2020, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 81 books in 2020. That's almost exactly the same number of books I read in 2019, which feels a little surprising. You'd expect 2020, a year of lockdowns, shuttered entertainment venues, and quarantines to result in a lot more reading. And conversely, you'd expect 2020, a year of worries about health, politics, and the environment, to leave one too stressed to focus on a book. And yet, on paper, my reading doesn't seem to have changed at all. That's looking at the numbers, though. When I sat down to review my year's reading lists in preparation for writing this post, what I realized was how few of the books I read this year had stayed with me. For many of them, I have vague recollections of enjoying them, but would have struggled to say anything more meaningful. I read the normal amount of books in 2020, but didn't seem to have the mental energies to retain much from them. (This is probably also the reason that my TV viewing saw a huge explosion in 2020, as I've written in my review of the year's best shows at Lawyers, Guns & Money.) 

The exceptions seem to have been the books that spurred me to write about them. I wrote more long-form book reviews on this blog in 2020 than I have in recent years, but even writing a shorter review in a Recent Reading Roundup seemed to require a lot of mental energies, and happened only with books that struck me powerfully (for good or ill). So my wish for 2021 is to be able to read with more attention again. Or rather, for the year to prove less distracting and disorienting, so that I can give my reading the attention it deserves. In the meantime, here are the books that stood out, even in a year that made it so hard to focus on them.

Best Books of the Year:

Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the discussion of the computer game Cyberpunk 2077 and its failings, there was a tweet suggesting that cyberpunk was now nothing more than an aesthetic, trapped in amber in its moment of time and irrelevant to the 21st century. My response was that there is no shortage of vivid, impactful cyberpunk being written; it's just that most of it isn't coming from anglophone countries. Chosen Spirits is a great example of that trend. It is as pure an example of cyberpunk as you could possibly imagine, positing a world in which on- and offline behavior is constantly surveilled and can result in loss of job opportunities or even murder-by-drone; where next generation reality stars stream every moment of their lives to a global audience; where slavery-via-app is not only possible but legal, thanks to nesting structures of corporate ownership. And yet it is also an undeniably modern world, rooted in its near-future Indian setting, and in Basu's speculations about how the politics of today will turn out. Far from a mere exercise in aesthetics, this cyberpunk feels vital and relevant to our lives—not least for Basu's insistence that the world he's positing is not a dystopia, and for his characters' determination to do what they can to make a difference.

The Wall by Gautam Bhatia

What happens to a society when it is bounded? When no one can get in or out, all resources are accounted for, and there is no prospect of the situation changing within your lifetime? It's a premise that has fueled many generation ship stories, but in his debut, Gautam Bhatia harkens more to writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and China MiƩville. The central question of The Wall isn't why the city of Sumer has been confined within an impassable boundary for thousands of years. It's what individuals within the city can and should do about it, and how society as a whole responds to their efforts. Told from the point of view of revolutionaries who are determined to traverse the barrier hemming in their city and their lives, The Wall is essentially a novel-length debate between them and other groups within the city. The leadership, who point out that their society is stable and might not withstand the upheaval that venturing beyond the wall might cause. The underclass, who are more interested in battling inequality and stratified social roles within the city than in wondering what lies outside of it. And the remnants of past rebellions and coups, who reveal to our heroes how much of the history and myth they've taken down is politically motivated. The result is the best kind of social SF, driven by that most SFnal of desires, the urge to learn and understand your world.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (review)

I read Piranesi, Clarke's years-delayed follow-up to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in a day. Then I read it again the next day. I had to understand how Clarke had achieved its alchemy, how she had crafted this absolute wonder of a novel. Told from the point of view of a character who is at once blinkered and wise, Piranesi is the story of its world, an endless house that is at once a prison and a trove of wonders that one could spend a lifetime exploring. There's a mystery here, which Clarke elucidates in a variety of entertaining ways (those of us who enjoy stories about mysticism, secret societies built around charismatic leaders, and stories told through bibliographies will have a ball). But the crux of the novel isn't to discover why and how its narrator has found himself trapped in a world that is also a house. It is learning that world with him, and through that growing understanding, learning how the narrator has survived in this world by making himself an integral part of it, surrendering to its rhythms and tides and becoming something greater than himself through that surrender. In a year that saw many of us trapped within four walls, Piranesi felt like the perfect escape, precisely because it is about a character who transforms his entrapment into liberation.

