2009 In Review

Reviewed by Our Reviewers

Paul Graham Raven: 2009 in genre? Well, everyone has been arguing about pretty much everything, but that's par for the course—and (I still maintain) a sign of health, though I think a shattering-into-subgenres similar to that which has affected popular music has only just begun. The good stuff's going to come when people stop arguing about what SF is or isn't and just write what they want to; less people will buy it, but popularity is no reliable indicator of quality or novelty. SF isn't a genre any more, it's a mode. That's probably the best thing that ever happened to it, though it may be the death of traditional fandom. Selah.

Mind Over Ship cover

But enough generalities: as for books, I've enjoyed David Marusek's Mind Over Ship, Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids, Liz Williams's The Demon and The City, China Miéville's The City & The City, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's Secret History of Science Fiction, Greg Egan's Oceanic, The Very Best of Gene Wolfe, Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland, and many more; Warren Ellis continues to demonstrate that I should make more time for the weirder end of comics, web-based or otherwise; Fringe has convinced me that television could do episodic SF properly if it settled for smaller ratings; Hollywood has largely confirmed the wisdom of ignoring its exquisitely rendered CGI death throes while the indie scene flexes its wiry muscles in the wings; the newspapers are dying, and the web is full of journalists engaging in speculative thinking as if they invented it as a way to stave off the redundancy announcements.

2009 is the year the SF genie shattered the bottle and conquered everything. How can you tell? Because it's like a benign pollution; everyone inhales it, exhales it, unnoticed and unremarked upon, every day.

Karen Burnham: 2009 was an idiosyncratic reading year for me. I read very little short fiction that wasn’t part of a slush pile, and my novel-length reading was split between 2009 and pre-WWI. In classics I learned that Tolkien did not spring fully formed from the forehead of British mimetic literature; he had several precursors, the best of whom I think are George MacDonald and Lord Dunsany. Certainly I count those two worthies as my major finds for the year. On the other hand, I feel like I’ve read William Hope Hodgson and M. P. Shiel’s Purple Cloud so that you don’t have to.

Moving on to 2009, it seems (from my limited reading) that the merging of fantasy, SF, and mainstream stories continues apace. Daryl Gregory’s The Devil’s Alphabet was SF that felt both mainstream and fantastic, Otsuichi’s story collection Zoo has SF, fantasy and mainstream all in the service of horror, and Miéville’s The City & The City may actually be a wholly mundane story, but it feels fantastic in its world-building.

I did read some pure genre efforts this year: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which I loved despite its flaws, Jay Lake’s Green which I enjoyed despite it’s entirely different flaws, and Ken Scholes’s Lamentation the flaws of which may be mitigated as its series continues. But on the whole I found the "pure" efforts to be easier to nitpick and less engaging than more "hybrid" efforts.

On Joanna Russ cover

L. Timmel Duchamp: 2009 may not have been the rosiest year in memory, but it did see the arrival of some fine work in the SF&F world. Of new nonfiction out in 2009, I highly recommend On Joanna Russ, ed. Farah Mendlesohn, and Conversations with Samuel R. Delany, ed. Carl Freedman; these books were not only intellectually stimulating, but a pleasure to read. My favorite short fiction includes Rachel Swirsky's beautiful, masterful "The Memory of Wind" (Tor.com); Maureen McHugh's near-future "Useless Things" (Eclipse 3); and Karen Joy Fowler's harrowing docudrama, "Pelican Bar" (Eclipse 3). Alan DeNiro's brilliant Total Oblivion, More or Less tops my list of 2009 novels, followed by Sylvie Bérard’s debut novel, Of Wind and Sand, and Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters. And finally, Vandana Singh's tender, image-rich The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet is my choice for best collection.

Nader Elhefnawy: I've read relatively little of this year's fiction; much of my reviewing, even, has had to do with collections of earlier material, as with Charles Stross's Wireless, but I was impressed with the continuing robustness of the original anthology market. At any given time there seems to be something new for just about every taste, in both science fiction and fantasy, and I particularly enjoyed Ages of Wonder.

As to other media: I'm way behind in my film-viewing, more up to date in my television-viewing. Red Dwarf: Back to Earth was a fun bit of nostalgia, but not much more. The series finale of Battlestar Galactica proved, to me at least, that the show was a grossly overrated piece of mediocrity, great-looking but intellectually and emotionally empty, and proof of the decline of the channel that has rebranded itself "SyFy" (which seems intent on chucking the science fiction fans in favor of wrestling fans, reality show junkies, and the general audience in its most recent offerings), as well as the broader deterioration of the always-fragile market for science fiction on (North American) television, on which I commented earlier this year over at the Internet Review of Science Fiction. (On a more positive note, I am finding Stargate: Universe more interesting than it seemed at first glance.)

