Looking over an assortment of year-end reviews and “best of the year” lists, not only in the Locus February issue, but in various websites, blogs, newspapers, and even Amazon.com, I’ve become convinced that the most useful purpose of such lists is not to end discussions, but to begin them. So we’re hoping that this new interactive venture for Locus can do just that—starting with a look at the past year, and later moving on to other topics…
But I should confess up front that I may not be the best reviewer to kick things off. I’ve never been comfortable with “best” lists or best-of-year prizes in the first place, since two questions immediately come to mind: Who do we think we are? and Whose best is it, anyway? The answer to the first question is easy: I think it’s fair to say that those of us contributing to this blog have read a lot of stuff over a lot of years, have written about it for a good while, and can lay some claim to having some linear perspective and some basis for comparisons.
The second question is harder to dismiss. To claim a title as the best SF or fantasy novel of the year seems to me to imply a core readership with a common set of values and assumptions, but as far as I can tell that readership has been dismembering itself into various caucuses for several decades now. A half-century ago, a dedicated SF reader could cover the major magazines and nearly all the major novels and anthologies in a given year. In 1955, the New York Times reported that 74 science fiction titles had been published the previous year (they may have missed some small press titles, but not a lot); for 2008, Locus reports having listed 1,669 new titles in SF, fantasy, horror, and its various cross-pollinations. There were 254 SF novels and 436 fantasy novels alone. Anyone who actually tried to read all of those probably needs a hug, but isn’t someone I want to be trapped in a bar with for very long.
Instead, there are a lot of readerships, coming at all this from a lot of different angles and with a lot of different assumptions. This is an altogether healthy development, but it means that no one’s best list is going to please everyone, or even be comprehensible to everyone.
So I decided to take a slightly different tack, focusing for this first post on SF novels. I decided to take the central thesis from that most over-masticated and misrepresented of intellectual histories, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with its notions of “normal” vs. “revolutionary” science. The striking thing about “normal” scientific processes, he says, is “how little they aim to produce major novelties, conceptual or phenomenal.” Revolutionary science, in his famous term that has since been appropriated for everything from management texts to diet books, represents an entire “change of paradigm,” a rethinking of possibilities from the ground up. Contrary to popular representations, Kuhn doesn’t dismiss normal science as outmoded—it’s where most of the work gets done, and it gets back to work even after the change of paradigm.
The question, then, is: which of last year’s novels best represent “normal” SF, which aspire most successfully to revolutionary SF, and which seem to represent a successful middle ground? Needless to say, I’ve got a candidate for each.
My candidate for 2008’s most successful performance of normal SF is Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War. In terms of the familiar literary merits of character, plot, and style, it’s one of his very best novels—but as SF it’s essentially conservative, representing a 23rd-century interplanetary war of the sort we’ve seen often before, but seldom with such attention to current science and such political and psychological acumen. For revolutionary SF, my candidate is Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which may draw on a number of familiar SF tropes, but which seems to violate nearly every principle we’ve inherited about what SF usually is—in terms not only of its massive length, its leisurely pacing (at least in the opening few hundred pages), its language, its humor, its preoccupations with systems, puzzles, and entire philosophical systems for their own sake. Like much revolutionary science, it may take some years for us to realize its full effect on the field, as people actually begin to finish it.
I’ll stop there, but I suspect that much the same could be done with fantasy novels. I’m fairly confident that one of my favorite fantasy novels of the year, Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons of Babel, occupies a kind of middle ground between normal and revolutionary fantasy, analogous to the Bear novel in SF. But maybe it’s really revolutionary fantasy, and if it’s not, what is? As a whole, Paul Park’s masterful Roumania quartet seemed to offer a whole new way of reading fantasy, but most of that happened in earlier volumes, prior to last year’s concluding The Hidden World. And it seemed to me that a novel such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book represents a first-rate performance of what is essentially a normal fantasy, but there may be other candidates as well.