"2000: SF Novels Summary" by Richard Horton

By the time of the Hugos, I'd read 37 of the year 2000 SF novels.. This is pretty much in line with previous year totals. (Last year's February 1 total was 36, and by now I've read 40 of 1999's novels.) (And note that I'm counting Tim Powers' Declare as a 2001 novel.) As before, the list is skewed a bit by those novels that I was assigned for review. Still I think I've made a pretty good dent in the best books of the year.

First perhaps I should list the books I should probably read but haven't. One is China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, which looks very interesting but which is very long. (It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, incidentally.) I've got a copy, just haven't got to it yet. One other novel by a newish writer looks worth a try: Karl Schroeder's Ventus. I'll get around to it sooner or later, and I'll also get around to Harry Potter #4 sooner or later, probably pretty soon. There's another new Orson Scott Card book, Shadow of the Hegemon, but Card is Off My List for now, unless someone manages to change my mind. Any suggestions for good books I have missed would be welcome.

Two out of genre books don't quite seem to be SF but seem related, and both look interesting: Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin and Michael Chabon's The Fabulous Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

On to the list of books I have read. I'm going to list them in alphabetical order by author, with brief comments.

Catherine Asaro, Ascendant Sun. Direct sequel to The Last Hawk. Some interesting parts, and some reasonable advancement of her series arc, but the character implausibilities and overheated prose are starting to get to me. Most of all, though, the excessive villainy of the villains, and the contrived situation whereby the Terrans don't care or notice how bad the villains are, has passed by boundaries of belief suspension. That said, this was the best of her three novels this year.

Catherine Asaro, The Quantum Rose. Expansion of last year's Analog serial. Same problems as mentioned for Ascendant Sun.

Catherine Asaro, The Phoenix Code. Technothriller about AI related to last year's The Veiled Web. Some decent speculation about AI/Robots, some decent action, but once I again I didn't buy the characters.

Iain Banks, Look to Windward. Supposedly the last Culture novel. At the time of reading I was really enthusiastic, but I've had some second thoughts. It's still pretty good, with some very neat bits (esp. the behemothaur sections), but some weaknesses too (for example, the way that the behemothaur sections are actually irrelevant to the story). I considered a Hugo Nomination for this, but it didn't quite make my list.

Neal Barrett, Jr., The Prophecy Machine. Some pretty interesting ideas, and some neat language, but not wholly successful: the characters are clearly intended to be sympathetic, but they really aren't, and the most interesting stuff is never really developed.

Richard Calder, Malignos. Very colourful account of a far future in which some mutated humans have been forced, by war with the less changed humans, underground -- they are called "demons" or "malignos", and come complete with wings, tail, and horns. The hero is the lover of a renegade malignos, and he ends up with an unlikely companion making an exotic underground journey to the capitol of the malignos, in search of a cure for his lover. Calder's prose and imagination sometimes overheat, and the novel's effects can be implausible and forced at times, but it's still interesting and enjoyable.

Brenda Clough, Doors of Death and Life. I quite liked How Like a God, but this, the sequel, was disappointing.

John M. Ford, The Last Hot Time. A very good "Borderlands"-style urban fantasy set in a Chicago on the "border" with Elfland. Great language, nice plot, nice characters, sexy undercurrents. Weaknesses: underdeveloped love-interest for the main character, a certain slightness to the overall book. Still, definitely a contender for my nomination list.

James Alan Gardner, Hunted. Part of his Future History series featuring Festina Ramos. Very cool aliens, neat action. Marred by what seem to be (after four novels) standard Gardner implausibilities. But mind you, great fun to read.

