Best of 2002













Science Fiction/Fantasy

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (Victor Gollancz)

If Raymond Chandler had ever spent any amount of time wallowing in the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s, I'm pretty sure he could have written Altered Carbon, an absolutely stellar first novel from Richard Morgan. The only difference would have been the producer that purchased the rights; in Morgan's case, it's Joel Silver, the man behind The Matrix films. In Altered Carbon, mankind has become digitized, downloadable and transferable, thanks to cortical stacks implanted at birth that record your lifetime. And if you can afford it, you can live forever, uploading your consciousness via "sleeving" into fresh bodies whenever one runs out. While hardly startlingly-new as SF trope, Richard Morgan handles this concept quite well, with a staggering amount of detail and thought put into the social ramifications of near-immortality. Richard Morgan keeps a breakneck speed throughout the novel, occasionally giving the reader time to pant a few breaths, but usually tugging them along for the ride. It's an action-packed, slam-bang crime/SF hybrid filled with ultraviolence and grimy realism. But Morgan's real strength lies in his worldbuilding; from the smallest tech detail to his treatment of the social changes brought on by cortical stacks, the universe he describes in Altered Carbon is convincing and breathtaking. As Takeshi Kovacs explores the seedy underbelly of Bay City, we're confronted by an utterly realistic division between the rich and the poor (a distinction that Morgan maintains throughout), especially when we learn the sleeving options of a prostitute that Kovacs meets. Altered Carbon is a hyperkinetic, ultraviolent kick-in-the-pants of the stodgy and staid SF genre. It's also a wonderfully crafted, dangerously entertaining novel that would appeal to anyone that likes their literature noir and hard-hitting. -- gabe chouinard

Black Projects, White Knights by Kage Baker (Golden Gryphon)

Kage Baker has accomplished the impossible -- several times over. Baker is one of those people better known for their short stories than their novels. Like Ted Chiang, Kage Baker has built a career almost solely from her short fiction, save for the fact that she has four novels to her name; a dichotomy that perfectly fits Kage Baker. She is a frequent contributor to Asimov's, where many of the stories in Black Projects, White Knights had their debut. Most importantly though, and most impossibly, Baker has made the time travel story accessible to non-SF readers. This may not seem like much, but time travel stories are a stock-in-trade SF trope, quite impenetrable to people outside of the field. In general, time paradoxes are beyond the scope of the average reader, and the ideas surrounding time travel have become such a Gordian Knot that a lifetime of reading SF is necessary to untangle even a bit of it. Then there's Kage Baker. First appearing on the scene in 1997, she is a tremendously talented stylist, couching her stories within accessible-but-colorful prose, never drowning her readers in scads of unrelenting technobabble, never alienating them with insider homage or trivial bits. And yet, her tales are sly, sidewise-glancing, utterly enjoyable stories that can either rip your heart out with excitement or leave you sitting in stunned appreciation as you mull over what you've just read. Black Projects, White Knights is an excellent collection of 14 stories surrounding the nefarious Company, also known as Dr. Zeus, Inc., and its snatched-from-time immortal cyborg agents that are used to plunder history of precious artifacts, all to bolster the Company's bottom line. And the Company is an immoral entity, caring nothing for the plight of mankind. Profit is all that matters. This is a fine collection from a fine author, filled with stories that tweak your heartstrings and your intellect. The addition of Baker's story notes is a joy, mapping the creation of her tales while offering insight into Baker's own life, including a powerful tribute to her late mother that literally moved me to tears. With Black Projects, White Knights, we witness the evolution of a major talent in SF. -- gabe chouinard

Everyone in Silico by Jim Munroe (Four Walls, Eight Windows)

