“Best of the Year” lists start appearing as early as November, so we are perhaps a little late in asking folks around the community:
[We also added this note: They don’t have to have been released in 2008. Feel free to choose just some of the genres (sf/f/h) or a subset of the media (books/movies/shows) as you wish.]
Here are their replies…
When looking back at the year it is always so hard to quantify what was best. Is it the best craftsmanship or what suits my tastes best. So as I was considering my list, I found myself choosing those things that make me go, “Oh, you must read this.”
Thunderer by Felix Gilman, tops the list because I’ve just finished it and was taken completely by surprise. It’s a powerful novel that’s got a New Weird quality that reminds me of China Miéville except more approachable. I could not put the book down. It was full of rich detailed cultures that were completely believable but completely outside the real world.
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson also took me completely by surprise by the scope of the vision. He managed to make the heat death of the Universe a compelling dramatic backdrop to a completely human story.
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi. I’ll admit. I’m a weeper and love stories that make me cry like a baby. Scalzi managed to do that at least three times in this novel. It’s a wonderfully moving story of a very real teenage girl.
The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia. Remember me being a sucker for weepers? Add to that a story of a clockwork girl and you’ve got me. What I loved about this was how she captured what it would be like to be a creature that could break and to know your creator intimately. What it would be like to rely on someone to repair you instead of being able to heal. Beautiful and chilling storytelling here.
“The Oracle Spoke” by Holly Phillips is a short story in Realms, the First Year of Clarkesworld Magazine. Truly, I thought the whole anthology was wonderful, but this story has stayed with me. It is a deeply personal story about an oracle and it broke my heart.
“The Prophet of Flores” by Ted Kosmatka is a short story that blew me out of the water. Consider what it would be like to live today if the age of the earth were scientifically provable and only 6000 years old. Now take that world and find a crack in the theology. This story will take the top of your head off and put it back on in a different alignment.
One of the books I really liked was Staked, by Jeremy Lewis. Jeremy has a way with snappy dialog, and the characters in the book were amazing. Another good book was Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory. I’ve been a huge fan of Daryl’s short fiction for several years now, so I was curious if he could pull off his signature literary style in the long form. He didn’t disappoint. I think his novel is every bit as good as his short fiction. I also recently read a book I liked called The City in the Lake, by new author Rachel Neumeier. Other good books were Mainspring, by Jay Lake; Sparks, by Ahmed A. Khan; and Salamanca, by Dean Francis Alfar. I’ve also just started reading Tobias S. Buckell’s Halo book, The Cole Protocol, and I’m really liking it.
As for TV shows… I don’t really watch a lot of genre shows. I liked the first year of Heroes, but the second season jumped the shark, in my opinion, and I just couldn’t seem to keep my interest level up.
In the movie world, one film stands head and shoulders above all others, in my opinion, and that movie is The Dark Knight. It’s not only the best superhero hero movie I’ve ever seen, I think it was one of the best movies– period– that I’ve ever seen. The deep thematic resonance of the film seemed to elevate it to a higher plane of existence.
I also liked Hellboy II, though it seemed to lack some of the pop of the first movie. I thought both Wall-E and Iron Man were good as well– though I was somewhat disturbed to hear that Terrence Howard is being dropped from Iron Man II. Terrence is one of my favorite actors, and my excitement for the sequel is somewhat tempered by this unusual move by the studio. Another good movie I rented recently was Sunshine. It was originally released in 2007, I believe, but I didn’t watch it until 2008, and it filled that space faring sci-fi void in my heart.
