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Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Overview of International Science Fiction/Fantasy in 2009

Compiled by Jeff VanderMeer

Although my year's best selections included some international fiction, I thought it would be of use to compile a few "core samples" of work mostly in other languages that my contacts found of particular interest in 2009. Except for the books from places like Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines, these titles are not yet available in English. It's worth noting, too, that the term "International Fiction" or "World SF" requires further specificity of detail, in the sense that some countries have a stronger tradition of supporting non-realistic fiction than others. In addition, some countries have a stronger tradition of supporting their own authors than others. (For example, the Russian books noted represent just a fraction of Russian authors published there.)

I would also note that this is of necessity a haphazard sample — some of my queries went unanswered and some people did not have time to compile lists. Still, an incomplete overview is better than no overview at all. My thanks to all the respondents and to Cheryl Morgan and Lavie Tidhar for their help with intel. —Jeff

Australia, recommended by writer Deborah Biancotti and editor Alisa Krasnostein

Slice of Life, Paul Haines, pub. The Mayne Press
— The cover says it all: a man digging into his own side with a knife. If you've never read Haines before, then brace yourself. This book features 17 stories "from the decaying mind" (to quote the blurb) of one of the country's creepiest writers. All proceeds go to Haines' cancer fund.

Slights, Kaaron Warren, pub. Angry Robot
— Kaaron Warren's debut novel from Angry Robot is getting rave reviews all over the place, so you may have heard about it already. But in case you haven't: Stephanie goes to hell and finds it full of people she's slighted. But that's not the worst of it. In other good news, Warren has two MORE (stand-alone) books already in the Angry Robot schedule.

Make Believe: A Terry Dowling Reader, edited by Russell Farr & published by Ticonderoga Publications
— Twelve essential stories by one of Australia's most respected prose stylists. Dowling is a WFA nominee and International Horror Guild Award winner. We predict this book will be a must-have for fans and a perfect intro for new readers.

X9, Coeur de Lion
— Coeur de lion brings us the 'novellanthology' - an anthology comprising 6 novella-length short stories from some of the current leading Australian writers. Paul Haines' "Wives" is not to missed.

Brazil, recommended by translator/writer Fabio Fernandes

Xochiquetzal by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro (Editora Draco)
— Considered the foremost name in Alternate History in Brazil, Lodi-Ribeiro had published so far three short story collections and had stories published in Brazil and Portugal. This is his first novel, in which he depicts a 16th Century where Portugal, not Spain, leads the discovery of the Americas (christened Cabralias in that timeline, in honor of Pedro Alvares Cabral, the Portuguese navigator who discovered Brazil). The story of the novel is a chronicle of adventure written by the Aztec princess Xochiquetzal, wife of Vasco da Gama — in that timeline, the Aztecs were incorporated to the Portuguese Empire, not massacrated. The story "Xochiquetzal e a Esquadra da Vingança", which opens the volume as a prologue, was translated to English and was a finalist of Sidewise Awards 2000.

Steampunk—Histórias de Um Passado Extraordinário, edited by Gianpaolo Celli (Tarja Editorial)
— This is the first Brazilian Steampunk anthology, with nine stories ranging from weird to Alternate Fiction (both Brazilian and foreign) also presenting characters from Jules Verne and Conan Doyle. There is also a story of mine in there, a version of a story previously published in English earlier in 2009. Steampunk is growing fast as a subculture in Brazil, and this anthology has been meriting a lot of attention in several reviews among steamers' blogs and sites.

Padrões de Contato, by Jorge Luiz Calife (Editora Devir)
— Calife is the man that started it all. In the early 80s, when Arthur C. Clarke published 2010, Calife's name was in his acknowledgments. That happened because Calife sent Clarke a short story called "2002" and told him to do whatever he wanted with it. Clarke didn´t use the story, but it came to him as an inspiration to write the long-awaited sequel to 2001—A Space Odyssey. Calife became famous in Brazil overnight; a science and tech journalist, he soon published his first novel, "Padrões de Contato" (1985) , a fix-up of four novellas set up in a the far future, where humankind lived in a Clarkean-inspired utopia. This novel was followed by other two in the same setting, "Horizonte de Eventos" (1986) and "Linha Terminal" (1991). In 2009, the classic trilogy was finally republished in an omnibus volume.

China, recommended by writer and professor Wu Yan, Beijing Normal University

Cross by Wang Jinkang (Chongqing Publishing Co. Ltd.)
— Sept. 12, a bio-crisis which stems from extremists spreading a dangerous virus in the United States. The only difference is, a Chinese female scientist is involved. How will the international relationship change and human beings survive? Wang Jinkang is a award winner of many Galaxy Awards and very famous in the Chinese SF field in the past 20 years.

Czech Republic, recommended by editor Martin Sust

Asfalt (Asphalt) by Štĕpán Kopřiva (Crew)
— Possibly the Czech SF/F book of the year, the author has told a bloody action-packed but also absurdist tale about the last job of a mercenary commando and his subsequent journey to Hell. It's very funny and really enjoyable.

Beton, kosti a sny (Concrete, Bones and Dreams) by Pavel Renčín
— This short story collection by one of the most interesting Czech authors of last few years showcases Renčín's natural talent for city myths and poetic language.

