SFFWorld Review of the Year, 2012 Part 2
SFFWorld Review of the Year, 2012
Part 1: Fantasy & Horror
Part 2: SF
Part 3: Genre Film & TV
So here we are again: our usual review of the year. (This is something like our tenth!)
For the uninitiated, this is usually where Rob Bedford and I try to pull together what we see as key genre books from the previous twelve months. I should really point out before we start that there is always some slippage here, as books get published in different places around the world at different times.
Putting it simply, some books may reappear even though they were mentioned previously. At the moment this seems to be a ‘UK first, US later’ thing, but by no means always.
At the end, Rob and I will usually mention our year’s favourites. We try and limit it to five each, but it doesn’t always happen that way. (In fact, it never does, but the intention is always there....!) We’ve also been joined this year by some other SFFWorld staff throwing their respective hats into the ring.
Right: with that over, let’s get started.
As we said in the Fantasy review, the global recession has clearly continued to affect the publishing world. According to Locus Magazine, up to the end of September 2012, there had been 67 SF novels published over the year January-September. Compared with last year’s figure (and even allowing for the fact that the 2011 figure was for the whole of 2011) of 76, this is slightly down, though nowhere near the Fantasy result of 215. We’ve also had the development of the e-book market, which may not be included in the Locus figures, and has grown beyond expectations over the last couple of years to be quite important in 2012. In August 2012 Amazon.co.uk announced that it was selling more ebooks than print versions.
January started strongly for Space Opera, with Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth which Mark reviewed. Rob reviewed The Recollection by Gareth L. Powell. We also reviewed something we should do more of at SFFWorld, an audio drama, when occasional reviewer Kathryn Ryan reviewed a Ciaphas Cain story Dead in the Water by Sandy Mitchell. Mark reviewed a superhero reimagining with Empire State by Adam Christopher and an old-fashioned duo of future-colony tales, Tau Ceti by Kevin Anderson and Steven Savile. Elsewhere, Paul Mc Auley’s In the Mouth of the Whale was another Space Opera liked by readers, as too Chris Beckett’s alien planet tale Dark Eden, though Mark was not as impressed. Lavie Tidhar’s Obama was published this month, with an audacious meta-fiction premise and was generally well liked, winning the World Fantasy Award for 2012 later in the year.
In February, Mark read some old stuff (Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys and Dangerous Visions by Harlan Ellison), whilst Nila reviewed, and really rated quite highly, Hugh Howey’s WOOL and Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue. Rob read Necropath by Eric Brown and Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell, the first novel from Buckell in a couple of years. Away from SFFWorld, NESFA Press published Volume 5 of the Collected Works of Poul Anderson, The Door to Anywhere, Lavie Tidhar had the third in the Bookman Histories, The Great Game, released, and Walter John Williams had his latest future techno-thriller, The Fourth Wall, published. Future war tale Exogene by T.C. McCarthy was published in the US, a book which Rob reviewed and called a ‘smart’ book that was ‘an advancement of the discussion of war, the tools of war which change in execution and final product.’
In March Mark read more old stuff (The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov) and Rob greatly enjoyed Overthrowing Heaven by Mark L. Van Name, the third Jon and Lobo novel. Elsewhere, David Weber had A Rising Thunder published, Book 17 (!) in his Honor Harrington series. It was felt by many fans to be enjoyable, if the series was starting to be a little tired. Ken MacLeod’s future dystopia, Intrusion, was well received.
In April Rob reviewed Stark's War by Jack Campbell and Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, with the Scalzi reimaging of H. Beam Piper’s first-contact story ‘a blast, and... seems to me a perfect example of how to do a reboot.’ Elsewhere, Subterranean Press published The Best of Kage Baker, a satisfactory tribute to the author who died in 2010. John Joseph Adams’ collection of mechanical warfare, Armoured, was also well received.
May saw the release of another big Space Travelog, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. Covering similar ground to Alistair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth (see January) this epic had the intellectual tone and style of typical Kim Robinson, but (to Mark at least) was a less satisfying read. Rob really liked BLACKOUT by Mira Grant, and reviewed Military SF/Space Opera Invincible by Jack Campbell. Jack did a great interview for us HERE and HERE. Mark read and reviewed The Science of Avatar by Stephen Baxter and an old classic of super-mutant humans, Odd John by Olaf Stapledon.
In June Mark reviewed the much anticipated Caliban’s War, the sequel to the very popular Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (otherwise known as the very busy Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). This was a wider, broader picture than the first novel, with the return of some popular characters from the first novel and the introduction of some new ones. Reviews were generally positive, although some readers did feel that it was just more of the same.