Avatar poster

Graham Sleight: There's no denying that James Cameron's Avatar had plenty of problems: the way it treated the indigenous people of Pandora and the assumption that they needed One Of Us to save themselves, for starters. However, as a visual experience, I've never seen anything like it. You could see it as a 160-minute exercise in James Cameron deciding whether he wants to go with his inner Heinlein or his inner Le Guin—"The Word for World Is Forest" is an especially obvious ancestor. But he was clearly most entranced by the very science-fictional business of working out his world. And with the sort of money that perhaps only the director of Titanic could command, we got the most fully worked-out alien world ever to appear on screen. Every leaf and glint seemed intended, and without shortcutting the danger of Pandora's jungle, it was also frankly and luxuriantly beautiful. And the native culture, for all its simplicities, also had a thought-through set of metaphors-made-real at its root, around seeing and growing into closer unity with the world around. So even as you sensed that each frame contained too much information to absorb, you knew that was also the task confronting his marine hero Sully. Every moment took you further into a dream of sight and light.

Moon poster

David Schwartz: Here's a vote for Moon as the best science fiction film of the year; although the bright noise of Avatar is drowning it out at present, Duncan Jones's debut feature is visually stunning and emotionally wrenching. Anchored by an award-worthy performance by Sam Rockwell, Moon orbits a simple question of scientific morality that has complex legal and existential implications. Jones promises to be a major SF director, drawing upon the aesthetics of classic genre literature without making work that feels like a throwback.

Colin Harvey: 2009 was a bleak year in which F&SF went bi-monthly, Asimov's reduced its page count, and publishers shut down imprints and laid off staff, while indie presses wound up in the face of crippling debts. It was a year in which everyone took comfort from whatever small victories they could find.

Given that the launch of a new imprint at any time is good news for everyone in the industry—authors, fans, and the trade—at such a time the advent of a noisy, bright new line is like a beacon in the darkness. Angry Robot Books announced their arrival with parties and new, upstart authors. (In the interest of full disclosure, Yours Truly is among those upstarts.)

Other highlights were the survival of Realms of Fantasy, and the retention of the semi-prozine Hugo Award, which at least generated greater awareness for magazines like Clarkesworld and Albedo One.

And despite difficult circumstances, the pro magazines still managed to offer high-quality fiction from established authors such as Nancy Kress, Robert Reed, and Stephen Baxter, and newcomers like Jason Sanford, Ted Kosmatka, and Sara Genge.

I didn't get time to read many novels, apart from the excellent Angry Robot launch titles Slights and Moxyland, and those from 2008 on the Hugo Ballot. Whether Chris Beckett's Marcher—published on 30th December 2008— is a 2008 or 2009 novel is debatable, but it was certainly one of my highlights, together with Beckett's winning both Edge Hill prizes for his collection The Turing Test.

Sara Polsky: As usual, my picks this year are young adult and middle-grade novels. I recommend Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Fire to practically everyone. Cashore's work reminds me of Tamora Pierce's Alanna books, but with more mature themes and language. Another YA favorite is Laini Taylor's Lips Touch Three Times, which has some of the most gorgeous writing I've encountered this year. The other book I want to share with nearly everyone is Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, a mysterious and magical middle-grade novel.

In Great Waters cover

Nic Clarke: The standout novels of my reading year were Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. The first came to me for review, and captivated me instantly with its beautifully written, intensely imagined story of two people at the intersections of privilege and powerlessness in an alternate medieval Europe: a royal bastard ripped from his undersea home by others' scheming, and a princess who cultivates an image of female passivity and stupidity for protection in a cutthroat court. The McCarthy (a post-apocalyptic masterpiece in stunning, stripped-down prose) and the Atkinson (the ultimate in irreverent, self-creating narrators retells her family history) both came with several years of weighty praise behind them, and both still more than met my expectations.

Wonderful second-tier reads included Kristin Cashore's Fire (a prequel to the brilliant Graceling), Ian R. MacLeod's Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Song of Time (a beautiful story of a long life well-lived), Robert Holdstock's Avilion (another hypnotic wildwood tale and a return to form for the now sadly late Holdstock), Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (a feminist Aeneid! what's not to like?), and Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To . . . (for both the sublimely angry first half, in which one member of a crashed spaceship crew refuses to countenance the ridiculous and degrading coping strategies of her crewmates, and the intense second half, which is mostly about dying of starvation). In series fantasy, I enjoyed Irons in the Fire, a promising start to Juliet McKenna's latest trilogy, and Joe Abercrombie's First Law books.

