Reader Request Week 2011 #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade

Via e-mail, Gareth asks:

Old Man’s War was voted the best science fiction/fantasy novel of the last decade in that poll.

Is it?

And if not, what is?

Well, let’s take this in two parts.

OMW certainly did place number one in the poll, but let’s keep two things in mind about that. One, I mentioned the poll here and encouraged readers here to vote in the poll, thereby introducing to the voting pool folks who were probably more inclined to think favorably of my work than not. This may or may not cause harrumphing from people who feel this unduly influenced the voting, but, you know: Dudes. You may be failing to grasp the concept of a popular vote. And I feel fine about it because a) people could vote for more than one novel (and did), b) I  encouraged folks to vote for the novels they felt were best, and not my own if they didn’t believe it was, c) hey, OMW is a pretty good novel. So there you have it.

Two, getting the number one ranking in a poll where you are allowed to list as many novels as you felt were “best” in the last decade (and all those votes are weighted equally) doesn’t necessarily mean the number one ranked novel is considered the best novel out of all the books nominated. It means that when people made their lists, OMW was on the largest number of lists. There may have been books on those lists that the voters felt more passionate about than mine — i.e., would have ranked higher than OMW, had ranking been involved — but a plurality of list makers had my book on their lists.

So in the end what the number one ranking on the poll means is that OMW is the book the largest number of people who voted thought should be ranked among the best — not that it is, in actuality, the best science fiction and fantasy novel of the last decade.

And you know what? I’m good with that. I’m delighted to have my novel considered among the best science fiction/fantasy novels of the last decade (or in’s case, a baker’s decade, since it has an extra year in it), since I think it’s reasonable to suggest there is an overall consensus as to what novels have had recent significant impact on the genre. I think the list the voters ultimately compiled is not a bad stab at attempting to get a bead on the last eleven years of our field.

I think polling a crowd to pick out just one book as the best — either on that last or off it — is a bit of a fool’s errand, however. “Best” is necessarily subjective. There are those who genuinely think Old Man’s War is the best science fiction novel of the last decade; I thank them. Then there are also those who feel like the fellow who wrote this memorable, and in its way totally awesome, one-star Amazon review of the book:

This macho fantasy reads like the work of a clever but disturbed schoolboy. It exists only for the scenes of nasty, meaningless violence that punctuate the tedious clichés. ‘Earth’ is represented exclusively by the USA: the only mention of the developing world is so racist you have to suppress all memory of it if you want to continue. The rest of the world seems never to have existed. American geriatrics (who talk like schoolboys) are given super new bodies and sent to fight various aliens (who talk like schoolboys). There are no characters to speak of, no psychology, no development, no suspense. The brief attempts to provide some kind of scientific background are just silly and ignorant. The underlying assumption – that all species are the same, and all are driven by a mindless urge for expansion – is crude, shallow and dreary. One curious aspect: from time to time the ‘characters’ pause in their slaughtering and dismembering to hold conversations which almost but not quite acknowledge how absurd and unpleasant it all is. Then it’s back to the gore. The professional reviewers who have praised this horrible little book ought to be ashamed. It is the literary equivalent of pulling wings off flies.

Old Man’s War has been around long enough now that I’ve been able to watch the different ways people react to the same elements in the book. What some people classify as “compulsively readable,” other people file under “glib and shallow”; scenes some find “visceral” other find merely “gory”; some people praise my talent for dialogue and characterization while others complain that all my characters sound the same. Who’s right? Well, inside their head, every reader is right. You can’t make them feel about your novel any other way than they do. You shouldn’t try. No one has that much time on this planet.

I think Gareth is angling to know if I think OMW deserves its perch on the top of the list. Well, qualified as above, sure. I’m not exactly an impartial observer of the book, nor am I without ego as a writer, so when you read the following keep these two facts clearly in your head. With that noted: I think OMW is probably one of the best recent examples of popularly-written, classically-styled science fiction out there, and it does pretty much what I intended it to do as its author, which was to inject a contemporary sensibility to an old-fashioned form of science fiction storytelling. My style is often shorthanded as “Heinleinian,” but I think it might be more accurate to describe it as “Campbell Modern,” which is to say an updated take on plot-oriented, transparent-prose writing that editor John W. Campbell favored. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course — remember that the New Wave of science fiction arose as a reaction to Campbell’s influence, and the entire field benefited from that uprising — but if it is your cup of tea, then chances are very good you like what I’ve got in my teapot. As a representative of that particular strain of science fiction, and I think on its own merits as a tale well told, OMW deserves to be considered among the best SF/F books of the decade.

Is it the best SF/F book of the decade? No. My vote for that is China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and to be clear I don’t think the vote’s even close. Bas-Lag in itself is a monumental achievement in world-building, a place Miéville so cannily describes that I can picture it in my head better than I can imagine some places here on my own planet. I love re-reading Perdido simply to go walking the streets of New Crobuzon once more. The novel’s story is less of a direct narrative than it is following around people too wrapped up into their own concerns to realize just how much they’re pushing their world toward oblivion, but this is a feature, not a bug, in my opinion. And then there’s the fact that as a formal exercise in genre, it’s a bomb lobbed into the intersection of science fiction and fantasy — Perdido is neither, it just is and is enough so that the term “New Weird” was either created or retconned into service to accommodate it.

The way I would explain Perdido, in reference to Old Man’s War, is as follows: Old Man’s War is a thick, juicy steak that when you put it in your mouth you go, “Damn, I forget how much I love steak.” Perdido Street Station, on the other hand, is molecular gastronomy: a whole new way of looking at cooking, which when the results are put in front of you, you go, “Wait. Is that food?” Both are good, and depending on your taste, one may suit you more than the other. But at the end of the day, one is a truly excellent steak, and one is an invention. And that matters.

So, yes: I think Old Man’s War is among the best science fiction and fantasy novels of the decade. But for my money I think Perdido Street Station actually is the best science fiction/fantasy novel of the decade. You are of course free to disagree. Indeed, the fact that you probably do disagree is part of the fun.

It’s not too late to ask questions for Reader Request Week — post your questions at this link.

