For many years, the Post-Dispatch Sunday Magazine put out a special issue near Thanksgiving devoted to books, in which most of the regular reviewers would pick the best books that year in the category they reviewed - the best biographies, for instance, or the best mysteries. As a semi-regular reviewer of science fiction and "graphic novels" (see my rant on why I dislike the term and what I'd like to use instead), I did several of these year-end pieces over the years.
Below are the science fiction roundups I wrote between 1991 and 1994. You'll notice the first one also mentions some "graphic novels." After that I was able to convince the Book Editor that they rated a separate category.
Finally, you might notice that few of these books have separate reviews elsewhere on this site. To some extent, that's due to the fact that a lot of good books come out in the fall and some reviews I wrote never got printed. I did also sometimes deliberately use the year-end piece as extra space to get in books I hadn't been able to review.
As wife of the Chief Executive, Alice Douglas is one of the most powerful women on the planet, especially since she never hesitates to badger her husband into doing what she wants. Her own decisions are based largely on advice from her personal astrologer.
But Mrs. Douglas is not, as she might appear, a parody of Nancy Reagan. She couldn't be, for she was created 30 years ago. Alice Douglas is a character in Robert A. Heinlein's ''Stranger in a Strange Land'' which has been reissued in an expanded edition (525 pages, Ace/Putnam, $24.95, $9.95 paper) that contains the text as Heinlein first wrote it, before the publisher insisted on drastic cuts for size and the more prudish tastes of 1961. I'm not sure whether the new/old version is a better book, but in either form ''Stranger'' remains a science fiction classic
Another book that is not exactly new is Dave Sim's ''High Society'' (512 pages, Aardvark-Vanaheim, $25.00 paper), which first appeared in the pages of his comic book Cerebus. Although first collected in a limited edition in 1986, it is only now reaching stores. This is Sim's first graphic novel, in which his aardvark barbarian hero gets civilized and enters politics. The result is a hilarious satire that sends up everything from comic book conventions to journalism.
Another comic-book compilation is Neil Gaiman's ''A Doll's House'' (256 pages, D.C. Comics, $14.95 paper), originally published in ''Sandman.'' The hero is Dream of the Endless, an immortal being who is ruler of the dreamland. Gaiman has created an entire mythology and a convincing world that intersects with our own, but exists far beyond it.
Those who prefer science fiction to fantasy might want to check out ''Lunar Descent'' (325 pages, Ace, $4.95 paper) by Allen Steele. Steele writes the kind of nuts-and-bolts hard science fiction that is going out of style, partly because it's so difficult to do. Steele, a St. Louisan, is a young writer to watch.
Saving the best for last, two seminal writers of the so-called cyberpunk movement have collaborated on a novel that moves their careers in an exciting new direction. ''The Difference Engine,'' by William Gibson and Bruse Sterling (429 pages, Bantam, $19.95), is an alternative-world novel set mostly in an 1855 in which Burbage's mechanical computer (which he called a ''difference engine'') did not fail, but flourished. No one speaks Japanese and no one wears a Mohawk, but in a curious way one of the main characters can be thought of as a Victorian cyberpunk. Still, this novel is different from anything either writer has done before.
This has been such a good year for science fiction that there may have been a dozen books I didn't even see that could have made this list. Certainly, there were several I reviewed that I hated leaving out. But space is limited, so here are my choices.
Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" (450 pages, Bantam, $22, $10 paper) was the most pleasant surprise this year, a really good sf novel by a writer whose previous work has been outside the field. A mainstream/cyberpunk crossover, if that's possible, the novel follows Hiro Protagonist through the real world and the computer-generated Metaverse as he becomes embroiled in the schemes of a villain worthy of James Bond. (The villain bears a striking resemblance to Ross Perot, a relatively unknown billionaire when the book was written.)
Another crossover of sorts is Jane Yolen's "Briar Rose" (190 pages, Tor, $17.95), one of a series of modern retellings of fairy tales edited by Terri Windling. Yolen reinterprets the classic tale through the story of a Holocaust survivor, as discovered by her granddaughter. The story is told realistically, with no supernatural events or other traditional fantasy elements. Nonetheless it is, in its own grim way, a fairy tale.
Dan Simmons has been a crossover writer for some time, alternating between science fiction and supernatural horror. He has combined the two in "Children of the Night" (382 pages, Putnam's, $21.95), in which a medical researcher discovers in her adopted Romanian infant a strange mutation that leads to a scientific explanation for vampires - including why Vlad the Impaler is still around after several centuries.
The long-awaited return of John Varley as an sf novelist was greeted with delight here in St. Louis, where he was guest of honor at Archon, the local science-fiction convention. In Varley's novel "Steel Beach" (479 pages, Ace/Putnam, $22.95), intrepid reporter Hildy Johnson discovers all is not right with the seemingly perfect world inside the moon 200 years after humans were forced off Earth by invaders.
