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I read about thirty books this year, which seems a little pathetic. Of those, roughly twenty were published in 2003, and ten or so were older works. Authors new or mostly new to me this year included Paul di Filippo, Ian R Macleod and Lucius Shepard. 2003 was therefore a year in which I feel I gained a much greater appreciation of good quality prose.

And accordingly, the best novel I read this year was The Light Ages by Ian R Macleod, in which getting lost in the beauty of the language is the least of the joys on offer. The central conceit - an England in which the industrial revolution was based on magic - is carefully detailed and, in Macleod's hands, immensely resonant. The story concerns a coming of age and the turning of an Age, so it runs the gamut of personal and social change. In 2004, this book needs to win awards.

On the other hand, the most out-and-out fun novel I read was Paul di Filippo's Fuzzy Dice, a madcap spacetime jaunt that has more ideas per page than anyone except possibly Charlie Stross. The hapless hero rushes between worlds based on cellular automata, exaggerated chaos theory, a world of highly infective memes and much, much more. twic described it as 'pop science on acid,' and that's still the best description I've heard. The only downsides are that it costs thirty-five pounds, and it's only available as a limited edition from PS Publishing.

PS Publishing as a whole had another strong year. The ones I read were Fuzzy Dice; Lucius Shepard's Floater, a hypnotic voodoo police procedural; Terry Bisson's Dear Abbey, a melancholy far-future exploration in the manner of The Time Machine, but with a more ecological bent; Jupiter, Magnified by Adam Roberts, which tells exactly the story you might expect based on the title: Jupiter is magnified so that it appears to fill half of Earth's night sky; and Riding The Rock by Stephen Baxter, a novella that successfully recasts the author's Xeelee war as a version of World War I. Early in the year I also picked up Cities, the fourth Gollancz collection of PS novellas. It's worth the asking price for Paul di Filippo's A Year In The Linear City alone...But you've all heard me say that before. It should have won the Hugo, dammit!

Baxter and Roberts both had good full novels out this year, as well as the novellas above. Coalescent is the first volume of a new series in the Xeelee timeline, although you have to be paying pretty close attention to realise it's anything other than a standalone story. It's not a perfect novel by any means, but when it's good, it's very good. Polystom, meanwhile, displays the now-familiar Roberts obsession with unpleasant protagonists and sprawling wars, but does so in a beautifully conceived and described alternate universe (the atmosphere extends between the planets), and at its close delivers a philosophical kick to the head that would not disgrace Greg Egan or Philip K Dick.

I read three good books set in spaaaace this year. The best was Justina Robson's grand and witty Natural History, although it works significantly better as a thought-experiment than as a plausible future. Allen M Steele's Coyote stories made it to novel form; it's probably more lightweight than it needs to be, but enjoyable nonetheless. And Charles Stross' Singularity Sky was a lot of fun, although in plot terms somewhat rough around the edges.

As usual, I didn't read much outside the SF ghetto, and when I did I wasn't blown away by what I found. Toby Litt's collection Adventures In Capitalism, whilst not without its moments, reaffirmed my confusion about exactly what mainstream short stories are for; they don't have the basis in ideas that SF stories have, so it seems that all that is left is slices-of-life. If anyone can recommend good non-SF short story writers to me, now would be the time.

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake was good but not that good, and a fun demonstration of what you write if you think you know what science fiction is but actually don't. On the other hand, The Master And Margarita is an excellent demonstration of what someone writes when they reinvent fantastic fiction all on their own; massively impressive, although not by any means an easy novel to read. I also enjoyed Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, cleverly written from the point of view of an autistic boy, and a reminder of just how alien other people can be.

I read a number of classic SF novels this year. They carry that status for a reason. Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human is a group-mind story like nothing you've ever read before, and The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth presages the capitalist excess of the 1980s by several decades. John Christopher's The Death Of Grass proves that someone other than John Wyndham can write great British disaster novels, whilst Philip K Dick's The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 prove that nobody can bend your mind like a pro.

