The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021
It’s time for my annual round-up of the best books I read during the year. As in 2019 and 2020, I aimed to read 50 books and managed to do so. Once again I primarily read sci-fi, which is reflected in my top ten choices. However, one horror novella and a classic crime novel also crept into the list. Note that the list is in no particular order; I’d strongly recommend any of these books and a number of them have introduced new authors for me to explore further in 2022, which I fervently hope will be an actually good year for once.
As an aside, you might be interest in what the worst book I read in 2021 was. Well, this was not a close run thing. By far the worst book I read was Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey. Now I know that the Pern series is quite popular, and no disrespect to its fans, but the first novel had me slogging through it for almost a month. Let it be put on record that for me, space fungus is an incredibly uninteresting “threat”, and that McCaffrey’s time-travelling dragons are the most lazily convenient deus ex machina I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. It’s not a series I’ll be returning to.
With that out of the way, the rundown of my top books of 2021 begins with...
Times Without Number (1962) by John Brunner
The venerable British SF publisher Gollancz has made many obscure works in the genre available as ebooks in recent years. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to discover Times Without Number, an intriguing book by John Brunner. He was a key figure in British SF, albeit a rather tragic one. He won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for his 1968 book Stand on Zanzibar but died in 1995, aged just 60 - by which time most of his works were already out of print.
Times Without Number is a set of three connected alternate history stories, set in the 1980s in a world dominated by the powerful but technologically and socially backwards Spanish Empire. The point of divergence is 1588, when the Spanish Armada successfully invaded England. However, these are also time travel stories. Don Miguel Navarro is a member of the Empire’s “Society of Time” who investigates cases related to abuse of deceptively simple time machines devised not by scientists, but by alchemists.
Permafrost (2019) by Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds is one of the clear leading lights of contemporary British SF, best known for the books set in his Revelation Space universe. He also has a good line in interesting novellas, including Permafrost. This unusual time-travel story begins in a world devastated by ecological collapse, with the destruction of agricultural systems threatening humankind with extinction.
The man character, Valentina Lidova, is a woman in her 70s - hardly the standard SF protagonist. The daughter of the scientist who discovered the principles underpinning time travel, Lidova is recruited for a vital mission in the past. In a novel twist on the formula, the time travel mechanic involves medical scanners linked in time and space. Lidova must essentially “pilot” the body of another person in the past, but the fact that said person will inevitably be hospitalised has consequences. Being a novella, Permafrost gives Reynolds few pages to work with but he spins a surprisingly, twisty story that merges time travel with eco-fiction in a brisk and satisfying way.
Shards of Honor (1986) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most important American women in SF and fantasy, but she isn’t well known here in the UK. This is for the very simple reason that Bujold hasn’t had a UK publisher since her 2003 novel Paladin of Souls sold poorly here - despite winning a Hugo, Locus and Nebula Award. Today, the best way to read her is to get ebooks directly from her US publisher, Baen. This is slightly awkward, because while Baen Books were early trendsetters in ebooks back in the day, their site is a bit clunky by today’s standards.
Shards of Honor was Bujold’s first published novel, and launched the series for which she is best known - the sprawling Vorkosigan Saga. While the series tends to focus on her character Miles Vorkosigan, the first book is about the meeting of his parents, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. The book is essentially a love story within a military science fiction setting and Bujold makes a success of this challenging combination. The novel has a slightly strange structure and reads oddly like a prequel, despite having been written before the many sequels. 35 years on, the book shows why Bujold became a major force in American SF and I look forward to reading further entries in the series.
All Systems Red (2017) and Artificial Condition (2018) by Martha Wells
The “Murderbot Diaries” series of novellas and novels has transformed Martha Wells from a relatively obscure author of fantasy into a major force in science fiction. Focusing on a self-aware security cyborg which calls itself “Murderbot”, the series is set in a fairly familiar spacefaring future. The books have won a slew of awards, with the first one earning the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novella.
I’ve so far read the first two novellas and while I don’t think they’re quite as incredible as some other readers do, they are definitely entertaining. Murderbot has a distinctive point of view which comes across as a kind of heavily-armed Marvin the Paranoid Android. Another admirable element of the stories is their attitude to humans; Murderbot sees little that is good in people and would much rather not have anything to do with them. There’s a common complaint about the books which I do echo - published by Tor, they’re just too expensive. Still, I can see myself shelling out for more of them in future, to see how Murderbot reluctantly gets the meatbags out of trouble next time.
Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke
This book is one of the author’s best known, and with good reason. Rendezvous with Rama is classic Clarke, filled with many of his favourite preoccupations and a fine example of his style. Set in the 2130s, the novel is about the crew of the Endeavour, a solar survey vessel which is sent to explore a vast, cylindrical structure which mysteriously appears in Earth’s solar system. Like Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970), the book is one of the definitive examples of the “Big Dumb Object” trope but Clarke’s book itself is anything but dumb.
