"2003: SF Novels Summary" by Richard Horton

Here's my summary of my 2003 SF novel reading -- long overdue in this webbed form. I've made four sublists. The first is the simplest: novels published in the US in 2003, either in book form or serialized. (It does include a couple of novels marketed as mainstream which I consider SF.) I list 40 such books. The second is novels published only the UK (to my knowledge) in 2003. So far I've only read two such books. The third is novels in translation, that had their first English-language (and, in both cases, US) appearance in 2003. I saw two translations in 2003. The fourth is novels published previously in the UK, that were not published in the US until 2003. I have five such books listed.

Basically, all these different categories are eligible for 2003 Hugos, in slightly different ways. The first simply by seeing first publication in 2003. The second for the same reason, but novels published outside the US may also get another year of eligibility when they do get a US edition. The third category is those novels (published in the UK in 2002) that are again eligible for Hugos because of a new edition. The fourth category (translations) are eligible based on first English-language publication in 2003.

As it happened I reviewed quite a few of these books, in 3SF, in the New York Review of Science Fiction (NYRSF), at SF Site, at LostPages, Locus Online, and on Usenet. I've posted links to such of those reviews that can be found online.

Novels first published in 2003, and published in the US:

Poul Anderson, For Love and Glory. Fixup of some short fiction from the Isaac's Universe anthologies, based on a galactic society invented by Isaac Asimov, with several intelligent races and some "Old Ones" who left artifacts behind. Anderson filed off the serial numbers for the novel version, not wishing to constrain any future Isaac's Universe work by others. 94,000 words. (I reviewed this at SF Site here.)

Martin Amis, Yellow Dog. Marketed as mainstream, of course. Set in the present day in an alternate England ruled by the rather ineffectual King Henry IX, the plot turns on blackmail of the King via a pornographic video involving his daughter Victoria, and in parallel the beating and subsequent difficult recovery of "renaissance man" Xan Meo by a gangster also involved in the porn industry. I liked it: lots of Amis's manic verbal energy, often very funny, often scary. 102,000 words.

Kage Baker, The Anvil of the World. Pleasant fantasy, fixup of the Asimov's novella "The Caravan from Troon" and two similar length novellas (both first published here). A former assassin named Mr. Smith escorts a caravan from Troon to a seaside city, and in so doing befriends a half-demon, and becomes involved with the Yendri (forest people). In the later novellas he is running an inn, and dealing with a murder and with strife between the Yendri and the "humans". Enjoyable stuff, not great. 114,000 words

John Barnes, A Princess of the Aerie. Second of Barnes's Jak Jinnaka books, set in the 36th Century in a well-colonized solar system. Jak is summoned by his former girlfriend, Princess Shyf, to the Aerie, where he learns that she is sadistic, sex-mad and power-mad. His accidental heroism (or is it?) ends up getting he and his friends involved in a revolution on Mercury. Good stuff, though not YA any more! 92,000 words. (I reviewed this in NYRSF, September.)

John Barnes, In the Hall of the Martian King. The third Jak Jinnaka book. Jak ends up on Mars, trying to arrange for the purchase of a valuable document concerning the founder of the philosophy that drives his society. More interesting stuff, full of cynical realpolitik, exciting adventure, betrayal after betrayal. 90,000 words. (I reviewed this at SF Site here.)

Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls. A sequel to The Curse of Chalion. The Dowager Royina Ista, chafing at her constrained life, sets out on a pilgrimage and encounters a terrible menace in the form of a spate of demons infesting people. I liked it quite a bit. I'd complain only about a familiar problem with fantasy: the way the heroine's powers stretch just far enough for the needs of the plot. 152,000 words.

Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Doctorow's first novel. Pretty good story about a future post-scarcity economy based on "whuffie" (reputation, in essence), in which people live extended lifespan facilitated by backing up their memories and downloading them into clones if anything bad happens. The plot concerns an attempt to take over maintenance of some Disneyworld attractions. Enjoyable. 48,000 words. (Doctorow says his word count was 58,000, but I'm sticking to my methods for consistency -- and at any rate the electronic word count matches my estimate.) (I reviewed this in NYRSF, September.)

Michael F. Flynn, The Wreck of the River of Stars. Disaster strikes the old magsail spaceship The River of Stars. Some interesting near-future SFnal ideas, but the pace is glacial and the characters, though fussily depicted, are mostly, well, worthy of their fate. 200,000 words.

