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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1998: Readers' Choice
by John O'Neill

Last issue, as tradition demanded, we presented our annual Editor's choice list, The Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1998, as selected by over 40 editors, writers, and freelancers of the SF Site. As usual we invited you to comment, critique, and -- up until the day our choices were announced -- submit your own selections for the best of the last 12 months. And this year, for the first time, we received more than enough votes to generate a truly significant sampling of the general reading populace -- enough, in fact, to warrant separate Reader's Choice Awards. And so here we are.

A Reader's Choice Awards, as intriguing and popular feature as it is, isn't without its own set of problems [note to Editor: next year we computerize the whole process. No more hand counting -- I don't care how many pizzas you buy.] The biggest one, of course, is the issue of ballot stuffing. And yes, there was ballot stuffing... all too tempting a process in this day of multiple e-mail accounts and continent-wide chat groups, I'm afraid. Eliminating multiple notes from a single e-mail address isn't enough to prevent it (not nearly enough) -- you have to check X-sender IDs, do routing traces, and have Ralph the lapdog sniff incoming ballots for familiar scents.

Still, the bulk of the ballot stuffing was easy to spot -- ridiculously easy, in fact. While genuine votes from readers generally arrived with a list of 8-10 books, invariably with some idle chatter and "P.S. Where does Stephen King get his ideas??" tacked at the end, yer basic mass produced ballot-stuffer was limited to something like "I vote for The Clowns of Booger -- it rocked!!" In the end, a few simple rules helped cut out the vast majority of the ballot stuffing -- including eliminating all those notes which cast votes for a single book. [That last rule alone disqualified over 50 messages, affecting the voting totals of a grand total of two books. Like we said: in large part, obvious.]

But, just as the "Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1998" list did in our last issue, this list had its share of surprises and treasures. As much effort as these kinds of Awards are to do right, the rewards for the diligent compiler are considerable. Internet SF & Fantasy readers have diverse and eclectic taste, there's no doubt about it. But you also have a nose for the rare find, and everyone who worked on this list -- no matter how widely read we thought we were -- walked away with a discovery or two (or ten) that made all the work worthwhile. The fact that the voting was open to virtually all books published in 1998, reprints included, also opened the door to a few surprises as well. Many of the superb books we were led to didn't make the Top Ten list you're about to read... but we'll make sure you know about many of them in the issues to some, and that's a promise.

Enough of the preliminaries. On to the Awards - presented in reverse order this time. Enjoy.

[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 Best of Crank! The Best of Crank! edited by Bryan Cholfin
Tor
We said the list had surprises. This is one of them: an anthology of reprints, released late in the year, collecting stories that originally appeared in an eclectic small press magazine edited by famed genre curmudgeon Bryan Cholfin -- and proudly sporting one of the cornerstone pieces from the Museum of Bad Art on its cover, no less. Let's just say that, if there'd been a pool for Best of The Year candidates in our office, The Best of Crank! could've won someone a lot of money.

So what gives? It's not hard to figure out, really. In its short life Crank! was one of the finest -- some would say the finest -- herald of cutting-edge fiction on the market. Like Dangerous Visions and New Worlds before it, it championed the kind of stories that really didn't have a home anywhere else, tales that often pushed the boundaries and only really made sense when situated next to other demanding fiction. If Asimov's SF and Analog are the meat and potatoes of short fiction in this field, Crank! was its Heimlich maneuver.

But Crank! never had anything that approached a wide reader base. So we can only imagine what this collection felt like to first-time readers. The very best of its award-winning fiction, including authors such as Brian Aldiss, R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jonathan Lethem, undoubtedly made an impression. The more we think about it, the more sense it makes that The Best of Crank! shoved aside top-selling books from the year's most popular authors to claim a space on our Reader's Top Ten list. The only mystery is why it didn't place higher.

   No. 9
Forever Peace Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
Ace
The first reprint on our list is no surprise at all, frankly -- Forever Peace was the winner of this year's Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction novel of the year. Joe Haldeman returned to the themes of his groundbreaking The Forever War and took them in substantially new directions in this near-future novel of conflict and cosmology. It's 2043, the eighth year of the Ngumi War. Atlanta and San Diego have endured limited nuclear strikes, and the soldiers on the front lines are indestructible war machines linked to human soldiers hundreds of miles away. Sergeant Julian Class is one of these "soldierboys", connected to the other members of his platoon by a form of telepathy which makes secrets impossible. When Dr. Amelia Harding, Julian's lover, discovers that a super-science project being assembled near Jupiter may well mean the end of the universe, the news is greeted with skepticism by most. But for Julian, it's all the reason he needs to re-direct his life. Though it's not going to be easy -- there's a war on, and for some victory is all that matters.