Being pretty much
Of books, the year’s big hits for me are David Wrobliewski’s stunning The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It’s about this family with these preternaturally talented dogs; Edgar talks to them without using words and understands what they’re saying, and we do too because Wrobliewski knows better than anybody the language of dogs; there’s a witch who foresees the future and there’s a terrific scene with his father’s ghost, so obviously there are genre-esque elements, but it’s marketed as a “literary” novel — see where I’m coming from? And in his wonderful new collection A Better Angel, Chris Adrian (The Children’s Hospital) plays with angels, a comatose patient whose mind, at least, teleports everywhere within the hospital where the patient lies, people with medical conditions so grotesque that they could be imaginary… you name it. It’s a wonderful book. And Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, hardcover in ’07, paperback in ’08 — post Nameless Catastrophe that leaves Manhattan at war with Brooklyn, a manky busload of colonists head south to Virginia to interface with indigenous people and found the colony of Jamestown, where John Smith mixes it up with Text-speaking Pocohontas, but wait… The crafty tribal leaders are not necessarily Native Americans…
For movies, Ironman!!!!!!!!! Twilight is pretty close to the top, who doesn’t love a vampire in love with somebody he can’t bite, and for complicated reasons. But then there’s Synechdoche, N.Y., Charlie Kaufman’s new movie has a guy staging his life in a gigantic stage set far from everyday New York which — oh, right! — just may be another gigantic stage set.
TV, True Blood is weird and messy and wonderful, and this vampire DOES bite his girlfriend in the neck; I’ll never get over Lost, even though I see the shark looming, waiting to be jumped, and then it’s Fringe, Fringe, FRINGE. The new Abrams show is veeery skiffy plus I have friends writing it. All bias aside, it’s got its legs and everybody should watch.
EIGHT FAVES IN 2008 (+ ONE TO GROW ON)
(Note: since most of my waking hours are spent illustrating covers, most of my ’08 reading material is manuscripts for those publications. So my list includes a few books that I cover-illustrated, but even if I hadn’t, I would be in love with them and shouting their praises…)
Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders (Pyr)
The great Gardner Dozois tagged this as the best sf anthology of 2008, and I’m not gonna argue with him. Great stories here by Paul Cornell, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ian McDonald, Jack Skillingstead, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Cory Doctorow, and many more. It’s a special antho, a must-read, and the kind of book that sf readers remember when the awards season rolls around.
Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons (Subterranean Press)
This one’s a late December ’08 release, and the limited edition’s already sold out! However, you can still get your hands on the hardcover trade ($35 retail), available from Subterranean Press. Although Dan Simmons is renowned for sweeping epics like Hyperion and The Terror, this volume is a slim hardcover novella that packs the provocative punch of most authors’ novel-length works. What’s the best that Earth’s cultural legacy has to offer, and does that legacy matter at the ends of the universe? Pretty heavy question, and Simmons answers it head-on with his usual grandeur, elegance, and awe.
Fables: Covers By James Jean (DC/Vertigo)
Bill Willingham’s awesome. His Fables stories are modern classics, but I’ve been waiting for DC to finally collect Jean’s covers into one volume. And now they have. The guy’s a helluva designer on top of being a top draftsman. Every inch of this book is lovingly well-considered and it’s a pleasure to finally page through this book. Jean’s one of my favorite artists working today.
Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan (Allen & Unwin)
Thanks to Justin Ackroyd for giving me this book at World Fantasy Con. First released in Australia this year, Tales is an eclectic collection of vignettes, beautifully written, drawn, painted, and designed by Tan. Quite frankly, it’s best absorbed the same way you might consume a bottle of 18-year-old Scotch. A sip at a time. It’s so good that I limited myself to one short vignette per day until I was done with all 96 pages. It’s a book to be savored, and I didn’t want it to end too soon….
Age of Misrule Trilogy by Mark Chadbourn (Pyr)
“One part Lord of the Rings, one part Illuminatus!, one part Arthurian romance, one part Harry Potter – 100% original!” Yeah, this trilogy lives up to every ounce of that blurb and more! Misrule is mind-blowing, and it’s finally going to be available to US readers. Pyr will release all three – World’s End, Darkest Hour, and Always Forever – in US trade paperback form in ’09. Chadbourn’s American invasion begins next May.