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley achieves so many brilliant things in The Light Brigade that I could recommend the novel simply by listing them. It's an effective, pitch-perfect example of the MilSF genre that is in direct, fruitful conversation with some of its classic works. A convoluted and clever time travel story that is a joy to unravel. A moving character portrait of a young person who has been raised to accept limitations on freedom and citizenship as just the way things are, and of the halting growth of their political awareness. And an achingly relevant political work, dealing with the way that governments and corporations sell war to the populace, and paint those who resist their policies as enemies of the state. All that, and it's a hell of a fun read too. There hasn't been a meat-and-potatoes SF novel this well-crafted and thoughtful about its tropes in years, and as much as it's been lauded (including nominations for the Hugo and the Clarke), I don't think The Light Brigade has gotten anywhere near the recognition it deserved.

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez (review)

If Hurley's The Light Brigade has been under-recognized, Simon Jimenez's debut novel, The Vanished Birds, appears to have flown almost completely under the radar. Which is a great shame, and at the same time somewhat understandable. The Vanished Birds never quite commits to a mode. It's a literary SF novel that is also about space empires and Alfred Bester-like excess. A Firefly-esque space freighter story that is also deeply suspicious of some of that subgenre's core assumptions. A tale of found family that casually tears that family apart, offering its survivors only a partial, years-delayed reunion. It is, in short, never entirely one thing. But in that multifaceted quality also lies the book's strength, for those who are willing to overcome their assumptions about it. The Vanished Birds is a journey through a populated galaxy that is at once lyrical and enraging. It imagines a future that is fantastical and at the same time all too familiar, a world where the rich continue to exploit the poor, and where those in the middle try to keep their heads down and survive, until they discover something they can't help fighting for. It offers its characters only the slightest hint of triumph, but even that feels like enough, thanks to Jimenez's palpable love and compassion for them. It's a stunning SF debut that I hope more people will discover and embrace in coming years.

Mary Toft: Or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer

The key to Palmer's luxurious, funny, engrossing historical novel is that the solution to its mystery is obvious almost from the first page. How is the farmer's wife Mary Toft, an illiterate villager in 18th century England, giving birth to dissected rabbits? A moment's thought will reveal the answer, and the business of Palmer's novel is instead to ask why so many figures, in Mary's town and from further afield, nevertheless refuse to admit it. Through that question, Palmer examines issues that feel achingly relevant to our present moment: the growing disdain towards expertise, the willingness to believe nonsense if it reinforces your worldview, the refusal to accept reality even when it's been definitively proven. None of it would work if the novel's main characters, Mary's doctor John Harwood and his assistant Zachary, were not so sympathetic, kind and loving even as they refuse to see what is in front of them. By focusing the novel on them, Palmer reminds us that the choice of magical thinking over rationality isn't reserved only for bad, selfish people, and that what distinguishes our heroes from such people is, instead, their willingness to admit that they were wrong, and to ask why they refused to see the truth.

Polite Society by Mahesh Rao (review)

Modern day retellings of Jane Austen novels have been a successful subgenre since at least Bridget Jones's Diary, and after a while it's tempting to assume that none of them will ever do anything new, or find something different to say about their original. Mahesh Rao blows those expectations out of the water with his retelling of Emma, not only by setting it in a milieu—the old money families of New Delhi—that I wasn't very familiar with, but by getting at the very heart of the original novel, its obsession with class. Even more than Austen, Rao feels free to let his heroine, aspiring novelist, instagram queen, and unbearable busybody Ania Khurana, be horrible, and to stress the fact that much of her horribleness coms from her wealth and her thoughtless attitude towards it. He also spends more time outside of Ania's point of view, touching on class relations from the perspective of people in the lower echelons, and bringing in complicating issues such as Hindu nationalism and India's relationship with its former colonizers. The result is a highly entertaining social novel (and an occasionally sweet romance) that doesn't shy away from the fundamental awfulness of its society.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

One of the longest books I have ever read fortunately turned out to also be one of the best books I have ever read. This wide-ranging, multifaceted take on India in the early fifties, just after independence and partition, begins with a simple marriage plot—the desire of Mrs. Rupa Mehra to marry off her younger daughter Lata, and Lata's own romantic adventures with three different suitors, each wonderful and inappropriate in different ways. But the novel quickly branches out from Lata's story to become many different things. It follows politicians as they attempt to enact land reform, explores sectarian conflict between Hindus and Muslims, travels to the countryside to visit with aristocrats, small landowners, and hardscrabble serfs. Its characters are up-and-coming executives, hardworking shoemakers, status-obsessed academics, feverishly dedicated socialists, and wastrels in love with women they can never have. Together they form a panoramic portrait of India that is never less than fascinating, and whose characters feel vibrant and familiar. Running through it all is Seth's awareness, writing forty years after the fact, of how hard reactionary forces were working, even at the time, to make the newly-independent India a place of exploitative class structures, rigid caste differences, and sectarian division. Those who love hierarchy, cruelty, and power for its own sake appear in almost every one of the novel's storylines, and reading it nearly thirty years after its publication, it's easy to see how prescient it was about how those forces could gain ascendence—not only in India but in many other parts of the world.