Kočičí noci (Feline Nights) by Blanka Jirušková
— A poetic visit to the atmospheric port of Darín, published in three books. A very promising debut by a new author.

Lota (Lota) by Petra Neomillnerová
— One of the Czech Republic's most prolific authors publishes one of her best creations: a short story collection revolving around the female witch Lota. Neomillnerova is a master at portraying intimate relations in a cynical and believable manner.

Vítr v piniích (The Wind in the Umbrella Pines) by Františka Vrbenská & Jakub D. Kočí
— Eastern fantasy in a secondary world setting, this novel takes place at the end of a great war between two empires. Several travelers take a dangerous journey for the good of the reconciliation of the two lands.

Strážcové Varadínu (Guardians of the Varadín) by Juraj Červenák
— This novel by a Slovak author is the start of the new series, a historical fantasy from the time of the attempted Turkish invasion of Europe.

Finland, recommended by editor/writer Jukka Halme

Tornit (Towers) by Jyrki Vainonen (Tammi)
— Finnish magical realism at its very best. After dismembering his dead (witch) mother, Henrik is taken by the great flood and carried into fantastical islands. Surrealistic fantasy about sex plants, dead witches and princesses with eyes on their backs. Vainonen dives ever deeper into the fantastical and weird, while coming up with trumps.

Karsta (Soot) by J. Pekka Mäkelä (LIKE)
— The fourth novel by the man who translates Philip K. Dick into Finnish, is a another quiet masterpiece of bystander-sf. Humanity has lost the interstellar war and aftermath means cleaning up the places. Mäkelä solidifies his place as an important sociopolitical-sf writer.

Valeikkuna (False Window) by Leena Krohn (Teos)
— In this future, the world is not plagued by overpopulation, but infertility. Many people live in virtual reality and take minute-long space travels. The barrier between dream and reality, possible and fantastical is blurred once more by the masterful language by Krohn.

France, recommended by writer Gio Clairval

Le Déchronologue by Stéphane Beauverger (La Volte)
— On seventeenth-century Caribbean seas, Captain Henri Villon and his crew struggle to defend their freedom in a world torn apart by merciless temporal fluctuations. Their weapon is called "The Dechronologue", a ship with cannons that shoot time. The latest novel by Stéphane Beauverger, an established Fantasy author, is carried by an epic feel.

Chien du Heaume by Justine Niogret (Mnemos)
— Chien (Dog) is a woman, ugly, short and brawny. No one swirls an ax as she does. Such ability comes in handy when you are a mercenary in high Middle Age and its never-ending winters. Chien is after her real name, identity and past. It's a short novel featuring characters of extraordinary presence. The best surprise among the new francophone Fantasy authors of 2009.

Outrage et Rébellion by Catherine Dufour (Denoel, Lune d'Encre)
— Marquis, a teenager guest of a Shanghais institution, challenges authority by creating a punk rock band whose popular success threatens the foundations of an entire society. After her acclaimed collection published by Bélial, Catherine Dufour signs the SF transfiguration of Please Kill Me (The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.

Germany, recommended by writer Jakob Schmidt

Vilm—der Regenplanet and Vilm—die Eingeborenen by Karsten Kruschel (Wurdack Verlag) is an episodic sf novel in two parts, chronicling the adventures of involuntary settlers on an inhospitable world. Thematically, it focuses on how environment and people change each other and, over the generations, combine into something new. Exploring this classic concept through vivid characters, Kruschels' novel is reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, and it was actually written around the same time, at the beginning of the 90s. However, it was first published in 2009 by the dedicated small press sf publisher Wurdack.

Gebissen by Boris Koch (Heyne) was published in the wake of the Twilight vampire hype, but is very much its own animal. Koch's vampires are neither romantic nor mysterious — they are more akin to dangerous bullies, and their brutality and bloodthirst is just an amplified form of the violence ordinary people inflict on each other. Set in contemporary Berlin, Gebissen perfectly captures the scary side of the city — and it's also a highly readable page turner.

Sie Schläft by Dietmar Dath (kuk/edition phantasia) is, as most of Dath's books, hard to categorize. It's a mainstream novel with elements of surreal fantasy and has a few essayistic segments. Thematically, it deals with the absurdities of life as part of the "lumpenproletariat intelligentsia" and with the effort to generate meaning through love and art. If that sounds grandiose, it shouldn't. Sie Schläft is actually a pretty straightforward story, a touching and convincing anti-romance, narrated from the perspective of one very real quixotic fool and peopled by equally real and strange characters. It is easily Dath's most accessible book.

Israel, recommended by publisher/editor Rani Graff

Waiting in the Wings by Asaf Asheri (Zmora Bitan Publishing)
— A remarkable Fantasy and Horror novel by one of Israel's most promising young writers. Based on biblical mythology, this stunning page turner takes place in modern day Israel where a secret police unit headed by a charismatic young woman employs paranormal methods based on Jewish mysticism and Kabala is trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of young women all over Tel Aviv. The solution will take the characters into a dark and sinister upperworld where angelic and biblical characters are involved in a battle that will rattle the very fabric of existence as we know it. After reading this book you will never be able to read the bible in the same way.

