Nina Allan: In something of an odd coincidence, my picks for best speculative novel of 2019 seem to have organised themselves around the theme of water. My vote for best speculative novel of the year goes unequivocally to Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise. A driving narrative, coupled with intense, lyrical language and inventive use of mythology and secondary texts, this novel is a bona fide masterpiece. It also contains the best legitimate use of a deus ex machina I have ever encountered. I’m a year late to Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, which turned out to be my book of this summer, a blisteringly honest portrayal of what it is really like for a woman to live in a patriarchal society. It’s deeply hilarious and beautifully written but it sure ain’t pretty. Cynan Jones’s slimly built but exquisitely judged novel of climate change, Stillicide, has precious few laughs in it but what it does contain is urgency and a taut literary sensibility that makes it an indispensable addition to the canon. What Cynan Jones does for climate fiction, Jesse Ball does for dystopia. Another finely wrought, minimalist novel, The Divers’ Game reveals a prescient vision of our world that is nonetheless nightmarish for being drawn in such deeply felt, poetic language. Ball seems to thrive on ambiguity and the open-ended nature of his crisscrossing narratives only adds to their impact.
Moving away from the novel, it would be impossible for me to leave this year’s reading behind without recommending Rebecca Tamás’s poetry collection WITCH. Superbly witty, scathing, and bold, this is a book to return to time and again. I could speak similarly of Priya Sharma’s powerful novella Ormeshadow. What initially poses as a piece of Hardyesque historical fiction reveals itself as something magical, unique, and timeless, as rigorous as it is bewitching.
In film, it’s a tie between Alexandre O. Philippe’s feature-length documentary Memory: The Origins of Alien (say no more) and Todd Phillips’s Joker. Given my customary ambivalence towards superhero movies, this is the last film I expected to be recommending, but Joker upturns every preconceived notion of what can be done with derivative material and is all the more remarkable for doing so. There are some who have suggested that the film is a parable of male entitlement, but if Joker is about anything, it is social deprivation, and it is an astonishing piece of cinema. If Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t take home an Oscar, it’ll be no laughing matter.
Catherine Baker: Some futures burned away this year, others hollowed out, and yet in the middle of all of them new hopes took strong root. Certain books that most defined my reading year confronted the politics of their collective imagination head-on: the reckoning with space-opera imperialism in Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, with an entire literary culture crafted to drive its diplomatic mystery; the subversion of military SF in Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade; the essential exposition of the racist bars to the doors of Western fantasy in Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic. Others reimagined the canvases of space and time quietly but no less radically: Tillie Walden’s slow-burn On a Sunbeam, or Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s magnificent This is How You Lose the Time War, after which a pair of objects that are red and blue will never just be a pair of objects that are red and blue. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth persuaded me we don’t always have to know why there are interplanetary necromancer dynasties (or reluctant sapphic cavaliers) to enjoy the romp of the year. On television, Years and Years captured the accelerating sense of breakdown that defined this end of the decade for many of those privileged enough to have been insulated from it until now, while Good Omens delivered almost everything I’d anticipated since reading my copy so many times that (we discovered) it really did fall apart. A special mention for the end of The Wicked + the Divine, after five years in which my own imaginative and creative life rose, fell, and was reborn around it to an uncanny degree: next decade’s new adventures wouldn’t be happening if not for what it sparked.
Nicole Beck: This year I’ve been on a steady diet of short stories and poetry. A voice that stands out in my mind is that of Carmen Maria Machado, author of such stories as “The Husband Stitch,” and a novella, Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU. Her writing is playful and sharp-edged, mixing fairytale elements with of-the-moment critiques of sexism. The strength of these short pieces makes me curious about her latest memoir, In the Dream House. Quite late, I discovered Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, a novel in verse that upended my notions of what a novel could be. Carson brings Greek myth into the present day and makes its characters do the work of processing modern life. Another belated discovery was The Tormented Mirror, a poetry collection by Russell Edson. His prose poems provoked me to laughter while also functioning as disturbing and dark miniature fables.
In hybrid work, I acquired the final edition of A Humument, which is not so much a work of fantasy as a magical object in itself. Tom Phillips, a painter by trade, reworked a Victorian novel into a set of visually stunning erasure poems that feel like some kind of tarot or oracle. Opening A Humument to a random page never disappoints. And finally, Sofia Samatar’s newest work, Monster Portraits, was my favorite reading experience of the past year. Written by Sofia and illustrated by her brother Del, Monster Portraits is the record of a journey, imagined in unflinching detail, and the hybrid format adds an addictive richness. In fact I’m still returning to it, and finding that it has more to give.
