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Monday 28 January 2008

2007: The Best of the Year

by Jeff VanderMeer

For science fiction and fantasy, 2007 was a year of renovation not innovation, with no book or books really breaking new ground. That said, a wealth of excellent fiction found its way into print during the year, most of it blissfully unassociated with movements, "moments," or any other baggage. The Next Wave will have to rear its ugly head at some point in the future.

A few notes. I haven't covered short story collections because I did not read them comprehensively and because it seemed like a down year for collections. (Michael Swanwick's excellent The Dog Said Bow-Wow and Laird Barron's The Imago Sequence might have been the best of lot.) Similarly, I have omitted Young Adult books because although I read several of them, my random readings in no way constitute a systematic review. Someone should cover YA SF/F, however, as readers need guides through that hilly terrain now more than ever, given the increasing number of books being published in that niche.

Several novels vied for best-of-the-year in my opinion, depending on your tastes. The Terror by Dan Simmons, about a doomed search for the Northwest Passage in the 1800s, is one of his most compelling and deeply felt novels, with topnotch characterization and description. Moreover, the novel is truly epic and, in its depictions of Western attitudes toward Nature, utterly relevant to our own times. The decisions made by the men trapped on their ship, the plight of the ship itself — these elements are, intentionally or unintentionally — an allegory for our times. In addition to being horrifying and sometimes supernatural, The Terror is also a richly detailed adventure novel.

Steve Erickson's Zeroville manages to be surreal, funny, fast-paced, and fascinating in its expose of the Hollywood film industry of the 1970s and 80s. Through the character of the somewhat damaged and naive film buff Vikar, Erickson reveals a punchy, hilarious side to his writing that should captivate even readers who haven't connected to his previous work. A scene in which Vikar is kidnapped by Spanish revolutionaries and forced to create a propaganda film out of old porn scenes is worth the price of the book all by itself.

Another writer, Emma Bull, provided her own take on part of the American mythos with Territory, in which she rejuvenated the Western with magic realism touches. Territory had a lucid and genuine quality that is hard enough to maintain in a normal work of fiction. When you consider that Bull is working largely with historical characters portrayed time and again in the movies and literature, her achievement in making it all seem fresh and new is remarkable. Some of the exchanges between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and others are genius-level in their sharpness and ingenuity.

For originality, however, Michael Cisco's The Traitor wins hands down. Writing like some incendiary prophet of the grotesque, Michael Cisco surpasses everything he accomplished with such works as the IHG Award-winning The Divinity Student. Soul burners, spirit eaters, and a conflict as epic as it is personal highlight a truly strange accomplishment. The Traitor is uncompromising, stark, and beautiful.

On the science fiction side, Ian McDonald reaffirmed his excellence with Brasyl, which contains three separate narrative strands describing the Brazil of past, present, and future. The novel is a tour de force of storytelling momentum, with a level of invention that represents a master at the top of his form. McDonald is an amazing stylist, yes, but here itís all about motion. He does a wonderful job of including his trademark detailed and inventive description while making sure nothing in this complex, often beautiful novel is static.

Just as complex and lyrical in its own way, Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods proved that, yes, mainstream literary writers can create good SF. Imagine that. Describing the discovery of a new, livable planet, the love between a human and robot, Winterson's accomplishment seems akin to the risk-taking of Angela Carter in the 1970s. Just as in Carter's work, there are flaws here but they're forgivable because the ambition and execution are generally of such a high order. Reminiscent of David Mitchell's The Cloud Atlas in its relevance to our present predicaments, The Stone Gods balances lacerating satire with an emotional resonance that will stay with the reader for a very long time.

By contrast, Susan Palwick's ultra-realistic Shelter features gritty near-future situations and characters. A great near-future novel that requires multiple reads to truly appreciate, Shelter follows the life of the wealthy Meredith Walford as she navigates through a world of deadly viruses, a father reduced to an online presence, a society that treats altruism like a disease, terrorism, and interesting extrapolation involving AIs. It's a deeply satisfying, often harrowing read.

