A hush fell across the world of genre fiction in 2004: a holding of breath while waiting for the next big thing the next new movement, the next new star, the next new paradigm. By year's end, everyone was still waiting, probably because the Next Wave won't break until sometime between this year and 2007, with several potentially remarkable authors due to appear on the scene with first books.
Debuts of note were generally over-hyped and far weaker in reality than in reviews. Individual books of extraordinary quality, using a breathtaking variety of approaches, tended to come from established authors. All in all, a very good year for fantastical fiction.
The Best Novels of the Year
Six novels published in 2004 demonstrated unusual levels of achievement, skill, and bravado, presented here in alphabetical order by author:
- Clare Dudman's One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead
- Leena Krohn's Tainaron
- China Miéville's Iron Council
- David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas
- Philip Roth's The Plot Against America
- Gene Wolfe's The Knight
Of these six, Dudman's often dreamlike and surreal One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead (Viking) came the closest to perfection and, in its delving into the life of the creator of the continental drift theory, Alfred Wegener, serves as both a rousing Arctic adventure and a love song to science. The novel is saturated in science. Take, for example, these lines of reverie about an old book:
It is a printed copy I hold now, a late edition, the famous Parisian one of 1545. The paper is cream, thick, wizened with age, and the printing is imperfect some of the curved Latin letters have bled a little from their molded fonts for this is a new art, not yet properly mastered. The owners of these tables have made notes, and with time the ink has become a gentle sepia, unobtrusive, part of the book. I too am adding part of myself to the pages: oils are leaking from the skin of my hands and molecules of fat are smearing themselves invisibly on its surface. Part of the book is also becoming part of me: some of the ink is leaching minutely from the paper and into my pores, and some of the grains of the paper are detaching themselves, floating into the air and being drawn irretrievably into my lungs. In these small ways we are blending together, the wizard and his book of spells.
Dudman infuses the every-day world, through Wegener's eyes, with a sense of wonder, and makes the profoundly mysterious connections that inhabit so much of the best fabulist fiction. The stark, distant beauty of the Arctic settings contrasted to the intimate way in which Dudman details the relationship of Wegener to his initially more famous brother, and to Wegener's wife, who has to deal with Wegener's addiction to his studies is pitch-perfect in detail. The structure, weaving in and out of various scenes from Wegener's life, works perfectly to illuminate the motivating core of a man misunderstood during his lifetime. Nothing fantastical occurs in One Day, and yet, in so many ways, almost at the sub-atomic level, the novel reads like a fantasist writing historical fiction.
Leena Krohn's Tainaron (Prime Books), a translation from the original Finnish, consists of thirty letters written by an anonymous narrator visiting the city of Tainaron a metropolis populated by human-sized intelligent insects. Metastasized as a mini-series for the SF Channel, Tainaron would no doubt become B-movie material, but Krohn is a writer of the first rank comparable to Kafka, or a more generous Lem. The novel contains scenes of startling beauty and strangeness that change how the reader sees the world. Krohn effortlessly melds the literal with the metaphorical, so that the narrator's exploration of the city through its inhabitants encompasses both the speculation of science fiction and the resonant symbolism of the surreal.
For that reason, Tainaron resembles M. John Harrison's Viriconium more than a city in Middle Earth. At one point, the narrator's guide, Longhorn literally, a giant longhorn beetle takes her to the top of an observation tower, in response to her request for a map. From the summit, they look out over Tainaron and she discovers it is in constant flux:
[the buildings'] outlines looked so indefinite... it seems strangely as if some of them were in motion... all that could be seen where the crenellations of towers and blocks had meandered were mere ruins... in place of the former construction, new forms began to appear, softly curving mall complexes, flights of stairs that still ended in air, solitary spiral towers and colonnades which progressed meanderingly toward the empty shore...
"And this goes on all the time, incessantly," [Longhorn said.] "Tainaron is not a place, as you perhaps think. It is an event which no one measures. It is no use anyone trying to make maps. It would be a waste of time and effort."
