2022, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 97 books in 2022. A large number by anyone's standards, but particularly impressive to me when I consider that for the first two months of the year, I barely had the energy to read anything. A house move sapped my ability to concentrate on the written word. In January, for example, while preoccupied with packing, moving trucks, and endless bureaucracy, and inspired by the recently-released movie, I read only the first two Dune sequels. Which might have occasioned some glaring looks from my TBR pile, except that it was all in boxes.

Packing my books, in fact, was an occasion to think about my reading habits. Nothing makes you wonder whether the time reading it was well-spent so much as looking at a book and realizing that you're not willing to expend box space on it. And even in my new home (with a bit more space to spread out) I've found myself hesitant to bring more physical books into it. With every paper book I purchase, I wonder whether I will really be able to justify keeping it in my life for years to come. (Though, having made them the recipients of many of my cast-offs during the move, I've also become more proactive about passing books on to my local library.) At the same time, I've also started thinking about "upgrading" the classic, tried-and-true entries on my shelves that I've owned for years, sometimes in very tattered editions. Just recently I received new copies of The Lord of the Rings to replace the ones I got as Hanukkah gifts in my teens.

Despite external distractions and philosophical musings, however, 2022's reading ultimately proved worth celebrating. I had several long periods where I was just in a reading zone, and every book seemed to reveal new and exciting horizons. When I was offered the chance to cover the Guardian's SFF column this summer, I accepted with a bit of trepidation, because committing to reading five or six books in a few short weeks, and to having something to say about each one, is something that can easily go wrong. But not only did I sail through the reading, I enjoyed every bit of it. Though the high of that period has faded a little—as I approach the end of the year I'm once again in a bit of a reading rut, and hopeful that I'll be able to reboot in January—when I sat down to prepare this list, I found many books that wowed and surprised me, books that would almost certainly make the cut if I were getting ready for another move.

(For more list-making, check out my writing at Lawyers, Guns & Money: I have a piece on the year's gaming, and another on the best TV of the year. I may write a best movies list some time next week.)

Best Books of the Year:

Civilizations by Laurent Binet (English translation by Sam Taylor)

Binet's fascinating, experimental, hilarious alternate history imagines a world where a confluence of events grants the Inca empire some degree of protection against European colonization, and in which the tables are very quickly turned: the Inca prince Atahualpa lands his ships in Europe, takes advantage of the political upheaval of the Thirty Years War and of discontent among the peasants, and quickly establishes a colonial presence that sweeps the existing social and political order in its path. The novel's sense of estrangement comes from the way its narrative keeps upending things that we've been taught to think of as absolutes—everything from key figures in European history being reduced to beggars in their own palaces, to the negation of monumental historical events such as the English Reformation, to Atahualpa ordering the culling of sheep because he wants their grazing lands repurposed for the growing of quinoa. The point, of course, is that the upheavals and transformations wrought by European colonizers were no less unimaginable, or would be if we hadn't been taught to unsee the history and existing social order of those they colonized. Binet slips this message in like a stiletto, carried by his arch tone and slab-thick irony, which constantly leave you wondering how seriously you're meant to take the whole exercise. (Full review.)

The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings 

Giddings's second novel takes place in a modern America in which women have magical powers. Or maybe just some of them do, and maybe it's not just women. But the potential of that power has been used as a justification for curtailing the rights of all women, and for mandating restrictive social roles on all of them—women who are not married by age twenty-eight, for example, have to register with the government, and are subject to government oversight and potential imprisonment. It's a setting that seems to promise a Handmaid's Tale-esque dystopia, but what Giddings does with it is ask—in a wry, Kelly Link-esque tone—how people live under conditions of oppression. Heroine Jo has been deemed suspect ever since the disappearance of her mother (not helping matters is the fact that Jo is black, which in the novel's world, like our own, leads to her being over-policed), but she still lives a fairly normal life, kvetching about work, binging TV with her friends, tiptoeing around the traps set by her society's distrust of her almost as a matter of course. When a condition of her mother's will sends Jo to an island that turns out to be a retreat for witches, she's faced with complicated choices. Should she live a free life, cut off from the world? Can she love a man who, though he respects her, is seen by everyone around them as her keeper? The Women Could Fly is gentle and at points quite funny, but it packs a powerful punch, as it asks its heroine what she's willing to give up for a good life, and what that even looks like.

