2010 Novels: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year So Far?
As the SF/Fantasy awards season for 2009 winds down--the Hugo Awards were just announced this past week--it’s time to take a look at 2010. This year, thus far, has been very different. A kind of sea-change has occurred, with the majority of the best work coming from relatively new voices rather than established writers. This insurgency hasn’t been in the service of a movement or a particular subgenre, and perhaps it’s more powerful because of being non-denominational. In a year with four good months still to go, some astonishingly talented writers have published wonderful and worthy work. Will this new energy be reflected come next year’s award season? One can only hope.
Here, then, in no particular order other than the alphabetical, is a list of my personal "best of 2010," to date. No fewer than six are first novels, and not all of them are without flaws, but they represent the most exciting and interesting SF/F I’ve read so far—admittedly, with a fair amount of reading left to go.
The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz – Earlier this year, in the preamble to an interview with Ajvaz, I wrote that the novel was a “a modern-day Gulliver's encounter with a civilization on a tiny island in the Atlantic. At the center of the islanders' culture is the Book, a handwritten, collective novel "filled with feuding royal families, murderous sorcerers, and narrow escapes." Because anyone can write in it and annotate it and cross passages out, the Book has lost most of the linear tendencies that rule the pages of normal (but mere) books. The result is a text of stories within stories and a destabilization of narrative that's as playful as it is fascinating.”
Noise by Darin Bradley – This first novel takes as its premise that, in the aftermath of the switch from analog to digital TV, an anarchic movement known as Salvage hijacks the unused airwaves. Mixed in with the static’s random noise are dire warnings of the imminent economic, political, and social collapse of civilization—and cold-blooded lessons on how to survive the fall and prosper in the harsh new order that will inevitably arise from the ashes of the old. Writer Paul Jessup has called Noise "Little Brother meets Lord of the Flies meets Heart of Darkness meets Mad Max and the Road Warrior meets Letham," and that’s probably as good a description as any. It’s a cruel little knife-strike of a book, in the best possible way.
The Fixed Stars by Brian Conn – Perhaps the epitome of a cross-genre novel, The Fixed Stars is a remarkable debut that burrows into your brain and transforms it. What is it about? Where is it set? Well, the future, to some degree, but the future slantwise. It’s difficult to describe, so I’ll cheat and use the back cover text: “At the novel’s heart are the John’s Day celebration and the interactions of a small community dealing with a mystery disease. Routinely citizens are quarantined and then reintegrated into society in rituals marked by a haunting brutality... Conn delivers a compelling portrait of a calamitous era, one tormented by pestilence, disease, violence, and post-late capitalism.” Ultimately, the book eludes easy comparison with any other novel. (Many thanks to Brian Evenson for pointing this one out to me.)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin – In an Omni feature on this debut novel, also of unusual power, I wrote, “The protagonist, Yeine Darr, is one of the most compelling I've read in recent years, and Jemisin quickly embroils her in a complex political situation. Darr is summoned to the city of Sky after her mother's mysterious death. There, the king names her one of the heirs to the throne, putting her into conflict with cousins she's just met. Complicating matters, the rulers of this world harness the powers of gods and goddesses...and they are as shifty and contradictory and real to the reader as the other characters. What most impressed me about the novel is Jemisin's ability to show the reader real human emotion and depth in her characters without descending into sentimentality. Equally impressive is her ability to convey the particulars of a complex political and social situation in a clear and concise way without being didactic.”
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord – As I wrote in the NYTBR, “Lord’s first novel is a clever, exuberant mix of Caribbean and Senegalese influences that balances riotously funny set pieces (many involving talking insects) with serious drama initiated by meddlesome supernatural beings.” I have to admit to serious belly laughs during the initial scenes, which then transitioned into a real engagement with the drama of the narrative. Lord’s narrative voice is so assured that she manages to include wonderful digressions and authorial intrusions that always build layers of story. I just loved this novel to death.
The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen - Back in January, I reviewed this great novel in the LA Times and wrote, “Set in the Depression-era Midwest, Thomas Mullen's second novel...tells a rip-roaring yarn that manages to be both phantasmagorical and historically accurate. In its labyrinthine, luminous narrative, reminiscent of Michael Chabon's best fiction, readers will find powerful parallels to the present-day. The Firefly Brothers, bank robbers Jason and Whit Fireson, wake in a police station morgue after having been shot dead. They do not remember what happened. Confused but undeterred, they escape and embark on a crime spree intended to bring in enough cash to disappear for good.” Unfortunately, this novel is likely to get overlooked by virtue of an early release date and its lovely teetering between reality and fantasy.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor – Featured on Omnivoracious through an interview conducted by Matthew Cheney, Okorafor’s third novel takes place in a future Africa and tackles difficult issues like female circumcision while providing an ingenious and unique story. As Cheney wrote, “It tells the story of Onyesonwu, a woman of extraordinary powers in a post-apocalyptic West Africa, a world of perils and mysteries, of lost technologies and brutal wars. Onyesonwu's name means ‘Who fears death?’, and her birth was the result of rape used as a weapon in battle; this legacy affects the woman she becomes, and the novel portrays her education as a sorceress and her quest to bring order and peace to her life and world.” Okorafor employs some very sophisticated narrative techniques that manage to surprise without seeming manipulative.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer – Earlier this year, I wrote in the NYTBR that “In his tragicomic first novel [the author] takes elements from Nabokov, Neal Stephenson, Steven Millhauser and 'The Tempest,' tosses them into a retro-futuristic blender and hits “purée.” The result is a singular riff on steampunk---sophisticated, subversive entertainment that never settles for escapism.” The rest of the review lavished praise while also pointing out a few problems I thought I had with the book. However, much like Marcel Theroux's Far North, which I initially had some issues with but then wound up putting on my best-of-the-decade list, the novel has stuck in my head and I can’t get it out.
How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu – There are so many, many things I love about Yu’s first novel. The level of invention and re-invention and inspired recycled “cooking” of SF tropes and the SF time travel stories could be the subject of an entire book review. The beautiful way that Yu layers in the protagonist’s relationship with his missing father could fill out another review. The scenes in which this alternate “Charles Yu” visits other universes and times are both matter-of-fact and visionary. That Yu’s managed to do all of this in the short span that it would take many another novelist to just warm up and rev his or her engines is remarkable. The best review I’ve yet seen, in terms of engaging with the novel’s many layers, appeared recently in the NYTBR, written by Ander Monson.
Also definitely worth your time and attention are Karin Lowachee's The Gaslight Dogs ("a rich, morally ambiguous novel" and Ian McDonald's The Dervish House ("an audacious look at the shift in the power centers of the world"), both of which I discussed in the NYTBR's recent SF Chronicle, as well as Julia Holmes' Meeks, to which I hope to devote a full-on Omnivoracious post in the near future.
Among the novels to be released between now and the end of the year, I’m especially looking forward to Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy, Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams, Richard Kadrey's Kill the Dead, Catherynne M. Valente's The Habitation of the Blessed, Jon Armstrong's Yarn, Orly Castel-Bloom’s Dolly City (reprint), and N.K. Jemisin’s follow-up to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms.
Not yet read but already released: Daniel Homan's The Queen of Hearts, Jean-Christophe Valiat's Aurorarama, Joshua Cohen's Witz, Ian McEwan’s Solar, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Adam Roberts’ New Model Army, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker. Meanwhile, juggernauts including China Mieville’s Kraken, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter all had their moments, but somehow just didn’t catch fire for me on a first read. As for short story collections, I’ll cover those in a separate post later in the year.
So, Omnivoracious readers: What are your own SF/F favorites of 2010 thus far? And what else should I be reading?