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Monday, January 25, 2010

Russell Letson reviews Alexander Jablokov

Books are, at their heart, labors of love — including those from commercial houses — and the past couple of years have reminded us of that fact, given the vagaries of the economy and the uncertainties about the future of the book industry. In that context, I can sincerely say that I think 2009 was a transitional year marked by highly individual, highly talented voices creating interesting and unique books, and that although not everything worked, writers were taking chances, and, despite uncertainties, largely feeling optimistic about the future of the written word. Independent presses also continued to thrive in this environment and helped immensely in reflecting the depth and diversity of genre fiction. With the field now being so wide and deep, I have focused on a particular version of the best of 2009 that emphasizes adult novels, anthologies, nonfiction, and some short story collections. My reading tastes skew toward fantasy, but I did also read science fiction. Young adult and urban fantasy are beyond my purview, and I hope someone who read widely in those areas has the time to post their own year's best. (And, still, even with the narrowed focus it was impossible to read everything.) In the interests of full disclosure, I had a fantasy novel published in 2009, Finch, which appeared on several year's best lists, co-edited two anthologies with my wife Ann (Best American Fantasy 2 and Last Drink Bird Head) and I also contributed to the following books mentioned below: the Vance tribute anthology, the Straub-edited tales of the fantastic, and the special issue of Conjunctions. Finally, major thanks to Ellen Datlow for providing a list of story collections from 2009 for cross-checking purposes. Novels My favorite genre novels of 2009 were Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Red Tree and Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest. Both, unfortunately, remain underrated and under-reviewed; both deserve your attention. Kiernan has long been one of our best stylists at the short length, and I've enjoyed several of her novels. However, in The Red Tree she's created a fascinating multi-layered narrative that trumps her prior efforts in the long form. It partakes equally of traditional dark fantasy and horror while including innovation that echoes such seminal works as Danielewski's House of Leaves. The novel feels both intimately personal and large-scale. The characterization is merciless and real, inviting comparisons to some of the best portraits offered up by writers like Elizabeth Hand. If Kiernan is one of our best from her generation, then Valente has clearly become one of the best writers of hers. In the past, I've sometimes found her brand of lyricism too relentlessly baroque at the longer lengths, but as she has created a substantial body of work with a swiftness remarkable for its accompanying overall quality of both writing and imagination, Valente has also begun to vary her effects. Palimpsest is a fearless deep dive into worlds of fantasy and of sex, with travelers into the unknown who can only get to an imaginary world through the most intimate acts and fetishes. It reads at times like Borges by way of Angela Carter. Valente manages to both embrace and reject the fantastical in this genre-defying novel. It's a novel that both confounds and rewards reader expectations through its use of traditional and avant garde fantasy elements. Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia also struck me as an unqualified success, with its cheeky subtitle of "Konstantin Skvorecky's memoir of the alien invasion of 1986" and its wonderful ability to be utterly modern and yet remind one, at times, of such masterpieces of Russian satire as The Master and Margarita. As a student of Russian fiction, I found the book utterly enthralling in its tale of a science fiction writer tasked by Stalin with concocting an alien-invasion hoax and then told to forget the whole thing, on pain of death. I found myself chuckling throughout at particularly clever turns of phrase, sometimes laughing out loud, and yet Roberts' novel always seems firmly grounded in something real. Another favorite, The Other City by Michal Ajvaz (from Dalkey Archive Press) repopulates the city of Kafka with ghosts, eccentrics, talking animals, and impossible statues. As the jacket copy reads, the novel serves as a kind of "guidebook to this invisible 'other Prague,' overlapping the workaday world: a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads." A book, naturally, triggers the adventure embarked upon by our nameless narrator, a book that shows that "The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn't run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it." Strange scenes involving bizarre fish and other monstrosities evoke the great Czech filmmaker Svankmajer, with a hint of Dali in their nimbleness. Marcel Theroux's Far North, meanwhile, has flaws — the plot devices at times struck me as coincidental and unnecessary — but there's undeniable power to this post-apocalyptic novel set in Siberia. Most of that power comes from the hard-won victories of Makepeace, Theroux's