Best of 2014: The SFF Critics Meta-List

“Best of 2014” posts are beginning to appear by SFF critics. These posts are a great deal more important for predicting the Hugos and the Nebulas than the Mainstream lists I’ve already collated. For whatever reason, these SFF posts tend to come out later in the year—it’ll be early January before a lot of major SFF websites and blogs get their “Best of 2014” up.

However, we’re up to 4 such lists already, and one of those, the Tor.com Reviewers’ Choice list, actually collects 11 different critics’ lists. So, when we collate those lists together, we’re already getting a dozen critical voices as to what the Best SFF novels of 2014 are. Without further ado, let me present the collated list. Rules are simple: you get 1 point for appearing on a list, and then the points get added up. Here’s every book that got at least 2 points:

1. City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett (4 points)
1. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (4 points)
3. Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (3 points)
3. Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (3 points)
5. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (2 points)
5. The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman (2 points)
5. Fool’s Assassin, Robin Hobb (2 points)

And another 29 books appear only once. If you want the Excel file, here it is: Best of 2014; this list is located on the second page/tab at the bottom. The first worksheet is the Mainstream list. Note: I counted the Tor.com post as consisting of multiple lists; if you were picked by three critics on that list, you got three points.

We’re still early to draw definite conclusions, but this list is shockingly different than the Mainstream list. Mainstream darlings like The Bone Clocks and Station Eleven are nowhere to be found. An author like William Gibson, who is famous enough for The Peripheral to make many mainstream lists, only appears on one list so far. The Martian doesn’t grab the critical headlines like it does the popular headlines.

Instead, we have well-regarded but more “fantasy insider” books like City of Stairs and The Goblin Emperor. You really have to know the field pretty well to drill down to these books, and they are exactly the kind of books that the Nebula likes to honor. In fact, you could take the top 4 books off this list, add two random, lesser known SFF novels (the bottom of the Nebula slate is very unpredictable), and you’d likely have the 2015 Nebula slate.

This list currently collates lists from Tor.com Reviewers, A Dribble of Ink, and two SFF critics/authors. Adam Roberts, author of Yellow Blue Tibia and Bete offers a thoughtful and comprehensive “Best of SF 2014” at The Guardian. Jeff VanderMeer, himself a leading candidate for the 2015 Hugo and Nebula, offers a much more eclectic (and multi-year) list over at Electric Literature. VanderMeer largely avoids traditional SFF in his list, instead favoring on cross-genre and international literature.

Why these lists? Well, I’m looking for lists that represents the SFF critical world, including authors or critics that might actually vote in the Nebulas (SFWA members) or Hugos (WorldCon members). For this SFF Critics list, I’ve decided to collate the following: lists from major SFF blogs (defined by either popularity like Tor.com or by having been nominated for a Hugo best fanzine/best fan writer award) or lists from major SFF authors/critics. While there might be some argument in terms of who exactly I include, by collecting more and more lists that eccentricity should be diminished.

We’re going to need at least 10 lists before things settle down and we get a clear picture, but this is certainly an interesting start. I’ll be factoring this information in heavily when I update my Nebula prediction tomorrow.

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7 responses to “Best of 2014: The SFF Critics Meta-List”

  1. Niall says :

    Hmm. I wonder if you’re conflating a couple of different groups here, and I will be very interested to look back at the predictive power of this list when the time comes, because I’m not sure how well the “sf insider/blogger” preferences will track with “Nebula voter” preferences. Most of the Tor.com contributors, for instance, do not have a voice in the Nebulas, and since most of the mentions of The Goblin Emperor come from there I’d still be quite surprised to see it as a nominee — whereas I increasingly feel that Station Eleven is a solid lock. (Whereas I do think those mentions give Goblin Emperor a Hugo boost.)

    • chaoshorizon says :

      I think that’s an interesting argument, and I’m definitely keeping my eye on this issue. I’ve thought about separating these lists out (authors/SFWA voters vs. SFF critics), but part of my reasoning is based on the general accuracy of the 2013 Tor.com Reviewers’ Choice List and last year’s Nebulas. If you look at the 2013 list, they actually got Hild (3 votes) as well as Ancillary Justice (3 votes, but everyone got Leckie right), as well as mentioning the Samatar (1 vote) and Gaiman (1 vote). That’s about as predictive as anyone else was for the Nebulas. I’m probably getting to the point where I need different predictive collated lists for the Hugos and Nebulas, but I don’t have enough data for that yet. It’s still Year #1 of Chaos Horizon, and it’ll take 2-3 years to figure out what we truly need. I also have the feeling I already try some of my readers’ patience with how much data I present . . .

      I’m also torn about where to slot Station Eleven. It’s been crazy popular in terms of sales over here in the US, but so is The Bone Clocks. Are they competing against each other for one Nebula slot? Or are both going to make it? I finished reading Station Eleven last week, and I figure it’s going to be divisive amongst SFF fans, but that SFF writers are going to admire Mandel’s craft. And since SFWA voters are all writers, that would be a solid checkmark in Mandel’s favor.

  2. Jo Walton says :

    Many SF writers care about worldbuilding as much as about the ability to write good sentences and characters — did you feel Mandel’s worldbuilding was something SF writers would appreciate?

    • chaoshorizon says :

      A very fair point, and I shouldn’t over-generalize about writers. From my perspective, I found Mandel’s book simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. I enjoyed the characters, and the careful way Mandel built them up. We get to see a good web of relationships drawn between them, with nicely crafted connections reminiscent of something like Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. On that level, the book is fully satisfying.

      I was less impressed with the world-building of the book. Mandel basically sets up Station Eleven like The Stand: sudden virus that kills a huge portion (99.6%) of the population. No spoilers there, as that happens right away in the novel. The novel then takes places 20 years after that event. I didn’t find the post-apocalyptic world very realistically drawn, as no one has managed to rebuild any technological aspects of society. With that many people killed, all the scarcity problems of our own era would be gone, and survivors would be sitting on a wealth of resources and fairly easy to use tech (solar panels, huge reserves of gasoline and coal, even something as basic as wood). For instance, a main group of survivors hides out in an airport, where they’d have easy access to hundreds of gallons of jet fuel, and they don’t try to do anything with it. As such, I found my imagining of what this society would be like diverging greatly from what Mandel was presenting, and this distracted me from the book.

      Now, I think this is me being unfairly critical as a reader. Mandel was not trying to paint a particularly realistic version of what a post-pandemic America/Canada would be like. Instead, she’s approaching the pandemic almost symbolically, and if you take the book on those terms, I think most readers will enjoy it. I struggled to suspend disbelief at times, and I think some SF fans (and writers) might be irked that Mandel didn’t try harder to make her world realistic.

      • Jo Walton says :

        I think — I’ve read it too — that your reaction would be a common reaction among SF readers (and especially writers!) while mainstream readers would love it for its literary excellence and care less about it’s SF-nal flaws. Hence its presence on mainstream lists and absence from SF lists.

        When we’ve seen novels from mainstream writers have Hugo and Nebula nominations, it’s been when the writers get the SF right — Chabon leaps to mind.

      • Niall says :

        For what it’s worth, it’s precisely because of an increasing number of recommendations from SF authors in my feeds that I think Station Eleven is a likely Nebula pick — it seems to actually be getting read in a way that, say, Mitchell isn’t. Though I agree that the sort of authors who find characters not taking advantage of airport jet fuel unrealistic will be voting for other books!

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