The 20 Best Books of a Decade That Unmade Genre Fiction

Of all the happenings and unhappenings that shaped the last decade of science fiction and fantasy literature—a tumult of transformation—two rise well above the rest. They’re related; a birth and a death. The death, chronologically second, should be talked about first.

We lost a legend. This is meant not so much hyperbolically as, in fact, quite officially. In 2018, Ursula K. Le Guin, who 18 years earlier was designated by the Library of Congress a “living legend,” passed away. She snorted at the woowoo label, just as she—a congenital word snob—would have snorted at that woowoo euphemism, passed away. What’s passing? Away to where? Though she published a translation of the Tao Te Ching and studied Buddhism, Le Guin was rarely direct about her spiritual beliefs. “I talk about the gods; I am an atheist,” she wrote in the author’s note to her best-known novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. “But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” What she was, at the very least, was a trickster. In one of her last interviews, she teased a symbolic immortality: “It’s a serious age, 88. If you turn the numbers on their side, it’s two infinities on top of each other.” She never did make it to 89.

Le Guin’s final years, a victory lap in slow motion, were some of the most visible of her half-century career. People who’d never heard of Earthsea or the Ekumen began heralding her presciences and quoting her many wisdoms. They discovered her, adored her, fell in love with her, the hunched-over little firecracker who railed against canons, corporations, capitalism. Let’s regard these folks, these showy converts, as she might have: with a mix of affection and apprehension.

Because Le Guin was never exactly lovable, was she? She’s weird, tough, tough going. Her words and works, to their core, resist superficiality and simplification. She distrusted suspense and confessed minimal talent for plot. That trickster, she’ll change verb tenses on you, leap miles ahead or years back, extend dreams, impossibly, into waking reality. Lilting prose clashes with halting action. Even when she was writing, ostensibly, for children, her sentences demanded, still demand, patience. Look at the second paragraph of her young-adult-ish breakout book, A Wizard of Earthsea, published 50 years before her death, in 1968:

He was born in a lonely village called Ten Alders, high on the mountain at the head of the Northward Vale. Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.

If you don’t have vertigo, you’re reading it wrong. In 67 simple words, she whisks us from the top of the mountain “level below level” to the bottom, then straight back up “ridge behind ridge.” Not even birds travel that fast; we humans, forced to fly, can scarcely breathe. Number Four, Privet Drive, this is not.

(Le Guin wasn’t so thrilled that so few critics recognized the roots of Harry Potter and Hogwarts in her early boy-wizard fantasies. She needn’t have fretted. Literature will remember Rowling’s flights as considerably more grounded.)

Le Guin never wanted you to be comfortable. One doesn’t cozy up with The Dispossessed, or The Lathe of Heaven, or Always Coming Home; one must interact with them, and actually, actively read. Because beneath her hard surfaces lies a deep, flowing warmth, the reward of effort. Who was writing imaginative fiction like that, before her? There was the odd contribution, now and then, but nothing and no one so committed to this project, that of breaking down, myth below myth, the genre of fantasy and remaking it, story behind story, back up. For much of the establishment, which for so long kept genre imprisoned in the literary sub-basement, she set it free. To hard science fiction she brought humanity, morality, the so-called soft sciences—sterile words for what in reality are the hardest truths of living.

The year of Le Guin’s death, a short story came out called “The Ones Who Stay and Fight.” It was, its author said, “a pastiche of and reaction to Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.’” That original, published in 1973, still gets passed around today, often by teachers hoping to shake and unsettle the brains of their complacent students. In just a few pages, we’re asked to imagine a society, Omelas, perfect in all ways but one: It depends for its just prosperity on the terrible suffering of a single child. So the central ethical dilemma: Is it worth it? The ones who don’t think so, walk away. The title of the 2018 update, the spiritual sequel, is an implicit refutation: You shouldn’t walk away. You should stay and fight for the child. Its author—whose rise, in this decade of science fiction and fantasy, is the other term in our equation—is N. K. Jemisin. If Le Guin was the death, Jemisin is the birth.

It is too neat and altogether too soon to call Jemisin this generation’s Ursula Le Guin. (Nor is Jemisin, as she’s more often, and suspiciously, labeled, our Octavia Butler.) To pastiche Le Guin, however, is to put oneself in her lineage, which Jemisin knows and is not wrong to do. She is the finest writer of the fantastic in our time. Not so much a double, then, as a successor, and the worthiest one we have.

