2011 was a good year to be a reader of science fiction and fantasy, although lately every year has been a good year: Not only are the books getting more popular — thank you, Game of Thrones — they're getting more interesting, evolving and morphing in weird, fascinating ways.
They're also interbreeding with other genres to produce wild new hybrid forms, like historical science fiction romances and hard-boiled fantasy detective novels. They're commenting on current events and swapping DNA with literary novels.
Brilliant writers like China Mieville and Catherynne Valente are rethinking the basic rules of the game, telling stories that look like fantasy and science fiction, but which make us feel things that those kinds of books aren't supposed to be able to make us feel.
Here are five of the best, most interesting, most mutated science fiction and fantasy novels published this year.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Time now for a little exploration of the world of the impossible. Lev Grossman is a writer who keeps a close eye on science fiction and fantasy. And for those who might need an imaginative escape, he offers his list of the best of the year.
LEV GROSSMAN: 2011 was a good year to be a reader of science fiction and fantasy. Not only are the books getting more popular, they're getting more interesting. Science fiction and fantasy are evolving and mutating in weird, fascinating ways. They're interbreeding with other genres and swapping DNA with literary novels.
Here are five of the best, most interesting, most mutated science fiction and fantasy books from this year.
Just because George R.R. Martin is a superstar now doesn't mean that he's getting soft. Fans waited six years for "A Dance with Dragons," and the wait was completely worth it. Martin writes epic fantasy, but not the way J.R.R. Tolkien did. His fantasy world is dark and morally confused, and his characters are venal, petty, lusty, greedy, and often very funny.
LEV GROSSMAN, WRITER: Catherynne Valente isn't a superstar yet, but give it time. She's only 32, and she published six books in 2011 alone. My favorite is called "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making." It's the playful, erudite story of a little girl named September who is invited by a Green Wind to visit a place called Fairyland. There, she meets and befriends a wyvern named A-Through-L.
If I tell you that the wyvern is named that because his father was a library, it should give you a feel for Valente's uniquely inventive imagination.
Charles Stross belongs to that subcategory of science fiction writers who actually know a great deal about how computers work. This technological authenticity adds an extra edge of gritty reality to "Rule 34," an already thoroughly hard-boiled story about a detective in near-future Edinburgh where somebody is murdering Internet scammers in elaborate and gruesome ways.
"Rule 34" is a wildly entertaining mystery that slips you a blisteringly intelligent analysis of our rapidly devolving Internet culture.
Joe Abercrombie writes dark, morally dodgy fantasy about large men with large swords.
"The Heroes" takes place during one huge, grinding battle between two armies fighting over a random, worthless, scrap of land. Abercrombie moves from one warrior to another, showing us the strange paths that brought each of them to this bloodbath. It's as if Tolkien cared about the backstory of each individual orc.
In the end the question of who's the real hero comes down to who survives to tell the tale.
Finally, Lauren Oliver's "Delirium" is set in a future world where love is considered a disease that corrupts the mind and leads to destructive, irrational behavior. Fortunately, when you turn 18, you can be cured by a treatment that frees you from love forever.
Lena is a good girl just out of high school who can't wait to be cured - until she meets Alex, a bad boy from the wild lands outside the city, where people are still free to love.
Be careful with these books. They're not going to take over the world, but they just might take over your bookshelf.
SIEGEL: That's Lev Grossman, author of "The Magician King." You can find out more about his choices for best science fiction and fantasy of the year at nprbooks.org, click on Best Books of 2011. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.