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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1999: Editors' Choice
by John O'Neill

Even though I've done this twice before (for the 1997 Best Books and 1998 Best Books lists) compiling the 1999 Best SF and Fantasy Book of the Year list was a little eerie. For the first thirty years of my life 1999 was the future -- the year I looked forward to with speculation and no little wonder. Where would I be? What would I be doing? Most importantly, would I have a rocket pack?

Frankly, glancing back at 1999 from the far side is kinda creepy... somehow we've all been transported into the future, and I keep checking to make sure all my parts arrived intact. I'm sure the feeling will wear off, but at the very least I'm certain I'll never to able to enjoy reruns of Space: 1999 the same way again.

But whatever the case, we have a job to do. And the job at hand is the third annual SF Site Best SF and Fantasy Books of the Year awards, as selected by the staff, reviewers, and various hangers-on at the SF Site. Neil Walsh, our intrepid Reviews Editor and the only man trustworthy enough to handle the role, has been collecting, compiling, and often coercing ballots for the past month, and on Wednesday he emerged from his Ottawa den with the definitive list. And so, without further ado, we are once again proud to present our suggestions for the best SF and Fantasy books of last year.

[Editor's Note: Where possible, links lead to SF Site reviews of the books. You can find links to other Best of the Year columns here.]

   No. 10
The Marriage of Sticks The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll
Victor Gollancz/Tor
We've been serious fans of Jonathan Carroll ever since Land of Laughs, his marvelously creepy first novel first released in 1980. His next efforts, Voice of Our Shadow (1983) and Bones of the Moon (1987) traced a slow trajectory away from dark fantasy towards mainstream/magic realism. With his more recent novels (including Outside the Dog Museum (1991) and Kissing the Beehive (1998) ) he seems to have carved out his own peculiar niche, much as Jonathan Lethem and Dean Koontz have -- quirky and often disturbing, yes, but hardly genre fiction in the traditional sense.

With The Marriage of Sticks, Carroll returned to the party in style. As Miranda Romanac, a New York City rare-book dealer, rushes to catch a flight home she glimpses an old woman in a wheelchair abandoned on the freeway... a woman who is somehow strikingly familiar. So begins Miranda's odyssey towards the truth about herself and the world she inhabits -- a world of ghosts, ancient secrets, and bizarre twists. The Marriage of Sticks won a lot of attention from critics inside the genre and out, and here at the SF Site we certainly weren't immune. If you haven't tried Carroll in a while, this is the place to start.

   No. 9
Before and After Before and After by Matthew Thomas
Matthew Thomas
Cordwainer Smith, the classic SF author whose lush short stories helped re-invent the dying genre of the space opera in the 1950s, predicted that within the span of a few thousand years the most valuable creatures in the universe would be... sheep. British humorist Matthew Thomas, in his first novel Before and After, goes even farther, predicting that as the clock wound down towards 2000 and certain Armageddon, sheep would.... well, you really have to read it.

In this delightful spoof we find, among other things, that the 5,000-year lease on the pyramids has expired and they're up for repossession, King Arthur has finally re-awakened, and the prophet Nostradamus -- now pursuing a quiet academic career under the name Mike D. Nostrus -- has begun his inevitable precautions against the likely end of the world. As reviewer Margo MacDonald put it in her summary, "The cast of characters ranges from Colin, 'the first sheep to break the sound barrier' to Adam, the sleazy tabloid reporter; Deborah, the bright young thing to Q'almn, the multi-tentacled advertising executive from another solar system.... Great characters, wickedly funny, slickly written, positively contemporary -- I thoroughly enjoyed this book."

A Cavern of Black Ice A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones
Warner Aspect
J.V. Jones' first novels, including The Baker's Boy and The Barbed Coil, proved to be fairly irresistible curl-up-in-an-armchair stuff for virtually every epic fantasy fan on our staff. But it was with A Cavern of Black Ice, the first volume in the projected series Sword of Shadows, that she really began to hit her stride.

