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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2001: Editors' Choice
by Neil Walsh

In some ways it's hard to believe that 5 years have gone by already, but here we are at the 5th Annual SF Site Best Read of the Year Top 10 List, as chosen by the SF Site staff and contributors. To have a look at who some of the judges are, see our Contact Us page, but please note that this list doesn't include all the reviewers, interviewers and guest editors who were invited to help determine the best books of 2001.

Unlike most traditional awards, our winners are not chosen from a list of nominees; instead, anything genre-related that was published for the first time or as a new edition in 2001 was eligible -- same voting rules for contributors as for readers (we'll show you the Readers' Choice Top 10 List next issue).

What this means is that we end up with some real surprises, as I'm sure you'll agree. It means that we often have more than 10 titles on our Top 10 list, since we merely report ties, rather than attempting to resolve them. (We have our first 3-way tie this year, at the number 9 spot.) And it means that we sometimes see books resurrected from a previous year's list to appear once again on the current Top 10 List. This is a good thing, I believe, because it means that a book that might have received only an honourable mention last year, saw wider distribution over the past 12 months in another edition and rocketed to the #1 spot for the current year -- which is exactly what happened this time around!

And so, without further ado...

[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 Chronoliths The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
The story opens in a near-future Thailand, where a 300-foot tall monolith appears overnight, made of an unknown substance resembling blue glass, but which proves to be impervious to all efforts to interfere with it. Most interesting is the inscription, commemorating the victory of someone or something called "Kuin" -- a victory that, according to the inscription, will not occur for another 20 years. This is not an event the world can ignore... particularly as more of these Kuin monuments begin to appear throughout Asia, eventually arriving in other parts of the world as well.

Robert Charles Wilson is the author of the 1999 Hugo nominee Darwinia and last year's World Fantasy Award nominated collection Perseids and Other Stories. With his latest novel, he has concocted an engrossing and innovative tale that looks at the potential paradoxes of time travel from an intriguing perspective. Certainly deserving of a recommendation as one of the best books of 2001.

   No. 9
Ship of Fools Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo
I feel pretty confident about this title finding its way onto the SF Site list of the year's best, since it's been nominated for the prestigious Philip K. Dick award. It's a novel that plumbs the depths of the truly alien, the subversively elusive otherness that we'll never fully understand.

From David Soyka's SF Site review: "The novel's title is a literary reference to the Narrenschiff, a fable of a journey of misfits rounded up by the burghers of Basle and shipped off down the Rhine, published in 1494... this is a highly compelling narrative that considers not the existence of God, but the more apparent presence of Evil and how human decisions, even correctly made decisions, serve its ends."

Memories of Ice Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson
Bantam Press
Last year, Deadhouse Gates, the second book in Erikson's monumental Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, captured the #10 spot on both the SF Site Readers' Choice and the Editors' Choice Top 10 lists. The third novel in this sequence shows no sign that the author may be slowing down. The events of this novel tumble along with the swift inevitability of a mountain stream, although you can taste the profound depth of history driving the flood.

In his SF Site review, William Thompson says: "If any work is truly deserving of the accolade epic, it is the writing in Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Vast in scope and imagination, spanning continents and cultures as diverse and multifaceted as any to be found in fantasy, the author readily towers over every other author writing military fantasy today, or for that matter, from the past.  Possessing in a single volume the equivalent storylines and action found elsewhere within a trilogy or three, events happen here with such kinetic energy, so compellingly and dramatically rendered, that the senses threaten to become overloaded with a surfeit of vivid imagery and deed."

But if you don't mind risking sensory overload, this is a trip well worth taking.

Look To Windward Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks
This 7th Culture novel is, as Nick Gevers said in his SF Site review, "one of Banks' finest novels, mature, considered, horrifying and hilarious by turns. Its episodes of social comedy are brilliantly observed, like Wodehouse on interstellar overdrive; its sequences of action and intrigue are as intense and polished as those in the magnificent Inversions; and its conclusion is perfectly paced, a keen indictment and sweeping celebration of the Culture all at once. This fine rhetorical balance marks Look To Windward as one of the most significant SF novels of the year."

