MIND MELD: Favorite SF/F Media Consumed in 2011 (Part I)
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Please let us know!]
As 2011 draws to a close, it’s time for our annual roundup of SF/F consumed during the year! So we asked a gallery of genre people about what they consumed and liked.
Here’s what they said…
[This is Part I]
The best books — novels and collections both — include Maureen McHugh’s AFTER THE APOCALYPSE, Jack McDevitt’s FIREBIRD, Ray Bradbury’s FAREWELL, SUMMER, Paolo Bacigalupi’s SHIP BREAKER, and a couple I’d missed when they first came out, Frank Robinson’s WAITING and Rob Sawyer’s ITERATIONS.
I’m not going to name all the hundreds of short stories I read, but the single best — which I missed when it first came out — was Kij Johnson’s “Shroedinger’s Cathouse”.
I haven’t watched a TV series since 1982, so I can’t help you there, and I haven’t been to the movies in over a year, so ditto.
I saw and greatly enjoyed revivals of the following plays, most of which I’d seen in New York the first time around: Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS, Samuel Becket’s WAITING FOR GODOT, Gelbart and Coleman’s CITY OF ANGELS, and Sondheim’s ASSASSINS.
Unfortunately, 2011 was the year that I decided to be a serious, conscientious Hugo voter, and read all of the nominees. Since no good deed goes unpunished, that means that I had to wade hip-deep through rivers of treacle and drool — this was a particularly awful year for award nominees, and nothing I read then would be suitable to be mentioned at the end of the year. (I’m doing my best to forget all of them, actually.)
On the other hand, I’ve just finished Terry Pratchett’s newest novel, SNUFF, which is a fine example of what he does best: a thinly-veiled contemporary novel of manners, with associated (impeccably liberal and broad-minded) moral, presented in fantasy dress so we can all pretend he isn’t saying the things he is very clearly saying.
Harry Connolly’s CIRCLE OF ENEMIES — third in his “Twenty Palaces” noir-fantasy series, and the last for at least a while, since those ingrates didn’t buy these awesome books — also does what good series fiction should, moving an overall story forward while telling its own twisted little piece of that puzzle. Anyone who likes Charlie Huston, and especially those of us who wish he’d just grow up and use quotation marks, already, should jump on Connolly, who has a similar kind of street-smart, utterly modern voice to tell us about all sorts of nasty supernatural monsters.
They weren’t published this year, entirely, but Dan Wells’s “Mr. Monster” trilogy — the first one is I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER — are wonderful books about a teenage sociopath who finds an entirely socially beneficial outlet for his darker impulses, told in the inimitable words of that young man himself. They’re getting some crossover attention as young adult books, showing that librarians are tougher than I am; I’ve been debating recommending it to my own teenage son, but it’s hard to make that conversation seem like a complement. (“Yes, son, I think you’d lovethis book about a teenager who is totally not a serial killer!”)
I’m not sure if George R.R. Martin’s A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is as strong as the first couple of books in that series, but it definitely sees the series lurch back into order after the shambling A FEAST FOR CROWS. And a thousand pages of pretty darn good is something to celebrate.
People are probably tired of me praising Matthew Hughes all of the time, but I’m not tired, so hurrah to Hughes for another sprightly, amazingly entertaining book in THE OTHER. Really, it totally escapes me why he isn’t a massive bestseller; he does for far-future science fantasy what Wodehouse did to the country house.
Catherynne M. Valente’s THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING was a lovely and thrilling book, the kind of thing that made me wish I had young daughters, so I could push it into their hands and then set them off on their own adventures. (I have sons, and you can’t stop them from having adventures; it’s not quite the same thing.)
Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, which is not entirely a genre book but has a very definite genre basis for one of its sections, is an amazing tour-de-force, branching from one story to another to another to show a wider canvas than any one person’s life could allow. It’s utterly brilliant — it won the Pulitzer, and deserved it — and I’ll recommend it in any circumstances where it’s even vaguely related.
Vera Brosgol’s graphic novel ANYA’S GHOST was a lovely, creepy, touching story of the friendship between two girls, slightly complicated by the fact that one of them died eighty years ago.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s debut novel SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY took the England of Jane Austen — a territory much picked over by various genres over the past few decades — took it entirely seriously, and added the kind of magic that one could see Austen herself writing about: precise, decorative, skillful, manifold, mysterious.
