The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 2001
THE BEST OF 2001
Once again it’s time to look back through all my notes and try to draw some conclusions about the year that has passed. I am by nature suspicious of “best” lists, because reading is too subjective for my choices to necessarily be valid or even helpful for others. Even worse, I might look at this same list a month from now and add or delete things depending upon how I feel at the time. So it goes. But here, as of this moment, are the books I thought topped the heap of fantastic fiction published in 2001.
Science fiction had a good, solid, if not outstanding year. I looked through the list several times, weighing one against another, and finally threw my hands up in defeat. There’s a four way tie for best SF novel of the year. The first of the winners is Children of Hope by David Feintuch (Warner), the latest and in some ways the best of his series of space operas. Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds (Ace, Gollancz), an intricate and inventive second novel not quite up to the level of Revelation Space but still good enough to keep me excited and anxious for his next. Timothy Zahn’s Angelmass (Tor) is an unabashed space opera, but it’s a great one, with a clever mystery, an interstellar war, touches of humor, and plenty of action. And last but certainly not least is Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths (Tor), in which a conqueror from the future sends enormous, virtually indestructible structures back through time into the present, with disastrous consequences.
There was an exceptional number of excellent mostly retrospective story collections published in 2001, a reversal of the trend away from single author collections during the past decade or more. The best of these are From These Ashes by Fredric Brown (NESFA), The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (Gollancz), Here Comes Civilization and Immodest Proposals, both by William Tenn (NESFA), Strange Trades by Paul Di Filippo (Golden Gryphon), Bad Timing by Molly Brown (Big Engine), Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson (Aspect), Collected Stories by Vernor Vinge (Tor), Impact Parameter by Geoffrey A. Landis (Golden Gryphon), The Best Known Man in the World by Daniel Pearlman (Aardwolf), Strange Days by Gardner Dozois (NESFA), and Futureland by Walter Mosley (Warner). NESFA in particular has done an excellent job of bringing classic short fiction back into print in durable, attractively packaged hardcovers. Baen did several volumes of the short fiction of James Schmitz, of which the best is Agent of Vega & Other Stories, but all of them were worthwhile.
Hard science fiction did less well than usual. The only exceptional novels obviously in this category were Stephen Baxter’s Manifold: Space (Del Rey) and Ben Bova’s Jupiter (Tor, Hodder). Blends of SF and detective novels held their own. New writer Wen Spencer’s Alien Taste (Roc) showed considerable promise. Pat Cadigan mixed mystery with virtual reality in Dervish Is Digital (Tor). Most notable was Water of Death by Paul Johnston (St Martins), third in a series set in a future England where the government has fallen. I hadn’t know about him when the first two titles appeared or they would likely have shown up on earlier lists. They’re not packaged as SF, but they’re well worth tracking down. The only humorous novel that stood out for me was the surprisingly clever The Plutonium Blonde by John Zakour and Lawrence Ganem (DAW), which spoofs the genre and everything else in sight. Nor were there many new writers of note. Other than Wen Spencer, the only debut novel that showed particular promise was Heresy by Anselm Audrey (Pocket,Earthlight).
The area that did dominate the genre this year was adventures in outer space or on other worlds. Three of the previously mentioned top books of the year were set in space, and so were most of the others that deserve mention here. John Barnes continues the series that started with A Million Open Doors, and Merchants of Souls (Tor) is a solid adventure story that raises questions about what it means to be human in a future when personalities can be recorded and played back into artificial bodies. Iain Banks returns to the Culture Universe for Look to Windward (Pocket), wherein a political exile and a military man play out an elaborate dance. C.J. Cherryh also stayed in familiar territory. Defender (DAW, the fifth installment of her series set on a world shared by humans and a belligerent humanoid race moves to outer space as the indigenes trade their help repairing a starship in exchange for knowledge that will allow them to build their own space program. Nancy Kress’ Probability Sun (Tor), sequel to her earlier Probability Moon, is a logical extension of the story begun in the first, and is in fact an even better novel. Jack McDevitt’s Deepsix (Avon) strands a group of people on a planet that is about to be destroyed by a natural catastrophe. And last but not least is Richard Paul Russo’s scary story of the exploration of an enormous, apparently derelict alien starship in Ship of Fools. Jack Chalker started a series of space operas with the very nicely done adventure story, Balshazzar's Serpent (Baen).
All in all it was a good, solid but unexceptional year for science fiction. On the other hand, with a few exceptions, it seemed a particularly bland year for fantasy. The most obvious exception is Perdito Street Station by China Mieville, one of the most original and fascinating fantasy novels of all time, with a unique setting, unusual characters, and topnotch prose. Neal Barrett’s The Treachery of Kings (Spectra) is also set in an imagined world that is unique and intricate, and it’s enlivened by Barrett’s wonderfully twisted sense of humor. Lois McMaster Bujold switched from SF for The Curse of Chalion, and not surprisingly it’s a first rate adventure, though it breaks no new ground. Michael Moorcock also provided a first rate fantasy, The Dreamthief’s Daughter (Earthlight), which is intertwined with his other fantasy series but stands quite well on its own.
Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (Harper) is technically set in Discworld, but it’s aimed at younger readers. David Gemmell’s Midnight Falcon (Del Rey) is another rapid paced and satisfying adventure story. Mel Odom emulates Tolkien’s The Hobbit in The Rover (Tor), and while Tolkien’s crown is not in jeopardy, Odom has produced a very likable homage. Ursula K. LeGuin returned to Earthsea twice, with the collection Tales of Earthsea (Harcourt) and the new novel , The Other Wind (Harcourt).
Historical fantasy made a slight comeback. Judith Tarr did her usual finely crafted work in Pride of Kings (Roc), a tale of Richard the Lionhearted and the world of Faerie, and Robert Holdstock does some creative manipulation of ancient sagas in Celtika (Simon & Schuster). Knight Errant by R. Garcia y Robertson (Forge) proves that you can write an intelligent and interesting time travel romance. There were only two contemporary fantasies of note, The Onion Girl by Charles de Lint (Tor), in which a young artist discovers the nature of life, and The Dragons of Cuyahoga by S. Andrew Swann (DAW), in which the city of Chicago becomes the gateway to the world of magic, and the murder of a dragon covers up a plot that affects both worlds. There were also two very unusual short story collections that ought to be mentioned, Redgunk Tales by William Eakin (Invisible Cities Press) and Meet Me in the Moon Room by Ray Vukcevich (Small Beer Press).
Traditional fantasy adventure – usurped thrones, evil sorcerers, quests, and so forth – dominated the genre during 2001 without producing many outstanding examples. The best of these during the year included Storm Constantine’s Way of Light, conclusion to her Magravandian series, The Dragon Society by Lawrence Watt-Evans, which continues his story of a young man’s quest for revenge, and which contains some very surprisingly turns of events, and Dennis L. McKiernan’s Once Upon a Winter’s Night (Roc), which is an inventive twist on the Beauty and the Beast . The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling (Spectra) is an odd changeling story in which a princess is turned into a boy to escape a tyrant.
The horror genre is showing signs of revival with dedicated lines from Leisure and Pinnacle and significant activity from Tor, Pocket, Signet, and others. Young adult horror fiction has improved particularly, and although there are no individual titles of outstanding merit among them, there are good solid series from Isobel Bird, Cate Tiernan, and the subset of Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels that are aimed at young adults. There were several very good novels for adult readers as well.
Not surprisingly, the collaboration between Stephen King and Peter Straub, The Black House (Random House), was one of the best horror novels of the year, far superior to its predecessor The Talisman. King’s other novel, Dreamcatcher (Scribners) was not nearly as satisfying; there are some quite strong sections but most of the plot seems to be a rewrite of previous efforts. Tananarive Due’s The Living Blood (Pocket) was one of the most unusual, the tale of a woman who travels to Africa seeking to discover the source of the magic that affects her and her son. Equally strange and unsettling is Ray Garton’s short novel, The Folks (CD Publications), which features a family of distorted and murderous mutants. Equally unsettling was Edo Van Belkom’s Teeth (Meisha Merlin), which describes the career of one of the most disturbing serial killers you’ll ever encounter. F. Paul Wilson brought back Repairman Jack for Hosts (Forge) and Christopher Golden’s Prowlers (Pocket) is a good story of the creatures who secretly live among us. Jim Butcher’s occult detective series continued with Fool Moon and Grave Peril (Roc) and Douglas Clegg’s Infinite (Dorchester) proves that you can still find something new to say against the background of a ghost story.
Vampires were much in evidence as always, although only those in Brian Lumley’s Necroscope: Avengers (Hodder) were particularly nasty. There are good and bad vampires in Charlaine Harris’ debut novel Dead Until Dark (Ace), and St. Germain battles the Mongols in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s most recent historical vampire saga, A Feast in Exile (Tor). The most promising vampire novel this year was Whitley Strieber’s sequel to his classic, The Hunger, but The Last Vampire (Pocket) is more of an adventure story than horror, and the human characters are far more relentless and nasty than the undead. Shadows Bite xxx
There were a few new names this year worth noting, in addition to Charlaine Harris. Scott Chandler’s Ghost Killer (Berkley) is another variation of the serial killer as a discorporate demon, but the story moves well. D.A. Stern’s Black Dawn (Harper) falters from time to time, but it’s an ambitious and original idea, a demonic force that affects large chunks of the population. Tim Lebbon’s first US title, The Nature of Balance (Leisure) is a clever, thoughtful, intricate end of the world novel, with a primal force embodied and active in the world. Gerard Houarner’s The Beast That Was Max (Leisure) features one of the most distinctly unusual protagonists ever, and blurs the distinction between good and bad.