Science fiction is capable of producing the finest of satirical bites and Everyone in Silico gnaws with the best. Set in Vancouver in 2026, Jim Munroe's book is awash with cultural observation and inspired madness. Flippant and irreverent, Everyone in Silico is nonetheless a novel that exudes Munroe's vice-like grip on the power of media and advertising. Unlike Angry Young Spaceman, which was an extended travelogue in the teacher-abroad-in-a-strange-country vein, Everyone in Silico draws heavily on Munroe's experience as the former managing editor of Adbusters magazine. Everyone in Silico is a highly original, vividly unique examination of a near-future culture that has changed drastically from everyday life... yet not so drastically that Munroe's vision isn't chillingly effective and plausible. Through its large and varied cast of genuine characters that seem to have sprung directly from Philip K. Dick's imagination, Munroe examines the power that the media has to sway not only public opinion, but personal opinion as well. Following these heartbreakingly ordinary people striving to survive in the future Vancouver, we see how these influences eat away at the core of our culture by playing against our secret hopes and dreams, offering salvation through escape and technology. Heady stuff for a book that makes you laugh out loud. And yet, there is much more to Everyone in Silico than its humor and satire. As the best science fiction should, Munroe manages to literalize the slogans and promises offered in our present-day culture and extrapolate them to their semi-logical conclusions. Nowhere does the world of Vancouver 2026 ring false; its constant ad bombardments, its corporate coolhunters (which, sad to say, already exist... though they're called "trendwatchers"), its emphasis on the tech world and de-emphasis of human interaction all ring dangerously true to life. Through science fiction, Munroe proves that buying into the hype of corporate-produced glam and promise is essentially a bullshit solution to mankind's inner problems. Jim Munroe is a horrifyingly talented author, a smart-aleck extraordinaire that hits his stride in Everyone in Silico with clean and vivid prose, recalling writers like Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace more than Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. If you like social criticism and satiric venom in your novels, everyone in silico is for you. -- gabe chouinard

Fallen Dragon by Peter F. Hamilton (Aspect/Warner)

Peter F. Hamilton caught my attention with his Confederation Universe novels, starting with The Reality Dysfunction which actually left me less than impressed. So it took a while for me to gather the courage necessary to pick up his latest novel, Fallen Dragon. Turns out, there was nothing to be afraid of. Fallen Dragon is an excellent addition to the recent "radical hard space opera" subgenre of SF, exemplified in the works of Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Tony Daniel and their contemporaries. It has all of the wide-screen appeal of any sci-fi movie, reveling in splashy graphics and special effects, with generous helpings of gore and sex to spice things up. Beneath the wide-screen effects, however, lies a compelling tale of war and humanity. Through deft characterization, Hamilton draws us deep inside the world of Lawrence Newton, soldier of the future, an elite warrior that has been fitted with a Skin; a cybernetic/biomechanical super-soldier in the employ of megacorporation Zantiu-Braun's 3rd Fleet. Under Z-B's direction, Skins are used to loot whole planets, leaving behind only industrial infrastructures to ensure the rebuilding of those planets, so Z-B can do it again. Sergeant Newton and his men are the first wave in the invasion of Thallspring, an idyllic planet on the fringes of the galaxy whose inhabitants live in a sort of quasi-hippie commune community and whose dominant family unit is the Triad. This isn't the first time the Skins have invaded Thallspring and this time some people, including the tale-spinning grade school teacher Denise Ebourn, are preparing to resist. This tension tugs the narrative along in an inexorable build-up, culminating in battles that are as ferocious and tensely-rendered as any I have read. Meanwhile, the story is interspersed with pieces from Lawrence's past, and his romantic entanglement with Roselyn, a mysterious girl from Earth that has been brought to Lawrence's home planet. Here, Hamilton truly shines, building a complex tale of love, lust, adolescence and treachery; this is John Irving or Ian McEwan territory, and Hamilton plays it straight, creating from Lawrence's past a realistic and fascinatingly three-dimensional adult. Hamilton also does an admirable job of extrapolation in Fallen Dragon, from ubiquitous multimedia to the scale of business in the coming centuries. He even touches upon trends that are shaping our society today, as with the bracelets worn by Thallspring's population, which signals its wearer to the presence of compatible mates nearby. Best of all, Hamilton draws inspiration heavily from Robert Heinlein. The parallels to Heinlein's classic Starship Troopers and By His Bootstraps are a treasure, only helping to ensure a high place in SF for Peter F. Hamilton. It's no wonder Fallen Dragon was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award this year. -- gabe chouinard