And, last for good reason, Jo Walton’s AMONG OTHERS was a mesmerizing, utterly true story of one girl in the early ’80s who is not exactly Walton herself, but who is very close to being more of us than we probably care to think of. It’s not just thoughtful, deeply felt fantasy novel, but also the story of how we console ourselves with stories and with the worlds we find in those stories. I still think it deserves to win the World Fantasy Award next year; it’s that good.
And that’s ten books, which is as good a place to end a list as anywhere.
A show that we came in on the end of was Stargate: Universe. I loved it, and was sorry that it didn’t continue. Another show that I’m extremely late to the party on is Avatar: the Last Airbender. It’s such a well-balanced show in terms of angst to humor, cool worldbuilding to action, and the characters are great. It’s a delight to watch.
New-to-me books in 2011 include Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Also, I somehow missed Bordertown when I was younger, so Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, was an unexpected treat. I wish I could tell my teenaged self to check out the Bordertown books- she would have loved them.I also thoroughly enjoyed Maureen Johnson’s foray into speculative YA, The Name of the Star. If I may be allowed to mention a Pyr series as well, I cannot say enough good things about Adrien Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series. It’s got unusual worldbuilding, great characterization, and an epic scope. These are only a tiny fraction of the excellent books I read this year; I had several good reading streaks.
Also new to me this year was Jill Thompson and Evan Dorkin’s graphic novel Beasts of Burden. I’ve been aware of both of their work separately for years, and was thrilled to see their collaboration. It’s well worth a look. Webcomics I’ve particularly enjoyed are Ashley Cope’s Unsounded (http://www.casualvillain.com/Unsounded/comic+index), in which a villainous little girl is paired with a scholarly attack zombie, and Dylan Meconis’ Family Man (http://www.lutherlevy.com/), a tale of werewolves and academics.
It is easy to make fun of science fiction and especially science fiction fans (see, for instance, William Shatner on Saturday Night Live). Occasionally, Hollywood gets it right with loving satire on the genre and those who love it (see, for instance, Galaxy Quest) Falling firmly into the latter category is the film Paul, written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. I went into the movie expecting to be mildly entertained, but both my wife and I quite enjoyed it. The casting was good, in addition to Pegg and Frost, Kristen Wiig plays a major role, Bill Hader, Jason Bateman, and Joe Lo Truglio provide “Men in Black” power and Jeffrey Tambour plays an arrogant SF author. The film asks the question “What if a couple of science fiction geeks actually were to find an alien?” which, of course, is something we all wonder about.
Next up is a short story that was published in the anthology Panverse 3, which I imagine most people missed, but it is certainly worth looking up. If there is any justice, Ken Liu will receive calls from the Nebula Committee and the Hugo Committee this Spring to let him know how appreciated “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is. Liu explores the Japanese experimentation of Chinese prisoners of war during World War II, bringing a fresh sense of horror to what man can do to his fellow man. However, the story focuses more on the modern day reaction, from those who want to make sure the memories are kept alive to those who see the past, even when it can be experienced by time travelers, as something that should be left to lie.
After seemingly losing his way in his Thursday Next series, Jasper Fforde managed to recapture much of the excitement and humor of the first two books in the series with One of Our Thursdays Is Missing. In part, Fforde did this by reversing the basic thrust he established early on. Instead of looking at the “real” Thursday Next and her adventures in books, his protagonist is the Thursday Next who portrays Thursday Next in the books. Fforde’s novels are at their best when he allows himself to indulge in metafictional hijinks and wordplay, and One of Our Thursdays Is Missing affords him plenty of opportunities to do so, while, at the same time, he is able to continue to flesh out their characters. Not the best introduction to the series, it does offer a return to the innovation with which Fforde first hit the scene.
Several Danish science fiction authors combined to published Sky City, which includes their short fiction in translation. The piece which stands out, and the Anglophonic reading public would be well served to see it reprinted in a more available location, is “Interrogation of Victim No. 5.,” by Lars Ahn Pedersen. This story is, as the title suggests, an interrogation of the victim of an attack, possibly by a serial killer. Her memories of the attack may be used to give the first clue of the killer’s identity, but as the interrogation goes on, Pedersen reveals more about the background of his civilization, the technological level they’ve achieved, and notes that even safe-guards aren’t always deployed in the best manner. Even more difficult to find that Ken Liu’s story mentioned above, Pedersen’s is quite worth looking for.
