge's brilliant Gullstruck Island, nevertheless cements her as a YA writer that everyone, adults and young readers, should know.
In film, the year was bookended by two flawed but nevertheless entertaining book adaptations: The Hunger Games went some way, but not nearly far enough, towards addressing the weaknesses of the original book, but Jennifer Lawrence's magnetic performance as the lead obscures all the film's other faults and hopefully sets the stage for more action heroines in the Katniss, rather than Bella, mode; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is padded and suffers from the attempt to drag a silly, episodic children's novel towards the grandeur and solemnity of The Lord of the Rings (book and movies), but in its best moments it is a transporting, delightful experience, anchored, yet again, by a brilliant central performance by Martin Freeman. With the exception of the surprising, and surprisingly original Chronicle, pretty much every other genre film aside from these two was a waste of time, however, and television continues to be a genre wasteland. The one bright spot, and the year's undisputed finest point on the genre front, is the delightful, clever, and emotionally resonant Gravity Falls, a show that genre fans owe it to themselves to become acquainted with.
Alexandra Pierce: I'm choosing to remember the awesome aspects of 2012.
New(ish) things that made it a great year: Greg Egan's Clockwork Rocket; Jo Walton's Among Others; Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312; Christopher Priest's The Islanders; China Miéville's Embassytown; the anthology Ishtar, featuring novellas by Kaaron Warren, Deb Biancotti, and Cat Sparks; Kij Johnson's collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees. There were others, of course, but these are the 2011-2 books that, looking back, really stood out for me in a big way. They're all books that I think will stand up to rereading over the years, which is one yardstick for measuring worth, I guess.
Old things: I finally read Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and had my mind appropriately blown away; Joanna Russ subverted SF for me again with We Who Are About To; my idea of Britain and rock music is still being twisted by Gwyneth Jones's Bold as Love sequence. And I made slight inroads into my aim of reading everything I can find of Ursula K. Le Guin's, with A Fisherman of the Inland Sea and Lathe of Heaven.
Finally, and personally, the podcast of which I am one third (Galactic Suburbia) was nominated for a Hugo and was awarded the Peter McNamara Convenors' Award for excellence. So that was hugely exciting.
Sara Polsky: Kristin Cashore's Bitterblue, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons, remains one of my favorite fantasy novels of the year—and has probably earned itself a spot on my top 10 all-time favorites list. My other most memorable reads in the YA realm this year: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Black Heart by Holly Black, and For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund. I played catch-up when it came to adult books, and Never Let Me Go left me disturbed and impressed.
Paul Graham Raven: I think the 2012 Eastercon makes a good microcosm for the year in genre. At first glance, it was dominated by old guards and big franchises, but the interstices were fecund with a great variety of smaller scenes and subgeneric styles; furthermore—thanks to the hard (and often thankless) graft of the program team, and not just in response to Paul Cornell's panel-parity manifesto—there was a fine mix of panelists to go with the topics, leading to what a fair few people described as "the most inclusive Eastercon ever."
"Whoa there," I hear you say. "But what about—" Yes, there was That Incident. It was awkward, embarrassing, and ill-considered. As was a lot of the backlash, which largely caught people in no way responsible for the incident itself. I've long claimed that the genre scene's status as an arena for debates over social justice issues is one of its great strengths, and I still hold to that. But here it seems that Eastercon is a microcosm of genre, and genre a microcosm of the wider world—in that progressive factions either fell into infighting, adopted the rhetorical tactics of their most conservative opponents, or both.
It's not for me to tell anyone how to behave, of course, nor to dictate the terms of engagement in any debate. But I don't think it untoward to suggest we might spend a little more time thanking those who get it right, in order to balance out the time spent criticizing those who get it wrong.
I'm trying, as Gandhi put it, to be the change I want to see. Like genre, I still have a way to go.
Sofia Samatar: Let's start with poetry! Two speculative poetry anthologies were released in 2012, both edited by the indefatigable Rose Lemberg: the feminist anthology The Moment of Change, and Here, We Cross, a collection of queer and genderfluid poetry originally published in Stone Telling. (Disclosure: one of my poems was reprinted in The Moment of Change.) I think we'll all look back on 2012 as a landmark year for genre poetry.
My choice for best novel of 2012? No hesitation: The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, by Caitlín R. Kiernan. This extraordinary book spins water and forests, mermaids and wolves, yearning and paranoia into a gripping and structurally complex narrative. I also enjoyed Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts/The Brides of Rollrock Island, and Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312—both books that examine, in different ways, the relationship between human beings and animals.
My favorite single-author collections of the year are Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck and Birds and Birthdays by Christopher Barzak. Tidbeck's collection is delicate, bewitching, and unexpectedly fierce, like a snowflake that leaves a cut on your hand. In Birds and Birthdays, Barzak engages the work of three women artists of the surrealist movement, creating a work that's part tribute, part meditation, and part exploration, as well as offering something I wish I saw a lot more of: fiction and nonfiction in the same collection.
Anthology of the year: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. This thing will blow your mind. Don't miss it.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Early in the year I read Stella Gibbons's Starlight, reissued last year by Vintage, which looked like a quiet domestic story but turned out to be about demonic possession instead. More traditionally, genre novels I enjoyed in 2012 included Adam Roberts's excellent Jack Glass and Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts, which I'm still thinking about. Nilanjana Roy's The Wildings involved warring cats in the streets of Delhi (I know, a talking cat book). But it's brutal and lovely and felt like it was of my city in ways that most books without talking cats in them have failed to achieve.
I've been lazy with my critical reading this year, but I enjoyed Jessica Langer's wide-ranging and accessible Postcolonialism and Science Fiction.
2012 also brought with it some impressive short story collections. Some that I particularly liked were Janice Pariat's collection Boats on Land, with its frequent use of storytelling and magical realism and Nick Jackson's oddly forensic Secret Life of the Panda. And Anil Menon and Vandana Singh's Breaking the Bow, in which my interest was rather more personal.