The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 1996


Letís start off this time with some statistics. In order to compile this summary, I considered exactly 500 novels published in 1996 (this excludes young adult fare). Of these five hundred, 205 were fantasy, 235 were SF, and 60 were horror. Sounds pretty good for SF fans, doesnít it? But letís look at those figures in greater detail.

                Of the fantasy, 23 were actually romance novels, and of the SF, 6 were menís adventure series novels. Removing these, we have 182 fantasies, 229 SF, and 60 horror. Sounds even better, right? But letís remove all those Star Trek, Star Wars, and other game, film, computer, and television related novels. This leaves us with 177 fantasy, 143 SF, and 60 horror. And that, friends, seems to be the future of mainstream SF, displaced by fantasy and derivative works. 86 media novels this year, almost 38%, and the actual figure is higher because there are at least a dozen more that I didnít have copies of and didnít include in my figures. Sobering thought.

                That Cassandran cry notwithstanding, there were quite a few really good books this year, particularly in SF. The top three were Night Lamp by Jack Vance, another of his indescribable galac≠tic adventures, this one involving a pretty good mystery story, Endymion by Dan Simmons, sequel to the Hyperion sequence, and The Prestige by Christopher Priest, a novel of the magic profession and a rivalry between two performers that led to a remarkable scientific breakthrough. Although the Priest novel is too unconventional to be a big favorite in the field, it was my choice for the best SF of the year.

                The best first novel was Richard Garfinkleís Celestial Matters, a fascinating exploration of what might have happened if Ptolemy had been correct. And since media fiction has become such a significant element, Iím picking best media novel of the year as well, Shield of Lies by Michael Kube-McDowell, a Star Wars adventure head and shoulders above all the others. The best young adult SF was Groogleman by Debra Doyle and James MacDonald, an old fashioned post collapse adventure that would have been perfect for the old Winston line.

                There were a lot of other worthwhile novels closely packed behind the leaders. There were three excellent mystery crossovers, Circle of One by James Fullilove, Blue Limbo by Terence Green, and Murder in Solid State by Wil McCarthy. Excellent series novels include Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe, final volume in his latest series, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, bringing his epic history of the settle≠ment of Mars to a close. Widowmaker by Mike Resnick is the opening adventure in a new sequence mixing star travel and gunfighters, Dreamfall is Joan Vingeís latest adventure of her half human, half alien hero, and David Brin provided a new Uplift novel with Infinityís Shore. C.J. Cherryh ended her chronicles of a world jointly inhabited by humans and aliens with Inheritor, Roger McBride Allen provided another excellent installment of his series about New Law robots in Utopia, and Michael Moorcock explored the multiverse once again with War Amongst the Angels. David Feintuch ended his superb military SF series with Fishermanís Hope, and a related though not nearly as gripping sequel, The Voices of Hope.

                Excellent stand alone novels included Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt, in which an ancient alien teleportation station is discovered buried in North America; Steven Gould explored similar territory with Wildside. Bellwether by Connie Willis is a short but bitingly funny satire on group psychology. Lance Olsen also explored the satiric side of SF with his excellent Time Famine, as did David Foster Wallace with his massive but end≠lessly entertaining Infinite Jest. Yvonne Navarro left horror for an epic disaster novel, Final Impact, that demonstrated her ability to write well in either genre. Robert Sawyer provided some excellent hard SF with Starplex, tossing stars, people, and time travel around with reckless abandon.

                Other noteworthy hard SF included Moonrise by Ben Bova and Pirates of the Universe by Terry Bisson. Last but certainly not least is Frederik Pohlís unusual story of alien invasion, The Other End of Time, N. Lee Woodís Looking for the Mahdi, the story of assassins in a future Mideast, and Ron Sartiís post-apocalyptic adventure, The Chronicles of Scar.

                There were an awful lot of fantasy novels in 1996, but most of them were derivative and unin≠teresting. The major exception is A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, opening volume of a trilogy, but a completely engrossing story of intrigue, adventure, and villainy. Brad Dentonís indescribable Lunatics and John Barnesí hilarious One for the Morning Glory were close behind. Others worth noting include Joan Aikenís bizarre story of monsters on the loose, The Cockatrice Boys, John Hawkesís Frog, a modern fairy tale, Mordredís Curse by Ian McDowell, a very untra≠ditional Arthurian tale, Tad Williamsí massive Otherland, and Mark Sumnerís riveting adventure in an alternate post Civil War America, The Devilís Tower.

