2023 has been another fascinating year of reading for me. Once again, I set out to read 50 books and once again, my main focus has been on science fiction. This year, seven of my top ten are science fiction novels; one is a non-fiction book by an SF author, one is the fantasy novel Mythago Wood (1984), and one (surprisingly) is by one Quentin Tarantino. I strongly recommend all of these books - if you’ve read them, and have thoughts about them, I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.
Inhibitor Phase (2021) by Alastair Reynolds
The expansive, baroque Revelation Space universe is one of my favourite SF settings and I’ve been gradually making my way through Reynolds’ books since 2019. This year, I got around to Inhibitor Phase, aptly described as a “stealthy space opera”. With this book, Reynolds returned to the main line of his best-known setting for the first time since 2003. It picks up indirectly from the apocalyptic events of the earlier trilogy. The civilisation-destroying machines, the inhibitors, are still on the rampage and the characters must keep their heads down in order for humanity to survive. Inhibitor Phase is a treat for fans of the series, as it revisits favourite locations and characters, often in surprising new guises.
Nightflyers (1981) by George R. R. Martin
The immense success of Game of Thrones has radically changed the way George R. R. Martin is viewed. For years now, he has been a titan of fantasy - but unfortunately this obscures his earlier work in SF. In the 1970s and 1980s, Martin made his name with numerous short stories, novellas, and just one novel in his varied “Thousand Worlds” setting. Nightflyers is a thrillingly grimy novella which fuses science fiction with horror, and is perfect for fans of movies like Event Horizon. A crew of misfits venture out beyond human space, in search of enigmatic aliens. What they are not prepared for is the deadly threat that lurks onboard their own vessel. Netflix made a ropey TV series a few years ago - skip it. The book is the economical and menacing real deal.
Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock
I’ve read more books by Michael Moorcock than any other author - even so, there are a huge number I’m yet to get around to. This year, I tackled another five of his novels and found them to be a mixed bag. The best, by far, was Behold the Man. An expansion of an earlier novella, it employs a concept so audacious that only Moorcock could pull it off. The protagonist is Karl Glogauer, a young man struggling with a glut of sexual and spiritual crises. When he meets a rogue scientist who has constructed a functional time machine, Glogauer seizes the chance to try to meet Jesus Christ. To his shock, he finds Jesus incapable of playing the role attributed to him in the Bible - and so little by little, Glogauer replaces him. The result is as enthralling as it is heretical.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2021) by Quentin Tarantino
For years, Quentin Tarantino had said that his intention was to end his directing career with ten films, and then transition into becoming a writer of novels and plays. He modified this plan somewhat when after just nine films, he signed a two-book deal. In 2023, I read both of those books. His non-fiction volume on some of his favourite films from the 1970s, Cinema Speculation, is great and very much what you would expect from QT - packed with enthusiasm and rabbit-hole diversions. I was more surprised by his absorbing novelisation of his own film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). The book covers the film’s events only briefly - much of it is a companion piece, a headlong dive into various side characters and diversions. It’s 100% Tarantino, but in an intriguing new form.
Blood Music (1985) by Greg Bear
When authors die, it tends to spark a new surge of interest in their work. It’s the reason my local bookshop is sadly all out of Benjamin Zephaniah. American SF author Greg Bear passed away in November 2022, and it gave me an additional impetus to get acquainted with his work. The quality of Blood Music means that I am sure to read a lot more. Expanded from an earlier, shorter version, the book is a dizzying nightmare of biotech run amok. A reclusive, self-regarding scientist creates “thinking cells” or “noocytes”. He injects them into his own body in a bid to prevent their destruction by his corporate overseers. This triggers a worldwide event which is part apocalypse, part transcendental transformation. Unsettlingly believable but also strangely moving, Blood Music is a classic of 1980s SF.
Mythago Wood (1984) by Robert Holdstock
This distinctly British fantasy novel made its author’s name and is considered a classic, with good reason. Set in the 1940s, the novel centres on a mysterious wood which like the TARDIS, is bigger on the inside. Critic John Clute, famed for his voluminous vocabulary, called Ryhope Wood an “abyssal chthonic resonator”. To put it another way, the wood feeds off the collective imagination of those who enter it, and makes real the figures and structures from their subconscious. Holdstock uses this brilliant concept to explore deep time, myths and legends, the nature of belief, and human psychology. This book is the perfect demonstration that there is so much more to British fantasy than Tolkien and his followers.
The Way the Future Was (1979) by Frederik Pohl
Long considered one of the most respected non-fiction books about SF, The Way the Future Was is a fascinating memoir by author, fan, agent, and editor Frederik Pohl. Born in 1919, Pohl was part of the first generation of science fiction fans and a member of the notable fan group the Futurians. He made a major impact on the genre through editing Galaxy for most of the 1960s, representing numerous major authors as an agent, and through writing acclaimed books like The Space Merchants (1952) and Gateway (1977). Pohl’s easygoing style and vast experience make this an engaging read - crucially, his personal life proves to be as interesting as his insights into the history of American SF.
Use of Weapons (1990) by Iain M. Banks
I am savouring my journey through the revered Culture series - not least because so many fans openly wish they could go back and read these books for the first time, all over again. So far, the third novel Use of Weapons is easily my favourite. Centring on the master soldier Cheradenine Zakalwe, the novel uses an ingenious structure to explore both his violent past and his latest mission on behalf of the Culture. The book has numerous memorable episodes, especially one in which Zakalwe spends time on a Culture ship and learns what a post-scarcity civilisation is really like. The twist ending is very bit as devastating as you may have heard.
China Mountain Zhang (1992) by Maureen F. McHugh
Set at some point in the 22nd century, McHugh’s first novel occurs in a world in which China is the dominant power. The United States has undergone a Second Great Depression and a revolutionary war, and is now essentially a satellite state overseen by Beijing. Other writers would approach this scenario like Red Dawn, and have a plucky resistance movement out to restore “the American way”. McHugh takes a much subtler and smarter approach. Much of the book focuses on Zhang, a young engineer just looking to keep his head down and find his place in the world. Primarily a work of social science fiction, China Mountain Zhang also has some light cyberpunk elements. This is an assured, confident, and surprisingly effective novel.
Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner
John Brunner is a writer who has fascinated me for a couple of years now. The British SF author was unusually open and candid about his career, laying bare the difficulties of publishing enough work to stay afloat. Stand on Zanzibar is his best-known novel, his magnum opus, and one of the few that remains in print. With it, Brunner became the first British winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel - a fact which provoked some petty envy in his peers. Truly epic, it was for a time the longest SF novel ever published. It is also highly experimental, using techniques which were new to the genre, but had been pioneered in John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy (1930 - 1936). Brunner explores a world radically changed by overpopulation, with a fractured narrative that journeys across North America, Africa, and Asia. Stand on Zanzibar is a challenge to read, but a rewarding landmark in ambitious SF.
Looking ahead to 2024, I will be aiming to read at least 50 books as usual. I plan to start working my way through Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series (1970 - 1991) and Michael Moorcock’s “Cornelius Quartet” (1968 - 1977). I will also read more novels by Arthur C. Clarke, Alastair Reynolds, Greg Bear, and Iain M. Banks. Finally, I’ll continue reading more genre fiction by women, including Pat Murphy and Becky Chambers.
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.