2014 in Review
Reviewed by Our Reviewers
05 January 2015
Niall Alexander: It took the collapse of the economy and a practically apocalyptic pandemic for the Union of Europe in Autumn to splinter into a sprawl of pocket nations, each with its own borders and orders. We had no such excuses in Scotland, which in September of this year came perilously close to breaking away from the UK—only fear and loathing of "the auld enemy," as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's cadre of Equality Eaters put it as often as possible, never mind the latent racism revealed by their new favorite phrase.
When I read Dave Hutchinson's visionary tale of an Estonian cook-cum-Coureur caught up in a conspiracy of global proportions, I had no idea how meaningful it would be to me in the months to come. That said, I was summarily stunned by it even then, on its own terms. As I recall, I called it an awesome concoction of sci-fi and spies, equal parts John le Carré and Christopher Priest, complete with a seductive structure that kept the challenging plot appealing and a central character whose manner of melting into a myriad of identities allowed the reader to respond to the novel's themes and ideas independently. Whether you pardon my politics or not, Europe in Autumn was the best and most relevant genre novel next to no one read in 2014.
Also awesome: the whole of the Southern Reach series by Jeff VanderMeer . . . but that you already know, no?
Nina Allan: In terms of genre reading, 2014 is an odd year to have to summarize. I read plenty I liked, but no one book seems to stand conveniently above the others as my favourite. In terms of all round technical achievement and literary excellence, I would have to call a tie for first prize between Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation and Paul Park's All Those Vanished Engines. Both perform miracles with language and form, both work wonderfully as science fiction too, for which double kudos. My runner-up place goes to a novel I fully expected to dislike, but instead found to be original, important, sinister and moving—Howard Jacobson's meta-dystopia J. Honorable mentions to E. J. Swift's beautifully worked and emotionally engaging Cataveiro, Monica Byrne's alternately beguiling and brutal futuristic road trip The Girl in the Road, Ken MacLeod's quiet yet oddly haunting Men in Black tale Descent, Will Wiles's Lovecraftian investigation into the conference industry The Way Inn, and Alex Dally MacFarlane's ground-breaking and superbly conceived anthology The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women. In terms of cinema, there was a lot of Hollywood fluff out there, as there always is, but fortunately Jonathan Glazer's frankly mesmeric Under the Skin and Spike Jonze's touching and subtly inventive Her were there to save the day.
Gautam Bhatia: For me, one of the most arresting reading experiences is when something appears to be a tired, trite and overworn cliché, before you suddenly realize that you're reading the book which used it for the very first time! This summer, I had that feeling many times while reading Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, a dystopian novel published in Soviet Russia in 1921. We foreshadows (and influenced) 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, and is perhaps the first futurist dystopia that contemplates the crushing of individuality and individual difference at the hands of a totalizing State. The ideas that were to be developed very powerfully by Orwell, Huxley and Bradbury are visible here in their protean form: the imposition of uniformity, the deadening of language, the destruction of relationships, the dulling of spontaneity, and so on. It almost feels as if you're present at the birth of a genre, and that makes for very exciting reading!
Matthew Cheney: Other commitments kept me from reading much new fiction in 2014, but I did some revisiting, mostly out of sadness: the deaths of Stuart Hall, Lucius Shepard, and Nadine Gordimer all sent me back to each's work. Given the tensions of our times, you could do worse than to read Gordimer's Life Times: Stories 1952-2007, The Best of Lucius Shepard, and Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (perhaps along with some of Hall, et al.'s Policing the Crisis).
The most essential books I read all year were two I read fastest, and which I need to return to soon for a slow read: No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive by Lee Edelman and Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World by Timothy Morton. These (paired perhaps with J. M. Ledgard's Submergence from last year) are better at speculation than most science fiction novels I've read, more terrifying than any horror story. Read them, watch Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf, listen to the Mountain Goats album The Life of the World to Come, and you'll be in the proper mood for the world we live in.
Benjamin Gabriel: It was a weird year. I spent a lot of it staying out of stuff; spaces, movements, past times. Speculative fiction too often fell by the wayside. There was good stuff, though.
