Updates: 2014 in Review (Top 10 SF novels + Top 10 Short SF works + Other Categories)

I like lists!  I like reading lists!  Here’s my rundown of the best and worst of what I read in 2014.

This year I have tried something new—my first guest post series. My ten post Michael Bishop review series—reviews written by SF bloggers interested in classic SF and frequent readers of my site—hopefully introduced a lot of my frequent readers to one of my favorite (and criminally underrated) authors.  My second post series did not transpire solely on my site but stretched to others—what Gollancz Masterworks should include…  Thanks for all the wonderful contributions!

Feel free to list your best reads of the year.  Maybe I’ll add a few of them to my to read/to acquire list.

…and, if you tend to agree with at least some of my views on SF, read these!

  

Best SF novel

1. Ice, Anna Kavan (1967):  Easily the best novel I have read this year, Kavan weaves a Kafka-esque landscape will touches of J. G. Ballard.  Ice, caused by some manmade disaster, is slowly creeping over the world.  The unnamed narrator is torn between two forces: returning to his earlier research on jungle dwelling singing lemurs in the southern regions vs. tracking down a young woman about whom he has the most disturbing, and often violent, hallucinations.

2. The Gamesman, Barry N. Malzberg (1975) is a a finely wrought, literary, and claustrophobic nightmare by a sorely underrated author.   Malzberg weaves yet another nihilistic thought experiment where people alternate between player and gamesman in a life consuming game.  Of course, the world outside is just as meaningless.

3. Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962):  Few SF novels tackle the memoir form.  Mitchison’s novel not only successfully evokes the everyday life of a woman explorer but also the struggles (and joys) generated by technology/exploration/alien contact.

4. Stolen Faces, Michael Bishop (1977): Far better than Bishop’s most famous novels (Transfigurations and No Enemy But Time), Stolen Faces tackles heady topics such as physical disability, disease, and collective memory.   Like some nightmarish condensate that gathers into waiting cups, it induces hellish visions.

5. Journey Beyond Tomorrow, Robert Sheckley (1962):  The best of Sheckley’s novels I have read so far.  Sheckley subverts the notion of narrative truth and by so doing explores the complex nature of storytelling.

6. Universe Day, Barry N. Malzberg (as K. M. O’Donnell) (1971):  It might be best to think of the novel as a thematically linked sequence—in what might be termed a “future history” but unlike any you have ever read—of impressions and snippets of “what really happened” paired with what we want to happen or delude ourselves into thinking happened.  All Malzberg’s major themes are on display, the space program as a manifestation of humankind’s delusions of grandeur, the dehumanizing power of technology, space as playground of existential nightmares, etc.

7. Picnic on Paradise, Joanna Russ (1968): delightfully subverts traditional SF pulp adventure tropes.  Although not as finely wrought as her later work, Picnic is worthwhile for all fans of feminist SF and the more radical visions of the 60s.

8. The Dream Master, Roger Zelazny (1966)-–expanded from the Nebula Award winning novella “He Who Shapes” (1965)—revolves around the Freudian notion of the centrality of dreams and importance of decoding dreams for psychoanalytical treatment.  My cup of tea!

9. The Centauri Device, M. John Harrison (1974):  Drug-addled and passive spacer John Tuck subverts space opera’s standard plots.  Vast, delightful strokes of grotesque satire populate a hilariously baroque world.  Do not expect your standard hero saves the world fare!

10. Transfigurations, Michael Bishop (1979): Contains Bishop’s masterpiece “Death and Designation Among the Asadi” (1973) and follows a similar pattern. This novella—conceived as a series of notes and transcribed recordings compiled and published after the disappearance of their author, a cultural xenologist named Egan Chaney.  This is the departure point for Transfigurations (1979). The mysteries of this powerful text within a text recounting Chaney’s trip into the Synesthesia Wild in search of the Asadi, are as unsettling as staring into non-human eyes.  Although the mysteries are slowly revealed, they remain truly alien.

~

  

Best short SF (novella, short story, novelette) (no more than two per author)

1. J. G. Ballard’s “Billenium” (1961): A hellish future where overpopulation has resulted in drastic reductions in the allotments of living space—the maximum by law is four square meters!  Ballard at his best.

2. Joanna Russ’ “The Second Inquisition” (1970): Russ applies the metafictional lens to her delightful Alyx stories… A layered, complex, and thought-provoking rumination on the power of storytelling.

3. Ian Watson’s “The Girl Who Was Art” (1976): posits an art movement in a future Japan where women perform the art for their own bodies for “guests.”  The combination of performance art, often sexually explicit, with “guests,” and Masters who order them to perform generates a current of profound unease.

4.  J. G. Ballard’s “Chronopolis” (1960): At some point in the future, society revolts against increasing regimentation/control: people were literally “driven by the master clock” (127).  The clock became the sign of oppression—and the Time Police were established to destroy everyone’s allegiance to the watch!