On the non-fiction front, I must also recommend Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome, a densely-researched but very readable economic, social and cultural history of Europe—broadly conceived, i.e. it doesn't stop at the Bosporus—between the disintegration of the western Roman empire and the end of the tenth century. Glyn Redworth's The She-Apostle, meanwhile, focuses on a splendidly trouble-making (and troubled) Spanish woman bent on Catholic missionising in early seventeenth-century England. Which, given 1605 and all that, goes about as well as could be expected.

Farah Mendlesohn: This has been the year in which my aim was to read at least fifty books which I wasn't actually writing about. It's also been the first year in ages when I had no research project and thus had the liberty to read anything I liked. A lot of this has turned out to be non-fiction, and in the grand tradition of "all the world is relevant to science fiction" my principal recommendations from 2009 are: Occasions of Sin: Sex & Society in Modern Ireland by Diarmid Ferriter; Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson; In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Arika Okrent; Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees (which explained how pretty much everything I learned in university about the years 1805 to 1865 was wrong); Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin; and The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. Finally an older book, Geoffrey Robinson's The Tyranncide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold ( 2004): read it and weep.

Fiction is almost easier, as very little really grabbed me this year, which I suspect says a lot more about me than it does about the fiction market. The three books which stood out were: Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island, a very complex political novel which may have passed you by if you don't peruse the YA shelves; Helen Oyeyemi's White Is for Witching, a tale of twins, separation, hidden rooms, disappeared mothers, and exorcism; and Jo Walton's Lifelode, which is sadly only available from NESFA press, but which is the most original fantasy I've read in years: a weird hybrid, perhaps inspired by cyberpunk but rooted firmly in the pastoral world. Right now I'm reading The Origin of the Species; it seemed absurd to let the anniversary go by without having read it. I hadn't realised it is a first person conversation with the reader. It's a cracking good read.

One cover

David McWilliam: As horror continues its relentless shamble back to the forefront of genre fiction, two works stood out as being particularly impressive in 2009. The first is Conrad Williams’s superb post-apocalyptic horror novel, One, which effortlessly blends a science fictional parasitic menace with darkly poetic descriptions to underpin the tragic story of one man’s traumatic loss. The second is Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, which also deals with bereavement and self-destruction, albeit on a more intimate and claustrophobic scale. A beautifully shot, brooding masterpiece, Antichrist is possibly the finest cinematic distillation of the sensation of horror I have ever seen and for me the best film of the year.

China Miéville’s The City & The City evokes the spirits of Kafka and Dick to create a truly remarkable setting that continues his lineage of fascinatingly fantastic cities, underpinning a weird SF noir thriller that expects a great deal from the reader and rewards them in full. Though it hardly needs further promotion from me, I was mesmerized by James Cameron’s Avatar, which towered above this year’s other blockbusters, utilizing special effects to enhance a wonderfully told story of an alien race defending its world from the greed of human corporations.

For me, the book of the year is the final instalment of Ricardo Pinto’s The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, The Third God, which escalates the horror and majesty of the brutal civilization ruled by the Chosen from their decadent paradise, Osrakum, to a feverish intensity. It tells the story of a blood-stained civil war that has an almost hallucinatory quality, featuring landscapes formed from the mangled corpses of the fallen, interspersed with eerie dream sequences. A veritable masterclass in world building, The Third God is the immensely satisfying conclusion to an innovative and unsettling fantasy sequence.

Martin Lewis: Even a jaded reviewer occasionally finds joy creeping into his black heart. So it was when I read the first couple of pages of In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield. I knew little about it, but this coolly written fantasy turned out to be my book of the year. I went straight out and bought her first novel, Bareback, but inevitably it is nowhere near as accomplished. I had the reverse experience when I read King Rat, China Miéville's dull debut, only to immediately follow it with The City & The City, the finest book he has yet produced. And that's saying something.

Catching up on slightly older stuff, I picked up Scar Night by Alan Campbell on a whim and then devoured it, along with the next two books in the trilogy. What they lacked in finesse, they more than made up for in exuberance. Equally addictive were the first two seasons of Heroes, which I finally got round to watching on DVD. It's undeniably compulsive but not what you would call good so I am quitting whilst I am ahead.

At the cinema, I wasn't as impressed as everyone else with Moon, which gained disproportionate praise for not getting anything catastrophically wrong, admittedly a radical departure for an SF film. For example, I sat through three terrible additions to longstanding franchises: Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, and Wolverine. I washed the bad taste out of my mouth with Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox. It shouldn't work, and when I first saw the trailer I thought it hadn't worked, but somehow it did. Once again my heart soared.