The Well-Built City Trilogy by Jeffrey Ford (Golden Gryphon Press)
I’ve always said that Jeff Ford’s not just one of the best genre writers, but one of the best American fiction writers, period. So I’m thrilled to see Golden Gryphon re-package his The Well-Built City trilogy in fresh new 2008 trade paperback editions. How good are these books? The first book, The Physiognomy, won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. That’s how good these are. The second and third books are called Memoranda and The Beyond, respectively, and it’s good have all three back in circulation!
Dave McKean’s Keanoshow (DVD)
Took forever to release, but it finally made it out this year. McKean’s best known for his 2-D illustration work, such as Sandman, Mr. Punch, and Cages. This disc is a collection of his short films and directorial efforts (minus Mirrormask), and wow, there are some real gems here. My two favorites – “The Week Before”, a short film about what God does in the week before he creates the world, and “Show and Tell”, wherein McKean discusses his filmmaking evolution, from childhood super-8 films to the present. Seventeen short works in all, and a lot to love here – very inspirational and highly recommended for all McKean fans and lovers of experimental cinema and animation.
McGinnis is an American illustration god. Where do you begin? The prolific career of pulp paperback covers? The iconic James Bond movie posters? The sublime landscape work? It’s all here, and yeah, lots and lots of paintings of gorgeous McGinnis women too. The female narrator is a little bit too Merchant-Ivory for my tastes, but the program really sings with all the great close-ups of his paintings and when McGinnis talks about his work in a blue collar, off-the-cuff manner. The very best stuff is watching over McGinnis’ shoulder as he paints. Wow! This disc’s a winner. I wish there were more artist docs like this.
Are You There and Other Stories by Jack Skillingstead (Golden Gryphon Press)
Remember this name in 2009 – Jack Skillingstead. Thank me later. Skillingstead is mostly a short story writer, familiar to readers of Asimov’s and anthos like Fast Forward 2. However, I suspect this forthcoming hardcover story collection will firmly plant him on the larger science fiction radar in ’09, especially when the awards season hits. He’s that good. His stories are tight, wry, poignant, sometimes heart-breaking and always provocative. You hear about writers that have been to the emotional abyss and lived to tell about it. With Skillingstead, I feel like he’s still there and reporting back to us live during freefall. This book’s not available until ’09, but I read its entire manuscript this year because I’m currently illustrating the cover for it. With no hesitation, I can say it’s an honor.
I’ve read very little fiction this year because I’ve spent most of the year writing it, so bear with me if I list some non-fiction books I enjoyed instead. Ed Regis’ What Is Life entertainingly probed the outer edges of work on synthetic biology; Carl Zimmer’s vivid, witty and exactingly concise Microcosm used research on the humble bacterium Escherichia coli to tell the story of the new biology; Sarah Wise’s The Blackest Streets is an in depth examination of a small area of East London at the end of the ninetieth century, a great example of how the past is a country as fantastic as any found in fiction. Best biography has to go to David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts, which is not only a sympathetic portrait of a difficult and troubled man, but an acute analysis of the creative process; after reading this I promise you that you’ll see the Peanuts strip in an entirely new light. Best autobiography was J.G. Ballard’s Miracles of Life, that deftly patches the gaps between fiction and non-fiction, life and story.
The Dark Knight stood head and shoulders above the superhero competition, although Iron Man, much warmer and wittier, came a close second, let down only by a bog-standard slug-fest ending, but best genre movie by far was Let The Right One In, based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel; to call this a vampire movie would be to entirely diminish an affecting and astoundingly well wrought story of two outsiders in a small Swedish town.
On TV the latest incarnation of Doctor Who had its patchiest season, but new showrunner Stephen Moffat’s “Silence in the Library/The Forests of the Dead” bodes well for the future. I caught up with tenth and eleventh seasons of South Park on DVD; the episodes “Make Love, Not Warcraft” and three-part “Imaginationland” were childish and violent and funny and clever satires on our complicated relationship with fantasy and real life.