To Be by Yoav Avni (Zmora Bitan Publishing)
— Set in a very near future Tel Aviv, this original funny and mesmerizing book is centered around Chong Levi, a young man who's the descendent of a Chinese worker and an Israeli handyman, who find himself in a crazy affair involving Mossad agents, Hi Tech gadgets, the Israeli Prime Minister and a mysterious object that might or might not change reality, while all he really wants is just to run his own trendy coffee shop in the heart of Tel Aviv. And there's a girl. The one who doesn't believe in Mathematics. Yoav Avni managed to achieve real emotion out of the loony SF and Fantasy elements that assemble the story, which makes it — in my mind — one of the best novels published in Israel during 2009.

With Both Feet on the Clouds: Fantasy in Hebrew Literature Edited by Danielle Gurevitch & Hagar Yanai (Graff Publishing)
— The new Hebrew literature, the one that has been written in Israel during the last 60+ years, produced some marvelous literary works. However, almost none of those contained fantastical elements, let alone true SF or Fantasy works. Only in the last decade, with the introduction of a new generation of young writers and editors Israel is witnessing a small renaissance of SF & F works. This collection of essays, written by twenty writers, editors, critics and academics, examines that very issue: How come that in a country that is based on a SF novel ("Altnoylend", by Herzl) there has been so few literary genre works of fiction. How come it that the Jewish culture which is so rich with fantastical and paranormal elements, was totally ignored by the writers of the new founded state? This collection of essays is also the first genre non-fiction related book ever to be published in Israel.

The Book of Creation by Sarah Blau (Zmora Bitan Publishing)
— The old legend of the Golem takes a whole new turn in this gloomy tale of a young Jewish orthodox woman who can't find a husband, a truly horrible thing in the super puritan society of the ultra orthodox community she belongs to. In her despair she creates the man of her dreams out of mud and clay. But dreams may turn into nightmares once they invade reality. Blau, who comes from an orthodox family herself, portrays an alien world of desperation and despair that exists only a few miles out of Tel Aviv, one of the most liberal cities in the world. It's not an easy read, but a well worth one.

Hydromania by Assaf Gavron (Zmora Bitan Publishing)
— Toward the end of the 21st Century Israel is a very different country than the one we know today: The ongoing struggle with the Palestinians has taken its toll and now, after the fall of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and rest of the country into Palestinian hands, the only Israeli remaining cities are Caesarea and Tiberias. With a global water shortage, Chinese mega conglomerates controlling the world's water supply, and cloud wars breaking every once in a while in the region, one young woman finds that she may have the key to the region's water shortage. But before she does she's got to find her missing husband who may have been kidnapped in the underwater city of Caesarea while leaving her pregnant, helpless and with hardly any water, the new currency in a thirsty world. "Hydromania" is a fast paced political futuristic SF thriller written by one of Israel's promising next generation's writer. In my mind one of the best SF books I've read in 2009.

Italy, recommended by editor/publisher Armando Corridore

E un giorno a Siena l'Orco acchiappò la Mammifera (And one day in Siena the Orc grabbed the She-Mammal) by Ugo Malaguti (Elara )
— In a future very far from now the Walking-dreams are the last inhabitants of earth. They are artificially produced humans shaped to work in special secluded Towns where popular fables and stories are put to life to entertain normal humans. But Humans left earth may centuries ago and the walking-dreams have to find another reason to live. A posthuman Orc, a genetically enhanced pleasure girl named Snow-white and a Cardinal travel across a bizarre End-of-the -World Italy to reach Siena in order to find the She-Mammal, the last human on earth accordingly to an old Robot legend. She, maybe, knows all answers. After more than 30 years devoted only to editing Ugo Malaguti returns as a writer with a novel in which the many topoi of SF are masterly used to draw an ironic and bitter portrait of our times. The novel is included in the anthology "The mystery of the 8th floor" containing other interesting stories of modern Italian sf authors.

Japan, recommended by translator, publisher, and editor Yoshio Kobayashi

U Yuu Shi Tan (Whither This Tale Were) by Enjoh Toe (pronounced as en-joe toe)
— A hypertext novelette. Mr. Enjoh, a darling child of SF and Literature critics here, makes this brief novelette like a very interesting wikipedia entry. The protagonist is suffering from existential anxiety and becomes dissolved into a hole that falling ashes fill. A typical Kafkaesque absurdist story, yet it has a lot of multi-layered annotations, which are mostly whimsical musings of the author. It probably fits well into the tradition of writings like Pillow Book, Hojoki, and Tsurezuregusa. A very interesting and aesthetically beautiful story, which should have been published as an e-Book.

Bokuboku Sensei 3: Kocho No Nakushimono (Master PuPu: Lost Thing of Butterflies) by Hideyuki Niki
— The third book in a Chinese Historical Fantasy series featuring a Xian Taoist immortal sage, Master BokuBoku (PuPu) and a young apprentice Oben (Wang Bian). Oben is in love with his master who takes a form of a cute young girl, yet is a very powerful magus (Xian) and takes Oben on a whimsical journey. This time they are hunted by a group of assassins, Kocho (Butterflies) and have a fantastic adventure. As you might guess from Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Fuyumi Ono (or maybe even from the Dragonball), we have a very long tradition of fantastic literature that is set in (historical) China. The tone is very humorous and happy, a kind of coming of age story, yet features the magical Taoist mysticism. The second sequel to his Japan Fantasy Award winning novel, Bokubokusensei, and the series will continue.

