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Wednesday 2 February 2005

The Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2004

by Claude Lalumière

In 2004, the 21st-century fantasy renaissance continued to blossom, with numerous excellent novels in many subgenres of the fantastic and with an abundance of outstanding debuts. Several of the year's batch of best SF novels were as frustrating as they were thrilling. A good number of noteworthy nonfiction works related to the SF and fantasy field appeared, and excellent collections of short fiction — whether SF or fantasy, or a combination of both — were plentiful, released largely by specialty presses. And if one author stands out as the writer of the year, it's Lucius Shepard, with two novels and one collection among the year's very best books.

original anthology

2004's most memorable anthology of original fiction is Pamela Sargent's Conqueror Fantastic (DAW), a book of alternate-history fantasy dealing with, as the title suggests, conquerors. All but one of the thirteen stories are quite good, and four impressed me immensely: Stephen Dedman's gratifying revenge fantasy "Twilight of Idols", the late George Alec Effinger's evocative and compassionate "Walking Gods" (his last completed story, perhaps?), James Morrow's witty and ambitiously complex "Martyrs of the Upshot Knothole", and Ian Watson's uproariously wicked comedy "An Appeal to Adolf".


In the single-novelette chapbook Mere (Golden Gryphon), Robert Reed revisits the universe of the Great Ship (previously encountered in the novel Marrow and in several stories) to fabulous effect. Mere is the tale of a practically immortal woman lost in a universe she knows nothing about. Harrowing, evocative, and deeply moving, Mere shows Reed to be in top form as one of SF's most startling and original voices. Reed fans should also enjoy Reed's chatty essay, included here, on writing the Great Ship stories.


In Stranger than Fiction (Doubleday), weird horror writer Chuck Palahniuk makes a convincing case that reality is much stranger than anything even he can dream up. Palahniuk's journey — encountering myriad outlandish subcultures and obsessive iconoclasts — presents the real world through the eyes of people whose idiosyncratic imaginations transform it into a wondrous, bizarre, and often disquieting place.

For several years, under the banners of BFI Film Classics and BFI Modern Classics, the British Film Institute has been issuing a series of insightful volumes on world cinema. Ryan Gilbey has authored BFI Modern Classics: Groundhog Day, going behind the scenes of one of the 1990s' most brilliant film fantasies, starring Bill Murray in what is perhaps the capstone of his career. Gilbey speaks to many of the filmmakers, charts the development of the script and story, provides illuminating commentary, and celebrates with sparkling intelligence this brilliantly quirky screen classic.

My favourite book of 2004 is Jan Lars Jensen's memoir Nervous System (Raincoast). Candid, merciless, funny, horrific, insightful — often all at once — Nervous System recounts Jensen's tragic mental collapse, which occurred around the time of the release of his SF novel Shiva 3000. Jensen brings to this personal tale all of his considerable storytelling skills (including peppering the text with deliciously memorable phrases), entertaining his readers while he shares a story that exposes how dangerous it can be to blindly trust the medical establishment.


There were quite a few strong collections in 2004, among them five entertaining volumes by Suzy McKee Charnas, Paul Di Filippo, James Morrow, Brian Stableford, and Charles Stross. The classic novella "Unicorn Tapestry" is enough all by itself to make Charnas's Stagestruck Vampires & Other Phantasms (Tachyon) worth picking up, but it contains other treasures, too, not the least of which are two fascinating new essays. The lighter side of Paul Di Filippo is spotlighted in Neutrino Drag (Four Walls Eight Windows), a hefty chronological collection that spans his entire career so far; highlights include "Stink Lines", which is an exemplary iteration of the author's trademark goofball comedy mode, "Weeping Walls", which is pleasantly vicious and uncompromising, and "Neutrino Drag", which displays Di Filippo's cross-genre perversity at its zany best. James Morrow's The Cat's Pajamas & Other Stories (Tachyon) is a collection of pointed satires, of which the most memorable are "The War of the Worldviews", "The Wisdom of the Skin", "Martyrs of the Upshot Knothole", and "Auspicious Eggs". Brian Stableford's Designer Genes: Tales of the Biotech Revolution (Five Star) is a thematic sequel to his insightful 1991 collection Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Genetic Revolution. In the intervening years, Stableford has devolved somewhat into a crotchety polemicist, but despite Stableford's explicit intention to win his readers over to his fanatically stated point of view his sardonic stories often succeed in doing exactly the opposite, while being entertaining to boot; thankfully, Stableford the rabid proselytizer failed to totally subsume Stableford the artful storyteller. With The Atrocity Archives (Golden Gryphon), the prolific Charles Stross has delivered his strongest book to date, comprising a short novel and a novelette — both starring Bob Howard (not the creator of Conan), special agent of The Laundry, a secret British agency that deals with the supernatural (though Stross explains it all as science fiction) — and a great essay on the links between horror and spy fiction. Stross seems to take special pleasure in relating these stories of The Laundry, and the pleasure's infectious.