104 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2011 #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade”

  1. With apologies to Mr. Scalzi, I thought Anathem the best of the decade, though Perdido Street Station is a great novel (I liked the sequels better, though).

  2. Peter S.:

    “With apologies to Mr. Scalzi”

    Well, see, that’s one of my points — you don’t have to apologize when you say what you think is the best.

  3. “Well, see, that’s one of my points — you don’t have to apologize when you say what you think is the best.”

    I thought it best to be polite, anyway!

  4. On the topic of that Amazon review:

    While my grandfather doesn’t talk exactly like John Perry, he isn’t the most “clean mouthed” person in the world. And I think that if we base how the current generation of old people talks like they talked when they were young, think about when the current generation of youngins’ gets to be that age, all tattooed-like.

    As for the rest of the world, it’s represented as it is today, which is, from my reading of both OMW and Lost Colony, how the world remains in this universe. The Earth is meant to not change from it’s current political state, on purpose.

  5. I have been a Heinlein fan a long time. I find OMW enjoyable and well-written, and yes, rather Heinleinian. It is what it is. That that one reviewer wanted it to be different/more, well, that’s their opinion. They could be wrong.

    I read Kraken and thought “the writer is a frickin’ genius” and that he also writes well, but it was just weird enough that I hesitate to read Perdido Street Station. I guess I likes me some Scalzi better. But I still should probably read Perdido and therefore know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

  6. I got about haflway through Perdido Street Station before throwing in the towel. I estimate he spends about a third of every chapter describing how dirty the city is and the remaining two thirds talking about characters about whom I just could not bring myself to care.

  7. PSS certainly makes an impact. Reading it one can actually feel the lovers of gothic dramas and steampunk tragedies salivating. It falls into that strange category of books that I don’t much like reading, can’t generally recommend, but simultaneously can’t deny as being important and understandably influential.

    Contrast my review above to my OMW review, and it’s easy see which one I’d pick given my druthers.

    That said, for my vote of best SF of the last decade it was an incredibly difficult choice between Spin and Anathem, and really my vote could go either way on any given day. I love them both dearly.

  8. I had never even heard of the author, but now I must go and read this book. Thanks for the tip, John! And I have to say, I’m about due for a re-reading of Old Man’s War, now that I think about it. Steak sounds good ;)

  9. This is one of the best things about this site. A group of readers with tastes similar to mine recommending books I haven’t read. My must-read list grows yet again.

  10. All three (OMW, Perdido Street Station and Anathem) would get quite highly ranked in my list of top SFF of the decade. Coraline would probably make the list too, as would Time Traveller’s Wife and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. All very different books, and not a mention of some of my favourite authors such as Terry Pratchett, Peter F Hamilton and Alistair Reynolds, just because their books in the last decade have been good, but not revolutionary.

  11. I have a measuring stick with two marks on it: 1) Did the book make me laugh out loud, at least once? 2) Did it make me cry by the end? A lot of books in the last 10 years did one or the other, but only two did both: Old Man’s War and The Graveyard Book. The crowd got one wrong (in Gaiman’s case) and one right. I think the honor was well-earned.

  12. Loved OMW, recommend it to all my SF-reading friends. Still, I can’t get enough of Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space, and the novels (and short stories) that follow it. I found his characters and settings very compelling, a story that kept my attention, and (as you mention regarding Perdido Street Station) places I can see more clearly than parts of my own world.

  13. I can’t comment on Perdido Street Station, having never read it (I did read The Scar, but didn’t like it – something about China’s prose was off-putting to me, for some reason, and I think this has made me shy away from PSS when otherwise I would have read it by now). But I’d like to second Peter S @2’s emotion: to me, Anathem was the best spec fic novel of the decade, going away. Stephenson can be hit-or-miss – I actually threw Quicksilver across the room in disgust about 150 pages in – but in Anathem he hit the bugger right on the head. To me, this book is an awesome exercise in world-building, which would be enough for me to go “wow”. But then there’s a compelling story and characters you actually come to care about… it’s like gravy.

    I will grant that Anathem is a slow starter. I was warned to give it 100 pages before even thinking about passing judgement, and that was good advice. This is a book that demands attention, and then rewards the reader for that attention later on. Which is not to say that other books don’t demand attention, but as has been paraphrased: there’s demanding, and demanding.

    I loved OMW, loved its update of the classical SF style, loved everything about it. I put it on my list in the poll. But Anathem really hit the sweet spot for me.

    As an afterthought: given my “hit-or-miss” warning on Stephenson from above, I may just have to give in and finally read PSS. Right after I finish The Wise Man’s Fear and The Heroes.

  14. Among one-star reviews the one cited here is indeed memorable and awesome, if only for its characterization of John Scalzi as a “clever but disturbed schoolboy”… a characterization which, I imagine, our host may take some delight in. :)

    And thanks for the recommendation. Having recently completed my digestion of Kraken (complex, in turns a romp of magical realism and a fantastical tangle of comparative theology and dangly appendages) I’d been wondering which of Miéville’s works to take on next.

  15. Out of curiosity, how many of the ten books has everyone read? Personally I’ve read OMW, American Gods, NoTW, Storm of Swords, and Mistborn. I’m currently reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and I own Spin and Perdido Street Station but haven’t gotten to them yet. Anathem has been on my radar but Kushiel’s Dart and Blindsight were completely new to me when I saw the poll.

  16. One of the things I love about Scalzi is that he is very open about the fact that he is not always right, not always the best, and sometimes occasionally just plain *lazy*. He’s not this tin god on a pedestal (Cringely), he’s just this guy from Ohio that occasionally gets a wild hair and produces an awesome novel. Or four. (Personally, I liked Zoe’s Tale better than OMW… :)

    That and the comments are not only worth reading, but participating in. *That* is a big part of what makes Whatever my favorite blog, hands down.

  17. deCadmus @16: Ummm, yeah, I see what he did thar…. :)

    (If anyone missed the tag line in the top of the blog banner… :)

  18. I have a very hard time picking favorites, and also remembering what books I read last month, much less ten years ago. However, Marissa Lingen is an avid reader and good record-keeper. She has a great list of best of decade books that folks might want to check out if they’re looking for good stuff they may have missed:

    Personally, I enjoyed Old Man’s War, but tend to bounce off anything by China Mieville. I admit I haven’t tackled Perdido Street Station, however.

