Overall, the 2000s was a relatively healthy time for the SF&F novel field. Several potentially classic works were published, and overall there was a gradual widening of the field.
Harry Potter was, in terms of sales and visibility, the biggest phenomenon of the decade, with the fourth through seventh books being published this decade to great success and some critical acclaim, along with six successful movie adaptations of the books. The YA field was boosted by this and a string of other successful books, such as Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, and became an important part of the SF&F field. Along with the continued rise of urban fantasy, this saw a slight reduction in the traditional epic fantasy field, with a notable lack of successful 'old-school'-style fantasy sagas. Instead, the epic fantasy tag was substituted by some critics for 'secondary world', to incorporate works that sat awkwardly with the epic description such as China Mieville's Bas-Lag books or Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora. Elsewhere more overt epic fantasy was being subverted, in major or minor ways, by the likes of Erikson, Bakker and Abercrombie.
For the ongoing series, this was also the decade when The Wheel of Time lost the plot, before eventually somewhat regaining it in the middle of the decade, sadly only shortly before Robert Jordan sadly passed away. However, the series ended the decade on a high with Brandon Sanderson restoring a lot of the acclaim the series hasn't seen in almost a decade and a half. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire started the decade on an immense high, with the release of A Storm of Swords in 2000 winning immense plaudits, but substantial delays saw a more muted response for A Feast for Crows in 2005 and a growing mixed reaction to the further delays on A Dance with Dragons. Terry Brooks, somewhat unexpectedly, garnered some increased critical acclaim for the direction of his Shannara novels, concentrating on filling in the backstory of his original books and linking them to his more warmly-received Word and the Void trilogy. Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar series limped on through several more volumes, to growing apathy from the audience.
Science fiction had a mixed decade, seeing increased success in the UK (with Iain Banks' formerly rather lonely position on the bestseller charts being alleviated with the success of the likes of Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds and Dan Abnett) and ending in a healthy state, but a reduced profile in the USA, where original SF sales were seemingly conceded to tie-ins and a few long-term writers (such as Gregory Benford and David Brin) went AWOL for much of the decade.
The All-For-Noughts SF&F Novel of the Decade
This was a hard choice with many worthy contenders but in the end I had to plump for The Separation by Christopher Priest. Published in 2002 and his only novel published in the decade, The Separation is an SF novel mixing alternate history, WWII and Priest's trademark musings on identity and different layers of reality. A complex and satisfying novel with a conclusion that begs for re-reads and different interpretations of the events.
Other Major Books of the Noughts
When it comes to epic fantasy, the dominant book of the decade was easily A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin, the third volume of A Song of Ice and Fire. Its position - being published right at the start of the decade - meant that invariably every other epic fantasy novel published in the decade was compared to it and usually found wanting, despite some coming very close. A Storm of Swords employs excellent prose with fantastic characterisation and some very clever plotting to deliver many of the most iconic fantasy moments and scenes of the decade: Oberyn and Gregor's duel, the Red Wedding in all its blood-soaked horror, the epic battle for the Wall, Tyrion Lannister's confrontation with his father and Jaime Lannister's crowning and totally unexpected moment of heroism (fighting off a bear one-handed). The first movement of ASoIaF came to an emotionally shattering conclusion which no fantasy author - not even Martin himself - has managed to match so far.
In the more original field of fantasy fiction (although still drawing on earlier works, such as Harrison and Moorcock's 1970s output), Chine Mieville followed up on his promising late-90s debut King Rat to deliver the stunning Perdido Street Station, a secondary-world steampunk epic combining many different sub-genres to form the New Weird. The visual imagery of the novel is remarkable, with its robots, cactus-people and half-human, half-insect races, and the prose lush and enjoyable. Mieville would follow this up with The Scar, Iron Council, Un Lun Dun, The City and the City and Looking for Jake, all extremely worthwhile and impressive books in their own rights, whilst his work would inspire and encourage other writers such as Steph Swainston, Alan Campbell and Mark Newton.
Dominating book sales in 2004 and into the following year was Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The book runs out of steam in its second half, but before that it is a rich, sumptuous meal of a book, with entertaining characters, a great story centered on the increasingly tetchy rivalry between two magicians and a successful evocation of the novels of the 19th Century (not least in its prodigious length). This book took ten years to write and from the sound of it, the sequel is going to be about the same.
Even more ambitious was Mary Gentle's (even bigger) 2000 novel, Ash: A Secret History, a monumental work of speculative fiction mixing together historical fiction, science fiction, alt-history and even elements of a contemporary thriller. The ground of reality itself shifts under our protagonists' feet, confusing both the reader and the present-in-the-text-via-footnotes-and-excerpts editors, with events building to a satisfying conclusion. Massively underrated, this is a challenging and rewarding novel.
In the more traditional sphere of SF, one of the decade's dominant authors was Alastair Reynolds. His first novel, Revelation Space, was published in 2000 and he followed it up with its two sequels (Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap), two further novels set in the same universe (Chasm City and The Prefect), two story collections set in the same setting (Galactic North and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days), three stand-alone novels (Century Rain, Pushing Ice and House of Suns) and a further story collection (Zima Blue). Reynolds combines a prodigious output with hard SF credentials and real writing ability, taking particular delight in fusing the conventions of the noir genre and occasionally gothic horror to hard SF. Amongst his books published in the 2000s, particular praise must be given to the intricate, complex and highly intriguing narrative of Chasm City and the old-school, big-dumb-object-based SF of Pushing Ice. His first novel of the new decade, Terminal World, is his best yet and marks the beginning of his new $1.6 million publishing contract in style.
