Saturday, 9 January 2010

The All-For-Noughts: Books of the Decade

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.

Brief Mentions

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.


Nick said...

Adam, yet again you prove yourself to be one of the most informed readers aot there and few people need look any further as a starting point for recommended reads to get a sense of the decade in genre terms, than your list here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendations! Of those that I've read, I particularly appreciate the mention of Ash - I found it fantastic*, if a little flawed, and I'm surprised to hear it mentioned so infrequently. I know that big epic series are all the rage these days, but, let's be honest, Ash is a big enough novel BY ITSELF to count as an epic series...

I do have one question for you, though: what's a) the best Christopher Priest book, and b) the best Christopher Priest book for newbies? I've never read anything by him, but your descriptions make all the books of his you've reviewed very appealing. Where should I start, do you think?

Adam Whitehead said...

Of the books I've read, either THE AFFIRMATION or THE SEPARATION is the best. However, I'd say that THE PRESTIGE is probably the easiest one of his books to 'get' whilst still featuring his trademark twist in the tale.

Mike Johnstone said...

Thanks for this list and all the commentary you've included with it!

I came back to reading SF&F only in the last few years of the decade, so there are some intriguing surprises here: namely, the books by Christopher Priest, Mary Gentle, and Scott Bakker (nice to see some Canadian content!). Susanna Clarke's book is one I've seen appearing on a few Best of the Decade lists, so I would definite like to pick it up one day.

I understand that this is ultimately a personal list, but I wonder if Rowling should be on it not just for the totality of her influence and success (which you discuss). Specifically, book four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is, I would argue, the best and most accomplished novel of the series and one of the best SF&F novels of the decade. She gets everything right in this book that made the first three so engaging and charming, yet she also really leaped forward as a novelist with Goblet of Fire and brought a new kind of maturity, substance, and tension to the series (which I think she recaptured again only in the seventh book).

Now, time to go to the book store and add to my ever growing TBR pile. Sigh .... :-)

John Anealio said...

Thanks for the Storm of Swords recap. I forgot about all of the awesome events that took place in that book.

I've read the first Steven Erikson book (Gardens of the Moon), I've been gun-shy about reading the rest of it as it is such a large series, but now I'm motivated to check out at least the first two books in the series.

I just started reading Revelation Space and so far I agree with your assessment of Reynold's writing ability.

Jussi said...

Adam, have you actually read Bakker's Neuropath? If not, how can you say that it is "less accomplished, with the author falling in love too much with the central idea to the exclusion of the story and characters"? Shouldn't you first try the book yourself...

I didn't have any problems with the plot or characters - Neuropath was a great sf thriller. I don't believe there is a consensus that this novel was a disappointment. It got very good reviews in some places, at least in Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.

If you do have read Neuropath, or first few chapters, sorry for the rant! I really like your article.

Adam Whitehead said...

I read a fair chunk of NEUROPATH, probably about half of the book, thenn skipped to the end and the afterword. My failure to complete the novel is why there is no review, which is why there is also no reviews of Harkaway's GONE-AWAY WORLD or Harrison's VIRICONIUM, the only other two books I started this decade but proved to be so weak I couldn't finish either. This is in opposition to Stephenson's BAROQUE CYCLE and Chabon's YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION, both of which I started and liked, but wasn't in the right frame of mind to finish, and will return to both of them some day.

@ Mike Johnstone, I actually think I preferred ORDER OF THE PHOENIX to GOBLET OF FIRE, although the latter was quite a successful novel. I do need to finish the series, but if I was going to finish it I'd want to re-read the whole thing and then I'd probably want to review it and reviewing HARRY POTTER is probably a bit pointless at the moment. A few years from now when it's ripe for re-appraisal, I'll get to it.

Gyözö said...

I agree with most of your choices; however, I found Harkaway's book very good, employing an intriguing idea and delivering a surprising and satisfying finale.

And, you really should read Anathem. As a mathematician, I may be biased, but I think it's Stephenson's best (I read all of his novels, except for his first, but including the Baroque Cycle). Although The Graveyard Book is a nice read, Anathem should have won the Hugo, hands down.

Unknown said...

Great run-through but I feel you kinda missed Adrian Tchaikovsky and his "Shadows of the Apt"-series. Not as one of the most influental series but as one of the special mentions perhaps?

Adam Whitehead said...