In addition to the sometimes horrifying images of a city that is actually an event self-immolating insects, in worship of some ideal; a funeral subculture centered on dung beetles Tainaron contains a strong undercurrent of emotion. Krohn's genius is to use the homesickness and oblique personal information in the letters to substitute masterfully for more conventional character development. This excellent translation deserves the widest possible audience.
More literal, but often just as compelling, China Miéville's Iron Council (Del Rey/Pan Macmillan) maintains the high level of invention and imagination of the author's previous novels while exhibiting a much more mature style and a more personal approach to characterization. Iron Council is often heart-breaking, and always scathingly honest. We love characters like Cutter and Judah as much for their flaws as their deeds even as we marvel at a cavalcade of wonderful creatures. (Additional delights, like the Tesh's supernal war against New Crobuzon, the enigma of The Stain, and the machinations of the gangster Toro, provide added layers.)
Set in the same milieu as Perdido Street Station and The Scar, Iron Council follows the attempted construction of a railroad across the continent, an attempt interrupted when the workers take over the train and turn it into a moving rebellion the Iron Council of the title. For many years, the train never stops, track picked up from behind it to feed its progress forward:
Through an opening-up of earth, like a bacillus... infecting landscape, came the Iron Council. A steaming and sniffing metal animal god... Wherever it went it was intruder. It was never part of the land. It was an incursion of history in stubby hillside woodland and the thicker tree-pelt of real forest, valleys between mountains, canyon-plains horned randomly with monadnocks...
The novel begins with an exciting, sometimes harrowing journey by a ragged band of would-be revolutionaries who hope to find the now-mythic Iron Council years after its creation. Iron Council then switches its focus to nascent rebellion in New Crobuzon and spirals backward to show the development of both the Council and Judah, before continuing on into the present once again.
Miéville's decision to split open the middle of Iron Council and insert Judah's story has proven trying for some readers and reviewers. However, this decision is not only essential for Iron Council's integrity as the novel; it also yields the best sustained writing Miéville has ever done. The skill Miéville demonstrates is masterful using mostly summary and half-scene to provide a complex portrait of a man who will attain mythic, almost messianic dimensions in later years.
The ultimate fate of the Iron Council touches us emotionally only because Miéville had the daring to slow his narrative long enough to tell Judah's story. The political content of the novel both personal and historical also works well because most of the characters are activists of one kind or another whose core identity is wedded to that activism.
While the last seventy pages of Iron Council may overwhelm an already half-exhausted reader with too many new images and battles, the novel ends where it began: with the focus firmly on the lives and passions of its characters. Iron Council suggests that Miéville has acquired new levels of discipline and skill to complement his miraculous imagination.
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (Random House) couldn't be more different in style and approach than Iron Council, but it is in some ways thematically similar. While Miéville focuses (in part) on the will to power, corruption, and the animal nature of human beings through the microscope of characters populating a fully realized secondary world, Mitchell investigates these same themes through a macro-lens, with interrelated stories spanning over 200 years of human history. Cloud Atlas chronicles the adventures of a 19th century voyager, a conniving would-be composer in Belgium in the 1920s, a journalist investigating nuclear malfeasance in 1980s California, a vanity press publisher in the present day, and, in the science fiction sections, a renegade replicant in a consumer society run amok and a future Pacific Islander bearing witness to the nightfall of civilization.
One of Mitchell's most inspired ideas is to break open each story, with half placed before the book's middle section the future Pacific Islander story, told in dialect and half placed after. This allows for Cloud Atlas' innovative connectivity to become ever denser and more emotionally satisfying. It also creates a series of natural cliffhangers that increase tension. By the denouement, deposited back into the opening narrative (the adventures of the 19th century voyager) our perspective has been lengthened and deepened, every action shadowed by what comes after. In a way, Mitchell has evoked the traditional SF "sense of wonder" by novel's end.