Shadow Pavillion cover

Kari Sperring: In books, 2009 was a year of strong sequels. Liz Williams’s charming and chilling Shadow Pavilion explored the shortcomings of heaven, the nature of gender, and the talents of tea-kettles. Justina Robson continued her cool and cutting analysis of the difficulties of living a full life when one’s body is public property in Chasing the Dragon. Sherwood Smith brought her underrated and beautifully structured Inda series to a resounding conclusion in Treason’s Shore. And Marie Brennan juggled complex politics, plague, and fire to great effect in In Ashes Lie. Two impressive new series began: Pierre Pevel’s Cardinal’s Blades made its English-language debut from Gollancz, reintroducing the swashbuckling spirit of Dumas. In Dragon in Chains, Daniel Fox brought sensitivity and political resonance to a fantasy drawing on Chinese history and myth. Debut of the year was probably Ali Shaw, with The Girl with Glass Feet, while my favourite in non-fiction was Christopher Priest’s spiky, blackly funny essay collection, “It” Came from Outer Space.

The Hugos were rather predictable, but the Canadian Prix Aurora went to Edward Willett’s bleak and beautiful Marseguro, a novel which has not received the attention and acclaim it deserves. Ian R. MacLeod was a deserved winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Song of Time, beating a strong short-list.

Oh, and in March, DAW published a first novel from someone called Kari Sperring. And that was the oddest thing of all.

Jonathan McCalmont: If I had to chose two books that really impacted upon my thinking this year then they would be Algis Budrys’s Rogue Moon (1960) for its unabashed masculinity and John Crowley's The Solitudes (1987) for the art of its prose, the craft of its characterisation, and the metaphysics of its structure. However, this does not mean that I have no time for the class of 2009. In fact, I think that 2009 produced two great works of science fiction.

Yellow Blue Tibia cover

The first is Stephen Baxter's Ark, which I reviewed back in November, and the second is Adam Roberts’s Yellow Blue Tibia. The book sees the combination of all of Adam Roberts’s various genre hats (writer of novels, writer of histories, writer of spoofs and writer of criticism) into one magnificent red satin topper. Yellow Blue Tibia has that combination of sober dignity and childish absurdity that can also be found in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (1880), making it not only intensely funny and terrifyingly clever, but also quite authentically Russian in feel. Thematically, the book is about the ultimate purpose of science fiction as a field of endeavour. It engages both with the peculiar nature of the SFnal imagination and the various unscrupulous attempts to distort SF into something more sinister. As a result we have a book with scientologists of both the scheming and naïve varieties and a vicious satirical skewering of Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Greg Bear's laughable attempts at reinventing themselves as futurist prophets to the US War on Terror.

My other genre highlight of the year was reading Parietal Games (2005), a collection of non-fiction pieces by and about M. John Harrison edited by Mark Bould and Michelle Reid, while the genre low-point of my year was undeniably having to re-watch the entirety of Buffy and being struck by how poorly written, formulaic, and sickeningly sentimental it all was.

Hannah Strom-Martin: On Yahoo! the top ten most viewed movie trailers of 2009 were all for fantasy and sf films. Faced with rapidly deteriorating climates and economies those who could still afford Netflicks sought relief even from Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. Michael Bay hit an all time low with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (John Tuturro was forced to utter the immortal line: "I am directly below the enemy’s scrotum!") and a slew of other films based on Hasbro toys (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and tabloid headlines (2012) also failed to please even as fodder for mockery. More intelligent fare seemed to do better. It was a privilege to witness Neill Blomkamp’s District 9—a parable about racism featuring CGI aliens so real you could see them think—and J.J. Abrams’s inventive re-launch of the Star Trek franchise. Just audible beneath the mind-blowing special effects James Cameron’s Avatar had a heartfelt plea to honor our Mother, one that secures it in the annals of classic sf. Best of all was Up, a whimsical animated fantasy that featured the best montage of the year as protagonist Carl marries his sweetheart Ellie, ages with her and watches her die all in the space of ten minutes. For those disturbed by the film’s emotional honesty I hope you stuck around for the bit about Russell’s "Assisting the Elderly Award"—for my money, the best laugh of 2009, and God did we need it.

For fans of fantasy art and short stories the last minute rescue of Realms of Fantasy magazine from the flames of literary foreclosure was some sort of Godsend. In the last issue Harlan Ellison’s effortlessly brilliant "How Interesting: A Tiny Man" and Leah Bobet’s touching "Mister Oak" reminded me of the fabulous literary lights we possess. May they continue to burn into 2010 and beyond.