There were a number of interesting short story collections published this year, of which four deserve special note. Dark Universe by William F. Nolan (Stealth) is a very large retrospective collection of one of the least appreciated horror writers. Also worth tracking down are Darkness Divided by John Shirley (Stealth), The Whisperer and Other Voices by Brian Lumley (Tor), and These Woods Are Haunted by Scott Edelman (Wildside). I’ve always felt the short story is a more effective form for horror fiction, and these four books are filled with examples bolstering my opinion.
Last and best of all is Tim Powers’ superb novel Declare (Morrow), which many horror readers probably overlooked entirely. It was packaged as and in part functions as a cold war spy novel, with Kim Philby as one of its main characters. But this is a war like none we’ve ever known, because the deserts of the Mideast contain djinn, and not the turbaned versions of Hollywood. These are powerful, destructive forces that lie dormant until wakened. It is without question Powers’ best novel, and the best horror novel of 2001. And as overall best fantastic novel of the year, it narrowly edges out China Mieville’s Perdito Street Station, which means for the first time since I’ve been doing this, I don’t have a pure science fiction novel in either of the top two slots.
Heresy by Anselm Audrey (Pocket, Earthlight)
Look to Windward by Iain Banks (Pocket)
Merchants of Souls by John Barnes (Tor)
Manifold: Space by Stephen Baxter (Del Rey)
Jupiter by Ben Bova (Tor, Hodder)
From These Ashes by Fredric Brown (NESFA)
Bad Timing by Molly Brown (Big Engine)
Dervish Is Digital by Pat Cadigan (Tor)
Balshazzar's Serpent by Jack Chalker (Baen)
Defender by C.J. Cherryh (DAW)
The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke by Arthur C. Clarke (Gollancz)
Strange Trades by Paul DiFilippo (Golden Gryphon)
Strange Days by Gardner Dozois (NESFA)
Children of Hope by David Feintuch (Warner)
Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson (Aspect)
Water of Death by Paul Johnston (St Martins)
Probability Sun by Nancy Kress (Tor)
Impact Parameter by Geoffrey A. Landis (Golden Gryphon)
Deepsix by Jack McDevitt (Avon)
Futureland by Walter Mosley (Warner)
The Best Known Man in the World by Daniel Pearlman (Aardwolf)
Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds (Ace, Gollancz)
Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo (Ace)
Agent of Vega & Other Stories by James Schmitz (Baen)
Alien Taste by Wen Spencer (Roc)
Here Comes Civilization by William Tenn (NESFA)
Immodest Proposals by William Tenn (NESFA)
Collected Stories by Vernor Vinge (Tor)
The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
The Plutonium Blonde by John Zakour and Lawrence Ganem (DAW)
Angelmass by Timothy Zahn (Tor)
The Treachery of Kings by Neal Barrett Jr. (Spectra)
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (Avon)
Way of Light bv Storm Constantine (Gollancz, Tor)
The Onion Girl by Charles De Lint (Tor)
Redgunk Tales by William Eakin (Invisible Cities Press)
The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling (Spectra)
Knight Errant by R. Garcia y Robertson (Forge)
Midnight Falcon by David Gemmell (Del Rey)
Celtika by Robert Holdstock (Simon & Schuster)
The Other Wind by Ursula K. LeGuin (Harcourt)
Tales of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin (Harcourt)
Once Upon a Winter’s Night by Dennis L. McKiernan (Roc)
Perdito Street Station by China Mieville (Del Rey)
The Dreamthief’s Daughter by Michael Moorcock (Earthlight)
The Rover by Mel Odom (Tor)
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett (Harper)
The Dragons of Cuyahoga by S. Andrew Swann (DAW)
Pride of Kings by Judith Tarr (Roc)
Meet Me in the Moon Room by Ray Vukcevich (Small Beer Press)
The Dragon Society by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Tor)
Full Moon by Jim Butcher (Roc)
Grave Peril by Jim Butcher (Roc)
The Ghost Killer by Scott Chandler (Berkley)
Infinite by Douglas Clegg (Dorchester)
Shadows Bite by Stephen Dedman (Tor)
The Living Blood by Tananarive Due (Pocket)
These Woods Are Haunted by Scott Edelman (Wildside)
The Folks by Ray Garton (CD Publications)
Prowlers by Christopher Golden (Pocket)
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (Ace)
The Beast That Was Max by Gerard Houarner (Leisure)
Dreamcatcher by Stephen King (Scribner)
The Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub (Random House)
The Nature of Balance by Tim Lebbon (Leisure)
Necroscope: Avengers by Brian Lumley (Hodder)
The Whisperer and Other Voices by Brian Lumley (Tor)
Dark Universe by William F. Nolan (Stealth)
Declare by Tim Powers (Morrow)
Darkness Divided by John Shirley (Stealth)
Black Dawn by D.A. Stern (Harper)
The Last Vampire by Whitley Strieber (Pocket)
Teeth by Edo Van Belkom (Meisha Merlin)
Hosts by F. Paul Wilson (Forge)
A Feast in Exile by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (Tor)