MIND MELD: Favorite SF/F Media Consumed in 2011 (Part II)
[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 II. Also see Part I.]
My most unexpected read was “The Hunger Games“. I was turned off by the title until a friend practically hit me over the head with it. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It reminds me of “Survivor” meets “Fifth Element” with a little “Ender’s Game” thrown in for good measure. I am also on book 8 in The Dresden Files.
My favorite actual science fiction movie this year was “Paul“. The trailers did the movie a disservice as it was actually extremely funny. I am totally the target audience. “Super 8″ and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” were also among my favorite sci-fi films of the year.
As far as my favorite TV shows, I’d have to say “Terra Nova” and “American Horror Story”. “Terra Nova” feels like Star Trek with out space, ships, and a military presence. I absolutely believe that Braga and Echevarria have everything to do with this. It’s one of the reasons I like the show so much. I miss this type of story-telling. It also feels like they all sat in a room and tried to figure out what makes Cat happy. “American Horror Story” is not science fiction per se but I like it because it’s so different from anything on TV today. Every episode has something new and unexpected.
Sadly, I didn’t have as much free time in 2011 as I’ve enjoyed in previous years and, as a result, wasn’t able to get in as much genre-viewing/reading as I would have liked. Still, I was able to squeeze in a few books, movies, and t.v. shows…
In television: Despite getting a little top-heavy with ghosts, I’ve nevertheless enjoyed American Horror Story. It’s a little The Shining, a little The Sixth Sense, and a whole lot of creepy wrapped up in a visual style reminiscent of those 70′s horror movies I so loved growing up. Jessica Lange’s performance as the eccentric neighbor, Constance, alone is worth the price of admission.
In anime: I finally tracked down Gintama volumes II and III, the follow-ups to one of the wildest, wackiest, most over-the-top anime series since Excel Saga. Hilarious. Now I have to trackdown that Gintama movie for my Best Genre of 2012 list.
In books: Iain M. Banks consistently delivers epic, though-provoking space operas, and The Algebraist continues that trend with a far-future tale told on the grandest of scales. Enigmatic aliens, megalomaniacal warlords, space portals, a mythic list, a mathematical transform, intergalactic war, and one human scholar charged with the task of unraveling the novel’s multiple mysteries. Brilliant.
In comics: I’ve been out of the comic book loop for several years now (with the exception of the few trade paperbacks I follow – Scalped, Chew, The Walking Dead) but have spent the last couple of weeks playing catch-up on the single issue ongoing series. I’ve given most every title out there three issues to grab me. Those that have succeeded so far include Iron Man 2.0, Uncanny X-Force, Ultimate Spiderman, Batman, Detective Comics, The Ultimates, Batgirl, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Red Lanterns, and Batwoman.
Adam Whitehead lives and works in Colchester, the oldest town in the UK. He has run the genre blog The Wertzone for five years as a way of relaxing from the stressful life of retail management. Since 2010 he has also run the Game of Thrones Wiki and is contributing to a forthcoming book of essays on the Song of Ice and Fire novels.
In books, I had several favourites. Of 2011 releases, I enjoyed – though not without some reservations – George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear, though both books could probably have been whittled down by a few dozen pages apiece. Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes was as reliably fun as ever, and we got a new potential urban fantasy star with Ben Aaronovitch, whose Rivers of London series got off to a great start. However, for me the book of the year has to be Christopher Priest’s first novel in a decade. The Islanders was intelligent, unusual and inventive in its travelogue-like structure. SF has missed Priest, and it’s good to see his next book is already complete and due next year. For pre-2011 novels, I finally got around to reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and was blown away by the ideas, the intelligence, the fine characterisation and the numerous themes the author wished to engage with, all in a modest 280 pages.
TV-wise, 2011 brought us The Walking Dead and showed that Robert Kirkman’s ‘zombie movie that never ends’ format works as well on TV as it ever did in comics, though a limited number of episodes meant that the season ended just as it was starting to get going. HBO’s Game of Thrones was a mostly successful adaptation of Martin’s novels, though the increase in the number of sex scenes (from the modest number in the book to a level that reached near-farcical proportions by the seventh episode) was rather juvenile. However, strong writing and universally excellent performances from the cast overcame that problem. True Blood became even more preposterous and less interesting this year, and Steven Moffat’s second season of Doctor Who aimed for something clever and ended up overreaching itself with an over-arcing storyline riddled with plot holes. Neil Gaiman’s episode, however, was stellar.