In fact, Mitchell's book is quintessentially "SF" in its ever-probing, speculative approach to narrative, no matter how unconventional (unconventional, that is, unless you remember such avant-garde experiments as Stand on Zanzibar). This applies on a specific as well as a general level. The interview with a servant-clone sentenced to death, for example, juxtaposes the emotional intensity and clarity of the character's responses against the near-satirical abomination of a consumer-capitalist society spinning out of control. Those genre reviewers who found this section unconvincing in its depiction of the future are right. Because, on a purely metaphysical level, we are very close to living in Mitchell's future right now. The real problem isn't that Mitchell's vision is false, but that we are too far within the belly of consumerism to realize how it might look from the outside, or perhaps just too unaccustomed to satire being stirred into the coffee of our SF realism.
Mitchell also displays true mastery in the changes of tone and style between sections. Without these shifts, Cloud Atlas would not be convincing. Consider the subtle difference between a portion of a letter from the would-be composer and the interview of a renegade replicant from one of the science fiction sections:
Ayres naps through the afternoon heat. I continue to sift the library for treasure, compose in the music-room, read manuscripts in the garden (Madonna lilies, crowns imperial, red-hot pokers, hollyhocks, all blooming bright), navigate lanes around Neerbeke on the bicycle, or ramble across local fields. Am firm friends with the village dogs. They gallop after me like the Pied Piper's rats or brats.
Yoona attempted to xplain the meaning of a newfound word, secret. The concept of knowing something no-one else knew, not even Papa Song, was unthinkable. So Yoona, one night after the shift, as we sat steam-cleaning, promised to show me a secret.
The virtuoso stylistic performance would be pointless, however, if not for the complexity and compelling nature of the characters some of them doomed, some of them hopeful, some of them deluded about their place in the world, and some of them, like the vanity publisher, possessing a keen sense of the absurd. Cloud Atlas is a sprawling yet tightly controlled novel. Sometimes I found it to be too tightly controlled, but it's a marvelous achievement nonetheless.
Another renegade from the "literary" mainstream, Philip Roth's alternate history novel The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin) functions not only as a chilling step-by-step account of how a democracy could descend into fascism, but also as a keenly observed account of a boy growing up in a Jewish-American New Jersey community in the 1940s. Roth's reasoning for how Charles Lindbergh, an anti-Semite, thwarts FDR's bid for a third term and falls in league with the Nazis might have seemed slightly absurd before the rather arbitrary events that have occurred in the United States over the past few years.
The genius of The Plot Against America lies in Roth's uncanny ability to mesh historical and personal elements while rarely lecturing the reader. Roth's decision to tell the novel from his point of view as a youth is largely responsible for the effortlessness of the plot. The boy's daily concerns make the ominous historical events gathering in the distance all the more sinister, if, at first, remote.
However, they don't remain remote for long, and if some have found legitimate fault in Roth's basic premise regarding Lindbergh's ascension to the presidency, I don't see any basis for a similar criticism of Roth's mastery of detail at the micro level.
For example, consider the economy and subtlety of Just Folks, a program created by Lindbergh that sends Jewish youth off to rural farm locations on the pretense of benign cultural assimilation but that instead serves to alienate young Jews from their parents and their culture. Or, Lindbergh's second government program as envisioned by Roth, in which Jewish families working for insurance companies and other businesses with branch offices are relocated to isolated parts of the country in an effort to dilute their political, social, and economic power.
Such is Roth's brilliance that the almost gentle and matter-of-fact explanations given for both programs show how evil can be masked by the right terminology how a government can use Orwellian doublespeak to get its citizenry to accept war upon its own ranks. In the end, as personal trauma and public trauma collide, Roth's childhood becomes a reflection of the greater world:
My father arrived some twenty minutes later. Mr. Tirschwell handed him the note I'd written to get myself into the theater, but my father didn't take the time to read it until he had steered me by the elbow out of the theater and into the street. That's when he hit me. First my mother hits my brother, now my father reads the words of Sister Mary Catherine and, for the first time ever, wallops me, without restraint, across the face. As I am already overwrought and nothing like as stoical as [my brother] I break down uncontrollably alongside the ticket booth, in plain view of all the Gentiles hurrying home from their downtown offices for a carefree spring weekend in Lindbergh's peacetime America, the autonomous fortress oceans away from the world's war zones where no one is in jeopardy except us.