  19. A day that starts with a post like this, in my world, always ends with me spending money at a bookstore. Off to buy Perdido Street Station.

  20. See, for me OMW tied with “Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell,” but the funny thing is that I compare and contrast those two novels in the exact same way that you compare and contrast OMW to “Perdido.” I thought Susanna Clarke was doing something completely new while you were creating a shiny, creative exemplar of a certain type of story.

  21. I am one of the minority who didn’t like “Perdido Street Station” much at all. I can agree that It was an extraordinary book to read and parts of it will stick in my brain but if we liken it to food then it was food that had so many weird flavours it just tasted badly on my tongue. This was a book that gave me the same sensation that movie District 9 did, as though I had crawled into a vat of something oily, full of creepy-crawlies and twisted. Maybe I need to re read it at some point but the first time around I was glad when I had finished it and could put it away. New weird is a good way to describe it and I guess that will take some getting used to but so did salt-licorice which I love now.

  22. #15: I strongly agree with you about “Quicksilver”. I heard wonderful reviews about it, back when I was in college and it had just come out in paperback. I bought it, started reading it, and only realized about 6-10 chapters in that each alternating chapter was either set in the novel’s present , or 50 years in the novel’s future. I found it much too confusing to try to keep track of what time period was being discussed in what chapter; I found it very tedious to have to keep going back to the beginning of the chapter to get my bearings. As you say, I finally gave up in disgust, and I’ve been afraid to go near Stephenson’s work ever since.

    Very few novels I’ve read manage to pull off the “let’s discuss multiple time periods in a non-linear fashion” meme successfully. Quicksilver was definitely not among those few.

  23. We’ve talked about this before, but I actively hated Perdido Street Station. I have an aversion to writers who are in love with their own style, and behind that I just found a lot of unpleasantness and goofy characters. I do think China is a bit of a writer’s writer, and I can recognize his skill at worldbuilding even while loathing what’s in that world.

    I’d nominate Cryptonomicon if it didn’t miss the decade by a year. Anathem was good, but as for books I see myself going back to, rereading, and handing off to others, it’s probably a toss-up between Spin and The Name of the Wind.

  24. Now I feel guilty because I couldn’t get into ‘The City And The City’. That was my first foray into China Mieville and I found like a little too ‘clever clever’ for me. Maybe I need to give Perdido Street Station a try. Personally I would vote for OMW, ‘The Painted Man’, by Peter V Brett, or ‘A Storm of Swords’ by George R.R Martin.

  25. I’ll forever have a soft spot in my heart for OMW because, well… My dad and I don’t really ever have much to talk about because we lead very different lives, and I recommended OMW to him, and he loved it and we spent an hour on the phone talking about the book.

    (I didn’t like Perdido Street Station. It was gross and icky and depressing. I also didn’t like The Name of the Wind because it was a super emo yawnfest, so y’all can judge my tastes and call me crazycakes based on that.)

  26. Also amazing recent sci-fi:

    Galileo’s Dream – Kim Stanley Robinson
    (anything by this god amongst men will rivet your socks off if you are into literary/philosophical sci-fi)

    Blindsight – Peter Watts
    Altered Carbon – Richard K. Morgan
    River of Gods – Ian McDonald
    The Windup Girl – Paula Bacigalupi

    Great recent fantasy:

    The Last Page – Anthony huso
    The Steel Remains – Richard K. Morgan

    For reference, I think David J. Williams wrote some nice novels (this decade) in his Autumn Rain trilogy, which I would compare in quality to John Scalzi’s work, though are maybe a little faster paced even.

    Sadly, I have yet to read so much… :(

  27. Based on the comments here I think I’ll have to give Anathem another try. I couldn’t get past the first couple hundred of pages but I continually hear high praise for the book. It took me three tries to get through Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and man am I glad I did!

  28. Okay, having thought about it, I would have to say George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones was the best book of the decade for me. That’s fantasy. If I had to pick the best SF book, it would be Karl Schroeder’s Sun of Suns, which makes me wonder why I haven’t read his other books…huh.

  29. Perdido is a gorgeous novel, but I can’t bring myself to re-read it because it’s just so depressingly dark. In the same vein, it’s hard for me to recommend, because I really have to know the reader will enjoy something despite/because of the visceral pain.
    So I try to start people with the City and the City, which is also amazing, but differently so, and lacking somewhat in that full-on depth and grit of characters. If they like the style of that, then maybe they’ll enjoy Perdido.
    I still occasionally wish to re-read Perdido, but that end scene still stings after all these handful of years.

  30. I was the opposite when it comes to Meiville. I could never really get into PSS or The Scar and put them both back on the shelf with only a third or less read, but The City and the City made me a true China fan. It was amazing world building that can only be done inside a reader’s mind. I will revisit his others someday.

    I love OMW and Alastair Reynolds books for entirely different reasons and think Scalzi is dead on in his assessment of how I rank my favorites of the last decade. I can’t help but include OMV and Zoe’s Tale among my favorites, but Anathem and The City and the City rise to the top for me as the ultimate best.

  31. I genuinely admire your approach to bad reviews (sort of like a duck to water on its back). Nice example to set for us wanna-bes in case we ever become ares.

  32. “Old Man’s War is a thick, juicy steak [wrapped in bacon] that when you put it in your mouth…”

    No charge for fixing that one up for you John.

    Personally: Can get into Scalzi, can’t get into Mieville. Which means something, I suppose.

  33. I love me some Perdido Street Station. And The Scar and Iron Council. But I know my tastes are dissimilar to many people’s. If I want to recommend Mieville I’ll probably try to start people with City & the City or maybe Un Lun Dun (his YA fantasy).

    And now that I have a Kindle (and can therefore read it without fear of permanent spinal impairment), maybe it’s time to try Anathem.

  34. I am also of the not a big fan of PSS, first of all it took at least 100 pages before the story started getting anywhere at all, at which point I was ready to stop reading, but my friends told me to keep at it. Then after another 100 pages or so fun things started happening and it became an entertaining book until almost all the way to the end, but there were still certain plot points to nitpick at. I mean, I can see why people like it, but I personally can’t forgive books that make me labor through long sections

  35. I, like #13 also have a measuring stick, but it has more marks on it. Read again, loan out and return, loan out and pass it on to somebody else, and give to the local library.

