The big theme of this year’s list is short stories and short story collections. I’ve recently been drawn to shorter fiction, both as a reader and a writer. I love being able to finish a story in one sitting. The best part of any story is the ending—it makes or breaks the story—which is why I’m not so much a fan of long-running multi-book series (or television shows). There’s only so much time in the day, and while some series are worth the length (like Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle), I can’t afford to read too many series. I prefer standalone novels or something even shorter, like novellas, novelettes, and short stories. By reading short fiction, I’m able to get a complete story with a (hopefully) satisfying ending, plus read a wider selection of different authors and genres.
Aside from the short story collections listed below, I also read many great short stories online this past year at sites such as:
- Daily Science Fiction (including The Simulation Test by me)
- Motherboard’s Terraform
- Nature Futures
- Escape Pod
- Strange Horizons
Now for the list of the top ten fiction books I read in 2018. There are some novels and some short story collections; some science fiction and some literary fiction; some old books and some new.
1. The Philip K. Dick Reader by Philip K. Dick (short stories published between 1953 and 1966)
I first heard of Philip K. Dick through the movies based on his short stories and novels (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck, Screamers, and A Scanner Darkly). Blade Runner and Minority Report especially were two of my favorite movies of all time. Last year I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for Blade Runner, and this year I read the short story that was the basis for Minority Report, as well as “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” (Total Recall), “Paycheck,” and “Second Variety” (Screamers). Reading this collection has cemented PKD as one of my favorite all-time writers. He excelled in the short story format, often focusing on at least one unique (often mind-blowing) sci-fi concept or technology, plus including at least one good (often mind-blowing) twist. Those elements are what made his stories such ripe source material for movies. He was so far ahead of his time, predicting many future technologies and possibilities (both good and bad) that have come to pass. I will continue reading PKD until I finish his entire bibliography, which thanks to his prolificness, is quite large.
2. The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem (1965)
This is the first book I’ve read by the late great Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, and it really blew me away. This is a series of short stories featuring the same characters, two inventors, and each story explores robots, artificial intelligence, and related themes. They are all deep and philosophical while also seriously funny. Plus, even while translated from Polish, the prose is lyrical and poetic. Like PKD, Lem was ahead of his time, and I will be seeking out more of his work.
3. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)
Catcher in the Rye is one of my favorite novels of all time. It was the book that inspired me to start writing prose instead of just screenplays. Salinger showed me the things novels could do that movies couldn’t by getting fully inside the consciousness of a fascinating character like Holden Caulfield. Franny and Zooey is quite different from Catcher, but it still has that unique Salinger voice. This book touches on religious, spiritual, philosophical, and existential themes, which I find interesting. But really, this book is Salinger’s confession for why he would stop publishing in his prime and become a recluse (with Zooey’s acting career as a cipher for his writing career). Salinger found it a vicious desire to need to be read and validated by others. It is egoistic and leads to a life of misery because those desires can never be fulfilled, as he found out after the overwhelming critical and commercial success of Catcher in the Rye. He realized a quiet private life was better than chasing fame and fortune.
“I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theatre Department. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.”
4. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu (2016)
Ken Liu is one of my favorite short story writers working today, exploring topics and themes similar to Ted Chiang, who topped last year’s list, although Liu differs in that he is much more prolific than Chiang. Many of Liu’s stories are available to read online. He writes both science fiction and fantasy, but I prefer his near-future hard science fiction dealing with artificial intelligence and other impending technology.
5. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (1944)
Borges is the epitome of writing a story as short as possible while still being extremely deep and profound. In fact, some of his short stories are merely synopses of fictional books. Many of the stories in this collection are meta in that respect, and they are some of the most philosophically stimulating ever written. “The Library of Babel” is only 2,700 words, but there have probably been millions of words written and spoken by others interpreting it. That is the power of a great short story.
6. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu) (2014)
This is a Chinese hard science fiction novel about people on Earth making contact with an alien civilization. It’s more like Arrival than Independence Day, delving deep into physics (such as the titular three-body problem) and philosophy (such as the Fermi Paradox).
7. Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman (1992)
This is not a traditional novel with a narrative so much as a series of philosophical thought experiments about time and physics.
8. Third Class Superhero by Charles Yu (2006)
This is an early short story collection by another one of my favorite current-day writers. Yu has also worked as a writer on one of my favorite current TV shows: Westworld.
9. The Postmortal by Drew Magary (2011)
I first discovered Drew Magary from his sportswriting on Deadspin. This was his first novel, set in the near-future after a cure for aging has been invented. The book smartly and humorously explores the ramifications of a world full of immortal people.
10. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (1999)
Cryptonomicon is an outlier on this list in that it is a lonnnnnnng book. I might have liked it more if it was a bit more condensed with less subplots, but Stephenson is a genius, so it was worth it. The book is set in two timelines (World War II and the present day) and involves cryptography, code-breaking, digital currency (years before Bitcoin), and a treasure hunt for Nazi gold.
- Paradox Bound by Peter Clines (2017) — Time travel thriller + American history
- Artemis by Andy Weir (2017) — Moon noir
- The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (2016) — A revisionist take on Lovecraft
- Strange Weather by Joe Hill (2017) — Four short novels: I liked “Snapshot” the best.
- Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill (2017)
- A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem (2016)
- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (2006)
- All Systems Red by Martha Wells (2017)
- Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer (2013)
- The First Bad Man by Miranda July (2015)
- Duel: Terror Stories by Richard Matheson (1971)
- Blindsight by Peter Watts (2006)
- The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories by Simon Rich (2013)
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)