R. Garcia y Robertson, Lady Robyn. Second in Robertson's Gabaldonesque series of Historical Fantasy Romances: that is, these books are what are sometimes called "timeslip romances", where a man or woman from our time (in this case a woman) goes back in time and has a romance with someone from that time. The first book was Knight Errant, which I found disappointing. This one I found somewhat better, though only decent, not great, in part I suspect because I had already discounted some of the annoying elements of that I found in the first book. Lady Robyn, a contemporary woman from Montana by way of Hollywood, ends up back in mid 15th Century England, during the Wars of the Roses, and falls in love with Edward Plantagenet, eventually King Edward IV of England in our timeline. She must deal with magic-using enemies as well as with the many discomforts of life in that time, while trying to make a life with Edward and avoid the fate of too many prominent (and otherwise) people of that time. (What she doesn't know, because she refuses to read her paperback history of the Wars of the Roses, is that Edward is actually the father of the famous "princes in the tower": and we don't know either if that remains true in her timeline.) 163,000 words.

Laurence M. Janifer, Two. Presumably the last novel by the late writer, who died in 2002. A Knave novel, in which the Survivor must find out why the Crown Princess is missing as well as why he and his new wife are getting shot at. Fairly fun, perhaps the best of the Knave novels, not much better than OK, though. 65,000 words. (I reviewed it in NYRSF, September.)

Diana Wynne Jones, The Merlin Conspiracy. Loose sequel to Deep Secret. The balance of magic is threatened in the entire multiverse due to a conspiracy involving some courtiers in the alternate England of the world Blest. Arianrhod Hyde summons a magician, who turns out to be Nick Mallory (who we met in Deep Secret), currently living on our Earth, and they travel through several worlds and encounter considerable danger in foiling the bad guys' plots. Good Jones, not great. 128,000 words. (I reviewed it at SF Site, here.)

Nancy Kress, Crossfire. A mismatched group of colonists on a distant planet unexpectedly finds intelligent aliens. But they don't seem to be from this planet either ... Other aliens, and lots of weird and unconvincing space travel, are also involved. I don't think it worked very well. 123,000 words.

Edward M. Lerner, Moonstruck. Serialized in Analog. Aliens arrive, offering gifts but not much information. Our hero becomes convinced that they are up to no good when world tensions increase. An OK read, but not wholly satisfying -- the villains' motivations, for example, seem slight. It's structurally off, too, reading like a short novel with a tacked-on novella. 88,000 words.

Ian R. MacLeod, The Light Ages. In an alternate England of somewhat Victorian feel, Robert Borrows grows up in poor "mining" town -- the substance mined being the magical "aether". The loss of his mother and an encounter with an exotic girl his own age, along with his removal to London, lead to his involvement in revolution and great changes in his world. Which says almost nothing sensible about this wonderful novel. 170,000 words. (I reviewed this online, a copy is here.)

Wil McCarthy, The Wellstone. Sequel to The Collapsium. In a future solar system with potential immortality due to "fax gates" (matter transmitters that make copies of you and even "improve" them), and with many other marvels due to programmable matter such as wellstone, a group of young people led by the Crown Prince rebel against their constricted social position (constricted because if nobody dies, what will the children do when they grow up?) I thought it pretty good, and surprisingly dark in implication. 97,000 words. (I reviewed this in NYRSF, September.)

Terry McGarry, The Binder's Road. A sequel to Illumination. Several years after magic was extinguished on the island of Eiden Myr, there are signs it might be returning, as well as a threat of invasion. And not everyone is happy with the idea of more magic. Overlong, and really quite boring in stretches, but with some nice ideas and some interesting characters. 202,000 words. (I reviewed this in NYRSF, September.)

Elizabeth Moon, Trading in Danger. First in a new space adventure series. When Kylara Vatta is unfairly dismissed from the Space Academy she takes a job with her family's company, and finds herself captaining a trading ship that ends up in the midst of a civil war. I liked Ky enough that I'll keep reading this series, but this book wasn't very satisfying -- the central conflict never really makes sense, the action seems just a bit flat. 130,000 words.

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife. First novel, published in the mainstream, became (deservedly) a bestseller. Henry De Tamble travels through time, in moments of stress, and in so doing he meets Clare Abshire at the age of 6 -- and many times later, in no particular order. They fall in love, and when they meet in "real time" they marry. It's a very moving, very bittersweet, story -- Henry's affliction has some positive points but in the end it's rather sad. Works very well as a love story. 162,000 words.