Cloud & Ashes cover

Paul Kincaid: This is one of those years when very little SF has bowled me over (on the other hand there has been an awful lot of excellent SF criticism). The stand-out novel of the year was fantasy: Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman: not an easy book to read and not, I think, a novel that people will love, but it is one I admire with a passion. The novel that comes next in my affections is mainstream, Four Freedoms by John Crowley, but then, in my estimation Crowley would be incapable of writing a mediocre novel no matter how he tried.

Science fiction, at least that portion of it I have encountered during the year, has not anything to offer of anywhere close to that quality. The only two that really seem worth recommending are The City & The City by China Miéville, a fictional representation of the whole notion of heterotopia that is intellectually stunning if, perhaps, a little predictable in terms of drama. And late in the year I came upon Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley, a sequel to The Quiet War, which was one of the better novels of last year. As a visualization of life among the outer planets it remains one of the few works of SF that actually manages to convince me there might be a reason for humanity to live there, but the new book never quite matches the focus and the tension of the earlier novel.

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction cover

But if SF itself has been less than stunning this year, SF criticism has been really hitting the heights. Best of the lot is The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., an updating of the basic Marxist view of SF as expounded by Darko Suvin, that is an altogether more flexible and more valuable approach to the genre. Also well worth the attention are The Fire in the Stone by Nicholas Ruddick, a groundbreaking examination of prehistoric fiction, and On Joanna Russ edited by Farah Mendlesohn, which too often settles for the predictable response to that unpredictable writer, but still offers a lot to make us argue and reconsider.

Worst thing of the year? Inevitably, the too too early death of the brilliant Robert Holdstock, particularly when his last novel, Avilion, turns out to be one of the best of the Mythago Wood sequence.

Richard Larson: On the big screen this year, the most exciting things that I saw in the genre world were either remakes or adaptations—or, in the case of Ti West's The House of the Devil, something entirely new but made to feel familiar, rife with nostalgia for classic horror while also contributing something fresh and new to the genre. Dennis Iliadis's remake of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left packed all the punch of the original but with even more emotional impact, proving that the material is still relevant and also that it's possible to create something new out of a classic, a lesson the horror genre has mostly failed to learn so far. And the same goes for two of the best adaptations I've seen in recent years: Henry Selick's take on Neil Gaiman's Coraline, and Spike Jonze's much-celebrated adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, are both dazzling and original contributions to film which serve to supplement, rather than negate, the texts from which their stories originate. And speaking of texts, this has been a year of some noteworthy genre books, such as John Langan's debut novel, House of Windows, and a new best-of-the-year horror volume edited by Ellen Datlow, not to mention Finch, a new Ambergris novel by Jeff VanderMeer which is perhaps the best thing he's ever written. But maybe the most memorable thing I've read all year, at least at the time of this writing, has been Alice Sola Kim's "Beautiful White Bodies" in this very magazine: truly spectacular. The speculative short story at its finest.

The Solaris Book of New SF 3 cover

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro: Long life to anthologies, and longer life to original fiction anthologies. The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume 3, edited by George Mann, was as strong as its predecessors. Eclipse 3, edited by the indefatigable (he has fourteen anthologies coming out in 2010) Jonathan Strahan, is less SFnal than Volume 2 but as high-quality as Volumes 1 and 2.

Two note- and purchase-worthy collections by consummate craftsmen of the field were The Radio Magician and Other Stories by James Van Pelt and Are You There and Other Stories by Jack Skillingstead. These are stories to read, study, reread and marvel at, not necessarily in that order. Skillingstead's debut novel, Harbinger, is also emotionally complex and utterly absorbing. It is, without a doubt, a singular experience; anyone who enjoys ambitious, visionary work should seek it out.

I started browsing through A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James after picking it up in Montreal (at Anticipation), and finished it soon thereafter. It is replete with interesting information interestingly conveyed.

I spent some time flying around on generation starships this year, notably in Journey into Space by Toby Litt and Ark by Stephen Baxter. Read them both. If you only have time to read one, read them both a little more quickly.

Buyout, a novel you can't afford to miss, sees Alexander Irvine deliver a strong mix of concept-driven, near-future extrapolation and character-steered, ethical conflict.

The film of The Road was executed with skill and taste, making for an aesthetic and touching experience. I had problems with Moon, problems that my enthusiasm for its ambition and my enjoyment of its texture could not dispel. Pandorum was chaotic, silly, and violent; despite that, its conceptual breakthrough, intense performances and claustrophobic production make it worth watching.