The Plot Against America appears to end abruptly, and in narrative chaos, but it is difficult to tell whether this is a fault of the novel or a fault of history.
The Roth, the Mitchell, and the Miéville all share a political element that sides with individuals over repressive institutions, while also acknowledging the individual's role in repression. All three books have endings in which traces of the didactic surface; in each, the author cannot help a little lecturing, a little posturing, although not so much as to hurt the reader's appreciation of the work.
But there is one last novel in which no apparent lecturing indeed, no posturing of any kind occurs, and yet almost every page of its length could be said to include a message about personal responsibility. It is also a novel in which the resonance and depth of images has been forsaken in favor of a kind of moment-to-moment three-dimensional life on the page. That book is Gene Wolfe's The Knight (Tor Books), set in a quasi-Nordic mythos milieu into which a boy from our world stumbles, only to become Sir Able, the knight of the title.
At first glance, The Knight seems both more rambling and less relevant than the other, tightly structured novels on my list. But The Knight is such an impressive example of a quest/coming-of-age saga that, although it does not ascend to the heights of Wolfe's previous classics such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus or The Book of the New Sun (and let's be honest how galling it must be to have every new novel you write compared to canonical works of one's own devising), it comes very close to that level. It, like Krohn's Tainaron, has its focus firmly set on universal questions and truths rather than any conscious desire to comment on present-day politics or power systems.
A perfect set of secondary characters from a talking cat to a monster dog enhances The Knight, providing both comedy and gravitas. The narrator's distance from the story is perfect just close enough for immediacy, just far enough away for reflection:
There was one other thing, and I am going to talk about it, too. I knew I was just a kid inside. Toug always did think that I was a man, even when I told him I was not. His father thought I was a man, too....younger than he was, but a man, and I was a lot bigger. I knew it was not true, it was just something [a faery] had done, and I was really a kid. There were lots of times when I wanted to cry. That time when I was coming up on those outlaws and looking for men behind rocks or up in the trees...that was one of them. There was another one when I really did cry, and I'll tell you about it in a minute. When you are a kid and you are in a tight place like I was you cannot ever admit it, because if you ever once admit it everything is going to come loose.
The more I read, the more entranced I became with Wolfe's creation, and the simple clarity of his prose; by the time I had finished The Knight, I looked forward to The Wizard with great anticipation.
However, because The Knight exists so much in the moment I found The Wizard to be repetitive and thus inferior to it, even though, as has been widely noted, Wolfe meant for the two books to be published as one novel. In this particular case, the economic decision to split it into two books may have been good for reader perceptions of The Wizard Knight. It might be difficult to reach back into memory to keep track of all the character names when beginning the second volume, but it also gives the reader a break from the grimly trudging-forward quality to the narrative. Able's "ascension" (I'm being deliberately vague so as not to give away a plot point) makes his character somehow less compelling and immediate, while the events portrayed in The Wizard seem more familiar than those in The Knight. It is a testament to how fascinating I found Able that when, as occurs in The Wizard, Able describes events he didn't observe directly, I just didn't care as much. Wonders aplenty exist in The Wizard, too, but it will be some time before it is clear just how well the books work as a whole.
Other Novels of Note
Several novels in 2004 fell under the category of flawed but good reads. First and foremost among these was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury) by Susanna Clarke. The hype surrounding Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell doesn't concern me as much as the novel's overly long midsection, in which Strange slowly comes to discover things already revealed to the reader by Clarke many pages earlier. In a very real sense, the reader waits around for hundreds of pages, sustained by some lovely but ultimately irrelevant set pieces. The mannered prose, distancing the reader from the characters, is at first delightful... but then progressively less so, until by the end I wondered if Clarke had made a tactical error in using a style so consistent that it lacked the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.
