MIND MELD: The Best Genre-Related Books/Films/Shows Consumed in 2009 (Part 2)
“Best of the Year” lists start appearing as early as November, so we are perhaps a little late in asking folks around the community:
[Also added was this note: They don’t have to have been released in 2009. Feel free to choose any combination of genres (science fiction/fantasy/horror) and media (books/movies/shows) you wish to include.]
Read on to see their picks (and also check out Part 1)…
Books I most enjoyed:
- WWW:Wake, Robert Sawyer
- Mars Life, Ben Bova
- Plague Zone, Jeff Carlson
- Overthrowing Heaven, Mark Van Name
- Rift in the Sky, Julie Czerneda
I’ve just started Galileo’s Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Am hooked already.
We haven’t seen any SF films I can recall. A TV series that stands out: FlashForward.
2009 was the year I discovered Margaret Atwood. OK, so I’m twenty-five years or so behind everyone else. I guess some of her reported comments about science fiction had put me off. Oryx and Crake was brilliant and I’m about to start its companion novel Year of the Flood.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece. Powerful, elegant and utterly engaging, it works on many levels, opening up like a flower only to close again when its storytelling job is done, drawing all loose threads together to weave a magnificent whole.
Published as thrillers, but borderline spec fic as far as I’m concerned, Michael Marshall’s Straw Men series is a must read for fans of conspiracy theories, dark histories and damn fine literature.
Slights by Kaaron Warren is the debut novel of a writer whose short stories have been dominating awards lists for the past two decades. Slights is not a comfortable read. It’s horror in the truest sense. No tired old tropes here, Slights is the horror of the outsider, of loneliness, of difference. I can’t say I enjoyed this book – but it is most definitely excellent.
Short fiction wise, Greg Egan’s collection Oceanic really blew my mind – that man has a brain the size of a planet. Eclipse 3, edited by Jonathan Strahan is a damn fine anthology, proving once and for all that quality speculative fiction writers of both genders are not difficult to find.
JJ Abrahams’ new Star Trek movie was awesome. Who’d have thought so much vim and vigor could be injected into that tired old franchise? On DVD I’d recommend The Last Winter, The Weight of Water, Exorcist III and an Asylum classic, Mega Shark vs Octopus.
TV-wise, I enjoyed Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Torchwood – Children of Earth, Survivors (the post-apocalypse tale, not the reality TV thing) and Primeval. Afterlife, Carnivale and The Dresden Files also.
I read a lot of books, but not all of them are genre; and unfortunately not many of them are newly-published when I read them. Some of my favourite authors, however, had new works out in 2009, and two I managed to read certainly make my best of the year list. They are Spirit, or The Princess Of Bois Dormant by Gwyneth Jones, a reworking of The Count Of Monte Cristo set in the universe of Jones’ earlier Aleutian trilogy. Space operas this intelligent are rare — the last one that comes to mind is M John Harrison’s Light — which is perhaps not that surprising, given the nature of sub-genre. In the sf family, space opera is the macaroni. Another book from 2009 by a favourite author was Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids. The title refers to three clone-sisters — one is an environmentalist, cleaning up the toxic island of Mljet (which is *not* Cyprus, as several reviews claimed); another is a media star in California; and the third is a medic in China’s space city in the Gobi desert. Sterling uses ideas like most writers use words, and this novel is no exception. It belongs on every shortlist next year. Also excellent, and an excellent finish to the four-book series, was Paul Park’s The Hidden World, in which Park continued to confound genre expectations in a beautifully written fantasy series. It also features one of the best-drawn villainesses in fantasy in Baroness Ceaucescu. It’s harder to choose another two genre titles to round out my picks — does Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire count? It was first published in 1974, but I read it for the first time in 2009. And it could be said that a firsthand account of Apollo 11’s journey to the Moon is science fiction come true. I read it — and a number of other books on the subject — as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing on one of my blogs. Carrying the Fire was easily the best of them. During 2009, I also read a number of literary authors’ forays into science fiction — Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Toby Litt’s Journey Into Space, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I never find literary authors’ deployment of sf tropes entirely convincing, but of that lot The Handmaid’s Tale was the most confident. They all deserve honourary mentions, but I think I’ll take the Atwood as my fifth pick.
