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It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the new SF/F that’s produced each year. To help broaden everyone’s horizons, we asked our panelists this question:
Here’s what they said…
I’ve decided to keep my answers to only things that came out this year, which makes for a fairly small list as all of the movies I’ve seen and a few of the books (notably Will McIntosh’s Love Minus Eighty and Ofir Touche Gafla’s The World of the End) have received a decent amount of attention. So here’s the stuff from 2013 that I’ve read/seen so far that I think could use more recognition.
In adult fantasy, Gillian Philip’s Firebrand stands out. Told from the POV of an angry young Sithe exiled to the human realm with his brother at a time when ‘different’ meant ‘witch’. It’s gritty but restrained fantasy. Then there’s Marie Brennan’s light-hearted A Natural History of Dragons. Isabella, is such a fun character, letting her obsession with dragons get her into all sorts of trouble in a fantasy version of Victorian England.
For YA I’m surprised that The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey hasn’t been mentioned in more places. Told from the POV of a teen girl who survived the first 4 devastating waves of an alien invasion, she’s trying to survive the coming 5th while locating her younger brother. Quick, fun, terrifying, it’s a great read.
Finally, I only heard of the TV show Continuum a few months ago despite the first season now being on DVD. The show starts off in a future Vancouver, where a group of terrorists fighting against the corporate government are set to be executed. Instead, they’re sent back to our time, where they hope to change their future. A future cop is sent back too, and she alternates between trying to stop the terrorists and trying to find a way home. The show’s great because there’s no clear division between good and evil. The cop does some morally questionable things and through the course of the show you realize that the terrorists have some valid concerns.
I’m pretty lousy at following along at which books and stories garner attention and which ones don’t. That said, if I read something I like, I generally think it is worthy of more attention, for the simple reason that, well, I like it. With that in mind here are 5 books I’ve read in 2013 that I think deserve lots of attention.
- Impulse by Steven Gould. Gould’s latest novel is a sequel to Jumper, which I first read twenty years ago, and which, the version of myself half my present age absolutely loved. There is always a risk in reading a sequel to a book you loved so much as a youngster. Will it live up the memory of that first book? In the case of Impulse, it absolutely did. There is something about the ability to teleport that is just so cool. I can remember daydreaming about having the ability to instantaneously transport myself anywhere I wanted to go as a teenager. Reading Impulse, all of those old fantasies returned, laced with the real-world implications of what it would mean if I had such an ability. Gould explores all of these implications in a well-executed, exciting adventure story.
- The Human Division by John Scalzi. I sometimes get the feeling that the term “sense of wonder” has become something of a pejorative these days when it comes to science fiction. But for me, sense of wonder is the gooey center that you have to work for and which, upon coming to it, delights you in a way that almost nothing else does. The story that Scalzi tells in the The Human Division is just such a story. It is an action-adventure space opera told episodically, from a variety of viewpoints. It contains equal doses of humorous and very human moments. Mostly, it was just one heck of a fun read. It made me feel the way I felt upon first discovering books like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Clifford Simak’s Way Station.
- The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. I’m a sucker for a time travel story. And I’m a sucker for a mystery. When that mystery involves a time-traveling serial killer, prohibition-era Chicago, and baseball, well, there’s no way I’m going to pass up a book like that. And I’m glad I didn’t. Beukes novel is a dark one, with little rays of bright light that shine in at just the right places. Time travel and serial killer has been done before, but The Shining Girls takes it to an entirely new level.
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I generally don’t read what amounts to traditional fantasy (in my mind, anyway) but I adored Gaiman’s latest novel. It surprised me with its poignancy, and any book that can surprise me is worth talking about. The book defies classification (although people will try). It might be fantasy, and yet, there are elements of science fiction. There is a mystery, and some horror, and yet at its core it is a coming of age novel. It was one of those books I wasn’t sure I would read, and it won me over. When I finished it, I was so very glad I’d read it.
- Joyland by Stephen King. I went into this novel thinking it was going to be a psychopath-in-an-amusement-park story, and while there is a psychopath and the story does take place in an amusement park, it was not at all what I expected. It was far better. Like The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Joyland is a coming-of-age story of sorts, one that gripped me from the very beginning. Perhaps what I liked best about it was its soft, underwritten style. King achieves in this novel the same levels he achieved in Hearts in Atlantis and From a Buick 8, both of which are high up on my list. It is a quick read, entertaining, and moving.