Seitetsu Tenshi (Iron Angels) by Kazuki Sakuraba
— Again a remote sequel to the author's award winning novel Akakuchibaki No Densetsu (The Legend of Akakuchiba), but this time it's a YA-flavored magic realism fiction. Our protagonist is a very young girl, who inherits the supernatural ability to control every iron-made thing from her old iron mill family, and with that ability she forms an all-girl motorcycle gang to conquer the entire western Honshu Chugoku region all-girl gangs. Although written like a light novel (our manga-influenced popular YA genre), it's a very powerful magic realism novel.

(Kobayashi further notes: "As you might well guess, 2009 was a very bad year for book publishing in Japan. Although SF had a much-devoted audience, there were fewer titles and fewer good novels in the traditional SF genre, while YA "light novels" prospered. So my best list doesn't include a proper SF this year. Yet, in the slipstream fantastic literature, I saw many interesting trends... luckily each title represents particular trend.")

Netherlands, recommended by reviewer Floris Kleine, as facilitated by writer/editor Jetse de Vries

De Scrypturist by Paul Evanby (Mynx)
— A highly imaginative and relevant fantasy novel with excellent worldbuilding and strong characters. Debut novelist Evanby, who carries respectable short story credits already, brings his well-paced, multi-faceted, and riveting story to a breathless finale even as he unobtrusively slips in social commentary on issues as diverse as drug abuse, immigration law and cyberspace. In this case, the standard publishing practice of labeling any fantasy novel as volume I of a trilogy is reason for joy and cheer.

Een masker met een tong (A Mask with a Tongue) by Marcel Orie (Verschijnsel)
— A collection of ten linked stories revolving around the enigmatic figure of Cagliostro — alchemist, puppeteer, adventurer — ranging from Victorian London via Alice's Wonderland and pre-WWII Japan to Europe in 2026. Inspired by, among other things, Commedia dell'arte, westerns, manga, masked vigilantes and historical rumour, this ouroboric almost-but-not-quite-a novel proves Orie's talent as a teller of wildly imaginative tales that are as gripping as they are insightful.

New Zealand, recommended by writer Grant Stone

Voyagers, edited by Mark Pirie and Tim Jones (Interactive Publications)
— Science fiction poetry from some of New Zealand's finest. There's a very wide definition of science fiction used here, which results in a diverse collection including Fleur Adcock and Owen Marshall. An excellent and rewarding collection.

Philippines, recommended by blogger/writer Charles Tan

Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, edited by Dean Francis Alfar & Nikki Alfar (Kestrel IMC)
— An annual anthology that features short stories from the Philippines, the latest volume is the most daring to date and features a mixture of both old and new voices such as Andrew Drilon, Apol Lejano-Massebieau, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Eliza Victoria.

Poland, recommended by translator/writer Jan Żerański


Trzeci swiat (The Third World) by Maciej Guzek (Agencja Wydawnicza Runa, paperback, 288pp) is a debut novel from a highly talented novelist, written in a form of a documentary, inspired by the works of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great Polish essayist. The novel is set in a fantasy world, seen through the eyes of a Polish journalist trying to find out why Poles, after years of conquering the unknown land of The Legends (Poles are delivering magic to our dimension and gain power as well as wealth), are closing the whole experiment. To an intriguing form and narrative style, Guzek adds fascinating astrophysical and ethical mysteries. I think if Ryszard Kapuscinski had become a fantasy writer, he would have created something similar.

Letni deszcz. Sztylet (Summer rain: Dagger) by Anna Brzezinska (Agencja Wydawnicza Runa, paperback, 608 pp) is a long-awaited final volume of the tetralogy "Saga o zboju Twardokesku"/ "Twardokesek the Ruffian's Saga" from the Queen of Polish Fantasy. In four novels we see The Realms of the Interior Sea getting drowned in blood, war and plots, as one, mysterious warrior-woman named Szarka, not necessarily on purpose, becomes dri deonem which means — as people from The Realms say — being a lover and a protégé of the goddess Fea Flisyon. For the first time in history a woman takes over a position preserved for males only and then she commits an even greater blasphemy: she leaves the goddess alone and, having rescued the old ruffian Twardokesek, sets off with him on a journey which might change the world. But even if the first layer of the storyline sounds familiar and the world itself is quasi-medieval, the novels are truly original and full of ideas, with very realistic characters and beautiful language; if Sapkowski is the King of Fantasy, Brzezinska definitely is the Queen of the genre, tearing classical fantasy into scraps.

Opowiesci z Meekhanskiego Pogranicza: Polnoc-Poludnie (Tales from the Meekhan Borderland: North and South) by Robert M. Wegner (Powergraph, paperback, 576 pp) is another fantasy debut. Axe and rock are the treasures of the North, while heat and daggers are the treasures of the South. No matter where you live, whether you are a highlander or a desert warrior, honor and pride are sometimes the last that remain. The book is a wonderful short story collection written in a George R.R. Martin style, with magic hidden in the background, focused on characters and not necessarily a world-building, and I will be very surprised if it doesn't win any awards for 2009. The second collection set in the same world, entitled "Tales from the Meekhan Borderland: East and West", will be published by Powergraph in 2010, and the Czech edition (Laser Books) is forthcoming.