Lynne M. Thomas and Deborah Stanish edited Whedonistas, a collection of essays by female fans of the various worlds of Joss Whedon. Although there is a tendency to read the collection as a series of love letters to Whedon (which is certainly appropriate), the book also serves to describe and define the community and fandom which has grown up around his work. The essays demonstrate the level of support finding the right fandom can provide, not just with regard to a person’s hobbies, bout also emotional and, at times, financial. As was also shown by the essays in Thomas’s earlier work with Tara O’Shea, the specific fandom can merely be a jumping off point for providing individuals with what they need, whether it is a sense of belonging, friendships, or just the knowledge that their interests are shared.
Ever since I read Practical Demonkeeping, I’ve been a fan of Christopher Moore’s. I was upset when I heard that his forthcoming novel, Sacre Bleu, had been delayed until 2012. Within twenty-four hours of learning that, however, I stumbled across his graphic novel, The Griff, co-written with Ian Corson, about which I had previously been unaware. The book eschews Moore’s usual humorous style to tell a post-apocalyptic tale about a small group of survivors from New York and Florida who take it upon themselves to both survive and defeat the alien invaders who look like griffins of mythology. Moore and Corson offer some nice plot twists as well as interesting characters who have their own depth. Reading it didn’t quite make up for the disappointment of Sacre Bleu’s postponement, but it did give me another enjoyable book by Christopher Moore that I could recommend.
Alan M. Clark – Of Thimble and Threat: The Life of a Ripper Victim (Lazy Fascist Press) – I cracked into Alan Clark’s Of Thimble and Threat, expecting to read a chapter or two. Instead, I read the book in a single sitting, drawn in at first by the ingenious form, but kept enraptured by the characters’ humanity and overwhelming sense of verisimilitude. Of Thimble and Threat is no sanitized Victorian Disneyland; it gets right the struggles of the ordinary people of the era, the toxic environs in which they lived (and died), the backbreaking labor conditions, and the laudanum and alcohol-soaked temptations of an age that has been described as the Great Binge.
A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard – Burke, Joshi, and Schultz, eds. (Hippocampus Press) – An engaging, enlightening, and occasionally frustrating gimpse into the personalities behind two of weird fiction’s largest-looming titans. The passion and engagement the two authors share with one another’s work is illuminating.
Cameron Pierce – Cthulhu Comes to the Vampire Kingdom (Eraserhead Press) – A bizarro fever-dream tale of vampire lovers attempting to summon a hamburger and LOLCat-obsessed Cthulhu to destroy their doomed undersea kingdom. Including a Necronomicon that is really a unicorn coloring book, Cthulhu Comes to the Vampire Kingdom is sure to annoy Lovecraftian purists, but made me laugh out loud at many turns.
W. H. Pugmire – Some Unknown Gulf of Night (Arcane Wisdom Press) – Pugmire, one of the leading voices in modern weird fiction, presents a decadent collection of prose poems, loosely themed around H. P. Lovecraft’s sonnet cycle, “The Fungi from Yuggoth.” With nods to Poe, Baudelaire, James (both of ‘em), Wilde, and punk rock, Some Unknown Gulf of Night is a testament to the power of well-shaped prose, and is a book to be savored in small sips.
Mark Samuels – The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales (Chomu Press) – A well-crafted collection of cosmic horror stories drawing as much from Machen, Lovecraft, and Bierce as they do from Borges. Bibliophiles and contaminated texts abound. Standouts include the title story, which riffs wonderfully on the weird fiction tradition of “Man who collected…” tales (Bloch, Newman, Pratt & Mamatas, etc.), “Xapalpa,” and “A Contaminated Text.”
Instead of trying to pick the best novel(s) I read this year, I’m going to talk about my favorite 2011 trend. Noir. From Lauren Beukes Zoo City back in January to the soon to be released Empire State from Adam Christopher, 2011 is full of science fiction and fantasy written in a hard-boiled crime fiction tradition. Angry Robot was at the center of it with Beukes and Christopher, but they weren’t alone. Both Orbit and Doubleday got into the mix with James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and Daniel Polansky’s Low Town. Add in Necropolis by Michael Dempsey, one of Night Shade Book’s debuts from their New Voices Program, and Tor’s The Quantum Thief by Hannu Ranajiemi, noir starts to look like a trend.