Aevee Bee's Mammon Machine: ZEAL is a videogame criticism site that happens to be secretly doing incredible genre critique. Start with this one, and read the rest of her pieces. A lot of it is very (intentionally) ground level, but it's done well and has really deep implications.
My favorite movie of the year was Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya. I reviewed/close read it here. A gorgeous animated adaptation of a very old fable.
If you have any interest at all in tabletop roleplaying, listen to this episode of Friends at the Table, an actual play podcast. It's just some smart folks playing a game together, and you might miss some of the adventuring context, but it's worth it. The moderation and fantasy worldbuilding is fantastic, and it has some of the smartest plays I've ever encountered in years of DMing.
Play Dust City by Kitty Horrorshow. It's a walk through a strange space that is beautiful and terrifying, and it uses genre shortand incredibly well.
Alix E. Harrow: My first year reviewing for Strange Horizons was sort of like meeting a fairy godmother who dispensed books instead of wishes, and sometimes was good enough linger and let me chat about all the wonderful things I read.
That's an exaggeration, but only sort of.
So, my favorite reads are naturally difficult to select. But they include first and foremost Helen Oyeyemi's sleek, twisting version of Snow White, Boy, Snow, Bird. It's the only proof you need that fairy tale retellings can still show us new and terrible things, black as coal and white as snow.
But on the more swashbuckling high seas of science fiction and fantasy, I also loved Elizabeth Bear's Steles of the Sky and (of course) Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword. As the last book in the Eternal Sky series, Steles was everything your adventure-loving heart could want. I mean, divine horses and dragons and wars. And if you've read Ancillary Justice, you need to immediately find your nearest book-purveyor and get the sequel. For the horror-inclined, Lauren Beukes's Broken Monsters left me huddled under a comforter for a week. In a good way.
Dan Hartland: 2014 feels to have been a good year for speculative fiction, one in which it was deployed in its broadest possible meanings and to some significantly progressive effects.
Within the genre, Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy and Nina Allan's The Race explored rather different territory with a shared literary sensibility and a sensitively for the ineffable. There is a feeling abroad that SF is currently in flux, and these were both defining texts that offer very useful directions for those seeking the 'new place'.
Allied with this moment on the genre is the rather interesting activity that went on outside the traditional boundaries of science fiction. In The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell attempted to align mimetic and fantastic tropes in a single fiction. If he did not quite achieve this feat his failure had more to do with faults of execution than of concept. Howard Jacobson's J, meanwhile, was a unique piece of work, full-throatedly speculative if not in any way interested in the workaday obeisances of "worldbuilding." It suggested an increasing willingness abroad to engage and reinvent the tools of sf for an uncertain time.
In short, J was vital—and, this year, SF felt that way, too. It ain't always so, and so it's worth nodding in acknowledgement as 2014 walks out the door.
David Hebblethwaite: I was impressed by several fictional debuts in 2014. Nina Allan published her first novel, The Race, probably my favorite work of hers that I've read. It shifts nimbly between the "real world" and an alternate near future, always alive to the different weights of realist and science-fictional prose.
Paul Kingsnorth's debut novel, The Wake, opens up the distance of history by viewing the Norman conquest of England through the eyes and voice of a Lincolnshire freeman. Its prose (written in a version of Old English) renders the eleventh century as disorienting as any fantastical venue; and the protagonist's apparent visions of a figure from legend blur the line between perception and magic.
Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson is a dreamlike tale of characters losing things: the front wall of their house; their sense of direction (in more ways than one); their job (because the office has disappeared). No matter how outlandish events get (and they get pretty outlandish), there’s an emotional core that keeps the novel grounded—makes it seen (as good fantasy so often does) more than real.
Finally, there’s Kirsty Logan's collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, a kaleidoscopic set of stories about love in various forms. Logan makes dextrous use of fantasy to create a volume that feels both multifarious and a cohesive whole.
Matt Hilliard: I haven't heard nearly as much buzz for Hannu Rajaniemi's The Causal Angel as I did when The Quantum Thief was first published. I suppose the novelty has worn off, but it would be a shame if people who enjoyed The Quantum Thief haven't kept up with the series. There's a lot of nuances to the worldbuilding that can only be appreciated once the first book's abrasive flood of neologisms has been congealed into an understandable whole by the greater context afforded by the second and third books. Considered apart from their setting, the plot and characters may not be revolutionary, but unlike so many genre writers Rajaniemi does a great job keeping his story under control through to the ending.
