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[GUEST POST] James Wallace Harris on Finding the Best 2016 Science Fiction Novels in 2016

James Wallace Harris maintains a website devoted to identifying the Classics of Science Fiction. He is fascinated by how books are remembered and forgotten, and often writes about science fiction at his blog, Auxiliary Memory.

Finding the Best 2016 Science Fiction Novels in 2016

by James Wallace Harris

There’s all kinds of science fiction stories, but the kind I love, are those tales that blow my mind by integrating new concepts into the latest storytelling techniques. But, I’m getting old, and I’ve read thousands of science fiction stories, so my sense-of-wonder is rather jaded. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on being amazed by creative science fiction. In my youth, science fiction was a psychedelic of future possibilities. In my retired years, science fiction is the Viagra for my aging sense-of-wonder. There are infinite speculative universes that science fiction writers explore. I want to follow those writers who work the frontiers of the unknown, yet stay within the measure of science.

Right now I’m rereading Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner and Hyperion by Dan Simmons, each for the third time. These two novels might be among the most ambitious science fiction novels ever written. They are singular feats of fictional invention. There are hundreds of science fiction novels published each year, but damn few aim as high as Brunner and Simmons. The challenge is to find the new writers who have that kind of ambition and support them. I don’t mean to be critical, but most science fiction is derivative. The average SF novel and reader enjoys embracing a comfortably micro-genre, that tells a story that’s been told many times before. And there’s a good and justifiable reason for that-their authors fall in love with a cherish science fiction concept and want to colonize it with good-enough storytelling. I just don’t want to be a tourist in those fictional lands. I’m old, and don’t have the time to indulge in such Disneylands.

For most of my life I’ve been playing reading catch-up with the classics of science fiction. I’m usually a year, and often many years, behind discovering the best new SF stories. I have to wait for a critical mass of fans to find those stories before I hear about them. What I find really sweet in my sixties is to read a science fictional book before it’s validated by the wisdom of crowds. And in recent years I’ve been playing a little game. I thrill at reading new novels before I find them on “Best Science Fiction of the Year” lists. I feel almost as smug if I read them before they win awards the following year. And what would really boost my ego is if I could become a tipping point maven, like Malcolm Gladwell described in his first book, convincing others to read these stories before their waves crest.

To achieve this goal requires taking chances. I need to read more books, and books by writers I’ve never read. One factor of getting old is sticking with the tried and true. Too many of my baby boomer peers won’t listen to music that came out after 1975. And I know many SF fans born in the 1950s, who grew up in the 1960s like myself, who never read any science fiction newer than the 1970s.

During 2015 I found three exceptional science fiction novels soon after they came out, but I can’t pat myself on the back too much because they were all by favorite authors. Yet, I did find a great deal of satisfaction reading them before the end-of-the-year lists came out. They were Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.

The next stage requires looking over the Best SF of 2015 lists, and reading those books that hopefully will win a Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Clarke, Tiptree, Campbell, Dick awards in 2016. Right now the reviewer wind seems to be blowing me towards these books. I’ve read Wilson, McDonald, Swanwick and Liu, but not much of their work. The others are unknown writers to me.

  1. Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman
  2. Lightless by C. A. Higgins
  3. The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson
  1. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
  2. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
  3. The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

My Reading Challenge for 2016 is to discover five amazing books by writers I don’t know, as they are published, and before the end-of-year lists.

The Problem: Way too many science fiction books are published. And that obstacle is raised higher by the fact that science fiction is lumped in with fantasy and horror. I’m after pure, state-of-the-art, science fiction. I thought Aurora claimed new territory and defined the current discussion of what science fiction is about right now.

The Solution: Read all the websites that consistently review cutting edge science fiction. Look for books that get good reviews across several sites. I’ve even thought about setting up a RSS reader devoted exclusively for the task. (I fantasize about being smart enough to write a machine learning program in Python to read the web for science fiction reviews, but I’m not.) The term “science fiction” labels far too many books I don’t consider science fiction. Science fiction is a very imprecise term. I only want to read a fraction of 1% of the reviews labelled science fiction. I was just at Audible looking at its new releases for science fiction, and I went through page after page after page listing 20 books a page and only found three books to put in my wish list.

These are the review sites where I often find books I want to read.

After tracking down book review sites, I figure the next best radar detector is news sites like SF Signal, io9, Tor, Locus Online to scan for link buzz. Books that deserve attention get lots of attention. Regularly reading SF Signal’s “SF/F/H Link Posts” makes it easier to spot books approaching the tipping point. Another place to look for trending novels is at my local bookstore. Books stacked near the door, or on shelves labeled “Staff Picks” are reasons to take notice. I also read many blogs, and my internet friends are often great bellwethers of what their readers are reading.

When all is said and done, I’ll be lucky to find five books that meet my criteria before next December. I spend a lot of time studying old science fiction, and as time passes it’s obvious that only a handful of novels survive the test of time each year. What are my chances of actually finding them in the year they come out?

About James Wallace Harris (9 Articles)
James Wallace Harris is fascinated by the concept of science fiction, its history and execution. Jim searches for science fiction where writers use scientific knowledge to explore the possibilities of what reality could exhibit beyond our current observations or extrapolates on what reality could unfold in the future. He delights in stories with original speculation that offers philosophical thought experiments which entertain our sense of wonder. Jim studies old science fiction to understand how people of the past imagined the nature of their existence.
Contact: Website

8 Comments on [GUEST POST] James Wallace Harris on Finding the Best 2016 Science Fiction Novels in 2016

  1. Great article.

    Our own list of best SF novels for what its worth is here

    And it is interesting to see how ours relates to others a list of links to which here

    > My Reading Challenge for 2016 is to discover five amazing
    > books by writers I don’t know, as they are published,
    > and before the end-of-year lists.

