MIND MELD: The Best Genre-Related Books/Films/Shows Consumed in 2009 (Part 4)
“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.]
I was totally blown away by Robert Charles Wilson’s book Julian Comstock, which is about a post-peak-oil future in which Canada and the USA are ruled by a totalitarian family of religious fanatics, and the black sheep scion of a discredited branch of the family wants to–
Well, make movies, actually.
Other than that, my genre reading has been kind of sparse this year. I very much enjoyed Nisi Shawl’s Filter House and Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing. I also like Margaret Ronald’s Spiral Hunt, which is light but satisfying
The Best of 2009 is actually a tricky question for me. I spent a lot of my non-review time reading the works on the Hugo Ballot, so first appeared in 2008. A lot of what I saw on TV and at the cinema was almost great, like Star Trek, or Doctor Who but were marred by the inevitable need to pander to non-genre audiences and contractual obligations — DW having to find reasons to write out guest stars at the expense of story logic.
I read very few novels apart from the Angry Robot titles, for which I’ll recuse myself.
Short fiction continued to prosper despite the difficult economic climate, and has become even more of a vocation than a means of income.
Jason Sanford‘s novella “Sublimation Angels” appeared in Interzone, and was followed in the very next issue by “Here We Are, Falling Through Shadows.” As I noted with Ted Kosmata last year, good –but very different– stories appearing in quick-fire succession by the same author have a cumulative effect far beyond that achieved by single works.
Sanford broke through in 2008 with another pair of stories in Interzone. But “Sublimation Angels” is a longer and more complex work, set on a frozen planet in deep, deep space featuring a number of factions fighting for survival and control, and is among the two or three best novellas in any SF magazine this year. He followed it with a short story featuring a sort of alien invasion of Earth whose tone is so unrelentingly bleak throughout that at times it’s almost unbearable. There is a glimmer of hope at the end which amplifies rather than softens what’s gone before but nonetheless, in many ways this is a very non-genre story which is why I like it so much.
Maura McHugh‘s “Vic” is yet another re-working of the Frankenstein archetype, but is so beautifully crafted that it’s easy to overlook that. With its claustrophobic suburban setting and engaging young protagonist, it’s a story that works entirely on mood. And works it does magnificently — it’s my favourite single story of the year.
My favorite new sf show this season is Stargate: Universe. It’s what Star Trek Voyager should have been-people far from home in a desperate situation. I like how hard it is to survive, the difficulties everyone is having with the new situation, and the ways everyone is coping. It could be a soap opera, but isn’t. It’s hard sf with a space opera underpinning, solid plots, excellent characters and stellar writing. I’m very pleased with it.
I also loved Torchwood: Children of Earth. Frightening, creepy aliens, impossible to stop watching, impossible to figure out. Excellent stuff–and the scary part was the humans, not the aliens, which is the way excellent sf sometimes works.
My sf reading is mostly in the magazines and short story collections. No sf collection hit me hard, although Ellen Datlow’s Poe, was the best overall collection I read-no clunkers, lots of good stuff, a few brilliant stories. I think Sheila Williams has hit her stride as editor of Asimov’s. The magazine is consistently readable and has the best ratio of excellent to good stories of everything I’ve read.
I’ve also been reading sf biographies. Most have been out for years; I just got to them. But Robert Silverberg’s Other Spaces, Other Times, is worth reading. It’s a compilation of autobiographical essays, so you can see how his thinking evolved throughout his life and career. Worth checking out.
As for movies, I haven’t seen some of the recommended sf stuff yet-District 9 is in my Netflix queue-but I was happily surprised by the reboot of Star Trek. I almost didn’t go; I thought the task impossible, the characters too indelibly tied to their actors. But it turned out to be a ride and an excellent rebooting of the series-and I ended up liking the young actors quite a bit. So that was my happiest surprise of the year.
My best sf moments this year, though, have come from my Kindle and my iPhone. I feel like a citizen of the future as I play with the new tech. I just love that.
