The future had a good year in 2016. Great writing, amazing stories, and tons of genre-bending. Fantasy, romance, zombies, data-vampires and more make it into some of the best books of the year. It’s an exciting, wild mix, just like a party with friends, family, bikers, drag queens, drag queen bikers, people from the future, flirty robots, and sentient dogs (not sentient cats—they just eat all the appetizers without talking to anyone).
In this alternate history tale, Japan won World War II and Americans worship their infallible Emperor. Most of them anyway: a man whose job it is to censor video games and a detective team up to investigate the release of an illegal video game (it asks players to imagine a United States that wasn’t defeated). As they dig deeper, they find out there’s a lot more going on than a rogue video game.
“The novel deftly portrays the horrors of oppression but also, with its giant military robots, sumo wrestlers, and body-transforming technology, is a gleeful love letter to Japanese pop culture.”
— Financial Times
Cloudbound is the sequel to the well-regarded Updraft. They’re both about a city of bones that reaches so far into the clouds that the ground is just a legend.
Cloudbound begins after the dust settles from the events of Updraft. The City of living bones begins to die, both physically and politically. Protagonist Nat must explore farther down the bones to find out how to help, but he discovers much more than he expected.
“It’s that rare bird, the follow-up to a highly praised first novel that doesn’t just equal its predecessor’s accomplishments, but exceeds them.”
— Locus Publications
Vicky Peterwald: Rebel wins the prize for Clunkiest Title on this list, but it’s still a fun military SF book.
It’s also the third book in the Vicky Peterwald trilogy. The other two are Vicky Peterwald: Target and Vicky Peterwald: Survivor.
Vicky is the heir apparent to an imperial dynasty. Instead of living in luxury, she joins the navy and eventually leads a growing battle fleet in a rebellion against the tyranny of her stepmother, the Empress. The Empress, of course, sends off her own armada to attack the fleet. Trouble ensues.
Morning Star is the final book in the Red Rising trilogy and a #1 New York Times bestseller.
Revolutionary Darrow is given a second chance to overthrow the government of a class-based future society obsessed with Ancient Rome and segregated by color-coded functions.
“Brown’s vivid, first-person prose puts the reader right at the forefront of impassioned speeches, broken families, and engaging battle scenes that don’t shy away from the gore as this intrastellar civil war comes to a most satisfying conclusion.”
— Publishers Weekly
Written by the editor-in-chief of io9.com, All the Birds in the Sky defies easy classification. It’s a combination of fantasy, sci-fi, and dark humor.
Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during middle school. The development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine certainly complicated matters.
But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them.
“Into each generation of science fiction/fantasydom a master absurdist must fall, and it’s quite possible that with All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders has established herself as the one for the Millennials… As hopeful as it is hilarious, and highly recommended.”
— The New York Times Book Review
It’s been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global micro-democracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.
With power comes corruption. For Ken, this is his chance to do right by the idealistic Policy1st party and get a steady job in the big leagues. For Domaine, the election represents another staging ground in his ongoing struggle against the pax democratica. For Mishima, a dangerous Information operative, the whole situation is a puzzle: how do you keep the wheels running on the biggest political experiment of all time, when so many have so much to gain?
“A frighteningly relevant exploration of how the flow of information can manipulate public opinion…timely and perhaps timeless.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In the not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage. And Briddey Flannigan is delighted when her boyfriend, Trent, suggests undergoing the operation prior to a marriage proposal—to enjoy better emotional connection and a perfect relationship with complete communication and understanding. But things don’t quite work out as planned, and Briddey finds herself connected to someone else entirely—in a way far beyond what she signed up for.
It is almost more than she can handle, especially when the stress of managing her all-too-eager-to-communicate-at-all-times family is already burdening her brain. But that’s only the beginning. As things go from bad to worse, she begins to see the dark side of too much information, and to realize that love—and communication—are far more complicated than she ever imagined.
“In other hands this novel could have been mere cliché, but Willis’ exuberant humor and warmhearted, fast-paced plotting transform it.”
— Kirkus Reviews
Suyana Sapaki survived an assassination attempt and has risen far higher than her opponents ever expected. Now she has to keep her friends close and her enemies closer as she walks a deadly tightrope. One misstep could mean death, or worse in this sequel to Persona.
A year ago, International Assembly delegate Suyana Sapaki barely survived an attempt on her life. Now she’s climbing the social ranks, dating the American Face, and poised for greatness. She has everything she wants, but the secret that drives her can’t stay hidden forever. When she quickly saves herself from a life-threatening political scandal, she gains a new enemy: the public eye.
James S. A. Corey (“Corey” is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) continue their Expanse series juggernaut with this sixth book. Like the first five, it’s fun, fast-moving space opera.
The Free Navy—a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships—has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.
James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Holden for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network.
But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny, and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante’s problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.
A crew of thieves and con artists take on a job that could pay off a lot of debts in a corrupt galaxy where life is cheap and criminals are the best people in it.
The Keiko is a ship of smugglers, soldiers of fortune, and adventurers traveling Earth’s colony planets searching for the next job. And they never talk about their past—until now.
Ichabod Drift, captain of the Keiko, is blackmailed into delivering a special cargo to Earth, and no one can know his ship is there. It’s what they call a dark run, and it may be their last.
“Fans of rip-roaring space adventures will greatly enjoy this one.”
— Publishers Weekly
New Arcadia is a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd.
Hwa forgoes bio-engineered enhancements, making her the last truly organic person left on the rig and an outsider. Still, her record as a fighter means that her services are in high demand. When the youngest Lynch needs training and protection, the family turns to Hwa. But can she protect against increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?
