Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels: 1985–2010

by Damien Broderick & Paul Di Filippo

Cover image

Publisher: Nonstop
Copyright: 2012
ISBN: 1-933065-39-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 288

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I like book reviews and lists of best novels, as a follower of my reviews probably noticed, so I couldn't resist when this collection made my radar. A follow-up to the earlier Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels: 1949–1985 by David Pringle (which I have not read), it is a collection of short (two to three pages, generally) reviews of 101 recent SF novels. The date spread is fairly balanced: at least two novels from each year under consideration are featured, and no year gets more than seven or eight. The authors also clearly tried to cover the range of what falls under the science fiction genre, from alternate history through space opera and including novels normally marketed as mainstream, so the result should contain something to everyone's taste.

With those characteristics, you may suspect that the "best" part of the title is a bit questionable, and you would be right. "101 of the better novels" would be a more accurate description. While most Hugo and Nebula winners are included here, the section is at times eclectic. But it's eclectic in the spirit of broad inclusiveness: Jumper, Temeraire, or The Hunger Games would normally not be included on this sort of list because they're too popular or "light," but they're here alongside more obscure books (at least for SF readers) like Galatea 2.2, Distance Haze, or My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time. I doubt anyone will seriously argue that this selection should have replaced the Hugo or Nebula short lists, but one doesn't read review collections like this only to hear about books one already knows about. Those books one has either already read or already chosen not to read. The wide-ranging selection makes it likely that something here will be new to most readers.

The authors, Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo, are known reviewers in the SF world, and I've read reviews from both of them before. I bought this book largely on the strength of Broderick's name, since I've usually enjoyed his contributions to The New York Review of Science Fiction. Paul Di Filippo was more of a gamble; he's one of the regular reviewers for Asimov's Science Fiction and not one of my favorites. But what I usually disliked about his columns was their focus on obscure small-press titles, graphic novels, and slipstream, so I was hoping that an SF review collection aiming towards the genre mainstream would be more to my taste.

The result is mixed. There are things about this selection, and about the reviews, that I enjoyed, and there are other things I found quite annoying.

First, the selection. I could (and will in a moment) talk about good and bad selections, but I also have a good statistical metric for at least the alignment of the authors' taste with mine. Of the 107 novels reviewed here (in several case, duologies and trilogies are given single entries), I've read 39, or a little over a third. (Note that I've read every Nebula or Hugo winner in that time period and most of the Hugo nominees, so that will give you a good feel for how broad-ranging this selection is, and how far afield of the normal award slates it goes.) My average rating for those 39 books was 7.49 (including four perfect 10s). By comparison, my average rating for Hugo winners is 6.68 and for Nebula winners is 7.10. There was one 4 (The White Queen) and one 5 (Red Mars), and in both cases I can see why they're here. Of the rest of the books I read I rated them all at least at 6 out of 10. At least among the books I've read, this seems to be a solid selection.

Sometimes the details of those selections are odd, though. For example, the authors make an effort to limit the number of selections for each author, a wise choice since they're clearly going by diversity. But if one is operating within that limitation, choosing Ammonite over Slow River for Nicola Griffith, or particularly Ventus over Lady of Mazes or even Permanence for Karl Schroeder, is baffling. There were several similar places where I thought the selection for an author was obscure, minor, or just missed obvious alternatives. Perhaps this was to fill in one of the other breadth criteria, such as balancing number of novels per year or attempting to cover each subgenre.

Also, if one is going to divide science fiction and fantasy and try to cover only the science fiction (a division that I think is quite difficult, which is why I don't do it, but it does have the merit of narrowing the field), including The Falling Woman is quite strange. It's a solid book, to be sure, and a Nebula winner. It is also quite straightforward contemporary fantasy involving ghosts and Mayan mythology, without a hint of science-fictional content. Making the protagonists archeologists and scientists doesn't make the book science fiction. The authors try to defend this (unpersuasively to me), but it wasn't the only instance here where I thought their line between science fiction and fantasy was a bit off.