Honorable Mentions:

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (review) - Mantel's long-awaited conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy doesn't do much that the previous two volumes didn't do, which is perhaps why it's fallen a bit under the radar after the flurry of excitement that greeted its publication. But what that actually means is that this is, once again, a rich and fascinating historical novel starring a complicated hero who becomes, in Mantel's hands, a staunch humanist, casting a skeptical, class-conscious eye on the events of Henry VIII's reign. You could do far worse, in 2020, than let Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell carry you off into the past on such an expertly-crafted journey.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor - This brutal, tough-to-read novel offers multiple perspectives on the murder of a woman—believed to have been a witch—in a small, poverty-stricken Mexican town. We hear from the victim's friends, from her murderer's relatives, and from those more distantly connected to the murder, whose lives were nevertheless irretrievably disrupted. With each narrative, our awareness grows that the real crimes here are poverty, misogyny, and a social system that has been so hollowed out by crime and corruption that it no longer even tries to protect the weak. The novel's conclusion—that this act of violence is only one among many—is as necessary as it is gutting.

The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner - It's hard to sum up Warner's 1948 historical novel (reprinted last year by NYRB Classics), because the novel itself doesn't try to be about anything, except the day-to-day lives of the nuns in a small, rural convent in 14th century England. Events come and go—plagues, new bishops, the construction and destruction of a new spire. Novices arrive at the convent, become nuns, and grow into leadership positions. Abbesses arrive and are replaced. And yet nothing really changes, because the lives of these women have been dedicated to a renunciation of the world, and thus of any real possibility of change. The result is surprisingly gripping, thanks to Warner's effortless grasp of the rhythms and rituals of her setting. 


S Johnson said…
Vanished Birds did not work for me. If I was to pick one single thing to try to epitomize the many problems in this, the bird motif a major character selects in designing the exterior of a space habitat (in a novel entitle Vanished Birds, after all) is not just symbolic in the text, but is regarded as a creative peak. The inhabitants of a space habitat do not stroll around it, to enjoy the view, they live inside it. It is moot what the exterior would really mean to them. And for me it is moot what much of this novel really means.

By coincidence, I read this novel around the time I read John Scalzi's The Last Emperox. It was striking how similar the economies of Vanished Birds and that novel were, even if Scalzi was more internally coherent. The thing is, to read a novel as relating to rich and poor, a believable background of how that works is essential to character motivations making sense. Those who believe ideas and emotions create reality won't have their willing suspension of disbelief crushed I suppose. But I do not think the structural similarities between Vanished Birds and The Last Emperox speak well for either novel. (I do not recommend the Scalzi.)

Similarly, the inability to suspend disbelief despite the most strenuous efforts, made The Light Brigades unreadable. The idea that war in itself is profitable is simply wrong. The costs of winning are high enough that war is generally socialized. Years and years ago the East India Companies had to be supplanted by the state and the costs are no more manageable now than they were then. Even more, the costs of losing are even worse.

War is a subsidy, benefitting the ruling class as a whole, even as it almost invariably costs the whole nation. Real wars require a socioeconomic base, but a universal battlefield would destroy that and end the war in common ruin. Wars are things done to the weaker in far off places. The ludicrous picture in The Light Brigades of corporations actually fighting each other on their own territory, so to speak, simply functions to show what Hurley thinks of people. Well, if you were never tempted to think ill of humanity, perhaps that just means you haven't been paying attention.

LondonKdS said…
Sorry about the delay in commenting, but I just thought that the "space freighter found family" subgenre might originate from the tradition of naval/military space operas depicting idealised military comradeship, and the desire of writers to create something similar without endorsing militarism or imposed hierarchical structures. (I'm thinking, for example, of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the way that the heartwarming ending of its final episode is Picard for the first time joining the regular card game among his senior officers.)

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