Yet More Top Tens

Because I have the data, and because I can, some alternatives to the overall list:

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by British Writers

1. The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
2. Natural History by Justina Robson
3. Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
4. Life by Gwyneth Jones
5. Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
6. City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
7. The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston
8. Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson
9. In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
10. Hav by Jan Morris

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by American Writers

1. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
2. The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
3. Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
4. Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
6. Passage by Connie Willis
7. Spin State by Chris Moriarty
8. Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh
9= Carnival by Elizabeth Bear
9= Hammered by Elizabeth Bear

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by Writers from the Rest of the World

1. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
2. Farthing by Jo Walton
3. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
5. UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolo Guo
6= The Etched City by KJ Bishop
6= Lifelode by Jo Walton
8. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
9. The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
10. The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Sincere apologies if I’ve mis-nationalised anyone in any of these lists — do let me know. [last update 12/12/10]

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #1

The Carhullan Army (aka Daughters of the North) by Sarah Hall (2007)

The Carhullan Army cover

And so, the top-rated novel in this poll — by a healthy margin, in the end — is Sarah Hall’s Tiptree Award-winning and Clarke Award-nominated The Carhullan Army. Victoria Hoyle’s review gets at the book’s merits very well, I think:

…the inevitable irony of Carhullan’s insurgency, and of Sister’s membership of its “army,” is that it leads her to repress others against their will, and even to kill in her turn. She becomes party to another administration of terror, and a willing subject of a dictatorial regime. Whether this terror, driven by Jackie’s autocratic paranoia, is necessary or justifiable is left unanswered; the answer being, of course yes and, of course no. It is the embodiment of an essential dilemma, perhaps the most pertinent of our time: is it more courageous to passively follow your principles unto death, or is it your duty to use the tactics of the enemy, however disgusting, to overthrow them? Is it acceptable or reasonable to use the methods of tyranny in the name of restoring or protecting civil freedoms and human rights?

Either way, Hall understands that this dilemma is not an abstraction; it is the central difficulty of Sister’s existence and lies at the very heart of life at Carhullan. In the process of exploring it she makes and destroys and remakes Sister over and over again. Like us all, she is a malleable creature, eager to be inspired, happy to be galvanized to action, begging for a role to play in the world. The novel is an incredibly tender and multi-faceted portrait of her troubled journey, concerned almost entirely with the mechanics of her reasoning and her understanding of her cause. This is why, no doubt, Hall omits to describe the novel’s main scenes of violence and conquest—Sister’s narrative tapes are “corrupted” at all these critical junctures—but instead focuses on the tension of the long road to a short and bloody aftermath.

Other reviews: Colin Greenland in The Guardian, Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria, AI White at Open Letters Monthly, Rachel Hoare in The Independent, Michael Arditti in The Telegraph, Tom Gatti in The Times, Abigail Nussbaum at Strange Horizons; and more critically, Adam Roberts at Punkadidle, Karen Burnham at SF Signal, and Cheryl Morgan.

And as Adam helpfully pointed out yesterday, with impeccable timing Radio 4’s Book Club has just had The Carhullan Army as its subject; you can listen to the programme, which includes an interview with Hall, here, discussed slightly by Dan Hartland here.

All of which leaves us with the following top eleven:

1. The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
2. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
3. Natural History by Justina Robson
4. The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
5= Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
5= The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
7. Life by Gwyneth Jones
8. Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
9. Farthing by Jo Walton
10= Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
10= City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

So: Eleven novels; nine writers, four Brits, three Americans, one American-Brit, one Canadian; three novels only published in the US, three novels only published in the UK, five novels published in both; four books published in 2003, the most recent nominee published in 2008; nine novels published as “genre”, two published as “mainstream”; two novels that at least some people think are fantasy. What do you think?

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #2

Maul by Tricia Sullivan (2003)

Maul cover

As Nick Hubble said yesterday, there is sometimes a sense that Tricia Sullivan is under-appreciated as a writer, but not by voters in this poll; the Tiptree, Clarke and BSFA-nominated Maul claims the number two spot, and each of her other books picked up multiple nominations. Let’s have a bit more of Justina Robson’s review:

The women who run this world are most definitely not the utopian feministas of earlier decades of SF. They have a very present-day administrative verve, and pursue the ancient female preoccupations of shopping and chocolate as they struggle with careers and children. The surviving men, meanwhile, have assented to be locked up safely in castles from where they are periodically paraded for sales purposes, like a neverending series of Fame Academy .

