2017 was a hard year for a lot of people. With climate change, haywire politics, and tech companies running amok, there are lots of reasons to put the year in the rearview mirror. But through it all, a run of great books shined a light in the darkness. They built off and commented on the issues that dominated the year, going beyond mere escapism to provide thoughtful, damning, and entertaining reads to keep us sane.
Here are the best books of 2017.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
In the near future, teenage girls begin spontaneously developing electrical powers, thanks to a small muscle called the "skein" that's found only in women. The girls wake up the power in others, and the world undergoes a revolution, as women gain brash confidence with their newfound strength.
Naomi Alderman is a protégé of Margaret Atwood, and her latest book is often compared to Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. But where The Handmaid's Tale casts real-world misogyny in a harsh dystopian light, The Power exposes power hierarchies that we take for granted by reversing them. It’s a quick read that nonetheless feels like a sea change in modern feminist science fiction.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Reinterpreted folklore is popular in fantasy literature, and Katherine Arden’s debut novel is a great example of the genre. Arden turned her fascination with Russia’s folk tales into a powerful novel about the power of faith, set during the depths of a medieval Russian winter.
In The Bear and the Nightingale, Vanya Petrova has a particular gift: she can see the fantastical creatures that inhabit her home and village. But she finds herself trapped between the ancient, pagan traditions, and the more modern religion of Christianity. Those crossroads present a danger to her community, as an ancient evil begins to reawaken from its long slumber.
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Medieval Europe dominates fantasy settings, but for The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty looks to the Middle East for inspiration. In 18th-century Cairo, streetwise orphan Nahri cons wealthy Ottoman tourists to survive. She doesn’t believe that magic is real, until she accidentally summons a djinn, steps into a conflict in a fantastical world, and discovers that she is the last remaining member of a powerful family. Chakraborty masterfully sketches a world in turmoil, where factions of magic users are working to reclaim power, affected by generations of oppression and racism.
Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
Now in its seventh installment, The Expanse series stays fresh by jumping forward three decades with Persepolis Rising. Earlier in the series, a faction from Mars vanished to a new world, shunning any attempts at contact. They’ve now returned, in a manner reminiscent of Germany’s invasion of France during World War II, with plans to seize control of humanity. The series’ familiar heroes are among the few willing to resist the new threat, as the series prepares to enter its final arc.
Persepolis Rising puts a new spin on a familiar world, while keeping elements that made longtime readers fall in love with The Expanse, and examining humanity’s tendency toward authoritarianism.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss
In a year where Universal Studios essentially abandoned its big-budget monster movie universe, Theodora Goss’s debut novel is a nice reminder that mashup stories can be fantastic adventures.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter brings together the fictional daughters (or creations) of famous characters like Victor Frankenstein, Doctor Moreau, Abraham Van Helsing, and Giacomo Rappaccini, who are part of a secret society called Société des Alchimistes. The women band together to solve a series of murders, while making sense of their origins, and the way they’ve been affected by their fathers’ bizarre experiments. It’s a critical look at the treatment of female characters in those original literary works, and a fun mystery at the same time.
Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Known for sprawling novels such as NOS4A2 or The Fireman, Joe Hill has carved out a name for himself as one of the most promising horror writers working today. His latest book is a bit different from his others: rather than one massive story, Strange Weather is four short, pointed novels.
In one story, a mall cop tries to cover up a mistake during a mass shooting. In another, the sky rains razor-sharp nails of crystal — shredding everyone unlucky enough to be caught outside. The stories span topics as diverse as climate change, gun violence, cell phones, and pure existential horror, resulting in a book that’s positively addictive.
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
The private space industry made strides in 2017 — SpaceX conducted 18 separate launches, as Elon Musk provided updates on his ambitions for colonizing Mars. So it’s an excellent time for Meg Howrey’s novel The Wanderers, which is about the preparations for a fictional commercial mission to Mars.
Howrey’s astronauts aren’t actually headed into space yet — they’re conducting an extensive simulation of the mission to determine how people will function through such an extended trip. And it’s not just the astronauts who are tested by their work: their families back home face their own hardships because of the mission. The book is an elegant look at the toll that space exploration could extract from the people involved.