I don’t get to the cinema very often. These days, I’ve little desire to watch the sort of brainless product Hollywood now churns out. Sf may have gone mainstream, but it’s been given a frontal lobotomy in the process. Don’t get me started on Star Trek IX XI — numbering it with Roman numerals doesn’t make it smarter, by the way. And yes, I do blame Star Wars. As a result, most movies I watch are on DVD. And this year I watched a number of films on DVD which I thought were very good. In The Dust of the Stars (Im Staub Der Sterne) is one of four sf films produced by the East German studio DEFA during the 1970s. It shows its age — the disco party scene has to be seen to be believed — but nonetheless it’s an intelligent sf film and definitely worth watching. Also from the same decade, but from Hollywood, was Rollerball. The eponymous sport is, frankly, a bit dull and uninspired, but director Norman Jewison’s vision of the future makes the film — the 21st century as the 1970s saw it, all Brutalist architecture, wall-sized TV screens, and cars with gull-wing doors. Great stuff. Some of it even came true. A decade or two older is Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The title just about says it all — you can easily imagine it as the pitch the writer used to the studio — although what begins as a plausible study of an astronaut marooned on the red planet turns silly when his Friday, an escaped humanoid alien slave, turns up. But the first half remains powerful sf cinema. The most recent film on my list is last year’s Let the Right One In, a vampire film from Sweden. I’m not a big fan of vampires — especially sparkly ones — but this was done especially well. We’ve lost sight of the fact that vampires should be unsettling, frightening, and not high school prom kings; but there’s no mistaking in Let the Right One In that the vampire is a predator and we are her prey. And, finally, I’m having so much difficulty in picking a fifth genre film that impressed me, so I’ll have to choose Watchmen, if only because it was something I’d always wanted to see on the big screen and it didn’t entirely disappoint. It was too faithful an adaptation to really work — reading a comic is not the same as watching a movie — but it almost redeems itself by having a better ending. Shame about the superhero violence, though, which made one element of the story entirely pointless.
I’m really bad at following television series — even now, with catch-up telly and DVD-Rs and the like. During 2009, I caught individual episodes of Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire, Fringe, Flashforward and the new Knight Rider. I managed to miss Defying Gravity, Dollhouse, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, The Bionic Woman and Legend of the Seeker. Of those I did see, I think Fringe is the only one I’d like to see more of — but then I was a big fan of The X-Files. In 2009, I finally got to watch the final season of Battlestar Galactica, about which a lot has been written by many people. Yes, that ending… I recognise its faults, but I actually quite liked it. The “false Earth” halfway through the season may have been the result of the writers’ strike, and the story logic started to unravel a bit around there, but I thought the actual real ending was an interesting recovery. Less overtly sf was the BBC’s Ashes to Ashes series two, in which DI Alex Drake continued in her struggle to escape the 1980s and return to the present day. It was never entirely serious, but it treated its central premise with great seriousness. In 2009, I also watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seasons three and four, which confirmed for me that it was the best of the Trek franchises. While it descended into Trek silliness as often as the others, it boasted a more watchable cast and an interesting series story-arc. I tried watching Starfleet, a UK adaptation of a Japanese puppet show, since I had fond memories of it from the early 1980s. It only proved you can never go back. Watching all twenty-four episodes over the space of a month managed to burn away whatever affection I might have held for the programme. All the same, X-Bomber was cool, and it still is.
The best genre stuff I consumed in 2009? Crikey… how much space have I got? More space than time, I expect, so here’s some winners from off the top of my head, with the caveat that they could well be totally different if you asked me yesterday, later tonight or at any point in the future:
Fiction (long-form only, though not through any prejudice against the short or lack of reading the short form; just the first three that came to mind, y’know)
- The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling – Chairman Bruce at his most challenging… not an easy read, nor a happy one, but very rewarding.
- The City & The City by China Mieville – some folk have described TC&TC as a flawed work by a potential master; I don’t have the critical knowledge of the relevant genres to call it either way. But I can’t think of a book I’ve read this year that has haunted my imagination so strongly since. Recommended to all urbanites and lovers of metropolitan spaces; it’ll change the way you look at everything.
- The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin (40th Anniversary Reprint) – to my shame, I never got round to reading this before, though I’m kinda glad to come to it fresh at a stage in my reading life where I can really appreciate its subtle majesty. (And anyone who wishes to bemoan the ‘feminizing/liberalizing/intellectualizing of the genre’ or say that ‘the problem with literary books is that they forget to tell a good story’ should email me their meatspace address so I can drive round, cut through their broadband connection and barricade them into their home using the entire Baen Books back catalogue.)
