You know when you don’t think you’ve been keeping up to date, then you make a list? That was 2011. The year at least half a dozen of my favourite authors brought out new books I was desperate to read instantly. After a gap of over 20 years in one case, by the way, so that was a real thrill in itself.
It was, of course, a year when the whole women in SF thing blew up (again) and it seems that some men and even some women editors, bloggers and readers still don’t see a problem. My regular reader knows I’ve tried to point a few things out here and there and reviewed a few books I think you might like to know about here and at Sfmistressworks, but I noticed recently that my ideas for Christmas list was again uneven in its gender balance.
The point is that this year I have been looking back, filling in gaps where I had missed reading some of these women SF writers of the past. (Not just women, I spent chunks of 2011 reading or rereading the excellent but neglected short SF of Bob Shaw.) As a result this list might have omissions that surprise you, maybe I didn’t find time, or interest, to read the latest fan fave. Or maybe I did and it just wasn’t good enough.
So what was good enough?
15 Connemara A Little Gaelic Kingdom – Tim Robinson
Third of Robinson’s Connemara trilogy, a remarkable ‘deep map’ (to appropriate William Least-Heat Moon’s term for a work that delves into the social and historical geography alongside its physical detail.) In this volume Robinson intertwines folk tales, gossip and recorded data, taking from the Irish place names clues and guidance, to reveal for me the interdependence of the magical and the mundane in bringing life to a landscape.
14 The Islanders – Christopher Priest
In a way Priest does something similar to Robinson but with an entirely fictitious landscape. The Islanders is a little too aware of its own cleverness to succeed, but Priest is a writer whose failures entertain and frequently surpass lesser writers’ successes. A book perhaps to come back to.
13 Heart Of Iron – Ekaterina Sedia
Rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors, Sedia’s alternate Russia where the Decembrists succeeded has many basic aspects that lift it above the herd. Not least is a proper awareness of the history she changes, so her steampunk trappings are rational not gimmicks.
12 Don’t Look Back – Laura Lippman
When she was a teen Eliza survived kidnapping by a serial killer, now 20 years later he writes to her from Death Row. A recurring theme in Lippman’s recent novels has been how we recall past trauma. Don’t Look Back examines not only Eliza and Walter’s versions, but also why they believe them, and why others believe them. Murder is rarely central to Lippman’s crime novels, in this case it is the nature of the punishment and the legacy of the crimes that she carefully examines.
11 City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
A debut novel set in a near future, unexplained Irish city, with its gangs and its lovers. SF fans may balk at Barry’s unwillingness to offer a global backstory, but his sketched city is the more real for its gaps.
10 A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
Another unexplained near future and past, cleverly revealed in a series of linked, overlapping or abutting vignettes, stories, scenes and character sketches.
A mere 23 years or so after her last book, Kennedy is finally back in print with a varied selection of straight SF, dystopian fictions, fantasy and romance. Mostly understated, deceptively quiet, Kennedy frequently leaves her reader pondering the story, and always wanting more. Personal favourite? ‘Vulture Trucks’ is a fun Texan supernatural tale.
8 Mr. Fox – Helen Oyeyemi
In places Mr.Fox is perhaps the most charmingly romantic novel I read in 2011, the flirtation between Fox and Mary is so softly handled. The vignette structure means these are brief, which would often be frustrating, but between them are other equally effective scenes.
The writer whose fictional muse comes to life is not new, the way Oyeyemi exploits it is very good. Creativity, gender power relationships, and love are explored with wit in a thoughtful novel.
7 Regicide – Nicholas Royle
A slim, dark, brooding menace of true urban fiction reminiscent of M John Harrison’s 80s short fiction. Distorted streetscapes, apparently shifting rules that may actually obey a mysterious other logic and a gripping realist telling of a noir fantasy as his readers have come to expect from Royle. Of the three I’ve read to date his best so far.
6 The Bible Repairman & Other Stories – Tim Powers
Several intriguing, atmospheric tales of mostly Californian Urban Fantasy by the absolute master of that subgenre. And the highlight of this collection, a novella ‘A Time To Cast Away Stones’ which follows Edward Trelawny to Greece after the events of The Stress Of Her Regard. This year I read my fifth Trelawny biography, and as you’d expect, I cast a critical eye on Powers’ version, but his impeccable research won through, and his rich imaginations granted a remarkable man a new light in fantasy.
5 The Beautiful Indifference – Sarah Hall
Reviewed here the third short story collection in this list is a stylistic tour de force and an emotional epic. Geographically varied but often emphatically northern, Hall’s work continues to impress.
Amongst other things Shiner’s latest novel made me want to dance. In 200 pages he tells us all about Tango, about the death squads in 1970s Argentina, about the reconstruction of recent years and ties in a genuine, moving romance, meditation on the sins of our fathers (a recurrent Shiner theme), and post-breakup reconstruction. Throw in evocative depictions of Tango halls and explicit, brutal torture scenes and you have a powerful, realistic romantic political thriller.
3 God’s War – Kameron Hurley
Strange Horizons’ Niall Harrison made a big thing about this earlier in the year. When I finally got a copy just before Christmas I discovered how right he was.
God’s War hits the ground running and barely pauses from there on in. Fantasy that looks like SF, an immersion into a perpetual war on a curious planet settled by islamic types some of whom have powers, some of whom have weaponry. It’s about gene piracy, bounty hunters, tech magic, and personal history. I’ve read little like it at all.
2 The Uncertain Places – Lisa Goldstein
Reviewed here I make no apology for reasserting my belief that Goldstein deserves as much acclaim as the likes of Crowley, Powers and Gaiman. Re-telling fairytales in fantasy is common, reminding us why we need fairytales less so, and doing that within a clever, charming and joyful story quite rare.
And finally, if you follow me on Twitter or talked to me this year, then no surprise…
An alternative history of the early twentieth century, of life in the backwoods of Georgia and the growing city of Chicago. Alternative because Hairston’s rich, passionate love story reveals the lives of black Americans in every detail, from the opening scene lynching, to minstrel shows, pioneering black cinema, brothels and exploitative landlords, hoodoo and christianity.
I read Redwood & Wildfire three times in 9 months, each time seeing more in the story to, not bring it more to life so much as enhance the world beyond its pages. The obscure historical references that, once I learned some were true, gave the whole an air of realism on the one hand that supported the gentle, occasionally angry, magic.
On each read I shared the anger, fear, grief, laughter, love and loss that saturates this novel until they were my feelings.
Redwood & Wildfire incorporated so much so easily, in vivid depiction of The World’s Fair (visited by time travel), in powerfully demonstrating the ways black society works and fails alike, in beautifully handled episodes of non-conforming sexuality (not least the eponymous lovers, but also gay and seemingly polygamous characters) and in so much more, that it was unchallenged as the best book of 2011 and perhaps one of the very best of the century so far.