After much mulling and culling, we've come up with our list of the twenty best books of the decade. The list is weighted towards science fiction, but does have healthy doses of fantasy and horror. And a few surprises.
This list is alphabetical, and not in order of awesomeness. All are equally great and worthy of your attention. In deciding which would make the list and which wouldn't, we weighed not only our opinions, but also those of the critical community at large - looking at how each book was received by reviewers for mainstream publications as well as science fiction magazines. There were many, many books we love that almost made the cut - if we'd let ourselves go it would have been more like the 100 best books of the decade.
Also, all of the books on this list were originally published in English. Regrettably I'm not conversant enough in global science fiction to make an educated "best of" list that includes works written in other languages. I hope those of you who are will add your picks to the comments below.
Acacia: The War with the Mein, by David Anthony Durham (Doubleday)
According to the Washington Post:
From the first pages of Acacia, Durham, a respected historical novelist, demonstrates that he is a master of the fantasy epic. He quickly sets out in broad strokes the corrupt world that these unwitting children have been raised to rule. For 22 generations, the Akarans have presided over the empire of Acacia. And for 22 generations, they've sent a yearly shipment of child slaves to mysterious traders beyond their borders, "with no questions asked, no conditions imposed on what they did with them, and no possibility that the children would ever see Acacia again." In exchange, the Akarans get "mist," a drug that guarantees their subjects' "labor and submission." . . . Durham sacrifices nothing — not psychological acuity, not political complexity, not lyrical phrases — as he drives the plot of this gripping book forward. The names of people and places sound as if they've been recalled from a dusty past, not cobbled from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, a far too common practice among fantasy writers. Tropes that sound outlandish — "dream-travel," for one — are credible in Durham's telling. And the story always surprises. Characters that seem poised to take center stage are killed abruptly. Evil often triumphs.
This is the first novel in Durham's planned Acacian Trilogy. The second novel, The Other Lands, has recently been published and the third is on the way.
Air, Or Have Not Have, by Geoff Ryman (Gollancz)
Air won the Clarke Award and was nominated for a Nebula. Here is what Strange Horizons' Geneva Melzack had to say about it:
Chung Mae lives in Kizuldah, a tiny mountain village in the country of Karzistan. The people in Kizuldah live traditional sorts of lives, making a living through farming and migrant manual labour. TV has barely arrived in the village when a national test of Air, a new form of virtual media technology, takes place, badly shaking up Kizuldah's traditional existence. The person most shaken up is Chung Mae herself, who is involved in an accident in the midst of the test that fuses her, in the virtual world of Air, with her elderly neighbour Old Mrs Tung, killing Mrs Tung in the process. Air tells the story of how Chung Mae learns to adapt to her new situation, and the work she has to do to help the rest of her village similarly adapt to the changes that the test has wrought and the further changes that she knows will come when Air is fully implemented in a year's time . . . It might be tempting to read Air as a book that is advocating change and the embracing of the new, but there's more to it than that. Change in Air is simply something that happens. It is inevitable. The future is not necessarily any better than the past, but it is coming nevertheless.
The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia (Prime)
Here is what io9 had to say about this book when it came out last year:
With a face made of porcelain, a wind-up heart, and a talent for alchemy, Mattie is hardly a typical science fictional robot. While most novels about robots focus on how these humanoid machines are stronger and smarter than humans, Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone explores the vulnerability of mechanical beings who depend on humans for repairs and survival. Mattie is a rare emancipated automaton in an industrial city hovering on the edge of a workers' revolution. She's gone against the wishes of her Mechanic creator and joined the ranks of the biochemist-mystic Alchemists, selling medicines and perfumes to the city's middle class. Sedia's novel captures the surreal strangeness of a city whose power structure is about to be toppled, and her focus on Mattie's relationship with her creator allows her to grapple with the tiny power struggles inherent in all human relationships - especially those between men and women.
