Before I dive into the speculative world of 1990, I should point out that my reading preferences were undergoing a transformation around this time: I was shifting away from genre fiction, toward more literate works (I’m sure that sounds pompous, but I can’t think of another way to explain the phenomenon). As I’ve been writing these posts, I’ve noticed that there are more and more science fiction and fantasy novels — and even more of the shorter works of speculative fiction — that I’m unfamiliar with (I’m aware of notable and award-winning novels but I haven’t necessarily gone out of my way to read them). I’m quite familiar with works before the mid-1980s, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to amass a list of works I can reliably comment on. With that in mind, I’ve decided that this will be my final Retrospeculative View post using this particular format (I’m in the germination stages of deciding what future posts will look like; as of this moment, the ideas are nebulous).
Some of the short speculative fiction of 1990:
The Hemingway Hoax, by Joe Haldeman (Hugo & Nebula Award for best novella)
Fool to Believe, by Pat Cadigan
The Manamouki, by Mike Resnick (Hugo Award for best novelette)
Tower of Babylon, by Ted Chiang (Nebula Award for best novelette)
Bears Discover Fire, by Terry Bisson (Hugo & Nebula Award for best Short Story)
The Utility Man, by Robert Reed
Cibola, by Connie Willis
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sandman #19), by Neil Gaiman (Writer) and Charles Vess (Illustrator) (World Fantasy Award for best Short Story)
Bones, by Pat Murphy (World Fantasy Award for best Novella). Pat Murphy also won the Philip K. Dick Award for her collection of short stories, Points of Departure. She was also the co-founder (along with Karen Fowler) of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 1991 (the award was in honour of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr.)
Movies released in 1990:
Back to the Future III. The third (and final) in a franchise; this time, a science fiction western.
Ghost. A romantic-fantasy-thriller that made tons of money.
Total Recall. A film based on PK dick’s short story, We Can Remember It for you Wholesale (1966).
Some of the notable novels of 1990:
The following six novels I haven’t read but they seem interesting and/or others enjoyed them:
The Vor Game, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Hugo Award winner). The sixth full-length novel published in the Vorkosigan Saga, and it is included in an omnibus titled Young Miles (1997). Until recently, I hadn’t read anything by this author; however, I just finished her novel Falling Free, and it’s an interesting story, but hasn’t really convinced me that I need to read more (I will try one of her Miles Vorkosigan novels, which seem to be the fan-favourites).
Tehanu (The Last Book of Earthsea), by Ursula Le Guin (Nebula Award winner). Although this book was written by one of my favourite writers, and is widely considered to be among her best work, I was never drawn into the Earthsea series.
Thomas the Rhymer, by Ellen Kushner (World Fantasy Award winner (tie: see below) and the Mythopoeic Award). This fantasy novel is derived from folklore, and an eponymous ballad about Thomas Learmonth (a 13th-century Scottish laird) depicting his mythic romance with the Queen of Elfland and her gift to him of prophecy, which carried with it the inability to tell a lie.
Only Begotten Daughter, by James Morrow (World Fantasy Award winner (tie: see above)). From Wikipedia: “The story is about Julie Katz, the new Messiah, who is the daughter of God, and who is spontaneously conceived from a sperm bank donation by her father, Murray Katz, through “inverse parthenogenesis”. Julie struggles with her messianic powers, the mind games of Satan, being hunted by fundamentalists, and the silence of her mother, God.”
Pacific Edge, by Kim Stanley Robinson (The John W. Campbell Memorial Award), the third of his Three Californias trilogy: each book in the trilogy depicts three different possible futures, all set in California’s Orange County (The Wild Shore is post-nuclear, The Gold Coast is cyberpunk, and Pacific Edge is utopian).
In the Country of the Blind, by Michael F. Flynn (Prometheus Award winner). From Amazon’s review: “In the 19th century, the British scientist Charles Babbage designed an “analytical engine,” a working computer that was never built–or so the world believes. Sarah Beaumont, an ex-reporter and real estate developer, is investigating a Victorian-era Denver property when she finds an ancient analytical engine. Sarah investigates her astonishing discovery and finds herself pursued by a secret society that has used Babbage computers to develop a new science, cliology, which allows its practitioners to predict history–and to control history for its own purposes. And it will stop at nothing to preserve its secret mastery of human destiny.”
Novels I read & enjoyed that were published in 1990:
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling. I enjoyed this steam-punk novel, but the story was a bit slow and dry, and I never became attached to any of the characters. The identity of the narrator is unknown until the end of the novel, and knowing who wrote it changed my view of the book substantially (the narrator’s identity was, no doubt, detected by other readers, but I remained ignorant until the reveal). Interesting, and I’m glad I read it, but I’ll probably never revisit it.
The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan. The beginning volume in an incredibly successful fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, which I believe now consists of 14 lengthy novels). I read The Eye of the World when it was first published and enjoyed it enough to read the second, which I also thought was pretty good. Unfortunately — in my opinion (fans please don’t throw stones) — the series became absurd and too long, and I stopped caring and reading. Others loved the entire series, so it would be best to look elsewhere for more positive reviews…
The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons: good book, great writing, but a disappointing sequel to Hyperion, which didn’t require all its threads to be neatly tied (and this book contradicted some of what transpired in Hyperion). Simmons wrote two more sequels (Endymion and The Rise of Endymion), which were both admirable science fiction novels, but they also did not live up to the brilliance of Hyperion.
Eight Skilled Gentlemen, by Barry Hughart. This was the third and, sadly, final fantasy-mystery involving Number Ten Ox (the narrator, a brawny peasant) and Master Li (a Sage with a slight flaw in his character). Highly recommended.
And my choice for Retrospeculative novel for 1990 is…
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. This isn’t quite my favorite Banks’ novel (that distinction would go to The Player of Games, a lighter novel in tone and heft), but it is a very close second. Use of Weapons is built with an interesting structure of alternating chapters with opposing time-streams…
One set of chapters moves forward in time (Chapter One, Two, etc.) and recounts the efforts of Diziet Sma and a drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw (both of Special Circumstances), to convince a man named Zakalwe to return to duty for one more assignment.
The other set of chapters moves backwards in time (Chapter XIII, XII, etc.) and depicts Zakalwe’s previous assignments, eventually concluding with his life before being recruited by the Culture.
Within chapters there are several flashbacks and the novel includes a prologue and an epilogue. All of this creates a somewhat confusing plot, but all becomes clear by the end. Although the book was a bit darker than I prefer, I thoroughly enjoyed how the two main threads slowly entwined.
Sadly, Iain M. Banks passed from this realm in 2013, but he wrote many enjoyable novels (both mainstream fiction, as Iain Banks, and science fiction, as Iain M. Banks). I don’t think he ever quite created the work of pure science fiction genius that was within him, but Use of Weapons was close.