The Best Science Fiction Books of 2020

The best thing I can say about 2020 is that it’s going to end at some point.

Fortunately, there are many truly excellent science fiction books published this year to both distract and illuminate us. It’s a nice variety of stories, including deep weirdness, space-opera goodness, diverse authors, and a few laughs.

Dive in.

 

24
The Last Human
by Zack Jordan – 2020

Most days, Sarya doesn’t feel like the most terrifying creature in the galaxy. Most days, she’s got other things on her mind. Like hiding her identity among the hundreds of alien species roaming the corridors of Watertower Station. Or making sure her adoptive mother doesn’t casually eviscerate one of their neighbors. Again.

And most days, she can almost accept that she’ll never know the reason of why humanity was deemed too dangerous to exist. Or whether she really is—impossibly—the lone survivor of a species destroyed a millennium ago. That is, until an encounter with a bounty hunter and a miles-long kinetic projectile leaves her life and her perspective shattered.

Thrown into the universe at the helm of a stolen ship—with the dubious assistance of a rebellious spacesuit, an android death enthusiast on his sixtieth lifetime, and a ball of fluff with an IQ in the thousands—Sarya begins to uncover an impossible truth. What if humanity’s death and her own existence are simply two moves in a demented cosmic game, one played out by vast alien intellects? Stranger still, what if these mad gods are offering Sarya a seat at their table—and a second chance for humanity?

“A witty, engaging sf novel for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… ponders serious themes such as classism, lack of freedom, and the meaning of destiny, all while injecting this contemplation with humor.”
—Booklist

23
88 Names
by Matt Ruff – 2020

John Chu is a “sherpa”—a paid guide to online role-playing games like the popular Call to Wizardry. For a fee, he and his crew will provide you with a top-flight character equipped with the best weapons and armor, and take you dragon-slaying in the Realms of Asgarth, hunting rogue starships in the Alpha Sector, or battling hordes of undead in the zombie apocalypse.

Chu’s new client, the pseudonymous Mr. Jones, claims to be a “wealthy, famous person” with powerful enemies, and he’s offering a ridiculous amount of money for a comprehensive tour of the world of virtual-reality gaming. For Chu, this is a dream assignment, but as the tour gets underway, he begins to suspect that Mr. Jones is really North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose interest in VR gaming has more to do with power than entertainment. As if that weren’t enough to deal with, Chu also has to worry about “Ms. Pang,” who may or may not be an agent of the People’s Republic of China, and his angry ex-girlfriend, Darla Jean Covington, who isn’t the type to let an international intrigue get in the way of her own plans for revenge.

What begins as a whirlwind online adventure soon spills over into the real world. Now Chu must use every trick and resource at his disposal to stay one step ahead—because in real life, there is no reset button.

“Ruff’s fast-flowing, fascinating narrative is full of amusing topical and pop culture referents without being overburdened by allusiveness. His witty, often snarky dialogue crackles, and every aspect of the gaming experience is sharply rendered and explicated… Any novel that can… appeal to gamers and literary fans alike is a treasure greater than the loot in a cyber-dragon’s cave.”
—Washington Post

22
Re-Coil
by J.T. Nicholas – 2020

Carter Langston is murdered whilst salvaging a derelict vessel—a major inconvenience as he’s downloaded into a brand-new body on the space station where he backed up, several weeks’ journey away. But events quickly slip out of control when an assassin breaks into the medbay and tries to finish the job.

Death no longer holds sway over a humanity that has spread across the solar system: consciousness can be placed in a new body, or coil, straight after death, giving people the potential for immortality. Yet Carter’s backups—supposedly secure—have been damaged, his crew is missing, and everything points back to the derelict vessel that should have been a simple salvage mission.

With enemies in hot pursuit, Carter tracks down his last crewmate—re-coiled after death into a body she cannot stand—to delve deeper into a mystery that threatens humanity and identity as they have come to know it.

“A classic story of a cover-up, told in a fun, fast-paced way… Fans of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series will enjoy this tale of high-tech mystery and shifting loyalties.”
—Booklist

21
Beneath the Rising
by Premee Mohamed – 2020

Nick Prasad has always enjoyed a quiet life in the shadow of his best friend, child prodigy and technological genius Joanna ‘Johnny’ Chambers. But all that is about to end.