  36. Perdido Street Station huh? Bought. I will start it tonight having finished another book this morning. Gotta love e-books. Thanks for the recommendation.

  37. John, I think you’re close with Perdido, though to my mind The Scar has a stronger narrative. I’d also put Anathem near the top of the list. One outstanding novel I suggest that’s been overlooked all decade is Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Black House. They construct a truly magisterial narrative that depends not much on having read its related prequel, The Talisman.



  38. Confession time: It took me four years to crack Perdido Street Station.

    People kept telling me to read it. “It’s incredible!” they cried. “It’s right up your alley, you’ll love it!” These were folks whose opinions mattered to me and I had no reason to believe they were lying, so every year I would open it up and have another go, and every year I would bog down like frickin’ Artax somewhere around Page 4. I still don’t know why this inevitably happened. The prose was lovely and it was definitely right up my alley, I just … couldn’t get into it. Even at Page 4. It was extremely frustrating, like when you’re learning to ride a trotting horse and you really want to get the rhythm right but you just keep getting your ass busted instead.

    So last year when the cycle came ’round, I made a decision. I was going to read that damned book come hell or high water, if it took prying my eyes open Ludovico-style to reach the final page. I gritted my teeth, pushed up my sleeves, and finished the prologue. Then Chapter 1. Then Chapter 2. And you know what? A weird thing happened somewhere along the line: it got easy. It got more than easy, I started enjoying the hell out of it and couldn’t put it down. After stalling out for four years, I finished the entire novel in just about five days.

    Is it the best of the decade? If it isn’t, it’s close. Mieville has so much imagination it’s sort of terrifying, even if he does have a bad habit (and this was his first novel, so I can cut him some slack and hope that it doesn’t happen as much in The Scar, which I haven’t finished) of using unusual words so many times they stop being unusual and become big glaring sore thumbs (inchoate inchoate inchoate. Glutinous.) My personal favourite of the past ten years is still Cat Valente’s first In The Night Garden , but that’s just a matter of personal taste. Perdido Street Station is amazing. If you’ve tried to start it before and been stymied by … whatever, give it one more shot. It’s more than worth it.

  39. I attempted to read The City and The City, after several recommendations of it. I hated it. I guess that’s not a fair statement, since I only read part of it (maybe 50 pages) but it struck me as pretentiously saying “Look how cleverly I described this” over and over and over. Sorry, China fans, but I will take a good Scalzi anytime. And so far, they are all good.

  40. So the author *is* capable of a mostly-unbiased assessment of his own work. ;) Doesn’t surprise me in this case, but it is nice to see.

    My pick for best book is different: IMHO Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” really is that d*mn good. That might have something to do with undergraduate degrees in German and Russian literature, however; I know the mythologies that Gaiman was drawing from. He did an amazing job; I admire the book more every time I read it, and have read it many times. However,Perdido Street Station comes in a strong #2, for most of the reasons you cited. The sheer virtuosity of that story takes my breath away; I treat it not as I do most SF, but as brilliantly executed literary fiction that happens to be about an SFNal subject. Mostly. If you can classify it that much.

    I thoroughly enjoyed “Old Man’s War”, but it would not have made the list because the stuff that makes the “best of” list in my case involves inventions, not just an excellent execution of an old favorite form. My favorite Scalzi novel is actually, “Android’s Dream.” The guy who wrote that can’t be strictly sane, and is more perceptive in some ways than the law should allow. ;P I don’t think you’ve written your best book yet, though, not at all. *That* one I’m looking forward to seeing. (Don’t disillusion me: it guarantees that you’ll keep selling to at least one reader.) ;)

  41. Molecular gastronomy. Now you’ve made me think of Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen. Bleah.

  42. Perdido Street Station read like one of those “classic literature” novels I read in school; it took about three times longer to parse than one of my usual fluffy books. It is dense. It took me a solid week to read; contrast this with The Wise Man’s Fear, a book more than twice as long, which I flew through in about two days and wish to reread.

  43. I don’t read enough of the SF published these days to have rational choices of the best, but based on a lot of recommendations I tried PSS. When after 100 pages or so I hadn’t run across a single character I’d have minded seeing blown up, I quit. I had the same reaction to the one Alastair Reynolds book I tried; don’t recall the title. In my 75th year I don’t have time to read books I’m not enjoying. I liked OMW, but I think Agent to the Stars is my favorite of your books that I’ve read (which is all but a couple).

  44. Mieville’s The City and the City is a damn fine piece of work too, although I’m not quite sure it’s “Science Fiction” as such. Then again, I’m not sure what genre it would fit, if not sci-fi, which kind of reminds me that the whole concept of “genre” is kind of bogus anyway.

    End of the day: I will happily readin anything China Mieville writes, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

  45. I’ve read 5 Mieville books and love them. I admit that he loves words a bit too much and often constructs tortuous sentences rather than tell a story. Of those I’ve read, PSS is the worst offender. The City and the City reads very smoothly. But they’re well worth a bit of difficulty.

    If you like breezy escapist fantasy where the heroine will tug her braids and the true king will return and everything will be ok, the Bas Lag books are not for you. It’s very clear in his sensibilities that he comes from a background of weird and pulp and that he’s been a gamer. He also has a realistic/pessimistic view of human organizations. What really sets him apart is his vision and creativity. I also like how much of the books are driven by obsessions by several characters that are beyond the norm.

  46. “…horrible little book.”

    I like that. Might be able to work that up onto a t-shirt or something.

    I think Tolkien’s Hurin’s Children only got 6 votes. I liked it.

  47. I am so torn on Meiville. I LOVE his stories; I don’t really care for his writing style. I find it a little difficult to read, but I do read it because the world’s he imagines are so wonderful.

  48. Anathem is way up there for me. I’ll read OMW many more times as well I’m sure. But really…. how can I have a favorite when they’re writing all this great stuff so much faster than I can read it? And I don’t even see Walter John Williams (TINAG) or Iain Banks (the Culture Novels) on the radar. I guess I’m gonna have to quit my day job and read more.

