When compiling best-of lists at the end of the year, it’s easy to overlook certain classes of deserving books. In a year filled with massive, highly publicized releases — a new Neal Stephenson, a Vernor Vinge sequel awaited for twenty years — wonderful books with less flash can go unnoticed in the shadows. A debut novel, perhaps. Or the second book in a quiet series. Or a novel published right at the busy holiday end of the calendar year.
I have selected one of each of these oft-neglected types to bring to your attention. But besides highlighting these superior books, this essay hopes to remind you to cast your own literary nets widely when selecting your personal candidates for the year’s finest.
When the World Is Running Down
The old career path for genre writers — polish your chops with short stories, garner some notice, then get a book deal — has undergone lots of evolution. Many young writers leap straight to novel-length tales nowadays — not always nimbly or successfully enough to ensure a long run. But for some, the old ways still work. Will McIntosh is one such. After graduating from the fabled Clarion SF Workshop in 2003, he began publishing accomplished short stories, finally picking up a Hugo Award for “Bridesicle.” This year sees his first book, Soft Apocalypse, and it bears the razor-sharp edge earned by the honing of that apprentice work.
McIntosh’s bracingly bleak novel, a triumph of believable doomsaying with a black-humored heart, stands firmly in the “Mundane SF” camp first staked out by Geoff Ryman and later best exemplified by Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a book that’s kissing cousin to McIntosh’s. Eschewing the more outré tropes and conceits of SF — telepathy, interstellar empires, sentient robots — Mundane SF focuses on the realistic near-term prospects of our planet. And as you might suspect, if you’ve even been scanning the headlines lately, those horizons can look awfully grim. McIntosh’s genius what-if premise shows a bedrock simplicity: what would the world look and feel like if the conditions in Somalia circa 2011 — amped up speculatively, of course — prevailed everywhere? Specifically, In Savannah, Georgia, home to Jasper, our semi-likeable, semi-detestable antihero.
A Millennial Baby, Jasper was born in 1995, and we pick up his tale in the year 2023, when he’s a homeless gypsy roaming the parched, designer virus-plagued, hate-filled American West with his fellow impoverished tribe members. He soon relocates back to his home city and finds life improving a tiny bit, as he grabs the lowest rung on the ladder of some kind of minimal stability and security, finding work in a convenience store. But all is relative. Jumpy-Jump terrorists roam the streets openly. Civil Defense forces are a venal extortion racket. Mutant bamboo sown by the Science Alliance erupts through the pavement unpredictably. And it’s generally a dog-eat-dog (or person-eat-dog) existence.
McIntosh tells his tale in fluid first-person reportage, with chapters that function almost as stand-alone stories, but with recurrent characters and threads and symbols, following an arc of entropy and maturation. Each chapter leaps ahead significantly in time, giving the narrative a disorienting jump-cut momentum. We ride the shoulders of Jasper as, with his posse of idiosyncratic pals, he alternates between selfishness and altruism, despair and hope, lust and apathy.
McIntosh’s unrelenting and unflinching car crash documentary of a novel surprises by just how tonic it is. There’s a liberation to be had in envisioning the worst that can happen, and somehow living through it. Harking back to such landmarks as Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction,” John Barnes’s Century Next Door series, and Thomas Disch’s 334, the book actually might be best likened to a season of Friends or Seinfeld, mated with John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, pushing chrome-plated irony through bloody horror and emerging annealed.
War Is Over if You Want It
Although Kathleen Ann Goonan’s 2007 novel In War Times won the John Campbell Award, it’s been relatively neglected ever since, uninvited into the upper ranks of the fannish canon of twenty-first-century SF. My evidence for this, besides intuition and hearsay? Here’s one measure. The novel’s title plus Goonan’s last name, used as search terms, translate into some 80,000 Google hits. The same test on the similarly scaled, more populist book of a peer, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, delivers half a million references. Scalzi’s novel had two years’ head start, but still….
The outsider nature of In War Times derives from the old controversies of mainstream versus genre, of subtlety versus flash, of humanism versus technophilia. Although it should be said right from the outset that this is a problem of perception, not reality, since Goonan’s superb book actually unites and transcends all these antinomies with skill and zest. Yet to a superficial reader, it seems to lean away from pure science fiction while still containing a core of speculative imagination. Its territory is awkwardly situated between two literary camps.
Goonan’s novel covers the years 1940 to 1980. It’s the saga at first of loner Sam Dance and, eventually, his family too, after he marries vivacious OSS agent Bette Elegante. Sam is a young man when WWII breaks out, tasked with secret radar work for the Army. But he also has a mission that’s even more hidden. He’s been covertly entrusted with half-formed plans and clues about a weird gadget, developed by the mysterious scientist Eliani Hadntz. The Hadntz Device could literally remake the world, using quantum linkages between the brain and matter to alter history and shift the entire planet into new, more welcoming timelines.
Mining her own father’s actual WWII experiences, Goonan achieves a deep and rich verisimilitude for all the wartime passages. She crafts a beautiful correspondence between jazz music and quantum physics (shades of Richard Feynman’s bongo playing!). Her unique interpretation of the many-worlds theory is genuinely speculative. She builds living characters beautifully from the ground up, making us feel intensely for Sam and company. Her utopian themes are inspiring. And her sly depiction of warping realities is worthy of Philip K. Dick. In short, this novel reads like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, seeded with Christopher Priest’s The Separation and watered with some of Michael Moorcock’s multiversal inventions. It should really be on every fan’s shortlist of best books of the past decade.