Mary Gentle, Ash: A Secret History. Ash was published in four volumes in the US, but just one volume in the UK. It's the story of a woman mercenary captain in 1476, an alternate 1476 in which an oddly technologically advanced Carthage invades Europe. There's a frame story about the discovery, in the very near future, of the remains of this impossible alternate history. The story reads mostly as fantasy, but the fantastical parts have (somewhat implausible, to be sure) SFnal explanations, so I think this sits just barely on the SF side of the fuzzy border, for those who care. I liked it a great deal, though it's not perfect: perhaps inevitably for such a long book (1100+ packed pages in the British edition) there are some longeurs, and I did find some of Gentle's explanations for the weird stuff (especially the endless darkness over Carthage) a bit lacking. Still, made my Hugo Nominee list, though it wasn't nominated. It did win the British Science Fiction Association award, however.

Joe Haldeman, The Coming. Solid "aliens are coming" story, in the finest tradition of such stories, it's about the humans waiting for the aliens, not about the aliens. Like The Last Hot Time, it feels a bit slight. Maybe I'm a hypocrite when I say I regret the general demise of the 70,000 word novel if I keep calling the 70K novels we get "slight". Still, it contended for a Hugo nomination spot, but it didn't quite make my cut.

Elizabeth Hand, "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol". I'm listing this as a novel because my word count was 43,000, though I suspect people will think of it as a novella, given that it was published in a short fiction venue, SCI FICTION. It's only barely a fantasy, but it's pretty good, a moving (if somewhat manipulative) story about a failing lawyer with a busted marriage and an autistic kid who gets a minor catharsis from remembering a long lost children's show.

Charles Harness, Drunkard's Endgame. Published as part of the NESFA omnibus of some of Harness' best and most characteristic novels, collectively called Rings. This novel is very Harnessian, agreeably wacky, about robots who become human, and a long circular journey, and weird robot sex, and Adam and Eve (something Harness has done several times!). In many ways, not very good, but still readable and entertaining, if not convincing. I rather liked it, but let's add the caveat that if you're not tuned into Harness, the absurdities and creakiness may overwhelm you.

Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber. Just finished this one, too late to nominate it for a Hugo, though it didn't need any help from me, it made the final ballot. It would have been close to my list, though I don't think it would have quite made the cut. Very well-written story of a young girl marooned on a prison planet with neat aliens and abusive humans.

Nancy Kress, Probability Moon. Given Kress' abilities, and given the intriguing central idea this book is built around, it's quite disappointing. A human expedition comes to a world inhabited by humanoids with one key difference: they insist on accepting a consensus view of "reality", and feel pain when they sense departures from that consensus. (People who don't feel that pain are killed as being "unreal".) The human team tries to learn about this system, while trying to convince the aliens that they too are "real" -- while more humans in orbit investigate a strange moon that seems to be an alien artifact, and also deal with incoming ships from the implacably hostile "Fallers", another alien race. Kress' characters are implausible, and the thrillerish parts of the plot, especially the space-born part, were distracting from the very interesting cultural creation. In sum the novel is OK, maybe better than that, but I really had hoped for better still.

Geoffrey Landis, Mars Crossing. Solid but not exceptional first novel about a disaster-ridden expedition to Mars, and the characters' trek across thousands of miles to a potential escape ship. Really good science, rather melodramatic characterization.

Ursula Le Guin, The Telling. Another disappointment. Also another rather short novel that I'm going to call slight! Nicely written, but too "programmatic", too obvious. Deals with Sutty, an Earthwoman working as an Ekumen mobile on a world which has outlawed religion -- the contrast with Sutty's childhood, when she and her family were persecuted by the rule of a fanatically religious government, is way too pointed. Still, it's very nicely written, and the points advanced aren't wrong -- just too obvious.

Ken MacLeod, Cosmonaut Keep. First of a new series. As usual with MacLeod, it's told on two timelines, inevitably converging. One timeline is mid-21st Century (and slightly alternate history but future), as a mostly Socialist/Communist world deals with the discovery of an alien ship in the solar system; the other timeline is centuries in the future, on a new world, colonized by both humans and "Saurs", part of a very loose federation of trading worlds. The revelation of the nature of this future world is very cool, the aliens are well done, the characters are involving. The 20th C. parts are not quite so good -- this timeline reads like something we've read before, two or three times, in MacLeod's other books -- which isn't a major problem, it is a different story, it's just that it is pretty much yet another MacLeod 21st Century. I.e., it's still pretty good, just not as good as the rest. I like this book quite a bit. I would have nominated it for a Hugo, except that since according to a special dispensation granted at the last Worldcon, MacLeod's 1999 novel The Sky Road was also eligible. I strategically nominated that instead, and apparently the strategy was successful, as The Sky Road made the Hugo Ballot.