One trilogy not lacking in acclaim is Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. Perhaps that validates the publisher's strategy of releasing all three in the same year, but it's hard to say how much of an effect that had when the first book, Annihilation, is a masterpiece and surely would have been regarded as such even published alone. Authority and Acceptance are very good, and if they aren't quite as successful, the trilogy still ends in a far more satisfying fashion than is typical for this the kind of story. These books definitely won't be to everyone's taste, as VanderMeer is aiming for a very specific sort of reading experience, but they cannot be recommended highly enough to anyone who likes stories that are weird, disturbing, or mysterious.
Erin Horáková: I spent a chunk of this year doing Worldcon planing and paneling, and now that the dust has settled I still . . . don't entirely know how I feel about cons (and I suspect my issues aren't something Nine Worlds etc. could address). I got some fiction and academic work on genre published, which was nice and will hopefully happen more in years to come.
I enjoyed: reading more Diana Wynne Jones, the genre content at the Fringe ("Beowulf" in particular), classic British genre telly, and the gorgeous comic series Les Cites Obscures. I got a bit fond of Welcome to Night Vale (though not rhapsodically so). I'm still reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King books, but I had to slow down to catch up with Malory (the series being richer and funnier if Malory's fresh in your mind). The Attack on Titan sub and Puella Magi Madoka Magica were great, and Princess Jellyfish became one of my favorite stories about the social and emotional experience of being a nerd.
I read/looked at Worldcon nominees specifically for voting for the first time, and was surprised by how naff a lot of entries were. Like, I expected to be choosing between a host of strong options, not . . . two contenders and objective shite, in a few categories. Is it always like that? Jesus. I DESPISED Meathouse Man and I am still pointedly not speaking to Who—I say that every Moffat-year, it's my "and Carthage must be destroyed."
Chris Kammerud: It would seem that 2014—a year of trolls at the gates and satellites landing on distant comets—will perhaps best be remembered as a year very confused as to whether things might be moving forward or falling over backward. While, in the past twelve months, I've feasted on 88 seconds of Star Wars; wondered why Nick Harkaway isn't a literary rock star; and indulged in the growing awesome of new voices in SFF short fiction (Alyssa Wong, Sam J. Miller, Carmen Machado, and Sofia Samatar, among many, many more), what sticks with me are not the fictional worlds built by these amazing people, but the growing struggle to rebuild our own world into an inclusive and inspiring one. Among other things, new magazines like Uncanny and guest editor spots at F&SF, speak to an opening of our SFF world to more and diverse voices. And yet, and yet. N.K. Jemisin and Hiromi Goto both delivered spectacular calls to knowledge and action at WisCon concerning the bits of the world intent on falling backwards, and how, as previously unheard voices grow in number and volume, it's likely the struggle will become harder, not easier. And so, at the end of 2014, after the marches and the umbrella revolutions, the hashtags and the not yets, it seems clear to me that as we slide toward the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, we are, all of us, on the cusp of something, and here's to another year new voices and new stories that remind us of all that we were, are, and might be.
Cassandra Khaw: What is my favorite thing this year? God. Frances Hardinge, probably. (Sorry, Miss Hardinge. I don't actually think of you as a thing, but. You know.) 2014 was the year I discovered Young Adult fiction, when I realized it was more than a manifestation of teenage wishes. I blame Frances Hardinge for that, and A Face Like Glass. The latter informs much of my opinion about the genre. It's a lush, strange book with lush, strange images. It's a world of subterranean catacombs and sentient wines, cheeses that evoke powerful responses, and songbirds frozen in jelly. There's the typical dystopia hidden somewhere in its seams, but it's done well enough. I loved the doll-like people, the residents of Caverna who must be taught Faces to show expression. It's brilliant, damn it. (I may or may not have bought every single other book Hardinge ever wrote after that.)