Now comes the sequel, which has been reviewed only lightly since its midyear release. This Shared Dream, while fully as expert and enjoyable as its predecessor, feels necessarily different. In War Times was all about the exciting quest, with victory uncertain; This Shared Dream is all about protecting and extending what was won, inglorious maintenance duty. The challenges and price of defending an achievement are different than those of winning the prize in the first place.
The year is 1991, and Sam and Bette have been separated from their loved ones by the reality-shifting their work has brought about. On the timeline they are now sundered from, their three children — Jill, Brian and Megan — are all adults with families of their own. But only Jill remembers, in nebulous jigsaw fashion, that the world was ever different. The dissonance is driving her crazy and ruining her personal life. But otherwise, the world is ticking along nicely (no AIDS, no war, universal education through smartbooks). The Hadntz Device is now distributed in consumer products that conduce toward peace, stability, equality, and empathy. HD-50, an upgrade that enforces instant empathy, looms on the horizon. (Goonan has some sharp things to say about thrusting goodness onto people against their will.) But the speed bump in the path to paradise is an elderly unreformed Nazi who wants to use the power of reality alteration for his own nefarious purposes. He’ll be as much a threat to Jill and family as the disbelief the rest of the world has in her revelations.
The narrative is split mainly among the viewpoints of Bette and her three children, making for a more diffuse story than previously. But Goonan employs the multivalent perspective to get across a good portrait of her proto-utopia: a bold undertaking often shirked by SF writers. Additionally, there’s a kind of mythic, familial John Crowley ambiance, as the doings at the ancestral Dance homestead, Halcyon House, resonate with the magical affairs at the Drinkwater manse in Little, Big.
Goonan also gets a good Henry Kuttner vibe going — recall that writer’s classic “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” in which toys displaced from the future cause children to evolve strangely. Goonan’s take: “The essential agents in Hadntz’s Device, which fostered altruism, were also in the cereal toys she had just sold to General Mills. These agents were transmittable through touch, and through the very air. They formed networks, which would grow. Their molecular design came from another timeline, one in which engineering had accomplished molecular replication. Should one be cut in two, each would regenerate a complete figure. This practically guaranteed worldwide distribution in a short period of time.”
The story, much of which unpacks lost memories in a solidly constructed Washington, D.C. venue, nonetheless manages to convey a sense of urgency about humanity’s evolutionary path. Goonan uses the word fragile often, hinting at the house-of-cards nature of civilization. The urgent necessity for our species to master its worst impulses and take charge of its own destiny — a core tenet of the SF genre — has seldom been conveyed with such emotional and intellectual force.
The Future Is a Voyage Without End!
Lately, if we do not find ourselves living through the collapse of civilization in our science fiction novels, we are often just on the far side of such a sea change, inhabiting an “Ozymandias” landscape with the melancholy feeling of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard.” This mode has noble roots in SF: George Stewart’s Earth Abides; Edgar Pangborn’s Davy; John Crowley’s Engine Summer; Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. Tales of humble folks in reduced circumstances, oftentimes exhibiting strange adaptive customs, living in the ruins of our techno-Acropolises. Jump ahead far enough in time, and you end up in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, where our failed era is mere myth.
John Wright’s heady, slam-bang new series kickoff, Count to a Trillion (somewhat haplessly released in a season when the attention of readers is elsewhere and many best-of selections have already been solidified), starts out in such a milieu, before moving to far stranger places.
In the 2200s, the remnants of the fallen USA are ruled by the dominant powers of the Hispanosphere and the Indosphere. (The whole globe is a place of diminished expectations, still emerging from various plagues, wars, and Dark Ages.) Our hero, Menelaus Montrose, is a young Texas lad prone to dreaming about past and future glories. (He is particularly enamored with an ancient Star Trek-style show called Asymptote, whose catchphrase is “The Future Is a Voyage Without End!”) He grows up to be a lawyer specializing in out-of-court settlements: dueling to the death. But he’s rescued from this harsh career by a patron who recognizes his innate intelligence.
After training, Menelaus finds himself on mankind’s first new expedition to the stars. But something goes horribly wrong: he’s put into suspended animation and is awakened after 164 years, when his condition can finally be cured. But this farther-off future is still not up to Menelaus’s lofty dreams, and he sets out to do something about his disappointments, employing his mutant brain, Tex-Mex aggressiveness (cue the ring-tailed roarer antics of R. A. Lafferty), and his love for the beautiful Princess Rania, ruler of the galaxy — or at least mankind’s sorry portion thereof.
With his previous book having been the authorized sequel to an A. E. van Vogt series — Null-A Continuum — Wright is still flying high in the recomplicated space-opera fashion. This story is full of million-year-old indecipherable Monuments, ruthless hordes of cruel machines, and deadly intrigue among the merciless technocrats. But overall, Wright has toned down the surreal jargon and bizarre conceits this time around for a less-complex approach. He’s plainly bent on emulating such straight-ahead past masters as Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, whose Golden Age sagas of Earthmen transported to the far future enchanted many a reader. Some Leigh Brackett-style planetary romance can be discerned here too. And Wright resonates beautifully with this tradition, modifying it skillfully for sophisticated twenty-first-century tastes.
But the book features one last layer: the meta-, or self-referential one. Menelaus Montrose is not a naïve hero but rather what passes for an SF fan of his era. His first observations upon being revived are complaints about the lack of progress, including the semi-serious, “So no voluptuous green-skinned spacewomen in silvery space-bikinis?” He stands in for all those diehard fans who continue to believe in SF’s bright futures and limitless horizons, despite any short-term roadblocks, however high and seemingly insurmountable. This theme aligns Wright with some recent thoughtful work by William Barton.
Count to a Trillion is both a love letter and a call to arms. If you really believe the future is a voyage without end, consider this book the start to the countdown.