Choosing a favourite between my two finalists for best collection proved impossible. Besides, one's an apple, the other an orange; i.e., one is career retrospective, and the other a collection of recent and current work. They're not really comparable, and both of these books are such powerful documents, the works of supremely accomplished authors communicating their personal visions with superlative passion, talent, skill, and intelligence. So it's a tie for the top spot between Lucius Shepard's Trujillo and Robert Silverberg's Phases of the Moon.

Lucius Shepard's Trujillo (PS Publishing) is a massive volume that includes one new novel (the title piece), and ten novellas and novelettes, all of which are exquisitely written. The oldest work here is 1999's "Crocodile Rock", with everything else dating from 2002 onwards. The only story here I'm not fond of is the otherwise highly regarded 9/11 ghost story "Only Partly Here", but everything else took my breath away. Most powerful are "Eternity and Afterward", "Jailwise", and "Trujillo". Shepard — whose recent work has been delving deeper and deeper into the masculine psyche and the cultural performance of masculinity — is a brutally honest writer who does not shy away from the consequences of his scenarios and the complexity of his characters. The results are riveting, intense, and disturbing. Judging by these stories, Shepard's literary investigation of the difficult and thorny subject of masculinity is far from over.

Phases of the Moon (Subterranean Press / iBooks) celebrates Robert Silverberg's fifty years (and counting) as a professional SF writer. It contains 23 stories culled from the various phases of his career. It's not exactly a best-of; rather, it's more of a travelogue through Silverberg's remarkable career, with stops at the important turning points and with informative and chatty introductions (often freely borrowing from previously published introductions) that put the stories in context and give an intimate glimpse not only of Silverberg's career but of US science fiction's history. Silverberg is possibly the greatest SF short-fiction writer to emerge from the US pulp tradition, and this collection provides ample proof of that.

fantasy novels

After reading Gene Wolfe's The Knight (Tor) in January 2004, I was kept in a state of excited anticipation for most of the following year. The Knight is the first book in a two-volume novel, The Wizard Knight, of which the second, The Wizard, was released in November, the two volumes thus more or less bookending the year. The Knight — with its keen mythologizing of childhood fantasies, its mazes of wondrous and terrifying mysteries, its adventurous spirit, its delicious language and linguistic riddles, its subtly erotic aura, its whirlwind pacing — completely seduced me. I expected the whole saga to emerge as a cornerstone of fantasy. Alas, The Wizard — ploddingly structured and lacking focus — fails to recapture and build on the magic of its predecessor. Nevertheless, The Knight, however incomplete it may be taken on its own, remains an electrifying read and an unforgettable experience.

Ashok Banker's entertaining and colourful retelling of The Ramayana continued in 2004 with the third volume, Demons of Chitrakut (Orbit), recounting the bittersweet aftermath of Rama's epic victory at the conclusion of the previous volume. Eileen Kernaghan also explores ancient India (giving an entirely different picture than Banker's heroic mythological past) in her fantasy novel of speculative history, Winter on the Plain of Ghosts (Flying Monkey Press). While her plot might be a bit too linear and predictable, her characters and, especially, her settings are remarkably vivid, and I often felt physically transported to her sensual world of primal sorceries. Kernaghan succeeds in powerfully evoking a distant past that is both strangely familiar and disquietingly alien. In The Stupidest Angel (Morrow), Christopher Moore gathers characters from several of his past novels and concocts a mischievous comedy that doesn't flinch in the face of horror. In Lucius Shepard's A Handbook of American Prayer (Thunder's Mouth Press), another of Shepard's insightful and provocative explorations of masculinity, a violent convict creates a new style of prayer that changes his life and threatens the religious hegemony in place in the USA.

2004 was rife with fantasy debuts. Minister Faust's The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad (Ballantine / Del Rey) is a chaotic, romantic, effervescent, utterly charming ode to geek culture, featuring two geek-supreme best friends whose loyalty to each other and to their community is relentlessly tested by Faust's deviously inventive imagination. Nina Marie Martínez's ˇCaramba! (Knopf) is a touching and playful tale of the profound friendship between two Californian Latinas, as their lives get entangled with spiritual quests, complex love stories, a mysterious volcano cult, ghosts, witches, and much, much more; it's a grand, sprawling romp that sparkles with fun and compassion. The language in both of these debut novels is enriched and enlivened by the prominent inclusion and adaptation of words and phrases from the non-Anglo backgrounds of their various protagonists. In addition, Faust's characters inject all kinds of funky neologisms into their speech.

