The Best Fantasy and Science Fiction of 2022 

How can people be free when enslaved by civilization?  This question was first posed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract and has preoccupied political and intellectual thought since that time.  It has been the inspiration for much utopian and dystopian fiction.  In most stories, the question is often embedded in a protagonist’s struggle with social norms and whether it’s better to embrace or remake a social system. 


In The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara we see the American success story taken to its extreme in the epic account of a young Indian Dalit who rises to the heights of American society.  Vara’s story jumps back and forth across time from post-colonial India to the Silicon Valley revolution to a not too distant future.  On the surface, the elusive protagonist, Rao, embodies the rags-to-riches narrative that has pulled so many immigrants to the United States, but underneath his biography is a deep exploration of the forces that shaped both Indian and American society. 

In post-colonial India, we see the struggle among the Dalit community to rise in social mobility and succumb to political passion.  In Silicon Valley, the story shifts to that of an immigrant genius who ultimately leads the era’s equivalent of a digital juggernaut.  The near future dwells on what it would mean if corporations overtook the government and how “going off the grid” would mean something beyond hiding out in the mountains.  The shifts in place and time may remind readers of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.  Vara’s book matches it in quality and will be very competitive for the Hugo and Nebula Awards this year.  

 Babel, or the Necessity of Violence:  An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang is a very different work, but grapples with some of the same issues.  Set in early nineteenth-century England, the book traces the education of a young Chinese immigrant raised to be educated in the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford.  LIke The Immortal King Rao, it interrogates the challenges to assimilation in a foreign culture and the everyday racism in the “civilizing” of outsiders.  However, where The Immortal King Rao tells the story of a world reshaped, Babel asks how we are to live in a world of unfair and complex systems.  

 Babel could be labeled a fantasy, but its depth and intelligence really make it a work of historical science fiction.  Kuang’s England has been reshaped by magical metal and the properties of metal are determined by the word combinations imprinted on it.  The “magic” in the metal has jump-started the Industrial Revolution in England and redefined everyday life for the English.  Since words produce new properties, Oxford has become the innovation lab for technological progress and those gifted with knowledge of foreign languages are its most valuable resources. 

Readers will find Babel a more immediately engaging book than The Immortal King Rao because of its protagonist, the Chinese student Swift.  As a first person narrator, Swift allows readers to experience the worlds of Oxford and Dickensian England with incredible vividness. His friendships remind us of our own deep friendships and his dreams, frustrations, and anger resonate with the fresh and sad innocence of youth.  Swift’s story feels both English and Chinese.  Kuang (a Yale Ph.D) studied at Oxford and has the education of a professional translator–her narration is incredibly intelligent and the footnotes are well worth reading. 

Both Babel and The Immortal King Rao work as epic single volumes.  Vara’s book succeeds more in the journey than in the ultimate conclusion while Kuang’s yarn builds towards a very powerful ending.  Readers may not necessarily agree with the characters’ decisions in both works, but they will appreciate the depth that goes into contextualizing them. 

(Photos from stock publisher image)

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