Non-fiction (though not ‘non-fiction about fiction’, if you see what I mean, though I have read and enjoyed quite a bit of that of late; more like ‘non-fiction about the sort of questions about the world that fiction makes me ask myself’, maybe? Yeah, that’ll do.)
- The Scientific Way Of Warfare by Antoine Bousquet – technology in warfare as artefact, history, narrative and metaphor. Military hardware examined as an evolving four-stage philosophy through the lens of systems thinking. Not quite impenetrable, though by no means an easy read either; if you’re interested in the way that humans have viewed technology in the context of conflict since the Renaissance, this is one to look out for.
- Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond – why did some nations conquer all the others? What made them different? What was their advantage? That’s a big sf-nal question, right? This is a fascinating and deeply researched investigation in search of the answer. You’ve probably heard this book mentioned before; you should really read it if you get the chance.
- In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin – yeah, (some of) those stories about multiple universes are (sometimes)(maybe) based on (rough interpretations of) the scientific facts about reality. If you want to know the facts (and the current interpretations thereof by proper science types), Gribbin is your genial and lucid guide. He writes sf too, y’know… and so I should probably disclaim that John Gribbin is published by PS Publishing, by whom I am employed, and that he was kind enough to mail me a free copy of ISotM when I mentioned I’d enjoyed some of his other non-fiction titles.
I don’t really watch a lot of cinema, and most of the reviews I’ve read of this year’s big genre releases have confirmed that I was probably wise to save my money and stay at home reading. YMMV.
Now, y’see, I don’t really watch much TV either, but my girlfriend has been attempting to get me into some stuff of late. She’s had little success as yet, but a few items slipped under the radar that I think are worth mentioning:
- Fringe – after the first episode of this, I was thinking, “well, it’s a remix of The X Files that replaces the government-focussed conspiracy obsessions of the nineties with those of the corporate-focussed late noughties, isn’t it? Same episodic one-idea-per-episode-then-riff-on-it approach, same overarching deeper mystery story-shape… and some of the ‘science’ is very sketchy indeed.” And yet… and yet. I’m up to episode ten of the first series thanks to my good lady’s On-Demand TV service, and I’m pretty much hooked. Flawed – so flawed – but with flashes of brilliance.
- Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace – I can’t believe I never got shown this before; pure comedy genius, and kudos to the creators for never doing another series (because the central gag couldn’t hold out for more than one, which is its beauty). If you’ve ever wondered (as so many of us seem to) what goes through Joe and Josephine Public’s head when you say the words ‘science fiction’, well, this series pretty much captures it in all its straight-to-video glory. That’s why no one takes us seriously… so learn to laugh at it. It’s good for you.
Blogs (again, not specifically sf-nal, as everyone’s gonna list the same fiction venues, and I have a horse in that race, so to speak; so, these are non-sf blogs that flick my sf switches. Well, you did say we could mix up our choices of media… )
- BLDGBLOG (Geoff Manaugh) – Architecture as seen by an sf fan; sf as seen by a rogue architect… plus other cool stuff. Essential.
- Quiet Babylon (Tim Maly) – Like someone crossed Geoff Manaugh with Jorge Luis Borges. Er, in Canada. And with a big chunk of internet era geek insight thrown in. I like him so much I poached him for Futurismic, in fact.
- Global Guerrillas (John Robb) – Worried that terrorism and the dissolution of the nation-state as a political player is a developing trend? John Robb’s waaaaay ahead of you. If you want to know what the politics of the next few decades will look like, this is your primer.
