The Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2001: A Selection
by Claude Lalumière
Let me begin this review of the past year with the usual caveat: I have not seen, let alone read, every SF and fantasy book published in 2001. Nevertheless, based on the large number of these that did cross my desk, here's my take on the year's highlights.
I was charmed by Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey (Harcourt), a book of interviews with the eccentric cartoonist selected and edited by Karen Wilkin. The interviews arranged in chronological order from 1973 to 1999 give a warm and vivid glimpse of Gorey's quirky personality. The book bubbles with Gorey's wit and erudition and footnotes by the editor illuminate the wide range of obscure references that pepper Gorey's merrily digressive answers. The volume is soberly decorated with examples of Gorey's innocently macabre drawings, but not so much as to distract from the interviews themselves, which amply deserve the showcase offered by this handsome book.
Al Sarrantonio's Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction (Roc) was the most hyped anthology of the year, so much so that it's impossible to overlook. This volume proclaims itself to be the most important original SF anthology of the past 25 years. Sadly, instead of visionary and daring, I found it for the most part complacently self-congratulatory and much too bland to deserve its subtitle. However, there were three other books (besides the perennial Dozois and Datlow/Windling "year's best" volumes) that stimulated my imagination although all of them were reprint anthologies.
The Ant-Men of Tibet and Other Stories (Big Engine), edited by David Pringle, culls ten stories from Interzone that showcase the pulpier face of the magazine: from planetary adventures to weird tales. Not as strong as previous Interzone anthologies, it's still a rousing read, especially because of the sharp wit of several of its stories.
I was blown away by David Hartwell's Year's Best Fantasy (Eos). This first entry in a new "year's best" series does a fantastic job of showing short fantasy fiction to be a vibrant, diverse, and healthy field. Hartwell sets his sights strictly on genre sources, resulting in a refreshing vision of fantasy and a radically different selection of stories than Terri Windling's (only one story overlaps). The book is surprisingly rich and covers perhaps the broadest range of fantasy yet seen in a "year's best" annual. The book's only weakness is the inclusion of two overlong (and generic) epic fantasy novellas that threaten to overwhelm the breadth of the selection. Still, this is an anthology that energetically celebrates genre fantasy in all its manifestations.
My favourite 2001 anthology is Peter Crowther's Futures (Gollancz; US edition Warner Aspect), which collects four novellas that had appeared singly in 2000 as limited editions from PS Publishing. Somehow, the novella length often seems to bring out the best in SF writers, and two of these four novellas are masterpieces: Peter Hamilton's epic detective saga, Watching Trees Grow, and Ian McDonald's harrowing Chaga tale, Tendeléo's Story.
In 2001, Golden Gryphon continued to release high-quality collections by a diverse array of genre writers. I was particularly impressed with Richard Lupoff's Claremont Tales and Paul Di Filippo's Strange Trades. The Lupoff dazzles with the author's chameleon-like skill at adopting (and wryly perverting) the archetypal styles of various modes of magazine fiction. In Claremont Tales, Lupoff enthusiastically honours the fiction magazines The Strand, The New Yorker, Weird Tales, etc. that have so obviously left such a vivid impression on his imagination. In Strange Trades, the prolific Di Filippo adds another thematic collection to his growing catalog of such volumes. This time, as the title indicates, Di Filippo tackles the subject of work, and the results are as erudite, off-beat, and entertaining as the author's previous books.
Small Beer Press launched its book publishing program with two of this year's most intriguing collections: Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen and Ray Vukcevich's Meet Me in the Moon Room. Both of these authors deftly use prose fiction to investigate the strange landscapes of their peculiar imaginations. Link evokes the mystery and strangeness of childhood with a nostalgia that is both seductive and terrifying. Vukcevich a surrealist who creates unusual and striking scenarios by appropriating the tropes of genre fiction and by juxtaposing the bizarre and the mundane is a master of the short short, a much-neglected form put to brilliant use in Meet Me in the Moon Room.