The story hangs on the fact that there are natural survivors of the Y-plagues. These are aided on the inside by a political movement called Bicyclefish – you remember: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” – and Dr Baldino’s match in this story is much less disappointing than most heroes on offer.

All the elements of this novel work very hard all the time, carrying not only a complex plot and fascinating ideas about microbiology, but a heavy satirical charge aimed at contemporary culture and also at SF itself. That it manages so well and is so entertaining is testament to Sullivan’s skill and intelligence. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time.

Other reviews: John Toon at Infinity Plus; Adam Roberts at Infinity Plus; Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #3

Natural History by Justina Robson (2003)

Natural History cover

Into the top three with Justina Robson’s third novel, a venture into space opera, and very well received. Jakob Schmidt:

Despite Natural History being about human evolution and transcendental insights, Robson refuses to employ the apolitical sense of the sublime that characterizes many SF novels with similar topics. This novel is no glorified evolutionary fable. Even when it addresses the idea of reaching a whole new level of existence, it remains embedded in the social and political landscape of human affairs. Or, to put it in the thoughts of the character Zephyr Duquesne: “Without a religious foundation, she wasn’t bothered by any questions of an insult to God or the hubris of Prometheus that might have arisen. But she was bothered by the strong feelings of many of the Forged that attached to, in her view, legitimate complaints about their situation.” This statement, which is more radical than it might seem at first glance, permeates the whole novel and makes it a true challenge to the conventions of “evolutionary” Science Fiction.

Other reviews: M John Harrison in The Guardian, Tony Keen at Strange Horizons, Martin Lewis at SF Site.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #4

The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)

The Time Traveler's Wife cover

An impressively high, but in retrospect unsurprising, placing for Niffenegger’s first novel, about a man with “chrono-displacement disorder” and the woman whose life intertwines with his. Helen Brown’s review in The Telegraph sums up the novel’s appeal:

It comes as no surprise that Niffenegger is an Anne Rice fan. Although her prose is generally much better than Rice’s, she taps into the same teenager lurking in all of us. The one that reads Cosmo and Stephen King, while listening to the Buzzcocks and trying to get high on hairspray. Like Interview with the Vampire, this novel makes us crave a wilder life in which we have hip, secret reason to feel special and alienated.

But as the story progresses into marriage we realise that, of course, we don’t really want to know when and how the people we love will die, or what tragedies our children will face without us, any more than Rice’s bloodsucking Louis wants to live forever without sunlight, at the expense of others. We don’t want a partner who slips from our lives unaccountably, to return shaking and drenched with blood. Having swept us from our quotidian lives with a great whoosh of escapist fantasy, Niffenegger finally reminds us how good it is to let existence tick along both more and less predictably.

(Except I think there is, actually, more to it than that, and it’s an open question to what extent the novel is romantic, to what extent creepy, and to what extent the line between the two is a matter of where you stand.)

Other reviews: Natasha Walter in The Guardian; David Abrams at January Magazine; Charlie Lee-Potter in The Independent; and a not entirely convinced Adam Roberts at Infinity Plus.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #5

Not a typo in the subject line, because now we reach the other tie.

Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (2008)

Spirit cover

Spirit is Jones’ most recent novel, and the other science fictional retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, as Karen Joy Fowler explores:

The reader picks up a sprawling space opera with certain expectations: a fast pace, exotic settings, mysterious aliens, badly behaved (and also much-abused) nobility, plenty of off-world adventure and intrigue. In her new book, Spirit, Gwyneth Jones delivers all these and more.

The plot of the novel is loosely modelled on Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Jones is not the first writer to find that a classic swashbuckler translates effectively into outer space, and, in this case, the fun of finding familiar elements strangely transformed more than compensates for any predictability in terms of how the plot will go. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, Jones’s book features an exiled emperor, a conspiracy involving imperial restoration, an impregnable prison, an unjust imprisonment, a fellow prisoner with wisdom and wealth to bequeath, a daring escape dependent on the removal of a corpse, unimaginable treasure, fabulous fetes and balls, appalling betrayals and the intricacies of vengeance.

