The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 1998


It’s time for the annual retrospective on SF, Fantasy, and Horror novels, and looking back I see a year full of a lot of good stuff but not much that was actively great. It was also an unusually diverse year, ranging across a wide range of styles and subject matters. It was also the first year in which media novels numbered nearly as many as ordinary SF, and while the Star Wars novels in particular were competent and entertaining, none of the media SF books this year were good enough to be worth noting.

                Stephen Baxter has emerged as one of the leaders in hard SF, and this year’s Moon­seed, the story of a lunar element that causes a chain reaction on Earth, was one of his best. Jack McDevitt breathed new life into the disaster novel in Moonfall. Scientists created a miniature universe and battled with the government to control it in Gregory Benford’s Cosm. Robert Wilson played with uchronian fiction in an entirely new way in Darwinia, in which all of Europe and Asia are mysteriously returned to wilderness. Poul Anderson provided an old fashioned story of interstellar exploration with The Starfarers and Pat Cadigan mixed virtual reality and a murder mystery to good effect in Tea from an Empty Cup.

                Stars and Stripes Forever by Harry Harrison was a more conventional uchron­ian novel based on a different outcome of the Civil War. Greg Bear changed directions for his sequel to The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—Dinosaur Summer, in which the popularity of dinosaurs has waned and an expedition attempted to return some of them to the wild. John Barnes’ Earth Made of Glass was a compelling story of prejudice and its destructive power, in this case between two cultures on a distant world. Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest Vor­kosigian novel, Komarr, dealt with rebellion and conflict in a pivotal star system subject to the empire. Mike Resnick’s A Hunger in the Soul was another transplanted African adventure story, this time featuring one of his most insidious villains.

                Nancy Kress had a strong contender for most depressing novel of the year with Max­imum Light, in which a plague is tailored to reduce the numbers of the lower classes of Earth, but she had strong competition from George Zebrowski’s equally excellent Brute Orbits, the story of a society of criminals isolated in space. Michael Kanaly threatened the world with gestalt intelligence among viruses in Virus Clans and Charles Pelle­grino undermined society with another tiny but effective danger in Dust. Aliens visited the Earth but treated humanity as little more than amusing animals in The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg. David Brin advanced his Uplift series with Heaven’s Reach, Laura Mixon and Alexander Jablokov created fascinating new human societies in Proxies and Deepdrive respectively, and Robert Sawyer had two fine new titles, Factoring Humanity and Illegal Alien, two different takes on the first contact story.

                The best first novel of the year was The Iron Bridge by David Morse, an intelligent look at the mixed blessing of the industrial revolution seen from the point of view of a time traveler who is trying to prevent it from happening. Best young adult novel was Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, the story of a religious cult on the verge of the prophesized end of the world, and the destructive nature of their beliefs. Best overall SF novel? A hard call, but I’ll go with Darwinia this time.

                This wasn’t a particularly good year for fantasy. My favorite of the year is Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary by Pamela Dean, a quiet, contemporary story about a boy with magical powers. In more conventional fan­tasy, Charles De Lint was outstanding with Someplace To Be Flying, and Raymond Feist’s latest Serpentwar novel, Shards of a Broken Crown, was every bit as good as its predecessors. Stephen Brust had an enter­taining retrospective look at his recurring hero in Dragon, and Robin Bailey’s first novel in the continuing adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Swords Against the Shadowlands, was quite promising, although it didn’t have the feel of Fritz Leiber. Best first novel was the quirky and darkly amusing The Claus Effect by David Nickle and Karl Schroeder.

                The horror field continued in its dol­drums, at least for adult readers, but there were a few bright spots in the menacing darkness. The most noteworthy of these was Stephen King’s return to top form with A Bag of Bones, one of his most restrained and effective books, and easily the best horror novel of the year. There were three rela­tively close contenders, however. Dean R. Koontz opened a projected trilogy with the tense and inventive Fear Nothing, which featured a hero allergic to sunlight. Unfortunately the second volume in the series was less effective. Kim Newman returned to the alternate world where vampires have emerged and become leading citizens in Judgment of Tears, this time featuring a serial killer who specializes in senior vampires. The Uncanny by Andrew Klavan was also a pleasant surprise, the story of an evil man’s quest for immortality and the battle by a group of unlikely allies to oppose him.

                Michael Marano’s Dawn Song, the tale of a demonic battle, was the best first novel in the field. All of the remaining noteworthy additions were parts of series. Laurell Ham­ilton penned two more first rate installments in her Anita Blake series, Burnt Offerings and Blue Moon. Her vampire killing exploits are still sufficiently inventive to keep me watching for the next installment. P.N. Elrod’s vampire detective returned in A Chill in the Blood. And finally, the best media related book of the year, Craig Shaw Gardner’s Return to Chaos, an original novel based on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Overall a very disappointing year, and in the young adult area there was noth­ing at all worth mentioning despite a flood of new titles—better than one per week.

                Essentially, another pleasant but unexcep­tional year in SF, more disappointing for fans of fantasy and horror. Until the cycle moves on and the tide of media books recedes, we’ll have to be content with fewer first rate novels. On the other hand, that leaves time to re-read the best of years before. Oh, and best title irrespective of sub-genre this year? Stephen King takes it easily with A Bag of Bones, his best title since It.

1998’s Best SF Novels

THE VERY BEST: Darwinia

by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)

Starfarers by Poul Anderson (Tor); Earth Made of Glass by John Barnes (Tor); Moonseed by Stephen Baxter (HarperPrism); Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear (Warner Aspect); Cosm by Greg Benford (Avon Eos); Heaven’s Bridge by David Brin (Bantam Spectra/Orbit); Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen); Tea from an Empty Cup by Pat Cadigan (HarperPrism); Stars and Stripes Forever by Harry Harrison (Del Rey); Virus Clans by Michael Kanaly (Ace); Maximum Light by Nancy Kress (Tor); Deepdrive by Alexander Jablokov (Avon Eos); Moonfall by Jack McDevitt (HarperPrism); Proxies by Laura Mixon (Tor); The Iron Bridge by David Morse (Harcourt); Dust by Charles Pellegrino (Avon); A Hunger in the Soul by Mike Resnick (Tor); Factoring Humanity by Robert Sawyer (Tor); Illegal Alien by Robert Sawyer (Tor); Alien Years by Robert Silverberg (HarperPrism); The Golden Globe by John Varley (Ace); Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville (Harcourt); Brute Orbits by George Zebrowski (HarperPrism)

 

1998’s Best Fantasy Novels

THE VERY BEST: Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary by Pamela Dean (Tor)

Swords Against the Shadowlands by Robin W. Bailey (Borealis); Dragon by Steven Brust (Tor); Someplace to Be Flying by Charles De Lint (Tor); Shards of a Broken Crown by Raymond Feist (Avon); The Claus Effect by David Nickle and Karl Schroeder (Tesseract)

 

1998’s Best Horror Novels

THE VERY BEST: A Bag of Bones

by Stephen King (Scribners)

A Chill in the Blood by P.N. Elrod (Ace); Return to Chaos by Craig Shaw Gardner (Pocket); Blue Moon by Laurell Hamilton (Ace); Burnt Offerings by Laurell Hamilton (Ace); The Uncanny by Andrew Klavan (Dell); Fear Nothing by Dean R. Koontz (Bantam); Dawn Song by Michael Marano (Tor); Judgment of Tears by Kim Newman (Carroll & Graf)