   No. 8
Song for the Basilisk Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip
Ace
Song For the Basilisk, the latest novel of high fantasy from the much admired author of The Book of Atrix Wolfe, The Sorceress and the Cygnet, and the classic The Riddlemaster of Hed, nabbed the #7 slot in our own Top Ten list last issue, and it's good to see so many of you agree with our assessment. McKillip's newest is a book that embraces many of the themes of her earlier novels and weaves them into a pattern that is wholly new. "Though it takes the form of a tale of revenge, Song for the Basilisk is really, like so many of McKillip's novels, about love, transformation, and power," wrote Victoria Strauss. "The power of memory, of hatred, of forgiveness, of family, of self. And of music... McKillip is without doubt one of the finest stylists now working in the fantasy genre. Her exquisite, evocative prose sings with all the power and magic of the music she describes."

   No. 7
Girl In Landscape Girl In Landscape by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday
Speaking of being in agreement -- Girl in Landscape was our top pick for Book of the Year in our own Best SF and Fantasy of 1998 list, and frankly we felt pretty smug about it, too. Lethem -- author of Gun, with Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon (1995) and As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) -- was just too cool to be noticed by the populace at large... or so we thought. Sure, we told you all about him last year, when his collection The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye ranked fourth on our 1997 Best of the Year list, but we didn't expect you to be such quick learners.

He's been hot in the past, but this year Lethem is on fire. His fourth novel is the tale of thirteen-year-old Pella Marsh, who departs a dying Earth to come with her family to the Planet of the Archbuilders -- an arid world dotted with countless strange structures, bizarre food, and the ancient mystery of a nearly-vanished alien race. It's almost like a play set on the dusty set of an old Lost in Space episode -- creepy, dark and bizarre, but with an odd sense of the familiar which sends a peculiar shill down your spine. If you haven't discovered Lethem yet, do it today.

   No. 6
The Rise of Endymion The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons
Bantam Spectra
Speaking of award-winning reprints... the previous installments in the Hyperion saga (Hyperion, Fall of Hyperion, and Endymion), Simmons' first science fiction novels, are some of the most acclaimed works in modern SF, and formed one of the most significant additions to the canon of the genre. Taking their titles and theme from the incomplete epic poems of John Keats, which deal with the fall of the old gods and the rise of a new pantheon, the first volumes form a rich tale of far-future mankind on the brink -- with god-like AIs, religious quests, cyberspace, bioengineering, and much more. The series has been gaining in respect, and in readers, with every volume, and it's refreshing to see that enthusiasm hasn't flagged.

In this, the final volume of the series, we find the protagonists on the run from agents of both the Pax and the TechnoCore. But the child Aenea is slowly coming of age, growing perhaps into the messiah who may one day topple the church and stop the terrible resurrection. If you're looking for epic science fiction with top notch writing and undistilled Sense of Wonder, you've come to the right place.

   No. 5
Slant Slant by Greg Bear
Tor
The penultimate reprint on our list is another surprise: a hard SF novel that demands intelligence and careful reading of its audience, and a sequel to a book nearly ten years old -- not the kind of thing we usually find topping popular opinion polls. But Greg Bear is not your typical author. The Hugo-nominated Queen of Angels was one of Bear's most popular and complex works -- a near-future mystery mixing artificial intelligence, nanotech, vigilante groups practicing harsh personality modulation on unpopular public figures, and a bizarre double murder involving one of the nation's most respected poets. The sequel continues the tale by layering more complexity on top of it all, with molecular mood therapy, sentient computers struggling for control of the US, and the possibility of alien contact by a probe in Alpha Centauri.

It's 2050, and nearly half of the nation is unemployed and addicted to LitVid, a VR environment with powerful erotic elements. Somehow, the advanced therapies undergone by most of the nation's employed citizens to create perfect emotional harmony are breaking down, leading to madness on a national scale. Agent Jack Giffey is assigned to find out why -- without going mad himself.

   No. 4
Neverwhere Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Avon
I remember the days when Neil Gaiman was known simply as "the author of DC Comics Sandman." Now he's gaining serious renown as a modern fantasist, with such work as Smoke and Mirrors and Stardust -- and this, his first novel, based on the BBC series of the same name. In a very short time Gaiman has shot in the top ranks of modern fantasy writers, gaining the kind of audience and respect that it takes most writers decades to achieve.