I haven't read Tchaikovsky's series. I was going to hold off on it until it was done, but since it's been expanded to ten books that is going to take some time, so I might get into it next year, if I can swing review copies of the first two books in the series.

Magemanda said...

Really pleased to see Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on your list - this was a mixed bag of a book, certainly not the flawless masterpiece we were encouraged to believe, but stunning nonetheless. I loved the slow build, the graceful language and the sense that you're actually reading a classic novel.

I appreciate your problems with the Baroque Cycle! I bogged down so badly during the first third of last year - it took me months to grind through the three books and I had a monumental sense of relief when I was done. But, equally, I was disappointed to have finished. I've never read such a frustrating, rewarding, dense, disappointing, difficult, smooth set of books. Ever.

logankstewart said...

I'm with Magemanda and glad that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell made it to the list. I found the novel amazing and one of my favorite reads of 2009 (yeah, I was a little late in picking it up). Clarke's voice and wit, plus the fascinating characters, propelled this book for me.

Great list, and thanks for the recommendations.

Tree Frog said...

Bunch of random thoughts:

I kind of like Virconium. It had an element of gravitas and sufficient twists in the post-apocalyptic world to keep me reading. I wish he'd written more about that world.

For possibly overlooked gems, I recommend Appleseed by John Clute.

I think Pratchett allowed some seriousness to creep into Night Watch and Nation - which makes them the most affecting works he's ever written and truly powerful stuff.

Ooooh, I disagree about the Malazan books losing focus. I much welcomed the expansion of the storylines and the cast of characters. Erikson's writing in particular has improved by leaps and bounds, and he's exploring issues in a rather inventive manner (to this reader at least).

Thanks, Wert.

Anonymous said...

Before reading this description of Storm of Swords, I thought I could wait indefinitely to carry on with the rest of Martin's series after knowing A Game of Thrones, but now I feel compelled to give it special priority.

From the Low Lands said...

Hmm, I like the list. But, there seems to be something missing. Where are the female writers??
Wat about Robin Hobb, Jacqueline Carey or J.V. Jones. They should certainly be on this list.
Boy, you missed out on some good stuff.

Adam Whitehead said...

I tend to enjoy the first books in Robin Hobb series, get bored during the second and struggle to finish the third. After this happened twice in a row I had no patience to go through it again, and haven't been moved to read anything by Hobb since. Since her new series is only a duology and is related to the LIVESHIP books (which I enjoyed somewhat more than the tedious FARSEER trilogy), I may give it a go, assuming it doesn't require knowledge of the TAWNY MAN trilogy to read.

Jones is a very good author but FORTRESS OF GREY ICE was not good enough on its own merits to make the list, as it was far too transitional (as opposed to the Erikson choices, which stood alone, or the Martin, which was the climax of the opening story movement). I haven't read SWORD FROM RED ICE yet, and her other works are all from the 1990s.

Jacqueline Carey's work has not so far taken my interest, apart from the revisionist LORD OF THE RINGS duology which I plan to get to at some point.

One writer I suspect should have been on the list is KJ Parker, but I fell behind with her (assuming she is a she etc) a long time ago, and haven't read any of her 2000s output.

I'm wondering if Steph Swainston should have made it onto the main list, but as I've only read one book by her, that might have been premature (that reminds me that I have the second and need to get round to that soon).

Desk Jockey said...

I was going to ask: where is The Baroque Cycle?! But, I saw your post explaining that you weren't in the right frame of mind to finish.

I completely understand, the cycle does take its toll. It took me two months to read them. I can't explain it. They are some of my favourite books...but they are definitely challenging (especially the final two volumes) and you do need to be in the right mood.

Mike Johnstone said...

@From the Low Lands: "Where are the female writers??"

Well, Susanna Clarke and Mary Gentle do make Adam's list, and there is acknowledgement that Rowling was the "biggest phenomenon of the decade." Out of 12 books highlighted, that's two by women.

(Also, out of 12 books, Adam has selected only one Hugo winner from the 2001-2009 awards, that being Clarke.)

That said, this is Adam's list and reflective of his reading and tastes. It's a decently eclectic list overall, I think, with some surprises (for me) such as Priest and Gentle and Bakker.

I don't think you could argue with Martin, Miéville, and Erikson as "major books" of the decade. Reynolds, Hamilton, and Morgan certainly had significant outputs in the decade.

