Polyphony is a wonderful anthology series that’s published some of the best speculative fiction out there in recent years – with a specialization in the weird and interstitial. Volume 7 is now available for pre-order at Wheatland Press, and it features a great line-up of writers like Howard Waldrop, Mikal Trimm, and Bruce Holland Rogers. Unfortunately, in the current challenging economic climate, it looks like they won’t be able to publish the book unless they get enough pre-orders. So why not just order your copy now? You get a great book plus you get to feel good about supporting a great small press…
Finishing up my series of posts on recommended speculative fiction from 2009, these are the books published in 2009 that stood out for me. Technically, these span across several categories for both the Nebula and Hugo awards, but I’m covering them all in one foul swoop – so this list includes novels, young adult books, anthologies, and novellas.
- The Love We Share without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak: Mosaic novel set in Japan, centered around a group of friends who form a “suicide club,” an action whose ripple effects we see among friends, family members, and lovers, all brilliantly drawn in Barzak’s prose. These are powerful and haunting tales of loneliness and alienation, with some lovely moments of real connection amidst the loss. The shelving gods have proclaimed Barzak to be “literature,” but the book has several ghosts and enchantments and other touches of magic realism. (Technically, I think this one was published in late 2008, but it’s still eligible for the Nebula under this year’s rules.)
- Finch by Jeff VanderMeer: Detective Finch must solve an unsolvable murder amidst the backdrop of Ambergris, a steampunk city of human beings occupied by the gray caps, their inhuman fungal overlords. VanderMeer delivers every reader cookie you could possibly desire: brilliant world-building, brilliant noir mystery, brilliant prose, and brilliant characterization. One of the most original books I’ve read in recent memory.
- Liar by Justine Larbalestier: Moving to Young Adult territory, this is one of the most sophisticated YA novels I’ve read in a while. From the first sentence, Micah (our beloved hero) tells us that she’s a liar, beginning the ultimate unreliable-narrator tale. Larbalestier masterfully interweaves a tragic romance, the mystery of her sort-of boyfriend’s murder, some fantastic elements that may or may not be real, and the omnipresent uncertainty of everything Micah is telling us. Hard to say more without getting spoiler-y, so just go out and read this book.
- Horn by Peter M. Ball: I only read a handful of novellas this year, but this is the one that stands out. I’ve already gushed about it elsewhere, so I’ll try not to go on too much here. Unicorn noir mystery, featuring a bad-ass lesbian PI who will come back from the dead if that’s what it takes to crack the case.
- Interfictions 2, edited by Christopher Barzak and Delia Sherman: Excellent anthology of “interstitial” stories – stories that blur the boundaries between genres. These stories wonderfully defy expectations, and many of them were among the best stories to come out in 2009. This series is fast-becoming the heir apparent to Polyphony as the hot place to find stories of the interstitial/New Weird/slipstream/gonzo variety.
Other great books from 2009 included Nicholas Kaufmann’s extremely entertaining pulp fiction adventure, Hunt at World’s End; Joe Abercrombie’s sometimes disturbing dark fantasy revenge novel, Best Served Cold; Walter Jon Williams’ near-future thriller of gamers plunged into real-life mystery and intrigue, This is Not a Game; and Booklife, Jeff VanderMeer’s highly useful guide to writing in the 21st century by conquering the internet instead of allowing the internet to conquer you. Top of my remaining to-read list from 2009 include Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door, Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, all of which I’ve heard are excellent.
The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, & Evolution is out now! This anthology of tales of evolution celebrates Darwin’s 200th birthday and includes my story, “On the Entropy of Species,” not to mention great fiction and poetry from Carlos Hernandez, Christopher Green, Brian Stableford, Patricia Russo, Anil Menon, and a slew of other writers from around the globe. It’s edited by Chris Lynch, my Clarion South-mate and co-author of our collaborative story, “This is My Blood.” Chris is fast proving that he’s as skilled as an editor as he is as a writer. The book is not only packed with great fiction, but is also visually stunning, framed by images like this one and by a series of haikus from Sean Williams, each inspired by a different chapter of Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Part 3 of my recommendations of great SF from 2009 – fantasy & scifi on the screen, including film, television, and other miscellaneous forms of dramatized entertainment. (Just wait until you see the miscellaneous.) These are the works that I’ve nominated for the Bradbury Award (basically, the Nebula Award for Dramatic Presentation – technically not a Nebula, but it’s pretty Nebula-like since it’s nominated on voted on by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Some of my recommendations pretty much follow the mainstream, others less so:
- Up: One of my favorite Pixar movies to date, write up there with Wall-E and The Incredibles. So many things I loved about this. The fact that a cranky old guy is the hero (not just a colorful supporting character). The fact that many laws of physics are defied but no one cares because it’s awesome. (E.g., I’m no expert, but you probably can’t walk around pulling along a house held aloft by hundreds of balloons as if it were a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.) And the fact that the metaphorical, character, and plot arcs all come together so beautifully.
- Doctor Who – “The Waters of Mars”: I’m a recent convert to Doctor Who and this special was one of the strongest from the show. I love that they’re pushing David Tennant’s Doctor to such challenging new places before he takes his final bow. And, as they’ve done in many Doctor Who episodes, they’ve taken something ordinary – water – and made it disturbingly horrific.
