The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 1992

 

                Well, it's time to take another retrospective look at a year gone by, and this one sure seemed to fly past. To my surprise, despite announcements of cutbacks on almost every side, there were an unusually high number of good novels last year, and there are probably others that I never even saw that should be listed as well. With the proliferation of small presses and the blurring of genre distinctions, it is literally impossible to keep track of the entire field.

                I had a real problem trying to pick the top SF novel this year. Exile by Michael Kube-McDowell, A Million Open Doors by John Barnes, and Count Geiger's Blues by Michael Bishop were all real standouts, for very different reasons, and there were a half dozen others that clustered right behind them. Since I really do have to stop equivocating and choose one of the three, I'll pick Barnes' marvelous tale of a man adjusting to a totally new culture, although if you ask tomorrow, it might be Bishop's funny and tragic alternate world super-hero story or Kube-McDowell's story of self-discovery on another world.

                One of those that hovers half a step behind the leaders is Stephen Gould's Jumper, easily the best first novel of the year, as does Lynn Hightower's Alien Blues, also a debut book. Gould's story of teleportation reminded me of Theodore Sturgeon writing Robert Heinlein, and Hightower does one of the best blends of SF and mystery I've ever read. Vernor Vinge providing not one but two fascinating and original cultures in A Fire Upon the Deep, C.J. Cherryh's Chanur's Legacy demonstrates once again that when she is good, she is very good indeed, and Richard Grant's strange journey across a bizarre world, Through the Heart, was easily a major step up from his previous work.

                Above all, this was a particularly good year for hard SF. Stephen Baxter's The Raft is one of those clever constructions whose bizarre natural setting is so unique that it overshadows the plot and characters. Paula Downing's Flare Star combined hard science with adventures in space as did Michael McCollum's The Sails of Tau Ceti. Allen Steele turned his attention to the exploration of Mars in The Labyrinth of Night, Michael Swanwick showed us a realistic series of problems on the moon in Griffin's Egg, and Fred Pohl wrote what is essentially an old style young adult adventure set in the solar system in Mining the Oort. Other outstanding novels with strong scientific backgrounds included Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear, Worlds Enough and Time by Joe Haldeman, and Melissa Scott's story of interstellar flight, Dreamships.

                For fans of cyberpunk, whatever that might mean, there was a bumper crop of first rate works as well, although John Varley's Steel Beach flagged toward the end and wasn't the complete success one might have wished for. Other noteworthy works that might loosely fall into this category include Pat Cadigan's Fools and Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi.

                Other worlds adventure continues to be a thriving source of new novels. L. Sprague de Camp's The Venom Trees of Sunga was one of my favorites.  Robert Sawyer's Far-Seer, first of a trilogy about intelligent dinosaurs, moved him onto the short list of writers-to-watch. Mike Resnick's Oracle proves once again that space opera can be written intelligently as well as entertainingly. Fred Pohl's Stopping at Slowyear presents a scientific, other worlds mystery, and uses it to present a poignant and suspenseful story.

                Earth was also the site of a number of adventures, as well as more serious novels. As Will Bradley, Brad Strickland destroys and renews the world in Ark Liberty. Richard Russo uses the devices of serial killer novels in an extraordinary and peculiarly SF way in Destroying Angel, his best book to date. Laura Mixon also explores the mind-machine interface in Glass Houses, and Damon Knight provides one of the strangest futures for humanity of all ever described in Why Do Birds.

                Judy Moffett provides a further chronicle of the time travelling aliens who have sterilized Earth in Time, Like an Ever Flowing Stream, not quite as effective as its predecessor, The Ragged World, but few books are. Roger Allen MacBride explores what it means to be human in his thoughtful and amusing The Modular Man, a murder mystery about robots. Kalimantan by Lucius Shepard blurs the border between SF and fantasy in much the same way as do the works of A. Merritt, which this new short novel resembles in many ways.

