Adam Morgan is an author, educator, and award-winning screenwriter in Chicago. He has a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction and Screenwriting, and has taught writing, screenwriting, and English as an adjunct professor at Montreat College and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
His latest book, North Carolina’s Wild Piedmont: A Natural History, was published by The History Press in August 2015. His writing has been featured in The Denver Post, Bookpage, Bookslut, and elsewhere.
Poets & Writers Magazine named him one of three distinguished alumni of Roosevelt University’s MFA program.
His diverse portfolio includes a book about Chicago’s natural and human history, an award-winning television script in development at Fox, and award-nominated short fiction. He is also a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Follow him on Twitter @earthmorgan
by Adam Morgan
2015 was a great year for speculative fiction. Plenty of household names (e.g., Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, Margaret Atwood, and David Mitchell) put out great books, and several relative newcomers established themselves as writers to watch. Perhaps most encouraging, however, is the abundance of diverse voices available in bookstores, online, and awards shortlists (minus the whole Hugo Awards fiasco). Science fiction and fantasy is undoubtedly more representative of the world population today than at any time in history, and that’s something to be excited about. Not just as a human being, but as a curious reader, too.
From Iraq and New York City to far-future Earths and distant planets, here are my picks for the 13 best science fiction and fantasy books of 2015.
Best Alternative to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
If you found last year’s Interstellar a bit underwhelming in spite of its visual splendor, Robinson’s (the Mars Trilogy) standalone novel is the meaty, exoplanetary adventure you were hoping Christopher Nolan could deliver. When a generation ship arrives at mankind’s new home 12 light-years away from Earth, it encounters a host of unforeseen obstacles, begging the question: will we ever be able to survive on another planet? Grounded in hard science and impossible to put down, I called Aurora “one of the most captivating and epic science fiction novels of the decade so far” in my review for Strange Horizons.
Best Steven Spielberg/Umberto Eco Mashup
Escape from Baghdad! by Saad Hossain
For the second year in a row, Unnamed Press has made my end-of-year list thanks to a clever, high-concept debut novel executed to perfection. Last year, it was Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space. This year, it’s Saad Hossain’s Escape from Baghdad!, a strange, pulpy cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Foucault’s Pendulum. Two Iraqis (a professor and a “hoodlum”) join forces with a US Marine to smuggle one of Saddam’s best torturers out of Baghdad. On the way, they stumble across figures brought to life from mythology and an ancient watch that doesn’t tell time. Vice called it the “Slaughterhouse Five of the Iraq War,” and Hossain had a lot of insightful things to say as a Bangladeshi writing about Iraq in my interview with him at Bookslut.
Best Alternate Version of the Solar System
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
In Radiance, mankind colonized our sister planets at the height of the Art Deco movement, which continues into an alternate 1986 where filmmaking technology has stalled thanks to the patent-hoarding Edisons. Severin Unck, the daughter of a famous filmmaker, disappears when she travels to Venus to make a new documentary. It’s The Adventures of Hugo Cabret in space, and it’s fantastic.
Best Alternate Version of the United States
Not on Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek
See also: Worst Alternate Version of the United States If It Actually Happened. Someone drops an atomic bomb on the Golden Gate Bridge, and the government blames Islamic terrorists without any proof. Nuclear fallout quickens climate change and borders are redrawn. Most significantly, American Muslims are corralled onto old Native American reservations out west. Dorian, an Islamophobic 12-year-old boy in Upstate New York, is inexplicably the only person in his family who remembers his older sister, who was killed by the blast in San Francisco. In my review for Bookpage, I lauded Hrbek for “boldly questioning America’s moral standing since 9/11, and bringing to life the horrific consequences of ignorance, fear and hate.”
Best Two-Year-Old Superheroine
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2011. This prequel begins in New York City, where a two-year-old “accelerated woman” (with the body and mind of a super-powered adult, thanks to genetic experimentation) named Phoenix is hellbent on escaping the nefarious Tower 7. The Book of Phoenix is a searing indictment of America’s ugly history of race relations, exploitation, and colonialism.