The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion — a bold, unapologetic space opera set on a series of dying world-ships populated entirely by women.
Hurley’s narrator Zan awakes to discover that she’s missing many of her memories, and that she’s a pawn in a larger power struggle between factions on two of the worlds. As her characters journey through the depths of one of the organic ships, Hurley challenges her readers as she subverts space opera’s traditional tropes and conventions.
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
Fantasy author N.K. Jemisin has earned considerable acclaim for her Broken Earth trilogy, which concluded this year with The Stone Sky. Set in a far-future, post-apocalyptic society, humanity is perpetually on the verge of being wiped out through mass extinction events known as “seasons.”
Bringing the trilogy home, after her brilliant books The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, was a tall order — but Jemisin did it. She places the reader behind the eyes of the characters and touches on themes of oppression, marginalization, and enslavement as they journey across the broken landscape, in a desperate attempt to end the cycles of destruction.
The Moon and the Other by John Kessel
In 2149, humanity has established a network of colonies on the Moon. One such colony is the Society of Cousins, a matriarchal settlement in which men are disenfranchised, urged to focus on personal pursuits such as the arts or sports. But there’s unrest — not everyone is happy with the status quo, and the Moon’s governing body, the Organization of Lunar States, sends out a team to investigate.
Kessel’s beautifully written novel follows four characters caught up in this society: an exiled businessman and his ambitious wife, a protest artist, and an athlete. Each of their stories intertwine as he examines the role that gender plays in society, and how political ideals are translated into a viable civilization — as well as what it takes to change those ideals.
Void Star by Zachary Mason
Cyberpunk has come a long way since its origins in the 1980s. Zachary Mason’s new novel Void Star takes all of the conventions of the subgenre — massive corporations, newfangled technology, and conspiracies — and puts a literary spin on them.
Void Star is set in a world filled with AIs, where the super-wealthy find ways to extend their lives indefinitely. Readers follow Irina Sunden, a freelance contractor who sees something that she shouldn’t, and is pulled into a wider conspiracy. Mason uses the book to look at our relationship with the technological world around us, and how little we understand it.
The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott
Joe M. McDermott’s short novel is built around a technology called the ansible, which can send a copy of a human being across the universe. Captain Ronaldo Aldo is transmitted to a base called the Citadel at the far end of the galaxy, and has to come to terms with an isolated, lonely existence, with little hope of being transmitted to a better post.
McDermott explores the downsides to fantastic technologies in this multilayered and thoughtful novel. Aldo aspires to a new life, but is frozen in place, not wanting to burden his future copy with his anxieties and longing for loved ones in his present life. It’s a fantastic throwback to some of science fiction’s classic authors, such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Frank Herbert.
Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald
Last year, Ian McDonald released the fantastic Luna: New Moon, kicking off a trilogy about power struggles between family corporations on the Moon in 2110. It ended with the near-complete elimination of a family called Corta, and in Luna: Wolf Moon, McDonald depicts the efforts of the survivors to exact revenge.
The trilogy has been compared to George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, with brutal dynastic warfare playing out across the Moon, and McDonald is no less ruthless with his characters. Fortunately, we don’t have long to wait for the final installment of the trilogy, Luna: Moon Rising — it’s out next spring.
The Last Good Man by Linda Nagata
Linda Nagata wrote the The Red trilogy, some of my absolute favorite books about the future of warfare. With The Last Good Man, she returns to the topic — though not the same world — to explore what combat might look like five minutes into the future.
The result is pretty scary. Private military corporations use the latest tech to carry out combat missions — from tiny robots that delivery neurotoxins to enemy combatants, to heavily armed drones that can take out vehicles from miles way, to lasers that have a devastating effect on their targets. Nagata’s future feels frighteningly close at hand.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
Annalee Newitz made her name as a science and technology journalist, and her debut novel extrapolates from modern-day issues around intellectual property, artificial intelligence, and pharmaceutical research. It follows two characters who are pitted against each other: patent pirate Judith “Jack” Chen, and robotic intellectual property enforcer Paladin, both of whom are trying to stop the spread of a drug that gets users literally addicted to work.
