We’re late in wrapping up out ‘Best Of’ list for this year, but better late than never. Today, just in time for Christmas, we bring you bloggers’ perspectives on the ‘Best of 2008’.
2008 was a fruitful year for genre media. Even as the economy fell into recession, the amount and variety of genre media spiked upward.
Iron Man: I rate this movie slightly higher than the obvious choice, below, for the reason of what I call the “sprained ankle test”. Given a sprained ankle and being pent up in my apartment, what genre movie would I prefer to re-watch to take my mind off my predicament?
Iron Man won hands down. Even as it has an important message about the cost and consequences of the Military-Industrial Complex running hog wild and the instable third world that provides a endless canvas for the unfolding of human tragedy, the movie itself has more than sufficient dollops of humor, humanity and sheer entertainment to make it a movie well worth your time even without a sprained ankle. Good performances from Downey, Paltrow, Howard and Bridges only reinforce Iron Man as my favorite, and easily the most entertaining genre movie I watched in 2008.
The Dark Knight: Much ink has already been spilled about the fabulous performances of Christian Bale, and even more, that of the late Heath Ledger. The direction is fabulous, the cinematography is fantastic, and the movie stunningly well crafted. The only thing that keeps this from being for me the genre movie of the year is the relentless downward tone and denouement of the film. It’s not a happy movie, and upon leaving the theater, it left me on a downward note in mood. It’s definitely not a movie to watch when in depressed spirits. Regardless, it still is a movie that no fan of genre movies should miss.
Hellboy II The Golden Army: Del Toro brings us another live action installment in the story of the B.P.R.D. and its titular leader, the irrepressible Hellboy. The original movie was a bit of a diamond in the rough; this second installment is more confident, and with the origins and nature of Hellboy safely explained in the first movie, this second movie proves the idea that second-in-a-series movies (in genre, anyway) are often superior to the first.
Like my choice for favorite genre movie, Hellboy knows how to deft play moods and themes, easily switching from humor, to pathos, to rollicking action, and to tragedy. Del Toro’s creations and the inventiveness that went into them, from the Golden Army itself to the variety of creations wandering in the Troll Market (evocative of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars), have to be seen to be believed.
Implied Spaces, by Walter Jon Williams. The novel starts off with a swordsman walking across the desert in the typical looking fantasy world of Midgarth. But the swordsman is really a semi retired computer scientist of the first rank, the sword is tipped with a wormhole a la Morgaine’s Changeling, and the talking cat is really the avatar of a planet-sized AI…
Implied Spaces is a deft novel in what I have christened the new “sword and singularity” subgenre. Pulling back the focus and increasing the scope with each page, Williams shows us what a post-singularity society is like, the multiverse of worlds that it might build, and what is powerful enough to challenge its very existence. Williams evokes the sense of wonder with the scope of his ideas and the richness of his writing.
Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton. Jo Walton has created witty, pitch-perfect pastiche of a Victorian novel of manners. A family deals with the death of its patriarch. There is conflict between old noble families and “new money”. Both the industrial new money nobility and the old landed aristocracy have to struggle with class issues. There are even glimmers of the beginnings of the suffrage movement. Both maiden sisters of the novel have to deal with suitors, wanted and unwanted.
Doesn’t sound like a genre novel at all, does it? I forgot one important detail: all the characters are dragons, red in tooth and claw. Its an amazing literary conceit and sociological speculation that Walton makes work in a short novel that never outwears its welcome.
In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S.M. Stirling. Second in his Lords of Creation series, following the first (The Sky People) this second novel continues on the premise set by the first: What if Mars and Venus had been terraformed millions of years ago, and are now in actuality much like the worlds envisioned by the likes of Burroughs and Brackett? As the first novel follows characters on the steamy jungles of Venus, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings is set in the decaying foundations of a very old, drying-out Mars.
The plot runs much like A Princess of Mars in the main lines: athletic, intelligent Earthman is transported to Mars, meets beautiful and talented Martian princess in exile, romance and adventure ensue. Strange organic technology, unusual and baroque customs, and a beautifully thought out world without the lumps of undigested data make for a read that ends almost too soon.
Doctor Who, 4th Season. After Sylvester McCoy, and even after Paul McGann in the mid 90’s, the prospect of new Doctor Who on television seemed like a pipe dream. There were plenty of old episodes to release on videotape (and now on DVD). But new Doctor Who? Doctor Who, except for media like radio plays and fan fiction, was dead.