Robert Reed, Sister Alice. I read this in the quasi-serialization, five novellas and novelettes in Asimov's over the past decade or so. It's quite possible that Reed has revised the text for the novel. Based on the shorter works, this is a pretty impressive far future posthuman story about people with immense power to sculpt worlds and the like, and about the fallout from a terrible crime or accident. 120,000 words.

Madeleine E. Robins, Point of Honour. Regency mystery concerning Sarah Tolerance, a "fallen woman" who makes her living investigating delicate secrets for people in Regency society. It's only marginally SF, by virtue of being set in an alternate history (deliberately altered to make Sarah's position slightly more plausible (for a woman), and to allow the author freedom in portraying political upheavals without worrying about contradicting known history.) 110,000 words. (I reviewed this on Usenet, a copy is here).)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Extremes. One of a series of novels (and at least one novella to date) about Miles Flint, a "retrieval artist", working on the Moon, who finds people who have purposely "disappeared". This book is a murder mystery, set during the Moon Marathon, in which Miles's research into a woman who disappeared after causing a terrible plague dovetails with a policewoman's investigation into the murder and another person's search, with different motives, for the "disappeared" woman. Competent but no better than that. 104,000 words. (I reviewed this online, a copy is here.)

Robert Silverberg, Roma Eterna. I read this mostly in quasi-serialization -- a bunch of stories published mostly in Asimov's (one was in Silverberg's anthology Far Horizons) over quite some time. As with the Reed novel, Silverberg may have revised the stories for inclusion in this "novel". And at least one (I think) is new to the novel version. It's about an alternate world where the Roman Empire survives to the present day. The stories are set at various different times in this history. Some are pretty good, some tedious.

Dan Simmons, Ilium. Far future novel told in three threads. One concerns a 20th Century man reincarnated in the future on Mars to observe a version (reenactment???) of the siege of Troy. Another concerns a couple of moravecs (AI robots) from Jupiter space sent to Mars to investigate the weird goings on. The third concerns some of the few remaining humans on Earth trying to get to the orbital realm of the posthumans. Pretty good stuff, fun and very imaginative, maybe a bit slight. Also only half the story -- the sequel, Olympos, will finish things. 240,000 words.

Lemony Snicket, The Slippery Slope. Latest in the hilariously mordant Series of Unfortunate Events. The Baudelaire children are separated in the Mortmain Mountains, with baby Sunny a captive of Count Olaf while Violet and Klaus hurtle down the mountains to certain death. One of the better entries. 46,000 words.

Ryk E. Spoor, Digital Knight. Pleasant fairly light fantasy fixup of several novelettes and novellas, about Jason Wood, a computer expert in upstate New York, who stumbles onto a secret involving vampires and other mysterious fantastical creatures, with a long history back to the days of Atlantis. 116,000 words.

Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver. Very long historical novel set mostly between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, in England, America, and on the Continent. Scientific discoveries, financial manipulation, cryptography, and a bunch of grotesques mingle in a loosely plotted, anachronistic, overlong book that I still rather enjoyed. Not really SF, though there is just enough definitely fantastical material that you can slot it in the category if you absolutely insist. 380,000 words.

Charles Stross, Singularity Sky. Fun novel with some pretty nice ideas, concerning visitors to a somewhat backward world who release cornucopia machines on the world, and an attempt to stop all this by the New Republic that controls that world. The main characters are a couple of spies (of sorts) from Earth who try to keep everyone from being too stupid, particularly in using time travel. I'm glad I read it, and I'll certainly read the sequel (The Iron Sunrise). But it's not really as good to my mind as most of Stross's recent short fiction -- the idea density is much lower, the New Republic is kind of an unconvincing political entity, the plot itself is OK but not particularly special. 130,000 words.

Mark W. Tiedemann, Peace and Memory. Third and probably the best of Tiedemann's Secantis Sequence, loosely linked novels set in a future in which the Pan Humana (colonies near Earth) turn their back on the possibility of relationships with aliens, while the "Distal Worlds", later the Commonwealth, pursue ties with the various species of the "Seven Reaches". In this book a young man, Benajim Cyanus, "pulls the plug" on his ancient protege, Sean Merrick, causing great economic upheaval, and then steals Merrick's old spaceship and sets off with Merrick's old friend Tamyn Glass on a mission to Earth itself. 166,000 words.