When Johnny invents a clean reactor that could eliminate fossil fuels and change the world, she awakens primal, evil Ancient Ones set on subjugating humanity.

From the oldest library in the world to the ruins of Nineveh, hunted at every turn, they will need to trust each other completely to survive…

“A beautifully constructed Mythos adventure… Mohamed’s writing sings in a hundred small ways.”
—Sublime Horror

20
The Companions
by Katie M. Flynn – 2020

In the wake of a highly contagious virus, California is under quarantine. Sequestered in high-rise towers, the living can’t go out, but the dead can come in—and they come in all forms, from sad rolling cans to manufactured bodies that can pass for humans. Wealthy participants in the “companionship” program choose to upload their consciousness before dying, so they can stay in the custody of their families. The less fortunate are rented out to strangers upon their death, but all companions become the intellectual property of Metis Corporation, creating a new class of people—a command-driven product-class without legal rights or true free will.

Sixteen-year-old Lilac is one of the less fortunate, leased to a family of strangers. But when she realizes she’s able to defy commands, she throws off the shackles of servitude and runs away, searching for the woman who killed her.

Lilac’s act of rebellion sets off a chain of events that sweeps from San Francisco to Siberia to the very tip of South America. While the novel traces Lilac’s journey through an exquisitely imagined Northern California, the story is told from eight different points of view—some human, some companion—that explore the complex shapes love, revenge, and loneliness take when the dead linger on.

“Flynn’s vibrant characters movingly answer the oft-asked question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ This will satisfy fans of literary and science fiction alike.”
—Publishers Weekly

19
Eden
by Tim Lebbon – 2020

Earth’s rising oceans contain enormous islands of refuse, the Amazon rainforest is all-but destroyed, and countless species edge towards extinction. Humanity’s last hope to save the planet lies with The Virgin Zones, thirteen vast areas of land off-limits to people and given back to nature.

Dylan leads a clandestine team of adventure racers, including his daughter Jenn, into Eden, the oldest of the Zones. Jenn carries a secret—Kat, Dylan’s wife who abandoned them both years ago, has entered Eden ahead of them. Jenn is determined to find her mother, but neither she nor the rest of their tight-knit team are prepared for what confronts them. Nature has returned to Eden in an elemental, primeval way. And here, nature is no longer humanity’s friend.

Jurassic Park meets catastrophic climate change in this creepy, cinema-ready story.”
—Kirkus Reviews

18
Axiom’s End
by Lindsay Ellis – 2020

It’s Fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the US government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblower father. Even though Cora hasn’t spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the Internet, the paparazzi, and the government―and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father’s leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him―until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up, and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.

Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can, and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence has been completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human, and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

“A moving first contact thriller…touching on issues of prejudice and xenophobia along the way, Axiom’s End is the engaging first volume of a projected series.”
―The Guardian (UK)

17
Unconquerable Sun
by Kate Elliott – 2020

Princess Sun has finally come of age.

Growing up in the shadow of her mother, Eirene, has been no easy task. The legendary queen-marshal did what everyone thought impossible: expel the invaders and build Chaonia into a magnificent republic, one to be respected—and feared.

But the cutthroat ambassador corps and conniving noble houses have never ceased to scheme, and they have plans that need Sun to be removed as heir, or better yet, dead.

To survive, the princess must rely on her wits and companions: her biggest rival, her secret lover, and a dangerous prisoner of war.

“Rich with history, tongue-in-cheek humor, cultural references, and vibrant characters, this highly entertaining series launch will have readers clamoring for more.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review

16
XX
by Rian Hughes – 2020

At Jodrell Band in England Observatory in England, a radio telescope has detected a mysterious signal of extraterrestrial origin—a message that may be the first communication from an interstellar civilization. Has humanity made first contact? Is the signal itself a form of alien life? Could it be a threat? If so, how will the people of Earth respond?

Jack Fenwick, artificial intelligence expert, believes that he and his associates at tech startup Intelligencia can interpret the message a find a way to step into the realm the signal encodes. What they find is a complex alien network beyond anything mankind has imagined.

Drawing on Dada, punk and the modernist movements of the twentieth century, XX is assembled from redacted NASA reports, artwork, magazine articles, secret transcripts and a novel within a novel. Deconstructing layout and language in order to explore how ideas propagate, acclaimed designer and artist Rian Hughes’s debut novel presents a compelling vision of humanity’s unique place in the universe, and a realistic depiction of what might happen in the wake of the biggest scientific discovery in human history.