Tony Keen: I feel somewhat disconnected from 2009's SF. It doesn't seem to have been a vintage year, perhaps because I just didn't read or watch much new material. I haven't completed a single novel first published in 2009, though I'm currently reading Stephen Baxter's Ark, sequel to his excellent disaster novel Flood. I did read Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia, first published in the UK in 2009 (US publication 2008). I didn't connect with it the way many others did; my failing, I suspect.

Fiction book of the year: Ian McDonald's short story collection Cyberabad Days, set in the world of River of Gods. The highlight is the final novella, “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, providing a parallel account of the novel, and addresses some questions that reviewers raised. The Dervish House should be a 2010 highlight.

The Inter-Galactic Playground cover

In non-fiction, we had more gems from Farah Mendlesohn, her book on children's SF, The Inter-Galactic Playground, and, with Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy. The former is even better than her deservedly lauded Rhetorics of Fantasy.

In cinema, both Watchmen and Star Trek were superior examples of their forms, but neither was wholly successful, the former too respectful of its source material, the latter too reliant on implausible plot contrivances.

On the small screen, Battlestar Galactica's conclusion intensely annoyed many. I can see their point, though it was less surprising if you remembered that Ronald Moore's Galactica took more from Glen Larson's than just the names and initial set-up. (Moore then turned up in a playful episode of CSI.)

Doctor Who rolls towards the conclusion of the Tennant era, on which I'll say more in a future Strange Horizons review. But the Doctor's most enjoyable appearance of the year wasn't any of the specials, but his guest spot in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Low of the year? The death, far too early, of Robert Holdstock.

Duncan Lawie: My non-fiction read of the year has been the new edition of About Time 3 by Tat Wood. The series goes beyond opinions on everything related to Doctor Who to offer a social history of Britain from the perspective of tea time telly on Saturdays. Covering the Pertwee years, this volume includes the arrival of Sarah Jane Smith. Remarkably, she is the best thing about Doctor Who on the small screen in 2009. Even so, this year's Sarah Jane Adventures focus on the “ordinary teenagers” (making room for a sparkling performance by Daniel Anthony as Clyde) has often pushed Sarah Jane herself into a wise elder role with limited affect.

The disappearance of Death Ray was a disappointment whilst the most interesting thing to happen in short fiction this year was Short Story Club. Reading a broad selection of SF and fantasy alongside thoughtful readers has been a fascinating experience, although the critical weight was too much for some of the subject stories to bear.

Ark, UK cover

Three novels delighted me this year. Stephen Baxter's Ark is his best book in ages, a telling portrayal of not-quite-generation ship travel. The awkward shapes of Tony Ballantyne's writing in Twisted Metal express the strangeness of a natural world where robots build their own bodies but still have family units—and conflict between communalism and individualism. Chris Beckett's Marcher echoed through my life as a I read it, as it is comprised in part of retelling stories first published in Interzone over more than a decade. It is not a fix-up, but the familiarity gave me a direct impression of the multiple worlds its protagonists experience.

Hallie O'Donovan: The majority of my reading in 2009 was YA, and it was very encouraging to realise that so many I enjoyed were by authors first published in 2009. The first book I finished last year was R.J. Anderson’s Knife; less widely-known 2009 debuts I also liked include Lisa Mantchev’s Eyes Like Stars, Megan Crewe’s Give Up the Ghost and Jackson Pearce’s As You Wish. (Much of my non-children's—sounds better than adult—reading pleasure came from Sherwood Smith; I'm a sometimes beta reader, so not the most impartial, but the conclusion of the Inda books was amazing.)

Gullstruck Island cover

The two books that stand out particularly though, are by authors I’ve read and loved before: Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island (aka The Lost Conspiracy) and Patricia C. Wrede’s Thirteenth Child. Saying that Gullstruck Island is my favourite of Hardinge’s books to date is saying quite a good deal. It’s not a book that’s easy to rave about concisely, but the first major plus is the prose. Hardinge can switch tone with seamless speed, and uses wonderful imagery to produce a sort of strangely grounded whimsy. The story of the protagonist’s coming to know herself and her strength might be a common one in YA, but Hathin herself, and her literal and figurative journey, are unique. And finally, Gullstruck Island is a nuanced post-colonial story which manages to keep the reader looking again and again at the beliefs and customs of different groups of people from slightly different angles, while never losing sight of the fundamental wrongness of a colononizing group’s considering themselves to be settling land that’s already inhabited.