Rajnar Vajra, Shootout at the Nokai Corral. Serialized in Analog. On a planet deliberately colonized to resemble the Old West, a group of outlaw "slingers" (genetically enhanced humans who are supposed to enforce the law) is opposed by a good slinger. Some neat ideas, but the novel didn't work for me. 100,000 words.

Jeff VanderMeer, Veniss Underground. Lushly written novel set in and underground the exotic far future title city, involving a deadly meerkat, a "Living Artist", and a trip to rescue a dead woman. 56,000 words. (I reviewed this at Lost Pages, here.).

Vivian VandeVelde, Wizard at Work. Short YA fixup about a nice but lazy wizard, dealing with several problems that resemble traditional fairy tales. I thought it pretty fun. I reviewed this for SF Site: here).

John Varley, Red Thunder. Pretty fun novel, not great, about a few kids and a forcibly retired astronaut (and his genius cousin) building a spaceship in their backyard (more or less) and flying to Mars. 153,000 words.

Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw. A very enjoyable fantasy, explicitly based on Anthony Trollope's Framley Parsonage. Walton sets her story among dragons, and constructs dragon physiological details such that they embody conventions of Victorian fiction. Deservedly won the World Fantasy Award. 101,000 words.

Lawrence Watt-Evans, Dragon Venom. Conclusion to a trilogy about Arlian, who as a boy is transformed by dragon venom into a "dragonheart" -- gifted with extra charisma, great recuperative powers, and 1000 years of life. But he loses his fertility and his ability to love -- and he will engender another dragon on his death. Arlian has sworn to eliminate the dragons, but there are complications: the dragons helped prevent "wild magics" from overrunning the Lands of Man. Can he find an alternative? It's pretty good, but to my mind not as good as the best of this series, the first book, Dragon Weather. The resolution is logical and carefully thought out, but (I suspect in part because of the careful rigor) it seemed a bit flat to me. I still enjoyed the whole series. 145,000 words.

Scott Westerfeld, The Risen Empire. With The Killing of Worlds, this makes a diptych (collectively called Succession, and sold under that name by the SFBC) about an Empire ruled by an immortal Emperor, who uses the possibility of immortality for the privileged as a carrot to help control his people. The Emperor has a Secret, however, and an enemy, the Rix. The Rix fanatically encourage the development of AI's, which is forbidden in the Empire, and as this book opens they have attacked an Imperial world, Legis, incidentally threatening the Emperor's immortal sister. The main characters of the books are the Captain of the starship defending Legis, Laurent Zai, and his secret lover, a "Pink" (i.e. anti-immortality) Senator named Nara Oxham. I enjoyed these two novels very much, though really they cannot be treated separately. 108,000 words. (I review the two novels together here.)

Scott Westerfeld, The Killing of Worlds. See above. 112,000 words.

Robert Charles Wilson, Blind Lake. Well-written and interesting, as one expects from Wilson, but not up to the level of his last few books. A laboratory at Blind Lake, MN, is imaging a distant planet, by mysterious means following one alien subject. But suddenly the laboratory is put into quarantine, perhaps because of problems at another lab. 115,000 words.(A full review is here.

John C. Wright, The Phoenix Exultant. Second novel in his far-future trilogy about Phaethon, a man who wants to build a starship and finds himself shunned by his society. A pretty solid piece of work, though it is a middle book. 112,000 words.

John C. Wright, The Golden Transcendence. Conclusion to his trilogy. The book concerns an extended battle for control of the Phaethon's starship the Phoenix Exultant. There is an enormous amount of talking -- arguments about the virtue of the Silent Oecumene's philosophy versus that of the Golden Oecumene, about the morality of AIs, about the future destiny of the universe ... and so on. There is also a perhaps surprisingly sweet love story ... It's not a great book -- really there is too much talking. But it's pretty good, and it does do a good job of resolving the issues raised in the trilogy. 117,000 words.

Timothy Zahn, Dragon and Thief. YA novel about a young man, a thief trying to go straight, who encounters a strange dragon-like alien. The dragon is part of a species fleeing a malevolent species, hoping to colonize a world in human space. But the bad guys seem to have followed. So the young man and the alien set out to ... Fun light reading. 64,000 words.