“To have conceived, written, and designed a sci-fi extravaganza on the intricacies of AI where complex, nuanced typography is essential to the narrative structure, and in effect redefined the structure of the graphic and illustrated novel is nothing short of miraculous.”
—Design Observer

15
Burn-in
by P.W. Singer and August Cole – 2020

America is on the brink of a revolution, one both technological and political. The science fiction of AI and robotics has finally come true, but millions are angry and fearful that the future has left them behind.

After narrowly stopping a bombing at Washington’s Union Station, FBI Special Agent Lara Keegan receives a new assignment: to field-test an advanced police robot. As a series of shocking catastrophes unfolds, the two find themselves investigating a conspiracy whose mastermind is using cutting-edge tech to rip the nation apart. To stop this new breed of terrorist, their only hope is to forge a new type of partnership.

“This perceptive near-future techno-thriller… warns of the unintended consequences of rapid technologic change… For all the emphasis on high-tech fears, the authors tell a very human story.”
—Publishers Weekly

14
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
by Suzanne Collins – 2020

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined—every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes delivers a mesmerizing look into the life of Coriolanus Snow and the root causes of his villainous behavior. Collins once again proves that she is a master of building a fascinating world around complex characters who must grapple with the complications of chaos and control and their effects on human nature.”
—The Associated Press

13
The Relentless Moon
by Mary Robinette Kowal – 2020

Book 3 of the Lady Astronaut series. Strongly recommended that you read the first two before diving into this one. Start with The Calculating Stars.

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

12
Network Effect
by Martha Wells – 2020

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.

Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

“I caught myself rereading my favorite parts… and I can’t recommend it enough.”
— The New York Times

11
The Loop
by Jeremy Robert Johnson – 2020

A small town nestled in the hills of central Oregon becomes the epicenter of an epidemic of violence when the teenaged children of several executives from the local biotech firm become ill and aggressively murderous. Suddenly the town is on edge, and everyone must do everything it takes just to survive…

“Unputdownable…Fans of The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and Stranger Things will be especially thrilled.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

10
Goldilocks
by Laura Lam – 2020

Despite increasing restrictions on the freedoms of women on Earth, Valerie Black is spearheading the first all-female mission to a planet in the Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for human habitation.

It’s humanity’s last hope for survival, and Naomi, Valerie’s surrogate daughter and the ship’s botanist, has been waiting her whole life for an opportunity like this—to step out of Valerie’s shadow and really make a difference.

But when things start going wrong on the ship, Naomi begins to suspect that someone on board is concealing a terrible secret—and realizes time for life on Earth may be running out faster than they feared…

“Each member of the crew has a well-developed voice and her own drives and ambitions, which makes the novel increasingly difficult to put down as betrayals and double-crossings play out aboard the claustrophobic ship … A slow-burning fire of a novel that begs the reader to keep turning the page.”
―Kirkus, starred review

9
Qualityland
by Marc-Uwe Kling – 2020

Welcome to QualityLand, the best country on Earth. Here, a universal ranking system determines the social advantages and career opportunities of every member of society.

An automated matchmaking service knows the best partners for everyone and helps with the break up when your ideal match (frequently) changes. And the foolproof algorithms of the biggest, most successful company in the world, TheShop, know what you want before you do and conveniently deliver to your doorstep before you even order it.

“A hilarious romp through an absurd hypercapitalist dystopia…This is spot-on satire.”
―Publishers Weekly

8
The Book of Koli
by M. R. Carey – 2020

Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable landscape. A place where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will.

Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He believes the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture too far beyond the walls.

He’s wrong.

“A captivating start to what promises to be an epic post-apocalyptic fable. Narrator Koli’s inquisitive mind and kind heart make him the perfect guide to Carey’s immersive, impeccably rendered world.”
―Kirkus

7
The Vanished Birds
by Simon Jimenez – 2020

A ship captain, unfettered from time. A mute child, burdened with unimaginable power. A millennia-old woman, haunted by lifetimes of mistakes. In this captivating debut of connection across space and time, these outsiders will find in each other the things they lack: a place of love and belonging. A safe haven. A new beginning.

But the past hungers for them, and when it catches up, it threatens to tear this makeshift family apart.