Swiety Wroclaw (Holy Wroclaw) by Lukasz Orbitowski (Wydawnictwo Literackie, paperback, 300pp) is a short horror ballad about a district in the modern city of Wroclaw. One day, citizens discovers that inside the walls of their homes, under the layers of plaster, other walls appeared, black as obsidian and warm as hell itself, so they take out axes and hammers, start hitting the walls and can't stop doing that as if in a quasi-religious ecstasy... Nothing is more important than the block of darkness. What Mieville, Gaiman and Rowling did to London, changing the city into a place of wonders, after Marek Krajewski's noir crime stories Lukasz Orbitowski, one of the most talented Polish horror writer does to Breslau, telling us a story of madness, love and horror.

Cztery pory mroku (Four seasons of darkness) by Pawel Palinski (Fabryka Slow, paperback, 416 pp) is another debut short story collection. Palinski wrote his debut short story for the most prestigious speculative fiction magazine, "Nowa Fantastyka", and now provides us with more short stories and novelettes, inspired by American literature. Don't be mistaken, though, the author had not only read his mentor, Stephen King, but also classical modern American fiction: Updike, DeLillo or Roth. I would keep an eye of him, if I were a publisher.

Wroniec by Jacek Dukaj (Wydawnictwo Literackie, hardcover, 248pp) is a short horror novel about the trauma of the Martial Law in Poland during the communism in 1981. Dukaj, mostly recognized as a hard science fiction author, returns after two years of silence with a grim fairy tale for young adults, set in the times of Solidarity, with a storyline inspired by Lewis Caroll's "Alice in Wonderland". It's December 1981 and Solidarity is being crushed by the secret police of the communist regime, when a strange creature captures our protagonist's father. Little Adam is seven now and doesn't understand what's happening, why there's a military leader speaking on TV instead of the usual kids program, but he knows he has to rescue his father and get him back home. So Adam enters the night, the sad, gray, dark world full of psychedelic visions and fears. This outstanding work, with great illustrations and songs written by the author himself, has already been nominated to some mainstream awards and praised as a breakthrough in Polish speculative fiction.

Portugal, recommended by translator/editor Luis Rodrigues

Enciclopédia da Estória Universal, Afonso Cruz (Quetzal)

— This (all-too-short) collection of pithy vignettes, ironic aphorisms and quotes from "books that rarely exist" by writer, illustrator and musician Afonso Cruz is one of the best Portuguese-language books to have been released in 2009, a twisting maze of golems, giants, heretics, kabbalists, humble nabobs and the nature of opposites, determinism and DNA. While not exactly an original concept, Afonso Cruz braves this labyrinth without flinching in the shadow of his main influences, Jorge Luis Borges and Milorad Pavic, and I was happy to follow the trail of breadcrumbs he leaves behind.

Russia, recommended by translator Nikolai Karayev

Malaya Glusha by Maria Galina (EKSMO)
— Two interrelated magic realism novelettes set in Soviet era. The title novelette starts as a rural quest: a man and a woman go to the village Malaya Glusha (a place name like Little Backwoods) wishing to bring back the beloved dead. No border separates the reality and the mythological spacetime, the Styx is ubiquitous, and the road changes travellers irretrievably, may it be the troubled trail to Malaya Glusha or the life itself.

Tsifrovoy (The Digital) by Marina Dyachenko and Sergey Dyachenko (EKSMO)
— A technofantasy by two Ukrainian authors about a teenage Faust tempted by a cyber age Mephisto. While plunging in the online RPG, Arsen gets into some real trouble, is saved by an enigmatic man and only later realizes that his savior is a kind of an evil god, maybe even an alien (very Phildickian one, though much more friendly than Palmer Eldritch). This novel is a dark, tragic metaphor of becoming less human in the deceitful and illusive play-or-be-played world.

S nami bot (The bot with us) by Yevgeny Lukin (AST)
— An outstanding collection of one of the leading Russian SF writers is full of satire and irony. In the title novelette (which won several awards), a loser becomes voluntarily possessed by the analyzing device that generates simple verbal reactions. He immediately succeeds, as the society we live in (argues Lukin) is based mostly on the thoughtless speeches and mindless activities.

t by Victor Pelevin (EKSMO)
— A new novel of a famous fiction writer revolves around the adventures of Count T. who is recognizable as Leo Tolstoy in a strange, absurd setting. Before long Count becomes aware that he is merely a character in the commercial novel that is being composed by five bad writers. As always, Pelevin lets his character walk the path to enlightenment — and shows the strong contempt for the market-oriented art industry.

South Africa, recommended by writer Nick Wood

Remembering Green by Lesley Beake (Frances Lincoln Children's Books)
— A well written YA SF/F novel set in 2250 at the tip of an Africa ravaged by climate change involving a technological elite looking to harvest the last remaining resources of the continent, including a young captured girl for her ancestral knowledge. Beake's books are historically rich in African imagery and date back over twenty years with many garnered awards.

