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.”
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