To this, Jones has added a great many elements not found in Dumas’s book (and surely the Dumas is the poorer for it): space travel, a Hegemony of many planets and many “numinally intelligent bipeds”, an ill-starred diplomatic mission to a world of bloodsuckers, chitinous serpents that can be saddled and ridden, robots, body modifications and, as the Edmond Dantès character is female in Jones’s retelling, bizarre pregnancies and childbirth.

Other reviews: Paul Kincaid, for Strange Horizons; Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons; Nic Clarke, for SFX; Duncan Lawie, for The Zone; by Cheryl Morgan; and by Ian Sales.

And here’s a thing: you can download the full text of the novel from Jones’ website. It was release online in January of this year which, I think, counts as its first US publication — which means it’s eligible for a Hugo. Isn’t that interesting?

Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon (2002)

Speed of Dark cover

Winner of the Nebula Award and shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, Speed of Dark bowled over many reviewers with its examination of the introduction of a cure for autism; John Grant, for instance:

In sum, The Speed of Dark is one of those exceptionally rare novels that has the power to alter one’s entire worldview, and reading it is a profoundly rewarding and enriching experience. It is impossible to avoid superlatives when speaking of it, even though one’s all too aware that one may be perceived as perpetrating hyperbole. Well … tough. I cannot remember when last I enjoyed a novel this much, but it must have been a very long time ago.

Other reviews: Adam Roberts, at Infinity Plus; and Jayme Lynn Blaschke at SF Site. See also an essay by Moon, “Autism: Past, Present, Future, Speculative.”

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #7

Life by Gwyneth Jones (2004)

Life cover

Gwyneth Jones’ second entry is, as I said at the weekend, a superb account of the working life of a scientist who discovers an ongoing change in human genetics. Thanks to the wayback machine, I now hand over to AM Dellamonica:

In Life, author Gwyneth Jones manages a delicate balancing act, showing the massive implications of a slight shift in the genes that control human gender while, at the same time, reminding readers that life goes on. Anna’s pursuit of Transferred Y happens against a backdrop of personal minutiae and career moves. She is a wife, a mother, an employee—and the years go by. She may be making a fantastic discovery, but that doesn’t render her immune to marital discord, tragedy or the aging process.

Jones’ prose is deeply engaging, drawing readers fully into her near-future setting. Anna is a well-drawn protagonist, one who inhabits a role usually reserved for male characters in SF: the obsessed scientist, willing to make big sacrifices to unlock the mysteries of life. It is an intriguing portrayal, but also an alienating one: Anna is hard to like. Some of her personal difficulties create reader sympathy, making her harsher choices somewhat forgivable, but these also make the book—which is quiet and thoughtful in tone—quite bleak.

Other reviews: David Soyka at SF Site and Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City. See also two essays by Jones about the development of the novel, “The Brains of Female Hyena Twins” and “True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural“.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #8

Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin (2008)

Lavinia cover

Le Guin’s revisioning of the later parts of Virgil’s Aeneid from the point of view of Aeneas’ wife was widely hailed as a masterpiece; within the genre, it picked up a Locus Award for best fantasy novel, made the Tiptree Award honor list, and was nominated for the Mythopoeic and BSFA Awards. Adam Roberts was as effusive as anyone:

Ursula K. Le Guin’s beautiful, haunting new novel, due out in the UK in May 2009, has already been published in America. Accordingly, the bound proof I read came pre-endorsed for the Britreader: “a winning combination of history and mythology featuring an unlikely heroine imaginatively plucked from literary obscurity” (Booklist). That rather undersells it, actually. “Deserves to be ranked with Robert Graves’s I Claudius” (Publishers Weekly). That’s more like it. Although Le Guin’s pre-Roman first person narrative has a very different flavour to Graves’s Imperial Roman first person narrative, they are of a similar stature: classics in essence as well as theme. “Arguably her best novel” (Kirkus). Arguably so. Certainly I enjoyed this novel more than any Le Guin since the 1970s; and that (it’s almost tautological to add this) means that I enjoyed it more than pretty much any novel since the 1970s. It possesses a depth, clarity and wonder greater than most of the fiction being published nowadays.