Richard Morgan offers another great nearish-future vision in his novel Thirteen (Black Man in the UK). It's unfortunate that some reviewers get hung up on Morgan's use of sex and violence, because his work generally rewards close examination. As a huge fan of Altered Carbon, I found much to love about this new novel, which is provocative and very much alive. Itís a complex future tale of genetic manipulation and intrigue — a thriller with a pulse-pounding heart, but with a brain as well.

Finally, Kay Kenyon's Bright of the Sky, after a slow first seventy pages, knocked my socks off with its brilliant evocation of a quest through a parallel universe that has a strange river running through it. Unique in conception, like Larry Niven's Ringworld, this is the beginning to what should be an amazing SF-Fantasy series.

Many other worthy novels were published in 2007. Jeffrey Thomas vied for "cult classic" status with the immensely entertaining Deadstock, set in his Punktown universe. Jo Walton continued to explore fascism in the low-key HaíPenny. L. Timmel Duchamp also dealt with issues relevant to our world today in Tsunami, the exciting (if by necessity sometimes didactic) third book of her Marq'ssan Cycle. Kathleen Ann Goonan offered up the good but sometimes slow In War Times. Tobias Buckell sought adventure and wonder in Ragamuffin. Mathew Hughes spun some more scienti-fantasy with the jewel-encrusted The Spiral Labyrinth. Jay Lake went clockwork on us with his inventive but at times mechanical Mainspring. Against all odds, Hal Duncan managed to bring closure to the Book of All Hours with Ink, a novel that fought a war of attrition with repetition but largely won. Acacia by David Anthony Durham brought a sturdy earnestness to heroic fantasy, wedded to intense characterization. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch was a somewhat forced sequel to his effortless The Lies of Locke Lamora but still contained many brilliant set pieces. Black Sheep by Ben Peek served up dystopia Pacific Rim-style, in often searing and seering prose. Robert Charles Wilson disappointed some fans with Axis, the sequel to the Hugo Award winning Spin, even though the novel entertains on its own terms; it's just not as conceptually fascinating as its predecessor. The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher mixed the occult, Bram Stoker, and a mystery to great effect. Steph Swainston ended her Fourlands trilogy with the sometimes glacial, sometimes exciting Dangerous Offspring. Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear teamed up for some serious animal telepathy fantasy in the uncompromising A Companion to Wolves. Under My Roof by Nick Mamatas proved you can write a funny story about homemade nuclear bombs and garden gnomes. Steven Erikson gave readers another installment in his grim, gritty, complex Malazan novels with The Bonehunters. Second book of the fantasy quartet A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham glimmered with hints that he may be constructing A Major Work. Mary Gentle's Ilaro books cross-pollinated gender politics with alternative history. Cat Valente brought her Orphan's Tales to a triumphant conclusion in In the Cities of Coin and Spice, a sumptuously written cornucopia of re-envisioned folktales that might easily make other readers' best-of-the-best lists.

First Novels
I read several promising first novels in 2007, all so different that I am unable to choose a favorite. Brian Francis Slattery entered our awareness with Spaceman Blues: A Love Story, which borrows from gonzo SF but has a beating heart anchored firmly in the here-and-now of New York City. Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow — not, technically, her first novel, but her first to gain wide attention — provided unusual European magic realism while hinting that the field may have a new rising star. Vacation by Jeremy Shipp is a minor surrealist masterpiece about the narrator going on an exceedingly strange holiday. Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley represents the debut of a formidable fantasist, capable of writing complex, often fascinating heroic fantasy. A careful and often evocative stylist, Christopher Barzak entered overly familiar territory with his coming-of-age One For Sorrow, but did better than might be expected by dint of his strong voice and beautiful writing (his forthcoming second novel sounds much more original and fascinating). Corey Redekop provided this year's gonzo fun with his Shelf Monkey, an utterly enjoyable novel about radical bookworms. Amberlight by Sylvia Kelso should appeal to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy with its splendid evocations of place.