The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson (HarperCollins)
Love it or hate it, you have to admit that Stephenson's mammoth historical science series changed the way we think about science fiction - and managed to blow away both science fiction fans and the masses who made these novels bestsellers. Like Cryptnomicon, the Baroque Cycle blends the facts of science history with intense, intellectually-challenging adventures that make you feel smarter even when you whoop, "Dude, that was awesome!" It's a retelling of the revolutions in science and rationality during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of the first novel in the series, the New York Times says:
Given the apparent depth of Stephenson's research, it seems clear that the anachronisms with which he seeds the novel are deliberate. Some are playful, as when a guard throws Daniel a letter with the words, ''You've got mail,'' or when the 17th-century Venetians succumb to ''Canal Rage'': ''They insist that gondoliers never used to scream at each other in this way. To them it is a symptom of the excessively rapid pace of change in the modern world, and they make an analogy to poisoning by quicksilver, which has turned so many alchemists into shaky, irritable lunatics.''
Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer (Picador)
Very likely the true inspiration for the recent film The Case of Benjamin Button, this bestselling novel explores the life of Max Tivoli, a man who is growing younger - and his relationship with the woman he loves. Bookslut describes the novel like this:
With nothing known about his medical condition and no name for what he is, Max can only look to the few historical instances of cases similar to his — a pair of twins born in France as well as the son of a Viennese merchant. These bits of "research" lend a credibility to the story, making this fictional memoir seem all the more based on a factual account. Greer writes this story as if it were nonfiction — the actual diary of a man who wishes only to have his unique story known. "I burst into the world," he writes, "as if from the other end of life, and the days since then have been ones of physical reversion, of erasing the wrinkles in my hair, bringing younger muscle to my arms and dew to my skin, growing tall and then shrinking into the hairless, harmless boy who scrawls this pale confession." These are Max's experiences, regrets, and lost hopes, once found in a dusty, old attic — the efforts of an old man caught in a young boy's body, committing his life to literature.
Down And Out In the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow (Tor)
Doctorow burst into the mainstream with this hit novel about warring factions in Disneyland: Those who are trying to preserve the ancient amusement park from being made virtual, and those who are happy to see it digitized. It was also, famously, the novel where Doctorow invented the term "whuffie," a term that refers to cultural capital - or, as South Park would later put it, "internet dollars." As Nisi Shawl said in the Seattle Times:
Even when science fiction is based on solid predictions, it can demonstrate the pinwheeling pyrotechnics of a first-class fireworks display. A longtime observer of life online, Doctorow depicts a cashless economy based on the constant, automatic tracking of public reputations by a nameless online utility. Referred to as "The Bitchun Society" (a la President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society"), the dominant lifestyle confers immortality (of a sort) on all participants. All one has to do is periodically record one's brain patterns — to be imprinted on force-grown clones in the event of an unwanted death. (No charge for this service; there's no charge for anything, as long as one maintains a high enough reputation.) It's that trick that allows hero Jules to investigate his own murder.
The Execution Channel, by Ken MacLeod (Tor)
One of the superlative MacLeod's most critically-acclaimed and internationally popular novels, it's the tale of a near-future anti-terrorist dystopia. Known for his complicated political writing, MacLeod spun a tale that captured the public's interest, and the attention of political subcultures, too.. The Socialist Review said of the book:
More spy thriller than science fiction, The Execution Channel is full of the paranoia and the obsessive zealotry of security services in a world where power struggles between states obscure all else. The story centres on James Travis, an IT engineer. His daughter, Roisin, is part of the anti-war movement, and his son, Alec, is in the army. Despite taking neither position, Travis is headhunted for French intelligence, ostensibly due to having made the statement: "I just hate the Yanks." When a nuclear explosion destroys a US controlled airbase in Scotland Roisin is witness to it as part of a peace camp outside. . . The Travis family and US conspiracy theorist and blogger Mark Dark [try] to make sense of the events amid lies and disinformation.
Glasshouse, by Charles Stross (Ace)
Stross produced a lot of great fiction in the 2000s, but Glasshouse, a novel about far-future gaming, espionage, war, and masculinity, was a standout. io9 chose it as one of the "science fiction novels that can change your life," and we said:
Stross has said he had the Stanford prison experiments in mind when he wrote this far-future tale of drifters who sign up for a "glasshouse" experiment to recreate the twentieth century in an isolated space habitat. They'll be arbitrarily assigned genders, and forced to engage in certain kinds of conformist behaviors for points. Our heroes, ill-at-ease in the genders they've been given, figure out that there's a deeper plot at work and must try to outsmart the glasshouse prison game while fighting mind viruses that can reorganize your whole consciousness. With unexpected twists and turns, this book is the very best mindfuck you've ever had.
Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling (Bloomsbury)
Like Durham's Acacia series, the Harry Potter books challenged conventional wisdom about what should happen in a fantasy series. At the same time, Rowling helped revive traditional fantasy storytelling for millions of people across the world. And she gave grownups permission to love young adult writing again. Of the Harry Potter series, Entertainment Weekly's Tina Jordan says:
I'm amazed, when I sit back, at the sheer, immensely complicated arc of the story; Rowling has always said she had the entire seven-book series plotted out from the very beginning, and it's clear she did. I'm stunned at the way she managed to tie up so many of the plot strands, even while weaving in new ones (and while introducing new characters too, albeit no one very important). Having just reread the first six books, I now realize how many small clues were strewn throughout (and how few I managed to pick up). Yet despite the complicated plots and subplots, despite the effortless allusions to mythology and classic tales . . . Rowling winds up her tale with a stunningly beautiful simplicity.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
Another fantasy writer who completely transformed the genre in the past decade is Clarke, whose Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is both a literary classic and a gorgeous, smart take on the thorny relationship between the kingdoms of Europe and the kingdom of Faerie. The Washington Post reviewed the bestseller like this:
[Clarke's] antiquarian romance ... resembles Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary and John Crowley's Aegypt sequence — deeply learned novels that reimagine the nature of history. For Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is at heart a book about the present's relationship to the past. In its pages Clarke takes the accepted fabric of English culture and inserts just a single new thread: that during the Renaissance, magic actually worked. Alas, the actual ability to perform magic gradually faded away, even as the centuries-long reign of the powerful magician-sovereign of the North — John Uskglass, the Raven King — passed into the popular mind as a lost golden age.
Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks (Orbit)
Look to Windward is a novel of galactic war and personal loss, human revenge and AI regret. It's also one of the most moving, intelligent novels in Banks' legendary Culture series. The UK Guardian describes the premise of the novel:
Eight centuries after the Culture fought off its greatest challenge, a war that raged for 50 years and destroyed entire solar systems, the glow from one of the exploding stars has just reached [the orbital world] Masaq'. "Tonight," as one visitor puts it, "you dance by the light of ancient mistakes." And now another chicken is coming home to roost. Billions have died because of the Culture's meddling in the neighbouring civilisation of Chel, where it set off a civil war, and some of the Chelgrians have decided to take revenge. Their instrument is a soldier called Quilan, who is sent to Masaq' on a mission that is a mystery even to him. He is one of the misguided yet decent villains who are a feature of these tales: complicit in a planned "gigadeathcrime", he is still honourable and courageous. As the moment of reckoning approaches, his memories take us back to the days before the war, when his existence still had meaning and his wife was alive.
The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller (Small Beer Press)
Poetic and intense, The Mount is a deceptively simple story about humans revolting against a group of alien conquerers who love humanity - as pets they can ride on. Here's what io9 said about it:
Carol Emshwiller's quiet, disturbing novel The Mount is about what happens when small alien invaders called Hoots take over the planet and begin breeding humans for transportation. Hoots have weak legs that fit perfectly around human necks, as well as superior weapons that easily convert the disobedient to dust. What's compelling about this beautifully-written novel, though, is that it's no simple "aliens oppress humans" tale. It explores what happens when humans get used to, and even enjoy, their servitude.