Richard Larson: Among my favorite genre offerings in the media this past year showed up in the increasingly ambitious mode of series television. Orphan Black was one of my favorite science fiction narratives of the year, a generally chaotic ensemble piece that balances elaborately complex exposition with solid character-building and scenes of dramatic tension that often hinge on the reveal of a new piece of an ever-expanding puzzle. And In The Flesh (another BBC offering, perhaps reflecting the network's newfound devotion to creating challenging and entertaining genre fare) tackles the well-worn zombie trope with a new take on the metaphor. A meditation on class, sexuality, family and community, the show subverts all expectations and enters unexplored territory: after the zombie uprising has come and gone, what do we have left? And then there's The Leftovers, another new series that deals primarily with the after-effects of the supernatural, showing us a world (and a family) deeply scarred by a singular event—the random disappearance of thousands of people in something approximating the biblical Rapture—and the struggle to overcome the unexplained. Lastly, I still think Hannibal is the best thing happening in horror, regardless of mode. Reveling more in image than story, the show is dare-I-say "Lynchian" in its surreality, its roundabout way of producing affect by focusing largely on the psychological. The horror is inside us, as Slavoj Zizek says, and Hannibal amasses just as much meaning from dreams and memory, exploring repression and the unconscious, as it does from the question of exactly what kind of meat Hannibal Lecter is serving his guests.
Carmen Maria Machado: I didn't get to read as much as I wanted to this year, but what I got to was tremendously exciting. I devoured Diane Cook's story collection Man V. Nature, Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van, and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. I also enjoyed Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, one of those rare anthologies where almost every story was a (ghastly, perfectly constructed) gem. And my favorite short stories of 2014 were Sam J. Miller's "Kenneth: A User's Manual" in Strange Horizons, Sofia Samatar's "How to Get Back to the Forest" in Lightspeed, and Anna Noyes's "Becoming" in Guernica. Lastly, I can’t fully explain why Kevin Brockmeier's memoir A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip qualifies as "genre" without giving away its secrets, but trust me that his heartbreakingly beautiful recollection of a year in his adolescent life is very special and worth your time.
It was also a great year for video games. I adored the sweet, smart point-and-click computer game Broken Age, the haunting, stylized, magical realist dream Kentucky Route Zero, and the utterly horrifying P.T., which is still giving me nightmares.
When it comes to movies, I feel like I often come out of theaters feeling pleased that I am full of popcorn but vaguely disappointed in everything else. But I wasn't disappointed in Frozen—I cried like a baby and I'm still singing the songs—or Into the Woods—ditto. I also stumbled upon and loved the comedy-of-manners-cum-apocalypse-tale It's a Disaster! And my favorite film of the year was Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, a horror film that inspired the opening line of Anthony Lane's New Yorker review: "Let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors." Indeed.
Abigail Nussbaum: The highlight of my genre year was, indisputably, the London Worldcon. A five-day carnival of fandom on a scale that, even as moderately-seasoned Worldcon-goer, I had never experienced before, LonCon 3 combined an exceptional program, an enormous attendee list, and a fantastic location into what will surely become one of the high points of the convention's history.
Having said that, the rest of my genre year has been pretty sedate. I have a long list of 2014 genre books that I plan to read in the coming months (including but not limited to: The Race, The Bone Clocks, The Girl in the Road, The Stone Boatmen, Europe in Autumn, and of course Southern Reach) but of the books I got to in 2014 the standout is an oldie-but-goodie: Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. This psychological ghost story flew over my head when I read it as a teenager, but returning to it as an adult allowed me to see its complexity, the way it combines the undeniable horror of the titular house with the equally dangerous horror of its characters' pasts.
In media, I stayed in the shallow end of the pool this year. The MCU continued to go from strength to strength with the moody spy thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the zany space adventure Guardians of the Galaxy, though along the way also proving that Hollywood is now only capable of innovation within an existing (and provably lucrative) franchise. An unexpected pleasure at the movies was Luc Besson's Lucy, which for all its problems was at least trying to do something different with the superhero(ine) template.