2009 seems to be a very good year so far. There are some great novels out and some wonderful collections of short stories. The comics scene had some wonderful SF related items. Movies, all I need to say is Watchmen, District 9, Star Trek, Up, Drag Me to Hell, some wonderful things. Art and related books – oh yes, there were some fun things happening,
On the short story front I was very fond of The Best of Michael Moorcock (Tachyon), The Best Of Gene Wolfe (Tor), four volumes of The Collected Short Stories of Roger Zelazny (NESFA), two volumes of The Collected Short Stories of Poul Anderson (NESFA), Rise of the Terran Empire (volume 3 of Baen’s collection of Poul Anderson’s Technic Civilization), Oceanic by Greg Egan (Gollancz – much of this collection is included in Subterranean’s Crystal Night collection. CN includes one story not in Oceanic, though), and Otto Penzler’s The Vampire Archives (Vintage) with 900 pages of story and 100 pages of vampire fiction bibliography, it is pretty much a must-have (even if they did not list my “Moving Day” short story from 100 Vicious Little Vampires in the bibliography). Haffner Books published three volumes of Edmond Hamilton early works including two volumes of his early short fiction and one volume of his Captain Future stories. Like all Haffner titles, these are well constructed loving tributes to the work of Hamilton. Also, Volume 12 of The Collected Short Stories Of Theodore Sturgeon: Slow Sculpture appeared. This contains the work from Sturgeon Is Alive and Well, a seminal volume of his later work that truly affected me when I read it in the early 70’s.
But the short story collections that most excite me are Harold Lamb’s Crusader stories in Swords from the Desert and Swords from the West (Bison). In 2006, Howard Andrew Jones edited four volumes of Cossack stories by Lamb from Adventure Magazine, nearly 2,400 pages of wonderful adventure that had been out of print for decades. Now, Jones has turned to Lamb’s Crusader stories, which may be even better. There are additional volumes due next year.
Among the art books, one volume rings clear to me. The large Norman Saunders retrospective was breathtaking. The reproductions of his various pulp covers for war, mystery, western, SF, spicy, and other magazines are spectacular! Saunders did work in the pre-war pulps, the post-war pulps, men’s magazines, comics, and trading cards. He did the classic Mars Attacks! Trading cards that eventually led to the Tim Burton film and the Batman and Superman trading cards issued by Topps in the mid-1960’s (I had a Batman set back then and never even saw or knew of the Superman set). To me, this book was a wonderful trip down the various memory and non-memory lanes. (I just looked and the book has a published date of November 2008 but I got mine through Diamond Distributors and they did not send it out until 2009, so I am somewhat leery of the 2008 date).
A couple of years ago I was directed by Rick Klaw to the work of Fletcher Hanks and I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets. Hanks was a Golden Age comic artist that I had never seen or heard of but whose work was astounding. If you like Basil Wolverton, you will be gaga for Hanks. That volume ended with a bizarre true life story of the search for Hanks, the discovery that genius does not always mean good human being, and an amazing revelation on the final page. Editor Paul Karasik gathers together the remainder of Hanks’ work in You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation (Fantagraphic Books). Between the two volumes, all known Hanks work is presented. They stories are primitive in style and execution but loaded with imagination and violence. The back cover contains a quote that rings so true to me “Hanks’ work reads as if David Lynch, Daniel Johnston, and Ed Wood sat down to collaborate on a superhero comic…” The Onion A.V. Club. I was extremely pleased to see Warren Ellis finish the Planetary comic story line as well as Ignition City. These are two great SF comic titles and you should read them. And the first volume of The Complete Bloom County appeared. This included many early strips not previously collected and is something no science fiction comic strip fan should be without. There was also a volume of the first years of the daily Buck Rogers comic strips released.
For non-fiction, there was a clear winner also. Powers: Secret History: A Tim Powers Bibliography from PS Publishing. Now I like bibliographies. Read my column on Obsessive Compulsive collecting and you know that I want everything from a writer I like. AND I LIKE TIM POWERS! A LOT! But I was unprepared for how complete this book is. It’s massive and heavily illustrated and a joy to behold. Underwood Miller published some great bibliographies (De Camp, Dick, Vance, Zelazny among others). This makes them blanch in comparison. Heavy paper, large pages, tons of pictures, more detail than you could ever really want to know about his (and, by virtue of their long association Blaylock and Jeter) career. Expensive, even in the cheap edition, and beyond expensive for the truly desirable limited editions I found it to be heaven!
For novels, I did not read many 2009 novels this year. I’m generally far, far behind on that count. I intend to read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Under The Dome by Stephen King, The Yggyssey : How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All the Ghosts, Found Out Where They Went, and Went There by Daniel M. Pinkwater, Knights Of The Cornerstone by James P. Blaylock, The Rainbow Pavilion by Liz Williams, Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald, End Of The Century by Chris Roberson, Quarantine by Joe McKinney, Elegy Beach (and its prequel Ariel) by Steven R. Boyett, Finch by Jeff VanderMeer, Jay Lake’s Green, Alastair Reynolds House of Suns, Amberville by Tim Davys, and others.