5. Philip José Farmer’s “Daughter” (1954): The sequel to “Mother,” “Daughter” follows Little Hardhead when she is evicted from Polyphema’s womb.   Her human father Eddie, was trapped inside of Polyphema in the previous story—soon he feels for the strange alien children.  Little Hardhead puts Eddie’s teaching to the test and constructs a multi-layered womb-shell from all different materials when she finds a suitable hill to implant herself—to the ridicule of other children.  Farmer’s work was downright radical for the 1950s.

6. Gene Wolfe’s “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (1970) is a delightful metafictional short story in the Archipelago sequence.  A boy named Tachman reads a book about pirates and the like and characters in the story enter into the life and influence his actions.  Of course his idyllic world contains some dark secrets…  And Tachman himself is but a literary creation.

7. Norman Spinrad’s “The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde” (1969):  Jerry Cornelius was an often metafictional character invented by Michael Moorcock.  Jerry appeared in numerous of Moorcock’s novels and stories and other authors, especially those involved in the New Worlds scene (edited by Moorcock) wrote often disconnected and vaguely relate stories with the same character.  Spinrad’s vision is an experimental and absurdist take on the class of bastardized ideologies

8. Barry N. Malzberg’s “Death to the Keeper” (1968): An actor by the name of George Stone commits suicide while reenacting the assassination of JFF on the TV program Investigations.   On the surface Investigations appears to be a vehicle to educate and be a force for good…  A similar premise would be explored to great effect in Malzberg’s later novel Revelations (1972).

9. Norman Spinrad’s “A Night in Elf Hill” (1968): One brother, Spence, writes a letter to his other brother Fred.  The letter is a “yell […] for help” (121).   The Merchant Service tests every individual who wants to join and gives them a number of years that they will tolerate in space before insanity takes over: to prevent people from going “ape.”  But the yell for help concerns a mud ball planet that holds a secret.

10. Ian Watson’s “Agoraphobia, A. D. 2000” (1977): A mysterious and delightfully obtuse story about a Japanese astronaut, Yamaguchi, who is forced to commit suicide in normally sealed and “sole remaining open space in the Tokyo megalopolis.”

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Worst Three SF Novels/Collections of the Year (avoid like the plague)

1. Double, Double, John Brunner (1969): It’s as painfully bad and shallow as a 50s B-film.  The plot concerns a strange collection of individuals, including a 60s band, who converge on a rural seaside town.   And of course, a bizarre monster wrecks havoc…  No tension, no surprise, nothing of value.

2. Ancient, My Enemy, Gordon R. Dickson (1974): Dickson continues to disappoint.  Intriguing stories descend into the doldrums of melodrama…

3. Sign of the Labrys, Margaret St. Clair (1963):  Wicca SF.  Fascinating world, tone….  And then the Wicca bits take over.

~

  

New Favorite Author

Criteria: An author whose work I had not read before (or read so little that I was unable to form an opinion) this year and are now amongst my favorites.  2014 saw a lack of quality new authors but the following does fulfill my criteria.

1. Ian Watson.  Namely for his damn good collection The Very Slow Time Machine (1979).  I have both The Jonah Kit (1975) and The Embedding (1973) on the shelf and will read them this year.

~

   
Most Disappointing Books

1. Eye Among the Blind, Robert Holdstock (1976): I understand completely that this is probably Holdstock’s weakest novel.  But a masterpiece of searing and thought-provoking anthropological SF was within grasp….

2. False Dawn, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978):  As with Holdstock, False Dawn had the potential to be a radical and forceful feminist apocalyptical masterpiece.  Unfortunately, the man still rescues the woman.

3. Indoctrinaire, Christopher Priest (1970):  General consensus probably places Indoctrinaire as Priest’s least appealing novel and will probably concur as I read more of his work.  Fascinating first half devolves into formless polemic…

For more lists/articles consult the INDEX

30 Replies to “Updates: 2014 in Review (Top 10 SF novels + Top 10 Short SF works + Other Categories)”

  1. My favourite SF reads of the year:-
    1. Dune by Frank Herbert. Read it three or four times over the years, and it is still a great read. Pity I made the mistake of trying the sequels this time….
    2. Double Star by Robert Heinlein. Never read it before. The lead character is one of Heinlein’s greatest creations.
    3. The Final Programme by Michael Moorcock. The first Moorcock book I’ve even liked, and I thought it was great fun. Total nonsense, but fun!

    1. I love the Dune sequels — or rather, the next two (Dune Messiah and Children of Dune).

      No fan of Heinlein although Double Star is at least readable… But it enters the ranks of “why the hell did it win a Hugo!” haha. Sorry.

      I need to read more of Moorcock’s work. I’ve only been disappointed so far…

      1. The one I want to read is “The Final Programme”.Like the ones I have,”Behold the Man” and “The Dancers at the End of Time”,it’s supposed to be one of his masterpieces,but so is the later “Gloriana”,which I also haven’t read.