The year's most significant collection, however, is J.G. Ballard's gargantuan The Complete Short Stories (Flamingo). An indispensable document testifying to the visionary talent of one the twentieth century's most important writers, The Complete Short Stories collects in chronological order 96 stories ranging from 1956 to 1992. It could be argued that the title is not fully accurate (for example, "surgical fictions" such as "Princess Margaret's Facelift" and "Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty" are not included), but considering the author's involvement with the project (including a new introduction), we can only assume that this volume reflects Ballard's judgment as to what constitutes his legacy of short fiction. In The Complete Short Stories readers are privy to an unprecedented comprehensive look at how Ballard used short fiction to explore and experiment with the ideas that he later used to even greater effect in novels such as The Crystal World, Crash, Hello America, and Super-Cannes. Every time I look at this book, I can't help but be overcome by a feeling of deep reverential awe.
China Miéville's Gormenghastian steampunk fantasy, Perdido Street Station (Del Rey), hit North America in 2001, although it first saw print in 2000 in the UK. Dense with bizarre ideas, perverse passions, ornate architectures, and frightening creatures, it is one of the most memorable creations in fantasy. It is both informed by classic fictions and daringly new.
Richard Calder's Impakto (Earthlight) is a Zelaznyesque adventure that combines robust action with poetic fragility. Perhaps a bit overlong, this strange hybrid of Polynesian folklore, Christian theology, fetishistic sex, and dark fantasy is nevertheless another daring invention filled with shocking ideas and imagery.
Hellboy: The Bones of Giants (Dark Horse), by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, is the second novel inspired by Mignola's comics series Hellboy. While the first Hellboy: The Lost Army read like a Doc Savage adventure written for Weird Tales, this new one is more reminiscent of Jack Kirby. Hellboy is a hulking red demon raised by humans who has been investigating the occult for decades as an agent of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. This time around the world is threatened by the return of the monsters of Norse legends. It all begins when a giant skeleton holding a massive hammer that draws lightning to itself is discovered in a northern wasteland.... The Bones of Giants powerfully evokes the wonder and terror of Norse myth as it clashes with the modern world.
The most engaging and touching fantasy novel of the year is Jonathan Carroll's conclusion to the loose Crane's View trilogy, The Wooden Sea (Tor). Police detective Frannie McCabe gets embroiled in strange happenings that have a profoundly transformative effect on his life. As ever, Carroll paints his characters with tender subtlety and spices his tale with a dark wit. The Wooden Sea is an essential addition to the author's already superlative body of work.
In his generation-ship adventure, Ship of Fools (Ace), Richard Paul Russo plays with a host of SF tropes: social speculation, planetary exploration, space travel, alien encounters, a giant derelict spaceship, the far future, machiavellian machinations, imaginative settings, ineffable mysteries, a tense mingling of horror and wonder, and more. Ship of Fools is intriguing, thrilling, and intelligent.
A post-apocalyptic political satire, a sardonic detective thriller, and a novel about a gonzo future resulting from an alternate history premise, Eugene Byrne's Things Unborn (Earthlight) is an unfailingly entertaining romp. What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had resulted in an atomic war ... and what if hordes of dead people from various periods of history were resurrected as an inexplicable side effect?
In the profoundly empathic Nekropolis (Eos), Maureen McHugh deftly juggles a succession of distinct voices, as each chapter is narrated by a different character, beginning and ending with her protagonist, a Muslim woman who has subjected herself to a neurological intervention that has transformed her into a willing slave. Nekropolis is a poignant meditative journey of discovery.
My favourite SF novel of the year is Ernest Hogan's over-the-top post-cyberpunk novel Smoking Mirror Blues (Wordcraft of Oregon). The Aztec trickster god Tezcatlipoca finds new life in future Los Angeles thanks to experimental contraband software. Delirious rock & roll chaos ensues. Fast, dense, savvy, and imbued with a hard-edged sense of fun, Smoking Mirror Blues is a wild kaleidoscope of speculative ingenuity and multicultural bricolage.