Ink and Steel (2008) / Hell and Earth (2008), by Elizabeth Bear: Will Shakespeare, Kit Marley (aka Christopher Marlowe), Lucifer, Faeries, and a secret war for the mastery of England with far deeper ramifications than one could possibly imagine. What’s not to love? Bear’s Promethean Age novels are some of the best fiction being published today and 2008’s Stratford Man duology is no exception.
Wings to the Kingdom (2006) / Not Flesh Nor Feathers (2007), by Cherie Priest: Had I not read Four and Twenty Blackbirds in 2007 I would have included the entire Eden Moore loose trilogy for this entry. With that said, these novels featuring a young (though maturing over three novels) woman from Chattanooga who can see and communicate with ghosts. These have been described as Southern Gothic, and while I don’t know if that categorization fits, I do know that these are some exciting novels to read. The sense of place is palpable, the Chattanooga of these novels *feels* real, feels authentic, and that authenticity informs everything in the novels. Plus, there is a decent amount of ghostly angst and family drama taking place here. This is to say nothing about the real terror Priest gets across in Not Flesh Nor Feathers.
War for the Oaks (1987), by Emma Bull: Urban fantasy featuring the Minneapolis rock scene with an addition of faeries, and like Elizabeth Bear’s faeries, these are not pleasant sprite-ly creatures, but far more devious and nasty. Eddi and the Fae has to be one of literature’s great rock bands of all time (up there with The Nazgul…but more on that later).
Uglies Series (2005 – 2007) by Scott Westerfeld: Popular YA lit or not, the Uglies is a series which follows a certain formula but works extraordinarily well. Perfect for readers of all ages.
Alanya to Alanya (2005), by L. Timmel Duchamp: Intellectual feminist near future science fiction, and if for some reason that *doesn’t* sounds good, trust me now that it is.
The Armageddon Rag (1983), by George R. R. Martin: If War for the Oaks can be somehow considered to be mellow, and this is very much a stretch in Emma Bull’s vibrant novel, then George Martin’s The Armageddon Rag is nothing less than rock and roll itself. The memory of a long vanished band, The Nazgul, is strong, and even if that hard rock is nothing that you listen to, Mr. Martin makes the reader hear the music, feel the music, and amazingly enough, love the music.
Portable Childhoods (2007), by Ellen Klages: A collection of stories about childhood which are very much not children’s stories. The fiction of Ellen Klages very much contains a strong element of humanity, the fiction engages the reader and reminds of childhoods long past. Even of childhoods that never were, but could have been.
The First Law Trilogy (2007 – 2008), by Joe Abercrombie: Abercrombie blends action, sword-play, a touch of romance, class politics, torture, magic, more action, foul language, empires and warlords, and yet more action into a brutal tapestry of epic fantasy which feels familiar but is not your father’s epic fantasy. Say this for Joe Abercrombie, say that he has written an outstanding trilogy which demands to be read.
Wastelands (2008), by John Joseph Adams: This anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction is one of the year’s best, perhaps one of any year’s best. It features stories from George R. R. Martin, Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Paolo Bacigalupi, Nancy Kress, Cory Doctorow and more. Read on for varied visions of life after apocalypse. Read on for great fiction.
This year I have mostly been reading…manuscripts. Such is the lot of any editor or publisher, and with my new imprint Angry Robot readying for battle, the pile glowering at me from the desk has been higher than ever. I can report from the front that occult detectives are still waaaaay too common, fantasy is holding its own but there isn’t quite enough future-set SF being written right now. Next big thing: spacepunk!
Luckily one of the other tasks for any new publisher is to travel, whether to the Barad Dur-alike HarperCollins head office to confess how much I spent this week, or indeed off to the more exotic parts of the world — and Northampton, UK — for a variety of cons. And that means reading time in abundance. Which means I can say…
I don’t think it was the best written book I read this year, but it was by far the most entertaining, and definitely the one I talked about with friends and SF industry colleagues more than any other. And it certainly had the most swearing and hardcore man-on-elf action. Yes, Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains was the beast in question. Its full-throttle hurtle through the various tropes of both the Michael Moorcock science fantasy and Sven Hassell war novels that I grew up with in the 1970s was a riot. Here’s to many more. Actual best — meaning, well, best — book I read this year was a catch-up, namely River of Gods. Oh my! I genuflect before Ian McDonald for his superb world building, character handling and plot wrangling in equal measure. Now for Brasyl and then I’ll clear the decks before the new India book comes later in 09.