Meanwhile, a series of interconnected murders threatens the city’s stability and heightens the unease of a rig turning over. All signs point to a nearly invisible serial killer, but all of the murders seem to lead right back to Hwa’s front door. Company Town has never been the safest place to be… but now, the danger is personal.
“The world is an updated version of Raymond Chandler’s, with gray morals and broken characters, and Hwa’s internal monologue has just the right balance of introspection and wit…[a] very solid page-turner.”
— Publishers Weekly
Convinced that humanity cannot survive on Earth, the Arkwright Foundation dedicates itself to creating a colony on an Earth-like planet several light years distant. Fueled by Nathan’s legacy, generations of Arkwrights are drawn together, and pulled apart, by the enormity of the task and weight of their name.
“Arkwright is an alternate history, yes, of what we should and could have done. But it’s also a renewed vision of what we still could do. It’s the most optimistically extrovert sci-fi novel to appear for many years, and it lifts the heart like bugles in the morning.”
— Wall Street Journal
When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. Boris’s ex-lover is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin is infatuated with a robotnik—a damaged cyborg soldier who might as well be begging for parts. His father is terminally ill with a multigenerational mind-plague. And a hunted female data-vampire has followed Boris to where she is forbidden to return.
Rising above them is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv, a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful alien entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness—are just the beginning of irrevocable change.
“Tidhar gleefully mixes classic SF concepts with prose styles and concepts that recall the best of world literature.”
— Publishers Weekly
Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer—a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.
Their world is built on technologically-generated abundance and on complex and mandatory systems of labeling all public writing and speech. Gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. Most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic competition is carefully managed by central planners.
And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilze the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…
“Palmer proves that the boundaries of science fiction can be pushed and that history and the future can be married together.”
— Publishers Weekly
Comparisons to Douglas Adams spring to the lips of everyone who’s read this book by the Cuban writer Yoss (pen name for José Miguel Sánchez).
In a distant future in which Latin Americans have pioneered faster-than-light space travel, Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo has a job with large and unusual responsibilities: he’s a veterinarian who specializes in treating enormous alien animals. Mountain-sized amoebas, multisex species with bizarre reproductive processes, razor-nailed, carnivorous humanoid hunters: Dr. Sangan has seen it all. When a colonial conflict threatens the fragile peace between the galaxy’s seven intelligent species, he must embark on a daring mission through the insides of a gigantic creature and find two swallowed ambassadors—who also happen to be his competing love interests.
“An exceptionally enjoyable comic tale set in a fully realized, firmly science-fictional universe.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao—because she might be his next victim.
“A tight-woven, complicated but not convoluted, breathtakingly original space opera.”
— New York Times
A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.
Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.
But some can never stop searching for answers.
“This stellar debut novel . . . masterfully blends together elements of sci-fi, political thriller and apocalyptic fiction. . . . A page-turner of the highest order.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The Wall of Storms is the sequel to the steampunk fantasy The Grace of Kings. It’s also being called “silkpunk,” which author Liu describes as:
“…a blend of science fiction and fantasy. But while steampunk takes as its inspiration the chrome-brass-glass technology aesthetic of the Victorian era, silkpunk draws inspiration from classical East Asian antiquity.”
Think battle kites and airships made of bamboo.
Kuni Garu, now known as Emperor Ragin, runs the archipelago kingdom of Dara, but struggles to maintain progress while serving the demands of the people and his vision. Then an unexpected invading force from the Lyucu empire in the far distant west comes to the shores of Dara—and chaos results.
But Emperor Kuni cannot go and lead his kingdom against the threat himself with his recently healed empire fraying at the seams. Instead, he sends the only people he trusts against the invincible invaders: his children, now grown and ready to make their mark on history.
“Liu’s characters are a delight, the worldbuilding is unusual and impeccable, and the writing is smooth and luminous.”
— Publishers Weekly
Death’s End is the third book in the widely acclaimed Three-Body Problem Series.
Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay. Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge. With human science advancing daily and the Trisolarans adopting Earth culture, it seems that the two civilizations will soon be able to co-exist peacefully as equals without the terrible threat of mutually assured annihilation. But the peace has also made humanity complacent.
Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the early 21st century, awakens from hibernation in this new age. She brings with her knowledge of a long-forgotten program dating from the beginning of the Trisolar Crisis, and her very presence may upset the delicate balance between two worlds. Will humanity reach for the stars or die in its cradle?
“Liu Cixin’s writing evokes the thrill of exploration and the beauty of scale…. Extraordinary.”
― The New Yorker
8 thoughts on “19 Best Science Fiction Books of 2016”
To my shame, I hadn’t heard of a single one of these books! Sleeping Giants sounds awesome, so I’ll start there as I work my way through these early next year 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
Sleeping giant was good but better was Central Station. I thought a lot about the concepts in that book
This looks like an outstanding list, many of them are being added to my ever-expanding universe of Amazon Wish Lists. Thanks Dan!
Have read many of these. Wonder why “The Medusa Chronicles” by Baxter and Reynolds isn’t on it. It’s fantastic. “Death’s End” is jam packed with ideas, but there are serious plot holes. Most interested in Ander’s novel for a next read.
Good call! I totally missed The Medusa Chronicles, but you’re right—it should’ve been on the list.
Cixin Liu baffles me. I struggled through the first two books and gave up. He is a profoundly bad writer. Characters have motivations that are simply not credible. Actions are taken to serve the needs of the author rather than being driven by believable character motivations. Reading his work felt like repeatedly smacking my head with a ball peen hammer. I cannot for the life of me understand the praise his work gets.
Gladdens the heart to see this sensational book in the No.1 spot. Death’s End is about as mind expansive as SF can get. In-credible finish to the 3Body Trilogy. So good.
I’m so excited to read this one. It’s wonderful!!