  49. I started Perdido Street Station a couple of weeks ago and put it down before I finished the first chapter. I have always planed to finish it, but at the time I was hungry for steak. I don’t think a novel needs to be hard to parse to be good. I actually think that detracts a little.

    By contrast, when I read: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the Army.” I was totally hooked. It might be me, but when an author draws me in that well I love it and ask where is this guy/gal gonna take me. I don’t know about anyone else, but I remember lines like that with fondness. I put that one OMW open line right up there with “Who is John Galt” and “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (Atlas Shrugged and 1984) I’ve even quoted that line when recommending it to others.

    In summary, I think OMW was inviting while Perdido was a bit off-putting.

  50. It’s funny how one line in a blog entry will grab your eyes.

    I gasped a bit at that. I miss having time to re-read books. I haven’t had time to READ Perdido yet. I guess I’m a little envious. I’d love to have time to reread my favorites like ‘Hyperion’ by Dan Simmons, or Harry Potter. I keep a very large library of books, with the intent that someday I may have time to re-read them, but lately have been culling the stack to make room for more.

    Not begrudging your ability to do it… just more impetus to try to get to that point in my life where I have that kind of freedom.

  51. Don’t sell yourself short!

    This voting method–vote for as many as you like, most-voted-for wins–is called approval voting and it’s a surprisingly effective method. No voting method is perfect, but in computer simulations, it has been found to be more likely to select the true-best winner than, for instance, the instant runoff method used by the Hugo award.

  52. Argh… didn’t close my block quote. Should read…

    It’s funny how one line in a blog entry will grab your eyes.

    “I love re-reading Perdido”

    I gasped a bit at that. I miss having time to re-read books. I haven’t had time to READ Perdido yet. I guess I’m a little envious. I’d love to have time to reread my favorites like ‘Hyperion’ by Dan Simmons, or Harry Potter. I keep a very large library of books, with the intent that someday I may have time to re-read them, but lately have been culling the stack to make room for more.

    Not begrudging your ability to do it… just more impetus to try to get to that point in my life where I have that kind of freedom.

  53. @elgion — listen to B. Bolander above: Get past that first few pages. I don’t know what mental state M. Mieville was in when he started the book, but the tone got a lot lighter, sarcastic and comedic (OK black comedy, but still f’in’ funny). His editor should have said, “China, baby, listen: you don’t want to open your book with someone who really really wants to kill themselves — it’s a downer.” And that downer had me drop the book three times before I could get past that.

    Stick with it, it’s worth it. Favorite book of the decade, probably not, but a gem, and one that will be remembered for a long time.

  54. Heh, a lot of non-Mieville-fans in this thread. Well, *I* lis his work, and enjoyed your discussion of both books in this post. I enjoyed The Scar even more than Perdido, but Perdido was our introduction to Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon, and that counts for a lot.

  55. OMW a personal favorite because it scratched an itch at the time that needed a little Tarantino twist to my science fiction, can’t explain why the the styles seem so complimentary.

    Loved Perdido Street Station. I even used a line from the book as a quote labeling a mix tape I made at the time. First novel to compell me to do such a thing.

  56. “Best” is such a slippery term. I actually enjoyed reading The City & The City more than I did Perdido Street Station, but I have no problem with either Perdido or The Scar being considered his best work from the standpoint of sheer inventiveness.
    I personally consider The Ghost Brigades your best book, John. Subjectivity is fun!

  57. I got about a third into Perdido Street and lost interest. Well written but depressing and disturbing. I suppose I should try again, but I read for enjoyment and that wasn’t it at the time.

    I certainly enjoyed OMW, but it probably isn’t the best over the last decade.

  58. I voted for Perdido Street. Love it or hate it, it was a book that about half way through the decade lots of people were talking about and reacting to, and I’m surprised at how many people here haven’t read it (but then, I’ve read 9 of the books in the top 10 list). I’m not sure if the waves sent out from that book are still rebounding, but inventive is a good word for it.
    My book club still refers to it disparagingly as The Slime Book.

  59. China Mieville is brilliant. One of my all-time favorite writers. I can understand the diverging opinions here, since Perdido Street Station did take a while to get into; his books are all somewhat challenging, but I think the most rewarding books have to be. He’s astonishingly creative, and the structure of his language manages to mirror the worlds he writes about: dense and baroque for Bas Lag, more stripped down and melancholy for The City & The City. But more than that, his books haunt me for weeks after I finish reading them. They’re complicated; he writes deeply flawed and human characters, resists easy answers, creates insoluble situations, challenges the expectations of characters and readers. He’s also deeply political — overtly but not didactically so in Iron Council, but more often the politics come through as a worldview, an understanding of the structures of power and a deep sympathy for and inclusiveness of the oppressed. Plus awesome monsters. I love all this stuff, but clearly it’s not for everyone. I think The Scar is a better book than Perdido Street Station, too; more tightly plotted, more compelling characters, more morally ambiguous.

  60. but if it is your cup of tea, then chances are very good you like what I’ve got in my teapot

    Not entirely off topic, but for some reason that line reads as hilariously crude. It’s shouldn’t. There’s nothing in that line or the ones around it that imply that. But it does.

    I suppose I’m imagining a dude lifting up his teapot, taking off the lid, and going, “Eh? EH?” while his left eyebrow hops up and down and the liquid slides around inside.

  61. OMW, Perdido St. Station, Anathem – all great reads.
    The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon absolutely blew me away in terms of the quality of the writing, and is a fascinating alternate history novel besides. It would be near or at the top of my best SF book of the decade.

  62. I liked Old Man’s War a lot, but it’s the kind of book I think of as “solid,” rather than “outstanding.” It’s competently written, interesting to read, has enough old in it not to be taxing and enough new in it not to be dull. I’m glad it was published, and you can be proud of it; it’s a nice, solid SF novel. But it’s not the best SF novel of the past ten years, not by any stretch of the imagination.

    I haven’t read Perdido St. Station yet; I need to get to that. The best SF book that I have read in the past ten years is Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey. It’s so weird it makes your brain hurt, and it’s a wild imagining of a strange new world, and yet it’s so very human and so very like our own world in psychology even if wildly different in the details. It’s a tour de force.

