These are some of the things I enjoyed in 2018. Not all of them were released this year — in fact, one item on the list debuted in the mid-1980s! — but I first encountered them all in the past 12 months. Here’s what I liked, and why.
Favourite book: Rejoice, A Knife To The Heart by Steven Erikson. Less a novel, more a classic SF idea story, this tale of first contact puts just about every aspect of human society under the microscope. Erikson is unrelenting in his critique of humanity’s power structures, but he never fails to maintain empathy for those caught up in them. It’s hard not to see the world differently after reading this book.
Honourable mention: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. This fantasy is a penetrating examination of empire: the benefits it claims, the violence it requires, and the resistance it engenders. Intelligent, uncompromising, and featuring a compelling central character, this is an outstanding debut novel.
Favourite show: Counterpart. The concept for this spy thriller can be boiled down to four words: Mirror Universe taken seriously. That would be enough of a draw by itself, but throw in an intriguing alt-European aesthetic, well-drawn characters, and some wonderful performances — not least from series star J.K. Simmons — and the show becomes unmissable. The title sequence alone is a thing of beauty.
Honourable mention: The Orville. Seth MacFarlane’s comic-drama take on Star Trek is the kind of show that could go wrong in so many ways. One of the reasons it works is that despite the jokes, it nevertheless holds sacrosanct the same thing Trek does: that core vision of an inclusive, post-scarcity future. Somehow, applying a layer of humour gives MacFarlance cover to be sincere about the things that really matter.
Favourite movie: This Is Spinal Tap. Yes, this is the classic heavy-metal-band mockumentary from 1984, which somehow I had never seen until just last month. There’s not much to say about it that hasn’t already been said, except that it still holds up remarkably well in 2018. A rare case where the hype is entirely justified.
Honourable mention: Thor: Ragnarok. New Zealand director Taika Waititi injected some welcome humour into the Marvel movie series with this entry. Though the first third or so is a little slow, things pick up with the arrival of Korg, who steals every scene he’s in. After that, the movie never looks back.
Favourite game: Civilization VI. Sid Meier’s turn-based strategy series has been with us for 27 years, and though Meier is no longer the primary designer, each new installment continues to be as addictive as the last. The biggest change in Civ VI is “city unstacking”, which forces players to rethink their approach to managing the land around their cities. There’s still nothing quite like the experience of taking a single stone-age settler and building a society capable of colonising another planet.
Honourable mention: Torment: Tides of Numenara. This is the spiritual successor to the classic RPG Planescape: Torment, and its inclusion here will come as no surprise to anyone who read my previous piece on that title. Tides of Numenara doesn’t quite match its illustrious predecessor, but it’s an intriguing, thought-provoking game even so. Highlights include the richly imagined setting and several of the companion characters, one of whom is written by fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss.