Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of the Decade (Part 1)

(Holiday obligations are leaving little time for writing. Sorry for the lack of links this time around.)

Here’s part one of my list of the best science fiction and fantasy novels from the past ten years. All these books come with the highest recommendation. I’ve listed them by date of publication.

Look to Windward (2000) – Iain M. Banks. Released a year before the September 11th terrorist attacks, Look to Windward may be Banks at his most prescient. Terrorists threaten a major population center in the Culture, the utopian society that rules most of the galaxy. But the Culture is always one step ahead and hardly threatened by a band of small-time plotters, no matter how determined. (If only reality was this clean and simple.) Look to Windward is the most controlled and thoughtful of Banks’s books and easily his best Culture novel.

Perdido Street Station (2000) – China Mieville. This is the book that put China Mieville on the map. Perdido was a big, sprawling mash-up of fantasy, science fiction and horror—and arguably a masterpiece. There was, for a time, an effort by some writers (led by Mieville) to define a new sub-genre called the New Weird. It was equal parts Lovecraft, steampunk, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. It may have been a real thing for a time, just like Cyberpunk was in the Eighties; if so, Perdido Street Station was its Neuromancer. Whatever its label, though, this first tale of the fictional city, New Crobuzon, is also sui generis and one of the most important genre books of the decade.

Return to the Whorl (2001) – Gene Wolfe. Don’t read this book until you’ve read the first two books in the trilogy (On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles). Of course, the trilogy is a sequel, of sorts, to the "Long Sun Quartet" (which is a companion series to the five-book "New Sun" series). Got all that? This is a great book, but typical of Gene Wolfe. In other words, it’s dense and challenging. It’s emphatically not a casual read. I recommend it for the serious SF fan, only; someone who enjoys puzzling-out Wolfe’s hidden narratives. Is it worth the work? Absolutely. (And I can’t say that about some of Wolfe’s most recent novels.)

The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) – Kim Stanley Robinson. Another timely book, depending on your point-of-view. The Years of Rice and Salt is a grand alternate history in which the Black Death wipes out most of Christian Europe, leaving the world to be settled and advanced by Muslim nations and China. The book came out in early 2002, shortly after 9/11. The alternate time line allows Robinson to explore the strengths and weaknesses of different cultures and religions. The Years of Rice and Salt is one of Robinson’s strongest and most thought-provoking books. But he’ll surpass it before the decade ends.

Bones of the Earth (2002) – Michael Swanwick. Here is Michael Swanwick having fun in a delightful tale about time travel and dinosaurs. It’s full of old-fashioned “sense-of-wonder” and adventure but with good characters and strong plotting. I love the way Swanwick dismisses the paradox of time travel: “Step on as many butterflies as you wish!” (Rather than spend pages of explication, Swanwick efficiently establishes time travel as possible then moves on with the fun part--the story.)  Still, time travel has its many dangers (and so do those dinosaurs!).

Light  (2002)– M. John Harrison. Light may be the best science fiction novel of the decade. Harrison perfectly melds big ideas, SF tropes and world-building with some of the strongest characterization you’ll find in (or out) of the genre. What struck me about Light was the fact that much of the story—the struggle of the characters to discover themselves, to overcome their self-imposed obstacles—works regardless of the SF setting. There’s no science fictional crutch, here. Light is the one SF novel of the past ten years I most look forward to re-reading.

Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell. Here’s a book with SF at its core—literally. There are six nested narratives in Cloud Atlas, two taking place in the past, two in the present and two in the future. They fit perfectly into one another and my jaw dropped while I read Mitchell masterfully connect them. This is one of the most unique books of the decade.


  1. I tell you... I lived Cloud Atlas while I was reading it, but it somehow didn't stick with me at all. Not like Perdido, which I still think about.

  2. Todd,

    It took me some time to get into Cloud Atlas (it certainly requires some commitment), but when I saw the pieces come togtether, well, that was magical.