I've said this before, but I'll say it again: Clarion taught me a lot about writing stories, but it also taught me a lot about reading stories - and just how little in the field of SF/F/H I'd actually read. You see, as a young reader I was a huge fan of Star Trek books and anything from Timothy Zahn, then in high school I turned to The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire; during college, I read a lot of Tim O'Brien, Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, and Elmore Leonard. All of these books influenced my writing, of course, and I don't regret reading any of them (okay, maybe I regret those Star Trek books) - in fact, I reread The Things They Carried and Jesus' Son pretty much every year. However, as far as the genre I'd loved as a teenager - science fiction and fantasy - I wasn't as well-versed in as I thought I was or should have been prior to Clarion. I was familiar with and enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, and Douglas Adams but unfamiliar with a lot of current SF, as well as those harder-to-find classics. All I knew though was that I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy because I loved the possibilities these authors (as well as GRRM and Niven, and now a great many others) presented in their stories.
During Clarion, my ignorance and naivete of the genre hit me like a punch to the gut. I resolved to read as much as I could - classics and new - in the field. In fact, Chip Delany - one of the instructors at my Clarion - said, and I'm paraphrasing here I think, "to read one book of classic SF and one book of new SF every month." I took that advice to heart. It's impossible, of course, to read everything in a year (even for someone unemployed for most of it) and, though I'm by no means finished nor could I ever be, I feel as though I've made the tiniest of notches in the genre highway - see that little etching there, right there, put your face closer to the pavement, there, that's me. At least, it's a start. I understand the history of the genre better than I did year ago, which is important from an historical perspective for a writer; though perhaps most excitingly, I've found some truly amazing authors - writers I will follow for a good long time: Genevieve Valentine, Samuel R. Delany, Catherynne M. Valente, Maureen F. McHugh, J.M. McDermott, Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, Nnedi Okorafor...the list goes on.
So. To the point then. Though I did read many books published this year, I also read a great many published last year, and the year before, and the year before, and twenty years ago, and fifty years ago. Unsurprisingly then, this "Best Of 2011" list is a sort-of comprehensive look back at My Year in SF.
Best Books 2011
Though I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite book published in 2011, I have chosen three that I think are just wholly inventive and beautifully written.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine
The tale revolves around the performers of a circus vying for a pair of gold wings and steering clear of government men in a steampunkish, post-apocalyptic world. The nonlinear narrative is one of the story's strengths, glimpsing the future and the past, letting the reader work out the structure for him/herself. It's just fantastic, and you should read it.
Embassytown by Chine Mieville
Can we call this novel "linguistpunk?" Mieville has created a wonderfully original alien species unable, through their perception of language, to lie. This is Mieville's first true "science fiction" novel, though he's always balanced a line between it, fantasy, weird, horror, literary; and he proves again with Embassytown that he can do anything. It is dark, monstrous, and beautiful.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
A little noir, a little sci-fi, a little thriller, a lot of awesome. Beukes' prose startles and pops and snaps: Zoo City is alive from the first page through the end. Zinzi December has the ability to find lost things. A celebrity singer goes missing and Zinzi is tasked to find her - though she hates missing people cases. Oh, did I mention she has a sloth on her shoulder?
Best Anthology 2011
There were two anthologies published this year that just blew me away. That they're edited by the same two people is also pretty amazing. That these same two people were our last Clarion instructors and that they've also published several Clarion classmates in one of these anthologies, as well as, various other projects they've worked on this year is *headsplosion*
Okay, there are some other really cool anthologies published this year - Solaris Rising edited by Ian Whates, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress 26 edited by Elisabeth Waters (including a story by Clarion classmate Jennifer Hsyu), The Best of Dark Fantasy and Horror 2011 edited by Paula Guran...But the following two anthologies were unsurpassed in originality of concept and breadth of writers and stories:
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
This anthology is a cross-pollinating, genre-hopping, meta-wielding monster. It tells of objects and other sundry things found in the home of Dr. Lambshead after his death. Many of these items were scarred by a fire. The anthology is sort of a fictional historical narrative encompassing the life and madness and collection of one of recent fiction's most eccentric figures, even using visuals (such as pictures, graphs, etc.) to illustrate this point. It's fantastic. Each reading brings forth more nuances, deeper layers.
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
Comprising the last 100 years of weird fiction, this anthology is a must-have for readers of any genre. Just take a look at the Table of Contents and you get the idea: a lot of writers you might not think of as "weird" - Michael Chabon and Jamaica Kincaid, for instance - make forays into the genre now and again. Perhaps what's most exciting about this anthology - beyond the stories, of course! - is the inclusion of international writers of weird - a thing which, head-scratchingly so, few anthologies published in the States (weird or no) seem to be doing; as well as highlighting underrated authors who haven't gotten the mainstream attention their writing deserves (read: Eric Basso's "The Beak Doctor").
