Best science fiction and fantasy books of 2020

Adam Roberts
·2 min read

The Ministry for the Future
by Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit
Robinson is a writer who believes fiction can make a difference to the world. His latest is a bold docu-fictional extrapolation of how humanity might tackle the climate crisis, blending practical ideas and information with vivid prose – the astonishing opening chapter, in which a heatwave kills millions, will stay with me for a very long time. Robinson knows we can’t be saved by a single heroic flourish but by difficult, drawn-out and, above all, collective labour. A crucial book for our time.

Mordew
by Alex Pheby, Galley Beggar
The Gormenghastly city of Mordew is built on living mud – we discover it’s God’s body, not quite dead – that teems with grotesque and fantastical life. Pheby’s protagonist Nathan rises from the slums to meet a special destiny. It may sound like a cliched storyline, but the relentless inventiveness and verve of Pheby’s imagination make this book stand alone. Startling, baroque, sometimes revolting – but always amazing.

The New Wilderness
by Diane Cook, Oneworld
Evidence of the increasing interpenetration of SF and literary fiction, this Booker-shortlisted novel is set in a climate emergency-ravaged near future. Bea and her daughter Agnes get the chance to escape the choking City for a Wilderness zone where they must relearn humanity’s old hunter-gatherer skills. Cook leavens her satire with sly wit and real wisdom, expertly deconstructing the borderline separating human beings and other animals.

King of the Rising
by Kacen Callender, Orbit
The follow-up to Callender’s award-winning Queen of the Conquered returns to her Caribbean-inspired fantasy world. A noblewoman and her former bodyguard use any and every means to overthrow colonialist invaders, and the revolution in which they are involved is a messy affair. This is a more action-filled story than the slower-burn first volume, always alert to the ways justice inevitably compromises with realpolitik.

War of the Maps
by Paul McAuley, Gollancz
Nobody writes hard SF better than McAuley. This novel is set on a far-future cosmic megastructure whose godlike builders have long since departed, leaving behind myriad scattered populations. Across this dilapidated territory a lawman chases a dangerous criminal. The titular maps are cartographic, but also refer to inhabitants’ gene lines, under threat from a “red plague” that rewrites biology into ghastly new forms. Narrative drive, sense of wonder and some gorgeous monstrosity come together in McAuley’s graceful prose.

• Browse the best books of 2020 at the Guardian Bookshop.