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Monday 23 January 2006

2005: Some of the Goods

by Matthew Cheney

The books that most held my attention in 2005 were books that not only offered vivid visions of this world and others, but offered those visions in new and even unique ways. 2005 was an extraordinarily good year for fiction of all sorts, and many books that I found interesting and enjoyable and expected to list among my favorites of the year were pushed aside by books that were even more compelling. There are years when it seems difficult to find excellent books, but 2005 was not one of them.


The most extraordinary novel I read in 2005 was The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia (published by McSweeney's). It begins like a folktale and grows into a story of sorrow and struggle that ends as a profoundly moving meditation on imagination and reality. It tells the story of a man who raises an army to fight off the influence of the planet Saturn, the story of a woman who is the last person alive from a race of people made out of paper, and the story of a man writing a novel in an attempt to win back a lost love. By the middle of the book, we begin to see how each of these strands is part of the other, and the effect is unsettling and beautiful. Plascencia plays with the typography and even the physical elements of the book in a way that could have been superficial, but instead supports and deepens the stories being told, creating a coherent whole from parts that had threatened to fly away into meaninglessness. Too many books get labeled as tours de force, but this one entirely deserves that description.

Until I read The People of Paper, I thought Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (Soft Skull Press) would be my favorite novel of the year. Like Plascencia, Millet mixes many genres and styles into a gripping, emotionally resonant story. In Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, three scientists central to the development of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi are whisked from 1945 to the beginning of the twenty-first century, where they end up leading a cult around the world. This could have been a slapstick satire, and sometimes it is, but it is also much more than that, because we end up caring as much about the effect on one ordinary woman of the scientists' adventures as we do about the effect of nuclear proliferation and ideological zealotry on the world at large. Very few novels mix the personal and political so successfully, but Oh Pure and Radiant Heart mixes even more than that — it is a comic romp and a portrait of tragedy, a carefully crafted work of art and a passionate polemic, a scream and a laugh and a sigh.

Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson (Knopf) is a more straightforward novel than either The People of Paper or Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, but it is equally thoughtful and nearly as impressive as both. Thomson creates a world that is, as a concept, ridiculous — a world where the United Kingdom was broken into four separate countries based on the classical humors (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic), with every citizen forced to move to the country their personality belongs in, and the borders vehemently enforced. From this concept, Thomson creates something more than a fable or allegory, though it has qualities of both. As the novel's protagonist becomes first a civil servant in one of the countries and then a rebel against them all, the effects of this social experiment accumulate, allowed the setting to become ever more vivid and disturbing. Thomson's prose is clear and controlled, with mesmerizing evocations of landscape inextricably linked to the development of character and plot.

Though I think Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (Knopf) is not so much a novel "about" cloning as it is a novel that utilizes a vague idea of cloning to explore themes of identity, it is nonetheless a novel of speculative fiction, if not a novel of science fiction. These labels don't much interest me, though, because Never Let Me Go is a powerful, wrenching novel, one that verges on being too clever in its conceits and obfuscations, but the intricate structure and calculated mysteries created, for me, a reading experience that was both intellectually and emotionally provocative.

Among Carol Emshwiller fans, I seem to be in a minority who believe Mister Boots (Viking) is her best novel. After finishing it, I thought, "This is the book Emshwiller was born to write." Many of her usual themes of gender and power surface in it, as well as familiar connections between the worlds of animals and people, but even for this so-often-subtle writer, there is a new kind of subtlety. I have found some of Emshwiller's previous tales cloyingly allegorical, but Mister Boots is never shrill or obvious in its ironies; instead, the story moves forward through implications and deft impressionistic details, all filtered through the view of a young girl caught up in circumstances that don't much make sense to her, and yet demand action.

Series Novels

It is rare that I read novels that need other novels to complete them. (At least one novel this year infuriated me, because it was not marketed as part of a series and yet turned out to be the beginning of a trilogy, and incomplete in and of itself.) Despite all my prejudices, though, I adored three incomplete novels this year.

