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The Top Five Sci-Fi Novels of 2020 Reminded Us What It Means To Be Human

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BY December 27, 2020

In a year where it felt like we were actually living in a dystopian science fiction novel, I admit that I did not get around to reading much in the way of actual science fiction. My genre of choice this year was overwhelmingly fantasy, to provide some escapism and magic in the dark days. However, that doesn’t mean there were not a number of excellent science fiction novels published this year. Some of the best took us off-planet into the stars, or into other dimensions. But each one reminded us of fundamental truths about what it means to be human. So let’s take a look at our top 5 sci-fi novels of 2020, once again in no particular order (just alphabetical by author’s last name).

Axiom’s End by Lindsey Ellis

Axiom's End Image via Macmillan Publishing

Author Lindsey Ellis is a fairly well-known YouTube personality who makes excellent video essays about media and film theory.  This year she made the leap from screen to page with the publication of her first book. Axiom’s End is her debut novel, an alternate-history first-contact story with a hearty dose of conspiracy theories. The novel centers around a young woman whose father is at the center of a whistleblowing controversy that revealed aliens have been on Earth for decades. And of course the government knew all about it. As humanity grapples with these revelations, our protagonist has to come to terms with the secrets her father kept.

The novel has drawn comparisons to the film Arrival. With its focus on linguistics and figuring out how to communicate with an alien race. Axiom’s End is an excellent study on what it means to be human in the face of alien intelligence, and how to have empathy for others that are far beyond our understanding.

Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen

Nophek Gloss Image via Orbit Books

Another debut novel this year was Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen. A self-described “author, swordswoman, and falconer,” Hansen is also a sound designer for Skywalker Sound with credits on films like Avengers: Endgame and Doctor Strange.  Hansen puts all of her sci-fi knowledge to work in this coming-of-age space opera. The story follows a young man who bounces around the galaxy following a deeply traumatic event where he lost his family.

Nophek Gloss involves multiverse and space travel, along with gender-fluid aliens, and some evil intergalactic corporations. The main character of Caiden is a deeply broken individual, who is bent on vengeance. But over the course of the novel he learns how to survive, and finds his own found family. An action-packed adventure story full of heart and heroism.

Harrow The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Harrow the Ninth Image via Tor/Forge

Harrow the Ninth is the sequel to last year’s wildly popular Gideon the Ninth, and is the second book in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy. The story follows the titular Harrow, the last necromancer of the Ninth House. She has been drafted into fighting ‘an unwinnable war’ amidst failing health and personal turmoil. A wildly unreliable narrator, Harrow is a stark contrast to the first book’s protagonist in Gideon who was funny and snarky. In this book Harrow is deeply haunted and traumatized, and definitely more than a little bit insane.

This is a extremely weird trilogy of books, one that is often described as “lesbian necromancers in space.” These books revel in their own weirdness. And only once you accept it as a reader you can begin to understand what is happening. Harrow the Ninth might not be as fun as Gideon, but it is just as complex and heartbreaking as the first book.

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

The Vanished Birds Image via Penguin Random House

Another stunning debut novel this year that makes our list of the top sci-fi novels of 2020 came from author Simon Jimenez. The Vanished Birds is the story of a woman who pilots a faster than light ship that docks at a planet every fifteen years. Others grow old as the protagonist Nia remains youthful, her life extended by the mechanics of space travel. The book centers around the relationships that Nia has with others. Particularly a mysterious boy who falls from the sky and bonds with her. But soon the two of them draw attention from powerful forces that will force them to make sacrifices to protect one another. This book covers a thousand years, and journeys to mysterious worlds, but it is the individual characters that really shine here. A moving story of love and found family that spans space and time.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds Image via Penguin Random House

Another novel that dared to traverse the multiverse this year was The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. The story follows a young woman who is plucked from poverty and obscurity to become an interdimensional traveller. The plot mechanism here is that you cannot travel to another world where your counterpart is still alive. The protagonist Cara can travel to a variety of worlds because she is really good at dying in alternate universes. However, Cara soon discovers a plot involving a new world with old secrets. The mystery naturally connects to all of the versions of her spread across the worlds.

A thought-provoking debut novel that has been getting rave reviews with complex characters. The Space Between Worlds is a meditation on identity and the choices we make, or how those choices make us. One of the best-reviewed books of the year, this definitely makes our list of the top sci-fi novels of 2020.

What were your top sci-fi novels of 2020? Let us know in the comments, and join the conversation with Comic Years today on Facebook and Twitter. And before you go, be sure to check out our other top lists for 2020 including the top 10 fantasy novels of the year.

(Featured image is a photo by Greg Rakozy via Unsplash)

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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

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