Wil McCarthy, The Collapsium. Not an entirely serious novel: a baroque sort of future, with solar system wide monarchy, colourful immortal characters, and not one, not two, but three threats to the Sun itself. The plot is but an excuse for playing around with wacky but kewl edge science: the title substance ("atoms" made of particle compose of "collapsed" matter) is only one example. I thought the book was pretty fun, marred by a certain Tom Swift nature to the hero's constant invention of new machines based on the edge science, and marred too by the repetitive structure. On balance, though, the colour and imagination win out: I liked it.

Elizabeth Moon, Against the Odds. I was really disappointed by her previous novel, Change of Command, which showed the strain as Moon tried to pull together the various loose threads from the five prior Familias Regnant books. This book, which is supposed to be the last Familias novel, benefits, I think, from the thread pulling in Change of Command: there are still lots of threads, but the previous book managed in its unwieldy way to pull them together enough that this book feels fairly united in treating all of them. So it's pretty much a return to form: very exciting, very much a page-turner, still full of somewhat improbable coincidences, and Moon's usual overly evull villains, but it's rollicking good fun.

Robert Reed, Marrow. Another book built around wacky improbably science, plus a Really Big Dumb Object. Also, very long time spans. The characters seem a bit distant, and some of the ideas are kind of silly, but some are audacious enough to carry us past the silliness.

Alastair Reynolds, Revelation Space. Interesting but not wholly successful first novel. The future history (depicted in a number of short stories and apparently also in Reynolds' second novel, just out in England) is pretty neat. This story has cool tech, cool aliens, but the characters don't quite come to life and it goes on a bit too long. Very promising, however.

Keith Roberts, Drek Yarman. Another "Pretty Good". Very dark story of Drek Yarman, a morally compromised ship captain in the world of Roberts' previous novel Kiteworld, which seems to be Earth centuries after a nuclear holocaust. Drek Yarman grows up in the bad part of a bad town, loving only his sister -- driven by his sins, and hers, and those of all the bad people around him, he ends up on a kiteship, working his way up to captain by means fair and foul, only to come to a bitter end amidst a world wrecking revolution.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yes, it's overlong, and some of the plotting is wonky, but, like the others in the series, it's compulsively readable and great fun.

Robert Sawyer, Calculating God. Aliens come to Earth with proof that a "God", or at least an "intelligent designer" exists. Some intriguing aliens, a few neat ideas, but fatally marred by sophomoric arguments and some clumsy plotting.

Will Shetterly, Chimera. Decent but not special story set in the next century, when human/animal hybrids, "Chimeras", are a new underclass, and a private detective is forced to support their cause and solve a murder rap which is being pinned on a beautiful jaguar woman. A fun but thin and not wholly consistent read.

Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window. I'm stretching a bit to include a couple of Lemony Snicket books on this list, but these stories, about the much put-upon Baudelaire children, are definitely set in another world. They are good fun, arch, cleverly written.

Lemony Snicket, The Miserable Mill. See above.

Lemony Snicket, The Vile Village. See above.

Bruce Sterling, Zeitgeist. I seem to be one of the few people this book didn't work for. It's worth reading for the usual Sterling bravura, but the plot is a mess, and I don't think Sterling pulls off his attempt to make this sort of a Science Fiction/Magical Realist summary of the 20th Century's "zeitgeist".