Jemisin’s Um-Helat is no easier a thought experiment than Le Guin’s Omelas. (Note the similar-sounding names, along with the faint echo, in both, of “injustice.”) Possibly, it’s even harder. Um-Helat is outwardly utopian, too, and Jemisin paints just as vivid a picture:

The slanting afternoon sun stretches golden over the city, reflected light sparkling along its mica-flecked walls and laser-faceted embossings. A breeze blows up from the sea, tasting of brine and minerals, so fresh that a spontaneous cheer wafts along the crowded parade route. Young men by the waterfront, busily stirring great vats of spiced mussels and pans of rice and peas and shrimp, cook faster, for it is said in Um-Helat that the smell of the sea wakes up the belly. Young women on streetcorners bring out sitars and synthesizers and big wooden drums, the better to get the crowd dancing the young men’s way. When people stop, too hot or thirsty to continue, there are glasses of fresh tamarind-lime juice. Elders staff the shops that sell this, though they also give away the juice if a person is much in need. There are always souls needing drumbeats and tamarind, in Um-Helat.

Observe the Le Guin-like way that sensory repetition pulls us through, a progression from sights to smells to sounds. It’s descriptive writing of uncommon loveliness and liveliness, whatever the genre. Then, the reveal: The perfection is predicated on pain. Not a lone tortured child, in this case, but something far more unexpected. Anyone who indulges unjust thoughts in Um-Helat, this society of happy equality and easy-access tamarind, is eliminated.

Jemisin has been dismissed, by a minority of reactionary detractors, as a “social justice warrior,” whose work advances an un-nuanced progressive politics. Is that what this is? A society that murders its intolerant citizens, orphans their young children? The tale practically explodes with complexity, with confusion. (Except, perhaps, when Jemisin states, rather than shows, social woes, resorting to the verbal fashions of the moment—but even that may be read in the context of commentary.) She could’ve issued a dutiful, activist-minded critique of Le Guin, in which true Omelasian/Um-Helatian progressives stay and fight. Instead, she twists it, resisting simplification. Le Guin stands both corrected and honored.

One likes to think the master would have approved. Le Guin never took the easy way; she pushed on every assumption. That meant she could even—a foreign concept in the modern era—change her mind. Earlier this year, PBS released a note-perfect little documentary about Le Guin’s life, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. There’s old black-and-white footage of a science-fiction meetup, where a middle-aged Le Guin is asked why one of the female characters in Tombs of Atuan, the second Earthsea book, doesn’t exactly “emerge as a liberated woman.” Le Guin responds with moving candor: “The Earthsea books as feminist literature are a total complete bust. From my own archetypes and from my own cultural upbringing, I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard. Maybe I’ll learn to eventually, but when I wrote those I couldn’t do it. I wish I could have.”

She would indeed learn. Much of Le Guin’s later work unwrites what came before, just as Jemisin would come along to push us further, in the process confronting her own regressions. Thus the genre renews itself, bending toward progress. “Prize juries commonly short-list books by both men and women, but give the award to a man,” Le Guin complained in an essay written at the beginning of this decade. As it comes to a close, she’s finally being proved—for once—wrong. Jemisin won an unprecedented trio of Hugos for a series, Broken Earth, that centered on women wizards: a formidable mother and a fearless daughter, who could control mountains with their minds. Seven of the Hugo Awards for Best Novel in the 2010s, in fact, have gone to women, the most in the history of the prize. The stories reflect the shift, a hyperspace jump to new regions. “What do we learn from women?” Le Guin once asked. “My first huge generalization is that we learn how to be human.”

In The Fifth Season, the first book in Broken Earth and the best book of this decade, the main character has to make a horrific, unbearably human choice. One struggles to imagine a man writing it. Le Guin could have, but she didn’t. There, Jemisin is talking to another one of her literary heroes, Toni Morrison, and her novel Beloved. Morrison, who never exactly wrote science fiction but certainly imbued her stories with flashes of magic, was one of the very few other writers named a living legend by the Library of Congress. Le Guin’s spirit might not be winking down on us from the stars—the stars whose paths she so intricately charted over her singular, guiding career—but she’d twinkle at the cosmic coincidence. Morrison, too, passed away this decade, a year after Le Guin, at the immortal age of 88.

Best Fiction of the Decade:

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin

The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Best Nonfiction of the Decade:

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Life in Code by Ellen Ullman

The Four-Dimensional Human by Laurence Scott

The Selfishness of Others by Kristin Dombek

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle

No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

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