Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
Last week, I set up an idea about recurring themes of nostalgia and novelty in SF as a way to look ahead at forthcoming books in 2014. I won’t rehash it, but that last post was dedicated to novelty. This week is all about nostalgia in that we are looking back on a few titles that deserve another look before the next big thing comes along to make us forget all about the books that brought us so much pleasure in 2013.
There is always another blockbuster—always another book that “can’t be missed.” There are more “Astonishing!” books published each year than anyone has a right to be astonished, in my opinion. Really, I think I’ve been astonished maybe two or three times in my life, and I feel cheated that so many reviewers are getting more than their fair share of astonishment. How many “tour de forces” can we have? There are so many that I think we need an anti-doping committee for the tour de force accolade.
If that were the case, I think the committee would open its investigations with an inquiry into Neil Gaiman, who very definitely might be the Lance Armstrong of tour de forces. That isn’t to say that Mr. Gaiman is using PEDs to write, but he’s had so many excellent books that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear spurious stories coming out of his camp about his naturally larger-than-normal cerebellum.
Whether The Ocean at the End of the Lane is worthy of such an overused accolade is perhaps beside the point. We live in a culture that is prone to extremes. So, it’s rare in the public discourse that a book is ever only good. The true test will be to look back in a few years to see whether a book stands the test of time.
In this context, I’m sure Mr. Gaiman’s latest work will be fondly remembered. Given that the narrator of the novel is an adult looking back on his past, the book fits perfectly with this week’s theme of nostalgia. Present in the story are all the things one expects from Gaiman: the effortless narration, the seamless conjunction of the mythic and the mundane, all the while producing a world “writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”
Shifting gears, I think we should look back at the publication of the science fiction anthology Twenty-First Century Science Fiction, edited by the estimable David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. In the preface to the anthology, the editors credit the phrase “came to prominence” as the defining principle of the collection. So, when you see authors like Charles Stross and Elizabeth Bear listed, understand that they have been writing for some time, but hadn’t really made it into the larger public eye before the dawn of this new century. Alongside those authors, you’ll be treated to an excellent slate of stories from writers who will surely shape the future landscape of the genre, including Paolo Bacigalupi, Catherynne M. Valente, John Scalzi, and many more.
And speaking of writers looking to reshape a genre, the last book we will look back on in 2013 is Vicious by V. E. Schwab, a twenty-first century novel about superheroes, which is a rare thing when done well. Novels about superheroes are hard to pull off. It’s a genre that was defined in a visual medium. So, when a writer does tell a story that feels convincing as such in prose, it stands out. As one would expect from a story about superheroes, Ms. Schwab portrays her characters as vividly as any pen and ink illustrator could render. Billed as “a masterful tale of ambition, jealousy, desire, and superpowers,” Vicious does not disappoint.
I might even call it a tour de force, but my submission to the committee is still under review. What about you? Were you astonished by anything in 2013?