Having a somewhat more mixed decade was Iain M. Banks, whose 2004 novel The Algebraist was received with a somewhat muted reception (despite winning a Hugo nomination), whilst 2008's Matter (his long-awaited return to the Culture setting) failed to set the world on fire. However, his 2000 novel Look to Windward remains an elegant and surprisingly melancholy Culture novel which examines the price of old sins and if redemption is ever truly possible. A powerful work which arguably has become more effective over time, like one of those whiskeys he likes so much (and wrote a non-fiction book, Raw Spirit, about in 2003).
Back in the epic fantasy camp, one of the series dominating book discussions in the 2000s was Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, which saw no less than ten books published during the decade (eight by Erikson, two by Ian Cameron Esslemont). Originally hailed as the 'next big thing' in the subgenre, the series delivered two killer novels in a row - 2000's Deadhouse Gates and 2001's Memories of Ice - before the early promise faded away through a number of books that, whilst remaining very decent, saw a slackening of the narrative pace and an obscuring of the series' central ideas through vast reams of secondary characters and subplots of arguable importance. But clearing away the diversions and returning to the early part of the series, these two books are cracking reads transmitted through strong protagonists and deliver, through the dual heart-rending conclusions of the Chain of Dogs and Itkovian's final moments, surprisingly powerful emotional charges. Erikson has never been as good since then, but these two novels show that there is plenty of originality and ingenuity left in the subgenre.
This theme was picked up on by Erikson's fellow Canadian Scott Bakker, whose Prince of Nothing Trilogy (2003-06) remains one of the epic fantasy highlights of the decade. A dark, brooding and intellectually pitiless work, it is cold and remote but constantly thought-provoking and raises interesting questions about motivations, religion and philosophy. His Neuropath (2008) is less accomplished, with the author falling in love too much with the central idea to the exclusion of the story and characters, but The Judging Eye (2009) is an interesting preview of a much darker and more apocalyptic sequel story to The Prince of Nothing. How Bakker brings his large story to a satisfying resolution remains to be seen in the 2010s.
One author who recovered from a late-1990s slump was Terry Pratchett, who gave us several of the strongest Discworld novels to date in this decade. The Truth, Going Postal and Making Money are all strong books, whilst Thud! and Monstrous Regiment are decent, but it's the unusually resonant and character-focused Night Watch that will likely be remembered as his masterpiece of the series in this period, whilst his non-Discworld novel Nation is also a significant book which examines the birth of a new society from the ruins of an old one.
In the SF field, Peter F. Hamilton had an interesting decade. After delivering the grand finale to his Night's Dawn Trilogy, The Naked God, in 1999 he took a break to work on a companion volume (2000's The Confederation Handbook) before resuming his fiction work. Misspent Youth (2002) was a misstep, despite its prescience in examining the issue of digital downloads killing off revenue streams for popular entertainment, possibly with disastrous consequences, but Fallen Dragon (2001) is an unusually melancholy look at a future where humanity's path to the stars is struck down by economic catastrophe. Hamilton returned to big-budget, blockbuster SF with his most satisfying novel of the decade, Pandora's Star (2004), which set up an immense number of narrative and character threads. Surprisingly, the conclusion in Judas Unchained (2005) was somewhat underwhelming, but he returned to the same setting for the solid The Dreaming Void (2007) and The Temporal Void (2008), with a third book in the series due later this year. Hamilton did see his star and sales rise in the 2000s, however, as he became (and remains) Britain's biggest-selling SF author and saw his sales in the USA also reaching impressive levels.
An author straddling both SF and Fantasy in the 2000s was Richard K. Morgan, whose strong 2002 debut, Altered Carbon, was followed by the satisfying Broken Angels and Woken Furies, as well as a stand-alone, Market Forces, before he delivered the killer 2007 novel Black Man (aka Thirteen in the USA). Dubbed by one reviewer as a Stranger in a Strange Land for the 21st Century, this was an incendiary novel with a lot of challenging things to say about religion and politics in the United States. It divided the audience quite strongly (and amusingly on both sides of the political divide, indicating he did something right), to say the least. Unfortunately, his debut fantasy work, The Steel Remains (2008), was not quite as accomplished, despite employing some clever ideas. Two further fantasy novels and a return to the SF field remain ahead for Morgan in this decade.
Joe Abercrombie requires a mention for his subversive take on the epic fantasy genre, The First Law Trilogy, and its stand-alone sort-of sequel, Best Served Cold. Funny, dark and gritty by turns, these books take a lot of lessons learned from other authors and put a great spin on them.
Greg Keyes and Alan Campbell both started off great-looking series in the 2000s with The Briar King and Scar Night, but unfortunately both series collapsed with badly-thought-out and unsatisfying conclusions. Both authors remain talented and strong writers, but are yet to fulfil their enviable potential.
Other authors of note this decade: Paul Kearney, Ian McDonald, Steph Swainston, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, Robert Redick, Neal Stephenson (who probably would have been mentioned in the main section if I'd read Anathem or finished The Baroque Cycle), Brian Aldiss, Brandon Sanderson, Adam Roberts, the sadly late David Gemmell (who went out on a high, with The Troy Trilogy among his very finest works), Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, the also sadly late Robert Holdstock, Neal Asher, John Birmingham, Chris Wooding and no doubt a dozen or so others whom I'll only remember after I finish the post.
Worst work of SF&F published professionally in the 2000s: The Legends of Dune trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert. This series redefines the very meaning of the phrase 'hack work written for the money', and everyone involved in its writing, editing and publication should feel ashamed of themselves, whilst Frank Herbert is spinning so fast in the grave that he could be harnessed as a viable alternate energy source.