Now in its fourth season, the final season for David Tennant, Doctor Who has proven that it is back. Tennant appears completely comfortable in his swan song full season as the last Timelord, survivor of Gallifrey. Catherine Tate, over the course of the season, becomes a companion worthy of the Doctor. Appearances by previous companions Billie Piper and Freema Agyeman, John Barrowman and even original series companion Elizabeth Sladen help round out the cast.
Doctor Who helps prove that long lasting science fiction on Television doesn’t have to have the word “Star” in its title in order to be successful.
Chuck on NBC. I discovered the first season of this series earlier this year and I am glad that I did. While the show’s premise (a Best Buy clone computer repair technician gets wrapped in espionage) does not sound like its overtly genre, the execution of the show proves otherwise. The eponymous title character, and his best friend Morgan are certified geeks and nerds, and the show is littered with plot-important genre references ranging from Star Trek to Zork. It’s clear that the creators of the show are dialed-in with genre media, and are genre fans themselves.
Battlestar Galactica, Season 4 (Part One). After the mixed results of the third season, and its focus on nowhere leading standalone episodes, the fourth season was a strong improvement for the series. Arcs are laid down, characters grow, change, and the last episode of Part One of this season results in a finale as shocking and stunning as the end of the original Planet of the Apes movie.
Its not a very happy season, as much of what happens turns a decidedly darker note for a series never known for its sweetness and light. Religious conflict, mutiny and Civil War are serious subjects that Battlestar Galactica takes on and handles very well. Moore has to be commended for even daring to tackle some of the themes and issues in the run of the series, including this portion.
Time will tell if the second half of the season lives up to the first and meets its high standard, but the first half of the 4th season was easily, and definitively one of the strongest genre series that I watched this year.
Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition. Controversial to players of the earlier edition, the 4th Edition takes the Dungeons and Dragons game in new directions. Making a fair break with the past, 4th Edition is a game that was re-designed from the ground up and knows what it wants to be: a game where the players want to kill the monsters and get the treasure. The game’s design and lines are directed to that, at the expense of earlier edition’s forays into other aspects of role-playing. As a tactical tabletop game, as opposed to a straight role-playing game, the 4th edition is designed and plays to try and increase the fun factor for the participants. A hardcore group of gamers more inclined to independent, narrative heavy games, along with me, had enormous fun banding together to roll dice, and fight orcs, goblins and defeat the big bad guy.
Trail of Cthulhu. Longtime role-players are familiar with Chaosium’s seminal game, Call of Cthulhu, pitting 1930’s era investigators against the titular indescribable being and his family of alien entities from Beyond. Kenneth Hite updates the lines of the classic game, updating them for 2008 with a new iteration. It supports both Pulp (for Indiana Jones, Robert E. Howard, thrilling locations sorts of games) and Purist styles of play(for intellectual horror and cosmic dread), as well as keeping the original feel of the 80’s Call descent into inevitable madness if too-long exposed to things from the deep Beyond.
I can’t wait to try this out with my role playing groups.
Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor. The capstone add-on to the Galactic Civilizations computer space strategy game Galactice Civilizations II, with Twilight of the Arnor Stardock brings the 4X Space Strategy Game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) to a high flowering. Some of the best AI in gaming combines with a plethora of races (including the ability to create one’s own) and numerous other customizable options to ensure that no two games need ever play the same way twice. There has been some wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Galactic Civilizations community when Stardock announced that their next major project is not the already craved-for Galactic Civilizations III, but rather a fantasy strategy game in the mold of Master of Magic.
I think 2008 will go down as the year of The Dark Knight for me. Before the movie came out I kind of wondered if some of the rave reviews were overly positive due to Heath Ledger’s death, and all the hype surrounding how much playing the role of the Joker supposedly affected him. But after only seeing the movie one time I realized Ledger deserved all the praise. What I appreciated the most about The Dark Knight, and this particular franchise being directed by Christopher Nolan, is that it takes the story seriously. I don’t mean that from a fan-girl perspective either. I think Batman is one of the best comic-book heroes ever created. He’s a very multi-dimensional character and it bothered me seeing the character reduced to man in a rubber suit (with nipples no less) in the last film franchise. But The Dark Knight really belonged to Heath Ledger. You believed in the Joker as a villain and I am very sad that I won’t get to see Ledger reprise the role.
Iron Man comes in a close second for me as far as films go in ’08. It was lighter in feel than The Dark Knight but I was so happy to see a “real” actor in the role of Tony Stark. When I first heard that Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Stark I was slightly unsure but I knew as soon as I saw the previews to the film that he would be great. Like Nolan did in The Dark Knight, director John Favreau took the character and the story seriously and gave us a well rounded hero– flawed but honest like so many of them are.
