Sunday, January 11, 2009

Favorite SF/speculative fiction reads of 2008

1 It's not every day you read a lost bit of 19th century science fiction—from New Zealand, no less. "The Great Romance" (University of Nebraska) appeared in the 1880s in two (or more) installments by a writer known only as "The Inhabitant." It's the disjointed yet fascinating chronicle of John Hope, a man of the 1950s who is catapulted first into the 22nd century, and then to Venus. The white-knuckle ending is all the more tantalizing because no conclusion to the story has been discovered. It's a cliffhanger for the ages.

2 Benjamin Rosenbaum's "The Ant King and Other Stories" (Small Beer Press) contains invisible cities and playful deconstructions of the form. In "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes,' by Benjamin Rosenbaum"—yes, his name is part of the title—the author imagines a world whose technologies and philosophies differ wildly from ours. The result is a commentary on the state of the art that is itself the state of the art.

3 In The Next Thing," published in May in Harper's, Steven Millhauser conjures an air-conditioned nightmare of seamless consumerism, a vast subterranean mall that is also a smoothly acquisitive corporate entity—a structure his unnamed narrator describes with a mixture of distress and awe. But "structure" also refers to the unorthodox construction of Millhauser's story, with its uneasy voice of communal anonymity and comfortable claustrophobia. The structure, in short, is the structure.

4 "Other Worlds, Better Lives" (Old Earth) collects Howard Waldrop's long short stories: inspired alternate historical mash-ups in which Thomas Wolfe and a young J.D. Salinger share a zeppelin flight with Fats Waller, or the bright lights of Paris' artistic set (Alfred Jarry, Marcel Proust) help Méliès make a movie about the Dreyfus case. The most satisfying tale, "A Dozen Tough Jobs," transposes the labors of Hercules to 1920s Mississippi.

5 Charles Fort started as a journalist, took a swing at pulp fiction and the social realist novel, and wound up an idiosyncratic interrogator of established wisdom. His books (which Theodore Dreiser championed) can warp one's worldview as much as a library full of science fiction. Jim Steinmeyer's short, fascinating biography, "Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural" (Tarcher/Penguin), is a fine introduction to this American iconoclast.

6 Martin Millar's "Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me" (Soft Skull) toggles between the narrator's present-day London conversations with his friend Manx and his anxious, embarrassed memories of being 13, when the promise of hearing—and seeing—his heroes perform could make everything right. Awkward Martin and his friend Greg have their own fantasy world—a realm of sorcerers and orcs that the music of Led Zeppelin intensifies. By the end of this entertainingly sad book, Glasgow 1973 shimmers like a lost world, echoing with the strains of "Misty Mountain Hop." —Los Angeles Times, Dec. 7, 2008

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