The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 1999
I’ve been doing these retrospectives on the previous year in fantastic literature for a while now, and the last several have all been less than enthusiastic about the latest crop of fiction. I’m happy to say that 1999 is quite a change for science fiction and fantasy, although horror fiction is still descending into the outer doldrums. There are recent signs that even that may be changing, however, so 2000 might turn out to be even better.
Let’s look at science fiction first. The big book this year was Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, although the SF content is extremely minimal, limited to some speculation about future applications of the Internet and the existence of an imaginary country. It was without question the best single book I read this year, but I’m not going to select it as best SF novel because that label fits it so poorly. Give it a special award and move on to more clearly genre specific literature.
There was something good for almost every taste this year. If you like military fiction, Leo Frankowski’s A Boy and His Tank was just what you’re looking for, the story of humans interfacing with supertanks of the future. If you wanted good old fashioned space opera that’s intelligently written, you could try Timothy Zahn’s The Icarus Hunt. For fans of post collapse societies, there was Suzy McKee Charnas’ The Conqueror’s Child. Hard science fans could have enjoyed the speculative and fascinating Flashforward by Robert Sawyer. And for virtual reality fans, there was the decidedly strange, convoluted, and immensely entertaining The Extremes by Christopher Priest. Time travel on a grand scale was the basis for S.M. Stirling’s Against the Tide of Years. Changes in human evolution were the centerpiece of Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio.
For other worlds adventure, Vernor Vinge brought us A Deepness in the Sky. Gene Wolfe returned to the universe of the Long Sun for On Blue’s Waters, opening volume in a new sequence. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s last Darkover novel, Traitor’s Sun, was one of the better ones. And Lois McMaster Bujold provided an entirely new aspect of the life of Miles Vorkosigan and his family in A Civil Campaign. Walter Jon Williams had a big, rousing disaster novel, Rift, in which a major earthquake devastates the middle of the US. Stephen Dedman and David Feintuch both gave us optimistic looks at dystopian futures in Foreign Bodies and Patriarch’s Hope respectively. S. Andrew Swann returned to his world of uplifted intelligent animals for the very fine Fearful Symmetries. And finally, we had several excellent SF mystery crossovers including two by Denise Vitola, The Radon File and The Red Sky File, plus Loyalty in Death by J.D. Robb, and best of all, Blood Moon by Sharon DiVono, one of the creepiest stories of what we might find in space I’ve read. Best SF of the year? It’s a tie between Gene Wolfe’s On Blue’s Waters, an other worlds grand tour and Christopher Priest’s clever manipulation of realities, The Extremes.
It was a very good year for fantasy fiction too, although the field continues to be dominated by large scale series novels involving evil sorcerers, political intrigues, and quests for magical artifacts or other items. Several of these were very good, including The Colors of Chaos by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Lord Prestimion by Robert Silverberg, Krondor the Assassins by Raymond E. Feist, Dragon Weather by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Bloodwinter by Tom Deitz, Lord of the Fire Lands by Dave Duncan, and Mad Ship by Robin Hobb. There was one stand alone novel with a similar theme that was even better, Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay. Craig Shaw Gardner’s new trilogy as Peter Garrison started well with The Changeling War and promises to finish up grandly in 2000.
Humorous fantasy has declined significantly in popularity, but Robert Sheckley proved that there’re fresh jokes to reveal with Godshome. J. Gregory Keyes, Thomas Harlan, and Michaela Roessner all explored historical settings in A Calculus of Angels, The Shadow of Ararat, and The Stars Compel respectively. James Morrow continued his exploration of life after the death of God with The Eternal Footman, Greg Cook blended fantasy with the private eye story in Faded Steel Heat, and Lisa Goldstein showed us a fantasy writer who drew his inspiration from reality in Dark Cities Underground. Poul Anderson’s alternate world where magic works amused me in Operation Luna, and Jeffrey Ford’s Memoranda and Michael Cisko’s The Divinity Student both impressed me with their originality, wit, and skillful prose.
Contemporary settings were also popular this year. Jerry Jay Carroll used them satirically in Dog Eat Dog, James Long sentimentally for Ferney, Madeleine Robins with terrify results in The Stone War, and Richard Grant thoughtfully and provokingly in Kaspian Lost. Three of the very best this year were non-horrific ghost stories, The Rainy Season by James P. Blaylock, Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle, and The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll.