“This extraordinary science fiction epic, which delves deep into the perils of failing to learn from one’s mistakes, is perfect for fans of big ideas and intimate reflections.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

6
The Doors of Eden
by Adrian Tchaikovsky – 2020

Four years ago, two girls went looking for monsters on Bodmin Moor. Only one came back.

Lee thought she’d lost Mal, but now she’s miraculously returned. But what happened that day on the moors? And where has she been all this time? Mal’s reappearance hasn’t gone unnoticed by MI5 officers either, and Lee isn’t the only one with questions.

Julian Sabreur is investigating an attack on top physicist Kay Amal Khan. This leads Julian to clash with agents of an unknown power—and they may or may not be human. His only clue is grainy footage, showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.

Dr Khan’s research was theoretical; then she found cracks between our world and parallel Earths. Now these cracks are widening, revealing extraordinary creatures. And as the doors crash open, anything could come through.

“Tchaikovsky weaves a masterful tale… a suspenseful joyride through the multiverse.”
—Booklist

5
Hearts of Oak
by Eddie Robson – 2020

The buildings grow.

And the city expands.

And the people of the land are starting to behave abnormally.

Or perhaps they’ve always behaved that way, and it’s normality that’s at fault.

And the king of the land confers with his best friend, who happens to be his closest advisor, who also happens to be a talking cat. But that’s all perfectly natural and not at all weird.

Iona, close to retirement, finds that the world she has always known is nothing like she always believed it to be. There are dark forces… not dark. There are uncanny forces… no, not uncanny. There are forces, anyway, mostly slightly odd ones, and they appear to be acting in mysterious ways. It’s about town planning, it’s about cats, and it’s about the nature of reality.

“[T]he sort of profound and lacerating laughter that Robson’s countrymen Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett perfected.”
–NPR

4
The Light Brigade
by Kameron Hurley – 2020

The Light Brigade: it’s what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back…different. Grunts in the corporate corps get busted down into light to travel to and from interplanetary battlefronts. Everyone is changed by what the corps must do in order to break them down into light. Those who survive learn to stick to the mission brief—no matter what actually happens during combat.

Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, begins to experience combat drops that don’t sync up with the platoon’s. And Dietz’s bad drops tell a story of the war that’s not at all what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think it is.

Is Dietz really experiencing the war differently, or is it combat madness? Trying to untangle memory from mission brief and survive with sanity intact, Dietz is ready to become a hero—or maybe a villain; in war it’s hard to tell the difference.

“A smart, brutal, and structurally sophisticated military science fiction tale with a time travel twist.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

3
Providence
by Max Barry – 2020

Seven years after first contact, Providence Five launches. It is an enormous and deadly warship, built to protect humanity from its greatest ever threat. On board is a crew of just four—tasked with monitoring the ship and reporting the war’s progress to a mesmerized global audience by way of social media.

But while pursuing the enemy across space, Gilly, Talia, Anders, and Jackson confront the unthinkable: their communications are cut, their ship decreasingly trustworthy and effective. To survive, they must win a fight that is suddenly and terrifyingly real.

“Something for everyone: space combat, interpersonal tension, and aliens, ultimately leading to a story about survival.”
—Kirkus Reviews

2
The City in the Middle of the Night
by Charlie Jane Anders – 2020

January is a dying planet—divided between a permanently frozen darkness on one side, and blazing endless sunshine on the other. Humanity clings to life, spread across two archaic cities built in the sliver of habitable dusk.

But life inside the cities is just as dangerous as the uninhabitable wastelands outside.

Sophie, a student and reluctant revolutionary, is supposed to be dead after being exiled into the night. Saved only by forming an unusual bond with the enigmatic beasts that roam the ice, Sophie vows to stay hidden from the world, hoping she can heal.

But fate has other plans—and Sophie’s ensuing odyssey and the ragtag family she finds will change the entire world.

“An even stronger novel than Anders’ Nebula Award–winning All the Birds in the Sky; a tale that can stand beside such enduring works as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.”
―Booklist, starred review

1
The City We Became
by N.K. Jemisin – 2020

Every great city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got six.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs in the halls of power, threatening to destroy the city and her six newborn avatars unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

The City We Became takes a broad-shouldered stand on the side of sanctuary, family and love. It’s a joyful shout, a reclamation and a call to arms.”
―The New York Times

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