That said, the central situation involving an evil faery, a severed finger, and an enchantment, generates pathos rather than bathos, the later sections in Venice are often compelling and uncommonly strange, many of the side stories are extremely entertaining (and will sustain some readers through the sagging middle), and all of the glimpses of the enigmatic Raven King are wonderful.
Also sharing an interest in faery, Elizabeth Hand's Mortal Love (Morrow), might just be the most beautifully written novel of the year. There are stunning passages in Mortal Love, some of which I read aloud to capture the cadence of the language. Mortal Love also contains perhaps the most sensual and sumptuous sex scene I've ever read. However, it shares some of the same structural problems as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell once again, the reader waits over many long pages, including an intricately detailed yet largely irrelevant series of flashback scenes with a separate set of characters, for the main character to discover what the reader has already been told. Admittedly, Hand's "reveal" is accomplished with a wink and a nod rather than the detailed schematics provided by Clarke, but it still robs Mortal Love of urgency. Coupled with a hurried and somewhat anti-climactic ending, this deficiency hurts an otherwise remarkable novel.
Even so, Mortal Love contains prose myriad pleasures and sharp characterization and in prose so passionate yet controlled that it makes Clarke's Jonathan Strange seem ever so much more remote by comparison.
Lucius Shepard's Viator (Night Shade Books), meanwhile, held me spellbound for 165 of its 180 pages. The tale of Thomas Wilander, a man sent to salvage a grounded freighter on the Alaskan coast, much of Viator is a lush, surreal masterpiece either a descent into madness or a descent into lucidity, depending on your interpretation. There's an amazing sequence in which the very rust patterns on the inside of the ship's hull seem to form the outline of another land. Wilander's relationship with a woman in a nearby town is understated and illuminated by a wistful melancholy.
But the book's ending even as a decoy on Shepard's part failed to convince me. In a sense I felt as if I'd just read Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," only for it to conclude with a government agent knocking on Gregor's door and telling him his condition had been caused by "a new top-secret government Transformation Ray, all apologies, and we'll change you back right now." The very existence of an explanation where no explanation is needed detracts from an otherwise flawless work of the surreal.
Other good books from 2004 include the somewhat familiar but well-executed Perfect Circle (Small Beer Press) by Sean Stewart, the wild and original Trash Sex Magic (Small Beer Press) by Jennifer Stevenson, the crisp and often remarkable Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Gollancz), the baggy but still interesting The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks, the dreamlike, sometimes slow The Circus of the Grand Design by Robert Wexler, the experimental prose-poemish The Labyrinth by Cathrynne M. Valente (Prime Books; to which I wrote the introduction), and the erratically translated but often hypnotic Dreams of the Sea (Tesseract Books) by Elisabeth Vonarberg. (Ian McDonald's River of Gods, Geoff Ryman's Air, and the Neal Stephenson doorstops strike me as the most glaring gaps in my reading, but I simply couldn't find the time.)
Short Story Collections
Only one short story collection in 2004 infected my brain, albeit quietly, in the same way as such collections from years past as Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Clive Barker's Books of Blood: Brian Evenson's The Wavering Knife (Fiction Collective 2). Stories like "The Prophets," which begins, "In a holy vision the Lord came to me and told me to buy myself a shovel and employ it in a righteous use, so I went next door and borrowed one off Boyd Laswell and awaited further instructions," are both humorous and horrific, told in plain, unadorned prose. Other stories are darker and more ornate. All of them convey a sense of mystery, insanity, and obsession. Evenson's mastery of the short form has never been so clearly on display. (In the interests of disclosure, the Leviathan 3 anthology I co-edited contained one of Evenson's stories from this collection.)
John Crowley's Novelties & Souvenirs (Perennial) would be a better collection if it included fewer of his early stories and not lacked his remarkable "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" from Conjunctions: The New Wave Fabulists. It is still a landmark from one our best writers, with stories such as "Novelty" and "Snow" displaying an effortless genius.
