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Monday 28 January 2008

SF, Fantasy, and Horror in 2007: Recommended Reading

by Claude Lalumière

In 2007, I saw, and thus read, much less of the annual output than I usually do. Most especially, and regretfully, I saw much less from the UK and from the specialty presses (perhaps because of escalating shipping costs), and as a consequence there are many holes in my exploration of the year's genre fiction. Thus, in lieu of my customary "best of", this year I'd rather call this retrospective "recommended reading".

2007 was a very good year for slipstream and crossgenre novels.

Comics writer Warren Ellis offered up his first prose novel, Crooked Little Vein (Morrow), in which a quest for the Secret Constitution of the United States (a document with mystical properties) becomes a picaresque journey through strange sexual subcultures. Politically radical, outrageously extreme, surprisingly tender, and always entertaining, this debut novel mixes the conventions the hardboiled detective story, the political thriller, the sexual odyssey, and magic realism. Another debut novel, Tyler Knox's Kockroach (Morrow), riffs on Kafka with a sublime and perverse re-creation of 1950s New York City. Knox combines Kafka, wry satire, horror, crime fiction, and noir quite effectively in this tale of a cockroach who must cope with finding himself transformed into a man.

After flirting with SF for many years, Chuck Palahniuk finally jumped in wholeheartedly. Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (Doubleday) is a complex, perverse, and violent post-cyberpunk time-travel novel, and it's his best book since 2001's Choke. It reads somewhat like the result of a strange marriage between Theodore Sturgeon, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, Charles Harness, and Donnie Darko.

Both Matt Ruff and Daniel Wallace delivered novels whose fantastic elements may or may not be delusions of their protagonists. Set in the middle of the twentieth century, Wallace's Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician (Doubleday) recounts the story of Henry Walker, a joke of a prestidigitator who, it is told, once was the most gifted of all magicians and who, as a child, lost his sister to his secret mentor in the magical arts, a man who may have been the Devil himself. This novel's many layers of lies, deceptions, tall tales, memories, mystery, and magic produce a rich and gripping narrative. In Ruff's Bad Monkeys (HarperCollins), a murderer under interrogation claims to belong to a super-scientific secret organization devoted to fighting evil. Ruff keeps readers guessing as to what's really going on until the very end, in the process serving up a high-energy, powerful, memorable conclusion. Bad Monkeys is fast-paced, hilarious, menacing, and superlatively entertaining.

My favourite novel of 2007 is another work that treads on a porous border between fantasy and reality. Nicholas Christopher's The Bestiary (The Dial Press) is a novel alive with animal presences — natural, mythical, and metaphorical. Enchanted by his grandmother's supernatural tales of animals, young Xeno Atlas eventually becomes obsessed with the idea of finding the long-lost Caravan Bestiary, a volume describing all the animals left behind by Noah. His obsession comes to define his adult life. Xeno's quest is quite emotionally involving, but what really seduced me in this novel is the vibrant atmosphere created by Christopher, whose descriptions of the world are lushly vivid with the consciousness of various animals. Animal agency, myth, and symbolism inform almost every scene. Never anthropocentric, the world of The Bestiary brims with life of all sorts.

Michael Moorcock's The Metatemporal Detective (Pyr) is good pulp-fuelled fun, filled with stories that deftly pastiche many modes of popular fiction, though these tales might be somewhat arcane for readers not overly familiar with Moorcock's multiverse and his recurring cast of dimension-hopping characters and doppelgangers.

Were it not for the inclusion of the laughably inept novella "GI Jesus" — more religious propaganda than fiction — Susan Palwick's The Fate of Mice (Tachyon) would have been my favourite book of the year. The ten other stories impressed me with their complex structure, deeply imagined characters, mysterious atmosphere, harsh emotions, and rich thematic mosaics. This is thought-provoking fiction, driven by utopian yearnings, that resonates profoundly, asking difficult questions, presenting the world from unusual, underdog, and illuminating perspectives.

Among the books I've read, the year's most consistently excellent collection is Cory Doctorow's Overclocked (Thunder's Mouth Press). Doctorow's stories are unabashedly engaged but never didactic or preachy. Fun, filled with subversive speculative ideas, and decidedly utopian, Doctorow's second collection is a gem of 21st-century cyberpunk.

Way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my favourite TV show was the Japanese superhero/SF/monster series Ultraman, created by one of the minds behind Godzilla, Eiji Tsuburaya. August Ragone pays tribute to the screen visionary in his gorgeously illustrated and lovingly researched Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters (Chronicle Books), which turns out to be not only about Tsuburaya and his creations but also an involving cultural history of postwar Japan and a fascinating addition to the canon of film and TV history. Another aspect of film history is explored in Sidney Perkowitz's Hollywood Science (Columbia University Press), which focuses on how science is portrayed in Hollywood movies. Using popular films as case studies (for the most part, SF blockbusters, although not all films discussed are SF), Perkowitz examines what the films get right, what they get wrong, and how the spirit of science and the lives of scientists are correctly or incongruously portrayed. The author's love of cinema, passion for science, and enthusiasm for SF make Hollywood Science an engaging and fun read.

