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Best Books of 2010: Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Selections, Focus on Nos. 1--5

Amazon’s 2010 Science Fiction/Fantasy Top 10 List has just been posted:

#1 - The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive Press)
#2 - How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (Pantheon)
#3 - Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord (Small Beer Press)
#4 - The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman (Tor)
#5 - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
#6 - The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich (Two Dollar Radio)
#7 - The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer (St. Martin's Press)
#8 - Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)
#9 - The Fixed Stars by Brian Conn (Fiction Collective 2)
#10 - Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey (Eos)

 You can also find the bestseller/readers list for the year here.

As the list above suggests, in 2010 several debut or relative new writers published strong sui generis novels, alongside outstanding work by a few established authors, and helped spark a mini-SF/fantasy renaissance. Most of all of these fictions are cross-genre in some way, and blend diverse influences to create exciting new innovations or renovations. For the first time since the early aughts, the field seems poised for a complete overhaul, and a raucous re-envisioning of non-realist fiction. Some of this energy comes from an explosion of multicultural and international influence. Some of it comes from the melding of experimental fiction and fantasy. Some of it has occurred because of a true blurring of the lines between the so-called “literary” and “genre”, from both “sides.” Many of the writers on this list will go on to re-define the field in future years while others will continue to act as important subversives on the fringes of genre, who by their continued presence influence other writers who themselves influence the field.

Readers who like edgy science fiction and fantasy should be happy that such a variety of material is available to them in an era of continued consolidation within large publishing companies, and much of it from those commercial houses. Independent presses, too, have continued to perform their most important role: creating space for writers who might not otherwise get published but have something valuable to say.

I also want to mention briefly three books not covered here: Michael Cisco's The Narrator, which I didn't discover until late, Lauren Beukes' Zoo City, which isn't eligible until next year but would've been a strong contender, and Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief , not yet been published in the U.S.

For more on the #6-#10 selections, read my prior post. The top 5 are covered below. I'll also touch on other worthy SF/Fantasy novels from 2010 in a separate post next week.

#1 – The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive Press)

“Michal Ajvaz is a literary magician creating worlds of worlds, worlds of words, worlds of objects. He is the fantastical baby of Borges and Timothy Leary. He is a cartographer on mescaline. He is Czech.” – Salonica

Ajvaz is a true original, imbued with a sense of the absurd and perverse that is pure Czech, but inasmuch as his The Golden Age has antecedents, you would have to point to Borges, Calvino, and, to a lesser extent, Swift. Earlier this year, in the preamble to an interview with Ajvaz, I wrote that the novel was “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.” But this book, in the way it continues to circle round to the culture of the island through various sources, including eyewitness accounts, and the way in which it describes the encounter of Europeans with the island’s inhabitants, is much more than a travelogue. It is fiction as philosophy and history, a book that manages to be beautiful and profound and funny and exciting all at once: a classic of modern fantasy, fully engaged with modern questions and concerns. You can read an extended interview with Ajvaz from earlier in the year right here on Omnivoracious.

Sample Lines: “The Europeans continued to hold to mathematics, even after they began to perceive mathematical equations and calculations as bizarre dramas…The Europeans were made nauseous by multiplication because now they perceived it as a diseased swelling, a proliferation anterior to any kind of sense and order…Subtraction was the saddest of all: they saw in it the falling off of sick pieces, a kind of arithmetical leprosy, a crumbling that turned shapes into dust, that led down another path to nothingness.”

#2 – How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (Pantheon)

“Funny, touching, and weirdly beautiful. This book is awesome.” – Nick Harkaway

Charles Yu’s first novel is an intricate, funny, and often sad book about a dysfunctional relationship between a father and a son set against a backdrop of unbelievably amazing SFnal ideas. There are so many, many things I love about How to Live…. The level of invention and re-invention and inspired recycled “cooking” of SF tropes and SF time travel stories could be the subject of an entire book review. The beautiful way that Yu layers in the protagonist’s relationships 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  is remarkable. I agree with Lev Grossman’s assessment as well: “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a triumph, as good as anything in Calvino or Stanislaw Lem.”

Sample Lines: “Time isn’t an orderly stream. Time isn’t a placid lake recording each of our ripples. Time is viscous. Time is a massive flow. It is a self-healing substance, which is to say, almost everything will be lost. We’re too slight, too inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about. Time is an ocean of inertia, drowning out the small vibrations, absorbing the slosh and churn, the foam and wash, and we’re up here, flapping and slapping and just generally spazzing out, and sure, there’s a little bit of splashing on the surface, but that doesn’t even register in the depths…”

#3 – Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord (Small Beer Press)

“The impish love child of Tutuola and Garcia Garcia Marquez. Utterly delightful.” – Nalo Hopkinson

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. The catalyst? Ansige, a glutton of historic proportions, travels to the hometown of his estranged wife, Paama, to persuade her to return to him. Complications ensue because of Ansige’s urge to eat anything he encounters on his journey. Lord, however, also weaves into these scenes the story of Ansige’s relationship with Paama, showing his charm as well as his stupidity. Ansige’s visit sets off an intricate series of events…Throughout, Lord manages to compress her story while balancing the cosmic and the personal--all with a verve that would be the envy of many veteran novelists.” 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. I just loved this novel to death.

Sample Lines: “I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit. My answer is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known?”

       Half-made world 
 #4 – The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman (Tor)

“Vivid and accurate prose, a gripping, imaginative story, a terrifically inventive setting, a hard-bitten, indestructible hero, and an intelligent, fully adult heroine. We haven’t had a science fiction novel like this for a long time.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

In a secondary world directly commenting on the idea of Manifest Destiny, Felix Gilman’s third novel is his best, and a somewhat stunning mix of Cormac McCarthy and Steampunk. Servants of the Gun wield weapons inhabited by demons. Servants of the Line serve intelligent and malevolent locomotives. The First Folk, who appear to have a kind of rejuvenating immortality, suffer from the machinations of both groups, including the ignorance of settlers. The Gun and the Line are at war, with the Line always inexorably winning. But, there was once a third way, a Republic defended by a General who relied in part on advice from the First Folk. The General has since gone mad from one of the Line’s bombs, but retains knowledge that might stop the Line, shut down the Gun—or might help either group gain ultimate power. Gilman’s novel is morally and ethically complicated in the best possible way. It also features transcendent descriptions of setting and of the Unmade part of the world beyond the Line. The novel is part one of a duology that will end with more revelations and, no doubt, more ambiguity.

Sample Lines: “Creedmoor’s face went red and the veins on his neck bulged. He drew his Gun and he fired again and again into the rocks, shattering them into bloodred dust; he was screaming in rage and the Gun was screaming, too, in its way; she could not tell which one controlled the other.”

#5- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

“A complex, edge-of-your-seat story with plenty of funny, scary, and bittersweet twists.” – Publishers Weekly

N.K. Jemisin has single-handedly revitalized the heroic fantasy genre, creating a debut novel of rare complexity and depth, one that has both world-spanning breadth and the kind of attention to the detail with regard to characters, and the constraints on them, that leads to a very personal reading experience. In an Omni feature on this debut novel, 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.” Late this year, I also received the follow-up, The Broken Kingdoms, which is equally good if not better than the first novel.

Sample Lines: “When the Nightlord sagged to the ground, dropping Sieh in the process, I nearly fell with them. I had no idea why I was still alive. The tales of the Araremi’s weapons are full of them slaughtering whole armies. There are no stories of crazed barbarian girls fighting back.”


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