I did read Drood by Dan Simmons which isn’t really very fantastic but was extremely fascinating (to me. I have a Wilkie Collins signature framed on my wall – along with Anthony Trollope and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). This adventure of Dickens and Collins tracing an evil oriental overlord (who could be Fu Manchu maybe) all through London while chasing the hero of Dickens’ final unfinished novel was long but thoroughly enjoyable. Similarly I read Joe Lansdale’s Vanilla Ride which has no SF elements, other than sheer audaciousness gonzo-ness and realized that I was absolutely the target audience for that title. And Victor Gischler’s Vampire-A-Go-Go continues the gonzo humor he showed in Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse. The new novel is unrelated but the publisher wanted them to seem to be, hence the title. Absolute fun in a barrel with Jesuit SEALS, vampires, werewolves, alchemy, zombies, and a plot that defies coherent description.
I’m terribly behind with novels this year, so I thought I would talk about books that get less attention: graphic novels, and non-fiction.
I’ll start with the book I think should win the Best Graphic Novel Hugo in Melbourne: Grandville, by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse). It is perhaps best described as steampunk furries do Tarantino, and if that isn’t enough to get you interested the art is just awesome.
Paul Cornell just missed a nomination last year with his Captain Britain & MI13 series (Marvel). The latest (and final) collection in the series is Vampire State, in which Dracula, backed by Dr. Doom, sets out of conquer Britain. There’s a fabulous splash page showing Dracula in the House of Commons with a huge pile of dead bodies.
Bill Willingham’s Fables (Vertigo) continues to provide superb quality comics, but this year’s collection, The Dark Ages, is very downbeat so it probably won’t win anything.
Next up is something that defies categorization so I recommend nominating it in Best Related Work. Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett (Abrams Image), is a “mockumentary” – a supposed history of a steampunk robot told mainly through digitally altered pictures that show our hero taking part in great events. The conceit even goes as far as listing books (and even a pilot animated cartoon) written about Boilerplate after his presumed death in WWI. This is a unique and beautiful book.
A more typical feature in Best Related Work is the art book, and this year I’d like to draw your attention to The Art of Maurizio Manzieri. You might think that you’ve never heard of this Italian artist, but his work has graced the covers of several issues of F&SF and Interzone, as well as many books.
Still with non-fiction, if you are a fan of Tim Powers then you will want a copy of Powers: Secret Histories by John Berlyne (PS Publishing) which contains everything you might want to know about Tim’s books. The appendices are about twice the length of the main text, which should tell you just how magnificently obsessive it is.
Finally I have a bunch of academic works I’d like to mention. Not all of these are very accessible, but they are all interesting in various ways. Probably the most accessible is On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan). If you want to know more about one of the finest writers of Feminist SF, this is the book to read.
You might wonder why there is a need for Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville (Wesleyan), but Marxists are actually very fond of science fiction. After all, they too are interested in predicting the future of mankind. One of the most influential academic critics of science fiction, Darko Suvin, is a Marxist. Sadly much of this book is not very accessible, but it is worth checking out China’s robust defense of fantasy in the final essay.
I’ve not yet got a copy of Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay (Wesleyan) but my academic friends have been waxing rhapsodic about it. If they are to be believed, this book might supplant Suvin and Derrida’s works as the leading academic text about science fiction, that that would be a very good thing. In general I tend to side with Adam Roberts in not being very fond of books that try to create taxonomies, but I love books like Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy that neatly explode the simplistic taxonomies beloved of exclusionist fans (not to mention exclusionist critics such as Suvin). Seven Beauties sounds like it is another such book.
Finally I’d like to suggest a book of criticism by an author. Normally fiction authors are not very good at such things, but here I’m talking about Samuel R. Delany who is ferociously intelligent. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is a 1978 book that had gone out of print and has just been brought back in a revised edition by Wesleyan. Delany thinks more deeply about language than anyone I know. If you want to write, or you want to be a critic, you should read his non-fiction.
I will restrict myself to four books I found superior and one movie I found less so but still worth mentioning.
- Steel Across The Sky by Nancy Kress is a science fiction novel about alien “Atoners” who arrive to, well, atone, for something they did to the human race ten thousand years in the past. Kress handles the novel with her usual aplomb, juggling multiple viewpoints, narrative strategies, and a BIG IDEA as if it were all as easy as she makes it look. I highly recommend that anyone who missed this hardcover release from Tor rectify that oversight posthaste.