True to its name, Autonomous is about freedom — from personal servitude, exploitative economic systems, robotic programming, and many other things. It’s a fast-paced book that feels both freewheeling and carefully composed.
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
17 years ago, Philip Pullman published the final installment of the His Dark Materials trilogy. In the years since, he’s worked on a companion book — which turned into a trilogy — called The Book of Dust. The first volume, La Belle Sauvage, is a long-overdue return to Pullman’s world.
Where his original trilogy tackled issues like consciousness and morality on a universe-sized stage, the author takes a more grounded approach here. La Belle Sauvage is all about the rise of religious authoritarianism, and the small things that people do to resist fascist ideology and its leaders.
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Digging into Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140 was a revelation. Through the intertwining lives of many different characters, he highlights what he deems a primary driver of climate change: not carbon emissions, but unfettered capitalism.
Robinson’s books are wonderful exercises in world-building, and he extrapolates what rising sea levels will do to New York City. There’s some devastation, but people pick up their lives and continue onwards. Rather than being a depressing lecture on where we’re headed, the book is surprisingly funny and optimistic.
Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns
R.E. Stearns’ debut novel may be the most fun thing I’ve read this year. Engineers Adda and Iridian board an abandoned space station to join a pirate crew, but find more than they’ve bargained for: a homicidal AI is trying to kill everyone on the station, and won’t let anyone escape.
Stearns goes beyond boilerplate space adventure. She sets up a well-realized world plagued by corporate excess and the fallout of a devastating civil war, and explores the nature of intelligence through the homocidal security AI AegiSKADA. It’s a unique portrayal that runs counter to what most people imagine when they think of malevolent artificial intelligence.
Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
Brian Staveley finished his fantastic Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, but wasn’t done with the world he created. Skullsworn is a standalone entry in the world, unveiling the origins of one of the characters we met in earlier novels.
That character is Pyrre Lakatur, a priestess of a murderous cult. To finish her trials, she needs to kill seven people in ten days, including someone she loves. Staveley’s novel is an exciting addition to his world, but he uses the opportunity to explore the nature of civil unrest and the power that myths and stories hold for a repressed people.
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
There are plenty of books, television shows and movies about the dangers of intelligent, malevolent robots bent on destroying humanity. In All Systems Red, Martha Wells flips that script as she kicked off a new series called The Murderbot Diaries. The book introduces readers to a cranky security robot that just wants to be left alone.
All Systems Red is a short read, and it feels a bit like a pilot to a larger, ongoing story. (The next installment, Artificial Condition, comes out in May.) The titular robot is tasked with protecting a scientific expedition when a nearby team goes missing. This is a little ironic, since it killed the people it was designed to protect on another planet. Wells uses the story as a parable about robotic bondage and freedom, and it’s a fascinating, new take on the nature of artificial intelligence.
Borne by Jeff Vandermeer
Mainstream audiences discovered Jeff Vandermeer through the Southern Reach trilogy, a surreal exploration of the strangeness of the natural world. In his latest novel Borne, Vandermeer looks at the nature vs. nurture argument when a woman named Rachel discovers a blob that grows in size and intelligence at an incredible rate.
As Rachel ekes out a meager living in the midst of a biotech-filled, post-apocalyptic city, Vandermeer plays out a struggle between its various inhabitants, and examines how power corrupts. There are other big themes at play: Rachel’s case for the creature Borne, and the consequences of a company’s wasteful attitude towards the life that it created.
Other recommended sci-fi and fantasy books from 2017:
- Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi
- Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker
- Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear
- City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett
- Breach of Containment by Elizabeth Bonesteel
- Steal the Stars by Nat Cassidey
- Siege Line by Myke Cole
- Phasma by Deliliah S. Dawson
- Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
- Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
- The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden
- Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer
- Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys
- Orbital Cloud by Taiyo Fujii
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
- Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone
- Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory
- An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King
- Jade City, by Fonda Lee
- Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
- The Beautiful Ones by Silva Moreno-Garcia
- Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
- The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera
- Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
- The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
- Horizon by Fran Wilde
- The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang
- Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
- The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard
Additional contributions by Adi Robertson, Shannon Liao, and Chaim Gartenberg