Novels first published in 2003 in the UK, but not in the US:

Jasper Fforde, The Well of Lost Plots. Fforde's third Thursday Next book. In this one Thursday spends most of her time in the Bookworld -- that is, inside the "place" where books and their characters live. She investigates some suspicious killings, while worrying about the new UltraWord system that will replace the book. More fun stuff. 133,000 words. (My SF Site review is here.)

Walter Jon Williams, The Sundering. Book Two of Dread Empire's Fall (The Praxis was Book One, I believe there is only to be one more book). I'm really enjoying this series: Space Opera more of less of the "British Navy in Space" mode, a very well-done example. (Yes, it reiterates some of the cliches of the mode, but mostly to good effect.) The multi-species Empire of the Shaa is falling apart after the death of the last Shaa. One species, the Naxids, has rebelled, hoping to take over, while the remaining species attempt to defend the existing Empire. Our heroes, Martinez and Sula, display their tactical brilliance in concocting plans which may save the day against all odds, while their love affair is troubled by Sula's dark secrets and by Martinez' career and family ambitions. 152,000 words. (I have a review at SF Site, right here.)

Novels in translation, first published in English in 2003.

Angelica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial. Lovely novel cum linked collection, about the long history of an "empire that never was": complete with mad kings, bad kings, and even some good kings and queens. And ferrets. 71,000 words. (I reviewed this at Locus Online: here.)

Zoran Zivkovic, The Book. Rather amusing, sometimes quite biting, satirical work told from the point of view of a book, lamenting the mistreatment by humans of the other intelligent species on Earth: books. 56,000 words.

Novels published in the UK in 2002, and eligible for the Hugo this year.

Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book. Second Thursday Next novel, set in an alternate world where travel literally inside books is possible. This one concerns a warning from Thursday's time-travelling father about the end of the world, and Great Expectations, and ... It's pretty fun stuff, like the first. 117,000 words.

Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark. Pretty good novel about an autistic man in the near future facing a decision as to whether or not to accept a treatment to cure his autism. Plusses: excellent characterization of main character. Minuses: Moon-standard sneering villains, weak ending. 136,000 words.

Christopher Priest, The Separation. This is an alternate history, comparing two time streams -- ours, and one in which Rudolph Hess's mission to England was successful and England made a separate peace with Germany in 1941. The personal story is expressed via a pair of twins, Olympic rowing champions, who play different roles in the two time streams. I liked the book, but had reservations about Priest's careful arrangement of his alternate history to be roughly comparable to ours despite comparative Nazi success -- in my words, Priest palmed about 6,000,000 cards. David Brin expresses similar reservations far more clearly, and more bitterly, in a pretty good essay in the January 2004 New York Review of Science Fiction. 138,000 words.

Alastair Reynolds, Redemption Ark. Fine space opera, direct sequel to Reynolds' first novel and peripheral sequel to his second. Humans have awoken the interest of the Wolves or Inhibitors, machines which destroy starfaring intelligent life. One faction among the conjoiners wants to flee, leaving the rest of humanity to die, but Nigel Clavain wants to begin some resistance, while Ana Khouri is trying to evacuate Resurgam. Cool techie and SFnal ideas, lots of scope, interesting resolution. Good stuff. 275,000 words.

Walter Jon Williams, The Praxis. Very enjoyable space opera, about the end of the Empire of the long-lived Shaa, and the struggle for power among the remaining races, including humans. Much space navy action, and an enjoyable "personal" story about provincial aristocrat and brilliant tactician Gareth Martinez, and woman with a dark secret (plus brilliant tactician) Caroline Sula. 135,000 words. (I reviewed this online, here is a copy.)

My Hugo nominations ... well, I was not that enthused. I had a hard time coming up with five candidates. As of nomination time I was sure of The Light Ages, and pretty sure of Kalpa Imperial and The Killing of Worlds (this last a strategic choice in place of nominating the two books that make up Succession together). The other two came from among The Praxis, Veniss Underground, Peace and Memory, The Speed of Dark, The Time Traveler's Wife, Paladin of Souls, Sister Alice, and The Wellstone. I read Ilium after nominations were due, and it probably would have made my nomination list, though not at the top. The actual nominees were Ilium, Paladin of Souls, Singularity Sky, Blind Lake, and one novel I haven't read and don't expect I'd like: Robert J. Sawyer's Humans.

As it turns out, the eventual Hugo winner was Paladin of Souls. That book also won the 2004 Nebula, and the 2003 Nebula went to The Speed of Dark.