I also managed to track down a copy of The Separation. Having read it, I can say without hesitation that it's an excellent novel. I can also say without hesitation that I wish something else had won the Clarke and the BSFA award, because this is a book that's SF by only the barest of margins. It's a good book to demonstrate the range of the genre, but if you pressed me I'd have to say I'd prefer something more full-blooded to get the awards.

When it comes to short fiction, I don't think I read a single new collection. On the other hand, I did read (or I'm currently working on) excellent older collections by Lucius Shepard (Barnacle Bill The Spacer And Other Stories), Ian R Macleod (Voyages By Starlight), Paul di Filippo (Ribofunk), Zoran Zivkovic (Impossible Encounters, Time-Gifts, Seven Touches Of Music and The Library), and John Barnes (Apostrophes and Apocalypses, although there the nonfiction pieces were routinely more interesting than the fiction). Meanwhile, I had subscriptions to Interzone, Asimov's Science Fiction and The Third Alternative. The best stories I read this year were:


  • Barton, William, 'Off On A Starship' (Asimov's, September 2003). What happens when SF gets a mid-life crisis. Barton's story mixes up aliens, exotic planets and what it means to be a fan. It could have been self-indulgent, but in fact it's often sad and sometimes harsh.

  • Bisson, Terry, 'Dear Abbey' (PS Publishing). Noted above.

  • Shepard, Lucius, 'Ariel' (Asimov's, October 2003). A lush, hyper-romantic story of destiny and parallel universes.

  • Stross, Charles, 'Curator' (Asimov's, December 2003). I haven't been that impressed with the previous couple of Accelerando stories, but this one won me right back over. The ultimate dysfunctional family reunion.

  • Vinge, Vernor, 'The Cookie Monster' (Analog, October 2003). The singularity as seen from inside an emerging AI. Nobody does this sort of thing better.

  • Honorable mention: Doctorow, Cory, 'Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom', which is technically a novel but in form seems to fit more comfortably in this category.

In general, I discovered a love for the novella this year. Long enough to supply reasonable breadth and depth, and short enough to read in an hour or two, they just sit well with my current reading habits.

Novellettes and Shorts (combined because Interzone and TTA don't specify length, and I can't always tell which category they should go in).

  • Ballantyne, Tony, 'The Waters Of Meribah' (Interzone 189). Deals with the nature of punishment, what it means to become an alien, and a radically different cosmology, and does it in less then ten pages. Ballantyne has written other very good stories over the past few years, and has a debut novel, Recursion out sometime this year that I'm looking forward to.

  • Baxter, Stephen, 'Touching Centauri' (Asimov's August 2003). A bit of a cheat, since I actually read this first as part of Phase Space last year. But it's one of Baxter's best short stories for several years, something like a post-Matrix take on 'The Nine Billion Names Of God'.

  • Butler, Chris, 'The Smart Minefield' (Interzone 185). A traditional SF logic-puzzle story: How do you deal with a minefield that rewires itself every time you disable one of the mines? Clever and funny.

  • Cleary, David Ira, 'The Automatic Circus' (TTA 36). A story that's something like steampunk, but not really, dealing with a mysterious robotic circus.

  • Glass, Alexander, 'From The Corner Of My Eye' (Asimov's, August 2003). A densely written tale of what happens when the lines between virtual and real worlds become blurred.

  • Purdom, Tom, 'Sheltering' (Asimov's, August 2003). A brief story describing people sheltering from catastrophe.

  • Purdom, Tom, 'The Path Of the Transgressor' (Asimov's, June 2003). I was trying to limit myself to one story per author, but this was too good to leave out. A traditional alien-world story with acute observation of social dynamics.

  • Reed, Robert, 'Hexagons' (Asimov's, July 2003). I'm a complete sucker for game stories, and I have a soft spot for alternate worlds. This story combines the two, and the only flaw is a slightly perfunctory ending.

  • Rusch, Kristine Kathryn, 'June Sixteenth At Anna's' (Asimov's, April 2003). What you get when you crosswire remote-viewing time portals and DVD special editions. But far, far more effective than that sounds. Possibly my favourite story of the year.

  • Shepard, Lucius, 'Only Partly Here' (Asimov's, March 2003). An inevitable post-september 11th story. In anyone else's hands, it would be unbearable; Shepard makes it work.