remarkable narrator. Far North 's enduring achievement is to feature a character that lives up to Makepeace's own claim that "a person is always better than a book." She is the single most compelling protagonist from any of the novels I'm recommending, among the best portraits I've ever read of a person coping with extreme situations. Several other worthy novels suggest groupings. In the category of "Quirky and Eccentric" but not gonzo, Jesse Bullington's The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, Mark von Schlegell's Mercury Station, Brian Evenson's Last Days, and Sebastien Doubinsky's The Babylonian Trilogy take top honors. Bullington's first novel is a bloody, darkly humorous, take-no-prisoners Medieval romp about two unrepentant murderers. Schlegell's second novel also evokes Medieval times with its surprising tale of time travel and ancient space travel, while evoking the trippy qualities of books like The Troika and Moonshadow. Evenson's chilling noir of cults, chopped off limbs, and, ultimately, Grand Guignol, never blinks in its depiction of horrors of the mind and the body. Doubinsky's mosaic novel evokes a transformed city of Babylon through a series of fascinating vignettes. In a category loosely called "This Isn't Your Grandmother's Heroic Fantasy," Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, David Anthony Durham's The Other Lands, and Richard K. Morgan's The Steel Remains all pushed boundaries in different ways. Abercrombie blended Machiavelli and Tarantino while reveling in the ruthlessness of his protagonist, the mercenary Monza Murcatto. Durham continued to bring a much-needed non-Anglo point of view to fantasy while constructing a complex, multi-layered world and populating it with interesting characters. Morgan, meanwhile, decided that not only was he going to create a realistic gay protagonist engaging in explicit sex for his noirish epic, but also gleefully subvert most of heroic fantasy's tropes in much the same way as Sherman "subverted" Atlanta during the American Civil War. Among "Steampunk" titles, the most entertaining were Soulless by first-time novelist Gail Carriger and Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Soulless is a great take on the novel of manners with vampires, werewolves, madcap adventure, and love combined to excellent effect; the sense of timing and the technical execution necessary to make this kind of book a success shouldn't be dismissed just because Soulless isn't a Big Concept Novel. Priest's Boneshaker, meanwhile, reimagines the history of Seattle (okay, destroys the city) and combines Steampunk with zombies. It's an energetic, chaotic, sometimes messy book, full of interesting ideas and characters. "Little Books with Big Hearts" of particular interest included Peter M. Ball's Horn, Kage Baker's The Hotel Under the Sand, Laird Hunt's Ray of the Star, Gert Jonke's The System of Vienna, Elizabeth Bear's Bone and Jewel Creatures, and John Grant's The City in These Pages. Ball's novella-in-book-form from my new favorite indie press, Twelfth Planet, combines noir and faery in a hardboiled structure that plays knowingly with the tropes of both subgenres; he is without a doubt one of the best of the up-and-coming writers in the field. Baker's delightful children's tale about a mythical hotel invites comparison to such authors as Tove Jansson, while Hunt's compressed gem of magic realism tells of a visit to an imaginary city where visitors can walk with the dead. Jonke's Calvino-esque series of adventures includes such marvelous characters as a paranoid fish seller who believes he controls Austrian politics from his stall. Bear brings painstaking jeweler's precision to her tale of strange creations and enchanters. Grant, an often underrated writer, combines elements of the police procedural with SF and fantasy to interesting effect. In the admittedly catch-all category of "Three Books That Could Not Be More Different," Bernardine Evaristo's Blonde Roots, James Braziel's Snakeskin Road, and Steven Barnes' Shadow Valley all provided provocative and evocative reading experiences. Evaristo effectively reimagines the history of the slave trade, reversing it so Africans have enslaved Europeans. Braziel postulates a convincingly grim future of human trafficking following a climate change disaster. Barnes' lyrical take on writing about prehistoric people contains genuinely moving situations and fascinating characters. Other novels that I found interesting included Jay Lake's Madness of Flowers, Jeremy C. Shipp's Cursed, Jo Graham's Hand of Isis, Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villajamur, Kage Baker's The Empress of Mars, Marie Brennan's In Ashes Lie, and Lane Robins' Kings and Assassins. Of these, I'd like to single out the Robins, because it seemed to get no attention anywhere. In the novel, Robins makes the gutsy decision to use Janus, one of the ostensible villains of her prior novel, Maledicte, as the viewpoint character. The result? Often brutal political drama in a fantasy setting. Robins clearly doesn't believe in escapism, and the novel is better for it. Readers who initially may bridle at the choice of Janus will quickly be won over. Finally, two Big Concept Novels fell just short of