Film-wise, I felt that X-Men: First Class was a real return to form for a franchise which had gone off the rails in its two previous instalments (counting Wolverine). Some really great visuals from director Michael Vaughn and fantastic performances by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy as the young Magneto and Professor X. Attack the Block was also a good British SF movie which raised real social issues against its backdrop of an alien race invading a London tower block, though I feel it was a little mis-marketed as a comedy (in the Shaun of the Dead vein) when it wasn’t really anything of the sort.
An honourable mention for a computer game: Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a smart cyberpunk game that raised some interesting questions about cybernetics and human augmentation, and what it means to really be human, as well as featuring some cool combat and stealth mechanics. In a sea of medicore shooters and badly-written RPGs, this was an unexpected and welcome surprise.
There are few things more thrilling than seeing your first novel hit the shelves, but life as a published author has one major drawback: with a deadline looming for my second novel, I’ve had far less time for pleasure reading (and movie and TV watching) than in years past. But since reading is like breathing for me – impossible to survive without! – I’ve still managed to fit in some 50+ books this year. I’ve even squeezed in a few TV series, thanks to Netflix and my longsuffering husband (who insists I don’t spend EVERY night writing after our 2 year old goes to bed). Here’s what stood out for me in 2011:
The Soul Mirror (Carol Berg) – Second in her Collegia Magica series. Rich characterization and a nicely complex plot, combined with Berg’s usual flair for worldbuilding and gorgeous descriptions. Secondary world fantasy at its best. The first fantasy book I read in 2012 is sure to be Berg’s third Collegia Magica book, The Daemon Prism, which comes out Jan 3.
The Cloud Roads (Martha Wells) – Terrific adventure fantasy set in a world full of fascinating nonhuman races. Wells always does a wonderful job with loner characters struggling to find their place in the world, and The Cloud Roads’ protagonist Moon is no exception. Can’t wait for the sequel, The Serpent Sea, out in January 2012.
Among Thieves (Douglas Hulick) – I’m a total sucker for sardonic, streetwise protagonists who get in over their head, so Hulick’s main character Drothe was right up my alley. I’m equally fond of buddy stories, and Drothe’s relationship with friend and master swordsman Bronze Degan was my favorite part of the book. A blast to read, and again, I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel Sworn in Steel.
Other fantasies I particularly enjoyed this year include Of Blood and Honey (Stina Leicht), Prince of Thorns (Mark Lawrence), Miserere: An Autumn Tale (Teresa Frohock), Never Knew Another (J.M. McDermott), Cold Fire (Kate Elliott), Winds of Khalakovo (Bradley P. Beaulieu), Mechanique (Genevieve Valentine).
The Quantum Thief (Hannu Rajaniemi) – Hands down, favorite SF novel I read this year. The book has all the wild invention and extrapolation that makes far-future SF so thought-provoking, but it’s the characters that really hooked me. (Did I mention how much I love sardonic thieves?)
On the space opera side of things, I thoroughly enjoyed Leviathan Wakes (James Corey, a.k.a. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). A good solid read with a plot that kept me turning the pages.
Incarceron (Catherine Fisher) – Absolutely loved this one. Morally ambiguous characters, slow reveals, imaginative setting – and best of all, the focus is firmly on the mysteries of the plot, not the romantic entanglements of the characters. I didn’t love the sequel Sapphique quite as deeply, but found it still well worth reading.
Red Glove (Holly Black) – sequel to the equally excellent White Cat. Interesting premise (magic as the province of mafia-style curse-working families), and the main character has a terrific voice.
Fringe – When my husband and I first tried the show, we almost quit watching a couple episodes into the first season because the dialogue, special effects, and plots were so groan-inducing. But I’d heard people say the show got better, so we persevered. Thank God we did! I’ve never seen a show improve quite so far from such a shaky start. Dialogue, characters, everything improved by leaps and bounds, and by the time we hit season 2, we were totally, utterly hooked.
Darker Than Black – Assassins with supernatural abilities, characters leading dual lives, crime syndicates, secrets, a world strangely altered from our own…all fairly standard anime tropes, but Darker Than Black uses them to tell a really compelling story (complete with worldbuilding and characters that are fully comprehensible in the end, though you need a pretty high confusion tolerance going in).