  63. PSS was clearly the progenitor of the New Weird, and as such deserves high marks for its incredible display of imagination and descriptive prowess. However, it does have flaws in terms of pacing, plotting choices (I’ve never been a fan of deus-ex-machina devices, and the Weaver certainly qualifies as such), and completeness of characterization. For my money, The Scar is considerably better – only trouble is, you really should read PSS first, if only to be able to try and wrap your head around just where Mieville is coming from (if that’s possible at all).

    Anathem probably should take the prize for world building in the last decade (unless we wish to consider what George R. R. Martin’s doing with his Song of Ice and Fire, but that’s a multi-book monster), but it is also a book that probably will only appeal to those who appreciate heavy, complicated philosophical discourse. It’s a truly dense book.

    Which brings me to OMW. My reaction to this book was immediate; about four pages in I was checking the cover to see if the author truly read “Scalzi” and not Heinlein. Not that it was Heinlein, but in its grabbing power and clear expository prose it would certainly compare to some of Heinlein’s best. I think (or at least hope) that there will always be a place for stories told in this manner. Best of the decade? Perhaps. It certainly ranks in my top five. But as usual, which one holds the top spot in my mind varies on a daily basis depending on mood and circumstance.

  64. @joelfinkle Thanks. I will try again. I’m kinda excited to try again rather than dreading it now.

    @Dan Funny you mention The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. That is a strange book in my mind. I didn’t really like it while I was reading it, but it kept me going. However, as it has marinated in my head the vividness of the images he created have lingered longer almost any book I have ever read. I think, more than a year after I read the book, my opinion has changed and not only do I like the book, but I agree that it may have been one of the best of the decade.

  65. I’ve actually read all of the books on the Tor list (yay me!). I may be the only person on the planet who didn’t like American Gods that much (I found the main character to be totally passive and boring) and I usually love Gaiman. I loved PSS, but it is definitely dark and depressing and there are so many ideas being presented that about 3/4 of the way through the book I wanted to slap Mieville and tell him to finish the damn plot already and stop introducing awesome new stuff (interestingly, a friend of mine also read the book and she wanted him to continue to introduce awesome new stuff because it distracted her from the depressing plot).

    OMW is probably most the quintesentially science-fictiony science fiction novel I’ve read in years and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their old-school science fiction with a extra helping of lasers pew pew. PSS is probably the SF novel I’d be most likely to recommend to people who don’t like SF. Likewise, I’d recommend The Name of the Wind or Storm of Swords to fantasy fans and Johnathon Strange and Mr. Norrell to people who hate fantasy.

    As for the best? Beats me.

  66. Apologies for ignorance, but who wrote ‘Spin’? I’ve searched, and there seem to be two candidates: Martin Sixsmith and Robert Charles Wilson, and I don’t know enough about either to be sure which it is (or if it is someone else!). Thanks.

  67. I love Mieville’s writing style because it is challenging. All those 4 dollar words actually mean something, unlike the usual meaningless words with too many consonants and random apostrophes found all too often in fantasy novels. They add to the texture of the story. But then I love reading Pynchon for the same reason. (I have the opposite problem– writers whose style is too plain and simplistic annoy me because the prose gets boring and my mind starts to wonder). I’m clearly a weirdo. The real genius of Perdido Street Station is that it’s made from entirely real things, just remixed, remade and presented in an imaginative way.

  68. PS, I’ve found both the post and the comments to be fascinating, and my tbr list (and the samples on my Kindle!) has just grown!

  69. I like the food metaphor. I’m going with Iain Banks’ The Algebraist for my fave of ‘cade; like a classic coq a vin but with a new spice you’ve never tasted before.

    That said, I’ve only read five of the books on that list and Anathem is next in my pile. So that opinion may change.

  70. I think your food analogy is off – Old Man’s War I haven’t read yet, so I don’t know how to rate it, but Perdido Street Station is like all those meals that get Chopped or lose on Iron Chef America – it has bits of brilliance, but the whole is not a cohesive dish, with too many disparate elements clashing and out of balance.

    My best SFF/Fantasy novel of the last decade is still probably Steven Brust’s Dragon. But there are other contenders – Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon is pretty high on my list too. There was a lot of really good YA sff/f that would go on my list above some of the more adult stuff – Rae Mariz’ The Unidentified, for instance.

    On the other hand, I have been kind of…apathetic to an awful lot of sff/f over the last decade. The flood of Stephenson like cyber punk and urban fantasy series all over the place…just kind of got me to the point where I kept seeing the same thing over and over in the book store. So, my list of really good books in the genres is a lot smaller than it has been in previous decades when I had more variety in the book stores. If it weren’t for the fact that DRM is evil, and I will not buy a Kindle until they remove the ability to remotely delete books from my device, I would probably buy more ebooks. But I don’t know that that would give me the same level of variety that I used to enjoy.

  71. I always thought the Scar was the superior novel to Perdido Street Station, personally. The world building feels more expansive, and while the characters (such as they are) are flat and empty when compared with Isaac and the other people in Perdido Street Station, Uther Doul has a special place in my heart and probably always will.

  72. I take a step back in doing this…

    I don’t know that I have a single set of criteria I’d use for “best”.

    For some of the ways that I’d define best, I’d have to say Perdito Street Station. Not easy, not likeable, not “big arc”, but an excellent imagination and excellent book. Something I’ve reread.

    The City and The City was those, and a good mindwarp, but seemed less accessable (ok for me, but I haven’t re-read past the second reread).

    The Kushiel books were a good read, and a pretty original alternate history / theology, and had characters that it hurt to like but you liked anyways.

    Best youth oriented books I read / coming-of-age story this decade? Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books.

    Best shoot-em-up science fiction I enjoyed? John Ringo’s Posleen books. (Sorry. *sob*. Can haz nukez, and antimatters, plz.)

    Best shoot-em-up-plus-mindwarping-future-political-intrigue? Westerfeld’s Risen Empire / Killing of Worlds.

    Best shoot-em-up-plus-character-story and obligatory nod to blog owner? I actually prefer The Ghost Brigades a bit to OMW and the others, but the Colonial Union tetralogy together as a work does it for me.