I also raced through Cory Doctorow’s ostensibly YA Little Brother like all the paranoid bullyboy scumbags of Homeland Security were after me. Cory showed a real talent in being able to explain very fancy digital native trickery in simple terms, while not choking a fast-paced narrative. It could be a very important book, but I wonder whether the young men and women who should be reading it aren’t necessarily the ones who consume fiction. In a similar zone, Halting State was the first Charles Stross I’d read in a while. Unlike Little Brother, it really is just a romp whose immersive little world lasts only until the last page and no further, but I rather prefer Charlie when he’s “merely” being entertaining.
Two of my favourite writers had new books this year, and once again show that life as an “inbetweenie”, stuck in that netherworld between genre and literature, is not always the most commercial place to be. That hot newcomer William Heaney, with his Memoirs of a Master Forger, will be published under his real name, Graham Joyce, in the US. Here in the UK, though, the iniquitous pressure of the book buyers’ modeling system has actually added an extra layer of illusion. With this one he’s managed to channel some of the trickster spirit of Christopher Priest, in a fabulous book that I simply can’t tell you anything else about without blowing some twist or other.
Meanwhile, possibly my favourite ever writer Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love appears to be a departure from the setting he’s been exploring in his last few titles, and it’s definitely next on the read-me pile. It’s sitting there on top of Anathem, which just lies there, glowering balefully at me, as it has done since early summer. I called Neil Stephenson an utter bastard in print this year, but I must hasten to add that it’s in no way his fault that I’ll need six weeks stranded on a desert island to even consider attempting to read what will no doubt be another magnificent epic. I’ll report back next year, maybe. Till then, I suspect several hundred more novel manuscripts are due to drop into the email inbox any moment…
2008 was a good year for SF novels and collections. I’ve had the pleasure of reading several fine examples this year, and here are a few of them. Debatable Space by Philip Palmer starts routinely enough as pyrotechnic, over-the-top space opera when Lena, the daughter of the tyrannical ruler of the human empire, is kidnapped by ruthless space pirates and held to ransom: routine, maybe, but the novel is so crammed with startling ideas, scintillating prose, incredible aliens and unforeseen plot twists to evoke both good old-fashioned sense of wonder and literary admiration. Palmer has achieved the very difficult feat of presenting big ideas that don’t overshadow the human element of the story.
Another good, if uncategorisable, novel is The Domino Men by Jonathan Barnes. Henry Lamb is a mummy’s boy virgin, filing clerk and one-time child actor in a bad Seventies sitcom – he is also the saviour of the world. Seconded to the Directorate, a hundred year-old organisation pitched against the take-over of the planet by an alien entity, Henry is soon confronted by a drug-addled Prince of Wales, a tentacular extraterrestrial monster, and the eponymous Domino Men, Harker and Boon. Dressed as schoolboys. The grown-up double-act is a chillingly horrible creation as they quip in public school argot while sadistically killing their victims.
The Blue War by Jeffrey Thomas is the kind of character-driven, adventure SF I love. It’s the third book of the series featuring Punktown, a sprawling metropolis on the planet of Oasis. It features private investigator Jeremy Stake and his return to the world of Sinan where years before he fought in a bloody war. A computer program is growing buildings from a coral-like material, and has run amok and is eating up the jungle with a replica of Punktown. Human clones have been found linked umbilically to the coral, and the native aliens are falling victim to a sexually transmitted disease. Stake’s investigations uncover corporate perfidy and a high-level Earth plot to pilfer valuable alien gas. Thomas has penned not only a novel mirroring the war in Iraq, but an excellent, fast-pace detective tale.