That said, there are a lot of great selections here, including books that I love but that aren't frequently picked for this sort of list (The Fortunate Fall, The Time Traveler's Wife, or China Mountain Zhang, for example). It's great to see underappreciated authors like Linda Nagata, Joan Slonczewski, and Karl Schroeder featured.

But, of course, one doesn't buy this sort of book just for the list, if for no other reason than that lists aren't copyrightable and one can easily find the complete list of reviewed novels on the Internet (just one example that turned up in a search). Rather, one reads this sort of book for the reviews. And that's where this book moves onto more questionable ground.

First, while I realize that everyone has different thresholds for what they consider spoilers and most professional reviewers are more cavalier about them than I am, Broderick and Di Filippo cross any line that I consider reasonable. Most of the reviews are okay, if skirting the limits, but in several places they give away key reveals of books or discuss plot twists right up to, or even including, the ending. The combined review of The Sparrow and Children of God is particularly egregious, containing unambiguous, book-destroying spoilers for The Sparrow. Giving away the ending of Ammonite is only slightly less bad. And those are just two examples I remember.

This is not okay. The whole point of this sort of collection is to expose the reader to books they've not yet read but may want to. Proceeding to spoil the book for them in the course of the review is perverse. This alone would make me hesitant to recommend this collection.

Second, quite a few of the reviews in this book are, for lack of a better term, emotionally overreaching. Here's an excerpt of a review picked at random (As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem) that will hopefully illustrate:

Lethem's beautifully balanced, metaphorically rich prose propels this blackly jolly fable to a surprising yet satisfying conclusion. By book's end, a sense that the author had accomplished his takeoff taxiing and was now fully in flight for more cosmopolitan cities pervades the pages.

What's "beautifully balanced prose"? Could you recognize it? Does that phrase communicate anything to you other than that the authors liked the book?

The whole review collection is written with adjectives and metaphors like this, and after a while it all seems a bit much. It felt like the authors were straining for ways to describe how important or significant the books are and, in the process, lost sight of the basic goal of conveying information about the book. It feels overwrought rather than informative. Even if one is reviewing the books that one considers the pinnacle of achievement in science fiction, a conversational tone with concrete examples and specifics communicates more than impressive but slippery terms like "metaphorically rich."

Lest I sound entirely negative, one thing that I did appreciate is that the reviews go to some effort (particularly for their short length) to put the work in the broader context of the field and within the author's oeuvre. Often there's some discussion of previous and subsequent work or related books, and the reviews that feature books from larger series provide good explanations for why those particular books were singled out. Sometimes the number of dangling references was frustrating; authors of these sorts of collections need to remember that most readers will not be as widely read, and reviewing books largely by comparison to other books runs the risk of missing the reader's knowledge entirely. But the reviews convey a real sense of SF as a broad conversation and provide a sense of the breadth and variety of themes and subgenres available. This is one of the fun explorations that this sort of catalog lets the authors and reader do together.

Another, more minor, touch that I appreciated was the cover art. Each review leads with an image of the reviewed book's cover (alas, only in black and white for obvious printing reasons). But rather than taking the obvious approach of using the covers of the first releases, or the covers from a particular country, they're chosen from all of the world-wide editions in all their delightful variety. Typical artistic styles for book covers vary drastically between countries, and getting to see a sample of artwork from different markets is a treat.

I want to recommend this book. It casts a much broader net than most collections of its kind and provides some needed attention to smaller corners of the genre. I was impressed by the book list before I bought it, and (with the inevitable quibbles) am even more impressed now that I've read it. Broderick and Di Filippo go out of their way to broaden the reader's horizon and open up new avenues for reading, which is one of the best things a review collection can do.

But when reviewers don't avoid spoilers, I just can't recommend their work. For me, this is a cardinal sin. Combine that with a writing style that was occasionally overblown and overwritten and the merits don't quite overcome the flaws. I'm glad I read it; it got me excited about reading many books I've already purchased but not gotten to, and I got from it another slew of books to add to my to-purchase list. But I had to read it uncomfortably and lightly, constantly prepared to jump past a review that was too revealing.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-12-26

Last modified and spun 2017-07-01