It was this last point that played such a strong counterpoint to the Wrede book. I very much enjoyed Thirteenth Child before reading that Wrede had consciously decided not to have Native Americans in her "settling-the-frontier" book because she didn’t like either the stereotypical presentation of them as "savages" in that sort of book or the "Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint" she feels is popular now. That she thought this justified her elimination of "the problem", as she put it, by simply erasing the real settlers of North America shouldn’t need comment. What followed also needs no more comment at this point, but it’s still sad that a book with so many pleasures should have been ruined by a rotten core.

The Kindly Ones cover

Adam Roberts: The year's most notable book was probably Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, a historical novel about Nazi atrocity written on an inhuman scale, properly amazing (stunning, even) and with a surprisingly high science fiction quotient. It's one of those books that makes other novels seem a bit small-scale by comparison. The year's best conventionally "genre" SF novel is probably Kim Stanley Robinson's doubly superb Galileo's Dream (although, hey, that's also a historical novel with a high science fiction quotient). As for the year's best fantasy novel: well, let's go with Greer Gilman's sui generis, densely lyrical Cloud & Ashes.

For short fiction I'd like to recommend Geoff Ryman's excellent collection When It Changed, but can't because I have a story in it. Luckily one of the other stories, Sara Maitland's "Moss Witch", was nominated for the BBC National Short Story Award, and deservedly so. That's my pick.

There are several contenders for the best SF album of the year; but on balance I think I'll go with the splendidly named Fuck Buttons, and their splendid Tarot Sport.

As with the short fiction, I'd like to recommend Mark Bould, Andrew Butler, and Sheryl Vint's two Routledge books (one big Companion to SF, one smaller Fifty Key Figures volume) as patently significant events in academic criticism of SF that were published last year. I can't, though, as I'm listed as co-editor (although my role was pretty much a sinecure). So instead I'll go with Bould and Miéville’s Red Planets collection, which is a little patchy but has some excellent stuff in it. Good, too, to see Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw reissued this year (from Wesleyan). In non-academic criticism, Martin Lewis has been on motherfucking good form this year, I think. Which is to say, on good form as a motherfucker.

Best event: Finncon 2009 was a blast. Best film: Up was up there. Best TV, though . . . None of the year's SF TV has been good enough to be described as "best".

Matt Denault: I still have many worthy 2009 books to read; with that caveat, my perception so far has been that the year wasn't great for characterization or character-driven drama in SF&F works. At least, my two favorite novels—Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest and China Miéville's The City & The City—succeed more on the basis of concepts and prose. I'd also commend Greer Gilman's Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter's Tales as perhaps the SF&F achievement of the year: Gilman outdoes even Gene Wolfe as an archivist of language, and her new volume has a Wolfean appreciation for masks and performance, hierarchy and change.

For non-fiction, I was glad to see Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw reprinted, and On Joanna Russ was a fine primer on Russ's works and on wider topics of gender and sexuality in SF. But most of my 2009 SF&F non-fiction reading occurred online, at sites like Torque Control, the World SF News Blog, and others linked to by the indefatigable Charles Tan and Mark Kelly; and of course, I review for Strange Horizons because I enjoy the type of reviews published here, which carries over to the blogs of many fellow contributors.

2009 film-watching highlights included the pleasant surprise of The Fall (a 2008 DVD release), which marries the flamboyant visual charm of Pushing Daisies to a focus on imagination and story.

I'm at best a casual gamer, but found Dragon Age: Origins a good if over-processed iteration of the BioWare formula for computer RPG success. I also enjoyed a short horror game called The Path from independent developer Tale of Tales and Auriea Harvey, who inspired a generation of Internet designers with her Entropy8 website in the late ‘90s. Her latest piece of mind candy is a twice-told tale inspired by the Little Red Riding Hood story; it's of a piece with everything else I've mentioned here.

Cyberabad Days US cover

Cyberabad Days UK cover

Dan Hartland: It feels like cheating to give my nod to a book I've already reviewed for this very organ, but nothing in SF has impressed me this year as much as Ian McDonald's Cyberabad Days. As an admirer of River of Gods, I was predisposed to like the collection, but if anything it surpasses that earlier book: in its wealth of incident, the energy and variety of its ideas, and the sheer, crystalline quality of its prose, it is a work quite dazzling both in its scope and humanity.

A few honourable mentions must begin with another semi-cheat: last year I wrote about Adam Roberts's Swiftly in this space, and I feel compelled again to invoke his name, this time in relation to his Yellow Blue Tibia, a black SFnal comedy of considerable intellect and subtlety. Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters was eminently likeable and bodes well for her future work; and The City & The City, whilst not up to the rigorous standards previously set by China Miéville, rattled around in the idler recesses of my brain for much of the year. Still, no one quite touched McDonald's heady combination of breadth, depth, and deft control.