In general I felt that Asimov's and Interzone had good years, but I was a little disappointed in The Third Alternative. When my subscription comes up for renewal, I'm considering letting it lapse and picking up Fantasy & Science Fiction instead.

Overall, 2003 was a good year, if not quite as spectacular as 2002. In the course of it, I read recommendations by ajr, greengolux, deccasanta and snowking, and I'm working on ones from twic, peteyoung and brassyn. For future reference, nobody should ever hesitate to recommend things to me; I like it! Although it does sometimes take me a while to get around to them...
I feel silly replying to such a long, detailed post about literature with a comment on merely one of the names contained within, but here it is: Kurt Vonngeut's prose, marry me.

I love that man's prose.
I have Cat's Cradle and The Sirens of Titan and Timequake on my shelf. Which would you recommend next?
Breakfast of Champions, no doubt. Not science fiction at all, slightly speculative in a very postmodern kind of way, but very, very good and annoyingly well-written.
Bzzt. You must choose from the options available and not tempt me to buy more books. :-p
Oh, boo. Well, Sirens of Titan, then. With Cat's Cradle after that. Though I haven't read Timequake.
Yes, go for Sirens of Titan. Cat's Cradle has a great premise, and Timequake is curiously amusing, but Sirens is probably the best of the three.
Sirens of Titan.

It's fun, it's clever, it's serious, it's great.
Natural History and Singularity Sky. I am going to read these soon, honest. And some Paul DiFilippo.

Books to recommend: I'm not even going to touch SF, since I don't fancy teaching Granny to suck eggs. in a way. If you want some non-fiction, the best one I've read recently is Natural Obsessions, which is a really good insight into the cancer research labs of the mid-80s which sounds dull as fuck but is focused too much on the human side to ever get bogged down in science. And Biohazard is good if you want to really feel like you could die of ebola at any second.
Read Natural History first. Because I'd like it back. ;-)

Natural Obsessions has been added to the wishlist.
Hint taken. Shall read, return, and lend you Natural Obsessions.
Hee. Wasn't actually hinting that, but oh, go on, then. :)
"I read about thirty books this year, which seems a little pathetic."

Well, if time is pressing... I managed a little over thirty of the more noteworthy books and a few others.
I did consider writing a review of the books I've read this year, but thinking back over what I've read I realised that the literary highlights of my year were mostly mainstream fiction, which depresses me a bit. I read significantly more SF than mainstream, and yet when I do venture outside the genre it's consistently more impressive. This might be because I only ever read the cream of mainstream fiction, whereas I read a broader range of genre fiction, so by Sturgeon's law I should expect to find more crap in the genre in which I am most widely read.

Also, I don't tend to read things immediately on publication. There's a huge back-catalogue of stuff I want to get through, and I prefer to wait for books to appear in paperback. So a review of the year wouldn't really be representative of the year in publishing; it'd just be whatever I've been looking at.

Non-genre short stories: Michel Faber has a fantastic collection called Some Rain Must Fall. Will Self has also written some curious short stories, some of which I like, some of which I'm not sure about. Doris Lessing has a collection of shorts called London Observed that I remember enjoying. However, the best of the bunch has to be Annie Proulx's short story collection Close Range. If you really want to understand the point of non-genre short fiction, read the Proulx. She's the most amazing writer. (See, and you thought my love of short fiction was a genre thing!)

I can lend you any of the suggested short story collections. If I were you I'd prioritise the Proulx and the Faber. They're both collections to seriously rival the best genre shorts I've read.
I did consider writing a review of the books I've read this year, but thinking back over what I've read I realised that the literary highlights of my year were mostly mainstream fiction, which depresses me a bit. [...] So a review of the year wouldn't really be representative of the year in publishing; it'd just be whatever I've been looking at.

Even with both of those caveats, I for one would still be interested in what you've read. In fact, possibly because of those caveats I'd be interested. See note about recommendations in the main post. :)

I can lend you any of the suggested short story collections. If I were you I'd prioritise the Proulx and the Faber.

Sold. I'll swap you for Voyages by Starlight.