Visions of Paradise

Sunday, January 07, 2007

My Science Fiction Year

I reviewed 29 books in this blog last year, 22 of which I read in 2006. So I guess it is time to select my favorite books of the year. I can easily condense the list to 6 books which highlighted the year for me.

Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo-winning Spin was a strong combination of characterization and thoughtfulness in its depiction of how humanity would cope in the face of a “big dumb object” which alters life on Earth. The book avoided many of the traditional faults of such a premise by actually reaching a denouement in which the origins of the “big dumb object” were found.

I have been a lover of history my entire life, so my favorite type of science fiction has generally examined future developments in culture and society, the more historical-based the better. Think of Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings, Ursula K Le Guin’s Ekumen and C.J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun and you have a good idea what I love most in sf. Happily, and probably not surprisingly, the other 5 favorite books of 2006 fell to some degree into this category.

Jack McDevitt has been one of my favorite “traditional” writers for many years, going as far back as his first book The Hercules Text, but I really started to like him with the publication of A Talent For War. That was his first book about Alex Benedict, a far-future antiquities dealer whose job tends to involve him in solving historical mysteries involving some of the antiquities he is trying to sell. 2005's Polaris was a strong entry in this series, but last year’s Seeker was even better, perhaps the highlight of the series so far.

The other future-history books also fell into another popular category of sf, “new space opera”. When I started reading sf in the 1960s, “space opera” was a pejorative term which had been coined by Bob Tucker in the 1940s to refer to pulpish, childish adventures with little redeeming value. That began to change in the 1960s when writers started using space opera settings–adventures set far from Earth, primarily on spaceships traveling between worlds–to write serious sf stories. Writers who influenced the evolution of space opera included Samuel R. Delany (Babel-17 and Nova), Larry Niven (Known Space series, especially Ringworld) and Gregory Benford (Galactic Cluster series).

By the 1990s, a new generation of writers adopted the “space opera” format to tell thoroughly modern sf stories involving serious characterization and detailed future development, without sacrificing any of the expansiveness and sense of wonder of the original. It took me nearly an entire decade to discover these stories for myself, but thankfully various best-of-the-year collections contained some fabulous stories by writers such as Alastair Reynolds (“Great Wall of Mars”) and Stephen Baxter (“Mayflower II”), so that after reading Jack McDevitt’s far-future Polaris in 2005, I decided to try books by each of them.

That was the most fortunate reading decision I made since buying books by Andrea Barrett and Iain Pears nearly a decade ago. Alastair Reynolds’ Conjoiners-Inhibitors series was absolutely wonderful. Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap were rich in future development and sense of wonder, while telling serious, well-plotted stories, generally mysteries, about real people.

Even better though was Stephen Baxter’s recent collection of Xeelee stories Resplendent. While his use of technological ideas is not quite as cutting-edge as Reynolds, his storytelling is more involving and he bases his stories on big philosophical ideas which leave both the characters and the reader deep in thought. A fabulous book which has me practically salivating to read more of his various interwoven series about the Xeelee.

2007 looms as a great reading year!


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