- Pontypool: This independent film is sort of a sophisticated zombie apocalypse story. The premise is that you are infected with insanity not by a blood or saliva, but by the English language itself – certain words carry the virus. Wonderfully original surreal science fiction horror. If you can find a way to see it, then do so.
- District 9: Despite some drawbacks, this was one of the most sophisticated and thought-provoking pure science fiction movies to come out in a while. Broke a lot of new ground for SF on screen.
- Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” Music Video: Yes, Lady Gaga. This is a ground-breaking pop music video akin to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and like “Thriller” it is firmly rooted in the SF genre, drawing on traditions of horror, science fiction, and surrealism. In five minutes Lady Gaga makes a stonger artistic statement than James Cameron does in 162 minutes of Avatar. I know I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, so I may need to write an entire post on this one…
So those are my personal top five dramatic presentations in SF from 2009. The new Star Trek movie was also entertaining, but not much more than that – and I do hope for more than just entertaining when it comes to Trek. Despite my swipe at Avatar, I found that entertaining too, and I was very happy any time I was watching luminescent alien landscapes in 3D. But the story and characters were just not interesting enough to put it in my personal top five. This year’s Harry Potter movie was my favorite to date and probably would have made my top five if there weren’t such other good contenders this year.
I also am waiting to catch up on Season 4 of Doctor Who before watching David Tennant’s final appearance, otherwise that one might have made it too. Similar note for Torchwood: Children of Earth and Moon – heard they’re both excellent but haven’t seen them yet. And, lastly, oh how I wish the last episode of Battlestar Galactica had been even worth considering for a nomination, because it was a really awesome show up until that disappointment…
Still to come: recommended books, and possibly a note on why we should enthusiastically embrace Lady Gaga as a member of the science fiction community.
Continuing with my recommendations of high-quality speculative fiction from 2009, here’s my personal list of recommended novelettes. As with the short stories, my reading hasn’t been anywhere near comprehensive, but these are long-short-stories I read this year that have really stuck with me:
- “The Gambler,” by Paolo Bacigalupi, Fast Forward 2. Interesting near-future tale about a reporter trying to cover stories of extinct butterflies in a new media world that’s only concerned with the dating life of the latest pop culture icon. Definitely a near-near-future story, but Bacigalupi’s characters and prose make this one a keeper.
- “I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said,” Richard Bowes, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A queer (in both senses of the word) and haunting Phillip K. Dickish tale that blurs the line between speculative fiction and autobiography.
- “The Score,” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Interfictions 2. Highly original story of a rock star/peace activist, whose death leaves behind a complicated legacy for his friends and allies. Not to mention the intermittent cameos his ghost keeps making. Told in the entertaining form of blogs, emails, instant messages, and transcipts.
- “A Wild and Wicked Youth,” by Ellen Kushner, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. High fantasy tale of swordsmanship and youthful friendship against the backdrop of a richly detailed and convincing feudalistic world with a rigid class structure.
- “Eros, Philia, Agape,” by Rachel Swirsky, Tor.com. This story provides all the joys of a classic Isaac Asimov robot story, but updated for the 21st century with wonderfully sophisticated characterization, prose, and social insight on the complexities of possession, love, and individuality.
More recs coming soon!
It’s that time of year whenst folks are reflecting back on 2009 and thinking about nominations for awards and the like. Thus year, for the first time I’m actually participating in Nebula and Hugo award nominations, a task I am leaping into with both gleeful abandon and a deep weight of responsibility. These are some of my favorite SF short stories from last year:
- “Superhero Girl,” by Jessica Lee, Fantasy Magazine. An original twist on the superhero story, masterfully woven with ambiguity. This is Lee’s first published story, and it’s an impressive debut. Audio version also available at Podcastle.
- “Clockwork, Patchwork, and Ravens,” by Peter M. Ball, Apex Magazine. Wonderful steampunk tale with a memorable clockwork narrator. Not surprisingly, Peter recently picked up an Aurealis award for this one, one of several strong pieces from him this year. (BTW, for those keeping track, this one clocks in at just under 7,500 words, just missing the novelette category.)
- “Interviews After the Revolution,” by Brian Francis Slattery, Interfictions 2. An elite international circuit party in the midst of revolution and music in Latin America, told in the form of a documentary. Everything Brian Francis Slattery writes seems to be brilliant.
- “Marsh Gods,” by Ann Leckie, Strange Horizons. Domestic strife, warring gods, and ancient covenants. Brilliant world-building. Audio version also available at Podcastle.
- “Reservations,” by Christopher Green, Expanded Horizons. Lovely magic realism story. Chris had a bunch of great pieces this year but this is the one that most sticks with me.
- “The Film-makers of Mars,” by Geoff Ryman, Tor.com. This brilliant story only served to fan the flames of my secret crush on Geoff Ryman. Did I say that out loud?
For short-shorts, I highly recommend The Daily Cabal, which has a steady output of quality short-shorts from Dan Braum, Jason Fischer, Angela Slatter, Jeremiah Tolbert, and others. One of my favorites this year was Fischer’s “Inventory,” a story in the form of a classic 80s adventure game. GO READ.
Interesting that my list has a fair bit of overlap with Rachel Swirsky’s recent recs, which more than anything probably reflects that we have similar tastes.
Many great stories came out this year, and these are just a few of the ones that have really stuck with me. – not at all exhaustive, especially considering there’s tons of great stuff out there I haven’t even read!
Coming soon: novelette, novella, and book recommendations, plus my controversial recommendations for the year’s best SF on-screen.