Five of the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2022

A deep space community, a compelling critique of empire, a UFO novel like no other and more

The best books of 2022

deep wheel

Deep Wheel Orcadia
Harry Josephine Giles (Picador)
Winner of the 2022 Arthur C Clarke award, this is a remarkable feat of language and imagination: a verse novel written in Orcadian Scots, with a lively and inventive southern English translation running along the bottom of the pages. If that sounds forbidding or abstruse, it shouldn’t: Deep Wheel Orcadia is a rattling read. Two characters arrive at the titular deep-space station: Astrid, returning from Mars to her childhood home; and Darling, who is on the run. They join “the thraan mixter-maxter o fock”, a “tossedawkward mix of people” who work the station, mining a strange substance called Light from a nearby gas giant. The small wheel-world is cognate with Giles’s native Orkney in relation to the mainland, and the book details their hard work and hard play: drink and dancing, love and belonging. There is marvellous language on every page, and if the plot is a little pat, the whole makes for an unforgettable engrossment in community and estrangement.

R F Kuang, Babel: an Arcane History (HarperVoyager)

RF Kuang (HarperVoyager)
Kuang’s bestselling alternative history is a complicated love letter to Oxford, encompassing both its beauty and its inescapable complicity with the horrors of imperialism. In the novel’s version of 1828, Britain runs on magical “silver”, and has used its power to conquer much of the world. Robin Swift, a Cantonese orphan brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell, is an enthusiastic student of languages, eager to enrol in Oxford’s translation institute, the titular Babel. The novel is part fluently written narrative, part expert pastiche of academic writing (complete with footnotes) on matters linguistic and etymological. At the heart is a fascinating examination of the way translation works to bridge different languages and cultures by inevitably “traducing” them. A rich, compelling fable, with teeth.

Emily St John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility (Picador)

Sea of Tranquility
Emily St John Mandel (Picador)
The author of Station Eleven weaves a cunning time-travel narrative from four main strands. Young Edwin St Andrew is crossing the Atlantic by steamship in 1912, leaving polite society for the desolate beauty of the Canadian wilderness; in the 23rd century, Olive Llewellyn travels from her moonbase home for a book tour on Earth promoting her latest novel, about a global pandemic; in 2020 a teenage girl called Vincent goes into the Vancouver woodland with a video camera. And in another century, detective Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, hired to investigate a mystery in the North American wilderness, begins to uncover how these timelines interconnect. The novel starts slowly, but builds an inexorable, unputdownable momentum as the various elements cohere: life and counterlife, reality and illusion, love and memory. Distinctive, remarkable work from one of the genre’s major voices.

Paul McAuley, Beyond the Burn Line (Gollancz)

Beyond the Burn Line
Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
A UFO novel like no other. In McAuley’s far future, lights in the sky and alien craft are being observed not by human beings, but by the uplifted forms of animal life that replaced us after our extinction. McAuley’s evolved raccoons are beautifully written, their sane, balanced society a lens through which the failings of humankind are refracted. The slow-burn, immersive story so beguiles the reader that twists and plot reveals are kept effortlessly out of view until being unveiled with maximum effect. McAuley is, for my money, the best writer of SF in Britain today, and here he is at the top of his game.

Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi (Tor)

Tochi Onyebuchi (Tor)
A big, bold future history relating, in expertly orchestrated detail and scope, an exodus from a ruined Earth and the fate of those left behind. It’s the 2050s, and the wealthy are abandoning the planet for more congenial lives in hi-tech space colonies. The poor struggle in the collapsing infrastructure as the rich buy up souvenirs of their old lives, shipping neighbourhoods offworld brick by brick. This is a structurally ambitious novel, fired up with righteous energy: Onyebuchi handles his kaleidoscopic narrative and large cast of characters with aplomb. Fundamentally a satire on gentrification, with space’s “Final Frontier” styled as the new suburbs, Goliath is a giant achievement.

• To browse all science fiction and fantasy books included in the Guardian and Observer’s best books of 2022 visit Delivery charges may apply.


Adam Roberts

The GuardianTramp

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