Sarah Monette's Mélusine (Ace) is the most complete of the three, and on the whole the most satisfying. Though some important plot elements remain unresolved at the end, Mélusine does not feel like a giant book chopped in half, because important character developments do find resolution, and in a novel split into two first-person narratives, this is important. The book is marvelous for many reasons. Though it is ostensibly a traditional epic fantasy, it is also much more than that, because the world Monette's characters wander through is a brutal, frightening one, and her unflinching portrayal of how people hurt each other in pursuit of power or even simple survival makes the moments of compassion particularly affecting. The novel is masterfully plotted and truly a page-turner, but offers more than mere suspense — it presents a convincing view of a society that accepts homosexuality as equal to heterosexuality, it experiments with language and voice, it does not turn away from the implications of rigid class structures on culture, behavior, and even technology.

While Mélusine is a deceptively addictive book to read, Hal Duncan's Vellum (Macmillan UK) may seem at first utterly unreadable. I will not deny that it is an exhausting, infuriating, frustrating, and even befuddling book, but I found it just as addictive as Mélusine, though mostly not for reasons of plot, because Vellum's fragmentary, nonlinear, and multivocal structure makes the plot all but incomprehensible, at least on a first reading. What kept me turning the pages of Vellum was not the story or characters, but how the novel's form and style created the story, characters, and, more importantly, the setting. Duncan uses a collage structure to represent a universe of overlapping timelines. The world of Vellum is a world composed of other worlds, and every action taken by every character evokes another self in another place and time. As glimpses of all of these different worlds, places, and people begin to echo each other in the reader's mind, the effect is symphonic and exhilarating. Though much may await resolution in Vellum's sequel (Ink, due in 2006), I'm also glad for the wait between books to catch my breath and recover my brain.

I did not know that A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park (Tor) was an incomplete novel until I mentioned to a friend that I was reading it and he warned me that it was the beginning of a series. If I had known this beforehand, I probably would not have read the book, and that would have been a mistake, because though in many ways it is just a prelude for what is to come, A Princess of Roumania is so gracefully composed that it is a joy to read from first page to last. Park renders a memorable, arresting alternate world in lucid and perfectly modulated prose, and he does not shy away from creating complex characters who rise beyond simple archetypes of good and evil.


I read a tiny percentage of the books published in 2005. Among the many I know I missed, the following are the ones I most look forward to reading: Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley, Our Ecstatic Days by Steve Erickson, The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest, and Tumbling After by Paul Witcover. I expect there are many others I simply don't know about yet.

Collections and Anthologies

2005 was almost as rich a year for short story collections as it was for novels, although it seemed nearly bare of any original anthologies of note.

Four short story collections particularly impressed me this year, and for quite different reasons. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (Small Beer Press) was, story-for-story, my favorite collection of the year, a book of wonders and delights. Link masterfully mixes humor and horror within stories that often exploit odd narrative structures, and yet the effect is seldom forced or precious. These are stories of immense depth beneath glittering surfaces, and Link's writing at its best feels like a potion made from cotton candy, funhouse mirrors, opium, and razor blades.

Joe Hill's stories are generally more traditional than Link's, but his debut collection, 20th Century Ghosts (PS Publishing), shows that he is a writer of notable sensitivity. Individually, many of Hill's stories are impressive, but the value of 20th Century Ghosts is that it lets us see the full range of Hill's writing, to see the breadth of his vision and ability. Each story is clearly the work of a writer in firm command of his craft, a writer who can find just the right detail to create a universe in the reader's mind, and who knows exactly how to shape scenes to imply information a less skilled and less daring writer would state outright.

Another impressive debut this year was Holly Phillips's In the Palace of Repose, which was somewhat less consistent in quality than 20th Century Ghosts or Magic for Beginners, but it contained no particularly bad stories, and two excellent ones ("Summer Ice" and "The Other Grace"). Perhaps most notable, few of these stories had appeared in print before Prime Books published Phillips's collection. It is rare for a new writer to have a short story collection published, and rarer still for such a collection to contain primarily stories original to it. That such a collection could be as varied and interesting as In the Palace of Repose is a surprise and a joy.