- The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory is a kind of southern gothic horror novel with a science fictional premise beating within its brilliantly warped heart. Gregory’s first novel, Pandemonium, was a finalist for The World Fantasy Award and it won the Crawford and should have won half a dozen other awards. The Devil’s Alphabet, just released in November, has already arrived on Publisher’s Weekly’s list of best novels for 2009. There’s a reason for that.
- Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi was published in 2008 but I just got around to reading it last week. I knew this collection of short fiction by one of the most lauded writers to arrive on the sf scene in years would be good. After all, I’d read several of the stories in their original magazine appearances. But there were treasures here I’d missed, and the experience of reading these ten tales in one extended binge was overpowering. Bacigalupi’s reputation is well deserved.
- About Writing by Samuel R. Delany, a collection of essays, letters, and interviews, was first published in 2005, though I came across it only last summer. Strangely, the interviews are the hardest going part of the book, while Delany’s essays on the art and craft of fiction are un-put-down-able. The letters provide insight into a dedicated artist. One of my favorite parts of the book occurs right at the beginning when Delany presents a “badly organized” sentence of a type he frequently encounters when teaching writing. He then rewrites the sentence, sometimes making more sentences, to illustrate his theory of good writing and talented writing. Talented writing, he tells us, usually contains more information. True.
- I Am Alive And You Are Dead: A Journey Into The Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrere is a biography of Philip K. Dick. It first appeared in 1993, but, you guessed it, I only recently discovered it. Carrere’s unusual mode of biography totally involved me in the story of PKD’s life — a story I already knew pretty well from Lawrence Sutin’s book, Divine Invasions. But Carrere’s effort brings new energy, detail and a weird overlapping effect of biographer and subject.
- Moon is a science fiction movie that got a lot of attention when it was released last summer. There are things to love about it. The retro approach (no doubt necessitated by budget concerns) to the special effects. The attempt, at least, to put on the screen something like a realistic look at the near-ish future. The paranoid situation of a lone man on the moon who may be losing his mind. However…I found the big reveal to be laughably lame. So, even though this movie was widly hailed as “intelligent” my recommendation is you turn off the critical functions of your intelligence before you pop it in the dvd player.
This will be a short list, because I haven’t read that much in the genre this year, or seen that many good films. I assume that Dances With Elves–I mean, Avatar–will make a lot of lists, and going by the sixteen minutes I have seen it should on the basis of the technology involved, though I don’t have much hope for the story. I wish I could say The Lovely Bones impressed me as being more than button-pushing tripe, but it did not. The science fiction and fantasy movies that did impress me were Duncan Jones’ Moon, Neil Blokamp’s District 9, and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. I also liked Ti West’s retro horror flick, The House of the Devil and, to a lesser extent, Park Chan Wook’s excessive vampire film, Thirst. I thoroughly enjoyed the Canadian zombie film, Pontypool.
I liked Darryl Gregory’s new one, The Devil’s Alphabet and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl. Although I was a contributor to this antho, I feel it’s kosher to say I very much liked the other stories in George R.R, Martin-and-Gardner Dozois’ Songs of Dying Earth, probably because I’m not getting enough Vance in my diet these days. Otherwise I enjoyed reading the plots of the Twilight novels to my pet chicken–she clucked herself silly.
I’ve consumed a lot of great genre-related books and films this year, so it’s difficult to narrow everything down to just a few top picks. But since you twisted my arm, John…well, okay. I’ll take one for the team and all that, eh?
In order to evaluate what I think is “best” i.e., what worked best for me personally, I ask a few key questions. Which stories get my heart a-thumping while I’m reading them? Which exemplify qualities of the genre and reinforces my desire to read it? What concepts or elements make me so proud to be a genre lover? On second thought, it all comes down to one element, actually: torture.
This year, I finally caught up with Catherine Asaro’s Alpha (2007). Alpha is a super-happy mix of hard SF and romance. My infatuation with this book stems primarily from the dangerous and sexy android heroine Alpha-rowrrr! The character makes her first appearance in the book’s prequel Sunrise Alley and that’s where her character arc actually begins. And Alpha, you can kick my ass any time, honey. The nonstop action leaves the reader with practically zero breathing room and tortures the heck out of aging hero Lt. Gen. Thomas Wharington. In Alpha, the science fictional elements, e.g., the evolution of artificial intelligences and its socio-political impact, lends a unique undercurrent to the story’s May-December romance.
