Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Science Fiction and Fantasy from 2010

Here's the novels that I read from the past year, in descending level of quality by my own estimation.

First Tier: Excellent, future classics. Will stand the test of time as great accomplishments.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
The Habitation of the Blessed by Cathrynne Valente
Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Second Tier: Great. Not perfect, but all of these are beyond usual quality by a significant margin, showing good prose, plotting and an effective central concept.

The House of Discarded Dream by Ekaterina Sedia
Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter
Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
Zendegi by Greg Egan
The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz
Harmony by Project Itoh
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds
Kraken by China Mieville
2017 by Olga Slavnikova
Noise by Darin Bradley
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitcehll
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Sleepless by Charlie Huston
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
Horns by Joe Hill
Antiphon by Ken Scholes
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Deceiver by C. J. Cherryh
Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
The Fixed Stars by Brian Conn
The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett
The Ninth Wave by Russell Celyn Jones
Above the Snowline by Steph Swainston
Up Jim River by Michael Flynn
The Dream of Max & Ronnie by Niall Griffiths
The Third Bear by Jeff Vandermeer
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
White Ravens by Owen Sheers
He Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad
Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregellis
The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod
Light Boxes by Shane Jones

Third tier: Good. More to praise than to condemn about these, although enough limitations that they're unlikely to stand the test of time in the same way as the above, and in some cases severe problems become apparent.

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
Meeks by Julia Holmes
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Evolutionary Void by Peter Hamilton
The Meat Tree by Gwyneth Lewis
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
The Poison Eaters by Holly Black
Zero History by William Gibson
Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire
Chill by Elizabeth Bear
Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett
Black Hills by Dan Simmons
The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
C by Tom McCarthy
The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross
Yarn by John Armstrong
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire
The Waters Rising by Sheri Tepper
A Special Place by Peter Straub
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

Fourth Tier: Bad. Would not recommend any of these, and would not have read these if I'd known the net experience. A range of problems and qualities, from the merely disappointing to the infuriatingly terrible, but these are either a misuse of the author's talent or evidence that the author doesn't possess any.

The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan
The Radleys by Matt Haig
Changes by Jim Butcher
Feed by Seanan McGuire
Blackout by Connie Willis
All Clear by Connie Willis
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Starbound by Joe Haldeman

So, overall the first lesson from this is that it was a high quality array, and in ratio I think better of this collection than I did the 2009 works.

Second, some fun with numbers. 45 of the 82 novels were science fiction, 34 were fantasy and 3 I'd describe as unclassifiable. I noticed in going through this a much higher ratio of the books I considered great were science fiction than fantasy, although it more evenly balanced at the top and bottom of quality. I didn't have as much an impression this year compared with the 2009 reading that many of the most engaging breakout successes were fantasy, while there were a lot of works I enjoyed a lot in fantasy, the SF I read seemed overall better. 37 of the 82 were by authors I had read previous to this project, 45 were new to me. Another aspect that vindicates this project, since I doubt I'd have read more than 10 of the new ones without this focus, and overall they were pretty rewarding.
54 by male authors, 28 by female. Relatively slanted ratio there, not sure how much is caused by published trends or my own pattern of selection within that.

In more subjective terms this appeared to be the year a lot of bigname authors returned with new works, but a lot of them were disappointing. Not entirely--Baxter and Egan were at their usual form, Banks and McDonald were superb, Cherryh was quite good--but there were a number ofre under-performing works from familiar names. Bujold's Cryoburn is perhaps the strongest example of that, because she returned after a long absence to a very rich setting and set of characters, and made what was just minimally competent. Macleod's Restoration Game was a lot better made, but still far under what he's shown himself capable of, and Gibson's Zero History proved a basically unnecessary rephrasing of his earlier triumphs, plus a plot that's forgettable even for him. Add in my very low opinion of Willis' historical retro-epic and Haldeman's indefensibly awful Starbound, and as a whole it doesn't look like the year for trusting long-established major writers. Instead a lot of the greatest surprises and most enjoyable experiences came from relative newcomers, many of them writing for the first time, or writing adult genre for the first time. This seems to indicate that keeping up with the potential for the field involves embracing the newer voices and different techniques. In some areas concepts of the future are just beginning to be uncovered.

For themes this was a good year for apocalyptic fiction, in both overall numbers and relative quality. There were weaker stories in this theme that I read, certainly, most revolving around embracing cliches of the zombie subfield. Yet there were also great books written about the process of collapse (Noise, Cold Earth, Sleepless, 2017) and the weird alternative system that could arise (The Fixed Stars, Who Fears Death, Lightborn, Shipbreaker). It seems to point to a connection with larger cultural circumstances, as the right regrouped and seized major areas of government, new disasters flourished and the future of civilization and consensus derived from this seemed tenuous. Yet many of the authors didn't just use this as a sense of gloom, but took the form of disaster to imagine how the mentality of collapse and aftermath would feel like. In imagining what comes after there's some major hopeful aspects that seem to reclaim the notion of science fiction as a basis for championing human dignity in crucial ways.

Going along with that, in the bigger picture it's surprising how much optimism there across the narratives of this year. There are the range of apocalyptic stories and dystopias, naturally, but also a lot more explicitly utopian content than one would expect--expected in Banks' return to the Culture universe, but also featuring in Harmony's societal reimagining, to an extent in the alternate society of Habitation of the Blessed, and also optimism towards the future that appear in Dervish House, Zendegi, Terminal World and The Golden Age. It's a different atmosphere than last year, impacted so heavily by the appearance of City & the City and Windup Girl, and in seems in certain ways more welcome to hopeful themes.

Of course these generalizations apply more to science fiction that I read than fantasy, about the latter I find it hard to make larger conclusions. Almost every work seems clearly driven by the author's unique stylistic tendencies and larger goals, it seems that on the whole these aren't bodies of work that are in strong dialog with each other. To a large extent this could be my own methodological bias, but I feel that it's possible to compare the contrasting near futures of, say, New Model Army, The Dervish House and Zendegi for the similarities and differences in what they say the future will be like, and how the narratives set out doing this. It's harder to compare, say, Shades of Milk and Honey, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Black Hills, as they're addressing very different areas with separate concerns and sets of internal dialog. Looking through this there are a lot of fantasies that I thought succeeded or failed on the strength of their characterization, the degree to which they rendered main characters caught in unique circumstances as effective human complexities. The House of Discarded Dreams, for instance, which in its specific details brought the work to a much higher level of quality than I would have expected from a plot description. Or take Our Tragic Universe, rather ambiguously genre, and which succeeds entirely in terms of the small everyday aspects that it's able to render. Perhaps the shift I traced from 2009 to 2010 above wasn't so much alterations in the genre as changes in my own reading. It does appear that a lot of the books from 2010, and particularly the ones that I most valued were quieter than I usually expect of science fiction and fantasy. Even many of the apocalypses were intimate instead of noisy (Cold Earth in particular) and The Dream of Perpetual Motion was exceptional in its small-scale focus rather than any wider sociological construct. Perhaps that's why I didn't find Mieville's Kraken anywhere near as good as his earlier books. In its overall rush and thriller plot it seemed somewhat less thoughtful than previous efforts, making him at least in my view out of step with the very best that SFF is producing.

It'll be interesting to see how well this slate of books ages in even five year's time, but at present I'm well pleased with where the field is now and where it seems to be going.