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2018 BNIRLY Award

It’s time for the 2018 edition of the Most Prestigious Award in All of Literature, the Best Novel I Read Last Year (BNIRLY) Award, colloquially known as a “Stephenson”.

(Note that the award is given in 2019, for a book I read in 2018, even though the nomenclature makes it sound like I am giving this award in 2018, for a book I read in 2017)

2018 was a pretty good year for reading, with a number of great candidates for BNIRLY (though not as deep as the murderer’s row of 2015). I finished the year on a pretty heavy run of books involving colonialism as a theme (The Broken Earth, The Masquerade, Machineries of Empire), which was not particularly planned, but amusing in hindsight.

Here are my honorable mentions for this year’s reading:

  • Tripoint, C.J. Cherryh: I realized this year that I don’t actually enjoy reading C.J. Cherryh books, but I can’t stop staring at the parade of murderers, rapists, and abusers that she puts front and center. Like all Cherryh books, Tripoint presents a coolly dispassionate look at the cruelty with which human beings casually treat each other, set within the framework of the meticulously-constructed space opera universe she has created (or at least, one of them). Note: I found out after that she drops an oblique nod to The Pride of Chanur, completing a note she set up eleven years earlier while we were all focused on the action in the foreground.

  • The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin: I wasn’t quite as enamored by The Fifth Season, the first book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, as the rest of the known universe, but I was absolutely blown away by The Obelisk Gate. Jemisin’s sequel widens the scope and heightens the stakes, both from a plotting and character-development standpoint. Her villains become deeper and richer, and her heroes darker and more ambiguous, with every assumption that you made about them in The Fifth Season expertly undermined and turned inside-out. Few sequels play so marvelously (and horrifyingly) with your expectations from the first book; The Obelisk Gate is one of them.

  • The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton: I was expecting a stuffy, boring 19th century novel about the philosophy of order and chaos. Instead, I got a fun little detective thriller (seriously, ten pages in there’s a secret underground lair!) that morphed into a bizarro David Lynch piece.

  • Fiasco, Stanislaw Lem, trans. Michael Kandel: The rare combination of hard SF mixed with gorgeous, creepy writing (a true credit to Mr. Kandel’s ability as a translator). As with all the great first contact stories, Fiasco tells us more about the ugly side of humanity than it does the aliens, with deep questions to ponder about ethics, theory of mind, and cultural biases. Bonus points for the only reasonable character being a priest.

The runner-up for this year’s BNIRLY Award is Seth Dickinson’s The Monster Baru Cormorant, the sequel to 2015’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Fair warning up front: it is basically half a novel, and you really need to re-read Traitor beforehand to get the most out of it. That said, it contains an absolutely explosive mixture of tight-knit plot, interesting real-world/SF ideas imported into its hard-fantasy setting, rich and varied worldbuilding, lush prose, and a device that I love but seem to rarely see: multiple perspectives seeing the same event, but each interpreting it completely differently because of bias and unequal information. Dickinson also continues his steganographic ways, hiding information in plain sight and revealing secrets you walked right past in the first book (again, keep a copy of Traitor handy for frantic flip-backs). The pace is faster, the tone (very, very slightly) lighter and the blows more direct than Traitor, but it is a delight in its own way.

And this year’s winner of the Best Novel I Read Last Year is:

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

After the publication of The Sparrow, Russell noted in an interview that a real-life priest made inquiries to find out who Mary Doria Russell really was, assuming that a novel with such verisimilitude about the inner workings of the Catholic church could only have been written by another priest.

Atheists (and basically-atheists) writing about religion usually do a pretty poor job of capturing the basics right, much less the tapestry of emotions that go into being a believer. I don’t know much about Russell’s religious beliefs, or her interest in SF/F, but reading The Sparrow felt like she understood both Christianity and science fiction in an intimate way. Again, there’s no real way to know if she shares in the culture of either, but it speaks to her powers as a writer that we can’t tell.

The Sparrow tells a first-contact-gone-horribly-wrong story through the memories of Emilio Sandoz, a priest who doubts, because he has serious reason to. The science fiction is interesting enough, but the core of the story is the brutal challenges to a man’s faith, both overt and subtle, monstrous and mundane. (Fair warning: a lot of very nasty things happen in this book) Russell does not pull punches, does not slide into grimdark melodrama, and does not give easy answers to any of the questions she poses. I have no doubt her answers to the questions that The Sparrow raises are vastly different than mine, but I can respect her questions, and that is a masterful accomplishment.

Previous Stephenson winners:

2006: Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson (Runner-up: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susannah Clark)

2007: A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (Runner-up: Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein)

2008: No winner recorded (and I can’t remember)

2009: Dune, Frank Herbert (Runner-up: The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, trans. Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor)

2010: Distraction, Bruce Sterling (Runner-up: (Tie) The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem, trans. Michael Kandel, and Double Star, Robert Heinlein)

2011: Anathem, Neal Stephenson (Runner-up: Declare, Tim Powers)

2012: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson (Runner-up: Eifelheim, Michael Flynn)

2013: Last Call, Tim Powers

2014: The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (Runner-up: The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks)

2015: The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (Runner-up: Cyteen, C.J. Cherryh)

2016: Doomsday Book, Connie Willis (Runner-up: (tie) Annihilation, Jeff VanDerMeer, and The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson)

2017: Kindred, Octavia Butler (Runner-up: The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe, and Authority, Jeff VanDerMeer).