And, as it turns out, one of the most significant novels two years running. This one was so close to making it onto last year's list in the UK edition -- and I mean almost: it was #11 on our Top 10!

   No. 8
Cosmonaut Keep Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod
Tor (USA & Canada) / Orbit (UK)
This novel was a nominee for the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke award. The Sky Road, also by Ken MacLeod, is on the ballot for this year's Hugo award.

Cosmonaut Keep is the first volume in a MacLeod's Engines of Light series. SF Site reviewer, Peter Tillman, says: "This first volume comes to an adequate resolution, with plenty of hooks to prime you for the next installment, Dark Light. MacLeod's writing just keeps getting better, and I'll happily put up with his hothouse politics to get to the amazing inventions in his spectacular new universe-playground. Highly recommended."

   No. 7
Metaplanetary Metaplanetary by Tony Daniel
Eos, HarperCollins
David Soyka, in his review, describes this novel as "Heinlein meets Gibson and Stephenson, with a dash of Tom Robbins." The concept of Metaplanetary is that people throughout the solar system are in touch with each other via a web of bioengineered material that permits not only communication but also instantaneous replication of physical objects.

David says: "The grist is accessed by a human's convert portion -- a computing function hard wired into the personality -- permitting interaction in a virtuality with, among other things, purely artificial software constructs that enables not only relationships but procreation!

"And that's not even the weird part. What really makes Daniel's world-building unique is his conception of 'The Met' -- a system of spider web-like cables in space that connect the planets orbiting the Sun within the ring of the asteroid belt. These cables provide a means of transportation that bypasses the need for vehicular space travel. Don't laugh, because Daniel comes up with explanations rooted in quantum physics for this infrastructure that for all I know can actually be taken seriously."

   No. 6
Declare Declare by Tim Powers
Subterranean Press / William Morrow, HarperCollins
I remember seeing the promotional material for this novel some time before it was released. It was being billed as Powers' "breakout" novel, aimed at a more mainstream audience. Well, I hope Tim Powers has reached a wider audience, but he certainly hasn't been forgotten by the fantasy-reading public, since Declare was the winner of last year's World Fantasy Award (co-winner, actually, along with Sean Stewart's Galveston). In fact, Tim Powers might have moved up slightly on this list, but votes were split between this novel and his Night Moves from Subterranean Press.

Nick Gevers, in his review, says: "It's obvious that Declare is an homage to the spy novels of John Le Carré... but its added freight of the supernatural takes it in tantalizingly different directions from those of its models. Certainly, the expected pleasures of suspense are abundantly present in Declare: the perilous ventures behind enemy lines, the decryption of elaborately coded messages, the vertiginous glimpses of what motivates the despised other side, the conflicted love and respect of fellow agents for one another, the contorted double double-crosses, the delicious sense the reader can acquire of knowing more than anybody else; but when the antagonist is immortal and immortally evil, much more than ideology and life are at stake..."

   No. 5
Nekropolis Nekropolis by Maureen F. McHugh
Eos, HarperCollins
This novel boldly tackles a number of controversial issues, including gender and genetic bias, fundamentalist religion, slavery (bio-chemically enhanced), religion and government, faith and despair, etc.

In her SF Site review, Lisa DuMond writes: "McHugh has a clear eye and portrays the possible future with unflinching honesty. Fans of her work know not to expect Hollywood-happy endings; McHugh writes to explore truth and reality, even if that truth doesn't exist quite yet... Always expect the very best of Maureen McHugh; she delivers every time -- even if it isn't the package we envisioned."

   No. 4
City of Saints and Madmen City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
Cosmos Books
City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris collects, between two covers, all four novellas of Ambergris, that city of baroque beauty and creeping nightmare, including the winner of the 2000 World Fantasy Award for best novella, "The Transformation of Martin Lake."

William Thompson in his review writes: "Jeff VanderMeer has created some of the most imaginative and truly unique landscapes and cast of characters to ever denizen either the realms of literature or fantasy.  If there was ever a true literary descendent to Jonathan Swift, Jeff VanderMeer has every right to claim the inheritance... With The Book of Ambergris, the author has brought to life an opulent yet decaying city-state so vibrantly that one can hear the sluice of rain on the cobblestones, savor the odors wafting from the vendor stalls hawking their wares and delicacies, and in moments of inattention peer into the darker shadows that lurk beneath the city's façade.  This is a world where the everyday slips seamlessly and without warning into madness, the surreal met as easily as turning the corner on a street."

