This is, unfortunately, a somewhat more abbreviated account than I had originally intended. Plan A was to do a complete run-down of everything I read in 2009, trying to get some sense of how my part of the elephant felt. Plan B is a top ten list. Well, a top ten list and some stats.
Stats first, then. I read 69 books in 2009; slightly down on the last few years. Of these, 80% were sf or sf-related non-fiction; 54% were first published in 2009, 39% were by Brits, 41% by women and 22% by people of colour (or, 45% were by white men). Of those books not published in 2009, discovery of the year was perhaps Rana Dasgupta, whose linked story suite Tokyo Cancelled (2005) I picked up somewhat on a whim, and is still lingering with me now; though the first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Fever and Spear (2002 trans. 2005) gives it a run for its money, and the book-I-should-have-got-around-to-long-before-now award goes without question to Middlemarch. Also worth mentioning here: Lao She’s Cat Country (1932, trans. 1970), and Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To … (1977), which, of the fiction I’ve read by Russ, is the work whose impressiveness is least caveated by the passage of time, and the one I would recommend to those not yet familiar with her. Disappointments in this group were relatively few; neither Allegra Goodman’s Intuition (2006) nor Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) quite lived up to my expectations of them, but as dispraise goes, that’s pretty mild.
Onward! The focus of my interest, of course, is the subgroup of sf or sf-related books published in 2009. I should say that I’m using an inverted version of the Hugo Award’s definition of 2009, here: that is, if it was either first published in English in 2009, or first published in the UK in 2009, I’m considering it a 2009 book. Consequently, including one book read in 2008, and five read this year, there are 41 books in this subgroup, of which 44% are by Brits, 86% are fiction (of which, making broad assignments, 42% are sf, 58% fantasy), 52% are by women, and 17% by people of colour (leaving the white-man percentage roughly the same, at 42%). I had a good year’s reading: it’s hard to pick a top ten that leaves out such books as the first volume of Hoshruba (whether or not I will have the stamina to read further volumes); Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City (first published 1993; a book that addresses some of the same themes as China Mieville’s The City & The City, but to my mind more successfully); Chris Beckett’s Marcher (a very clever, and admirably restrained, many-worlds novel); Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (a first novel that deserves greater praise than “very promising”, though it is); Deborah Biancotti’s A Book of Endings (a first collection of which the same can be said); Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island (mild reservations about the shape of the novel aside, a delight to read); Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (on which I have no doubt I will continue to chew for some time); Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth (an evocative wilderness novel, and a fascinating exercise in sustained uncertainty of genre: I hope to write this up in more detail at some point); Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet (despite my reservations about it); Marcel Theroux’s Far North (under-appreciated, I think); or Jo Walton’s Lifelode (on which I agree with Walton’s afterword, which admits that the book it becomes is lesser than the book she wanted to write; but the first half of the novel, which is closest to her intentions, is extraordinary; one of those books that really should not have appeared only from a small press). Some novels, certainly, left me underwhelmed – Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest, Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia, The City & The City and perhaps Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold being the ones that might attract most disagreement – but only a handful stood out as genuine disappointments. Nancy Kress can do better than Steal Across the Sky; and I certainly hope that Jesse Bullington can do better than The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. There are, of course, a great many books I didn’t get to: of those, the ones whose omission I feel most keenly are probably Stephen Baxter’s Ark (given how highly I rated Flood), Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, Robert Holdstock’s Avilion (because I haven’t yet read Mythago Wood; yes, yes, I know), and Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit (because I told myself I’d read the Aleutian trilogy first – yes, yes, I know!).
But anyway: here are the ten books that I recommend most heartily, in alphabetical order by author.
- The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: a first novel of great ambition and remarkable power, and a work of science fiction that feels grounded in our present like nothing else I read this year.
- The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham: the most purely enjoyable 2009 book I’ve read, a marriage of the political and the epic that builds fruitfully on the already-solid foundation provided by The War with the Mein (2007).
- Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin: beautiful, wise, generous, and all the other words that are so regularly applied to Le Guin’s fiction.
- UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo: a short, relatively quiet novel that, as I said when I first read it, suggests much with its sparing narration, and provokes much in its reader; or at least in me.
- Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald: the opposite of Guo, in some ways: bold, vigorous stories that deepen and strengthen McDonald’s vision of a future India.
- The Ask & The Answer by Patrick Ness: a sequel that delights in not providing more of the same; desperately uncomfortable at times, but – I’m allowed to use this once, right? – unputdownable.
- White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: a brilliant ghost story, but also (this is not said enough about Oyeyemi, I think) at times, brilliantly funny: serious enough to know when to be playful.
- Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson: for all that Robinson is one of my favourite contemporary writers, I keep missing my chance to write about his work at any length. But between them Adam Roberts and John Clute have said much of what I would want to say about Galileo’s Dream: the marvellous sanity of its fictive universe, the skill with which it dissects time, memory and history, the clarity of its portraiture.
- The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh: a collection whose only real flaw is that it doesn’t collect all of Singh’s fiction: but what is here should be read.
- In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield: surely, by this point, I don’t need to say anything else about this one. Inventive; unsentimental; captivating.