Sean Stewart, Galveston. The third entry in Stewart's very loosely linked series of books set in a world changed by a flood of magic. This is set in Galveston around 2020, a city divided between a chaotic magical area and a fairly "normal" area. Josh Cane is a bitter young man who has been exiled from the better part of town due to his father's failures, and Sloane Gardner is a young woman who is poised to take over the loose rule of the city from her dying mother. When Sloane's carelessness gets Josh accused of rape, he and a friend end up exiled again -- to the dangerous mainland, while a hurricane is coming. Well-written and intense -- a very good book, not a great one partly because Stewart doesn't seem able to let go -- it's almost too controlled a book. Still, a contender for my Hugo nomination list, indeed, I ended up nominating it.

Caroline Stevermer, When the King Comes Home. Another short book that I'm going to go and call slight, but I think this book definitely is slight. It's the story of a young art student who encounters an old man who seems to be the legendary good king of centuries before. I liked reading it, but it doesn't end up doing a whole lot, and I find myself having all but forgotten it a few months later.

Lois Tilton, Written in Venom. OK, this one is short, but it gives no impression of slightness. It's a retelling of the Norse myth cycle from the point of view of Loki, and thus cynical, bracing, dark. Good book.

Lois Tilton, Darkspawn. This is a fine vampire adventure novel, set in an alternate fantasy history, with well-imagined vampirism. The story concerns a vampire, the ruler of his country, who is imprisoned for centuries and returns to try to regain his country from the usurpers and at the same time fight off the invading Circhaks. Another good, dark, book.

Jo Walton, The King's Peace. Very fine first novel set in a variant, somewhat Arthurian, version of our world in the 6th or 7th Century. Sulien is a woman warrior who tells of her service for her King, Urdo, who makes a nation of his land. Slightly flawed structurally (it is two novels stuck together, and it shows), and perhaps a bit over-earnest at times, but well written and a promising debut.

Lawrence Watt-Evans, Night of Madness. An Ethshar novel, about the night that Warlockry came to Ethshar, and it's aftermath. Entertaining and commonsensical and logical: very much a Watt-Evans novel. Good solid book.

Gene Wolfe, In Green's Jungles. I'm thinking now that this is my favorite novel of this year. Intricately told, beautifully written, brilliantly imagined. The story of Horn, and his travels to Green, home of the blood-drinking inhumi, as well as his sojourn in the city Blanko, where he helps prepare the defense of the city from the attack of a neighbouring city. Hugo Nominee (for me).

Summary: My Hugo Nomination ballot read: In Green's Jungles, The Sky Road, Galveston, Ash, The Last Hot Time. The actual nominees were The Sky Road, Midnight Robber, Harry Potter #4 (i.e. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), George R. R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, and Robert J. Sawyer's Calculating God.

As of late May I wrote: Technically I am not in a good position to criticize this list, as I haven't read any of the last three yet, and I don't have strong objections to Midnight Robber, a fine book. In fact, I'll go ahead and concede that this list may not be too bad. Caveats: I have read an excerpt from A Storm of Swords, and I was underwhelmed. I have read the three previous Harry Potter books, and I think they are great fun, but not quite Hugo quality. I am very suspicious of anything by Sawyer after having read Starplex, a very bad previous Hugo nominee, but I'm willing to admit that Calculating God might be much better.

After the Hugo Awards I can amend my comments as follows: I have read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and found it enjoyable, and I have read Calculating God and while I will allow that it's better than Starplex, I still don't regard it as worthy of a Hugo nomination. The eventual winner was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. While that wasn't my choice, I am a bit disturbed by the complaints of some people, which fall into two general categories: a) it's a Kid's Book, dammit; and b) Rowling doesn't need our award, and she doesn't even care, either. To both of those complaints, I say, "So what?" The Hugo is supposed to go to the book the voters thought was best: no matter if it's a YA, no matter if the author doesn't care. I will say that I'm not disturbed by those who object on the grounds that they didn't much like it -- that's certainly a valid reason. I voted it third myself, but while I'd rather The Sky Road won, I can't get too worked up over this award.