                And let us not forget Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, a delightful little satire, or Douglas Adams' return to the Hitchhiker's Guide, Mostly Harmless. Best novelization of the year goes to Steve Perry for Aliens Book 1: Earth Hive, taken from a comic book of all places. Steve also wrote a very entertaining martial arts SF novel in 1992, Brother Death, part of his ongoing series about interstellar mercenary bodyguards. All in all a very good year, particularly in its diversity.

 

                Fantasy didn't fare so well. Best novel of the year published as fantasy is certainly Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, the story of a woman's search to discover the roots of her family, and their relation to the Holocaust. But I'm not sure if it's really a fantasy novel. Best fantasy novel that I'm sure really is was Susan Shwartz's Grail of Hearts, which examines a handful of serious themes with dexterity.

                Best first novel in the fantasy field is Phoenix Fire by Elizabeth Forrest, the story of monsters waking from their tombs deep in the Earth. Funniest fantasy of the year is Craig Shaw Gardner's A Bad Day for Ali Baba, particularly for its use of a character whose best lines come after he has been chopped into pieces. Gardner narrowly beats out Esther Friesner's Unicorn U for this honor. Friesner also wrote an impressive, serious fantasy this year, Yesterday We Saw Mermaids, an unusual look at the discovery of the new world.

                Close contenders include Tom Deitz's Dreambuilder, second in a series of contemporary tales about a family with magical powers. The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold impressed me a lot more than her SF novels, which have won a noteworthy number of awards. Nancy Springer's Damnbanna was also very close to the top, along with Carol Severance's innovative and fascinating Demon Drums.

                Other fantasies of note include James Blaylock's Lord Kelvin's Machine, although this wasn't up to his usual standard, and Samuel R. Delany's They Fly at Ciron, expanded from an early short story. Raymond Feist's The King's Buccaneer is fine fare for fans of the swashbuckler, as is Robert Jordan's Shadow Rising. And The Last Call by Tim Powers, though not on the level of his last two novels, is still a worthwhile read.

                It was not a particularly good year for horror novels either, although this is the area hardest hit by the publishing cutbacks. Dell's Abyss line clearly dominated the genre in overall quality, despite a couple of clunkers, and there is no doubt at all in my mind that top honors this year go to Dark Dance by Tanith Lee, a very unusual vampire story. I think.

                There are some close contenders, but not many. Robert McCammon's Gone South is really a contemporary thriller rather than a horror novel, but it did contain fantastic elements including a three armed man. Melanie Tem came very close to writing the definitive werewolf novel, set within a clan of female creatures, and it's likely The Wildings will eventually be set in the same class with Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris and Brian Stableford's The Werewolves of London, distinguished company indeed.

                Vampires are very popular at the moment, and Poppy Brite uses a very original twist on that theme in what is easily the best first horror novel of the year, Lost Souls. Vampires also figure in Tanya Huff's Blood Trail, latest in a series, and S.M. Somtow's Valentine. Lisa Cantrell mixes voodoo and detective motifs in Boneman, Ray Garton explores charismatic religions and the intellects behind them in Dark Channel, and Charles De Lint, writing as Samuel Key, provides a supernatural serial killer in From a Whisper to a Scream.

                Rick Hautala's Dark Silence is the closest to a traditional ghost story in this year's top crop. Anthony Shriek by Jessica Amanda Salmonson has some of the most startling imagery and characters, and Kathe Koja's Bad Brains is strong in that area as well, although it lacked the concentrated impact of The Cypher.

                And let's not leave without mentioning a few other noteworthy horror novels. Whipping Boy by John Byrne, Deathgrip by Brian Hodge, and Lost Futures by Lisa Tuttle are all part of the Abyss line. Gene Lazuta's Vyrmin is perfect for those readers who like to squirm a little, Brian Lumley continues his chronicles of the otherworldly Vamphyri in Blood Brothers, and Thomas Monteleone blends religious mysticism and horror in The Blood of the Lamb. K.W. Jeter's Wolf Flow is another fine novel of the beast within us all, Matt Costello's Darkborn is very suspenseful, and Ramsey Campbell's The Count of Eleven is intelligent and unsettling.