Set against a backdrop of ice-bound mountains and desolate badlands, where fortress cities cling to barren peaks and fierce clans hunt the frozen landscape, Cavern begins a tale of dark magics and bloody ambitions. Once in a millennium a child is born with the ability to span the barrier of worlds and reach into the realm of the dead -- and release the dread Endlords from their eternal prison. Now, just as war erupts between the cold giants of the far north, two young fugitives find they must confront the millennial prophecy. "J.V. Jones tells a tale that hints at so much more that the reader is compelled to grasp at the tantalizing bits and pieces making up the puzzle," notes senior editor Wayne MacLaurin. "A great start to what promises to be a greater tale. "

   No. 8
Hearts in Atlantis Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
Scribner
What can you say about the latest book from Stephen King? (Besides "sure is thick!") How about "sure isn't what we expected!"

King's done novella collections before -- notably Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, two of his strongest works -- so the announcements for Hearts in Atlantis generated both high expectations and a sense of the familiar. But the finished product contained a lot of surprises. While the majority of the tales contained within were fine standalone pieces in the true King fashion, taken together they formed a powerful linked story of the Vietnam decade. "This is perhaps the most experimental book Stephen King has ever written," I noted in my review. "King has taken some unusual risks -- including a very big risk at the close. But in large part the risks have a significant payoff. While I've enjoyed many King novels over the decades, I can't ever recall having the theme driven home so effectively."

   No. 7
Stardust Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Avon / DC Comics
Neil Gaiman is a perennial favourite on the SF Site Best of the Year lists. His novel Neverwhere was at the top of our 1997 list, and his collection Smoke and Mirrors grabbed the Number One spot on our 1998 SF Site Reader's Choice Awards. Plus, we're still complete suckers for the Sandman comic reprints.

With Stardust, Gaiman played to his strengths. Working with comics artist Charles Vess, who did the haunting illustrations for the DC Comics version, he crafted an epic adult fairy tale that built off the themes of Neverwhere and his mastery of the comic book form. The tale proved powerful enough that Avon books used Gaiman's text in a standalone hardcover early in 1999 to launch their Spike imprint. "This is a fairy tale for adults -- a genre which Gaiman is particularly adept at writing," commented reviews editor Neil Walsh, "and a delightful foray into the sense of wonder that fairy tales evoked when we were young... Stardust is a joyful reminder to adults of the magic and adventure it once was to be a child."

   No. 6
All Tomorrow's Parties All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson
William Gibson
William Gibson has given us some of the most acclaimed and thought-provoking novels of the decade, including Mona Lisa Overdrive and Idoru, but his name is still irrevocably linked to Neuromancer, perhaps the most spectacular debut novel in SF's history. For better or for worse Gibson became instantly associated with the cyberpunk movement, a literary form which, by the close of the decade, had seen considerably better days. But anyone who counted Gibson out hasn't been paying attention. His recent works, while maintaining the edgy quality and rich info-laden themes of his early novels, stray far from the path of convention -- cyberpunk or other.

Colin Laney, perhaps the most gifted data miner to ever tread cyberspace, now lives in a cardboard box in Tokyo. But even from there he can see that all the portents in the Net point to a major upheaval, and soon, somewhere near San Franciso. Colin recruits ex-cop and media loser Berry Rydell to be his agent on the ground. But Laney is not the only one who senses the coming change... nor is he the only one willing to do almost anything to be a part of it. All Tomorrow's Parties shares characters and settings with both Virtual Light and Idoru, and brings the loose trilogy to a satisfying and climactic close.

   No. 5
On Blue's Waters On Blue's Waters by Gene Wolfe
Tor
Gene Wolfe is a man of relentless ambition. His four-novel baroque masterpiece The Book of the New Sun (still available from Tor in two volumes, Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel) is perhaps the most convincing portrait of a far-future Earth we have. Packed with secret societies, alien flowers, lush settings and strange yet still very human characters, these books are the cornerstone of Wolfe's considerable reputation.