The Moonday Letters by Emmi Itäranta (translated by the author)

I don't know if this will be reflected in the upcoming award season, but to me this is the science fiction novel of the year. In the 22nd century, humanity has colonized the solar system, building habitats on planets, moons, and orbital cities. Those who remain on the ecologically ravaged Earth are an underclass, working dangerous environmental remediation jobs, servicing the theme parks where off-world tourists come to experience a shadow of what the planet once was, or scrambling for the right to emigrate. The setting is reminiscent of books like Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, but Itäranta's spin on it is very much her own. First, The Moonday Letters is a love story, as healer Lumi criss-crosses the system in search of her spouse Sol, writing letters to them that detail not only her journey but the growth of their relationship. Second, it's an ecological story that ponders humanity's right to put its stamp on its environment, suggesting that the lucky ones who have escaped Earth's collapse are merely recreating the same economic and social systems that led to that collapse in the first place. Finally, it adds the wrinkle that Lumi is a shaman who heals her patients by traveling to the spirit world, and requires us to sit with the seeming disconnect between that plot thread and the novel's SFnal setting. The result is fascinating along several axes, but all converging on a single question: what makes a home, and how can people find a place for themselves where they can be safe, happy, and loved? (Full review.)

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan 

Retelling historical events in a fantastical or SFnal mode has become something of a subgenre in recent years. Parker-Chan's Hugo-nominated example of the form, a fictionalized account of the rise to power of Chinese emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, is to my mind the best of the bunch despite—or perhaps even because—there is very little actual fantasy in it. What there is, instead, is a complex, multifaceted, hard to put a label on exploration of gender. The society of the novel has extremely rigid gender roles (which are further inflected by nationalism—the Mongol colonizers, for example, perceive Chinese culture as inherently emasculating). This allows heroine Zhu, who at the beginning of the novel takes her dead brother's name in order to gain the safety of a place at the local monastery, to slip through society's cracks, seeing angles that the men around her can't perceive, and coming up with plots that to them would be inconceivable. Other characters in the novel similarly play with gender in order to gain advantage, evade suspicion, and achieve unimaginable goals. This all comes wrapped in a thrilling, expertly-crafted adventure story in which Zhu and the other characters gain power and position. The story is yet to be concluded (a sequel is coming next year) but even taken on its own, She Who Became the Sun is both thrilling and thought-provoking. (Full review.)

The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum 

Further games with gender can be found in Rosenbaum's thrilling far-future planetary romance, which skewers the idea of a post-gender utopia by imagining a world in which gender has no biological underpinnings—the post-humans in the novel's world can choose and change their appearance and genitals at will—but still holds tremendous power over people's social position and expected behavior. In the novel's world, babies are assigned at birth, though metrics that are never made clear, as either Staid—cerebral, timid, chaste—or Vail—emotional, combative, promiscuous. Failure to conform to those types can lead to a loss of social approval, which in turn makes it impossible to marry and have children. The novel mostly follows two teenagers whose growing attraction helps them articulate their dissatisfaction with the roles assigned to them. But that YA-ish premise is deepened and complicated by the more panoramic view Rosenbaum gives us of his world, which is full of gargantuan, Banks-ian touches, and whose society is rarely straightforwardly oppressive. The result is both an exhilarating SF adventure and a narrative of how social change is set in motion, even in a setting whose contours feel entirely alien. (Full review.)

Telluria by Vladimir Sorokin (English translation by Sam Taylor)

I've been itching to talk about this novel (my review of it is forthcoming in Strange Horizons), which to me is both a thrilling feat of literary ventriloquism and one of the most exciting works of science fiction published this year. Set in in a future in which the Russian Federation has fractured into ethnostates, in which a religious war has been raging on the European continent, and vast swathes of Europe have regressed to feudalism, Telluria is named after a drug that allows its users to travel to an alternate world, one that conforms with their wishes, fantasies, and political ambitions. Told in fifty short chapters that range wildly in literary style as well as their characters and settings, Telluria charts how the availability of a concrete, almost-touchable fantasy world has affected reality. The unifying thread that runs through so many of the glimpses it gives us of its world is people who have striven to make their fantasy—be it political, religious, or personal—a reality, and what it feels like to live in a world where the boundaries of what is acceptable, of what makes sense, are determined by the stories people tell themselves. Though published in 2013, Telluria feels entirely apt for our present moment, in which leaders around the world, guided by fantastical narratives about restoring the Russian Empire or securing a future for our trillions of virtual offspring, are trying to reshape reality in their own image.