Marina Berlin: Several of the books I loved this year felt like they were in between genres. Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant registered as science fiction in my head, even though it’s categorized as “hard fantasy.” Correctly advertised as “people talking about economics and how gay they are” by a user on Goodreads, the book was an absolutely gripping read that blended military fantasy, economics, action, and character drama seamlessly. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, arguably my favorite book this year, similarly exists between genres. Technically set in space, the story is about necromancers who fight each other with swords. The narrative voice carries this book such a long way; it’s a perfect example of how one can get away with worldbuilding that’s not quite coherent and still tell an excellent story. I reread the ending on this book twice, something I don’t think I’ve done since childhood.
Despite being fluent in Russian and alive during the early 2000s, I had somehow never read Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch, and I remembered being turned off by the film adaptation. But giving it a chance this year brought a pleasant surprise—the book is lovely, and very nostalgic, much closer to Pratchett than to any sort of action-horror film.
An author I became obsessed with this year is Ellen Kushner, whose Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword felt like a personal present from the universe, just for me. They take so much of what I loved of Dumas’s musketeer books growing up and wrap it in a modern package of characters and social issues I enjoy, giving me nostalgia updated for my adult sensibilities. In particular, I loved the latter book’s focus on a young woman who wants to defend her friend’s honor, in a world where women are not only not expected to be protectors, but are encouraged not to think about broader issues of inequality.
I watched very little genre media this year, but standouts were Netflix’s She-Ra, which continued to be excellent, and DC’s Titans, which in spite of myself I found highly enjoyable. Perhaps it’s just that there’s been no proper live-action, serialized adaptation of Batman’s many adopted sons and family drama, and I found myself greatly enjoying the presence of multiple Robins, even when the show’s writing left much to be desired.
A true gem, however, was the show Doom Patrol, which single-handedly reinvented superheroes-on-TV and managed to focus on people in their 30s and 40s who’ve both been through severe trauma and caused severe traumas to others. Its characters dealt with missing their children’s lives, loved ones who died and can’t be brought back, lies they told that can’t be undone, and at the same time the show had a parallel universe inside a donkey’s anus, talking rats and cockroaches, an entire episode inside a snow globe, and Matt Bomer singing showtunes. It’s a shame the show is buried on a streaming service not many have access to. On a bigger network it would inspire endless debate and conversation.
Stephen Case: This year the two new books in speculative fiction that stood out to me were This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone and Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, both of which lived up to the hype. Time War was a cartwheeling epistolary novel, at once whimsical and devastating, while Doors established Harrow as a voice in lyric fantasy as compelling and timely as it is gorgeous. I also finally had the chance to read some Nnedi Okorafor this semester for a class I was teaching and so belatedly met Binti and Who Fears Death, the latter of which was my favorite—an apocalyptic piece of fantasy realism that burned the skin from my face like a desert windstorm. Finally, in the moving electronic medium I caught up with Seasons 2 and 3 of The Expanse and was delighted by the television universe built on the spine of Corey’s novels. I don’t know that I’ve had so much fun with television scifi since Firefly.
Vajra Chandrasekra: First, books about lonely, sharp-edged, trapped womanhoods: I Await the Devil’s Coming by Mary MacLane; Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir; Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng; Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Natashas by Yelena Moskovich; Leila by Prayaag Akbar; and The Iron Dragon’s Mother by Michael Swanwick.
Second, books about the mystery of bodies gone awry, away, apart: Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani; Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James; The Story of A Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam; Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright; A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi Al-Ahdal, translated by William Maynard Hutchins; and Fire in the Unnameable Country by Ghalib Islam.