                So what's best overall? Dark Dance by Tanith Lee, although a little voice is telling me I'm picking it to avoid making yet another choice among the three top SF contenders. And I still might change my mind tomorrow. So go out and buy all four and decide for yourselves.

 

Best Science Fiction Novels of 1992

Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams (Harmony); The Modular Man by Roger MacBride Allen (Spectra); A Million Open Doors by John Barnes (Tor); The Raft by Stephen Baxter (Roc); Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear (Tor); Count Geiger's Blues by Michael Bishop (Tor); Fools by Pat Cadigan (Spectra); Chanur's Legacy by C.J. Cherryh (DAW); The Venom Trees of Sunga by L. Sprague de Camp (Del Rey); Flare Star by Paula Downing (Del Rey); Jumper by Stephen Gould (Tor); Through the Heart by Richard Grant (Spectra); Worlds Enough and Time by Joe Haldeman (Morrow); Alien Blues by Lynn Hightower (Ace); Why Do Birds by Damon Knight (Tor); Exile by Michael Kube-McDowell (Ace); Sails of Tau Ceti by Michael McCollum (Del Rey); Glass Houses by Laura Mixon (Tor); Time, Like an Ever Flowing Stream by Judith Moffett (St Martinís); Brother Death by Steve Perry (Ace); Alien Book 1: Earth Hive by Steve Perry (Spectra); Mining the Oort by Frederik Pohl (Del Rey); Stopping at Slowyear by Frederik Pohl (Pulphouse); Oracle by Mike Resnick (Ace); Destroying Angel by Richard Paul Russo (Ace); Far-Seer by Robert Sawyer (Ace); Dreamships by Melissa Scott (Tor); Kalimantan by Lucius Shepard (St Martins); Labyrinth of Night by Allen Steele (Ace); Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Bantam Spectra); Ark Liberty by Brad Strickland as by Will Bradley (Roc); Griffin's Egg by Michael Swanwick (St Martinís); Steel Beach by John Varley (Putnam); A Fire in the Deep by Vernor Vinge (Tor); Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams (Tor)

Best Fantasy Novels of 1992

Lord Kelvin's Machine by James Blaylock (Arkham); Gypsy by Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm (Tor); The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen); Dreambuilder by Tom Deitz (Avonova); They Fly at Ciron by Samuel R. Delany (Incunabala); The King's Buccaneer by Raymond Feist (Spectra); Phoenix Fire by Elizabeth Forrest (DAW); Unicorn U by Esther Friesner (Ace); Yesterday We Saw Mermaids by Esther Friesner (Tor); A Bad Day for Ali Baba by Craig Shaw Gardner (Ace); Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan (Tor); The Last Call by Timothy Powers (Morrow); Demon Drums by Carol Severance (Del Rey); Grail of Hearts by Susan Shwartz (Tor); Damnbanna by Nancy Springer (Pulphouse); Briar Rose by Jane Yolen (Tor)

Best Horror Novels of 1992

Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite (Dell); Whipping Boy by John Byrne (Dell); The Count of Eleven by Ramsey Campbell (Tor); Boneman by Lisa Cantrell (Tor); Darkborn by Matt Costello (Diamond); From a Whisper to a Scream by Charles de Lint, as by Samuel Key (Berkley); Dark Channels by Ray Garton (Bantam); Dark Silence by Rick Hautala (Zebra); Deathgrip by Brian Hodge (Dell); Blood Trail by Tanya Huff (DAW); Wolf Flow by K.W. Jeter (St Martinís); Bad Brains by Kathe Koja (Dell); Vyrmin by Gene Lazuta (Diamond); Dark Dance by Tanith Lee (Dell); Blood Brothers by Brian Lumley (Tor); Gone South by Robert McCammon (Pocket); Blood of the Lamb by Thomas Monteleone (Tor); Anthony Shriek by Jessica Amanda Salmonson (Abyss); Valentine by S.M. Somtow (Tor); The Wildings by Melanie Tem (Abyss); Lost Futures by Lisa Tuttle (Abyss)