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (Anchor)
A controversial story of virus apocalypse caused by corporate biotech run amok, this novel dazzled mainstream readers with its persuasive vision of the near-future. It was also a strong entry in science fiction's biopunk subgenre, a cautionary tale of what happens to so-called progress when piloted by greed. Said the New York Times:
Atwood's scenario gains great power and relevance from our current scientific preoccupation with bioengineering, cloning, tissue regeneration and agricultural hybrids, and she strikes a note of warning as unambiguous as Mary Shelley's in ''Frankenstein.'' This is the intention of the novel: to goad us to thought by making us screen in the mind a powerful vision of competence run amok. What Atwood could not have intended, and what is no less alarming and exponentially more urgent, is the resonance between her rampaging plague scenario and the recent global outbreak of SARS. Moving from book to newspaper, or newspaper to book, the reader realizes, with a jolt, how the threshold of difference has been lowered in recent months. The force of Atwood's imagining grows in direct proportion to our rising anxiety level. And so does the importance of her implicit caution.
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson (Putnam)
Gibson reinvented himself in the 2000s as a writer of technothrillers that feel like science fiction despite being set in the present - or, in the case of Pattern Recognition, one year before the book's publication. An enthralling mix of Gibson's favorite obsessions - branding, computer technologies, and artisanal smuggling networks - the book is also a moving portrait of the emotional ties forged between fans of an obscure set of viral videos online. In Wired, Rudy Rucker wrote:
What Gibson gives us is an international spy thriller comparable to the slightly skewed tales of Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace. His story's central McGuffin is a fragmentary, workstation-rendered romance movie known simply as The Footage. It consists of 100-odd supernally beautiful snippets of video that someone has anonymously posted on the Web. A rabid online cult has grown around the flick, and a Belgian advertising exec (with the improbable name of Hubertus Bigend) hires Cayce Pollard to find the maker. Bigend's goal: Tap into The Footage's primo street cred strategy for profit . . . Gibson pulls you in with big ideas that make solid material for word-of-mouth proselytizing. But Pattern Recognition's essential quality is the sensual pleasure of its language. Gibson has a knack for choosing - or coining - the right phrase. With a poet's touch, he tiles words into wonderful mosaics. An expressway is "Blade Runnered by half a century of use and pollution." The Tokyo skyline is "a floating jumble of electric Lego, studded with odd shapes you somehow wouldn't see elsewhere, as if you'd need special Tokyo add-ons to build this at home."
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville (Del Rey)
The first of Miéville's stunning New Crobuzon novels, Perdido Street Station is a tour-de-force of worldbuilding and complicated, character-driven drama. Strange Horizons described the book like this:
New Crobuzon is full of alienated individuals, social groups, and species; Miéville's main characters live on the margins of society, either by choice, or social pressure, or both. Identities are fluid, allegiances shift suddenly; spies and moles infest the city and its underworld. Betrayal is commonplace, and trust is at a premium. The main character, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, embodies this tension. (Isaac — the sacrificial son? Isaac Newton? Both?) A marginalized scientist pursuing his own quixotic line of research — the "crisis engine" — he is also socially outcast by virtue of his romantic relationship with a xenian, a khepri artist named Lin. The khepri are partly insectile, partly anthropoid, and Lin, too, is an outcast from her society — an alienated artist who has broken away from her brood in pursuit of a more individualized art. Isaac and Lin's relationship leaves them vulnerable to blackmail and manipulation, and makes their lives in an already hazardous society even more precarious. The book's action begins with the appearance of yet another marginal, outcast character, a garuda (avian-derived) named Yagharek, who has been stripped of his wings by his species as punishment for crime; he commissions Isaac to help him regain his ability to fly. In the course of his research Isaac inadvertently unleashes. . . well, something Not At All Nice . . . The theme of the meaning and nature of consciousness, sentience, and rationality underlies the frantic action in the malevolent city. . . Perdido Street Station is an impressively imaginative novel from a promising new writer.
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge (Tor)
A masterpiece of plausible futuristic technologies, Rainbows End is also a very personal story of a man who has recovered from Alzheimers - only to discover that his once-magnificent mind is now healthy but average. At the UK Guardian, Wendy Grossman wrote:
Set in 2025, the characters are surrounded by logical extensions of today's developing technology. Wearable computing is commonplace. Tagging and ubiquitous networked sensors mean you can look at the landscape with your choice of overlay and detail. People send each other silent messages and Google for information within conversations with participants who may be physically present or might be remote projections. One character's projection is hijacked and becomes the front for three people. The owner of another remote intelligence is unknown. Several continents' top intelligence operatives try to solve a smart biological attack that infects a test population with the willingness to obey orders. Vinge makes two opening assumptions: no grand physical disaster occurs, and today's computing and communications trends continue.