Other reviews: Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian, Tobias Hill in The Observer, Cecelia Holland in Locus, John Garth in The Telegraph. See also a four-part discussion of Lavinia started here last year, and continued here, here, and here, with follow-ups here and here.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #9

Farthing by Jo Walton (2006)

Farthing cover

Farthing, the start of the Small Change alternate history series, was nominated for the Nebula, John W Campbell Memorial, and Sidewise awards (among others). Adrienne Martini was typical of the book’s reviewers:

Despite the parallels to today’s current political climate (just substitute “Liberal” for “Communist”), the murder mystery is the spine from which the rest of the book moves. A Scotland Yard inspector, who has his own reasons to avoid prying eyes, is brought in and the narration alternates between his point of view and Lucy’s. It’s an effective technique and one that keeps you flipping through pages, despite the fact that the identity of the murderer is fairly well telegraphed in the first few pages. Lucy and the inspector make you want to know why it was done and, more importantly, what will be done about it.

But Farthing is also a book about fascism and the parallels between her Britain and today’s climate is never didactic and always effective. It’s also a book about husbands and wives, however, and about class and sex. It is quite an achievement, brothers and sisters. Hallelujah.

See also Paul Kincaid’s review from the New York Review of Science Fiction; Sherwood Smith at SF Site; David Soyka in the Internet Review of SF; and (with a few reservations) Dan Hartland at Strange Horizons.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #10

Strictly speaking, #10 equal, since we start with one of two ties.

Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones (2001)

Bold as Love cover

Jones’ Arthur C Clarke Award-winning novel, and the series it inaugurates, is probably one of the landmark generic hybrids of the past decade, being both near-future science fiction and Arthurian fantasy. As Francis Spufford put it:

The salient oddity of Bold as Love is that its achievement is rooted not in the festival scene of 2001, but in the world of 1971. It substantiates the dreams not of present-day apocalypse-minded teenagers, but of their counterparts 30 years ago, who read Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels and relished the fantasy of the Rolling Stones playing gigs in the rubble of liberated cities. Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock; Jones has an equally sexy guitar hero put the reverb into “I Vow to Thee, My Country”. This book reopens the door to a particular stylised world next to our own, where the slender-hipped male heroes of pop culture are freed from time and place to do cool, violent deeds. It’s a rock’n’roll world, but it’s English. It’s a world where the young Mick Jagger is always to be found jamming in the Hundred Acre Wood, his gun lying on the grass beside him among the forget-me-nots.

Other reviews: Chris Butler at Infinity Plus, Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City, David Soyka for SF Site and Kathleen Bartholomew in Green Man Review. See also Sheryl Vint’s take on the concluding volume, Rainbow Bridge, for a sense of how it all pans out, and a 2003 interview with Jones. Oh, and the Bold as Love website, where you can download the full text of the first four volumes of the series.

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss (2004)

City of Pearl cover

Another series-initiating book, this time the well-received six-volume Wess’Har War series. Stuart Carter reviewed it with the sequel, Crossing the Line:

Another glorious aspect of these two books is that they’re almost the antithesis of everything Trek: humans haring round the universe imposing their morality and point-of-view upon anyone who can listen, and always, eventually, turning out to be right, or at least admirable. And if we’re not even admirable then at least we have bigger guns than everyone else to console ourselves with. In Karen Traviss’s universe we’re seen as being far from admirable and even further from right, and it looks like being a very hard, possibly even fatal, lesson for us to learn. A warning to the unthinking patriots amongst you: you may find these books somewhat unpalatable.

I’ve followed quite a tortuous route to discovering Karen Traviss’s novels: she’s English, I’m English, and yet neither of these books has a UK publisher, so I’ve had to get them from the US, a fact that both perplexes and saddens me since both City Of Pearl and Crossing the Line would seem to be a very English type of SF, and English SF at its very best, too. If you want to read something that will leave you thinking, perhaps if you’re a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson or, more generally, of intricately gloomy English science fiction, then this series is one you want to read — I promise.

Other reviews: Christ Butler at Infinity Plus, Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City (hang on, I’m getting deja vu), and Russ Allbery. See also 2006 interviews with Traviss at Infinity Plus and in Strange Horizons.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.