Neverwhere was voted the best book of 1997 by the editors and reviewers of the SF Site after its hardcover appearance last year, and reviewer Alice Dechene commented that "Gaiman beautifully orchestrates scenes, fractionally unveiling psychological and physical terrors until the unwary reader totters as unsteadily as Richard on the brink of this terrifying world." When Londoner Richard Mayhew stops to assist a helpless stranger, he slips through the cracks himself and ceases to exist in the ordinary world of London Above, finding himself in the dark and dangerous world of London Below, a shadow city of lost and forgotten people.

   No. 3
To Say Nothing of the Dog To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Bantam Spectra
Yes, it's the only book on the list to have two editions in 1998 -- one hardcover and one paperback -- and that probably put this book into more hands than much of its competition. But in the words of Garfield the cat, big fat hairy deal. The inspiration for To Say Nothing of the Dog was openly Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog!, Jerome Klapka Jerome's classic book of Victorian comedy, often called the funniest book ever written in English, and it certainly shows. To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of the most flat-out exuberant novels we've read in a long time, and that put it solidly on our own list of Best of the Year (at #4).

Ned Henry and his time-traveling companions are searching the bombed ruins of Coventry Cathedral in 1940 for the mysterious bishop's bird stump, an object whose relevance escapes him. All that's certain is that if they fail to uncover, the powerful and enigmatic Lady Schrapnell will keep sending them back in time -- again and again and again... Perhaps it benefited from having two editions -- one hardcover and one paperback -- bracket the year, and perhaps it was simply the joy of discovering a new dimension to a writer we thought we had pegged. Those readers who partook of this volume expecting another work of solemn prose (or clued out to the inspiration) often found themselves mystified. But if like us you were looking for a different brand of entertainment in 1998, Willis' brilliant comic novel might be exactly what you're searching for.

   No. 2
The Death of the Necromancer The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
Avon
Did we mention you have good taste? You do, and this proves it. Death of the Necromancer was an instant hit in our offices, topping more reviewers' ballots than any other title and ending up at #3 on our list. But we didn't expect the third novel from Martha Wells to topple the competition so effectively. Her first two books, The Element of Fire and the well-received City of Bone, were fine efforts but they didn't exactly set the charts on fire. But with her latest she's really hit her stride. Death of the Necromancer is an original blend of Sherlockian mystery, alternate history, and plain old-fashioned fantasy adventure, and one of the finest page-turners of the year.

In the gaslight kingdom of Ile-Rien, few people know that the nobleman Nicholas Valiarde leads a double life as the infamous thief, Donatien. At his side he's gathered a talented band of loyal criminals, including his lover Madeline, and an opium-addicted sorcerer. Together they are stealing gold in a complex plot of revenge on the dire Count Montesq. A daring night raid leads them into a surprise confrontation with a golem, and soon Nicholas and his band are on the run from a real necromancer, headed for a confrontation where the fate of all Ile-Rien may be decided.

   No. 1
Smoke and Mirrors Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
Avon
He made it on the SF Site Editor's Best of 1998 list in the # 2 spot with Smoke and Mirrors. Last year he topped the Best of 1997 list with his first solo novel, Neverwhere -- which grabbed the #4 spot this year in paperback. Is there any doubt at all that we like Neil Gaiman?

Gaiman's rep as a modern spinner of fairy tales is well deserved. But Smoke and Mirrors gave him an opportunity to perform on a variety of stages, and prove to his audience that he's far more than just the author of The Sandman comic, or even just a gifted fantasist. This collection of thirty short stories and poems (some of which were previously published in the small print-run volume Angels and Visitations) was the first opportunity he's had to demonstrate his true range, and he didn't waste it. The collection opens with "Chivalry," the story of a widow who discovers the Holy Grail in a secondhand shop; other tales include "Nicholas Was," a disturbing look at the legend of Santa Claus. For Lovecraft fans there's "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar" and "Only the End of the World", both of which pay hilarious tribute to both the Cthulhu Mythos and classic horror film conventions. The poems include "Bay Wolf," which manages to mix Beowulf and Baywatch. All in all, Smoke and Mirrors is perhaps the most surprising and rewarding book of the year - one to be savoured and treasured.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
Top Ten Original Works of 1998
  • Smoke & Mirrors - Neil Gaiman
  • The Death of the Necromancer - Martha Wells
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis
  • Girl in Landscape - Jonathan Lethem
  • Song For the Basilisk - Patricia A. McKillip
  • The Best of Crank! - edited by Bryan Cholfin
  • Fine Prey - Scott Westerfeld
  • Newton's Cannon - J. Gregory Keyes
  • Child of the River - Paul J. McAuley
  • Deepdrive - Alexander Jablokov
  • Bag of Bones - Stephen King & Bloom - Wil McCarthy (tie)
Originals versus Reprints

There's been no shortage of controversy surrounding our decision to allow readers to vote for the very best genre books they read in 1998 -- including reprints and foreign titles. As long as it was published in 1998 and in English, it qualified. But while it's one thing to see a neglected classic from yesteryear find new favour with today's audience, it's quite another to see your deserving original novel get barely edged out by the paperback version of a work that was heaped with awards last year. Enough already old-timer, it's time to give up the mike and let a fresh act take the stage.