Pretty much all the books I read in 2009 were purchased as electronic files and read on a Sony Reader. I made a request on my blog, as a non-fan of traditional fantasy, for recommendations of fantasy books that might appeal to me and, after receiving several suggestions, wound up buying the book that had sparked the query in the first place: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which turned out to be one of my favourite books of the year. It did precisely the one thing that traditional fantasy – what very, very little of it I’ve encountered – fails to do, which is to step out of the sandbox of its fictional setting and explore its very limits in order to see what lies beyond the furthest horizon. The only novel I’ve read that comes anywhere near to asking the same kind of question with the same kind of grit and honesty is Simon Ings’ City of The Iron Fish.
Other books that grabbed my attention include Piers Bizony’s How To Build Your Own Spaceship – not sf, but of related interest, since it details the evolution of the private spaceflight industry through the entertaining conceit of pretending to be a ‘how-to’ that guides one not only through the various means by which low-orbit craft can or could be developed, but through the means by which political palms might be greased or funds raised. Not only an excellent exploration of one of the 21st Century’s burgeoning frontiers, but a highly entertaining read and a remarkably accessible one for us non-engineers. I came away feeling like I had some kind of grasp on what the low-orbit (and beyond) real-life space industry is really about.
Even more tangential to the genre but very worth mentioning is a book freely available online as a downloadable pdf: The Authoritarians, by Dr. Bob Altemeyer, a remarkably reclusive psychology professor at a Canadian University who has been carrying out research into authoritarian mindsets since the late Sixties. What he’s learned about the nature of the human psyche reads almost like science fiction. Any author who wants to understand why the human race is so inherently self-destructive would do well to study this book very, very carefully. One of the most enlightening pieces of writing I’ve encountered in some years, and carries some lengthy discussion about the psychology of the Bush Jr. administration’s time in power. And free.
Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not A Game was a highly entertaining read that made me realise a burgeoning new art form was coming into existence without most of us being aware of it, while proving a very worthy successor to his previous book, the utterly superb Implied Spaces – easily one of the books of the decade, in my opinion.
There are many, many other books I might have recommended if I had been able to purchase them in electronic form – I currently live in Taiwan, and would prefer not to haul too many paper books back to Scotland with me next year when I return.
Although I haven’t yet red it, one book I’m very much looking forward to reading very soon is Paolo Bacigalupi’s much-talked-about debut Windup Girl, which is already making many people’s best-of lists.
In cinema, it’s been hard to find anything to beat 2008′s Iron Man in genre-related material, but District 9 came close after the awful, appalling mess that was Star Trek. There’s only so often you can hit me over the head with idiot, idiot plots before I cry ‘enough’, and that’s one reason why I probably won’t go and see Avatar. I’ll be seeing enough of it in HD displays in shops for the next decade as it is. With any luck, the technology will allow better, more interesting movies to be made.
Pixar’s Up was a neat piece of cinema that successfully combined advanced cinematic technology with a well-constructed story – a lesson some big-budget directors like Cameron would do well to absorb.
In television, I was astonished to find the Stargate: Universe series to be actually quite enjoyable, although it became as repetitive as any other series when major characters resolutely refused to die, although the fate of one major character in episode ten was satisfyingly brutal. I’m not a curmudgeon, honest, but I don’t get on with a lot of TV sf – Doctor Who might as well be an animated Saturday morning cartoon, and I thought Battlestar Galactica, at least in terms of its overriding themes and vague new-ageisms, to be a heap of convoluted tripe, although I appreciate the sense of wobbly-cam verité it brought to televisual fantasy.
Stargate in its previous incarnations was (sorry, bah humbug, etc) just a bad Star Trek rip-off that I had no problems ignoring for almost the entirety of its existence, so to find myself watching and even enjoying this spin-off was a surprise. I consoled myself by remembering that probably the only reason it’s attached to Stargate at all (and this is purely my biased opinion, of course), instead of existing in its own original setting was the broad fanbase the franchise brings with it. And if it hadn’t been for the presence of Robert Carlyle, I might never have bothered with it at all.
Otherwise, Fringe is intermittently enjoyable, almost entirely because of the soon-to-be-iconic and utterly brilliant Walter Bishop, and a willingness to stick closely to a story arc. Unfortunately, every time it steps away from that arc it turns into the X-Files.
Lost was wonderful and baffling all at the same time, although there are clear hints the conclusion of the last series in 2010 may beat out Battlestar Galactica for the grand prize of worst series conclusion of all time. It’s been a heck of a ride so far regardless.