The Luck of Madonna 13 by E.T. Ellison (Wynderry Press)

Another fine example of independent press excellence and dedication to the passion of SF is found in newcomer E.T. Ellison's novel The Luck of Madonna 13. Produced by new publisher Wynderry Press, The Luck of Madonna 13 has lived up to every bit of its advance praise in January Magazine and Publisher's Weekly. Ellison, who seems to have sprung whole-cloth to life from some mysterious Tibetan abbey, is an author that deserves attention from every SF reader in existence. Ostensibly the tale of Glendyl Fenderwell, a 16-year-old girl chosen to be the 250th Luckiest girl in the cloistered town of St. Coriander and her quest to find the Last Nevergate, this is a sprawling epic of a tale that gleams with ideas on every page. It calls to mind the snarky tales of Maurice Richardson, mingled with the flair of Pee Wee Herman. Quirky and supremely original, The Luck of Madonna 13 displays as much humor as Jasper Fforde's equally quirky and original The Eyre Affair, while beating Fforde out in the "I can write better" game. Ellison (with his perfectly SFnal name!) is a writer of amazing talent, able to weave lucid prose around ideas that are so profoundly bizarre, Jack Vance would scratch his head in awe. Like, for example, Glendyl's smart-assed talking backpack. And the charming Wyverns that would eat you in a heartbeat. And the clones. And the media personalities that are clones. And the clans Igan and Dunn, who intermarry and decide to take the common name Dunnigan. And the... oh, like I'm going to give them all away for free! At its heart, however, The Luck of Madonna 13 is social criticism at its best. Ellison interweaves his prose with off-the-cuff philosophical ideas on subjects as diverse as transcendence, alternative realities, eugenics, longevity, the Violation of Interpersonal Protocols, gambling, the possession of wealth and a host of others. And all of it is wrapped in a gleefully whimsical style that pulls you through the book like a tiger on a leash; half the time you're having the ride of your life, while the other half you're wondering if you're going to survive. The author's buried intentions seem to involve driving the reader mad... in a good way. That, or making the reader pee their pants. If The Luck of Madonna 13 (who, by the way, may be the original Madonna, or perhaps Madonna the pop star...) is any indication of what the Last Nevergate saga will bring us, I'm going to step out on a limb and say that here we have a series that is destined for greatness. Ellison is a writer on a par with Paul Di Filippo, Steve Aylett, or Bruce Sterling, full of witty satire and cultural commentary. His first novel is innovative and inimitable, and his writing style displays an amazingly well-honed edge for a new writer. I can't wait to read the Second Chronicle of the Last Nevergate. -- gabe chouinard

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford (Morrow)

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque is the finest fantastical tale I've read this year. It's the story of usually drunken artist Piero Piambo, who makes a living in Victorian Manhattan by painting rich people's portraits, until he accepts what seems an impossible assignment; to paint the portrait of the mysterious Mrs. Charbuque, who hides behind a screen and refuses to show herself. Piambo must paint her portrait based solely upon the conversations he shares with her, and the tales she tells from behind her screen; tales that are almost possible, yet closer to the impossible in their events. Of course, she is offering an exorbitant amount of money for the completion of the painting, enough for Piambo to retire from portraiture and pursue his artistic ambitions... but only if he gets it right. And somewhere out there is a pissed-off Mr. Charbuque, and a serial-killer on the loose, providing the real world mystery beyond the screens of Mrs. Charbuque. The tales that Mrs. Charbuque relates are outlandish, certainly, but they are a center of beauty and power within the novel. Ford's delicate flair for language shows itself throughout a finely-wrought narrative that is quite capable of rendering the reader speechless with awe. When he recounts the tale of Mrs. Charbuque's father, a renowned crystalogogist that studies snowflakes to divine the future, the language is achingly beautiful. When he recounts the tale of her father's counterpart, the "turdologist," Ford's flair for the absurd shines clearly through. As Piambo becomes ever more obsessed with Mrs. Charbuque, the real world beyond becomes ever less important, ever less enticing. Through his deft, skillful prose, Ford guides us along (willingly) into a world of Story, primal and dangerous and ever so True. It is these Truths that draw Piambo into a web of obsession, and the reader as well. Jeffrey Ford is a masterful stylist. His prose evokes a frightening depth of emotion, a veritable well of magic that envelopes the reader in a fog, wiping away reality for just the right amount of time. Without qualification, I can say that Jeffrey Ford is an example to study, a writer burgeoning with talent, a raw creative force to be reckoned with. He is a modern-day fabulist, in the tradition of Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges. While many will call The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque a "magical realist" tale, this label is too confining. This is a wonderful Story, and that is all that matters. It begs to be read. -- gabe chouinard