Stories of Your Life And Others, by Ted Chiang (Orb)
Chiang is one of the legends of the science fiction world, often hailed as the best short story writer of his generation. With a keen interest in science, and a healthy love for magic, Chiang writes stories that are both gorgeous and profound. SFSite enthuses:
Stories of Your Life and Others abounds with examples of why Ted Chiang's stories have continued to be award winners. From "Understand", which both plays homage to and expands upon Daniel Keyes' classic "Flowers For Algernon" to "Story Of Your Life," in which a linguist confronts the relationship between language and reality, it will not take readers new to these stories very long to appreciate their quality and beauty. Science fiction has always depended on writers who work best at shorter lengths to continue to examine new ideas and push the boundaries of the field. In the decade plus a few years since he first started publishing, Ted Chiang has shown himself to be more than up to that task.
Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (MacAdam/Cage Books)
Critically-acclaimed, and this year released as a feature film, this is the tale of a man who suffers from a rare time-traveling condition. The question Niffenegger asks is how such a man could ever have a meaningful relationship, when he's constantly uprooted from the present and propelled to different eras. USA Today said:
Niffenegger, despite her moving, razor-edged prose, doesn't claim to be a romantic. She writes with the unflinching yet detached clarity of a war correspondent standing at the sidelines of an unfolding battle. She possesses a historian's eye for contextual detail. This is no romantic idyll. The ability to revisit one's past doesn't necessarily illuminate one's understanding of events. And knowing the future is not particularly a good thing, Niffenegger's story implies. This is what makes her story both compelling and unsettling. Time traveler Henry is limited in his capacity to change himself, let alone past or future events. His freakish condition brings Clare into his life, but it also keeps them from being resolutely happy; he never knows when he will disappear, and she never knows when - or in what shape - he'll return.
Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton (Tor)
Winner of the World Fantasy Award, Tooth and Claw is an alternative history masterpiece from an author acclaimed for her facility with narrative time-tweaking. Satirical and scathing by turns, Tooth and Claw is a nineteenth century novel of manners in which dragons are the dominant species on Earth. Here's what io9 said about it:
Influenced by Victorian writer Anthony Trollope, Tooth And Claw is about the fate of two sisters whose father dies before they are married off. They cannot inherit his caverns, and he's left them almost no money. One goes to live with their married sister, whose husband is a cruel land owner who eats the children of his servants. The other goes to live with their brother, a pastor and new husband who lives in the caves of a very wealthy woman whose son takes a shine to her. Walton manages to translate Victorian details into dragon life, commenting on what is fashionable in cave decoration and describing the dangerous machinations of dragon bureaucrats. There's even a Middlemarch-esque subplot where one of the sisters gets involved with a movement to better the lives of the poor. And of course it's a romance – even dragons get a happy ending. The best part about Tooth And Claw is that it isn't just a simple parody. Certainly it is very witty, but it is also a fascinating thought experiment in which the most savage creatures of our imagination turn out to be the very best society that 19th century civilization has to offer.
World War Z, by Max Brooks (Crown)
A gamechanger in the horror/scifi world that hit just as the zombie craze was reaching manic intensity, Brooks' novel is written in a disturbing, satirical documentary style. The Onion AV Club said:
Brooks' acknowledgments conclude with thanks to historian Studs Terkel, zombie visionary George Romero, and John Hackett, who in 1978 wrote a book called The Third World War: August 1985. And he takes all three influences seriously. In fact, Brooks treats everything about his subject seriously. While that may sound like a ridiculous way to approach a book about a zombie apocalypse, he doesn't miss an opportunity to let his readers hear echoes of contemporary woes in the moans of the undead. When an outbreak of zombie-ism occurs in the near-future of Brooks' novel, it takes the world aback, serving as a stand-in for pandemic scares, Katrina, tsunamis, terrorism-basically any of the recent catastrophes that have reminded us how fragile civilization is beneath the surface.