The Best Fantasy & Science Fiction of 2005
by Claude Lalumière
Howl's Moving Castle, directed by Hayao Miyazaki
I confess: although I am a lifelong comics and animation junkie, I am not particularly attracted to manga and anime at least not to most of what I've been exposed to. But friends invited me to the premiere of Hayao Miyazaki's latest film, and I went with an open mind. It was indeed an awesome and startling experience. Beautifully and imaginatively designed, drawn, and animated, free of the tiresome visual clichés that clutter much of the manga and anime available in North America, Howl's Moving Castle is a lush tapestry of wonders, magic, and unabashed strangeness. It's a gorgeous and thrilling story for all ages, about a wizard who long ago sacrificed his heart for power and about the amazing and sometimes frightening journey of the resourceful and courageous young woman who comes to love him. Lauren Bacall's zesty performance as the voice of the Witch of the Waste is simply delicious cream on top.
Sin City, directed by Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez
Once every few years US cinema manages to produce, against all odds, a controversial, visionary film that provokes fanatical devotion from its admirers and vitriolic hatred from its detractors. 2005's entry in that canon is undoubtedly Sin City, adapted from Frank Miller's outrageously over-the-top hardboiled noir comics series of the same name. No film has ever so faithfully adapted a comics work, has ever succeeded so sublimely in translating a cartoonist's vision to the medium of live-action cinema to the point of enhancing and improving it. The result is a film that looks and feels like no other, as Miller's iconic and surreal city of stark contrasts, minimalist chic, and kitsch violence is finally fully brought to life through the magic of movie special-effects technology. Sin City is a nightmarish pulp journey (or, more accurately, a mosaic of intertwined journeys) into a world where the archetypes of noir fiction take on mythic splendour, a world so callous that it might as well be populated by demons in human form and where psychotic, damaged angels may perhaps emerge, fuelled by desperate rage, from deep within the most outwardly monstrous of its denizens. Sin City took me somewhere: somewhere brutal, pornographic, primal, relentless, and, yes, even childish; somewhere different and strange and disturbingly seductive; somewhere nothing else, not even the original comics, as good as they are, had ever taken me. It dared me to find beauty in unlikely places. And I did: despairing, struggling sparks but beauty nonetheless.
ReGenesis, created by Christina Jennings
This Canadian just-around-the-corner near-future SF drama tackles issues surrounding current and projected advances in biotechnology. Following the multicultural and eccentric team of scientists at NorBac, a cutting-edge international organization headquartered in Toronto and dedicated to troubleshooting biotech disasters, the brashly political ReGenesis is the smartest and savviest SF show on television. The acting is great; the characters are fascinating; the biotech scenarios are intriguing and suspenseful; the episodes are dense with ideas, concepts, and plot. Ruthless towards superstition, walking a careful fine line between cautionary tale and sober extrapolation, the show takes science seriously champions it, even while not shying away from the scientific worldview's endemic ethical dilemmas. The thirteen-episode first season ended in early 2005; a second season is expected to debut in March 2006.
Solo #5: Darwyn Cooke (DC Comics)
Each issue of Solo focuses on one cartoonist, featuring short stories (not necessarily set in the DC Universe) in various genres. Usually, despite the title, the showcased cartoonist enlists the aid of scriptwriters, colourists, and letterers. Not so in the fifth issue, possibly the greatest single issue of any comic book in 2005. The showcased cartoonist is Canadian wunderkind Darwyn Cooke, and did he ever cook up something special for his outing, in which every line, word, letter, and splash of colour emerges from his vibrant imagination and impressively skillful hands. Instead of the usual Solo potpourri, Cooke has dreamed up a poignant and surprisingly personal mosaic exploring the DC Universe of his dreams, utilizing a dazzling array of visual styles and narrative techniques. The work in its entirety linked by interludes at Jimmy's 24-7, a bar located left of "Nexus and Continuity", which "isn't on any maps", and is "kinda out of this universe" is a metafictional love letter to the superheroic fantasies of DC Comics.
Black Hole, by Charles Burns (Pantheon)
Charles Burns's Lynchian tale of suburban horror, originally serialized from 1995 to 2004, is now collected in a strikingly handsome hardcover edition. Set in the USA during the mid-1970s, Black Hole follows the difficult lives of various teenagers caught in the cultural wasteland between the death of the hippy movement and the full arrival of the punk generation. Burns touches mostly on sex, drugs, peer pressure, parental authority, and the biological transformations of the body the usual concerns of adolescence. But there's also a weird plague afflicting the populace, mostly the teenagers. The victims' bodies acquire strange, gruesome deformities, sometimes opening new orifices in their fragile flesh. Burns's powerful metaphor never settles into an easy definition; it's as mutable as the plague victims' bodies, permeating our consciousness with its terrifying evocations.