    Consolation prize from several of the above categories, and overall honors? Charlie Stross. The Eschaton and The Laundry series (much less the Merchant Princes) are just subgenre-defining standouts.

  73. Oh, and honorable mention and suggestion for a new category – person who’s gotten you to read the most of the best books you’ve read: Occasional Whatever poster Sean Eric Fagan, who recommended, insisted, and in a couple of cases threw the book at me to get me to read them. Including the first read I got of Old Man’s War.

  74. In reading these comments I picked up an interesting thread: RE-readability is important to many of us. There are many novels I’ve thought great the first time out, wanted to enjoy rereading, and couldn’t – in my case, a prime example would be Snow Crash.

    Conversely, there are others I like to reread every so often – and Old Man’s War has joined that list for me. [In fact I’ve just picked it up again, read the first 10-15 extraordinarily well-considered pages, then realized that, given that my trade-paperback copy was signed by our host (who I daresay is much better known now than 4 years ago when he was on tour), I now would be wise to treat it as a potential collector’s item and get another (used) copy for reading purposes.]

    I haven’t read any of the other books on the list, although I did try to get into a few, such as Perdido Street Station. Maybe I’m just getting curmudgeonly, but the first paragraph or two HAS to pull me right in or I give up. Indeed I find that this is true of all the older books I like to reread, everything from Ringworld (the Ballantine first printing with Earth spinning the wrong way, natch) to The Witches of Karres.

  75. That’s one of my personal issues with “Best” lists and awards is that people often say “Best” when what they really mean is “Favorite”.

    As for opinions, I always remember advice I got in a writing conversation perhaps even at Viable Paradise. “There’s the story in the writer’s head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head. It’s almost impossible to get all three of those to align.” One person says a story is about A, another says its about B and they’re reading the same words. And the writer says it’s about C. Opinions on story and on the same story elements vary just as much.

    That’s just the way it goes…

    – yeff

  76. I do like me some Perdido Street Station, but in order for it to top the list, China would’ve had to discover several adjectives that aren’t “desultory”, and the ending (UH SPOILER WARNING I GUESS BUT MEH IT HARDLY COUNTS) would have had to not been suicidally depressing.

  77. When it comes to the poll, I’m doing great. I’ve read nine of ten (I guess I have varied tastes), but I’ve never even heard of Blindsight. I’ll have to check that out.

    I would put OMW, Name of the Wind, Anathem, and PSS way ahead of the others in terms of my enjoyment of them. One thing that can be said about OMW that can’t be said about almost of the other books even on the extended list is that Scalzi managed to tell a great story in a not unreasonable number of pages in a single volume. That is very rare nowadays, and I’d love to hear about other examples of great stories in a compact format that weren’t designed from the start as n-part magnum opuses (and I say this despite the fact that I’m currently reading and enjoying Erikson).

    For people who are on the fence about trying PSS, I’d suggest that a good test is whether you like Peter Hamilton. They have a lot of the same pros and cons in my mind.

    My top ten would also include Bolano’s 2666, but perhaps there’s a rule about appearing in English first.

  78. Sooz @ 69: “Apologies for ignorance, but who wrote ‘Spin’? I’ve searched, and there seem to be two candidates: Martin Sixsmith and Robert Charles Wilson, and I don’t know enough about either to be sure which it is (or if it is someone else!). Thanks.”

    The relevant one would be Robert Charles Wilson. I actually didn’t like it that much. I can’t explain why without spoiling it hard, though.

    Though this isn’t the main thrust of the book, it could be that the whole religious-crazies subplot reminded me too much of the absolutely horrid religious-crazies subplot from Calculating God, which I had just read at the time. If so, the impact is due to the excessive horridness of the latter, not any strong similarity.

    Anathem – yeah, really good. OMW – yeah, really good, but I like TGB better… I think. It’s been a while since I got them. I think I’ll go get Perdido Street Station some time.

  79. @Drachefly — I’m with you. I really didn’t see why everyone loved Spin so much. I didn’t hate it, but it I know I didn’t enjoy it as much as most people.

  80. So, now that I’m not working and have all this time to read, I discover that those bloody authors are still writing them faster than I can read ’em, and rereading remains a “someday” thing. Ack. (I’m still hoping to reread the Gormenghast Trilogy some day, just to see how it’s changed since I read it over 40 years ago.) (Or maybe it’s not what’s changed…) I keep meaning to get to Mieville — PSS is on the shelf, but it has become one of those books I think I should read but will be fairly daunting to get through. I’ve tried; no luck so far. Loved Anansi Boys, most anything by Iain Banks. MacDonald’s Brasyl is a delight. In the Night Garden knocked my sox off — fabulous book. Anything by Pratchett, and his stuff I do reread. Android’s Dream is hysterical, and every time I loan it out I have to fight to get it back.

  81. I’ve been rereading Retief (thanks Baen Free Library!), and I’m sure that it would please you to hear that to my eyes, at least, Old Man’s War is similar enough in setting and style that it could almost pass for the ancient history of the Retief stories, at least if you squint a little bit.

  82. OMW is still on my “to be read” stack, which is slowly being reduced to only several solid months of reading backlog rather than years, so no comments there.

    Perdido Street Station was an awesome book. Not a book to be read through in a hurry, though; it was a book that demanded you take the time to savor it. It strikes me as the bastard child of several genres: the veneer of fantasy, the world-building of a hard science-fiction novel, and the plot and genre conventions of a hardcore horror novel. It reminded me of Stephen King’s best novels: the heroes just barely beat the monster, but pay a steep price to do so.

    As for New Crobuzon, I kept thinking, “China doesn’t like London’s current administration much, does he?” To me, New Crobuzon, like Ankh-Morpork, appeared to be a fantasy version of London, as seen through the author’s eyes.

  83. I found Richard Morgan’s writing gripped me by the throat and invaded my spine. For me, Altered Carbon’s prose is a stream of consciousness that lets my mind fill-in the gaps and create a fidelity of detail which was like day dreaming. I imagine some would not like his style, but for me it’s an amazing fit. And I love the way Altered Carbon (and the follow-on novels) explore in vivid detail how each aspect of our social and political human condition would dramatically change in his world.