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
— A strong debut SF novel segueing between characters under pressure in a near-future dystopian Cape Town, unravelling towards a moving climax. Beukes is definitely a writer to watch and is following up with a much anticipated but unrelated SF novel entitled 'Zoo City' in 2010.

The Book of the Dead by Kgebetli Moele (Kwela Books)
— A gripping tale tracing a man born in poverty but making a life for himself only to contract HIV; the virus itself finds a voice in the unfolding narrative. Moele follows up powerfully to his debut novel 'Room 207', which won the Herman Charles Bosman prize.

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have recently appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Miami Herald, and more. Forthcoming books include the story collection The Third Bear, The Steampunk Bible, the web comic "The Situation" (with Eric Orchard), and a hundred-year overview of short weird fiction co-edited with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, and The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals (written with Ann).


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Peter Straub

The publication of Peter Straub's The Skylark and A Dark Matter only a handful of months apart gives readers a unique opportunity to see how one of the most talented living writers of fantastic fiction cuts a rough diamond of a novel into a brilliant gem. The two are essentially the same book, save that The Skylark is an earlier draft that weighed in 200 manuscript pages heavier than the tale told in the final trade edition. In Straub's own words, it's "a much looser, sloppier, more wild-eyed version of the book." Straub did this dual publication trick once before with "Mrs. God", an homage to the strange stories of Robert Aickman's that anchored his collection House Without Doors in its novella form, and also appeared in its full short novel length from specialty publisher Donald M. Grant in 1990. Comparing the two versions of his latest, one gets a fascinating glimpse into the creative process, and perhaps an inkling of how Straub conceived the vast backstory for his Millhaven Mythos (referring to the fictional Wisconsin community where so many of his novels are set or begin) from which he periodically carves out novels.

A Dark Matter is not set in Millhaven, but in Madison, and it's primarily the narrative of Lee Harwood, a writer of the same stripe as Tim Underhill, who has figured prominently in (and/or been portrayed as the "author" of) most of Straub's novels since Koko (1988). Harwood achieved bestsellerdom with his thriller The Agents of Darkness, for which he fictionalized the adventures of four high school friends, including the woman who eventually became his wife. Years later, blocked on the writing of his latest novel, Harwood shifts abruptly to writing a memoir in which he hopes to finally divulge the truth about the experience that inspired his bestseller. In order to do this, he decides to reacquaint himself with a close-knit quartet whose circle he was, by choice, only on the periphery of, and hear from their own mouths what happened.

One fall day in 1966, under the influence of a charismatic Svengali named Spencer Mallon, these four friends — Donald "Dilly-O" Olson, Howard "Hootie" Bly, Jason "Boats" Boatman, and Harwood's wife-to-be Lee "The Eel" Truax — joined with three students at the local university in a quasi-occult ceremony in the school's agronomy meadow. Mallon, a shady shaman who had studied up on Cornelius Agrippa (AKA Paracelsus) and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was of the opinion that through the ceremony they "just might change the world." They did, indeed, though not quite in the positive spiritual way they thought they might. Owing to missed timing (as is later revealed) and Mallon's corrupt motives and ineptness (as is largely suspected) something goes horribly wrong: one of the college students is torn to pieces, another vanishes from the face of the Earth, and the four high school friends are left with emotional and psychological scars that shaped the people whom they have become in their adult lives.

Stories in which friends reconvene as adults to come to terms with a terrifying shared traumatic experience from their youth have been a staple of modern horror fiction since Straub all but introduced the form in 1979 with Ghost Story (and which he acknowledges at one point in the novel with a reference to that tale's femme fatale, Alma Mobley). But instead of arriving at some version of consensual truth, the four friends in A Dark Matter find that they all saw and experienced something different that fateful day. Donald, who becomes Mallon's protégé, became aware of a phalanx of vaguely anthropomorphic doglike creatures who prowl on the periphery of our reality, helping to contain the kind of mischief that irresponsible occultists like Mallon unleash. Hootie, who has become so unbalanced that he is incapable of speaking in anything other passages quoted from novels (significantly The Scarlet Letter, and its ripe rhetoric on sin and evil), saw a dark and menacing otherworld intersect our own. Boats, who has spent much of his adult life working as a professional thief, saw a field stacked with the bloody corpses of young children. The Eel, who has slowly gone blind over the intervening years, ironically saw even more: her consciousness "rose," and from the height it attained she was able to observe the full panorama of horrifying marvels, including an extradimensional door that swallowed one student, and the emergence of hideous demonic entity that tore the other student apart. Straub's skillful juxtaposition and interweaving of each character's story in Rashomon-like fashion helps to suggest a horror so otherworldly and profound that any one person can only glimpse a facet or fragment of it. To try and understand it in its entirety would invite madness.