being successful for me, despite trying for much more than some of the books listed above. They are definitely worth your attention, and both of them appear on other people's year's best lists. China Mieville's The City & The City contains a perfect evocation of an imaginary Eastern European city. Culturally and texturally, Mieville's novel worked well for me, and the writing is to die for. However, as the book progresses the unwieldiness of the central conceit — overlapping cities — and the idea of "unseeing" works less and less well. Mieville's ever more laborious efforts to explain things slow the book down, especially toward the middle, and underscore the somewhat thin characterization. (For an interesting reading experience, pair Mieville's novel with the excellent Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and Mieville and the recent issue of the scholarly journal Extrapolations devoted to exploring Mieville's fiction.) The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi also features some stunning writing — as in his short stories, he has a knack for full-on description that reads like a tactile, sensual report from the future. This is also a relevant novel in the sense that it seems to move fully beyond the idea of cyberpunk or the New Wave in its approach to science fiction. The concepts of calorie companies, bioengineered plagues, and a vision that extends beyond our oil-based economies — these are all amazing ideas, fleshed out in fascinating ways. However, the characters seem overwhelmed by the setting and the plot never really came together for me. That Bacigalupi will write a great novel, given his skills, seems almost certain, but this is not that novel. Short Story Collections I thought it was a frustrating year in terms of short story collections. Many of them were good, but few were in any sense of the word daring — and this despite many writers having taken chances in the short form in magazines and anthologies. Perhaps next year. (The best collection of any kind was J.G. Ballard's The Collected Stories of J.G. Ballard, but its North American publication in 2009 had been preceded by publication in the British Commonwealth in a prior year.) In that context, my favorite short story collections of the year were, in no particular order, Centuries Ago and Very Fast by Rebecca Ore, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Fugue State by Brian Evenson, The Word Book by Mieko Kanai, and Rachel Pollack's The Tarot of Perfection. Centuries Ago and Very Fast by Rebecca Ore (from the truly amazing Aqueduct Press) has a kinetic energy and hard-to-define originality that held me captivated from first word to last. Profane — scandalous? Immoral? — the book wraps stories around stories, combines the surreal with the mundane and every-day. A story like "Acid and Stoned Reindeer" that I thought was either genius or chaos when published by Clarkesworld works much better in the context of the other stories. I'm not really sure how to describe a book that includes lines like "We'd run out of mammoths. The ponies looked nervous.", but I tend to come down on the side of finding it fascinating, although I know many readers will find this collection difficult. Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler (from another excellent publisher, Featherproof) is composed of a series of stunningly surreal stories, many of them seeming to chronicle a strange post-apocalyptic world. Sections include "In the Year of Cyst and Tumor" and "In the Year of Worm & Wilting." The writing is sharp, alien, and utterly captivating. There's a definite sense of a deconstructed J.G. Ballard in the many scenes of flooding and other devastation. Fugue State by Brian Evenson is the first collection by this American original since the stunning The Wavering Knife. Combining the best traits of writers who trend toward the grotesque, Evenson writes like a modern-day Kafka. Each story, from "Mudder Tongue" to "The Adjudicator" pulls the reader into Evenson's view of the world, to the extent that even stories in which nothing fantastical happens feel strange and surreal. The Word Book by Mieko Kanai quivers on the edge of fantasy and reality, allowing readers to enter a world of mysterious encounters and silences and sudden corpses. A child running errands for his mother discovers he's suddenly an adult and his mother is dead. Kanai's prose is as precise and matter-of-fact as her subject matter is surreal and shifting. The Tarot of Perfection by Rachel Pollack from Prague's Magic Realist Press was a fun, well-written collection of stories presented in a beautifully designed format; the best tales, like the title story, are truly classic. A couple of more contemporary stories suffer by comparison, but I still found the collection more cohesive and interesting than many others. Among collections by relatively new writers, I found Deborah Biancotti's A Book of Endings, Eugie Foster's Returning My Sister's Face, and Cat Rambo's Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight the most compelling. None of these collections were perfect, but each was lively and willing to take chances. Juggernauts and behemoths also released extremely worthy collections in 2009 that cannot be overlooked — including Gene Wolfe, Ramsey Campbell, Gwyneth Jones, Joe R. Lansdale, Peter S. Beagle, and Lewis Shiner. The Best of Gene Wolfe seems somehow not as revelatory given the existence of several prior collections, and because Wolfe's later short fiction sits uneasily with the earlier material; his strengths in the latter part of his career manifest best at novel length. Ramsey Campbell's two-volume best-of from PS Publishing, Just Behind You and Creatures of the Pool is exhaustive and first-rate, but also at times repetitive in mood and subject matter. Lewis Shiner's Collected Stories includes many excellent stories, but is perhaps too complete. Beagle's We Never Talk About My Brother contained some very good stories, but despite the excellence of his writing I feel, with all due respect, that he's begun to coast through familiar territory for awhile now. Faring better, perhaps because they're leaner, The Best of Joe R. Lansdale serves up a potent sampling of the author's Southern-tinged dual gonzo and horror impulses while Grazing the Long Acre nicely showcases Gwyneth Jones' diverse strengths, which range from outright science fiction to genre-defying character explorations. (My wife Ann and I helped edit a collection by another behemoth, The Best of Michael Moorcock, which I also believe deserves your consideration.) Anthologies Several original anthologies from 2009 contained good to excellent stories, although nothing seemed truly groundbreaking or innovative. (I am largely leaving out reprint anthologies because of space considerations, but would note that John Joseph Adams edited a couple of excellent ones this past year.) Eclipse 3 edited by Jonathan Strahan had an absolutely stellar lineup that included Karen Joy Fowler, Molly Gloss, Jeffrey Ford, Ellen Kushner, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Nicola Griffith, Daniel Abraham, and Nnedi Okorafor. The content was wide-ranging and ran the gamut from relatively traditional fantasy to out-and-out science fiction. Although the anthology has won an Aurealis Award, it has received very little review attention in the United States. It's also a shame that those who criticized Strahan for gender imbalances in the second volume have largely ignored this third volume. Interfictions 2 edited by Delia Sherman & Christopher Barzak was a significant step up in quality from the first volume. Contributors included Lavie Tidhar, Brian Francis Slattery, Peter M. Ball, Alan DeNiro, M. Rickert, and Theodora Goss. Intended to showcase interstitial fiction, this volume also featured some of the most experimental and formally daring genre fiction of the year. In this respect, Interfictions 2 not only did a fine job of presenting interesting stories, it filled the gap left by the erratic publishing schedule of the Polyphony anthology series, while also seeming more focused and accessible. In a generally conservative publishing environment, the Interfictions series now serves as an important bastion for new writers, both as an anthology with an open reading period and for its encouragement, like such online venues as Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld, of risk-taking. Such safe harbors are essential. In first Poe and then Lovecraft Unbound, editor Ellen Datlow proved that two tradition-encrusted icons of genre fiction could be the catalyst for interesting new interpretations by modern writers. The Poe anthology contained fine work by, among others, Delia Sherman, Kaaron Warren, and Lucius Shepard. The Lovecraft anthology featured great fiction by Dale Bailey & Nathan Ballingrud, Michael Cisco, Sarah Monette, Elizabeth Bear, and many others. Four other original anthologies provided an entertaining read. Songs of the Dying Earth edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois collected twenty-two stories in honor of Jack Vance's iconic series. The overall quality of the writing is strong despite a surprising clunker from Neil Gaiman, with contributors ranging from Martin himself to Kage Baker and Dan Simmons, but the stories tend to blur together in one's memory. Phantom, edited by Paul Tremblay & Sean Wallace was a short, sharp, intelligent collection of fourteen "literary horror" stories from the likes of Michael Cisco, F. Brett Cox, Steve Rasnic Tem, and Karen Hueler. Dreaming Again edited by Jack Dann is a doorstopper of an anthology containing thirty-five new stories by Australian writers. It's a consistently energetic if sometimes uneven book with work by, among others, Garth Nix, Angela Slatter, Kim Wilkins, Peter M, Ball, and Terry Dowling. New Ceres Nights, another Australian creation, edited by Alisa Krasnostein & Tehani Wessly, comes to readers from the excellent Twelfth Planet Press, and might be the sleeper anthology of the year. It's consistently lively and interesting in developing its shared setting. Contributors include Stephen Dedman, Kaaron Warren, Aliette de Bodard, Angela Slatter, and Dirk Flinthart. Basically an anthology in magazine form, Conjunctions 52: Betwixt the Between (Impossible Realism) may not have been as flashy as a prior special issue, The New Wave Fabulists, but it adhered to its theme more rigorously and with fewer rationalizations. Uncharacteristically weak contributions from writers