Mark said ‘If Leviathan Wakes was Star Wars (fast pace, great action, lots of running about on a space station) then this is The Empire Strikes Back (better script, more complex characters and more intricate plot, based in an ice station and a space ship rather than on a space station.) A crackingly enjoyable read that I’m pleased to say didn’t let me down.’ Rob was just as positive when he reviewed the book on its US release in September.
Just as impressive in June was David Brin’s Existence, which Rob loved for its big, bold ideas and complex plot, saying ‘Brin achieved an excellent gestalt of character, big ideas, and narrative energy.’ We also had the US release of John Scalzi’s Redshirts, a book Rob recommended because it ‘succeeded in making me laugh a great deal and had the all-important powerful pull to keep reading to find out what happens next.’ Mark also reviewed the book on its UK release in December.
Less enjoyable for Mark was Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson, ‘the sort of fast-paced, action-heavy, dialogue-clichéd story that reads like a novel based on a game or a movie outline‘ which is unsurprisingly being made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Other books in June of note were Gary Gibson’s The Thousand Emperors, set some centuries after the first book in the series, Final Days, which Mark reviewed last year. Nila reviewed First Shift by Hugh Howey.
In July, both Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (an SF-style mystery tale) and M. John Harrison’s Empty Spaces was received by critics very favourably. Professor Roberts himself claimed that Empty Spaces was Harrison’s best SF book of the year, calling it ‘extraordinary’. Mark caught up with Rob a little by reading Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis on its UK release, and enjoyed his continuing reread of old Robert Heinlein, although Sixth Column (The Day After Tomorrow) was not one of Heinlein’s most successful books. Elsewhere, Ben Bova had published a new Orion novel, Orion and King Arthur.
In August we had chance to read another of the year’s big releases early, big in both popularity and size, Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton. When Mark reviewed it, he was generally positive, although there were parts where he found the journey difficult. Elsewhere, Neal Asher’s Zero Point, the second in his Owner trilogy, was published and felt to be better than the first book, The Departure.
In September Rob got to Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey on its US release, saying ‘Caliban’s War successfully builds on the groundwork laid out in Leviathan Wakes, even if some of the story beats remain the same.’ Great North Road was released in the UK. Nila reviewed superhero novel Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher, but found it a bit of a struggle. Elsewhere, Hannu Rajaniemi’s sequel to The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince, was well liked by many who read it, though some did find it a tad bewildering.
In October Mark was very pleased to reread the publication of David Wingrove’s third Chung Kuo book, The Middle Kingdom, saying ‘It’s engaging, it’s exciting and it’s great to be back in the Chung Kuo world. I envy anyone yet to read this for the first time.’ He enjoyed but was a little disappointed by The Martian War by Kevin Anderson, Kevin’s take on HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. Rob enjoyed The Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley on its US release, which he “found Seeds of Earth to be exactly the book I hoped it would be.” Elsewhere, David Weber reappeared, this time writing with Jane Lindskold, on Fire Season, the second in his Honor Harrington prequel series aimed at younger readers. Gary K. Wolfe’s two-volume collection of SF books for the Library of America, American Science Fiction: Volume 1: 1953-1956 and American Science Fiction: Volume 2: 1956-1958 was generally well received. The major release of the month was Iain Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata, a much-requested return to the world of The Culture, and celebrating Iain’s 25 years of writing Culture novels. Mark thought it was OK but was not really wowed by it, which seems to be the opposite of most reader’s views! October also saw that two other greats of SF writing, Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, had published Bowl of Heaven, the first in a duology that involved aliens, space exploration, Big Dumb Objects and Ringworld type engineering.
November was mainly a month for older SF writers, with Jack McDevitt & Mike Resnick’s The Cassandra Project quite well-liked, as too Allen Steele’s Heinlein-esque Young Adult novel, Apollo’s Outcasts. Rob enjoyed the Young Adult book by Jonathan L. Howard, Katya's World, but was disappointed by Brenda Cooper’s The Creative Fire.
Towards the end of the year, we had the release of a new Vorkosigan novel, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, though based around one of the secondary characters. Fans of the series, like Mark, enjoyed it, probably more than 2010’s Cryoburn, though it did seem a little forced in places. Mark read and reviewed Baen Books Christmas story collection, We Wish You A Cosmic Christmas, a rather hit and miss miscellany, though rather pleasingly eclectic and suitably appropriate for the end of the year. Rob read The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis and was very impressed, even though it was the middle book of a trilogy. He also liked Embedded by Dan Abnett. Elsewhere, the fourth book in the Chung Kuo series, Ice and Fire, was published.
OK: to favourites.
Mark: Always difficult to reduce, in no particular order other than alphabetical, my five SF for 2012 would be
- Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold;
- Existence by David Brin;
- Caliban’s War by James SA Corey (Daniel Abraham/Ty Franck);
- Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton;
- Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds.