I’ve only seen the one episode of Defying Gravity, but I found it to be refreshingly adult compared to almost all of its televisual brethren. And despite having what must have been the worst pitch of all time (‘there’s a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire sharing a flat’), the UK’s Being Human turned out to be a gripping, well-written, engaging supernatural drama. I look forward to its second series.
All right – I’m going for genre fiction/podcasts here. The best way I can think of is to just repeat my reading recommendations. I probably read about three times this many books – I did enjoy some of the books and stories that didn’t make the list, but unless I really love them, I don’t recommend them. Here goes:
Things I loved in the form of the written word included: The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia, a haunting tale told by a metal woman in a fantastical world. Continuing the theme, there are metal men in Ken Scholes’s Canticle, which was a great sequel to Canticle – even better than Lamentation, which was the best new high fantasy novel I’d read in some time. Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest. Since I live in the Seattle area, it was extra cool. I also remember her characters now, two months after I read the book, particularly the brave Briar Wilkes Blue. I loved Anathem, with a caveat that it took some doing to get going in it. Once there, awesome and deep, but if I hadn’t HAD to read it…so if any readers here pick it up, just keep going until it grabs you. It will.
Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky was excellent classic SF, and I particularly liked two things by Jay Lake this year – the novella America, Such as She Is, the novel Green. In the excellent YA category, count Lisa Mantchev’s Eyes like Stars and Tamora Pierce’s second book in the Legend of Beka Cooper series: Bloodhound.
Books inside of series that I liked this year were Devon Monk’s fantasy novel, Magic in the Blood, Greg Bear’s thriller Mariposa, and Patricia Brigg’s Bone Crossed and Hunting Ground (pure entertainment, candy reads, but compelling stop and sit down and just read them until you’re done books).
I was having trouble finding time to read this year, so I listened to a lot of audio. My single favorite piece of audio was Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Behind that, Starship Sofa and Escape Pod both had nice short fiction (too many to call out anything specific), although for overall happiness, I think I just like hearing Tony C. Smith. He’s pretty to listen to (like Neil) and that matters in podcasting.
Whether or not Avatar is one of the best movies of 2009, it is the best movie I’ve seen this decade.
Here’s my list:
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- Confessions of an Alien Hunter by Seth Shostak
- The Terror: A Novel by Dan Simmons
- Flashforward by Robert Sawyer
- Choke: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk
- Survivor: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk
- Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
- The Last Colony by John Scalzi
- The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin
- The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
- Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
- Crota by Owl Goingback
- Contagious by Scott Sigler
- The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
- Fleet of Worlds by Ed Lerner
- The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
- Don’t Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson
- Mortal Coils by Eric Nylund
- Death from the Skies by Phil Plait
I haven’t watched as many movies as I wanted to this year, or watched as much TV. I have been enjoying Flashforward on ABC very much so far, and I was overall happy with the Watchmen movie.
- Pax Romana and The Nightly News, both trade paperback collections of comic miniseries from writer/artist Jonathan Hickman. Never heard of him? You will. If his career stalls out right now, he’ll just be the heir to Howard Chaykin and the better (sane, non-misogynistic) parts of Frank Miller. If he reaches his potential, Hickman will be the second coming of Alan Moore. The books have a distinct, modern visual style and whip-smart writing. Pax tells the story of a near-future Catholic Church that tries to save itself from extinction by sending a paramilitary force back to the time of Emperor Constantine. News is a nowpunk tale of domestic terrorists going to war with the modern media establishment — literally. Both blew my doors off.
- Star Trek is the best film I saw this year, and that’s not just the fanboy talking. While I may quibble that J.J. Abrams ceded whatever “scientific accuracy” moral high ground that Trek held over Star Wars — *cough* Red Matter? *cough* — the reboot film made it fun and fashionable to be a Trekkie again. No small feat, and I loved every second of it.
- Tree Lobsters is the funniest Web comic you’re not reading. It’s the next best thing to xkcd — which is saying quite a bit — and its combination of snark, social commentary, and skewering of pseudoscience is made all the more hilarious by the starring role of two sentient arboreal crustaceans.