My favourite novel of 2004 is another of the year's fantasy debuts, Susanna Clarke's enormous Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury). Set in the early 1800s, this historical fantasy creates a hermetic and mesmerizing world with its own unique rules and textures. Clarke's prose is seductive, and her characters are enchantingly bizarre. Within a few words, Clarke had drawn me into her weird magical England and made it my home for the duration of the book. Wonders abound, and the last few pages unveil an immensely satisfying ending — so astonishing, poignant, apt, and pitch-perfect that it made me love everything that had come before all the more.

SF novels

Save for the #1 spot, the SF novels that most thrilled me this year also, almost equally, frustrated me. Yet, there's no denying the power of these three runner-up novels. So here they are, warts and all.

Evoking The Island of Dr. Moreau, Frankenstein, Neuromancer, and, most of all, Heart of Darkness, Paul McAuley's biopunk thriller White Devils (Simon & Schuster, UK / Tor, US) is an engrossing page-turner. McAuley's biotech near future, with its countries and corporations recovering from and adapting to a world transformed by ecological catastrophes is both urgent and convincing. Alas, the ethics of his story and the traditional pulp-SF worldview that McAuley could not quite shake are resolutely at odds — and you can almost see the novelist wrestling with the wayward and unruly strands of his story's ethical core. In the end, though, that works as both a strength and a weakness. McAuley also opts for some fairly manipulative narrative techniques that work against him — I suspect not so much in a willful decision to manipulate his audience but more likely in a misguided effort to make his immensely ambitious tale conform to the requirements of the thriller genre. White Devils is a text that seems to struggle against itself, in addition to struggling against the shackles of its two primary genres. It's a daring work, and, for all my qualms, I kept thinking about it for months. And so it emphatically earns the epithet thought-provoking.

There's so much that I loved in Geoff Ryman's Air (St. Martin's): its complex political perspective; the gutsy charm of its protagonist, Chung Mae; its potentially world-altering scenario; the brilliance of its central SF idea, and the multiculturally sensitive way in which its implications are worked out; its patient and confident pacing; its elegant and subtly wry prose ... and then there's that stomach pregnancy. Chung Mae gets — and stays — pregnant by swallowing her own menstrual juices mixed with her lover's sperm. There's no strange biotech or mutation here: it just happens. It speaks highly of the superlative excellence of every other aspect of this novel that this ludicrous development, which Ryman unwisely welds solidly into his plot, does not bring the novel tumbling down. This impossible pregnancy could have easily been edited out — or reworked as a real, believable pregnancy — instead, it sticks out, quite jarringly, threatening to destroy Ryman's novel every time it's mentioned. Nevertheless, this unusual tale of how an isolated Asian community is forever transformed by a new kind of internet technology is otherwise powerfully moving and urgently pertinent.

Allen Steele revisits the planet-like satellite Coyote, home to the interstellar colonists introduced in 2003's Coyote. Steele's series is reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, but, for all its qualities, it does suffer a bit in the comparison, especially in the realm of politics, as both series wear their politics on their sleeves. Coyote Rising (Ace) is a mosaic novel of revolution. The characters, for the most part, are diverse and fascinating. Steele does a great job of once again bringing Coyote itself to life. And Steele's talent for grand adventures imbued with intimate details makes Coyote Rising a rousing read. My one beef is that the politics that Steele brings to this series, and to this book especially, are too simplistic, often (unintentionally?) caricatured, which clashes with the realistic tone and with his otherwise nuanced approach to his characters and stories. There's probably more to come — the ending of this second book strongly suggests a third volume — and I look forward to traveling to Coyote once again.

Viator (Night Shade Books) is the name of a freighter run aground in Alaska decades ago. In this Lucius Shepard novel — my favourite SF novel of 2004 — a carefully selected group of men whose lives are devoid of hope are employed to salvage the ancient wreck. Slowly, their true, and much more terrifying, task is revealed. The ship houses horrific secrets that threaten the sanity of these men and, perhaps, reality itself. Shepard's intense novel marries the creepy ambiance of weird pulp fiction with his recurring preoccupation with the problems of masculinity. Viator is scary, sublime, and richly satisfying.

Claude Lalumičre edited three 2003 anthologies: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic, Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction, and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk. Based in Montreal, he writes opinionated criticism and weird fiction. He runs the webzine Lost Pages.

© 2005 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.