Christmas gifts 2012: the best science fiction

Adam Roberts picks the best of the year

In September, the critic Paul Kincaid reviewed a clutch of science fiction anthologies for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His conclusion – that on the evidence of what SF itself selects as its best, "the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion" – provoked a gush of debate in the many online venues through which fandom conducts its conversations with itself.

Is it true, as Kincaid suggests, that "science fiction has lost confidence in the future"? Or is the genre still able to do interesting things with its 1950s paradigm of hard science and spaceships zooming between the planets? The galactic defence attorney might point to the fact that three of the year's best SF novels were brilliant variations on familiar genre models: Kim Stanley Robinson's capacious and marvellous future-history 2312 (Harper Voyager), Paul McAuley's scientifically rigorous, beautifully written spacewar novel In the Mouth of the Whale (Gollancz), and Alastair Reynolds's solar-system-spanning Blue Remembered Earth (Gollancz). On the other hand, the galactic prosecutor can certainly call into evidence a great quantity of drearily over-familiar novels and cliché-raddled stories. Contemporary SF is still, predominantly, in dialogue with its own backlist, and there's some truth in Kincaid's diagnosis of "a genre treading water, picking up shiny relics from its own long history as though they were bright new ideas".

The least we're entitled to expect is that writers will rework those old tropes in interesting ways. And some do: Madeline Ashby's vN (Angry Robot) manages to take those generic clichés, robots, and make something distinctively 21st century out of them. Hannu Rajaniemi's The Fractal Prince (Gollancz) spins original variations on core science fiction tropes, but does so in a richly decadent prose a parsec away from Asimov and Heinlein's dry pabulum. And John Scalzi's Redshirts (Tor/Gollancz) – one of the year's stand-out books – stirs up our memories of the original Star Trek in ways both funny and clever.

There have been innovations too. Proof that SF isn't just rocket-ships and rayguns is found in two sensitive, thought-provoking novels about the ethics of where medical science is taking us: Scottish writer Ken MacLeod's Intrusion (Orbit) and German author Juli Zeh's The Method (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer, Harvill Secker). Then there's Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker (Heinemann/Vintage), a crowded carnivalesque masterpiece that is quite unlike other crowded carnivalesque novels you may have read in being both funnier and more estranging. Lavie Tidhar's Osama (PS Books) addresses questions of contemporary terrorism, politics and culpability through the vigorous hokum of pulp noir and alternate history, to vivid effect. The best short-story collection I read this year was Kij Johnson's At the Mouth of the River of Bees (Small Beer Press). She is a writer who is always fresh, always dazzling.

It can be argued that the most significant developments in 2012 were less about content and more about medium. Three examples: Jeff Noon's welcome return to novel-writing after a decade away, Channel SK1N is a powerful satiric phantasmagoria rendered via his brilliantly unsettling prose. But it's not published by a mainstream imprint; instead, it's available as a DRM-free ebook on Noon's own website, Margaret Atwood is currently serialising her new book, Positron, as a series of e-published chapbooks. And then there's Arc, a new online-only SF magazine from the New Scientist stable that launched this year and has been consistently brilliant ( I could add that the best criticism of genre has been appearing online, rather than in print, for many years now.

It's tempting to think that all this online activity is drawing us into an SF-publishing stargate, directing us down disorienting psychedelic corridors to a world in which paper-and-ink books are no more. Nevertheless, my nomination for best SF novel of the year (indeed, for best novel of the year) was published as a hardback by one of the genre's oldest publishers, Gollancz: M John Harrison's extraordinary Empty Space. So perhaps there's life in the old tree book yet.

• Adam Roberts's latest novel is Jack Glass (Gollancz). To order titles with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to


Adam Roberts

The GuardianTramp

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