Another great one was The House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. It’s another of his vast, sprawling, space operas, this one about clones, aliens harvesting the power of supernovas, and revenge. Reynolds injects good old-fashioned sense of wonder into his science fiction by combining a story of epic scale with a series of increasingly awe-inspiring revelations, each bigger and more breathtaking than the last. Just when you think you know what’s coming, another twist gives the story new direction and impetus.
An excellent short story collection was Binding Energy by Daniel Marcus, published by the Elastic Press. Highlights include the horror tale, “An Orange for Lucita”, in which a mother fears the death of her son against a backdrop of the Mexican Day of the Dead, and the hard SF, “Heart of Molten Stone”, about a mining project gone wrong on Altair V. “Blue Period” is a brilliant tale set in the same world as H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and featuring a young Pablo Picasso whose rampant ego is more than a match for the Martians.
Here’s my best bets from Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror films this past year…since I mostly am up on all the current films of the year more so than books or even artwork. As anyone who knows me, I’m a big screen movie junkie and DVD collector, so this was my choice for a category. The envelope please…in no particular order….
BEST HORROR-SF FILM: Cloverfield
It works on all levels. It was truly the US answer to the original Japanese Godzilla film from 1954, it was scary in several good scenes. Also a great job was done of concealing the creature so we were really just as curious as the characters who, at first, had no idea what was going on-we only knew what they knew and we were “in the crowd” as it were. Some viewers had issues with the hand-held documentary style of the camera work. On DVD this problem is much less for those with motion sickness problems. I consider this in the genre of Alien (1979), as Horror-SF. I tend to ignore the “torture porn” horror trend of recent years.
Totally underrated-popcorn fun that nailed the late 1967 cartoon (which I am a huge fan of) known in Japan as Mach Go-Go-Go!!. Most of us saw it in the mid-70’s on UHF TV as Speed Racer. The visualization of this wild, living-anime society was something I just loved at the start and went with for the length of the film. I mean, I ask you…who DIDN’T want the Mach 5 car when they were a kid? I thought so. The Wachowski Brothers thought so too, and delivered an eye-candied trip to my childhood.
BEST SF/F GENRE FRANCHISE FILM: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
This was a fun, worthy re-visit with an old friend-Indy Jones. And, they didn’t conceal his age, but instead made this a working good plot point as well as stressing the idea of “family” . I loved the Area 51 mythology as a basis for the film especially the 1957 setting. The texture and look of it was terrific-I had no worries with Spielberg at the helm for the fourth time. Like getting into a warm bath.
This Japanese film from 2006, directed by Shusuke Kaneko-Gamera 90 ‘s trilogy, GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)- made US landfall only this year with several exclusive premieres in theaters on two nights only, and, I can only say I can see why this scored #1 at the Japanese box office. It’s based on a manga but its plot is complex and engaging-essentially it’s an “urban myth” fantasy. A young, idealistic man finds a notebook-The Death Note, with a power to kill, and decides to rid the world of criminals. The note book is accompanied by a rather flamboyant, floating, wise-cracking demon who’s an eyeful to behold. Worth seeing when it hits DVD.
BEST COMIC BOOK-INTO MOVIE FILM: Iron Man
This was my choice for best superhero-related film even over the dour The Dark Knight. Iron Man was fast, fun, and Robert Downey Jr. nailed it perfectly and great performances from Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow. Lots of cool hardware, robotics, power suits, stunts, character development, sexual tension AND a good story…Sheer pleasure from start to finish.
BEST SF FILM: Wall-E
Only Pixar could have had the cahonies to make such a film-a kid’s dystopian film! It made a great statement about the earth, the environment and us humans getting way too dependent on technology, and warning us of that maybe the future just isn’t so bright. It defies the edict of an animated film in that there are no words spoke for half an hour into the film. What a feat!