It was a good year for anthologies, although some of them arrived with great fanfare followed by inexplicable silence as publishers discovered Big Names alone will not grant you an automatic ticket to paradise.

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling had a strong year as editors, with the sumptuous The Coyote Road proving to be a total package hard to top. The comprehensive introduction about trickster tales, the cover and decorative illustrations by Charles Vess, and its clever and excellent stories by Kelly Link, Ellen Klages, Patricia McKillip, and many others provided a textbook example of intelligent, purposeful anthology editing. Datlow then followed it up with the incendiary Inferno, a great horror anthology that featured a nice mix of established and newer writers. Nathan Ballingrud's "The Monsters of Heaven" is particularly ferocious, but stories by Lucius Shepard, Jeffrey Ford, Conrad Williams, and many others are also very effective.

Although technically a magazine, Tin House: Fantastic Women guest-edited by Rick Moody has the weight and heft of an anthology. For me, this collection of stories by Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Shelley Jackson, Miranda July, and others was one of the highlights of the year. It's an uncommon display of talent, invention, and innovation.

James and Kathryn Morrow brought much overdue attention to a bevy of European writers in the tortuously named The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent. Contributors included such writers as Joao Barreiros, Jean-Claude Dunyach, Andreas Eschbach, and Johanna Sinisalo. The Morrows' translations are meticulous and their copious notes on each author and story immensely valuable. SFWA should be commended for helping fund this project.

Two other anthologies seemed related to each other, although one was more formally experimental. The intelligent Interfictions edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss collected original "interstitial" stories by a bushel of talented new writers such as Vandana Singh, Christopher Barzak, and Catherynne M. Valente and provided space for many relative unknowns in an anthology that was uneven but worthy. The triumphs here tend to be of the quiet variety. Text:UR, edited by Forrest Aguirre, featured, among others, Brian Evenson, Rikki Ducornet, Lance Olsen, and Tamar Yellin, focusing more on the mainstream literary end of the fantasy spectrum. It may have been even more overlooked than Interfictions but deserved better despite a few weak stories.

Billed as an exciting new original anthology, Eclipse One: New Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Jonathan Strahan wound up being less adventurous than any of the anthologies listed above. However, page by page, it provides consistently entertaining and professional fiction from such standbys as Lucius Shepard, Bruce Sterling, Peter S. Beagle, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and others. With the exception of an exceedingly ambitious and strange contribution from Jeffrey Ford, Eclipse One was entirely too comfortable and familiar to support Strahan's assertion that he's operating in the tradition of classic series like Terry Carr's Universe — although the series may well grow into that role over time.

Another first volume of a new original series, the Lou Anders-edited Fast Forward 1 featured thought-provoking speculative takes on making sense of our (post)modern world by, among others, Ken MacLeod, Gene Wolfe, and Nancy Kress. Consistently interesting, this SF anthology fills a gap, as most of the current spate of anthologies seems skewed toward the fantasy side of things.

John Klima's Logorrhea, meanwhile, went with a more narrow focus. It took as its cue winning spelling bee words, with writers from Clare Dudman to Elizabeth Hand, Hal Duncan to Marly Youmans, creating stories around those words. The anthology includes some excellent tales, and readers who might have originally looked askance at the "theme" should take a second glance.

Three interesting original anthologies flew in under the radar in 2007. At Ease With the Dead edited by Barbara and Christopher Roden featured new (mostly traditional) tales of the supernatural and macabre by over twenty writers, including Melanie Tem, Iain Rowan, and Joel Lane. Rosalie Parker edited Strange Tales: Volume II for Tartarus Press, a follow-up to the World Fantasy Award winning first volume. As usual for Tartarus, it's a high-quality production, featuring Rhys Hughes, Barbara Roden, Quentin S. Crisp, and others. Although technically an issue of PS Publishing's quarterly magazine, Postscripts: WHC Special Issue was a thick, hardcover book that talked and walked like an anthology. For horror and dark fantasy buffs, it included a cornucopia of treasures from the likes of featured author Michael Marshall Smith, Ramsey Campbell, Steven Erikson, Joe Hill, Graham Joyce, and many more.