I also have to throw in some love for Hellboy II. I don’t know how much of a geek it makes me that I love Hellboy, but I was so happy to see the character back. I think I also appreciated Guillermo Del Toro’s direction of the film more after having seen Pan’s Labyrinth. The visual effects in Hellboy II were gorgeous.
Some of the best books I’ve read this year were not actually published in 2008. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi immediately comes to mind. I LOVED that book. I hadn’t read Scalzi until I was sent Agent to the Stars by Tor Books and I found that to be such an enjoyable read that I wanted to find more books by Scalzi. I don’t normally read sci-fi as much as I do fantasy but I thought the premise of Old Man’s War was interesting. Real quick– it’s about retirement aged people from Earth who sign up for intergalactic military service. The military basically provides new bodies for old people so they can fight interstellar war in young, perfect bodies while keeping all their memories and experiences. The catch is that they can’t ever return to Earth after their service. Scalzi does such a great job with the story. It’s believable, entertaining and satisfying all the way through. He is my new favorite author.
I so wish I could offer some high-brow choices to add to my list. But I’m afraid I’m a low-brow kind of girl. I don’t often have time to hunt down obscure movies or get the chance to watch them. And I’m just not patient enough to wade through fiction that, in my opinion, tries too hard to be intellectual (though I’m probably just not intellectual enough…). I read the debut novel by Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora this year and that ended up on my list of favorites and I read Elantris by Brandon Sanderson twice. I could go on and on, but in the interest of wrapping this up, let me go back to my first paragraph.
2008 was, for me, all about The Dark Knight.
This past year has been one of exploration and discovery for me, with a wide mixture of styles, subgenres, and even languages read. Since I am very ignorant about what is transpiring today in games, movies, and TV shows, I am only going to focus on the best books, both pre-2008 and 2008 releases alike, that I have read this year.
For the 2008 releases, there were several strong anthologies and short story collections released. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer edited two impressive reprint anthologies, The New Weird and Steampunk, that served the purpose of placing within “historical context” two very important and vital literary subgenres of the past 20 years. Lou Anders’ second original SF anthology, Fast Forward 2, featured several top and/or emerging authors, most of whom pushed the envelope when it came to extrapolating from our various current socio-cultural problems to create their tales. Ellen Datlow’s The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy contains one of my two favorite short stories of the year, Margo Lanagan’s creepy, disturbing “The Goosle.” And finally, the recently-released Extraordinary Engines edited by Nick Gevers contains several very good original steampunk stories, highlighted by Jeff VanderMeer’s “Finding Hanover.”
For short story collections, Paolo Bacigalupi’s first collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, merits greater attention for how he constructs his tales and breathes life into them. Jeffrey Ford released his third collection, The Drowned Life, in November and it matched the overall quality of the first two volumes; I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite. John Langan’s Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters is a fine, atmospheric debut collection that hopefully signals a long, productive career. Lastly, Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters contains five new and four reprinted stories that highlight her whimsical storytelling abilities.
The 2008 novels were more of a mixed bag for me, however, with most being best described as being “solid” rather than “exciting” or “innovative.” However, there were some stories that shined through. Toby Barlow’s blank-verse modern-day epic of love and werewolves, Sharp Teeth, was one of the more original fictions (in terms of style and presentation) that I have read in years. J.M. McDermott’s debut novel, Last Dragon, is an excellent mash-up of postmodernist writing techniques (there never really is a linear sense of time) and motifs most commonly associated with epic fantasies. There were two outstanding retellings of Vergil’s Aeneid this year, with Jo Graham (also a debuting novelist) taking the historical fiction approach (with Mary Stewart-like hintings of magic around the corners, if not explicitly demonstrated) in Black Ships, while Ursula Le Guin has written one of her best works in years with Lavinia, which dares to step within Vergil’s poem and to see the events transpiring from the perspective of Lavinia, who was muted in Vergil’s poem.
Ekaterina Sedia followed up on the critical success of The Secret History of Moscow with a clockpunk (her term) narrative of searching, The Alchemy of Stone, that I felt was an improvement in pacing, prose, and characterization over her impressive second novel. Felix Gilman’s debut novel, Thunderer, impressed me with how he created a setting that mixed elements of New Weird and epic fantasy to create something that has me really desiring to reach its sequel, Gears of the City, when it is released at year’s end. Gregory Frost had two novels appear this year, Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet, and in this duology, Frost’s use of storytelling to drive the main plot forward was superb.