Hope’s Folly (2009) by Linnea Sinclair blends military SF and romance in a story that pits a rag-tag starship crew against a powerful empire. I went especially ga-ga over Philip Guthrie, a hero in the mature, distinguished mold. His character arc actually begins in earlier books by Sinclair in which he made appearances (Gabriel’s Ghost and Shades Of Dark, respectively). Guthrie struggles with being an outcast and adjusting to life as a rebel after an illustrious career as an admiral. Not only that, he’s captain of a decrepit starship that’s barely spaceworthy. Color me a hopeless romantic, but I loved the fact that the title was also the name of his ship. Plus, Guthrie’s got the hots for a woman practically half his age! How’s that for torture?!
The Stars Blue Yonder (2009) is the culmination of Sandra McDonald’s trilogy that began with The Outback Stars and continued in The Stars Blue Yonder. The trilogy is a fun, trippy blend of military SF, Aboriginal mythology, and romance. Having devoured the first two books, I was already familiar with the hero and heroine-where else could the relationship possibly go? But McDonald found a way to make the romance fresh again, all the while torturing this poor couple to the brink as she flung them this way and that through time and space. I know what you’re thinking: “Where do I sign up for this kind of adventure?!”
And now for another kind of torture altogether:
I simply must give an enthusiastic shout out to Light Brigade (2005), a graphic novel published by DC Comics, written by Peter J. Tomasi and illustrated by Peter Snejbjerg. The story is about a ragtag band of American soldiers during WWII who battle fallen angels disguised as Nazis for control of the Sword of God. With sharp dialogue, scruffy yet endearing characters, supernatural mayhem, and gore-filled imagery that stained my retinas, it was like Saving Private Ryan meets Paradise Lost.
So, yeah, for me, 2009 was all about the torture.
- The City & the City by China Mieville — I can’t say much about the book proper without spoiling it, but I can talk about the limited edition we produced. Both China and I wanted a dust jacket with traditional detective elements which wouldn’t give away the nature of the story. I hit upon the idea of using one of the two covers that Boris Artzybasheff did for Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister or The Long Goodbye, but the rights situation was an utter mess, let alone being unable to secure good scans of the illustrations. So China and I did the next best thing: we sent the two images to Vincent Chong and had him come up with an homage.
- The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon — Without a doubt my favorite book of the year, and possibly as good as The Shadow of the Wind.
- Under the Dome by Stephen King — I recently re-read another King small town apocalypse novel, Needful Things, and Dome made an interesting contrast in that it contained almost none of the pulp elements that so suffused Things. Even at over 1000 pages, this one’s a rocket ride, with an enormous cast that King does an admirable job helping the reader keep track of. I don’t think it will be as beloved as The Stand or IT, but Dome is their equal.
- Boneshaker by Cherie Priest — Pure steampunk fun with zombies, dirigibles, poisonous gas, and a heart as big as its author’s. The must read adventure novel of the year.
Drood by Dan Simmons — Complex, challenging, heavily researched. Another impeccable “spooky thriller” by Simmons. With this novel, The Terror, and the upcoming Black Hills, he’s found a rich dark vein to mine.
- Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut — some of the stories are slight, but each line is so damn clean that the tales herein may be small pleasures, but they were an out sized joy for this reader.
- Wireless by Charles Stross — One of the best novellas of recent years (“Missile Gap”); an original novella nearly as good (“Palimpset”); and a P.G. Wodehouse riff that is to die for (“Trunk and Disorderly”). Along with the expanded edition of Alastair Reyonlds’s Zima Blue, probably the best collection I read this year.
- Not Less Than Gods by Kage Baker — a bit episodic, but full of odd bits of steampunk invention, and tied together neatly enough. The precursor to the Company novels. May Kage write many more.
The Folding Knife by K. J. Parker — This one won’t be out until next year. I won’t say much about it except that it confirms again why Parker is my favorite among the new rank of epic fantasists.
- Horns by Joe Hill — Easily the toughest read of the year. Completely unflinching and uncompromising. Horns is the book you’ll marvel at, and be glad to have read, but it’s a dark path you’ll think twice about before taking again.
- Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie — Gritty, gleeful, bloody fun, this time compressed into a single volume.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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