This author truly does conjure up images so clear and so sharp you can cut yourself. No one writes quite like Jeff VanderMeer (with the possible exception of Duncan Shriek -- his footnotes had me laughing out loud).

   No. 3
Return to the Worl Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
Tor (USA) / St. Martin's Press (UK)
This is the third book in The Book of the Short Sun trilogy, following In Green's Jungles (2000), which was #2 on this list last year, and On Blue's Waters (1999), which was #5 the year before.

This trilogy is related to Wolfe's previous series The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the New Sun, each series being, in effect, a long novel. Wolfe is one of the best and most respected writers in any genre he puts his pen to; in this case a far-future SF novel that reads like a fantasy adventure. If these books haven't fared as well on our Readers' Choice lists, I can only assume it's because many of you have been waiting for the whole trilogy to be in print before starting to read. That may have been wise; once you start, you won't want to put it down.

   No. 2
American Gods American Gods by Neil Gaiman
William Morrow
Neil Gaiman is no stranger to awards and accolades, and he's no stranger to the SF Site Top 10 lists: Neverwhere (1997) was chosen as the #1 book of the year on our very first SF Site Best of the Year list; Smoke and Mirrors (1998) was #1 on our first Reader's Choice list; and Stardust (1999) was #7 on the Editor's Choice list for that year.

American Gods is Gaiman's latest novel, set in a modern day America populated by gods. Well, sort of. These gods, if indeed that's what they are, live side by side with the regular folks. They drive taxis, live in dingy apartments, and pine for the good ol' days when blood flowed freely over the altars. But now there's a new set of gods who want to put paid to the old gods once and for all. And, of course, there's some poor mortal schmuck stuck in the middle of this power struggle.

In her review, Lisa DuMond, says: "Hard as it may be to believe, Gaiman has managed to top himself with a story that merits the label of classic."

   No. 1
Perdido Street Station Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Del Rey, Ballantine (USA & Canada) / Macmillan (UK)
And here it is: the book that was #11 on the Readers' Choice list last year in its UK edition has leapt to the top of the list this year with the North American release. (Thanks for the tip!) Perdido Street Station was also the winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and a nominee for the World Fantasy Award. If you haven't read it, run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy. This is, without a doubt, the must-read book of the year. It won head and shoulders over the rest of the titles on this list. In view of the way we have open ballots, not all the SF Site editors and contributors voted for this book (presumably because they didn't read it), but everyone who voted for it ranked it as their #1 choice.

From Hank Luttrell's SF Site review: "Perdido Street Station is an unrelenting, marvellously imaginative stew, suggesting Mervyn Peake with astonishing invention, the diverse, sometimes ornate architecture of the city/state, and black humour. A fantasy epic with [an] assembly of colourful locales and magical, energetic, appealing characters..."

David Soyka, in his review, speaks of the "interesting collection of sentient beings [who] inhabit New Crobuzon, a squalid metropolis whose sprawl serves the intersecting interests of various criminal and fascistic governing authorities. A world, in other words, beneath its fantastic trappings somewhat like our own." I'd have to agree; in fact New Crobuzon reminded me very much of London. Maybe even too much.

"The primary protagonists -- Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an overweight mad scientist type whose unthinking actions result in wreaking terrible havoc upon innocents, and Yagharek, an exiled warrior-bird whose wings were cut off as punishment for a horrible transgression against his kind -- both seek redemption. And both achieve it, though in startlingly different ways..."

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
And in the tradition of previous SF Site Top 10 lists, we're happy to highlight a few near misses and honourable mentions...
  • #11 on our Top 10 list (which already includes 12 titles!) was C.J. Cherryh's Defender (DAW, US, hc, November 2001);
  • #12 was From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury, one of the all-time great names of SF (William Morrow, US, hc, October 2001 / Earthlight, UK, hc, November 2001);
  • #13 was Limit of Vision by Linda Nagata (Tor, US, hc, February 2001), the author who won the 2000 Nebula for best novella ("Goddesses");
  • #14 was Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, UK, hc & trade, May 2001 / mm, January 2002), whose Revelation Space had been nominated for last year's Arthur C. Clarke award. Reynolds also picked up some votes on this list for his Diamond Dogs from Peter Crowther's PS Publishing.
  • #15 was Fox Woman by Kij Johnson (Tor, US, hc, January 2000 / mm, January 2001), a beautifully written debut novel, whose mass market edition appeared in 2001.
After that, things get a little confused, so the rest of these are in no particular order:
  • Jonathan Carroll might have moved up on our list, but votes were split between two of his works, Wooden Sea (Tor, USA, hc, February 2001 / Gollancz, UK, hc, May 2001) and Land of Laughs (St. Martin's Press, USA, trade, February 2001 reprint).
  • Likewise, Steve Aylett picked up votes for The Crime Studio (Four Walls Eight Windows, USA, trade, September 2001 / Gollancz, UK, hc, October 1999 / trade, October 2000) and Atom (Orion, UK, hc, October 2000 / trade, September 2001 / Four Walls Eight Windows, USA, trade, October 2000), so that neither of these two staggeringly funny books made it onto our list.
  • Charles de Lint is an old favourite here at the SF Site, but he also saw votes split between two works: Forests of the Heart (Gollancz, UK, hc, July 2001 / Tor, USA & Canada, hc, June 2000 / mm, July 2001), which was #4 on our list last year for the Tor hc edition, and his latest, The Onion Girl (Tor, USA & Canada, hc, October 2001). Both are works that will have you seeing magic out of the corner of your eye.
  • Paul J. McAuley also produced two excellent books in 2001, The Secret of Life (Voyager, UK, hc, January 2001) and Whole Wide World (Voyager, UK, hc, September 2001).
  • Also of note this year was Passage by Connie Willis (Bantam Doubleday Dell, USA, hc, May 2001 / Voyager, UK, trade, June 2001), winner of the 1999 Hugo for best novel (for To Say Nothing of the Dog).
  • Ventus by Karl Schroeder (Tor, USA, hc, December 2000 / mm, November 2001) is another novel worthy of a recommendation.
  • The Giggler Treatment by Roddy Doyle (Scholastic, hc, September 2000 / trade, July 2001) is an illustrated children's book being enjoyed by people of all ages (but be careful where you step!).
  • Gridlinked by Neal Asher (Macmillan, UK, trade, March 2001) drew some warranted attention.
  • Valis by Philip K. Dick (Gollancz, UK, trade, July 2001) first appeared in 1981, but was re-released in 2001 as part of the SF Masterworks series from Victor Gollancz.
  • Impact Parameter and Other Quantum Realities by Geoffrey A. Landis (Golden Gryphon, USA, hc, November 2001) was one of the better collections of the year.
  • Dream Factories and Radio Pictures by Howard Waldrop (ElectricStory.com, Digital, January 2001) was one of the more notable e-books of 2001.
And, in addition to all of the above, there are even a few cheats: honourable mentions that didn't actually appear in 2001 (or at least, not as far as I could tell)...
  • The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis by Clemence Housman (Green Knight Publishing, USA, trade, July 2000) was first published in 1905 and was recently released in a new edition from Green Knight. If you're looking for a true modern classic of Arthurian fiction with a strong flavour of Malory, look no further.
  • To Leuchars by Rick Wilber (Wildside Press, October 2000) is a collection of some brilliantly emotive stories.
  • Bruce Boston is one of the best SF poets today and his The Complete Accursed Wives (Dark Regions, September 2000) is one of the best collections of SF poetry of the last year (or two).

And that about wraps it up for the Best Read of the Year Top 10 (and some!) according to the SF Site editors & contributors. Join us next time to see how you & your fellow readers voted in the

Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2000           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1999           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1998           
           Best Read of the Year: 2000
           Best Read of the Year: 1999
           Best Read of the Year: 1998
           Best Read of the Year: 1997

Copyright © 2002 Neil Walsh

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