Some of the best stories that I read this year came not from the English-speaking countries, but from Spain. Javier Negrete is a SF/Fantasy/Historical Fiction writer (and a former Professor of Greek) who has won several Spanish awards, including the UPC and the Premio Ignotus. I began by reading two UPC-winning novellas from the 1990s, Buscador de sombras and La luna quieta, that demonstrated his ability to work in elements of Hard SF into a philosophical discussion of what constitutes life. But his most impressive work was the 2008 Premio Ignotus-winning alt-history, Alejandro Magno y las águilas de Roma, which takes both gods and very real socio-political trends around 320 BCE and combines the two to create a powerful, character-driven opener to a duology that I hope will be made available to English speakers in the very near future. The same hope applies to the 2008 Premio Minotauro winner, Federico Fernández Giordano’s El libro de Nobac, which best might be summarized as being dreamlike, philosophical mystery about a book that somehow manages to write and rewrite the protagonist’s just-happened daily activities. Giordano’s handling of this plot element is never heavy-handed and it was a joy for me to read. Finally, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s international bestseller, El Juego de Ángel, proved to be an even darker, more mysterious sequel to his smash hit, The Shadow of the Wind.
For the pre-2008 releases, just the short form, in no particular order of ranking:
Steve Erickson, Arc d’X
Ian McDonald, Brasyl
Jeffrey Ford, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
Michael Moorock, Elric stories (reissued by Del Rey in 2008)
Doubtless I’m leaving out quite a bit that’ll come to mind later, but this represents well the books I found to be the best speculative fiction works that I’ve read in 2008.
Well, I listed my favorite books of ’08 here.
As for best movies, I’d have to say Iron Man exceeded my expectations. It would definitely be at the top of my list. Other genre movies I really enjoyed were Incredible Hulk (Ed Norton saved it), Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones (despite swinging with the monkeys and aliens), Dark Knight (though I thought it was overhyped, and didn’t enjoy it as much as everyone else seemed to), Hellboy 2, and Twilight (though it was slower than I would have liked).
Favorite shows this year were Sarah Connor Chronicles (which has only gotten better each episode), Sanctuary (easily my favorite new series), My Own Worst Enemy (was extremely disappointed when I heard it was canceled), Big Bang Theory (I rarely laugh as hard as when I watch this show), Heroes (I’m still hoping it gets back to the feel of the first season), Eli Stone (the best new show of last year, but unfortunately not as good this 2nd season and wasn’t picked up for a 3rd), Fringe (I’m loving this freak-of-the-week show), Kyle XY (the seasons are way too short), The Mentalist (combining humor and drama, love this new Sherlock Holmes), Smallville (so glad Lana is gone), and last-but-certainly-not-least Stargate Atlantis (this final season is going out with a bang).
And I dearly miss Moonlight.
Mistborn: The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is turning out to be a real breath of fresh air. It both subverts and embraces the typical epic fantasy genre and it does both well. Fans of epic fantasy should run out and read these now if they haven’t already.
Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson. Toll the Hounds is Book 8 in Erikson’s massive series The Malazan Book of the Fallen and perhaps the best one so far. With the strong thematic presence, this entry isn’t for the faint of heart, and I stand by my minority opinion about just how good this book is.
Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. It’s been 10 years since Heroes Die was originally published and it stands that time well – in fact this is one of the first of what has now become the common, gritty fantasy. And it can kick the ass all those Johnny-come-latelies.
The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick. Along with the book below, The Dragons of Babel stands as my favorite read of 2008. Swanwick beautifully subverts and satires epic fantasy as it tackles both light and weighty themes. Swanwick is an author I need to read more of.
The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker. Sharing the top spot, Bakker offers a great preview for 2009. The first book in a new trilogy following his much-acclaimed The Prince of Nothing Trilogy, The Judging Eye is more accessible to the average reader without sacrificing the depth that gained Bakker so much acclaim. A powerful start to a new trilogy.
Consumed? Like as in, used them up? Never, I’ll be going back to these in my dotage.
The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks
Acacia by David Anthony Durham
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt
Heaven’s Net is Wide by Lian Hearn
Infoquake by David Louis Edelman
Goblin Hero by Jim C. Hines
Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Martian General’s Daughter by Theodore Judson
The Prodigal Troll by Charles Coleman Finlay
Here are some movies I thoroughly enjoyed.
I am Legend