We can see both sides of this argument. And to make sure none of the fine original work that deserved to make the list gets overlooked, we're providing two distinct supplemental lists -- the Top Ten original titles of 1998 according to our readers (at right), and also the Ten Best reprints (below). That's two Top Ten lists for one price -- don't let anyone tell you the SF Site isn't the biggest value on the Web.

The Runners-Up

We've said it before -- more than once -- but it probably bears repeating. Trust the average Top Ten list about as far as you can throw it -- ours included. We don't seriously believe that the finest work of 1998 can be encapsulated with a list of ten titles, no matter how many voters you have, nor how carefully selected your criteria are. We do these lists for three simple reasons: they're fun, they're popular, and we can't think of a better way to publicize work of real quality from the last 12 months. If the above lists have brought even one title to your attention that you might have otherwise overlooked, then we've accomplished our goal.

Which means that, as long as we're hogging the microphone, there's nothing to stop us from rolling out those books which damn near made the list. By far the most popular title just shy of the list was new author Scott Westerfeld's novel Fine Prey (Ace, paperback, August), the extremely impressive sequel to his debut novel Polymorph. Next was perpetual bridesmaid Newton's Cannon by J. Gregory Keyes (Del Rey, trade paperback, May), the first volume in the The Age of Unreason, which was also in neck-and-neck competition for a position on the Editor's Choice list as well.

In a near tie for next place are two fine examples of true science fiction: occasional SF Site reviewer Paul J. McAuley's Child of the River (Avon/Eos, hardcover, May), the first book of Confluence, and Alexander Jablokov's standalone novel Deepdrive (Avon/Eos, hardcover, August) -- both part of the superb Avon/Eos line, and both beneficiaries of Avon's introductory hardcover series, which offered excellent original work in hardcover at unbeatable prices ($14 each, or $19 in Canada).

Top Ten Reprints of 1998
  • Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
  • Slant - Greg Bear
  • The Rise of Endymion - Dan Simmons
  • Forever Peace - Joe Haldeman
  • Corrupting Dr. Nice - John Kessel
  • Ribofunk - Paul Di Filippo
  • A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin
  • Jack Faust - Michael Swanwick
  • Freeware - Rudy Rucker
  • Greenmantle - Charles de Lint

John Kessel's unique vision of time travel and bizarre character study, Corrupting Dr. Nice (Tor, reprint, trade paperback, February) made its own unique impression on readers, and shouldered its way into the next position on the list with its high-quality reprint edition. Next was a novel that needs no introduction: Bag of Bones by Stephen King (Scribner, hardcover, September), considered by many of his fans as his best effort in years.

Tied with Stephen King was a breakout novel by Wil McCarthy -- his first hardcover release, and a novel that generated an enormous buzz in the industry when it landed on shelves in the fall: Bloom (Del Rey, hardcover, September). A disturbing and fully-realized vision of a far-future Earth occupied by a sentient micro-organism, it was an edge-of-your seat thriller of the sort that's rare in any genre.

Neil Gaiman crowded on to the list again in the next slot, with his latest novel Stardust (Avon/Eos, hardcover, December) which is technically a February 1999 release. And close at its heels was Earth Made of Glass by John Barnes (Tor, hardcover, April) an SF novel set in the universe of his early favourite, A Million Open Doors.

The last entry in our runner's-up list was a surprise -- albeit a very pleasant one. The small press is rarely well represented on popular lists such as this one, for obvious reasons: small print runs, even smaller marketing budgets, and often subject matter that is far off the commercial track. But occasionally a small press publication will strike a chord, and word of mouth will do what glossy advertising cannot -- and a deserving work with a limited press run will attract a vocal group of fans. Such is the case with Beyond the Wall of Sleep, the first book by Avon/Eos publicist Andy Heidel (Mortco, hardcover, August). A collection of previously unpublished short stories and poems, this is a book that was shared by many here in the SF Site offices, and deserves a wider audience.

And until next year, good reading -- and good web surfing.


Copyright © 1999 John O'Neill


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