The Best SF and Fantasy of 2002
by Claude Lalumière
In 2002, with the success of the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings film franchises, fantasy was ubiquitous. But it was mostly same old, same old. Nevertheless, despite the threatening hegemony of the limited and limiting idiom of commercial fantasy, the genre as a whole is surprisingly healthy, with both corporate and small-press publishers releasing a diversity of fascinating works.
So, 2002 was a fairly good year for fantasy, but less so for science fiction. There were very few SF novels that managed to keep my interest beyond the first few chapters. Overly familiar scenarios and a lack of daring seemed to characterize most novels being published as SF, and that's a real shame considering the number of talented writers working in the genre. Much of the most exciting SF of the year was published either out of genre or as print-on-demand books.
Despite all the ongoing concerns about the fate of short fiction, there's no lack of interesting shorter length SF and fantasy in sources ranging from websites and small-press zines to thematic anthologies and established magazines. (Of course, we all wish more people were reading these stories....)
Without further ado, here's a listing of the genre works that most ignited my imagination in 2002.
Sadly, my two (usually) favourite ongoing comics series one SF and the other fantasy were both stuck in overlong storylines that marked a low point for each series. Finder (by Carla Speed McNeil; Lightspeed Press) was all year in the middle of an interminable story called "Dream Sequence" about a virtual reality game, a story that highlighted none of McNeil's usual panache for intelligent world-building and intriguing detail. Promethea (by Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III; ABC) was gorgeous to look at, but lost itself in self-indulgently preachy exposition about the nature of magic and the universe. Thankfully, the last issue of the year, # 24, returned the series to its former glory.
But there was some good stuff in 2002. Age of Bronze (by Eric Shanower; Image), is a lovingly slow-paced retelling of the events that led to the Trojan War. Jack Staff (by Paul Grist; Dancing Elephant) is a British postmodern twist on the patriotic superhero done with charm and wit. Steven Weissman released a new Yikes! book, White Flower Day (Fantagraphics); the artwork is rougher and less effective than in previous works, but the stories of kid monsters (vampires, gorgons, reanimated corpses, etc.) still brilliantly evoke the wonder and horror of childhood. Rich Koslowski's Three Fingers (Top Shelf) adroitly adapts the style of PBS documentaries to the comics form in order to tell a politically and racially charged story of a world in which toons in this case, archetypes resembling Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, et al. are an oppressed species. The pull-no-punches gonzo political dystopia Transmetropolitan (by Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson; DC/Vertigo) ended its sixty-issue run. Meanwhile, in the newspapers, Patrick McDonnell continued his engaged and engaging animal fantasy, Mutts, which never fails to warm my heart while nevertheless being harshly honest about the cruelty we inflict on other animals.
Brian Michael Bendis is fast becoming the most significant comics writer of his generation, if his work on Alias (with Michael Gaydos; Max/Marvel), Daredevil (with Alex Maleev and Manuel Gutierrez; Marvel), and Powers (with Michael Avon Oeming; Image) is anything to go by. All of these blend gritty noir crime fiction into worlds filled with superpowered beings. Alias, a hardboiled series about a superpowered woman who gave up the superhero life and turned private investigator, is striking for its unabashedly candid view into the main character's dysfunctional sex life. Daredevil, ostensibly a superhero comic, is noteworthy for shunning the action that often overwhelms that genre and for delivering instead careful and surprising character studies. Powers is a police procedural about the cops assigned the "powers" detail; it leaves no dirty, shameful stone unturned and often goes in the most unexpected and satisfying directions.
Writer Steve Gerber returned to his signature character, with the release of the six-issue series Howard the Duck (with Phil Winslade and Glenn Fabry; Max/Marvel). More unapologetically blasphemous, rude, raunchy, and satirical than ever, this was possibly Gerber's best work ever.
My favourite genre comic of the year was Richard Sala's collection, Peculia (Fantagraphics), following the strangely perverse adventures of title character as she is pursued by Obscurus and his assistant Justine in a world brimming with gothic trappings and B-movie horrors.
I didn't even come close to combing through all the genre magazines, websites, and anthologies. Nevertheless, I did have the pleasure of reading several good stories in 2002.
Rhys Hughes's "Robin Hood's New Mother" (Redsine 8) is uproariously absurd and fun; I very much doubt there's ever been a Robin Hood story quite like it. Don Webb's "Afterward" (Angel Body and Other Magic for the Soul) is a sardonic horror story about modern witchcraft filled with good ideas and powered by a compelling voice. Maureen McHugh's "Laika Comes Back Safe" (Polyphony 1) is a bittersweet coming-of -age tale with a killer ending. Geoffrey Landis's faux folktale "Old Tingo's Penis" (Interzone #181) had me laughing out loud. I don't want to give away what Christopher Evans's "Posterity" (Interzone #182) is about, but it's very ingenious and intriguing. Tom Piccirilli's zombie story "Naked Shall I Return" (The Book of More Flesh) has sense of wonder aplenty, not to mention a solid, punky attitude. Stepan Chapman's charmingly bizarre sense of humour fuelled the dark fun of "The Comedian" (The Silver Web #15). Peter Crowther's Mars Probes anthology contained many good stories, most notably Allen Steele's moving drama of friendship and love gone awry, "A Walk Across Mars", and Paul McAuley's "Under Mars", a dark comedy unfolding in a giant theme park that brings to life the various fictional visions of Mars.