- High Moon by Steve Ellis and David Gallaher. This Web-based comic book won a Harvey Award for good reason, though I’m biased by having exchanged a few Twitter posts with writer Gallaher (the man loves him some Firestar). Its unflinching mashup of Weird West, steampunk and detective noir make for a fiercely fun read.
- Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch. The sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora was almost as much fun as the original, and had the added benefit of being largely a swashbuckling pirate-heist novel. It’s like Ocean’s Eleven meets Pirates of The Caribbean. As a guy who generally doesn’t read fantasy, the fact that I’m hotly anticipating the next Lamora novel, Republic of Thieves, shows exactly how much Lynch hits the sweet spot with this character and this setting.
- Stargate: Universe is a show I expected to dislike, but it’s really grown on me. I very much enjoy the dark, angsty, slow-burn of its story and the fact there are genuinely unlikeable but nonetheless compelling characters on the show. It’s almost nothing like the previous Stargate series — one of which (SG-1) I love and one of which (Atlantis) I found rather disposable — but I admire the ambition of that departure as much as the quality of the show itself. Besides, I wish other shows (Battlestar Galactica, Voyager) had approached the concept of space castaways as seriously and logically as SG:U does. I appreciate the audience being treated like rational observers, not eyecandy-craving imbeciles.
For the past few years I’ve been on a crazy quest to educate myself about the ‘classics’ of science fiction. Thus in 2009, literature written before the Great Depression formed a high percentage of my reading. I especially love the out-of-copyright books that are available from Project Gutenberg. I tend to download them and read them either on my netbook, or more recently, my iPhone. That way I can read them on breaks at work, or waiting for classes to start, or waiting in line in the grocery store. My 2009 releases tend to be in physical form, harder to carry around. So I ended up with a bias towards older work. Go figure!
Thus I’d say that my main finds for the year were George MacDonald, who wrote fantasy in the 19th century, and Lord Dunsany, who wrote mostly in the early 20th. Specifically, MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) is a beautifully written story about a man who goes on a long rambling journey through a fairy land. It partakes of Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein, but predates them all. It is surreal, and it has moral themes, and it is simply an amazing adventure. It’s more in the personal quest vein than the sword & sorcery vein. Lord Dunsany’s collection of short stories, The Sword of Welleran and Others absolutely blew me away. My review of it is here, but the short version is that if you’ve ever enjoyed anything by Neil Gaiman, read Lord Dunsany. Gaiman always lists him as among his influences, and it shows. The language is pure poetry that lifts up flights of fancy for the reader. Both of these authors hold up well to the modern reader (YMMV). Another book that held up surprisingly well for me was Bram Stoker’s original Dracula.
Something that’s a little harder to get into, but equally rewarding turned out to be Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Although obviously archaic, much modern fantasy literature (well, almost any modern English literature) can trace its roots back to this collection of poetic short stories from around 1400. People meet devils and witches and fairies, and even back then there were clichés that could be subverted. Wonderful stuff!
Of the more modern works, I enjoyed Chris Barzak’s The Love we Share Without Knowing with its quiet depictions of alienation both in Western and Japanese societies. Daryl Gregory’s The Devil’s Alphabet is a less quiet tale of large things happening in a small town, with a fascinating cast of characters to follow. (Don’t let the cover put you off!) Also Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, an exuberantly, joyously, ever-bubbling fountain of sf world-building and thought-experiment goodness.
I’d also like to mention three outstanding non-fiction books that were important to me as a critic of the fantastic genres. The first is Samuel R. Delany’s Starboard Wine, with its collection of the author’s essays about genre and literature. The essays come from the late 70s and early 80s, but they spoke to me directly. It was exactly the right book for me at the time. The other two I didn’t review because I was too busy learning from them. Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy is a sustained book-length argument laying out a taxonomy of fantasy stories, something that helps in organizing thoughts about particular stories and how they relate to the field overall. Paul Kincaid’s What it is We do When We Read Science Fiction has a number of insightful essays. I was particularly taken by several of his broad surveys of authors’ bodies of work; they seemed to me to be a model of how to approach such a study.
Looking back I’m surprised by how little pure sf I read in 2009. I hope to change that balance a bit in 2010, especially as my classics reading period creeps slowly towards the post-Hugo Gernsback years (starting in 1926) when sf as its own genre really took off.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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