  84. I feel obliged to make a couple of suggestions since I found two fantastic authors I would never have read without John’s link to the TOR poll.

    If you liked Chabon, Reynolds, Banks, Simmons and Scalzi, but you don’t read much mainstream fiction or mystery, here are some choice selections for you:

    The Terror, Dan Simmons
    The Sparrow, Maria Doria Russell
    Hold Back the Night, Pat Frank (yes, that Pat Frank)
    Forever, Pete Hamill (Also-Snow in August)
    Plum Island, Nelson DeMille
    The Deepest Sea, Charles Barnitz

  85. I read all of your favorite critic’s reviews on amazon. OMW and PSS came in tied at one star each. Methinks he may be an editor.

  86. I love Perdido Street Station, but I think The Scar edges it out just a bit with its stronger characterization and more even pace. Still, I love both and have read them each probably 7 times. The only Mieville I’ve never been able to reread was Iron Council, which I appreciate in an ‘I see what you did there’ manner, but could never quite fall for.

    That said, I do think PSS was more influential; it was one of the books that helped shake fantasy out of its 90s mold (not the only book to do so, but an important one) and I think a lot of the Steampunk coming out nowadays is at least a little attributable to PSS.

  87. I’m really enjoying PSS, John. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Living in the future: snarfed the sample into my Kindle, then a couple clicks later I’ve bought and possess the full book.

  88. I haven’t read enough to make a Best choice, although I’m surprised that nothing Charles Stross has written made the Tor’s top 10 list given how for a few years there–year in and year out–he would have a book nominated for the Best Novel Hugo. (I think Accelerando was pretty awesome, even if the Singularity has come to be seen as a pretty hackneyed notion.)

    Most “Important” book: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. A few authors tried to write books about climate change and other environmental issues, but only this book managed to scare the crap out of me.

  89. Well, as someone who at the time posted a snarky comment about this, I’d say “All’s fair in love and war.” If they wanted a controlled sample they could have hired a market research company. Plus, it was already in the top 10, It’s not like it came out of nowhere. And anyway, all you were doing was giving people the opportunity to support a book they like. All the other authors in the list could easily have done the same.
    Besides, these things are very subjective.

  90. I really tried with Perdido Street Station, but I put it down about two-thirds through and haven’t regretted that. Worldbuilding does not a book make.

    Best? “The Hunger Games” for taking “Survivor” to its logical conclusion or, hmm, so many good books …

  91. While I’d like to cast my hypothetical vote for “most literary work” or “most amazing world-building” or even “dense and philosophical to the point that your worldview may be permanently altered” … I find myself focused on “most readable” and “most enjoyable”. I like clear prose that describes memorable characters and plotting I can easily follow. Emotional moments are a bonus.

    That’s not all I read, but it’s what I most enjoy reading.

    Accordingly, OMW ranks very high on my list of personal favorites.

  92. Guys, there’s no prize for “best world building” nor “great literary style.” Novel writing isn’t a gymnastics contest where you shock and awe the audience with your technical brilliance.

  93. I think my favourite of all the mentioned works on the Tor poll was The Way Of Kings, but then I’m very very fond of very long form fantasy and a fantastic start to a new series of several fat fantasy novels was exactly what I was looking for right about the time it came out. Not an SF novel though… I think I prefer Anathem to PSS (I also prefer Iron Council, but perhaps I should try PSS again now I’m more used to China’s fondness for difficult words), although I’m not the target market for OMW (I don’t like, in the analogy, most steak) I did enjoy it (so maybe that makes it best? the novel written in a sub-genre I don’t like that I most liked…).

    Egan gets the award for “most enjoyable physics textbook masquerading as an SF novel” (Incandescence) :-p

  94. DA Munroe:

    “Guys, there’s no prize for ‘best world building’ nor ‘great literary style.’ Novel writing isn’t a gymnastics contest where you shock and awe the audience with your technical brilliance.”

    Well, but it can be, and certainly world building and literary style figure into consideration for science fiction’s major literary prizes. Run down the list of recent Hugo winners and you’ll find plenty of both.

  95. I can’t decide. Anathem, Thirteen, Androids Dream are all recent favorites.

  96. Pretty simple for me. If I read a book straight through (ie in one, two or three days) it is good. OMW is good.

  97. PSS is an exceptional novel. I think The City And The City is my favourite Mieville novel so far though.
    A hilarious highlight of Worldcon in Melbourne was seeing Scalzi, Mieville and Valente on a panel together. Google “Just A Minute at worldcon” for some crappy video of the panel for a taste of proceedings. If they’d been able to squeeze in Alastair Reynolds too it would have been the perfect panel. It probably would’ve still been “hijacked” by Scalzi and Mieville though.

    However my favourite novel for the decade is Eifelheim by Michael Flynn.

    Of course OMW is top 5. That goes without saying.

  98. PSS is a very good novel – but I didn’t re-read it, if that means anything. Altered Carbon was very good, OMW was recommended to everyone I know (and enjoyed by people who don’t particularly like SF). “Love in the Time of Fridges” was ridiculous but memorable. I’m surprised nobody on here has mentioned Jack McDevitt, some good stuff there.

  99. I’d second The Sparrow, Maria Doria Russell, FWIW – disturbing but really interesting.

    I got bogged in PSS too. It reminded me a lot of M John Harrison’s Virconium series somehow, but I loved that (and even Light and Nova Swing) but even though not a lot happens in MJH, it still seemed more gripping. Probably because I didn’t give a damn about any of the characters at all in PSS.

    Iain MacDonald is always worth a read – one of the pull quotes on an early book was “this man is a poet masquerading as a novelist”. River of Gods is great but not happy smiley ending.

    Iain Banks is, I think, coasting, though I found Surface Detail better than Matter.

    Neal Stephenson – I don’t know what happened to him, Quicksilver bored me to tears and he’s now on my “don’t read until he gets edited down from 2,500 page monoliths”. What happened between Snowcrash, Cryptonomicon and Zodiac and his later books I don’t know – I suspect alien bodyswap.

    Charles Stross, Alistair Reynolds, and the early Ken MaCleod are all worth a look.

    Blindsight is cracking, and odd, too.

    Loved OMW by the way, very Heinlein and tongue in cheek…

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