Ten Best Fiction Books I Read in 2021

Note: The books on this list, with links to purchase, are available at my Bookshop.org page.

1) Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986) and Grimscribe (1991) by Thomas Ligotti (2015)

I was looking forward to reading this double collection of horror short stories after hearing Ligotti be recommended by so many other writers I admire. And I can see why there was so much hype. I was immensely impressed, and Ligotti has become my favorite living horror writer and probably the best writer of weird fiction since Lovecraft. Ligotti is like the Ted Chiang of horror—not in terms of theme or content, but in the fact that they only write short stories and their stories are all fantastic and deep philosophically. Ligotti’s brand of horror is highly cerebral. He is a master of prose style, which is similar to Lovecraft’s in its verbosity and poetic beauty. Ligotti is also similar to Lovecraft in his content and themes—primarily extreme nihilism. His nonfiction book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which I read last year, lays out his antinatalist worldview—a worldview I do not share—though I enjoy reading about those dark themes in fiction. After all, what could be more horrific than the idea that human life doesn’t matter and it would be better if we did not exist?

2) The Shadow Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft (1936)

I read this novella once before several years ago when I first got into Lovecraft, though I did not remember doing so until checking my Goodreads page where I had given it 4-stars. So I apparently liked the story, but it didn’t stick to my memory. Upon re-reading The Shadow out of Time this year, some vague memories of various plot elements came back, but I did not fully understand or appreciate the story the first time around. After becoming more engrossed in Lovecraft’s mythos (and reading and re-reading several other of his stories this past year then listening to the HP Podcraft afterward), I can better appreciate The Shadow out of Time as the masterpiece that it is. It may now rank second only to “Call of Cthulhu” as my favorite Lovecraft story. He is often hailed as a master of horror, but much of his work could equally be classified as science fiction, this story in particular. It deals with aliens, lost ancient civilizations, time travel, and consciousness/body transfers, all topics I am interested in. In classic Lovecraft fashion, he takes those sci-fi elements and filters them through the cosmic horror lens.
At first I found Lovecraft’s antiquated prose overly wordy and as a result it turned me off, but I now love the rich verbosity of his prose, and his style of writing (in addition to his story matter) are among my favorite in all of literature.

3) Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

Dune is one of those books that appears on every all-time best-of list for science fiction. Sometimes you read a book like that and it feels dated or over-hyped, but not in this case. Dune not only met but exceeded my expectations. As a writer myself, I was amazed by what Frank Herbert accomplished. The depth of the world-building was incredible, including entire cultures, religions, languages, political and economic systems. The quality of the prose is of high literary caliber, and the text is full of philosophical wisdom and psychological insight. Next I need to read the rest of the books in the series. (For more thoughts on Dune, see my post comparing the book to the film adaptations.)

4) Permutation City by Greg Egan (1994)

I was looking forward to reading this novel after being amazed by Egan’s short story collection Axiomatic last year. While I preferred his short stories, this book was still impressive. It is a very detailed and scientifically dense realization of a near-future world in which human minds can be copied into digital forms and live in virtual reality environments. Keep in mind this was written in 1994—five years before The Matrix and all the other subsequent books and movies that ripped off—or riffed off—that VR computer simulation concept. I had the same feeling when reading Egan’s collection—that he was so far ahead of his time. Although I am fairly scientifically literate, much of the science (including computer science, evolutionary biology, and quantum physics) went over my head. But I still understood enough to have my mind blown.

5) Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

I first read this book for school in the 8th grade, but honestly I was too young and naive to understand or appreciate it then. I re-read it this year after writing my own spin on Animal Farm in a short story about talking dogs and cats (coming soon). I can now recognize Orwell’s exceptional genius. Animal Farm is an allegorical cautionary tale about how the idealistic vision of an egalitarian utopia can lead to the cold hard reality of a totalitarian dystopia. It also shows how authoritarian regimes maintain control over reality by changing the “facts” and the rules at their whim. People call Orwell a prophet because this book and 1984 have since become reality to some extent. But really, Orwell was just writing about his present. It is a failure of humanity that we continually fall prey to the same failed ideologies and practices of the past.

6) The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s Memory by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

Borges falls into that same category as Liggoti, Chiang, and Lovecraft in that he wrote almost exclusively short stories, and Borges’s fiction might be the most philosophical of them all. Borges has appeared on my previous lists, but this was my first time reading this particular collection, which includes a Lovecraftian tale, “There Are More Things,” a story where Borges encounters a younger version of himself (“The Other”), the first titular story (“The Book of Sand”) about a book with infinite pages, and the other (“Shakespeare’s Memory”) about someone who acquired the full memory of William Shakespeare and passed it on to others. Borges is the master of stories that make you think.