The Emperor’s Knife by Mazakris Williams. Williams has a seductive voice that moves this story like desert sand, constantly shifting, sometimes subtly, sometimes like a storm. It’s the kind of intricate tale that I love with heavy emphasis on plot, characters, and setting. The familial betrayals won me from the beginning. Williams is a powerful storyteller and I can’t wait for the next book in the series.
The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe. I put off reading Dark Jenny to read this book and, for those of you who know what an Eddie LaCrosse fan I am, that should tell you something. I’m glad I did. Bledsoe brought something fresh to urban fantasy while keeping the Celtic traditions alive. His use of current events, music, culture, and legend all blended beautifully to put a modern spin on an ancient mystery. I’m even more excited to find out that there will be another book with Bronwyn and the Tufa.
Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht. Another fresh approach to urban fantasy came from Stina Leicht. There was a gentle lilt to her prose that struck the perfect balance between dialect and setting. The historical aspects of Ireland’s Troubles were woven very organically into Liam’s tale and made his actions believable. I loved it.
Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. This book falls in the love-it or hate-it category for most folks. I loved it. Jorg’s pain and helpless rage bursts from the first sentence, and Lawrence writes with a spare, gut-punch style that I enjoy. The nuances of Jorg’s character are what made this novel so appealing to me. Lawrence’s prose bites and he knows how to rock a good tale.
The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer. Frankly I’d given up on epic fantasy but Schafer drew me back in with her strong characters and excellent world-building. What I really loved about Schafer’s technique was her ability to shift from third person to first person without once losing the reader or the story. This is the kind of book that I enjoy reading when I need to forget the world and its troubles.
Willy by Robert Dunbar. This has to be one of the finest pieces of dark fiction that I have read in a good while. While there are supernatural twists in Willy, this work is not horror in the slasher/ghostly visitor/demonic sense. Dunbar’s style is more reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s fiction, and he handles the maturity of his unnamed narrator with skill.
Only one movie worth mentioning and it is Inception. I found out that I am NOT the last person alive to have seen this movie, so if you’ve been putting it off, shift it up a notch or two. Inception is the perfect blend of action, intricate plot, and mind games that left me panting for more. Maybe if Hollywood gets off its eighties remake phase, we’ll see some more good flicks like Inception. Until then, I’ll be reading.
I hope I can be forgiven if I answer a question slightly different from the one asked, because, alas, I have read and watched very little science fiction or fantasy this year, and mystery or horror I never read.
But I would like to speak of the genre books my children have consumed. These are not new books, but they are new to them, and when I reread them, they struck me with equal novelty and vividness, as if new.
I have enjoyed the most rewarding experience any science fiction father can have. This year I read my first honest-to-goodness science fiction book to my children, and found them to like it. This means that they are officially science fiction fans, and no longer muggles. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
To be sure, I had read children stories to them, L Frank Baum’s Oz books and the Prydain books of Lloyd Alexander and the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, not to mention THE GAMMAGE CUP by Carol Kendall or The Mad Scientists’ Club series by Bertrand R. Brinley. Like all good stories, childrens’ stories are not hampered by that artificial convention of mainstream fiction which prohibits the introduction of the futuristic or otherworldly into the tale. But technically speaking, these were not SFF stories.
So I read PRINCESS OF MARS to my boys, followed by GODS OF MARS and WARLORD OF MARS, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I must emphasize that my memory of these books had done them a grave disservice. I had recalled them only as boyish adventure tales, not true science fiction, and somewhat lightweight. What I found instead, to my pleasant surprise, were books as weighty and well crafted as you are likely to find on any science fiction paperback rack.
Admittedly, some of the science is pure hand-waving, and the eighth and ninth Barsoomian rays might as well have been called the magic lamp of Aladdin.
But Burroughs is usually not given credit for giving such things as distances and periods of Mars and his moons correctly, and, for the time, the speculation that Mars was an older world, streaked with ambiguous evidence of canals, therefore possibly of intelligent life, and what conditions that would imply, was not more far fetched than some of the speculations of Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein about Mars as they portrayed the Red Planet in their works.