M.L. Clark: My favourite SF this year came from three TV series late in the season. Watchmen, Mr. Robot, Season 4, and The Expanse, Season 4 are wildly different forms of SF (superhero adaptation, psychological tech thriller with speculative components, and near-enough future deep-space political intrigue), but they share a rigour that speaks to the genre’s maturation in the form. The Expanse, Season 4, which was “dropped” all at once on Amazon Prime and binged by most fans thereafter, tackles the classic problem of “wherever you go, you are.” It’s not just that humans can’t help but bring their tribalism to a new world, but that the alien-planet’s first colonists did the same—eons ago—and the consequences of that baggage must be endured by anyone new to the surface. The series also addresses how the possibility of new worlds for exploration and colonization might affect community cohesion elsewhere, especially in relation to a generations-long Mars terraforming project increasingly abandoned by (if not stolen from) people desperate for utopia now. Meanwhile, Watchmen is thankfully not a direct adaptation of Alan Moore’s text; Damon Lindelof instead tells a compact, nine-episode story, decades after the events of that graphic novel, which never fails to surprise while advancing a nuanced world where the only true superhero has failed to snap his fingers and heal everything. It’s a story of intergenerational trauma, the backlash from attempts to repair racialized injustice, and the problem of leaving societal transformation in the hands of the mega-rich. Mr. Robot, Season 4 involves a smaller cast, staged very much like theatre, but its discourse on trauma inextricably links computer hacking and the race to prevent a billionaire’s mysterious world-changing project with damage of a much more personal nature: child abuse, and the consequences of being unable to live one’s truth. This last resonates, too, with Steven Universe: The Movie, a children’s film that neatly ties up and clarifies the themes of the preceding TV series. The ending of that TV series was about the difficult path to healing through acceptance, but this coda emphasizes that acceptance is not an end to life’s journey; rather, the ability to change—and keep changing—is a critical and unending part of life. The latter half of 2019 packed a heck of a visual punch, wherever one’s tastes lie within the genre.
Rachel Cordasco: This year brought us much to enjoy, especially if you’re into reading SF in translation, as I am. I loved seeing so many anthologies and collections of non-Anglophone speculative fiction get published in 2019: Broken Stars (Chinese SF) [ed./trans. Ken Liu], The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction [ed. Tarun K. Saint], World Science Fiction #1 [ed. Francesco Verso], Flowers of Mold (Korean surrealism) [by Ha Seong-Nan, trans. Janet Hong], Everything is Made of Letters (Spanish-language SF) [by Sofía Rhei], and several others in a variety of languages.
2019 also witnessed the end of the Haikasoru imprint, along with its wonderful Legend of the Galactic Heroes series. The publisher of Japanese SF in English was able to release all ten books in Yoshiki Tanaka’s famous space opera tale in English before shutting its doors. I’m twenty pages away from finishing the series, myself, and I feel like I’ve lived with it for the past three years. Rarely have I read a series this long, and at such a pace, so after I process the experience, I plan to write about the story’s power and value from an anglophone reader’s perspective. It’s because of Haikasoru and its translators that we have LoGH in English. The anglophone world is losing an important voice with the imprint’s closure, but Haikasoru brought us such a wealth of material in its ten years that it will remain with us for a long time to come.
Though I wish I could, I haven’t spent all of my time reading this year. Indeed, I watched the final season of The Man in the High Castle, and wow, was I disappointed with the ending. I shouldn’t ever be surprised by disappointing endings, since they seem to be the rule rather than the exception, but MitHC had so many plot strands and brought up so many interesting questions that I thought it had a chance of concluding well. But nope. Random people walking through the portal that has mysteriously opened for good? You have to give me something more.
We have much to look forward to in 2020, but 2019 wasn’t bad. Not bad at all.
Indrapramit Das: This year a book from 1994, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (newly translated into English by Stephen Snyder) cut closest to the bone—portraying with a poetic and lived-in clarity the experience of being a privileged artist watching helplessly as the world shrinks under the surreal illogic of authoritarian regimes. A quietly terrifying book to read, capturing the prevailing feeling of 2019: watching the world unravel while holding on to the people and art you care about.
Tade Thompson’s The Rosewater Insurrection continued a trilogy that will surely become a classic of modern SF, while Marlon James’s incantatory fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf created a brutal yet beautiful vision of mythic prehistory—like a new Hyborian Cimmeria for the African continent. Tor.com Publishing showed that novellas remain a vital form for SFF, with fiercely creative and unique books like Saad Z. Hossain’s genre-bending new standalone entry in his djinn universe, The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, Kerstin Hall’s dreamlike saga of the eternal dance of gods and mortals in various worlds, The Border Keeper, and Jennifer Giesbrecht’s delightfully depraved gothic romance The Monster of Elendhaven. Rivers Solomon’s The Deep took a Hugo-nominated song by clipping and wove it into a powerful, moving book that both honours and expands the latter’s haunting tale of the undersea descendants of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard during the Atlantic crossing. Ted Chiang’s second collection Exhalation needs no intro—the new stories are marvelous, but its titular reprint is one of the finest SF stories I’ve ever read. I must also mention Olga Tokarczuk’s transcendent Flights (translated by Deborah Smith) and Ahmed Saadawi’s wry anti-war satire Frankenstein in Baghdad (translated by Jonathan Wright), which I came to late—both remarkable works that transcend the puny walls of genre and market.