Wolfe followed with The Book of the Long Sun, a four-volume sequence set on an ancient starship home to an even more intriguing human culture. Now less than three years later he kicks off a brand new epic in the same cycle. Horn, the narrator of Long Sun, tells his own tale on the newly settled planet of Blue. Forced to set sail in a small boat on a quest across the planet to locate Patera Silk, the central character of Long Sun, Horn must make his way back to the giant interstellar ship that brought the settlers to Blue.

For anyone who loves a complex epic, science fiction that reads like the best fantasy, or just a good adventure story, Gene Wolfe is a gift to be treasured.

   No. 4
The Wild Swans The Wild Swans by Peg Kerr
Warner Aspect
Just like Bill Murray in Caddyshack, we love a good Cinderella story. We especially like the kind in which a neglected author bursts out of the midlist and stuns the world with an unexpected masterpiece. But when the "neglected author" has written only one other book, Emerald House Rising, and with her second novel is already commanding lead status and rave reviews, even we start to question the fairness of it all.

In the case of Peg Kerr and The Wild Swans, we can find it in our hearts to forgive. Especially for a title which touched as many of our staff as this one. A twin narrative with powerful echoes between the two tales, The Wild Swans tells both the fairy tale of Lady Eliza Grey, banished from her father's house in the 17th century, and the story of Elias Latham, tossed into the mean streets of New York circa 1981 by his homophobic father. Both protagonists are shadowed by curses -- in the former case magical, in the latter the tragedy of AIDS -- and must strive for a little magic of their own to survive. Said David Soyka in his exuberant review, "Stop whatever else you are doing, take off from work, skip school, don't worry about whether the lawn needs to be cut, lock the door and don't let anyone in. As soon as you can... read The Wild Swans."

   No. 3
Harry Potter Series Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Scholastic Books
Is there anybody out there by now who's resisted the pull of these wonderful novels? If so, it's for one of two reasons: a) they simply can't bothered with children's fiction, or b) they're stubbornly holding out because anything this supernaturally popular can't be good.

We're here to tell you to a) grow up, and b) snap out of it. J.K. Rowling is a master of fantasy in the same marvelous way as Lloyd Alexander and Robin McKinley, and blessed with the same natural touch for character, style, and -- Good Lord yes -- narrative draw. These books read like the autobahn drives. And like only the very best of series, this one actually improves as it goes. Prisoner of Azkaban is the third installment, following Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (US edition; aka Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, UK edition) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but it is also the best. Young Harry is aging in the course of his adventures, and one of the challenges he's facing is growing up. Our greatest challenge is waiting for the next volume.

   No. 2
A Deepness in the Sky A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
Tor
One thing you don't often see on Ten Best lists is sequels. Particularly sequels to Hugo Award-winning novels. Not that there's any shortage of them, or that they're invariably failures -- but it's often hard to re-capture the freshness of the original, and even harder to sail over that raised expectation bar a second time.

Leave it to Vernor Vinge to make it look easy. His hard SF novel A Fire Upon the Deep won the Hugo Award in 1992, and in this huge and intricate follow-on we travel back 30,000 years before the events of the first novel. The interstellar trading fleet Queg Ho waits near the sleeping world of Arachna, but before trading begins they are attacked by the Emergents, a separate human culture. Only Pham Nuwen and a few others are able to resist the Emergents' terrible weapon, a mind control device called Focus. So begins an ingenious and engaging tale of epic proportions, the kind of feast that fans of true science fiction have been hungry for for a long time. "A deep, complex story, and a terrific compelling novel," said Greg L. Johnson in his review. "Vernor Vinge may not be the most prolific novelist in science fiction, but The Peace War, Marooned in Realtime, A Fire Upon the Deep, and now A Deepness in the Sky argue that he is among the best."