    Don’t know if this helps?

  2. Thanks, you have a wealth of material that I need to read. I added your rss feed my reader.

  3. We’re not a science fiction centered site, but we did aggregate 28 of 2015’s “best science fiction and Fantasy” year-end book lists.

    There were 234 different books from last year that appeared on a least a single top list each. Have definitely been playing catch up the first months of 2016. Thanks for all the additional resources!

    Thanks for compiling the sci-fi list

  4. I love end of the year aggregate book lists! I had caught your list with my News360 reading. I had already read 4 of the books on your list, and own a couple more. I hope by your next year’s list to have read 5 or more before you make up the list.

    By the way, do you compile the lists by hand, or do you have any programming automation to do the work?

  5. Richard Derus // February 4, 2016 at 5:00 pm //

    My money’s on you to do this Sisyphean labor successfully. Your by-the-decades lists are my shopping list.

  6. Mark Stephenson // February 4, 2016 at 9:12 pm //

    Jim, I have to tell you that, as an SF reader of more than 50 years (which means we are both likely in the same age cohort), I believe that the biggest minefield in the path of finding good, new material is the tsunami of barely edited, clumsily written, negligently proofread, self-published junk flooding the genre thanks primarily to Amazon and Audible. While, as you say, many sub-genres are derivative in nature, the works I am referring to are utterly predictable and astonishingly derivative, such as the hoo-rah “military SF” of the “one-broken-down-warship-and-icoloclastic-no-rules-commander-and-a-battalion-of-hard-bitten-marines-against-an-alien-invasion-of-the-galaxy” variety. Either that or zombies. Lots and lots and lots of zombies. And apolcalypses. So many that you wish one would come true to stem the tide of future apocalypses once and for all.

    I have been burned a couple of times courtesy of Amazon’s and Audible’s monetization of the SF genre’s vast slush pile, purchasing works of my preferred space opera sub-genre that sounded good but turned out to be stunningly, breathtakingly awful. I once threw out the window of my moving car a stack of a half-dozen CDs I had burned from my Audible library of a “novel” that shall remain mercifully nameless because I could not stand to hear another minute of what years ago would otherwise have been a badly mimeographed piece of fanfic passed among nerds like me in a high school study hall. (My apologies to whatever road crew had to pick them up.)

    I realize that there are probably a number of good, up-and-coming genre writers whose works I may be missing because self-publishing has left such a bad taste in my mind. In point of fact, there are a few writers whose works I have enjoyed despite their initially self-published pedigrees. However, on the whole, I am sticking with established, hard-copy publishers like Tor and Ace and Baen and Solaris that still employ editors and proofreaders and have some commitment to quality, even though they may publish clunkers from time to time. Before I make a buying decision I check to see whether a work is self-published, ignoring the glowing four- and five-star reviews, replete with misspelled words, posted by the writer’s X-Box buddies, cousins and other family members. My question is this. Do self-publishing conduits ever do any editing or prep on the stuff they funnel through to the recommendations that Amazon and Audible try to dump on me every day, or is it “take all comers” if there is enough cash involved? Sad to say, I suspect it’s the latter. I feel as though the genre that I have loved all my life and which has produced writers like Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Anderson, Pohl, Bova and so many others, including newer names like Reynolds, Asher, Hamilton and many others, is being destroyed by hacks who are able to buy their way (or as their reviewers would write “buy there way”) onto e-book lists with crap that in a more quality-oriented day and age would have been returned with a polite note much more politic than the work deserves. Rant over…

  7. Mark, it’s true that our genre is overwhelmed with fledgling efforts. There are too many people who want to be writers, and self-publishing allows anyone to a have go. For every Andy Weir or Hugh Howey, there are legions hoping to make it big in the same gold rush.

    Anyone can publish a novel at Amazon. And many of those novels have never been professional edited. Some of the more savvy self-published author do pay for professional editing. It is good investment. But I’ve also read, that editing isn’t what it used to be at professional publishers today. Sticking with the top publishers is one way to be safer.

    I’m not against trying a self-published work if it’s gain some kind of attention. I’m don’t self-published writers are destroying the genre. The dynamics of the slush pile has just changed. You and I are older, and don’t have the time to waste, but younger readers are more than willing to help out new writers. And their attention will help these writers gain the notice of “real” publishers. It’s a new kind of publishing survival of the fittest.

    I hope as more readers complain of the shoddy production values of ebooks, that publishers will clean up their act.

    By the way Mark, many of the old writers you mentioned weren’t particular good writers back in golden age of science fiction. Clarke had great ideas, but was dramatically tone-deaf.

    Yes, one of our problems is we have too many bad books competing with the good ones. But I also find there are too many good books competing for my attention too.

  8. Re: Mark “the tsunami of barely edited, clumsily written, negligently proofread, self-published junk flooding the genre thanks primarily to Amazon and Audible.”

    There is some data to suggest that much of self-published e-books is so low quality that only a minority make vaguely significan sales.
    here, last year’s report on (British) e-publishing is revealing.

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