Interestingly, other than Leviathan Wakes (co-written by Daniel Abraham), all of the titles I mention are from debut authors. Just as Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora spawned the interest in debuts from Brent Weeks, Jon Sprunk, Michael J. Sullivan, and Douglas Hulick (Among Thieves, it’s awesome!), we may be in the midst of a noir revolution and next year’s publicized releases seem to back that up. I have no idea who started it (Jim Butcher?), but I’m glad they did.
All of the titles I mentioned are great, but if the world were being threatened by aliens who demanded the quintessential noir SFF novel under threat of sliming the earth with their gooey innrds, I’d give them Zoo City. It’s everything that’s right about this genre, and reading in general.
Ok, I lied. If there’s one SFF novel I read this year that everyone should absolutely read it’s Orbit’s Germline by T.C. McCarthy. It’s pretty much the opposite of noir, but it’s dark, haunting, and way too believable. Oh, and screw you SyFy Channel for cancelling Stargate: Universe.
I read a bit eclectically – that is, whatever happens to make its way to me in whatever country I happen to be in (Israel, South Africa and the UK this year) – but having recently returned to London I got to catch up on some more current SF/F.
I spent a few weeks with my parents a few months back, where many of my books are stored, so I did a lot of re-reading of classics – being astounded all over again by Cordwainer Smith’s The Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.’s stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, for instance. I read Tiptree’s novella, “Slow Music” for the first time, and it is astonishing, and re-read her classic “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side”, which holds up tremendously. I re-read some Zelazny – Lord of Light, which I return to again and again, and A Night in the Lonesome October, his last book and one of his most fun.
In Hebrew, I got to read Shimon Adaf’s latest novel, Mox Nox, a wild mixture that is both an autobiographical coming-of-age novel and the parallel story of an unconventional novelist years later, that mixes, in the midst of it all, flashes of a weird alternative reality Israel, hints at secret conspiracies and mixes in a ghost story a-la The Turn of the Screw. This is the second in a loose trilogy of novels, following 2010′s astonishing Kfor (about a Jewish state 500 years in a post-human future), and the third of which is expected next year. Adaf’s earlier novel, Sunburnt Faces, will be published in English by PS Publishing next year – it is a tour-de-force.
I didn’t get a chance to read Vered Tochterman’s first novel, Dam Kachol (Blue Blood), a vampire novel, nor Yoav Avni’s just-released Herzl Amar (Herzl Said) about an alternative Israel established in Africa, on the Ugandan border, but they are intriguing enough to mention. I hope to read them very soon!
In South Africa, I met Tom Learmont, whose latest novel is Light Across Time, a madcap African time-travel romance, and I was struck by Sarah Lotz’s Deadlands (co-authored with her daughter, and published under the by-line Lily Herne) – a zombie novel set in Cape Town!
I discovered the work of Philip Palmer this year. His Version 43 is a magnificent, insane, over-the-top science fiction space opera slash thriller slash conspiracy novel slash whatever else you can think of – I read it in one go and became a convert. I’ve just started his latest, Artemis, which promises to be just as much fun.
I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch this year – haunting and strange and rather beautiful, it takes a pulp SF novel and mixes it brilliantly with a James Ellroy-like literary style to create one of the best fantasy-noir novels I’ve read. Fungal noir, as I heard it referred to!
I was definitely on something of a mixed-genre noir trip the last couple of months. I read China Mieville’s Kraken, which I loved – it’s his most fun novel since Perdido Street Station, full of magnificently bizarre inventions and a lot of humour. I think he pretty much established his legacy with the amazing The City and the City, but Kraken is a riot. I loved it.
And I read Ian R. MacLeod’s Wake Up and Dream, about a private eye Clark Gable becoming involved in a mystery surrounding the Feelies – strange and pitch-perfect and rather beautiful.
The last novel I read so far this year is Christopher Priest’s The Islanders – a wonderful novel exploring his Dream Archipelago world that is about art, and love, and just possibly murder…it’s as fine a novel as any to finish this rather long reply on!
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