As for reprint anthologies, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant) was a well-edited compilation that contained some excellent stories, although at times a certain sameness crept into the material. Realms: The First Year of Clarkesworld Magazine edited by Nick Mamatas and Sean Wallace gave a hardcopy foothold to the noted online magazine, containing worthy stories by writers like Holly Phillips, Sarah Monette, and Jay Lake. Finally, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology seemed less focused than editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's previous effort, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, although it contains excellent reprints by Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, and Bruce Sterling, among others.

Graphic Novels
Every year, more and more graphic novels showcase the best science fiction and fantasy. In 2007, I found six examples as good as or better than my favorite non-illustrated fiction. The Arrival by Shaun Tan, about an immigrant to a fantastical city, is an instant classic. Shooting War by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman is its visceral SF counterpart, as different from the wordless world of Tan as possible and yet just as effective with near-future speculations about the Iraq War. Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot (with a cover by Jordan Smith) is a dense, rewarding deconstruction of fantasy, myth, and reality. Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse by Ben Templesmith and The Nightmare Factory, based on the stories of Thomas Ligotti, exemplify the best of dark fantasy and horror in graphic novel form. Flight 4, edited by Kazu Kibuishi, sums it all up with a classic anthology of short fantasy comics, many of them both clever and timeless, all of them beautifully rendered. Each of these volumes belongs on the shelves of genre fans.

Notable Reprints
Originally published in the UK a few years ago, K.J. Parker's The Engineer Trilogy (Devices and Desires, Evil for Evil, and The Escapement) is an audacious, muscular epic fantasy that begins with an arbitrary death sentence for an engineer, who then seeks vengeance. Original and smart, these books are a must-read.

The classic work of two iconic writers, Glen Cook and George R.R. Martin, was reissued in nice editions in 2007. Tor published Cook's first three Black Company novels as Chronicles of the Black Company in a nice trade paperback. Bantam Spectra released Dreamsongs, a gorgeous two-volume hardcover set of Martin's collected short fiction (with copious annotations by the author). Night Shade Books also did a nice job reprinting A Passage At Arms, Cook's underrated SF novel that reads like Das Boot in space.

Other notable reprints include M. John Harrison's Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Nova Swing (now a Philip K. Dick Award finalist) in a classy new Bantam Spectra edition, The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, a rough-and-tumble, bold new voice in the heroic fantasy ranks, and Tachyon Publications' A Fine and Private Place, Peter S. Beagle's first novel and a long-time favorite of mine.

Overlooked Books
Kelley Eskridge's quietly effective Dangerous Space short story collection from Aqueduct Press gets my vote for the most overlooked book of the year, relative to the talent on display. Aqueduct Press was itself possibly the most overlooked publisher of the year despite creating space for innovative, excellent feminist fiction and nonfiction.

Another Seattle publisher, Payseur & Schmidt, published the equally worthy and equally overlooked And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, a fascinating memoir by Nicola Griffith of her formative years. Complete with early writings and drawings, published in an amazing series of little books and pamphlets, including a scratch-and-sniff, it's a real conceptual accomplishment that deserves more attention.

Sins of Omission
Although I read more widely in 2007 than ever before, and reviewed more books, no one can read everything in the field in a given year. My major sins of omission include: Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Sarah Monette's The Mirador, Nalo Hopkinson's The New Moon's Arms, Minister Faust's From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, Jack McDevitt's Odyssey, Charles Stross' Halting State, Cory Doctorow's Overclocked, Bruce McAllister's The Girl Who Loved Animals, Wizards edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, and The Solaris Book of New Fantasy edited by George Mann. In most cases, I simply did not receive these books for review.

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