   No. 1
Cryptonomicon Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Avon
From the day the votes started arriving, there was little doubt which book was going to end up at the top of the heap for 1999. Not only did it end up on more Top Ten lists among our staff and reviewers by a wide margin, it also had more #1 votes than the next nine books on the list combined. An epic masterpiece by almost any definition, this 900+ page heavyweight is only the first volume in a proposed series. It garnered more attention than virtually any book we received this year, and had the honour of being Avon's first SF New York Times bestseller.

In fact, there's only one problem with Cryptonomicon -- it's not really science fiction. Not in any of the ways that really matter, or so the debate goes.

Not that that bothers us. Cryptonomicon satisfies the loose criterion we use for all the materials reviewed at the SF Site: it's written by a science fiction writer (the author of the brilliant Snowcrash and the Hugo Award-winning The Diamond Age, no less), it concerns itself with the problems and advancement of science, it's fiction, and it's what science fiction fans read. Case closed, in our book.

Without a doubt, Cryptonomicon is our answer to the question "If I could read a single SF title in 1999, what should it be?" Thought-provoking, original, and at times wondrous, Cryptonomicon somehow combined the impenetrable art of cryptography with a page-turning story, a feat we would have thought impossible. It educated and thrilled us like no other novel this year, and it is likely destined to sweep most of the major awards. Make sure it finds its way onto your shelves in a permanent format. You won't be sorry.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
That's it for another year. As usual, we are compelled to include our usual caveat: the staff and reviewers of the SF Site do not seriously suggest that the best work of 1999 can be summarized with a simple list of ten titles, no matter how carefully selected. Our goal here is merely to celebrate those writers who've succeeded -- and often succeeded brilliantly -- in capturing our imagination over the last 12 months, and in so doing have helped raise the bar for SF and Fantasy for one more year. If by presenting this list we can bring even one of the above titles to the attention of a fresh group of fans, then we've done what we set out to do.

In the spirit of generous brotherhood (and continuing tradition), we are also forced to list those titles that almost made it -- chiefly for the sake of avoiding personal pain, since some of the votes arrived attached to promises of dire vengeance if favoured titles didn't make the list in some fashion. In that spirit we're happy to mention C.J. Cherryh's Precursor (DAW, hardcover, $23.95, November), the fourth volume in her Foreigner sequence, one of the finest ongoing series in SF today. Also highly popular was A Civil Campaign (Baen, hardcover, $24, August), the latest from fan favourite Lois McMaster Bujold.

Next on the list was Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson (Bantam UK, trade paperback, 9.99 UK), a surprising fantasy debut which kicked off a proposed ten-volume saga. Also with a hearty share of fans was Robin Hobb's Mad Ship (Bantam Spectra, hardcover, $24.95, April), the latest in her Liveship Traders trilogy, which Wayne MacLaurin summed up with "pirates, talking ships, magic, sea serpents, slave revolts, dashing heroes, bloody battles and lusty maidens... all of this and a whole lot more."

New author Katie Waitman made a considerable splash with her surprising novel The Divided (Del Rey, trade paperback, $12.95, February), and the SF Site's own Catherine Asaro placed next with her hard SF novel The Veiled Web (Bantam Spectra, paperback, $5.99, December). Enchantment (Del Rey, hardcover, $25, April), an original take on a old fairy tale by Orson Scott Card, also claimed a spot on the list.

Paperback reprints didn't fare as well as they have on our past lists, but that didn't stop Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip (reprint, Ace, paperback, $5.99) -- which was #7 on our 1998 list in its hardcover incarnation -- from winning a position this year. Likewise limited distribution through a small press didn't stop The Ballad of Billy Badass & the Rose of Turkestan by William Sanders (Yandro House, hardcover & trade paperback, $25/$18, January).

And finally, The Rift by Walter J. Williams (HarperPrism, hardcover, $26, July), a huge and daunting opus of a book which squeezed its way onto only a few crowded reading lists, but was ranked extremely highly by everyone who did make time for it -- including Lisa DuMond, who read more SF in 1999 than several US counties, who ranked it as her top choice.


Copyright © 2000 John O'Neill


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