It's possible to read this rich and inventive novel on many levels, but two major interpretations emerge from Straub's deftly structured narrative. The events of 1966 unfold while the war in Vietnam is raging and student unrest is sparking protests on campus and brutal reprisals against them. Mallon's hope to transform the Earth involves the use of a "sacred violence" to end the violence of the war and the times. Keith Hayward, the student who is slaughtered, is a sociopath and sadist whom Mallon believes can help catalyze his cosmic scheme. But Mallon is neither up to the audacity of his actions nor prepared for the enormity of what he introduces into our world, and Straub implies that the disorder and chaos of the Vietnam era and its aftermath could be attributed to the forces that Mallon unleashed. A Dark Matter fits very comfortably on the same continuum that includes George R.R. Martin's The Armageddon Rag (1985), Stephen Wright's M31 (1989), Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss (2008), and countless other novels concerned with the dark side of the sixties counterculture and the dreams of transcendence that curdled into nightmares.

Quite possibly, though, Straub is getting at something a little less momentous but a little more salient as regards the tale of modern horror. From her superior vantage point above the agronomy meadow, The Eel observes the rampaging demon inadvertently summoned by Mallon and sees it not as a being of insuperable supernatural Evil, but "the famous Noonday Demon... the savage demon of the second rate, the demon of everyday evil."

No one was ever supposed to see it as it made its way to and fro in the world, causing men to fall off ladders, and babies to stiffen and die, and corn crops to wither, women to lose unborn babies in a bloody flux, drunken drivers to steer into oncoming lanes, husbands to beat wives, women to roast their husbands alive in their beds like cockroaches, old friends to quarrel and separate. It moved through its boundless territory, bringing chaos and disorder, bringing despair.

Straub seems to be saying here that the worst consequences of the event in the agronomy meadow possibly were not the dismemberment of Keith Hayward and the disappearance of the other student — which could only be explained in terms of the supernatural Evil one finds in horror fiction — but the arousal of those indefinable and indistinguishable forces of personal fate that set the characters (like ordinary people) on the path to mediocre adult lives full of disappointment, disillusionment, and the inescapable sense that they live (as Straub eloquently phrases it in The Skylark) "in an empty world aggressively devoid of meaning."

Since the 1960s, the modern horror tale has increasingly shifted its focus from the supernatural menaces that defined the genre from the Gothic through the pulp eras to unsettling expressions of what might be called the dark side of everyday life. The generation of writers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, among them Straub, gave us a whole new type of horror fiction rooted in the fears of people navigating a world that seemed chaotic, confusing, unpredictable, unrelenting, and full of unforeseeable drama. The body of work they created has largely redefined the iconic monsters and tropes that once summarized supernatural Evil (with a capital "E") in terms of the everyday evil Straub describes in A Dark Matter. His novel is a powerful and eloquent crystallization of the ambitions of the modern horror story.

As regards the differences between the two versions of the novel, The Skylark provides a more detailed linear account of events leading up to the event in the agronomy meadow, and fuller backstories for the characters. In particular, it develops the character of Keith Hayward, and his bond with an uncle who encourages his sociopathy and who himself is a serial killer whose murders inspire insightful discussions among the novel's other characters of the nature of evil. To craft the tale as A Dark Matter, Straub amplified the role played by Lee Harwood and shifted from an omniscient to a more first-person narrative voice. Each novel is very enjoyable on its own. The publication of the two together constitutes a major event in horror publishing this early in the 21st century.

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

A Dark Matter

Peter Straub

(Doubleday 978-0-385-51638-9, $26.95, 352pp, hc) February 2010

The Skylark

Peter Straub

(Subterranean Press 978-1-59606-271-9, $50.00, 592pp, hc) November 2009


Faren Miller reviews N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin is a highly promising debut. It's the first of a trilogy set in a world whose three major gods went to war eons ago. That conflict almost fatally weakened the Nightlord who emerged first from chaos, when his sibling the Bright Lord (Skyfather) came to ascendance and crushed all opponents except for some forgotten minor gods. These godlings still exist as prisoners, slaves, or weapons capable of the occasional horrific act, and not just plagues: "Occasionally the population of an entire city will vanish overnight. Once, jagged steaming pits appeared where there had been mountains."

Between Darkness and Light lie the transitional states of dawn and dusk, various wise/trickster demigods who only pay lip service to Light, and the ostensibly pious mortal world. Over the centuries, they all have interacted to the point where no divinity is free from human traits, none stands aloof from the world. Even though the time of mortal/divine couplings is over, its "demon" offspring extinct, in this place atheism would be blind optimism — for the interplay goes on.

If this sounds complicated, it is, and so is the human politics of kingdoms and ruling families, but it can also be a lot of fun. Jemisin's heroine Yeine has been drawn from her "barbarian" homeland (whose female rule and respect for the land actually sound appealing) to the political heart of the kingdoms, the extraordinary city known as Sky. Though her mother had been a runaway princess from the ruling family, Yeine is shocked to be named the third heir of Sky's ailing king. Inheritance traditionally passes to the only survivor among the nominees, and she wants neither the fight (with a pair of nasty, if very different, opponents) nor the prize. But her mother died under mysterious circumstances, and this seems a likely place to track down the villain(s). Though she doesn't know it, the gods also have reason to take interest in her.

Blunt, smart, and socially inept, Yeine doesn't much resemble standard fantasy heroines who are just coming into their powers or busy kicking asses. After she learns just what part the gods played in her background, she tells it her own way, beginning with a struggle for words:
Once upon a time there was a
Once upon a time there was a
Once upon a time there was a
Stop this. It's undignified.