PS Publishing continued its admirable novella program. Editor Peter Crowther evinces wide and eclectic tastes. Among the many fine works he published in 2002, I'd say that the most memorable was Paul Di Filippo's technological fantasy A Year in the Linear City, which is a great piece of world-building, simultaneously menacing and imbued with Di Filippo's trademark utopian streak.
I had great fun exploring the various subgenres of fantastic cinema in Kim Newman's anthology, Science Fiction/Horror: A Sight and Sound Reader (BFI Publishing). Filled with opinionated, well-informed, and well-written criticism by a diverse group of writers, this delightfully entertaining book was a cornucopia of information.
There were several noteworthy works of SF and fantasy that fell between the cracks of "collection" and "novel" in 2002, although some may choose to slot these in one or the other of the more recognized forms.
Richard Calder's Lord Soho (Earthlight/Simon & Schuster) is a sequel to his magnificent Malignos. It chronicles the multigenerational further adventures of the Pike family, to somewhat lesser effect than the previous book. These stories from Interzone are nevertheless good decadent fun.
Allen Steele's Coyote (Ace) reads somewhat like a condensed version of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy: a group of more or less 100 planetary colonists leave Earth and political squabbles ensue. Steele's creation is pleasantly subversive, although much less comprehensive in its challenges to hegemonic paradigms than Robinson's ambitious epic. Coyote is fun adventure, crafted with intelligence and care. The door is wide open for more stories, and I can't help but hope that Steele will deliver.
One of 2002's crowning masterpieces is Jeff VanderMeer's complexly interwoven mosaic City of Saints & Madmen (Prime). VanderMeer's creation is wryly postmodern yet earnestly convincing a difficult balancing act! Funny, moving, mysterious... VanderMeer achieves it all (and then some!) in this rich, bizarre, and compelling work that explores the metafictional and mythical history of the city of Ambergris.
Probably the most lauded SF collection of 2002, Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others (Tor) certainly deserves ample praise. Chiang's imagination is both outré and methodical, and he usually manages to imbue the most outlandish premise with dramatic urgency. The book's one original, however, "Liking What You See: A Documentary", lacks the author's usual intellectual rigor.
Shelley Jackson's The Melancholy of Anatomy (Anchor) is an utterly beautiful book, filled with the most revolting bodily secretions. Funny, charming, moving, and stomach-churning, The Melancholy of Anatomy is a great showcase for Jackson's idiosyncratic voice and perspicacious ideas.
The collection that most impressed me was Bentley Little's The Collection (Signet). A hefty mass-market original packed with thirty-two stories, The Collection is filled with bizarre ideas, weird characters, and outlandish premises successfully and creepily dramatized. This book kept me very well entertained and surprised me time and again.
One of the most amusing novels of the year was Christopher Moore's Lamb (Morrow), "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal". The structure is not unlike Gore Vidal's classic epic, Creation, but the comedy is Moore at his goofball best. This biblical pastiche nevertheless has a serious streak, which gives the comedy all the more weight.
In The Scar (Ballantine Del Rey), China Miéville returns to the world of Bas-Lag (which he had introduced in Perdido Street Station), traveling far beyond the confines of New Crobuzon, sailing the strange seas of his remarkable creation. The Scar is perhaps less urgent and emotionally gripping than its predecessor, yet it is rich in imagination, characters, ideas, sense of wonder, adventure, and much, much else. Miéville is a grand fantasist, one who is successfully rescuing fantasy adventure from the bottomless boredom of the Tolkien clone pits.
My favourite fantasy novel of the year, Daniel Quinn's The Holy (Context), is a whirlwind adventure, mixing mythology, detective fiction, philosophy, and magic realism. In modern times, an aging Jewish private investigator is hired to find the truth about the gods who, in antiquity, turned Israel away from their God. The plot is complex yet seamless, the ideas are rich and numerous, the characters are involving, and the book as a whole is a work of great beauty.
Some may argue that Lucius Shepard's Valentine (Four Walls Eight Windows) isn't SF, but, without giving anything away, it does contain an ambiguous plot point and a turning point no less that might be SF. In any case, the door is left open enough for me to consider it here, especially since it's such a great piece of writing. An estranged adulterous couple are stranded in a hotel, and torrid sex ensues, described in loving and lustful detail. The prose is Shepard at his visceral best.
Luanne Armstrong's The Bone House (New Star) is a near-future tale about an isolated part of British Columbia, in a world where the climate has gone out of control and governments have ceded all power to multinational corporations and their private militias. The story itself is much more intimate, concerning two outcasts a crippled man and an abandoned girl whose lives eventually intertwine. Emotionally and politically complex, The Bone House is fully engaging and profoundly thought-provoking.
My favourite SF novel of the year is also my favourite book of the year: Paul Di Filippo's A Mouthful of Tongues (Wildside/Cosmos). This unabashedly perverse journey of discovery is a phantasmagoria of sex and language, ideas and transgression. It is Di Filippo's most mature and confident work, a blindingly seductive vision of a utopia arising out of a surreal and relentless struggle against oppression, cruelty, and intolerance. A woman merges with a genetic experiment after suffering sexual humiliation and violence, and the world will never again be the same.