Perhaps most hopeful of all this is that four of these titles were first novels, those by Thomas Harlan, Michael Cisko, Madeleine Robins, and James Long. Best fantasy of the year is a tie for me. Dragon Weather was my favorite among mainstream fantasies, but The Marriage of Sticks was my favorite outside that mode. Dave Duncan, James Blaylock, and Lisa Goldstein were all close runners up. As someone who finds most new fantasy repetitive and trite, I’d have to say this was an extraordinarily good year.
Horror fiction did not have a great year at novel length. The two best novels were Hearts of Atlantis by Stephen King, hardly his best although it has its moments, and Dark Sister by Graham Joyce, easily the best of the year (though I suspect it had an earlier publication in England). Tom Disch was a close runner up with The Sub, but I liked his earlier horror work considerably more. Melanie Tem’s Tides is definitely worth while, as is David Niall Wilson’s offbeat This Is My Blood, and Christopher Golden’s Strangewood. Geoff Nicholson’s Flesh Guitar, a first novel, was the most innovative. Charles L. Grant ended his Millennium Quartet series with the strongest in the series, Riders in the Sky. It is perhaps indicative of the state of horror that among the most memorable horror novels of the year was the Buffy the Vampire Slayer trilogy by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder, consisting of Out of the Madhouse, Ghost Roads, and Sons of Entropy. Hopefully next year will be better.
Overall, I if I had to choose one novel, it’d be Dark Sister by Graham Joyce. Tor once again dominates the list, except for horror, but Avon easily has the most improved offering of any major publisher. Even the trend toward media related novels has abated considerably, though it is still a significant percentage of the total number of titles. My recent pessimism about the future of the genre may have been a bit premature. Time will tell.
1999’s Best SF Novels
THE VERY BEST: On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (Tor), Extremes by Christopher Priest (St Martin’s) [tie]
Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear (Del Rey); A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen); Traitor’s Sun by Marion Zimmer Bradley (DAW); The Conqueror’s Child by Suzy McKee Charnas (Tor); Foreign Bodies by Stephen Dedman (Tor); Blood Moon by Sharon DiVono (Ace); Patriarch’s Hope by David Feintuch (Warner Aspect); A Boy and His Tank by Leo Frankowski (Baen); Loyalty in Death by J.D. Robb (Berkley); Climb the Wind by Pamela Sargent (HarperPrism); Flashforward by Robert Sawyer (Tor); Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (Avon); Across the Tide of Years by S.M. Stirling (Roc); Fearful Symmetries by S. Andrew Swann (DAW); A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (Tor); The Radon File by Denise Vitola (Ace); The Red Sky File by Denise Vitola (Ace); Rift by Walter Jon Williams (HarperPrism); The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn (Bantam Spectra).
1999’s Best Fantasy Novels
THE VERY BEST: Dragon Weather by Lawrence Watt-Evans; The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll (both Tor) [tie]
Operation Luna by Poul Anderson (Tor); Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle (Roc); The Rainy Season by James P. Blaylock (Ace); Dog Eat Dog by Jerry Jay Carroll (Ace); The Divinity Student by Michael Cisko (Buzzcity); Faded Steel Heat by Glen Cook (Roc); Bloodwinter by Michael Deitz (Avon Eos); Lord of the Fire Lands by Dave Duncan (Avon Eos); Krondor the Assassins by Raymond E. Feist (Avon); Memoranda by Jeffrey Ford (Avon Eos); The Changeling War by Peter Garrison (Ace); Dark Cities Underground by Lisa Goldstein (Tor); Kaspian Lost by Richard Grant (Avon Spike); The Shadow of Ararat by Thomas Harlan (Tor); Mad Ship by Robin Hobb (Bantam); Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay (HarperPrism); A Calculus of Angels by J. Gregory Keyes (Del Rey); Ferney by James Long (Bantam); The Colors of Chaos by L.E. Modesitt Jr. (Tor); The Eternal Footman by James Morrow (Harcourt); The Stone War by Madeleine Robins (Tor); The Stars Compel by Michaela Roessner (Tor); Godshome by Robert Sheckley (Tor); Lord Prestimion by Robert Silverberg (HarperPrism).
1999’s Best Horror Novels
THE VERY BEST: The Dark Sister by Graham Joyce (Tor)
The Sub by Thomas Disch (Knopf); Strangewood by Christopher Golden (Signet); Out of the Madhouse by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder (Pocket); Ghost Roads by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder (Pocket); Sons of Entropy by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder (Pocket); Riders in the Sky by Charles L. Grant (Forge); Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King (Scribner’s); The Flesh Guitar by Geoff Nicholson (Overlook); Tides by Melanie Tem (Leisure); This Is My Blood by David Niall Wilson (Terminal Frights).