The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V and Filipe Andrade

I read this comic—the long-awaited trade collection of a strip that I've been hearing tremendous praise for since 2020—around the same time as I watched Netflix's adaptation of The Sandman. The comparison was instructive. Where Netflix, in its haste to retell the comic with painstaking fidelity, created something inert and unnecessary, Laila Starr feels like a story that carries forward the ideas and attitudes that were so groundbreaking when Sandman first appeared thirty years ago, and makes them entirely its own. As humanity approaches the scientific breakthrough of immortality, the god of Death is sent to Earth in the body of a woman, where she experiences the full gamut of human experience (including dying repeatedly in a variety of inventive and painful ways). Along the way she learns about the human condition and ponders the necessity of death. It's a simple story that has been told many times (Gaiman wasn't even the first), but its handling here is both thoughtful and full of distinctive details—not least among them, Andrade's delicate, busy art, which captures scenes urban, rural, and fantastical, making them all look gorgeous and compelling. The only thing to be regretted about this comic is that unlike Sandman, it isn't expanding ever-outward in an increasingly complex story. But taken on its own, it is perfectly formed, both an expansion of an existing tradition, and something entirely new.

The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente  

Valente's hard to categorize book collects a story and a novella set in the same setting and narrated by the same person. As she puts it in the afterword, narrator Tetley Abednego was too delightful to walk away from after just one story. Tetley lives in Garbagetown, a floating garbage patch whose inhabitants painstakingly sort through the detritus of the generations before them—the ones who polluted and destroyed the world—dividing themselves socially based on the kind of garbage they live around. Tetley is a marvelous creation, at once deranged and entirely sane, seemingly the only person in her society not only able to grasp the reality of her situation, but to delight in it. Whereas her neighbors mourn the lost world and long to find a way to restart its technological engine, Tetley sees beauty in Garbagetown, and worries about returning to the ways of the "fuckwits" who destroyed the planet. The resulting story marries Waterworld to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with Tetley trying, in her own phlegmatic but also comfortable-with-violence way, to prevent her neighbors from making the same mistakes as the humans in our time, and to love their world as much as she does. The result is both funny and extremely trenchant, and in a year that delivered some tremendous works of climate fiction, The Past is Red is among the most original and most enjoyable.

Honorable Mentions:

The Actual Star by Monica Byrne - Of all the many climate novels set in three parallel timelines I read this year (a weirdly specific subgenre that only seems to be growing), Byrne's was the most distinctive, and the most fascinating in its depiction of a post-climate-collapse society. From the distant past in which the Maya empire grapples with its looming obsolescence, to a distant future in which Mayan philosophical ideas inform a new, nomadic way of life, Byrne creates entirely plausible alien worlds, and offers a challenging but also compelling vision of the future. (Full review.)

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead - A lighter follow-up to the darker subject matter of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, Whitehead's latest is a heist story that takes place at a fulcrum point in the lifecycle of its titular neighborhood, the point where the last fumes of the Harlem Renaissance burn out, and the urban blight of the mid-twentieth century sets in. The resulting crime story is also a meditation on power, on how systems of exploitation repeatedly assert themselves even as the world around them changes, and on how sometimes, breaking bad is the only way to assert your humanity.

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu - Fantasy author Yu delivered something entirely different in her debut novel, a narrative of a single family as they flee wartorn Afghanistan, spend years in an offshore refugee camp, and finally settle into their new lives in Australia. Told in a lyrical voice that sometimes verges on poetry or fairy tale, and incorporating magical realist elements, On Fragile Waves is hard to categorize. But whatever genre category you choose to put it in, it is a gripping, heart-wrenching story of the toll refugeeism takes on the soul.

Comments

montsamu said…
Well, you've added The Moonday Letters and Telluria to my TBR, so, thanks!

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