I already mentioned that Rowling perhaps deserves more than a nod for her "sales and visibility," if we're considering the decade's major SF&F books. Also, the SF selections (and the list overall) is somewhat UK-heavy, and a case for including Dan Simmons's Ilium/Olympos duology and Stephenson's Anathem could be made ....

But, again, this is Adam's list, and I like it. :-) By all accounts, he's right: this was a strong decade for SF&F. I like it.

Adam Whitehead said...

I have but haven't read ILIUM/OLYMPUS yet, and enjoyed THE TERROR but it wasn't good enough to make it onto the list (and was far more successful in its historical fiction aspects than its fantastical).

The Hugo winners for this decade have been somewhat uninspiring, with frequently good works going completely unnoticed. I did enjoy AMERICAN GODS but I found it somewhat derivative of his earlier SANDMAN work, which was much stronger. SPIN is an enjoyable little disaster novel with some nice ideas but no more than that. Haven't read RAINBOW'S END or THE GRAVEYARD BOOK yet. I'm having difficulty remembering the other winners, apart from GOBLET OF FIRE which was decent but certainly not better than A STORM OF SWORDS.

CRYPTONOMICON would have made it onto the list without a second's hesitation, except it come out in 1999.

The Flying Halftrak said...

I was looking forward to this, and you didn't disappoint. Thanks for a great post!

Though I'm disappointed to hear you found The Gone-Away World weak. I finished Harkaway's novel about a month ago and found it stunning. An instant favorite; it resonated with me on many, many levels. Oh well, to each his own.

Mike Johnstone said...

"The Hugo winners for this decade have been somewhat uninspiring, with frequently good works going completely unnoticed."

Agreed. This is why I think your list constitutes an intriguing counterpoint to the Hugo winners of 2001-2009. For instance, Priest's novel wasn't even nominated in its year of eligibility (2003), but Sawyer's very poor Hominids won over Miéville's The Scar and Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. Your list demonstrates nicely why Adam Roberts's rant about the Hugos last year raised some important points regarding what the award represents and says about the state of SF&F today: i.e., that challenging, inspiring works are getting ignored.

"I'm having difficulty remembering the other winners, apart from GOBLET OF FIRE which was decent but certainly not better than A STORM OF SWORDS."

I would say that arguing against A Storm of Swords as likely the best, most influential epic sword-&-sorcery fantasy book of the decade would be, well, foolish. Martin just happened to run up against the Harry Potter juggernaut that year (2001), I guess, though I feel Rowling was a deserving winner. Funny, I never realized until looking at the award nominations that Martin's and Rowling's books came out in the same year ....

In any case, the two books do very different things and aim at very different audiences, and both achieve their goals exceptionally well. "Better" seems like a tricky proposition to make here, perhaps. Perhaps. :-)

Gyözö said...

@Adam, @From the Low Lands: I agree with Adam on this one, I've given up on Hobbs after having read the Farseer and Liveship trilogies. (Or did I make it to the Tawny Man? Not sure...). I liked the Liveship trilogy best, but all in all it's just not worth my time to put up with all that whining from the main characters.

I don't need to have an uberhero, I love Thomas Covenant, for instance, but there is a line between justified and comprehensible self doubt and whining, and Hobb keeps her characters firmly on the latter side.

nephtis said...

There's a definite bias in the list towards big epic novels, be there scifi or fantasy, action- and plot-driven. So for me it divides quite neatly into books I couldn't stand because of their misogyny and the ones I loved for their awesomeness. No neutral reactions. Except for Priest - haven't read that, or Clarke - sounds like it would bore me.

Loved: Ash, Chasm City, Pandora's Star, Perdido Street Station - totally some of the best books in SF ever.

Kinda hated: Bakker, Martin, Morgan

Adam Whitehead said...

ASH and PANDORA'S STAR (lots of hot babes getting laid, a PFH staple) are less 'misogynistic' than Martin and Morgan? Or is ASH allowed to be 'misogynistic' because it was written by a woman? It certainly features vastly more violence towards women than anything in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, by far.

As for Bakker, part of the point of the story of his world is that the role of women has been corrupted due the No-God stripping them of their ability to bear children in the First Apocalypse, resulting in a totally screwed-up male/female relationship in the world. Agreed it makes for tough reading sometimes.