Abigail Nussbaum: 2009, I'm sad to say, was not a very good year for me as far as genre was concerned. In books, for example, I kept coming across very near misses. Novels, like Anathem, The Windup Girl, Lavinia, Matter, The Gone-Away World, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Yellow Blue Tibia, The Steel Remains and The City & The City, got a lot of things right but invariably fell short of greatness, and left me feeling impressed but not quite swept off my feet. In film, we were spoiled for choice, so long as we were willing to choose between beautiful husks (Avatar, Watchmen, 9), fun but brainless efforts (Star Trek) and those that aimed high but collapsed into silliness (District 9), and TV was very nearly a total bust. So let's concentrate on the little things that made this year worthwile: Moon, a small but perfectly formed gem of a science fiction film that stands out all the more amidst this year's bombast and special effects extravaganzas. The second season finale of the The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which beautifully capped off an admittedly hit or miss season by tying together all its plot threads and then introduced a twist, and a new direction for the series, that had me slavering for its continuation (of course, the series was then unceremoniously cancelled). The SDCC Middleman panel and the table-read, performed by the show's entire cast, of the first season's unfilmed final episode, which not only reminded me how funny and clever this unjustly cancelled show was but finally provided its sole season with closure. Helen Keeble's story "Lullaby" from the Strange Horizons archive (the full title would blow this paragraph well past its word limit), a beautifully written and utterly engaging short story about a nineteenth century naturalist who captures a mermaid. On a personal note, the genre highlight of 2009 was my first trip to Worldcon in Montreal. However disappointed I may have been with my genre consumption this year, getting together with fellow fans—friends and strangers, readers and writers—to talk, geek out over, and poke fun at the genre was the perfect way to reenergize my passion for it and my desire to write about it.

Comments

Posted by Adam Roberts at January 4, 2010 5:42 PM:

Good to see reviewers ranked in order of importance, here.

Posted by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro at January 4, 2010 7:03 PM:

That assumes that reviewers can have importance :-)

Posted by Alexander at January 5, 2010 4:03 PM:

Thanks a lot for offering this type of things guys, it's great to see a layout on different judgments. A lot of diversity here, some of the repeated elements are interesting. A pity there's not more general appreciation for The Windup Girl, still this is an interesting set of judgments. Plus more fodder for reading in the one's I haven't yet sampled.

Posted by William Mingin at January 9, 2010 3:02 AM:

I was sorry to read Karen Burnham's knock of Hodgson, especially since he's unfamiliar to most people, and some, reading that passing pan, might never give him a second thought. And because it makes it seem that all Hodgson is the same, which it isn't. I loved "The Boats of the Glen Carrig" (though it's been years since I read it), and most of the Hodgson short stories I've read, but thought "The Ghost Pirates" was inferior and his "Carnacki the Ghost Finder" stories not top-notch--not like, say, Algernon Blackwood's John Silence stories. I'm wondering which book(s) she read and disliked. His two masterpieces are both problematic. I loved "The House on the Borderland," but know people who hate it/are confused/bemused by it. And even I think "The Nightland" has problems. For years I read that it was "difficult" because he tells it in an archaic style, through the point-of-view of a man from some centuries back. When I read it, I found that in fact he had failed to get the style of the period right (someone who gets period style right is E.R. Eddison in “The Worm Ouroborous,” though it’s “Elizabethan light” for most of the book) and his attempt had made the writing plain old bad. And the romantic plot, especially toward the end, becomes silly, to modern eyes. But the actual journey across the Nightland is amazing, I think, and like nothing else I can think of (which description also goes for “The House on the Borderland”). It is a slog through the Nightland, but one I felt well worth my while. Evidently the people at Night Shade books think so, since they went to the trouble of reprinting all Hodgson’s fiction in five hardcover volumes. Anyway, I wonder if she’d say what she read and what she disliked about it.

Posted by Karen Burnham at January 11, 2010 7:12 PM:

Wonder no more! Last year I read House on the Borderland, Ghost Pirates and The Night Land and was unimpressed by all. My review of Night Land and House on the Borderland are up on my website. He was definitely important and influential. But compared to many other pre-1930's works that I've read, I don't think his have aged terribly well.

Posted by Francis at January 20, 2010 4:56 PM:

Good place for "judge a book by the cover". There are some really pretty ones.

Posted by Alton Cridland at August 29, 2010 3:00 AM:

I wanted to subscribe to rss feed coz i read a few articles here and truly liked them, but i don't think your subscription works. or i'm performing something wrong...

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