The idea is now so old to us as to seem stale. So be it: the fault lies not in the book but in ourselves. What author expects his book to last so long, a hundred years, that his original plant is overgrown with the weeds of countless imitators and epigones? But the idea is still a legitimate scientific speculation tied to a dramatic science fictional fiction: picture a dying world of once highly advanced science, which, as the seas dried up and resources grew ever more scarce, the remorseless struggle to survive birthed a warlike and pitiless culture.
To add drama, let us assume the highly advanced medicine grants the inhabitants eternal youth and an ability to recover, with treatment, from almost any wound, so the prime cause of death is war, and no warrior is weakened by old age. The whole world, as befits its name is a world of war.
Add to this the brilliant and simple idea that one of the races, the Green Men, are ovoviviparous, but have fallen prey to a communal or communist ideal, so that the eggs are incubated and raised communally, by nurses who have no bond and no sympathy to their young charges. It is a society of orphans raised by orphans, and each generation breeds the next like a dogbreeder breeds dogs, with all the harshness and inhumanity that implies. Marriage and romantic love are unknown on the world, and the psychologically crippled men, monstrous, have no understanding of the pity and love and softer emotions men of a more generous world, raised with motherly love among brothers and kin, must learn.
In 1917 it might be absurd to assume that men would have hand-weapons able to shoot explosive pellets of immense power and not to use them, preferring quaint and archaic swords. Anyone having lived through the years when mutually assured destruction was the dominant geopolitical reality of the whole globe might be willing to speculate that individual soldiers might behave on Mars as nation states behave on Earth.
John Carter, dropped by inexplicable auctorial connivance onto this far world, finds his earthly muscles, trained by a planet with heavier gravity, give him superhuman strength compared to the natives – an idea later exploited in reverse by Siegel and Shuster. But his human sympathy, as much as his daring with a longsword, makes him a unique figure on this harsh and pitiless planet, as he is apparently the only being ever to train his hounds or his steeds with sympathy and loyalty. He is, if one might use the awkward term, unearthly compared to these Martians, a representative of a finer world and nobler sentiment they had long since lost.
My boys, being born in Virginia, were flattered and impressed at the gentlemanly valor and courtesy of our fellow Virginian, not to mention his skills as a fighting man.
They were also amused by their father’s antics, since I would read John Carter’s lines with something of accent of the Southern Patrician, even in scenes where Carter was impersonating the yellow-haired Therns of the South Pole, or, with a few daubs of paint, the scarlet-skinned Red Martians of the few remaining cities of Mars.
The boys and I deliberated and decided that everyone on Mars suffers from the same genetic defect in the visual cortex of the brain as Lois Lane, rendering them unable to penetrate the shallowest possible disguises.
For adults, and for those of ya’ll not fortunate enough to be from Virginia, I admit that the Victorian conceits of the book written when the gaslamp was still in vogue will require some adaptation on your part.
I do not mean the sexual morals of the time, which were sane and fair, and which I was very pleased to be able to impart to my boys with such a clear example of gentlemanly courage, dignity, and nobility as the fictional John Carter, whose love for the radiant Deja Thoris enables him to fight his way from pole to pole across the dead sea bottoms and through the ape-haunted dying cities of Mars, through savage beasts and more savage men. But I also must mention the sheer idiocy of John Carter, who is as hapless and tongue tied in love as all true heroes should be, when they are not waxing poetical. I feel any tale that portrays a man able to keep his cool nonchalance while struck by Cupid’s dart paints a false picture. John Carter is a more realistic image of what love is really like than, say, James Bond.
I mean the Victorian literary conventions which enable the most unlikely coincidences, we might also call them Dickensonian coincidences, to pass without mention; the convention of the high drama, the high melodrama. I mean the conventions including the convenience of secret passages, sudden escapes, the impenetrability of disguises, the unbreakable fetters of love and honor, and the alternating imbecility of hero and villain alike to move the plot along; and I mean most of all the convention of florid sometimes poetical turn of phrase which those raised reading only books written in a journalistic style of short sentences and short words may find bewildering and strange, albeit, one hopes, strangely beautiful to the ear.
If you don’t remember these books as being much, then I suggest these books are actually better written than you remember. Strange as it may seem for me to be praising a book written in 1917 when asked about what I’d read in 2011, I suggest the magnetism of this primordial work of popular American SFF worthy of rereading. Let us reread the opening lines and savor a wonder that still clings to them:
“I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.
“And because of this conviction I have determined to write down the story of the interesting periods of my life and of my death.”
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