When she finds the tone she wants, it's irreverent and observant, a clear eye focused on the family life of immortal siblings.

A similar blend of inventiveness, irreverence, and sophistication — along with sensuality — brings vivid life to the setting and other characters: human or otherwise, "good" or "bad." In an interview Extra, Jemisin notes that the main thing missing from this royal drama is ordinary people, and they'll show up in Book Two of the Inheritance Trilogy. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms definitely leaves me wanting more of this delightful new writer.

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

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

N.K. Jemisin

(Orbit 978-0-316-04391-5, $13.99, 422pp, tp) February 2010


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Adrienne Martini reviews Connie Willis

When Blackout landed in my hands, I did, in fact, do a little dance of joy. The nearly six years between Connie Willis novels has been about five years too long. While I understand that her process takes time, I still craved a deliciously immersive Connie Willis book. To hell with the writer, I want her work now.

I know this is wrong. As many have reiterated online: the writer is not my bitch. Noted. I did my best to wait as patiently as a Willis-fan could.

Six years is a long time to build up expectations, however. I was ready to have my socks blown plum off by Blackout, which is why I was so let down by the first one-fifth of the book. Nearly nothing could have stood up to that level of anticipation.

Blackout opens like one of Willis's wonderful takes on the classic screwball comedy. Set in the same milieu as 1999's To Say Nothing of the Dog and 1993's Doomsday Book (my desert island title), Blackout starts with the same madcap energy. Three historians in 2060 are preparing to go back in time to do research on the "contemps," the folks who are actually living through that patch of time.

As seems usual, the time travel lab at Oxford, run still by Mr. Dunworthy, is one small breeze away from chaos. Historians keep having their assignments changed at the last minute, like Michael Davies, who prepared for Pearl Harbor but instead is sent to Dunkirk. The academic bureaucracy keeps historian Merope Ward, who is working in the countryside with kids evacuated from London during WWII, from learning how to drive, which is crucial to her completing her research. And Polly Churchill, who plans to work as a shopgirl during the Blitz, can't get the wardrobe department to give her a black skirt, without which she'll be unable to find employment.

Their issues – and all of the running about that they do to overcome these obstacles – is fun. Willis is a master at lighthearted dashing about, which she uses to poke gentle fun at academia and the people who work in its protected towers. Still, for such an anticipated book, I wanted more than a 1940s set Doomsday Book.

To cut to the chase, I got much more, despite my worries that I wouldn't.

Willis works in hints that all might not be well with the "net," the device that allows the historians to be sent back in time without altering the history that they're studying. Mr. Dunworthy, who remains offstage for all of Blackout, keeps turning up in third-party conversations and phone calls. The historians sense that he's concerned about something – so much so that he keeps re-arranging schedules and pestering the technicians – but we never get a clear picture of what's wrong. We're able to brush off his worries until unpredictable things (which I won't mention, natch) start to happen to Churchill, Ward, and Davies. And it's at that point when the light screwball ends.

In addition to her deft comedic touch, Willis is also a master at fully immersing the reader in her worlds without resorting to clunky informational dumps. Her 1940s Britain is richly textured, perhaps because she is so keen at focusing her attentions on her characters and how they respond to the time they are experiencing, rather than painting vast canvases for them to walk across. The difference is subtle, yes, but important.

What she's also able to do is to play her reader like a newly tuned piano. Scenes that could be milked for every last mawkish drop somehow get around your defenses and wring out your heart. Moments that you think you know how they'll feel because you've seen them played out so many times – like when a historian is caught outside during an air raid and shells are falling near her – don't feel routine here. Willis makes them immediate and new, so that you feel them even more keenly.

Which has always been a problem when it comes to time travel in Willis's world. The historians can always fall back on their status as mere visitors:

Not knowing. It was the one thing historians could never understand. They could observe the contemps, live with them, try to put themselves in their place, but they couldn't truly experience what they were experiencing. Because I know what's going to happen. I know Hitler didn't invade England, that he didn't use poison gas or destroy St. Paul's. Or London. Or the world. That he lost the war.

And still Willis writes passages that make you hold your breath until you learn that everyone emerges OK.

Which they don't always do – but part of the joy of this ride is the discovery of how it all falls apart.

What's missing, of course, is the part of the story where it all comes back together again. The second half of Blackout, All Clear, won't be published until July. All Clear is not a sequel; it's simply the second half of the story started in Blackout, which ends with all of the characters dangling over a figurative cliff, waiting to see what form of rescue will come, if it comes at all. It's a curious choice by Spectra to hack the book up. But it's a small inconvenience to endure in order to read this story. It's easier to wait six months than six years.

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


Connie Willis

(Spectra 055-3-803-190, $26.00, 512pp, hc) February 2010


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer on The Best of 2009

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.


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? — 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 best-of from PS Publishing, Just Behind You is 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.)


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.


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).

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have recently appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Miami Herald, and more. Forthcoming books include the story collection The Third Bear, The Steampunk Bible, the web comic "The Situation" (with Eric Orchard), and a hundred-year overview of short weird fiction co-edited with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, and The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals (written with Ann).


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