7) My Work is Not Yet Done: Three Tales of Corporate Horror by Thomas Ligotti (2002)

After loving the first Ligotti book I read, naturally I wanted to read more. This book was different than his other collections, in that the main titular story is longer (a novella) and more plot-heavy than his shorter stories. As the subtitle implies, this is a corporate workplace horror, inspired by Ligotti’s years of working a soulless corporate job. It’s sort of like a dark horror version of my novella, Work for Idle Hands, though Ligotti’s story did not inspire mine in any way as I read it after. There are some similarities but they are ultimately quite different.

8) The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

I loved the Lord of the Rings movies when they first came out, but I never read any of Tolkien’s books. I did not enjoy the later Hobbit movies as they felt too long and bloated. The Lord of the Rings was three movies based on three long books, and The Hobbit was three movies based on one short book. But the book itself was great, and I definitely plan to read the LOTR eventually—I just need to carve out the time to do so.

9) Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

I absolutely loved the beginning of Dracula, but it dragged through the middle before getting slightly better again at the end. The first four chapters would make a perfect self-contained horror novella. They included just the excerpts from Jonathan Harker’s journal and letters, describing his experiences trapped inside Dracula’s castle. But after that, when the story expands to other characters’ journals and letters, the novel loses steam and drags on with a lot of repetitive and unnecessary scenes until Dracula returns toward the end. I still enjoyed the book, but the latter parts were merely good while the beginning was truly great.

10) Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott (1884)

Flatland is a mind-expanding story about geometry, physics, and our perception of reality. The story is told from the perspective of a two-dimensional shape exploring higher dimensions. It can also be read as a metaphor for people’s inability to see reality fully and how some react with hostility toward those who try to expand their vision.

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical by author):

  • Hollywood by Charles Bukowski (1989)
  • Nocturnes by John Connolly (2004)
  • A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977) – See my post on the movie.
  • The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth by John Michael Greer (2016) — A revisionist take on Lovecraft where the Old Ones are good.
  • Speculative Los Angeles edited by Denise Hamilton (2021) – I read this collection (or listened to the audiobook) because Ben H. Winters and Charles Yu each had a story in it, but theirs proved to be the only ones I liked.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey (2011) – This started out really good as an intriguing post-apocalyptic sci-fi mystery, but the final two acts (of five) dragged out, losing steam toward the end.
  • Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman (2008)
  • Run Program by Scott Meyer (2017)
  • Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970) — Some great concepts and ideas but not especially well-written. Would make for a good movie though.
  • Alongside Night by J. Neil Schulman (1979) – Like Atlas Shrugged, I found the philosophy in the book more interesting than the plot and characters. In this case the philosophy is agorism, or countereconomics. Alongside Night is especially prescient now with rising inflation, which is an important aspect of the book, set in a near-future America.
  • The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy (1886)
  • True Names by Vernor Vinge (1984) – An early cyberpunk vision of of life in virtual reality.
  • The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E. Lockhart (2011) – A collection of short stories by various writers, set within the Lovecraft mythos. There were a couple of good stories but most were mediocre.
  • Red Noise by John P. Murphy (2020) – Sort of like Dashiel Hammet’s Red Harvest but set on a space station.
  • The Painted Gun by Bradley Spinelli (2017) – A hardboiled noir set in late 1990s San Francisco where a private detective gets sent a portrait painting of himself from an artist he does not know but has gone missing. It’s a great mystery full of plot twists with a witty Raymond Chandler-esque narrator.
  • Wireless by Charles Stross (2009) – Some hit or miss short stories in this science fiction collection.
  • All Men Dream of Earthwomen and Other Aeons by John C. Wright (2020)

I also read many more individual short stories this year, one of which was “The Good Work” by Theodore L. Thomas (1959). I sought out this classic science fiction story after hearing that it touched upon a similar subject matter as my novella Work for Idle Hands. And indeed it does, though I read it after writing WFIH, so any similarities are entirely coincidental.

Past Lists:

1 thought on “Ten Best Fiction Books I Read in 2021

  1. Marianna

    You might like the short stories by Robert W. Chambers. Especially The King in Yellow. It is one of the earliest stories of cosmic horror that inspirer H.P. Lovecraft.

    Reply

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