Best 5,000-Year Time Gap Between Chapters
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
See also: Best Palindromic Title and Best Opening Line. Stephenson’s (Anathem) latest doorstopper is actually two books disguised as one, and it begins with a killer opening: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” The first 550 pages sees the International Space Station turned into a life ark before the remnants of the moon ravage Earth via Kessler Syndrome. It’s a thrilling, imaginative story in its own right, but the final 300 pages of Seveneves almost acts as a built-in sequel. Five thousand years later, the descendants of those ISS astronauts thrive in a giant orbital ring, separated into seven distinct “races” based on their ancestral mothers, the “seven Eves” who bore children back on the ISS. The final act has caught flak from readers and critics alike, but it could be Neal Stephenson’s best novel to date.
Best Alien World
Planetfall by Emma Newman
Decades ago, Lee Suh-Mi had a vision of an alien planet that promised to answer mankind’s oldest questions. A thousand colonists followed her, but shortly after their arrival Suh-Mi entered a mysterious structure nicknamed “God’s City” and never returned. Twenty years later, the colony she founded is thrown into chaos when Suh-Mi’s grandson shows up on the outskirts.
Best Future BBC Television Series
The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons
What if fussy British author Henry James (The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, etc.) teamed up with one of England’s most iconic fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes, to solve a murder mystery in turn-of-the-century America? That’s the fascinating premise behind Simmons’ best novel since the Hyperion series. Bonus points for the coda at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, the same World’s Fair described in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. My dream BBC cast: Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter as Henry James, and Black Mirror’s Toby Kebbell as Sherlock. Here’s my review in The Denver Post.
Best High Fantasy
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Tolkien in the 50s, Le Guin in the 60s, Terry Brooks in the 70s, Gene Wolfe in the 80s, George RR Martin in the 90s, and Steven Erikson in the 00s. Every decade or so, a new high fantasy series emerges to become a classic. With Uprooted, Naomi Novik may have established herself as the name to remember in the 2010s, even if she doesn’t write any sequels (none are planned, but she hasn’t ruled them out). Every ten years, a powerful wizard known as the Dragon chooses a young girl from the kingdom of Polnya to become his servant. Novik’s seventeen-year-old heroine, Agnieszka, is one of the best-drawn in recent memory.
Best Debut Novel
Vermillion by Molly Tanzer
See also: Best Cover Art. The subtitle alone (The Adventures of Lou Merriweather, Psychopomp) should be enough to convince you Vermillion is worth reading. Tanzer’s debut is a rollicking mashup of steampunk, westerns, and Chinese mythology, starring a nineteen-year-old, chain-smoking hunter of the undead. (Runner-up: The Vorrh by B. Catling.)
Best Short Story Collection
Get In Trouble by Kelly Link
You thought I was going to pick Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, didn’t you. Guess again. Link’s fourth collection of chameleonic, genre-bending stories enfuses Southern Gothic tales with fantasy and science fiction in a seamless tapestry of weird. (Runner-up: Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville.)
The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud
Ballingrud’s debut collection of realistic fantasy/horror short stories, North American Lake Monsters, won a Shirley Jackson Award and put the Asheville, North Carolina writer on the map. The Visible Filth is his first novella, about a New Orleans bartender named Will who discovers a mysterious cell phone. A few disturbing messages, images, and videos later, Will’s life will never be the same. It’s genuinely scary.
Best Art Object
Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson
Honestly, this is the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen. Dodson is both author and designer, and his postmodern, metafictional take on an illuminated novel is drop-dead gorgeous. The story alternates between 1843 and 2143, between Chicago and the Republic of Texas, and between a variety of literary and visual forms. Letters, drawings, articles, books-within-books, and maps create a truly unique reading experience. Unfortunately, the characterization falls a bit flat, and the plot runs out of gas in the book’s latter third, but it’s worth the cover price nonetheless.