Tim Martin celebrates the year’s best science fiction and fantasy, including Iain M Banks and China Miéville.
‘If you were to draw a graph of a mainline book you’d find it would just be smoothly wobbling up and down like ripples on a lake, whereas fantasy would have peaks and troughs and be generally bouncing about – sometimes a whole series of peaks and troughs, like those on a seismograph.” So said the glorious Diana Wynne Jones, who died this year, in one of the interviews reprinted in Reflections (David Fickling, £25), a book that deserves top billing on the Christmas list of anyone remotely interested in the nebulous, seismographical fields of science fiction and fantasy. Happily, the year’s best books in these notoriously broad churches did nothing to clarify the limits of either genre, guaranteeing a variety of literary escapes from the bounds of consensus reality.
The absurdly talented Adam Roberts is professor of 19th-century literature at London University, and spends the rest of his time hauling British science fiction into a bright future of sparkling sentences and densely ironic conceits. Jack Glass (Gollancz, £14.99) is a dazzling trio of locked-room murder-mysteries set in a brittle future autarchy, drawing heavily on golden-age SF but even more from the English detective stories of Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. Even more far-reaching in aspiration is M John Harrison’s Empty Space (Gollancz, £12.99), the third novel in a trilogy that began with the extraordinary Light in 2002. On a sentence level Harrison outwrites most British authors currently working in any genre, but it has to be said that this third part will be pretty baffling to anyone not acquainted with the first two, offering a typically abrupt download of Chandlerian future-noir, quantum space opera and some sad vignettes of contemporary British alienation. With patience, it’s extraordinary.
Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (Gollancz, £9.99) is a sly, observant story in which a teenage girl walks back unchanged into a rural community after going missing in the bluebell woods two decades ago. Joyce keeps the focus on the human drama, allowing his fairyland to build itself with threatening glamour in the shadows of the reader’s imagination.
Among the many satisfactions of Ken MacLeod’s fiction is his confidence in literature as a tool of political engagement. Intrusion (Orbit, £18.99) is a vision of life in a near-future Britain where nanny-state supervision has edged into soft-totalitarian surveillance and control. The plot revolves around an expectant mother seeking an exemption from the genetic “fix”, a single pill that guarantees a healthy foetus, but things get rapidly less cheerful from there in this steely, brilliant piece of work.
Lovers of starships cavorting in the vasty deeps were amply catered for this year, too, with strong showings from several of the finest hard-SF writers. Iain M Banks’s latest addition to his Culture series, The Hydrogen Sonata (Orbit, £20), was another deftly sarcastic saga of deep-space politics with welcome reappearances from his garrulous, heavily armed, philosophical warships. Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Fractal Prince (Gollancz, £20) was equally formidable, a quantum caper thriller set above a planet where rogue software infects the unwary, and ancient djinns lie coiled in receptive minds.