Gary’s second question, about audience(s), is exactly on point… The Locus readership is hardly representative of the whole range of consumers of science fiction/fantasy narrative products. In fact, the product line extends well beyond narrative (which includes text, comics, film, and TV) to gaming and toys and Halloween costumes and anywhere else the iconography of rockets, rayguns, zombies, and elfy-welfies has penetrated. The opinions of a couple or three reviewers don’t amount to a hill of beans in that crazy world.
Once science fiction/fantasy broke its banks and flooded into the lowlands of general pop culture (probably starting with Star Wars), the comparatively tidy divisions and distinctions and values that traditional fannish culture had shared became hopelessly mixed with the marketing categories devised by Big Media and the tourist-level sensibilities of audience segments who either had no experience of “real” (that is, text-based) SF/F or who had imprinted on comics or cartoons or TV or Star Wars instead of pulp magazines, year’s-best anthologies, and Winston/Ballantine/Ace/DAW/Timescape imprints, the way God intended. (If you want confirmation of this, compare the discussions of various SF topics in old fanzines with those on the Talk pages of any Wikipedia article on an SF/F topic.)
All of which is prelude to a slight variation on my Standard Disclaimer: Not only do I not have any special insight into the state of the field or its destiny, I’m so far from the fat part of the demographic bulge that my opinions are pretty much irrelevant out in the big world. Which is not to say that they’re worthless (50-odd years spent reading the stuff must count for something), only that Locus‘s circulation pretty much defines the population that might have any interest in what are essentially my personal tastes in fantastic-fiction reading matter.
Thanks to Locus‘s laissez-faire treatment of reviewers (which does include the occasional editorial nudge), I get to read what I enjoy without any particular program or pattern beyond following favorite writers, and only at year’s end am I required to do any singling-out. Even so, my five-best list usually has eight or ten items. (For 2008, it was 13.)
The real question is not “What were the N best books?” but “Which ones did I enjoy enough to make them noteworthy in a list of books I liked to begin with?” And the question behind that one is “What is it that pops a book out of the pack?” The answer, as usual, is “It depends.” It might be a bravura performance of the sort that Michael Swanwick dependably delivers, this time in the form of The Dragons of Babel, which is a knockout in just about every way that I care about: structure, parable, character, language, mythography. The success of this book is not about the state of the genre or of the market (though it’s a Good Thing that there is a market broad enough to publish a Swanwick and give him repeat business)—it’s about a hellacious writer making the absolute most of the materials at hand.
In fact, that’s pretty much the way I feel about all my favorite writers. They both exploit and create spaces in which they can operate, so that Iain M. Banks takes the Matter of Space Opera and expands and explodes it in the Culture novels (and in the process helps to invent what we have taken to calling New Space Opera), and 20-plus years on is still finding interesting things to do with the possibilities, viz., Matter. Then Neal Asher can come along and work some transformations on that genre space and give us the quite different Polity universe and Line War and Shadow of the Scorpion. And Karl Schroeder and Walter Jon Williams can jigger together elements from a big box of adventure-story motifs from all over and give us Pirate Sun and Implied Spaces.
So there’s at least one reasonably definable factor that gets my attention: the enthusiastic and inventive exploitation of the possibilities offered by various genre tropes and forms. There’s a great sense of play in these books, of fun, along with the recognition that even fun can connect to matters that go beyond simple amusement.
Another factor that makes my “best” unrepresentative is that much of my enjoyment is that of the specialist, rooted in that half-century of obsessive reading of everything science-fictional or fantastical. I like books that know what they’re doing with and in that great tradition. In Greg Egan I see themes and concerns and a widescreen philosophical vision that go back to Olaf Stapledon—Incandescence is a bit like Last and First Men with individual characters—while reading Ken MacLeod is like reading all the SF and thrillers he has ever read that I have also read (as well as all the political theory I haven’t). Charles Stross isn’t far behind in that department, even when he’s not deliberately channeling Heinlein as he does in Saturn’s Children.
Mostly, though, I like a good story, well written. I know that this is the unsatisfying line that agents and editors hand to aspiring writers when asked “What are you looking for?” But it’s the truth. I have a low tolerance for routine execution of familiar tropes, and I can no longer read clunky prose, though I have no problem with (in fact, a great deal of respect for) a clean, “transparent” style. I will read absolutely anything by Joe Haldeman or John Varley and marvel at how easy they make it look. (I’m married to a writer, so I know it ain’t.)
So I suppose I don’t care what direction the field is headed, as long as the supply of smart, engaged, ingenious, well-crafted books exceeds my ability to keep up with them.