On screen, it was a strangely fantastic year for unwise sequels that turned out to be fascinatingly good—Terminator: Dark Fate (the first good Terminator sequel since T2, and the first with Linda Hamilton, yet financially sunk by a bloated budget that’s visible in its weaker, modern-blockbuster final act), Doctor Sleep (a marvelous dark fantasy about psychics, ghosts, and soul-eaters that also happens to be a sequel to The Shining), and the astoundingly audacious Watchmen, which takes Alan Moore’s comments on the superhero myth’s ties to white supremacy and weaves them into a riveting contemporary TV sequel to Moore and Gibbons’s seminal comic (sadly never to be seen by Moore, who disowned all his corporate-hijacked work). There was plenty of excellent original work as well, including Mati Diop’s Atlantics, a French-Senegalese urban ghost story that’s like John Carpenter’s The Fog by way of Claire Denis’s movies. I was lucky to see an Indian theatrical release of Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering wth You, a spiritual and thematic sequel to his hit anime Your Name, another stunning fantasy about young love in the face of apocalypse, this one serving as a parable about climate change. I could go on, as always. Come chat if you want more recommendations.
Shannon Fay: This was the year I got hooked on Your Turn to Die, a point-and-click horror/adventure/puzzle game from creator Nankidai and translated into English by vgperson. The game is tense and brutal, but not just because of its violence. The whole time I played I couldn’t shake the dread that, no matter what I did, I was making the wrong choice. The strong writing and fantastic game mechanics make it so that the plot twists hit like a gut punch. The first two “chapters” have been released, with a third and final chapter to (hopefully) be released soon.
Book-wise, I loved How Long ’til Black Future Month? from N. K. Jemisin. I’m a big fan of Jemisin’s novels, but this collection shows that she is also a master short story writer. I also really liked An Excess Male, a debut novel from Maggie Shen King. I am eagerly awaiting the next book from Shen King.
If you like movies about movies, it is worth your while to check out the documentary Shirkers (widely available on Netflix). The documentary follows director Sandi Tan as she tries to track down an old mentor, a man who stole the rough footage of a film that Tan had directed decades prior. It’s a complex documentary that manages to be funny and thoughtful, and also visually interesting: the snatches of footage we get from Tan’s “lost” film are abstract but vibrant, making you mourn something that never existed as a finished object.
I read some more Terry Pratchett this year in the form of the Truckers trilogy, The Bromeliad,and, in preparation for the TV adaptation, his and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. I also loved Eoin Colfer’s Iron Man novel The Gauntlet, which I bought for my kids, but when they checked out after the mention of decapitation, I finished it alone. Other notable mentions include Callie Bates’ The Memory of Fire and Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy.
I’ve watched a lot of TV this year and highlights include the always mindbending Legion, Santa Clarita Diet, Ghosts, What We Do In the Shadows, Gotham, Forever, Good Omens, The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina and Star Trek: Discovery.
Films then. Oh, my. I’ve watched a lot of good ones this year, perhaps the most surprising of which was Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Went in with low expectations and was delighted to discover it was a funny, clever, Indiana Jonesesque romp. Another surprise was Abominable (I take my kids to the cinema a lot). Fun and emotional and with a very Eddie Izzard Eddie Izzard. I also watched and enjoyed Joker (yes, I’m one of those), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Avengers: Endgame, Glass, Happy Death Day 2U, Anna and the Apocalypse, Little Monsters, Videodrome, Starship Troopers, The Dead Don’t Die, Midsommar, and Us.
As with last year, podcast highlights have been Buffering the Vampire Slayer, Angel on Top, and Verity! All brilliant podcasts talking about Buffy, Angel, and Doctor Who respectively. But I will also add in Portentous Perils In the 23rd Century by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch. A comedy podcast set in a steampunk dystopian future.