All films that are worth seeing on DVD-most are out, in the case of Death Note,that will be coming in the next year. And the jury has yet to weigh in on The Day the Earth Stood Still remake but I am sure that will stir its share of waves when it hits…
Highlights among books published or reissued in 2008 for me included Jon Courteny Grimwood’s Pashazade, George Mann’s The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2, Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl and Conrad Williams’ The Unblemished, as well as revisiting old favourites like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.
As far as books are concerned, I have managed to track down a second-hand copy of The Pnume by Jack Vance, and also copies of Dragon’s Egg and Flight of the Dragonfly by Robert L Forward. In many ways, these authors are exact opposites of each other – Vance has an absolute lack of knowledge (and an absolute lack of care of his lack of knowledge) of the scientific intricacies of spaceflight, but writes extremely well. Forward, meanwhile, is a professional scientist, and this oozes from the pores of what he writes, but as to what he writes – oh, my dear sir.
Vance’s early Planet Tschai stories are sensationally blurbed (“The Mystery-Shrouded Aliens of Tschai Held Him Captive In a Labyrinth of Terror!”), but have perhaps lost something due to their setting now being named after a popular form of hot sweet tea. This is an effect known to us all – I myself have had to cancel my intended World of Massimo Latte series. Vance, however, clearly cares nothing for the real-world homophones of the names he makes up, as the second volume of the Tschai series is called Servants of the Wankh. One can only imagine how this happened:
“Go on, Jack, call it ‘Shervantsh of the Wank’. I dare ya. I double dare ya.”
“Ash long ash you call your book ‘A Wizhard of Earthfuck’, Urshula. I intend to get away with it by cunningly putting an ‘h’ after the ‘Wank’, thush making it a completely different word. Oh, my head, I’ll regret thish in the morning.”
The Pnume features the return of the odious Aila Woudiver. Woudiver is a typical Vance bad guy. First of all, he’s ugly, an exterior hideousness that (how could it be otherwise?) is a manifestation of the evil within. He is, furthermore, motivated by the basest urges, and unaccountably convinced of something way off the mark, in this case that he has been born the wrong species. Vance bad guys simply have to believe that they are a bird in human form, or that they are the visible projections in this world of seven omnicompetent paladins. You rarely hear a Vance villain say “Yes, I did it for the money, and tomorrow I’ll be sitting on a beach earning twenty per cent. Furthermore, rather than dropping you into the Pit of Evitable Doom, I’m going to shoot you now. With a gun, moreover, rather than a device that turns you into an amoeba, and through the head, rather than through the foot so my swarm of rabid piranha bats can smell the blood and finish off what I have begun.”
The Pnume themselves occupy a claustrophobic world beneath Tschai’s surface, their intentions unfathomable – Vance manages to successfully produce a feeling of ‘running out of pages’, where the reader knows there’s only one chapter left to the book and the hero can’t possibly defeat such a well-equipped alien menace in the amount of text available.
Robert Forward’s books, meanwhile, are beautiful in that every inch of them has obviously been thought through with the autistic sincerity of a man who knows that, if he gets something wrong, he won’t be able to show his face in the Department cafeteria again. Vance doesn’t suffer from this – pity Doctor Forward. However, Forward’s characterization lacks life. It is certainly true that anyone selected for mankind’s first interstellar mission would be The Best Of The Best Of The Best, Sir, but the very finest writing goes beyond this by giving even these superbeings weaknesses. Even Sherlock Holmes is presented, in the very first Holmes story, as being in many ways totally ignorant of the minutiae of the world around him. Forward’s characters, meanwhile, are ‘the finest pilot in the Solar System’, ‘he was the finest this or that or the other in the Solar System, and his name was Fred’. And you have to be very, very good to get away with calling a character Red Vengeance. Vance, oddly, probably could get away with it, because his backgrounds ignore reality, but Forward’s are so solidly grounded in fact that they make 2D characters projected onto them laughable. But are the books worth reading? Certainly. Scientists of this stature don’t often lower themselves into our humble world of make-believe.
