This was a crazy good year for books. There was mind-expanding science fiction —including William Gibson's return to the future! — along with thrilling fantasy, and a number of brilliant category-defying books. Here are the 22 best science fiction and fantasy books of 2014.
Top image: Grimm Tales: Thousandfurs, by Shaun Tan, from Spectrum 21, via Stainless Steel Droppings.)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The author of Cloud Atlas gives us another collection of interlocking stories that span decades, from the past to the future. But this time around, there's a more cohesive plot about a war between two different types of immortals, and it's suffused with both pathos and whimsy. This book uses immortality to talk about the meaning of mortality, and the poignancy of an ordinary, feeble life.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
Like her previous novel, The Shining Girls, this is a supernatural thriller that's as much about the lives of cities as it is about a murderer and his victims. This time around, she tells a story of present-day Detroit, and her macabre story of a killer tinged with supernatural elements becomes an examination of fame and social media — and what the spotlight of notoriety does to people.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
In the new book by the author of Under The Skin, a missionary travels to an alien planet called Oasis, to teach the natives about the Bible. But the biggest revelations in this book aren't about the aliens and their fervor for religion — but rather about the human race and its tendency to self-destruction. Through the hand-picked collection of exemplary humans living on this alien planet, we start to see just how strange the future of the human race might look.
The Peripheral by William Gibson
At long last, Gibson returns to the future with this novel about two characters and their relationship to a catastrophe known only as "the jackpot." What is the connection between Flynne and Netherton? And just how unevenly distributed can the future become? Gibson is plunging into deep, melancholy waters here — and the result sometimes feels like a prophecy, and sometimes like a great caper.
Maplecroft by Cherie Priest
Priest takes the legend of Lizzie Borden and her axe and combines it with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, for a rip-roaring story about a woman who was secretly a monster-hunter. Priest does an amazing job of fusing the real-life historical details about Lizzie and combining them with monstrous imaginings. This is a page-turning thriller that will delight true-crime fans as well as lovers of weird fiction — and it will leave you craving more.
Lock In By John Scalzi
Scalzi leaves behind military science fiction and Star Trek spoofs for this near-future murder mystery about a world where certain people are trapped in their own bodies, unable to communicate as a result of a terrible illness called Haden Syndrome. Certain talented people, known as Integrators, can communicate on behalf of the Haden sufferers — but when an Integrator is murdered, it sets off a sweeping investigation. Scalzi uses his crime-novel storyline to comment on public versus private healthcare, and the danger of discrimination against the most vulnerable people.
Questionable Practices by Eileen Gunn
Gunn is one of the most canny short-story writers out there, and this collection of strange, sharp tales is filled with lost souls searching for some obscure meaning to their existence. There's a golem who just wants to return to clay, a sasquatch who unexpectedly becomes a TV star, and a number of young heroes trapped in dark fables. Gunn's talent for the surreal and bizarre is pressed into the service of exploring how our own subjectivity, and the ways we construct our selves, help to imprison us.
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
Translated by award-winning author Ken Liu, this bestselling Chinese novel includes a story of first contact with aliens, but expands that into something much more complex and philosophical. The book includes a solar-system-spanning conspiracy that threatens to change the laws of physics themselves, as well as a complex set of moral dilemmas that ask what happens when science becomes dogma.
The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman
With this book, Grossman concludes his trilogy, the first volume of which was stereotyped as being a more cynical, dirtier version of Harry Potter crossed with Narnia. What's great about The Magician's Land is that (just like the Potter books) the story has grown up with its characters, and Grossman's main character Quentin has actually become a decent person while we weren't looking. Grossman gives us plenty of closure, and a decent helping of triumph over adversity, but also shows that the greatest victory in life is just achieving maturity, and maintaining your aplomb.
The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert
Rickert's quiet, introspective story about three aging witches who used to be best friends is a perfect complement to Grossman's trilogy, actually — it has some of the same thoughtful exploration of magic and its consequences. But it's also impressive how much suspense Rickert manages to achieve in a book where the stakes are super low. I was on the edge of my seat reading about the precarious coming of age of a young girl who was found in a shoe box, and now lives in a house surrounded by a garden of discarded shoes.
California by Edan Lepucki
This book became a cause celebre after Stephen Colbert chose it as a representative of the worthy reads being harmed by the Amazon-Hachette dispute. But it's also a unusually dark, disturbing post-apocalyptic story in which a couple, Frida and Cal, who are expecting a baby struggle with the choice between safety and freedom. This is a relationship story that shows just how much we all take for granted.
Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
Gladstone's third book in his Craft sequence can be read as a stand-alone, but it benefits from the incredible world-building he's done to create a whole world where magic is used as a toolkit, and he can explore the result with an admirable precision. In Full Fathom Five, a woman named Kai who creates idols for various ceremonial purposes witnesses a God being murdered, and then gets reassigned within her organization — allowing Gladstone to show us the bureacracy of magic, as well as slowly reveal terrifying truths about his world.
Rooms by Lauren Oliver
This could have been just another novel about people coming back to their family home after the death of a patriarch, only to discover there are ghosts haunting the place. But Oliver's first adult novel is packed with complex, flawed characters, and she manages to turn the ghosts' observations into a story about how people are haunted by memories. It's like a Wes Anderson movie in book form, with ghosts.
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
Joss Whedon randomly found this novel while he was filming the Avengers sequel, and gushed about it — for good reason. This story of a special young girl named Melanie, and her relationship with her beloved teacher Miss Justineau, is one of the most beautifully constructed books I've read in ages, and it has an ending that's not just scary and sweet — but also resolves the emotional and intellectual questions of the book with an astonishing deftness.
First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
North, a pseudonym for a bestselling author of slightly different stuff, has a blindingly clever idea here, and she's worked out the mechanics of it to a brilliant degree: Harry August relives his life over and over again, going back to the start every single time he dies. But other people have the same gift, and they all go through the same "turn" together each time, allowing them to send messages back in time — or conspire against each other. Someone is using this weird form of immortality to change the future, and it turns out to be someone that Harry August has a strange friendship with. North doesn't settle for writing an astonishingly clever book — she fills it with warmth and emotional intensity, too.
The Martian by Andy Weir
In a year full of novels about people who are trapped in their circumstances, few characters are more trapped than Mark Watney, the guy who's left for dead on Mars in Weir's thrilling novel, which was previously self-published in 2012. What's great about this book isn't just that it shows the triumph of ingenuity over impossible circumstances — but also, that it shows how awesome and powerful science can be, and how important it is that we support the work of scientific discovery, including NASA.
My Real Children by Jo Walton
Walton follows up her award-winning Among Others with another strange work of magical realism, the story of an elderly woman suffering from dementia, who finds herself caught in two different versions of history — neither of which is ours. In one version, Kennedy was never assassinated, while in the other, limited nuclear strikes led to a world governed by nightmarish authoritarian regimes. Which world is real — and more importantly, which version of her life would she want to be left with? Walton provides no easy answers, but the end still packs a huge emotional punch.
Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer
Now available in one neat-looking hardcover, this trilogy of novels manages to cover a lot of different genre territory, from the weird science of Annihilation to the strange bureaucracy of Authority to the thrilling conclusion of Acceptance. Taken together, the three novels form a great story of grappling with the unknown, but also a terrific demonstration of just how much genre storytelling is capable of today.
Defenders by Will McIntosh
There are other military science fiction books that look at what happens to the soldiers after the war is over — but McIntosh still hits on a unique vein in this novel about the aftermath of a war against invading alien starfish. The aliens were telepathic, so we had to create soldiers whose minds the aliens couldn't read. After the war ends, we give those soldiers, the Defenders, Australia to live in. McIntosh's great strength, showing how society copes with massive change over time, gives him a great canvas to look at the mechanisms of war, and their legacy.
The Bees by Laline Paull
Paull uses real science about bees to illuminate her novel from the point of view of bees inside a hive — drawing on the fact that drones do no work, and males are massacred every year, and princesses must seek each other out and fight to the death. She uses this potent material to weave a Beatrix Potter story for adults, in which her misfit bee protagonist, Flora, allows her to comment on our own irrational divisions of labor. The whole thing builds to a powerful, moving conclusion that pays off.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
One of the year's most celebrated books, Mandel's novel about a plague apocalypse was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. But beyond the usual questions that a ton of other books about the collapse of civilization tend to ask, Mandel's book focuses on the nature of art and performance, as we follow a group of traveling actors and musicians, performing in the ruins, as we discover the connections between an actor who died at the start of the plague, a paramedic who tried to save him, and the child actress who survived it.
The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley
Here's another great genre mashup that combines Lovecraftian monstrosity with something else — this time, epic fantasy. This book follows the three scattered children of the Emperor of the Annurian Empire, who has just died, and the children's coming-of-age stories. This book goes beyond becoming just another fantasy door-stopper, and instead looks at what happens to people who become weapons, wielded from beyond the grave.
Additional reporting by Andrew Liptak, Michael Ann Dobbs and Annalee Newitz.