        As I’ve said before though,I’ve only read the novel version of “Behold the Man”,not the novella for which he won the Nebula.This was probably even better,although the book length one isn’t all that long.

      2. Yeah, The Final Programme and Behold the Man are on my list. Tired of his lesser work… The Blood Red Game (1965) was awful. The Warlord of the Air (1971) in the Oswald Bastable was very average. Couldn’t convince myself to read the rest despite owning the first three in a single volume. The Ice Schooner (1969) was bland despite the fascinating world.

  2. I remember trying to find “Ice” years ago,due to Brian Aldiss’s praise for it,but was out of print.It sounds even more fascinating the way you describe it.I’ll look on Amazon.

    “Transfigurations” made a very promising start I think,but didn’t seem to have enough stamina……or the author didn’t….to sustain itself.I think it was too long and rambled,while the prose was I think,dryly acidic.

    1. I agree with your assessment of “Transfigurations” — I was waiting for your comments on my review but they never came 😉

      It is not Bishop’s best — Stolen Faces and A Funeral For the Eyes of Fire take the cake…

      But, Aldiss is on point in his assessment. It is ever so slightly repetitive — but, Kafka can be as well (The Castle, etc). Damn good.

      1. Sorry,I’ll have to go back to your review.I’ve no doubt though his other books are better….I’ll look out for them.

        “The Trial is much better.Far less rambling and more lucid.

  3. To be honest,”Nineteen Eighty-Four”.Yes it actually took me that long,but I probably appreciated it better than it would if I’d have read it when I was younger.Brilliant stuff!

    To be honest,”Transfigurations” wasn’t that bad,despite being far below the bottom rung.Others I’ve started this year,I couldn’t finish.

    “Camp Concentration” looked from the onset as though it was a five star book,but it just started to degenerate about halfway through,although I finished it.

    Happy new year.

    1. Nineteen Eight-Four was one of those transformative books—yes, I know, it is for a lot of people—that I read as a teen. Later I read Yevengy Zamyatin’s masterful We (written 1921– published 1924) which Orwell was clearly inspired by. I want to read London’s The Iron Heel (1908) and Karin Boye’s Kallocain (1940) to round out my knowledge of early dystopias…

      1. I might read “We”,but it’s not a book I’m in a hurry to read.

        Don’t you want to read Olaf Stapleton too.Start with “Star Maker” if you do.The only other one of his I’ve read,is “Last and First Men” though.

      1. I have most of your list on my buy-list, but the only ones I own are Dream Master which I don’t remember much of, and Indoctrinaire… not really itching to read that one even though I loved Inverted World.

        I think (hope?) you’ll like Kindred, it’s powerful stuff… and unlike most of her works it fits your pre-1980 requirement.

      2. You know, I’ve read Patternmaster. I have no idea what the hell that cover has to do with it. I mean I can guess, but wow, that’s stretching it. You should submit it to Good Show Sir.

      3. I’ve read her “Wild Seed” and “Parable of the Sower”,but think the second book is better.I’m not nearly as keen on her stuff as I am Ursula LeGuin however.

  4. I’m working my way through Nebula Six and I loved the Russ & Wolfe stories. I really liked the Sturgeon story, too. Treading water on the Leiber story, but I hope to push through it this week.

    I ordered the Mitchison (finally) and looking forward to it!

    1. Yeah, heroic fantasy is perhaps my least favorite type of fantasy… He tries to be a tad bit gritty at least. But, I prefer his SF. It’s much better.

      Yeah, the Russ and Wolfe are the best of the collection. I look forward to your review of the Mitchison novel.

  5. Some good chat going on here – I’m learning stuff!
    I’ll also offer up my worst SF read of 2014 – Eon by Greg Bear. I disliked it nearly from the start but kept plowing through in the hope it would get better. It felt like a really bad episode of ST:TNG (I hate that show!). Runner up was Big Time by Fritz Leiber, which at least had the plus of being a lot shorter! I generally love Leiber and wanted to love this, but it was just annoying.

  6. I’m thrilled you did the Michael Bishop event. I really enjoyed trying out his work for the first time. I was actually thinking about Blooded on Arachne yesterday. Thanks for doing it and for letting me take part.

    1. Thanks for participating! I read Transfigurations later in the year but really should read the rest of the Bishop woks I have on the shelf — namely Catacomb Years and Blooded on Arachne.

      1. Hope to read a few more Bishop novels this year,albeit among several other author’s books…..”Transfigurations” was the first.I think it might be a good idea to read a collection of his,especially one that contained “Life and Death Among the Assadi”.I did read one of his short stories in the second issue of the old “Issac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine”,but don’t remember what it was about.

        Yes,hope you manage to read Wolfe TFHOC this year.Good luck.

      2. Well, you’ll be happy to know that I went ahead and bought a copy of The Fifth Head of Cerberus for $3.69 off abebooks… I think I’ve only seen it in a Used Book store once.

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