"1999: SF Novels Summary" by Richard Horton

Here's a summary of my 1999 SF novel length reading.

This year I have read 39 novels by the beginning of February (among those with publication dates of 1999, that is, and among those which I define personally as SF (taken to include Fantasy, of course, as well as certain questionable stuff from other genres such as the Stephenson, Webb and (one of the) Holt novels on the list)). This is a very high total for me: indeed, I feel certain that it's a record. Last year I had read only 18 by Hugo nomination time (at which time this year the total was 34, I've read five more since then), and the year before only 7! Indeed, I still have not read even one of the 1998 Hugo nominees for Best Novel (1998 nominees meaning the books were from 1997). (This is one reason I never felt bold enough to write something like this in the past.)

I'm going to list the books in alphabetical order by author, with brief comments and a brief rating on a scale like: Hugo Nominee, Contender, Book I Liked a Lot, Pretty Good Book, OK Book, Book I thought was at best So-So, Rotten Book. (Short: Nominee, Contender, Liked a Lot, Pretty Good, OK, So-So, Rotten.)

Poul Anderson, Operation Luna. Sequel to Operation Chaos. Suffers from being too long and from being a sequel (so that some of its impact is muffled). That said, I liked it better than I expected: it's really a fairly enjoyable novel. Pretty Good.

Catherine Asaro, The Radiant Seas. Direct sequel to Primary Inversion, and about time too! First half is a bit slow, but the second half is rollicking. Liked a Lot.

Catherine Asaro, The Quantum Rose. Analog serial, part of her upcoming novel. Suffers from clearly needing the rest of the eventual book. This part is only OK.

Catherine Asaro, The Veiled Web. Technothriller about AI plus romance between Catholic woman and Islamic man. Good on the culture conflict stuff and the AI. Plot is too silly in places. Good characters. Pretty Good.

Kage Baker, Sky Coyote. Time Travel/Immortal story, about her 24th Century Company and their past-based cyborged Immortals, trying to save a California Indian tribe from cultural destruction by the white men. Good bits, marred for me by being only part of a series and showing it too much. Pretty Good.

Greg Bear, Darwin's Radio. Also sort of a technothriller, but about a really cool SF idea: a sort of directed evolution, starting to happen to humans in the very near future. Cool ideas, but I didn't really warm to the plot. Still, Liked a Lot, coulda been a Contender. (I couldn't resist that last.)

Debra Doyle and James Macdonald, The Stars Asunder. Prequel to their earlier Mageworlds books, in which some of the Mages, in the midst of political turmoil on their worlds, find a way to cross the Rift to the rest of the Galaxy. Pretty good stuff. Liked a Lot.

Greg Egan, Teranesia. A Canadian of Indian descent, who was raised on an obscure island in Indonesia, returns there as an adult to face the mysteries of his parents' death and their strange discoveries. Cool biological ideas (reminiscent of Darwin's Radio), though not so mindblowing as in earlier Egan. Pretty sound characterization though. Perhaps a transitional book? Didn't quite fully involve me, still, Liked a Lot.

Jeffrey Ford, Memoranda. Second in his trilogy about the Physiognomist Cley. In this book, he wanders through the memory palace of his evil former boss, Draxton Below, looking for the cure to a disease Below has visited upon Cley's fellow villagers. Very well written, very neat ideas, avoids middle book syndrome. Contender.

Neil Gaiman, Stardust. Slight revision of the illustrated 1998 version, so I'm not sure if this really counts as a 1999 book. But what the heck. I loved it: a lovely and original fantasy about a star falling to Earth and the young man who captures her. Contender.

James Alan Gardner, Vigilant. Semi-sequel to Expendable, but works perfectly well on its own. Humans and Ooloms live in harmony on the colony planet Demoth, but then a plague kills 93% of the Ooloms. Faye Smallwood, daughter of the doctor who saved the remaining Ooloms, grows up wild but eventually becomes a proctor, (a neat political post that Gardner doesn't do enough with.) But her first job as proctor involves her in a wild adventure involving the human Technocracy's Admiralty, movable wormholes, aliens related to the Ooloms, threats of further plagues, and more. It ended up seeming a bit too much for me, but I still enjoyed it. Pretty Good to low end of Liked a Lot.

Mary Gentle, The Secret History: The Book of Ash #1. Really this is one long 2000 novel, Ash: A Secret History, about a female mercenary in a different 15th Century. Bloody, fascinating, well-written, realistic. Very good stuff. The first part was published in the U. S. in 1999, the last three parts in 2000. The entire novel is published in one volume in the U. K. Contender.

