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Making the List

By Paula Guran
December 2005

There I am: Ms. Expert. She Who is Unafraid to Voice Opinion -- asked to sum up -- in early October -- the best books of 2005 in all of science fiction and fantasy (including horror, of course). There are maybe five or six hundred books published so far? How many not even published yet? One hundred? 150? Are we counting reprints?

CFQ CoverWhile compiling this list, I need to keep in mind that this article is for CFQ and its mass-appeal-type readership. This is not a negative or a putdown, just a realization that the reviews and articles I do for CFQ are for the mostly unread masses rather than book fiends. CFQ, in other words, is not Locus -- which is why the circulation is 100,000 instead of 7000 and you can buy it at Wal-Mart. Harry Potter is on the cover of this "yearbook"; Robin Hobb and Paul McAuley are on the December Locus cover. Need I say more?

I am reaching people who otherwise might not be reached: fans of genre film and TV, even gaming and comics who, like most of the world, don't often think of reading as entertainment or of books as worthy of discretionary income -- but they might. After all, they are buying and reading a magazine, right? Sure, "they" say reviews don't sell books. "They" are probably right, but the more notice -- mentions, pictures, ads, features, awards, whatever -- an author or book gets, the better chance there is of making a sale.

Besides, they pay me. Or they will, I am assured, eventually.

So I scramble to dip into stacks of unread volumes and request a few more. I check the already-published opinions of others and follow their leads. I ask for some personal recommendations from a few people. I read, I judge, I balance, I weigh. Supreme Court justices are seldom as fair-minded. Besides, I have no constitution to deal with.

I write around two thousand words mentioning about 40 books. I've got gaps and left holes, but I've tried.

Then I get this message left on the answering machine: "Decided to go with this great lay-out with big numerals, pictures of the books and authors, less than 75 words on each -- a 'Top Ten,' got it? We need this immediately. Thanks." (See spiffy lay-out below.)

Top Ten? TEN! I might be hard-pressed some years to FIND ten decent sf/f movies, but this is literature...these are books! And an extremely diverse lot of books at that.

But, if you put on the six guns, you have to be ready to shoot...

The Reduction

First off the list is one of my very favorite books of the year, The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce. Considering the magazine's audience, this heartwarming coming of age novel set in rural England in the 1960s with strong appeal to women probably isn't a good pick for these folks. I'd already skipped over another great favorite, Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel because, like Limits, I suspect it is too British, too female, and too literate.

The same basic reason -- probable lack of connection with this publication's readers -- makes me drop Jonathan Carroll's Glass Soup, Octavia Butler's Fledgling, Terry Pratchett's Thud! Paul Witcover's Tumbling After, and The Narrows by Alex Irvine.

I debate with myself over The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks. I decide against. (Possibly a bit of a reach and it is small press in the U.S., although widely avaialable.) A couple more are dropped because I am not dead sure of them to start. One is the third of a fantasy trilogy, another is the second of three with the third as yet unavailable -- can they stand alone? I'm not sure. A certain SF pick may be well thought of by others, but it left me cold.

An entire section on "first novels" is scuttled except for Counting Heads by David Marusek and Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground. The Marusek is another personal favorite that absolutely blew me away. It's flawed, yes, but the high level of imagination is incredible. But I go for the VanderMeer instead. I leave the worthy Veniss Underground on the list because I feel that although it is "new literate" (for lack of a better term) SF/F, it is accessible and enjoyable by a wide audience. It is also a bit of a cheat because it was originally published a couple of years ago by independent press, but I'm also supposed to be concentrating on major publishers, so if small press doesn't really count...then publication by a major does. Or something likes that.

With one exception, all the collections go, too. The exception is China Miéville's Looking For Jake. Miéville's novels are brilliant, but sometimes challenging for the average reader. The short story collection offers an easier entry to his work that might then lead to the harder stuff. Was it the best collection of the year? Well, no, but it was among the best.

This leaves me with a dozen titles. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman was a given and might as well go in as #1. I combine Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson as one "pick", thus slipping in an extra book. I get tricky and combine Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell and Olympos by Dan Simmons, into one "pick". The Overnight by Ramsey Campbell and Joplin's Ghost by Tananarive Due are the remaining horror picks. Learning the World: A Scientific Romance by Ken Macleod, Woken Furies by Richard Morgan, and Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson are the other SF selections.

No consideration is even given to anthologies or nonfiction.

The Enumeration

I hate this ranking thing. (I hate the one-to-four stars I have to give books for the usual reviews more though.) Books don't have play-off games; you don't award points and total them up. ("That's an 8 for metaphors, 7.5 on description, a major plot flaw brings that score down to a 5...brilliant dive into stream of consciousness with nary a ripple..." "A better cover might have catapulted this title into first place, but...")

My little "two sides of a Trojan coin" maneuver will go in as #10 -- especially since I may not get away with it. The Gaiman was already in the top spot, so lets go for science fiction or horror in the second slot. The Overnight gets the nod. I'm not sure why except I am confident it is one of the very best horror novels of the year -- although it really came out in 2004 in England.

I don't really have much of a rationale for the rest of the numbering though. I just sort of did it. Despite those lovely numerals, the ranking is arbitrary.

The Meaningless Statistics

» Out of eleven authors, six (Gemmell, MacLeod, Morgan, Miéville, Campbell, and Gaiman) are British; Erikson is Canadian

» Miéville is the youngest (33); Campbell is the oldest (59). Four are under 40 (Due, Morgan, VanderMeer, Miéville), two between 40 and 50 (Gaiman, Erikson), two between 50 and 55 (Macleod, Robinson), three between 55 and 60 (Gemmell, » Simmons, Campbell)

» Only one, Due, is female

» Only one, Due, is not Caucasian

» Three (Campbell, Gemmell, Simmons) have published over two dozen books each, four if you include graphic novels (Gaiman)

» At least two have Ph.D.s (Robinson, Miéville)

» I've met seven of them

The Outcome

I'm still reading, of course. If I could, I'd probably add Joe Hill's collection 20th Century Ghosts to the list -- even is it is small press and is published only in England. I might add The Shadow at The Bottom of The World by Thomas Ligotti, another collection, but from a major publisher. Ligotti's a too-well-kept secret. Two more collections -- and dark ones at that, would skew the balance, though. I think I chickened out on the Banks, but what would I have pulled to get it in there? I'm in the middle of Robert Charles Wilson's Spin and I'd also like to read A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park, and Already Dead: A Novel by Charlie Huston. I've not read The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle. One of them might be a real contender.

I don't suppose Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is not a pick for the CFQ list, but it might be on my own list...

And speaking of my own list of recommendations -- I'm still looking for suggestions. Got any?