Looking back over the year, I’m quite surprised to realise how little SF I’ve read this year, and new SF at that. Last year I was more impressed with my SF reading than my Fantasy reading, though I read much more Fantasy (such is the way of the market at the moment.) This year it’s been harder to pick the ‘best’ SF, and if I had to choose five overall I suspect there would be very little SF in there. I’ve struggled to find anything outstanding, although I’ve very much enjoyed those in my five. Perhaps if I’d got around to Jack Glass, or Empty Spaces, they would be in there too. Whilst big, epic Space Opera seems generally to be on a bit of a roll, I have realised that there’s very little new SF being noticed on my radar.
Of the old stuff this year, I must also say that I have spent the year reading lots of ‘old stuff’: things I’ve not had chance to catch up with before or rereleases and rereads. I have tried to read more old stuff on behalf of SFFWorld this year as well as the newer stuff. Though I don’t include reissues in my five favourites, honourable mentions go to David Wingrove’s The Middle Kingdom and Fire and Ice, which are just as good as I remember them from twenty-odd years ago. Rogue Moon was a surprise, and not one I’m totally in favour of, but I think readers need to at least try it as an experiment of the 1950’s. So too Dangerous Visions as a similar experiment of the 1960’s.
Of the collections this year, a big shout-out should go to the Library of America duology which includes nine American SF novels of the 1950’s. I’ve read the books separately (not in this edition, sadly), and must say it is a pretty good choice. Well done, editor, Gary Wolfe! I did enjoy old stuff releases from NESFA Press and Haffner Press too.
- Existence by David Brin
- Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey
- Blackout by Mira Grant
- Beyond the Frontier: Invincible by Jack Campbell
- Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell
- Honourable Mention: Seeds of the Earth by Michael Cobley
Some really interesting releases this year, I sort of disqualified Seeds of the Earth by Michael Cobley since it originally published a couple of years ago in the UK, but it was exactly the right book at exactly the right time for me. I dipped back into Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga with Cetaganda and realized I’d spent too much time away from her books. Continuing on with Mark L. Van Name’s Jon and Lobo series with the third instalment Overthrowing Heaven, I realized more people should be reading Van Name’s novels, these are fun, meaningful and smart novels and Van Name gets better with each novel. Of the disappointments, I’d have to say Blue Remembered Earth, which wasn’t bad, but I felt not as strong as Reynolds’s previous work which I greatly enjoyed.
Kat G: On the SF side, I read Rule 34 by Charles Stross. I had not read Halting State. I liked it, it was a good cyberpunk thriller, and he has the police procedural nailed down. It was not very convincing that this was a world some ten years in the future and I thought the ending, despite its clever twist on an old idea, could have been more interesting, but overall, it worked really nicely, great characters, and he may be an “Internet puppy,” but as the many people who keep mentioning Rule 34 in conversation show, his inventions are permeating the cultural framework. He did what SF does – present provocative ideas about how humans interact with science and each other.
Nila (N.E.) White:
As I said in the Fantasy/Horror section, I tend to read on the fringe. Out on the edge, here are two that I recommend to all my friends and family:
- WOOL Omnibus by Hugh Howey
- The God Engines by John Scalzi
If you haven’t heard of WOOL, the short story collection by Hugh Howey and its rise from the obscure self-published pile to the latest hot thing in publishing, then maybe you need to pull your head out from the sand, eh? ;)
I’m not sure what more I can say about this series that I haven’t already said over and over. It’s great. Random House UK thinks it is great. The folks at Scott Free (Ridley Scott) thought so, too. So, just get it already. You won’t be disappointed.
Like many aspiring authors (yes, I’m one of those, too), I’ve never actually read anything by John Scalzi, but I follow his Whatever blog religiously. His non-fiction writing is provocative (he’s always got interesting things to say about, well, whatever), but I had never got around to reading any of his work.
Earlier this year, I got a Nook and went shopping. Something I bought prompted Barnes and Nobles’ search engine to suggest The God Engines by John Scalzi. A novela that deserves to be a series and not just a short, I tore through the story about a man in the brink of losing his faith in one sitting. It’s a great little story.
The God Engines explores the notion of ‘gods’ and the ties of faith between humans and those gods. As anyone who knows me will attest (I maintain a book review blog titled ‘The Atheist’s Quill’), this is right up my alley.
And as many of you here at SFFWorld.com know, Scalzi writing is just the right combination of spare while providing the reader with descriptions that linger and evoke a sense of wider, more complex worlds ready to be explored. If you want a challenge to the way you think about faith, you may want to read The God Engines.
If you are not up to the challenge, you should still get it – it’s a fun sci-fi yarn with a Captain and his crew on a space ship adrift in the cosmos – will they make it? Read it to find out.
Part Three deals with Film & TV.