Conrad Williams' Then Destroy (Night Shade Books) and Lucius Shepard's Trujillo & Other Stories (PS Publishing) are major collections that share a preoccupation with the dark side of human nature. The Shepard suffers from a similarity of tone, whereas the Williams, while also unrelenting, exhibits more variety. Both are beautifully stark books, for all of the lush depth of their prose.
Two first collections showed great promise: Margo Lanagan's Black Juice (Allen & Unwin; HarperCollins/EOS in 2005) and Cathy Day's The Circus in Winter (Harcourt). The best story in Lanagan's collection, "Singing My Sister Down," is a shocking piece of anthropological horror that although more or less a single note played to perfection reminded me of the short fiction of J.D. Salinger in its tense sparseness. The rest of Black Juice ranges from the very good to the somewhat underwritten.
Cathy Day's The Circus in Winter consists of a series of loosely related stories about the Great Porter Circus (1864-1939) and three generations of circus performers. Stories such as "Wallace Porter" and "The Last Member of the Boela Tribe" are excellent examples of the Southern Gothic, if only incidentally fantasy.
In addition, the following collections all contained several worthy stories: Eileen Gunn's Stable Strategies (Tachyon Publications), Zoran Zivkovic's Four Stories Till the End (Polaris), Liz Williams' The Banquet of the Lords of Night (Night Shade Books), Kage Baker's Mother Aegypt (Night Shade Books), Adam Roberts' Swiftly (Night Shade Books), L. Timmel Duchamp's Love's Body, Dancing in Time (Aqueduct Press), Ian MacLeod's Breathmoss and Other Exhalations (Golden Gryphon), and D.F. Lewis' Weirdmonger (Prime Books).
Every year some books of note fail to fit into a specific category. The best of these in 2004 was D.M. Mitchell's A Serious Life (Savoy Books), a history of Manchester, England, publisher Savoy. This indepth examination of Savoy's history and its impact on popular culture, including music and comic books, combines interviews with Savoy's founders and Mitchell's own commentary on the press in the form of interconnected essays. Some deal with the "theory" behind Savoy. Some deal with particular topics, such as Savoy's relationship to the music scene. Some serve to provide a historical backdrop. All are incisive and fascinating. Even if you don't care even a tiny bit about Savoy, you'll still enjoy this book. Sections on Michael Moorcock and New Worlds are of particular interest, but there isn't a page all of which include a plethora of well-placed photographs and illustrations that doesn't provoke thought or further discussion. Blake, Burroughs, and many other favorites make appearances.
Sharing some of A Serious Life's sensibilities, Alan M. Clark's The Paint in My Blood (http://www.alanmclark.com/paint.html) provides a long overdue retrospective of the artist's 15-year career. Part collectible art book and part illuminating essay on technique/approach, The Paint in My Blood is a fascinating and honest look at an artist and his work. The limited edition includes a CD of time-lapse video showing how Clark creates a painting, giving a unique glimpse of the artist's processes.
Also of note, in a generally down year for original anthologies, Four Walls Eight Windows reprinted New Worlds: An Anthology, edited by Michael Moorcock. Just like the New Worlds magazine Moorcock edited, this anthology illuminates and infuriates, with its mix of successful and unsuccessful experiments. However, even the failures serve as an important part of New Worlds' legacy. No magazine before or since pushed more boundaries (or buttons) with more daring or aplomb. New Worlds: An Anthology shares the highlights of an invaluable period of genre history. It also makes a nice companion volume to A Serious Life.
Looking forward to 2005 and 2006, readers of genre fiction have a lot to be thankful for. Not only will new writers (Barth Anderson and Tim Pratt come to mind) publish their first novels soon, but veterans from within and outside of the field, like Kelly Link, John Crowley, Jeffrey Ford, and Haruki Murakami, will return with (one hopes) spectacular and mind-bending offerings. I stated in a previous Locus Online piece that I felt lucky to be alive and reading during such a fertile period for fantastical fiction. I continue to feel that way heading into the second half of the first decade of the twenty-first century.