like Elizabeth Hand were offset by interesting fantasy experiments by Stephen Wright, Ben Marcus, Julia Elliott, Jedediah Berry, Karen Russell, Shelley Jackson, and rising star Micaela Morrissette. Conjunctions 52 might not appeal to all genre readers, but like Interfictions 2 it helped to push the boundaries of what was possible in non-realist fiction. (Conjunctions 53: Not Even Past; Hybrid Histories also contained many thought-provoking stories recognizable to readers as fantasy.) Another type of diversity came in the form of The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar. Primarily composed of reprints, Tidhar's anthology featured the work of S.P. Somtow, Zoran Zivkovic, Jamil Nasir, Dean Francis Alfar, Han Song, Anil Menon, and Melanie Fazi. It's an excellent first step in creating an annual showcase for world speculative fiction, with stories of consistently good quality. However, The Apex Book of World SF also proves — just like the James and Kathy Morrow European showcase anthology from 2008 — that publishing writers from a variety of countries doesn't imply or guarantee originality of story. Many of the plots and situations readers will encounter are not markedly different from those in magazines or anthologies that primarily feature writers from the United Kingdom or the United States; indeed, several of these stories were first published in Anglo markets. That said, Apex deserves extraordinary credit for publishing an anthology with few marketable names therein, and the series appears to be set to only become stronger and more diverse with each installment. I highly recommend you purchase a copy to reward this initiative. The Black Mirror & Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Germany & Austria, edited by Franz Rottensteiner, provides a fascinating overview of German speculative fiction from the 1870s to the present-day. It's at times of purely historical interest, but many stories stand on their own merits. The "Short History of Science Fiction in German" is excellent, and the differences between East German and West German writers instructional. (In terms of European SF, also consider picking up the sampler Crossing the Boundaries: French Fantasy from Bragelonne, a solid volume published in 2009.) Finally, Peter Straub's Library of America two-volume American Fantastic Tales (Poe to the Pulps and 1940s to Now) deserves a mention as a potentially landmark anthology. Even with a few omissions — Jeffrey Ford, Nalo Hopkinson, and Lucius Shepard come to mind — and a somewhat safe approach to other selections, this two-volume set provides a vital bridge between genre and mainstream. It also features some amazing stories. Nonfiction My two favorite nonfiction books were Starting Point: 1979-1996 by filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms by Helen Merrick. In both cases, the authors manage to convey complex ideas in clear, effective prose. Starting Point is nothing less than a peek at the inspirations of perhaps our most important fantasists, a man whose movies — from Nausicaa to Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro to Princess Mononoke — are among the classics. Sections titled "Creating Animation," "Planning Notes," and "On the Periphery of the Work not only illuminate Miyazaki's process but contain general insights of interest to anyone who loves fantasy. The Secret Feminist Cabal provides a context for many of the recent online discussions about gender and the politics of gender. The book is brilliant in how it fills in a potentially lost history of the genre, detailing the involvement of female fans in the genre community from the early days, the birth of feminist SF and criticism, and also the many arguments back and forth between male and female writers in the 1970s and 1980s. I may be unaware of similar books on this subject, but for me it was fascinating to read Merrick's documentation of discussions between writers like Joanna Russ and Michael G. Coney. Better yet, Merrick's excellent prose makes The Secret Feminist Cabal a compulsive reading experience. (For an even more complete reading experience, read the Merrick in conjunction with another excellent nonfiction book from 2009, the Farah Mendelsohn-edited On Joanna Russ; it contains a variety of perspectives on Russ and her work from, among others, Gary K. Wolfe, Samuel R. Delany, Graham Sleight, and Merrick herself.) Other nonfiction I particularly enjoyed included Conversations with Samuel R. Delany, edited by Carl Freedman, Gwyneth Jones' Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, The WisCon Chronicles: Vol. 3, Carnival of Feminist SF edited by Liz Henry, Paul T. Riddell's Greasing the Pan, a series of provocative (sometimes profane) essays on science fiction and the genre community, Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction edited by Mark Bould and China Mieville, and the third of a lovely series by John Grant, Bogus Science (or, Some People Really Believe These Things.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the January issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Brain Thief

Alexander Jablokov

(Tor 978-0-7653-2200-5, $24.99, 383pp, hc) January 2010


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