But my very favourite things of 2019? For TV it was the technicolour insanity of Happy! and the unrelentingly bleak Van Helsing. Filmwise, there were only two films I watched more than once this year and they both starred Brie Larson—Captain Marvel and Unicorn Store. But something everyone must seek out, and something I loved so much I bought it three times (once for myself and my children and twice for Christmas presents) is the fantastic Darkwood by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch, the funniest fantasy novel I have read in a long time.
Raz Greenberg: The two most satisfying genre works for me this year were all about families that struggle to survive a crisis. One is Jeremy C. Shipp’s Bedfellow—one of the most effective horror novels I have read in years, the other is Jordan Peele’s Us—one of the most effective horror films I have watched in years. Most of my reading this year was devoted to revisiting the classics, as I went back to Dune and The Lord of the Rings. Other than that, as much as I enjoyed Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and even Aquaman, the best popcorn-flick for me this year is actually a book—Cold Storage by veteran Hollywood screenwriter David Koepp. On the non-fiction front, I was deeply impressed by Fantasy/Animation, a collection of essays edited by Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant, which I suspect will become required reading for animation researchers such as myself in the years to come.
Comics reading highlights for me this year include two excellent adaptations of written prose—H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness by Japanese artist Gou Tanabe and Stefan Wul’s Niourk by French artist Olivier Vatine. Both graphic novels featured stunning background art that brought the scenery to life—Olivier’s visualization of the post-apocalyptic world of Niourk, in particular, was reminiscent of the animated films of René Laloux (also known for his great adaptations of Wul’s novels). I also enjoyed Starport, a fast-paced adaptation of an unproduced television pilot by George R. R. Martin.
Genre television was strong this year, and my favorite show—despite its sadly abrupt ending—was the adaptation of the long-running Swamp Thing comic. Superbly atmospheric, the show paid homage to Alan Moore’s acclaimed run on the original comic, while telling its own story that actually had less to do with its titular character and more with the deeply scarred yet exceptionally strong protagonist Abby Arcane. The third season of Stranger Things was another favorite of mine this year, as the show still delivered great scares while at the same time allowing its protagonists to mature gracefully. I also really liked the anime show Carole & Tuesday by Shinichirō Watanabe. While I think that, at this point, fans have accepted that they will never get another Cowboy Bebop from Watanabe, the feel-good futuristic musical drama of Carole and Tuesday was a joy to watch. Finally, on the interactive front, I got nostalgic with two games that delivered an old-school adventure/RPG hybrid: Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption and Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements. Both immerse gamers in a Harry Potter-like plot of making it through a school in a fantasy world, providing a surprising amount of moral dilemmas through gameplay, though both also take the whole “going back to school” concept a little too far at times.
Sean Guynes: This year was a slow year for my reading, but quite an eclectic one thanks to all the projects I’ve been working on. On the nonfiction front, I enjoyed two recent books. B.J. Hollars’s Midwestern Strange got me crazy interested in paranormal stories and helped me understand the weirdness of the Midwest a bit more (I’ve definitely not not seen the Michigan dogman). I also found Ben Robertson’s book, None of This is Normal, an insightful and worthwhile study of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X novels and other fiction. On the fiction front, I read a good deal of new fiction, ranging from the utterly crap to the divine. I was particularly disappointed with Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower, which despite my love of epic fantasy and Leckie’s earlier trilogy was a sincere letdown. I also found G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King to be much less than the sum of its parts, and Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations utterly boring. Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift was simultaneously fascinating and meh; and my review to this effect got me called out by the author—a tenure-track professor whose novel was lauded by just about everyone else, Salman Rushdie included. I felt similarly about Jordanna Max Brodsky’s The Wolf in the Whale, a fantasy novel about Inuits meeting Vikings that I probably need to reread in order to get a fuller sense of it. On a lighter note, I loved Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf (everything Leckie’s The Raven Tower was not) and Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King (all that Serpell’s The Old Drift could have been). But the absolutely best books I read in 2019 were Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow and Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth, indigenous futurist/fantastic novels that have kept me thinking all year. And while I’ve certainly watched a great deal of TV and film this year (let’s agree to not talk about Game of Thrones for half a decade), I only have one word to summarize this year in speculative media: Midsommar.