Traci Harding, The Alchemist's Key. Australian novel, if we're lucky it'll never make it to the US or the UK. Dreadfully written, silly novel about an Australian who inherits an English Barony, and gets involved with a time-travelling ancestor. Frankly the worst novel I've read in years. Rotten.

James P. Hogan, Outward Bound. A Jupiter novel: OK but not special juvenile about a delinquent recruited for a special project: after he learns self-discipline and leadership skills, he heads ... outward bound, of course. OK.

Tom Holt, Only Human. Another comic fantasy. Good fun, lots of jokes, something of a serious point at the core. God goes on vacation with Jesus, and younger son Kevin Christ is left in charge. He messes with the computers, and four non-humans get exchanged with humans, chaos naturally resulting. Pretty Good.

Tom Holt, Alexander at the World's End. Probably not really a fantasy, rather a straight historical about Ancient Greece. A sequel of sorts to his brilliant diptych The Walled Orchard, featuring the grandson of the hero of that book. This book is set in Alexander the Great's time. Blackly and cynically comic. Liked a Lot.

Eric Idle, The Road to Mars. Set in the Asteroids a few centuries in the future, a robot develops a theory of comedy while touring with a comedy duo. Not funny enough, not good enough SF. So-So.

Paul Levinson, The Silk Code. Again like Darwin's Radio, involves speculation about Neanderthals and human evolution, in the midst of a series of murders. Some neat ideas that never cohere, in the midst of an ill-structured novel. Reads like a first novel: the author may write some good books eventually, but as of this one he's still learning. So-So.

Nancy Kress, Yanked! First in another attempt at a new series of Young Adult SF, David Brin's Out of Time. A sorely disappointing book about several kids yanked out of time (our time and some past times) into the future to contend with some aliens for some future technology. Rotten, though far better than the Traci Harding book.

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Plan B. Long awaited fourth of their Liaden novels. Direct sequel to the first and third novels (Agent of Change and Carpe Diem). Val Con and Miri try to hold off an Yxtrang invasion of the world to which they've gone after the Liaden government moved against Clan Korval. A fun book, not a great book. Pretty Good.

Ken MacLeod, The Sky Road. MacLeod's fourth novel, so far only published in the UK. Very good book set partly in his balkanized 21st Century, and partly hundreds of years into an alternate future from his other books (The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division), where computing technology is severely constrained and England and Scotland are an odd semi-pastoral semi-utopia of a socialist flavour. The story concerns an attempt to build a spaceship, paralleling the history behind the Deliverer who left the world in the shape it is. Hugo nominee (by me), albeit that's a wasted vote but then I've gotten used to wasting a few votes each year.

Paul J. McAuley, Shrine of Stars. The Third [and final] Book of Confluence, set in the very far future on an artificial world populated with "uplifted" animals. The hero, who may actually be a true human, Yama, searches for the secret of his bloodline, and eventually for the best future for Confluence itself. Wolfe-derived, but different. Contender.

Sean McMullen, Souls in the Great Machine. Once again, far in the future computing technology is severely constrained. This seems to be an amalgamation/revision of his first two Australian novels. It's got a whole ton of Kewl Ideas: the Call (which draws all higher animals towards the ocean periodically), a computing machine built of human components, bird people, etc. etc. Unfortunately the structural seams show, and there's a lot of inconsistency in the characterization. But also the ideas are Kewl, and there is a lot of fairly neat action. It feels better in memory than it felt reading it: at the time of reading it may have reached OK by virtue of the ideas, now I think maybe it should be Liked a Lot, but I know I didn't like it a lot when I read it. Make of that what you can, I guess I'll make it Pretty Good.

Elizabeth Moon, Change of Command. This is the sixth of her Familias Regnant books, and the strains of trying to gather together a variety of loose ends from previous books show badly. I really enjoyed reading the previous books: fairly gobbled them up, but this was a struggle. At times I said "I don't believe in these events". I'm committed to this series: it's been enormous fun on the whole, but this one is a clunker. Oh well, happens to the best. So-So.

Pat Murphy, There and Back Again. Great fun if somewhat light retelling of The Hobbit as a Space Opera. Liked a Lot.

Larry Niven, Rainbow Mars. A full-length Svetz novel, in this case marrying the earlier Svetz concept (time travel is a myth, so when you do travel in time you bring back mythical beings) with space travel, such that when you travel in space you bring back fictional space beings. In this case, travel to Mars involves encounters with aliens from Bradbury, Burroughs, Heinlein (I think), Lewis and others, as well as eventually a living beanstalk. This seems like a clever, can't miss idea, but the novel is just awful. Very hard to read, poorly drawn characters, sketch silly plot. A dire disappointment. Rotten.

Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill, The Shadow of Albion. Alternate History/Fantasy, set in roughly Regency times in a timeline where the US did not separate from England. Magic works. The backdrop is the Napoleonic wars, and an English Lord who is also a spy, engaged to a headstrong lady. But the lady changes places with a woman from the US in our timeline, and she has to adapt to her new life and deal with this unexpected fiance who doesn't even like "her". The romance plot didn't quite work for me despite sympathetic characters, but the spy/adventure plot was kind of cool. OK.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Do I need to describe this one? Thought not. Liked a Lot.

William Sanders, The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan. Very good fantasy combining American Indian legends with corrupt nuclear waste disposal with a sexy, engaging, romance story and lots of by the by funny bits. Another probably wasted Hugo nomination.

Brian Stableford, The Gateway of Eternity. Third in his series of Interzone serials about "timeshadows" of turn of the century authors (Oscar Wilde in previous books, W. H. Hodgson in this one) and characters (Sherlock Holmes, "Count Lugard") travelling to increasingly far futures. Probably not quite novel length, actually (mid 30K words, I'd guess). Pretty Good.

Brian Stableford, Architects of Emortality. Set in the 25th Century, when lifespans have been arbitrarily extended, follows a series of murders of some of the previous generation, who would have lived only to 200 or so. Considers questions of extended lifespan, as well as other aspects of Stableford's future (which he's explored in one other novel and a passel of shorter works). Lots of interesting bits, not a terribly compelling narrative. Pretty Good.

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon. Not SF, you say? I wouldn't be surprised if we find in Quicksilver (the sequel, though now I hear it might be a prequel) that there were explicit SFnal elements to Cryptonomicon. But even if not, it clearly satisfied my SF jones. So sue me. Absorbing narrative despite its length. Neat characters, great infodumps, just plain fun to read paragraph by paragraph. Hugo Nomination, and would have got my Hugo vote if not for A Deepness in the Sky.

Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove, Household Gods. A woman of our time is thrown back to the 2nd Century Roman Empire (in the provinces). In many just a catalog of details about life in that time, but fascinating and eye-opening nonetheless. Liked a Lot.

Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky. What more can I say? My favourite SF book of the year. Neat aliens, neat humans, neat tech, neat villains, cool prose, an involving story. Just fabulous. Hugo Nomination and vote to win.

Lawrence Watt-Evans, Dragon Weather. First of a new fantasy series, featuring Arlian, whose town in destroyed by dragons when he is a boy. But he escapes, unknowingly having absorbed a certain benefit from the dragons, and after spending years in a mine, he sets out on a course of revenge against the people who imprisoned him in the mine, and then against the dragons. An absorbing read. Liked a Lot.

Don Webb, Essential Saltes. Another borderline book: it's open to an SFnal reading, but it's also open to a mundane explanation. Anyway, it's good and it's weird. Mystery about a Texas man whose murdered wife's ashes are stolen, and his quest to find the thief and stop further murders. Liked a Lot, and the related earlier novel, The Double, is even better.

K. D. Wentworth, Black on Black. Orphaned alien (lion-like creature) goes back to his home planet to learn about his heritage and gets involved in local and galactic plots and machinations. Good fun, not special. OK.

Robert Charles Wilson, Bios. I really like Wilson. This is not him at his best, but it's still quite good, the story of an attempt to study a planet full of deadly living things, including the efforts of a woman engineered to resist the planet's dangers. Liked a Lot.

Gene Wolfe, On Blue's Waters. First of his third "Sun" series, The Book of the Short Sun. Horn, decades after migrating from the Long Sun Whorl to the planet Blue, undertakes a journey to a distant city which claims to have a ship capable of returning to the Whorl, where Horn hopes to find Patera Silk (the holy protagonist of the Long Sun books). Wolfe at his oblique and fascinating best. This trilogy bids fair to be the equal of any of Wolfe's work, but it's hard for me to fully evaluate just the first book. Still, it'll get a Hugo Nomination from me.

Summary: My Hugo Nomination ballot will read: A Deepness in the Sky, Cryptonomicon, The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan, The Sky Road, On Blue's Waters. Memoranda and Stardust came close, and Dragon Weather and Darwin's Radio weren't much farther behind. The Locus Ballot will need one more fantasy (BBRT, Memoranda, DW, and Stardust being the four of the above I'd call Fantasy), and that'll be the Harry Potter book.

The eventual Hugo nominees were the books by Vinge, Stephenson, Bujold, Bear and Rowling. Really, a pretty good list. The books I nominated that didn't make it are all understandable non-nominees: one was published only in the U. K. at the time of the nominations, another was self-published, and the third was very clearly unfinished: the first of series. The Hugo nominators did themselves proud, and the voters did well in choosing A Deepness in the Sky as the winner.