                Finally, we have horror fiction, which had an unusually good year as well. Best first novel is Crota by Owl Goingback, the story of an ancient monster unleashed on the Earth. It narrowly beat out Greg Kihnís Horror Show, the story of a Hol≠lywood curse visited upon everyone involved with a classic horror film and Jay Russellís some≠what similar Celestial Dogs. Stephen Kingís 6-part The Green Mile was one of his best efforts, far more interesting than his two other novels this year, but best of the year overall is the under≠stated, chilling Pillow Friend by Lisa Tuttle, wherein we visit a house where you can have anything you wish for, so long as youíre willing to live with the consequences.

                Simon Maginnís Virgins and Martyrs derives most of its horror from the inner torments of the human mind. Graham Masterton produced the best traditional haunted house tale of the year with The House That Jack Built. Jonathan Aycliffeís The Lost was the best vampire tale of the year, narrowly edging out Jean Kalogridisí Lord of the Vampires. Camille Bacon-Smith mixed Scotland Yard and the ďbad placeĒ in The Face of Time, and Robert Holdstock continues his exploration of the impingement of ancient legends on the present day with Ancient Echoes. Rick Hautala showed us a terrifying landscape of the dead in Beyond the Shroud, Nancy Holdstock and Melanie Tem teamed up to produce a darkly sen≠sual story of sorcery in Witch-Light, and Laurell Hamilton continues to improve with each Anita Blake novel, particularly Bloody Bones.

                All in all, Iíd say that it was a surprisingly bad year for fantasy considering how many titles actually appeared, and a surprisingly good year for horror fiction, considering how few. Science fiction itself held its own despite the influx of media novels, but Iím seriously afraid the trend will continue and that traditional SF, certainly the stand alone novel, is going to become increas≠ingly scarce.


Best SF Novels of 1996

THE VERY BEST: The Prestige by Christopher Priest (St Martinís)

Utopia by Roger McBride Allen (Ace); Pirates of the Universe by Terry Bisson (Tor); Moonrise by Ben Bova (AvoNova); Infinityís Shore by David Brin (Bantam Spectra); Inheritor by C.J. Cherryh (DAW); Groogleman by Debra Doyle & James MacDonald (Harcourt Brace); Fishermanís Hope by David Feintuch (Warner Aspect); Circle of One by James Fullilove (Bantam Spectra); Celes≠tial Matters by Richard Garfield (Tor); Wildside by Steven Gould (Tor); Blue Limbo by Terence Green (Tor); Shield of Lies by Michael Kube-McDowell (Bantam Spectra); Murder in Solid State by Wil McCarthy (Roc); Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt (HarperPrism); War Amongst the Angels by Michael Moorcock (Orion); Final Impact by Yvonne Navarro (Bantam Spectra); Time Famine by Lance Olsen (Permeable Press); The Other End of Time by Frederik Pohl (Del Rey); The Widowmaker by Mike Resnick (Ban≠tam Spectra); Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robin≠son (Bantam Spectra); The Chronicles of Scar by Ron Sarti (AvoNova); Starplex by Robert Sawyer (Tor); Endymion by Dan Simmons (Bantam Spectra); The Night Lamp by Jack Vance (Tor); Dreamfall by Joan Vinge (Warner Aspect); Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (Little Brown); The Bellwether by Connie Willis (Ban≠tam Spectra); Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (Tor); Looking for the Mahdi by N. Lee Wood (Ace).


Best Fantasy Novels of 1996

THE VERY BEST: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (Bantam Spectra)

The Cockatrice Boys by Joan Aiken (Tor); One for the Morning Glory by John Barnes (Tor); Lunatics by Brad Denton (St Martinís); Frog by John Hawkes (Viking); Mordredís Curse by Ian McDowell (AvoNova); The Devilís Tower by Mark Sumner (Del Rey); Otherland by Tad Williams (DAW).


Best Horror Novels of 1996

THE VERY BEST: Pillow Friend by Lisa Tuttle (Borealis)

The Lost by Jonathan Aycliffe (HarperPrism); The Face of Time by Camille Bacon-Smith (DAW); Crota by Owl Goingback (Donald Fine); Bloody Bones by Laurell Hamilton (Ace); Beyond the Shroud by Rick Hautala (White Wolf); Witch-Light by Nancy Holder and Melanie Tem (Dell); Ancient Echoes by Robert Holdstock (Roc); Lord of the Vampires by Jean Kalogridis (Delacorte); Horror Show by Greg Kihn (Tor); The Green Mile by Stephen King (Signet); Virgins and Martyrs by Simon Maginn (Borealis); The House That Jack Built by Graham Masterton (Carroll & Graf); Celestial Dogs by Jay Russell (Raven).