We3, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely (Vertigo)
Three animals a dog, a cat, and a rabbit have been turned into cyborgs, top-secret killing machines for the US military. When they're decommissioned and tagged for "destruction", they escape before they can be killed. This is their story. Morrison's tale powerfully evokes the tragic consequences of humanity's mechanomorphic view of its fellow animals. Told mostly from the perspective of the three cyborg animals, the story deals creatively and incisively with issues of cognition, ethics, and identity. We3 is fast-paced and violent, but it's also tremendously sad, merciless, and heartbreaking.
Myths for the Modern Age: Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton Universe, edited by Win Scott Eckert (Monkeybrain)
Although Sherlock Holmes fandom had been doing this kind of thing for decades, Philip José Farmer took the "fictional nonfiction" genre to a whole new level with his book-length biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage respectively, Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. These books elaborated what would become known as the Wold Newton Universe, a secret history that links together, in one great metafictional tapestry, the entire heritage of adventure fiction (and often encapsulating other works of fiction as well). Farmer's own fiction often plays in that wondrous amusement park of the imagination. Other writers and fans, especially now in the internet age, have formed a community that shares "scholarly" works exploring this metafictional secret history of adventure and wonder. Myths for the Modern Age is an anthology of such texts, including several contributions from PJF himself. This is great fannish fun, and a loving homage to the dreamweavers who have created all those thrilling heroes and to Philip José Farmer, who so cannily understood how primally popular fiction's adventure heroes impacted on Western imagination and culture.
The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood (Knopf Canada/Canongate)
Margaret Atwood's clever take on the life of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, is an entertaining romp: intelligent, wry, never afraid to venture into unabashed goofiness. The author even bravely pokes fun at herself and her narrative choices and it all works, the various parts riffing off each other, playing off each other, and enhancing each other. The Penelopiad is told with bold confidence, engaged passion, and a generous spirit of infectious amusement.
The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, by Tim Pratt (Bantam Spectra)
Tim Pratt's debut novel, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, is a rollicking, sexy fantasy superhero adventure cum soap opera a great genre-blending, genrebending pleasure. Fast-paced and fun, his story of a young cartoonist who gets embroiled in a supernatural entity's plans to invade our world is both engrossing and moving.
The Mysteries, by Lisa Tuttle (Bantam Spectra)
Like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Lisa Tuttle's The Mysteries delves deeply into the faery mythology of the Great Britain to deliver a wholly fresh and original tale permeated with unsettling terror, as the far-from-benign faery lands encroach on the real world. The Mysteries is the story of Ian Kennedy, a US expat, now living in England as a private detective specializing in missing persons cases. Disappearances haunt Ian's entire life, and his quest to come to terms with the troubling mysteries in his life is moving, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and resonant.
It's Superman!, by Tom De Haven (Chronicle Books)
In It's Superman!, novelist Tom De Haven returns to the roots of the foremost archetypal twentieth-century superhero, clearly referencing the concept's principal antecedent, Philip Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator. De Haven retells the story of the original 1930s Superman, as first envisioned by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (and including a few choice later additions to the mythos), casting the oft-told tale as a myth of the Depression. The principal protagonists, naive and idealistic farmboy Clark Kent, sassy young journalist Lois Lane, and megalomaniacal Lex Luthor are all winningly portrayed here, as is De Haven's addition to the cast, Willi Berg, a paramour of Lois's who becomes Clark's closest friend. Combining superhero action, pulp thrills, mythic Americana, and an engaged social vision, De Haven has significantly enriched both the Superman myth and the SF canon.
Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link (Small Beer Press)
For me, the best writers (or, at least, the most fascinating) are those who write like no-one else, whose fiction explores a complex personal mythology. Each new work is a new journey into an inner universe, a piece of the puzzle in trying to fathom an ultimately ineffable, unknowable ur-story, a chance to experience a worldview and/or perspective that no other writer could offer. Kelly Link is one such writer. Magic for Beginners, her second collection of odd modern fables about quirky girls who live in a world that pretends to be much less strange than it really is, is even more confident, accomplished, seductive, and moving than her excellent debut, Stranger Things Happen. This is my favourite book of 2005.