The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz
Published in the original Czech in 2000 and translated in 2010, I heard about this book from Omnivoracious and, from Vandermeer's glowing review, knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed. The Golden Age is beautifully written, full of wondrous, vivid descriptions (the jellied statue, the Island's Book). The novel is mostly plotless; instead the narrative is driven forward by recollections of various incidents and encounters with the Book. This may be one of my favorite books ever. I cannot recommend it enough. Here is another story from Ajvaz, just as perplexing, just as beautiful, and translated by himself.
A Few Classics
I read a lot of what is considered "classic SF" over the past year or so. I think most people will be familiar with The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, Babel-17/Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany, Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison, and so on. Though, if you aren't, I highly recommend all of these; each of them are good jumping off points into the genre. Here are a few, however, that I personally had never heard of until Clarion and seem to be harder to find in bookstores but are most definitely worth the read.
We Who Are About To... by Joanna Russ
This brief novel left me dizzy for days. A ship carrying a small number of people crashes on a remote planet. There is no hope of rescue. Some of the survivors work toward building a civilization-of-sorts, reveling in what Samuel R. Delany calls, in his introduction "a generous universe"; the narrator, however, chooses a different path, and the outcome is harrowing and thought-provoking.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
This novel is really a set of three interlinked novellas set on the sister worlds Saint Anne and Saint Croix. In the first novella, titled "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," the narrator discovers his dark past; in the second, "'A Story', by John V. Marsch," an anthropologist happens upon shapeshifters native to the island; and in the third novella, "V.R.T.," a bureaucrat reads the diary of mad scientist. Like all things Wolfesian, these stories are densely layered, heady stuff.
A Smattering of Good Books from the Past and Up to the Near-Present
The title of this section says it all: these are some of my favorite books that I read this year. They may not be considered "classics" yet but who can say.
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts
Russian science fiction writers are tasked with creating a believable alien invasion story. Then their story starts coming true. It's rare a book makes me laugh out loud, but Roberts succeeded in doing so three or four times in this co(s)mic journey with the fiction's finest ironist.
The Fixed Stars: Thirty-seven Emblems for the Perilous Season by Brian Conn
Post late-capitalists in a very surreal post-world. There is a bristle boar woman and a bathhouse. The narrative folds back on and over and in on itself. Fixed Stars is more like a long poem or a future folktale - I don't know. It's powerful and dark and fluid.
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
Teenage vampire hobo junkies roam the Pacific Northwest. One girl searches for her sister and is chased by a serial killer. The words within Creeps will leap out and eviscerate you with their imagery. One of my favorite novels from last year.
Who Fears Death? by Nnedi Okorafor
Another of my favorite novels from last year. Set in a post-apocalyptic Africa (if you haven't noticed yet, I like the post-apocalypse, hurm hum), Death deals with a great many problems - genocide, female circumcision - in serious, intelligent ways.
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Half Senegalese folktale with Caribbean influences, Lord's debut is a fun (and sometimes funny) and serious (and sometimes heartbreaking) story of Paama who, after leaving her gluttonous husband, receives the Chaos Stick - an item the gods want back.
Half the Day is Night by Maureen F. McHugh
Slow burn kind of novel. McHugh's second novel, originally published in 1994, is a loose sequel to her splendid China Mountain Zhang, set in the underwater city of Marincite. Banks and corporate greed play a large part in this noir-ish novel.
The Troika by Stepan Chapman
A jeep, a brontosaurus, and an elderly Spanish woman make their way across a vast desert world with three purple suns, hounded by unpredictable storms and the truth of their pasts. They switch bodies sometimes. A mad angel watches over them - sort of. Chapman's prose sparkles and eviscerates. Read this book...if you dare.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
I just can't say enough good things about David Mitchell. Everything he's written is worth reading. Thousand Autumns is set in Nakasaki Harbor, Japan, at the turn of the 19th century. Jacob de Zoet has come to make his fortune and win the hand of his love back in Holland. It is a riveting story with just the slightest hint of supernatural forces.
Just A Great Wintertime Read
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
I read this book last December, so I'll always associate it with that cold, wintry month. It is a magical book about, erm, magic during the Napoleonic Wars. JS&MN is a tome-sized book, clocking in at something like 820 pages, so be prepared for a long haul, but it's worth every moment. I promise.