As for movies? I’ve been buying Christmas DVD’s for folks and watching them before I send them. This is not only mean and miserly, it’s also useful in that I thereby get to weed out some real howlers. For example, I bought a copy of Tarkovsky’s Stalker for my Russian-speaking sister a couple of years back because the A & B Strugatsky book it’s based on is excellent. Do not watch this movie. Do no suggest that anyone else watch this movie. It is in effect a bunch of grubby Russian blokes running around a patch of wasteland going ‘Oh golly gosh, it’s coming for us now’ for nearly three hours. Who is this Tarkovsky man, and why has he stolen 163 minutes of my life?
This year, however, I bought a relative 30 Days of Night. An interesting premise – night lasts longer in the Arctic winter, and hence Arctic towns make prime targets for vampires. The opening scene, where the town’s purloined mobile phones are discovered burned in a hole in the ice, bodes well – the mobile phone is so often a plot breaker in modern horror. “Alas, Castle Dracula has been cut off by rising floodwater”. “No worries, I’ll just call mountain rescue.” The movie also has a beautiful ending for all you old romantics. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s terribly sad, and everybody dies.
Three of the best genre items this year all have to do with Batman. As soon as the first trailer for The Dark Knight hit theater screens a year ago this month, the intensity started. Unfortunately, after Heath Ledger’s untimely death, the build-up became inexorable. And, let’s face it: the movie delivered. That the movie proved so good wasn’t merely because of the whiz-bang effects best seen on an IMAX screen with state-of-the-art visuals and sound. The movie works because of a simple fact: it wasn’t really a superhero movie. It was a crime story. I review crime fiction on my blog and it was the cops-and-robbers aspect of TDK that really hit home with me. In TDK, Joker gets his hands dirty and robs a bank. Think about it: you ever see Joker in the comics actually execute some of his schemes? Ledger’s Joker is a thug, a burgeoning mob boss. Batman is a cop with gadgets, a detective looking for clues, following the trail, and literally lassoing the bad guy. The only thing he lacks is a badge. What made me realize this film was something special was in my second viewing. It was in a restored theater in a small Texas town: one screen, one movie-at-a-time, nothing state of the art. The film, in some ways, was better in that theater than at the IMAX.
In the comics, Brian Azzerello’s Joker was the best comic I read this year (the other was Ed Brubaker’s first Criminal story arc, “Coward” but I’m sticking with the Batman theme here). What Ledger started with his portrayal of the Joker (making him a thug) Azzerello picked up the baton and ran with it. Joker, in Azzerello’s hands, is a real guy who does horrible things to people. You think he doesn’t feel anything about his victims or his actions but you’d be wrong. In a book of fantastic art by Lee Bermejo, there is one scene with Joker and Harley Quinn that is almost more shocking in its intimacy than the violence on the previous page. This book is destined to find a place alongside Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke as a definitive take on Joker.
On television, a very different Batman debuted this fall. Batman: The Brave and the Bold is an animated take on my favorite comic book from the 1970s. In this new incarnation, Batman teams up with various DC heroes to fight crime. But “Bats” is different in this one. It’s almost an animated version of the 1960s TV show but not quite. No existential angst here, Batman often delivers a punch line after socking the bad guy. Think Roger Moore’s Bond: fun, humorous, yet still appealing (not counting A View to a Kill which is to Bond what Batman and Robin was to Batman). The animation is cleanly-crude, with darker, thicker lines around people and objects. The team-mates (Green Arrow, Plastic Man, the new Blue Beetle) crack jokes, sock a few bad guys, and end happily. The most hilarious partner, so far, is Aquaman, who, in this incarnation, is Patrick Warburton’s Tick in everything but name. It’s pretty dang funny and highly entertaining. You just have to have the right Bat-Brain in your head when you watch it.
(On the crime and mystery fiction front, The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow, Money Shot by Christa Faust, and Severance Package by Duane Swiercznyski (who also writes for Marvel’s Iron Fist and Cable) are among my favorite books published this year.)