NESFA Press did the science fiction field a great service this year by publishing Homecalling and Other Stories by Judith Merril, a handsome hardcover collection of all of Merril's solo short fiction. Though remembered today primarily as a groundbreaking editor, Merril also wrote some excellent stories, mostly during the 1950s. One of her best stories, "Dead Center", was included in the annual Best American Short Stories collection, a fine honor for a writer who herself edited an extraordinary series of Best SF volumes. Certainly, there are some clunky stories here, some stories that haven't withstood the passing years as well as others, but on the whole Merril's oeuvre is as vital and vibrant as any of the best writers of her time, and readers new to her work may be surprised at how many of the stories remain fresh today.

Numerous other worthwhile collections appeared in 2005, including Fugue XXIX by Forrest Aguirre, Cultural Breaks by Brian Aldiss, Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender, Greetings by Terry Bisson, Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz, Under the Dam by David Constantine, I Live with You by Carol Emshwiller, To Charles Fort, with Love by Caitlín Kiernan, Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh, Other Electricities by Ander Monson, Westermead by Scott Thomas, and Starwater Strains by Gene Wolfe.

None of the anthologies I encountered this year seemed, on the whole, truly exceptional, but a few were worth reading. Wheatland Press published the three most consistently interesting and ambitious anthologies this year. Polyphony 5 edited by Jay Lake and Deborah Layne, Nine Muses edited by Forrest Aguirre and Deborah Layne, and TEL: Stories edited by Jay Lake each contained at least a few strong stories, and each book presented a challenging array of styles and subject matter for adventurous readers.


Four books that don't fit comfortably into any of the above categories also deserve mention. SF poetry is a strange creature, and I'm not entirely convinced that we should separate poetry by subject matter. However, despite my reservations about their taxonomy, both a collection and an anthology of SF poetry impressed me this year. Sonya Taaffe's Postcards from the Province of Hyphens (Prime Books) is a fine collection of poems in which elements of myth and legend are rendered new through precise, lyrical language; it is a book of strong and sometimes excellent poems, regardless of how they get categorized.

For a view of all different sorts of poems labeled as SF poetry, Roger Dutcher and Mike Allen's The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase (Science Fiction Poetry Association) is as good an overview as currently exists. The range of material and quality is extraordinary, from utter drivel to true art, and I expect no two readers would agree on exactly which poems are one or the other.

Even if I didn't dislike labels as much as I do, I still wouldn't have the slightest idea what to call The Facts of Winter by Paul Poissel, translated by Paul LaFarge (McSweeney's). It is a collection of dreams supposedly dreamt by people in France in 1881 and collected by Paul Poissel, who never existed, but who will be familiar to readers of Paul LaFarge's novel Haussmann, or The Distinction. All I know is that, regardless of what you call it, The Facts of Winter is a delight.

Similarly delightful, though for entirely different reasons, is Weapons of Mass Seduction: Film Reviews and Other Ravings by Lucius Shepard (Wheatland Press). While Shepard is best known for his fiction, he is equally adept at nonfiction, and I cherish his film reviews, because they are knowledgeable, passionate, and written in Shepard's characteristically strong prose. They are reviews I learn from and argue with, and I don't know how to praise the work of any critic higher.

The Future

2006 promises many intriguing books, including the sequels to Mélusine, Vellum, and A Princess of Roumania, Jeff VanderMeer's new Ambergris novel Shriek: An Afterword, first novels from Holly Phillips, Barth Anderson, and Daniel Abraham (among others), and at least two promising anthologies (Paraspheres: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Fiction and The Coyote Road).

But 2006 looks like it will be one of the greatest years for short story collections that the SF field has ever seen. New collections are forthcoming from Richard Bowes, Alan DeNiro, Jeffrey Ford, Neil Gaiman, Theodora Goss, Douglas Lain, Joel Lane, M. Rickert, Tim Pratt, Lucius Shepard, Tamar Yellin, and others. This may not be the healthiest time in history for publishers, but many more intriguing and excellent books are being published now than any one reader can keep up with, and that is a dilemma I far prefer to its opposite.

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.