Given the sheer noise levels shattering collective unconsciousnesses every time a studio or publisher cranks the hype machine past 11, it should surprise no one how many worthy efforts either pass unnoticed or receive little more than a cursory nod in favor of derivative drivel designed for little more than siphoning available credit from consumer accounts. Even when the work is good—and make no mistake, in some cases it has been very good—it tends to already have a built-in audience. Yes, Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine is a pretty swell novel, as is Stephen King’s Joyland, Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, and Neil Gaiman’s fine The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but anybody who passes a bookstore kiosk can pick up a copy with ease. In theaters, Iron Man 3 had many problems, yes, but in many ways it hit more than missed, as did The Wolverine and even Pacific Rim.
Two books in particular deserve a wide audience. While both The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies by John Langan and North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud received strong reviews, neither will generate the sales of some of the aforementioned novels. It’s a shame, because these two story collections showcase two remarkable talents. Langan’s book is his third, a heady (and at times trippy) mélange of traditional horror tropes (from vampires to Cthulhu mythos) with incredible stylistic flourishes. North American Lake Monsters, conversely, is Ballingrud’s debut collection, one I have looked forward to since I came across his work on Sci Fiction. The stories are powerful and compelling, reminiscent of authors such as Lovecraft (again) crossed with Flannery O’Connor, but all told in Ballingrud’s unique voice.
Film audiences tired of feasting on such thin cinematic gruel as Elysium or the execrable Evil Dead remake might find far more interest and challenge in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, a movie that I caught mere hours before it evaporated from Austin theaters earlier this spring but still cannot get out of my head. His follow-up to the outstanding Primer combines a tale of addiction, symmetry, and Thoreau’s Walden into something that has to be experienced; it eludes description. If you want something that poses less an enigma, you might give Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer a try. It tries far too hard to be a modern-day Princess Bride, but it actually works quite well when you think of it as an homage to Ray Harryhausen’s work on such classics as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Lastly, even though its genre interest is associational at best, audiences should love Joss Whedon’s modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Who would have thought that this geek wunderkind could turn a black-and-white, hipsteresque experiment into such a charming feature?
It’s easy to overlook great books, more so than movies or games I think, because there are so many published each year. Here are some that haven’t got a lot of attention that are well worth a reader’s time:
Two new short story collections have really blown me away so far this year: Daniel Jose Older’s Salsa Nocturna and Will Ludwigsen’s In Search Of And Others. Older’s stories are noirish horror/dark fantasy works with lots of atmosphere and a remarkable fusion of grit and compassion. Ludwigsen’s tales are often short, sharp, and deceptively intricate, literary gems whose polish reflects your own feelings and hopes. Their voices are distinctive, compelling, and challenging.
The New York Review of Books Classics series has put together a collection of the stories of Saki (H. H. Munro) entitled The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories. Saki writes weird, macabre stories that are literate, creepy, and precise in their form and delivery. Humor, vengeance, and droll observations on human foibles abound. What makes this collection particularly appealing is that it has illustrations by Edward Gorey. It’s an excellent introduction to Saki’s writing.
In longer form: Kit Reed’s latest novel Son of Destruction (which I reviewed for SF Signal) is another work with a distinctive voice. I have a slight preference for her short fiction (I can’t wait to get a hold of The Story Until Now) but this novel is solid and deserves a wider readership. The cacophony of narrative voices, the layered emotion of the characters, and the gothic resonances make for an affecting read. And there’s spontaneous combustion!
In the realm of non-fiction, I am very surprised that more people aren’t reading and discussing Jonathan Eller’s fine “biography of the mind” of Ray Bradbury, Becoming Ray Bradbury. The paperback edition was released this spring (I am in the process of writing a review for SF Signal), so it’s actually been out for a couple of years, but it has not gotten much attention. People may think that it is too “academic” but Eller keeps the subject from becoming too abstract or theorized and does a careful reading of Bradbury’s early years. I think he stretches his conclusions at times but I can’t remember the last time I read such a comprehensive biography of an author’s literary practice and aspirations. Full of great details and insights, this is a book that writers and fans can learn from and enjoy.
Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings is also a scholarly work, but again the author is not interested in esoteric arguments. Ekman instead looks deeply at the way that geographic settings and their codification into maps shapes and nuances a fantasy novel’s world. There is a some jargon employed to explain the linkage between geography and story, but Ekman focuses on the how even small details build a world that the reader can enter and enjoy .This book is about much more than maps, as Ekman also looks at the place of nature and rulership in fantasy, and his close examination of these aspects of fantasy world-building are fascinating to see unpacked.
Finally, there’s a second edition of Steve Behrend’s Clark Ashton Smith: A Critical Guide to the Man and His Work, which is a great introduction to Smith’s writings. After a concise biographical sketch Behrend goes through Smith’s creations, using his correspondence to provide context and deeper illumination of the work. It’s an interesting blend of history and interpretation and a very readable introduction to Smith.