Things That Never Happen by M. John Harrison (Night Shade Books)

M. John Harrison left his indelible mark upon fantastic fiction over 20 years ago, with his revisionist Viriconium sequence, which brought lyricism and poetic imagery to sword-and-sorcery fiction. Since then, Harrison has moved onward and outward, crashing toward the mainstream with a series of novels and collections that long ago transcended genre boundaries. He has become one of the world's greatest living short story writers, as well as a well-regarded novelist and critic. Things That Never Happen is essentially a combination of two earlier, UK-edition collections; The Ice Monkey and Travel Arrangements, with the addition of several newer tales not previously collected. And lord, what a collection it is! To deconstruct one story in Things That Never Happen would mean deconstructing Harrison's entire oeuvre, as all of the stories presented here are linked to one another as surely as the frisson of fantasy is linked to reality. Yet each stands alone, a glimmering jewel of stylish prose demanding the reader's attention. This is Harrison's genius, this linkage that provides a resonance between each of his works. It is a glory of vision. Like few other writers, Harrison creates dangerous visions filled with beautiful meaning. In Egnaro we see a man striving to reach an elusive fantastical world that refuses entry and refuses reality, and this displays the dichotomy of all Harrison's writing; the yearning for the fantastic, which ultimately resides in reality. The stories here display Harrison's foibles and fears, his passions and neuroses. Some of the stories are witty and fun, while others are gritty and painfully heartbreaking. Women in peril, damaged people, ordinary lives. M. John Harrison, like no other fantasist, draws deeply from the well of human experience, holding a dark-tinged mirror up to the soul of mankind. But there is humor here too, like the story "I Did It," which trots out the deep Harrison obsessions but makes it a comedy. And there is darkness, bleak unrelenting darkness, as in "The Great God Pan." But most of all, there is the echo chamber that is M. John Harrison, a brilliant, wholly-idiosyncratic, completely individualized writer. Read Things That Never Happen, so you can alter your perceptions forever. -- gabe chouinard

White Apples by Jonathan Carroll (TOR)

If there is an elder statesman in next-wave fantastic fiction, it is Jonathan Carroll. Carroll is an amazing author. With numerous novels and stories bearing his name, he has rapidly become a legend within the fantasy field, even though he is considered by most to be a mainstream writer. Jonathan Carroll writes fantastic fiction, make no mistake. From the beautifully strange Land of Laughs to his highly-praised The Wooden Sea, Carroll crafts tales of magical realism with painterly prose; this is Carroll's strength, this gorgeous language that drips evocative phrases, that oozes metaphor with each sentence, where the magic isn't necessarily what is said, but how it is said. White Apples displays this magic perfectly. White Apples is a mosaic novel, with patterns emerging throughout the course of reading, doubling back upon itself in a patchwork of time and space and other. Crafted like an Escher painting, White Apples refuses a linear plotline, instead jumping about with silky, sinewy ease through time and space. White Apples showcases Carroll at his poetic, accomplished best, in complete control of a multilayered and textured novel that is simultaneously more ambitious, yet more intimate than anything he's written before. And while Carroll often writes about himself, White Apples is perhaps the clearest and closest to autobiography that Carroll will ever come. In order to fully appreciate White Apples, one must let go of conventional wisdom and embrace the sense of wonder that permeates the book. This is Jonathan Carroll's hurtling beast; you're just along for the ride. -- gabe chouinard

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