Like other authors of the old school, Clarke was famously not particularly at ease with creating interesting human characters and Rama is no exception. There’s also little in the way of threat, tension, or action - which again is typical of the author’s style. What the book does have in abundance is that special ingredient, the much talked-about “sense of wonder”. The alien cylinder is impressive in its sheer size, engineering achievement and feeling of mystery. Clarke’s grasp of the scientific implications of the story is as on point as ever, and with these qualities the book is deeply compelling in a similar way to the author’s earlier classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I’d easily recommend this to anyone curious about getting started with Clarke’s work.
Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995) by Ursula K. Le Guin
Over the last couple of years I’ve been making my way through the Hainish cycle of books by the wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin, and writing about each one. This year I got around to one of the most famous entries in the series, The Dispossessed (1974) but I think I preferred Four Ways to Forgiveness.
A collection of four loosely related novellas, the book is quiet and thoughtful even by Le Guin’s standards. The main thing which stands out is the book’s deep engagement with a number of challenging subjects including war, revolution, slavery, racism, and sexual violence. This is one of the reasons why I think Le Guin will continue to grow in relevance over the coming years. Today’s authors are being celebrated for confronting challenging issues, and rightly so, but Le Guin often got there many years earlier. Her intensely humane, compassionate view of the world shines through in Four Ways to Forgiveness. I’d recommend starting with the earlier books first, but this is a deeply interesting milestone towards the end of the Hainish series.
Revelation Space (2000) by Alastair Reynolds
Having read a number of his shorter works over the last couple of years, I decided to dive into Alastair Reynolds’ huge name-making series in July. Revelation Space was Reynolds’ first novel, following on from a number of successful short stories. It’s an intimidating book, clocking in at well over 550 pages and representing the first part in a trilogy. The story is also told from three radically different viewpoints, separated by vast reaches of space in a grimly believable far future. Dan Sylveste is a selfish xeno-archaelogist, Ilya Volyova is a member of a group of augmented spacefarers, and Ana Khouri is a former soldier turned assassin. They gradually become bound up in events which could affect the whole of the human race.
Reynolds includes a number of intriguing technologies including intelligent simulations of dead people, AI-controlled superweapons, and the nanotech “Melding Plague” which fuses machines with human flesh. Perhaps the book’s greatest creation is the ship Volyova serves on, the vast and bizarre Nostalgia for Infinity. Serving as a tomb for its undead captain as well as the repository for an arsenal of doomsday devices, it is also a kind of deep-space haunted house with a mind of its own. Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days (2003) is still my favourite Reynolds book, but this one runs it close.
The Hellbound Heart (1986) by Clive Barker
I’m not really a fan of the horror genre at all, but when Halloween rolled around this year I decided to get into the spirit of things by reading the novella which made Clive Barker a household name. The Hellbound Heart established him as a writer, and also served as the basis for the classic horror film Hellraiser (1987), which Barker directed himself. In a number of ways, the film was compromised by commercial concerns - for example it took on a strange placeless, trans-Atlantic feel - but the novella is the unvarnished original set definitively in London.
The Hellbound Heart has a brisk, aggressive feel to it. To paraphrase Stephen King, it is almost falling over itself in its urgency to get itself across. That results in some open questions and possible inconsistencies, but the book has a real visceral, violent power. It’s easy to see how the novella made such a good basis for Barker’s film, and why the “Lament Configuration” puzzle box and the sadomasochistic Cenobites have become icons of horror legend.
The Black Dahlia (1987) by James Ellroy
These days, James Ellroy may be best known for the film adaptations of his books and for his strange, provocative political pronouncements. Back in the day, he reached a new level of critical acclaim when The Black Dahlia was published in 1987. Based on one of the most grisly and famous unsolved murder cases of 20th century American history, the book is a challenging but very rewarding fusion of fact and fiction.
Elizabeth Short was found brutalised and cut in half in Los Angeles in January 1947, and Ellroy takes his vicious crime and turns it into the jumping-off point for his novel. Murder may be one of the most overused plot devices in all fiction, but Ellroy has far more on his mind. The Black Dahlia becomes a dark and enthralling exploration of the history of Los Angeles, police corruption, the depravity of the wealthy, and the warped psychology of its two cop protagonists. The book is suffused with a remarkable amount of period detail, from specific street locations to a torrent of historical slang that can be tricky to keep up with. All the while, the death of Elizabeth Short looms over proceedings, an obsession for the characters and a symbol of a city’s fall from grace.
Red Mars (1992) by Kim Stanley Robinson
In November, I started another massive trilogy - Red Mars is the first volume in the well-known series about the colonisation of the red planet by Kim Stanley Robinson. The author has a firm grasp of the many and various sciences and disciplines involved, with extensive material on geology, genetics, political economy, architecture, and psychology among others. The crucial thing is that KSR populates the book with a number of believable, complex characters - that reflects partly his own talent, and partly the changes that had occurred in science fiction since Clarke’s heyday.
It becomes clear that the book is as much about Earth as it is about Mars - despite the fact that virtually none of the story is actually set on our blue planet. A number of the “First Hundred” colonists believe that Mars can be a fresh start for humanity, but they can’t help but import many of Earth’s problems like hierarchy, environmental destruction, and of course capitalism. By the time this first volume draws to a close, a vast struggle for the future of humanity has broken out which can only give KSR scope to further explore the issues at hand in the later volumes.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.