Alan Weisman's The World Without Us (HarperCollins) is a work of speculative nonfiction. Its premise is: what if, for whatever reason, every human being on Earth ceased to exist tomorrow morning? Weisman draws from many disciplines, talks to experts from many fields, travels around the world, and discusses many case studies from the past and present to inform the many possible scenarios of a future planet Earth rid of humanity but stuck with the legacy, waste, and infrastructure of its civilization and activity. It's a sober work that is neither alarmist nor blind to the harm caused by pollution, overconsumption, industry, nuclear technology, etc. Every page is fascinating, and the density of extremely relevant information is staggering. Weisman outlines with great care the complexities of the processes by which the planet cleans and renews itself and describes in painful detail the ravages human activity perpetrates on humanity's home. He never gives absolute answers: there are none. Nevertheless, this extensively researched and intelligently imagined thought-experiment is urgently topical.

A dark fantasy featuring Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Georges Braque, and the rest of the avant-garde artistic community of Paris, c. 1907? Why not? That's exactly what Nick Bertozzi delivers with wit, charm, and candour in his eerie work of occult mystery and murder The Salon (St. Martin's Griffin).

Flight: Volume Four (Villard) upholds the anthology series' reputation as the premier showcase for new imaginative storytelling in comics. Editor Kazu Kibuishi, as always, displays a keen eye for diversity and fresh new voices. His own contribution, the bittersweet SF story "The Window Makers", is one of the book's highlights.

As far as I'm concerned Jack Kirby is the most important cartoonist of the twentieth century, an intuitive genius who grasped the medium like no one else and whose restless imagination left a mark of incalculable influence. His work for DC in the early 1970s is among the best he's ever done. Ironically, one of my least favourite Kirby works of this period is the most popular: the Fourth World saga that unfolded in Forever People, New Gods, Mister Miracle, and Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen. As good as this saga is — and it is excellent — it barely measures up to the wild post-apocalyptic ride of Kamandi, the inventive dystopia of OMAC, and the pungent occult atmosphere of The Demon. All that said, the Fourth World saga is perhaps the most important historically: for the first time, Kirby was finally credited for writing his own stories, and he consequently unleashed a tsunami of new ideas, characters, and concepts. In the Fourth World, two planets of space gods bring their eternal war to planet Earth, allowing Kirby to explore, through his love of mythology and adventure, issues relating to fascism, pacifism, heroism, loyalty, rebellion, generational divide, and identity. Potent, heady stuff indeed. The first three of four volumes in Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus (DC Comics) were released in 2007, and they are, production-wise, among the highest-quality archival comics reprints being published. Eschewing the slick, reflective paper that is unfortunately all the rage in comics publishing, these books are printed on matte stock, allowing the artwork and colours to permeate the printed page and take on the appropriate warmth and gravity.

While at Marvel in the 1960s, in the pages of Journey into Mystery and The Mighty Thor, Kirby adapted and updated Norse mythology, and Loki (Marvel), by Rob Rodi and Esad Ribic, takes place in Kirby's version of Norse legend. That said, this is a heart-wrenching, self-contained mythological tale of the oft-misunderstood trickster Loki, adopted son of Odin and brother of Thor, completely free of intrusion from the superhero trappings of the larger Marvel Universe.

Drawing, as always, on world mythology and pulp fiction, writer/cartoonist Mike Mignola continues to explore his monster-filled Hellboy universe in Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others (Dark Horse), with help from cartoonists Richard Corben and P. Craig Russell, and B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine (Dark Horse), with help from co-writer John Arcudi and cartoonist Guy Davis. Both books are creepy and entertaining — and gorgeously illustrated.

Steven Weissman's Mean (Fantagraphics) collects the earliest stories in his Yikes! series (c. 1993-98) about the hijinks of a group of kid monsters. These stories are more raw and also more exuberant than his more recent output. Although his current work continues to fascinate, these first stories introducing his cast of macabre children are both more charming and more daring.

Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse — Birds, Bees, Blood & Beer (IDW) is the first volume collecting Ben Templesmith's Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse series. Wormwood is a mystical worm walking around in human society by animating a human corpse. The worm helps the strippers at a local club guard a mystical portal to demonic dimensions, preventing monsters from spilling out onto the mortal world. The series is relentlessly rude, uproariously funny, devilishly inventive, and filled with the most insane characters.

The original Superman saga was interrupted in 1986, concluding with the Alan Moore / Curt Swan classic, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?. Rebooted in John Byrne's The Man of Steel mini-series, the Superman seen in comics was henceforth no longer the character who had evolved organically for decades since the 1930s but a pale shadow constantly being revamped by editorial mandate. But what if the original saga had been allowed to continue to evolve? That question is answered brilliantly in the Eisner Award-winning series All-Star Superman (DC Comics), by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, who bring Superman into the 21st century while respecting his decades-long heritage (although ignoring everything since the unfortunate 1980s reboot), unhampered by the constrictions of current DC Universe continuity. Yes, after an absence of two decades, the archetypal superhero par excellence is back, and All-Star Superman, an action-packed ride densely filled with the most outrageous SF ideas and concepts, is the best Superman has ever been. A hardcover is available, collecting the first six issues, and the series itself is up to #9.

Lio: Happiness Is a Squishy Cephalopod (Andrews McMeel) is the first volume collecting Mark Tatulli's new hit comic strip, Lio. The strip's eponymous protagonist is a little boy whose macabre and fantastic imagination spills over into reality, imbuing it with wonder, excitement, magic, super-science, and horror. The strip rarely uses words, and it's a masterpiece of visual storytelling. It's also particularly evocative for all of us weird dreamers whose youthful imaginations and preoccupations found little sympathy in the adult, mundane consensus reality that constantly threatened to squash and suppress our larger-than-life, bizarrely utopian worldview. This is easily my favourite book of the year.

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