Adam Roberts: It so happens that I’ve already compiled a "Best SF/Fantasy of 2014" list (for the Guardian newspaper, as it goes), and I don't want simply to repeat myself. But I could summarise, by way of boiling the whole thing down as far as possible. So: Ann Leckie's annus mirabilis reflected equal measures her considerable innate talent and a fortunate constellation of fan momentum, hype and right-place-right-time-ishness; Gibson's The Peripheral didn't hit the center of the target for me; I was partial to The Martian; Southern Reach was a peach and Europe in Autumn (by David Hutchinson) I liked very much-inson. It was good to see Rachel Pollack back; Simon Ings wrote notable things; Peter Higgins's Truth and Fear was one of my books of the year; Clare North showed her worth; Tania Unsworth's The One Safe Place is One Stylish Piece, Tom Pollock's completed his Trilogy with a book that left me full o' "gee!" and Emmi Itäranta proved a prose enchanter. Then there's Lavie Tidhar's A Man Lies Dreaming: *sings* "Springtime/For Tidhar/And Germany/Winter/For Poland/And France . . ."
One note about that Guardian piece: subeditors cut out one of my choices—Mitchell's flawed but splendid Bone Clocks—because it was already appearing in someone else's "best of year" list in the paper; and my own faulty sense of publication dates lead to the omission of another: Mark Alder's genuinely marvellous Sons of the Morning. This latter is my Fantasy novel of the year.
Sofia Samatar: What a year! I’m on the jury for the Crawford Award, so I read a lot of debut fantasy in 2014. For debut novels, I recommend Ghalib Islam's kaleidoscopic fever-dream Fire in the Unnameable Country, Leslye Walton's contemporary fable The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, and Stephanie Feldman's The Angel of Losses, a family history infused with Jewish folklore. For short fiction collections, check out Zen Cho's fresh and delightful Spirits Abroad, Matthew Johnson's thought-provoking Irregular Verbs, and Greg Bechtel's emotionally rich experiments with genre in Boundary Problems.
Outside of debuts, my genre fiction standouts of 2014 are two collections: Kuzhali Manickavel's inventive and occasionally brutal Things We Found During the Autopsy, and Kelly Link's Get in Trouble, which is more of the Kelly Link you love: dark, dazzling, touching, funny, sly.
Two new online magazines blew me away this year: Lackington's, edited by Ranylt Richildis, and Uncanny Magazine, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damien Thomas. Both are full of riches. Lackington's gave me one of my favorite short stories of the year, Rose Lemberg's poetic "A City on Its Tentacles." Other short fiction favorites include Amal El-Mohtar's "The Lonely Sea in the Sky," from Women Destroy Science Fiction; Bogi Takács's "This Shall Serve as a Demarcation," from Scigentasy; and everything by Carmen Maria Machado, who published work in Lightspeed, Interfictions, and Granta, among others. Last year I described Carmen as a "writer to watch" in 2014. I was right.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I began 2014 reading Adam Roberts's Riddles of The Hobbit, which I loved (sadly I ended the year watching Peter Jackson's final Hobbit movie, which I didn't). Other nonfiction I enjoyed this year included Kathryn Allan's Disability in SF and Ytasha L. Womack's Afrofuturism.
Fictionwise, four things stood out for me. Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation was sparse and devastating. Ghalib Islam's Fire in the Unnameable Country was the opposite of sparse (the opposite in most ways of Offill's book); it was big and impossible and spilling over in all directions and I fell in love with it pretty much at first sight. Then there were Megan Milks's Kill Marguerite and Kuzhali Manickavel's Things We Found During the Autopsy, both weird, energetic, physical collections of short fiction. Both were frequently unpleasant; both felt like home. Other than these four books: I was moved by Nick Harkaway's Tigerman, admired Monica Byrne's The Girl in the Road, was indignant that more people had not read Deji Bryce Olukotun's Nigerians in Space.
I continued not to watch TV and most SF movies were dreadful (I liked Only Lovers Left Alive, had mixed feelings about Under the Skin, and am convinced Transcendence was created solely to hurt me). Worldcon was wonderful and left me briefly bright-eyed and optimistic about the State of the Genre. More recently the Strange Horizons book club continues to make me feel optimistic about this corner of the community, at least.