Walter Jon Williams also deals with trouble in paradise in "Aristoi" (448 pages, Tor, $22.95), which is set in a far-future Utopia ruled by an elite who cultivate multiple personalities, drawing strength and other resources from their inner voices. War, disease and famine have all been banished from this future world - which, as some of the Aristoi see it, is exactly the problem. With nothing to struggle against, they think the human race is growing soft. Their solution, however, may be worse than the problem - if there is one.
In addition, Ben Bova and Allen Steele wrote good books about Mars. Connie Willis wrote a gem of a time-travel tale. Robert Anton Wilson ... But there's just not enough room for them all. What a year!
My vote for best science fiction novel of the year goes to Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red Mars," which Bantam has recently issued in mass market paperback for $5.99 (the $11.95 trade paperback is still in lots of stores, though). An epic on a grand scale in and of itself, this is to be, we are told, the beginning of a trilogy. "There were no Martians before we came," says one of the first 100 colonists in the book's opening chapter. By the book's end, there are Martians, even if they were born on Earth.
If I had a second vote, it would have to go to "Glimpses," by Lewis Shiner (331 pages, William Morrow, $21). It's not really a science fiction novel, though. It's a tour through rock 'n' roll history written in a style visibly influenced by magical realism. It is also a meditation on fathers and sons, told with lyrical and powerful prose.
Isaac Asimov's last novel, "Forward the Foundation" (417 pages, Doubleday, $23.50) was published posthumously this year. Rewarding for its insights into the man who became the legend of Hari Seldon, it is perhaps even more rewarding because it provides a few glimpses into the legendary Isaac Asimov.
Local author Allen Steele's short stories have been collected into "Rude Astronauts" (243 pages, Old Earth Books, $12). The book includes some real gems, including "Trembling Earth," a story about cloned dinosaurs originally published before "Jurassic Park." There are also some nonfiction pieces related to science fictional notions such as space travel and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.
William Gibson's "Virtual Light" (325 pages, Bantam, $21.95) is getting lots of attention, and causing arguments about whether it marks a new direction for Gibson. No romantic hacker outlaws, no trips through cyberspace, but it's still a Hitchcockian plot about a couple of people who get involved in things way over their heads. Gibson claims the self-satire is deliberate, which makes the book even funnier (it's funny already, with the Ralph Lauren tank and whatnot). Of course, Gibson at his worst beats most writers at their best. I, for one, was disappointed that Gibson didn't move even further from his famous cyberpunk works.
As always, I'm sure I've missed some books that probably belong here, but it seems to me that this year was something of a letdown after the dozens of award-caliber books (many of which were lost in the deluge of titles published) made available in 1992. Robinson's "Red Mars" seems left over from last year (there were several Mars books), which makes the feeling even stronger. Of course, every year can't be a banner one, but I'll bet the various awards committees had an easier time of it this year than last.
Leading the list of science fiction books this year is Kim Stanley Robinson's "Green Mars" (535 pages, Bantam/Spectra, $22.95), the second book of a projected trilogy about the colonization of Mars. While not as stunning as the first book partly because Robinson's Mars has become a familiar place by now it is a solid and satisfying continuation. I can't wait for the last one.
Bruce Sterling explores ecological catastrophe in "Heavy Weather" (310 pages, Bantam/Spectra, $21.95). In it, the various things we have already done to our environment have set up a pattern of increasingly erratic and extreme weather. As a result, 40 years from now a group of tornado chasers led by a mathematician believe in the possibility indeed, the inevitability of an F6, a storm another whole order of magnitude stronger than the strongest tornadoes in history. Although we are treated to a virtual reality ride through a tornado, linked to a drone ornithopter with cameras mounted on it, the action described is pretty far afield from the cyberpunk movement Sterling is famous for having co-founded.
Local author Allen Steele isn't as famous as Robinson or Sterling, but that may be about to change. "The Jericho Iteration" (279 pages, Ace, $19.95) is his best book yet, as exciting a thriller as I've read in a long time. Set in a future St. Louis that has been largely leveled by an earthquake, Steele plunges his hero a reporter for a weekly alternative newspaper into a bizarre plot, the details of which would spoil your pleasure. In addition to the engaging characters and intriguing story, local readers will delight in the well-researched but often bizarrely unfamiliar locations, such as Busch Stadium as the headquarters for the paramilitary Emergency Relief Agency.
Moving away from science fiction into fantasy, Tad Williams has created a delightful turn on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" in "Caliban's Hour" (about 200 pages, HarperPrism, $14.99). It's not officially out until next month, but if it isn't in stores now, it should be soon, and I didn't want to pass it up here. Williams gives us a sequel, a prequel and a retelling of Shakespeare's play, all in one slim volume, and all from the viewpoint of one of the most loathsome characters in theater history. But, of course, we have known Caliban only from Prospero's point of view. Here we get, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.
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